I’m just writing to say I miss you, and that I’m glad I can’t forgive you, because then I’d miss you more.
May all our old love be with you,
He wasn’t sure which of his friends to believe: Mark said Shannon’s words meant she still held a flame for him. James said they meant she’d finally let go. And Jon said the letter meant Shannon was a crazy bitch.
But Matthew couldn’t be sure. Was this the moment to reach out? Or to keep running?
Running was how this all started. Matthew never imagined he’d fill the roll of run-away-groom, but this was now the slogan that followed every mention of his name in their town. Or at least that’s what he heard from the guys. He himself was still hiding out in his grandparents’ mountain vacation home.
The evening of his escape, the only one with an opportunity to catch him was his grandfather. Matthew had snuck past his groomsmen popping champagne in the dressing room, then slipped behind the young preacher rehearsing his lines, and out the back door where a great aunt was cleaning her glasses who called him “Luke, dear” while telling him to fetch her a peppermint. But Poppa Gerald had been outside having one last cigarette before the ceremony, and called Matthew over when their eyes met across the parking lot.
“Where ya headed, son? Taking a pre-vow stroll?” The older man asked, but his eyes said he knew the embarrassing truth.
His throat already swollen with heartbreak, Matthew could barely squawk out an explanation. His grandfather waited patient and silent, slowly burning the cigarette to its nub.
“Poppa, I can’t do this.”
“Sure, sure. Why not?”
Matthew chewed on the inside of his cheek. He didn’t really know why. It was something in his stomach saying none of this was right. Everything had flown by without him, and although he was unsure what he wanted from life, the migraine growing in the back of his neck was clear evidence that this was not it.
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t know, or don’t want to?”
Old people always asked strange questions. They were heavy enough to make you think, but sometimes the ‘heavy’ seemed like an accident stemming from just being nonsensical. In this case, not enough of Matthew’s brain was functioning enough to even decide which.
“I said don’t know, Poppa. Maybe both.”
“Both it is then,” The old man nodded as he threw the cigarette to the pavement, stomped its tiny embers to extinction. Then he reached in his inner suit pocket and pulled out a set of keys.
“I bring these to every wedding in our family, just in case.”
Matthew took them, recognizing the worn leather keychain. It was a simple circle with barely any ink left from a once proud logo: Sunset Lodge, the name of the family home in the Blue Ridge mountains his grandparents flocked to every summer.
Matthew took the keys, rubbed the soft leather. “Even Aunt Margie’s?”
Poppa Gerald scoffed, “Especially Aunt Margie’s. But if you tell Uncle Todd, I’ll deny it and then write you out of the will.”
There was an exchange of handshakes, a tight hug, and synced nods. But when Matthew opened his car door to take off, he called out.
Strong shoulders and wise eyes turned to listen.
“Why aren’t you stopping me?”
“Because boy, you’ll stop when you’re ready and not before. No use in me slowing you down.”
But sometimes, Matthew wished he had. Things sure would be easier. There wouldn’t be so many angry voicemails from his parents on his phone. Less passive aggression would pepper the work emails he received at his grandmother’s stationary desk. He wouldn’t have gotten a speech in the driveway from his very angry sister, still in her bridesmaid dress, about the carelessness of men and how their whole lives she’d hoped her little brother would be better than the stereotype. And he wouldn’t have this dark pit in his chest, a sweltering hole of hot pain where his heart knew he betrayed the person who loved him most.
He knew he’d done the right thing. There were lots of regret on how he did it, and how many people he’d hurt (he thought it’d just be the one), but there was zero regret in the action itself. He’d needed to run. Marrying Shannon Stoleman, moving into her beloved townhouse, becoming the official father figure to her four-year-old Scottish terrier, and starting those lifelong plans of theirs, was just not what Matthew Keeper was supposed to do.
So after three and a half months, he was still up in the mountain house, putting in his work hours each morning so that evenings could be spent walking in the woods, and hoping either a sign would fall out of the sky or a huge branch would.
Instead the sign, or branch really, came through the mail in Shannon’s clean, clipped handwriting. He was stuck again, not knowing what this sign meant, but he knew it was a sign of some sort.
Stuck. He kept getting stuck. Stuck in a relationship he wasn’t as dedicated to as he wanted to be, stuck in a job he was good at but not passionate for, now stuck on this mountain because it was the only place he felt safe.
“You got sticky shoes, son.”
Poppa Gerald was trying to save the day again. He’d arrived for their summer stay a few days before Mo-ma, the matriarch of the Keepers clan. He told everyone it was to make sure the place was still suitable for his aging wife, but they all saw through to his concern for his youngest grandson.
“Sticky shoes? Haha, what you want me to buy some flipflops, or go barefoot for a while?”
“Maybe,” another cigarette was dancing between wrinkled lips, “You ever try it?”
Matthew was pretty sure this was some of that nonsense. What was the philosophical equivalent of going barefoot?
“I don’t know.”
Poppa Gerald nodded, as if he’d been given the correct answer instead of a mumbled attempt to leave the conversation.
“There’s a lot you seem to not know.” The sting was sharp, but a little wink followed it to soften the blow. “I could tell you that if you go barefoot, you have a higher chance of stepping on something sharp, but you also have the chance to build up some calluses. To feel the real earth under your feet, feel some movement- to get unstuck. But what I really mean boy, is that I can tell by the mud on the doormat that you’ve been wearing boots on your walks each day. It’s seventy degrees. Go walk to the stream and put your feet in.”
“Alright, I will.”
“Now, son. I’ll start super. You go for that walk.”
Matthew had never argued with the retired army engineer, and he was not going to start now, in the other man’s house, praying to have even a drop of that wisdom. So he set his beer down, slipped off his boots, and left the house by the back porch.
He started with his usual walk, down the slight slope of the property and off to the left. This is the same walk his family had taken for decades. He remembered holding onto dog leashes in the mornings and his mother’s hand in the evenings, when the adults wanted an after-dinner walk to show the kids the treasures of dusk.
It was not lost on him that he had no hand to hold as dusk once again settled on the mountain.
But he got into the rhythm of trail walking easily. It was in his bones now. The little crumble crunch of leaves against gravel, the constant adjustment of changing levels in the earth. Enough feet, those of humans and deer and raccoons and foxes and every other little creature, had walked this path to make it smooth under his naked toes.
Right before the large red maple which marked the way back up the other side of the mountain, he took a left towards the water. The Spring had been a chilly one, with summer barely sneaking into the air, so this path was less worn-in. Later in the season, it would be pounded by small exploring feet, and larger strolling ones. Maybe even waltzed across by young lovers escaping the eyes of elders.
So Matthew was not surprised to find branches to duck under, as well as a few pointy twigs, loose pine-cones, and spiders angry at the disruption. When an acorn top lodged itself in the soft curve of Matthew’s left foot while he dodged a web hanging at eye-level, he wondered who was more insane: his grandfather’s metaphor-driven instructions, or himself for following them. Barefoot in the unkempt woods. His mother would have a fit and demand he get a fresh tetanus shot.
But as he hit the soft mud and larger stones that signaled the stream was near, he let that thought go. He’d done as told because for months he hadn’t had an idea of his own. And he had to walk back either way, so might as well see it through.
He did stub his toe when he first heard the babbling song of the stream. For some reason, it shocked him. Such a simple, easy sound, and it triggered so many feelings within him. Matthew was nostalgic for the boy that pushed his sister into these shallow waters, and danced across the rocks with his cousins. He felt the awe natural waterways always stilled him with. He felt a little guilt, for betraying the easygoing spot by filling it with all his worries. He should go, and leave this place to its innocence.
But instead of running, he sat down in the gritty sand. He loved this stuff better than the powdery kind at beaches. This had more character, he felt, more color. With a little bit of the earth’s chill seeping into his shorts, he stuck his feet in the stream and gasped.
It was indeed not summer yet!
Blue. Crystal blue is the color of this feeling, he thought. Amazing.
So he sat. And he listened. Slowly, he heard the laughter of water slapping against the sand. He felt the tiny breeze moving the ferns of the undergrowth. A smile came across his face when a family of minnows- or are those tadpoles? inspected his toes for snacks before continuing on their way.
He heard a squirrel screaming that someone was too close to its branch. Listened to a few birds coo out their pickup lines.
And he felt the smile he carried. Really felt it. Allowed it to stretch his cheeks and open his eyes. He sighed, then sighed again to hear the sound of it against the backdrop of the woods. Then he shook off the biggest droplets from his toes, and started the walk back. He liked the idea of seeing how long the sand sticking to his heels would hold on. Back to the main path? All the way up to the top of the mountain? Would he have to wipe his feet at the door or would everything have shaken free?
He still didn’t know what he’d do. He didn’t have any more answers than when he’d left the house. But damn, he felt better. And that was enough for now.
Voyage (noun): A long journey involving travel by sea or in space. (verb): Go on a long journey, typically by sea or in space.
WELL, poor ol’ Matthew. Or not? I mean he did run off on his bride. But he seems to feel pretty bad for it. And maybe it was the best choice for everyone? I’m not sure. But that’s okay, to not be sure.
Have you ever heard those old stories of sailing? Sailors, pirates, passengers, Naval captains- they used to have to take off into the sea without a GPS, without flash-dried food, without any of that. The sea was so powerful they worshiped her and her unpredictable moods. Even now when we part from one another, a phrase to shout is “smooth sailing!” because it was such a hope, and never a guarantee. Basically, “I hope everything goes well, especially the parts you have zero control over!”
We’re always told “it’s about the journey, not the destination” and I hope that’s true. I’m often like Matthew: searching for answers, but not quite finding them. Needing a sign, but receiving a rest instead. It’s hard to be thankful for that, but I think we need to at least be more aware. The voyage is long, and sometimes hard, but it’s learning to walk on the rocky ground, how to respond to a sudden storm and choppy waves, that will get us where we’re going. And if we find a little place to rest, where we can forget the questions for just a moment, I think we’re that much closer to the answers.
Smooth sailing, my lovely readers.