David sipped his morning coffee as he sat on the porch that ran across the front of the cabin. The view before his eyes was breathtaking. As he watched, the sun rose slowly over the seemingly endless array of gently curving hills, their color transforming as the sun moved higher in the sky. Shades of soft green were briefly touched with gold then evolved into ever-deepening hues from the palest sage to a nearly black forest green.
He sat surrounded by a complete and utter stillness which was broken only by the sound of soft breezes as they stirring the leaves above his head, the many pines and spruces competing for space amid several strong maples. He could hear birds singing and smiled as their voices added to the music of the morning. The feeling was one of cleansing, of being freed from the toxins that had filled him when he first arrived here. Of being healed.
Reluctantly he rose from his chair and wandered into the cabin. He liked to write in his journal in the morning. The day was fresh then and his outlook was the best it was going to be but he also wrote when his mood was somber, and anyone who read it would find the name ‘Nate’ mentioned many, many times. He entered the bedroom where he’d left the journal the night before, then remembered: he’d written on the last page.
“Damn!” he muttered. That going to town to buy another blank memoir book. And since the closest place that sold such books was almost a hundred miles away, it was a lengthy trip. He screwed up his mouth in thought. Was there paper anywhere else in the cabin that he could use in the meanwhile? His eyes swung to the door of his father’s office, a room that David had rarely entered. It remained exactly as it had been when his dad was still alive; nothing altered, nothing touched.
He eyed the door, a squeamish reluctance knotting his stomach. This room had been forbidden to him as a child, and he remembered well the day his sister had given in to her curiosity and snuck in to see what was there. That was the only time in David’s memory that his father had yelled at her. He inhaled deeply, still staring at the door.
What could happen? his mind asked him reasonably. There’s no one here to punish you or yell at you. You’re not that little boy anymore. You can go into that room or any other room here. You’re allowed.
And while he agreed with everything his subconscious was telling him, a stubborn unwillingness to enter still gripped him. Chewing his lip, he turned and went back outside. “I’ll take a walk,” he said aloud. “Maybe that’ll help me shake it off.” Feeling his mood expanding as he inhaled a lungful of the fresh, invigorating air, he smiled and strode toward the well-known paths.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, it was the day before Nate was due to take his flight to Charlottesville. He and Lance had worked together to spread his assigned projects among several other associate producers, and Nate was forced to smile when he saw how many people it took to handle the workload that he alone had managed for so many years.
“I seem to be an invaluable asset,” he teased as he and Lance discussed various strategies for completing the documentaries on time.
“An invaluable pain in the ass is more like it,” Lance grumbled. But he shot Nate a quick wink.
“Lance, I am going to come back,” Nate assured him. “No matter how things go with David, I won’t leave you in the lurch.”
“Do whatever you have to do to set you and him straight,” the older man advised. “Don’t worry about me and for god’s sake don’t worry about these projects.” He shrugged. “One thing to be said for documentaries, especially historical ones: they’re damn near timeless. If it’s good now, it’ll be just as good in a year.”
Nate agreed, but still felt twinges of guilt. Lance’s incredibly generous gesture meant that he’d have to cover a lot more of the trivial daily responsibilities himself, a situation that Nate knew he disliked immensely.
He had no real idea what he was going to do when he got to Virginia. He had rented a car, but that was it. He hadn’t even reserved a motel room. It occurred to him that he was hoping against hope that David would invite him to say with HIM. Maybe not reserving a room was a gesture of that hope. Well, THAT was stupid! he thought in self-annoyance, then shrugged. There were plenty of motels in Charlottesville. One of them would have a vacancy if he needed it…he hoped.
He did have David’s address. He’d even looked his house up on Google Maps. It felt just a tiny bit like spying, but Nate shoved his guilt to one side and studied the large white house with avid interest. He could see gardens in the front, but he couldn’t see anything in back. David had told him how much he loved working in his gardens and the sight of them made Nate smile.
He also knew that David had lived in this house as a child, and Nate tried to picture him running in and out as a little boy. He knew very little about David’s childhood. He had been somewhat reluctant to discuss it, and Nate had correctly assumed that this reluctance was connected to the issues that troubled him so deeply. “Guess it pays to have studied psychology,” Nate observed wryly. “At least I can understand where he’s coming from…if I ever get the chance.”
He had resolved that if his trip to Virginia led nowhere, if David refused to see him, or even if he agreed to see him but remained adamant that they had to part, Nate was going to put their time together behind him. He was resolved that come what may he would do whatever it took to move on. He’d never forget David, he knew that. And a part of him would always love the sedate Virginia professor who had so completely stolen his heart. But their short-lived relationship couldn’t continue to haunt his life. He would honor the love they shared in every way he could. Perhaps his new desire to build a career as a teacher would be a fitting monument to their short-lived affair. But he was determined that he would no longer live in darkness and depression.
He packed his bags that night feeling his heart trembling in his chest. He had no idea what kind of future lay ahead for him. He knew the events of the past few months had changed him in fundamental ways, yet he had no idea what kind of man he was becoming. He hoped that however things turned out, he would be the kind of man that David would be proud to call his friend.
In Virginia, David has returned from his walk. The sun was lower in the sky, and early afternoon shadows from the swaying pines above the cabin danced across its wooden surface. He made himself a sandwich and returned to the porch to eat, recognizing the avoidance patterns in his behaviors with a bit of exasperation. Jesus, it’s just a room! he thought, disgustedly. Go in and look for some paper. Stop being a wimp!
He instantly laid down his sandwich and drew in a quick breath, recognizing the voice of his father in the self-condemning words. “Fuck you!” he said to his reproachful inner self. “I’ll go in when I’m damn good and ready!” then immediately laughed out loud. “Nothing like having a conversation with a man who’s been dead for fifteen years.” At least he was talking back. That in itself was an improvement.
He rose and went into the cabin, determined to face whatever inner demons still held him. He walked to the closed door of father’s office, opened it, then entered slowly and looked around. He had been in this room only once before, just after his father had died. On that occasion he had immediately wheeled and left, slamming the door behind him. He never allowed his wife or daughters to go in during their infrequent visits. This room was off-limits. It wasn’t a shrine. It wasn’t a memorial. It was a vault containing every unbearable memory he had ever had of the father who had raised him.
His father’s desk stood in the center of the room surrounded by the wooden bookcases he has built himself. Oddly enough, the room conveyed an aura of serenity and contemplation. Several items sat quietly amid the many books and David was surprised to find more than a few mementos of his childhood among them. A baseball that he had caught to win the game for his softball team when he was but thirteen. A certificate awarded to his sister for winning a spelling bee.
David walked around the room, touching the various items. Pictures of himself, his sister, and his mother were scattered throughout. A photograph of David with Rachel and the girls occupied a prominent spot on his father’s desk. “Jesus,” he whispered in wonder. “This is the last thing I expected to see.” He would never have believed it possible that his dad would value such mementos. It was impossible to see him as a man with enough feeling to save these reminders of his family and their accomplishments. “He never gave a damn about that kind of thing.”
He approached the desk and began to go through the drawers, searching for paper. In the bottom drawer he found a stack of blank paper, but another object was peeking out from under it: the cover of a large, leather-bound book. He drew it out and cautiously opened the cover. Written on the title page were the words “The journal of Josiah Gardener”.
David flung the book to the desk as though it burned his fingers. Breathing heavily, he sank into his father’s chair and stared at the journal for a long time before reaching out to tentatively fan the pages. Every single one was filled with his father’s strong, decisive cursive.
David stood and left the office. He stalked to the porch and stood, bent over, hands on his knees, inhaling deeply, sucking the crisp, clean air into lungs that felt suddenly constricted. You can’t read that book! a voice within him ordered sternly. It’s not yours! It’s a violation! Hide it! Burn it!
But David had come too far to listen. Slowly he regained control of his breathing and stood erect again. He recognized that voice and what it intended for him, and he knew he would find no truth there. It was the voice of fear, and David would no longer listen. He quickly retrieved the journal and carried it to the porch where he sat and began to thumb slowly through the pages. What he found astounded him.
His father wrote of this cabin and the surrounding mountains with eloquence and love. He had, himself, walked often on the very paths that David tread and had experienced the same sense of serenity and healing that so filled his son during such moments. “Jesus!” David whispered. “I had no idea!” Further passages spoke of the wildlife and many flowers indigenous to that region with both reverence and love.
David read on, filled with a growing sense of amazement and with the kind of shocked gladness a treasure hunter must feel when coming upon unexpected but long-sought riches. Suddenly he came upon a passage that nearly stopped his heart. It began with the words: My precious son.
For a moment David hesitated, then he read:
“My precious son. How I wish I could tell him how much he means to me! But there is a barrier within me that blocks these words, refusing to allow them passage. I’ve tried, but it chokes me to even think about the terms that would make my feelings clear. Love, pride, and the intense delight it gives me simply to look at him. He has an inherent tenderness that I could never, ever hope to achieve. How I envy him, this little boy whose heart is so much larger and more able to offer love than my own will ever be. How I hate the part of me that can’t reach out to my son and tell him of my infinite love.”
David recoiled from the book and with a cry threw it violently to the floor. He felt a rising wave of panic clutch at his heart as he thought of the words he had just read. He could not connect them with the steely cold and critical man who had raised him. Unable to bear anymore, he retrieved the journal and carried it back to his father’s office where he laid it gently on the desk.
A few hundred miles away, Nate was disembarking at the Charlottesville International Airport. He smiled, remembering the last time he had arrived here, hoping that he would have as much success during this trip. He quickly grabbed his rental car and consulted his phone’s GPS for directions to David’s house.
An ever-growing sense of apprehension filled him, causing his hands to tremble. He tried to bring positive thoughts into his mind but couldn’t. His mind was a jumble, thoughts piling one on top of the other in anxiety-ridden confusion. He couldn’t even think of what he’d say to David when he arrived. “God, if ever I needed a script I need one now,” he moaned as he steered the car further away from the downtown area, headed for the more rural district where David lived.
On the street just a block from David’s residence, he parked the car and got out. Walking slowly, striving for calm he approached the white house that he knew so well from seeing it on his computer screen. It was much lovelier than those images had suggested and Nate stared in admiration. God, it’s huge! he thought. He could just glimpse the back yard and it seemed to stretch on for acres.
Slowly, cautiously, he approached the front door and rang the bell. There was no answer, but he suddenly heard the sound of voices coming from the backyard. Youthful laughter rang out and above it the lilting sound of a woman’s voice. “Deborah, not there. Your father doesn’t want those weeded. Just the bluebells and the peonies.”
Nate crept to the edge of the backyard and peered around the corner of the house. He saw a rather attractive woman reclining in a lounge chair, and further away at one side of the spacious backyard garden area he saw two young girls, obviously weeding the flowers.
Immediately he turned to leave. This had to be David’s ex-wife and his daughters. Terrified that they’d see him, he began to walk away only to awkwardly trip over a watering can that had been left on the sidewalk and stumbled against the side of the house.
The woman turned at once. “Hello?” she said, with some surprise. “Can I help you?”
Damn! Nate thought. He slowly approached the her. “I’m terribly sorry,” he said shakily. “I was looking for David. I apologize for intruding. Please excuse me.”
He had turned to leave when the woman’s voice called him back. “Wait!” she said, rising from the chair. Nate stopped, glancing at the two girls who were looking at him curiously.
“Hang on a second,” the woman said as she reached his side. “You wanted David? May I ask your name?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, of course,” Nate said. “I’m Nate Resse. And you’re…” he hesitated. Had David ever told him his ex-wife’s name?
“I’m Rachel,” she said, extending her hand. “David’s ex-wife.”
Nate shook her hand. “Good to meet you,” he told her, then, again, turned to leave. “Again, I apologize for intruding.” Then he hesitated. “Do you, perhaps, know where…”
“He’s at his father’s cabin up in the mountains,” she explained. “He asked the girls to weed his garden while he’s away.” She gestured to another lounge chair that leaned against the garage. “No need to leave. Grab a chair. There’s beer in the fridge in the garage. Help yourself.”
Nate hesitated, but the woman laughed. “I’m not going to bite you, Nate. I know all about you and David. So do the girls.”
Stunned by this unexpected revelation, he turned to see David’s daughters approaching them, their eyes bright with interest. He swallowed hard unsure how to proceed.
“C’mon,” Rachel prodded him. “Sit down. You didn’t come all the way from Los Angeles to see us, but maybe a beer would help break the ice.”
Nate went to the garage and grabbed a beer, then dragged a chair back to where Rachel was sitting, with both her daughters now perched on the lower half of the lounge.
“Girls,” she said as he opened the chair and took a seat. “This is your father’s friend, Nate. Nate, this is Deborah and Sarah.”
“Are you my daddy’s boyfriend?” asked the younger girl.
Rachel quickly stifled a laugh. “Sarah, that’s a personal question and very rude!” She turned to Nate with a half-grin. “Sorry. David raised them to be inquisitive.”
“So I see,” Nate chuckled, then he turned to Sarah. “I’m not your daddy’s boyfriend,” he told her. He hesitated for a moment and added, “…yet.”
Deborah giggled. “Then you’re the gay guy he went to see in California! He told us that didn’t work out. It made him really sad.”
Nate lowered his head, feeling his face flame red with sudden embarrassment but also feeling his eyes sting with tears. He controlled himself quickly and lifted his head. Then he drew in a deep breath. “I was very sad too, Deborah,” he said simply. “And I still am.”
“Ok, girls,” their mother ordered, waving them back to the side garden where they’d been working previously. “Back to work. You can drive Nate crazy with your obnoxious questions later on.”
“They aren’t obnoxious,” Nate told her with a smile. “They’re lovely. They’re like him.”
Rachel laughed. “Well that’s a fact. For better or for worse they’re like him. Though they’re a bit more open than David tends to be.” She turned toward Nate, observing him with inquiring eyes. “Why are you here?” she asked finally.
“I want to see him,” Nate told her. “It ended badly between us, and I feel as though there were things that contributed to that ending that had nothing to do with our relationship. Things beneath the surface had been troubling him for a long time. He won’t communicate with me. So I’m the mountain that’s come to Mohammad.”
Rachel gave a short laugh. “A lot of what goes on with David has nothing to do with what’s happening on the surface.” She stopped for a moment then added, “Did you know he was seeing a psychologist?”
“No,” Nate said, “but I’m glad to hear it. It’s like I said, he’s refused to talk to me ever since he left LA. I’ve called and left messages……” he shook his head helplessly. “…God, I don’t know how many times. But nothing.”
“Typical,” Rachel commented somewhat sarcastically. “Run away from the very thing you need most. That’s David to a ‘T’.”
“It’s really good of you to talk with me, Rachel. It’s nothing I ever would’ve expected. Scared the crap out of me when I saw who was here.”
Rachel shrugged, her eyes fixed on her daughters. “He and I were never meant to be together,” she said. “But that doesn’t keep me from recognizing that he’s a good man.” She turned back to face Nate. “His ending with you hurt him, Nate. He hasn’t been the same since. He’s always been quiet. He’s always kept things to himself. But he’s never before been so desperately unhappy that even the girls noticed it.”
Nate lowered his eyes, overwhelmed by sadness. “God, Rachel,” he said quietly. “I’m so sorry.”
“I think,” Rachel continued, “that he went to the cabin to try to find some peace and healing.” She stopped and scanned Nate, as if weighing her words. “But I also think,” she said more slowly, “that he won’t find the healing he needs up there.”
Nate drew in a deep breath and lifted his head, staring directly into her eyes.
Rachel gave him a small smile. “Not unless you’re up there with him.”
“Do you think he’ll see me?”
“Don’t give him a choice.” She shrugged and smiled. “I was married to the man for five years. Believe me, that’s always going to be your best approach.”
“Rachel,” Nate began, then stopped, unable to speak past the ache in his throat. “Thank you,” he whispered at last. “I’m more grateful than I can tell you.”
She tilted her head toward the two girls. “They need their father back.”
“Do you…” Nate stammered, “I mean can you tell me how to get there?”
Rachel nodded. “It’s not hard. If you’ve got a Virginia map…” she glanced around. “Do you have a car here?”
“It’s parked down the block.”
“Go get it and park it here and if you have a Virginia map, bring it back with you.”
Nate parked his car in David’s driveway, then he and Rachel conferred over the map for quite a while. She had gone into the house and brought back a yellow highlighter which she used to mark the exact directions.
“Now you have to be careful here,” she said, drawing large ‘X’ on the map. This is the spot where you have to turn right onto the dirt road. There’s a Budweiser Beer billboard there, or there used to be. About two miles down that road is a turnoff to the left. That’ll take you right to the cabin. It’s actually the driveway and there’s a mailbox right there. David’s name is on it so that’s your cue.”
The girls had returned to where their mother and Nate were bending over the map.
“Are you going to see our dad?” Deborah asked him.
“Yes,” Nate said softly. “I am.” He hesitated. “Is that OK with you Deborah?”
“Yeah, it is,” she said emphatically. “I know he wants to see you. Maybe you can get him to smile again.”
Nate swallowed hard. “I’ll do my best,” he said softly. Then rose to leave. “Rachel,” he said, shaking her hand, “There are no words.”
She waved him away. “Debbie’s right. Just put a smile back on his face.” She looked up at him soberly for a moment then spoke softly: “Good luck, Nate.”
He nodded, not really trusting his voice, then returned to his car with the map clutched in his hand. A half-hour later he was weaving his way down the narrow roads that led up into the Virginia mountains. The countryside around him was magnificent. Every bend in the road offered another astounding vista. No wonder he loves it here, he thought. It’s gorgeous! He could understand why David sought healing in this environment. The surroundings reminded him of their time at Monticello. The soft greens and hazy golds of the mountains invoked feelings of serenity and hope. And right now hope was something that Nate desperately needed.
After nearly two hours of driving he began to notice the signposts that Rachel had told him to look for and soon he came to the billboard that signaled he was at the turnoff. He saw it immediately and wheeled the car to the right to follow. Shortly thereafter he came upon another dirt path leading off to the left. He spotted the mailbox at once with ‘David Gardener’ printed on the side.
He stopped the car and clutched the steering wheel in both hands, drawing in deep breaths. He didn’t want to go down this road. He was fearful of what he’d find at the end. But this was the entire reason for his journey. This road would either lead to happiness or to another different kind of future. Drawing on what courage he could muster, he turned the car down the narrow lane and drove on.
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