She held her warm coffee cup tightly in her hands as a chill in the air, slithered up the cuff of her flannel shirt. The Aspen trees' golden leaves danced across the sky like tickertape celebrating the end of a stifling hot summer. She loved the change of seasons, but it brought a certain amount of melancholy and fleeting memories of more carefree times.
It was fall when they met. On their first weekend excursion, they drove north to a neighboring state to pick fresh Golden Delicious apples and enjoy the breathtaking fall colors along the Mississippi River. She remembers when that same brisk wind as they traveled in early October. To keep her warm, he wrapped his muscular arms around her, whispering sweet nothing in her ear overlooking the mighty river.
They took their time, stopping at random bars, breweries, and restaurants along the way. They were on a quest to find the perfect Pumpkin Ale or other seasonal blends. Wildly in love, although they hadn't actually spoken the words, they adored each other, and it showed. They played like children in the fallen leaves, laughing and rolling around in the cool green grass of a park along the way.
When they arrived, intoxicated by the prospect of new love, she took a moment to absorb the image of him standing in the sun on a rock wall as they waited to enter the orchard. He had that "rough-around-the-edges, country-boy" appeal with Levi's that hugged everything they should, a plaid, button-down shirt, over a well-worn Kiss t-shirt, and snake-skin cowboy boots. He stood at least six inches taller than her, so even in her tallest heels, she still had to stretch to surprise him with a peck on the cheek. She remembers how carefree and full of hope she was then.
Hand-in-hand, they walked into the busy general store at the orchard. Workers were shuffling through the apples coming into the building on a massive conveyor belt to their left. The workers segregated the bad apples from the good ones looking for the defects with spots, worm holes, and bruises.
To the right, apple-lovers heaven that resembled a healthier version of Willy Wonka's factory. A rainbow of fresh fruit and everything that can be made from them – applesauce, apple cider, apple butter, apple bread, apple jam, apple jelly, and of course, fresh apple pie. They rushed to the first sample table where they could try the vast number of apple varieties… granny smith… red delicious… golden delicious… honeycrisp… fuji… ambrosia.
The sugary scent in the air clung to them, but no one really knew if it was the apples or just the aroma of their disgustingly sweet new love. Neither of them was inexperienced or naïve; each had been married and divorced before. But despite previous lessons, they loved each other fiercely and with reckless abandon. They were fearless. She was fearless.
* * *
But today, nearly a decade later, the memories of that happy, free-spirited woman who was so deeply and passionately in love seemed like a stranger in her own mind. No one could've predicted that a love affair that started so sweetly could turn out so cold and barren, absent of affection, lacking love, and remiss of respect.
It wasn't her fault, but it wasn't entirely his either. Life had been hard in the years they'd spent together. Burdened by the weight of life events, their marriage had been challenged from the beginning. His chronic health issues started just days after they were married, exacerbated by heavy lifting during their move. A move that turned his kids and her entire family against them for leaving the confines of their tiny, rural hometown.
They started their new life together with an unbelieve amount of resistance.
Not able to work, his optimism faded. After spending decades working in a strenuous manufacturing job, becoming a house-husband wasn't precisely what he'd envisioned for his future. In fact, he hated it. He felt worthless living off her salary, and his imagination would run wild all day while she worked.
A vivid imagination, coupled with copious amounts of prescription medications, nightly drinking, and a lousy attitude, only led to one terrifying conclusion for her: abuse.
His jealousy and insecurity were often uncontrollable. He would question her if she left just ten minutes earlier for work than usual. He demanded to know her schedule each day, and if she wasn't in a meeting, she better answers his call or expect to face his wrath later. If those meetings were with male co-workers, she prepared for a round of twenty-questions when she got home.
Lunch meetings were always a problem; he demanded every free minute she had, and if she was obliged to go, she better plan on taking an extra hour to meet him for lunch first. Although she was salaried, he would not allow her to work more than her scheduled eight hours without a fight.
He tracked her by her smartphone and would question any unapproved stops. She wasn't allowed to go to any work functions that he couldn't or didn't want to go to. She wasn't allowed to go out with the girls. Even simple things like when she ate and when she slept were controlled. She wasn't allowed to stay up later or get out of bed earlier than him, either.
Infractions in his rules were met with severe punishment. He often met her at the door when she returned home from work, demanding immediate affection. After one particularly grueling day at work, all she wanted to do was sit down and relax. The lack of attention sent him into a fury, and when she refused to kiss him until after she changed, he flew into a rage. He pushed her back against the kitchen counter, then bear-hugged her as he lifted her off the ground. He squeezed her so tightly she peed down her leg as he bit her mouth for refusing to kiss him.
Although she tried to leave him multiple times and run back home to her mom, admitting defeat made her feel so helpless, and quite frankly, damaged. As a woman with multiple divorces in her back pocket, she feared how she would be judged. Then, when her mom died, she no longer had anywhere to run.
* * *
She often thinks of those apple sorters on that glorious first road trip and wonders, "Did she miss the wormholes? Did rose-colored glasses prevent her from seeing the bruises? Were there signs? How did she miss the red flags?"
Although it has been years now since he's physically hurt her, the crisp scent of fall on the wind always reminds her of a love full of potential -- one far different from the marriage they have now. Their once-in-a-lifetime love became lost in obligation, isolation, and resentment.
She still loves him, and he still loves her, but she knows, like the fall apples, eventually, the sweetness of falling in love dies.