He counted at least one hundred of them, not certain if those numbers included repetitions as his scanning eyes could have recounted several of them more than once. Time did not matter at that point as everything seemed suspended on the quick breaths that escaped his lungs and the light breeze that took his sighs off in whispers through the silence of the night. It was his place of refuge and his ritual of reconciliation. Lying in the empty cabin of the old dirt pickup truck, James Aikin thought about the vastness of the dark night sky blanketing him overhead and for the third time that week, reminded himself that those stars he was counting could not come close in measurement to the love he was feeling inside.
As a kid he was always in touch with his feelings. Many would say that he was too sentimental and overly emotional “for a guy”. As if females were the only ones wired to feel. Yet, he was also a thinker. His mind would race ahead with unspoken thoughts that his emotions would later try to catch up with. And once the gap was closed, and usually in a short space of time, he would be left breathless and seeking some space to clear his head. This was supposed to be a phase in his life, you know – “growing pains” as they say. He should be a tough twenty-eight year old man by now. So it mattered to him that he was in an emotional rut after manning up in life since his last major relationship ended.
His cellphone vibrated in his pocket, pulling him out of his reverie.
“James” he said tersely upon answering, without checking the ID of the caller.
“Is that any way to greet your mother Jay Jay?”
The sound of her voice brought a smile to his face as he righted himself from the truck’s bed and climbed out. A glance at his wrist watch told him that he had been star-gazing and overthinking for thirty-eight minutes. It was an unusually dark evening in Ellsworth, Maine at the hour of 7:22 but James knew why his mother was calling. The Green Grocer closed up his stall at 7:30 on Tuesdays and she was awaiting her delivered package of produce that James would usually bring her. Lady Love would have to wait, he thought silently to himself as he pushed thoughts of the woman who had him presently enraptured to the back of his head, and hurried down the steep incline to get into his Jeep Compass.
“Mom, I’m heading to you in a beat” he said in a lighter tone.
‘In a beat, in a beat. Always in a beat” his mother replied jovially. “I guess that means the next half-hour. And I hope you’re staying for dinner”
“Yes Ma’am” James replied.
It was a request and a demand at the same time but that was his mother for you. He thought about that maternal bond and wondered not for the first time whether she was the reason for that deep-seated tug of the heart he felt for the woman presently parading soulfully in his head.
He started up the Jeep’s engine and drove north to his destination. Even his choice of a vehicle was the source of running commentary. His friends and co-workers called it a “lady car” but he was nonplussed. Mechanical objects were not given genders the last time he checked and there were a good few women in his profession who owned and operated Ford F’s plus there was one Nissan Titan that made it in the mix. Even the old rusty Chevy Avalanche which sat atop the incline, the four-wheeler that had now become his favourite recluse, was last driven by the great aunt of one of his bosses back in 2008.
In his line of work, there were no major gender distinctions. Women were equally adept as men and in some cases, much more knowledgeable in the field. Geophysics and seismology were rare studies in the last decade or so, but James was always fascinated with the earth and all that it comprised of so his choice of a career in the petroleum industry and under the seismic banner was a given. As a bachelor, he worked for a company called Foley Oil Inc. in the day, and every other week he would work nights and weekends at an earthquake monitoring centre under the National Guard which operated out of a college in Waterville located about twenty minutes away.
Rebecca Colman-Aikin was the woman who had single-handedly raised James after his father had walked out on them when he was eighteen months old. She never remarried, never filed for a divorce, and never tried to get in touch with her estranged Jameson Aikin. The only thing James felt like he had from his father was his name. James Jameson Aikin. Rebecca’s endearment of “Jay Jay” was what he grew up with and the name stuck. Throughout middle school and even in late junior high, he was teased and bullied by many of the boys his age for his “sissy” name but he was a tall kid and could throw a mean punch so they never got confused about his gender orientation or doubted his masculinity. When he started college, he began to use his birth name more often as form of bravado and assertion with the opposite sex. Whenever a familiar face from childhood who spotted him on campus called him Jay Jay he would ask them to call him James. Becky, as he called his mother, would always be the one to call him Jay Jay. He loved her dearly and would not take that privilege away. Though he had lived on his own now for going on seven years, he visited Becky at least three times a week as he considered himself to be the man in her life that his father never was.
Their relationship was a solid one which only got rocky whenever he was serious relationship with a woman. He had heard stories about “Mama’s Boys” and the horrors of a disapproving mother but he had never expected Becky to be one of them. His last girlfriend Sabrina was a university lecturer from New England who had all the makings of what he deemed the perfect mate. She had class and vision and drive. She was head of everything she became involved in. Never shied away from the spotlight. Debated with people who had more wits and letters attached to the end of their names than she herself had. She was an alpha female and he was smitten. But Becky did not like Sabrina. Their interactions were always forced and strained. His mother believed that Sabrina was shallow and was only interested in James because of his looks and his future career that would inevitably lead to the “good life” – seismologists were rare and the market was extremely competitive when James graduated and met Sabrina a few months after. The relationship lasted for six years despite the fracture between the women, but Becky was wrong about Sabrina after all – it was James who eventually came to despise her flirtatious spirit and her charm that he’d noticed would turn up a few notches whenever she was in the presence of particularly prominent men. The mistrust led to many, many fights and accusations which eventually morphed into the very beast that he had hoped was not resident – a tale of infidelity, on both parties’ count.
He had not planned on falling for the woman, especially while he was still caught up with Sabrina, but he blamed it on the fault line. He was invited to be a guest speaker at Sabrina’s university for their open campus week and relished the opportunity to be among Sabrina’s peers and other “prominent” lecturers and professionals in various fields. The look his girlfriend gave whenever he took the floor and spoke about earthquakes was one of adoration and respect and had become quite rare in their relationship at that point.
It was on day three that she fell into his arms, literally. She was an accountant by profession who had come to accompany her younger brother in a bid to helping him decide what career path he wanted to take. The University had allowed James and a team to setup a demo of the earth and rock formations to give the audience a live view of how earthquakes occurred. He had stepped away to use the washroom while one of his colleagues took the floor. The mimic rumble of the earth’s shaking core that emanated from the demo coincided with an actual shaking of the ground beneath them as a trolley came crashing into the wall that shielded the Men’s Room. The woman who was hurriedly walking out of the Women’s Room obliquely opposite bumped into James as she was startled by the impact, missed her footing and fell into his arms as he caught her.
She had the blackest eyes he had ever seen as she looked up at him for about three seconds. He could see the overhead lights in the hallway reflected as little specs in her pupils that reminded him of the starry nights that he loved. Her face reddened and she steadied herself as he helped her upright. She was apologetic and so was James and for a few seconds they both fell into an awkward silence. Eventually, the janitor who was responsible for the fender bender with the trolley approached them and asked if the lady was okay.
They each spoke briefly and paid scant courtesies to each other before walking away.
Later, she came to the demo with her brother and James had the pleasure of introducing himself and his work. She had not known much about earthquakes far less seismology and she seemed very fascinated by everything. As he explained about the shifting of the tectonic plates and gave a barrage of information about the subject, she blushed heavily and said “So we fell together on a fault line”. It was a question yet a statement at the same time and he found himself blushing even harder as thoughts of his mother had him drowning in the dark black of this woman’s eyes and wondering if they reflected any depth of her soul. An exchange of contact cards and a few emails later, they had become casual acquaintances who realized quickly how much they had in common.
She had just ended a five year relationship and was focusing on building her career. She had not started out with a love for accounting but became the sole caretaker of her fifteen year old sibling who was her half-brother and had to provide for them financially. Their father had passed away a year earlier and his mother was an alcoholic. Her mother was happily remarried with two other children, but she had never had a great relationship with her stepfather and her two siblings lived far away with families of their own. They added each other on Facebook and LinkedIn and began to communicate regularly about what was happening in their lives. She would ask his manly advice on how to deal with the changing moods and behaviours of her brother and he would ask her advice on how to communicate better with Sabrina. The latter was a losing battle as in his attempt to be a better boyfriend he found himself delighting in the time spent chatting with his new lady friend. She told him that she was not ready to be in a new relationship yet she had a profile on Tinder where her name was Lady Love. They laughed about that when she made the confession and he felt his heart expand at the sound of her mirth.
Eventually things with Sabrina reached a point of no reconciliation and he was actually relieved when she told him she was breaking up with him. It did not help that he had discovered she had been spending a lot of time with a new lecturer from the university who was a lead Psychologist in the Social Sciences faculty. They were childhood acquaintances who had lost contact when Sabrina and her parents moved away to another state. It hurt James to know that he had invested so many years of his life in a relationship that came to nothing and he self-soothed by withdrawing from all the things he and Sabrina enjoyed doing together. He spent many hours by himself and often lay awake at night contemplating a new life in a new place. His mother was the only anchor for him at Maine along with his job that he had loved and built his life around.
Despite his newfound single status, Lady Love never indicated any romantic interest in him. That was one of the things that drew him to her and made her fascinating. She was open about her vulnerabilities but she still shielded herself well. She was genuinely interested in James’ job and always asking him when the next big quake was due to occur. They had this inside joke about the fault line that never let up from the moment she had said it. He grew more and more fascinated by her with each conversation, each interaction and each revelation of who she was and what she was made of.
The strange thing was that after that day at the University, when they’d first met, he had never seen her in person. Theirs was a virtual relationship only. One limited to social media and the rare but on-special-occasion video call (her brother’s opening of his acceptance letter into college for example). Seven months had elapsed and he had not met up with her, until that fateful evening. She wanted to confront her brother’s mom who had been out of rehab and was on the upswing, back in good social graces. She was working and supporting her new man financially but forgot about her son who was in college and in need of her assistance too. James felt flattered that the woman would ask him to go with her, to act as her male counterpart and a source of protection for any fallout that might happen.
They met at a coffee shop at the end of his work day. And she was as stunning as ever. Her auburn, shoulder-length hair was twisted up in a bun accentuating her high cheekbones and slender neck that slovenly wove downward into a pair of square shoulders, bolstered by a just-right pair of breasts neatly tucked and peeking a bit over her salmon V-neck sweater. She kept licking her lips and smiling shyly as they looked each other in the eyes for the second time since they became friendly. They talked for about an hour before she got into the Jeep and gave him the directions for her brother’s mom’s house. She handled herself with grace and determination, grit and soul, and left the boy’s mother in tears. James was struck by the tenacity of the woman and her sense of responsibility that was unnatural and selfless. She managed to get the woman to agree to set up an account for her brother and to deposit funds on a recurring basis. They would contact a lawyer and get the process started and she would arrange for the boy to see his mother soon.
It was the perfect backdrop story and the victory moment that James needed to make his move. They stood in the parking lot of the coffee shop as she returned to her car and she smiled up at him with those black eyes. She thanked him for accompanying her but he felt like he was only there as window dressing. She was the one who did it. She made it happen. She went there and rocked the poor mother’s world like an earthquake. She reached up to hug James then and their lips connected automatically. The kiss was magical and never-ending and they just hugged each other in the silence that ensued.
“I really wanna see you again” James said to her.
“I’d really like that” she replied airily.
The connection, though unspoken, was louder then than ever before. He didn’t know what would happen next but he knew what was happening inside him. He felt like he had known this woman all of his life and had been waiting for a moment like this throughout his lifetime. It was possible to fall in love with someone in the space of eight months; someone who you had only seen in person one time. He knew. He believed. And he was certain that in the moment of the kiss, she had felt it too.
As James pulled up in front of his mother’s house, he contemplated on whether it was a good time to finally tell her about Lady Love. Becky’s approval would mean a lot to him, but this time, it would not really matter.
On the other side of town, Olivia Dade stood on the porch of her sixth-floor apartment looking out at the bustling streets below. She’d met up with James hours ago and they’d finally kissed. It was magical; way better than she’d ever imagined. Yet, fear gripped her as she had yet to reveal what she considered her own little fault line; her " major issue" that could be a deal breaker - one which, once revealed could have dire consequences. She looked up then at the night sky and started counting the stars overhead. With each one she imagined the many possibilities of a relationship with this man she's met seven months ago. But the stars seemed to wink mockingly at her as she also started counting the many possible reactions that James might have when he learned that her little brother was really her son.