Circled. Karen circled every fourth word of his last message. A code long ago crafted by those in espionage to convey secret messages. A simple have you read Persuasion by Jane Austen would inform the other to find the book, then using a count circle the words to reveal a secret message. Tim and Karen used their code to conceal a secret love affair. In their notes to each other, they would circle every fourth word; fourth as in forever. The last seven circles she received from him read, Wait, I’ll be yours, in seven years, I promise. Silly to believe. Especially as it had been eight years since his last message, still, she circled.
Hearing the doorbell, Karen scooped up the cat and answered the door. There through the storm door glass, he shifted forward and back. Something about him was familiar, though she couldn’t place it. It was more of a remembrance, a tenseness that taunted her memory. When he lifted his graying head, she studied a face weathered and wrinkled. The smirk gave him away.
"Yea, Karen. It’s me."
Eyes locked. Emotions swirled between them. Surreal, this moment, they had imagined over and over—no longer illusion, but reality. Karen's face shone changed feelings, a kaleidoscope of love, disbelief, and yes, anger. He remained resolute, steady, staring with that grin, waiting. He had nudged her every day at the office until she finally fell for him. It was a whirlwind romance, but also a deeper than any love she had known. They knew it was forever. But then he got transferred to the overseas office. Still, for years, they messaged in secret to protect his marriage, his kids. One day he said it had to stop all contact. Too risky he couldn’t risk losing the kids. He asked her to wait until his youngest grew old enough to understand. Promises were exchanged, and here, at last, he stood on her porch.
"Get off my porch...," she said, unlocking the storm door. His forehead creased as he wiped an over-wet eye and smiled. She shook her head, pressed her lips tight to fight back an ugly cry, and opened the door into his waiting hand. "... and come in love, come be with me." As if the years had never existed, they united, like night kissing light to sleep. There were no words for the two who had been wordless for years. He kissed her as he closed the screen door and pushed the entry door shut with his foot, removing his hand from her face only long enough to lock the door.
“You waited,” he whispered.
“Yes,” she muttered between kisses. “just in time… my last year to wait… by now, even your youngest would be through college.”
“I had no right to ask you to wait, but I couldn’t leave them, and custody was…”
“I understand. I do,” Karen interrupted. “Now, do you want to talk or Bedroom?”
As he lay tangled around her, her finger scribed a message on his back. She gently whispered each word so he could feel and hear them, as he breathed her scent. She wrote the last words she'd messaged him, twelve years before, circling every fourth word.
He smiled, and they laughed as they both said the circled words together—porch love me.
“God, I remember getting your last message like it was yesterday. I didn’t know if you understood my last message, how it pained me to leave you. But I had a duty to them, you know.”
“I know.” She kissed him deeply and shifted to rest her head at long last in the arms of somebody she had dreamed of, cried for years over, altered her life for. For many years, she had only lived so she could have this moment—submerged in loneliness darker than an abyss in the deepest cave, just to one day, have him. And now, she couldn’t stop smiling.
“When I got your message, I was such a mess. Porch love me. What the hell did that mean? Then one day it occurred to me. You needed me to keep my promise to show up. To arrive on your porch to prove I loved you. Right?”
“Yes, to Porch-love me. I was counting on you to show up.” Hands held, twisted and untwisted, letting go, hold on, sliding back together and apart, in a dance of silent thought.
Tim got up and pulled on his jeans. Then checked his phone sending a message.
“I gotta go.”
“Excuse me?” Karen said, pulling the sheet against her as she sat up.
“My Uber will be here soon.”
“Your Uber? You aren’t staying?”
“All those years, I meant to keep my promise, I did.” He looked at Karen’s eyes filled with pending tears, the realization on her face. “Christ Karen did you really expect after twelve years that I would waltz through that door, and we’d start a new life together. It’s been twelve years without a word from you. You’ve no idea how the silence killed me. How I tried, but she was right there, the kids were right there, and…. Well, I figured out years later what you meant. But in the meantime, I thought you had rejected me. So, I went on with my life. Porch love me made no sense, so I thought it was a wrong message, or like I could get no closer than your porch to loving you again or that you were calling me a porch, the urban kind you know, no good. Anyway, over time, Liz and I; we reconnected. The kids needed us, and now I’m looking at being a granddad, and I don’t want to miss that. I came to tell you I’m sorry and hope that you had moved on. I loved you both. But then you said those words and looked so…. I didn’t want to hurt you.” He slid on his shirt and tied his shoes. Her mind raced. She rushed to the bathroom and after throwing up, grabbed her robe striding toward him, hitting his back that held her words with her fist. Batting the love and promise away as her heart shattered.
“Get out! Get out! Go!” she pushed him and his ringing phone to the door. “Get out! Get off my porch! Get off my yard, you… you fucking liar!” Twelve years of hurt poured out as her knees found the grass and tears rained upon blades of green splitting as they slide along the edges to the dirt below. Tim kept saying how sorry he was as he backed up to the Uber that was parked by the curb. She tried to hide her face as her neighbor Jake drove into his driveway and shut off the blaring rock station. Janis Joplin screaming, “You don’t know how it feels” seemed fitting.
“You okay?” he called.
She could only crumble and shake her head.
Tim told the driver to go to the Hyatt and said sorry a few more times.
“That him?” Jake asked, passing by her.
“Son of a bitch.” Jake started toward Tim. “Sorry? We all know what a sorry ass you are. Get out and don’t come back asshole.”
“Kathy, I'm really am sorry. Someday you’ll understand.” Maybe it was his arrogance, his condescending words, or the pure light after the blinding love had been ripped away, but somehow, she stood, picked up a landscape stone. Tim got in the car, and the driver took off fast. The rock just missed. Jake clapped, laughing and cheering. Kathy paced and straightened out her robe, covering herself again. She ran her hand across her heated face and through her hair. She dried her tears. Jake was returning to her from the porch.
“I locked it. Come with me. My place, for wine and whine tonight.”
“No, I can’t, I’m….”
“Exactly, that’s why you are coming with me. Don’t argue. Come on over and porch with me.” She broke into hysterical laughter. “Porch love me,” she said. He looked at her, confused. She thought Tim would porch love her, but he thought of her as a porch. Here for easy in-out access. However, Jake invited her to his porch for a heart to heart with a neighbor. “God, I’m stupid,” she announced.
“Blinded, but the most intelligent and kind woman I know. Come on; I’m cooking.”
She followed him into the garage and then the living room and plopped onto the leather sofa. Music came on when they entered the room it always did. She was grateful for the noise of the classic rock. Jake threw a pair of gray sweat at her. She struggled but caught them.
“There clean straight from the dryer. Go, put them on, and find a big dark-colored shirt in my closet.”
“I’m fine, Jake. I’ve been here every night for months, I trust you.”
“Yeah, but I don’t trust me. Go, change. I’ll get the wine and throw dinner together. I take it ghost man broke the…”
“Yeah, the twelve-year celibacy streak is over. Can I—use your shower?”
“My casa is zoo casa.” She laughed at their inside joke from the time she helped him scrape the zoo animals off a wall shortly after he moved in a year ago.
“… and Jake, zebras do not speak Spanish.”
“You sure about that?”
“Yes—no, tonight I’m not sure about anything.” He put down the head of lettuce and meet her in the hall, wrapping her in a big bear hug.
“It will all be okay,” he whispered. “It will. Now, go shower. You stink. Bathrooms that way…”
“I know. Same floor plan, remember.” Then she turned and walked back toward him.
“Flipped floor plan?” he taunted chuckling.
“Got it. Got it. Give me a break, tough day.”
Jake listened outside the bedroom door wanting to knock and tell her dinner was ready. Instead, he put dinner in the warmer and give her some crying time. When she came out, he had to smile and shake his head. The sweat pants, too long and wide, were rolled and his belt was around her waist. His Black Santana shirt never looked better.
“Hey, there you are. Ready for some dinner. Grab your wine, let’s eat on the patio.”
“Sure.” As they ate the steak and potato dinner, she avoided eye contact. A growing uncomfortableness between them became palpable as they ate with little conversation.
“You ever going to speak again. Not that I don’t enjoy the silence, but it isn’t you, is it Kare?” He always called her Kare instead of Karen when he was ready to delve into some heart to heart conversation during their wine and whine porch time.
“Jake, I’m sorry I involved you in all this mess.”
“It’s what friends do, right? I think you said that the day you brought over that lasagna the week I moved in.”
“Had I known you didn’t like lasagna, I wouldn’t have forced the second helping on you.” They laughed.
“I’ll never complain about lasagna. Gave me an excuse to invite you to dinner. Had it been a steak, I’d have eaten alone and missed out.”
“We’ve had some fun times this year. Thanks for the clothes and dinner and sending Tim off with his yellow streak showing. Ass.”
“Oh no, we don’t whisper Ass. We shout it loud and proud. On three, ready. One, Two, Three, ASSSSSSSS.” They both clinked their wine glasses and with giggles downed the remaining wine. “You throw a mean rock, lady. Remind me not to piss you off. Honestly, I was never so proud of you.”
“I can’t believe I wasted twelve years on that fool.”
“Kare, why do you think you did?” Jake refilled the wine glasses, took the dishes to the sink, brought out the mosquito candle. Then assumed that elbow on knees easy holding a wine glass stance as he faced Karen waiting for the answer. Karen shifted her chair, taking the same posture. They were in full-blown heart to heart porch time.
“How you always do this with me is beyond me, but we always seem to get here, you know — face to face, heart to heart. I don’t know blinded by love. Afraid, maybe. I’d invested so much in him. Losing seemed worse than the loneliness. He had no idea how much I loved him, how I waited on his every breath. I lived in a fantasy world while he had everything. Does it matter?”
“I don’t know why. I don’t even know why I got involved. I knew Tim was married, and I saw him coming a mile away. But I fell anyway. Nudge by tiny nudge. Now, I realize he knew what he was doing. And then it was something I couldn’t let go of I was stuck.”
“Can I suggest something?”
“You are a good girl, a romantic, smart, playful, a loyal woman. I never could figure out why you were in the situation with Tim, but why you couldn’t leave was easy. You apologize to flowers if you give them too little water. You are filled with guilt. Leaving him meant admitting you hurt a family. If there was a purpose if there was love, then it was okay. If not, you’d have to forgive yourself. And you are horrible at that. Horrible.” He touched her knee, the slight pat and stroke were all it took for Karen’s tears to fall. Bullseye. He pulled the wineglass from her hand and sat both on the table. The sun had set, and the cool breeze of the evening brought fresh sents of dew and azaleas. He pulled her up and held her to him as she cried, wetting both his shirt. “Karen, I’m glad for today. It allows me to say that…” Karen pulled back and put her fingers on his lips.
“Not now. Not today or tomorrow. Give me some time.”
“Okay but promise me you will forgive yourself soon. He’s far more guilty and happy, and that is just not right. We all make mistakes. You just believed too much for too long. Nothing too horrible in that you know.”
“Okay, porch time is done. You need ice cream. Come on in the car. Somebody’s got to see you in that outfit besides me.”
“Drive-thru,” she insisted. “And Jake, thanks for porch loving me.” He just smiled.
As they backed out of the drive, the car’s stereo blared Janis Joplin and later Santana. Jake and Karen sang every word, loud and proud, and off-key. No greater love than true porch love.