Not Alone

 

by Rose M

 

Three pigeons strutted away from the park bench as Catherine and Edie approached.  “Cathy, I don’t think I realized how much I missed this place until just now,” said Edie as she sat down.  “It feels so good to be home again.  I wish I had more time to stay after the wedding, but I barely have enough vacation time to go on my honeymoon!”

 

Cathy had missed her friend’s lively presence in the D.A.’s office ever since she had moved to Baltimore two years before.  “I’m so glad you were able to spare the time to spend the afternoon with me.  I can’t imagine how many things you must have to take care of on your to-do list this week.”

 

“Are you out of your mind?  You didn’t really think I would’ve passed up the chance to catch up with you, did you?  I didn’t come out here this many days before the wedding not to be able to spend some of that time catching up with old friends.  And anyway, believe me, I was glad for the excuse to get away from my mother and my sister for a while.  Lord love them, but they’re more stressed out about all of the last minute preparations than I am.  The cake could turn out to be a hideous, inedible disaster and the flowers could end up getting delivered to the wrong church, and it wouldn’t really matter that much to me.  The old me might’ve cared more about those kinds of things, but after I met Phil . . . ”  She glanced up at the Romeo and Juliet statue in the distance.  “As long as Phil is there waiting for me at the end of that aisle, what more do I really need for the day to be perfect?”

 

*************************

 

Catherine spent most of her Saturday morning running errands.  Her final task before heading below was to stop at the dry cleaner’s to pick up the dress she planned to wear to Edie’s wedding.  It was sea green and sleeveless, trimmed with a swath of gray chiffon that bordered the neckline and draped over the shoulders down the back of the dress.

 

Choosing a wedding gift for Edie proved difficult.  Although Catherine had purchased a pair of crystal candle holders as a gift for the couple, she also wanted to give her friend a special gift that was just for her.  Then she remembered a beautiful keepsake box Cullen had hand-carved for Mary for her birthday, and she knew instantly she wanted something similar for Edie.  Cullen had set to work on it as soon as Catherine had asked him to.  She had become such a tireless and generous helper to the tunnel community that it gave him great pleasure to be able to do this for her.

 

Her dress dropped off at her apartment, Catherine went below to pick up Edie’s gift.  After visiting with Cullen for a while and surreptitiously leaving a small box of new carving tools on his work bench when he was not looking, she headed to Vincent’s chamber.

 

Vincent sensed her drawing near and was already walking towards the doorway to close the distance between them that much sooner when Catherine appeared.  She caught him in a rib-crushing embrace.  They stayed like that for some time before Vincent finally gasped, “Catherine . . .” in her ear. 

 

She loosened her embrace just enough for Vincent to get a breath in and said, “Vincent, there’s nothing I love more than being held by you.  This might sound silly, but no matter how hard I hug you, I feel like I can never hug you tight enough.  But I’ve always wondered  .  .  .  why don’t you ever do the same?”

 

He pulled away from her and bowed his head.  He hesitated for several moments before he finally admitted quietly, “Because .  .  .  even now .  .  .  a part of me is afraid that if I hold you any tighter, you’ll dissolve in my arms and I’ll awaken from a dream.”

 

She tilted up his chin and held his gaze.  “I feel the exact opposite.  I feel like I have to hold onto you as hard as I can to make sure I’m not just dreaming you up.”

 

At that, he gave her a small smile and said gravely, “Then either I must learn to take a preemptive deep breath in anticipation of your hugs, or learn to be fast enough to pinch you as you launch yourself at me.”  He was helpless in the face of another enthusiastic embrace from her, and, as full as his heart was, he could not help but laugh at her exuberance.  Catherine smiled into his shoulder.  Hearing him laugh never failed to bring her an inordinate amount of pleasure.  Each time she heard one of his rare laughs, she silently renewed her vow to do whatever she could to elicit that manifestation of joy from him more often.

 

“I wanted to remind you that I won’t be able to come below next Saturday because I’ll be at Edie’s wedding.  Would you be able to come above that night?  I don’t want to have to wait until Sunday to see you.  Please?”  Catherine knew Vincent would be on her mind every second that day on such an occasion.  And although she was truly happy for Edie and was glad to be able to attend her wedding, she knew she wouldn’t be able to endure bearing witness to such an event unless she knew she would spend the end of that day with the man she loved.

 

“I remember, and you did not need to ask,” said Vincent. 

 

*************************

 

It was late into the night, and the number of wedding guests still on the dance floor was starting to diminish.  Catherine watched Edie dancing with Phil and thought her friend had never looked more incandescently happy than she did on this day.  Earlier in the evening, Edie’s younger sister Janine, who was her maid of honor, started the reception off by toasting the happy couple.  Although the room echoed with shrieks of laughter as she recounted some of their escapades growing up, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room at the close of her speech.

 

Besides Catherine, Edie had invited a few other good friends from the D.A.’s office.  Catherine had just finished her last bite of cake when Joe came to her table.  The band was playing “The Nearness of You”. 

 

 “Radcliffe, come on.  Dance with me.  Dana says I’ve worn her out.  But that’s okay because I was saving this last one for you, anyway.” 

 

Catherine smiled and stood up, linking her arm through his. “So, is it serious between you and Dana?  I don’t think I’ve seen you stop smiling all night.”

 

“What can I say?  I’m a lucky guy.  It just feels right.  I don’t know how else to put it.  But I’ve got a question for you.  When am I gonna dance with you at your wedding?”

 

Catherine averted her eyes from his, looking instead at the lapel of his jacket.  “Hopefully someday soon,” she tried to answer lightly, doing her best to keep the sadness out of her voice. 

 

“I worry about you, Radcliffe.  I know I’m guilty of working you too hard, but you shouldn’t let me get away with it.”

 

“I love you for worrying, Joe, but you really don’t have to.  I met a very nice prison inmate the last time I had to go to the Tombs, and I’ve been visiting him every weekend ever since,” Catherine teased.

 

Joe scowled at her.  “I’m being serious here!  You’re hopeless,” he said, shaking his head.  “You do great work, and I appreciate all you do, but work isn’t everything.  I just don’t want you to forget that and miss out on other things.  It took me long enough to have my own eyes opened to that.”  He looked over her shoulder and across the room at Dana who was laughing at something Edie’s sister was saying.  “There’s another life out there beyond the D.A.’s office waiting to be lived.  I just don’t want you to lose sight of that, you know?”

 

“I know, Joe.  I know,” she smiled, squeezing his shoulder.

 

*************************

 

The last lingering guests were saying their farewells to the bride and groom.  Looking at Edie and Phil together, Catherine thought about how glad she was that her friend had found someone worthy of her warm and generous heart.  Catherine reached for Edie and caught her dear friend in a fierce hug.  “Be happy!” she said in her ear. 

 

As she pulled away, she saw there were tears glistening in Edie’s eyes.  “If I get any happier, I’ll burst out of my skin!”

 

Edie grasped both of Catherine’s hands in hers and said, “Someday.  You.  That’s my wish and my dream for you.”

 

For the second time that night, Catherine had difficulty keeping the wistfulness out of her voice.  “Someday,” she said, hugging her friend again.  What she longed to tell Edie, but couldn’t, was that the dream was within grasp, if only a certain individual could be persuaded that all he had to do was claim it.  Edie knew of Vincent, but she never pressed Catherine about him, and Catherine loved her for her unspoken understanding.

 

Knowing Vincent would be there waiting for her, Catherine felt she couldn’t get home fast enough.

 

*************************

 

Catherine’s smile widened the moment she saw Vincent’s silhouette through the curtains.  She opened the balcony doors and paused at the threshold just long enough to take in the magical, golden sight of him framed against the city lights.  Vincent, in turn, was nearly undone by her loveliness.  She sighed happily as she wrapped her arms around him.

 

“Vincent, all day long, I couldn’t help but wish you could have been there with me. Watching Edie dancing with Phil made me feel especially lonely without you.”

 

“And all day long I sensed a mixture of joy and wistfulness from you,” said Vincent.  “As the day wore on, I could feel your joy being overshadowed by wistfulness.  What’s troubling you, Catherine?  Tell me.”

 

Reluctantly, she released him.  “I was so happy for Edie.  My friend Joe was also a guest at the wedding, and he was glowing almost as much as Edie was!”  She paused, trying to choose her words carefully so as not to cause him further distress.  The full truth was still something too charged and too painful to give voice to.  “Edie and Joe don’t pry, but I know they worry about me, and I wish they didn’t have to because I love them and know they only want the best for me.  I just wish they could rejoice with me .  .  .  with us .  .  .  with the full knowledge that I truly am happy.”

 

“I know the burden it continues to be for you .  .  .  our secret .  .  .  the aloneness you bear for my sake.”

 

“No, Vincent!” she said, stricken.  “Please don’t ever think keeping the secret of you to myself is a burden.  Yes,” she said as she reached out to take his hand, “there was a time when it made me feel isolated.  But then I realized if keeping us a secret is the price for something I could never have dreamed was possible, then I will gladly pay it every day of my life if it means you are in it.  Please know this.”

 

Vincent felt an old wound re-open.  He had never told her how deeply he had been wounded when she left him for Connecticut, and her ongoing struggle with her aloneness troubled him.  Her love for him had been overwhelmed by the isolation and the weight of sacrifices that had to be made, which included having to keep the people she loved in her life separate because of the secrets she had to keep.  Though he could understand the upheaval of emotions she was going through at that time, it still hurt him that Catherine could have doubted. 

 

 “Father worries about us, too.  He once told me he felt he was watching me struggle to swim across a raging river.  I told him that you also struggle to make it across that same river, but the difference between us is that on my side of the river I have him to stand watch for me, while you have no one.”

 

“Not a single day goes by that I don’t thank whatever force in the universe made our paths cross that night, Vincent.  I love you more than I could ever say.  And to be able to feel that love returned in equal measure  .  .  .  I feel blessed beyond words.  I can face everything and endure anything knowing you are always with me.  You can’t know what it means to me to wake up each morning knowing you are here in this life with me.”

 

He pressed her hand to his heart.  “Catherine, your love is a gift I never imagined could be mine.” 

 

They parted that night with hearts heavy with all that still remained unsaid.

 

*************************

 

The next day, Vincent could sense Catherine’s presence below while he was in the lower tunnels helping with emergency repairs to prevent flooding in chambers used to store supplies.  By the time he and the other men had finished their work, it was late in the evening, and Catherine had returned above.  Covered with mud, he stopped for a thorough wash in the bathing pool before returning to his chamber.  Next to his journal and books on his writing table, he found a rose with white petals streaked with crimson placed on top of a folded piece of paper.

 

Vincent,

 

Solitary though I might seem on my side of the river, know that I am not alone.

 

They who are near me do not know that

you are nearer to me than they are

 

Those who speak to me do not know that

my heart is full with your unspoken words

 

Those who crowd in my path do not know that

I am walking alone with you

 

They who love me do not know that

their love brings you to my heart 1

 

With all my love,

Catherine

 

Vincent closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath.  He placed the note securely within the pages of his journal, and reached for his cloak.

 

*************************

 

He found her waiting for him on her balcony.  The faintest stir in the air that heralded his arrival was enough, always, to momentarily still her heart before it began to beat wildly at his nearness.  Wordlessly, he drew her to him and kissed her in a way that began tenderly and ended with an intensity of want and longing that overwhelmed them both.  Then he held

her .  .  .  and held her .  .  .  until she was breathless.

 

 

 

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1 Rabindranath Tagore, 1861-1941.