“Thanks,” I say back as if I am confident this is a compliment but, by the way Francine says it, I’m not.
“How are you?” she says.
“Um,” I say. “Good. You?”
“Us, too,” she says. “Us, too. The Lord works in mysterious ways but I am stunned, humbled really, at what a gift today is.”
Jesse wasn’t raised with any religious instruction and in high school I once heard Francine say she didn’t “care what you think God wants” to a proselytizing Mormon who rang their doorbell. Now I’m wondering if that’s changed. If losing Jesse made her a born-again Christian and if getting him back serves as all the proof she needs that she’s on the right track.
Joe looks at me briefly and then looks away. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. But he appears to be much more conflicted about everything. Francine seems to think that life is going to be perfect again, just as soon as Jesse gets off that plane. But I think Joe understands that everything is going to be a lot more complex.
“All right,” Francine says. “Shall we head in there? I can’t believe he lands soon. Look at this, the three of us on our way to see our boy.”
She pulls out her phone and checks it.
“Looks like Chris, Tricia, and the boys will be here with Danny and Marlene in a minute.”
I knew Chris and Tricia had kids not because anyone told me but because I saw Tricia in T.J. Maxx last year, many months pregnant with a toddler at her side.
I don’t actually know who Marlene is. I can only assume she’s Danny’s girlfriend, fiancée, or wife.
The simple fact is that I know almost nothing about the Lerners anymore and they know almost nothing about me. I don’t even know if they know about Sam.
Joe and I follow Francine as she walks confidently in the direction of the terminal.
“It is hard to predict how he’ll be feeling,” Francine says as we walk. “From what I’ve heard and the advice that I’ve been given by professionals, our job right now is to make him feel safe.”
“Of course,” I say.
Right before we get to the door, Francine turns and looks at me. “In that vein, we have chosen not to tell him you’ve moved on.”
So they do know. Of course they do.
“OK,” I say, unsure how else to respond other than to acknowledge that I’ve heard her.
The wind picks up and I find myself wishing I had brought a warmer coat. The air here is sharper than I expected. I button up tighter and I watch as Joe does the same.
“You can tell him if you want,” Francine says. “I just don’t know if he can handle finding out you are already engaged to someone else.”
It is the “already” that bothers me. The “already” nested firmly in the sentence, as if it’s right at home between “you are” and “engaged.”
I resolve to stay quiet. I tell myself the best response is stoicism. But then, before I realize I’ve done it, I’ve let the feelings in my chest become words out of my mouth.
“You don’t need to make me feel guilty,” I tell her. “I feel plenty guilty all on my own.”
Even though I know she hears me, she pretends she’s heard nothing. It doesn’t matter; even if she did acknowledge it, I know there’s no way she could possibly understand what I mean.
I feel awful for giving up on Jesse. For thinking he was dead. For moving on. For falling in love with someone else. I’m actually furious at myself for that.
But I’m also really angry at myself for not being loyal to Sam, for not remaining steadfast and true in my devotion, like I have promised him I would be. I am mad at myself for being unsure, for not being the sort of woman who can tell him he’s the only one, for not giving him the kind of love he deserves.
I’m mad at myself for a lot of things.
So much so that I barely have time to consider what anyone else thinks of me.
“OK,” Joe says abruptly. “Let’s go. Jesse’s going to land any minute.”
I watch through the plate-glass window in front of me as a plane flies low in the sky and lands on the runway.
My heart starts beating so hard in my chest that I am afraid I am having a heart attack.
A man on the ground wheels out a staircase. A door opens. A pilot walks out.
And then there is Jesse.
Worse for wear and yet, somehow, never more beautiful to me than right now.
Pictures never did his smile justice. I remember that now.
He’s also thin and frail, as if his body is made only of muscle and bone. His once-gentle face is sleek, hard edges where soft cheeks used to be. His hair is longer, shaggier. His skin is mottled light brown and pink, looking very much like a three-year sunburn.
But his mannerisms are the same. His smile is the same. His eyes, the same.
I stare at him as he gets off the plane. I stare at him as he hugs Francine and Joe. I stare at him as he comes closer to me, as he looks me in the eye with purpose. I notice that the pinkie on his right hand stops at the first knuckle. He lost a finger somewhere along the way.
“Hi,” he says.
Just hearing that one word makes me feel as though I have gone back in time, to a part of my life when things made sense, when the world was fair.
“You are a sight for sore eyes.”
I smile. I bury my face in my hands. He grabs me, holding me. I can feel my pulse beat erratically, as if it isn’t sure whether to speed up or slow down.
I wonder if this is all real.
But when I open my eyes again, he’s still there. He’s right here in front of me, surrounding me.
I grieved him as if he were dead. But here he is.
It’s almost terrifying, how much it defies logic and reason. What else do we know about the world that isn’t true?
“You’re home,” I say.
You know how every once in a while you look back on your life and you wonder how so much time has passed? You wonder how each moment bled into the next and created the days, months, and years that now all feel like seconds?
That’s how I feel.
In this moment.
It feels like our entire past together spans eons and the time I’ve spent without him is an insignificant little flash.
I have loved Jesse since the day I saw him at that swim meet.
And I’m having a hard time remembering how I lived without him, how I could bear to look at a world that I thought he wasn’t in, and why I thought I could ever love anyone the way I love him.
Because it has been him.
My whole life.
It has always, always been him.
How have I spent all of my time forgetting who I am and who I love?
The last couple of hours have been a daze. I’ve stood by, saying barely anything, as the whole family embraced Jesse’s return home. I watched as Francine cried her eyes out and prayed to God at the sight of him, as Chris and Tricia introduced him to their son, Trevor, and their baby girl, Ginnie. As Danny introduced him to his new wife, Marlene.
My phone has rung a number of times but I have yet to bring myself to even look at the caller ID. I can’t handle real life right now. I can barely handle what’s happening right in front of me.
And I can’t even begin to reconcile what is happening right in front of me to my real life.
There is so much for Jesse to process. You can tell there is a great deal that his family wants to say, so much they want to do. I find myself wanting to tell him every thought I’ve had while he’s been gone, wanting to describe every moment I’ve spent without him, every feeling I have right now. I want to plug my heart into his and upload the past three and a half years right into his soul.
I can only imagine that everyone else here wants to do that same thing.
It must be so overwhelming to be him, to be the person everyone is staring at, the person everyone wants to see with their very own eyes and hold in their own hands.
As I watch Jesse interact with his family, I feel suddenly like I don’t belong here.
Jesse is holding his niece, Ginnie, for the first time, trying to remain calm. But I know him. I know what the downturn of the corners of his eyes means. I know why he pulls his ears back, why his neck looks rigid and stiff.