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FIRST PLACE

 

Sam, You Will Never Be Far Away…

by Sriparna Saha

My life has just undergone a huge change–I have become a mother.

As I hold my newborn daughter in my hands with a feeling of disbelief, a face keeps surfacing before me–the face of a boy whom I last met almost 20 years ago on the shores of a sleepy seaside township.

Sam, I try to imagine your reaction if you had been here today–for you always wanted our
firstborn to be a daughter.

Though a young mother, my daughter dreams are quite ancient. They were conceived almost three decades ago when a young couple would build sand castles on the beach and plan their future, a fixed component of which was daughters.

Even today as I close my eyes, I can see it all clearly:

An aging afternoon on the sea beach adjoining the colony that had sprung up to house the employees of a ship building company. Not a soul in sight, except the above-mentioned young couple, animatedly discussing the marriage of their first daughter. He is tall and lean with a crop of curly hair and a serious sun burnt face. She is petite and pretty with a doll like demeanor, her long eyelashes casting shadows on the plain of her cheeks.

The pair looked good back then and even now, I am sure they would have made a pretty picture had destiny given them the chance.

“Just seven days left for the marriage,” the just-teenage father states, suppressing a sigh. “I hate when daughters get married and leave house.”

“Don’t worry. We will have another child soon,” the mother declares, blissfully unaware of the complexities and intricacies actually involved in the process. “And this time it will be a son. We will then get a wife for him to compensate for the loss of our daughter.”

The father is not very enthusiastic at the suggestion and points out that the vacuum caused by one person’s absence can never be filled up by another.

The mother has another brainwave. She suggests skipping the marriage ceremony altogether to prevent the daughter from leaving the house. The father again wholeheartedly disagrees.

“If we don’t get our daughter married, she will never have a family of her own. Is it right to deny her that for our own selfish interests?” the affectionate father throws open a new line of argument which, thankfully, appeals to the mother.
She nods in agreement. “You are right. Also, I badly want to be a grandmother. And how can I be one if we don’t marry our daughter?” The couple hailed from a conservative society where children born out of wedlock were unthinkable.

A ten year old girl. A thirteen year old boy. Sounds hilarious!

But that was how life thirty years ago was. With internet games yet to arrive on the scene, unstructured spontaneous play was the norm of the day.

Sam and I were neighbors. Our fathers worked in the same organization in similar posts, which had been instrumental in the sprouting of our friendship and its subsequent nurturing.

There were other children, but whenever we played “family family” with dolls, Sam always became the father of my children. I never accepted anyone else as my partner, the inherent reason being that no one could organize marriages better than him. His innovative way of doing things, like the time he made wedding dresses for my dolls from the drawing room curtains, gave ordinary events an extraordinary flavor. Together, in our childlike ways, we dreamt of the real family we would have one day and argued over names for our children. We watched the real-life scenes playing out around us and unknowingly imitated them.

Everything was proceeding fine, till one day Sam left for school and never returned, knocked down by a careless drunken driver just outside the gates of his home.

And after he left…he made me realize many things:

The essence of selfless unconditional love.
The purity of relationships.
Children–how precious they are and their place in our lives.
The meaning of his favorite line, “Our sweetest songs are those that speak of saddest thought.

 

SECOND PLACE

 

My Instinct

by Zuha Belgaumi

 

My hands go near it and I withdraw them back, thinking–can I do it? My shivering fingers wiping the sweat off my forehead, I move my hands ahead, once a second. This time I touch it and a feeling of contentment races through my veins.

My hands were on the handle of a two-wheeler. I always wanted to ride one, because it signifies a sense of independence. Gripping the handle firmly, I remembered the day when my husband and I were walking leisurely towards our home.

A young couple riding on a two-wheeler stole my attention. I said to my husband, “Watch that cute couple on the two-wheeler, they are independent, and do not depend on a taxi for commuting. I too want to learn riding. But, I am scared. I might get hurt. I may have a fall and fracture my elbow, ankle or knee. People might laugh and taunt me.”

He stopped, turned towards me, looked into my eyes for few seconds, held my hand and pulled me towards a bench. We sat down in the dim moonlight, stars above us–watching us. He took my hand in his, caressing, and said, “You will not know until you try. If you fail, you will be contented that you tried. Why are you worried about what people might say? It is your life. Live it your way.”

His enthusiasm motivated me. I had never imagined that an arranged marriage would give me an understanding life partner. I thanked God for the same. I smiled and said, “I want to give it a try.” His pat on my hand–assuring me, and a return smile telling me–he was more than happy.

We did not have enough money to buy a secondhand two-wheeler; instead my husband rented it for an hour.

His keen interest in making me an independent rider inspired me, and I decided to put my heart and soul in learning. I started practising for an hour every day, on a rented vehicle. My husband, a daily wage labourer, did not complain of spending his hard-earned money towards renting the same. It took me more time than I had expected just to be able to balance on the two-wheeler. Very soon I experienced a fall; blisters and scratches were all over my hands. Our expenditure rose, but still his dream of making me an independent rider did not fade away.

At home, the tantalisingly soothing effect of his lips on the bridges between my knuckles telling these hands can do wonders, made me fall in love with my big-hearted husband, all over again. He said, “Only thing holding you back is your fear.”

Back on the road, unable to stretch my fingers, my muscles still complaining about the pain, I went ahead–overcoming my fear of failure. Now, I was riding the rented vehicle carefully, and as the days passed, the act of riding became smooth, smoother and smoothest. I was an expert in no time.

Today I am here, participating in the competition–a race. A thought occurred to me–there are many people who can do it better than me, why should I think of participating? However, the thought, “I will never know until I try,” gushed through me, and overpowered other thoughts. Winning is secondary, participating is important to me. This participation is a tribute to my husband who is no more, and his inspirational words–“you will never know until you try,” brimming in and around me.

Holding the handle, raising the accelerator and releasing the brake, I started and was on my way racing...

 

THIRD PLACE

 

Message in a Baggie


by Linda A. Mohr

A letter always seemed to me like immortality–Emily Dickinson

Some people start their morning with coffee, exercise, or meditation. I prefer to delight in a love note. Rewind thirty years ago and watch it roll…

I met my romantic love through a mutual acquaintance. Ken wasted little time showing me why we were destined for each other. One morning, when I looked out the third story bedroom window, I spotted something white under my car’s windshield wiper. I figured it was a message from my next door neighbor.

I descended two flights of stairs to the lower level. As I opened the outside door, a plastic baggie preserving a white envelope came into view. A single word was neatly written on the front: Snuggles. There was no mistaking the handwriting. I snatched the mysterious delivery and bolted inside.

I thought the message in the baggie was an amazing romantic surprise. But I also thought it was a one-time occurrence, like thanking me for concert tickets. That was true for six days. Ken intended to keep me guessing. He lived three miles from me, and he performed his new courier service duty on the way to work. His workday started in the dark, long before I was conscious.

I still attempted to figure out his plan. I wanted to catch him putting the note on the car. How hard can it be to hear the familiar sound of his motorcycle in the driveway? So as an experiment I set the alarm for early morning. However, my hypothesis, “if you hear a motorcycle revving its engine at 5:30 in the morning, you will get a Snuggles note,” was faulty. I was confused when I found a love note left in silence on my car. Later, Ken confessed that he cut the motorcycle engine a block from my house and coasted!

Ken did not have a delivery schedule for Snuggles. Unlike expecting to receive flowers for a special occasion, I never knew when to expect a love note. I never knew how the envelope would be labeled. An eclectic list included Snuggles, Linda S.B. Mohr, Hi Snuggles, Good Morning Sweetheart, and I Love You. I never knew what would be in the baggie. Ken was a hopeless romantic and a jokester. Would he evoke tears of joy or tears of laughter? Sometimes, I got a two page letter followed a week later with four or five lines or a card or just three words.

I was irritated with the unknown. Then I realized that was part of the charm of this endearing gesture. The unpredictability kept me in heightened anticipation. The surprise notes brought me incredible joy and brightened the start of my day. The thread of devotion, caring, and love that we shared was woven throughout the letters. I acknowledged a special note or funny card with as much fanfare as a trip to London.

Whenever I spotted the message in a baggie, I flew down the stairs two or three steps at a time. It was miraculous that over a four-year period I did not break myself! My heart fluttered, and my hands shook as I read Ken’s morning missive. Tears often dotted my face like rain drops beading on the baggie. One such tear-stained note was this:

Dearest Linda,

The true beauty of any day is its reflection in
your heart. May beauty always touch your life as
beautifully as you have touched mine.

All My Love Always,
Kenneth

Three decades later, as I open the sacred box teeming with messages, I am reminded of the French proverb—gratitude is the heart’s memory. I stand at the bedroom window in dark shadows and close my eyes for a few seconds. When I look down, I see a man on a motorcycle quietly pulling into the drive. There is no mistaking this man. He places his message in a baggie on the windshield. He looks up. I shiver as he waves. I blink, and he is gone.

 

HONORABLE MENTION

 

Second Chances

by Marsha Warren Mittman

Wheat grass? Auras? Angels, healers, and psychics? How about some dreamwork or a vegan snack?

The holistic lifestyle fair, the first of its type I’d ever attended, had been terrific–albeit a bit overwhelming. Held in a huge, block square, old New York City hotel, the event had been chock full of lectures, demonstrations, books, and exhibitors’ booths.

I’d spent hours wandering the hotel’s numerous conference rooms. Finally satiated–with my head spinning–I decided it was time to leave. The huge location–chosen to house the fair’s 35,000 attendees–had eight identically decorated exits, two on each of the four square blocks the hotel flanked. I couldn’t recall where I’d entered the building to return to my subway line.

I paused to see if any surroundings seemed familiar while dressing in a light jacket and gloves, but suddenly a last exhibit caught my eye. I started thumbing through some pamphlets on display when a deep voice asked “Can I help you?”

Looking up, I saw an attractive, tall, middle aged man. Realizing I was sincerely interested, he waved me over to two chairs across the aisle where we sat in discussion for a half hour. I was grateful for his assistance–he was helping to clarify the new material I’d absorbed all day.

“Your company is fortunate to have you as an exhibitor,” I said. “Thanks so much for putting everything into perspective.”

He laughed as he pointed to the media booth adjacent to our chairs. “I don’t work for the company whose materials you were reading. I’m employed by this TV station here. But I saw your interest, realized no one was around, and thought I could help. I’ve been following a holistic lifestyle for years.”

And then, “I’m off in fifteen minutes. How about continuing the conversation over dinner?”

It was my turn to laugh–it had been a very long time since anyone had asked me out. I removed my left glove, held up my hand so he could see the ring on my fourth finger, and announced “I’m married.”

We both chuckled together when he said “Damn.”

He pointed me in the right direction for my subway station. As I walked towards the door I turned to wave good-bye and discovered he was watching me…

* * *
When I next visited the fair, a completely different subway line dropped me at yet another door leading into the same huge, block square hotel with eight entrances. I recalled the problem I’d had previously trying to find the right exit. So I paused to take some mental markers to be able to find my way out of the hotel complex later on.

And as I did so, with thousands of people milling and crushing about in the hotel’s cavernous lobby, a tall, attractive, middle-aged man standing directly in front of me–no more than ten feet distant–started to walk my way.

I heard a deep, surprised voice. “Well, hello! We meet again among all these people in this huge room with so many entrances. How amazing…”

My heart thumping, I realized it was “meant to be.” I removed my left glove, held up my empty fingers and said, “I’m a widow.”

Yes, we had dinner that night–vegetarian–and happily became a couple for six years until circumstances necessitated I move out west.

But a permanent “union” did actually occur as a result of this relationship: a book collaboration about spiritual, holistic journeying. He was an illustrator. I write. We created a tale about a little fish that transcends to its next level of growth – a mermaid. Just as our pairing helped me to a new level of growth – learning to love again. The book’s been used in meditation programs in a dozen U.S. states, and became the springboard for an unexpected writing career.

Whenever I open its pages, or pick up a pen to write a new story, I recall our time together–years that gifted me with a wonderful partner, and a second chance at love, creativity, career……a second chance at Life.

 

You, Me, Yesterday 

by Jeremy P. Moyes

I thought of you yesterday. I found myself wandering familiar streets, seeking the past and being haunted by it. So much of what I had remembered has gone–the wrecking ball of progress has been hard at work–but in my mind the images of our time prevail. You wouldn’t recognize the place.

The corner café is still standing, though. Given all that has happened there I still couldn’t help myself, I had to go in. It smells the same–of coffee beans and cinnamon rolls and pine-scented floor polish. Even after who knows how many restorations and re-decorations it still has the same smell, as if it has penetrated the very fabric of the place. The smell met me at the door and drew me inside, and back thirty years.

Old Mrs. Schroeder–she was the frail, gray-haired cook with the heavy German accent who would call everyone liebling or schatz–ran the café for several years after her husband died. This according to the slightly effeminate young assistant at the counter. He never met her, he tells me, nor her daughter who sold the business the moment she inherited it. It seems that Sophie–the coquettish young teenager who you thought had designs on me–moved back to Germany. I think her parents would have seen the symmetry in her decision and approved.

I made my way across to a large, worn leather sofa that occupies the space where our table used to be. Remember? You used to face the window that looked out onto the square and those huge flowering cherry trees that will always remind me of spring. I sat there for a while, picturing you as you looked that day when everything we had seemed to slip slowly through our fingers. The primrose yellow dress in the large flowery print, the wide-brimmed straw hat, the matching shoes too new to wear for long.

Circumstances that overwhelmed us then have become manageable with time. Your life has moved on; so has mine. We are no longer who we were in the coffee shop, all those years ago. And yet, as I recalled the emotion and sadness of that day I felt a presence there. I wonder whether we leave something of ourselves in those places where life-changing events are fashioned. Whether we, like the smell of the café, seep into the walls and linger there.

I stayed most of the afternoon, thinking of times past and occasionally being reminded of something you had said or done. There were moments when I fully expected to see you walk through the door, brushing your hair back from your face as you waved hello. When the time came to leave the evening rush was in full flight. I made my way through a warren of newly constructed towers towards the metro stop. As the fading light of the late afternoon succumbed to the advancing night, so my thoughts of you yielded to another day.

 

Luke

by Lynn Sunday

Luke was strumming a guitar and singing the first time we met, reminding me of how good it felt to smile. He was blond and lean with fair skin, high cheekbones and deep-set blue eyes.

We met in the rainy springtime in the 1970s–a bare three months since my twelve-year marriage ended in legal separation. Something less than an ideal marriage, but twelve years was a long time. There were children to consider. I had declared us over after learning of another woman in my husband’s life. He packed his things and left the home we'd made together, moving in with her with no further ado. I felt angry, wronged, usurped, and alone–with a living to make for myself and two sons.

I was emotionally unready for meaningful involvement with anyone when Luke and I met, but that didn't stop me. I was thirty, attractive, with a healthy sex drive and a powerful need for male validation. And Luke, with his sweet smile and non-threatening manner, was the first man I'd met in my fragile, newly-single state, to show me kindness as well as desire.

His name was Harry Leweck, pronounced Lu-eck, but I called him Luke, because the name sounded solid and trustworthy and I needed some of that in my life. I saw how his face lit up when we met. I think he felt that my changing his name made him special.

We met at Anderson Middle School, near Syracuse, New York. Luke, a guitar player with a music degree, was the substitute music teacher–and I, with my BFA in painting was there to teach art. We laughed and flirted at lunch and during breaks between classes. I gave him my number. He called the next day. I hired a sitter that evening. Luke picked me up at my door.

It felt good to dress up and have dinner in a restaurant–to sit across from a man who found me smart, witty, and desirable. His lips were soft and warm. I melted into him when we kissed goodnight. I didn't invite him in that night, or the night after. Then, a week later I told the sitter I might be quite late–and after dinner and live music at a supper club, Luke invited me home with him, and I agreed to go.

I saw him often that summer. My sons liked him. They said he was “cool.” I think they could tell his interest in them was genuine. He taught my older boy to play the guitar, and played ball with my younger, who craved male attention.

“I really like kids,” Luke said, with his sweet shy smile, “I'd like a houseful one day.”

I saw my estranged husband on weekends that summer when he came to my house to visit our sons. It shredded my insides each time, but the boys were so happy to see him I didn't object. One day he confided his relationship had fizzled, and expressed great regret at having lost me. “Let’s give our family another chance,” he pleaded, and when he kissed me, I didn't pull away.

I don't think I've ever hurt anyone the way I hurt Luke, when I told him my husband was moving back in. “I thought you were starting to love me,” he said with a look of profound sadness, before saying goodbye to my boys and turning to go.

Although I liked, but never loved Luke, he was there for me when I needed him, solid, stalwart, giving. I remember him for his music, the songs we sang together, and the tenderness we shared. I regret the pain I caused him to suffer. But I was lonely and wanted to be loved.

My husband and I couldn't set things right again. We split up three months later. The divorce went through this time. I was tempted to call Luke for the comfort of his presence–but he deserved more than to be used in that way. I never saw him again.

I hope he has a loving wife, the houseful of kids he longed for, and that he’s content with his life. I wonder if he thinks of me.

 

The Cowboy

by Susan Yanguas

When I got divorced in my late thirties, I re-entered the world of dating. I soon grew tired of the usual professional men I came in contact with. Whether I met them online, through friends, or at social events, it seemed I was always dating the same man. I longed for someone different.

At times I despaired of ever meeting a “real man”–a simple guy who wasn’t overly-impressed with himself. The more a man tried to show off his knowledge, advanced degrees, investments, and earning potential on our first date, the more turned off I was. I found myself fantasizing about moving away from my urban environs to somewhere out west and meeting the quintessential “Marlboro man.”

While talking to a friend one day, I said I was tired of dating doctors, lawyers, and engineers. “I just want to meet a construction worker or a cowboy!” We laughed about that wish, and I soon forgot about our conversation until a couple of months later.

I had gone to a singles dance and was supposed to meet up with some friends there, but they never showed. I was annoyed and would have left, but I had just driven an hour to get there and paid to get in.

I sat at a table with strangers and looked around the dimly-lit hall, studying the other singles. From across the room I saw a really cute guy, and he didn’t appear to be with anyone. He had thick, sandy blond hair and blue eyes that crinkled when he smiled. His tanned face was movie-star handsome, and he was casually but neatly dressed. I was very impressed as I watched him interact. Although he could have his pick of dance partners, he was good-hearted enough to select the women who weren’t getting asked to dance. For me it was love…or at least a strong attraction…at first sight.

Then a miracle happened. Out of all the women in the room, he asked me to dance to a slow song. I was thrilled!

As the music played, we exchanged the usual information. I learned he was active in his church and had been on mission trips to build homes for the poor and a school for the deaf. This guy was too good to be true! The song ended and we stayed on the floor for another. Not only was this gorgeous man kind, sweet, humble and polite, he was dedicated to helping others…and liked to dance! There was a definite attraction between us, and the more he told me about himself, the more smitten I became.

I finally asked him what he did for a living and my heart did a little flip when he said he had a home improvement business.

“So…you’re a construction worker?” I asked with a hopeful note to my voice. Had I finally found my “real man”?

“Well, I’ve worked construction in the past,” he said, “but I’m getting ready to make a career change.”

I could feel my smile dim. Just when I had found my blue-collar paragon, he was probably going to ruin everything and become an accountant. “Really?” I said with false enthusiasm. “Tell me about it.”

“I’m training to be a farrier.” He must have interpreted my stunned silence to mean I wasn’t familiar with the term, because he quickly added, “A farrier is someone who shoes horses.”

I looked heavenward and smiled; I had finally found my ideal man. Not only was he a sensitive, thoughtful, handy construction worker, but he was also the closest thing I’d ever met to a cowboy.

About a month later we went on our first official date, which was the beginning of a beautiful romance. Although we ultimately decided to part after a year, I will always remember this man as a gift from God that gave me renewed hope for finding love later in life.

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