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ANNOUNCING WINNERS
2011 PAST LOVES STORY CONTEST

chapter3EVEN IF you never see the person again, a significant former love remains with you. That womanor man is woven into the tapestry of your life – maybe as a subtle shading here and there, maybe as a vibrant pattern smack in the middle. Without those threads, the weaving would be something else. You would be someone else.
 

FIRST PLACE

 

Cobalt

by Margaret DeAngelis

 


I look up when a voice from the television says your name, and when the voice follows with "has died" I drop the glass I have been washing. It shatters at my feet, blue shards and white suds spreading out from my toes as I peer at the screen.

I can see that the man with your name, the man who has died, is not you. He does not have your straight nose nor your curly hair. He is not the college senior who washed glassware in the lab on Sunday nights while I sat on a stool and read aloud from my poetry books. Nor is he the medical student who five years later held me close and stroked my long red hair and said goodbye because his heart had changed.

The man with your name, the man who is not you, is nevertheless about the age you are now, or, rather, he was that age when he died waiting for his HMO to approve an experimental treatment that might have halted his cancer. I imagine you as you are now, the color and the curls probably gone from your hair but your hands broad and strong still, turning a pencil over and over with your long agile fingers as you argue on the phone for a patient whose HMO will not trust your judgment.

The newscast moves to a different story. I move too, away from the sink full of soapy water, away from the crumbles of blue glass dark against the white floor. I move through the dining room to the living room. I make sure my hands are dry, and then I draw down from the fireplace mantel a cobalt glass vase with a ruffled rim and a narrow base, cradling it like an infant.

You brought it filled with daisies for my birthday that summer after we met. My parents went to the movies that night and we made love in my sister’s bed before they came back, and the next morning, too, after they had gone to church.

I took it with me to my first apartment. I put it on the white bookcase you’d drop your bag beside when you came to visit, across from the patchwork couch where we’d sit for our first kisses, the couch where we sat two years later for our last. I took the piece with me then to the next apartment, the one you never came to, and the next, that you never knew about, and finally I brought it to this house where I have lived ever since with the one who took your place but did not erase your memory. I put it on the mantel, a spot of color against a white wall. I filled my house with books and furniture, with children, with laughter. I filled the mantel too with more cobalt glass, piece by piece until I had a collection, until yours was the smallest, plainest piece, almost unnoticed. I place your cobalt vase back among the others and return to the kitchen, where the broken jelly glass waits. I bend to get the dustpan and when I straighten, there is my daughter, all barefoot girlish energy.

"Careful," I say. "There’s glass."

She gasps. "That’s not your special blue vase, is it?"

"No," I tell her. "Just a jelly glass."

"Well, that’s good!" she says. She steps around the little pile of twinkling blue slivers which is also collecting, as I sweep, a broken pony tail holder, a Goldfish cracker, and a Dallas Cowboys magnet. She grabs a piece of string cheese from the refrigerator and an apple from the counter and I watch her walk away, this luminous child who would not have been born, who would not be who she is, had you not left me, had I not carried a cobalt vase into a life without you.

I don’t know where you are tonight. I don’t know how you live, whom you love, nor the shape your life has taken. But I hope that you are crazy happy, and that if a word from the television calls me to your mind, you smile.

SECOND PLACE

Inner Strength

by Dawn Carrington

Almost thirty years have passed, but I have never forgotten my soul mate, the one boy who convinced me that dreams were possible, and that I could do anything no matter how the odds were stacked against me.

The late summer of my fifteenth birthday I’d just moved to a small town in Tennessee and wished I could be anywhere else…until I met Ren. He wasn’t the boy in school that everyone loved, and he didn’t stand out in a crowd. But I loved him instantly. Looking back, I think it might have been his country twang, or the way he could make me laugh when I felt like crying.

From the moment our gazes connected, we were inseparable. For one year my life was completely happy, fulfilled. Ren made me believe in the impossible. We talked about everything, even the stuff that didn’t make sense to anyone but us, and we believed our futures were intertwined because we couldn’t imagine living without one another.

My home life was a wreck, but Ren somehow made everything make sense. When I threatened to run away, he convinced me to hang in, to hold out for the final two years that would give me my freedom with a high school diploma. And the days I couldn’t take the abuse, I snuck away to Ren’s house where we sat and talked for as long as I safely could. Then he always walked me home.

Our first kiss didn’t happen until two months into the relationship because he didn’t want to rush me. He told me he wanted it to be as special as I was. Hearing someone tell me I was unique gave me a sense of hope for the future. And the moment Ren kissed me, I committed myself to him, knowing I was going to marry him.

I remember vividly the last day I saw Ren. It was the end of the first week of school. We always got off the bus a few blocks from our house so we had a little more time together. Holding hands, we walked down the gravel road leading to his house. We didn’t make plans to see each other that evening because he had company in from out of town. I kissed him goodbye, promising to meet him at the bus stop early the next morning.

The next morning, I arrived at the stop before seven. At seven fifteen, I saw Ren’s father’s aging Ford lumbering down the gravel road, and I knew something was wrong. Ren’s father worked the early morning shift at the local factory. He’d have no reason to be coming home so soon.

Forgetting all about school, I raced toward that truck. I’ll never forget the broken words his father said to me. "Ren was killed last night."

My world collapsed around me, and I remember struggling to breathe. I’d never known such pain. My heart shredded, I fell to my knees on the damp ground. I didn’t know what to do, how to think, to survive without Ren. He’d been my lifeline in this hellhole I lived, and I felt helpless.

The small funeral, held two days later, brought in most of the town. I sat outside on the back steps of the church because I had to say my goodbye to Ren alone. It was the last thing I could share with him.

That night, I expressed my words of love to Ren in the very first poem I ever wrote, and as the words poured out onto the paper, I felt his presence next to me. He’d always encouraged me in whatever I chose to do so I wasn’t surprised he was there. That poem spurred a lifelong writing career.

I have fulfilled a lot of my dreams just as Ren said I would. Now, almost thirty years later, I still think about him. With every career achievement, I thank him. The love Ren showed me gave me hope, and though his death tore through my soul like a knife, I kept going because he would have wanted me to. His love gave me a strength I didn’t know I had.

THIRD PLACE

Daybreak

by James Penha

This tale of past love is not an easy story for me to tell. Not because it is a heartbreaking tale of lost love. Death does not intrude, thank God. And although our affair ended when the object of my desire found another to love, there was no bitter break-up. We remained friends; indeed, we remain friends.

The difficulty in my relating the tale is my anticipating readers' raised eyebrows or, worse, sneers, for my past love story is a story of the first gay lover in my life. That love and that lover changed everything in my life as I came bumbling and tumbling out of the closet. What I knew and felt but had repressed about my sexual orientation could no longer be denied. My thirteen-year marriage to a loving woman to whom I had confided, prior to our engagement, my attraction to men and the hurdles that might raise for us, ended, as I think we always knew it would. We had been happy as long as my homosexuality had been fantastic; the reality of a flesh-and-blood relationship with another man, underscored by the uncontrollable emotion of love, could not be ignored by any of us.

Like all gay men, I had had a series of crushes on friends from elementary through high school. In my university years there were fraternity brothers and fellow theatre arts majors to moon over. But, in those days, the pre-Stonewall nineteen-sixties, there were few advantages in being publicly gay and many, many reasons to hide. In a syndrome typical for gays growing up at the time, I never dared to tell any guy I cared for that I was attracted to him because, odds were, I would lose him even as a platonic friend. (Did some gay friends and I pass like ships in a dark night of terror? Oh yes, no doubt.)

But in the early eighties, times were changing–although not for me, I had assumed, since I was by then a thirty-year-old married man, straight for the all the world to see.

I was teaching at a large metropolitan university, not only at its campus, but in its prison outreach program. The administrator of the program was ten years my junior, and I found him beautiful–in face and stature and personality. Never before had anyone literally given me palpitations of the heart. When he would pass–and oh! did I keep hoping he would pass close by or, even better, have something important to discuss face-to-face–I reddened and sweated. I don't know who else might have noticed my adolescent affect, but Tom did. And so one night, after classes, he invited me to go out for a drink. He drove us to his favorite gay bar without ever mentioning its notoriety or our sexual inclinations, and we spent hours chatting with each other and with dozens of his friends, from the queenliest to the most leather-bound.

There was little to say when we drove to his apartment, and there is little of the rest of that evening I will say here. Except that what stays with me, even now, after three decades, was our kiss. It was the first time I had ever kissed a man deeply...romantically, but it wasn't lips or tongue that moved me, like an earthquake, then and forever. It was the brushing and scraping of our five o'clock (in the morning) shadows. I was reminded that we were men. I realized that we were men in love.

FOURTH PLACE (Five stories, in alphabetical order by author)

No One Was Supposed to Fall in Love

by Diana M. Amadeo

I hadn't thought of him in years. What was his name? It didn't really matter; no one called him by his given name anyway. Due to his bright, flaming locks, he was known as Red.

The young man a few rows ahead of me checking out business shirts was the spitting image of Red. He had the same fair skin, red hair, freckles and dimples that deepened when he smiled. Yes, that guy was a dead ringer for Red. Maybe he's a relative. I smiled and shook my head.


Red was pure fun. Memories of him were warm and fuzzy. For me, they were just good times; no pain, no angst. We had a lot in common on campus. Both of us had intense schedules and lofty goals. Having someone to hang around with was a godsend in releasing some of the pressures of graduate school. We worked on problem sets, then hit the pub to share a few laughs. He was a good kisser, but I was committed to someone miles away.

Red was a year ahead of me and had his life planned out. Even though I was younger, my life was likewise planned. There was no place for change or spontaneity in a tough, uncompromising job market. Neither of our plans included each other. At least that's what Red repeated back to me. After his graduation, we would go our separate ways.

I still remember Red in his black cap and gown, eyes scanning the crowd, looking, looking, looking until he saw me. Then he smiled and settled back in his seat, content.

After graduation, there were lots of pictures; his family insisted that I be in every single one. It troubled me to know that soon I would have to be edited out of them, but I took my place next to him, anyway. It bothered me a little more when Red put his arm around my shoulders, squeezed me tight and whispered, "I love you."

That wasn't part of the plan.

Red knew that I was engaged. I had dangled my ring in front of his nose the first time we met. But to him, the ring was a challenge. Every time I reminded him that his graduation was the end of our relationship, he just grinned. "We'll see about that," he would say.

He was persistent. After his graduation, I had another year at the university. His new employment was now three hundred miles away. He called several times a week until, finally, I refused to answer the phone. He would show up at the dorm, unannounced, with that dimply goofy smile and I would be cool and cordial, reminding him of our prior arrangement. His letters, that arrived almost daily, were familiar, kind and endearing. My solo brief response was a, "Hey thanks for the memories, but life goes on." Sigh.

No one was supposed to fall in love. We were just supposed to be friends having a good time. Why didn't he stick to the agreement? It took a good six months of cold shoulder treatment for Red to get the message. His last letter was so gut-wrenchingly heartsick that I burned it immediately, lest I be tempted to read it over and act on it. I reasoned my actions were tough love.

My graduation came, with my fiancé and family in attendance. It was wonderful. I married and have had a beautiful life. My life went as planned. Did Red's? He deserved a wonderful life. Is he happy?

I shake my head once more. The man checking out business shirts looks at me in annoyance.

"What is your problem, lady?" the man in the business shirt aisle asked. "Why are you staring at me?"

I looked down and watched as tears dropped onto my hands. "Oh God, I'm sorry," I said with another head shake. "I am so, so sorry."

A Letter to Penny

by Luke Beling

Penny I thought of you today as I listened to our favorite song play over the radio. I was rolling stones to cover your father’s grave when the stereo waves stirred my memories with a haunting melody.

Do you remember when we buried your father? When we thought our days were old? His death was as sudden as first frost, his absence as costly as the cold. The gravel above his head comes loose once in a while when the cattle cross to feed in the southern pasture. He wanted it that way you know: to be in the earth, surrounded by his years of labor.

The day he left us to have his farm was a day I’ll never forget. You held my hand over your heart and reminded me of my pledge to keep you safe. Although frightened, your beating pulse was consistent, like a grandfather clock. I knew you trusted me then. The words you spoke are still near, like your photo in my wallet. If only then I had cared more about your heart than the fields and animals, perhaps you’d still be with me.

This morning when I was cleaning the chicken coop the cattle sang. It was my first time to hear them. I confess, I never did believe in the sounds you heard. A farm is a factory of noise, noises that are impossible to identify. But I know now that what you said is true: "Listen with ears of the city and you will hear concrete, cars, and murder. Listen with ears of the country and you will hear animals sing, rivers dash, and the life that is constantly giving birth."

On the day you left, record rainfall saturated our farm. I have no doubt that you felt it, curving "Meyers Bend,"as surely as the tires of the old Bantum did. I prayed for you, and asked God to keep you out of harm’s way, while feeling guilty for allowing those smooth wheels to last so long. The screaming water on your windshield did not convince you to turn around. Even it could not wash away your fury and heartache. I am still haunted by the irony of that day, but with it came perspective and revelation. Our love, or lack of it, was hardly about the prosperity in our barns. You left, and the rain rescued our farm, and the rain drowned my heart.

Would it serve me well to tell you that I have changed? I disagree with the impersonal taste of cliché’s, but it’s all I know to write. I have become a man of substance. When you knew me I was the scarecrow in our cornfields. Today I am the feed in my hand, for our animals at first light. Do the bright city lights cover the darkness? Do the busy streets and noisy engines silence the voices of regret? I stumble in the daylight and I live with a backwards clock. Our farm is sunless without you, and disappointment is laced into the wild dandelions that grow on lonely meadows. Neighbors frequently ask where I hide the light that was once in my eyes. Unfortunately, I do not hide it; the light has disappeared. The green in my pocket does not hold it. The blue in my heart, stole it.

Penny, I will not bother to write you promises that fade in the sun. Words are only words, when held by paper. I have written you more letters than I can count. I have held more tears than the Atlantic holds salt. My love for you will only cease when my heart is buried deep below the earth.

If these words find you well, then excuse them. If there is but an inch in your heart that keeps my face or memory, then welcome them. In the night I will continue to keep the front light on, and in the morning I will pour two cups of tea, as I always have, one with honey, one without.

Road Picnic

by MJ Henry

Harvey was the only man I ever loved. As the years went by our love was tossed and beaten like one of his old trucks. In the midst of all our trials and turmoil, the one thing that was always able to bring us back together was our road picnics.

We always took an old car. When I say old, I mean rust, dents, torn seats …

"Wait! What’s that smell?" This was always me talking. A search would ensue until the offending item was found. "Oh Harvey! It’s a package of shrimp shoved under the seat. How long has that been there?"

"Don’t throw that out. I’m saving that for fishing."

It was all okay though. We always started early, allowing time to either fumigate or choose another vehicle, and there were always plenty of old vehicles to choose from. Harvey was a nut about old cars and trucks. For him, these represented all that was good about his youth. For me, they represented a time for us to be together without fighting or competing.

We dressed comfortably and tossed some blankets and pillows into the car. We took only a few dishes; the fare wouldn’t require much. We would pick up food at some little mom and pop store. There the cheeses were fresh, the meat came off a slab, and we could usually find some homemade jerky, baked goods and let’s not forget the homemade root beer.

The picnic usually took place in the car. We would eat as we drove, or if we found a good spot we would sit on a blanket in front of the car or in the bed of the truck. It was nothing to lie down and take a nap in each other’s arms, letting the day glide past.

Times were not always happy for Harvey and me. We went through a bitter split and lived apart for a number of years, but we never divorced. Then the day came that he was diagnosed with cancer. In the early days of his diagnosis nothing changed between us. As time went on and his illness worsened, we drew a little closer.

Each day it became more evident that he was losing his battle with cancer. He began asking me to take him places. Church was difficult. I drove him to church one Sunday evening. It had been a few months and I knew that he had changed. The once vibrant man with thick brown hair was now a feeble soul whose hair, lost from chemo, was coming back white. I heard the whispers as people asked who he was. Some would whisper, "Is that Harvey?" All I could do was turn my face away from him so he wouldn’t see me cry.

One spring day Harvey drove his old truck down the road that led to my house. The bluebonnets were especially lush and beautiful. "MaryJane," he said. "I sure want to go see the bluebonnets. Let’s take a road picnic."

I don’t think we had been on a road picnic in ten, maybe fifteen years. I wasn’t going to refuse him now. We loaded up in his old truck and went looking for one of the mom and pop stores we used to visit. Most were closed, but we found one. We got our meat and cheese and homemade bread and sweets. They didn’t have homemade root beer, so we bought A & W. We also got a couple of pounds of homemade jerky. What a feast.

We drove for miles until Harvey saw a spot with a roadside park. The bluebonnets in the field close by were perfect. The air was scented with their fine bouquet. We spread our blanket on top of the table and lay down together. There we spent the day enjoying the flowers and our royal fare of salami and hard cheese with homemade bread.

Harvey died in July of that year. With the exception of the incident at the church, I never cried. It’s been thirteen years. And today, with the writing of this piece, I am unable to control my tears. I still love you, Harvey.

How One Wrong Number Changed My Life

by Adna Jahic

I remember his sky-blue eyes and his curly brown hair on a warm summer´s day. It was the day I had to leave town because my dad got a better job in the UK. I gave him our future number and he promised to call.

"Don´t forget me," I said.

"I´ll remember,"he said and gave me a memorable kiss on my lips.

We were twelve.

After two years I was still wondering why he never called. Maybe he did forget you, I thought. But I got my answer ten years later, when I went back to visit my grandmother. There was a place where Andrej and I used to hang out when we were kids. A cliff by the sea. We used to play UNO cards there, talk about what we´re going to do tomorrow or just sit there and enjoy the silence. We often spoke with no words.

Ten years later I was on the same cliff, for the first time alone. I was just sitting there, thinking of my childhood–thinking of Andrej and how he might look now. Then a guy came and sat down, next to me.

"I didn´t know this place is so attractive to others too. Do you mind if I sit here?"

Then he smiled. That moment I realised who this guy was. I would never forget his smile. People change, but their smile is always the same. His beauty mark under his right eye just confirmed it. It is him, I thought. He didn´t know who I was.

"Do you come here a lot?" he asked. " I mean, I never saw you here before, and I´m up here every day. You look so familiar."

"It´s my first time after ten years," I said with a broken voice.

He looked at me with a question on his face for a few seconds.

"What is your name?" he asked with a broken voice too.

I couldn´t hold my tears anymore. Even after so many years I felt that I loved him. And even after ten years he could still understand my silence.

I felt his fingers moving my hair from my face to place it behind my ear. That is where I had my mole. He stood up, so I got up too. Then he hugged me. After a couple of minutes of silence, I found myself in his arms, feeling his chest rising as he breathed in and out. I asked him why he never called. He said that the number I gave him did not exist. I thought that he was lying. He pulled out an old piece of paper. I recognized my handwriting. It was the number I gave him. One number was wrong. So it was all my fault. Today I think that it was meant to be like that.

Six months later we were still truly-madly-deeply in love. We still played UNO cards, went to our cliff every Friday to drink wine. We visited his parents every Monday and Thursday when we got our own apartment. We never fought and I felt like the luckiest woman alive. We just loved spending every single minute together.

Sounds perfect, ha? So, how did he become my past love? In the worst way. One afternoon he went to buy some wine for dinner. He never came back. An hour after he left, his mother called me to tell this terrible news: "He was driving too fast and lost the control over his car. They say he died immediately." It was the day a part of me died with him.

His mother gave me all the things he had with him that day. There was also an engagement ring with our names on it. It was the toughest year of my life.

Today, I think of him with love and pain. With laughter and tears. These events taught me some things. The most important thing: you never know what tomorrow will bring or take away from you.

We enjoyed every day like it was our last..To love someone that much...again...I think I will wait for a long time for this to happen. Maybe I have a lot of days still in front of me. Without him, yes, but with the most beautiful and painful memory of him.

A Gift of Love

by Gael McCool

The first time I saw Patrick I was riding the number 20 bus from downtown to Commercial Drive. There was something in his aura that set him apart from the other passengers. Not that I could actually see his aura, but if I could have, I imagine it would have danced with the blue white flames of a welding torch. I couldn’t help but stare at his astonishing face.

His features were chiseled, his skin warm and lustrous, and his eyes were a penetrating icy blue. A deep scar carved a path from the corner of his left eye down to his jawbone. I was completely overwhelmed by his beauty.

When he got off the bus, I followed him into a neighborhood café and watched him stride toward a table at the back where he joined a group of friends. I was completely mesmerized and could not look away. One of our neighborhood know-it-alls approached me, and I asked him about the man with the amazing face. Moments later I was introduced to Patrick.

I flushed and blurted an apology for staring at him. Patrick looked at me in a kind way and said it was all right. But the next words that escaped my lips were as surprising to me as they were to him. I literally sputtered, "It’s just that I’ve never seen anything so beautiful…may I touch your face?"

His eyes widened in confusion, but then he smiled. I took this as silent assent and ran my fingertips gently from the edge of his eye down the length of his scar. I felt an inexplicable chemistry between us that was neither romantic nor sexual. Words seemed irrelevant.

There was something ineffable and magical about Patrick. I was humbled by his equanimity. I learned a bit of his history; how he had earned his scar as a junkie inmate, and how he ultimately repaid his karmic debt by counseling drug addicts in prison. He was the most compassionate person I have ever known. He was a hero to many people, but this wasn’t what fascinated me. Patrick had what I can only describe as an illumined presence, and although I only knew him for a short time, that presence altered the course of my life.

A few months after we met I unexpectedly ran into him downtown. It was 11:45 on a Wednesday morning when he came bounding across the street toward me. He seemed even more oddly beautiful than usual; he was pale and luminous, highly charged, and almost breathless. Although our chance meeting surprised me, Patrick acted as though he had been waiting for me to arrive.

He said, "Thank God you’re here," and swept me up in an unusually intimate embrace. Then, standing back for a moment, held me at arm’s length and looked deeply into my eyes. His gaze penetrated my soul and I felt truly loved. Without another word, he dashed across the plaza and disappeared.

The following day I learned that Patrick had died in his apartment shortly after our brief encounter. The official cause of death was heart failure. No one who truly knew Patrick would ever put those two words together in reference to him–that heart never failed him or anyone else.

It took me a while to fully appreciate the gift Patrick had given me in his final greeting, but today it is clear. With wordless equanimity Patrick saw into me. He acknowledged and accepted my depression, he tipped his hat to my death wish and then with perfect presence showed me what it truly meant to be ready for death. With grace, ease and beauty, Patrick simply exited his life because he was complete with it. He had loved his life and he left it with an act of love.

His departure left me with my own unexamined life in my hands, and I knew then that it would be a waste to leave this world without achieving such luminosity myself.

For the priceless gift of love and life he awakened in me, I will always be grateful. Bless you Patrick, wherever you are.

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