|by Robin Alexander
It was as Tim Kerner wanted—a simple gathering of friends. No eulogy, no graveside service, but a time for his closest friends to mingle and whisper their goodbyes over drinks. Samantha Jackson smiled as she remembered his distaste for ceremony and tradition. If he was looking down on them, he would be pleased.
She watched with trepidation as each person entered the dimly lit bar. Her stomach twisted into knots each time someone opened the door and light briefly filled the room. Samantha knew she would come. After twenty-some years, she would see Jennifer Tanner again, and just the thought of it made the bourbon she sipped sour on her tongue.
"How are you doing?" Samantha felt an arm slip around her waist as she looked into David’s red-rimmed eyes.
"I’m okay," she said as she brushed his cheek with her lips. "Are you sure you don’t want me to take you to the airport?"
David shook his head. "No. I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to stay. I need you to fill in for me. You’ll do that, won’t you?"
"Of course." Samantha looked away, unable to watch his misery. She’d done well to keep her emotions under control; David was whittling away what little she had left.
David released a long labored sigh and jutted his chin toward a woman who stood off to herself, discomfort showed plainly on her face. "Tim wanted to have this memorial here instead of Miami in hopes that his family might show. Only his little sister Sue had the decency." David shook his head as his eyes welled with tears. "He wanted me to give you this." David slipped an envelope into the pocket of her jacket. "He wanted you and Jennifer to read it together."
Samantha took a healthy swallow of her drink as David was engulfed in the arms of another grieving friend. For a second, she debated whether or not she could grant that last wish. Seeing Jennifer was enough, but to read something that was going to be painfully personal was almost more than she could stand.
A lifetime had passed since Samantha had seen or spoken to Jennifer, but her first love left an indelible mark that even now she found hard to ignore. It took Samantha a long time to reconcile herself with the traumatic demise of their relationship. As an adult, she felt that she could handle seeing and even having a polite conversation with her old flame. She wasn’t sure if Jennifer would be willing to do the same. Rejection, even the slightest rebuff, might ignite the feeling of loss that she felt so acutely in her youth.
Samantha turned to the bar and ordered another drink. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shaft of light move across the room and knew someone was coming in. Without turning, she knew who it was. She felt the atmosphere change, felt those eyes upon her back. She wouldn’t turn until forced to do so. Minutes felt like hours. Samantha’s legs ached from her rigid stance. Unwilling to move to a barstool, she stood sipping the drink that did little to still her nerves. A hand came into her peripheral view; as it motioned for the bartender, Samantha eyes were drawn to the golden band that glinted in the dim light.
"A whiskey sour please, heavy on the whiskey, light on the sour."
Samantha stared hard at the melting cubes of ice in her glass determined not to let that voice turn loose the memories that she held in the deepest recesses of her mind.
"He’s really gone, isn’t he?" Jennifer’s voice quavered slightly.
Samantha turned then and looked at the face she’d purged from her memory long ago, a face she thought she’d never look upon again. Instead of noticing the lines that had formed around dark eyes, Samantha felt herself drawn to the lips she’d kissed with more passion than she had ever before or since. As if seeing a ghost, she took a step back. "Yes, he is." Samantha inwardly cursed the ball of emotion that welled in her throat rendering her nearly speechless.
Jennifer dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and sniffed. "He didn’t tell me that he was sick until…the end. Why didn’t one of you let me in on the secret?"
"He didn’t want you to see him that way," Samantha said. The words came out in a whisper. "He wanted us both to remember the boy he was in his youth."
"But you saw him, didn’t you?" Jennifer’s accusation was tinged with anger and what Samantha felt was regret.
"Only once, right after he was diagnosed. I went unannounced, but I think he eventually forgave me."
Samantha felt a familiar touch on her shoulder gently massaging away the tension there. She reached up and took David’s hand. "Jennifer, this is Tim’s partner, David Wales."
He gave her hand a squeeze before releasing it and kissed Jennifer’s cheek. "It’s so good to finally meet you. I used to listen for hours as Tim told me about the time he spent with you two."
Jennifer was not as adept at keeping her emotion at bay and sank into his arms. Samantha could hear her soft sobs and words of condolences mumbled into David’s shoulder. He held her for a while as they commiserated in sorrow. With his arm around her shoulders, he turned to Samantha. She knew what he would ask next as she pulled the envelope from her pocket and handed it to him.
"I don’t think I can…" Her words trailed off as David nodded in understanding.
"Tim asked that you read this together," he explained to Jennifer as he opened the letter.
Samantha laid a hand on his arm, forestalling what she was sure would devour the last of her resolve. She held up the empty glass that was quickly refilled. David cleared his throat and began to read as she drank.
To the only women I have ever loved,
I figure that David is reading this now because Sam has passed it off. I always knew you better than you knew yourself. Don’t roll your eyes.
What they say is true. Your life passes before your eyes before you die. Since my demise was slow, I had a lot of time to reminisce. My sweetest memories aside from my time with David were of the three of us and all the trouble we got into. Do you remember Hurricane Creek?
Samantha and Jennifer nodded with sad smiles.
We came out to each other there, and I had never felt freer. You two shared your first kiss on that sandy beach. I was so jealous. Not because I’d dated both of you. We all know that was a cover. But I wanted so badly to have what you had then.
I know years have passed, and just like the waters of that sandy creek, everything has washed away, so I won’t say any more on that topic. But I do have a favor to ask of you both. Take my ashes down there and turn them loose on the water. Let my soul be as free as I was when I was a boy.
Your loving friend,
Samantha wondered if she’d heard correctly. As if David knew her next question, he said, "Tim and I talked about this, and I agree with his request." He patted his chest. "I have him in here. I don’t need an urn of ashes to remind me of him. Will you do this?"
Samantha glanced over at Jennifer, who appeared to be as stunned as she was.
"This meant a lot to him or he wouldn’t have asked," David said.
"We’ll do it," Jennifer said without looking at Samantha.
"Thank you." David kissed them both on the cheek. "I have to go now." He took a shuddering breath and hugged Samantha tight. "I had the urn sent to your hotel room," he whispered in her ear. He lingered there as he held her tight. Samantha felt him take several deep breaths before he let her go. He took Jennifer in his arms for a brief hug and a kiss on her cheek, then turned and walked away.
Samantha walked stiff-legged to a nearby table and sank into a chair. The request shouldn’t have surprised her; Tim had mentioned it before, but he left out the part about Jennifer accompanying her on the task.
"Do you still live here in town?" Jennifer joined her looking just as bewildered.
"No, I’m about an hour away near Manchac." Samantha ran a hand through her hair as she stared down at the table. "How about you?"
"Clinton, about an hour in the other direction, depending on traffic."
They sat quietly for a few minutes before Samantha spoke. "It’s too late in the day to drive down there now. Do you think you’ll have time tomorrow?"
"Yeah," Jennifer said. "I can get a room for tonight. Where are you staying?"
"Here. I have a room upstairs." Samantha shook the ice in her glass. "I knew I’d be drinking a lot."
"I have a couple of calls to make, and I need to see about a room. I’ll be back in a minute." Jennifer excused herself and walked away.
Samantha watched as Jennifer pulled a phone from her purse and left the bar. She figured that she would be calling the owner of the matching gold band she wore on her left ring finger. Tim had prepared her for that. Jennifer’s last name was no longer Tanner. It was now Crawford. She’d married a year after they’d said their last bitter goodbye. Samantha closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, purging the image from her mind.
As she’d promised David, Samantha stayed behind until the last of the guests said their goodbyes. Most were mutual friends of Tim and David’s. They understood David’s need to get back home to Florida where he would begin the unfathomable task of packing up his life with Tim. David had bought a condo near where they’d shared a house together, unable to remain in the place that held so many memories.
As Samantha double-checked to make sure she’d seen all the attendees off, she noticed that Jennifer had not returned. Tired and emotionally drained, she was not going to wait. She’d leave a note at the desk for her. She felt numb as she crossed the hotel lobby. The afternoon sun filtered through the windows, and she thought it sad. It should be raining on a day such as this. She looked forward to locking herself away in her room with the curtains drawn and drowning the memories of this day in a bottle.
"Sam…Samantha?" she heard Jennifer say behind her. She turned almost aggravated that her retreat was being delayed. "What time do you want to go tomorrow?"
"Not early, if you don’t mind," Samantha said wearily.
Jennifer nodded, appearing to understand. "How about noon?"
"Lovely." Samantha failed to keep sarcasm from her tone.
Jennifer handed her a slip of paper. "That’s my room number and my cell. Call me when you’re ready, and I’ll meet you here in the lobby."
Samantha felt she should say something nice like it was good to see her again, but she’d made all the pleasant conversation she could handle for one day. Instead she nodded. "I’ll call you."
The first thing Samantha noticed when she walked into her room was the urn sitting on a table in the corner. She strolled over to the honor bar and fished out the bourbon. In no mood to bother with mixing a drink, she opened the lid and drank directly from the bottle. "To you, Tim," she said as she tipped it in the direction of the urn.
She stripped off her clothes, took a shower, and curled up in bed. She wondered how David was holding up but resisted the urge to call. He was probably still on the plane and more than likely needed his time alone with his thoughts as much as she did. Pulling the covers over her head, she let loose the tears that had waited to fall.