I’d only heard it twice, but the sound had worn grooves into my brain. I would never forget it.
“I was hoping we could talk,” Sonya said. “No, more than hoping. I need to talk to you. Please. Five minutes. There’s a lot you don’t know. Things that will help, I think. I wrote it all down this time.”
“I DON’T WANT TO hear it,” I told her.
“I know,” Sonya said. “But I’ll have failed your father if I don’t make sure you do.”
I laughed harshly. “See, that’s the thing. You shouldn’t have had my father to fail.”
“Shouldn’t have? If you started at the beginning of your father’s life and predicted the whole thing, and how it should have played out, based only on where it started, he might never have found your mother. You might not exist.”
My insides thrummed with anger. “Could you get off my porch, please?”
“You don’t understand.” She pulled out a piece of paper from her jeans pocket and unfolded it. “Please. Five minutes.”
I started to unlock the door, but she began reading behind me. “I met Walt Andrews when I was fifteen, in my language arts class. He was my first date, my first kiss, my first boyfriend. The first man—or boy—I said ‘I love you’ to.”
The key stuck in the lock. I’d stopped moving, stunned. I turned toward her, my breath caught in my chest. Sonya’s eyes flicked to me anxiously, then back to the page.
“We broke up several months after he went to college. I didn’t hear from him for twenty years, and then one day, I ran into him here. He’d been on a business trip an hour east and had decided to extend his stay in North Bear Shores a couple days. We decided to get dinner. We’d been talking for hours before he admitted that he was newly separated.
“When we parted ways, we both believed we’d never see each other again.” She looked up at me. “I mean that. But on his way out of town, your father’s car broke down.” She studied the note again. There were tears in her eyes. “We were both broken at the time. Some days what we had was the only good thing in my life.
“We started visiting each other every weekend. He even took a week off and came up to look for a house. Things were moving quickly. Effortlessly! I’m not saying any of this to hurt you. But I genuinely believed we had our second chance. I thought we were going to get married.” She stopped talking for just a beat and shook her head. She hurried on before I could stop her.
“He put in to transfer to the Grand Rapids office. He bought the house. This house. It was in terrible shape back then, just falling to pieces, but I was still the happiest I’d been in years. He’d talk about bringing you up, about moving the boat up here and spending all summer on it, the three of us. I thought, I’m going to live there until I die, with a man who loves me.”
“He was married,” I whispered. My throat felt like it was going to collapse. “He was still married.”
Gus is married, I thought.
The emotion was ballooning through me. I wanted to hate her. I did hate her, and I also felt her pain mixing with mine. I felt all of the excitement of a new love, a healing one, a second chance with someone you’d almost forgotten about. And the pain when their real life came to call, the agony of knowing there was history with someone else, a relationship yours couldn’t touch.
Sonya’s eyes scrunched tight. “That didn’t feel real to me until your mother’s diagnosis.”
The d-word still sent a shock wave through me. I tried to hide it. Went back to messing with the key, though now my eyes were so thick with tears I couldn’t see.
Sonya kept reading, faster now. “We stayed in touch for a few months. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen. He just knew he needed to be there for her, and there was nothing I could do about that. But the calls came less and less, and then not at all. And then one day, he sent an email, just to let me know that she was doing much better. That they were doing better.”
I’d stopped with the door again, without meaning to. I was facing her, mosquitoes and moths whizzing around me. “But that was years ago.”
She nodded. “And when the cancer came back, he called me. He was devastated, January. It wasn’t about me, and I knew that. It was about her. He was so scared, and the next time he was passing through for work, I agreed to see him again. He was looking for comfort, and I—I’d started something with a friend of Maggie’s, a good man, a widower. It wasn’t serious yet, but I knew it could be. And perhaps that frightened me a bit, or perhaps a part of me would always love your father, or maybe we were just selfish and weak. I don’t know. And I won’t pretend to.
“But I will say this: that second time around, I had no illusions about where things were going. If your father had lost your mother, he wouldn’t have been able to stand the sight of me, and I wouldn’t have been able to believe he truly loved me anyway. I was a distraction, and I might even have believed I owed him that much.
“And when he started fixing up the house, I knew, without him ever telling me, it wasn’t for us. And it happened again, as your mom got her health back. The visits came further and further apart. The calls slowed and stopped. And that time, I didn’t even get an email. I can stand here and tell you that we had good enough intentions. There are no easy answers here. I know I shouldn’t be allowed to be heartbroken right now, but I am.
“I’m heartbroken and angry with myself for getting into this situation and humiliated to be standing here with you …”
“Then why are you?” I demanded. I shook my head, another furious wave crashing over me. “If it was over, like you say it was, then how did you have that letter?”
“I don’t know!” she cried out, tears welling instantly in her eyes, falling in quick, steady droplets down her face. “Maybe he wanted you to have this place but didn’t think your mom would have the strength to tell you about it, or didn’t think it was right to ask her to. Maybe he thought if he’d sent the key and letter straight to you, there’d be no one to stand here and convince you to forgive him. I don’t know, January!”
Mom wouldn’t have ever told me, I realized immediately. Even once Sonya had, Mom hadn’t been able to talk about it, to confirm or explain. She wanted to remember all the good things. She wanted to cling to those so tight they couldn’t fade, not loosen her grip enough to make room for the parts of him that still hurt to think about.
Sonya huffed a few teary breaths and swiped at her damp eyes. “All I know is when he died, his attorney sent me the letter and the key and a note from Walt asking me to pass along both to you. And I didn’t want to—I’ve moved on. I’m finally with someone I love, I’m finally happy, but he was gone, and I couldn’t say no. Not to him. He wanted you to know the truth, the whole thing, and he wanted you to still love him once you knew. I think he sent me here so I could make sure you forgave him.”
Her voice quavered dangerously. “And maybe I came because I needed someone to know that I’m sorry too. That I will always miss him too. Maybe I wanted someone to understand I’m a complete person, and not just someone else’s mistake.”