An Exchange Of Gifts
By Rob Mohr
Love making for Jennifer had been suspended for fifteen years, in favor of an uncontaminated body nourished and preserved from any harm that might come if she were to give in to her impulses. Now, a man would see the signs of age in her body, something she couldn’t bear, or even imagine – it had been so long. Besides, she thought, I am safe in my comfortable home. Yet something essential had been lost.
Jennifer was to her husband Blake, an obscure, shifting presence impossible to define, an affirmation of absence, of collective guilt - a woman who filled long days lounging in her living room, with its high vaults, rich wood paneling, and long garden view. Blake seldom dared breach her domain surrounded by walls of bookshelves filled with each escape she had savored, each dream she had cherished, each hero she had loved.
Jennifer had become a shadow, a memory of the young woman who once ran laughing across the snow-covered lawn of their home. Today, Blake could pass her in the street and not know her, not see the handsome, refined woman she had become. She would forever be a stranger to him, a mist he could not bring into focus, an echo of sound made decades ago.
In contrast, Blake was driven, tinkered endlessly with his newest iPad. Jennifer was an unseen presence, fixed—at least in his mind, curled up with a book. On occasion he would register the sound of her voice as a faint reverberation from some distant world. When they ventured to talk, she spoke in a ritual way, articulating the needs offered without expectation of response, a dance between old, yet distant enemies. His infrequent replies were equally abstract, designed to maintain her presence, if not in an alliance, at least as a fixture he could call wife. They spoke a language consisting of hard words without overtones of compassion or love.
Alone at a table for two, Jennifer savored her coffee. Unnoticed, unseen by anyone who might have cared. Nearby, Malcolm, a tall, slender man watched her every move, absorbed her freshness, her innocent openness, her patience as she waited.
A woman from a past age, he thought, an apparition.’
Unable to resist, Malcolm stuffed his papers into his satchel, and strode over to her table. “You seem content alone.” Malcolm watched a quick smile spread across her face, her tongue brush her lips.
“Yes,” she responded. Surprised by his presence she put her hand on her neck.
“I watched the morning light moving across your face.” Malcolm said. He resisted telling her how beautiful she was.
Her smile widened. “How can you say such a thing? You don’t know me at all.”
The waiter placed a plate of fruit on the table and refilled her coffee, as Malcolm pulled back the chair across from her. “May I join you for a moment?”
He has a lot of nerve! “Yes, if you like.”
Malcolm glanced at the waiter, “Coffee please.” ‘She’s my age. Like me, not yet willing to leave her youth behind.’
She noticed that his face, like hers, revealed only the slightest hint of age, or the suffering that comes from living. Focused on one another, they were young again, glimpsed what was possible.
“I paint.” Her words were whispered – a secret released, a door into her inner self, a place where she dwelt in safety. Her words were an invitation.
“Yes, that’s important.” He sensed her fragility, the significance of the gift she had given him.
Jennifer understood, for a moment, Malcolm had been captured by some interior reality. He understands, she thought.
Malcolm watched as she finished her breakfast. “Would you like to walk along the river?” He thought of the trees, the rushing water, of being alone with her.
Jennifer considered his invitation, the hours she sat alone reading, and the emptiness of her relationship with Blake. “Yes. That would be wonderful.”
The day had come alive for her. Searching his face for some sign that might reveal his intent, she glimpsed a sparkle in his eyes.
She is so like Nina, my first love, he thought. The aliveness she radiated awoke in him a sense of wonder, a return.
Malcolm had been a man skating on a small pond, where he alone controlled his movements, when, the ice beneath him gave way and pulled him down into the dark cold waters of desperation. Only his close friends, who brought him back to the warm fires of community, saved him from the shock of his wife’s departure in the night – her tracks deep in the snow, marked by the weight of a suitcase.
The pain of loss overwhelmed him, burned unable to consume itself, or cool his sense of failure. His suffering ate at the core of his being, eroded every understanding that had shaped his life. Every act seemed futile. His only hope was to experience new birth rooted in the young man he had been when he had painted without restraint, dreamed without compromise. Yet, fearing the unknown, even as he began to awake, Malcolm had avoided involvement with the women who had sought him out, and who, when turned away, spread rumors of his arrogance. “Impotent,” they had said, words given life within their tribunal.
There in the morning light, seeing Jennifer’s clear face, and guileless blue eyes, listening to the soft lilt of her voice, Malcolm felt revived, the cold water driven from his lungs. Her words warmed his body. He felt her willingness as they aligned themselves in harmony. How does she see me? He wondered, Are the pockmarks of failure evident?
Malcolm is the exact opposite of Blake, she thought, realizing that there was both hope and danger present in shifting her focus. His introspective nature and wisdom excited her. She felt celebrated. He was attentive to her feelings which had been dammed up so long. His presence was synonymous with freedom.
“I’m married,” she said. “He and I live as strangers.” She wanted to tell him everything, and would before the day was over.
“Yes. I thought as much.” Watching her, trying to read every nuance, Malcolm felt warmth spread through his body. So complex a woman, more than flesh, a vibrant spirit. ‘He enjoys what I have to say. Him, that man I live with, never listens, never cares!
Filled, their plans made to meet tomorrow, she wondered if the loveless life she and Blake endured might be shattered. Reluctantly they readied themselves to part. Without hesitation, he pulled her into his arms.
“You are so warm,” she smiled, and hugged him closer.
“There are no words to express what I feel,” he said. She turned her face up to kiss him.
He felt her respond, and hesitated for a moment, before letting her go. She turned and walked away—stopped and looked back—saw he has not moved, and knew he would not move until she was out of sight. His ability to anticipate my need is so welcome. A gift. She sighed.