The first time I dream of Aidan, I’m standing in my orchard at the back of my property. It’s about 50 degrees and overcast, the wind alternating between a gentle breeze and something a bit more chilly. It’s early spring, and I don’t know why we are under the apple trees, but he’s standing next to me and I’m wearing his shirt. It’s a baby blue oxford button-down, and I’ve got on bra, panties, and that shirt. My dream-self registers that in the real world, I’d never be able to button his shirt over my breasts, because he’s not a very big guy and I’m pretty curvy, but the magic of dreams makes the shirt stretch to fit me, enough so it’s a bit loose. I walk away from him towards my house, but I’m not angry or dismissive. It’s more that he seems to “belong” in the orchard, so he doesn’t follow me across the yard.
Now, I’m starting to wonder if I’ve got a touch of clairvoyance, because we are at a real orchard, sitting at the left end of a bunch of long tables stacked end to end between two rows of apple trees, the fruit just beginning to form. Years ago, before I met him, he was part of a CSA up in Massachusettes. I’d been in one too, once, back when I was married, here in Delaware. Aidan and I talked about it once, after we’d met, but I told him that after my divorce I’d not felt inclined to join up again. The double-sized portion of food was just too much for one. Plus, it reminded me of the before-time. No thanks.
But last year, Aidan encouraged me to join up for the 7-week fall/winter run. I remember when I started to follow the local farm on social media that I’d seen all these pictures of their yearly benefit for their members and I’d thought about how nice it would be to attend, to try out all those recipes cooked up by local restaurants. The whole farm-to-table setup. Locovores, all of us. I also remember thinking that I’d never actually go to the dinner unless I had a date.
Aidan took care of his father for the last couple years of his life. He suffered from neurological problems that led to all sorts of complications. It wasn’t easy, on either of them, but they only had each other. After his father passed, Aiden went into a depression and eventually had to leave the state. Too many memories. Too much pain. So he left his job as a technical writer and he took the money from his inheritance and moved here, where real estate taxes are almost non-existent, and he bought a log cabin on 3 acres in a wooded area. He planned to write his father’s memoirs.
Depression had other plans for him, though. Despite the idyllic world of his home and land, despite the quiet, and despite leaving the home he’d grown up in, he hadn’t been able to escape the gnawing feeling of sadness.
That was when I met him. When he was sad. I was walking on a nature trail near my house when I twisted my ankle. I limped over to the nearest bench, and he happened to be sitting on the other side of it. I saw that he had been red-eyed, staring off into the distance, but when I collapsed onto the bench, grabbing my foot, he turned and said, “Oh God, can I help?” And from there, we struck up a friendship. He helped me to my car, and later, I helped him get over his dad’s passing.
One of the ways I found to bring him out of his occasional reveries (which I recognized all too well from my own years in depression) was to cook for him. He had loved to cook before—he had loads of recipes—but he just couldn’t bring himself to. He encouraged me to, though, and after I was impressed with the short CSA program in fall, I re-joined again, single this time, for the spring/summer run. I worried about him. I knew what it was like when you couldn’t make yourself eat. So one day I just showed up at his house with a basket of goodies. I joked with him that I was middle-aged Red Riding Hood, bringing him a picnic. He usually wore contact lenses, but I joked with him that if he borrowed my wire-rimmed glasses and wore one of my scarves that he could play the role of grandma, especially since he sat in bed most of the day vaguely staring at a book, the tv, or the wall. He laughed, wryly, but he didn’t disagree. And so I cooked, and the food nourished him. Eventually, he started to come out of it, to rejoin the world. Just like I had.
That was last year. This year, Aidan is coming back into himself. He’s starting to do a little bit of gardening in an area he cleared near the cabin. I think he’s going to need to grow something before he’s able to write those memoirs. He needs more time.
But he’s reading, voraciously. Poetry, fiction, drama, non-fiction, you name it. He is devouring words. They, too, nourish him. We talk about all of it. Sometimes I read the same books as he; sometimes I make recommendations. Sometimes we just listen to each other. All of it counts.
And we cook together, often. All those recipes he had in his dad’s old cookbooks…he’s making his way through all of them and making copious notes and reflections on what he remembers about his father. Where he first ate that dish, who was visiting that Thanksgiving, which wine varietal pairs best with that sauce.
He takes in freelance work from time to time, more to keep his skills fresh than to make money. I think it’s good for him, though. Too much break from the world always has the potential to make you shut down, lose your confidence. I know.
His sense of humor has returned (he tells me) because I didn’t know him in the before-time, but he’s quite a funny guy. Clever funny. My favorite.
He’s doing so much better. But the fact is that I loved him even when he wasn’t. I’ve always loved him. It’s just a fact.
He doesn’t know it, though.
I said before that I didn’t want to go to the annual CSA dinner without a date. So I was going to skip it. Why go alone and be the only one there by myself? I’d feel so singled out and weird. But then I thought you know, you should just ask him. If you tell yourself ahead of time that he’s probably going to say no, in fact, that he will say no, then if he does, you’re good. But if he says yes, it will be a surprise.
So I asked. I texted him. “Hey Aidan. So the CSA has this annual dinner, it’s probably dumb, but it might be cool, and you know we like to cook, and people say online it’s for foodies, and you know how you and I feel about calling ourselves foodies, I mean it’s pretentious as hell, but you know, maybe we sorta kinda are, and—
His text broke in, “It’s cool, I’ll go with you.”
Huh. Didn’t expect that. I know I was rambling. He probably said he’d go to stop my incessant chatter.
“Ok”, I texted back. “Cool.”
Play it casual, Maggie. Just be casual (as my breathing starts to return to normal).
I took a deep breath and started texting again, “I mean you can just meet me if you want, or I can come get you and drive us together, but it doesn’t have to be that way, not if you don’t want—
“When is it?” he texted, cutting me off again. What, is he mad at me? He never interrupts me.
“Oh it’s at…let me see…the invitation is here somewhere…yes! It’s at 6:30pm Saturday.”
“I’ll pick you up at 6pm,” he texted.
“Ummm oh! Ok.” I thought I was going to have a minor heart attack. I really didn’t expect this.
“See you then!” he texted. I put my phone down and walked back to my closet, and I swear I never put on and took off so many dresses in my life to make one simple decision.
We’re here now, at the dinner, and I don’t even think Aidan has noticed what I’m wearing, for all that fuss. I feel so stupid. To be honest, I don’t think he’s ever noticed. It just hasn’t been our dynamic. Well, actually, I notice what he’s wearing, all the time, but I never say anything. The fact is that I’ve never wanted to push anything with him. I’ve always wanted to remain respectful of the loss he has gone through. And I don’t even know much about his history before his dad’s illness.
He never had kids; that much I know. And I think he had a few girlfriends from time to time, some long-term, but he was never married. But as for details? None. I think in his mind, none of that mattered, ultimately, once his dad became sick. And after his father passed and he moved, he kept to himself so much that I don’t think he has yet met anyone in this area to date. Or at least I hope so. I’d be so jealous if he did. But it’s so out of my control. This is a tough lesson I had to learn when I went through my divorce: you can’t make someone love you. You just can’t. You can only offer up what another will accept and leave it at that. So I’ve been cautious around him, and I’ve never let on how I really feel. He’s too important to me as a friend to risk it all.
When he picks me up he’s wearing this blue button-down Oxford shirt. I’ve never seen it before. He wears a lot of light colors, but I’ve never seen this shade. It’s really nice. I mean, not just because of that dream I had way back when, that dream that made no sense, but because it sort of brings out the blue-green ocean color of his eyes. Of course I’ve trained myself never to really look him in the eyes, just because I’d probably get lost and not find my way out. But even with my furtive glances, I see the colors and my stomach does a lurch.
He’s in a great mood. That’s nice. I’m glad he’s been having so many days like this lately. He’s joking around and I can tell he’s really excited for this dinner. We get there early enough so that I can choose end seats. I hate sitting in between strangers. He’s very accommodating with this idiosyncrasy of mine. Frankly he’s accommodating with just about everything about me. It’s why I love him.
We listen as the farm owner and host of the event speaks and introduces the chefs who conceived of the dishes, and the dinner begins. The food is utterly fantastic. Several courses, all made with ingredients from the area. Inventive, tasty, even decadent. The wine pairings are also really inspired. Afterwards, people are sort of chilling out, ordering more wine at the cash bar, and just sitting around at the tables, talking.
It’s a gorgeous night, the air sort of fluctuating between a gentle breeze and something a little more chilly, and the sun is setting over one end of the vast orchard. The trees look like they go on for miles, the hills rolling like an endless sea at low tide. There is a glow all around as the sunlight and the candles strategically placed between the rows of trees reflect off one another.
Aidan says, “let’s take a walk.”
“Sure,” I say.
We walk away from the crowd, the tinkling glasses, the laughter and low rumble of voices, and we find ourselves between two rows of apple trees.
I shiver when the breeze kicks up, and I take refuge next to one of the apple trees. The trunk is grounding and firm, surprising for such a small tree. The leaves hang all around me. The small globes of new fruit are sweetly fragrant.
He sees me shiver and says, “If I were wearing a coat, I’d offer it to you, but alas, I am not.”
I laugh and say, “You’ve always been so chivalrous. I appreciate the thought, though.”
I train my eyes to look away again. The nearness of him is so intoxicating. It always has been. I swear my addiction worsens by the day. But how can you be addicted to a drug you’ve never taken?
I shake my head lightly to brush away the distracting thoughts. I need to be here, now, with him, as my friend, because this is how he wants it to be, and besides, I should be grateful. I’ve never had a friend like him in my whole life. That’s a cause for celebration, not discontent.
He sees me shake my head and says, “I’m sorry you’re so cold. How about I…”
And his voice trails off.
He reaches out his left arm and gestures with his head wordlessly as if to say “come here.”
He pulls me to his chest with his left arm. It’s a friend hug, though, I say. He’s only using one arm.
He steadies himself with his right hand on the tree trunk. I see his right hand shake, ever so slightly.
I lean my head against the crook of his left shoulder. Sure, we’ve hugged before—with both arms. But those hugs were in different times for different reasons. “I’m sorry you are going through this” was usually the reason, but also, “Hey! I haven’t seen you in awhile, how have you been?” There’s never been a half-hug in an orchard before, with no discernible reason other than that I shivered. I don’t know how to play this scene. I don’t want to make a mistake.
So I rest my head against his shoulder and I can’t help myself. Like the first time I nearly fell onto that bench in the park, when this very faint scent of, well, him, wafted near me as he bent to take my foot in his hands and examine my sprained ankle, I take a deep breath, and I just about faint with desire. Not really a sexual desire, but a romantic one. Oh it hurts. It truly is almost painful. But it is delicious. And silly me, I actually stumble on the grass.
He catches me with the other hand and then wraps that arm around me too and hugs me fully to him. He’s always been the best hugger I know. His hugs are so strong and protective, especially for a guy who isn’t towering over me. How an average-sized guy can give what feels like a fierce, warm bear hug is beyond me.
I giggle and say, “Ever since that day when I fell at the park, this stupid ankle, it’s so weak.”
I swear I feel his nose near my neck, but it has to be my imagination. No, wait. He’s kind of burying his face in my hair, and the back of my neck tickles, and I get goosebumps all over my shoulders. He says, “is that the only reason you stumbled?”
I don’t know what to say. I’m going to screw this up. I know it. There is so much I want to say, but what if he doesn’t want to hear it?
But I remember, then, that one of my guy friends once said, “You ever want to see how a guy really feels about you? If he hugs you, hold that hug, just hold it a few seconds longer than you normally would. See what happens.”
So I don’t say anything and just hold the hug, sort of intensifying my grip on his shoulders. I wrap my arms around him as if I’ll never let him go.
Eventually I can feel him start to release me, though, and I think Maggie, dammit, you did it again. You gave into false hope. Just be happy you and Aidan are such good friends and stop setting yourself up for these downfalls.
And he starts to lean back, letting go his tight hold of me. I sigh quietly and lean my spine back against the tree where it had been before. I look away to my right, away from his piercing eyes.
But when I do, I feel the slightest touch. It’s his fingertips on my chin. He turns my face back to look at him. I say, “What?”
He says, “look at me.”
“Because you always look away.”
“I know. That’s on purpose.”
“Why?” he repeats.
He’s going to make me say it. I mean, he isn’t going to make me, but this situation is just untenable anymore. It is so hard not to say what I feel. A girl friend of mine once said that my tendency to look before I leap has become so ingrained that I have lost the ability to leap. So just to prove her wrong, I leap. Vaguely.
“You must know why. Don’t make me say it.”
Ok that was, well, not very much of a leap, but it was something.
I’m trying to look anywhere but his eyes, his nose, his mouth, his chin. He’s too beautiful. I can’t even say handsome anymore because that word is somehow not strong enough, that’s how far I’ve fallen. He’s just a thing of beauty: body, mind, and soul. My gaze settles on his hair lightly blowing in the breeze of the gathering dusk. He holds my chin firmly. He insists with his eyes, with his body, “look at me.”
So I give up, I give in, again, and I look at him, and this time I don’t break his gaze. His eyes are searching mine. He lets go of me with his other arm and I ready myself for the way it will feel when I don’t feel him anymore.
But instead, he takes both his hands and he reaches for my face, and he takes all his fingers and pushes my hair back behind my ears, and he lightly takes hold of both sides of my face, pulls me towards him, and he brings his lips onto mine.
There are times in life when our senses can become heightened, one, or even two, at a time, but never in life have I felt the full measure of all my senses engaged at once. There is nothing like our kiss. Nothing in my entire life. Nothing in the entire world. I never expected it to be like this, because I never truly expected it.
I think I could have died right there on the spot and considered myself one of the luckiest women in the world to know that feeling, but of course, I didn’t, and he didn’t, and eventually, we stopped kissing, and we held each other, leaning against the apple tree, and the sun crossed the horizon, and in the growing darkness, with the wind swirling around us, the air grew colder, only I couldn’t feel it.
I think I understand the dream now. I had to leave Aidan in the orchard of my dream until he was ready. He had to face his loss. He had to learn how to allow someone new to love and care for him as unconditionally as he had done for his father. He had to move to a new place, a new life, and put down roots. And I had to give him the gift of that time. His blue shirt had finally stretched to fit around me. Enveloped in its embrace, we walked away from this more-than-real orchard, hand in hand.