This was supposed to be the happiest day of their lives. So far. I mean, we have a lot of those, right? Birthdays when we’re kids. Wedding Day. A first- born child. This. This was the best day yet. At least. Until it wasn’t.
It didn’t start out that great for my niece Julia. She woke up that morning to an email from her boss telling her he had to let her go. A reorganization was underway, last-hired-first-fired kind of thing, you know. They loved her work but it was just the method they had decided was most fair. It was a Saturday morning and she had been looking forward to the weekend with Romero. Going to the beach. Cooking together. Shopping, maybe. You know, the things young lovers do.
What she didn’t know was that Romero had bought the ring. Was planning on getting down on one knee and asking the question Julia hadn’t been expecting. That morning, though? She was worried. Anxious. You’re young, I told her when she texted me with the news. You will get another job, a better job, you’ll see. It’s not the worst thing that can happen. She’s so talented I never worry about her. Made in the perfect image of my sister Anna.
Aw, Jules. Listen. It’s gonna be ok. Don’t worry about anything, we’ll figure it out together, he had told her, too. Everyone was encouraging her not to worry. Especially Romero. But Julia was an independent minded young woman. My niece, well, she just didn’t want any man, or anyone for that matter, not even me, to bail her out of any tough spot. She always wanted to stand on her own. Be strong. Sort it out for herself and come out the other side better than before. I knew she would and Romero knew she would, she just hadn’t convinced herself yet.
Romero, she had said to him in that moment, and I’m sure it was in a loving voice, not condescending or dismissive because that’s the kind of person she is, I have to figure this out myself. Thank you. I love you but it’s my thing. And I’m sure he nodded and understood this woman was independent and had to do things her own way. Because that’s just the kind of person he…is. I can’t say was. Well, not at this moment anyway, because we just don’t know yet.
You see, Romero drove them to the beach that afternoon. Packed a picnic lunch, in an old-fashioned picnic basket and everything. He was like that. Went shopping in the morning to the local bakery, made the rounds to the wine shop and the cheese shop in his neighborhood. Packed things up real nice with plates and wine glasses and cloth napkins. Made sure to put his grandmother’s picnic quilt in the trunk, the one his family had used since he was a kid. The one thing she had left him when she passed to remember her by.
And he did, every time he spread it out on the ground. He was a sentimental sort. But Romero, he was a planner and an organizer, too, and he knew just how this day was going to go, from A to Z, believe me. Surprise reservations had been made at their favorite restaurant for later that evening. Champagne on ice. He had no reason to doubt his plan.
Julia, he had said, and I know because Julia told me all about it, described it to the last detail, when we were sitting and waiting to get some news. Julia, he said as he did get down on one knee, I want to spend the rest of my days with you, love you and share everything, have a family, be your best friend, grow old together. Will you marry me?
My niece, of course, said yes. Jubilantly. Ecstatically. She loved that man. Really, really loved…loves that man. How could she not. He is funny and smart, respectful. And so handsome in that classic, square-jawed, swarthy kind of way you see in the movies, I mean. Really. He was. Is. Darn it, I can’t help it. I keep slipping on that and I’m trying not to. Trying to keep positive and all. But things can change in an instant. One year I lived in northern New Mexico and I tell you it could be ninety degrees one day and snow the next. I never could figure that out. Anyway. Let me finish the story. Where was I?
Julia told it to me like this:
They were at the beach having a beautiful afternoon. Drinking wine. Sharing the beautiful picnic Romero had packed. Laughing. Kissing. Frolicking at water’s edge. It was just before sunset when he’d proposed and after she said of course, yes, they sat together watching the changing colors, the oranges and yellows against that indigo sky. She told Romero he had made her day. Made their day. A crummy day has turned unforgettable, she told him. She teared up at that moment, she told me, but then giggled and they embraced in the fading light.
They packed things up as darkness was competing with daylight for ownership and you know how they say that twilight is the hardest time to see? Well. People think they can see better than they can because one second it’s one thing and the next, it’s another. They haven’t remembered to turn their car headlights on yet, they’re not noticing the subtle change and…sorry. Give me a minute.
Well. They were standing on the road near the beach pull-off. They were waiting to cross to Romero’s car parked on the other side. And. I think you can see what I’m getting at, can’t you? And I hate to be the one to tell you. But. I’ll just finish telling this story. They waited for cars to go by them in both directions, driving way too fast I’m sure because everyone drives too fast on that road. That winding, seaside road to the beaches. So scenic. And a sunset to gaze at? Why not slow down to take it all in. Yeah, everyone, always, driving way too fast. And Romero still had his sunglasses on for some reason.
I asked him a question, Julia told me. We were standing there and it seemed clear of cars and Romero started out into the road and I asked him that question. That stupid question. I could have waited but I just blurted it out to him and he turned to look back at me over his left shoulder as he kept walking and suddenly there was a pick-up truck coming from the right and…..and. She stopped at that point in the telling of the story to me over the phone and I asked her where she was and told her I was leaving that minute. She always called me first. You see, her parents and most of the family still live back east and we had gotten pretty close when she moved here for college, got a job and stayed.
Julia and Romero. Now there’s a love story. Let me tell you about them, if you have another minute. Allow me to stray from the grayscale side for a second, paint in the other colors of this picture. I think you’ll see what I mean when I say they were a match made in heaven. I know, people like to say that but it’s really true. They met through a mutual friend, Lili, who had the insight to see they were meant for each other and invited them both to a dinner party she was having. Seated them across from each other. They were so much alike, a shared sensibility and world view.
They were engaging and curious, sensitive and kind. They both adored animals and children. Romero was whip smart and super funny. He had. . .has, dammit. . .has a dry wit and is so quick on his feet. So joyful, too. His eyes sparkled that night they met and cast a spell on Julia within seconds.
And my niece? She’s a catch, I used to say before she met Romero because I knew it was a done deal the day she brought him to Thanksgiving at my house that year. He was equally smitten, you could see. Holding her hand all the time, giving her his full attention when she spoke whether it was something intellectual or trivial, it didn’t…doesn’t. Doesn’t matter. They complement each other so well, I mean, you just want to be around them both, how they give off this energy of sweetness. I love being around those two. It gives me hope. Truly.
I remember when Julia told me where they went on their first date. To the carousel in the park. You know the one over there in Greeley Park that is so colorful with those hand-painted antique horses and an array of other animals, too, kind of circus-like? That one over there in the center of the park, you know which one I mean, by the steam trains. They hopped on the carousel that day with all the kids, Julia on the big frog and Romero on the rooster, going up and down and round and round to that fairground organ music playing, laughing with the other kids…well, some of the really little ones kind of were crying, she had told me.
She said Romero looked at a little boy sobbing into his mother’s arms on a giant big-toothed horse, and Romero flashed one of his big, bright smiles and instantly washed away that child’s fears. I laughed when she told me. Romero could stop sadness and grief just by gazing into his warm eyes for a second. Her story didn’t surprise me one bit.
A merry-go-round, though, can you believe it? That was where he took her on their first date. It was so symbolic, really, whether he knew it or not at the time. Maybe he did. I see it that way, anyhow. Prophetic. The two of them, surrounded by animals and kids. Joyful through the ups and downs. Completing a perfect circle over and over again. Like the many years to come, the many orbits around the sun they would share, beginning and ending and beginning yet again. Thousands of days. At least. . .until. Well. We just don’t know yet. But on that first date, for sure, they had thousands of days ahead of them. And we don’t know, maybe they still do.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, now.
I didn’t ask Julia what the question was. The question she asked Romero that distracted him just that much. I figure she will tell me one of these days. When she’s ready. And if she never tells me, well that’s fine too. I’m sure it’s a question that will haunt her the rest of her days. The question she may never get an answer to. But we still don’t know, like I said. Like I keep telling her now. Keep positive. It’s hard, the waiting. The not knowing.
The wanting to hit the rewind button and start the day all over again in a different way. The flapping of a butterfly’s wings…you know that theory? How one little movement in one state of time and space can result in a whole different outcome in another? Change the weather. Throw a pebble into a river stream here and it affects the unfolding of life on the other side of the world. If only we could hit the undo button and begin again. Be prescient, maybe.
A wing and a prayer, that’s all I can offer her now. Sitting here with her holding her hand. I think back on when she was a little girl. Her whole future ahead of her and how I knew it would be bright and shiny as I watched her playing in the yard on one of my visits back east. I used to tell my sister Anna how lucky she was to have made her, to have been given the gift of her beautiful daughter. Anna’s on her way, now. I called her as soon as I got off the phone with Julia. There weren’t many words between us, I mean what is there to say with this kind of event?
I know she felt terrible that it would be hours before she could get here. I’m trying my best. To do my best for both her and Julia. Always.
How many days, though, any of us gets is anybody’s guess. We can’t ever know. Some get thousands, yes, maybe even 32,485 days, like mom did. Eighty-nine years. That’s a lot. I think of that song from the Broadway show, Rent. You know it?
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure,
Measure a year?
In cups of coffee?
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure a year in a life?
Anna and I saw it in New York right before I moved west. When she was just seven weeks pregnant with Julia. Seasons of Love. That’s the name of that song. I’ve always loved that song from that show. Yeah. That’s how we should measure our time here, in seasons of love. Tick tock. Goes the clock. We just never know. We have to love the best way we can. Right now. Like I said, and I’ll say it again. We all think we have thousands of days. So many more seasons ahead of us. You think we can know? We can’t know.
Here. Now. Well, it might be a while before we know anything. That is better than nothing. Better than an immediate ending to a life story. Isn’t it? We sat in silence mostly, Julia and I. Waiting.
I went to get us some coffee and returned to Julia sobbing into her hands. She looked up and whispered something I couldn’t quite hear. Her voice became louder, desperate to be heard through the rainfall of tears.
I reached out to him, yelled to him, No! Romero, stop! A truck!! I reached out to him but I couldn’t. I tried. I was just barely able to touch the tail of his shirt. But he just wasn’t close enough, I couldn’t really get a good grab and he…it slipped right through my fingers. He turned back towards the road just as that, that truck… it was just there in an instant. So hard to see. No headlights on. In the middle of the road. I really tried, he slipped right through my fingers, it all just slipped through my fingers. Julia said to me, crying into my arms.
She really tried. But. There was nothing she could have done. It all happened so fast. He was just that much out of reach. Her scream. Her fingers extending loose into the breeze as his shirt fell away. Those few seconds or centimeters that could have changed everything. But. By then it was too late.
I woke up in a start. My cell phone singing away to be answered. I reached over and grabbed it from my nightstand. It was Julia.
“Hello? Julia. . .”
I braced for impact.
“Hi, Aunt Laurie. I got engaged!”
“Yes. Uh, I know you did. . .”
“What? Did he tell you he was going to do it?” Julia asked.
“Uh. Yes. No, I mean. At the beach, right?”
What’s happening, I wondered.
“Aunt Laurie. It’s pouring rain out today. Listen. Romero made this indoor picnic for us at his apartment, it was so lovely and sweet. First, I get that promotion at work and then this. It’s the best day of my life! So far, that is!”
I walked to my bedroom window and pulled the curtain back. Rain, all right. Comin’ down cats and dogs. For hours, by the looks of it.
“Aunt Laurie? Are you there?”
“I must have fallen asleep. I’m a bit groggy, I guess. So, that’s wonderful, Julia!”
Then she put Romero on the line, he was so excited. It was amazing to hear his voice. I took a deep breath and laughed. Wow was all I could say. All I could think. Somewhere on the other side of the world, a gorgeous butterfly had flapped its wings.
© 2020, Mary Corbin
Thousands of Days is from the “Ephemerata” collection. Featured artwork: “Thousands of Days” – painting by Mary Corbin. No reprints without permission.