Some days he wondered if this was all there was. Standing at his front door, he juggled his sleeping daughter while fumbling with the keys in the lock, the burdens of his life feeling heavier than his child.
He walked down the hall, his eyes adjusting to the dim of the waning evening. Shifting her weight, he shrugged his shoulders to alleviate the slow fatigue permeating his weary body. Tonight he was late due to a three-hour delay for a two-hour flight.
He laid her on the bed and gazed at her angelic features, reaching to move the matted brown curls away from her face and rub his finger against her soft cheek. She seemed to be the only significant achievement of his life.
It was hard to believe she was already six years old. He had long ago grown weary of a life spent on the road, feeling her childhood passing while he checked into yet another hotel and tried to remember his room number the next morning. His mother did a wonderful job of watching his daughter while he was out of town, but she was no substitute for a real mother.
This was not the life he had envisioned, and no matter the size of his paycheck or how successful his career, the collapse of his marriage only made him feel like a failure as a single father.
Walking down the hall, he passed various pictures of a happy family carefully hung on the wall. He never even gave them a glance anymore, they were just another fixture one took for granted in a house. Although why he hadn’t thrown them out along with everything else that reminded him of his ex-wife, he didn’t know.
He turned on a lamp in the living room, dropped onto the leather sofa and closed his eyes. If he could just sit quiet for a moment, maybe the chaos of the day would subside.
Abruptly his eyes flicked open again. Something was amiss. Struggling to decipher the almost indefinable memory elicited a powerful response—a painful response. It almost smelled like her lavender shampoo, the fragrance overwhelmingly intoxicating in the early days. At the end he had come to detest the smell of it almost as much as he had come to detest her. And now, alone in his living room, he could feel his contempt for her turning into fear.
The setting summer sun cast dark shadows across the living room carpet. Jonathan remained frozen in the chair, his mind wanting to take him in too many directions at once. He frantically tried to control his racing thoughts as he felt his pulse increasing, heart pounding. The old feelings of shame and loathing washed over him as he tried to find a way to remain calm.
Although their courtship had been brief followed by a quick elopement, he was certain he had chosen someone with a passion to match his own, someone who would remain faithful and love him forever. Even now, five years later, the bitterness still affected him as deeply as the day she left.
A floorboard creaked in the hall. He didn’t stop to think who it could be, for he felt instinctively it was her, here in his house, the house they used to share.
The uninvited guest walked softly into the living room, her appearance shockingly changed from the last time he had seen her. Thick, wavy auburn hair cascaded past her shoulders, accentuating pale skin. Faint shadows underlined large, haunted, almost almond-shaped brown eyes. A simple pair of jeans and a t-shirt clung to her tall, thin body.
She stood motionless. “Hello, Jonathan.”
“What are you doing in my house?”
He gave himself credit for sounding calm while his insides churned. A small tic began in his jaw.
She took a few steps toward him. “I—want to see my little girl. I’ve missed her terribly.”
“I find that hard to believe after what you did.”
A few steps more until she was next to the sofa. “It was an accident. Why didn’t anyone believe me?”
“No one believed you, least of all me.”
He fell silent, gaining control of his emotions, his mind filled with a myriad of questions about where she had been and what had become of her life. But the questions remained unspoken; he wasn’t interested in the emotional involvement the answers might bring.
The refrigerator hummed from the kitchen, startling him with the loud crack of the ice maker. She sat down next to him on the sofa.
“The truth is I also missed you terribly. I know you don’t believe me, Jonathan. I know you must hate me. You’ve probably tried hard to forget me, but I haven’t been able to forget you. I still love you. I always will.”
Her words threw him off balance. This scene had played out a million times in his mind. She would defend what she had done, and he would condemn her with a perfectly, rehearsed speech fine-tuned from years of practice. But the conversation he imagined had never included her profession of love.
Jonathan remained motionless, looking away from her, feeling the battle being waged between love and hate. It shocked him to realize he was consumed with rage. He thought it had been purged during those cathartic rehearsals of dialogue. But even more shocking was the love he still felt for her, despite the horrific act that had destroyed their marriage.
She leaned forward invading his private space, near enough to touch him if she chose to. Confused, Jonathan tried to sort out his thoughts and concluded she had to be lying; she didn’t really love him. He was afraid to meet her eyes and even more afraid to believe what she was saying.
She made a small sound compelling him to turn his head involuntarily. Looking into her eyes he read pain and sorrow as a tear slid unchecked down her cheek.
He felt his resolve chipping away. Loneliness was an ugly word devoid of compassion, and he had lived alone for five years, hungry for female companionship. His hunger for her was ravenous, and he detested himself for the betrayal this realization cost him.
They met on a plane.
Jonathan shrugged out of his leather jacket and handed it to the attractive flight attendant. When he had settled into his first class seat, she took his drink order before they departed. As she handed him the drink, he noticed her long, tapered fingers, the left hand bare. Jonathan was so taken by her, he almost wished he could ask her out. Flight attendants must meet plenty of attractive men. Who knew how many tried to hit on them?
Jonathan Harris spent much of his life on airplanes, a man comfortable with the routine of airport security, flight delays and turbulence. Years of travel had taught him which airport lounges served actual food – usually foreign ones – as opposed to merely a small, cheap assortment of snacks and drinks, how to compact a week’s worth of business clothes and toiletries into a bag that would fit into the overhead bin, and the efficiency of conducting much of his life on his smartphone.
The next time Jonathan got on an airplane he was surprised when he recognized the same attractive flight attendant. What were the odds? As often as he flew he couldn’t remember running into the same flight attendant twice.
As she handed him his drink she said, “You look familiar. Do I know you?”
He smiled. “Yes, I was on a flight with you last week.”
“That must be it. Where is home for you?” she asked.
“Seattle.” Curious to know, Jonathan asked, “How about you?”
She brushed aside a loose strand of hair. A small gesture, but one which fascinated Jonathan. Something about this woman captivated him.
“Nowhere?” he said. “Everybody lives somewhere.”
“Well, right now I’m in San Francisco where the airline has a hub. But I just go wherever the wind blows—or the plane flies, so to speak.”
Her long hair was the color of deep, rich mahogany hanging in soft waves past her shoulders, the standard-issue airline dress elegant on her tall, slim frame. He glanced down appreciatively at her legs and then back at her eyes.
She placed one hand on the back of his seat, lowered her head toward him and gave him a look that made him feel like he had been caught red-handed. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were admiring my legs,” she whispered, the tone of her voice containing a hint of mischief.
Jonathan fumbled for some sort of recovery and felt himself blushing furiously.
She straitened and removed her hand. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I can be really direct sometimes. I’ll take your glance as a compliment.” Giving him a smile, she left to attend to the other passengers.
Jonathan couldn’t believe he had been caught staring at her legs. During the next few hours he tried to concentrate on his work spread out before him, but he didn’t process much. Despite his resolve, each time she walked past he couldn’t help glancing up and admiring those wonderful legs.
At the end of the flight she came to collect his glass for the last time. “I’m really sorry for what I said earlier,” she said apologetically. “I should never have made that comment, and I’m sorry if I embarrassed you. My name’s Autumn by the way.”
The name perfectly suited this bewitching woman. Jonathan wanted to keep her talking as long as possible even though they were beginning their descent into Los Angeles.
“It’s a pretty name. I’m Jonathan by the way.”
At least they had been able to exchange names. Maybe there was a chance they would run into each other again. He gathered up his papers and put them in his briefcase, feeling a twinge of regret he would probably never see her again.
After catching the shuttle to the hotel Jonathan couldn’t stop thinking of the flight attendant. He checked into his room, then headed down to the restaurant for dinner.
As he waited for the elevator he began to go through a mental list of the pile of work waiting for him back at the office. When the doors opened, he was so wrapped up in his thoughts he didn’t notice her standing there at first. Looking up, he felt his heart skip a beat. Impossible as it seemed, she was here. He almost couldn’t believe his eyes; he thought he’d never see her again.
Autumn looked as surprised as Jonathan. “Wow, talk about fate,” she said with a smile.
“Talk about Karma, or Kismet, or whatever else you call it,” said Jonathan, realizing how cheezy that sounded.
They rode in silence, giving Jonathan a chance to decide what to do next. Up until today he was comfortable with his life. The familiar routine of bachelorhood suited him, and he had more or less given up trying to fit into the happily married man niche. But meeting Autumn had changed everything.
Filled with determination not to let this opportunity pass him by, he invited Autumn to join him for dinner, and he couldn’t believe his luck when she said yes. At best, an evening spent with this woman would be intriguing. At worst, he wouldn’t have to eat alone. As he watched the smile transform her face, he sensed it would be the former.
At dinner Jonathan began by asking her last name.
“My last name is Fontenot,” she said. “It’s pronounced Fon-te-no, but it’s spelled F-o-n-t-e-n-o-t.”
When Autumn asked him what he did for a living, Jonathan downplayed his career at Suitter Biotech. He said he was a pharmaceutical rep, giving the impression he spent his time in doctors’ offices as a mere salesman. Having been burned in the past, he shied away from revealing his true position at the company. Once women discovered how successful he was, their laughter seemed suddenly contrived and superficial, their conversation too animated, as if they were contestants vying for a cheap prize.
“What are you doing in Los Angeles,” she asked.
He explained Los Angeles was part of his territory that encompassed Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah.
“Not Idaho?” she said.
“No, that’s not in my territory.”
“I lived in Idaho once,” she said.
“You did?” he asked. “Where?”
“Boise.” A shadow passed over her face as she creased her brows together momentarily before replying. “It wasn’t one of my happiest times.”
“Why not?” he asked, wondering what had happened in Boise to cause such a reaction. A strange protective feeling came over him. Silly, because they had just met.
Autumn hesitated. “It’s not something I’m comfortable talking about.” She changed the subject. “How often do you travel?”
“Oh, one or two weeks a month. It’s exhausting, especially when I leave the country and have to deal with jet lag.”
“I can certainly relate,” she said.
Jonathan sighed. “Traveling makes me feel—I don’t know, old, I guess.”
“Old? I’ve never heard it described that way before. But you’re not actually. Old, I mean.”
“No, I’m only thirty-five.”
She stopped talking when the waiter arrived with their meals. During the break in their conversation, Jonathan realized how much he was enjoying talking to Autumn. It was effortless compared to some of the dates he’d had in the past. Memories of labored dialogue accompanied by moments of silence, with Jonathan wondering how soon he could get home to the game on TV.
After the waiter left Jonathan learned she was twenty-eight and was an only child. He asked about her parents.
Autumn considered herself an orphan. She never met the man who took off when her mother was pregnant. A feeling of shame always accompanied her knowledge of being conceived during a one-night stand in the back of a Volkswagen bus. Her mother had never told her father she was pregnant before he left. Autumn at least knew his name because it was on her birth certificate. In her teens she felt a yearning to find him, always hoping he would be overjoyed at discovering he had a long-lost daughter. She searched relentlessly following one dead end after another until, heartbroken, she found he had died of a drug overdose when she was thirteen.
“It must have been awful finding that out,” Jonathan said.
“It was,” she said, her expression raw. “Some kids come from dads who are doctors and lawyers. I came from a drug addict. And the worst part was that I had bragged to all my girlfriends that I was going to find my father and live with him. I had built this fantasy up in my mind; it just got bigger and bigger. Pretty soon I imagined he was a millionaire who had spent his life searching for his little girl. Of course, there were some flaws in my gigantic fantasy. For starters, he didn’t know he was a father because my mom hadn’t told him.”
Jonathan felt himself pulled into her story, absorbed in what was an obviously painful part of her past.
“What happened with your girlfriends when you found out he was no longer living?” he asked.
“I lied. I told them I had found him, but he was an international businessman and traveled to Paris and London all the time, even Tokyo. I told them he said it wouldn’t make sense for me to live with him because he was never home, but he was going to have me join him on some of his trips. They knew I was lying. They treated me differently after that and I was soon excluded from their little group. They called me ‘the millionaire’s daughter’ behind my back. It was really cruel. I just wanted to fit in. Even my friends from divorced families had a dad.”
She looked at him as if to determine what he was thinking. Undeterred, Jonathan continued, wanting to know everything about her. “And what about your mom?”
She paused. “My mother is not presently in my life.”
Autumn said it with such finality, Jonathan felt uncomfortable pressing her for more.
He took a bite of steak. Her mother was not presently in her life. That could mean any number of things. Jonathan ran through a couple of scenarios in his mind. Perhaps her mother didn’t want Autumn in her life. Maybe they’d had an awful fight and hadn’t spoken in years; neither one of them wanted to make the first move to patch things up. Or, it could also be something very traumatic. They ate in silence for a moment.
Finally he said, “You know, I lost my dad when I was seven. It was hard for me, too. The kids at school teased and bullied me. Not because I had lost my dad, but because I was a—well, for lack of a better word, a misfit. For years after he died I wanted to go home from school and tell my dad about the bullying. I envisioned one of those be-a-man-and-fight-back-type of pep talks. My mother was a wonderful mother, but I keenly felt the loss of the male-to-male relationship. I can relate to not having a father.”
She seemed surprised to hear he was bullied as a boy, saying he didn’t seem like the type. He smiled and said that was because he was tall. People can’t envision a tall guy being bullied as a child. Jonathan remembered back to his childhood, his awkward frame thin and gangly, all arms and legs until he finally grew into his body. Whenever he thought about his childhood, he saw himself as a nerdy kid.
“I got teased for being tall,” she said. “I hated it. I used to slouch to make myself appear shorter. You can imagine what it felt like to be five feet eight in the ninth grade.”
“I was still short in the ninth grade,” he said. “I didn’t get my height until I was in high school.”
Tonight’s spur of the moment dinner date had all the makings for one terrific evening. Not only was Autumn a good listener, she was a great conversationalist, and he felt her interest in him seemed genuine.
“Tell me more about yourself,” she said.
He looked in her eyes and was drawn in completely. He could talk to her forever.
“Well, let’s see.” He paused as he thought. “Good grades came naturally to me. Sometimes I wanted to do lousy on a test just to seem more normal.”
“Good grades came naturally to you?” she said, surprised. “I had to study like crazy. And then everything I tried to memorize just seemed to float right back out of my head.”
“I never had to study.” He wasn’t sure about that last comment. How much did he want to share on a first date? Although their conversation had already progressed past the point of first date. He didn’t remember ever sharing this type of intimacy with someone after a few bites.
Autumn’s eyes widened. “You never had to study? Why not?”
“Because . . .”
“Because?” she prodded.
“Because—I have a photographic memory.” He surprised himself by this revelation, something he was uncomfortable sharing with anyone outside his family.
She put down her fork. “You’re kidding.”
“I hope you don’t think I’m just dropping it into the conversation now,” he said. “Very few people know this about me. I’m surprised I’m sharing it with you.”
“No, I don’t think that. And I’m flattered you’re sharing it with me.”
“Like I said, I was bullied as a kid. A photographic memory is not exactly admired when you’re the one who throws the curve off on a test.”
“I can see your point.”
She smiled and studied him for a moment. “You’re so easy to talk to,” she said.
Jonathan had lost track of everything going on around him, the restaurant taking on an eerie quality of silence as if they were the only people in the room. He glanced around at the crowded tables, hearing the sounds of silverware clinking against plates, a waiter at the next table describing tonight’s specials, laughter, floating bits of conversation coming into focus. The feeling of their complete intimacy was startling, and he felt more than a mere attraction to Autumn.
Their easy conversation continued as he shared his lonely childhood after his father died and how his mother had struggled financially. They had lived in a very nice area of Bellevue and were able to stay in their house because his dad had taken out mortgage insurance. But everything else was a struggle. He described how all the kids at school wore designer clothes while his were from thrift stores with patches on the knees. No matter how he tried, he just didn’t fit in.
Autumn’s empathy felt sincere as she talked about the alienation of her girlfriends and the nights she cried herself to sleep. Bits of childhood memory came back as he remembered his own lonely nights with hot tears soaked against his pillow.
She shared her embarrassment at the clothes she was forced to wear to school, her mother choosing to spend her money on drink instead of her daughter. Jonathan’s absorption was so complete, he almost sighed in relief when Autumn got to the part of finally being old enough to get a job so she could buy herself some new things from a real store.
Picking up her glass, she put it back down without drinking, looking at him intently instead, the restaurant noise seeming to fade away into silence.
She said quietly, almost in a whisper, “There’s a connection between us I can’t ignore. I know you must feel it too.”
“I feel it,” he whispered, reaching over to take her hand. She opened her fingers and interlaced them with his. Tiny shivers ran up Jonathan’s arms.
“Autumn . . .” he hesitated. “I would really like to see you again. Do you ever come to Seattle?”
Her eyes lit up. “All the time.”
“I already can’t wait to see you again,” he said.