«Would that be fair to Lon?»
She didn’t answer. Instead, she stood up, wiped her face and walked to the edge of the porch where she leaned against the post and watched the water before answering quietly: «No.»
«It doesn’t have to be like this, Allie,» he said. «We’re adults now, we have the choice we didn’t have before. We’re meant to be together. We always have been.» He walked to her side and put his hand on her shoulder. «I don’t want to live the rest of my life thinking about you and dreaming of something that never happened. Stay with me, Allie.»
Tears filled her eyes. «I don’t know if I can,» she whispered. «You can, Allie… I can’t live my life happily knowing you’re with someone else. That would kill a part of me. What we have is rare. It’s too beautiful to just throw it away.»
After a moment, he gently turned her towards him, took her hands and stared at her. Allie finally faced him with wet eyes. After a long silence, Noah brushed the tears from her cheeks with his fingers. He saw what her eyes were telling him. «You’re not going to stay, are you?» He smiled weakly. «You want to, but you can’t.»
«Oh, Noah,» she said as the tears began again, «try to understand-»
He shook his head to stop her. «I know what you’re trying to say — I can see it in your eyes. But I don’t want to understand it, Allie. I don’t want it to end this way. I don’t want it to end at all. But if you leave, we both know we’ll never see each other again.»
She leaned into him and began to cry harder as Noah fought back his own tears. He wrapped his arms around her.
«Allie, I can’t force you to stay with me. But no matter what happens in my life, I’ll never forget these last couple of days with you. I’ve been dreaming about this for years.»
He kissed her gently, and they embraced as they had when she first got out of her car two days ago. Finally, Allie let him go and wiped her tears. «I have to get my things, Noah.»
He didn’t go inside with her. Instead, he sat down in the rocker, exhausted. He watched her go into the house and listened as the sound of her movements faded away. She emerged minutes later with everything she’d brought and walked towards him with her head down. She handed him the drawing she had done yesterday morning. «Here, Noah. I made this for you.»
Noah took the drawing and unrolled it slowly.
The image in the foreground was a picture of how he looked now. Noah noticed that she had depicted every detail of his face. It was almost as if she’d copied it from a recent photograph. The second image was the front of the house. The detail there was also incredible, as if she had sketched it while sitting beneath the oak tree.
«It’s beautiful, Allie. Thank you.» He attempted a smile. «I told you that you were an artist.» She nodded with her lips pressed together. It was time for her to go.
They walked to her car slowly, without speaking. When they reached it, Noah embraced her again until he could feel the tears in his own eyes. He kissed her lips and both cheeks, then with his finger softly brushed the places he’d kissed.
«I love you, Allie.»
«I love you, too.»
Noah opened her car door and they kissed one more time. Then she slid behind the wheel, never taking her eyes from him. She put the packet of letters and her handbag next to her on the seat and took the keys, then started the engine. It was almost time.
Noah pushed her door closed with both hands and Allie rolled down the window. She reached out her hand and Noah took it for just a moment, moving his fingers softly against her skin.
«Stay with me,» Noah mouthed without sound, and this for some reason hurt more than Allie could expect. The tears began to fall hard now, but she couldn’t speak. Reluctantly, she looked away and pulled her hand from his.
He fell into an almost trancelike state as he watched the car roll slowly forwards. Slowly it turned towards the road that would take her back to town. Noah felt dizzy at the sight. «Don’t go!» he wanted to shout. But he didn’t say anything, and a minute later the only remaining signs of her were the tracks that her car had left behind.
She was gone. Forever this time. Forever. He closed his eyes.
DRIVING WITH TEARS in her eyes was difficult, but Allie went on anyway. She kept the window rolled down, thinking the fresh air might help clear her mind. By the time she reached Front Street, she had herself a little more under control. Traffic was light and she had time to watch strangers going about their business as she drove through New Bern.
She saw the inn just up the street drove slowly until she reached the parking lot. She turned in and saw Lon’s car sitting in the first spot. Although the one next to it was open, she passed it and picked a spot a little further from the entrance.
She turned off the engine, then reached into the glove compartment for a mirror and brush. Looking at herself, she saw her eyes were still red and swollen. She took her purse, opened it, and once again looked at the article that had brought her here. It felt impossible to her that she had arrived only the day before yesterday. It seemed like a lifetime since her dinner with Noah.
She remembered the letters her mother had given her and reached for them. She untied the package and found the first letter he had written her. She began to open it, then stopped because she could imagine what was in it. Something simple, no doubt — things he’d done, memories of the summer, perhaps some questions. Instead, she reached for the last letter, the one on the bottom of the stack. The goodbye letter. This one interested her far more. How had he said it?
The envelope was thin. One, maybe two pages. The letter wasn’t too long. She turned it over and checked the back. No name, just a street address in New Jersey. She held her breath.
Unfolding it, she saw it was dated March 1935. Two and a half years without a reply.
She began to read.
My dearest Allie,
I don’t know what to say any more except that I couldn’t sleep last night because I knew that it is over between us. It is a different feeling for me, one that I never expected. Looking back, I suppose it is a natural ending of our story.
You and I were different. We came from different worlds, and yet you were the one who taught me the value of love. You showed me what it was like to care for another, and I am a better man because of it. I don’t want you ever to forget that.
I am not bitter because of what has happened. I am happy we were able to come together for even a short time. And if, in some distant place in the future, we see each other in our new lives, I will smile at you with joy, and remember how we spent a summer learning from each other and growing in love. And maybe, for a brief moment, you’ll feel it too, and you’ll smile back and enjoy the memories we will always share.
I love you, Allie.
She read the letter again, then put it back into the envelope. She knew she couldn’t delay any longer. Lon was waiting for her.
Her legs felt weak as she stepped out of the car. She paused and took a deep breath, and as she started across the parking lot, she realized that she still wasn’t sure what she was going to say to him.
And the answer didn’t finally come until she reached the door and opened it and saw Lon standing in the lobby.