My Life Without You
Short Story (2011)
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"I'll come back for you," [Riley] breathed into my mouth.
In 1985, I was fifteen when my parents were killed in a car accident driving back from a wine show in San Francisco. My life changed forever that day. As much as I grieved the loss of my beloved parents, I feared what the future held for me. People I had met as a little girl and didn't remember, and some I had never met, came to my house to make funeral arrangements, and to discuss the future of the vineyard. The mood was somber. Everyone was whispering and I overheard words like "Kelly's fragile state of mind", "upheaval", "new town", and "a new school for Kelly", but they stopped whispering when I entered the room.
After the funeral, I returned to the house on the hill overlooking Great Vines, my parent's vineyard and winery. I was told to finish packing my bags as I would be leaving the next morning with my mother's older sister, Carol and her husband, Peter to live in Iowa. No one cared that I wanted to stay in the only house I had ever known.
The next day as Uncle Peter drove away from Great Vines I cherished one last look at the place I called home. I focused not on the house but on the building that held barrels of wine where I had spent most of my time, picturing in my mind, mom planning her next hosting party, dad working in his office on his marketing plans, and me designing and printing labels for the wine bottles we were so proud of producing. I sucked in my breath and gritted my back teeth to keep from crying, something that had become a regular event these past few days. I strained my neck until I could no longer see the acres of precious grapes, wondering if I would ever be coming back.
The drive to Iowa took two long days. I had plenty of time to speculate how my life would be without my parents. Aunt Carol and Uncle Peter didn't have any children, and I didn't remember them being particularly loving like my parents. I knew Uncle Peter was a professor at a local college in Cedar Rapids and Aunt Carol, a freelance writer.
"What will happen to Great Vines?" I finally asked, breaking the long hours of silence as the car ate up the miles, taking me farther and farther away from home.
"It will be held in a trust for you until you turn twenty-five. The attorneys are making arrangements for caretakers to oversee running the business," Aunt Carol replied, cocking her head to the side so I could hear her from the back seat. "We thought you might enjoy going back during the summers and working in the winery."
With a sigh of relief I nodded and clung to that thought the remainder of the trip, and for many nights to come.
Starting school in a new town, during the middle of the year, was not easy. The girls that gathered in the hallway between classes were already established in their cliques; friends who had known each other all their lives. The boys ogled me as if I was from another planet. Being tall and skinny, with glasses and braces didn't appeal to me, let alone them. I had nothing in common with these kids and didn't seem to fit in anywhere so I threw myself into schoolwork and concentrated on my art. I had always been good at drawing, which is why my father had put me in charge of designing the winery's labels. Much of the time I tried to be invisible and spent most evenings in my room, which Aunt Carol had done her best to makeover for a teenager, in pink. Everything was pink!
Before I knew it three months had passed and it was time to catch a plane to Napa where I would spend the summer at Great Vines.
"Call us anytime," Aunt Carol hugged me at the airport in Des Moines, while Uncle Peter stood by, anxious to be on his way. "I will. See you in a few months." I raced through the terminal. I was going home!
After changing planes several times, Cooper Smith, Great Vines' long-time foreman, met me at the Napa County Airport. He and his wife Consuelo, our cook and housekeeper, had moved into the "big house" after I had left for Iowa and were staying in one of the guest rooms.
"Look at you! I swear you've grown six inches since I last saw you." Cooper swept me up in a bear hug as I rounded the corner to Baggage Claim. Cooper was like an uncle to me. It was so good to see a familiar face.
On the short drive to the vineyard, Cooper filled me in on all that had been happening in Napa which wasn't much. His grandson from Fresno was coming this summer to help with the vineyard. I had met Riley several times but I hadn't seen him since I was about ten. The best news; Consuelo was going to take me to get my braces removed and to get contact lenses to replace my glasses. Maybe then I wouldn't look like an orphaned geek.
Getting out of the truck in front of my house, I breathed in the scent of Napa.There was no other smell quite like it; sweet, with the hint of freshness. Staring at the house, I wondered how different it would be without my parents but a smile lit up my face just at the idea of being home again. I shielded my eyes from the sun and gazed out over the vineyard. It was beautiful. It was home.
Three months had passed and nothing had changed, except me. I had been living in a vacuum, without anyone caring about my mental well-being. I was fifteen and a half going on thirty. I vowed at that moment, that I was going to paint Great Vines, immortalize it on canvas so I would remember forever the happiness it brought me.
On Saturday, I strolled through the house stopping to look in every mirror at my new face and new smile. I walked down to the winery trying to acclimate myself to the idea of not seeing my parents around every corner. I missed them terribly and wished they could see my straight teeth and the new me, without glasses. I was looking forward to seeing my best friend Sara again, too. We had talked several times on the phone while I was in Iowa but long-distance phone calls were not cheap, as Uncle Peter pointed out.
That evening, as I was setting the table for dinner a good-looking gangly young man in a cowboy hat walked through the front door. With plate in hand, I was startled by the sudden intrusion. This was definitely a change. It was not customary for one of the field hands to walk into the house without being invited.
"Can I help you?" I asked somewhat indignant.
"Ah...I was looking for my grandfather, Cooper Smith."
Riley? My jaw hit the floor. I could only stare at the handsome young man with shaggy blond hair and mustache. Just last summer I had gone to the movies with Sara to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid during "Old Movie Fest" and here was a younger version of Sundance standing in my entryway. Where was the boy who had played hide and seek with me in the vineyard when I was ten?
Throughout dinner, it was difficult not to stare at Riley. My heart was beating crazy fast, my palms were sweaty and an unfamiliar fluttering in my stomach would not go away. I pushed the food around my plate as Riley talked with Cooper and Consuelo about his decision to join the Air Force. He already had his pilot's license at twenty. His parents understood his desire to serve his country but his grandparents felt he would be far better off staying in college. I sat in awkward silence listening to the exchange, sneaking glances at him when he wasn't looking.
Lying in bed that night I felt something stir in me that I hadn't felt before. The curtains fluttered in the breeze but I felt claustrophobic, and summed it up to being in a house with ghosts. Suddenly, I felt the need to be outside. I glanced at the alarm clock on my nightstand; it was still early. I opened my bedroom door and listened. From down the hall I could hear snoring coming from one of the guestrooms; Cooper and Consuelo's room. Tiptoeing, I went down the stairs and out the front door, breathing in the cool night air. The porch swing swayed in the breeze, inviting me to sit but I wanted to feel the air caress my skin.
A light shown from down at the winery, and as clouds rolled swiftly past the moon, a smattering of light fell across the lawn. This was not the city with streetlights mounted in front of every house. This darkness was familiar and soothing; something I had missed the last three months.
"Couldn't sleep?" A hoarse voice coming from my left startled me.
"Yeah." He suddenly appeared beside me and I felt self-conscious. I had not taken time to put on a robe. He leaned against the porch column directly in front of me and I inhaled the clean scent of soap. I could see he was dressed in jeans, his shirt unbuttoned and blowing in the summer breeze. The fluttering in my stomach I had felt at dinner returned with intensity. I took a step back, crossing my arms over my chest to hide the fact I had little on under the short baby doll pajamas. For a few moments, neither of us said anything. I stared down at my feet, barely making out their outline in the darkness, then moving my eyes to another set of bare feet just inches from mine. Slowly, I raised my eyes to his face which seemed closer now.
He had been watching me. "How old are you now?" He breathed the words.
I hesitated over my answer. "Almost sixteen," I replied huskily, my voice sounding funny to me. Somehow, that sounded older than fifteen and a half.
He was so close I could make out his crooked smile.
"You were pretty at ten. Now...you take my breath away."
I was tempted to look behind me to see whom he was talking to when he said, "I've waited a long time for you to grow up. I guess sixteen will have to do." Riley reached over and kissed me. My first kiss and all I could think of was I said almost sixteen, before I was lost in his kiss. A rushing sound filled my ears blocking out all thought until I could only feel. Unsteady on my feet, I melted against his hardness, and if it weren't for his strong arms holding me up I would have crumpled onto the porch.
We kissed for what seemed like a long time before he gently held me away him. I wanted something more but I wasn't sure what. He took my hand and led me over to the porch swing where we sat in silence. My heart was pounding like a drum and his breathing was coming in rapid gasps. After a few minutes, he shook his head as if to clear his thoughts and said he was sorry to hear about my parents.
That was the summer I fell in love and became a woman. We stole moments together, kissing, touching, and holding each other when no one was looking. I was starving for affection and Riley provided it. I set up a canvas on an easel at the end of the driveway and painted the house and vineyard. Riley brought me lemonade whenever he wasn't working; peering over my shoulder at the painting. He named it The Chateau at Great Vines.
The night before I was to leave to go back to Iowa, we consummated our love. Riley was leaving for Basic Training in Texas and we didn't know when we would see each other again.
"I'll call you when I can."
"Okay, but don't forget I'll be spending my summers here." We kissed each other goodbye, lingering over that last kiss. I felt like a grownup.
"I'll come back for you," he breathed the words into my mouth. I couldn't imagine my life without him now and I made him promise.
I started my sophomore year in Cedar Rapids turning sixteen, but by November it was clear something wasn't right. I had missed three periods and was throwing up in the mornings, and Aunt Carol had guessed my secret. I was pregnant. I know I should have been scared to death but I was naively happy. With my parents gone, and Riley in the Air Force, I had no one to love or love me. I wanted this baby.
One night I overheard Aunt Carol telling Uncle Peter about my dilemma. He was shamed, outraged, and wanted nothing to do with raising a bastard child in his home. Resolutely, I went to the phone and called Napa. It was only eight in the evening there. Cooper answered and I told him of my situation. While he was shocked and angry with Riley, he told me he would take care of everything. He called back thirty minutes later saying he had arranged a plane ticket for me to come home.
I walked into the living room and announced I would be leaving the next day for Napa. Proud and defiant, I did not apologize for being pregnant. I would figure it all out later but for now I was happy to be going home to have my baby. My one advantage over other teenage girls that had gotten pregnant was I had means. I was the sole owner of a successful winery even if I didn't take possession until I turned twenty-five.
I sent letters to Riley letting him know of the pregnancy and my change in living arrangements. He called several times excited about being a daddy but sad that he would be leaving for the Persian Gulf soon. The continuing battle between Iraq and Iran required U.S. forces to be on standby. We promised to write each other every week.
I had been so wrapped up in Riley over the summer that I had completely dismissed Sara. I tried to get in touch with her but her parents had heard I dropped out of school and gotten pregnant and wouldn't allow her to see me.
Three months later, I was working in the winery labeling bottles when a black car pulled up the driveway and stopped in front of the house. Cooper and Consuelo had gone into town so I walked up the grassy knoll to meet the visitors, feeling the tiniest movement in my belly. Two uniformed military officers got out of the car. One look at their grim expressions had me fearing the worst. It hadn't been a year since a state trooper had pulled up our driveway to deliver the news of my parent's accident. Riley's plane had gone down near the Iraq-Iran border. His body had not been recovered. My knees buckled; the sound of waves crashing against rocks filled my ears. From far, far away, I could barely make out a woman's screams.
The first few years of little Riley Cooper Smith's life, I listened to news about the Iraq-Iran war and sent letters to the Pentagon demanding an investigation into Riley's plane crash. I never received a response and assumed it was because I was not his wife. The war officially ended in 1988, and I found out through Cooper that Riley's parents had him legally declared dead after seven years. I held onto Riley's letters, tied with a blue ribbon, to read to his son one day. My little boy would grow up knowing how much his father had wanted him, and how much I still loved his father. For me, the only man in my life was my son.
We had a day of celebration when I turned twenty-five and Great Vines was legally mine. I converted a small room in the winery into a gift shop where I displayed some of my smaller paintings of the vineyard, and introduced two new wines. Sales were strong.
Cooper and Consuelo still lived in the "big house" with little Riley and me although Cooper's duties had dwindled with his aging, and I did most of the cooking and cleaning for Consuelo. When I wasn't watching my son play little league baseball, I painted and took over my mother's role of hosting tours of the winery.
The Chateau at Great Vines hung over the mantle in the living room. Every time I looked at it I was reminded of a twenty- year old boy and fifteen- year old girl; a forbidden love that had ended tragically.
Over the next ten years, I developed into a nationally known artist. My paintings were reproduced and selling in all the major galleries in the United States. One special painting hung on the wall, opposite my bed. A portrait I had done of Riley as I remembered him in his cowboy hat that summer in '85. It had been painful to paint but I wanted young Riley to see what his father had looked like, and how much he resembled him. Most people would say it was a painting of a young Robert Redford.
A week after Osama bin Laden was killed, I heard on the news that some fifty P.O.W.'s had been discovered in the search for bin Laden and were being flown to Washington to be debriefed. I was so happy for those families.
Riley was in his last year at Stanford University. It was hard to believe twenty-six years had gone by and he was graduating from Med School in a couple of weeks. I wasn't close to Riley's grandparents, but at least they would be attending his graduation. We were all that was left of his family.
After dropping off two more paintings at the gift shop, I stopped by the cemetery to put fresh flowers on my parent's, and Cooper and Consuelo's graves.
"You'd all be so proud of Riley," I said softly. Arranging the flowers, I said a prayer, blew kisses and headed home with fresh tears in my eyes. The last twenty-six years had not been easy without the people I loved most, particularly Riley but I had survived and so had my son.
As I turned into the driveway of Great Vines, I noticed a black car parked in front of the house. My heart skipped a beat, and a knot began to form in the pit of my stomach as I drove up the long driveway. The last time I had seen a similar black car, I had been sixteen years old. I approached slowly, my foot lessening its tension on the accelerator, fear gripping my insides. Please don't let this be bad news. I can't lose my son, too. It took me only seconds to realize I had spoken to Riley just yesterday and he was in Palo Alto finishing one final exam. Oh God, what if something had happened at school. I kept hearing of college shootings on the news. I put the car in park and got out, fearful of the news yet needing to know my son was all right.
The driver's door opened and a uniformed military man got out and opened the rear passenger door. Then another man in uniform got out and slowly turned to face me. I released my breath I had unknowingly held when I realized this was not about my son. The man standing twenty feet in front of me was older, but familiar. I wasn't sure if what I was seeing was even real. My eyes searched his face and I saw lines that hadn't been there the last time I had seen him. I had a flash back of a much younger man holding me in his arms in this very spot, making a promise he'd come back to me. With a slightly crooked smile he said simply, "You still take my breath away."
AUTHORS NOTE: The couple in the photo above is my son, Philip and daughter-in-law, Lauren.
Copyrighted Material 2011