“I live my life in growing orbits
That move out over the things of this world
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
But that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God,
Around the ancient tower,
I have been circling for a thousand years
And still I do not know
If I am a falcon,
Or a storm,
Or a great song.”
R. M. Rilke.
I never believed I would fall in love with you even before we met; but I did. It all started when I bought the new computer back in ’98. When I was only just learning what the internet was all about.
My marriage to Belinda fell apart. She was awash with vodka, and after my third black eye in as many weeks, I decided enough was enough.
It was good to get away from the pain, even though the memories refused to die so easily. I found a small, stone cottage just a few miles up the road from our riverside bungalow, paid three months in advance and moved in the same day. It was so good to arrive home free from the ever-lingering fear of what was lurking, scheming, on the other side of the front door. Sometimes it had been a broken bottle, occasionally a knife. More often, just abuse and slashing finger nails.
My archaic Welsh cottage in the mountains became a sanctuary after years of humiliation; degradation imposed by that demon in glass clothing.
Loneliness was in no way a problem. I had been alone for years. Belinda’s only companion was the bottle, and all our other friends had long ceased risking the embarrassment of a visit.
It was not for that reason I placed the advert in Yahoo’s ‘Find a Friend’. I suppose it was just a bit of fun really. I made sure I checked the box marked, ‘Pen pals only’.
It was quite a good advert, I thought. Beginning with a short poem by R.M. Rilke, the one that starts, “I live my life in growing orbits…”, I then went on to describe myself and my tiny cottage deep in the Welsh hills of Britain. I didn’t mention Belinda. There seemed no point.
The number of replies amazed me. I wrote back to quite a few, but over time things petered out and I began to lose interest. Most of my correspondents were from America; one from Australia. The lady from Singapore was almost undecipherable, and the Russian women just wanted me as a passport out of Russia…me, or any man.
It was then that you first wrote to me. You loved the poem and asked who was the author. I remember you called yourself “Illusion” and finished your email letter with that quote from Eden Philpotts, “The Universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”
I knew vaguely that Illinois was in North America, but Peoria could have been on the moon. It didn’t seem to matter at first. Then our emails became more regular, longer, and began to hold an intimacy that smacked of more than ‘pen pals’.
I would rush home from work to log-on, expectantly waiting for the tiny icon that signified your presence at my inbox. You were usually there. Yet, on those infrequent occasions you failed to appear, I felt cheated and lost, blaming the computer for malfunction and clicking ‘send/receive’ over and over, certain that somewhere along the miles of electronic highway you were waiting, stranded in some server’s web and overlooked.
Usually, it was nothing more than the mundane; you had been delayed at work, or had difficulty logging onto ‘Yahoo’.
Eventually, emails were no longer enough. My heart leapt in my chest when first I dialled your number on the telephone. Your voice was unknown to me, as mine to you. My only knowledge of your looks was from a blurry, emailed photo you had taken in a mirror; too shy to ask someone to snap you. The imperfect image could not disguise that you were blonde and, to my eyes at least, beautiful. I listened to the strange, single American ringing tone, so much more exciting than the everyday ‘dring, dring’ of its British counterpart, and felt the tingle of adrenalin when you answered quietly, “Hello?”.
It only took that one word for me to know that everything was fine. I said, “Hello, it’s me.” You laughed your gentle laugh, and said, “Is it really you, Robert?”
After that, we talked for hours as old companions; which we were.
From then on the computer became less important as nights were spent in earnest conversation, till my small hours and your mid-evening. I slunk from bed each morning, eyelids drooped from sleep disturbed by the ringing phone, as you went to bed at nine and called to say goodnight. It was three a.m. in Britain, but I would have it no other way. Once when you missed, for you could not bear to disturb me so late, I woke anyway and called you. We laughed together at our silliness, and knew we had found something special.
I waited three hours at the airport for your plane to touch down, leaving home in the middle of the night just to ensure being there on time. When you had made the decision to visit Britain, after much discussion on the propriety of flying so many thousand miles alone to meet a strange man in a foreign country, it seemed the least I could do.
It was, perhaps, the longest three hours of my life. Manchester International is strangely quiet at four-thirty in the morning and the coffee tastes no better at any time of day, though the fluttery, sick feeling in my stomach was hardly due to coffee.
Unable to settle, read a newspaper, by six-fifteen I was convinced I would never recognise you; by seven-ten, that you had missed the flight; by seven-thirty, that it was all a big mistake. I hovered anxiously near the departure lounge doors as American Airways Four-One-Twenty from Chicago cleared customs. A melee of suitcase-bearing travellers burst through the doors, my eyes scanning each unaccompanied female: is that her, surely not? How about..? No! A pause, an empty gap! You missed the flight! Then I saw you, just as you saw me, even more lovely than your inverted, mirror-twin. We hugged. I kissed you boldly on the cheek. You laughed at that, a little nervously perhaps.
Once in the car, it was my turn for nerves. I asked, “Will I do?” You laughed your gentle laugh and said, “You’ll do fine, Robert.” And I knew that you, too, would do fine.
We were both relaxed, driving the ninety miles back to my cottage in the Welsh hills, even though we were complete strangers in the physical world. Despite your jet-lag and a night’s missed sleep, you marvelled at the sights I took so much for granted. The green fields, the hedgerows, sheep clinging to the hillsides as we wound our way down narrow country lanes that left you breathless; used as you were to flat, mid-west Illinois prairie roads, broad and arrow-straight to the far horizon.
You loved the tiny stone cottage with its steep, winding stairs and undulating floors; the bathroom just large enough for one, the shower that dribbled and took twenty minutes to wash your hair. You adored the mountains; our walks down by the raging river or along the estuary shoreline. You laughed when I swung childlike from a tree branch in the woods, until it snapped and flung me to the wet peat moss, then chided me that I might hurt myself. I did, but never told you.
The ten day visit was over before we knew it. In the hours prior to your leaving I felt desperation and you were quiet, uncommunicative. The threat of men with bombs extended airport check-in times, inducing a three hour wait in Manchester prior to your flight departure. We left the cottage before dawn, so you missed the sleepy sheep and hedgerows. It was probably just as well; you may have cried. I know I would.
We did weep together in the departure lounge; small tears choked and held in check for fear of seeming foolish. You walked away with frequent backward glances, down the long corridor to Gate Twenty-One. I knew you felt what I was feeling: ticket holders only; lovers barred, denied a final lingering kiss or one last wave goodbye.
The drive back home alone was numbing, automatic. I was almost there before the car-clock showed your flight was airborne. I muttered a brief prayer and waited out the hours for the first Chicago telephone call informing me of your safe arrival, though another, shorter flight still had to carry you the miles to Bloomington, before you could collect your car and drive an hour down the interstate to Peoria, Illinois, and home. Aware you had been awake for twenty hours, this part worried me the most and kept me from my bed, until at last the telephone put fear to rest and I knew you safe at journey’s end.
Next day was as if you had never been. The cupboard where you kept your clothes was bare. The hook on which you hung your coat was empty. Two wire hairclips lying on your bedside table, the only evidence of your ever being. I perched on the edge of the bed, clasped them tight within my hands, and wished with all my heart you were still there.
Within days there was talk of another trip to Britain. I suggested visiting America, but you were adamant. You wished to be with me in Wales, in the mountains. Christmas was decided, but then your work prevented that, and so festivities were postponed till your arrival in early January. It was another, wonderful ten days, even though the tree dropped most of its needles while you were still at forty thousand feet. January fourth was Christmas Day that year, and the turkey tasted more succulent for the waiting.
Alas, all too soon Manchester International tore us apart once more and I felt your loss still more keenly the second time. This sweetly bitter agony could not continue. I made the decision, took three months leave and booked a flight to Bloomington.
It needed time to organise. A two week holiday was one thing…but three months! I smiled at your incredulity when told what I had done. Three months! I knew that behind your nervous exclamations you were pleased, flattered by this profligate British gesture. It was the way you were, the way you have always been; never recognizing selfishness, only the altruistic. You ruefully complained you would rather be with me in Wales, than me with you in Illinois, but were content when I agreed we would both come back in due course.
I never returned to my cottage in the Welsh hills. I loved the green fields and the mountains but my place was anywhere that was with you. Within six weeks of my landing in America we realised our love too profound for further separation, and shortly afterwards the local county judge proclaimed it legal.
It is two years since my three month vacation became forever. One day, we will go back to the land of green fields and rolling hillsides that brought us together. I will have no choice, for you will see to that. You seldom mention it, but just occasionally I glimpse you staring out the window at the flat, prairie lands of Illinois, and I know you are remembering those green fields and hedgerows, the sheep clinging to the hillsides as we wound our way down narrow country lanes that left you breathless; used as you were to flat, mid-west Illinois prairie roads, broad and arrow-straight to the far horizon.
© Copyright 2003 R.J Adams