One, crick, two, crick, three, crick.
I feel the frosty blades of grass crushed beneath my feet. I hear their sound, subtle but powerful.
One, crick, two, crick, three, crick. Every step brings me me closer to the red front door.
I keep calling it red, but it’s more of a burgundy. All because Jack and I couldn’t tell the shades apart.
It was a late afternoon when we first moved in, in the empty space behind that red door. We spent that night drinking wine, red, and blaming the blinding lights of the lamppost for our colourblind adventure. That’s how it goes, Jack said, you spend years fantasizing about the house of your dreams, then you get to live in it and everything changes. You start dreaming of new dreams.
I was thinking of those dreams just today when I stepped out of the red door. I should probably say, it’s red on the inside too.
When we first saw it, we both fell in love with it. It was one of those long days spent flat-hunting, and we would have done anything to stop that pain. Probably the exhaustion had something to do with our thinking the door was red, or vermillion? Scarlet? We didn’t think it was…red, but closer to burgundy.
I wasn’t thinking about the red door this morning when I went out. I was thinking about Jack. And our dreams.
I put on my shoes. I put on my coat. I’ve put on weight, I say, and Jack goes and shakes his head in his usual theatrical way.
He does this thing, when he doesn’t agree, that he won’t make any sound. You have to look at him, at the small details in the curve of his mouth, at the way his eyebrows move, to read his disagreement.
When I step out of the house I’m thinking: I don’t recognise myself anymore. I haven’t cut my hair in two months, and my nails haven’t seen a drop of nail polish in ages. I haven’t put on any make-up, not until today: today is a special day.
I step out of the house, thinking: today is a special day.
Jack walks by my side. We haven’t argued about his shoes, surprisingly. He put on my favourite pair: the navy ones we bought in Moscow. We’ve always talked about how one day we’d go back to Russia, visit other parts of the country, travel north during the winter, but I am cold now, in this godforsaken town in the North East of Scotland in December, I cannot picture myself in Russia.
“Keys?” I ask. Jack doesn’t answer. He walks next to me with his ‘you-said-you’d-take-them’ look. I love his hair when it’s this long. I keep telling him how he should never cut it shorter than that, and he laughs.
His hair does this thing that when it’s summer, drops of gold start pouring on it, here and there, and gives him that mad ‘90s Hollywood vibe.
He says it happened for the first time in Greece. He was four, and his parents had just gotten a divorce, so they had to make up for the trouble and, for that year only, travel somewhere away from Dorset. His hair, Jack says, had never seen that much sunlight. It must have gotten excited, and that’s where the golden drops come from. Greece, that’s another place we should go. My mom always brings good olive oil, cheese and olives from Greece.
“Did we buy olives yesterday?” I ask Jack. He’s walking with his hands in his pockets.
“I think so?” He answers vaguely, then points to the shop by the corner. “We can go and get some now, just in case.”
I smile. I know we’re already late.
“We’re already late. We can do that later.” Jack knows we won’t to that later. He smiles anyway, and keeps walking.
“It’s really cold today”, he says.
“I know. I wish I’d brought my red jacket.” I hate that red jacket, but it’s the warmest item in my closet. It doesn’t go well with any of my clothes, not one, not even my New Year’s Eve socks. And they’re red too.
Jack shows me his arm, where my ugly, red jacket is tucked. I chuckle.
We’re walking silently side by side until the junction. I am walking slowly, more than my usual, and Jack notices, but he doesn’t say a word. He keeps my pace, even if it means figthing his inner marathon spirit. I wonder if his shoes hurt now, or if he feels like he’s walking on a soft, fluffy cloud. My feet hurt. I’m wearing the blue heels, the one I was wearing on the day we got married.
We never got married. We went out one night, drank a couple of bottles of wine, then we decided we’d get married under the tree by our house. We had one more glass, then, and we kissed. On that night, our oath was more important than any other official paper.
“You look beautiful today”, he says. He says it out loud. He doesn’t whisper, like you see in movies. He says it to my face, and I can’t help smiling.
“You don’t look bad yourself”, I answer with one of his usual ones.
He gives me one of those smirks, one that means: I taught you well. Dodging compliments has always been his specialty.
He takes my hand and squeezes it softly. His fingers are soft, yet strong. His knuckles are knotty, but they form the loveliest of hills in that veiny landscape I often find myself lost watching.
We keep walking, hand in hand. My eyes are on the ground, inspecting it carefully. I fear yesterday’s ice is still there, ready to pull the rug from under my feet. I walk, sometimes I sway when I step on a slippery part of pavement. Jack holds me, he holds my hand and he’s ready to catch me, but I feel like if I fall, I fall. There’s nothing that can stop me from hitting the ground.
I see the green billboard at the roundabout that marks the end of our neighbourhood. I slow down.
“I have a terrible headache”, I murmur. I look at Jack and I wish this journey would never end.
He nods. “The neighbours’ baby.” Then, he caresses my face. As if with his fingers he could touch the pain away. My temples are on fire, but when Jack’s fingertips linger there for a second, I feel like I’m never going to feel that ache again.
“Alison?”, he asks, “or was it Alice?”
We’ve been wondering for a while what the name of the baby is. We just hear the screaming, but we never hear the name.
“Or Alex?” I add. Jack laughs. I know what he’s thinking: we’ve promised each other we’d never discuss baby names until the right time came.
We cross at the roundabout, but the road ahead is blocked. I look at Jack, he looks back.
“I know another way”, I say.
He smiles. “Okay, captain.”
He seems to know my heart is bursting in my chest as I pronounce those words. Maybe it was destiny.
“Look, it’s your kindergarten”, he points to the white picket fence, the one where rainbows were once attached with pieces of string. “Have you dropped off the bag of clothes…”
He doesn’t need to complete the question, I nod. “Sister Maria was there.” I shudder at the thought of ever setting foot within her eye reach again.
“Does she still have that extra row of teeth?” Jack makes fun of me.
It makes me feel special, this thing that he remembers of all my confessions, of every silly thing I told him about my childhood, about the tales of my past and the dreams for my future. Jack remembers them all, even the silliest ones.
“I now think I must have imagined that”, I admit. My cheeks are getting redder by the second. I hold his hand tighter as we walk, slowly, as if our meeting was scheduled at the end of time. “She was pretty scary, you know.”
He nods, and laughs quietly as we walk past the white fence. “Right.”
This road didn’t exist thirty years ago. Jack told me that, with so many other things. That’s what you learn when you study architecture, he says. And I ask him, what, you learn which road did or didn’t exist? And he answers: no, you learn how to look at the existence of things before humans created them. I give him a puzzled look, and he keeps smiling.
His lips are usually chopped by this time of the year. They look smooth and ripe on this day. He looks the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen him. It’s a special day, I keep thinking, of course he does.
“I’ve never seen that ice-cream parlour before”, I point out. It’s not on our way, otherwise I would have convinced Jack to peep at the shop window. “They might have your favourite flavour.”
“You’re right. It must be new”, he keeps walking, the same light spring in his pace.
“We can try it this summer”, I say, and I give him a look, a look that begs him to promise me we’ll come back.
Jack smiles one of his unforgettable smiles. “We’re going to be late, sweetie”, he reminds me in the softest of voices.
I nod. I keep walking, even if I don’t want to. My soul wants my body to stop. My heart wants to pull the brakes of my feet. I see the gate now, less than a hundred metres away.
He turns. It’s a special day, and his face lights up with a wonderful light. “Yes?”
“I’ll call the office for you”, I say, and he reacts as if I’d just told him I’ll buy him a new car.
“Thanks.” He means it.
The sun must be shining somewhere, but I can’t see it. A thick blanket of clouds stands between me, in this small town, and the sun up there, lonely and undisturbed.
Jack pauses. We’ve arrived by the gate. He knows I don’t want to do this, and holds my hand and smiles once again. He knows what I’m thinking, but I say it anyway.
“I don’t want to go.” My voice breaks.
“I know”, he says softly, and takes me in his arms.
I can smell his perfume. The way his skin smells is my favourite thing in the world. My hands brush the sleeves of his jacket. My eyes are closed, as I let myself be engulfed by his arms.
I’ve told myself I won’t cry, but I can feel warm drops falling on my cheeks.
“Please, don’t cry.” Jack lifts my chin with his fingers and kisses the tip of my nose.
He is smiling, and a smile fights its way through my tears too. His eyes are green as the grass in front of our door. They’re dark green, but gleaming with frost.
“I will always love you, Jack.”
I would give everything not to see this moment arrive, but it is already here, knocking on my door, breaking all of the walls I have built for me and Jack.
“I don’t want you to leave”, I say, and my voice breaks again. “Please, don’t leave…”
“I will never leave you.”
Jack takes both my hands into his, then glances to the green field past the gate. My mother is there, and with her my sister and my aunt. Father Paul is there too, holding his book.
“I will always be there when you need me.” He kisses my forehead, then takes me into his arms again.
I hold him tight. I never want to let him go, but I know I need to. I know I must go past that gate, reach my mother, my aunt and my family. I know they want to say goodbye to Jack too.
“Remember what I told you on the Christmas we met?” I whisper, loud enough only for him to hear. I can’t see his face, I don’t know if he nodded, or if he smiled and I’ve just missed what could be the last of his precious smile, but my words pour out of my mouth right after. “I told you: I want to wake up next to you every day of my life. When that happens, I will always wait for the day after to come.”
Our bodies part. I look into his eyes again, and hold his hand for the last time. “I don’t want tomorrow to come, Jack.”
“I know”, he whispers. Jack’s hand caresses my hair. His fingers take care of the wild locks here and there, the ones that make me hate my hair so much. “I know, darling.”
He kisses my lips softly. I love the taste of his lips, and the way they never press against mine, but ask gently to become one. “You must go now.”
I know. I know I have to go, but I can’t. My body is here, on the wrong side of the gate, but my heart is there, where mom and the priest and everyone else is standing. My heart is there, sewn to Jack’s jacket, buried next to his.
He looks gorgeous, in his favourite suit and his navy shoes. His eyelids don’t lift, but I know the beauty they treasure. I don’t have any tears left, as I look down to the dark earth ready to swallow the love of my life. My mom and my sister and everyone else around me comes to caress my shoulder, take my hand, kiss my cheek, and all I can think of is the last moment when Jack took my hand, kissed my cheek, touched my shoulder.
Father Paul is saying the last words before we all part. I can’t hear above the silence, the deadly stillness in my head.
Suddenly, I feel it again, Jack’s touch on my shoulder. I feel his lips again, his chest against my back, his warm breath sweeping my neck.
“Darling”, he says, and I know those are words for me alone, words only I can hear, “I will always love you.”
And that’s the last time I hear his voice, the last time I touch him, the last time I feel him next to me.
When I walk home, my purse in my hand and cold in my bones, I think of every night I’ve stepped through that red door ready to see Jack, reading on the sofa, painting in the living room, humming in the kitchen.
One, two, three, are the steps separating me from my red door – our red door.
One, two, three, I’m getting closer to what I’ve called home for years, but now I feel like it’s been stripped of all warmth.
One, two, three, I stop.
I look for my keys in my purse, but they’re not there. I stand in silence for a couple of seconds, then I put my hand in my jacket’s pocket. The ugly, red one that is keeping me warm. The one Jack took, because I would have never. My fingers pluck my keys from the pocket.
Darling, I will always love you.
I look at my red door, our red door, and feel my heart beating against the fabric of my jacket. That moment I know Jack will never leave me.