Lillie stood on the weathered deck of the house she had loved for twenty years and imagined herself falling; tumbling over earth-toned rooftops, through lush pines and down to the rocky coastline below. She imagined the currents pulling her away from land, winds and water pushing her across the globe along ancient, unseen pathways, into the abyss.
Lillie wrapped her hands around her mug, the warmth inside already fading. Memories floated by, one by one, images shifting and swaying like anemones under ever-moving water in the tide pools below. Playing cards on the deck. Lazy afternoons on the beach with the kids, building sandcastles. Drinking wine next to the wall of living room windows. Watching as the sun dipped down in a blaze of oranges and reds. The smell of steaks on the grill. Every day had felt like a new beginning in this house. But not today. The home and the life she had made here were gone, taken by time.
Behind her, the gate scraped open. The ocean shimmered moodily in the morning light. “You’re early,” Lillie said, turning.
Peter stepped onto the deck, holding a manilla envelope in one hand, his tortoise-shell glasses askew. He’d looked the same since the day she met him twenty-nine years ago. It was maddening. Where she had softened, he had stayed slim and handsome. A professor to the core. His students loved him, especially the young, starry-eyed undergrads who cut their teeth on Jane Austen and still lived on a steady diet of poetry and bargain Rosé. Peter’s self-effacing charm and English accent didn’t help things one bit.
“Let’s go inside,” Lillie said, wrapping her sweater around her middle, “Do you want coffee? Tea?”
“No, thanks. I have to be going. Class at 11.” He nudged the big envelope out towards Lillie.
“Right,” she said, making her voice light, “Elizabethan poetry? Always a favorite.”
Peter chuckled. Thirteen years ago his affairs, two of them, had nearly derailed their marriage. There had been random flirtations, then the bright eyed TA from Georgia. The excuses, the late nights. The tears, the apologies, the fervent promises, then the new department secretary. Both women were young and idealistic and in love with romance, writers and the intricacies of the English language. Lillie had been devastated. The kids were little and she couldn’t bear the thought of raising them alone, so she fought. She wanted to go to counseling. He didn’t. Instead, they dragged a battered tool box out of the garage and poured their hearts into the house. Hundreds of DIY projects later, they had learned to work together, to talk out their problems. Slowly but surely, they patched their marriage up while turning their little ramshackle hippie cabin overlooking the sea into an elegant home.
As years melted together, Lillie and Peter settled into their worn, familiar routine of child care, home repairs and evenings on the couch with television and wine. Now the kids were out on their own, Jeremy living a couple of hours away in Los Angeles, and Gianna heading off to Italy for a semester abroad. Their marriage had shifted beneath them, they found they wanted different things. In the irony that is life, Peter and Lillie took a long walk on a cool September evening and came to the conclusion that they were better off apart than together. It was Peter who initiated the divorce.
Lillie grabbed her purse from the tiny entry table, rummaging for a pen. Even though this is what they had planned, in a million years she never thought she would be cresting middle age completely alone. She forced a smile.
“Here,” Peter extended a shiny black and silver Montblanc. The man was never without a beautiful pen. Lillie had given this one to him as a twentieth anniversary gift. “I’ve tabbed the spots where you’ll need to sign.”
“I’ll have it ready for you tomorrow.” Lillie said. “I made banana bread. Want to take a piece with you?”
“Smells good. I’d love some.” Peter followed her through the living room. “I’ve got just a cheese sandwich and an apple for lunch.”
“The fridge in the new place is a little bare, huh?” Lillie had taken extra time that morning to clean the kitchen. It looked inviting in the morning sunshine. The freshly baked loaf sat on a glass pedestal, still warm.
“It’s taking some getting used to.” Peter took a deep breath. “Gianna’s all set for her trip?”
“She’s stressed about having enough of her custom foundation, but I think she’s just nervous.” Lillie lobbed a generous slice from the loaf and wrapped it in a piece of foil.
“Did you tell her what I said?”
“That people wear makeup in Italy. Yes. She said your dad humor is on point.”
Peter laughed and looked down at the neat rectangle in his hands, sliding it slowly back and forth. “I wish things were different, Lil.”
“I know.” The silence settled in around them in the slanting sunlight. Finally Lillie spoke. “The real estate agent said that the buyers want to move in as soon as possible.”
“We had some good times here.”
“We did.” Lillie put the bread knife into the sink and wiped at tiny crumbs. Sadness filled the room, floating between them, specks of dust in a shaft of light.
“So there it is.” Peter sighed and knocked his knuckles on the counter. An old habit. Lillie had seen him do it a million times. It was irritating and endearing at the same time. She knew they were doing the right thing.
“Alright then, thanks for this” Peter picked up his care package and turned to go.
“I’ll call before I come,” he said, tipping his head towards the envelope. The pen still sat on top.
Lillie grabbed Peter’s hand and gave it a squeeze. His fingers were cold. The house seemed to sigh a little as he turned and left.
Lillie steadied herself on the cool marble countertop She looked at the envelope for a minute, poured herself another cup of coffee and sighed. She pulled the thick stack of papers out onto the counter and signed each page. She had read the document a hundred times over, she didn’t need to read it again. Community property, his and hers. Memories turned to numbers in a neat column row. She was done thinking about it. When she slid the papers back into the envelope, they caught on something. Lillie turned the envelope over and a small cream-colored letter dropped onto the counter. Her name was written on the front in Peter’s distinctive handwriting.
As part of our final agreement, I have added an amendment which includes the deed to my great aunt Margaret’s house in England. You always reminded me of her, and even though you never met, you would have loved each other. She had an incredible life. She left the house and the property to me when she died, but the will has been tied up in court for years. I want you to have it, but on one condition. You must go. Don’t wait around for me or for anyone. Just go. Make it your home – I know what you can do with a hammer and some nails – and create the life you want for yourself. Bring the family round, have all the big dinners, the celebrations, watch the grandkids run circles around the paddock. Take long walks and have a glass of wine for me. Find love, see the world, spread your wings.
Now that i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, there is one last thing you need to know. I have terminal cancer. Pancreatic, stage four. I found out two months ago, but I’ve suspected that something was wrong for a while. I have less than a year to live. I don’t want you to drop everything to take care of me, and I don’t want to talk about details right now. It is what it is, and I’m ok with what the future holds. I just want you to know that I’ve always loved you most of all.
In another life, Lillie would have picked up the phone, made calls, organized a calendar of meals, stopped the wheels from their inevitable turning; but instead, she allowed the house to hold her in it’s quiet embrace. She went to the windows overlooking the sea, and she sat with the heavy cream envelope on her lap for a long time, looking out at the horizon. She thought about the currents, those ancient paths, swirling along as the earth slowly turned beneath her. The infinite beauty of life, how fleeting it was. She imagined herself spreading her wings and flying, and for the first time in a very long time, she put her face in her hands and she cried.