He’d been so determined to not get into this mess again! But here he was.
He sighed. Leaned forward to place his elbows on his knees and rest his chin on his hands. The river flowed past, rippling in the gentle breeze.
“Everything all right?” The old man asked.
“Ya." He gave him a quick look. Hoped he would leave him alone. “Just watching the river.”
The man nodded, “This is my favorite spot to sit and think. It’s peaceful.”
“It’s a nice spot to peacefully think – if you’re alone.” His thoughts spun turbulently, “Maybe it’s my lot in life. Maybe I can’t help it. I just have bad luck with beautiful women. Maybe I can’t help but be like my dad? Maybe there is something wrong with us. I should run now, run and never look back. I won’t though. I know I won’t. I can’t leave her. I’ll lose her if I can’t commit, but I don’t know if I can marry her. How will I know when she’s going to just up and leave me? Maybe she won’t leave me. But how do you know with love?”
The question popped out before he could stop it, “Were you happily married?” He couldn’t believe he’d just said that out loud to a perfect stranger.
The man nodded. “For fifty-six years. My wife passed away three years ago.” He soaked in the spring air. “This was her favorite time of year, watching the cherry trees bloom.”
The young man glanced up at the trees just budding into pink. “How did you know she was the right one?”
The old man grinned. “She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.”
Zeke rolled his eyes and made a deprecating sound. Those were the worst kind. They waited until you’d fallen madly, hopelessly in love with them, and then they smashed your heart to a million pieces.
The old man grunted, “You got a problem with that?”
“Maybe you got lucky. I don’t have good luck with beautiful women.”
The silver eyebrows went up.
“I’ve dated a lot of beautiful woman, and I do mean beautiful, but Lilian,” - just thinking about her made his heart beat faster – “is so much more beautiful than all of them. Even put together. I love her more than I’ve ever loved anyone.” He sighed. “That’s the problem.”
The old man looked troubled. “Lillian? So you must be Zeke. The town gossip is ripe with you two and your relationship. Lillian is a very beautiful woman. You’re a lucky guy. A very lucky guy. That kind of beauty is rare.” He was silent for a moment, contemplating the young man. “So what’s the problem? How is loving her more than you’ve ever loved anyone a problem?”
Zeke ran his hands through his hair. “She’s perfect. She’s everything a guy could want. I can’t leave her. I know I should. Everything in me knows it, but I want her. I know she’ll leave me. I know it,” he repeated in despair, “but I can’t walk away.”
The old man frowned. “How do you know she’ll leave you?”
He tossed his hands. “They always do. My mom left Dad and me when I was five years old. She was a model. My first girlfriend was the prettiest cheerleader in high school and she cheated on me with my best friend. In college, I dated the most popular girl in school – until she walked out on me. I always tried to be the perfect boyfriend, I did everything I could so they wouldn’t leave me, but I guess it’s my luck. I’m just like my dad. We like beautiful woman, we can’t help it, but they smash our hearts to a million pieces.”
The old man nodded in thought. He moved down the bench next to the distraught young man. “Son, God created women to be special. But if all you want is a beautiful face and body, you’re going to get burned. Marriage is more than that. It’s more than loving a beautiful face. You’ll get tired of a cover. They aren’t much help when times get tough,” He picked up the tattered book next to him, “I love this book, and I’ve had it for a very long time. I listen to the audio copy at least twice a year. I pretty much have it memorized. It may not be the best story, or the most complex, but something about it draws me back to it over and over. The cover made me pick it up, but the story is what I can’t get enough of. A bad story can have a really good cover. You’ve been falling in love with covers. Pretty coffee table books that might as well be blank on the inside. A plain woman can have a good heart, and a beautiful woman can have a good heart. What’s important is their character. Character is what takes you through the ups and downs, and stays committed to make a happily ever after. My Joyce was a beautiful woman with a beautiful heart.” He grinned, “Oh, she had a great cover, but her insides were what took us through the good and the bad. I loved her.”
Zeke took a deep breath, “But how do you know when you love the person on the inside?”
The old man smiled, “You’ll know. I’ve lived a lot of years, been a young man, seen lots of young men, and when you can answer that question for yourself, it’ll be a sign that you’re ready to make that commitment. When in that moment all you care about is her heart, her wellbeing, regardless of what she is looking like at the moment, that’s true love. For some, that moment doesn’t come until after marriage, it didn’t for me. I think for you it might need to come before you’re ready to make that commitment. I know it might sound impossible for a red blooded American male, but in the meantime, you have to try to forget about the outside. Put on a blindfold if necessary, and get to know her.”
Zeke watched the river thoughtfully. “Is that even possible? How can you ignore what somebody like Lilian looks like?”
The first of the autumn leaves were falling as Zeke ran along beside the river. He saw the old man sitting on the bench and stopped to catch his breath, “Howdy.”
The man smiled. “Hey you. Having a good run?”
“I’m having a terrific run!”
“Good. How is that relationship going?”
“I’m proposing tonight!”
A slow grin spread across the old man’s face, “I like the certainty I hear in your voice. You’re ready. When did you know?”
Zeke smiled slowly. “Well, it’s like this, I flew in to surprise her. And I kept thinking about our conversation and that I needed to forget about the outside and think about her. But all I kept thinking about is how beautiful she was. And then I walked in on her helping her brother with a remodel project….she looked absolutely exhausted. She was covered in dirt from head to toe, wearing ugly, baggy, paint stained, ripped clothes, her hair was piled on top of her head in a dusty matted mess, and one of her friend’s kids had just spit up all over her. It was not what I had envisioned, and it was not a pretty sight. She looked at me with her beautiful eyes twinkling and said, “Well, this is awkward.” And then her smile softened, and she reached for my hand and said, “You looked tired. I’ll make you some coffee.” I’d just got off a redeye flight and I was exhausted. I wanted to kiss her more then than I ever had, and I never wanted to let go of her hand. In that moment, the weight of the world fell off my shoulders, I knew I loved her, the woman on the inside. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to be with her.”
“You definitely are. Lillian is beautiful in a special kind of way. They don’t make them like her often.”
Zeke waved his hands in frustration, “That’s what everyone always says. But do they know how wonderful she is on the inside? What a good heart she has? Anyone can have a beautiful face, but she’s special all the way through!”
The old man smiled slowly, “No need to tell me that son,” he turned his head towards the river, “I know.” He stood up slowly, giving his bones time to adjust to the commands being given them, “She is beautiful.”
He walked off down the path tapping his white and red cane in front of him.