For many years, Nora had an answer at the ready for whenever someone would ask why she was alone, why she always babysat for family and friends instead of having any children of her own, why she lived alone. The answer was always on her lips and floating around her heart. She would say it hundreds of times a day, either aloud to whoever asked or in those silent and evil nights where the time from dusk to dawn stretched on forever. Alone in their bed, she would repeat the answer until sleep would take her away. She had never seen the ocean that her husband left her for.
The men her husband worked for came by the house a year after he left. Large men in gaudy suits, hair cut close to each skull, all perfect in their authority. None of them had an answer for where her husband was. The waters were dangerous. The lifeboat wasn't found. There could be survivors. She pressed her lips tight together and nodded. He could still be alive, they told her, each man the same as the other. One mouth moved in speech and the words come from another's body. She nodded and they left her with a check and a promise for more.
Every year she grew older, her words more rare. Neighbors and sisters would bring their children to her house. A child with brown hair the color of a cornfield in the winter asked why Nora had no husband or children and Nora smiled, her lips losing all severity. "I do have a husband." When the child asked where he was, Nora told her the answer.
Some nights were better than others. On the good ones, she would relive their last night, alone together. The morning would bring separation. He was to board the ship and neither of them would know when they would see the other again. Sleep was an absent thought. They made love fast and slow, desperation propelling each closer to the edge again and again until they couldn't move. As the sun breached the horizon, they were wrapped in each other's arms, memorizing the warmth. When he couldn't stay any longer, he prepared for the day's journey. Before he left, he leaned over the bed she refused to leave and kissed her softly on her lips, lingering, telling her through the contact how much he wanted to stay home, to not ship out, to spend his life in bed beside her.
On the bad nights, she would dream of him, older, skin loose on his bones, in the port of a distant land she would never see. His arms would be around a girl, beautiful in the innocence the dream man was prepared take. He would lean in and lick her in a way he never licked Nora. They would shift to an unlit bedroom and Nora would wake praying not to remember what was seen.
After forty-seven years, a lifetime spent alone, Nora woke and when she opened her eyes, there he was, his hand on hers, his face the same as the day he left. His eyes were not milky like hers, his skin was not blemished or wrinkled. He was as beautiful as the day she vowed herself to him. He smiled and it glowed in the night.
“Where have you been?”
When he replied, it was her words coming from his lips, her answer: "At sea. I was at sea." He leaned down and kissed her, lingering like the last time their lips touched.
Her eyes closed and when she opened them again, she saw the ocean.
Chris Deal writes from Huntersville, North Carolina. Find him at www.Chris-Deal.com.