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The flickering yellow light from the candles seemed to wrap the table in a kind of floating gauze. Her head felt light from too much wine, and it seemed that her body was covered in a warm, soft blanket. They had shared many dinners with Michael and Denise, mostly pizzas. But this would be the last dinner they would share for a long time. Sarah wanted to take the cozy, comfortable feeling with her when she left. So, she sat at the table and absorbed as much of the warmth as she could while country music twanged quietly in the background.

They had said their good-byes lightly, with laughter and occasional hugs. The four years had been a growing experience for all of them: raising kids, living without much money, debating everything from McGovern and McCarthy to country western music versus the Beatles. They listened to each other’s domestic quarrels, and never once did they find anything to agree about regarding the war that brought them to the Air Force Base in Tucson, AZ.

Their parties, dinner, and holiday get-togethers during those four years had been personal gifts to each other, gifts of fun and family, which both couples had been deprived of during those years. Somehow, the traded knowledge of their similarities and their differences, had made indelible marks on their psyches during card games, picnics, and afternoons at the pool, and these experiences became part of the fabric of each one’s life. Sarah and Steve were going back to the Midwest to start again—a fresh start out of the desert, away from cactus, dust, lizards and far from their Air Force family. They were returning to their real family, sometimes wondering if they would find the same kind of warmth and closeness there.

Michael and Sarah moved to the couch, while Steve helped Denise clear the table. They visited in the kitchen, while Michael cast his gaze straight ahead, not looking at Sarah. He sat closer to her than usual, though, and she recognized that the warmth she felt from his body was different.

“It never occurred to me that you and Steve would actually move,” Michael stated abruptly. “I just didn’t think you’d go.” His voice was low, soft and somewhat shaking with emotion.

For fear of crying, Sarah didn’t try to see his face, but laid her hand on his leg. Having never permitted herself to touch him with any familiarity, Michael being Denise’s husband and all, Sarah felt she was doing something that bordered on decadence. But she didn’t move her hand.

“It’s just been so. . . I don’t know. It’s just been hard to imagine what it will be like when you are gone. You know, Sarah, I never meant any of our fights. It’s okay if we don’t agree on anything. I’ll miss the fact that you won’t be around to drive me crazy.”

“Well, Michael, we can always fight on the phone,” Sarah said, trying to be lighthearted. “I mean, we’ll probably be back sometime, and we will stay in touch in between times. You’ll be happy not to have the aggravation around. You can listen to your country western music at parties, and no one will turn on rock to wreck your night. And you won’t have to visit with my other hippy friends around the pool; I’ll bet they’ll avoid you if I’m not around. Really, Michael, you have a good life, and you know I will be somewhere thinking about you and Denise and the kids.”

Michael took hold of Sarah’s hand and held it quietly for a few moments. He then let her hand drop when Steve and Denise entered the room again, laughing over something that had happened in the kitchen. Sarah got up and put her arms around Denise and gave her a kiss. She then hugged Michael, looking into his blue eyes that appeared as though there was an ache behind his intense gaze. “You know, we can’t stay, don’t you?” she commented quietly. “I know,” Michael replied.


Now, sixteen years later, Sarah sat in the Burger King and waited to see Michael once again. She was in town for a few days at a conference for work that she had not expected to attend. The suddenness with which she had to make travel arrangements, and the anxiety she felt about leaving home, had initially blunted the emotional turmoil that she was now experiencing, being back in the city that had meant so much to her so very long ago.

Sarah hadn’t expected to call anymore, but seeing the Tucson telephone book in the hotel room, she was prompted to look up a few familiar names. And there it was in small black letters. She dialed the number before she could think about it, and heard a little girl’s voice at the other end of the phone.

“Daddy, it’s one of your old girlfriends,” the young voice shouted. A soft, western “hello” was suddenly on the other line.

“Michael? I don’t know if you’ll remember me. But we kind of grew up together about sixteen years ago. This is Sarah, Sarah Gannon Mitchell from 1242 Roberts Way. I heard your daughter say it’s one of your old girlfriends. It would be more accurate to say I am one of your old neighbors.”

“No, Kristy was right. It is an old girlfriend. Of course, I remember you, Sarah. I never forgot you. But where are you now? You sound so close?”

“I am close. I am here in town. I just got in for a conference tomorrow, and took a bit of time to work up the nerve to call a few people from my past life. I was afraid you would think I am nuts.”

“No, God, no. I am glad you called. I’m just kind of shocked. I can’t believe it. Give me a little time to get used to the idea that you are back in Tucson.”

They talked for about an hour, trying to cover 16 years that had gone by as best they could. Denise and Michael had been divorced five years ago. Both were remarried, but Denise was getting a divorce from her second husband, for whom she had moved across country to be with. She was living with her sister now on the east coast. The kids told Michael about the divorce, but he didn’t have many details, he said.

“She would love to hear from you,” he commented, offering Denise’s phone number.

Sarah’s letter 13 years ago had reported her divorce from Steve, and Michael knew that Sarah had reluctantly accepted a marriage proposal three years later. They agreed it seemed strange that things could have changed so drastically since the last letters. Michael said his hair was getting grey now, but he was glad that he at least had hair. Some people said he looks like a hippy, Michael said, but he certainly didn’t welcome the statement. Sarah told Michael that she had gained a bit of weight since they were last together, but she added, “I still like hippies, Michael.”

Sarah was taken back by how soft his voice was. “You sound like you’ve mellowed a bit, Michael,” she said cautiously. “Do you think we would still fight about everything like we used to? Are you still the stubborn redneck of days past?”

“Oh, I’ve mellowed, but we’d probably still fight,” he laughed. “Haven’t you ever figured out why we fought so much, Sarah? I thought you were a smart girl.”

Sarah thought about the statement as she sat in the Burger King, where they agreed to meet, wondering if she would recognize Michael. He said he could not stay long, and that he would have to bring the kids because he was babysitting. But he said he wanted to see her.

Michael had told her on the phone that he was remarried to a girl who was 17 years younger than him. He said it was hard for him when Denise left, and he stopped living for about a year. When he finally picked himself up again, it was the vitality and freeness of the young girls that made him feel young again—and good about himself. His new wife was pretty, blond and easy going, he said. He was willing to take care of her and of her young son, if she would marry him. Michael said he felt her easy-going approach to life would be more compatible with his intense, emotional nature. Michael seemed to hedge words describing his marriage, as though it had not turned out the way he had planned.

Sarah sat in the booth and watched cars come into the parking lot, wondering if Michael would be in a pick-up truck, a van, or a sport’s car. She wondered if it was politeness or respect for the past that prompted him to dredge up sufficient interest to see her after all those memories of another life had been packed away. She wondered why she felt a sort of troubled energy.

Suddenly, a tall man with slightly bent shoulders and greying hair that curled around his neck ambled into view. A teenage girl was holding his hand, and a little boy was hanging onto his leg. Sarah left the booth and walked to the Burger King door, opening it for the family, as though she was a hostess, welcoming an old friend into her home. Michael walked in and stood for a moment, looking directly into her eyes. He put his arms around her and hugged her for a long time. They sat down, got the kids situated, and studied each other’s faces.

Michael had not changed, not exactly. He had a comfortable, commanding presence that made him seem stronger and larger than she remembered. His laughter was quiet and warm and his eyes sparkled more than she was prepared for. His voice was softer and more sensuous than she wanted to acknowledge.

Sarah tried to contain her sense of being out of control while sitting in the Burger King booth. “This is a hamburger place, and I haven’t seen the man in 16 years. I hardly know him anymore,” she thought to herself.

They talked about their divorces, discussed their college-age kids, and Michael asked how Steve was doing. Sarah recognized the little boy as he climbed over the chairs in the restaurant, and recognized the sacrifice that Michael had made to start over with such a young child for the love of his young wife. She asked Tracey, Denise and Michael’s youngest daughter, what it was like in school. Michael recounted some of the fights that he and Sarah had had, and how Sarah had burst into tears during one particularly heated debate. He laughed as he recounted pulling Sarah from the house by the arm to show her the kills he had made in the White Mountains. Sarah had objected to hunting and wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of acknowledging his success at the time. Sarah laughed at herself as Michael told the story. “I don’t think I’m quite that inflexible anymore,” she told Tracey.

“Is your dad still the over-protective warrior?” Sarah asked. Tracey looked at her father and nodded. That hasn’t changed, Sarah thought.

“He taught me what a redneck is,” Sarah commented. “He also taught me to laugh and argue at the same time. Those were good times,” Sarah added, glancing briefly at Michael.

“I had two wives in those days,” Michael remarked.”

It had been 16 years since they said good-bye to one another. Sixteen years of marriages, divorces, and millions of problems with kids, health and hormones. She knew, looking into his clear, direct gaze, that he had been through a lot. She felt a sense of guilt, not having been there to help Michael or Denise through their difficult times. She didn’t know if her sunken cheeks or the slight wrinkles around her eyes exposed the reality of her past. Sarah, too, had suffered a version of hell. Seeing Michael, she felt the years drop away, as though nothing had come between them.

They sat at the Burger King, staring at each other and talking, for over an hour. She leaned across the table to get as close as she could to him. Heat crawled up her neck, and she could feel her cheeks reddening.

The kids were tired of sitting in the booth, and questioned if they could go home. Michael and Sarah took the hint and walked out into the parking lot. It was much hotter in the Tucson afternoon sunshine, and Sarah squinted once outside. Stopping in the middle of the parking lot, before they reached her car, Sarah turned around and hugged Michael. Burying her face against his neck, she looked up and kissed him on the cheek. He held her tightly, his broad shoulders calming her inner frenzy, saying nothing. As he moved to kiss her on the cheek, his lips brushed hers, as if by accident.

Once at the car, Michael stopped and turned to her. “When are you leaving? I’d like to call before you go.”

“I’ll be here a couple days,” Sarah responded.

During her hour drive back to the hotel where the conference was being held, Sarah tried to focus on the road, but Michael’s face appeared in the windshield. Once in her room, Sarah sat down on the bed and began to cry. Was their meeting so emotionally exhausting, she asked herself? She laid in the dark and tried to compose herself, questioning her sanity at having been so stirred by Michael's presence. They were children in those days, trying to raise children, and approaching life with simplicity that Sarah had not known since.

Why was she so upset by the visit, she questioned herself? Why did her brain feel like it was on fire? “I’m happy with my life,” she insisted to herself. “I don’t want to go back to those days.” But in the dark her body ached. She thought of the times she had read Peter Pan and cried when Wendy became too old to return to Neverland with Peter.

Sarah fell into a deep sleep, laying on the bed with her clothes on. Sometime during a dream, she heard ringing. Once awake, she recognized that it was the phone. Sarah leaned over and picked up the receiver from the phone that sat on the nightstand, thinking it must be someone from the hotel.

“Hello,” she answered, still partially asleep.

The voice on the line was soft but anxious. “I want to see you again,” Michael stated. “I need to talk with you some more.”

Sarah remained still for a moment, trying to catch her breath. In the dark, she felt as though she was swirling back through sixteen years of her life.

“I can see you tomorrow, if you are available,” he continued. “Will you meet me over by the old house?”

Instinctively she knew that the “old house” were the apartments on Roberts Way where they used to live. She wanted to go back there while she was in Tucson, just to make the memories more real.

“I’d love to see Roberts Way again, Michael,” Sarah responded. “It would be great to see it together. Are you available tomorrow afternoon? I think we get out of the conference at about 4 p.m.”

The next day was similarly sunny. Sarah sat on the brick fence where she once placed her children and Michael’s two children for a photo. The photos had kept those memories fresh. The apartments were still bleached red brick with festive orange trim, and the Prickly Pear cactus outside her unit had grown at least three feet higher. There was no sign of the marigolds she had once planted next to the door and regularly watered during the blazing summer. No sign of the picnic table where they sat so many evenings watching the children play. As her eyes wandered to the corner of the complex where Michael and Denise used to live, Sarah was startled by a warm hand on her waist.

Michael lifted her off the brick fence and placed her on the gravel that had served as their front and side yards so many years ago. She recalled having driven into the front of the house, when she and Steve first arrived in Tucson, not knowing that the cars stayed in the back on the gravel. Michael gazed into her eyes and bent over to kiss her adamantly on the lips, a kiss that sent a wave of heat through her body. Sarah let herself be carried into the fog of her emotions. She opened her eyes to see him looking at her with a steady, almost fierce intensity.

“I had to do that,” he said to her. “I’m sorry if it upsets you. I just needed to do that. I wasn’t going to wait another 16 years.”

“It’s okay,” Sarah murmured, thinking to herself, “I feel like I am home again.”

They walked around the lot, holding hands, and peering into the apartments they once had occupied. They didn’t talk once he drove her to a nearby motel; she understood what he wanted. Once there, they walked inside quietly, comfortably, neither one doubting what the other had in mind.

There was no resemblance to anything either one of them had known, but once inside the small room, it was as though they had entered a home of their own. “Better than the Burger King,” Sarah laughed. Michael put his arms around her and kissed her neck softly. He gradually held her face in his hands and kissed her lips softly, with a reverence she had not experienced before.

Saran undressed and laid her clothes on a nearby chair, and then crawled under the covers to stay warm while Michael went into the bathroom. Suddenly, with the light at his back, Michael walked out of the bathroom with a bottle of white wine in one hand, and paper cups in the other.

“Where in the world did you get that?” Sarah laughed. She smiled, seeing him naked with a towel around him, pulling the cork out of the bottle.

“I thought you might be nervous,” he commented, laughing. “Actually, I thought I might be nervous.”

He crawled into the bed with the bottle and paper cups, and sat on his knees, steadying the cup as he poured the wine. They shared a cup, sipping as they touched each other’s skin for the first time.

They talked of nothing sensible, of no memories and with no shame. They laughed about the change in their appearance, and softly touched each line and scar that offered a story. They made love with a heated intensity and comfortable abandon that came from understanding each other for so long. It was a passion sprinkled with delight, as though the gift that had been saved for a long time in a closet, was finally opened.

As he held her from the back, still captured inside her, his moist breath warmed the back of her neck. Sarah smiled peacefully as she rested her head on his chest, which moved in and out with rhythm.

“You are good for me,” Michael whispered in her ear. “I was just thinking, wondering …” But no other words followed. They fell asleep, holding each other in a protected cocoon of their love. They woke in a dark room to the noise outside the door. In the quiet dark, they made love again.

As they went to the car, Sarah slipped her arm through Michael’s. “I love you,” Sarah offered without embarrassment. “I think I’ve always loved you, Michael. I don’t know what you can do with that, what you want to do with that. I just wanted you to know. Use it whatever way you want, and let my love make you happy when you need it, or forget it when you don’t want to think about it. Just know there is someone out there who loves you.”

As Sarah looked over the desert from the plane, she thought she saw the rooftops of the apartments where she and Michael had lived so many years ago. “I’ve got to go,” she told him earlier. “I know,” he commented. “I was just wondering. . .” He then stopped. There was no sorrow in his eyes, only a sort of fire.

She waved from the window of the plane, knowing that he was waving at her from somewhere in the desert.


The smell of moist creosote was permeating the air. Sarah remembered the many afternoons that she laid down for a rest when her kids were napping. She remembered the smell of the coming monsoon rains. The desert in July was scorching until the afternoon rains fell and brought the smell of mold, from the moist creosote, through the air. She missed the smell. It gave her a sense of being young and being home.

Sitting in the Burger King, waiting to see Michael, all she could think of was to say, “Please understand. We aren’t going to play any head games with each other. We’re not going to pretend, fanaticize, or be anything except who we really are. We’re going to keep our relationship real. I’ve got to remain real. I’ve got to remain sane,” she thought.

But she didn’t have the presence of mind to say that to Michael while she was on the phone with him a few months ago. And she didn’t know if she would feel that way the next time she saw him. But just at that moment, holding on to the table so as not to slip from reality, she felt it was very important to her. No head games.

For two years since her last visit, her brain had been on fire. She had tried to return to what she considered her normal life, but their conversations always left her with a longing for the fire in the desert. It wasn’t as though he had ever asked anything of her. Only offering that he was happier when he could talk with her, Michael tried to protect her peace of mind by candidly and frequently sharing the details of his life on the phone. He sent her poems filled with emotion and an expression of who he is. Sarah knew they both used the memory of the fire to make the difficult days easier.

She greeted him at the Burger King door, taking his hand and smiling so wide she felt her lips might crack. She couldn’t help it. He appeared more handsome than ever, with his greying hair and his aging face.

They talked for an hour about their lives, the current problems with kids, money and the overpopulation of the desert. Hunting was his passion. He reveled in the tranquility and the honesty of the desert mountains. Sarah talked about her work, asked Michael’s opinions of the national elections, and they talked about recent concerts he or she attended. They talked until the warmth of his hand on her knee prompted her to suggest they leave.

Once at the same motel, which appeared a bit in decline, Michael took Sarah’s hand and they entered the same room they had been in before. The drapes in the budget motel were missing the pull cord, so they pinned them in the middle and crawled into bed.

“I’ve always been attracted to strong women,” Michael told her. “But I thought because of what happened with Denise, I should settle down with someone who needs me more than I need her. I thought it might be better to marry someone who was too young to be inflexible.” Michael continued to say that his theory hadn’t worked out too well. His current young wife was asking him to get a better job, and to move to a foothills home. He said he knew he couldn’t afford that lifestyle, nor did he want it. But, he said, he wanted her to be happy, since he had convinced her not to have any more children.

Sarah knew full well, listening to his conversation, that strong women were attractive to Michael, women like Denise, women like herself, because they reflected his self-image. He never strived to be a world beater, or to become someone else’s definition of success, but he occasionally admired those who did. Denise had left him because she wanted to become what he admired in other women. Michael’s strength had become Denise’s stumbling block. For Michael, the battle of life was getting by with his hands and in his head. He worked to keep a balance between joy, freedom and responsibility, while maintaining a simplicity that didn’t fit into a driven world.

Sarah wanted to rest in Michael’s strength of commitment to simplicity, to permit herself to be swept away to the desert of minimal expectations, and easy-living responsibility. “I’ve this longing,” she confessed to her daughter one evening, a month earlier, while they sat by a fire in the backyard. Sarah knew she required only a momentary recall of her family and her life to remind herself that she would have to return to her responsibilities as a wife, mother, daughter and friend.

“Do you know how important you are to me?” Michael asked softly. Sarah thought she could feel him trembling under the sheets.

“Do you know what you mean to me?” she asked. “Do you know that when we are joined like this, my body is your body? And that when we are apart, when we can’t touch each other, that my heart and soul are yours? Forever and ever, amen, Michael. I love you like I love my life.”

They laid quietly, Sarah’s head on Michael’s chest, holding each other for almost an hour, a period that would serve as a long and protected memory.

Suddenly Sarah jumped out of bed, grabbed her jeans, and walked toward the bathroom. “Where are you going?” Michael asked, somewhat stunned. He grabbed at her, attempting to pull her back into bed.

Sarah stumbled backward and landed on the bed. Michael threw his arms around her and held her tightly. “I’ve got to go,” she whispered.

Rolling over, he shook his head and kissed her on the forehead. “I know,” he said. I was just wondering,” he added, without finishing the sentence.

On the plane, Sarah closed her eyes and tried to begin at the beginning, recalling everything Michael had said to her in their times together. “Keep talking,” she had urged him. “I need a million words to take with me, for the months that I will be talking to you in my head.”


The hot wind grazed her cheek as she stepped from the cab in Tucson. She was on her way to the desert, barely knowing where she was going, but heading there with an inner purpose that had the nature of an automatic pilot. After two years of nursing her husband before his death, and another two years of trying to regain a semblance of purpose after his death, Sarah felt she needed a vacation. She decided to visit Tucson without expectation, still warmed by the memory of her last day in the desert. When she lost her husband of 20 years, she had waited for days to cry once everyone was gone. He had provided her with security and love, and she had been a dutiful wife. Except for her brief visits to the desert, Sarah knew she had been a good spouse, a kind of trophy wife for her husband’s work life, and a cooperating partner in his advancements.

She gradually became used to growing older alone after his death, but began to feel dry and old, wondering if that is all there is to it, just moving toward the time when she would start disintegrating. But early one morning, after the second year of widowhood had passed, she decided that she needed to go to the desert, that it was the desert where she would find life again.

It was the phone call that would be the hardest. Michael and she had not talked for almost ten years, after he had divorced his second and married his third wife, and after he took on the care of his later-in-life child who had been born with a disability. She knew that he was still hunting, and she knew that he still saw his other grown children. But they had not spoken intimately since she called to let him know she would not be able to travel again while her husband was ill. That was over five years ago.

After all those years, it would be a phone call that would determine if Michael felt any desire to speak with her. At 53, she could understand why he might want to be left alone. The premium he placed on simplicity could not be overstated. He would not want anything to complicate the smooth life he had made for himself. Sarah tried to convince herself that she wouldn’t be hurt by his indifference, if that was Michael’s decision. She knew she understood who he would be, now that he was older. “How life changes things,” Sarah thought as she made the phone call. She was stunned when the same soft voice answered the call.


“I’m in town, Michael. I am sorry to surprise you like this, but I was wondering if you would be able to get together sometime.”

The words echoed in her ears, seeming to take hours to complete. His delayed response prolonged the anguish.

“Where are you?” he asked. “I can be right there.”

Again, Sarah walked toward the Burger King with controlled excitement. She took her seat, feeling rather old and very dry. She and Michael were about the same age, but she felt she had aged much quicker since her husband died, as though the loss had accelerated her drying up. But as Michael entered the restaurant, she saw that he looked no different than he had over 10 years ago. He smiled and she saw that there were crinkles around his eyes. His beard was totally grey now, as were his eyebrows.

“You never cease to amaze me, Sarah,” he commented as he approached. Taking her hand, he pulled her up from her seat at the booth and put his arms around her. “You just never cease to amaze me.”

Sarah and Michael sat next to each other in the booth and talked about the last decade of their lives. Sarah described that despite the problems she had with her husband’s infidelity during their marriage, that he had loved her well. Michael listened to her, his arms around her as she laid her head on his shoulder.

Michael related that his wife had been sick for several months, and that she had died slowly. The experience had taught him to be more of a nurturer, he said. He talked about how he had had to bathe and dress her, and clean the house. Michael said he had cooked all the meals, and enjoyed a sense of satisfaction that came from providing a valuable service. He said he enjoyed that someone depended upon him, and that he had made her pain a bit easier along the way. He had become a rock, he said, rather than the rolling stone he once thought of himself.

As the evening went on, Michael and Sarah drove again to the motel they had thought of as their home together. The evening sky turned pink and blue, as Michael and Sarah entered the room. Once in the room, they closed the drapes, which had been replaced, and sat on the bed.

With a heated sense of singular purpose, the two held each other, touching each other’s skin as they helped each other undress. Slipping under the covers, they felt the warmth and familiarity of each other’s skin, and the fire engulfed them in their personal pleasure. With a sense of comfortable oneness, Sarah felt Michael’s hands caress her entire body, his lips kiss the crevices of skin, and she let the forgotten rush of passion take her into the fire in the desert.

When the sun broke through the cracked drapes, the next morning, Michael held her tight under the covers. “I’ve got to go,” he said softly, kissing the back of her neck. “I know,” she murmured from her sleep. “I was just wondering. . . ” she started, and then stopped, realizing it would not be fair.


Barbara E. Dolan was a journalist for Lerner Newspaper in Chicago, and won a National Newspaper Association honorable mention award for commentary writing.  Ms. Dolan became editor for the Hospital Medical Staff Section monthly newsletter for the American Medical Association, and later accepted the position of managing editor for the American Academy of Dermatology’s Dermatology Times.  Ms. Dolan wrote the comprehensive community plans for the City of Wood Dale and the housing report for the City of Elgin. After raising two children, Ms. Dolan became a licensed clinical professional counselor. She has written and self-published six children’s picture books for her grandchildren, and is working on a middle-school fiction story for her 13- and 15-year-old granddaughters. She has published her short story, Ships that Pass in the Night, in the Literary Yard online magazine, March 16, 2021.


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