2014 Florida Writers Association Contest Winner
She looked beautiful. She always did. White tulips bound her hair back like a queen’s crown, and perfumed the air with mixed fragrances – sweetly scented flowers and ocean spray. Seagulls cried up and down the beach, waves lapped against the shore. And warm sand crunched between my toes.
“We are gathered here today,” the priest began, his black and white suit in stark contrast to his bare feet. “To honor the lives of Holly Hess and Michael Duval,” he went on.
I tried to focus on his words, but my brain felt awash and my nerves aflutter. Dizziness threatened to topple me. Silently, I thanked God that I still stood tall and hadn’t passed out. As clouds blocked out the sun and cast a great shadow on the congregation gathered around us, I thought of the events which led Holly and me here:
The first time we met, on a day when the weather had turned sunny after a morning of rain. With the boots on my feet splattered in mud, I waited at a bus stop with a closed umbrella in hand, shifting from foot-to-foot in anticipation of my interview. When whoa! There crossing the street a gorgeous girl approached. She wore a yellow dress embroidered with roses, and white sandals strapped up her ankles. She was soaking wet. Damp hair clung to her cheeks.
“I didn’t have an umbrella,” she said to me with a smile, which touched the corners of her full, hazel eyes. She moved up beside me and stuck out her hand. “Hi, my name is Holly.”
The priest looked up and asked for the rings. As he took them into his hands, I swallowed and tried to smile, but the flood of memories was too great, and they rushed my thoughts.
“So what is your name?” Holly asked me. “You never told me.”
“Uh,” I said. We sat side-by-side on the bus heading into town, tires roaring on asphalt and the air humid and sticky. “Michael,” I told her.
“We should do this again.” The bus jerked to a stop. Holly rose to her feet and shouldered a bag. “Well, this is me. Hey,” she took a pen from her bag, grabbed my hand, and wrote her number on the back of it. “Give me a call tonight. I want to know how your interview went.”
So I called her.
And we had our first date: coffee at Starbucks, with jazz thumping through the store’s Muzak and the world spinning all around us.
Holly slipped the golden band on my ring finger. With delight in her eyes, she began to repeat the priest’s words.
Our first kiss, embraced in each other’s arms beside a deep, black bay and a busy Hathaway Bridge. And the moon and stars filled the sky like a million witnesses.
I was saying the vows now. The ring was on Holly’s finger, and I held onto her hands. The seagulls continued to caw, while the constant howl of the wind and waves filled my ears. This was it. No turning back.
“Are you sure?” Holly ruffled the neck of a shaggy West Terrier. “There’s no turning back.”
“I don’t want to turn back,” I said. I ran my fingers through his fur, and the little guy licked my palm. “He can stay at my place. What do you want to name him?”
“Hmmm,” she scooped the puppy into her arms. “How about Muddy, like your boots the first time we met.”
“Hey,” she protested. “You said ‘no turning back’.”
Holly’s hair whipped with the wind, her eyes gleaming as they peered into mine. The priest continued to speak, asking the crowd something about objections, but to me there was no one else standing on that beach with their toes in the sand. Just the two of us, though we almost didn’t make it.
It was raining on the day of our break-up, too. I stood before Holly’s apartment, clothes dripping wet, as I banged on her door. And I could hear Muddy yapping loudly at the sound of my voice. “Open the door, Holly! We need to talk.”
“There is nothing to talk about,” came her choked reply.
An old girlfriend who still held a grudge had found me on Facebook. She spammed my inbox with comments about “last night,” saying she had “a wonderful time.” Holly saw the posts and put two-and-two together.
“She hacked into my account,” I argued through the door. “I haven’t talked to her in years! Please, Holly, at least let me in.” I paused. I had yet to say the words, but I swallowed and steadied my breathing because I knew that I meant them. “I love you.”
Silence. Even the dog stopped barking. Chains rattled, the lock clicked, and Holly opened the door.
Holly said, “I do.” Two little words. But coming from Holly’s own lips, they meant everything to me. I felt warm tears streak my cheeks. They tasted like sweat. After wiping them away, I readied myself to say them in return.
“Will you marry me?” I asked Holly, at sunset on the beach. “I promise to be faithful and true, to love and support you, to always cherish you, from this day forward to the next.” I smiled and showed her the ring.
She cried and said, “Yes!”
And afterward, as we walked hand-in-hand and made plans for our future, I had never felt such joy.
Until now. Surrounded by our loved ones and all who supported us, I was ready to create a new memory, a new first.
“Do you, Michael Duval, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, your constant friend, your faithful partner and love from this day forward? In the presence of God, your family and friends, do you promise to be faithful in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow? Do you promise to love her unconditionally, to support her in her goals, to honor and respect her, to laugh with her and cry with her, and to cherish her for as long as you both shall live?”
And with those two little words, my life took a first step to wonderful.