I’m here by choice, I kept telling myself. You have a home to return to when this is all over. You decided to come here, and look after your parents through this, you’re here by choice.
My mom and dad were older when they had me, Ellie, short for Elliot, their only child. They were amazing parents, and I never gave it a second thought when the pandemic broke out and quarantine was rumored to start, that I would go home to be with them. Janice and Dan Miller, my parents, were in their early seventies. I called after watching a press conference about the city going on lockdown within twenty-four hours. I told them I’d be at their house before lunch tomorrow. My mother was thrilled, and I began packing as soon as I hung up the phone.
I lived in a condo in Chicago’s Fulton Market district, that had a beautiful view of the river. I knew returning to suburban life would be an adjustment. I was young, single and active, life in in rural Indiana was the opposite of all of those things. I made trip after trip, packing what I thought I’d need, for how long, I didn’t know into my Volvo hatchback. The car was filled to the seams with my belongings. The next morning, I grabbed my tabby cat, Homer, turned down my thermostat and closed the door to my condo. It felt like I was closing the door on a part of my life as a whole.
Homer sat curled up in his carrier on the front seat as I headed east towards the home that I grew up in. I pulled off of the toll road, just over the border and grabbed a cup of coffee through the drive thru. I had not made coffee at my place, afraid that’d I’d leave the pot on or forget to clean it out before I left. I pulled into a parking space and sipped my coffee. I had also gotten a bottle of water and poured a little water for Homer, into a small plastic dish. He wasn’t interested. I petted him while I sipped my coffee, savoring my last few moments by myself. I pulled back onto the toll road after I had drank half of my coffee. Homer was not thrilled to be put back in the carrier, and he made his displeasure known as he hissed at me.
Three hours later I pulled into the small town of Murdoch, Indiana, the town that I had grown up in. The population was only about three thousand. There was main street and a few blocks of town, but beyond that, it was corn fields. At this time of year, everything was still dormant, and dead. Early March was always the bleakest time of year. The entire town was set in a twelve-block square. Most of the houses on Lincoln street, where my parent’s house was were Victorian. My mom and dad owned the house on the corner of Lincoln and 2nd Street. The large white Victorian house stood proudly as it always had. My dad had always kept the best lawn on the block, and my mother gardened constantly in the warmer months. I always thought my house was the prettiest house in town. As I pulled up, I thought the house and yard looked a little tired, even for March. I tried to push the realization that perhaps it was all too much for my parents to care for in their later years.
I pulled my car onto the brick-paved driveway and looked over at Homer who slept in his carrier. I knew this was the end of time of my life and the beginning of a new part that lay out ahead of me unknown. I got out of the car, and the cold wind blew past me. I had left my coat in the back seat as I scurried around to grab Homer. My dad spotted me and came out onto the porch.
“Where’s your coat pumpkin?” he asked as I approached the front porch with its wide-planked steps.
“Hi Daddy, it’s in the back seat. I didn’t want to drive in it.”
I wrapped my free arm around my dad and held Homer’s cage in the other. He embraced me tightly.
“Your mother had been waiting for you all morning, she’s already cooking.”
We both laughed, and I stepped into the house in front of my dad. That familiar smell of the home I had grown up in was still there. It smelled of old house, years of freshly baked bread and cookies, and roses. Mom always had a vase of fresh roses on the dining room table, not matter the time of year. I set homer down in the living room and went in search of my mother who was standing in front of the old stove. When they bought the house there was a stove from the 1950’s in the kitchen, and my dad hated it but my mother loved it. The stove was the most modern piece in the kitchen, and she loved her farm kitchen as she called it. She turned around as she heard the swinging door move between the dining room and the kitchen.
“Hi Mom,” I said as I walked in.
The room smelled liked homemade chicken soup, one of my favorites, and baking double chocolate cookies. I looked over at her brown stripped bowl that was about as old as her. The dishtowel laid over the top let me know she had bread rising in it. My mouth watered at the eventual meal of homemade soup and bread, with cookies for dessert.
“Hi Sweetie, how was the drive?” My mother asked as she set down her wooden spoon on the stove top and came over to hug me.
I wrapped my arms around her and embraced her, she was smaller, almost frail in my arms and it concerned me. My mother had never been a bigger woman, but she was smaller even for her frame.
“It was good, easy. It smells so good in here.”
“Good, I am making all of your favorites. The soup should be done shortly. Once you are settled in would you mind taking a quart next door. I made extra for the Mattesons.”
“Are they ill?”
“Not with the virus, Selah is still battling the breast cancer. I thought a nice hot meal would be nice.”
“Sure, is she doing any better?”
“She had a mastectomy and seems to be doing a little better.”
“Poor thing. Sure, I’ll take it over, let me get Homer upstairs and the car unpacked and I’ll take it over, if that’s okay?”
“Sure sweetie. Have Daddy help you. Now your kitty, he can have roam of the house. I’ve put litter boxes in the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms and one in the basement next to the washer. He doesn’t go outside, right?”
“Mom you didn’t have to do that, I brought everything he needs.”
“Well he’s family too, what’s his name?”
“Homer. He can’t go outside, he’s an indoor cat.”
“Okay sweetie, why don’t you go get him, I cooked him a piece of fish last night and it is in the icebox.”
Seeing the look on my face that she didn’t have to go through the trouble she shrugged and gave me the look not to argue. I went and grabbed Homer from his cage and spotted daddy, who had half of my car unpacked and scattered around the living room. I deposited Homer in my mother’s arms and went back to help my dad unpack.
Within an hour I was unpacked and had moved back into my childhood bedroom. My trophies from t-ball still stood on the shelf, along with all of the memorabilia of my childhood. Terry, my favorite teddy bear still sat on the shelf. I didn’t go anywhere without him for my first four years of my life. Homer had found a small spot under my bed and refused to come out as I hear my mother call my name from the kitchen. I tried to coax Homer one last time and knew it would just take some time for him to get comfortable with his new surroundings.
I walked downstairs and into the kitchen, my mother had wrapped up a large container of soup for the Mattison’s. I grabbed it off of the counter, the warmth of it still could be felt through the ancient Tupperware.
“Here take my sweater, it’s snowing again,” my mother said as shrugged offer her sweater before I could protest.
I put it on knowing that resistance was a waste of time.
“Thanks sweetie,” my mom said as I walked out of the kitchen.
I stepped out onto our porch and looked out as the snow began to fall slowly, in big white flakes. The wind gusted and the snow fell heavier for a brief moment as I walked down the driveway to the sidewalk that. I noticed an old black Jeep in their driveway with the hatch open and I I thought I spotted Mr. Matteson pulling something out of the back as I approached. The man grabbed a box and a crate of records spilled out and onto their driveway. He turned to catch them and failed. It was not Mr. Matteson Sr. Henry Matteson stood in the driveway; his black wool coat collar pulled up around his ears. I froze with the warm soup in my hands, I had not seen Henry Matteson since the day that I left for college, broken hearted.
Henry was my first, my first everything and I was his. I had not stood face to face with him in almost fifteen years, and here he was. I realized as I clutched the soup harder that I was holding my breath. As he turned to pick up his records, he spotted me, and like the trance had been broken, I walked over and helped him pick them up. He righted the bin and set his records in it. I handed him the few that I held.
“Hi,” he said, “I was wondering if you were coming home to ride this out?”
“My mom sent some soup over for your mom. Is she in?”
“Yes, she’s here. Are you staying with your parents?”
“I’d better get this too her, it’s cold out here.”
I walked away from the open hatch of the jeep, and up the steps to porch of their house. Mary, Henry’s mother stepped out.
“Oh Ellie, it’s so good to see you! I would have come over and got that. Come in, it’s so cold out here.”
I didn’t want to go in, I didn’t want to be anywhere near Henry, I felt like I was entering enemy territory. I walked in anyway, not wanting to be rude to Mary. George, Henry’s father, stood as I walked in. He had always been very kind to me and was like a second father in a lot of ways. I followed Mary through the house to kitchen where I set the soup down on the counter. The kitchen had not changed from when I had last been in there, so many years ago.
“Would you like a cup of coffee, dear,” Mary asked?
Before I could answer, Henry walked into the kitchen.
“That’s probably not a good idea mom, we should really be keeping our distance from others right not.”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Matteson, Henry is right. I should go. But I promise, when this is all over, I’d love to come have cup with you.”
Slightly defeated, she conceited, and I gave a wave as I walked out of the kitchen. There was barely enough room to pass through the doorway with Henry standing there but I did anyway. I looked him in the eye as I did. I waved at George as I pulled the front door closed behind me and stepped off of the porch. The snow was still falling, and I pulled the cold air into my lungs. I had not been prepared to run into Henry. So much life had passed since we had seen each other last. I walked down the sidewalk back towards my house as I thought back to the day that I had left, the last day we had been together.
“El, wait.” Henry called out as he jogged down his driveway and caught up with me.
I reluctantly stopped and turned around.
“El, sorry, I wasn’t trying to be rude. My mom has a compromised immune system right now. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“I get it,” I said as I turned and walked back towards my house.
“El, wait, I haven’t seen you in more than a decade.”
“Are you mad at me, still?”
“I don’t have a coat on and it’s freezing out here, literally. Bye Henry.”
I turned and walked back into my house and straight into the kitchen.
“Mom why didn’t you tell me Henry was home too?”
My mother did not turn around as she stirred the soup.
“It must have slipped my mind, sorry sweetie.”
“Mary didn’t mention it to you?”
“Well she may have, but you know, I forget things sometimes.”
I knew she had not forgotten. To her Henry would always be the one who got away. We had grown up together. He was six months older than me and we had been best friends until high school until we became more than friends.
That night I tried not to think about the past and Henry as I ate dinner with my family. The soup and bread were delicious. After dinner I lied about having to catch up on work and secluded myself in my room. I shut the door and collapsed on my bed, feeling like I was sixteen again. I starred up at my celling, finding my favorite crack in it. I hoped my presence would coax Homer out from underneath the bed. When he didn’t come as I called for him, I got down on all fours and looked under my bed for him. He wasn’t there. I began to search the room for him, calling out his name. When I had searched my room and had not found him, I searched the entire upstairs calling out for him. I walked down into the living room where my dad was reading a book.
“Dad have you seen my cat? I can’t find him anywhere.”
“Oh, yes, I let him out after dinner.”
“Let him out where? He’s not supposed to go outside.”
“Sorry. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
I walked over to the coat rack and pulled my coat down and walked out of the font door. It was now dark, and the streetlamps did very little to light the yard. I called out for him as I began searching in the bushes around the house. I prayed I’d find him, and that he wouldn’t be hurt. He had never been outside before. I came around the back of the house and heard something rustle on the other side of the fence between our house and the Matteson’s. I stepped up on a rock and peeked over and was startled when I saw Henry’s face doing the same. I let out a small scream. Henry walked around the fence and into my backyard. He had a flashlight in his hand.
“I figured you were looking for a pet and might be in need of a flashlight.”
“My dad let my cat, Homer, out. He’s a tabby cat. He’s never been outside before.”
“I live in a condo in the city.”
“Ah. Homer,” he called out.
“I don’t need your help.”
“No, you don’t want my help. You could use another set of eyes if you want to find him out here.”
I walked off in the opposite direction, annoyed. I knew he was right. I continued to search in the bushes along the fence as Henry went off in the opposite direction. As I searched, I heard a faint meow and I called out his name, as I pushed into the bushes at the back of the yard. I shined the flashlight on my phone around, and I knew he was close as I hear him meow. Hearing the anxiety in my voice Henry came back over. I continued to search around and flashed his light up in the tree.
“Found him, is that him,” Henry asked as he pointed to poor Homer, wet and stuck up in the tree.
“Oh no, how did he get all of the way up there? Come here buddy.”
“We’re going to have to go up and get him.”
I looked at Henry. There was no way to climb up the tree.
“I’ll call the fire department.”
“No wait, here, hold my flashlight,” he said shoving it into my hands before I could protest.
He wedged himself between the fence and the tree and began to shimmy up the tree. I watched nervously as he climbed higher and higher. As he approached Homer, my cat hissed, as if he sensed how much hurt Henry had been responsible for. Henry reached out for him and Homer hissed again. Clutching Homer tightly Henry began to climb down carefully. Watching them made me extremely nervous. Halfway down, and still about thirty feet up, Homer had enough and began to struggle in Henry’s arms. Henry slipped and Homer fell. I managed to catch him mid-air not believing my luck, as Henry came down too, landing in the bushes. I ran to the back door with Homer in my arms, and chucked him inside, pulling the door shut behind him as I turned and raced back to Henry. He was crawling out of the bushes, and I was relieved to see that he was at least moving.
“Are you okay?”
Henry looked up at me, wincing at the light of his flashlight.
“It wasn’t the first time I’ve fallen out of this tree, remember?”
I thought back to the night I had caught him peeking in my bedroom window. I started him and he fell that night too. I couldn’t help but laugh, and he looked up at me amused. I reached down to help him up and was still laughing. He got to his feet and I pulled him into my body to steady him. He smelled the same, his touch was the same, filled with familiarity and so much hurt. I pulled away.
“Sorry,” I said. “Are you hurt?”
“Only my pride.”
“Thank you for your help.”
“I’m glad you caught him.”
“El, I need to tell you something. I need you to know that I never slept with Karen Lake. I never had the chance to explain. I came after you, to try to, and I chickened out.”
“What difference does it make? That was so long ago. I don’t think about it anymore,” I lied.
“It makes a difference to me. El, I think about you constantly about what could have been, had I not fucked it all up, and had more courage to set things right.”
“Just forget it, that was a whole other lifetime ago.”
I started to turn to walk into the house.
“Are you honestly telling me that you don’t think about it, about us what we had?”
“We were kids.”
He took a step closer to me, and I could smell him again, mixed with aftershave. I found the scent intoxicating.
“We aren’t kids anymore. I compare every woman I’ve ever dated to you. Every kiss, every dance. You are it for me El, you always will be.”
Something in my hardened interior cracked and I leant up on my toes, hooked my arm around his neck and kissed him. He instantly pulled my body into his and as our lips met, I no longer felt cold. His kiss felt like home, safe and warm. I kissed him with reckless abandon, and didn’t want to stop, like my will had been a broken damn, and all of the pent-up emotion I had for him flowed through my lips. I pulled away first as I remembered the pain of how things had ended. As if he read my mind he spoke up, “El, I promise you as long as I live, I will never hurt you again. I love you. I’ve never stopped loving you.”
I leant my head against his chest as he pulled his wool coat around the both of us. We stood for a long time silent in my back yard. So much history had passed between us, and I knew right then that I had been right when I left my condo, that life would never be the same. By April, I had an engagement ring on my finger. We planned our wedding to take place in my back yard.
As my dad gave me away, I kissed him on the cheek and turned to look at Henry, who stood proudly in his dark grey suit. Our few guests watched on as we took our vows, the boy and girl from next door, now the happy couple.