Karen Johnston stood at the glass-paned double French doors of the bedroom and looked out over the wood deck of her two-story Denver home. The barren trees beyond were black skeletons against the silvered sky. A thin layer of ice from the last snow storm still clung to the capped-rail fence that outlined their large wooded lot, but sunshine was predicted to melt it tomorrow. She pulled her cashmere cardigan tighter. It had been a harsh winter, and it was only February. Just looking at the frozen ground chilled her to the bone.
When her cell phone rang, she grabbed it from the near-by nightstand and glanced at the screen before answering. “Hi, Mark,” she said, a slight lilt in her voice.
She was pleased to hear from him. It had been a couple of months. The first few minutes of their conversations were always stilted. To be expected, she guessed, since her biological father had only recently come into her life. Mark lived in Kansas City, Missouri—a fact she had discovered last July.
“Good to hear your voice,” Mark said.
“You too. How are you?”
“We’re fine,” he said. “Marlene wants to vacation in Colorado this summer, and I wondered how you’d feel about that.” He sounded hesitant. Marlene was Mark’s second wife.
Karen didn’t hesitate. “Mark—that would be great. It would give us a chance to spend some time together. How long will you be staying?—and where?” she asked.
“Well, Marlene is looking at a few places in the mountains, but it isn’t far from Denver, and perhaps you could spend a few days while we’re there.” He sounded cautiously excited now.
“Boulder’s a nice area and close to us. How long will you be able to stay?”
“Month of July, I believe. If that works for you.”
“Absolutely, that’s just great. School is out May 28, and I’m free for the whole summer.”
“I’ll let you know dates and where we decide to settle.”
“Wonderful. Tell Marlene ‘hi’.”
“And Gary for me also, he said. “Talk soon.”
It would be nice to get better acquainted with her dad. Karen had been adopted as an infant and told simply that a young college couple had made the difficult decision to give her the life she deserved. It turned out that her mother, Jennifer, had died during her birth in 1972. The following day, her father placed her in the arms of her adoptive parents. Later that week, Mark had shipped out to Cambodia.
It hadn’t mattered to Karen for thirty-nine years. Her parents, Angela and Richard Johnston, had been wonderful, supportive peo ple. She loved them dearly. But nine months ago, Angela had died—ten years following Richard’s death, leaving Karen wanting to know more about her past.
She heard the sound of the garage door opening, its metal rails screeching from lack of lubricant, then the sound of Gary stomping his boots as he came in through the mud room. He called out for her.“Be right down,” she yelled. Her thoughts about Mark were quickly erased as she realized she’d put nothing out to thaw.
“We’re going out to eat,” she announced as she bounced off the bottom step into the living area and walked into the kitchen where Gary had removed his heavy three-quarter-length coat, scarf, and leather gloves. The clothes lay piled on one of the bar stools at the kitchen counter. The icy boots were puddling in the mud room.
“Oh, babe,” he said, “Really? I just had the longest commute ever. Traffic was backed up for three miles at one point. The snow melt has caused nothing but black ice—we’d be better off if they didn’t plow, I swear.”
Karen walked to him and put her arms around his waist, her head on his chest. He returned the hug and kissed the top of her head. “Well, let me take a warm shower, get on some other clothes and we’ll decide.”
Karen nodded, and he slipped from her embrace and headed upstairs. She shook her head and reached for his pile of winter outerwear and hung them on hooks to dry in the mud room; then walked back to the living room and bent to the fire, added more kindling and poked it back to life.
As she stood before the flames, she glanced at the family photographs on the Red Oak book shelves that surrounded the Colorado flagstone fireplace. Their wedding photo was clearly sixteen years old. They looked so young. Gary’s brown eyes and hair and his dark complexion were a perfect contrast to her pale, blond, blue-eyed German heritage. He stood two inches taller than her 5’6”, but that day her two-inch heels had made them equal in height.
Beside it was a small picture that she had recently framed. She picked it up and smiled. Mark had given her the tiny snapshot of her mother, Jennifer, when they first met last July. After placing it back onto the shelf, she settled into the deep cushioned leather sofa to watch the flames jump and spit as she waited for Gary.
He came back down within ten minutes wearing jeans, a cream colored cable-knit sweater and heavy, warm socks. He took the large over-stuffed chair across from her and sighed deeply.
“Rough day?” she said.
“No more than usual actually, how about you?”
“A typical Friday, I ‘spose,” she said. “Oh, guess who called earlier?” She didn’t wait for him to respond. “Mark is thinking of spending some time in Colorado this summer—with Marlene, of course. What do you think?”
Gary’s face showed his surprise, but he nodded. “Sounds like a nice opportunity.”
Karen sat forward and began to rise as she said, “I thought so too.”
“Where you going?” he asked.
“To put on a warmer sweater and get my coat. I’m starving.”
He groaned, but she knew he’d give in. Since the near-death of their marriage last year, both of them worked hard to please the other these days.
“I’ll drive!” she called back down the stairs.
Karen maneuvered their mid-size BMW cautiously along the slick residential streets; snow piled high on each side of the road where the plows had come through for the tenth time this winter. The houses barely peeked above the drifts—some of which rose as high as the tops of windows. The warm light from inside each home glazed the tops of the snow packs, turning them a golden hue. She hated freeways this time of year, so she took back streets to their favorite Italian bistro.
While they waited for their white pizza with spinach, they shared a salad and drank red wine by the carafe. The bistro had a roaring two-sided fireplace which divided the room and warmed every corner, providing a welcoming and homey feel for the diners.
“Cheers,” Gary said as he touched the lip of his glass to hers. “To the end of the week.”
“Amen to that,” Karen said.
Gary was a partner in one of the largest architectural firms in Denver. Karen taught high school history. Her students were her substitute children, and Gary’s job was his passion.
“Are you counting the days to the end of the year yet?” he teased.
She smiled. She and her best friend, Denise, began ticking off the days as soon as spring semester began. They’d both worked in the district, though at different schools, for fifteen years; not that either would leave education if given the opportunity. Karen loved history and loved teaching it. She worked hard to make the subject come to life for her students and spent hours developing lesson plans and outside research projects that engaged them. And they loved her in return.
“Gosh, how do these years fly by so fast, Gary? I mean, one day these seniors will be married and have kids, and I’ll just keep getting older.” Her voice trailed off.
Gary reached for her hand across the table. “Karen, you’re not even forty—you sound like you’re ninety years old. For heaven sakes, it’s just because you’ve been teaching for so long. Of course they grow up, but believe me it’ll be a few more years before you see them at the mall with their kids.”
“Not really, Gary. Four—maybe six—years of college. They’ll be out in the world already. That’s coming up damned fast. Makes me feel old, that’s all.” She waited as the server cut the first two slices of the pizza he’d just delivered to their table.
Her mind wandered for a moment as she reconsidered what she’d just said. The years were passing quickly. Part of that, she knew, was the fact that if she was ever going to have a baby, it had to be this year. Her gynecologist had told her in November that this was the very last time he’d tell her it was okay to get pregnant. After this, he’d be very reserved about making that recommendation. She’d thought of his remarks often these past few months.
She suddenly realized Gary had been talking to her, possibly for some time, but nothing had registered. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Say that again.”
He laughed. “Not worth it. Suffice it to say this new client is a pain in the ass, period.”
“You say that about most of them, dear.”
“I do not.” He hesitated and looked closely at her face. “Do I? Really? I don’t think so.”
Gary had wined and dined clients the same length of time she’d been teaching, and she knew it had to wear on him, just as dealing with difficult parents wore her down and made it less fun after so long.
He switched the topic quickly. “So I say we go to some very distant, very warm and sandy beach for spring break.”
“Whoa, that came out of nowhere.” She laughed. “But I don’t disagree actually. It’s been so damned cold, and I’m sick of it this year. Let’s do it!”
He reached inside the pocket of his coat that lay on the chair next to him and handed her a few glossy brochures. Cruises. Destination packages. All with lovely blue skies that met lovely blue water and yellow and white striped beach chairs under umbrellas.
“Well, you came well prepared, Mr. Reynolds. Is this a sales pitch?” She grinned.
“Yep, actually it is. Pick one. Mexican Riviera, Grand Caymans, Costa Rica?”
She moved her pointer finger around three times, then pointed to one in the center. Puerto Vallarta. Perfect.
The house was empty when Karen woke Saturday morning. The coffee was still warm in the pot, the fire had been stoked and Gary’s heavy boots that usually sat by the back door were missing. She glanced in the garage and saw the empty space.
When Gary stomped into the kitchen close to noon, he apologized for being so long. She walked from the sunroom and helped him with his overcoat, slung it over a bar stool, and followed him into the living area.
“It’s okay, honey,” she said. “I was just starting to worry. Where were you?”
He walked toward the fire and sat on the arm of the sofa. “Well, I didn’t mean to be so damned long, but apparently everyone in the metropolitan area decided to book travel today.”
Karen had to laugh. “Well, we’ve all been cooped up for months already with another two to go. Doesn’t surprise me.” She sat down beside him on the couch.
“Anyway, I stopped into the office after I left the travel agency, and of course, an emergency waiting. Doug was already in negotiations with this builder and needed some support to convince the guy his plans would not work.” He shook his head in exasperation. “Sorry.”
“No, no, it’s alright,” she said. “I just worry with the roads. Let me go make some lunch.”
They ate at the kitchen counter, and Gary showed her the travel documents he’d gotten that morning. After a while he glanced to his right— the draperies in the sunroom opened to the snow covered deck. He pointed that direction. “Kind of nice not to see that damned trunk and all those piles of history all over the floor in there.”
Karen laughed. Just then the house phone rang. “I’ll get it.” She grabbed for the cordless and walked toward the living room when she heard Denise’s voice. “What’s up, girlfriend?”
“We’re totally snowed in out here,” Denise said. She and her husband, Ralph, had moved outside the city limits last summer, a move Denise had been thrilled about. Now the distance and unplowed roads were a constant topic of discussion.
“Hey, you wanted to be in the woods,” Karen said, but her voice smiled.
“I know. Don’t remind me. Hey, I have an idea. Ralph and I are thinking about spring break and wondering if you and Gary might like to double date.” She laughed out loud.
“My God, is everyone in Denver planning where they’ll be in March? Gary just got home from the travel agency. How funny!”
“Where are you guys going?” Denise exclaimed.
“Puerto Vallarta. Ever been?”
“Nope, but it sounds like Puerto Heaven to me right now. What would you think about going as couples? I mean, the guys get along and ….”
Karen interrupted her. “Let me talk to Gary. I don’t think he has any romantic intentions, but I don’t know.” She rolled her eyes and smiled. “I think it sounds like fun. I’ll get back to you.”
Karen walked back into the kitchen as Gary finished wiping down the countertop. He looked up and smiled. “Denise?” he asked.
“Yeah, she said they were wanting to get away to some place warm for spring break too. How would you feel if we invited them to join us?”
He hesitated for only a moment. “That’s fine. They seem like fun, and it might be nice to have someone to golf with a couple of times. I know you don’t like to go. Did you girls already plan it?” He grinned.
“No, we did not. I mentioned you had booked the trip; Denise mentioned going together; I said I’d check with you.”
Gary walked to the other side of the counter and put his arms around her. She snuggled into his chest. “Cold, wintry day,” he said. “Wonder what we could do the rest of the afternoon?” She didn’t have to ask what he had in mind; his hands were already skimming her body.
The weather in Denver worsened in late February. It was one blizzard after another. Gary barely got the drive shoveled out before the next storm hit. The piles of snow grew higher by the day, and once the plows cleared the street again, they could barely see the roof of their house from the road.
Each week, the students grew more and more restless and off-task. Cabin-fever had set in big time. By March, the teachers joked about having alcohol in the teacher lounge, and the ten-day break was highlighted in yellow on every faculty calendar.
During one conversation with Denise, her friend said, “Hang in there. Two weeks and we’ll be in the warmest, bluest water imaginable.”
“Doesn’t seem possible.”
“Yep, 85 and sunny. No pacific storms in the forecast. We are good to go. Wait till you see the red pantsuit I bought the other day. Strapless, no less. I know … don’t say it.” Denise laughed. “Ralph loved it. Hell, this may be the best marriage therapy around.”
Karen laughed as well. She knew what Denise meant. Maybe there should be a rule when signing your marriage certificate: each year one must take a week-long vacation on a beautiful island, wear little or no clothes, get a beautiful tan, and pretend your husband is the pool boy.