A Story Series: The Love of My Life
The cold air hit Clayton, and his resolve to meet the girl was strengthened. She couldn’t be warm in this weather. Though the sky was bright blue, it was dotted with several large clouds that kept playing peek-a-boo with the sun. It was no weather to be outside for any length of time. Clayton was half afraid, though, that the girl would have already left. However, as he turned to the side of the building, he saw her.
Sitting Indian-style in front of his window, she had one hand placed on the windowpane while the other hand was in her lap. Her thick black hair hung down her back, and her thin body appeared to be trembling. In a pair of old jeans that had a hole just below the knee and a white stained t-shirt—short sleeve of course—she looked exactly like a child.
Clayton cleared his throat discreetly and the girl’s head jerked around. The cold weather had colored her cheeks pink, but her wide violet gaze was large with unleashed fear. As she scrambled to her feet, Clayton held out a hand.
“I–I’m sorry, I just–just–” she stumbled and Clayton shook his head, smiling.
“Don’t apologize,” he said, stepping forward one step. She moved one step backwards and Clayton tipped his head. “Don’t be frightened. I’m Clayton Cunningham, the owner of the gallery. And you are?” he asked, holding out a hand to shake hers.
She stared at it, breathing rapidly, her eyes lifting from the hand he held out to his face. Her eyes, he noted, were even more violet and compelling up close and personal than they were from a distance. Slowly, she put her hand in his, but she immediately jerked it away again.
Lazily, Clayton smiled, revealing a dimple in his left bronzed cheek and a set of perfectly white teeth that threw her completely off guard. “You know,” he said with laughter hugging his voice, “I’m gonna have to stop telling people my last name so they will only be able to call me Clayton.”
She smiled tentatively, his warm, inviting attitude and his compassionate, warm eyes slowly putting her at ease.
“And you. What do people call you?” he asked, tipping his dark head to the side.
“What a beautiful name, Abrielle. Well, you know, it is pretty cold out here,” he added, and the fragile trust in her gaze vanished. She began trying to back away again.
“I know. I was just leaving, I didn’t mean to–”
Clayton took a step forward, towards her, which made her sentence die. Putting his hand deep inside his pockets to tell her without words that she was safe with him, Clayton looked inside the window and saw the five paintings she could see from there. “You do have a good view here,” he stated casually.
She couldn’t speak and her heart was wrapped securely around her throat. Clayton turned his head toward hers and lifted both shoulders. “But, you know, you’d have an even better view, and could see every other painting, from inside.”
“I can’t go inside.”
“I wouldn’t be welcome… everybody knows that the gallery greets just wealthy art collectors. I–I’m not wealthy.”
Clayton put a hand over his heart and frowned, pretending to appear wounded. “So you’re the critic behind those people who say I’m a snob.”
“I didn’t say that,” she quickly amended and Clayton laughed. “Listen sweetheart, I’m the owner of this gallery and I say you’re welcome inside.”
She appeared to hesitate, but Clayton could tell that the promise of being able to see the other artworks was tempting to her so he played that up. “I’ve got a room upstairs that’s my favorite in the gallery. It has two original Michelangelo works. You can’t see them unless you come inside.”
She bit her bottom lip and looked down at her outfit. The moment allowed Clayton to see a dark bruise on her left temple. He frowned but wisely remained silent.
“Are you sure?” she asked thinly and he nodded.
“I won’t mess anything up, I promise.”
He smiled. “Yeah well, I’m not worried about that.“
***** ***** *****
I’ve thought about this post all day long. Thoughts have meandered around trails like, this is going to be fun; which excerpt should I include? to excitement that included things like, YES! It is time to re-read this book for the 9,949,293,249 time! to nervous doubts like Oh good grief, not that; we’ll save that one for later, like maybe never to random things like, Wow, that’s really terrible. I really need to fix Abrielle one day. Long story short: this story has been a fixture in my life ever since it was written many, many years ago. It’s been one of the ones I can’t let go of.
Me is the story of Abrielle Britain. She is abducted from a birthday party when she is very young and sold to a very unkind man, and his wife. This man sells her to others. Her saving grace comes in the form of their biological daughter, the girl Abrielle considers her sister. Raising her gives her a purpose; art gives her an escape. When she meets the owner of a local, influential art gallery, many things happen. Sparks fly, of course, but also he ends up auctioning off a few of her significant sketches, a monumental act that changes their lives forever.
Clayton is part of this book; he is the “hero.” I could write for days on Clayton Cunningham. Until Cole called Daphne “hero” in the newest book, The Storyteller, Clayton was … not perfect, but pretty close to it. He comes from a wealthy (think: servants) family that’s altogether perfect. His father, a secondary character, made me cry; his mother makes an appearance in The Storyteller and made me want to tell their story. His privilege, his confidence, is part of what makes me like him because, deep down, there’s a part of me that sees confidence as at least the beginnings of happiness .
But, mostly, I love Clayton because he helped me dream.
So, long, long ago, in a land very different from today, I, too, was a bright eyed, blonde haired girl who dreamed of things like happily ever afters, front porch swings and a pasture with a couple of wild horses roaming around; a bushel of kids playing in treehouses in the backyard. I dreamed of someone choosing me. Long ago, eons ago, long before I was really ready, in any sense of the word, I, too, met a real life Clayton Cunningham. He wasn’t in my hemisphere, and he had all that I didn’t. For some baffling reason, he took notice of me. The way Clayton elevated Abrielle’s sense of worth through compassion and patience and tenderness really reminded me of some stars I’d seen once upon a time. Clayton wasn’t perfect; he should have handled the entire situation very differently. But, at the end of the day, he loved Abrielle — not who he wanted her to be, he loved her for who she already was. I can’t read my books. I barely can mention Broken without crying; I can’t read The Character at all; I’ve even stopped using it when I speak about the past. I love Ash and Anna… but they are too raw for me. I can’t talk about Haven, period; in fact, I’m worried about doing this blog post series about that book. I don’t re-read the ones about the Holocaust or Mary Beth either. I can read The Storyteller because it’s different and because it feels like a fairy tale; I can re-read some of Sing Me Home, even though I don’t really usually want to. Me is the only book that I will go to when I want my characters near but can’t handle the others.
Love is a powerful thing. I surround myself with memories of trauma, with stories of horrific injustices because I believe in advocacy, because I want to help others, because I want people to know they aren’t alone and, selfishly, because it helps me heal. Seeing what others have gone through helps me put what I’m experiencing in perspective. If you lived through the death of a child, or if you were part of the Darfur genocide, or if you were abandoned, or if you were a patient at St. Jude’s, or if you spent your childhood being raped without any positive influences, if you are a soldier suffering from PTSD because of the things you saw and did, if you lived through the Holocaust — you’ve survived the unimaginable to me. Your story inspires me because I couldn’t have coped with what you did.
Trauma offers a choice: we can see it as the end of the road or we can see it as the beginning of something powerful.
Abrielle turned her pain into sketches, into art. That art was so powerful it would lead her to the love of her life. The art was so powerful it would ultimately reunite her with people who had never stopped loving her. For me, I turned to writing. I wrote little short stories about a group of friends with terrible writing, cringe-worthy dialogue, and lots of grammatical errors — I literally do not remember I time when I did not write stories. When I was fourteen and taught my first group of third graders French, I gave each kid a hand-written story that was different from everyone else’s — they each got a personalized book. They also got a letter. Their reactions were so precious that I would continue to do this for every, single class I ever taught: I did it for church kids, I did it for JA kids, I did it for anyone with whom I interacted. Years later, I still remember some of the responses. An 8th grade boy told me he was going to frame my letter. When I went to the home of a child I taught at church, I saw he’d hung his letter on his wall, too. Eventually, I wrote a very simple, very stark book that wasn’t anything like anything I’d ever written before. No outline, first person narration… and true to life memories. Doors started swinging open left and right. And, since then, the people who have reached out….
“Thank you for putting pen to paper. It’s like you spoke my thoughts out loud.“
“I don’t know if you have suffered through what your character did, but if you did, this book is a reverberating “I survived and shined!” The book itself, so far, has rocked me to the core.“
“I am sixty three years old and still dealing with the effects of childhood abuse. You give me hope.”
“This book helped me understand someone I care about better.”
These people have done more for me than read or buy a book. I’ll give it to them for free, and I speak for free, because money is not the point. Healing is. And what it’s taught me is that kindness really is stronger than evil.
That guy? The one in whose league I never really belonged? Years later, we reconnected as friends; healing happened for that, too. Instead of a fairy tale, I gained a friend I’d trust with a lot. Ultimately, I learned that, contrary to what I’d believed, he’d never thought I was less than or unworthy after all. Not only him… but … there was a teacher who made me believe I was cared about, and missed. There was a guy who once held a door open for me and changed my life, reminding me that kindness still existed. There was a friend who invested enough time in me to make me wonder if I was more capable and worth more than I ever thought I was. There was Joey; a happy homeless man who reminded me what joy looked like. Men have poured into my life when they didn’t have to, and when I couldn’t offer them anything at all in return. I am convinced these life-changing people were men – I believe God did that on purpose — to remind me to believe in good men, despite my father.
We live in a broken, fallen world, and it is therefore impossible to escape pain. We are surrounded by it. But we are also surrounded by amazing human beings who will go to extraordinary lengths to show you actionable support, to believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself, to hold you up when you can’t walk anymore, and to remind you how to smile when you forget. Time may null pain, but it is the kindness of others that can heal it. It is easy to hurt someone; it is hard to build them up under they truly see in themselves what you see. So love is stronger. Love can inspire you to give up dreams for other people. It can make you climb into the death bed of someone you love, like Clayton did, and promise that “angels don’t hurt other angels” when asked if dying would be painful. If we aren’t careful, trauma can lead us to living isolated lives, playing it “safe” because people “can’t be trusted.” If we aren’t careful, trauma can coax us into self-destructive means of forgetting, be it any number of nefarious ways because the prospect of forgetting can seem a prerequisite to staying alive. If we aren’t careful, we can use trauma as a way of staying still because we’d rather give up dreams than risk being hurt again. I promise you: I know. But, also, if we let it, trauma can be the catalyst for honest-to-God miracles. If we let it, trauma can showcase our strengths. If we let it, trauma can introduce us to beautiful people who can teach us what compassion is. If we let it, trauma can reveal strengths we never imagined we had (as a child, I’d never have imagined myself speaking to large groups or leading workshops on human trafficking). I promise you, I know.
When I ask my daughters, Do you believe in true love, they both say maybe. They find it hard to believe that out of 8 billion people, you’re supposed to find the one. But me…. the single, middle-aged woman who likely will never marry or even be in another relationship at all, frankly… my answer is a resounding yes.
***** **** ****
Clayton leaned back on the cool grass, putting his hands beneath his head and looking up at the brilliant blue July sky. Today, there was a breeze blowing, making the heat bearable and the day perfect. Well, he amended silently, it wasn’t only the weather that made the day perfect—it was also the woman who laid beside him. Rolling his head to look at her, he saw Abrielle’s beautiful profile staring up at the sky, her eyes squinted against the sun, a smile playing on her lips. Her normally pale cheeks were flushed pink now by the heat of the sun and the laughter they’d shared moments earlier before collapsing against the cool grass.
In the distance, they could hear children laughing as one little girl ran around the field with her father, trying to fly a kite, and young couples walked hand in hand towards some of the trails offered by the park. Here and there, a dog that was being walked by its owner would bark at something and a few of the birds chirped to one another, enjoying the warm summer afternoon. But their surroundings seemed not to matter to Clayton. All that really mattered, indeed, was the fact that he was there with the woman he loved, the woman he believed he’d been meant to love.
“Do you see anything in the clouds?” Abrielle asked suddenly, turning her head to the side to look at him. When she caught him glancing towards her already, the light smile that played on her lips widened into a grin and she looked away again, upwards toward the sky. Clayton frowned and turned his gaze heavenward. After studying the various clouds that were moving slowly across the sky, he shook his head.
“I don’t see anything. What do you see?” he asked.
“Well, for one, I see Cupid.”
“Cupid?” he asked, arching his eyebrow.
“Yup. Look over there,” she said, lifting her arm toward the sky and pointing in the direction of a few fluffy white clouds. “See? There’s his little head and then his stomach. He’s got a little rounded stomach that makes him look as though he’s been drinking too much–”
“A drunk Cupid… hmm… do you think that’s why maybe some of the matches he makes seem so odd?” Clayton teased, smiling, and she looked toward him again.
“Maybe so. Do you think the match he made with us was odd?”
Clayton’s smile gentled, and he removed one of his hands from beneath his head to gently brush away a strand of her hair. “No. I think he had it right on with us. A perfect match.”
“Me too… anyway, look, so you see his belly and then his little legs… they’re much skinner than the rest of him… and then his arms. In his arms he’s holding out the bow and arrow… do you see?”
Trying to pay attention to what she was talking about, Clayton turned his eyes heavenward again and tried to make out the Cupid she was talking about. After several moments of searching, he nodded. “Ah, yeah, I do see him. He looks like he’s bent over.”
Abrielle’s musical laughter filled the air between them, and she lowered her arm back down to rest against his stomach. “Yup, that’s him.”
“The arrow is pointed downward, too.”
“Hey, you’re right. Kind of toward us.”
Clayton lifted his brows again and inclined his head slightly. “Directly toward us… you know, I think that you’re supposed to kiss whenever you see Cupid.”
That earned him another one of her magical laughs as he bent his head to her mouth. Gently tasting her, he pulled away and looked up again. “What else do you see?” he asked curiously.
“Hmm.” Abrielle seemed to pause, searching the different cloud formations. She saw a hamburger, she said, which made him laughingly accuse of her being hungry. Then she saw an airplane, which made him suggest she wanted to go away with him to a desert island. She smiled and gently, playfully, swatted his arm. “You’re a pretty good mind reader, are you?”
“Yup. Certified, too,” he joked. She laughed, shaking her head. She paused and looked up.
“I see a fountain,” Clayton offered, finally joining her game. Her eyes grew bright. “Where is your fountain?” she asked. Once Clayton pointed it out to her, she slid him a curious glance. “Let’s say that was a real fountain. One that you threw pennies into.”
“What would you wish for?”
“You,” he automatically tossed back with a boyish smile.
“You can’t wish for something you already have.”
“Oh I see.”
“Come on, what would you wish for if you could have anything?”
Clayton inhaled deeply and thought for a moment before he looked at her. Whenever he glanced at Abrielle memories raced through him, and he thought about the first time they’d met. She’d been so nervous and afraid. He thought about the first time he’d ever heard her laugh, while they’d been playing the game of cards. Sometimes, when he was having a bad day at work, he’d go into his office and close the door to remember that sound. Once he could hear it in his mind, a smile inevitably sprang to his lips and somehow his day improved. He remembered the first time she’d ever touched him voluntarily. He remembered their wedding day, and the way she had looked as she’d walked down the aisle to him. He remembered the promises she’d made him that day. He pictured her as she sometimes was with Mally, sitting Indian style on the floor with Mally in front of her, laughing at something Mally was telling her. Though she’d had no experience with it herself, Abrielle always offered advice for Mally’s boy troubles, when it was wanted, and she was always interested in the things Mally wanted to say. He remembered the way she worked with the servants, helping them clean the house even though she didn’t have to. He imagined the way she felt in his arms at night, and what waking up every morning with her by his side did to his heart. He remembered the way his heart ached every time he watched her cry in silence. Seeing her face meant more than just looking at a beautiful face to Clayton—it meant reliving every moment of every day that they’d known one another. To look at Abrielle, Clayton realized again, was to understand the meaning of true love and to remember that, amazingly, she felt the same way about him that he did about her. A love that rare and honest he’d never believed existed until she’d come into his life.
“Clayton?” she asked.
“Hmm… I don’t know. I have everything I want, since I have you.”
She smiled happily, but then she leaned up on an elbow and gently brushed a strand of hair out of his face. He watched her, lifting his eyebrows, in silence. “Come on, think about it. Nobody has everything they want.”
He sighed heavily and squinted one eye closed. After a long moment of silence, his eyes lit up. “A child. With you. That’s something I would wish for.”
Abrielle’s face lit with a slow smile. She nodded and then leaned back down. “That’s something good to wish for.”