He waits until she’s finished congratulating the bride and groom before approaching with open arms.
"Ana,” he says. “You're still beautiful."
“I’m sorry, you’ve mistaken me . . . ,” she says, struggling out of his embrace.
Britney, one of the bridesmaids, greets Ana before looping her arm around his waist.
“You know Zoe’s Aunt Ana?” she asks.
“Introduce us, Brit,” he says, putting his arm around the beautiful bridesmaid who’s pierced, tattooed, and more than twenty years younger than either Ana or Billy.
“Billy, Zoe’s Aunt Ana. Aunt Ana, Billy Timbers.”
“Billy?” Ana can’t believe it.
“You two know each other?”
“Oh, Ana and I go way back,” he says, and Brittany shakes her head to physically dislodge the idea.
Ana excuses herself, hoping to escape the unfolding nightmare, and hobbles up the stairs of the cathedral. She knows her left leg doesn’t actually shrink whenever she has to walk away from someone she’s trying to impress, but she can’t seem to rid herself of the psychological limp.
She’d been twenty-two when she met the charismatic Billy. What followed was a summer of love, or at least two-and-a-half months of it. By mid-August, she was begging him not to leave her.
The first time Ana laid eyes on Billy Timbers, he was on stage, a handsome rogue of a singer who had singled her out of the crowd. Later that night, for the first time in her life, she’d felt beautiful. But not just beautiful. Billy had made her feel like the most beautiful woman alive. How could it be that in the blink of twenty years, he’d evolved into this debonair old man?
Using a visualization technique she learned in a recent seminar, Ana turns herself into an owl and spins her head around to look back at Billy Timbers, much changed but alive and breathing, with eyesight good enough to recognize her, yet weak enough to tell her she was beautiful.
Most of the guests have migrated to the ballroom when Billy joins Ana’s immediate family, turning a chair around to straddle it.
“I came to ask you for the next dance,” he says before she introduces him as someone she’d met years ago while interning in Chicago. Billy doffs an invisible hat, unaware he’s being studied like a map to the New World.
After he guides her into the pack of dancers and takes her in his arms, she leans back to look at him. Laying one image on top of the other, the twenty-year-old memory with the one in front of her, she loses herself trying to make the pieces fit.
“Your nephew told me you have an indoor swimming pool,” he says, breaking the spell.
“James. He kept me company at the bar last night." Billy leads her into a left box turn. "Don’t look so surprised, Ana. I asked if you were related. You have a unique last name.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“You almost got married. Broke it off days before the wedding.”
“And you. Still playing guitar?”
His wide grin gives her a fleeting glimpse of the old Billy. “Yeah. Still have a band. Britney’s father’s the bassist.”
They turn to see Britney dancing with the best man but her eyes are following Billy. So, Ana thinks, he still needs watching.
"What else?” she says. “Fill me in on the last twenty years of your life."
“Divorced twice, two kids, no pool.” He pulls her close to get around some dancers and she discovers Billy still smokes, cigarettes anyway, but that now he’s camouflaging it with a cologne that smells like leaves burning in autumn.
Her phone rings as she’s getting ready for bed.
"I just called to say I've got a free afternoon,” he says. “Britney has to help with yet another get-together."
“The gift opening.”
“Right on. You going?”
“I’d rather attend my own hanging.”
“That’s the Ana I remember.”
Billy's in a talkative mood and Ana wonders where he’s stashed Britney. He starts telling her about his two kids.
“I see them once a year if I’m lucky. Their mother left me. She’s still with the guy. Remember Wiley the drummer?”
That summer was so long ago and so foreign to the rest of her life, Ana sometimes wonders if she’s imagined it.
“They live in California. The kids consider him their dad. They’re seventeen. No wait, eighteen.”
“We’re getting old, Ana. No, not you. You haven’t changed.”
“How long were you married?”
“What?” He inhales and does that combination sneeze-cough thing, trying to keep the smoke he’d just inhaled inside. “Less than a year.” He’s still holding his breath. “Alice left me because of Christine.”
Ana does remember Christine.
Billy finally exhales. “Christine hasn’t aged so well. Not like you.” He sighs, then does that sneeze-cough thing again. “You knew me when I’d hit my peak. Everyone thought I was going to make it as a singer, remember?”
She does not suppress a yawn.
“Oh, right,” he says. “Sorry, Ana, I forget not everyone’s a night owl like me. Night Ana, sweet sweet Ana.”
They disconnect and Ana thinks he did remember what happened twenty years ago, or else sweet was a word that naturally accompanied his good nights.
A week before her own big wedding, Ana and Tim were seated in the formal dining room with his parents and his older brother. Since John, with his Hollywood looks, had lost his job in California and moved back home, he spent the majority of his time at the university library or locked up in his room.
At the table, John's head ticked back-and-forth like a metronome set low while the food his mother put on his plate remained untouched. Although Tim and his parents ignored him, Ana found his dreamy isolation unnerving. Near the end of the meal, she attempted to include him in the conversation and he gave her a goofy smile, then got up and walked around to stand behind her chair. When she turned, he embraced her and the room went still. After he released her and returned to his place, he sat looking down at his plate with his hands in his lap until everyone got up from the table. When Tim and his father sat down to play their customary game of chess, John invited her to go for a walk.
Afterwards, during the drive home, Ana tried to work out what she was going to say to Tim. When they got in the house, he sat down at the piano and began doodling on the keys.
"Tim,” she began. “I think John needs professional help, he . . ."
Tim’s hands came down hard, hitting dissonant chords.
"Ana," he said with an air of condescension he'd been using more and more often lately. "Our family's been dealing with John for thirty-one years. I think we know what's best."
"But he was telling me . . ."
In a tone he’d inherited from his father, a tone he knew she hated, he said, "Ana, don't you have enough to worry about? Aren't there lots of loose ends that need your attention? Your dress, the flowers, Mother says . . ."
At the time, ordering him out of her house seemed her only option. She canceled the engagement and assumed the responsibility of sending back all the gifts they’d been given, even the ones she could have delivered personally. With each gift she sent a note thanking the giver for their good wishes and saying that the wedding had been canceled. Although every note was handwritten, they were as identical as if they’d been spit out by a modern-day copier or bled upon by an old-time mimeograph machine.
The next morning, after a five-mile jog followed by a big breakfast with her running group, Ana lays down in the living room to get rid of a kink in her back and falls asleep. The doorbell wakes her and she gets up to find Billy Timbers on her doorstep.
“Hey Ana,” he says, showing her a rolled-up towel. “I thought we could go for a swim.”
Weed, wedding cake, Billy Timbers, and the intoxicating scent of chlorine, Ana thinks. She hadn’t smoked in years and she’d been careful about inhaling but it didn’t make any difference. She was soon craving sweets and invited Billy to follow her into the kitchen where she retrieved the box of wedding cake her brother had foisted on her the night before. Now they were floating in the pool.
“I could get used to this, Ana.”
“Yeah, I know. Everybody thought I was crazy when I bid on this house, but I’d always wanted an indoor pool.”
“Yeah, and what else?”
“I always wished I could sing.”
“Anyone can sing, Ana.”
To prove him wrong, she clears her throat and begins the song Billy wrote for her more than twenty years ago.
“I can’t believe you remember that thing,” he says before she’s finished the first verse. Then he starts singing and even with twenty years of smoke damage, his voice is irresistible. Floating on her back, she basks in the sound until his phone starts to chirp and he leaves the pool to answer it.
“I have to go,” he says after he finishes the call.
“It was time to get out anyway, I’m getting angel fingers.” He shows her his dimpled hand.
"Want a shower?"
"What're you suggesting, Ana?"
"A shower. To wash off the chlorine."
"I think I'll just change."
Fifteen minutes later, he joins her in the kitchen.
“I like your hair down, Ana,” he says. “It looks nice."
“Come on,” she says. “I’ll walk you to your car.”
In the driveway, Billy moves in closer and Ana steps back. His phone chirps again.
"Yo," he says, giving her a look. "You'll never guess where I am." He laughs at the reply.
When he turns his back to have a quick mumbled conversation, Ana realizes she’s stopped trying to merge the two Billys. She’d given her heart to Billy the younger.
They exchange a sweet powdery-dry kiss before he gets into his rusty convertible, and when she leans down to say a last goodbye, the car’s interior transports her back in time. Sticking out of his ashtray is a familiar roach clip, and a plastic statue of Jerry Garcia still graces his dashboard. The déjà vu continues as he turns the key in the ignition and bass-laden speakers remind her of the decrepit muffler that always heralded his arrivals and departures.
He waves as he backs out of the driveway and toots his horn before driving away. Ana thinks about her first impression of Billy outside the church yesterday and how he’d looked in his baggy swim trunks. Feeling as if she’s just returned from the funeral of a dear friend, Ana’s unsure of who or what she’s mourning.
Back inside the house, she gets a beer out of the refrigerator and returns to the living room. Looking out the bay window at the empty driveway, she begins a solemn rendition of the song Billy wrote for her more than twenty years ago. But to sing it true she has to pick up the tempo, because it’s pure rock-and-roll. DSS
Mary Rodriguez, 63, of McFarland,, Wisc., is a retired electrical engineer. She's also been a secretary, waitress and nanny. Her short fiction has appeared in Wisconsin People & Ideas and other publications, while her poems can be found in Verse Wisconsin.
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