Joe stood at the corner of the train station, chatting to a stranger over a cigarette when Keeley arrived. She smiled at the ease with which he carried himself in making the most of his time. When he spoke about his previous marriage, he told her how it used to irritate his wife and the corners of his mouth flickered downward each time.
She worried he hadn’t forgiven himself for leaving but as time went on; she saw him let go of the deepest connections to his past. Christmas was easy, but he had a pensive expression when he watched her children open their presents, thinking of his own, even though they were adults.
They had spent two weeks together, and then less than a week apart before they saw one another. Keeley insisted on her independence. She wasn’t, as she reminded him, his wife. Yet he enjoyed the time away from her. It was, she knew, part of the change he was making for what was a surprise to him.
The failure of his marriage, and his part in it.
Keeley had no concerns about it. He spoke about his faults without seeking pity, and his writing was a scalpel to the tumours of his past. New flesh had grown over the old, and he told her she was the first person to touch this new version of himself. Keeley wondered if it was too much work, but then he would come through the door, taking responsibility without taking it. He spent his youth in a marriage dictated on his wife’s terms over his, when he didn’t know what he wanted.
She wondered what he had been like, young and earnest as he took his vows before experience provided him with a painful education in their application.
He said he failed at his marriage, and he meant it.
Joe looked up from the conversation and grinned at her. His teeth were white against the salmon pink of his lips and his blue eyes twinkled with delight as he excused himself to come over to her.
He slowed down as he came towards her. She heard his sharp intake of breath, smelled the faint tang of tobacco and underneath the sandalwood and cinnamon musk of his skin.
Joe knew each moment of their relationship was a test or a celebration. He had, by all accounts, been a dutiful father and had retained a dopiness which she found endearing. Kindness came to him with a practiced ease and Keeley knew he wore the burden of performance with her, but it was a weight he carried with grace.
Keeley’s heart thumped against her chest. She leaned towards him and they kissed, a light brush which was a promise against the hungry, hot play of their mouths later. The anticipation made her shudder and he took a deep breath before he murmured his appreciation.
The risk in him diminished, but his hands were rough with her in the best way and he knew how to use his strength for her benefit. His liberation and her comfort made them explosive and intuitive lovers, and the heat of it blew away autumn’s ghosts.
She loved him again.
In their deaths, they smiled at them, offered their blessing as they flew into ashes, twinkling like stars.