Please be sure to read the author's end notes. Thank you and enjoy!
This is a follow up to the story Ice Cream Castles. Eli and Nedra once proved that opposites attract. On a lonely St. Louis night, they discovered that their differences, were the kindling that lit a spark neither of them could deny. Can their May-December attraction build beyond the bedroom or will the past remain the chasm too wide for either of them to cross?
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
The morning after they made love, Eli left her lying in bed but did not return. Not later that day, the next day, nor any day after. When he thought back on it, those were not his intentions. He meant to come back. But when he arrived home, Melinda’s picture was the first to greet him, and again by his bedside table later that evening. Both times her expression seemed to haunt him. Her eyes asking, why? He couldn’t escape his guilt. Instead, he ran from it. Tossed and turned against the bedsheets trying to rectify the feelings that lingered for his wife, and the new, complicated feelings that stirred inside him for Nedra. But nothing changed. Only his guilt, now turned to fear. As the calendar days slipped away, it felt harder to reach out to her. Near to impossible that he ever would. But that changed nearly five years later. On the day their paths crossed again. This time at his best friend Carl’s car dealership.
Nedra pretended not to notice him, but he wasn’t fooled. Taken off guard by her presence, he tried to act normal as she sauntered over on the arm of a tall, middle-aged man. “Let me holla at you for a minute,” the man called while waving Carl over. Eli felt a mild intimidation as the man approached, he stood at least several inches taller than Eli, with broad shoulders and a confident stride. Though it was late summer, the man dressed out of season, in a pair of dark slacks and a black polo shirt. “Ray!” Carl greeted him. Ray tipped the vintage fedora he wore and smiled, flashing a set of even white teeth that startled against his dark brown skin. Something about this manner rubbed Eli the wrong way. He didn’t seem well matched for Nedra. The man seemed too rough around the edges, though his casual attire and broad smile would suggest otherwise.
“I’ve been trying to reach you man,” Carl went on to say. “We just got that new impala in and—"
“Inside,” Ray said, interrupting him and nodding toward the office door before turning to Nedra. “You gonna be alright here baby?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Nedra replied ignoring Eli who stood nearby. Carl and Ray took off toward the office leaving Eli and Nedra alone on the show floor. He took the opportunity to settle his gaze on her without fear of recrimination. But she was distracted, rifling through her large purse. After a beat, she found what she was searching for; a crumpled pack of cigarettes. She slipped one from the pack and lit up, shooting a nonchalant glance in his direction. There were changes, he noticed. A slimmer waistline and a new, richer hair color, styled in big curls that fell slightly above her shoulders. They softened the features of her slimmer face—which was pretty to begin with—but now seemed less weighted. She took another drag from her cigarette and he frowned. He wished she wouldn’t smoke. It reminded him of things he would rather forget. Like losing his wife in an automobile accident that occurred when she dropped her cigarette onto her lap and lost control of the wheel. An image of Melinda flashed in his mind. He felt the urge to slap the cigarette from Nedra’s hand. But it wasn’t his place to do that. Nor tell her to stop. She wasn’t his and even if she were, their past experiences assured him that she wasn’t a woman that took kindly to being told what to do. He moved closer, meeting her gaze. She looked away, but not before he caught a glimpse of disappointment in her soft brown eyes.
“Nedra?” he asked. It wasn’t a question, more of a plea—to look at him, acknowledge him. She sighed and started away, but Eli grabbed her elbow, gently turning her toward him. “Hello,” he continued, instantly releasing her as she tensed under his touch. “Hi.” The curtness in her tone made him flinch. “I meant to call you,” he said. “So many times, I dialed your number or drove by your neighborhood.” A plume of cigarette smoke tickled his nose as she blew in his direction. “That so?” She replied, dropping her cigarette and stamping it out on the shiny showroom floor. A lump formed in Eli’s throat that hardened as he struggled to finish his thoughts and find something, anything to cut through the invisible wall between them. He settled on the only thing that made sense: honesty. “You’re upset with me. I know, and there’s no excuse for what I did. I just want to say that you look well. Good in fact. Really good.” He released her arm, his voice caught in that ever-hardening lump in his throat. She parted her lips as though ready to say something, but the moment was interrupted by Ray and Carl’s return.
As if sensing something was up, Ray moved between them, offering his hand for Eli to shake. There was a gold band on his left finger. Eli tried to conceal his suspicions as he took the man’s hand and gave it a firm shake. Pleasantries exchanged, he waited while Ray and Carl wrapped up their conversation. Only mildly interested in what sounded like a completed car deal. He chose to focus on Nedra instead, discreetly dropping his gaze to her ring finger. It was band-less. This time, there would be no neutrality in his expression. Somewhere along his face, his true thoughts emerged. She deserved better. But who was he to judge? Who was he to feel anything at all? He had no moral authority. Though she had yet to tell him, he could have been nothing more to her than a breaker of promises; a liar in the extreme; a disappointment at the very least. On that thought, he watched helpless and wordless as the men concluded their business and Nedra threaded her arm through Ray’s before exiting the showroom. She didn’t look back.
Feelings are funny things. After Eli left that morning, a tiny voice in the back of her mind cautioned that he wasn’t coming back. But she ignored it. Until the hours turned to days and the days to weeks. When months went by and she hadn’t heard from him, she knew that voice had been right, and she’d been played a fool. Still, that feeling – the one that burrowed into her the night they met – it lingered still. Three years after they’d last seen each other. Like a wound now festered, it remained, unhealed and filled with regret. A part of her.
When she met Ray, life seemed settled, and the hardships from her past put in their rightful place. But that’s the trouble with the past; it forever dug its claws into her. Tore at her happiness until there was nothing left but that old foe, sorrow. Would she ever be free of it? When Ray offered to buy her a new car, for once in her life she set her pride aside and thought, why not? Why not allow a man to do something nice for her? Something beyond warming her bedsheets at night. Why not be happy? When they arrived at Carl’s car dealership, she felt excited, hopeful. Seeing Eli doused those feelings cold. In their place came new, familiar ones: Anger, confusion, sorrow, those old friends that plagued her life for years came back in force. Thanks to this five foot eleven Jew.
Though she tried to avoid him, pretend he did not exist, her curiosity got the better of her. She had to look, to know. What she saw didn’t help. He still bore a slight resemblance to Tom Cruise. Still looked good. Too good. The years since they last saw each other had treated him well. There was a healthy tint to his skin, as though he’d been on some exotic vacation or perhaps outdoors enjoying the summer sun. But there was also something else; a thing neither of them could control or deny. The feelings between them and the time, small but intense, that they shared together. She saw those moments replayed in the center of his blue eyes. Though punctuated by a few thin lines, they remained unchanged. She wanted to look away, to dismiss the old and new Eli that still pulled at her heart, but she couldn’t.
The minutes felt agonizing as he attempted to engage her in conversation. Each word a sharp and painful reminder of how charming and dangerous he could be at her most vulnerable. She needed a smoke. Something to distract her thoughts. Eli continued to stare. Poked the invisible bear between them. As she dug inside her purse, her fingers slid across the chrome handle of the Beretta, Ray gave her for her birthday. At first, she refused the gift. But he was so convincing. Baby, I can’t have you out here working late at night without some protection. If something happened to you, I’d kill a muthafucka dead! Then we both gone. Now, murderous thoughts raced through her mind. What if she pulled out this gun and warned Eli never to come back? Remove him from her life forever? No, that’s crazy! Threatening Eli wouldn’t change the past or solve the current problem, only create new, bigger ones. She let go of the handle and found her cigarette pack, slipping one from inside.
Her fingers trembled. She hoped he hadn’t noticed. The small talk was dull, but everything unsaid felt heightened and raw. When he touched her elbow, she felt tiny needles – rampant electricity – course through her to every part that mattered. “Oh really?” she asked him. Not because an answer to the whys would change anything. She just needed something to say. Keep her upright and spine-stiff until Ray returned. But this time, Eli didn’t seem to know how to walk away. He didn’t see that every moment he stood there pretending they could be anything more than strangers, hurt her more than any hope of reconciliation could offer. She feared being in his presence longer than necessary, would chip away the little pride she had left. Make her act on things she told herself to forget and forgive.
When Ray and Carl emerged from the office, she let out a subtle sign of relief. Until she caught wind of Ray’s expression. He knew – or at least suspected – something was up. He strode over to them, putting a possessive arm around her before offering his hand to Eli. The men shook, but it looked anything, but friendly. She wanted out, and to her chagrin, there was also the unexpected need to protect Eli. Nedra didn’t know why after all this time his safety should matter to her. Maybe she did know. The only thing that was certain was that she needed to leave with Ray, and do it soon. Rau pulled away and in that moment; she reclaimed him, looping her arm through his and gently drawing him to her. When she turned her back to Eli, they were again strangers. There were no goodbyes. No lingering glances. Still, strangers. As she headed to the door, the pressure on her heart lessened, but it didn’t go away. Does love ever go away? It couldn’t be love that she felt for Eli. Could it? Not after all this time. No. She refused to believe that. Maybe what she had with Ray wasn’t love. Maybe it was comfort, maybe it was something entirely different. Whatever it was, she needed it. With Eli – with love – things seemed to heat up fast and then melt away. Like ice cream on a scorching summer day. Sweet for a time, messy in the end. Life with Ray wasn’t hot, cold or sweet. But it was easy. She preferred easy.
It could have ended there. But after their encounter at the car dealership, something changed. It was a weekday and he was on his way home from work. Stuck in gridlock, he sat idling at a red traffic signal. That’s when he noticed it; an ice cream parlor. Through the window he could see it was the old-fashioned kind with a wraparound counter and cushioned topped stools. It looked bright, colorful, and from what he could see, packed with nostalgia. His mind wandered back to Nedra. Back to the evening they met, and the morning he left her. What would she think of this place? An angry motorist yelled from the car behind him. The light was green. He clicked his signal light and made a quick turn. It was time to find out.
It would have ended there, when she walked away from him at the car dealership. But he showed up at her door. Flushed red and panting he stood on her doorstep looking like a man who had just run a mile at full speed, and then some. Ray had gone away for the weekend – for work – which he often did. She was alone, and prayed things stayed that way. For Eli’s sake and hers. The last thing she needed was two grown men fighting on her front lawn. Not that the neighbors cared. That was par for the course where she lived. But still, she wouldn’t have blood spilled in her name. Neither man would win. They all would lose.
From the outside, her home hadn’t changed much, and he was grateful for that. He didn’t know what awaited him until he arrived, or whether she lived there anymore. Playing it cautious, he parked several blocks away and walked back to her lot. Concealing himself in the trees in case her boyfriend was around. When he saw a man who resembled Ray pull out of the driveway, he kept his distance and remained hidden. As the minutes ticked by, he began to question his sanity, and why he was there. His nerves got the better of him. He returned to his car and chastised himself for being a coward.
After a much-needed pep talk, he ran back to her house ready to follow through with his plan. But faltered when she opened the door and he saw her for the first time since their encounter at Carl’s dealership.
He stood silently panting. His mind a blank. The elegant speech he rehearsed instantly forgotten. His throat felt raw and his voice failed him when he needed it to be at its most resolute. But he didn’t care. It was now or never. Those were the breaks “Come with me,” he said between pants.
“I don’t know what this is Eli, but I need you to leave!” Nedra stood in the doorway to her home as he drank in her appearance. She had pulled her hair into a top bun, the style leaving her graceful neck and delicate collarbone in full view. His eyes trailed lower. The heat had left a light sheen of sweat along her brown skin that complimented the short yellow sundress she wore. There was more he wanted to say, but her legs were a distraction. Long and shapely, they shimmered under the summer sun. He struggled to find the words to convey the range of emotions battering his insides. But not before she noticed his wandering gaze and responded by folding her arms across her chest. He instantly regretted his lack of focus. Finding his voice again, he inched forward. “Before you send me off, may I at least have some water first?”
Her eyes narrowed, but she turned and disappeared back into the house. Moments later she returned with a small bottle of water. It was cold, refreshing and gave him a moment to catch his breath and think. He finished it in one long gulp.
Finding his courage, he locked eyes with hers. “I’m not going anywhere until you come with me. I know it’s not what you want to hear. But it’s the way it is. I’m not moving,” he said, handing her the empty water bottle.
“You’re not what? If you don’t move your ass from my porch right now!” Her dark eyes lit with fury, her mouth turned down into a deep frown, but he insisted. “Look, I’m not here to make trouble or cause a scene,” he explained.
“You could have fooled me!” she snapped.
“Just listen,” he pleaded. “Go with me. It’ll take less than an hour. You go with me and I’ll bring you right back home and if it’s your wish, you’ll never see, or hear from me again. I’m just asking for this one time. This one thing.”
Sweat rolled down the sides of his face. The St. Louis heatwave was insufferable, but he didn’t dare make a move to dry himself. He had one hand on her screen door and his body wedged in between. There he would stay until he convinced her to go with him – and he would convince her, somehow.
Eli’s eyes reminded her of the many oceans profiled in the travel magazines she collected. Their blue depths – naked and wondrous – were the places she longed to get lost in. Stay forever in. With him looking at her the way he was, his eyes swimming with a million blue apologies, she didn’t know what to think. As much as her mind screamed to slam the door in his face and never open it again, the other, unhelpful parts of her could not send him away. She moved aside and motioned for him to enter.
When the door closed behind him, she let loose. “How dare you! I haven’t seen you in almost three years and here you are, back on my doorstep, making demands! Who the hell are you to do that? Where do you get off coming here and fucking with my life this way?”
She watched him part his mouth to speak, and then, possibly thinking better of it, remained silent. Nedra marched to her coffee table and swiped a cigarette from atop it. She stormed about the house swearing and searching for her lighter. But for some reason, couldn’t remember where she put it. Fed up, she went to the kitchen and lit her cigarette over the stove range. A million thoughts crashed into the other as she waited for Eli to follow. He did, moments later; his confidence from before seemingly vanquished. In its place, something contrite and cautious. With trembling fingers, she took a drag from her cigarette and tried to calm her nerves. Not so easy with him standing so close. Watching her the way he was. Silence was her new enemy. In the kitchen she waited, inpatient for him to say something. She watched him lean against the archway and it struck her as something he’d done before. A flash of a memory; déjà vu.
Closing her eyes, it was her pride keeping her from doing something she knew would have no good ending. When she felt Eli closing the distance between them, her inner voice screamed, Run! She opened her eyes, but couldn’t get her feet to move. Luckily, he stopped short and kept a respectable distance, opting to settle against the kitchen counter as she lingered by the stove. The fight in her began to deflate. She wanted the whole mess over and done with, but it was clear, Eli had no intentions of leaving without her. “What do you want from me Eli?” She sighed.
“Just some of your time. I know I don’t have the right to ask, but I’m afraid I have no other choice.”
“You always have a choice,” and she started to add, like the one you made to leave and never come back. But she kept it to herself.
“Come with me, Nedra,” he replied. She put out her cigarette and took to nibbling her fingernails in contemplation of what to do. Soon, the fear of Ray returning overtook everything else. She relented. “All right. Lead the way.”
“Here we are.”
“An ice cream shop?” Nedra asked, unimpressed. He took her hand, it was petite and soft like he remembered. She cut him a warning glance, but he didn’t let go. He led her inside the ice cream parlor instead. Nostalgia wasn’t the word to describe the place. The day he found it, when he first entered, it was like déjà vu. As if he’d been there before, in some past life. Like he was meant to be. They were meant to be. He wondered if Nedra felt it too, because the tension he felt in her hand before had relaxed. She seemed to cling to him as much as he did to her, and to him, that signaled progress. Though it wasn’t as busy as he would have guessed on such a balmy day, he guided her to one of the booths to give them some privacy. After they settled in and placed their order, he felt the moment right to say what he needed to. But again, something stopped him. He rose and walked over to the vintage jukebox in the corner of the main room. He selected a song and then returned to the table as it began to play a song about a secret garden. Bruce don’t fail me now. I need you, man. He felt her eyes on him, but pretended not to notice.
It had been a stroke of luck that he found this place. Three years after that fateful night they spent driving the streets of St. Louis in search of it. Nedra insisted it was here, but he did not buy it. Now, he knew she was right – had always been right. The day he stumbled upon it while waiting in traffic – was that coincidence? Carl might call it serendipitous. Either way, he was here, with her, and that had to mean something. As he returned to the booth, he wondered about her thoughts – of him – of everything. Time was not on his side. But if he dug deep and formed the words to make her understand, maybe there was a chance to right the wrongs between them – or maybe serendipity had played its last hand.
The song that drifted from the jukebox hit her dead center. She wasn’t prepared for it or anything that had transpired since Eli reentered her life. When they first met, Secret Garden had been one of her favorite songs. Since then, she could barely listen to it without bursting into tears. “Do you remember this song?” he asked as he slid into the booth seat across from her.
“Of course. It was one of my favorites. Once upon a time.” He seemed ready to probe her for more, but the waitress returned with their orders. She placed a caramel drizzled sundae in front of Nedra and a cherry topped banana split in front of Eli. Nedra ate a spoonful of her treat, but had little appetite to finish the rest. She took a glance around the parlor, observing the patrons that occupied the seats by the counter and some of the booths.
“I can imagine what you’re thinking right now,” Eli said, picking up on her thoughts.
“I doubt it. It’s just that…I’m trying to understand what all of this is really about.” she said, swirling the melting ice cream around in her dish. She placed her spoon beside the dish and watched Eli do the same with his.
He leaned forward, his shoulders bunched, hands hidden from view. It was like the weight of the world had thrust itself upon him and she was the only one who could relieve that burden. The idea was no comfort. She shifted against her seat, the discomfort of being so close to him, placing its own burdens upon her. “I can’t save you Eli. When we first met, I mistakenly thought I could. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now. We were using each other to get through the shit from our past. But you can’t do that to people. You gotta work through your own shit and try to be happy where you are.” She pushed her dessert dish to the center of the table and thought about digging through her purse for a cigarette. But the sign on the door that red No Smoking, halted her. “I don’t know,” she said with a sigh waiting for his reply.
Blue eyes burned into hers and that prickly feeling returned – warning her to be careful and protect her heart.
He sat straighter and folded his hands onto the table. Though he seemed surer of himself than when they first arrived, a subtle, but nervous energy radiated from him. “All of this is what should have happened that day, after I left. But I was searching for something that wasn’t there. Maybe we both were.” His eyes softened when they settled upon her again, and it took everything within her to reel in her emotions, to not react. He reached out to her, but she didn’t take his hand, only waited in silence for him to continue.
“Those things are never going to be here again. Those people we loved are never going to be. Like that ice cream parlor, we couldn’t find. Remember? It wasn’t that it didn’t exist or that it was gone. We were just looking in the wrong places for it.”
Against her will, she felt her eyes well with tears. She prayed they didn’t fall. That she would be spared the humiliation of crying in front of him, in the middle of an ice cream shop. Of all the damn…
“This place, isn’t just an ice cream parlor. It’s the ice cream parlor we were trying to find that night. We didn’t find it then. But we have now.”
Nedra could only nod, contemplating his words as she waited for him to finish.
“When I saw you at Carl’s dealership, it was like something sparked in me. A feeling I had struggled for so long to pretend wasn’t there. I was holding on to ghosts, Nedra, and when I saw you, in that moment, I knew I had to let go. Even if I still didn’t know how to.”
Hot tears spilled over her cheeks now. She pulled a napkin from the holder on their table and dabbed at her eyes. Why was this happening now? She was happy with Ray. Wasn’t she? Was the universe this cruel or had she done something in a past life to warrant all this confusion and heartache? If only she knew. She grabbed another napkin from the holder, but noticed Eli had fallen silent.
“I’m sorry Nedra. I didn’t mean to upset you.” He voice sounded thin, as though he too were on the verge of tears. If he started, she wouldn’t be able to stop.
“I’m fine, Eli. Finish what you have to say. Please.”
He hesitated. To reassure him, she reached across the table and gave his hand a light pat. It’s all she could dare herself to do. Anything more was too dangerous.
“I know you’ve moved on and maybe it’s too late to fix something I’m responsible for breaking.” His voice was thick with sincerity and a small part of her wanted to reach out to him again and let him know that he wasn’t all to blame. Her pride held her back.
Nedra bit her lower lip. Her mind racing. She craved a smoke. Needed one.
There was silence after that. A pregnant pause that felt like the world had fallen into a void and only the two them existed in its place. She started to speak, to end the whole draining affair, but he spoke first.
“I need to know if you feel something too? I guess what I’m asking is whether we can salvage what we had? Because I think we had the beginnings of something real, and good, and…” He trailed off into silence and took in what she could only imagine was the horror in her expression. She didn’t mean it to be so blunt. But how else could she get to walk out of this with her heart and mind in check? This thing between them was never going to work. She was nuts to think it ever could. They were too different; too far apart. Eli, with his expensive shoes and sophisticated lifestyle. Her, with her cigarettes and messy bungalow. There was no sense prolonging the inevitable. She had to end it. “I can’t do this,” she said, gathering her purse and sliding from the booth. “I’m sorry, but I need to get home. Please. Take me home.”
Nedra had an undefinable beauty. The kind he could not put into words nor pull away from. No matter how many attempts he made or years he wasted in denial of the truth. When she asked to go home, his hope and heart deflated. Everything within him screamed no. But he knew the risks. Nothing was certain. Three years was too long to leave things unsaid. She had moved on. He would make his best effort to be happy for her. She deserved to be happy. But there was one thing that nagged at his conscience; he didn’t believe her when she told him she was happy. His Spidey senses told him something was off and though he had no right to interfere in her life, he could not walk away either. Not again.
No words were exchanged between them as they left the ice cream parlor, but the thermostats seemed to burst with each step they took toward his car. Remarkably, the heat had rose a couple degrees since they’d been inside, making them both anxious to get back to the cool comfort of the car. But a heaviness remained; the stifling, unspoken feelings that permeated the space between them. He felt it.
He pondered the idea; whether she felt it too. His peace said, it was for her to plot their next course. No matter what, he made a silent promise that he would not abandon her like before. He would stay as close as she’d allow him to be. Watch over her. Find a way to make up for the past. If that meant friendship and nothing more, he could learn to accept that. If it also meant standing on the sidelines, watching her be happy with someone else, that might take longer. But he’d come to eventually accept that too. With love, there’s nothing less he could do.
In time, he hoped that would be enough.
It took me a while to write this follow up. But we're approaching Xmas, I had the concentration, and squeezed out the time. I figured, why not? It's not the happiest story, I know. Not very holiday festive and absent the steam of the first. But I plan on rewriting the first to fit better with the reinvisioning I have for the overall story.
As for me and writing in general. I've had a lot going on with personal life. Family commitments and challenges among other things put a lot of stress on me and created a near impossible hole to dig myself out of. Its been rough. As far as my creative pursuits go, I'm trying to get back into the groove. Time will tell if I do.
Eli and Nedra are my Max and Nora. I hope you enjoyed taking another glimpse into their complicated world. I promise to visit them again real soon. Stay tuned.