By Gilkey Wildridge
His lips tasted like saltwater taffy bought from the boardwalk where we first met. It was a warm and free June afternoon; young and naive, we grabbed a handful from the old confectioner’s kiosk. He left some money, far more than what it was worth, and we rushed down the planks.
Over time, the influence of salted caramel wore off as we sped unknowing toward our final year together. The taffy mixed with other scents, tastes, and sounds of life with him: the crackle and pop of a fried egg searing in oil on a Sunday morning; the sweet ochre of his favorite pipe tobacco trapped within the screened walls of the porch on a rain-soaked August evening; the icy desperation of his seizures.
On the night of our tenth anniversary, the first one rolled through our lives. I was a child once more, lost and breathless from exertion, watching thunder clouds stampede through the prairie on their way towards my childhood home, where mother waited alone for them to pass. That day bonded me with loneliness; from then on, we were never separated. A decade of matrimony had kept loneliness at bay. Since our wedding, I had ordered my solitude into a corner of my mind, refusing to acknowledge its presence. But when the seizures started, it broke free of the bars, pouncing to the fore, as he fell deeper into the disease that we were both powerless to stop.
As we slipped from each other, my memories of him went out like stars, one at a time, taking the warmth they had brought into my life back to that June day when it began. I lost him in pieces: the swish of his slippers on the bedroom carpet, the tang of musk and charcoal from his pillow, the stubborn bittersweet aroma of his favorite coffee. And there I was, clinging to an empty mattress as the wind whipped the grass and the storm bore down.
At the funeral, tears tumbled down my cheeks, wind and rain whipped across my face. I fell to my knees, my fist pounding fallen leaves. Everything was torn from me except two moments in time: a little girl standing before the storm and a taffy-flavored kiss. In the uncaring November drizzle, my petrified inner child clashed with the confident young woman I barely recognized on the boardwalk that day.
Over time, the girl and the woman coexisted; they stopped their feuding. We knew all we had in life was each other. Some days the child would be with me, some, the woman. Never both.
Except on Valentine’s Day, equidistant between November and June: then I needed to face both of my past selves, the girl and the woman. We had known him, but none of us could say goodbye. So, on Valentine’s, the three of us opened a window and he rushed back to us. His pipe smoke scented the room, the bed warmed with his body heat, his stubble scratched our chin. And for a few hours we were whole again.
I walked across the boardwalk yesterday, one foot in front of the other, the speed of my youth a cold and distant memory. Snow and ice from February’s first storm stung my face and split seams in my lips. But the confectioner was there, his kiosk a lighthouse in the bluster. Ever since he lost his wife, he’d meet me here every Valentine’s to perform the ritual that kept us sane. I approached him and from his front coat pocket he produced a single piece of saltwater taffy. The saturated leather scrunched with water as he handed it to me, and I unwrapped it from its wax paper shell.
It passed my tongue—salted caramel, our favorite flavor.