THE FIRST QUESTION:
After all these years is there any chance in sweet hell you would see me again?
The very moment Emma Lauryn Gilford presses the play button on her answering machine and hears the voice of a man she has not seen or heard from at least two pant sizes ago boldly asking her if there is any chance in sweet hell that she would see him again, she feels something physically dislodge itself from a space just below her heart and swirl through her body like a wild Frisbee.
The Frisbee first cruises through her head, erasing every normal thought and feeling that her usually sane, and usually predictable, mind might create. Emma can feel it race past her chest and twirl its way towards her stomach—ignoring, of course, her heart, which she mistakenly thinks has been on solid and safe ground during the past fifteen-plus years since she’s seen the actual face of the man who just dared to leave her a phone message.
How dare he.
Peaceful, poised, restrained, controlled, happy, and usually quiet and lovely, Emma Gilford has a sudden and totally unexpected urge to scream and hit something at the same moment. If only she could move. If only she could really do what her mind has imagined.
What in the world is happening to me?
Emma tries to slow her breathing, knows it’s beyond imperative to regain control over her forty-three-year-old body and mind before his face rises up from the now ancient space just behind her concrete wall of denial, where she placed him all those years ago amid a mess of other events and people.
What Emma cannot see and does not admit is that after all these years Samuel’s head is still peeking at her from the top of her inner concrete wall. There is now a hint of gray edging out from the natural part that runs down the left side of the top of his head, but it is surely his head. His head with its strands of hair bleached at the edges from hours and days and weeks and years in the sun doing his work. His eyes as dark and seductive as dancing shadows at midnight. His nose that some might consider too big but a nose that Emma always thought made him look the part of the serious intellectual. His neck supported by a shaft of muscles that made it impossible for him to ever find a shirt that fit properly. His head always tipped to one side when he was listening to her and he did always listen to her like no one else had ever listened to her before or since. His brain filled with stories and light and a passion for his work and for her that made her knees weak and her heart lurch. His lips that could dance across her body in a ballet of love that Emma thought, wished, hoped and prayed had finally disappeared from her mind after all these years of working so hard to forget.
All those years since the last time she heard his voice.
All those years when the seconds, minutes and hours of her life have surely created new stories and experiences that even Emma would call living without realizing her heart has remained suspended.
All those years when the nieces and nephews have grown higher, their mothers—her sisters—a bit wider and amazingly even louder than when they were growing up, and her mother, as the leader of all things Gilford, has remained as boisterous, often hilarious and always entertaining.
All those years when Emma buried herself so enthusiastically in her own work, the lives of those same three sisters, and all those soccer, football and volleyball games, school plays, junior high arguments, voice changes, and first crushes as if she were the real mother and not just the beloved and always available auntie.
All those years.
“Damn you, Samuel,” Emma finally manages to say again as she wills the swirl of emotion to stop slicing the bricks off of her sanctuary where even more of Samuel is revealed.
The two absolutely astounding and terribly masculine bones just below his throat where Emma loved to rest her fingers.
The way he would simply take her hand and place it there, right there, when they were sitting, standing, lying, breathing, talking, laughing.
And they did laugh.
She remembers it now, while she places her hand across her own throat where the laughter seemed to rest back then as if it was waiting for any opportunity to spring loose, as an intoxicating mix of joy and lightness that astounds her as much now as it did the last time she recalls Samuel’s laughter mingling with hers. It was back when everything seemed possible, when romance was as much a part of her day as brushing her teeth, when Samuel was so much a part of her present, and so, she thought, of her future as well.
Emma was finishing up graduate school and living not unlike a cloistered nun in an efficiency apartment that was the size of a large shoebox. She had not yet moved back to her hometown and had not yet stepped back into the comfortable shoes of sister, daughter, beloved auntie. She was single and free and young and she had Samuel.
Emma allows herself one sweet smile as she remembers Samuel shuffling out of her tiny bathroom in her ratty flowered bathrobe, wearing her pink bunny slippers after having sprayed his hair with half a can of her hairspray so that it stuck straight up. He’d looked as if he had just touched an open electrical circuit.
“Oh my God, Samuel, what are you doing?” she’d gasped.
“I’ve decided to be one of your sisters today,” he said as if this was something he did every other Friday.
“You are homesick, Em. Yesterday you called all of your sisters in the morning and again at night. Oh yes, and your mother at least twice that I know of. So I thought if I could just be your sister for a day, you might feel better, get some work done, and that would be enough to keep you happy until you get back home for a visit.”
“But you are too tall to be a Gilford.”
“I’m adopted,” he shot back.
“Adopted,” Emma repeated, laughing so hard she rolled off the couch, which was also her bed.
“Yes, your mother wanted five daughters, not just four, because four girls and their periods and all that fighting and jealousy and giggling and emotions were not enough for her.”
“You know all about sisters and girls?”
Samuel winked and opened up the bathrobe to expose himself and said, “Yes, darling, I know all about girls.”
Even as Emma knew that he knew more about some of her sisters than she wished he did, she could not stop laughing. She laughed as he made her breakfast and he started the lapel of the bathrobe on fire. She laughed when he went into the lobby and picked up the mail and had a long talk with the landlady without once acting as if his feminine costume was anything unusual. She laughed when she realized that she got more work done in that day than she would have if he had not made her laugh, had not helped to make her so happy, had not known without being told that she really was just a bit homesick and missed her sisters and her mother terribly.
Emma now realizes she may have laughed more in that one lovely day than she has laughed in all of the days since.
“Damn you, Samuel,” she says yet again as she pushes herself away from the counter where the answering machine seems to be staring at her. She wonders how in the world he managed to find her even as she realizes it is not as if she has been hiding. It is not as if he cannot use the resources of the university, if he is still researching in some jungle for them, to trace the address and phone number that the alumni association keeps on file. It is not as if he could not have predicted that she would eventually move back to Higgins so she could be close to her three sisters and watch out for her widowed but perfectly capable mother. It is not as if he could not call a sister, maybe even the other sister, and just ask for her phone number, marital status, present shoe size or what in the hell she had for breakfast the last six mornings.
As if any part of her life except Samuel could ever be a secret.
Not with hundreds of Gilford family members spread out all over creation who come to the annual family reunion that Emma participates in as if it is a paying part-time job and that is all but advertised on the front page of The New York Times and every other newspaper and media outlet in the world because something newsworthy, if not absolutely ridiculous and illegal, always seems to happen at the annual affair.
Not with the unwritten rule in Higgins, South Carolina, that states that if you simply exist then whatever you do is everyone else’s business even if you do not know them.
Emma then spends the next five minutes standing in place, avoiding eye contact with the answering machine that she considers hacking to death with the coffee canister that sits directly behind it. Instead she wills the last sounds of remembered laughter to shatter into a million pieces and disappear—just like Samuel disappeared.
“I need this right now like I need another sister,” she mutters out loud.
More memories of Samuel rise to the surface and flutter close to her heart again and Emma scrambles to pull up the gate that surrounds it. She sees his head bent over one of his beloved books, his jeans lying across the edge of the bathtub, the way his eyes closed when he was trying hard to think before he spoke, his kind gestures towards strangers and the delightfully irritating way he always had of stopping, closing his eyes and then raising his hands before he was about to say something that to him was very important. Emma tries without success to put the gate back where it belongs. She struggles to find a reason, after all these years, for such an immense surge of emotion that her heart starts to pound.
Her heart pounds so loudly that it must be because she is so close emotionally and physically to her older sisters that she is kissing the edges of perimenopause, menopause or one of the other pushing-fifty-and-beyond kinds of female physical, mental and emotional transitional meanderings that all three of her sisters have been moaning about for so long Emma knows with certainty that she could be a part-time gynecologist and a clinical psychologist.
Hot flashes, night sweats, dry body parts, sexual ambivalence, thinning hair and everything from calcium deficiency to falling breasts: That’s surely what’s causing her to feel as if she is having a heart attack.
Certainly she could not be having a stroke just because of one phone message. It is just a voice. Just an old whisper of the past reminding her of someone she once was for just a short period of time. A person she could no longer see now no matter how long she looked into the bathroom mirror. Someone who went missing years ago somewhere around the last line of laughter she shared with the man whose voice was now on her answering machine.
“Damn you, Samuel,” Emma says again, realizing she has sworn more in the past thirty minutes than in the past thirty days and daring to swat at the machine with her closed fist and actually hitting it.
And actually turning it back on.
And actually hearing his voice again.
And actually for real, surely, and with all certainty feeling that something has physically moved through her body as if its intention was to make her physically ill and emotionally distraught and then pound away with not-so-tender fists at her nerve endings and laugh at her, because after all, it is just a voice.
But this time at the very end of the message she hears the words “Please call.” Words that must have been there before but were not heard when she released her emotions from the cage where she locked them away the last time she heard him say the word please.
It is just a voice.
Emma raises her hands to her face, places the tips of her fingers across the top of her forehead and rests her thumbs at the bottom of her jawline. She clenches her teeth together, squeezes her eyes shut, and thinks about the world as she knows it. It is a world that she surely loves. It is a world that surely cannot pause.
Her job, her sisters, her mother, her gardens, the looming planning sessions for the Gilford Family Reunion, the invitation list, the ordering, the lengthy list of tasks that needs to be checked and crossed off and examined and checked again. There is absolutely nothing that can be put on hold. Not one thing.
Emma thinks about her mother, Marty, and how she promised her she would help her strip the wallpaper out of the half-bathroom sometime before all the relatives started visiting, before, during and after the reunion. There’s also the rows of fast-growing weeds against the side of her mother’s house, the storage shed that holds all of the leftover reunion paraphernalia that she must sort through, and whatever in the world else the Gilford matriarch has for her to do in this spring season of planning, freaking out, worrying and arguing about the reunion, which is the biggest event on the Higgins, South Carolina, calendar.
There are a few nieces who are counting on her for some adventures and a couple of wild sleepovers where they can do whatever they want to do without their overbearing mothers yelling at them to keep the chips off the couch, stop calling boys, wear more clothes, avoid drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll, and to get some sleep—as if teenagers need to sleep at night, for crying out loud.
There is all of that, all the delicious pieces of a life she loves. There is absolutely no need for worrying about a little, insignificant phone message among them. There is certainly no reason to answer it.
“I do not have time for this kind of crap,” Emma shouts into the palms of her own hands, thinking about her unplanted flowers and the block of delicious and rare alone time she has planned for part of this already bizarre day in her lovely backyard.
There may not be time for crap, but Emma Lauryn Gilford astounds herself by not erasing Samuel’s phone message. Instead, she touches the soft spot just below her collarbone where the invisible Frisbee has come to rest and where she feels it quivering as if it could take off again at any moment.
Excerpted from The Shortest Distance Between Two Women by Kris Radish. Copyright © 2009 by Kris Radish. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.