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The Notebook

The Notebook

The Notebook/16

chool, and received a full track scholarship to the University of Notre Dame. Life was good in high school. Damn good.

Then, as it often does, my life took a U-turn, and things got tough. I got injured, went a little insane, and after breaking the Notre Dame record in the 4 x 800 relay (at the Drake relays--a record that still stands), I spent the rest of the year icing my Achilles tendon. On summer break back home after my freshman year, icing my tendon and moping around the house, my mom said, "Do something--don't just pout."

I asked "What?"

She shrugged and said, "I don't know . . . write a book."

"Fine," I said, and eight weeks later, I was the proud creator of my first novel--The Passing, a book that was never published. I laid it to rest in a literary graveyard of sorts--my attic--and it's still there, next to my football card collection. In all honesty, it's a wonderful story--except for the writing. That was the humble birth of my Faulknerian career.

Fast-forward through college--good friends, lots of football games, too much beer--until March 1988. I met a girl--Cathy--on spring break in Florida. She was from New Hampshire and it was love at first sight. I told her the day after we met that we would be married someday. She laughed at me and told me to get another drink.

In July 1989, we married.

Nineteen eighty-nine was also the year that I wrote my second novel, The Royal Murders. Better writing this time--wonderful dialogue, but too damn long. It's also in the attic, filed with rejection slips. I decided to concentrate on another career. Since I was rejected not only by publishers but law school as well, I went through a number of short-term jobs looking for something that captivated my interest. I appraised real estate, bought and restored houses, waited tables, sold dental products by phone, and finally started my own business (manufacturing orthopedic products). Although I knew nothing about the medical field or engineering--my science education began and ended with Biology 101--I put myself in charge of everything. Thirty-thousand dollars in credit-card debt later, I realized my folly, big as a whale. Being a Capricorn, I had no choice but to take a deep breath, roll up my sleeves, and avoid the evil-death-ray stares that my wife was laser beaming into the back of my head. I pressed on, and eventually it worked out-- sort of. After two and a half long, long years, I broke even. We celebrated our smashing success wildly and without care, and nine months later Miles Andrew was born.

During this time I wrote yet another book, Wokini, with Billy Mills, a long-time friend and Olympic gold medalist, and it was published by Feather Publishing, a small outfit in Sacramento. It did well regionally and was picked up by Random House in 1994. Success at last!

Eventually, I sold my business and looked around for something to do while I was still breathing. Pharmaceutical Sales, the ad read. "Okay," I said, and it's really been a good choice. The hours are good, the pay is good, and I only see my boss once a month. Couldn't ask for anything more. I asked for and received a transfer from Sacramento to New Bern, North Carolina, and in December 1992 we moved across the country to a place we'd never seen. We celebrated our arrival with champagne and candles, and nine months later Ryan Cody was born.

Midtwenties life check. Good job, nice wife, kids, beautiful house overlooking a creek--what more could there be? In May 1993, I found out. Cheers, the television show, broadcast its final episode. Bob Costas did an hour-long show prior to the episode, and I remember lying awake most of the night after it aired. Cheers had been on for eleven years--an entire era of my life--and yet, I still hadn't fulfilled my dreams. At 4:00 A.M., I knew I had to give writing another shot. A good one though, not a half-hearted effort like before. I researched the market, decided on my topic (a love story), conjured up a couple of characters based on my wife's grandparents, and thought about my plot for almost two months before writing a word. At the time, Alzheimer's was big in the news, and I decided that would be the "vehicle" I would use to create a sense of tragedy necessary for a quality love story. I typed out 80,000 words, cut it by 28,000 words, and in January 1995 I finished the book.

In February, my company transferred my family from New Bern to Greenville, South Carolina. I put the book on hold till I had a permanent address, sent out letters to twenty-five agents in July, and signed with Theresa Park of Sanford Greenburger Associates. On October 19, the book arrived in New York and on October 23, 1995, at 12:02 P.M., my life changed forever. At that moment, I remember, I was serving fried chicken to a group of nurses.





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The Wedding

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Prologue


Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundaries of our lives?

I ponder these questions as I watch a moth flail wildly against the porch light. I'm alone outside. My wife, Jane, didn't stir when I slipped out of bed. Midnight has come and gone, and there's a crispness in the air that holds the promise of an early winter. I notice that my hands are trembling before I bury them in the pockets of my heavy cotton robe.

Above me, the stars are specks of silver paint on a charcoal canvas. I see Orion and the Pleiades, Ursa Major and Corona Borealis; somehow I feel I should be inspired by the realization that I'm not only looking at the stars, but staring into the past as well. Constellations shine with light that was emitted aeons ago, and I wait for something to come to me, words that a poet might use to illuminate life's mysteries. But there is nothing.

This doesn't surprise me. I've never considered myself a sentimental man, and if you asked my wife, I'm sure she would agree. I do not lose myself in films or plays, I've never been a dreamer, and if I aspire to any art form at all, it is one defined by rules of the Internal Revenue Service and codified by law. For the most part, my days and years as an estate lawyer have been spent in the company of those preparing for their own death, and I suppose that some might say that my life is an exercise in banality because of this. But even if they're right, what can I do? I make no excuses for myself, and by the end of my story, I hope you'll view my character flaws with a forgiving eye.

Please don't misunderstand. I may not be sentimental, but I'm not completely without emotion and there are moments when I'm struck by a deep sense of wonder. It is usually simple things that I find strangely moving: standing among the giant sequoias in the John Muir National Forest, for instance, or watching ocean waves as they crash together off Cape Hatteras, sending salty plumes into the sky. Last week, I felt my throat tighten when I watched a young boy reach for his father's hand as they strolled down the sidewalk. There are other things too: I can sometimes lose track of time when staring at a sky filled with wind-whipped clouds, and when I hear thunder rumbling, I always draw near the window to watch for lightning. When the next brilliant flash illuminates the sky, I sometimes find myself filled with longing, though I'm at a loss to tell you what it is that I feel my life is missing.

My name is Wilson Lewis, and this is the story of a wedding. It is also the story of my marriage, and despite the thirty years that Jane and I have spent together, I suppose I should begin by admitting that others know far more about marriage than I. A man can learn nothing by asking my advice. It pains me to admit that I've been blind and stubborn and dumb as a goldfish in the course of my marriage. Yet, looking back, if I've done one thing right, it has been to love my wife deeply throughout our years together. While this may strike some as a given, I suppose you should know that there was a time when I was certain that my wife didn't feel the same way about me.

Of course, all marriages go through ups and downs: Between us, my wife and I have lived through the deaths of both of my parents, one of hers, and the sickness of her father. We've moved four times, and though I've been successful in my profession, there were many sacrifices made in order to secure this position--sacrifices that in retrospect seem impossibly costly. We have three children and while neither of us would trade the experience of parenthood for the riches of Tutankhamen, the sleepless nights and frequent trips to the hospital when they were infants left both of us exhausted and often overwhelmed. It goes without saying that their teenage years were an experience I would rather not relive.

All of those events create their own stresses, and when two people live together, the stress flows both ways. This, I've come to believe, is both the blessing and the curse of marriage. It's a blessing because there's an outlet for the everyday strains of life; it's a curse because the outlet is someone you care deeply about.

Why do I mention this? Because I want to underscore that throughout all these events, I never doubted my feelings for my wife. Sure, there were days when we avoided eye contact at the breakfast table, but still, I never doubted us. It would be dishonest to say that I haven't wondered what would have happened had I married someone else, but in all the years we spent together, I never once regretted the fact that I had chosen her, and she, me. I thought our relationship was settled, but in the end, I realized that I was wrong. I learned that a little more than a year ago--fourteen months, to be exact--and it was that realization, more than anything, which set in motion all that was to come.

What happened then, you wonder?

Given my age, a person might suppose that it was some incident inspired by a mid-life crisis. A sudden desire to change my life, perhaps, or maybe a crime of the heart. But it was neither of those things. No, my sin was a small one in the grand scheme of things, an incident that under different circumstances might have been the subject of a humorous anecdote in later years. But it hurt her, it hurt us, and thus it is here where I must begin my story.

It was August 22, 2002, and what I did was this: I rose and ate breakfast, then spent the day at the office, as is my custom. The events of my workday played no role in what came after; to be honest, I can't remember anything about it other than to recall that it was nothing extraordinary. I arrived home at my regular hour and was pleasantly surprised to see Jane preparing my favorite meal in the kitchen.

When she turned to greet me, I thought I saw her eyes flicker downward, looking to see if I was holding something other than my briefcase, but I was empty-handed. I kissed her and an hour later, we ate dinner together, discussing our children and my work, the type of conversation that had become routine for us. Afterward, as Jane began collecting the dishes from the table, I retrieved a few legal documents from my briefcase that I wished to review. Carrying them to my office, I was perusing the first page when I noticed Jane standing in the doorway. She was drying her hands on a dish towel, and her eyes registered a disappointment that I had come to recognize, if not fully understand.

"Is there anything you want to say?" she finally asked.

I hesitated, aware there was more to her question than its innocence implied. I thought perhaps that she was referring to a new hairstyle, but looking carefully, her hair seemed no different than usual. I'd tried over the years to notice such things. I was at a loss, and as we stood before each other, I knew I had to offer something.

"How was your day?" I finally asked.

She gave a strange half-smile in response and silently turned away.

I know now what she was looking for, of course, but at the time, I shrugged it off and went back to work, chalking it up as another example of the mysteriousness of women.

Later that evening, I'd crawled into bed and was heaving a comfortable sigh when I heard Jane draw a single, rapid breath. She was lying on her side with her back toward me, and I noticed that her shoulders were trembling. It suddenly struck me that she was crying. Baffled, I expected her to tell me what had upset her so, but instead of speaking, she gave another set of raspy inhales, as if trying to breathe through her own tears. My throat instinctively tightened and I found myself growing frightened. I tried not to be scared; tried not to think that something bad had happened to her father or to the kids, or that she had been given terrible news by her doctor. I tried not to think that there might be a problem I couldn't solve, and I placed my hand on her back in the hope that I could somehow comfort her.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

It was a moment before she answered. I heard her sigh as she pulled the covers up to her shoulders.

"Happy anniversary," she finally whispered.

Twenty-nine years, I remembered too late, and in the corner of the room, I spotted the gifts she'd bought me, neatly wrapped and perched on the chest of drawers.

Quite simply, I had forgotten.

I make no excuses for this, nor would I even if I could. What would be the point? I apologized of course, then apologized again the following morning, and later in the evening, when she opened the perfume I'd carefully selected with the help of a young lady at Belk's, she thanked me and patted my leg.

Sitting beside her on the couch, I knew I loved her then as much as I did the day we were married. But as I studied her--noticing perhaps for the first time the absent look in her eyes, the sad tilt of her head--I suddenly realized that I wasn't quite sure whether she still loved me.





One


It's heartbreaking to realize that your wife may not love you. After Jane had carried the perfume up to our bedroom, I sat on the couch for hours, wondering how this situation had come to pass. For in this latest incident, I sensed not only her disappointment in an absentminded spouse, but the traces of an older melancholy--as if my lapse were simply the final blow in a long, long series of careless missteps.

Had our marriage turned out to be a disappointment for Jane? The thought disturbed me, for although our life together might be considered fairly ordinary, I always assumed that Jane was as content as I.

Like many men, my life was largely centered around work. For the past thirty years, I've worked with the law firm of Ambry, Saxon and Tundle in New Bern, North Carolina. I enjoy golfing and gardening on the weekends, prefer classical music, and I read the newspaper every morning, beginning with the sports page. Though Jane was once an elementary school teacher, she spent the majority of our married life raising three children. She ran both the household and our social life, and her proudest possessions are the photo albums that she carefully assembled as a visual history of our lives. Our brick home is complete with a picket fence and automatic sprinklers, we own two cars and are members of both the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce. In the course of our married life, we've saved for retirement, built a wooden swing set in the backyard that now sits unused, attended dozens of parent-teacher conferences, voted regularly, and contributed to the Episcopal church each and every Sunday. At fifty-six, I'm three years older than my wife.

As I sat there reviewing the milestones of our years together, I wondered whether the seeds of Jane's melancholy lay somehow in the fact that we're such an unlikely pair. We're different in almost every way, and though opposites can and do attract, I have always felt that I made the better choice on our wedding day. Jane is, after all, the kind of person I always wished to be. While I tend toward stoicism and logic, Jane is outgoing and kind, with a natural empathy that endears her to others. She laughs easily and has a wide circle of friends. Over the years, I've come to realize that most of my friends are, in fact, the husbands of my wife's friends, but I believe this is common for most married couples our age. Yet, Jane has always seemed to choose our friends with me in mind, and I'm appreciative that there's always someone for me to visit with at a dinner party. Had we not been married, I sometimes think that I would have led the life of a monk.

There is more, too: I'm charmed by the fact that Jane has always displayed her emotions with childlike ease. When she's sad, she cries; when she's happy she smiles, and her expression when she's surprised never fails to delight me. In those moments, there's an ageless innocence about her, and though a surprise by definition is unexpected, for Jane, the memories of a surprise can arouse the same excited feelings for years afterward. Sometimes when she's daydreaming, I'll ask her what she's thinking about and she'll suddenly begin speaking in giddy tones about something I've long forgotten. This, I must say, has never ceased to amaze me.

While Jane has been blessed with the tenderest of hearts, in many ways, she's stronger than I am. Like most southern women, her values and beliefs are grounded by God and family; she views the world through a prism of black and white, right and wrong. For Jane, hard decisions are reached instinctively--and are almost always right-- while I, on the other hand, find myself weighing endless options and frequently second-guessing myself. And unlike me, my wife is seldom self-conscious. This lack of concern about other people's perceptions requires a confidence that I've always found elusive, and above all else, I envy this about her.

I suppose that some of our differences stem from our respective upbringings. While Jane was raised in a small town with three siblings and parents who adored her, I was raised in a town house in Washington, D.C., as the only child of government lawyers, and my parents were seldom home before seven o'clock in the evening. As a result, I spent much of my free time alone, and to this day, I'm most comfortable in the privacy of my den.

As I've already mentioned, we have three children, and though I love them dearly, they are for the most part the products of my wife. She bore them and raised them, and it's she with whom they are most comfortable. I feel the occasional pang of regret at the thought of all I missed while spending so many hours at the office and in my den. But I'm comforted by the thought that Jane more than made up for my absences, as evidenced by how well our kids turned out. They're grown now and living on their own, but we're fortunate that only one has moved out of state. My two daughters still visit us frequently, and my wife is careful to have their favorite foods in the refrigerator in case they're hungry, which they never seem to be.

At twenty-seven, Anna is the oldest. Her looks--dark hair and even darker eyes--reflect her saturnine personality. She was a brooder who spent her teenage years locked in her room, listening to