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The Notebook

The Notebook

The Notebook/5

. He went to the cupboard and removed a large pot with a steamer and lid. He brought the pot to the sink, added water, then carried it to the stove.

"Can I give you a hand with something?"

He answered over his shoulder. "Sure. How about cutting up some vegetables for the fryer. There's plenty in the icebox, and you can find a bowl over there."

He motioned to the cabinet near the sink, and she took another sip of tea before setting her cup on the counter and retrieving the bowl. She carried it to the icebox and found some okra, zucchini, onions, and carrots on the bottom shelf. Noah joined her in front of the open door, and she moved to make room for him. She could smell him as he stood next to her-- clean, familiar, distinctive--and felt his arm brush against her as he leaned over and reached inside. He removed a beer and a bottle of hot sauce, then returned to the stove.

Noah opened the beer and poured it in the water, then added the hot sauce and some other seasoning as well. After stirring the water to make sure the powders were dissolved, he went to the back door to get the crabs.

He paused for a moment before going back inside and stared at Allie, watching her cut the carrots. As he did that, he wondered again why she had come, especially now that she was engaged. None of this seemed to make much sense to him.

But then, Allie had always been surprising.

He smiled to himself, remembering back to the way she had been. Fiery, spontaneous, passionate--as he imagined most artists to be. And she was definitely that. Artistic talent like hers was a gift. He remembered seeing some paintings in the museums in New York and thinking that her work was just as good as what he had seen there.

She had given him a painting before she'd left that summer. It hung above the fireplace in the living room. She'd called it a picture of her dreams, and to him it had seemed extremely sensual. When he looked at it, and he often did late in the evening, he could see desire in the colors and the lines, and if he focused carefully, he could imagine what she had been thinking with every stroke.

A dog barked in the distance, and Noah realized he had been standing with the door open a long time. He quickly closed it, turning back to the kitchen. And as he walked, he wondered if she had noticed how long he'd been gone.

"How's it going?" he asked, seeing she was almost finished.

"Good. I'm almost done here. Anything else for dinner?"

"I have some homemade bread that I was planning on."

"Homemade?"

"From a neighbor," he said as he put the pail in the sink. He started the faucet and began to rinse the crabs, holding them under the water, then letting them scurry around the sink while he rinsed the next one. Allie picked up her cup and came over to watch him.

"Aren't you afraid they'll pinch you when you grab them?"

"No. Just grab 'em like this," he said, demonstrating, and she smiled.

"I forget you've done this your whole life." "New Bern's small, but it does teach you how to do the things that matter."

She leaned against the counter, standing close to him, and emptied her cup. When the crabs were ready he put them in the pot on the stove. He washed his hands, turning to speak to her as he did so.

"You want to sit on the porch for a few minutes? I'd like to let 'em soak for a half hour."

"Sure," she said.

He wiped his hands, and together they went to the back porch. Noah flipped on the light as they went outside, and he sat in the older rocker, offering the newer one to her. When he saw her cup was empty, he went inside for a moment and emerged with another cup of tea and a beer for himself. He held out the cup and she took it, sipping again before she set it on the table beside the chairs.

"You were sitting out here when I came, weren't you?"

He answered as he made himself comfortable. "Yeah. I sit out here every night. It's a habit now."

"I can see why," she said as she looked around. "So, what is it you do these days?"

"Actually, I don't do anything but work on the house right now. It satisfies my creative urges."

"How can you ...I mean . . ."

"Morris Goldman."

"Excuse me?"

He smiled. "My old boss from up north. His name was Morris Goldman. He offered me a part of the business just as I enlisted and died before I got home. When I got back to the States, his lawyers gave me a check big enough to buy this place and fix it up."

She laughed under her breath. "You always told me you'd find a way to do it."

They both sat quietly for a moment, thinking back again. Allie took another sip of tea.

"Do you remember sneaking over here the night you first told me about this place?"

He nodded, and she went on:

"I got home a little late that evening, and my parents were furious when I finally came in. I can still picture my daddy standing in the living room smoking a cigarette, my mother on the sofa staring straight ahead. I swear, they looked as if a family member had died. That was the first time my parents knew I was serious about you, and my mother had a long talk with me later that night. She said to me, 'I'm sure you think that I don't understand what you're going through, but I do. It's just that sometimes, our future is dictated by what we are, as opposed to what we want.' I remember being really hurt when she said that."

"You told me about it the next day. It hurt my feelings, too. I liked your parents, and I had no idea they didn't like me."

"It wasn't that they didn't like you. They didn't think you deserved me."

"There's not much difference."

There was a sadness in his voice when he responded, and she knew he was right to feel that way. She looked toward the stars while she ran her hand through her hair, pulling back the strands that had fallen onto her face.

"I know that. I always did. Maybe that's why my mother and I always seem to have a distance between us when we talk."

"How do you feel about it now?"

"The same as I did back then. That it's wrong, that it isn't fair. It was a terrible thing for a girl to learn. That status is more important than feelings."

Noah smiled softly at her answer but said nothing.

"I've thought about you ever since that summer," she said.

"You have?"

"Why wouldn't you think so?" She seemed genuinely surprised.

"You never answered my letters."

"You wrote?"

"Dozens of letters. I wrote you for two years without receiving a single reply."

She slowly shook her head before lowering her eyes.

"I didn't know . . . ," she finally said, quietly, and he knew it must have been her mother, checking the mail, removing the letters without her knowledge. It was what he had always suspected, and he watched as Allie came to the same realization.

"It was wrong of her to do that, Noah, and I'm sorry she did. But try to understand. Once I left, she probably thought it would be easier for me to just let it go. She never understood how much you meant to me, and to be honest, I don't even know if she ever loved my father the way I loved you. In her mind, she was just trying to protect my feelings, and she probably thought the best way to do that was to hide the letters you sent."

"That wasn't her decision to make," he said quietly.

"I know."

"Would it have made a difference even if you'd got them?"

"Of course. I always wondered what you were up to."

"No, I mean with us. Do you think we would have made it?"

It took a moment for her to answer.

"I don't know, Noah. I really don't, and you don't either. We're not the same people we were then. We've changed, we've grown. Both of us."

She paused. He didn't respond, and in the silence she looked toward the creek. She went on: "But yes, Noah, I think we would have. At least, I'd like to think we would have."

He nodded, looked down, then turned away. "What's Lon like?"

She hesitated, not expecting the question. Bringing up Lon's name brought slight feelings of guilt to the surface, and for a moment she didn't know how to answer. She reached for her cup, took another sip of tea, and listened as a woodpecker tapped in the distance. She spoke quietly.

"Lon's handsome, charming, and successful, and most of my friends are insanely jealous. They think he's perfect, and in a lot of ways he is. He's kind to me, he makes me laugh, and I know he loves me in his own way." She paused for a moment, collecting her thoughts. "But there's always going to be something missing in our relationship."

She surprised herself with her answer but knew it was true nonetheless. And she also knew by looking at him that Noah had suspected the answer in advance.

"Why?"

She smiled weakly and shrugged as she answered. Her voice was barely above a whisper.

"I guess I still look for the kind of love we had that summer."

Noah thought about what she had said for a long while, thinking about the relationships he'd had since he'd last seen her.

"How about you?" she asked. "Did you ever think about us?"

"All the time. I still do."

"Are you seeing anyone?"

"No," he answered, shaking his head.

Both of them seemed to think about that, trying but finding it impossible to displace from their minds. Noah finished his beer, surprised that he had emptied it so quickly.

"I'm going to go start the water. Can I get you anything?"

She shook her head, and Noah went to the kitchen and put the crabs in the steamer and the bread in the oven. He found some flour and cornmeal for the vegetables, coated them, and put some grease into the frying pan. After turning the heat on low, he set a timer and pulled another beer from the icebox before heading back to the porch. And while he was doing those things, he thought about Allie and the love that was missing from both their lives.

Allie, too, was thinking. About Noah, about herself, about a lot of things. For a moment she wished she weren't engaged but then quickly cursed herself. It wasn't Noah she loved; she loved what they once had been. Besides, it was normal to feel this way. Her first real love, the only man she'd ever been with-- how could she expect to forget him?

Yet was it normal for her insides to twitch whenever he came near? Was it normal to confess things she could never tell anyone else? Was it normal to come here three weeks from her wedding day?

"No, it's not," she finally whispered to herself as she looked to the evening sky. "There's nothing normal about any of this."

Noah came out at that moment and she smiled at him, glad he'd come back so she didn't have to think about it anymore. "It's going to take a few minutes," he said as he sat back down.

"That's fine. I'm not that hungry yet."

He looked at her then, and she saw the softness in his eyes. "I'm glad you came, Allie," he said.

"Me too. I almost didn't, though."

"Why did you come?"

I was compelled, she wanted to say, but didn't. "Just to see you, to find out what you've been up to. To see how you are."

He wondered if that was all but didn't question further. Instead he changed the subject.

"By the way, I've been meaning to ask, do you still paint?"

She shook her head. "Not anymore."

He was stunned. "Why not? You have so much talent."

"I don't know...."

"Sure you do. You stopped for a reason."

He was right. She'd had a reason.

"It's a long story."

"I've got all night," he answered.

"Did you really think I was talented?" she asked quietly.

"C'mon," he said, reaching for her hand, "I want to show you something."

She got up and followed him through the door to the living room. He stopped in front of the fireplace and pointed to the painting that hung above the mantel. She gasped, surprised she hadn't noticed it earlier, more surprised it was here at all.

"You kept it?"

"Of course I kept it. It's wonderful."

She gave him a skeptical look, and he explained. "It makes me feel alive when I look at it. Sometimes I have to get up and touch it. It's just so real-- the shapes, the shadows, the colors. I even dream about it sometimes. It's incredible, Allie--I can stare at it for hours."

"You're serious," she said, shocked.

"As serious as I've ever been."

She didn't say anything.

"You mean to tell me no one has ever told you that before?"

"My professor did," she finally said, "but I guess I didn't believe him."

He knew there was more. Allie looked away before continuing.

"I've been drawing and painting since I was a child. I guess that once I got a little older, I began to think I was good at it. I enjoyed it, too. I remember working on this painting that summer, adding to it every day, changing it as our relationship changed. I don't even remember how it started or what I wanted it to be, but somehow it evolved into this.

"I remember being unable to stop painting after I went home that summer. I think it was my way of avoiding the pain I was going through. Anyway, I ended up majoring in art in college because it was something I had to do; I remember spending hours in the studio all by myself and enjoying every minute. I loved the freedom I felt when I created, the way it made me feel inside to make something beautiful. Just before I graduated, my professor, who happened to also be the critic for the paper, told me I had a lot of talent. He told me I should try my luck as an artist. But I didn't listen to him."

She stopped there, gathering her thoughts.

"My parents didn't think it was proper for someone like me to paint for a living. I just stopped after a while. I haven't touched a brush in years."

She stared at the painting.

"Do you think you'll ever paint again?"

"I'm not sure if I can anymore. It's been a long time."

"You can still do it, Allie. I know you can. You have a talent that comes from inside you, from your heart, not from your fingers. What you have can't ever go away. It's what other people only dream about. You're an artist, Allie."

The words were spoken with such sincerity that she knew he wasn't saying it just to be nice. He truly believed in her ability, and for some reason that meant more to her than she expected. But something else happened then, something even more powerful.

Why it happened, she never knew, but this was when the chasm began to close for Allie, the chasm she had erected in her life to separate the pain from the pleasure. And she suspected then, maybe not consciously, that there was more to this than even she cared to admit.

But at that moment she still wasn't completely aware of it, and she turned to face him. She reached over and touched his hand, hesitantly, gently, amazed that after all these years he'd somehow known exactly what she'd needed to hear. When their eyes locked, she once again realized how special he was.

And for just a fleeting moment, a tiny wisp of time that hung in the air like fireflies in summer skies, she wondered if she was in love with him again.

The timer went off in the kitchen, a small ding, and Noah turned away, breaking the moment, strangely affected by what had just happened between them. Her eyes had spoken to him and whispered something he longed to hear, yet he couldn't stop the voice inside his head, her voice, that had told him of her love for another man. He silently cursed the timer as he walked to the kitchen and removed the bread from the oven. He almost burned his fingers, dropped the loaf on the counter, and saw that the frying pan was ready. He added the vegetables and heard them begin to crackle. Then, muttering to himself, he got some butter out of the icebox, spread some on the bread, and melted a bit more for the crabs.

Allie had followed him into the kitchen and cleared her throat.

"Can I get the table ready?"

Noah used the bread knife as a pointer. "Sure, plates are over there. Utensils and napkins there. Make sure you get plenty--crabs can be messy, so we'll need 'em." He couldn't look at her as he spoke. He didn't want to realize he'd been mistaken about what had just happened between them. He didn't want it to be a mistake.

Allie, too, was wondering about the moment and feeling warm as she thought of it. The words he'd spoken replayed in her head as she found everything she needed for the table: plates, place settings, salt and pepper. Noah handed her the bread as she was finishing the table, and their fingers touched briefly.

He turned his attention back to the frying pan and turned the vegetables. He lifted the lid of the steamer, saw the crabs still had a minute, and let them cook some more. He was more composed now and returned to small talk, easy conversation.

"Have you ever had crab before?"

"A couple of times. But only in salads."

He laughed. "Then you're in for an adventure. Hold on a second." He disappeared upstairs for a moment, then returned with a navy blue button-down shirt. He held it open for her.

"Here, put this on. I don't want you to stain your dress."

Allie put it on and smelled the fragrance that lingered in the shirt--his smell, distinctive, natural.

"Don't worry," he said, seeing her expression, "it's clean."

She laughed. "I know. It just reminds me of our first real date. You gave me your jacket that night, remember?"

He nodded. "Yeah, I remember. Fin and Sarah were with us. Fin kept elbowing me the whole way back to your parents' house, trying to get me to hold your hand."

"You didn't, though."

"No," he answered, shaking his head.

"Why not?"

"Shy, maybe, or afraid. I don't know. It just didn't seem like the right thing to do at the time."

"Come to think of it, you were kind of shy, weren't you."

"I prefer the words 'quiet confidence,'" he answered with a wink, and she smiled.

The vegetables and crabs were ready about the same time. "Be careful, they're hot," he said as he handed them to her, and they sat across from each other at the small wooden table. Then, realizing the tea was still on the counter, Allie stood and brought it over. After putting some vegetables and bread on their plates, Noah added a crab, and Allie sat for a moment, staring at it.

"It looks like a bug."

"A good bug, though," he said. "Here, let me show you how it's done."

He demonstrated quickly, making it look easy, removing the meat and putting it on her plate. Allie crushed the legs too hard the first time and the time after that, and had to use her fingers to get the shells away from the meat. She felt clumsy at first, worrying that he saw every mistake, but then she realiz