I continue down the stairs and push open the guest bedroom door. Light seeps in from the hallway, lighting a path from the door to the bed.
“Hi,” I hear Charley whisper in the dark from where she’s lying in bed with the blanket pulled up to her chin.
“Couldn’t sleep?” she asks.
“No,” she answers.
She peels back the bedding and I crawl into bed and lie next to her. She pulls the bedding snug around us as we both lie on our backs and stare up at the ceiling. And I am immediately taken back in time when we would do this very thing as children, after my father left and my mother locked herself away, out of our reach. A time when our safety net had been snagged out from underneath us and all we had was each other. Only it was usually Charley who would seek me out in the dark. Lying next to each other, I would take her hand in mine and we would whisper our fears under the veil of darkness, and it was as if nothing else existed.
Charley speaks first, her voice barely louder than a whisper, quiet as a breath.
“I think Grey and I broke up,” she says.
I don’t respond. I just wait patiently for her to explain.
“He transferred me to another partner because he can’t work with me any longer. He wants more.” She lets out a frustrated breath. I have heard this same story a million times, each different and yet the same. They always want more from Charley but she insists that she hasn’t more to give, nor does she want to. But it’s hard to miss the note of disappointment and longing in her voice.
“And you don’t want more? With him?” I ask, although I think I already know the answer.
“I don’t know.”
I’m shocked by her uncertainty. That was not the answer I was expecting. Treading lightly, I ask, “It’s different with him, isn’t it?”
I hear her exhale loudly and then she says, “I feel something for him, but that scares me more than the thought of losing him.”
I know that she only admits this because we’re lying in the dark, whispering like the child versions of ourselves and she knows that I will never speak of it again. That whatever fears and secrets she confides will be kept in the dark, a silent pact that we made long ago.
“Maybe it’s time to take a leap of faith. Maybe it’s time to ask yourself if letting him go is more unbearable than the fear of holding on.”
“The fear is crippling,” she whispers. And I know exactly what she means. I know that kind of fear.
Charley is quiet for a long time. Her breath is even and calm, but I can feel her heart beating erratically in her chest.
She reaches over and wraps her hand around mine. It’s my turn.
“I’m afraid to tell John. I’m afraid that what little strength I have will crumble and he’ll see my weakness and I need to be strong for my family. I can’t fall apart, Charley. It’s like keeping this from him holds me together, keeps me strong. I’m afraid that once I tell him, I’ll shatter into a million pieces and never be whole again.”
Tears slowly trickle down my cheeks. It feels so good to say it out loud. My fears.
Charley remains quiet but squeezes my hand more firmly. Finally after what feels like hours, she says, “Maybe it’s time you let go, Gwen. Maybe it’s time you let us be the strong ones. It’s okay to fall. John and I will be there to catch you.”
A lonely sob escapes as if it has been locked away waiting for release.
“Remember when we used to sneak into Mrs. Dunmark’s backyard?” she asks, conjuring images to mind from our childhood. I sniffle, wipe my eyes and take a deep breath, welcoming the distraction.
“Yes, that woman never mowed her lawn,” I say, wiping my nose with the back of my hand. “We used to pretend we were in a meadow, like in The Sound of Music.”
“Right. Remember when all the dandelions would turn from bright yellow to balls of white, cotton tufts?”
“We called it our field of hope,” I remember with a smile, wondering where she’s going with this trip down memory lane.
“We used to pull them from the ground one by one, close our eyes tight and make a wish before blowing the seeds into the air. You always wished to marry Ralph Macchio, remember?” Charley laughs quietly to herself and then says, “God, you were so obsessed with The Karate Kid. I never thought he was that cute, but you dreamed of that guy.”
I do remember. I remember covering the walls of my bedroom with pictures of him, cut out with care from magazines like Teen Beat and Bop. I guess some would call it an obsession, but it was more like a distraction, an escape. And Charley’s right. I did love that movie, but more because it gave me hope, wishing for a Mr. Miyagi to come and take me under his wing.
“I would never tell you my wish. You would beg me to tell you, but I never did,” Charley says.
“You were so stubborn like that,” I say with a small smile as I picture a string bean of a girl standing in a field of weeds, arms folded across her chest in defiance as long brown hair whipped across her face in the wind. So stubborn.
“I was so afraid that if I told, it wouldn’t come true. But you know what I wished for every single time?”
“What?” I ask.
“To be strong like you. You were my rock, still are. I wanted so bad to not be afraid anymore.”
This confession pangs around in my heart, trying to find its place. I had no idea. I remember being afraid of everything, worrying about Mother, having clean clothes, what we were going to eat, how much money we had. Worrying about Charley, trying to be strong for her.
“My wish was never to marry Ralph Macchio. Well sometimes it was,” I admit. “I usually wished to be fearless like you, Charley. You had this roaring confidence. Like ‘what you see is what you get.’. You never worried what people thought of you, you were always yourself. You did whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. You never worried about the consequences. I was worried sick about everything and everyone. I guess I still am. It’s exhausting.”
“I’ve never been fearless. Look at me, Gwen. I’m afraid to even throw out a receipt, just in case I want to return something. I can’t even commit to a pair of designer jeans. I’m a complete mess.”
“You’re stronger than you think, Charley.”
“So are you,” she says. We lay in the dark, quietly, lost in our own thoughts. And the biggest fear I own bubbles to the tip of my tongue, begging to be told.
“I’m afraid to die,” I whisper, so quietly that I think she may not have heard me.
But after a moment, she squeezes my hand and then I hear her whisper just as softly, “I’m afraid to die alone.”