A Plain Old Love Story

The sun was rising the first time I fell in love with Charles Tuckerman. I watched as the dark, foggy sky paled dimly, then blushed a brilliant shade of magenta as the sun peeked between skyscrapers. Gradually it reached out its fingers and tickled the fog’s underbelly, startling it into the dark recesses of the city.

I was sprawled drowsily above one of the entrances to the roof, having decided several hours earlier that I had no interest in remaining at the party downstairs. I had been dozing on the rough concrete and watching the sky since then. I was trying to decide, in my half-asleep state, whether a certain rosy cloud looked more like an elephant or the Liberty Bell, when a curly blond head blocked the nimbus formation.

“Hello, I’m Charles Tuckerman,” said the head.

“Hello, Charles Tuckerman,” I replied squintily, arching my eyebrows in dream surprise. “My name is Ella Winnifer. Where did you come from?”

“I’ve been up here for hours. I watched you climb on top of that doorway, and didn’t want to disturb you. But I figured since it’s morning now, I might as well introduce myself properly. Do you mind if I take a picture of you?”

I tried to think of a reason why I would. “I suppose not.”

“Good,” he replied. “Because I just did. Would you like to see it?”

“Why not?” I rolled over.

“Oh, no need to move,” said Charles. “I’ll just join you.” He dragged a garbage bin next to the door, climbed up, and lay down next to me, facing the sunrise. He passed me his camera and I looked though the viewfinder. The picture was a direct close-up of my face, my chin resting on crossed elbows. My hair was wild and I gazed just above the camera into the distance. The shadows on my face were soft and buttery, and you could just see the sunrise reflected in my eyes.

“You must have been in front of me this whole time and I had no idea…”

“Indeed I was. You’re quite a beauty, you know.”

I laughed. “That’s not something one usually says to strangers. It tends to make them feel self-conscious.”

“Have I made you self-conscious?”

I thought about it. “No I guess not. What about you?”

“Do I get self-conscious around strangers?”

“Yes.”

“Sometimes,” said Charles, “but not usually. I’m not self-conscious around you, for example. Say, that cloud looks like the Liberty Bell, doesn’t it?”

I smiled. “Or an elephant.”

“You’re right. It looks like an elephant,” Charles decided.

“Do you bring your camera everywhere you go?”

“I do. I fancy myself to be an aspiring photographer, as a matter of fact. Want to see a few more?”

“I would.” As the sun rose, I experienced the city through Charles Tuckerman’s camera. Tiny flowers grew among gutter garbage, turquoise skies were reflected in corporate windows, a little wood frame house wedged itself between two skyscrapers. “But there are no people,” I said.

“There is one,” said Charles, looking at me. He held my gaze, and then looked away. “The sun is getting high, isn’t it? I should be off.” He jumped onto the trashcan and offered me a hand, which I declined.

“I think I’ll stay a bit longer.”

“Just as well. Goodbye, Ella – wasn’t it?”

“It was. It was nice to meet you, Charles.”

“The same to you, Ella. I do hope to see you again someday.”

“Perhaps out paths will cross again.”

*    *    *

I didn’t see Charles for close to a year after that. I had exited the subway on my way to get groceries and was waiting at the crosswalk when I saw my face staring dreamily back at me. It was in the window of a little art gallery cattycorner to where I was standing. I was so startled that I crossed the street at the wrong time and was honked and yelled at by several drivers.

“Excuse me,” I asked the man in the art gallery. “Who took that photograph in the window?”

“Guy by the name of Charles Tuckerman. Got a good eye for beauty. We’re showcasing his pictures this month. You know,” said the man, looking at me quizzically, “you kind of look like the girl in that picture out front.”

“I am the girl in that picture out front.”

“Really! How do you know Charles?”

“We met on a roof last year,” said a voice behind me.

A sandy-haired youth with fading freckles and dark green eyes was standing in the doorway. “Hello, Charles Tuckerman,” I said.

“Hello, Ella Winnifer.”

“You look shorter than I remember you.”

“You look the same as I remember you.”

“I saw my face in the window, so I came in.”

“And so we meet again,” said Charles.

“That we do.” A pause. “Would you like to go for coffee?”

“Yes, I would.”

And so we strolled past cigarette smoke hotels and chain-link fence lots and didn’t notice as the sun rolled across the sky. We spoke of photography and music and clouds. I showed him how to make music with discarded butter knives, tin cans, beer bottles, and garbage cans. He showed me how to see beauty in graffiti and how to watch for the flashes of emerald and amethyst throats in a flock of startled pigeons. So it was that I fell in love with Charles Tuckerman once again.

It wasn’t until the sky was dimming that we came upon a dark little gum-under-the-tables café. We suddenly realized how hungry we were and, laughing, decided to drink the coffee we had originally set out for from the gallery.

“Ella,” said Charles, after we had finished our coffee and dry chocolate cake. He was holding my hand. “I need to tell you something.”

My lighthearted reply died in my throat as I met his eyes. “What?”

“I’m seeing another girl.” He let go of my hand. “We’re engaged.”

“Oh,” I said, my eyes darting between his. “Do you love her?”

“She’s carrying my child.”

“Oh. But do you love her?”

“I don’t know.”

“You should decide.”

Charles looked at me again, and then broke his gaze. “I have to go. Goodbye, Ella.”

“It was nice to spend time with you, Charles.”

“I hope to see you again someday.”

“Perhaps our paths will cross again.”

*    *    *

I did not see Charles Tuckerman for almost seven years. I was watching my four-year-old daughter swing one afternoon at the litter-ridden half-park below our new apartment complex, when a blonde girl tugged on my sleeve.

“Excuse me, miss.”

“Yes, dear?”

“I just took your picture. Would you like to see it?”

I looked at her. “Yes I would.”

“You’re very pretty, you know,” she said as she gave me her camera. The photo was of me looking directly into the lens. It must have been right in front of me, and I hadn’t even realized it.

“Eleanor!” said a voice from long ago. “You mustn’t take photos of strangers you don’t know.”

“But I do know you,” I said, standing slowly and turning around. “We met on a roof eight years ago.”

The man looked at me. There were lines between his eyebrows that I didn’t remember, and his sandy hair looked duller. “Hello, Ella Winnifer,” he said quietly.

“Hello, Charles Tuckerman.”

“Momma,” said a voice at my elbow. “Who are you talking to?”

I picked up the little girl with wild hair. “Charlotte, this is Charles Tuckerman.”

“How d’you do, Mr. Tuckerman?” lisped Charlotte, extending a hand. He took it, and for a moment the lines on his face disappeared.

“I’m just fine, Charlotte.” He crouched down next to his own little blonde girl. “This is my daughter, Eleanor. Eleanor, say hello to Charlotte and Ella.”

“Hello, Charlotte and Ella. Would you like to be my sister, Ella? I don’t have a sister.”

“I don’t have a sister either,” said Charlotte, taking Eleanor’s hand.

We sat down together on the park bench as the girls played on the jungle gym. I explained about the divorce, how I found out a year ago that my husband had been sleeping with another woman for fourteen months. Charles told me that his wife had been hit by a drunk driver when Eleanor was two. He said he felt old.

“Do you still take photographs?” I asked.

“Not really,” he told me. “Do you look at the sky still?”

“Not really,” I said. He looked at me, and I fell in love with Charles Tuckerman for a third time.

Above us, I could just see the magenta rays of the sun sliding behind the skyline.

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