"The Way Back" by Roi J Tamkin
Updated: Apr 1
I still wear the cap Lorraine gave me. A loving gift for just being me. Lorraine was the Born-Again Christian I knew from a place in my mind called the Way Back. That’s where I live, in the Way Back.
The cap was a small, brown walking hat with a tiny tear in the back. I never sewed the tear together, and it never increased in size. So, why bother, I think.
Out the window I could see the fading sun thinning the clouds to long creamy strips across the pink sky. Getting close to suppertime. Supper at my advanced age was a T.V. dinner and a couple of cold beers while watching the local news. Supper has been that way since my unofficial retirement from an advertising firm to which I dedicated thirty years of my life. Now, I’m just called in once a month for consultations. Never married. Never learned to cook. With microwaves and frozen foods, why bother?
Six o’clock straight on. I shuffled about in my cottage from the sitting room to the kitchen to remove my delicious T.V. dinner - meatloaf, gravy, potatoes and a square chocolate brownie - from the little toaster oven. It takes me longer to reach the kitchen now. With old age comes muscle-pinching pain. My back, like everything else, has given out. The aroma of the chocolate dessert did make my mouth water, quickening my step slightly. I pulled back the foil from my dinner and carried it over to the table trailing white clouds of smoke chanting, “hot, hot, hot”. I sat down and faithfully turned on the television I kept on the table. After grabbing a few beers from the fridge, I became part of News Channel Three’s devout congregation. In respect for my sanctified meal, I removed the walking cap I have worn religiously for thirty years. I looked at my cap and started thinking Way Back.
Lorraine and I met almost forty years ago at the University of Georgia. I always considered myself a lucky guy to have this attractive brunette with bright, hazel eyes follow me through undergraduate and graduate school when she could have been chasing a career of her own. She was a simple small-town girl with no high ambitions in life. Just marriage and child-rearing. Despite her strict religious upbringing, we did have sexual relations, but only on special occasions. She said that pre-marital sex with me would be all right since we were going to get married after graduate school. I attended graduate school in New York City hoping to find an advertising job there upon completing my courses. Lorraine followed me around the city clinging to my clothes like a frightened child. The bigness of the city scared her. At first, I kind of liked thinking I could control her through her fear of getting lost and being alone in the city. After a few months, I could tell she was getting bored just sitting in our apartment. We didn’t live in anything luxurious. Three rooms, that’s all. The walls and carpet were gloomy, dark colors. Only the bedroom had a window. Plus, she was homesick for her little town in Georgia.
So, I kept telling her to go out more. Especially during the day. I drilled it into her that I couldn’t keep her entertained around the clock. I worked a full-time job and took classes at night.
“Go to the museums,” I suggested to her one night. She was moping around the apartment sighing loudly so I would pay a little attention to her. “That will occupy your mind. Go shopping. Do anything.”
Lorraine would shrug, sigh and drop herself on the couch. “You don’t want to talk to me, Paul.”
I never had time for this discussion. I returned to my studies.
My complaints to get her out of the apartment and explore the city finally took hold towards the final year at graduate school. So, imagine my surprise when she announced she wasn’t ready to marry me. After seven years of living together, she decided to leave. My Lorraine leaving me.
“I don’t understand, I don’t...I ...don’t understand. No.” I stammered as we argued in our bedroom. Lorraine was packing carefully sorting out her clothes from mine that we kept lumped together in the clean wash pile. Her clothes were simple to distinguish - stripes or solids and jeans that pulled apart static-free from my slacks, rugby shirts and Arrow button-downs.
“You’ve told me so yourself,” she rebutted, “there’s a whole world out there to explore. I want to find it. For years, you’ve been telling me to get off my bottom and get out. You are right. I’ve grown too dependent on you.”
“We were going to get married. I graduate soon.”
“All I want to do now is find the world.”
“I can get a job anywhere. You name it, we’ll go there together.”
Lorraine continued packing, shoving the clothes in her bag with both hands now. “No, I’ve got to do this on my own. I’m sorry, Paul.” She stopped her packing to brush back her hair. “This is God’s world, and I want to see it all.
I stepped closer to her. Wanting to grab her. Maybe shake some sense into her. How I needed her.
“Then let’s do it together, honey. We can get married and honeymoon in Europe. We’ll go on one of those tours where you hit ten cities in nine days.” She stood no more than inches from me, but she might as well been across a deep chasm. I felt like clutching the air between us to pull her closer to me.
“No tours. I want to go alone,” she affirmed locking her suitcase down over my life. “Please understand, Paul, this is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Something I have to do.”
“I don’t understand, I don’t understand, I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry, Paul.” She patted my face lugging the suitcase off the bed. A brick slapped into the side of my head couldn't hurt more. “Maybe one day you will.”
I tried in desperation to convince her to stay. But Lorraine, the one woman I loved, swimming in grandiose thoughts, turned a deaf ear and left to explore the world.
Shackled to completing school, I stayed in New York doing odd jobs - waiting in restaurants, construction, and the like. All the time sending out resumes to advertising firms across the country and developing a correspondence with Lorraine’s parents back in Smyrna, Georgia who were impressed with my ambition. I couldn’t keep my mind off Lorraine. I received replies from advertising firms out West, but I turned down their offers holding out for any job in the South.
After ten months of incessant letter writing, I was asked for an interview with a firm in Atlanta. A week after the interview, I was informed back in New York I had the job. I excitedly wrote Lorraine’s parents of the news. They wrote back stating that Lorraine was living with them.
Arriving in Georgia, the first thing I did was visit Lorraine. She greeted me from her parent’s front porch with open, loving arms. I thought I was home.
Lorraine radiated, still beautiful. My breath of sunshine that I quietly hoped would return to me. We spent the day just talking and getting reacquainted. I told her of my great future and asked her to marry me. She refused. I still didn’t understand. This was everything we ever talked about when I attended graduate school. I had a job and felt it was time to settle down.
“Is it because I’m an atheist?” I asked as we sat on her parent’s couch sipping ice tea.
“You know better that to ask that,” she told me tilting her head in my direction. “I wouldn’t care if you were an atheist or a Born-Again. I really care about you, and at one time I did want to marry you.”
“So, what happened?”
“I’m not ready. It’s as if twenty years of bondage has been lifted off me, and I have been released. To be honest with you, I renounced my Born-Again doctrine. I’m freer now.” She shifted in her seat to demonstrate the change in her life. And I could actually feel her pulling further and further away.
How everything was different. I kept trying to close the distance between us sliding on the couch brushing up against her. Acting so innocent with my fingers lightly sweeping her leg nearest to me.
But she always found more space to fill the gap between us.
“You once promised to save me because I wasn’t Born-Again.” I brought up coyly like we were an old couple sharing longtime memories.
She touched my hand, and I held it there because I cherished it. “You saved me. I understand what you have been telling me all those years in New York. My religious upbringings were chaining me to a life of servitude. You saved me from my own religion. Thank you, Paul.” She kissed me on the cheek. Where her lips touched, my skin burned and ached. I had almost forgotten what her touch was like. As gentle as an evening stroll through the summer ocean as warm waves break stroking my ankles.
And I had freed her. In return, I lost her.
I left late at night returning to an apartment in Atlanta not yet furnished or even ready for occupancy. My bags in the hallway unpacked and unlooked at.
I started at my big career the next morning. Still thinking I would see Lorraine again, I returned to the house on Saturday and was crushed hearing she had taken off again fearing she would become too dependent on seeing me. It was I who had the dependency.
“She took a mission job out in North Carolina,” Lorraine’s mother informed me on the same front porch Lorraine had received me on my first day in Georgia.
“Mission work?” I asked shocked.
“She’s preaching the gospel in the mountains.” Lorraine’s mother wiped her hands on her apron. I was probably keeping her from cooking her husband’s breakfast.
“Oh, that’s exciting,” I said depressingly.
“She’s taking advantage of the traveling opportunities with the New Life Group. After Carolina, she eligible for work in France and Spain.”
It was a long, lonely drive back to my apartment.
Six-fifty-five. Almost time for my ritual dessert.
My T.V. dinner turned cold and soupy through my reminiscing. I listlessly stirred my fork through the mud-colored sections. The smell of burnt gravy turned my stomach. I didn’t feel much like eating. I turned off the television. It was all so unsatisfying.
With the T.V. dinner dumped in the trash, I knew it was time to hit the local doughnut shop and have my twice-weekly splurge on doughnuts and coffee: my more usual dinner, although my doctor would even like to see me cut out that little pleasure from my life.
With two Boston Cream doughnuts and a large paper cup of coffee in my hand, I began to think about the projects awaiting my consultation and oration skills at the office. I look at layouts and give my two cents to whoever slaved over the ads for three weeks just to hear some old ex-employee come in and shoot all their ideas down in a sentence. I must have made some impression when I worked there. Thirty years to that company having my own dreams shot and ego deflated. But it all paid off. Decent pension. Nice gold watch. And occasionally, the director calls me in, throws some extra pocket money at me, and I look at whatever campaign has them stumped. That and meeting some other retirees at the local tavern are about all I have to look forward to in my old age.
With the doughnuts eaten, I contemplate a second cup of coffee. I held the walking cap I have always worn for thirty years since the first day she presented it. She never knew what it meant to me.
God, Lorraine, what happened to you?
I saw her again at the funeral of a mutual friend. It has been six years more since I proposed to her at her parent’s home in Atlanta. She hugged me, and we talked at the reception in the funeral home.
We sat in two armless, brown leather chairs with our tiny plates of carrot and celery sticks. A gooey vegetable dip splattered in the corner of the plate and some mysterious meat sandwich with the crust all removed balanced on the edge. I kept squinting at Lorraine’s short, cropped hair and her fashionable clothes. Since graduating school, my eyesight had become increasingly worse with each year. But I could tell she was beautiful. I slipped on my prescription glasses and smiled radiantly at my adoring Lorraine. I nibbled at my food as she spoke.
“I’ve seen things, Paul. I know more. I’ve learned to accept life.”
“What does that mean?” I asked mixing my carrots in the dip while trying to stabilize my sandwich preventing its collapse on my lap.
“Not to question things. Not to try to find answers. Not to worry.”
I nodded, pretended to understand. “Because everything is under God’s will, right?” That was all I ever heard her preach while we attended college.
“Paul,” she smiled at me like a doting parent forgiving her child for a minor blunder. “That’s how I
used to think. I don’t believe in God anymore.”
“You’re an atheist?”
“With all the time I spent with you through college and grad school, something finally sunk through.”
“College.” I gave a small chuckle. Lorraine seemed so foreign to me.
“Paul, let’s leave.” I stood to leave forgetting about my plate of finger food and watched it tumble to the floor. “Leave it,” she said.
At a nearby motel, we made love until evening.
Lorraine curled up next to me under the covers. I felt embarrassed by the sweat still on my chest. I never wanted to let her go.
“Fantastic,” I said almost breathless.
“Just like the first time,” she whispered with a wistful tinge in her voice.
“The last time was when I graduated N.Y.U.”
“And you proposed to me.”
“Can you blame me?” I asked holding her wishing to wrap her pink skin around me. So warm.
“I guess not.”
“I loved you, and I still do,” I admitted.
Lorraine shifted under my hold. “Don’t ask, Paul.”
“I won’t. I don’t want to spoil the moment.”
We kissed. That’s all we had. Moments. Moments to last forever. And I wanted forever.
I thought I had forever when in college. Making love in the dorm room. With all my books and clothes. I would put my head in her lap and tell her never to leave me.
She giggled, pulling the blanket up around her naked waist. “I must never leave you, Paul. I never will.”
“I’m so afraid. What if with all these years of school, I don’t get a job? What will I do?”
“You worry too much,” she told me massaging my shoulders. “Put all your troubles in the hands of God. He’ll take care of everything.”
“But I don’t believe in God.”
“I know. And I know the Lord is looking after you.”
“But he knows I’m an atheist,” I pointed out.
“He still loves you. He’s waiting for you to let him into your heart.”
“If I let you into my heart, is that close enough?” I squeezed myself closer into her lap.
“It’s close enough,” she replied running her hands through my hair.
“I have never known anything as lovely as this,” I said closing my eyes and leaving my life in her hands. And she stayed with her blue eyes staring off into space. Or perhaps into God.
Despite my atheism, Lorraine really cared for me. She not only looked out for me emotionally, but she also looked out for my spiritual soul.
She promised to pray for me. This was what she would tell me every Sunday morning on her way to church. Waking me up at eight in the morning. Me stirring awake under a pile of dirty clothes dumped on my bed from the night before. And with all my classwork spilled on the floor.
“Why can’t you come to church with me this Sunday?”
“I don’t think so.” I rolled my eyes familiar with these discussions. Wishing it never started. But here we go again. Every Sunday morning. I am rudely awakened by her desire to worship with me.
A dance where she would lead.
“I don’t like church...” I complained.
“...that Christ will really like you...”
“...I’ll fall asleep...”
“...just give Him a chance...”
“...I’ll embarrass you...” I argued.
“...Jesus needs a guy with a sense of humor like yours...” Lorraine deflected.
“...What if I belch real loud and everyone stares..?”
“...open your heart...”
“...suddenly I feel ill...”
I walked around my dorm room in my underwear grabbing my forehead pretending I had an oncoming headache. I paced clutching my stomach fighting back the urge to vomit.
“Take my temperature. I think I have a fever.”
“Mother wants to meet you, Paul.”
“I’m going to throw up.”
Years later, I found myself cherishing the moment. That last moment and the minute to come.
“What are your plans?” I asked Lorraine as we lay together on the motel bed. The funeral far from our thoughts.
“What are your plans?” she asked back.
“To spend my time with you.” I kissed the top of her head. Holding my lips against her silky, brown hair. I faintly picked up the smell of fresh laundered sheets in her hair. She hummed a bit and closed her eyes. The air became still with her wishes. I closed my eyes, and we slept until nine. My arms still around her when we awoke. She tilted her head up to me. I rubbed the sand out of my eyes.
“Let’s eat,” I suggested.
There are many meals in the Way Back. Rarely did we eat a romantic dinner alone. We usually double-dated with my roommate Trent and his irritable girlfriend, Sandy. On our first double-date, we splurged on Italian food.
The tiny dining area of the restaurant was quaintly decorated with antiques from the owner’s Sicilian homeland. Rusty hand tools from the farms around Mount Etna hung from the walls. Dusty empty wine bottles ran along a mantle in the dining room. The clientele was the university’s upper echelon of teachers and administrators and a few students living off their parent’s money. I went all out and ordered the most expensive pasta item on the menu. Lorraine ordered fish with a side of spaghetti. Sandy had something I cannot pronounce, and Trent wanted ravioli.
“If you wanted ravioli, why didn’t you open a can of Franco-American?” I asked my roommate.
“Boy,” Sandy started already encroaching on my nerves, “you must have swallowed a whole bottle of asshole pills today.”
I wanted to strangle Sandy, but I had to play nicely. Trent was my friend, after all.