It took the ashtray filled with sea glass to start the flow. I knew it would be that way. A flash flood. A cloudburst. And now I am empty, left with the convulsive heaving and sighing of a spent child. I spread the sea glass on the whitewashed table we fashioned from driftwood. Slowly, I rub my thumb across the embossed I heart New York on the inside bottom of the tray. It is a truly tacky souvenir. We called it our trash tray. We? Our?
We found the tray on a park bench the weekend we always referred to as Our First. First time to New York. First time we had a legal drink. First time we slept together. First time we said, I love you. And it was our twenty-first birthday.
We smoked our last semester of grad-school. My father lectured me one weekend until I screamed into his face, “you should be thankful it’s only cigarettes.” The astonished look on his face forced me to pause and grasp the ridiculousness of the situation, and the immaturity of my behavior. I laughed when Dad threw his hands into the air and said, “with her great ability to think logically my daughter earned a PhD.” I fell into his arms and promised to give it up. When I told Ashton, he agreed we were going through a delayed adolescent rebellion. We tossed the cigarettes and kept the tray.
If there had been Facebook in those days we probably would have looked for other couples who share birthdays. Surely there were—are—others. Probably none named Ashton and Angela, but others.
After we married, we brought the tray here to the beach house, We lived here for four years and nearly froze in the winters. When we wanted to start our family, we bought a house close to the college where we both taught. As we waited for the magic event, we often talked about the family vacations we’d have at our summer house. But I didn’t get pregnant. Treatments failed and we decided to adopt. When our first attempt fell through at the last minute, I said I couldn’t go through the experience again. Ashton agreed.
It turned out for the best. Two years later a tragedy left us with three children under the age of seven. We were keeping Ashton’s sister’s children while she and her husband took a trip. A plane crash is so sudden. So shocking. Everything changed. With a lot of love, a big lug of a dog, and our summer home, we came through and the children became ours.
I swoop the sea glass into my hands and let it ripple into the tray. I take the wooden treasure box from its place, nestled in an irregular nook of the driftwood. I sit on the floor, fold my legs, and cradle our box in the circle. We bought the shell-covered box at a craft show on our first anniversary. Always a romantic, Ashton kept the notes we had written to one another over the years in the box. The last time I looked inside, the latest ones were on top. Now they are reversed, the early ones on top. The first one has a teardrop drawn in pencil on the front. Our first fight is printed in block letters under the teardrop. I know what is inside without looking. We’d each made rub-offs of the I heart New York and substituted You for New York.
I get up, make a cup of tea, and return to the box. I leaf through the notes, knowing them by heart. Our first anniversary. Our first Christmas. Our first house.
Happy times. Sad times. Triumphs, Tragedies. Always love.
I’m not cried out after all. I wish my dad were alive to wrap me in his arms and call me his wee bonnie lass. And most of all, I wish for Ashton.
Whispering a tiny prayer, I ask for courage. Ashton rearranged the notes. I’m sure there is a new one on the bottom. After a gulp of warm tea I turn the stack over. As I suspected, on the bottom is a crisp envelope labeled with his square printing, Our first birthday apart. I hold it to my cheek and try with all of my heart to feel him, to smell him, to touch him. As I open it, I catch, or think I catch, the spicy scent of his aftershave. His handwriting, slightly shaky because the cancer and treatments weakened him, fills my eyes with fresh tears.
I won’t be with you when our granddaughter is born. They say there is a good chance she will arrive on our birthday. That would be nice. Love her with all of our heart. The tears roll down my cheeks as my eyes move to the bottom of the page. I tenderly trace my fingers across the rub-off of I heart New York with You substituted for New York.