She ran all the way to the beach and didn’t stop until she saw the silhouette of his house but instead of running up the stairs, she collapsed on the sand, the tears almost blinding her. Why had she come here? She should be as far from here as possible. She had promised herself that she would never see or talk to him again–not after what happened this evening at the award ceremony.
She, along with the other volunteers and the staff were there to cheer on Mitchell Ryan, the founder and director as he accepted the award for outstanding community service on behalf on his non-profit organization. He deserved it because it was he who played a dominant role in creating and implementing several after-school and summer programs geared toward keeping the youth off the streets.
Through his unwavering efforts and the support of staff and volunteers, many lives were transformed. Youth who were taking or selling drugs, came clean and began talking to others about the effects of drug use. There counseling services and programs for those who were victims of bullying and those who bullied. “We’re here to help the victim and the bully,” Mitchell always said. Many of the youth who were helped by his organization later became volunteers.
Vanessa met Mitchell ten years ago when she was a senior in high-school. She was going through a tough time at home. Her parents were always fighting. To escape she went to the beach where she spent hours just sitting or standing in the sand, depending on the weather and watch the gentle swell of the ocean as it ebbed and flowed, wishing that she could go with it. Before she left, she walked along the water’s edge, trying to imagine what it would be like to live on the beach with nothing but the sounds of the waves and the tangy salt air to fill her days. It was better than living in the city with the constant sounds of traffic, sirens and chatter and of course, her parents bickering. How she longed to escape it all.
One afternoon she walked farther than she normally did and came upon a lone beach house. It stood tall above the grassy slope which led to the beach. It was adequate for one or two occupants with a wide deck and a long flight of wooden steps leading down to the sand. She wondered who lived there and thought how lucky they were to wake up every morning to a sunrise over the ocean. As she stood there admiring the property, she heard a voice remark behind her, “It’s a beautiful place, isn’t it?”
Startled, she swung round and found herself facing a very attractive man who looked to be in his early to mid-thirties. He smiled at her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. It has been a while since someone has come along this part of the beach.”
“Do you live there?” she asked.
He nodded. “Yes, I do.”
“It must be nice having this part of the beach to yourself.”
“Yes, it is.”
She glanced at her watch. “I’d better be heading back home,” she said.
“Where’s home and how did you get here?”
“I live in the city and I drove here. I come to this beach a lot. This is the first time I have walked to this part of it.”
“You know, when I was younger and I had a lot on my mind, I used to come to the beach and just sit and stare at the ocean. Is that why you come here?”
“Are you a psychiatrist?” she asked.
“No,” he chuckled. “I run a community organization which helps youth. My name is Mitchell Ryan, by the way.” He held out his hand.
“Vanessa Rivers,” she told him as she shook his hand. He seemed like a really nice man. “I really should be getting back home before my parents begin to wonder where I am–if they even notice that I’m gone.”
“I’m not going to press you but if you need to talk, you can get in touch with me. Here’s my card.” He handed her a business card. “It was nice meeting you, Vanessa. And any time you want to drop by just to say hello, don’t hesitate. It’s quiet out here but sometimes, a bit too quiet. I’m always grateful for some company.”
Vanessa smiled. “It was nice meeting you too. ‘Bye, Mitchell.”
“‘Bye, Vanessa.” He stood there with his back to the house, watching her.
She waved at him before she retraced her steps until she reached familiar ground and her car. As she drove home, she thought of how it would be nice to see him again even if she didn’t want to talk to him about her problems. Perhaps, she could find out more about his organization and see if she could volunteer. It would be better than being around her bickering parents. When she got home, the place was quiet. Her father was in the basement watching TV while she and her mother were in the kitchen. “Mama, why do you and Dad fight so much. Don’t you love each other anymore?” she asked as she was having her dinner.
Her mother sighed. “Baby, we still love each other but it’s just that we seem to get on each other’s nerves.”
“I hate it when the two of you fight. That’s why I go to the beach so often. Are you and Dad going to get a divorce?”
“No, Baby. We’re not going to get a divorce. Sure, we bicker a lot but we have been married for a long time and only death will separate us. So, that’s where you were this evening–at the beach?”
“Yes and I met Mitchell–”
Her mother stared at her. “Who’s Mitchell?”
“A really nice man who lives in the only house on the beach.”
“How old is this Mitchell character? Does he know that you’re still in high school?”
“He’s in his thirties and I didn’t tell him that I was in high-school but he knows that I live with my parents. He gave me his card–”
“He runs a community organization and thought that I might be interested in learning more about it. I think I will drive over there tomorrow after school and see if I would like to volunteer during March break and the summer.”
“Well, I don’t suppose there’s any harm in visiting the place but make sure you don’t spend too much time alone with this Mitchell character. Remember you’re a very pretty girl and men get ideas.”
Vanessa shrugged and dropped the subject. In her mind, she thought, I wouldn’t mind if Mitchell noticed me. He’s very attractive and although, I don’t know anything about him except that he runs an organization and lives on the beach, I like him. Who am I kidding? He’s in his thirties. There’s no way, he would be interested in a high-school girl although I graduate next month. He probably has a girlfriend anyway.
The next day after school, she dropped by the historic building and was taken to Mitchell’s office. He was pleased to see her and invited her to have a seat. “So, how are things with you?” he asked after they exchanged pleasantries.
She told him about her parents and her concerns about their marriage. “My family has a history of broken marriages. I’ve seen my cousins going through a tough time because their parents got divorced. I’m afraid that the same thing will happen with my parents although my mother assured me that she and my Dad will not split up.”
“Well, based on what your mother said, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. I’ve known couples who are always bickering but they have managed to stay the course. There will always be conflicts in relationships but it depends on the couple if they will let those conflicts affect their marriage to the point where they want to split up. I read somewhere that arguments can lead to a greater understanding between the two people. I have heard people say that learning how to argue strengthened their marriages. The good thing is that your parents don’t run from fights like some couples who are afraid to address issues because they don’t want any conflicts which can later lead to bigger problems in the relationship.”
“My parents are not afraid to discuss sensitive issues. They don’t sweep things under the rug. And I guess that’s a good thing. Get things out in the open and deal with them. I guess my fear is that their constant arguing would lead to a split up because I had seen it happen to other family members. They were always fighting even when they had company. My parents don’t fight in front of other people, thank goodness. I’m the only one who hears them. I love them very much and hope that they will always be together.”
He smiled. “I hope so too.”
“It felt good talking to you about it,” she told him. He was wearing a nice shade of blue tee shirt with the top two buttons undone and tan trousers. His dark brown hair was tousled but it was becoming for him. She started when she realized that he had noticed her staring at him. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking, though. His expression was inscrutable. Perhaps he was used to the opposite sex staring at him. “I-I was thinking that it would be nice to volunteer here during March break and the summer but I’ve decided that I could do it before.”
“We always need volunteers,” he told her. “Do you have a particular area of interest?”
“I’m interested in fundraising.”
“You can join our fundraising and event planning committee.”
“I’d like that.”
“When are you available?”
“During the week after school for four hours.”
“That’s great. I will have Melanie our Volunteer Coordinator set you up. How soon could you start?”
She wanted to say now. “Monday.” She hoped the weekend would go by quickly so that she could see him again.
“Monday’s fine. I’ll take you to meet Melanie now and she will take care of you.” He rose from behind the desk and she preceded him to the door. Melanie wasn’t at her desk when they got there. “She’s probably with one of the volunteers. You can sit over there and wait for her. On Monday when you arrive and after you see her, come and see me in my office. I want to give you a personal tour of the place and introduce you to the staff. Thanks for volunteering with us, Vanessa. I look forward to seeing more of you and you being a part of the team.”
She smiled. “I look forward to being here on a regular basis,” she said. It means that I will get to see you every week.
They shook hands and then he left. She went and sat down in the chair by the window and waited for Melanie who breezed into the office ten minutes later. She was a very pleasant young woman who made Vanessa feel very welcome. She had her fill out a volunteer form and they chatted for a while before Vanessa left there, confident that she was going to like working there.
When she told her parents that she was going to volunteer at the organization, her father thought it was a great idea and her mother wasn’t so enthusiastic. “Make sure it doesn’t interfere with your school work,” she admonished.
As soon as school ended on Monday, she was heading over to the organization. After checking in with Melanie, she was taken to Mitchell’s office. Her heart began to beat fast when she saw him and when he smiled at her. After they spent a few minutes in his office chatting, he took her on a tour as promised and introduced her to the staff. Then, he left her with Berta, the chairperson of the fundraising committee.
Berta was a Jamaican woman was in her late fifties. She was a very affable woman and Vanessa liked her immediately. Berta took her under her wing. She was a widow with two grown children, married and with their own families. Vanessa loved being on the fundraising committee and brainstorming with the other volunteers. Her first week went very well.
At the end of some evenings before she went home, Mitchell and she would walk over to the café and have cappuccinos. They talked about the day and other things. She enjoyed his company and knew that he enjoyed hers too. One evening when they were standing in the parking lot, he said to her, “If you were ten years older, I would go out with you.”
Her heart began to pound. “I’m going to be nineteen next month,” she told him.
“That’s too young,” he said. “I’m thirty-four.”
“What about ten years from now when I’m twenty-eight?” she asked hopefully. “Will you reconsider then?”
He pondered that for a moment. “I might,” he said quietly. “Goodnight, Vanessa. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Goodnight, Mitchell.” She walked to her car, her heart fluttering with excitement. There was still hope for her.
Ten years later, she reminded him of their conversation that evening in the parking lot and he admitted that he had thought of nothing else. They began to see each other discreetly. No one at the organization knew about it and he was determined to keep it that way. They went for dinner, to the theatre, the movies and spent a lot of time at his beach house.
They arrived separately to the award ceremony and were careful not to spend any time alone together. For all appearances, their relationship was the same as it always was, platonic. She was enjoying the evening until she spotted Mitchell talking to a woman she had never seen before.
“Who’s that with Mitchell?” She asked Caroline, a fellow volunteer. Whoever she was, she was very beautiful. Tall and striking in the cream pants suit and thick chestnut hair falling about her shoulders. They seemed to know each other very well and she felt a sharp pang of jealousy.
“Oh, that’s Linda, Mitchell’s wife. They are separated but from the way things look now, I wouldn’t be surprised if they get back together.”
Vanessa looked at her, shocked and devastated. “Mitchell’s married?”
“Yes. I thought you knew.” Caroline stared at her. “Are you all right?” she asked, looking concerned.
“I–I have to get out of here–” the words were strangled as a large lump rose in her throat as she fought to keep back the tears. She ran out of the room and out of the building. When she got to her car, she fumbled in her bag for the keys, almost dropping them. She climbed into the car, slammed the door, started the engine and sped off. Her fingers gripped the steering wheel as waves of pain washed over her. Mitchell was married. Why didn’t he tell her? Since he didn’t wear a ring, she assumed that he wasn’t married. What about those times when they were together why didn’t he say anything? If she had known that he was married she wouldn’t have gotten involved with him no matter how much she loved him. And she loved him so much it hurt. Anger, hurt warred inside her and she wanted to scream.
She didn’t know where she was going. She couldn’t go home and let her parents see her like this. They would have a fit. She didn’t want to go to her friend, Nicole. The beach. She would go to the beach. It was the only place where she wanted to be right now…Ten minutes later, she was running like a wild animal down the beach which, thankfully, was deserted, until she reached his house. She collapsed in a heap on the sand and buried her wet face in her hands.
The sound of her name and a pair of hands lifting her up broke into her reverie. It was Mitchell. She struggled vigorously, trying to push him away as he picked her up in his arms and carried her up to the house. Once they were inside he put her down and immediately she began to pummel him, the tears falling afresh. He caught her hands by the wrists, his grip firm but gentle and restrained her. “What’s wrong, Vanessa?” he asked. “Why are you so upset and why did you leave the award ceremony? I looked for you but you weren’t there.”
She struggled to control her emotions, her chest heaving at the effort. “Why didn’t you tell me that you’re married?”
He stared at her. “Married?”
“Yes, I saw the two of you together this evening at the award ceremony and I asked Caroline who she was and she told me that it was your wife. She said that you were separated.”
“Oh, Vanessa. I’m so sorry. I don’t know why Caroline told you that I’m separated when she should know that I’m divorced. Linda and I got divorced shortly before I met you. Our problem was lack of intimacy. We didn’t feel connected to each other anymore. She was there this evening because she was also going to receive an award for her commitment to volunteering. When you saw us together we were just congratulating each other and catching up.”
“Caroline said that you might back together with her.”
“She is mistaken. I will have a talk with her on Monday when I see her. I have no desire to get back together with Caroline. Why would I go back to her when I love you, Vanessa? How could you think that I would have a relationship with you when I was still married to her? You should know the kind of man I am by now.”
She started to cry. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “When I saw you with your ex and how friendly you were with her, I got jealous. And when Caroline told me that she was your wife…”
He cupped her face and used his thumbs to wipe the tears away, his eyes darkening on her face. “So, that’s why you ran out on me this evening. I was going to invite you and the other volunteers on to the platform with me. Don’t cry, my darling. There’s no need for tears. I love you and I want to be with you.” He kissed her tenderly, almost like a caress.
She responded, putting her arms around his neck. “I love you too,” she whispered. “And I’m sorry I ran away instead of facing you. I would have saved myself a lot of heartache.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it.”
“Based on how I reacted and my hasty exit, Caroline probably put two and two together and figured out that I’m in love with you.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore. I don’t want us to continue to hide our relationship, especially since I am going to marry you.”
She gaped at him. “Marry me!” she exclaimed.
“Yes.” He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and produced a red velvet box. He flipped it open and took out the sparkling diamond ring. He raised his eyes to look her straight into her moist ones. “Will you marry me, Vanessa?”
“Yes!” She kissed him enthusiastically on the mouth before she watched enthralled as he slid the ring on her finger. It was the most exquisite thing she had ever seen. She couldn’t wait to show it to her mother—and Caroline.
He pulled her into his arms, his eyes met hers before he bent his head and kissed her. As she responded, she remembered a quote that she once heard. Heaven seems a little closer at the beach.