I’ve been decorating a little bit today for the holidays. I’m feeling terrible, still trying to deal with a chronic health issue, but I’m trying to remain positive and optimistic. Evert time I break out my Christmas decorations, I always think about a particular scene in my first novel, Beneath the Mimosa Tree.
The scene unfolds at the holidays after ten years, when two former lovers and next door neighbors are reunited. After years of not speaking and feeling anger and guilt over a mistake that was made, the two come face-to-face in the driveway as Annabelle and her family return from getting a Christmas tree. Michael, home from London, is staying with his parents next door and sees them struggling with the tree. He comes over to help, and this is the scene that unfolds.
It took me many, many tries to get this scene just the way I wanted it. As well, when you carry around a story for a novel for 20 years in your head before you write it, you want to write it the right way and do it justice.
Michael and Annabelle are forever in my heart. I’ll never let them go.
AN EXCERPT FROM BENEATH THE MIMOSA TREE/STEPHANIE VERNI copyright 2012/Mimosa Publishing
When the doorbell rang, I was upstairs touching up my makeup. Vivi had arrived, our first guest of the night. I heard the commotion begin.
“Put the music on, dear,” my mother shouted to my father. “And make sure the candles are lit.”
Admittedly, I was nervous; I had butterflies all day. My hand even shook slightly when I dialed the phone. Delia coached me yesterday during my session, but ultimately, she just wanted me to relax and let whatever I had to say come from my heart. I was sure that over the years Michael had probably questioned if I even had one.
In a simple black dress, tights, and tall boots, my dark hair curled for the occasion, I headed downstairs. When I reached the bottom, I heard the doorbell chime and opened the door for Carol. While our relationship still felt a little awkward, it was far better than it had been even a year ago.
“So good to see you,” I said to her. “Here, let me carry that for you.”
I walked her into the kitchen where my family was standing and placed her picture perfect lemon meringue pie on the counter. It looked like it should have been on the cover of Southern Living magazine. I was pleased to see she made it for us; it was one of her specialties.
“Where’s Mr. Contelli?” I asked.
“Remzi,” she said, correcting me, “will be over in a few minutes. He was trying to wrap some presents—last minute, of course! Poor dear. He’s not very good at wrapping.” She winked at my mother, and they exchanged knowing glances.
“Michael’s coming, right?” I asked her, not really caring who was listening, but wanting to make sure he’d be there.
“I think he’s planning to stop by,” she said. My heart sunk. I hoped he wouldn’t stay away. Not tonight.
The doorbell continued to toll, and soon, the room was filled with friends, colleagues, and our cousins. Vivi pulled me aside.
“You okay?” she asked. “Your spirit has deflated since Carol walked in the door.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“If it’s about Michael, go knock on his door. Tell him to come.”
I looked at her for more encouragement. She wanted me to take a leap of faith. She knew it was eating me alive—had been eating me alive—and haunting me for countless days and nights over the years.
“Should I? I mean, what if he just wants me to stay out of his life. What if it’s too late to make an apology?”
“Maybe it’s too late, but maybe it’s not. If you have something to say to him, more than likely, this is going to be your best opportunity to say it.”
She put her arm around me and walked me to the coat closet in the front hall. She opened the door. “Put one on and go. No one will even notice you’re gone,” she said, as she schemed with me, sharing a smile of encouragement.
I looked at her, still unsure.
“Go,” she said. “You’ve lived with regret long enough. Don’t regret this too.”
* * *
Mr. Contelli was wearing his coat, a red scarf wrapped around his neck, and was ready to head over to my parents’ house when he answered the door.
“Is Michael home?” I asked. I was flustered, but there was something in his eyes that told me he sympathized with me at that moment.
“Let me tell him you’re here, Annabelle. I think he was just going into the shower,” he said. He was doing his best to make me feel comfortable.
He disappeared upstairs to check and then came back down and escorted me into the library, a place I hadn’t seen in a very long time. It looked the same, minus the couch under the window; the previously empty shelves were now fully stacked with hardback books and several knickknacks. I had always loved this place in the daytime; the way the light came streaming through the enormous picture windows that overlooked the Severn River added a sense of serenity to the place. The crystal chandelier centered over the desk added a touch of femininity to a mostly masculine room. It used to be Michael’s favorite place in the house.
“He’ll be down in a few minutes. He asked if you don’t mind waiting,” he said.
“Not at all.”
“Okay,” he said, as I attempted to search for any signs that he might still hold a grudge against me. “I’m going to head over now. I’ll see you in a little while?”
“Yes, you will. Thank you very much.”
The front door shut, and I heard his footsteps marching off across the path to the party.
I stood in the room near the desk and looked around. The Contellis’ home was beautiful, I thought—much simpler than my parents’ home, but with great detail. The fireplaces were etched, the walls showcased stunning crown molding, big and thick, and the floors were worn old pine, with dings and imperfections that gave them character. It was subtle but elegant. The middle drawer in the desk once housed our personal keepsakes—Michael’s sketches, my poetry, our letters. I wondered if our items were still in there. It was always known as “Michael’s drawer,” and others were asked to “keep out.” I fashioned myself in the seat of the desk, and slowly opened the drawer. Deep in the back of it, behind a small box of rubber bands, staples, and dried up Elmer’s glue, was a shallow, old cigar box. I could still hear the murmur of shower water running, so I pulled it out.
It was just as I remembered it. The colors may have been a little faded, but it was still filled with some of our memorabilia. I felt like an intruder, but curiosity consumed me. There were charms and stickers, postcards and photographs. I noticed all the letters had been opened, and I started to peruse them. The first letter was from Michael to me when he had first been accepted at NYU. It read,
Can you believe it? I’m so excited. I’ve always wanted to live in New York. I can’t wait for you to visit.
The second one I examined was from me to him; my sophomoric poetry back then was something that belonged shoved in a box in the back of a desk. It pained me to read it.
And then I came across an unopened letter addressed to me from London. There was postage on it, but it had not been mailed. I stared at it for seconds, minutes. My hands were shaking and I grabbed the letter opener. I knew it was wrong, but I gently opened it, trying to keep it as intact as possible, and unfolded the letter.
It’s been nearly a year since you left me distraught at the airport and I’m still hoping you’ll explain it to me. I’m in London now. I’ve been working at a newspaper in London; the position doesn’t even have a formal title. My master’s program is going well so far. I’m convinced this was a good decision. I muddle through without you, though it doesn’t feel the same. I think it would have been great to experience all of this together.
I hope this letter reaches you at a time when you’ve been able to think clearly about what happened and can explain to me why you did what you did. It hurt, Annabelle; it still does. Any communication from you would be welcome. I really want to understand. I’m still so angry, I can’t see straight, and some days I’m so mad I don’t know what to do other than to throw myself into my work. But if I did this to you, if the shoe had been on the other foot, wouldn’t you want to know why? Wouldn’t you deserve and require an explanation?
I always assumed we meant more to each other than what has become of us.
Despite it all, I love you…always,
I stared at it, the words beginning to blur as tears rolled down my face, ashamed, embarrassed, guilty and disgusted at the way I’d hurt him. I was crying because of the love I had let go of and never had the guts to attempt to rectify. Reading his words—his thoughts—was agonizing. A lump sat in my throat, and I stood as I heard his footsteps approaching from the hallway.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said cheerfully as he entered the room, rubbing his hands together, with a forced smile on his face. “I just needed to…”
He abruptly stopped speaking and looked at me quizzically when he saw me standing there crying, the letter in hand. I collapsed into the chair.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, barely choking the words out through tears, unable to look him in the eyes. “I’m so sorry, Michael.”