While Jessie was getting to know her new friends in Scotland, Josh and Michelle were cementing their relationship across the pond. One warm late fall day, they took advantage of a rare sunny break in the dreary Vancouver weather and went for a road trip out to Langley. Michelle was curious about Drifters and, after dropping numerous hints, she finally convinced Josh to take her out to visit the near abandoned set.
After nosing around for about an hour, which was about all Josh could take – the place was dripping with memories, good and bad – they climbed back in his pick-up and ended up stopping at Annie’s Orchard, just north of the Fraser Highway between Langley and Aldergrove. Michelle was bursting with questions after touring the Drifters sets, some of which were starting to be dismantled since the show would not be shooting any more seasons. But she held her tongue, at least for a little while, because she was still learning to read Josh’s moods and he hardly spoke once they climbed back into the pick-up and started driving. He had an irritating habit of listening to the radio on an extremely low volume so all she could hear was a cacophonic buzz of voices and music but not the actual songs or the announcer. Jumpy and itching to converse, Michelle found the low din and his silence irritating. At one point she worked up enough nerve to turn the volume knob to the right, which only ended up annoying Josh, who had picked up the habit of keeping the radio on low simply for company, but not loud enough where he could be blindsided by one of Jessie’s songs.
At the Orchard, which was a welcome reprieve from dancing around each other’s uncertain temperaments, they selected one basket full of pears and another of Gravenstein apples. As they carried the baskets to the truck, Michelle took advantage of the fact Josh couldn’t use driving as an excuse not to talk, so she broke the silence.
Hesitantly, she threw Josh completely by asking, “What was Jessie like? I mean to work with. Not as a girlfriend.” She blushed, embarrassed, which he would have found cute most times because her pink cheeks accented her dimples, but today – especially after seeing his and Jessie’s cottonwood tree losing its jagged heart-shaped leaves in its descent into what would surely be another frigid winter – Josh was not in any mood to talk about Jessie.
He shook his head and glanced back at the groves of trees behind them, which were dancing with happy families on weekend jaunts; moms and dads and kids and grandparents whose bellies were humming with the anticipation and promise of fresh homey apple pies.
“Josh, come on, you have to talk about her sometime. Keeping all of that crap locked away inside is only going to make you sick. Either that or it’ll mess up your new girlfriend!” She reached for him, but he pulled away. Frowning, Michelle continued to poke at him. “Seriously, come on, I’m just curious. Every girlfriend is curious about the ex. Us women are like that – nosy.”
With the welcome sun in his eyes, temporarily obstructing his vision with a bright flare, Josh squinted down at Michelle. He turned and leaned back against the open tailgate, the fruit baskets now sitting patiently close by in the truck’s bed, on which he and Jessie had snuggled many times out at Benny’s. And made love on, he reminded himself, as over his shoulder he covetously eyed the open bed of the truck behind him. Michelle was traditional – she preferred a warm bed when it came to sex. No making love outdoors for her.
“Michelle,” he started, crossing his arms, “sometimes I think you are only with me because you’re the publicist for my film. Like it’s your way of getting information no one else has access to.” He eyed her warily.
Pouting, she interjected hotly. “That’s not fair. I’m just curious about her – isn’t everyone? I mean, the whole world wants to know about the famous Jessie.” She said the last bit with a few fingers posing beside her head as quotation marks, her voice lowered dramatically to accent Jessie’s supposed sterling reputation.
His temper rising, Josh took the bait just to see how far she would go. “Fine, then. Ask away. What do you want to know? About what she was like in bed? Hot. Damn hot. Is that enough, Michelle?”
Chastened, Michelle pulled herself up onto the tailgate next to him as, nearby, a tow-headed blonde youngster crunched into an apple, his round eyes observing the grown-ups and their heated conversation. “Ouch,” she responded to Josh’s frustrated remarks, keeping her voice down so as not to upset the kid. “Touché.”
“Well for one, I can’t see you beating her up. And as your current flame, I feel like that might be the kind of information I’d like to have. I mean, do I need to be worried, Josh?”
Once again he shook his head. However uncomfortable he was, though, Josh could see Michelle did indeed have a right to that information, to at least part of the story, he figured.
“I didn’t. Beat her up, I mean.” And as they stood at the orchard that eerily shared the name Jessie was using in Scotland, he explained quietly what transpired, using as little detail as possible, but still trying to make Michelle understand there were circumstances beyond his control. He was careful not to divulge too much. Their romance was only a few months old, and he wasn’t sure just how much he could trust her with yet. He summed it up as Jessie having a stalker who threatened to hurt him, and that he – Josh – was angry at her for choosing to go it alone, and for not asking for help.
Aghast, Michelle interrupted, “Who would do that? Go it alone, I mean? And how bad was it?”
“Bad enough for her to leave her life behind. Look Michelle, she had her reasons. She was scared, for one.”
“Scared for you, you mean.” That was terrifying, both the idea that Josh was in fact a target and not the aggressor, and also because it meant Jessie left Josh because…Oh Jesus. She is still in love with him. Wherever she is.
“Do you want the rest of the truth, Michelle? You won’t like it.” Josh was facing her now, his own cheeks flushed and his eyes narrowed.
She nodded. “Yeah,” she said in a tone so low she sounded just like the radio announcers in the truck during their drive, vague and barely discernible.
“Fine, then. The truth is I am angry with her for a lot of things - leaving, for one - but mostly for ending a relationship that was magical, perfect. She walked away when the going got tough and she had her reasons, yes, but it sucked. It still sucks. She didn’t give me any choices - she just walked out. She made her point by fucking someone else, by the way, and Steve and I had to go drag her out of his bed.”
Josh bit his lips - top, then bottom - in consternation, and then pinched his bottom lip with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. “She must have been so lonely, that whole summer, yet she pushed all of us away. Not just me,” he added humbly, looking away.
“So, you are still in love with a ghost,” Michelle said simply, matter-of-factly, as if the idea that the man she loved - in love with someone else - was just part of the package. Her voice didn’t betray her thoughts however, which were more like shit, this is not at all what I was hoping to get out of him.
Josh didn’t answer. He was leaning against the tailgate again, his butt resting on its edge, and his gaze was not on his girlfriend; instead he was watching his right forefinger play with a tiny branch that had escaped the imprisonment of the apple basket at his side.
Sighing, Michelle said glumly, “What is the big deal about Jessie Wheeler anyway? What is so fucking great about Jessie Wheeler?”
Incredulous, Josh turned his head to peer closely at her. “Have you listened to her music? Have you watched her on screen?”
Michelle met his gaze and observed as Josh’s thoughts escaped to somewhere else, somewhere far away and long ago. In the blink of an eye he opened up, as if he were almost desperate to make her see, to help Michelle understand what she was up against.
He shrugged his shoulders emphatically, as if he had so many places to start he couldn’t choose just one. Then it was time to let go. The words emerged quickly, impatiently, tripping and tumbling over each other like a creek in a hurry to get to the river. Josh’s truths were water drops bubbling impatiently upwards out of a fountain’s belly, melding into each other, relieved to have secured release in the light of day.
“This is the thing about Jessie. She has the ability to look into your eyes and make you feel as if she is seeing directly into your soul. It’s as if she can read you. She followed me into the garbage at Charlie’s Club after everyone else gave up on me, and she bent down before me in her high heels and this fancy little dress, and she touched me and pretty much told me not to give up hope. She believed in me at a time when nobody else did. And she’s like that with others too, not just me. She looks at you as if she understands you, as if she knows you, when she couldn’t possibly know you at all. And the thing is that you know she’s sad and lonely, and that she’s suffered some unknown terrible losses, and so she’s even more broken than you are. So you end up wanting to help her. You want to believe in her. You want to understand her. So you fall under this spell, this spell that only a few people on this earth seem to possess, and it’s one of real connection, of hope and wonder and light.”
He paused as he realized he was being too emotional about Jessie in front of the woman who was now his present and his future. Jessie, who at this point had been gone for just over a year.
Slowly he continued, more cautiously this time, the old frustration and anger seeping in like water through cracks in a leaky foundation, “And then she goes and has this huge battle of her own to fight and instead of asking for help from the people who know and love her the most in this world, at least as much as she allows you to get to know her, she goes off and does it all on her own. She shuts everybody out and goes into this deep dark place and leaves the rest of us confused as hell, pissed as hell.”
Michelle saw clearly now how things were with him as far as Jessie Wheeler was concerned. Her voice was suddenly high-pitched, unsure. “You still love her.”
“I am trying to get over her, Michelle. She’s gone. Even if she comes back,” Josh threw his arms up to the sky, “I don’t know if I can forgive her for what she did. For leaving like that. She’s hurt so many people.”
Michelle gazed into her man’s eyes and saw, to her dismay, deep pools of pain. Most of all you, she thought, but she wisely chose not to verbalize it.
Josh finished with, “The thing is, Michelle, there are only so many great loves in this world. Jessie and I had that. A great love. We had it on screen, and we had it in person. I won’t lie to you about that. It’s something you need to know about me if you want to continue to try to have some kind of relationship with me. But it’s over. It’s been over for a long time now. It’s time for me to move on with my life, to let her go.”
Michelle looked at him intently. “So. All this hype over Jessie is not just romanticizing her because she got beat up, because she disappeared. She really was something else.”
Hearing Jessie referred to in the past tense was chilling. “She really is something else,” Josh interjected strongly, breaking the little branch over his knee with a sharp crack.
“So you think she’s still alive?”
“Yeah. I do.” He looked up at her, brown eyes earnest underneath a thinning confidence. He echoed what he told Steve just after Jessie’s disappearance. “I would know if she weren’t.”
This time it was Michelle’s turn to feel a tremor in her body. Jessie’s memory danced up and down her legs and arms, and she shivered.
“Josh. I don’t know if I can measure up to Jessie Wheeler.”
“No one can. So don’t bother trying. Just let her go. And let us,” he gestured to Michelle and himself, “be. Whoever or whatever we are meant to be.”
“I have to share you with a ghost.”
Josh looked down and away. And then he turned and gestured for Michelle to step away from the tailgate. He adjusted the fruit baskets back a little further and slammed the back shut. A few hard steps around the truck and he had the driver’s door open.
“Coming?” he asked her, firmly.
It took Michelle a minute. Finally her eyes met his and, despite a feeling of foreboding, she was powerless to walk away from this man.
“Yes,” she answered, but her voice was faint and her legs watery and elastic.
Michelle climbed into the big truck and prepared herself for the long ride home. She shook her head as if to realign her belief and role in her relationship and, this time, when Josh set the volume on the radio, she didn’t attempt to change it.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish