Annabella gazed from her kitchen window. It was spring and the two cherry trees in her back yard, a Stella and a Windsor, were in full bloom. Mark had planted them the day they moved into their home at 440 South Evergreen, in the small town of Arlington Heights, Illinois. He subsequently planted a Honeycrisp and a Macintosh apple tree behind the cherry trees, but the cherry trees stoked melancholy on this anniversary of his passing.
They had been happily married to one another for almost seven blessed years when fate took him from her. She often wondered why the gods thought so little of her that they allowed him to go, casting this fate upon her.
She sipped her coffee and thought about what she would do on this day. It was Sunday. She was in the choir of Saint Peter’s Lutheran congregation so she would attend the early and regular morning services. It would give her a chance to be with others she knew and loved, and who understood her loss. She had been in the choir before she was married but now, she sang her heart out to Mark every Sunday when she sang her solo, hoping wherever he was, he would hear her. It was a silly idea but it gave her comfort.
She finished her coffee and had just set the empty cup in the sink when the phone rang. She wasn’t expecting a call this early. “Good morning.”
“Good morning. May I speak with Charlie?”
“I’m sorry, there’s no one here by that name.”
“Beg pardon, thank you…”
“What number did you dial?” She wanted to be helpful.
“Ah, Clearbrook 3 6148.”
“You reached the correct number but, again, there’s no one here by that name.”
“So am I, goodbye.” His voice was so pleasant, she was surprised she made such a comment.
“Wait a minute.”
“That sounded rather sad. Are you in trouble?”
“Oh, no. I didn’t mean that.”
“Perhaps you would care to tell me what’s troubling you.”
“That’s very good of you, but …”
“Oh, no. I wouldn’t think of …”
“I’ve got the time. Maybe just talking about it may help.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Paul. Are you crying?”
“No ... just a little.”
“Okay, let’s have it — tell me or I’ll hang up and you’ll never have another chance like this,” he laughed.
“Please, don’t hang up. It’s just that this is so unexpected — talking to a stranger.”
“We’re not strangers. We just haven’t met yet.”
She could tell he was smiling by the lyrical inflection of his words, “Are you sure you want to hear my sad tale?”
“Yes, I’m sure. But first, tell me your name.”
“What a lovely name. Okay, Annabella. We’ve been introduced so, tell me about your sadness.”
“My husband, Mark, passed away a year ago today and I cannot get over it. I’ve tried but I can’t let go and I don’t understand why not.”
“The answer is very simple, my new friend.”
“And that would be?”
“Love. Sounds to me like you loved each other a great deal.”
Her tear ducts opened at the sound of the word, “That’s putting it mildly.”
“Have you thought about Mark — was that his name?”
“Yes, Mark Phillips.”
“Well, Annabella Phillips, have you thought about what Mark might be going through now?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“He’s begun a new life on a different plane of existence but may be held back because of his love for you and the sadness you cling to.”
“Oh, my goodness. I never thought of that.”
“You can never stop loving him, but you can find a way to change your love for him so he can move on.”
“I hear what you’re saying but I don’t understand how I can do that.”
Their conversation spanned another hour before Annabella had to get ready for church.
“Paul, you’ve been so helpful I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”
“Well, I know of a way.”
Her street-wise sense kicked in for a moment, expecting him to ask her for a date. She would have nothing to do with that. After all, she was a married woman. The shock of that thought brought her back to reality. “And what way would that be?”
“Permit me to call you again. What do you say?”
Annabella laughed with relief, “Yes, of course, I wish I had thought of that myself. Please do call again when you have the time. And thank you so much.”
“You are very welcome. Ciao for now.”
Over the next two months, Paul called back more times than Annabella could remember. They were always joyous occasions. Best of all, she found her sadness slowly dissipate in the happiness this new friendship brought into her life.
When Annabella realized she might be falling in love with this friendly stranger, she was grateful and afraid at the same time. The thought of even hinting about her feelings was contained for fear of losing him. She would love to have told him how much she had come to care about him. His sense of humor and sympathy all wrapped up in the way he played with words that were music to her soul. She had learned to laugh again thanks to this unseen gentle stranger. She wondered if it was possible to love someone you’ve never met, never forgetting that it was just a voice over the telephone.
She wondered what he looked like. Was he tall, short, fat, thin? What color was his hair – did he even have any hair. But his voice was clear in her mind. It was strong, confident, deep, and his laughter caressed her ear drums in a way she had never thought possible. She loved his voice but wondered about the mind behind it. There were moments when she thought him too good to be true. She never thought to ask him about his religious affiliation — it did not seem important.
She also wondered why he never suggested that they meet. Perhaps he was married and, of course, if that were true, a meeting would be impossible. She felt like asking, but fear of the answer kept her silent. She wanted what they had together to go on for as long as possible, perhaps, forever. A fantasy she was reluctant to give up.
They had always spoken to one another in the evening hours when she was sure to be at home. With the forthcoming marriage of her sister, Jennifer, she mentioned she would not be home in the evenings the first week in October. There were a few awkward seconds before he thanked her for telling him. She figured he probably wanted to know why but was too polite to ask.
“My sister is being married on the first Saturday of October and I’m the matron of honor. I’m going to be staying with her until the ceremony. There’s so much to be done.”
“Yes, of course. That’s very good of you. I’ll miss talking with you. Where is the ceremony to take place?”
“The Palmer House and the reception will follow there also.”
“A joyous occasion to be sure. I’ll talk with you sometime during the following week.”
“Yes, of course. That would be lovely.” She thought of inviting him to the wedding as her date but decided against it. What if he declined? That would be incredibly awkward. Or even worse, what if he showed up and wasn’t anything like she expected. No, it was best to let that opportunity pass by.
The day of the wedding arrived and everything was perfect – the weather, the ceremony, the catering at the reception. All of her hard work in organizing the event was paying off. She was chatting with friends when she heard her name being paged. She answered the phone and was surprised when told there was a package for her at the front desk.
As she walked through the lobby she noticed a handsome priest sitting in the lounge area watching her as she passed through to the front desk. She smiled and continued walking. She stopped when she heard her name called from behind her. As she turned around she was surprised to see the young priest standing a few feet from her. She did not know him and could not imagine him calling her name. She looked around the lobby to see if there was anyone else who may have called her name.
Then she heard the priest say her name in a voice she was all too familiar with.
“Paul?” she asked in disbelief.
He smiled and moved forward.
“You’re a priest?”
“Yes, Annabella. I am.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” The whole of her image of the Paul she had grown to care about over the telephone began to collapse.
“It didn’t seem important.”
“I disagree with you. What are you doing here?”
The distress in her voice began to take its toll on Paul, “I thought … it might be a good opportunity to meet you in person. Perhaps not.”
“Well, that’s very good of you but I’m up to my ears in this wedding. The front desk has something for me, I have to go.”
“There’s nothing there.”
“I asked them to page you.”
“You did what?”
“I’m sorry, it probably was the wrong thing to do.”
“Paul, I’m very confused at the moment and I don’t really have time to talk with you. You’re going to have to excuse me.”
“Yes, of course. Another time, perhaps.”
Annabella turned and almost ran back to the reception — thoroughly confused as to what had just happened. She could not get over the fact that he was a priest. And after all those friendly intimate phone conversations, he never bothered to mention it. By the time she entered the reception ballroom, she felt as though she had been deceived. If she had known he was a priest she never would have let those phone calls continue. In truth, she was angry at herself for being taken in by this stranger, priest or not.
She decided she did not want to talk with him again. What in the world would they talk about now that she knew who he was? It would be ridiculous.
When the phone rang Sunday evening she knew it was him and did not make a move to answer it. She forgot about the answering machine until it clicked on and her message was announced. ‘Hi, it just me and I’m not available. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you.’
The machine hummed a few seconds and then clicked off. No message was left. She gave a sigh of relief and hoped that was the end of it. Tuesday and Wednesday evenings passed quietly. She was thankful she had never discussed those phone calls with any one, especially her sister. At least she was spared the embarrassment of having to explain the huge mistake she had made.
However, when she arrived home from work several weeks later, she discovered it was not over after all. There was a letter in her mail box addressed to Annabella Phillips with no return address. She didn’t recognize the hand writing but had a pretty good idea of who it was from.
She laid the envelope on the kitchen table, turned the coffee machine on and went to her bedroom. While she changed her clothes she realized how much she missed talking with Paul. She wondered and hoped what he may have written. The envelope still lay there when she returned. Now, she wondered, as she poured coffee into her favorite cup. if love the second time around was all it was cracked up to be?
She sat down at the kitchen table and ran her finger across the beautiful cursive handwriting of her name, imagining his hand holding a pen as he wrote. She took a sip of her coffee and opened the envelope. It was from Paul. She sighed and began to read his heartfelt plea for forgiveness which began to tug at her heart strings. Her breath caught when she got to the part where he explained he was leaving the priesthood after almost twelve years of devotion to the God he loved with all his heart.
Celibacy and the loneliness he experienced was more than he could bear. He apologized again for his deceit in not telling her of his vocation during their many phone calls. He confessed it was intentional. He was fearful of losing her friendship. His affection for her had grown beyond his expectations. When he realized it, he made his appearance at the reception with the hope of rectifying the situation.
He ended the letter by apologizing for any distress he may have caused her and promised he would not bother her again. He signed it, Brother Paul.
His signature made her wonder if he had changed his mind about leaving the priesthood and had decided to stay. It really didn’t matter. As she folded the letter and placed it into the envelope, she realized that the last of her hopes regarding Paul had disappeared. A grim smile enveloped her mouth as it became quite evident that it was over before it had even begun. Rather than throw his letter away, she tucked it away in one of the cubby holes of her desk.
The early Sunday church service ended. As she made her way down from the choir loft, she glanced over the railing to the floor of the sanctuary and noticed a man sitting alone in the last pew beneath the leaded glass window of Jesus holding a lamb. She thought it looked like Paul, but dismissed the thought.
When the later service ended, she saw the same man sitting alone in the last pew and thought it too curious. As she descended the stairs, she decided to have a closer look. She walked through the front foyer and entered the sanctuary.
“Annabella.” He stood up and looked embarrassed.
“What are you doing here?”
He paused a few seconds and then confessed, “I wanted to hear you sing. I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to talk with you. This is really awkward. I should go.” He was about to move into the aisle.
“Annabella, there you are.” It was her sister, Jennifer, with her new husband in tow.
“Hi, Jen, Eric. How are you?”
“What do you mean – how are we? Did you forget about our open house this afternoon?”
“Oh, my god. I did forget. Of course, I’ll be there.”
“I hope you’ll do more than be there. I need your help, as usual. And who's your handsome friend?” She smiled at Paul.
“This is Paul. Paul, my sister, Jennifer and her husband Eric.”
“Good morning,” he smiled but did not extend his hand.
“Are you bringing him along?”
“No, I …”
“Paul, are you busy this afternoon?”
He looked at Annabella, “Well, not exactly.”
“Then it’s settled. You’re invited and we’ll expect to see both of you. And the sooner the better. Okay?”
Paul smiled, “Okay. That is if it’s okay with Annabella.”
“Bring him along, Annabella. You’ve been a fifth wheel long enough. See ya.” She took Eric’s arm and walked outside into the crowd in front of the church.
Paul turned to Annabella, “You can tell them I had other plans.”
“No, you better come along with me or I’ll have to explain, and knowing Jennifer it will turn into an interrogation which I want to avoid. Paul, I apologize for avoiding you. It’s just the priest thing that got to me.”
“I’ve decided to leave.”
“But you signed your letter Brother Paul.’
“Force of habit.”
“Habit? That’s funny.” They both laughed as she took his arm and walked out of the church into the crowd outside.
“You didn’t just come here to hear me sing, did you? And don’t lie to me. Isn’t there a commandment, thou shalt not lie?”
Paul laughed, “Not in so many words. But I won’t lie. I just wanted to be close to you. Sounds kind of juvenile, doesn’t it?”
“No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t sound juvenile at all. Ever been in love before?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, prepare yourself, my friend. But I am grateful for one thing.”
“And that would be?”
“Helping me rearrange my love for Mark so he can move on.”
“Yeah, me too. By the way, Jennifer is a terrific cook and a lot of fun to be around. Are you interested in having fun?”
“As a matter of fact, I’m having fun right now. More than you know.”
“Good, so am I. By the way, what’s your last name?
Paul began to laugh so hard he stopped walking. “It’s Martindale.”
“Mr. Paul Martindale.” She could not help but laugh along with him. “I must admit that I’ve really missed our conversations. I hope we can continue them in some fashion.”
“I’m for that. Any fashion you like will suit me just fine.”
“Okay, let’s go to Jen and Eric’s place.”
As they moved to his car, “Called any wrong number lately?”
“Wrong number? I never called any wrong number. I was lucky once and called a right number.” He grinned and stared straight ahead.
“I don’t think luck had anything to do with it. I’m convinced it was a miracle.” She pulled him closer.
“Yeah, sometimes when you let go and let God, miracles can happen quite regularly.” He grinned.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Please do.” A satisfied smile flooded his face. “I’m so happy we finally met.”
“Yeah, me to.”