He had told himself over and over it was only a crush. He had thought he'd managed to forget her after not seeing her for months, but then the one year reunion came.
The airline was paying for their travel from wherever they were to get together and talk with counselors and each other. What would he say in front of the group? What would he say to her? Was he the only one still dreaming about the flames? Was he the only one needing to talk about what happened but wanting to run away at the same time? He'd heard a trauma like this could permanently scar someone emotionally. What if she didn't have room in her life for him? What if she didn't even notice him? What if she did? Is that what he wanted?
He changed his mind over and over about whether to attend or not. In the end he knew that he would go and it hadn't ever really been a question. He sent in his reservation and received his ticket promptly. In the packet he also received, he saw that there was an Internet site set up for them to check in for information and places they could submit their own stories.
He checked the attendance list every day for her name. It never appeared. Had he remembered it correctly? He knew he did. He'd wished for her every day since then. Victoria Whita! They'd met after their lives had been changed forever, although he'd noticed her on the plane across the aisle and wanted to run his fingers through her long hair. So, she wasn't going to be there. He still needed to go.
He could have chosen the train, as they would have paid for that too. He wanted to fly again, to prove that although his life was turned upside down, the memories wouldn't take over his life. His first class seats didn't help ease the rerun of memories in his mind each time the plane hit turbulence, and he gripped the seat.
Thinking of Victoria would distract him. They had all been assigned a special ward of the hospital where they were all taken. Some died, some lived, some scarred outside, but all carried scars inside. She had grieved the trauma differently than he. She wore her pain on her face, in the bend of her shoulders, and in the lack of care she took for her appearance. He hid his pain behind his smiles, behind the neatly shaven face. She let out her tears with others, clinging to them, needing a life line to bring sense to the pain. He had only let out his tears when the bandage on his leg wound was changed, and at night when he woke up in a sweat of memories. She had started reaching out and helping others on her good days, but he'd remained distant.
He wanted to be strong for her. He approached her while she was staring out the window into the sky. She hadn't looked at him, but they'd talked casually. After that day he was drawn to her. Drawn to her personality, to her beauty. He was drawn too by the desire to make her smile.
His leg was healing. He was only walking with a cane but no permanent damage was predicted. Her legs were fine and she sometimes helped him stand after they talked. He couldn't stay away and they talked every day. Her burns were healing. The burns covered her right hand, arm and up to her right cheek. She didn't talk about it, but he'd asked the nurse and found out part of her hair had also been on fire and so she'd had her whole scalp shaved. The hair was growing back, but the curve of her head still obvious.
He'd felt a stirring of lust for her when he'd seen her happy and smiling across the plane, and had wondered about her. Now even with her scars she stirred lust in him, but now it was so much more. He wanted to be with her every minute. He wanted to take care of her. He wanted to rescue this beauty from the tragedy they'd experienced together. He wanted her to be his own beauty.
He could picture her now with the long hair before everything had changed. Mostly he could picture her as she was when he developed this crush on her, with the scars and spiked hair. Together they'd found some peace. Each day opening up more to each other, each day looking more into each others eyes and less time staring at the sky.
His eyes were drawn to the sky outside the plane now. They'd fallen from the sky. They should have all been dead. At the time he believed that maybe he and Victoria had been saved for each other. Now he just told himself it was a crush, an emotional reaction to an intense experience.
The plane ride ended inconsequentially, but he was still emotionally spent. They were all to stay at the same hotel, and meet in the morning. He signed in and spent the evening watching mindless television, not allowing himself to think about reality.
He moved on with his life after leaving Victoria, after leaving the hospital. He'd been a fifth grade teacher but they had already found an alternate teacher for his class. He knew he needed a job with less emotional output daily, and found a job as a librarian in a small library. Some friends didn't understand the changes happening in him, and they'd drifted apart. Some friends stayed with him. He'd still used a cane the last time he saw Victoria but now he walked without a limp.
The sleeping pills kept him asleep until his alarm clock awoke him. He wasn't ready to meet anyone and ordered room service for breakfast. It was only a crush. He told himself for the tenth times that morning. He'd come this whole way and wanted to open himself up for healing, but could feel his walls going up as the time to meet everyone approached.
The day before he left the hospital he'd told her how he felt about her. He had held her hand, rubbed his fingers over the scarred skin of her cheek. That day he'd fancied himself in love with her. His love for her seemed to give him life, and a desire to live. His declaration proved the opposite for Victoria and she'd cried and pulled away from him. She seemed to regress to the depression she was in right after arrival to the hospital. He hadn't seen her since.
The depression and exhileration that comes after a plane crash. The emotions that are uncontrollable after viewing intensely the fragility of life. The screams that come from seeing your skin on fire. They were in the back of the plane that had crashed to the earth nose first, they had been the lucky ones, the newspaper said.
For a time he'd felt lucky. It had been the plane crash that had brought Victoria to him, that had shown him love. Now he hated that he'd been trapped in that air space. He hated what the crash had done to Victoria, and how it had taken the lives of so many. Maybe after a year he could put away this hate, and these dreams, and get back to living. Did he remember what living was? It was so long ago.
He forced himself out the door to the lobby. He stood on the edge of the crowd as others talked, even hugged. It was like a high-school reunion, only they were all different ages. One older woman was crying already. He picked out familiar faces. Steve had been his roommate at the hospital, and was still in a wheelchair. They'd stayed in touch and it would be good to see him. Joyce the nurse had been invited and was hugging everyone. Salome was memorable because of how she'd organized social events in the hospital and cheered them up even though her hand was burned and bandaged.
They were told to move to the conference room. It was only then that he saw Victoria, and he almost turned to run. The emotions flooded back. He still knew the sound of her laughter because he had made her laugh. He remembered his arms around her when she'd cried in agony from the memories. He had cried with her that time, not for himself but for her.
This changed everything. He couldn't be open without letting his emotions get out of control, so he would sit in the back and not participate. He was here for the free flight, that was it. He followed the group in.
The formal part was first. The president of the airline was there to give them all a bravery plaque. He hadn't been brave. He'd just survived. Where was the honor in surviving one day after the other? He watched Victoria receive hers. She seemed changed from when he'd seen her last. He was grateful she'd found some happiness. She seemed casual and peaceful.
Then they moved their chairs to a circle and two counselors started them talking about the experience. Tears started immediately as they spoke of what they remembered of the crash. It was a year later but memories were vivid. It was a year later but emotions were raw. He didn't participate, but he couldn't make himself leave either.
Lunch was served. The topic for the afternoon would be how life had changed since the crash. The crash had changed him, but he didn't think he could put into words how. The crush had changed him and he decided then that he wouldn't admit ever again that he'd been in love. It had only been a crush.
Everyone but he seemed eager to talk with each other. He talked to Steve, purposely avoiding Victoria. He walked out to eat on his own. He didn't want to return for the afternoon but his legs walked him back.
Victoria walked towards him as he walked in the door. He didn't want to look into her eyes again. It was easier to convince himself of his crush if she wasn't close by.
"Hello Richard." She spoke and looked like she was going to hug him.
She must have had great plastic surgery because the scarring was a lot less. Her hair was short but cut in a cute bob. The skin on her hand rough but healed as he took her hand instead of hugging her.
"Hi Victoria. I didn't see your name on the list so I thought you wouldn't be here," he was curious as to her presence, and felt he deserved an explanation since her arrival was now playing on his emotions.
"I live here." She laughed at herself, and his heart felt like it was cracking as he fell in love with her laugh again. "I don't live here. I mean I live in this town so I'm not staying at the hotel, so they probably forgot to include me on the list." He wished he'd thought of it before so he could have prepared himself emotionally.
"That makes sense. I'm glad to see that you healed so well. Doesn't everyone look great?" He tried to take the attention off of them back to the meeting.
"I'm enjoying being back with everyone, but it's you I want to talk to mostly. Can we meet afterwards?"
"Victoria, I don't think we have anything left to say. Let's just forget it. It's been good to see you again. Excuse me." He knew he had been rude but he had to get away from her. He took a seat next to Steve and talked to him. He tried to appear casual and confidant as the group time started.
Most everyone had similar underlying experiences. Dreams of screams and of fire, family members that expected healing too quickly, avoidance of flying, uncontrollable emotions, bursting out sometimes for no real reason. Everyone also had their own unique stories of their own injuries, their own struggles with jobs, ex-boyfriends, depression, drugs, new lives.
When it came to his turn he told them he didn't want to share. Then it was Victoria's turn. She remembered the hard days in the hospital, her pain and her sadness. Then she spoke of a friend who helped her through the sadness.
"He was grieving and in his own pain but he reached out to me. We talked every day. He was the only one that could make me smile and laugh at first. He held my hand. He touched my ugly scarred skin, and said that I was beautiful." Her tears started flowing out with her words, and he wondered if she'd be able to finish. He leaned forward in his seat putting his head between his hands, pursing his lips together. He had no idea what she was going to say.
"He told me he loved me, but he left the hospital before he knew how I felt. I also left the hospital, and just returned for skin grafts, and plastic surgery mostly just on an outpatient basis. I felt ugly and unlovable. I hated looking at myself in the mirror, and thought maybe that man had just felt sorry for me. But over the next months I stepped back into life with old and new friends. I started work full time about six months ago. I find myself much more contemplative and looking at life with new eyes. I've also thought of that man many times. I've thought of how he looked past my imperfections. I thought of how in the hospital all those facades we wear with each other were torn down. We were all so real together. We all had ugliness in our spirits and bodies during that time, but we were united in our pain." She stopped for a moment, pulling more Kleenex from the box, and blowing loudly. She was putting words to how he felt.
"I've dreamed those dreams of terror that I've heard many of you talking about, and to add to my terror of past memories I also now live wondering if through my own fear if I've lost that man that I knew in the hospital. He has no doubt moved on to love another, but I wished many times this last year that he was by my side for I think I fell in love with him in that hospital. I could talk to him for hours, and he saw something beautiful in me when I was ugly."
The room was quiet. Richard felt his emotions soaring. He wanted to jump up and pull Victoria in his arms. Had he just imagined those words? He needed time to sort through all he was thinking and feeling. He glanced at Steve who was grinning at him. Maybe he hadn't made it up.
Out of respect to everyone else's sharing he listened quietly watching Victoria. She didn't look at him, and her tears were somewhat under control. Everyone got a chance to share that wanted to. Emotionally spent now the crowd was much quieter and calmer.
"Victoria, Can I talk to you." She had opened wide the door that she'd closed a year ago, and he wanted to walk through it.
She smiled, "Of course."
They moved out of the room, finding comfortable chairs in a quiet place in the corner of the lobby. "Did you mean what you said in there?" He asked.
"Every word! I've had a whole year to think about it." She was smiling at him because he'd been smiling. When he didn't answer right away, she stopped smiling and took his hand. "Richard, maybe you've realized in the last year that you didn't really love me, or maybe you love someone else now. That's okay. I want you to be happy. I'm not asking for love or a commitment. I was just asking for the opportunity to tell you how important you are to me. I wanted you to see that I'm much better now and you are a big part of that. Thank you."
Now Richard couldn't hold the tears anymore that he'd held in all day. This beautiful woman he'd fallen in love with a year ago was happy, and even in love with him. The best he'd imagined from the weekend was healing from some emotional scars and the chance to move on. Now he was being offered so much more.
"Victoria, I never stopped thinking about you, all year. I told myself every day that you were just a crush and I'd get over you but it never changed. I still love you." He knew the words were absolutely true as he said them.
He wondered if he was glowing like she was. He slid his fingers along her hand until their fingers were intertwined. They leaned towards each other, their tears now turned to smiles. She slid onto her knees to the floor in front of his chair. He leaned farther and their eyes closed as their lips touched for the first time. They'd been in love for a year, and their delayed passion strengthened their caresses and the intensity of the kiss.
There would still be bad dreams. There would still be tears. But now he had Victoria by his side. He could help her believe in herself again. She could help him get back to teaching.
Most importantly, now they had each other.