Announcing 2017 Past Loves Story Contest Winners

Thank you to everyone who submitted a story for our 2017 Contest. Each year, we feel privileged to have an opportunity to read so many well-written and touching stories. And as we have said before, choosing “winners” is always the hardest part. But we are so pleased that now we can share these stories with you.

Again, we received so many wonderful stories that we added one Fourth Place Winner, and have included three Honorable Mentions as well.

First Place

On Other Shores

by Virginia Boudreau (Canada) 

I am lucky. I stand at the cottage window cradling my favorite mug as fragrant steam rises. A painted greeting rests on the sill. The crescent moon fades, a pearly rose band lights the horizon. I hear only the gulls waiting for small fish to silver the clear water. It shushes over stones gathered by the tide. The rhythmic gurgle, the suck and pull of this gentle surf lulls me. It takes me back to a different coastline, more rugged and wild than this.

***

It is late, the last of a golden summer evening, and bitter sweet. Tomorrow I will be returning to university in a town three hours away. It is miles from the sea and coastal vistas like the one displayed for my beau and me. The stars have taken center stage and the sky is paved with them. Our heads twist in awe as we count the constellations glowing over the whitecaps; it is a night made for romance.

We are sitting in the bucket seats of a ’78 crystal blue Camaro. It belongs to the young man beside me. I am convinced he is my soul-mate. My pulse skips when he touches my arm and suggests walking to the point where we’ll have a better view of the lighthouse. I am filled with anticipation and somehow know I’ll always remember this day.

The wind is light and cool as we amble along the jagged path. We reach the end and stand there watching the waves curl before bursting into foam. I’m hoping he’ll finally kiss me. He hasn’t yet, but a deep affinity has grown since we met in May. We’ve discovered shared interests and outlooks that have created a solid trust. I’m fervently hoping it is more, that tonight I’ll learn my fondest wish has been realized. 

It’s too dark to discern more than the outline of his face. I wish I could see his eyes; they are navy blue, warm and expressive, but I can’t. I am surprised to hear the tremor in his voice, usually so smooth and confident. He takes my hand and I notice his own is trembling. This moves me and I feel like a marionette suspended in limbo, all wires and strings pulled taut. Alec continues looking straight ahead.

“You know how special I think you are.” I nod and wait. He sighs and the forlorn sound comes from a very deep place. Sudden and unexpected dread blooms in my chest, black and insidious as an algae; it almost takes my breath.

“I think I might be gay.” His words hang and pulse like the stars overhead.

I hold him close and put my head on his shoulder. “It will be alright.” We stay like that for a long time, saying nothing. I know he’s filled with regret and a profound sadness. My heart knows that he too, longed for a different ending to our story.

He shares the myriad truths and fears he'd kept concealed, even from himself, until this moment. All the while, the distant beacon pitched fleeting swathes of silver light across the water. I remember silently giving thanks for those flashes: bright as hope, steadfast as faith. We strolled, arms entwined, along the dark trail back to the car. I like to think we gave each other courage that August night. 

This past love fostered in me the wisdom of listening without judgement, the gift of kindness, and the grace of acceptance. Mostly though, it taught me the enduring value of empathy for others.

***

This morning, I sip my coffee and gaze out over the beach. I ponder the countless times I’ve relied upon those merits through the interim years and all the subsequent richness in my life that's resulted. I am filled with gratitude for this person who nurtured them and for the abiding friendship that's endured. I watch gulls flurry in the brightening sky as my finger traces his signature on the card. I am indeed, lucky. 

 

Second Place 

His Love Lives On

by Jenn Fox 

The first time I laid eyes on Greg, I was fourteen years old. He entered my life as that “cute boy” who sat next to me in Freshman English, with strawberry blond hair, blue eyes, and a reticence I found fascinating.

We became friends. After school let out for the summer, we’d talk on the phone, often hours at a time. Once, I blurted out that I liked him as more than a friend, my heart pounding, worried that I’d ruined our friendship. But he kept calling. 

Nearly two years passed before he finally kissed me. A few months later, we exchanged those three little words and started our senior year as “couples” did, by sharing a locker. 

In the spring, Greg was struck in the neck by a line drive during baseball practice. The nasty bruise faded, yet the swelling persisted. A doctor diagnosed an infection. Medication was prescribed. Appeased, we attended the prom. Me, in my aviator glasses and white eyelet dress, and Greg, handsome in a white tux. With his help at third base, our team won the State Championship. 

Still, the lump in his neck remained. 

Another doctor determined Greg had a cyst that needed to be removed. I’d seen enough medical dramas for that word to nag at me, but only a little. We were teenagers in love. Invincible. We walked together in the graduation procession and celebrated afterward with family and friends. 

The nightmare began at the hospital a week later when we learned the cyst was, in fact, a malignant tumor. I vowed to myself Greg would never see me cry about his cancer. “I know you’ll be okay,” I assured him. And I made myself believe it was true. It had to be true. 

Another surgery, radiation, and months of chemotherapy followed. At last, the doctors declared Greg was in remission. We breathed sighs of relief, and for the first time since his diagnosis, I allowed myself to think past remission. I began to picture a future with him. My longtime friend, my first and only love. 

We swam together in his family’s pool, camped with friends in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and spent weekends at my family’s lake cottage. His hair grew back. He regained strength. 

Then his cancer returned. 

Only this time it was in his liver. The chemotherapy failed to slow the disease’s relentless progress. When Greg was admitted to the hospital for the last time, his body was emaciated, his pain excruciating. 

Denial, however, is a powerful, powerful thing. I still believed he would recover. 

But the hope I’d so stubbornly clung to vanished when I heard the doctor say, “His liver is failing. He’s going to die.” In a matter of seconds, I went from complete denial to wanting the end to be quick—for his sake. Watching him suffer, with the hope he’d recover was one thing; watching him suffer and knowing he wouldn’t, another. 

The last time I laid eyes on Greg was the day before my twenty-first birthday. 

He had breathed his last breath, and for a long while, little else mattered. 

A lifetime later in Greg-years, now I look back through a lens only wisdom, experience, and the passage of time can bestow, and I see what I gained from loving and losing him. 

With Greg, I discovered that I’m capable of a deep and abiding love and when needed, selflessness. What’s more, I’ve come to rely on an inner strength that, before his cancer diagnosis, I never knew existed. These qualities gave me confidence as I faced a future without him, and they have brought me great pride. 

Yet, I’ll never be perfect and neither was he. So, I have learned to carry wrongs that can’t be made right, and I strive not to add to them. I’ve also become better at accepting apologies—even those I’ll never receive—and forgiving. 

That sense of invincibility I once possessed? It left me long ago. I take fewer chances now. 

But love, I’ve come to know, is worth the risk. Greg taught me that.

 

Third Place

Everywhere I Look

by Splendour Ani (from Nigeria)

On the day that he died, I died with him.

Somehow, as I huddled under a blanket that rainy Saturday morning and I heard the phone ring, I knew. So I ignored the shrill tone. Grrriiiing...on and on it rang. But I ignored it. Then my exasperated older sister picked up the phone, and in her gasp, my fears increased. The grief- stricken look on her face as she turned to me confirmed my worst fears. The soul crushing narrative that spilled from her lips drove the knife deeper.

Uche was an unexpected pleasantness in my life. I was a painfully reclusive girl, but Uche swooped into my life like a tornado, blowing away the gloominess and unveiling the potential for me to have fun living. The day we met, I had hunkered down in what I thought was my secret place. As I lounged on the one-armed chair I had salvaged for soliloquies, eyes closed and already deep in my own world, I felt a warm, moist touch against my cheek. Someone pecked me!

I fell off the chair in shock, one hand pressed against my abused cheek, the other fumbling for my shoes to use as a murder weapon if necessary.

Guess what he did? He laughed! And laughed and laughed...  All I seemed to be able to do was stare at the short, odd boy who laughed with such reckless abandon, as if the world 'needed' to feed off his laughter.

As abruptly as the laughter began, it stopped. Then he stretched out a hand to me and said; "I'm Uche. What's your name?"

While I mentally calculated the possibility of getting away from this mad man unscathed, he reached behind him and pulled out a sketch pad. He considered it for a moment. Then with a big, delighted smile, he held up the pad to my face and declared, “Gosh, you're beautiful!”

I jerked back in shock. He had sketched me. As I lay unaware, he sketched me, and caught a part of me I didn't know existed. Peaceful. I looked peaceful.

My heart melted. And as he launched into a forced dialogue of the truthfulness of images caught without prior notice, I listened. I responded. I laughed once or twice. And when we had to go our separate ways several hours later, it was with a strong sense of reluctance. As I lay in bed that night counting sheep, I called forth the sun longingly. For its rising would bring Uche back to me.

We were together for thirteen months and twelve days. In that time period, I laughed more than I ever had in my entire life. Uche always had a crazy idea to try out and I was his faithful wingman. But what I loved the most about him was that for every crazy idea he tried out, there were two homeless guys who got new shoes. One single Mom who received three months supply of cereals for her young children. One street kid who learned to play basketball.

By loving Uche, I learnt not just to notice the needs around me, but also to notice that I have what it takes to alleviate those needs to the best of my ability.

As he was laid six feet under, I cursed the compulsory service year that took my joy away. I cursed the system that sent him to a volatile town. I cursed the suicide bomber that stole my laughter.

I have done my best to keep living. To go through the motions so that my family won't despair. The thing is though, in the time we were together, Uche and I made enough memories to fill the pages of ten diaries. This means that everywhere I look, I see him, I feel him, I am him. I see him in the shiny leather shoes worn with tattered clothes. I feel him in the empathetic smile the widow gives to me as I pass by her shop. I smell him in the dust that is stirred up as the street kids play basketball on the makeshift court Uche and I put together for them.

So you see, it is so hard to keep living, because on the day that he died, I died with him.

 

Fourth Place

Food for Thought

by Colleen L. Nehmer

My husband Joe, has a saying: “You feed the people you love.” Food has always been an important part of our relationship, whether it’s concocting from-scratch ice cream cakes for our kids’ birthdays or spending the afternoon preparing spicy chili and good bread for the Sunday night football game on TV.

In fact, I was eating Chinese food straight from the carton when I met Joe at a party twenty years ago, back in college. A few weeks after we started dating, he had a huge project due and was buried with work at the computer lab. I knew he didn’t have time to go get dinner for himself, so I surprised him by delivering a Tupperware bowl of beef stew right to the computer lab. Joe later told me this is when he knew things were getting serious between us.

 ***

My ideas about food and love took root back in high school. My boyfriend, Mike, worked at a lunch counter his family owned in our Midwest town. His jet-black hair and dark eyes drew me in like a moth to a flame. He played on the football team and never let anyone push him around. He was street smart and tough, but on the inside, he was the most generous and gentle person I’d ever met. Mike had been adopted from Korea as a baby, and had a large, loving family. 

While I took orders and delivered trays at a nearby fast food joint, Mike was flipping eggs in his family’s restaurant, getting to know what made their customers tick. I would sit on a stool at the cozy counter and watch how he and his aunts listened to their customers as they paid their tabs, talking about weather and local politics. Mike knew how the first customer of the day took his coffee, and how the neighbor’s corn crop was coming along. He knew how all the regulars liked their burgers cooked.

Our dreams grew up together and we would talk about them while we sat on the darkening beach feeding seagulls bits of our sub sandwiches and watching the sun set over Lake Michigan. I wanted to be a writer; he knew he wanted to work with people. But he felt pressure to follow in his sister’s footsteps and go into medicine. We spent hours trying to unravel the answers to life’s messy questions. 

Years later he would finally follow his heart and move to New York City to train as a chef. Eventually, he opened his own farm-to-table gastro pub. On a recent trip, Joe and I stopped there for a bite to eat. At first, I was taken aback at the sophisticated décor, but when the food came, I was at home–Mike’s home. I could taste the years of listening to customers, the Korean spices of his heritage, and the influences of community farmers. He cooks the kind of food people love to eat. Unfortunately, Mike wasn’t at the restaurant that afternoon, but we left a note with the maitre d’ letting him know how much we enjoyed our meal.

*** 

Waking early on cold mornings I sometimes think about Mike and smile as I pack our kids’ lunches. Spreading peanut butter and homemade cherry jam on sandwich bread and stacking chocolate chip cookies in their lunch bags is something I do with love. Sometimes I tuck a handwritten note of encouragement in, too.

I hope they look back on those lunches the way my mom remembers how my grandmother would often hang her daughter’s freshly washed bed sheets out to dry on the clotheslines – Grandma could easily have thrown that laundry into the new electric dryer, but she knew that when her daughter slid between those crisp sheets at bedtime, she would smell the grass and the wind and the summer sunshine, and she would know she was loved. Like learning to perfect the potato salad that’s part of my husband’s German heritage. Joe knows he is loved, because food is love.

 

Honorable Mention

Unsent Letter to My Love

by Susan Lindsley 

Dawn, and again I walk beside the sea. The surf is quiet. She pulls fog from the somewhere in the east as if to hide her face from me and from the rising sun. Would that I too could pull a fog across my soul and hide its pain from me.

Instead I hide my face. Tears flow between my fingers. I shudder. The waves caress my bare feet and push something against my ankle. I look down. A conch shell. 

I stare, bend, and lift it. A match to one at home, the one we found last June when we walked here together, holding hands, our hearts thumping with fear of what lay ahead.

The sun flares through the fog. Laughter shatters the silence like broken glass. I look up to see a yellow kite rising as children run into the wind. Toward me and toward the sea.

The wind throws the kite higher. It catches sunlight. The fog retreats before the wind that brings you back to me. But it is not you. It is the smell of you, of menthol cigarettes, from someone somewhere down the shore.

I turn away from laughter, joy and sun. And from your words, the promise you could not keep, “I will be safely home to you, my love.” The last you spoke when leaving for Iraq.

 

First Love

by Donna B. Crisler

We all remember our first love. How could we forget? Those memories sleep protected under a blanket of lifetime events, springing forward at the most unexpected times. Perhaps, something as simple as a certain flower or a special smile brings that person back to us.

We met in an evening beginning German college class. I’m not sure why either of us signed up for that class. Neither of us had a reason for taking it. Looking back, I guess it was our fate, our karma, that brought us together. 

I never thought of him as being particularly handsome. He was tall, perhaps too thin. No, it was his smile that attracted me. When I walked into class one evening, our eyes locked, and he flashed that gorgeous smile. He’d gotten my attention. I was hooked. During the class break, he approached me, and asked if I’d like to meet him later for coffee. 

From the beginning, I recognized this guy was special. He was all the things I was looking for—smart, sensitive, great sense of humor, generous, and much more. But something set him apart. Maybe it was his genuine interest in people. He cared. When others spoke, he listened. And when he talked, we listened. He never raised his voice, never shouted. He didn’t need to. We wanted to hear his opinions. Even controversial conversations remained civil. Respect for other’s opinions was important to him. 

After dating a few years, we talked of a future together. It just seemed right. I couldn’t imagine a life with anyone else. I thought I knew all about him when we married, but through the years, he always found wonderful ways to make me happy. Knowing how much I loved flowers, he planted 100 pink, red, and purple tulip bulbs. And he did this in the fall, without my knowledge. The following spring, my garden was spectacular. And every spring, around Easter, those colorful tulips flower again.

It took years of living with him to recognize the depth of the goodness in this man. He appreciated life and loved his family. And we knew it. In these days when ethical behavior seems to be lost, I think of him often. He was the most decent human being I’ve ever met. Honesty and integrity seeped from his pores as naturally as water oozes from a saturated sponge. He didn’t speak those words, he lived them. He set the example for his loved ones to follow.

I met him in the September of one year and lost him in the September of another. But between those months, that morphed into years, I had the privilege and honor of being his partner. And today I’m reminded often of his wisdom, his courage and his values. They live on through his children and grandchildren. 

Whenever my sons smile at me, I’m reminded of my first love. When the tulips bloom each spring, I’m reminded of his caring ways. When I listen to frustrated voices trying to be heard in a quagmire of political bedlam, I long for his wisdom and rational thinking. He’s with me always, just a reminder away.

 

Traffic Court & Dinner 

by Charlotte Lewis

George was not my first love. But he is the one I will always remember. I met him when I took my car in for a minor repair. He talked the entire time he worked and by the time he had finished, I felt I knew him. A day later, he called and asked me to dinner - after an appearance in night traffic court. It may have been an unusual first date but it was one of the most enjoyable evenings I had ever spent with someone. Traffic court and a late dinner. 

George asked if I danced. No, not really. Would I like to learn? Yes. He showed up one evening with a couple of records and a bottle of cold duck. I learned well enough we could go out on weekends and dance at the clubs. One night we saw an exhibition of the rumba. George was so fascinated with it, he went to Arthur Murray the next day on his lunch hour and signed us up for lessons. We learned to rumba so well that, while on our honeymoon, we won a rumba contest.

George was an athletic sort of guy. He had a job that didn't require a great deal of physical effort but he rode motorcycles, raced cars, was an excellent swimmer, he hiked. He once said, "Some friends are going out to the dunes. Wanna come?" I didn't think so - the sun and I don't really like each other. "Bring a book or your knitting. I'll set up a sun shade for you. I'll grill dinner for us. You don't need to ride the sand rails. But we'll be together ." How could I turn down that kind of invitation?

In return, I introduced him to musicals, operas, and sedate concerts. He had never been to a musical. As the house lights came up at intermission of 'Fiddler on the Roof,' he said, "No, it can't be over. What happens next?" "Cats", "Phantom of the Opera", a Galway concert. The Nutcracker Ballet blew him away. He didn't know this world existed.

George was a true romantic; a bit rough around the edges perhaps, but he had definite ideas of romance. Every Friday, I mean every Friday, he brought me a small token of his affection. Sometimes a single flower (often filched from a neighbor's garden), a bar of chocolate, a bottle of wine, something. Once he gave me a dress he had seen, thought I'd like it and bought it. It was my size and my favorite color. I never asked how he knew my size.

He didn't know how to launder his clothes or load a dishwasher. I asked if he wanted to learn and he did. We both worked full-time; George decided that he should do the vacuuming. He knew how to do that and did it well. Many times he would load the dishwasher after dinner. He preferred not to learn to cook. He loved to eat too well, he said.

People said we'd never last. We were too different. George graduated high school and went to work immediately as an automotive mechanic. I had a couple degrees and worked as an accountant/office manager. I was seven years older than he. I may have had the formal education but he knew things I didn't–things I would never have learned without him. He taught me that being true to one's self is more important than pleasing everyone. Though pleasing people is not a bad thing. He taught me to enjoy life as it came and never pass up an opportunity to learn something new. George was a well-grounded person yet naive in many ways. He was unassuming, kind, funny, and he loved me dearly.

Mother Nature can be cruel, unkind, and uncaring. A relationship that could have/should have/would have lasted a lifetime was cut short after twelve years. In that time, George taught me to love myself as well as others. He thoroughly enriched my life. George was a special kind of guy. While not my first love, he was my last. I will always remember him.