By Stephen Paden
“I love you,” Harold would always say. The look in his eyes, at least to Stella Ward, would never mirror the words or the intent. All he was looking for, he would admit to himself when he started this nonsense, was reciprocity—to hear a woman utter those words one more time.
“You don’t,” she would always reply.
It was a conversation that had gone on every morning for three years—usually as the two, now retired and widowed, went out for the paper or to run an errand and happened to see each other from across the yard.
Harold’s wife Louise had died of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma six years before while Stella’s husband was killed in a motorcycle accident in the same month. The opportunity to bond over their loss was missed, and Harold, realizing that the rest of his life held little hope and his cat could only comfort him so much, knew it.
There were signs. Stella, about a year after the death of her husband, started bringing over casseroles, cakes, and anything to ignite a spark of interest in Harold or to at least let him know that one burned in her. But he wallowed in misery and self-pity, thanking her politely and never asking her if she would like to come in and share the meal or to sit and just talk.
It was a year ago that Harold woke up. He had gotten up early one morning to take a walk and noticed a man leaving Stella’s house. At first he had had only one thought: scandal. But soon after, his gossipy fervor transformed into a feeling he hadn’t experienced since he was a very young man: jealousy. It was this emotion that forced him into action.
Harold looked out the window, but Stella had not yet emerged from her home to begin her daily routine. He looked at the clock: 8:46. He couldn’t let this opportunity die.
Instead of waiting for her to come out, he decided that today he would knock on her door and ask her to dinner.
Harold stepped out onto his front porch and looked at the street. There was only her car in front of her house.
“Good, stay gone,” he said, hoping that the man he had seen that morning would never return.
He picked a flower from his bush and walked across his yard into hers and then up to her porch. He hesitated, breathing into his palm and sniffing it, and then nodded himself forward.
He stood at the door and pressed the doorbell. His heart began to race, but he didn’t hear any sounds from within the house. He was about to retreat in shame before he heard a woman’s voice mutter something unintelligible, and then the clicking of metal from the doorknob. The door opened and Stella stood there, confused.
“This is for you,” he said, handing her the flower. She took it and looked at it, still confused.
“Harold what’s gotten into you? In twenty five years living next to each other, you’ve never knocked on my door for anything,” she said.
“I know, I know. It’s just—” He brushed his thinning white hair back with his shaky left hand.
He composed himself and said, “I would like you to accompany me for dinner. I’m not much of a cook, but I would love to sit and eat and talk with you.”
A mixture of sympathy and joy crossed Stella’s face. “What took you so long?” she said.
Harold’s heart pounded through his chest. His smile engulfed his face. “Great! I’m not the greatest cook, like I said, but I’m sure I can whip something up.” Mortified at the commitment, he started scanning his memory for dishes that his wife used to cook him, narrowing them down to the simplest possible concoctions.
Not knowing what else to say, he nodded, backed away, and then headed back to his house.
Before he had left her yard, he turned and called to her.
“Yes, Harold?” she said with smile.
“I forgot to tell you—”
“Stop,” she said. He had gone too far. “It’s my turn.” Before he could let the rejection completely set up shop in his heart, he said, “But it’s the truth. All these years, I’ve been trying to tell you.” Stella left her porch and met him in the middle of the yard. She put his hand over his heart, leaned in, and kissed him on his cheek.
“Your turn for what,” he asked.
“To tell you what I’ve been wanting to tell you for three years.”
In the middle of Stella Birch’s yard, as birds flew from tree to tree, snapping up insects in between, Harold listened as Stella whispered sweetly in his ears, “I love you.”