2020 Porch Prize Winner in Creative Nonfiction

I had expected someone less conventional. This medium was blonde and carefully made up. A mother of young children. As our hourlong session drew to a close, she suggested we talk about relationships. I protested. Who really needed the distraction, the dissipation of all that energy? Couldn’t I just focus on the people already in my life? On travel and hiking and cultivating my raised beds?

“I see another relationship,” the medium continued, giving what I considered inadequate acknowledgment to my objections. “You already know this man. I think you might know who it is.” I did not know who it was. I began to question the accuracy of the medium’s other observations.

I had carefully crafted my single life, guarded my independence fiercely. I lived alone on a wooded parcel of land where I’d built a house. The lines were clean and spare and all of the walls were painted white. I found white the hardest color to get right. Window and door trim were painted the same white but with a gloss finish to contrast the flat finish of the walls. When I got the color right, I embraced it.

There was a television set in the house but no cable service. I hadn’t owned a TV for ten years, but then I rented the house out for a week one summer and despite my inquiry to confirm the renters could surely survive a week without a TV, they said they couldn’t. So, I bought a Roku Smart LED model for $229 and as soon as the renters left, I moved it to a seldom-used bedroom. I’d never turned it on.

Most days I recorded my food in an app called Chronometer. I felt a particular satisfaction when I reached my goal of 5000mg of potassium in a day and got the fat-carb-protein balance just right. I was fond of distance hiking and kept a 3” x 5” spiral notebook where I recorded my daily efforts: Sunday June 11th. 74 degrees. Walk 6.14 miles. Nat’s Farm loop. 14’52” pace. Total steps 16,282. Total miles 8.14.

I had a ready supply of Staedtler 2H pencils on my desk and the associated magic rub erasers that allowed me to remove the history of mistakes. In my pursuit of the perfect fast-writing pen I’d settled on the Uni-ball 207, which I bought in quantity. I was drawn to office projects that involved 3-ring binders and 3-hole punches, label makers and hanging file folders. I was awed by the alphabet, by one’s ability to create order from chaos using it. I loved numbers, especially when they fell into algebraic equations.

The previous year, I had studied my end-of-year credit card summary, saw the figure for clothing, and had a hard time conjuring up memories of what I might have spent that sum on. This discovery coincided with an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times by a favorite author, Ann Patchett, who wrote about her year of non-buying. I thought, “If Ann can do it so can I.” And so I imposed a clothing moratorium on myself for one year.

I saw myself as organized and disciplined and was surprised when Amy from my writing group applied the words controlled and methodical to my description of an event. This was not the way I perceived myself. How else would you prepare for a hike? How else would you know how much potassium you’d consumed? Surely I wasn’t the only person with a habit of making equations from license plates on the car in front of me when I was driving.

I’d chosen a writing teacher and taken up studying with her for the past two years. I sometimes thought I spent too much time studying and not enough time writing, but it’s what I was comfortable with for starters. Writing was a new and often terrifying experience. My mind traveled to places I didn’t expect it to go. Old memories. The stirring up of unanswered questions.

My teacher announced a class on Madeline Island, a part of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior in my home state of Wisconsin. My brother and sister-in-law still lived there, and I didn’t see enough of them. I decided to add a few days to the front and back of the workshop and spend time in the place of my birth and childhood.

On the day before I departed my hometown for the retreat, my brother and sister-in-law and I headed out for dinner. The resort my brother chose had a bar and a restaurant and a banquet room for weddings and special events. A sign at the entrance welcomed the high school class of 1968.

The 50-year reunion revelers drifted between the banquet room and the bar, each wearing a black-and-white copy of their high school graduation photo made into a round plastic-covered button. I cast my gaze around the room, no longer expecting to find a familiar face. Wait. That nose. The twinkle of that eye. That smile. Familiar. I ventured another glance as I calculated. Yes, he graduated in ’68.

I’m not a bold person, given more to caution and letting others make the first move. I saw the seat at the bar next to him empty and in one swift and unexpected swoop, I found myself planted in the vacant chair. I looked at him, repeated his name with a question mark at the end. That still familiar smile broke across his face. “Well,” he said, and spoke the version of my name I hadn’t heard in many years.

I looked at his plastic-covered button and remembered. Remembered a time many years ago when we’d tried to make something work between us. Remembered the disappointment of it. He, the cooler slightly older guy. A little wild, a little unpredictable. Me, the quieter more studious one. Now the conversation flowed easily, his ready laugh a comforting sound. “He’s still handsome,” I thought. I felt something stir.

“I’ve thought about you,” he said. “Heard about your life now and then.” The confession came slowly, felt like a cautious offering of connection.

The next morning, I was on the road, but I didn’t seem able to shake the encounter. He started showing up in my writing. The night of the encounter I had leafed through the pages of his class list, somehow managed to commit his email address to memory. For two days I wrote and deleted emails. Then I wrote one suggesting we meet for a drink on Saturday and pressed “send.”

“I’d love to,” he replied. “But I’m working. Don’t suppose you’re available after 8 pm on Sunday?”

“I have an early flight out on Sunday morning,” I replied. “It was an unexpected surprise to run into you and I’ll hope it’s not another 45 years before it happens again.” I’d let myself get carried away with the possibilities and now, suddenly, I felt a need to reign myself back in.

His reply came more quickly this time. He’d changed some plans. Could I meet him at 8:00 on Saturday night?

The drink lasted five hours. We talked about our marriages and about our divorces. About our children and about our careers. About our health, because when you contemplate starting a relationship when you’re both past mid-60, it’s an issue. And then, damn it, he kissed me. And I boarded the plane the next morning with the memory of that too.

We began to use emails and phone calls to bridge the gap of time and miles that separated us. He spoke of things both familiar and forgotten. He named the trees in his yard: aspen, maple, birch. Described the sound of a loon calling from the river, told of the low swoop of an eagle. “A wingspan of six or seven feet,” he said.

I told him about my wild turkeys, the marauding flock that ambled through my yard morning and evening. “Like a bunch of schoolyard children,” I said. “They make me laugh.”

Yet, I wavered. The stirred feelings included more than the names of trees and the sounds of bird call. I knew about beginnings and endings, about leaving and about being left too. I knew about loss and longing and about relationships based on the hope of change. I carried the lessons of age and experience with me this time. I knew about trusting too quickly.

“I just want you to know that I’m resisting this with every fiber of my being,” I told him after a month had passed. He said that was OK. And then he suggested that we meet somewhere.

“Minneapolis or Chicago might work,” he said. “Just look forward to meeting you somewhere.” We settled on Minneapolis, a three-hour flight for me and a four-hour drive for him. I booked an Airbnb. Two nights. Two bedrooms just in case.

My friend Stephanie said I needed a nightgown. Sitting in front of my computer together we tried to find that perfect place between sensible and skanky, finally settling on a pale pink short piece that I thought I could actually wear without feeling totally ridiculous. After we ordered the nightgown Stephanie taught me how to use eyeliner.

In Minneapolis, we strolled down Hennepin Avenue holding hands.  Walked along the lake that was once called Calhoun and is now called Bde Maka Ska. The day was cool and rainy and we shared a single umbrella. He spotted the nest of a wood duck. Described its brilliant green head feathers. Red eyes. Yellow bill. “The most beautiful of all ducks,” he said.

“Tell me about your day,” he said. Five months had passed since the start of what we referred to as “this thing.” I rattled off my list of activities: acupuncture, writing group, a challenging project at work. Meditation and cooking and a quick spin on my Peleton. “Busy,” he said.

He was homebound by the swirl of a polar vortex. Told me about an injured deer, hit by a car and collapsed in his driveway. About covering the deer with layers of blankets in hopes of saving its life. In the failure of his attempt, about his plan to haul the deer across the frozen river to an island inhabited by bald eagles. He’d wait until Saturday when the forecast predicted temperatures above zero.

I’d recently sent him a schedule of my known commitments for the coming year: an upcoming trip to New Mexico for a class, a September trip to Iceland, a November journey to Japan. He suggested that he meet me in Santa Fe after my class. Rent a car and explore. We began to talk about it, this first attempt at traveling together. “Are you more of a planner or a seat-of-the-pants kind of traveler,” I asked.

“Definitely seat-of-the-pants,” he said.

I looked down at the paper in front of me where I’d recorded each day in Uni-ball 207 pen, inserted possible itineraries, times, dates and points of interest. I crumpled it into a ball in my hand. The thought of unplanned travel both thrilled and unsettled me.

I weathered a spring snowstorm to travel to Wisconsin for his birthday. I’d promised to bake him a lemon meringue pie. On a clear, cold afternoon we drove to the Rainbow Flowage to check on spring water levels.

“Eagle,” he said, his voice filled with quiet excitement. “A pair!”

I shifted my gaze skyward, saw the flash of white head and tail feather, watched a pair of eagles fall from the sky toward us. Beside me, he described the mating ritual of the American eagle. Told how a male and female pair fly high, lock talons, and then send themselves cartwheeling toward the ground. As quickly as it began, it ended. The birds released their grip on each other, soared up and up into the impossibly blue sky. Together but apart.

We sat in awed silence. I turned and looked at him hard. Thought about clinging to someone with such fierce determination. About risking the fall and about trusting the air to hold you. About the possibility that a crash to earth wouldn’t happen this time. About a partner releasing you at just the right moment. And in that instant, I dared to admit that it’s what I hoped for our story.


Barbara Mode Courtney enjoyed careers as a registered nurse and a small business owner before she turned her attention to writing. She is a student of author and teacher Natalie Goldberg, from whom she learned writing practice. The mother of three and the grandmother of a one-year old named Nettie, Barbara lives and writes on Martha’s Vineyard.