Photo of Newport, RI

“The Force of Atoms in an Imperfect World” by Charlene Langfur

Charlie was in love with Emma for as long as she remembered but what she knew about memory was that time provided a big enough canvas for anyone to get lost on, no matter how reasonable they were about it. And time could take her in any direction even sideways and backwards if she allowed it. Time had depth no matter how many organized plans she had. Order held her together when all else failed.

On this weekend, however, Charlie was taking a chance on the passion between them, always palpable and unquestionable, and she was taking a leap of faith unlike her usual way of acting in the world. She based her decision to take such a leap on the connection she knew she had with Emma. She wanted physical love in her life but had always taken to partners like herself, level-headed in most ways, calm in a crisis, people who liked to make plans and make lists. Emma was different, in love with risk, a chance taker, and in some ways an opportunist looking for the brass ring even when it wasn’t there. She was a dancer at heart looking for the right music in the moment.

This was there third time they were together and they had a strong other-worldly connection drawing them back together over and over again or so Charlie thought. “It is never too late to be what you might have been,” her father had always told her, but she did not buy into the saying 100%. She knew at this point she did not get it right the first or second time so that a third time was needed—a third time the charm. And clearly the pull between them was too strong for either of them to resist.

This time she decided to go for it full-on, all-out love or nothing, and she and Emma were closer this time. The feeling stuck with her from one day to the next, and this time the feelings were consistent and powerful. What more could she want?

Charlie’s friend from high school, Sophie Harper, invited her to visit her home in Newport, Rhode Island after Charlie had moved back to New Jersey when her partner left her high and dry and betrayed her with someone else, taking her money with her. She had almost lost her hope and belief in love for another woman when she decided to go back home and start again. Now she was back, and she was ready to try again with Emma. And trying again turned out to be what she was good at. As if starting over could be a forte. She wrote poems about it and made plans in her mind and made lists on pads and recycled pieces of paper. Love again. A new garden. A way forward, a plan for a new life. And she still looked “fine” as her friend Sophie told her, any woman would be lucky to have her. Hearing this she knew why friends were crucial in life. They spurred each other forward.

So, this is how she ended up sitting in the bucket seat of a black, sleek Toyota sports car driving north with Emma for a long holiday weekend. The bond between them tacit. The day clear and sunny. The sandy beach road they were driving on was close to the ocean, and Charlie could hear the sound of the water when she listened carefully.

Emma held Charlie’s hand as she drove north, she held it tightly but also gently in some ways as if she never meant to let her go but knew she could not hold on forever They fit together which was one reason s thought they worked as a couple even when their lives became messy or the world around them problematic.

Emma and her husband were separating or so she told Charlie, and she left him to spend the holiday weekend without him for the first time in years. She was torn as some married people sometimes are in the same situation. She was caught between the past and the future. Charlie was wearing her best blue shirt, the color of the sky on a clear day, and when she reached the bed and breakfast, a few blocks from Narragansett’s beach and Sophie’s house, she was happy to be there. Emma insisted on renting it herself and paying for it instead of staying at Sophie’s house which had ample room for them. She wanted to be alone with Charlie.

After they checked in and changed, they drove to Sophie’s house and Sophie gave them the tour of all the rooms, hoping to get them to change their minds and stay with her. Her husband was away, so she was looking forward to company. She took them to dinner at the local hotspot. All three were happy to be there after hours of sitting in the beach chairs at Sophie’s club and taking a swim, and Charlie found herself laughing like her old self again. Sophie was at ease. Emma was glad to be on the trip after
changing plans over and over again. She thought the trip seemed like a little break from destiny or what she thought of as destiny, a way to live outside the regular narrative of her life expectations. A time
to rise up over daily life.

They ordered another bottle of red Beaujolais and the fresh fish of the day and key lime pie for dessert, the special. They laughed until they couldn’t stop and Emma kissed Charlie on the head, and they laughed again for no reason. A we’re-on-holiday-laugh. Charlie thought good times renewed a life and thought this was a propitious way to begin. Her ex-partner caused her to lose trust in people close to her, but the night out in Narragansett definitely felt like a new start. The well-lighted restaurant and Charlie talking about her recent interview for a job and how it went well. And in the car later Emma’s kiss under the clear black sky full of stars, a long serious kiss that seemed to go on forever in a life that might work again for both of them.

Charlie was happy and she knew it as she sat on the end of the bed. She thought they had to be on the right path this time, heading for a life together. Emma sat next to her, kissed her again and they made love, slept together and got up to have breakfast at the restaurant near the ocean before a day touring a Newport mansion with Sophie. The light rose early and Charlie breathed in the sea air at the window, and it felt freeing as she had so much difficulty after Linda left her. She stared at Emma’s brown curls shining in the sunlight and smiled. Love made people smile. That was the way it was.

Emma dressed for the tour carefully, putting on black pants and a fresh white shirt, but Charlie still wore western colors, an aqua linen shirt and blue short pants.

Sophie explained how the Newport tours worked. ‘They are big business around here,” she said even though the giant mansions had been built only as summer houses and for social purposes. The three women arrived at the front gate of the mansion after eleven but Charlie’s back bothered her, and she knew if she sat down for a while, she’d feel better. It was a dull ache but with a Tylenol and a break, she’d be ready to go again in an hour or two. “Let’s do lunch first which Sophie had proposed earlier,” she said, knowing this was the best option.

“No,” Emma said when she proposed this. “Absolutely not.”

Sophie laughed, thinking Emma was joking. “But it doesn’t matter what order we spend the day and Charlie needs the break.”

“It makes a difference to me,” Emma raised her voiced and stood up taller as if it would make a difference. “And I want Charlie to pay for herself for the tour.”

“But she is looking for work and you are my guests. I invited her.”

Charlie felt like the world had shifted in seconds. Her back hurt, and she leaned against the wall for a few seconds to brace it for a moment. She did not know what was happening. She had always been a gracious host herself in the past, even to Emma, and Sophie had invited her to visit. She was embarrassed and wanted it all to unwind again to the point where they were all happy like they were on the night before, but she knew this was wishful thinking. Her beautiful love, the woman she moved thousands of miles to be with again changed in the blink of an eye.

“I insist she pay for herself,” Emma raised her voice again and Charlie knew Sophie was concerned about the outburst. She didn’t know how to respond.

Sophie held up her car keys and took Charlie by the hand, leading her back to the car and onto an earlier lunch, waving Emma on behind her. “Let’s go, folks,” she said softly, “and I’ll help my friend because I said I would. Let’s head to the restaurant.”

The day was lovely but the mood with the three of them had changed. Charlie felt it change the way a thunderstorm comes up out of nowhere. Sophie drove them to her favorite restaurant in Newport, and they sat at a table quietly. Charlie took a Tylenol and breathed a sigh of relief as she sat back in her chair. She felt her friend Sophie squeeze her shoulder out of friendship. She was ashamed of Emma’s wildness. In order for she and Emma to start a life together, they needed the support of their friends.

“Let’s have a little compassion here,” Sophie said warmly, “Let’s order and get back on track. The food is fabulous. Trust me.”

“Bullshit,” Emma shot back. “Who needs compassion? We are supposed to be having a good time. Good time. You know what I mean.”

They ate in silence as Emma ordered one glass of white wine after another. Charlie, as always, thought Emma looked lovely even then and waited for her to change back to herself again. Charlie had staked everything on their love—now she was out on t limb.

While she ate, she sat up straight in her chair and made sure her back had support as she waited for the pain to abate, trying to get them back to the camaraderie of the night before. She smiled even as Emma looked straight at her, “Hope you are happy you screwed the day up,” she said to her.

As she tried to sit calmly, Charlie felt the tears coming down on her face and tried to brush them away quickly, as the woman she loved, drank more wine and more wine with the homemade bread.

A young waitress brought a large platter of sauteed fish with potatoes and asparagus and placed it on the table. She was wearing a light blue dress and smiling as if she had practiced. “Enjoy,” she said and hurried off.

The food was warm and delicious, and Charlie breathed in the aroma of the garlic and olive oil, and she perked up as Sophie gave a little tap on her hand as if they were still in high school.

“I want it to work,” Charlie had told Sophie on the phone on the day before they drove up to Narragansett.

The rest of the lunch was quiet. Emma drank more wine and Charlie began to feel better physically. She was hoping whatever bothered Emma would pass. She knew she loved her, but did not know how she could live with the sudden chaos, the kind she had just experienced.

Once they arrived back at the mansion, they lined up to buy tickets for the tour of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s summer house from the gilded age, built in 1893, modeled after a palace built during the Italian Renaissance. It overlooked the cliffs of Newport. Like many who visited, Charlie had a hard time understanding the utter ostentation. It was all about money. She knew Emma cared more about having more than enough money than she did. For Emma, like the Vanderbilts, it was a symbol, a class thing.

As they began to walk, Charlie thought maybe what the house represented was part of the problem. She watched as Emma made her way to the front of the line away from them and attached herself to a couple and an old man wearing expensive clothes. Emma had separated herself off from her as if the love between them had disappeared suddenly. Charlie felt the break even on such a lovely day, blue skyed and clear as a bell.

When Emma first met Charlie, Charlie had her own home and steady work and was looking after her parents for a short time. Now Charlie had returned from living out west and now she was housesitting a brick townhouse next to Whole Foods in Ridgewood, and she was looking for work. She was looking to start over.

“Love and money are always connected in my idea of the world,” Sophie said to her as they walked through the huge rooms with high ceilings, a room full of French handmade furniture. Even this summer house was designed to do more than simply meet the occupant’s needs there.

“But the problem is she says she loves you and she sounds genuine. I saw the way she looked at you yesterday. I hope my husband looks at me that way.” Sophie patted her friend on the shoulder again, and she pushed her own hair up, pinning it up with a yellow pin from her pocketbook.

Emma continued to walk way ahead of them as the tour went on, and she appeared fascinated as the tour guide talked about the architectural flourishes, how the ostentation had social meaning. The social meaning was as important as the money itself. How people perceived the Vanderbilts and the money went hand in hand. Charlie waited for her to rejoin them. She was unwilling to risk a confrontation in case of Emma’s possible reaction if she spoke with her. She drank a glass of water offered at a rest stop on the tour and breathed deeply. “Thanks,” she said to Sophie, “for understanding what is happening even if it is hard to grasp. I don’t know what to do.”

“But I don’t get it,” Sophie answered fast. “It is troubling, and I know you want to help her and figure out how to love her, and love is always tricky in a way, but I wish you had come alone.”

Charlie and Sophie watched Emma as they finished their water as Emma spoke with the group around her as if she knew them, as if she had come on the tour with them, maybe so as not to appear alone or maybe something else. Charlie did not know why. She had spent much time alone on and off in her life and when problems arose, she often took time alone in order to think and rejuvenate.

Love is a force is what Charlie believed at that point, a force pulling her back to Emma over and over again like a force that holds the solar system made up of atoms together. The way Emma quietly pulled herself away from her on the tour was as if she wanted to appear to be the opposite of Charlie whether she actually was or not. Anti-matter in a way. Their love meant they shared some particles and waves somehow but it was not working then. It should work because of their passion and in practice, but in this instance, it did not.

At the end of the tour, Charlie and Sophie made their way across the enormous lawn to the parking spaces. They had become quiet with each other, trying to talk about gardening at Sophie’s house and a plan to stop for coffee in Narragansett. Emma followed them but once in the back seat, she was angry again and criticizing what had happened during the day, the change in time plans, the lunch, minutiae, as if they hadn’t been all over it already. This was Charlie’s holiday, the first in many years, and it was Sophie’s girl’s day out but this could not be salvaged. Nothing seemed to stop the unraveling emotions from Emma. Charlie and Sophie were uneasy.

“I’ll probably see you later tonight,” Sophie said to Charlie as they hugged outside her home but both of them knew all plans had become iffy. “Call me,” she said and she wanted to tell her to be careful as she fiddled with her house keys. She wanted to say something but she did not know what to say. They were both at a loss.

Emma and Charlie got into Emma’s black sports car to go back to the B & B as the rain began to fall in buckets, torrential rain and sheets of water fell on the car as Emma pulled into the parking lot at the B&B, but she did not turn off the motor.

“I want you out of the room in an hour,” Emma said fiercely.

Charlie’s mind raced. She wanted to talk about their love for each other which was why they were there in the first place. She wanted to say she had nowhere to go at that time. It was dark and raining, and she had only gone to the B & B in the first place because Emma insisted on it. “I will always love you,” she said days earlier. “We were meant to be.” She wanted to stop Emma in that moment and remind her how she had convinced her to be with her on that night. But nothing else was said.

Charlie got out of the car and ran to the B & B but by the time she was on the porch, she was soaked and she turned around to see Emma pull away, driving fast. She was wet and cold and when she found the pay phone in the lobby, it was locked up for the night. She tried to call Sophie on the phone but there was no signal for her cell phone. The same was true when she tried to phone her friend in New Jersey. She thought of renting a car but as it was, she was stranded all right and did not know what to do.

She went up to the room where she and Emma had been so happy and she organized what she brought with her in two small bags. She had a box of crackers and bottled water in a sack and took them out for dinner after a bath and a change of clothes. She put on her pajamas and plunked herself into bed with her Sara Paretsky mystery. Emma had been gone for two hours and there was no telling when or if she was coming back. Charlie was reading about how the Chicago detective Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski was investigating herself out of another mess. She was trying to focus and divert herself at the same time. She covered her eyes, knowing this was the last chance for her here with Emma. This was their chance to start over. She ate the crackers and kept reading, trying to be resourceful.

But she had no where to go. And she could reach no one by phone.

She was almost asleep when Emma came in the room, smiling and putting her arms around her.

“What’s going on?” she said. “Why aren’t you dressed and ready for dinner?”

Charlie was taken aback. They had planned on dinner out but Emma asked her to leave.

“Get dressed,” Emma told her. “The car is running. I’ll meet you downstairs,” she said as if nothing had happened.

Charlie sat up, trying to figure out what was going on. First, the woman was yelling at her to leave the room and now Emma was acting like a woman who loved her again. She decided to dress quickly, avoid any kind of discussion about what happened at least until morning. She had taken care of herself for years, avoided trouble when needed and now her deeper self was on the line because of her love for this beautiful woman.

Charlie put on her gold earrings, a silk black blouse and pinned her hair up, and she went down to the car where Emma was listening to music. The rain had abated and Emma drove them to the restaurant next to the beach club. She did not know what to say when the manager told Emma the restaurant was closing soon, and Emma insisted they be seated anyway. Charlie noticed the front fender of the car was dented which she saw when she looked out the window from where they were sitting in the restaurant. She saw how Emma’s curls were askew, soaked from the rain as if maybe she had stood out in it for a longer than made sense.

She managed to eat a light meal even as Emma argued with a man at the next table for talking too loud, but when they got back to the B&B they slept together. They both wanted each other. Always did.

“I have always wanted you,” Emma said when they were in bed, “even when we were not together.” The rain had stopped completely by then on the full moonlit night and the moonlight shone over them through the window in their B& B room at the end of the long holiday weekend.

Charlie saw the bi-polar medication on top of Emma’s cosmetic case in the morning. It was sealed and none of the pills taken. She held up the bottle in the light to read the small print and then she put the bottle back where she had found it.

In spite of all the friendship and love they shared over the years, Emma had never told her. How could she not tell her? How could Charlie not have known?

Emma held her hand as she drove all the way back to New Jersey through a new bout of rain the next morning. Charlie thought she was beautiful, wet curls and all and she could feel the connection between them, but it was not as innocent now, it was unchartered, beyond any of her expectations about starting over, and she knew soon she’d be back with her friends in New Jersey. “I love you,” Emma said, “I’m going to take you for soup at the Chinese Restaurant we love when we get home. You’ll see,” she said. “We are going to be great together. Like being over the moon. We will have it all, my love. Every bit.”


Charlene Langfur is an organic gardener, a green and LGBTQ writer, and a Syracuse University Graduate Writing Fellowship holder. Her poems, essays, and stories have appeared in ROOM, WEBER, ADIRONDACK REVIEW, POETRY EAST, and other journals.