The Fourth of July
July the fourth was a magical day – the festivities, the fireworks, the surroundings.
Charles Bingley was on a road trip with his closest and most trusted friend William Darcy, seeing scenery they'd never seen, visiting locations they'd only read about, and being the tourists they'd never been. They'd never driven halfway across the country, they'd always flown. They'd never eaten mashed potatoes and meatloaf in the oldest diner in a small town seemingly in the middle of nowhere. They'd never hiked three miles in the desert under the sun simply to see a sandstone arch. They'd never floated down dirt brown rivers in tubes, just to cool off, or refueled in gas stations that sold trinkets for tourists and doubled as slot-machine havens. By four days into the adventure Charles was feeling positively plebeian, and surprisingly William seemed to be enjoying himself as well. So when they passed mid-morning through a little town that was abuzz with merriment and Charles cried, "Let's stop, Will!" his companion did.
They walked along the main street where people sat in lawn chairs, congregated in shade wherever possible; they peered into the windows of old buildings, closed for the holiday; they walked through the "Dance Hall" where there were vendors and crafts and booths. A parade began and they were both amused to see it consisted mainly of farmers in their tractors pulling hay trailers filled with children, or fire trucks spraying the overheated observers. The trio of royalty, Miss Greendale and her two attendants, were seated on the back of a convertible in their formal red, white, and blue gowns, waving.
"Thank heavens we didn't grow up here, eh Charles?"
"Are you kidding? I think this is charming! Have you ever seen a thousand people gathered in one place, so thoroughly amused by tractors? They must see them every day, and yet here they are in the blazing sun watching their neighbors drive past."
"Yes, in their newest overalls," William replied, smirking. "Anyway, I'm not sorry we stopped. I've never seen anything like this."
"Neither have I."
"How about we go to the convenience store down there," he pointed in the direction they were heading anyway, "and gas up and buy some ice cream bars or something. We'll see if we can be 400 miles further on by the time the fireworks start this evening."
The float carried a band, teenagers playing a knock-off of a country tune Charles had never heard. The little speakers on the four corners of the trailer crackled with protest at being cranked up to their full volume, and still it was difficult to hear the song over the dull roar of the crowd. A long banner on the side of the float – made from the sort of paper used on bulletin boards in elementary schools – announced: "Dance tonight • Karaoke • B-B-Q Dinner • City Park • 7:00."
"I think we should stay here, Will. When will we ever get a chance to see a place like this again?"
William was easily swayed. The two gentlemen asked a few local residents seated around them what there was to see nearby, and they spent the day in small town America.
At lunchtime they sampled the cuisine in the little burger and pizza joint. William laughed as he ordered onion rings to go with the pizza. "I've never been to a place that served both," he shrugged while he paid the cashier. They walked across the street after they'd eaten their meal, to the only motel in town. Naturally every room was booked up and had been for a month, the lady behind the counter informed them.
As if fate had heard her speak, someone walked into the office that moment. "I'm checking out a day early," he said.
Charles and William both looked at the motel's proprietress earnestly.
"I'd have to call the cleanin' lady, to see if she was available and if she could get over here..."
"I haven't even set foot in my room since she cleaned it this morning, except to carry my bags out to my car," he said while he settled his bill. "It looks ready for the next group to me."
So they each had a shower before finding the way to the park. Each bought a plate of shredded beef swimming in barbecue sauce with a hard roll and a small bag of chips. Each selected a dessert from a table that proclaimed "Proceeds go to restocking Library," neither one knowing or caring why the library needed restocking. And both looked on in amusement as the karaoke started and a steady stream of country bumpkins crowed and gasped their way through the songs.
Two women climbed up on the stage – one with medium brown hair wearing denim capris, a white t-shirt, and red flip-flops, and one with dark blonde hair, tan capris, a navy blue shirt, and navy sandals. "Finally, something worth looking at!" Charles said.
"It would be too much to hope they could sing, too," William replied, his gaze never leaving the stage.
They could sing. They harmonized on Lee Greenwood's "Proud to Be an American" and brought the entire pavilion of observers to their feet with applause and cheering. They hopped down from the stage when their three minutes were up, and were swallowed into the crowd.
On the other side of the park, with the shouting children and playground equipment as buffer, people were dancing on the grass. Another sound system had been set up under a tree, and a man sat behind a table with a laptop computer, playing the part of DJ. "I'm surprised they've even heard of laptops and MP3s here," William snickered.
"I agree, I expected a red wagon filled with CDs," Charles replied with amusement.
"Believe it or not, we even have high-speed internet," the DJ replied.
William rolled his eyes, bit his lip, and looked away, embarrassed to have been overheard. Charles smiled uncomfortably and said, "Sorry, we meant no disrespect..."
"Don't even worry," the DJ replied. "We count on city folk like you to come down here on the 4th and spend lots of money. It keeps us going all year long." He said it with a joking smile, and immediately all three were at ease. "I'm Luke Gardiner," he said, extending a hand. As they walked forward to introduce themselves, Charles and William noticed for the first time he was in a wheelchair.
"So how are you enjoying our Greendale Fourth of July celebration?" Luke asked amiably.
"I've never seen anything like it," William replied.
"I think it's charming!" Charles enthused, repeating his words from earlier in the day. "You are all so friendly, I can't remember the last time I felt so comfortable in a new place."
"I'm glad to hear it. We love our July 4th celebration around here, and it just wouldn't be right if we somehow made others feel unwelcome."
William silently observed the people dancing, while Charles continued the conversation. "No, we definitely feel welcome. By chance this afternoon we were able to get a room over at the motel..."
Luke whistled. "That was some good luck."
"Yes, it was! And we ate our dinner while watching karaoke over there. There were even two girls, very nice voices, uncommonly pretty..." His voice trailed off.
"Jane and Lizzy," Luke said with certainty. "Bennet."
"Oh? Are they locals?" Charles asked.
"They live around the block from my house, and I'm their uncle," Luke said. "I think the world of them." He looked at his computer screen, started the next song, and then stared into the crowd. "Lizzy! Jane!" he yelled, gesturing with his arm for them to join him.
The two karaoke girls emerged from the dancing throng and approached their uncle, each leaning down to kiss a cheek.
"Girls, this is Charles and William, who are just passing through for the day. Charles, William, this," Luke said, gesturing to the blonde, "is Jane Bennet, and this," he said while tugging the brunette's sleeve, "is Elizabeth Bennet. They saw you singing earlier, girls, and were impressed enough to mention it, even without knowing I was your uncle."
Charles wasted no time in asking Jane to dance. It didn't surprise William – Charles had a genuine and deep admiration for pretty women, the lighter the hair the better. William was out of his comfort zone; he didn't want to dance, he didn't want to make small talk with a woman he didn't know, but he was up against a wall. "Would you care to dance, Elizabeth?" he asked a little unwillingly.
She tilted her head to the side, put her hands on her hips, and – mimicking his reluctance – said, "I suppose."
Charles saw that his friend had asked the sister, and that they were joining them on the grass. Beyond that, he only noticed Jane. She had a beautiful smile and he loved to watch her dance; she was neither wild nor seductive, she only had a very nice body and knew how to move it. He was having a wonderful time.
The next song was a slow song, and before she could walk away Charles asked, "Jane, will you dance with me one more time?" They stood together under the starlit night sky, his hand lightly on her back, her hand almost weightless in his. She asked him questions about his trip and about where he came from; he inquired about her family and her job. They talked, they laughed.
Either Luke Gardiner was very perceptive, or fate was kind to Charles Bingley for the second time in one day. Another slow song followed, and neither Jane nor Charles was inclined to change partners. They spoke of seventh grade science classes and university economics courses before Jane said, "It's amazing how our opinions can be so similar, even when we're so different."
"How are we different, Jane?"
"Well I've never lived in the city, for one thing. I went to college in a town bigger than this, but I still drove home every weekend and I lived with girls I've always known from around here."
"I went to a small university and lived on campus all four years, with the same two roommates," Charles said, smiling into Jane's eyes. "My house is in a little town near the ocean. I get away from the city whenever I can."
"I've been to the ocean three times. I loved to watch the sun set over the water." Jane's face glowed softly in the lights spilling from the playground.
Charles slowly caressed her cheek with his thumb. "But the sunset here this evening as it went down behind those mountains..." He tipped his head toward the west. "...was pretty spectacular. I can see why you've never left here, this place is beautiful."
"I've always been happy here," she said, with a hint of wistfulness in her voice.
"I'm very happy here right now," he replied.
By the end of their third song together both were unintentionally under the other's spell, and neither danced with any other person the rest of the night.
Under any other circumstances Charles would have slowly proceeded. He would have asked for her number, for permission to visit her or to meet her in a public place. He would have endeavored, over time, to win her trust and then her affection. He would have worked to turn this chance meeting into something more permanent.
But the one thing Charles lacked was time. He felt impulsive, like he just might be able to rush through half a courtship in one magical evening. He felt an urgent desire to make a good impression. He felt the necessity to bring this...this relationship, or whatever it was, quickly to a higher level.
So as he gently held Jane's hand, he told her about his life. He told her about the rocky coastline near his home, about his elder sister's husband and his younger sister's choice of university. He asked Jane about her sisters, he enthusiastically met her parents and cousins, and he hinted that he'd like to spend more time with her in Greendale, and to have an opportunity to show her his home. There, under the stars, each communicated freely and opened their hearts to the tide of feeling that was rising between them.
The fireworks started, and Charles shyly slipped his arm around Jane's shoulders. His feelings were anything but tentative, but well he understood they had only known one another two short hours. Families packed their cars and herded away their sleepy children when the display ended, and still Charles and Jane sat together, talking and laughing. Of necessity William and Elizabeth stood watch a discreet distance away, debating and disagreeing far more often in the course of their conversation than seeing eye to eye.
After 11:00 Jane said, "I think I need to be going, Charles. Elizabeth is here, waiting for me, and..."
"You can't go, Jane, until we decide when we'll meet next."
"How can we ever meet again? You've never passed through here before, and I rarely leave. If we lived in the same place this might..."
Charles very much wanted to hear what she'd say next, and smiled to encourage her. Her pause was long. She hoped he'd talk again, and save her from having to finish what she'd almost confessed, but he kept his lips tightly closed.
"If we were in the same place, I'd love to see you again. But with so many miles between us, and so little behind us..." This time Jane looked up into the sky, and refused to say any more.
"Jane, please believe me when I say I don't want this to end with the night."
"Neither do I," she replied very quietly.
"I want to see you again, and I want to see what comes of this."
Still staring into the sky, Jane smiled.
And Charles's courage rose. "I have another week or so before I'm done with this vacation, and I couldn't let William down. But after that, I'm perfectly willing to come back here and stay until you get sick of seeing me around."
Jane laughed and shook her head.
"And then I'll take you back home with me..."
She looked at him, her eyebrows high and incredulous amusement on her face.
"...and your sisters and your parents, too, until you know my house like the back of your hand and have watched all my favorite DVDs at least once."
Jane's cheerful reaction encouraged him.
"So I'll give you my phone number, and you'll give me yours, and I'll call you as soon and as often as I can."
Jane closed her eyes and took a deep breath, feeling the cool night air on her face. "No...no. No. Who knows what we'll each think tomorrow when we wake up, Charles? Who knows what we'll think next week when we've spoken to our friends and families and gotten on with our lives? No, let's not exchange numbers."
"But...but how will I call you?"
With a look of calm determination, Jane turned her face toward his. "You won't. "
"I won't?" Charles asked, his voice cracking.
"No. We'll...we'll plan to meet somewhere, somewhere totally neutral, one month from today. And if, after a month, we feel the same way we do tonight..."
The look in Jane's eyes gave Charles hope, and his blood raced through his veins.
"If nothing has changed, we'll move on from there."
Charles swallowed down the urge to kiss her, to propose to her on such short acquaintance and to yell to William to finish the trip without him. "Where will we meet?"
"Have you ever been to Louisiana?" Jane asked.
"No," Charles said doubtfully.
"Name a city in North Dakota," Jane said.
"That's North Carolina, Charles!" She laughed. "This isn't going well."
"What are we doing?"
"We're choosing a neutral place neither of us has ever been to, where we can meet in one month."
"Lincoln, Nebraska," Charles offered.
"Never been there," Jane replied. "Where shall we meet?"
"I might drive."
"Good. Restaurant is good. A chain restaurant, one they have in every city."
"I don't like seafood," Jane answered, her nose wrinkled.
"Mmm, Italian. Great. What if there is more than one Olive Garden in Lincoln, Nebraska? How will we know which one?"
"The one listed first in the phone book."
"Okay. Thursday, the fourth of August, at the first Olive Garden listed in the phone book in Lincoln Nebraska," Jane said, reciting all the details to commit them to memory.
"Five o' clock in the afternoon, Nebraska time."
"Five o' clock."
Charles dared to pull her tresses over her shoulder, trace the curve of her neck, and take her into his arms. He kissed her forehead and spoke into her hair, "I promise I'll be there, Jane Bennet. Please, please don't be late."
She looked up into his eyes. "I won't."
The next morning as they drove Charles related every detail to William, who was absolutely incredulous. "You pledged to meet this woman you just met in a city you've never visited in a month? Charles, what were you thinking?"
"Jane worried that our friends and family would try to talk us out of it."
"Did you tell her where you work? Does she know about your money? Of course she'll be willing to see you again, Charles." William rolled his eyes. "I mean, what predatory woman wouldn't set her sights on gullible, romantic you?"
"Jane is not predatory, Will. She wouldn't even accept my phone number as a token of my sincerity. She said, 'You know where I live, if you need to find me. All you have to do is come back to Greendale.' She gave me every out she could possibly give."
"It's impossible, Charles! There is no way you can find the right woman in one night; there is no way that your soul mate was buried in the middle of a small town beside a highway in a place you never had any intention to visit! Everything about this just boggles the mind!"
Charles swallowed hard, not wanting to hear anything else about why it wouldn't work with Jane; his first thought upon waking had been that he had made a dreadful mistake by not getting her number – by not following her to her house and asking her father's permission to court her giving them all his contact information. His second thought had been that there was no way on earth anyone could keep him from Lincoln, Nebraska on August 4th. So he nudged the conversation down a different avenue. "What did you think of Jane's sister?"
"Geez, she's infuriating. I don't know if I've ever met anyone more opinionated." He was silent for a few seconds, and he sighed. "But she's pretty. And I liked listening to her voice."
"But you don't want to believe you can meet someone attractive in some little town you visited by mistake?"
"I don't believe you can meet the one," William said emphatically.
"Who said anything about the one?"
"You'd fly to a Lincoln, Nebraska for a casual first date with someone you don't think is the one?"
"Second date, Will. I think last night counted as the first."
"Pfhew." William exhaled gustily in protest.
"And yes, I'd go anywhere. For Jane."
Over the course of the next month every person in Charles's life seemed intent on convincing him that the Lincoln scheme was imprudent, ill judged, stupid, folly, reckless, and many other related adjectives. But he held his ground, his anticipation growing as he thought of seeing Jane again.
He sat with William on the evening of August 3rd, watching the sun set over the ocean. At first they had discussed every topic with the exception of Jane, never alluding to Charles's departure the following morning for Nebraska; but eventually William worked his way around to the subject. "You know, Charles, I think you're setting yourself up for a terrible disappointment," he said quietly.
"Still gnawing on that bone, Will?" Charles asked, with very little patience.
"Just...just listen. Just for five minutes. Then I'll never say anything again." William looked at Charles without blinking. "Okay?"
"Okay," Charles said, his unwillingness to hear anything evident in his voice.
"I just don't think she's going to be there, Charles," William said; it was plain to see from the expression on his face that he was uneasy, and he rose and began pacing on the deck. "It is just so strange, you know? Why on earth would she refuse your phone number? Why would she refuse any sort of contact with you, if she intended to go? Why not give you a phone number or an e-mail address, so you guys could talk and get to know one another better?" William's back was turned to Charles as he shrugged. "It just doesn't make sense."
No, it didn't make sense, not even to Charles. Wrapped in the magic of the night with the great bowl of stars overhead and the emotion sparking between them it sounded like a sensible enough plan; but since that night Charles had questioned a hundred different times why he had consented to such an usual proposal.
"Do you really think she'll be there, Charles?"
"A month ago when I looked in her eyes, yes, I believed it with all my heart."
William turned to face his friend. "And now?"
Charles looked across the ocean at the vivid sky. "Now I'd give almost anything for permission to call her, just to hear her voice and to know if anything has happened, to know if she is going to be there."
"Why would she?" William asked, his voice quiet and deadly serious. "Why would she spend money to go so far from home, to a city where she has no friends or family, to meet a man she doesn't know and can't trust?"
"She can trust me!" Charles cried. "I hope her heart knows I'm trustworthy!"
"Can you trust her? Have you known her long enough to know she always keeps her word?"
"Why, William?" Charles sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Why raise all these questions? Just let me go tomorrow and see. I'll figure out what is next after I find out what happens tomorrow."
"I just think that you're going a long way to have your hopes dashed, and..." William turned again to look out over the ocean. "...and your heart broken." He sat heavily again in the chair beside Charles. "It is almost easier, sometimes, to live with the dream of what could have been, than to face the reality of what never will be."
They sat silently for many long minutes, each of them with their minds hundreds of miles away. William believed, as he always had, that Jane was likely interested only in Charles's money. He knew how quickly his friend became emotionally attached, and he believed he was protecting Charles from certain heartbreak. Though he didn't want to dwell on it, he also realized he had given Charles all the same speeches he gave himself when his thoughts stayed too long on Elizabeth.
Charles reluctantly admitted to himself that William made perfect sense, that his reasoning was flawless and that this impulsive plan to fly out to Lincoln, Nebraska was a whim and would most likely lead to disappointment. He knew from years of experience that he was ready to throw himself wholeheartedly into a relationship very quickly, and that he sometimes frightened women off with his fervor. He also knew that those women rarely returned his feelings with equal enthusiasm. By the time William's taillights were fading into the distance, Charles was seriously contemplating canceling his flight. The dream of what could have been, rather than the reality... he mused as he readied himself to retire.
As Charles lay in bed that night, he decided to cancel his flight.
But every day afterward he did live with the dream of what could have been; he imagined he had met Jane in that Olive Garden in Lincoln, Nebraska, and that there were even more sparks between them. He imagined a few frenzied months of dating, a heartfelt proposal, a beautiful wedding...he wondered what their children would have looked like. With each passing day he became more convinced that Jane hadn't been there to meet him, that even if he'd gone she wouldn't have been in that restaurant, in that city so far from her home. Why would she? What had he done, in their brief hours together, to make her want to travel so far just for him?
He returned to Greendale for another Fourth of July, years later, to the same city park where there was a barbecue dinner and karaoke. Years of distance hadn't banished Jane from his thoughts. He wanted to know what had happened in her life. He wondered if they could start again, differently – if they could go slower and regain lost ground.
He watched the dancers on the grass, and he saw her there – Jane, as beautiful as he remembered, as graceful and wonderful to watch. She saw him, too, and when the song ended she left her partner and walked to him. "Hello, Charles."
"Hello, Jane," he said. "You told me if I ever wanted to find you, I only needed to return to Greendale."
Her smile was tight, but her face was still lovely. "And here I am."
"How have you been, Jane?"
She shrugged. "I suppose I've been fine. How about you?"
"I don't think my life story has changed at all since the last time I told it to you."
"Are you just passing through again?"
"No," Charles replied, not in any mood to mince words, "I came to see you. I flew in this morning, and rented a car."
Jane looked away, scanning the people scattered around the grass. "Oh."
"So...I've still never been to Lincoln, Nebraska," he said, searching desperately for a topic.
"It's a lovely place," Jane said. "You should visit sometime."
"Yes," she said hesitantly, "I spent a day there in August a few years back."
Charles's heart slid down into his stomach. "You were there that day?"
"Nothing could have kept me away," she replied without looking in his eyes.
"Oh, Jane!" Charles pulled her into his embrace. "I'm so sorry! I wanted to go! I wanted to be there!" He hugged her tightly, and it took him several seconds to realize she didn't reciprocate. With as much dignity and gentleness as he could muster, he released her. "I wanted to be there."
She turned away from him, and began slowly walking. "It is in the past, Charles, and I can't see any point in discussing in now."
"What if we can make it right? What if we can fix it?"
She simply said, "We can't."
Charles stopped abruptly where he was. "What do you mean? Why not?" But he realized that he had lost her trust, and that, if she were to give him another chance, he'd have to earn it, and it might be a long time in coming. With his head full of gaining her forgiveness he almost missed the next thing she said.
"I'm married, Charles. I have a two-year-old son, and I'm expecting my second baby. I have a family. I made promises." Jane continued to stroll slowly along the grass, and only then did Charles see the man, holding a toddler, who was watching them intently. Only then did he realize how completely he'd lost her.
They exchanged a few more words. There really wasn't much to say. Their time together had been brief, and there was nothing left for them now – no friendship to maintain, no relationship to revive. Whatever they had beneath the stars had evaporated with that August day in Lincoln, Nebraska, with Charles's choice to follow his friend's reasoning rather than his heart.
But still he stayed, listening to the music, waiting for the fireworks. Curious about Jane. He watched her dance with her husband and son. He saw her smile and heard her laugh. He saw the intimacy between them, that Jane's husband's hand was firm on her back, pulling her closer to him – that his kiss spoke of all that tied them together.
Charles was adrift and alone, tied to no one.
If you're curious, here is the other ending.
Contents of this page © Alyson 2004
Thank you to Sofie, Alicia, Jen, Jean Louise, and Tamanna for your input, advice, and honest opinions about this story.
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