Written by Mary Schrott
As Rita waited in the check out line at the Camden IGA on a late September afternoon, she gazed over her shoulder to scan the gum and gossip magazines. Just as she went to pick up the fall themed Home and Garden, she heard her name as an elderly couple paraded themselves behind her in line. Pearl and Laban Johnson were familiar faces to Rita however, she had not spoken to either for over 40 years. With Pearl at the stern of the shopping cart and Laban following flushly behind her, they danced through the presupposed hellos and how are yous that come with any reunion. Yet with one quick glance to Rita’s left ring finger, Pearl—the mother of Rita’s first love—began to smile.
“Rita,” Pearl told her, “you know you could have been my daughter-in-law.”
“Yes,” Rita replied in a drawn out breath, “but your daughter, Sandy, told me Carl was seeing another girl.”
Rita flashed Pearl a smile, yet in her mind countless emotions stirred. Carl was Rita’s first kiss, first boyfriend, first love, first everything. She glanced down to her hands wringing around the magazine she held and could feel Pearl’s gaze on them. It was an unsettling interaction and Rita couldn’t muster more of a legitimate response.
The cashier boy began checking out Rita’s items and the space between her and the elderly couple grew. Once she paid she said her farewells to them, noting she hoped to see them soon. Yet as the automatic doors opened for Rita and she proceeded out of the IGA, she couldn’t help but let the impending memories consume her.
Four hours south of their shared hometown of Summerville, Ohio, Rita and Carl sat on a church bench in Jellico, Tennessee. In an empty chapel they watched Carl’s older sister Sandy and her fiancé stand in front of a minister at the altar. Sandy had requested the two join them to Jellico and act as their witnesses. Rita and Carl agreed to the job and the trip; their young teenage love made it almost impossible to spend time apart.
Rita watched Sandy take the hand of her fiancé and repeat the vows of marriage. With all that was happening in front of her, she began to imagine herself and Carl in the same position one day. She reached down to grab Carl’s hand and without resistance he found hers and began to rub his thumb against the back of it. Rita turned to Carl, flashing him an innocent smile and batting her eyelashes.
“You know, that could be us,” seventeen-year-old Carl whispered in Rita’s ear. Rita’s cheeks began to blush.
“Wouldn’t that be something,” she replied in his ear.
“No I’m serious,” he said. “We could go up and ask that minister guy after the service to do it. No one would have to know but you and me.”
It may have been the unbalanced hormones in her seventeen-year-old body or the overpowering sense of love in that chapel, but Rita responded to Carl with a smile.
After the ceremony ended, Rita and Carl approached the altar to sign the witness papers.
“Hell of a service Father,” Carl told the minister and jauntily shoved his hand forward into a shake. Rita followed behind Carl and peered over his shoulder to watch the exchange. “Whats say you rewind and do the same for me and my lady,” he smiled motioning behind himself to Rita.
The minister chuckled with Carl and examined the young boy standing in front of him. Carl was only five foot eight at the time, he hadn’t yet hit his growth spurt and acne framed his face at the temples and jaw line.
“Son, I don’t think you two are old enough yet to be asking for something like that,” the minister chuckled back to them.
Carl turned around to look at Rita. She smiled and dipped behind her long brown hair to hide her embarrassment and disappointment.
After the papers were signed and a celebratory lunch was had, the four began to make the drive back to Ohio. As they pulled up to Rita’s house, twilight began to sink into darkness and Sandy demanded she be the one to walk Rita to the door.
Carl sat in the passenger’s seat and watched the two girls exit the back seat and head towards the split-level house.
“Looks like the two of you are really smitten,” Sandy mentioned to Rita.
“Yeah I think so,” Rita replied shyly to the woman her senior.
“Look Rita, as your friend and a now married woman, I have to tell you something,” Sandy said.
“Carl’s been talkin’ with that Hillsen girl again and I’d seen ‘em going out together last week.”
Rita froze and began to put together what Sandy was telling her. The Hillsen girl was the girl Carl dated before her. Though they only dated for a few months freshman year, Rita couldn’t fend off her jealousy.
As the tears began to well in her eyes, she glanced back to the car at Carl. It was dark now so she couldn’t find his gaze. Swiftly she looked back to Sandy who began to reach out to her, but before she could do so Rita dodged inside. As Rita closed the door she could hear an “Oh, honey” muttered from outside.
Two weeks later Rita sat on her bed, with all the pictures she had of herself and Carl organized on her comforter. She hadn’t seen him since that night and refused to answer his calls. Tears stained her pillowcase and her long silky brown hair caught in the dampness of her eyelashes.
With the dramatics her seventeen-year-old self merited, she hit her head against her wooden headboard. Thump, thump, thud. Remaining against the wood she leaned backward and was soon answered with three knocks coming from her front door. She pulled the curtains to her window back to see who was there. It was Carl.
A mixture of happiness and then sudden pain washed over Rita and she dove under her covers, disturbing the once perfect grid of pictures.
She could hear her sister get off the living room couch to answer the door.
“Is Rita here?” Hearing him say her name sent a shiver down her spine and she pressed harder into the mattress.
“No, sorry Carl.” Her sister responded promptly and closed the door.
Rita waited until she heard him drive away to emerge from beneath her covers. As she did so she continued to grab the sheets and pump them in the air—scattering all of the pictures to the floor.
After several seconds of reflection, Rita dropped to the brown shag carpet to collect her mess. She picked up one of the polaroids that landed near by, it was of the two of them at prom just several weeks ago.
Rita sat on a white metal lattice chair and Carl stood posed behind her, clutching the top. She wore a light pink dress that fit loosely. Its paleness made the curls at the bottom of her long hair distinct as well as the gleam in her dark eyes. Both of them posed with innocent smiles. Carl wore a dark rented tux, ruffled cream shirt and bow tie. His hair covered half his face and its moppy cut resembled that of one of the Beatles.
She touched her index finger to the picture and traced where his face appeared. Then grasping the picture in her right hand she laid her thumb over his face and tore with her left hand. She first tore so that her and Carl were no longer in the same frame. Then she tore each piece again and again until it was unrecognizable. She grabbed at another picture and tore again. And again. And again. Until all the memories she laid out on her bed were confetti.
Rita took a deep breath in and pinched at the tips of her bangs now damp from her tears. She knew it was over and could not take him back, ever.
After their breakup, neither definite on the cause, Carl and Rita lived separate lives.
Johnson joined the Army after graduation and Rita found another man to take care of her. Rita stayed in Ohio, began working service jobs at Miami University, and married a man named Carl Anderson she met at work. Rita and Anderson married in her mother’s living room in 1981 and settled down in a five-acre ranch house in Camden, where Anderson mowed the lawn and Rita cooked the dinners. Rita loved Anderson and helped raise his son. However their marriage struggled once Anderson fell ill with cancer. After several years of battling together, Rita lost her husband in 2011 after 30 years of marriage. She continued to work at Miami and now returned home to mow the lawn and cook the dinners herself.
After serving, Johnson settled down in South Carolina where he married, grew a family, and started a car repair business. Johnson and his wife had several children together and he even adopted a child she had out of wedlock. However in 1985 Johnson divorced from his first wife because he felt cheated by her disloyalty.
In October of 2014, Carl Johnson called Rita Anderson.
After the run-in at the Camden IGA, Pearl Johnson called her son Darren and told him Rita Anderson was single again. Then Darren called his brother, Car to tell him about Rita. Several days after learning this, Carl, sitting in his garage in South Carolina with a beer in hand, called Rita.
When Rita picked up the phone, she didn’t know who it was. She knew another Carl Johnson, a man who lived down the street from her, and assumed it was he. After several seconds of disconnect, Rita realized who she was talking to and forty years of lost time consumed her. The torn up pictures, the prom, the engagement, the kiss, the love, the simple and right life they once lived together—it all returned to her.
“I never stopped loving you,” Johnson told her. “After all this time, I never stopped.”
In awe, Rita told him about the passing of her husband and the now boyfriend she had been seeing for six months.
“You better drop him,” Johnson poked at Rita.
After that phone call Rita knew she had to make a decision on how she wanted to spend the rest of her life. Talking to Carl brought back so many happy memories. The memories of teenage heartbreak seemed obsolete as they faded into a pool of adolescent pettiness. As she reflected, the innocence of young love returned to her and appeared as a bright beacon. After years of suffering with her passed husband, Carl gave her a sense of ease and safety. Once she realized that the opportunity to return to the past was available, Rita made the call.
Just three weeks after their forty-year hiatus, Carl Johnson showed up with a U-Haul in Rita’s driveway. Rita didn’t know how to welcome the man she had missed so dearly, so she prepared a crockpot full of green beans, potatoes, and sausages. After his truck pulled in, Rita went out to greet him and they immediately embraced. Simplicity and rightness washed over the two of them. Despite the separate lives they lived, this moment together connected their love from the past to the present. The teenagers hopelessly in love that once became them returned and all other worries dissolved.
Rita invited Carl inside and the two ate her crockpot dinner that night and talked until morning.
“I never forgot anything about you,” Carl told her. “When I was with you, I was myself. Almost everyday I had to stop myself from coming to find you and telling you, you’re mine.”
Carl brought photos he kept of the two of them to Rita. As she fingered through the yellowing polaroids she realized the last time she had seen these pictures was when her copies were torn to pieces on her bedroom floor.
“You have a mind like an elephant,” Rita giddily breathed to the man that made her blush.
The next night Rita and Carl decided to get married. It was October 18th, Sweetest Day, and Carl took her to a local restaurant where he hired a cover band to be play “I Won’t Give Up,” by Jason Mraz—a song they mutually agreed to be their love ballad.
Though people by the bar were clamoring and servers swooped around them with trays of Pepsi and hamburgers, Carl dropped to his knee as the singer sang their song. Rita, of course, knew this was coming for she proposed to him today was the day she wanted to get engaged. So there, Rita Anderson and Carl Johnson got engaged in a small town in Ohio, just minutes from where they first met.
The teenager within Rita emerged victorious that day. Anxiously she began planning their wedding for the following Valentines Day in 2015. She wants as much romance packed into a day that 40 years can get her. Rita never had a real wedding before. No dress, no church, no party—Rita’s prior marriage had happened in a living room and now she wants a fairy tale to finalize a romance she describes similarly.
In November, just a month after the two had engaged, Rita retired from her job as a Miami University housekeeper. There is only one word to describe Rita Anderson on her last day of work: beaming. In her ruby red top, sparkling with bedazzled décolletage, Rita glided through the halls of the Hamilton residence hall. For 28 years Rita serviced the students and university with her work, never going a day without greeting someone with a cheerful, “Hi Honey.”
Every week the bathrooms have new inspirational quotes tapped to the mirror written by Rita and signed by housekeeping. Each new holiday the hallways are littered with decorations and candy that she sets up and takes down. Every Christmas she writes personalized cards and slips them under the doors of over 200 residence students. At the end of the spring semester she offers cardboard boxes to students moving out that she has been collecting all year for this purpose.
Needless to say the heart within Rita Anderson cannot be hidden. From the men she loved to the students she nurtured, Rita proves how far a heart’s desire can stretch.
At 5 p.m. Rita tied the plastic top of the last trash bag she would take out of a Miami University building. In doing so, she had a small group of students surrounding her—listening to her story. Chuckling with the girls, Rita invited each and every one of them to her upcoming wedding in February.
“Carl was my first love and he said in his dreams he always dreamed that we were together,” Rita told the girls. “And it’s a dream come true now.”
With well wishes and hugs sent around, the group dispersed. Rita lined the trash she had just removed, grabbed the full bag, and headed towards the door. With her brown permed hair bouncing in time with her step, Rita made her way out the building taking with her the bag of trash and her dream.