A Different Kind of Love

To someone, I was a goddess. To someone, I was like no other.

Illustration by Maura Condrick

I first noticed him at my friend Joanna's wedding last spring to her third husband—a man we all agreed was finally the right guy—at her farmhouse nestled in the rolling hills outside of Nashville, Tennessee. Speedy was a small, sun-leathered man, scrubbed clean and wearing his best suit with a too-tight collar and frayed sleeves. I towered over him in my heels as I introduced myself. He shook my hand, nearly crushing it as he gazed up at me with an ear-to-ear smile.

"Who was that guy?" I asked Joanna after the ceremony.

"Oh, that's Speedy," she said. "He lives next door."

The next time I looked for him he was gone.

When I got back to Massachusetts, Joanna gave me a call. She said, "Speedy just told me you were the most beautiful woman he's ever seen. I think he's in love with you. He won't stop talking about you."

"But didn't you tell me he's never left the farm? I mean … how many women has he seen?"

"Mmm, not too many."

"And how old is he?"

"Eighty. He still works his farm, though, and does our mowing and upkeep. But he can't read or write."

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I thought, wow, an 80-year-old illiterate man in Nashville is in love with me. Times are tough. I told my husband and he laughed too, but there was a part of me, way off in the quiet distance that was really just … thrilled.

To someone, I was a goddess. To someone, I was like no other.

This past winter I planned a visit with Joanna. Laughing, she said Speedy couldn't wait to see me again. I thought, Wow, I wonder what this will be like. Will he still think I'm beautiful? Will he feel the same way? And, um, why am I even thinking about this stuff, anyway?

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I was nervous about going back to Tennessee, about living a Faulkner novel for an entire week.

My first morning there, I showed up at the breakfast table in my jogging pants and T-shirt, hair uncombed, face unwashed.

"Surprise," Joanna said, grinning as she poured my coffee. Speedy sat erect in a chair opposite me, hat in hand. He said, "I brought you a turtle shell," and gave it to me. I said thanks, and turned it over in my hands. It was a gorgeous black-and-yellow bowl, big enough to eat cereal out of.

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Later, Joanna and I took a walk down wide roads where strange orange fruit rolled underfoot and cows stared at us from brilliant green fields.

"Tell me more about Speedy," I asked. "Does he have a family?"

"He lived with his mother until she died," Joanna told me. "He's very afraid of certain things, like wind and rainstorms."

Every day of my visit, Speedy brought me something; the shedding of snake that made me jump, a great blue heron's nest, and near the end of the week, baskets of fresh berries from his garden.

On the last day, he took me to a barn filled to the rafters with birdhouses he had made. Each one was hand-painted and looked like a child's drawing, done without perspective. Hours of detailed work had gone into every one.

He took down the most elaborate one and handed it to me.

"I can't accept this," I said.

"You took the snake skin, and the turtle shell."

"You've given me enough presents, Speedy."

"No one has enough presents." He added, "This is for the birds, not for you. Your husband won't be mad. Will you come back?

I told him I wasn't sure, thanked him anyway, and handed him back the birdhouse. His shoulders sagged.

"Well," he said, "I have to get back to Miss Joanna's mowing."

And then he walked away.

I felt sick, heartbroken in a way I couldn't put my finger on. Why was I so narrow in my definition of love? If we are all different, aren't there as many kinds of love as there are people on earth? This person loved me in a way that was new to me, and so I was afraid of it, and rejected it.

At home, as I was unpacking, I felt something hard and square in the back corner of my suitcase. Wrapped in tissue paper was the birdhouse, with a little note from Joanna that said, "Sorry, E, he made me do it."

Well, Speedy, there's something you should know. I hung the birdhouse in a tree outside our breakfast table. The next morning twigs and leaves showed from the opening and I counted at least two finches flying in and out of it. I wanted to tell you how the birds fought to be in the birdhouse, how pretty it looked in the trees, but I remembered you don't have a phone and you can't read what I write.

So I'll have to tell you in person. Bring you something of mine from the cold and snowy North. I don't know what it's going to be yet, but I know it'll be something that can tell a story, just by holding it in your hands.

Tags: friendship