On Wednesday, March 31, 2010, Joseph parked his Chevrolet Monte Carlo in the lot for the Tidal Basin. At 7:30 in the morning, most of the parking spaces were open. He steered his car into a space close to the paddle boat docks. This morning was cloudy from rains that passed through the area earlier in the week, but the sun steadily lightened the sky as the minutes passed. While he extracted two folding chairs from the car’s trunk and slung them over his shoulders, bright sunlight filled the sky. He grinned with relief, knowing today’s display would be gorgeous.
As he followed the Tidal Basin walkway toward the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Joseph breathed deeply and inhaled the faint almond scent of the cherry blossoms floating on the air. Spring weather finally graced the nation’s capital and coaxed the Japanese cherry trees into full bloom.
Joseph basked in the balmy weather as he strolled past the Jefferson Memorial and worked to keep thoughts of the past winter from disturbing him. Relentless snowfall a month earlier wreaked havoc in Washington, DC as two nor’easters slammed into the Mid-Atlantic states. Almost every day in February, his stomach churned when weather forecasters repeatedly warned of epic blizzard conditions. He couldn’t sleep as the wind howled around the windows of his West End apartment near DuPont Circle and slipped out of bed every hour to check the street as ice and snow accumulations grew deeper. He brooded over the cherry trees, concerned that the biting cold would damage the delicate blossoms stirring somewhere within their leafless limbs. Mainly he agonized about mediocrity—that the cherry blossoms would fall short of their anticipated splendor—and fretted she wouldn’t come this year to paint them.
She loved springtime in Washington, DC. Every year during the last week of March, she set up her easel on this stretch of the Tidal Basin to capture the showy display of white and pink blossoms on her canvases. Joseph approached her favorite spot, just west of the Jefferson Memorial, where the trees on the north side of the basin presented a magnificent wall of color along the shoreline with the slim form of the Washington Monument behind them.
~ ~ ~
Joseph’s wife, Frannie, confided that she despised the DC winters. She would sit on their sofa by the fireplace in the two-bedroom apartment on New Hampshire Avenue and fantasize about moving to a beach, perhaps in Florida or on the Alabama coast. She would open an art studio and sell her paintings. He’d manage a bar on the beach that served cold beer and strawberry daiquiris to tourists. The babies they’d have would swim in the sea and play in the sand. Maybe they’d come back to DC once in a while, in late March or early April, so she could paint the cherry blossoms.
By January 1982, Frannie was tired of snow and craved the Florida heat, so she booked a flight to Ft. Lauderdale. On her departure day, the snowfall started early. At times, the icy flakes pummeled the city with relentless fury. In the subfreezing temperatures, frozen crystals stubbornly adhered to buildings, streets, cars, and sidewalks, and weighed down power and telephone lines. Joseph later remembered the newscasters calling the snowstorm that month one of the worst blizzards that ever slammed the nation’s capital.
Her plane was taking off that afternoon, so she tacked her itinerary to the refrigerator. A small carry-on bag held her easel, canvases, brushes, and acrylics so she could paint the ocean. She told Joseph she didn’t need a ride to National Airport, she would take the Metro since the subway station was a block away. He kissed her before leaving the apartment that morning—a distracted kiss because he was thinking about rush-hour traffic and the best route to drive. Snow continued to fall throughout the morning and temperatures hovered below freezing. Joseph’s office, along with most others in the city, closed early so employees could return home before road conditions became even more treacherous.
He worried about Frannie as he maneuvered the Monte Carlo toward their apartment building, tightly gripping the steering wheel and holding his breath when the car’s tires slid on the slippery snow. The news anchor on the radio announced that National Airport was closed and Joseph exhaled. His breathing slowed and his fingers relaxed. Frannie wouldn’t be flying to Ft. Lauderdale today. He’d see her at home.
The apartment was empty when he arrived. Frannie must have left for the airport before it shut down. Joseph collapsed on the sofa, weary from the stress of driving in a snowstorm, and closed his eyes. He saw cherry trees in full bloom. The cloudless, azure-blue sky complemented the profuse mixture of pink and white blossoms cascading from slender tree branches. The sun was bright, and the air felt pleasant. Joseph reached out to touch a delicate flower, but his fingers grasped empty air. Suddenly he was falling. He hit the ground and opened his eyes. The legs of the coffee table in front of the sofa came into view. The apartment was dark and he lay on the floor. Frannie wasn’t there.
His chest tightened as he peered out the window to assess the weather. The street lamp illuminated fat snowflakes tumbling from the sky and highlighted footprints imprinted in the glittery, snow-covered sidewalk. His dream about the cherry blossoms must be a sign, he thought. When the weather cleared, he resolved to travel with Frannie to Florida, find an art studio for her, and a beach bar for him. She’d paint, he’d mix cocktails, and they would start a family.
To ease his anxiety, Joseph switched on the television. A special newscast filled the screen. Reporters described crushed vehicles on the 14th Street Bridge while images from a news camera focused on a woman dangling from a helicopter as it lifted her out of the icy waters of the Potomac. The camera shifted to show an airplane’s mangled tail section protruding from clumps of ice floating in the river, with three people still clinging to the wreckage. Stunned by the footage, Joseph barely processed the anchor’s comment that an Air Florida Flight fell from the sky after taking off from National Airport. Of the 79 people aboard, only five survived. When he heard the plane was bound for Ft. Lauderdale, Joseph rebounded from his initial shock and raced to the kitchen. He scanned Frannie’s itinerary, then doubled over in agony and wailed. Her flight wasn’t canceled. She was on that plane. And now her lifeless body was somewhere within the depths of the Potomac River.
Many years had passed since the plane crash, but the date—January 13, 1982—was still etched in his brain like a brand. For months, Joseph blamed Frannie for leaving him and held her responsible. Was January’s weather truly so agonizing that she couldn’t wait until spring to visit Florida? Anger clawed at him, leaving emotional scars so deep that the pain compelled him to scream at her, over and over, to explain why she had to leave that day. Eventually, time healed the rawness and sense of helplessness and loss that tormented him.
~ ~ ~
As he walked along the pathway, Joseph scanned the grass for her easel. He was certain this would be the day she ventured out with her canvases.
“Are you looking for me?” Joseph turned at the woman’s voice behind him.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” he replied, smiling. “This past winter was rough.”
“I’ve dealt with much worse. You know that better than anyone. Besides, as much as I hate the winters here, I love springtime and the cherry blossoms. I look forward to them every year.”
She stepped off the path and set her belongs on the grass. “I’m so glad I took this with me,” she said as she waved her hand toward a carry-on bag. As she set up her easel and canvas, Joseph unfolded the two chairs and placed them in the grass next to her.
“It’s been twenty-eight years now,” he commented as he watched her. “You look the same. The way I remember you from that morning.”
“I suppose I would.”
“I should have stayed home from work that day. Should have kept you home, too.” Joseph sighed and lowered himself into a chair. “But I never imagined something like that would happen.”
Frannie sat down in the chair next to him and stroked his hand. He saw her fingers hovering over his, but all he detected was a tinge of coldness, like icy snowflakes settling on his skin.
“It was so quick that I barely realized anything was wrong,” she said. “For an instant, I knew we were falling. Then everything was black until you saw me here, painting the cherry blossoms. I’ve told you that.” She studied his face. “What’s wrong, Joey? Why is this on your mind now?”
“The nor’easters we had this past winter. They unlocked memories of that awful storm twenty-eight years ago. Seemed like repeats of that terrible day. You understand…”
She nodded. “January thirteenth.”
“The images of the plane submerged in the Potomac… five survivors hanging onto scraps of the fuselage waiting for help… the realization you were…” Joseph inhaled deeply. “Knowing you were in the freezing water, trapped under the ice.” A sob escaped his lips. He experienced an icy twinge trailing across his shoulders, and he knew Frannie was embracing him.
“I worried about the winter weather this year. That it would harm the trees and they wouldn’t bloom,” he continued, wiping his eyes. “That you wouldn’t… couldn’t come back without cherry blossoms.”
“I’ve made it back ever since you saw me standing in this exact spot, twenty-eight years ago, looking over the water at the Washington Monument and capturing the scene on my canvas.” She paused and pulled several paintbrushes out of her zipper case. “I don’t think it has anything to do with the trees, though. It’s you. I come back here for you.”
Frannie retrieved two tubes of paint and a palette from her case. She squeezed out a bead of red and white and mixed them with a brush. Then she stood and faced the easel.
“So, tell me,” she said as she dabbed at the canvas with her brush. “What’s happened in your life over the past year?”
Joseph stood up and stepped closer to Frannie. He told her about the condo he toured in Hillsboro Beach, a small community south of Boca Raton on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, and the beachside bar and café where he applied for a manager’s job.
“It’s time for me to live the life we dreamed about so many years ago,” he whispered. “This past winter was hard for me. I can’t survive another one like it.”
He reached out to caress her shoulder and encountered icy coolness instead of warmth. But he didn’t move his hand from her skin. She turned her head toward him and smiled.
“And what about the cherry blossoms?” she asked, holding his gaze with hers.
“When this spring’s cherry blossoms are spent, I’m moving to Florida.” He reached for her hand and clasped it. Then he leaned in and gently kissed her cheek.
“But I’ll be back next spring, during the last week of March. I would never miss the cherry blossoms… or the chance to watch you paint them.”
Joseph stood for a few minutes, observing as Frannie recreated the scene on her canvas. Then he returned to his chair. As she painted, they talked and laughed as though she never left. Hours later, when the sun dipped down in the western sky and cast long shadows across the Tidal Basin, the air grew still. Joseph turned toward Frannie, but she was gone. Only her completed painting remained, propped against a nearby tree trunk. He carefully picked it up, along with his chairs, and started along the pathway back to his car.