I was miserable. During the day I played out my role as the witty, creative leader of the new, hot design shop in the metro Atlanta area—meeting clients, making decisions and providing positive leadership for all my employees. During the night I was useless, consuming fast food and using digital stimulation to recharge my batteries so I could fake the next day. Fooling the world was exhausting. Fooling myself was impossible. Ellen told me to call her back when I calmed down but that was proving easier to fantasize about than to actually achieve. More than one chat with her had devolved into a shouting session then tears. I always started the conversations feeling I was in control but it never took more than ten minutes for a shift to occur, requiring only to hear a simple phrase or single annoying word to begin the unraveling. What Ellen couldn’t seem to understand was that I was genuinely confused. I wasn’t just playing the part of an ass, trying to upset her as some sort of warped payback. All of my ass tendencies were sprouting from a real place of perplexity, a twisted knot of logic that made no sense to me on any level. No matter what my beliefs or feelings, we were supposed to be together and none of her reasoning was working to change my mind. We were husband and wife. EarlandEllen. EllenandEarl. In sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part. Unfortunately, my arguments were stated with more volume than sense so she wasn’t hearing my side in a persuasive manner. We were at an impasse and neither one of us was ready to compromise.
After two weeks of living my schizophrenic existence, I got desperate. I knew I couldn’t continue the pretense of having it together, not bothered by my personal life, so I sat in my bed with a notebook and considered my options to help level things off, scribing each one on paper as they came to me. The obvious choice, the one Ellen would accept faster than all others which would right my ship in a hurry, was to renounce my renouncement and embrace the faith again. The problem with that decision was it would be a farce because I would be turning back for insincere reasons. It wouldn’t be because I genuinely felt it was the right thing to do; I would be doing it to get the girl. Plus, Ellen would see through that long before the first box was packed.
I scratched through the words “turn back” and continued creating the list. Unfortunately, every other option I came up with involved consuming products that were bad for me and most assuredly would result in addiction and rehab. Maybe as short term relief but I was too old to risk anything that might cut short my life expectancy. The whole reason I was in Atlanta in the first place was to work and career longevity gets severely affected by dependence on forbidden substances. Besides, I doubted very seriously it would impress Ellen if I became an alcoholic or meth addict.
I woke up the next morning, still sitting upright with the pad of paper in my lap and pen in hand. I read over the list I created, hoping I would find inspiration in the daylight but every option was still as lame and shallow as they’d been the night before. Disappointed, I rolled out of bed and got ready for work.
At 10 a.m. I was on the phone, pacing around my office, setting up a time to present some logo ideas to a new client, when the chime signaling new email rang from my computer. As the phone call wound down I checked to see who contacted me. I was surprised to see it was from Wade. I hadn’t had much contact with Wade or Susan since Christmas, which was another disappointment I pushed aside to deal with later. I wanted to stay in touch with them but, much in the same way I had trouble talking to the kids, I had no idea what to say to them. No doubt their sympathies were with Ellen and fraternizing with “the enemy” was awkward for both of us. The few times I had spoken to Wade the conversation was clumsy and superficial, nothing reminiscent of the breezy chats of yore. It was easier to avoid the situation than wrestle with the post chat confusion and discomfort.
I opened the email and read his few lines of greeting which included the shallow questions of “How are you?’ and “Is there anything you need?” The message ended with him stating he just wanted to check with me and keep the communication lines open. He also said he missed me. Why that last throwaway string of words affected me I’ll never know, but, when I read them, they poked something inside me that unleashed buried needs and desires and I had to sit down. I stared at the computer monitor and achingly realized how alone I was. Wally and Rochelle had become good friends but we hadn’t shared enough experiences yet to consider them best friends. The kind of friends you eat with after spur of the moment phone calls; people who include you without asking permission; friends you don’t have to prepare to meet because there are no pretenses; people who will drop everything to help you regardless of time or money. That was my problem; I needed help. I was trying to swim through this lake of shit all by myself, unclear on direction or distance, making it up as I went along. I needed help but I was 300 miles away from anyone who might be willing to take me on. I needed someone in my area code but I wasn’t comfortable with Wally and Rochelle. The leap from “what’s for dinner?” to “would you mind carrying this sack of despair for me?” was farther than I was willing to jump with them, at least this week.
I leaned over and pulled out my filing cabinet drawer, thumbing through the hanging files until I found the folder containing my personnel information. It was slim since I hadn’t been at Duncan long and I found what I was looking for right away. I jotted down a phone number on a scrap of paper and left the building, heading toward the parking lot and some privacy. Once I got to my car, I took the scrap of paper out of my pocket and punched in the number on my cell phone.
“Good morning. This is Employee Counseling Services and my name is Mary Anne. How may I help you?” The headless voice was just as cheerful as I expected.
“Hello, Mary Anne. I’m an employee with Duncan Assessment Group and I’d like to set up an appointment to speak to a counselor.”
“Very good, sir. Can I have your name?”
“Sure, Earl Benton.”
“Very good… and the nature of what you would like to discuss with a counselor?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is your concern in the area of finances? Vocational stress? I need to know so I can direct you to a counselor specializing in your particular area of concern.”
“Oh, sure. Well… it’s a little complicated…”
“They usually are, sir.” Smart ass.
“Let’s say it’s under marriage problems.”
“Very good, sir.” No it’s not. It’s bad. That’s why I’m calling you. “I can set you up with Dr. Leon Chambliss next Tuesday at 9 a.m. Does that time work for you?”
I didn’t want to pull the phone away to check my calendar so I decided to take the risk and told her it was fine. I hung up and took a minute to assess what I had done. Within four days I would be walking into the office of a complete stranger, sit across from him, look him in the eye and tell him how I was struggling with my marriage. Did I really expect him to help me formulate a plan to fix my marriage? Leaning against my car, surrounded by fresh air and the honks and squeals of the parking lot, the whole plan seemed ridiculous. Hopefully, while surrounded by the soothing pastels of the clinic walls, some things would start making sense.
I made my way back to the office and entered the appointment into my phone. I cleverly labeled it “appointment” just in case anyone saw my schedule for next week. There was no sense in alerting anyone that something was wrong. Just as I was shutting down for the day, Wally walked by and asked how I was doing. I debated whether to inform him that I followed his advice but, since it was his suggestion, I decided to tell him.
“Come in and shut the door.” He entered my office and leaned against the door after he shut out the rest of the work force. “I took your advice.”
He looked surprised but waited to see if there was more.
“I called and made an appointment with the Employee Counseling Services.”
Recognition filled his face and he smiled. “That’s good to hear. When do you meet with them?”
“My first session is on Tuesday. Hopefully the doc can help me get Ellen back.”
Wally’s expression changed from joy to concern. “You know, Earl, they aren’t private investigators. They’re probably going to work on your issues on an emotional level before they dig into anything about Ellen.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’re going to grill me but I can play that game. We’ll get to her by session two.”
Wally stared at me, trying to decide whether to say some more or let me march into the fray unprepared. To his credit, and my relief, he remained silent. As he opened the door to leave he leaned back into my office and whispered, “Good luck. I hope you get something out of it.”
I smiled and nodded my head, thinking, “What I better get out of this is my wife back.”
This is an excerpt of a full length novel entitled “Back Again.” You can read it in it’s entirety by downloading it from here or you can keep coming back to this site and read it in chapter chunks over time. Your call but, either way, I hope you will read it and, most of all, enjoy it. And leave a comment or two. It lets me know you are out there…