“So what happens now?” I was on my cell phone, talking to Wally, and his question was as answerable as not. Did he want the rambling, esoteric response or was he looking for a straightforward, practical thought? I kept it simple since I was driving home from the airport and traffic was unusually heavy for a Sunday afternoon. That combination made rambling slightly dangerous.
“I guess we continue to talk on the phone and see each other on weekends as much as possible. What kills me is things were going so well and then—bang!—the whole thing goes down the toilet. I’m having trouble believing it at this point.”
“Do you want to come out to the house for dinner? I can grill something and we can just chill for a while…”
“I appreciate it, but I think I’d rather go back to the condo. I would be terrible company and I’m not that hungry. Thanks, anyway.”
“If you change your mind, let me know. The offer stands.”
I rolled into my parking space at the condominium complex and put the car in park. I sat there, unable to make myself get out and go inside. I was out of reasons to ignore what had transpired. Driving, talking on the phone, listening to the radio and counting smashed bugs on the windshield were no longer valid as I sat in the drivers seat, paralyzed, unable to move but fully aware of every nerve ending in my body. It wasn’t so much pain I was feeling, more like an acute sensitivity to everything. Pain was part of it, obviously, but there was also frustration, anger and waves of humiliation all rolling through my body in irregular currents, like being hooked up to a massage chair from hell. If I had seen it coming I may have been better prepared to deal with the impact but everything had been going so well, so smoothly, that the sudden 180 ripped me sideways and threw everything off balance. I wasn’t sure what to do. I needed a plan, a short- and long-term goal to rectify the damage done, but I had no idea where to begin. My thought processes were trudging through thick oatmeal, unable to make any headway towards a logical idea. It was useless to waste any more brain cells trying to figure it out, especially within a few short hours of the establishment of the new game. I was mentally and emotionally fried and sitting in a parked car was going to get me nowhere.
I found the energy to open the car door and drag my legs out from under the steering wheel, dropping my feet on the asphalt, pleased with my progress. Within a few minutes I was standing in front of my condo door, key in hand, ready to move inside when I stopped. I suddenly realized I wasn’t ready to go “home.” There were going to be remnants of the weekend scattered around the rooms and Ellen’s scent, the unique aroma all women leave behind, a glorious combination of their perfume, shampoo, sweat and toothpaste, would still be lingering in the condominium air. I knew that would be an intense emotional trigger I was not ready to fight off. I turned, got back in the car quicker than I exited and headed north to Wally and Rochelle’s, conceding to my need for company. Or at least to my need to not be alone.
When Wally answered the door, he didn’t look surprised to see me even though I hadn’t called and warned him I was on my way. He welcomed me and Rochelle greeted me with a hug, the first time she had braved that sort of bond since we met. The girls were playing in the back yard so I went out back to say hello and another wave of debilitating currents kicked in. Feeling their hugs and hearing their high-pitched greetings opened an area inside me I assumed would take care of itself but was now another layer in the drama, something I would now have to address. My kids. I had done a good job of compartmentalizing them, imagining they would be taken care of as Ellen and I worked out our situation. Now that Ellen and I had taken a step backward, I realized I would need to deal with their needs directly, pulling them out of the closet and checking for damage. I’m sure Vanessa, Patty and Sondra wondered why I held on to them for so long but they didn’t seem to mind. That was fortunate since I couldn’t have let go if they’d wanted me to.
I ended up in the kitchen, sitting at the breakfast table, strategically able to talk to both Wally and Rochelle as she prepared dinner. I tried to chronicle the weekend events to get Rochelle current, but I was rambling and having trouble staying on point. With Wally’s help filling in gaps, Rochelle seemed to glean enough information to satisfy her.
“What can we do for you?” Wally finally asked. “We don’t want to interfere but if there’s anything we can do to help you, we’d like to know.”
I appreciated the offer but I was in no shape to ask for help. Hell, I didn’t even know what I was going to do myself, much less what someone else could do for me. “Nothing just yet. Maybe later. Opening up your home tonight was a big deal. I needed this. That’ll do for now.”
As promised, I was not the greatest guest they ever entertained, but they seemed to not be bothered by my moodiness. As the evening wore on, I found myself with less and less to say until I ended up 100% observer, looking in on their life through a two way mirror, except my mirror was flipped, allowing the Barnes family to see me but giving me a view of only myself. Introspection is a bitch, especially when it’s played out in front of other people.
At ten o’clock I decided to relieve them of my funk and announced I was ready to leave. The look on Wally’s face was concern, like I was trying to drive with too much booze in my system and he didn’t want to be responsible. I had one glass of wine but it was hours earlier so I assumed he was concerned for my mental health and frame of mind, not my alcohol level.
“I’m glad you decided to come see us. I hope it helped.” Wally was walking me to the door with Rochelle two steps behind him. The girls were in bed so the talk had the freedom to enter adult world. “I want to suggest something to you, but I’m being a little cautious because I don’t want you to take it the wrong way…” He hesitated and looked at me, giving me an opportunity to stop him. I didn’t. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but our health plan through Duncan offers free counseling services. It’s confidential and it would provide you with an unbiased ear. It may be worth looking into. Like I said, it’s free and confidential.”
I smiled, slightly, and thanked him for the advice. That’s all I needed, complete strangers listening to me whine about my life, nodding their heads and asking me how I feel about my feelings. I waved goodbye, climbed in my car and, once on the freeway, pointed my car south. On a map, that is down, heading for the bottom of the page, metaphorically appropriate and inescapable. The only question was how far would I go.
As much as I dreaded going to work the next morning, I surprised myself by having a productive and nearly inspired day. Granted, I avoided interaction with people as much as possible, which I achieved by working with my door closed all day. Since it was rarely in that state, my co-workers, rightly or wrongly, assumed I was neck deep in important work so they left me alone. It helped me slide out of the office at six relatively intact.
I hadn’t slept well the night before so I was prematurely tired when I got to the condo. My immediate need was to change clothes and try to relax. I was hungry, I had not eaten anything of substance since Saturday night. I thumbed through the phone book and found the phone number to a Chinese restaurant nearby that offered delivery service and called to place an order. As I hung up the phone I reminded myself I needed to call the kids and the prospect didn’t thrill me. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to them, I did and desperately; the problem was I had no idea what to tell them. I’m sure Ellen had discussed the weekend with them so preconceptions were already germinating. Depending on her slant, it would make the discussions easy and natural or awkwardly difficult. There was no way to know except to call. I stood with my hand on the receiver, continuing the mental debate when I was shaken out of my trance by the ringing of the doorbell. I looked at my watch, disgusted to note I had been standing over the phone arguing with myself for almost thirty minutes. I was skirting the edges of pathetic, detouring through the side streets of weak and dismal. I hoped the Lemon Chicken would snap me out of it.
I paid the delivery person and carried the bags of food into the kitchen. The minute I opened the first lid I knew I made a mistake. “Dammit” I yelled, the echo of the word bouncing through the condo only adding to my frustration. I forgot to specify “no MSG” when I ordered and my watering eyes was the first signal I was in for a long night. I pulled the little white boxes out of the paper bags and stopped short of dumping the contents on a plate. I had to call D.J. and Ben before I did anything else.
“Hello?” I was more relieved than I anticipated when Ben answered the phone and not his mom.
“Hey, buddy, it’s dad.” My heart was racing but I think I sounded calm.
“Hey, dad. What’s up?” He sounded excited to hear from me, which was more than I was expecting.
“I’m doing okay. Not great, but okay. And you?”
“I guess your mom talked to you about some of the decisions we made this weekend while she was visiting?”
“Yeah, she talked to us last night. It kinda’ sucks and I’m not really sure about everything she said, but I do know we aren’t moving up to join you yet.”
“Did she say why?” I was fishing but trying to sound nonchalant.
“Sort of… yeah, I guess she did. Something about her not being ready to deal with a lot of the God issues yet. I don’t know, I just nodded my head a lot because she was pretty upset. I didn’t want to make her mad by interrupting her.”
“I understand. That was probably a good idea. All I can add is we talked while she was here and she needs some more time before she brings everyone up here. It’s a little complicated but it’ll work out eventually. I guess you could tell she’s not too pleased with me right now.”
“I don’t want to push her too hard. It’s a confusing time for all of us.”
“How long do you think it will take?”
“I wish I knew.” I hated that question. “I’ll try to get down there soon, maybe even this weekend, okay? Hang in there.”
“Okay. I really miss you, dad. I thought we’d all be together by now.”
“I miss you too, buddy. Is your sister there?”
“No, she’s at a school meeting. Do you want to talk to mom?”
Not the female Benton I had expected to talk to but I calculated I’d better say hello. “Sure, put her on.” I poked at the fried rice with a chopstick while Ben searched for his mom. I could hear his muffled voice through the receiver, hunting her down and finally locating her in the laundry room.
“Hey there.” I could barely hear her through the background noise of washing and drying but it dissipated as she moved into another part of the house.
“Hi. I guess you made it home safe and sound?” It was a stupid thing to ask but I was scrambling for conversation material.
“Oh yeah, I got in around 6:30. D.J. was waiting on me at the airport so we made it home pretty quick.” She sounded normal, which was a little irritating. I needed her to sound like I felt.
“That’s good.” After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, I ran out of fortitude and told her goodbye. She didn’t sound disappointed. As I hung up the phone I looked at the steaming piles of Chinese delights on the counter and felt nothing. My previous hunger was a now a non-issue, drifting away with the echo of Ellen’s goodbye. I closed the lids and stacked everything in the refrigerator, saving the food for later. I assumed I would be hungry again one day.
For the remainder of the night I wasted as much time as possible watching television and scanning through magazines. I couldn’t muster enough focus to stay locked in to any one task for more than ten minutes. I finally gave in to my tiring body and started preparing for bed. It was one a.m. As I was brushing my teeth I was surprised to hear the phone ring. I spit the toothpaste out of my mouth and hurried to find the cell phone, motivated by the age-old fear that any phone call received past midnight was never good news. I finally located the phone in the kitchen and answered by the fifth ring.
“It’s me.” It was Ellen. “I assumed you’d be awake.”
“I was just starting to shut things down. Is anything wrong?”
“Yes and no. If you’re worried about some emergency causing me to call this late, don’t. No one’s hurt, but there is something wrong. I need to apologize for my abrupt exit yesterday and also for my incredibly bitchy phone conversation with you earlier this evening.”
“You weren’t mean on the phone—”
“—you may not have heard it but I was feeling it. Trust me.”
“I will.” I had no idea how to respond, so I didn’t.
“Sunday was bad. Bad in every possible way and I didn’t react like I should’ve. I feel lousy about that and I couldn’t sleep until I let you know I was sorry.” Despite knowing better, I started feeling a small surge of hope inside me, rising to sniff the little flakes of possibilities that Ellen was, unconsciously I’m sure, scattering through her apology. “I didn’t let you know I loved you and I didn’t reassure you I was still committed to making our marriage work. I just walked away, mad, and left you to wonder what was next. I shouldn’t have done that. I know better than to unleash your imagination into the dark side like that.”
I laughed to myself, briefly warmed by the knowledge that she knew me better than anyone else. “I have had two bad days.” Was there more? Could she possibly be softening and coming around?
“Earl, I love you and I’m still committed to us but nothing has changed in regards to us moving to Atlanta. I honestly think our best chance to make it, long-term, is for me to stay here, get more grounded in what I believe and make plans to join you later.” Crash. It was worse the second time. “We’ll be better off in the long run. I promise.”
“So I’ve got to survive on phone calls and weekend trips, right?” I was starting to get mad, feeling like the phone call was less an apology and more of a chance for Ellen to jerk me around. She read the change in my voice immediately and tried to stem the inevitable.
“Don’t do this, Earl. I didn’t call to fight. I felt bad about how we left each other and wanted to try and fix it, that’s all.”
“Well, thank you very much!” I was immersed in full sarcasm mode and splashing around like an idiot. “I appreciate how concerned you are for my well-being! Do you know how stupid that sounds? ‘I don’t want to be with you but I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings.’ How self righteous and condescending can you be?”
“Seriously! This is really starting to chap my ass and I’m tired of being understanding. I don’t understand! I have no idea why you can’t move up here tomorrow!”
I was on a roll and almost didn’t hear her say, “I don’t have to put up with this. Call me back when you’ve calmed down.” And she hung up, leaving me standing in the kitchen, alone, dealing with a frustration level that was nearing a red line. I had so much to say, to scream, and no ears to handle the barrage but my own. Repeating it out loud would have been redundant, a replay of the same conversation I had been having internally for weeks. It had done nothing to relieve my aggravated condition then and it wouldn’t now. I slammed my hand on the kitchen counter, accepted the minimal relief it gave me and turned the television back on. Exhaustion joined hunger on the fringes of my radar, their faint glow noticeable but not strong enough to act upon. Ben was right, this sucked.
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…