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Falling In Love:

PROLOGUE 

“I have a great story for you.”

This is a sucker line for every writer. Almost everyone thinks that their life would make a great story but few of us live lives that are the stuff of great drama, and even less have material for its counterpart, great comedy. Still writers listen, at least for a few lines, because we are always looking for that great story.

The caller was Candice, an old friend whose own life story actually was worth telling. A century ago, her family was among America's richest but alcoholism had wracked every generation, dissipating the wealth until now it was nearly gone. I had known her through years of pristine sobriety and years of hard drinking and nothing in between. Now, here she was, sober and saying she had a great story.

“What is it?” I asked curtly. I was on a deadline and didn’t have time to chat. I knew she would never tell her own story and who knew if she could spot great material any better than the rest of us.

“She'll be in New York this weekend,” Candice shot back. “She wants to talk to a writer. Confidentially. When can you meet her?”

I hadn't yet said that I would meet her. I snapped, “Two o'clock, Friday. Figaro's.” Figaro's was a Greenwich Village café. I was already afraid that this rendezvous would turn out to be a waste of time but I had a three o'clock meeting two blocks away. At that hour, Figaro's would be fairly deserted and I had a side table that I sometimes used as an office cum cappuccino.

“Fine,” Candice replied.

“What's her name?”

“She'll find you. She's seen your picture.”

“Why me?” I wondered Candice knew other writers.

“Just be there. I'm late for a meeting.”

“Is she some kind of whistle-blower?” I asked but Candice had already hung up.

I had three days to mull over the meeting, deciding whether or not to cancel it. But in the end, I knew I'd show up. I was a writer, a sucker. Maybe this time.

At two-fifteen, I was sipping a cappuccino and scribbling notes on a manuscript when she walked in. She looked in her early thirties, with auburn hair, aquamarine eyes, and was breathtakingly beautiful. She looked so perfect that it seemed hard to imagine that her life wasn't also perfect but that gave me hope. Nobody's was.

She walked up to me like an old friend. “Hi, Stephen.”

“Hi,” I said, rising. We shook hands. She didn't offer her name.

She sat down and ordered an herbal tea as we made small talk about her trip to New York. She was even more beautiful close up but her eyes gave her away. Although large and soft, they revealed that they had probably seen a lot more life than thirty years worth. She asked me several questions about myself. I answered them all. She answered none of mine except her name. “Sherry.” Her story might be great but she didn't seem ready to tell it.

At three o'clock I had to leave. I gave her my card and told her to call me if she ever wanted to talk. She stood up, blocking my exit. She whispered softly, “I'm a sex addict.”

Although her voice was a monotone, her eyes were alive and anxious. I thought of what Samuel Johnson had supposedly said two-hundred years ago: “People are only interested in sex and death.” I said that my address was on my card and that I would be there in two hours if she wanted to stop by. She had broached one of the two top hooks in history, and I was still a sucker.

I got home early. She didn't show. I was still on a deadline and ended up writing until dawn before finally finishing it and dropping into bed. An hour later, my buzzer rattled me awake. Sherry was at the door, armed with coffee and croissants. She wanted to talk.

I gratefully sipped the strong coffee and tried to listen as she told me that she wanted to write a book to help other sex addicts with their recovery. I explained to her that self-help books were usually written by people with initials behind their names, initials like Ph.D. But if she did want to write one then I was not her guy.

There were basically two kinds of books, I explained, those which make people think and learn, and those that make them feel and experience. History's great books usually did both but most writers were lucky if they could accomplish just one. I wasn't an academic. I dealt with emotions, feelings and experiences. I was a storyteller.

She asked hesitantly, “If I told my story, could you change the names and places so that no one would know it was me?”

I said that I could.

“My story is too painful, and probably too big,” she said. “It could go on forever.”

I explained that most stories were “slices of life,” dealing with a year or a month or a big event, not a whole life.

For the next two hours she tried to slice up her life but she couldn't find the right moment, the right place, to even begin. I told her that when I couldn't write a beginning, I would write about whatever part that wanted to be put down on paper, the middle, the end, anything, just to get writing. This didn't help.

I remembered going through a similar experience once before, with someone who couldn't get out her story either. But when she finally began, it turned into a gusher and was so impassioned that I revised almost nothing, afraid that I would flatten the story out. Instead, we basically published the taped transcripts because the story's power was in those tapes, in the pain in her voice, and her story. I tried to remember my question that had started that torrent of words, hoping that it might work again, but I couldn't think of what it was.

My cassette recorder clicked and I replaced the tape with another. Sherry got concerned that I would run out of tapes before she said anything worth hearing. I assured her that I had plenty of tapes. I tried to keep her on the story. “What was the worst moment of you life?” I asked.

“There are too many.”

“The best?”

“I hope it hasn't come.”

I was losing hope. “What moment was a turning point in your life? That when you look back at it now, you realize that it changed you forever.”

She glanced down and after a long pause, she said, “I guess it was the night I decided to go see my mother.”

“Tell me about it.”

She began, slowly, hesitantly, and then the damn inside her broke and the pent-up words began surging out. I soon suspected that her story was going be another deluge.

 

 

THE STORY

PART ONE

 

 

I remember that I was crying so hard that I couldn't pack my suitcase. All I knew was that I couldn't stay in Rosebud for one more minute. But I had nowhere to go. So I decided to go see my mother. The last thing I knew about her, from years before, was that she was living somewhere in Southern California. I had no idea if she was still there but California seemed as good a place to go as anywhere else. Besides, I had a lifetime of questions that I wanted to ask her and I was badly in need of some answers, any answers.

My tears had blurred my vision so much that I had stuffed my suitcase too full of clothes and it wouldn't close. I grabbed a handful, flung them on the floor and then jammed the case shut. From a bookshelf, I snatched up the only two mementos I had of my mother, a book of poems and an old black-and-white picture. I stuffed them into my purse and then stumbled blindly out of my room, out of that house and out of that town, forever.

My car hadn't been running that well and I wasn't sure that it would make it to California but I figured I'd drive it until it died and then decide what to do. I headed south on the county road. I was still crying so hard that I could barely see and rounding a turn I crossed the line and nearly hit a truck head on. My hands were shaking so much that I could barely hold on to the wheel but I was afraid to stop on that deserted road. Somehow, I finally made it to the Interstate and then a strange thing happened. Instead of turning west toward California, I headed east.

My theory was that I didn't have a clue where my mother was but that I had an address in New York for Elaine, my mother's childhood friend. I decided that I would go to New York and ask Elaine if she had my mother's address, and then I wouldn't have to waste a lot of time looking for her once I got to California. It didn't occur to me to just turn west and simply call Elaine from the roadside cafe. Maybe I wasn't yet ready to meet my mother. I didn't know. I just knew that I wasn't thinking very clearly.

I was still crying and tried to think of some distraction to make me stop. Could I actually cry my tear ducts dry? How much could someone cry? Pints, quarts, a gallon? I glanced down at my damp dress and wondered if I were to wring it out would there be a puddle? The thought of wringing tears out of a black satin dress that I had worn on what was to have been the greatest night of my life made me cry even harder.

I drove through the night and into the morning. I continued crying sporadically and through my blurred vision, I apparently missed some sign and ended up heading for Albany instead of New York City.

At a rest stop, I stripped off the dress without daring to see if it would wring out, slipped into jeans and a pullover and stood before the restroom mirror, trying to pull myself together. There wasn't enough eye shadow in the world to accomplish that.

Some truck driver assured me that some highway at a nearby exit would take me straight over to the Interstate that would take me straight down to New York City and that I couldn't possibly get lost. I proved him wrong several times. I tried to navigate a maze of scenic roads lined with pines or evergreens or other green-tinted landscape that always seemed to narrow into a one-lane road before coming to a dead end. I finally found a wide blacktop road that looked promising and turned to what I hoped was in the direction of New York City.

“My life closed twice before its close,” I whispered I often recited Emily Dickinson poems when I was depressed and this moment of my life certainly qualified. “It yet remains to see if Immortality unveil a third event to me.

My car began sputtering. I floored the accelerator, hoping to get over the next hill and coast down into some town. But the car was dying quickly. As if it might help, I began reciting more quickly, “So huge, so hopeless to conceive, as these that twice befell. Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.” The car coasted to a stop as I stared up at an insurmountable hill. I didn't know whether or not I had proven some scientific experiment but I just couldn't cry anymore. I literally had no tears left.

After a while, a young couple pedaled by on their bikes and promised to send some help. Almost an hour later, I was still stranded and had to pee so badly that I couldn't stand it anymore. Naturally, as soon as I ducked behind a bush and dropped my jeans, a tow truck rumbled over the hill. A guy jumped out and headed over to my car as I crouched lower in the bushes, hoping he wouldn't see me fertilizing the weeds. “I'll be there in a minute,” I called out.

He peered under the hood. “What seems to be the problem?”

Like I was supposed to know? “It stopped.” Through the brush, I could see that he was very handsome. But I was definitely not interested.

“That's a problem,” he admitted.

I zipped up my jeans and returned to my main worry. “Can you tell how much it will cost?”

“Can't say yet,” he replied, “but we do have the lowest rates in the county.” As I stepped around the bushes, he glanced at me and whispered, “for someone like you.” He apparently hadn't noticed that I looked like hell.

The closer I got to him, the more gorgeous he got, tall with dark hair and piercing dark eyes that seemed like they could look through you. I knew I was attracted to him but that was the last thing I needed. I certainly didn't trust any feelings I might have and I absolutely wasn't going to get involved with anyone in the middle of nowhere. I'd just come from nowhere and I wasn't going back. But I did give him my best smile, hoping it might lower the price.

He glanced at my license plate. “Indiana, huh? I knew you weren't from around here. Where you headed?”

“New York City, I think.”

He glanced at me. “By way of Canada?”

“I was thinking about stopping to earn some money first,” I said quickly. “I'm a little short and I'll be even shorter after this.”

He smiled. “Maybe destiny has chosen a nice spot for you.”

I doubted that. “I don't think so, Larry?”

He glanced as his shirt pocket, on which was sewn, Larry. “It's Paul, actually. Larry had a wedding today so I'm helping out my old boss. I used to work summers for him when I was in school.” Paul added, “I'm actually a lawyer.”

I didn't believe him but I figured that didn't matter. I just wanted to get my car fixed and to get out of there. But he was so attractive that, even though I tried to stare at the engine, I couldn't stop staring at him. He was having the same problem. Our eyes locked, as he asked, “You believe in destiny?”

I shook my head, afraid to speak.

Although I tried to resist, I felt us leaning closer together. Paul was saying, “But Oak Grove does have a lot to offer.”

Again, I didn't answer, fearful and horrified by what was happening. I had never experienced anything like it before. We kept leaning closer together and suddenly I wondered what it would be like to kiss him. I tried to pull back but our faces kept getting closer. What are you doing, Sherry? I thought. What is he doing? He must have wondered the same thing because just as it seemed like our lips were about to touch, he hesitated, then pulled back and quickly turned away while laughing nervously.

The moment, or whatever the hell it was, was broken. He looked at the engine and said, “Give her a try.”

I got into the Grand Am and turned the key. The engine groaned but wouldn't start. Paul motioned for me to stop and then slammed down the hood. “You're timing has slipped,” he said, “You're going to need a tow.”

Paul hitched my car to his tow truck and I climbed into his cab, dirty with oil smudges on the doors and an ash tray full of cigarette butts. I tried to edge away from the oil smudges but they seemed to be everywhere. After a bit, he pulled over and stopped. I glanced nervously at him.

He smiled. “Come with me a minute. I want to show you something.”

We got out and walked up a hillside adorn with wild flowers spanning a rainbow of colors. I picked two up and inhaled their lovely fragrance.

“I lived in New York City once,” Paul mentioned. “Worked on Wall Street. You sure you want to live there?”

I shrugged. “Not really. Actually, I'd planned to go to California by way of New York.” He looked at me. I laughed. “I know it doesn't make much sense.”

He stared at me like I was beyond strange.

“I'm going to see my mother,” I explained. “Right after I was born my father died in an accident. My mother ran away to Los Angeles and left me with her brother and sister. I had hoped to try and find her but I guess I can't face her yet.”

“You've never met her?”

I shook my head. “Talked to her once when I was ten. I'd found her number and called and asked to come live with her. She promised to call me back but she never did.”

“That's sad.” I didn't really want his sympathy and regretted that I had told him. “I was sort of abandoned, too,” he added. “My father left home when I was thirteen and my mother was usually too sick to be much of a mom. That's why I came back here, to take care of her. Everyone had pretty much given up on her. The doctors had performed test after test, trying to figure out what was wrong with her. When they couldn't, they began to think it was psychosomatic. But if you looked at her, you could see she was in excruciating pain. It was obvious, at least to me, that she was dying. So I brought her home and threatened legal action if they didn't give her morphine. She finally passed away last year and during the autopsy, they discovered that she had died of two cancers so rare that they don't even keep statistics on them.”

“I'm sorry,” I said. Our hands brushed against each other and I edged away. I concentrated on holding the flowers.

“I miss her,” he mentioned. “She could be good company when she wanted to be.”

“But now you can go back to New York.”

Paul shook his head. “I called my old law firm but the guy who hired me has left and no one seemed to know me. I don't want to start all over again. Besides I like it here.”

We had stopped atop a hill overlooking a picturesque small village nestled between a grove of oak trees and a serene blue lake.

“Pretty, huh?”

“Very,” I admitted.

Paul turned to me and leaned closer. “So what do you do?” he asked.

“I was working in an office.”

“Then you can type? Work a computer?” I nodded and Paul smiled broadly and leaned in even closer. “Then I just might have a job for you right in Oak Grove.”

Again, he looked like he was about to kiss me, and suddenly, I lost it. “No way,” I snapped, twisting away from him. “I've had it with one-church towns.”

Paul stepped backward, startled.

I regained control of myself and smiled apologetically. “Sorry. I've been driving all night, and I'm a little on edge.”

Paul looked down at the village with its lone church steeple towering above it. He shrugged. “Hey, we've only got one church. Okay, listen, I'll fix your car and throw in the labor for free. Then you can leave, or I'll tell you my proposal.”

 

That afternoon, while Paul repaired my car, I sipped coffee in the local café as the locals gossiped. Oak Grove appeared to be a quaint little hamlet that enjoyed a certain amount of tourism, mostly fishermen, and New Yorkers who occasionally built vacation homes on the nearby lake. The locals debated the wisdom of allowing such city folk within their midst. As the coffee-and-pie crowd gave way to the dinner crowd, Paul came in to announce that my car was running fine. Despite his offer of free labor, the parts alone pretty much emptied my purse.

After I admitted that I had only eaten two donuts all day, Paul insisted that I dine with him at the Lakeshore Restaurant. We sat on the terrace overlooking the tranquil lake, reflecting a fiery sunset.

“Oak Grove's best restaurant,” Paul assured me and suggested that I order the special, striped bass.

I surveyed the menu's right side, grateful that I wasn't paying, while Paul gave me some of the highlights of living in Oak Grove. I feigned interest as well as I could but was mostly grateful that Paul wasn't asking me about my life, a topic I wanted very much to avoid.

Paul seemed fine with doing the talking and moved on to his childhood. Paul's father had been a purchasing manager for a factory in Sparta, the largest nearby town, and often worked late with his secretary. The day after the factory closed, Paul's father and his secretary disappeared and hadn't been heard from since.

Paul then returned to joys of living in Oak Grove from mountain biking on a nearby mountain to sunset canoeing on the lake. But the more convincing he sounded the more I felt like he was trying to persuade himself, rather than me, that he loved living in the Hudson Valley.

Paul then got around to the dreaded subject, me. I mentioned that Rosebud was a village about the size of Oak Grove. Since Paul had just regaled me with the joys of small town living, I wondered about voicing my opinion that small towns bred small people with small minds exchanging small talk about others, usually putting them down to make themselves just a little bit bigger. Instead, I stuck to the facts.

“Your uncle and aunt have always lived together?” Paul asked. “Neither one of them ever married?”

I nodded. “They were like a married couple without the marriage. My uncle worked and my aunt stayed home and cooked and cleaned for him and kept the house. After a while they just got used to it, I guess, and so did everyone else. She always told everyone at church that I was the burden who kept her from meeting and marrying a nice man, the burden that was going to get her a higher place in heaven when she finally moved on. That never made any sense to me,” I noted. “I mean, if heaven is this perfect place what difference does it make if you are a couple of notches higher?”

I admitted that before this excursion, I had never been out of Indiana. I had spent almost two semesters at the University in Bloomington on an academic scholarship but that I had some problems.

Paul looked interested and instantly, I regretted admitting that. “What kind of problems?”

“I'd rather not talk about it.” Trying to change the subject, I offered, “I've wanted to leave Rosebud for a long time and now that I finally have, I'm never going back.”

Paul smiled, “All I can say is that there must be something wrong with the guys in Indiana to let you out of the state.”

“There are,” I agreed, “at least the ones I've known.” We both laughed.

During dinner, the fiery sunset turned into lovely soft moonlight that was very romantic. I felt myself falling hard for Paul. But how could I? Less than twenty-four hours before wasn't I deeply in love with another man, pledging to spend the rest of my life with him? Could I fall out of love that quickly and back into love with another guy? How could I? I pushed these thoughts out of my mind and tried to just enjoy this lovely moment with Paul.

As Paul sipped his coffee, he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his sports coat. Despite the cigarette butts in the tow truck's ashtray, I hadn't seen Paul smoke before. He noticed me eying the pack. “You mind? I'm trying to quit. But I love having one with a cup of coffee after a great meal.”

I smiled and admitted. “I'm trying to quit, too. I stopped buying them, at least.”

He offered me one. Paul felt in his pockets for a light and then looked around for a waiter.

“I think I have one,” I offered. I rifled through my purse and my small book with the tattered picture spilled out onto the floor. Paul retrieved them and studied the picture of the two smiling teen girls lying on a riverbank.

“My mother and her best friend, Elaine,” I explained. He read the book's title: Robert Louis Stevenson's, A Child's Garden of Verses. “Apparently my mother loved poetry, like me,” I added. “Sometimes, I still say those poems to cheer myself up.”

He handed the book back to me and said, “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me.”

I laughed and replied, “And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.” People at the next table had begun staring at us. “Is that all you know?” I asked

“Pretty much.”

“Good, because I think that couple over there thinks we're crazy.”

Paul shrugged. “Who cares?”

“You do. You live here.”

He sipped his coffee and tried to appear serious. “Okay, we'll talk business.”

He pulled his card from his jacket and held it up for me to see that he really was a lawyer and then dropped it into my purse. “Ever work in a law firm?”

I shook my head.

“Doesn't matter,” he replied. “I can teach you whatever you need to know.”

“I can't ask you to do that.”

“You're not,” Paul insisted. “I'm offering. It's really perfect timing. My secretary left on Friday for her vacation.”

I looked at him, wondering. “And I suppose you have a place for me to stay?”

He nodded.

“You could stay with me—”

I flashed anger. “—Look, if this is some game you're playing to—”

Paul held up both hands. “—or with my unimpeachable Aunt Arlene,” he finished quickly.

I softened, embarrassed by my outburst. “I'm sorry,” I said, “but maybe you seem too good to be true, a shining knight in a white tow truck.

“I'm serious. This is totally business.” He paused, smiled, and added, “Well, maybe not totally business.”

He leaned in closer and again I experienced that feeling I'd had that afternoon when I thought he was going to kiss me. Paul must have felt it too since he stood up, insisting, “I can't take this anymore.” He took me into his arms and began dancing across the terrace, weaving between the tables.

I couldn't believe he was doing this? Wasn't he embarrassed? Was he insane? But I was following him as best I could while mentioning, “There's no music.”

He began humming “I Could Have Danced All Night” and waltzed me back across the terrace. Other diners stared incredulously at us but Paul didn't seem to care. “They already think we're crazy,” he reminded me.

He built to a crescendo and then picked me up, spinning me around while he gave me a long luxurious kiss. I was thankful that he was literally sweeping me off my feet since I was sure that my knees would be buckling. It was intoxicating. The day had just seemed so romantic. Paul seemed so romantic. Despite my misgivings about these sudden reversals in my love life, I just couldn't help falling head over heels in love with Paul. It was almost literally head over heels as he sidestepped a waiter, tripped on a chair and we nearly went over the terrace railing. Paul just laughed, bent me backward and kissed me again.

 

Paul called his aunt who said that I would be most welcome. On the way to her house, as he kissed at each red light, I realized that I didn't know Paul's last name. “Manning,” he informed me. “Paul Michael Manning, Esquire, at your service, Mademoiselle.” Immediately, to see how it felt, like a schoolgirl, I thought to myself, Mrs. Paul Manning. Mrs. Sherry Manning. It felt so childish but I didn't care. By the time, we pulled up at his aunt's lovely home on a peaceful tree-lined street, I didn't want the night to end. I wanted to be with Paul forever.

Paul gave me one last kiss outside his aunt's door. When we came up for air, he asked, “You're sure you don't want to stay with me?”

Even though I desperately wanted to spend the night with him, I knew that it was exactly the wrong thing to do. I wanted him to think of me as someone special, not some easy girl he picked up on a roadside.

“Very sure,” I replied quickly before I changed my mind. Then I remained quiet, fearing that I might say something I would regret.

“Okay,” said Paul. He gave me a warm smile and rang the doorbell. “Will you come to church with me tomorrow?”

I hesitated, before admitting, “I kind of stopped believing in God.”

“Why? When?” he asked.

“When I was nine.”

“Nine?” He laughed. “No Santa Claus, no God?”

“Something like that. Can I come and not pray?”

“Sure. I'll pray for us both.”

The door opened and behind the screen stood a sixtyish, heavyset woman with gray hair and a round face with large, sparkling eyes above a broad smile. Arlene invited Paul in for a cup of tea but he declined, saying that he would pick us both up at 7:45 a.m. Arlene led me into her cozy kitchen with its early American décor and we shared a cup of raspberry tea.

Aunt Arlene was easy to talk to, since she did most of the talking and I only had to listen. She talked about Paul when he was young and her own two children who had grown up and now lived on the West Coast.

Finally, she looked at the clock and remarked that it was past her bedtime.

She led me upstairs to a small room pretty much filled up by an antique double bed and big antique dresser near the door to a small bathroom.

“I hope you like a hard bed,” Aunt Arlene remarked.

“I'm sure it's fine.”

She set two towels and a washcloth on the bed. “Well, I'll let you get to bed. Paul said you didn't get much last night.”

“But if you're staying up, I'd be happy to—”

She cut me off, saying, “—Not me. I'm headed for bed.” She walked to the door and then paused as if she had been waiting all evening to mention something. “Was Paul right about you loving poetry?”

I nodded.

She gave me a sly smile and asked, “Can I tell you something? If you promise not to tell anyone in Oak
Grove?”

“I know so many,” I mentioned.

“You might if Paul has his way.” She smiled slyly again. “For four years now, everyone in town thinks I play bridge in Sparta every Thursday. But actually, I've been taking a poetry-writing course at the junior college.” She laughed. “I have this dream that after I've dead, my poems will be discovered and published.”

“Why don't you try to publish them now?” I asked.

Arlene shook her head. “If it turns out that I'm some old broad babbling about nothing, I want to be dead first.”

“What does your teacher say?”

“That my 'verse is alive.'“

“I'd love to read some.”

She shook her head again. “When I'm dead, Dear, when I'm dead.” She smiled. “But I've longed to share that secret for years. Thank you.”

She hugged me and then walked out, saying, “I'm a light sleeper. So if you need anything, just give a shout.”

I sat down on the bed, exhausted from my long day but exhilarated at meeting Paul and having a job and a place to stay until I could try to sort out my life.

I glanced at a side table. On it was a picture of a young boy about ten who looked like Paul, proudly holding up a big fish. I picked up the picture and held it to my chest, embracing it. But I felt an old unwanted feeling coming over me. Relax, Sherry, I told myself. Don't do anything you'll regret.

I took a deep breath and paced around the room, trying to control this horrible urge inside me. You know better, Sherry, I reminded myself. Don't ruin this.

I grabbed my suitcase and opened it. My clothes were still jammed inside from my quick escape from Rosebud. Trying to control myself, I meticulously took out each piece, straightened them and placed them neatly inside the oak dresser. Then I pulled out a very short, low cut dress. I stared at it, pleading to myself, Don't, Sherry. Please! But I knew that, once again, I would. I flung the dress on the bed and pulled off my sweater, telling myself, as I had so many times before, Just this once more!

I donned the dress and rushed into the bathroom to make myself up. I wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible. While applying eyeliner, I kept telling myself that this was the last time. The very last time!

I crept along the dimly-lit hallway, past Arlene's open bedroom door. A board creaked below my high heels.

Arlene glanced up. “Sherry?”

She flipped on a lamp and I stood there in the naked pale light. “I'm just getting a pack of cigarettes,” I said.

Arlene stared at me. “Dressed like that?”

“I'll be right back,” I said quickly and ran down the stairs.

I walked several blocks along the deserted main street to the garage and got into my Grand Am. I then headed out of town passed the sign informing me that Sparta was twelve more miles. Sparta had none of the charm of Oak Grove and appeared to be an old manufacturing center but now its two main factories were darkened like two black eyes at the edge of town.

I stopped at a Quick Mart for a pack of cigarettes and learned that the only bar still open was the Depot at the far end of town. As I got into my car, I lit a cigarette and inhaled hard, hoping to die of cancer right there and do myself and the world a favor. But it didn't happen, so I squealed out onto the street.

The Depot was an old train station with high cantilever ceilings, photos of old trains adorning walls and a deafening sound system that played non-stop rock music. I slowly elbowed my way up to the bar hoping that some guy might notice me. Before anyone did, the bartender noticed me and I tried to yell above the music that I wanted a beer.

There were about ten guys for every girl so it wasn't long before several guys began hovering around me. A tall, chubby guy nudged up to me. He was wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed I'm Party Trained and looked like he had already drunk more than his share of beers. He didn't even bother to try talking above the music but simply pulled me on the dance floor. There was nothing really special about him, except that he was the first to dance with me and I was in a hurry.

He lead me to the side of the dance floor, which was apparently on the route of several barmaids, all of whom he seemed to know and they managed to keep the stream of beers flowing our way without us having to leave the dance floor. Occasionally, a tiny little thing in an even tinier outfit came by with a tray of shots and he never let her pass us by without us knocking back a couple filled with some unspecified liquor that seemed to go straight from my mouth to my head. After a few I thought I was might get sick but I wasn't sure if it was from the shots or the situation.

After I had downed a few more shots I was in exactly the mood for what I had set out to achieve, a mind-numbing dead drunk state. I always seemed to be in this state when I humiliated myself like I was about to do yet again.

There were brief moments of relief from the throbbing beat, during which my dance partner told me his name and chatted warmly about himself. I immediately forgot his name and didn't think it was only because of the drinking. I didn't want to remember his name. I didn't want to remember my name. I knocked back another shot.

He grabbed my shoulders and glanced down my low-cut dress, observing, “You are one beautiful babe.”

I smiled.

He suggested, “What say we go for a walk and cool off?” I nodded.

We stumbled outside into the dimly-lit parking lot and he led me toward his pickup, saying, “What say we take a little ride to someplace a bit quieter?” He smiled wickedly. “Like my place.”

We got into his truck and he pulled me close to him, giving me a wet, boozy kiss. He started the engine but I didn't want to go anywhere with him. I didn't want anything but to get rid of the horrible urge inside of me as quickly as possible. I began unzipping his pants.

“Hey, Honey? I don't live that far. Jesus, you're in a hurry.”

I was, and within a minute I had him out of his pants and was working on him. As soon as he was hard, I flung off my panties and got on top of him. But I wasn't giving him one thought. I was imagining myself making love to Paul, on our honeymoon somewhere on some Caribbean Island. Even though it seemed crazy, this was what I thinking, that I was making love to Paul.

I rushed toward a climax, leaving him far behind and he let me know it, complaining, “Slow down a little, will you, Honey? I think I had a few too many beers.”

I went faster until finally that horrible urge was released.

“I'm almost there, Honey,” he was saying.

But I was overcome with revulsion, now stone-cold sober and humiliated, hating myself.

“I've got to go,” I said, jumping off him.

“What?”

I opened the door and rushed out, trying to smooth out my dress. He jumped out after me, grabbing at his pants with one hand and holding up my panties with the other.

“Hey, what about me?” he protested, adding, “You forgot these!” He threw the panties at me as I jumped into my car, locking the doors. But he didn't pursue me. Instead He wheeled around toward the truck, saying, “Wham, bam. Thank you, Ma'am.”

As I shot away, I saw him slap his side, letting go of his pants, which dropped to his ankles and he tripped, falling back into his pickup.

I sped all the way back to Oak Grove, as if somehow that might put what I'd done behind me faster. But instead, I carried it with me, knowing that my transgression was so stupid, that Arlene was sure to tell Paul and I would have to come up with some lie. I hated having to lie to Paul, and I hated myself and my life.

When I got to Arlene's house, I rushed up the stairs. As I passed by her bedroom, I saw her light go on. I rushed into my room and closed the door. She didn't come in after me.

I laid down on the bed and tried to sleep but instead just tossed and turned, wondering how I was going to face Arlene and what I was going to say to Paul.

 

I finally drifted off and it seemed like I'd only been asleep for a few minutes when Arlene knocked on my door without saying a word. “I'm awake,” I said, groggily.

I showered, trying futilely to wash off the shame. Then I put on a prim black dress and went down to face Arlene. I wanted to talk to her before Paul arrived, hoping to somehow put last night behind us. I planned to tell her that I went out for a pack of cigarettes and got lost and that was why it took me long.

But when I got down to the kitchen, she had coffee, toast and eggs on the table for me and never said a word. Not one word. This was the same woman who never seemed to stop talking the night before. Now she was coldly silent as she watched a Sunday morning news show on a small TV on the counter.

When a commercial came on, I said feebly, “Sorry about waking you last night. I went out to get a pack of cigarettes and got lost. That was why I took so long.” My voice was shaky.

Arlene gave out a low groan but didn't reply. After awhile, Paul knocked on the front door, let himself in and was all smiles.

“Good morning, everyone,” he said brightly.

“Good morning,” I said, trying to sound cheerful.

“Morning,” uttered Arlene, her first word of the day.

Paul joined us for a cup of coffee. He did most of the talking, while Arlene and I were mostly silent. Then we left for church.

Since Paul sang in the choir, he sat at the side of the altar while Arlene and I sat together in the third pew. During the service, her elbow accidentally brushed against me and, as if I were a leper, she actually moved a foot away from me crowding the others in the pew. If Paul noticed it, he didn't say anything and kept giving me smiles during and between hymns.

After the service, Paul was still all smiles as we walked out of church. He greeted the Reverend and several parishioners. As we walked down the steps, he glanced at Aunt Arlene and said, “I think we have a new convert.”

“I wouldn't be too sure,” she retorted. It was the first complete sentence she had uttered since the night before. Paul ignored her comment and asked me, “How would you like to see the most beautiful spot in the county?”

He dropped off Aunt Arlene and me with instructions for me to change into casual clothes. Afraid to ask Arlene for anything, including the use of her iron, I put on my least wrinkled top and shorts.

An hour later, Paul returned bearing a lunch basket and drove me to a narrow tree-lined lane. He parked and then led me down a dirt path through a dense thicket of trees of various shades of green until they opened onto a lovely clearing with a sandy beach lining the crystal blue water of Serene Lake that glinted with specks of bright sunlight. I admired the breathtaking surroundings as Paul set down the basket and spread out a blanket.

“Nice, huh?”

“Very. It's beautiful.”

“I just bought the ten acres all around us. I'm building a dream house here, for me,” he glanced at me, “and someone I love.”

“That sounds very nice,” I said, smiling.

Paul set down the basket. “I should have brought my plans. I did them myself. But this will be more fun. Come with me.”

Paul took my hand and led me back toward the trees, until he stopped and turned around. “What the heck,” he said, “just for fun.” He picked me up and carried me for a big step before setting me down. “We just crossed the front door's threshold. Actually, it's probably the back door since I think the front door should be facing the water.”

Paul walked me through his imaginary house pointing out the various first-floor rooms while noting that the house would be very wide so that almost every room would have a wall of windows facing the water. He then stepped high, leading me up imaginary stairs and with a wink, he showed me the future master bedroom, as well as three other bedrooms “for the children” before taking me back down stairs and out to the future front porch nearly at the water's edge.

“So what do you think?” he asked like a boy who had just shown off a new toy.

“It seems lovely.”

“Think you'd like to live here?”

“Who wouldn't?” I admitted.

Paul smiled and then spread out a blanket on the future front porch, opened a bottle of expensive-looking wine and poured me a glass. It quickly made me light-headed, partly due to my lack of sleep but also due to the situation. Paul lay down on the blanket and motioned for me to lie next to him. My arm brushed against his and his warmth felt intoxicating.

Paul offered a toast. “To beautiful places,” he looked at me again, “and to beautiful people.”

He spread out hors d'oeuvres. He had prepared quite a feast.

He sipped his wine. “So tell me about yourself.”

“There isn't much to tell. What do you want to know?” I asked, suddenly nervous.

“Everything. Your favorite movie, when you lost your virginity, what your—”

“—What?” I slapped him on the shoulder. “Do you always ask that question to women you've known for one day?”

“Never,” he admitted.

“You should keep it that way.”

“I'll tell you,” Paul said.

“Like I want to know?”

“Don't you?”

I wanted to say that I thought it wasn't any of my business and vice versa but I hesitated too long and Paul said, “Judy Hastings, after the senior prom when we were both blasted. We'd waited three years for it and when it ended up being a backseat bang, we were both so embarrassed, we never spoke again.” He looked silently down toward the ground and then sipped his wine.

“That's sad,” I said.

“The worst part is that I found out later she wasn't even a virgin. She'd lost it the summer before to some camp counselor.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Then I was engaged in law school,” he went on. “We were going to start a practice together and live happily ever after, until I dropped by her apartment and found her in bed with our Intellectual Properties professor.”

He spread pâté on a cracker and handed it to me, brushing against my arm. “I always thought I was unlucky with women.” His eyes met mine. “Now I think I just hadn't met the right one.”

I smiled weakly. I wanted desperately to be the right woman for him.

Paul laughed. “Okay, I bore my soul. Tell me about your loves.” He held up his hands. “You don't have to discuss consummation. Who was first?”

“My uncle.”

“What?”

“I was eight.”

Paul laughed. “Not some childish crush. Who was your first real love?”

“Soccer,” I replied. “I loved soccer more than any-thing.”

Paul shook his head in disbelief. “You're telling me that the greatest love of your life was a sport?”

I nodded. “I really loved it.”

Paul laughed. “You're kidding me, right?”

I laughed, too. “Okay, I loved being the fastest runner on the field, being the top scorer, being the best. I loved being the star. Does that make sense?”

Paul didn't look convinced but did mention, “I guess I wasn't a star but I was our high school's top defensive player.”

“I only played in junior high,” I admitted. “They wouldn't let me play in high school.”

Paul glanced at me. “Why?”

“I don't want to talk about it.”

“Sherry Johnson,” he said softly, “woman of mystery.” Paul didn't press it. “One day, I guess we will just have to see how good you are, Star, but,” he good-naturedly flicked his finger across my nose, as if scolding me, “now, don't change the subject.”

I glanced down at the shades of grass in the speckled sunlight. I admitted, “I'm not sure I even know what love is.”

Paul smiled at me, flashing his perfect teeth. “If that were true, then you could be in love with me right now and not know it.”

I shrugged. “I suppose.”

Paul refilled our wine glasses and glanced around. “I think we need some scientific procedure.” He plucked a daisy and began pulling off the petals. “She loves me. She loves me not. She loves me. She loves me not.” He kept going until he was down to “She loves me not” but he only had two petals left. Paul ripped them both off, crying triumphantly, “She loves me!”

He leaned over and kissed me. His embrace lowered me backward onto the blanket as he kept our lips locked. Paul slid his hand to the side of my breast. I wanted so badly for him to take me right there. Amidst the beauty of that lakeside, I wanted him to make beautiful love to me. But I was worried about what he would think of me. Instead, my arm locked his hand at my side. “Let's wait,” I said.

Paul whispered, “For as long as you want.”

Instead we spent the afternoon, enjoying the wonderful lunch of cheeses, fruits, French bread, local delicacies and a wonderful crème brulee that Paul claimed he had prepared himself. We fed each other grapes and strawberries, held hands and kissed chastely like school children. Then we walked along the lake and Paul told me of the history of Serene Lake.

After admiring a breathtaking sunset that seemed to shoot flames across the sky, Paul took me to his favorite restaurant, Pete's Takeout Pizza, a small dive near the beach. The place only had one eat-in table in the corner that we crowded into it and feasted on Pete's Poppin' Toppin's, which was about three inches of everything that seemed possible to put on a pizza as well as some things that seemed impossible. It was delicious.

By the time that Paul finally brought me back to Arlene's, promising to pick me up at eight sharp for my first day of work, I was thoroughly and completely in love with him.

 

My bliss soon ended when I went inside and had to face Arlene. She was in the parlor, ironing a blouse and didn't acknowledge my presence. “Good evening,” I said, trying very hard to sound pleasant.

Arlene didn't answer.

“I wanted to apologize about last night,” I said. “I got lost. That's why I got home so late.”

Arlene gave me a loathing look. “Sure you did.”

“Thanks for not mentioning it to Paul.”

She returned to her ironing. “He wouldn't listen anyway.”

I sat down on the sofa near her, trying to be polite. “I really do like Paul, a lot. And I like you, too.

Arlene set down the iron and gave me a hard look. “Don't try to sweet talk me, Missy. Did he tell you about his lovely little fiancé? She stayed with me once, and she'd sneak out at night, too. I tried to warn Paul but he didn't hear a word. She finally broke his heart, just like you will.”

“No,” I said. “I don't want that.” I started to say that I loved him. I did but I didn't think she would understand. I wanted, needed, desperately to tell her how much I cared for Paul and how I never wanted to do anything to hurt him.

She wouldn't hear of it. “I feel like a fool,” she said, “telling you the things that I did last night.”

“No. I really enjoyed that. I want to talk again. I don't want to go out.”

Arlene shut off her iron and looked at me with contempt. “I'm going to bed.”

She headed for the stairs. But I didn't want to be alone, afraid of what I might do. “Please stay with me.” I was all but begging her but Arlene just kept climbing the stairs, ignoring me. “Please! Damnit!” I blurted out angrily.

Aunt Arlene turned around and stared at me.

I was mortified by my outburst. “I'm sorry,” I said softly. “I just—” I couldn't find the words. “I'm not the person you think I am.”

“Sure you're not,” she answered curtly and continued up the stairs.

I was hurt and angry that she didn't believe me and knew that I had to get out of there. But I also knew that if I left, I would regret it. You are not the girl she thinks you are, I tried to convince myself. I really didn't know if I was or wasn't but I knew that if I could just somehow manage to stay there, then I wouldn't be. Don't go out, I kept telling myself. Don't do anything you'll regret, Sherry.

I told myself that I was so angry at Arlene for not believing me that I needed to go out for some fresh air and some cigarettes. Right, Sherry. Fresh air and cigarettes, that makes perfect sense. Don't do it! But I knew that I would, like I always did. Just this once, I told myself, this really is the last time.

I quickly changed into tight jeans and a low-cut top while loathing myself for going out again. You are sick, Sherry. You're crazy. This has to be the last time.

I quickly drove into Sparta, wanting to get back to Arlene's as soon as possible, hopefully, before she missed me. Also, I needed some sleep. I wanted to make a good impression on my first day working for Paul. I was afraid I didn't have the skills to be a legal secretary as it was. I didn't need to also be working on no sleep and hung over as well.

I stopped at a convenience store and bought a pack of cigarettes. I sat in my car, chain-smoking until I saw a cute guy walking up to the counter armed with several six-packs of beer. As he headed out, I jumped out and rushed to open the door for him. I smiled sweetly, saying “You look thirsty.”

“I drew the short straw,” he replied. “Want to come to a party?”

I shook my head. “I don't think so.”

“You don't like having fun?”

I laughed. It seemed like another person laughing, not me, and the other person said, “Of course, I do.”

“So follow me in your car, and if you don't like it, you can leave. Okay?” He popped a beer and gave it to me.

I hesitated. I was sure that he thought I was flirting, playing hard to get but I was truly hesitant. Of course, I shouldn't go. But it was too late for that. If I didn't go with him, it would only be with someone else. Just get it over with, I thought. “All right,” I said, swigging the beer.

Before the end of the first block I had already finished the beer. He stopped several blocks away and we got out. It wasn't hard to see where he was a headed, as a large white house on the corner was blasting out loud music and several people were hanging out on the front porch.

As we walked toward the door, we passed a lanky drunk working on a young blonde with teased-up hair. He turned to us. “Connors, my boy. It looks like you picked up more than beer.” He grabbed my arm. “Hey, baby? You're passing by the best thing at this party.”

“Tex,” Connors said. “She's with me.”

We headed inside as Tex laughed, “Oh, yeah. I bet you've known each other for all of five minutes.”

Inside, I was introduced to our host, a short guy with curly hair named Nick Rogers. He relieved us of our bounty but not before my new friend grabbed a six pack for us. We drank and danced for a few songs and then stopped to do a couple of shots. Finally, he introduced himself. “I'm Scott.”

“Sherry,” I replied.

“Sweet Sherry or dry Sherry?”

“Why don't you find out?”

He gave me a long kiss and than said, “Sweet. Definitely sweet.”

We did another shot and then he kissed me again. Scott suggested that we go upstairs so we could talk because the music was too loud to talk downstairs.

We found an empty bedroom and went inside. It was dark with only a dim side lamp near the bed. Several jackets were piled on the bed. We pushed some jackets to the side and sat on others. Although we were supposedly there to talk, neither one of us said a word. Within minutes, we were having sex. I tried to imagine making love to Paul but I was too disgusted with myself. Instead, I just wanted it over so I could rush out of there.

Unfortunately, he was over before I was. He rolled over on the bed, grasping for breath. “That was unbelievable.”

I was angry that I still hadn't finished. I propped up on an elbow and said, “Let's do it again.”

“What?” He looked at me. “Give me a break.”

I put my hand between his legs. “Come on,” I said, “You can do it.”

“Christ. We just did it.”

There was a soft knock on the door and a thin, young man wearing glasses cracked it open, holding his hand over his eyes. “Sorry, but I think I left my jacket in here. I won't look.”

I knew I should have been grabbing my clothes but instead I just lay there, mortified. This guy came in with his eyes shut, groping around the bed for his jacket. Scott jumped up and pulled on his pants. The guy finally grabbed his jacket as Scott grabbed his arm. “Hey, Bri. Wait a minute. This is Sherry.” Scott turned to me. “Sherry. This is Brian.”

He turned Brian around toward me. “Say hello, Brian.”

Scott then slipped out the door as Brian opened his eyes to see me. I couldn't believe that I was just lying there naked for this guy to stare at me but I thought what could be more humiliating than what I'd already done.

He never said a word but my voice said, “Come here.” He sat down next to me. He seemed to also have mixed emotions about this, and I thought we would be there all night if I left it up to him. I put his hand on my breast and my hand on his crotch. I seemed almost frightened but probably felt that if he didn't do something, they would accuse him of being gay. Or may he just rightfully despised me. But soon, I had his clothes off and there I was having sex again.

After a little while, a fist slammed on the door and someone demanded, “Hey, Ross. Hurry up. I'm next, Goddamn it.” It was that guy, Tex, who had been on the front porch. Brian immediately stopped and put on his clothes.

He walked out without a word and in came Tex and with a big wicked smile, he said, “The best is yet to come.”

This began a long, horribly humiliating procession of guys, so many that I couldn't count them. After each one I wanted to get up and dive out the window, hoping I would break my neck. But instead, I stayed. I wanted this night to be beyond horrible, to somehow convince me to never to do this again. I didn't want to get hurt because if Paul saw bruises, he would ask questions that I couldn't answer. But I did want it to be bad.

I told myself it was like a book I had read once about quitting smoking, to smoke pack after pack of cigarettes, all at once and to just keep smoking them until they made you sick and you never wanted to see another cigarette as long as you lived. That was what I wanted to do that night and that was what I got, sick of the world and the guys in it and mostly sick of myself.

It was almost dawn when the last one finished and I managed to find most of my clothes and stumble downstairs and out to my car. I drove away quickly but at the first stop sign, I stopped and started crying uncontrollably, hating myself, wanting to ram into the nearest tree.

Instead, I drove back to Arlene's house as quickly as I could. Gratefully, she wasn't up yet. I didn't bother to even try to sleep. My whole body ached, every bone, every muscle. I got into the shower and futilely tried to wash the pain and shame and anguish down the drain.

 

After brushing my teeth for about fifteen minutes, I finally managed to put on some clothes and tried to make myself look presentable. When I got downstairs, Arlene again didn't say a word to me, but seemed engrossed in some morning TV news show. The kitchen had a warm tasty aroma and I knew that Arlene had made herself breakfast but she had obviously already done the dishes, as the kitchen was spotless. I poured myself a cup of coffee and drank it greedily, trying to dull my throbbing headache. I would have loved a couple of aspirins but even I wasn't crazy enough to ask Arlene if she had any.

There was a soft knock on the door and Paul came in all smiles, as he had the day before. I downed the coffee and gratefully, he whisked me out of there after only the minimum of pleasantries between Arlene and him.

Paul then spent the day instructing me on the intricacies of typing contracts and wills and agreements. I was so exhausted and hung over that I couldn't concentrate and keep making the same mistakes over and over again but Paul was patient and we finally made it through the day. He offered to take me out to dinner but I told him that I felt like I was coming down with a cold and that I probably should just go back to Arlene's and rest. He agreed.

I told Arlene the same story and went up to my room and without even bothering to remove my clothes, I fell exhausted on the bed. I slept straight through until Paul came to pick me up the following morning. Worried that I might be sick, he suggested that I stay home from work but I couldn't face a day with Arlene and after thirteen hours of sleep, I actually felt pretty good.

Instead, I quickly showered and dressed and we went to work. I was much better and by the end of the day, even though I wasn't exactly sure about all the legal terms, I felt like I could actually do the job.

We went out for a quiet, lovely dinner that night and Paul was a perfect gentleman and brought me home early. Arlene was still giving me the silent treatment but I was in love with Paul and so happy that I didn't even mind. I felt the urge to go out and, as crazy as it seemed, to be with some other guy so I could fantasize that I was making love to Paul. But the horror of that previous Sunday night reminded me that I never wanted to do anything like that again. I hoped that I would always feel that way. Instead I took a long luxurious bath and went to bed hoping that I would dream of Paul.

I was ready and waiting on the front porch swing when Paul drove up. At work, I was actually beginning to enjoy the job and Paul's prolific red corrections of my typos were dwindling to one or two.

“I can't believe how quickly you've picked this up,” he said. “You could be a great a legal secretary, if you wanted.” He gave me a smile. “Provided you don't find something better to do with your life.”

Then he grabbed my arm and led me to the front door.

“What are we doing?” I asked.

Paul put a “Closed” sign on the door and we walked outside. “The beauty of a small town practice,” he said, “is that everything can wait until tomorrow. Let's got for swim.”

When I protested that I didn't have a swimsuit, Paul drove me to a nearby shop and bought me one. Then we headed for the lake, passing by a practice field where several young boys were kicking around a soccer ball. When a carrot-haired boy scored a goal, Paul stopped and cried out, “Nice one, Jim. You're looking good, Guys.”

The boys beamed. “Thanks, Coach,” said Jim. “We've got to beat Franklin this year.”

“Keep working,” Paul encouraged them. “We will.”

As we drove away, Paul told me, “Our middle school couldn't afford a coach, so I offered. I can't wait until the day when I am a soccer dad.” He glanced at me. “That reminds me of our challenge.”

When we arrived at the beach, Paul grabbed a soccer ball from his trunk and soon we were racing across the sand. When I tried to dribble past him, he intercepted the ball. So I charged him and stole it back. As he was about to intercept it again, I kicked it between Paul's legs and dashed around him. That really angered him. As he was about to catch me, rather than let him win the ball again, I kicked it into the lake. We both dived into the water, and instead of the ball, we accidentally grabbed each other and ended up kissing as the ball drifted away.

After this wonderful, lazy afternoon, Paul decided that I needed to learn his favorite hobby. As the setting sun sprinkled sparks across the water, we fished off a nearby pier. He baited my hook and I sat patiently with my pole, just happy to be near Paul. Suddenly, my pole bent forward and a fish leaped from the water.

I panicked and nearly dropped the pole.

“Just reel it in slowly,” Paul instructed me. “Slowly. You're doing fine.”

I finally managed to get the fish out the water as it jerked and flopped, spraying us with water before Paul unhooked it and dropped it into a nearby pail. He baited my hook again, cast my line and then laid his head comfortably on my lap.

“It's days like this that I love it here,” he said. “If I was still on Wall Street, I'd be working until eight every night. But then again, I'd be in New York, which has a little more to offer than Oak Grove.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Sometimes,” he admitted. “Then again, I also miss singing rock 'n' roll.”

“What?” I wasn't sure that I had heard him right.

“I had my own band. We were pretty good, too, but I got scared that we would never make it big.”

“Ever regret not going for it?”

He looked reflective and then said, “I think I miss Wall Street more. It's something about toiling in secret for weeks on a deal. Then when it makes headlines around the world, I could say, 'I worked on that.'“ He looked up and said, “I'm bored with me. Tell me about your dreams.”

My dream is to marry you, Paul, I thought, and to have lots of your kids. I didn't have the courage to say that though, afraid that he would think I was too forward. Instead, I admitted, “I haven't had that many.”

“Come on. You have to have had some.”

I thought about it for a second and then replied, “Well, when I was a little girl I wanted to be a fireman.

“A fireman?”

“Well, firewoman, I guess. I dreamed about climbing ladders and saving children from burning buildings and I figured that if I died, I'd be a dead hero.”

He laughed. “That sounds reasonable.”

I slapped his shoulder, a little embarrassed. “Hey, you asked. Then I wanted to be a school teacher. I figured that if I taught any kids who were really unhappy, I'd try to help them.” I thought for a second and then admitted, “I guess, maybe, I still have that dream.”

“I think they're sweet dreams.” He got up. “I think I had better take you back. I should really work tonight.”

After such a wondrous day with Paul, I was afraid of what I might do if he left me alone. So I offered, “How about if I take you to dinner. At the cheapest place in town.”

Paul smiled. “Sherry, we've caught the best dinner in the county. And all you have to do is make a salad.”

Paul took me to the home that he had grown up in and where he still lived. It didn't look like it had been redecorated since he was a boy and I half-expected his parents to walk in on us. Instead, Paul prepared our fish while I cut up vegetables and tossed a salad. Paul's expertise in the kitchen was evident. “Where did you learn to cook?”

“From cookbooks,” he said. “With my dad gone and my mom sick, someone had to put a meal on the table.” He glanced at my salad with an approving look, announcing, “Dinner is ready.”

We enjoyed the lovely candlelit meal and a bottle of expensive wine. I only sipped my glass, knowing what I was capable of when I had drunk too much. Paul polished off one glass and then poured himself another, noticing my nearly full glass.

“You don't drink much,” he asked.

“Sometimes.” Actually, I felt tipsy, intoxicated by our lovely time together.

Gratefully, Paul didn't pursue this and asked me about my love of poetry. So I dazzled him with my wealth of worthless information on the subject. “I bet you don't even know how many words in the English language have no rhymes?”

Mystified, Paul acknowledged, “I really don't.”

“Seven,” I said, proudly. “Orange, angst, gulf, month, sixth, pizza and purple.”

“That's it? That's all of them?”

“Well, there are probably more,” I conceded, “but that is all I can think of at the moment.” I went on, “And I also bet that you didn't know that almost all of Emily Dickinson's poems can be sung to the theme song of Gilligan's Island.”

“That, too, had escaped me,” he admitted, duly chastened by his extreme lack of knowledge in this area.

He began singing, “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.”

I joined in, “The carriage held but just ourselves. And immortality. And immortality.”

I complemented Paul on his nice voice. “Will you sing for me, rock 'n' roll star?”

“No way.”

“Come on. Go for it.”

Paul downed his glass. “You're on.”

He found an acoustic guitar buried in some closet and we sat on the living room sofa as he strummed and tuned it. “You understand,” he said, “that my amps and electrics are in the attic, so you won't get the full effect.”

“I'll imagine the rhythm section,” I promised.

He strummed the guitar again, satisfied.

“I'll play you the first song I ever learned on a guitar.”

He began singing Buddy Holly's “That'll be the Day.”

 

Well, that'll be the day when you say goodbye

Yes, that'll be the day when you make me cry

You say you're gonna leave, you know it's a lie

'Cause that'll be the day when I die.

 

He sang the chorus and on the next verse he played with more rhythm. We got up began dancing as I sang harmony on the verses and joined him on the chorus. Afterward, we laughed and applauded ourselves. Paul offered, “We make great music together.”

He sat down his guitar and kissed me. For the next two hours, we kept on singing, dancing and kissing. If Paul had tried to do more than kiss, I don't think I could have stopped him. I was so in love with him. But Paul remained a perfect gentleman, only kissing and hugging me endlessly before finally taking me back to his aunt's.

Inside, I went straight up to bed without even bothering to talk to Arlene. I managed to keep myself from going out by constantly masturbating until I was sore. I didn't care. I never wanted to do anything again that might hurt Paul or our relationship.

Paul told me that the band's best singer was his best friend. “You should get to know him.” Paul smiled. “He's going to be the best man at my wedding.”

That Friday night, Paul and I headed into Sparta to meet his friend at a karaoke bar. “We might have to coax him into singing,” Paul explained. “He was too shy to sing lead in the band so he ended up be the world's best backup singer.”

The karaoke bar was softly lit with several tables facing a small stage. We were early and the singing hadn't started yet but Paul spotted his friend sitting at the bar.

“Hey, Guy,” Paul said, slapping him on the back.

The friend turned around with a big smile until he saw me and then it quickly vanished. He looked vaguely familiar but I couldn't remember where I might have seen him. My stomach tightened in fear.

Paul introduced us. “Brian, this is Sherry. Sherry, Brian.”

Brian just stared coldly at me and then it hit me. He was the guy who had been looking for his jacket at that party the night I had decided to do all those guys to humiliate myself and stop doing it forever. I couldn't believe my terrible luck. Of all the guys in the world, he had to be Paul's best friend.

Brian continued to silently stare at me. I wasn't even sure that I could speak. My insides felt twisted up to my throat. I finally managed to smile and utter, “Hi, Brian. It's nice to meet you.”

Barely above a whisper, he returned, “Hi.”

Paul looked at us and asked, “You two know each other?”

“Not really,” said Brian. “But I think we've met.”

Paul laughed. “In your dreams, Buddy. Isn't she something else?”

Brian agreed. “Definitely.”

“Well, let's have a drink,” Paul suggested and quickly bought a round. We sat down at a table near the stage. Unlike the times with Paul when I had barely sipped my glass, I began staying with Paul drink for drink, petrified that at any moment Brian would tell Paul about our sick tryst. But Brian wasn't saying much of anything. Paul told Brian how we had met and how doing a good deed was being repaid by changing his life.

When the music started, Paul tried to coax Brian in singing. “We have to find a song that all three of us can sing,” Paul insisted.

Brian said, “I don't think I'm in the mood.”

“Nonsense,” said Paul. The place was getting crowded and Paul couldn't find the waitress, so he got up to get us another round.

When we were alone, Brian seemed to be mulling over what to say. I hoped it was about which song to sing but I knew I was wrong. He finally snapped, “What are you doing?”

I wanted to explain everything, that it had all been a bad mistake. Instead I hoped against hope that he hadn't remembered me, saying, “Having a drink.”

“You know what I mean.”

Of course, I did. But I just couldn't bring myself to admit it. “No, I don't.”

“The other night. When you screwed half of the guys at Nick's party?”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” I insisted.

“What?” He looked around for Paul and I got scared.

I grabbed his arm. “Look, that wasn't me,” I tried to explain. That part I truly believed was true. Then I began lying. “Some one put some drug in my beer.”

He turned and stared at me. “Connors drugged you? I can't believe that.” He jerked his arm away.

“I'd never do anything like that,” I insisted. My voice was a plea.

“You have to tell Paul. He's sure to find out.”

No! That would be the worst thing I could do. “I can't,” I said. “You can't.”

Paul returned, armed with three drinks and a smile, and sweetly asked me, “He can't what?”

I attempted a sweet smile. “I didn't want you to know that I started smoking again. I mean buying them. I met Brian in line at the Quick Mart. Right, Brian?

Brian got up. “Paul, I've got to go.”

Paul couldn't believe it. “What? It's because I want you to sing, right? All right, you don't have to. But it's not like you've never been on a stage before.”

“Forget it,” said Brian and headed for the door.

Dumbfounded, Paul watched Brian leave. He turned to me. “Sorry about that. But don't worry about it. Brian gets a little moody now and then.”

Within few minutes Paul had forgotten about it, and we ended up singing several songs together. He sang with gusto but my heart wasn't in it, except for one duet, “Don't Go Breaking My Heart.”

 

The next morning, Paul gave me his credit card and told me to go into Sparta and buy myself a beautiful dress. He also planned to shop for something special before jogging along the lake with Brian.

Hearing Brian's name made my heart sink to my stomach. I tried to mention offhandedly that I hadn't known that he had made plans with Brian.

“I didn't,” Paul replied. “He just called this morning and said that he wanted to get together. I guess he's trying to make up for being so rude last night.”

How I wished that were true but I knew that it wasn't! I flashed anger at Brian. He was trying to take my Paul away from me. I wanted go along, to stop Brian from telling Paul but before I could say anything Paul gave me a quick kiss, promised to pick me up at seven and was out the door. I turned to see Arlene entering the room. She had seen Paul kissing me. She gave me the cold stare that Brian had in the karaoke bar. I ran out the door.

I started out for Sparta filled with misgivings, not even sure that I should waste Paul's money on a dress that I would probably never wear. But I figured that I couldn't let on that I knew what Brian was going to say. I would just have to lie to Paul and tell him that Brian had been mistaken, that it wasn't me. I thought about admitting the truth, of trying to convince Paul that I truly loved him and that I would never do anything like that ever again. That might do it. Yes, if he really loved me, that just might work.

I tried not to think about Brian and Paul as I wandered though Sparta's only mall. I found a lovely small dress shop with a beautiful black dress. But I couldn't buy it, afraid that I would look like I was going to a funeral. I considered buying a white dress but was afraid that this might also be a little too much. Finally, I found one that I thought might work, beige and very prim looking.

I walked around the mall for three more hours, as I didn't want to return to Arlene's house. I couldn't stand sitting there while she stared daggers at me.

On the drive back to Oak Grove, I remained torn between lying to Paul or telling him the truth and begging his forgiveness. By the time I had showered, changed into the dress and sat waiting for him on the front-porch swing, I was still torn apart.

###

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