“I had no idea,” I said when Abby started looking at me funny.
“Join the club. They were pretty tight-lipped about it. We only found out when Penn got back from visiting you. Cam came to celebrate his return and, BOOM, she was all belly. Kind of hard to hide that. Cam and I went out for coffee later. You don’t drop a bomb like that and get to walk away. I had questions; you know?”
“Yeah, lots of questions.”
Oh, I had so many questions.
“Right?” she huffed, still offended by all the secrets. I understood it. Oh boy, how well I understood. “Cam told me she was planning on an abortion. She’s so busy with work and her and Penn were, well, you know—”
Were planning on getting a divorce.
Not really in love.
“Anyway,” she continued, totally oblivious of my reaction...or lack thereof. “Penn would hear none of it. I guess they really got into it, fought hard over it. Clearly, Penn won out. He seems pretty easy going but he’ll also fight to the death, or life, if he needs to. You won’t catch me on the wrong side of Penn. Nope. No way. Honestly, I think Cams glad he stood his ground. She was just scared. Logan and I got pregnant at the end of high school so I know how terrifying it is. I’m just glad it worked out. Penn will spoil his little namesake and I’ll die watching. It’s just too cute,” she gushed, still watching Penn dote over Cam outside.
The whole time she rambled I was thinking about things Penn had said. I’d had no reason to question him before but now it seemed so obvious. He had been scarce before I left for Thailand and said it had to do with Cam. He also mentioned they’d talked about getting a divorce but then things got complicated and would take longer than expected.
Well, I’d say so.
Technically, he hadn’t lied but he sure as hell left out some pretty big information. I felt about as blindsided as I did when I found out about Lee.
Penn told me he respected me and I believed him. Wholeheartedly. Had I done something that gave off the impression I wanted to be lied to and manipulated?
“Well, that’s enough of that,” she said. “I want to hear all about your trip. Come outside with me so you only have to share it once. I don’t think anyone expected you to show up. They’re going to freak!” she smiled and opened the patio door for us.
“Actually,” interrupted. “I, umm, forgot the gift in my car.”
“Ahh, that’s so sweet,” she was looking at me the same way she’d just looked at Penn. “Hurry, I won’t spoil the surprise. I might even record it,” she waved her cellphone then shooed me toward the garage.
She didn’t have to tell me twice. I left as fast as my feet could take me. I didn’t slow down, even when I was out of view. I jogged down the driveway. It wasn’t until I was at the bottom that I reached for my cell phone. Their house wasn’t exactly in town and it would take at least an hour to walk somewhere. I figured Dad or Nathan could pick me up.
Only I didn’t have my phone. I checked my pockets again and sighed. I remember having it on the way there. I hoped I’d left it in Dad’s truck but more than likely it was sitting on the table by the patio door, having set it down when I heard Penn and Cam were having a baby.
Five miles later I was walking up Nathan and Kelsea’s driveway. I hadn’t seen either of them in over six months and had barely called him while I was away. Hell, I hadn’t seen or talked to him much since Lee cheated. He had every right to be mad at me but I knew he wouldn’t. Our friendship was better than that.
When I finally got to the house, he was standing with his arms crossed. He tried to be intimidating and was about to give me shit until he saw my face. He silently stepped to the side and let me storm by. I flopped face down on his couch and screamed as loud as I could into a pillow.
When I sat up Nathan was patiently waiting.
“Do I have ‘doormat’ written on my forehead?” I asked. “Is there something about me that begs people to treat me like shit? What is it about me? He knew what I went through. He knew what I was going through! He said he respected me. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” I got up and paced around the living room while Nathan sat and watched. “I don’t know how I would have reacted if he had told me right out of the gate, but at least I would have the information and the choice. This is big. This is a baby. You don’t hide a baby. You say ‘Hey, I know things are new between us but I’m going to be a dad. I think you should know that. I RESPECT you enough to be honest’. Ugh! To think I actually considered staying here. It was all too soon. Shit with Lee is still up in the air, why did I think I could move on. It was stupid of me.”
I was breathing so fast I thought I might pass out. I put my head in my hands and took a couple of slow breaths.
Nathan stared at me with his mouth open. “What, in the ever-loving fuck, is going on?” he asked, enunciating the questions with his hands.
“Penn Knott. We were—seeing each other. Then, today, I found out he and Cam are having a baby.”
Nathan looked at me like I was a stranger; like he’d completely missed the last nine months of my life. It wasn’t far from the truth.
“Penn Knott you say?” he put his hands to his lips and looked at the sky like he was speaking to Jesus. “I’m gonna need you to rewind and start from the beginning.”
So, I did. My storyline was all over the place but I told him everything; from thinking Penn hated me, to Ryan kidnapping me, to lunches, our budding relationship, Thailand, his marriage to Cam, and his fifteen-year-old feelings for me. Lastly, seeing him kissing and cooing Cam’s belly and the conversation with Abby.
When I finished, Nathan was sitting in the chair across from me looking like he’d just binge-watched the newest drama on Netflix.
“I think murdering both Penn and Lee would be a little suspicious but if you left town a few days in advance—to be on the safe side—I think I could pull it off.”
I gave him a look and he raised his hands.
“Okay, okay. No murdering. Copy that,” he feigned disappointment. He always had a hard time taking things seriously. “I don’t know what to tell you. This whole thing sucks ballsack. For the record, I never thought Lee was good enough. As for Penn, I don’t know him well enough to make any judgments against him, except...I hate him and he’s a giant dill-hole who can rot in hell. How dare he make my best friend sad.”
“Why am I your friend?” I threw myself into the chair with a huff. I don’t know why I came to Nathan’s support. “Where’s Kelsea? She’s better at this stuff.”
“I resent that. I’m amazing at this stuff. I told you years ago to divorce Lee and now look, you’re divorcing Lee. Maybe you should stop judging me and start listening to me. You can’t fight greatness.”
“Okay, oh great one, what do I do about Penn?”
“I think you’re making a bigger deal out of this than it needs to be. You said it yourself, you need to focus on this crap with Lee. You need to get divorced and take his ass to the cleaners. Then you need a job and a place to live. You need to get things lined up so you can move on. Penn might be nice to look at but you haven’t known him for very long. It’s not like you guys have history. It won’t be hard to make a clean break. Sure, it sucks, but whatcha gonna do about it? Penn and Cam are having a baby. They’ll need time to figure out what that looks like for them. He may want you but they need him. Shit, neither of you need a distraction right now. Ya both need to focus on your own drama.” Nathan held his hand out and dropped the metaphorical mic. “Boom. Nailed it.”
“I really wish Kelsea was here,” I groaned. She’d tell me what I wanted to hear, not what I needed to hear.
“Where do you think she gets all her good advice from?” he asked, then answered by pointing his thumbs at himself.
I rolled my eyes then pulled myself out of the chair. “I’m going to crash. Can I see your phone real fast? I think I left mine behind.”
Nathan tossed me his phone without question. The tracking app showed my phone was at Len and Tia’s. As unfortunate as that was, they usually left their house unlocked which meant I could grab it while everyone was at work.
“Can you run me on a few errands Monday? I need to get my phone and stop by Dad’s for all my stuff.”
“Sure, you can crash here. Don’t worry about asking or anything.”
Of course, I was welcome, we had an open-door policy, it’s what best friends do.
I was tired. Between travel and the surprise (to me) baby shower, I was exhausted. I wanted nothing more than to lay down and not wake up for a day or two. I pulled myself out of the chair, tossed the phone in Nathan’s lap, and started toward the guest room.
“Hey,” Nathan said, standing up and pulling me in his embrace. “One day at a time, right? That’s what you always say to me. Tomorrow, you’ll wake up, I’ll make you breakfast, and we’ll chill. Monday, we’ll get your phone—”
“And my truck.”
“And your truck,” he continued. “We’ll get whatever you need. Then Tuesday we’ll figure out the next step. You let Lee focus on Lee, Penn focus on his family, and you focus on you.”
With that, he let me go.
I slept great for a few hours then not so much. It had more to do with jetlag than Lee or Penn. I laid in bed for a little bit, got up and had a snack, then laid back down where my mind wandered.
Learning about Cam would’ve been hard on a good day but after a day of travel it was downright unbearable. Sleep helped me put things in perspective. I was less angry after a few hours of quality rest.
He wanted to do right by Cam and I respected that. Empathized is a better word. Respect would’ve been given if he’d been upfront with me. So yeah, I understood where he was coming from and the why behind it but I was angry. He lied by omission after I’d been traumatized by a lying husband.
On the plus side, I cared less about Lee than ever before. Downside; because my heart was broken all over again.
When I woke up again it was eleven in the morning, I felt...surprisingly put together. Nathan even commented on my cheery mood. I was ready to conquer the day.
One day at a time.
Dad was too busy pouting to ask about Penn. He just looked sad as I loaded all my stuff into Nates truck. I felt guilty so we stayed for lunch.
“You’re dad’s hilarious.”
“He’s a cool dude.”
He really was. He wasn’t perfect but he loved well and stepped up after him and mom divorced.
We shoved my crap in his garage and spent the rest of the day hanging out. Kelsea came home around dinner; she’d spent the weekend out of town with some friends. Nathan either filled her in on the gossip or had kept her out completely because she never said anything.
We waited until midday the next day before we went to get my phone. I wanted to make sure no one was home.
Nathan looked uncomfortable and refused to take more than a few steps into the house. “Is it not strange to be in someone’s house when they’re gone? I feel like I’m breaking the law.”
“It’s cool. They never lock their doors and I practically lived here months. They won’t care that I came to grab my phone.”
I walked to the patio entrance expecting to find my phone on the sofa table but it wasn’t there. I looked around the living room, then the kitchen. It was nowhere.
“Could you make it play a noise or something from the tracking app?”
He fiddled with it for a minute. “I can but it’s pointless,” he handed me the phone and I took one look and cringed.
Nathan took the phone back and studied it. “Where the hell is this? It looks like it’s in the middle of nowhere.”
“It’s Penn’s house.”
“Does he leave his door unlocked too?”
“He didn’t even have a house to lock up last time I was there. But there’s no way am I snooping through his stuff. Len and Tia are one thing, but that would be crossing a line.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“Call me childish but I’m due for a phone upgrade.”
“He has your truck too,” Nathan said.
I flashed him my best smile. “You have an extra.”
“This is a terrible idea and you don’t normally have terrible ideas.” Nathan looked at me with sympathy then nodded toward the car.
I groaned and pouted and stomped my feet as we left the house, phoneless. “I know. I’m buying time. I need a plan. I’m so fucking tired of being blindsided.”
Nathan squeezed my shoulder and shoved me toward the truck. “I know just what you need.”
So, we went running. Nathan was the only person who could truly push me. He’d been doing it since we were in sixth grade.
He was right, it was just what I needed. It had been a week or so since I last ran. I’d been too busy getting ready to move back home and anxious to see Penn. I was able to outrun all the stress and negativity.
I made a new goal: Make running a priority.
So, I ran. Everyday. I did the same route I always ran along highway 101. I waved at all the same people. I even saw Ryan and Logan. They both waved though Ryan looked suspicious. I was too tired to care. I half expected to see Penn but never did, something I was thankful for.
I got an email from my lawyer. I hadn’t heard from her in a while. I hadn’t pressed for any information because I knew these things moved at their own pace. She scheduled a time for a final review. The best part was; we had a date for the judge to sign off. Maybe Lee had let up since he wasn’t getting a reaction from me. I couldn’t be sure.
I was bitter about having a failed marriage I just never thought I’d be divorced. It wasn’t something that popped into my head, not even as a hypothetical thought. It had never been an option. Not to me. But there I was, not living my best life.
A week later I was over the jet-lag but not over the heartbreak or stress that came with everything resurfacing. I thought about both Lee and Penn daily. I met with the lawyer and signed off on the dissolution of my marriage. I wondered if I’d see Lee before the judge signed off. I wondered if I even wanted to.
I thought about stopping by Penn’s. I wanted my phone and my truck but I didn’t really want to deal with him. I was over it all. I had been emotionally tossed around so much it was making my stomach recoil. Being in Lincoln wasn’t healthy anymore. Every day I did the same thing and none of it was improving my emotional health.
I decided to call Wayne.
“Nashville, to what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Wayner. You retired yet?”
“What? You trying to poach my job? You can’t handle this job,” he laughed.
“Well, now that you mention it, I am trying to poach a job. I was actually hoping you might have a lead on something.”
“Nash, you know I have you on the line but we can’t do anything until next year. Even I can’t push that through.”
“No, I’m talking about something to hold me over until then.”
There was a moment of silence. “Are you moving to Portland?” He tried to keep calm but the excitement was bubbling beneath the surface.
“I’m definitely thinking about it.”
“Hot damn! You just get your ass up here and I’ll have a job waiting!”
That was pretty much the wrap up of that conversation. I hung up smiling. I loved Lincoln but it was no longer where I needed to be. With all the changes going on, I needed a blank canvas: first Portland, then wherever Yevo might take me.
The early sunrise and all the job possibilities brought me out of bed at first light.
I wasn’t interested in working in a metropolitan area because I really loved small towns. I always had a knack for overcoming their hardships like funding and lack of quality volunteers. I thought of all the places that didn’t have a lot going for them and couldn’t help but see endless job possibilities.
I really didn’t want to live somewhere hot and humid, that was not something I could handle. I was in the middle of picking all the places I didn’t want to go when Penn passed by. I kind of froze when his brake lights fluttered. He’d recognized me and was trying to figure out what to do. I just knew he was freaking out as he tried to think fast on his feet. It wasn’t until he actually kept going that I relaxed. Who knew someone could hold their breath that long and live to tell the tale?
Some might say that Penn was my last loose end. I didn’t agree. He left out a very big detail and, as far as I was concerned, I owed him nothing. There was no need for a long, drawn-out conversation. My feelings aside, what he had with Cam was bigger than what him and I had. If I ended up in a situation where I was forced to talk to him, I’d tell him that much. I would let it go on the best terms I could muster.
I thought a lot about what a conversation between the two of us would be like. I’d go for a diplomatic approach because I wanted things with Penn and me to end differently than things had with Lee. Okay, so me living without a phone for over a week just to avoid Penn wasn’t the most diplomatic start. However, the phone detox gave me time to reach Zen. It’s the only reason I could consider being at peace with Penn.
I started smiling. I felt good about where I was. Knowing I was moving gave me an all new confidence. I felt in control for the first time and I loved it.
All new that flew out the window when I was snatched by my elbow and pulled off the sidewalk mid stride. Then I was swung around and pushed against a car.
Correction: a truck. A black truck. A custom black truck whose owner looked none too happy sprinkled with a dash of hurt.
“Goddamnit, Penn! You scared the shit out of me!” I covered my face with my hands and took a deep breath to collect myself. My heart rate was at critical level. “Fuck!” I said again, pissed that he’d scared me. Pissed that we were facing off when I was once again blindsided. Pissed that this wasn’t on my terms.
“I don’t know where you were looking but I’ve been standing in your line of sight for the last five hundred feet.” Distracted and thinking about this exact conversation. “You’ve been back for over a week,” he stated, crossing his arms to show me just how annoyed he was. His jaw was set and his eyes were dark.
“I lost my phone.”
Penn rolled his eyes and turned his head to watch the cars pass by. He was trying to keep his composure. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was holding himself back—as if he had a reason to be mad at me. When he looked at me again, it was the same way my dad looked at me when he was giving me a another chance to answer correctly.
“What?” I said. “I lost it somewhere between arriving in Oregon and showing up to what I thought was your homecoming party but turned out to be a baby shower.”
“I know. I found it. What I couldn’t figure out is why I couldn’t find its owner.”
“Probably had something to do with you kissing Cam and her big ‘ole belly.”
Penn threw his hands in the air and shouted, “I told you we’re just friends!”
“Unfortunately, that was all you told me! It’s pretty fucking shitting to show up to a baby shower I didn’t know about only to find my boyfriend or—whatever the fuck you were—kissing his just friend. I had to find out from Abby, Penn, from Abby!”
“Cam didn’t want to tell anyone. I had to respect that!”
“And I respect that, I really do. But in respecting her you disrespected me. Did you not think this was something I needed to know about?”
“I wasn’t going to keep it a secret, Nash. I was going to tell you. I’ve been telling you that the whole time. I told you I’d explain what was going on when you got back home. That was always the plan.”
“When? After the baby shower? After all of Lincoln found out about it? When you had to leave in the middle of the night because she’s in labor?”
“I don’t know why this is a big deal. You’re making it seem like I’m a terrible person, like I can’t be there for Cam. Because I can,” he said. He looked frustrated and pained and completely beside himself.
I blew out a breath and put my hands on my head. This wasn’t how I wanted any of this to happen. I never wanted to be reduced to a screaming match on the side of the highway. I took a second and collected myself. We may not have started this conversation on the right foot but maybe we could end it that way.
“Look, Penn, I don’t want to fight about this. I’m not mad—”
“Clearly you are,” he interrupted and I put my hand up to quiet him.
“I’m going through a divorce from a husband who had a secret life. Then the same thing happened with you. You should’ve told me. Even still, I’m not sure it would change things. The truth is, I need more than you can give me right now. I probably shouldn’t be with anyone. If I was, I’d need someone who isn’t distracted. I need to be the sole focus. I know that sounds selfish but my entire world is shattered and I need someone who has time and patience while I figure myself out.”
“I’m that person,” he said. “I’ve been that person. I want to be that person. More than anything in the world I want to be that person. Have I not proved myself?”
He stood on the streets of Lincoln and pleaded. A different time and I probably would have done whatever it took to make our budding relationship work. I believe in forgiveness and compromising when it comes to relationships, and I’ll do my share to fight the conflict, but this wasn’t that time.
I shook my head. I was done. “I’m sorry. I just spent six months negotiating my way out of one relationship, I don’t want to negotiate my way into another. If you’ll be home, I’d like to stop by tonight and pick up the phone and my truck.”
He looked as though I just sucked all the light out of the world. His face looked like how I felt when I realized my marriage was over and, for that, my heart broke for him. And my heart broke for me.
I knew enough to know our emotions made terrible decisions. They’re impulsive and hormone-driven and, although there is a time and place for those actions, this wasn’t one of them. My life was turning on its axis and I needed all my faculties. I cared for Penn, loved him even, but Cam and baby Penny brought a complexity that I wasn’t willing to take on. I spent my whole life being selfless and now was a time I needed to be selfish. I needed to put myself and my wellbeing first.
Penn nodded but didn’t say anything. He was on the verge of crying; I could see it written on his face; the way his lip quivered before biting it. I decided not to linger. Neither of us needed that.
I could feel his eyes watching me as I walked away. I wanted to turn around one last time but I didn’t. It was the best thing I could do for both of us.
I was depressed for the rest of the day. It was a rarity for me to spend an entire day doing nothing but that's exactly what I did. The only time I left the couch was to use the bathroom. I didn’t even eat until dinner.
I stared out the window the entire way to Penn’s house.
“I can get your phone keys if you think it would be easier.”
I looked at Nathan and smiled. As much as I wanted to take him up on his offer, I wouldn’t. It was a total cop-out that I’d regret the second we left.
“Nah. This whole thing is partially my fault. After Lee, I was terrified of being alone. Then Penn showed up all supportive and white knighted my broken heart. It would’ve been so easy to slide into another relationship. I’m sure Penn would’ve been perfect but it would’ve crashed and burned. My foundation was demolished by Lee and won’t be ready to build on for a long time. I would’ve crushed Penn eventually.”
“As much as I’d love to see things work out differently but I have to agree. You haven’t been single since you got your driver's license. That deserves more than a few months.”
Shit, he was right. I’d been with Lee for so long. I had no clue what singlehood was like. I still didn’t. Penn had been by my side since day one. That confirmed things for me. I knew without a doubt that the right decision was in play. If things were supposed to work out with Penn, they would have. Fate was like that.
I was nervous as we neared his house. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I figured the handoff would be easy-ish. We already talked. If he had something more to say then I’d listen. I’d also explain about needing time for myself—for mental health and all that.
“This is his house,” I pointed to the newly finished house. It was beautiful. Gorgeous. White with a stunning wrap around porch. The house was missing a few finishing touches, but it was still amazing. He had walked me through the entire thing but I hadn’t see the vision until now. I swear it was straight out of a Country Living magazine.
“This place is nice,” Nathan complimented as he put his truck in park.
“Yeah, way different than when I was here six months ago.” I gave myself a minute to be impressed before finally getting out. Nathan would wait until I gave him the signal to leave. I wasn’t nervous until I reached the door, then my heart went into overdrive. I barely knocked before the door opened.
“Hey Nash! C’mon in!”
I wasn’t sure what to expect but Ryan answering the door on Penn’s behalf wasn’t it. I glanced back and realized it was Ryan’s truck parked outside, not Penn’s. I’d been so busy looking at the house to notice.
“Would you like water?” he asked as he walked around the kitchen island and grabbed himself a drink from the refrigerator. I shook my head. Even if I was thirsty, I was too confused and taken off guard to do anything about it.
I wanted to ask where Penn was but didn’t. Penn wasn’t there for a reason and I didn’t really want to discuss that reason with Ryan.
“Give me a second to find your stuff. I just got here and haven’t had time to find it.”He buzzed around the kitchen and then moved to another room as he looked for my stuff. Then he jogged upstairs, back down, then went into another room.“Got ‘em” he yelled as he rounded the corner. He held the phone in one hand and the key in the other like two trophies. “I thought he said there was something else but I don’t know what it is or where it’s at. I can look if you’re okay waiting for another minute?”
I was positive Ryan knew what had transpired between us but he was doing a bang-up job of pretending for my benefit. Then again, maybe Penn hadn’t told him. I can’t imagine Ryan taking it this well.
“Nah, I can grab it later,” I said, trying to play it off. “Thanks for this stuff. It will be nice having a phone and a car again.” Ryan and I both laughed, though it wasn’t completely genuine on my behalf…or his.
As I reached the door, I heard the crinkling of a plastic bag. “Oh, I think this is the other stuff.”
I turned around to see Ryan holding a grocery bag. I didn’t have to open it to know it was random things of mine that had been left in his truck or maybe the trailer during our short friendship. I grabbed the bag, thanked him, and left the house.
Ryan stood at the door and watched me. He nodded when I gave him a final wave from my truck. In that moment, I knew that he knew. He was there because Penn didn’t want to be. It was surprisingly crushing to know I may never see him again.
“Now I have to sell my truck,” I complained to Nathan the next day.
“Why? It’s finally a decent rig.”
“Exactly. Penn couldn’t leave well enough alone. He couldn’t have just fixed the transmission or catalytic converter or whatever was wrong with it like a good guy. He had to fix everything that was wrong with it.”
Yep, he fucking fixed everything and detailed my car like a professional. It was hardly the same truck now that it had a working stereo, AC, and passenger window. Plus, I’m pretty sure he put on new windshield wipers.
“Technically, he did fix ‘whatever was wrong with it’. It’s not his fault that there was a lot wrong.”
It wasn’t his fault that I felt guilty. If I would’ve known he’d done so much, I would’ve paid him. I needed to be thankful and let things go. There wasn’t much I could do about it now. Who knows when I’d see him again, if ever.
I shouldn’t have thought that.
I ended up seeing Penn everywhere. Every time I drove through town, check. Grocery store trip, check. Run on the highway, check. Restaurant for lunch, check. He did a really great job of not seeing me whenever our paths crossed. It was painfully obvious he was avoiding eye contact. The only time he acknowledged me was when he was with his family. They were sweet as ever. I got the impression that no one knew what had transpired except Ryan, who did a good job of running interference without making me feel like an asshole.
I hated what our friendship had been reduced to. I blamed Lee. Which is why I could barely look at him when we showed up at the courthouse so the judge could sign off on our divorce.
I was officially single.
“Hold up a minute,” Lee said as he jogged toward me as I descended the steps toward the parking lot. I rolled my eyes and kept walking but Lee was fast.“I know you hate me but I just wanted to apologize. This wasn’t how I wanted things to end and I really hope we can be amicable.”
“Why?” I snapped. “Why the fuck do you care if things are amicable between us? You cheated on me for fuck’s sake. Then manipulated me and treated me like trash. Then screwed me over when I was out of the country and then devalued me by contesting everything and telling me I wasn’t worth half of what we spent our entire adulthood building together.”
“I know! I’m not proud of any of it. It was hard for me too, you know.”
“Oh yes, I’m sure it was so hard for you while you and Paul ran around behind my back. So hard for you as you ruined my life.”
“Come on, Nash. We’re going to see each other all the time. We’re both active in our communities. We don’t have to be friends, but let's be civil.”
I stopped and stared at Lee in disbelief. What a fucking moron.“I was active in the community because of my job. The job I lost because of you and Paul. I have no fucking job. I have no community involvement. I have nothing, Lee. So, fuck you.”
Flipping him the double bird wasn’t all that satisfying. I wanted to punch his face and then slam his head into the wall. I know that sounds extreme but he invoked that kind of response from me. I never realized how obtuse he was.
I literally never wanted to see him again.
But that wasn’t in my cards, either. If running into Penn wasn’t enough, now I was running into Lee also. Everywhere I went was either Penn or Lee. I even saw Paul once.
So, when Wayne called and said his friend who managed the Costco in Clackamas was hiring, I jumped. Costco wasn’t the job I dreamed of but it was the stepping stone I needed to move on.
Everything happened pretty quick after that. I nailed the interview. Joe had a spare room he was more than happy to extend my way. I didn’t have much so the move itself wasn’t that hard. I disappointed my dad once more when I was able to fit everything in my suburban in one go.
I was moved to Portland in time for the Fourth of July.
Work was as expected. I enjoyed the atmosphere and the free membership. I was anxious to get back to Yevo, though. Now that I was officially divorced, the countdown was on.
I had a lot of friends in the Portland area and everyone was excited I was there. They kept me busy. If I wasn’t working, I was doing something; hiking, kayaking, BBQ’s, driving to Bend, camping, etc. I was having the time of my life.
I was in Portland a month when I learned that Cam had the baby. Jane and Abby posted about it on social media. Cam was positively glowing. There was a picture of Penn and the baby. He looked happy, too.
It was a little hard to see the pictures but it was another confirmation that I’d done the right thing. Maybe he and Cam really were getting a divorce. Maybe the birth of Penny had change that, who knew. Penn needed the time and space to figure out what this new dynamic looked like and it wasn’t my place to influence his decision.
I never knew how many people from my home town visited the Portland area just to shop at Costco until I saw them in the checkout line. They were just as surprised to see me. I got a lot of questions. The most popular being: when did I move and why. Which meant I also had the privilege of announcing the failure of my marriage over and over. And before you ask, yes, over the course of six months, that many people came into Costco. After a while I stopped caring how much I shared. I had nothing to hide.
Three of those times it was Jane and Ryan who visited my line. I was embarrassed at first but they were cool about it. They never treated me like I wasn’t living my very best life. They even invited me to lunch, twice. I declined, of course. Penn was still a sensitive topic and one I avoided.
I drove home once a month to see my dad and even managed to spend a few days for Christmas.
I called Wayne exactly six months after the judge signed off on the divorce. Costco was fun but I wanted to work for Yevo again. Turns out it wasn’t that easy. We talked about the available areas and if any seemed like a good fit. We set up a few mutual interviews to see if I liked them and if they liked me. I hoped it would be a quick placement but it wasn’t. Three months and nothing. I tried not to feel discouraged but it was hard. I’d been with Yevo for a long time. I had a lot to offer and thought more areas would be chomping at the bit to hire me. I struggled a lot with humility and entitlement.
I had to be patient and wait for the right placement.
Minus the lack of Yevo employment, things were good, great even. The friendships I had were growing now that we could spend more time together. I found an amazing church. My community was stronger than ever. I was happy. I was thriving. Being single was weird but I enjoyed it.
The divorce and preceding singlehood brought a new perspective. I didn’t regret my relationship with Lee but newly single Nash wouldn’t be happy with that kind of relationship anymore. Life and maturity had forced me to evolve. I was excited for whatever lay ahead.
I was changing; like a caterpillar to a butterfly. Though it felt less graceful, like the growth cycle of the Hercules Rhinoceros beetle; awkward and ugly.
It was another day on the grind. I considered any day when Jamie was my box boy to be a good day. He was a few years older than me, probably Penn’s age, and funny as all hell. We worked well together. Those days always passed quickly. It felt like I’d only just clocked in but I was actually one or two customers away from clocking out for the day.
Jamie was telling me about his youngest brother, Jim and how he’d gotten drunk and confronted a group of guys. He ended up punched his own teeth out.
“So, what? He beat his opponent to the punch?” I said, chuckling at my own pun.
“Literally,” a customer said. She was the next customer and, between the riveting story and the ticking clock, I had completely forgotten to greet her. I turned my attention to her and choked.
“Cam.” I tried to smile but I don’t think I passed muster. I didn’t have a problem with her. I was just uncomfortable about the baby she shared with Penn, which was strapped to her chest.
“I was hoping I’d see you.” Cam’s smile was bright as ever. She looked happy but I had no idea why she would want to see me or what to even say to that. Instead of responding, I smiled and focused on scanning her items. Luckily, there wasn’t much. Diapers, wipes, and a handful of other items. I wrapped the transaction up and handed her the receipt.“I’m in town for the night. Think we could get coffee or dinner or something?”
“Well, oh, I—uh,” stumbled through as I tried to figure out a reason why I was busy. We had never talked, not really. The last time we interacted was when she tried to grind on me during the Fourth of July.
“He’s actually just getting off, aren’t you?” Jamie said, not helping the situation at all. I shot him a look to let him know just how much I didn’t appreciate all the help he was giving.
“It looks like I’m free,” I said, offering Cam a smile.
“Perfect, I’ll wait by the exit.”
My supervisor had already blocked my register so when Cam walked away, it was just Jamie and I.
“Hey,” he raised his hands in defense. “She’s cute. I was just trying to help.”
“I’m gay and she’s my ex-boyfriends baby mama.”
His eyes widened when he realized what he’d done. “Ohhhhhh. Well, look at the time, I gotta go.” Jamie shot me a smile then skirted a few registers down. He glanced back and smiled, guiltily.
I finished up, clocked out, and headed for the exit. Cam was waiting and smiled when she saw me. I took her cart and helped her out, then loaded everything into the back of her SUV. We made plans to meet up at a coffee shop down the road.
My stomach dropped on the way there. Never in a million years did I think I’d be having coffee with Cam. We arrived at the same time and I waited as she pulled Penny out of the car. She didn’t strap Penny to her chest this time, opting instead to carry her.
We ordered drinks and made small talk. Cam sat across from me with Penny on her lap. She took off the little pink hat she’d been wearing. I couldn’t not look at her. She was cute. She was also a redhead, like, flaming orange. It was shocking.
Cam chuckled and combed her fingers through Penny’s hair. “Her hair gets that reaction a lot. Her personality doesn’t match. She’s sweet and docile. The only fiery thing about her is her hair.”
“It’s just a surprise is all.”
Neither she nor Penn had red hair. Cam looked at me weird then bit her lip. “Penn and I are officially divorced.”
“Congratulations?” I said, hesitating because what the hell was I supposed to say? ‘Thank god! It’s about time?’
She laughed, then sighed and looked at me. I knew it was about to get real.“I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I asked.
“For this giant mess I made. It didn’t occur to me until it was too late that this situation would adversely affect Penn. He was confused when you left the baby shower and then downright miserable when you moved away. I feel like it’s all my fault. I can’t stand it. I’ve held him back for so long and I can’t do it anymore. I just can’t.”
“Did you get pregnant on purpose?” I asked. It would explain her feeling guilty about his unhappiness.
“Hell no,” he laughed. “Never. God no. This—” She leaned down and kissed the head of fiery hair, “was not part of the plan.”
“Then I don’t know why you feel guilty. It is what it is. I was never mad at Penn, per say. I was hurt and disappointed that he didn’t tell me.”
“And that’s my fault. I was so scared and made such a big deal about no one knowing. I practically swore him to secrecy.”
“Even still, I’d think there would’ve been an exception for me.”
“Yeah,” she conceded. “Hindsight, you know? I could’ve and should’ve done things differently,” she took a breath and exhaled loudly. “I was so scared when I found out that I actually considered an abortion. I couldn’t imagine a world where I was a mom. Penn shut that down real quick. He said I was more than capable, that I had so much to offer, then he told me I wasn’t alone. I knew what he was saying was true. His family is my family and they look after their own. But I took advantage of his support. I knew there was something between you two but I was too wrapped in myself to care. By the time I pulled my head out of my ass, it was too late. You were gone.”
I reached out and grabbed her hand. “Cam, stop. You didn’t do anything wrong. Penn and I probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway. Even if you hadn’t gotten pregnant, it was crazy of me to think I could jump into a new relationship. I wasn’t even divorced yet. Plus, Penn needed to be there for you and the baby. You and her should be his priority and I could never get in the way of that, but I also deserved more than that.”
“This is why he loves you,” Cam smiled. “But you’re wrong. I was capable of doing this on my own and it was selfish of me to drag Penn down. He’s given up so much for me over the years and when he finally found his happiness, I stole it from him.”
“I’d hope you doing it alone was never an option and I’d like to think his daughter would bring him more happiness than I could—”
Cam held her hand up, interrupting me. “What the fuck did you just say?” She asked, unconcerned about cursing in front of her daughter.
“I’m just saying that his daughter should always be his priority. She should bring him joy. I would never come between that.”
Cam raised her hand up like she was going to make a big speech, paused, then brought it down and covered her face. “Holy shit.” She shook her head. “Penn is not her dad.”
“What?” I asked.
“Penn is definitely not her dad. Her dad is, Samuel. That’s where she gets the hair from. She got everything from him except her personality. Sam is every redheaded stereotype you can write. He’s loud and kind of crazy. We weren’t even dating when I got pregnant. I wasn’t sure if I even liked him all that much.”
I pressed my fingers to my temple. “I’m so confused. Abby said—” I paused. I thought back to the baby shower, the conversation I had with Abby, then the one I had with Penn. Every conversation made it seem like Penn was the dad. “Actually, I don’t know what she said but I swear—”
“Penn is not the father. Penn and I haven’t—” she covered Penny ears, little too late if you asked me, “had sex in almost twenty years. Even then, I’m not sure if he ever actually finished. I’m not exactly packing if you know what I mean.”
I groaned. It did explain a few things like why he said he’d choose me and why he didn’t understand why it was such a big deal to me. From his position, our relationship shouldn’t have been impacted by the baby. It explains why he was keeping Cam’s secret. It truly wasn’t his to tell.
“This is good, right? You and Penn can pick up where you left off?”
“We didn’t exactly leave off all that well.”
“Well, how about before the baby shower? Before you came back from Thailand? He was so happy then; waiting for your return. He had a whole big plan to surprise you after the shower was over. Can we go back to that?”
“I—” I wasn’t so sure. It had been almost ten months since Penn and I talked on the side of the highway. It seemed like a lifetime ago. I was happy in Portland and was hopefully going on staff soon. I wouldn’t move back to Lincoln, not even for Penn.
“Will you at least reach out to Penn? No need to tell him about this coffee date because he’d murder me for sure. But you should reach out. See how things progress naturally. Maybe you could accidentally clear the misunderstanding with him. Get on the same page. Please,” she pleaded. “Just see what happens.”
“Yeah,” I nodded slowly. “I could probably do that.”
Cam smiled brightly then looked at her watch. “Shoot. Sorry to drink and run but we have to meet Sam soon. You’ll reach out soon, right?”
I nodded. I would reach out even if I didn’t have a clue what to say.
The whole ride home was brain chaos. I wasn’t even out of the truck before I was typing out a message. I started, then erased, a dozen messages before landing on something simple.
I know. I’m a real Casanova—a regular William Shakespeare of the twenty-first century. A text. A simple text. What had my life become? I was no better than the kids I yelled at for texting when they should’ve called. I should’ve called, right? Texting Penn had been a terrible idea. Before I could overthink, my phone beeped.
Knotty Penn: Hey
Well, at least we were on equal footing.
Me: Want to hear a funny story?
The bubbles appeared and disappeared a few times before his response came through.
Knotty Penn: Sure?
Me: I work at Costco
Knotty Penn: I heard. And that’s funny?
Me: It’s not, but I see a lot of people from back home. Today I saw Cam and Penny. Her hair is very red.
Knotty Penn: It is kind of funny I suppose
Me: No, that’s not—just let me finish
Me: Cam said she looks just like her dad. I told her that you didn’t have red hair…
Knotty Penn: Ok?
Knotty Penn: Oh. You thought…
Me: Yeah, I thought…
He didn’t respond right away which was weird because he’d been instantaneous the whole time. I waited in the car for ten minutes with no response. Then I paced around the house. I kept checking my phone in case. Nothing. Finally, over an hour later, my phone buzzed.
Knotty Penn: For clarification…this story is funny because there was a misunderstanding which led to you refusing to talk things through? Which would’ve cleared it up but instead you moved away? Sorry, just trying to figure out the punch line.
His response broke my heart but I couldn’t blame him for responding the way he did. I knew how much he liked me and for how long he’d harbored those feelings. He made that clear. As much as I wished things would’ve been clearer at the shower, they hadn’t been. Everything I saw and everything I heard painted a picture, as clear as the sky was blue, that Penn was going to have a child Cam.
The last ten months had been great for me. I was healthier than I had been in a long time. I was happy and healing. I’d even say I was ready to move forward. But I don’t think those same ten months had been as good to Penn. I was pretty sure he was broken and I didn’t know how to move forward. There was a good chance the damage done was too great.
I wondered if reaching out to Penn had been a mistake. Should I just leave him alone? Should I press forward?