For the most part, Lenny and Tia had left me alone. I could tell they were dying to pry my life open but they bit their lip. They watched me come and go, they waved, we had small talk, and occasionally they forced me to the main house for a family style meal and television with them and the kids.
A week after moving in we were lounging on the couches watching the Safeway Open. I had an affinity for Sam Ryder and was happy to see him playing well. Lenny and Tia were on one couch. Lexi had her legs hanging over the arm of an overstuffed chair and Jay was curled up on the other end of my couch with his iPad.
“What are you doing Sunday?” Tia asked. I gave a noncommittal shrug just as Sam sank a putt. Damn, he made it look effortless.
“Then you’ll come by.”
Tia was confident. Her version of asking politely was letting you know exactly how things were going down. I found her assertiveness oddly comforting in a time when my life was a bit upside down. I lacked motivation to live a productive life outside of work and had no reservations about taking up space on their couch. A lazy Sunday didn’t sound so bad.
I let them fill my belly with the soup that had simmered and smelled good all day before I made my way back to the cottage.
Tia gave me a kiss on the cheek as we hugged goodbye. “I’ll see you Sunday.” Len stood next to her patiently waiting his turn. They were affectionate. Hugging was casual as a handshake and a requirement for every arrival and departure. Adapting was easy for me, I thrived on physical touch.
“What time?” I asked.
“They’ll trickle in around three but you can come whenever you’d like.”
Urrrch. Back up. They’ll trickle in? No. I was not ready for that. Tia and Lon were one thing but they? Nope. I was hardly keeping myself together. The last thing I wanted to do was be around the same people who I’d unfriended for not liking Lee, the man who was cheating on me like a stray dog.
Facing them meant facing my own embarrassment and I wasn’t ready for that.
I was embarrassed they’d been right, embarrassed I’d been wrong, embarrassed I’d been played a fool, embarrassed I hadn’t seen it coming. I wasn’t ready to admit to anyone what was going on, that I was married to a complete stranger. They’d ask questions I couldn’t answer, like why I hadn’t kicked him out of my life like a normal person. Then they’d find out that starting Wednesday, I’d be meeting with said scheming, conniving, soon-to-be ex-husband for lunch and marriage counseling—for no other reason than to appease his guilt-filled, slutty heart.
So yeah, I didn’t want to be around people who might ask questions about the wreckage of my life. I just wanted to sink to the bottom of the ocean in peace and, in a year or two, float back to the surface looking slightly worse for wear.
When Sunday rolled around I did the only thing I could do and hid out in the cottage. Maybe they’d forget about me. I had a bunch of work to do anyway. Weeks’ worth of videos that needed to be edited and uploaded to the local Yevo social media.
I was slipping, I could feel it. I was less engaged when I was around the kids, I relied on volunteer leaders more than normal, and I found myself wanting to skip out on school events. I even found myself putting my phone on do not disturb so I wouldn’t be bothered by anyone. That wasn’t like me. I loved my job.
If I dragged myself to the main house I’d have to deal with more than just my personal life, I’d have to deal with the Knotts.
I hadn’t responded to any of their messages—and there were many. Especially Penn, who had reached out to me every day since I left Lee. They had made their feelings of Lee known and I had defended the damn prick. Hell, I ended our friendship over him. Just add them to the list of things I wasn’t properly dealing with.
As a failsafe from whatever the day would bring, I locked the cottage doors and got to work. It was tedious working trimming videos and timing music. It took an incredible amount of patience and focus and it just so happens I had those in spades. Didn’t hurt that it required so much focus that I didn’t have time to think of Lee.
“Cushman, you damn sonofabitch,” Ryan yelled. He and Penn stormed into the small bedroom, scaring the shit out of me.
“What the hell—” I scrambled. Penn rescued my laptop from hitting the floor just as Ryan immobilized me in some sort of voodoo lock hold.
“What the hell,” Penn mocked. Unlike his brother, Penn didn’t look amused as he brandished a handful of zip ties and quickly locked my hands behind my back then repeated the action to my feet. “I’ve been trying to reach you for a month. I’ve called, texted, I even left notes on your car. I don’t know what’s going on but you straight up avoiding me ends here.”
When he’d finished his handy work, he picked me up and huffed me over his shoulder like a sack of flour. I had to hand it to the guy, he was one strong man.
“I’m sorry!” I laughed. What else could I do? The kidnapping had undoubtedly become their signature move and they’d thrown me for a loop.
“Little too late my friend.”
“This is abuse,” I groaned. The position was mildly uncomfortable and, with my arms secured behind my back, I didn’t have any leverage to move. “And you wonder why I haven’t answered your calls?” I mumbled.
He laughed under his breath, it was quiet but I heard it and smiled. Penn made his way out of the cottage and to the house. I couldn’t see anything except his ass but I could hear the chatter as we entered the kitchen through the garage. It sounded like the usual suspects. I tried to maneuver so I could see what was going on but no dice.
“Glad you could make it,” Logan said with a smug twang.
“Well, you know, I had some free time and decided to wander this way—voluntarily, of course,” I quipped, limp and hogtied on Penn’s shoulder.
“Of course, of course,” he laughed. “You always were eager to hang with us. Funny we had to come get you. I guess there’s a first for everything.”
Even I had to laugh at that given their history of taking me against my will and all. Penn flung me off his shoulder while simultaneously setting me on my feet with care. The blood rushed from my head and I struggled to find my balance. Once I was steady, Penn let go of my shoulders.
“Sit,” Ryan gestured to an empty chair. “Eat.”
Everyone was mingling around the table, munching on enough food to feed an army. I wiggled my hands to remind everyone that they were still tied. No one seemed bothered by it. I looked at Penn, hoping he’d have mercy . He smiled, it was big and genuine and, despite the shit month I had, it made me happy.
He walked over. Just when I thought that the big beautiful smile meant he was going to untie me; he began to fill his plate with food.
“Seriously?” I looked around to the others, “No one’s going to untie me?” Other than a few taunting smirks, I was grossly ignored. I found myself wanting to be annoyed. They kidnapped me, tied me up, and were forcing me to socialize during a time of great emotional turmoil. I should’ve been upset. I wanted to be upset.
I was surprisingly not upset.
“Oh, hey—” Ryan said in a sudden rush of remembrance. “We have something to celebrate.”
“Yessss” Jane smiled. “A proper celebration is in order.”
Jane and Ryan looked at one another then rushed to the kitchen. I was confused. I thought, maybe they knew about Lee? They never liked him so it made sense they’d want to celebrate our separation. But how did they know? No one knew the details except Wayne. Not even my parents. I had no desire to talk about it in front of everyone and, as far as I was concerned, there was nothing to celebrate. What? Being a fool? Cheated on? Beaten down? Tricked into hanging on to a stupid string of hope? No thank you.
But they weren’t stupid, they had to know what was going on. I was staying in the cottage by myself. It wasn’t hard to piece together if you tried. Ryan and Jane came back with a tray of champagne glasses full of bubbly and passed them around.
“Here’s to Nash,” Ryan lifted his glass. “Lincoln’s well-deserved Man of the year. He’s humble, selfless, and wicked fun to be around.”
I was flooded with relief. If I had to choose between being praised, which I hated, or explaining to the room how Lee had cheated on me with Paul…well, I was more than happy to lift my glass.
“It’s not that big of a deal.”
Penn gave me a stern look. “It is a big deal,”
“Okay,” I raised my glass in defeat. “To me.”
They ignored my self-deprecating sarcasm and raised their glasses once more. It’s hard to say it without sounding like a total humble brag but I had been congratulated hundreds of times since being nominated and then winning. I would never assume the compliments weren’t real but the difference between the people in the room with me now and everyone else, was the level of sincerity. It was the first time in a while that I felt deserving.
I sipped my glass and smiled. Ryan had his arm slung around Jane, who was laughing with Logan and Abby while Ryan talked to Len. I glanced at Penn, he sat at the table watching me. There was something in that intense and paralyzing gaze of his. Contentedness, maybe. Like everything in the world was exactly as it should be. Oh, how jealous I was. While he sat with his friends and family; laughing and living carefree, my world was the definition of shambles.
In a private moment between him and me; he lifted his glass in celebration. We were the friendship version of the Prodigal Son. I had taken my riches and left him only to lose it all and return with nothing. And yet, here he was accepting me back with arms open.
I did my best to stop worrying about Lee and enjoyed being around people who cared. That was what my wounded soul needed. Genuine relationships.
They finally untied me when I told them I needed to use the restroom but not before making a big stink about it. Penn made everyone guard an exit in case I tried to escape. I couldn’t help myself, I laughed. Between everyone guarding the doors like I might charge them and Penn following behind me like the diligent Warden he was, it was impossible not to.
They were the strangest group of people I’d ever met and I loved them even more for it.
On my way back to the kitchen I made a quick motion toward the door where Ryan was standing guard. He flinched and gripped the door jam to try and stop me. I just stood there and laughed.
“Not funny!” Ryan growled. “Penn would have my balls if you left.”
I raised a brow at Penn, who was leaning against the kitchen island with his arms across his chest. He shrugged, I smiled, he smiled, I laughed, he smiled bigger. Penn was killing the friend game. I squeezed his shoulder as I passed and whispered thank you.
“Okay,” Len announced, getting everyone's attention. “Nash is Game Master tonight. Should be good since he does this kind of thing for a living.” There were several whoops as everyone made their way to the living room
“I’m not at work,” I whined. “Don’t I deserve a break?”
“Nope. It’s your contribution. Life is a give-and-take, Nash. We all contribute. For example, we never say no when you need to borrow the box truck for work and if you ever need help with building, remodeling, septic, or pretty much anything else, one of them,” he gestured at the Knotts, “will be there to lend a hand. By trade, you know how to emcee game night. From here on out, you’ll be the Game Master, unless you can find some other way to contribute,” he explained.
I glanced at Penn and he shrugged like well, he ain't lying and remember who helped you with your clubble trouble?
Len’s argument was not only right but airtight. It explained so much about the core value of their community and how they worked together for the greater good. Not wanting to fall out of their grace, I threw my hands in the air and yelled for the games to begin.
Coming up with something spur-of-the-moment was hard but I managed. No one cared that the game was aimed toward kids half their age as I doled out the instructions for Birdy on a Perch.
The evening was entertaining to say the least. I hadn’t laughed that hard in ages. Watching a group of adults scramble around the living room before flying into their partner's arms or on their back depending on the instructions had me in stitches.
At one-point Abby tried to hold Logan on her back but ended up screaming as she slowly fell backward. Logan was laughing so hard he couldn’t do anything about it. Penn learned just how competitive I was. When the music stopped, I’d do anything to get to Penn as quickly as possible. At one point I jumped over Ryan’s shoulders just so we wouldn’t get taken out of the game.
He clearly didn’t share my level of competitiveness which is why I glared at him when we got second place. In return, he laughed.
I hugged everyone goodbye and waited for Penn to do the same. He had parked by the cottage so we walked across the yard together.
“Are you done ignoring me?”
“Do I have a choice?” I joked.
“Yes.” Penn sighed and I could tell my attempt at downplaying the situation hadn’t worked. “Look Nash, we shouldn’t have excluded Lee, I get it. It’s a mistake that won’t be made again. I value your friendship more than anything else. So much that I’m willing to fight to get it back. We only hang out when Lee’s available? Done. Whatever you want. Just stop ignoring me, please.”
Penn was never that bold and upfront. When I first kind-of-met him in high school, and then occasionally throughout the years, he was always quiet and reserved. So much so, I thought he didn’t like me. But there we were, Penn was calling me out, putting my shortcomings into the light off day.
“I should have dealt with things differently. I told myself that you guys didn’t really care about friendship. Clearly, I was wrong.”
“Very wrong.” He looked at me and gave me a sly smile that made me feel warm inside. Ugh, I was so deprived of affection.
“What if we have lunch tomorrow, my treat?” I offered. It was the least I could do to repay him for his kindness. Hanging out with him was an added bonus. “We can even go to that sketchy Thai place you love so much.”
“It’s not sketchy, it’s authentic,” he chided.
“Whatever you say,” I raised my hands. “It’s actually perfect. I need to acclimate myself to the food before my trip, anyway.”
Penn furrowed his brows, “What trip?”
“Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam,” I said, excitedly. I had booked my flights right after talking to Lee. Figured I might as well get it paid for before he changed his mind or decided to make things difficult for me. That’s how much I trusted Lee.
“Lee doesn’t seem like the ‘explore Asia’ type, but I’m sure you guys will have fun.”
Penn was fishing. He knew I wasn’t living at home but wouldn’t come straight out and ask me about it.
“It’s just me and, yes, I’m going to have the time of my life. I plan on eating all the questionable food I can find and haggling with shadiest people bold enough to approach me.”
“You’re going alone huh? Why isn’t Lee going?”
Line casted. Shame there were no fish to bite.
“What time do you want to meet for lunch tomorrow?” I asked, changing the subject.
The porch light from the cottage casted light behind Penn, making it difficult to see his face. Difficult, but not impossible. He was watching me, trying to figure me out. He wanted to push, I could tell, but he didn’t.
“How about I pick you up around noon?”
“I’ll be ready.”
“I’m surprised you’re still in town. I thought you had that big contract job with an oil rig?” I asked as we ate lunch.
“I did.” Penn took a bite of Pho and sucked the noodles down. “But there are more important things happening here. The job has always been an escape; my excuse to run away. I’ve done it for so long that it’s all I know. I decided it was time to change my investments.”
“Aren’t most investments online? Can’t you change them remotely?”
“Not those kinds of investments,” he smirked. His dark eyes twinkled as he watched me. “Quality of life investments.”
“Sounds like I’ve been making the wrong investments,” I murmured. Penn looked at me questioningly but I pushed forward. “What kind of changes are you making?”
“Hmm, mostly where I’m spending my time and who I’m spending it with.”
“Smart. Spending your time with the wrong people can really screw shit up.” Before Penn could question me, I continued. “How long will you be in town for?”
“As long as I need to be.”
“Have you taken that death trap out lately?”
“Almost every week.” I shuttered and Penn laughed. “It’s not that terrible. I kept you safe the entire time.”
“I don’t know about that,” I scoffed. “I sure didn’t feel safe.”
“That was a gentle stroll we went on. Nothing was ever gonna happen to you.”
“Now you’re just being rude,” I laughed. “Don’t do that. Don’t pretend like you didn’t try and make me shat my pants.” Penn looked at me with big innocent eyes and took a giant bite of food so he didn’t have to lie to my face. I glared and shook my head. “I knew it. I knew you did it on purpose! And you wonder why I thought you hated me.”
“I don’t hate you,” he said.
Penn shook his head at me, making me laugh.
Lunch was exactly what I needed. I felt better than I had in a month.
Penn came over after work. He was just going to stay for a few minutes but then we were having dinner and time kind of slipped away.
“Where’s Cam?” I asked. She wasn’t at Len and Tia’s on Sunday and he hadn’t mentioned her since.
Penn thought about it for a second and shrugged. “I think she’s having dinner with friends? I’m not entirely sure. Why?”
“I was surprised I haven’t seen her. I figured she would’ve been at Lon and Tia’s on Sunday.”
“She works in Salem and spends most of her time there. She doesn’t really like driving back and forth.”
“Even when you’re in town?”
“She comes around for a bit when I first get back, but she has a job and a life of her own. She drives over every so often and usually makes it to the kids sports stuff they’re playing close to Salem.”
He was so casual about it, like it wasn’t strange that he and his wife had separate lives. I figured him and Cam didn’t have a solid relationship, how do you when you spend so much time apart? But then I thought of Lee, who managed to do some serious damage with relatively limited free time. What would’ve happened if we had lived an hour apart? Good God. I shivered at the thought. Who was I to judge? Whatever their terms, they were clearly doing better than Lee and I. I decided to leave my judgment at the door. I had no podium to stand on. Lee had burned it to the ground. All I had left from my high horse was a mouth full of humble pie to keep me quiet.
It was late when Penn left and I was sad to see him go. I was so damn lonely and starved for companionship.
Lunch the next day turned into another dinner. The next few weeks were full of meals spent together. A combination of breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner. Sometimes all three. We even spent the weekends together. We were always doing something; hiking, shopping, or helping Penn with work. We even went running together. We found a balance. Some days it focused on me and other days on Penn. It truly felt equally yoked.
Between work, Penn, and his family, I hardly had a moment to myself. I went from spending most of my time sad and alone to being fully submerged in community. I wondered if you could drown from too much oxygen, it felt like I might. But man did I need that rush of affection to balance the part of my life that had become toxic and dead.
And speaking of Lee, he was really messing with my life. The fallout of Lee and Paul had rolled over to work. Where Paul and I might have had a rocky relationship before, we remained civil enough to get things done. That had changed. Now neither of us could be in the same room as the other. I had my reasons and he had his.
No communication between Paul and I meant no communication between me and the rest of the committee. There was a building strain and I had a feeling Paul was behind it. I hadn’t heard from any of them in a month. There was a conversation coming. I just had to wait for Wayne to set up a meeting. Until then, I was meeting with Lee for lunch and counseling.
It was total hell.
Sitting across from Lee made my gut turn. A part of me wanted to find a way to make it work between, the other part couldn’t even look at him. Every time I did, all I saw was years of lying and betrayal. It was strange to sit across from someone who once left me breathless. I couldn’t get enough of him. Everytime we met for lunch, I’d watch him come in and could feel myself light up in joyous anticipation. It was almost like everything I had ever felt for him had vanished.
Now we sat like strangers. Lee made casual conversation and pretended like nothing was wrong. Even in counseling, he did his best to avoid responsibility.
“What did you do this week?” Lee asked. “Anything fun?”
I bit my tongue and ate my taco. I didn’t want to have lunch with him let alone tell him anything. He lost the right to know any of it the minute he stepped out on our marriage and then lied to me.
“Nope, life is pretty shitty. I haven’t done much since—” I didn’t have to say it, he knew.
Lee tried to be patient with me when I snapped. He was proud of himself for how well he was handling his crazy husband. Who was this man? That’s what I kept asking myself. It wasn’t the man I married, yet I still wanted to find a way to make it work. I wanted him to drop to his knees and beg for forgiveness, but more importantly, I wanted to believe it. But he wasn’t making a real attempt. He wasn’t addressing the things that needed addressing. I saw him roll his eyes whenever I mentioned Paul or his infidelity, like I was being unreasonable. He wanted to fix things as long as he didn’t have to accept responsibility for any of it.
“Chambers has another interview tomorrow and wants you to come,” he said, changing the subject. It was the fourth week of the same dog and pony show and I was counting down the days until it was over. Twenty weeks, that’s what was left. I wasn’t sure I could make it. I wasn’t sure why I was still trying.
“Does he know we’re separated?”
“Of course not, I haven’t told anyone, especially not my boss.”
We’d done a good job at keeping everything hush-hush. Lee didn’t want anyone to know what a terrible douche he’d been and I didn’t want anyone to know how incredibly naive and foolish I’d been.
“Do you only want to work things out because you don’t want everyone to know you cheated on me or do you actually want to reconcile?” I asked, pointedly.
“Of course not. Damnit, Nash, you know how I feel about you.”
“Do I? You slept with Paul for two years,” I whisper-shouted across the table. Lee looked around to see if anyone was paying attention.
“I know! Jesus Christ. I apologized. Fuck!” he snapped. “Unlike you, I’m doing what I can to fix things.”
“Fuck you,” I seethed. “Or better yet, fuck Paul.”
Lee was livid. Like a bull being taunted by a Spaniard. His eyes were ice-cold as he stared at me. How dare I hold this against him. I questioned a lot of things but there was one thing I knew for sure: the man staring at me wasn’t anyone I knew.
He grabbed his wallet and threw down a couple of twenties. He didn’t say anything as he grabbed his jacket and left the table. Counseling is going to be all sorts of fun I thought as I followed Lee out. If I was lucky, he’d decide it wasn’t worth it.
“Do you want a ride together?” he asked.
“No. I’ll meet you there.”
He didn’t look happy. It wasn’t that he wanted to carpool to counseling with me, he didn’t, it’s that arriving together looked good. If anyone saw us, they’d assume things weren’t so bad. Even happy couples went to therapy.
Counseling was indeed tense and, by the end of it, I had nothing left to give. Even hard sessions usually left me feeling encouraged and hopeful even if the hour had been painful, that wasn’t the case with Lee. If anything, I was left feeling even more confused and hurt than normal. I went straight home and crashed in bed. It had become my normal Wednesday routine; awkward lunch, pointless counseling, emotional meltdown, crash in bed. Because of this, Wednesday was the only day Penn and I never hung out. I just never felt up to it after being with Lee. Penn never said anything.
“You’re ignoring me again.” There was an air of playfulness in Penn’s voice as he made his way through the cottage. I peeked out from under the pillow long enough to see the clock on the nightstand said seven-thirty. I’d been in bed for hours. “I called, twice,” he added.
I didn’t have to see him to know he was leaning against my door frame in work pants and a black work sweatshirt. His arms were probably crossed, they always were. It was fifty-fifty if he was wearing a hat. If he wasn’t, he had hat hair. Either way, I knew he was watching me.
“I let you go to voicemail.”
“You let me huh?”
I nodded from under my pillow. The day had been shit and I’d spent the afternoon crying over Lee. The second he saw me his expression changed. Gone was the teasing smirk and soft brown eyes. I knew everything about me; from my messy blonde hair to my puffy eyes and disheveled clothes, showed just how wrecked I was. I looked up at Penn.
“How does a person change from someone you loved to someone you don’t even recognize?” I asked.
“Oh Nash.” He dropped his arms to his sides and he let out a long breath.
I couldn’t do it anymore; I couldn’t hold it in. It was killing me. I looked at Penn, at his face full of sympathy, and I lost it. Penn being Penn, rushed to my side and pulled me to him until he was laying with me. He wrapped his arms around me and let me cry. And cry I did. Months of dealing with Lee’s cheating alone was too much. I was hurt, I was angry, I was broken, and so so alone. It felt like days before I was able to pull myself together.
“Are you ready to talk about it?”
I shook my head no but the answer was yes. It was time. I needed to talk to someone about it all. The only person who benefited from keeping it a secret was Lee. Not telling anyone was about as toxic as meeting with Lee under the pretense that we were working things out.
Penn was my best friend; he was there every day. I owed it to him and to our friendship to stop being such a coward. “I left Lee,” I mumbled into his chest.
“Ahh, so that’s why you’ve been living here.”
“I know, I had everyone fooled.”
Penn let me move the conversation at my own pace and I hated it. Where was the direct Penn I’d seen a month ago? The one that came in and forced me out of the cottage? The one that called me out for avoiding him when he knew I needed his friendship more than ever?
I wanted him to force this out of me. Make me confront the truth.
“Ughhh,” I groaned as I pounded his chest in frustration. “This is so humiliating!” I rolled off Penn and dug my face into the mattress like an ostrich. He was right there, rubbing his knuckles between my shoulder blades. It was overwhelming and comforting all at once.
“You don’t have to tell me, but you should. And I think you want to. I’m not here to judge you, I’d never—”
“Lee cheated on me,” I blurted into the mattress.
Penn froze. I felt his knuckles tapping ever so lightly on my spine. I could feel the agitation in every thump. When he didn’t say anything, I turned and looked at him.
“He was sleeping with Paul Culla—” He knew who Paul was, everyone knew who Paul was. There was a twitch in Penn’s jaw. “—for over two years.”
He looked past me, his eyes hardening. The normally warm eyes were almost deadly. I never wanted him to look at me the way he was looking at the wall right then.
“I was supposed to be speaking at camp when I found all the messages on his iPad. Every time he was too busy to come to my races, he was fucking Paul. Working late? Nope, fucking Paul. Work conference? Fucking Paul. I didn’t read everything but I think it’s safe to assume every excuse was a coverup for Paul. I came home the next day, confronted him, packed my stuff, and came here. Perspective is a bitch, you know? One morning I was happy. I was married to the love of my life who I met in high school. I had a job I loved and a life worth bragging about. Twelve hours later my life was unrecognizable. He’d been cheating the whole time. Only one thing had changed, my perspective. The crappy binoculars I saw my life through were replaced with a high-end telescope of truth. Do you know what it’s like to see all your mistakes and misjudgments in high definition?” Penn stared at me with an unreadable expression. “It’s like the worst case of vertigo, ever, and there’s nothing you can do to feel better.”
I grabbed the pillowed and balled it up under my head. “That’s not even the worst part,” I said, closing my eyes. “I’m such a dipshit. I’ve been going to lunch and marriage counseling every Wednesday.”
He shifted on the bed. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” I flopped on my back but I kept my eyes closed. I couldn’t bear to look at him. “I don’t want anything to do with him but seventeen years is hard to walk away from. And I’m scared. Who am I without Lee? But then again, who was I with Lee? I don’t know up from down anymore. I’m pretty sure I’m going to lose my job. I’ll be required to take leave once I file for divorce. And all the committee members are either Paul’s family or friends. They can’t fire me but they can squeeze me out, make work so unbearable that I quit. I’m not stupid. It’s only a matter of time. I make shit for money anyway. Everything I have—everything I had—is because of Lee. I’ll be broke once we split finances. I’ll be forced to move back in with my parents.”
I’d never been afraid to face things head-on but now I was a giant coward. Lee wasn’t the only one I didn’t recognize. If I looked in the mirror, I wouldn’t have a damn clue who was staring back.
“Say something?” I pleaded after a lifetime of silence.
“I never liked Lee. I didn’t like him when we were kids and I don’t like him as an adult. He’s goddamn lucky you’ve humored him this far but it ends now. I understand that it’s hard to give up on a relationship after seventeen years but Lee walked away a long time ago and left you standing at a door that goes nowhere. You’re worried about a job? Money? Things?” he shook his head. “I’m sorry, but no. Those are nothing but terrible excuses. You can get a new job tomorrow and you’d be making more money. What are you really afraid of?”
“I don’t know,” I cried, tears silently falling.
“Does Lee make you happy?”
“Do you want to make it work?”
“Then why are you going through the motions? Why go through this for him?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t do it!” I bounced out of bed. “I don’t want to be with him but I’m terrified to be without him! I can’t do it alone, Penn. I don’t have a family like you. When I walk away from Lee, I walk away from everything I’ve ever known and that’s fucking terrifying! And our divorce will be headline news because everyone thinks they’re entitled to the details of my life because of my job, which I won’t have for much longer. I don’t want a new job, Penn. I love my job! But I won’t have a choice. And I'll end up working some pathetic job trying to make ends meet and everyone will feel sorry for me. I had it all! Everything I ever wanted—I had! And now everything is being ripped away from me and I can’t do anything but sit here and watch it happen. I’ll go to bed alone and wake up alone for the rest of my life. I feel embarrassed and humiliated all the time and no one even knows about any of it!”
I was panting from the emotional outburst. Penn got up and gripped the back of my neck and slowly pushed me toward the bathroom.
“Get ready for bed.”
He closed me into the bathroom. I stood there for a minute and tried to get a grasp on my life. He wasn’t there when I walked back out. I looked down the hall and noticed all the lights were off. He must’ve left. I stripped down to my boxers and crawled into bed.
Penn was right. I just needed sleep.
I was about to turn off the table lamp when Penn returned. He pulled the sweatshirt over his head and quickly shed his clothes all the way down to his boxers.
“What are you doing?” I asked. Penn was practically naked and crawling in my bed.
“You think that if you’re not with Lee, then you’re alone. I’m proving you wrong. You’re not alone. No one's asking you to be alone and no one expects you to do this alone. And if you think I’m going to sit back and let you keep making terrible decisions then we’re not as good of friends as I thought. Now go to sleep. We’ll tackle this thing again tomorrow, and the next day, and the one after that. We’ll tackle it every day until we’ve tamed it or maimed it or hopefully killed it.”
Once again, Penn knew exactly what to say and do. He was excelling where I was failing. I was a grown man who had counseled hundreds of people over the years. I could analyze emotion and then write a book about it. I knew I was making terrible decisions when it came to Lee but I needed someone like Penn to point it out.
I turned off the lights and settled in. I tried to fall asleep but there was one thing that bothered me.
“Did you know?”
“About Lee. Did you know what was going on behind my back?”
“No, god, fuck no. Why would you think that?”
“I just thought, because you guys hated him, that maybe you knew.”
“Hell no. If I knew he was cheating on you—” Penn turned and faced me straight on. “If I knew, if my brothers knew, you would’ve known.”
Seeing the sincerity in Penn’s eyes made my own burn. And for the first time, I fell asleep almost instantly. I was no longer alone