As one does after an emotionally taxing day, I woke up with a raging headache. I called it my Wednesday hangover. The fact it played a recurring role in my week was a telling sign. Only this time I wasn’t alone. That was different.
The childlike nature of his head cradled in his arms paired perfectly with the masculine strength of his wide, exposed shoulders and taut back muscles. He had a slight tan line from working in a t- shirt but he was also pretty damn tan all over.
With no chance of him catching me I took a moment to selfishly enjoy his hot-as-sin body. And boy was it sinful. He had the whole brooding, dark, and handsome with a splash of sensitive going for him. His hair was in need of a cut but looked adorable and disheveled from sleep. His skin was surprisingly smooth and flawless for someone who spent so much time exposed to the elements.
I thought about waking him but he was an adult, if he needed to get up at a certain time then that was on him. I wasn’t his keeper. I pulled on my running clothes, tied my shoes, and grabbed my earbuds. The October mornings were getting colder and darker by the day.
I’d run the same course almost daily since staying at the cottage and had been avoiding eye contact with the commuters I normally waved to. I needed to get over it and stop behaving like a child. Having Penn on my side, telling me that we’d get through it one day at a time was giving me the strength and encouragement I needed to begin healing.
I decided to stop being a coward. No one knew what was going on and, if they did, so be it. So, I started waving again. It felt surprisingly normal and actually helped my mood. I felt less anxious. I saw nothing but smiles, nods, and waves. Not a single person looked at me with pity.
Ryan drove by and did his typical faux swerve. I didn’t fall for it like I did the first time but I did laugh. A couple of minutes later Logan passed by. He was more of a causal waver; a two-fingers-raised-from-the-steering-wheel kind of guy. Normally, I’d see Penn next but he was at the cottage, sleeping.
The gratitude I felt for Penn and his patience was overwhelming. He listened without judgment, spoke without adding pain, then stayed with me while I lost my shit trying to process it all. If that wasn’t the epitome of friendship then I don’t know what is. Penn was the kind of man that men needed to be. He wasn’t afraid to handle my emotions head-on. He told me, then showed me I wasn’t alone. That was more than I could say for Lee.
I didn’t make it to my normal turn around spot before I decided to head back. I wanted to take a page from Penn’s book and change my investments. I wanted to spend time with people who made me feel good. Something I needed more than ever.
He was still sleeping when I got home so I took a shower. I was standing in the room looking for a pair of underwear when I heard the deepest voice ever. It was like sand and gravel covered in dark molasses. I always enjoyed his voice; it was rich and meaningful but his morning voice—wowee. I don’t think words ever sounded so delicious.
I slowly turned to face him, stunned by the change. “Say that again—”
He propped himself and looked at me. He had a perfect chiseled body, dark summer tan that contrasted against the white sheets, messy hair that screamed sex, and deep voice that could tempt the straightest of men. All that perfectness and he had the audacity to look embarrassed. Why? I had no idea. He was total fantasy material.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” he hesitantly repeated his words.
I wanted to swoon. “Oh my god,” I moaned like a teenager. “That voice…”
Oh lord, he blushed. Swoon-swoon-swoon-a-licious. “It does this most mornings. More so if I sleep like the dead. It will go away.”
“You say it like it’s a bad thing. You better keep talking.” I abandoned the search for clothes for the chance to savor the last fleeting moments of Mr. Morningvoice. I laid beside him, in just a towel, propped on my elbow and stared at him like a child seeing Santa for the first time.
“What are you doing?” Penn asked, his eyes riddled with sleep and confusion and embarrassment.
“Your voice is the sexiest thing I’ve ever heard. Talk to me.”
Penn laughed, which was also incredibly sexy in the morning, then rolled on his stomach and buried his face in the pillow.
“What are you doing?” I shook him. “You’re wasting time!”
He lifted his head and looked at me, all smiley and flushed. “You just want me to—talk?”
“Oh yeah.” He looked embarrassed and panicked. He had no clue what to talk about. “Just tell me you have planned today.”
“The Fall Fishman’s Expo finished yesterday so I have to pick up thirty porta-potties from the fairgrounds. If you know what a weekend of fried food does to a person’s digestive system then you’ll understand the special kind of hell today will be—”
“Okay—” I put my hand up to stop him. “That wasn’t the kind of dirty talk I had in mind.” I got off the bed and walked to the dresser.
“You’re the worst, you know that? Beg me to tell you about my day then you throw a fit because it’s not sunshine and roses.”
“Sunshine and roses, huh? I bet you could use some of that to combat all those deep fried porta-potties.”
“Now who’s gross?”
“And yet you love me,” I cooed as I pulled a shirt over my head and buttoned my pants. “Do you need a shower?”
“Yeah, I probably should. Not that it will matter in a few hours.”
I left him to it and went to the kitchen to whip up a couple bowls of oatmeal with a plate of fruit. He joined me a few minutes later with wet hair and yesterday’s clothes. He sat down next to me and we ate breakfast together. I had nowhere to be so I savored my food while thumbing through social media. He ate fast then got up, washed his dishes, and got ready for work.
“See you at lunch,” he said as he pulled a sweatshirt over his head before walking out the door.
I watched as he left the cottage. Before driving away, he waved at me through the window. There was an effortlessness about him. In no time at all he had gone from someone I barely knew, to someone I didn’t want to live without.
I sat in the kitchen and worked for a while. I was deep into quarterly accounting when my phone rang. Wayne’s voice rang from the other line. “Nashville!”
“Wayner, always a pleasure.”
He called me Nashville because I constantly kicked his ass in song and dance competitions, which there were a surprising number of in my line of work. He was born and raised in Indiana yet everyone in Oregon were hicks. The irony of a Midwest boy thinking I’m a country boy was never lost on me.
“We haven’t talked in a few weeks. How are you holding up?”
I didn’t have much to report. Things were...going. He asked about counseling and I was candid about my thoughts on the matter. It was pointless.
“Well, I don’t know if this is good or not but I finally set up a meeting with the committee. How does Sunday sound?”
“Sounds terrible but long overdue.”
“I know, but it was probably for the best. It gave things time to settle before we stir the cowpie,” he laughed. “But we can’t hold off forever, it’s time to get this shit done.”
“I know, I’m trying to stay positive, but—”
“Hey now,” his voice was firm. “I know things haven’t been ideal between you and the committee but we’re a team and I’m here for you. I’m sure we’ll smash it out and everything will end good terms.”
“I know, it’s just hard to stay optimistic when I’m dealing with Paul. I feel like it will come down to me or him and since everyone on the committee has changed his diaper at some point, I’m not sure you and I have a chance.”
“At the end of the day, I’m the boss,” he reminded me. “I only have to take what they want into consideration. And you need to remember that you haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I know,” I sighed. “I guess we’ll see what Sunday brings. What time is the meeting?”
“One-thirty, which brings me to the real reason I called, I’m going to crash with you Sunday night.”
“Wayne,” I laughed. “I’m living rent-free in a cottage. I’m not exactly in a position to offer room and board.”
“I thought you said there are two bedrooms.”
“There is, but—”
“Perfect, I’ll see you Sunday.”
And like that, he was gone. I shook my head. It was so like him to get his way by playing dirty.
I ended up going to lunch with the law firm. God knows why I did it. Actually, I did. Lee, despite his terrible ways, still held a part of me captive. It felt like a line from one of those corny movies when the guy says something stupid like, “I can’t quit you.” I always rolled my eyes and yelled at them for being so dumb. How could they be so blind? Now I know.
Lee used lunch as an excuse to pretend like things were good between us. Even though I was there because of him, I couldn’t let myself pretend like things were fine. He kept standing next to me with his hand on the small of my back or draped over the back of the chair. Everytime he did it, I maneuvered away. I’m sure everyone felt the tension between us. I don’t think I spoke a single word to him the entire time. I kept myself busy with his colleagues, all of whom I liked. Mostly, I did what I was supposed to do and watched the potential hire, who was great. Chambers didn’t need me there. I suspected Lee was behind my invitation.
When we finished, Chambers and I walked out together. It gave us a few minutes to discuss our thoughts.
“Well, today was interesting,” he said.
“You didn’t even need me. Gregory was a shoo-in.”
“He was, but that’s not what I’m talking about.”
We slowed and glanced at the rest of the group, who were keeping their distance. Lee was chatting amicably with a couple of his co-workers while everyone else walked to their cars.
I knew what Chambers was referring too. He might pay me to read people but he was no dummy himself. “We split,” I said. “He’d kill me if he found out I was telling you but I don’t care anymore.”
“What?!” Chambers looked genuinely shocked by the announcement. “You guys were the dream team.”
“Well, here’s the thing about dreams; they’re not real.”
“Surely you don’t mean that. You of all people were living the dream. Can I ask what happened?”
I glanced at Lee again. Fuck, he’d be pissed if he knew I was spilling details to his boss. “I caught him cheating.”
“Well,” he hesitated the way one does when they think punishment is bigger than the crime. “It happens, Nash. I see it all the time. I also see a lot of people move past it. People make mistakes but Lee loves you, that much I know. Can he not be forgiven? I’d hate to see what you guys had gone to waste.”
Nash shook his head. The back of his eyes burned and he couldn feel Lee watching the back of his head. Chambers saw the look of pain on Nash’s face and frowned. He reached for Nash but Nash pulled away.
“Is it still considered a mistake when you cheat for years? When does it stop being a mistake and become a very intentional act of betrayal?”
Chambers balled his fists. “Fuck” he shook his head. “I should fire him.”
“Yeah, well—” I shrugged. There was a part of me that would love to see Lee get fired but he’d never be the one to set that in motion.
“Who’s representing you?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far. Lee wants to work things out so—I don’t know, we’re in counseling.”
He looked me straight on; drilling his grey eyes into mine. It was the same look he used in the courthouse and it made me want to pee my pants. “I love Lee. I hired him when he was still in high school and he’s been an amazing asset to the firm. With that said, if you don’t want to fix what he broke, then don’t. Infidelity is a fair reason to split and you don’t owe him anything. I can’t advise you on what to do but if you called this number—” he pulled a card from his wallet. “She can.”
“Oh,” I held the card between my fingers and looked it over. The card was thick and expensive looking, the kind that told me I couldn’t afford her. “We’re still sharing a bank account, I can’t—”
“Nash,” he looked shocked. “You can’t be that stupid.”
I stared blankly, unsure of how to respond. What do you say to that? I was that stupid, clearly.
Chambers lectured me on the merits of separating assets. We ended up having a decent conversation and he did a really good job at convincing me there was no reason to wait. Maybe it was because he was a lawyer or maybe I was finally ready to hear it, but everything he said resonated with me.
“Okay,” he looked at me like he was making a plan. “You just call the number I gave you and leave everything else to me, okay?”
We stood around for a few minutes longer. I could feel Lee watching us, staring, telling me to shut the fuck up. Meanwhile, the card was burning a giant hole in my pocket and I felt like everyone could tell I was hiding a secret.
Wayne showed up on Sunday morning around ten. I showed him the spare room and then we spent a couple hours catching up. We talked a lot about Lee. It was different talking about it in person versus on the phone. It felt good. Wayne had a way about him, he could tell you a truth so hard to hear it made your teeth hurt but make you laugh two minutes later.
“Well, it’s time,” he clapped. “Let’s go bust shit up.”
The Culla’s house wasn’t far, maybe a five-minute drive. It felt longer, way longer. I hated not knowing what to expect, it was the worst. I hated even more that Paul would be there. I wasn’t sure if he’d be remorseful, apologetic, embarrassed.
“Take a breath, Nash. You’re starting to make me anxious.”
“I can’t help it. This will be the first time I’ve seen Paul since—well, you know.”
“Kind of sucks we’ll be meeting in a professional setting and you can’t deck him in the face, eh?”
“Was that ever an option?”
Wayne laughed. “If I thought you’d actually do it, I’d have your back.”
“You’re one pocket protector and hip surgery away from a Florida retirement community.
“Why does everyone hate on pocket protectors? There’s value in organizing your writing utensils and having them easily accessible.”
“Says the old person.”
“This old person will lay you out, son.”
I smiled out his window as I watched the town go by. As we neared the driveway, my nerves skyrocketed. Everyone was there, probably plotting and planning against me. I knew it wasn’t true but my mind kept going there, thinking of very unfavorable scenarios.
“Let’s do this,” Wayne said as he practically jumped out of the car. He almost seemed excited to face whatever was going to happen while I was a complete mess.
I saw Paul the second I walked in the door. If I thought he might be remorseful for what happened, I was wrong. He looked at me like the whole situation was my fault, like the only thing he regretted was my existence. The look in his eyes was pure hatred. Even after he turned his back on me, every time I saw his face, he was scowling. He was so wrapped up in his anger that I barely spoke to a single person.
They noticed. I watched everyone glance at him but they ignored it. They let Paul behave like a child. No one called him out for being cold and rude.
I worried that Paul might’ve said something to them but I didn’t get any weird vibes. We stood in the foyer for a while, making small time, and no one looked at me funny, no side glances, no lingering stares of annoyance.
It didn’t take long before Marilan, Paul’s mother, shooed us to the dining room. The wood table held an array of homemade appetizers. I had to give the woman credit, she knew her way around the kitchen. I gained ten pounds every time we met. Even after we sat, everyone continued to talk.
Paul sat at the opposite side of the table, next to his wife. He refused to make eye contact with me, which was fine. I just couldn’t believe how irritated he was. I mean, it made total sense since it was I who had inconvenienced him with my marriage.
“Alright,” his dad, Dennis, boomed and the whole room silenced. “I know it’s been a while since we’ve met and, as much as I’d like to spend all night catching up, we have a full agenda. Wayne has come a long way so I’d like to respect his time.”
Instantly, the atmosphere turned to business. Dennis did that. There was something about him that held authority. He was a tough businessman but he had a sensitive side when it came to kids. I’d seen him cry more than once when kids turn their lives around.
We got started, Cindy read minutes from the last meeting, I talked about the clubble, camp, and how things had been since starting back up in September. We were about to move on to new business when Wayne interrupted.
“Before we begin, I’d like to have the floor for a moment if that’s okay with everyone.” Besides Paul, who was trying not to glare at me, no one was bothered by Wayne’s interruption. “After talking with several of you, it seems there's some issues to discuss. It looks like there’s been a lack of communication which has led to a lack of understanding. I think it needs to be cleared up before we move forward.”
“He’s right,” Dennis said, his hand moved to his chest. “And I’d like to apologize for not reaching out sooner. I wasn’t sure how to address the issue since Nash has always been on top of things. It was quite an unexpected shock to hear the ball is being dropped.”
Me, dropping the ball? That got my attention.
“Okay,” Wayne was trying to keep himself composed. “How has Nash been dropping the ball? If we can figure out what’s going on, then we can find a resolution.”
“My understanding is that he’s not putting in the agreed hours, not going to events and games, and he’s not meeting with leaders regularly but he’s also having them do more.”
Wayne glanced at me and I could tell he was trying not to roll his eyes. Did I want to ditch events, yes. Did I? No. It took all my self-control to not stand up and flip the table on Paul’s manipulating lying ass.
“When did this start?”
Dennis shrugged and looked at Paul for confirmation. Paul’s discomfort was boiling by that point. Did he really think he could tell his dad I was doing a shit job and expect it wouldn’t get brought up?
“Paul brought it to my attention a while ago, maybe a year? I think he mentioned it’s been declining more rapidly as of late.” Dennis was watching all of us and as he said the words, it was almost like he realized something was up.
Besides a questioning brow raise, Wayne remained neutral and stoic while I silently stewed at the slander. Wayne picked up his tablet and tapped away. “According to Nash’s reports, he’s accomplished a lot. In fact, he raised his portion of camp funds plus some. That extra contributed to the amount that you, as committee, had failed to raise. He’s already thirty-seven percent ahead of schedule for raising next year's personal support. It also looks like there’s been a four percent increase in kids over the last eighteen months. According to everything I have, Nash has been busier than ever. If he is able to scale back while maintaining these results then I don’t see an issue. I also don’t see any balls dropping. But I do see a big discrepancy between what’s being said about Nash and what Nash is actually doing. Why is this?”
Everyone looked at Paul, he was the only one who could answer anyway. I could see his heart racing as he tried to figure a way out of the mess. I wondered how he came here thinking he could be this disrespectful and not be outed. Judging by the way he was glancing at his wife, he was starting to realize this very potential.
“All I know is that the last few months he hasn’t been doing his part. He’s been having the volunteers do most of the work at club while he does nothing.”
Wayne nodded and looked at me, preparing me for what was about to happen. As much as I didn’t want to open this can of worms, I knew it was the only way.
My heart was racing. I wanted to yell at him and tell everyone at the table what a terrible person he was. I also wanted to take the high road. I was torn. No matter what, I had to advocate for myself.
“Clearly I’m not doing nothing. Last year during my review, one of the things you, as committee, wanted to see me improve upon was delegating tasks. With that said, Paul is partially right, I have been off my game. I don’t think I’ve neglected things the way he’s described, but I have been delegating more and more to other people so I had more time to deal with some—personal matters.” I shifted in my seat as I prepared myself to continue. “Last month when I was supposed to speak at the College Summit, I found out Lee was cheating on me.”
Instantly the room was filled with concern, surprise, and anger. It was a little chaotic as everyone asked questions. It wasn’t until Paul’s wife Shayla spoke that everyone quieted down.
“Nash. I’m so sorry to hear this. I think I can speak for everyone when I say I’m shocked. How are you guys doing?”
She frowned. “Have you discussed counseling?”
“We’re in counseling right now. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to help in the long run. I think this is the end of our marriage.”
“You sure?” She asked, not rudely, just sad.
I looked at Paul for a long second, then back at the room. “The affair lasted for several years. So, yeah, it’s pretty over for me.”
“Shit,” she said. “Given the situation, I’m surprised you’re even here. You should be focusing on her mental health and wellbeing.”
“Do you know who the other guy was?” Cindy asked, then backtracked when she realized how rude and insensitive the question was. I think her intention was to gauge how deep the pain ran. Was it someone I knew? A total stranger? What kind of support was I going to need?
Little did she know….
I looked at Paul and, if looks could kill, I’d have been a fully decomposed body.
But here’s the thing about sleeping with another person's husband, it tips the scales of mercy and forgiveness in your favor exactly none. He slept with my husband behind my back. I owed him no favors, no mercy, no leniency. If it wasn’t for Shayla, I would have already shouted his name for the whole room to hear.
“Yes, I do know him. But I feel that person should have the chance to come clean on their own. He has a family to consider and I’d rather the truth come from him and not me.”
Everyone seemed to respect my decision, even if there was a bit of selfish disappointment in the air. They agreed and hoped that whoever it was would do the right thing and tell his family. Paul continued to glare at me. I don’t think he appreciated being called out like that in front of his family.
As much as I wanted to expose Paul, I was satisfied with how I handled the situation. For Shayla’s sake, I really did want Paul to be the one to tell her. I liked her, she was always kind and generous. I wanted her devastation to be as minimal as possible.
I wished I had been given the same courtesy.
As it turns out, Paul mistook my compassion for more than what it was. Maybe he’d been talking to Lee and thought I was going to keep my mouth shut, maybe he thought he was safe. All I know is that he took every chance to belittle me and undermine my authority. After a half dozen disrespectful comments that I tried to ignore, his dad snapped.
“Paul! What has gotten into you?”
“Me?” he looked shocked. “What about you guys? No one seems to care that Nash’s personal life is falling apart and he’s no longer fit to hold this job. Is everyone going to pretend like this isn’t a big deal? It’s blindingly obvious that he needs to step down. How’s he supposed to lead the community when his own husband doesn’t want to be with him?”
That started an uproar. Everyone had something to say. The crazy part was; Paul had a point. How could my personal life not affect my work? I should have taken time off work. I knew it, they knew it, everyone knew it.
“Actually,” I said. “I agree with Paul. I should have taken personal leave while I sorted this stuff out. It’s not fair to anyone that I’m working while going through this. Nobody wins.”
“I think personal leave is warranted in this case and we will absolutely support you in whatever way you need. Maybe we could lessen your workload to part-time?”
Dennis shook his head. “This is bigger than a reduction in hours. He should be able to fully focus on his personal life.”
There was an agreement that I should take time off but disagreement as to what that would look like. The conversation continued, including Paul and his snide comments. I didn’t know who Wayne would punch first, Paul or the rest of the committee. Besides Dennis’ initial outburst, no one was correcting his behavior. The more I sat and listened, the more I realized how unhealthy the group had become. Even if they didn’t know that Paul was rotten, he was behaving worse than the most entitled kids I’ve ever worked with and no one was doing anything about it.
“Nash,” Dennis addressed me directly. “What do you want to do? Would you like to take time off? Go to half time for a while? This isn’t a decision we should make without your input and you’ve been awfully quiet.”
“Excuse me,” Paul interrupted. “I don’t think Nash should decide. His judgment is clearly impaired.”
“What? Are you going to quit your job and take over?” His dad asked, clearly annoyed with his son.
“Maybe I should.”
“That’s a no for me dawg,” Wayne laughed. “Considering you’re the reason we’re having this conversation in the first place. Honestly, I’ve been trying to respect Nash but, at this point, I don’t care anymore.”
The table looked between Wayne, Paul, and me as they tried to figure out what was going on. Strangely, Paul having sex with a man wasn’t their natural conclusion. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. This was it. Whatever privacy I had was no longer my own.
“What’s going on?” his mom asked.
Wayne, calm as ever, rested his hands on the table. “To be frank, Paul was the one sleeping with Lee. I’m sorry this is how you had to find out, but it seems Paul lost his self-preservation a while ago. His disrespect has reached concerning levels. There’s a lot to discuss here but Paul lost his input two years ago when he stepped out of his marriage and into Nash’s. Then to sit here and treat Nash the way he has? Nope,” he shook his head. No way, no how.
Wayne spoke with the grace and elegance you achieve after years of dealing with conflict. He was so versed in this crap you could hardly tell how pissed he was.
I glanced at Shayla. She was looking at Paul like he was a total stranger. Yet, I could see the truth, Wayne had confirmed something she’d known for a while. Maybe Paul hadn’t hidden his lies as well as he thought.
His mom was the first to break the silence when she sobbed into her hands. That was Shayla’s cue. She stood and walked out of the house without a word. She just straight up left. I felt that deep in my soul. How horrible it is to deal with something like this in front of people. That’s exactly what I wanted to save her from.
“Is that true?” His dad asked Paul, looking at his son like the world was falling apart. Paul sat there stoned faced and indifferent. If his father’s kitchen table was the court of law then he was pleading the fifth. “Are you going to say anything? This is serious, Paul!”
Paul knew he was in trouble and had dug his heels in the sand. No one could force him to say anything. It was almost like he thought that, if he didn’t say anything, it would all go away.
“I don’t know what to do,” his mom whimpered. “We could have Paul do something that doesn’t involve working with Nash directly.”
Everyone seemed to consider that as an option. It was almost as if having Paul removed from the group was not an option. I was baffled. How was this happening? I truly respected these people but if they weren’t going to hold Paul accountable then who would?
I loved my job, I loved the kids I worked with, I loved the community that surrounded me, but I no longer felt supported by the people who were supposed to be there for me. With all the toxic stuff happening in my life I couldn’t afford to have it roll into work more than it already had.
“I have a solution,” I said, breaking the pointless discussion. “I’ll resign.”
“What?” They said in unison.
“I think it’s best if I step down from my post and remove myself from the situation. What’s happening right now is no longer healthy. We’re supposed to live above reproach. It’s not just the youth that look at me—at us, to see how to live; it’s everyone. In today’s culture of ‘anything goes’, we’re the exception. When one of us is having an extramarital affair and the rest of the group doesn’t see that as a reason for dismissal, it’s no longer a group I want to be a part of. By not picking a side, you’ve chosen Paul. Even before tonight, no one reached out to me when Paul was spreading lies about me. You admitted that everything Paul said was out of character for me, yet no one called to see if there was truth behind his words or, at minimum, a reason why. I can’t do it anymore, not when everything else in my life is falling apart.”
A responsible person would’ve stayed but I couldn’t. I got up and walked out, just as Shayla had done a few minutes earlier.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and found Penn’s number. I sent him a pin with my location and a text that said ‘come get me, now’.
A few minutes later I saw his black truck in the distance. I got in without saying a word. Penn flipped a u-ey and drove off. We were halfway through town before he asked me what was going on.
“Do I get to know why I rushed across town to find you walking down the street alone?” His face held nothing but concern. Penn didn’t care about anything except my wellbeing. A far cry from what I experienced earlier. Seeing that concern and care made everything a little better. How one person could cancel out all the negative in life baffled me.
He gave me a hurry up and answer look but then noticed I was watching him. His face flushed and his concerned frown turned into a dimpled smile.
Penn’s head snapped in my direction. He didn’t believe me. “C’mon,” he scoffed. “What really happened.”
“I’m serious. I quit and then I left.”
“That's all I get? You quit then walked out?”
I sighed and leaned against the headrest before telling him everything that had happened. By the time I recalled everything, we were outside the cottage. I thought I’d feel better but I didn’t, I felt worse. I lost my marriage, my house, and now my job because of him. Because of them.
Penn parked in the driveway and leaned his back to the door. I don’t know what it was about him but there was something in the way he looked at me, like he wholeheartedly understood my pain. Like he knew how much I didn’t want to leave my job and how desperately I would miss the kids. I didn’t have to explain any of it to him, he knew. It was his understanding and compassion that made my stomach sink.
“Oh God, did I make a mistake?” I groaned, flopping my forehead against the dash.
“Of course not. Why would you think that?”
“I’m single, mooching off my friends, and then I quit my job?! A job I love. What was I thinking?”
Penn got out of the truck, walked around to my side, and opened the door. “Come here.” He pulled me out of the truck and into his embrace. “You’ve spent your entire adult life catering to everyone else. You’re one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met. You’ve influenced more people than you’ll ever know. It’s time to focus on you. It’s okay to stop and say ‘hey, my life is total shit and I don’t have the capacity to give to anyone right now’. There’s a reason the flight attendant tells you to take the oxygen mask for yourself before helping those around you. If you’re dead, you’re no use to anyone. Did you make the wrong choice? Not at all. If you quit, I fully trust the why behind it. Don’t start questioning yourself now. I know I’m not.”
I wrapped my arms around his waist and took a minute to cry into his neck. Eventually I pulled away. I sat in the passenger’s seat with my feet hanging out the door and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. “I know it’s the right choice but I can’t help but feel like I abandoned ship. Years of investing in these kids, this community, and I’m just walking away without a word? What kind of person does that make me?”
“There’s a whole team of people who love those kids just as much as you do. You’re not leaving a box of kids on the side of the road. You’re amazing at what you do but you’re not the only person who can do it. There’s nothing wrong with letting other people step up once in a while.”
He had a point even if his point was a bruise to my ego because sometimes it felt like I was the only one who could do my job even if I wasn’t. “Okay,” I conceded. “But I have an appointment next week with a lawyer to start the divorce filings. No job means no money. How am I supposed to pay for her? What am I supposed to do with no money?”
“What?” he said, his eyes wide with shock. “You’re filing for divorce? Why didn’t you tell me? What about the six-month bullshit?”
Penn was too cute when he was emotional. “I’m not required to tell you everything.” It was a joke. I meant it as a joke.
Penn did not take it as a joke. The second I saw the way I hurt him, I regretted my words. I opened my mouth to apologize when Wayne's small SUV came bombing up the driveway. When I turned back, it was too late, Penn had stormed off. I was going to yell but Wayne burst out of his car.
“Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do,” Wayne said as he shut the door behind him.
Torn between obligations, I walked into the house and threw myself on the couch. Wayne removed his jacket and joined me. “That was quite the show you put on. If you wanted to get their attention, it worked.”
“That wasn’t what I was going for,” I said, feeling defensive and frustrated. I glanced out the window but Penn was nowhere in sight.
“Calm down cowboy. I was just giving you a hard time since you dropped a bomb and left me to pick up the pieces. How are you feeling about everything?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t had time to think about it.”
Wayne stretched out. “You think you’re really gonna do it?”
“I don’t know,” I sighed. “I don’t want to quit but do you seriously think it’s a good idea to stay on?”
“No, not at all. Not with the way everything’s falling apart.”
“What should I do?” I asked.
“Let’s start by taking a year off? You have a great group of volunteers. I don’t think we’ll have a problem transitioning. I’m sure Terri and Mark will step up and lead the area. That will give us time to breathe some new life into this committee and it gives you time to do whatever the fuck you need to do for yourself.”
I thought about it. It gave me hope that I might not have to walk away completely, that there was light at the end of the tunnel. Everything was changing so fast and it was hard to keep up. Less than six weeks ago I was ‘theoretically’ a happily married man. Now I was getting ready to file for divorce, living alone, and newly unemployed.
Direction I never expected my life to take’ for two-hundred, Alex.
Maybe it was a good idea or maybe I was desperate to hold on to normal, either way, I was considering it. “Yeah. I could take a year. I’ll probably need it anyway. But I’m telling you right now, I’ll never go back if Paul is still there. That’s the biggest bunch of bullshit.”
“Paul won’t be there, promise.” Wayne unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled his sleeves up. “We still have a lot to discuss. You have to have a proper exit. The earth ain't flat, you can’t just fall off. You’ll regret not wrapping up loose ends and saying goodbye. We’ll work it out, but right now, I can tell you need a break.”
“Have I ever told you I love you?” I said, so thankful for the break.
“No, but you can show me how much you love me by making me some tea.”
“I don’t love you that much,” I said but I got off the couch and fetched the man his tea. He’d been good to me, it was the least I could do for someone who had my back.
We sat in the living room; drinking tea and talking about everything and nothing. Despite the conversation, my mind wasn’t far from Lee, Paul, and committee, from my job and what the next few weeks would hold.
We were finishing up a light dinner when the front door opened. Not many people barged into the cottage so the short list was pretty easy. Ryan looked happy and carefree because I don’t think anything got the guy down.
“Watch broken?” he asked. “You’re late and everyone’s waiting for you.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling bad that I’d completely forgotten about game night. “I’m actually going to pass on tonight. I should’ve said something, sorry.” I gestured at Wayne, “I have company”
“But you’re the Game Master.”
Wayne looked at me and grinned. “Yeah, but you’re the Game Master,” he mocked. Wayne wasn’t going to let me mope. I knew at that moment that I was going to attend Sunday night with a man who would surely find a way to embarrass the crap out of me. I didn’t have the energy to argue a losing fight so I got up and changed my shirt. Ryan and Wayne looked far too happy when I came back.
Ryan held the door open. I caught his eye on the way out and knew this was his way of making sure I actually went. If he didn’t watch me leave the cottage, he knew there'd be a real chance I’d squirm my way out.
“You’re very loved,” Wayne said as we walked to the main house. “They’re exactly what you need right now. You’re fucking blessed, Nash. Fucking blessed.”
“They’re great,” I agreed. “They just don’t know how great they are.”
“Well,” I hesitated. “I haven’t exactly told them about Lee and I splitting.” Wayne didn’t even pause before whacking me upside the head.
“Are they idiots?” He asked. “They know you’re living in that tiny home, right?”
“I mean, yeah, I assume. We haven’t exactly talked about it though.”
“I fully understand not wanting to shout your business from the mountain top but at some point you have to deal with this. Step one is talking about it. You need a support team and from everything you’ve told me, these people are a prayer answered. You’re disrespecting yourself and them by not letting them in. You will tell them tonight.”
I knew he was right and I wanted to tell them, I just hadn’t found the right time where I wasn’t feeling like a total failure.
Ryan had long since left us so I led Wayne through the garage and into the kitchen where everyone was waiting for us.
“They sure are huggers, aren’t they?” Wayne asked after everyone finished bombarding us.
“Yes. Just wait ‘til they find out about Lee. It’ll be a damn dogpile.”
“Can’t wait,” he chuckled.
We grabbed food then made our way to the table. Penn was doing a pretty decent job of ignoring me. He managed to stay on the opposite side of the room and avoided all eye contact. I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I could tell the others were trying to figure out what was going on.
I wanted to apologize to Penn about my remark earlier but, when Penn didn’t want to be approached, there wasn’t much you could do about it. He couldn’t run forever. I figured if he forced me into a friendship then I could do the same. He wouldn’t be leaving tonight without a face-to-face.
“So, Nash, why are you the hubs fighting?” Ryan asked. He had this arrogant smirk on his face and it was wildly out of place given the delicate nature of the questions. I had to wonder if he knew something, why else would he call me out in front of everyone?
“Ughh—” I stuttered, totally fucking caught off guard.
“It must be serious,” he continued. “You guys are practically joined at the hip twenty-four-seven, then suddenly he’s been grumpy as fuck. Neither of you have said a single word to each other since you arrived. Makes me wonder.”
Holy shit. I sighed in relief. They’d been referring to Penn and I as spouses for weeks. It wasn’t a big deal, just a sassy, good natured jib that everyone got at some point. No different than Ryan telling his brother and his wife, Jane, to take their affair elsewhere—that he didn’t care what they did in private but at least have the decency to hide it from him.
Logan grabbed a beer from the fridge and leaned against the counter. He looked at Penn and frowned. “Trouble in paradise?”
I glanced at Penn. He was still on the other side of the room glaring daggers at his brothers. He was unamused by the question and had no intention of humoring his family by answering it. I waited for him to look my way but he refused.
“What?” Penn asked. Everyone was still watching him. “We’re not required to talk to each other.”
I deserved that. Penn had been the gold standard of support since day one and I should have told him about the conversation with Chambers and how I called and made an appointment with the lawyer lady on my way home from lunch. No one else gave him the same grace. As far as they were concerned, we were attached to the hip. We showed up together, got food together, sat together, partnered together, and left together. And that was only Sundays.
Penn finally looked at me. I tried to convey how sorry I was but it didn’t matter. He was hurt. There was only one thing to do. I ran my hand through my hair and braced myself.
“I was kind of a dick to Penn. He’s been—great and—well,” I took another breath. “Lee was having an affair—” I paused. “Is having an affair?” I clarified. I wasn’t sure how it worked. Was he still sleeping with Paul? I wasn’t sure. Did that change the past/present tense? I wasn’t sure.
“What the fuck?!”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ll kill the bastard.”
I raised my hand to hush the profanities.
“No one knows. I had promised Lee we’d do counseling for six months before making a decision but I recently changed my mind. Thursday, I made an appointment with a lawyer to start divorce proceedings. Today Wayne and I met with the committee. Lee was sleeping with Paul Culla, so yeah, the meeting wasn’t great. I ended up resigning from my job.”
“You could’ve told us.”
“I know,” I said, sincerely. “And I wanted to tell you but it’s not exactly an easy subject to bring up, nor is it something I enjoy talking about.”
Just as I expected, everyone got up and walked toward me until I was completely engulfed by affection. They kept telling me how sorry they were and how they wished there was more they could do. Ryan even offered to bury Lee under a concrete slab. They must’ve known the hug had healing powers because I was beginning to feel better.
When the hug still hadn’t ended, I chuckled under their weight. “I’m okay, I promise.”
“No you’re not. How could you be? You’ve been dealing with all of this by yourself for over a month!” Tia fumed.
“I wasn’t alone,” I glanced at Penn from the corner of my eye. No one missed it.
“You said you didn’t know anything,” Ryan shouted at Penn, throwing a dinner roll at him from across the kitchen.
“Hey,” he recoiled from the hit. “I only just found out myself.”
“Then what's crawled up your butt and died?”
“It was my fault,” I jumped in. “He’s been the gold standard of best friends and I disrespected him.”
Penn still wasn’t looking at me or saying much. Now that everyone knew what was going on, I had nothing to lose. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I went to Penn, who was resting his elbows on the counter. I hugged him from the side and put my chin on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled into his neck. “You know you’re my best friend, right?” Penn didn’t move except to grab a carrot off his plate and snap it in half with his teeth. “This isn’t Facebook, you can’t unfriend.” He took another bite of carrot. “Penn,” I half warned, half whined. I fished my fingers under his shirt. I knew exactly where he was ticklish.
“Nash—” he warned as I slowly walked my fingers from across his waist, towards his belly. I could feel his skin prickle and twitch as he tried not to react.
“Do you forgive me?”
His body jerked when I hit the soft tissue on his belly.
“I hate you,” he laughed as he tugged his shirt down to stop me.
“C’mon,” Ryan shouted. “Kiss and make up already. You know you want to.”
“Please Pennington?” I cooed as I playfully hugged him tighter when he tried to pull away from me.
“Whatever,” he huffed. He tried to hide it but he was smiling. I kissed him on the cheek and everyone cheered.
“It might not have worked out with Lee but what you have with Penn is true love,” Ryan teased.
“What about Cam?” I asked. Half playfully, half genuine inquiry.
He waved me off. “You guys can fight it out later. Tell us about tonight's game.”
“How often has he made you guys play serenade charade?” Wayne asked as everyone gathered in the living room to start playing whatever game I had ready, which I’d yet to figure out since I’d completely forgotten about game night.
“Never?” Jane asked.
“Never?” Wayne looked shocked. “We never made it through a single staff function without Nash making us play.”
“In my defense,” I interrupted. “You have to be really interactive and invested in embarrassing yourself for it to be fun. That’s a job prerequisite. Not so much these people.” I sea-sawed my hand, so-so.
“Are you saying we’re not fun?” Abby pouted.
I raised my hands.“I didn’t say that; I just don’t think you guys would enjoy it that as much.”
“I think we want to play.”
Wayne encouraged their uprising and soon I had a mutiny. It was my favorite game but I wasn’t lying when I said everyone had to be on board. It was only fun if everyone went one-hundred-ten percent, which I didn’t think would happen.
“Okay,” I started writing everyone’s names down. “If it’s your turn, you draw a name. The person you draw is the person you’re going to serenade. Then use the app to find out what song you’re going to sing. Easy Peasy.”
“You have to serenade like you mean it,” Wayne added.
“Yes, it’s a whole situation. Song and dance. And since Wayne is the reason we’re all doing this, he gets to show everyone how it’s done.”
“It’s my pleasure.” Wayne grabbed a name from the bowl. “Would you look at that! Nash, take a seat my friend.”
Of course it was me. I laughed and took a seat in the chair of serenading while Wayne used the phone to see what song he was singing. “‘Dilemma’ by Nelly,” he blanched at the song choice. “Are you kidding me! I’m sixty-one years old, what kind of bullshit is this?”
It was hard to remain composed when a greying man in his sixties, wearing slacks and a button-up shirt, was shaking his booty while attempting to rap alongside Nelly. Everyone was laughing by the time Wayne finished with me and ready for their turn. I had to give them credit, they did a pretty good job considering that everyone in the room listened to country and classic rock. Any song outside that genre was like watching a foul walk for the first time.
Then there was the fact that everyone was family except Wayne and me, so watching them sing love/sexual songs to each other had me crying with laughter. Especially when Penn had to sing a Ja Rule song to Logan.
He grumbled because he didn’t know the song and was so proper as he tried to read the lyrics off of the iPad while singing. Honestly, the whole thing was painfully hilarious to watch.
“How come Nash hasn’t gone yet?” Penn pouted after his second run of disaster where he had to sing a particularly cringey rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ to Wayne.
“His name hasn’t been drawn but after all the critiquing he’s been giving, I’d like to see him walk the walk.”
“I don’t think you guys can handle him. He competes on a different level,” Wayne said, returning to his spot.
“I’ll be happy to show you how it’s done.” I stood up and strutted over to Lenny, who was holding the bowl up. I unfolded the name and laughed. “Ryan, get your ass ready.”
Ryan jumped up like a contestant on ‘The Price is Right’ and quickly settled into the spotlighted chair. While he prepared himself, I grabbed the iPad and smirked when I saw the song choice. I handed it to Wayne who also smiled. He’d seen the song in action and knew what was coming.
“Oh, this is going to be good,” he laughed.
I got situated and waited for my cue. 112’s song ‘Anywhere’ started playing. Anyone who had watched Magic Mike would remember the final scene. I learned the entire dance with a few friends who were also on staff. We performed it during a staff retreat as a hilarious late night skit. To this day, it’s still one of the most talked about retreats.
The music started and the room erupted in screams when they realized what was happening. Ryan, for all his confidence, turned beet red when I gyrated my crotch in his face. I replicated the very explicit striptease and by the time my ninety seconds was up, I was shirtless and out of breath.
“I did not see that coming!” Logan stood up, clapping and laughing. Watching his brother get his very first male lap dance was too much.
“You, good sir, are the master,” Abby curtsied.
“I’m pretty sure I got a boner,” Ryan laughed, adjusting his pants. I glanced down but he’d been joking. No boner. Still, I laughed. “Seriously,” Ryan said. “You have to go again.”
“Encore!” The room shouted.
It was getting late but after the day I had, I was down for another round. I grabbed a name. “Penn.”
Ryan cheered. “Husband on husband!”
Penn smiled and took a seat while I went to the iPad. I was bummed the Magic Mike song was wasted on Ryan. Penn would’ve been more fun, he would’ve been bright red for sure.
I watched the screen as it shuffled. ‘Dear Future Husband’ by Meghan Trainor. It wasn’t a sexy song, but it was kind of perfect and I knew the room would love it. The music started and I swayed my hips and walked toward Penn. I ran my fingers across his wide shoulders as I sang the words. He was smiling brightly as he watched me shimmy circles around him.
Dear future husband here’s a few things you need to know if you wanna be my one and only all my life. If you wanna get that special lovin’ Tell me I’m beautiful each and every night
I sat in his lap and draped my arm around his neck. He was still smiling like a fool, no doubt finding the entire thing hilarious.
After every fight Just apologize And maybe then I’ll let you try and rock my body right
I slid off his lap and spread his legs until they were wide enough for me to slide between. His eyes widened and his siblings started whistling.
Don’t have a dirty mind Just be a classy guy Buy me a ring Buy, buy me a ring, babe
The music faded out and once again everyone applauded. I smiled and held my hand out to Penn and pulled him up.
“Buy him a ring already!” Everyone cheered, making Penn and I laugh. Penn was still blushing, not as much as he would’ve been if I’d given him a lap dance but enough to make me laugh.
We hung around for a while longer before finally calling it a night. It was decided that we’d be playing serenade charades every week from here on out. I told them I was on board but only if they up’d their game. They agreed.
As we hugged goodbye everyone reiterated how sorry they were about Lee and that they were there for me. I knew it was true and was thankful for their support. Ryan asked again if I wanted Lee buried, then pulled me into a strong hug and told me we were family.
“We’re brother in-laws,” he smirked and I pushed his shoulder.
“I don’t think Cam would appreciate that.”
“Nah, we’ll just vote her off the island.”
I shook my head and walked away laughing.
“Ready?”Penn stood by the door, waiting to walk me back to the cottage. Wayne was with Logan and Abby but could find his way back without me. I wanted to talk to Penn.
“Keep your hands where we can see them,” Ryan shouted. Penn flipped him off as we walked out the door.
“You forgive me?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he slung his arm over my shoulder as we walked. “I was feeling butt-hurt but I can’t stay mad at my husband.”
“Perfect,” I smiled. “I need at least one happy husband. It won’t be long before I’ll need some basic necessities like food and vacations.”
The distant porch light illuminated Penn’s dimpled smile, and the way his eyes shown when he was happy made me melt a little inside. I wrapped my arm around his waist and leaned my head on his shoulder as we continued to walk. I was so thankful for him. So very thankful.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll take care of you baby,” he squeezed me tight, offering me protection from the storms of my life.
“I’m really sorry about earlier,” I said. “Sometimes, joking is easier than dealing with the hard stuff. Admitting that I called a lawyer is admitting to my failed marriage, and that hurts. I wish I was ready to face all this but I’m not.”
“I shouldn’t have been upset that you didn’t tell me. It’s your life, not mine.”
“Don’t do that,” I said. “Don’t let me off the hook. I want to tell you everything. Sometimes I need a push.”
“Careful what you wish for,” he smiled. He was getting ready to head to his truck when he paused, “Oh, and thanks for giving my brother a lap dance.”
Thinking of how hilarious Penn’s reaction would’ve been, I said, “I wish it would’ve been you who got the lap dance.”
Penn was taking a step backwards when he stumbled backwards. He tried to save himself but ended up falling, very ungracefully. He quickly got up and wiped himself off. I was laughing.
“Me?” he asked, panicked.
I laughed more, this was the reaction I was talking about. “Yeah, your reaction would’ve been hilarious. Maybe next week.”
“Ugh,” he mumbled. Even in the dark I could tell his face was bright red.
“Or maybe you can give me a lap dance.” I couldn’t help myself.
Penn stumbled again but managed to stay upright this time.
“Night Penn,” I waved from the door. Penn didn’t make eye contact but waved from the truck.
I went to bed laughing.
Laughing and hoping I’d have the chance to embarrass him next week.