Life Next Ch. 02byC.C. Rider©
Life Next Ch. 02: Life Now
Author’s Note: Mark and Addie, the characters, wouldn’t let me end “Life Next Ch. 01” the way I intended. It was supposed to be one story, “Life Now.” But sometimes your characters have a different story to tell. So here is their story, a second and final chapter (and, btw, it contains the erotic elements I originally intended for the first).
“My wife died.”
That was all I could type. I had been hovering over the keyboard, my eyes transfixed by the computer screen, for over an hour. It was seven days after Rebecca’s funeral, and I was in the study. It was late. The kids were asleep. Bo, our hound dog, was curled up in the big armchair looking at me with puzzled but empathetic eyes. He was no help.
The destination email address was Addie’s.
I didn’t know what else to say. “I thought you should know,” I typed. Love Mark? No. Just “Mark.” “PS: I am okay,” I added so as not to alarm her. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, the cursor hovering over the Send button.
It had been over two years since I had dined with Addie under the trellis of grapevines in the heart of the City of Angels. I hadn’t talked to her since that night. I thought that seeing her might have been a mistake.
At our twenty-fifth high school reunion, I had talked Addie for a long time. At the end of the evening, she came over to say goodbye. Rob, her indie film director boyfriend, was waiting for her by the door on the other side of the room. She had already turned to leave when the thought hit me like a piano falling from the sky: “Ask her to dinner, idiot.” I had a one-time-only overnight in L.A. in just two weeks. I had never been to L.A. on business before (or ever since). Addie lived in L.A. The dinner invitation caught me so unawares that I asked without assessing its propriety.
“That would be nice,” she said hesitantly.
Addie had been my date to the senior prom. We were eighteen and wildly in love. And then I broke up with her, for reasons I had never fully explored – until that dinner. And now when I thought of her, my heart ached.
I felt she had to know about Rebecca’s death. Why? Because she was a friend now? I didn’t try to understand it.
I had found her yellowing business card buried deep in my wallet. I couldn’t fathom calling her with this news. There was an email address. It seemed perfectly impersonal: just a quick update.
I stopped thinking, hit Send, and went to bed.
The following morning I got this reply: “I am so sorry. Be strong for your children. (I know you will.) Love, Addie.”
I was overdue for a sabbatical from the University. I decided to take a year off without pay. That way, I wouldn’t have to turn in monthly reports or pretend to be researching arcane legal issues. The dean all but required me to see a grief counselor before agreeing to the sabbatical. The grief counselor was a pretty but anal-retentive young woman who suggested that I should build structure and routine into my life. She didn’t want me sitting around the house all day drinking and feeling sorry for myself. That was ridiculous, I told her; in addition to being a law professor, I was a published novelist. I had a manuscript to work on – the next Fairly Good American Novel as I called it – and I assured her I would be extremely busy. So she gave my sabbatical her blessing, and then, of course, I commenced sitting around the house all day drinking and feeling sorry for myself.
I put a good face on it for the kids. I would make sure I was tapping away at the keyboard furiously as they started out the door each the morning.
“I’m on a roll,” I would call out, or give them some other encouraging words. As soon as the door was shut, I would close the word processing program, open the New York Times web page, and pour some Tia Maria in my coffee.
By noon I’d be too inebriated to do anything but lie on the couch and watch old movies. I’d sleep off the first drunk and be reasonably sober by the time the kids got home. We’d have dinner and talk about their respective days. And then I’d start drinking again.
Finally, after two months of this, my fourteen-year-old daughter Rachel told me she thought I should join a health club.
“Maybe you could meet some people or something, get out of the house.”
The look of worry and pity in her eyes snapped me out of my emotional malaise. She was right. I was pathetic. When we had moved to Las Vegas, I had relied on Rebecca to make all of our social connections. I didn’t necessarily care for any of my pretentious colleagues, so the only social acquaintances I had were Rebecca’s friends. They had been very kind in bringing me fruit baskets and hot meals in the weeks after her death, and there were a few polite social offers, but I always declined. The only true friends I had lived back in Chicago. I would talk to them on the phone occasionally, and we shared emails regularly, but it wasn’t the same as live adult companionship. I had turned into a lonely and forlorn homebound drunk. I decided for the sake of my kids to make a change.
I started working out every day from nine in the morning until noon. Then I would eat a healthy lunch at the Wild Oats market, and go home and write, sober (it is the only way), until dinnertime. Every weekend I would take the kids on at least one excursion of their choosing, usually Water Land or the movies. After several months of this, I was in much better condition, both physically and emotionally – but I was still lonely.
And then I started a peculiar habit. I would open up the email from Addie and stare at it. I did it once, and then again a few days later, and then it became an almost daily routine. It said “Love,” but why didn’t it say, “If you ever need someone to talk to, call me”? Because she didn’t want me to call her was always my conclusion. Hadn’t I caused her enough grief for one lifetime? But I wanted to call her.
For the first six months after her death, I could visualize Rebecca. I could imagine her walking through the door with a bag of groceries in her arms, or see her sitting on the patio sipping coffee in her pajamas. And she was pain free, disease free – a miracle. But when I tried to hear her voice, I couldn’t. I don’t know why, but it was only the visuals, and they faded with time. Now, when I closed my eyes, it was Addie’s voice I was trying to hear.
Rachel and Jeffrey, my eleven-year-old son, had spring break coming up, and they were bugging me to do something fun. We were sitting around the kitchen table and I was challenging them for ideas. Jeff was angling for Mexico, where we had once swam with dolphins. I wanted to take them on a special trip over the summer, maybe Sicily or southern France, and I thought Mexico was a bit extravagant.
“Try something closer to home,” I suggested. “Maybe the Grand Canyon again?”
“How about Disneyland,” said Rachel.
I swallowed hard. “Disneyland? It’s still ‘cool’?”
Jeffrey clapped his hands like he was bringing me out of a trance (a born comedian). “Yeah dad! Like WAY cool.”
And then the two of them looked at each other with wide eyes and said, almost in unison and with mock horror, “The Tower of Terror!”
“C’mon dad, we haven’t been forever,” Rachel pleaded.
She went on about how there were all new rides and every kid in school seemed to have been there recently. I hadn’t expected this. I hadn’t even thought to offer it as a possibility.
“I’ll see,” I said.
A week before the trip, I found myself thumbing Addie’s business card. I dialed her work number, but I hung up on the first ring. She doesn’t want hear from me, I concluded. But I couldn’t let the thought go. Finally, I opened her email again, hit Reply.
“Hi. Are you there?” I typed. I had my finger on the Send button for an interminable ten minutes. Finally the click.
I waited. I was being ridiculous. I was about to turn off the computer when a reply popped up.
“Yes, I’m here. Call me at work.”
It was starting again, a connection. “Call me,” it said. Thank God. I dialed. Was it this easy?
“Are you okay?” was Addie’s first question.
“I’m fine.” I had to say something. “How are you?”
“No, no. How are YOU?”
“Good. Really good, really.” I was babbling. “I’m sorry.”
“I am glad we got together that night.”
There was a pause. “It was good to see you.”
“I’m uh… I’m taking the kids to Disneyland of all things.”
I felt like I was asking her out on a first date. I just want to see her is all, hear her friendly voice – that’s what I told myself.
“I was wondering if you’d like to join us for an afternoon, meet my daughter and son.”
Another pause. “When are you here?”
I told her the dates, all weekdays (less crowds).
Another pause. “I don’t know, Mark. It’s kind of sudden.”
“I understand. I’m sorry…” I was going to say goodbye. No. I couldn’t do that. I had to save the moment.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I said with as much cheer as I could muster.
“You do?” she said nervously.
“Yes. You’re thinking, ‘Disneyland? It’s just so not “cool.”’” I thought I detected a muffled cough of a laugh. “You should know that my son – and he is an authority in this regard – has assured me that Disneyland is not only still ‘cool,’ but, in his exact words, it’s ‘WAY cool.’”
She laughed. I sighed in relief.
“I might be able to get away on Thursday.”
Addie was standing by the C in CALIFORNIA in the plaza between Disneyland and the California Adventure amusement park. She was looking toward the Disneyland entrance, so she didn’t see me approaching. Her blue jeans were faded and worn, her sneakers were classic chambray keds, and she was wearing a sleeveless yellow blouse with a navy sweater over her arm; except for the her white straw bowler hat, it was just the way she dressed in high school. The wind was lifting the long black curls off her back, and I wanted to come up behind her and put my hands on her freckled shoulders, but thought better of it. Instead I just admired her. “I like your hat,” I said softly, startling her.
She turned and took off her wire sunglasses. “It’s so L.A. chic,” she said sarcastically.
We hugged without kissing.
“So where are the kids?” she asked, looking over my shoulder.
“On their tenth drop on the ‘Tower of Terror.’ We’ll catch up with them in a little bit. Did you come from work?”
“Went home sick at lunchtime.”
“You certainly don’t look sick.”
“Terrible headache.” She put the back of her hand to her head in mock trauma.
It had occurred to me, too late, that I had not told her how great she looked when we had met for dinner those few years ago, and I had made a mental note not to allow that oversight this time.
“Addie, I swear to God, you look as healthy and lovely as you did when we were teenagers – really fantastic.”
“Thank you.” I think she blushed. “You look great. Have you been working out?”
I wanted to pump my fist with pride; she’d noticed! Instead, I kept it low key. “So is that a routine L.A. greeting?”
She laughed. “Yes, I suppose it is, but I truly meant it.”
“Thank you for noticing. I have been trying to take better care of myself lately. Life was rolling on without me there for a while, so I’m catching up now.” It was so easy to be honest with her.
“So you are doing okay, then?”
“Yeah, good.” I am just horribly, horribly lonely, I could have added, but I didn’t think it was time to be that honest. “How are you doing?”
“Good,” she said with a squeak in her voice that made me think it was a pregnant answer.
“If we hurry, we can probably catch up with kids and take cuts.”
“Oh, I wasn’t necessarily intent on doing any rides.”
I took her ticket out of my shirt pocket and held it up. “Oh yes you are.”
I took her hand and pulled her along.
On the drive out in the car, I had told Rachel and Jeff that I would be meeting a woman who was an old friend from high school, and I wanted them to be particularly courteous. Rachel asked if she was an old girlfriend.
“Just a friend,” I said.
“What’s her name?” Rachel asked
“How in the hell…” I looked at Rachel in the rearview mirror and stared in disbelief.
“Mom once showed me her picture in your yearbook. Mom said she was your favorite girlfriend.”
“I never said that.”
“Mom said that. She said just knew.”
“I like your hat,” was the first thing Rachel said to Addie after shaking her hand. I looked at Addie and shrugged.
“Thank you. I love your earrings.”
Addie had said just the right thing (not that this was a test). Rachel was the adolescent Imelda Marcos of earrings. She was wearing silver star-shaped dangles.
“Do you have a lot of earrings?” asked Addie using her powers of deduction.
“I collect them.”
“I’d love to see your collection someday.”
Rachel looked at me suspiciously. I just shrugged.
It was a wine bar in the middle of the amusement park, and Addie and I were seated on the patio at a table next to a column of leafy grapevines.
“Must be something about grapevines,” I said tearing a whole leaf from the plant and smoothing it out on our table. Addie looked at me quizzically.
“For luck,” I offered.
The sun had gone down and the lights of the park sparkled around us.
“This is surprisingly civilized,” Addie said putting on her sweater.
“Trust me, it is the only civilized place in either park.”
Addie looked at me and sighed feigning exhaustion, and I laughed. We had dropped in an elevator shaft, soared over California, ridden a roller coaster, and rafted the rapids. The kids were back at the roller coaster now, intent on riding it perpetually until the park closed.
“You were very game,” I said.
“I had fun.”
“Except for the Grizzly River?”
“I’m dry now,” she said patting her hair to make sure it was true.
“The kids like you.”
“Your kids are beautiful, Mark.”
Addie was wholesomely beautiful, with freckles on her cheeks, and her eyes were kind and generous. I felt like I could crawl into them (again, if she’d let me).
“Rachel knows we were sweethearts in high school,” I said after taking her in for a moment.
“She asked all about you in the car on the way out.”
“Are you sure she still likes me?”
“She wanted to know why we were meeting.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Just that it was a chance to see you.” I debated completing the story. “Then Rachel said, ‘Are you going to marry her?’”
“Kids,” I replied shaking my head. “What do you do?”
The patio was closing. We had finished our wine. We were just waiting for the kids to come get us. We had talked about a lot of things. I told her about my sabbatical and how I was thinking about taking the kids to Europe.
“Something non-traditional,” I explained, “just go over there and live in one place, a small city, for a few weeks, maybe even a month.”
“Sounds lovely, and great for the kids.”
I made the mistake of asking about her job. Her talent agency had an ugly breakup, and she was stuck with what was left of it. She was struggling to make ends meet.
“So how is What’s-His-Name?” I asked about Rob.
“He moved out.”
Apparently things weren’t going so well for Addie. “I’m sorry.”
“No. It’s okay. Turns out he’s gay.”
I swallowed hard and had to take a sip of water. She said this with absolutely no expression on her face, so I could tell she was mad as hell about it.
“Oh my God, Addie. I am so sorry.”
“It’s all right. He shared that with me shortly after the firm broke up, when he realized I wasn’t going to be able to support him anymore. But then I suppose YOU knew he was gay all along.”
When we had met in L.A. a few years back, I had said that I didn’t think she should worry about Rob’s carousing with his buddies on film shoots, unfortunately adding, “…as long as they’re not gay.” I think I meant it as a joke, not an intuition, but Addie’s icy glare told me some or all of his ‘buddies’ were gay.
“I didn’t mean… “
“Shh. I’m glad his gone.”
Bastard, I wanted to add, but didn’t.
We were quiet for some time. Finally I reached over the table and took her hand.
“So here we are,” I said looking in her now timid fawn-like eyes. I wanted to hold her, or for her to hold me.
The clomp of sneakers slapping against the pavement – my son was making an entrance. He raced over to our table, grabbed the edge, and panted with exaggeration, like he had just finished a race.
“Hi dad! Hi Addie. You won’t believe…” he prattled on excitedly. I looked at Addie, raised an eyebrow.
Addie had parked her car at our hotel at my suggestion, so we walked together. The kids were a good thirty yards ahead of us. Addie took my arm and leaned her cheek against my shoulder, and we strolled the otherwise artless Harbor Boulevard like royalty.
“I’m glad I came out to see you and kids tonight,” Addie said.
“Were you thinking about not coming?”
“I was nervous and a little confused.”
“Now that I am here, I really don’t know.”
I told the kids to let themselves into their rooms and walked Addie to her car. I knew I had to see her again. I couldn’t think beyond that.
I leaned against the fender of her dinged up little Honda Civic. She stood in front of me and rocked back and forth absentmindedly, endearingly, like a schoolgirl. I took her hands in mine.
“I um… I … well…” Apparently I was speechless.
“Yes,” she said nodding with willing eyes, so I kissed her.
It wasn’t like before. Our mouths opened instantly and our tongues darted along our teeth. I pulled her against me tightly and she wrapped her arms around my neck. In the scent of her hair, her skin, her faint perfume, I could taste her – Addison Litton, the girl I once loved, the girl whose heart I had broken so many years before. Tears welled in my eyes as we kissed. Her she was, her breasts pressed against my chest, my arms clinging to her waist, our loins so close and warm, and all I could think was finally, finally, finally…
Our lips parted and we both gasped for air. She leaned back to look at me, and I didn’t want her to see my wet eyes, and then I saw hers. A tear descended, and I kissed its path along her flush cheek and tasted her again. We kissed again, like once before, soft, no movement, just are lips connecting our hearts.
“I love you Addie Litton,” I whispered into her lips. I held her face in my hands and looked in her eyes. “I don’t want you to go home tonight.”
She seemed sad. “You want me to stay with you tonight?”
“No.” I had been feeling it all night, the truth of it, the inescapable necessity of it. “I want you to stay with me from now on.” There. I’d said it.
“What?” Her eyes flashed with panic.
“I want us to be together, I want you to come home with me.”
“You bastard,” she said, stunning me. She started to cry. “You can’t be serious.”
“What?” Now my eyes flashed with panic. I put my hands on her shoulders.
“You can’t keep doing this to me.”
“What?” I said again stupidly.
“We dated for six months in high school, and it’s been almost thirty goddamn years since you broke my heart. We’ve seen each other three times since, and each time you break my heart all over again. I can’t take this, Mark.”
“I am not going to break your heart this time,” I said with conviction.
“Dammit Mark, what are you doing? Asking me to come live with you? Your wife just died.” She started to sob. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am.” My mind was statically charged, burning up in confusion and panic. I hadn’t planned this. It just came out of my mouth. But I knew the heavy truth of my words.
She brought her tears and sobs under control. My head was bowed as I tried to look in her eyes, to see what she was feeling, what she was trying to say.