Ghosts & Shadows Pt. 03byDanielQSteele1©
BACKGROUND: Hugh Davidson is a 57-year-old executive in the powerful Hunt bank chain headquartered in Jacksonville. Married for 36 years to educational materials executive Mary, he was stunned by the loss of his wife to a 45-year-old Chicago education official in mid-2007, followed her quickie divorce and move to Chicago to be with her new man. Six months later as Christmas approaches, he's tried but hasn't been too successful in finding someone to replace her in his life. And Mary, to all intents and purposes, has vanished from the face of the earth. PERSONAL NOTE: my continued thanks go to my editor 'curiouss' for both editing and insight.
At Christmas of 2007, I split my time between Peter and Nicole. LA and New York are big cities, major metropolises, but outside of the definition, I don't think you could find two places on earth more alien to each other. It was invigorating -- or at least it had been -- visiting both cities in the course of December in past years.
New York was often snow, frigid winds, surly cabbies and plays; LA a few days later was 70 degree/shirt sleeve weather, hookers in hot-pants on side streets, and the latest movie premieres. We usually managed to stroll down Venice Beach and enjoy the boardwalk, the musclemen and the roller bladers.
I thought about that while I sat in Nicole and Simon's den in their 23rd floor condo holding little Calabria. Despite the name, she was as beautiful a baby as ever breathed on earth, or the most beautiful little girl baby. Naturally I was prejudiced. Austin had been the most beautiful baby boy and now he was the most intelligent and beautiful toddler on earth.
Actually, at this point, Calabria was also a toddler. She wriggled until I let her down and she staggered toward her father Simon's waiting arms. He grabbed her bottom, made a face and said to Nicole, "I think she needs changing, dear. Don't you want to demonstrate the superior connection between mother and daughter?"
She just laughed and said, "No dear. I wouldn't think of interfering with the father/daughter bond. You go have fun."
He made a face, but kissed his daughter and swept her up and out to the bedroom. My brown-haired daughter, who looked so much like her mother that it hurt to look at her hunched forward on the couch, put her hand over mine.
"You're losing weight, Dad, and you look - tired. How are you doing?
I know we talk, but you can't tell anything over the phone. You could be dying, yet you'd be cheerful and telling me funny stories about the bank and you'd never let me know what was really going on."
"I'm okay, Nicole."
"You know exactly how little that tells me. How are you really? I, why don't I think you've ever gotten over - mom?"
I freed my hand from hers and held both mine up in a surrender gesture.
"What's there to get over, baby? She's gone, that's the reality of it. 'Getting over it' doesn't change it. Whether I do or not, she's still gone. She's always going to be gone, and life goes on. It has to. I want to see little Calabria driving you and Simon crazy when she drags home some scuzzy-looking boyfriend covered with tattoos and piercings."
She gave me a sad, half smile.
"I know it's coming, Dad. I shouldn't tell you this."
"I promised Mom...."
I couldn't help myself.
"Is she alright? She's not...sick?"
"What do you mean?"
"She made me promise."
I just looked at her. I'd been around long enough, I'd dealt with enough people who didn't want to talk, who were afraid of the news I was bringing, who didn't want me to know how badly they had screwed up, to know what to say.
"Nicole, you brought it up. You want to tell me. Whatever it is, you must think it would be for the best for your mother for me to know it. Is your promise more important than your mother's welfare? Whatever it is, you know I wouldn't hurt her. Even now, I would never hurt her."
She sniffed and I saw the first tear trickle down her cheek.
"She told me, months ago. Maybe - maybe I should have told you, but she made me promise. She seemed - it was so important to her, that you not know."
I just sat and looked at her.
"She left him. Two months - two months after she left you and moved to Chicago to be with him. It was less, less than a month after the divorce papers came through."
"Him - Kelly? Richard Kelly? She left him?"
She licked her lips, which were wet with her tears.
"She said, she said - they just realized - it was over. He went back to his wife, and she...."
It sank in on me.
"...and she didn't come back to me. She never even thought about it, did she?"
She wouldn't look at me.
"You can tell me, baby. I'm a big boy, and the truth....the truth is always better. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about. No matter how hard, it's better than lies."
She finally looked into my eyes.
"She said, she said she never wanted to see you again - she wanted to make a new life away from you. She said you would never check up on her, you might never know, and she didn't want - didn't want..."
She buried her face in her hands.
I sat beside her and held her.
"She said, she didn't want you to know because, you'd try to get her back. She said you'd never stopped loving her and she didn't want to hurt you again. She just - she just, didn't want to ever see you again."
That was as simple as it gets, no second thoughts for Mary. I was part of her past, a part she never wanted to lay eyes on.
"I'm sorry, Dad but, I knew she was telling me the truth. I could see it in her eyes. You're still in love with her. If you knew she was through with him, you would have...you'd have gone after her again and she was just going to hurt you all over again. Telling you would have hurt you both. I did it for you as well as her."
"Did Peter know?"
"Yes, we talked about it. It was for the best that you didn't know."
I hugged her.
"Can you forgive me? I didn't know what to do. I did what I thought was best."
I hugged her again.
"I know you did baby, and there's no reason for you to feel guilty. If you'd told me, it wouldn't have changed anything. Like you said, she was never going to come back. I guess I knew it all along, but there's nothing like having your nose rubbed in the truth. Thank you for telling me. If I had any daydreams, they're gone now."
That was two weeks before Christmas. I knew, in the roundabout way the kids worked out their schedules, that Mary would be with Peter before Christmas while I was with Nicole, and she'd be with Nicole after Christmas while I was visiting Peter. I flew into LA on December 27th. Peter had been able to arrange for three days off and we ate at a trendy LA restaurant and exchanged our presents under the still green living Christmas tree in their family room.
We stayed up past Austin's bedtime for me to enjoy him and then Marlena, a pretty redhead who had been a nurse at the hospital where Peter had practiced before she'd broken him of his bachelor ways, took Austin to bed and left the two of us looking out the large picture window at a pretty good nightscape of LA. The house was located in the hills, but not high enough to worry too much about mudslides.
"Nicole told me that she told you about Mom and him."
"Also that I knew and helped keep the secret from you?"
"Yeah, but don't beat yourself up. Like I told her, knowing it wouldn't have made any difference. You were honoring your mother's wishes, and it didn't do me any harm. There's nothing to feel guilty about."
He took a sip of a non-alcoholic beer from a chilled Coors mug and didn't look at me as he said, "I don't feel guilty, dad. I don't think it would have done you any good. What I feel is sad, sad for both of you."
I just looked at him.
"Both of us?"
He looked at me then.
"You can lie to Nicole, but I know better. You're still in love with her. You might be banging ladies back in Jacksonville, but you haven't moved on. I know you, that's what hurts. You're a one-woman man and I don't think you're ever going to be able to move on."
I just shrugged.
"You probably have me pegged but, I know your mother is probably broken up about what happened between her and him. After all, she gave up a lot to be with him but, she's still a beautiful woman. She's probably in another relationship by now, or she will be. She won't be alone."
"You're wrong, which is what makes it so fucking infuriating!"
I looked at him, wondering what caused the sudden strong rush of emotion.
"We saw her a couple of times while she was with him. Once she came here and the other time Marlena flew to Chicago with Austin. We both thought the same thing."
I waited him out.
"She wasn't happy, Dad, I don't think she ever was. Marlena had the same impression. She asked her, flat out, if she was in love with him. She was trying to figure out why she would have left you for him, and Mom just shook her head. Then I talked to her through Skype video a few days after the divorce went through."
He took another sip and then looked me in the eye.
"I know you won't believe me, it makes no sense, but she was miserable. She sounded....she sounded like she was going to break into tears after every other word, and that's made what happened make sense."
This was new.
"What! What happened?"
"Nicole didn't tell you?"
When I shook my head, he said, "A week after she told us she and Richard had split, she called us from San Francisco. She had gotten another transfer. She's been there for more than four months now."
I took a strong gulp of the Napoleon Brandy in my snifter and couldn't help saying, "Well, that makes sense anyway. She moves to Chicago to get away from me and then she keeps heading west to California. I guess the only way she could get any further away would be to head for Hawaii."
"I think she was trying to get away from both of you. I can understand it though."
I gave him a curious look.
"I think that, when she thinks of you, she realizes what she gave up, and when she thinks of him, she realizes what a waste, what a mistake, it all was."
After another minute of silence -- what was there left to say after that - he turned away from me to look out through the plate glass window. Our reflections wavered in the moonlight from outside.
"I know, I know Dad, that you must have wondered..."
"Why I took it so hard, finding out about mom and that guy. I mean, I'm not 15, I'm a grown man. I know you're adults and I know parents split, but I acted like I was some emotional teenager."
"Looking back, yeah, I wondered a little bit. You've always been so calm, rational, like me."
He turned around and looked behind me, to the doorway leading to the second floor where they had their bedrooms.
"I didn't even realize what it was at the time. I knew I exploded, but it was weeks later when it finally hit me. I was afraid."
"You and mom are our rock -- me and Nicole. A lot of my friends went through one divorce, some two or three, with all the crap that involves; your parents fighting and wanting you to pick sides and dads trying to bribe you with presents and squeeze a weeks worth of living into a weekend and moms spending every minute telling you what a piece of crap your father is. You guys just sailed along. You were always there for us.
When I met Marlena and started getting serious, the first thing I started asking myself was whether she was like Mom, and she is. You probably don't see it, but she is. She's loving and funny and she's hotter than hell and I've never spent one second worrying about her, even when she was working around dogs that were used to banging every nurse and female volunteer within arm's length. She's honest, that's the word. There have been a few times when she's been attracted to guys. She's told me about it and I fucked her brains out until she got over it, but I knew she'd never go behind my back. I knew if she ever wanted out, she respected me enough that she'd tell me."
He took a sip of non-alcoholic beer, which to me is nothing more than flavored water, but he had never been tempted by liquor and that was a good thing for a man in his line of work.
"Then - then Richard Kelly happened. I tried, I really tried to get Mom to explain to me HOW it happened, yet she never could.
So, I go to work and try to focus on patients and cutting into people's brains without worrying about Marlena and guys she might be meeting. She's a home maker now, but she shops and I used to use supermarkets as prime hunting grounds for new fuck toys.
She takes Austin to pediatricians and specialists and there are guys there. She still has her nursing certification and once in a while she has to take a short course or go to a seminar to keep it up and there are guys there."
He looked at my reflection in the glass.
"You know, I trust her, dad, I really do, but I would have bet my life, put my head on a guillotine on a bet that Mom would never look at another man.
I play these little psychological games in my head. I picture the day when Marlena walks into the den after she's put Austin down, or maybe he's grown and out on a date, and she tells me, 'Peter, I've met someone and I'm leaving you'. I guess I run these little scenarios in my head to see if I could go on breathing, go on working like you have, after my life ends."
He stopped again for a moment.
"Mom stole my certainty. She took away the belief that 'happy ever after' can ever be a reality. There are days when I hate her so much. I'll never be able to trust that Marlena and I will stay together and that kills me."
I gave him some time.
"You know you have to get past this, don't you? You're too smart a man not to see it. If you keep wondering, keep seeing her cheating in your mind's eye, keep seeing that day when she'll walk in and tell you she's leaving you, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You'll make it happen."
"I don't know how."
I walked up behind him and put my hand on his shoulder.
"You're a rational man, like me, Peter. You know there are millions of couples in this country, hundreds of millions around the world.
Millions of them will break up, hearts will be broken and lives destroyed. That happens, but remember and realize that millions of them will sail through and never be tempted, never be tested.
Yet other millions will be tested and, maybe, fall but they'll get back up and make their marriages work.
Life is a numbers game and you just have to assume that you'll be one of the lucky millions.
Let's say you're one of the unlucky ones. Say that one day a year, or 36, from now, Marlena walks in and says she's leaving you. Say she breaks your heart. Would you regret marrying her? Would you regret having Austin with her? Would you regret one minute of your time with her?"
He was silent for a long time.
"No, I don't think I would. Have you ever been sorry you married Mom?"
"Not for one minute. Look, Peter, we can't ever know the future. If I'd known 36 years ago what was coming, and I'd had a chance to see what those 36 years would be like, I wouldn't have done anything different, except keep her away from that trip where she met Richard Kelly."
I knew it was a mistake but I couldn't help myself. I emailed her at her old email address, assuming that she would have kept it for business continuity.
"Mary: Nicole and Peter just spilled the beans. Don't blame them. It was a heavy secret to keep and they did a good job for four months. I don't know that my opinion or concern means anything to you, but I'm sorry that things didn't work out between you and Richard. I know you and I know that even if you couldn't tell me, he meant something to you. You're not the sort of woman that would throw away a life for a momentary thrill.
Peter told me that he doesn't think you're happy. He's a pretty smart man - gets that from me, I guess. If he's right, I just wanted to tell you that you are welcome to email me -- anytime - about anything. We've always been able to talk about anything.
We're not together, I've accepted that. We will have separate lives from this point on, but we were friends, as well as lovers and husband and wife. Despite everything that's happened, I still consider myself your friend. There are no strings or conditions. E-mail me if you want to talk about anything,
I never received a reply. I really didn't expect one. It was just something I felt I had to do.
Life went on. I went on "Plenty of Fish" because the idea of getting involved with someone from the bank or the banking community or someone I might have to rub shoulders with seemed less and less like a great idea. An online meeting place for singles seemed like a better idea. I could meet and date and flame out and not have to face unhappy, or disappointed or rejected women on a daily basis. It seemed like a perfect way of life.
I met some nice, intriguing women on the Fish market, as some called it. Some were desperate for husbands, some just wanted a great fuck after being told by their husbands or significant others that they were dogs in the bedroom.
I stayed away from the husband hunters, but I convinced a few ladies who might not have been as curvy or slender as they had been decades ago, that in the right hands they could still burn up the sheet, and there were a few ladies that never wound up in my bed, but became friends.
These were ladies I could talk to, exchange jokes online and go to the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Jacksonville for a local production of a Broadway play and maybe drinks later with no expectation of orgasms afterward.
Business went on as it always had, but there were disquieting rumbles on the national stage and the mortgage market and the homebuilding sector quivered as the first shocks of an approaching earthquake began to be felt. Something bad was coming.
Gail and Coffee, and wiser heads than mine, met and started hunkering down for the coming storm. Bad things were indeed coming, even if the majority of the banking industry and the business community continued to whistle past the graveyard, but Gail was as hard headed as her grandfather had ever been. She had learned at his knee and she was ready to do whatever was necessary to keep the Hunt brand alive for another generation.
Me, I was the hatchet man, the muscle. I closed banks on the bubble. I called in loans that were already dead but not buried, foreclosed, presided over the sale and liquidation of companies that either had always been bad ideas or had become bad ideas. I closed out investments and in every case went for cash over stock and other options.
I spent a lot of time closing weak banks, firing people and buying new banks, consolidating positions and firing people. I fired a lot of people that year. I told middle-aged men that their positions had become redundant and they would have to go out into a hostile world and make a new life for themselves. A few of them didn't make it past the day I had told them they were out. One dropped dead with a heart attack walking out of what had been his office. Two committed suicide in ways they thought might not invalidate large life insurance policies for their families. One guy got away with it, one didn't.
It was not a warm and fuzzy period, either in my personal life or business. However business, even the banking business, is not the dry ledgers and green eyeshade picture people on the outside have - it is kill or die, survival of the fittest, done wearing suits and ties. It is still nature, red in tooth and claw.
Another Christmas came and went, 2008; a new President, a new world in a lot of ways.