Psycho Bitch: A Love Story by AJ Rico

WHY ME? I MEAN, I know what people see when they look at me. Small, petite, maybe a hundred pounds. In short, harmless.

That's their first mistake.
Psycho Bitch: A Love Story
Psycho Bitch: A Love Story by AJ Rico
It's also the reason I end up in situations like this. I try to avoid them. Seriously, I do. How much more obvious do I have to be? I'm practically wearing a sign that says “leave me alone,” but sometimes you just have to spell it out for people. After taking a deep breath that did nothing to quell my irritation, I said, "Dude, I am your worst nightmare." I wasn't trying to be a douche bag. In truth, I was doing this guy a favor. "Look," I said biting back some of my snark. "I get it. Of everyone here in the cafe, only two of us appear to be eligible. Me and Ms. Coach over there." Labeling people was a bad habit of mine, but it made things easier so I didn't bother to try and change it. "Now, between the two of us, I definitely appear more approachable. I'm a little bit older, no wedding ring, so I'm likely a bit more desperate than our fashionably turned out friend over there." We both turned to look at Ms. Coach, who was delicately sipping her coffee the way women do when they don't want too much lipstick to rub off on the cup. Hasn't anyone hipped her to eight-hour lipstick yet? Turning back to my erstwhile charmer, I continued, "Here's what you failed to account for. I am radiating a 'don't bother me message'. See?" I pointed to the only other chair at my table which held my purse and business tote. My laptop was on the table, and I had clearly been working. I mean, the volume couldn't get any higher on my I-don't-want-company PSA. "Ms. Coach, on the other hand, her second chair is empty, but you probably figured her for high-maintenance, didn't you?" He nodded, looking somewhat shell-shocked. I'm sure when he hit on me, he wasn't expecting a lesson in observation, but hell, I was on a roll. "You look, but you don't see, my friend. Yes, she's sporting an expensive Coach bag, but it also happens to be three years old. I have one just like it. Those sky high heels she's wearing,” I paused to allow him to look, “also extremely expensive, but she's almost worn a hole in the sole. They're probably the only pair she owns. But, really, it's the hands that give it all away." I almost laughed aloud as he scrunched up his face peering at her hands, trying and failing, to figure it out. I sipped my mocha latte, enjoying the burst of cinnamon and chocolate as it slid down across my tongue. I adore coffee. It's my favorite beverage. Period. "Her hands?" he said, giving up. "Yup, the hands. That's a home manicure. The cuticles give it away. Now, granted, I know that because she was in front of me in line. You'd have to get a little closer. Oh, and she paid with a prepaid card." I leaned back in my chair smirking as I prepared to deliver the coup de grâce. "So, while I am, in fact, a business owner who is working on a proposal that you've interrupted, Ms. Coach has that 'I've fallen on hard times and I need a man' thing written all over her. If all you're looking for is to get your dick wet, you'll likely have an easier time of it in her neighborhood, not mine." "How can you tell she wants a man?" he said, finding his tongue, though he still had that shell-shocked look about him. "Simple." I admit, by this point, I was enjoying myself. "She's scoped out every unaccompanied man who's walked through the door." I shrugged. For several moments, he stared at me, his mouth slightly agape. It was almost comical. Then he seemed to snap out of it and said, "Um, right, well thanks," as he hot footed it as far away from me as possible. I wasn't offended. That had been the goal after all. "That was a bit harsh, don't you think?" I turned to face the speaker, an older man with silver hair and blue eyes, whose accent was educated and British. A copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy lay on the table in front of him. I wondered what brought him to D.C. A native Washingtonian, I'd run into few Brits in my life. "Harsh?" I scoffed. "No, harsh would have been taking that guy up on his offer. I'm lethal." "I find that rather hard to believe." He laughed, stunning me with the purity of his laughter. It was clear and untainted of any bitterness or sarcasm. The sheer joy of it was magnetic, and I found myself leaning into it wanting more. I quickly pulled myself together though. "Things are not always what they seem," I said. "Very true, but still. You expect me to believe you," he looked me up and down, "are lethal?" I smiled at him and said, "Only to the male ego. But, usually that's enough. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment to keep." Tucking my laptop into my bag, I threw everything over one shoulder. As I turned to leave, the Brit was still smiling as he raised his cup in acknowledgment. I smiled back, gave a small salute, and left noting as I did so that Charmer had joined Ms. Coach. Elementary, my dear Watson. I lied. My appointment was several hours off, but it was an easy thing to say and garners no conflict. I avoid conflict whenever possible. It's not that I enjoy lying; it's more that honesty—in my experience anyway—is always punished. Sure, I could have said what I actually felt: Listen, I've just spent two hours obeying society's rules for civilized interactions. I've pretended to be interested in the random people who felt the need to share information with me. I smiled, said all my pleases and thank yous, and now I'm done. Charmer used up the last of my reserves. I'm sure that would have gone over swimmingly. Yeah, right. So, rather than risk unnecessary rancor and confrontation, I lie. It's easier for everyone that way. Well, easier for me. With several hours to kill and more polish needed on my pitch, I headed to my other haunt—the library. Leaving behind the eclectic shops and eateries at the heart of Dupont Circle, I walked down P Street before cutting across 24th and strolling down the picturesque street bustling with Washington, D.C.'s movers and shakers. Easily navigating the lunchtime crowds is an acquired skill. There are enough people who you have to weave your way through, but it's nothing like New York City. It's that balance that keeps me here. The city is cosmopolitan enough to satisfy my need for gourmet food and elegant living, but I can still see the sky. D.C. is my hometown, though I was born immediately over the line in Maryland at Washington Adventist Hospital. In a twist of irony, the hospital had changed its name before I was born. Before that, it was called the Washington Adventist Sanatorium. Names have power, and changing a name doesn't change the essence of a thing. I always wondered if being born in a sanatorium had impacted my outlook on life and people. Despite technically being born and raised in Maryland, I considered myself a Washingtonian. Most people in the greater D.C. Metropolitan area (the parts of Maryland and Virginia that flanked the District) do. Besides, trying to draw a boundary was pointless. People flowed through D.C., Maryland, and Virginia the way blood flowed through veins. One minute the blood suffused the brain, and ten minutes later it warmed your feet. Geography was irrelevant. It was much the same for the population of the D.C. Metro area. We all claimed D.C. when asked where we were from, though our driver's licenses might put a finer point on it. That was no longer the case for me. I officially became a full-fledged resident of our Nation’s Capital when I moved in with my boyfriend, Adam, two years before. We have an amazing one-bedroom condo on N Street up the road from a quaint Italian Bistro, Panevino, where we are regulars. I say “we,” but Adam covered the majority of our living expenses. I'd stretched the truth a bit with Charmer when I'd said I was a business owner. It was technically true. I was the sole-proprietor of Big Bad Wolf Interactive—a play on my last name, Wolfe. But, the business was still in its infancy, having only come into existence when the big, glitzy web media firm where I worked as a creative director was acquired and I was promptly "right-sized" and shown the door. Unable to find work, I had thrown my hat into the freelance ring and was officially going it alone. After an exceedingly rough year, I finally had enough business to contribute to the household, but I was still very much dependent on Adam and his publicity director salary. Freelance life was good. I enjoyed answering only to myself, but it was lonely. The walls of our condo, however well-furnished, often closed in on me. So, I'd pack up my laptop and head over to Kona, our local coffee spot. Kona managed to survive in a city that bred Starbucks like lemmings by having not only amazing coffee but fresh baked pastries and shelves of books you could borrow and read at your leisure. Aside from the coffee shop, the West End Library was my favorite haunt. When the requirement to be even passively social overwhelmed my capacity to comply, I went to the library. Situated at the corner of 24th and L Streets, the West End was surrounded by the office buildings and ritzy hotels that made up this end of Dupont Circle, where the sight of cavalcades of black, armored SUVs transporting the truly powerful of D.C. was common. The automatic doors swished closed behind me and I stopped, as I always did, to peruse the new releases, letting the musty smell of paper and ink wash through me. It was a small library and showed the inevitable neglect that comes from a city that once ousted a mayor known for smoking crack and cutting community programs to cover pet projects. The tables were old, their surfaces cracked and scarred. The carpet was threadbare and an ambiguous shade of blue morphing into some form of grey. Despite the decay, I loved the notion of being surrounded by the imaginations and deep thoughts of generations of people. The New Release shelf was my favorite section of the library. Recently published books are their own form of birth. New ideas, new stories, new histories all add to the collective consciousness of the world. I picked up a history of Sotheby's and held it as reverentially as some people would hold a newborn baby. Opening the cover, I quickly scanned the book jacket and decided to check it out. I began to turn away when a new release by Judith Ivory caught my attention. Surreptitiously, I snatched the book off the shelf and added it to my stack without bothering to read the cover. It didn't matter. I knew from experience the story would be romantic and titillating. It was all I needed to know. I repeated my stealth snatch-and-grab maneuver twice more for Nora Roberts and Christine Feehan. Damn I want a Kindle but my cash flow doesn't support it yet. Adam and I shared a condo but not our finances. He paid for the bulk of our living expenses, but that was only fair since he earned six figures and I was barely covering my business and wardrobe expenses. Needless to say, unless he made a present of it—and so far my hints had been ignored—I couldn't afford a Kindle. It's not that I am ashamed to read romance novels, though you do tend to get disparaging looks from people when you're holding one in your hands. It's more that my gluttony for them is never satisfied and physical books are heavy. The weight of my growing stack had me thinking back to how tempted I'd been to steal a former co-worker's Kindle when she'd shown me her library. She had almost 200 books on that thing! And now, the West End had eBooks available. With a Kindle, I could satisfy my romance novel habit and not break my back carrying around all those heavy books! But I was good. I left my co-worker's Kindle alone and started dropping hints to Adam. But, if I landed the deal I was pitching this afternoon, I was treating myself to a Kindle. It had been a tough decision because Secondhand Rose, my favorite consignment shop in Georgetown, had called and told me that they'd gotten in an art nouveau ring that I might be interested in. Did I mention that I'm a jewelry fanatic? I love jewelry, specifically art pieces. I don't like typical jewelry that you can find any old place, which means that I shop for jewelry in thrift stores, consignment shops, and estate sales. It also means I have to be ready to buy when something presents itself. But, as much as I salivate at the idea of adding to my jewelry collection, I want a Kindle more. With a sigh, I sat at my usual table immediately outside of the stacks for Biography and Memoir and set my books on the battered surface. Pulling out my laptop, I launched my presentation so I could finish it. After about ten minutes of pretending to work, I pushed my laptop aside and gave in to the urge I'd been resisting. A small break wouldn't kill me. Setting the alarm on my phone for one hour, I opened up the Christine Feehan novel and dove into the dark, erotic magic of her world. My alarm vibrated right as the heroine lost herself in the arms of her nemesis, soon to be love. I admit it, I was aroused. My breathing was elevated, and I pulsed deliciously between my thighs, but that was only because it was all in my head. Sex in real life was never that erotic or fulfilling. I was lucky if I could stop thinking about the laundry long enough to make the requisite noises to get Adam off and make myself orgasm, or fake it if I didn't feel like putting in the effort. I used romance novels the way some women used vibrators. They filled my mind, they excited me in a way that actual sex never had. I devoured romance novels like chocolate chip cookies, but I didn't relate to them in any way. They were nothing more than erotic fantasy. As much as I wished life would imitate art, it never had. Sighing over the futility of wishing for things that couldn't be changed, I put the book away and refocused on the business at hand. 2. The Scotty Principle I PUSHED THROUGH THE DOORS of the building in which Hudson Barnes & Associates was housed and asked the security guard for directions while trying to calm my galloping heart. I was pitching a full-scale website redesign and digital branding effort to their vice president of communications. If I landed this gig, it would be my biggest to date. Hudson Barnes published a request for proposals that made it clear they had no idea what they truly needed. I love clueless clients in that regard. I come in, show them what they don't yet realize was possible, and leave them salivating over the possibilities they have never even envisioned. Of course, clueless clients are a bane when it comes to the actual work because they want unreasonable things, expect miracles, and tend to whine. Landing this project would be my biggest payday yet, hence the Kindle decision. I'd put in a six-figure bid, having buried a lot of consulting costs in the software selection portion of the presentation. The beauty of pitching to a large agency like Hudson Barnes in a town like Washington, D.C. is that they expect consultants to be expensive. Make no mistake, I don't screw anybody over. I always deliver quality work. Hell, my entire business is built on what I like to call The Scotty Principle. Being a huge Star Trek fan, I've watched every episode of Star Trek ever made except Enterprise. Scott Bakula didn't sit well with me as captain. Quantum Leap, yes. Star Trek, no. I couldn't tolerate him, but I digress. You see, whenever Captain Kirk would call down to Engineering demanding some miracle, Scotty would always tell Kirk he needed twice as long as he actually did. Then, he'd deliver early making himself look like a hero. That's the Scotty Principle—under-promise and over-deliver. I operate every project I take on by this principle. That doesn't mean I don't have to look out for myself. I need wiggle room for the unexpected. I wanted to deliver miracles, not fall on my face. It works for me. I was gaining a reputation in the area and had developed a small network of freelancers I trusted to whom I subcontract portions of my projects. Doing that was very, and I do mean very, hard for me. I don't trust other people to do things the way I want them done, but I'd been fortunate. I found a few college kids who were masters at their craft despite their age looking to make money to support their weed and gaming habits. They came cheap and worked well. Win-win. In the elevator, I pushed the button for the tenth floor and examined my surroundings. It's my theory that you can tell the true state of a building from its elevators. This is especially true in hotels. A company will put effort into its lobby. They want to make a good first impression, so I tend to ignore lobbies unless they are truly hideous. Once you're past the lobby, however, you can't be too certain. A building with a high-end lobby may actually house a bunch of struggling companies that are in that building because the rent is cheap. That would not be a good omen for me here. With the bid I put in, I need the company to be solvent, not struggling. Look around me, I can't help but grin. The elevator currently whooshing me up ten stories has a highly polished marble floor, glossy wood paneling, a spotless mirror lining the back wall of the compartment, and a digital display that announces the floor when it stops. I've got nothing to worry about. A wall of glass and steel confronts me as I exit the elevator. I have arrived at Hudson Barnes. I'm greeted by a bubbly and voluptuous piece of female eye candy guarding the aggressively minimalist front desk. She's dressed in a beautiful, wine-colored suit that on any normally-proportioned woman would have been demure. On her, it's as if it had been poured on. The silk of her blouse is stretched taut enough that I, and I'm sure every male here, knows she's wearing lace underneath. But, the thing that stands out to me is that their receptionist can afford silk. A quick check of her hand shows no wedding rings, so either she's landed a generous sugar daddy or her salary lets her dress expensively. I'm hoping for the latter. After ringing the vice president to let him know I'm there, she directs me to a seating area that could grace a designer showroom. I sit in a leather and steel chair and mentally practice my pitch while doing my best to settle my nerves. You'd think I'd be past these bouts of performance anxiety by now. I've been performing in front of crowds since I was seven years old. I was a majorette when I was little and a beauty pageant winner at eight. In high school, I was a varsity cheerleader and I gave several public speeches. During my career, I've probably pitched well over a hundred proposals, but it never fails. My knees shake, my stomach roils, and I perspire. I hate it, but I've learned to ride it out. As I wait, I'm checking out the vibe of the office, the flow of people, the set of their shoulders, and the timbre of their conversations—all clues as to the nature of the agency—when a shift in the air to my left accompanied by the faint scent of soap announces I'm no longer alone. Standing, I face the man I've come to see, Gregory Haldane, Vice President of Communication for the largest public relations firm in D.C. In the land of spin, they are king. Everything about him screams stereotypical D.C. executive. His cerulean, silk tie and navy blue suit are impeccably cut. His shoes are polished to a high sheen. I'd money I could see my reflection in them. His watch is Rolex, his wedding ring platinum, and his smile is calculating. The aromas of arrogance and power seep from his pores. We size each other up in a split second, only he doesn't know that my image is nothing more than a façade like those old Western sets that made it seem as if you were on a shop-lined street, but in reality they were all nothing more than painted pieces of wood. I'm wearing a black Tahari pantsuit and a silk wrap blouse in ruby red. Black and red are my power colors; I wear them whenever I need to be on top of my game. My shoes are Cole Haan. My watch is an estate piece. Every single thing I'm wearing was bought second-hand from a consignment shop. I look expensive, an image helped by the only honest thing I'm wearing—a pair of diamond studs Adam gave me for Christmas—but the truth is that I paid a fraction of the value for my wardrobe. Nevertheless, he sees what I want him to see: a successful business owner. "Ms. Wolfe?" He makes it a question, but I'm the only person in the waiting room. Who else would I be? "Mr. Haldane?" He smiles and his teeth, while quite white, are not capped. The first authentic thing I've seen on him. "A pleasure," he says as he shakes my hand. His grip is firm and his palm is warm. He holds my hand just a tad longer than etiquette demands. The dance has begun. He has a corner office that has been professionally decorated. It's airy, modern, and bright with lots of wood, leather, and steel. Rather than take the power position at his desk, he surprises me by sitting at a round table situated by the wall of windows. My surprise lasts only as long as it takes me to reach into my satchel next to my feet and find his eyes leashed to my breasts when I straighten. I restrain my smirk. It wouldn't do to offend a payday—I mean potential client. Hell, who am I kidding? I definitely mean a payday. Let's be honest, that's all he is to me. I don't know him beyond what I see, and what I see isn't worth ruining my business over. Sure, he's handsome. He radiates confidence and he's clearly willing. He wears a wedding ring, but the only picture of his wife and I think a dog and not a hairy child is positioned where he never sees it. How Freudian is that? He shifts in his chair, arranging his long legs more comfortably, and I check out the package. He looks respectably sized. But, the real question is can he do anything with it or is he one of those men who thinks possessing a dick is enough? Mentally, I shrug. It's not worth it. I have to risk my business, my reputation, and my lifestyle with Adam on a “maybe” for a man who is married. And, despite what cheaters would have you believe, they never leave their wives. So, no matter how you cut it, I would get the short end of the stick. I would end up alone and destitute over a quick lay. Nope. Not worth it. With the sex question out of the way—for me at least since he's still eyeing my cleavage—I prop up my laptop and begin my pitch. "Mr. Haldane—" "Call me Greg, please," he interrupts me and I'm torn between irritation at his rudeness and snorting at the obvious tactic, but I smile and refrain from commenting. "Greg," I continue, "After reading your RFP,” —I could have been polite and said “Request for Proposals,”, but I always use acronyms when I talk to potential clients. It makes me seem knowledgeable and makes them slightly uncomfortable if they don’t know it. No executive wants to broadcast ignorance with a vendor— “I have to say I'm excited at the opportunity to participate in Hudson Barnes's digital transformation." I'd learned over the years that the easiest way to snag a client was to actually talk very little about yourself. They honestly don't care about your education, credentials, or experience. Sure, that stuff is important, but in a presentation it's a big "so what?" Everybody has degrees and certifications. That stuff nets the lowest return. What I do is get them to figuratively "try on" my services. Have you ever wondered why salespeople are climbing over each other for you to try on a diamond ring or sapphire necklace the moment you enter the store? It's because it has been psychologically proven that if you can get a customer to try on the merchandise, they won't want to give it back. It's the same reason every car dealer wants you to test drive their cars. I apply the same principles in my sales pitches. I use lots of visuals and tailored mockups of proposed ideas. And, unlike my competition, I ask detailed questions ahead of time. I don't care that every respondent gets access to the same answers. They can't do what I do. That's why I named my company Big Bad Wolf, though my card says BBW. I chose that name because, just like the proverbial lupine in The Three Little Pigs, I blow my competition away. By the end of my thirty minutes, “Call-Me-Greg-please,” is all but salivating for the status I can deliver him. I can see the wheels turning in his head. If I deliver on the promises I've made, he'll look like a hero and I've made sure he knows it. Deliberately, I leave my screen on the chart of what Hudson Barnes’s audience reach would look like if they adopt my plan. Spin doctors eat that stuff up. After a deliberate check of my watch to project your-time-is-important, I say, "Any questions, Mr. —, I mean, Greg?" He rubs his chin for several seconds and gives me a speculative look. "No, Ms. Wolfe—" "Charlotte, please." My turn to play the game. He smiles, "Charlotte. You were quite thorough." I grin and begin packing up my laptop before pulling out the packet I prepared ahead of time. I never give them out first because I want all eyes on me, not my handouts. "My card is inside," I say as I slide it across the table. He rests a large tanned hand on the folder and says, "I'll be sure to hang onto it." "Do you have a time frame in mind for the final decision? Is there anyone else who must be consulted?" The last bit was pointed. These executive types enjoy flaunting their power. Subtly suggesting they don’t have final authority usually makes them leap to a decision in order to prove they do. "I do have one more meeting today," he checks his watch. "Right now, as a matter of fact." He stands and follows me to the door of his office where he shakes my hand. "Thank you for coming, Charlotte. I'll be making my decision" there is a deliberate emphasis on the word my, "by the end of the week." He's still holding my hand until I gently disengage, being rude now would be like insulting the chef preparing your food: you're practically begging them to spit in it. "I look forward to hearing from you then." He barks a laugh, that statement bordered on arrogance and we both know it, but I feel it in my gut. This gig is mine. He's still grinning as I show myself out. Back in the lobby, there is a young guy, mid-thirties in a crumpled, off-the-rack suit with a pristine Macbook in his lap. Everything about him screams computer geek. His skills could rival, even exceed mine, but he doesn't know anything about packaging or he'd never have shown up wearing that suit. What most people fail to learn is that a successful pitch isn't mere screens of information. You have to embody what you're selling every step of the way. My pitch was as much my clothes, my vocabulary, and the fact that I met every deadline early, as well as showing my expertise through probing, relevant questions. I give the full package. The people I pitch to don't always recognize the intangibles, but they feel them. My game is deep, Grasshopper. This poor guy has no chance. When I step back out onto the street, I'm already planning which books I'm going to load on my Kindle. * * * Blog Post: Shitting Where You Eat Life Inside the Echo Chamber I did it, dear reader! I landed the biggest account of my freelance career and am now sporting a brand new Kindle Paperwhite. The Paperwhite you say? I know, I know, why didn't I get the Fire? Truthfully, I am a reading purist. I love the feel and texture of a book and I don't want distractions. The closest I can come to that in an eReader is the Paperwhite. I've already loaded fifteen books and am on book three! Yes, I know … what's my title got to do with eReader? Nothing. You are correct, dear reader, but bear with me, I'm getting to that. If you've been reading this blog, then you know that the Kindle was my planned reward for landing the aforementioned gig. But, it's not the Kindle that's relevant. It's what went on during my pitch meeting that inspired this post. In other words, office sex. Oh, get your mind out of the gutter! I didn't screw anybody, but I'm wondering about people who do. Those libertines who engage in office affairs or screw clients whether to land a deal or not. Personally, I don't see the point of it. It happens often enough, but to me that's like shitting where you eat; it’s unnecessary and bad for your health. So, how does this relate back to my meeting? The VIP I was pitching to was putting out all the signals. I have no doubt I could have easily ended up good and screwed (pun intended) if I'd been willing, but it seemed so stupid to me. In this particular case, I may have guaranteed I'd get the job, but I would have lost all credibility, so that's counterproductive. And, let's face it, anyone willing to cheat on their spouse can't be trusted—they've already proven to be liars by the act alone—so there really isn't a guarantee that I'd have gotten the job. Long story short, I could have wasted my time screwing this guy for nothing. Not. Worth. It. Even more so, I don't understand people who engage in office romances even when it isn't adulterous. I've had a few offers, but always said no. I mean, what if the relationship soured? Then one of you has to get a new job. That, or deal with the awkwardness. Or, heaven help you, if you sleep with your boss, then you're totally screwed when that doesn't work out. In my experience, there are too many men out there I can screw who I don't work with, so why risk my livelihood. Nope. I'll pass. What say you, readers? 3. An Imitation of Life "CHARLOTTE! DID YOU HEAR A single word I just said?" The force of Adam's inquiry startled me. In truth, I was trying to watch The Walking Dead and was much more interested in what Rick intended to do about the current threat than Adam's latest rant about his day. "Yes, I heard you," I wasn't lying. I'd heard him, but I wasn't paying attention. "Carl might retire, leaving the vice president spot open." Next to me, Adam went still. I pulled my eyes away from the television and looked over to where he sat. He was sprawled across the couch in the slouchy, lazy way he liked. His jean-clad legs extended out, and his feet were propped up on our coffee table. He was shirtless as he usually was when home. When we'd first moved in together, he stayed naked the majority of the time. Eventually, I convinced him to at least begin wearing pants around the house. He'd argued that after being cooped up in a suit all day, he wanted maximum comfort, which, for him, meant naked. I'd said I didn't want to sit on anything that his naked ass had recently vacated, which was only partially true. I mean, who wants someone's naked backside all over a $3,000 suede couch? That's just nasty. But, the real reason—and one I'd never shared with Adam—was his nakedness made me uncomfortable. I was constantly confronted by his penis which made me antsy. To make matters worse, he seemed to get offended that the mere act of being naked in front of me didn't cause me to dissolve in a puddle of desire. “Naked” seemed to equal “horny” for him, and I couldn't take it. So, I whined and he caved. I was much happier for it. Looking at him now, it was apparent that I'd missed something important. His face had taken on the pinched look a person gets when they've tasted something sour and his body was rigid. Yup, I had definitely missed something. Reaching for the remote, I turned off the television so I wouldn't be tempted to keep watching all the while mentally praising DVR technology. If this had been live television, I'd be royally pissed off. As it was, I would just have to watch it after he moved past whatever tribulation couldn't wait until my show ended. I don't get people sometimes. When I'm watching television, that's what I'm doing. That means out of all the things I could choose to do, I've opted to watch television. By virtue of that, it should be apparent that I don't want to talk. Nor do I want to listen to other people talk. I want to watch my show! Uninterrupted! If you must speak to me, save it for the ads or freaking wait until the show ends. How hard is that? Adam always talks to me when I'm reading or watching television. On top of that, if I don't stop what I'm doing and give him my undivided attention, he sulks like a baby. "What is it?" I barely managed to keep the irritation out of my voice. "Never mind," he snaps. "Clearly fictional zombies are more important than listening to me." Here we go. I sighed and said, "Adam, maybe I'm missing something, but you've known for months that Carl was retiring." "Clearly, you weren't listening at all because that's the least of what I said." Instead of arguing the semantics, because I really had tuned him out, I turned to face him more fully, "I'm listening. What's so important?" Rather than answer, he stalked into the kitchen to grab a bottle of Guinness from the refrigerator. He rifled through the drawer next to the stove, and I waited for the inevitable question, my aggravation rising with each breath. "Where is the fucking bottle opener?" he hollered. I gritted my teeth at the unnecessary outburst both because the damn bottle opener was right in front of his face if he bothered to look and because our condo has an open design, making hollering unnecessary. The living room and kitchen are really one space divided by a large island that also serves as our dining area, so it wasn't like he was actually in a different room, he was being pissy. I gritted out, "It's on the refrigerator door, like I told you." He slammed the drawer shut and yanked the bottle opener off the fridge. I'd bought a magnetic one since it made sense to me to keep the bottle opener where you keep the bottles, but this fact seemed not to have sunk into his brain. Guinness in hand, he threw himself back on the couch and took several gulps before looking at me. His dark eyes were almost black. His eye brows were drawn tight in a scowl. The full lips I'd always envied were a thin slash. More and more, he behaved like this and I really didn't understand why. "Talk to me," I said reaching for his hand, which he pulled away. "I don't know why I bother," he said between gulps of the stout. "I get more interaction from the wall." "That's a shitty thing to say," I felt my insides go taut. Whatever sympathy I might have felt evaporated as soon as the insult landed. I was in the middle of my favorite show, what the hell did he expect? "It's true," he said before gulping more Guinness. I had to make sure he only drank the one. He was a horny drunk, and I definitely didn't feel like being bothered after this. Taking a deep breath, I turned on the charm. "I'm sorry, baby. I didn't realize Carl's leaving meant so much to you. I thought you wanted a shot at VP." I sure as hell wanted him to get the job. It came with a hefty raise, and I was already planning what we could do with it. Our lease was up in two months, and I wanted to upgrade if he got the promotion. I had visions of a home office where I could work rather than at our kitchen island. "I thought I did too." My chest clenched. His voice had shifted into that soft, melodramatic tone that always preceded some vast emotional revelation where I ended up having to shore up his ego. I so wasn't in the mood for this. "What do you mean?" I asked because anything else would be too overtly insensitive. "Char, you know I had other dreams. I mean, I get that I make a lot of money. And, tons of people would kill for this to be their biggest problem, but I feel like my soul is dying. Like, I'm letting life hijack my dreams." He was talking about the fact that he had always wanted to be a veterinarian. Adam loved animals. We didn't have any because our building had a strict no pet policy. Thank goodness. He had tried vet school but quickly found out he didn't have the stomach for it, so he went back to school for communications and had been a rising star at his public relations firm ever since. Adam kept lamenting his good fortune, though, which really got on my nerves. Eventually, just to get him to give it a rest, I'd suggested he do some volunteer work at the Animal Rescue League. To my surprise, he took my advice and now spends a few nights a week and Sundays at the shelter. He had quit complaining and I had thought the subject was closed, but here it was. Again. "Adam—" I interjected. "No, hear me out," he held up a hand and had that earnest puppy-dog look he gets when he's excited. Sometimes, I can almost imagine his tongue hanging out and him panting and pawing at me. It was another thing I found truly irritating, but at least he'd put the beer down. Adam launched into a monologue about how the rescue league needed a marketing director and it was a full-time, paid position and how they'd offered it to him without even posting it because some of his other ideas had already been so successful. I was only half tuned in. My mind was already made up on this. There was no way a non-profit was going to match his salary, and I had no intention of letting this happen. I wanted my office. Finally, he stopped talking and asked, "What do you think?" I waited a few seconds to appear as if I was giving it due consideration, "Adam, I know working with animals is important to you. I thought volunteering was satisfying you." I took his hand to give him the idea that this was important to me too. "I'm not trying to dissuade you, but let's get away from the heart strings for a moment and look at this practically. Right now, your salary is what keeps us in this condo and maintains our standard of living. My business is growing, but it isn't there yet. If I could contribute more fully to the household, I'd be all for this change because I could fill in the what ... thirty or forty thousand dollar pay cut you're bound to take. Now, baby, you don't want to lose everything we built, do you?" I squeezed his hand, hoping he didn't consciously recognize the implied threat in my words. I wanted him to think I meant losing the stuff we owned, not me. He liked nice things as much as I did. Adam stared at me for a long time before saying, "I told them I'd let them know by the end of the week." I kissed the back of his hand before setting it down on the couch and reaching for the remote. My focus already back on Rick and the ragtag survivors in post-apocalyptic Georgia, I said, "I'm sure you'll do the right thing. You always do." Beside me, Adam downed the rest of his beer and set the bottle down. I tensed and began silently chanting please don't touch me, please don't touch me, please don't touch me. He didn't. Instead he threw his Guinness bottle in the recycle bin before saying, "I'm going to bed." There was a tentative, hopeful note in his voice that I ignored. "G'night, babe. I'll be in soon." Adam didn't answer, and when I glanced his way, the spot where he'd been standing was empty. * * * A few hours later, when I climbed into bed, Adam appeared to be asleep. He was sprawled on his back, his lean, taut body exposed because he always kicked the covers off. He still slept naked—a habit he was unyielding on. I moved slowly doing my best not to rouse him. As I settled into my side of the bed, cuddling my pillow and trying to find the exact right sleeping position, I relaxed; his breathing was steady and deep. Just as I began to doze, Adam rolled over throwing a heavy arm across my body. His groin pressed into my buttocks and a large hand cupped my breast. I tensed. He was awake and horny. "I want to fuck you," he said as if the erection he was rubbing against me wasn't announcement enough. I think he thought it turned me on when he said things like that, but I was always slightly embarrassed by it. The words didn't sound right coming from him. I loved dirty talk in books, but with Adam it always killed my mood. I didn't say anything and lay non-responsive hoping he'd get the message. No such luck. Instead, he rolled me on my back and began fumbling with my nightgown, awkwardly stripping me as I remained limp as wet pasta. I wanted to sleep, not screw, but I wanted to argue even less. I wasn't, however, going to help him. I complied as necessary, opening my mouth or my legs when commanded, but I gave nothing back. If he was going to demand sex when I made it clear I wasn't in the mood, then he'd get what he asked for. "I want you to come," he groaned in my ear as he thumbed my clit, rubbing entirely too hard and too fast and refusing to alter his rhythm when I tried to show him what worked for me. I debated refusing him, but that would have created another argument, and I really wanted to get it over with and go to sleep. He claimed sex was no good for him if I didn't come too. So, rather than give in to the growing urge to scream at him to leave me alone and get out of my body, I grabbed his hand and pressed down hard to get him to stop. Immediately, I began flexing my vaginal muscles and pretending to convulse around him. If you're going to fake it convincingly, it takes more than some grunting. Finally, he climaxed and collapsed on top of me. I felt his softening penis slide from me and rest wetly along my thigh. I was unable to restrain a shudder of revulsion. I was definitely going to have to shower before I could sleep. "Was it good?" he asked. I could hear the smug grin in his voice as he mistook my reaction for climactic aftershocks. "Of course, baby. You're the best I've ever had." The sad part was that it was the truth. I don't know why I couldn't get into sex, but Adam was the only lover I'd ever had that could even get me to climax somewhat regularly. He rolled off me, and I went to shower, scrubbing away all trace of his semen. I hated the sticky, sliminess of it. When I climbed back into bed this time, he was snoring, so there was no danger of a repeat performance. For several long moments, I stared at his sleeping face. We'd been together for three years. I'd slept by his side every night for the last two. Shouldn't there be something more as I looked at him? Some kind of soul-deep recognition of my chosen mate? All I saw when I looked at Adam was the unique combination of body parts that made him up. Soft hair, a closely trimmed goatee, long lashes, and velvety skin. But, I didn't recognize him. There was no visceral understanding of the essence of him as joined to me. My soul did not see him. I've always imagined that two people who are truly bonded have a familiarity, an inherent type of déjà vu where even in the newness of their experiences, they recognize each other as familiar. The opposite of déjà vu is jaimas vu where despite the familiarity of a thing there is no recognition. With Adam, I had constant jaimas vu. Sighing, I took up my Kindle and lost myself in the romance novel I'd started earlier until the words swam on screen. Setting the eReader aside, I snuggled into the covers as a particularly erotic scene replayed itself in my head. I slipped my fingers between my thighs and quietly brought myself to a long, languid, toe-curling climax without disturbing Adam. 4. Canine Enamored THE NEXT MORNING, A NOTE on the kitchen island informed me that Adam had a breakfast meeting with a client and a full day ahead. In other words, he'd be out late, which was fine with me. My relationship with Adam flowed best when we both stayed busy. It enabled me to focus on him during the small windows of time when our lives intersected. If I had to pay attention to him full-time, I think I'd go nuts. Still in my nightgown, I made coffee and breakfast of a shrimp omelet with cheese and tomatoes. I believe in starting the day off right. I was no good before 10 a.m., and I'd learned not to fight it. As I sipped my coffee, I skimmed the headlines on my laptop. As I scrolled through the various stories, one about a widower caught my attention. He had written a love song for his deceased wife that had gone viral across the Internet. I clicked through and read the story. They'd been married for sixty years, yada, yada—it was typical sap. The thing that jumped out at me was the quote from the widower that he loved her as deeply sixty years later as he did when he met her. With my coffee mug in hand, I stood in front of the large windows spanning my living room wall, that quote ping-ponging around my brain. How does one do that? Love someone so long? I was grateful that Adam hadn't started to bore me. Everything about him was the opposite of where I came from. He was smart, attractive, and kind with an adventurous spirit. I'd been raised in a two-parent household that was as unchanging as the minutes in an hour. You could tell what day of the week it was by the meal my mother served for dinner. Monday was spaghetti, Tuesday pork chops, Wednesday roast chicken, yada, yada, every day of my life. Other areas of my youth were just as static. We drove the same car, a grass green Buick, for the first thirteen years of my life. My father upgraded to a black cherry Crown Victoria after that and he had that well after I moved out. The furnishings in my parents' house never changed either. Even now, if I were to return to my childhood home, the only change would be that the furniture I grew up with is now in the basement, replaced by the new, but equally ugly, living room set. By the time I left for college at seventeen, I'd developed an almost obsessive need for variety. I loved trying new foods, changed my computer's wallpaper monthly, and regularly changed my clothing style. There were exceptions. I applied my makeup the same as I had since I'd gotten my first makeover at sixteen. My hairstyle changed infrequently, and I liked my morning routine well enough that I never altered it. But, the same need for variety I felt with food, I felt with men. My relationships started out great, the attraction was there. Sex was always better early in the relationship. Everything was new, and discovering what made them tick held my interest. And, of course, they paid a lot of attention to me. As the relationship wore on, however, my feelings always waned. Quirks and foibles that initially had been interesting or cute became tiresome, and I began avoiding them. Soon enough he got the hint and broke off the relationship, which suited me fine. Some women have an issue with being the dumped party. Not me. When they break up with me, I know I won't have to worry about them being back. Besides—out of sight, out of mind. As far as I'm concerned, it's a win-win. I don’t mean to imply that I racked up lots of notches on my belt before Adam. I may be closer to forty than twenty in years, but I haven't yet broken double-digits when in the relationship game. I am a serial monogamist. All of my relationships are long, they just aren't lasting. Adam was different. From the day I'd met him, the attraction had been the most powerful I'd ever experienced. My body responded in ways I never had before. He was the first and only man to actually bring me to orgasm. Everyone else had been content to let me handle it, claiming it was too much work otherwise. Adam also had a razor-sharp mind and enjoyed getting out of the house. I was never bored with him, but when we weren't together, he rarely crossed my mind—the same as every other man before him. And, lately, all we did was argue. He constantly accused me of being inconsiderate and never considering his feelings. Not true. Most of the time, I just think he's being silly. If he would only get on board with me, everything would be okay. I can't seem to convince him of that, though. Still, I know my feelings for Adam are nothing like what I read about. There are no butterflies, no yearning through the day for him. What it comes down to is that I don't see the reason why his happiness should come before my own. You always hear that about good relationships. But, it seems so counter-intuitive to me. Why should I have to be unhappy for him to be happy? Why can't my happiness come first? Were these things even real? In my entire life, I can't remember feeling like that. Even my first sexual encounter had been about the end game. I'd wanted to come and had made sure I did. What else was there? Sighing, I drained my coffee and looked out at the city I loved. Secretly, in the place in my heart that I avoided, I wondered if I was with Adam for what he did for me and not for himself. A chill spread over me. No, I took care of him, too. I cleaned and cooked and screwed him when I couldn't avoid it. Good enough in my book. Wasn't it? Should I be more concerned with his happiness than a tit-for-tat on cleaning versus rent payments? Should I have agreed when he proposed? I shook my head. It wasn't as if it had been a real proposal. I was pregnant, and we'd agreed that marriage was the responsible thing to do. Ten weeks in, I miscarried. End of baby. End of marriage talk. That had suited me fine. I didn't want children and or to be married. When I eventually tired of Adam, I didn't want to pay for a divorce. I surveyed our home. A feeling of immense satisfaction washed through me. I enjoyed this place. I loved everything, from its open design to the comfortably modern furniture and the richly colored art on the walls. I didn't want to lose this. I didn't want to start over. It was easier to stay with Adam, but he needed to relax. The arguing was getting old. I rinsed my breakfast dishes and placed them in the dishwasher while fighting a claustrophobic feeling. My mug was the last in. It was a lovely ceramic piece in teal painted with cherry blossoms. Some people collect art, I collect coffee mugs. I have a cabinet full of various mugs in all differing sizes with eclectic designs and patterns. Each day, I used whichever mug suited my mood. My phone chimed. I shut off the water and grabbed it off the counter while heading to the bedroom to dress. I smiled as I read the text. One of my designers was notifying me that they'd submitted a new cost estimate based on the meeting my team had facilitated with the talking heads at Hudson Barnes. She was revising it down by several thousand dollars. I loved it when that happened. It was more money for me. Grinning, I went to change and head over to Kona to work. * * * Forty minutes later, I was dressed, coiffed, and made up. I packed my tote with my laptop and various papers I needed to begin working on the Hudson Barnes documentation before adding my purse and my phone. A quick glance in the mirror told me my armor was intact. I never left the house without being fully done. An errant smudge of mascara caught my eye, and I leaned in to wipe it away and that's when it happened. Maybe the light shifted as the sun slipped behind the clouds. Maybe it was the caffeine suddenly taking root and firing my neurons. I don't know. But, as I flaked the black clump of mascara off the underside of my eye, I saw her. The girl I refused to acknowledge. She hovered under my skin never letting me forget that my life was a carefully constructed façade. Gone was the accomplished woman with a man and a life others would kill for. Instead, I saw a face I'd always thought of as horsey with lips too wide and too full. I saw eyes that couldn't decide if they were brown or green, but in any case were too big and astigmatic. I saw thick, boyish eyebrows that were two shades darker than my natural hair. I saw the little girl who never measured up and the woman who hated her cowardice for accepting it in silence. I squeezed my eyes shutting out the apparition in the mirror. I mentally recited my affirmations. I unconditionally accept myself as I am. I unconditionally accept myself as I am. Opening my eyes, I took in a deep breath and forcefully banished the specter in front of me willing the new me to return. I blurred my eyes and counted to ten before allowing my vision to focus. The woman in front of me looked tense, her eyes a little too wide, her skin a bit pale, but at least she was the me I was willing to tolerate. As if to seal the accord between both of me, I recited my mantra aloud this time, adding “I love you” for good measure. Her eyes flickered, her lips twitched in rejection of those final words—we both knew it wasn't true. I all but ran out, snatching up my keys and letting the door slam behind me and trusting the automatic locks to secure my home. I did my best to calm down as I waited for the elevator. The feeling of suffocation was nothing new to me. You'd think after a lifetime of trying to outrun it unsuccessfully, I would stop trying, but I can't stand it. It was like when they took your blood pressure and that cuff they attached to you squeezed your arm. It clamped down until you thought it would cut off your circulation. That's how it felt now. As if the woman I tried to leave behind was attempting to squeeze herself into my skin and supplant the woman I was now. I wouldn't have it. I ran tense fingers through my hair, ruining the perfectly styled pixie cut. Shaking my head in frustration, I reached up to push the glasses I no longer wore up the bridge of my nose. It was a nervous gesture from a different lifetime. I'd had my eyes fixed the year before I met Adam. At seven, I'd been diagnosed with astigmatism and had worn glasses ever since. For two horrible years, I'd had to wear braces as well. When I was finally able to afford it, I'd gotten Lasik on both eyes and now had perfect 20/20 vision. But, every now and then, primarily in moments of stress, I seemed to forget I no longer wore glasses and ended up poking myself right between the eyes. I imagined it was some lesser version of what amputees went through. Unlike them, my separation had been voluntary, so this phantom habit baffled me. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to relax. I was a grown woman. I wasn't that pathetic, useless little girl who let herself be walked over by everyone. I hadn't been her since the day I realized the only way to survive in this world was to look out for number one. The elevator dinged, and by the time I reached the lobby, my calm had returned. Fishing around my tote, I pulled out my sunglasses and started walking toward P Street, hoping I'd be able to get my favorite table. It was a gorgeous early June day, the temperature in the seventies. Late Spring was one of my favorite times in D.C. The weather encouraged outdoor activity almost as if in consolation for the scorchingly humid months of July and August that awaited us. The sky was a deep azure dotted with pillowy clouds and, under the stench of car exhaust and trash, there was a hint of flowers and foliage. I absorbed the urban tapestry as I walked. The stay-at-home moms were out with their stroller-bound children. The cosmopolitan corporate cogs dashed to and fro; their resentment at their daily efforts lining someone else's pocket shimmered around them like a physical barrier. Under Mayor Anthony Williams, D.C. had begun to revitalize and clean itself up, an effort that continued well after he decided not to run again. Gone were the rotting neighborhoods and ghostly, violent enclaves. The streets were alive again and people took pride in their community. Our street was usually spotless, which was why the pile of cardboard stacked in front of one of the tidy row houses lining the road attracted my attention. Not the cardboard itself—our neighborhood recycled—but rather the rotting meat that they'd also put out with it. Didn't they know that the recycling truck wouldn't take it if it was mixed like that? I eyed the row house trying unsuccessfully to call the owners to mind. It was typical of all the others, brick painted white, a porch with a swing, and a glass paned front door. Briefly, I considered confronting the owners but discarded the notion. Nothing would be served by an angry confrontation. I could, however, leave a note. I mean tossing out meat like that would draw vermin. Setting my tote down on the sidewalk, I squatted and dug for a notepad and pen. Just as I pulled them out, the meat twitched and the cardboard flapped. A barely-contained shriek clawed at my throat as I landed on my ass. A searing pain shot up my spine, and my heart lurched even as it sprinted in place. Surely, that had to be a trick of the light. It must be hotter than I realized. I needed to get to Kona and drink some water. I gathered up my notepad and pen, nixing the idea of a note when it happened again. The cardboard flapped and the meat twitched. My heart lurched into fifth gear, but now I needed to solve the puzzle. Retrieving my pen, I reached out and tentatively lifted the topmost layer of cardboard. It slid off the pile landing in the street. Without the benefit of cover, however dubious, there was no protection from the stench of putrefying meat. I coughed. Nausea swirled in my belly as I absorbed the sight before me. It was not a pile of rotting meat. It was, in fact, a dog. A bloody and chewed dog. * * * "Thank you," I said into the phone. "I'll wait with him until someone arrives." "Animal Control officers have already been dispatched." I nodded even though the official sounding woman at the other end couldn't see me. "Okay," I said aloud this time. "Thank you." I ended the call and tossed my phone back into my tote. I was a lot of things, I knew that, but even I couldn't leave such a horribly abused creature alone in this state. I stood by his head, or more accurately, upwind, where I couldn't smell the infection that had so obviously set in where he'd been bitten and torn. Even to untrained eyes such as mine, it was clear he'd been in a fight. One ear was bloody and ripped. The skin of his jowls was mangled and chewed, and his body was covered in oozy puncture wounds. Sealing the whole fight theory … he was obviously a pit bull. Where he wasn't bloody or pus encrusted, his fur was that silver-gray color that the canine enamored in their collective insanity had termed blue. That was like expecting someone to believe orange was red. The only blue on the animal was his eyes. They were the pale blue of the sky right after a rainstorm and right now, they stared directly into mine. I don't know what I expected. Maybe the cold, calculating gaze of a predator? What I got was the agonized pain of the wounded. He twitched again, and a soft exhalation of a whimper drifted up to me. Unexpected tears burned the back of my eyes. What had this creature done to deserve this? I moved slowly, doing my best not to make any sudden movements, and crouched down next to his head with my back to him. I learned from watching all of the Cesar Millan that Adam played relentlessly that this posture told dogs you weren't a threat. For several moments, there was nothing. Then I heard another wheezing exhale, and I was seized with panic at the thought this dog might die. I ruthlessly suppressed it. The last thing I wanted was an injured, frightened dog to smell my fear. I turned to face him and saw curiosity mixed with pain. I lifted my hand, curled in a loose fist, and brought it to his nose. This was the moment of truth. Hopefully, I'd done enough to gain his trust. I held my breath as he snuffled my hand without lifting his head. The skin of his nose was warm and dry—not a good sign. As I was about to take my hand away, he gave me a tentative lick. I smiled and crooned, "There's a good boy. Everything is going to be okay. We're going to get you patched up." I hoped I wasn't wrong. He was in terrible shape, and his injuries were severe. In all likelihood, he was dying. With exaggerated slowness, I exchanged my crouch for sitting lotus style next to him and gently stroked the area between his eyes, the one place that appeared undamaged, and was gratified to see his large body relax as he closed his eyes and drifted. "Poor baby, I'm so sorry this happened to you." I don't know how long we waited, but, for once, I didn't care. I sat on the side of the road, my work forgotten, stroking that gentle, wounded creature until Animal Control finally arrived. I stood while they muzzled him as a precaution. It took both officers to lift him. Buried under all the cardboard as he was, I hadn't realized the full size of him. He had to be closing in on a hundred pounds. With stoicism typical of his breed, he gave no resistance. My last glimpse before they closed the door of the air-conditioned compartment was of those soulful eyes full of resignation, as if he knew the road ahead of him held no certainty. I had saved him, hadn't I? "So what happens next?" I addressed the senior of the two responding officers. An older man with thinning gray hair marching to white, tired eyes, and a kind smile, he fished a business card out of the truck and handed it to me before answering. "First thing is he'll go over to Friendship Animal Hospital where we'll get him fixed up. After that—" he broke off and looked away, rubbing his neck as if a huge weight had suddenly landed there. "After that, it depends." "On what?" I asked. He met my gaze directly, "On him, miss. He'll be temperament tested, and then we'll see." "What if he fails?" Panic crept in, flipping my stomach. I'd saved the dog. I didn't want him to die now. "Miss," his expression was grim with the burden of experience, "let's just hope for the best." He left me there, unsure what to do. My task felt incomplete. It was like having a word on the tip of your tongue that eluded you. There was no closure here. No satisfaction of accomplishing a good deed. Saving the dog was an em dash, an interruption, an aside. I wanted the exclamation point that came with a glow and a grin. At loose ends, I couldn't find my bearings to proceed. My reaction made no sense. I wasn't even a dog person. They required too much maintenance. I preferred the self-sufficiency of cats. Nevertheless, I sat for a long while by the side of the street under an ironically bright sun, staring at the empty space where he'd lain. 5. The Truths I Tell Strangers I HAVE NO IDEA HOW long I sat there before I found the wherewithal to continue on. This lethargy made no sense to me. I'd done my part; the rest wasn't my problem. Shaking off the lingering fugue, I gathered up my belongings and finished the trip to Kona. Fortunately, my favorite table was vacant. Some people don't care where they sit in any given place, but I have a thing about anyone coming up behind me. I also like to be able to people watch with impunity. So, I tend to seek tables in corners where my back is to the wall and I can see the entire place. Kona was even better in that there was a table tucked into a corner with a wall plug nearby, and it was positioned next to the large window fronting the cafe. I could watch the street and the cafe freely while having my back guarded. I dropped my belongings at the table to mark my territory and joined the line to order a large, caramel macchiato. I needed the endorphin rush the sweet concoction would give me to smooth the letdown that still hovered around my edges. Back at my table, I set up my laptop, ensuring it was perfectly centered in front of me. My coffee took up residence to my left. I placed my ever-present notebook to my right and the fountain pen I favored over ball points. Each item sat in perfect parallel lines with their top edges aligned in a neat row. It's a quirk of mine that when I'm feeling out of sorts, I need perfect order around me. The bustling cafe was doing little to calm me today. I wanted to stand up and shout at everyone to take their seat and be quiet, but I figured that wouldn’t endear me to anyone. So, I remained quiet. After a few failed attempts at work, I took up my coffee and stared at the pedestrians outside the window as my thoughts cycled back to the pit bull. I failed to understand how people could be so cruel. It was one of the primary reasons I disliked people in general. Their capriciousness confused me. Animals are defenseless. Take me for instance; I understand my limitations in that regard. Animals need to be cared for. I didn't want to put the effort in, therefore, I had no animals. The same went for children with me. I wasn't interested in caring for a child, therefore I made sure I didn't get pregnant. "A success story, I see…" The scrape of a chair and the soft lilt of a British accent brought me out of my ruminations. The same Brit from the week before once again took up residence at the table beside me. He was dressed casually in khaki cargo pants, a black T-shirt, and work boots. I smiled as I realized I expected all Brits to shun casual clothes and spend their time in bowler hats and three-piece suits. Clearly, he wasn't sure what to make of me sitting there smiling yet silent. His face took on a ruddy cast that highlighted the silvered blue of his eyes. In a moment of insight that had no bearing on the situation, I realized that he was shy by nature. "I'm not sure what you mean," I replied as one part of my brain registered that we'd fallen into conversation the way long-time acquaintances do. There was no greeting, no segue into conversation. We began as if our last conversation had never finished. He gestured with his cup in the direction of a table tucked into an alcove across the cafe. “See, you created a love connection.” I followed his mug and spied Ms. Coach and Charmer sharing a table and, from the way their shoulders touched and his hand rested on her thigh, it was indeed a success story, however unintended. I had just wanted him to leave me alone. It was really quite predictable. Smirking, I said, "So, I see." "You're not impressed by your matchmaking prowess?" He smiled, and his eyes twinkled. I was struck by that. You read lines like that in books, but it was the first time I'd actually witnessed it. In my experience, most people's smiles don't reach their eyes. Rather than windows to the soul, they tend to be blank doors. I'd been told that very thing about myself. "I wasn't matchmaking," I shrugged. "I was getting rid of an annoyance. That," I nodded in the couple's direction, "is merely a by-product." "Not a romantic then?" he asked. I laughed, noticing how the brittle quality of the sound cut the space between us like broken glass. "Depends on how you define romantic." I turned to face him then. His hair and beard had been trimmed since the last time I'd seen him and observing for the first time he had a slight gap between his front teeth. I wondered how he would react if I were to run my tongue along the space. "I enjoy the idea of romance, and I'm a fan of love stories with happy endings. I love weddings and the idea of a happily ever after, but I don't believe these things are a reality. People generally suck." "Spoken as only someone who has never been in love can say." The standard rebuttals and arguments jumped to my lips, but I felt too laconic to spend time on the illusion. I generally went out of my way to blend into people's perceptions of normal, but it just wasn't worth the effort to me right now. Instead, I spoke the truth. "No, never. You?" As the words left my tongue, Adam's image rose in my mind. The words felt laden with a weight of responsibility I refused to ponder. I pushed Adam out of my mind. I didn't want him there right now. "Yes, you don't reach my age and not experience love at least once." His words begged for follow up questions, for a tale to be told, but I didn't feel like summoning the energy to be courteous and pretend to be interested. Silence descended and I sipped my coffee doing my best to find the motivation to work, but none came. "A penny for your thoughts." "Don't you mean pence?" I sounded bitchy, but the lethargy was growing again and I didn't care. "Pardon?" he looked genuinely confused. Setting my coffee down, I pinched the bridge of my nose and took a deep breath, vainly trying to find the energy to be polite. "You said 'a penny', but you're British so you wouldn't use pennies." It seemed reasonable to me. He laughed that intoxicating laugh again, smiling with his eyes. "When in Rome, my dear. We are in America after all." He raised his cup in salute. "I'm not your dear," I snapped. "No," he conceded, "but you’re also not the witty, clever-tongued miss of the other day. You were almost Holmesian. It was fascinating." "You said it was harsh," I challenged, feeling as if my skin were about to burst. "It was," he smiled unapologetically, "but so is Sherlock." Grudgingly, as if the information were too intimate, I admitted, "He's one of my favorite characters." "One of?" "Mm-hmm," I nodded, amazed he was still talking to me despite my rudeness. "My other is Mr. Spock." He shocked me then, raising his hand and spreading his fingers in the Vulcan salute before saying, "Live long and prosper." I laughed, much of my tension flowing out before shaking my head, "I can't do it. My fingers don't cooperate." He winked at me before saying, "A high-functioning sociopath and an alien culture renowned for suppressing emotion in favor of strict logic." "Freudian, I know." "You think?" I nodded again. I tend to overshare when I'm unbalanced, especially with strangers, because their opinions don't count. This man had no place in my life, so his opinion had no value to me. "So, if you appreciate the suppression of emotion so much, why do you appear so gobsmacked?" "What?" I sputtered, almost choking on my coffee. Grabbing a napkin, I mopped up my face and said, "I'll need an English translation on that." "That was English, madam. The Queen's English." He grinned, and I laughed despite myself. "Okay, then I’ll be needin a ‘Merican translation," I intentionally slurred. His eyes shone with laughter briefly, but they softened as he said, "You look like you're off your stride. Your hair is mussed, and you seem distracted. The other day you were immaculate and quite focused." "Checking me out, were you?" I teased and he flushed brightly, but I decided not to stroke my ego at his expense. "I'm teasing. It's been a rough morning." He said nothing, merely waited in clear invitation for me to speak. Shrugging, I said, "I tried to rescue a dog that I found, and I'm not sure I was successful." "Why not?" "He's in pretty bad shape. He looked mauled, and they may end up putting him down even if they manage to patch him up because he's a pit bull." He tilted his head as he considered me. I grew uncomfortable under his piercing scrutiny. "What?" "I'm wondering if you're an animal person or if there is something else." "Well, why didn't you ask?" "I'm British. I'm working my way round to deep questions. It's not polite to dive into that sort of thing." I scoffed at him, "When in Rome, dude." I waved my hand around for emphasis. "Touché," he smiled. "So, why is this bothering you so much?" "I don't know and that's bothering me more than the dog. I am not a sentimental person. I don't have mementos from the past, and I don't have any pets. I'm too selfish." He raised an eyebrow at that. "Your obvious discord over an animal you'd not only never met before but actually put yourself out to save would contradict that." I waved a hand dismissively at his words. "A phone call is easy." "Did you leave the animal after your call, or did you stay with it?" "I stayed." "I rest my case," he said. "So what?" "That was a selfless thing to do." "Dude, why are you trying so hard to disprove a statement about a total stranger?" "Why are you trying so hard to prove it?" He raised his silvered eyebrow as if to punctuate his statement. Usually when strange men focus on me, they flirt, they stroke my ego. It's a game between us. They just want a shot at getting laid, I know that, but it's fun to indulge. This wasn't fun. It was pissing me off. "You know what, dude? I'm trying to work here." Turning to face my laptop, I hit the track pad to dissolve my screen saver, launched the system specification I was proofing for the Hudson Barnes project, and proceeded to stare at the screen. "Corky." "Huh?" I jumped as if I had been shocked, knocking my pen to the floor. The Brit leaned down to pick it up and handed it back to me. Taking it, I pushed my non-existent glasses up my nose—again—and said, "Thank you. Um, what did you say just now?" "I said Henry. My name is Henry, not dude. That's an Americanism I detest." Normally, that type of criticism would have smarted, but I was caught up in the memory of a small, warm, furry body curled up on my pillow sleeping with me. Corky had been a puppy that my paternal grandmother had given to me. He was the runt of a litter her chihuahua, Annie, had birthed after my aunt's Yorkie had gotten to her. I'd been eight years old and in a loveless house where affection didn't exist. Having this tiny creature love me so boundlessly had been soothing. Then my mother killed him. Not literally. She left him out in the yard, and our neighbor's dog got into it and infected him with Parvo, an upper respiratory illness that was devastatingly fatal, especially in puppies. She waited three days to take him to the vet because my father protested the expense. Louis Wolfe could have given Scrooge a run for his money. Corky died a few days later. When she told me, there were no hugs, no kisses or an explanation of death to soothe me. She stood in the doorway of the room I shared with my sister, Helen, and said, "Charlotte, Corky died" before turning and leaving. I sat there for a long time staring at the pillow he would never sleep on again. I never shed a tear and promptly forgot him … until now. "Is it that bad?" "What?" I asked, shaking off the memories. "My name. I grant you it's a bit mundane, but it's never made someone cry before." I swiped at my cheeks. Sure enough they were wet. Grabbing a napkin, I dried my face. "Oh, god," I muttered, embarrassed at such a pitiful display. "I hate crying. It's not you," I waved the napkin as if I could dispel this whole scene. "I'm Charlotte by the way. I thought you said Corky, and I remembered a puppy I used to have." "Used to?" he prompted. His entire attention was focused on me and I felt stripped and exposed. I didn't enjoy that at all. Too tired to protest, I nodded and proceeded to do something I rarely do … I told the absolute truth about one of my most painful memories. I never give people that kind of power over me. All they ever do is turn it against you, but all my usual defenses seemed to have deserted me. By the time I was done, my eyes were once again dry, and I was back in control. I looked at my watch and faked surprise. "I have to go. I'm late." The lie was like a ratty pair of sweat pants—comfortable but shameful. Gathering up my things, I started for the door. A warm palm on my arm stopped me. "You did the right thing, Charlotte." Refusing to meet his eyes, I said, "Fat lot of good that will do me if they kill him. It'll be a wasted effort." "Helping someone or, in this case, something is never wrong." I didn't answer, I shrugged off his hand and left. One thing my life had proven was that putting yourself out and caring only made you vulnerable to being knocked on your ass. It was a mistake I rarely made. I should have called Animal Control and left. Cursing my stupidity, I went home and did my best to forget the whole thing. * * * Blog Post: Why I Don’t Have Pets Life Inside the Echo Chamber Pardon me readers, as I need to get something off my chest. If you're looking for my usual wit and snark, you should skip this. You see, I tried to help a dog today. It was probably a complete waste of time. The Animal Control guy didn't seem hopeful. I wonder if his attitude would have been different if it had been a poodle instead of a pit bull. The entire exchanged dredged up memories I'd buried a long time ago. I remembered my puppy, Corky, whom I haven't thought about since the day my mother told me he died. I actually cried in front of a stranger after spilling my guts to him! This is why, as a general rule, I stay out of things. It totally exposes you. I've been thinking about Corky all day. I mentioned it to my S.O.— the memory, not the conversation or the pit bull. He thinks I'm processing grief that I never let myself actually feel before. He may be right, because it's not just Corky. Other memories have been popping up too. Sam, the stray tabby cat I brought home and cared for. My father took him and left him by the side of the road one day with no warning. Said he didn't want another animal to feed in the house. What's that saying … fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Well, they should add fool me three times, you get what you deserve. I didn't learn my lesson with Sam. It took Bandit to teach me good and hard. I rescued Bandit from my grandmother who was old school, farm stock and believed there was nothing wrong with drowning an unwanted litter of kittens, but everything wrong with messing with nature by spaying her barn cat. I found the litter in the hay loft and put each and every kitten down my shirt, tied it up tight, and carried them down out of the barn. I was scratched to hell, but didn't care. I begged my grandmother to give me time to find them homes. I did, too. My mother even consented to let me have Bandit. He slept on my lap the entire eight hours it took for us to get from West Virginia back to D.C. He was gorgeous, with long, white fur and a black mask and paws like they'd been dipped in ink. That's not why I called him Bandit, though. He got his name when I discovered he was stealing things and stashing them under the downstairs couch. I forget what it was that I'd lost, but I remember I found it with the rest of his stash and started calling him a little bandit. The name stuck. I had him for three years. He was my companion and friend. Then I left for college. I asked my parents not to let him out. That was it. We lived on a busy road and I didn't want him out of the house. They ignored me. He was hit by a car and died. They didn't even tell me when it happened. I called home randomly because it was finals week and I needed to ensure I had a ride home for the Christmas break. My dad was the only one home. He answered the phone and told me with no preamble. I remember going numb, hanging up the phone, then seeking out the guy I'd been casually dating and screwing him. I learned my lesson with Bandit. I've never had another pet. I wouldn't even let their memories live in my brain. Now, one random encounter with a pit bull and my mind is stuck. I feel like I'm burning everywhere. 6. What About Me? "YOU OKAY?" I pulled out of Adam's arms and shrugged as I continued scraping dishes and putting them in the dishwasher. I was cleaning up from our Thai takeout rather than snuggle with him as he'd wanted. "Yeah, why?" "You've seemed preoccupied all night. What's up?" "Nothing," I shrugged, refusing to look at him. "I'm tired. It was a long day." Technically, this was true. However, the reality was that I was angry with him but couldn't bring myself to voice it. Instead, I was freezing him out which was supposed to broadcast my feelings to him so he would ask me about it, like he was doing now. "Okay," he kissed me on the cheek and grabbed a Guinness from the fridge before sprawling on the couch and turning on Family Guy reruns. My anger cranked up a notch. That was his cue to ask again, not abandon the conversation. How else was I supposed to know for sure he was going to pay attention? He had to ask, insist almost, so I knew it was safe to share my anger. But, he never did, which only made me angrier. I was still reeling over what he had shared with me earlier. He wasn't getting the vice president position. In and of itself, that's not such a big deal. People get passed over for promotions all the time. No, what had set me off was that Adam hadn't even applied for it. When we had talked about that position, I'd come away from the conversation certain not only that he was going to go for it, but that it was practically his already. The CEO loved him. It was an open secret that he considered Adam his protégé. When Adam came home, he told me that Duncan Clark, a man twice his age who wouldn't know creative thinking if it slapped him on the ass, got the job instead. When I reminded Adam of our talk, he responded with a nonchalance that made me want to punch him. "I said I'd think about it," he had shrugged. "I never promised to apply and I did think about it." "But, Adam, an opportunity like this … it almost never happens for someone your age. I can't believe you let that slip through your fingers." By this time, he had his head in the refrigerator looking for something to eat. Adam always snacked as soon as he came home. Over his shoulder, he said, "I don't want to work non-stop. It's bad enough I regularly put in sixty hour weeks." Sighing, he continued, "I've already told you all of this, Char." "But, Adam, vice president! Do you realize how much money you passed up?" He turned and faced me, a tub of lunch meat and a bottle of mustard in hand. With a wing-tip clad foot, he shut the door. Shrugging, he said, "I can guess, but it doesn't matter. I realized something recently. I give too much of my life to that place. The work doesn't make me happy, and that is a hell of a lot more important than money." To him maybe, but my fantasies of the perfect home office were going up in smoke. I was angry and feeling betrayed, but all I said was, "I guess you did what was right for you." Adam never looked up from the sandwich he was preparing. He merely shrugged and said, "Exactly." That was four hours ago, and I still hadn't been able to let it go. Anger surged under my skin in slow waves, making my teeth clench and turning every interaction with Adam into one of pure irritation. His very presence was like having sandpaper rubbed across my skin. I was spoiling for a fight and trying to provoke one so I could unleash all this rage with impunity. Sitting on the couch, I said, "Do we have to watch this?" I felt Adam tense beside me. He hated it when I complained about the shows he watched. I thought his choices were inane and imbecilic. He thought the dramas I liked were depressing and maudlin. "Yes," he gritted out. "That's why it's on. Because I am watching it." I huffed out a long-suffering “Fine” and picked up my Kindle. After several moments, he said, "Why do you do that?" "Do what?" I murmured as I scrolled through my library looking for a title to jump out at me. "Give me a hard time about what I want to watch." A small wave of pleasure at pissing him off bloomed in my chest. Good or bad, I always get what I want. I raised my eyebrow and adopted a haughty expression before replying. "First and foremost, you hassle me constantly about my shows and second, all I said was 'fine'." "It was how you said it." "Really?" It came out like a sneer. "And how was that?" He imitated me perfectly in reply, but I wasn't going to give him that, so I shrugged and said, "What's wrong with that?" He was facing me head on now and scowling. I could see the argument building inside him, and my own anger morphed into a weird excitement. "Are you being serious right now?" He looked honestly confounded, but I wouldn't relent. "Yes," was all I said. "Charlotte, you are being really stupid right now. Why don't we cut to the chase and you tell me what's bothering you?” Any possibility of reasonable conversation went out the window with those words. Calling me stupid was a guaranteed way to make me lose it. "Stupid?" I practically hollered. "You're calling me stupid? I'm not the one who passed up a promotion and a raise over some ridiculous ideology that no one gives a damn about. That was stupid!" He looked like I'd slapped him. "I thought you supported me in this." "Support you in what?" I slapped my Kindle down on the coffee table and faced him. "You promised me you'd go for that job. We made plans. Now all that is gone, all because you don't want more responsibility." "I never promised you anything. I said I'd think about it, and I did," his voice was rising. Adam almost never raised his voice. That small bloom of pleasure grew as he lost control. This was what I had wanted, permission to let loose with both barrels blazing. "What about the plans we made, huh? The trip to the Virgin Islands? My home office? The new car? What about those things?" I was full on shouting now, and Adam looked positively stupefied. "Have you lost your mind? We talked, sure, but it was like fantasizing about what you'd do if you won the lottery. It's talk, that's it. You don't spend money you don't have." "Don't you condescend to me, dammit." "Well, you're acting stupid. So, I'm treating you the way you're acting." He was shouting now. I almost laughed, but it would have put him over the edge. "It's not stupid to want nice things. It's not stupid to expect my boyfriend to keep his promises." "For god's sake!" he shouted so loud it hit me like a physical wave of sound, "I didn't promise you a fucking thing. If you say that one more time, I'm going to totally fucking lose it. Drop it, god damn it." He turned back to the television, his chest visibly heaving as he sought to calm down. I returned to my Kindle, still angry but much more relaxed than before. He had too promised, and I didn't appreciate this turn of events. We remained silent for the duration of both Family Guy and The Boondocks before Adam said quietly, "Char, I don't want to spend my life in a job I hate. I want to do something I'm proud of." I still wasn't in any kind of charitable mood after our previous exchange. "Feeling good doesn't pay the bills. Next, you'll be telling me you're taking that marketing job at the shelter." He went still beside me and I lost it. "You'd better not even think about it, Adam!" I screamed so loudly my throat hurt. Standing up, I tossed down my Kindle and put my hands on my hips as I hovered over him. I was so furious I could barely get the words out. My body was shaking from adrenaline. I wanted to pound him. He wasn't allowed to do this to me. I hadn't signed up to struggle. I glared at him saying, "That job is a pay cut of at least thirty thousand dollars. You think we can keep all this on that? Now isn't the time for you to be turning all granola on me. You already broke one promise, Adam, you better not even think about taking that job." He leapt up off the couch angrier than I'd ever seen him, but I didn't care. It felt good to yell. The feeling of ants crawling under my skin that was a near constant companion with me was slowly receding. My hands itched, I wanted to hit something. I wanted to rend, tear, and destroy anything opposing me, including Adam. Some corner of my mind understood that my reaction was disproportionate and that Adam actually had the high ground in this argument, but none of that mattered. I was enjoying wallowing in my tantrum. "What about what I want?" there was a stillness about Adam that I would later recognize as the calm that comes when a huge decision is finally made. However, in the moment, it didn't even register. "What about it?" I snapped. "Doesn't that mean anything to you?" Rather than say what actually went through my head, which was “no, not really if I'm being totally honest,” I said, "We don't always get what we want, Adam." For several long moments, he stared at me. For once, I was unable to read his expression at all. His face was completely closed. Right as I was about to break the silence, he said, "Forget it. I'm done." Without a backward glance, I left and took a long, relaxing shower. When I came out of the bathroom, the living room was empty, and Adam was snoring in bed. Satisfied that he wouldn't be bothering me for sex, I lay down and fell instantly asleep. 7. No Big Deal THE NEXT MORNING, ADAM WAS already gone when I woke up. In and of itself, this was not unusual. He was usually gone by the time I finally got out of bed. What was out of the ordinary was that he didn't wake me to say goodbye. Truthfully, I was glad. That particular habit of his always got on my nerves. When I'm asleep, leave me alone. You would think this would be a "duh" moment, right? But, every morning before he left, he'd come in smelling of soap and the citrusy cologne he wore. He'd stretch out on the bed beside me and kiss me awake to say goodbye. I mean, who does that? You're waking me up to say goodbye and then leaving me to struggle to get back to sleep after that? I'm not one of those people who can sleep anytime, anywhere. Nope, the minute I wake up, my brain races and that's it. If I wake up in the middle of the night, it can be hours before I get back to sleep. Adam can fall asleep in seconds. Even if I wake him up for something—which I rarely do because I hate it so much—he's right back asleep. I've explained this to him, but like everything else I've explained about myself, he ignored me. He says I should be more open to affection. I usually tell him, “what good is affection if you piss me off in the process?” What I don't tell him is how, after a minute or so of cuddling, I begin to feel claustrophobic. Or, how I panic that his cuddling is going to turn amorous, and then he'll touch me with an expectation of sex, but I don't have the energy when I first wake up to fake it with him. I've told Adam about my childhood. How I was never hugged or shown affection. How no one talked in my home. We orbited one another in silence until something triggered a violent outburst, usually my sister and me fighting since my parents were rarely in the same room with one another. But, I downplayed it. Put it firmly in the no-big-deal category. I couldn't have Adam thinking I was a freak or he wouldn't have dated me. Weirdly, I've never understood this aspect of my personality. I mean, when I first meet a man, it's intense. I want to be with them all the time. I even want to have sex and can tolerate them touching me. Like clockwork, everything I thought was so cute originally ends up plucking my last nerve like a banjo player, and I cringe at the idea of being touched. I've tried to figure this out, but I can't remember being any other way. Adam was no different in this one regard. I stayed with him because he was stable and predictable, and he taught me about the finer things. It's funny when you think about it. My family was lower class, but not poor. My father worked in a factory, and my mother was a housewife. We had the basics, but they were from discount or thrift stores. Everything was second-hand and mediocre. Adam was straight up poor. I mean trailer park, welfare check, food stamp, you're lucky if you eat three squares poor, but he's the one who taught me never to settle for just anything. To be patient and get the best of what you can afford. He taught me that investing in quality was better than buying cheap because, when you went for cheap, it cost you more having to replace it again and again. I took those lessons to heart. When I met Adam I was a dollar store, Kmart kind of shopper who only cared about quantity. I'd hated how cheap everything was growing up, but I hadn't realized how much I'd internalized the message to settle until I met Adam. Despite what I've gained from Adam, there were some things that hadn't changed and now, this many years in, I hated feeling as if I had no choice but to acquiesce when it came to sex. The walls felt like they were closing in on me along with his arms. But, even I was smart enough to know that an asexual relationship with no physical contact would be a deal-breaker for him, and I liked everything else about my life too much to push it. Nevertheless, I was relieved that he seemed to have finally taken the hint on this one thing and let me sleep. Maybe, he was coming around after all. * * * "What do you mean?" I demanded from the disembodied, bored female voice on the other end of the line. There was a long-suffering sigh, and then she began speaking slowly as if I were stupid. That only served to piss me off, but I kept myself in check. Snapping at her would have been counterproductive. I wanted her to give me something, so I need to play the game of civility. "Ma'am, as I've already explained, if you are not the owner, I cannot give you any further information beyond what I've already shared." "But that doesn't tell me anything," my voice was shriller than I wanted, but I barely contained my frustration. Why couldn't I have gotten a man? They are so much easier to get information out of. A quick, “Wow, you've got a great voice,” or some other flattering bullshit, and I was almost guaranteed to get them to give me what I was asking for. Women were much more immune to my efforts, unless they were desperate or gay. "Miss, I understand that you are doing a thankless job and you probably get little recognition for such heartbreaking work. Let me personally say thank you, I can only imagine how heartbreaking it must be at times." I didn't know which way to play it with her, so I was going for gratitude and commiseration. "That's what it was for me with this animal, absolutely heartbreaking and I can't get him out of my head." This much was true at least. "Can you please see your way to letting me know his status?" There, I'd given her the full complement of gratitude and flattery with a skosh of obsequiousness. There was silence. I could hear the wheels turning. Any second now she should tell me what I wanted to know. "Ma'am, I just follow the rules, I don't make them." "Fine!" I hung up, wasting no more words on her and smashing my finger against the screen of my phone as if it were her uncooperative face, all the while cursing touch screens. At least when you had real buttons, there was some tactile feedback, some actual physical sensation. Now, it's nothing more than cold glass. There is absolutely no satisfaction in that when you've got a good snit on. Shoving my phone in my purse, I stomped down N Street on my way to Kona. My body vibrated with caged frustration, and I wanted a way to vent it, but I didn't really know how. A block later, I slowed down. Venting my frustration on concrete was hurting nothing but the soles of my feet. Thank goodness I didn't wear stilettos, but even my three-inch stacked heels couldn't withstand that treatment. By the time I made it to Kona, I was practically hobbling. In no mood for frilly coffee, I ordered a straight latte and set up shop at a table by the door. My favorite table was taken by some college students who were dug in like ticks. I doubted I'd get it anytime soon. Briefly, I considered several forms of sabotage to get them to leave but decided it wasn't worth the risk of being thrown out. Taking a deep breath, I did my best to clear my head. I'd been out of sync ever since I woke up. You know those days where your mind feels like it's covered in fog and your thoughts are a degree left of center? It had been one of those days. I was off my game, I didn't know why, but I knew I couldn't afford it. I had a meeting with Greg Haldane that afternoon, and I needed to have the draft system requirements complete before then. I set up my equipment, once again ensuring everything was aligned in perfect parallels, and pushed all extraneous thoughts out of my mind. I managed to get in a solid hour of work and was about to start the final section on risk management when a pair of grey cargo pants filled my periphery. "May I join you?" Henry stood in front of me. As if he was determined to single-handedly destroy my preconceptions about Brits, he wore another t-shirt—this one was red, the same work boots, and jeans. In his hands were a large coffee and a copy of The Economist. "What exactly do you do?" I asked a bit abruptly, though I waved him into the empty chair in front of me. I don't normally like to be interrupted when I'm working, and I damn sure don't like to share my table, but I was still a little off. The Brit would be a good distraction. He settled himself into the seat across from me before saying, "What do you mean?" "For work. I haven't been able to peg you." He grinned and leaned back, spreading his arms wide. "Come on. No Holmesian dissection for me?" I looked him over, but in truth he was a mix of contradictions. His hair was silver, but his eyes and demeanor were youthful. He was British, but I'd never seen him drink anything other than coffee. His clothes were like a grunge college student, but he read high-brow magazines like The Economist. My belly twisted and my skin prickled. I grew hot as I studied him. Fear warred with an inexplicable sadness. I like mysteries but not riddles as paradoxical as that may seem. Mysteries have a series of distinct clues leading up to an inevitable resolution. Riddles often require an intuitive leap to arrive at the answer—in other words, the solutions tend to rely on a good deal of luck. You can't control luck. I avoid riddles, but that was exactly what Henry was. The realization made me sad. "Sorry. No show today." His grin faltered, and he leaned forward, "Why do you seem so down today? Is this about the dog?" I started at the question. Tendrils of fear grew into full on fight-or-flight adrenaline coursing through my limbs. I tamped down my egregious reaction to an innocuous question and tried to determine what surprised me more: that he'd remembered our conversation or that he noticed I was sad. Most people don't notice my mood changes. I spent years working in offices where no one ever asked me what was wrong. In the three years I'd been with Adam, he continued to insist that I never showed emotion. When I'm angry, he'll tell me I look blank. Or, I could be totally thrilled for him and he'd tell me I didn't seem excited. Once, fed up at just such a comment, I broke into a cheer and even did the requisite jumps—I was a cheerleader in high school. Adam got so mad at me he didn't speak to me for two days. I refused to apologize, but he never said that to me again. I hadn't told Adam about the dog. I didn't want to talk about Corky with him and risk having to go through all that emotional upheaval again. Once was enough. "I tried to find out what happened to him, but they wouldn't tell me." "Well, that's terrible. Have you thought about going in person? Maybe bring some donuts or cookies with you. Sweets can loosen a lot of tongues." I smiled. "You want me to bribe them with pastry?" "No, not at all. Bribe is such an ugly word," he gestured softly with his hands as he spoke, "I'm suggesting you offer them a thank you for the hard and unforgiving work they do and maybe," he emphasized the maybe, "they'll be willing to give you the information." I laughed. "That's just another kind of bribe." And, I added mentally, the bitch at the front desk isn't receptive, thinking of my failed efforts at ingratiating myself with her. "Tomato, tomahto, my dear." Still smiling, I asked him again what it was he did. I really don't like unanswered questions. They tend to linger. "I am a consultant. I offer my expertise out to businesses on technology matters." I kind of zoned out as he continued to explain how he basically helped companies get rid of their old technology without compromising their daily operations. I am not good at listening to stuff that doesn't directly impact my life. "Interesting," I said when he finished. "Liar," he laughed and there was no malice in the accusation, but I froze feeling very much as if I’d just walked into a room full of spotlights and they were all pointed at me. "What?" I pretended outrage as I tried, and failed, to anticipate what was coming next. "My work is only interesting to other people who do the same thing." He reached out and touched my hand so lightly, I only knew he'd done it because I witnessed the movement. "It's fine." I blushed, something I rarely do as I go out of my way to ensure I am not embarrassed. I was tempted to lie, but what risk was there to me from him? Plus, I was tired. "So, you're a geek then." His smile was as pure as his laugh. He leaned closer and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial level. "Worse, I'm a nerd. Always have been." Once again at ease, I chuckled and asked, "What's the difference?" He looked aghast, but there was a twinkle in his eye belying his true intent. "A geek, Madame, is an enthusiast of a particular subject. Hence, the ubiquitous American usage of 'computer geek'. A nerd, on the other hand, is a consummate intellectual and can have many pursuits, though we do tend to specialize eventually." Shaking my head, I smiled and said, "I've always used them interchangeably." "Ah, yes, you Americans tend to do that, but the only linkage between the two is the lack of social skills both possess." "Can you possess a lack of something?" I was being a smart ass, but I meant no harm. "Touché," he smiled brightly. "You don't seem to lack social skills. You know," I looked directly into his eyes, "at first, I read you as shy, but I think I may have been wrong." He blushed deeply, and the ruddy tone heightened the blue of his eyes. "I tend to be awkward with women." I raised an eyebrow "So, how should I interpret your lack of awkwardness with me?" His grin was once again wide as he said, "Years of learning to fake it." Our eyes stayed locked together, and an awareness stretched between us. It was not something easily defined. I know lust. I know flirtation. I had no idea what this was. My confusion grew as the silence lengthened, and I broke eye contact by looking at my watch. Before I could speak, Henry spoke in tones dry enough to rival the Mojave. "You have an appointment, right?" Shocked, not only at being caught out in my intention but also at being so fully exposed, I blushed again. The heat radiated down my neck, and perspiration bloomed along my skin. Twice in one conversation. Not good. Not good at all. "Charlotte." My name was gentle on his lips, and I again met his eyes when he said no more. Rather than twinkle, his eyes were kind as he continued, "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that is your go-to escape. You don't need to lie to me. I'm a big boy." He raised his right hand and held up three fingers. "Scout's honor." Yeah, right, I thought. When had anyone ever accepted my honesty? My shame deepened as I wondered how many others had figured me out and not said a word. Soon enough, everything crystallized into belligerence as I struggled to regain my control. "All right, busted. I did lie before. Most people are offended when you are honest despite what they claim." I tipped my chin up daring him to contradict me. "Well, I try very hard not to be most people, Charlotte." We'll see. I left that thought unspoken. Aloud I said, "I actually do have an appointment, but it's later. Right now, I need to finish what I'm working on." "By all means, don't let me get in your way. I have a magazine to read. Ignore me." I had no idea how to take this. Finally, for lack of anything better to say, I murmured, "Thanks." For the next two hours, we shared a table in companionable silence. Go figure. 8. A Working Hypothesis TAP, TAP, TAP. MY PEN beat a staccato rhythm against the desk in the self-service copy shop. I'd come here to print out the documents I was delivering to Greg at our meeting. Slowly, I became aware of the woman next to me, glaring. I dropped the pen and my foot took up the beat, albeit silently. The industrial printer was busy vomiting up my documents, but my mind was back at Kona. That was the single weirdest experience I'd ever had. Henry had proven to be a man of his word. He hadn't distracted me with random outbursts about what he was reading or pithy quips about the patrons at the cafe. He'd read his magazine while leisurely sipping his coffee. If drinking coffee were a track and field event, Henry was a cross-country runner, while I was a sprinter. He'd made that one large coffee last the entire time we'd sat together, while I was on my second by the end. It wasn't the coffee drinking that stuck though; it was the silence. I'd never met anyone who actually granted me the silence I requested. And, when I said I needed to leave, he'd given me one of those bottomless smiles and wished me good luck on my meeting. I was still reeling from having been able to be completely honest with someone and not be punished for it. You'd think it would have been a relief, but it had only disconcerted me and left me feeling more out of sync, more like a stranger in my own skin. It had to be an act, a ploy to get something, but, what? We were virtual strangers to each other. I couldn't find a ready motive to explain his behavior. On top of that, there was the way he'd totally called me on my bullshit without it devolving into some marathon argument. But then, I'd only admitted to it because Henry didn't impact my life. If I never saw him again, so what? At most, it would be somewhat awkward at Kona, but I'd get over that. On the whole, I had absolutely no point of reference for the exchange, and it left me feeling edgy. I don't like things that fall outside my comfort zone of understanding. "I think this is yours," the woman who had been glaring at me handed me my stack of print outs. I hadn't even noticed the machine had stopped. I was really off my game. I needed to pull myself together. "Thanks," I said, taking the papers and using the binding machines to prepare them. I put everything in my satchel and headed out to catch the red line train to Farragut North. I was meeting Greg at Barnaby's, a small grill across from the Hudson Barnes building over on K Street. I made it a rule never to bring clients into my direct territory. I didn't want to introduce them to any places I liked to frequent in my off hours. That meant I avoided all meetings in Dupont Circle and any of my favorite restaurants. I'd eaten at Barnaby's before. It was a little hole-in-the-wall diner selling classic American food with a gourmet twist. Before I'd been shown the door at my last job, I'd worked down the street and had treated myself to lunch at Barnaby's a few times a month. It wasn't fine dining, but it was no chain restaurant either. I liked the cozy, yet sophisticated ambiance. The decor was modern, but Barnaby, who'd once made his living as a stunt double in Hollywood, had lots of memorabilia and vintage movie posters decorating the walls. Add in excellent service and pricing that stretched but didn't break my budget, and I was a happy camper. I arrived early—a habit that annoyed Adam, but one I couldn't break. I hated waiting, but I hated being late, but given a choice I went with the former. As a result, I tended to end up everywhere at least fifteen minutes early. If I'm going to have to wait, it might as well be at my destination. The hostess sat me at a small booth along the rear wall and took my order for a Shirley Temple. It seemed childish, I'm sure, but I'd always loved them and never drink alcohol while I'm working. From my vantage point, I had an unimpeded view of both the door and the few remaining patrons. I'd deliberately chosen a time early in the afternoon but late enough that most of the lunch rush was over, so the restaurant wasn't crowded. My drink was delivered by my waitress who introduced herself as Ashli, her name tag providing the proper spelling. I barely contained my eye roll. This whole fad with replacing perfectly good diphthongs that had worked flawlessly for centuries with single letters was a personal peeve of mine. I sent her on her way, letting her know I was expecting someone. Hopefully, she read between the lines and wouldn't come back with perky, annoying questions on how I was doing before Greg showed up. I pulled out the packet I'd prepared and reviewed it one more time when my attention was caught by an elderly couple being seated. The man, a stately gentleman with iron grey hair and severe features, pulled out his wife's chair. She sat and smiled up at him. He returned the smile, and it was as if he transformed. All the severity left his face as he gazed at her. He placed a large palm on her shoulder, and the emotion between them was palpable. I'd never seen two people of such advanced years have so much tenderness for one another. Certainly, no one in my personal experience ever had. The hostess spoke to them, likely taking their drink orders as well, and left. As I watched, the man held her hand across the table. She was elegant in a school teacher-ish way. She wore a linen dress in pale blue. Her thick, white hair was pulled into a simple knot at the base of her neck. The only adornment she wore was a large diamond on her ring finger. Something about her was beautiful even though her individual features were rather ordinary. They spoke, laughed and touched. Their voices were soft and didn't carry to where I sat. It was like watching a silent movie. Their communication was so intimate I felt like a voyeur. Part of me wanted to look away, but the rest of me was riveted. Ashli-with-an-i approached their table with cups of coffee and menus. Her much higher pitched voice carried as she exclaimed over their sixtieth anniversary. I was stunned. Sixty years. How was that even possible? No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't imagine myself with Adam—with anyone—for that long. How do you stay with someone for six decades and not just tolerate them but still love them? How do you bond with someone enough to want to ride out the inevitable rough times? Was it even possible to be that unselfish? Did they truly find a way to accept all the flaws? Were they really just faking it? My mind spun with questions, and I felt like a scientist watching an experiment in action as I tried to find a working hypothesis. Images of Adam flowed through my mind, and I knew I had never felt a fraction of the tenderness these two evidenced. I liked him, found him generally tolerable, and thoroughly enjoyed the perks of being with him. However, hard as I tried, I couldn't imagine growing old with Adam. That didn't mean I had any plans to leave him. I expected to grow old with Adam, but, it was more of an abstract thought based on an extrapolation of my present rather than something dwelling inside of me. All I ever saw when I imagined myself as an old woman was me alone. It had been that way with every man I'd ever dated. That had never bothered me before, but right then, watching that couple, I felt hollow. I was so caught up in my thoughts that I completely missed Greg's entrance and almost came out of my shoes when he slid into the booth across from me. I recovered quickly, exchanged the necessary pleasantries, and got down to business. The couple and my disturbing ruminations were temporarily forgotten. * * * Blog Post: Outside Looking In Life Inside the Echo Chamber What does it mean to truly bond with another person so deeply that you intertwine your life and honestly love that person? For me, this concept is like trying to read Latin. I see words of which I can decipher the meaning, but there is no context, no visceral understanding at the emotional level. Today, I witnessed that type of soul deep connection. An elderly couple at a restaurant I was lunching in was celebrating their sixtieth anniversary. They were so clearly in love with one another. It was something I simply couldn't make sense of. But then, I often feel this way. Like I'm on the outside looking in and there is a glass wall between me and everyone else in the world. People talk about their feelings and their responses but for the most part, I don't relate. Everyone I let into my life has value to me, but it is a very calculated and quantified thing, it isn't emotional. For instance, my guy, he represents stability and predictability and a lifestyle that I enjoy. His salary is necessary to my life being how I want it to be. That is his value to me and it has a mercenary aspect to it. The same goes for "friends" and "colleagues." I know exactly what each and every person represents in terms of their contribution to my life, but I feel no empirical connection to any of them. Should they disappear from my life, I'd find someone to replace them. They are fungible. Seeing that couple helped me realize that this may not be normal for other people. I think part of me knew this, but I don't remember being any other way, so it never truly rose to the top of my consciousness as something I should consider or maybe work to understand. This is how I think and has always been so. Would you ever consider if the way you moved your feet to walk was right or proper? No, and in this, it never occurred to me to contemplate whether or not this was good, healthy, or the right way to be. I wonder if part of the reason I'm unable to bond on such a deep level with the men I've dated has to do with my abhorrence for sex. For the vast majority of my life, I haven't enjoyed sex. At least not with the men I date, I masturbate regularly. I never want to be touched. I complain and restrict the ways in which I allow them to touch me. Sex itself feels like an imposition and I always have a ready excuse for why I'm not more sexually motivated. For me, the fact that I'm extremely horny in the beginning of a relationship only to have it fade over time is "just the way I am." I don't see a need to question it. I usually blame my partner for this state. Every man I've ever dated can never seem to leave touching me at affection. Instead they feel me up, grab my ass, or touch me in some way that screams "let's fuck." This happens all the time with my current guy. I've accused him of objectifying me and that everything with him has to be sexual and not about love or affection. But, now I'm wondering if I'm using sex as a form of control. Do I make him feel rejected time and again? Am I using sex in my life the way girls who become anorexic control food because they feel like everything else in their life is out of control? Have I made sex a battleground for domination? I'm not sure where to start. I've always labeled myself as non-sexual. I never ponder the feelings of embarrassment and shame that I experience during sex. Nor, do I generally experience a feeling of helplessness in my everyday life. I make sure of that. Everything goes with me so long as I come out on top. Could it be as simple as body image? I admit I am profoundly uncomfortable with my naked body. I am small, not fat by any means, but I'm not in great shape and I'm generally soft. Cellulite and I are intimate friends and I am flat-chested along the lines of Gwen Stefani or Kate Hudson. You don't see women shaped like me being paraded around as objects of desire. Having sex never captured my imagination nor have I ever been able to lose my self-consciousness in the midst of it. For the first time ever, I truly have no idea what to do. 9. You're On Your Own THE SPACE BETWEEN MY SHOULDER blades burned as I pushed through the lobby doors of my building. It had been a long day, and I was hoping Adam had worked late so I could have a little peace to decompress before having to interact with one more human. My mind was stuck on the blog entry I'd posted. I wasn't usually so open. My blog had typically been a place to rant and vent, however anonymously, but that post was entirely too confessional. If anyone ever found out it was me that wrote it, they'd have info on me that I don't allow people to have on general principle. It was a stupid thing to do and much too risky. It would have to come down. I unlocked the door and took a deep breath in order to prepare myself in case Adam was there. The door swung open and my blood ran cold at the sight before me, or, more correctly, what I didn't see. Panic clogged my throat sending my heart galloping. My limbs melted into jelly and a slow tingle spread through my body. I thought I would pass out. My satchel slid from my shoulder and landed on my foot. It was the pain of my little toe being squashed that snapped me out of the fugue into which I was descending. Kicking my bag away, I turned and checked the number plate on the door. I had to be in the wrong condo. No, the door read 522, just like it was supposed to. Confusion fogged my brain. This wasn't making any sense. I ran from room to room hoping for answers. Hoping my eyes were playing tricks on me and doing my best to quell the nausea roiling in the pit of my stomach. Finally, standing in my living room, I closed my eyes and counted to ten, promising myself that when I opened them again everything would be as it was supposed to be. To be safe, I counted to ten twice, but when I opened my eyes nothing had changed. My condo was empty. No furniture, no art on the walls, no area rugs, no Adam. Where my beautiful suede couch had sat there was only a stack of books neatly arranged by size and author last name. Resting on top was an envelope with my name neatly penned in Adam's blocky print. Realizing that the front door stood open, I shuffled over and closed it. Panic was still surging through me. I could barely move. After locking the door, which seemed ridiculous as there was now nothing to steal, I turned and gave into the weakness in my legs, sliding down the door until I fully connected with the floor. The magnitude of what I was seeing developed in my mind like a negative strip. The picture was there, the individual pieces were sensical, but the color and composition seemed distorted and backward. As my brain worked to assemble the tableau in front of me into something I could comprehend, a single thought repeated in my brain like a record with a broken needle: “Be careful what you wish for.” * * * I don't know how long I sat there. It felt like mere moments, but the indigo sky fading into black outside of my now barren windows said otherwise. I forced myself to my feet and, feeling as if I'd aged several decades in as many hours, I retrieved the envelope and extracted a single printed page. Charlotte - As you can see, I've moved out. I took only what I contributed to the household. Your kitchen stuff, clothes, books, and mattress all remain. By the time you read this, I'll have changed my phone number, so don't bother calling. Funny, I hadn't even thought about calling him. I shrugged and continued reading. I'm sure you're surprised by my actions, but if you are it's only because nothing about me even registers for you. I've tried to make this work, but a relationship can't succeed when only one person cares. And, our last conversation proved something I've been ignoring … you don't care about my happiness. You only care about yourself and what you want. I'm sure you'll find a way to twist this to make me out to be petty and small, but you were willing to watch me sacrifice my happiness to get your little dream office. Bet you didn't think I figured that out, did you? He was right. I didn't think he'd figured that out. But, it's more than that. It's the way you ignore me daily. The way you tense every time I touch you. It's the way you control information and manipulate me (the reason I'm doing this by letter so you can't spin this to change my mind). And, most importantly, it's how self-centered you are. I finally realized that my needs, my desires, and my dreams have no meaning to you at all. I'm a prop in your life, here to give you what you want, and to shut up until spoken to. So, I'm done. The rent is paid through the end of the lease, but after that, you're on your own. Adam P.S. The dog you saved is recovering and is on the mandatory hold at the Rescue League before being adopted. I was covering the desk last night and did his intake. Your name was listed as the person originating the call. How could you not tell me? The letter fell from my fingers which were now too numb to hold it any longer. I looked around my empty condo and, for the first time in my life, I had no backup plan. I'd gone all in on Adam. What in the hell was I going to do now? Part II Constant Entertainment Watch for a constant need for stimulation. Stillness, quiet and reflection are not things embraced by psychopaths. They need constant entertainment and activity. Identifying Psychopaths with the Hare Checklist 1. How Low Can You Go? WASHINGTON, D.C. IS A STORIED city that pulses with power. It is simultaneously rich with history and continuously morphing into something new and unique with each Administration. Most people who live in the District are transplants, coming and going with the politics. Native Washingtonians, such as myself, are rare. As a result, it is a dynamic city that is constantly reshaping itself. Its streets flow with people like blood through veins. One of my favorite aspects of D.C. is its pockets of eclectic enclaves, shopping districts, and vibrant neighborhoods restored to their original Art Deco glory. The same could not be said for the studio apartment I rented on Madison Street near Highland Circle. I lived close enough to hear the various up-and-coming power brokers as they went about their day, but I wasn't truly a resident there. I couldn't afford the rent. No, I live on the fringe of one of the most sought after neighborhoods in D.C. I had ended up in a no man's land where one look told the story. A few blocks away, the buildings gleamed with new steel and glass. There were fresh coats of whitewash and newly-tended plantings. My building had peeling paint the color of soap scum, brick that crumbled in places, and weather-beaten steps that were frayed like cut off denim at the edges. Inside wasn't much better. I had traded my floor-to-ceiling windows, stainless steel appliances, and laminate floors for "historic charm." Note the sarcasm there. My new "home" (cue the eye roll) was a 500-square-foot closet, something it didn't actually possess and that, in my rush to avoid homelessness, I hadn't noticed until after I signed the lease. The kitchen area lined the wall next to the front door. It was a straight arrow of refrigerator, sink, dishwasher, and stove. The cabinets barely held my groceries and dishes. I'd had to get very creative at the local hardware shop to hang my pots on the wall sporting my one, lonely window. The main area was lined with walls painted institutional white and was large enough for my bed and a small love seat I'd found at a local thrift shop. I had no television to worry about, so the rest of the space held my books on several mismatched bookcases—also courtesy of the thrift shop. My clothes were hanging on a rolling rack much like you would find at a laundromat where my nonexistent visitors could see them. The bathroom was so small I could stand in the middle next to the tub with my arms out wide and touch both walls with a minor shift of my torso. A tiny, shoebox-sized window provided the only ventilation, and the steam built up so heavily that the faded yellow paint bubbled and peeled at the edges of the ceiling. It was depressing with a capital D. I'd only been here a week and I still woke up disoriented and wondering where I was. I had hoped that being close to a good neighborhood would allow me to be comfortable living on my own. I'd moved out of my parent's house the minute I was legal, but I always had roommates. This was my first time living by myself, and so far it was hell. Where I lived wasn't Southeast, the sector of D.C. best known for violence and poverty, but it was a grey zone between affluent and respectable. As I walked home from the subway, I'd actually passed a crime scene. I had yet to sleep through the night, and I hadn't found a coffee shop nearby that could match Kona. As a result, I was humping across town on the subway, which I could not afford, in order to feel as if my life hadn't completely fallen apart. I tried to spend as little time here as possible, especially given that I couldn't afford Internet service and all my neighbors had their Wi-Fi encrypted. So, along with losing all my comforts, I couldn't even afford the basics for work and entertainment. I couldn't even watch movies on my phone. Adam and I had shared a family plan which he canceled when he changed his number. I managed to salvage my number, but I had to change to prepaid, which meant my iPhone was now nothing more than a doorstop. My new phone could text and email, but that's it. So, on top of everything else, I was literally running my business out of a coffee shop! Unable to stand the silence, I stay out as long as possible each day. I'm not a quiet, reflective kind of girl. I need activity or else I feel caged and edgy and you can only clean your apartment but so many times. I smoothed back the comforter on my bed and checked the clock—11 a.m. on Saturday. I couldn't sleep any longer, my place was beyond spotless, and the walls were closing in on me. I needed to get out and fast, but I didn't want to work. Sitting on my bed, I took my phone from the charger and scrolled through my contacts. Slim pickings to say the least. Most of them were business contacts, not exactly people I could call up and invite out. Hell, I didn't even know what half of them looked like as all our business was conducted virtually. The few remaining people I'd met through Adam I'd avoided calling because I was unsure of my standing with them. They weren’t people I was particularly interested in impressing or cultivating my own relationship with, but I was desperate to get out of my house and out of my own company. Running the list one more time, I settled on Nadia. She was a public defender, a little on the shy side with a frumpy style and a huge crush on her gay boss. Not that she realized he was gay. How she missed it was beyond me, all you had to do was look. Nadia had invited Adam and me to a Christmas party at the house she had inherited in the upscale section of 16th Street. Her boss and one of her male co-workers had emerged from her kitchen looking quite rumpled and highly sexed up when they were supposedly just topping off their egg nog. I mean her boss was advertising quite the package. When he saw me eying him, he flushed a deep crimson. Talk about a dead giveaway. But, I'd seen no use for the information and had just filed it away. Information was power, and I enjoyed collecting little tidbits about the people around me. It never hurt to have leverage. Nadia was definitely a good choice. Her frump would make me look good in comparison, and knowing she was pining after something she would never get certainly put my situation into perspective. I hit the send button, summoned up what enthusiasm I had, and waited. It rang three times, and then there was dead air before the call abruptly disconnected. I stared at my phone in confusion. Had she hung up on me or had there been a network screw up? Shrugging, I tried again and this time the call went straight to voicemail. I disconnected, leaving no message, and stared at my phone in dismay. That cinched it. The little bitch had hung up on me. The temptation to call back and leave a scathing message was almost unbearable. The words practically clawed their way out of my throat. I imagined how her face would crumple at hearing how the man for whom she'd made an utter fool of herself would never want her. I imagined the tears she would shed, the pain she would feel and smiled. So great was the desire to wound, I had to put the phone down and stand up. It was best to leave that a fantasy for now. Nothing tangible would result by crushing her. The day that changed, however, I would be there. Ten minutes later, I was anything but smug. Only one person had taken my call, Angie, and she'd been polite but blunt. She let me know unequivocally that she was Adam's friend and, while she bore me no malice, she wouldn't be hanging out with me. I had no idea what to do. Torn between anger and indignation, there was no way I was staying in the apartment. I grabbed my purse, slammed the door behind me, and pretended not to see the flurry of plaster floating down from the crumbling walls as I locked all three deadbolts. I walked the few short blocks to the subway station with no destination in mind. Everywhere I looked were couples and groups enjoying the unusually balmy late summer weather, holding hands, and generally connecting. Why does the world suddenly seem overwhelmed by couples when a relationship ends? I was blank despite having only been separated from Adam for a month. It would have been expected that there would be some regret, or pain and longing to be back with him. Maybe even grief at the relationship's end. But, the only thing I longed for was my condo. Tears flooded my eyes at how far I had fallen. My chest clenched, and I fumbled for a tissue in my purse as I fought the burn in my eyes and throat. Adam had no right to have done this to me. I intended to let him know that, but I had been thwarted at every turn. True to his word, he had changed his phone number and refused all my calls at work. I was far from finished with him, but I had been forced to focus on finding a place to live that I could reasonably afford. Not an easy thing in the Nation's Capital where housing was not far behind New York City. Rather than wait until the lease ran out, I took the first spot that met my minimum requirements of close to the subway, within budget, and located in Northwest. Unfortunately, that had turned out to be The Closet. Just thinking about my studio had me walking faster. Luckily, tourist season was over, so I and my fellow travelers all knew the rules for escalators; stand to the right, moving people to the left. I was grateful not to have to ask the inevitable tourist laden with a camera and souvenirs to get the hell out of my way as I walked down the moving steps. The dimly lit platform was unusually crowded for a Saturday, which meant there must have been some event taking place. I didn't have to wait long. Almost immediately, the recessed lights began flashing along the edge of the platform signaling that a train was approaching. I easily navigated the human swarm to get near the doors, an imperative if you want to sit down when the train is crowded. Just as I reached the edge, the train blew through in a rush of windy exhaust, mussing my hair and blowing dust in my eyes. When the cars finally came to a halt, I smiled to see that I’d accurately predicted where the entrance would be. With a chime, the sliding doors opened and my grin fell. There'd be no seats today. People were crammed wall-to-wall in the dingy car. Every seat was taken and people crowded the aisles. I refused to stand for an indeterminate length—I still didn't know where I was going—so I muscled my way through the crowd and sat on the small, protruding ledge bordering both sides of the car. The good news: I was sitting. The bad news: I was now eye level with every ass and crotch in the crowded train, and none of them were worth seeing. Sighing, I made myself as comfortable as possible and did my best to tune out the people around me. I was no good like this. I didn't do well unfocused and adrift. I liked stability and structure, but I currently lacked both. As I reflected on how I ended up in this position, the all-too-familiar feeling of constriction began flowing over me. My skin was shrinking and my head began to throb as if there were weights attached to each strand of hair. My blood raced through my veins at super-speed, leaving me feeling weak and dizzy. Automatically, my brain clicked over to a new channel, diverting my attention to a young couple seated to my right behind a partition. Their bodies were turned slightly toward each other, and they were speaking in low, urgent tones. I was unable to hear what they were saying but it was clearly intense. At one point, the man reached up and wiped what I deduced to be tears from her face, and then he kissed his dampened finger. The woman threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. The love in those gestures was obvious, as was the affection in his gaze. I knew this not because I could remember ever experiencing those emotions myself but because in every romance movie I'd ever seen, these were the moments that were supposed to demonstrate love. Adam had looked at me like that when we began dating. All of this registered similar to absorbing the weather report on the morning news. Some distant portion of my brain noted that thoughts of Adam generated no pain. I felt this was information I should examine in conjunction with my cerebral analysis of the affection between the couple, that I should seek to understand this, to answer the question of “what did this mean for me?” The loss of my condo caused more anguish than the loss of the man whom I'd spent three years of my life with. Was I abnormal in some way that his absence barely registered any more than his presence? I'd witnessed people going through breakups that led to depression, anguish, and grief. Mine had always been more like flipping a switch. Who between us was the normal one? What was she doing over there? Again, my attention was drawn back to the couple. She's weeping harder now, there's a black box. Ah. Got it. He asked her to marry him. Shitty place for a proposal. And my mind was properly back to safer areas. The garbled and warped announcement for Mt. Vernon Square came through the P.A. system. As the doors opened, the crowd emptied in a swift tide of bodies. With nothing better to do, I followed the swarm out of the station and into a festival of some sort. There were food vendors lining the closed-off streets, and a cacophony of music filtered through the crowd. Now, this is exactly what I needed. Food and music. There's no better combination. * * * Several hours later, I stuffed the last bit of gyro into my mouth, enjoying the smoky spice of the goat meat mingled with the tang of the tzatziki sauce. A check of my watch informed me it was six o'clock and twilight was falling. I was sated and my feet hurt, it was definitely time to go—I couldn't think of that place as home—but it was definitely time to get off the street. Washington, D.C. was a much safer place than it had been in the 80s and 90s when it was America's Murder Capital, but a woman alone after dark was still at risk regardless of location. I'd ended up at the main stage of the festival watching a Latin Jazz artist perform as I'd sampled the offerings of local Korean, Japanese, and Greek restaurants from the surrounding vendors. The day had been well spent. I walked the few blocks from Freedom Plaza back to the subway. It was a quick walk, but it felt like nails were being driven through the soles of my feet. By the time I made it to the subway platform, I was cursing my footwear and seriously considering ducking into the CVS to pick up some flip flops. I'd left the house in heeled sandals and ended up at a walking festival. Big mistake. That I hadn't planned to be here meant nothing to my offended extremities. Thankfully, I found an empty bench. I rested there with a relieved sigh despite the tingle on the bottoms of my feet. Unlike before, I waited in near solitude. The earlier tidal wave of humanity had dissipated in slow drifts as the festival drew to a close. My reluctance to return to the Closet meant I'd waited too long to begin my return trip. With nothing to distract me, I noticed the enforced anonymity among my fellow travelers and me. No eye contact. Everyone maintained the requisite distance and minded their business. It occurred to me that were I to disappear, it was unlikely I would be missed. No one was waiting for me and I went unnoticed by those around me. I was a ghost in a city of wraiths. On the heels of that thought, the train arrived, and I put the chill bumps along my skin down to the coolness of the evening air inside the station. However, my feelings of disconnection only grew as we all took seats distant from one another. There were no whispered conversations, no ambient noise announcing the presence of the other individuals. Instead, the only sound was the clatter of the train on the electrified rails and the discordant tones of the recorded announcer at each stop. Abruptly, I wondered if this was what insanity was like. A consciousness locked on a single path, hurling through darkness unable to connect or to visualize the destination. Each stop a brief moment of clarity when the mind is at rest. When the train braked, I realized both that my stop was next and that I was alone in the car. I hurried over by the door, growing acutely claustrophobic amid the stale smell and exterior darkness of the subway. The doors weren't fully open before I rushed through, clipping my shoulder painfully. Heedless of both my shoulder and my feet, I pushed through the turnstile and raced up the escalator. Once at street level, I leaned against the enclosure surrounding the escalator and forced myself to take several deep breaths. The noise of the street encompassed me but provided no solace. Instead it only served to emphasize my solitude. "Hey, baby" a lightly accented voice called from my right. "You look like you could use some cheering up. Want to party?" This was from an obviously male but indistinguishable person in a tricked out Honda Accord occupied by two other male silhouettes. I bit back the "fuck off" that flew to my tongue. As tempted as I was to fling it at him, I'd learned when I was young how dangerous it was to insult men when rejecting them. The local papers had been full of stories about a young girl who was shot to death for rudely telling a man no thanks. Instead, I began walking in the opposite direction of where they were headed even though it also was the exact opposite direction of where I needed to go. Mentally cursing my stupidity for staying out after dark alone, I didn't notice the older white man coming up behind me until we both stopped at the corner to wait for the signal to change. The tang of unwashed body accosted me. He was entirely too close, and the hair on the back of my neck stood at attention. Instantly, I detoured to my left. As I did, I felt the brush of fingers across my ass. I didn't bother to check I was right, I stepped into the street and hailed a cab I could no longer afford. The cab driver was unhappy to only be taking me three blocks, but too bad. I needed to get to my apartment. I tipped him better than his attitude called for, just grateful to get inside with no further issues. That is, until I climbed the interior steps and noticed the stocky man with a pugnacious face outside my neighbor's door. He was pounding on it and demanding entrance. He didn't notice me over the racket he was making, and I was grateful for that when, just as I closed the door, I noticed the handgun holstered on the waistband of his jeans. I threw the deadbolts and the chain, holding my breath until I heard the outer door creak then slam. I had to get out of here. 2. Humpty Dumpty THE NEXT MORNING, I WAS still rattled. I tossed and turned all night jumping at every sound. It wasn't until I made it to my favorite table at Kona that I began to relax. How easy it is to take things for granted during the good times. I bought a large coffee and a bagel, prepared to make both last as long as possible. When they ran out, I would have about an hour before I had to move to the library. I was still staring out the window thirty minutes later. I was blocked, unmotivated and unable to get started. My anger imprisoned me, cementing my limbs in place. "Bloody hell," a familiar lilt broke through the low din. "Is it as bad as all that? You look wrecked." Turning, I absorbed his latest contradiction. Today, it was Rolling Stone Magazine and clothes that gave a vibe of Rat Pack meets casual Friday. "Tell me you have something tweed in your closet." I mustered a smile for Henry, waving him into the seat across from me. "I abhor tweed." He gave an exaggerated shudder as he made himself comfortable. "Even when I was teaching at University, I never donned a single article of tweed." Again, I smiled, but I didn't feel up to bantering. He tilted his head as he considered me for several long moments, saying nothing. As boyish and innocent as he appeared, it irked me. "What?" I could hear the belligerence in my tone, but I didn't apologize. "Well," he drew the word out, but lost none of his smile. "The only British money I have on me is a five pound note and I can't tell by looking if it's worth it." Despite myself, I laughed, and laughed, and laughed. It was one of those times where the laughter builds on itself because if you don't laugh, you'll cry. And, if you cry, you just might pull a Humpty Dumpty and be forever broken. At first, Henry waited me out, but when the laughter turned to weeping, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to me. "Come now. Dry your eyes and talk to old Henry." My instinct was to blow it off, but it was as if my tears had dissolved what little buffer I had left. A tsunami of acrimony and resentment was building inside me and, if I didn't let it out, I felt sure I would shatter. My fists clenched along with my jaw as I said, "Just remember, you asked for this." * * * I told Henry everything. I spared no detail, left no complaint unvoiced, no resentment unaired. By the time I finished there were no tears left, only a seething anger crawling along my skin. Adam had done this to me and it wasn't fair! Henry never interrupted. He sat quiet and intent while I drained myself. When the silence continued, I became uncomfortable and only force of will kept me from squirming in my seat. Unable to take it any longer, I said, "Don't bother with your British politeness. Just spit it out." He quirked an eyebrow at that, but shrugged. He took my hand, squeezed it, and said, "I understand you feel put out, but you need to get over yourself." His touch was so warm and gentle and felt so good that his words didn't immediately register. When they finally soaked in, I snatched my hand away and sputtered, "What?" Henry leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs, and rested his hands on his knees. He looked like a benevolent parent ready to bestow pearls of wisdom on an errant child. Meanwhile, I was seething. "Were you even listening?" "Yes, my dear. I heard every word. And, I stand by what I said. While I grant that leaving you in a lurch was, in itself, poor form, it sounds as if you did your share of callous things." He shrugged, "Besides. You got it sorted. You have a place to live. In the end, no harm done." He sipped his coffee and said nothing more. Incredulity warred with indignation. His words spun in my mind like a broken record. "No harm done?" my voice grew shrill. "No harm done!" I all but shouted that time, attracting the attention of surrounding patrons. Dropping my voice, I hissed, "I'm living in a closet. There was a man with a gun outside my door! And you say 'no harm done'!" Henry didn't even blink as he said, "Yes, I am. You have a roof over your head, food to eat, and income coming in. As for the gun, this is America; there are more guns than people. There may be people with guns around us right now. Is your situation ideal? No, but it will improve given time and work on your part." He took my hand again as he continued. "It sounds to me as if you've been taking the easy route and now you have to put a little elbow grease into your life. I can't feel sorry for you if that's the worst challenge you have." I could feel my mouth hanging open. I wanted him on my side not lecturing me as if I were an ignorant child. I shoved my hand into my lap and leaned forward as if sheer proximity would make him see my point of view. "How can you say this to me?" I heard the plaintive note in my voice and cringed. "Because you need to hear it." He sighed. "Charlotte, we don't know each other well, and I've enjoyed speaking with you, but I don't lie to make anyone feel better. You spent three years with this man and yet your anger and loss are all related to your flat. You didn't mention feelings for your partner even once. That relationship needed to end and you might want to put your feelings aside and consider his complaints. There seems to be some truth there." I flushed so deep that sweat bloomed on my skin. This man saw through me in ways I didn't understand and didn't like. Immediately, I began packing my stuff. In my haste to get away, I was almost breathless as I said, "You know what? I don't have to listen to this." I snatched up my coffee and uneaten bagel preparing to storm out. Henry gripped my arm. I glared at him until he released me, his skin flushing. "Charlotte," he said, "I hope you'll get past feeling insulted and be open to what I've said. You have a unique opportunity to—" I cut him off with a jerk of my hand and left without a backward glance. Whatever. I fumed all the way to the library. Henry's words played in my mind on an endless loop, but this time, instead of my useless stammering, I won every argument. I flayed him mentally and left him crushed. If only I'd been so eloquent in reality. 3. Getting the Exclamation Point SEVERAL HOURS LATER, MY BUTT was sore from the library chairs and my back and neck felt deformed. I'd gotten next to no work done and had further depressed myself by looking at high-priced apartments online. I either needed more projects or I needed a job. Tears burned behind my eyes as I powered off my laptop and packed up to go. I ambled through the surrounding neighborhoods rather than go back to my place. I soaked in the familiar sounds and smells of street traffic, corner vendors, and urban humanity. Soon enough, I found myself across from my old building. I stared at the line of windows on the fifth floor only to recoil at the gauzy Roman shades adorning my former windows. Someone else was living in my condo. It was too much. Hot, scalding tears ran down my face unchecked. I wept in hard, wracking sobs that strangled my breath and made the muscles in my face ache. I have no idea how long I stood there lamenting my loss like a tribal woman of old whose warrior failed to return home. By the time I ran dry, I had snotted all over myself and was certain my makeup had dissolved. I fished in my tote bag for a tissue when I spotted Henry's handkerchief. I must have taken it when I packed up my gear. I used it now to mop up my face and try to put myself at least a little bit back to rights. No need to scare anyone on the subway. For the first time, I noticed how soft the cloth was and how it had a faint citrus scent. Was that how Henry smelled or just his laundry detergent? The inhalation of his scent from such an obscure yet personal object felt both strange and intimate. I noticed his initials, H.B., embroidered in blue. I had no idea what his last name was. Shame, unexpected and unwanted, shot through me at that. It didn't last long. Thoughts of Henry recalled his unwelcome opinion of my situation and I packed them away with his handkerchief. He was wrong. I didn't want to hear it, not even in my memory. With leaden feet, I began to walk to the subway. It would be dark soon and I wanted nothing more than to sleep after that emotional display. I was so distracted I missed the creature blocking my path until its low growl erupted into a barrage of canine epithets. I jumped, losing my balance and wrenching an ankle. "Damn it!" I hollered as I knelt down and rubbed the offended ankle. "Oh, no! I am so sorry!" a high-pitched, feminine voice sounded to my left followed by the slam of a screen door. "She must have gotten out of the yard." A petite, Barbie doll of a woman scooped up the little Chihuahua-with-a-Napoleon-complex. She shushed the dog with croons of, "Bad Bebe. No treats for you." I rolled my eyes, way to reward the little rat. Standing, I tested my ankle and it held. Barbie crinkled her sculpted brows and asked, "Will you be okay? Do you want me to call you a cab?" The cab was tempting, but not in my budget. I pushed my hair out of my face and said, "No. I'm okay. Little Bebe is quite the guard dog." Barbie grinned in that proud parent way so many dog owners have. "She is. She thinks she's a big dog. But, I wouldn't trade it. She keeps me safe when my husband is traveling." With her words, an idea formed in my mind ... a dog. I would adopt a dog. But, not some tiny little purse dog. No, I'd get me a big dog that could do some real damage to anyone who tried to hurt me. I took my leave of Barbie, and with a much lighter step, headed to the Closet. * * * The next morning found me in front of the local animal rescue league. It was the same one where Adam volunteered. I'd considered going elsewhere, but I wasn't worried about seeing Adam since he would be at work. As it was, I was early, the doors weren't open yet, but I didn't care. It just meant I had first dibs when they finally did. In front of the building, there was a bench set in a small patch of grass with a sculpture of a fire hydrant and a mailbox. Something, I'm sure, the canine residents of the shelter enjoyed. As I waited, I drew up a list of the traits I was looking for. I had decided on: Middle aged - I couldn't deal with a puppy, but I didn't want the dog dying on me either. Medium sized - 50-80 lbs. I wanted a dog that would scare people, just not me. Short haired - I definitely didn't want dog hair everywhere. Male - I read that male dogs are friendlier. I didn't know if this was true, but figured why take the chance of the dog hating me. Protective - this dog needs to be willing to guard me. Satisfied with my list, I was imagining all the various animals inside and wondered who would be going home with me. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw a tall man in dark colored scrubs unlocking the doors. The structure was a concrete and glass cube of a building. Cartoonish murals of dogs and cats adorned the exterior. Inside, the scent of disinfectant laced with lemon the odor of animals assaulted my nose. I marched to the counter and announced I was there to adopt a dog. The receptionist gave me a bright smile revealing a tongue piercing. "That's awesome, but adoptions aren't for another hour" as she pointed at a large sign detailing said times. Frustration seized me, but even I knew when not to argue, so I said, "Okay if I wait here?" She shrugged and said, "Sure thing," before turning back to whatever she'd been doing. I killed the next sixty minutes by reading every pamphlet in sight. I had just surrendered to fatigue and was dozing when I came awake to the receptionist saying, "Ma'am?" "Is it time?" I said. She nodded, "Yup, you can go through those doors." She pointed to a door labeled CANINE FRIENDS with several cartoon paw prints stenciled on the battered surface. "Take a look and come back up front when you’re done." She began to walk back to the desk. I called out, "Wait!" Fishing my list out of my pocket, I waived it at her. "I made a list. Can you go get me whatever dog fits these criteria and bring it up?" All friendliness evaporated and she scowled. "That's not how this works, ma'am." Her voice became suspicious as she asked, "Why exactly do you want a dog?" Right, like I was going to tell her the truth. "For a pet, of course." She rolled her eyes at me. I wanted to smack that sanctimonious look right off her face. "Look, ma'am," she said. "This is serious. If you aren't willing to do right by the animal, you shouldn't adopt." "Of course, I'll do right by it!" I was indignant now. Who was she to judge me? She raised an eyebrow, and said, "Is this your first dog?" I nodded. "Yeah, I've only had cats before." Shaking her head, she said, "Dogs are completely different from cats. You'll have to go see them for yourself, though. Find one who connects with you and then come back. I'll have an adoption coordinator talk with you then." She began to turn away, but stopped adding, "Look, I don't know you, but I know dogs. If you're not prepared to love this dog and give it what it needs, you should go." She turned away before I could reply, but I didn't follow it up. Whatever. * * * As the door closed behind me, the odors of antiseptic and something canine grew overwhelming. My eyes watered and, for a second, I considered forgetting the whole thing. The memory of the gun tucked into that man's waistband kept me moving. I was standing in a narrow hallway with several offices hanging off either side. The fluorescent lighting cast a yellow haze along walls and scraped floor. There was another door at the far end labeled KENNEL. Pushing through, I froze. The room was large and divided into several rows of kennels. From Adam's stories of woe, I expected some dim and squalid canine gulag. Instead, the kennels were large and clean. The windows lining one wall let in lots of natural light. The dogs noticed me immediately and a cacophony of canine voices erupted. The echo created the impression of three hundred dogs rather than thirty. I decided to start at the far end and work my way back to the door. The occupants of the first few runs were clean and cheerful. There was a microscopic Chihuahua and a small, shaggy mutt. They were yippy and bouncy and too small. I continued along feeling like Goldilocks. The dogs were too big or too small, too energetic or too terrified. So far, none were just right. I have to admit, the more I perused the occupants, the more they cracked open the doors of my heart. Their soulful eyes and trembling bodies made me want to comfort them. A tiny sheltie puppy with only one remaining eye, huddled in his bed curled around a stuffed bunny and trembled at the mere sight of me. I wanted to open the cage and scoop him up. As I kneeled, making all the requisite baby and kissy noises, he burrowed even further under his bunny and refused to look at me. His fear brought tears to my eyes. I tried once more to get him to come to me, but even the sound of my voice seemed to traumatize him, so I let him be. I passed face after face, furry body after furry body, feeling both helpless and in awe of what these people do every day. As much as I didn't want to admit it, a sliver of my consciousness was beginning to see what had drawn Adam to this work. I wasn't willing to concede it was worth sacrificing tens of thousands of dollars, but at least I could reconcile his desire. I was on the last row of cages, many of which were empty, and ready to give up finding my ah-ha moment, when I saw him. Goosebumps erupted across my arms and I froze, trying to dissect the feeling of familiarity washing across me. The dog fit every criterion. He was big and scary. His kennel card said he was 85 lbs. He had scars across his face and neck. His fur was short and groomed. His card also said he was three years old and named Hugo. For several breaths, blue eyes locked with hazel as we took each other's measure. I like to think I passed his. I know he passed mine. I knelt in front of the cage door and he rose with slow, deliberate motions from the elevated cot he rested on. He moved as if he was testing each step. Freshly healed wounds crosshatched his haunches. When he reached me, he ducked his head, lowering his ears, and pressing his nose through the chain link that separated us. I allowed him to sniff my hand and scratched his muzzle where I could reach. "Hey there, Hugo," I whispered and my voice cracked as a disconcerting blend of grief and joy rushed me. "You want to come home with me?" I took his rasping lick of my finger as an affirmative. The deal sealed, Hugo tiptoed his way back to his bed, circled and lay down with a loud groan. I chuckled through the water trickling out of the leaky faucet my eyes had become. I'd gotten my exclamation point after all. 4. Houston, We Have a Problem "WHAT DO YOU MEAN I can't take him today?" I stared at the adoption coordinator in a near-panic. "Ms. Wolfe, there are special considerations for adopting Hugo—" "Is this because he's a pit bull? That's discriminatory, ya know." My voice was shrill. I'd finally found my dog and now I couldn't take him with me. This was so not happening. I had to give her credit for her patience. She remained unflappable despite my anger. She was an elegant woman with a willowy build and skin that glowed like fresh roasted coffee beans. She was also at least four inches taller than me. I never liked having to look up at anyone I was attempting to negotiate with; even in three inch heels, I was only but so tall. "If you'd let me finish, Ms. Wolfe," the reprimand was there, though her smile remained. "I was about to say that Hugo is part of a special breed awareness program. The grant funding the program has separate, and specific requirements. So, is it because he's a pit bull? Yes. Is it discrimination? No. It's for his protection. Hugo was fought and we intend to make sure that doesn't happen again. He deserves better." I took a deep breath and tried to calm down. I was never good when I didn't get something I wanted. It's not that I have a short fuse or anything. I'm not one to blow up or be volatile. I just take a long time to calm down once I'm angry. I also tend to become irrational. Not a good place to be when I'm trying to get something. At the moment, I was hovering on a precipice. No sleep, the confrontation with Henry that lingered like a bad taste, and now this denial combined to inspire me to a full-fledged, show-my-ass temper tantrum. My logical mind was telling me to calm down. This woman was the conduit to Hugo and I needed her on my side. My little lizard brain wanted to curse her out just to make myself feel better. Somehow, I didn't see me telling her to shove her special considerations ending with Hugo walking out next to me. My logical mind won. Barely. An hour later, I left the shelter armed with hours of reading on pit bull behavior along with an appointment in two days for a home visit. Everything rested on the home visit. If I passed, Hugo would be mine. * * * I walked toward the Metro station engrossed in fantasies of dressing Hugo up in cute collars and doggy clothes. The info on the breed made it clear that a pit bull needs to be with their human, that they'll almost worship you. That was something I could get on board with. A dog that lived to obey my every command and provided me with unconditional worship sounded like my perfect companion. I was so caught up in my fantasies, I almost missed them. It was the sound of Adam's name in a low flirty tone that caught my attention. I scanned my surroundings for several moments before I finally spotted them. They sat in the crowded patio of a small Irish pub. Adam had what I'm confident was a Guinness in front of him. His companion had one as well. They were sharing whatever food was in the cast iron skillet nestled between them. Adam had his back to me, but after three years I'd recognize him anywhere. His posture was relaxed and casual. His laughter at something she said dispelled any possibility that I was mistaken. Was he on a date? Why wasn't he at work? He wasn't wearing work or date clothes. Adam was the type to dress up for a date. His jeans and T-shirt were casual, but everything about his companion, screamed I want to have sex with you. Her auburn hair was immaculate, not a strand was out of place. She was in full makeup and her outfit was tight enough to enhance her voluptuous figure without crossing over into slutty. She leaned forward as he spoke. This was a woman on the make. Not that I had any doubt of her intentions, but when she laid her hand on Adam's forearm, I smirked—case closed. There was no way to tell how Adam was responding to her attentions, but he didn't pull away. I couldn't see his face and if I moved anywhere else, he would see me. The sight of him sent a surge of emotion through me that was difficult to filter. Most of it was confusion; I mean, who was this chick and what was she to Adam? Also resentment. If he was eating at that pub, he damn sure hadn't taken that marketing job at the shelter. And, the last emotion I finally identified as longing. I remembered being the one across from him eating expensive meals and—well, not drinking Guinness. It tasted like liquefied bread to me. But, I'd have a cocktail; something fruity. We shared jokes and enjoyed ourselves. My eyes watered. I missed—. My thoughts broke off as the pair rose to leave. I darted inside the dry cleaner I was standing before. Plastering myself against the interior wall, they passed by unaware of my presence. The teenager behind the counter ignored me as I did her, so I didn't bother with an explanation. I left and stood watching them. They were going in the direction of the Metro as well, which meant I'd have to wait a bit or risk exposure. I tailed them at a distance. It was still impossible to discern the nature of their relationship. They weren't holding hands or doing anything intimate. They were much closer together than American mores for unpaired men and woman dictated, though. The last thing I saw before they disappeared down the escalator was Adam stepping aside to allow the woman to get on first. She stumbled and he grabbed her to steady her. He didn't let go. 5. Be Careful What You Wish For TWO DAYS LATER, I TEETERED on the edge of a nervous breakdown. My home visit was less than thirty minutes away. I hadn't slept longer than an hour at any given stretch thanks to Lumpy putting in yet another appearance the night before. That was the name I'd given to the man with the gun who had been leaving my building as I was walking in. He was a square of a man who looked as if he'd were together from varying bits of clay. His skin was vampiric in its paleness, his nose a bulbous clump in an amorphous face. The muscles of his arms appeared as a series of lumps under a too tight shirt to contain them. And, of course, there was the ever present lump of his gun. The ban on handguns in the District was over, but it was still a brazen act to walk around with his weapon on display. It was Lumpy's nonchalance about that gun that put me on edge. If he didn't care that he was flaunting a dangerous weapon, what would he do to someone who got in his way? My mind had been spiraling out of control ever since then with fantastical notions of all the gruesome ways Lumpy could off me. Long story short, I needed protection. Pepper spray was now my constant companion, but I didn't want to use it. I wanted people scared as soon as they saw me. Enter Hugo. Aaaaaaaand … that led to my current state of nerves. If I didn't pass the test today, they would deny the adoption. My sanity depended on the arbitrary opinion of some random individual I'd never met. I had nothing to work with. No information to build my persona around to ensure the outcome I wanted. I never go into a negotiation without doing my homework. When I pitch a proposal, I guarantee I know everything the Internet can cough up on whomever I'm meeting with. Right now, I was going in blind. No name, not even a gender. Saying I felt stressed was like saying Antarctica was cold. After yet another once over, I concluded there was nothing more I could do. The Closet was spotless. I'd done everything I could to dress it up so that it appeared estate sale chic rather than just shabby but I was still worried. In an attempt to tip the scales in my favor, I'd already created an area for Hugo with a bed and a chew toy. I'd read that was a good way to keep dogs from chewing furniture. His bowls were already set out against the wall that held my pots. I was hoping to give off a responsible dog lover vibe. At precisely 2 p.m. there was a knock on my door. A check through the peephole showed an older gentleman with a full head of white hair and thick unattractive glasses like the kind they issue you in boot camp. "Can I help you?" The likelihood was that this was my evaluator, but I wasn't taking chances. "It's Mr. Tatasopoulos from the shelter. We have an appointment." Sending out a fervent wish to the universe for no mishaps, I opened the door. Mr. Tatawhatsit was a direct contradiction in terms to the heft of the name he'd thrown my way. A large Greek name like that deserved a burly man with a huge voice and an equally large belly laugh. Instead, everything about him was spare. His hair was military short, his clothes the bare minimum to support the end of summer heat wave. There was not one inch of extra flesh on a frame that appeared weathered to the barest muscle and bone required to keep him ambulatory. His obvious age had done nothing to diminish the strength in the grip of the hand he offered. I welcomed him in and waved him over to the microscopic dinette I'd acquired and placed under the window. "Can I get you something to drink?" Good manners could only help right? "No, thank you." He didn't look at me as he spoke. Rather, he began pulling out documents from the folders he'd brought with him and laying them on the table. When he had arranged things to his satisfaction, he leaned back, clasped his hands across his non-existent belly, and stared at me. I remained quiet, waiting him out, determined not to squirm. Just as I was about to crack, his lips twitched in the briefest of smiles and he said, "Why?" Huh? Why what? I must have spoken out loud because he elaborated. "Why do you want a dog?" Mentally, I rubbed my palms together. I'd been able to prepare for this part of the interview at least. What research I'd been able to do assured me this was a standard question on a home visit. Squaring my shoulders, I looked Mr. T in the eye and recited all the reasons for owning a dog. Each one guaranteed to strike the right note of responsible and caring. I finished, feeling smug, and waited for the praise and thanks for my selflessness in adopting this cast off creature. "Do you have anything original to add?" His voice was deadpan, but I detected disappointment in his lack of inflection. "What do you mean?" I played dumb as I mentally scrambled to find a new tactic. I couldn't lose Hugo. He pinched his lips together and perused my face searching for something. I put on my "bright-friendly" face and waited. After several seconds, he shook his head and began packing up his papers. Nausea washed over me and I began to perspire. He couldn't leave. He had to give me Hugo. "No! Please wait." I put a hand on his arm in gentle restraint only to snatch it off when I realized I was touching him. He paused mid-stand and I waved him back saying, "I'm sorry," even though I had no idea what I was sorry about. He cocked an eyebrow at me, but sat. The papers stayed in his arms. "Sir—" I began, only to be cut off. "Ms. Wolfe," his voice was kind, but firm. "I need you to listen to me. You see, you're asking to adopt a living creature with needs of its own. A unique personality that will be dependent on you for everything in its life. On top of that, you've asked for Hugo, a pit bull." "But—" I tried to interject only to be silenced by a stern look. "Pit bulls are wonderful animals. Personally, my favorite breed. But, whatever you think of a normal dog, multiply it by three. They are three times more loyal, three times more stubborn, three times more powerful, and three times more loving. If you aren't prepared to give back at least that much, it's pointless. A pit bull with a weak owner is a potentially destructive dog. I won't take any chances with him." I was quiet as he finished, not quite sure where to go. All my strategies were failing. Mr. T was having none of my usual manipulations. Panic began to set in and with no better plan in sight, I threw caution to the wind and decided to be honest. I figured he had already put me in the "no" column, it couldn't get any worse. "Sir," I began again, "I admit that Hugo is my first dog let alone my first pit bull, but I think we're destined for each other." Now that I'd gotten started, the words flowed. I told him about finding Hugo on the street. About moving and my discomfort as a woman alone. I left Lumpy out of it. I told him about the connection I felt with Hugo when I saw him again. "So, I realize I'm new at this, but I hope you'll give me a chance." I finished feeling drained after such an out-of-character speech. He looked out my tiny window for several seconds, saying nothing, before rising to his feet. My shoulders slumped and tears welled. I'd lost. He was all the way to the door before he said, "You coming?" My head shot up and confusion reigned, but I kept my mouth shut as I followed him. He led me to an unmarked van. As we got close, he whistled and a blocky, silver head rose up in the passenger seat and poked out the lowered window. I couldn't contain my grin as I moved over to the window. I stroked his silky muzzle and he licked my hand. Unable to contain myself and further, I asked, "Does this mean I get to have him?" Mr. T was looking contemplative, but shook his head. My grin fell. "It means we're going to walk him together and see." My cheeks couldn't have lifted higher with helium. Who couldn't walk a dog? * * * Forty-five minutes later, I had new respect for all the people I saw with calm dogs walking at a normal pace. Mr. T had given me some basic instruction and demonstrated by walking Hugo the first few blocks. He handed him off to me and we went from a calm stroll to lurching this way and that. Hugo sniffed and perused every tree, shrub, and step in the neighborhood. Finally, through sheer desperation, I pulled Hugo close, got his collar right up around his ears, took a deep breath and marched forward not giving the dog the opportunity to do anything more than follow me. He tried, but I wasn't having it. By the time we made it back to my building, my arms hurt and so did my back. As I held open the outer door, I turned to Mr. T and raised an eyebrow. He winked before saying, "Let's go fill out those papers." My reply was lost as Hugo ran up the steps dragging me behind him. Mr. T just laughed. When he caught up to us, he said, "Obviously, you'll have to work with him on steps too." Once back inside the Closet, I filled out and signed more paper than I had to the one time I bought a car. Among the promises I made were to: never fight Hugo, never take him to a dog park, never abuse him, return him to the shelter if it didn't work out, and enroll him in obedience class. When I finally finished and handed over the check for the adoption fee, my hands were cramping. Pocketing the check, Mr. T stood, shook my hand and said, "Congratulations, Ms. Wolfe. He's all yours." To Hugo he said, "Be good to her, boy," and took his leave. I locked the door and, left alone with Hugo, I took a deep breath and exhaled all the tension I'd felt until that moment. Rubbing the back of my neck, I stretched to loosen all my muscles and turned only to shriek. Hugo, lay across my bed, rather than on the bed I'd bought him. I could see the dog hair on the deep purple comforter from across the room. "No!" I hollered. "Bad boy. Off!" I clapped my hands. He ignored me, never so much as lifting his head. Oh, no, no, no. I stomped across the room and pushed at him until he sort of jumped, sort of fell off my bed. He looked at me and huffed out a doggy argument before crouching like he planned to go right back where he was. "No!" I blocked him by stepping between him and my bed. He gave himself a violent head-to-toe shake, yawned, and walked into the middle of the room onto the area rug. Just as I congratulated myself for coming out on top of that exchange, Hugo looked back at me, catching my eyes, and proceeded to pee slam on my new rug. * * * By the end of our first week together, I was ready to beg Lumpy to put me out of my misery. While Hugo was being quite effective as an early warning system—he barked at every little sound—he failed to obey me. He continued to sneak onto my bed when I wasn't watching, and he'd eaten my favorite, and last, pair of Jimmy Choos. I was beginning to wonder if I'd gotten the raw end of the deal. The only accord the dog and I had come to was meal times. He ate when I ate and he was filling out a bit. But, I couldn't leave him alone for any length of time. If I left him in the house unrestrained, he found something to chew. So, I'd resorted to locking him in the bathroom every time I left—after removing any toiletry he could eat. The soap incident had left me scarred for life and the Poison Control Center on speed dial. I'd considered a crate, but I had neither the money nor the space. This was not how I had imagined it would be. He was supposed to do what I said, when I said it, love me unconditionally, and pretty much worship the ground I walked on. Instead, I felt like I was in some kind of power struggle with my dog. I was tense and depressed and had no outlet. I hadn't been back to Kona since my awkward discussion with Henry. I missed my routine, missed my coffee, missed my life, and even missed Adam when Hugo was at his worst. Unable to contain it any longer, I wailed, bringing Hugo to his feet, his ears twitching like bug antennae in agitation. "Bathroom! Now!" I screeched at Hugo. All my resentment at my current situation finding its focus in the dog I hadn't been able to live without just a few days ago. For once, he didn't argue with me in that doggy way of his. He just lowered his head and slunk off, stopping once to look over his shoulder at me in a hopeful you don't really mean this do you? I stamped my foot, pointed and said, "Now!" He took the final steps into the small cubicle, circled twice before flopping himself down on the bathroom mat with a huff. I interpreted that to mean he intended to get me back for this. At that moment, I didn't care. I needed to get out. I needed to get rid of the feeling that my skin was too tight and that the pressure building in my chest was going to overwhelm me. I grabbed my purse and ran out of the building keeping up the accelerated pace until I arrived at the Metro station. I contained my agitation until I arrived at Dupont Circle. Exiting the confines of the station, I merged into the late afternoon hustle. The street flowed with people all with some intent purpose infused into their movements. I wanted to cry at the spear of longing that pierced me. This was where I belonged. This was my corner of the city. I was happy here. I had no specific destination in mind, but my feet had no such lack and before I knew it, I was standing in front of Kona. Every ounce of me vibrated to go inside, but I couldn't. Henry was there, sitting at my table. Kona had been my center, my hub, and without it, my feelings of loss and disorientation grew. I'd have to confront Henry if I went in. My gut told me that he wouldn't ignore me the way others did when I argued with them, or worse, insulted them as I had Henry. If that weren't bad enough, I felt almost compelled to apologize. I never apologized unless it furthered my agenda. I mean, what's the use? You can't undo the past so apologies just weaken your position and put you at the other person's mercy. I'd always chosen to cut off the relationship rather than apologize when there was no tangible gain. I rarely did things I didn't mean, so my apologies would have been wind. It had never seemed worth it. I gazed at Henry through the bay window, taking in his silvered head bent over some magazine as he sipped a large coffee. It struck me that I wanted to take back my words. I wanted to tell him I was sorry and tease him about breaking more British stereotypes with his denim work shirt and cargo pants. Before the full import of these thoughts could crystallize in my mind, a barista came over to Henry and he looked up with a smile. I lurched aside so he couldn't see me and fled, cursing the pollen that had to be high for my eyes to be watering as they were. 6. The Sex Trade THE BAR I ENDED UP in was one I'd passed many times but never entered. Adam called it "too pedestrian"—whatever that meant. I just wanted a strong drink in a place that wouldn't depress me further. The interior was clean and well-lit for a neighborhood bar. The decor was a mix of sports and vintage Hollywood memorabilia with movie posters and jerseys lining the walls. High-backed booths with broken-in leather seats outlined the main floor. There was a smattering of tables and chairs throughout. It felt more like someone's den than a bar. The patrons were a blend of blue- and white-collar who seemed to be eating as much as they were drinking. Best of all, the conversation level, while animated was not obnoxious. There was no overhead music playing, something so many places had adopted—a practice I hate. If I wanted to listen to music while I drank, I'd go to a club. Plus, it's usually cranked up way too high, forcing you to shout. In general, if I walk into a restaurant and loud music is playing, I leave. Rather than take a table, I made my way to one of the stools fronting the bar. I ordered a whiskey sour from the Amazonian bartender. Despite out-sizing half the men there, she was pleasant and made a mean cocktail. She'd gotten the balance just right on the alcohol versus mixer, something harder than it sounds. I like my cocktails just strong enough that I know the alcohol is there, but not so strong it bites back going down. She served it with a maraschino cherry and I sucked the macerated fruit off the stem. A male figure sat beside me within moments. I smirked. Like flies to honey. It never takes long for an unattached woman to draw potential suitors. I wasn't in the mood even though I usually relish this game. These men wanted me enough to put their egos on the line and risk rejection for the privilege of fucking me. It is its own form of buzz. Tonight, it seemed stupid. In a moment of alcohol-induced clarity, I realized, I wasn't special to any of these men. I was just something they were playing the odds over. Any good-looking woman would do. I, Charlotte, wasn't relevant. There is a saying in the Real Estate industry: You have to look at a hundred houses to find one worth buying. It had dawned on me that it's the same way for men. It takes ten women saying no before they get to a yes. So, they have to play the odds. "That's quite a turn on," the man's oily voice matched his hair. "How about a private performance?" This man embodied the slur "Guido." He was every stereotype of Italian mobster wannabe. "No, thank you," I didn't even bother looking at him, hoping my indifference would do my talking for me. "You're a pretty lady to be all by yourself. Why don't you let Carlo keep you company?” He placed a large, beefy hand on my thigh. "If Carlo wants to keep his hand intact, he'll stop fucking touching me." My rudeness shocked even me, but I had nothing left in the tank. The Amazon who'd been wiping glasses stepped in at my words. "Carlo, not only are you cut off, but I'm telling your ma about this." Carlo lost every ounce of swagger at the threat. He put his hands up in surrender and his eyes looked like they'd pop out of his head with a sharp knock. "Nikki, cuz, you can't tell ma. She threatened to throw me out." "She also told you to stop harassing women and get a job." "Nik, please, don't." "Go home an' I'll think about it." She nodded toward the door. Carlo mumbled an apology as he shuffled by. I just shook my head and went back to my drink. "Sorry about that," she threw the towel she'd been using over one shoulder. "My cousin thinks he's some kind of ladies’ man. He’s watched too many gangster movies." "It's all good." I waved a hand in dismissal. "Par for the course, unfortunately." I raised my glass in salute before taking a sizable gulp. Nikki moved down the bar to tend to the other loners. I took another big gulp, closing my eyes against the burn as I swallowed. Another rustle of fabric on leather accompanied by the briefest hint of spicy cologne. Another hopeful had taken up the challenge. "If you're going to drink that fast, you might want to order some food too." Every cell in my body went on alert. I knew that voice. Opening my eyes, I smiled at Greg Haldane. * * * His clothes were casual making him appear both relaxed and effortless. The complete opposite of his executive shark persona that I'd become acquainted with. It was disorienting. "How is the food?" I asked, "Is it worth ordering?" "Absolutely." He waved at the bartender. Her face lit up in a way that let me know both that Greg was a regular and that she liked with him. She waved in return as she mouthed "be right there." "A regular, I see." "Yup," he nodded. "I live upstairs." "Wow," I said. That impressed me. The Goff building was a sought after piece of real estate. A resident usually died in order for a unit opened up. "How did you score a place there?" "Someone died." He said it so deadpan that I thought he was serious and almost choked on my drink. "Jokes aside, one of the board members retired and moved to Europe to be closer to his grandchildren. I swooped in." "Nice going. I'd kill to get in the Goff building." "You don't have to commit murder. You can come back with me." Our eyes met and I saw the calculating invitation there. Nikki's approach spared me the need to respond. Greg ordered a beer and we agreed to share an order of nachos. There was an expectant air about Greg as we conversed about small things, postponing the subject. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. He was putting out all the come hither vibes and the contracts were already signed, so my gig was in place. Maybe a fling with a married man was just what I needed. He wouldn't be able to tie me up with strings. I'd get my ego stroked and disappear as soon as the project was over. The fact that I was rationalizing my hypocrisy was not lost on me; I just chose to ignore it. Depression was setting in. I'd lost everything and I deserved something out of this fiasco. Before I could change my mind, I placed a hand on his thigh, leaned in close and said, "Sure your wife won't mind you giving me a personal tour?" A look flashed across his face too quick for me to decipher. He downed the last of his beer, and looked me in the eye as he said, "I can guarantee it." Smiling, I responded, "Lead the way then." Gathering up my purse, I let Greg know I was stepping to the ladies’ room while he settled the bill. While I freshened up, I denied the kernel of disapproval my subconscious insisted on coughing up. It niggled like a pebble in my shoe. I shook my head as if I could dislodge it. I deserved something, dammit. I was taking this and would deal with the consequences later. Turning my back on my reflection, I met Greg outside the entrance to the bar. He had his hands shoved into his pockets and was staring at the moon. It was a hunter's moon and had the deep hue of a blood orange. It hung atop the city like a gigantic citrus fruit. He turned as he heard me approach, pasting on a smile. A trickle of doubt pierced my intentions at his need to put in effort. It's my experience that men who want to get laid don't act like they're facing a task as unpleasant as reciting multiplication tables. "Ready?" His eyes ran over my body as he spoke and I pushed the doubt aside. "Yup." He guided me through the main door, placing a hand on the small of my back. The lobby had marble floors and plush, modern seating. The elevator opened immediately to reveal an immaculate car done in chrome and gleaming wood. The building, at least, met my expectations. I had doubts Greg would, but I wasn't looking for soul-stealing sex. This was about collecting the ego trip. I only cared how much he wanted it, not whether I got off. I was as likely to fake it as not. On that score, we were not off to a good start. He wasn't looking at me, nor was he speaking. He held himself like a man intent on achieving a result. Hell, I could almost see the wheels turning in his brain. But, there was no sexual energy to speak of. In the early days of our relationship, Adam would have had me pressed against the wall and his hand up my shirt. There was just tense anticipation rolling off Greg but it was the kind you experience when you're about to get a vaccination. This was not good. I opened my mouth to suggest we call it off when the car stopped and the doors swung open. Greg took my hand and led me a short way down the hall to a heavy mahogany door. He entered a code in a number pad next to the door and the sound of the lock opening was almost inaudible. "Nice," I said suitably impressed. "That's nothing," he grinned, his first genuine emotion since he'd sat down next to me. Inside, I felt like a child in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory - home decor edition. The furniture was plush and luxurious with lots of museum quality art adorning the walls. As we moved from room to room, lights turned on or off without intervention. Greg spoke to hidden sensors to turn on soft jazz music and raise the shades. His view as amazing. The entire city glowed before us. The Washington Monument shone in all its phallic glory in the distance. "Wow," I heard my voice crack. That was my city and I loved it. "I know," he said stepping close and turning me to face him. He was finally demonstrating interest, which was a move in the right direction. He pressed his lips to mine, tasting of the beer he'd had. I leaned in to reciprocate. As planned, he took my response as invitation and deepened the kiss before walking me back to the sofa. I wasn't kissing him so much as I was allowing him to tongue my mouth. I preferred to skip the kissing in general. It was an intimate act, more so in my mind than the actual penetration, but he seemed to want it. I was still attempting to figure out what he needed in a sex partner. All men have different expectations. Some want you to be still and let them lead, others want an aggressive partner, some want porno star affectation, others don't. I like to give them what they expect; it heightens their desire which gives me a greater high in return. Greg was giving me nothing to work with. I felt more like an action figure whose only job was to remain where he put me. He left my mouth and kissed his way down my neck, unbuttoning my blouse as he went. His kisses were wet and I was aware of the cooling, sliminess of his saliva on my skin as it began to evaporate. There was no heat building, no passion, no lust involved. This was a mechanical process. One which my brain chronicled like a court reporter documented a proceeding. HALDANE: Applied three kisses to Ms. Wolfe's neck before squeezing her right breast. WOLFE: Gasped and arched. HALDANE: Fumbled with small buttons on vintage blouse. I imagined some bookish woman wearing cats-eye glasses sitting reading the transcript back to me. I almost giggled. I contained it, but one thing was certain, I felt no actual attraction to Greg. I was dry between my legs and this coupling felt both hollow and pointless. Greg releasing my blouse to scratch his nose interrupted my emotional cataloging. I may not know what true desire feels like, but I do know one thing about men: when they are horny, they don't think about scratching their noses. "Stop," I spoke before the thought had formed in my mind. "Huh?" Greg acted bewildered, but his eyes told a different story. Clear and cold, there was no lust there either. "I said stop," my tone was benign, but I was serious. This was definitely not happening. He sat up and moved back, settling on the other side of the small sofa. I turned to face him, buttoning my blouse and considering him. There was a tension radiating through him that didn't seem like anger, but was definitely not sexual. "Why are you doing this?" "Why do you think? I want to fuck you." He smirked. "I think you planned to fuck me, but I don't think you want to. So, why don't you level with me?" His head snapped in my direction, his eyes going wide. Rather than answer me, he lobbed a question of his own, "Why did you let me do any of that?" If words had form, these were the proverbial gloved gauntlet. I was more than willing to oblige. I ignored the warning light in my brain that my tact filter had slipped after too much emotional upheaval. "Because sex is an easy way to have your ego stroked and I've been feeling insecure. You were putting out obvious signals making you an easy mark." He recoiled which surprised me. I hadn't been looking to wound. "What?" I asked. He snorted before sighing. "Me too." I felt my eyebrows shoot up. I hadn't expected that. I figured I would get something tied to his being irresistible or something. When I made no reply, he said, "My wife is cheating on me. She left me last month and served me with divorce papers today." I didn't know what to say considering I'd pegged him as a cheater. I opted for honest but non-committal. "That sucks." He laughed one of those belly laughs that builds on itself until the laughter itself is the point. I waited him out and when he finished, he was wiping tears from his eyes. "How apropos," was all he said. He threw himself back into a slouch and sighed again. "You want to know something?" It was rhetorical, so I waited. "I never cheated on her. I was faithful, but she never trusted me because I was her boss when we met. So, she always thought I was still sleeping with my employees. I never did. Never. But, when I got those papers today, I almost lost it. I was looking for some revenge I guess." "You love her." He grimaced, but nodded. "You need to give her the divorce." Again, his head shot up and his eyes widened in disbelief. I shrugged, "I'm just calling it like I see it. You may love her, but she's made herself clear. You shouldn't change who you are either for or because of her. It won't make her trust you either way." He stared at his hands which he clenched into fists before saying, "I apologize, Charlotte. You didn't deserve for me to use you." "No apology needed. We would have been using each other." He scoffed, "I've never met a woman who was this direct." I laughed. "I'm not usually this open. I like to keep my cards close, but I'm feeling off kilter tonight. Count yourself lucky." I stood and faced him. When he looked up at me, I said, "Listen, let's just write this off to the full moon and forget about it. Okay?" I held out my hand to seal the agreement. He stood and shook it, saying, "Deal." "Good. I can't afford to lose this gig, Greg." I smiled though I was serious. He was quite earnest as he replied, "The project is safe. You have my word." I wasn't so sure of that, but we would definitely see. 7. Fed Up I ENTERED MY APARTMENT UNSURE which I was more of: tired or depressed. My entire life had come unhinged and I had no center anymore. I may not have loved Adam the way he wanted, but I did love the stability, the control I had over my life. As tired as I was, I shut and locked my door, putting the chain on before dropping into one of the chairs flanking my dinette. I felt … flat. Empty. Devoid. I have no idea how long I sat there staring into the dimness of my apartment until a faint sound from the bathroom drew my attention. I'd forgotten about Hugo. He was bound to be hungry and need to do his business. I stood, moving with the gait and posture of the elderly as the new reality of my life settled upon me like a lead apron. I didn't even have the energy to lift my feet. Instead, I shuffled across the living room catching my toe on the rug and almost tripping. The inky blackness inside the bathroom startled me as I opened the door. I'd also forgotten to leave the light on. As this thought registered, so did the stench. Flipping on the light, I shrieked then pinched my nose. Hugo had gotten his revenge. He had drenched my brand new (well, thrift shop new like everything else) bath mat in urine. A mound of dog shit sat dead center. The dog himself lay in the tub on a bed of shredded toilet paper. He opened one eye and peered at me before dismissing me with a chuff. My first thought was to grab him and shake him, but Mr. T's words came back to me about how a dog is not malicious. Accidents are the result of the owner's failure to read the signs. Mr. T must not have gotten to know Hugo. For the moment, I ignored the dog. Grabbing rubber gloves and a trash bag, I cleaned up the mess before using disinfectant on the bathroom floor. Hugo left the tub, gave himself a bone rattling shake and padded over to my bed, hopping up onto it as if he had every right. That single act, one he'd performed every single day since I'd gotten him was a spark to gasoline. "Get off!" I hollered, stamping my foot and pointing a rigid finger at his bed. He raised his ears and looked at me, but made no move to get off my bed. "Now!" I screamed loud enough that it hurt. Still nothing. Everything coalesced for me in that moment. A conflagration burst inside of me that, had it been real, would have turned me to ash. My resentment at the break up and fear for my future churned inside me like the wake from a boat's tiller. I screamed curses at Hugo unleashing all my rage in an incoherent torrent. It wasn't enough and he still hadn't gotten off my damn bed. I grabbed the first thing I could reach from where I stood in the doorway of my bathroom and hurled it in his direction. The hairbrush landed next to his head and bounced. That got his attention. He sprang landing in a crouch on all four paws with his tail low and his ears flat on his head. I reached again and threw. The tube of toothpaste bounced off the wall behind him and he yelped, leaping off my bed and running for the kitchen. His tucked his tail between his legs and his butt was so low it almost dragged the floor. I took huge, gulping breaths trying to calm down. I wasn't trying to hurt the dog. I wasn't even aiming for him. I just wanted him to obey me. But, like everything else in my life, he wasn't cooperating and it was too much. Tears of frustration burned my eyes but I was still too furious to shed them. Instead, I panted through my anger. Each forceful breath thundered in my ears so that I didn't hear the knocking at first. Hugo huddled in a corner in the kitchen, his ears swiveling like radar between me and the door. A sharp spear of remorse pierced me at the sight of the dog's fear, but I wasn't calm enough to address it. Taking a deep breath, I ordered myself to relax and answered the door. "Who is it?" I called after checking the peephole and seeing a bar code filling the view. "I'm your neighbor from across the hall." I shot Hugo a glare that had his ears going so flat they disappeared as if absorbed into his skull. This was his fault. Leaving the chain in place, I opened the doors. A chain was the sturdiest of all the locks; the Mythbuster guys had proven it. "Yes?" Standing before me was a beanpole of a man. Boy. Young man. Whatever term goes with a guy in his early twenties at best. He was tall and so slim his joints seemed wider than his muscles. He wore a T-shirt sporting the aforementioned bar code decal and jeans that only highlighted his slimness. His wannabe hipster outfit stopped at his head where he went from an I'm-a-hipster-looking-to-conform vibe to a look-at-me-I-thumb-my-nose-at-convention spiky hairdo a la skunk with black roots and platinum tips. He sported piercings in his lip and eyebrow. Metal hoops ringed the entire rim of his left ear, making it appear like a set of janitor keys. "Hiya," he said shoving long absurdly elegant fingers into his pockets and rocking back on the heels of his combat boots. "I heard the commotion and wanted to make sure you were okay in here." For no reason that I could explain, the tears I'd been holding back chose that moment to fall. My neighbor turned three shades of tomato red and took a step back holding up his hands as if to ward me off. "Sorry, ma'am. I didn't mean to make you cry. I thought you might be in trouble and just wanted to check." "It's not you," I sniffed and released the chain. I didn't sense any threat from this boy even if I was pretty sure it was him whom Lumpy kept trying to nail down. My guess was he owed Lumpy money for drugs. Weed most likely from the earthy aroma clinging to him. "My dog had an accident," I held up the trash bag I was still holding. "And, I've had a really bad few weeks. I just lost it. I apologize for disturbing you. It won't happen again." The relief on his face was comical. He was more suited for court jester than knight, but still, it took some heart to put yourself into the unknown. "What's your name?" I asked as I stepped into the hall. I'd have to take the trash bag to the dumpster in the alley and I was in no mood to fight with Hugo about loose-leash walking. "I'm G," he smiled showing off perfect teeth. "G," I held out my hand which he shook with a firm grasp. "I'm Charlotte. Again, my apologies. I'll try not to have any more uncontrolled melt downs." He shrugged, "No big." With a nod of dismissal, I descended the steps to get rid of the remains of Hugo's tantrum. "Hey! Where you going? It's dangerous out there." He called from the top of the steps. Again, I held up the bag. "This has to go." He ambled down the steps in a way that made me think of a slinky before coming to rest beside me. "I'll walk with you. My brother would kill me if I let you go out into that alley alone at such a late hour." I shrugged. I was too tired to care. By the time we'd gone to the dumpster and back, I'd found at that G was short for Gerald and that he went by DJ G-Money when he performed. He'd been working the local club circuit and was building a name for himself. I mentioned having noticed one of his flyers and he puffed up so much he resembled a pierced and image-confused marshmallow. I also found out his brother, a cop, didn't approve of his chosen career and was putting pressure on him to go back to college. We said goodbye outside our respective doors and I thanked him for the escort. "Anytime, Lady C," he said closing his door and bestowing upon me my first street name. It made me feel ancient. Inside the Closet, Hugo hadn't moved. I crouched before him, ashamed of having made him fear me. I placed a hand on his trembling flank and stayed there until he calmed. Standing, I filled his bowl with kibble and gave him water. As he ate, I put on my pajamas and climbed into bed. Hugo walked with tentative steps into the living area and didn't even attempt to get into my bed, going straight to his own. What should have made me happy only compounded my shame. "Hugo," I said and the dog faced me, he ears at attention, his head cocked as he listened. "I'm sorry. That won't happen again." We both lay down. After several long moments, I spoke into the stillness. "This isn't working, Hugo. I'm going to take you back tomorrow." The only response was an elongated canine sigh. * * * The next morning, Hugo was still subdued. He watched me warily, never moving from his bed until I called him to eat. I felt like a complete shit, but I could not handle his stubborn refusal to obey me. Not to mention how destructive he was. I'd lost too much already and I wasn't willing to lose anymore. Not one more thing. I'd just have to get a Taser or something. Of course, these lofty convictions weren't making it any easier to look the dog in the eye. When he'd eaten his food and sloshed water all over my floor—another checkmark in my "give him back" column—I clipped he leash to his collar and locked the door behind us. Outside, the sky was overcast and a misting rain fell complementing my mood. I was a complete failure as a dog owner, why should the sun be shining. Hugo and I made the long walk to the vehicle I'd reserved through the local car sharing service. I may not own a car, but I'd kept my license current and often made use of the service when I had to avoid public transit. Today, I'd gotten a cherry red Ford Escape. It was new-ish, but whoever used it last had left behind the putrefying remains of Mexican fast food and the car now smelled like ass soup. I texted the customer service department. I was not adding a cleaning charge to this already bad day. Hugo leapt into the cargo area. The bunch and flex of his hind legs giving him an unexpected grace so that he cut the air as gracefully as a cat. I was impressed, but no less committed. We crawled along the parking lot that the District's streets had become in the last decade. I fidgeted and shifted, unable to sit still. I couldn't decide if I was hoping to run into Adam to see if I could get my life back, or if it was best not to see him because he might take my decision to return Hugo as more evidence of my so-called heartlessness. I'm not heartless. Really. I'm not. I'm just pro-me … most of the time anyway. That pattern hadn't held last night with Greg, though. I still hadn't figured that one out. It was like as he'd been touching me, I'd understood in my whole being how pointless the entire exercise was. I'd often traded my body for various emotional rewards, so it wasn't something for which I have a particular aversion. Last night, I just couldn't do it. I hoped Greg was as good as his word and the project was safe. We'd signed contracts, but it was my experience that expensive lawyers undid words on paper with ease. See, this was exactly why you're not supposed to shit where you eat. Hell, what would my readers say— For a split second, my mind went blank as horror washed over me. In the upheaval, I'd forgotten about my blog. I'd published those ridiculously personal posts about my past and had never taken them down. Nausea churned in my stomach and, for several seconds, I saw spots. I had to take them down. With any luck no one cared enough to read it. I mean it's not like I had millions of followers or anything. I took several deep breaths, my anxiety climbing with every red light. Mentally, I imagined parting the cars the way Moses parted the Red Sea. As it was, I finally limped into the lot for the shelter a full thirty minutes after I'd planned. I didn't have long to drop off Hugo and get the car back on time. Opening the hatch, I almost assaulted by Hugo leaping onto the pavement. He sniffed and wagged, pulling me this way and that so that we zig-zagged more than walked to the entrance. We were within reach of the door when Hugo scented something interesting and lunged, almost taking me off my feet. "Dammit, Hugo!" I screeched. "Stop!" This was exactly why I was giving him back. I couldn't do it. I wrangled him back to my side, holding the leash so tight he couldn't move his head let alone pull me and yanked on the door knob. I almost fell on my butt when the door didn't move. I jiggled the handle, pulling several more times. Nothing. It was locked tight. Only then did I see the sheet of paper taped to the inside of the glass. There was a single, typewritten sentence on it: Closed to the public due to a power outage. No! The thought echoed in my brain like a horror actress's scream. This wasn't happening. I needed to give this dog back. Standing there, I tried to calculate my next move when it occurred to me that they couldn't leave the animals unattended. And, peering through the glass showed a single light on inside. With hope surging, I whipped out my phone, called information, and got salvation texted to me in ten little digits. All was not lost. I would explain to whomever answered. It would be okay. It had to be. I got a recording. With a curse, I shoved my phone back into my purse. What was I going to do now? I considered Hugo, who met my eyes with his own too intelligent ones. I felt exposed and embarrassed as if he knew I was trying to get rid of him and was being magnanimous. Yanking the leash, I began the arduous task of getting Hugo back into the SUV. He pulled, sniffed, and lunged to the point where my shoulders hurt, so did my throat from screeching at him. Just as I was about to lose it all together, a feminine voice said, "He doesn't trust you. You do realize that, right?" Standing on the sidewalk behind me was a tall brunette. She wore gym clothes and had a trim figure. In her hands was a stack of yellow paper covered with large, cheerful writing. "No offense," I said as Hugo lunged again, this time at a squirrel taunting him from a nearby stump, "but what do you know about it?" "Well," she drew the word out infusing it with smug satisfaction. I had a sick feeling where this was going as she drew near. "I'm a dog trainer. In fact, I'm affiliated with the shelter." She jerked a thumb in the direction of the shelter before switching her focus to the dog. "That looks like Hugo." I stiffened. Great. She knew my dog. "It is." "Your first pit bull?" Her voice had a disapproving tone and my hackles went up. "So?" I responded, hating that I sounded defensive. She stepped forward and extracted the leash from my death grip. I gave it to her without a fight and no one was more shocked than me by that. She saw it too and smiled. I rarely wanted to hit strangers, but she was pushing my buttons. "So," she mimicked me as she snapped her fingers at Hugo who immediately stopped trying to get at the squirrel. "You can't manhandle him like a purse dog when he doesn't obey. Though you shouldn't do that either. Anyhoo, what I'm saying is you have to gain his trust so that he'll want to obey you." She then proceeded to put Hugo through all his basic commands with such authority and crispness that she could have been showing at Crufts. Hugo, the traitor, obeyed her without argument. She put Hugo in a down-stay before handing the leash back to me. He didn't so much as twitch. I scowled at him only to get one of those smiles where his tongue lolled out the side of his mouth. I swear he was laughing at me! "Dogs respond to energy and tone, before they register vocabulary. When you get angry, all Hugo registers is 'unstable' and 'untrustworthy'. You have to be firm and consistent, not angry and volatile." She took one of her fliers from the stack and handed it to me. "Call me and we'll set up training for Hugo." She scratched Hugo and then waved as she got into a pea green Fiat 500; one of those cars that look like baby booties on wheels. I studied the flyer. It had lots of paw prints on it along with her contact info, and read: That Damn Dog Gloria Reese, certified dog trainer All breeds welcome. Work with me and I guarantee you'll never need to say that phrase again. First lesson free I laughed despite myself. We'd just see about that. 8. Making an Ass out of U and Me I got the Escape back just in time, unloaded Hugo, and began the torturous trek back to the Closet. The temporary truce reached between rain and sun as we drove to the shelter had ended. However, instead of a misty warning shot across the bow, it was now a full on assault. I was soaked before we made it out of the parking lot. I hadn't brought an umbrella. Hugo--who appeared to be channeling the Wicked Witch of the West--bucked and dodged as if he had to avoid getting wet lest he melt. When that failed, he stopped every few feet and shook violently from head to toe while glaring at me as if it were somehow my fault. "What?" I snapped. "I don't control the weather." He made a low, whining noise in argument, but I jerked the leash to get him moving again. I wasn't exactly having a party here. He resumed his spastic bucking and jerking while I cursed the rain, my luck, and every bad thing that had ever happened to me. All I wanted was to get home, get dry, and get those posts down. Their presence sat like a festering wound under my skin. I wouldn't be able to relax until I deleted them. As if to thumb its nose at me, the rain stopped when we were a few blocks from the Closet. The late summer sun dispelled the gray gloom. It wasn't long before my clothes were stuck to me like glue, my hair clung in semi-dry strands around my head, and I was sweating. The appearance of Lumpy leaving my building cut short my contemplation of the sorry state I found myself in. He wore a long shirt that did nothing to hide the fact that he was armed and he looked angry. I froze in place. The heat that just seconds ago had made me want to scream now did nothing to melt the ice that bloomed across my skin. Sensing my distress, Hugo froze and began looking around for the source. His ears shifted and his nose lifted and twitched as he sifted scents. What he didn't do was put himself of front of me and act menacing so that all comers knew to leave me alone. Most especially, scary men who carried guns. Lumpy spotted us and moved to intercept our path with a speed that seemed impossible for someone of his size. Hugo, for all the aggression he was supposed to possess as a pit bull, did nothing more than stand still. He radiated tension, but was not one-bit threatening. Lumpy came close enough for me to see he hadn't shaved and a dark shadow of stubble covered his face. He wore something under his shirt on one of those cloth lanyards that usually held security passes when worn by corporate cogs. With his proximity, my tension skyrocketed and I tightened my grip on the leash. Hugo gave a low, warning growl. Yes! Hope and relief surged. The steel bands restricting my diaphragm dissolved and I once again drew breath. Hugo was going to protect me after all. Rather than pass by, Lumpy dropped to one knee, held out a loose fist to Hugo and said, "Hey, fella," only to have Hugo lick his hand! The relief surging through me turned to little lead pellets and panic returned. My dog was useless. The whole reason I'd gotten him was to protect me from people like Lumpy. "Ma'am?" I jumped as Lumpy's voice broke through my panicked mental ramblings. "Huh?" was my lame reply. A drug dealer just called me ma'am? Call me crazy, but I hadn't put social etiquette on their list of things to do. He was still kneeling as he scratched Hugo, who'd flopped on the sidewalk and rolled over for a belly rub. "I asked if you knew Gerald from apartment C." I didn't answer right away. I wasn't certain how to ensure a favorable outcome for myself. At the same time, I actually liked the kid and he'd been so gallant the evening before. I didn't want to see him get hurt. I opted for caution. "I'm afraid I don't answer personal questions from strangers." Only after I spoke did it occur to me to question how he even knew I lived in the building, but I refrained from asking. In the 1980s when rampant drug and gang violence earned the city the nickname of Murder Capital a saying became popular: Don't start none, won't be none. It still applied. "Fair enough." He stood and reached behind him to where his gun sat in his waistband. In that moment, my death flashed before me. I saw the shift in the air as the gun arced forward displacing molecules before pointing at me, the searing pain of the bullet piercing me for failing to give this man what he wanted. You'd think I would have run. Nope. I froze. I was a human icicle; no more effective than my so called "menacing" dog who still lay at Lumpy's feet. Time slowed as Lumpy's hand moved back from behind him. The dark shape in his grip made no sense to me. I stopped breathing again. His hand rose and I expected to see the gaping donut of the gun barrel. Instead, I had to squint against the glare off the golden metal. A badge. He was flashing a badge at me. Across the top was the label "Metropolitan Police." Lumpy was speaking, but it took me a few seconds to tune in. "… is my brother. I've been trying to reach him for a while now and I'm beginning to get worried. We had an argument, but he usually doesn't go this long without getting in touch." I laughed—more like got hysterical—in sheer relief, but noticed the consternation on his face. I pulled myself together, taking the business card he fished out of another pocket and handed to me. Reading it, I learned his name was Louis Carlyle and he was a detective. "I apologize, Officer," I wiped at my eyes which had watered so intense was my relief. "I've seen you and your gun before. I thought you were some kind of gangster." He smiled and rubbed his chin before saying, "It’s detective and I can understand. I look the part." Even with the misunderstanding cleared up, I still felt compelled to protect Gerald's privacy. I must have been going soft given avoiding things that didn’t concern me was my usual modus operandi. "Listen, Detective. I understand your concern, but all I will do is promise to let Gerald know you're worried if I see him." He sighed, ran a hand over his head, and nodded. "Okay. Thanks." He gave Hugo one rub more saying, "Bye, buddy," before walking off and disappearing around the block. I looked down at the dog I'd gotten to protect me from a man I didn't need protection from. He met my eyes. I swear one canine eyebrow rose as if to say, "what?" What the hell was I going to do with him now? I couldn't control him and fate was conspiring to keep me from giving him back. The climb to the Closet felt more like scaling Kilimanjaro than walking a flight of steps. * * * Once inside, I removed Hugo's leash and commanded "Bed." He ignored me, went to the rug where he circled twice before laying down. The weight that had been descending since my encounter with Lumpy, encompassed me. It felt like I was giving Jacob Marley a run for his money. Even so, I needed to deal with my blog. I grabbed my laptop and, shoving it in my bag, left Hugo to his nap. There was no way I was making it to Kona in my current state, so I trudged the few blocks to my neighborhood McDonald's. Once inside, I bought a Dr. Pepper, and found a booth. Connecting to the Internet seemed to take forever. My laptop dinged letting me know I had email and I distracted myself long enough to scroll the subject lines. Greg Haldane's name jumped out amid the many work and junk emails. There was no subject line to state his purpose. My heart raced, especially when I realized it came from his private email rather than his corporate account. Charlotte - I wanted to thank you for the other night. I've never been rejected so meaningfully. All jokes aside, it was a relief to be able to speak my mind and not be judged for it. As much as it pained me to do it, I've informed my wife that I won't contest the divorce. If I can ever return the favor, don't hesitate. Sincerely, Greg P.S. I meant what I said. The project is safe. A strange warmth suffused my chest and a tingle like dizziness spun inside me. Unable to catalog the emotion, I put it down to relief. I was completely stumped as to what to say in response. I'd been both blunt and honest the other night. I put it down to my recent upheavals and the whiskey sour that I hadn't stayed inside my usual rules. That it had produced such an unexpected effect took me out of my "go-to action" file. Clicking reply, I typed: Greg - You're welcome and thank you. For several minutes, I sat staring at the screen. It felt too terse, too hard. But what could I say that wouldn't sound patronizing or worse, expose the fact that I didn't related to his pain at all. I sifted and discarded too many responses to count before throwing in the towel and responding honestly. I added: I don't pretend to know what you're feeling, but I do know what it's like to be judged for speaking honestly. I'm glad I was able to give you that safety. Regards, Charlotte The biggest surprise was that I meant it. I despised weighing and measuring my every reaction. If I had done nothing more than let him spill his guts free from moral recrimination and hypocritical judgment, then I'd done something good. That warm twisty feeling grew and spread, causing me to tremble. I felt lightheaded and my chest hurt. Thanks to my trek in the rain, I must be catching the flu. I sipped my soda and logged into the administration panel for my blog. Mentally, I cringed and prayed no one had visited. I was such a fool to have exposed myself that way. The page popped in and there were no indicators for unread comments. The breath I'd been holding whooshed out and relief surged through me. I was safe. I moved to click on the post so I could begin deleting when the screen blinked, refreshing itself. Where before the comment indicator had been blank, it now read 150. One hundred and fifty people had not only read the posts, they had something to say about them. When was I going to learn to control these stupid impulses? I needed to be better about thinking before I acted. It had been so stupid of me to expose myself that way. Complete strangers now knew my pain, had a window into my psyche and memories. Topping off this colossal stupidity, I'd set myself up for judgment. You never learn, Charlotte. You deserve whatever they throw at you, imbecile. I shook off the mental narration that accompanied my many impulsive mistakes such as this and chewed my lip as I tried to decide what to do. The last thing I wanted was to read about how weak and stupid I was. I didn't need anyone telling me what I already knew. As I twisted the situation in my mind, the menu at the top of the screen finally registered. "Bulk Actions" it said and "Move to Trash" was one of the selections. I didn't have to read a damn thing. I could erase the comments and the posts as if they never happened. Hell, I could erase the whole damned blog. I pulled up the comments page. I wouldn't be able to avoid reading the first comment that pulled in, but one comment I could ignore. When it finally loaded, I squinted as if narrowing my eyes could lessen its impact. So great was my relief as the words registered, I laughed out loud. These comments weren't on those posts at all. Every comments showing was about the post I'd written on office sex. I responded feeling comfortable that I still had the high ground but I was polite. I saw no reason for the cruelty that had cropped up online in recent years. After the first three comments, I relaxed and stopped worrying. I was in my zone, responding with a touch of snark and a dash of humor to each commenter. I clicked next and almost cried out at the physical discomfort brought on by the words on screen. *hugs* It's okay to feel how you do. Animals love us unconditionally and their loss is just as painful because we can love them purely and in safety. I hope you did save that pit bull. Can you post an update? (MarshaJane989) What your parents did to you was emotional abuse and it was wrong. That's so f**ked up I can't even think what I can say to encompass how f**ked up it is. I'm sorry that happened to you (JustASmallTownGirl) Have faith, Telling It. Corky, Sam, and Bandit are waiting for you across the Rainbow Bridge. (ItIsThePits) Let me be the first to say it - your parents sound like real arseholes (CarterDouglas) I laughed out loud at that one. If he only knew. Honey, I can only imagine the pain you felt to bury it so deep. I'd give you a huge hug if I could (Cala Lily) And so it went. The comments on my post about feeling like an outsider were just as heartfelt and supportive. There wasn't a single judging or repudiating comment in the list. Comment after comment was the same. It was a litany of comfort, support, and solidarity from complete strangers. I read them all. Then, I read them again. An enervate rush surged under my skin, making me dizzy. I needed to get home. I was obviously getting sick. The walk home was much faster. A disorienting sense of lightness tugged at me as if my skin were peeling off and my soul was being sucked from my body. The twisting built inside me and I ran the last block, charging up my steps only to curse my deadbolts and regret my paranoia. I finally made it inside where I dropped my tote by the door and fell to my hands and knees. The dizziness was acute and the floor warped and shifted while I crawled intending to get to my bed. I didn't make it. Spots floated in front of my vision. The comments I'd read echoed in my brain, adding to my disorientation. I couldn't assimilate the compassion and empathy -- the acceptance. Even as the thought formed in my mind, I felt myself crack open. Collapsing on my side, I wept. Sobs shook my body. The grief of that eight-year-old girl who lost her best friend overwhelmed me. I wept the adolescent tears of a youth who learned that distance meant power. I grieved for the young woman who sublimated her pain in sex rather than honor the creature who'd loved her. They were ugly tears that mixed with the torrent of snot that accompanied unregulated sorrow. Through the haze of my pain, I felt the cool nose and silken skin of Hugo's muzzle. The soft whine he made as he snuffled my neck and tried to cheer me. He lapped at my face and failing to calm me, curled against my midriff to bear the weight of my grief with me. At some point, I slept. When I woke, peeling my crusted lids apart, it was dark. Hugo remained pressed against me. His head thrust into the space under my chin, his canine heat keeping me warm on the chilly floor. I ran my hands along his side, cataloging the silky fur over firm musculature. It occurred to me that I had never shown him any affection, never petted, or praised him. He'd been a tool to me. Nothing more. It was no wonder he refused to listen to me. "Hey boy," I said stretching out my kinked muscles. "Hungry?" He rose and shook before doing his doggy yoga and sitting with his head cocked as if he wasn't sure what was going on. Shame flooded me and in that moment, I understood cruelty wasn't reserved for physical harm. I filled his bowl and let him eat while I washed my face. When he finished, I ran him out to relieve himself. He didn't pull once. Back inside, I threw on my pajamas and crawled into bed. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Hugo start toward my bed, stop, and switch directions heading to his own. "Here boy," I didn't question my action, I just patted the coverlet. He hesitated. I repeated myself, again patting the bed. Finally, he jumped up, rushed to settle himself at my side as if worried I'd change my mind. Rolling to face him, I curled myself around his body and let him in. 9. Baby Steps MY ENTIRE BODY WAS SORE when I awoke, but my spirit felt lighter. Hugo snored next to me. His heat was comforting and I felt warmed in more ways than the physical. Buttery light dappled the apartment and I felt peaceful. Casting my mind back, I couldn't remember ever feeling this before. My life had existed on a knife edge. The threat of injury—real or imagined—was constant. Growing up had been a stressful experience. My father was nothing more than a specter whom you tip-toed around to avoid his wrath. He who never participated in my life. My mother was too busy pitting my sister and I against one another to be any form of maternal figure. As a result, my youth had consisted of navigating a familial minefield rather than being a child. My adult life had been much the same, whether it was catty roommates or sketchy boyfriends, until Adam. Adam, while a vast improvement, was still more like wearing jeans that were one size too small. They may look great, but they suffocated you. Now, here I am middle aged, alone, struggling financially, and feeling an inner calm; a sense that I'll figure things out. The temptation to stress about my lack of stress was high, but I suppressed it. I may not understand what was happening to me, but I knew one thing: I wasn't hiding anymore. I was going back to Kona today and confronting Henry. We were going to have to agree to disagree on the Adam thing. I still wasn't willing to concede that argument, but I missed Henry. I missed him more than I missed Adam, but I wasn't telling him that either. I didn't understand why, but ever since our argument, I found myself thinking about Henry a lot. At first, it had been to mentally win the argument. I rewrite history so that I said exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment to be victorious. That had morphed into wondering what new outfit he'd be wearing or what reading material he'd be devouring. I found myself remembering his twinkling eyes and bottomless laugh. The memory caused a yearning so strong I'd find myself getting up to go see him. Then, I would remember how we left things. It was unfamiliar and disturbing to feel this way. I had no idea how to catalog it. It wasn't sexual and there was no obvious social or financial advantage gained from his acquaintance. Yet, I wanted to spend time with him. It left me feeling like I was trying to find my way in a dark room with no knowledge of the layout and no operating memory to guide me. Call me adventurous, I guess, because it was time to see where I stood. First things first, Hugo and I had a date with the park. * * * Who would have thought a little playing in the park would make a dog want to listen? Hugo and I walked the local park in our usual fashion. He pulled and tugged (though not as much) and I was only screeching at him a little. Completely by accident (I dropped my keys and had to go back for them) I discovered how to correct his pulling and save my joints. I just turned around and went the other way every time he pulled. It wasn't long before he figured out that we went the wrong way when he pulled. We took three times as long to walk the five blocks to the park, but we did okay -- for us. The park was empty. I was grateful. I wasn't ready to deal with Hugo and other dogs, too. I let Hugo off leash and left him to sniff around while I searched for a big stick. Once I found able to withstand his ability to chew it, I called Hugo to me. He came bounding over with nothing more than a single call of his name! I'd like to think it was my newfound connection with him, but his eyes were wholly focused on the stick. And, so it began. Our perfectly imperfect bonding session. I tossed the stick; he scrambled after it, often overshooting it, going feet over tail as he tried to stop. He'd turn, scoop it up, run a few victory laps around me and then ignore me completely as he lay down to chew on the stick. Fetch was not in his vocabulary, this was catch. Even still, I was gooey inside, so I couldn't find it in me to be offended. I simply extracted the stick and threw it again and again until the slobber overcame the dry bark. With a note-to-self to invest in portable hand wipes, I reattached his leash and began walking home. We were about a block in before I realized he wasn't pulling. At. All. I stopped certain I was hallucinating and said, "Hugo, sit." He sat, looking up at me with a grin despite panting from his exertions. Deciding to push my luck, I said, "Hugo, down." He lay down. I laughed and screeched, "Yes!" scaring Hugo and making him leap onto all fours. I scratched him all over and told him how good he was. Maybe I could do this after all, but it couldn't hurt to get some help. When we got in the house, I gave Hugo water and emailed Gloria to ask for a trial session. I wasn't sure how I would pay her, but I'd figure that out later. Right now, I wanted to get to Kona and see if I could catch Henry. 10. Thinking Inside the Box SEVERAL HOURS LATER—THANK YOU decrepit wiring that blows if you plug in both a hair dryer and a clothes iron—I was finally ready to go. I threw a signed copy of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy into my tote bag on my way out. I'd found it at a flea market years before and it would make a good peace offering. Given how late I was, I'd probably missed him, but worst case scenario, I'd get some work done and try again tomorrow. As fickle as D.C.'s subway system is, the transit gods must have been smiling on me because the commute was effortless. I used the time in a vain effort to compose what I wanted to say. I was completely stymied. My repertoire of machinations had no entry for this particular circumstance. I wasn't one to salvage a relationship. I tended to replace them as I would a battery that had run out. Like with Greg, I was once again in uncharted territory. All my nerves lit up as soon as I alighted from the dark recesses of the Metro station. It felt like stage fright and it only got worse the closer I got to Kona. My heart was pounding and my knees felt like jelly. Why was I doing this? Henry wasn't a necessary presence and I'd be giving him power over me. If I did this, he'd know he had importance in my life and he would then be able to exploit me. Greg was one thing. I needed that contract, but Henry couldn't do anything for me. I would be a fool to put myself at his mercy. Nope. Not doing it. I would just pretend nothing happened and see what he did. If he ignored me, it would be no great loss. Right? I'd had lots of people fade from my life over the years and I had always managed. I didn't need Henry either. Feeling much more resolute, I turned the corner and saw Kona. My heart skipped and I smiled. I loved this place. If nothing else, I was getting my coffee shop back. I crossed the large window and scanned what crowd there was for this time of day. There was no sign of Henry. I took a deep breath, refusing to acknowledge any disappointment, and went inside. As I approached the counter to place my order, I heard, "What sylph-like creature is this? Has Charlotte returned to the fold?" I could contain neither my grin nor the surge of joy pulsing through me as I turned and faced Henry. He was as I remembered him. A contradiction in terms with his high-brow accent and plebeian clothes. His T-shirt read There's no place like I had no idea what that meant, but I adored the consummate and unapologetic nerdiness of it. His smile was wide and welcoming and everything inside me relaxed. Abandoning the counter and my order, I joined him by the exit. He had a paperback tucked under his arm, but I saw no coffee. "Are you leaving?" Not the most graceful opening, but he smiled anyway. "As a matter of fact, I was about to exchange one establishment for another and get a proper meal." In an obvious attempt to get the Least-Eloquent-Response-Ever award, I said, "Oh." I was at a loss. This reunion was not working out at all like I'd fantasized. When I said nothing further, Henry quirked an eyebrow and said, "Would you care to join me? It's been an age since you've been in. I'd rather begun to think you were avoiding me." I blushed and just knew I was giving the tomato a run for its money on depth of shade. Henry's eyebrows shot even higher. "Were you avoiding me?" Confusion colored his voice such that even I recognized it. I don't always recognize the emotional landscape of the person I'm dealing with, but, in this at least, Henry was an easy read. "I can explain," I said, stepping closer and resting a hand on his arm. His skin was warm and felt velvety under my fingers. He had the physique of a man who was naturally slim rather than someone who made fitness a priority, "It's why I came to find you —" "You were looking for me? I definitely need to hear this. I didn't think I registered on your radar enough to put you off your routine." I flushed deeper and grew tongue-tied, looking away as I sought some way to save face. Henry took pity on me. He patted my hand and said, "I'm teasing, Madame. But, this story definitely sounds like it's best told over a meal. Why don't you let me take you to lunch?" I studied his face which was alight with curiosity and surprised myself by agreeing. I rarely went off script once I determined what I was trying to do, but Henry was the least predictable person I'd ever met. Opening the door, he gestured for me to precede him. Out on the street, he asked, "Do you have a preference for any particular cuisine?" "Not really, but there is a great little grill a few blocks over. I'm open, though, if you had something you were already thinking of." "I hadn't decided what my taste buds were looking for but a grill sounds like as good a place as any to take my afternoon tea." "But, I thought you said you were hungry." He laughed that bottomless laugh that I had missed so much. "Lead the way, my dear, and allow me to educate you on the ways of British afternoon tea." As we walked, he continued, "It all began with a certain duchess. Of Bedford, if I remember correctly …" I allowed myself to relax as he regaled me with a tale of a woman who had just wanted a damn snack with her tea. But, because everything had to be done with pomp and circumstance back then (his words not mine) it became a ritual. He finished by informing me that it's only a proper afternoon tea (again, his words) if it's served between 3:30 and 5:00 p.m. I looked at my watch and said, "But, it's only two." He grinned and replied, "I never said I was a proper British gentleman" and winked. My eyes went wide. Was Henry flirting with me? In my wildest imagination, I hadn't considered that. After our last discussion, I felt he saw me as a recalcitrant child. Our arrival at the restaurant saved me from having to reply. It was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it kind of place since it sat below street level. The only hint of its presence was a free standing chalk board listing the daily specials out on the street. I led Henry down steps that flanked a huge aquarium to the double doors leading to the restaurant. The interior featured gleaming woods with creamy yellow walls and lots of leather. A bar ran the length of one wall and liquor bottles had been artfully arranged to create a mosaic effect. A baby grand piano occupied the far corner. A trim woman with a voice like smoke-infused bourbon sang Diana Krall's "Peel Me a Grape" as she played. The decibel level of the conversation didn't compete with the music despite the heavy afternoon crowd. The hostess, an anorexic twenty-something who wore heels too high for the job, led us to an intimate table near the piano. Henry held my chair as I sat. I couldn't remember anyone ever doing anything like that before and said so. "I'm from a different era, my dear. One where men still valued small chivalries." "You make yourself sound so old." "Age is all about how you feel," was all he said as he settled himself into his own seat, taking a menu. I felt the warmth and weight of his thigh next to my own as our legs wove together under the small table. Neither of us moved away. "Can I take a drink order to get you started?" The hostess looked bored. "What kind of tea do you have?" Henry asked after waiting while I ordered lemonade. She listed out several herbal blends and a green tea. Henry selected the green tea. "I tried to get into drinking tea, but was never able to do it," I said she left. "Why not?" he leaned in as he spoke. "Well, because of my mother, really," I rested my chin in my hand. "I had a conflicted and abusive relationship with her and she drank hot tea every day of her life." I winked, "If I'm pulling an 'arm chair psychologist' that is." I sipped from the water that a bus boy had poured for us and wondered what the hell I was doing. It was like I had no control over my mouth today. "Do you think that's so?" "Oh, I'm sure there's some truth to it," I waved to diminish the impact. "In reality, I think it's because I have great memories of coffee. When I was young, my paternal grandparents would come over for Christmas and my mother would always serve biscotti and coffee. My grandfather demanded it." "Are you Italian?" Henry interjected and I started at his insight. "Yes. Funny, most people don't make that connection." He tapped a finger against his temple and said, "I'm not most people. Besides," he shrugged, "it was reasonable that an Italian would demand biscotti. It's rather random for any other nationality." "True," I played with the napkin as I continued. "I always wanted to be with the adults. It seemed like that's where the real action was, so I'd beg to sit at the table and drink coffee. When I was five or six my mother finally got sick of my whining and gave in." "She gave a five-year-old coffee?" He looked horrified. I smiled and shook my head. "She gave me milk laced with sugar and enough coffee to turn it brown." He grinned and said, "Well, that explains the fru-fru coffee you order at Kona." "I do not! Besides, how do you even know what I order?" I felt some vindication to see him flush. "I've been behind you in line," he said, but didn't look at me, instead he studied the menu. "Do you recommend anything?" I knew a deflection when it came my way, but I let it slide. "They make a great burger here. Any of them are worth it and the sweet potato fries are excellent." "I've never eaten a hamburger," he said it so casually, it almost didn't register. "What?" I exclaimed when his words finally sunk in. "You've never had a burger! How long have you been in the states?" "Five years and no, I've never had a burger." He was smiling. "There are other things one can eat. You know, fish and those green growy things that you American's seem to ignore or drown in sauce. Plus, I detest fast food. Wait, what—" I took his menu from him. "Well, that ends today. You are having your first full-on American hamburger." I stacked our menus so he couldn't see the offerings. "Well, that looks like that," he said, but he was smiling. Our server chose that moment to appear with our drinks. He introduced himself as Brian and ran down the specials. When he finished, I ordered for both of us. "Two Yankees please, medium rare, with all the fixins." I looked at Henry for confirmation. Not everyone likes their burger pink in the middle, but he nodded. "Do you plan to tell me what I'm eating and exactly what 'fixins' are?" he asked when our waiter had gone to input our orders. "'Fixins' are all the extras; Lettuce, tomato, etc. As for the rest, you'll see soon enough. Trust me, you'll enjoy it." "I do," he said. "You do what?" it seemed like I had missed something. "I trust you." Three words I had never heard before. Tears welled behind my eyes and my sinuses immediately clogged. It took everything I had to hold it together. No one trusted me. On the one hand, I got it, but I'd never realized that I cared about it until this moment. "You shouldn't," I said, my voice barely audible to my own ears, as I deliberately handed back the gift he'd just given me. "I lie when it suits me, and I'm not above stepping on someone to get what I need." "I believe that," he said. I must have been gaping because he chuckled. "Close your mouth, Charlotte, you'll drool otherwise." I complied but I remained silent for several moments, unable to do more than stare. He never looked away as hazel eyes met bottomless blue and held. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, his were infinite. I couldn't read his depths, couldn't fathom his purpose, but he never faltered. I looked away first, feeling both humbled and chastened. "I don't understand you," I said, feeling flustered. I reached into my bag and took out the book, sliding it across the table to him. "I thought you'd be angry at me after the way I left things. This is a peace offering." He picked it up, his eyes going wide as he noticed the signature on the inside cover. "How did you know?" I shrugged, "I saw you reading it the first time we met." "You're quite observant," was all he said. I wanted to say that I had to be. That my every interaction is about looking for the cues I need to navigate the human social landscape. That I often feel as if I am deaf, blind, and mute and everyone is speaking a different language. That I memorize details and use them to manufacture common ground. I said none of this. Instead, I reverted to habit to mask my discomfort and flirted, "Well, you're pretty memorable." "Don't do that, Charlotte. Please." His voice was quiet and his manners softened the reprimand, leaving me even more confused. Then, as if I wasn't already floundering like a beached fish, he slid the book back. "I can't accept this." I left the book where it was. "Why not? I don't understand." He didn't respond at first and the sultry strains of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" swirled around us. I let the music soothe me, singing along mentally … “It's a new dawn/It's a new day/It's a new life for me.” "You don't need to buy me off, Charlotte. It's not necessary." I snapped back to Henry who, though he spoke to me, didn't look at me. He sipped his tea and continued. "I liked you immediately. Your take down of that man was wickedly insightful though harsh. It was fascinating." His skin went ruddy then and I realized this wasn't easy for him to say either. "To the best of my knowledge, you've been brutally honest with me. No, you haven't always been polite, but your break up really isn't any of my business and I should have stayed out of it." He picked at his silverware as if he didn't know what to do with his hands. "Besides, I missed talking with you. There were no hard feelings. I'm just glad you came back. So, no olive branches are necessary." I was floored. I had no idea how to respond. I had pulled no punches, been rude, and yes, brutally honest with the man and he said he liked me. My eyes burned and I felt my skin grow tight. I was going to lose it. Just as I was about to hurl myself toward the bathroom, our waiter returned with our food. I bit down hard on my tongue to bring myself under control. Two steaming aromatic plates were set before us. "Can I get you anything else?" We both declined and sent him on his way. The food was a welcome distraction especially as I wasn't at all certain how to respond. "What exactly do you have me eating?" Henry asked, his head cocked as he eyed his plate. Feeling on more certain footing, I said, "That, my British friend, is dry-aged Angus beef with caramelized onions, Havarti cheese, spicy mayonnaise, and, of course, lettuce and tomato. In other words, it's a gourmet cheeseburger. And," I popped a sweet potato fry into my mouth, "It's awesome. You can't ask for a better introduction to the most American of American foods -- the burger." The singer had moved onto Ella Fitzgerald and was belting out a velvety version of "At Last." Something I found apropos as Henry took his first bite. I waited, not touching my own food, cataloging his every reaction. A mix of emotions crossed his face: skepticism, surprise, and, finally, pleasure. I grinned. "Good, huh?" "Good?" He scoffed, "Bollocks. That's wonderful." My grin deepened. I toasted him with a fry before digging into my own food. It was as good as I remembered. A warm little glow spread inside me as I watched Henry eat. Neither of us spoke much. Henry continued to compliment the food and the singer launched into a haunting rendition of "I Fall to Pieces." The lyrics brought me back to my near meltdown earlier. It wasn't my way to be so uncontrolled, so vulnerable. I wasn't sure how to handle it and I damn sure didn't like it. Once again, I was floundering. I didn't know what this was between me and Henry. I usually know immediately what a guy is trying to get from me. Most often it's sex, other times favors, but the negotiation was clear. I set the terms and decided what I was, or was not, going to do. With Henry, I had no clue. I couldn't read him. He rebuffed my artifice and welcomed my honesty regardless of its brutality. I was used to the opposite, to having to play a role and fit a mold. I was out of my element in a big way. Making matters worse, I had no filter with him. I told him things and exposed myself in ways I didn't understand. It frightened me. Life would be easier if he just wanted to screw me. "Care to share?" "Hmm?" I polished off the last of my burger and raised an eyebrow, hoping I hadn't heard him right. "You're either having a mental conversation or you're conducting our singer quite poorly." He gestured to the fry in my hand. Flustered, I dropped it on the plate and took a sip of my lemonade. "Talk to me, Charlotte. I won't judge. I promise." A flash of anger seared me. How many times had I heard that? Lies, every single time. "I was thinking that my life would be easier if you just wanted to fuck me. Instead, I have no idea what to do with you. Therefore, I'm tempted to just go ahead and have sex with you, so I can fit this whole thing into a box I understand." I flung the words, a verbal gauntlet daring him to renege. He flinched and turned a deep shade of pink before breathing out a stunned, "Bloody hell," right as our waiter reappeared. * * * The two minutes it took for our waiter to clear our plates and take our dessert orders seemed endless. When he finally left, the silence stretching between us was almost tangible. Henry, who'd been fidgeting in his seat finally said, "Have people always wanted something from you? Has no one ever just been your friend?" Did he have a lifetime for that response? Rather than launch into a diatribe, I said, "Can you honestly say you don't want to fuck me?" He startled me by leaning over the table so abruptly I felt the displacement of the air. His whisper was harsh, "Bloody hell, Charlotte, can you stop talking about me shagging you. I am male and not dead. Popping a stiffy in a restaurant is not pleasant." I couldn't help myself. I laughed. "I see you find my discomfort amusing," he grumbled as he discretely rearranged himself. "I'm sorry," I had to wipe my eyes, I was laughing so hard. "It's not that. It's just that, here in America, shag is really ugly carpet. That created the most absurd mental image." He didn't smile and I felt suddenly awkward. I was grateful for the arrival of our cheesecake and Irish coffee. I concentrated on the creamy sweetness of the cheesecake as strains of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" filled the space around us. It fit. I felt a little crazy right then. Henry took a deep breath and I steeled myself for what was coming. "Charlotte, look at me, please." I did. His eyes told me nothing. They weren't flat or cold, I just didn't understand what I saw. "Despite the fact that I just proved my biology still works, my purpose is not to have sex with you. For one, I'm too old. It's not a stretch to think if I did the maths that I could easily have been your father." I started to protest. He had silver hair, sure, but he didn't seem old. He was making it out like he was ancient. "Let me finish," he said gently. "The longer you live, the more you realize that sex is one small part of life. You're quite attractive, of course you can get a reaction from me, but I'd rather get to know you. I'd rather find out what your mind is like than what's between your legs." Letting Henry into my brain was more terrifying and intimate than letting him into my body. In the end, I said the only thing that came to my mind because, for whatever reason, Henry was my Kryptonite. "That terrifies me." He smiled his bottomless smile, took my hand in his saying, "I know, but I promise, you're safe with me." "We'll see," I said. This was too good to be true. Even still, I didn't let go. 11. Invasion of the Body Snatchers AS I CLIMBED THE STEPS to my apartment, I was still feeling discombobulated. Lunch with Henry had been a surreal affair and, as I'd sorted through my various responses, I still had no answer for what this was. Was this what friendship meant? Accepting each other as they were and placing no expectations on it? Was I supposed to trust that he meant what he said and just go with it? What clues did one use to calculate the appropriate response under those circumstances? How would I know if I was doing the right thing to keep him in my life? What if I exposed myself to him, went all in, and he used it against me? My mind spun with questions that nothing in my experience provided answers for. As I reached the top step, I saw Gerald coming out of his apartment. Remembering my promise to Lump—, I mean Louis, I called out, "Hey, Gerald. You got a minute?" "Hey, Lady C. What's up?" He smiled and it transformed his face. He was a late bloomer remaining in that awkward stage just before boys came into full manhood. But, when he smiled, the man he would become showed through. "I ran into your brother the other day." His smile faded and I found myself disappointed. I swear it was like invasion of the body snatchers with me lately. Nothing about me was responding in a way that made sense. Maybe I needed an MRI or something. I'd read once that a brain tumor could change your whole personality, and I no longer recognized myself. "He's worried about you," I continued. Gerald shook his head, denying my words, "No, he's not. He just wants to control me." That didn't mesh with my read of Louis's behavior, but, then again, what did I know of their relationship? "Look, clearly, I don't have all the facts, but he seemed pretty worried to me and he just wanted to know that you were alive and kicking." "Thanks, but you just don't understand." Yup. I definitely needed my head examined. Gerald looked so forlorn, I found myself inviting him inside to tell me all about it. He did. In a torrential outpouring, Gerald told me his life story. He talked as I fed Hugo and put on his leash. He talked as we walked to the park where Hugo chased both birds and his tail. He continued to talk even as I rounded up Hugo to start back home. I had never known anyone to have so much to say in such a condensed manner. Even more fascinating was that he held my attention the entire time. I rarely last longer than three minutes when someone is talking. I'm thinking ahead to whatever tasks I have planned. I give the perfunctory "mm-hmms" to make my companion believe I'm listening and tune out. My brain tumor had to be acting up, because I found myself listening, asking questions, and looking for ways help the brothers. "I don't think you're giving him a chance." I said as I deposited a bag of poop into one of the many bins studding the park. Gerald jerked to a stop and I'd made it about ten steps before I realized he was no longer with me. He stood on the pathway gaping at me and looking betrayed. "You'll catch flies like that," I said, trying to lighten the mood. I got nothing, though he did close his mouth. Sighing, I walked back and, taking his arm, pulled him over to a bench. Hugo flopped at our feet. It boggled my mind that being affectionate and letting him run and play had effected such a radical change in our dynamic. I didn't understand it, but I was going with it. "Listen, G," I said being careful not to call him Gerald and—yes, this is a quote—"honor his choice of appellation to define his true self." Cue the eye roll, but hey, it was his thing. "I get that Louis is your brother and not your father, but he's been your de facto parent since you were eight. Hell, he was only eighteen. Now, you're what? Twenty-one?" I waited for him to confirm. He shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged, "Twenty-two." "So, you're still a baby." He scowled at that. I put a hand on his arm in placation. "Listen, at twenty-two you think you know about life, but you haven't got a clue yet. Your brother has been raising you for almost fourteen years. He's supporting you, paying your rent, and, with a job like his, he's probably scared shitless by what can happen to you. I'm sure he's seen a lot of really ugly stuff." He didn't reply right away. We sat in silence, watching the children on the nearby swing set. After a while, he said, "I never thought about it like that." I smiled, "You're twenty-two. But, Louis still needs to back off some and let you find your way. He can't make your decisions for you either." "Exactly!' he exclaimed so loud Hugo leapt to all four paws. "That's what I've been saying. "Yeah," I said, "to me. Have you said any of this to him or have you just shouted at each other and then avoided your brother?" His embarrassed flush was all the answer I needed. "Come on," I patted him on the knee. "Let's go. I'm getting hungry." We left the park and entered the flow of pedestrians. G turned to me and said, "Thanks, Lady C. You're good at this." I just laughed and shook my head. "No, G, I'm not, but I like you. Go figure." He smiled and we said no more as we followed Hugo home at a leisurely pace. Rounding the corner of our shared block, none other than Louis himself was coming our way. It was disconcerting to have the man we'd just spent over an hour discussing appear before us. I was struck by the appropriateness of the euphemism: speak of the devil and the devil appears. "Gerald!" Louis shouted. Now that I knew him a bit, I no longer thought of him as Lumpy. I'm sure there was a lesson in that, but I wasn't there yet. Louis wore a suit which made him look more like an underpaid teacher rather than a cop. He looked worn and tired, but his eyes almost glowed with anger as he bore down on us. Beside me, G stiffened. His entire body lengthened, causing me to wonder if he'd tip backward like the unsupported beanpole he appeared to be mimicking. On the back of that whimsical thought, I realized he was trembling. I couldn't tell if he was afraid or just intimidated, but I didn't care. Louis could be frightening to behold. I should know. I put my body between the men and held up my hand saying, "Hold up there, Detective." Hugo proved just how much of a whore for affection he was by wagging his tail so hard his entire body shook. He even butted his head under Louis's hand once he drew close enough for Hugo to reach him. So much for my guard dog. Louis gave Hugo a scratch which sent the dog flopping down and exposing his belly for more. Looking at me, Louis scowled and said, "So, you do know Gerald." "He'd like you to call him 'G' now," I said before adding, "Besides, I never said I didn't know him." "Well," he ran a meaty hand through his hair. "Either way, this is between Gerald," he made it sound like a sneer, "and me." Behind me, G went from ramrod straight to melting into a puddle. He seemed as boneless as a person with a full skeleton could. A deep burning pain ricocheted around my chest in response to Louis shredding the kid's confidence with a single act of disregard. I knew what it was to be treated as if you were invisible, as if you didn't count. Before I realized my intent, I had my arm looped through G's and squaring my shoulders, said, "I think we'll let G decide. Frankly, you two need a mediator." In that moment, I felt like a spectator in my own body. I didn't get involved in other people's lives. Once you did, they expected things from you. Then you had to be nice and available and responsible. I had made a mistake. I was being foolish. Time to extricate myself from this. Just as I opened my mouth to speak, G placed a trembling hand over mine and said, "Please, Charlotte." It was the use of my given name that did me in. The kid was terrified. Looking at his young, hopeful face, I felt that burning pang again. "Okay, G." Tugging on Hugo's leash, I led the way making a mental note to schedule a doctor's appointment ASAP. * * * Blog Post: I Think I'm Losing My Mind Life Inside the Echo Chamber Well, dear readers, I think I've finally gone over the edge. The last few days have left me feeling like I am trudging through a Dali landscape. My perceptions and reactions are all just skewed enough that I am wondering if I need to have my head examined. No joke. Like, I seriously wonder if I have a brain tumor, because I don't understand what is happening to me. First, I cried like a baby after reading the thoughtful and supportive comments I received on my recent posts. I can only say this because this blog is anonymous. I don't think I could admit it to your faces. Anonymity has given me a strange courage, much like the way I can be completely honest with total strangers, yet am unable to be straight with people close to me. That's been the weirdest thing. Lately, my filter is completely gone. I'm saying exactly what's on my mind and no one is getting pissy or telling me how to act or threatening to leave me because they don't like what I have to say. Before, I get into that. Many of you requested an update on the pit bull. Well, I'm happy to report, his name is Hugo and he now lives with me. I found him at the Rescue League and adopted him. But, I've got to tell you, Readers. It was touch and go there for a while. He wouldn't listen, he was destructive. Generally speaking, he was just too much for me to handle. I'm ashamed to admit, I lost it. I had a full-fledged temper tantrum over the dog and scared him. I've never felt more like a shit than I did right then. I knew none of this was his fault but I wanted to hurt something, someone, anything. Now, before you jump to conclusions I did NOT hurt the dog, but I did throw things around and scare him. Then, I tried to give him back. You see, I'd only wanted him because I was scared of my neighborhood and this one guy I saw hanging around in particular, so I wanted a guard dog. Which, by the way, pit bulls suck as guard dogs. They want to love you too much; so they wag and lick, they don't guard. Anyhoo, I adopted Hugo. He wouldn't listen. Turns out my bad guy is a cop. I have a meltdown and try to give the dog back. But, as luck would have it, the shelter was closed. Enter you, dear readers. Your comments had me so twisted up inside I cried like a baby and Hugo lay down with me and licked my tears. I ended up spooning with the dog! Can you believe it? Well, I couldn't give him back after that and we've made lots of progress now. But, that was just the start of my entrance into Salvador Dali-land. Next, I find myself mediating between my neighbor, the DJ, and his brother, the Cop. You have to understand something. I don't get involved. Period. Remember what I said about disconnection? Living in a glass box? Well, that means that other people's problems are their problems. Not mine. I don't put myself out as a general rule. This kid, though, the DJ, he came knocking on my door during my meltdown … just to check on me and see if I was okay. I mean, who does that? He didn't know me from a can of paint. Turns out that he and his brother needed some help seeing eye-to-eye and I volunteered to help them sort it out. I'm pretty happy about my results, too. The Cop is going to let the DJ try his hand at a music career (it was a typical brother-cum-dad situation because the parents died when the DJ was young and the Cop raised him.). So, the Cop needed some help letting go and the DJ needed some help asserting himself. Enter me, the least experienced person in the world to try and negotiate an accord. *shaking my head* But, the thing that's really freaking me out is sex. Geez, Louise, people, get your mind out of the gutter … I'm not having sex. I almost did, but I didn't and you see, that's where this is really weird for me. Sex is my go-to drug of choice when I need a quick shot of validation or self-medication. It's an escape through the endorphic release an orgasm brings. If I'm being completely truthful, the pursuit of the ultimate orgasm has become my holy grail. Deep inside, I think that a man who can satisfy me sexually is the one man to solve all my problems. Despite how willing I am to use sex as a manipulation, I have to admit that the only time the clawing emptiness I live with recedes is when I am floating in the glow of aftermath. Yet, each time it returns with a vengeance later, causing me to seek out sex again. And, after a break up, I always find a willing mark to feed my ego and my craving for the high. I tried to do this the other night. Yet, I couldn't go through with it. As he touched and fondled me, I had this moment of clarity. I saw that using men the way I had only made me feel worse; the void in my soul only grew. It became apparent that there is not an orgasm pleasurable enough to fill the hole that exists in my psyche, the empty place in my heart, or the need in my soul. I told him no and it ended amicably. Crazily, I think I made a friend. He was going through his own stuff and thanked me for not letting him do something stupid! Combine that with a man I've met who appears to accept me unconditionally and swears he's not trying to screw me! I have no idea what to do with him. I even told him so. I also told him it would be easier for me to just go ahead and screw him so that I could understand what was going on in my life. His answer was to assure me that he was more interested in my brain. That terrified me more than the idea of screwing him. I don't know if I can let someone into my head. Let them see the real me, unfiltered. Most of my honesty with him has been aggressive, almost like daring him to retaliate. He scares me. This whole situation is freaking me out. I feel like I don't know myself anymore, dear reader. I actually made an appointment with the doctor to see what's going on with me. I'll let you know how it goes. Part III Risky Behavior Psychopaths are born with temperamental differences such as impulsiveness, cortical under-arousal, and fearlessness that lead them to risk-seeking behavior and an inability to internalize social norms. On the other hand, sociopaths have relatively normal temperaments; their personality disorder being more an effect of negative sociological factors like parental neglect, delinquent peers, poverty, and extremely low or extremely high intelligence. Psychopath vs. Sociopath, 1. Freudian Slips Blog Post: Playing With Words Life Inside the Echo Chamber I have a quirk about language. I often ponder the definitions of words and the ways in which American society twists the original meanings. For instance, we use "cool" to describe things that are popular, instead of less than cold, but not warm. Another good example is the way we use guilt and remorse interchangeably, and yet they have different meanings. The point to all this, dear reader, is that recent events have had me pondering the nature of satisfaction over gratification. When you investigate below the surface, they are different. According to the dictionary, satisfaction is actually "fulfillment of one's wishes, expectations, or needs, or the pleasure derived from this." Gratification, on the other hand, is defined as "pleasure, especially when gained from the satisfaction of a desire." So, satisfaction comes when you go beyond the simple desire and fulfill an expectation or need. Gratification is the mere servicing of a desire. I know, I know, get to the point already! I see now that I've spent my life in pursuit of gratification. The fleeting pleasure associated with new conquests, new purchases, etc. Hell, buying a pair of Jimmy Choos ranked the same as entering a new relationship. They were all there to make me feel good. But, recently, I helped my neighbor, the DJ, and his brother, the Cop, come to an agreement on allowing the DJ to try his hand at a music career. This was out of character for me. I stay out of things like this, but I like the DJ. He's a good kid and I wanted to help. The thing that got me thinking along these lines is that afterward, I had this warm, floaty feeling for days! It was satisfying to help, dare I say it, a friend. It was nothing like my other pursuits in which the feeling fades as soon as the "new" is gone. The pursuit of gratification is a lot like being a locust. You identify a target, consume it, and move on to find another. There is a constant emptiness driving the gratuitous consumption for no other reason than to experience fleeting pleasure. What I am saying, dear readers, is that I got a taste of what true satisfaction feels like and I must say, there is no competition. * * * "The doctor will see you now," said the tall, gazelle-like woman who could have walked any runway across the world. Why she was working as a secretary at a psychologist's office was beyond me. But, then, my presence at Dr. Scribens office meant I was not in my right mind. I followed the woman down a short hall, admiring the way her pants and blouse draped on her body. I was much curvier and some things just didn't work for me. I'd always wanted to wear clothes out of the classic styles of the 1940s. Like Katherine Hepburn in A Philadelphia Story. Elegant dress pants accentuating long, lean legs. Blouses that made you look fit and classy. But, at five feet and pear shaped, I just couldn't pull it off. The secretary waved me into a peaceful, cozy room decorated more like a sitting room than a shrink's office. Dr. Scribens must do his administrative work somewhere else. The decor was artfully androgynous with a blue herringbone couch fronted by a low-slung coffee table in white enamel. On top of the coffee table was a box of tissues (that was a no brainer) and a set of pale green pillar candles at various heights that emitted a faint citrus scent. The soot balls polka dotting the wax spoke to numerous burnings. On the other side of the coffee table were two white club chairs that could have come from a decorator’s showroom. I almost claimed one of the chairs, but the amorphous artwork that adorned the wall over the sofa looked too much like a Rorschach drawing for my taste. I was uncomfortable enough just being here, I didn't need a persistent reminder that I was losing my mind. Instead, I sat on the sofa and admired the view. Dr. Scribens’s office was located on the 20th floor of a ritzy high-rise on K Street (the elevator had been pristine). It was early evening and in the dusky twilight, I could see the lights of Crystal City just across the Potomac River. While I waited, I took stock of the rest of the room. The walls were covered in a shade of pewter that furthered the relaxed, comfortable vibe. The rest of the art, while equally abstract, was not so overtly psychiatric in nature. As I set my purse on the cushion next to me, the door opened and I got my first look at the man who was going to explain my erratic behavior to me. He was tall with the build of someone who had likely played competitive sports at one point and tried to keep fit. His skin was the color of espresso and his eyes, which locked with mine as he smiled, introduced himself, and shook my hand, were the deep amber of artisan root beer. Like many men confronted by hair loss, he shaved his head, but he more than made up for the lack of hair on his head with a trimmed beard and mustache. In contrast to the exquisite elegance of his office and secretary, Dr. Scribens wore jeans, lace-up loafers, and a cotton button down shirt. Somehow, he still managed to exude class. I felt almost frumpy in my silk sheath and jeans. In my defense, what the hell do you wear to see a shrink? I mean, it's not a normal doctor where you wear whatever is comfortable because you're going to have to get naked. It's not a business meeting where you dress professionally, so I'd gone for something in between. He sat in one of the club chairs, his face curious and open as he set a steno pad on his crossed legs and pulled out a fountain pen. Points for the doc on the pen. Fountain pens were the Rolls Royce of writing implements in my opinion. "So, Charlotte," his voice was rich, like chocolate, "I understand you've been referred by your GP. Can you tell me what brings you in my door?" For no reason I could explain, the instant I opened my mouth to speak, my heart started racing and my hands went liquid. I felt droplets of perspiration run down my ribs and soak into my bra. This made no sense whatsoever. This man was literally paid not to judge me. Taking a deep breath, I surreptitiously wiped my hands on my jeans and said, "Sure thing. Well, basically, I haven't been acting like myself recently. I mean … what I'm trying to say …" "Charlotte, there's no rush," he interrupted my stammering, "take your time." I blinked and mentally counted to ten, I'd willfully brought myself in here, so floundering like a beached fish was just stupid. "Long story short, doc, I've been behaving in ways that are really out of character for me. I was concerned I might have a brain tumor, so I went to see Dr. Krichmar. He just referred me to a neurologist, but after a bunch of tests and an M.R.I. I've been certified free of any neurological issues. Hence, I'm now sitting here." As I talked, Dr. Scribens was making the appropriate prompting noises and taking copious notes. With no concrete signal from him on whether to stop, I opted to continue. "My doctor suggested that since I wasn't feeling better or returning to my usual patterns that maybe it was psychological in nature." I shrugged and looked at my hands, "He suggested I might be depressed." Dr. Scribens stopped writing and raised an eyebrow, the impact of his full attention was almost physical. I could see why he was so highly recommended. He made you feel as if he took you seriously. "Can you elaborate on that?" I shrugged, "Okay." I told him about Adam's desertion, about being forced to leave the condo I loved. I told him about the blog post and my melt down. I told him about mediating for Louis and G and how proud I was that G now had two years to prove he could make it in music. I even told him how I was continuing to freak out over Henry. He listened intently, asked a few probing questions which had me sharing even more personal details, and then he asked, "So, Charlotte, what do you hope to get out of therapy?" I had prepared for this question. I'd done research on what to expect from a visit to a shrink and universally all the websites said some form of this question would be asked. I opened my mouth to give my carefully scripted answer of "I'd like to uncover and resolve any barriers I have to being my best self." But, instead of the answer I'd spent the entire train ride devising, I said, "I have no idea," and burst into tears. Damn. * * * Session Notes (Excerpt) Ms. Wolfe is a middle-aged woman referred to therapy by her general practitioner for possible depression. As a part of the normal intake interview, Ms. Wolfe was asked to why she decided to seek psychological services. Ms. Wolfe indicated that recent behavior was "out of character" and that she no longer felt as if she recognized herself. The experiences Ms. Wolfe described that lead to her to seek psychological consultation appear normal for a functioning, empathic individual. When asked what Ms. Wolfe sought to gain from therapy, the client wept and stated she "had no idea." Subsequent to calming the client, I administered several personality tests and checklists in order to establish a baseline personality profile of Ms. Wolfe given her statements that normal, empathic behavior was out of character for her. Across multiple self-report inventories tapping both normal-range and pathological personality characteristics, Ms. Wolfe scored beyond the 90th percentile of the community normative data. As such, her presentation could be considered that of a prototypical antisocial or psychopathic personality disorder. The PCL:SV assessment specifically converges with this description, particularly in regards to the patient indicating her normal behavior tends toward a pronounced lack of empathy, attention seeking behavior, and a ruthless and calculating attitude toward social and interpersonal relationships. It should be noted that at no time did Ms. Wolfe view herself as inherently "troubled" or "disordered". Ms. Wolfe conceded to feeling "different" from her peers, but was generally accepting of these differences as "just the way [she is]." Of course, this attitude is entirely representative of a socio- or psychopath. Marcel Scribens, Ph.D. * * * Later that evening, after going home to clean up and change, I found myself sharing a table with Louis at The 9:30 Club as G worked the crowd. He'd made us promise to come see him play a set, so he could show Louis he was committed. He was good. G mixed contemporary hip-hop with old school funk and soul. He even managed to mix in some Go-Go, a Caribbean infused music unique to the District. At the precise moment that Rare Essence was telling the crowd to put their Gucci watch on and rock, I knew the kid was going places. First, he had me ready to drag Louis onto the dance floor. I didn't dance in public, but G had me bopping in my seat and the crowd going crazy. The crowd never stopped. They gyrated, twirled, and slid their bodies against one another continuously. It was as if the music enthralled them and G was their hypnotist. Even Louis had to admit, albeit grudgingly, the kid was good. I'd expected to do the polite thing. Show my face, listen to a couple songs, and then make my excuses. Instead, I stayed through the end of his first set. As the last strains of "Not Afraid" by Eminem—something I think may have been a bit pointed at Louis—faded, G doffed his headset and came over to the table. Flipping a chair around, he straddled it and said, "Well? What did you guys think?" The tension was obvious even under his thick sweatshirt. His shoulders were hunched and his knuckles gripping the back of the chair were white. I waited for Louis to speak, but he said nothing, just continued to sip the beer he ordered. Unable to watch G squirm any longer, I said, "I was impressed. You kept the crowd moving. But, I gotta ask, what made you play Rare Essence?" His entire face lit up as he recounted coming across a street artist who was banging out go-go beats on a shopping cart in front of a subway station, a common enough occurrence in D.C. "I must have spent an hour just talking with him. He told me about Junkyard, Essence, even Chuck Brown. So, I did some research and managed to get my hands on their stuff." He was grinning and speaking with broad gestures as the passionate are wont to do. "I'm more surprised that you know about go-go, Lady C," he said with an impish look. I laughed and felt carefree in a way I hadn't in years. "Well, I'm surprising even myself these days, G." Checking my watch, I saw it was time to go. Hugo was waiting on me and I was tired after the emotions of my psych visit. Louis stood when I did. I made my goodbyes to G and was gratified to hear Louis say, "Make me proud, kid," before clapping him on the shoulder. G practically floated back to the turntables. A weird sense of achievement pooled in my limbs. It was the first time in my life I could remember being a part of a happy ending that didn’t directly benefit me in some way. It was new and different. Like trying food from a foreign culture that tastes good, but the spices and flavors are so different it almost makes you reject it because it's so outside of your experience. Rather than push it away, I willfully let it soak in, rolling the flavor of satisfaction around, tasting its depths and decided I liked it very much. Louis walked me out and waited with me for a cab. The moment he drew breath to speak, intuition told me what was coming. I had a decision to make. As things stood, I'd been alone for a couple months now. Henry remained an enigma I couldn't wrap my head around in that I still hadn't figured out what motivated him in his dealings with me. But, for the first time ever, I didn't feel panic at my single state. This mental debate raced through my brain even as my intuition proved true. "Charlotte," Louis face me, two spots of color dotting his cheeks the only indication he was nervous. "Would you let me take you out some time?" And there it was. The rush that always accompanied a man's declaration of attraction swamped me, exciting me in a near sexual fashion. My breath caught as the possibilities filled my mind of how to extract and exploit this base male compulsion. Louis was just odd looking enough that he'd likely be very accommodating. I could suck him dry like a filterless cigarette. I tingled with anticipation and then I remembered G. His earnest gallantry. His beanpole awkwardness. The tingle died as quickly as a fourth of July sparkler doused in water. Now what? Rather than analyze it further, I turned off my brain and spoke impulsively, "Louis, I just got out of a relationship where I was really awful to the man for years. If I went out with you, I'd only be using you. So, I have to decline." His eyes roamed my face for a long time before he asked, "Are you even attracted to me?" I shook my head, but said, "I've never really been attracted to anyone. Only what they could do for me." His eyebrows shot up, "Wow! I've never had anyone be that honest." I shrugged, "I've spent a lot of years lying, but I like your brother and you seem nice. I'd rather not lie to you." A cab came down the street and Louis hailed it. He opened the door as it pulled in next to us, letting me slide into the back seat. Leaning in, he smiled and me and said, "Thank you, Charlotte. I appreciate your candor." We'll see, I thought, but said nothing, just nodded and smiled. He closed the door. I gave the driver my destination and watched the city pass by in a blur. I'd noticed a trend. My honesty meant I remained alone. 2. Getting an Unreal Life I LET MYSELF INTO MY apartment and, after taking care of Hugo, settled onto my loveseat and fired up my laptop. I felt keyed up and tense, almost brittle. Like sitting still or allowing my mind to wander was too much. Instead, I logged into my blog to check for comments on my recent posts. I'd finally been able to invoice Haldane for deliverables and received a nice chunk of change to get me through. I'd prepaid six months of rent and Internet service. Without Adam's salary to fall back on, I needed income and I couldn't do everything bouncing between Kona and the library. In-house Internet allowed me to source new projects and even do some tech writing. I wasn't sitting pretty, but at least some of the pressure had eased up. I also enjoyed having the opportunity to interact with my blog in private. It was something I'd never told anyone in my life about, not even Adam. If pressed for an answer, I'm not sure I could tell you why. I just wanted a place to put my thoughts down with complete privacy. Ironic, I know, considering the fact that it was a public site. I was anonymous though. I could say whatever I thought without fearing the repercussions to my person or business. As someone for whom each day is about molding myself and my behavior to conform to social norms, it was a form of freedom. When online, I wasn't cruel and I never trolled, but it was like having a steam release valve on the anger that hovers just under my skin. Rather than biting the hand that fed me, I converted those inappropriate thoughts and feelings into bytes and purged them from my system. I'd had very few followers and that suited me just fine. However, since my post about feeling like an outsider, I'd begun to attract more and more accepting, and strangely loving people. I was even developing friendships. It was as if the veil of anonymity allowed me to be something I'd never been—open and compassionate. Previously, my writing had always been sporadic. It was now a necessity. I rarely wrote in my journal and now blogged my innermost thoughts and feelings. And, in so doing, found likeminded souls I connected with. I knew more about the lives and mental inner workings of several of my blog followers than I did about people I'd known for decades. More than even some family members. Shaking off a feeling of disreality, I settled myself cross-legged with my laptop in my lap and patted the cushion next to me. Hugo heaved himself up from his bed with a huge doggy yawn and padded over. He leapt onto the couch and settled in next to me, his large, block head resting on my thigh. He and I had reached a form of equilibrium. It was as if by respecting him, I'd earned his respect. Though, I have to admit, that he went to his bed with no argument now made me want to scream when I thought about how hard he fought me. The irony was that it was now me calling him into the bed nightly or onto the couch as I'd just done. We were bonding in a way that I hadn't experienced since Corky and wasn't comfortable with. The idea of losing Hugo alternately filled me with pained fear or made me want to return him to the shelter to control when those feelings occurred. As a way of channeling my growing attachment and managing my fear of losing him, I'd become obsessive about his grooming and diet. He even had a regular exercise regimen. If I was going to live every day fearful that something would happen to him, I would use every tool at my disposal to keep him healthy and whole. In fact, I was getting him health insurance the moment I could. How crazy that my dog would have health insurance when I had to get Medicaid because I couldn't afford the same for myself? That would make a great blog post. Giving Hugo a big kiss on top of that anvil he called a head, I began to read the new comments. Several were from my regular visitors and I saved those for last to give them the attention they deserved. The rest were from first timers and I thanked them all for commenting and responded if warranted. With the niceties out of the way, I contemplated a response from DontTieMeUp. I'd figured out she was about my age, a single mom, and in an open relationship with a man she was in love with, but who made it clear he had no intention of settling down with her. I found a strange kinship with her having been on the other side of the situation. I was something of a sounding board for her because I understood what it was to be wholly unavailable emotionally. TellingIt - I don't even know where to begin. It was like you stepped into my brain and poured my soul out on your screen. The only time in my life that I feel valued is when a man is inside me. It is as if the thrust of his sex and the hot brand of his ejaculate fills in the cracks in my psyche. I spend my life in pursuit of the feeling of completion a man gives me. And, yet, as soon as that man leaves, the void grows. I scratched Hugo's ear, eliciting a contented sigh as I contemplated my response. As it so often did when I interacted with the visitors to my blog, it felt as if we vibrated in perfectly-tuned pitch. I understood exactly what she was trying to say. I too spent my life in the vain pursuit of external validation. TieMeUp - There is nothing I can say other than I understand where you are at. For me, I am fighting each day to learn to live in my own skin without a male mirror by which to judge myself. It's not easy. I rarely like what I see in the reflection of my own, unfiltered glass. But, I am learning to take solace in knowing whatever I see is real. Have you ever thought about stopping for a while and seeing what happened? It's not easy, but satisfaction, I've recently found, is much more lasting than gratification. I tend to be wary when I respond to comments because I am stumbling my way through this myself. I was also more than a little freaked out by the love and acceptance I found online. It was something I didn't even realized I needed and now it was like a lifeline. I found myself trying to sabotage it in my own way. I was writing more and more brutally intimate pieces to see where the lines were. I wanted to see how honest I could be before they rejected me. It had grown to the point where my blog was more confessional than I'd ever intended. So far, they'd only embraced me. For the first time in my life, I felt a part of something and had begun to fear losing it. I even contemplated deleting the blog and shoring up the cracks that were snaking through the glass that had always surrounded me. My interactions were bittersweet. For each moment of acceptance, I also felt their pain and took it into myself and I had no idea how to deal with those moments. I'd cried into Hugo's neck after reading many of their stories. We were the invisible, disenfranchised souls of humanity. The people who sublimated our pain and poured it back out either by destroying ourselves or those around us. Babe, I am so happy to hear about Hugo. I've spent my life with dogs and know how healing they can be. Given your past, I can understand how hard it must be to let him in, but if you accept his love, you'll find it's the easiest thing in the world to love him in return. This was from JustASmallTownGirl. I was closest to her. She seemed to see between the lines of my prose to all the things I left unsaid. She'd become my best friend—if it were possible to be best friends with someone you'd never met and had no idea what they looked like. We had transitioned to chatting and emailing with one another off blog and connected almost daily. As a result, she didn't always comment on my posts. It had made seeing her handle on the blog almost like getting an early birthday present. J.A.S - Thanks for that. He happens to be sprawled next to me snoring as I respond. I daresay he's definitely burrowed into my heart. BTW, check your email. Reaching for my phone, I snapped a photo of the snoring Hugo and emailed it to her before pressing submit on the response. Which brought me to my last regular; a man who went by AloneTogether. He and I had begun exchanging comments when, after reading a post about the treatment he received from his wife, I'd been shocked to see so many parallels between me and her. It had not been a pleasant feeling, but safe in the comfort of my anonymity, I'd found myself being very honest with him and giving him a peek into what his wife might be thinking. He had come back to me in email rather than on blog and we'd begun a very pleasant correspondence as he struggled with the idea of divorcing his wife. TellingIt - as a guy, I can't say I truly relate to "using a hole to fill another", but I can say that guys do something very similar. I think men who are womanizers are mowing down women in an attempt to deal with something emotional. But, then again, aren't they then using a hole to fill one of their own? I've always been the nice guy, but I can tell you a confident woman is the sexiest thing on earth. And, like a classic car (forgive my analogy, but I'm still male) extra mileage is not a good thing for the car's health. He had a point. I hadn't considered the male side of things when I posted. I told him so. With my comments taken care of, I roused a reluctant Hugo to move to the bed. I snuggled myself around him and fell into a peaceful sleep. 3. Rainbows and Tabby Cats I WOKE TO RAINBOW MAIL from Henry. He'd been busy lately and we didn't always see each other at Kona, but had begun to email often. It had begun innocuously enough. Henry asked for my business card saying he had a client looking for some design services and could he pass along my info? I said sure and gave him my card, not expecting anything to come of it. But, a week later, I'd received a Request for Information from Henry's client and an email from Henry. I opened the email expecting it to be nothing more than a notification about his client or some such. Instead, he'd sent me a link to an article about a coffee shop that was refusing to allow patrons to work in the shop. He signed off with the quip, "How would I be able to thwart your entrenched biases regarding British wardrobe if Kona ever did this?" I couldn't contain my smile as I responded: I think you do it to mess with my head. I'm betting you have at least one piece of tweed in your closet. Besides, you never work at Kona, the only one affected would be me. My email client changed the color to blue. He had responded, embedding his response into mine, saying in bright purple text: I'd take you up on that bet. Who doesn't love a sure winner? And It's effected, my dear. Affected is to influence and effected is a result. Grammar Girl has a lovely explanation online. Of course, I had to respond after that bit of grammar Nazism, changing my text to bright orange. The email became a ribbon of color flowing through the spectrum. When he replied—with clear intent to get the last word—his text was red. Rainbow mail was born. All our exchanges were now multi-colored and a mix of prosaic sparring and good natured one-upmanship. It was clear that he enjoyed flexing his vocabulary. It was a rare email that didn't cause me to look up at least one word. For my part, I enjoyed using American idioms and street slang that confounded him. I might have become a frequent flier at but he was becoming acquainted with the Urban Dictionary. His last email (in putrid orange) about my neighborhood had forced me to look up "parlous" only to learn it meant "full of danger or uncertainty." Color me surprised—pun, definitely intended—when my first response (in kelly green) was to defend my neighborhood. Putting my laptop aside, I looked out the window. The streets were full. The businesses were open. Single women jogged alone and moms pushed strollers. Talk about judging a book by its cover. Aside from the size of my studio and the lack of spit polish on the buildings in my particular corner of D.C., it wasn't bad. I'd even socialized with my neighbors. Both G and I had become acquainted with Rosa Hernandez, who lived in the ground floor unit right by the door. The meeting had been accidental. The scruffy tabby cat she shared her home with had escaped just as G and I walked in trailed by Hugo. The cat had jerked to a stop only to skid before leaping to his feet and puffing himself up porcupine style. There had been a moment of standoff when I wasn't quite sure what Hugo was going to do. I was just about to tell G to get the cat when two things happened simultaneously: First, Hugo pawed at the cat. I think he wasn't sure what it was, but with the canine lack of mobility, it came off more like an awkward attempt at petting cum shoving. The cat tipped over with a dumbfounded look on his face. Second, Rosa flung open her door hollering in Spanish. I made out something along the lines of madre de dios before she tried to pick up the cat who scrambled away only to end up standing on Hugo's back! Hugo remained still, shifting his gaze between me and the verbose Mrs. Hernandez as if to say, "Can one of you help a canine out?" Rosa gripped the lapels of the scarlet robe she wore. She seemed refined with an ageless face, long cascading curls shot through with grey, and a softly rounded shape. Her feet were bare and, were it not for her alarmed Spanish, she would have looked quite cozy and motherish. "Ma'am, just a moment!" I raised my voice trying to get her to stop talking. To G I said, "Can you get the cat?" He widened his eyes and shook his head saying, "Cats give me the creeps." "Seriously?" I didn't need more complications here. He just shrugged. I dropped the leash and reached for the cat only to notice as I lifted him that his claws were out and latched into Hugo. I was going to need help. "Ma'am, can you get your cat to release my dog?" She stood transfixed, staring at Hugo. "Ma'am?" I tried again. As if snapping back, she said, "¿Que?" At this point, I as standing in our foyer holding a cat that was growing heavier while physically attached to my dog. As grateful as I was for the famed pit bull stoicism, I was no Pit and my patience was disintegrating. "G," I said, "Do you speak Spanish?" "Nope," he shook his head, trying and failing to hide the mirth in his face at my predicament. "I speak English," she said in a soft, tremble. "Thank God," I said and meant it. "You need to get your cat's claws out of my dog's back." Her chocolate eyes flew to mine. "But, your dog. That's a fighter. He'll hurt me." I sighed heavily. God save me from the propaganda surrounding pit bulls. I didn't have time to debunk her, my arms were burning. "G," I said, "show her the trick." To her, I said, "I promise my dog won't hurt you." G knelt in front of Hugo and said, "Hugo, bite me." I barely contained my laughter when Hugo looked up at me as if to say, "Really? You want me to do tricks now?" G repeated the command and I heard her gasp as Hugo opened his jaws wide and G put his fist inside his mouth. They stayed that way for several seconds. Hugo never closed his jaws until G removed his fist. "See," I said, "he won’t hurt you." She hesitated until I said, "Ma'am, I'm about to drop your cat." With a last, nervous glance at Hugo, she rushed in and gripped the cat's paws pressing on its toes to get the claws to retract. As the last one released, I shoved the cat at her. She grabbed him and leaped into her apartment, slamming the door behind her. G and I looked at each other before we began laughing at the sheer absurdity of the situation. He followed me back to my apartment where I'd promised him cannoli from Viareggios, the local Italian bakery. Just as I pulled the box from the refrigerator, there was a knock on my door. I opened it to see the cat woman. She'd discarded the robe in favor of jeans, a blouse, and bright red boots. Her hair had been secured in a loose knot. She held a plate covered in foil from which emanated the most savory of scents. My mouth watered. "Hi?" I said unsure what brought her to my door. She smiled and replied, "I wanted to both thank you and apologize." Her accent while noticeable, only served to layer her English with an exoticism that made you want to stop and listen. She could have made the dictionary sound exhilarating. I waved her into the apartment, noting how her eyes sought out and locked on Hugo who laid at G's feet. The dog was never far from food. She handed me the plate. "Homemade tamales," she said. "I'm Rosa Hernandez. Señor and I—the cat," she added at our confused looks. "We just moved in. He belongs to Graciela, my daughter, but he's not used to city life. He likes to roam." "Would you like to join us?" I asked indicating the free seat at the dinette. Courtesy of my as yet undiagnosed brain tumor, I was feeling charitable. She shook her head and her café au lait skin paled. "El perro," she said before switching to English. "Your dog scares me." "All dogs or just him?" I'd become quite the evangelist when it came to debunking pit bull bias. "Big dogs," she said and had the grace to look apologetic. "Hugo's just a big baby," G said before biting into a tamale. I swear the boy ate enough to feed a small city. "Oh. My. God. Lady C, you have to try these." He scarfed down the rest in a few bites. Rosa puffed up at the compliment. "Will you meet him?" I pressed on. "If he was going to hurt anything, I think that would have happened when your cat treated him like a pin cushion." She grimaced, but said, "Okay." I called Hugo over and had to place a steadying hand on her arm when she trembled. "Just be still and let him sniff you. When you're ready, kneel and let him sniff your hand." As Hugo snuffled around her ankles and, as all dogs are wont to do, shoved his face in her crotch. To her credit, she didn't react. When he did nothing more than sniff she began to relax. When he bumped her hand with his head, a clear indication he wanted her to pet him, she even managed a laugh. After a few false starts, she knelt and let him sniff her hand before scratching him between the ears. An hour later, Hugo lay sprawled across her feet while we finished her tamales, my cannoli, and the coffee I brewed for us. Ever since, Rosa had become the unofficial den mother to both G and I. Our fourth neighbor, who lived all the way at the top of the stairs, was an enigma. He or she was never seen or heard. So, no one was more surprised than me at the territorial nature of my feelings as I responded to Henry. I clicked send and it hit me, I no longer thought of this place as The Closet. It was home. At that thought, a feeling of calm washed through me. I'd always felt restless no matter where I was. Even in my old condo, I had to get out of the house. Now, rather than leaving to escape, I left to see people. I felt no impetus to escape, no claustrophobic sense of the walls closing in around me. I'd come to love my home. It was unique and personal to me. And, for the first time in my life, I was no longer alone. * * * Later, after dressing and downing a bagel with cream cheese, I got Hugo ready for his walk. We'd just started down the steps when the door was flung open. G came charging in. I jumped in panic wondering if someone was chasing him, then I saw his grin. Before I could get a word out, he swooped me up into a bear hug, spinning me around. Hugo was jumping and knocking us both sideways in his confusion at G's uncharacteristic exuberance, but G just kept bouncing us and whooping. Rosa stepped into the hall to see what all the commotion was about. "G! Put me down!" I was breathless from him squeezing me, but I was laughing. His joy was infectious. "I got it, Lady C!" he leapt and like an NBA player going in for a basket, tapped the Exit sign hanging from the ceiling. "I got it!" he fist-pumped the air on his landing. "Got what, mijo?" Rosa said through laughter as G treated her to a bear hug of her own. She was barefoot and covered in an apron. The aroma's wafting from her open door were testament to her domestic capabilities. G grinned and said, "You're looking at the new DJ for Club CC which just opened in Georgetown." He bowed as he finished and both Rosa and I clapped and offered our congratulations. "You made it possible, Charlotte." He hugged me again and dropped a chaste kiss on my cheek. I flushed as unexpected pride swirled in my chest. Something painful, like a cramp, locked around my heart and tears burned in my eyes. He'd done it. Hugo spared me from the need to say anything by nudging G for some attention. Laughing, G dropped down and began scratching Hugo around the ears as he continued. "The owner was at The 9:30 Club the night I did my set. He liked that I was so diverse and tracked down my contact info. I just left a meeting with him." He met my gaze. His eyes were damp. "If you hadn't convinced Lou to back off about school, I wouldn't have been able to say yes. I owe you." Normally, I collected IOUs the way some people collect stamps. The only thing more powerful than information is someone indebted to you. Yet, I felt none of my usual pulls. I even surprised myself by saying, "Nope, we're square. I was happy to do it." Most shocking of all? It was true. Good thing I had another appointment with Dr. Scribens that week. "Come on you two," Rosa gestured for us to follow her. "This calls for a celebration and I was just putting the finishing touches on some rice pudding. I even have something special for Hugo." We followed her without question. No one turned down Rosa's food. * * * Two hours later, I was still smiling as I walked to Kona. My belly was full. She'd insisted on feeding us some delectable empanadas and aqua fresca. Rosa had described it as a light fruit drink she'd made with watermelon. I couldn't get over how different my life had become. In just a few short months, I'd gone from being an outsider in my own life, to having friends, and a dog to whom I had grown attached. It wasn't that I'd had a personality transplant or anything. The usual opportunistic soundtrack was still there. But it was as if the fact that I was knocked so far out of my comfort zone when Adam left had also dissolved my filters. As a result, there wasn't a single person in my life now that I'd had to lie to in order to get something from them. I was just being me and they accepted me. The depth of emotion that punched into me at that realization almost brought me to tears. Thankfully, I'd reached my destination. So as not to embarrass myself, I ducked into the bathroom and spent a few minutes pulling myself together. All these emotional shocks were so draining. I almost longed for my former solitude just so I would know what to expect. Even as the thought formed, I knew it wasn't true. I may still be alone, but I was no longer lonely. I splashed water on my face, touched up my makeup, and took some deep breaths. Henry was too perceptive and these feeling were too new. I wanted to let them germinate and grow more comfortable to bear before discussing them. I halted mid-stride at that thought. Was I seriously considering proactively discussing my emotions with Henry? What in the world was happening to me? When had I come to trust him so much? What did I know about him? How could I be certain he wasn't just storing up information like I'd always done and was merely waiting for the right moment to pounce? Paranoia clawed at me, making my stomach roil and perspiration bloom across my flesh. I had to calm down. Locking myself into a stall, I tried to clear my mind and just breathe. My mind didn't clear. Instead, a series of memories flashed through my brain. Henry calling me out for lying. Henry being blunt about Adam, telling me sex was not his goal, keeping his word again and again and again. My lungs unlocked and my shoulders relaxed. The truth: it had always been easier for me to assume the worst than to trust. For the first time in my life, I was going to let the evidence speak for itself. I was going to trust Henry. 4. Evidence Schmevidence I LEFT THE BATHROOM AND got in line. The familiar hiss of the espresso machines and the rattle of plates and silverware was balming to my stretched nerves. I ordered an affogato knowing the espresso over vanilla gelato would give me exactly the boost I was looking for. Moving over to the pickup bar as I waited, I scanned the café. It was packed now that the universities were back in session. A group of students occupied my favorite table. They were studying much more than the textbooks littering the table top. Leaving them to their business, I continued surveying the crowd, wondering if I'd missed Henry. I saw no sign of him. All lightness fled and my chest grew tight. I missed seeing him. Email was cool, but it was nothing like talking with him face-to-face. "Affogato!" I jumped as the barista hollered out my order for pick up. Shoving some bills in the tip jar, I turned for one more look at the crowd. Sectioning off the café in a grid, I scanned every quarter scrutinizing each face. I'd have made a marine proud. In the far corner, partially obscured by a large wooden pillar sat Henry. I grinned and began navigating the crowd. He wore a Suzanne Vega concert T-shirt with jeans. I think I'll buy him a tweed jacket just to mess with him. My grin dissolved as I neared, stopping midway. Henry was engaged in conversation with a young woman that was pretty in a geek-girl-meets-exotic kind of way. She was ethnically vague with almond eyes, glossy raven hair shot through with bright blue locks. She wore cat style glasses and a baggy t-shirt adorned by a diagram of some molecule that did nothing to hide her voluptuous shape. They leaned in towards each other, their heads close. They were looking at something on the table between them. She spoke and Henry laughed. At the sound of his laughter directed at someone else, my brain short circuited. Jealousy jack-knifed through me. I wanted to leap across that table and cover her ears so she couldn't hear those notes I felt so possessive of. As stupid as it was, I'd always thought that particular laugh, so joyous and light, was just for me. To hear it shared with another woman felt like getting kicked in the stomach. All my ingrained habits flared. Thoughts of barbed words and malicious comments crawled from the tar pit in my brain to which they had receded. I didn't want this painful feeling. I began to twist and shape it the way a blacksmith forged metal into a verbal weapon. I wanted the act of destruction to immolate the pain I was feeling. Just as I began to move in for the kill, Henry noticed me. The transformation in his face was stunning. His grin deepened. His eyes shone. He stood and said something to the woman as he gestured toward me. My brain sought to reconcile this alongside the noticeable lack of fear, embarrassment, or shame. I ignored the question of why I thought he should have felt any of those things to begin with. A question I had no answer for began pin-balling around my brain: where did that reaction come from and what did it say about my feelings for Henry? I was distracted from my thoughts as Henry held a chair for me and introduced me to his companion. "Charlotte, I'd like you to meet Renée, my second in command." Renée was gracious as we shook hands, though her gaze was speculative. Up close, she was older than she appeared from a distance. Her hair and clothing lent her a youthful appearance, but she was likely in her late twenties. "Renée and I were just—" Henry broke off as a coughing fit wracked him. "Bloody hell!" he said when he finally caught his breath. "I've picked up a nasty cold. As I was saying, Renée and I were strategizing some last minute projects before I leave." "Leave? Where are you going?" I didn't hide my confusion. He'd said nothing about leaving. Panic flared again as I tried to assimilate what he was saying. He smiled, "My eldest is graduating from Uni and I'm going to spend a few weeks visiting family and friends while I'm there." "Eldest? I didn't know you had children," despite myself, it came out as an accusation. He blushed and began to respond except Renée interjected. "Typical Henry. He'll get you to talk your head off, but say nothing about himself." To Henry she said, "What's Judith planning to do with herself after?" She knew his daughter's name. She had intimate knowledge of Henry that I didn't. What else didn't I know? My resolution to trust Henry splintered like safety glass in an auto accident. "Paris," he grimaced as the spoke. "She's determined to make a go of it in the city of lights." I said nothing, feeling out of place as they discussed Henry's trip. Or, should I say, Renée prodded Henry for details and he responded. In a short time, I learned Henry had another child who was still in school, an ex-wife, and no siblings. His fidgeted as he spoke and I began to wonder how much he'd been hiding things or if he were truly uncomfortable discussing himself. It also shamed me to realize, I'd never even asked him any of these questions. Before long, Renée checked her watch and left to go check on progress at a client site. Left alone, Henry and I were silent for a while. Honestly, I had no idea what to say. My extreme reaction to seeing him with another woman combined with my discomfort at realizing how one-sided our friendship was had left me unsettled. Henry broke the silence, "I wasn't trying to hide anything from you. I made these plans when you'd disappeared and didn't think of it again until it was time to pack." He nodded over his shoulder and I noticed the rolling suitcase next to the wall. Surprise speared me all over again, "You're leaving today?" I heard the tremble in my voice. "How long will you be gone?" Now, it was growing shrill. I ruthlessly locked that down. He placed a warm hand over mine. I was tempted to snatch it away, but it felt too good. Truth be told, I liked it. "Charlotte, I'll be back. It's only a few weeks." I shrugged, "I'm just surprised. I don't like surprises." I don't. You can't plan for them or ensure an outcome. But, I didn't say any of that. Giving me a knowing look, Henry said, "Maybe, you should give them a try." I shrugged again saying, "I'll think about it." He smiled that soul deep smile, stealing my breath before he said, "I have to go. My plane is in a few hours and security at Reagan National is ridiculous." I nodded and stood with him. He pulled up the handle on his suitcase. I also noticed he had a carry on duffel. "I—" what I was about to say was lost as Henry released the handle and enveloped me in a hug. He was warm and his soapy scent filled in the empty spaces. All thought disintegrated as I felt the soft, sweet kiss he pressed to my forehead. "You'll survive without me," his voice was as warm as the heat coming off his skin. If all surprises were like this, I just might grow to like them after all. * * * Text Message Exchange Between Renée and Henry Renée: You've been holding out on me, Henry. Henry: I have no idea of what you speak, madam. Renée: Okay, we'll play it that way if you want. Henry: I play at nothing! Renée: Sure, sure. Whatever you say, boss. She's pretty. Henry: She's also young enough to be my child. Renée: Your children are actually much, much younger than she is. Quit being a stuffed shirt. Henry: Have you noticed how I stuff my shirt lately? Young women like toned men with hard bodies. Not grey-haired blokes gone snuggly in their later years. Renée: From the way she wanted to rip my hair out, I'd say she likes 'grey-haired blokes' … just sayin. Henry: Get to work, you little minx! What do I pay you for? Renée: My expertise, boss. My expertise, so you might want to listen. Henry: Plane to catch. Talk later. Renée: Safe travels. 5. Step Nine: Making Amends I WAS ABLE TO DISTRACT myself with work for a few hours after Henry left. Things had taken a decided upturn for me and I'd secured a few new contracts. Between Henry's unexpected physicality--which was notably more satisfying than random sex--and my company's growing revenue, I was floating on a feeling somewhere between satisfaction and euphoria. I liked this feeling. Most especially what I liked was how independent it was. Did I lose you there? You see, more often than not, my emotions are reflections of circumstance or driven by an imperative for gain. For example, "I'm lonely" leads to "I need a man" which leads to yearning for and then acquiring a suitable target. My desire is wholly situational and not based on the individual in question. You could even say, to some extent, it's manufactured. Another example: I launched my company only after Adam made it clear I had to do something to contribute when I was laid off. I had never wanted to be a business owner. I didn't want the responsibility. As a result, I did the bare minimum. I did what it took because the situation called for it and being in charge fed my ego, not because I cared about the success of the company. What is so radical about my current situation is that I derive no tangible gain from Henry and yet, I find I want to know him. The same goes for G, Rosa, and even Louis who has been coming around more often now that he and his brother had worked things out. I'd been my true self with each of these people and they hadn't rejected me. Instead, they accepted me. But—and here was the amazing part—it wasn't unconditional like I'd always thought it had to be. None of them were afraid to call me out if they felt it was warranted. But, they never made me feel accused and shameful the way my parents and all the men in my life had. Instead, they made me search inside myself and question my personal assumptions. These new and unexpected relationships made me want to be a better human being! I couldn't tell you why now, why these people, but it didn't matter. My alarm dinged and I began packing up. Hugo and I had a date with Gloria for obedience class. Our first few lessons had been private, but she felt Hugo (that's what she said, but I'd clued in that she meant me) was ready to mix with the other dogs. It was an all bully-breed class since they come with their own special challenges. I was nervous. I'm always so embarrassed when I have to do something unfamiliar in front of strangers. The only thing worse was doing it in front of people I knew. It was worth it for Hugo. My relationship with him had changed during our classes. Glo had taught me to read his body language. I was growing fluent in ear placement and tail twitches. And, with that knowledge, I'd found a rhythm with Hugo. Weirdly, if it weren't for Henry, I think I would have stopped going to Kona. Home was no longer a cage and Hugo filled the spaces. All my unconditional, I got from him. Even more bizarre, I found myself wanting to be worthy of his love. When I arrived home, it was to find Hugo napping on his bed. I suspected he still snuck in some unauthorized naps on my bed, but I had never confirmed that. He had also stopped destroying things. In return, I'd bought him several chew toys. By the time I shut the door, he had done his signature pit bull waggle over to me. The one where his tail whipped back and forth so hard, his whole body shook. I knelt down and gave him a vigorous scratch all over and he gave me a single, gentle lick along the shell of my ear. That was one trait that I'd grown to adore in him. He was not indiscriminate with his kisses the way so many dogs were. When Hugo licked you, you had earned it. Gloria hadn't even gotten a lick from him yet! Did it qualify as odd that one lick from my dog meant more than all the flowers, presents and orgasms from previous boyfriends? When we got to the shelter, the back parking lot had been transformed with cones and a make-shift obstacle course. We were joined by a handful of pit bulls along with a German shepherd, a rottweiler, and an enormous Neapolitan mastiff which seemed much closer to a slobbering horse than a dog. We had only just assumed our place between the rottie and the mastiff when Gloria called the class to order. For the next forty-five minutes, she put us and our dogs through our paces. Hugo excelled at sit and down, but he still liked to sniff and loiter on walking. The obstacle course proved too interesting for him to contain himself. We still had some work to do, but overall I was one proud mama. Hell! That thought actually went through my head. I was two seconds away from showing strangers the photo collection of my dog! I looked at Hugo in a perfect down next to me. His eyes were shining and his jaw was split in a grin, his tongue lolling out. He was the picture of canine pride. My heart swelled and I couldn't resist burying my face in his ruff to hide my damp eyes. Screw it. Pulling out my phone, I snapped a picture of my grinning boy. "You guys looked good out there." It was a voice I never thought to hear again. Oh, hell. I froze, cursing, as every hair on my body went ramrod straight in the wake of Adam's voice sounding over my shoulder. Hugo, sensing my tension, stiffened and began scrutinizing Adam, but made no move to rise. I gave him a treat to reward his discipline and forced myself to relax. I wasn't sure what was bothering me. As I faced him, I was struck by how relaxed he looked. The lines that had been creeping in around his eyes were gone. His skin had a bronze glow to it as if he was spending a lot of time outside. I said the first thing that popped into my head, "What are you doing here?" He laughed and it was the carefree laugh I remembered from when we first met, not the tight, too sharp cackle it had become. The truth was, he looked amazing, he seemed happy and I felt … nothing. Horrified realization dawned. Henry had been one hundred percent right. And Adam, despite the harsh way he'd left, had been too. "I work here, Char. I took the job." For the first time, I noticed he was in jeans and a button down, not his usual suit and tie. "I didn't realize," was my lame reply. I was floundering. I had never kept in touch with a single ex-boyfriend and all my partings had been ugly. Seeing Adam and realizing my complicity was a bit overwhelming. Adam saved me by kneeling and scratching Hugo. My traitorous canine sprawled and rolled to give Adam access to his belly. The satisfied groans he made had us both laughing. Adam was still smiling as he stood and I was no closer to being sure what to say. Again, Adam took the lead. "I have to admit; I was pretty surprised when Nadia told me you'd adopted Hugo." "Nadia?" my brain still hadn't caught up to the situation. "The receptionist," he cocked his head and scrutinized my face. "What?" I said, flushing. "What changed, Char? You were so anti-dog when we were together." I shrugged and looked away as I spoke without thinking, "I thought my new place was dangerous and decided a guard dog was the solution." Adam had the grace to flush before saying, "Char, about that—" "Adam, stop," my voice was gentle, but I didn't want an apology from him. From the corner of my eye, I saw the mastiff and his owner vacate a nearby bench. "Will you sit with me for a minute? There are a few things I'd like you to hear." He tensed, but agreed, moving with the wariness of someone expecting punishment. We sat and Hugo settled himself between our feet. Turning to face Adam, I said, "I want to apologize, Adam. You were right." His expression was so shocked, I almost laughed. Continuing, I said, "I can't say I'm happy about how you left, but I think I needed a good kick in the ass." I proceeded to tell him my assumptions about Louis and my mishaps with Hugo. I kept it light and funny. "So, Hugo and I have figured out how to live with each other and, truthfully, I'm happy where I'm at," I finished. Adam was still laughing at my description of Hugo and Señor's first meeting. "Wow," he said, "I gotta tell you. I never would have imagined this for you." I smiled, "Me either." "I did love you, Charlotte. It just didn't work." He wasn't looking at me as he spoke, maybe that made it easier for him to say. "I do apologize for the way I left. I don't know if it makes a difference, but I didn't think I could stick to it if I did it any other way." Reaching out, I squeezed his arm. "I can understand. As hard as it was for me, it forced me to take care of myself." We sat silent, each in our own thoughts until a woman came out from the shelter and called to Adam. I rose with him as he said, "I'd better go. Charlotte, I have to be honest, especially since you'll be here with Hugo." He drew a deep breath. "I don't think I'm ready to be friends, but I think it could happen in the future. I need time and space to let some things fade, though." Picking up Hugo's leash so I didn't have to look at Adam, I said, "I understand. I wish you well, Adam. Truly." Much to my surprise, he hugged me tight saying, "Ditto, Char. Take care of yourself." He didn't look back as he returned to the life he'd chosen for himself. * * * During the drive home, I was distracted by thoughts of the encounter with Adam and the strange reactions it had provoked. He'd once referred to me as an immovable object. He'd said that when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force, only one of two things can happen. Either the immovable object is destroyed or it's bypassed. He'd been right. In the end, he'd bypassed me. I'd tried to fit him into a box that was comfortable for me and it hadn't worked. So, he'd gone around me. I was grateful he hadn't chosen destruction. As I thought back over my life, I saw a pattern of callous disregard for the men who had shared space with me. Hell, I'd fallen more in love with Hugo than I had any of the men in my life. I gasped, hitting the brake hard enough to lock the seatbelts. Hugo woofed a complaint, thank goodness he was strapped in. I'd had a moment of clarity so palpable, I'd stunned myself. My reaction to Adam, to every ex I'd ever had when I happened across them was not true awkwardness. It was the subconscious awareness of the bad blood I'd created. A pseudo fight or flight response because I'd harmed these men. I had only felt peaceful and resolved after talking with Adam because I had acknowledged my complicity and apologized. Beads of sweat bloomed across my skin as I imagined the people I'd harmed in life as small beacons of hatred holding malice in their hearts for me. I shivered. In this new reality in which I found myself, I saw that I was wrong. I had always been aware that I was using and exploiting them, that was their purpose, but I'd never cared before. I did now. I grew more uncomfortable with the notion that there may be people out there holding a grudge against me. I made a snap decision and pulled over, parking at a vacant meter. I had time before the Prius was due back. Ducking into the store, I brought two boxes of blank note cards. It was going to be a long night. * * * At midnight, I put the last stamp on the final card. It had taken a while, but I'd found the last known address of each previous boyfriend and one non-boyfriend. I was exhausted and the trip down memory lane had not been a pleasant one. Especially when I thought of Rathin, the non-ex. Remembering what I'd done to him actually nauseated me. Rathin Choudhary attended the same high school I did. He was a senior when I was still a junior. We'd had a low key rivalry as we were in some of the same extra curriculars. To my surprise, he'd invited me to be his prom date. I'd already been to prom with my previous boyfriend, Jake, but saw Rathin's invite as a two-fer: my parents would hate it because he was Indian, and, I'd get another notch in the prom category. He took me to dinner, gave me flowers, was the perfect gentleman. I, in turn, refused to dance even once, barely spoke to him, and, I'm sure generally ruined what was supposed to be a highlight of one's high school years. He'd done nothing to deserve it. It had been a nice surprise to see he was an optometrist with what appeared to be a thriving practice. I hoped that meant my actions had done no permanent damage, but I'd decided to send him an apology as well. I added Rathin's card to the stack and grabbed my laptop. * * * Blog Post: On Walking Down Memory Lane Life Inside the Echo Chamber Dear readers, I did something I have never done before. I spent last night writing apology notes to all my past boyfriends and one non-boyfriend. As I walked down this rather uncomfortable bit of memory lane, I couldn't help but notice a pattern in my past relationships. They haven't been emotional relationships, they've been transactions. Bluntly stated, I've whored myself out. Not for money, but in other ways, primarily company. I gave up my virginity at fourteen to a boy who remained my boyfriend for the next three years. We barely spoke to one another, had little in common, rarely spent time together and when we did all we did was screw, but … he was my boyfriend on tap. If I needed a date, he was there. If I needed a ride or use of the car, I got it. When I wanted company he was quick to grant it … so long as I continued to have sex with him. I didn't question this arrangement. I didn't feel bad about it. It worked for me. As with any relationship that has no emotional value whatsoever, he cheated on me. I'd warned him it was coming, I saw how the girl was pursuing him, but he ignored me. When it happened, I did what was expected. I cried, broke up with him then took him back three weeks later after making sure he understood the parameters of our relationship. We stayed together another year. When he broke up with me, he told me I was the coldest person he'd ever met. I was dating someone else within three weeks. This guy was so sweet he bled sugar. He would have done anything for me. I exploited that. In return, I gave him the sexual experiences he'd never had before. He was a virgin when we met. I never once stopped to consider what I was doing to him. He was religious and made it clear he didn't want to have sex right away. I ignored him and just took matters into my own hands. I wanted to ensure he stuck around. What I failed to understand was that I bonded him to me in a way I hadn't counted on—emotionally. Eventually, he went to college and that meant he wasn't around 24/7 to serve whatever role I wanted him in, so I found someone else. I'll never forget his face when I broke up with him. It still haunts me. The litany continues. I've by no means got a huge track record. I've barely broken double digits and I can name every single person I've ever been with, but I do see that sex was a drug of sorts for me. It was a means of escape by orgasm, regardless of whether or not they were self-administered. When I look at the majority of the sexual partners I've had in my life, it is more participatory masturbation than sex. There's no connection, no communion. I wanted a dick and they provided it. In return for ready access to my vagina, I wanted the illusion of a relationship so I didn't feel like a whore. But, I was definitely whoring. I see that now. I grew up believing men wanted nothing from women other than sex. My parents didn't spend time in the same room with each other … ever, but we always knew when they were screwing. My oldest sister was getting her ass beaten on the regular by her husband and my other sister screwed someone new every weekend. Add in a gigantic dose of Christian guilt and sexual repression and you don't exactly have a recipe for sexual maturity. Only now, that I've been celibate for more than a minute, and I've come into contact with some good people, have I begun to consider what sex can be between two people. I've never experienced that communion of body and mind. I've never experienced the freedom that comes with dropping your boundaries and baring your body and soul to another individual that you trust. I would like to. Maybe one day I will. I only know one thing unequivocally, after realizing what I've actually been doing, I'll never whore myself for company or empty sex again. I'd rather be alone. 6. The Lies I Tell Myself "WHAT IS IT THAT YOU find so bothersome about this?" Dr. Scribens sat across from me, a notepad on his lap and made notes as he spoke. It was my third session with him and I was undecided on whether I'd be returning. Nothing about my life was normal, but, if this were all just some delusion, I wasn't sure I wanted to snap out of it. "I feel vulnerable and out of control. And, I don't like feeling this way. I'm so exposed." "Why?" I sighed and picked at the sofa cushion. It was so hard to explain. For me, it just was. It was like walking. I knew how to do it, but I couldn't necessarily explain it. "My experience is that people use things like this against you. I don't want to put myself out there and get sucked into someone's twisted game. Just have them fuck with my mind, you know?" He didn't flinch at the profanity but I got the impression he didn't like it. I did that sometimes just to see if he'd say something. So far, he hadn't said anything judgmental. Much like Henry, I was beginning to think the doc was too good to be true. "I mean, let's take Henry for a moment." I leaned forward as I spoke, the agitation I felt was bubbling, making it hard for me to sit still. "He's kind. He's funny. He calls me out on my bullshit. He accepts me. He hugged me. He's never asked me to be different. And now, he takes one measly trip and I feel like I'm missing something important. There's an empty spot now." I sighed again, smoothing my jeans as I did. "Why do you keep doing that?" The doc asked. "What do you mean?" I didn't follow that non sequitur. "Every time you start to connect with an uncomfortable emotion, you sigh, and brush at your pants. It's like you’re trying to brush away what you're feeling." I stopped and stared at him. I saw only curiosity in his face, but I still felt scrutinized. My first response was to snap at him, but I clamped down on that impulse as well as my hands. I stuck them under my thighs. "Charlotte, doing that is not addressing the issue," he pointed to my lap with his pen. "Do me a favor, close your eyes and just say whatever comes to mind." I raised an eyebrow, knowing my skepticism was clear, but in the end, this is what I was paying for, so I complied. Closing my eyes was disorienting. I had no point of reference like this. It was almost dizzying. I began to open my eyes again, but the doc said, "Go on." "I don't want to rely on anyone. Relying on someone means you need something from them. When you need something from them, then they have power over you. They can hurt you. They can deny you. If they deny you, and you need it, then they can destroy you. Henry can hurt me. I don't want to be hurt." I couldn't take it anymore, I opened my eyes. The doc wasn't looking at me; he was consulting his pad. He made one final notation before he spoke. "What you’re feeling is common among survivors of emotional abuse. But I want you to consider your own words. You said that life was 'more satisfying' and that you felt a sense of 'satisfaction' that you hadn't experienced before, yet enjoyed. So, wouldn't you say that this is a positive experience?" I nodded, but some part of me still resisted. He must have sensed this, because he continued. "Have you considered that your feelings about Henry and your new friends is really fear of losing them?" I didn't respond. "Answer a few questions for me. Okay?" It would have been a waste of money to refuse, so I nodded. "If Henry were to disappear right now, what true harm would there be to your life?" The thought of Henry disappearing had my stomach churning, but he wasn't asking me how I would feel. "Nothing." It was the honest answer. "Would you lose your home, your work, or your health?" "No." "So, what is there to fear if you lose Henry?" I wanted him to stop saying those words. They made my lungs hurt. "This!" I flung that word at him. "Feeling like this!" I said. "I feel like my skin will burst at the idea of losing Henry. Any of them." "What makes you so convinced you're going to lose them?" I wasn't thinking about what he was saying anymore. Whenever we got this far, I wanted to vomit. I had this horrific image of Henry's face contorted with disgust as he understood the cruel things I'd done and then cutting me loose. It was one thing for me to be honest with the folks in my life now, I hadn't harmed any of them. But, what if they found about my past? What then? Dr. Scribens continued to write on his pad as he waited for my answer. The positioning of his chair placed him in the midst of the late afternoon sun. A beam of light cut across his bald pate. His skin gleamed and I wondered how it would feel under my hands. "Charlotte," he drew me from my imaginings, "What are you thinking?" "I'm wondering what it would feel like to rub your scalp." He asked for it. His only reaction was to raise an eyebrow. "Trying to shock me is a defense mechanism. We've discussed this before. Besides, I've heard much worse. Answer the question." I looked away and resumed picking at the sofa. I didn't want to talk about this. The doc sighed and said, "Okay. Let's leave that topic for now. Why did you feel compelled to send those cards?" I shrugged, "I'm not sure. It occurred to me that I had been mean to them and I should apologize." "Yes," he said, "but why now? You've never felt this compulsion before." "I. Don't. Know." I bit off each word, making no effort to hide my frustration. It was true I didn't know. "Ever since Adam left, nothing has been normal for me. At every turn, my expectations are thrown back in my face and nobody responds the way I expect them to." "In other words, you've come into contact with a group of people who won't let you manipulate them." I didn't say anything. He was right, but I was feeling mulish. "Yes or no, Charlotte?" He wasn't backing away, but I wasn't saying anything. "I'll take that as a yes. Let's talk about Henry." "No!" I surprised myself with my fervor. I'd talked about Henry quite enough for one day. Dr. Scribens knew all the details anyway and I didn't want to analyze it any further. He looked at me for several long moments, drawing conclusions, but saying nothing. "Have you thought about our discussion last week?" "Yes." "How do you feel about what I said?" "I'm not a criminal. I've never broken the law. Well, traffic laws, but never anything else. I like rules. I like structure." "The concept of criminality being necessary to diagnose someone as a sociopath has been debunked. New science shows that sociopaths have all the same emotions and drives as naturally empathic people, but their brains are wired differently. Empathic emotions are not their default, so they must be taught how to access these things." I stood and began pacing. My skin was shrinking and I was feeling claustrophobic, just as I had when he'd introduced the idea at our last session. "So, you're saying that I'm a head case. Completely mental?" "No," his unflappable calm was annoying sometimes. "Labels are irrelevant. I'm saying you're wired a little differently and will therefore react differently and perceive differently. That's all. I'm also saying, that's why your recent behavior, which is completely normal, empathic, and even moral, by the way, seems so foreign and uncomfortable for you." He set his notepad down and, leaning forward rested his forearms on his knees. "I'm saying that your emotional development was warped by parental neglect and emotional abuse. That your responses were born of a survival instinct. One that only recently have you been forced to question whether it's valid." He waited until I met his eyes to continue. "I am also saying that what is causing you so much distress when it comes to your friends, and yes, to Henry, is that you've begun to care for someone other than yourself." I returned to my seat on the couch as a need to feel anchored to something overwhelmed me. I reached for a tissue though there was no danger of tears and began shredding it. "That's distraction, Charlotte. Please stop." I ignored him. A feeling of being trapped was taking over. The room felt hot, my heart began racing. He moved quickly, startling me as he took the seat next to me on the sofa. Gently, he stilled my hands. "Another favor." He took the bits of tissue and laid them on the table. "Say the first word that come to mind with each word I give you." I clenched my fists, but nodded. "Love," he began. "Risk." "Honesty." "Punishment." "Protection." "Lies." "Respect." "Façade." "Trust." "Henry." He stopped then and smiled at me. To my horror, I burst into tears. Dr. Scribens handed me a tissue and I mopped at my face. "Why are you crying?" "Every person I've ever trusted has hurt me. I don't want to trust anyone. I don't want to trust Henry." I cried harder. "Charlotte, look at me." I shook my head, I couldn't. I was shocked to feel his warm palm envelope mine. "You already trust Henry. You're afraid he'll hurt you. And, you're afraid of the pain that will come if you lose him. Welcome to the human race, Ms. Wolfe." I didn't remove my hand, but I was listening as he continued. "Everything else is just self-justification at this point in your life, Charlotte. Based on what you've shared in these sessions, you haven't let anyone get close enough to you to truly hurt you since you left your childhood home. You set up unreasonable tests and they inevitably failed." His words matched what I had already begun to see with Adam. I kept listening. "I won't ask you to trust me, Charlotte. I'll either earn your trust, or I won't. But, there is something I want you to do for me. Will you?" "Depends on what it is," I sniffled and blew my nose. He chuckled, "Fair enough." His smile was reassuring, and it worked. I felt better. Then, he told me what he wanted me to do. * * * Session Notes (Excerpt) I am cautiously optimistic that a breakthrough has occurred with Ms. Wolfe. She is resisting counsel less and considering more the concept of her sociopathy. Her initial resistance was normal. Most sociopaths don't see themselves as having any issues and tend to focus on externalities as the cause of their problems. Ms. Wolfe's spontaneous gesture of making amends to people she has harmed in the past is evidentiary of the possibility that she has entered into a spontaneous remission. This is consistent with current research wherein roughly 2% of the sociopathic population remits every year after the age of twenty-one. Based on what Ms. Wolfe has shared in session regarding her early life, it is reasonable to conclude that her sociopathic behavior has a maternal causation consistent with both Glueck and Bowlby. She lacked maternal affection, consistent discipline, and affection with little to no behavioral boundaries placed upon her. Her recitation of adolescent behaviors that were reckless and cruel indicate that her sociopathic traits likely manifested as a child and went unchecked in an ambivalent and emotionally neglectful environment. I've set Ms. Wolfe a series of exercises to further test her willingness to embrace her "remission" and reorder her life around normal, empathetic behavior regardless of how foreign it might seem at this juncture. Marcel Scribens, Ph.D. * * * Blog Post: Finding a Moral Code Life Inside the Echo Chamber As many of you know, I own my own business. Also, I lost my financial cushion when my last relationship ended. So, now I have to hustle to make ends meet. This means I spend a lot of time now doing research on how to build a successful business. You'd think I would have always done that, but in many ways, the fact that I relied on my ex rather than doing that is exactly the point of this post. But, I digress. I was recently reading an article on business ethics while on the subway. The article contained a section on how to determine whether an action was ethical. It's a simple moral test consisting of three questions: Would you be okay if your actions became public knowledge? Would you be comfortable admitting your actions to your family and loved ones? Do your actions fit your personal moral code? It was a shock to me to realize that I was absolutely confounded by this simple test. Taking my customary actions as a whole, my honest answers would more often than not be: no, no and I have no fucking idea. I was so struck by this that I literally sat there stupefied for several minutes. I missed my stop even. My realizations came in this order: The blog is proof of the answer to the first question. If my real identity were to be discovered, my reputation could be ruined. I would be humiliated if my personal life and history were to be made public. As for my family and loved ones. I would never want them to know about my life, but that is more because they are awful people, but also because they would use that knowledge to hurt me. It the last one that really blew my mind though. I simply could not answer that last question. I couldn't see where I had a moral code. I believed in rules. I followed them but that's because they made it easy for me. Whatever the rules said was okay and what they didn't wasn't. But this was because, frankly, left to my own devices I generally did whatever the hell I wanted without regard for anyone else. So rules were good for me. Rules meant I didn't stand out from the crowd. Rules meant I didn't get pushed out of the pack. But, I only followed the rules until it no longer suited me or they got in my way and then I broke them without a thought as long as I could hide it and frankly when I did get caught I lied like hell to cover my ass. Period. You see, the one thing I learned very early on was no one was going to take care of me and no one was going to give me anything. I had to take what I needed. My mother only bought me things when she couldn't rationalize not doing so or if my sister was getting it too (but that's really part of the former isn't it?). I went on shopping trips with them and waited for my sister to ask for something because then my mother couldn't rationalize saying no to me. This was how I acquired things as a child. My father was a whole different story. I remember always knowing he would say no. We had to eat quickly or else miss out at the dinner table and you never asked for anything from him. You lied and made up excuses to get something or else he would say no. End of discussion. I remember once in college, I needed thirty dollars for winter gear as it was getting cold in the Blue Ridge Mountains and my work study only amounted to $80 per month, which I had to use to feed myself and pay any bills I had. I already worked in the kitchens at school in order to ensure I had at least one meal per day. Needless to say, money was tight. I put off calling for days because I didn't know what to say, I couldn't just ask for the money, he'd say no. I ended up saying someone had stolen my stuff and I didn't get paid for another month. My father pissed a bitch like I'd asked him for $3,000 rather than $30 dollars but that was the way things were. We weren't allowed to go to the doctor unless we were obviously bleeding or had something broken. I'm told by my other relatives that I was never held, that if I cried I was left to cry it out until I was exhausted. That I also refused to allow my mother to do anything for me and was determined to always learn to do things for myself and that I was a very distrusting child. I'm told I was violent and that I was often punished because when other children fussed with me I was quick to hit them. I don't remember that when I was young, but I do have a violent temper to this day and my first emotional response is to want to hit something. My therapist informed me that my "maladaptive thinking" is normal for children of neglect. That they become grasping and difficult and often have a desperation about them. That my difficulty forming emotional connections and bonds is the result of that neglect and that I had no moral compass. I scoffed at him when he said this. Of course, I did. I knew right from wrong. Then he asked me if that mattered to me, right and wrong? I never answered because the alarm dinged and our time was up. I left his office and tried not to think about what he had said. He was right, I have no moral compass. I couldn't quote a moral code to you that was based on my own personal belief, but I sure as shit could quote you laws, rules and the Ten Commandments. However, do unto others as you would have them do unto you was irrelevant to me. I’ve lived by do what you want and take what you can get as long as you can get away with it. You see, another side effect of my mother and father's brand of parenting was me growing up with the belief that when you wanted something you had to take it. Asking was a no-no. Gifts were met with suspicion because I never received a gift growing up, I received bribes. Each "gift" was really a bribe to keep up the pretense my mother insisted on that we were a normal, "Brady Bunch" kind of family. With no parental oversight, I did whatever I wanted with no regard. The only thing that ever kept me in line was fear of punishment. If there was a demonstrable punishment to be had by being caught, I thought twice at least, but it didn't always stop me. For instance, I went out stealing street signs and knew that as long as I was under eighteen, it didn't matter, my juvenile record would be expunged on reaching my majority. In my relationships, my attitude was always better them than me. I faked it enough to be accepted and didn't worry about the rest. That day, however, I realized I honestly had no moral compass and for the first time that bothered me. I had just come out of a relationship that, objectively, was a disaster and I felt utterly disgusted with myself. I was presented with a test of my understanding that very same evening. I had stopped at the drugstore to buy a few things I needed and the cashier handed me two $20 bills instead of the two $1 bills owed me. My usual reaction in this situation would have been to keep the money. But, in light of what I'd just realized about myself, I didn't think about it (well, not very long anyway) as I said to the woman, "You gave me the wrong change, you only owed me $2 not $40." She thanked me profusely saying how much trouble she would have got in over the till not balancing. It wasn't until I walked away that the purpose of a moral code became clear. We do have a responsibility to not damage the people around us. To ensure our behavior harms no one first. Those doctors have it right, first do no harm. I'm a long way from a moral code, but I think I just may get there. * * * Dear Henry: Please pardon the formality, but that is the only way I know to do this. There are things you don't know about me. Things that normally I would never allow you to know. I've generally controlled information, doling it out on a need-to-know basis. You see, for me, knowledge has always been about control. You may or may not realize that I've never been very good at caring about anyone other than myself, and, in that vein, most people's opinions mean very little to me beyond how I can gain from them. Strangely, I find myself wanting to be worth your good opinion and that is very disconcerting. I don't mean that I want you to think well of me per se. I always want people to think well of me, that's the main reason why I lie, so they will. Or, rather, lied. I find I no longer need to control people's opinions. I have you to thank for that. You were the first person to ever accept me as I came. That's part of what is so different. I don't want to control your opinion. I just want to be someone you think well of. You've thrown me for a loop, Henry. I don't know what to do with you. You don't fit into any of my boxes. I've been seeing a counselor recently and I realized something today. I don't want there to be any secrets between us. I need to be fully and truly honest with you. I'm scared you'll reject me. And maybe this is a cowardly way to do it, but I feel like I need to do this now. I don't think I can fully trust that you truly accept me, the real me, if I don't. I write a blog. A deeply personal blog that exposes me more fully than even our conversations. I'd like to invite you to read it. You are the only person I've ever shared this with. What I truly want, Henry, is to know that you can accept me, even with my flaws as deep as they are. I like you. I think you're my first real friend. But, I am scared. My past is ugly. There's no way around that. You can find my blog at If your opinion of me changes and you don't want to be my friend anymore, I'll be very sad, but I will accept it. Yours, Charlotte 7. Homework WHY IS IT THAT THE thing you are looking for is always the last thing you find? I brushed the back of my hand against my damp forehead and blew across my nose to rid it of the fine dander coating my skin. I was inside the tiny storage unit that I maintained for the few mementos I was willing to keep of my past. I'd been putting off Dr. Scribens's homework for several days, finding excuses in work. My next session was coming up and I couldn't put it off any longer. I'd considered canceling but that seemed like I might as well sky write "I didn't do my homework." He'd know right away. So, here I was, looking through boxes, trying to find that quintessential record of childhood: the family photo album. I'd acquired mine when my mother died. It had been bequeathed to my sister, but then so had everything of value. Rather than argue, I'd decided that she could have the trinkets, but she wasn't getting what memories I had. I'd taken it before the last funeral guest had left the after-party. I don't know what you call those after-funeral gatherings that Southern Baptists have. If we were Irish, it would have been a wake. Anyway, I guess I should feel bad about that. I don't. I had just finished combing through the last box in the far corner when I found it (penance for my lack of remorse, I'm sure). Either way, I was just glad to have located the album. I stuffed it into the satchel I brought with me and returned everything to some form of order before locking the door and making my way home. I didn't look at it the entire trip, but its presence was palpable. There was a reason I keep these things locked away where they were virtually inaccessible to me. I didn't like these trips down memory lane. My life had always been like those spiked metal strips at the entrances to military bases. The ones where so long as you keep driving forward, you don't damage your tires, but, the moment you back up, you destroy your back wheels. Yeah, I didn't go backwards often. But, Dr. Scribens had been precise. And, I wasn't paying to ignore his directives. So, memory lane, here I come. * * * Once home, I set the satchel down next to the sofa and called Hugo to me. He snuffled and sniffed until he'd recorded all the new scents before nudging my hand to pet him. Dutifully, I scratched his ears, fed him, and put out fresh water before taking him on an extended ramble. We ran into Rosa on our way back into the building, which led to dinner with her and G, who showed up midway through. After dinner, we hung around and watched reality television, debating the merits of the finalists versus those eliminated. Señor and Hugo had formed an alliance of sorts. Señor tended to use him as a pillow and Hugo tolerated it. When Rosa began yawning, I took Hugo and myself upstairs, waking G who had nodded off during a cooking competition. We parted ways at the top of the steps and I closed the door behind me, deliberately avoiding looking in the direction of the satchel. I didn't have to see it to know it was there. Its presence throbbed with the lure of memory. Still, I avoided it. I went through my nightly ablutions, lingering over them like I needed to draw each one out to its fullest extent before moving on. My teeth had never been so thoroughly flossed, nor my skin so shiny from exfoliation. I changed into my most comfortable pajamas, made a cup of soothing ginger tea, wrapped myself in a blanket, and sat on the sofa. And sat there. And sat there some more. Hugo jumped up next to me, uninvited, but I said nothing. He'd gotten tired of waiting for me to call him up, which I always did, but I was preoccupied. Finally, I reached for the satchel, extracting the album and putting it in my lap. Hugo, whom I had jostled in the process, huffed his impatience before settling himself back down in a furry ball next to me. I stared at it. So innocuous. It was a standard photo album. The kind that had been prolific in the early 1970s. It was really a three-ring binder with black pages, each holding two yellowed photos per side. The photos were held in place with those corner stickers. My mother's spidery scrawl adorned the border of each photo. The cover was decorated in gaudy, baroque styled filigree with the words "Our Family" stenciled across the front. It might as well have been The Terrorist Handbook. It felt explosive in my lap. I didn't want to look at it. As it was, it was taking everything I had not to throw it across the room. When I'd stolen it (let's call a spade a spade), it hadn't so much been about my memories, there were few enough of those in there, but more because my sister wasn't going to get to have this. She'd gotten everything else. I traced the words on the front cover of the album, a tense smile on my face. Bitterly, I reflected that it should have been called Helen's Show, since that would more accurately reflect its contents. I sighed and shook my head. These maudlin thoughts weren't doing me any good. It was what it was and I'd left this part of my life behind a long time ago, though Dr. Scribens didn't seem to agree. Taking a deep breath, I opened the album, paging through the first quarter of the book before I reached what I was looking for. Every single page before was filled with Helen. This is where my personal family record began. The day I was brought home from the hospital. I have no idea who took the photo because both my parents are in it. They are sitting on the couch; my sister Helen is in my mother's lap. I am in a bassinet, my face contorted with tears, the family cat lies by my side. I flipped through, fast forwarding through more images of Helen smiling with her presents, grinning in my father's lap, or playing with toys as she cavorts in the wonderland that was her playroom. I stopped at the next image of me. I am alone, maybe four or five years old. The ocean is behind me in the distance. I stand on a bench, red faced and crying. I snorted as I stroked my enraged face. This is what my memory lane is paved with. Images of unease and pain captured for posterity rather than comforted. There I am crying as I run from my sister who is chasing me, her own face is almost crazy with glee. I look terrified. There I am screaming, tears running down a face swollen and blistered with chicken pox, holding my arms outstretched toward the photographer. And so it continues, each and every image of me is full of pain or distress. They are sprinkled through the fairy tale of my sister's life like piles of dog shit hidden in grass. Eventually, I reached an image where I was not crying. It was the final image of me to appear in the album. The remaining pictures documented Helen's entré into adulthood. I considered the young woman in this photo dispassionately. She sits on one end of the living room sofa, dressed in pajamas. It's clearly Christmas as the bough of a decorated pine tree is showing in one corner of the photo and opened presents and wrapping paper are strewn around the floor. Well, Helen's are. The young woman has three neatly stacked, and fully wrapped presents sitting at her feet as she waits for permission to open them. She doesn't look into the camera so much as she looks through it. There is no pain on her face. No tears. No anger. She is blank. In the span of a heartbeat I was unable to breathe. My chest locked and I was gasping. My heart raced. I felt it pounding under my ribs as if I'd just sprinted an entire marathon. The room spun and I was going to pass out. I was hyperventilating, but I couldn't control my lungs. I couldn't draw in the necessary air. My skin felt hypersensitive and the trickle of sweat running down my side felt more like a full on torrent. I gasped and gasped. My vision grew dark and I felt wetness on my cheeks long before a foul stench captured my attention. The incongruity served as a focal point. A single pinpoint for my consciousness to lock onto. The darkness receded. Or rather, it focused and became the blue-gray face of my canine love, Hugo, as he licked my tears and nuzzled me. He gently butted me with his dewy nose. I threw my arms around his neck and breathed in his swamp breath and doggy scent. He needed a bath. I laughed then and buried my face in his ruff drawing a deep, deep breath of canine funk. This was real. Hugo smelling of grass and dirt from rolling in the park, giving me the unconditional love I had always needed and never knew it. The girl in those photos was— Well, she wasn't gone. She was under my skin waiting to tackle me with the rage she had sublimated years ago rather than continue to allow her parents to indulge their pleasure at her pain. Now, I understood why Dr. Scribens had given me the task he had set me. Setting the album aside, I went to get the implements I needed. It was time to do my homework. * * * The drive out of the city was a long one. Only eight miles separated College Park, Maryland from Washington, DC, but the traffic turned a trip that in normal conditions might take half an hour into something closer to two. I had prepared for that possibility. Rather, than use the car sharing service, I had pleaded with Louis to let me borrow his car. He drove a tough bargain. In return for use of his quite gorgeous, restored 1967 Mustang, I had to wash and vacuum it. He had almost refused to let me take Hugo with me. I'd had to cover the front seat with a blanket and strap Hugo in (which I would have done anyway, but I was doing it for safety, Louis was only thinking of dog hair). I'd agreed to every condition. For what I was about to do, I wanted Hugo with me. It was a beautiful day and I had the windows down, letting the late fall afternoon flow in the breeze. Louis' car was true to the original so that meant FM radio, but that was okay. I had Mix 107.3 cranking out pop hits and was singing along in my best effort not to think about what I had to do. I'd finished only half of Dr. Scribens’s assignment. This particular road trip was my own little twist. I didn't have to leave my apartment to do my assignment, but I felt that it was needed to ensure I left nothing undone. I'd just crossed into Maryland when I stopped at a Hallmark store in Langley Park. I needed just a few more items to make this trip complete. I left Hugo in the car with the window cracked. He left me a slobbery window to clean. Once back under way, I'd expected my nerves to set in, but they hadn't. After the night before, I'd expected more panic attacks, more flashbacks. But, despite being completely worn out from my journey into the past, I'd had a restful night and woke feeling refreshed. All morning, I had been waiting for some recurrence. Some PTSD-like episode akin to the night before. So far, nothing. I was still tense. I wasn't out of the woods yet. I still had Dr. Scribens’s last task to complete. I clicked on my blinker and turned off the idyllic two-lane highway into the George Washington Memorial Cemetery. A tide of memory swirled in my brain. Good or bad ones depending on your perspective. For me, they were good. I used to ride my bike or walk to this cemetery several times a week as a child. I would amble among the tombstones imagining the lives of the souls at rest. There was a pond in the middle of the cemetery where Canadian Geese would come during their migrations and I would feed and observe them. Some people found the dead creepy, I'd always felt most at home among them. The dead couldn't hurt you. It was the living you had to be wary of. I wended my way through to the back of the cemetery until I found what I was looking for. Parking the car off to the side so that I wasn't blocking the road, I gathered up the items I needed and leashed Hugo. Together we set off through the grass and flower strewn memorial of familial love. I walked past them twice before I finally noticed my parents’ graves. It was clear that no one had been here in quite a long time. My sister, in her infinite grace, had decided that my parents would want matching markers. To translate her Helen-speak, Mom hadn't wanted to spend a dime more than she needed to on my father's headstone when he died so she could spend his money on herself, and Helen didn't want to spend a dime more than she needed to because what money there was left belonged to her now. So, both of my parents had ended up with basic markers in the grass with nothing more than their names and dates. Personally, I found that quite apropos. I'd expected some theatrical extravagance on Helen's part. She was nothing if not inclined to put on appearances. But, I'd underestimated her selfishness. It was one of the few times she wasn't a hypocrite in her entire life. It also appeared that her lack of hypocrisy extended to caring for the grave, as well. The grass was overgrown and covering the markers. Weeds dotted the lawn, as well. At best, their graves got mowed along with the rest, but they received no special care like some did. Having found them, I made my preparations. I tied the two helium balloons I'd purchased at the Hallmark store to Hugo's collar so they wouldn't fly away until I was ready for them too. I directed Hugo into a down-stay, something he'd become quite adept at in our obedience classes with Gloria. He settled himself down, put his huge head on his paws, and watched me with canine curiosity. I placed the large, cast iron skillet my grandmother bequeathed me on the ground between the two graves. Grams taught me to make cornbread with that skillet, and even though I rarely used it, I'd always kept it seasoned and ready to use. I'd brought it with me today because it was the only thing I owned that I felt certain could withstand what I was about to do. Next, I pulled out my homework and placed it beside me. Then, I took out the stack of photographs that I'd extracted from the album. The album itself I boxed and mailed to Helen before I left the city. Those were her memories. My keeping the physical record of them wouldn't change that and, frankly, I didn't want them any longer. Sitting cross-legged in the grass next to Hugo, I took out the few remaining items I needed, laying each one within easy reach. I sat still for several moments, letting the autumn breeze ruffle my hair while listening to the sounds around me; the traffic from the road, the birds, squirrels, and insects. People spoke of cemeteries as silent places. I had always found them to be alive in their own way. I took comfort in that now as I mentally prepared myself for one more trip down this particular path of memory. When I was as ready as I was going to be, I took up the pages I'd written the night before and began to read aloud. My voice was clear and calm—strong even—as I read. I continued without stopping until I reached the last word. I shed no tears. All my weeping had occurred in the composition. There were no emotional surprises for me today. I was quite proud of my composure. As my voice faded into the wind. I set the pages in the skillet, reached for the lighter, and lit them. They smoked and crackled, a tiny orange-blue flame eating my words. I fed the photographs to the flames one-by-one; beginning with the day I came home from the hospital and continuing until I reached that sad, destroyed woman with no soul in her eyes. I watched them scorch and melt and felt no sense of vengeance. No "fuck you" satisfaction. And no relief either. They simply ceased to exist. That was enough. What I felt was calm certainty that my life was finally my own. Those bits of pain no longer existed. The people who'd inflicted that pain were either dead or long gone from my life. The physical record of those years needed to join them. That it lived in my brain was more than enough. When the fire was out, I scraped the ashes into a plastic zip bag and stuffed that into the envelope I'd brought along for the occasion. I strung the ribbons from the balloons through a hole I punched in one corner. With no hesitation, I released the balloons with their gaudy designs and stenciled messages of "For Mom" and "For Dad" into the air. As tempted as I was to watch until they faded from sight, I didn't. I'd given enough time to the past. Gathering up my grandmother's skillet, I took up Hugo's leash, strapped him back into the passenger seat, and headed home. Just as I approached the exit, I saw her in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were hazel like mine though her family had tried to convince her they were brown. Her face that she'd always believed was horsey because that's what her mother had always said even though, Helen, her twin in every way except for the brown eyes, had always been told she was beautiful. Throwing the car into park, I met her eyes in the mirror thinking I'm sorry that took so long for me to do. Her blank stare never wavered as she melted and dissolved until all I saw was me. A soft woof from Hugo, snapped me back to my surroundings, and, grinning, I put the car in gear, pushed hard on the accelerator and whooped as I let the fading sun guide me home. Hugo barked his pleasure right along with me. * * * Mother, Were it not for the fact that my psychologist had directed me to write this letter, I would not spare you the time it takes to compose this. You made my life a living hell. You were the single most toxic person I have ever had the misfortune to come into contact with. Tell me how a woman can give birth to twins and yet treat one like a stranger while cherishing the other? Tell me how you can tell one of those twins how ugly they were while extolling the beauty of the other twin? We looked exactly the same except for our eyes! People could only tell us apart because of that, so how was I ugly? How could you know you were having twins and yet not have two names prepared? You left me unnamed for ten days. The doctor named me, not you, not Father. Had the law not required a name for me, I think you would have been content to leave me Baby W. My hands are shaking as I write this, but I'll have you know, Mother, it is not because of pain. It is fury and rage. I want you to feel the hatred and pain you inflicted. I want you to know how you made me suffer. How you made me question my value. How you made me wish I had never been born. Your death should have been a relief, but I see now that I repressed all this. Thanks again, to you, Mother. We weren't allowed to show the world our true face. I was required to act the part of the dutiful daughter. You were all too happy to take credit for my accomplishments while giving me nothing in the way of support, encouragement, or love. Know this, Mother. After this letter, I will leave you exactly where you are … rotting. I will not spare you a single thought. I will do the thing I have failed to do for the entirety of my life … I will live. No longer yours, Charlotte * * * Father, I've had to ask myself why my anger for you is substantially less than for Mother. While my rage and pain over her behavior has been a dormant volcano waiting to explode, my anger at you has been more like a pot boiling, able to do damage, but contained. You were no less toxic than Mother, but you were more passive about it. You simply ignored me and let her do as she wished. In many ways, I was glad you ignored me because when you finally turned your attention my way, it was only to humiliate me. I see now, that your indifference was as damaging as Mother's hatred in its own way. The single greatest betrayal you ever committed was the day I asked you for help and your answer to me was, "Why should I put myself out for you?" I asked you for $100 to buy a suit for my first job interview. I made it plain I would pay you back, because we all know you give nothing for free. I still remember the single dollar you bitched and whined about until I gave it back to you. Why should you have put yourself out for me? Because I was your fucking daughter! That should have been enough. You should have loved me enough. But, like Mother, you never loved me at all. I was a vessel for all your hate and your indifference while Helen was treated like a cherished treasure. I'll never know why you felt the way you did. Your suicide and Mother's death have robbed me of my answers. But, like Mother, I intend to make this the last time I spare you a thought. I see no reason why I should put myself out for you any longer. No longer yours, Charlotte 8. Rejection Hurts I STARED AT MY LAPTOP as if my sheer willpower could change what I saw. It was now a full week since I had sent Henry my invitation and I had not received a response. It was taking everything I possessed not to fall apart at the seams. I shouldn't have been surprised. This was the story of my life. Whenever I opened myself up, whenever I reached out to someone and showed them my true self, they rejected me. Henry doing nothing more than what I expected, so this hurt was unnecessary. It was nothing more than affirmation of why I didn't give in to hope. This is what hoping gets you … slammed right back down in a heap on the floor sniveling like a fool. So what if he was the same as everyone else? So what if he disappointed me? I was stupid for thinking he could be different. Stop, Charlotte. Honestly, I couldn't muster my usual indignation and self-righteousness. Henry didn't owe me anything. It wasn't his fault that I had made poor decisions. It wasn't his fault I had treated myself like trash rather than proving to myself, if no one else, that I had value. He was well within his rights to choose not to associate with me in light of my past. It hurt, but it was his prerogative. At that moment, it hit me. I wasn't going to hear from him again. No more coffees. No more lunches. No more rainbow mail. The last was more than my small store of dignity could handle. I cracked, sinking back into the loveseat, my head lolling on my neck as I wept. Was this what grief felt like? This utter desolation at losing something you treasured? Why was my heart tearing in half over someone whom I had never even been more than friends with? I felt like my entire body was ripping wide open and each cell vibrated with anguish. I cried ugly tears, but couldn't seem to bring it under control. He didn't want me. That much was plain. What hadn't been plain was how much I wanted him. Until this moment, I had not realized that Henry had become embedded in my heart. I had been taking it slow with him because his power to hurt me was that much greater than G or Rosa. I trusted him and I had wanted to know if he could be trusted with the thing I had never given another person in my life … my heart. Only Hugo had my love. I cared for G and Rosa and even Louis. It was love in a sense. I saw how I protected them from the uglier parts of myself because it was important to treat them with respect. I wanted them to be happy. I wanted to be worth the regard they gave me, too. But, it was more sisterly. With Henry, it was deeper. Or, at least, it had the potential to be. But, no more. I let the tears flow, doing nothing to stop them. In true canine fashion, Hugo climbed up next to me and began licking my tears away. I think dogs are genetically programmed to comfort their human. Why else would it be such a universal trait among them? If so, I had to give God props for that. But, for once, I didn't want to feel better. I wanted to feel every moment of grief for a relationship that could have been special. I always packed my feelings away. Locked the hurt and pain in tight little boxes, never to acknowledge it again. If Dr. Scribens’s homework had taught me anything, it was that I needed to stop doing that. I needed to acknowledge when I hurt and let myself feel it. No one had told me it would feel like dying, though. The pain washed over me in waves. Every time I thought it was receding, it renewed itself in a fresh torrent of sobbing. Hugo eventually gave up trying to lick away my grief and settled himself next to me. I wrapped myself around him, laid my head on his flank, and let my grief drag me into sleep. * * * Blog Post: Not so Elementary After All Life Inside the Echo Chamber The home I grew up in was not a loving one. It was cold and isolated and, for a young girl who needs to be part of a whole, that was extremely painful. I grew up feeling like an outsider in my own family. Always on the fringes of something that I was too young to understand it was better that I not be included in. All I knew was that I was somehow different from my family members and that translated into an ostracism I didn't understand. I internalized and took that into myself as evidence of my flawed nature. A studious child, I took refuge in books. It is not a gross exaggeration to say that I read approximately five books a week growing up. I read every genre and books of all lengths. I read to escape into other worlds and I read to understand how people were supposed to work. I struggled to understand what was expected of me as a human being so that I might mimic this behavior and be accepted. I also read in hopes of finding some salvation from the emotional pain I experienced. What I didn't understand until last night was how unbelievably wrong some of my conclusions were. As part of my reading addiction, I devoured detective fiction. I first discovered Sherlock Holmes through the films of Basil Rathbone. I was hooked from the first one I remember watching, The Hound of the Baskervilles. I immediately began reading the books and short stories. I would go on to collect and read every Holmes story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I loved Holmes's objectivity, his detachment, and logic. I loved how there was an explanation for everything in his world. No fact was left without a distinct and plausible reason. His absolute certitude was a comfort for a child who lacked the fundamental understanding of why the people she loved didn't love her back. There were no unanswered questions at the end of a Holmes story. My love for this form of mystery only grew. I devoured just as many of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple novels and any other form of mystery, so long as they were in the same mode. My television watching was the same. Even the science fiction I embraced had a Holmesian figure—Star Trek's Mr. Spock. Again, I was drawn to his logic. To his cold detachment and ability to control his emotions. He saw emotion as a weakness and so did I. With these literary figures as my role models, the only conclusion my child's mind could draw was to do away with emotion. It served no purpose and only weakened you and gave power over you to others. I didn't understand until last night how the choices I'd made in reading had influenced my emotional health and vice versa. I chose novels and books that satisfied a need for order in my troubled life. The characters had mastered an area of living that represented pain and disorder in my own life. I wanted nothing to do with the emotions that battered me and left me feeling so devastated. Looking back, I can even see the pattern and transition. It was after an aborted suicide attempt at the age of thirteen that I became obsessed with Holmes, Marple, and Spock. I was seeking a way to control the pain when what I should have been doing was finding a way to deal with my emotions. You see, I've come to realize that I am an intensely emotional person. Not deeply emotional. Intensely. The distinction is that I admit that I don't have consistently deep emotions. I can in fact be quite shallow. But, when I do experience something emotional, it's intense. Therefore, the slights and humiliations I experienced growing up took on epic proportions. I had no way to deal with it or to understand it. The people who were supposed to be teaching me these things were the ones perpetrating the acts. As an adult, I can see that I made the wrong decision. I chose to suppress my emotions all together and that placed me on a self-destructive path. I see now that I cannot repress and deny my emotions. I must seek to understand them and find perspective. It's not easy. I tend to cry the instant I start talking about anything emotional. Every emotion I experience has the same effect on me now and I'm left feeling like a wrung out rag when it's done. It's a strange thing to be afraid of your own emotions, but, I admit, I am. I'll always love Holmes, Marple, and Spock. They got me through a tough time in my life, but I think it’s time to let them go. 9. Retail Therapy FOR THREE DAYS I HOLED up in my apartment, leaving only to take care of Hugo's needs. When I did venture out, I avoided G and Rosa. I didn't want to see, or be seen by, anyone. Embracing the grief also meant I was a living, breathing open wound. The only time I didn't hurt was when I was asleep. So I slept. I ate when my body protested, and then I slept some more. I fought with myself over giving in and doing what I normally did. It would have been so easy to put myself together and go find a human target. Someone who desire my body enough that I could forget about Henry for the moment. Forget about his eyes and his laughter and his fake acceptance that felt so good. Someone whom I could lose myself in their desire for me. Lose myself in their pursuit. I fantasized about being like the locust. I would go from man to man, sucking down their desire for me, even if it were only for one night. I would make them dance to my tune, make them jump through hoops just to get me into bed. I didn't even have to screw them, I could just tease and taunt, leaving them lusting and move onto the next reaping. In the end, it didn't seem worth it. It hadn’t been real, but while it had lasted, Henry's seeming acceptance had felt so damn good. It had been more fulfilling, more satisfying, than any of my previous conquests. Somewhere on day three, when I could smell the funk of my unwashed body and my stomach was beginning to reassert itself, the thought passed through my mind that it would be better to find that acceptance for real than waste my time on hollow experiences with more strange men. I slept then. A restful sleep, untroubled by dreams of betrayal, loss, and longing that had been plaguing me. I awoke to a soft knock on my door. The sun had grown sultry, peeking through blinds that had gone unopened during my interment. Hugo stirred, but did not rise from his position next to me on the bed. He'd been a silent sentry through it all, snuggling next to me, unmoving except when he performed his self-appointed duty of cleaning the tears from my face. Whoever knocked was a friend or Hugo would be at the door snuffling and barking a warning to all who would enter his domain. I rose, stretched, and shuffled to the peephole. I could make out curly locks in a neat, cascading ponytail. It was Rosa. Pressing my forehead against the door, I debated opening it. I wasn't sure if I was ready to interact with anyone, and I was embarrassed by how unkempt I undoubtedly was. "I know you're there, hija. I can see your shadow in the peephole." With a sigh, I wiped my face with my hands, rubbing away crust from both my mouth and eyes. I could feel my hair sticking up in multitudinous directions. It would have to do. Opening the door, I said, "Hi, Rosa." She said nothing, just raised an eyebrow and looked me over from head to toe. I squirmed under the intensity of her perusal. "Who is he?" I scowled, that wasn't what I had expected to hear. "Huh?" was my rather lame reply. "The man you are lamenting. Only a man does this," she waved a hand to encompass my dishevelment, "to a woman." I shrugged and stepped aside, waving her in. "He was a dream not a reality. One I had to wake up from." She crouched and gave Hugo the requisite scratches and coos before she began to straighten up my apartment with almost militaristic efficiency. I sat at my dinette saying, "Rosa, you don't have to do that." "I know, chica, but you have been in this funk long enough. We've let you stew since it was obvious you wanted to be left alone, but it's time for you to get up. And, it's hard to find clarity surrounded by mess. Besides, I need your help." That peaked my interest where little else would. I didn't want to think about me, so thinking about Rosa's problem would be a good way to get myself in order. Standing, I went to join her at the sink, drying the dishes she handed me. "What's up?" I prompted when she said no more. "I have a date and I need a dress. I want you to help me shop." I scoffed at that. Rosa dressed herself beautifully. I could only hope that I had as much class when I reached her age. I said as much. "Yes, but that's for every day. I haven't been on a date in thirty years, not since my late husband, God rest his soul. I have no idea what to wear and my closet reflects that. I haven't had to do much more than clean my house and volunteer. I have lots of those clothes. No dinner and theater clothes, chica." She handed me the last plate. I dried it and stacked it on my shelf. Turning to face her it was my turn to give her the eye and, when her skin pinked, I knew I had her. "Sounds to me like you're inventing a task to get me out of the house," even if it was true, it made my heart swell. No one in my life before had cared that much about me to do something so sweet. She blushed a bit harder, but said, "Well, yes and no. G and I have been worried about you. But G said my wardrobe looked 'sexy church lady' not 'hot mamacita' and I needed to go shopping!" She laughed at that and her joy was infectious. I couldn't help myself and soon I was laughing with her. It was laughter that built on itself pushing away the dark shadows leaving me wrung out, but not down. On impulse, I hugged Rosa whispering, "Thank you!" She hugged me tight saying, "You're a good girl, Charlotte, under all that defensiveness." I pulled back a bit shocked, which must have showed. "What? Am I blind? I see you fight with yourself. Now, go shower, you smell." I laughed again and went to do as I was bid. * * * We ended up at Secondhand Rose in Georgetown. As I'd been showering and getting myself ready to face the outside world, Rosa had been perusing my exposed wardrobe. The quantity of high-end labels given where I was living piqued her curiosity. When I told her my secret, she demanded I take her to my favorite consignment shop. There is a secret to successful thrifting, one I learned over much trial and error. It's nothing complicated, but it is a bit counter-intuitive: find the richest neighborhood nearest to where you live, and then locate the closest thrift or consignment shop. You see, the wealthy are also the ones least likely to go out of their way. Hence, they will donate (or consign) where it is most convenient. The second rule of thrifting: be thorough. Look through every item on a rack. Never, never rush; that is how you missed treasures. Secondhand Rose epitomized that philosophy. I'd been able to purchase a Burberry trench coat, multiple Tahari pantsuits, and my Coach tote bag on the cheap. I'd always guarded that particular secret. Female fashions were a weapon in and of themselves. The well-dressed woman was much better received than a woman who shopped department stores. But somehow, it seemed right to share my fashion secrets with Rosa. We perused rack after rack of cocktail dresses before she found several she was willing to try on. I sat in an antique arm chair situated catty-corner to the dressing rooms as I waited for Rosa to model her selections in the large, tri-fold mirror that dominated the space between the two fitting rooms. She'd auditioned and passed on the first three already. While Rosa changed again, a young woman came out wearing a gorgeous, wine-colored skirt suit. She was small, maybe five feet tall, but she was well rounded. The skirt hugged her ample curves, accentuating her tucked-in waist, and had a feminine ruffle at the hem. Her voluptuous bosom was set off by the cream silk blouse she'd paired the suit with and the tailored jacket finished the ensemble perfectly. As I watched, she twisted and turned, contorting herself as women do while we secretly try to decide if what we are wearing makes our ass look any bigger than it actually is. She did a few relevés trying to imagine, I'm sure, how heels would change the silhouette of her legs. When she'd first glimpsed herself in the mirror she'd grinned with pleasure, but once her body-image ballet had begun, I'd watched that smile fade and a look of disapproval replace it. I surprised myself by saying, "You look beautiful in that. That shade sets off your eyes and all that lovely hair." It did. She had luxurious auburn hair that fell to her mid-back and her eyes were a gorgeous shade of amber. She jumped a little and turned. I don't think she had realized I was there. "Do you work here?" Translation: I was just trying to sell her the outfit. "Nope," I shrugged, "just waiting on my friend." She contemplated herself again before saying "I look fat," her voice was flat, but I saw the hard glint in her eye, like she was daring me to say something. I inclined my head to acknowledge her meaning if not her words, saying "You're a curvy lady, it's true, but that suit fits you perfectly. It's feminine and flirty, and, before you let your head get in the way, it was clear you liked what you saw." Her shoulders slumped, but she nodded before she turned to face herself in the mirror again. "I have always avoided form-fitting clothes." She looked over her shoulder at me, "I've always been big." She perused herself again, did another lift on the toes. "I really do like it though." "Get it, then." "I don't know." She bit her lip. Rosa came out at that moment. She was wearing the last dress she'd selected. It was a black silk sheath dress that was lightly tailored and flowed over her own soft curves. The camisole style bodice was draped in sheer lace. She looked radiant as the woman moved to give Rosa prominence in the mirror. "What do you think?" she said, as she turned this way and that. I said, "I think you need some sheer black stockings with a seam up the back and a good pair of sexy shoes and you've got a winner." "I agree," she was grinning as she went back into the fitting room to change into her own clothes. The other woman had retreated while Rosa and I talked. Rosa reappeared and we went to check out. We were on our way to the door, bags in hand, when the woman reappeared. She had the suit over her arm and a look of determination on her face. As she passed us, she met my eyes and said, "I'm getting it." I grinned, saying, "Good for you." As we walked down Wisconsin Avenue in search of a lingerie store, Rosa nudged me with her shoulder and said, "You see, Charlotte. You're a good girl. I heard what you said to that woman." I shook my head saying, "Rosa, you and G, you make it easy. If you'd known me before I moved over here, you would have hated me." She scoffed, saying, "Who could hate you? You are head over heels in love with the 80-pound lap dog of pit bull. You take care of me and G. What's there to hate?" I was silent for a long time. I wanted to leave her words where they were. This was the image I wanted her to have of me. But, the truth was, it wasn't the full picture. I refused to look at her as I said, "Rosa, something happened to me this year that made me …" I paused, that wasn't right. "You see, what happened …" No, still not right. "The only reason I live in that building is because I got dumped by my last boyfriend. It was ugly." She started to speak, but I stopped her. "No, Rosa. Let me finish. You see, he was right. I was a horrible girlfriend. I used him. I didn't even like him that much, but he paid for my lifestyle. I've always been that way, a user. But then, I couldn't afford to live where we were, so I had to move." As we walked, I told her everything. I didn't hold anything back. Unlike with Henry, I knew exactly what I was saying and what it all meant. Rosa might decide not to deal with me anymore. But, I'd survived losing Henry. Despite feeling quite battered, I'd survived. I would survive the loss of Rosa too, if it came down to that. "So, you see. By the time I met you and G, I was already thrown out of my comfort zone. This is a new me. Someone I don't know yet. What if the old me comes back? I don't think you'd want anything to do with me then." Rosa stopped and waved her hand over my head, staring at the space above me intently. I ducked and looked up. "What?" "I'm looking for the strings. Are you a puppet? What if she comes back?" She scoffed as she faced me square on, raising her palm to cup my cheek. "Last time I checked, hija, you control your actions. If you didn't like that version of you, then don't stop being this one. The choice is yours." She tweaked my nose and began walking again, leaving me to stare after her. She called back over her shoulder, "Coming, Charlotte? I've got more shopping to do." I hurried after her, floating just a little as I did. * * * Blog Post: Honesty vs. Truth Life Inside the Echo Chamber Today, I learned a valuable lesson, dear readers. While out shopping with a friend, I found myself confessing many of my secrets to her. The same things I had told another individual, but in a different context. Afterward, later that night while I was reflecting on my outing, it dawned on me that there is a significant difference between honesty and truth. We tend to use them interchangeably so that these two words are regularly conflated to the point where people think they mean the same thing. This is not accurate. Something can be true while not being honest. As my brain spun around this particular bit of semantics, it occurred to me that truth is factual. Anytime you convey the facts of a situation you are providing truth. However, you can provide facts with complete accuracy and still deliberately mislead someone into drawing the wrong conclusion. This is where honesty comes into play. Honesty is the context that surrounds truth. The whys and wherefores that explain the facts. Let me attempt to illustrate. This is a regularly occurring situation for me: Them: You don't share much about yourself, do you? Me: Not really. Them: Why? Me: I'm a private person. I need to know you better before I'm comfortable sharing. The above is my standard answer. People accept this and let it go. It makes sense and they can wrap their minds around wanting to be comfortable with someone you're sharing bits of yourself with. It's also 100% truthful. No telltale tags of lying or other body language that make people question what you say. However, I've just misled them completely. The honest answer is I don't share with people as a general rule, even if I know you well. I have no trust whatsoever that you won't take the information I give you and deliberately use it against me, leaving me feeling like an ass and a fool for giving up that key to my psyche when I've been taught repeatedly exactly how risky that is. If I am sharing anything with you beyond the superficial, you've done something remarkable to get me to trust you. Period. Now, does the average person even deserve that answer? No, they don't. It's none of their business, but this is what I mean about the difference between truth and honesty. The truthful answer is just a set of facts; the honest answer gives you understanding. Most people don't want to expose themselves that way. Generalizing completely, I find that people are generally truthful and rarely honest. Some people don't want your honesty or even understand the difference. However, when someone says to me, "I need you to be truthful with me," that's my comfort zone. I go out of my way to be truthful as often as possible. Lying requires too much energy. And, here's another bit of wisdom I've acquired recently … every time you lie you're sending a message to your brain that your truth is not good enough. You demean yourself every time you tell a lie. Anyway, getting back on topic, I will be truthful with no hesitation whatsoever. However, those rare people that have said, "I need you to be honest with me," my answer is always, "that depends on what you ask me." Today, this lesson, which I've always understood logically, was driven home for me. I was volunteering my honesty to my friend. I knew the risks and I did it anyway. That she accepted my honesty was a gift. My truth has been a weapon I used liberally, but my honesty was something that I've rarely offered. I confessed my secrets today with full honesty. With my other friend, I was only being truthful. That was a life lesson in action. I still think not everyone deserves full honesty. We are all entitled to our privacy, but those you wish to be close to should have your honesty. If you can't be honest, then you should look elsewhere for your friends. At least I will be from now on. 10. When You Least Expect It TWO DAYS LATER, I PACED the length of Rosa's apartment as she prepared for her date. I had that old and all too familiar restlessness. Nobody bothers to tell you that the real work comes not in making a decision to be different but in sticking to it. I hadn't fallen back into old patterns … yet. But, I admit, the temptation was strong. My skin felt too tight, my mind wandered, and I had a hard time focusing. When I tried to concentrate on work, I found myself clicking into my email or checking my blog for comments. Secretly, I knew I was looking for Henry. And just as secretly, I refused to acknowledge my disappointment every time there was nothing from him. My online friends were wonderful and I'd been immersing myself in their lives rather than writing about my own. I'd texted with SmallTownGirl, whom I now knew was Julie. She was a surprising lifeline in helping me to continue moving forward. My real-life friends were even better. G and Louis had taken me out for dinner to get my mind off of things. They didn't know the details, but they knew it involved a man. I'd had lunch with Greg Haldane to celebrate the impending launch of the redesign. I even had several referrals off the back of that work. In all ways, my life was on the upswing. I had friends. My business was growing. I'd met the love of my life who was currently snoring on Rosa's sofa. So, why did I feel so hollow? Why did I feel alone in a sea of love and caring around me? I was beginning to feel grasping and needy and that scared me. When I felt like that, I tended to do stupid, self-destructive things. Quelling this feeling usually led me to men. Conquest was a way of self-medicating. That wasn't going to work this time. I'd discovered something better. I had my new battery-operated boyfriend to handle that rather than seeking out hollow sex. Part of the problem was not having closure with Henry. Not knowing why he'd rejected me. I mean, I knew why. A history like mine would put a good number of people off. But, I didn't know what in particular made him reject me. He'd accepted my relationship with Adam. He'd accepted my floundering through our friendship. Why did a few more details matter? I stopped mid-step as it hit me … I had trusted him and he had disappointed me and … damn it … it hurt. End of story. I hurt and I wanted not to hurt. I sighed and Hugo roused himself to look at me. I smiled and knelt beside him, scratching him along his flanks and laying my head on his side. He gave me one of his special licks and settled himself back down. Hugo never disappointed me. "Well?" Rosa's voice was breathy and trembled, but she looked amazing and I told her so. "Why are you so nervous?” I asked. “You’re gonna knock his socks off. I guarantee it." She scrutinized herself in the mirror, fussing with her hair, contorting to check the seams of her stockings. "So, does he warrant sexy panties or are we going with granny panties to resist him?" I grinned as she flushed and swatted at me. "I am a grandmother, for goodness sakes, what a question." "That means sexy panties." She laughed and swatted me again, but I just giggled. I hoped he was a good man. In fact, that was one of the reasons I was here. I had insisted on meeting this man and giving him the Hugo test. After the way Hugo had been with Louis, I had assumed he was a dog who would love everyone. He seemed to be willing to accept anyone who would pet him. I had completely written him off as any kind of guard dog. Gloria cemented that notion when she told me of the pit bull breeders who used American bulldogs to guard the kennels. She had said the pit bulls were too likely to go off with anyone who was nice to them. However, dog trainers across the world will tell you that dogs read energy. That's why Gloria was always telling me to stay calm, but be assertive with Hugo in order for him to respect me. I had no idea what she meant until one day Hugo gave me a first-hand demonstration. We were leaving the park. Nothing out of the ordinary. For once, it was just Hugo and me. G's schedule meant that we weren't seeing him as much anymore since he was working nights. Rosa had been at a church retreat, so we'd been alone. As we walked down the street, a young man was coming toward us. He wore athletic clothes and was listening to something from the telltale cords hanging from his ears. To look at him, he was unremarkable. Average everything. He wasn’t someone you would pick out of a crowd, nor would you remember him later. The only reason he became significant to me was because of Hugo. When we were less than a city block length apart, a change came over Hugo the likes of which I had never seen before. He placed his body in front of me moving so fast I almost tripped over him. He was rigid from head to toe, his ears so flat against his skull they almost disappeared. His tail was arrow straight and a soft growl emanated from him. The man seemed not to notice, intent on whatever was being fed into his brain. He walked with the hunched slouch of those intent on blending in and nothing about his posture changed as he neared us. In fact, he moved closer to the buildings outlining the street and gave me and Hugo a wider berth. Hugo's growling increased, becoming a physical thing that vibrated along my legs where he pressed himself with increasing strength. As the man drew abreast of us, he looked at Hugo, his expression never changing. Just as he passed us, his eyes met mine. It was the briefest of glances and it was the emptiest stare I had ever seen. I went cold deep under my skin. Hugo didn't relent. He turned his body, forcing me to turn with him, until the man was once more in front of us. Hugo remained immobile, tension vibrating out of him, until the man had disappeared from sight. Then, it was almost as if Hugo melted. Everything drooped and he gave himself an immense shake and looked up at me as if to say, "It's okay now." Kneeling, I gave him a hug and scratched him in all the places he loved before continuing the rest of the way home. Now, I understood. As a result, Javier Mendez, local business man and church deacon, was going to be tested. I wasn't letting Rosa go out without him getting the once over. She'd laughed when I told her and she tried to put me off, but I had been tenacious. Finally, she'd relented, but I knew she was just humoring me. As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. Rosa hurried over and checked the peephole before opening the door. "Hola," she said as she stepped aside and let Javier into her apartment. "Hola," he replied as he took in her appearance with obvious appreciation causing her to blush. As Rosa made the requisite introductions, Hugo ambled over to Javier and began to sniff him. Javier ignored him and continued to talk with both Rosa and I. Only after Hugo returned to his spot on the sofa did he say, "Did I pass the test?" I blushed a little then and Rosa laughed, but I was the one who said, "Hugo gives you a check mark, but I still am going to be looking out for Rosa." He smiled and earned points with me when he said, "I recently adopted a bulldog for my daughter, Mercedes. I told her it was dangerous for a young woman to live alone with no one. I wanted her to have a dog. They're good judges of people." I nodded saying, "Yes, they are." After a few more moments of chit chat, I waved them out promising to lock up after I'd tended to Señor. I hadn't let Rosa do it, because I didn't want her smelling like cat food before her big date. I put out food, cleaned the litter box, and checked to ensure all her windows were secure before locking up behind us as we left. As I shut the door behind us, I couldn't help but notice the chipped paint and cracking plaster. In that moment, I knew exactly how I was going to channel this restlessness. * * * It took a week and multiple phone calls, but in the end, the landlord had agreed to provide all the necessary supplies. Of course, he stipulated he wouldn't pay for any labor or pro-rate anyone's rent. It was more than I had expected, I'd have been willing to settle for him just buying the paint. So, exactly two weeks later, I was standing outside taking delivery of paint, several paint sprayers, tarps, tape, and a whole host of other supplies. I'd explained my idea to G and Rosa and they'd been all for it. We each loved our little building and the family that we'd found there, but hated how run down it looked, especially as the neighborhood around us was coming to life. They'd even agreed to recruit people to help. Rosa had gone so far as to agree to cook. It was going to be one hell of a party. As I organized the paint supplies in preparation for the day, I felt a tremor of excitement. I was actually looking forward to this. It was going to be tedious, grimy work, of that I was sure, but I was loving seeing my idea come to fruition. More importantly, I had only fleeting thoughts of Henry in the last two weeks. Taking a look around, we were as ready to go as we were going to be. G and I had already spackled the various cracks and supervised the power washing of the exterior. We'd washed the walls, taped off the baseboards and ceilings, and laid tarps. The hallway was ready to go. Outside we still had more prep to do, but all things told, we were looking good. Wonderful, delicious aromas were filtering out of Rosa's apartment and my stomach growled. When I'd told Rosa I'd been planning on ordering in some pizza she'd scoffed and told me that junk food wouldn't be served at any party, even a painting party, that she was a part of. She'd assured me that she'd take care of everything. And she had. She'd requested thirty dollars apiece from me and G and told us not to worry. As I made one final survey of the supplies, checking off my to-do list, I heard the putt-putt of a small vehicle and strains of Lana Del Ray behind me. Turning, I met the enthusiastic smile of Gloria who'd agreed to watch Hugo for me, so I wouldn't have to keep him locked up in the apartment. I'd tried to find a doggy day care in the area where I could place him for the day, but none of the facilities I could afford were willing to accept pit bulls. A fact which had both angered and enervated me. I was finding this doing-good-deeds thing to be even more satisfying than the self-medicating I'd done through sex. I knew what my next task was going to be once we'd fixed up our building. I was joining the mission to change the perception of pit bulls. Gloria had given me the names of some advocacy groups to contact. As for Hugo, he was going to spend his time with her pack of Pomeranians. I had a feeling he was going to love it. I greeted Gloria and left her discussing the ins and outs of folk music with G, who was clearly enamored with her while I went to get Hugo. After he was safely strapped in and on his way with his nose sticking out the window and his ears flapping in the wind, I turned my attention back to the task at hand. People were arriving in dribs and drabs. G had managed to get several of his college friends to come. I admit, it was a nice bit of eye candy to have on hand with their youthful fitness and unaffected sex appeal. For all their lean-muscled bodies, and the unabashed flirting of at least one of them, I was strangely unmoved by it all. They were too young, too brash, and just too everything. But, mostly, they didn't have the kind eyes and a bottomless laugh that I still missed in my quiet moments. And, it didn't help that they had a disturbing tendency to call me ma'am. After I'd corralled the boys into taping off window panes and door frames, Rosa's contingent arrived led by Javier. He brought along several church members with him and his daughter Mercedes whom he introduced to Rosa. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that Javier owned a house painting company. I relinquished control to those with superior knowledge and went to help Rosa with the food. The church group had brought along several folding tables which we set up on the sidewalk. The ladies soon had them covered them with disposable table cloths, and stacked them with beer, soda, and water. Rosa had plenty of help with the feast she was making, so I pitched in wherever Javier told me to. I enjoyed working alongside a merry group of people who were all set on achieving the same goal. G and his friends joked and traded punch lines, while Rosa and her friends cooked and pampered those of us doing the physical labor. In the midst of it all, it occurred to me that I was the only one who didn't have outside friends. G and Rosa were my people, but I didn't feel out of place. If anything, I felt like I'd been welcomed into an extended family. A feeling made even more real when Louis showed up with his new girlfriend. She was a traffic cop who was as smooth and svelte as Louis was lumpy, but I liked her immediately. She held nothing back and it was nice to not be the only one who sometimes spoke her mind a little too freely. We'd been painting for several hours when Rosa called a halt and said the food was ready. We lined up and filled our plates with tamales, empanadas, and other Mexican favorites that tasted like heaven. I had just shoved the last bite of the most amazing guacamole I'd ever eaten in my mouth when G nodded in the direction over my shoulder and said, "Who's that?" Turning, I almost choked when I saw the top of a silver head exiting a yellow cab. I sucked down several swallows of water as panic washed over me. It couldn't be. But, yes, it was indeed Henry who stood on the sidewalk in front of my building. I had imagined the moment I saw him again many times over the last weeks. In all of them, I'm dressed to kill and prepared to remain cool and unaffected by his presence. What I am not is dressed in ratty jeans, a faded T-shirt with a ripped pocket over one breast, and covered in paint splatters because I didn't check the nozzle on the sprayer before I turned it on. I didn't answer G's question as I rose and moved to where Henry stood surveying the laughing and chattering crowd outside of my building. He smiled when he caught sight of me and my heart stuttered. His eyes were still bottomless, but the rest of him had undergone an unkind transformation. He looked gaunt and washed out. His hair was too long and in need of a trim. He'd lost at least ten pounds and he looked exhausted. Standing in front of him, I said the first thing that came to my mind, "You look like hell." "Yes, quite right, I'm sure," he laughed and the joyful sound had a faded quality. Despite all my resolutions to remain unaffected, I felt myself melting as I had the overwhelming urge to take him upstairs, wrap him in a blanket, and feed him until he looked healthy again. My thoughts spiraled as I bit back the questions pounding my brain. Where had he been? Why was he here? How did he know where to find me? What about my email? "… pneumonia will do that to you." That caught my attention, drawing me out of my speculations. "Pneumonia?" I scowled. He'd been sick, no wonder he looked so horrible. "Yes, that cough I had turned to pneumonia landing me in hospital for several weeks. I only just made it through Judith's graduation before I could no longer hold myself up. I took myself to A&E and they admitted me. I've only just got back into the country last night." He coughed as he spoke, the dry rasping cough that tends to linger after a bought of respiratory illness. When he caught his breath, I asked the one question I felt I could without giving away all the hurt and pain that I had only just got into some manageable space in my mind. "Why are you here? And, how did you find where I live?" Okay, so that was two questions. He smiled at me before reaching out and touching my face with his palm. I froze unsure what the gesture meant, but all too aware of the electric warmth of his skin against mine and of the curious eyes watching this exchange. "Didn't you get my letter?" My scowl deepened, "Letter? What letter? I haven't heard a single word from you since my last email." He sighed, but didn't remove his hand, "Well, that explains why you are looking at me like I've returned from the dead." He moved taking his hand with him, but it was only to run his palm along my arm—raising a trail of goose bumps I might add—before grasping my hand and pulling me over to the steps leading to my apartment. He sat, bringing me down with him. I tried to take my hand back, but he held it. "Let me start with your second question first. I've observed how much you Americans love your romantic movies. So," he squeezed my hand, "I spun a rather convincing tale of a love that was about to get away to a lovely young woman at your post store. She gave me your address." At his words, a warm, languid feeling began swelling in my chest, but I remained silent. He wrapped my hand in both of his before continuing. "As for why I'm here … I received your email, Charlotte. I even had a chance to peruse your blog." I stiffened at that, yanking my hand back and wrapping my hands around my ribs. Was he here to reject me in person? "Charlotte, look at me." When I refused, he tipped my chin forcing me to look at him. "I didn't email you back, because I had every single device I owned stolen while I was in hospital. I got your email while watching my daughter walk across the stage to receive her diploma. I glanced across your blog while I waited for the end of the ceremony. My evening ended with me in Accident and Emergency as I said. While I was in hospital someone stole my phone. I didn't have my laptop with me and I use a password manager so I don't know any of them by heart to use other devices." He sighed and rubbed his face. "I wrote you a letter and sent it to the address on the business card you gave me. You didn't get it?" I hadn't checked my post office box in weeks. I flushed and said, "I haven't checked it recently." He laughed, a tired sound that made me frantic. I didn't like the way he seemed so worn out. "Charlotte, did you really think something like that blog would put me off you?" I shrugged and blushed a bit. "Well," he gently pried my hands away and took them in his own. "I don't give a damn about your blog. And, I'm here now. So, what do you plan to do with me?" I didn't respond immediately, letting the question lay between us. I had never considered what I would do if he accepted me without question. In many ways, thinking he'd rejected me had been so much easier, because it was expected. Acceptance was new and foreign and frightening. The silence grew and I saw the light in his eyes fade. He drew breath to speak and I threw my arms around his neck, silencing him with a kiss. As his lips touched mine, I sank into the soapy scent of him and the warmth of his skin. Henry deepened the kiss and a feeling I'd never experienced swelled through my body. It was not unlike when you've lost circulation to a limb and it "wakes up." That pins and needles feeling that overwhelms you and steals your breath, but in this instant was wholly pleasurable. In a moment of panic, I worried that I would hurt him, that I would be unable to love him as he deserved. I pushed the thought away, I had no idea what the future held. Of only one thing was I certain, his happiness mattered more than my own. It was enough. * * * Letter from Henry Received three days after his return My dearest Charlotte, Do you remember what I told you during our first lunch together? I told you that I would not judge you. We haven't known each other long, but during that time I believe I've been given the privilege of seeing the woman underneath the snark designed to keep the world at a distance. A woman whom I've grown to have a tremendous regard for. If I know you at all, you're doubting that sentence and questioning how that would even be possible. We've never gone on a date, we've never done anything other than have coffee, a few meals, and a whole lot of conversation. But, aren't the activities really just background settings for communication? I've learned a lot about you during our talks and emails. I've learned that you hide your vulnerability behind disdain because you believe it makes you weak to let others see you can be hurt. I've learned that you treat honesty like a weapon rather than a gift and you feel protected when you hide yourself from others. What you don't realize, Charlotte, is that you shine through no matter what you do. You don't know this, but that first day I met you at Kona, I was behind you in line. I heard you tell the cashier how pretty her glasses were. I saw how her face lit up. I saw that you didn't register the effect you had. It was an offhand gesture for you (I'm willing to bet you wore glasses at some point in your life), but you made her feel good. I read your blog, my dear. My answer to you is … so what? Is this supposed to scare me away? You made mistakes. You've abused yourself terribly. You've been disappointed by those you trusted and cared about. Sadly, we all have to some degree. What's more important to me is how you saved Hugo and I see the love you have for that dog even if you don't. It's in how your face changes when you mention his name. It's in how you rearranged your life to be there for him. I see that same look when you talk about your young friend G and Mrs. Hernandez. I flatter myself a bit in thinking you might have some regard for me, as well. I’ve watched you break out of your shell, and I am honored to be a part of that journey. It will take much more than a checkered past to kick me out of your life. You are stuck with me, my dear. With love, Henry


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