Starting Over

The red, winking light on the answering machine caught Bill Brookes’ eye the minute he opened the door.  He hadn’t heard from Tammy for three long nights and eagerly punched the button.

“Hi, it’s me,” said the breathy voice that made his heart race.  “You’re right; I’ve been avoiding you.  I can’t go to Lake Quinault. John showed up. He’d been drinking and started shoving me against the wall.  I’m just going to come out and say this – I slept with him and he stayed the night.  It was the only way to calm him.  I know it was wrong and I know I’m a bad person.  And I know this probably ends things between you and me.”

Brookes had never dreamed life could get so complicated, so fast.  He had never broken a law or even thought about it, but since meeting Tammy had seriously contemplated hiring someone to badly hurt a man he’d never met. He should have remembered that romance suspends the rules. Three weeks earlier he’d jump-started this one and now he was finding out what he had set in motion.

Brookes had been filled with anticipation and dread that Saturday morning, back when life was simpler. Driving south to the rendezvous from his home on the Sauk River near Darrington, he had nearly turned back four times. The middle-aged author of six best-selling mysteries had known he was on a fool’s errand, but equal parts loneliness and curiosity had kept him going. If all else failed he might get a book out of it. He’d arrived at South Center Mall 20 minutes early.

With his silvery, full beard and natty, tweed, sport jacket with leather elbow patches, Brookes was doing his best to look professorial as he furtively scanned each solo woman walking toward him. But his sense of unease was deepening.  A dumpy, obese, chain-smoker with two Target shopping bags was slouched against the window of Starbucks, stealing nervous glances his way.

Tammy’s letter had said she was “40ish, 5-foot-10, weight proportionate, with blue eyes and shoulder-length blond hair.” Fortyish, no doubt, meant “well over 40.” This woman was 5-foot-4, brunette, 50ish and wildly disproportionate, with a raspy cough and eyes the color of mud.

A tap on Brookes’ shoulder made him jump.

He turned to face a curvaceous beauty with a smile that gave him goose bumps.  “Bill?” she asked. “Hi, I’m Tammy. I think you’re looking for me.”

“My god,” he blurted.  “I thought you were going to be that woman over there.”

“Oh heavens, no!” Tammy declared, flashing a broad smile and quickly covering it with her hand to stifle a laugh.  “That old cow? I would never do that to you.  I should have sent you a picture but didn’t want this to start out physical.  I wanted you to like me for other reasons.”

But Brookes already was thinking physical. Tammy’s lustrous, shoulder-length blonde hair, generous lips and low-cut, red blouse would turn heads in any crowd.

Tammy broke the ice.  “Hey, can you believe it?” she asked. “Here we are.  Let me give you a big hug.”

She continued, “I liked your e-mails.  I’ve been looking forward to meeting the famous writer because you sound like a real gentleman. I haven’t had much of that lately.  I’m ready for some good in my life and I think you might be it.” They were already holding hands. He did not even know how it happened.

Brookes had been exchanging notes and phone calls with Tammy for several weeks, since meeting her through the online personals.  She had been vague about her appearance, but clearly not because she had any reason to apologize. He knew they shared a love of gardening and golden retrievers and movies.  Incredibly, they even shared the same April birthday. That seemed auspicious.

Tammy had two grown kids plus an eight-year-old daughter at home from a second marriage. Brookes was childless, an author with a national following. But writing is a solitary lifestyle and he was desperately lonely. Tammy, he knew, was a school bus driver. She lived in the little Pierce County town of Wilkeson in a single-wide manufactured home.  She hadn’t said much about her personal life except that she was single and available.  Driving a school bus did not seem a very stimulating career but did sound quaintly normal to Brookes.  After his recent calamity with a high-achieving professional, maybe he’d have better luck this time with someone more domestic.

Brookes’ marriage of seven years to a Seattle lawyer had crashed spectacularly a few years earlier and he’d lived in isolation ever since. When he and Marti had first moved to their riverbank hobby farm it had fulfilled the dream of a lifetime. Marti had poured herself into vegetable gardening, chickens, dogs and remodeling, then abruptly lost interest. She’d cut her hair short – “more practical,” she said – and stayed later and later at the office, getting home long after Brookes had turned in for the night. On weekends she slept late, then headed for the city to work overtime or meet clients. She simply withdrew from the marriage and Brookes didn’t know why.

“Don’t you remember what it was like when we first moved here?” Brookes asked her once. “Even driving to the dump with Sleuth between us, wagging his tail joyously, was a big family adventure. What went wrong?”

“I changed,” was the best Marti could muster.

When Marti bought a bicycle, Brookes had been excited because it would be something they might do together. But she loaded it onto her Range Rover and took it to Seattle to ride at lunchtime with her paralegal friend, Terrie.  “I’m going to keep it at the office,” Marti told him, “and I’m getting a place in the city.”  Several sessions with a marriage counselor led nowhere. Marti blew up, accused the counselor of bias against her and stormed out.  Brookes filed for divorce several weeks later and Marti agreed.  She did not show up when Brookes went before the judge to finalize it.  Nor did she contest his custody of Sleuth.

On the heels of all that, today’s rendezvous with Tammy was a breath of fresh air. Her winning smile, easy acceptance, good looks and sexy voice, plus her obvious appreciation of him, all were salve for an aching heart.

“You are so wholesome,” she said. “You work for a living. No drugs, No alcohol. I’m still pinching myself, trying to get used to a man who has his life together and treats a woman with kindness.”

“And where did you come from?” Brookes asked in turn.  “I can’t believe someone as attractive and normal as you isn’t married and out of circulation.”

“It’s a long story,” Tammy said. “You don’t meet many worthwhile men in Wilkeson. I was married to an evil man. He’s not worth our breath to talk about. I’ll fill you in sometime, but right now let’s just enjoy this beautiful day and get to know each other.”

They did. And when it snowed two weeks later on their first romantic getaway to Rosario Resort on Orcas Island, it only added to the magic and intimacy.  Desperately craving what was missing in each of their lives, they devoured every scrap of companionship, conversation and physical touch.

They hiked the quiet, winter trails of Mt. Constitution, sharing a view that reached to the horizon.  They laid in each other’s arms for hours, giddy at the risk of being so vulnerable so quickly and reveling in sheer infatuation. They dined elegantly and gazed into each other’s eyes by candlelight.

Then, that Saturday night at Rosario Resort, Tammy asked, “What do you think went wrong in your marriage?”

Brookes grimaced. “That torments me,” he said, lingering on “torments” for emphasis. “I think I ran up against human nature. You can cover it up for a little while but you can’t change it.  Sooner or later, we always go back to the comfortable, familiar patterns we’ve learned over a lifetime of getting along in the world.  When Marti and I first met, we were blind with excitement and love.  She was everything I’d ever wanted and I thought she felt the same, in turn.”

“So why didn’t it last?” Tammy asked.

“When that first bloom faded a bit, the real Marti emerged. I discovered she had always been an obsessive person who drew all her self-esteem from work.  She had dedicated her life to proving women have value. Her dad was a corporate CEO  and never truly appreciated her mom’s mind. I couldn’t compete with that obsession and completely misread it. As a writer who creates characters, I should have known.”

Tammy nodded. “I think in any relationship there is a leader and a follower. Your father-in-law apparently was the leader in that marriage. Your wife learned the lesson well and didn’t want to turn out like her mom.  She had her own, separate agenda when she married you. She wanted to be the leader, too.”

“Wow,” Brookes said, “I think you put it well. But what about you and your marriage?”

“Not much to say. John was the leader in our marriage and he was evil.  I was blind and thought I was marrying someone else. But right now I’m having the most wonderful weekend of my life with an attractive and decent man, and don’t want to waste another breath on mistakes of the past. Tell me about your family.”

Brookes explained he’d had a remarkably normal life, one of three children born to a school-teacher father and a music-teacher mother. “We had a good home with lots of love and all three of us turned out happy and self-sufficient,” he said.  “Mom and Dad did a good job.”  He asked about Tammy’s parents.

“Mom is really sweet, like me,” she said with an infectious laugh. “But I can’t say as much for Dad. He was a strong, rugged man who ran a construction company. His manliness appealed to Mom. When he was younger he threw Mom around and belittled her, and beat us kids. He’s practically an invalid now but still puts Mom down.  I don’t know why Mom stayed with him, but I guess for the family and maybe because she felt if she just loved him a little harder, he would change.”

“People are what they are,” Brookes said. “I’m not sure anyone can ever really change.”

* * *

It had snowed while they were away.  Brookes delivered Tammy to the Arlington park-and-ride where she had had left her red Miata for the weekend. They shared one last, passionate kiss, their arms exploring each other’s bodies in a long and tight hug. Then Tammy got in and turned the key.  Brookes watched as the taillights of Tammy’s car merged into a ribbon of red flowing south on the interstate.

Brookes drove the last few miles home, head-over-heels in love. He had never been so happy, so sure of the beautiful life now suddenly within reach.  Tammy would be an adoring, wholesome, uncomplicated partner for the adventures they would share.  It would be a wonderful life.

He parked under the canopy of trees lining his driveway and walked to the door. He had just reached the house when his eye landed on several cigarette butts and a yellow stain in the snow by the patio door.  The realization hit him like a fist. Someone had peed on his house.

The red light was flashing on the answering machine as Brookes unlocked his kitchen door.  Someone had been calling hourly and hanging up. At 8:30 Saturday night they’d left a short message, but no name or number.

“Uh . . . Mr. Brookes,” a deep, male voice began.  “I believe you are sticking your nose into places it doesn’t belong with a woman who isn’t being straight with you. I hope we can settle this in a civilized way so it doesn’t get unpleasant. I think you know what you need to do.”

Brookes was shaking and confused. He locked the doors, checked the closets and turned on lights throughout the house.  Still trembling an hour later, he punched the buttons on his phone and reached Tammy.

“Oh my god,” she said. “I am so sorry.  It’s John, my ex. I should have warned you. He must have gotten into my house while I was gone and found all your e-mails and letters.  I was going to tell you about him but didn’t want to put a cloud over our relationship.  I never dreamed he would find out about you so soon. I’m really, really sorry he’s messing with you.”

John, she explained, was an unemployed builder who hadn’t worked in two years because of a phony disability claim.  He was the eight-year-old’s father. He paid no child support, had no address or telephone, drove with a suspended license and was prohibited from approaching Tammy by a restraining order.  He was an alcoholic and an addict who hung out in bars and made most of his calls from pay phones.

But his specialty was stalking. “He has no life,” Tammy said, “so he watches people. He hassles all my friends. He doesn’t want me dating anyone and moving on with my life.  I don’t think he’ll come after you, but you may want to be a little more careful for a while.”

“I will,” Brookes said. “And you need to call the sheriff’s department and tell them you think John violated the restraining order. Meanwhile, just focus on positive things. I’m making reservations for us next weekend at Lake Quinault Lodge.”

That week Brookes’ phone continued to ring at all hours. No one was ever there.  He stopped picking it up so John could not put together the patterns of his comings and goings.  Brookes called a locksmith to add deadbolts.  He put a lock on his bedroom door and dug an old pellet pistol from the attic to keep in his bed stand. He slept fitfully and woke to every creak of the house. Whenever he left on errands, he strung threads across doors so he would know if anyone had approached the house or gotten inside. He wrote a statement for the sheriff’s department so they’d have as much information as possible if something happened to him.

That’s when he came home to Tammy’s message about sleeping with John.  Devastated, he called her back, seething with anger, betrayal, disappointment, pity and frustration. “What’s next?” he asked Tammy.  “Will I get VD from John?”

“I’m sorry. I was weak,” Tammy gasped between sobs. “I didn’t know how else to stop him going after you.”

“Listen,” Brookes said, “this doesn’t have to end anything between us, but it can’t ever happen again. You’ve got to be strong.  Whether you go out with me or someone else, sleeping with John just gives him power over you – the power to control your life and keep you from moving on.  It’s the exact opposite of everything you need to be doing.”

“Please don’t yell at me,” Tammy said.  “I need your strength so I can feel safe, too. I want so much to start over, to walk away from all this and live in happiness and security with a man who loves me. But you’re a gentleman. You’re not going to go up to John and lay him out on the sidewalk. And even if you do, you’re not going to stay satisfied with me for very long.”

“How can you say that?” Brookes asked.  “I’m out of my mind in love with you.”

“I’m a hick bus driver from Pierce County. My life is one big country-western song and always has been.  Mom and I sew doll clothing for a hobby. Dad and John are wife-beaters. You’re a sophisticated man – a nice, gentle, educated author who lives in the world of ideas. You deserve better than me.”

“How do you know that?” Brookes asked.

“Because you said so yourself – people don’t change.  They think they can, but they’re just fooling themselves. What we did, we were just like you and your wife. We suspended the rules for a few weeks, both of us pretending we were someone else. It was wonderful and I’ll cherish the memories.”

Brookes sat stunned.

“And I met a man,” she added.  “He’s in the construction industry.”


1 comment for “Starting Over

  1. Roland
    November 2, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Good read. Brookes is a lucky man. This story could have easily spiraled into a a nightmare of terror for this character.

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