For two solid weeks, Paula never left the house and rarely spoke: when she did it was hollow. She would only see Lisa and John (and by extension Sarah) under the strict order they weren’t to talk about Charlie or their breakup. They were there for company, to make sure wasn’t completely alone and answer the endless streams of correspondence. Lisa cooked and took care of the housework, John juggled her workload and gave Charlie clipped status reports and Sarah became her constant cuddle-buddy.
Sarah. She’d lived with a mentally unstable mother, Naomi, since birth. During her pregnancy, Naomi alleged she’d felt something “snap” in her head; from then on she was never the same. As an infant, she had very little to do with Sarah and was virtually nonexistent thereafter. Sarah’s only memories of her mother were those involving catatonic mood swings and violent fits, which habitually resulted in Sarah trembling and crying in her closet with a blanket over her head until John subdued Naomi long enough to come find her. As she grew older the trembling and crying ceased but hiding away under blankets remained her escape. There were times she’s blamed herself for her mothers’ condition. For hours on end, she sought redemption at the threshold of her mother’s locked bedroom door; she would sit and wait, hoping her presence would give her a minuet connection with Naomi. It never did.
She was a lonely overly intelligent little girl; worshipped by her father and unnoticed by her mother. “The Ladies” took Sarah under their wings and gave her security, however, Paula was the first real mother she’d known and the only woman John trusted without reserve. Others had pushed Sarah to act her age. Paula didn’t. She realized Sarah’s maturity sprung from her mothers’ illness and eventual absence—nothing would or could change the past but acknowledging it would help Sarah come to terms with it.
And that is exactly what she did. Paula allowed Sarah to verbalize her thoughts rather then bottle them inside. The more she talked, the more she healed—the more she healed, the more of an ambivert she became: comfortable with groups and enjoyed social interaction, but also relished time alone and away from the crowd; much like Paula herself. They were kindred in that way. Even in the dark depressing days that followed her breakup, Paula never pushed Sarah away. If no one else, her door remained open for Sarah.
“Ms. Paula,” Sarah lay in Paula’s arms as they watched television in bed. “You wanna know what’s cool about being biracial?”
“Your hair smells like dinosaurs.” Sarah smiled up at Paula.
“Sarah, sweetie, have you been sipping cough syrup?”
“No, not real dinosaurs, the plastic ones we bought from The Discovery Channel Store when my dad was in Saudi.”
Paula took a whiff of Sarah’s jet black hair. “You’re right, it does smell like dinosaurs. I think you should wash your hair.”
“It won’t help. I’ve tried everything. It’ll smell like dinosaurs until you get out of bed and take me to get my hair done.”
Paula looked down at Sarah. “Smart ass.”
“I learned from the best.” Sarah changed the television channel and lay quiet while Paula’s fingers raked through her hair. “You told me to always be honest and speak my mind—and you’d do the same, and we wouldn’t tell anyone what we talk about.”
“I miss Charlie.”
“I miss Charlie too.” Paula closed her eyes. For once she was honest with herself. She missed him. But her “missing” him came in fragments, remnants, tiny bite size shards. Missing him, in his entirety, was too much for her to handle. One day she would miss his slightly dimpled chin or his legs. Or she’d miss his fingers laced in hers; she’d miss the nape of his neck that always smelled of soap. Or other days, she’d miss his Southern drawl and the funny way he pronounced “wiener”. And still, there were days she missed his sense of humor and quick wit or the way the right corner of his mouth curved when he smiled.
These bits and pieces were all she could swallow. It was as if her psyche doled out these small manageable slivers of Charlie, knowing that endeavoring to ingest him as a whole….to sit and consider his absolute loss, would leave her slumped like an injured animal, awaiting death or the circling predators to consume.
Perhaps, given time, she would be able to miss him in larger quantities. For now, she would continue to miss him in snack size portions, hoping one day thoughts of him would no longer fill the quiet space between her breaths.
Two more weeks passed and Paula was upward mobile; working from home and taking care of herself for the most part. John and Sarah virtually moved in with her and the ladies, save Stacy, came over everyday. John and Paula’s bond defied definition: they ate, slept, and breathed one another. He gave her what Charlie no longer could, stability. John bypassed his weekly billiards night with the guys, opting, rather, to cram for his exit exam. Graduation was less than a two weeks away…Lisa, as always, readied his graduation party. He’d planned on taking Paula and Sarah to Florida to visit his family, but Lisa wouldn’t be swayed. He would have a party if it killed the lot of them.
Having her friends and the kids around seemed to be doing the trick for Paula—she’d even managed a smile or two. Her daily conversations with Peggy gave her a resumption of normality. Besides the odds and ends Charlie left behind and mutual friends, his parents were Paula’s last connection to him—a strong connection neither party desired to sever. Her own parents were busy with their new grandchildren or something else Paula had no interest in being involved with. Only one of her sisters, Elizabeth, called regularly, which suited Paula just fine. When her family focused their attention on you, there was no end to their caring. At this juncture, Paula didn’t welcome that level of attention. Calls and emails were fine but no visiting was necessary.
After an emotionally tiring day of packing Charlie’s belongs Paula garnered the wherewithal to drag herself to the shower. The phone rang—she ignored it assuming John had forwarded the calls to his cell phone as he did most evenings. Seconds later she heard Charlie’s voice coming from the answering machine; it was the first time she’d heard his voice since their inglorious end. His pain was undeniable; each syllable was noticeably clipped and labored. His words enveloped Paula’s aching heart leaving her on the verge of tears.
“Paula, I know you won’t answer the phone and you may never hear this message but…I have to…I need to know that you’re alright and being taken care of. I don’t blame you for leaving me. I’m sorry my actions have caused you pain. Knowing that I’ve hurt you is killing me,” Charlie continued. “I’m not calling to explain what I did because I can’t and I’m not going to ask for your forgiveness because I’m not sure I deserve it. I will say that I love you and I miss what we had. I’ll give you some space but please call me if you need me. I love you.”
Paula erased the message, turned off the light and crawled back into bed. Damn the shower.
She awoke some hours later to find Shawn resting against the headboard beside her and watching television with the volume turned down. She grinned sleepily and rolled into him.
“Hey, what are you doing here?”
“Did you think I wasn’t gonna come? I have a key.” he declared.
“What took you so long? I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too. I’ve been slaying my own demons; besides, you needed the time alone. But I’ve weaseled my way in. You’re never getting rid of me.” He chuckled.
“Don’t leave me, Shawn.” She mumbled into his side, the familiar scent of “Gain” detergent welcomed her.
“I’m not going anywhere.” Quiet minutes succeeded one another.
“How did you do it? How were you able to forgive Stacy?” Paula asked surprisingly calm. “I need to know how you did it because I can’t forgive Charlie.”
Shawn took a deep breath. “Stacy and I are working through our problems. The hardest part has been keeping the lines of communication open. I wanted to shut her out like you’ve done Charlie but that wouldn’t have solved anything; the problems would still be there waiting to be dealt with. So we talk, I tell her how I’m feeling and she tells me how she’s feeling and we both have to live with the consequences. That’s how adult relationships work—shutting yourself off and wallowing in self-pity won’t make your problems go away. You’re just buying time. You will have to deal with this, Paula.”
“I’m trying to get my hands around what’s happened but I can’t. I don’t understand how he could walk away from what we had.”
“Did he walk away?” Shawn pulled his attention away from the television and glanced down at Paula. “Can you or anyone prove that he knowingly slept with Stacy? Was it his intent to cheat?”
“No, but the question is still there.”
“So, there are always going to be questions. What were his intentions?”
“I don’t know…”
“Exactly!” Shawn cited. “They were in bed together—we’re in bed together. If someone were to walk in and see us right now, what would they assume?”
Paula knew the point he was driving at. “They can’t judge me because the situations are different. You’re my friend. I’d never have sex with you.”
“And Charlie and Stacy are friends. They knew one another before you came along. If he wanted her, he had plenty of time to get her. There was no intent, on either’s part, to sleep together. Sex between them is outside the dynamics of their relationship.”
Paula shook her head stubbornly. “It doesn’t change the fact it happened.”
“What’s happened?” he shrugged. “Prove they slept together. You have to look at his and Stacy’s character not the appearance of the situation. We can’t judge others based on their behavior, and ask them to judge us based on our intent. Life doesn’t work that way. You need to talk to them, give them a chance to explain.”
“I’m afraid, Shawn.” Paula looked across the tight knit fibers of his shirt. “I’ve been feeling nothing for so long I’m afraid to feel. Talking to them will open wounds I’ve bandaged.”
“You’ve put a Band-aid on a cannonball wound! You won’t begin to heal until you talk to them.”
“What if I can’t take the grief?”
Shawn drew a long thoughtful breath, his sparkling hazel eyes shone down at Paula. “You can.”
She drooped down into his lap and they watched television.
“Hey,” Shawn blurred. “Did you know Sarah’s hair smells like dinosaurs?”
“Yeah, I know.” Paula snorted.
Spread The Word
This article is part 10 of a 13 part series. Other articles in this series are shown below:
Office Politics: Part Ten