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September 18, 2023

Forestwood 2

By Ralph Bland

Part Two

By the weekend Caroline and Willis were an official "thing." I could have gone off on a desert island and still caught wind of it, but that hadn't been necessary. Two afternoons of Willis not appearing in my classroom and the Friday afternoon after dismissal without him showing up to suggest we go to Sunset Boulevard and water ourselves down some and I knew he was completely enthralled with Caroline and couldn't be bothered with me anymore. I probably could have swallowed my medicine and gone on without further ado about the whole situation, but for the fact that suddenly I wasn't getting any phone calls in the evenings from Caroline anymore either, and since these calls were a commonplace between us -- me listening to Caroline's business tales and peccadillos with visiting authors and all that juicy scandalous soap opera stuff I tried to not find so entertaining -- that now that they weren't coming my way on a regular basis anymore I couldn't help but wonder why and dwell on the naked truth.

Caroline and Willis were going at it tooth and nail and my presence or opinion was not important to them at the present time.

It was ten days later on a Sunday afternoon before I heard anything from Caroline. I wasn't really expecting her to call, because Sunday afternoons for her were either spent catching up on paperwork at the bookstore or sleeping three-quarters of the day getting over the animal sex acts she'd performed all weekend. What made it bad was I knew exactly who'd she'd been going through her capers with, and try as I might, I couldn't help but be jealous and green with envy about it. I was in a real quandary, if the truth was to be known about it. If Willis had been my lover to choose from and there was no competition about it, I don't know that I would have turned my back on my comfortable life with Jeff, being a mother and living the good domestic dream of every woman who just wanted a simple, carefree existence with no hints of disaster or tragedy looming each moment around her. I was balancing that with the thought that what escape from the world of Vanilla-ism I had in this life was before me in the guise of mysterious and sinister Willis Carrington, who had now entrenched himself in my thoughts as some Heathcliff sent from the dark universe to save me from a lifetime of tedium and the answer to the question of what is going on to always be, nothing much, nothing much at all. It was something swirling in my mind for every waking minute there for a time -- do I want to be boring and predictable and die of old age and wait in the grave for my chance to go to heaven? Or should I give up that opportunity and go directly to the devil and hand over my soul for admission to a wicked world of smiles and laughter that only lasts for a short, sweet time?

"I hope I'm not waking you from your nap," Caroline asked. There was the trace of a giggle in her voice, as if she knew I couldn't sleep because I was too curious about her and Willis to close my eyes and drift off to anywhere different.

"Just my usual Sunday afternoon case of the dreads. Tomorrow is Monday, so I have to prepare myself to get stressed out and overwrought first thing in the morning."

"I for one couldn't be more content. That's the reason I'm calling you, Lizzie, to thank you for introducing me to Willis. I'll have to say he is exactly what you built him up to be. I'm impressed by your good taste, and I wanted to thank you for introducing us."

"Hell, Caroline, I didn't introduce you. I did no such thing. You know good and well you meeting him was all your doing. Since when do I invite you to my classroom in the middle of a work day to arrange a date for you, like you're some poor bachelorette who doesn't have the wherewithal to find herself a partner? If it had been left up to me, I would have strung a barbwire fence around the school to keep you out, posted an armed guard out on the front walk with orders to shoot if you approached, then maybe I could have been left alone to commit adultery on my own without you interfering."

"Look at it this way," she laughed. "Because of me, you're probably going to get into Heaven after all. I'll be the one down below burning for eternity."

I knew it was coming, and I tried my best to avoid it in hopes that by doing so it would go away and die on the vine by itself, but Caroline did call me a couple of days later and leave a message for me. I didn't really want to hear from her because I knew what she was going to say, and I even ignored listening to the message for a while before finally clicking it on. I knew I was trapped anyway, because I knew Caroline good enough to know that not only would she round me up from the prairie where I was trying to hide, but she'd also impart Willis as a messenger to track me down and make sure the edict got across.

"Why don't you and Jeff meet me and Willis at Sunset Boulevard Saturday night? It's a cozy little place for drinks and conversation, and we can catch up on what's been going on in our worlds for the past few weeks. Lordie, Lizzie, but have I got a few tales to tell you! Things with Willis and me are heating up to a rapid broil."

To make certain I was properly within the corral, Willis appeared at my classroom door on Thursday afternoon, the first time he had done so in a couple of weeks.

Not that I'd been counting.

"I was instructed to come down and see if you're still alive," he said. "I told Caroline I'd spotted you at the faculty meetings, but you were always over on the other side of the room surrounded by your friends and it was hard to get close to you."

"My room is still in the same old place," I smiled. "All you have to do is stroll down to see what I'm up to."

"I thought you were pissed at me over what was going on with Caroline. Somehow or another I started feeling like the two of you were having a fight over something or another."

"You needn't have worried. That's just our way. We've been lobbing hand grenades at each other for years. Nothing's changed at all."

"Your sister is an interesting woman," Willis smiled, "a real piece of work. The two of you are as different as night and day."

"She's definitely night, then, because she's the one with the dark side."

"So you say. I'm not so sure about that. At least with Caroline everything is out in the open. You don't have to stumble around in the realms of darkness trying to see who she is, because it's already been revealed to you just as plain as day, whereas with you, well, there's a lot the naked eye can't detect right away, a whole lot that has to be searched for fumbling around not having any idea where it is and nothing provided to help illuminate the mystery -- not a flashlight or a lightbulb or anything. One just has to feel his way through with no map to tell him which path to take next."

I was pretending not to hear him clearly, acting like I was all absorbed in the papers I was grading on my desk, but he was getting through to me all right. Despite the fact that he'd been with Caroline for two weeks and away from me didn't seem to be a factor anymore, that maybe now he had chosen me over her after all. It also put the hiatus on any of the good, pure thoughts I'd talked myself into regarding Jeff and our relationship and being a good little wife and mother from here on out. I could sense that little promised act of contrition sailing away out the door where Willis was standing, leaving only him there in the room with me. All at once my husband was secondary, my claim to motherhood forfeited.

I was ready for Willis and I to become an item again, even if it was all only in my head.

The Christmas holidays were fast approaching, and the last week before school let out was examination time for the students and grading tests and issuing report cards for the teachers. I didn't have time to waste right that moment on an illicit affair, but I didn't worry about it too much, because I knew Willis was in the same situation as I was. He was actually even worse-off than me, since Senior English had been one teacher short for six weeks now and he'd had to almost double his load until a replacement teacher could be hired. The word was someone was on the way after we got back from the break, but that didn't help matters at the moment. The cards and all the reports had to be done by the last day before the holiday session began. I was working fourteen-hour days; I could only imagine how many hours Willis was putting in.

The few times I saw him that last week he didn't act like it was bothering him too much. He wasn't in his classroom when I stopped by to say hello, and when I saw that his car was missing from the teachers' parking lot I decided he'd probably loaded up all his papers and reports to be filled out and taken them all home to dump on his dining room table, or whatever he had in his apartment he could use as a workplace. I'd never been to his apartment to see how he lived, so I could only imagine how it might be laid out. I guess I'd be a liar if I said I hadn't really thought about it or tried to picture Willis' apartment in my mind. And I'd really have my pants on fire if I said I'd never given his bedroom a second thought.

But the last day of school arrived, and after I'd turned in all my grades and reports, rather than go home and collapse from exhaustion there was something burning in me to look up Willis at his apartment and see what he was doing. I couldn't stand the thought of going two weeks plus without seeing him or not knowing what he was up to during that interval. I wasn't so far gone that I didn't shake my head and laugh at the way I was carrying on, like a starry-eyed schoolgirl with a crush a mile long instead of a schoolteacher-wife and mother who should be way above and long past shenanigans such as this. I tried to take solace in the fact that at least nutso behavior of this variety was bound to make me smile when I recalled it later on, that maybe a crazy stunt like this would raise my life above the boredom line into the stratosphere of interesting and memorable.

I only knew the proximity of Willis' apartment house and not his actual number. I cruised through the lot looking for his Porsche -- which would be a dead giveaway in my detective search -- and circled around the three long buildings looking to see if it was parked somewhere. In less than five minutes I'd found it, and I was just about ready to park and go knocking on doors trying to find the right one when I spotted Caroline's Lexus parked right beside it. It wasn't hard picking her car out, seeing her vanity license tag that read Book Girl on it, so I stepped on the brake and regarded it a while. Whatever was going on inside Willis' apartment, I decided I didn't want to know about it. I knew the two of them weren't in there having lunch.

I drove home in a stew. I couldn't make up my mind exactly who I was ticked off at, if it was Caroline for horning in on my fantasy or Willis choosing Caroline over me or just myself for being fool enough to think that I could compete in a big-time arena of soap opera romance. I pulled the car into the garage and just sat there for a time trying to calm down. I changed stations on the radio from today's hits to classic rock to modern country to classical, but nothing worked to soothe me. I finally turned the radio off and sat there in the silence, listening to the clicking sounds the car was making cooling off from the ride home. The silence helped me to chill a little, but I still didn't much feel like getting out of the car. I was afraid my son might be home from school, watching television and making a mess in the kitchen. I couldn't remember if Jeff was working or not, and I didn't know whether I wanted him to be home right now. I'd had it in my head that I wasn't going to be the one to come in early, so whether I was first, second, or the last to get home, it didn't make much difference to me right then. I was just pissed off at my lot in life, and it didn't matter which way I was spending it. It was unacceptable.

When I did finally migrate from the car into the house, I found I was alone. There was a note from my son saying he was gone for the night -- a Christmas party and spending the night with two of his buddies -- and Jeff hadn't come home yet either. I didn't know if he was working or sitting on his ass at Hooter's drinking beer and stuffing chicken wings into his mouth while he and his friends laughed their asses off and ogled waitresses with boobs a lot larger than mine. At the moment I didn't much care and wasn't interested. Whatever he was doing was fine with me, especially since where it was going on wasn't here. I could call him and find out if he was coming home, should I cook or were we going to go out, but I didn't do it. I just went to the den and sat down. I didn't turn the television on or read or anything.

I was in a wonderful mood, all right.

It was a big surprise when Jeff got home at seven. By that time I'd already written him off for a night out with his buddies, but he came in with not a trace of beer or mischief on his breath or being and sliced himself some cheese while he talked to me a bit. He wanted to know how school went, if I was all through with my reports and grade cards and everything, and did I need him to go back up to the school and help get my classroom settled in for the break. I told him no, I was all through, but thank you very much for thinking of me, and I meant it. It was nice of him to be concerned. He'd never acted that way before and it almost made me feel guilty for the lurid thoughts about Willis Carrington that had been parading through my head for weeks. I was almost ashamed of myself. I was also suspicious. Such caring behavior from Jeff had never much existed before. Maybe back when we were courting or in the first couple of years after we were married, but not so much lately.

It made me think he was up to something.

Naturally, my first thought was Caroline, how Jeff seemed to worship at her throne and seemed unable to divert his eyes from her when she was around, how he couldn't seem to do enough for her when she came by sometimes for breakfast or lunch, how he would almost trip over himself getting up to get her another cup of coffee or find a bottle of salad dressing she liked. Very seldom did he get up from the table and leave us alone to have a sisterly chat. If anybody else was around, he'd be gone in a shot to go watch a game on television or get out in the driveway changing the oil on his truck or take a nap or such. It was only when Caroline made an appearance that he became a real champion of the social graces, was talkative and congenial and brandishing his golden personality for everyone to see. Most of the time it was enough to make you puke. You could see what he was doing a mile away.

The thing about me, though, is I've never been that picky. I've never been totally absolute in my resolutions. Take, for example, this idea that was in my head concerning my husband's attraction to my sister. I didn't let such a notion sway me so much that I was entirely swept away by anger or envy or any of the other raging, deadly emotions. No, I am more of a person who has learned to accept what is coming their way and not throw the baby out with the dishwater. I could be jealous of Caroline and angry at Jeff for casting his eyes and attention her way on occasion, but when it came down to a time like Friday when he was home and my son was gone for the night and the two of us were alone and sensing within our beings that there was a spark somewhere between us that was still ignited and had never managed to go out completely, well, that was the sort of moment where a soul like me would decide to let things be and place some raw emotions on the back-burner to simmer for a while, and to go on and enjoy what marital bliss had been appropriated to us both by the manner of a ring and a ceremony and some solemn vows.

There were teachers at my school, good friends of mine, who would be sleeping alone on this night. They would have no partner around to give them solace and release, to allow them to lose themselves for a while in an act that was distant from the world they inhabited each day, more far-reaching than the petty gripes and instants of day-to-day that followed them around like begging house pets starving for attention. Once more, I managed to appease my mind from another night of gnash and longing, and I went to bed with Jeff before dinner and it was love we had and love we made, and I cozied myself to him and slept two hours in peace, with thoughts of Caroline and Willis miles away for a while.

The Christmas holidays came and went with no word from either Caroline or Willis. Without their physical presences around I came to not think of them very much during that period, and I was grateful for the respite. Life was enjoyable without wondering what the two of them were up to.

I didn't even see Caroline for Christmas, but I was used to her being absent for any yuletide activities by this time. Over the last ten years or so, during and in-between her trio of marriages, Caroline had made it a habit to take a trip the last half of December into the new year, going to such places as San Francisco or New York or making trips to Germany and Switzerland and staying in five-star hotels while taking in the sights.

"Why would I want to hang around here for Christmas?" she'd tell me. "I've already had enough of that experience growing up. I'm just the kind of person who wants to see and do different things every year, not look at the same thing I did the year before. My interest level just shrinks every time I'm around anything familiar for too very long."

This year, then, Caroline was off to Paris for a week and London the week after, and I didn't ask if she would be traveling with Willis by her side (and in her bed) or not. Sometimes she went on these jaunts with a girl friend of like philosophy as her, sometimes she went with the man of the moment, and she'd been known to go solo without anyone around to deter her from whatever new circumstance or unexpected affair that might appear in her path. I didn't want to know whether Willis was with her or not because, for one, I didn't want to ruin my Christmas thinking about what the two of them might be doing each minute of the day, and two, I already knew I'd find out what had gone on as soon as school was back in. Willis would appear in my doorway, and whether he would say where he'd been or what he'd done for those two weeks I would somehow know by the look in his eyes. I'd know if he'd gotten what he wanted or not.

And I would know if I was still included on his list of wants.

I decided I could wait and learn the cold hard facts after the new year had rung in.

Jeff, in the meantime, couldn't have been a much better husband during that time. He was around and attentive whenever he could be, even though his job required him to be at work on such occasions as Christmas Eve and New Years Eve and Day, but when he was home he kept me happy and interceded with our son to keep me from killing him on the sole ground that he was now a smartass teenager. Jeff bought tickets to basketball games and hockey games and the two of them went to arenas and stayed out of my way, making it clear that I could tag along with them if I wanted or be free to stay at home and read or watch Hallmark movies or go visit with my friends if I desired. It was like I had the best of all worlds going for the moment, and all I had to do was keep my thoughts from dwelling too much on what was going on between Willis and Caroline.

So, I should have been happy and content -- right? Well, I was to a large extent, but I couldn't turn off my head entirely. It wasn't, I discovered, that Willis was engrained in my mind so much, that I was mad and crazy about him in a burning and passionate way, but it was the fact that he represented something I felt like was lacking in my daily existence. Heck, for all it was worth Willis could have been Don Knotts and still been a symbol of the same thing to me. He was some entity that was outside the regular pathway of my life that, for some unknown reason, I needed to incorporate into my daily chores to break up the mundane occurrences of my pattern of routine, like there was no use in going forward with the business of living if I didn't have something on the side to relieve the blankness. It was stupid. The fact that I could determine that Willis Carrington, in his true form, wasn't truly that important to me, that it was only the fact that he was a mysterious stranger who was outside my safe and vanilla lifestyle who could somehow provide me with an outlet to escape the everyday facts of my mornings and afternoons and evenings, that I came to realize that any old person would do to serve such a purpose. I started to realize the most important part of the component was Caroline herself. It was this minute the way it had always been growing up. I was somehow in a duel with Caroline, doing every last little thing I could think of to elevate myself to her level.

I thought about it for a few days, and the more I considered the premise that I was a married mother in my thirties and still engaged in a war with my sister made me wonder if I'd learned much of anything down through the years. One would think that by this time I might have arrived at some happy modicum of getting through the daily rigors of breathing in and breathing out, but it was apparently not so. I might as well still be in seventh grade looking up to my sister as both a savior and an enemy, wondering whether she was going to be nice to me one moment and then trample on my sensitivities the next. There was still something going on between us, whether I said it out loud or Caroline thought about it or not while she was jet-setting around on her holiday trips or bedding her latest lovers who may or may not be some man I might have fancied first. It was enough to drive a person nuts if allowed to run rampant, and so I had to tell myself and condition myself to thinking and doing different things during those holiday moments to keep from falling down the rabbit hole and having to wander around lost in a world where the rules were not so clear and I would have to do a lot of studying and searching to find the correct way to act and the right answers to write down to pass the test and move on to the next grade of being a real grownup. There were times when I looked in the mirror and shook my head at the stupidity of it all, my own immaturity and foolishness at this stage of my life. I wondered just exactly when the time would be when I finally decided to become an adult?

I found out soon enough when school started back up again.

First, let me explain that we live in the South, and it's not very often we're confronted with making do in blizzard conditions. Our weather problems generally stem from tornados and heavy rain, but most of the time we don't have to worry about ice bringing down the power lines and coating the streets, snow making it difficult to get to the mailbox or drive to work or a grocery store, but that came into being without much warning this year. We went back to school on a Tuesday after the new year and before we could get settled into classroom routines there was just out of the blue weather that started changing from cold to dark ominous clouds and frosty winds and snow coming out of nowhere with no warning whatsoever. No meteorologist in town had forecasted anything like this. Instead of cloudy skies the heavens were filled with icy precipitation, and instead of smooth sailing on the interstates to work and back there were now sheets of ice and sleet covering the roads, and while life was grinding to a standstill, we were marooned at school waiting for the Director of Schools to make a decision whether to close.

It didn't help that we had probably the worst Director of Schools in the history of Education. While he pondered whether the busses should be called out early or if further study should be done on this particular weather system and whether it was going to linger or move on or die out after just a brief outburst, the snow and ice that snowy day continued to pick up and fall until it was almost too late to do anything except shelter in place, so of course that was when the decision was made to close school early and send everyone home as fast as possible.

The bad part of all that was the teachers had to wait until every last student was on the busses and evacuated from the premises before they could begin gathering up their things and going home themselves. I had my coat and purse and laptop gathered up in my arms, but it wasn't like I was chomping at the bit to get outside to my car and start sliding my way home. See, I hate to admit it, but I'm very frightened of driving in snow. I ran off the road in a snowstorm a couple of years before, and I've been freaked out about it since. I thought about calling Jeff to see if he could come and get me, but I knew how it was for him right that moment at the grocery store, all havoc and panic and mass desperation with customers and employees alike. It would be next to impossible for him to leave work and come and get me. It would be like treason and dereliction of duty and he'd never live it down.

So I was stuck on my own and I was just going to have to screw up my courage and get out there to my car.

That was when Willis appeared in my door jingling his car keys.

"Need a ride home?" he asked.

"You bet your life I do," I told him. "I was just about to have a seizure thinking about trying to get home in this snow."

"I imagine, you being a Southern Belle and all that, that you're not accustomed to commuting in blizzards. Most folks I meet down here get nervous just thinking of snowflakes. They look upon snow as a punishment from the Almighty for the sins they've recently committed."

"I don't blame God for snow. I just don't like to drive in it. Call me a chicken, but I like not wrecking my car, breaking vital bones, or possibly dying."

"I'm from Indiana, so I'm used to it by now. I've been down here two years now and this is the first snowfall I've seen since I arrived. I was getting to where I missed it."

"That's the first time you've ever mentioned where you came from."

"Born in Indianapolis. Graduated from Indiana University. I was the one who taught Bobby Knight how to throw a chair and win friends and influence people."

"I've noticed you have that talent. I'm glad you've been able to spread it around at all the places you go."

"I've been trying to win and influence you for a while now, but you haven't been cooperating. I thought if I saved you from this storm you might change your mind about me and my ulterior motives."

"That will take some doing, but you can still give me a ride home."

By the time we made it out to the teachers' lot it was like a flag had been dropped and everybody was trying to leave at the same time. I could feel eyes boring in on me as Willis opened the Porsche's passenger door and I climbed in. I thought how most of these teachers liked to gossip and how such a saucy detail as me leaving with the mysterious new teacher in a blizzard might actually upgrade my status around school. They might talk about me a little behind closed doors, but it was for sure they'd pay attention to my comings and goings a lot more than they ever had before. I'd rise from being one of the crowd to holding some form of celebrity status from now on out. They might wonder what I was doing and question my ethics some, but from this day on they'd be thinking about me for sure. I wouldn't be a forgotten face anymore.

"There's some promotional bottles of whiskey in the glove box," Willis grinned, "just in case you need warming up from the wintry blast."

"You carry liquor around in your car?"

"Just those little bottles that you can buy on the airline flights. I collect them as a sort of hobby just in case prohibition ever comes back in. There's Maker's Mark and Jameson's and Jack Daniels in there -- you can have your pick."

"You had me fooled. I didn't know you were a boozehound."

"Only when I'm thirsty and stressed, which happens quite often these days."

I didn't say anything else about it, but just settled back in my seat and watched him maneuver the car around the stuck and stalled cars of our colleagues and wind his way out onto the main road. The streets weren't altogether terrible just yet, and I told myself I could have probably made it home if I tried, but I didn't worry about it or berate myself about it too much, because, after all, here I was in this fancy sports car with some guy who could have been Sean Connery's grandson shifting gears and peering out the windshield at the blades going back and forth and the world turning white before us. The heater was purring out warm air and I felt safe and snug, and I sat there thinking about reaching up and opening the glove box and having myself a little celebratory nip of something that was sure to light a fire in my tummy.

I was treading on dangerous ground here. I knew it, but I couldn't stop the feeling from persisting. I didn't much try to thwart it either.

"I guess the next question is where do you live," he said. "You'll have to show me which way to go. I haven't mastered the symmetry of this city just yet. I still find myself getting lost sometimes. To be expected, I suppose." He looked over at me with a rueful smile. "What is it about this town where one road seems to run to every corner of the city limits and break up and start up and get called by a different name for a while until it becomes its old self again? Forestwood Drive? Everywhere you look you're either already on it or getting ready to turn at one of its corners or in two miles you'll be able to enter upon it again, even if you thought you hadn't turned off of it to begin with. Who thought this up?"

"It's just one of those quirky things everyone has learned to live with. Once you stick around a while you'll get used to it."

"I guess. It may take a few years though, and I'm not entirely certain this city and I are going to be on speaking terms by then."

"I thought you were settling in just fine from all the accounts I've heard," I said. I hadn't told him which direction to take to get to my house. I was happy just driving around, him and me and the Porsche in the falling snow. "Every single time I talk to Caroline I seem to get the feeling that you two were made for each other, that any day now she's going to call me on the phone gushing about how you've gone and popped the question."

"I don't know where you get your information, but I don't believe a call like that is going to happen anytime soon."

I started to press him for details, because I really did want to know what the score was between Caroline and him and if somehow I fit into the equation too, since I was the one sitting in his car right now, which made me one-up on Caroline at the moment, like there was a high stakes game going on and I'd just realized it and was busy learning the rules, but I kept my mouth shut and sat back and enjoyed the ride in silence. I decided I'd let Willis talk about him and Caroline and him and me if he'd thought that much about it, and I'd try and not make a fool of myself by jumping into a fray where I probably shouldn't even be entertaining the idea of leaping in.

Willis didn't ask me where my house was again. I started to open my mouth and ask him where we were going when he drove in the opposite direction of my home. He took Forestwood west away from my neighborhood, and when he pulled into his apartment's lot I wasn't surprised. I'd had a hunch this was where we'd been heading all along.

I also didn't say anything when he walked around and opened the door so I could get out. He held my arm so I wouldn't slip on the icy sidewalk, and he unlocked the door to his apartment and we went inside.

Caroline was strangely silent for a while. Not that I missed her, for it was almost a blessing not to talk or be around her for a while, since I wasn't really sure if she and Willis were history or not or how much she knew about what may or may not have gone on between Willis and me. To tell the truth, I was a little mixed-up about several parts of the equation myself. I hate to come across as a dummy, but I wasn't totally certain if Willis and I were having an affair or not, since that thing between us had happened once and not again, and being the person that I was, I didn't know what truly constituted "having an affair" actually meant. Was it construed through the amount of times two people met illicitly behind peoples' backs? Did it have to do with the number of times those two people had sex? Did once retain the classification of affair status, or did you have to have it multiple times to be included in that group? If the two people only got together once and did it that time and that was all, wasn't that a whole different thing? Didn't that move the heading over to the title of "Just One of Those Things?"

My mother, when she was alive, was in love with Frank Sinatra for as far back as I could remember. She used to play one of his albums on our console/stereo in the living room that had "Just One of Those Things" on it. I can still see her dusting or washing dishes or chopping up vegetables for dinner and singing along with Frank to that song, her hips swaying back and forth and a tiny, naughty smile on her face, like she was thinking about someone other than my dad -- maybe Old Blue Eyes himself -- who she could have a one-time fling with and just good-naturally shrug it off later as something that happened that couldn't be helped or changed, that it was just one of those things and the best thing to do was learn to live with it and move forward with life from that point forward. After all, that was the way things went. It wasn't like it was the end of the world or anything. Life was going to go on one way or another.

I was trying to put myself into the same shoes as my mother, if, in fact, that was actually the golden slippers my mother had been trying to put on back then. Was I having a backstreet affair that might suddenly end in tragedy, or was what I'd done just me and a modern version of my mother's notion of Frank Sinatra, and how was I going to handle it and where was I going to go with it from this point on?

Being confused and in a dither about everything that had lately befallen me, I decided to grab the cow by its udders and see what vibes could be imported from Caroline and Willis themselves. Since I was into a group therapy/cleansing type of thing, I decided I'd call Caroline first and see if she and Willis would like to meet Jeff and me for dinner. I don't know if I had a death wish or not or if I was just wanting the world to end and the walls of obliteration to crumble down upon me, but I reasoned that if I was surrounded by my sister, who I was in some weird sort of competition with, and Willis, who I'd recently gone and committed adultery with, and Jeff who I'd cheated on and for all I knew might be cheating on me too, then perhaps I could garner some clear sign of how the world was spinning these days and what exactly I could do about it, make it better or do something drastic to make it spin off its axis and end the suspense for everyone.

Caroline didn't act like she was much interested in my idea of an evening's socializing, but I kept on until she finally said she'd check with Willis and get back to me. I could tell by the tone in her voice that she was going to do no such thing, that she and Willis weren't too hot a topic right now, but I knew it wasn't over completely, because this hemming and hawing routine that Caroline was giving me about an evening of dining out wasn't in any way her style or routine when it came to her relationship with someone who'd been her lover. No, if things were going to be over with Willis Carrington and herself, Caroline would make sure she was the one who had the last word and struck the last blow. If she was silent and distant about such things right now it was not an admission of any kind of defeat. It was only a portent of some strategy to come.

I decided to speed up the process by walking down to Willis' classroom and appearing in his doorway myself. It was out of character and nothing little old me would have ever done in the past, but since I was a woman with a past now, I figured it couldn't hurt matters that much by sticking my own spoon into the sordid pot and stirring things up a little.

Willis was sitting at his desk reading over some papers that must have required all of his attention, because he didn't look up for at least a minute to see me standing in the doorway looking at him. I finally had to be real Victorian and clear my throat before he lifted his eyes and saw me.

"God, how long have you been there?"

"You were so engrossed with your reading I didn't want to break your concentration."

"I was thinking of coming down and visiting you in a little bit."

"Really? I thought you'd forgotten which hallway to take to get there."

"I haven't been avoiding you, if that's what you're implying. I've just got a double load of work to do here until they get the new teacher hired. From what I understand she'll be here next week, and I want to make sure she's not snowed over immediately when she walks in the door. I figure if she's halfway happy she won't walk out the first day, because I'm sure as hell tired of doing two jobs for one rate of pay."

"You poor baby. I didn't realize life was being so hard on you."

He smiled a little at that.

"Yeah, well maybe you don't think too much of it, being Miss Professional Educator and having all the accolades to prove it, but I'm not in this business to bust my guts. I'm teaching because it's a living, and somewhere along the line I got lectured on how a fellow is supposed to have a job to go to every day and be halfway respectable because of it, but I didn't read in the fine print anywhere any clause that said I have to kill myself and die at an early age because of it. I'm here because I didn't want to pick up trash or spread asphalt all my life, and this was about the only other thing I seemed to be qualified for."

"You could have joined the circus. I can see you flying through the air with the greatest of ease on a trapeze right now, everyone oohing and ahhing at all your flips and somersaults high above the ring."

"That's a profession that can kill you right quick too. There's a lot of jobs where you can do that, or at least end up crippled and maimed. Anyway, the only reason I started teaching was because my well-to-do fiancée at the time wasn't too keen about going to work every day while I sat at home watching game shows and getting high. Imagine that?"

"Sounds like you paired off with a real taskmaster. Sounds like it really scarred you emotionally."

"It did there at first. After we split up I lost out on her bank account, so I had to get a job teaching. I was all right for a while until my school closed and I had to enter the ranks. I landed here, where they require you to work most of the time. It's a bummer."

"You could be worse off." I couldn't keep myself from asking the question, since it seemed like now was the time to find out some more background on Mr. Willis Carrington. "What happened to your fiancée, anyway? You didn't poison her or anything just because she made you find a job, did you?"

"She's in California. She's either going to be a movie star or sell real estate. I think the idea was to put as many states as possible between us. At the time of our parting, she wasn't too happy with me. She discovered how I mostly wanted to go to the zoo every day and look at animals and then hang out with other women in the meantime."

"A relationship made in Heaven if I ever heard of one."

"It might sound like Heaven to you, but it was pure Hell for me."

Whatever crime he'd committed, I decided right then and there to forgive him. It was hard for me to justify having ill feelings toward him because he'd actually gone and done what I'd wanted him to do. Suddenly I wasn't angry with Caroline anymore either. For the first time in as long as I could remember I felt like I was finally even with her on something, if not ahead by a nose or the slightest of margins. We had both been vying for the right of being Numeral Uno on Willis' list of who he wanted to get intimate with, and it had been a close race for once. It hadn't been a runaway victory for Caroline, with me left far back in the pack. For the first time in as long as I could remember I was not observing her from the rear. I was up close and she was having to illicit all her charms and every trick in her book to keep pace. I was probably wrong to have warm and fuzzy feelings about such behaviors as the three of us were engaged in, but it did feel nice to finally be on the side that was winning, whatever prize it was we were all shooting for. As long as I didn't stay up nights worrying about it everything would probably turn out all right. This was, after all, not brain surgery or nuclear war. No one was going to die from the eventual outcome.

I only went to bed once more with Willis, and that, I think, was to give me some kind of closure from the whole deal. Of course, when I say I went to bed with him "only" one more time that was like Eve saying she'd only taken one bite of the forbidden fruit back in Eden and so it shouldn't be held against her too much. I still knew what I'd done no matter what the quantity was, so I wasn't very proud of myself. I'll admit I didn't feel as guilty as I should have, as I would have if I'd have been half the person I gave myself credit for being, but I still held the feeling I was not going to be condemned to total damnation because of what I'd dabbled in. I was hoping there was a thing called forgiveness.

We actually all did finally get together and meet for dinner at Sunset Boulevard, which wasn't exactly fine dining but was good enough not to gag on and get filled up and not wreck the budget doing so. Jeff and I had always been partial to their cheeseburger plate with fries, while Caroline ordered fish and chips. Willis, I noticed, only ordered a side salad, saying he'd had a big lunch and wasn't that hungry. I found this a little strange, since I'd seen him at lunch at school earlier and all he'd had was a salad then too. Not that I was keeping my eyes on him and studying his actions or anything like that -- oh no, not me.

Maybe it was just me, because nobody else acted like they noticed it, but it was like a big shadow was hanging over our table the entire night. There was no flow to the conversation, no one much laughed at anything, and there were long periods of silence as if everyone was pondering the meaning of lyrics of tunes from the house sound system or gazing into their plates to see if there might be a dog hair or some unwelcome foreign matter perched upon their food. For a while I did my best to run my mouth and try and get the ball rolling for the evening, but soon I gave up and descended into my own meditative silence, wondering if when the quiet spell was finally broken if the subject of who was bedding who was going to come up.

"Do you have any interesting authors scheduled to come talk anytime soon?" I finally inquired. Maybe if I could get Caroline to open her mouth for anything other than shoving food through it there might be hope for the evening yet. "You haven't resurrected Thomas Wolfe from the grave to come give a signing anytime soon, have you?"

"No," she said, like it was a burden to think about. "There's not much going on right now. It's like it's a dead period for everything."

I saw her glance over at Willis, who was suddenly checking his phone for a text, like nothing could be more important than what he was reading on his screen. Maybe he saw her look his way, as if it was his time to make a comment on something, but he didn't take a cue, just put his phone away and picked up his napkin and wiped his lips. He raised his hands as if the world was beyond his control and there was nothing he could do about it.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave," he said. "Something's come up I have to take care of." He stood up and moved his chair back and fished his keys from his pocket.

"I really do apologize," he told us all, going from face to face to look into our eyes. "This can't be helped."

He called a waitress and paid for the entire bill and was out the door before we could squabble about it. I suppose he figured we'd be grateful and take Caroline home.

Article © Ralph Bland. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-12-27
Image(s) are public domain.
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