A girls guide to moving.., p.14
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       A Girl's Guide to Moving On, p.14

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  “Karen? You there?” Cassie asked.

  “I’m here,” Karen confirmed. “Now, what’s your big news, although I think I can guess?”

  “It’s taken me a while,” my middle sister admitted, “but I believe I’m ready to spend the rest of my life with Steve. We’ve decided to set the date for our wedding.”

  Both Karen and I started talking at once, congratulating our sister. Karen was in the car on her way to Buddy’s soccer game and had to hang up. I stayed on the line with Cassie.

  Tears clogged my throat. “This is so great, Cassie.”

  She must have heard the emotion in my voice because she said, “Are you crying, Nichole?”

  I sniffled. “Yes, I’m just so happy for you and Steve and Amiee. From the minute I met Steve I knew you two were meant to be together. It gives me hope, Cassie, that there’s a happy ending for me, too.”

  “There is, Nichole,” Cassie assured me, “but remember it doesn’t always come easy.”

  “Nothing worthwhile ever does.” I’d learned that the hard way.

  “I want both you and Karen to be my bridesmaids. It’s going to be a small wedding with just family and friends, but Steve wants to have a big reception and a dance. He’s making all the arrangements, so mark down the date.”

  “Cassie,” I whispered, tears brightening my eyes. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

  —

  All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better day. First Rocco and I were back on track and then Cassie’s good news. On the way to my apartment I decided to stop in and see how Leanne’s visit had gone with Sean. I knew Nikolai planned to stop by later in the afternoon, and if I was lucky, Leanne might offer me a freshly baked loaf of bread.

  When she answered the door I could see that she was upset. She held the door open, silently inviting me inside.

  “Hey, Leanne. What’s going on?”

  She was pale and her shoulders slumped forward.

  “Didn’t things go well with Sean?”

  “They went fine. I’m not even sure why he wanted to see me.”

  I sat down and she joined me. “That’s good, right?”

  She nodded blankly, as if her mind was somewhere in outer space. “Sean arrived late and he was still here when Nikolai stopped by.”

  That shouldn’t be a problem. My thought was that it would do Sean good to learn this wonderful man was interested in Leanne.

  “Nikolai was deeply offended that I would share the bread he’d baked for me with Sean. He could hardly bear to look at me and then he just left. From the way he acted, it was if I’d committed some grievous crime and had deeply insulted him.”

  It hurt me to see how upset Leanne was over this. I hoped to reassure her. “He’ll get over it.”

  My mother-in-law shook her head. “Not this; it seems what I did was unforgiveable. I don’t know that I’ll ever see him again.”

  “Oh Leanne, I’m sure that’s not true.”

  “It’s fine,” she whispered.

  I could see it was anything but.

  “I’ve had all afternoon to think about it.” She raised her hands to her face. “I don’t know what I was thinking. A woman my age acting like a teenager in love for the first time. I should never have allowed myself to get involved with Nikolai.”

  “You don’t mean that.”

  “I do,” she insisted.

  I didn’t know that I’d ever seen Leanne like this. Even the day she told me she’d learned Jake had gotten another woman pregnant didn’t match the hurt I read in her now. This was about more than what’d happened with Nikolai, though. It had to be.

  Leaning forward, I reached for her hands. “Tell me what’s really wrong.”

  She looked down and shook her head. It was a long time before she spoke, but I was patient, unwilling to leave her until I learned what tormented her so.

  Minutes must have passed before she was ready, and even then it was a whisper so low I had to move closer in order to hear.

  “When Nikolai kissed me…” She stopped and swallowed. “It’d been over ten years since a man had touched me. Sean and I basically lived separate lives. Any affection between us was for show. I cooked his meals, cleaned his home, managed the social elements of his career, but there was no love between us. That had died long ago. I was an accessory in his life as he was in mine. I’d dried up sexually…I didn’t think I still had those feelings in me until Nikolai.”

  I’d suspected this might be the case but had never asked. It wasn’t my place.

  “I don’t think I’m loveable, Nichole. I’ve held myself aloof all these years, living a pretend life. Nikolai is the first man since college to make me feel desire. It made me heady and happy and I blew it.”

  I pressed my head against hers. “If Nikolai is half the man I think he is, he’ll get over this. Give him the weekend. Trust me, he’ll show for class on Monday.”

  She shook her head. “If he is or isn’t, it doesn’t matter. I learned something about myself today. I don’t like being vulnerable. I prefer to think I’m strong and independent. I’ve had to be. I’m just not as smart as I want, but I’m learning. If Nikolai is at class on Monday, I’m going to tell him I don’t want to see him again, and then I’m going to see if the school can find a replacement teacher.”

  My heart ached for Leanne and I released a heartfelt sigh. “Please think this over,” I pleaded. “Don’t make a rash decision.”

  “I have thought it over,” she whispered. “I need to do this to protect me, to protect my heart.”

  I woke Sunday morning with the most insistent physical pain. My sleep had been intermittent at best. My head was full of what had happened with Nikolai and my decision not to see him again. By the time I went to bed I’d decided that to quit teaching was an overreaction. Every week I looked forward to spending time with my students. They were wonderful. As for Nikolai, I strongly suspected he wouldn’t be coming to classes any longer. And if he did, well, I’d deal with him then.

  By midmorning the pain in my back had gotten worse, more intense. It wasn’t like I’d twisted it the wrong way. This was sharper, more pronounced, throbbing and unrelenting, a burning sensation. Checking my reflection in the mirror, I couldn’t see a thing, which frustrated me. With this amount of pain there should be something visible. It felt as if someone had put a red-hot knife against my skin.

  I waited until just before noon before I called Nichole. By then I could barely stand still. The pain was all-consuming. “Could you stop by for a minute?” I asked.

  “Of course.”

  Nichole didn’t wait for me to answer the door, but came straight into the apartment. “Is everything all right?” she asked.

  She must have detected the agony in my voice because I heard the concern in hers. “Would you check my back? Something’s wrong. I’m in awful pain.”

  I lifted up my shirt. It was crazy; even the cotton against my skin hurt. “Do you see anything?” I asked, twisting my head around, trying to look myself. Again, I was frustrated to see nothing.

  Nichole studied the area intently and then shook her head. “I don’t see anything.”

  She pressed her finger against the area that ached the worst and I cried out and then bit my lower lip.

  “Oh my goodness,” Nichole whispered. “You better get to the doctor.”

  I shook my head. “I’m sure whatever it is will be gone by tomorrow.” That was my hope. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand more than a day of this agony.

  Nichole looked skeptical. “Promise me that if you don’t have relief in the morning, you’ll make an appointment.”

  That was an easy promise to make.

  “Do you want me to stay with you?” she asked. “I told Rocco I’d go to the movies with him and Kaylene, but I can call and explain.”

  “No,” I insisted. “I’ll be perfectly fine. Go with Rocco and have a good time.”

  Nichole protested, but in the end she left to join Rocco and
his daughter. I didn’t want her to cancel her fun because of me. At noontime, I tried to eat, but nothing appealed to me. Although I looked for something to distract me from the discomfort, nothing helped. Finally, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I got on the Internet and did a search on back pain. Nothing seemed to fit until I started to describe what I was feeling. That was when I got my answer.

  Shingles.

  I had shingles.

  Nichole stopped to check on me late in the afternoon. I tried to put on a good face, but I fear I failed. She took one look at me and shook her head. “Something is drastically wrong.”

  “I think it’s shingles,” I said, not giving her a chance to say anything further.

  She raised her hands to her mouth. “Oh no.”

  “I did an Internet search and that’s the only thing I could find that explains this pain I’m feeling.”

  “Do you want me to take you to the ER?” she asked.

  “No, no, I’ll wait until tomorrow to see my doctor.” In this amount of discomfort, the last thing I wanted was to sit for hours on end in a hospital waiting room.

  “You’re sure?”

  “Positive.” Wanting to change the subject, I asked about the movie with Rocco.

  Nichole’s face relaxed into a smile. “It was fun. Kaylene and four of her friends sat three rows in front of us. No way did they want to be associated with Rocco or me.” Her eyes brightened with delight as she laughed. “Rocco didn’t like being ignored, so he threw popcorn at them.”

  Although I didn’t know Rocco well, I liked him just for the way he’d helped Nichole come out of her shell. He was great with Owen, too. Owen talked about him incessantly, which was nice. It worried me that my grandson had little to say about his own father.

  Later I came to regret not accepting Nichole’s offer to take me to the ER. I don’t think I slept more than an hour the entire night, if that. The unrelenting pain made it impossible to fall asleep. By morning I could barely function. I got the earliest appointment possible with my doctor, which wasn’t until midafternoon.

  On her way to school and the daycare center, Nichole stopped by with Owen to check on me. She made me promise to text her as soon as I left the doctor’s office. After seeing her I called the Community Center and explained that I’d be unable to teach that night and didn’t know how long I’d be out. I hated doing this to them at the last minute, but they were kind and understood.

  —

  My doctor’s appointment confirmed what I already knew. I was given a prescription for an antiviral drug and heavy painkillers. I swallowed both the minute I got home. Within hours I was zonked out, asleep on the sofa. When I woke it was close to five and I was sick to my stomach from the meds, dizzy and disoriented.

  I vaguely remember Nichole checking on me again after school. She forced some soup into me and then put me to bed. I slept through the night and didn’t wake until well into Tuesday morning.

  Kacey phoned, suggesting we do lunch. I begged off.

  “Okay, I’ll let you off the hook this time, but we’re setting a date to get together right now,” she insisted. “It’s been far too long since I saw you. I know you have a new life, but I’m still your friend.”

  “You’ll always be my friend,” I assured her. The truth was she was right. I had stepped away from her friendship mainly because every time I was with Kacey, she brought up Sean. I didn’t want to discuss my ex-husband. I didn’t care who he was involved with now or if and when he’d embarrassed himself at the club. The gossip concerning my ex-husband didn’t interest me. No matter how many times I explained that to Kacey, she didn’t listen.

  Wednesday passed in a blur. I could function on the pain meds, but just barely. They made me sick to my stomach and sleepy. Nichole and Owen stopped by at least once or twice a day to be sure I was eating. They didn’t stay long and frankly I was grateful. Owen didn’t understand why I didn’t read to him or tell him stories. His big round eyes looked at me and I could barely stand to disappoint him.

  Thursday afternoon my doorbell rang and, suspecting it was Nichole, I called for her to come in. When the door opened, though, it wasn’t Nichole. Instead, it was Nikolai.

  He came into my apartment, stopped, and frowned when he saw me.

  It took every shred of dignity I had not to cover my face and ask him to leave. I’d had a shower earlier in the day but hadn’t styled my hair. Nor did I have any makeup on. I was in my robe and slippers and probably looked like an Ebola victim.

  His eyes widened in alarm. “Leanne?” he whispered as if he wasn’t completely sure it was me.

  “Go away,” I pleaded. “Please, please just leave.”

  He refused with a hard shake of his head. “The teacher no say why you not in class.”

  “It’s obvious, isn’t it? I’m…sick.” I wasn’t sure he even knew what shingles was and I didn’t want to take time to explain. “Go away, you might catch this bug,” I said. That was a blatant lie, but I was desperate.

  “I won’t leave.” He was insistent.

  “Please, Nikolai.” I was close to tears. “Please just do as I ask.”

  He shook his head. I didn’t know he could be so stubborn.

  “You’re angry with me, remember?”

  “I was wrong.” He remained standing just inside the apartment, refusing to budge.

  “I served the bread you made for me to Sean.” Perhaps if I reminded him the terrible thing I’d done he’d leave.

  He shook his head as if to say that no longer concerned him. “I was angry, but no more.”

  “You should be angry,” I insisted. “You shouldn’t be so willing to forgive me,” I said, grasping at straws.

  “I not leave you. Tell me this sickness and I cook for you.”

  I was too tired and beaten down to argue. Hanging my head I told him, “I have shingles.”

  His eyes widened and he started talking quickly and adamantly in his mother tongue.

  “You know what shingles are?” I asked, surprised.

  He nodded and his eyes filled with sympathy. “Oh my Leanne, my Leanne, I cannot bear for you to suffer this terrible pain.”

  His words and his look were so tender they brought tears to my eyes. I blinked and looked away, unable to meet his gaze.

  Before I knew what he was doing, Nikolai tenderly took me in his arms and hugged me as if I were the most fragile of flowers. He kissed my forehead and then my cheeks, all while speaking softly in Ukrainian. Although I was unable to understand a single word he said, his gentle voice soothed me more than any prescription I might have been given.

  Nikolai led me to the sofa and sat down next to me, gripping both my hands in his. He didn’t say anything for the longest time, and I noticed his Adam’s apple moving up and down in his throat as if he was struggling within himself.

  “When you not come to class on Monday, I was glad. I still angry. I think you no respect me.”

  “Oh Nikolai, that’s not true, I—”

  He shushed me with his finger against my lips. “The teacher no say why you not come. I think, Good; I glad you not there. I think you feed that pimple-on-log ex-husband more of my bread and I bubble with anger.”

  “I didn’t.”

  “I know. I make excuse to be angry; otherwise, I hurt too much.”

  I had no idea Nikolai would take what I’d done personally. It had been a matter of practicality to me and nothing more.

  “On Wednesday I think and think. All day I think. I miss you. I see sadness in your eyes when I leave you. I talk with friend at deli and he tell me I wrong. He tell me I am foolish man. I not want to hear that. I want to hear that you foolish one, not me. My friend say I act like jealous fool and he is right. He say I should tell you sorry…that is why I come.”

  I raised my hand to his cheek and cupped it, my heart melting at his apology. I’d been utterly miserable since we’d last talked, and that misery had little to do with the discomfort of shingles.

 
Nikolai raised my hands to his mouth and kissed my fingers one by one. “When you no come to class again I ask teacher and she say you must be sick, but she not know for sure. I think maybe you sick because of me, because of what I say, because I jealous. I no wait until next week. I can’t wait. I come see you now.”

  “Nikolai,” I whispered…but I was unable to say anything more than his name, for the knot blocking my throat.

  He leaned forward and kissed me, his lips gentle and undemanding. He raised his head and then brushed my hair away from my face, looping it around my ears and holding my head between his hands.

  Having him look at me when I was at my physical worst was almost more than I could bear. I lowered my eyes, knowing what he must see: a woman well past her prime with wrinkles around her mouth and eyes whose sight had dimmed. A woman unloved and discarded by her husband years before she had the courage and the strength to walk away.

  “You so beautiful,” he whispered. “So beautiful.”

  I shook my head, unwilling to hear or believe him.

  His hands tightened. “You no believe you beautiful?”

  “Nikolai, I don’t have any makeup on, and my hair—”

  “You no need makeup,” he said cutting me off. “You no need hair.”

  I smiled.

  “You beautiful person here,” he said, pointing to my heart. “More beautiful there than beautiful outside. And outside so beautiful I look at you and forget to get air.”

  Tears pooled in my eyes.

  “My heart pounding, and I think this woman is most beautiful woman I ever meet. I simple man. I not rich, but I work hard all my life. I marry young and hope for family, but no children come. I love my wife. I happy for long time, then Magdalena get sick and there are no doctors, no medicine. I do everything to help her. I go from city to city to find doctor to help my wife, but she get sicker and sicker. But to me she always beautiful. I see you and know you like my Magdalena. You beautiful person; you no need makeup, you no need hair; all I see is woman, good woman.”

 
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