A girls guide to moving.., p.26
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       A Girl's Guide to Moving On, p.26

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  “You could always ask Barbara to tidy up for you,” I teased.

  A stricken look came over Sean. “You know about Barbara?”

  “And Candace and Susan. Jake mentioned them.”

  His face fell and he looked away. “As soon as Barbara heard about the cancer she quit taking my calls. Guess she isn’t interested in dating a dying man.”

  That said a lot about the women my ex chose to associate with. “I’m sorry to hear that.” I deserved a reward for not reminding him about the other women he’d paraded through his life before and after the divorce.

  When it was time to go, Sean set the security code and we walked to the car. It was best that I drive. As soon as we were seated and comfortable, I asked him, “Everything okay between you and Jake?”

  Once again he looked uncomfortable. “Mostly.”

  “I think he’s in denial about your cancer.”

  Sean agreed, his eyes sad. “I got that impression. He hardly checks in on me these days. If he doesn’t see or talk to me, then he won’t need to face the fact that I won’t be around much longer.”

  I suspected Sean was right. Avoidance was something Jake had inherited from his father.

  Sean had chosen a funeral home several miles from Lake Oswego. I assumed he’d want one closer to the area in which he lived. He gave me directions and explained.

  “I looked at several cemeteries online and chose this one because it has a beautiful view of the water.”

  I frowned, wondering why he would consider that an important criterion. To remind him he wouldn’t be able to enjoy that view would have been unkind, so I didn’t, although I was tempted.

  We arrived in plenty of time for the appointment. The funeral director met us and led us both into his office. As we sat there discussing the details of Sean’s funeral and burial I felt myself starting to get emotional. It was like the reality of it all hit me in the face. This was no joke; Sean was dying.

  This man I had once loved with all my heart would soon be gone from my life in a way that brought me pain, an emotion I hadn’t expected. Oh, we had our issues and had for years. I’d divorced him. I hadn’t lived with him in more than two years, but I’d never wished this on him.

  What surprised me most was how accepting Sean was of his demise. He chose a particular financial plan that was a little above the average, but not much. When we finished going over a number of options, flowers, music, and a dozen other minute details I’d never considered, we were led into a room where the caskets were displayed.

  Sean ran his hand over the mahogany one and I noted that all the blood had drained from his face. For a moment I thought he might faint. I wrapped my arm around him and he thanked me with a weak smile. “This one is fine,” he whispered.

  “Would it be all right if we finished this up at a later date?” I said. “My husband is weak. I need to get him home.”

  “Of course, of course. Call when you can and we’ll schedule another appointment.”

  “Thank you.” I led Sean out to the car and helped him inside.

  He waited until I was sitting beside him before he spoke. He reached for my hand and clenched it to the point of pain. “Thank you,” he whispered brokenly, and I knew he was thanking me for more than helping him this afternoon.

  “I never deserved you,” he added, and I swear I could hear tears in his voice.

  I started back to Lake Oswego and I kept a close watch on Sean. He leaned his head against the passenger window and closed his eyes. “You called me your husband,” he whispered.

  “You were for thirty-five years.”

  “Thirty-four.”

  I found it amazing he would remember such a small detail. “All right, thirty-four years and seven months.”

  When we reached the house, I helped Sean inside. He leaned heavily on me and I was afraid to leave him alone. “Can I get you anything?” I asked.

  “I’m cold,” he whispered.

  “I’ll get you an afghan,” I said, until I remembered that I had taken the best one with me when we divorced. Sean was so rarely home he’d never used it. I found another in the hall closet. Unfolding it, I spread it over him and tucked it around his shoulders. “Better?” I asked.

  He smiled and thanked me.

  “When was the last time you ate?” I asked.

  He looked terribly tired. “This morning.”

  I was afraid of that. I went to the refrigerator and brought out the eggs I’d purchased Thanksgiving Day, along with bread and butter. I had the pan on the stove when Sean stopped me.

  “Please don’t.”

  “You haven’t eaten, Sean. You need something in your stomach. It isn’t any wonder you’re weak and pale.”

  “Nikolai…he wouldn’t want you to do this.”

  The reminder caught me up short. I’d promised Nikolai that I wouldn’t cook or clean for Sean again, but these were extenuating circumstances.

  “He’ll just have to deal with it,” I said, cracking the eggs against the side of the bowl.

  “I don’t want to cause trouble between you two.”

  “You won’t.” And he wouldn’t. I’d make sure of that.

  I fixed Sean an omelet and set it on a tray in front of his recliner, along with a glass of orange juice and two slices of buttered toast. Sean ate as if he was ravenous. When he finished I washed the dishes I’d used. It seemed a little ridiculous to ignore everything else in the sink.

  By the time I finished loading the dishwasher there was a full load. I started it and washed by hand the pans that didn’t fit inside, and then wiped down the kitchen countertops.

  When I looked over at Sean he was sound asleep. I imagined his body needed the rest. I didn’t want to disturb him. I knew it might be a while before he would eat again. One of his favorite meals, beef Stroganoff, was cooked in the Crock-Pot. Checking the freezer, I saw that he had the meat and I found the other ingredients in the cupboard. I assembled everything and set the Crock-Pot on low. Sean would be able to make several dinners out of this and it had been nothing for me to get it going for him.

  I was about to sneak out and let him sleep when I saw that the living room wasn’t so much a mess as I’d first thought. Newspapers and mail were carelessly set about, but that was mostly it. I took care of the papers and then fluffed up the pillows. Once I got started it seemed silly to stop. By the time I left the house I’d changed his sheets and cleaned the bathroom, too.

  Not until I started back to Portland did I remember that I’d promised to call Nikolai. I knew he would be upset with me, but I didn’t dare use my cell while driving. I’d waited this long, a few more minutes wouldn’t matter.

  When I arrived at my apartment building, I was shocked to see Nikolai pacing the foyer.

  “Nikolai, what are you doing here?” I asked, hardly knowing what to think.

  “We talk serious,” he said, his eyes dark and brooding. We rode the elevator up together. As soon as we entered my apartment, he turned to me. His eyes were like a laser beam focused directly on me. “Why you not answer your phone? I call and call and you no answer.”

  I grabbed the phone out of my purse and remembered I’d put it on silent when we’d gone in to talk to the funeral director. “I’m so sorry,” I said and explained.

  “What take you so long? You say two hours, maybe three. You gone almost seven.”

  Had it really been that long? Apparently so. “Sean was tired and hadn’t eaten, so I made him an omelet…”

  “You cook for him?” Nikolai’s eyes widened. “You promise you not do that again.”

  “I know, but Nikolai…”

  “It not take so many hours for you to cook eggs.” He grabbed hold of my hands and looked down at them. His eyes widened. “You clean, too. You become maid to this man when you promise me you not do this.”

  He was right. I knew he was right. “Have a little compassion, Nikolai,” I said, not wanting to argue with him. “Sean is sick. He’s growing weaker by the day.


  He glared at me as if seeing me for the first time, taking in the pleading look in my eyes. I don’t know what he saw that made him retreat a step. A stricken look came over him. He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again. It took a second attempt before he was able to utter the words. “You still love him.”

  His words shook me and I swallowed hard while I processed the emotions racing through me. Nikolai was right. I did love Sean. The shock of it hit me. I assumed all I’d felt was sympathy, compassion, but it was more. I still cared for Sean, despite the fact that we were divorced. He continued to hold a place in my heart. “We were married…” Sitting in the funeral director’s office, I’d been overwhelmed by the sense of loss, knowing the man I had divorced would soon be gone from this world.

  “This different,” Nikolai said. “You tell me one time you love memory. You love the man from when you first married, but that love dried up and died. What was left not like young love. It something else.”

  I remembered well the conversation. “You loved Magdalena.”

  “She loved me. This man, he not love you. He use you. He treat you like tissue. He blow his nose on you and then throw you away.”

  “You’re wrong, Nikolai,” I argued. “This is different. Sean is different.” I remembered the way my ex-husband had clenched my hand earlier, as if holding on to me was all that kept him going.

  “No,” Nikolai said loudly, startling me. “No, he not different. The one who is different is you.”

  I sagged onto the sofa and covered my face with my hands. A chill went down my back. In that moment I knew Nikolai was right. All those years I’d craved my husband’s love, needed it, and now he was dying and desperately needed me. I couldn’t say for sure if Sean had changed, but I knew I had. No matter how hard this would be and regardless of my feelings for Nikolai, helping Sean was something I had to do. For Sean, certainly, but also for myself.

  “What you say?” Nikolai demanded. “Tell me what you say?”

  I shook my head. I had nothing to tell him.

  “That is what I think,” he whispered. “I not fight dying man. I not win. I leave you now. I not bake bread for you again.”

  I wanted to call out and stop him, but I knew he was right. The door clicked gently and all I seemed capable of doing was staring at it. Nikolai had left me. He was gone, and instinctively I knew he wasn’t coming back.

  I barely slept or ate all weekend. Sean called me twice, needing my help, and despite everything I went to him, cooked and cleaned for him. He was grateful to the point of tears. I couldn’t abandon him.

  Monday night when I arrived for class Nikolai wasn’t in the parking lot waiting for me. Once inside I was handed a notice that told me Nikolai Janchenko had withdrawn from the class.

  Teaching classes was torture for me. It didn’t help that the kids’ heads were wrapped around Christmas and the upcoming winter break. I somehow made it from day to day for the next two weeks. Every class taxed me to the limit. All I wanted to do was curl into a tight ball and hibernate, but that was impossible.

  If Jake had been looking for a way to punish me for having the gall to divorce him, then he’d found the perfect torture. To my dying day I would always remember the look of pain that flashed ever so briefly in Rocco’s eyes before he closed himself off from me. Rocco had been nothing but wonderful to me and I missed him.

  Owen asked daily when he would see Rocco and Kaylene again. I put him off until he had a crying fit. After the first week I’d been forced to tell my son that we probably wouldn’t be able to see Rocco again. It was then that I felt the first cloud of emotion break through my fog of pain and loss.

  Friday afternoon I caught sight of Kaylene in the hallway. Students were moving up and down the crowded aisle, rushing between classes. I froze and she did, too. Her eyes held mine prisoner and then narrowed. The two of us had always had a great relationship. My heart immediately filled with questions. I wanted to know how Rocco was. Knowing I’d hurt him was a constant pain I carried with me. I was hurting, too, far more than I ever thought I would.

  Kaylene’s gaze speared me with what could be described only as hate before she whirled around and marched off in the opposite direction. For the rest of the day I couldn’t get her look out of my head. After school I sat in my classroom and propped my elbows on my desk. I needed help. I couldn’t do this any longer. I couldn’t face another day of this.

  I had no options; my back was to the wall. Jake had threatened to challenge me for custody of my son. Deep down I knew he didn’t want Owen with him. Having to care for a three-year-old would put a damper on his lifestyle. What he wanted was to hurt me and hurt Rocco, and he’d succeeded, and I’d let him do this to us.

  To this point I hadn’t talked to anyone about this except Leanne. She’d been furious with Jake and promised to talk to him. It hadn’t happened. Sean seemed to be slipping downhill a little each day and she’d spent a lot of time with him. Besides, she was dealing with her own heartache. I wasn’t sure what had happened between her and Nikolai, but I knew they were no longer seeing each other.

  Owen was going with his father for the weekend and Jake picked him up at the daycare center. I preferred it that way, and I knew he did, too. I hadn’t been sleeping well and was grateful on Saturday that I was scheduled to work at Dress for Success. It gave me something to do rather than remain at home and stew. Our Christmas tree wasn’t up yet, nor any of the decorations. I wasn’t in the Christmas spirit.

  I hadn’t been in the shop more than a half-hour when Shawntelle came bursting in the door, opening it so hard it was a wonder the glass didn’t shatter. She stood just inside the store, hands on her ample hips, searching the area until she saw me.

  This woman was a force to be reckoned with when she was angry. Seeing her now was downright scary. She pointed her index finger at me and shouted, “You and me, sister, are going to have a come-to-Jesus talk.”

  A couple women had stopped in to do some Christmas shopping. They took one look at Shawntelle and headed for the door as if their lives were in danger. As for me, I was rooted in one spot, unable to move. Shawntelle didn’t need to explain why she wanted to talk to me. I already knew.

  She marched over to me as if she was related to Attila the Hun. “You better have a damn good reason for what you did to Rocco,” she demanded.

  I took one look at her and tried to smile. “How is he?” I asked, desperate for news of Rocco.

  “How do you expect? That man is hurting. No one’s ever seen him like this. He nearly destroyed the garage, tossing around every tool he could find; he punched his fist through the wall, and now he’s in such a bear of a mood no one dares talk to him.”

  I closed my eyes, afraid if I murmured a single word I wouldn’t be able to hold back the tears.

  “What’s with you, girl? You got yourself a good man and then you treat him like this?” Her eyes were full of disgust. “You’re not half the woman I thought you were.”

  She was right and I knew it.

  “Jerome sat Rocco down with a six-pack and you know what Rocco said? He said he always wanted to know what loving a woman’s heart and soul felt like. Now he knows and all he can say is it’s a bitch.”

  I covered my mouth with my hand. It felt as if my legs were about to fold on me. Reaching out, I grabbed hold of a display rack for fear I was about to crumble to the floor.

  “What kind of woman are you?” Shawntelle spat. “Why would you do that to a man for no good reason?”

  “For my son,” I whispered.

  “You’re not making any sense. Don’t matter, ’cause you ain’t no friend of mine. Not anymore. I thought you were different. Rocco did, too, but you proved to us both exactly the kind of person you are. I don’t want anything more to do with you.” Having said her piece, she stalked out of the shop with her head in the air, as if an entire marching band was directly behind her.

  For several seconds there was dead silence in the shop. It
took that long for me to breathe again.

  Once home, I reached for my cell and stared at it for a long time. I needed someone to talk to, someone who would help me see my way through this emotional minefield. My sister Cassie had been through much worse, and while I hated to burden her with my troubles, I was fast growing desperate.

  We connected right away. “Hey, Nichole. How’s it going?” she asked, cheerful and happy, and she had every right to be.

  “Okay. Just checking in on the newlyweds. How’s married life?” I did my best to sound upbeat.

  “We’re loving it. Steve and I are spending the day getting my house ready to put up for sale.”

  “Great.”

  “How’s Owen?”

  “Good.” I swallowed tightly.

  “Rocco?”

  I heard a slight hesitation in her voice, as if she’d caught on to the fact that there was something amiss with me. It was then that I lost it. The tears seemed to burst out of me in a storm of emotion and I blurted out the whole dreadful story, starting with Jake’s and my meeting at Starbucks and ending up with Shawntelle’s visit that morning.

  “Nichole, Nichole,” Cassie said, stopping me. “I can’t understand you when you’re crying so hard.”

  “What part didn’t you get?” I asked between sobs.

  “Okay, let me see if I’ve got this straight. You are no longer seeing Rocco because Jake threatened to take you to court for custody of Owen?”

  “Yes,” I answered, with a hiccupping sob.

  “And Shawn hates you?”

  “Shawntelle…she works for Rocco and is my friend. Or used to be. Now she hates me, too, and I don’t blame her.” At this point I didn’t feel like I had a friend left in the world.

  “And you’re sobbing your heart out because you love Rocco?”

  “Yes. And I hurt him so badly.”

  Cassie released a deep sigh. “You called me because you’re miserable and you don’t know what to do?”

  “I didn’t know who else to talk to,” I said, doing my best to stop crying.

 
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