A girls guide to moving.., p.9
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       A Girl's Guide to Moving On, p.9

           Debbie Macomber
 

  Right away my mind ran the gamut of possibilities. My first thought was that he could be sick or, worse, that he’d been injured, perhaps a job-related incident. My mind filled with possibilities, all of which distressed me. Throughout class I was distracted. It didn’t feel right without Nikolai sitting in the front row, contributing to the discussion. I hadn’t realized how much he added to the class or how much his fellow students relied upon and liked him. The two hours of class fell flat; the evening dragged.

  By the time I walked to the parking lot I couldn’t bear not knowing what had happened. If he needed medicine or help I’d be willing to do what I could. I had his contact information in the records that were given to me, which included his cell number.

  Sitting in my car in the Community Center parking lot, I debated whether calling him was the thing to do. The decision came when I realized I wouldn’t rest easy until I talked to him.

  I punched in his number. Nerves caused my finger to tremble and I held my breath when the phone connected. After four rings I was prepared to disconnect when he answered. He sounded groggy, as if I’d woken him from a sound sleep.

  “Hello,” he said in that deeply accented voice I had come to enjoy.

  “Nikolai?”

  “Teacher?” Right away he brightened and I could imagine him tossing aside the covers and bolting upright.

  “Did I wake you?” Clearly I had, but I asked anyway.

  “You okay?” he asked, fully alert now.

  “Of course I am. I’m calling about you. You weren’t in class tonight.” I probably sounded like a dunce telling him something he already knew.

  “No.” His voice dropped to that of a whisper.

  “Are you sick?”

  “No.”

  “Were you injured on the job?”

  “No, no hurt, no pain.”

  “Then you must be overly tired and then I woke you. I apologize…”

  “I stay home.”

  “But why?”

  He hesitated. “You know Milligan’s?”

  “Milligan’s?” I didn’t know why he was asking or what that had to do with him not being in class. Perhaps he’d taken on a second job. “You mean the bar close to the school?”

  “Yes, bar. You meet me, have beer.”

  “Now?”

  “You no want beer with me?” He sounded deflated, as if I’d insulted him.

  “No…I mean yes, I would be happy to have a beer with you.” I pressed my hand to my forehead, unable to believe I’d agreed to this. I’d assumed I’d drive back to my apartment the way I always did.

  “I be there soon. I get table, order you Ukrainian beer. You like?”

  To my surprise, I found myself smiling. “I’ve never had Ukrainian beer, Nikolai. Is it like American beer?”

  “No, no, much better. You judge.”

  “Okay, I’ll judge.”

  We disconnected and I had the strongest urge to press my hand over my mouth and laugh. I couldn’t believe I was actually meeting Nikolai for a beer. Even more of a surprise was how much I looked forward to it.

  —

  As he promised, by the time I arrived, he had gotten a table in the popular Milligan’s Bar. When I walked inside, Nikolai leaped to his feet and waved, his face bright with eagerness. He pulled out a chair for me and then hurried around to his side of the table.

  “I didn’t know Ukraine produced beer,” I said, but then I was ignorant when it came to most everything about Ukraine. Well, ignorant of anything other than the current troubles the country and the people had experienced with Russia.

  “You not know about Chernihivske?”

  “Say that again?” The noise level was high with music and lively talk. I strained to hear the unfamiliar name he mentioned.

  “Chernihivske? A popular beer in Ukraine.”

  “No, sorry, I’ve never heard of it.” I couldn’t seem to stop smiling.

  Nikolai’s eyes were intense, focused solely on me. “You must taste. You like.”

  Apparently he’d already placed the order, because a server delivered two chilled mugs and two bottles of beer.

  Nikolai poured my beer first, tilting the glass at an angle. “Key to good beer is lots of foam. Taste better with foam.” When he finished he placed the glass in front of me, waiting for me to take a taste before he poured his own.

  Because I wasn’t much of a beer drinker, I was uncertain how to respond. I didn’t know what I’d say if I found the taste not to my liking. Hesitantly, I lifted the glass to my lips and took a small sip.

  Nikolai studied my face, patiently waiting for my reaction.

  Truthfully, it was good, although not unlike other beer I’d tasted. But then I am no beer connoisseur.

  As soon as I made my pronouncement, Nikolai’s face broke into a huge smile. “I know you like.” He poured his own glass and took a deep swallow, his Adam’s apple moving up and down in his throat.

  “I like.”

  As if he’d forgotten, he reached down and set a loaf of bread on the table. “I make you brown bread. You eat with beer, okay?”

  I smiled and nodded. My mouth hurt from smiling so much. This wasn’t like me. My heart felt light and carefree, sitting in this loud bar with this man I barely knew, drinking Ukrainian beer.

  We chatted for a good thirty minutes while I discussed with him a few of the slang words and idioms we’d talked about during class that evening. His mind was quick, and we laughed and joked with each other.

  “We missed you tonight,” I said when conversation lagged.

  Nikolai instantly dropped his gaze, avoiding eye contact with me.

  “You’re not only my favorite student, but it seems everyone else thinks highly of you, too.”

  “I am your dog?”

  “Teacher’s pet,” I corrected.

  “Oh right, I your teacher pet.” A hint of a smile showed, but he still didn’t look up.

  “Nikolai, can you tell me why you skipped class?” He seemed to be in good spirits and he wasn’t ill.

  He exhaled and his shoulders rose and sank when I pressed the question. “I didn’t think you like me no more.”

  I blinked, finding that hard to understand. “Why would you think such a thing?”

  “I embarrass you.”

  “When?” I couldn’t remember anything he might have done to embarrass me, especially lately.

  “At my work,” Nikolai said, keeping his head lowered. “When I introduce you to my friends as my teacher.”

  “That was a week ago.” He’d been to class that night and the following Wednesday.

  “Mr. Koreski ask this afternoon. He ask if you’d forgive me for embarrassing you. Until then I not think. I not know. I feel bad in here.” He pressed his hand to his heart. “I feel embarrassed.”

  “Are you saying you didn’t come to class because of that silly offhanded comment?”

  “What is offhanded?”

  “Mr. Koreski was making a joke. He wasn’t serious.”

  “But it is true. I remember look on your face when I showed you my friends. You get red face.”

  “I was embarrassed,” I admitted, “but only because I’m not accustomed to being the center of attention.” Thinking he might not understand, I elaborated. “It’s uncomfortable for me to have people looking at me.”

  “Ah. I no mean to embarrass you. I am proud you my teacher.”

  “And I’m proud to be your teacher.”

  He looked up and his eyes held mine. He grinned and it seemed as if a weight had been taken from his shoulders. “We good?”

  “We’re good,” I assured him. “But, Nikolai, the next time you have any doubts I want you to ask. Don’t make assumptions.” He might not understand that, so I added a bit more. “Ask and let me explain. Don’t decide what you think I feel. Ask me instead. Okay?”

  “Okay, I ask.”

  “You missed an important lesson tonight.”

  He laughed. “I’m happy I miss class.”


  “You’re happy?” That didn’t make sense.

  “You call me. You miss me.”

  He had me there. “Yes, I did miss you. We all did.”

  “But you more?” His face was bright with hope.

  My admitting this seemed important to Nikolai. A tingling sensation went down my arms and suddenly I was nervous. Uneasy. In that moment I realized he was right. I had missed him more than I would have any other student.

  Right then I knew my heart was tender toward this man. It startled me how quickly he’d become important to me. I suppose it was understandable. I was single for the first time in thirty-five years and here was this attractive man full of respect and appreciation for me. I hadn’t felt that in a very long time. I soaked up his words like a parched garden in the heat of a summer drought.

  I made a show of looking at my watch. “It’s time for me to go.”

  “You no finish beer?”

  “Please, Nikolai, it’s late and I should go.”

  His forehead compressed into a frown. “What I do? What I say? You not smile now.”

  “Oh Nikolai, you did nothing. You’re sweet and caring and I…need to get home. It’s late and I…I have things to do in the morning.”

  “You tell me to ask and I ask,” he said, serious now. “What I say that make you run like frightened hamster?”

  “Rabbit.”

  “You go pale and say you must go. I embarrass you again?”

  I shook my head and stood, grabbing hold of my purse. “I’m sorry. Really sorry. I’ll see you Wednesday in class.” Reaching for the bread in the middle of the table, I rushed out of Milligan’s Bar as if the building was on fire. I felt foolish and ridiculous and wanted to place my hands on my cheeks for behaving like a schoolgirl on her first date.

  I’d gone only about half a block when I heard Nikolai call my name from behind me. I refused to stop and picked up the pace.

  Nikolai followed me.

  I was horrified by my behavior. My insides were shaking, and for just an instant I was afraid I was about to throw up on the sidewalk. God help me, I continued walking so fast I was nearly trotting.

  I should have guessed my rushing away wouldn’t stop Nikolai. He followed me to where I’d parked my car on a side street. I wasn’t sure what I would tell him.

  “Leanne?”

  His voice was soft and so caring that I nearly dissolved into tears.

  He stood on the street beside me and my car, his eyes full of questions as he searched my face. “Why you run from me?”

  I shook my head, unable to answer. “I shouldn’t have called you.”

  “Why? You make me happy when you call. So happy.”

  I couldn’t look at him, afraid if I did he’d see the longing in me. It pooled in the pit of my stomach, so unfamiliar I didn’t know what to make of it. “It’s not appropriate that I see you.”

  “What this appropriate?” He raised his hands in question.

  “I’m your teacher…it’s not seemly,” I said.

  “I quit class, then it be this…what that word? Appropriate?”

  “Oh Nikolai…” I looked up and raised my hand to cup his strongly defined chin.

  His hand joined mine, and he turned his face and kissed the inside of my palm.

  The sensation that shot through me was so strong my knees nearly buckled. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” I whispered, looking away.

  “I’m glad you call,” he whispered, inching his hand around the side of my neck. “All day I think about you. I want to say how I feel, but I don’t know right words.” His dark eyes grew more intense as he looked down at me. “I give you bread to say what I not able to say with words.”

  My whole being hungered to hear those words. His eyes held mine, bright and unblinking, filled with longing.

  With pressure at the base of my neck he eased my head forward and settled his lips over mine. I am at a loss to describe what his kiss did to me. I felt that single kiss in every part of my body. My response was immediate. I opened to him like a desert flower after a cloudburst that flooded the arid soil. My heart beat so hard I was afraid it might injure one of my ribs.

  Nikolai’s fingers wove through my hair, and when he broke off the kiss, he buried his face in my neck.

  I was speechless, unable to utter a single word, shocked at my unbridled response to him. It frightened me that I could feel such overwhelming emotion from a single kiss.

  This came less than a week after my conversation with Kacey. I’d insisted that I didn’t need a man in my life. What I found shocking was that I wanted a man. Not any man. I wanted Nikolai. With effort, I eased myself from his arms.

  He leaned his forehead against mine. “You give me chilly bumps.”

  I smiled gently and softly pressed my lips to his. “Goosebumps.”

  “See. Look at my arms.” He stretched out his arm for me to examine. “You do that. You make my heart loud. Feel.” He captured my hand and pressed it against his chest. “See what you do?”

  His face was open and warm as he studied me. He saw me as beautiful, as if I were a woman to be worshipped and cherished. His eyes were so tender I was unable to keep the tears at bay.

  The first teardrops made wet trails down my cheeks. Nikolai used the pads of his thumbs to smear them away. “Why you cry?” he asked, frowning. “I hurt you with my kiss?”

  “No, never.”

  “But you cry?”

  “I don’t know why.” I did, but telling him would only encourage him to kiss me again.

  “I come to class on Wednesday,” he promised.

  I nodded.

  “We talk then. Have more Ukrainian beer.”

  I couldn’t help myself. I smiled.

  “You even more beautiful when you smile.” He opened the car door and I slid inside. He closed it and stepped back. I drove off, my head muddled, my thoughts confused.

  It was after ten by the time I arrived back at the apartment. Knowing Kacey was a night owl, I sat on the sofa in front of the fireplace and called her, pressing the cell hard against my ear.

  “Leanne, has something happened? Are you all right?”

  I wasn’t sure how to answer her. “I’m wonderful.”

  “If that’s the case, then why are you phoning me this late? This isn’t like you.”

  She was right. In all our acquaintance I’d never phoned past nine. “I was thinking about what you said last week when we had lunch.”

  “I said a lot of things.”

  “I know. I’m talking about your suggestion that I log on to one of those dating websites.”

  “You’re gonna do it?” She sounded surprised.

  I closed my eyes and bit into my lower lip. “Yes,” I whispered. “I’m ready to date again.”

  Nikolai had shown me exactly how ready I was.

  The final divorce papers, signed and recorded, arrived in the mail on Tuesday afternoon. Neither Jake nor I were required to be in court. The entire cut-and-dried process had been handled by our attorneys. I didn’t read the papers, didn’t even open the envelope until after Owen was down for the night. As soon as my son was asleep, I took them out of the envelope and stared at the legal jargon for several minutes. My heart pounded like the judge’s gavel, securing the nails in the coffin of my marriage.

  Two hours later I sat in the dark, sipping the expensive wine Rocco had brought with him the week before in appreciation for the dinner and dance lesson. I didn’t know when the tears started. They came unbidden, unwelcome. I thought I’d shed all the tears I had in me over the failure of this marriage. But I was wrong.

  Within an hour I’d emptied nearly an entire box of tissues and blown my nose so often I was sure it would be as red and swollen as my eyes come morning.

  When my cell rang I almost didn’t answer until I saw that it was Jake. I knew he had to be hurting as much as me.

  “Hey,” I whispered, not wanting him to know I was crying.

  “Hey.” He pau
sed. “You okay?”

  “Yeah. What about you?”

  Again, the hesitation. “I’ll survive. You got the final papers today?”

  “Yeah. You, too?”

  “Yeah.” We didn’t have that much to say to each other.

  “It’s my week for Owen,” he reminded me. “I’ll pick him up from daycare Friday afternoon.”

  “Okay.”

  We both went silent, our aching hearts beating in unison.

  Jake spoke first. “I don’t know what more I could have done, Nichole. I didn’t want this.”

  I didn’t, either, but I couldn’t go back into a relationship and constantly be afraid, wary of trusting him again. I couldn’t constantly be looking over my shoulder, wondering where Jake was or who he was with every time he was late. I wasn’t his mother. I couldn’t live the way she had all those years.

  “I loved you,” Jake whispered, and his voice was hoarse with pain.

  Yes, Jake had loved me, but not enough to remain faithful. “I loved you, too.”

  “You’ll never find anyone like me.”

  I tilted my head back and stared at the ceiling. “Isn’t that the point, Jake?”

  “I treated you like a princess,” he continued, ignoring my comment.

  What he said was true. He had spoiled me; he’d given in to my every whim, constantly buying me gifts, pampering me. I wondered again if those presents were given out of love or because he felt guilty after sleeping with other women. I guess I would never know. It wasn’t important now, and I pushed the thought aside.

  “I’ll make sure Owen has enough clothes with him to last the weekend,” I said, because really there wasn’t anything more for us to discuss.

  “Yeah, do that.”

  “Good-bye, Jake.”

  “Yeah, whatever.” He abruptly cut off the connection.

  I returned to crying, and reached for another tissue when my cell rang again. “Ye-s-s,” I said, my voice wobbling on the tail end of a sob.

  Silence followed.

  I was about to hang up when I heard Rocco’s voice. “That you, Nichole?”

  “It’s m-e.” I paused and blew my nose.

  “Are you…crying?”

  “Ye-s-s.”

 
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