“Scout. Why don’t you tell us how you met your husband?”
The small group circled around me raised curious eyebrows and paused in their tiny off-subject conversations to catch my reply. I rarely spoke in group; I liked the feeling of leaning against the wall and letting the coolness of the stone seep into my back, just listening to the rest share their stories.
“Oh…well,” I mumbled awkwardly. I searched, grappled for any words to remain anonymous. “It was nothing extraordinary, not by any romantic standards anyway.”
In answer to my vague reply, Kevin rested his elbows further down onto his khaki clad knees and met my eyes across the circle. He gave me his trademark ‘you-are-not-alone’ smile – the one which came off to me as if he was trying to scold a wayward child. He had on his usual sunny yellow polo; he always looked the part of an insurance salesman.
“Scout,” he started, my name rolling off his lips like disappointment. His voice was politician smooth with a shrink’s edge and his hands moved in gestures of open communication. “Talking through things from the beginning is a helpful tool for some. I know it hurts but we are all here to support you.”
I risked a guarded glance around the group and saw several nods in confirmation. They ranged in age from early twenties into their sixties, teachers and construction workers, single moms and widowers. Several weeks of intimate confessions and emotions had propelled our relationships into a common pool of forgiveness and understanding. There was hardly anything any of us had done that another in the group didn’t either sympathize with or hadn’t done as well.
Still I hesitated.
“Do you have a picture of him?”
The voice came from my direct right, a guy close to my age and dressed in pale grey scrubs. He’d spoken openly of his wife the first week he joined us; his voice was rich and deep, a slight drag at the end of his words hinting at southern origination. He was everything opposite of our ringleader Kevin: his smile was warm, his voice was comforting, and no condescension ever clung to his tone. His back was relaxed in the folding chair next to me, the picture of ease in a room of guilt stricken human beings.
His wife had passed away a year ago. Leukemia.
“I do,” I mumbled before I could stop myself. Caught in the confession of possessing such object, I reached for my purse under the chair and handed over a four by six I kept into the hands of the stranger. My cheeks flooded with color as his eyes fell on and took in the details of the photograph, suddenly serious.
“This was your husband?”
My heart sputtered off cadence then came to a complete stop when he looked up at me. There was a churning in my gut, intuition screaming at me to push the stranger.
“Did you know him?” I felt myself ask the question, not really processing the fact I sounded a touch crazy until the words were out. We lived in a city of six hundred thousand people; the chances of this man knowing my husband were zero to none.
He paused, glancing back down at the photograph before shaking his head.
“No,” he mumbled, placing the picture back into my hand. “No, I didn’t.”
I knew his words were a lie.
“I used to pack a photo of my wife with me everywhere I went,” he continued. He put on a good show but I didn’t miss the slight shake in his voice. He had tucked his hands protectively across his chest in an X and his eyes had closed off. “I thought it might be easier for you to talk about him if we all saw him in a tangible way. Makes you face up to the fact he wasn’t just a figment of your imagination.”
“That’s excellent, Ty,” Kevin inserted in his falsely positive voice. “Scout, if you feel comfortable, why don’t you pass the picture around?”
I flinched, regretting my decision but knowing I was somewhat trapped. I passed the picture to my immediate and always present left. Kaliko was a long stemmed, Samoan beauty of twenty-six. She had tattoos of a charcoal sea on both arms and dark hair that swung in a curtain down her back. Her leather jacket was wrapped around the back of her chair and each of her fingers sported some type of a gem ring. For the past three weeks since I’d walked into group, she’d been the realest person I’d encountered in the room. No nonsense, brutal even, she had a way of setting you straight and reminding you of the backbone beneath your skin. Although others found her answers sharp, I thought them beautiful in their simplicity.
One of her children had drown.
Her eyes caressed the picture in a tender way and for the first time, she had no comment. Her eyelashes were like black ink against her brow bones, long and expressive in their sadness. She passed the picture onto her left and smiled gently back at me, reaching quickly to squeeze my hand in my lap.
The picture made its way around the circle slowly, everyone taking their time with my husband’s likeness. Several smiles lit up cheekbones and tears instantly stung the corners of my eyes; it made sense to me that my husband brought joy to people even in paper form.
Ty handed the picture back off to me without even a downward glance and my stomach fluttered again with a strange emotion. He rubbed his hands against his thighs, smoothing the scrubs’ wrinkles obsessively. In that instant, I became brave.
“I was broke. I was straight out of college and teaching art classes, drowning in student loan payments. I couldn’t afford a washer and dryer, so I went once a week to the laundromat a few blocks away. I got to the point where I loved my afternoons there; I’d read my book and sketch in the constant buzz of the machines. It was always warm and it had windows lining a wall where I could stretch out in the sunlight. No one talked to me and I liked it that way.”
Small clusters of laughter danced around the circle.
“The first time he came in, he wouldn’t shut up,” I murmured. “He kept asking about the book I was reading and talking to me about baseball which I knew absolutely nothing of. His hair was longer then than it was in the picture you guys saw. He always wore a flat bill and he had this college jock edge to him. Not my type at all, you know.”
I took a small breath and studied my boots for several seconds.
“It grew to be every week that he stopped in the same night and chatted me up. Slowly but surely I started participating in the conversation, too. I liked the way his hands never stopped moving when he was talking. He made me feel comfortable even in my awkwardness. I told him about my family and my dog. My favorite cereal. He was hilarious in a natural way and had this charm, the kind of guy people flock to at parties.
One night he showed up and sat next to me in the window. He was all serious – I never saw him serious. And he told me he had news. He wouldn’t be coming to see me anymore because he’d moved someone in with him. I remember feeling my stomach drop off the way it does when something hurts your feelings and I got all defensive because it shouldn’t have mattered. So what if he had a girlfriend? I should’ve been happy for him and I tried to be gracious about it,” I sighed. I laughed sharply and shook my head.
“Next thing I know he grabs my laundry basket and starts out the door. I chased him down a few seconds after he’d already loaded it into the back seat of his truck and asked what the hell he was doing. His reply was: ‘Get in the truck. I want you to come meet her.’ And I just lost it. Started telling him I wasn’t going to be a part of some game and even if I was crazy about him, I wasn’t going to get involved in anything twisted,” I said, leaning back into my chair, remembering the heat on my cheeks as I yelled at him. “You see, about halfway through my rant I realized I’d messed up because not only had I admitted I was into him and that I was inexperienced but this huge grin had broken out across his face. He had this massive smile, the kind that lit up his eyes.
He stepped closer and he was kissing me against his truck and I couldn’t breathe. He leaned into me and whispered in my ear to just trust him. So, I did. I got in that damn truck and went with him like a total idiot.”
Wide eyes stared at me across the circle, some rolling when I admitted to my young-hearted weakness.
“He covered my eyes when we walked through the door and before he uncovered them he made me promise to be open to whatever I saw because he didn’t want it to change his shot at a relationship.
His hands left my eyes but I kept them shut a few seconds. I didn’t know what to expect. I was twenty two but I hadn’t really done anything kinky or anything. I’d dated the same guy all through high school and he wasn’t exactly ‘passionate.’ I was worried this guy was into some freaky stuff. I finally convinced myself to just open them. Screw it.
When I did, there sat a sparkling matching pair of brand new cobalt grey washer and dryer.”
Kaliko snorted, covering her eyes with her ringed fingers. Tears instantly filled my eyelash line at the deep tug in my chest. My voice was crackled when I continued:
“He fixed me dinner that first night. Did my laundry. And the kicker to all of it? While he folded, I wandered his apartment and his bookshelf was full of books I’d been reading over the months we’d been hanging out at the laundromat. He’d read them just so he could talk with me about something I cared about.
From that moment on, he was my best friend,” I finished.
Copyright © 2016 Pearl Bayou