SHOULD I TRUST MY HEART?

This is a guest blog/short story which I believe you will enjoy and remember. I do.

                                Should I Trust My Heart?

by John D. Britto

Just home from Hong Kong, my well-worn suitcases were barely unpacked as I settled in to check my email account. A bit jet-lagged, I dreaded the process. 

Despite my spam guard, crafty marketers always found a weakness in my defenses. They would send me information I didn’t need, didn’t want and didn’t like. Get-rich-quick-schemes, diet pitches, miracle pills and urgent announcements telling me I had inherited riches beyond my wildest dreams traveled through cyberspace into my quiet condo.

My tired eyes quickly reviewed the two-dozen message lines. Without mercy, my finger deleted everything that didn’t have a familiar From or Subject line. I settled into a comfortable rhythm, clicking at a reasonable pace making short-work of the irksome meddlers.

Then, like a burst of fireworks in the night sky, I saw a brief, cryptic subject line. It could only be one person; an extraordinary person who was an influential part of my life many years ago. My eyes popped open, my heart pumped a little quicker and I was suddenly wide-awake.  

But it couldn’t be, I reasoned. Why would she want to contact me after all these years? We had grown from the closest of companions, to the best of friends, and then almost inseparable. She was my first love. But that was a quarter of a century ago. Our parting was, well, unusual. In fact, much about those final days still remained unclear to me. 

We had each left for college right after high school. In my senior year, my parents wrote and told me she had married on the East Coast. After college, I got married on the West Coast–and then almost predictably, unmarried in Texas a few years later. As time passed, she became a fond memory. Certain songs or movies stirred long-lost feelings, but our lives were separated by three-thousand miles and twenty-five years. I wondered why she would contact me now.

Then it hit me like a punch in the gut, there was a possible worst-case scenario here. A hacker or identity thief might be on the other end of this message. I might be a target. I might be at risk if I opened this message. Was this a deceitful ploy playing on my emotions, luring me with the promise of rediscovering a long-lost love? I had to decide what to do: Be cynical—or trust my heart?

My wavering hand was poised over the mouse. My burning eyes were fixed like a laser on that cryptic subject line. As my breathing quickened, I faintly recalled listening to a college professor lecturing on the phenomenon of human indecision. But here I was, in real-time, trying to choose: Is it a former love—or perhaps a ruthless thief? I needed a moment to think.   

I pushed away from the desk and leaned back into my chair. Crossing my arms, I began reflecting on my life: Where did all that precious time go? I marveled at the incredible sights I had been privileged to see, my world travels and most of all, the many wonderful people who enriched my life and enabled me to enjoy all that I had.

Slowly, without effort, vivid images of my childhood sprang into my mind’s eye: My supportive parents, my boyhood home in rural Iowa and my neighbors, Pastor and Mrs. Dugan. My father was the editor of the local newspaper and my mother taught Sunday school. We lived in modest two-story home in an older part of town. Century-old oak trees stood like sentinels along our quiet street where lush lawns spilled out to the sidewalk. That is, when there wasn’t snow. 

There weren’t any children my age near-by so Pastor Dugan and his wife filled-in as my good friends and extended family whenever I was not in school. But that was before Ella May Dugan entered my life.

Ella moved into her grandparents’ home—the Dugan’s–on a Tuesday afternoon during an unusually warm spring. She and her parents had been involved in a horrific car accident near their farm in Duluth, Minnesota. Her parents died instantly. Ella lost an eye and badly damaged the other. She was rendered physically weak, even after months of physical therapy.

My parents and the Dugan’s encouraged me to befriend her, to show her around school and introduce her to my friends. I was more than happy to do so. I finally had someone my age close by. Neither of us had siblings and we lived right next door to one another, so we already had much in common. As it turned out, there was much more we shared.

Ella was special from the start. I expected her to be depressed, sad, even detached. But she wasn’t. She had an incredible philosophy that practically embarrassed the rest of us. Ella possessed a wisdom borne of true tragedy. We got along famously from the first time we met. We were destined to be best friends.

Our eighth-grade year and well into the ninth, kept us together studying, talking about life, our fears and our yet-to-be-finalized aspirations.  Sometimes I would work at my father’s newspaper, or Ella would help out at her grandfather’s church. We frequently discussed the worldly issues we learned from our loved ones. It was a marvelous period of discovery in many ways for each of us. Our youthful transformation was as exciting as it was challenging.

Sometimes she’d watch as I shoveled snow, raked leaves or mow the grass. Other times we’d just sit in the park. On warm sunny days we might visit the civil war monument next to the Skunk River and talk about where it originated, where it went before it joined an ocean: We each wanted to see an ocean, any ocean. Our yearning for travel was another desire we shared.

We would sit day-dreaming about our future as we watched the peaceful river head south. What direction, we wondered, would our paths take us? Living in Iowa, all points of the compass looked exotic to us.

That second winter, Ella lost almost all sight in her remaining eye. She now required stronger glasses, an eye patch, a cane—and a helper. As a result of this decline to her eyesight, Ella now required someone to read to her. Softly, and with a depth of sincerity I had not heard before, she asked me if I would be her eyes; if I would see for her, tell her all that I saw. I immediately promised that I would. From that moment, I made it my mission to see for Ella.

I am sure we made a comical pair as we walked together. Me, the tall gangly attire-challenged youth next to the gal with thick glasses and one patched eye like a petite pirate. Neither of us, of course, saw anything but our deep friendship for one another.

I would read anything she asked me to. School books, newspapers, catalogs, magazines, or comic books, just anything she wanted to hear about. We would camp-out on her porch on most warm days and I would describe, in the greatest detail, everything I saw. The irregular twisted curves of the bark on the tree trunks, the shapes of twigs and branches as they bent and reached for the sky, the way leaves shimmered in the breeze as the wind shifted directions, the changes in their colors as light passed through them—or bounced off, depending on the time of day. 

Winter brought new sights to see and share. The random way snow would fall and pile up along the bushes and fences, its array of colors and density, the glow of the ice refracting the sun’s rays and the way our breath would crystallize as we chatted endlessly. 

On occasion, Ella would ask me to retell what I saw and insist that I provide greater clarity. She said she wanted to see in her mind what I saw with my eyes. She would gently coax me to provide the slightest nuances of what was in my world but not in hers— shapes, light, colors and movement. 

Once she blurted, “Paul, look closely, white clouds aren’t just white, there is everything from ghost-white to dark silver-white—and many shades in between. Which white is it now?” She required that I be accurate with my word choice and descriptions.

The kids at school began calling Ella Annie because of her contagious positive attitude. “There’s always tomorrow,” she’d frequently say. Her cheery laugh would fill an entire room. Her smile could make even a hardened cynic forget his troubles.

Along with a few other classmates, we worked on the yearbook together. She was a budding Barbara Walters when it came to interviewing. She just had a gift that encouraged people to open up to her. She could disarm anyone and make them feel comfortable. She interviewed custodians, cafeteria workers, faculty, counselors and most of the students at our bustling school: Being around her was a lesson in living. 

During our senior year, Ella and I went to the Winter Ball together. With hard work by the decorating committee, our aging gym went from smelling like wax and socks to a winter wonderland complete with the pleasant aroma of fresh-cut pine. I carefully described the glimmering five-pointed tinfoil stars, the billowing cotton clouds that hung from the ceiling and the large bowl of crimson punch. I took my time explaining the details of her soft blue gown that made her look like a princess. 

As she pinned on my boutonniere and felt my jacket, she asked me what color coat I was wearing. I altered the truth to see what she would do. Of course she caught me and we laughed a long time about that. She said it was the slightest change in my voice that told her what she could not see. 

Like every other couple, we forced a weak grin into the box camera—the camera that Ella could not see—as we stood in front of the Styrofoam ice castle pretending to be somewhere out of Iowa. 

Our last semester was filled with a blur of activity. We lost track of the days rushing through seemingly endless demands in preparation for the approaching move away from home. There were final exams and projects to complete and lists to review as we began the transition for college. 

Ella spent as much time with her aging grandparents as she could, and I worked extra hours to make money for school. Secretly, I think we each didn’t want to face the certain reality of parting after so many wonderful years together.

It was a warm Thursday afternoon in late May when I received a telephone call from Pastor Dugan. “Paul, could you stop by a little later if you have time?” 

Naturally, I asked if everything was alright and he assured me that it was. He said he just needed to speak with me for a moment.

A little concerned about the mysterious call, I ambled next door and gently knocked on the old screen door, just as I had a thousand times before. Mrs. Dugan called out for me to come in. When I entered the room and took my seat at the lace-covered dining room table, I knew from the looks on their faces they had something important to tell me. Pastor Dugan handed me a large, tan envelope and said Ella wanted me to have what was inside. I tensed up not understanding what was happening.

“Paul,” Mrs. Dugan said, “Ella had to leave for college early because of her limited sight. She needed additional time to learn the campus and the location of her dorm and classes. The early arrival was necessary for her safety. It was best for her to learn when there were fewer students on campus.” 

  Pastor Dugan began to talk, but I was too numb to hear, to fathom what I had just heard. When he finished, I thanked them and drifted home in a daze.

The next thing I knew I was sitting in my room holding a large, tan envelope. My mind raced. I was hurt, confused and sad all at once. Ella and I didn’t ever discuss saying good bye to one another. The topic never came up. I didn’t have a plan for our last visit together, but what just happened sure wasn’t an option I had considered.

Soon, there was a welling in my eyes. Without thinking, I automatically lifted my hand to wipe away the tears and I felt the envelope brush my face. When I looked down I saw Ella’s familiar child-like handwriting on the outside of the envelope. The simple one-word inscription said, Paul.   

Inside was a single piece of pink, lined paper and a large photograph: Our Winter Ball photograph. The brief memo must have been difficult for her to write. It was a beautiful expression of farewell, appreciation, and good luck. She apologized for leaving suddenly and hoped I would understand. She promised that if ever she needed to see something very important in her life, she would contact me. 

Her letter ended with encouragement. She asked me to continue seeing the world for her, that I would forever be her eyes.

I stared at the photograph of us standing together at the Winter Ball. The fond memories of that special night rushed over me. I sat in a fog wondering what I should do next. After a short time, I turned the photograph over. In large block letters Ella had written: PaulUC4ME.  

Soon, the spring of separation brought a summer of sorrow. Then, a cool fall turned into a life blurred by living. My fond memories of Ella and her inspiration proved invaluable for me. As a photojournalist I have been fortunate to travel the world to capture colorful images and write vivid descriptions of my adventures. 

Faintly, somewhere off in a distance, I heard a soft musical chime from my computer and I was forced back into the present. I blinked my moist eyes and stared at the screen. The bright message lines of text caught my attention as they returned to focus. But the one message I kept looking at, starring at, in large block letters called to me: PAULUC4ME.

As if in a dream, my finger fell slowly, softly onto the mouse; the familiar clicking sound shattered the silence. As I read the two short sentences I felt like Alice in Wonderland, being pulled into another world, another time.    

“Paul, I can see again—not much and not clearly, at least not now, but I can see—and, I want to see you. Love, Ella”

 

John D. Britto

July 2018

[John retired after almost 30 years of teaching; he lives and writes in northern California–but continues to travel, visiting 28 countries and 49 states to date. ]

Dear Mr. Peters . . .

[a chapter excerpt from my book BABY BOOMERS’ LOVE-BETRAYAL, a sardonic romance noir, on Amazon under the pen name Ben Leiter]

CHAPTER 48

I didn’t recognize the handwriting on the envelope. When I opened it, a familiar perfume smell escaped.

I could see dead mackerel eyes, but couldn’t identify the owner. Maybe I don’t want to read this?

Dear Mr. Peters:

My emotions are mixed in writing to you. In fact, I don’t think I have sorted them out even now, six months later.

I see you smirk as you note a woman referring to “emotions.” I suspect that to you, putting the two words “woman” and “emotions” in the same sentence is redundant. We wouldn’t want to be redundant, repeating in the same sentence, would we?

I have used “Mr.,” to keep this as dispassionate as I can, although that is not how I feel.

After you didn’t call for six weeks, I knew we were done; might-as-well-stick-a-fork-in-me done. You stuck something else in me, many times. You used me and cast me aside for some new, younger adventure.

I’m not naive. I heard about men like you and steered clear of them. You leave pain in the wake of your emotional crimes.

A short note for you about women, and this woman in particular. We are a gift from God. We create and carry life. We nurture with fierce love. We give and give and give. When we open ourselves to you, it is more than physical.

There are some men who just take, and then move on.

You are one of them.

Enjoy your fleeting romantic exploits because you will never know the constant warmth and security of a faithful woman who is there for you, every day, and especially every night.

How can I describe the wonder of being loved by someone who knows you and still gives you permission to be you? You could have had that. It’s called true love, an old-fashioned term that you have excised from your personal dictionary like a tumor.

You play-act as if you are searching for the holy grail of true love. But the truth says you are unable to change into a real human being able to trust an other with his heart.

Being in my late thirties, I have learned a thing or two. One is that the universe will likely pay you back. It’s not a guarantee or a threat, just a probability.

I know when the change occurred. I could see it on your falling face the last time we were together — when I came out of the bathroom sans camouflage, completely naked: no bustier; no stockings and high heels; and especially no makeup, which I usually spackle on to hold back the tide of mortality.

Just me. And, I did not kneel down in front of you for our usual oral ritual where I play your love slave.

That was on purpose. My suspicions about what went on in that head of yours demanded to know if you were with me, as me, or captive of a fantasy. I found out, didn’t I?

You had trouble with The Love Machine that night, as you so affectionately refer to the equipment in your middle region. You would say that one or two of your eight cylinders was misfiring or some such juvenile car reference. Anything to avoid dealing with a real woman in a meaningful relationship.

I don’t need to sign this letter, because you know who it is. With what affection I have left for you, I hope you find what or who you are looking for before it’s too late.

You could have had it all.

P.S. My experiences with you had one happy outcome. I began to reconnoiter a feminine part of myself that I had suppressed for years since I was brought up a strict Presbyterian. Thanks to you, I can now come out and declare myself a practicing “Lesbiterian.”

***

Geez, I thought, what do you do with something like this? Since it’s the twenty-first century and women are smart now, I could be in trouble.

If I could plead my case before Judge Judy, would she find me guilty of trying to turn a bunch of little loves into one big love?

end

============================

Book summary: Seventy-six million Baby Boomers, retiring at the rate of ten thousand a day, want to know: “What happened to true love?”

MEET BILL PETERS, an aging Boomer grasping for romance on his life quest for the love grail.

Has society’s siren song of carefree sex betrayed his generation?

Will Bill find what he is looking for?

MR. MOOHLER, YOU CAN CALL ME MISS M

[Source: a friend who has a brother-in-law whose niece works in the Special Counsel’s Office.]

“Mueller here. Who’s calling, please?”
“They did not tell you?”
“Yes, but if you would please self-identify.”
“You know already, from my phone and my accent, no?”
“Pretty much. How can I help you, ma’am?
“I like you already. No names. You can call me Miss M.”
“Alright. Go ahead, Miss M.”
“I want to meet with you, sir. You alone. I am much angry, have things to say. But I know people listen in on my phone– I think yours, too.
“Yes, ma’am, I understand.”
“In my country, the men misbehave, too. But they never embarrass their families. I can tell you about the obstacle to justice.
“I think you mean obstruction of justice?”
“Yes. That. Thank you, sir. I am told many things on the pillow. My information also about washing large money . . . yes? How you say it?”
“Yes, ma’am. We call it money laundering. It means to illegally move money around so it can’t be traced and ends up in seemingly legal accounts and uses. Miss M, I can suggest two places we could meet, invisible and totally secure.”
“Yes?”
“Yes, Miss M. The parking garage of the Washington Post and the underground parking garage of the Watergate Complex.”
“Why there?”
“Well, ma’am, after the Watergate scandals, and 9/11, those two locations are some of the most secure in the city. Since they are underground, electronic eavesdropping is difficult.”
“Sir, It must be this weekend. My husband is in Switzerland. I will have my Secret Service take me to the shopping mall at the Watergate. I will be in the back of the store called Star Nails. I am friends with the owner. She call me ‘Hooneeey.’”
“Miss M, we can offer you protection in case the Secret Service poses a problem. They are under the jurisdiction of the Chief Executive.”
“Thank you, sir. But I do not need protection. I have papers and discs. I made the notary statements. They remain with special law firm. My lawyer last name begin with letter A, hard to pronounce, but sound like fast car. Anything happen to me or my Barron, even accident, it all become public.”
“Ma’am I appreciate your offer of assistance. But, if I may ask, what would you like to see happen and how can I help?”
“This country has been most wonderful to me. My husband, he turn it into Balkans. I know Balkans. They always fight one against the other. All the time.
“I am done. . . Stormy Daniels . . . what a name. She broke camel’s back.”

###

 

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My romance-noir, writing as Ben Leiter. Available on Amazon/Kindle. Explains Baby Boomer romantic aberrations.

THE ARRIVAL OF GRACE

[a chapter excerpt from my book BABY BOOMERS’ LOVE-BETRAYAL, a sardonic romance-noir, on Amazon under my pen name Ben Leiter]

Now, this little love adventure has twists that I still haven’t figured out.

I was maintaining, at The Appletree Nightclub, my usual Garden of Eden on Saturday night. The air was a heavy breath of perfumes and colognes. No more stale cigarette smoke. That was way passé. I could barely hear any of the aimless conversations, because of the constant pulsating disco rhythm beat.

The Pussycat Dolls suggested I wanted a girl just like them, “Don’t Cha?” Jennifer Lopez urged me to hook up with Jenny from the Block.

How’s that for a conflict?

I wish.

I picked up sound bites, next to me, above the din of music, laughter, and clinking glasses:

“So…come here often?”

“No, it’s my first time.” She’s lying, I thought. I see her here all the time, usually half-drunk leaving with some guy at closing.

“Almost didn’t come tonite. Afraid someone might scratch my new BMW in the parking garage next door.”

“You drive a Beemer? What model?”

I’m waiting for him to say, ‘a Z4 with the premium package’ and then, ‘Wanna go for a ride?’

Asshole.

These days, it was a different musical genre. No more Earth Wind and Fire or Gloria Gaynor or Kool and the Gang grabbing a part of your anatomy and propelling you out onto the dance floor… only when the DJ wanted a retro moment. Guess she — yes, she, times had changed — wanted to see if we oldsters could still get our groove on with a little help from our canes and walkers.

Pussy Dolls and JLo would get the blood pumping.

And there was a new development…same sex couples out on the dance floor. The girls dancing together didn’t bother me. We’d seen that since we were teens. It’s just that now they danced together for the slow dances too; real, real close.

The guys dancing — prancing together — well, I had progress to make in that area, I guess; still didn’t look right to me.

A lady in white materialized, a lovely vision at the end of the bar with two other attractive ladies. They all appeared to be in their early thirties, maybe thirty-three or so.

Her white dress color said “church” but the way it was cut and gathered said “cocktail.” She had long black hair, parted in the middle, an olive complexion and a face that glowed. I knew that women wore this sparkly stuff in their make-up to provide luminosity. Because I couldn’t see any make-up per se, I concluded that women and the cosmetics industry were progressing even faster with their false advertising. I wanted to put some of her glimmer into play.

Her eyes were smoky blue, like pewter, and radiated an incandescence which drew me in. I could swim in those eyes. She was someone who stays on your retina.

I moseyed over, smiled, and released my best line. It was time for the “Bill show,” pretending I had a personality.

“Hi, I’m Bill.”

“Hello, Bill. Nice to see you. My name is Grace.”

“Grace? That’s a beautiful name to go with a beautiful face. The only Grace I’ve ever known was my friend’s aunt who was named Grace. She was pretty, from the pictures I’ve seen, with long black hair like you. She died in her twenties from a heart condition.”

Wonder if I can snare her with this empathy move?

She said, “Bill, is this how you open a conversation, talking about dead people?”

We almost lost our potential connection right there, but her eyes had a twinkle and I laughed and we recovered and were on our way.

We chatted more at the bar. I bought her a Virgin Mary, at her request. She said she didn’t do alcohol, interferes with too much.

I pulled a move out from my love playbook that I had not run touchdowns with in a long time.

“Grace, let’s go out to my car and chat. It’s too noisy in here and I can’t hear myself think. I promise to behave and bring you back to your girlfriends exactly like I found you. Okay? Seriously, I’m safe. Here’s my business card. I’m a romantic, but not dangerous.”

“I know,” she said.

What? What did she mean by that? Was my face a rolling teleprompter again, saying everything about me? Had she seen me here before? I looked at her with a slight v-frown and my head cocked.

We went to the door, got our hands stamped for coming back in, went next door to the parking garage, walked down the well-lit concrete ramp, and got into the BabeMobile.

It was a little chilly, so I turned the heat on, and turned on Luther Vandross slow jams in the CD player, and then tried to see if there was anything else I could turn on.

I’m not sure what I had in mind. I felt like I really did want to talk with her. Was my testosterone MIA for the evening?

“So, Grace, tell me more about yourself.”

Her last name was Michaels and her family traced itself back to Palestine.

I said, “Do you mean Israel?” I knew Jewish history. Learned a lot from Judith, a former girlfriend.

“Well,” she said, “It’s Israel now, but it was Palestine when you were born and before that, it went by many other names. It’s easiest to call it the Holy Lands because three main religions claim it.”

“Okay, okay. Sure.” I’m not here for a religious debate.

I leaned toward her, looking into those eyes, almost lost, while I put my right hand on her left knee, just where the white silk dress ended. She smelled so clean, like Irish Spring soap and talcum powder together.

“William,” she said softly, “I’m old-fashioned. Let’s talk. That’s what we came to do, right? You promised;” — a pleasant tinkling laugh, a wind chime. I felt a summer breeze.

“Whatever you are looking for, I don’t think you’ll find it there,” she said looking down at my hand poised for an upward expedition.

I moved my hand back to the steering wheel, but still ready for call to duty.

“Do you ever pray, Bill?”

That’s an odd question, sitting close here in my car. Unless she’s trying to pull the “Ms. thoughtful — sensitive — move” on me?

“Well, yeah, sometimes.”

“There’s this prayer that Annie Lamont, a California writer, resorts to when she needs help,” she said. “You could use it if you need to. Annie calls it ‘The Great Helping Prayer,’ or something like that. Want to hear it?”

“Sure,” I said, not sure at all.

“HELPhelphelphelphelp.”

“That’s funny,” I said. “You’re funny,” as I slipped my hand back to its former beachhead on her leg, ready to move.

“No, William, that wasn’t permission for foolishness. Behave.”

We then talked stuff. For me, that meant I started a routine about the weather, the Washington Redskins, her favorite drink, the latest hot Hollywood movie. Grace cut me off when I started babbling on about all the heavy rain we’d been having.

“All in all, Bill, how’s life treating you? Really. Happy?”

I wanted to tell her.

“Grace, honestly, I’ve got more than I deserve, but I’m always chasing something. You know, like it’s just over the hill and I can’t quite make it out.”

“Ever stop and think what it might be?”

She has such kind eyes, I thought.

“Oh, maybe for a minute or two, but I shut it down before it gets scary. Knowing me, I assume it’s a skirt, but. . .”

“I sense you may be full of anger? Why is that?”

I did a double-take at Grace with a frown. Now, it felt like she was nudging a bruise. Full of anger? Where does she get that? It’s better than being full of shit, isn’t it, like some people I know.

Now I felt disappointment in Grace. She was trying to poke some spot of regret right under my ribs. Well, she is a woman.

I excavated a crooked smile.

She sensed my reaction and said, “Well, what are your dreams like at night?”

“My dreams?”

“Yes. Your dreams.”

I leaned back against the headrest and closed my eyes and sighed, “You know, the usual, I guess. Remembering old friends and the different people I used to be. Why do you ask about dreams?”

She said, “Sometimes dreams are the place memories hide when you are wounded.”

The conversation was taking a wrong left turn so, “What do you do, what kind of work?” I asked.

“I’m a counselor.”

“Really? I mean, who do you counsel?”

“Lots of people. It’s fascinating. I love trying to help. People make everything so complicated, but it’s not. Just life. You’re on this short trip and have to do the best you can, maybe a little more.”

“What brings you down here tonight?” I said.

“I was supposed to meet somebody.”

“Did you?”

“Yes. We met and he left the nightclub.”

“A boyfriend?”

“No. Just a good friend.”

“Well, I’m glad. I enjoy talking to you, except for that anger comment. You have a calmness about you. You make me feel like something wonderful is going to happen. I’ll bet you’re really good at that counseling thing.”

“Yes. Been doing it a while.”

Then, “Bill, I need to go back inside and use the ladies room, okay?”

“Oh.” I reached for the door handle, stopped and dove into my coat pocket.

I pulled out another business card like the one I had flashed earlier to reassure her. “Can I get your number, Grace?”

“Sure, it’s 202–884–2327.” I wrote it on the back of the card with my gold Cross pen which I pulled from the inside pocket of my expensive sports coat. The shiny pen performed 24/7 sentinel duty, always ready.

Grace isn’t giving me a lot to work with here, but at least it’s a D.C. number.

I reached for my door handle again. “Let’s go back, then. Maybe we can slow dance,” I pleaded.

“No. I’m going in and use the ladies room and I’ll see you back at the bar. Just sit here a minute and relax. We’ll meet up.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. I can handle it, no problem. It’s up the ramp and take a left. There’s a security guard at the top of the ramp. See you.”

As she got out of the car, I heard delicate silver bells announcing her departure. Of course, it was the open-door chime of the car.

I turned to my favorite radio station, WHUR, and caught Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven. Unusual. WHUR always plays Soul and R & B.

I knew Clapton’s personal story behind that song. Shook my head after the tragic lyrics. I need to get back into a party mood.

I showed my stamped hand to the guerrilla-bouncer at the front door, slid up to the bar, and waited.

No Grace.

The other girls were there. So, “Excuse me. Did you see Grace come back in?”

“Grace? Who’s that?”

“You know, the woman with the black hair in the white dress who was standing here with you.”

The leader said, “She wasn’t with us.” They looked at each other and shook their heads.”

“You can buy us a drink if you want,” said diluted pupils, shouting over the music.

“I saw her come back and go towards the restroom,” the other woman said. “Didn’t see her again.”

Well, I wasn’t going to let Grace slip away. Besides, nothing as interesting as her was going on, just the two barflies trolling for men.

I approached guerrilla-man, identified myself with a five dollar bill, and explained.

He referred me to the DJ who multi-tasked as manager of the security cameras. I repeated the same form of I.D. She gave me a sympathetic look and let me join her and her purple hair in the DJ booth. She rewound the last fifteen minutes of the security camera facing the restrooms.

There! I saw Grace enter the ladies room. I watched and waited. There was static and a short flash-break in the tape. Then the tape continued. She didn’t come out. I rewound the VCR and looked again.

Nope.

Well, I do have the phone number, but looks like she dumped me and maybe it’s time to head home. Seems like a shame because it’s only midnight, early. It feels later. My energy’s flagging. I’m growing tired or old. Probably both.

***

I planned to sleep in the next day but awoke instead to see dawn bleeding into the sky over the neighborhood trees.

For some reason, I went to Mass. This only happened two or three times a year. It was worth paying for the occasional church visit, via the offering, to stay in touch with my religious roots. I liked re-connecting unless I got one of those ignorant sex-and-money sermons threatening me with hellfire like I was still one of their medieval peasants.

Bad luck. Today’s sermon said no sex for me and more money for them.

I had planning meetings all day on Monday with the sales staff. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania advising a small firm on networking their PCs for invoicing purposes.

***

Back in the office Thursday, I called the number on the card. I wanted to go looking for Grace. I could always exit, any time. Exiting was my own personal art form.

“This is Children’s National Medical Center, Valerie speaking. How may I direct your call?”

“I’m looking for Grace Michaels who’s a counselor there.”

“Do you know what unit she’s with?”

“No. Sorry, just counseling.”

“Let me check my directory…She’s in our Children’s Oncology Center. Would you like me to connect you?”

“No. No. I’m her brother from out of town and I wanted to surprise her. Is she working today?”

“I’m sorry, sir, I’m not allowed to give out that information. You’re her brother and you don’t know her unit? Let me connect you to her supervisor, Mrs. Butler.”

“Yes, please.”

Then it felt like two minutes of Muzak, except it wasn’t. It was a Sesame Street jingle with one of those weird characters singing, the one obsessed with chocolate chip cookies. It wasn’t the red one, Elmo, with the squeaky voice.

“This is Mrs. Butler. I understand you’re looking for Grace. Who is this, please?”

“I’m Bill Peters, her favorite cousin. I’m from out of town and I wondered if she was working today. I wanted to pay her a surprise visit.”

“I see. Grace has never mentioned you. And, you don’t talk like Grace.

Talk like Grace?

“Mrs. Butler, I’d really appreciate your assistance. I’m from New York City and don’t get down here often. I’ll only take five minutes and then we’ll arrange more time later. I’m here for three days on federal contract work.”

“All right, Mr. Peters. Grace is working today until 5:00 p.m. Report to the front desk with an I.D. She’s scheduled with sessions all afternoon, so please be brief.”

“Yes, Ma’am, I will. Thank you very much.”

***

I bought the flowers, six roses, in the lobby shop of the building next door at lunchtime.

I’d just show up at the hospital and see what I would see.

I followed my MapQuest instructions exiting our K Street garage, underneath our “for show” K Street building address. I took New Hampshire Avenue north to 16th Street and then up to Harvard where I made a right and let it run into Michigan Avenue. I stopped at 111, right in front of the hospital and turned into the visitor’s parking lot.

I went inside to what they called the Atrium Welcome Desk. Very glassy, airy and bright. Good for kids.

I was directed to the third floor and waited.

A tall, well built Black woman approached me, on guard. “Hello. Are you Mr. Peters, Grace’s relative?”

I said yes and she gave me a peculiar look and then she added, “I’m Mrs. Butler. I’d better escort you back. Grace is in a counseling session, as I told you. Please be brief.”

She frowned at the bouquet of roses I held. “Follow me this way.”

We walked down a clean, carpeted, well-lit hallway with offices and meeting rooms on either side. One was labeled “Peanuts;” another “Dr. Lucy.”

On the Dr. Lucy door, there was an 8 1/2 by 11 picture-cartoon of a dark-haired girl in a white coat with a stethoscope, holding a football. The bronze nameplate holder on the wall next to the door said “Grace Michaels, Counselor.” Then I looked again and I noticed that the cartoon girl, with the mischievous grin, had her long hair parted in the middle.

We entered the room further down the hall with a dancing dog pasted on the door. He displayed large ears and an unnervingly humungous smile. I already knew the name of that room.

As we approached, I could hear Grace’s voice, but couldn’t see her. She was on the other side of a small room divider which had big cartoons of a cookie monster, a green frog and other children’s friends.

I could hear giggles from little ones and as they came into view I saw them sitting in little yellow plastic chairs with thick legs. They all had bald heads, appeared tired and pale, but were smiling.

Grace’s voice was reading about somebody named Sam and whether or not he wanted green eggs and fried ham. Normally, I’d say no, I don’t want any, but if Grace was cooking…?

I came around the five-foot-high room divider.

She was a fifty/fifty Black woman; over fifty years old and fifty pounds overweight. She carried her weight well. The face was heavenly, but not my Grace. I could tell she’d been very attractive years ago before heavy-calorie soul-cuisine weighed in.

“Grace?” I said softly.

“Hi,” she said, with her gentle fingertip voice. “Were you looking for me? Guess you found me, didn’t you.”

***

Finally, my long, awkward three minutes was up as a drought overtook our conversation. I guess Grace can look different from what we expect. Heellllooo?

Don’t ask me. I couldn’t figure it out.

Mrs. Butler had assigned herself guard duty in the hallway, outside the door.

As I turned to leave, Grace’s eyes flickered to blue and then back to brown. But really, how would that be possible? I need to see my optometrist. It’s been more than three years.

She said, “Nice seeing you, Bill. I hope you find who you are looking for. A lifetime can be a very long time. There’s love all around you, if you’ll let it in,” as she swept her hand at the watching children with the big eyes.

My head was in a fog as I returned to my parked car. The sunny afternoon had turned into a sky of steel wool.

I opened the door. An Irish Spring smell wafted towards me from the passenger seat. I wasn’t Irish and the leaves were falling from the trees. Leftover Grace from last Saturday night?

Down in between the two front seats peaked a white bird’s feather. Damn pigeons. I don’t remember leaving the window open? I looked at the front and back windows. Closed. Hmmm. Never saw a white pigeon feather like that. Six inches long?

I know this thought was strange and I almost laughed out loud when it entered my head. I wanted to ask somebody. Aren’t Guardian Angels supposed to be of the same sex?

I answered myself. Doesn’t matter, I don’t believe in them anyway.

Just for laughs, I put the feather inside the cover of my old college Bible from the University of Dayton.

###===

[Also published under the pen-name of Ben Leiter at Amazon, a memoir, CITY MANAGEMENT SNAPSHOTS: ON THE RUN. True stories of murder, suicide, betrayal, a Nazi, a communist spy and a monkey on the loose.]

BABY BOOMERS’ LOVE-BETRAYAL

This is the author’s dedication and the first chapter from my book on Amazon/Kindle, BABY BOOMERS’ LOVE-BETRAYAL, a romance-noir under the pen name of Ben Leiter.

Seventy-six million Baby Boomers, retiring at the rate of ten thousand a day, want to know: “What happened to true love?” Meet Bill Peters, an aging boomer grasping for romance on his life quest for the love grail.

AUTHOR’S DEDICATION

THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO THOSE WONDERFUL PEOPLE OF THE OPPOSITE SEX WHO MAKE THE WORLD SPIN ON ITS AXIS, EVERY DAY. YOU KNOW WHO ARE.

I DO BELIEVE OUR MATRIX OF EXISTENCE WOULD BE A FAR BETTER PLACE IF WOMEN WERE IN CHARGE. THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT CARRYING LIFE THAT CHANGES YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON HOW ONE SHOULD LIVE AND HOW A SOCIETY SHOULD BE ORGANIZED AND HOW WE SHOULD LOOK AFTER ONE ANOTHER.

I’M TIRED OF ALL THE MALE POSTURING.

 

CHAPTER 1

LOVE’S BETRAYAL

This is what your life looks like when you are afraid to love.

Do I hear someone in the back of the room saying, “Hi, Bill!”

This isn’t AA.

We’ll skip the background noise — my good friend Holden Caulfield calls it “all that David Copperfield kinda crap” …who my parents were…how I grew up…

If I did talk about it, I’d share suspicions that my parents, shortly after my birth, threw away the owner’s manual.

I was a captive of earnest declarations of love — needing to receive them but not compelled to give them. Maybe I was afraid to deal with important questions: “What does true love feel like? How does true love behave? Does true love exist?”

Like Holden, it seems I had trouble connecting, drifting from relationship to relationship. But one thing Holden had going for him, he seemed to be a reliable narrator. Me, the jury is still out.

I refuse to write for the desk drawer. Since I don’t have any kids that I know of, I’ll send this to my godson, Richard Friel.

This manuscript is messy, the way life is, you know? Richard can advise me if I should publish or perish. Somewhere in the manuscript I want to say “I was born into prison and received a life sentence and was looking forward to parole” — if you get my drift.

I am just a man and aren’t we all pretty much working from the same dog-eared script?

But I may not be a good man.

A footnote: I was curious and checked it out. I excerpted this from medical literature on the internet.

Signs and Symptoms of Broken Heart Syndrome: The most common signs and symptoms of broken heart syndrome are chest pain and shortness of breath. In this disorder, these symptoms tend to occur suddenly in people who have no history of heart disease.

I gave up smoking decades ago. I run three and a half miles at least three times a week. I watch what I eat.

No chest pain and no shortness of breath; if anyone is asking.

###

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