Authors: Debbie Macomber
This man had nerve. Nevertheless, I brewed us each a cup. He helped himself to milk, digging the carton out of the refrigerator and then putting it back.
Apparently he had an agenda other than delivering my phone. We stood in the middle of my small kitchen, facing each other, each holding a mug of coffee. If he could be direct, then so couldÂ I.
“What can I do for you, Rocco?”
He reached inside his pocket and removed the check I had written him earlier. “I have a proposition for you.”
Seeing the check sitting on the kitchen counter, I wasn't sure I was going to like what he was about to suggest. “What kind of proposition?” I asked, frowning up at him.
The edges of his mouth curved upward as if he'd read my mind. “Whatever you're thinking isn't it. I have a fifteen-year-old daughter. Her name is Kaylene and, well, she's a typical teenager. That girl has a mouth on herâ¦”
“Most teenagers do.”
He didn't agree or disagree.
“I substitute teach at the high school. I hear the way they talk.”
He arched his thick brows. “Must be hard to tell the difference between you and the students.”
I wasn't sure that was a compliment, so I let it go. “What about your daughter?”
Rocco sipped his coffee. “She wants to attend this dance, which, according to her, is a big deal.”
“And I am not letting her out of the house with the dress she bought with her friends.”
“And so I thought we might strike a deal. If you help Kaylene dress for this dance in something I can approve of, then I'd be willing to tear up this check and call us even.”
That sounded almost too good to be true. “What will your boss have to say about that?” I asked.
“I am the boss. I own Potter Towing.”
“Oh.” Then I paused. “I thought you said your name was Nyquist.”
“Good memory. I got the business from a man named Potter. Do we have a deal?”
I didn't need to think twice. “Sure.” So that was why he'd been so curious about my work with Dress for Success.
Rocco thrust out his hand and I did, too. His huge hand swallowed my much smaller one. As far as I was concerned, I was getting the much better end of this transaction.
I never expected to be living in an apartment at this time of my life. I held it in my mind that after Sean retired our relationship would improve. I thought that we'd travel and spend time together, and, optimist that I am, I hoped we'd make a go of it. I quickly learned that I'd been living a fantasy, believing that with effort we might be able to rekindle the love that had brought us together all those years ago.
Even in the early years of our marriage Sean had been a generous husband. Hardly a week went by when he didn't bring home a gift of some sort. To anyone looking in on our marriage we were the perfect couple and my husband was crazy in love with me. In public, Sean was openly affectionate and I was the envy of my friends. He was a good provider and I'd never had to work outside the home.
We'd been married about five years when I first learned that Sean was involved in an affair. I was devastated, shocked, and unbelievably hurt. If I'd been in my right mind I would have confronted him then and there. Although I wanted to scream and cry and demand to know why he would do such a thing, I didn't. Instead I swallowed my pride for fear of where it would lead, afraid of what would happen.
How foolish I'd been, but I loved my husband and Jake was a toddler. The thought of tearing our son away from his father, whom he adored, was more than I could bear. My parents loved Sean, and while it might sound foolish to say this now, there'd never been a divorce in my family. I didn't want to be the first. In retrospect, that makes absolutely no sense. All these years later I can see that I had been emotionally wounded to the point that I couldn't think clearly.
I became pregnant just a few weeks after we were married and Sean wanted me to be a stay-at-home mother for our son. He assured me that he needed me to be his emotional support and he didn't want to entrust our child's upbringing to a daycare worker. As his career advanced he seemed to rely on me more and more, as did Jake. I became involved as a school volunteer and chauffeured our son to sports and Scouts, church activities and tennis lessons, and never did take a job outside the home.
Over the years I discovered Sean's involvement in a number of affairs. It didn't take long before I was able to pick up on the signs that there was another woman in his life. The late nights, the extra care he took in his grooming, the unexplained charges on our credit cards. All the while I was praying desperately for a second child. Foolishly, I believed that if I was able to give my husband more children he would love me and wouldn't crave other women's affections.
When I look back on those years I want to slap myself. I did everything within my power to hold our lives together, to perpetuate the lie that we had a strong marriage. It was a fluke when I learned that Sean had a vasectomy, making it impossible for us to have more children. He'd had it done without me knowing, after a close call when he thought he'd gotten one of his women pregnant. All those years I'd been living in a dream world.
It wasn't until Jake entered college that I gathered the courage to threaten divorce. I was serious and even filed. Sean knew that I'd reached my limit, and he begged me to reconsider. He swore on the life of our son that he would never cheat on me again. Fool that I was, I took him at his word. For six months I believe he made a sincere effort to remain faithful.
Six months was all it took. Then it started up again and I knew. And Sean knew that I knew. I moved out of our bedroom and into the spare room, and emotionally distanced myself from him. To the outside world I pretended all was well. It wasn't. My self-esteem was shredded and my pride was eaten up with the acid of my husband's infidelity. For ten years before the divorce we'd basically lived separate lives, but to our country-club friends we were the same happy couple.
The brightest spot in those years was when Jake married Nichole. She became a daughter to me. As far as I was concerned, Jake couldn't have married a better woman. Her own mother was gone and Nichole often looked to me for advice. I came to love her, and after Owen was born my grandson became the center of my world.
It wasn't until I happened to overhear a conversation between my husband and Jake that I learned that my son had followed in his father's shadow.
“Dad, I have a little problem I need your help with,” Jake had said, keeping his voice low, barely above a whisper. I was in the hallway outside our bedroom, putting away towels in the linen cabinet. Funny how little details like that stick in one's mind.
I assumed what Jake wanted to discuss had to do with finances. In the early years of our marriage, Sean's parents had helped us out a couple times. I thought this little heart-to-heart was about money.
I was wrong, so very wrong.
Our son had gotten another woman pregnant. I stood frozen in place, sick at heart, hardly able to breathe, while Sean gave our son the contact information for a doctor friend of his who would perform an abortion.
For days I pretended to have the flu while I confined myself to the bedroom. My mind raced with what to do. I couldn't tell Nichole. This news would devastate my daughter-in-law. At the same time I couldn't keep quiet, either. I was consumed with guilt, knowing that by looking the other way, ignoring Sean's affairs, I'd given our son tacit permission to cheat on his own wife. This had to end, and it had to end with Jake because I refused to let this behavior continue into the next generation.
I knew that Nichole wasn't as naÃ¯ve as I'd been. It would only be a matter of time before she'd figure out Jake was cheating. I didn't want to be the one to tell her, but in the end that is what I did. The price of pretending to not know, of looking away, was far, far too high. For her and for me.
Seeing that Jake had followed in his father's footsteps, I had to believe that when the time came Owen would as well. My grandson would grow up and think fidelity and marriage vows were mere suggestions rather than heartfelt, meaningful commitments.
The hardest thing I've ever done was tell Nichole about Jake's affair. I had to admire my daughter-in-law for the way she took the news. Like I'd been all those years earlier, she was shocked and broken. I watched her crumble right before my eyes. But unlike me, she regrouped quickly.
That same afternoon she'd looked at me and said there was only one thing to do.
Her strength and courage caught me by surprise. How I wish I'd had the foresight to take hold of my life when I first learned of Sean's affairs. It was then that I realized I wasn't dead. It wasn't too late. All that was left of our marriage was a thin shell. If Nichole could take action, then so could I, and I did.
Because of Sean's repeated offenses, Nichole had no reason to believe Jake could be any more faithful than my husband had been to me. Unlike me, Nichole wasn't willing to give Jake a second chance. As far as she was concerned, her husband had shattered her trust and there was no going back.
My divorce was smooth sailing. Sean seemed to be expecting me to file. It was almost as if he'd mentally prepared himself for the dissolution of our marriage. He made it as painless as possible, giving me half of everything. I would have no financial worries; he'd been the one to insist I remain at home with our son, and he paid dearly for that. My attorney saw to a fair and even distribution of our assets.
What I hadn't been prepared for was the vindictive attitude that followed just before we signed the final papers. Sean made sure to let me know he saw me as unattractive and old. He took pleasure in telling me that my sagging breasts and body were a complete turnoff. He'd gone so far as to say I'd gone to seed. Although I no longer loved my husbandâhe'd destroyed that love when I'd learned about the vasectomyâhis words hit their mark. I'd been crushed by his cruelty and found it hard to look at myself. I felt old, dumpy, and past my prime.
Jake didn't take Nichole's decision nearly as easily. I had to give my son credit. He didn't want to lose his wife and son, and had gone to great lengths and expense to delay the divorce. I wanted to believe Jake was sincere and that he would change this need he seemed to have to seek out other women. Sadly, I had no way of knowing if he could. Evidence and experience said otherwise.
At one point, Sean had tried and been unable to change. I had to accept that Jake could take after his father in more ways than appearance.
Nichole and I moved into downtown Portland. The first few weeks we muddled through each day, depressed and uncertain.
One afternoon, in those early dark days when we were floundering in our misery, we wrote up a listâ¦a list to help us move on and make a new, better life for us individually and for Owen. We listed only four items because we didn't want to overwhelm ourselves. It was one step at a time. One day at a time. It helped tremendously that we were in this together.
The first item on that list was to ease the pain with a distraction, by giving to others. With me, that was teaching.
I'd graduated from college with a master's in education, but I'd never taught. I wasn't looking for a full-time position, so I found a volunteer job, an evening class two times a week, where I taught English as a second language.
It proved to be a good choice. I enjoyed my students and admired their determination to tackle the complicated idioms and slang of the English language. I had ten students that had immigrated from all around the world.
More and more I found myself looking forward to teaching my class. A large part of the satisfaction I derived came from one of my students named Nikolai Janchenko. At my best estimate Nikolai was close to my own age and from Ukraine. By far he was my most enthusiastic student. What I enjoyed about him most was his ability to make me laugh.
Monday night I parked in the Community Center parking lot. As soon as I pulled into the designated slot, I noticed Nikolai standing outside the center's front door. He was a fine-looking man with a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair. From our conversations I knew he worked in a deli as a baker. His shoulders were broad from all the upper-body work he must do. He wasn't a large man by any means, average height with strong but blunt Eastern European features. From what his school file told me, he'd been living in the States for five years and had recently acquired citizenship.
Nikolai must have recognized my car because he hurried across the street to meet me. By the time I'd reached for my purse and books, he had the driver's door open and offered me a hand to help me out. I enjoyed how much of a gentleman he was.
“Good night, Teacher.”
“It's evening, Nikolai. We would say âgood evening,' versus âgood night.'â”
“Good evening, Teacher.”
“Good evening, Nikolai. It's good to see you.”
“It's very good to see you,” he said. His eyes sparkled with warmth as he proudly handed me a loaf of bread. “I bake for you.”
The loaf was still warm from the oven and the aroma was heavenly. I raised it to my nose, closed my eyes, and inhaled the scent of yeast and flour.
“This is bread made with potato.”
“It smells delicious.” I would enjoy toasting a slice for my breakfast and planned to share the loaf with Nichole and Owen.
“I make it special for you.” He walked alongside me, his head turned toward me, watching me closely.
“I'm over the moon.”
He stopped abruptly and frowned. “Over the moon? What does this mean?”
“That's an idiom, Nikolai, and what we're going to be discussing in class this evening.”
“You explain this moon. You jump over it like cow in school rhyme?”
“No.” I had to smile. I found myself doing that a good deal whenever I spoke to Nikolai. His mind was eager to soak up everything I had to teach. All my students were keen learners, which made these two classes the highlight of my week.
It wasn't a surprise to see Nikolai take a seat at the table at the front of the class. He chose the spot front and center each time and hung on my every word.