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Authors: Stephen Bradlee

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Biographical, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction

Falling in Love

BOOK: Falling in Love
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Stephen Bradlee


Copyright - 2012 Stephen Bradlee




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“I have a great story for you.”

This is a sucker line for every writer. Almost everyone thinks that their life would make a great story but few of us live lives that are the stuff of great drama, and even less have material for its counterpart, great comedy. Still writers listen, at least for a few lines, because we are always looking for that great story.

The caller was Candice, an old friend whose own life story actually was worth telling. A century ago, her family was among America’s richest but alcoholism had wracked every generation, dissipating the wealth until now it was nearly gone. I had known her through years of pristine sobriety and years of hard drinking and nothing in between. Now, here she was, sober and saying she had a great story.

“What is it?” I asked curtly. I was on a deadline and didn’t have time to chat. I knew she would never tell her own story and who knew if she could spot great material any better than the rest of us.

“She’ll be in New York this weekend,” Candice shot back. “She wants to talk to a writer. Confidentially. When can you meet her?”

I hadn’t yet said that I would meet her. I snapped, “Two o’clock, Friday. Figaro’s.” Figaro’s was a Greenwich Village café. I was already afraid that this rendezvous would turn out to be a waste of time but I had a three o’clock meeting two blocks away. At that hour, Figaro’s would be fairly deserted and I had a side table that I sometimes used as an office cum cappuccino.

“Fine,” Candice replied.

“What’s her name?”

“She’ll find you. She’s seen your picture.”

“Why me?” I wondered. Candice knew other writers.

“Just be there. I’m late for a meeting.”

“Is she some kind of whistleblower?” I asked but Candice had already hung up.

I had three days to mull over the meeting, deciding whether or not to cancel it. But in the end, I knew I’d show up. I was a writer, a sucker. Maybe this time.

At two-fifteen, I was sipping a cappuccino and scribbling notes on a manuscript when she walked in. She looked in her early thirties, with auburn hair, aquamarine eyes, and was breathtakingly beautiful. She looked so perfect that it seemed hard to imagine that her life wasn’t also perfect but that gave me hope. Nobody’s was.

She walked up to me like an old friend. “Hi, Stephen.”

“Hi,” I said, rising. We shook hands. She didn’t offer her name.

She sat down and ordered an herbal tea as we made small talk about her trip to New York. She was even more beautiful close up but her eyes gave her away. Although large and soft, they revealed that they had probably seen a lot more life than thirty years worth. She asked me several questions about myself. I answered them all. She answered none of mine except her name. “Sherry.” Her story might be great but she didn’t seem ready to tell it.

At three o’clock I had to leave. I gave her my card and told her to call me if she ever wanted to talk. She stood up, blocking my exit. She whispered softly, “I’m a sex addict.”

Although her voice was a monotone, her eyes were alive and anxious. I thought of what Samuel Johnson had supposedly said two-hundred years ago: “People are only interested in sex and death.” I said that my address was on my card and that I would be there in two hours if she wanted to stop by. She had broached one of the two top hooks in history, and I was still a sucker.

I got home early. She didn’t show. I was still on a deadline and ended up writing until dawn before finally finishing it and dropping into bed. An hour later, my buzzer rattled me awake. Sherry was at the door, armed with coffee and croissants. She wanted to talk.

I gratefully sipped the strong coffee and tried to listen as she told me that she wanted to write a book to help other sex addicts with their recovery. I explained to her that self-help books were usually written by people with initials behind their names, initials like Ph.D. But if she did want to write one then I was not her guy.

There were basically two kinds of books, I explained, those which make people think and learn, and those that make them feel and experience. History’s great books usually did both but most writers were lucky if they could accomplish just one. I wasn’t an academic. I dealt with emotions, feelings and experiences. I was a storyteller.

She asked hesitantly, “If I told my story, could you change the names and places so that no one would know it was me?”

I said that I could.

“My story is too painful, and probably too big,” she said. “It could go on forever.”

I explained that most stories were “slices of life,” dealing with a year or a month or a big event, not a whole life.

For the next two hours she tried to slice up her life but she couldn’t find the right moment, the right place, to even begin. I told her that when I couldn’t write a beginning, I would write about whatever part that wanted to be put down on paper, the middle, the end, anything, just to get writing. This didn’t help.

I remembered going through a similar experience once before, with someone who couldn’t get out her story either. But when she finally began, it turned into a gusher and was so impassioned that I revised almost nothing, afraid that I would flatten the story out. Instead, we basically published the taped transcripts because the story’s power was in those tapes, in the pain in her voice, and her story. I tried to remember my question that had started that torrent of words, hoping that it might work again, but I couldn’t think of what it was.

My cassette recorder clicked and I replaced the tape with another. Sherry got concerned that I would run out of tapes before she said anything worth hearing. I assured her that I had plenty of tapes. I tried to keep her on the story. “What was the worst moment of you life?” I asked.

“There are too many.”

“The best?”

“I hope it hasn’t come.”

I was losing hope. “What moment was a turning point in your life? That when you look back at it now, you realize that it changed you forever.”

She glanced down and after a long pause, she said, “I guess it was the night I decided to go see my mother.”

“Tell me about it.”

She began, slowly, hesitantly, and then the damn inside her broke and the pent-up words began surging out. I soon suspected that her story was going be another deluge.








I remember that I was crying so hard that I couldn’t pack my suitcase. All I knew was that I couldn’t stay in Rosebud for one more minute. But I had nowhere to go. So I decided to go see my mother. The last thing I knew about her, from years before, was that she was living somewhere in Southern California. I had no idea if she was still there but California seemed as good a place to go as anywhere else. Besides, I had a lifetime of questions that I wanted to ask her and I was badly in need of some answers, any answers.

My tears had blurred my vision so much that I had stuffed my suitcase too full of clothes and it wouldn’t close. I grabbed a handful, flung them on the floor and then jammed the case shut. From a bookshelf, I snatched up the only two mementos I had of my mother, a book of poems and an old black-and-white picture. I stuffed them into my purse and then stumbled blindly out of my room, out of that house and out of that town, forever.

My car hadn’t been running that well and I wasn’t sure that it would make it to California but I figured I'd drive it until it died and then decide what to do. I headed south on the county road. I was still crying so hard that I could barely see and rounding a turn I crossed the line and nearly hit a truck head on. My hands were shaking so much that I could barely hold onto the wheel but I was afraid to stop on that deserted road. Somehow, I finally made it to the Interstate and then a strange thing happened. Instead of turning west toward California, I headed east.

My theory was that I didn’t have a clue where my mother was but that I had an address in New York for Elaine, my mother’s childhood friend. I decided that I would go to New York and ask Elaine if she had my mother’s address, and then I wouldn’t have to waste a lot of time looking for her once I got to California. It didn’t occur to me to just turn west and simply call Elaine from the roadside cafe. Maybe I wasn’t yet ready to meet my mother. I didn’t know. I just knew that I wasn’t thinking very clearly.

I was still crying and tried to think of some distraction to make me stop. Could I actually cry my tear ducts dry? How much could someone cry? Pints, quarts, a gallon? I glanced down at my damp dress and wondered if I were to wring it out would there be a puddle? The thought of wringing tears out of a black satin dress that I had worn on what was to have been the greatest night of my life made me cry even harder.

I drove through the night and into the morning. I continued crying sporadically and through my blurred vision, I apparently missed some sign and ended up heading for Albany instead of New York City.

At a rest stop, I stripped off the dress without daring to see if it would wring out, slipped into jeans and a pullover and stood before the restroom mirror, trying to pull myself together. There wasn’t enough eye shadow in the world to accomplish that.

Some truck driver assured me that some highway at a nearby exit would take me straight over to the Interstate that would take me straight down to New York City and that I couldn’t possibly get lost. I proved him wrong several times. I tried to navigate a maze of scenic roads lined with pines or evergreens or other green-tinted landscape that always seemed to narrow into a one-lane road before coming to a dead end. I finally found a wide blacktop road that looked promising and turned to what I hoped was in the direction of New York City.

“My life closed twice before its close,” I whispered. I often recited Emily Dickinson poems when I was depressed and this moment of my life certainly qualified. “
It yet remains to see if Immortality unveil a third event to me.

My car began sputtering. I floored the accelerator, hoping to get over the next hill and coast down into some town. But the car was dying quickly. As if it might help, I began reciting more quickly, “
So huge, so hopeless to conceive, as these that twice befell. Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.
” The car coasted to a stop as I stared up at an insurmountable hill. I didn’t know whether or not I had proven some scientific experiment but I just couldn’t cry anymore. I literally had no tears left.

After a while, a young couple pedaled by on their bikes and promised to send some help. Almost an hour later, I was still stranded and had to pee so badly that I couldn’t stand it anymore. Naturally, as soon as I ducked behind a bush and dropped my jeans, a tow truck rumbled over the hill. A guy jumped out and headed over to my car as I crouched lower in the bushes, hoping he wouldn’t see me fertilizing the weeds. “I’ll be there in a minute,” I called out.

He peered under the hood. “What seems to be the problem?”

Like I was supposed to know? “It stopped.” Through the brush, I could see that he was very handsome. But I was definitely not interested.

“That’s a problem,” he admitted.

I zipped up my jeans and returned to my main worry. “Can you tell how much it will cost?”

“Can’t say yet,” he replied, “but we do have the lowest rates in the county.” As I stepped around the bushes, he glanced at me and whispered, “for someone like you.” He apparently hadn’t noticed that I looked like hell.

The closer I got to him, the more gorgeous he got, tall with dark hair and piercing dark eyes that seemed like they could look through you. I knew I was attracted to him but that was the last thing I needed. I certainly didn’t trust any feelings I might have and I absolutely wasn’t going to get involved with anyone in the middle of nowhere. I’d just come from nowhere and I wasn’t going back. But I did give him my best smile, hoping it might lower the price.

He glanced at my license plate. “Indiana, huh? I knew you weren’t from around here. Where you headed?”

“New York City, I think.”

He glanced at me. “By way of Canada?”

“I was thinking about stopping to earn some money first,” I said quickly. “I’m a little short and I’ll be even shorter after this.”

He smiled. “Maybe destiny has chosen a nice spot for you.”

I doubted that. “I don’t think so, Larry?”

He glanced as his shirt pocket, on which was sewn,
. “It’s Paul, actually. Larry had a wedding today so I’m helping out my old boss. I used to work summers for him when I was in school.” Paul added, “I’m actually a lawyer.”

I didn’t believe him but I figured that didn’t matter. I just wanted to get my car fixed and to get out of there. But he was so attractive that, even though I tried to stare at the engine, I couldn’t stop staring at him. He was having the same problem. Our eyes locked, as he asked, “You believe in destiny?”

I shook my head, afraid to speak.

Although I tried to resist, I felt us leaning closer together. Paul was saying, “But Oak Grove does have a lot to offer.”

Again, I didn’t answer, fearful and horrified by what was happening. I had never experienced anything like it before. We kept leaning closer together and suddenly I wondered what it would be like to kiss him. I tried to pull back but our faces kept getting closer.
What are you doing, Sherry
? I thought.
What is he doing?
He must have wondered the same thing because just as it seemed like our lips were about to touch, he hesitated, then pulled back and quickly turned away while laughing nervously.

The moment, or whatever the hell it was, was broken. He looked at the engine and said, “Give her a try.”

I got into the Grand Am and turned the key. The engine groaned but wouldn’t start. Paul motioned for me to stop and then slammed down the hood. “You’re timing has slipped,” he said, “You’re going to need a tow.”

Paul hitched my car to his tow truck and I climbed into his cab, dirty with oil smudges on the doors and an ash tray full of cigarette butts. I tried to edge away from the oil smudges but they seemed to be everywhere. After a bit, he pulled over and stopped. I glanced nervously at him.

He smiled. “Come with me a minute. I want to show you something.”

We got out and walked up a hillside adorn with wild flowers spanning a rainbow of colors. I picked two up and inhaled their lovely fragrance.

“I lived in New York City once,” Paul mentioned. “Worked on Wall Street. You sure you want to live there?”

I shrugged. “Not really. Actually, I’d planned to go to California by way of New York.” He looked at me. I laughed. “I know it doesn’t make much sense.”

He stared at me like I was beyond strange.

“I’m going to see my mother,” I explained. “Right after I was born my father died in an accident. My mother ran away to Los Angeles and left me with her brother and sister. I had hoped to try and find her but I guess I can’t face her yet.”

“You’ve never met her?”

I shook my head. “Talked to her once when I was ten. I’d found her number and called and asked to come live with her. She promised to call me back but she never did.”

“That’s sad.” I didn’t really want his sympathy and regretted that I had told him. “I was sort of abandoned, too,” he added. “My father left home when I was thirteen and my mother was usually too sick to be much of a mom. That’s why I came back here, to take care of her. Everyone had pretty much given up on her. The doctors had performed test after test, trying to figure out what was wrong with her. When they couldn’t, they began to think it was psychosomatic. But if you looked at her, you could see she was in excruciating pain. It was obvious, at least to me, that she was dying. So I brought her home and threatened legal action if they didn’t give her morphine. She finally passed away last year and during the autopsy, they discovered that she had died of two cancers so rare that they don’t even keep statistics on them.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. Our hands brushed against each other and I edged away. I concentrated on holding the flowers.

“I miss her,” he mentioned. “She could be good company when she wanted to be.”

“But now you can go back to New York.”

Paul shook his head. “I called my old law firm but the guy who hired me has left and no one seemed to know me. I don’t want to start all over again. Besides I like it here.”

We had stopped atop a hill overlooking a picturesque small village nestled between a grove of oak trees and a serene blue lake.

“Pretty, huh?”

“Very,” I admitted.

Paul turned to me and leaned closer. “So what do you do?” he asked.

“I was working in an office.”

“Then you can type? Work a computer?” I nodded and Paul smiled broadly and leaned in even closer. “Then I just might have a job for you right in Oak Grove.”

Again, he looked like he was about to kiss me, and suddenly, I lost it. “No way,” I snapped, twisting away from him. “I’ve had it with one-church towns.”

Paul stepped backward, startled.

I regained control of myself and smiled apologetically. “Sorry. I’ve been driving all night, and I’m a little on edge.”

Paul looked down at the village with its lone church steeple towering above it. He shrugged. “Hey, we’ve only got one church. Okay, listen, I’ll fix your car and throw in the labor for free. Then you can leave, or I’ll tell you my proposal.”


That afternoon, while Paul repaired my car, I sipped coffee in the local café as the locals gossiped. Oak Grove appeared to be a quaint little hamlet that enjoyed a certain amount of tourism, mostly fishermen, and New Yorkers who occasionally built vacation homes on the nearby Serene Lake. The locals debated the wisdom of allowing such city folk within their midst. As the coffee-and-pie crowd gave way to the dinner crowd, Paul came in to announce that my car was running fine. Despite his offer of free labor, the parts alone pretty much emptied my purse. After I admitted that I had only eaten two donuts all day, Paul insisted that I dine with him at the Lakeshore Restaurant.

We sat on the terrace overlooking the tranquil lake, reflecting a fiery sunset. “Oak Grove’s best restaurant,” Paul assured me and suggested that I order the special, striped bass.

I surveyed the menu’s right side, grateful that I wasn’t paying, while Paul gave me some of the highlights of living in Oak Grove. I feigned interest as well as I could but was mostly grateful that Paul wasn’t asking me about my life, a topic I wanted very much to avoid.

Paul seemed fine with doing the talking and moved on to his childhood. Paul’s father had been a purchasing manager for a factory in Sparta, the largest nearby town, and often worked late with his secretary. The day after the factory closed, Paul’s father and his secretary disappeared and hadn’t been heard from since.

Paul then returned to joys of living in Oak Grove from mountain biking on a nearby mountain to sunset canoeing on the lake. But the more convincing he sounded the more I felt like he was trying to persuade himself, rather than me, that he loved living in the Hudson Valley.

Paul then got around to the dreaded subject, me. I mentioned that Rosebud was a village about the size of Oak Grove. Since Paul had just regaled me with the joys of small town living, I wondered about voicing my opinion that small towns bred small people with small minds exchanging small talk about others, usually putting them down to make themselves just a little bit bigger. Instead, I stuck to the facts.

“Your uncle and aunt have always lived together?” Paul asked. “Neither one of them ever married?”

BOOK: Falling in Love
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