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Sheila Branford is good to the bone. She's never strayed from the narrow path of her life. Why risk it? This one led her to a good job at a prestigious college; it got her a husband who's a good provider and two precious children. That she's miserable shouldn't enter into the equation
Eyes mostly male, turn her way as she enters the opening breakfast of a conference for higher education executives. Their appraisals are positive, but for a forty-two-year-old wife and mother, it matters not. She bites her lower lip, takes a deep breath, and affixes the smile that makes her appear more confident than she really is. It's her first time at this meeting and she knows few of the hundred-some college and university types in attendance. Two women, crisp, almost neuter in appearance, are inviting her to join them when someone grabs her arm. It's Roy Fitzgerald, a Southerner she'd met at an earlier conference.
"Hey darlin', come add some class to this table. Y'all, this gentlewoman is Sheila Branford, she heads the Community Affairs Office at Riel College, somewhere up here in the frozen North."
"Roy!" Sheila laughs, "Do you see any ice on this perfect summer day? And Riel, just FYI, is about an hour south of here, near Milwaukee."
"Wherever it is, darlin', it's a better place when you're there! Now, these folks have the good sense to hail from locales where this kind of weather isn't just a July thing. Ron's from Mississippi, Mike is from Arkansas, and Alabama's lucky to have Betty. As you know, I'm a Georgia peach, and that rough- rider across from you is Florida through and through."
The career woman, wife and mother smiles professionally from one to another; her mask is compromised, however, when she gets to the Floridian. What lucky woman gets to look at this every day? Pleasantries are exchanged as she imagines the family such a face must have. It's big: the fruits of a fabulous sex life, loving, too, because his warmth seems to be pulling me into his arms in a sort of virtual embrace.
His name is T. Earl Langley and he hails from Pine Springs College, located in north central Florida. "A place," he says, "where towering pines and ancient oaks have room to stretch and yawn."
Sheila flashes on her lifelong love for the Sunshine State. "It's not for us, dear. We belong in Wisconsin," had been her mother's reply whenever little Sheila proposed they live in Florida.
He doesn't just belong in Florida. He owns it! Something stirs between her thighs. Frightened by the sensation, she steers their conversation to the sexless issues of higher education. Only once does she reveal anything personal. It's a self-serving remark about the critters on Earl's cap.
"Oh! I just realized those funny little guys are armadillos. My son, Chase, loves armadillos. He'd be trying to peel those off your hat, even as we speak!" Try as she might, it's impossible to go for long without talking about one, or both, of her precious children. "Is your school mascot really an armadillo?"
"No, they're the moles 'cuz they can't see to catch anything!" Roy cuts in.
"Darlin', we're the Attacking Armadillos."
"Yeah, they think they can play football," another buddy chides.
"I see," Sheila says, pausing for effect, "so do we!" Everyone laughs, understanding her college is better known for brains than brawn.
When the colleagues adjourn to a conference room for the first session Sheila selects her usual seat in the front row. She's gazing out the window, wondering what her children are doing, when a belt buckle embedded with something's teeth blocks her vision. Tilting her head all the way back she finds Earl's eyes. They're focused on an array of armadillo paraphernalia which he holds in two huge hands.
Those eyes! They're the same color as that duck ... what's it called?
"For Chase!" he proclaims.
"Thanks," Teal. They're teal green. "I'll see he shares them with his sister."
"You've got a little girl, too? You're so lucky! I'll get some for her." He rushes off to return with more armadillo stickers, whistles, squirt guns, and erasers.
"Wow, how generous!" Her silver blues meet the teal greens.
You stir me, too.
It's the message he's been seeking. But Sheila finds the attention embarrassing. The queen of conversation has nothing to say. Feeling stupid, she looks away. Earl, understanding more than she does, moves on. Something has passed between them, and experience tells him a possibility exists, a possibility of what? He has no clue, but the beautiful blonde from the Midwest is worth knowing.
Neither lunch nor the breaks framing the sessions bring the two together again. From a distance, Sheila observes the Florida guy as he floats from meeting to meeting like a Spanish galleon in amid an armada of fiberglass dinghies. He isn't here for professional education alone. While others labor at working the room, he spends time on the few he really likes. In turn, their greetings to him are the kind bestowed on a lifelong friend.
As the sessions conclude, Sheila runs to her room to phone home. Talking to Allie, six, and Chase, four, always works like a tonic. After several minutes of lively kiddie-talk, Sheila checks in with Mara, their Polish sitter. "Tak, tak, all good," the woman confirms.
Confident all's well, she relaxes, content in her mommy-hood. I have everything in this role. It's the crowning achievement of everything I ever hoped to accomplish. God, how I love them! A deeper, more complete rapture I've never known. She pauses; knowing there's trouble in her next thought. So why am I so miserable? No! 1 can't do this; this isn't the time to get into a funk!
She stalks into the bathroom to confront the woman in the mirror. "You have everything." she scolds her reflection. "Can't you just be happy?"
The face doesn't buy it. If having it all is what you've spent your life pursuing, why, when you have so much, are you so empty?
"Stop it!" she screams in a stage whisper. Turning her back on the mirror, she escapes into the shower. The warm water feels wonderful on her skin. This isn't a bad conference. That session on crisis management will come in handy, the town and gown stuff too. The people are nice. Those Southerners are a riot. As she's thinking, slippery hands slide from neck to shoulders, arms, and chest, they encircle her breasts once, twice, three times. Pinching her nipples, she thinks of him and her breath grows shallow. With this arousal comes a deeper, more meaningful one. Earl's perfect face fixes in her mind's eye, and soapy fingers move downward ... No! She halts what she's about to do. What the ...? How dare that man enter my mind and try to make love to me? How dare I let him?
Furious with herself, Sheila exits the shower, dons her most conservative outfit, and trudges to the hospitality center for an Earl-free evening. Later, she gives herself high marks for the distance she's kept between herself and Mr. Langley.
He got the message, all right, perhaps too well, because the next morning she doesn't seem to exist for the man from Florida. Rats! I hadn't intended to alienate him to the extent we can't be friends. Besides, the most enjoyable people at this conference are his buds. To steer clear of him would mean missing the good spirits of the entire Southern contingent. That's just not acceptable. O.K., so maybe I should work at establishing a purely professional liaison with Mr. T. Earl Langley.
The bond forms instantly as Earl returns Sheila's businesslike attention. At lunch, the two chat politely, and by dinner, they are inseparable. Sheila's enjoying herself so much that when Roy asks who wants to go out for a farewell drink, she steps forward saying she'll join them as soon as she calls home. Her husband, Charles, answers the phone with a checklist of information. "The nurse called. Your mom's hallucinating again. Allie's invited to Meridy Carty's birthday party next Friday, and Mara wants to take off the day after tomorrow."
"O.K. Charles, tomorrow I'll call Dr. Black to get Mom's meds readjusted. And I'll arrange for a student from the college to stay with the kids so Mara can take the day off. Gosh, Meridy's party is the fifth one Allie's been invited to this month! Our six-year-old has a better social life than we have." Silence "I said Allie goes out more than we do!"
"Uh, yeah." He seems preoccupied, probably doing paperwork or watching television.
"I'm about to join some folks at a place called the Boilermaker. It's our last chance to commiserate. See you tomorrow, hon."
An accountant in a big Milwaukee firm, Charles is familiar with such get-togethers. "Fine, have fun, She." He clicks off.
As they pull into the Boilermaker's parking lot, Sheila realizes it's the kind of drinking establishment located in any rural U.S. town. The Southern contingent laughs to see a Wisconsin tavern so closely resembling its own watering holes. Even the pool-playing clientele looks familiar, with T-shirts stretched taut over beer bellies and jeans hanging off butts. Their girlfriends, too, make the Southerners feel at home as they adorn the bar in their Yankee version of redneck chic. Sheila watches them with interest. They don't turn her off; in fact, she almost envies their enjoyment of the here and now. Staring at them, she remembers her summers in the small resort town of Water Haven. What fun I had before I became politically correct and sexless!
Earl comes up, putting a beer in her hand and an arm around her shoulder. This, she thinks, drawing dangerous energy from his touch, this is anything but sexless. They stand close, each sensing the electricity swirling around them. Sheila loves the rush and wants to prolong it, but within that smoldering shiver is an entire universe to be denied. Come now, I'm forty-two years old; nothing's going to happen. This thinking gets her out on the dance floor, and into Earl's arms. The Righteous Brothers throb, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" while slow fingers caress the small of her back. Suddenly, the sensation feels provocative and cheap. This can't be happening! I'm too good, too normal, and way too married to be doing this. What, besides this guy's killer good looks, pulls me to him so? She draws back to consult the teal greens. They validate her confusion with a Rhett Butler twinkle. He's laughing at me! Angered, she pulls away, feigning interest in the jukebox.
In a heartbeat, Earl is at her side, and as she pretends to scan the song titles, this object of who-knows-how-many-women's dreams, grabs her hand. She stands paralyzed as the circuit is completed. No way! I won't go there! I can't. But what if I do?
Earl, sensing her panic, hands her a dollar. "Here, pick some tunes."
In no time, she's selected five country songs. The choice earns her a long, slow smile. "I didn't have you figured as a country music gal."
"I love country, but I never listened to it until six years ago when my car radio scanned to a country station. I've been hooked ever since. My husband hates it though. He says something happened to my chemistry when I was pregnant with Allie to make me love it as I do."
"People sell country short. There's more to it than they'd like to admit."
"Yeah, like a message. For me, it's causing some pretty disturbing thoughts to surface."
"How so?" Now she really has his attention.
For the first time, ever, Sheila decides to give credence to something she's been denying for years. "I'm a much simpler person than my lifestyle allows me to be. Somehow, the sophisticated nature of my life just kind of evolved. It's more the product of circumstances than planning."
"That's easy to let happen, but there's a danger that some day you'll wake up inside a life you hate."
"True." Sheila's voice sounds flat. She's thinking about something to do with her mom.
Sensing another mood change, Earl steers her to a barstool where he introduces the topic of his only son, Ryan. Pride flows from his description of the young man tough enough to play international soccer yet sensitive enough to write poetry in his spare time.
So he doesn't have a large family! Sheila's dying to ask about his wife, but that subject's better left alone. Instead, she volunteers more than enough information about Allie and Chase and what it's like to be the oldest mom on the playground.
Suddenly, one of the locals is all over Roy for moving a cue ball. What had seemed to be an abandoned pool game was really one waiting for its players to return from a trip to the bar. No big deal, for most, an apology would suffice, but these rednecks have their own form of retribution in mind. A fight seems seconds away.
"Ya no good motha'fucka! Ya think ya's'much better'n us? Y'need ta learn a lesson! We'll teach ya t'break up our game!"
Is there a code of conduct for pool players everywhere never to interrupt someone else's game? In the drama, Sheila sees laborers retaliating against the unjust treatment of a fancy tourist. Profanity aside, she can understand their rage.
The underdogs show their true colors, however, when they demand, "So asshole, what ya gonna do about it? How ya gonna make it right?"
Roy looks from one to the other as their agenda sinks in. Swallowing his anger, he drawls, "I'm so sorry, how 'bout I buy you boys a round, nah, make it two rounds of drinks?"
The boys, as Roy calls them, relax visibly. Straining to hide their satisfaction, "Well, O.K., but it ain't right."
"No, it ain't," now he's toying with them, "but it's just something I gotta do, know what I mean?" He smiles and ambles over to the bar where he plunks down the bills that will buy his way out of a fight.
Sheila is transfixed. She's never, before, seen a sting. "They set that whole thing up, waiting for the game to be interrupted, then feigning indignation!" "Believe so, sweet pea, probably do it every night, at least when tourists are around."
Sheila feels stupid for initially sympathizing with the locals. Then, angered by their con her thoughts turn to Roy. Would he have been so conciliatory on his own turf? I think not. But in the midst of his associates, especially females, this Southern gentleman turned the other cheek.
The excitement has cooled Sheila's fever for Earl. Evidently it did the same for him as he's accepting an invitation to play pool at one of the truly unoccupied tables. Sheila looks around and decides to join Erica and Kelly, two colleagues who are neither men's women nor women's women. Each is able to walk the narrow line between the two and be liked by both sexes.
Someone is showing them an e-mail device about the size of a pocket watch. Kelly grabs it to send a message to her husband. From the way she talks about him, it's easy to tell they're crazy for each other. Sheila wonders what x-rated text her friend is digitally whispering to her guy. While Kelly's involved, Sheila turns to Erica, wondering if she's noticed the current flowing between her and Earl. If she has, she isn't letting it show. Instead, the lovely, Irish-featured brunette is forthcoming with information about herself. She's married to a great guy who has a daughter from a previous marriage. No, she has no children of her own, and yes, sometimes she wonders if she's missing something. But most of the time, her husband and stepdaughter make her so happy that having a baby of her own doesn't seem important.
"Gosh," Sheila interrupts tactlessly, "my children are the only worthwhile things in my world. Without them, my life would be, as my hero, Henry David Thoreau would say, 'frittered away by detail.'"
"Really? What's so tedious?"
"Oh ... nothing, really," Sheila backpedals. Then, struggling to resurrect her glass half-full identity, she adds, "I shouldn't have said that. My life is great, it's just a little frantic right now."
"I hear ya!" Erica raises her glass to Sheila. "Here's to the quiet times, moments when we can sit and think, and put everything into perspective."
Sheila smiles and drinks to the toast, but silently concedes, the quiet times are my enemy too. They're when I'm hardest on myself for not loving Charles the way I should. How stupid I was to think I could light my passion through the sheer will of wanting to love him that way!
A merry band of colleagues swaggers their way. Southern Comfort, having flowed in abundance, manifests itself in the group's high spirits. Someone suggests the revelry continue in the hot tub at the lodge. Most think it's a great plan.
Excerpted from Slow Dance by Melissa McDaniel Copyright © 2007 by Melissa McDaniel. Excerpted by permission.
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