Whether we admit it or not, most of us live our lives on autopilot. We wake at the same hour, go to the same place of work or worship, talk to the same people, eat at the same restaurants, even watch the same TV shows. I’m not criticizing this. Habit is stability and stability is vital to survival. There’s a reason farmers don’t change crops midseason. When wisdom does not require change, it is wisdom not to change.

But sometimes the evolving terrain of life requires us to evolve with it. When those times come, we usually find ourselves quivering on the precipice of change as long as we can, because no one wants to dive headlong into the ravine of uncertainty. No one. Only when the pain of being becomes too much do we close our eyes and leap.

This is the story of my jump—a time when I did one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever done: I hunted down a woman I didn’t know, in a small town I’d never heard of, just because of something she posted on the Internet.

 

I’ve heard it said that solitude is among the greatest of all suffering. It’s true, I think. Humans don’t do well alone. But it’s not really solitude that’s the problem—it’s loneliness. The difference between solitude and loneliness is that one exists in the physical world, and the other exists in the heart. A person can be in solitude but not lonely, and vice versa. My job has taken me to some of the most crowded cities in the world and I’ve still seen and felt loneliness. I’ve seen it in the cold spaces between strangers jostling next to one another on the crowded sidewalks. I’ve heard it in a thousand rushed conversations. We have more access to humanity than ever before and less connection.

I’m not a stranger to loneliness. It was part of my childhood. There was loneliness between my mother and father. They never divorced. I think they stayed together because they didn’t want to be alone, but they were terribly lonely. And terribly unhappy. By the time I was sixteen I promised myself that if I ever got married, my marriage would be different. Ah, the best-laid plans.

 

My name is Alex Bartlett. Bartlett like the pear. If I had to pick a starting point for when my story began, it was this time last year, approaching the holidays.

I live and work in Daytona Beach, Florida, a town made famous by fast cars and smooth beaches. I have one of those unromantic jobs with a company you’ve never heard of, doing something you’ve never thought about and never would have if I didn’t tell you about it. I work for a company called ­Traffix. We sell traffic management systems for transportation departments. Basically, the product I sell counts the vehicles on the freeway and then sends in traffic analyses. If you’ve ever seen one of those electric freeway signs that tell you how many minutes to the airport, that’s probably my company’s software doing the calculating. I don’t design it. I just sell it.

My sales territory was in the US Northwest, which includes Northern California, Oregon, and Washington State. Since I live on the East Coast, that meant I traveled a lot for work, sometimes for stretches of weeks. I hated the loneliness of the road and being gone from home. My wife, Jill, hated my traveling too. But only at first. After a few years, she got used to it and took to creating a life without me. It seemed that every time I came home, reentry was more difficult. After five years she seemed indifferent to my traveling. I was lonely at home as well.

Believing that my absence was hurting our marriage, I took a pay cut and traveled less. But as soon as I started spending more time at home, I realized that things had changed more than I realized. At least Jill had. She was different. She seemed uninterested in us—or maybe just me. She had become secretive.

Then she started traveling with a group of women she met online. At least that’s what she told me she was doing. One day I was helping out with the laundry while she was gone and I found a folded-up, handwritten note in her jeans.

My deer one,

Each day were apart from each other feels like years. Your so far away. Im sorry that I couldnt come with you this time. I cant bear the idea of loosing you. I cant wate until you return and we will feest again on each others love.

—Your Clark

A sick, paralyzing fear went through my body. My face flushed red and my hands began to tremble. The idiot couldn’t even spell. But idiot or not he had my wife. When I had calmed down enough to speak I called Jill.

“Who’s Clark?” I asked.

There was a long pause. “Clark? Why?”

“Tell me who he is.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I found a note from him in your jeans.”

She hesitated for a moment, then said, “Oh, right. He’s Katherine’s lover. She handed that note to me as we got off the Phoenix flight so her husband didn’t find it. It’s nothing. I mean, to Katherine it’s something, she wanted me to hold on to it, but it has nothing to do with me.”

I just sat there processing her excuse. The fact that Jill’s name wasn’t on the note left me little ground to dispute her claim, even though it seemed unlikely. “You’re not cheating on me?”

“Why would I cheat on you?”

“But Katherine’s cheating on her husband.”

“Yes. And I can’t say that I blame her. She’s been going to divorce him for, like, two years, she’s just waiting for the right time. He’s got a bunch of real estate deals pending and she doesn’t want to throw a divorce on top of that.”

“Thoughtful of her,” I said sarcastically.

“She’s not doing it for him,” she said, apparently missing my sarcasm. “If these sales go through, she’ll make a boatload in the divorce. Why would you think I was cheating on you?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer. “You’re gone a lot lately.”

“You’ve been gone most of our marriage. I never assumed you were cheating.”

I honestly didn’t know if I should feel more foolish for doubting her or for believing her. I finally just breathed out slowly. “All right. Be safe. I miss you.”

“I miss you too. ’Bye.”

We were together only five days after she returned before I left town on business to Tacoma. A week later I came home to an empty house and a note on the kitchen table.

Dear Alex,

There is a season for all things and it is my season to spread my wings and fly. I can no longer be held inside this cage, gilded though it may be, like a sad, lonely bird. I cannot bear the thought of someday looking back with regret over what might have been.

It’s not you, Alex, at least it hasn’t been your intent to keep me so unhappy. You are a kind soul. It’s me and the human spirit yearning to fly. I need to be free and freedom cannot be contained within the shackles of a loveless marriage. I wish you to find freedom and love as well.

Sincerely,

Jill

P.S. I took the money from our savings and 401k.

She needed to be “free?” She was already free to do whatever she wanted, wherever and whenever she wanted. It was painful not understanding, not knowing what she meant, other than not wanting to be attached to me.

A few weeks later, pictures surfaced online of my ex-wife with another man. She wasn’t traveling with “just the girls” as she had claimed. I saw a picture of Clark with his arm around my wife. He looked like a cross between a young Tom Selleck and a mandrill monkey. I felt like such an idiot for missing her secrets and believing her lies. Especially for believing her lies. The lies hurt more than her betrayal. Anyone can have their head turned, but the lies were continual evidence that she didn’t love me. She hadn’t for a very long time. Maybe she never had.

I vowed that I would never let someone lie to me again.

Now that she was gone I was just as alone as when I had been married, only now it was official. Some of us, maybe most of us, are good at attracting what we claim we don’t want. My life seemed doomed to loneliness.

The Mistletoe Secret: A Novel