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A Thousand Half Loves
Sometime in the late summer when the air began to tingle and the leaves started to fall, I opened my eyes one morning and my view of the world had changed.
Just like that. I can still see it in my head. The way I let it all unfold. It was a train wreck waiting to happen, and I let it.
I left for a business trip that morning with my house in total disarray. I had no good reason for refusing to take Charlie to his school bus, and despite having some time to change our dog's water bowl, I chose not to do it. There it lay, next to the unwashed food dish, crusted with the remains of last night's dinner. I figured Jack would get home from the gym and handle it all.
Piles of paper gathering dust on the floor and debit card receipts busting out of a little white box screamed for my attention. I ignored them. My home office, the place where I used to hide all day, was like a war zone.
And it wasn't like we had money issues. Paying our bills was the least of my worries. Jack had made a killing when his startup was bought out, and I was the head of client services at a global real-estate company.
I just stopped giving a damn. Nothing interested me. I was beset by indifference. I just couldn't keep up anymore. The sleepless nights, the exhaustion, the constant streaming in my head. Everything seemed so insignificant, so mundane. My successes, my accomplishments, they had lost all meaning.
All I wanted was a chance to get out of the house, to leave that life for the only thing I seemed to do well these days — work.
That was my morning.
And this was my afternoon.
* * *
I took a deep whiff of the cool sea air, filling my lungs to the brim with relief, grateful for the reprieve of being far from home. Our San Francisco sales office was located right by the Embarcadero, a quick walk from where I sat. The wharf was crowded that afternoon, something I hadn't expected in mid-September. Save for a few young students on field trips, there were tourists everywhere. The sun was so bright that the tips of the waves sparkled like diamonds. I don't know why I thought of gilded stones and shiny white pearls, but I did. I imagined them bobbing up and down in the water while I leaned on the wooden rail surrounding the deck.
Maybe it's because of my mother and my grandmother — they both loved pearls. Whenever Jack wanted to buy me jewelry, I begged him to stay away from those misshapen, ugly white things. They age you. Make you look old.
"Well, we are kind of old," he'd tease.
"You're old. Thirty-five is not that old," I'd snap back. Although it did feel old when you'd married at twenty-five and this was the only life you'd known.
"Hello?" A woman's voice coupled with a light touch of my shoulder filled me with a surge of energy. There she was, my friend Valerie, leaning in to give me a kiss on both cheeks, her long brown hair blowing in the wind, almond-shaped eyes squinting from the sun's glare.
"Hi, you!" I squealed before wrapping my arms around her and glancing around for another familiar face. "Dylan?" I asked.
"He had to take a call at the office. He'll meet us for dinner tonight."
She opened her purse and handed me what I'd been waiting for all morning. I leaned my head toward the flame and lit that glorious cigarette.
Birds gathered at our feet, dirty, bedraggled pigeons. I stiffened up and let out a shriek as one of them came too close. Valerie flapped her hands and stamped her feet. "Shoo," she mewed, sounding more sexy than scary.
"We can't stay here," I said. "There's too many of them." My fear of birds had started when I was only three years old. I think it's because I had broken out in hives the first time I'd touched feathers. After that, my older sister Trish would use a feather duster to scare me into submission while we were growing up.
When they all flew away, I calmed down somewhat. "Hey, before I forget, I got us a room at the Clift on Geary. It's by Union Square, so you know what that means?" I asked.
Val continued to stomp at the birds even after they had scurried off. She turned to face the ocean.
"Oh," she said. "Actually, I booked my own room so I can work late into the night."
I slipped past her and closer to the water. "Oh, God, that feels so good." I turned my head to the side to avoid blowing smoke in her face.
Valerie scrunched her nose in response. I watched her shift her weight from right leg to left, a familiar motion required by the stilettos she wore with every single outfit. As consultants who'd developed the sales tracking system for our company, we'd worked together for a year now. In the realm of professional relationships, I shouldn't have allowed our friendship to develop as it had — it went against my own advice to wait until the end of the project. But we'd hit it off so well, I convinced myself that being friends with a coworker was no one's business.
"Jack still does not know."
"Nope. They'd kill me. Charlie's on this health kick with soccer season starting and all."
Another deep, wonderful, invigorating drag. This time I made smoke circles.
Valerie laughed and shook her head. And while basking in the silence, all I could think about was that I was where I belonged. Far away from home where the air wasn't so suffocating and my indifference wasn't so evident.
I loved everything about Val. She spoke English with a thick French accent and lived in a messy apartment in Paris with shoes and purses lined up along the hallway and ashtrays on every single thing that would hold them up. To me, she epitomized independence.
We kept walking.
"Hey, look, churros!" I exclaimed. "I think I'm going to get one. Want one too?"
Valerie laughed and shook her head. "Go get your fix, I'm going to the restroom. See you by the fortune teller, over" — she pointed to the far left corner past the aquarium — "there. It's next to that oyster place we like."
"How 'bout right there." I pointed to the floating docks and the benches stacked with onlookers. "I want to send Charlie some pictures."
The sea lions at Pier 39 were especially boisterous that day, barking and grunting as they slid in and out of the water. I was minding my own business, enjoying my snack when Valerie emerged from the washroom with a phone to her ear. I licked the crusted sugar granules from the top of my lips and stood for a few minutes, mesmerized by the lolling movement of a frolicking mother and sea pup.
Just as I turned away from the landing, my vision was blocked by two giant orange feet that lay flat against my cheeks. A drooping, pointy beak brushed against my lips and snatched the churro right out of my mouth. A strong burst of air and a flapping of wings knocked me to the ground. I fell to my knees and stared out in front of me, stunned and flustered at the same time.
"Mommy, that seagull just stole the lady's food!" said a little girl in pigtails.
My biggest phobia had just been realized. Not only had gross webbed feet touch my face, I had been kissed by a bird.
"Miss, are you all right?"
I heard your voice for the first time. I heard it before I saw you in front of me, one knee up, the other on the ground to keep your balance. Your face was so close to mine, I thought for a moment you were someone I knew. And then I realized that you were a stranger, one with kind consoling eyes. I struggled to lift my knees up while you helped me keep my balance. You looked polished, business-like — your white shirt uncreased and tucked into gray dress pants.
Valerie came running, phone in hand, heels click-clacking. "Carin!" she yelled. "What happened?"
Her voice, familiar, woke me up. Slowly I pushed up with my hands, lifting myself off the ground. When you sprang to your feet and hoisted me up by the shoulders, I finally saw your face. You looked like winter. Dark and deep-set eyes whose gaze could cut through ice. With your brows furrowed and lips pursed, you looked genuinely worried. I noticed how thick your hair was — it blew in the wind and covered your face.
Soon enough, Valerie had reached us.
I turned to address her, ignoring the fact that you were still standing right in front of me. "I'm okay." Embarrassment began to set in. I straightened my shirt, patted down my hair, and directed a forced smile at both of you. Valerie took my hand and led me away.
"Miss?" you called to me. Softly at first and then louder. "Miss."
I didn't stop to look at you, kept on walking. "I'm okay, thank you!"CHAPTER 2
Not Since You
Valerie slowed to a stop as soon as we were out of the crowds, far from Pier 39. I kept my eyes fixed on her feet. They made me nervous. I could just imagine those skinny stilettos getting stuck in one of those wooden slats and her falling flat on her face.
I grabbed her arm instinctively as if trying to fasten her to the ground.
"Who was that guy?" she asked.
I shook my head. "No idea."
"The way he helped you up, I thought he was a friend."
"He would make a nice friend, wouldn't he?" she said with a giggle.
I laughed too. "Valerie, the walking guy-dar."
"Well, are you saying it isn't true? The way those men all flock to you, the interesting experiences you have, even when you're not looking."
"It's all in your mind, my friend."
"Yes, I suppose the fact that the people at your office named you 'Legs Frost' is just a figment of my imagination," she quipped to get the last word. As always.
We found a bench directly facing the ocean, our view obscured by tourists hanging on to the railings for dear life. "Spaghetti," I muttered out loud, referring to the arms and legs twisted around the rails right in front of me.
These accidental thoughts did not discriminate. They never gave me a moment to myself.
Val's gentle nudge brought me back. "Spaghetti? You want Italian?"
She searched on Open Table, so focused on that little red app until she looked up at me with a smile.
"No, no!" I stressed. "I was thinking about something else."
"Oh." Val swiped her screen a few times. "Butterfly? I feel like Asian fusion tonight."
"I don't care," I responded. "I'm just happy I'm here. I needed a break."
"From what? You've got a pretty good life, from what I can see." She did this all the time — tried to make me see the good side of things. And I swear, I used to. I had been grateful once. These days I was impervious to the passion I used to have for life.
I agreed that nothing made sense when you looked at me from the outside. Everything was so in place, it was ridiculous. I had no secrets, no scandalous past. Just an ordinary life with ordinary joys and ordinary sorrows. At least that's how it looked to me.
That was all before I met you.
"If only you knew," I answered, looking away. I wondered whether she'd heard me. Our conversation was drowned out by the buzz of other chatter, exclamations, excited yelps and shrieks.
She looked at me, a smile breaking on her face. "It's your birthday! We have to do something special."
"Yeah but I won't be with you, so it's got to be tonight," she said, clutching her hands together. Valerie paused before placing a hand on my forearm. "So, Paris next month? I'll clean my apartment, I promise. We're going to see Imagine Dragons, right?"
"Does their tour take them somewhere else a few weeks later? Mid-November, perhaps? Can't do it the week of Halloween — still deciding what to do for my mom's thing."
The atmosphere always turned awkward every time I mentioned my mother. I was ten years older than Val, and when my mother had died suddenly, the fragility of life, the vulnerability that often accompanied random tragedy smacked me in the face.
We stayed quiet for a while. The clouds rolled across the water and turned into a heavy mist of fog. Alcatraz faded in the distance.
"You miss her, I know."
I kept staring into the heavy gray haze. "If she were here, she'd know what to tell me. She always had the answers, you know?"
"I do." Valerie took my hand. I leaned my head on her shoulder. She played with her phone, swiped up and down before holding it up. "London, but it's the week of Thanksgiving!"
"So what? Let's do it then."
She glared at me. "Thanksgiving. Did you hear me?"
"Jack's with his family. I'm sure he'll manage."
"What about Charlie? Should we take him with us?"
"He'll be with his cousins. He won't even notice I'm gone."
Val knew not to go further. She shrugged and leaned back into the bench. "Were you able to find someone?"
Her voice had turned into a whisper. "You know, to talk to about those night attacks?"
"Attacks?" I giggled. "You mean when the pillows come alive in the middle of the night and try to smother me?"
Valerie's face was always too kind; even when she tried to assume a dirty look. "You are just so funny. You know what I mean. Panic."
"Oh, those." I fidgeted with my front pockets, crossing my right leg over my left and then uncrossing it. I wished I'd never told her. When you open up to even your closest allies, they always turn your deepest darkest secrets against you. "They only last for about five minutes. Nothing I can't handle."
"Until you get some help." She grabbed my arm and shook it. "Right?"
* * *
Nights out with Valerie were always eventful. I'd learned from my French friends that sometimes Americans were too uptight, too concerned with so much political correctness.
"Why are you Americans always so indecisive, so noncommittal?" she'd asked me once.
"What do you mean?"
"When I ask you, did you like it? Do you like them? You never say yes or no. You say, so-so, or yeah, it was okay, or not really. It's always gray with you. With us, it's either yes or no. Nothing in between."
Her European-ness rubbed off on me whenever we were together. There was a different feeling of boldness, of not having a care in the world. Valerie was never fazed by the server's dazed expression when we left the table in the middle of dinner to step outside for a cigarette.
"We will be back, okay?" she'd say.
We did that all night, sipped and puffed and immersed ourselves in nonsense. Once in a while, we'd revert back to work talk, make fun of those who didn't understand the purpose of the project, and avoid the subject neither of us wanted to broach.
What was happening in my personal life? I'd hardly spoken about my family. Who in their right mind would be vaguely interested in a neat little life, filled with clichéd accomplishments like work, career, marriage? Such normalcy embarrassed me.
Instead, we focused on Valerie. She was married too, with parents who owned a Thai restaurant by the Bastille in Paris. She had a brother in school and a younger sister who helped run her parents' business.
But Valerie was different. She wanted so much out of life, and she was living it. She didn't want to stay put in Paris, taking care of her parents. She didn't even want children. She was against everything that tied her down. Every time we were together, she'd share stories and secrets borne out of her ability to keep moving, keep evolving.
I'd done just the opposite. Tied myself down at twenty-five and never looked back.
Valerie wanted to travel the world, move from one place to the other.
When did I start wishing I was like her?
I thought it was my cross to bear. I thought that life was just like this.
You live, you love, you lose.
We were seated with strangers between two adjacent booths, allowing active talk amidst tables to be shared, and secrets to be overheard. Everyone could tune in to what everyone else was saying. Val and I smiled at each other and purposely stayed silent.
The couple to our left was obviously on a Tinder date. The young lady was telling the young man about her job. At the end of her monologue, all he said was, "You don't look like you did in those pictures."
I squeaked under my breath when Val kicked me on the shin.
Four people sat to our right, three women and a man. I only knew it was a man because of his voice. Val kicked me once again as the women across from me strained to speak to the man at the table. They flipped their hair and leaned closer, asking the man where he'd gone the night before when he'd ditched them for a woman at the bar. They spoke in Spanish, but I understood. In heavy accented English, the man said, "A gentleman never tells," in the most melodious intonation I'd ever heard.
Up until then, I'd thought the French language trumped all other.
But not since that day.
Not since you.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Year I Left"
Copyright © 2019 Christine Brae.
Excerpted by permission of Vesuvian Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: A Thousand Half Loves,
Chapter Two: Not Since You,
Chapter Three: Your Voice,
Chapter Four: Home Life,
Chapter Five: Namaste,
Chapter Six: The Plan,
Chapter Seven: Voicemails,
Chapter Eight: Triple Date,
Chapter Nine: Pretty Woman,
Chapter Ten: Trouble,
Chapter Eleven: The Godfrey,
Chapter Twelve: My Brutus,
Chapter Thirteen: Imagine No Dragons,
Chapter Fourteen: Crazy Phase,
Chapter Fifteen: Not This Time,
Chapter Sixteen: It is Him,
Chapter Seventeen: GONE,
Chapter Eighteen: You're My Buddy,
Chapter Nineteen: Love,
Chapter Twenty: Divorce,
Chapter Twenty-One: New Normal,
Chapter Twenty-Two: Away We Go,
Chapter Twenty-Three: History,
Chapter Twenty-Four: Because of You,
Chapter Twenty-Five: Into the Sea,
Chapter Twenty-Six: The Place for Miracles,
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Woodpecker,
Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Rules,
Chapter Twenty-Nine: Sarong,
Chapter Thirty: Short,
Chapter Thirty-One: Breakfast,
Chapter Thirty-Two: The Monsoon,
Chapter Thirty-Three: Art,
Chapter Thirty-Four: What You See,
Chapter Thirty-Five: Secrets,
Chapter Thirty-Six: Sudden Loss,
Chapter Thirty-Seven: Windchimes,
Chapter Thirty-Eight: Love,
Chapter Thirty-Nine: We are one,
Chapter Forty: CNN,
Chapter Forty-One: The Beginning,
Chapter Forty-Two: Gratitude,
Chapter Forty-Three: Temporary,
Chapter Forty-Four: Death and Dying,
Chapter Forty-Five: The End,
Chapter Forty-Six: Back At Home,
Chapter Forty-Seven: Why Not?,
Chapter Forty-Eight: The Letters,
Epilogue –Three Months Later,
About the Author,