Second Chances – Chapter 3

progress, I think.  what was multiple small chapters redone as a single, more fluid [hopefully] work.

3 ~ Encounters ~

I hate shopping.  Maybe because of my aversion to crowds – all I know is I don’t care for it.  Unfortunately, I also like to eat.  So that desire to feed myself had me out, even on a cold, wintery afternoon, at my ‘favorite’ supermarket.  I had barely begun my scrounging when a friendly, familiar voice broke through my reverie.

“Paul?”

Hearing her voice brought a smile to my face.  I hadn’t seen Cheryl since Annie’s memorial, in fact she was the only one of my wife’s friends that had sent email and a sympathy card afterwards.

“Hello, Cheryl,” I replied as I dropped the package of ground beef into my cart.  “It’s good to see you.”

“You too.”  She smiled as I reached out a hand, but she knocked it away and stepped up close to give me a hug.  “How are you doing?”  From her, I knew the question to be an honest inquiry.

“I manage, I suppose.  Pretty much one day at a time, as they say.”  I shrugged.  “It’s not easy, living alone.  Especially after so many years…”  I blinked away the tears that threatened my eyes.

“Yes, I can’t even imagine.”  She reached up and gently touched my cheek.  “I’ve thought a lot about you the past few months.  It’s difficult to imagine you … by yourself.”  She glanced through the items in my cart.  “At least you’re not stocking up on frozen dinners and pizzas,” she laughed.

“Haven’t gotten to the frozen foods aisle, yet.”  I said with a wink.

“Paul,” she reprimanded.  “You are far too good a cook to resort to cheating.  Even… even now.”

I looked into her eyes, recognizing the old fire deep within.  I suppose most people might find it strange that my ‘mistress’ and I had remained friends – but even more so that she and my wife had managed to repair their friendship after the affair.  I could feel the old longing build but I shoved it back, refusing to admit my continued affection and attraction for she lovely woman who stood so dangerously close.

“Thanks, Cheryl.  And yes, I still cook – though cooking for one isn’t the joy that planning and preparing meals for two was.”

“So, cook for two again.”  She stood so very close – I could smell her cologne, feel the energy that still surged between us.  “Not on a regular basis, maybe, but once in a while it might be good for you.”

I arched a brow.  “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were hitting on me.”

“Would it be so bad if I did?” she asked.  “Paul, I know you.  I know the passion that lives within you.”

“Lived.  Things have changed.”

She nodded and her smile faded.  “Ok.  I’ll back off, at least for now.”  She raised on her toes and kissed my cheek.  “But I’m not disappearing – unless, of course, you want me to…”  She let the sentence hang in the air with expectation.

“No.  I don’t.” I admitted.  “I have no idea what’s going to happen when or if, for that matter.  I only know right now I can’t think of … anything relational.  And you know me; you know I can’t just go for physical stuff without something behind it.”

She touched my cheek again.  “I know, love.  Just know that I’m here.  And that I care.”

I leaned down and returned her kiss to her cheek.  “Thanks, Cheryl.  I know.  And I appreciate it more than I can show right now.”

She smiled then turned and headed down the paper goods aisle.  “Later, Paul.”

“Later, Cheryl.”  I watched her walk away, admiring her poise and grace before shaking my head and turning back to the matter at hand.  As I started toward frozen foods (what can I say, I do like shortcuts) I looked up and saw Tommy further down the row.  His face registered shock and, if I read him correctly, disappointment.  I raised my hand to waive but he just turned and walked away.

“Tommy…”  I picked up the pace slightly and moved to catch up with him, but when I turned the far corner, he was at a checkout stand – his back to me.  I watched as he finished his purchase and headed out the front door of the store, all without a single glance back or acknowledgement he had seen me.

I finished my shopping and went through the self-checkout to finish.  I was home putting groceries away when the phone rang.  I punched the ‘speaker’ button and answered.

“Paul here.”

“Hey Paul, what are you up to?”  Jared’s voice punched through the air with his usual enthusiasm.

“Nothing much, putting food away.  Just got back from the market.”

“All frozen stuff?”

I laughed.  “What’s with you and Cheryl bugging over frozen goods?”

“Cheryl?”

“Yeah – I ran into her at the store.  She made a comment about me not getting frozen dinners and remarked I needed to keep cooking instead.”

“How was it?  Seeing her again, I mean.”

“It was ok.  We had a nice talk.”  I paused briefly before deciding to tell him.  “And she made a pass.”

“Really?  You two getting back together?”  He knew of the affair.  In fact, I had told him before I had the talk with Annie.

“No, Jared.  Chill.  I’m not getting with anyone.  I will admit it felt good, but I’m not ready to shack up with anyone.  You know me, ‘shacking up’ isn’t my way in the first place.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.  So no heat?”

I considered how much I wanted to admit.  Jared was a friend, my best friend, but did I really want to go into that much detail over an almost-innocent encounter?  I decided I did.  “Plenty of heat.  But I put out the fire before it could get fully started.  Besides…”

“Besides what?”

I stood staring at a package of napkins in my hand half-raised to the cupboards.

“Paul?  What else happened?”

I sighed.  “Tommy was there.  He saw me kiss Cheryl and I think it may have set him off.”

“Wait a minute.  I thought you said you put out the heat.  You kissed her?”

“On the cheek, hound dog.  It was just a friendly gesture.”

“Then why do you think it put Tommy off?” he replied.

I told him about the boy’s reaction and how I had been unable to catch up to him afterwards.

“Ho boy – sounds like you’re in it deep now.”

“In what?”

“Here and all I thought it would be nice for you to get out, I didn’t expect you to jump into a love triangle.”

“Chill out, man.  No love triangle.  No triangle at all, for that matter.  I am not in, nor do I plan on being in a relationship right now.”

Jared’s familiar laugh rang through the phone.

“Sounds like you may not have a choice there, lover boy.”

That night, dreams were a mix of strange and stranger.  Cheryl, Jared, Tommy, they each had their time running through the shadows of my sleep.  Enticing, promising, teasing – it was a night of little sleep and major confusion.

And in the midst of them walked Annie.  My Annie, the angel of my life, my purpose, my friend and confidant.  I had no one to confide in, no one to talk through the turmoil of my slumber outside of her.  And she was gone.  Tears of sorrow blended with lonely emptiness.  How I longed for someone to hold, someone to hold me.

It started with Cheryl.  Coffee from the local barrister, sweet yet pungent.  I shared my heartache, my pain as she nuzzled my neck and sent shivers up my spine nibbling on my ear lobe.  She knew what it did to me, how those sensations shot south and ignited desires I would have left unanswered.  Except for her lips.  Those soft, sensual, promising lips that coaxed me from the shadows of denial and robbed me of my breath.  And the first waking of the night.  Sweat pouring from my body as I convulsed in release.  Sitting up in bed wide eyed to the cold realization I was alone and my arms were empty.  Dreams bordering on nightmares, yet filled with too much passion and heat to be threatening.  At least, in the sense of most night terrors.

Then Tommy.  Dear, sweet, young Tommy.  His blue eyes watching every move as I registered at the club, talking to me quietly as I exercised, offering to help me towel off after my shower.  And when I gave in to the temptation to kiss him suddenly we were in the grocery with him walking away, sad and angry.  No words, only the back of his head as he faded into shadow and again I awoke – only this time aching in sadness.   I had not meant to hurt him, but his face kept blending into Cheryl’s, then Annie’s, then back – like all good dreams it made no sense to me awake but seemed to be perfectly sane during the dream.

Finally able to fall back asleep, hoping for a few hours of uninterrupted rest, and Jared filtered into my dreamscape.  It started more innocuously, college days, getting half-slain on the rugby field.  Then the day I was taken out hard.  Could barely walk it off, much less catch my breath.  I almost begged to go to the emergency room, but the bleeding stopped from my nose and my crushed groin finally lost its numbness.  Not exactly the best crunch – especially for a guy I suppose.  Of course, it was far worse in my dream, something about distance from the crime elaborating the events or some such.

But afterwards – back in our dorm room.  Jared convinced me to take a slow, hot shower – and that part was probably smart.  It did help me start to feel a bit more human.  In the dream I walked out of the bath in a towel.  Thinking back I was sure I had put on my sweatpants, but the dream felt so correct, now I’m not sure.  At any rate, Jared offered a back rub and I gladly accepted.  It felt so good having his strong hands kneed out the kinks and knots in my tired muscles.  Then he leaned down and took the ridge of my ear in his teeth.  I jumped, he kissed behind the lobe and I skyrocketed.

I rolled over with shock in my eyes, yet I’m sure there was more.  There certainly was in Jared’s.  The ‘sex-starved imp’ as I learned to call it was shining brightly in his dark orbs that evening.  I had fantasized, but never thought anything could come of it as Jared was more into the dating scene than I was then.  But the tent in my sweats … or towel in the dream … pretty much told him all he needed to know.  And before I could think up an argument against, he had kissed his way down my chest, past my abs, and launched me back into orbit.

I awoke, once more sitting up in bed, this time with the top sheet completely untucked, twisted, and wrapped around my legs and torso.  I was breathing hard and wet with perspiration.  I untied myself from the bedclothes, angry from the night of sordid dreams, upset with myself for being upset with myself – and frustrated trying to get myself freed from the tangle of silk and skin.

I stumbled to my feet and made my way to the kitchen.  Fortunately I had started years earlier setting up the coffee maker the night before so I just hit the ‘Start’ button before collapsing into a dining chair.  Elbows on the table, I rested my head in my hands and fought back the tears of regret and remorse.  I missed my Annie more than I had ever thought it possible to long for another soul.  I was empty, a great dark void loomed in my chest and life seemed hopeless for the moment.  Tears streamed down my face and my body shook with sobs until the first sound of the coffee hitting the pot broke the otherwise silence in the room.  As the aroma began to waft through the air I started to waken fully and calm somewhat.  Annie was gone.  I was on my own, but I was not alone – I had friends, others I could go to for companionship and borrowed strength.  As the sun began to rise, my spirit lifted with it, and I prepared a large mug of my favorite dark brew.

After a cup or three of java I decided to officially start my day and took a long shower.  Feeling rejuvenated, it was much easier to get into doing laundry, making up the bed (with fresh sheets and pillow cases, of course) and just start tidying up the place.  I was daydreaming of my last long vacation trip with Annie to the Ozarks when I was jolted to the present by pounding on the kitchen door.  I only knew of one person who went to the back door of the house; by the time I got to the kitchen, Jared was walking in.

“Why aren’t you ready?”  His voice matched the upset look on his face.

“Ready for what?”

“The club?  We are going this morning – right?”

“Oh…  to swim… right.  Let me just get my stuff.”

“Good.  I was afraid you had forgotten.”

Forgotten?  I thought.  I don’t remember this weekend even being discussed.  Typical Jer.  Not that a swim would hurt me.  Probably do me some good.  I finished throwing things into my gym bag and hurried back to the kitchen.  “Ok, let’s go.”

We were half-way to the gym when I finally decided to push the issue.  “Jer, when did we decide to go swimming today?  I remember last week I was too exhausted to swim and we decided to just skip the swim … I just don’t remember rescheduling it.”  I turned and looked at him, curious for his response.

Jared opened his mouth, thought a moment, then closed it.  “I’m sorry, man – maybe I just thought we had talked about it.  That’s probably what I was thinking and just didn’t say it.  You know me.”  He sighed.  “We can turn around if you want.”

I laughed as we were turning into the club parking lot.  “Not necessary.  I would like to swim, and then a soak in the whirlpool would be great.  It’s just nice to get out of the house for a while.”

He parked the car and turned to stare at me.  “It’s nice to get out of the house?  What happened?  Last week make that much of a change?”  The imp grinned.  “Or was it the kiss with Cheryl?”

I rolled my eyes then got out, grabbing my bag from behind my seat.  “Yeah, that must have been it.  Can we just go swim?”

He walked around from his door and clasped a hand on my shoulder.  “I’m glad you decided to come, Paul.  It’s always more enjoyable with a friend along.”

“So I’ve been told.” I retorted with a wink.

We walked into the gym and stepped up to the counter.  I smiled at Tommy.

“Good morning, Tommy.  Busy today?”

He barely shot me a look.  “I’m managing, Mr. Veroll.”  He looked up at Jared with a broad smile.  “Mr. Stockwell, you’re looking good today.  All set for the day’s workout?”

“I think we’ll take it easy today, Tommy.  Swim and maybe some whirlpool or sauna time.”

“Or both,” I added.

“Or both,” Jared echoed.

“Well, enjoy yourself.” Tommy said before turning to answer the phone.  “Oakview, this is Tommy.  How can I help you?”

Jared and I headed for the lockers.  He glanced at me and asked, “Ok, now what’s wrong?”

I shook my head.  “Nothing, really.  Just seemed like Tommy short-changed me in the greeting department.”

“Yeah, I noticed that.  Guess seeing you with Cheryl really did set him off.”

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