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Chapter 9 - Family
I had been in regular touch with Amanda. Her first comment after seeing me on television was, "Dang! I knew you was hot!" Wanting to know what I looked like was almost an obsession with her and she was finally getting her wish. After my television appearance and book signings, stories about me were appearing in various magazines. The pent up desire of my fans to know who Ken Stryker really was finally was being met. Amanda also took special delight in the times I mentioned her.
I included Lindsey in my talks with Amanda, often using a speakerphone or the computer speakers if we were using Skype. In fact, Lindsey and Amanda were quickly becoming friends. I hoped it was more than Amanda feeling an obligation to Theresa because of her promise. I thought it was, but there was something about the way Amanda sounded that I couldnít put my finger on. I finally broached the subject with Lindsey.
"She doesnít sound as happy as she had been when I had first met her online. She certainly doesnít sound as happy as you described her being before we got together. Michael, do you think this is because of me?"
"You? Why wouldó"
"Do you think maybe sheís jealous that I get to be with you instead of her?"
"Of course not, Lindsey. Sheís just a friend."
As soon as I spoke those words, a thought came fully formed into my mind. It was as if that thought had been waiting just offstage to appear. When I was talking to Amanda about Lindsey, I had used those very wordsóSheís just a friend. Could the problem be that Iím with Lindsey and not her?
"Michael, she is married, isnít she?"
"Yes, she is. She doesnít talk about Brian much anymore, though."
"Uh-huh. I think your friend may be having marital problems."
"Her? No way. Sheís too full of fun to piss anyone off."
"You never know. You really donít know her. Besides, maybe the problem isnít her. Maybe the problem is him."
I wanted to protest but I stopped and thoughtóreally thoughtóabout what Lindsey had just said. The thought that Amandaís marriage might be coming apart just as my life was coming back together weighed heavily on me. I felt a pressure on my chest, a sadness that was creeping up my body and strangling me.
"Could that be it?" I asked Lindsey.
"I really donít know. Why donít you ask her?"
I nodded. I wanted to put this off but my experience with putting things off had always ended with me getting into trouble. If I was going to face this problem instead of ignoring it, I had to deal with it right now.
Amanda wasnít online so I dialed her cell phone. When I heard her voice answer, I started right up with, "Amanda, I have to ask you something," but I stopped when I realized I was listening to her voice mail prompt.
"Hey, itís Amanda. I canít come to the phone. Leave a message and I will get back to you when I can."
I waited for the beep, but then I was struck silent. What sort of message should I leave? I finally blurted out, "Amanda, this is Michael. Please call me when you get the message," just before the system cut me off.
As I hung up the phone, I looked at Lindsey.
"Not there, huh?" she said.
"No. I have to wait after all."
Amanda didnít call that night. I went to bed still worried. It wasnít until mid-morning the next day when she finally called me back. Lindsey was at school and I was writing.
"Hi, Michael," she said, sounding cheery.
"Amanda, I want to ask you a question straight up. Please give me an honest answer, okay?"
"Sure, hon. Whatís the matter?"
"Thatís what I am wondering about. You havenít been yourself lately. Even Lindsey noticed it. Whatís going on with you? Are you and Brian having troubles?"
There was a long pause. I heard her sigh, then a tremor in her voice as she started to speak.
"Why do you ask that?"
"Amanda, I know you. Do you want to talk about it?"
She didnít say anything at first. She must have been thinking about whether to confide in me. Since she didnít immediately deny my question, I felt certain something was indeed very wrong. When she did speak, it was not the voice I was used to hearing. Her voice was shaky and unsteady, a clear indication of just how upset she was.
"Itís Brian. Heís being a real dick about everything."
I didnít interrupt. I wanted to let her vent.
"At first it was wonderful but now heísó Well, right now Iím mopping the floor for the second time because he said it was still dirty this morning. That asshole was the one who tracked mud on it in the first place. Everything has to be fucking spotless to please him. He expects me to do nothing but clean the house all day.
"While Iím at home, heís out with his friends. Heís having a great time and Iím always stuck at home. Iím sick and tired of this shit.
"He never tells me what Iím doing right, just what Iím doing wrong. And I seem to do everything wrong, to hear him tell it. I just want to please him but heís never pleased with anything I do. I want to make him happy. That is the only thing I have ever wanted, Michael."
"Does he make you happy, Amanda?" I ventured.
Her answer was final, abrupt.
I licked my lips and took a deep breath before asking the next question. We were close enough that I felt I could ask such a question, and I thought the answer would tell me a lot about the health of their relationship.
"When was the last time he made love to you?"
"Itís been awhile," she said, and I could still hear tears in her voice.
"A few days?" She snorted at that. "A few weeks?" I tried.
"Try three months!" she spat. "Three fucking months sinceÖ since he even fucked me."
I thought it was telling that she didnít call it making love.
"How long have things been going badly for you two?"
"I guess it started going downhill at the end of the summer, around when you and Lindsey finally got together."
That made me feel pretty bad. While I was gushing on and on how wonderful things were going for me, my friend was descending into a living hell. Amanda noticed how quiet I had gotten.
"Donít feel guilty, Michael. That has nothing to do with it. I really am happy for you and Lindsey. I just wishó"
"I know. I wish that for you, too," I finished.
"I just canít see what I did to cause this."
"Maybe you didnít do anything at all. I know I have never met you, not face to face. But I have come to know you, your personality, the way you are with people, and I feel pretty certain that I know the kind of person you are." Then a chilling thought hit me. "Does Brian get upset because you spend so much time talking to me?"
"No, he doesnít care. He doesnít seem to care much about anything I do anymore, except to tell me to clean this or that more or better than the first time."
"Do you do things together?"
"You mean like go places? Not anymore. He goes out with his friends and I have to stay home. Thatís the way he wants it."
"Thatís not good, Amanda."
"Donít you think I know that?" she shot back, but then relented. "Iím sorry, Michael. I didnít mean to snap at you. Iím just upset."
"I know you are. I wish you had told me sooner."
"Itís kind of hard to admit to your closest friends that your marriage is going down the toilet."
I wanted to offer more advice but I was worried how it would sound. I had never been in the situation she was facing. Theresa and I had a wonderful marriage. Lindsey and I have enjoyed a beautiful time together, once we got over the initial awkwardness. I knew I had Amanda to thank for getting me past that point.
"I just want things to be like they were when we first got married. It was all so beautiful and everything seemed so perfect."
"I remember what you told me about that time," I said gently. "It did sound wonderful. I used some of that as inspiration for one of my books."
"Did you really?" she asked, surprised. "I never caught it."
Her tone had changed. She sounded happier now that she was thinking about something other than her troubled marriage.
"I changed enough details so I wouldnít intrude on your privacy, but what you told me did inspire me. There is a lot of you and Brian in Kimberly and Alex."
"Iím going to have to reread that one," Amanda said, and she still sounded a little cheerier.
"I want you to promise me that you will call me anytime you need someone to talk to. Promise?"
"Michael, I donít want to intrude on your work, or on your time with Lindsey."
"I mean it; I want you to. If itís something you arenít comfortable discussing with me, I want you to talk to Lindsey. You know she will feel the same way I do."
That got Amanda sobbing again. "You two are so nice to me."
"Thatís what friends are for. I seem to remember you getting me through some pretty rough times."
"Yeah. You were a real ass at times after TheresaÖ"
"You can say it. After Theresa died."
"But you had your good moments, too. I really enjoyed those."
"I am expecting frequent calls from you," I said sternly.
"Gees, you sound likeÖ like I did when you were in denial about Lindsey being attracted to you."
I laughed. "I do, donít I?" I said.
That made her laugh, just a little. "Yes, you do. Okay, Iíll call. But understand if I ask to speak to Lindsey, okay?"
"I will. Iíll have her call you tonight to see how youíre doing. We both care about you."
We were quiet for a minute or so.
"I need to go now so I can get this floor finished before that asshole gets home," Amanda said.
"I hopeÖ I hope things can improve to the point where you can find another way to describe your husband," I said.
"Weíll see," was all she said.
After the call ended, I spent a long time sitting there thinking about what had just transpired. I was certainly no marriage counselor. Amanda and Brian needed help if they were going to survive. If they didnít, Amanda was going to need a lot of support. I cried for my friend, for the pain she was feeling.
Lindsey and I talked a long time that night, and over the next few weeks, about Amanda. We each spent a lot of time on the phone talking to Amanda, sometimes alone and sometimes together. It sounded like our support was helping her.
Our first Christmas together was nothing short of magical. We put up a treeótwo trees actuallyóand decorated both houses. Since Lindsey was an elementary school teacher, we kept both houses to keep up appearances. The truth behind the faÁade was that we rarely slept alone. I figured that most of the people in the small town saw through our ruse, but no one said anything and Lindseyís job was secure.
It didnít snow, but it did get cold. We spent many nights cuddled up together on the sofa, Brisco at our side, as we sipped hot chocolate. Lindsey would be grading papers and I would be reading or writing. She took more of an interest in my writing, and she was now even delighted that I was modeling the plot a little after our lives.
I wanted to give Lindsey something really special for our first Christmas together but I was having a hard time picking something. I thought about jewelry but that would be just something I bought. I wanted to give her something that was precious to me, something that had meaning to both of us, something that required effort on my part beyond driving to the jewelry store.
I was doing some research and taking a book off a shelf when it hit me. I only had to think about it a moment. As precious as it was to me, Lindsey was more precious and I wanted to show her that. I had no doubts we would be together for the rest of our lives. So I did it.
It was Christmas morning, before Mass, when we exchanged our personal gifts. Lindsey had gotten me to attend church regularly again, something I hadnít done since Theresaís death, and we were even going to be married by a priest. Early Christmas morning, we got up and sat around the tree. I reached for the package I had so carefully wrapped. I was a little nervous as I handed it to her, hoping she would like what I was giving her.
Lindsey took the package with a look of curiosity. She smiled at me and began unwrapping it. When she saw what it was, I could tell she was trying to look pleased even though she didnít understand the gift.
"Open it. Read what I wrote," I prompted.
I held my breath as she opened the cover and read what I had inscribed there in my own handwriting.
This is the very first copy of the very first book I ever wrote. I was so proud when it arrived and it has been my most precious possession. Theresa and I kept it carefully preserved over the years. Now that you and I are about to combine our lives, you are the most precious thing to me. As a symbol of this, I am giving this book to you. I hope you cherish it as much as I did, as I now cherish you.
I waited to see her reaction. When she finished reading, she just sat there, holding the book and staring at the page. I panicked, worried that she was expecting something more, something more traditional, from me. Finally, Lindsey looked up and I saw tears escaping from the corners of her eyes, making tracks down her perfect face. She looked into my eyes.
"Michael, IÖ IÖ I donít know what to say. This is so special. You canít give this away. It is youró"
She was holding the book out to me. I put my hands over hers.
"Itís yours now. As is my heart," I told her with meaning.
Closing the book and holding it in one hand, she hugged me and cried out loud. When she caught her breath, she spoke again.
"This is the most wonderful thing anyone has ever given me. I canít begin to imagine how hard it must have been to give it away." She swallowed. "This is like that Christmas story about the Gift of the Magi. You have given me who you are." She now moved away to in front of me and held the book to her breast. "I will treasure this always, darling." And then she hugged me and cried again.
When she was able to speak again, she said, "It makes my gift to you look like crap."
"No, it doesnít," I said.
"Iíll prove it to you," she said and handed me a large package.
It was a tweed jacket, with leather patches on the sleeves. I held it up and then tried it on. It fit perfectly.
"Every author should have one," she explained. "I noticed that you didnít."
I ran my hand over the textured wool.
"I love it," I said. "I think Iíll wear it for the jacket cover of my next book."
Then I hugged her.
"And it doesnít look like crap," I said with a chuckle. "Itís beautiful."
She held me at arms length and appraised me in the jacket.
"It looks great on you. I knew it would, of course. You are so handsome."
I had something else for her. In case the book hadnít had the desired impact, I had also bought her a pair of diamond earrings. She squealed when I gave her those, but it was the book she kept next to her.
We went to Mass that morning with her wearing the earrings and me wearing the jacket. Several people made a point to tell me, "Now you look like a writer." I only chuckled and pulled my arm around Lindsey a little tighter.
Christmas with her family was somewhat subdued. It was the first one after the loss of her grandfather. Lindsey explained that it had always been tradition with them for him to offer a toast to everyoneís health at Christmas dinner. This year her father stepped into that role. She had told me that toast had been the first time she had tasted wine as a child, suitably watered down.
We had sent a Christmas present to Amanda and she called late that night to thank us. Brian wasnít at home. I didnít have to ask how they were doing. Her moods when we talked answered that question. Things were getting worse, not better, and the trend continued into January. I was really pleased that she finally took my advice and decided to go back to finish her degree. It concerned me, though, that she decided to go to back to school at night and take a job during the day. It gave her a chance to get out and meet other people, but I got the impression it was to become financially self-sufficient in case they split up.
Brian didnít leave her. I got a call a few days before Valentineís Day. I barely recognized Amandaís voice because she was crying so hard.
"I finally did it," Amanda declared between sobs. "I should have done it a long time ago."
I felt fear in my stomach as I asked tentatively, "What did you do?"
"I threw the son of a bitch out. Heís gone, out of my life. Iím rid of him." And she wailed.
I felt so helpless at that moment. Amanda didnít need to be alone and I was hundreds of miles away.
"I told him to get the hell out about an hour ago. He took the last of his shit and left about five minutes ago."
"Are you alright?" I asked, a stupid question.
"Jenniferís gonna come over and stay with me tonight. I just wanted you to know what happened. I needed to talk to you."
"Amanda, call me anytime, day or night, if you need to talk. I mean that," I added sternly.
"I will, Michael. I feel like I did the right thing, though. Iíve never felt more right about anything before."
After I hung up, I couldnít stop thinking about Amanda. My writing was not very productive as a result. I was still brooding about her when Lindsey came in after school. Right away she could see something was wrong. She put her arms around my neck and asked what was wrong. I told her and we commiserated over the news.
"I want to call her. Do you think sheíll talk to me about it?" Lindsey asked.
I smiled, relishing in the knowledge that I had guessed Lindseyís reaction correctly.
"I thought you might want to. She talked to me but there are probably things sheíd want to say to you that she wouldnít say to me. A friend is staying with her tonight but Iím sure sheíd like to hear from you."
Lindsey called and had a tearful conversation while I worked on dinner. I tried not to listen in. I knew Lindsey would tell me about it later, but I wanted to allow them their privacy.
Dinner was on the table by the time Lindsey got off the phone.
"Her friend, Jennifer, just got there so she isnít alone anymore," Lindsey explained as she sat down to dinner. Then she filled me in on the details of their conversation. It was, for the most part, what I had already discussed with Amanda that morning.
I guess I had this idea in the back of my mind, but it was now struggling to get out. I felt Lindsey would understand.
"Honey, thereís something I really want to do for our wedding. I hope youíre alright with it, but regardless itís something that means a lot to me," I started.
Lindsey still had tears tracing lines down her face, but now she smiled a little, too. "Iíll go along with just about anything. What do you have in mind?"
I took a deep breath. It was an unusual request, but I was hoping she would understand. I reached out and took her hand.
"Lindsey, I had this idea but recent events make it even more important to me. I would really like to have Amanda in the wedding. I want to fly her down and have her stay here. I think she needs to feel like she has family right now. Maybe she could even watch the house for us while weíre on the honeymoon."
The whole time I was talking, Lindsey was looking into my eyes. As I spoke, the little smile broadened and slowly spread over her face.
"I was thinking about the same thing," she said. Then she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. "Sheís the closest thing to family that you have." She hugged me as she sniffled.
I nodded sadly, remembering. "But how do you feel about having her here? She is one of my best friends, but we have never met face to face."
"I think itís a wonderful idea. She knew Theresa, right?"
"I found out later that they had talked on the phone, but they never met, either. She held me together when I lost Theresa."
"Invite her. I feel like I know her now, too, and I want to meet her. I owe her a lot. From what Iíve heard, you might never have let me into you life if she hadnít pushed you," she said and poked me in the side with a fingeróthe finger where she wore her engagement ring.
I chuckled. "I did need a little pushing, didnít I?"
"You needed me doing a strip tease in your backyard," she shot back.
I smiled at the memory. "How could I resist a thing like that?"
"I know," I said
I waited a few days before calling Amanda about the wedding. I figured she needed a little time to mourn the death of her own marriage before thinking about mine.
"Amanda, I want to ask you a big favor," I started.
This caught her off guard as we had been talking mostly about getting her life back together, in sharp contrast to the conversations from last year.
"What can I do for you, Michael?"
"I, that is, Lindsey and I want you to be a part of the wedding ceremony. Would you sit on my side, as my family?"
Amanda was quiet.
She sighed heavily before saying, "I canít."
"Why not? Youíre the only family I have left. You and my agent are going to be the only people on my side at the ceremony."
"Thatís not it. I would love to be there, but I canít afford to fly out. I would if I could. I really would, Michael."
"Amanda, donít worry about the cost. We already decided that weíre going to take care of that, of the plane ticket and the rental car. And you can stay here with us."
"Thatís so generous of you, but I canít."
"Yes, you can," I told her. Not willing to take no for an answer, I continued with, "You are the sister my parents never gave me. Without you, I would never have had Lindsey in my life. You held me together when I lost Theresa. We talked about it and we both want you here. I just need to know the day you can leave and Iíll take care of the rest."
I was breathing hard after that tirade; I had spoken fast to prevent her from breaking in and trying to stop me. I waited for her answer.
"Yes," she said softly.
I wasnít sure I had heard her correctly. When I didnít answer, she repeated her answer a little louder, with more conviction in her voice. When she spoke, I could tell she was now crying softly.
"Yes, Iíll come."
"You will? Thatís great! Amanda, Iím ecstatic that youíll be here! I canít wait to finally meet you in person."
She giggled, and I could also hear sniffles. "Youíre the celebrity. I think I am supposed to say that."
"To me, you are the celebrity. You are such an important part of my life."
"I canít believe I am going to be able to go! Thank you, Michael." A moment later, I heard her take a deep breath, then she added excitedly, "Let me talk to Lindsey! I want to thank her, too!"
After Lindsey and Amanda had spoken, and we had hung up, Lindsey hugged me with tears glistening in her eyes.
"That is such a good thing to be doing, for both of you. Amanda really needs this right now, and you need family at the wedding." As she spoke, Lindsey kept hugging me tightly. "And I am so happy that weíre bringing her here." After that, Lindsey cried harder, but I knew they were not tears of sadness.
Concluded in Chapter 10
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