CHAPTER 1: THE GAME
“Okay, here’s another one: mountains or beach?”
I hesitated. “Gil, that’s not a fair question. A Tennessee girl has to say ‘mountains,’ but in truth, there’s nothing more peaceful for me than floating in the waves at the beach. I used to spend hours there when I first got sober, floating and thinking, thinking and floating.”
“Because you’re an over-thinker.”
“Everybody thinks so, but I think−”
“Gotcha! You’re thinking about thinking! Yep, a double-triple-multi-quadruple over-thinker. That’ll get you in trouble someday, Lela.”
“Not thinking will get you in trouble, Gil! You’re so laid back that it’s scary sometimes.”
We teased each other while playing what Gil called the “Get to Know Each Other Game,” a series of A-or-B questions, each requiring an explanation. The afternoon sky held a brilliant sun, especially as we stood high on a ridge outside of Rockville, home of the area’s famous fire-watch tower.
We’d climbed the wooden steps to the tower, four stories above ground, ooh’ing and aah’ing about the view of a zillion shades of green. The scenery in the undulating hills and valleys of East Tennessee was unmatched. “God’s Country,” most call it, just fifty miles east of America’s most-visited national park.
“Okay, Gil… yellow or green?”
“That wasn’t an option, you ditz.” He shrugged, but I wanted his reasoning. “And you choose blue because…?”
He mumbled and grumbled, trying to avoid answering the question, it seemed. I prodded him again, and then he spoke in jet-speed. “My eyes, right?”
“Bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.” I smiled. True, Gil’s eyes had always mesmerized me. The outer rims of the irises were a rich navy-blue, the interior a bright azure with navy flecks. The curious right eye, with a smaller pupil, looked the dreamiest, focused with a loving gaze that sent me to the moon. Dreamy eyes... a romantic boyfriend. What more could I want?
He said, “Here’s one for you: your favorite number.”
“Easy! It’s eleven, and you knew that! You’re a cheat!”
“Yes, I know about your eleven mystery, your connection to Dude. But I was hoping you’d say four.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I hope to be husband number four.”
Laughing, I asked, “You’d take a three-time loser?”
“Only if it was you. Do you have any idea how much I adore you, girl?”
“A million mountains worth?” I asked, opening my arms to the scene below. Smiling broadly, he put both hands on my hips as we stood on the wooden floor of the tower. Then he gently pulled me forward. “As much as the curls on your happy head.”
My grin was so broad it almost hurt my lips. “Happy head. You’ll never live that flirty pick-up line down, you know.”
“Just keep smiling about it, babe. It’s the memory of what started this fantasy romance.”
We swayed and gazed at each other, but I wasn’t giving up on the game. “Question… clocks: digital or analog?”
“Analog, as any good railroader should answer.”
“How many in your collection of railroad watches?”
“Isn’t it 25 years as a railroader? So why just nineteen?”
“Pawned a few in my gambling days.”
I nodded. Yep. An alkie is always desperate for money, but a gambler’s need must be worse.
“Did you gamble your paycheck away, too? You still don’t save one red cent of what you earn, so I guess back then, you were even more irresponsible with money?”
“Hey, now! ‘Irresponsible’ is a fightin’ word, Chicka. But, yeah, I was big-time irresponsible. Caused a lot of problems in my marriage.”
The conversation waned as my mind wandered. I imagined being married to a gambler and how devastating and expensive that must be. He’d be even worse about frivolous spending than he is now! Talking to my boyfriend about money was like arguing with a brick wall, though I’d given up on arguing. It wasn’t my money, right?
He and I were on different ends of the money-management spectrum. I was saver; he was a spender. For me, paying a late fee was equal to blasphemy; to Gil, it was just part of the monthly bill.
I dismissed Gil’s financial recklessness easily, though. I laid blame on what must be his leftover “gambler’s mentality.” Although four years clean from compulsive gambling, he was less than a year out of bankruptcy and still struggling. At least that’s what he’d insinuated; he didn’t talk much about it, and more than once, he told me it was none of my damn business.
All was well, but in the big picture of the Gil-and-Lela future, the differences in our budget attitudes gave me pause. Such a big issue, and one that could build up and blow up quickly.
But it wasn’t a day to bring up problems. It was all about the “Get to Know Each Other” game, and I continued the questions. I asked, “So are the watches valuable? And you were that desperate?”
“Hell-yeah! The horses were running, and I thought it’d be my day. Then again, I thought every day would be my day.”
“You know, I’ll never understand compulsive gamblers, even though I definitely understand addiction. The consequences come so quickly with gambling.”
“But the payoff is always in the next race. Over and over again, all day, every season, every waking second. You get the picture.”
“I’m scared of it, the fear instilled by my parents. Mom’s father, a good-for-nothing alcoholic, gambled her mother’s inheritance away, and Mom’s still pissed about it.”
“I can’t imagine your mom ever pissed anything! Such a proper lady.” He paused a beat. “But so out of touch…”
“Watch it now… you just don’t know her.”
“You and your dad… the way they still dote on each other. You had one helluva strong example. Is that why you rebelled so much?”
“I suppose. My parents were strict, not so much with rules, but with expectations. I knew I could never be the pure and upstanding daughter they wanted.” I shrugged. “The only solution to being so inadequate was to become a drunk. And I was damn good at it.”
“For 27 years, right?”
“Yep. So much Shame within those years. But for many of them, I was normal. I mean, high achiever and almost functional.”
Gil chuckled, “I started and ended dysfunctional. Don’t know how I kept my job. But, in the old railroad days, the guys covered for their drunk coworkers.”
“That’s still crazy-unbelievable to me.”
“It’s definitely not like that anymore! But enough of that… I have more questions for you, my dear Lela.”
“Funny greeting cards or lovey-dovey ones?”
“Ice cream: chocolate or vanilla?”
I chuckled. “Neapolitan.”
With a broad smile, my boyfriend said, “You’re very complicated. Did you know that?”
“Does that make you want to run from the challenge?”
“Quite the opposite. I remain intrigued.”
Undaunted, I continued the game. “Okay, I have one, since we’re old. Arthritis or broken bones?”
“Never broken a bone in my life.”
Gil talked over me. “Arthritis is another story. My right knee is basically bone-on-bone already, or that’s what the doctor says, and that was ten years ago. It’s worse now.”
He switched from massaging his knee to reach across his body, manipulating his left shoulder. “Plus, my damn shoulder’s bothering me again lately. But, hell, every joint in my body is a mess, to tell you the truth. It’s not easy walking on those rocks around the tracks. Probably why railroaders retire at age 60.”
“But with full benefits, right?”
“You’re blessed to have those union benefits.”
“Worked my ass off, so they owe me. At least that’s the way I see it!”
“You definitely work a lot. I miss you when you’re gone.”
“A railroader’s schedule sucks. Breaks up a lot of families, so I hope you can keep an open mind.”
“I’m not going anywhere. But you’ve destroyed my nine-to-five mentality.”
Gil threw his head back and laughed. “Nine to five! Har, har, har.”
I rubbed my nose against his as we stood face-to-face. “So, are you just going to stand there?”
“Oh! You want to sit?” He turned away, looking over the edge of the tower’s railing to scout the picnic tables below.
Smiling, I pulled hard on a belt loop to turn him back toward me. “No, I don’t want to sit!I want you to kiss me.”
Gil exaggerated surprise. “Me? Kiss the one who loves beaches instead of mountains?” I laughed at his antics. “One who spouts five-syllable words and prefers purple −a secondary color, as you point out. One who cheats at Rummy and put her sponsor to sleep during a three-hour fifth step?”
I’d giggled throughout his teasing remarks. “Yep, that’s the one. Put ‘er there, pard’ner. Right on the ol’ kisser.”
“Gladly.” And kiss me, he did… a long, loving one.
During the kiss, I marveled about our budding relationship. No doubt, I was head over heels in love with the intriguing AA guru named Gil Justice.
After the follow-up smooches, I said, “I still feel like I’m on a fantasy carousel, Gil. Our three months together have been a whirlwind, but the happiest time of my life.”
“Ditto, girl. My Lela is perfection, and I’m a lucky man.”
“We’ve spent every waking hour together, you know? Either at meetings or at my apartment, right? And, sorry, babe… I’ve tried to like your place, but I just can’t. It’s a depressing dump.”
He smiled broadly. “I never fixed it up. Somehow, I still feel like it’s temporary. And your place is awesome.”
I asked, “Speaking of you in my place… you’re still set for watching my dog next week?”
“Pork Chop and I will have fun. And I made a Plan B with our crazy friend Corncob. If I have to pull an overnight trip, he’ll pop by to care for that sweet red dachshund, the Long-haired Alcoholic. That’s what the people at the West 40 AA club call him, did you know that?”
“Yeah, and it cracks me up. But the dog is calm and quiet in meetings, hasn’t pissed the floor, and loves everybody.”
Gil’s beaming grin spread his mouth beautifully. “Pork Chop is a good alcoholic, but he needs to get started on some step work.”
I laughed long and hard, feeling grateful that Gil loved my dog so much. Pork Chop was like our child, and I’d miss his sweet face while I was gone… maybe as much as I’d miss Gil’s vibrant smile.
Missing them or not, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to go on the trip; it was cheap, and another friend had canceled at the last minute. The opportunity fell in my lap for a reason, I believed.
With a teasing smile, Gil warned, “Just don’t meet some hot beach bum or run off to join the circus.”
“That’s exactly what I’m planning to do, so be prepared,” I teased him back.
I’d be hitting the waves on a beach trip with “da’ gulls,” a handful of the women I knew in my former Rockville life, but this time they’d bring their boyfriends and/or husbands. The party-hearty girls had gone another direction; Jilly and Debbie Doo-Doo had gone AWOL. But this core group of eight… we had a long history together, and the fact that I no longer drank would be a non-issue.
At least I hoped it wouldn’t be an issue.
Destin, Florida, our favorite Panhandle beach, would host our now-less-rowdy crowd for the first week of the cheaper off-season,
September 9−15, 2001. My sister Jennifer and her beau, “Boring Boris,” as I called him, would arrive in the evening of our first day.
Only half-deserving of a vacation, I’d barely made the deadline in finishing the user manual for my client Quadrix software, and I’d been half-ass poking around to ready the training classes. Distracted by Gil and the West 40 club, my work ethic had waned. A surprising turn, because “work, work, work” had been pounded into my brain with the jackhammer of my father’s words and example.
But as Gil had pointed out, I wasn’t as silly and tough as my father. I used to be, but in those days, I’d swayed toward the Goody-Two-Shoes persona of my mother. Such a change! I’d rebelled against her ways when I was younger, but I had to admit that I’d become
conservative, quieter, more accommodating, and definitely more serene as my mood stabilized.
As if he’d been following my thoughts, I said, “See, Gil,” I said, “I don’t think I’m manic at all. I believe it’s just pure happiness. More and more, I don’t think I need Bi-Polar meds, and maybe didn’t ever.”
“If you say so. I haven’t known you crazy.”
“Yet!” I laughed, “Mood stability can be boring sometimes. And the only time I feel depressed is about work.”
Gil had no response. I stood, swaying with him, and wondering if a little mania could be a good thing.
CHAPTER 2: THE DAY IT HAPPENED
The beach was perfect for the first two days.
The scorching heat in northern Florida had receded a bit for the fall season, presenting a warm, glowing sun that didn’t fry your brain.
Some of the guys drank beer on the beach in the afternoon, pulling from a well-stocked cooler, but their drinking didn’t bother me. Plus, I had people making sure not one drop of alcohol passed my lips. My sister was watching, for sure.
The first morning, wanting the full crowd gathered at our beach house pool, I ran to the side-yard bungalow to wake up Jennifer and Boring Boris. Man-oh-man, she got soooo pissed at me! It never occurred to me that some people think vacations are for relaxing and sleeping late; I saw the week as an opportunity to have fun at all hours of the day and night.
And just because I was sober didn’t mean I couldn’t party. I swung with the best of them, dancing and laughing. We had a blast for two solid days.
But Tuesday morning was different. As usual, we’d gotten up early, banging pots and pans to scramble eggs, and to watch the morning news. Yeah… 40-something folks do that.
It was Tuesday, September 11. We saw the first plane crash into the tower in New York; we saw the first replay after it hit. Then we saw the live feed of the second plane crash into tower number two. Silence; only gasps filled the room.
My tears came unannounced, dripping from my jaw as newscaster Brian Williams explained the significance of the terror attack. It was surreal, more than a surprise, but an attack on the soul of America. Nothing like that had ever happened.
To the side-yard I went, maneuvering the path to wake Jennifer and Boring Boris for the second day in a row. I knew she wouldn’t be pissed once she understood the magnitude of what had just happened.
They sprung from bed when I shouted through the door. “There’s been a terrorist attack!”
Then, to the living room with Jennifer and Boris in tow, I stepped into the bathroom to lose my breakfast. The diameter of my esophagus was the size of a decimal, and I wore my stomach on my sleeve.
Later, taking my seat in on the sofa, I watched as they replayed the scene dozens and dozens of times, stabbing me in the heart with each rotation. Especially haunting were the people who dove out of the windows to escape the fires. My brain fell with them, it seemed, splattered, scared, and dead.
It took twenty minutes to come to my senses.
We didn’t have reliable phone reception in the house so I rushed to the balcony to call my son, Bo. Thank God, he answered. Of course, I knew he wasn’t in New York but safe in Rockville as a happy TSU engineering student… but there was something about that day that urged people to call their loved ones no matter what.
I talked to Bo for a half-hour, much longer than we’d ever stayed on the phone, but I couldn’t bring myself to hang up. I couldn’t stop telling him how much I loved him, how proud I was, how much hope I had for his future. He cried, too, and got off the phone only to take a call from his dad. So we squeaked goodbyes, promising to see each other soon.
I lit another cigarette and called my parents, who’d slept late and had only seen the replays for the past five minutes. Mom answered and apologized for not being the first to call… so like her want to protect her children, no matter how adult we were. She and Daddy had sat in silence, she said, flabbergasted and clinging to each other. Their reaction was the same as other couples across America on that day.
The day the world changed.
Jennifer made me hang up with Mom so she could call her. As the older sister, she had the right to be bossy, but that day, there was more to it. I felt thankful in accommodating her wishes. It was a day to love unconditionally, coming face-to-face with a monumental change in American life.
My third call was to my sister Karen and her husband John, thankfully safe at home in Jackson City, a hundred miles north of Rockville. Neither Karen nor I said a word, just cried together, sniffling. As usual, we each knew what the other was thinking, and laughed when I said, “I love you, too” when she hadn’t spoken yet.
Thank God for Karen, for something to laugh about. Then minutes later, she had to go with a call-waiting from Mom.
Fourth, I called Gil, who’d also just awakened and was watching the endless replays of the crashes into tower two. The skies of New York were black with smoke, and live shots of people running from what would later be called Ground Zero haunted me, squeezing my emotional well dry.
“Gil, are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m safe. Freaked out. I talked to Bo.” Retelling the conversation with my son sent racks of sobs through my body, my broad shoulders pumping up and down. Gil cooed with assurances and wishes of happy thoughts, never asking me to calm down or stop the tears. It was a day to cry.
Like the charmer he was, Gil worked to soothe me, and I let him.
My last call was to Vickie, my sponsor. She was at work, but nobody was working, she said. The staff members were in the conference room, watching TV with rapt attention. She, too, had called her parents, boyfriend, and bevy of friends.
After I convinced her that I was fine, she poured her heart out to me. Vickie’s life was in a state of flux, and that day, she couldn’t handle it in her usual matter-of-fact way. Vickie had recently broken up with a long-time boyfriend when the sonofabitch came clean that he didn’t want kids. The problem: Vickie wanted kids more than anything, and he’d promised her that he did, too.
So Vickie left to pursue her dream of a family and was seriously dating another man who shared the vision. But that day, Vickie ached with the need to call her ex, “the love of her life,” as she said. In fact, she’d dialed six of the seven numbers twice, crying with Shame. My heart went out to Vickie, and I lulled her as best I could.
After our group finished with their calls, we slowly gathered beach bags and coolers, sauntering across the street to the shoreline. The waves hadn’t stopped, the tide came in as if nothing had happened. But everything else had changed.
We were all quiet on the nearly deserted beach. No rambunctious jumping with the Frisbee, no raunchy jokes or flipping each other with wet towels. A day of contemplation. All I knew was that I couldn’t wait to get home and hold Gil in my arms.
Life is precious, Lela. Why do you keep playing hard to get with Gil? Let him move into your place like he wants to do. You’re ready… and he’s MORE than willing. You’ve prayed to Dude enough times, so you’d know if it was a bad decision.
The sun shined brightly, adding sparkle to the sand, and I couldn’t help but smile. Life goes on, after all. Make the most of it.
This man… Gil Justice… he’s a gem, sparkling bright in the sun like the sand. He’s your soulmate, your one-and-only. Starting now, give him all of you. Give him ALL Lela Fox has to offer.
LIFETIME #8 BEGINS:
Another 180-degree turn for Lela Fox; another Lifetime begins. The official transition happened when I let my guard down and whole-heartedly gave myself to the serenity of being sober and joyous, and letting Gil Justice be a part of my life.
It wasn’t that I simply changed boyfriends; it was also a change in mindset. I’d met my soulmate, and to question it was against everything I’d believed about love and relationships.
Gil was the only man who promised me upfront and without hesitation: “ I will always put your needs first.” He said, “I happily welcome the challenge of being like your father, to treat you like he treats your mother.” And, of course, that’s exactly what I wanted, and what I’d searched for all my life. Gil promised it… so why would I worry? Why not dive head-first into what felt so right?
He respected and protected my vulnerabilities, and he was calm. Sober-minded. Wise. A voracious lover. As a bonus, he had a stable income, a long-term work record. That, too, was a safety net.
Our lives would be picture-perfect, I envisioned. And the red flags could be dealt with later; they were just innocent trouble spots in what was otherwise a perfect union.
We’d become the royalty of our AA club, West 40, appointed two of the movers and shakers of recovery in Rockville. Though Gil had asked many times when I wanted to make our love official with a wedding ring, I didn’t want to be officially married – not again, please! But our union was permanent in my mind, 100 percent.
How could I know the end would be so horrid?
I can pinpoint the exact moment of transition to Lifetime #8. It happened when Gil was ironing clothes, if you can imagine a man doing that. He’d completely moved in with me and Pork Chop, and we were in the middle of an argument… at least I thought we were still in the middle of it. But Gil was finished arguing; he’d stepped back to give me space to cool down.
The problem: I was still off my meds, and cooling down from angry moments took hours, sometimes days. Gil decided to speed the pace of my cool-down with an instant fix. He said later, he’d decided to “charm my pants off,” but it had nothing to do with getting naked.
Sitting in my office as steam came from my ears, Gil serenaded me from the back bedroom as he ironed his shirt. He sang opera – loud.
“Oooh, my dear Leeela! She is so angggry…
But her darling Gilllll is in love with her stilllll”
He was into it big-time, and he was a great singer. My smile started at the second line of the “song,” and slowly grew to a howling laugh. Yep, a new-found love had defused a situation when Lela Fox was mad – that had never happened before.
In previous Lifetimes, most people, husbands included, had just called me a hothead and walked away. Or yelled back at me. Or, in Stuart’s case, called the police.
But Gil made it funny.
He made me laugh, even when I felt like stabbing him, and with each laugh, I fell deeper in love.
The opera song knocked down the rest of the walls I’d built around my heart and my soul, exposing the “real me” to the world. I was incredibly happy −ecstatic, in fact. Being so naturally happy disguised a manic spike in my Bi-Polar rollercoaster, and others, including my family, agreed that I seemed stable and understandably joyful.
But Lifetime #8 would take several twists and turns, and require more courage than I could’ve imagined. And, if you want to be technical about it, the Lifetime was truly a progression of six A-to-Z changes.
Pack your bags and come along for the ride.