Tamara’s favorite bookstore, The Seeker Sanctuary, the one place on earth she felt truly at home, had been defiled. As she approached it that Sunday morning, she was assaulted by the smiling face of an old boyfriend on a window advertisement. The text below it read, “Meet best-selling author and self-help guru J.C. Daniels, signing books today at three!”
“J.C. . . what a pretentious jerk,” she thought.
His name was John, or Johnny as he called himself back then, but she figured he abbreviated his first and middle names to sound like a serious writer. She couldn’t help noticing his rising success and had done her best to ignore it. Every time she saw his sappy grin, the bile rose in her throat, and the memories bombarded her, none pleasant. Seeing him before, she was able to close the magazine or change the channel, but seeing his phony smile in the window of her home away from home was like a punch in the stomach.
She mumbled “nothing is sacred” as she walked in and saw Debbie working at the sales counter. She had become a good friend over the years. Everyone there had. Maybe it wasn’t too late to convince them to cancel the book signing. “If they only knew,” she thought.
She had been coming here at least once a week for over ten years. They knew she had dated Johnny in high school but she spared them the depressing details. She had always felt obligated to show her best to them because of the nature of the store – self-improvement, spirituality, conquering pain and seeking spiritual advancement. She didn’t want them to know that she still held so much resentment toward him. But this was an outrage. A special circumstance. Once they heard the truth about the wonderful, syrupy sweet “J.C. Daniels”, they would surely cancel his event. She was about to speak when Debbie saw her coming, smiled her usual Ohio farm girl smile and enthusiastically greeted her.
“Hey, Tamara! That book you ordered came in this morning!”
Debbie was one of those people who was unreasonable happy all the time. Even the grouchiest customers fell at her feet. She was the perfect person to work at a metaphysical bookstore, where the goal of perfect peace was always pretended at but rarely reached completely and consistently. A walking party, Debbie gave all those seekers a goal to strive for.
“Hey!” Debbie said, “Did you see who’s going to be here today? Your old boyfriend.”
Tamara again felt the impulse to blurt out every bad memory she had of him, but she only smiled back at Debbie and said, “Yeah. That’s great.” She then paid for her book (a romance novel) and retired to her favorite chair by the window to read a few chapters. She purposely sat without a view of his photo, and tried to put it, to put him, out of her mind. She had begun to forget about him when she heard a young woman say, “I can’t believe J.C. Daniels is gonna be here today! His books have helped me so much!”
“Me, too!” Debbie replied. “It took forever to get him here. I can’t wait.”
Again, she wanted to yell, “I hate to break this to you fawning sycophants, but he’s an asshole!” And again, she bit her lip, not wanting to be seen as the bitter, jilted ex. Debbie and the other woman continued to praise Johnny and his writing. She couldn’t take anymore and walked outside. She window-shopped for a while but couldn’t shake the dark cloud of J.C. Daniels, the phony, rotten son of a bitch. She could write her own book on the “real” J.C. Daniels. What a bestseller that would be, she thought. A tell-all. She seriously considered it for a moment before remembering what she had read in dozens of books over the years – that resentment is poison to the spirit, that the only true path to peace is forgiveness. One of her favorite quotes, in fact, was, “Holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
She knew all that, dammit, but there it was again. She had to admit to herself that his success bothered her. Despite all her attempts to let go, to forgive, to free herself of blaming him or anyone for her unhappiness and loneliness, she still wanted revenge. She would be happier if he was living in a roach-infested hovel, eating dog food out of an old shoe with a stick. That’s what the bastard deserved.
She thought about all the promises he made when they sat on her mother’s front porch, holding hands, when they were both eighteen. The world began and ended in his eyes then. He seemed so sincere before she found out about the other girls he was sleeping with, before the child she aborted because he just wasn’t around, before he abandoned her, knowing every secret pain she had hidden from everyone but him. It was a foul betrayal. Not the only one in her life, just the first and the biggest, the one that set the others in motion, the one no man she had known since could repair, the one that had ruined her life, and her trust.
Before long, she was in a full-swing pity party. Every memory was like a scab being torn off. She went outside and sat on a bench, buried in despair, eighteen again, as the happy energy of this fall day on the busy boulevard swirled around her. Even the autumn colors that usually soothed her soul had no effect. In fact, they represented all she had lost over the years, because of him. He was married with children. She was still alone. He was successful. She had bounced from job to job but never found her true calling. It wasn’t fair, she thought. It should be the other way around. Aren’t the good rewarded and the wicked punished in every movie, book, and fairy tale? Maybe that’s why people need them so much. People know the real world is usually just the opposite. Bastards prosper. Criminals get away with it. Murderers live long, happy lives while their victims rot in the ground. Well, she thought, not this time. She was tired of forgiving. She was tired of seeking the higher ground. Maybe revenge was exactly what she needed to finally move on with her life and stop pretending she was okay. There’s more than one kind of murder. She would go to that book signing today, and she would tell everyone exactly who Mr. Marvelous really was. She would have her revenge, even if it ruined her reputation. It dawned on her that she had been just as much of a phony as him, pretending she was okay all these years. That was about to end.
She wasn’t worried about him recognizing her because she had gained weight and cut her hair, no longer the beach bunny he knew and pretended to love twenty-five years earlier. She went home, put a baseball cap and glasses on, returned to the store and sat in the back, just in case. Before long, every chair was filled and he came to the table. The store owner announced him. The audience cheered. He read a few chapters of his new book. Everyone smiled adoringly and nodded in agreement as he read. One woman even gasped several times at the glorious brilliance of his insights. Tamara entertained the idea of finding something heavy and caving her skull in the next time she gasped, but her contempt was eased by the avalanche of truth that was about to come down on J.C. and all his clueless fans.
She figured she would start her outing of him with “let me tell you the truth about J.C. Daniels”, then parade the list of his offenses against her and watch with glee as he tried to wriggle his way out of it, the worm that he was. For a moment, she felt like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. She had become the “crazy bitch” she never thought she would. But now that she was giving into this dark impulse, it felt good, and she suddenly understood why women went off the deep end. The freedom of just not giving a damn anymore. When someone feels that not only their dignity but years of their life have been stolen, and the person who stole them not only doesn’t care but is prospering – well, let’s just say there’s a place for revenge, and it is just as sweet as they say it is.
The question and answer portion of the event had begun, but she was too lost in her own thoughts to pay much attention. She waited for her chance for payback at long last. But as she raised her hand, another woman asked, “Where did you learn everything you write about? Who were your masters?”
Oh, this I have to hear, she thought. When she had known him all those decades ago, he wouldn’t listen to anyone, and never read anything not assigned to him in school. She couldn’t wait to hear how deep his hypocrisy would go. In fact, it would steel her resolve for the verbal ass-kicking she was about to deliver.
But he didn’t answer this question as quickly as the others. In fact, he was silent so long, the crowd became uncomfortable. Finally, he spoke.
“If I have any wisdom, it comes from being an absolute fool. Any peace my words are able to give others arose from the worst kind of emotional pain imaginable. They were forged in the fire of a personal hell. Aristotle called philosophy adversity’s sweet milk, and I’ve had plenty of adversity, all self-imposed. I’ve hurt people. I’m responsible for a death – a baby I should have been man enough to support, but wasn’t.”
Tamara’s heart jumped. He continued.
“I’ve hurt people. Good people. One in particular who would have made a noble wife and loving mother. If I’m good now, it’s because I was bad before. If I’m smart now, it’s because I was an imbecile for years. I don’t write these books because I’m better than anyone else. I write them because I’ve been incredibly stupid. Maybe they’re my penance, my attempt to redeem myself. I’ve haunted my own life, returned to the places before the mistakes were made because I couldn’t go back in time and change what I did there, places that had become sacred because I made a sacrifice there – a self-sacrifice, but not the good kind – cutting my own throat at the altar of my own ego. I once sat on the porch of an abandoned house, alone – a porch I used to sit on with my high school sweetheart. I cried and prayed for her happiness, and forgiveness. I looked over the back yard fence and saw her first car – a car that took us on a hundred youthful adventures – abandoned, lying dead in the grass, tires as flat and empty as my soul felt. I paid for every bit of pain I caused her a thousand times over. Even if we weren’t meant to be together, she didn’t deserve to be lied to. She was a child of God, after all. Unless someone is a mindless animal, a sociopath, every hurtful word or deed must be atoned for. Sometimes what others call wisdom comes from that atonement, but only the so-called wise man knows the price he paid for it. Nobody gets away with anything.”
Tamara could hardly breathe beneath the weight of the discovery that he had suffered, too. She had never really considered it a possibility.
Someone asked if he had ever tried to contact her. He said he called several times but she hung up on him, and that he sent her a letter to her last known address but it was returned by the post office. Tamara remembered those first few tortured phone calls he made after she discovered his infidelity, and she believed he had written because she had moved so many times in those heartbroken years, running from herself and her own misery. Moving repeatedly had been part of her seeking.
“What about Facebook?” another asked.
“She doesn’t exist online,” he replied. “I have no idea where she is.”
Tamara knew this was true, too. She had purposely shunned social media because of its inherent invasion of privacy, and because she didn’t want to feel typical, but in doing so, she had made it impossible for anyone to find her. She realized she had contributed to her own loneliness by isolating herself. The important and size of what she planned to do began to diminish as she wondered who or what was to blame for all her years alone – him or her bitterness. He had never come to her house and drawn the curtains closed. She had done that herself.
“It was like she vanished,” he said.
And she had vanished. The girl he knew had been dead for decades, the one who thought she could do anything, be anyone. She had destroyed herself as much as she thought he had destroyed her. Threw out the baby with the bathwater, as the saying goes.
“Look at yourself now,” she thought, “unrecognizable, sitting in the back, hiding.”
She had hidden from the world for so many years, hiding from him was easy. She had even physically hidden who she was under the weight she had gained.
Another woman in the group said she wondered if her old boyfriends ever thought of her. He answered, “Most men don’t have an outlet like writing, like I do. Most are uncomfortable even talking about past loves, but that doesn’t mean they have forgotten. Believe me, men remember just about every woman they were intimate with, and the longer they were with them, the better their memory is. It may not seem so if they have a wife and family, and they may never allow those memories to enter their world for the sake of preserving it, but if they were asked, they would remember. Of course they would. Every person we share our lives with is sacred, and become even more sacred as time passes and death draws nearer, as we look back on how we have lived, and remember who we were on the way to becoming who we are, who we were always meant to be. A singer named Bob Seger put it very well – ‘Sometimes at night, I see their faces. I feel the traces they left on my soul.’ If we treated people well, we feel integrity. If we didn’t, we feel despair. The only cure is to make sincere amends, or attempt to. Of course, it’s a pyrrhic victory because the mistake can never be erased and so much was lost, but it’s better than wallowing. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”
Tamara was surprised to feel her anger turn to something closer to sadness. Not for herself, or even for him, but for the human condition so common in the world – how so many must cause so much damage before they can acquire anything resembling wisdom, or peace of mind.
A man in the gallery asked, “What would you say to her if she were here today?”
She shuffled in her seat uncomfortably. If they only knew. If he only knew.
“I would say I’m sorry, of course,” he replied. “I would say I paid for every pain I caused her. I would say I’m certain I suffered as much or more than she did. And I would thank her for deepening and expanding my soul in the ways that only love, regret and sorrow can. Her influence is on every page of my books.”
Tamara was surprised to feel tears welling in her eyes. The last thing she was expecting to feel when she came to the bookstore that day was compassion. The owner announced the end of the Q and A session and said J.C. would sign his new book. A line began to form. Tamara went outside, stood on the sidewalk and wiped her eyes. A cool breeze kicked red and yellow leaves up around her feet, filled her lungs and stirred her soul in a way it hadn’t moved in years.
She looked at his photo on the poster in the window again. The smile she had hated so much before, that she had written off as falsely sincere, appeared entirely different, for she now saw it for what it was. As much as she still hated to admit it, it was the smile of a man who had conquered himself, a smile wrested from the grip of the despair that threatens to consume each human being, for different reasons.
She worried that she only felt better about him because she knew now how much he had suffered over her, but decided her heart was so much lighter because she had found out he was not the inhuman monster she always thought he was. She just needed to know that there was some justice in the world, that she wasn’t alone in her suffering. That’s all she ever needed to know. She planned to deliver some long-overdue revenge but discovered he had already done it for her. As he said, nobody gets away with anything.
She looked through the window at him, signing books, smiling at his readers. He sensed her gaze and looked up. Their eyes met. He smiled and looked away, then looked back again, recognizing her under the years, the extra weight, the shorter hair, everything. He stood up, forgetting the inscription and the person in front of him. She felt tears well in her eyes again and a small, warm, forgiving smile spread across her face, in spite of herself. He smiled breathlessly back at her. And for that moment, all the pain and years fell away and they were eighteen again – no longer the jerk and the jilted girlfriend, just two human beings struggling to find some happiness in this world. She waved softly. He waved back.
She turned, looked at the fall colors exploding around her, felt the cool, bracing wind on her face, pulled up her collar and walked away from the store, from him, from who she was, and toward whom she would be for every moment of the time that was left.