Chapter 41

“You were right when you asked me about smoking,” Brad said. “That’s all this is about. Nothing more.” He let out a sigh, a huge burden lifting from his shoulders. “What started out as one cigarette turned into one more, then one more after that. I truly believed I could stop whenever I wanted to, because it was only going to be that one time, ya know? But it appears nicotine is bigger than I am—not so easy to quit.” Shame filled his eyes as he studied the floor.

I tried wrapping my mind around how temptation had presented itself in the first place. “How did this get started?” I asked. “I really want to know.”

Brad let out a deep sigh and stroked his chin. “I’ve been stressed a lot. Demands at work. Not making bills on time. Fretting over whether or not I’ll have a job tomorrow. Wondering how I’m going to provide for my family if the job’s not there. It’s kind of overwhelming. A bit too much.” He stared at his hands, afraid to make eye contact.

“So, why haven’t you said anything to me? I thought the whole idea about being married was so we could go through life together—for better or worse, remember? But keeping secrets? That’s you shutting me out. When did you start doing that?”

I saw Brad’s wheels of deceit begin to spin again. This time I knew to expect only what he wanted me to hear, so I listened for the words he refused to share. “I didn’t want to weigh you down,” he answered. “You have enough on your plate with home schooling Calleigh and keeping up with everything at home. I figured this would all blow over. That’s why I didn’t burden you with it.”

“Really?” Not believing his rationale, I probed further. “But why cigarettes? There are much safer ways to self-medicate—not to mention, you know how much I hate smoking. The smell alone makes me sick—literally ill.”

Brad shrugged, not caring how his actions affected me. “It’s not like I planned it. One day on break, Vinnie offered me one. Said it helped him relax. Thought it might do the same for me. I figured since drinking hasn’t made me an alcoholic, then smoking wouldn’t make me a smoker. Since there was no chance of me becoming my father, why not try it? It had to be better than what I was already going through. Yeah. Not so much. Apparently, I underestimated the addictive qualities of nicotine.”

A nagging feeling festered inside me. Why should I believe you? Why should I believe any of this? I’ve asked you over and over again, “Are you smoking?” And you’ve looked me in the face each time and outright lied. Sucking in a deep breath, I braved asking the next question. “So, how long have you been keeping this a secret?”

Brad cowered, refusing to look me in the eye. “For about a year.” He fiddled with his thumbs, pretending to ignore my stare.

“I see. And all those times when I came out and directly asked you—when I actually smelled it on you…?”

Brad nodded. “It wasn’t your imagination.”

“But, you insisted it was,” I bristled. “ You accused me of making stuff up and acted like I was losing my mind, demeaning me as a person and calling me mental. Who does that? And for what—to see how gullible I was? Or to test how long I would believe your outrageous stories?” Hearing my words hit the air, I felt like the lowest form of stupid.

“You lied to my face, Brad—and you did it without flinching! You’ve undermined every ounce of confidence we’ve built in our marriage, and do you realize what that’s done? You’ve broken a sacred trust—a trust that can’t be unbroken. How am I ever supposed to trust you again?”

“But, I’ve come clean with you,” Brad insisted. “That has to stand for something.”

I raised my eyebrows in disbelief. “Only after I badgered you. The only reason you’re sitting here right now is because you got caught. And, even then, I had to beg for you to tell me the truth. This whole time, I knew something wasn’t right, but I kept giving you the benefit of the doubt, because the person I know would’ve never been capable of doing what you’ve done to me.” I looked Brad in the face. “If this conversation is truly about honesty, then I want the whole truth. I deserve the whole truth.”

Brad gave me a sideways glance. “What do you mean?”

“The other women, Brad. I want the real story. Actual facts. Give it to me straight. I wasn’t your first, was I?”

Brad bit his lower lip, taking a moment to control his breathing. “If we’re being honest…,” he stalled. “No. You weren’t my first.” Indignation kept him from looking at me.

I nodded, absorbing my new reality. So, the deception began before our wedding. Maybe that’s why Amanda showed up at the restaurant. She really did know something about Brad that I didn’t. I struggled to swallow the rising lump in my throat. “What about the whole ‘no sex before marriage’ thing? That was one of the first things we discussed our first night together down by the lake. Was there any truth to that or was that just a hook to get into my pants faster?”

Brad winced at my words but remained unapologetic, continuing to defend his fantasy world with unabashed loyalty. “I didn’t exactly lie. I do believe in abstinence.”

I nearly choked on his response. “Really? But not enough to actually practice what you believe,” I forced a reality check.

“For what it’s worth, I’ve never slept with anyone I didn’t love,” he rebutted.

My voice changed pitch. “There was more than one‽” Oh, my word! Did I just hear you correctly? Are you telling me you had multiple partners before marrying me, and you didn’t think I needed to know?

“Only two or three, but they weren’t one-night stands—if that’s what you’re thinking,” Brad clarified. “They were actual relationships. I’m not some womanizer. That’s not what it was, and that’s not who I am.”

And who are you? I don’t have a clue who’s sitting in front of me. It’s quite obvious I married a stranger. “You have no idea what I’m thinking!” I assured him. “Do you really think that dating them mattered? It was still sex! Extramarital sex!” I shook my head to clear the fog descending over my senses. “Since you brought it up, let me ask you something, was Amanda one of them?”

Brad slowly nodded, meeting my gaze.

“And you didn’t find it important to be honest with me about this before we got married?” I paused a moment before adding, “She showed up to our rehearsal dinner, for crying out loud! Why didn’t you say something then?” I couldn’t wrap my mind around his reasons. “Were you afraid our love wouldn’t hold up to the truth? Please tell me, what was the logic behind keeping it from me? Did you actually think I’d never find out?”

Cold. Indifferent. Adamant. Brad’s emotions mirrored ice. “There was nothing to share.”

My eyes widened. I hastily rose to my feet. “Nothing to share? Nothing. To. Share? You slept with other women, Brad. That means you purposefully misguided my perception of you from the first day we met. That also means my decision to be with you was based on lies—all lies! How am I even supposed to process that?” His unrepentant attitude only served to magnify my anger.

Scooting to the edge of the couch, Brad cracked his knuckles and popped his neck, presenting an untouchable air. “I was with those women before you and I ever got together. They have nothing to do with my relationship with you,” he insisted.

“Like hell, they don’t!” I exploded. “You judge me every time we’re intimate because of them. It’s no wonder I’ve never been good enough in there.” I pointed a finger at our bedroom door, trying to keep my hand from shaking. “I’m not Susie, Jane, or Amanda.”

“I’ve never slept with any girl named Susie or Jane,” Brad corrected my accusation.

I blinked back shock. “ARE. YOU. SERIOUS? That’s what you’re choosing to focus on—that I got their names wrong?” My words dripped with sarcasm. “Stop trying to derail this conversation, Brad. You know EXACTLY what I mean—whatever their names were!”

Flashes of Amanda’s face lit up my mind’s eye. Stunning. Tall. Blonde. The likes of a runway model strutting her stuff across the catwalk during Fashion Week in Milan. I can’t even imagine what the others must’ve looked like. With me being the girl next door, hair in a ponytail, stay-at-home mom type, I’m surprised he gave me a second glance. Exhaling humiliation, I tried bolstering my courage. I may not be some exquisite beauty queen, but I still deserve better than this.

Squaring my shoulders, I stared at Brad. “Tell me again why you and Amanda broke up; but, this time, don’t leave out any details. I’m curious. What was so horrible about her that you couldn’t make it work? I know it wasn’t because of her looks.”

Brad fidgeted in his seat, eyes shifting. “For starters, Mandy had trust issues with men. Her father had sexually abused her as a child, so intimacy was an issue for her the entire time we were dating. She would never allow me get close to her; but, at the same time, she was super clingy. If that wasn’t bad enough, we fought all the time—could never agree on anything. She thrived on drama. Me? Not so much.”

A puzzled expression creased my brow and scrunched my nose. “You’re telling me that Amanda wouldn’t let you get close to her, but you had sex with her? How is that even possible?”

“That’s not what I said,” Brad objected.

“That’s exactly what you said. Do you not hear yourself when you talk?” I continued staring at him, astonished by the twist in our conversation. “How do you interpret ‘Yes, I slept with her,’ and, in the next breath state, ‘She would never let me get close’? Did you force yourself on her, too?”

Brad flinched, resentment hardening his cold gaze. “Emotionally,” he clarified. “She was an emotional ice queen. Our relationship was never lovey-dovey, but I’ve never forced myself on anyone.” He rolled his eyes, his right knee beginning to bounce with nerves as he pursed his lips. “I don’t expect you to understand. My relationship with Amanda was complicated—much like yours and mine.”

I shook my head. “Oh, no. There’s nothing complicated about our relationship,” I countered. “This relationship is very black and white. I just didn’t know it until tonight.” Anger pulsed through my veins and throbbed in my temples. I scowled, unable to believe I had been suckered into his delusions. “It finally makes sense—you not coming home at night. You don’t want a wife and a family. You want a pawn to manipulate in your twisted little game. Well, that’s not gonna happen here. Consider your spell on me broken! I’m done being milquetoast,” I declared, turning and exiting the room.

“What does that mean?” he called after me.

“You’re a smart guy,” I huffed over my shoulder. “Figure it out.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

A prominent nine-foot silver fir dominated the front platform at the church. A thousand dainty white lights illuminated its presence. Airy white tulle trimmed the branches in swagged layers—regal, shimmering gold bows pronouncing each upswing. Frosted gold bulbs and glittery white snowflakes peppered the visual masterpiece, and a mound of white satin skirted the base like snow. From the top of the tree, a bright golden star twinkled, while the overhead lights in the sanctuary had been dimmed to create a reverent ambiance, just the way I had always envisioned it—an elegant Christmas wedding.

On opposite ends of the platform, a black grand piano and antique organ faced each other, covered with elegant gold candlesticks and long, white, tapered candles, set atop white lace doilies and correlating runners. Additional white tapered candles flickered softly behind clear glass globes on the arms of every other pew down the middle aisle, large, gold bows accentuating the dancing flames.

As I entered the dimly lit room, I floated across a white woven-fabric runner like stepping across cloud nine. A cathedral-length vintage-lace train trailed behind my silk A-line floor-length gown, embellished with dainty pearl buttons up my spine and statement sheer sleeves, topped off with a two-inch wide sheer ribbon around my waist, tied in the back. My hair spilled over my shoulders and down my back in loose ringlets, while also being loosely swept up on the side. A matching cathedral-length veil and elbow-length satin gloves finished my Victorian appearance. Holding onto Dad’s arm with one hand and a cascading red rose bouquet in the other, I slowly made my way down the center aisle. Nearing the front, Dad leaned over and whispered in my ear, “How long do you think he’ll last?”

Brad stood on the floor, next to the platform, wearing a black tuxedo with notched lapel, matching vest, and polished shoes, swaying gently side to side as we approached. On the platform stood our pastor and three of Brad’s church buddies wearing black tuxedos, along with two of my best friends and Julia, dressed in long red satin gowns and white elbow-length gloves. Each girl held a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses, tied together with red satin ribbon. The moment felt like a fairytale—except Brad visually teetering on the edge of a fainting spell. I could feel more than hear Dad quietly chuckling to himself. “Dad!” I scolded under my breath. “It’s not funny.”

Dad continued to grin as he patted my gloved fingers. “I’ve been in his shoes, Honey. It kind of is.”

I woke from my dream, remembrances of beautiful beginnings shattering with my dark, foreboding reality. Staring at the ceiling in our guest room, a whisper left my lips as a tear trickled down my cheek. “I should’ve never said, ‘I do.’”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Five o’clock rolled around the following evening, and I hadn’t heard from Brad all day. Silent treatment again? So mature, but you know this dance. Just keep calm. I picked up my cell phone and began typing. “Hi, Hon! Hope you’ve had a nice day at work. Will you be joining us for supper tonight?” I added a cute li’l smiley face, then hit send.

A few moments later, Brad responded. “Why? You checkin’ up on me?”

Puzzled, I tucked a few loose hairs behind my ear then continued texting. “No. Just wanting to know when to start supper. I know you like your food warm.”

He retorted with sarcasm. “Funny. I’ve never had to report in before.”

I’m not asking you to report in now. Why are you purposefully trying to pick a fight? Is something else going on I don’t know about? I chewed on my lower lip for a moment before texting. “Simply trying to include you in our lives.”

“Stop trying so hard,” he answered. “You nagging me at work doesn’t make me want to come home.”

Nagging you? I raised an eyebrow. “I only asked one question. How is that nagging?” If you’re going to accuse me of something, at least make sure it’s something I’m actually doing, I confronted him in my mind. And give me some credit. I waited till the end of the day to contact you. You should be on your way home by now.

“I don’t owe you a blow-by-blow account of my day,” he wrote back. “I’ll let you know when there’s something you need to know. Until then, get off my back.”

The sting of his words caused my eyes to blur, sending a tear trickling down my right cheek. “Fine. Please bring home a gallon of milk. We’re out.”

It didn’t take long before his nastiness ensued. “Do I need to do everything for you? Go get it yourself.”

I broadened my shoulders, and sucked in a deep breath, summoning strength. “And how am I supposed to do that? Our only mode of transportation is sitting in the parking lot at your office.” Heat from my nerves crept up my neck and into my ears, flushing my face. “It’s also too far to walk and approaching 100 degrees outside.”

“Then take a bus,” he countered.

“How? There isn’t a bus stop near our house, and with what money? You haven’t given me access to any of our accounts.” I stared at the words on the phone screen, a sinking feeling consuming my senses. I never agreed to live under a dictatorship. When did I start giving my power away? And why do I have to ask permission to use our money?

“Get over yourself,” he ordered. “You’re not a hostage. You may leave whenever you like, but don’t think for one second that you’re taking Calleigh with you. You will never take my child from me.”

“Excuse me? Who said anything about leaving? Are you wanting a divorce?” My hands began to tremble. Is that what this is all about? You want out of our marriage, but can’t tell me to my face?

His words popped up under my text. “Quit being a drama queen. I’ll get the damn milk. Will that make you happy?”

My mouth gaped open. Do you really believe this is about milk? My mind reeled. “No, that will not make this better; but, yes, please bring home some milk.” Tears dripped from my chin, my knees buckling, causing me to collapse on a nearby kitchen chair. How did we get here?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Brad lumbered into our bedroom around midnight, bumping furniture in the dark. “Who put that there?” He cursed as he stubbed his toe against the foot of our bed, jarring our mattress.

I jolted to a seated position. “Huh? What? What’s going on? Who’s there?” I rattled off my questions while rubbing my eyes and glancing at the clock on the nightstand. “Brad, is that you? What time is it?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Sorry for bumping the bed. I can’t seem to see anything in the dark,” he apologized. “It’s late. Go back to sleep.”

I confirmed twelve-thirty on the clock then stared at his silhouette in the moonlight. “You just gettin’ home?”

“Yeah, was tryin’ to get caught up at work so Jasmine will stay off my back. Having a woman for a boss is a nightmare. Always gotta stay in her good graces. It’s like having to avoid PMS all month long.” Plopping himself down on his side of the bed, he began removing his socks.

“I hope she’s paying you overtime,” I responded. “You’ve been putting in a lot of late hours for it not to to be showing up on your paycheck.”

“I wasn’t at the office all night,” he admitted, a weird tone toying with his words.

“Then where have you been?” I gently laid my head back on my pillow.

“Unwinding.” He tugged at his pants until they fell to the floor, then slipped his shirt over his head and tossed it to the floor, as well. Crawling into bed, wearing only his boxers, he felt his way across the mattress and cozied up next to me, starting to gently fondle my breast. “Wanna have some fun?” He breathed heavily in my ear, reeking of alcohol.

“Are you drunk?” I turned my head away from his face, repulsed by the odors he exuded.

“Drunk on love,” he played, sliding his hand beneath my panties.

“Brad, stop!” I pressed against his arm, trying to remove his hand from my body. “What’s wrong with you? You don’t speak to me for days, and then you think you can just come in here and sweet talk your way into having sex? It doesn’t work that way.” I struggled to sit up.

Pushing me back against my pillow, Brad rolled over on top of me and pinned my body against the bed, securing my hands above my head. “You’re my wife. You don’t get to tell me no.” His eyes glared at me, reflecting the moonlight streaming in from the window.

I whimpered as his weight pinched my legs. “Brad, you’re hurting me.” Tears trickled down the sides of my face, pooling in my ears. “Please, get off me. I’m not in the mood.” I struggled to breathe.

Brad thrust his groin into me, asserting his dominance, despite not having an erection. “I will not have you—a woman—telling me what I can and cannot do!” he raged. Shoving off my body, he maneuvered his way to the edge of the bed then to a standing position next to me. “I’m done with you. I can get better sex from a whore.” I flinched as he reached over me, snagging his pillow and dragging it across my face. “Enjoy sleeping alone,” he ordered, storming out of the room. “You’re the worst mistake I ever made!”

I rolled onto my side and buried my face in my pillow, saturating the pillowcase with tears. “It was never supposed to be like this,” I whimpered. “Love isn’t supposed to hurt.”

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