Chapter 13 for my attempt at National Novel Writing Month. Enjoy.
After Zoee and Collin’s first few dates, they continued to see each other. Zoee was drawn to Collin’s maturity and serious but thoughtful nature. She liked to listen to him tell his stories about growing up multi-racial in a small town and his struggles as a young father in his twenties. She shared with him her stories about being adopted and her adopted father dying when she was in high school, and she felt he understood the emotions of pain and loss, better than some of her peers. Sometimes she would trace the lines on his tattoos while listening to him talk as they lied in bed.
Collin would stare up at the ceiling of his bedroom while talking with Zoee. He had opinions on a multitude of issues and loved that she was interested in reading, culture, and travel. Had she not been intellectually curious, her youth would not have been as attractive to him. After learning about her adoption and the death of her father, Collin realized that she had insights into healing and recovery, that he could share with her the pain that he carried—and she had the capacity to empathize with what that might feel like.
Collin would look over and see her youthful eyes staring at him, her fingers caressing the tattoos on his arm. He would stare at her and reflect on the emotional rock bottom that he hit when Lyla ended their relationship. He thought about how he had to crawl through the blackness of the past several months, and as he was emerging from that gloom, here was this young woman who was willing to take a chance on him, to trust him, to open herself up to him.
“What?” Zoee would ask Collin when he stared at her in this manner.
“Nothing.” He would answer. “Just let me enjoy this.”
Moments like this, the quiet after the storm, made Collin believe that he had healed from the dissolution of his decade plus relationship. Maybe he had finished his year of emotional recovery ahead of schedule? Instead of 6 years or 12 months, it had taken him 6 months. Such a thing might be possible. It’s easy, though, to relish the sunset after the storm clouds have passed, but eventually he would need to look around and take full account of the wreckage that the storm left in its wake.
Zoee was new, she was fun, she was alluring. Collin would rather spend his free time adoring her than thinking about establishing a household of his own, apart from Raf, or getting his finances in better order. The balances on his credit cards were starting to climb and were rolling over at the end of the month. But why think of these matters when you can explore the form and fervor of a new lover? When you can go for walks, hold hands, and joke with one another?
Zoee told Collin her fantasy about climbing the top of a Wanetta bluff and sharing a passionate kiss with her.
“Back in my day, young ladies who were caught necking in public developed a bad reputation amongst the townsfolk.” Collin teased.
“Ok, grandpa. Back in your day, you did the lindy hop and said things like 23 skiddoo.” Zoee retorted.
“You whippersnapper!” Collin responded. “I should put you over my knee and give you a good spanking! Teach you some manners.”
“Promises, promises.” Zoee taunted.
This would prompt them to start wrestling in bed and their passions to enflame once again. Another hour would be spent enjoying one another. And then Collin would want to nap next to Zoee’s sultry form.
It’s easy to fritter time in this manner.
– – – –
Collin continued to spend time with his sons and wasn’t too concerned with Lyla or her situation. His blood pressure went up whenever he had to pick up or drop off his boys, but he didn’t spend time pining over her or idealizing their defunct relationship.
Maybe the reason why his joy with Zoee felt so intense was because he had been miserable with Lyla for so long.
Still, Collin would hear whispering from his family about problems with Lyla’s situation. His sister mentioned that Tony was working in the kitchen where she worked as a server. Collin’s stepfather mentioned a strange call that he received from Tony asking if he had any Vicodin left over from the heart surgery. These glimpses into Lyla’s situation didn’t bode well for her, they also didn’t bode well for his sons.
When Collin started dating Zoee, he was in no rush to introduce her to his sons. He didn’t feel the need to mix the two worlds. He wasn’t protecting them from her. Their mom moved her boyfriend into their house after she and Collin had been dating him for only a short time.
“What harm can there be in your sons knowing that you are dating and happily moving on with your life?” Ana asked Collin. They were sitting in her office catching up.
“I wasn’t too happy when my mom introduced me to her boyfriend. And, I was especially unhappy when my dad tried to introduce us to the woman that he had been having an affair with while still with my mother. That didn’t go well at all!”
“Collin, your situation is different.” Ana argued.
“I guess. I just don’t want my sons to judge me.” Collin conceded.
“Why would they judge you?” Ana inquired.
“When my mom started seeing my stepfather, he was 7 years younger than her. I always wondered how long it would last. Why would this nice guy want to be with an older woman with three kids? I guess I was wrong. Yeah, and I didn’t care at all for my dad’s first girlfriend, but I only saw her once. Probably for the best. I didn’t think much of my father at the time nor his mistress.”
“After my mom left my dad, he went through a rough patch. He ended marrying this mail order Russian bride.” Ana confessed.
“Oh my god, Ana. How did that turn out?”
“Not well at all. She had a daughter that was an adult. I believe that my dad lost a good deal of money in that fiasco.”
“I’m sorry, Ana.”
“That’s ok. The point is let your boys meet Zoee. It probably will do more good than harm.”
Collin followed Ana’s advice, and Zoee would come over on some of the weekends that Collin spent with his sons.
“Boys, this is my friend Zoee.” Collin said introducing them to her one morning while they were eating breakfast in Raf’s kitchen. She had come over to have breakfast with them.
“Hey.” They said unenthusiastically.
Zoee attempted to talk with them, but the boys weren’t too interested in her.
“Dad, we’re finished eating. Can we play video games?” They asked.
“Sure.” He answered. They immediately ran upstairs to their room.
“Well, that was interesting.” Zoee said.
“Don’t worry about that.” Collin consoled grabbing her hand. “Now you know you’re not missing out on anything when I spend time with them.”
– – – –
Not only were Zoee and Collin in a relationship, they were also enrolled in the same evening TESOL class. Zoee was taking the course as an undergraduate student, Collin was taking it as a graduate student. They would sit on opposite sides of the classrooms and pretend like they didn’t know each other outside of the classroom.
After graduating from Wanetta State University with BA in TESOL, Zoee wanted to join the Japanese English Teacher program in Japan. After graduating with his MA in TESOL, Collin was hoping to transition from teaching freshmen writing to ESL teaching. He saw more opportunity for himself in this field, and there is only a finite amount of college essays one can grade in her or his lifetime before becoming bitter and feeling used up. Collin had encountered colleagues like this at the regional conferences he attended. These individuals had cobbled together three adjunct positions at three different institution to make ends meet. When Collin asked them about medical insurance or retirement benefits, they would laugh cynically.
For now, Collin and Zoee were on the same career path and would talk about their future but wouldn’t mention with any certainty the role the other person would play. Collin would stay put and try to do more with international students at the university. Zoee would be off in Japan having adventures as a JET. Both of them were unwilling to ask the other person to give up or even deviate from their dreams in the slightest.
Collin thought, when Zoee goes off to Japan at the end of the summer, we’ll see what happens. I want her to have a full experience. I don’t want her sacrificing her opportunities because she has a boyfriend back home.
Collin realized that to love someone you had to be willing to lose that person, especially with a person who was a decade his junior.
“Age ain’t nothing but a number.” Zoee would say whenever Collin brought up their age difference.
“It’s more complicated than that, Zoee.” Collin would say.
How would she feel when she was 30, and he was 40? What happened if she wanted more children and he was fine with the two that he had? Could she be with someone who had already done his adventuring in life when she had more adventure left in her? These are the things that Collin knew that she didn’t.
Zoee just saw Collin colored with the same youthfulness and optimism that one sees the world with at 22.
– – – –
At the beginning of the semester, Collin started inviting more people over and having house parties. Bar time in Wanetta was 1pm so that really wasn’t enough time for people to have a good time. Additionally, the house parties were only available to Collin and his circle of friends. It became a safe haven for the graduate students and the fixed-term instructors to cut loose and not have to worry about the prying eyes of students and other university faculty members.
Still, once Collin rolled this bacchanal snowball, it continued to roll and grow. More libations were enjoyed, more people were trying to escape the stress of the semester. Eventually, it became too much for the circle of friends—having to do the rounds the Monday following the parties offering or accepting apologies for untowards behavior.
Zoee didn’t like when Collin got too drunk. He would get louder and boisterous with his behavior, but he was never inappropriate with her. He would usually just go up to his room and pass out while Raf served as the closer for these parties. Raf was fine with this arrangement. He would apologize for the host’s antics. He would continue to charm the ladies, and eventually walk home anyone who needed escorting. During this period, he had Sam and Ana vying for his attention, so if things got a little out of hand at his place, that was the cost for being at the social epicenter.
Besides, Collin would usually get up early the next morning after a party, and his hangover routine was to clean up the mess that was made immediately as a way of coping with the remorse that set in.
“Dude, you were gross!” Sam said one morning as she was sitting at the kitchen table after a particularly wild Valentine Day party. “You danced with my sister, and her boyfriend wanted to punch you in the face. Raf had to go outside and calm him down.”
This revelation put a damper on the Valentine Day dinner that he and Zoe had planned that night.
“Yeah, you were pretty drunk, but you went to bed without any further incidents.” Zoee consoled them.
After that party, Collin stopped hosting parties in order to reduce the likelihood of him losing friends or getting punched in the face by jealous boyfriends.
– – – –
Collin was a better teacher his second semester. He had absorbed most of the emotional poison from his separation that had sapped his energy the previous semester, and Zoee was like a sedative against the remaining lingering effects.
He became more active in professional development opportunities. He proposed to three conferences during that semester. Two of the conferences were during the same week. He was developing his CV with his presentations, and he was getting his friends to co-present with him. The conference opportunities were half professional opportunity and half travel/social opportunity. One of the conferences was a co-presentation with Ana. The other was a co-presentation with Raf and their mutual friend, Nigel.
Collin got an endorphin rush from teaching. He liked making his lists of things he needed to do and crossing them off. Zoee was busy as well with school, dance, and her part-time job. However, she did a better job of separating these things from her time with Collin. She could see it in his face when he was in the present with her or if he was in the near future thinking about one of his goals.
“Hey, I’m here.” She would say.
“Sorry,” Collin apologized, “I have my sons this weekend, I have a paper assignment that I need to create, and I have this task for department.”
“All that can wait. Pay attention to me.”
For Zoee, her time with Collin was finite. She was busy as well and at the end of the summer she was going to Japan.
She understood his responsibilities, but she didn’t want them always intruding into their time together. She was learning that what you admire about someone, like being goal-oriented, can eventually be what grows to annoy you.
– – – –
For Zoee, her love for Collin could grow and grow. She never had her capacity to love tested and strained the way that Collin had. She was not guarded and wary like him. Even though he had opened himself up to her, and she was free to wander through most of the spaces of his life, there were parts of him that were walled off to her, parts of him that he was repairing, parts of him that she might never see.
Zoee wanted all of Collin. But Collin wasn’t ready to give all of himself. Not yet. Maybe never.