I felt vaguely uncomfortable as I tried to circulate through the crowded ballroom.
I hate dress-up affairs, especially ones where I don't know many people. I was decked out in a rented tuxedo in a room filled with the upper crust of business and society in the Southern seacoast city to which I'd moved six months earlier.
A waiter with a tray filled with flutes of champagne passed by and I deftly grabbed one, more for something to do than anything else. More than any other liquor, champagne goes to my head hard and fast, so I have to be careful about how much I drink.
As I sipped the golden liquid, I thought ruefully that this was the kind of thing my ex-wife would have loved. She was always a social climber, always trying to push me into a position in the town where we lived that I wasn't really comfortable with.
Gloria was socially ambitious and she liked the finer things in life, so I worked extra-hard at my job to provide those things for her. I just never knew how greedy she really was until the events transpired that led to our divorce.
She was a stay-at-home mom, but she was an active one. She did everything for our son and daughter, volunteered on a regular basis, even worked part-time at her sister's flower shop, all trying to find an outlet for her boundless energy.
We met when we were both in college. I wasn't your average College Joe, however. When I finished high school I was restless and didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to escape the small town where I'd grown up, but I really wasn't sure I was ready for college. I was tired of school and classrooms, and I wanted to see the world...
So I joined the Navy. The service had its ups and downs, but generally the ups outweighed the downs. I got in shape physically, I learned some self-discipline I badly needed, I was able to go to college on the GI Bill and I made some lifelong friends.
More importantly, when I did start college, after getting out of the Navy, I was already 22 and not inclined to squander valuable time partying my way through school. That was all the more so after I met Gloria and we decided to get married during my senior year, and her junior year.
I guess the seeds for the destruction of our marriage were sown very early on. Gloria was very ambitious and harbored a dream of going to law school and becoming a lawyer.
That dream died when she became pregnant with Becky early in her last semester. She was so sick that she missed the date for the LSAT exam, and a newborn baby did not mesh with attending law school any way.
Then, about the time Gloria was considering another shot at law school, she came up pregnant again, with our son Ricky. After that, she threw herself into motherhood and put her law school dreams behind her.
I didn't find out until it was all over, but Gloria secretly nursed a grudge about the fact that she'd had to abort her ambition of a legal career.
Maybe if she'd said something, I might have found a way to make her dream come true, but she didn't, so we rocked on like nothing was wrong.
The first sign of trouble came not long after we sent Ricky off to college, when Gloria came home one evening announcing that she'd found a job and was going to work full-time.
That didn't sit well with me. It wasn't that she'd gotten a job, but rather the fact that she'd simply gone out and done it out of the clear blue sky, without any discussion or consideration for my feelings on the matter. She just did it and presented me with a fait accompli.
A lawyer in town named Aaron Rosenthal had been looking for a paralegal and hired Gloria based on little more than her good looks and charm, I guess. I didn't know the man personally, but those who did said he was a shyster of the highest order.
After I met him, I quickly discovered that I didn't like him, and apparently the feeling was mutual. Don't know why. I'm a very pleasant sort, most of the time, easy to get along with and good at my job.
I was a middle manager in marketing for a major corporation, and had no real desire to rise any higher in the company. I liked where I was positioned. It was high enough in the food chain to provide a nice salary and other perks, but I didn't have a lot of major responsibilities. That meant I could easily duck if and when the shit started flying.
Gloria never could understand my attitude. She always tried to push me upward, and tended to belittle me when I expressed no interest in doing so. I guess that made for a fertile field when Rosenthal inevitably began his campaign to seduce her.
It took him about nine months to get into Gloria's pants, then it was child's play for him to manipulate her into joining him in trying to swindle me in an investment scam.
I never quite understood why he targeted me and my money. I really didn't have all that much. I mean, I'd invested pretty well, I was frugal, so I had a good savings account built up, and after 20-plus years with the company, I had a nice little 401K working.
My folks had gotten to be fairly well-off and being the only child, I stood to inherit a nice chunk of cash and property when they passed, so maybe that was part of his scheme.
But they're still pretty healthy and active, so I'm not going to see that fortune any time soon, and I'd just as soon they spend it living well in their retirement or to have as a back-up if medical bills start piling up...
The point is, I was no moneybags, so I'm guessing that he zeroed in on me simply because it belonged to me, and he didn't like me.
Gloria's motivation was even more mysterious. She had everything she needed to live comfortably, and she could usually get most anything she wanted, especially if she used her feminine charms as an inducement.
At any rate, their plan had two fundamental flaws that doomed it to failure.
The first flaw was the timing. By the time they got around to baiting the hook I was supposed to swallow, I was already suspicious of their relationship.
Too many late nights and weekends, "working on briefs," plus a general decline in our sex life and a growing coldness from my wife had my fidelity radar screaming red alert.
So when Gloria came to me with some documents relating to a "wonderful opportunity that Aaron says is a license to print money," I smelled a rat.
The second flaw was underestimating me. Gloria didn't think I had any real ambition and Aaron didn't think I was smart enough to understand what he was trying to run on me, and that I couldn't possibly know the laws pertaining to fraud.
Actually, I didn't, but I had friends who did.
The only concession to an upscale life that I went for was membership in the local country club. The club offered the kids a safe environment to swim and hang out with their friends, gave Gloria a place to socialize and gave me the chance to play golf as often as I wanted.
I'd taken up golf in the Navy and it was the only avocation I took a real interest in. I'm serious about the game. I walk whenever I play, I don't drink on the course (other than water), I have good hand-eye coordination around the greens and I'm big enough (5-11, 180) to get some decent length off the tee.
As a result, my handicap is in the single digits and I was a much sought-after playing partner at the club. One of the men I played with regularly was an attorney, a former state legislator who had chaired the committee that updated the state's code of law on fraud to reflect the growing menace of on-line scams. So he knew the law frontward, backward and sideways.
And not only did he know everyone in the state's legal system, he also knew most of the key players in the Justice Department, up to and including the Attorney General himself. Once he got a look at what Rosenthal was trying to pull on me, he took the ball and ran with it.
Gloria and her boyfriend never had a chance. By the time the feds got through with him, Rosenthal was in prison for a 15-year term, and the only reason Gloria didn't do time herself was because she turned state's evidence and ratted him out.
Nevertheless, she still got five years probation, had to pay a healthy fine plus court costs, and I filed for divorce. For some reason, Gloria blamed me for her legal and financial woes, and our divorce was bitter and costly.
We ended up selling the house and splitting the proceeds, most of which went to the lawyers, and it dried up the funds we'd saved for the kids' college education. Not surprisingly, they were caught in the middle and it broke them apart as well. Becky took my side, while Ricky sided with Gloria.
After it was all over, I felt like I needed a fresh start some place new. I happened to call an old Navy buddy, Bernie Linton, to see if he knew of anyone who was looking for an experienced marketing executive, and it turns out he did.
Bernie owns a business in this city that was really starting to take off. He needed someone to come in as his senior vice president to handle marketing and other various detailed operations, and offered me the position.
He'd been trying to do everything himself, and it was getting to be too much. His kids had also left the nest, and he and his wife Helen wanted to lighten his work load so they could do more things together.
So I took on a new job three states away, and helped Becky enroll at a college nearby. I bought a two-bedroom condo and she stays with me while she attends school. It's been a struggle at times, but we're both actually happier than we've been in a long time.
.... There is more of this story ...