This story stands on its own, but for a better enjoyment I recommend you read my other story 'Alone and Desolate' as this story is a direct continuation of 'AAD'.
If you're looking for stroke material please, promptly back-click as there is not a single shred of sex in this story.
I want to thank my editors for the invaluable help they've given me while I was sweating over this story.
When I arrived home earlier, I had the feeling something wasn't entirely kosher. The house felt empty; Joanna wasn't home. I was surprised to see her computer still on, showing its screensavers. Also puzzling was the phone book left on her desk. Furthermore, when I got in the bedroom to unpack my suitcases there were damp towels on the bed. Those things were really disturbing; normally Joanna is the picture of tidiness, but then I saw an envelope on my pillow. I should have known something was wrong when she didn't answer the phone last night.
How could I have, though? Sure, I had noticed that for the past couple of years, Joanna had grown sad and felt abandoned but what could I do? From the moment we met, Joanna and I, we knew that our life wouldn't be like everybody else's. We were willing to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure an early retirement for both of us and if that meant being separated for weeks, months at a time that's what we would do. Granted, the past year has been tougher with me being away more than I'd ever been and sometimes it felt like I was only coming home to change clothes, but I thought Joanna understood better.
That envelope looked sinister on my pillow. An ominous aura emanated from it; I didn't know what it was but I was sure it wasn't good news. When I opened it, a single sheet of paper came out and I sat down to read it.
By the time you come home, I'll be long gone. Please don't come looking for me; I don't want to see the hate and disgust in your eyes. I've betrayed you, my love, betrayed you in the worst possible way and there's nothing I can do that would change it.
All those months of you being away brought out the worst in me and I started losing faith in you. I thought you didn't love me anymore and were staying away more and more so you wouldn't have to spend time with me. I complained about you to my friends and gave them a bad impression of who you were. I thought you were insensitive to my feelings and didn't care anymore.
Last night I got so mad at you for not calling me, I went to dinner with Nathan. Remember Nathan, my friend, the bar owner? I told you about him a few times and how supportive he's been. Well, last night, I went to dinner with him and ended in a hysterical fit so we went back to his place. This morning I woke up in his arms and THIS is unforgivable, Jeremy.
I never should have put myself in that situation; I never should have stopped believing in our love, I should have trusted that our commitment was stronger. Instead, I forgot about it for a moment and was weak and enjoyed Nathan's arms around me.
Don't hate me, Jeremy, if you can. I know now, I should have trusted you more. You're the only man I've ever or could ever love and that's why I'm doing what I'm about to do. I know I could never face you and see the pain of my betrayal in your eyes so, it's better if I end it all.
You're a good man, my love, you deserve love and happiness and I wish you to find a good woman, one that will trust you and love you completely, one that won't be as weak as I am.
Kiss the kids for me, please. Tell them I love them but losing you is more than I could bear.
With all my love,
The letter fell from my fingers and I didn't pick it up. I didn't understand what I was reading. Joanna said she had betrayed me? What I was reading didn't relate to betrayal, but to despair. She thought I didn't love her anymore, that I was staying away because I didn't want to be with her. I couldn't make head nor tail of what I was reading. It didn't make sense!
I knew Joanna was sad — sadder than usual that I was away more — but could it be possible I had missed the signs of something more? Should I have picked up on something she said the last time we talked? Should I have noticed something the last time I was home? I needed time to think but it didn't appear like I had any. What did the letter say near the end? I snatched the letter up from where it had fallen and those words jumped out at me, 'it's better if I end it all.'
I needed to find her; I needed to tell her... God, where could she be? I needed to talk to Nathan. She said she'd spent the night with him; he would know, wouldn't he? Now, if only I could remember where his bar was; Joanna had shown it to me a few months back when we had been in town and we had stopped for a drink because she wanted to introduce him to me but would I be able to remember.
I stumbled back down to the living room still holding on to Joanna's letter. My feet carried me to the bar and I poured myself a whisky. The sofa seemed to be calling me and I slumped into it. I was looking at the room without seeing anything. I couldn't understand anything. Joanna's screensaver seemed to be baiting me; telling me it knew something that I didn't.
I threw my glass at it, wanting to wipe that silly grin off its face. The glass missed, hit the wall and bounced back on the phone directory without breaking. That small gesture of impatience was enough to get me out of my funk. I was going to the kitchen to get a dishcloth to clean my mess when the doorbell rang, so I turned around and went to answer the door, wondering who it might be. Isn't it sad? My own home and I have no idea who comes around on any given day.
When I opened the door, there was a man standing there dishevelled, and for a minute, I wondered if he wasn't some kind of crazy. He looked at me like I was an apparition or something. Then he spoke and that weird sensation disappeared.
"Yes, that's me. And who might you be?" This man seemed to have me at a disadvantage.
"I'm Nathan. You probably don't remember me. I'm Joanna's friend; she introduced us several months ago. I didn't know you were home, Joanna..."
Nathan! The man I needed to see was right in front of me and I didn't know how to start asking him where Joanna was. I noticed he was still talking and I forced myself to listen to him. "Uh, say that again. I'm sorry, I spaced out for a minute."
"I was asking you if Joanna was home and if I could speak with her. We had dinner last night, then we went back to my place to talk because she was upset and she fell asleep. When I woke up this morning, she was gone. I've been trying to reach her since, and I was worried. However, now that I see you're home, it's perfectly understandable that I wasn't able to reach her. Please, tell her I'm sorry to have still been asleep when she left and to call me when she gets a minute."
Now I was in a quandary, Nathan didn't seem to know that Joanna wasn't here. He, also, didn't seem to know the content of her note to me. Should I tell him and ask him for his help in figuring out what happened to Joanna? Should I trust him with our private life? Then again, Joanna trusted him implicitly — she had told me often enough what a good friend he was to her — so maybe I should trust him too.
I've always prided myself in being a good judge of character and I decided to trust my instinct. "There seems to be a problem, Nathan. Would you please come on in? I need to talk to you."
I led Nathan into the living room, told him to fix himself a drink and fixed one for myself and we sat opposite each other on the sofas.
"Nathan, I need to ask you some things. I know it's gonna sound weird but please, bear with me and answer my questions."
"Of course, sure no problem. Shoot," Nathan said.
"Okay, then, I need you to tell me exactly what happened yesterday and why did Joanna sleep at your place."
"Wait a minute here. Nothing untoward happened between Joanna and me. I would never poach on another man's property."
Nathan seemed uncomfortable about telling me Joanna had slept at his place. He didn't seem to know that Joanna had no secrets from me and I knew all about their friendship and the extent of it.
"I know that, don't worry. I just want to know what happened. You said she was upset and that's why you went to your place. What was she upset about?"
Nathan paused for a second as if he was searching for his words. Then, he looked at me and I don't know what he saw but it seemed to give him some resolve as he said, "Joanna called me around eight o'clock last night saying that once again you hadn't called as you promised. She sounded really sad and I invited her to dinner. While eating she kept repeating that you were staying away more and more and for longer periods and she thought it was because of her.
"She really was upset and crying and I took her to my place. I knew she would feel bad that she was making a spectacle of herself in a public place and I wanted to lessen the impact on her. At my place, we kept talking — well I should say, she kept talking and I kept listening — and she was crying hysterically. I took her in my arms to comfort her and she fell asleep. I didn't want to disturb her and I fell asleep too. When I woke up this morning, she was gone and, as I said, I haven't been able to reach her since. Now, are you gonna tell me what's it all about and where is Joanna?"
My fears came back with a vengeance. According to what I was hearing, Nathan had no idea that Joanna had left and didn't know the content of her note. I decided to, once again, trust my instinct and ask Nathan for his help. "I don't know where Joanna is, Nathan. I got home, Christ I don't know what the time is, an hour ago, two hours, maybe? Anyway, I got here and Joanna wasn't in. She left me a note," I couldn't trust myself to read it back to him without falling apart so I passed it to him, saying, "Here it is, read it."
I was looking at Nathan reading the note and every few lines I could see him wince. By the time he was finished, he looked as haggard as I did and even more worried than he had been when he arrived here.
The first words out of his mouth weren't what I expected as he said, "Oh my God! You're gonna say it's my fault aren't you? You'll say I'm responsible for Joanna disappearing won't you?..."
He seemed to want to say more but I interrupted him, "Your fault? Why would it be your fault? From what I know of your relationship with Joanna, you haven't, you both have, done nothing wrong. I didn't ask you inside to lay blame on you. I asked you to come in because I need your help. I need you to tell me about Joanna."
I didn't give him time to reply as I continued, "As you well know, Joanna and I haven't seen each other much over the last eighteen months. I've been too busy with the business side of things and I neglected her. I know you became friends quickly and you were there for her when I should have been. I'm not asking you to betray her confidence here, Nathan, I'm just asking you to help me understand. You read the note, we, I have to find her!" It was true, I really needed Nathan's help if I was to find Joanna and talk to her.
Nathan looked at me with what I thought was pity when he sighed, "Okay, I'll tell you about the Joanna I know. I'll tell you everything I know. Just keep in mind that it's my thoughts, my opinions, my interpretation of what Joanna and I talked about all those times we saw each other..."
Nathan told me about the first few times they met, when Joanna broke down while speaking of her feelings of being neglected, deserted by me. He told me about Joanna seeking him out, wanting to apologize for her behaviour; of their subsequent meetings every few weeks, of having dinner together, watching movies or just talking at his or our place. He told me so many things; things I had ignored or simply missed seeing, things I should have noticed if I hadn't been so obsessed by the business.
My mind was in turmoil. Joanna was my best friend, the reason stars lit up at night, the air that I breathed, my life! I needed to find her to say how sorry I was. I needed to tell her all the things I had promised myself I would say when we finally retired together. I had to let her know my life would never have been complete if she hadn't been in it for all those years.
How could I have been so oblivious to her pain? What was so important about those worldwide deals that I forgot about the most important person in my life? What good would my life be without Joanna to share it? I had to find her! I had to lay myself at her feet and ask for forgiveness at making her feel unimportant to me. I simply had to!
Nathan was pacing the floor. He stopped to pick up the note from where it had fallen and skimmed through it.
I was lost in my thoughts, when he said, "Snap out of it, Jeremy. We have to find her. We have to look for clues as to where she is. You're her husband. Where does she usually go when she's upset? Are any of her clothes missing? What about transportation? I can see Joanna's car in your driveway, how did she leave?"
Nathan was asking good, solid questions but I had no answer for any of them. My mind was a blank and I could only think of the hurt I had put Joanna through. What if she had left me for good? What if she had covered her traces so well I couldn't find her? What would I do? Where would I turn?
"Come on, Jeremy, think! Have you look to see if any of her clothes are missing? What about her desk here? Maybe we'll find some clues as to where she went." Nathan was taking charge and I didn't even know where to start.
To respect our privacy, he sent me to our bedroom asking me to go through it, trying to see if I could pick up any clues as to where she might be. Meanwhile, he would go through her desk.
None of her clothes were missing; her suitcases were still in her closet. Then, I thought of the towels on the bed. I went into the master's bathroom and it looked like a localized earthquake had hit it. There were more damp towels on the floor, the bathmat was askew, the medicine cabinets' doors were open, bottle after bottle of pills were scattered around on the counters, some of them lying on their sides opened.
I picked one up and my stomach sank. The bottle in question had contained thirty pills when it had been prescribed for our son three years ago. He had come home from a ski trip with both legs broken and after they reset them, the doctor had prescribed him some Morphine for the pain. I remember Jason had only taken two or three while the pain was at its worst and the bottle had sat in our medicine cabinet ever since.
Then, there was the bottle of Demerol the doctor had prescribed Joanna for the pain after they tied her tubes two years ago. Joanna had never taken any when I filled the prescription as she said it was making her sleepy when they had given it to her at the hospital and the pain wasn't so bad anyway.
The next few bottles I picked up didn't do any better for my mood; each held a different kind of antidepressant the doctor had tried on me when I came up with a case of the 'blues' a few years back. Every time, I had filled the prescription and taken a few of the pills only to find out they made me feel worse than not taking them.
I noticed that none of the other bottles were opened. They were only scattered around as if someone had looked at them and discarded them. I didn't like the picture it was painting for me and I went to the bed to sit to clear my thoughts for a minute.
I didn't even have time to sit when Nathan called me from downstairs. By the tone of his voice, he seemed to have found something. I sure hoped he did, as up here, it looked grim.
The first thing I noticed coming down the stairs, looking into the living room, was the phone directory opened on Joanna's desk. Nathan was looking at something in it but from where I was standing, I couldn't see what it was. Nathan turned when he heard me and said, "Did you know that the phone book is wet?"
I could feel my face redden at the thought of my tantrum when he continued, "What's more interesting is the category the book is opened at."
I had no idea what he was talking about and I told him, "What's so interesting about it?" I couldn't understand what could make a category in the phone book worth mentioning to me when the only thing I could think of what the discovery of all those pill bottles upended in the bathroom.
"What is interesting is that the page is opened to 'hotels' and 'motels' in town. Some of them seem to be ticked or crossed. Why would Joanna be looking for a hotel or a motel when she had this nice house to live in? Did you find anything upstairs? What's that you're holding in your hand?"
I didn't even notice that I had come down with the pill bottles. I looked at them once again, as if to prove to myself they were real and said, "Yeah, I found something. These pill bottles, they were all full or almost full the last time I saw them; now they're empty and I don't like what that's telling me." Saying those words seemed to have taken a strain on me, as I had to lean on the wall for a minute, for I became light-headed.
Nathan took the bottles from my hands, looked at them and said, "Okay then. We have a phone book opened to hotels and motels in town, pills bottles that originally contained narcotics, and Joanna's note to you.
"I think we can safely say that Joanna intends to harm herself. We have to find her and quickly!"
I pushed myself from the wall as quickly as I had leant on it. Inertia wasn't the answer here and I was beginning to think that every second counted in the 'find Joanna' run.
The only thing is that I had no idea where to start. Nathan took control of the situation once again when he said, "Based on the ticks and crosses in the directory, I would say she called a few places before finding one where she could stay. Now the question is how do we find which one she went to?
"I think you, as her husband, should look through her computer files and history to see if you can't find a record of credit card or bank transactions. In the meantime, if you allow me, I'll call those places that have 'ticks' beside their names and try to find out if Joanna registered a room with them."
We spent the next few minutes doing exactly that. I could hear Nathan arguing with countless people, trying to get information on Joanna's whereabouts while I was going through our online bank and credit card records to see if I could find anything there.
The search proved somewhat fruitful for me. Joanna had withdrawn $250 from our joint account early this morning. There hadn't been any withdrawal made for the last two weeks so this one stuck out like a sore thumb. Two hundred fifty dollars is not a lot but why would Joanna withdraw it on a Saturday morning? It seemed strange to me.
Nathan had just finished his phone calls and he wasn't in a good mood. "You'd think Joanna is some important personality..."
"She is important! Important to me, never forget that!" I told Nathan with impatience.
"Well, you know what I mean. Not one of them is willing to say if she booked a room or not. Some of them categorically refused to answer any of my questions. The best I got is four places who said someone had called to ask if they had vacancies but they wouldn't deny or admit she had booked. I think we'll need to go to those places and find out for ourselves, Jeremy."
"Why those four places and not the others?" I couldn't understand Nathan's logic and why he thought those places were more promising than any others.
"Because those places, at least, gave me a definite answer that someone had called. Maybe I'm wrong but we have to start somewhere and I'd rather go with a definite possibility than nothing at all, as dumb as that sounds."
Nathan had a point here, it was dumb, but he was also right; we needed a starting point and this one was as good as any.
After deciding that Nathan would drive because, with my nerves shot through the roof, it wouldn't be a good idea for me to drive and risk an accident; we left the house and set out for the first of those four hotels we thought were possible.
While en route, my thoughts drifted to the first time I met Joanna...
We met in one of those sociology classes that were mandatory to take in college. It was the fourth or fifth class and we were having a class discussion about the implication of cheating on society.
She was so beautiful, her hair swinging left to right every time she moved her head, fire in her eyes, standing there, alone against the whole class with her retrograde ideas about cheating and the 'evil' it did. I remember thinking she was either a religious freak, coming from another 'planet' or she was pulling our collective legs.
Nobody could be so adamant in his or her opinions. Joanna asserted that today's society was in such dire peril because nobody cared about the effect of cheating anymore. She made sure to mention that she was talking about any and every form of cheating there could be.
In her postulation she was saying that cheating, whatever the form, was insidious and destroyed respect and trust more effectively than a physical assault. She gave a few examples such as, the kid who cheats on an exam and doesn't get caught; loses respect for his teachers who aren't 'astute' enough to have seen it. The teacher who catches a student cheating, loses respect for that student and doesn't trust him any more as in his mind, that student is 'a cheat'.
The other students were laughing at what she was saying and telling her she wasn't living in the right century if she believed what she was saying.
I remember one of them saying, "Yeah but if you don't get caught, what's the harm?"
Joanna's answer had been, "You're gonna tell me that having that 'I know something you don't' feeling over someone doesn't make you think you're 'better' than that person?
"Take that other example. If you cheat on your girlfriend/wife/lover. Don't you feel that you're having 'one up' on her and that she 'deserves' to be cheated on if she doesn't see it? Don't you think that if and when she finds out, and believe me everything comes to sooner or later, that she'll lose respect for you? Don't you think she'll feel that she's been taken for a fool and laughed at? Do you think she'll trust you again?"
Not once did she back down and renege on her positions. Her moral ground was her armour and she was wrapping herself in it like fine woven silk.
I invited her for coffee after class, it was the first time I had wanted to socialize with any of my classmates — after all, I was almost as old as the teacher while they were barely out of high school - and she said, "I never see you take positions in class. Don't you have an opinion or are you inviting me to ridicule me like the others?" Her voice was breaking and I could see tears threatening to show at the corner of her eyes.
Her outburst caught me by surprise, she had always seemed so cool and collected while expressing her opinions in class and I was discovering that underneath it all was a sensitive soul, easily hurt.
"I'm inviting you for coffee because you seem to have thought out pretty extensively what you're saying. You don't seem to be talking just for the pleasure of hearing your voice. People your age seldom think as maturely as you do. But, more importantly and honestly, I want to have coffee with you because you looked like Athena on the battleground in there and I like fiery people. Maybe we could be friends?" I couldn't believe I had blurted out the reference to the Greek goddess but it was too late to take it back. It sure looked like being encouraged to further my education and enrol in college by my employer had advantages I hadn't foreseen.
Her answer showed me that not only did she believe everything she had said in class but she was also living by it.
"Having coffee would be nice. I could use a cup of coffee. As for being friends, I don't know. My friendship, just like my trust and respect has to be earned and I don't give it easily. Furthermore, I'm a loyal friend but I'm a fierce enemy so make sure it's really what you want before offering it." Her eyes never moved away from mine while she was saying it and I knew that if we ever became friends it would be for life.
That's the first taste I had of Joanna's personality and the future would show me that she expected people around her to be as highly moral as she was.
While I was reminiscing, Nathan had driven us to the first hotel on the list. I was ready to get out of the car when he stopped me and said, "Remember, Jeremy, we have to find out if Joanna is there or not. However, there isn't any guarantee that they'll tell us. You should know that hotel employees are not supposed to give information about their guests so we have to find a way to get the information without questioning them."
"I know that hotel employees aren't supposed to give information but I don't see how we'll find out anything if we don't ask questions." Nathan's logic escaped me here and I couldn't fathom how we would go about it.
Nathan didn't have time to answer as we were already in the entrance of that hotel and the desk was in view. An overweight, overtired, middle-aged man approached us and said, "Welcome to Bon Temps hotel, gentlemen. What can I do for you?"
I was about to ask him about Joanna when Nathan beat me to it.
"Good afternoon, sir. Would you be kind enough to ring Mrs Collinsworth's room and tell her Nathan is here to see her?"
The clerk looked through his registry and said, "I'm sorry, sir. We have nobody under that name registered here."
"Hmm, maybe she registered under her maiden name then. However, for the life of me, I can't remember what it is at the moment. Maybe if I describe her to you?" Nathan seemed to know how to get answers and I let him continue.
"You may, sir. But I'm not sure I'd know her if she didn't register on my shift." The clerk had a point. If he wasn't there when Joanna registered and she hadn't registered with her name, there would be no way for us to know unless we found the clerk who was here when she did.
"Well, she's tall, redhead, she probably registered before lunch..."
"Oh, then I'm sorry, sir. You're probably mistaken. Nobody registered here today. Our latest guest arrived two days ago."
Nathan thanked the man, saying he had probably misunderstood when Joanna had told him the name of the hotel she would be staying in and we went back to the car.
I sat in the car and asked him how he could be so calm and detached.
"I'm neither, Jeremy, but one of us needs to keep a cool head. Don't you dare think I'm not worried! I am! I have to stay focused if we are to find Joanna. I understand that you're stressed out and need to take it out on something or someone but if I fall apart, neither of us will be able to do anything to find Joanna."
I understood a little bit more now why Joanna trusted Nathan so much all those months. In a way, he reminded me of her. He was reliable, seemed to be cold and unemotional, a rock to lean on. I hoped that when this ordeal was over Nathan and I could become as good friend as Joanna and he were.
On our way to the second hotel, I couldn't help but think of another incident where Joanna had shown me something about her standards.
We had dinner with married friends and the wife was regaling us with stories about her husband's misfortunes. Once in a while, Joanna would look at me and I could see something was bothering her but I didn't know what it was.
At the end of the evening, Joanna seemed relieved to see them go and as soon as the door closed, she told me, "I'm sorry, Jeremy, I know they are our friends but I don't think we should see them too often any more."
I had no idea where this was coming from; Joanna had always seemed to enjoy our friend's company so I asked her, "Why do you say that? Did something happen that I'm not aware of?"
She sighed when she said, "It's not ONE thing, it's countless minute things that happened over the course of many months and I can't condone it anymore."
"What happened, sweetheart?" I had no knowledge of what could have happened for Joanna to say she wanted us to cool our friendship with those two but I knew her well enough; it must have been something bad. "Has either of them said or done something to hurt you?"
Joanna was flailing her arms, pacing back and forth while talking to me. "First, let me tell you there's nothing wrong with Guy. He's a sweet, sweet man and I love him dearly. It's Val who's the problem. She's belittling, demeaning and disrespectful to Guy and I can't stand by without giving her a piece of my mind anymore."
Her fiery temper was at work and whatever Val had said or done had ticked Joanna in a bad way. "Come, sit down with me and tell me what she has done. I have to tell you though; I have no idea what you're talking about; Val is the 'clown' of our group. She's always making us laugh with Guy's mishaps."
"That's exactly it! Don't you see it? She's always making fun of Guy. Always telling people of the things he's done wrong, said wrong. She's always belittling him and making him sound like an absolute moron. She's not respectful of his feelings and doesn't care if she crushes his ego or not." Joanna was fidgeting on the sofa and the volume of her voice was increasing the more she was talking.
"I don't understand, Jo. What's so wrong with poking fun at ones husband or wife's misadventures? We all do it, we all tell stories about one thing or another our spouse has done that is completely hilarious."
Joanna put her coffee cup back on the table with a thud, turned to me and said, "You don't get it, do you? She's not 'poking fun' at him. She's always putting him in a bad light. She's never talking about his achievements, only his inadvertent happenings. She's putting him down every chance she gets. It's a deliberate character assassination on her part. She's betraying her wedding vows in the worst possible way; even worse than if she was cheating on him!"
I had never seen any of those bad things Joanna said Val had done but I'm not as attuned to human behaviour as Joanna is.
"Are you sure it's deliberate, Joanna? Can't you be misunderstanding the situation? I don't recall Guy saying anything; maybe he doesn't mind Val telling friends about his misfortunes."
With annoyance Joanna replied, "Would you? Would you complain to your friends that your wife is putting you down? Would you go to Guy and tell him that what he thinks is funny is in fact bloody hurtful to you?"
I was about to answer her when she added, "Let me give you a few examples and tell me after if it's still as funny and harmless as you think.
"Let's say I ask you to cook dinner and you decide to surprise me by making lasagna. Unfortunately, something happens and it burns. No big deal huh? But, the next time we see our friends I tell them that you're incapable of making a simple meal without burning it.
"Then, you're ironing clothes; I know how you love ironing clothes, and the doorbell goes off just as you're starting to iron my favourite pair of pants. You put the iron on its base but the cat jumps on the ironing board while you're answering the door and the iron falls on my pants. When you come back into the room, my pants are burned.
"Sure I might get annoyed when you tell me. However, imagine that the next time I see our friends I tell them, and anybody close enough to hear me, how useless you are inside the house. Not only can't you cook a meal without burning it but you also burn clothes with your carelessness.
"Then, there's the time you dropped gravy on my dress at Christmas Eve dinner because I bumped into you while I was coming in the dining room with the turkey and because of the gravy being so hot I dropped the turkey. But, when I see friends who weren't there at that dinner it becomes a story about you being so clumsy that the whole turkey and gravy incident becomes all your fault.
"Let's not forget telling anyone and everyone who'll listen how unhappy I am because you didn't get me the birthday gift I wanted, you forgot our anniversary or that you didn't bring me a gift from your latest business trip.
"But oh wait, I forget to mention to those same people that the birthday gift you didn't get me was because the week before I had told you I didn't want it any more. The anniversary you forgot was because you were in the hospital and you didn't bring me a gift from your latest business trip because I was WITH you on that trip.
"One of those incidents taken on its own can be funny. All of them, not! Let's not forget that while I'm telling our friends — people who know you, the true you — about all those things, there are other people hearing it. People who don't know you, people who can only base their appreciation of you on what they hear from me.
"Would you say those people would have a good opinion of you? Would you say those people would believe anyone telling them what a wonderful man you are? Or, would you say, after hearing all those horror stories that they'd think you're not only a moron but an insensitive jerk too?"
"When you get married, you agree to protect, love, honour and cherish your spouse. Nowhere in the wedding vows does it say you're allowed to belittle them and give a bad impression of them to strangers. It's one thing to talk to a friend about something in your spouse that bothers or annoys you; it's a completely different thing to let the whole world know.
"Now, think about all this and tell me what Val is doing is not a deliberate character assassination. And don't forget, those examples are only a tiny fraction of everything Val has said and done over the years."
I was absolutely speechless. I had never thought of how painful it must have been for Guy to hear his friends laugh at him this way. I was as guilty as everybody else of hurting my friend and I fully intended to make it up to him. I now understood why Joanna didn't want to see them any more. With her temper, it's only a blessing she didn't give Val a piece of her mind.
Furthermore, I decided there and then to tell off Val the next time she put down Guy. I could have asked Joanna to do it but I'm better at diplomacy than she is and I didn't want to break the line of communication between Guy and us. Val might have been a bitch but it didn't mean that Guy would accept anyone putting her in her place.
This incident had shown me another facet of Joanna. She had such high moral standards. She wasn't preachy and never told anyone what they were doing was wrong; she was teaching by example. Her exemplary personality, her loyalty, her goodness was showing in everything she did.
I had never noticed that she was always putting me in the best light possible. She was always talking about my achievements and the good deeds I had done. I'm not saying she was putting me on a pedestal, but my character flaws were never discussed in public.
I remember thinking at the time how lucky I was to have her as a wife. I knew I would never be stabbed in the back and she would always protect our marriage to the best of her abilities. My thoughts were interrupted when Nathan said, "Here we are," as we pulled up to the second hotel.
Unlike the one we visited earlier, this one had seen better days. I couldn't picture Joanna coming into a place like this but if her intent were to hurt herself, as I feared, she wouldn't be out of place judging by the appearance of the people coming out as we entered.
There wasn't anyone at the counter and we rang the bell. The person answering it seemed asleep or drugged up. Her eyes were two slits and it wouldn't have been hard to believe she was on methadone when she said, "Whadayya pigs want now? I told your pal this mornin' I don't know nuttin'."
It was obvious she thought we were policemen and Nathan took advantage of it. "Forget about this morning. We want to know if a Mrs. Collinsworth has booked a room in your joint. Better keep your answer straight if you know what's good for you."
Nathan seemed to enjoy playing bad cop; I just hoped it wouldn't blow up in our face.
The girl seemed happy to get off so easily. She took the registry from under the counter, looked through it and said, "Nope, no nuttin', nobody with that name. Look fer yerself." She turned the registry towards us and we both looked through it to see if we could find Joanna's name or handwriting in there.
She wasn't here and we left the girl, telling her to keep her nose clean.
As the car was leaving that street, the thought came to me that while I was unhappy we hadn't found her yet, I was glad we hadn't found her there!
The third hotel on our list was on the edge of town and it would take us some time to get there. Time we couldn't afford to lose, but it was now half-past four and traffic was getting thicker. I was looking at people walking on the streets, driving about with purpose and all I wanted to do was tell them to clear the streets so we could reach our destination quickly.
I was fidgeting on my seat, looking out the car window, playing with my seatbelt; anything to keep my mind from thinking. I so wanted to stop thinking. Thinking was a commodity I couldn't afford right now.
Thinking was the only thing I could do, though, and I was thankful that Nathan didn't feel the need to fill the silence with inane conversation. He seemed to be happy to be left driving and it suited me perfectly too.
After a quarter hour of driving silently with me fidgeting, he could see I was losing patience and, I guess to keep me occupied, asked me to tell him about Joanna and my marriage. He wanted to know what secret we had discovered to keep our marriage strong despite all our separations over the years.
That request forced me to think on why we had been separated for so long and so often...
We had been married for three years when I started my investment company. After having worked for one company or another for the past ten years, I knew I had all the tools to make the jump from employee to business owner. I was thirty-three, ten years older than Joanna, and I knew we could make it work.
We had had 'The Talk' so many times in the past couple of years. We knew that it would need a lot of work, effort and sacrifice on our part to get it off the ground.