Author: Dill Wilson PM
Checkers bumps into his old college girlfriend Gertie, only this time she's soberRated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Friendship - Words: 7,035 - Published: 12-18-12 - Status: Complete - id: 3083995
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
I was jogging along the river when my eye caught sight of a blond haired woman sitting on one the benches in the afternoon sun reading a book. I did a double take because she looked a lot like my college girl friend Gertie Blanchard who I hadn't seen in nearly twenty years.
Gertie had to be in her forties by now and I kept on jogging while trying to process that reality in my head. Gertie was my first real love and my first true tragedy (both at the same time) and the very thought of her got my curiosity flowing and my interest peaked. I slowed and turned, jogging along the same path in the opposite direction, slowing when I reached the bench and seeing that the same woman was still sitting there.
"Gertie?" I asked cautiously as I pulled up near the bench.
The woman with her sun stroked yellow hair pulled back in a bun glanced up and looked at me. She looked blank for a moment and then a flash of recognition christened her eyes as she dropped her sunglasses down her nose.
"Checkers?" She asked with disbelief and I recognized her high pitched voice the moment she opened her mouth.
My college buddies used to say her voice sounded like she was a cartoon or that she had swallowed a helium tank.
"Yes!" I laughed, thrilled to see her again. It really was Gertie Blanchard! "How the heck are you!?"
"I'm okay," she said with a happy smile. "I can't believe it's you!"
"It's been a long time!" I told her.
"It has," she agreed.
"Can I sit for a minute?" I asked, knowing I was kind of sweaty from my run.
"Yes, of course, please," she smiled.
"I took a seat on the bench next to her and we both stared at one another for a long moment with polite smiles painted on our faces.
"So," I said, finally. "I didn't know you were around."
"I moved back a few months ago," she revealed. "You?"
"Never left," I grinned. "Got a job after college and I've been here ever since."
"Married?" She asked, glancing at my hands for a ring.
"Divorced," I shrugged. "A few years now."
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said.
"Yeah," I agreed. "What about you?"
"Never married," she revealed.
There was an awkward pause.
"What do you do for work?" Gertie wondered.
"Sales," I shrugged. "You?"
"Oh, I'm on disability right now," she said softly.
"I see," I said, hoping to sound neutral and non-judgmental.
"I've travelled quite a bit since you last saw me," she said proudly.
"Sounds great," I said. "How's your family doing?"
I remembered how she always talked about her Dad when we were together.
"My father lives in Florida now," she said proudly. "He's in good health and good spirits. We talk all the time."
"Great," I said with a supportive smile. "And your sister?"
"Oh, she's fine," Gertie said with a disinterested wave of her hand.
Gertie was the younger of two sisters. I recalled that her parents divorced when she was young and that her mother remarried. The family moved to England for a while and then returned to the States. Her step-father was some sort of College big wig. Gertie's father also remarried but Gertie didn't think her stepmother liked her or her sister. Her father and his new wife were involved in show business in some aspect or another but I had forgotten the details. Gertie's mother meanwhile had three children from her second marriage, a half-brother and two half-sisters if I recalled correctly. I remember Gertie telling me that she and her sister resented their half-siblings because she thought they had a much easier life than she did and that they were treated differently.
"I think I might owe you an apology," Gertie said after staring at me for a few moments.
"For what?" I asked, slightly confused.
"I pretty much was off my rocker when we were together," she freely admitted.
"Well, there were a few problems," I agreed sheepishly.
"I'm trying to be sober, independent, and responsible," she told me. "I'm planning on taking some college courses and I hope to find a job that feels meaningful."
"That sounds wonderful," I said with enthusiasm.
"I want to have peace of mind," she sighed.
"I'm sure you will," I said with confidence, looking at her with a warm smile.
Gertie had many skills and strengths when I knew her. She was intelligent and articulate with a wide range of interests and life experiences. She was giving and she had compassion about what she was interested in doing at college. When we first started going out, she was bubbly and funny and full of adventure. I loved being with her and I fell in love with her.
But Gertie was already drinking pretty heavily by the time I met her and she suffered from wild mood swings, crazy behaviors, and insane paranoia. It was her alcohol abuse and emotional instability that made for our problematic relationship and it's what caused our breakup. I just couldn't keep up with her drinking and her increasingly bizarre behaviors scared the hell out of me.
"I want you to know that it's a priority for me to be emotionally stable and sober," she said bluntly. "I know that's what I need if I want any chance to live a better life."
"How long have you been on the wagon?" I asked.
"A couple of months this time," she revealed. "I've enjoyed long periods of sobriety before but something usually happens and I get into trouble again, compromising my fragile self image." She threw me a vulnerable look.
"I wasn't exactly perfect either," I pointed out.
"You were for me!" She blushed with embarrassment. "I want emotional stability and sobriety but I'm drawn to familiar self destructive situations. I've been known to display poor judgment and I've associated with people that have been abusive. Except you, that is."
"You smashed up my car," I reminded her.
"I sold your grandfather's watch too," she added. "I still feel so much shame about that."
"What ever happened to that guy?" I asked
Gertie had left me a few times for some loser she was seeing off campus.
"Only God knows," she said with a shrug.
"But you're not doing that stuff now?" I asked cautiously.
She shook her head no. "I'm trying to be positive but let's face it, Checkers, my life is a failure."
"You seem to be doing okay today," I said with a smile.
"There's always been a lot of anxiety and depression in my family," Gertie revealed. "Anorexia, schizophrenia, ADHD, depression, you name it! Alcoholism, bipolar disorder, suicide. I guess I have the curse."
"I'm sorry," I said quietly.
"You were so good for me," she said with a reflective smile.
"I guess it wasn't enough," I sighed.
"I'm an alcoholic and I've had numerous inpatient psychiatric admissions, respite stays, detoxes and alcohol treatment programs over the years," Gertie informed me. "I was misunderstood and pre-judged. Basically, I was a mess, Checkers." She gave me another long look only this time with a smirk on her face. "Aren't you glad you ran into me!?"
"I've thought about you often over the years," I admitted with some embarrassment. "I always wondered what became of you."
"Well, now you know," she said, holding her hands out in a 'here I am' gesture. "You witnessed my mood liability, impulsivity and agitation, depression, hopelessness, drinking, and even suicidal ideation," she said, rolling her eyes. "That was pretty much me for many years after you too."
"Well, one day at a time, right?" I asked with a smile.
"Oh, definitely," she said, nodding her head. "That's the only way to take it."
I stood. "I really need to get going," I told her.
"Hey, it was really great seeing you again, Checkers!"
"You too, Gertie," I said warmly. "Maybe I'll see you around again."
"Sure," she said. "I come here when it's nice."
"Okay," I said. "See you."
"'Bye," she said pleasantly.
I resumed my run but how could I not think about Gertie? What a blast from the past. I felt relieved to know that she was doing okay but there was something sad about her and as I ran and thought about her, the one question that kept going through my mind was: Did I owe Gertie Blanchard anything more than a hello in the park after all these years?
It was another nice day a few days later and I was running along the same path when I saw Gertie sitting on the same bench. I wasn't sure if I should acknowledge her or stop again but this time she was waving at me and I felt I had no choice.
I slowed my pace and came to a halt not far from her bench where she was sketching in a drawing pad.
"Hi Checkers!" She said cheerfully. "Nice to see you again!"
"Hi Gertie," I said pleasantly.
"Do you run everyday?" She asked.
"Just about," I grinned. "It's the last of my obsessive behaviors."
"How far do you run?"
"Oh, five to ten miles," I said. "I do a lot of 4Ks and other charity runs with friends."
"Good for you."
"So, how you doing?" I asked, debating on whether I wanted to take a break from the run and risk cramping up.
"I'm doing okay today," she said happily. "Thanks."
"So, I didn't get a chance to ask you the other day where you're living," I said. It was something I had had been wondering about since she hadn't volunteered any information.
"Oh, I'm in the Shelter," she said with a smile. "I'm on the waiting list for Section 8 subsidy housing but it might be a while."
"The Shelter?" I asked with surprise as I ran in place.
"It's that old hotel not far from the railroad tracks," She said. "I think it used to be called Dempsey's."
"Yeah, it closed in like 1963," I said.
"It's okay," she said. "Kind of run down but its livable and the people aren't that bad."
"How many live there?"
"Two dozen," she said. "But they don't let you stay during the day when the weather's nice."
Somehow the image of Gertie Blanchard living in the dumpy shelter further depressed me. She deserved better than that.
"So what do you do when you can't be in the Shelter?"
"Oh, go to the library," she said. "Or here." She looked around the open area along the river. "Maybe take the bus over to Greenville. There are a couple of day programs over there."
I nodded my head in understanding.
"I'm really doing okay, Checkers," she said with a smile. "Don't look so weird."
"Am I looking weird?" I asked uncomfortably.
She laughed. "Slightly."
"I didn't mean to," I assured her.
"Maybe you'd better go back to your running," she suggested.
"I don't want to get a chill," I explained lamely.
"Go ahead," she said. "It's okay."
"I'll see you around."
"Sure, Checkers," she said.
There was something in the way she said it that made me feel horrible. Did she really think I was about to brush her off? Abandon her? Avoid her? I jogged off feeling as if I was leaving a fallen comrade behind on the battlefield and I couldn't get Gertie off my mind the rest of the day. That night after work, I went home to my empty house. It felt especially lonely for some reason.
I was used to being alone after the divorce and my ex's absence didn't really bother me much anymore. We had grown apart in the last years of our marriage and there wasn't any real drama or trauma when we finally agreed to separate after our daughter's wedding.
Now I was just another forty-something divorcee trying to live my life as a single guy. There was plenty of room in the house, of course, but did I have any obligation, commitment, responsibility, or sense of moral guilt to offer Gertie a place to stay? Would it be appropriate? Wise? Sane? Healthy?
I asked a few friends for their opinion and the general consensus was that Gertie's predicament was really none of my business or concern. We hadn't seen each other in more than twenty-years, she was a part of my past and not my present, and I had mo moral responsibility to involve myself in her life after so much time had passed. They advised me not to tell her where I lived or worked fearing she might start stalking me.
I guess leaving Gertie alone made sense on a logical level but my gut hurt every time I thought about her living in the Shelter. Emotionally, I felt like maybe I owed her something because of the past we shared and if I had an opportunity to make her life a little better maybe I should take it.
I had loved this woman more than any other person in my life. I wanted to marry her. She was my everything. Did any of that matter now?
I went to the open area by the river a few days later but not in my running clothes. It was late September now and while the weather was holding up fairly well during the day, I knew it was only a matter of time before Gertie was going to start feeling the affects of New England in autumn.
I saw her sitting under a tree reading a book and I approached her with a smile.
"Hi Gertie," I said warmly.
She glanced up and genuinely seemed surprised to see me. "Oh, hello Checkers," she said. "What brings you this way?"
"Have you had lunch yet?" I asked.
"Oh, I usually don't eat lunch," she said.
"What?" I asked with surprise.
"Well, I'm on a fixed income and I really need to watch my money so I generally only eat one big meal a day," she explained.
"Would you like to go get a bite to eat now?" I offered.
She studied me for a quick minute. "You don't need to feel sorry for me, Checkers," she said.
"I don't, I don't," I insisted nervously. "I just thought it would be nice to catch up a little bit more."
"Well," she said, reaching her hand out for mine.
I took it and helped her to her feet.
"I could go for a cup of tea, I suppose."
We walked to my car that was parked in the lot at the beginning of the bike path/jogging trail. I could smell her perfume and I was amused that it was the same kind she wore twenty years ago (it drove me wild back then too!). I drove us to Johnny C's Diner. Most of the lunch crowd had already left so we didn't have to wait long for a booth.
"You have time?" Gertie asked.
"I pretty much set my own work schedule," I explained.
"Lucky you," she smiled.
The waitress came to the booth. Gertie ordered her herbal tea and a fruit salad. I asked for the open roast beef sandwich special with fries and a coke.
"Now I know why you jog everyday!" Gertie joked.
I laughed good-naturedly while looking across the table at her.
"So why did you choose to come back here, Gertie?" I wanted to know.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, how long were you gone?" I wondered.
"I don't know. About twenty years, I guess."
"And you decided to come back just like that? What'd you do, throw a dart at a map or something?"
"Na," she said with amusement. "I just have warm memories of this place and I thought it would be nice to check it out again."
"You didn't think you might run into me again? I tested.
She frowned. "How the hell was I supposed to know you'd still be here, Checkers?" She snarled. "Aren't you from like Boston or something?"
"Brockton," I said.
She sat back in her seat and glared at me. "What are you trying to say exactly, Checkers?" She accused.
"Nothing," I mumbled.
"That I came looking for you!?" She laughed out loud and she had to cover her mouth with her hand. She leaned across the table. "The last time I saw you, you were calling me a tramp and a drunk and a slut and a psycho," she said quietly. "Don't you remember that big final fight?"
"I try to forget," I admitted shamefully.
"You told me that you hated my guts and you hoped I'd die," she reminded me. "Why would I come looking for you?"
"I'm surprised you remember any of that," I said with some embarrassment. "You were pretty wasted. And you had what's his name with you. I thought he was going to beat the shit of out of me."
She giggled. "I was kind of hoping he would!" Then she turned serious. "I remember that day," she said softly. "Not one of my better days."
"Mine either," I said. "I'm sorry for what I said."
"I don't blame you," she sighed. "I was pretty much a bitch. Bringing a guy I was banging with me to throw it in the face of my boyfriend, the only guy who treated me with any dignity or respect? What was wrong with me?"
I knew she had been cheating on me. Going out and partying. She was flunking out of school, cutting classes, stealing my money and my food, wrecked my car, stole my grandfather's antique watch, and was out of control. I stormed out of the dumpy fleabag apartment we were sharing and when I went back a few days later the place was trashed, she was gone, and I never saw her again.
"Where'd you go?" I asked.
"Got as far as Erie Pennsylvania before his car broke down," she said.
"I kept waiting for you to come back," I said.
She looked at me with stunned surprise. "You're kidding!?"
I shook my head no. "I thought you'd come to your senses."
"Oh God, Checkers," she groaned. "Didn't you know I had no sense?"
"I guess not," I sighed.
"Alcohol had become my way of life and to be quite honest it seemed like a good way of life," she said. "There would a new guy and a new town in a new state but it was always the booze no matter how many breakdowns I had, no matter how many times they stuck me in the psych ward, no matter how many times I got slapped around."
"Alcohol had complete control of my life," she revealed. "The truth is that I was either drinking or thinking about drinking. I couldn't wait for the next drink. It was the only relief I could get from myself. All I really cared about was getting that next drink."
"I wonder if I stayed here because deep down I thought you'd come back someday," I said aloud to myself.
"You married somebody else, Checkers," she reminded me.
"I know," I said. "I didn't mean it was a conscious thing, waiting for you."
"Along with the drinking came the lying of course," Gertie said. "I was lying to you too. If there is one thing I've learned about alcoholics it's that we are expert liars! My major life goal was to keep people from getting to know me," she explained. "My fear was that if they really knew me then they would find out that I was no good. All of my relationships were superficial. Most of them abusive. The only relationship that I could really trust and count on was with alcohol. That was my real lover and the only love of my life."
That was saddest thing I ever heard her say and I couldn't help but feel a little bit hurt too. Didn't she ever love me? The waitress brought our food to the table and we smiled politely at her while she set the plates down and left.
"So, who'd you marry, Checkers?" Gertie asked once we were alone again.
"A woman named Ivy Welch," I replied. "We met a few months after I graduated from Green. She was from around here which was another reason why I stayed, I guess."
"What does she do?"
"She's a senior accountant with the Town of Greenville," I said. "We have a daughter, Misty. She's married now. Lives in Riverside."
"How come it didn't work out?"
"It did, for many years," I said. "It was a mutual ending."
"Well, I'm glad that you happy for some of the time at least."
"Oh sure," I smiled.
"You wouldn't lie to a liar would you, Checkers?"
I smiled. "No," I said.
"I was living with some guy in a trailer someplace," she said. "I was unemployed and I spent my days watching cable television and drinking vodka. I'd go to the liquor store every morning on my bicycle and buy two pints. One drunken afternoon I passed out in the bathroom and hit my head on the corner of the sink. Blood was gushing out so I wrapped my head in a towel and sat in the living room bleeding profusely until the guy came home. He asked if I had been drinking and I said of course not. Living the lie. After an MRI and 16 stitches the doctor came in and said that my blood alcohol level was 0.24. He suggested that maybe I go to an AA meeting or something. I went home and pretended nothing happened."
"What about the guy?"
"What about him?" She asked. "He was just a guy. One of many. I kept on lying in order to get to my next drink. That was all that really mattered. There would be a different guy, a different place to live, the occasional hospitalization, but the same old lies."
"But you're sober now," I said.
"I'm sober now," she confirmed. "After a lifetime of alcoholism and truly losing all hope and hitting bottom several times, my sobriety is my daily goal now. Most days are filled with serenity and peace. I'm grateful for that."
"I'm happy for you," I said.
"I'm finally starting to feel better about myself," Gertie told me. "I'm slowly getting my act back together."
"Good for you," I praised.
"I was very scared because I knew that I was out of control and I didn't know if I would survive," she told me. "I had very low self-esteem. I never really grew up. I was desperately lonely and depressed. I was full of resentment and self-pity. I was a mess."
"You look good now," I assured her.
She smiled. "Thanks.
"So, AA helps?" I asked.
"If I let it," she replied. "If I work it. If I use my sponsor. If I share. If I tell my story."
"Like now," I remarked.
"Right now I have gratitude because of my sobriety," she said. "Not that life is always easy. There will always be trials and heartaches because that is just the way life is but facing it sober is the only way to do it. Miracles do happen, Checkers."
"I'm really happy for you, Gertie," I said with sincerity. "I feel good that we bumped into each other and that you're doing so well. It's really great seeing you again."
"You don't have to feel sorry for me, Checkers, or try to take care of me, or rescue me or whatever it is you think you have to do," she said. "You don't owe me anything."
"I know," I said with a shrug. "I'm just glad to see you again, that's all."
"Okay," she said, finishing her tea.
"I'd like to see you again," I said, hoping I didn't sound too desperate.
"Why?" She asked with raised eyebrows.
"To heal old wounds," I said after thinking about it for a moment or two.
"Mine or yours?" She challenged.
"Maybe both," I offered.
"You can't fix me, Checkers," she said.
"I don't want to fix you," I countered. "I just want to be with you."
She stared at me for a long pause. "We'll see," she said.
We went out for coffee or tea every few days. I took her to dinner. We went to the movies. It was nice getting reacquainted and being with Getie without the chaos, crisis, drama, and drunkenness that marred our relationship back in the day. We talked about our pasts and our lives. We laughed about the old times. We sighed about the lost times. We talked about the future and our individual hopes and dreams.
I met Gertie's friend "from the halls" as Gertie phrased it – an older woman with stark white hair and an infectious personality. Leesa made me laugh and she was the most open, honest, truthful and grounded person I'd ever met. She was like a mother figure to Gertie and she was full of sage wisdom when it came to the disease of alcoholism and maintaining sobriety.
I was supposed to meet Gertie at Johnny C's for lunch one day but Leesa showed up first.
"I wanted to talk to you without Gertie around for a minute," she announced as she slipped into the booth, sitting across from me.
"About what?" I asked.
"You shouldn't be looking for romance or sex from Gertie," Leesa said bluntly.
"What?" I asked, embarrassed by her comment.
"Gertie needs to be sober for at least a year before she involves herself in a relationship," Leesa informed me.
"Don't you think it's a bit presumptuous of you to assume that I'm looking for sex from Gertie?" I asked defensively.
"Well, what exactly are you looking for from Gertie?" Leesa challenged.
I was hard pressed to answer the question and I um and ah'ed for a few moments. "Maybe I'm just looking for a friend after a couple of years of being divorced," I rationalized.
"Right," Leesa replied suspiciously. "What's the matter, Checkers, don't you have any other friends?"
"Of course I have other friends," I mumbled.
"Gertie was the first big love of your love, right?"
"Yes," I admitted, knowing there was no point in lying to Leesa who seemed pretty intelligent and observant.
"That was a long time ago, Checkers," Leesa reminded me. "It's different now."
"Does it have to be?" I asked.
"Look, this is a fragile woman," Leesa warned. "She's new in her sobriety. She's on the high of being sober but she's vulnerable and weak. She needs to be working her program, doing meetings, taking care of herself and focusing on her problems, not playing footsie with you."
"We're not playing footsie," I said.
"Then what are you doing, exactly?" Leesa asked.
I didn't reply because I didn't know.
"That's what I thought," Leesa sighed. "Look, if you care about her, go ahead and be her friend. Just don't get romantically or sexually involved with her. It's the worse thing either of you can do right now."
Leesa slipped out of the booth and left me to ponder exactly what I wanted from Gertie.
Gertie was naturally affectionate and demonstrative in displaying her emotions. She had no problem holding my hand in public and she was quick to give me a kiss goodbye when we ended our times together. There was no hint of going beyond our friendship and we were both simply enjoying each other's company and doing (sober) things together. I tried to remember what Leesa told me but each time I got together with Gertie, smelled her perfume, heard her infectious laugh, and had a good time with her, the harder it became to think of her as just a friend.
The Shelter had showers but Gertie liked taking bubble baths at my place every week or so. When she needed a break from the Shelter, she slept in my daughter's old room for a night or two, usually on the weekend when the Shelter staff was reduced. I would cook us a Saturday night meal or we'd go out to dinner together.
We had the common thread of our past and shared interests from those days that made our present friendship interesting and enjoyable. I realized just how much I enjoyed Gertie as a person when we were together the first time and despite her obvious drinking problem and the problems it caused, I really missed her for a long time after we broke up. She was well read and articulate and we had some stimulating conversations about writers and books. She was a giving and compassionate person and she made me a more personable person because of her attitudes and spirit. She was bubbly and funny and she brought me out of my shell when we first met. I liked the way she made me feel and I liked being with her again.
Whatever we had going now, we didn't talk about it. We just enjoyed our reunion and being together again, even if was just as "friends". One weekend when Gertie was staying over for her bubble bath and respite from the Shelter, I walked by the bathroom. The door was ajar and I glanced in to see Gertie standing at the vanity naked, putting on some make up. I stopped and stared at her for a moment, taken by her beauty while surprised to see her in the nude.
She glanced at me and smiled.
"Sorry," I said, feeling embarrassed for some reason.
"It's been a long time, hasn't it, Checkers?" She asked as she turned to face me.
She had aged well and her body was still as lovely as ever.
"A long time," I agreed, appreciating her beauty.
"I don't think we ever made love when I was sober," she revealed while looking at me longingly. "Isn't that sad?"
"It is," I said quietly.
"Would you like to try now?" She asked.
"Try what?" I asked, swallowing nervously.
She stepped toward me and took my hand, lifting it to her breast. "The only way I could ever have sex was when I was drunk," she sighed. "It freed me of my inhibitions and it was my secret ingredient for great sex, or so I thought."
"We did have great sex," I recalled.
"No, we were both seriously mistaken," Gertie replied. "Alcohol doesn't make sex great, physically, intellectually or emotionally."
"Then I guess we have some good surprises coming," I joked.
"I'd like to have really great sex with you now, Checkers," Gertie said as she rubbed my hand along her breast. "What makes it so exciting is that we'll be able to make new discoveries of what feels great now that we're older, better experienced, and I'm sober. You don't have to put on any kind of performance for me. Just give me pleasure and joy because you care about me."
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"I'd like to think we're ready," Gertie said with a smile. "We're adults in our forties. We had sex together before, right?"
"Yes," I said.
"And it really was fun and wild but what if it's boring now in our sober old age?" She worried.
"Only one way to find out," I replied, taking her hand in mine and leading her toward my bedroom.
I had only been with one other woman since Gertie (my ex) and somehow the thought of being with Gertie again was a fantasy come true.
Gertie was now sleeping in my bed and while we didn't tell Leesa that we were sexually involved, it didn't take her long to figure out the truth and she was not happy.
"You're playing with fire," Leesa warned me. "Gertie has a history of falling off the wagon. Are you prepared to be there for her if she does this time?"
"Yes," I answered truthfully. "But I think she's going to make it this time."
"You're not that powerful," Leesa replied.
"What do you mean?" I asked with confusion.
"You think that you can keep her from drinking?" Leesa challenged. "Nobody can. Have your roll in the hay and relive your glory college years if you must but please don't fool yourself into thinking that you have somehow cured the woman."
"I don't think that," I said defensively but it was exactly what I did think.
Gertie was happy and we were together. She wasn't drinking and we were getting along great. I was glad to be with her and as the months went by I forgot all about her alcoholic past. I was grateful for the second chance with my college sweetheart and I was convinced that we were going to live happily ever after, even though Leesa kept warning me that the first year was always the hardest.
I went out of town on a business trip for a week. Gertie was spending most days at my house and that was fine with me. It was nice to have her waiting for me when I got home at the end of the day. She'd ask me about my day and she'd tell me about hers. It had become a pleasant little ritual and I looked forward to it each day. I looked forward to see Gertie every day. I was happy to have her back in my life.
I pulled the car into the driveway and I noticed the smashed windows right away. I went into the house and saw that the place was trashed. Furniture overturned, light fixtures broken, my belongings thrown about. At first I thought I had been robbed but then I saw the flat screen television smashed on the floor and the computer screen broken. There were holes in the wall, the kitchen was a mess, the bed sheets smelled of urine and several vodka bottles were scattered around the bedroom.
My heart sank when I realized when had happened. Gertie had gotten drunk and apparently gone off the deep end for some reason. Just like my car and my grandfather's watch in the past, this time she had wrecked my house.
I had Leesa's phone number programmed in my cell so I called her.
"Welcome home," she said quietly.
"Why didn't you call me?" I asked bitterly.
"What for?" Leesa asked. "Why ruin your trip?"
"Where is she?"
"The psych ward at Blue County Medical Center," Leesa informed me. "I'll meet you there."
Leesa was waiting for in the hospital lobby. "I'm sorry, Checkers," she said with a sigh when she saw me enter through the front doors, springing up from one of the lobby chairs she was sitting in.
"But why?" I asked, crushed. "She was doing so well."
"She slipped," Leesa replied. "She wasn't ready."
"How'd you find out?"
"The cops called me from the Emergency Room when they brought her in," Leesa sighed. "Your neighbors called the Police. They heard smashing and then they saw her running around outside naked."
Leesa escorted me to the psych ward. We were buzzed in and we found Gertie lying on her bed in her room, curled in the fetal position. She burst into tears when she glanced up and saw me standing in the doorway with Leesa.
"You hate me!" Gertie sobbed. "I just know it."
"I don't hate you," I sighed, although I felt raw, drained, empty, violated and betrayed. "What happened?"
"Everything became total hell on earth," She answered.
"But why?" I asked, unable to fathom what happened to her.
Gertie looked awful. She was pale and gray at the same time. Her eyes were bloodshot and there were dark circles under them. There was a yellow tint to her skin.
"I don't remember," she admitted.
"Where'd you get the booze?"
"I guess I must have gone to the liquor store," she said. "I don't remember."
"Why'd you wreck the house?" I wanted to know. "Were you mad at me?"
She shook her head no. "I guess I was just mad," she sighed. "I thought that I was cured. That I no longer had a problem."
"Sounds like you have big time ego issues," Leesa observed.
"I feel so ashamed," Gertie sighed. "I wake up in the middle of the night in sweats . . . fearful, alone and hurting so terribly that I cannot describe the pain."
"Looks like you hit bottom again," Leesa remarked. "And it wasn't pretty."
"I promise to work the program one day at a time," Gertie told me with sincerity. "I say the Serenity Prayer all the time. I know I have a long road ahead but with AA and God I am full of hope for lasting sobriety. And Checkers, I'm so sorry about everything. I hope you'll forgive me."
"I don't understand what happened," I admitted, my head spinning. "I leave on Monday and everything's great. I come back on Friday and my house is trashed and you're in the hospital. I don't get it."
"I don't either," Gertie sighed. "I made a mistake and I'm sorry."
"It's okay," I said with a brave smile. "I know everything's going to be okay. You just rest and get better."
"They want me to go to Rehab again," Gertie frowned. "Just because of one slip?" She looked at Leesa desperately. "Do I have to go?"
"You obviously have some work to do," Leesa replied factually. "It will do you good."
"I know I can't drink and I won't," Gertie promised. "Just let me get out of here, okay Checkers?"
"It really isn't up to me, Gertie," I said. "The doctors know what's best."
"We'll let you get your rest now," Leesa said. "Take care, Gertie. We'll be back to see you real soon."
Leesa took me by the arm and led me out of the room.
"What's the rush?" I asked with surprise.
"I didn't want her working you over, manipulating you, and talking into getting her out of here," Leesa said. "She's a sick drunk and she needs help."
"She was sober for months," I said. "It was just one slip."
"Did you see your house?" Leesa challenged. "You call that one little slip? She's full of rage and violence and until she figures out what her problems are she'll keep going back to the same behaviors."
"I don't want to lose her again," I sighed.
"She's not yours to keep, Checkers," Leesa told me.
"What am I supposed to do?" I groaned. "I think she's great. I want to be with her."
"You're as sick as she is, Checkers," Leesa groaned. "You're a classic enabler and you're in denial. I told you not to get involved with her but you wouldn't listen. You had to get laid and now look what you have on your hands."
"You're blaming me?" I asked angrily as we rode the elevator down to the lobby.
"Of course not," she said with a frown. "But you have made it more complicated, haven't you?"
"She's a wonderful person, Leesa," I said.
"She is," Leesa agreed. "But she's a drunk."
I sighed. "What do you want me to do?"
"Give her a few days," Leesa advised. "Let's see if she'll agree to go to Rehab."
"Alright, you're the expert, I defer to you," I said with a shrug. "But I'm not abandoning her."
"Go home and clean up your house," Leesa told me. "I'll call you in a few days."
"Okay," I agreed. "Thanks for your help."
It took me a few days to get the house cleaned up and back in shape. I had to buy a new television and computer screen, replace the windows, and throw some ruined stuff out, but most of the damage was basically superficial and recoverable. The house was sparkling clean and inviting for Gertie's return and I looked forward to having her there again.
I knew she could beat this thing and that we would be okay together. When I returned to the hospital a few days later to visit, I was shocked to discover that Gertie had checked herself out. The psych ward was voluntarily and she could sign herself out after three days if it was determined she was not in danger to herself or others.
I looked for her at the Shelter and at her usual hangouts but she was nowhere to be found. I called Leesa but she hadn't heard from Gertie either.
"I guess she flew the coop," Leesa said with a shrug when we met for coffee later.
"What do you mean?" I asked with disbelief. "Why would she take off?"
"She couldn't face Rehab," Leesa explained. "She couldn't face me or you. So she does what she's been doing all her life. She ran away, avoiding her problems. Moving on to the new town, the new guy, the next drink."
"You think she's drinking again?" I asked, crestfallen.
"If she's not today she will be soon," Leesa predicted. "That's what alcoholic do, Checkers. I told you, she wasn't ready. You happened to catch her when she was up but it was only a matter of time before she crashed again."
"You knew this was going to happen?"
"I had a feeling," Leesa admitted. "She was superficial in her recovery, not really doing the work she needed to do to get past some of her demons. She talked a good story but she wasn't inside her soul."
"Maybe it was my fault," I groaned. "Maybe I shouldn't have engaged her when I saw her that first day."
"Oh please," Leesa said with disgust. "You don't have that much power, Checkers. This has nothing to do with you and everything to do with her."
"What do I do now?" I wondered.
"Go back to your life," Leesa advised.
"You mean the life without her," I sighed.
"Yeah, that one," Leesa agreed. "You'll be okay."
For the second time in my life, I found myself waiting for Gertie Blanchard to come back into my life. I wasn't sure how long I might be waiting this time.