His office, slightly larger than a walk-in closet found in luxury homes outside town, was crammed with stacks of books and mounds of papers, quite a departure from the meticulous order he'd come to appreciate in boot camp forty years ago, a period of his life he labored to forget. An empty spot was hard to find. A five by seven photo with his wife and daughters, Angela and Sylvia, sat next to the picture of their only son, the one who had followed in his father's military footsteps against his mother's protest.
The walls followed the motif of the room - crowded, covered, concealed, except for the images of his family. They were his reason for living, the force driving him to excel at his job. Maple, oak, fake-wood, and gold trimmed metal frames containing two degrees, awards, accommodations, and honorable mentions plastered the room like wallpaper. A dozen 'Educator of the Year' plaques filled the room, with a few on the wall and the rest piled on the credenza. Success was abundant, but nothing was more prominently displayed or gratifying than the eleven by sixteen family photo -- his favorite. The picture represented the last time he, his wife, and all three of their children were together for a picture, not to mention he was fifteen years younger at the time. Every now and then, the dream of returning to that time in his life was the refuge he sought, void of mistakes and before the secrets became a key ingredient for his survival. He knew too well the man he was, but his family didn't have to. He gazed around the room, reflecting on who he was today, reaffirming that the past was behind him. No room for dwelling on what was or for getting organized. Another impressionable teen entrusted to his care had found her way into his office requiring personal and immediate attention, the kind he was an expert at giving.
"Latoya, I can't permit drinking on school grounds."
"But it wasn't mine," she responded, standing in front of the desk with the timidity of an elementary school student and the body of a high school senior.
"Latoya, I've been more than fair with you, but I can't keep letting you slip past the rules, otherwise the other eight graders will feel like I'm showing you favoritism."
"I don't care what they think," she said in the sultriest voice a fresh new teen wanting to be an adult could muster, while leaving her seat and sauntering around the corner of the desk. She approached the chair with her age eighteen year old-looking hips following behind. He knew how to handle her type.
"It's my job to care, I'm the principal."
"I know but give me another chance," she said not backing away from his chair.
He didn't budge, wasn't the first time he'd found himself in this situation, and most likely wouldn't be the last. He knew exactly what she was after. Staying alert was key. "No more chances Miss Scott. You're suspended for three days."
"What, three days, my mother will kill me."
Sultry turned to a boldness, sure of herself, but he was still determined to let her know he was in charge and meant business this time.There was no doubt in Latoya's mind. Her mother wasn't going to put up with another problem. She'd made that clear. What if her mother finally kicked her out like she'd threatened to do two or three other times? "Please don't suspend me. I can stay after school and do my homework, or clean the classrooms, or anything you want, please anything. Just don't suspend me."
They were all the same, boys, men that were so-called daddys, teachers, those at the church, babysitters, and even family. He was the principal, but she was convinced they could work this little situation out. She'd heard rumors about the principal anyway. He wouldn't be any different, just like all the rest, once she made it easy.
"I'll do anything, anything for you."
"Anything?" he repeated, leaning back in his chair remembering why work and home occupied separate and not so equal spaces in his life, with rarely the two worlds crossing. He'd learned the ability to compartmentalize the thinking, feeling, and loving family man that he was from the machine programmed to survive in the war. What happened in 'Nam, the drips of good and the craters of tragedy, stayed in 'Nam. His family didn't know that man, had never met him and that's how it had to be. Daily he had to make decisions affecting the livelihood of many young students and his family needn't be exposed to the fall out. Looking at Latoya and contemplating his options, he knew what happened at school would stay at school.
Block out the painful sting of reality and concentrate on creating a night of fun, laughter, and a good time -- an oasis away from the damaging attack she and Reese were undergoing. Angela grabbed the shopping list from the seat of her SUV and placed it neatly in her purse. She would concentrate on her parent's anniversary celebration, pushing past the cold reality that there wasn't much worthy of praise in her marriage. If she let go of the party, she'd have nothing positive to hold on to. An hour at the party store was the spark she needed to jumpstart a festive mood, hopefully lasting a few weeks until the next sprig of hope surfaced. Angela pushed a cart down the first aisle, pausing to pull the list from her purse and get a plan of attack established. Invitations were the priority. The event was in four months and family coming from out of town needed plenty of notice.
The rickety, hard to manage cart strolled awkwardly down the aisle under Angela's control. Mayhem and dysfunction were becoming staples in her life. Catching a glimpse of the invitation sign hanging from the ceiling located in the back corner of the store, Angela hurried the cart along, struggling to manage resistance from the disfigured wheel along the way. Without warning, she slammed into another cart crossing the aisle at the intersection, sending the infant into an instant screaming fit.
"Oh, I'm," Angela began to say, and then let her voice go drop."
"Angela, I'm sorry," the woman said extracting her big infant from the cart and drawing him close to her bosom.
Could life get any worse Angela wondered? Couldn't she have an hour at the party store to herself, one hour to try and put the pieces of her life back together? So what if planning the anniversary was a farce, she wanted, no deserved a moment to have what his deception had stolen, a taste of unprecedented happiness. At least the taste she desired wouldn't be a price anyone else had to pay.
"Felicia, I didn't expect to run into you here," or anywhere else she wanted to add but caught the words before they escaped. Standing this close to her wasn't easy. She was trying to be the good Christian wife, daughter, and sister, but it was proving to be more than she could handle. Forget about religion. Reese was relying way too much on her dignity, the part preventing her from going off on him and Ms. Felicia, the woman who was now standing right there in arms reach. She could just strangle her right here and close out that ugly, painful, dark spot in her life.
Felicia wouldn't make consistent eye contact, but continued rubbing the baby's back as he kept both arms tightly wrapped around her neck. "Junior's turning one next month."
A year already, it seemed like only yesterday to Angela when she'd found out about the child, on the other hand, it seemed like an eternity. She struggled to hold her rational thinking together. No matter how much the words sliced to her core, Felicia would never enjoy the benefit of seeing Angela crushed. She was the wife, sitting in the place of dignity and Felicia would never know different. Angela could probably wish the boy a happy birthday. Besides he was an innocent child, who hadn't contributed to the fiasco of events surrounding his birth. Regardless, she couldn't do it, wish Felicia and her baby a happy birthday. Why should she? The two of them, Felicia and the baby, Reese too for that matter, had made her world unbearable this time last year, questioning her worth as a woman and wife and especially her decision to wait a few more years before starting a family. Pretending had its place, looking the other way had it's time too, but lying to this woman, wasn't a farce she cared to engage in. She had to accept reality some time, and this felt like one of those moments.
A warm comfy blanket on a cold dreary night is what his embrace should have felt like, but instead the contact was smothering, agitating. The love Sylvia wanted, she had, but why did the affection feel so wrong?
Her parents were probably home by now, but she could hear their words just like they were in the standing in the room. "Between the two of you, there won't be any place left to hang another award in this family. The two of you are so much alike," she could hear Mom saying.
"That's right. This is Daddy's girl," he echoed with pride pouring out in every word.
"Daddy, I'm almost thirty."
"And when you're sixty you'll still be my little girl."
"Herbert, let's go home and leave these young people on their own," her mother said locking arms with him.
"Okay, okay. Baby girl, I've already told you this twenty times today, but I'm so proud of you. I always knew you'd be a star." He reengaged his hug, tighter this time, and whispered, "You're my favorite, but don't tell anybody. It's our secret."
Those words tore through her body like acid, burning, singeing, violating her flesh and sense of security.
"Sylvia, hello, earth to Sylvia," she heard someone calling out with a raised voice. The talking pricked her consciousness, abruptly terminating what must have been a dream and instantly drawing her back into the room, back into a conversation with her four friends present.
"Where were you," Mike asked taking her hands and drawing her into his embrace.
Her natural reaction was to repel. "Forget about me. You wanted to celebrate, so let's celebrate," she said instantly responding while grabbing a Waterford goblet. "I'm fine.
"Do you have anything in here besides sparkling water and Sprite?" Karen asked.
"No, and at forty dollars per case, the water suits me fine," Sylvia added, shaking off her feeling of unrest and throwing herself into party mode. She couldn't help but think about her sister for a quick moment. Angela was the party planner in the family. Angela would be the one to get a gob of beverages for everyone. She was already planning the menu for their parent's anniversary party, which wasn't until May. Sylvia acknowledged not having the interest or time to pine over a party plan.
"It wouldn't matter to me if this was two hundred dollars a bottle, water is water, and for a party you need something stronger, at least some sparkling cider, wine, or something. You know that, and don't tell me your born-again adventure has changed your taste for wine?"
"Church hasn't changed me," unfortunately, she wanted to say but didn't. Her infrequent visits were most likely a factor, but her friends didn't need to know about her religious challenges. Besides, religion was such a small part of who she was. "I didn't get a chance to run to the store. I didn't know your partying behinds were coming here after the award ceremony."
"I don't know why not. We've been here every other time you've received an award, and with as you've gotten, you should know our routine."
"She knows we practically go every place she does, except church," Karen clarified.
"Yes, you're right. You're on your own with that one. I'm not ready to get my act together," Karen said roaring into laughter. "I like being a, what is it?"
"Heathen," Beth answered.
"Yes indeed, heathen, and loving it," she said opting for a glass of Sprite.
Sylvia took another sip, allowing her body to relax into the moment, feeling secure among her friends, her other family, not to be confused with her bloodline, the Reynolds whom Beth, Tim, Mike, and Karen knew little about. On rare occasions when she'd let them interact with the Reynolds: once at the graduation party after earning her Masters, again when she got her PhD, and maybe at the celebration her family forced on her after winning her first Governor's Award. It was hard to keep track of who knew what and had been where with her family, but Sylvia thought she'd done a better job of shielding her friends from those people. She might not be good at everything, but Sylvia was an expert at keeping the world she shared with her friends far away from the one she tolerated with the Reynolds, all except her father. He wasn't petty and pretentious like the rest of the Reynolds, he was honest and a man she'd been able to rely on all her life, in spite of Angela's drain on her parent's emotions with her in-and-out-of-marriage catastrophe. Enough with her sister's issues, this was her night with her friends in her element.
"Can we forget about drinks, and religion and anything else that's standing in the way of us having a good time," Sylvia suggested.
"That's right. We're here to have some fun," Tim said nudging her shoulder with his, a comfortable touch.
Merriment saturated the living room with abundance sufficient to drive out that lingering, nagging feeling buried deep, deep inside. Heaps of merriment and good times were bound to cover up the annoyance, whatever it was that refused to let her be at peace with her feelings for more than a day, especially when it came to her family.
Another award, more accolades piled on top of a yearning desire to achieve, to please, to emulate her role model and earn the title of special child in his eyes, her daddy, Herbert Reynolds. Sylvia wedged the crystal figurine of a trophy into the remaining space on the mantel.
Mike resumed his attempt to pull her close. This time she bit her lip and let it happen, easier than struggling and far better than having to explain. Besides, she knew how not to resist, a behavior she'd practiced to perfection.