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Six Degrees of Separation: Elyse Meets Erin

My friend “Elyse Lombard” has been living in Boca Raton, along with her entire family, for almost 30 years. For at least the past 10 years, she’s been working in the family moving business as VP of Sales and Marketing, which affords her plenty of opportunities to meet all kinds of people and customers throughout South Florida. She’s also been actively involved in  both the Boca Raton and Delray Beach Chambers of Commerce for as long as I can remember, having met her in early 2001 through a mutual friend.

A mover and shaker, “Elyse” is beautiful, smart, gregarious, charming and hard-working, and her family’s business is well-known and respected in the area. For this reason, it’s often very difficult for her to attend any sort of midday networking events, as she’s typically booked with at least five moving estimates per day. It’s all she can do to keep up with her early-morning leads group meetings at the chambers of commerce — and oftentimes, she exceeds the allowable absences, although she’s never asked to leave because she’s such a great networker.

But one day in January of this year, she was able to attend a luncheon event she’d previously declined when a customer canceled their scheduled appointment. Feeling very strongly that she would bump into “Erin” at this event (a woman she’d never met before), “Elyse” contacted me on the way to the venue to obtain “Erin’s” real name, which I then shared with her.

Did I mention “Elyse” is very intuitive and quite often correct in her hunches?

Later that afternoon, she called to breathlessly inform me that her psychic premonition had been right on target. Even stranger was the way in which it all went down: they didn’t simply “bump” into each other, “Erin” actually strode right up to my friend (who’d been chatting with a few other women) specifically to introduce herself — which is normally the kind of thing good networkers do at such gatherings.

And “Elyse” — in spite of her intuitive awareness — was still quite taken aback when it took place for real. She also thought it rather odd that for someone who’d gone out of her way to initiate an introduction, “Erin” exhibited a strange unfriendliness, a noticeable  aloofness. To the best of my knowledge, she’d had no prior inkling of “Elyse’s” relationship to me, but this description coincided with the one put forth by my photographer friend’s friend — the woman who’d been unhappy with “Erin’s” professional services.

Speaking of which, soon after I hung up the phone with “Elyse”, my photographer friend called me on behalf of her friend — “Erin’s” former, dissatisfied client — to obtain “Elyse’s” phone number. Normally, I’d think nothing of it, but coming on the heels of what had just transpired at the business luncheon, I found it all very curious.

But the story doesn’t end there.

A few weeks later, “Elyse” had the good fortune of being able to attend yet another midday event (again, highly unusual for her), where she just happened to be seated diagonally across from “Erin”. She’d discovered this after greeting another mutual friend (who’d been assigned to the table directly behind her) and exclaiming in her boisterous, effervescent manner “Isn’t it great we’re both gonna be on Daria’s show!”, referring to The Liberty Belle Hour.

When “Elyse” took her seat, “Erin” (whom “Elyse” is fairly certain heard the exchange) kind of gave her a strange look. And apparently, throughout the course of the event, she kept trying to make eye contact with my friend, who kept averting her gaze. If memory serves correctly, I believe they did briefly say hello at some point.

Being the protective “older sister” she is, “Elyse” related her discomfort about the whole interaction and the thought of developing a professional association with “Erin”, but I assured her that business is business; there was no reason to feel awkward about talking to “Erin” at all. I am secure in our enduring friendship and have never been the kind of person who makes unreasonable demands like, “If you’re my friend you won’t talk to so-and-so”, or “If you’re really my friend, you’ll do this or that”. That’s not how I roll. Besides, I’ve done nothing wrong.

If anything, “Erin” should be ashamed of posing as her husband on a social media site and attempting to “trap” an innocent woman whose only “crime” was fictionalizing some real life events into a novel. I might further add that I also put myself through some pretty intense and nearly debilitating heartbreak by pretending to be thrilled when “Ken” asked me point-blank how I felt about his engagement back in 1995 — because I didn’t think it was fair to hurt a woman I didn’t even know.

Would the outcome have been different if I’d been honest with him? Well, as Maddy muses to herself in Chapter 19:

At least the reason for the change in the tone of his calls had been revealed, though Maddy couldn’t quite decipher the timeline of events. Not that it even mattered at this point. She wouldn’t dare hurt a woman she’d never met by coming clean with Ken about her real feelings, about how she still loved him deeply in spite of everything. Even if she did go out on that limb, there was no guarantee he’d return the sentiment, or assuming he did, break off his engagement to Erin to pursue a renewed relationship with her.

One other curious thing that also took place concurrently with the “Erin/Elyse” events I’ve described: another one of my friends happened to come over to my house one night, unexpectedly bearing a particular product that had been on sale at the store, thinking perhaps I could use it. This product just happens to bear the name of the person upon whom “Erin” is loosely based. Very interesting, indeed.

So 2010 certainly started out on an interesting note; funny that this all happened exactly one year after the LinkedIn incident and the Boca Raton Entrepreneur Meetup. In this town, six degrees of separation is simply a way of life.

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LinkedIn, The Star Spangled Banner and the Tea Party Movement

After that little interaction with the nice lady at the networking event, not much else transpired on the “Ken and Erin” front for most of the year.  Armed with new insight into Erin’s integrity, based not only on the LinkedIn email, but also a friend of a friend’s experience with her as a businesswoman, I felt the urgency to steer clear of both of them even more strongly. As I’ve mentioned, I was not out to ruin anyone’s marriage, though the deception displayed by Erin in pretending to be her husband and writing that ridiculous message does make me wonder about the state of their union.

If their marriage was solid and strong, why would a fictionalized novel even have the power to drive her to do something so outrageous in the first place? Did she stop to think about his reaction? Assuming we were having an affair (which I’ve stated is not the case), did she honestly think I’d broadcast it in an email?

Oh yes, Kenny, I want to tell the whole world about your johnson! And while I’m at it, I’ll give them an explicit account of every extramarital tryst we’ve shared, so everyone will know what we’ve been up to!

I mean, it’s simply absurd.

Now one thing I do remember about “Ken” is that like me, he can be overly sensitive; he can also  transform from fun-loving and full-of-life to angry and defensive if he feels hurt or betrayed by someone else’s behavior. I can’t imagine he reacted well upon receiving my forwarded email of the original request, and can only surmise that at the very least, they had one heck of a fight about it. Speaking for myself, if my husband had logged onto a website using my credentials in an effort to “trap” an old boyfriend, that alone would infuriate me.

And if she really thought it possible that he’d been cheating, why not confront him about it directly and calmly? Why add insult to injury by being deceptive?

Looking back, I guess I must’ve salvaged a Christmas Holiday for her, because it took me until the day before New Year’s Eve to even respond, that’s how taken aback I was.

But as 2009 unfolded, I concentrated exclusively on promoting my book, co-hosting internet talk shows, getting involved in the grassroots Tea Party Movement, editing for clients, blogging and otherwise avoiding any potential run-ins with Ken and Erin, either in cyberspace or in real life. Funny, but I’ve lived just two miles away from them all these years and have never once spontaneously bumped into either one, ever.

But in December of 2009, I received an email from “Ken” (who’d also included some pretty big media names in the distribution, like Sean Hannity). This time, it was nothing personal, just a copy of his email response to a stupid liberal sportswriter who thought it was a great idea to eliminate the singing of The Star Spangled Banner at professional sporting events. By this time I’d been contributing regularly to Parcbench, Canada Free Press and my other blog, Palin Drone. I have a pretty good idea that “Ken” had been checking out my posts and hence, thought I could get his editorial letter additional exposure, which I did. I’m sure he also knew it was a hot-button topic for me; one that I would not be able to resist commenting about.

So perhaps knowing I shared his passion for the subject and the USA, he’d sent this to me as a way of re-establishing communication? Who knows. But it did give me a great idea for a story, which in the end was published on the Parcbench site. I am also incorporating it into my sequel, Sea To Shining Sea, as a letter Ken writes to the editor, because it fits in perfectly with the plot and themes unfolding in that story.

“Ken’s” request for distribution led to a series of cordial email communications — none of which so much as mentioned Water Signs — prompting me to use the opportunity to set the record straight about the LinkedIn debacle. In very clear terms, I recounted the entire story of how I’d put all of the pieces together, which ultimately verified my initial gut instincts. He replied that he never uses LinkedIn much at all (we have that in common, too) and confirmed “It sounds like you have figured out that it was not me”.

And I was relieved to finally get it out in the open. For whatever reason, it was bugging me that — as far as he knew — I still believed that tacky, immature email came from him and not his wife. For that matter, I wanted her to be aware that I was on to her little schemes, and in fact, told him forthrightly I “wanted this nonsense to stop”.  And it has.

However, social media would prove to be revealing on other ways as far as these two were concerned. More on that in my next post.

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Intriguing Events, Post Publication

A few weeks after Labor Day 2008, and the conversation I described with “Ken” in my last post, I finally published Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal. A while back, I discussed the evolution of the novel in great detail, explaining the unexpected event in early 2008 that ignited the creative process, but also the vision I’d had of a book I knew I’d one day write, back in 1994. Even all those years ago, I had the title in mind: Water Signs. Somewhere in the four-month frenzy of pounding away at the keyboard every weeknight and and every weekend, the subtitle, A Story of Love and Renewal, popped into my head.

Ultimately, the novel is a literal and metaphorical journey for my two main characters, who are renewed physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally at the end of 16 long, grueling years. The word “love” applies not just to their feelings for each other, but also love of God, family and country. As my Facebook ad reads:

In this tale of first love and second chances, author Daria DiGiovanni takes readers on an inspiring journey of faith and soul renewal.

And of course, out of love springs forgiveness — something we all need as fallen human beings — which allows for the renewal of the important relationships in the book  including Ken and Madeline, Ken and his father Carl, Madeline and her mother Monica, and Madeline and her first boyfriend, Jake (though for her, it’s a forgive and move on kind of experience — not an event that leads to regular communication).

When I excitedly published the finished product on the internet, I’d hoped my first novel’s many intricately woven themes, lovable characters and heart-wrenching events would resonate with my readers. I also chose a happy ending for Ken and Madeline because I wanted Water Signs to stand as a testament to the power of love, faith and belief. At the same time, I knew I was going to write a sequel and I wanted to pick up with Ken and Madeline as a newlywed couple who, although very much in love, would face even more formidable obstacles, but this time as a united front — not as individuals acting as catalysts in each other’s personal and spiritual development.

That Labor Day weekend conversation was the last one I’ve had to date with “Ken”, and as of this very moment, we’ve never discussed or mentioned Water Signs, post-publication (not even via email, though as I will explain, there have been a few of those). I can only assume he obtained the book and read it, after all of the build-up I’d given it. Speaking for myself, if I knew a writer had immortalized me in fiction, I’d sure as heck get a copy of the work as soon as it was available. And knowing he was “flattered” by the whole concept, I have no doubt he’s read it.

However, as per one of my primary motivations for contacting him, I’d hoped if he’d gone online and purchased a copy, he’d had it mailed to his office and not his home. I tried to impress upon him the fact that there were aspects of the book that would not go over well with members of his family, especially his wife — and not simply the fact that Ken divorces Erin and eventually marries Madeline.

I’ve noted that Erin is mostly based on a stereotype, not so much a real person, though an actual woman provided the initial inspiration for the character. However, in the opening chapters of Part Two, there are many factual elements put forth that — shall we say — would not go over too well with “Ken’s” spouse (and without an understanding of my motivation for turning the character into a self-absorbed princess, the Boca Babe thing wouldn’t exactly be welcome, either).

For example, in Chapter 19, Ken surprises Madeline at her apartment one Saturday morning to share some significant news, a scene that is faithful to the way it all went down in real life:

She’d just finished applying her make-up and pulling her long hair into a ponytail when a knock on the door startled her. It was only 8:30 in the morning on a Saturday. Who on earth would be stopping by so early? A moment later that question was answered dramatically when she opened the door of her Boca Del Mar residence to find Ken standing before her, dressed in his work attire; his typical smile betrayed a trace of nervousness. Maddy nearly fainted at the sight of him, though she maintained a façade of nonchalance.

“Ken! What are you doing here?”

“Hey, I’ve been wanting to talk to you. I have some news to tell you but I wanted to do it in person.”

“You’re engaged,” she stated matter-of-factly as she closed the door behind him and offered him a seat on the couch.

“Yes!” he replied, awestruck. How did she know? And why was she so calm?

Utterly defeated, Maddy nevertheless kept a sunny expression on her face while her stomach began to churn in distress. She willed it back into submission as he went on, barely able to look into her deep, brown eyes.

“Um, I finally decided that I didn’t want to live in sin any longer than I had to,” he explained. “She didn’t either, so we got engaged back in September. We went up north to share the news with our families. My parents were happy, her parents were happy. But right now she and I are having a little problem. See, she’s a bit insecure because she’s an older woman—well, not older, but she’s a few years older than me.

“Anyway, it all started on Valentine’s Day. I had to work both jobs so we never got to spend any time real time together and—Madeline I am just not good at relationships!”

Hoping his admission would act as an entrée into a profound conversation about the two of them, Ken was disappointed when his plaintive sigh was met with silence. As usual, Maddy was at a loss for words at a critical juncture. She couldn’t determine if he was seeking counsel from her as his newly minted “buddy” or trying to convey something more significant. Either way, she wasn’t willing to oblige.

“To make matters worse,” he went on, “She wasn’t happy with what I bought her. I got her a pair of rollerblades—”

“Oh, I learned how to do that!” Madeline exclaimed. “My friends from the dance studio taught me; we have the best time at the park in Pompano. It’s actually much easier than I expected. I love it!” She was hoping to take the discussion in a new direction to remove the image of Ken pledging his love and fidelity to another woman in front of God and witnesses from her mind. Besides, it was the truth. Rollerblading was second only to dancing and swimming now on her list of preferred recreation.

“Good for you,” he complimented, puzzled by her reaction. “It is fun, isn’t it?”

“And it’s great exercise,” she added. Then for effect, “Gosh I’d be thrilled with a new pair of rollerblades, whether for Valentine’s Day or any other occasion!”

She recalled the beautiful sweater she’d purchased for him on Valentine’s two years back—a gift she’d given to her brother Greg after he stood her up for their ski date. A comment Ken had made sometime prior to that about Valentine’s Day being a “Hallmark Holiday” suddenly came to mind. Slowly, anger began to replace heartbreak, though she continued to listen politely.

“Yeah well unfortunately, Erin didn’t think rollerblades were a good choice. She accused me of not caring for her, of not having time for her. Anyway, we’re just going through a tough time right now, but I’m sure we’ll be alright.”

“Yes, you will,” Maddy affirmed while the voice inside her head kept repeating the mantra, I am a tower of strength, I am a tower of strength, over and over again. Then he hit her with an unexpected query. “Now how do you feel?” he asked nervously.

How the hell do you think I feel Kenny? You were the one calling and crying on the phone for nearly two years about how much you loved me and missed me; the one who practically begged me to move here in the first place; and the one who kept your live-in girlfriend a secret until there was no turning back! How the hell do you think I feel after uprooting my entire life, hurting my family and having to face the consequences of a misinformed decision alone? How could you deceive me like that? Is this some sort of payback for hurting you?

Granted, this all happened in 1995, but still, if she’d had no knowledge of her husband’s conversation with me previously — one in which he’d confided such personal details of their relationship — would it make her angry? “We didn’t want to live in sin anymore” as a primary factor for getting married, not “I am madly in love with this woman and I can’t wait to marry her”? Wouldn’t make me feel too good.

How about this:

“She kind of depends on me,” he explained. “She has a good job and everything, but most of the people in the office have kids so they’re busy with their families. And of course, most of them live in Miami anyway. But I know you two would get along so well. You could go out shopping, go to the beach or just do whatever girls do when they get together.”

Believe me, I was sick inside just listening to him ramble on that day about the possibility of Erin and I becoming great friends, and I did my best to convey that via Madeline’s reaction. But “survival mode” had already kicked in, so I’d put on the performance of my life, pretending to be happy for him (something I’d finally admitted to him during one of our phone conversations…more on that later).

In Chapter 23, Maddy has a very real and altogether heart-shattering dream about Kenny breaking off his engagement, which is also straight out of real life:

Suddenly, a knock on the door startled her. After throwing on a short robe, she answered it to see Kenny’s smiling face. “Can I come in Maddy?” he asked. “I really have to talk to you!”

“Ken, come on now, you shouldn’t be here!” she admonished him forcefully.“Please, sweetheart? I have something really important to share with you!” His sparkling blue eyes pleaded with her earnestly.

“Oh, ok,” she agreed. “But please, make it quick; I have a busy day tomorrow.” He entered the living room and sat down on the couch before motioning for her to join him. Against her better judgment, she sat down, tightening the belt of her robe as she did so.

“Maddy I wanted you to be the first to know I broke off my engagement to Erin. There was no way I could marry her when I am in love with someone else.” Her heart jumped to her throat as she struggled to digest this shocking but welcome news. For a moment, she was speechless. That’s when Ken took her hand in his and leaned in close to her.

“I love you, Madeline Rose. You’re the woman I want. No one else comes close to you. Please forgive me for hurting you! I am so very sorry.”

“Kenny, of course I forgive you,” she cried, throwing her arms around him. “I love you, too, so much!”

“Oh my God!” he laughed. “I am the luckiest man alive! And in the very near future, I am going to make you my bride, just like I’ve always promised!”

“Oh, Kenny, I can’t wait to be your wife,” she sighed, before they melted into a passionate kiss.

And, just as it happened for real back in 1995, a few days later Ken shows up again unexpectedly at her apartment door:

By the time early afternoon rolled around, she’d finished her chores and had changed into her bathing suit and cover-up. She was busily placing a towel, a magazine and a few bottles of water into her canvas tote bag when a knock at the door took her by surprise. Her heart lurched when she opened it to find Kenny standing before her, smiling in his typical fashion, dressed in shorts and a tee shirt. It bothered her that in spite of all the pain he’d inflicted, her body still tingled at the mere sight of him. Suddenly, she remembered the dream she’d recently had about him breaking off his engagement.

“Ken! I must say, this is an unexpected surprise!” She endeavored to remain cordial and calm, while keeping her hopes in check.

“Hey, how are you doing, Maddy? Can I come in?”

Uh, I guess there’s no harm in that,” she replied lightly, offering him a seat and a cold bottle of water. Was it her imagination or did he possess the unmistakable aura of a defeated man?

There was no sparkle, no luster in his aquamarine eyes, which appeared to be lost in thought as he stared off into the distance. And as he held the bottle of Zephyrhills in his hands, he leaned forward on the couch as if grappling with an unspoken, internal conflict.

“Is everything ok?” she inquired, settling in at a safe distance beside him. “You seem a bit preoccupied.”

“Huh? Oh yeah, everything’s fine. It’s just that—well I guess I’ve turned into my father after all,” he sighed. Madeline wasn’t quite sure what to make of that statement, though it hardly coalesced with the profile of a happily engaged man eager to exchange vows with his beloved. What exactly was he trying to convey?

“Oh,” she responded softly, recalling the difficulties he and his dad had endured in the course of their relationship. Though they’d seemed to patch things up that New Year’s Day at her house in Pennsylvania, Maddy had no idea where things stood with them at this point.

“Well is that such a bad thing?” she asked.

Kenny turned to face her, staring deeply into her amber eyes, nearly causing her to tumble to the floor.

“I hope the excitement comes back after Erin and I are married,” he confessed.

Yes, the lines uttered here are the same ones the real guy spoke to me way back when, while I remained guarded and unable to express my genuine feelings. I couldn’t believe he was admitting to a lack of excitement in his relationship with Erin to me, although something deep inside told me that “Ken” was hell-bent and determined to go through with the wedding as planned.

One thing I’m pretty sure of is that “Erin” had no knowledge of this conversation, which was yet another reason why I tried to encourage him not to share the novel with his wife. I wasn’t out to harm their marriage; just cooperating in a creative process that would not be denied.

In any case, I am certain anyone reading this post understands why — with just the few examples I’ve cited — flesh-and-blood Erin would be furious should she ever obtain a copy of Water Signs. And as with her husband, I can’t state with 100% accuracy that she did — though some very interesting things took place in December of that same year that would seem to confirm this to be so.

I just never thought she’d log onto her husband’s LinkedIn account, pretend to be him and ask me for a “reference”.

More intrigue to come involving “big johnsons”, Pennsylvania cookbooks and a photography session!

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Reflections on Real Life Versus Fiction: Ken’s Question

For someone who’s been in the habit of journaling for nearly all of my life, it’s strange I did not take the time to write about the emotional phone conversations I shared with “Ken” in the months preceding the release of Water Signs. Perhaps because I was so busy channeling all of the energy and feeling into a fictionalized version of events, I didn’t believe it necessary. Besides, there is no way I’d ever forget them, no matter how hard I tried. For good or ill, the selective amnesia phase of my life is definitely over.

And given the personal, surprising nature of what I am about to share in this post, it would be damned near impossible to force myself to forget.

Sometime in July of 2008 — two months before the book was on the market — “Ken” and I made plans to meet for coffee one night after work, against my better judgment. While my heart wanted nothing more than to see him in person for the first time in approximately 13 years, my head kept telling me this was not such a great idea. In fact, it was a really bad one. Keep in mind, unlike the novel, “Ken” was still very much a married man.

And although as I’d admonished him “I hadn’t lost my moral compass” or my steadfast belief in right and wrong (to nip any erroneous notion of my motive for contacting him/writing the book in the bud, i.e. the desire for an affair), I still didn’t see any good reason to put myself in a potentially gut-wrenching and/or tempting situation. After all, I was not superhuman — I was a flawed human being, a woman who was just beginning to understand and appreciate the magnitude of my feelings for this man and the depths of the sorrow we’d inflicted upon each other (though he has me beat in this area; I never pretended my fiancé was my “platonic” roommate, knowing full well someone was relocating their entire life to be with me).

Still, I did sincerely apologize for the hurtful “Dear John” letter I’d mailed him all those years ago, under duress to end the relationship by a well-meaning, but nevertheless misguided parent. It tore me up when during one phone conversation, he described in great detail exactly where he’d been when he’d read it; his anguish was palpable as he relived the memory of standing in his living room in absolute pain, hurt and anger.

And all I could do was say I was sorry. I count this episode among one of the very few things I’d change if God allowed us to travel back in time. Regrets, I’ve had a few — and this is definitely one of them. But I’ve also forgiven the naive, confused 25-year old young woman who’d written that letter because she no longer wished to be the cause of discord between her parents. For that matter, I’ve long forgiven my mom, too.

This aspect of real life is explored in Chapter 13:

“No thanks, I’m not hungry,” she informed her mother, before rolling over to face Lori’s closet. Wasn’t it enough that she’d caved into unreasonable demands and broken Kenny’s heart? She was also expected to carry on as if he’d never existed? Here it was, the night before Thanksgiving and all she wanted to do was crawl under the covers, crying over what might have been; for all she knew, she could’ve been spending the long weekend with Kenny’s family in Ventnor, or driving and laughing with him in the car as they toured suburban Philadelphia on rambling, country roads. Instead here she was, lonely, frustrated, sad and angry—mostly at herself.

After all, Dad, Lori and Greg had all taken her side, offering complete support and encouraging her to follow her heart. Dad had even stressed on more than one occasion that Maddy could always talk to him whenever she felt the need. There was no question that, had she proceeded with the relationship, Mom would’ve accepted it eventually. But Maddy was self-aware enough to acknowledge the truth—she’d used her mother’s disapproval as an escape route when her own intense feelings for Ken had become too frightening to handle.

Looking down at the gold Pisces pendant in her hand, Maddy thought back to that beautiful weekend, and their romantic dinner at The Ship Inn. He had such an incredible way of making her feel as if she was the only woman in a room; being with him had been so easy. No pangs of inadequacy, borne out of some misguided notion of failing to live up to the accomplishments of her ambitious family. Ken saw her as that rare and complete woman—smart, beautiful, principled and sweet. She was everything he never thought he’d find. And towards the end, he’d nearly accomplished the impossible by edging Maddy ever so closer to seeing what had been clear to him from day one.

Anyway, when the idea of an after-work get-together presented itself, an internal battle raged within (should I or shouldn’t I?), though I ultimately agreed to it. Later that same night, “Ken” even emailed his confirmation on the date, place and time; he’d also been very forthcoming about his busy life as a sales executive with days that typically started at 8 a.m. and didn’t end until 8 p.m.

About two days before our scheduled coffee date, I received another email expressing his regret that — due to the fact that some corporate bigwig was flying into Fort Lauderdale the same day we’d arranged our little soirée  — he’d have to cancel. That his weekly Happy Hour ritual with local management had now transformed into a mandatory dinner with the big boss. And while this explanation seemed plausible, even probable, I knew instinctively it was not the real reason for his cold feet: based on our heart-tugging telephone correspondences I surmised that the real, raw emotion we’d mutually dredged up was also a significant factor, maybe even the only one.

Trust me, I was relieved. There was no good reason to break my heart all over again, and I knew that laying eyes on him once more in  person — with his piercing blue eyes; beautiful smile; masculine build; and deep, baritone voice — would only make me sadder about what might have been. It was one thing to verbally clear out past issues; quite another to stare at each other awkwardly over cappuccino in  a local cafe. Then there was the not-so-insignificant matter of someone seeing us in a town where there are six degrees of separation. Innocent or not, given our history this meeting would’ve been highly inappropriate.

Six weeks went by with no word from “Ken”. In my return email, I’d never mentioned anything about rescheduling; I simply wished him luck with his business obligations. On the Friday afternoon of Labor Day weekend (just weeks before the novel’s release), I’d just arrived home from work when my cell phone rang. The conversation went something like this:

“Ken”: “Daria, I needed to talk to you, to tell you the real  reason why I canceled our meeting.”

Me: “Do I need to sit down for this?”

“Ken”: “I’ve been having these very real, very explicit, passionate dreams about you, and it’s really freaking me out.”

Me: (heart in my throat) “Oh.”

“Ken”: “And the thing is, I don’t even remember you being that attracted to me. I mean, I was the 25 year-old guy with raging hormones and you — well, you just never seemed that into me. And yet in these dreams I’m having, you –”

Me: “Ok Ken, I get the picture.”

“Ken”: “So, I just can’t see you right now; I am just not ready to revisit that idea”.

Me: “To be honest with you, I’m not either. I was kind of glad when you canceled — not that I don’t want to see you, just that I see no reason to put myself through that. And one of us is married, so it’s not right.”

From there it evolved into another emotional exchange with “Ken” telling me how wonderful I was, how much he’s missed me, etc. At one point he asked if he could call me again, to which I replied:

“It’s a free country, Ken, and I can’t stop you from calling me. However, I can’t guarantee that when you do call, I will pick up the phone. I have to think about myself, too. And this is beginning to feel like emotional adultery. I’m glad we got to clear the air, but as long as you’re committed to another woman, we really shouldn’t speak to each other.”

To which he responded  by saying, “That’s what makes you so cool.” (Yeah, that’s me. A real cool cat!)

I should also mention that my heart was pounding furiously throughout the duration of this little exchange, which ended abruptly when he started to get choked up, before mumbling something about driving in traffic and hanging up the phone.

Still reeling, I took out the trash, retrieved my mail and tried to regain my composure. That’s when I noticed a voice mail message on my cell phone:

“Daria, it’s me again.  Please call me back — I have one more question to ask you and it’s the most difficult question of all. Don’t worry, it’ s not about getting together. Like I said, I am not ready to revisit that concept just yet (muffled laugh). Just please call me.”

And here, dear readers, is where we have another convergence of fact and fiction.

In Chapter 18, Ken, now a recently relocated resident of South Florida, dials Maddy’s number to initiate yet another dialogue about the wonders of his new state and the possibility of her joining him in his excellent adventure. Over a year has passed since they’ve seen each other, and Ken has a very pressing matter on his mind:

“Thank God I’m not the only one,” he replied softly. “Maddy, can I ask you something; please don’t get mad at me, but it’s just something I need to know.”

“What?” She braced for the query.

“Are you still a virgin?”

“Kenny! I can’t believe you’re asking me that!” For a moment, she thought about sharing all of her dating horror stories, but quickly decided against it; she wasn’t ready to give him the satisfaction of knowing he still ruled her heart.

“C’mon, Maddy, it’s me you’re talking to here; please just tell me.” His voice remained steady and calm.

“Fine—yes, if you must know! Yes, I am still a virgin! Does that make you happy?”

“Yes, because I still want to be your first—and only,” he confirmed softly. That led to another long silence as Maddy contemplated this simultaneously uplifting and confusing piece of information.

“Kenny,” she finally said, “I-I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Say you want it to,” he pleaded.

“I do, but it’s just not that easy,” she sighed.

While for dramatic purposes, I embellished and altered this real-life exchange in the interest of more compelling fiction, the virginity question was indeed posed by both flesh-and-blood Ken and character Ken.

Almost 15 years after he’d made the original query, “Ken” called me back on that Labor Day weekend afternoon specifically to repeat the question. Bear in mind, we’d already disconnected the call amid a wave of overwhelming emotion, so for him to redial my number strictly for this purpose was a little unsettling. It was also deja vue, only this time we were both living in The Sunshine State.

I’d like to say I acted coyly, or simply announced with some indignation that my sexual status was none of his concern, but after first nervously laughing in reaction (and remembering the “first time” he’d asked me years ago), I was so taken off-guard that I gave a much more detailed answer than was necessary or prudent.

I did however, ask why it was so important to him — being a married man and all. To this day, I am not sure if I am buying his response, but it went something like:

“Sex is such a great part of life and you’re such a wonderful woman I just wanted to make sure you’re not missing out.”

Coming on the heels of canceling our coffee date due to “passionate dreams” about me, admitting he’s not ready to see me in person and having the audacity to inquire about my love life, this just didn’t come across as an honest answer. It also confirmed that, as long as “Ken” was choosing to remain united in the bonds of marriage with another woman, this had to be the absolute last time we’d ever speak. One thing I knew for certain: if I was a married woman, I would not be too happy if I knew my husband was participating in such intimate conversations with an old flame.

But in the age of the internet, there’s always email — and social media. And I would soon discover that “Ken’s” spouse was not above using a little LinkedIn deception to make a little mischief of her own.

More intrigue to come in another post.


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Random Thoughts on the Writing Process

A good Facebook friend and aspiring author/writer recently asked for my advice regarding the length of chapters. Is it something predetermined before even putting thoughts to paper (or keyboard to monitor)? Or is it advisable to just write and see how it all plays out?

An excellent question for sure, and one for which I am not entirely certain there is a correct answer. As I’ve noted many times, the process by which I wrote Water Signs was highly unusual and most likely, unrepeatable. In another post, I described the circumstances that opened the floodgate of memories that led to the steady stream of consciousness that ultimately resulted in a 435-page novel. The words literally came through me from a higher place, and in most cases, I didn’t have to consciously or deliberately think about the mundane mechanics of the work itself. I intuitively knew when to end one chapter and begin another — though most ended up being 20 pages or so in length.

With Sea To Shining Sea, I am attempting quite deliberately to maintain that 20-page chapter limit, since it was very effective the first time around. But there’s a little more to it than that. For example, one of the literary techniques I employed successfully in Water Signs was flashback — whether to an event long-ago or in the recent past. So I would in effect, finish a chapter — leading the reader to believe they knew everything there was to know about the events contained therein, only to discover some new insights about the same event(s) in the next chapter. This helped to create a little more intrigue and drama.

Keep in mind also that I am a creative type who knew from the start I wasn’t going to follow the traditional publishing path, i.e. jump through all kinds of hoops to entice a literary agent, including conducting research on my genre at a book store. With the advent of Print-on-Demand and social media, I realized that a new and wondrous vehicle to reach  my audience and achieve success awaited me. So I was pretty much unconcerned with “trivial” things like chapter length, outline, competing titles and authors within my category, market research and all of the other things publishing houses obsess over (and demand that their potential authors research on their own time, with no guarantee of getting the contract anyway).

So put me in the “just write it” camp. You can always go back and edit later. Write from the heart and get ‘er done. That’s my advice.

While we’re on the topic, some other fascinating things occurred during the evolution of Water Signs — and here’s where the fusion of fact and fiction was at its most enjoyable. When I determined (somewhere around Chapter Eight) that this book was actually going to come into being very soon, I decided to take a proactive approach and search for the person who inspired Ken. For the record, my best friend (on whom the character of Elyse is based, and the same one who was there when I had the reading that ended my selective amnesia about this guy) thought it was a terrible idea.  In fact, she tried her best to talk me out of it. Ironically, she’s bumped into “Erin” unexpectedly a few times this year at business functions — something that had never happened before in all of her 25 years of living in Boca Raton. But I will discuss that at length when I explore the female friendships of Water Signs.

I am not sure if stubbornness is also a Pisces trait, or merely a personality foible, but I am the kind of person who — once I make a decision about something — cannot be convinced otherwise. For good or bad, I’m in.

So just like Madeline in Chapter 27 (after having a reading similar to the real ones I experienced, though altered a bit for dramatic purposes) sits down and pens a letter to Ken, I did the same with “Ken”. Though taken from real life, the one readers discover is a little more flowery and poetic than the one I wrote:

Dear Ken,

How are you? I can’t even imagine how you might feel right now, holding this letter in your hand. I mean, how long has it been? About a million years? And yet in so many ways, it feels like yesterday.

I don’t know what it is about 2008, but ever since this year began, I have had a palpable feeling that everything was coming full circle somehow. It took me a few months to realize exactly what that meant, but now I have no doubt it involves you—and some important things I’d left undone and unsaid. Things you really need to know.

It’s strange that you would be on my mind now; I can’t explain why this is suddenly the case since I hadn’t thought about you much at all over the years. For my own survival, I’d willfully blocked you out of my thoughts to the point where it was as if you never existed in the first place. There was just no way I could’ve been your friend, not in any sort of active way, at least. It was just too painful to see you with another woman, so I did the only thing I could do. You made your choice; I made mine. I even concocted a story to tell people whenever they would ask me why I moved to Florida. And the mind is such a powerful thing that I actually believed it myself.

Look, I know it is ancient history, but I am so very sorry for everything I ever said or did to hurt you. You were so good to me, so kind and caring. If I had a time machine, I am certain I would go back and make very different decisions where you were concerned. If I could go back with the knowledge I have now, I would understand just what I’d had in you. In many ways, you were so much more mature. You saw qualities within me that I was unable or unwilling to see for myself. And I never truly appreciated that.

You once told me that I inspired you; but the truth is you inspired me, too. I never realized just what a catalyst you have been in my life. These last fourteen years have been an incredible personal and spiritual growth journey, one that would not have been possible without you. While I’ve endured some pretty traumatic experiences (along with good ones), I can see now how every seemingly insurmountable obstacle, every hour of darkness, every tear shed in moments of anguish, have all contributed to making me the mature, self-adjusted woman I am today.

There are absolutely incredible people in my life that I am blessed to call friends, my writing career is finally in full swing and my health is excellent (warm weather definitely agrees with me). Perhaps most significantly, my faith is stronger than it has ever been in my entire life. I owe all of this to you. Ken, you opened my eyes. You made me realize that the world—my world—was more expansive and wonderful than I’d ever imagined.

This may or may not be appropriate, but I want you to know that no man before or after you has ever treated me with the same amount of respect, affection and concern. Sadly, at 25, I didn’t know what I had. You were everything I didn’t know I wanted. Yes, hindsight, as they say, really is 20/20. And no matter where you are or what you are doing, I hope it makes you feel good to know just how much you have positively impacted my life. At least, that is the intention of this letter.

Anyway, I am sure you are an awesome father, and I pray that you are well and happy. Take care of yourself and God bless!

Madeline

In this same chapter, I employed the literary technique of juxtaposition, to create more intrigue throughout the sections following the letter, which is where it also becomes a fusion of fact and fiction. Just like Maddy, I believed it safer to mail the letter to the home of the guy’s parents, who happen to live in the same town. But since I had no way of knowing how it all went down from there,  I had to use my imagination. Thus, in the very next scene, Ken’s mother Paula Lockheart is engaged in an active power-walk in her neighborhood, while musing about all of the recent events in her son’s life. This is also where we learn of Paula’s deep-seated affection and love for her son:

Paula Lockheart looked at her pedometer and picked up the pace as she conducted her customary late-morning power walk. An attractive woman in her late-60’s, she was diligent about remaining active and eating right to maintain good health. After all, she had two adorable grandchildren to see into adulthood. And now that her youngest son had endured a bitter custody battle and an acrimonious divorce, she was more determined than ever to support him and his offspring.

She’d always been so proud of Ken; from the time he was a little boy, he’d been her most affectionate and devoted son. Even as a newborn, she’d noticed something different—and wonderful—about her “baby.” His soulful blue eyes showcased a natural exuberance and passion for life. And despite their modest means, she knew from the very beginning that her fourth and last child was destined to be a success in every sense of the word.

So when she bumps into her mailman and enters her air-conditioned home with a stack of mail, she’s intrigued by the pink envelope addressed to her son, conspicuously missing the name of the sender, although bearing a return address. By this time, we’ve also found out that Paula is an intuitive mother who nevertheless makes it a practice to refrain from interfering in her children’s lives. Using more flashback, I have the character reminisce about Ken’s heart-wrenching dilemma many years prior when “the girl from Media” shocked him by actually relocating to Florida. Engaged to another woman, we learn that Ken had met his mother at the Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier to talk things out. And true to her nature, a sympathetic Paula listens but does not offer any advice other than to follow his heart.

The Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier, one of the places my characters head to when trying to solve a difficult challenge or make a heart-wrenching decision.

All of this, dear readers, is a product of my imagination, conjured up at this particular juncture of the story to flesh out the character of Paula Lockheart (whom we’d only known through Ken up to this point), and clue readers in to some other previously unknown events that had taken place.

However, Ken’s reaction to the news, and Madeline’s concurrent visit to Disney World with her mother is a blend of fact and fiction. In real life, my mom and I took a few days to head to Orlando during one of her visits here to South Florida. We’d left on a Sunday and came back on a Wednesday night, making the 2 1/2 hour trip via car. And the night we got back, I listened to my voice mail and discovered a message from “Ken”, recorded on the Sunday of our departure (so I must’ve just missed him) and apprising me of his mom’s calling to inform him of the letter.

But the little fantasy he plays out in his mind while waiting to leave the voicemail is an example of creative license on the part of the author:

Ken felt his heart pound in his chest as he listened to the familiar ring tone and eagerly anticipated hearing the sounds of her sweet voice again. A few moments later he did, though it was via voicemail, and not the live version: Hi, this is Madeline Rose. I can’t take your call right now, but it is really important to me. Please leave me a message and I promise to return your call just as soon as I can. Talk to you soon and have a great day!

As her outgoing message played, he felt for the first time in over fifteen years the welcome bolt of electricity igniting his soul and coursing through his body; suddenly, it was 1992 again, and he and Maddy were making out on his waterbed, while the moonlight filtered through the skylight above them.

His hands caressed her face as he gazed into her expressive amber eyes. Nestled beneath his body, he could feel her heart beating fast while he placed his lips tenderly on hers, and then eventually tasted the sweetness of her mouth with his soft, subtle tongue. Maddy sighed, returning his advances with equal amounts of passion and fervor. In the background, the sensual sounds of their favorite music amplified their desires, steadily leading them on a mesmerizing path of fulfillment for body, mind and soul.

“Kenny?” Her voice was a mere whisper as he nibbled at her ear. He brought his face close to hers.

“Yes?” Her fingers traced the waves of his blond hair as she made her request.

“I want you to make love to me.”

Happily stunned, but wanting to confirm the words he’d been longing to hear ever since meeting her, he studied her face for a moment before asking, “You sure, sweetheart? ‘Cause you know I’d like nothing better than to make passionate love to you all night. I just need to know it’s what you really want, too. Otherwise, it won’t—”

Madeline answered him with a kiss that left him breathless as he proceeded to slowly unbutton her blouse to reveal her delicate, porcelain skin and the black lace of her bra. He began to trace kisses down her neck, working his way down to the curve of her breasts as he gently moved his hands over her. In the next moment, he carefully slid the garment off of her body and shifted her on top of him as he moved onto his back in one smooth move.

With her auburn hair cascading past her shoulders and her fair skin gleaming in the soft light, she far exceeded any vision of beauty he’d previously held in mind, both as an adolescent and a young man sailing around the world. He reached around her back to unhook the last trace of clothing from her chest, barely able to contain his excitement as delicious thoughts of finally seeing and experiencing every inch of her petite, curvy body conflicted with genuine concern for this being her very first time, and his desire to make it as beautiful for her as possible.

The whole concept of the “first time” is one that weaves its way throughout the entire novel because it is inextricably intertwined with the traditional values the characters espouse — which are simultaneously a cause of tension and heartbreak via Ken and Madeline’s  inability to communicate effectively with each other.

Back to the voicemail.

The one Ken records in the novel is almost identical to the one “Ken” left for me. And the conversation the characters have the next morning — the first in several years — is faithful to the actual event.

More on the fusion of fact and fiction in my next post.

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More On The Men of Water Signs

In Maddy’s Men, I explored the fictional male characters Maddy dates before and after Ken’s entrance into her life — all of whom were based on actual people and circumstances. With this follow-up post, I want to touch upon one not previously mentioned, and expand upon one I already covered, Mark Donnelly, since the character merits more than two paragraphs. Ironically, he is also connected to Tag Russell, both in real life and fiction. It’s only through flashback however, that readers learn of this association.

Chapter 26 opens with Madeline approaching the Guard Gate at Journey’s End, a lovely community of single-family homes in Lake Worth, Florida. Her dear friend Audrey Solomon (based on an actual person, my treasured friend Martha J. Solomon) has arranged a luncheon in Maddy’s honor, to celebrate her new work promotion as a Content Manager for an e-marketing firm in downtown Fort Lauderdale (in another post, I will explain how this is a fusion of fact and fiction).

Being in the neighborhood again reminds Madeline of another joyful memory — that of her 40th Birthday Party, which took place in the Journey’s End Clubhouse:

Though initially not quite thrilled about reaching that particular milestone, Maddy perked up when she and Audrey developed the celebration’s original theme, incorporating a lifetime of the birthday girl’s most cherished things, from the Philadelphia Eagles to Italian wedding cookies. The catered event also included a deejay and personalized decorations,  including Madame Alexander dolls, original “books” written by Madeline as a child, and even well-placed packages of Tastykakes.

And yes, the above paragraph is true-to-life; Marti (Audrey) gave me the idea  for the party’s theme as we sat around the kitchen table over coffee one night at her house. As one creative idea led to another, I kind of got over the significant “number” aspect of the birthday, choosing instead to celebrate all of the people, places and events that had shaped my life up to that point. Besides, a girl can never get tired of hearing people say, “You’re how old? You look like you’re about 28!

Also true: my collection of Madame Alexander dolls; two journals I’d used to write my first “books” as a nine-year-old, complete with illustrations; Philadelphia Eagles & Phillies memorabilia, Tastykakes, soft pretzels, Italian wedding cookies and photos in Lucite frames everywhere.

More on all of this in another post, including the female friendships of Water Signs. But back to the men.

As she continues through the entrance on her way to Audrey’s, Madeline also remembers the recent past, specifically Tag Russell, a man she’d met soon after purchasing her new condo in Boca Bayou. A loan officer at the bank for which she worked at the time, Maddy knew him for nearly a year before ever actually going out with him:

For almost twelve months, she regarded his constant flirting as nothing more than a pleasant workday diversion; after all, Tag never behaved inappropriately, nor  did he initiate any gatherings outside the office.

Here’s where a significant public event makes a personal impact on Maddy’s life. When the horrific events of September 11, 2001 unfolded, she — like so many others — was engaged in what she thought would be another typical day at the office. Overcome with emotion, a hysterical Madeline seeks out the comfort of Tag’s embrace. In the aftermath of lingering fear and worry about the future — coupled with an intense desire to have someone special in her life — she embarks upon an ill-fated romance with the handsome charmer, who in the end breaks her heart:

The relationship’s failure had mainly been a function of Tag’s inability to move beyond the dissolution of his marriage and an early childhood tragedy — two events that had rendered him emotionally unavailable. A handsome man with wavy brown hair, blue eyes, a mischievous smile and ready sense of humor, he and Maddy shared an intense chemistry, along with a mutual affection.

…But no amount of concerts, Marlins games, Harley rides or pool-playing sessions at Gatsby’s could save this doomed relationship. Whereas Madeline fell in love with the highly successful, hard-working loan officer, the most he could offer was an occasional good time — on his terms of course. And when his insecurity about being twelve years her senior finally got to him, he ended the dalliance altogether.

This is all very reflective of real life, down to the physical description of the character. There were moments — albeit fleeting ones — when this guy would let his true feelings out, which, while indicative of genuine affection for me, were also admonitions to run as far away as I could, since he would only end up hurting me.

I should have listened the first time, but unfortunately an intense physical attraction tends to obscure the underlying, critical facts.This is also where Tag Russell and Mark Donnelly have much in common.

How else to explain why Madeline (like me) even has  anything to do with Mark after he stands her up for a SunFest date he himself initiates just the night before? Too damn nice, for one thing. But I digress.

That “Hey, I changed my mind about taking you to SunFest” scene in the novel mirrors my real-life experience, happening just around the time the married guy at the pool asks Madeline if she would go out with him if not for the small matter of his lifetime commitment to another woman (sorry to say, also true). At that point in my life, based on my dating adventures both in Pennsylvania and in Florida, I was beginning to think all men were vile creatures — with the only exceptions being my father, brothers, assorted family members and friends.  To some extent, I still feel this way, although thanks to having a solid foundation of faith and engaging in constant spiritual development, I’ve managed to keep from turning into a bitter man-hater — something I once feared might happen.

While I could find lots of women (and even men) to validate such a personality transformation based on legitimate grievances, the last thing I would ever do is give anyone else the power to change who I am. Not even a man who has hurt me deeply and in most cases, unnecessarily.

But back to the connection between Tag and Mark. Through Maddy’s reflections, readers discover that Tag and Mark had once worked together many years prior, and it is this acquaintance that ironically solves a mystery for her:

…Maddy had briefly reconnected with Mark Donnelly, who at first appeared to be very impressed with her budding banking career and obvious maturation. However, after three wonderful dates wherein they shared meaningful conversation as well as endless, passionate kisses, he disappeared again from her life. No goodbye call or farewell visit — just an abrupt departure after promising to contact her upon his return from California, site of his “all-boys” motorcycling vacation.

In an interesting twist, Tag had unknowingly referenced Maddy’s former flame many months later when the two of them attended that year’s SunFest (another irony right out of real life). Turned out, Tag and Mark had worked together in the lending department at First America Bank. And as Tag and Madeline browsed the multitude of artists’ tents at the West Palm Beach festival, he told her all about his unexpected run-in at Publix with the newly engaged Mark, who’d happily announced his impending fall wedding. Though she did not disclose the details of her brief romance, Madeline silently pondered if Mark’s fiancée had been the real reason for his disappearance the second time around. If so, it was certainly a strange and recurring pattern.

Interesting Side Note: Over a year ago, I met “Mark’s” first wife on Facebook via some mutual friends. And after getting to know her, I am still scratching my head over why he’d ever leave such a beautiful, vivacious woman in the first place. I don’t think I will ever figure out some men and I have given up trying. Learning the other side of the divorce story and tales of the various other women he’s hurt over the years (much more deeply than me) was rather eye-opening, to say the least. But as with “Tag”, I do wish him well.

Next post: Thoughts on the character of Ray Smith.

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Erin in Water Signs: A Boca Babe Embodiment of the Culture of Self-Absorption

More than any other character drawn from my own life in Water Signs, Erin Mahoney Lockheart owes about 90% of her creation more to a stereotype than an actual person. Yes, there is a real fiancée and wife whose acquaintance I’d made many years ago, and those recollections formed a starting point for the character sketch. However, after having spent so many years in South Florida, I felt very strongly about including a commentary about what I call our current “culture of self-absorption”, and it was this desire that led to the evolution of Erin.

Throughout Boca Raton and the surrounding areas, I’d seen, heard, witnessed and experienced enough examples of self-serving, egotistical and superficial behavior to write an entire non-fiction book on the topic.  But since I was penning what would in the end be a triumph of virtue, integrity, traditional values and true love over all sorts of formidable obstacles, I had to find a way to highlight this theme via plot and character. And it didn’t take long to realize that Erin was the perfect vehicle through which to do just that.

So it’s only in the early stages of Part Two that Ken’s fiancée even remotely resembles her real-life counterpart (whose name has been completely changed), although in what is most likely a very dramatic departure from reality, Erin absolutely hates football — one of the many contrasts between her and Madeline purposely created for dramatic reasons. Although Ken confesses his commitment to another woman to Madeline in an earlier chapter (more on that in another post), it’s not until Chapter 24 that readers — along with Maddy, who has reluctantly agreed to attend a BBQ at their condo — meet her for the first time:

From the moment she entered their two-story condo on the fifth floor, she felt a distinctive yet subtle hostility in the air, similar to the one that had greeted her at Kenny’s real estate office awhile back. And though physically attractive with a willowy figure, blue eyes and silky blonde hair, Erin definitely exuded a hard, urban vibe, notwithstanding her impressive career and level of education.

Yet it wasn’t her tough, Philly accent and her rough-around-the-edges veneer that most impacted Madeline; it was her pervasive coldness and attitude of indifference. She barely engaged Maddy in conversation, though Ken’s former flame conducted herself with as much dignity as she could possibly muster under the circumstances. And while Kenny did his best to facilitate the flow of conversation, it wasn’t long before Maddy wished she hadn’t accepted his invitation in the first place. When Erin abruptly excused herself to go to bed — claiming a migraine headache — Madeline resolved to banish all thoughts of Ken and Erin from her mind forever.

In Part Two, Maddy performs her own rendition of this heartbreaking song from my favorite musical, Les Miserables for a local dance studio production.

This incident instigates a thirteen-year, self-imposed, selective amnesia on the part of Madeline, embarked upon for the sake of her own sanity and self-preservation (it’s also a compounding factor in her bout with panic and anxiety disorder). She literally forces herself to forget that either one of these people even exists, just as I did in real life. It was just too painful to cope with, too unbearable to work through, even though, like Madeline, I had many sympathetic shoulders I could’ve cried on (while this isn’t really explored in the novel, I suppose for myself pride was also to blame for my reticence in sharing this devastating news with someone, anyone who loved me).

And since the story is basically told from Madeline’s perspective, that’s the last we see of Ken and Erin for a period of time, while Maddy endures the nadir of her panic and anxiety problem before solving it via a psychic; offers forgiveness to her old boyfriend Jake Winston when he calls out of the blue; and finds some career success via her writing and communications skills.

In Chapter 25, I do provide a bit of foreshadowing and embellishment using an event that truly is straight out of real life:

Taking a seat in a nearby rocking chair, Ken leaned back and closed his eyes as thoughts of Maddy permeated his brain. How was she doing? Had she gotten married yet? Was she still writing? He hadn’t seen a copy of The Good News Gazette in a while, though he’d secretly held onto the copy his mother had brought over to his house just weeks after Bonnie’s birth. That was before Erin had set up a home-based business and taken a corporate position in the creative department of a local cosmetics company.

Paula Lockheart had entered Ken and Erin’s home that morning, armed with a stack of newspapers and magazines, which she’d carefully set down on the coffee table before heading into the nursery. As Ken walked through the living room on his way to make breakfast, a photo of two familiar faces caught his eye. And when he picked up the publication to take a closer look, his heart was filled with pride and longing.

Beneath the headline, “My Brother, My Hero”, and the byline bearing the author’s name, Madeline and Louis smiled back at him, seated at a round dining table. Wow. She’d finally achieved her goal of becoming a published writer. He well remembered the endless conversations — by the ocean, snuggled up on the couch or wrapped up under the satin sheets of his water bed — during which Maddy would eloquently share her dreams for the future. In spite of everything, he still missed that connection.

And much like his real-life inspiration, Ken calls the editor of the paper in an attempt to obtain Madeline’s phone number, only to be dejected when she refuses to give it out. Instead, she offers to share his contact information with her newest writer and allow her to decide if she wishes to dial the number. Skeptical of whether or not she’d actually take the initiative to call, he is thrilled when a few days later, his former girlfriend’s curiosity gets the better of her:

Ken felt the same powerful eruptions within at the sound of her voice, though she gave no indication of her personal status, opting instead to update him about her parents and siblings. Madeline also omitted from the conversation her ongoing struggle with panic disorder, preferring to keep the tone light, so as not to solicit any unwanted offers of help or worse — an invitation to dinner at his home. The last thing she needed was an evening with Ken, Erin and their new baby.

Thus, we’re starting to learn a bit more about Erin indirectly, by way of her husband’s lingering feelings for another woman. Readers already know from Chapter 19 that he’d had some reservations about going through with the wedding, confiding in Madeline that part of his motivation for doing so was that “we didn’t want to live in sin anymore”. And it’s also in this chapter that we get a glimpse into Erin’s personality when he notes how “she kind of depends on me” since most of her co-workers were busy with their own families and social lives. There’s a distinct impression that for all of her high-powered business acumen, Erin is also very high maintenance. This is confirmed (along with their eventual divorce) in Chapter 27 via Paula Lockheart’s internal musings during an outdoor power-walk:

Too bad her former daughter-in-law hadn’t shared that opinion. Oh sure, in the beginning she used him like a security blanket after she’d accepted a lucrative position with an ad agency in Miami and relocated from Atlantic City. Oddly, for such a talented and successful girl, Erin had more than her fair share of insecurities, depending on Ken to provide everything from a social life to a comfortable place to live.

And while he was working hard as a mortgage broker and real estate agent by day, and taking classes in marketing and business at Florida International University four nights a week, she constantly harangued him over stupid things, like buying her the “wrong” gift or not spending enough time together. Paula sighed as she recalled one particular Valentine’s Day, when Ken had inadvertently provoked Erin’s ire by buying her rollerblades — even though she’d been asking for them for months. That had been just one in a series of troubling incidents that should have prevented her son from walking down the aisle.

In Chapter 28, we get Ken’s perspective on his now ex-wife, and the reasons for the dissolution of their marriage:

Then there was the negative influence of the Boca Raton culture. While an exceedingly beautiful city and desirable place to live, Boca’s downside was the extreme superficiality of many of its residents, some of whom held positions of power within the community, from the local paper’s society page writer to the plethora of ambitious millionaires that populated upscale neighborhoods like Broken Sound, Royal Palm and The Sanctuary. While Ken envied no one, content to focus on his own goals, Erin got caught up in the web of botox, breast enhancements and liposuction that characterized the activities of the city’s wealthiest females.

And as her business thrived, so did her vanity, leading her to undergo a seemingly endless parade of plastic surgeries, all to assuage her fears of growing older, and to help her keep pace with the women with whom she networked for both business and social purposes. After almost thirteen years of marriage, Ken didn’t even recognize her — or was it more accurate to say he was just beginning to?

As a direct result of her own self-centered behavior, Erin’s marriage ultimately implodes. For all of his genuine efforts to make it work for the sake of their children, Ken realizes that without her willingness to change, it’s a futile undertaking. For a woman who had it all — a devoted husband, two healthy children, a beautiful home and a thriving career — Erin expressed very little in the way of gratitude, opting instead to focus exclusively on the superficial side of life. Thus, her humble Southwest Philly roots, doting childhood, foundation of faith and hard-earned education are tossed aside for the pursuit of all things material. And in the end, it costs her dearly.

Am I stating as an author that it’s bad to attain things like fancy cars and designer clothes? Absolutely not.

What I am positing however, is the need to keep these things in perspective and not lose sight of what truly matters in life. Ken rises from humble beginnings to find impressive success in the corporate world, but it never alters the person he is inside. He remains faithful to the morals and values with which he’s been raised; the same is also true for Madeline, though materially she is not quite as successful.

To Ken, his children are a top priority; to Erin, they are sometimes an afterthought far behind her own wants and desires (though she does truly love them).  In this society we’re living in and specifically in South Florida, I’ve seen parents, divorced or married, more concerned about their social lives than their own kids’ well-being. I’ve witnessed the substitution of money and material things for time, attention and discipline. And I’ve even watched as middle-aged mothers disgracefully competed with their daughters for the affection of a man, or the wink of a stranger’s eye.

Our current culture seems to have jettisoned the concept of growing old gracefully and dressing appropriately (albeit attractively) for one’s age. Our children are worse off because of it, and it’s well past time for good people to help swing the pendulum back. And I hope through my writing I can positively affect the discussion. In the meantime, I am forever grateful for my upbringing by loving parents who cared enough to spend time with, discipline and educate their children.

Fun Fact: The paper I used to write for was The Happy Herald, though at the time it was called The Happy Times Monthly. And yes, my first published piece was indeed titled, My Brother, My Hero in honor of my brother Ralph (Louis in the book), and featured a photo of us on the front page. If my scanner was working properly, I’d include that same photo here, but instead will post this one of the two of us in Deerfield Beach:

Ralph and I having dinner at Duffy's last summer.

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