I need to thank Adam Phillips, author of Crosscurrents (http://archerland.disbelieve.org/adam.htm) for his help with this chapter. Thank you also to Bill for his editing help.

Finally, as always, thank you to my partner. I love you more than words can ever express.

Chapter 16

Erica and work helped me return to the land of the living.

There were a couple of paradoxes here. First of all, Erica had come into my life because she was a friend of the man who nearly killed me. That doesn't sound like a reasonable description of someone who'd help me heal. For all that, though, she was the one person who didn't seem to attach any pressure to my recovery.

I should explain that a little. It wasn't that other people were pressuring me; it's just that I knew them and loved them; had a history with them. When it came out that I liked guys, and now, especially, when they'd seen how I was such a loser I allowed myself to get into a gay relationship with a guy who treated me like...well, I felt that I had let them down or disgusted them. They'd invested a lot in me by accepting me, and when I saw them hurting as a result of all this stuff, I saw it as something I'd inflicted on them. As far as I was concerned, their emotional distress was all my fault. Consequently, I just couldn't face them. But I didn't have quite the same history with Erica; it didn't seem to me that I had inflicted any hurt on her. For her part, it was clear that she just wanted to be there for me. She'd sit with me, talk with me about inconsequential things, let me know in her casual way that I could rely on her and that I wouldn't have to deal with any hassle. There was never any pressure to open up, and on my end there was never any self-applied pressure to make her feel better about things.

In addition to Erica, though, my work, which required me to help people who'd been through the kind of experience I'd just had, helped me recover.

I won't say that I got better in no time at all. The aftermath of Neal's attack was brutal for me. I was jumpy and stressed as I'd never been before. Post-traumatic-stress attacks came frequently. In addition, I was ashamed over the fact that I'd allowed myself to get into the very same kind of relationship I used to counsel people against at work, and I felt guilty for having tolerated things so long that my friends had been placed at risk. I think it was Neal's threats to harm Brian that finally pushed me to get away from him, but it made me sick to think I'd let it go so far that my boyfriend had threatened to drag Brian into his sick world

Being abused by Neal galvanized me to try to make a difference for other people who had experienced what I had. In addition to returning to work at the AIDS service organization, I started doing rape crisis work in town part time as well. There was a men's support group and a teen support group that I co-facilitated and I did some individual crisis counseling on call and handled most of the cases with juveniles.  We handled all sexual assaults in the state. The legislature had mandated that an advocate be present for any sexual assault victim who entered the system.  It meant a lot of late nights in hospital rooms, but I'd survived a college career that put two jobs on top of the demands of studying, so I knew I could deal with the schedule. However, it also involved regular contact with the kinds of experiences that had given me my post-traumatic stress disorder.  Oddly, when I was doing crisis work I'd automatically slip into a kind of almost-trance. In that state, my mind was entirely engaged, but it was a little as though I was standing outside myself, sizing up the situation, and watching myself perform on the job. I could analyze what people were saying to me, and empathize on some level, but it wasn't altogether engaging emotionally. Occasionally one of the kids would get to me, but not often.

Actually, most of my life felt like that. If I was up and functional at any given moment, chances were pretty good I was in that "stand-outside-myself" state. Functioning felt, in effect, like watching someone else live my life.  The numbness ratcheted up several levels when I was on the job.  Nothing hit me emotionally, because I wasn't there to get hit.  Occasionally during the course of a day, I'd sink down into myself temporarily; this inevitably threw me into the grips of a flashback. But my psyche would always provide me an escape route as it floated back into that odd sort of self-dislocation from which I'd descended at the point of the flashback.  

One day, however, work slammed me back into myself, and from then on, going completely numb was never again as easy.

I'd been called to the hospital emergency room. A little girl of seven years old had been brought in because she'd made an outcry about being molested by a friend of the family who was staying at her home.

Katie was short for her age. She was kind of heavy; not truly overweight, but not slender, either. Her long, straight, stringy, dark blond hair could have used some TLC from her mom; her thick glasses were old-fashioned in style and unflattering to her face. He clothes didn't match and didn't fit her: The shirt had pink and white stripes and was too small, riding up above her wrists and stomach, and the pants were an awful pea green corduroy, and they were way too long.  It was obvious she was one of those kids who just didn't fit in. It was just as obvious that her parents couldn't have cared less.

The hospital staff and the police had both tried to engage Katie in conversation, but she was painfully shy. I'd been contacted as the official advocate for the victim.  When I walked in, she was sitting in a chair in a cold room in ER; five adults--a police detective, a nurse, and man and two women--were standing in the room. The man and one of the two women--Katie's parents--were visibly angry. The other woman seemed anxious.

>From the instant I saw her, Katie ripped at my heart. Her face and posture registered the kind of pain that I'd been trying to deal with my whole life. I hadn't done a very good job of sympathizing with myself, but from almost the first point of eye contact with her, I wanted to protect her, and take her away from her hurt...which, I knew, was my hurt.

As I introduced myself to the adults, she stood up and came over to me and took my hand. Her parents chided her for this unseemly display of affection and apologized to me, but I wasn't having any of that. I took her hand, smiled at her, and told her my name and explained that I was there to help her.

The other lady in the room--the mother of Katie's cousin--explained to me that Katie claimed to have been molested with some frequency by the family friend. Apparently she'd never said anything until her cousin had also been molested as she was staying over one night. Katie had told her parents on several previous occasions that the house guest was hurting her, but they didn't believe her. It wasn't until he had touched her cousin that anything happened. The cousin told her mother, and the mother immediately called Katie's parents and demanded that Katie be taken to ER.

Thank God for Katie's cousin's mom: She was the only reason Katie had gotten help. As I began to move into "work mode," Katie seemed to open up to me almost by reflex. When I sat down to talk to her, she crawled up into my lap and began to talk about what the family friend had done to her.

She'd hardly gotten the initial details of her story told before her father interrupted her and said, "She's lying. Jack wouldn't do anything like that. You better shut your mouth, Katie, or when we get home..."

Before he'd gotten the sentence fully out of his mouth, I looked up at him, glared, and said, "Stop."  I patted Katie on the shoulder and said, "I need to talk to your parents for just a minute, Katie. Can I get up for a minute and take them to another room where they can sit down and talk with me? I promise I'll be back soon. You can sit with Mrs. Spencer here until I come back, okay?"  I nodded in the direction of the young ER nurse who was attending.

Katie looked at me apprehensively, the pain of the world--and a trust that made me want to sob--radiating from her eyes. She said, quietly, "Okay...and just you come back, okay?"  Her mother glared at her, but before she said anything, her cousin's mom said, "Let's go, Michelle," motioning her and her husband out the door. When they'd made it through the doorway, she fell in behind them. I smiled at Katie and said, "I'll be back soon." The police detective followed along behind me.

I led them into a small conference room where we all sat down.  Her father began, "This is none of you people's business. Just stay the hell out of it and let us go home, or I'll have to get my lawyer down here. Do you understand how embarrassing it is to have the police here? This little girl has been a liar since she was able to talk. She doesn't need police and doctors. She needs a good spanking."

"Mr. Hill," I said, hanging onto my patience as tightly as I could, "Kids don't make this kind of stuff up. Not kids Katie's age."

"That's bullshit," her father said. "I've known Jack since we were kids and if you people believe this trash from that little liar, you're fucking stupid."

The mother of the other girl glared at him and said, "I don't believe this. You're taking his side against your own daughter?" She started to argue with Katie's dad, but I intervened. We had business to take care of.

I tried to explain the dynamics of traumatization to them. I kept repeating that seven-year-olds, unless they had been prematurely and inappropriately sexualized, simply weren't in a developmental state to engage their imaginations along those lines. Over and over I repeated that kids Katie's age must be taken seriously when they make outcries of sexual abuse, because they didn't even know enough about sexuality to know what to make up.

It was like talking to brick walls. Angry brick walls. Human brick walls determined to blame their daughter rather than to accept that she'd been a victim. It was, frankly, something I'd experienced before in my own life. I understood Katie's pain far too well; the parents of this little girl were so much like my parents it was frightening. 

It took all my self-control to keep from decking them both. The detective who was there was having even more trouble.  As this futile, twisted conversation continued, he kept excusing himself to "take care of something" just to cool down before he dealt with them again. Finally, as it became clear that reasoning wasn't going to do it, he said, "Look, it doesn't really matter what you think or say, this is a legal matter now. She'll need to come down to the station. I have to get a statement."

The parents were intimidated enough not to respond. I said, "Katie's been alone long enough in that room. We need to get back to her." We returned to the ER room and Katie ran toward me, grabbing my hand. Her mother sent daggers my way with her eyes, but I didn't care. Someone had to be there for this child. I sat beside her while the hospital staff examined her, throughout the whole ordeal.

After the exam was over, the detective said, "We'll need Katie to make a statement. Call tomorrow and set up a time."  He looked at the cousin's mother and said, "We'll need Courtney's statement as well, ma'am. It would be best if we could talk to the two girls together."

"Absolutely," Courtney's mom said. "We'll be there."

The interview took place the next week. Katie had called the center and asked them not to send any other advocate but me. When I got there, she insisted on sitting in my lap, and when the police came to interview her, she begged me to be in the room instead of her parents. This caused her parents to heap all kinds of cruel verbal assaults on her. Katie's response was to try to disappear into my lap. But I managed to be the adult in the room when she was interviewed rather than her parents.

Katie's narrative before the police was shy, fragmentary, pained. Her cousin's was the polar opposite. Courtney was a pretty girl who spoke with self-assurance. She was articulate and determined. She was clearly concerned about Katie's welfare throughout this whole ordeal; she seemed to want to take Katie under her wing and protect her. Her mother was much the same.

She and I left the room briefly as the detective interviewed the two girls. In the hall Courtney's mother stopped me and talked to me a little about her daughter and about Katie. She told me how hard her sister was on all their kids. She told me that if she hadn't insisted, the Hills would never have taken Katie to the hospital.  As I talked with Courtney's mother, it became clear to me that Courtney would be okay. I wasn't at all as sure about Katie.

After a couple of hours, my work for the evening was done. I left the police station that night praying hard that Katie would be okay; I thought about the contrast between Katie and myself. I had issues, but as far back as I can remember I was a survivor. Although I felt beaten down, I had come to understand that I was strong. I refused to let anything in my life break me. But here was Katie; only seven, and it seemed as though already her spirit was broken. 

That was the last time I saw her.  I couldn't do any follow up without her parent's permission.  When she left the station that day she tugged on my hand until I knelt down at her level. She gave me the tightest hug I think I've ever had and slipped a little pink teddy bear eraser into my hand, and whispered, "thank you". I still have that eraser, some fifteen years later.

After that, I couldn't quite keep myself numb as easily.  Katie had switched something on in me, and I couldn't turn it back off.  I still wasn't entirely "there," but I was never able to go fully numb after that. In the following weeks, I could feel myself coming alive, maybe more fully than I'd been in years. It was akin to that feeling when you get stitches and the numbing agent begins to wear off, but its effects are still lingering: You can feel where it is going to hurt, and can sense the stitches and bandage, but it's not really a "real" sensation; not quite. It feels more as though you're about to feel. That's the way life felt for me in the aftermath of Katie. Sometimes, in the months that followed, even that semi-numbness would wear off and I'd be left raw and hurting; then the pain of my world would overwhelm me again, and I'd float myself above the pain, but after Katie, whenever I floated away, I could only get semi-numb. She had brought me that far.

* * * * * * * * *

Erica and I were "just friends" all through that summer and into the fall.  Given what she'd seen when she found me lying on the kitchen floor, she had to have known what had happened to me. She never made me talk about it with her, though. It's difficult to describe how that one little thing felt so supportive. I knew that people wanted--almost needed--me to say something about the whole sordid incident with Neal. With Erica, not only did she never ask; I never even felt any pressure to talk about it.

It was easy being with her at first, because we had topics to deal with together: I was still helping her with her classes. I'm not sure what possessed her to go into engineering; she had difficulty with nearly every course. But the task at hand made the content of our communication clear and definite. We developed a routine. As she'd study one course, I'd read another of her texts and when I'd finished, I'd explain it to her. Gradually, our study sessions began to end with a little casual conversation, and before too long, our friendship had progressed to the point that we spent lots of time talking about absolutely everything under the sun. 

Everything except what had happened to me, of course.

She talked plenty about herself:  Erica had some personal familiarity with problems. She had been addicted to meth in high school. Both of her parents were addicts, her father to heroin and her mother to barbiturates. She had a younger brother and sister, and they were both in their own heaps of trouble. Erica herself was clean then, or at least claimed to be. At the time, I believed her. In any case, I think her own personal troubles gave her compassion for mine. She must have had more than her own fill of people pressuring her, because she seemed to know, almost instinctively, that the best thing she could do for me was to let me help her with her schoolwork, and to enjoy my company, and to avoid discussion of my troubles.

As the summer faded into fall, I realized both how much I needed her and how the Walkers had faded from my life. After a few months of trying to get me to talk to him, Brian had backed off. He and Erica had become friends, and while I'd stay at home and read or watch TV or spend extra time at work, the two of them would frequently go out partying. The only time I ever really saw him was when he came by to pick her up. On those occasions we'd say hi to each other and make a little small talk, but the encounters were always awkward. I was still deeply ashamed that Brian had known what I'd let Neal do to me. Brian, for his part, never had much to say to me. The net result was that, more than ever, I was convinced he was disgusted with me. Disgusted with me for having a sexual relationship with a man, and disgusted with me for being so weak and spineless that I'd let a guy do to me what Neal had done.

One Friday evening after Erica had gone out partying with Brian she'd come home a little earlier than she usually did on weekends. I was still up watching TV; the station's late movie was Field of Dreams.

She came in and sat down beside me. We watched together quietly for a while, occasionally commenting on the unfolding story. As the final credits rolled, I said, "You have a good time tonight?"

"Yeah, I guess," she said, "At least when I could get Brian's attention."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Oh, nothing," she replied, trying to backpedal a little. "He...well, he was drinking a little, maybe no more than me, I guess, but..." She paused briefly. The look on her face suggested that she was unsure whether to continue that thought out loud.

I wasn't going to let her leave it like that. "But what?" I insisted.

"Oh, nothing, Sam, it's none of my business what he does; we're not dating...we just party together."

"Look, Erica," I said with intensity, "You were going to say something. You had a serious look on your face. What did you mean when you said you couldn't get him to pay you any attention?"

"He parties real serious, Sam, that's all I was saying. My presence was optional. And when he did acknowledge I was there, it was like...well, he..." She shrugged, wrinkled up her face, and said, "Mehh. Never mind. Let's talk about your stellar evening instead."  She laughed, which irritated me no end. She wasn't finished here, as far as I was concerned, and we were not going to make this about me.

At least I thought we weren't.

I looked at her and said emphatically, "I wanna know what you meant. About the partying and about what you meant when he did act like you were in the room."

She sighed in exasperation. "He drinks, Sam. A lot. Every night. I don't feel good about it. It looks too familiar. You happy now?"

I looked at her, astonished. Brian had always been a life-of-the-party guy, and had sometimes gone too far with the drinking, but it had never been an every-night binge with him. "What else?" I asked.

"What do you mean?"

"You said that when he did notice you in the room..."

"Oh, that," she said, interrupting me. "Well, all night long it was all always about you."

My stomach felt as if I'd just dropped two floors in a defective elevator. I looked her in the eye and asked, "What do you mean?"

"Well," she answered, "it seemed like whenever he was talking to me, all he would do was grill me about you. He spent the whole evening either drinking or bugging me about what was going on with you."

I felt sick. "Oh, man," I muttered, looking at the floor, "He's so disgusted with me."

She wrinkled her forehead. "I don't think that's it, Sam. It seemed more like..." Her voice trailed off as she looked into my face. I guess what she saw made her determined to change the subject. "Forget it, Sam. You're jumping to wrong conclusions, and we oughta just leave all this alone." She forced a smile. "I'm not sleepy at all. What else is on TV?"

Frankly, I was sorry I'd asked anything about Brian. I needed a distraction, and I'd heard more than enough, so I went with her lame re-direct. "Well, if you like the real oldies," I said, "Channel 39 is showing Casablanca in a half hour. We could get a pizza delivered and stuff our faces and watch one more movie."

She smiled. "Good call. Play it, Sam."

"That was awful," I said, as I took one of the throw pillows and threw it at her. Appropriate, right? It caught her smack in the face. She grabbed it and started flogging me over the head with it. I jumped over the back of the couch and ran to the phone. "Leave me alone, evil woman, I gotta order the pizza."

We had so much fun that evening I almost forgot that Brian was grossed out by me. Disgusted, apparently; so much so that he'd given her the third degree all night so he could find out just how much of a loser I was these days.

* * * * * * * * *

That fall Neal got out of jail, and almost the same day, he started harassing me.

His favorite approach had always been psychological intimidation, and that's what he went for now that he was out of jail. He'd show up at well-timed occasions, just to make sure I'd see him; just to observe my deer-in-the-headlights panic. Nothing ever came of it; there was nothing I could report to the police. But he and I both knew what he was doing.

As time went on I realized that his bullshit came and went in waves. It would be awful for a week, then he'd disappear for a while, then he'd be back. Whenever he showed up he always managed to rattle me. At those times whatever control of my life I'd wrested back completely evaporated. 

One of his returns came in late October. I first saw him on my way to work. Then I began seeing him every time I looked out my office window. He'd show up at the grocery store; I'd run into him on the way home from work.  He never actually did anything; he didn't need to. He began showing up on a Monday; by Friday, I was a wreck. My nerves were shot.

Friday afternoon Erica walked through the door about fifteen minutes after I'd gotten home. I was watching a little TV in the den, trying hard to relax. When I heard her come in I turned and said, "Hey. How'd your day go?"

"Oh, okay, I guess," she said, walking over to me, "At least until I saw my asshole ex-friend Neal."

I felt the blood leave my face. I don't know why, but hearing it from someone else made my dread increase tenfold. When it was just me seeing him, I could somehow get away from the scene and grab a little control. Something about someone else seeing him made it more real, though.

I lost it.  All I could do was shake.

I can't really describe my emotions. I wasn't hysterical, but my brain definitely wasn't numb. Still, I couldn't have spoken if my life had depended on it. I was embarrassed, too. Hell, what was up with me? It's not like I hadn't seen him over and over again since he got out; and yeah, it shook me up, but I'd never quite reacted like this. But I was shaking so much, I couldn't even walk out of the room for some privacy. 

"Oh, Sam, I'm sorry," she said.  She came and  sat next to me and held my hand until, gradually, I began to get my act together. The terror slowly subsided, and I returned to normal. 

I looked into her eyes, silently. Neither of us spoke. She smiled at me, and I reached over to give her a hug. I moved in to kiss her on the cheek, but her head had turned toward me at the last second, and I ended up kissing her lips. To this day I'm not sure whether the move had been deliberate on her part, and I never asked. 

Kissing her sent a jolt directly to my groin, and when I pulled back it was as though I was seeing her for the first time. 

I hadn't responded to anyone sexually since things had gotten bad with Neal nearly a year before. In the aftermath of that whole disaster, my sexuality had simply disappeared. If I ever let myself think about it at all, I wasn't sure it would ever return, or for that matter, if I even wanted it to. Even the occasional sighting of Brian had ceased to get a physical response from me, and that was unusual because even through all I'd faced up to then, Brian could always make me melt inside. But no longer. Just the thought of kissing someone was enough to turn my stomach. Even my feelings for Brian had lost their sexual component.

It stunned me, then, that the desire rose in me so strong and so fast, sitting there with Erica, kissing her.  As I began to look at her with what seemed like new eyes, I realized that she was beautiful.  She was barely five feet tall, and might have weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet. She was so delicate that she looked more like a model for a fairy than a grown woman. Her hair was so long she could sit on it, and it was a shade of blond I've never seen naturally on anyone else: It may sound like some idiot poem from middle English, but it really was the color of flax. Her eyes were huge and the most amazing Montana-sky blue; her skin was pale and clear. 

She was simply beautiful; not in a sexy, arm-candy way, but more in a character-from-a-fantasy-tale, not-quite-believable way. And she looked so young and innocent, even though I knew she wasn't. At that moment, even though I'd been the one who'd just had a panic attack, she called out every protective instinct in me; at the same time, I felt very safe with her. As I gazed at her I could see the intensity of the encounter mirrored back at me in her eyes.  

Something new and electric crackled in the air. We were tentative at first; neither of us really knew what to do with the moment, but my emotions were pretty overpowering. It was as though all the pent-up hormones from nearly a year of no libido got dumped into my bloodstream at once. I wasn't shaking any more. From deep inside, an urgency stepped forward in me and took control with certainty.

We kissed again. Tenderly at first, but growing more insistent, more intense. It was clear where things were heading. She began unbuttoning my shirt. I slid it off my shoulders and let it drop to the couch. We stood up and each of us hurriedly undressed the rest of the way. When we were naked, I said to her, "Erica, I don't have any..."

"I do," she said. "In my nightstand drawer."

I took her in my arms and hugged her. We kissed, and headed to her bedroom. She handed me a condom from the nightstand. I opened the package, rolled it on, and climbed into bed to make love to the second woman I'd ever gotten naked with. 

That first time was an intense, wild coupling that was over in minutes and didn't really end, but once the initial edge was off, morphed into something more gentle.  She felt so good in my arms and so right.  I'm not sure how much of it was about being in love with her, really; in the heat of the moment, I felt love for her, but there was too much other emotion crashing around that night for our coming-together to have been all about that. She had been there for me through the most ugly period of my life, just there, not demanding or pushing or anything, simply present. Registering that felt more like gratitude than love. But I didn't spend time analyzing it; in the afterglow, as I held her, everything seemed right with the world for the first time in I don't know how long. 

That is, until the itching sensation from hell began. Apparently I'd recently developed a latex allergy that I hadn't known about. I'll let the curtain fall on the remainder of this scene, because it wasn't pretty. And it wasn't dignified. And it wasn't a memory that lives on as one of my top ten. I'll simply close with this thought: A person needs to make sure he's not allergic to latex before he puts on a condom. That night I discovered that there was no such thing as enough Benadryl.

* * * * * * * * *

That amazing Friday night, Erica and I went from roommates and friends to committed couple overnight. 

I was convinced I was in love with her. The world, through that one magical encounter, had righted itself, and somehow I managed to believe that nothing else mattered, that the enchantment between us canceled out anything bad that had gone before, had negated any trouble in our present, any threats to our future. It's not as though my brain was unaware of trouble and problems. It's just that I was completely unwilling to face them. I wasn't going to let anything get in the way of the New, Improved, Finally-Happy Sam.

I proposed to her on November 7. I'd bought a ring; it had the tiniest diamond I'd ever seen, but it was all I could afford.  She accepted, with tears in her eyes.

We set the date for the first of December. A Catholic priest who had been one of my high school teachers agreed to perform the ceremony at the local Episcopal church, where I also knew one of the priests. Then, having arranged for the place and the priest, I had something else to do.

The second week of November, I stopped by Brian's place. I was on a mission, and although I was scared to face him, a little, it was inconceivable to me that things should proceed any other way.

He answered the door quickly when I knocked. His eyes opened wide with surprise when he saw me. After a few seconds of registering "surprised," though, his face broke into a smile.

"Come in, Sam. Man, it's good to see you."

We went inside and sat down at his kitchen table. "Want some coffee?" he asked. "What's up?"

"Yeah, make us both a cup, and I'll tell ya," I said nervously.

He hauled out a package of ground Folger's and measured out--roughly--the required dosage, then dumped some water in and set things to brew. It was a small carafe, and things went quickly, which was good, because neither of us spoke. As the brewing coffee made its gurgling sound, I worked hard on getting past my nervousness.

Finally, the coffee was ready. Brian pulled out a couple of cups out of a cabinet, sat them on the table, and poured the coffee.

"Okay, big guy," he said, sitting down next to me, "What's up?"

"Umm...I guess you know I've been seeing Erica," I said, looking down.

"Yeah, she told me, Sammy," he said, smiling. "I'm glad, man."

"Well, things have gotten serious real fast," I said.

He blew on his coffee and took a sip. "Really?  How serious?"

"I...we...we're getting married."

His jaw dropped right about the same time that his eyes bugged out. "No shit," he said, his voice awash in astonishment.

"No shit," I said, smiling at him uncertainly.

He stood up and began pacing a little. I got up and walked with him. He stroked his chin, pondering my news. Finally, after an eternity, he said, "When, Sammy?"

"First day of December," I said.

The astonishment returned to his face. "Are you kidding me?  Shit!"

I couldn't think of what else to say, so I said, "I thought we agreed it was no shit."

He looked at me; his eyes were blank. For an instant the fear began to rise. Just as quickly, though, he broke into a laugh.

"Fucking congratulations, Sam! I'm happy for you." He pulled me into him and gave me a long, tight, hug.

Memories came flooding back into my mind, into my body. His arms, his smell, his love, all felt so familiar. So missed. So needed. How could I have ever doubted him?

As he held me, all the old feelings I'd ever had for him came coursing back into me; the gratitude; the deep love......and the desire.

I realized then that my love for Erica had apparently woken all of me up.

I broke the embrace; my enthusiasm for Brian was beginning to have an effect on my crotch, and I wasn't anxious to reveal that. I sat down at the table again, and motioned for him to sit.

"I got something else," I said as he sat down.

"What is it, Sam?" he asked.

I looked into his face and asked, "Would you...would you be my best man?"

He paused, and his eyes drilled into mine. Finally, he said, "I'd fuckin' hate you forever if I couldn't be." He tried to smile, but conflicting expressions wrestled for prominence on his face. He turned away quickly and took a deep breath. When he turned around, he put his right hand to his right eye and wiped his hand down his cheek briefly, dismissively. He sniffed lightly, and said, "Thank you, Sam." I looked into his eyes and saw strength, and peace, and unconditional love for me.

"It could never b-be anyone else," I stuttered, wrestling back a few tears of my own.

The moment passed, and we talked a little trivia. We finished our coffee, and I finished my business with him, and went on my way.

* * * * * * * * *

The weeks went by quickly. Brian had informed me that I was having a bachelor party whether I wanted one or not. I resigned myself to the idiocy of it, but inside I was warm and squishy with love for my friend.

Sure enough, the night before the wedding, he took me to a hotel. To my surprise, the party was small and civilized. Guys we'd known from high school, a couple of my friends from college, hung out with me, congratulated me, had a couple of drinks with me, and then went home.

Brian and I stayed behind. After everybody left, we just sat and talked. And talked. And talked.

It was the first time we had done that since before the insanity of my senior year, and as we laughed and reminisced, and caught up with each other's lives, I could feel a hole in me closing up; an empty place that had needed his friendship began to fill, at least for the moment. 

Conversation was easy; it felt like the old days. So I was unprepared when he turned to me late that night and asked, "Sammy...are you sure about this?"

The tone of his voice, the look in his eyes, brought me up short. It didn't feel like a challenge; it felt like caring. Some deep place inside of me said, "This is what love feels like," and for the first time--suddenly--I wasn't sure about Erica and me.

But I wasn't about to back out at the eleventh hour. I shook off the voice and the feeling that went with it, and looked intently at him as I said, "I am sure, Brian."

He searched my eyes with his for what seemed like forever. As he did, I flashed back to earlier days: He could always do that; he could always look in my eyes and make me feel as though he was sifting through my mind and soul. I tried to meet his gaze, tried to show him I was confident, sure of myself, sure of my decision.

He didn't answer me. Finally he looked away. Breaking into his trademark smile, he said, "Man, this party sucks; I didn't even get drunk. Remember the first time you had to rescue me from drunken danger?" Soon, we were rehashing that first disastrous party back in high school where his blood sugar had plummeted. From today's distance, it was something to smile and laugh about. We finished the evening in the wash of great memories and great feelings for each other.

* * * * * * * * *

The wedding the next day was small. There was only a handful of people on the guest list.

It was about twenty minutes before the wedding, and he and I were standing in the men's parlor in our rented tuxes. I was trying to get his bow tied correctly when he grabbed my arms.

"Tell me again, Sammy," he said.

I felt my stomach knot slightly. "What?"

His eyes drilled into mine, as he asked again, "Are you sure?"

At the sound of his voice, and in that moment, I realized for sure that I wasn't sure. Not about Erica and me.

I was sure about something, though, and that something was what was making it hard for me to answer him:

I was sure I was in love with Brian. Still. And after all these years.

But I was also sure that that was hopeless, and I was also sure I'd never be able to find anyone else I felt as strongly for as Erica. So there was no way I was turning back now.

I didn't answer, though.  I couldn't. He'd know the truth. He'd hear it in my voice. He always could. Instead, I smiled at him.

He took my non-response as an answer, looked at his watch, and said, "Let's do this."

There weren't many in attendance at my wedding: Erica's brother and sister were there, but none of the rest of her family. None of my family showed up.  Brian's family was there, and most of my co-workers came.  A few of Erica's friends put in an appearance. That was the extent of the guest list.

Erica was beaming; she was surreal in her beauty. The dress was nothing special--we didn't have the money for anything elegant--but she looked amazing. It was one of the happiest days of my life, and I was at peace with the world.

* * * * * * * * *

The period immediately surrounding my marriage to Erica was a good time for me; I was happy, and for the first time ever in my life, that happiness was not diluted with fear or anxiety or misgivings. I'm not sure I believed in my gut that she was "the one," but I did love her, and anyway, I was pretty well convinced that I'd let "the one" go when I broke up with Mary. I thought we would be happy together, and honestly, for the first few months we were. The only downside to my life during that period was that Neal would show up and stalk me from time to time. While I wasn't as traumatized by it as I'd been before, I didn't like it. I needed to get away from my home town; there were too many unhappy memories that I didn't want crowding my marriage, and in any case I wanted to get away from that psychopath. That winter I was offered a job running a group home in the neighboring state. It meant better hours, better benefits, and better pay than anything I'd had up to then. I accepted the job without reservation and we moved out of state.

We wouldn't be moving alone: Over Christmas, we had arranged for Erica's younger sister to live with us. Christina was sixteen, and a recovering addict. She was trying desperately to stay clean, and that wasn't possible in her mother's house, so we got custody of her, and she moved out of state with us.  

Apparently freed from our past demons and our past ghosts, we made a new life together, the three of us. It was good; I loved Erica, and she and I started to settle in with Christina.

My latex allergy had made the use of condoms impossible, so Erica went on birth control pills. She was never good at staying up with medications of any kind, but condoms were definitely a no-go for me. I wasn't sure how I felt about her having to put a bunch of hormones in her body, but it seemed the least problematic birth control alternative. Still, I shouldn't have been surprised when, one evening in late January, she said to me over dinner, "Sam, I went to the doctor today."

I looked at her with concern.  "Are you okay?"

"Depends on what you say next," she said.  "Sam..." she paused for such a length of time I thought I was going to go crazy. Then she said, quietly, "I'm pregnant."

Of all the things she could have possibly said, I was totally unprepared for this. I was tongue-tied. But something inside of me must have had an opinion, because I broke into a big smile.  When she saw that, tears of relief began to fall down her face, and she smiled back at me.

I stood up from the table and walked over to her. She stood up, and I took her in my arms and held her and kissed her. I felt as fortunate as I'd felt miserable little more than a year before.

* * * * * * * * *

My now-charmed life began to run smoothly. Work was good; we were actually putting a little money aside and saving up for an addition to the family, and in many ways we were the quintessential young American couple. I began to breathe easy for the first time in my life. It looked as though my troubles were behind me.

Erica's mom still had visitation rights with Christina, and Christina was supposed to go back to our hometown for a visit with her mom during spring break that March. Erica had planned to go with her, but she had terrible problems with morning sickness for a full sixteen weeks, and when it came time for Christina to go on spring break, Erica had to cancel.  Neither of us was crazy about sending Christina back up to her addict-of-a-mother by herself, but we didn't see any alternative. We sent her up, reluctantly, on her own, making her promise that if she got into any kind of troublesome situation, she would call and one of us would come get her. 

She didn't call. Instead, she went out partying with a bunch of "friends," and got picked up by a 35-year-old guy who was drunk and high on cocaine. He took Christina and an old friend of hers on a ride in his convertible at high speeds down winding back roads in the middle of nowhere at 3 in the morning. He lost control and flipped the car.

He walked away without any injuries; Christina's friend had several broken bones. 

Christina's neck was broken when the car rolled, and she died at the scene.  

When we were told the news, Erica became came completely unhinged.  She felt responsible; so did I.

In the immediate aftermath, she ended up in the hospital on suicide watch. Twice. I understood her despair personally, from my own past, but I didn't have the power to do anything to help her.

Gradually, Erica sank into a depression so dark, there was no reaching her. I tried so hard, but whatever we had together wasn't enough to bring her back. At this point she would have had to get happier to find the energy to kill herself.

All I could do was hang on to my work and my sanity, for the sake of my wife and my unborn child. I left for work every day, wondering if she'd be there when I got home. I tried over and over again to get help for her, but she refused to stay in the hospital, and I didn't want to commit her against her will. 

To make matters worse, her mother had listed the city where we lived in our hometown paper's obituary.  Neal saw the obituary and promptly showed up in my new city to play his psychopathic stalking games.

Throughout it all, I knew I had to be strong for Erica. It would have helped me if I'd had some support myself, but none was available. I didn't have any close friends yet in my new life. Given my personality, I doubt if I would have leaned on anyone anyway, but knowing that it wasn't even an option made me feel horribly alone.

I stayed strong, though. I reminded myself constantly of how Erica had been there for me when I was at my life's lowest point, and I tried to be there for her now that she'd been hit hard. My plan was simply to be there. Not to push; just to let her know that I loved her. I knew I could give her time to heal, just as she had given me time to heal.

Gradually, she did start to perk up a little. Right on the heels of that, our son was born. We named him Christopher, after Erica's sister.

To this day, I'm convinced that when she started to feel better is when she started using drugs again.