Being Mrs. Culpepper

Chapter 13 –Broken Heart

Brandon sat in his truck, staring at the light in Robin’s bedroom, hating himself for making a mess of his life. He didn’t want to leave his home. His wife. His children.  

He thought of her bedroom, her diamond engagement ring and platinum wedding band in a box on top of the dresser. She’d put them there, years ago. Odd that he still wore his ring. Every day. He removed it from his finger, kissed it, and shivered as he recalled the day she’d placed the ring on his finger.

His mind moved to her closet where he touched her clothing: those hanging, those folded. All those shoes.  

There was the black caftan he’d bought for her birthday two years ago. At first, he hadn’t understood how one item of clothing could be worth all the money he’d spent on it but when he saw her in it, he got it. The garment draped elegantly from her body. He loved rubbing it against his skin. It hurt, being erased from the life he loved — his own doing, he knew. He saw himself remove the caftan from its hanger and press it against his chest, then his nose, taking in her scent.   

Back at her dresser sat a small teak chest with a subtle leathery odor. He’d made it for her. It was her memory chest, full of ticket stubs from concerts the two of them had enjoyed; baby teeth in tiny, marked baggies; and the poem twelve-year-old Trey had written on their first anniversary, expressing love to his dad for picking the perfect mom and wife.

He imagined his reaction if he’d seen his father kissing another woman while the woman fondled him; or if he’d seen his father in a bar, wrapped around another woman. He’d hate him more. The locket. He’d been so happy when he’d given it to her, the first time, and the second.    

His mind traveled to the kitchen. Their shared nightcaps after the kids were asleep. She’d greeted him with hugs when he arrived home from work. He remembered Robin holding their babies; laughing with the kids; clowning around with Sasha, trying to mimic her dance moves; playing with Murphy; crying in Brandon’s arms when they received the news that her father had died.

JJ.  The boy had been drumming since the day Sasha gave him the big wooden spoon and a pot from the lower cabinet. The more he clanged on the pot, the louder Sasha sang, her little neck veins popping to the beat. Murphy sang along, too, with Robin nearby, encouraging them with her clapping. His family.

He ran his hand across his head, laughing and crying, thinking it had been the same day that Robin told him about Zoey growing in her belly. And Trey, wanting his baby sister to have his mother’s middle name. What a gift for him, from him.

Then his mind drifted to the summer that Zoey turned four. She, along with JJ and Sasha, sat on the front porch, cooling themselves with lime-green popsicles, waiting to greet him when he arrived home from work; their little T-shirts stained with popsicle juice; faces filled with grins as he pulled into the driveway and stepped out of the truck. He sat next to them and took a lick from each popsicle, with them grinning their little green grins. His family.   

He wished he’d told his wife why his house meant so much to him. How he’d found new life in that house. How being there these past few years made him feel safe, and sane. How his mind had been slowly leaving him for years. He leaned back into the headrest. A few minutes passed.  JJ knocked on the truck window.

“Pop, you all right?”

Brandon got out of the truck and hugged JJ as if it would be the last time.

“Come on, Pop, you’re smothering me.”

“Sit with me, son.”

They sat on the porch, on the swing the two of them had built. JJ, the only child who loved working with his hands, the one Brandon had hoped would take over the business.   

“I need to tell you something.”

He told JJ about the bar. Sasha. Robin filing for divorce. JJ turned to his father, in tears.

“This is it, huh? You really don’t love us anymore.”

“I love you, JJ. I don’t want to leave my wife and my children. Mom wants a divorce.”

“But you did leave us, years ago. You’re a piece of work, Pop, you know that?”           

 JJ went inside.

Brandon got in his truck and drove away. At Carla’s house he pulled his truck into the garage, hoping for a few minutes to himself before she bombarded him with questions. She met him at the garage door wearing black lounging pajamas, smelling like lemon. Her hair was covered with a black silk scarf, neatly tied at the back of her head.

“It’s about time you got here. Where have you been, anyway?”

“Not now, Carla.”

He pushed past her into the mudroom and removed his shoes. She could care less whether he tracked dirt inside, but he liked a clean house.

“You’ve been with her, haven’t you? Since the club.”

Something inside of him snapped, and for the first time in his life, he wanted to hit a woman.  “You mean my wife, Robin? Yes, I’ve been with her. Where did you think I’d go?”

“You and her mother have been separated for years. Zoey’s a big girl. She should know what’s up by now.”

He gritted his teeth. “It was Sasha, not Zoey.”  He walked past her then suddenly stopped and reversed his direction, staring at her.

“What now?”

He whispered in her ear. “You’re a cold-hearted bitch.”

He suppressed the urge to slap her across the room, like his father had done so many times to his mother. To him. He knew better. He hated everything about Carla, except her son. Her nagging tone, the unkempt house. And she never could cook. The sex used to be great but during the past few years it had become another chore he had to perform. She’d been a thorn in his side for years, keeping him near her with threats of disclosure about their relationship. Now, he’d rather live alone than endure another night with this crazy woman. He didn’t bother to pack. He had clothes at his house. Let her burn the rest of his things. His bike. He’ll take that. She liked the truck, she can have it.

Carla watched as he put on his boots and jacket. His chaps. Then he mounted the bike and reached for his helmet. “You’re not coming back, are you?”

After a night of fitful sleep, the heaviness in Brandon’s chest frightened him. Sweat dripped from his forehead. From his cell phone he managed to press the three numbers. His head hurt; he had no strength to lower the recliner, or get to the door to let them in. In the ambulance he grabbed the technician’s arm, calling out for Robin. 

His ECG and blood work at the hospital showed no damage to his heart muscle. The doctors said Brandon’s excellent physical condition helped minimize the severity of the heart attack. In his hospital room he’d been sedated but hadn’t fallen asleep. He asked the nurse if his family was there.

“They’re here, but can’t come in just yet.”           

The Culpepper family had arrived at the hospital about the same time as Carla and Darrius.

“Mom,” whispered Sasha, “that was the woman who…”

“It’s all right, Sasha. I know who she is.” She kissed Sasha’s forehead.

Robin took a deep breath then moved to a quiet section of the waiting area. Her heart raced  as she felt his presence, and when she turned to look at him she settled into his arms, as if they’d been custom made for her. James planted soft kisses all over Robin’s face.

Amber nudged Trey. “TreyTrey, who is that man with your mama?”

“That’s James. Her first husband.”

“Why is he here?”

“I called him. He and Robin are still in love.”

“He is divine.” She fanned herself.

“Girl, stop drooling over my daddy.”

Amber did a double take. “Your what?”

Trey chuckled. “I’ll explain later.”

 A few minutes passed. The nurse came out of Brandon’s room. “He wants to see Trey. Five minutes.”

Trey squeezed Amber’s hand, then walked toward Brandon’s room.  

“Hey, son.”

“Hey, Dad.” Trey sobbed. “Don’t you die on me.”

“I’m trying not to. Mom here?”

“Yeah, she’s with Sasha, trying to convince her that your heart attack wasn’t her fault.”

“Tell her it’s all my fault.” Brandon drifted to sleep.

 Tears streamed down Trey’s face. His chest hurt, making him wonder about the state of his heart. He silently called out for his Mama, kissed Brandon’s forehead, then left the room. In the waiting area, James saw his anguished face, and followed him to a quiet corner.

“Son, what is it?”

“I don’t want to lose him. I can’t lose him, not yet.”

James and Trey shifted their attention to Robin, who stood glaring at Carla and Darrius. As she fumbled around in her tote bag, James asked Trey if Robin carried a gun.

“No, she would never keep guns in the house around the children.”

“I’m worried about what’s in her bag, right now. Look at her face. She’s ready to hurt somebody.”

Trey agreed. “I’ll stay here with the family.  You two get out of here.”

Robin stood in front of the mausoleum, unsure if she should go in, angry with herself for needing his advice. She wished he were there in person rather than simply in her mind. With heavy legs, she slowly climbed the few steps and entered the building. Leave it to John to be buried in luxury: the finest granite, the finest view, as if he could see it. Her heart was weary, her body warm from the humidity in the air. She took a seat on a nearby bench, remembering the man who had ruined so many lives.  

Everything about John had been larger than life. His booming voice would either soothe you or scare you into the next life. He’d been a tall man, slightly overweight, with an imposing presence.

With his legendary knowledge and love of the law he could have been a renowned law professor whose classes were wait listed for years, or so it would seem. He would have taken those perfect score LSAT smart-mouthed first year best of the best students and reduced them to tears, then would have steadily rebuilt them into fine students of the law. By graduation they would despise him, and worship the space he occupied. Like James had done.

John Jacob Porter, Beloved Husband and Father. If only he were there now to walk her through the maze of her life. She mourned, softly at first, then with hysterics. The shrill of her own voice startled her.

At first it seemed she was the only mourner in the area, then she heard footsteps, a man’s steps, she thought. James heard them, too, and hustled to her side. She couldn’t stop crying and couldn’t walk away.

“I didn’t expect everything to hit me all at once, not like this.”

He removed a silver flask from his breast pocket, took a sip, then passed it to her. She smiled at him and sipped.

“You miss him, too.”

“I do, yes. And I’ve missed you.”

She took another sip, wanting desperately to laugh at the ongoing soap opera of her life. But she held it in, out of fear that James would surely think she’d lost her mind. Out of fear that he’d be right. They returned to his car.

“Should we go back to the hospital?”

“Only if you want to. I spoke with Trey. He took everybody home. They’ve ordered take out. Let me take you home with me.”

“I’d like that, a lot, but I need to be at home with the kids. Their father just had a heart attack. I need to be there.” Her eyes welled with tears. “I’m sorry, Jamie. It seems we can’t get our timing right.”

He stared straight ahead. “You called me Jamie. There’s still hope.”

They settled in his car for the twenty-minute drive to her house.

“Honey, back at the hospital you were digging around in your bag while you stared at Carla. What were you looking for?”

 “My glasses. I wanted to get a good look at her. What did you think I had in there?”

“A gun. A knife. Who knows? The look on your face had me worried that somebody would lose blood in that waiting area, and not from a sickness. It gave me chills, woman. Flashbacks.”

He did that thing with his chin. That smile. She wanted to go home with him, and he knew it. “Sorry to disappoint. Why did you come?”

“Trey called. Said you needed me. Do you, need me?”

She took his hand. “Yes.” She turned away from him. “All the time.”

He held her hand. “I can’t take much more of this.”

“You’re the one who stopped seeing me.”

He took a swig from the flask. “You really divorcing him?”

“Abigail is working on it. He should be served soon.”

“So, what now?”

“Mom’s house in two days. Can you come?”

“What about my house?”

“If I go home with you, I won’t leave. Disastrous for my family, and yours, too.”

He nodded. “Rose never sold the house?”

“She decided she couldn’t part with it. Crazy, huh?”

“No crazier than this dance you and I have been doing for a hundred years.”

 

Robin arrived at Rose’s house around four in the afternoon. James had offered to make dinner reservations, but she said no, she’d rather stay in and cook. Something simple. Grilled salmon and asparagus. Roasted potatoes. Shouldn’t take too long. She worked steadily in the kitchen, prepping the food, enjoying the quiet, thinking about her children, her life, her husbands. She laughed at herself. Her husbands. Even in her mind it was weird. But that’s who they were­— past and present.

She’d asked James to text when he was on his way inside, so he didn’t startle her. The house was too big for her tastes. Kind of creepy. Even so, she felt a strong connection to it, and needed to explore what that meant in her life, so she kept going back to it. When her phone vibrated on the counter, she washed her hands, then checked the text. Jamie.

She poured his favorite scotch then waited for the front door to open.

“Honey, I’m home.” He made his way to the kitchen, grinned at her, and gave her a big kiss.

“You hungry?”

“Not right now. How are you?”

“Stress free, looking at you.”

“Kids doing okay?”

“They’re getting through each day. How are your two doing?”

“Good, good.”

She draped her arms around his neck. “You seem a bit off. What’s wrong? Are you having second thoughts about being here?”

“Not at all. Had a tough client call earlier today. Not sure I know how to help him. He’s making choices that will cause legal problems down the road.”

“I’m sure you presented some viable options.”

“I made my case. Got shot down.”

“How often does that happen?”

“Rarely.”

His hands shook. “He’s an important client. We can’t afford to lose this one.”

He leaned against the counter, facing her.

“You talk it over with your dad?”

“I did.”

“What did he advise?”

He chuckled. “I’ll clean it up for you. He said ‘James, my boy, get yourself properly laid, get drunk, get some sleep. The answer will be there when you wake up.’”

She laughed, then turned off the grille and oven. “Did he know you were seeing me tonight or was that a random get laid deal?”

“He knew I’d be here. And he was glad. Said he was tired of seeing me moping around.”

“Follow me, please. There’s a bar upstairs, and a bed with our names on it.”

Upstairs they passed her bedroom and went into the master suite.

“Mom still keeps the bar in here stocked for Marcus when they’re in town. We’re going to soak in that big old tub, then I’ll get you properly laid, and drunk, and you can go to sleep.”

He grabbed her hand. “My bag is downstairs. I’ll get it while you fill the tub.”

She didn’t release his hand. He held her gaze as she looked at him, remembering. He tucked her hair behind her ear, and noticed the sun, the moon, and two stars in her ear. Four studs. He stared at them, seemingly trying to remember what they represented. It would come to him, later. He walked her towards the tub and placed her on a bench while he ran bathwater; he poured jasmine bath salts into the tub while she sat quietly with her hands folded on her lap. A minute or two passed. She removed her shoes then stood with her back to him. He unzipped her dress. It fell to the floor. He planted kisses on her face as she wept. When the water was ready, he took her hand to help her into the tub. She unbuttoned his shirt. He removed his pants, his undershirt, and his boxers. They stood naked, facing each other, as they had done so many times before.

In the tub he stayed still, and silent. With the remote in hand, she dimmed the lights and cued the music. Their song, about the first time they met. He looked at her, then looked at her ears. He remembered the song, playing on the stereo in her parent’s home, after they’d gone to their suite, after James decided he wasn’t ready to leave Robin’s company.

The copper tub was long and wide and easily accommodated side by side seating. He climbed in beside her. He kissed her neck. She touched his manhood. He trembled. He rubbed jasmine scented soap on the body sponge and washed her back in a circular motion. She closed her eyes, taking in the music, their song; he moved the sponge around her back; her arms; her chest; her belly; and her legs. When he finished washing her, he kissed the four studs in each ear, then kissed her mouth, and her breasts, and held her until the water lost its warmth. Out of the tub they stepped into the shower for his cleansing. He sat on the built-in teak shower bench. She washed the back of him, then the front of him. When his cleansing was done, she sat next to him on the bench, holding his hand until the water cooled.

They covered themselves with the white terry cloth bath robes that Rose kept in the bathroom. He took her to the bed, their bed for now, where their bodies reunited after a long absence, hungrily getting their fill of each other; touching, holding, screaming, scratching, kissing; whispering things only the two of them could whisper. Losing themselves, then finding themselves, in each other.

He fell asleep. She knew he would wake in a couple of hours, hungry for food. Chicken salad would have to do. She went downstairs to the kitchen, got his overnight bag, and carried it upstairs. He was still sleeping. She walked around the bedroom, touching the art on the walls, the drapes on the windows, the linens on the bed. Things she loved in this room. She paused at a series of black and white photographs on one wall and welled up. There were shots of Murphy as a pup. Then one with Murphy, Trey, JJ, Sasha, and Zoey, in the back yard. Her work. Good shots. She ran her hand across each photograph, encased in glass, remembering the joy that dog had brought to their lives. She didn’t notice when James moved next to her, but he was there, holding her hand. 

“You didn’t sleep long.”

“I had a good sleep.”

“We still need to get you drunk.”

He stood behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist. “The laid part cleared my head. Yours, too. Three times by my count.”

She gently elbowed his side. “Can’t believe you still count them.”

“Damn right I count them.” He kissed her cheek. “Let’s eat something. I’m hungry. Then I need to make a couple of calls. I know what to say to my client.”

“Glad you figured it out.”

“Thanks to you.”

She kissed his cheek. “Happy to be of service. Oh, I spoke with Trey yesterday about you two. He was relieved that you told me. I asked him why he hadn’t told me himself.”

“What did he say?”

“He was afraid I’d make the two of you break up.”

The next morning James read over contracts while Robin made a run to the local grocery store. When she returned to the house, she called the hospital to check on Brandon; there was no answer in his room. She dialed JJ’s cell, figuring he’d be there with his father. 

“Hey Ma, you doing good?”

“I’m good, son. How’s Dad?”

“He looks fine to me. That woman and her son from the other night just got here. I’m out, Ma. Don’t want to see this.”

“Who drove you to the hospital?”

“Trey.”

“Where is he?”

“Talking to the son. Darrius. You think my pop is his dad?”

“I don’t think so, JJ. But you can ask your dad if you’d like.”

“No, thanks, Ma. I’ll see you later on.”

Two days later Robin picked Brandon up from the hospital. She’d asked Trey to do it, but he’d declined, citing a previous commitment. Odd that he’d said that under the circumstances. Legally Brandon was still her husband and with discharge instructions to address, Robin did what needed to be done.   

During the drive to Brandon’s house Robin absentmindedly sped through an intersection on a red light, barely missing a small car on the passenger side of her vehicle. Brandon stared out the window, tapping his fingers on his right thigh. He said nothing. Before long they were in front of his house, their children there to greet them. Brandon turned to Robin, reaching for her hand. She pulled it away.  As JJ helped him out of the car, Brandon again turned to Robin.

“You coming in? Amber and Trey cooked, all heart healthy dishes.”

“I’ll pass. I’m glad you’re better. Enjoy your children. Anything you need at my house the children will bring to you.”

Flanked by Trey and JJ, Brandon slowly made his way up the six steps to the porch, where he rested on a bench, meeting Robin’s gaze. They watched each other’s eyes fill with tears. Robin took two steps forward then stood there, frozen, wanting to join her family, knowing she should leave. Her husband, her children, minus her.

“Robin, Sweetheart?”

She slowly backed away, got in her car, and drove home.