Sleeping with the Lights On

Chapter One

I woke before Wesley that morning, the first morning waking up next to him. I silently yawned, stretching my feet against the cowboy sheets tucked tight at the foot of the bed. Greeting the morning lying between sheets with broncos and rodeo riding cowboys galloping across and under me, brought a smile to my face, not that I wouldn’t have been smiling anyway. The sex was good. The cowboy sheets added an element of quirkiness I expected from Wesley.

As I gently stretched, imagining my pointed toe nudged a lariat-twirling rider off his horse, the muffled electronic notes of Yellow Submarine rudely invaded my rodeo. I rolled out from under the sheets as gently as possible and hit the floor on all fours with a thud. Looking back at the still sleeping Wesley, I said a silent thank you for plush carpet. I didn’t bother standing. In three, hand-knee crawling movements, I reached my destination and yanked open my purse to extinguish the now irritating jingle.

“Hello,” I said in a loud whisper.

“Sandra?”

A knot instantly formed in the middle of my stomach. I recognized the voice, the baritone drawl, even after all those years. “Yes?”

“Hey, darlin’. It’s Carson.”

I looked over my shoulder at Wesley, still tucked under his cowboy sheets from the waist down, breathing the steady rhythm of sleep. One sinewy arm draped across his chest, the other cradled his head. I patted my legs, checking my state of consciousness; reasonably sure I hadn’t dozed off into one of my bizarre dreams.

“You know. Carson Holiday, your favorite ex-husband.”

“I know who you are.”

“I can barely hear you, darlin’. Did I catch you at a bad time?”

After a year without sex, getting a phone call from ex-husband number two, while in a new man’s bedroom with him less than four feet away, is definitely a bad time. “Yes, kind of, Carson. I’m…I’m…” Spit it out, Sandra. A grown woman of fifty can certainly have an affair without feeling the need to make excuses. Especially to an ex-husband. Life goes on after you, Carson. Oh, hell. “I’m …on my way out the door…with my neighbor’s sleeping baby.”

“Can I call you later?” he drawled.

Why? After eighteen years, why would he contact me? I heard Wesley roll over behind me.

“Later.” I could barely hear myself.

“I think you said okay. So, I’ll talk to you then. And by the way, I’m here in Minneapolis. Bye.”

Stunned, I flipped my phone shut, dropping it in my purse as I sat back with my legs doubled under me, considering this might really be one of my bizarre dreams. I buried my fingertips in the thick, amber-colored carpet, searching for solid ground. I hadn’t dreamed about Carson in quite a while. How unfair for him to pop into my waking life when I could be on the brink of an honest to goodness relationship with someone.

Wesley murmured in his sleep and jarred me out of my self-pitying reverie.

I retraced my crawl to the edge of the bed and slipped under the cowboy sheets to lie on my stomach close enough to Wesley to let his sleepy morning warmth envelop me. 

Scrunching deeper into the sheets, I took a yoga breath in satisfaction, savoring a moment not experienced in a very long time. I wanted these mornings every day, sharing a bed with someone on a regular basis. I wanted a lazy Sunday morning relationship after a sexually satisfying Saturday night, knowing at breakfast I would sit across the table from someone who cared about me. Someone who would shovel the snow from around my car in the winter and mix me a drink while I made lasagna. Someone who would buy tires and get the oil changed in my car. Tired of being alone, taking care of all aspects of my life while barely making enough to pay my rent, I relished the idea of a permanent relationship. I needed someone to care, but at the same time, I needed to be careful. After over a year of sleeping alone, and more years of not being serious about anyone, the fear of jinxing the relationship by over-thinking my situation loomed large.

Damn Carson. I’d been happily floating along on my calm lake of new relationship when, plunk, Carson dropped like a rock, causing disturbing ripples. It had been eighteen years since I felt the way I did about Carson, good or bad, through five years of marriage. Eighteen years of meaningless relationships, including a close brush with the altar, couldn’t compare with the Carson years.

What the hell was he doing in Minneapolis? He belonged in Las Vegas. How the hell did he get my cell phone number, and how did he know where I lived? Maybe he found me through the company that mailed me my puny royalty checks each month? That didn’t make sense either. Those checks went to my mother’s address in Phoenix.

Wesley stirred beside me.

I looked at his youthful, forty-five-year-old face, dark hair falling across his smooth forehead, and watched him smile in his sleep. His enviable long lashes, a mottled mix of colors in gray, brown, and auburn, didn’t match his dark hair, but then, as a man of mixed elements, not only in looks but also in personality, the color combination suited him.

A self-made, twenty-first century millionaire should be polished and have attitude. Quite the opposite with Wesley. When he touched me, my skin tingled, and I got a little catch in my chest like I should get from a man I honestly cared about. It didn’t hurt that he liked to shop and we were friends. How often can you say that about a man you’ve slept with? I called him quirky and fun. So what if I couldn’t classify last night’s bedroom frolics as stop-the-world-and-give-me-a-chance-to-breathe sex? The lovemaking was the solid orgasmic kind of sex, which would do nicely. Carson had been the last of the world-stopping sex, at least for the first four years of our marriage. I grasped at the fifth year as our relationship deteriorated into a tangled, traumatic mess. But even then, we still had romance novel sex.

Daddy said sex is ninety-percent of any good relationship. My mother and father were married fifty-eight years. Until he died. But Daddy didn’t explain the other ten-percent. I happen to think the other ten-percent kept them together so long. Having been married twice, not to mention countless relationships, I would say that ten-percent had been more than elusive.

Basically, I wanted to experience the elusive ten-percent. And travel. Or work in travel. But mostly, all I ever wanted, my very first realization of what I wanted, revolved around being happily married. My vision always included the white picket fence, the pink apron, and two darling children playing at my feet waiting for Daddy to come home. I watched way too many old forty’s movies as a girl. I’d held on to the vision far too long—the white paint on the picket fence faded, peeled, and the fence finally fell down. What I still wanted could be summed up in the words of an old Ella Fitzgerald recording, “Follow my lead, oh how I need, someone to watch over me.

Closing my eyes, I listened to Wesley’s soft breathing and wondered what he’d think of my relationship history. I must have told him I’d been married, although I couldn’t recall any specific conversations on the subject. Why drudge up failed marriages and a myriad of pointless relationships when trying to establish a new connection? I’m sure anyone would agree with me. What would be the point in telling Wesley any of it? Carson knew all of it. He knew all about my strengths, my weaknesses, loves and hates. That kind of honesty hurt, even after all those years.

I took a deep breath to breathe him out of me.

Rolling over to lie on my back, I opened my eyes to the wagon wheel chandelier hanging above the bed. Wesley’s cowboy theme in his bedroom didn’t stop at the sheets. I concentrated on the spokes, pushing old memories of Carson aside. Could Wesley’s cowboy bedroom be a reproduction of the room his parents couldn’t afford to give him as a child? Every room in his home replicated something from a bygone era.

I turned to watch the curtains shiver with a light breeze, the slightly-opened window letting in the cool, spring air, heavy with the woodsy scent of sugar maples and oaks. Or so I guessed. For all I knew, the smell could’ve been lilacs and peonies. Having been an apartment-dwelling-Arizona-raised person, I had no idea exactly what I smelled in Minnesota, but I liked it. If I got out of bed to look out the window, I would’ve seen the late morning sun glinting off Cedar Lake, warming the apartment building Wesley called home.

Wesley’s leg rubbed against mine, and I sensed him watching me.

“The curtains are custom made,” he said.

“Cowboy ropes instead of curtain hooks are a nice touch.”

“Lariats, Sandra. They’re authentic.” Wesley’s home spilled over with authentic. Everywhere you looked you saw the real thing, like Wesley. “Who’s your favorite cowboy singer?” He rolled toward me, laying an arm across my stomach.

Carson Holiday in his black cowboy hat flickered across my mind. “Roy Rogers.”

“I have the first album he made with Dale Evans.”

Of course, he did. His voluminous record collection undoubtedly contained several old cowboy recordings. He didn’t believe in CD’s or tapes because the quality couldn’t compare to the old vinyl. In fact, not much of anything new could compare to the appeal of the mid-twentieth century, or earlier, for Wesley. If I identified with the forties era Ella wanting someone to watch over me, Wesley happened into my life at the right time. He epitomized a time gone by.

“I wonder if the Batman television series produced a vinyl,” he said as he lifted his head, squeezed my arm, and reached under his pillow to pull out a handkerchief. “I’ve decided after I’m finished with the New Orleans club on the second floor, I’m going to build a bat cave in the basement.”

Taking his glasses from the top of the guitar amplifier next to the bed, he meticulously cleaned the lenses with the handkerchief. This action, performed with the automatic movements of a morning ritual, impressed me as the habit of an old man or maybe a nerd. Wesley was too vital and fit to label old man, so I settled on nerd, which explained some of his socially rougher edges. I could work with nerd. After all, with abs like his, he wouldn’t strike anyone as a typical nerd.

He hooked the wire frames carefully over each ear, and his dark brown eyes studied my face. “You look pretty in the morning with your messy blond hair and no lipstick.”

“Thank you, Wesley.” I leaned in to give him a light peck on the cheek.

He cupped my breast, perking my nipple with a flick of his tongue. “You’ll only be able to get to it by sliding down the bat pole.” Another flick lingered a moment.

“Excuse me?”

He fell back on his pillow. “The bat cave. Sliding down a pole will be the only way to get in the cave.”

“Sounds fun.” Yes, I suppose this would be considered strange morning conversation to most, but it didn’t surprise me. After all, I awoke with Wesley, and eclectic understated his personality. He charmed me. “Do you think you’ll ever be done remodeling?”

“Probably not,” he said as he raised his arms in the air and stretched. “Haven’t considered that.”

“I thought there might be a rose on my pillow this morning.” I ran my fingers across his chest in zigzags until I came to his navel and switched to circles.

“Is rose giving a custom in the Southwest the morning after?”

“What? No. You know. It would be gallant, if you were my secret admirer.” I’d received two roses anonymously while at his parties, but he wouldn’t lay claim to the romantic gesture.

“Not my style. But if I find out who the devil is, I’ll box him!” He threw his chest and shoulders over me, smothering me with a hug.

Being the happy recipient of Wesley’s affection minimized the jitters Carson’s phone call had caused.

Rising, he looked at me, smiled and then dove in. He covered my face with fast staccato-like kisses while I closed my eyes and waited for his rambunctious affection to subside. I found his enthusiasm so sweet, like a little boy unable to contain his joy.

People often say, if I only knew then what I know now. I say, if I’d known as much then, I would’ve avoided way too much and wouldn’t know now what I know. Nor would I have been where I found myself that morning—the object of affection by a man I’d yet to fully discover on a lazy spring morning. I had to believe my future held some good possibilities.

I looked at Wesley each time he surfaced for air between alternating kissing my cheeks and nuzzling my neck, deciding he would be in my life, in some capacity, for a long time. I couldn’t consider if he’d be the marrying kind and attempted not to think in those terms anyway. Marriage hadn’t been so fruitful for me, and Wesley had never been married. I needed a new approach, and an unconventional, committed relationship looked pretty damn good.

If Wesley could be tagged anything, the tag would read unconventional. Although most people might not find his bluntness, coupled with his childlike self-absorption, a positive trait, I found his attitude refreshing and enchanting. Wesley didn’t have a hidden agenda. The Mouseketeers taught me beauty is as beauty does. Wesley was as Wesley did.

Moving on to the sleeping together stage of the relationship, Wesley had called Thursday to ask if I could stay over after his party on Saturday night. Not exactly the most romantic offer, but so endearing when spoken by Wesley. Amazingly, he understood I didn’t do casual relationships, a fact I worked into conversation shortly after we began dating. Men rarely, if ever, understand the difference between romance and sex. And then to expect them to understand building a relationship slowly, on mutual feelings instead of lust, is like asking a sprinter to walk through his race.

“Get moving.” One last kiss, and he shoved me hard enough I barely kept myself from falling to the floor.

“Wesley!”

“I’m hungry,” he declared, lifting me from the bed as he hugged me tightly.

“I’m barely awake.”

“I want breakfast, and it’s nearly lunchtime.” He sat straight up, and swinging his feet to the floor on my side of 

the bed, pulled me to a sitting position all in one swooping movement. “Let’s go to Sydney’s.”

He always went to Sydney’s uptown, a few blocks away, near enough to be his personal kitchen for breakfast and lunch. He would get the same booth, everyone knew him, and they didn’t question his unusual food requests. For my part, I had stopped caring when he ate off my plate.

“Can I shower and get dressed first?”

“If it doesn’t take too long.”

“It’ll take as long as it takes.” I walked to the foot of the bed and took my bra from the neck of the life-sized cardboard John Wayne. He smiled a little more than when I hung it there the night before. “You don’t want me to go looking like this do you? I need to spend a little time getting pretty.”

“You are pretty…Without all that frou-frou stuff you do.”

I walked around the foot of the bed to him. Brushing back his thick, brown, ear-length hair from his cheek, I gave him a light kiss and a hug. He accepted my hug but didn’t hug me back.

“Wesley, you’re supposed to hug me back when I hug you.”

“Am I?” He looked from beneath my breasts, the hint of a smile on his face. “Didn’t want to slow the getting ready process.”

I took his arms, placing them around my waist, which resulted in him nuzzling his face in my breasts.

“I’ll hurry,” I said.

“See that you do, Sandra Holiday.” He patted my bottom and let go his funny laugh. Wesley’s laughs sounded like bad sit-com laughter.

I showered, washed off last night’s makeup, reapplied half as much, and brushed my hair—all in forty minutes. Record time for me. Carson tried to creep back into my thoughts in the shower. We always showered together on Sunday mornings. I rinsed those thoughts down the drain. He cropped up again when I put on my peach colored lipstick. Carson liked red. I blotted him off on a tissue, chanting a few times, “Wesley is now, Carson is history,” while I finished getting dressed.

The overnight bag I tossed behind the bathroom door before the party contained my clean clothes. The formal invitation, although lacking in romance, did allow me to come prepared. I didn’t want to put back on the petticoats and bobby sox I had worn to Wesley’s fifties hop. Wesley always declared a theme dating pre-1970 for his parties.

Rock and roll superstars, the theme of the first Wesley party I attended, had given him the chance to dress like a Beatle complete with a black lapel suit and a thick mop of hair. After getting to know him, I learned his penchant for sports coats of yesteryear, and the Beatle mop haircut he always sported made looking like a Beatle a natural for Wesley. The fact he resembled my favorite Beatle, George, and how I Got My Mind Set On You played from the jukebox when we met, may seem like a coincidence. But there are no coincidences. So regardless of the song having been written years before Wesley and I met, it existed for us. Things like that happen. The energy of ideas exists in a timeless medium and will come together at the right moment.

I shook out my jeans, green, stretchy, silk turtleneck sweater, and set out my black ankle boots. A plastic zip lock bag in one of my boots contained black panties and bra; socks were in the other boot. I stuffed the fifties outfit into the overnight bag.

In spite of his George Harrison qualities, my attraction for Wesley didn’t surface immediately. Several parties later, his naïve, unique manner seduced me. Wesley didn’t use slick lines or put forth pretenses, only straightforward, unpolished fun.

The strains of Yellow Submarine playing again from my purse interrupted the memories of our first meeting, as well as my breathing. This time, I hesitantly walked instead of crawling to retrieve the cell from my purse. My stomach rolled but not due to hunger. Why had Carson appeared at that time in my life? It couldn’t be coincidence. I looked at the number before I answered, releasing the air from my lungs, as relief flowed through me. At least, I reasoned, the after-surge of emotion must be relief.

“Hello.”

“Hi, Sandy.” Only my mother calling from Phoenix still called me Sandy.

“You’re home.” Every other month, Mom and Eunice, her friend since grade school, drove to Laughlin, Nevada to play the slot machines. “Have a good time?”

“Great. We got back too late last night to call. I hope you’re awake. I thought I better call to warn you Carson is going to be calling you.”

“He already did. How did you know?”

“Eunice and I ran into him when we were in Las Vegas.”

“Vegas?” I interrupted. “What were you doing in Vegas?”

“Gambling! Las Vegas is a short drive from Laughlin. We spent one night there. I happened to read an article in the little local paper about Carson playing at the Tropicana, so we went to watch. His mother still sends me Christmas cards and keeps me updated on Carson a little. I didn’t get one last year, but then I didn’t send out any either. He sat with us on his break, and I found out he’s single again. How many times has he been married?”

“I don’t know, Mom.” Shaking my head, I wondered why on earth she thought I would keep track of his marriages when I tried to forget I’d done it twice.

“Well, I think he’s been married at least four times. He changed the subject like he didn’t want to talk about it. Anyway, I told him you live in Minnesota now, and he said he had a charity event or something in Minnesota. He never did anything for free, did he?”

“Not that I remember—”

“I don’t remember any free things either. He said charity, so I guess he meant for free. What a coincidence with you being in Minnesota, and him divorced again, and you not married. When I found out the charity thing is in Minnesota, I gave him your number. Then, I thought, after all these years, you might want to see him. I thought it’d be nice for him to have someone he knows when he’s so far from home. I wanted to warn you. Have you seen him yet?” She finally took a breath.

“No. He called this morning, but I didn’t have time to talk.” How curious—Carson doing charity? Always charismatic, an ardent lover, an exuberant performer, but charitable didn’t fit him. He never did anything without getting paid. Carson without a wife? Carson never went long without being married.

“I’m sorry, honey. You probably would’ve liked to know ahead of time, but isn’t it funny…Him being in Minneapolis?” Mom didn’t sound amused. She sounded pleased by this event.

“It is,” I cut in immediately to keep her from reminiscing about the good ol’ Carson days. “But I’m getting ready to leave with Wesley right now—”

“Is he the rich friend with the weird house?”

“Yes, he’s the one.” I winked at the John Wayne cut out who definitely had his gaze on my ass.

“Are you two still just friends?”

“I guess we’re a little more than friends.” My gaze fell on the mussed cowboy sheets.

“How nice. They say you can love a rich man as easy as a poor man.”

“Mom…”

She ignored me. “I guess I shouldn’t have said anything to Carson. Me and my big mouth.”

“Don’t worry about it, Mom. I need to run right now, but I’ll call you later.”

“Oh Sandy, I hope I haven’t caused any problems with you and your new friend.”

“No, Mom.” She’d hate to blow a prospect for her unmarried daughter. “Really got to go, Mom. I’ll call later. Love you.”

“Okay, sweetie. Say hi to Carson when you see him. He looked really good, Sandy, and oh my, he still talks with such a lovely drawl. Love you too.” She meant well. And she meant to fix me up with someone, even an ex-husband who broke my heart once already. Of course, my new rich friend would meet with her approval also.

She could forget about Carson. For whatever reason he had sashayed into my present, he would most certainly sashay right out again. Carson was a love them, marry them, then leave them kind of guy. Since we’d already done the marriage routine … I shoved my phone in my purse and waved at the cardboard Mr. Wayne.

“Got to go, John.”

My black cardigan hung on a hook on the back of the bathroom door, so I grabbed the sweater, my overnight bag, and walked out into a short hallway past another bathroom. 

My destination was the main kitchen, a fifties restaurant, complete with tabletop jukeboxes inviting you to dance next to Coca-Cola posters. Navigating through Wesley’s apartment building-turned-house presented the challenge of a maze. He rented to nine tenants at the south end, but he inhabited the rest of the building himself—a rambling assortment of rooms he’d reworked, redesigned, and decorated in various themes. Built in the fifties, the building and its owner embodied nostalgia. Because he’d combined numerous apartments, bathrooms, kitchens, and closets abounded throughout.

I passed by a room the size of a walk-in closet, now empty except for an abandoned pink cardigan with an embroidered gray poodle from the night before. The closet-sized room served as coatroom and backstage for band equipment during the parties. Musicians. I dated a couple of musicians after my marriage to Carson dissolved. Wesley played bass guitar, but I didn’t put him in the dating musician category. Wesley belonged in his own category. He said he taught himself to play guitar in six months and somehow found three musicians to form the Dudley Do-Rights.

Once past the closet and the Star Trek room, I followed the sound of the jukebox as I turned toward the fifties kitchen. I recognized the voice of Nat King Cole crooning from the full-sized jukebox, which held records from the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Stepping out into the main kitchen and living room, I expected to see Wesley sitting at the counter drumming his fingers and drinking water. Instead, I met one of Wesley’s tenants, the one I dubbed redhead in blue, with coffee cup in hand. Wesley never locked the door to his living area, and although I found his open-door policy disconcerting, he seemed perfectly happy to have his tenants wandering in and out as they pleased. If our relationship continued, that would have to change.

We stood facing each other. The surprise on her face probably matched mine. Her red tresses graced the shoulders of her deep blue, silk shirt that did nothing to hide her nipples, which stood at attention. I would’ve guessed her to be about thirty years old and at least five foot ten, towering over my five-foot three frame. She bordered on voluptuous, in her snug fitting jeans, in a solid-looking kind of way. Although she clung to the periphery at the parties, she stood out with her fire-red hair and blue attire.

“I guess you never made it home.” Her eyes glared black at me, making me feel like I should be in the closet with the poodle sweater.

“Good morning, Eva.” The redhead in blue brought me wine from time to time at Wesley’s parties but never stayed long enough to talk. Her smile dazzled, but her demure body language revealed a shy demeanor. Last night, I finally learned her name before Wesley flew by, clutching my arm as he whisked me off to meet the latest rage in the art world of Minneapolis.

“I thought Wesley might like some breakfast. I guess not.”

“You could come to Sydney’s with us,” I offered.

It seemed like the right thing to say, but from the look she gave me, I could have ended up with her coffee in my face. Her stare bored into me for a moment, the same expression as the night before when Wesley kissed my neck in her presence. Now, I knew why.

“You’re wasting your time with Wesley. He isn’t right for you, Sandra.”

I couldn’t think of one clever thing to say. I didn’t know she knew my name, much less what, or who, was right for me. Her full, red lips pouted, and for a fleeting moment, her expression softened as she held my stare. When I didn’t respond, her lips tightened.

“He does not do permanent relationships.” She turned to leave, defiantly turning her back on me as she shook her mane of red hair. “I’ve been living here nearly a year, and he does not do permanent relationships.” She walked away from me, moving quickly along the hall and opened the door, disappearing into the community hallway that led to the other nine apartments.

Her words echoed in my head. He does not do permanent relationships. Why and how would she know?