Chapter 6 of A Life Worth Living – Sliding Doors

Chapter 6 of “A Life Worth Living – The Story of Sassy”

Click here to read the earlier chapters and learn more about this serial novel

CHAPTER 6 – Sliding Doors

(Mid-2002)

Piano music, pleasant scents… and chew toys – these were the simple pleasures of Sassy’s life during her second year with us. Life was good for her — Rose and Anne’s apartment was like a little oasis and as a result Sassy developed a number of her lifelong likes from her time there. Case in point…

It was an ordinary summer day and, as usual, Rose had elevator music’ playing in the background as she did her household chores — today it was the soothing keystrokes of David Lanz tickling the ivory — with Cristofori’s Dream gently falling from the speakers as Sassy lounged on one of the floor pillows. Every once in awhile an automatic air freshener would puff, and the faint scent of cinnamon would then waft through the air – causing Sassy to sniff for a moment or two before returning to her ‘work’ – for some time now, Sassy had taken to the task of trying to unscrew the caps on plastic bottles. It was an odd habit to say the least and we’d tried to break her from it by encouraging her to play with her store-bought toys, however Sassy was stubborn and therefore persisted in her affinity for plastic.

As such, if one of us happened to be drinking a bottle of water, Sassy would inevitably be on our laps, encouraging us to speed up the process of emptying the bottle so she could have it. Complying with her wishes, we’d tighten the cap on the bottle and then give it to her to work on. Sassy would then gnaw on that cap until she unscrewed it – putting herself into a kind of trance as she worked the cap free — which often took quite a while. Amazingly enough, regardless of how we gave her the bottles, Sassy always seemed to know which way to twist the caps, and although it took some force to be able to work the cap off, Sassy had the intelligence not to bite too hard – which would have destroyed the cap and thus ended her game — and instead she patiently worked until she succeeded in getting off the cap — after which she’d immediately nudge us to put it back on so she could try again.

Over time we learned that plastic of all kinds was palatable to Sassy — and besides water bottles her most insatiable desire was for empty Afrin bottles — those little 5-inch tubes of nasal spray. I don’t recall who first caught her trying to steal Afrin from Rose’s purse but that’s exactly what happened. It was as if Sassy had a nose for plastic and she was caught many a time rooting through the girls’ purses if they left them unattended in their bedrooms. Since the nasal spray contained medicine, obviously that was off limits to Sassy, but she was so adamant about getting her paws on the Afrin (whining and carrying on as she did with the black bear the previous year) that Rose eventually gave in to her demands and washed out a bottle to give her. It turned out that getting the outer cap off the Afrin bottle wasn’t enough of a challenge for Sassy, but that didn’t matter, because she quickly discovered that the long upper tip of the main bottle was the perfect size for her mouth, and as a result she’d gnaw contentedly away on a bottle of Afrin for hours at a time.

Despite Sassy’s enjoyment, I was concerned, “Is it really safe for her to chew on plastic? I mean couldn’t that be a health hazard?”

“Don’t worry, honey.” Anne replied. “We were worried at first too, however we asked the vet and he said as long as she is not ingesting the plastic, it should be OK. If you look at the bottle caps, you’ll see all the plastic is still there and Sassy barely makes more than a few marks. Same for the nose spray bottles, she’s not eating them.”

“If you say so, but I still would rather see her gnaw on rawhide or pig’s ears or something like other dogs.”

“We’ve tried those, Michael.” Rose advised. “But Sassy just keeps going after the plastic. Hopefully she will grow out of it.”

Rose would eventually be right, but it would be years before Sassy gave up this simple pleasure — and it was not because she wanted to. However that”sliding door” of her life didn’t open just yet.

****

There’s a movie that came out in the late 1990’s called “Sliding Doors” — it starred Gwyneth Paltrow and was basically about how even minor happenstances in life can dramatically alter our future. While Liz’s Lonely Hearts Dinner and Anne’s choice of Sassy were two examples of sliding doors we’ve already seen, the fact is that I had to blindly navigate through a host of sliding doors in my own past to ever get to those points.

At this point in our story Anne and I were going strong; now in the third year of our relationship, we often talked about what the future held – marriage, kids, a home, and more. But it almost never happened because — had I never worked at USAA, I’d have never met any of the people that eventually connected Anne and I together, and you wouldn’t be reading this story. Looking back now, I still can’t believe how it all came together.

I grew up in a small town in north central Pennsylvania called “Williamsport.” Nestled in a beautiful valley surrounded by rolling hills, the city is best known for being “The Home of the Little League World Series.” Unfortunately, besides baseball and a gorgeous landscape, there wasn’t much to offer young adults who wanted more than just a career in the local factories.  As a result, I ran away to a high class (read “expensive”) business college in Baltimore, Maryland, with a plan to become a stockbroker on Wall Street and make millions. But, during my freshman year, I quickly realized that I hated economics and math and so gave up on the idea of being a stockbroker (although I still wanted to make millions) and instead switched my major to “Marketing” because it allowed me to B.S. my way through my classes (something I really was good at). Although I did well at college (graduating with the top GPA among Marketing majors) I turned down all my job offers and left Baltimore — mainly because I hated the cold weather and had no desire to remain in the northeast. My (new) sole desire after college was instead to move to sunny Florida and start a new life. But that almost didn’t happen because, when I returned home in the middle of 1993 to prepare myself for the big move, I took a summer job in retail to make some money for my trip — that’s when I met Lacey. I spent the rest of that summer trying to win Lacey’s heart, and for the time being forgot all about my Florida dreams.

There was, however, a bit of a problem in this boy meets girl tale, for you see, Lacey was engaged!

I didn’t let that little obstacle stop me though, because when I learned from her friends that Lacey’s fiance was not treating her well (among other things he’d knocked up another girl while dating Lacey), my ‘White Knight” complex kicked in and I made a pact with myself to ‘save’ poor Lacey at all costs.

Eventually I did — and nearly wrecked myself in the process.

Although the intensity of my full-court press to win her heart eventually worked, I wasn’t in a place in my life yet to know how to keep Lacey once I got her. The fact is that Lacey’s family was one of the wealthiest in town, while mine (like most families in Williamsport) had always struggled through a working-class life on the other side of the tracks. In addition to my lack of funds, I also didn’t yet have a career, a house, or any real plan for my future (all of which Lacey’s older, and now-ex, fiance did have). All I knew was that if I could move to Florida it would somehow solve all my problems (how’s that for a plan?), therefore once I won Lacey’s heart my only real goal was to convince her to move with me so we could build a life together there (and conveniently get away from her ex). But Lacey wasn’t looking for that — all she’d ever known was a life of care-free comfort in her father’s massive house which sat at the top of the biggest hill in town, had its own private access gate, and looked down on the rest of the city. Lacey’s goal was to get married, have kids, and enjoy her status in local society. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I wasn’t in a position to know how to provide those things to her yet because, besides the fact that I was saddled with debt from the loans and credit cards that had financed my education (and college fun), I was also still trying to sort out my own life’s goals. It didn’t help matters that her ex just didn’t just go away, or that I turned down her father’s offer to get me a job with his big name financial firm (I was afraid he’d find out about my pitiful finances and conclude his daughter was too good for me), or that we had to deal with the unavoidable drama of life in a small town (where everybody knows everything),and you can quickly see why Lacey and I didn’t last. I spent the next nine months in a drama-filled, on-again, off-again love triangle that would scar my psyche for years to come (you know what they say about Karma, right?).

Yet against the odds, Lacey eventually agreed to move with to Florida with me once I came up with a way to make it work. The plan was for me to move to Jacksonville, Florida where my aunt lived so I could find a job, and an apartment, and then once I established myself, Lacey was to move down with me. Everything went swimmingly at first and soon enough I had secured the job (cold calling on local businesses to sell them long-distance lines under a pseudo multi-level marketing scheme that promised to make me those millions – yeah right), and the apartment (paying a little more to be near the beach), and then flew back to PA to celebrate with Lacey. I remember that it was the opening week of March Madness in 1994 and my college (Loyola Maryland) had actually made the big dance for the first time in forever (I took that as a sign that surely everything was going to be right with the world), but unfortunately my school got blown out by powerhouse Arizona in their opening round game (perhaps I should have recognized that as a warning about my own future problems). As you can probably guess, although I flew back to Florida thinking all was going according to plan, ultimately things didn’t work out. Both my lucrative long-distance job and my long-distance relationship never panned out. On the job front, I salvaged things by taking a management position with a local Mailboxes, Etc. store (which was sure a long way away from Wall Street). On the relationship side, Lacey never did move to Florida — instead she called me one night to tell me she “just couldn’t make the move” and that she was returning to her ex to build a life with him.

I was devastated — I quit my job the next day, drove all night back to Pennsylvania, and walked into the Guess? store where Lacey was now an assistant manager and asked her to explain.

“I’m sorry, Michael.” Lacey told me. “It’s just not meant to be.”

“What if I move back here?” I asked. “Wouldn’t that–”

“We both know your heart is set on Florida.” Lacey interrupted, and before I could say more, she added, “There’s nothing you can say to change this. I’ll always value our time together, but we both should have known that it was too good to be true.”

Naturally I tried to change her mind, but this time none of my magic worked. While talking to her that day I could see it in her eyes — Lacey’s heart was no longer open to me. She was gone for good.

That realization damaged my psyche, and despite all my prayers over the next few weeks, nothing changed.

I languished at home and had no desire to do anything — even Florida was forgotten. A month passed. Then two. I was spiraling deeper into depression and didn’t know how to get out of it, nor did I even care. The sliding doors of my life all began to look the same — like black holes to nowhere.

I remember taking a nap in the middle of the day in a spare bedroom at my grandmother’s house — a place I often went for comfort during that trying time. That’s when I got a vision of Florida again. Somehow I got up the courage to make two phone calls — one to my aunt, the other to my old boss at Mailboxes, etc. In spite of the fact that I left both of them in a lurch when I had suddenly run off back to PA, amazingly both of them agreed to give me a second (and final) chance so that I could try to make Florida work again.

Thanks to them it did — and a new set of doors suddenly opened to me.

I spent the remainder of 1994 in Jacksonville working with my old boss on his new business — opening a series of music stores under the CD Warehouse franchise. The sliding doors of my life continued to churn as I went through a series of relationships in Jacksonville (all of them doomed by the memory of Lacey) and eventually took a job transfer that brought me to Tampa.

Tampa proved to be the Florida haven I had always been seeking — a sun-filled locale that offered plenty of job opportunities, an array of leisure activities, and a host of new friends. More importantly, time healed the pain of Lacey’s memory. Things went so well that even when my job situation with CD Warehouse soured (they fired my boss), I didn’t miss a beat, because one of my best customers recruited me to join his management team with Barnes & Noble. In addition to working together my new boss Jeff and I became fast friends too. And that brings us to the final sliding door that matters for our story…

On one of our days off from B&N, Jeff and I were to meet up at the local park to shoot some hoops. Unfortunately he couldn’t make it that day, so while I was shooting around I saw a group of men and women my age playing softball in a nearby field. It was clear they were practicing, and since they were missing a player, and since baseball had always been my first love, I got up the courage to ask them if they wouldn’t mind if I shagged a few balls with them. Having played baseball my whole life and being lucky enough to have been taught some great fundamentals, as fate would have it, I happened to make some nice plays that day — so much so that the group asked me to join their company-sponsored softball team. Do you have any guesses as to what the name of their company was?

USAA.

Because of that out of the blue softball practice I gained more new friends that day, and over the course of the softball season, when I later learned that USAA offered three and four day workweeks, along with higher pay and a better future than the retail world could ever offer, I eventually joined them at the company — walking through a sliding door that would change my life forever.

****

Our final sliding door involves Sassy and another group of friends from USAA. It also sets our story timeline back on track…

Although we no longer shared an apartment, Tim and I were still buddies — Tim had successfully courted a much younger woman (one nearly 30 years his junior) and eventually married her in 2002. As for Liz and Kris, they had not only gotten back together on that fateful Valentine’s Day when Anne and I first met back in 2000, but they’d actually married within a year as well. And since Liz and Kris now lived on a ski lake in a suburb just north of Tampa called “Land O Lakes,” their home became the central hangout for most of the friends in our group – besides Liz, Kris, Anne, and myself, others in our entourage included characters such as “The Boz” (a sports fanatic in his late 30’s who had the personality of a perpetual 12-year old and who often roped me into Jackass style pranks before there was such a concept), “DJ Mo-Money” (Kris’s best friend from high school who gave new meaning to the phrase “it’s always the nice guys you have to watch out for”), and “Smokey Room” (The Boz’s name for Liz’s friend Cindy whom he nearly hooked up with one night during a drunken pool party — only to avoid at the last minute when he decided that it would take a much smokier room for him to succumb). Throw in whichever girl was The Boz’s or Mo-Money’s mate at the time, along with an ever-changing menagerie of other friends looking for a good time, and it was pretty much a party every week on the lake.

As for Sassy, she was just as much a part of our group as the rest. She loved sitting in the sun with us on the dock, floating on an inner-tube with just off shore, and even going for rides in Kris’s speed boat. Yet while Sassy was carefree at the lake house, I always watched her like a hawk. First off because I didn’t want her going close to shore on her own for fear of snakes or gators (this was Florida after all — a land famous for ‘losing’ little dogs to the hidden dangers lurking in the water). And secondly because we’d learned long ago that Sassy was not the most graceful doggie in the world — whether it was Rose or Anne coming home from work to find something awry on the end table between the couches (the result of Sassy most likely stumbling off the backs of the couches as she made her way between them during the day), or simple things like Sassy falling off the ledge of a sidewalk when she ambled along during an evening walk, it was pretty clear that Sassy and the word “nimble” did not get along.

This was never more apparent then one evening when our group was relaxing on Liz’s dock just before sunset in late summer of 2002. The Boz was regaling us with a story about how he’d recently been involved in a Bachelors of Tampa Bay auction — while he admitted that he wasn’t the most sought after man of the event, he happily boasted that he was  purchased by a rather wealthy woman from South Tampa. He then proceeded to tell us the details of how his date went and lamented that unfortunately the woman just wasn’t his type (mainly because she was about twenty years his senior and already had multiple kids). Nonetheless, he had us all cracking up because while the story itself was amusing, even more so was the fact that he was strongly considering a relationship with her.

“Guys, she’s a divorcee worth millions!” The Boz explained further between gulps of his favorite beer at the time — Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. “How long do you think I would have to stick it out with her before I could get half?”

“Ah, dude, have you ever heard of a pre-nup?” Anne asked. “You’re the reason why those things exist.” And she clanked her glass of sangria in a toast with Liz at her side.

We all shared a laugh at that, and as The Boz continued trying to figure out a way to get his fair share for providing ‘services’ to his date, I arose from my chair to go inside and get another beer. Since Sassy was on my lap, I placed her on the dock and figured she’d either lay down on a towel or else go over to Anne’s chair. Since we’d been on the dock countless times with Sassy without any problems, so nobody else paid much attention to her, yet for some reason I got an uneasy feeling, so rather than making my way up the gangway to shore, I stuck around to see exactly what Sassy would do — and it’s a good thing I did. As it turned out, not only did Sassy not lay down on the towel by my chair, but she also didn’t go over to Anne either. Instead, Sassy apparently figured it was a good time for a boat ride and so she began to make her way over to Kris’ boat which was in its slip by the dock. Now it wasn’t like Sassy had ever jumped into the boat before on her own (it was about a two foot drop from the side of the boat into the well and that was a leap we’d never have let her attempt), so when I saw her amble over there was a bit of a surprise to me and I immediately ran towards her.

Unfortunately I was too late.

There was about a ten inch gap between the dock and the boat – an opening which Sassy did not account for as she scampered towards the edge of the dock. Seeing that she was not going to make it, I reached out to try to grab her — and missed — watching in horror as she plunged into the murky water!

“Oh my God!” Anne dropped her glass of wine when she saw Sassy fall. “Sassy, noooo!”

Chairs and drinks went flying behind me and everything was happening in slow motion as I leaned over the dock in the moments after Sassy’s fall. When Sassy didn’t immediately come back up for air, I knew it was bad – the water was so dark beneath the covered boat slip that I couldn’t see anything beneath the surface, but I knew from the ripples of the water and the boat rocking that Sassy could well be trapped under the boat, or the dock, or even tangled in the vegetation of the lake — all of which was a big problem. I briefly considered jumping off the dock to go after her, but I feared that it would take too long to make my way under the boat and that I wouldn’t be able to see her in the murky water anyway. So with my heart in my throat, I prayed to God, laid myself flat on the dock, and blindly thrust my arm into the depths at the spot where I saw Sassy drop.

Please, God, don’t let it end this way! Help me! Panic took hold of me as I fished around in the water – still not able to see anything beneath the surface and quickly fearing the worst, but unable to give up.

Thankfully God answered my prayer that day because somehow, against the odds, I was able to feel something small and hairy, and as soon as I did I yanked it out of the depths — it was Sassy!

Kris, The Boz, and Mo-Money had already jumped into the water and were all making their way over to the area as I brought Sassy up.

“Oh, God, give her to me,” Anne was bawling, while a tearful Liz tried to comfort her.

Sassy looked like an exhausted wet rat from her ordeal – waterlogged both inside and out. I handed her over to Anne and fell back onto the dock – overwhelmed by how close we came to almost losing her. It was a moment in time I will never forget – it was also the moment that I realized just how much I loved Sassy — I knew then that my life could never be complete without her in it and as a result I also realized it was high time that Anne and I moved our relationship to the next level.

As it turned out Sassy was just fine after her ordeal — leaving all of us there feeling lucky that the sliding doors of this life had been kind to us.

Well, all of us except for The Boz — because unfortunately he ended up choosing the wrong doors and therefore never did get the ‘half’ he was scheming for.

 

Sassy’s Life Lesson #6 – Thank God for Unanswered Prayers

There’s a song by Garth Brooks that I’m sure you’ve heard called “Unanswered Prayers” and it’s one of my favorites because as I look back on my life I can distinctly remember more than a few nights where I prayed to God asking him to make a relationship with XX girl work — and yet my prayers always went unanswered. At the time, that’s obviously no fun, but the good thing about getting older is that it gives you the perspective and the wisdom to see beauty that is the tapestry of our lives. There were countless sliding doors and close calls in my life between college and the time I met Anne — and any one of them could have taken me down a different path, away from my destiny. Thankfully none of them did.

Points to Ponder

Take a moment to think about all the sliding doors, close calls, and unanswered prayers of your life up to this point. How many times have you been disappointed in the past when things didn’t go your way at the time, only to later discover that while you didn’t get what you wanted back then, you actually did get what you needed to help get you where you were destined to be. That’s the beauty of your life – can you see it?

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