Crusaders for Humanity (a love story)

Crusaders for Humanity (a Love Story)

Dedicated to Alan, aka “The Albatross,” aka “Z”

Today, she was going to do it.


Call him on the phone. Invite him him to her apartment — no, to a public place. A coffee shop. A park. It would be better that way, with other people around. Avoid a scene.
She gripped her phone tightly. I’m sorry, Oliver, she would say. I can’t do this anymore. No more secrets. It’s better if we go our separate—


The phone began to vibrate. It was Oliver.


She took a deep breath and answered. “Hello?”


“Come over tonight at seven,” he said. “I’ve been unfair to you lately, I know. But tonight, I plan to make it up to you. I’ll explain everything, I promise.”


It’s too late, she thought. “I’ll be there,” she said, and hung up.


Twenty minutes, she decided as she showered and shaved her legs. She would stop by for only twenty minutes. She would tell him that she could no longer trust him. For months, he had lied to her. Told her that he was going out with the guy, for “poker and beers.” But that one night, while filled with suspicion and jealousy, she had traced his location. It was surprisingly easy to do. A small, round disc, which she’d purchased on Amazon and hidden in his car, after she’d connected it to a tracking app on her phone.
His “poker night” was not at Patrick Harrison’s house, as he’d said, but in an abandoned warehouse somewhere on the seedy side of town. What he was really doing in there was a mystery. Was it a brothel? A meth lab? A squatting facility for druggies? Whatever it was, it couldn’t possibly be good.


“So, did you win big?” she asked the next day.


“‘Fraid not,” he’d said with a tired smile. “Chuck Riley was the big winner tonight. Wiped our pockets clean.”


“I see,” she said.


The warehouse wasn’t the only strange thing she’d come across. There was that mile-long receipt from the Home Depot on his kitchen counter, filled with lumber and PVC pipes and a load of other things she couldn’t identify.


“It’s for a project my humanitarian group is working on,” he explained. Ah yes, his humanitarian group. Crusaders for Humankind, they called themselves. A sort of mercy group, whose aim was to help humankind to thrive.


“So what do these crusaders do?” she asked him. “Help the poor and needy?”


“Something like that.” He didn’t offer any other details.


Lately, he’d been edgy. Distracted, too. The last time they’d met, his eyes kept shifting to his phone, to some invisible spot over her shoulder, everywhere but on her. He’d snapped at her, too, when she asked him what was wrong.


“Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s fine, okay?” He’d pounded a fist on the table, just hard enough to slosh their drinks. It filled her with unease. Either something was very, very wrong, or she was getting her first glimpse of a side of him she’d never seen. A side she wasn’t sure she liked.


So this was it. She would tell him before dinner. Before he could charm her into staying the night, distracting her from her purpose. She pulled on a dress — the purple one that he liked, and a pair of heels, then applied her lipstick. She may as well look nice for the breakup, right? Then she slipped her phone into her purse and drove across town. There was a lot of traffic, and by the time she arrived, it was already after seven.


Oliver’s house was dark. She let herself in, flicked on the living room lamp.


“Hello?” she called. No answer. Leaving her heels by the front door, she padded into the kitchen. On the counter was an empty crystal vase surrounded by a ring of flickering tealight candles. Next to this was a frosty cold wine goblet filled with rosé, her favorite. Despite her resolve, she picked it up, took a sip.


That’s when she noticed it.


A trail of soft pink rose petals led away from the kitchen, toward the french doors, which were open to the backyard. She followed it. The trail continued across the patio, into the lawn, toward the garden shed, whose door was wide open. She took another sip and smiled, then crossed the lawn, relishing the feel of grass beneath her bare feet.


To her astonishment, the shed was empty inside, except for a flight of stairs leading underground. Oliver had never mentioned that he had a cellar. Was it a wine cellar? More petals were sprinkled on the metal steps. Bright lights shone from down below.


“Oliver?” she called down. Then she descended. When she was halfway down the stairs, there was a loud, metallic bang from. Gasping, she turned around. A panel had slid shut behind her, sealing the opening she’d just passed through. She swallowed the sudden feeling of anxiety that bubbled in her chest.


Just then, Oliver appeared at the base of the stairs. “Hayley,” he said. He was smiling, happy to see her. He held out a hand, and she took it, trembling.


“What is this?” she asked. They were in a large, bright room filled with comfortable seating. A kitchen area took up one corner of the room, including a large dining table, where a number of people were gathered. The walls were covered with a combination of beautiful artwork and large TV screens, each of which was playing a different movie. There were doorways, too, branching off toward hidden areas of the cellar. If you could call it a cellar.


“We call it The Retreat,” he said, leading her to a couch, where she sat and took another sip of wine. “Those people,” he said, motioning toward the dozen or so men and women gathered around the dining table, “are my fellow Crusaders for Humanity. We are preparing to launch the world’s largest effort to save humankind. And I’ve decided to include you in our effort.”


“Me? But…” she gaped, unsure how to tell him that she really just wanted to call it quits. It was over. They were finished.


He sat beside her and took her free hand in his. “I know that I haven’t been open with you. But I’d like to change that, beginning right now. You see, the Crusaders and I have been working very hard to do the right thing for all of humanity. And we decided together that the thing that humankind needs most is less humankind.”


She frowned. What on earth was he talking about? “Oliver, I need to talk to you in private.”


Just then, one of the men jumped up from his seat at the table. “Oliver, sir. It’s beginning.”


Oliver rubbed his hands together and turned toward one of the TV screens. Hayley turned, too. This was not a movie, she realized, but a camera trained on a plaza filled with real people.


“Ten thousand capsules,” said Oliver. “Planted in strategic locations by fellow Crusaders, all around the world. Each containing a deadly toxin. Once released into the air, the toxin will attack the vital systems of every unprotected human. Not pets. Not animals. Only humans.”


Hayley stared at him in horror. “What will it do to them?” Her voice cracked, throat dry.


“Kill them, of course. Except for us. And other Crusaders. We are all safe in our various retreats. We have enough food, water, and supplies to sustain a small community of people for the next five years. By then, the toxin will have become inactive. And we—” Again, he motioned toward the group of Crusaders, all of whom were smiling and nodding. “We will repopulate the planet. But this time, we will get things right. Humanity will thrive, and the world will become a much better place to live.”


Hayley felt like all the air had been sucked from her lungs. She set her glass on the small table beside her, then bent forward, resting her head on her knees.


“Are you okay, sweetheart?” Oliver’s hand stroked the back of her neck.


Hayley sat up and looked at him, eyes wide. “So then, you’re not a drug user? You don’t run a meth lab?”


He gave her a quizzical look. “No, of course not.”


“You don’t engage in human trafficking?”


“God, no. You know how I feel about such vile practices.”


She stood, waving her arms toward the TV screens, which flash to scenes in India, China, Australia. The invisible toxin is beginning to fill the air. People are choking, clawing at their chests, dropping to their knees. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time when you said you were going out to poker night with the guys?”


He hung his head, expression sheepish. “Yeah. I’m sorry I lied about it. That was pretty crummy of me.”


The cameras show London, New York City, Rio de Janeiro. Panic fills the streets. People are screaming, trying to outrun an enemy they can’t see. More bodies drop to the ground.


“It’s just, you know, a relationship can’t thrive when two people can’t be honest with each other.”


“She has a point, Oliver,” a woman piped up from the dining table.


Tokyo, Berlin, Stockholm.


“From now on, you have to open up to me. Share your hobbies with me instead of hiding everything. If you don’t talk to me, then I’m left to wonder what you’re up to, and I might jump to the worst conclusions.”


Oliver stood and wrapped his arms around her. “I promise, from now on, I’ll do better. I’ll be your dream boyfriend, okay?”


Hayley cocked her head to one side, considering. Then, over the terrified screams and gagging sounds of most of the world’s population dying at once, she said, “Okay. I’ll give you a second chance. Don’t blow it.”


“I won’t.” He kissed her then, and for that one brief moment, life was perfect.

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Constant (a poem)

Constant

Dawn rises, and I think of you.

The spray of the shower caresses my skin, and I think of you

In the crowded train, I think of you

Beneath the drifting clouds, I think of you

your name as constant as breath.

With every pounding step against pavement

in every crooning song

with the roar of the crowd

and the lowering of theater lights

in the hush that falls

as night paints the sky with stars

you, you, you…

The Many Flavors of Love (a Valentines Day Love List)

I love the sound of rain drumming against the roof, splashing against the pavement, trickling down the windowpane while I watch, warm and cozy indoors.

I love the way a good book transports me far away from the world I know, inserting me, like a fly on the wall, into the lives of other characters, in other places and times.

I love my three teens, who are now 14, 17, and 19. I love spending time with them, sharing laughter, traveling to new places, enjoying meals. My middle daughter is getting ready to graduate from high school soon, and head off to university. Then I’ll have three years left before my nest is empty.

I love trying new foods, and incorporating recipes from around the globe into my daily repertoire. In our house, vegetarian curries and Asian soups are just as common as spaghetti.

I love my sister and her kids. We talk surprisingly little for sisters who actually get along (She doesn’t respond to texts or phone calls often). But on rare occasions we do manage to connect, it’s pretty positive. She began her family much later than I did, so she and her husband have three very young daughters. Two of them have finally reached an age of comfort with being away from their mom and dad, so now we are beginning to have Auntie outings. Since my own kids are nearly grown, it’s really nice to be able to hang out with my young nieces. The next best thing to being a Grandma.

Fun outing with my daughter (right) and two of my young nieces (center)

I love my ex-boyfriend, who I refer to as “Z.” (The last letter of the alphabet for the last man I will ever date or fall in love with). Yes, it’s been more than a year and a half since we were together. But that means nothing to my heart. I hate that he is gone from my life. I love remembering the wonderful, though brief, relationship we had, how kind he was, and how happy we both were together.

Z and me perfect date San Francisco Japanese tea garden
“Z” and me on a couple of unforgettable dates during a weekend together in my favorite city.

I love my career. I love what I get to wake up and do every day. I work in IT, designing and building software systems that revolutionize business for many people. It’s very fulfilling (and pays well, too).

I love that feeling of euphoria I get at the end of a really intense workout or a long weekend run. Runner’s high is not a myth! Now if only we could experience that in the middle of the run, instead of the burning lungs and aching muscles…

I love writing. I especially love to write stories for other people to enjoy. If you read my stories and find yourself transported into another time and place, like a fly on the wall in some character’s life, then my job was well done.

I love a perfect cup of coffee (Decaf dark roast with cream and Splenda), or a perfect cup of tea (earl gray or chai, splash of milk, plus Splenda). Especially with a good book. Long ago, when I had friends, then sharing a perfect cup of tea or coffee while spending time with a good friend was pretty much nirvana.

Hot cup of tea

I love that this list is actually far longer, filled with music, and flowers, and candles, and soccer, and great movies, like Amelie, or Pride & Prejudice (2005), or Shakespeare in Love. I also love how this list continues to grow throughout my life, as I travel more, try new activities, and grow. Ideally, much of this list would be people-based, since really, things and experiences, while worthy of loving and enjoying, can’t love you back. (But then, I have grown quite used to not being loved back. That has never before stopped me from loving).

Whoever, or whatever you love, may you love them fully today, and every day. What’s more, I wish for you what I have always lacked most in life — that you feel fully, completely, and unquestionably loved in return.

Playing By My Own Rules (aka: Adaptability)

(This is a candid post and may contain inappropriate content for readers under the age of 18)

Here’s the part where I may disappoint you.

You see, I adapt.

Changes come, and I learn to lean into it. Ideas shift, and I shift mine, too. When needed. With each new decade, I learn to love the music (though the oldies are always near and dear, too).

When I was a married woman, and sex meant pain and discomfort and never pleasure, I found a way to adapt. Through fantasy. Harmless daydreams about some other man, in some other place. Fantasies that lifted me up, up, and away from that dreaded marriage bed where my ex-husband did his thing and got his fill while I lay there, suffering for the sake of fulfilling my “wifely duties,” as he put them. Because that was what a good Christian woman was supposed to do. Take it. Submit. Give over her body, because it belonged to him, you see.

But I didn’t have to give over my mind.

Harmless fantasies, so I thought. Until I confessed it to the ex. Because isn’t that what married couples should do? Be honest, and truthful, and share everything, and work through everything behind closed doors?

Nope.

I was punished for my honesty. Punished for my imaginary affair. He even threw out my vibrator. My tiny, self-absorbed world of sex maybe not being the worst thing ever, destroyed. (Ironically, I was punished even more when he actually began cheating with other woman — his whipping boy, as he was unable to punish himself).

So I changed the rules.

“Z,” the wonderful man I dated over a year ago, confessed in the end that I was not the only woman he had been dating from the dating app where we both met. He chose her, he told me. And then, he left.

But know what? I was not devastated to learn that he was not dating me exclusively. I had already suspected it. It was not a big surprise. I was not jealous. That isn’t my way. I was only devastated that he left.

Perhaps you wonder, what would I have done? Stayed with a man who was disloyal? Well…yes. On this condition. He would have had to agree to an open relationship. And to brutal honesty. I’d want to know every detail of every fantasy or encounter. And to safety, because I’d rather not wind up contracting an STI.

Disappointed yet?

Well too bad. These are my rules.

Here’s what I learned: my ex-husband’s infidelity led to my being punished. My fantasizing about some other man led to my being punished. My ex-sort-of-boyfriend was dating another woman, which led to him leaving — aka, my being punished.

So it only seems logical that the way for me to avoid being punished by people crossing some invisible, man-made barrier is to…remove the barrier. Ta-da! No jealousy. No fear that one’s partner may be straying or having thoughts about someone else. No worries that I, being not very good in bed, and not very into sex, would be unable to meet my partner’s sexual needs, because he is allowed to get them met elsewhere — as long as he comes back to me.

(And no, I wouldn’t want to barriers removed so that I can stray. With my low sex drive and indifference about sex, I wouldn’t need that.)

None of the bad stuff. Just absolute trust. Absolute honesty. Absolute intimacy between two people who understand each other enough to admit that perhaps it’s not enough to keep it between two people for life. Freedom for two people who love each other to figure out how to make it work in our own way, by our own rules.

I know. For many readers, this kind of thinking is way too outside the box. But I am a problem-solver. A solutions-seeker. A highly adaptable human being who dislikes pain and prefers to make as many people happy as possible. Myself included.

Anyway, this is nothing more than a thought experiment. As I have mentioned before, “Z” will forever be my last, because I love him, and met my true match in him. I don’t ever wish to be in any relationship with anyone else, whether open or closed.

That, too, is adaptability.

the last (a poem)

that place where songs are birthed

glimmers like dawn on a rippling spring

dew glistening

on pale fragile growth

sweetest perfume of newborn rose

velvet softness of untouched skin

where I once danced free beneath the palms

music spilling from within

red and gold as sun setting on private beach

lyrics of love

of pain

of joy

of rage

of all that beat and flowed and pulsed

until you appeared

 
You, with footprints matching mine on silver sands

You, whose heart pumped the same rhythm

You, with honeyed voice that sang my tunes with yours

 
then pushed me away

drawing dark curtains around what was us

changing substance to smoke

locking the gates of Euterpe and Terpsichore

as I, choking on what remains

clutch dried petals to my breast

in mourning that never ends

living for the memory of dew

memory of dance

memory

of all that beat and flowed and pulsed

 
i have no song left in me.

Strive to Thrive (aka: A Self-Love Letter)

People are a mess, aren’t we?

I mean, we try. We each do our best to survive the Monday, to make it to the end of the year, year after year. But who wants to live a life that’s all about surviving? It’s so much better when we strive to thrive.

(Did I just make up that slogan? Because I love it and would totally wear the t-shirt).

Thriving can be hard, though. Sometimes, really, really hard. We know what we need to do to live better, to be better people. But it takes a great deal of effort and consistency. Exercise more. Eat less. Read more, communicate better, and above all, love harder. Love your spouses, love your kids, love your neighbor, love yourself.

Self Love Collage

It’s that last one that throws people into a tailspin. What does that mean to love myself? Does that mean I’m not loving myself if I like to change my hairstyle or sculpt my body into a different shape? Isn’t it possible to love yourself too much and turn into a narcissist?

Let me clear this up: Self-love is not narcissism! Got it? They are two very different things.

Self love says:

I am worthy and valuable, and so are other people.

I deserve good things in my life, and so do other people.

I deserve to be treated with respect and kindness, and I will treat others the same way.

My goal is not to compete with those around me, but to constantly grow into a better version of myself.

I want to lift other people up so that they feel better about themselves.

Narcissism says:

I am superior to other people.

I am more worthy and valuable than others.

I deserve more good things than other people and envy those who are more successful than me.

People must admire me, or my ego will be shattered.

I must put others down in order to feel better about myself.

(You can read more about this here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201206/self-esteem-versus-narcissism)

Confident free happy woman

Self love is a necessary component to being a happy and secure person. It means looking in the mirror each day and fully accepting yourself — every blemish. Every scar. And know what else? When you can fully accept yourself, then you can also learn to fully accept others. Every blemish. Every scar. Self love lets you laugh at your silly quirks and flaws, and to forgive yourself. And when you can forgive yourself, guess what? You can forgive others.

It comes in that order. First you, then others.
A match with no flame can’t light candles. A lighthouse with no inner light can’t guide ships to shore. You’ve got to love yourself first. Turn on your light, my friends.

love hands heart

Today, I love:

Those tiny crinkles around my eyes when I smile; a marker of many years of smiles and laughter.

My short, springy, curly hair. Some days, I flat-iron it until it’s straights and long. But mostly, I wear it free, run my fingers through the soft curls. I love to stretch them out and watch them bounce back into shape. Boing! Just like that little girl in the Ramona Quimby story.

The way I rise early in the morning, ready to go for a run, ready to pull on my kick-ass boots , face the world, and smash my goals.

The inner wind that pushes me. It drives me forward until I see each project to completion. It focuses me, and enables my self-discipline when motivation fails me.

The treasure trove of stories that dance in my brain, eager to escape when I sit before a blank screen, ready to write.

I love my goodness, and my messiness, my corny sense of humor, even those moments when I feel too serious, overwhelmed by the misery and hopelessness in the world (like Artax, Atreyu’s horse, in the Swamps of Sadness).

Cute curly hair

Because I love myself, I will continue to strive to thrive, to do better, to be better. I will be my own queen, wearing my crown with pride. And I will do my best to lift up those around me, those who still struggle with loving themselves, until we are all kings and queens of our own destinies. There are plenty of thrones to go around.

Retipuj, Sneerglaw (and Other Backwards Things)

Being from Jupiter was never easy on my social life. It’s kind of like how people grow up speaking a different language, then try to learn English. No matter how fluent they become, native-born Americans can always detect the accent. No matter how much I studied and tried to behave like the other humans my age, people just always seemed to sense that I was…different. As though everything I do has an accent.

Over time, after many peer rejections, I stopped trying so hard. I just gave into my weirdness and decided to like what I like and love myself, quirks and all. I spent much of my time absorbed in books, often re-reading my favorites. I watched movies and inserted the quotes into normal conversations whenever I could. I checked out music albums from the local library and built up an eclectic repertoire ranging from silly folk songs to classic rock. I amused myself with silly pastimes, like reading signs backwards.

“Look! Walgreens spelled backwards is sneerglaw!” I would say, cracking up laughing.

“God, you are so weird,” my siblings would tell me, rolling their eyes. I just shrugged and hunted for more signs to read backwards, which for me, came just as naturally as reading them forward. Tixe! TramK! Rouqil! Atoyot! It was my own private language; words that no one else could understand, which held magical meanings for me. It could be terribly lonely, though, to understand things on a level that wasn’t common to those around me. But that’s life when you’re from Jupiter.

Backwards words

Once in a great while, I would find someone else who kind of got it. At least, to some extent. Like Sabrina in middle school, who understood the deep pleasure of living through good books. And Jason, who acted normal in real life, but in private, sang along with me to every single Madonna song in existence, including the B-sides, in harmony. Then Chris Y., who always won when our history class played Jeopardy, and who just quietly seemed to “get it,” whenever we talked about any serious subject in depth. Maybe they were from Jupiter, too. Who knows? 

Jupiter

Then in college, I met Valarie. It took maybe seconds for us to realize that we were kindred spirits from some far away world. We were so much alike, although she had the smooth resilience of obsidian, and I was basalt, riddled with small holes that let everything in. We both read obsessively. Sang along to music that our families had never even heard of. Spoke with the same bubbly energy (although my accent was decidedly more California valley girl). It never took long in any conversation for one of us to spit out a quote from a movie or TV show, and the other would spit out the next line without missing a beat. 

“Want to go shopping at Tegrat?” I would ask her. 

“Sure,” she would answer, as though this were a perfectly ordinary request. “Then afterward, we can go grab some lunch at Synned.”

The connection between us was so rare and powerful, that we were inseparable friends. That is, until we decided to work at the same Girl Scout camp one summer. Valarie told a lie to the director that ended up putting me in a very uncomfortable situation. I was hurt, very hurt by her betrayal, yet still, I forgave her.

But she couldn’t forgive herself.

After that summer, she disappeared from my life. Stopped taking my phone calls. Wouldn’t respond to my letters. I moved to a new town and attended a different college, and didn’t hear from Valarie again until 2008, when we both began to use Facebook.

“So what do you think about Harry Potter?” she asked me when we reconnected. And it was like the last decade had never happened, and we were great friends all over again. We obsessed over the Yrrah Rettop series, and argued over whether Stephen Fry or Jim Dale was the better narrator (Jim Dale, hands down, though Stephen Fry got much better by Year 5). We swapped recipes, debated politics, and spoke in the language of literature and movie quotes. 

A year later, she disappeared again, with no warning, and for no reason. At the time, it was sad, but not the end of the world, since I had two other very close friends who also “got it,” even though they weren’t quite as into my backwards-speaking tendencies. When I lost them, too, thanks in part to my own poor choices, I was devastated.


It took 7 years before at last, I connected with another kindred spirit. “Z,” the man I dated for awhile in 2017, was a kind of miracle for me. No, we didn’t speak in movie quotes, and I never did get around to confessing that I read everything backwards and forward, literally. But we clicked in so many ways, on a deep level, as well as shallow. The core of me had been thirsting for a kindred spirit like him, and I drank him in like retaw. 

Then he left. (And ah, here come the saert, right on cue). He left, and one year, three months, and almost three weeks later, my heart still aches, and I would do anything if he would just reappear, and be my good friend. But maybe he, too, detected my alien accent, and didn’t understand.

The human world is so easy with relationships. They preach of how people come and go, and how one must let go, move on, make new friends. But their language is as foreign to me as backwards-speak must be to them. Maybe they are all obsidian, like Valarie, able to let it all roll over their surface. While for me, it’s different. True connection with people, and the love I feel for them, gets deep inside my pores, and can’t be extracted or forgotten. 

Or maybe, like my odd way with words, other humans have it all backwards. For so many centuries, people lived clustered together in small, tight-knit communities. They stayed together despite their differences, because that was how humans survived and thrived. People didn’t come and go from your life until someone died. Good and bad, perfect and imperfect, they remained together, and strengthened connections. No one mysteriously disappeared from your life, unless they got dragged off by a bear. 

Maybe the modern concept of relationships coming and going like freeway traffic is the real alien here. A sort of human devolution. We were never meant to break connections the way we do.

I would love to have a chance to discuss this with the people who still live deep inside of me. With my former best friends. With Z. And with Valarie, wherever she may be now. I don’t know if they would agree with me, but I think they would really get it.