Sunday, April 5, 2020

Windfall is better than a freefall

My older Brother wrote an excellent rebuttal to my earlier post, Yea bipartisanship, Oh Wait! Enjoy.

Earlier this week Nathaniel posted about $2 Trillion dollar bill which passed with rare bi-partisan support. Normally I agree with Nathaniel's sense of fiscal responsibility,but in this case I think he missed the mark.

Nathaniel is probably right that the bill is a bad one and that it will lead to windfalls for companies and individuals who don't need it. But if a fire is starting in your kitchen you don't stop to think about the best way to put it out you just start throwing water as quickly as you can. So I'll do my best to defend each part of the bill that my little brother took issue with.

First the check to each American. To be clear this is NOT a check to everyone. Many people (myself included) don't qualify. Ideally this money would only go to people whose income is being impacted, but the writers did have the sense to exclude people with high income who likely will be able to get by if they do miss a month of wages. If economist and tax professionals had spent 3 months to develop a more targeted plan I'm sure they would have saved billions of dollars. However, it would have been debated in Congress for 3 months and failed to get any support. Of course by then it would have been far too late for people whose paychecks are now cut in half (or taken away completely).

The second point is additional unemployment insurance. Nathaniel argued that this was also a windfall as people could make more on unemployment then they do in their normal employment. You could argue that this incentives people not to work. Normally you want to avoid such incentives, but in this case it is exactly the behavior we are trying to achieve.

I work at an office where we are given ample paid sick leave and even if we didn't I am sure no one would go hungry if they missed a few days of pay. Yet it is all too common that people come to work sick, as they don't want to be seen as being "slackers". From what I hear the on-site child care center is even worse as no one wants to miss a day of work because their child is sick. Now if people who still get paid to stay home when they are sick don't stay home, then what is the likely hood that someone who is living paycheck to paycheck will? The "windfall" is needed as the ~ 10 million people who filled for unemployment in the past 2 weeks would like to keep working, but they have been forced to stop to help save the lives of those in their communities. Those people should not be punished just because their line of work was not deemed essential and they don't have the luxury of being able to do their work from home.

The last element, the business bailout, is also essential. Several industries have been specifically hurt by this pandemic. Some of their businesses would have been naturally impacted (cruise lines and airlines) others were impacted in advance by companies being good stewards (Disney when they shut down their parks) and finally there are the businesses that were shutdown by government decree (initially restaurants, but now it covers many more). This businesses should not be shutdown for their help in fighting the pandemic.

I agree that some of these companies put themselves in a bad place due to over leveraging themselves. Politicians have been vilifying companies who have been buying stock back the past few years and are now on the brink of insolvency. I don't think the issue is the stock buy backs but rather the unsustainable level of debt. I would understand the concern that companies will come to rely on government more in times of disruption. But given the strings that will likely be attached and the political backlash for using it for anything deemed unfit companies will wish that they had the freedom of the companies still in good standing (ie. Microsoft, JnJ, GOOGL).

The real issue with this bill is not the bill at all. The issue is that for the last 10 years we have had a decreasing unemployment rate and a healthy economy and we chose to cut taxes and increase spending. Our government basically took the same position as the companies loading up on debt and using their money for share buy backs.

Compare the companies and the governments cash ability to weather this pandemic to that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church also drew the scrutiny of people in the church and out a few months ago when a whistle-blower claimed the church had amassed a fortune of $100 Billion. Many questioned if it was right for any organization (especially a non-profit) to accumulate so much wealth. It became apparent in later SEC filings that it was actually less than $40 Billion. That the church had built up so much should not have been a surprise to anyone. In each general conference the auditor says the church lives by the principles it teaches living within a budget, avoiding debt, and saving for a future time of need. If we had all only followed similar principles. With the recent stock market crash the church account is probably close to ~ $25 Billion. The church will of course see a drop in tithing receipts this year, they will see a large increase in demand at the bishops storehouse (the church run food bank), they will see an increase in humanitarian aid request, mission cost will stay high, and they still have the cost of operating temples around the world. But even with all of these changes the church will be able to continue to their planned construction of new Temples across the world.

If we had taken advantage of the recent growth in the economy by reducing our debt, then this $2 Trillion dollar pill would be a little easier to swallow. So that leads me to the advice for Nathaniel and others who are getting their cash payouts. Save/Invest it! We haven't seen the worst of this yet. Many more of us will be out of work before it is over. It is very possible that if you don't need it today you will need it in a month or two. And if you are fortunate and you don't see any impact to your income. Then in theory we will need to pay this back in the form of higher taxes eventually. If that day ever comes, you will be ready for it and just like the church you will be able to continue with everything else you had planned without any financial disruption.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Chapter 22- The Discovery


(As always if you are new to the book here are links to the earlier chapters, Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3 Chapter 4Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9 and Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, Chapter 16, Chapter 17,  Chapter 18, Chapter 19, Chapter 20 and Chapter 21).

The lake was exactly the way Byron remembered it. Five A.M. was early for Byron. He couldn’t recall the last time he had been up this early, definitely not in the past decade. He had stared at the alarm clock, daring it to continue it’s blaring, hoping that it was incorrect about the time and that he could return to sleep. But now that he saw the fog slowly clearly as he and his father quietly sat in his father's small row boat, casting out into the perfectly placid water he was grateful to be up.

The sun crested over the horizon as Byron realized it had been far too long since he had found himself so busily doing nothing. After Julie had asked for a divorce, he quickly cleared his calendar and decided to get away. He didn’t care where, just away. Without knowing where else to go he ultimately decided on home and called his Dad.

“Dad, can I come visit. Maybe, for a few days...maybe a week.”

Even if Byron’s voice hadn't been trembling and on the verge of tears his Father's answer would have been the same. “I can’t wait to see you. You tell me when and I’ll be at the airport. I could use a break also, perhaps fishing?”

And that is exactly how it went, and here they were doing their favorite father, son activity.

The thing that made fishing so popular for both Byron and his Dad was that it didn’t require talking. Byron loved that his dad was never pushing him to say what was going on in his life. In high school his friends said that trips with their fathers were excuses for an inquisition, how’s school? Who’s your best friend? What’s your favorite class? Like any girls? But Byron’s Dad never pushed. Byron enjoyed that in his youth but now he wished his Dad would make an exception now.

Byron didn’t want to admit it, but he needed to talk. After an hour in silence he realized that if he needed conversation it would be incumbent on him to take the lead. “Dad, um… there are some things I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Okay, Byron. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Dad, did you ever have any tough times with Mom?”

“Sure, everyone has tough times. No marriage is perfect.”

“Well, things are definitely not perfect with Julie and I.” Byron waited for the follow up question, but it never came. Dad was not one to pry any further than he was offered. So, Byron finally said, “She wants a divorce.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” He slowly reeled in his line, pulled it up to see that there was still some bait and then made a gentle cast out into the perfect stillness. “Do you want a divorce?”

“No, not really. In fact, I really had planned on telling her that I loved her when she asked for a divorce,” Byron said.

“You have been married for a while now, haven’t you told her that you love her before.”

“No I haven’t.” Byron decided it was time to fill his father in on some of the complexities of his marriage. And an hour later, Byron’s dad was more or less up to speed. He knew about how they had met, why they had married, their recent mechanical dating and even about good old Charles.

“So, did you date her only because your father-in-law asked or did you enjoy the time with her?”

“Like I said, I planned to tell her I loved her, and I do. I love her, I love spending time with her. But I feel like I can’t stop her from having a chance to date someone else, if she really wants to. What can I do?” Byron asked.

“Son, there is something I think you should know. Something I think your mother would want you to know.” Byron’s heart was as still as the water in front of him. The tone was something he had never heard before, and he could sense that it was important. “When you were a senior in college your mother had an affair.”

“What?”

“She had gone to work full-time after you left for college and found herself regularly traveling with her boss for work.”

“Was that why she quit that Law Firm.”

“Yes, after the affair she felt guilty, quit her job and came to me on bended knee, begging for forgiveness.” He reeled in his line, picked his pool out of the water, set it down in the boat and turned to Byron. “I didn’t want to forgive her. The truth was, I was bitter, and unwilling to face the truth. The truth that I for years took her for granted, ignored her needs, and her dreams. I knew the affair was as much my fault as hers, but it was easier to blame, and embrace my bitterness. I knew everyone would be on my side, all I would have to say was, ‘she cheated’, and everyone would understand. So, I began working with an attorney on the divorce. He had dropped papers off at my office for me to take home and sign. I walked in one night with those papers in my hand. Your mother had no idea.

“I had a chip on my shoulder bigger than me. And I hadn’t been in the house five minutes before I was upset and arguing. She had been out all day at interviews and looking for a job so hadn’t gotten to dinner. I had just said, and it’s hard for me to admit it, but I said, ‘at least at the last job when you didn’t have time to make dinner you helped pay for it, even if you were sleeping with your boss.’

“That is when the phone rang. Your mother let it ring a few times as she tried to cover the tears. She answered and I could tell it was you. I started to head to my study, since I assumed you wanted to talk to her. I was surprised when she stopped me and said you wanted to talk to me, it was the first time that I recall you calling and asking for me, when it wasn’t my birthday.

“ ‘Dad.’ you said, ‘I have decided what I want to be.’ You were so excited, that I couldn’t even bring myself to say, ‘Couldn’t you figure this out before your senior year in College.’ So, I simply asked you, ‘what?’, and you said, ‘marriage counselor.’

Of all the things you could have said at that moment you said, ‘marriage counselor.’

“ ‘Why son?’ I asked. I don’t know if you remember what you said, but I will never forget it. You said. ‘Because of you, Dad. Because of you and Mom. I know your marriage isn’t perfect but you work it out. Through good and bad, you work it out. I want to give people what you have. So many people give up so quickly on their marriage. I want to give them what you have.’ Those words. ‘I want to give them what you have.’ You probably didn’t repeat it ten times but that is how many times I heard it. It kept going over and over in my head. My son was basing the career for the rest of his life to give people what I had. And what did I have? An unfaithful wife, a broken marriage, anger, and resentment. I felt that I had nothing.

“Yet you thought I had something to share with the world, something worth saving. There was a huge divide between what I thought I had and what you thought I had. ‘If only he knew, really understood,’ I thought. I stayed up late into the night debating calling you, to let you know that if you planned to spend your life giving people what I had, that you were going to waste your career. To let you know that your mother and I were over, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was somewhere between praying and yelling at God when I muttered, ‘do I have anything worth saving?’ and I heard a voice. I don’t think it was an angel or anything but a voice said so clearly in my head, ‘yes’. ‘Your son is right. You do have something worth saving.’

“I wept more than I had in years and began to realize for the first time, so many things I had been blind to. I knelt down and asked God to help me see what you and He saw in my marriage. I cried, I prayed, and at some point during that restless night, I took the papers I had brought home and burned them. It wasn’t easy, but from that moment I began to build the trust, forgiveness and love that I had spent years tearing down.

“The night your mother lay dying in the hospital. I remember looking over at her so grateful for that night. So grateful for your career and what you were doing. You had saved me from wrecking my life, and had given me years of joy that I would not trade for every cent I ever had. I have always been proud of you son, and particularly because you are doing the most important things any human being can do, saving the most precious thing this world has to offer, family.

“Now I know that you and Julie are not exactly your typical family. But honestly, in that regard you are like everyone else.”

Byron laughed as he wiped his nose and eyes, “What is that supposed to mean?”

“All I mean is, no one is typical. All our families are weird and unique. But what is important is they are ours. And what you taught me is no matter how far gone you think they may be, no matter how much you think you don’t have something worth saving, you have more than you realize. At least, I am so thankful that a young, want to be marriage counselor helped me decide to realize and save what I had. And I think, no matter what happens you will always regret it if you don’t try to save what you have.”

Byron allowed the moment, thoughts and words to all set in. “Dad, do you mind if we call it a day, and I get a ride to the airport. I think I better get home.”

The engine was started before Byron could finish, “Eye-eye captain.” his Dad said as they headed for shore.


Next Chapter 23.

Risk, Corona and Judging others


Risk Board Game : Target
Facebook is often a place for us to post or notice extremes and this Corona epidemic is no exception. I see hundreds of post claiming it is a hoax made up by the media to scare us and control us. These post focus on statistics that show that Corona isn't much more deadly than many of the common risk of death we deal with everyday, heart failure, flu, smoking or car accidents.

On the other hand, I see the posts that this Corona virus will leave millions in the US dead if we don't do exactly as our leaders demand, avoid large groups (the magic number seems to be 10), avoid leaving our home, stay 6 feet apart, where masks, and under no circumstance visit others. This group is gone to public shaming if you fail to comply, and mocking politicians they feel who don't go far enough or who were too slow to react (our President being their favorite target.)

These groups seem to see the whole Corona pandemic from very different lenses and most of us likely fall somewhere between. But who is right? Before I answer that can I go on a bit of a lecture about risk?

Risk is a major part of my job in Dam Safety. It is my job to ensure that the dams I oversee do not fail and kill people down stream. Can I 100% promise the dams won't fail? No. I have to make an estimate of the risk that dam poses to downstream population. In my job we attempt to keep all risk of losing one life in any given year at or below 1 in 10,000. We call this "tolerable risk". Meaning our industry feels that is the risk that society will tolerate dams to pose.

My study of risk has taught me a few things.
1. We are horrible at estimating low probability events: Partially because we have a hard time wrapping our brain around probability lower than 1 in 100 to 1 in 1000. There is something about very small numbers, 1 in 100,000 or 1 in a million, that we can't grasp. Most of us fall into one of two camps when numbers get this small. Either, this is basically zero so don't worry about it, or there is still a chance so we over worry about it.

Another way of looking at this is would you buy a lottery ticket? It depends, are you of the camp that says the chances are basically zero, so I am throwing my money away. Or are you of the camp that says there is a chance, so why not?

2. Perceptions drives our view of risk more than actual risk: One of the most interesting phenomenons in risk is that we as a society tolerate a lot less risk in mass casualty situations. The most classic example of this is cars vs. planes. We all know commercial planes are far safer than driving vehicles, we are told this over and over. Why? Because we as a society tolerate much less risk in commercial planes and have forced the industry to be much safer, and it comes at a very high cost. Why are we willing to pay it? Because when an airline goes down with 100+ passengers, it is all over the news and we simply demand action. Look at the recent failures of two Boeing 737 max's (October 29, 2018 Lion Air Flight 189 Dead, March 10, 2019 Ethiopian Airlines flight, 157 dead). All the 737 Max's were grounded there was huge public outcry and demand that action be taken. But think about it, this was a total of 346 deaths in the air over about 6 months, and this was world wide. During the same time there was over 600,000 motor vehicle deaths, no outcry or demands that companies who make cars need to be held accountable, or demand cars stay in their garages.

You could say the same thing about guns or many other things. One mass casualty shooting that kills 15 people will have 1000 times more coverage and therefore calls for action, than 15 individual murders committed using  the same style weapon.

Likewise our perception is driven largely by a very small number of interactions. Think of the person whose neighbor gets Corona and dies, versus the person whose neighbor get's Corona and says, it was no big deal and recovers 100%. Now the person's neighbor was one data point among millions, yet because of our interaction with this person it may sway our view of the risk much more than that one data point really should.

3. True Fear magnifies risk immensely: Once we truly fear a situation and I mean really fear it, it doesn't matter if the risk is 1 in 10 or 1 in 10 Million, we will do anything to avoid it. I want to give an example and I hope my wife will forgive me. My wife handles situations very well. I think she does better than most at weighing risk and then making wise decisions based on those risks. As such she has handled the Corona situation in a level headed manner, that is until she read a certain article. The article was about how even though very few infants died, 10% are being hospitalized and it gave an example where because the infant had COVID the Mother had been exposed, so she was told she had to stay at home and be on quarantine and could not be with the baby at the hospital.

Being separated from her 3 month year old son is a true fear of my wife. What is the risk that it would happen? We would have to calculate the risk of the baby coming in contact with the infection, risk he gets the infection, risk he goes to the hospital, risk our hospital has the same policy as this one and won't allow her to stay...Anyway, the risk is likely very, very small. But it doesn't matter, she will do anything to avoid that situation. Shortly after she read this, I woke up at like 2 AM, my mouth had been open, so it was dry. I cleared my throat and coughed. That was it, she was convinced I had Corona. She wouldn't kiss me and debated kicking out of the bed that night. Likewise, she has increased the amount of isolation our family has. Fear of a specific outcome magnifies risk beyond their true value.

4. Every has different tolerable risks: I mentioned earlier that the Dam Safety industry has put a risk tolerance at 1 in 10,000 chance of loosing one life in a year. But that is trying to average what risk society will allow in a given industry. Every individual has different risk tolerances. And risk tolerances are a big part of all risk decisions.

5. Our Risk choices affect others: While our risk tolerance is personal, whatever risk choices we make will affect those around us. When and how we drive will affect others, our decision to engage in risky behaviors such as drug use, or open sexual behavior. All of these choices will have impact on the world around us.

6. Good risk analysis requires data- If you really want to understand the risk of an event happening. You need a lot of data to get an accurate number. Data takes money, time and effort to get, lots of it.

So, what is the point. Who is right when it comes to COVID? Everybody and nobody, or simply put, we really don't know. Let me break down how both sides are right and how both sides are wrong.

The side saying this is all a hoax and politicians and everyone else is over reacting- Clearly COVID-19 is real, people really are dying, it is clearly very contagious. We should not ignore science and we should be anxious for the new data we get as time goes on. I think this side is wrong that the media is purposely just making this up to scare us, or control us or whatever the conspiracy theory of the day is.  I think it is wise to take precautions to avoid getting infected and spreading Corona. Ignoring all the advise, to stay home, watch hands, social distance etc... is unwise.

However, this side is correct that our current judgement of this risk is based more on perception than reality, and magnified by lopsided coverage and fear. What do I mean by that? Because we are all going through this together, we as a society, watching the numbers going up day by day. Getting 24-7 news media about it etc... Our perception of this is more closely related to what would go through our mind in a mass causality situation. We naturally as stated above tolerate much less risk as a society in such situations, weather or not that is logical. Compare to the flu, we don't track every death and wonder how bad it will be every year. We don't hear about every celebrity who gets it, or every quasi-clerity who dies from it. (I have read and heard more news coverage about people who are supposedly famous, who I have never heard of, because they died of Corona than I thought possible.) But the CDC estimates that as much as 60,000 people die a year in the US with the flu. Will COVID-19 exceed that number? We really don't know. It is looking increasing likely with deaths of around 1000 a day. But, if this bug is seasonal that may drop off quickly in the next month and we may not reach that total. I have considerable hope that Nevada for instance, where I live, which has had 43 deaths, will not exceed it annual death toll from the flu (636 in 2017), but I really don't know.

The other thing that changes this is, it is a new disease, therefore it is unknown and we naturally fear the unknown. And there is some logic to this. When we go to calculate the risk we say to ourselves, what is the chances that if I get this I will die. The truth is we have no idea at this point. The world health organization put the chances at 2-3%, which is very high for a disease. Those are big enough risk numbers that we can really wrap our mind around them. But what is clear is that we really don't know how accurate this estimate is. The death rates vary wildly from country to country and state to state. Much of this is from limited testing. There is anecdotal evidence that some people get this disease and have mild to no symptoms. Given that, it is almost impossible to say what the death rate is. Are there twice as many people sick as have been tested? Ten times? 100 times? Nobody at this point really knows. And of course, the death rate varies wildly on age, health condition, past and current health choices etc...

Now for the other-side. The, take pride to stay at home and shame anyone who isn't and let's shame the politicians who aren't as cautions as I am. Maybe my problem with this side is the dirty looks I get when I go outside for a walk with my family. Yes, we are violating the don't congregate in groups of 10 rule, I have 8 kids and a wife and we decided we will still all live together despite Corona and the government suggestion. Almost every decision we make is risked based and when we make the decision we have to weigh the risk to ourselves, to those around us, and the benefits taking that risk will bring.

That is why many of us choose to shop. There is a risk associated with it, but we like food and get a general benefit from it. Some say, we all have to eat. But the truth is, most of us could buy a months worth of oatmeal and survive with no trips to the store, but we like variety in what we eat. We like and benefit from fresh food, so for our personal benefit, we risk society and ourselves and go to Costco to get our milk, bananas and chocolate chip cookies.

But should we visit our neighbors? No, No, No. I hear a group crying out, posting facebook memes to dissuade us of this evil practice. Do you hate them? You ask. Aren't you putting yourself and them at risk for no reason? I am not so sure on this one. Social, face to face interaction has many benefits. People need physical touch. I agree with my wife that separating a new born from their Mother is wrong and in that case, I think the benefits of letting them be together outweigh the risk. I worry that none of us are visiting our most vulnerable part of society because of fear or a disease we don't fully understand, this may have lasting negative consequences. More than the many deaths it would save otherwise? I don't know. I don't think any of us do.

What I do know is this? The risk varies greatly from place to place at this time. If I choose to visit my Grandma when we both live in rural Kansas and have both been socially isolating, is a lot different than if I live in New York city and have been going to work everyday in a hospital.

We also really don't know enough about this disease to accurately say what all our precautions are doing. It is clear to me that the actions we have taken will reduce the amount of lives lost from Corona. But by how much? I don't think we really have an accurate picture of that.

Governors, Mayors and our President all have some very difficult decisions to make. And they are making them will very little data, and with no time to really calculate and weigh it out. I do not envy them. There are risks to everything they do. Everyone who knows me, knows that I have my disagreements with our current President. But I am glad on this, I think he is really weighing what is best. He has had much ridicule for saying, "The cure can't be worse than the problem."  People say, "It's just money versus people lives. We are a rich economy we can afford to take a few months off." I think that is as narrow a viewpoint as the idea we should pretend Corona doesn't exist.

There are negative externalities to doing the shutdowns we have. People not working is bad for individuals and society, and not just because of money. Work makes us better. Taking a few months without working may have significant negative impacts on some, and it is impossible to know how quickly we will or won't bounce back. In addition, we may see a spike in suicides. Unfortunately, many kids are saved from abusive relationships because they go to school and even in the summer the abusive parent goes to work. We will likely see an increase in the amount of child abuse, due to stress and the situation.

Also when the US economy suffers we do get a trickle down effect and not a good one. Charitable giving will drop and many organizations will be unable to help when those in need may need it most. Many of those organizations help the poorest, most vulnerable countries. What happens when the next wave or Corona virus takes off in Africa and the much of the wealthiest countries, US and Europe are all still in the middle of a recession? Who will they turn to for medical aid, the treatments, doctors, vaccines? Our choosing to slow our economy now may save thousands of Americans only to kill millions of Africans. Do I know this? No. It's a risk.

My point in all this. We are all searching for the right thing to do. As politicians, businesses, and individuals. We need to be open to data, figuring out more so we can be better informed and make better decisions. And we need to be a little less judgmental, of our politicians, business owners and individuals. We will look back and realize we made some mistakes. We may look back and say we overreacted, or we may look back and say we under-reacted, as a society and as individuals. But let's spend more time supporting each other, building on what we get right and learning from what we get wrong, than we do tearing each other down, or shaming those who disagree with us. We need each other now more than ever.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Chapter 21- The Talk


(As always if you are new to the book here are links to the earlier chapters, Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3 Chapter 4Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9 and Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, Chapter 16, Chapter 17,  Chapter 18, Chapter 19 and Chapter 20).

She did her best to collect herself and answered. “Hello Byron.”

“Hi, Julie. Are you okay?”


“Yeah, I’m fine.”


“Are you sure? If you like, I could call back, or maybe there is something I can do?”


Sure, now he gets this way. “No, I’m fine. I’m just watching a romance.”


“Which one? Is it any good?”


“It’s a hallmark, you know, typical girl surrounded by good looking men and can’t decide between the rich doctor or the rich lawyer.”


“She should find a good marriage counselor and choose him.” As Byron laughed at his own joke, Julie hit the mute button so she could cry. “Well, I was calling because I wanted to see if you would be willing to go with me to dinner tomorrow.”


“Tomorrow?” The timing surprised her. Instantly she began to wonder if her Dad was behind this.


“I know it’s not Saturday or my week but I have something I want to talk to you about.”


“What?” She said, trying to mask her suspicion.


“I’d rather wait. If tomorrow doesn’t work I could do another night.”


“No, tomorrow works.”


“Great. I have reservations at the Eiffel tower downtown at the Paris for 6:00. So, I’ll pick you up around 5:30?”


Julie wasn’t sure what was happening but given some of what was going on she decided some options might be good, and as she learned tonight having her own vehicle gave her those. “Byron, can I just meet you there at 6:00.”


“Oh...yeah...sure,” Byron said.


“Thanks, see you then.”


She hung up but definitely wasn’t done talking. For the last six months Byron had become her closest confidant and tonight Charles had stepped into that role, but neither of those seemed like the right choice. So she dialed up her old friend Becky.


“Hey JuJu, what do I owe the pleasure?” Becky asked.


“We need to talk. Can you come over?”


-----------------------------------


“Becky, thanks so much for coming, do you want something to drink?” Julie asked as her friend came into the house.


“No, I’m fine. Let’s sit down and get to business, this is serious. You haven’t had me over to your place in ages and then you call me up on a weeknight, saying you need to talk. Girl, I knew big news was coming, so lay it on me. Is Byron home?”


“No, he kind of doesn’t live here,” Julie admitted.


“Doesn’t live here? What is going on girl?”


“I haven’t been exactly honest about Byron?”


“You two fightin’?”


“No.” Julie said more defensive than she meant to be.


“Oh, okay, so he’s seeing another woman?”


“No.”


“He actually lives in a different town with his real wife?”


“No.”


“You two are divorced?”


Becky rattled this off as fast as Julie could cough out the negative monosyllable, and she finally decided this guessing had to stop. “We were never really married.”


Becky now regretted not getting a drink, because she felt handicapped in her ability to properly express herself in this moment without something to drop on the floor. “What do you mean, I was at your wedding? I saw a Priestly man say, “I pronounce you husband and wife.” Well, he almost said it, before Byron yakked…It was all a show? Byron did some fake yacking to stop it from being official?”


“That is not…”


“Because that is some clever trickery, you two are sly ones,” Becky interrupted.


“The throw-up was real.”


“It was very convincing, the smell and all. So he took a pill to make him vomit, just at the right time and…”


“No, it was not planned. I mean it was, the wedding, not the vomiting but it was a real wedding.” Julie tried to think how to explain, “But we’ve never really been married.”


“You girl, do not make sense...wait, you mean you never, um...how do you say, duh,nun a nah.”


“What?” Julie asked.


“You know, consolidated the marriage.”


“You mean consummated?”


“You know what I mean.”


“Not just that,” Julie said.


“What do you mean, not just that. That is a lot of just. Is Byron Gay?”


“No. I don’t think so. I mean I have never really asked him. But we are getting off point.”


“Jewells, whether or not your husband is gay, is likely very on point, and you might want to ask if you are wondering why you two never...you know.”


“Okay, we are definitely off point.” Julie took a deep breath trying to figure how she could get a little more clarity to the conversation. “You remember a little while before the wedding you set me up with Ricky.”


“Yes?” Becky’s mind began to spin to find the connection. “I was always surprised you two didn’t go out again. I thought you had a great time, and whenever I tried to call and ask you what happened you got all weird. Next thing I know you were marrying some gay marriage counselor.”


“He’s not gay!” Julie yelled in exasperation.


“Married 3 years, never slept with his wife. You might be wrong on this one, honey.” Becky half whispered.


“Becky the truth is, I had a great time with Ricky. He said he wasn’t ready to move on from his wife.”


“Hey, that reminds me,” Becky jumped in. “Ricky got remarried last month.”


“Not helping.”


“Sorry. Go on.”


“I was devastated. And really frustrated with dating and set ups. That’s when I remembered the ad you showed me earlier that day.”


“Wait… Byron is the ad guy?” Becky asked.


Julie quietly nodded.


“I can’t believe it. You actually responded to that ad, and married him!”


Julie’s head continued it’s steady up and down motion.


“That is nuts, I can’t believe it. And you didn’t tell me!”


“I know, I should have,” Julie acknowledged.


“So, that’s why Byron is never around.”


“Yeah, so anyways…”


“No, No, No, so anyways. I need to process this. You married a total stranger, just to avoid dating.”


“Can we move on?” Julie asked.


“I still can’t believe you married ad man. And…” Clearly a sudden realization struck Becky. “You owe me money!”


“And how is that?”


“I remember when I brought you that ad. I told you I got 25% finders fee.”


“You were joking. And it was not 25%.”


“Okay 20%, either way, you owe me.”


“Well, I could pay you.” Julie hadn’t thought about the money for a long time. “I haven’t touched a penny of it.”


“What?”


“I felt too weird. So it just sits there.”


“Okay, my fee is 100%. I won’t feel weird.” It was Becky’s turn to take a breath. “Now you can move on.”


“Thank you.” Julie said sarcastically as she finally got to the whole reason she had called Becky over. “See the problem is, I think I need a divorce.”


“Julie, you are married to a man who’s only involvement with you is putting money in the bank, money, I might add, that can flow to me. You have the perfect husband, why get a divorce?”


“Well, for one thing that is not his only involvement.”


“Oh, you have been seeing your husband. Is that why we finally got to meet him at the book club?” Becky asked.


“Yes.”


“Do you hate spending time with him? You two seemed to get along fine.”


“Yeah, our dates are fine, and he is all right to talk to.” Julie looked over at Becky as she again searched for the right words. “But that is all we ever do, is talk.”


“Oh yeah, back to the gay thing.”


“Can you forget about the gay thing? I think I know why there is only talk. He’s not interested, and don’t you dare say because he’s gay.”


“Then why would he keep seeing you?” Becky asked.


“I found out tonight that my Dad has been making him.”


“Like a gun to his head. Take my daughter out...or else.”


“No, I don’t know how he made him. My dad is very persuasive,” Julie said.


“I don’t know girl, if a guy keeps seeing you, my guess he at least likes being with you, or else he would just send the checks. I still can’t believe you found a guy who sends you checks every month. So, my advice. If you like talking to him, and are willing to give me the money, just enjoy this thing and don’t worry about your Dad, you two are old enough to decide to play marriage if you want to.”


“Well there is one more thing” Julie gave an awkward smile, “There is this guy.”


“Whoa. Hold up. Are you cheating on your pretend husband?”


“No.” Julie shot out before backtracking with, “I’m not cheating...per se.”


Becky again wished she had something to drop, “You better get me something to drink or at least let me lie down for this next part.”


“Don’t get dramatic, I just need some advice,” Julie said.


“Don’t get dramatic!” Becky took a breath as she prepared to lay out the facts. “I find out my best friend has had a sham marriage for years, has been shafting me out of my agent fee, and now find out she’s cheating on her sham husband. All without my knowledge. And I’m not supposed to be dramatic. I think we all know who is the one putting on a drama here.”


“Okay, so it’s a bit complicated,” Julie admitted.


“So, as I hyperventilate, tell me again, who is this guy?”


“He’s a client, who…”


“A client? In your engineering job, right?”


“And what other job would it be?” Julie was not fond of the question.


“I don’t know. You are coming clean on a lot tonight.”


“Charles Nordstrom is a...”


“Does he own the store?”


“I don’t know what he does, but he is a client who I’m working with designing his cabin, and we went to dinner tonight to discuss work, but we end up discussing...other things too.”


“I see, dinner with smooth Charlie to discuss ‘work’,” Becky said.


“Don’t use air quotes with me.” Julie may be the one who needed to apologize for holding back information for a few years, but even in her apologetic state she had limits. “Anyway, tonight he kissed me.”


“Wow. This is serious. Does this smooth Charlie know you’re married?” Becky asked.


“He knows the situation. And can we call him, just Charles.”


“And I guess you liked this kiss?”


“Yeah. I did. It felt really good, except for the guilt that I felt when I realized I’m a married woman kissing another man.”


“So you really like this smooth...I mean this just Charles,” Becky said.


“I don’t know if I like him, but I liked finally touching, kissing, being loved and wanted, and wanting and loving in return. I’m not sure I will ever have that in my current marriage.”


Becky began to speak but Julie cut her off. “Please, don’t say anything about Byron’s sexuality. We like each other and I think that is all. And I think I want the freedom to pursue something more, to pursue love, with someone, maybe Charles.”


The two women who had immense love and respect for each other looked into each other’s eyes. Julie knew exactly why she’d called her best friend to finally get out what had been in her heart. Becky wiped a tear from her eye. “I guess now is when I give you my amazing advice. I’d charge you for it, but you already owe me so much, why bother. My advice is simple, you need to talk to Byron.”


-----------------------------------


The greeter knew he recognized the man as he approached. Of course, being a greeter at a popular restaurant like the eiffel tower on the strip of las vegas did lend itself to seeing a lot of people, but there was something special about this face that now approached him. He couldn’t quite place it and continued to rack his brain as he came close enough for contact.


“May I help you?”


“I have a table, under Lewis.”


“Yes, we have your table. Would you prefer to wait here or at the table?”


“I better wait here for my wife. Oh, here she comes now,” Byron expressed as Julie now approached. As soon as Julie’s face came into view, the greeter realized who was in front of him. He had told hundreds if not thousands of the night, three years ago, when a man had come in the restaurant with a woman, meeting yet a different woman, all three bearing a red rose. The clear rejection of girl number two was in and of itself something to remember. Looking again at Byron he recalled the last thing he had ever spoken to this man about, it was leaving him with his credit card information and a commitment to pay whatever bill the women left behind. The woman was clearly miserable but with the gentleman's commitment came the opportunity for her to share her pain. That wine bill was legendary and the only thing that eclipsed it was the tip she left at the bottom of his credit card receipt.


For weeks they expected to hear that the man, long gone before the full extent of the damage was realized, would contest the near thousand dollar bill. But such tidings would never come, and the greeter assumed that the man, Byron Lewis, according to this reservation had been true to his word to cover the cost. He was excited to see Byron again, but was quite dismayed when he asked, “are you expecting anyone else?” and Byron replied, “No.”


“Clearly it appeared that tonight would be much less legendary.” thought the greeter as he sat the couple in the same table they had been three years before.


“Do you remember this place?” Byron asked.


“How could I forget? You didn’t bring me here to meet another Julie, did you?”


“I sure hope not. From time to time I still worry that I will run into her in a grocery store and she will try to force me to marry her. Thank goodness, if it ever happens, I’m not single.”


The talk of Byron being single made Julie squirm uncomfortably as she thought of what she had planned to say.


They sat quietly and Byron reached into his pocket to feel the necklace case. He debated if now was the right time, or should he wait until after the food had shown up, or maybe until after they ate. A bit more small talk was probably appropriate but being focused on his mission made it very hard to come up with anything to say.


Julie for her part was just as nervous. She had much to say as well and was having the same debate about before, after or during the meal being the most appropriate time. If she did it before the meal, it meant for a long awkward meal to follow, or that she would rudely leave before food even came.


Usually the two spoke open and freely, but today was different and it was a long pause before Byron finally said, “Last time we were here, things were very different, I know I felt very differently.”


“How’s that?” Julie asked, in a much less encouraging fashion than Byron had hoped.


“Well for one, we had just met, but I feel that I know you much better now. Do you realize what today is?” Byron asked.


“Thursday?”


Byron had many women in his office complain about men not remembering their anniversary and always thought they were a bit melodramatic for such a small thing. He realized he would never feel that way again. “It’s our third wedding anniversary.”


Julie, couldn’t believe it. He was right. She had completely forgotten. Unfortunately, this brought to mind the first anniversary she had. She had definitely not forgotten that day. At the time, she was very happy with her marriage on the whole. She had effectively avoided being set up or asked out by weirdos, but while most days were happy, the night of her first anniversary was anything but. Alone, is not how anyone wants to celebrate an anniversary. She spent most nights alone, but rarely was she lonely, but she was that night. After spending most of the night crying on and off about how lonely she was, she had vowed to herself to never let it get to her again and part of that was to avoid ever thinking about that cursed word: anniversary, and it worked. The second came and went without any thought and the third would have done the same, if Bryon had not jolted her memory as they sat in this very fancy restaurant. But Byron had remembered and he had chosen to take her out. Maybe he really did want something more, maybe he did care, or else why would they be here?


“It was good of you to remember. This is the first anniversary I have ever been with someone. I guess I didn’t allow myself to look forward to them.” Julie admitted.


“That makes sense and I apologize for that,” Byron said.


“For what? That is what I signed up for, right?”


“Ever wonder if there is more? More than what we currently have?”


Had she ever! Why was he saying this? Had he found another woman and discovered, like she had with Charles, that there was more. Her mind told her that if that was the case, she should be happy for him. After all, she was just about to dump him, but her heart told her something very different.


“Julie what I want to say is.” He reached into his pocket and was beginning to withdraw the case when,


“Can I get you two anything to drink?” Byron hadn't even noticed the waiter approaching.


“Oh, Julie do you want anything?”


“Water is fine.”


“Me too. Water is good.”


The waiter walked off, along with Byron’s thought process.


“You were saying?” Julie asked.


Byron thought he better work his way back into it.


“I was wondering if you wanted a chance to have something more. I mean, I see how happy your parents are and...”


“Why would you bring them up?” Julie was beginning to see what was going on. She now realized that the only reason he was taking her out on their anniversary was because her Dad told him to.


“I thought they seemed like a good couple.”


“Byron, did you start taking me on dates because my dad asked you to?”


Byron had not expected that question and stared at her, not knowing what to say. But he could tell that his silence was already saying too much, and decided to come clean. “He encouraged me to.”


“And so you have only been seeing me because my Dad asked you to?”


“No, I have really enjoyed seeing you,” He said, trying to recover the situation.


“We go out every two weeks, like clockwork. How often did my Dad ask you to take me out?”


“Um…” Byron took a sip of water. “He did think that twice a month would be a good idea.”


“I see.”


“Julie, I want you to know that...” his mind was saying the words of ‘I love you’ and want us to be together’ but he couldn’t quite get it out. “That, I really liked the time we had together.”


“Had?”


“I didn’t mean that. I meant…”


“Byron. I need to tell you something.”


“Yes.”


Julie took a deep breath. “Byron, I met someone.”


Byron was shocked. People meet people everyday but he could tell that this someone was more. “Who did you meet?”


“His name is Charles.”


“Oh, I guess, I didn’t…” He didn’t know what to say. He wanted to say that meeting people was not part of the rules, but knew that trying to stop love was something that was difficult to do.


“Byron, I didn’t mean for this to happen. It was just a guy I was doing work for, and we were meeting for work and it has turned into something more. I wasn’t trying to break up our marriage, but I feel something, I feel like he wants to be with me.” Julie could see that before her stood a dejected man. He may have only been seeing her because her dad wanted him to, but he clearly didn’t want this outcome. She had gone too far to back down now, and felt she had to let him go, but was feeling worse and worse as he clearly became more and more despondent. “Byron, you said it yourself, I want more, more than we have had. I want to be really and truly loved. I think I have a chance. I feel like I have to take that chance. Don’t you feel that we need more, that we could have more? If you had a chance at that, wouldn’t you give anything to take it?”


Byron could see exactly what she meant and agreed 100%. He wanted to say, “Yes, that is exactly right, we need more and we can have more together. I want us to discover the more together,” but all he could get out was, “Yes, I understand.”


“So, I’m sorry, Byron, but I would like a divorce.”


His world stopped. He knew he had no one to blame but himself, and could see no way to stop this reasonable path forward. He was too late. He was trying not to but tears began to come down his face.


She had no desire to make him cry. And for some crazy reason she also felt herself beginning to cry. “I am so sorry Byron, you understand right?”


“I understand.”


“I will give you all the money back,” Julie said.


“No, you keep the money.” Byron couldn’t focus, the room was spinning. He tried to continue the conversation but couldn’t think of anything. He wanted to be alone, for the world to close in around him. After a painful pause he finally got put, “I hope things work out with Charles.”


“Thanks.” She didn’t know what to do. They hadn’t ordered and the rest of the night was bound to be nothing but awkward. “Byron, I think I will go home.” As she spoke her phone rang and she looked down.


Byron was trying to gather himself. “Who is that?”


Somewhat embarrassed she said, “It’s Charles. I better go.”


She stood and so did Byron. She looked through her moist eyes at his that were even more so. They leaned in and hugged, “Byron, it really was a good marriage. Thanks for everything.”


“No, Thank you. I will always remember you.”


“Me too.”


She walked out as he whispered below the hum of happier conversations, “I love you, and always will.”


The greeter looked over as he saw the woman walk out, and as she left he slightly mourned for Byron. This place and him were meant for heartbreak, but he also mourned for himself. Somehow he knew, deep down, his tip wouldn’t be anything like last times.


Up Next Chapter 22