It’s Valentine’s Day, I remembered thinking this morning, fanning my face and walking in my red robe and slippers into the frigid relief of my dark garage. I’m at that age when being a hot woman has “a whole ’ meaning,” as we say in the South. When a woman can have her own private summer on a twenty degree North Carolina morning in February, she knows the true meaning of a hot mess. My husband and my daughters, on the other hand, merely believe I’ve become prone to exaggeration, and possibly even a bit senile, when I get so distracted by the prickly heat under my blouse that I lose all train of thought. Alas! They’ll never know the extent of my malaise. Well, eventually, my girls will get it, but it will be far beyond the point when I will care about their sympathy. It was this heat on this winter morning that led me to the greatest embarrassment of my middle-aged life…so far. I would have no idea that this particular incident on this particular morning would begin the unraveling of my nest.
Rowdy, our four-year old black lab greets me at the door, as I knew he would, ready to be let out to use the grass and then eat, or eat and then be let out, as he is such a big pig. He licks the toes of my slippers, forever unable to resist the bunny ears. The girls gave me these years ago for my birthday, which happened to fall on Easter that year, and they’ve been my wardrobe staple since then.
“Hold on, Rowdy!” I say to him, filling his bowl with the recommended amount of dog food. Dave and I have him on a diet, as duck hunting season is over and Rowdy is no longer in need of excess body fat to keep him warm, swimming to retrieve Dave’s ducks, which were mighty scarce this year. Before I can blink the food is gone and Rowdy is circling at the side door of the garage, so I open it and he is out like a shot.
Can it be normal to sweat everywhere? I think to myself, feeling a little rivulet of perspiration run down my chest; I hate to say exactly where. I can almost feel the beads appearing around my ribcage where I will eventually have to put clothes on, but right now, I cannot fathom it, as I swipe the back of my neck under my hair, which has just endured the hairdryer that started all this, I think, removing my robe and hanging it on Rowdy’s leash hook on the wall…the hairdryer and all I’ve got to do today at school. The February cold on my bare skin feels divine. What the hell is an Edmodo? I guess I will find out this afternoon. What administrator in their right mind holds a training workshop on Valentine’s Day for God’s sake? This new curriculum is about to suck the life out of all of us, and for the technologically baffled, it makes me flash just thinking about it. I laugh at myself, wandering around the garage stark naked, well, except for the bunny slippers, but at 6:00 a.m., who is going to see me?
Dave is dead to the world, after getting in from the airport late last night, due to flight delays between Chicago and Raleigh. And then there’d been the two hour drive home after that. He didn’t even bring his bag in, I notice, peeking through his car window at his golf clubs, boxes upon boxes of athletic shoes, and ah, yes, there is his carryon bag. The door bangs shut, effectively precluding Rowdy from returning to the garage. I don’t want him outside barking at the kids who’ll soon be waiting for the school bus, so I turn to walk over to the door, when the mudroom door opens and Dave hits the garage door button. The light comes on, the garage door begins to rise, and before I can make it to the wall to grab my robe, Rowdy has returned under the rising door, wagging his tail furiously, and lodging himself between me and Dave’s car, just in time for the newspaper delivery man to drive by our house! I know this because I hear the familiar thud of the paper landing on the end of the driveway, in tandem with my scream and Dave’s shout.
It sounds something like this: thud/ “Oh my God, Dave/Cherie!” I cannot get around the damn dog fast enough to get out of the way, and the newspaperman’s car engine can be heard clearly idling at the foot of our driveway. My husband begins to laugh as I squeeze shut my eyes, hoping somehow that it will make me invisible, bending over and shoving my 85 pound dog out of the way so I can retrieve my robe and restore some sense of decency to this bad omen of a morning.
Now clothed, I whirl around to see the car pulling slowly forward, and mutter, “The show’s over, perv!” under my breath, while my Dave is doubled over, his laughter caught before he could even get his breath to let it out. The result is that his face is contorted in a ridiculous grimace, and there is no sound coming from his mouth as tears stream down his face. As I push past him in a huff, he regains his breath.
“Ohhh! Wow! What the hell are you doing, Cherie, parading around the garage in nothing but your personality?”
“Shut up, Dave. Why’d you hit the button if you saw me there?”
“I didn’t see you, baby! But Harold Snelling sure did!” he laughed again, as the tears and the posture returned. “I didn’t know where you were. I came to look for you and I remembered that I left my bag in the boot.”
“The boot? You’re British now?”
“Aw! Don’t be mad. I’ve been with Andrew McCarty for three days, you know, the sales rep from New Zealand? He says stuff like that all the time and I guess I just picked up on it,” he says, going to the fridge for creamer while I remove our coffee cups from the cabinet. It’s like a dance, our morning routine, and we rarely step on each other’s toes. (I was planning to invent intravenous coffee to drip into ones veins upon waking up but hadn’t gotten around to that yet. The automatic start was as close as we’d been able to come.)
“Oh. Yeah. How was your trade show, by the way?” I ask, fanning myself, wondering whether hot coffee would serve me well at the moment.
Dave hesitates and looks at me, the lewd grin gone momentarily. “Brutal, as I’d expected. Three days on my feet and the flight from hell getting home. I’m getting too old for this shit.” But then he says gently, with his usual flirty twinkle, “Oh, Happy Valentine’s Day!”
I have to smile then. His black and silver hair is standing up in points all around his head, making him look a little like a porcupine; however, a cute one at that.
“Thank you. And the same to you!” I say, giving him a chaste kiss, since he has yet to brush his teeth. He strokes his matching black and silver goatee and grins at me again.
“By the way, you sure looked good out there, you know?”
I groan. I am round and short and suddenly I realize the glow of my alabaster skin under the light of our garage would have looked anything but good. But my husband has a knack for charming me, and everyone else, for that matter, which makes him the successful salesman he is.
“Ha! Ten more pounds to go,” I say, running a hand over my chubby hip, “and good might be a word I’d consider.”
“Me too,” he says, grabbing a hunk of his stomach through his T-shirt to commiserate with me. “Make mine a double; I have twenty pounds to go!” More charming. “Who needs a six pack when you can have the whole keg?”
I hand him his coffee, laughing like one of the guys, which I think, is why he likes me.
He turns to go to our bedroom.
“Didn’t you forget your suitcase?” I asked, my organizational skills bubbling over, and at this early hour, confounding even me.
“Oh, shoot, yeah,” he says, snapping his fingers, circling back to the mudroom and out the door to the garage.
Finally I have cooled down enough to dress and reapply the makeup that has melted off, but the phone rings as I attempt to leave our kitchen. Glancing at the caller ID, I notice it is our twenty-six year old daughter, Hope calling. Unusual; 6:20 a.m. is not an hour she normally sees…
“Hey, Punkin’!” I coo into the phone, trying to convey hope that nothing is wrong, but my heart sinks at the sound of her voice, immediately leading me to believe she’s been in an accident.
“Mom,” her quavery voice breaks into a sob, leaving her as unable to continue as her father was just moments ago, but this time it is not from laughter.
“Honey! What is it?” I breathe into the phone, as Dave bumps back through the door, with his suitcase, questions in his eyes at my face. “Are you okay? Have you had an accident? Where are you?”
Openmouthed, Dave and I stand still as statues while I punch the button for speaker phone as she tries to collect herself.
“Oh, Mom!” she sobs, “Liam and I broke up!” I try to process this while there is more sobbing from her end.
“Ohhh! Honey, I’m so sorry!” I coo again, sincerity weighing down my voice. I have to turn away since Dave is fist pumping the air and jumping up and down as if the Braves have just hit a grand slam.
Oh, for God’s sake! I mouth back at him before asking her, “What in the world has happened?” and remembering so many conversations with Hope which ended with me saying, You can always move back home, knowing this day would come sooner or later, but still!
Dave is hanging on for every word, no doubt ready to rip Liam to shreds at the next opportunity.
“He’s leaving…” she heaves. “He’s going to Italy to paint.”
“He told you that?”
“No! I found out from his Facebook page. I’ll tell you about it tonight. I want to come home. After work today. Is that okay?”
Dave’s eyes grow large as he circles his lips, giving me a wary look.
“Of course honey. What time will you be here?”
“Around six. I’m packing now. I’m going to my friend, Jessica’s now to shower, but I’m outta here. I haven’t slept all night. I should have left last night, but I didn’t want to wake you and Daddy.”
“Oh! It’s okay. I’ll see you this evening.”
“Okay,” I say to her and look at Dave’s conflicted face. “We’ll both see you then. Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she heaves again.
“Okay…well, bye, honey. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Mama.”
I push the button, ending the call as Dave puts his hand on his hip. “Well, shit!” he says.
“Shit,” I agree.
“Can’t say we didn’t see that one coming.”
“No, but I hate to see her so hurt like this…again.” This, after her broken wedding engagement right after college, must leave her feeling devastated.
“He told her he wasn’t going to be tied down, you know, for his art.”
“I know, but still, she’s hurting. Damn, I’d go to Italy,” I say, crossing my arms over my chest.
“Well, it seems she wasn’t invited.”
“Hmm. I wonder what the whole story is. I guess we’ll hear about it tonight.”
“Yeah, well, about tonight. I wanted to surprise you, but I got us reservations at Bimini’s.”
“Bimini’s…” I murmur.
“Yeah, ironic, isn’t it?”
Bimini’s is our favorite seafood restaurant, and ironically, it is one of the places in town that sports a Liam Ferguson mural of a Caribbean harbor at sunset, a pretty amazing mural for a casual place like that, but Bimini’s does have the best seafood in town, thanks to Dave’s best friend, Jeff, the owner. There is always a crowd.
“Huh. I guess she might not feel like going with us.”
I twist my mouth, “Maybe not.” I run fingers through my mess of curls and shake them to cool me down. It takes so little to get me heated up, but Hope’s call has turned on my burners again. “Well, I need to go and get dressed. It’s going to be a late day. I hope I get home by six. What time are the reservations?”
“7:30,” he said.
“Wow, Dave, you must have planned well in advance!” I say, batting my eyes, honestly surprised and delighted. He isn’t usually this prepared! I wonder whether I’ll get flowers. That never happens in this house.
“I do love you, you know?” He taps my nose and kisses me before giving my derriere a little squeeze as I turn to go back to the bedroom.
“I love you, too.
My colleagues are hanging on each word as I tell this story at lunch. As all of us are English teachers at the local high school, we are constantly trying to outdo one another with our story telling. Their previous tears of laughter from the garage part of the story are dry now, as these wonderful bachelor friends of mine are reacting, solemnly and appropriately to the part about Hope’s break up with Liam, as I lick the last of the yogurt off my spoon with an effective flourish.
“Oh God, that is so sad!” says Taylor Kimbrough, the tenth grade English teacher, and debate team advisor. I almost see tears of sadness now in his eyes, and his cherubic, from-another-era face is stricken with this news of Hope, whom he has come to love vicariously, as he has never laid eyes on her. As always, he is riveted to whatever I might say, which is slightly unnerving, but I attribute his rapt attention to the fact that he is a first year teacher and I am a last year teacher, retiring after thirty years of service in June. It’s not that he holds me with any reverence, I think, instead, he searches for the increasing number of commonalities and insecurities that we both share, which must be highly reassuring for him. I, on the other hand, am too giddy with anticipation to care. If I haven’t become a good role model by now, he is shit out of luck!
“I know!” I say, watching Walt Hurley smile politely, paying Hope his condolences with a mere nod. He has come to love her, too, although he hasn’t seen her in a couple of years. I know that eventually some profound piece of advice or supportive comment will come forth, a moment I truly need and expect from him. That is why he has been my friend for the better part of a decade. At forty, he is sixteen years younger than I am, and neatly, Taylor is sixteen years younger than Walt. We are only missing Audrey Brown today, who is out of town for some mysterious reason. I think her husband has whisked her away for some Valentine’s fun. She is between Walt and me in age, with her oldest child, a college freshman out of her nest and one of my closest friends as well.
“Do you think he’s leaving her for a man?” Taylor says, aghast, as he takes a large and suggestive bite of his banana. He is the only one of us who, according to him, is allowed to eat bananas in his presence; nonetheless, I turn my head at this provocation. Were she present, Audrey would be having a field day with Taylor’s choice of fruit, using it as an opportunity to goad him and start a fracas.
I ponder his question for less than a second. “Uh, no. I really don’t believe Liam could be gay.”
“And that, madam, is a darn shame, from the pictures I’ve seen of him!” he says with a grin, which prompts an indulgent smile from Walt. The poor man could give a course in restraint and tact, neither of which Taylor exhibits when he is with us back here in the English department office. He does well to conceal his sexual preference, comments, and opinions from his students and their parents, so it is natural that he should let it rip with us at lunch.
“Now, I would hardly think that he’s your type!”
“Oh, but opposites do attract!” he says, winking at me. “But seriously, Cher, when you retire, you should write a book. You know, about all of your experiences with your children and that insane man you live with!”
“I know, and don’t think I haven’t thought about it.”
“You should write it and Walt can help you publish it.”
“I’d be honored, and relieved,” says Walt, taking a bite of his turkey sandwich. The man never sleeps, with teaching by day, and running his editing business from home in his down time. I don’t know how he functions.
“What are you working on now, Walt?”
He crosses his eyes. “Another business book. They all say the same thing, just a new spin on the thread-bare clichés on which we’ve all cut our teeth.”
“So you need a good novel to amuse you, don’t you, Mr. Hurley?”
“Yes, Ms. Johnson, it would be a vast improvement over my latest fare.”
“So what’s stopping you, Ms. Johnson?” says Taylor, egging me on. “You’ve got the empty nest at home with both of your daughters gone, and your husband traveling all over Christendom. You could start right now. What’s holding you up?”
As I think about the story I would write, which would result in my murder by one or all of my family members, because, of course, the book would be all about us, my cell phone mercifully rings and both men roll their eyes. Letting my finger drift upward, as I have seen on TV, I say, “I have to take this. It’s daughter number two.” Walt sniggers; he hates cell phones and all they imply about being indispensable.
“Wesley! God bless her!” Taylor says, throwing his eyes to the ceiling and crossing himself.
“Hey! What’s up?”
“Oh, Mama! I just heard about Hope and Liam!” her usually cheery voice is aptly woeful.
“I know! What did she tell you?”
“Not much, but she sounded really upset. I’m coming home for the weekend after my last class tomorrow so I can hear the scoop, and you know, be the supportive sister.”
“Well, I’m sure she will appreciate your coming. Have you heard from Ren today?” I ask, smiling, knowing full well that Warren Reynolds Henry, Jr. will make her Valentine’s Day all that it should be, even from Austin, Texas.
“Yeah…he called earlier and wanted to know where I was. I’m working at the hospital today until 7 p.m. so what else is new, right?” she said, sounding as if stifling a yawn.
“Oh! I’ll bet he wants to know where to send your flowers! I guess he’s really missing you, huh?”
“Yeah…. It’s our first Valentine’s Day apart, but it’s not a big deal. It was nice to talk to him,” she says, making me glad she does not overdramatize her life. Ren had the good fortune to land a job at Apple after graduation last year, so I’d say twenty-two year old Wesley has good reason to be patient. “Anyway, I’ll be glad to get home. Since I’m the lowly nursing assistant who’s working tonight, I have the weekend off when the other girls are on duty.”
“Well, good. We’ll all be glad to see you,” I say, ready to wrap up the conversation as my friends are looking bored. I want to ask more about her grades and how nursing school is going, but there will be time for that when we talk face to face. “Let us know when you hit the road.”
“Mama, it’s just a little more than an hour from Chapel Hill.”
“Still…I won’t rest until I know you’re safely home!”
“K. Love you! Tell Daddy hey!”
“K! Love you, too! Bye, Sweetie!”
And then Walt makes the pronouncement I knew would be inevitable.
“It looks as though your flock is returning to the nest for the weekend! And mother bird is back to work again,” he says, smiling his patient smile, but something makes me want to smack him.