Worst. Birthday. Ever.
(But I didn’t know that yet.)
I arrived at the restaurant a little early. This was a big night—potentially the biggest night of my life—and not just because I was turning thirty-three. If my intuition was correct, there was a good chance I’d be walking out of there with a ring on my finger.
Nothing too flashy or ostentatious, of course. That wasn’t me. Something tasteful. Something classic. Something that said I am a woman with a family in my future.
That’s all I wanted.
“Hi, Stella,” greeted the usual Saturday night hostess with a smile. “Dining alone tonight?”
I smiled back. “No, Walter is coming from the other side of town. I’m a little early.”
“No problem. Would you like to be seated?
“Yes, thanks.” I followed her to a table set for two in a dark, cozy corner opposite the bar.
I sat down, and when the server came by, I ordered a glass of pinot noir. While I waited for it, I tried to relax but found myself nervous and fidgety. Out of habit, I started looking around the room, making up stories about the people I saw. I’ve always been kind of obsessed with what’s going on inside people’s heads—probably why I became a therapist—and I love trying to read body language and facial expressions.
That redhead at the bar with her back to me, the one with the nervous ankle twitch and pretty black dress? She’s secretly in love with the bartender, a handsome playboy with a crooked smile and a thousand notches on his bedpost. He’s got a crushing fear of intimacy because of his parents’ divorce, but all he really needs is someone to show him unconditional love. She’s dying for him to notice her, but also terrified of rejection because her last boyfriend broke her heart.
My wine arrived, and I took a sip, happy with the way my secret story was unfolding.
My other obsession? Books.
As a kid, I was too tall for my age, awkward around boys, and nervous about breaking rules, bones, and crosswalk regulations. (As the oldest child, I liked to think I was merely setting a good example for my two younger sisters when I chose to tell the truth about the missing cookies, go around instead of hopping the fence, and wait for the signal to turn green before carefully riding my bike across the street, helmet securely fastened.)
But books—books were amazing!
I could visit the pyramids, catch the thief, solve the mystery, go back in time and fall in love with a duke who’s pretending to be a peasant and let him plant his royal spade in the fertile soil of my humble lady garden all in the comfort of my own home. I didn’t even have to break curfew, let alone allow the dashing duke to see my gangly body without any clothes on.
After a little more wine, I returned to the drama at the bar.
Fear of Rejection has decided tonight’s the night. She’s wearing her new black lace underwear beneath that dress, and it’s making her feel sexy and confident. Fear of Intimacy has made eye contact and smiled three times already. The next time he comes by, she’s going to—
My story was interrupted by the buzz of my phone. It was my sister Emme. I’d made the mistake of mentioning to her I thought Walter might pop the question tonight, so she was probably calling to check in.
“Did he propose yet?”
“No,” I whispered, glancing around as if someone might have heard her. “He’s not even here yet. Our reservation isn’t until eight.”
“Eight! It’s barely seven-thirty. Why are you there so early?”
“I don’t know.” I peeked over at the bar. Fear of Intimacy was leaning forward on his elbows in front of Fear of Rejection, who was twirling a long, wavy strand of her hair. So far, so good.
“Are you nervous?” Emme asked.
“A little,” I admitted. “But like I said, I’m not positive he’s going to propose. It’s just a hunch because it’s my birthday, and he’s been acting a little weird lately.”
She snorted. “Weird for Buzz is relative.”
My sisters’ nickname for Walter stemmed from his intense fascination with bees. Admittedly, it wasn’t a passion we shared, but we had other things in common—he was a psych professor and I was a therapist, and we both enjoyed running marathons, eating at nice restaurants, visiting museums. I tolerated his endless concern for the sharp decline in managed honeybee colonies (also called Colony Collapse Disorder, if you were wondering) and he didn’t seem bothered by the fact that I wasn’t very physically affectionate. We were a good match.
“If you called to insult my future fiancé, I’m hanging up.”
Emme gasped. “You said fiancé! You really do think this is happening!”
I took another sip of wine as my nerves jangled like a pocketful of coins. “Kind of. I mean, something is definitely up with him.”
“Glad to hear it. I didn’t think Buzz ever got it up.”
“Kidding, kidding,” she said. “I know, ‘different relationships work for different reasons.’ I don’t need the lecture again.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I have it memorized.” She cleared her throat and parroted my voice. “Sex isn’t everything. It’s not love or intimacy or even going to last.”
I had to smile at the perfect imitation. “Exactly. Trust me, Emme, after years of counseling couples, I truly believe that the most enduring relationships are those built on more than physical attraction. It has to start with your head and lead to your heart.”
But over at the bar, Fear of Rejection’s legs were crossed seductively and one high heel was dangling from her toes. Too bad that bartender couldn’t see it.
“But what about your body?” Emme pressed. “What about desire?”
I finished my wine and straightened up in my chair. “Desire, while thrilling, is unstable, unpredictable, and uncontrollable—a leftover biological impulse from our caveman days to remind us to propagate the species.”
“Jesus. Only you could make sex sound so unsexy. Are we even related?”
“Sometimes I wonder.” Although my sisters and I all had our mother’s blond hair and blue eyes and our dad’s cleft chin, we had very different personalities. I was the shy, analytical bookworm; Emme was the heart-on-her-sleeve romantic; and our youngest sister Maren was the soulful flower child. It was amazing we got along as well as we did.
“Maybe you’ve never had good sex,” Emme suggested.
“I’ve had good sex,” I snapped, a little too loudly judging from the looks I got from surrounding tables. I lowered my voice. “I just don’t think it’s the most important indicator of compatibility.”
The truth was, I had my best sex with the trusty LELO rabbit I kept locked in a box beneath my bed (LELO and I were very compatible). I found it too hard to relax with a man. I had difficulty getting out of my head and letting myself enjoy it.
In fact, I’d never had an orgasm during sex—I’d never even faked one.
But I didn’t want to get into that with Emme, who had zero sexual insecurities whatsoever. “Look, I have to go. I don’t want to be on the phone with you when he gets here, especially talking about this.”
“Fair enough,” she said. “Enjoy your birthday dinner, and call me as soon as you can. Are we still on for brunch in the morning at Mimi’s? I have your birthday present.”
“Sure.” Every Sunday for the last couple years, my sisters and I had brunch together. Maren had moved to Portland with her fiancé in August, but Emme and I had kept up the tradition.
“Good. I need help with the seating chart for the reception.”
I suppressed a groan. Emme was three months pregnant and getting married next month, and lately our brunches had been totally consumed with wedding and baby stuff. Since she was a wedding planner herself, she was obsessive about the details. But working on the seating chart was preferable to arguing about the importance of sex. And maybe I’d have something romantic to celebrate too, for once. “No problem. See you at ten.”
We hung up and I checked the time—quarter to eight. I took a deep breath. I ordered more wine. I glanced at the bar. Fear of Rejection was laughing out loud and tossing her hair now. The cute bartender was transfixed. For someone who’d seemed so shy, she was actually a pretty good flirt—much better than me.
But then, who wasn’t?
While I drank my second glass of wine, I paid close attention to the redhead’s body language. Maybe I’d try the hair toss later. It wouldn’t kill me to be a little more feminine, a little more flirty. Maybe if I acted more sensual around Walter, I’d feel more sensual. Maybe I’d even want to get a little closer to him.
I mean, was he God’s gift to women? No, but I wasn’t a perfect 10 either. And he was educated and successful and kind. He respected me. He’d be a good father and a supportive husband. So what if he was a little uptight and unexciting? He was a smart, safe choice. Perfect for me.
And I was a good choice too, wasn’t I? I had a graduate degree and a good reputation in my field. I was independent and never clingy. I listened to his endless bee stories. He was thirty-six already. Both of us had talked about wanting a family, so wasn’t this the next step?
Kids mean sex, Stella. Are you ready for that?
I glanced down at my blouse and spontaneously undid the top two buttons. It made me feel a little exhilarated, a little naughty. I crossed my legs and let one nude high heel dangle from my toes. I ordered a third glass of wine.
I was nearly done with it and enjoying a pretty good buzz when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Stella, I’m sorry I’m late.” Walter sat down across from me. “I got held up in traffic.”
“That’s okay.” I smiled and tossed my hair, thinking that Walter looked a little different tonight. Something about the way his tie was a bit loose, his hair a little mussed, like someone’s fingers had run through it. I’d always thought he was handsome in a clean-cut, Ivy League glee club sort of way, but tonight he actually looked kind of—dare I say it—sexy.
But also nervous. That was a good sign, right?
He cleared his throat. “So I want to talk to you about something, Stella, and I’d planned to do it after your birthday, but I’ve never been good at putting things off.”
My pulse picked up. This was it. I tipped back the rest of my wine and tried to sound sultry. “We can talk now if you want. I don’t like putting things off either.”
We were made for each other!
“Okay. Good. See, the thing is …” He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “There’s, uh, something I’ve been thinking about for a while now, and it might come as a shock to you, but—”
“Yes!” I burst out. I mean, he was clearly struggling for words, and it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t need the big romantic speech. Why not put him out of his misery?
Except now he was staring at me sort of strangely. “Yes?”
“Yes.” I smiled. Tossed my hair again.
His eyes flicked to the right and back to me. “Yes, what?”
“Yes, I’ll marry you.”
Walter’s eyes widened and he started to cough. He picked up his water glass and chugged from it while I tried to ignore the alarm bell in my head.
“M-marry me?” he stuttered as he set the glass down.
“Well, yes. Isn’t that what you were trying to ask me?”
He blinked. “No. I was trying to break up with you.”
The shoe I’d been dangling fell off my foot. The room tipped. “What?”
“Break up with me?” I froze as the room continued to tilt. This couldn’t be happening.
“Yes. You see …” His eyes dropped to the table. “I’ve met someone else.”
My vision clouded, and I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, surely there would be a classic, tasteful diamond in a little box on the table and our server would be pouring champagne as the room applauded.
No ring, no bubbly, no applause.
Just Walter looking guilty and uncomfortable. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I wanted to tell you sooner, but—”
“How long?” I asked, humiliation drenching me like a tsunami. No wonder he’s been acting secretive and strange lately. “How long have you been seeing her?”
“It’s only really been the last few weeks. She’s a new associate professor in the social sciences department, and her office is down the hall from mine.”
A new professor. It was mid-October, which meant he’d probably met her two months ago when the semester started. “I see.”
Walter reached across the table and covered my hand with his. “Believe me, I didn’t want this to happen, and I never expected it to. I’ve really enjoyed our time together, Stella.”
“I feel like there’s a ‘but’ coming.”
Walter colored slightly and he let go of my hand. “But I want more. And I think you do, too. Don’t you?”
“What I want is for someone to respect me enough to be honest with me. There’s something you’re not saying. I can see it in your face. More what, Walter?”
“All right.” He looked me in the eye. “I want a physical relationship. Sex.”
My face burned. “You said we could take things slow in that department.”
“Stella, it’s been over a year.”
“Some things take time to develop.”
“I know. And I was willing to wait and see if we developed that kind of chemistry, but we never did. When I met Esther, I felt a powerful attraction immediately. She just … does something to me.”
“Oh, my God.” Humiliated, I buttoned up my blouse and fumbled around beneath the table for my shoe. I knew exactly where this was going. “It’s my fault, right? I’m cold. Unresponsive. Not sexy enough. Go ahead, you can say it.”
“I’m not here to assign blame, Stella. Things between us are simply stagnant. Boring. Beige.”
I couldn’t believe this. I’d spent countless hours listening to him talk about pollinators in peril. He was bored?
And where the fuck was my shoe?
Shoving my chair back, I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled beneath the table, mortified and hurt and praying my skirt hadn’t ridden up high enough to reveal my underwear, which was, of course, boring and beige. When I finally located my pump, I grabbed it and stood up. The shoe was beige too, which made me so mad I felt like throwing it at Walter’s head.
I happened to like beige! It was a classic, understated color and I was a classic, understated person, godammit!
“I’m sorry,” Walter said lamely, rising to his feet.
“For God’s sake, stop apologizing.” I tried to slip my heel on, but had trouble balancing on one leg. Fuck, why had I drunk all that wine? I hiccuped and hopped around awkwardly on one foot, positive that every eye in the place was on me, until finally, Walter, ever the gentleman, reached for my elbow. Rather than let him help me, I shook him off and shoved the shoe in my bag. “Goodbye, Walter. I hope you and Esther will be very happy together and have lots of red-hot sex. I am taking my beige ass home.” Hiccup.
“Maybe you shouldn’t drive.” He glanced at the empty wine glass. “Was that your second glass?”
“None of your business.” I fished some cash out of my wallet and tossed it on the table. Hiccup. “Have a nice life.”
Then, with as much dignity as I could muster, I slung my bag over my shoulder, held my head high, and walked toward the exit on one high heel and one bare foot, my head bobbing up and down like a fucking carousel horse.
Outside, I called Emme.
“Can you come get me?” I asked after her breathless hello.
“Are you engaged?”
“Oh, dear. I’ll be there in a minute.”
While I waited, my cheeks flaming, my pride decimated, I imagined the story I might have told about me tonight, had I watched the scene from the outside.
See that woman over there, the Frigid Old Maid getting drunk alone and waiting for her date? So sad how she desperately wants to make a sexy impression—look at the way she’s unbuttoning her blouse and crossing her legs. So obvious. She’s trying way too hard.
I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head. I didn’t even want to imagine the rest. It was too humiliating.
A moment later, Emme pulled up and I flung myself into the passenger seat.
Her eyes went wide. “What happened? And why are you only wearing one shoe?”
I pulled the door shut. “It’s a long story. One that does not end well for me.”
“Not even close.”
As we pulled away from the curb, I saw Fear of Rejection come out of the restaurant. She looked happy.
Maybe I should buy some black lace underwear.
“Want to talk about it?” Emme asked.
“What’s to talk about? I’m an idiot. A boring, beige idiot.”
“Stella! No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am, Emme. Walter wasn’t being secretive because he was planning a surprise proposal for my birthday—he was being secretive because he’s seeing someone else.” Suddenly the tousled hair made more sense.
Emme gasped. “You’re joking!”
“I’m afraid not. I can’t even decide what’s worse—the fact that he came here tonight to dump me when I thought he was going to pop the question, or the fact that I was going to say yes.”
“Oh, Stella. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s my fault. I should have seen this coming.”
“I don’t think that’s true at all. How could you have known?”
“God, Emme.” I propped my elbow on the window and tipped my head into my hand. “Where did I go wrong? I thought Walter was right for me. I thought things were fine. I thought we’d get married and buy a house and have two kids and a dog and some goldfish and some bees, and we’d be settled and happy. What happened?”
“You’d have been settled, maybe, but would you really have been happy?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered stubbornly, although I wasn’t sure anymore. Had I talked myself into wanting to spend the rest of my life with Walter just because he looked good on paper? Would I have been settling in the wrong way?
“I don’t know, Stell,” Emme went on. “I’ll just be honest—I liked Walter fine, but there was zero spark between you. And I think to be happy, you need spark.”
“But … but what if I’m not capable of spark?”
“What do you mean?” Emme glanced at me, brow furrowed. “Everyone is capable of spark. You just have to find the right person.”
“But what if I’m not good at it? What if I don’t have that sex appeal thing guys like? What if fucking me is like fucking a cold, dead fish?”
Emme’s jaw dropped. “Did Walter say that to you?” she asked slowly.
Fuck. I hadn’t meant to spill that. “No. I never slept with Walter.”
“Did … did someone else say it?”
“No,” I lied, biting the tip of my thumb.
“I don’t believe you,” she said, glancing at me. “Tell me the truth.”
Part of me wanted to deny it, but another part was glad to have it out there. I bit my lip. “Yes. Someone else did.”
“Oh my God, Stella! When?”
“That long ago?” Emme shook her head in disbelief, gripping the steering wheel with both hands. “Why didn’t you ever say anything about it?”
“Because it’s humiliating!” I exploded. “You and Maren are so sexy and confident, and you have such great sex lives with your sex god fiancés and multiple O’s, and I’m a failure!”
“Oh, honey, no. That was one guy. One fucking jerk who probably has a small dick and doesn’t know the first thing about how to please a woman. Was he your first?” she asked, turning onto my street.
I sighed. “Yeah. He was a year older than me, but I was tutoring him in chemistry. He was on the football team and needed to keep his grades up. I was totally, hopelessly in love with him.”
“How long were you dating?”
“Not sure you could call it dating. Mostly we just had sex in his bedroom while we were supposed to be studying. Then he dumped me at the end of the semester and told all his friends I was a terrible fuck. It got back to me.”
She pulled into my driveway and put her car in park. “How did you feel about the sex? Did you enjoy it?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I was just so nervous every time. He was the first guy I’d ever been completely naked with, and I would think about all the hot girls he’d probably been with before me. I wanted to please him, but I worried I didn’t compare.”
Emme groaned. “I hate that feeling.”
“I didn’t have sex for a long time after that. And even then, it was tough to enjoy.” I paused. “Even now.”
“Is it?” she asked gently, glancing at me.
“Yes,” I admitted. “I have trouble relaxing. I’m too worried about what he’s thinking, that I’m not living up to his expectations.”
“Guys don’t think during sex, Stella. They’re too busy feeling like a fucking superhero.”
“Maybe with you.”
“But it was only the one guy who said that, right?”
“Right. But other guys have told me I seem unresponsive in bed. Like I’m not having fun.”
“It probably comes off that way because you’re nervous, and I don’t blame you. You just have to find the right guy! One who will be patient and understanding, one who knows his way around a woman’s body and gets off on pleasing you.”
I sniffed. “I’m not sure I’ll ever find that guy.”
“You also need to date guys you actually want to bang, Stella. I understand now why you pick such safe types, but maybe if you were super hot in the pants for somebody, you’d have an easier time enjoying sex.”
“Maybe.” But I wasn’t convinced that was the answer. “Or maybe I’m just bad in bed.”
“I refuse to believe that.” She sighed. “Haven’t you ever wanted to just rip someone’s clothes off and go at it?”
I thought for a moment. There was this guy at my oil change place that I sometimes worked into my LELO fantasies, but—
“You’re taking too long to answer this question.”
“Sorry.” I shrugged. “I just don’t get those feelings too often. It’s like I’ve trained myself to shut them down.”
She pointed a finger at me. “You know what you should do? Have a fuck fling.”
“A fuck fling?” I wrinkled my nose. “That does not sound like me at all.”
“Because it isn’t. You’re all about the long-term plan, the long-distance run, the big picture. But a meaningless, short-term fuck fling with someone who can teach you to enjoy sex without feeling so self-conscious is exactly what you need. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake.”
“I don’t think that’s the—”
“Oh! Oh!” She snapped her fingers. “You know what would be even better? If he didn’t even speak English! That way you won’t even know what he’s saying!”
I groaned and opened the car door.
“I’m serious,” she said, poking my leg. “Go inside and book a trip somewhere. Italy. France. Brazil. Buy some sexy clothes, pack a bag, and get out of town.”
“I’ll think about it.” I took off my second shoe and tucked it into my bag. “Thanks for driving me home. I had too much wine.”
“That’s what sisters are for. We’ll go get your car tomorrow. Listen, I love you and I’ve been there. Things are going to get better.”
A sound escaped me, something between a sob and a laugh. “Right.”
“They will,” she insisted. “Walter wasn’t the one, Stella. But the one is out there. You’ll find him.”
As I trudged up my driveway in bare feet and let myself in the side door, I couldn’t help thinking how easy it was for Emme to be so optimistic. She’d found her soul mate living right across the hall from her apartment—they’d already been friends. He’d discovered he was father to an adorable eight-week-old baby girl named Paisley right when they started dating, so Emme already had a kind of built-in family. And Maren had reunited with her first love over the summer. Now both my younger sisters were happily engaged, planning weddings and babies, and I couldn’t help feeling left out. Left behind. Left alone.
I made myself a kale salad and added leftover grilled chicken in my fridge from last night’s dinner for one, and I ate it standing at the counter in silence, feeling shitty about myself.
It didn’t seem fair that sex was so easy and natural and fun for some people, like my sisters, and so difficult to enjoy for someone like me. It’s not that I begrudged them their fun, but I did envy it. Clearly they’d inherited some sort of hedonistic pleasure gene that I hadn’t.
How could I learn to let go a little?
While I was thinking about it, my phone rang. Grams calling, it said.
I set down my fork and dutifully took the call. “Hello?”
“Is this the birthday girl?”
“You don’t sound too happy about it.”
“I’m just … tired.”
“Tired? At your age? Tell me you’ve at least had a cocktail or two and that fella of yours is taking you out dancing.”
“Actually, Grams, there is no fella.” I walked over to the fridge and pulled out the bottle of wine I’d opened last night.
“What happened to that professor you were seeing, the one who was so gassed about the bees all the time?”
“He’s out of the picture.” I poured a glass of pinot grigio, adding a little extra for pain and suffering.
“Well, I don’t blame you for calling that off, honey. He seemed a bit dull, like he wouldn’t be too good in the feathers.”
I paused with the glass halfway to my mouth. “In the feathers?”
“You know. On the mattress. Between the sheets.”
Oh, Jesus. I took a gulp of wine. “So how are you, Grams?”
“Oh, fine. But I do get lonely up here. How about coming for a visit? I’m not getting any younger, you know.”
“I know.” My grandmother’s guilt trips were legendary. Next she’d remind me exactly how old she was.
“I’ll be ninety-three next month.”
“I know.” Then there’d be a jab at my mother.
“And it’s not like your mother ever comes to visit me.”
“Didn’t she just offer to fly you down to Florida to see her?”
“Florida? In the summertime? I’d die of heatstroke. And I don’t enjoy flying anymore.”
“No. The seats are too close together and the drinks are terrible.”
“Right.” Next would come a list of ailments, although she was in perfectly good health as far as I knew. Still cooked for herself, still drove herself around, still drank a dry martini every night at five o’clock sharp.
“And anyway, I’ve been having some pain.”
“I think it’s my hips. But I’m sure it’s nothing, honey. Don’t you worry about me.”
“Have you been to the doctor, Grams?” She’d had both hips replaced years ago.
“Not for a while. I’m not driving anymore, see. So I have no way to get there.”
“What?” I set my wine glass down. “Why aren’t you driving anymore? Did something happen?”
“Not exactly. I just don’t think I should because … of my eyes. Yes, my eyesight has been worsening. And my hearing.”
“Your hearing, too?”
“What’s that, dear?”
I took a deep breath and spoke a little louder, although part of me suspected this was all an act to get me to come visit. “Do you need a ride to the doctor, Grams? Have you scheduled an appointment?”
“Yes, I have an appointment. It’s next week. But Frank will take me.”
For the first time, genuine worry sent chills up my spine. “Frank who?” I asked.
She laughed. “Your grandfather, you silly goose!” Then she lowered her voice. “I should be quiet, because he goes to sleep early these days.”
My grandfather, a World War II veteran, had died ten years ago at the age of eighty-eight after a long and happy life.
I spoke clearly and evenly. “Gramps isn’t there, Grams. He’s gone. We lost him ten years ago, remember?”
Silence. “Oh, of course we did. Silly me, I get so confused sometimes. I think I hear him talking to me, and it’s just the wind. Anyway, don’t worry about me, honey. I’ll find a way to the doctor’s office. I can always ride my bike.”
“Grams! You can’t ride your bike there if you’re in pain.” I tipped my forehead into my hand. “Listen, let me see if I can rearrange some things on my schedule, get some appointments moved. I might be able to come up there this week and take you. What day is your appointment?”
“Your doctor’s appointment,” I said loudly. “The one you said you made for your hips.”
“Oh, that! Right. That’s, uh, Thursday. This Thursday.”
“Okay. I’ll try to get up there by then.”
“Thank you, dear. That will be lovely. I’ll tell Gramps you’re coming. He’s so fond of his granddaughters, he’ll be tickled pink.”
Another deep breath. “Right. Listen, I’ll check in with you tomorrow and let you know for sure. Do you have a phone in your room in case you need to call for help at night?”
“Yes. And it’s one of those newfangled ones, you know, that doesn’t have a cord like the one in the kitchen. You can walk around with it. The boy next door helped me install it. He’s very good to me. Just a darling.”
“That’s nice,” I said distractedly, already trying to rearrange my week so I could make the four-hour trip to the sleepy northern Michigan town where she lived. “We’ll talk tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay, dear. See you soon.”
As soon as we hung up, I called my mother. She didn’t answer, and then I remembered that when she’d called earlier in the day to wish me happy birthday, she’d mentioned dinner plans with Phil, her longtime companion. I left her a message asking her to call me and dialed Emme.
“Hi, it’s me.”
“You doing okay?”
“Yes, but have you talked to Grams lately?”
“Grams? Yes, I had to call her a couple weeks ago to get some family addresses for invitations.”
“Did she seem odd to you? Say anything strange?”
“No. She guilt-tripped me about not visiting her, but she seemed sharp as a tack. Had all the information I wanted and rattled off decades-old stories about every relative on the list. Why?”
“Because I just spoke with her, and she seemed … off.”
“She said she’s not driving anymore because she’s losing her eyesight and her hearing.”
“What? She didn’t mention that to me. And Mom talks to her almost every day, doesn’t she? Wouldn’t we have heard that by now?”
“She also said she had to speak quietly because Gramps was asleep in the bedroom.”
Silence. “Are you serious?”
“I know. And she said she’s in pain, and she wants me to come up there and drive her to her doctor’s appointment, which is Thursday.”
“Can you do it?”
“I think I have to. She said there’s no one else to take her.” For a second, I remembered the neighbor she mentioned, the one who’d installed her “newfangled” cordless phone. But she’d called him a boy. Maybe he wasn’t old enough to drive yet.
“Can you get the days off work?” Emme asked.
“I think I can manage it. I’ll have to reschedule a bunch of clients, but I have some vacation time built up at the clinic.” I frowned. “And what else do I have to do with it, right? It’s not like there’s a tropical honeymoon in my future. Might as well go spend time with my ninety-two-year-old granny who’s probably pretending to be senile so she can have company at happy hour.”
Emme laughed. “Maybe you can find your fuck fling up there.”
“In Hadley Harbor, Michigan, in October? Population one hundred and ten? Average age sixty-five-point-two? Not likely.”
“Probably not, but you never know,” she said. “Pack your skimpiest knickers.”
“I don’t own any skimpy knickers.”
She sighed. “We really need to go shopping.”
Well, of course I was pretending.
My eyesight was just fine, and my hearing was even better. I still drove myself around town nearly every day of the week, and I hadn’t gotten a ticket since 1975. In fact, I was probably a better driver than half the bozos on the road. And though my heart broke a little every time I thought of it, of course I knew my beloved Frank had been gone for ten years. Oh, I still talked to him from time to time, but I wasn’t losing my mind.
But the boy I mentioned, the one that lived next door who put in my fancy new phone? His mind I was worried about.
He’d moved in four months ago, and I hadn’t seen one person come or go from that house in all that time. No wife, no kids, no family or friends … At first, it didn’t make sense to me at all. He was handsome as the devil, built nice and strong, and a real gentleman—he started taking care of my yard work whenever he did his own without my asking, and he wouldn’t take a penny for it!
He was handy indoors, too. He was doing all kinds of work on that big old house next door, which had fallen into disrepair after the previous owner died a few years back and the family had been unable to sell it. Mary Jane at the beauty parlor told me she heard from her cousin Darlene, who’s married to the real estate agent who had the listing, that Mr. Woods—that’s the handsome fellow’s name—was only renting the house, and that he’d agreed to do some refurbishing on it in exchange for lower monthly rent.
Mary Jane also heard that he’d gotten a job as a groundskeeper at Cloverleigh Farms, which used to be just a family farm but was now a winery, an inn, a restaurant, and a place for big, fancy weddings. (In my day, you went down to the courthouse in the morning, had a champagne brunch if you were lucky, and hooray, you were married. Now people have such elaborate weddings they have to take out loans to pay for them! But everything was simpler back then. Even boy meets girl.)
Mary Jane said she didn’t want to spread gossip—since when, I nearly asked her—but she’d also heard that he was a former Marine who’d had trouble readjusting to civilian life, and his wife had left him. That’s why he’d moved up here all by himself.
Well, once I heard that, things made more sense. No wonder he seemed so melancholy—the poor dear was lonely.
I’d tried to draw him out a little, but so far I hadn’t had too much luck. Oh, he’d do any little chore I asked him to, but he’d be silent the whole time, and he never stayed for dinner, no matter how often I invited him. I’d taken to sending him home with cookies or brownies or some other little treat.
But I knew what he really needed, and it wasn’t dessert. You don’t get to be my age without living through some tough times, and I’d known my share of shell-shocked men.
What he needed was a sympathetic ear and a warm hug. Someone to tell him he was okay. Someone beautiful and kind, inquisitive but sensitive. Someone who understood the complexities of the human mind and could make him feel good about himself, war wounds and all.
Someone like my Stella.
She was all those things and more, and now she was single too. But I knew my darling granddaughter, and she wasn’t going to come running up here just to meet a man. She was far too sensible for that. She was far too sensible, period.
But I’d fix that, even if I had to fake dementia to do it.
Never underestimate a granny on a mission.
Especially the matchmaking kind.
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