The Art of Adapting
The drugstore was filled with Valentine’s Day decorations and chocolates—the last thing a woman wanted to see just after being left by her husband. Heart-shaped Mylar balloons and chalky conversation hearts mocked Lana as she chose cards for her kids. She knew they were too old for it—saccharine photos of puppies holding stuffed velvet hearts in their mouths, cards from their mother on Valentine’s Day—but it was tradition. And with her present in turmoil, and her future uncertain, tradition was comforting.
Lana pored through the trite and sappy options looking for something metaphor-free and Asperger’s-appropriate for her brother, Matt. Her old neighbor Dixie, mid-sixties and tanned from her new residence on a golf course, rounded the corner, headed her way. Lana turned away without thinking about where to go, why she was hiding from her friend. It made no difference—Dixie spotted Lana as she pivoted away.
“Lana, dear!” Dixie trilled, beaming as she came up to Lana.
“Hello, stranger,” Lana said, beaming back to the best of her ability. She gave a friendly wave with the cards in her hand. Dixie was trim and well preserved, tucked neatly into a dark green polo shirt and white tennis skirt.
“Card for Graham?” Dixie asked. “I just love Valentine’s Day,
don’t you?” Her hair was shorter, smoother, shinier than the pre-retirement version of herself, now more silver-blond than the flat gray she used to sport. She looked amazing, like a blissed-out retiree. Lana looked like she’d decided to give up personal hygiene for Lent. Not that she was Catholic. Or knew anything about Lent. She looked exactly like a woman spending Valentine’s Day alone after nineteen years of having someone to celebrate it with. Like she’d been awake half the night feeling sorry for herself, then had slunk to a drugstore nowhere near her house to reduce the chance of running into neighbors or friends or coworkers in her disheveled state. A lot of good that had done.
“Actually, they’re for the kids. Graham . . .” Lana held up the tacky cards and felt-covered rose-shaped pens that she was also giving her children—the kind of pens they’d likely never use. She wanted to finish the sentence, allow the truth to roll out of her like the brown sludge dripping from the chocolate fountain for sale behind Dixie, but she couldn’t do it. As if it weren’t bad enough having her marriage end, there was the painful act of telling everyone. How many times did she have to say those words, suffer the stunned look on someone else’s face, fight the urge to comfort them as if it were their tragedy to swallow?
“How is Graham? Still working on that book?”
Graham was not working on a book, and never had been, but it was a conversation starter he lobbed around at parties, his idea for a science fiction novel about a space colony that survives the destruction of the earth. Lana gave a vague smile and a shrug.
“He’s keeping busy.” Dating, she was tempted to finish. He’s keeping busy dating a redhead. But Dixie meant well, and snarkiness wasn’t going to fix the situation, so Lana let it go.
“How’s the new place?” Lana asked. “You look phenomenal.”
“Oh, you’re too sweet,” Dixie said. She touched her hair, a whiff of self-consciousness rising from the gesture. “Is it too much?”
“Dixie, you look twenty years younger than you are. I can’t even compete.” Lana held up her arms to show off her oldest jeans, her faded powder-blue sweatshirt from the kids’ elementary school. They were now in high school.
“I can give you my hairdresser’s card,” Dixie said. She snapped open her miniature beige calfskin purse and extracted a dark purple card. The front of the card read Janelle Monroe in tiny script, followed by a phone number. Nothing else. No address, not even a salon name. Was minimalism the newest marketing fad?
“Wonderful. Thanks,” Lana said. She dropped the card into her big mommy purse, the bottomless one she kept meaning to downsize from. “Please say hello to John for me.”
“Oh, I’ll do better than that!” Dixie said. “We’ll have you and Graham over for dinner!”
Lana sighed. Really, there was no way around her humiliation. She just had to barrel straight on through it, over and over.
“I’m sorry, Dixie. I’m afraid that won’t happen. The truth is . . . Graham moved out.”
Dixie narrowed her pale blue eyes and touched her hair again. “Why on earth would he do that?” she asked.
It wasn’t at all the reaction Lana was expecting, and it struck her as equally tragic and hilarious. Indeed. Why would he? Dixie knew nothing of Graham’s late nights working, Lana’s loneliness, the arguments, the silences, the threats to leave one another. She knew Lana and Graham from dinner parties, where they were always on their best behavior.
The Mylar balloons swayed overhead in the man-made breezes of central air-conditioning while piped-in Rick Springfield crooned about wanting Jessie’s girl, and Lana couldn’t help laughing at the horror of it all.
“I have no idea,” she said.
“Oh, my sweet dear,” Dixie said. She pulled Lana into her, one of those half hugs women do, where they chicken-wing their arms and grip the other person’s shoulders, a modified chest-bump of affection.
Dixie and John had been married since college, a good forty-plus years for them. They were living Lana’s dream: one spouse, for life. They and their three perfect children and five cherubic grandchildren were beating the odds, while Lana was on the verge of becoming a statistic. Lana returned the half hug, surprised at
how frail Dixie felt beneath her glossy sheen of newness. Would Lana be alone when the forward march of time caught up to her? Dixie stepped back and looked Lana over. “Please give Janelle a call. She can do miracles. It’ll make you feel so much better.”
Dixie touched her hair one last time before giving a little wave, a ripple of four fingers, then she turned on her white tennis shoe and walked away.
Lana paid for the cards, the pens, a couple of boxes of candy for each kid, Matt’s beloved yogurt-covered pretzels—the yogurt coating a horrid Pepto-Bismol-pink for the occasion—and headed home. Janelle’s purple business card rode shotgun within Lana’s purse, a chatty copilot listing all of the ways she could make Lana over: cover her gray, give her long loose layers, make her look less like a mom and more like a woman a man might actually desire. And while Lana wanted all of that, she also resented the feeling that she had to repackage herself for the market. Graham was graying, thinning in a spot on the crown of his head, and had put on a little roll around his middle, but he seemed to be having no trouble getting dates.
Lana compromised by swinging by her favorite nail salon, where the fumes gave her a headache but the attentions of beautiful delicate Mai always made her feel better. Mai complimented Lana’s nails, her shapely fingers, her skin, and while it was likely just a means of earning her repeated business, it did make Lana feel better. The manicure also fell within Lana’s tighter, post-separation budget, while she was fairly certain a Janelle Monroe makeover did not.
“Sit, please,” Mai said. She could have been eighteen or thirty-five. It was impossible to tell. Lana sat. Mai set out four color choices and Lana pointed to the red—appropriate for Valentine’s Day. Mai held the bottle up to Lana’s cheek and squinted, giving the faintest shake to her head. She held up a bottle of rose-pink polish and gave a shy smile. Lana nodded. She wanted someone else to make the decisions.
Being single meant Lana got to be in charge all the time, do things the way she’d always wanted them done. She no longer had to wait until Graham was done watching TV before starting the
noisy dishwasher. She didn’t have to budget for the fancy-label wine he preferred. She could wait an extra thousand miles before getting her oil changed. But it also meant she had to be in charge even when she didn’t want to be. That she’d had to be the one to fire the gardener she could no longer afford. That she’d given up her beloved winter fires because Graham told her she needed to get the chimney cleaned first and she had no idea who to call for such a thing. Or how much it would cost.
Mai finished massaging Lana’s hands with lotion. Before starting to paint her nails, she gestured to Lana’s left hand.
“You want to put your ring back on before I paint?”
Lana had no ring to put on, of course, but Mai didn’t know that. It had been months since she’d worn her wedding ring. Maybe months since she’d had a manicure.
“No,” Lana whispered. Stupid Valentine’s Day. She smiled but felt her eyes moisten. Mai ducked her glossy head of beautiful black hair and got to work. With Lana’s hands busy lying flat on the table between them, she had no way to wipe her eyes. She caught a lone, errant tear on the shoulder of her sweatshirt.
With lovely pink nails, an armload of valentines, and renewed resolve boosting her spirit, Lana headed home to wait for her kids to return from their overnight visit at Graham’s. She expected to find Matt in the kitchen, eating a generously buttered English muffin, drinking milk from his favorite blue cup, but the kitchen was empty and the house was quiet.
Lana set out three piles of Valentine’s Day gifts on the kitchen table and signed the cards. She still had a couple of hours before Graham brought the kids home. She weighed her options. Heading back to bed was too depressing. Exercising held no appeal. Eating was a dangerous way to pass the time. She texted her kids.
Happy Valentine’s Day! I love, love, love you! Mom
Abby wrote back immediately:
Can we come home now?
The proper answer was no, because it was Graham’s time with them, but it wasn’t like they had an official visitation schedule set up. Graham saw them when he wanted to see them, brought them home when he was done. Matt emerged as Lana was trying to formulate a response.
“What’s that?” he asked, gesturing in the general direction of the piles of stuff on the kitchen table.
“It’s Valentine’s Day,” Lana said.
“Oh,” Matt said. He set about making his breakfast. He showed no interest in the pile of gifts before his seat at the table or the envelope bearing his name.
If it’s okay with your dad, Lana wrote. That seemed fair enough. Defer to him, but give the kids permission to influence him.
He says fine, Abby wrote back.
Lana sent a text that she was on her way and fetched her keys. “I’m going to go pick up the kids at Graham’s. Want to come along?”
Matt looked at his uneaten breakfast.
“You can bring it,” Lana said. Matt picked up his food and headed for the garage.
Lana’s mood was instantly lifted the moment she pulled onto the sunny street and turned toward the ocean, headed for Graham’s place in Del Mar. Once her children were home it’d be a happy holiday. Valentine’s Day wasn’t meant to be spent alone. Of course, fetching the kids early meant Graham would be spending it alone. The thought made Lana smile. But the smile made her feel guilty. She flipped on the radio to a soft-rock station she normally hated, but knew would be playing the sappy brand of love song appropriate for the day, maybe something to remind her of happier times. What she found was even better. Adele’s “Someone Like You.” The perfect anti-love song.
Lana was singing along when she noticed the colored lights flashing behind her. A police car, on her quiet little suburban street. It was so unlikely that she kept driving for a moment, sure it wasn’t meant for her.
“Oh, no,” Matt said, peering in the side-view mirror. “What happened? What did you do?”
“It’s fine,” Lana said, pulling over. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Maybe I have a brake light out?”
Matt ducked down in his seat, curled himself into a ball, fetus-style. His plate of breakfast fell to the floor mat.
“Please stay calm, okay? It’s fine,” she said. But as the buff cop climbed out of his car, adjusted his belt, and strutted toward her window, she got that horrible clenched-stomach feeling of being in trouble.
She unrolled her window just as the police officer came up next to her. She put one hand out protectively over Matt, hovering just above his skin, trying to transmit some calming force onto him.
“Do you live in this area?” the cop asked. He had on sunglasses and a hat, the brim pulled low over his eyes, his pad already out, flipping to a blank page.
“Um, yes. Back on Meadowlark?”
“So then you must know there’s a stop sign back there? On Coventry?”
“I missed a stop sign?” Lana said. It seemed impossible. She was an annoyingly cautious driver.
“No,” Matt said. He raised his hands to squeeze his head and started to rock his body back and forth against the back of his seat. “No, it’s not on Coventry. It’s on Capital. It’s on Capital, and she stopped. A California stop, they call it. It wasn’t a long stop. Not the five full seconds. I always stop for five seconds. It was barely one second. But I counted one second. She had her brake fully pressed for one second. And it counts. If you look in the driver’s handbook even one second counts.” He rocked and rocked, knees to his chest, fists poised at his temples.
“It’s okay, Matt,” Lana said. She watched helplessly as Matt punched his ears once, twice, and rocked steadily. The car shook with him. The anxiety in the car was rising. The officer was suddenly more interested in Matt than in Lana.
“Is he okay?” the officer asked.
“Yes, fine. He, um, he just . . . Police officers intimidate him.” That was true. She nodded in agreement with herself. She pulled
out her license and handed it to the officer. She’d take the ticket. Anything to get out of there before Matt lost it.
“He doesn’t look okay,” the officer said. “Sir? Do you need help?” He was nearly shouting at Matt, which just made Matt withdraw deeper into his tight ball, made him cover his ears more fiercely, punch them a third time, a fourth.
“Oh, please don’t raise your voice. He’s sensitive to loud noises. He gets overwhelmed. He’s got Asperger’s?” She didn’t mean to make it a question, but it hung there between them, a plea for understanding. The officer slowly took Lana’s license from her, still eyeing Matt. He peered down at Lana’s license, studied it thoroughly. And smiled. He leaned to his left to look around Lana for a better view of Matt, who continued to rock against the seat, eyes shut, ears covered, a turtle hiding from a predator.
“Matt?” he said. “Matt Croft?” Both Matt and Lana startled at the sound of his name. How would the officer know him? Lana wondered if he was the same one who’d pulled Matt over for his DUI and scared the hell out of him with his blowhard threats. That would be bad. That would push Matt over the edge for sure.
“Officer, if you can just write the ticket. My kids are waiting for me, and Matt here is . . . He’ll calm down as soon as we go.”
“It’s okay, Lana,” the officer said. He held Lana’s license out to her. “Matt here’s right. The sign’s on Capital, not Coventry. And even a one-second stop counts. My mistake.”
Lana, confused, accepted her license. He was letting her go? Matt opened his eyes and took in the officer in his own safe way, casting sidelong glances at him, mostly checking him out with his peripheral vision. Matt pointed a finger at him. Leaned forward, across Lana, to point vigorously at the officer’s chest. Lana fought a surge of panic. Was that an aggressive move? Would the officer grab Matt and pull him from the car, slap handcuffs on him and take him away, for pointing?
“You’re Nick Parker,” Matt said. He withdrew his pointing finger and returned to rocking absentmindedly, but his hands were in his lap and not punching himself in the head anymore. He seemed to be calming back down. “You were in the Marines. You were at
Camp Pendleton and you wore too much cologne and you had shorter hair and it wasn’t gray yet, and you said you’d teach me to hit a baseball, but you never did.”
Lana slowly took in the police officer, who was now smiling very clearly at her. “Nick?” she asked. Sure enough, the gold pin on his uniform read PARKER. It had been nearly twenty years since Lana had seen him. Since Graham had stolen her from him.
“So you married him,” Nick said. He removed his Wayfarers, and without the glasses, Nick emerged. The same high cheekbones, deep-set dark eyes, striking physique. He had aged beautifully. “I saw on your license. Lana Foster now?”
“Oh. No.” Lana laughed, suddenly self-conscious. She touched her messy hair. “I mean, yes. I married him. But I . . . um. We . . .”
“They’re separated,” Matt said. “They don’t live together anymore. The kids are at Graham’s. Lana gets sad when they’re with Graham. And today is Valentine’s Day. Which is a silly holiday. A Hallmark holiday. But Lana was sad about it and then when it was time to get the kids she was happy. Until you pulled her over. Then she was scared.”
“Shh,” Lana said, laughing nervously. Nick laughed with her.
“Nice to see you again, Matt,” he said. “You’re right. I promised to teach you to hit a baseball before I shipped out.”
“Then you and Lana broke up and you never did. She met Graham and she liked him better, and you stopped seeing her, and me, and forgot to teach me to hit a baseball.”
“I’m sorry I let you down,” Nick said. He opened his notebook and started writing. Lana’s gut writhed. So was she getting the ticket after all? Because Matt had spoken the blunt truth, as he always did, and made Nick angry? Lana’s body was a taut wire of tension. She really couldn’t afford a ticket. Nor the humiliation of being given one by an ex-boyfriend from decades ago. Nick ripped off the sheet of paper and handed it to Lana. It was his name, email, phone number. “Maybe we can get coffee sometime? Catch up?”
“Oh, I’d love that!” Lana said, too loudly. She laughed, embarrassed for herself. “So how long were you in the Marines for? And are you married? Kids?”
“If I tell you everything now, we’ll have nothing to catch up on,” Nick said, giving her that sly grin of his, the one that had lured her in so long ago. “Happy Valentine’s Day.” He gave her shoulder a squeeze, gave Matt a salute, and slid his sunglasses back on. As he did so, Lana noticed that he had no ring on his left hand. Lana watched him walk back to his car in her rearview mirror. It was a very nice view.
“The kids are waiting,” Matt reminded her.
“Right,” she said. She started the car, but waited for Nick to drive off first. He slowed next to her and waved, and she waved back, her fearless, long-forgotten twenty-four-year-old self reemerging temporarily. The bright-eyed girl of hope and promise, the one who didn’t take life so seriously, who loved sex and kissing and hand-holding but didn’t need a man in her life full-time. It was time to dust off that version of herself.
“There are three more stop signs on this road,” Matt said. “You should do a five-second stop. That way there’s no mistaking that you stopped. I always stop for five seconds. I can count if you don’t know how long that is. Most people don’t know how long a second is. Not really. Not exactly.”
Lana drove toward her children, Nick Parker’s information in her hand, and Valentine’s Day laid out before her, ripe for the picking. “You do that,” she said. “You count for me.”
She was on such a high that even the sight of Graham, freshly showered and well dressed, smiling, relaxed, and happy to be free of her, did nothing to rattle her. She embraced her children as if they’d been gone more than just sixteen hours. She wondered briefly if she should be concerned that her mood that day had swung so quickly from insomnia and tears to ecstatic, effusive joy.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, my loves!” she sang, kissing both kids, knowing how her gushing affection embarrassed them. Abby rolled her eyes and Byron shrugged her off.
“Oh, right. Happy Valentine’s Day,” Graham said. Lana gave him a smirk and turned away. As if there were any chance she’d been talking to him. She floated down the steps toward her car, still holding Nick’s note.