When my cell phone rang, I’d just finished cutting up my marriage mattress.
I put down my chain saw carefully so it wouldn’t scratch the hardwood floor. Then I slid my safety glasses up to the top of my head like a headband and reached for my phone.
“Hello-oh,” I said.
“Hey,” B.J. said. “It’s me. What’s up?”
I puffed a sprinkling of sawdust from the phone. “Not much. Same old, same old.”
“So, check your email—the invitation just went out. You are coming up for our reunion, right?”
“No way.” When I shook my head for emphasis, more sawdust flaked from my hair like dandruff. “Come on, B.J., we’ve been over this at least eight times already.”
B.J. blew a raspberry into the phone line. “No way is not an acceptable answer. You’re going. No excuses. You’re not still mooning around about Kurt, are you?”
“You mean like counting the days till he sends me a Hallmark card for Almost Ex-Wife’s Day?”
B.J. still laughed exactly like she had in high school, a series of sharp staccato barks. “See, your sense of humor is back.”
“Ha,” I said.
“What you need is some fun in the sun. Plus, if you ask me, there aren’t nearly enough opportunities to act like a teenager once you get to be our age, so we’ve got to grab any chance we get. And the good news is we can drink legally this time around.”
“Great,” I said, “but I’m still not going.”
“Jan wants all of us to stay at her beach house for the week—”
“Don’t give me Jan who. Jan Siskin. Actually, I think it’s Reeves now. Or maybe it was Reeves but it’s now Schroff. Or maybe it’s Siskin again. Who cares. Anyway, as you well remember, we kind of hung out with her all four years in high school. And now she has a beach house.”
“I don’t think she really even liked me,” I said.
B.J. aimed a blast of air across seven states and into my ear. “Hey, you haven’t heard from Veronica, have you?”
I sighed. “You mean in this millennium?”
“She’s not returning my phone calls or emails. But. She. Will.”
I let B.J.’s tenacity wash over me like a wave. When I looked down, I saw that my non-cell-phone-holding palm was open, faceup, as if to emphasize my own uncertainty.
B.J. was still talking. “So, you know how I’m on the committee,
right? Well, we’ve decided we’re not going to mention either the year we graduated or how many years it’s been. We’re just going to call it The Marshbury High School Best Class/Best Reunion Evah.”
“That’s ridiculous.” I opened one of the French doors to the deck off the master bedroom to get rid of the gasoline smell. I seriously needed to upgrade to a battery-operated chain saw.
“The committee consensus is that the actual numbers might be a turnoff. It’s a lot of years to wrap your brain around, and none of us feels that old, and most of us don’t look that old, especially the women, so we just thought it would be more fun if we focused on the positive.”
“Which would be?”
B.J. let out a little snort. “That we’re still alive?”
I took a quick stab at the math, then gave up. “How many years has it been anyway?”
“Don’t even think about it,” B.J. said. “It’s way too depressing. Come on, we haven’t seen each other in forever.”
“Okay, so how about you go to the reunion, and then you can fly down here and tell me all about it.”
“Mel, I’m serious.”
“Me, too. I’m seriously not going, B.J., so drop it. Please.”
“Give me one good reason you shouldn’t go.”
I sighed. “Everyone else will dress better, look better, be better than I am. High school reunions are like a test for personal success and I’ll slide right off the bell curve. I’m not famous, I didn’t turn into a knockout, my husband left me. And I stopped wearing heels years ago and now my feet will only tolerate work boots and flip-flops.”
“One good reason,” B.J. said. “I’m still waiting.”
After we hung up, I put my cell phone down and contemplated the savaged chunks of king-size bed before me.
It’s not that I was bitter. I mostly just wanted the springs.
Okay, maybe I was a teensy bit bitter.
Our two sons, Trevor and Troy, were seven and six when Kurt had dragged me kicking and screaming to the suburbs of Atlanta. They were thriving on sandy summers boogie-boarding at the beach and snowy winters sledding down the biggest hill in our little seaside Massachusetts town. We lived a tree-lined walk away from the best local elementary school. I had a boring but comfortable part-time job answering phones for a nearby art gallery that let me work my hours around my kids. Mothers’ hours.
Life was good.
Kurt said his job offer had come out of the blue. As if it were luck. Or destiny. Kismet. Serendipity. His old boss had taken a job at a big Atlanta corporation a few years before, where he’d been moving up ever since. And now he wanted Kurt to come work for him.
“Out of the blue,” I repeated as I stirred a pot of homemade chicken alphabet soup with a wooden spoon. “He just called you out of the blue and said uproot your whole family and take them away from everything they’ve ever loved because I have a job for you. Even though you already have a perfectly good job.”
Trevor ran through the kitchen and out the back door. “Give it back,” Troy yelled as he ran after him.
“Dinner,” I yelled. “Ten minutes.”
Kurt shrugged. He loosened the blue-striped tie I’d bought because it reminded me of the way his eyes changed shades in different lights. He unbuttoned the top button of his white shirt. Long-sleeved. Extra starch.
I stared him down. In the fading light of the early evening, his eyes were a dark navy, almost black.
He looked away first.
I flicked on the kitchen lights and turned my attention back to the soup.
“Smells good,” he said as I stirred.
I kept stirring.
“Okay, I put out a few feelers,” he finally said. “It’s time to move on. I think I’ve taken things as far as I can here.”
For a quick, crazy second I thought he was talking about the boys and me.
After I loaded the bed chunks into heavy-duty black plastic contractor bags and dragged them out to the garage, I vacuumed the bedroom. Then I hauled my mattress-flecked self into the bathroom and turned on the water. It sputtered like it always did, then burst forth in a ferocious battle of brushed-nickel showerheads and body jets. I peeled off my clothes and let the wet needles pummel me like a bad marriage.
I towel dried while I contemplated putting on actual pants, the kind that zipped and buttoned at the waist and everything. This seemed extreme, so I went with my regular uniform: yoga pants, baggy T-shirt, flip-flops.
I stood on my stone front steps and blinked against the bright North Georgia sunshine. The sun rose later here, and eventually I’d found out that it was because we were so close to the central time zone line. And just south of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Coolish, evergreen-scented mornings gave way to steamy semi-tropical afternoons that stretched into long cook-out-on-the-back-patio evenings. An enormous magnolia held court in the front yard, surrounded by camellias and Lenten roses, as well as a solitary blue hydrangea that reminded me of home. But I’d also planted windmill palms and banana trees, plants I’d thought would only grow as far north as Florida. Surprisingly, they’d thrived here.
As soon as I opened the barn doors on one side of my Honda Element, I leaned in and flipped one of the two backseats forward at the waist. Then I lifted the whole seat up and hooked it to the side of the car with the carabiner that dangled from the ceiling. I circled the car and repeated the steps on the other side. An amazing amount of empty space materialized, anchored by the Element’s black nonslip rubber-matted floor, which actually hosed down for easy cleaning. I wanted a house like that.
“All aboard,” I said in my cheeriest talking-out-loud-to-yourself voice. “Next stop, Ikea.” I’d done my online research. You couldn’t beat the design for the price. After all the years of compromise—Kurt’s traditional taste trumping my own—I wanted a clean-lined, ultramodern bed. The latex mattress I’d decided on even came rolled, so I’d just get someone at the store to help me shove everything into the back of my Element and then figure out how to get it inside once I got home.
I was fine as I backed out of my driveway. I rolled down the
hill in my safe little neighborhood and pretended I was just going to Publix or Whole Foods, or to get my hair done. I was still fine as I navigated the interminable crush of traffic on Roswell Road, with lanes that mysteriously disappeared and tried to trick you into turning right when you didn’t want to.
Long rows of burgundy and pink crepe myrtle graced the islands in the center of the road, flanked by mounds of cheery yellow Stella d’Oro daylilies. Enclaves of new brick and stone neighborhoods peeked out between clumps of chain stores and restaurants. If you could shop it or eat it, you could find it within a three-mile radius of my house. Except for Ikea.
The instant I saw the sign for the highway, my mouth went dry. I’d stay to the right, drive as slowly as I needed to. Anybody who didn’t like it could just go around me.
My hand shook as I clicked on my blinker.
I could do this.
I willed my foot to stay on the accelerator. I wound my way up the on-ramp slowly, pretending I didn’t see the car behind me getting right on my butt.
The feeder lane dumped me out onto the highway. The car behind me screeched past and catapulted into the maze of speeding steel as if it were hurling itself off a cliff. Lane after lane after lane stretched out to my left, cars flying downhill at terrifying speeds.
Anxiety sat on my chest like a baby elephant. The skin on my arms prickled, closing me in, walling off any hope of escape. Impending doom climbed in and took the passenger seat beside me.
My right leg started to shake from working so hard to keep my foot on the gas pedal. I crept along in the slow lane, trying
not to feel the angry force of the mammoth vehicles that whizzed by my left shoulder—SUV, tractor-trailer, SUV, car, SUV, SUV, SUV. I risked a quick peek at the speedometer and made myself push it up to fifty-five. That was respectable, wasn’t it? I mean, if you could drive fifty-five miles per hour, you were perfectly normal, right?
I just had to drive past four highway exits, take the fifth, and then it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to Ikea.
A sign came into view announcing that the first exit was coming up in three miles. I tried to picture driving past it, but I couldn’t even imagine reaching it. For three endless miles I white-knuckled it.
By the time the first exit finally appeared, I knew I had to get off the highway. But it felt as though fear had frozen my arms in place.
I had to get off. I couldn’t get off.
I forced myself to lunge for my blinker, my hand shaking as if I had Parkinson’s, and managed to turn the wheel and escape the highway four exits too soon. I crawled my way to a semi-deserted fast-food parking lot just down the road from the off-ramp.
I leaned back against the headrest until my sweat chilled and my heartbeat returned almost to normal.
Maybe I’d just sleep in the guest room.