Don’t Mind Me I, Came with the House

Chapter One  The wedding

Why fuss over a little “I do” after a great big “Not anymore, I don’t?”

I’m perched on a ritzy barstool in a posh suite, staring into a mirror set out on a kitchen counter. My mind races past epic issues (rings, flowers, chair covers, after-party) and swerves into a muddied pit stop for a confidence refuel.

Last year, I breached my nuptial vows and now I’m dating this popular, good-looking golf pro who has not once brought up the “m” word.

A gigantic, green glob of envy rolls around in my belly, so, protectively, my mind speeds away from the marriage topic and lands on the chocolate-cream-stuffed donuts encased in cellophane, sitting ten feet from me. Eating one will upset my stomach but, more importantly, if I slip one out, Evy will notice and have a conniption.

Everett, Evy, is a good friend. A trusted confidant. But he’s no Anderson Cooper. Just a middle-aged father of two. College professor. Philosopher, sort of. A gay commoner in modern-day society. A person never tempted to keep his opinion to himself.  He is…

He’s impossible. He’ll kill me if I eat one.

“Mom, can you help me—” My daughter, Delanie, bursts into the room with the flare of an approaching comet, while my thoughts of Evy and fitting into the dress I’m wearing to his beach wedding tango toward the donuts. Her fiery voice jolts me back to the tasks at hand: finishing my makeup, polishing Evy’s rings.

She stops and blinks dramatically as if attempting to erase something unpleasant. “What happened to your face?”

Her arms overflow with little bouquets, their white chiffon streamers dangling in disarray. Normally, she disregards me, so her attention alarms me. I glance back to the mirror and see black. Everywhere. “Oh, great.” 

“Don’t move.” She plops the bouquets on the counter, plucks a makeup wipe out of a container, and her thin fingers grip my chin like a vice.

“Ouch,” I whimper.

“Sit still.”

She scrapes my cheeks like she’s stripping varnish off an antique. When she’s finished, her gaze darts back and forth across my face. “You’ll have to reapply your base.”

She releases her grasp, and I cradle my chin in my hand. “That hurt.”

She pats her hands with a paper towel then points a finger at me. “Do not ruin this for Evy.”

Delanie is my oldest child. She’s twenty-one-years-old going on sixty and suffers from role reversal. She thinks she’s my mother.

“I won’t,” I swear, but I’m only semi-sure I won’t muck things up. I tend to bungle the easiest of tasks.

“Promise?” She plants her hands on her hips.

“I do. I promise.” I’m a mother afraid of her own. First-born children, in particular, scare me.

“Do you have the rings?”

My stomach flexes like a fist.

“I do. Right here. See?” I flick the little box open and set it on the counter.

She sighs. I think she’s disappointed I haven’t lost Evy’s treasured bands.

“I’m polishing them.” I grab the silver cleaner and wave it in the air.

“Don’t mess it up,” she says then screams her sister’s name with the power of Ursula. “Gianna. Can you help me hang the flowers on the chairs? Mom’s not ready.”

Evy’s delegated the part of the wedding planner to me for this momentous occasion, which is monumental since he’s a maniac when it comes to details. His reasoning for this risky appointment is threefold. First, I’m a dynamite designer with an eye for color schemes. Second, I crave perfection. (I fall a tad short here.) And third, my family gives gnats in our basement more attention than me. Evy believes planning his wedding will reveal my hidden beauty and talent to my children. In other words, he’s a good friend and he’s doing this for me.

I’m not proud. I welcome his pity job.

To perfect every minor detail of the wedding and increase my family’s visibility of my finer qualities, I’ve petitioned all three of my children to help co-plan the event. (Keep your friends close. Your enemies, closer.)

We are staying at an upscale hotel on the coast of North Carolina, which I located and Evy paid for. He rented ten suites for family and friends. Blake, his best man, or rather his partner Bennett’s best man, is my boyfriend of thirteen months. Blake is also Bennett’s twin brother, and he’s entrusted me with the rings.

Big mistake. Even I know that. Blake’s faith in me never ceases to amaze me. My first husband wouldn’t trust me with a nickel at a dime store.

Mark, my first, was a nightmare. Blake, hopefully my second, is a dream. Now every morning when the sun slips through my window and I open my eyes, I remember my old life is gone, and I smile in sheer ecstasy. No more Marks. Only Blakes.

When he doesn’t have a tournament—Blake’s one flaw is golf—and my older kids are away at college and my youngest is at a sleepover, I wake up beside him jubilantly, feeling like I’ve hit the relationship lottery. The whole you-marry-once Catholic guilt hits me every Sunday, but not enough for me to hide my tail between my legs and crawl back to Mark. I like Blake way too much.

Plus, other people enjoy his company. Much more than they did Mark’s.

Blake is endearing. And he’s a golf pro, which automatically boosts any guy who’s rated a seven out of ten to a nine. Blake’s a nine to start, elevating him to the sought-after ten-plus category. So I clutch at his popularity train, hang on for dear life, and try hard to swallow any inappropriate comments my brain thinks up so I don’t embarrass him.

I have a small anger problem and minor attention deficiency. My anger rouses and concentration wanders when people hurt my friends, family, or mention my divorce.

The truth about divorce is that dozens of personalities rooted in extended families are suddenly sitting at the same table, fighting for their piece of the cake. If a mother hands a slice slightly larger to one person, the others ravage her instead of their dessert. A divorced mom is forced to divide up her slice, divvy it out, and hope that pacifies everyone.

A mother sacrifices until the end.

On the other hand, a positive about divorce is it awakens an inner appreciation. Do-overs (couples of second marriages) bask in gratitude. They complement each other. Hold hands. Say, “Yes, honey.” Or, “No, babe.” Do-overs appreciate each other more than couples who have been married so long they pee with the bathroom door open.

“When you’re done—” Delanie commands me away from my wandering thoughts. She shouts over one shoulder as she scurries out the door. “Come help Gianna and me.”

I hear five or six loud thumps on the staircase, and Gianna bounds into the room like an antelope. She’s grown as tall as her sister, her long lean body pretty in pink, a wide smile gracing her blue eyes, pug nose, and perfect cheekbones. Despite the bad first marriage, I wouldn’t change a day. Mark and I had produced three great kids.

“What happened to your cheeks?” Her forehead wrinkles.

“Why?” I gaze into the mirror.

“They’re red.”

“They are, aren’t they?” I apply a base to cover the vandalism Delanie’s hands have strewn to my face then sit back and inspect myself. “I’ll touch it up before the ceremony,” I say then gaze at my daughter.

She pinches the sides of her dress. “How do I look?”

My children’s growth spurts, both physical and mental, spark teary-eyedness in me. Gianna, my baby, grew up overnight during the divorce. Today, Delanie has dusted her face with makeup for the occasion. A hint of sugary perfume wafts toward me as she sways back and forth. But for her wildly happy eyes, someone might mistake her for a sixteen-year-old. At fourteen, that thrashing attitude toward her mother hasn’t yet settled in. She still likes me.

Occasionally.

“You look beautiful.” I stand and hug her.

“Let go of me. You’ll wrinkle my dress.”

“It’s skin tight. You’d have to iron a wrinkle on.”

Her expression turns. “Can’t you, for once, say something nice? You always have to ruin everything.”

There you go. The little-girl moment dashed. Her shoulders stiffen and her teeth clench.

With daughters, bursts of independence surface in the single-digit years. By ten, they’ve realized their friends stack blocks better than their mother. By twelve, you annoy them. Fourteen, you embarrass them. Sixteen, you appall them, and at eighteen you can’t grab their attention with a foghorn. They deflect your voice, advice, instruction, guidance. Everything you offer them comes sailing back faster than a boomerang whirled by a weightlifter—except money. I’ve sunk half of my 401k into these girls.

Then they advance to their twenties, and suddenly, you’re the child and they’re the mother.  

“What? I meant it as a compliment.” I say, even though both of us know I didn’t.

The sorry truth about mothers is we nudge our girls toward the route we feel is easiest and best for them. Sometimes, unintentionally, we end up digging little trenches in their way, jostling their egos. Then we patch their road with fibs.

“Your dress is very…fitted. Flattering.” I raise my voice an octave to sound sincere.

“Yeah, right.”

Life was easier when they were two, and I told them to do this, don’t do that, do everything exactly the way Mommy tells you. And they did. Joyfully. Their eyes twinkled and their faces lit up when I walked into a room.

Now they run when they see me. Have the audacity to advise me. Point out how I might improve my life as if wisdom is a regression that we are born with and lose over time.

I miss the old days when they gazed at me adoringly.

“You’re so negative,” she hollers, and the knot in my stomach tightens.

This roller-coaster relationship I have with Gianna sends my confidence plummeting.  If I can’t perfect a single motherhood gig with a fourteen-year-old, how will I pull off the perfect wedding for Evy? And worse, how will I remain deserving of a man like Blake? He can leave me. The kids can’t—not technically, anyhow.

“Just once can’t you be nice?” she screams, and her inappropriate dress shimmies a half-inch down the front of her.

I say nothing because “your bandage bodycon fits you like skin on a snake,” would send her venom spewing. Silently, I watch her long hourglass shape march away. Inwardly, I scold myself for getting caught up in a dress-buying moment with my girls.

Evy has played an important role in my children’s lives since they were little. We celebrated when he found Bennett. Where normally we don’t agree on much, the girls and I concurred that Bennett was the best thing to happen to Evy. Tittering with happiness and wanting to make him proud of us, his friend family, we slipped into a fancy dress shop, and I became enamored in the amiability of the moment, conceded to Gianna’s begging, and purchased the dress that now flaunts my fourteen-year-old’s breasts like an eighteen-year-old’s.

Fashion dizzies me every time.

“You look wonderful.” I wave the tip of an olive branch toward her.

She slams the screen door on its leaves. “Whatever.”

My girls aren’t simply blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and cute, they’re smart. Unfortunately for me, they recognize my desperation; I crumble when they’re mad.

When I was pregnant with my third child, I begged God for a girl. I wanted Delanie to have a sister as I did. Despite my sister, Barb, being much older, we got along famously. We relied on each other. I wanted Delanie to have someone she could walk hand in hand with through life, too. Delanie and Gianna would be six-and-a-half-years apart, far enough to avert competition but close enough to inspire friendship. They’d find solace in their sisterhood long after I was gone.

I didn’t count on them ganging up and sending me to an early grave.

I glance to the ceiling, look past it toward God. “With all of my ridiculously foolish prayers, this you grant me? My two-daughters request?”

Sometimes God steps in to answer our prayers at the most inopportune times. 

I dance in frivolous thought for several minutes until, tiredly, I waddle off the daughter topic and back to the wedding where a minor detail slaps me. The chair slipcovers still await their destiny.

I run to the door and holler to Gianna and Delanie. “I forgot. The chair covers are boxed up on the altar. Can you start covering chairs until I get there?”

“The what?” Gianna’s arms drop.

“The white chair covers. They’ll add to the ambience.” I’m proud of myself for ordering them.

“You’ve got to be kidding. You tell us now? I’ve fixed flowers on three rows.” Delanie steps away so I can see her picture-perfect work.

“I’m sorry.” I bite my lip with one front tooth. “Could you redo them? The covers are dressy, perfect for an outdoor wedding.”

“You are so hung up on perfect.”

I am. I admit it. Don’t we yearn for what we lack?

“I want this day to be perfect. For Evy. You know how he is.” I deflect blame with the best of the cowards.  

“Nothing is perfect, Mom. Not you, me, this wedding, the stupid chairs. And who cares?” Delanie huffs and puffs and I think she might blow the entire white, plastic makeshift altar down as she stomps toward the box of slipcovers.

“I care.” I step outside.

“Of course, you do. You want to impress everyone that you’re this wonderful person. You want to be—” She shakes her head primly. “Noticed.” Then she spews, “But the truth of the matter is Evy could care less if his wedding is perfect.”

“Your wrong. Evy does care.”

“No, he doesn’t.” She turns around and, despite the distance between us, I see the frustration in her eyes. “Evy will love us even if this ceremony is a complete disaster. You’re the person who doesn’t understand life.”

I’m uncertain how to respond. There’s probably some truth buried in her budding philosophical moment, but all I can think right now is she doesn’t know Evy.

“Go in the house and stay out of the way.” She opens the box, grabs two chair covers, and trudges toward the first row.

I tramp inside, determined not to allow my girls to ruin my mood. I tidy up the kitchen then retrieve the prepared fruit platters and set them out beside the donuts and Danish for the brunch after the ceremony. I fill the crystal punchbowl Evy’s inherited from his grandmother with orange juice and champagne, dump pineapple-shaped ice cubes in the middle, and stir.

I resume my seat at the counter, reach for the rings, and take my frustration with my girls out on the wedding bands, polishing the heirlooms to perfection.

A few minutes later the musicians arrive. I peek out a window and watch Delanie usher them to the flowery alcove Evy and I set up last night. Several guests have wandered in. Quickly, the violinist begins practicing, soothing music fills the air, and a renewed sense of peace strikes me. The day is turning out perfectly.

I return to my mirror in the kitchen to perfect myself, too. Hurriedly, I smooth my base and apply eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara. When I’m finished, I see Blake’s reflection as he enters the suite behind me.

“Hello, gorgeous.” He strides toward me, his tailored black suit embellishing his squared shoulders, thin waist, lean legs. He sneaks a kiss on the nape of my neck. “Rumor has it you have this suite to yourself tonight. Your kids are staying with mine in the room by the pool, right?”

“Yep. That rumor is accurate. They don’t want me ruining their good time, and now Delanie’s mad because I’m trying to make Evy’s special day perfect.”

“It will be.” He sets his hands on my shoulders.

“How’d you convince her to watch your girls tonight?” I ask. My kids will do anything for Blake. “She’s always so agreeable for you.”

His hands squeeze and I shiver.

“I pay her exorbitantly.” He kisses me again.

Three things I know about Blake Anderson. He is kind, generous, and has the softest lips I’ve ever kissed. That last quality I keep to myself.  The other two, everyone knows.

“Nice job on the rings,” he says.

“Thanks. I think Delanie secretly hoped I’d rinse them down the drain.”

Blake sneaks a hand onto the counter, and his fingers crawl along the quartz to the paper towel where the rings sit. He drags them away from the sink. “No sense tempting you.”

“Ye of little faith. They’re drying. I’ll have them out to you in a minute.” I stand and slip my arms around his waist. 

“You look beautiful.” His eyes wander over me.  

“Thank you.” I move my eyebrows up and down. “You don’t look half bad yourself.”

“Why are you getting ready here?”

“Oh.” I release my grip and gather my makeup into its bag. “The girls were hogging the bathrooms.”

He turns me around, places a hand on the small of my back, and exhales warm breath beneath my ear. “How much time do we have before the service?”

Chills rush down my neck and across my shoulder blades. “Not that much time.”

He stands back, laughing. “Okay, Nikki Grey, I’ll see you—”

“Stone,” I exclaim. “I’m no longer drab and boring Nikki Grey. Remember? I’m drab and boring Nikki Stone.”

I took my maiden name back immediately after my divorce. I hated not having the same name as my three children, but Mark, the ex, has a four-year-old daughter—Rosalee Grey. Long story short: he had a child with another woman while we were married, and I refuse to share a last name with the two of them.

“I’m sorry. I mean Nikki Stone.” Blake draws me toward him again as if he can’t keep his hands off me. His rich, intoxicating cologne rattles me, and my head dizzies. “Maybe someday we’ll do something about that drab and boring last name.”

He kisses me but I don’t feel a thing. I’m afraid my mind is playing tricks on me. What did he say? Did he mean…my name…might be his someday? Anderson? As in Mrs. Blake Anderson?

When he leaves, I stand dazed like a teenage girl after the captain of the football team has winked at her. I reel in the wonder of his words, struggling to digest them. He hasn’t once mentioned marriage.

Suddenly the temperature of the room skyrockets, and I begin perspiring profusely. I wiggle inside my clothes. My underwear and dress cling to my sweaty body. The hair falling on my neck frizzes. My makeup slides down my cheeks. I fan my face but can’t stop sweating. I’m a perfect menopausal mess. I grab for a paper towel on the counter and pat myself dry at the exact moment I hear metal clinking.

I stop breathing. My gaze falls to the sink. I’m paralyzed as I watch two rings roll round and round until the big, ugly hole in the middle sucks them into the underworld.

“No, no, no, no,” I cry.

The drain. I jinxed myself.

I reach my hand down under and a mangle of food tangles with sharp metal prongs. I gag, recoil my food-stained fingers, lean over the sink, and gaze into the depths of hell. I can’t see a thing.

Above me, a light fixture dangles from the ceiling, pointing at the sink. I reach and flip its switch, but instead of seeing light, I hear grinding and whirring and scraping and clunking, a rhythmic melody of doom.

My mind hiccups to a few seconds ago when Blake moved the towel. Further back to Gianna saying I ruin everything. Delanie warning me not to mess this up, as if they—everyone—had some awful premonition, expected disaster because calamity is the main plot in Nikki Grey Stone’s life story.

I pirouette into a hyperventilating attack so quickly that the dry grinding sounds nearly send me to the floor. I regain my composure and flick the garbage disposal switch off. I take a deep breath—I don’t know why I’m holding my breath—and force my hand into the muck and grime of the sinkhole.

“Don’t faint,” I tell myself.

I was born with temporal lobe epilepsy, and if I pass out, I will lose my driver’s license for six months or until I haven’t had a seizure for six months. Two years ago, I had my first devastating episode—a grand mal—after foolishly smoking marijuana with friends. Up until that fateful day, I’d only had partial seizures; brief annoying moments where I stared subconsciously, but honestly, my mind wanders so often that identifying a partial seizure as opposed to a wandering thought was difficult. 

I slop a mucky mess into the sink, gagging. Two hints of silver glimmer through a stringy glob of greenish-black goop. I grab them with my free hand and use an elbow to turn the water on. A stream wets my face, and I snap my eyes shut. Someone left the faucet on the spray setting. Water drenches me but I clutch the rings and manage to stop the gushing just as the processional music begins outside.

Perfect.

With one eye open, I fling muck off one hand, swing the faucet downward, hit the stream knob, and allow a heavy flow of water to wash the gunk off of Evy’s rings. I set them on the side and rinse the grime from my arms, but my dress, hair, and makeup are ruined beyond quick repair.

I grab the edge of the counter and breathe. Blackness tries to weasel its way into my vision. I’m so panicked that “Huff, huff, huff,” echoes through my mind. Then I remember, you say that if you’re having a baby. So I switch my chant to “Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth.”

I stand my ground. I’m not going down. Slowly, my head clears. I rinse the putrid muck down the sink and examine the rings. Evy’s is pecked like a dartboard and Bennett’s is pear-shaped, the engraved words that Evy’s so carefully chosen for him laugh up at me: Our love is a circle of perfection.

Not anymore, it’s not.

My stomach has been so upset in the past few weeks that now I have to do everything I can not to throw up on the floor. I slip the rings into the box and hurry outside. I’m soaked, hair dripping, makeup stinging my eyes, but what can I do? The ceremony has begun, and I’m clutching the ring box.

Blake is standing on the altar beside Bennett and when he gazes my way, he does a double-take and goes slack-jawed as if he’s glimpsed Medusa. Then, slowly, his shock melts, and his lips part into that forever smirk I usually love on him but don’t appreciate today. Seven rows of people separate us, and I’m tempted to heave the ring box over their heads and run, but I’d probably pitch it in the ocean behind him.

I make my way down the side closest to him, ignoring the titters here and there as I pass. Bennett glances over his shoulder to see what the humming is about and, although he and Blake aren’t identical twins, a smirk lifts his lips and his expression mirrors the same easily-amused mien of his brother’s.

On the other side of the altar, Evy gives me a once over as if I’m a zombie rising from the marshlands.

By the time I hand off the rings, Blake and Bennett, shoulders shaking, can’t make eye contact with me. I hear my son laughing and my girls sighing, so when I turn, I steer away from the empty seat in the front row beside them. I refuse to subject myself to their jeers. Instead, I march down the aisle, searching for my friend, Jody. I spot her. She motions to the chair beside her in the third row. I step over two people and slouch into the seat, glad that at least my disheveled appearance has kept Blake from spotting the mangled rings.

The giggles simmer then cease. Ten minutes later Blake opens the ring box. Evy looks me straight in the eye and says, “Naggy, darling, I’m going to string you up by your ankles and pull every hair off your head, one by one. Then I’ll shred your closet.” My stomach gurgles, I belch, and then projectile vomit on the three people sitting in front of me.

Perfect.

Chapter Two   The apology

If Evy is correct and reincarnation exists, I’m coming back as a mom who is appreciated more and thinks less.

A week has passed since Evy’s wedding, and Delanie and Gianna still aren’t speaking to me. This constant mother-daughter quandary spins on a worry wheel in my head. I can’t stop thinking about their silent treatment and sneers. I’m like a machine in a twenty-four-hour shop. Thoughts keep cutting, spiraling.

Delanie stomps down the stairs this morning in a bad mood. She was out late last night and can’t hide her puffy eyes even with hydrating cream, which I know she’s used since a smidge of it is caked on the side of one eye. I don’t dare tell her. Fire will shoot out of her nostrils.

“Good morning,” I say, instead.

She ignores me and heads straight for the coffee, grabbing a mug from the cupboard then realizing there are no k-cups in the holder. She slams the cup on the counter and sighs disgustedly.

“There are some in the pantry,” I inform her.

She groans without glancing my way, my voice as insignificant as the hum of the refrigerator. “Everything’s always in disarray around here,” she mumbles to herself.

It’s a Saturday morning in June. My two college kids are home for the summer, and my high school student and her two friends are upstairs, still sleeping after their loud all-nighter. I’m functioning on two hours of sleep because of the blare of their music. Bowls and glasses crowd my sink. Pizza boxes hide my kitchen table. Pop cans flood the recycling bin.

Yes, Delanie is correct. Everything is out of order.

“This place is a mess,” she mutters then passes on the coffee and tramps out of the kitchen without acknowledging my presence in the slightest.

I’m the cook, maid, butler, and barista. I stock shelves and mow lawns. I’m the invisible grocer, landscaper, nurse, doctor, accountant, buyer, sugar momma. 

“You left your keys on the sofa. I dropped them in your purse,” I holler.

No response.   

The door slams shut, and my worry-milling brain returns to its clinking and clanging as it roils. I gather up the kitchen garbage along with the annoying swarf my mind spews. The cutting shards of rebuttals stockpile in my brain as I carry on, perpetually grinding. I’m in jeopardy of catching fire. Self-combusting.

“You left the garage door open last night.” The sound of my son’s deep voice jolts me. Hux, my rambunctious, carefree middle child, who spends half of his life eating and the other half teasing his sisters, has appeared out of nowhere.

“I closed it for you. You’re welcome,” he adds.

While uttering thank you is something my children find unnecessary, they expect me to thank them profusely if they pick their own toenail off the floor.

“Thanks.” I chew on my lip and try not to aggravate a third child.

“Is Evy home? Can you ask him if I can borrow his kayaks?”

His entitled attitude needles me. There’s no “hi, Mom,” “good morning,” “how are you feeling?” He needs a favor, and I exist to serve him. It’s as if I’ve been standing in the kitchen all night waiting for a servile opportunity.

“Yes, he’s home, but you’ll have to ask him yourself.”

“Why can’t you ask him?”

“Because I’m not your servant, Hux.”

“You’re a mother. You’re supposed to do stuff for your kids.”

“I have a life; I’ll have you know.” There’s only so much one mother can take.

“Yeah, okay, mopping floors and scrubbing sinks.”

“There is more to my life than frivolous chores.”

“Like what?”

Something erupts inside me. Like water dropping into a pan of hot oil. Mentos, into a can of Diet Coke. “Like I’m a living, breathing person. I have wants and needs. Desires.”

“Desires?”

“Yeah, desires. Goals. I’m tired of people traipsing by me like I don’t exist. I’d like people to respond when I ask a question. Notice me when I walk into a room.”

“So, what? You want to be an internet sensation or something?”

“Yeah, maybe I do. Maybe I want to be a sensation, a star for a change.”

“Moms are behind-the-scene stars.”

While this might be a skewed compliment, my temperature is rising and I can’t stop the foamy Coke from brimming. I’m not sure why I’m so emotional. I have to choke back tears. “Behind-the-scenes people are underappreciated. I’m working hard to make our lives perfect all the time and none of you care. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and realize I haven’t accomplished a single thing. That I’m nobody.”

“Mom, don’t get overdramatic. It’s not the end that matters. It’s the journey.”

Wait, what?

“You worry too much. Why don’t you chill? Sit back, relax. Smell the roses. Enjoy the ride.”

Where’d my son go? He’s never had an existential moment in his life.

My tear ducts dry. I’m shocked into somberness.

“Wait a minute.” He fixes his hands on his hips. “Is this because you puked at the wedding? You’re not still worried Evy’s mad, are you? About the rings? Is that why you won’t call him?”

He’s caught me off guard. I raise my chin and respond honestly, “Yes, I am.”

“Mom, Evy doesn’t care about the rings. Bennett used plyers and straightened them out.”

In the past week, I’ve worked hard to circumvent guilt over ruining Evy’s rings and throwing up on his Aunt and cousins, but Evy and Bennett were due home from their honeymoon last night, so I’m mildly anxious.

“The wedding was perfect,” Hux continues without noticing I haven’t responded. “The lamb was to die for. Did you taste it?”

While I annoy my daughters relentlessly, my son could care less about what I say or do. Nothing much bothers him. His current goal in life is scoring free pizza and wings at local restaurants, which he usually accomplishes in a back room with a deck of cards. He’s a poker shark. Or a whale. I can’t remember which means good.

“It only seemed perfect for you because you didn’t spend two hours scrubbing the carpet.” I cross my arms. “All that lamb and you needed pizza at midnight?”

“We were hungry.”

“You took the beer from the bar, too, didn’t you? There was none left when we cleaned up. I hope you didn’t let your little sister or Blake’s girls drink.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“You didn’t take the beer or you didn’t let them drink?”

“Both.”

“You’re not of legal age, Hux.”

“C’mon, Mom, it was Evy’s wedding. I had a few cans at the pool. I didn’t take any to our suite. I kept it away from the girls.”

“I suppose you want a thank you for that.”

“A thanks would be nice.” He smiles. His eyes twinkle.

“I would have thanked you to clean the pizza out of the carpet.”

“Yeah, but white carpet? Not smart. And—” He steps toward me, massages my shoulders. “The maid said she couldn’t believe you got it out. I told her you were a workout machine. How far do you drive a ball now? Three hundred yards?”

My blood, minutes ago rushing through my veins, slows to a crawl.

He could schmooze the last dollar out of a poor man’s pocket. He’s been in trouble twice as much as both girls combined but talks his way out of jams with the bat of his long lashes over his baby blues.

“Don’t you have someplace to be?” I try to disguise my dissipating anger. I should be punishing him for drinking underage.

Relationships. I’m a patsy.

“Work,” he replies.

“You’re working today?” My voice escalates once again. I think the girls pay him to raise my blood pressure. “Then you’re late.”

He opens a cabinet and grabs a box of cereal and a bowl. “I had to wake Gianna and her friends. They hate it if I don’t say goodbye before I leave. Mind if I take the milk?”

Both of Gianna’s friends who spent the night have crushes on Hux. Most of her friends do. Gianna, herself, adores him. On the other hand, he disgusts Delanie. He’s dated two of her friends. Ex-friends, that is. He broke their hearts.

“Yes, I mind. Gianna and her friends won’t have any.”

“Girls don’t drink milk.”

“Get back here with that.” 

I shake my head then swear at myself when I realize I’m smiling.

Sons do that to mothers: soften our anger, make us shrug and surrender. Hux charms me with adulation, witticism, sweet-talk. Dewy words flow past his dimpled smirk, ameliorating my annoyance every time.

Opposingly, when my girls walk into a room, my stomach twists, logic nose dives, and my mouth gushes like a fireplug. Having daughters affords a say-anything feeling. With sons, it’s different. Your emotions bounce back and forth between rage and love like a tennis ball over a net.

“You drove the car into a stop sign?” Whack.

“He mowed the lawn.” Tap.

“You broke the blender?” Wallop.

“He ran to the store for me.” Rap.

“You have to appear before the District Justice?” Game over.

Mothers melt around sons, and daughters hate them for it. My girls insist Hux is my favorite child, but he’s not. He causes me way more grief than them. Plus, he can’t take care of himself. Can any guy survive on his own? I’ll never rush marriage on either of my girls, but Hux? I’ll be glad for the day he’s some other woman’s responsibility.

He grabs a spoon and heads out the door.

“Make sure you bring that back. My silverware is disappearing.”

“Gotcha.” He stuffs it into his pocket, and the screen door slams behind him. There’s a zero-percent chance he’ll return that spoon.

“Call, Evy. He’s not mad,” he yells. “And remember. It’s all about the journey. Chill out.”

Instead of heeding his advice, the mention of Evy restarts my temporarily stalled worry wheel. I do consider his point, however. Is Evy still mad?

A simple apology doesn’t seem fitting for ruining the rings, so I cook a lasagna-and-meatball peace platter. I spend half the day simmering ground beef, sautéing peppers and onions, and perfecting my red sauce. When I drop it off, Evy and Bennett gush with happiness in seeing me, and I wonder if they’ve lost their memory.

Vacationing for ten days has dampened Evy’s ire—vacationing and Bennett. I’m beginning to wonder if Blake and Bennett Anderson have a single flaw between them. Intelligent, compassionate, handsome, and each athletic in his own way, the two might not be identical twins, but they are identically endearing. Neither possesses an ounce of anger. Much like Hux, smirks are plastered on their faces throughout much of life.

I mention this to Evy when Bennett excuses himself for a work call.

“You’re right,” Evy agrees. “They’re blessed with a contentment others aren’t born with.”

“Yeah, Hux, too.” For a moment I wonder if this is a guy thing. Then I remember Mark’s flaring temper and change my mind. “Do you think they’re happy because of genes or the way they were brought up?”

Evy shoots me a reflective stare. “I know where that question is going.”

“What?”

Bennett isn’t gone a minute, and Evy’s tone has changed. He sits, scrutinizing me. I can’t read his blank stare. Then he reaches across the couch and shocks me by placing his palm over the back of my hand.

“You’re a good mother. You love your children unconditionally. They’ll turn out fine. My girls will live through my mistakes, and your kids will survive yours.”

“But will I survive the guilt over my mistakes?”

“You will.” Evy scoots over on the couch, slings an arm around my shoulder, and I lean my head on him. “You are harder on yourself than anyone I know.”

The planets must be aligned in some existential orbit today. First Hux offers inspirational advice, now Evy.

“I feel I’ve failed my family with the whole botched marriage thing.”

He leans his chin on the top of my head. “Not so hard you can’t forget how bad it was. If it makes you feel better, concentrate on the fact that Mark cheated. Multiple times. And had a child with another woman.”

“Are you trying to make me feel better or worse?”

“Better. If he hadn’t done those deplorable things, I think you’d still be miserably married to him.”

“True.” I’d been so engrossed in myself and my three kids during my marriage, I hadn’t recognized I was miserable. “But I have that whole Catholic guilt thing going on.”

“Well, stick with me, kid. I’ll help you relieve yourself of that heavy baggage. I changed your mind on gay people, didn’t I?”

I lift my head off his shoulder and smile, a memory lighting the moment. “You did. You completely dashed my gays-go-to-hell upbringing.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

My mother was an ardent Catholic. My father skipped masses but exemplified Christian giving. I was forced to suffer through sixteen years of Catholic education—attending a religious college exponentially magnifies your guilt. Lay teachers and clergy drilled marriage-is-between-a-man-and-a-woman into me. I had been in jeopardy of growing into a Janice Everglade. (The short version of a long story is Janice Everglade is a judgmental bigot.)

Then Evy came along. Evy with the whipping tongue and heart of pure syrup and sugar. What few people know is he donates a portion of his salary to inner-city high school students who want to go to college. He cared for his sick mother until the day she died. Takes his girls to volunteer at a soup kitchen twice a month and has inspired ferocious independence in them though they are only thirteen years old. Luck fell on Leah and Penny when Evy adopted them.

“When Christ came into the world, he bludgeoned lots of beliefs with his number one commandment: Love one another,” he adds.

“When did you get all religious on me?”

He recoils his arm. Stretches it along the couch. “I teach a theology class, remember?”

“Val said you teach paint-by-numbers.”

Val is Evy’s best friend. Jody is mine. Jody moved to Seattle over a year ago shortly before Mark and I split up. Evy and Val walked me through many a lonely night without her.

“Pottery, my God. You couldn’t grasp an academic hand if you were slipping off a yacht in the middle of an ocean.”

“Why would I be in a yacht in the middle of an ocean?” I jest.

For some reason, Evy’s seriousness always embarrasses me, and I end up changing the subject. A good counselor could write her dissertation on how this diversion signifies one of my many psychological flaws. I, opposingly, see this as a simple defense. Evy’s so smart I can’t banter academics with him. Stand him beside me on a track, and I’ll beat his skinny butt every time. But battle against him in the world-knowledge arena? I’m like a God-fearing Christian fighting a lion.

Evy sees right through me and plays along. “You’re right, darling, no one with any class would ever invite you on a yacht.”

He moves away from me on the couch. I smile and scoot toward him. He slides further away. I inch right next to him, thigh-to-thigh.

“You love me,” I say.

“You and your one-hundred-and-one IQ,” he chides right as Bennett meanders back into the room.

Bennett shakes his head and counters, saying I’m the smartest woman he knows, which isn’t that big of a compliment because he hardly knows any women. Yet, the temperature of the room rises to a lovely warmth.

How could anyone suggest these two men were anything less than pure love?

“So, I have to ask.” Evy usually gets annoyed when Bennett takes my side. He’ll ruffle my feathers now. “When do you think that man of yours will pop the question?”

Bam. He smacks me like I’m a sun-basking fly perched on a screen, completely unaware of my vulnerability.

“You had to ruin the moment, didn’t you?  You love me up with your Jesus talk then you shove me off a cliff.”

“I’m simply preparing you. He will and you better be ready. No tumbling over that long, loose tongue of yours.”

“You don’t know that he will. He still sees his ex twice a month. I’m just trying to keep my composure and remain on the love seat. Sit a safe distance away so he doesn’t see born-loser me.”

“That’s impossible. Have you forgotten the wedding?” Evy holds a hand to the side of his face and hollers. “He knows you’re a disaster.”

His hand drops. “I must have been crazy asking you to help plan my wedding.”

Bennett breaks in again. “Except for a few bumps, the wedding was perfect. And Blake only sees his ex when he drops off the girls. Trust me. That door has closed. My brother drags his feet but only because he’s shy; he’ll ask.”

“Maybe,” I say, remembering Blake’s comment about changing my last name. “But I need to keep my better side front and center.”

“Better side? Which would that be? The bent-rings or no-hotel-deposit-back Nikki?”

“I said I’d give you money for the deposit.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Bennett remarks. “Tell her the truth. You got your deposit back. The manager said Nikki helped the maid clean all ten suites. She even scrubbed out the pizza stain.”

“You weren’t going to tell me that, were you?” I shove Evy’s shoulder.

“I would have kept the money for your next disaster.”

“Our wedding was wonderful.” Bennett sets a hand on my shoulder, leans, and kisses the top of my head. “Tell her, Evy.”

“It was nice.” This kills Evy to admit.

“Well, just think. If you guys are right and Blake does ask me to marry him?” I pat Evy’s knee and stand. “We’ll be related.”

A horrific realization overcomes him.

“We’ll spend every holiday together,” I add, jubilantly.

Bennett leaves the room laughing, and Evy lectures me to the front door, something about respecting family rules of conduct. I politely ignore him and exit, snickering.    

On the ride home and for the remainder of the day, however, I think over what they’ve said about Blake asking me to marry him. I should be happy. I want to be happy, but I’ve got this entire throwing-up issue going on that has risen out of nowhere.

I caution myself. I have a bad tendency to view happiness as the calm before the storm—a balminess in the air. It’s terrible the way I check life’s forecast as if I’m unworthy of sunshine.

I force myself to concentrate on the positive that evening. Of course, the kids don’t let me know where they are, and I must call relentlessly before they answer their phones. Once I’m assured all three are safe at friends’ houses for the evening, I take my golden retriever, Furgy, for a long, relaxing walk, and we enjoy the peacefulness of my neighborhood. Afterward, Furgy and I settle in the family room, me on the couch, she at my feet.

We relax together, focus on what’s good in our lives, and watch a frivolous TV-show that warms us with humor. I sip wine and rub Furgy’s back with my toes. Together, we tramp negativity, replacing pessimism with sit-com laughter.

Dogs are like that. They exude acceptance.

But then I head to the bathroom during a commercial and, OMG, I’m dying.

I haven’t had a period in over a year. I’m menopausal. Two doctors confirmed this. Now I’m spotting, which can only mean one thing.

I can’t say the word. I can’t think it. Surely, the big C has turned Nikki Stone’s weather vane. It’s a gloomy, forbidden forecast: rain flogged with lightning and thunder and wind and hail that will soon pelt me.

When moments ago I sat happily sipping wine, now ridiculous thoughts whirl me into a spin, and I throw myself on my bed—dramatically for effect, although I’m not sure whom I think is watching. God? Am I trying to squeeze pity from Him? Convince Him I’m a sappy middle-aged woman who can’t carry a cross?

Furgy jumps up beside me. I nuzzle my face into her fur and cry myself to sleep, hating Nikki Stone because if she hasn’t grown up by forty-seven, she’s never going to grow up.

Chapter Three   The gynecologist

I’m sitting underneath a sheet of paper, stark naked, wondering what type of human being wants to be a gynecologist. Not an obstetrician, you can understand that profession. A new life slipping into your hands could make anyone forget the sordid details. But what went through a gynecologist’s head on high-school career days? “I’d love to spend my life looking up vaginas?” Or “Wouldn’t it be fun to yank a uterus out?”

These people are sick.

I sit on the uncomfortably hard table, pretending I’m not embarrassed. Faces on magazines smile at me from a rack on the wall. I could grab one and read, try to forget someone is about to knead my breasts and poke my cervix, but if I step down and reach for one at the exact moment the doctor opens the door, my paper gown might waft forward and expose my forty-seven-year-old butt.

Not pretty.

So I sit and glance around the room. Stare at the colorful sketches of female parts I don’t want to think about, instruments I don’t want anything to do with, and a bottle of cream that I fantasize about. I’d like to squeeze every bit of it onto the walls. Blot out everything in the room I don’t want to see.

A lubricant to make your exam easier.

The ridiculous thought of covering the place with ointment spreads through my mind like a venereal disease at spring break. Imagine the surprise on Doctor Yank-a-uterus’s face if she entered and her elaborate fallopian-tube painting was all creamed up. I snort out a laugh.

For a moment, I forget where I am and relax. Then I shift to a more comfortable position on the table and one knee pokes out from underneath my paper skirt.

I examine my kneecap. Several half-inch hairs point up at me.

Drat.

How’d I miss those? I raise my leg. Longer hairs stick out the back.

My mind dances on to my shaving inabilities. This must be some deep-seated human survival technique. I don’t want to think about my exam or worse, a formidable C diagnosis, so I muse myself with the hair on my knees. Allow my thoughts to tango toward trivialness. I imagine how great life would be if I invented something that shaved a leg perfectly, knees, front and back. I’d secure a patent for the flawless instrument. Become rich. Like the post-it guy. He made a bundle.   

I sigh. I’m waiting for the most uncomfortable examination in the world, fretting about whether I have the big C, and suddenly course leg hairs and post-its matter. I’ve lost all sensibility.

I lean down and take one last look. Trivial or not, I spent last night shaving every inch of my legs—more than I do for Blake—so how could these hairs of shame be waving up at me?

“Good morning, Mrs. Grey.” I nearly pee myself when the doctor surprises me.

“Stone,” I say, a tad too loudly. “I’ve taken my maiden name back.”

“Sorry, I’ll note that.” She taps on her iPad. “So how have you been feeling? Any menopausal symptoms?”

“A few,” I say because yelling, “Yes, I sweat profusely. Can’t you see my paper robe disintegrating?” might send her into a mood, and Lord knows I want a happy examiner.

She stammers on about this and that. I have to tell her about Mark. Then Blake. Yes, sex is fine. No, I’m not experiencing any pain. What? Oh, yeah, kids are great. Job is fine. Why is she chatting like we’re on a coffee date? I want to scream for her to save the small talk for later. Hasn’t she ever had an exam herself? Get it over already.

She chatters on about menopause and periods and how spotting is unusual and should be checked out but, blah, blah, blah, I shouldn’t worry yet. Finally, she walks to the sink, washes her hands, and tells me to scoot down and put my feet in the stirrups.

I shiver.

Supposedly, the most unpopular word in the English language is moist. I disagree. I vote for stirrups. It shoots electricity through me every time. I lie back, smoldering, pondering the ugliness of what’s about to happen beneath my paper sheet. I practice my breathing while Doctor Yank picks and prods like she’s at a campfire trying to restart the flames. Right when she is deep into the exam, I hear a knock, and a nurse jars the door open.

“Oh, I’m sorry doctor,” she says.

Seriously? I cover my face with both hands in case a husband walks by and recognizes me later in the waiting room.

Isn’t that the old lady with the ugly vagina?    

“No problem, Aimee, I’m almost done here.” She keeps prodding.

“I have the results of Mrs. Grey’s tests.”

“Stone,” I lift my head and yell. A flash of a face passing in the hall behind the nurse startles me. I make eye contact with the person. Are they selling tickets to my exam? I raise my voice. “It’s Ms. Stone. Ms. Nikki Stone.”

The nurse’s neck snaps back, her eyes widen, and the doctor stops prodding. We stare at each other for an uncomfortable few seconds. Of course, can there be a comfortable moment when your legs are spread from wall to wall?

“Thanks, set them on the desk.”

After the nurse leaves, I apologize, the doctor is gracious, and, mercifully, the exam ends.

Now the wait is on.

“How long before I know if this is some type of cervical or uterine cancer?” I ask.

“Mrs. Gr—I’m sorry.” Fright spreads across her face. She backs up as if I might unloose a foot and lodge it in her mouth. “Ms. Stone, I mean Ms. Stone. I’m fairly certain I know what the problem is. Let me take a look at your results.”

Oh, no.          

“You can sit up,” she says, but I can’t. The tone of her voice tells me what her words don’t. It’s bad news. Worse than expected.

This is the story of my life. Every time a speck of happiness falls my way, a mound of troubles follows. I place a wrist on my forehead and prepare myself for what’s to come. I should have known dating the best guy in the world would have drawbacks. Now I’m sick. My love life is perfect so my health is bad. “Oh, my God, I have ovarian cancer, don’t I?”

“Ms. Stone, please.” She pats the side of the table. “Sit up and we’ll talk.”

We’ll talk?

“Oh, my God.” I begin crying. “I shouldn’t have come alone. You don’t know me. I have temporal lobe epilepsy. I’m not supposed to stress out.”

“Ms. Stone—”

“If I have a seizure, I’ll lose my driver’s license. How will I get to my chemotherapy? I have a daughter in high school. How am I going to tell her? And a boyfriend. He’s a wonderful guy. Will I lose my hair? This is the worst thing in the world.”

“Ms. Stone,” the doctor hollers above my wailing. “You don’t have cancer.”

I barely hear her through my crying and snorting. “What?”

“You don’t have cancer.”

“I don’t?” I wipe my face and sit up.

“No, you don’t.”

“Then what’s wrong with me? Why am I spotting? My mother’s friend, Beverly? She started spotting after menopause, and she had ovarian cancer. I remember it as if it were yester—”

“Ms. Stone. You’re pregnant.”

“W-w-w-what?”

The conversation speeds up.

“You’re pregnant.”

“No, no, no, no, no. I can’t be. I’m forty-seven.”

“It happens.” She has the nerve to chuckle. “Not often, but it can occur.”

“But—but, I—I can’t be. I haven’t had a period in, I don’t know, thirteen months? Last year you said I was menopausal.”

“I said your missed periods could be due to your weight loss. If I remember correctly, you were separated from your husband at the time and had lost a great deal of weight. I mentioned the lack of a period could be due to your weight loss or menopause.” The tip of her finger scrolls through notes on her iPad. “Here it is. Yes. Stress or possible menopause.”

“But that was a year ago. What am I an elephant?”

“You may have missed a period for a few months due to the weight loss. During that time, menopause might have begun. But even if periods cease due to menopause, we advise women to remain on a contraceptive for a year. Hormonal activity can continue and cause pregnancy.”

“Doctor Morgan, I cannot be pregnant. My husband and I tried for years to have another baby. My youngest is fourteen. My God, my oldest is twenty-one. I can’t be pregnant.”

“I very much assure you; you can be and you are.”

“No, no, no, I couldn’t get pregnant. Then I was menopausal. Angry. Sweaty. The doctor I went to before you wrote that down.” I lean toward her and tap her iPad, hard. She jerks her shoulder and swings the iPad away from me. I point. “Look through your notes, you’ll see. He told me not to come back because I was so nasty. You get that way when you’re menopausal. You don’t understand because you’re young.”

“Ms. Stone, you’re pregnant.” She sets her iPad down and places a hand on my arm, gently. “I understand this might be shocking. Is there someone you can call? Is the father still in your life?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“It’s fine if—”

“Yes, he’s still in my life. I’m forty-seven. What do you think I do, sleep around? And wait.” I close my eyes and shake my head. “He’s not the father. There is no father because I’m not pregnant.”

“You should give him a call.”

“I can’t call him. Are you crazy?”

“Ms. Stone, calm down. Everything will be fine. I think you should phone him.”

“I can’t. He’s golfing. He’s a professional golfer. What would I say? Nice job. You scored a hole in one with your putter?”

“Tell him you are pregnant with his baby.”

“He’ll think I’m delirious,” I scream. “I. Am. Forty. Seven. Years. Old.”

Black closes around me, and I think I’m fainting, then whammy, the doctor shoves smelling salts under my nose and I spring to attention.

I glance around the room at the pictures and contraptions. The doctor has called the nurse in, and four beady eyes centered under arched brows stare at me. Moments ago I was afraid of death. Now I’m terrified of life. Turns out, when you are forty-seven—the P-word is every bit as frightening as the C-word.