The carpool line extends around the block, a row of brake lights as far as the eye can see. It’s January and an unpleasant thirty degrees. Thick grey clouds have blanketed the sky for far too many days. The environmentalist in me screams to turn off my idling RAV4, knowing my four to seven minutes of comfort while I wait for our daughter isn’t doing anything good for the Earth. I cut the engine, feel a spark of pride for making a good decision, and zip my sleeping bag coat to my chin. Compulsively, I slip off my right glove and mindlessly scroll through Facebook. The usual string of funny animal videos, political rants, and kid pictures aren’t doing much to entertain me. Then I notice a new friend request. I press to see who it is, assuming it’s another band mom, also stuck in this carpool line.
Josh Cline. Holy fuck. Josh Cline.
Tabitha waves as she approaches our tired SUV. She and her friends Olivia and Erin are dragging under the collective weight of their school gear and instrument cases.
“Hang on,” I call, knowing they’ll need help opening the hatch that doesn’t have the auto open like their parents’ fancier models. It’s not like we’re poor. We’re just not … current.
I untangle myself from my earbuds, which somehow got wrapped around my seatbelt. My attempts to be quick only leave me flustered. I end up dropping my keys onto the floor liner, splotched with dried grey salt and hardened chunks of mud. By the time I get out the door, the kids have already opened the hatch and are loading their instruments, backpacks, and Chromebooks.
Back in the car, I buckle up and Josh is there, in my mind, sharp as if I’d just seen him earlier today, shopping for produce at Jewel. His rolled Levi’s 501 jeans, Reebok high tops, Lacoste polo, Swatch, brown bomber jacket and thick, wavy chestnut Andrew McCarthy hair. And those haunting heartbreaker baby blue eyes. Josh could have been love. That grey space where crush and obsession turn deeper, into a physical need, a constant yearning. It could have been something.
I slam on the brakes, realizing I’ve come too close to the car in front of me.
I apologize. We’re all in an impatient queue, anxious to get home to crockpot dinners, carefully planned around activities and homework, or in my case, just to get out of the damn car. Carpool driving is the least-rewarding experience on Earth. I wait behind 10 others, all trying to turn right onto Pleasant Avenue. At least I don’t have to go left and fight my way across the lanes. Gratitude comes in random moments.
The girls are laughing about the band teacher, the funny names on instruments – Marimba! – and how they’d assured their parents that they were most definitely never doing marching band. I wish they’d all shut up. I don’t want Tabitha to quit band.
The chatter doesn’t stop. I hear Tabitha apologize that our car doesn’t have screens. Jesus, our drive is less than 10 minutes. What do you need screens for? I want to ask but I won’t be “that mom” and make Tabitha resent me for the rest of the day. They’re hungry and chatting about their favorite candies, debating the merits of Snickers versus Milky Way versus Twix. “Twix,” I say. I know I’m not supposed to be playing but I play anyway. They ignore me. Goddamn that never-ending stash of Halloween candy. I’ll throw it away by Easter.
Josh Cline. Drakkar Noir, the scent of the hot boys of Highwood High. I wonder if they still make it. I should swing by Macy’s and check the cologne section. To smell that again, to bring back those moments. Do I need to run any mall errands soon?
“Mom, what’s for dinner?” Tabitha asks from the backseat, squished between her friends.
“Tacos. It’s Tuesday.”
“Oh right.” And there’s that downshift in tone, the slight disappointment that grates on my nerves. But I don’t want tacos either, if I’m being honest. I want sushi. Or Thai. Or Indian. Routine is only comforting until it’s not. Why do we always have to have tacos on Tuesdays? I think The Lego Movie made Taco Tuesday a thing. That’s just not right. My life shouldn’t be ruled by a kids’ movie.
We pass the intersection where I’m supposed to turn left but I don’t let it on to the kids that I’ve spaced out and they don’t seem to notice, so wrapped up in their giggling. I keep driving, the long way around, into our neighborhood. “The scenic route,” I laugh to myself. I want to keep driving forever, drive back to 1988 and Josh and marching band and his arm slung around my shoulders. I would give anything to go back to that kiss, under the bleachers, late at night. The moment I had him before he remembered that someone else had already claimed him as hers.
We get stuck by a train and I turn on the radio. Screams of joy emerge from the backseat and the kids start singing in unison. I don’t know this song. I mean, I’ve heard it and I can sing along to a few lines, but I don’t want to know this song. I don’t like it and it’s not important and it won’t matter in a few years. I want to hear Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” because that’s all I can think about.
My phone pings and I see a text from Matt. He’ll be catching the late train, don’t wait for him for dinner. Okay then, no tacos. No sense chopping the cilantro, red peppers, radishes, and lettuce, grating the cheese, heating the beans, all for me. Tabitha could eat a microwaved cheese quesadilla and be happy.
“How much homework do you have?” I call back.
Olivia and Erin are dropped off and Tabitha and I walk into our split-level ranch at the mid-point of the cul-de-sac.
“Empty your backpack and get started on your homework. I need to finish something on the computer.”
“Mom, when’s dinner? I’m really hungry.”
“Soon, honey. I’ll start it soon.”
At my desk, I open Facebook and accept Josh’s friend request. He’s aged well, still thick haired, very little grey, unless of course that’s an old picture. His profile shot is him playing the sax. He still plays. The photo was taken in a bar, at night, with other band members around him. He’s in a band.
I scroll through his recent feed. No pictures of kids. Relationship status: Single. Did he marry and then divorce? Never marry? I’d heard he’d gone out to California to get his master’s. His profile says he lives in Highwood. So he’s back? How long has he been back? I shouldn’t care.
I don’t want to but I leave the computer and walk into the kitchen. I pull the block of cheese and tortillas from the fridge and set about grating Colby/Jack, peeling back the outer wrapping before the plastic reaches the grater. I steam frozen corn and reach for the butter in the fridge. She’s not a big eater, this should be enough.
“Dinner’s ready,” I call into her room where she’s probably on her iPad and not doing her homework.
“Yay! Quesadilla!” I wish I could get that excited about melted cheese on a tortilla. I can’t remember the last time we all sat together for a meal in the dining room. Maybe I’ll make a roast on Sunday and set the table. Or maybe it’s Sunday afternoon that Matt flies to Dallas for a business trip. Saturday then?
“What are you eating, Mom?”
“I’m not hungry. Might make something for myself later, when Dad comes home.”
After dinner, Tabitha is back to homework – well, mostly iPad – and I’m back on Facebook. She needs a shower. Matt texts that things are taking longer than expected and he may have to Uber home late. “Don’t wait up,” he writes. I text back “Ok” and set down the phone. Back on the computer, I pull up LinkedIn and see if I can find Josh. I ignore the fact that my profile is pathetic. And out of date. And that I haven’t held a job in more years than I care to count, something that bothers me more the older Tabitha gets yet I never seem to do anything about it. Matt doesn’t want me working, so there’s that. Besides, his travel schedule is so erratic how would we even manage that? Relying on a man, though, relying on anyone else, feels like a very dangerous game. One day this decision may really bite me.
Josh doesn’t exist on LinkedIn. I go back to Facebook and finally message him.
“Hi! How the heck are you? Great to hear from you.” I see the “…” telling me that he’s writing and am thrilled that he’s online too.
Oh man, no one’s called me that since high school.
“What a fun time that was,” I smile as I type, hearing his voice through the words, time-capsuled through the years.
“I showed my daughter Grease a few years ago and explained that I was Marty in our high school musical. She gave me such an odd look and said she would have been Sandy. Like just anyone could be Sandy.”
“And I would have been Zuko instead of Pikner getting the lead.”
“Ugh, yes. Didn’t Pikner wind up in jail?”
“Rehab, I think, but then again we only follow the bad stuff, right? That was years ago. Maybe he got his life together.”
“Yeah, maybe. So hey, it looks like you’re in Highwood. Last I heard you were in California. How long have you been back?”
“Almost two years now.”
I wonder why we’re just connecting now. Where has he been for the past two years? How have I not run into him?
“Must have been hard to leave the beautiful weather in Cali and come back here?” Why did I write Cali and not California? Does Cali imply that I’ve lived there? Does it imply a familiarity between us that doesn’t exist, maybe never existed? But he called me Marty, a role I played when I was his love interest in the school play. Can I just ask why he connected? That’s probably too aggressive.
“It was, but my Dad needed me. Family first.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Alzheimer’s. We’re getting close to having to put him in a facility. I just can’t seem to pull the trigger. My mom is really at the end of her rope but I think she wants it to be my decision.”
“Geez, I’m so sorry. I remember your Dad was always so kind to all of us.”
“Thanks. Yeah, the gentle giant.”
“This elder care stuff is real,” I type, thinking of my parents and the frequency of their health ailments. Every year seems to bring a new medication, a new diagnosis.
“So, looks like you still play sax. That’s awesome. I gave up clarinet after college.”
“Music is the steady relationship in my life.”
I send back smiley face emoji, not the broad or laughing face, just a simple smile. I want to ask so much more.
“Mom! I need help. I can’t figure out my math problem.”
“Hey, I gotta run. I need to go pretend I know how to do fourth grade common core math. Let’s catch up more another time.”
“Sounds good. Great to hear from you Steph.”
And there it is. I hear him calling me across the band room and I’m all jittery and light and seventeen again.
I try to be present with Tabitha, to bring clarity to her long division, but working on her schoolwork only triggers my school memories. I feel all giggly and I hope she doesn’t pick up on my strange mood. It’s a tug of war to not get lost in memories and be present for her.
The senior class play. We even got an onstage kiss. That one preceded the one under the bleachers, I think. How long had it been? It’s ancient times if you ask Tabitha, which I don’t.
After math there’s a social study quiz to prep for. I grill Tabitha on Lewis and Clark and Western exploration but I only half listen to her answers. My mind drifts off to Washington D.C. and our eighth-grade trip. Josh sat in the row across from me on the bus and I couldn’t take my eyes off him braiding Amber’s hair. I wanted him to braid my hair, too, but I had a pixie cut.
“Can I have a bath tonight instead of a shower?” By the time Tabitha finally wraps her homework, it’s after 8:00 and quickly approaching her bedtime.
“Sorry, babe, it’s too late.”
“When’s Dad coming home?”
“Late. He got caught up at work.”
I nod and she mopes off to the bathroom. It’s another night that she won’t see him and he’ll be up and out for the morning train before she wakes. Maybe he should just get an apartment downtown. Or better yet, maybe he should start a new life.
Stop that, Steph. You don’t really want what that means.
It’s after 9:00 before Tabitha is asleep and the dishes are washed and I can chill out and read before bed. I’ll probably be asleep before Matt comes home, too. Again. I pick up my Liane Moriarty novel but I keep reading the same page over and over. On my phone, I open Messenger and begin to type another note to Josh but stop myself. I don’t need to get all obsessive. Instead I scroll through his feed, which is completely devoid of animals or kids. There’s just shots of him hanging out with buddies, male and female, and selfies hiking along coastal cliffs, pictures on boats with friends, and lots of images of him playing sax. No indication of a relationship. I wonder how far back I should go.
At 10:15 I slip a melatonin meltaway into my mouth, pull the covers up tight around my neck, and move to my side. Sleep comes quickly.
* * *
I awake to the sounds of Matt in the kitchen, making coffee. The clock reads 6:35. He’ll be leaving in a few minutes to catch the train. I could get out of bed, go give him a morning hug, a peck on the cheek, but no, I roll over and go back to sleep. I’m mad at him for being a ghost in our life. Mad at his company for pulling him away so much. But maybe it’s not really his company’s doing. Maybe he’s just pulling away.
At 7:30 my cellphone alarm chimes. It’s time to get Tabitha up and ready for school. Her diorama is due today, so it’s also a matter of getting that to school, along with the Chromebook and backpack and lunch box. At least the French horn case can be left at home. It’s seriously a lot for a nine-year-old to manage.
I drift through the kitchen, grateful that Matt at least made a pot big enough for me to have some, too. A token gesture that he’s still a part of this household. I should text him coffee heart emojis. If I remember.
“Tabitha, come on! Get out of bed! It’s getting late!”
I find containers for the grapes, carrots, and sandwich but have nothing that will hold the chips. I guiltily pull a Ziploc bag out of the pantry and fill it with Sun Chips. Inside the lunchbox I leave a note. “Please do not throw away the Ziploc.” At least I can get a few more uses out of it before adding another piece of plastic waste to the landfill.
While Tabitha is getting dressed, I give myself a French bath, wetting a washcloth to scrub out my armpits, wipe around my crotch, and make sure I don’t offend anyone as I go about my day. I spray on the perfume that Matt bought me, still not sure I really like the scent and wondering if he does or if he just grabbed it in a pinch at the Nordstrom’s counter. It was one of the many Christmas presents that seemed intended for someone else.
I use moisturizer, mascara, and lipstick to show that I tried but that’s as good as the hygiene’s going to get. I slip out of my pajamas and into workout clothes and pull my hair into a ponytail.
Tabitha emerges from her room, also wearing a ponytail and I smile at the similarities between us, my mini me. Even though she’s the spitting image of Matt, I’m still there, in the accents if nothing else.
She helps herself to Cheerios and a banana and I marvel at my little girl’s growing independence. I recall that Cheerios with banana was my grandfather’s daily breakfast. Maybe he’s smiling at her from his place in the sky.
While Tabitha eats and plays on her iPad, I empty the dishwasher. My day will include the gym and Costco and laundry and cleaning the bathroom and going deeper into Josh Cline’s profile.
I didn’t mean to be away from the corporate world this long but Matt kept getting promoted and the money kept coming in and it looked like my income wouldn’t do a heck of a lot more than cover daycare and it’s not like I liked my job. Maybe if I had more kids, I’d feel justified in my role as a stay-at-home mom. But then again, if we had more kids, the money wouldn’t go as far. And it’s not like I don’t work. There is the work I do for the women’s shelter. Even if it’s only five hours a week, it’s something. And if I were working, how would the house stuff get managed? And how would I find time to help out Matt’s parents and mine? And then how on Earth would I find time for the gym? I guess I’d get up at 4:00 like my working mom friends. They do it all. And they’re a stressed-out fucking mess.
We load all of Tabitha’s gear into the car and drive the ridiculously short two blocks to school. I double park and help unload the diorama and backpack, peck a kiss goodbye, and wish her a good day. I think about summer and our lazy days of pool time and popsicles. I know my time with her is waning but I can’t seem to adequately enjoy it.
At the gym, on the treadmill, I open Facebook and continue to scroll through Josh’s photos. Messenger taunts me. I want to ask him to get together but I worry that’s too forward. I start and stop a message several times, eventually sending “Want to meet up for coffee or lunch soon, IRL? Would love to catch up.” I hope he doesn’t have to Google “IRL” and I haven’t tried to make myself sound to with it because I am the epitome of a middle-aged mom.
I know I’m venturing into dangerous waters. I guess I just don’t care. Matt probably has evening cocktails with clients or girls from the office. Maybe it’s more. Maybe it’s drinks at their condos or hotels. It’s probably more. I haven’t heard from him today, not that I expected I would.
It isn’t until I’m in the locker room that I hear the ping from Messenger. “That would be great. Are you free this Friday? How about we meet at Panera at 11:30?”
Friday is a lunch meeting for the Women’s Gala fundraiser but it’s at the country club and I really feel uncomfortable there and we’re early in the planning stages, so people can fill me in on what’s discussed and I’m just too damn excited to see Josh.
“Friday’s great. See you then.”
The day passes in a blur and Matt makes it home by 7:00, in time for a late dinner, but dinner together nonetheless. After I’m done in the kitchen, I see he and Tabitha reading on the couch together. She’s snuggled against his side. These are rare moments but they exist.
Friday morning, I skip the gym and drive directly to Nails by Design. In addition to getting my cuticles cut and nails shaped and polished, I treat myself to a pedicure, even though it’s winter and my toes won’t be seen by anyone except by the other ladies in the shower room at my gym but it makes me feel pretty.
After my nails dry, I go home and agonize over what to wear, eventually settling with jeans, a sweater, and a puffy scarf. A look that usually makes me feel put together now leaves me feeling like nothing more than another suburban mom. I am a suburban mom. I take off the puffy scarf, replace the sweater with a blouse, and hope I don’t freeze in the restaurant. At least now my neckline is visible. That’s something.
I get to Panera ridiculously early, order an almond milk latte, and play on my phone. I’m freezing and mad that I changed. January in Chicago is not pretty blouse weather, it’s freaking heavy sweater weather. When Josh walks in, I’m totally engrossed in Instagram and almost miss him.
“Hi,” he says, as I stand for a hug and become enveloped in his arms, a loving, strong hold, a “I’m happy to be holding you” hold. I haven’t been hugged like that in … well, it probably isn’t worth figuring out. He smells good. Not Drakkar good but freshly showered with a hint of cedar, a more grown-up cologne. And even though he’s been back for a few years, it’s like his skin has retained that California umber glow. He stands out from the crowded restaurant. He’s still got it.
“Man, you look good,” I say, because he does and I can’t help myself. Josh’s translucent blue eyes are like a portal back in time. He wrinkles his eyes and smiles wide. I remember that smile. So much of my high school energy was focused on triggering that smile.
“You, too. You look like you’re in great shape,” he says, taking in my figure. I’m excited that he’s noticing and that I have something worth showing off.
“Ah, yes, the benefit of not working. Unlimited gym time. Something to pass the days.”
“What we’re you doing before?” Josh takes off his coat and hangs it across the back of the chair opposite me. He sits down and looks at me. Intently. It’s almost too much.
“Nothing special … .” I shrug off the comment about my career, just as I so easily shrugged off the career itself. “Which is why I’m not working now. I was in corporate marketing for McDonald’s. Funny, I won’t let my kid eat there now, become a bit of a health-food nut. Or at least an anti-fast-food nut.”
“Many of us have. Different than our afternoons at Hardees, right?”
“Oh my God, Hardees! I inhaled a lifetime worth of grease in high school!” I laugh.
He laughs, too. “You and me both. Want something to eat?”
“Sure, I’ll walk up with you.” We leave our coats hanging on the back of our chairs and walk to the counter. Not wanting to put in the effort of studying the menu, I order a duplicate of what Josh orders – soup and salad – and I thank him for treating me to lunch.
Back at our table, I try to ground myself. How very, very surreal this moment is, to be sitting in a Panera some twenty, oh God, thirty years after high school and having lunch with Josh Cline. Josh Cline just bought me lunch.
“So, you’re married, I take it,” Josh says as I blow on the soup in my spoon before putting it in my mouth. I nod and pause my eating to answer.
“Anyone I know?”
“No, we met when I was working at McDonald’s. His name is Matt. He’s a corporate attorney. Well, technically, he works in consulting. Helps companies buy other companies, that sort of stuff. He’s a few years older than me.”
“How about you? What do you do when you’re not playing sax?”
“This and that. I do some trading on the side, have some investments. I guess I’m sorta early retired, you could say. I did well and now I don’t have to try so hard. And my overhead is low since I’m staying with my folks until we figure out what to do with Dad.” Matt blows lightly on his soup spoon and his lips pout into such a kissable form, it’s distracting.
“Man, that has to be tough,” I say, mostly to ground myself in the present moment.
“It is, so let’s stop talking about it. Tell me more about you. How’s my Marty doing in the world? What creative thing are you into these days?”
“Oh man, I don’t know.”
“Come on, you used to play music, you wrote poetry, you were always doing something. Remember how you rocked that open mic night?”
“That was another lifetime. Jeez, yeah.”
“You were good, Steph. You were always so creative. I figured you’d be in a band on a world tour by now.” Josh eyes search me, looking for the Marty he knew. His eyes, now tagged with the first hint of wrinkles, bring out a mature sexiness, a new depth.
“Nope, no world tour,” I sigh, wondering if that’s a life I’d even want now that I’m in my forties. “Yeah, well now I make a mean mac and cheese from scratch and am damn good at folding white undershirts.”
“Come on, I don’t buy the stay-at-home wife thing. What else is going on in your life?”
Neither do I, I want to say, but it’s true. How did I settle for such a stereotypical life? Where had I lost myself? “Seriously, there’s nothing else to report. The highlights of my days are when I’m planning for a vacation. We’re doing this eco-tourism Costa Rica trip for spring break and I’m seriously obsessed with it, like counting down the days. How about you? I noticed that your profile was devoid of kids, anyone who looked like a wife or even an ex-wife. What about you?”
“There have been a few along the way. No one really stuck.”
“Come on, you’re such a catch. How could no woman ever scoop you up and get you to put a ring on her finger?”
“A few have tried. I guess I’m not the type to be tied down.” And with that, I picture Josh tying me up. On a hotel bed. I shake the thought and gave him a smirk, part of me wishing that he could read my mind.
“Well, the kid thing is worth it. You shouldn’t rule it out completely. I don’t know what my life would be like without Tabitha. Well, I probably wouldn’t be married.”
“It’s not the happiest or, shall we say, most fulfilling of marriages. I mean it was in the beginning and maybe we’re just in a rut. Hard to say. I go through phases of wanting to figure it out, you know?”
“I guess I don’t. Haven’t been there myself. Never stayed with any guy long enough.”
There it is. The missing piece to the puzzle. Slipped out accidentally? On purpose? I don’t know but the word deflates me. A guy. Josh is gay. And with a word, all the hope and the fantasy and the ticket out slips away. There will be no illicit affair. That was why I had come. I wanted to have an affair with Josh Cline. I wanted to leave Matt and marry Josh and start my life over. I feel a physical plummet in my stomach, my muscles quaking.
The rest of our conversation drifts on and I’m honestly am not sure what I’m saying. We say goodbye and promise to get together again soon. I walk to my car, sit in the driver’s seat, turn on the ignition. The radio is playing a Whitney Houston song on the light rock station and I cry. I bawl until mascara runs down my cheeks and I tilt my seat back and howl.
Wow… good write.
Funny, must be a pretty common experience…I can relate.
Great story. Kept reading to see where it ends!
The pictures you draw in our minds with your words are amazing and it tells us why the gift of writing you have worked so hard to develop or hone is so special. We feel the frustration of your “earbuds tangled in your seat belt”. Describing washing armpits and personal places. We’ve all done that. And then you throw out a provocative picture of Josh tying you up on the bed and wishing he could read your mind. And finally the letdown we all feel when you react the way you feel when you realize he is gay and your excitement was a wasted moment where the fantasy was so much better than the reality. And finally, the conclusive emptiness we all feel as you sob until mascara runs down your face. You have developed this gift so well and I only know one other writer well enough to appreciate it for what it is. Thank you for all you do, I feel really blessed to know you.
Thank you for reading and leaving a comment Larry. It takes a close study of life and years of working on my writing to capture all of this. I so appreciate you getting it.
Dam. I love this. LOVE IT.
Wow! Well done! Gripping from start to finish with vivid visuals! And you have woven your train of thought in with the action seamlessly! The anguish is tangible.
Great story! Thanks for sharing