Shadi was a terrible driver. She screamed whenever she turned left.
“Besides, you know how scheduling off is in the industry. I’m lucky my boss said I could have Fourth of July. For all I know, he’s expecting a blow job now.”
“No way. Blow jobs are for major holidays. What you’ve got on your hands is a good old-fashioned foot job quid pro quo.”
I took another sip of gin, then turned from the end of the deck and nearly yelped. On the deck ten feet to the right of mine, the back of a head of curly brown hair peeked over a lawn chair. I silently prayed the man was asleep—that I wouldn’t have to spend an entire summer next door to someone who’d heard me shout good old-fashioned foot job.
As if he’d read my mind, he sat forward and grabbed the bottle of beer from his patio table, took a swig, and sat back.
“So true. I won’t even have to take my Crocs off,” Shadi was saying. “Anyway, I just got to work. But let me know if it’s drugs or leather in the basement.”
I turned my back to the neighbor’s deck. “I’m not going to check until you visit.”
“Rude,” Shadi said.
“Leverage,” I said. “Love you.”
“Love you more,” she insisted and hung up.
I turned to face the curly head, half waiting for him to acknowledge me, half debating whether I was obligated to introduce myself.
I hadn’t known any of my neighbors in New York well, but this was Michigan, and from Dad’s stories about growing up in North Bear Shores, I fully expected to have to lend this man sugar at some point (note: must buy sugar).
I cleared my throat and pasted on my attempt at a neighborly smile. The man sat forward for another swig of beer, and I called across the gap, “Sorry for disturbing you!”
He waved one hand vaguely, then turned the page of whatever book was in his lap. “What’s disturbing about foot jobs as a form of currency?” he drawled in a husky, bored voice.
I grimaced as I searched for a reply—any reply. Old January would have known what to say, but my mind was as blank as it was every time I opened Microsoft Word.
Okay, so maybe I’d become a bit of a hermit this past year. Maybe I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d spent the last year doing, since it wasn’t visiting Mom and it wasn’t writing, and it wasn’t charming the socks off my neighbors.
“Anyway,” I called, “I’m living here now.”
As if he’d read my thoughts, he gave a disinterested wave and grumbled, “Let me know if you need any sugar.” But he managed to make it sound more like, Never speak to me again unless you notice my house is on fire, and even then, listen for sirens first.
So much for Midwestern hospitality. At least in New York, our neighbors had brought us cookies when we moved in. (They’d been gluten-free and laced with LSD, but it was the thought that counted.)
“Or if you need directions to the nearest Sexual Fetish Depot,” the Grump added.
Heat flared through my cheeks, a flush of embarrassment and anger. The words were out before I could reconsider: “I’ll just wait for your car to pull out and follow.” He laughed, a surprised, rough sound, but still didn’t deign to face me.
“Lovely to meet you,” I added sharply, and turned to hurry back through the sliding glass doors to the safety of the house, where I would quite possibly have to hide all summer.
“Liar,” I heard him grumble before I snapped the door shut.
I WASN’T READY TO look through the rest of the house, so I settled down at the table to write. As usual, the blank document stared accusingly at me, refusing to fill itself with words or characters, no matter how long I stared back.
Here’s the thing about writing Happily Ever Afters: it helps if you believe in them.
Here’s the thing about me: I did until the day of my father’s funeral.
My parents, my family, had been through so much already, and somehow we always came through it stronger, with more love and laughter than before. There was the brief separation when I was a kid and Mom started feeling like she’d lost her identity, started staring out windows like she might see herself out there living life and figure out what she needed to do next. There was the kitchen-dancing, hand-holding, and forehead-kissing that followed when Dad moved back in. There was Mom’s first cancer diagnosis and the wildly expensive celebratory dinner when she kicked its ass, eating like we were millionaires, laughing until their overpriced wine and my Italian soda sprayed from our respective noses, like we could afford to waste it, like the medical debt didn’t exist. And then the second bout of cancer and the new lease on life after the mastectomy: the pottery classes, ballroom dancing classes, yoga classes, Moroccan cooking classes that my parents filled their schedules with, like they were determined to pack as much life into as little time as possible. Long weekend trips to see me and Jacques in New York, rides on the subway during which Mom begged me to stop regaling her with stories of our pothead neighbors Sharyn and Karyn (not related; regularly slid informational “Flat Earth” pamphlets under our door) because she was afraid she was going to pee herself, all while Dad debunked the flat Earth theory under his breath for Jacques.
Trial. Happy ending. Tribulation. Happy ending. Chemo. Happy ending.
And then, right in the middle of the happiest ending yet, he was just gone.
I was just standing there, in the foyer of his and Mom’s Episcopalian church, in a sea of black-clad people whispering useless words, feeling like I’d sleepwalked there, barely able to recall the flight, the ride to the airport, packing. Remembering, for the millionth time in the last three days, that he was gone.
Mom had slipped into the bathroom, and I was alone when I saw her: the only woman I didn’t recognize. Dressed in a gray dress and leather sandals, a crocheted shawl tied around her shoulders and her white hair wind-tossed. She was staring right at me.
After a beat, she swept toward me, and for some reason, my stomach bottomed out. As if my body knew first that things were about to change. This stranger’s presence at Dad’s funeral was going to wrench my life off track as much as his death had.
She smiled hesitantly as she stopped in front of me. She smelled like vanilla and citrus. “Hello, January.” Her voice was breathy, and her fingers twirled anxiously through the fringe on her shawl. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
Behind her, the bathroom door swung open and Mom walked out. She stopped short, frozen with an unfamiliar expression. Recognition? Horror?
She didn’t want the two of us to talk. What did that mean?
“I’m an old friend of your father’s,” the woman said. “He means … meant a lot to me. I’ve known him all my life, just about. For quite some time, we were thick as thieves, and—he never shut up about you.” Her laugh tried for easy, missed it by a light-year.
“I’m sorry,” she said, hoarse. “I promised I wouldn’t cry, but …”
I felt like I’d been shoved off a building, like the dropping would never end.
Old friend. That was what she said. Not lover or mistress. But I knew, from the way she was crying—some funhouse mirror version of Mom’s tears during the funeral. I recognized the look on her face as the same one I’d seen on mine this morning while I tapped concealer under my eyes. Dad’s death had irreparably broken her.