Home came into view. Juno had named their apartment complex “Harley Hall” when she was four, and although it didn’t have nearly the pretentious vibe required to be a capital-H Hall, the name stuck. Harley Hall was bright green and stood out like an emerald against the earth-tone stucco of the adjacent buildings. The street-facing side was decorated with a horizontal strip of pink and purple tiles forming a harlequin pattern; electric-pink window boxes spilled brightly colored mandevilla most of the year. Jess’s grandparents Ronald and Joanne Davis had bought the property the year Pops retired from the navy. Coincidentally this was the same year Jess’s long-term boyfriend decided he wasn’t father material and wanted to retain the option to put his penis in other ladies. Jess finished school and then packed up two-month-old Juno, moving into the ground floor two-bedroom unit that faced Nana and Pops’s bungalow at the back end of the property. Given that they’d raised Jess down the road in Mission Hills until she’d gone to college at UCLA, the transition was basically zero. And now, her small and perfect village helped her raise her child.
The side gate opened with a tiny squeak, then latched closed behind her. Down a narrow path, Jess stepped into the courtyard that separated her apartment from Nana Jo and Pops’s bungalow. The space looked like a lush garden somewhere in Bali or Indonesia. A handful of stone fountains gurgled quietly, and the primary sensation was bright: magenta, coral, and brassy-purple bougainvillea dominated the walls and fences.
Immediately, a small, neatly French-braided child tackled Jess. “Mom, I got a book about snakes from the library, did you know that snakes don’t have eyelids?”
“Also, they eat their food whole, and their ears are only inside their heads. Guess where you can’t find snakes?” Juno stared up at her, blue eyes unblinking. “Guess.”
Jess led them inside, calling “No way!” over her shoulder.
“Way. And remember that cobra in The Black Stallion? Well, cobras are the only kind of snakes that build nests, and they can live to be twenty.”
That one actually shocked Jessica. “Wait, seriously?” She dropped her bag on the couch just inside the door and moved to the pantry to dig around for dinner options. “That’s insane.”
Juno went quiet behind her, and understanding dropped like a weight in Jess’s chest. She turned to find her kid wearing the enormous-eyed expression of preemptive begging. “Juno, baby, no.”
“Pops said maybe a corn snake. The book says they’re ‘very docile.’ Or a ball python?”
“A python?” Jess set a pot of water on the stove to boil. “Are you out of your mind, child?” She pointed to the cat, Pigeon, asleep in the dying stretch of daylight streaming through the window. “A python would eat that creature.”
“A ball python, and I wouldn’t let it.”
“If Pops is encouraging you to get a snake,” Jess said, “Pops can keep it over at his house.”
“Nana Jo already said no.”
“I bet she did.”
Juno growled, collapsing onto the couch. Jess walked over and sat down, drawing her in for a cuddle. She was seven but small; she still had baby hands with dimples on the knuckles and smelled like baby shampoo and the woody fiber of books. When Juno wrapped her small arms around Jess’s neck, she breathed the little girl in. Juno had her own room now, but she’d slept with her mom until she was four, and sometimes Jess would still wake up in the middle of the night and experience a sharp stab of longing for the warm weight of her baby in her arms. Jess’s own mother used to say she needed to break Juno of the habit, but parenting advice was the last thing Jamie Davis should be giving to anyone. Besides, it wasn’t like anyone else ever occupied that side of the mattress.
And Juno was a master cuddler, a gold-medal Olympian in the snuggle. She pressed her face to Jess’s neck and breathed in, wiggling closer. “Mama. You went on a date last night,” she whispered.
Juno had been excited for the date, not only because she adored her great-grandparents and got Nana Jo’s cooking when Jess was out, but also because they’d recently watched Adventures in Babysitting, and Fizzy’d told her it was a pretty accurate depiction of what dating was like. In Juno’s mind, Jess might end up dating Thor.
“Did you go downtown? Did he bring you flowers?” She pulled back. “Did you kiss him?”
Jess laughed. “No, I did not. We had dinner, and I walked home.”
Juno studied her, eyes narrowed. She seemed pretty sure that more was supposed to happen on a date. Popping up like she’d remembered something, she jogged to her roller backpack near the door. “I got you a book, too.”
Juno walked back over and crawled into her lap, handing it over.
Middle Aged and Kickin’ It!: A Woman’s Definitive Guide to Dating Over 40, 50 and Beyond.
Jess let out a surprised laugh. “Did your Auntie Fizz put you up to this?”
Juno’s giggle rolled out of her, delighted. “She texted Pops.”
Over the top of her head, Jess caught a glimpse of the dry-erase board next to the fridge, and a tingling spread from her fingertips up to her arms. The words NEW YEARS GOALS were written in Juno’s bubbly handwriting.
NANA & POPS
Get a personal trayner
Take a wock evry day
Lern to like brocooli
Make my bed evry mornning
Try Something New Sunday!
Try Something New Sunday!
Nana ses be more selfish!
Do more things that skare me
Okay, Universe, Jessica thought. I get it. If Mrs. Brady could be a trailblazer, maybe it was time for Jess to try, too.
THE PROBLEM WITH epiphanies: they never arrived at a convenient time. Jess had a mildly hyperactive seven-year-old and a flourishing freelancing career juggling all flavors of mathematical conundrums. Neither of these things left a lot of time for creating a bucket list of adventures. Besides, her daughter and her career were enough for her; she had four good freelancing contracts, and although they didn’t leave her with much extra, she was able to cover the bills—including their astronomical insurance premiums—and help her grandparents out, too. Juno was a happy kid. They lived in a nice area. Frankly, Jess liked her life as it was.
But the words Do more things that scare me seemed to flash neon on her lids whenever she closed her eyes between data sets.
Truthfully, her lack of dating was probably more about laziness than fear. It’s not like I jumped giddily into stagnation, Jess thought. I slid into it slowly, and realize it only now that I’m no longer even questioning whether the jeans I pulled off the floor should’ve been washed before being worn again. Jess would never complain about having become a mom when she was twenty-two—Juno was the best thing Alec could have given her, frankly—but it was probably fair to admit that she put more effort into making Juno’s lunch than she did into considering, say, what she might look for in a future partner. Maybe Fizzy, Nana, and the cover of Marie Claire weren’t wrong when they hinted that Jess needed to step out of her comfort zone and dream bigger.