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Authors: Marilyn Brant

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women

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BOOK: Friday Mornings at Nine
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Infused with desire for a blissful dining experience, she strolled up and down all seventeen aisles one last time, feeling ever more like the fun, white-haired woman she’d met that morning. And just like that woman, Bridget picked up a carnation bouquet to bring home—red-tipped yellow ones—and placed it in her cart as her final item, economy be damned. Because life was worth celebrating, “just because,” right?

Home, however, wasn’t nearly as receptive to the beauty of flowers as the dental office had been.

“Mom, I need to go to the library,” her daughter said, dropping her social studies textbook onto the kitchen counter and crushing the petals of two carnations unlucky enough to be in the vicinity.

“Cassandra!” Bridget reached for the bouquet, still wrapped in floral plastic and tied up with rubber bands. “Please watch what you’re doing.”

Bridget had gotten back just as the school bus puttered into their subdivision—too late to start either the dishes or the laundry—but she’d been desperately trying to get all of the groceries put away before the kids stampeded into the house.

She glanced at the bruised yellow petals and sighed. Perhaps she should’ve put the flowers in a vase before refrigerating the bean sprouts and the shrimp for the spring rolls, huh?

“Can we go
” Cassandra asked, tapping the toe of one dingy sneaker against the wooden baseboards.

“No, your brother has a soccer game at four-thirty,” she told her.

“Today?” This came from Keaton. A child unable to remember which day of the week it was let alone when he had his sporting events. Sporting events he, incidentally, had insisted upon signing up for this fall. “But I told Josh I could play football with him outside.”

“Well, untell him,” Bridget shot back, “because we have to leave in half an hour. And where’s Ev—”

I need to go to the library to
,” Cassandra whined, now openly kicking the bottom of the counter. “I have a
”—kick, kick—“on

“Go take those shoes off, Cassandra. Right now.” Bridget snipped the wrapping off the bouquet, trimmed the stems and plunked the carnations into a vase. She flicked on the faucet and filled it with water.

Kick. Kick. Infuriated grimace. Kick. “You’re
listening, Mom! I need—”

not listening. Go take off those shoes this instant. And stop. Making. Demands. We’ll discuss this in a moment.” She turned toward Keaton, who’d grabbed her cell phone and was angrily punching in his friend’s phone number, his rigid fifth-grade back to her. “Where’s Evan?” she asked him.

Keaton tossed a look over his shoulder, made a How-Am-I-Supposed-To-Know? face and shrugged. “Hey, Josh,” her elder son said into the phone. “My mom’s
making me
go to soccer now, so I can’t play with you today….”

Bridget gritted her teeth. “Evan?” she called out. “Evan, are you in your room?”

No answer.

She focused on her daughter, who’d pitched one of her grimy shoes down half a flight of steps. “Evan got off the bus with you, right?”

Cassandra rolled her eyes. “Y-

“Then where is he?”

Her daughter huffed and crossed her arms. “In the backyard,” she said, as though this should have been obvious.

Bridget struggled to keep a hold of her tempter. “Thank you, Cassandra.” She took a full breath. Then another one. “I’ll drive you to the library with plenty of time to get your project done before Friday, but we have too much going on tonight, so it’ll have to be tomorrow after your catechism class, understand?”

“Whatever,” Cassandra muttered. “I’m gonna go read.”

“Fine. But you’ll be coming with us when we leave.”

Her daughter groaned. “Do I have to—?”

“Yes,” she said, and then went in search of her youngest child.

Cassandra’s grudgingly released information was accurate, however. Bridget discovered her six-year-old son sitting outside on the back patio steps, picking at rogue blades of grass that pushed through the cracks in the concrete.

“Hi, Mommy,” Evan said.

She sat next to him. “Hi, honey. Everything okay?”

“Yep. It was just a long day.”

“I know the feeling,” she murmured. She loved her children with her heart, her soul, her life—even when they were being annoying. But many times she feared this wasn’t enough to protect them.

“I kinda felt like throwing up after lunch.”

She instinctively pressed the back of her hand to his forehead. No fever. “Does your stomach hurt? Are you sick?”

He shook his dark head.

She thought back to what she’d made him for lunch. A peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich, which he loved. Applesauce. Fruit snacks. Milk. All fine choices normally. “Did you eat something you didn’t like?”

He shook his head again. “It’s a lot of hours to be there, Mommy.” He pressed his soft lips together. “And some people can’t be nice for that long.”

She reached for his hand and held it. “I’m sorry to hear that, sweetheart.” She sighed quietly. Oh, her baby. Out in this big, mean, often confusing world. If only people could just be
. Find the things they were passionate about. Seek joy. How much more pleasant it would be. For everyone. She tried to think of something comforting to say to her son. Some way to help him navigate the rough terrain of first-grade society.

Before she could come up with anything remotely profound, Evan said, “I’m kinda hungry now, though. Can I have a snack?”

“Of course.” Still holding his little fingers, she led him into the house, fixed him and his siblings plates of crackers and cheese, got everyone dressed appropriately for the soccer game and made it to the field with two whole minutes to spare. Some days, hitting these marks—transitioning from one activity to the next—felt like a little miracle.

By the time they got back to the house, it was late, Graham had just gotten home from a day at the construction site (a new addition to the town hall), the kids claimed they were starving and the dinner—her gourmet feast of Vietnamese spring rolls, broccoli florets and pecan-encrusted tilapia—had yet to be prepared. She tried to rally the enthusiasm to make it.

“I bought some tasty things at the store this afternoon,” she called to her husband cheerfully. He’d squeezed her shoulder when she and the kids walked in the door, but then he’d moved past her, down the hall, to flip on the TV in the family room. ESPN.

“That’s great, hon,” he called back. “Pull it out. Put it on the table. Let’s eat!”

“Well, um, I still have to cook it.” And she had no idea how long to expect the tilapia to take. She had a recipe card somewhere but hadn’t preheated the oven, prepared the pecan topping, or even washed the dishes so she’d have the pan she needed. Plus, she had to roll the spring rolls. Mix the dipping sauce. Steam the broccoli.

“Microwave it,” Graham said, not understanding. He turned up the volume on the TV to drown out the sound of the kids jockeying for a position in front of the screen. “Shouldn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes, right?”

She bit her lip and dug out the recipe card. Total prep plus cooking time was listed as forty-five minutes for the tilapia. “Well…I can try.” Maybe if she pan-fried it instead? She tried to engage him in a little more conversation by mentioning Keaton’s impressive goal attempt during his game.

“Super,” Graham said. “Hey, just let us know when you want us to show up for dinner. I’m gonna catch a few minutes of this Bears recap.” She could almost hear him tuning her out.

She released a long breath, sank to the floor tiles near the refrigerator, rested her back against a cabinet and stared up at her carnations, still sitting in the vase on the counter in an attempt to brighten up the kitchen.

A study in futility.

She sighed and tried to fight a shakiness that’d started in her bone marrow and was working its way out to her skin. She wanted to reach for a calming handful of M&M’s but was too far away from her chocolate drawer. She settled for the last piece of saltwater taffy she had left in her pocket.

How had her life become this? Graham focused only on his construction or installation jobs and his world outside the house. Although he was never cruel to her, he seemed to barely notice her inside theirs. The kids had school and extracurriculars that snatched their attention. Her function in all of their eyes was that of a dutiful wife and mother who’d unquestioningly get them what they needed. So, really, as long as she hit
marks, it didn’t matter what she did or what kind of changes she tried to make to their routine. The family either didn’t want such changes or she didn’t have the necessary time to do them justice.

She immediately flashed forward in her mind—not to her fantasy projection of the five of them sitting around a beautifully set table, talking about their days and dipping expertly prepared spring rolls into hoisin-chili sauce with peanut sprinkles—but to the likely reality of such an evening: Cassandra pouting (because that was what pubescent girls did), Keaton declaring that she should
by now how much he hated shrimp, Evan quietly picking out every last bean sprout and Graham benignly oblivious to everything but the football scores on TV and in the
Chicago Tribune
’s sports section. They’d each find something wrong with the hummus, too, she realized, and the broccoli, and the tilapia.

With a wave of despair forceful enough to bring on cramps, she pushed herself to standing and yanked open the freezer. Maybe Jennifer wasn’t so off base with her questions. Maybe what’d been right for Bridget fifteen years ago wasn’t right now. Maybe, rather than feeling guilty about her enjoyment when she was with Dr. Luke, getting to know why she was so happy in his company and so frustrated at home would shed light on her situation. That, in this context, maybe it wasn’t such a sin to explore a relationship outside the family after all. No matter what her favorite priest, Father Patrick, would have said on the subject.

She pulled out a couple of large frozen pizzas, checked the cooking time and blinked back a tear. Why keep fighting it?

“Okay, everyone,” she called out. “Dinner’ll be ready in exactly twelve minutes.”


Wednesday, September 8

wouldn’t call a scallion an
plant,” Tamara told her aunt on the phone that afternoon, unable to camouflage a smirk at this latest conversational thread. “Spiny or wild, perhaps, but hardly indecorous.” Tamara held her ultrasleek cell phone in one hand and her new Weed Extractor in the other, rooting out unwelcome thistles in her vegetable garden while talking with her favorite relative. Aunt Eliza, a thousand miles away in the rolling Vermont countryside, was employing her time in a similar manner.

“They’re coarse. Uncouth,” her aunt insisted, no doubt riffling through her extensive mental Rolodex of good Scrabble words to pound home her meaning. “Why on earth did I bother planting them? I much preferred the refined cherry tomato. The sleek bell pepper. The well-mannered pumpkin.”

Tamara laughed. “Pumpkins are
well mannered. They’re viney, they twist and they take up way too much space. They’re the most badly behaved plant of them all. Plus, they have the nerve to be

Her aunt giggled on the line. Yes, giggled like a girl—even at the age of eighty-one. The woman was beautiful, wonderful, hilarious…and a serious nut job. But, in spite of her persistent prejudice against the scallion and its horticultural cousins (the onion, the leek and the chive), Aunt Eliza hadn’t inherited the critical gene that her baby sister, Tamara’s mom, had in such abundance. Which was why Tamara called her aunt every other day and her mother only once a week, at most.

“Perhaps I should plant more broccoli next year,” Aunt Eliza said. “It’s so good for me, though, which isn’t in its favor. I can’t stand having yet another Good For Me thing on my to-do list.”

“Oh, you’re so spry, Auntie, you don’t need to eat more broccoli.” She fought with an especially prickly thistle and won. “Ah! Got that sucker. How’s your weeding going?”

“Eh, I’m getting there. I love my Speedy Weedy. I have to finish this up soon, though. Got a date tonight.” There was another giggle on the line. “Don’t you breathe a word to your mother.”

Tamara stopped digging and sat on the parched grass. “What? Of course I won’t tell Mom, but who’s the lucky guy? Is he tall? Dark? Unbelievably hot?”

“His name’s Al. He’s a younger man. Seventy-four. I tell you, it’s like cradle robbing.”

“Oh, seven years is noth—”

“And he’s got a New York Giants bumper sticker on his Lexus,” her aunt added.

“Well, in that case, maybe you should reconsider,” she said with a laugh. Aunt Eliza’s late husband had been a staunch Green Bay Packers fan, which had been a point of contention between them for all forty-seven years of their otherwise idyllic marriage. Not because her aunt had anything against football—quite the contrary—but because she only cheered for the Patriots.

“Maybe I’ll give him one date. See if he redeems himself,” Aunt Eliza mused. “If this Giants thing is just a passing fancy, he might get lucky.”

“Auntie,” she said, “behave yourself.” She laid her head down on the grass, kicked off her gardening Crocs and grinned up at the cloud-streaked sky. “And be careful. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, okay?”

“Ha. Not a chance. You think I’d follow a dictate like that, Tammy-girl? You talk a good game, but I’m a well-seasoned woman. I wanna get my kicks while I’m still kickin’. And, anyway, Al and I are road-tripping to Boston to see
La Bohème
. Not a lot of laughs in that one, so I may have to find something interesting to keep my attention. At least until intermission when I can get myself a dirty martini.”

“Wait—does that mean you two are staying overnight? Um, together?”

Her aunt snorted at this. Yes, snorted. She must really like the guy. Aunt Eliza was very loyal to the people and organizations she liked. And very generous, too. Her being a liberal and having lots of money helped, of course.

Tamara knew there was no reining in her aunt once she’d set her stubborn mind on something. “Go for it, Foxy Loxy, but don’t—” She was interrupted by that distinctive low beeping, indicating she had another call. She checked her phone. “I’m sorry, Auntie, I’ve got to get this. It’s Jon.”

“No problem, honey. I’ll call you tomorrow…if Al and I don’t skip the opera tonight and get hitched.” And with a final giggle, she hung up.

Tamara smiled, took a sizeable breath in preparation, then clicked to Jon’s call. “Hi,” she said. “How are things going in Portland?”

“Fine,” he replied, his tone brusque. “Where

I?” she mimicked. “I’m at home.”

He huffed as if he didn’t believe her.

She could hear through the line the bustle surrounding him in the Oregon courthouse. Jon wasn’t traveling to prosecute a case of his own but, instead, to support a fellow lawyer from the firm who was on trial himself. Not a good situation, which probably explained his less-than-merry mood. Although, let’s face it, when had Jon been in a
mood in the past five years? In the past ten?

She tried to project a cheerfulness she didn’t feel in hopes he would lighten up. That worked sometimes. “Are you still flying back on Monday?”


There was a pause and she could hear some guy coming up to Jon and asking him a question, which he answered in a surprisingly friendly tone, employing polysyllabic responses and everything. It’d been ages since she’d heard him speak like this. She’d kind of forgotten he could sound that way.

Now someone else joined the conversation, and the three men were chitchatting and laughing, the other two apparently oblivious to the fact that Jon had her on indefinite hold. She could’ve sworn one guy slapped Jon on the back and said, “Way to go, man,” like they were in a bar and he’d just scored a date with the busty cocktail waitress. Well, golly gee. Hand those boys a beer bottle, shine a camera on ’em and they’d be a fucking Bud Lite commercial.

She exhaled hard and shook her head. So, what was the deal? What’d she done to piss him off this time? And why wouldn’t he talk to her—his wife—in the friendly manner he used to talk to a couple of strangers?

As tempted as she was to just hang up, she couldn’t stop listening to her husband’s conversation. It mesmerized her:

Guy 1: You really calmed Garrett down, man. I’ve never seen that dude look so nervous.

Guy 2: Yeah. He was shakin’. But you set a good example for him of patience and humility, especially right before he faced the bench.

(Jon? Patient? Humble? Yeah, right.)

Guy 2: And your consideration of the judge, too, when he passed us in the hall—

(Jon? Considerate? Like hell.)

Guy 1: It was just awesome, man. His attorney totally loved you. Don’t know what Garrett would’ve done…

This snippet of dialogue alone was amazing. Like being in high school and eavesdropping on a description of some cute boy in town, thinking you might really like this warm, kind, enlightened guy being discussed by a couple of adults, but then suddenly realizing the boy in question was that teen psychopath down the street who chewed wads of tobacco behind his parents’ shed, ogled twelve-year-old girls on the school bus and, for entertainment, set fire to his kid brother’s pet gerbil.

Lucky her to be the only one around privy to her husband’s split personality—complete with full access to his jagged and spiteful side. His West Coast pals didn’t know what they were missing.

After nearly five minutes of male bonding, the other men left and Jon addressed her again. “Look, Tamara.” His voice resumed the degree of coolness it’d had before. “I need you to check a file for me. Since, as you
you’re finally at home.”

“Where the hell else would I be?” she shot back. His implication that she was lying to him and really painting the town at two in the afternoon was so freakin’ irritating. But even worse was the way he treated her, like she was some pesky personal secretary he had to tolerate until the next company downsizing. Sometimes she still couldn’t believe she’d abandoned a promising marketing career and left her master’s degree unused for this life of servitude.

Then again, Benji had been worth it…though now he was gone, too.

Jon sighed, acting as if she’d been the one insulting
. “Listen, I tried our home line four times and you weren’t there. You’re always running around somewhere—shopping or coffee or manicures. Is it too much to expect for you to spend a little time in the house?”

She tossed her weed-removal tool to the ground and marched toward the front door. “Patience” and “humility,” her ass! Where the hell was his “consideration” now?

“Jon,” she spit out, “you may want to think
the fucking box. I’ve been at home. But
in the yard. I was working on the goddamned garden, and destroying my manicure fingernail by fingernail. However, since you asked me so very
I’ll go inside now. And help you. Okay?”

You self-centered kumquat.

She could hear the clipped vowels of her own speech still hanging in the air, blanketed by the angry sheen of sarcasm. She almost didn’t recognize herself. Not only didn’t she feel like the same woman who’d been sprawling on the grass, giggling with her goofy aunt just a few minutes before, she didn’t sound like that woman either.

“You can stop with the expletives now,” he ground out.

“Only if you stop with your shitty insinuations.”

“Fine,” Jon said, forcing civility. “Just go into my office and double-check something for me—
. It’s on my desk in the blue folder on the right-hand side. Look on top of the
Attorneys in America
text. Do you see it?”

Tamara stomped through the door and up the stairs to his office, where she scanned the top of his desk and, yes, spotted the blue folder. “I got it. Now what?”

“Open it and tell me if, in the left pocket, you can find a certificate of deposit for Mid-Atlantic Bank dated around March first of last year.”

She riffled through the papers, half expecting to find something incriminating, until she came upon the CD. It, however, looked totally normal. “Okay, I have that.”

He breathed a relieved-sounding sigh. “Good. Just tell me who, besides me, signed it.”

She read the bank manager’s name on the certificate.

“Good,” he said again. Then, “Uh, hang on a minute.” And suddenly he was back to yakking with somebody else who’d walked by. A woman this time—whoo-hoo. And, again, out popped that über-amiable vocal tone he’d used before.

Tamara squeezed her eyes shut. This was so typical of him—spewing his crappy attitude all over her while faking a Mr. Nice Guy front to the rest of the world. He had such a volatile personality. Calm one minute, argumentative the next. How many times had he done something like this to her? How many of her days did he routinely ruin with his unpredictably foul moods? At least one per week? Maybe two? Regardless, he’d already reached his quota, and she wouldn’t let him wreck another one.

She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, opened her eyes and glanced out the window in time to see a figure down the street. A tall, muscular figure. One who was working out in his front yard with his light gray T-shirt so drenched in sweat it was sticking to his very buff torso.


Her neighbor worked from home. Must be break time. She admired his cut physique from afar as she waited for her husband to finally finish up his conversation, the view helping her to resent Jon’s terseness toward her a little less. As Jon blathered on to this new acquaintance, she tried to push the idea of Aaron’s lean, well-defined body from her mind. But it was so easy to imagine him stripping off that damp T-shirt, then peeling off those formfitting blue jeans and—

“Thank you, Tamara. That was all I needed,” Jon said coolly, the woman gone and his voice Exhibit A in a case on Dispassionate Interest and Impersonal Contact.

“Um, you’re welcome,” she murmured, waiting for him to say something else. Apologize for his snappish behavior, perhaps. Ask her about her day. Tell her, like a normal husband would, that he missed her (despite all evidence to the contrary) and was looking forward to seeing her soon. He usually came up with some excuse for his offensive conduct or made an attempt, however paltry, at smoothing things over. It was a pattern she’d grown accustomed to over the years.

But, this time, Jon did none of these. “Enjoy the rest of the week,” he said stiffly. “I’ll see you on Monday.”

And he waited until, at last, she said, “Bye,” and hung up on him.

She shook her head, clapped her cell phone shut and resisted the urge to slam it on Jon’s desk. Fine. Screw him. She left the phone on his freakin’ blue folder. She’d go back outside, she’d work in her garden and she’d be damned if she’d take any more calls from him or from anyone.

She strode out of the room, paused at the top of the stairs and bowed her head. Turning on her toes in a half pirouette—the one thing she remembered from her six years of ballet—she returned to her husband’s office and grabbed the phone. No, she had no intention of speaking with Jon anymore, at least not for a couple of days, but there was someone else whose voice she wanted to hear.

She punched in the Austin phone number and waited for her son’s answering machine to pick up. “Hi, y’all. This is Ben. Sorry I missed ya. I’m probably at the library studying right now—” This was followed by a few loud guffaws from his roommate. “But if you leave me a message, I’ll call you back soon. Thanks for calling, and hook ’em, Horns!”

Despite a pang of loneliness so strong it nearly made her double over, she couldn’t help but be flooded with warmth at his message. Her Benji (so he’d abbreviated himself and was “Ben” now?) was growing into a man. With a voice so deep, so adult. But best of all, he sounded so very happy with his independence. He was free from all parental constraints. The world was a playground of possibilities. And he knew it.

She clicked off without leaving a message. She didn’t want to embarrass him with an unnecessary call from Mom when he came home from whatever he was really doing that night (one thing she knew for sure, it wasn’t studying at the library). He’d gotten into the habit of calling her on Sundays and, a few times in the past few weeks, when she’d gotten really lucky, he was inspired—or bored—and called her on a random weeknight. She lived for all of those calls.

BOOK: Friday Mornings at Nine
11.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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