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Authors: Marilyn Brant

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women

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BOOK: Friday Mornings at Nine
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“Hey, it’s okay with me,” Tamara said, grinning. “Whatever turns you on.”

Bridget realized Tamara was being her normal, in-your-face self, but knowing this didn’t stop her from resenting it. She and Tamara had had their differences in the past, but she had never been so irritated by Tamara’s insensitivity before. She’d been trying to be open. Get a handle on her emotions and experience. Ask for advice from two women she thought she trusted.

But Tamara’s response made her want to fire back a nasty retort. Only, she couldn’t think of one fast enough. At least not one that wasn’t blatantly rude. So she settled for narrowing her eyes a fraction and pausing while she tried to regain her composure. Then she added, being careful to stamp the sarcasm out of her voice, “What happened with you and the younger man?”

Tamara looked at her dark-haired friend, instantly regretting her flippancy. She knew she’d been behaving less than charitably toward Bridget, and she had no excuse besides panic. She could feel her anxiety rising higher with each ticking second that they continued to sit there discussing this topic. She’d been fighting to retain some small measure of self-control and had to resort to her “tough girl” demeanor to do it.

She feigned a shrug. “Not much, I guess. I mean, he was out working in his front yard again, looking cute in his little running shorts.” She forced a laugh. “He’d borrowed my grass trimmer on Wednesday and brought it back yesterday.”

“You said you’d had a ‘weird’ day,” Bridget persisted, not about to let her off the hook that easily.

Tamara acknowledged this and tried to sort out the “weird” part of the scene in her mind before openly expressing it to her friends. In a twenty-second flashback, she ignored the inquiring stares of the other two, took several sips of her coffee and reviewed her mental tape:

Aaron, showing up at her house yesterday, had been dressed in a faded red T-shirt with black running shorts, which revealed his tanned and muscular legs. He stood in her doorway, holding the trimmer out to her like a harvest offering.

“Morning, Tamara. Just wanted to drop this off,” he said, a smile on his face and in his voice. “Thanks.”

She managed some trite reply but, mostly, just stared at him. She hadn’t been expecting company. Hadn’t showered. Was dressed in her rattiest cutoff jeans and an old lilac-colored sweatshirt. And she’d turned on the stove to make tea, so when she heard the doorbell ring, she didn’t think it was for anything more important than one of the UPS deliveries Jon was always getting.

She took the trimmer and forbade herself to smooth her hair and give away her insecurities over her appearance. “You sure you don’t want to keep this? Come back tomorrow and do my lawn, too?” (Yes, she’d said
lawn, not
lawn. Huh. Cutting Jon out of the picture already, eh?)

He laughed. “Not a chance, neighbor. Your Thistle Empire is part of your domain.”

She said, “Fine, fine. Be that way.” Then the kettle whistle blew, a noise startling enough that Aaron spun around looking for its origin. “That’s just my tea,” she explained.

“Oh, I’ll let you go then.” He took a step back.

But she read a look in his eyes, a flash of disappointment clouding the light blue irises, so she impulsively said, “Want to have a cup with me?” The tooting got ever louder, making it impossible to ignore, adding a sense of pressure.

He entered her house. “Sure. Anything to make that scary sound stop. I thought we were being bombed.”

She motioned for him to join her in the kitchen as he kicked off his dusty Reeboks. She raced toward the stove. Within seconds he was right behind her. What an unsettling habit, that stealthiness of his. She could feel his breath just two feet behind her as he laughed and said, “Tweety Bird. How cute.”

He’d been pointing to her designer kettle. “Cute” was a new and refreshing descriptor for it. Jon had always called it “infantile.”

She murmured, “Thanks,” then asked, “Do you like Jasmine Blossom?”

“No idea. Never heard of it, but I’m sure it’ll be great.”

She tended to chatter when she got nervous, so she prattled on about how it was a traditional Chinese tea that dated back to the Song dynasty of the ninth century. “It’s mild and lightly floral. I’m usually more of a coffee drinker, but I’ve always appreciated this one.”

“Wow. History, botany and high tea all in one. Think you’re pretty smart, don’t ’cha?” And he laughed. Was it
her or
her? Either way, she didn’t know how to defend herself against his mockery. It was mild and good-natured, though, unlike Jon’s abrasive snark, and she hadn’t had an interaction like this with a male—bantering but not confrontational—for so long. She felt lost, vulnerable in her too-comfy clothes, unprotected against his judgments. But his eyes kept smiling at her, and so, she fought for balance. Tried to think up an appropriately scathing reply. He surprised her, though, by adding, “Well, I guess you
pretty clever,” a concession her own husband had never willingly made.

It rendered her speechless.

Aaron glanced around the kitchen, seemingly oblivious to her faltering. “Do you want me to grab spoons, napkins, creamers or something?”

“Umm, no,” she managed. “I’ve got it.”

“Seriously, I have three older sisters, remember? I won’t faint if you ask me to pull the half-and-half out of the fridge.”

She couldn’t take much more of this. She either had to lasso her fear of speaking her mind in front of him or kick Aaron out of her house. She had a big personality and she
to be intimidated by some guy she could’ve babysat for as a teen. Now was the time to draw her weapons. “Why are you being so nice to me? Do I seem that pathetic to you? That in need of self-esteem bolstering?”

He squinted at her. “What?”

She couldn’t allow herself to back down an inch. She had to come on strong, forceful, opinionated. Take control of the conversation and shape it to her own specifications. She had to rip into him. Project confidence even if she were nowhere near to feeling it. “Oh, I’m onto you,” she claimed.
A lie. A total lie.
She had no freakin’ idea what was running through the man’s mind. “I know all this flattery and helpfulness comes with ulterior motives. You don’t just want tea, do you? You want cookies, too.”

He laughed again, as if finally getting the joke. “Oh, you just
you know my Machiavellian plan. Not likely, neighbor.”

Her breath caught in her esophagus for a split second, but she pushed it out, laughed lightly and pulled two Tweety Bird mugs (they matched her kettle) from the cabinet. She poured. “Milk? Cream? Sugar?”

“None of the above.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Grapes? Pistachios? Snickerdoodles?”

“Snickerdoodles.” He grinned at her.

“Okay.” She broke the seal on the package she kept stashed in the pantry and reached into the bag. She plopped a couple of cookies on a plate, wishing she could have baked homemade ones like Bridget. “You can have more if you want.”

Aaron took his plate and teacup and sat down at the table. “Why are you being so nice to me? Do I seem that pathetic to
” he mimicked.

She shook her head and, again, forced herself to laugh. But she made the mistake of catching his eye, and he leveled a very steady gaze across the kitchen at her. Was he challenging her? Was this flirtation? What kind of game, exactly, was she playing with him?

As if in answer to this question, he intensified his stare—a bright blue-eyed burning—and, for a moment, it was as if they’d physically touched. As if her well-crafted veneer had been stripped away and he could see the girl underneath. Whatever the game, she was going to lose against him, and that knowledge scared the shit out of her.

After that, he’d gulped most of his tea and chomped down one of the cookies before she’d even made it to the table. The conversation that followed was jerky, awkward and brief. He grabbed his second cookie for the road, thanked her for the snack and said he needed to finally get in his run (“an easy 10K”) before his conference call with an advertiser that afternoon.

“See you around,” he said, shooting her a guarded glance over his shoulder on his way out.

“Yeah,” she whispered.

She’d mocked Bridget’s “moment” with the flabby dentist, but only because she couldn’t believe the terror she’d felt in having experienced a similar instance with Aaron. She did everything in her power to push those unsettling emotions away.

But Bridget and Jennifer were still waiting for her reply. And Bridget asked again, her tone slightly irritated, “What weird thing happened?” And Jennifer kept staring at her, her blue-green eyes round and luminous.

“Sorry,” Tamara murmured. “All that happened was that he rang the bell, I opened the door, he handed me the trimmer, thanked me for its use and ran away. Literally ran. He does a minimum of five miles per day. What was weird was that this was all he said. That our conversation was so short,” she lied.

“Oh,” Bridget said, sounding disappointed.

Tamara shrugged and turned her attention to the task of people-watching in the café. She couldn’t eat more than half of her muffin and felt physically ill over lying to her friends. Sure, she’d omitted information here or there in the past, and certainly she’d exaggerated a time or two, but she hadn’t actively misled them before or told full-scale falsehoods. At least never about something so important.

She inclined her head toward a young couple sitting down four tables away. “Look at those two. College kids.” She rolled her eyes dramatically and threw in a smirk for good measure. “He’s staring at her like he wants to undress her right there in front of the donut counter. Should I yell, ‘Get a room’?”

“No!” her friends exclaimed in unison. And, with that, Tamara successfully redirected the spotlight and remained free to keep her disconcerting interaction with Aaron to herself.

Jennifer didn’t say anything, but she’d noticed the way Tamara kept twitching and stabbing her grilled muffin with a fork. She’d seen Tamara do the same thing after Benji got his UT acceptance letter and, also, one time when Tamara had confided in them that Jon threatened to put their house on the market and move them all to Atlanta to take a job with another law firm if Tamara didn’t agree to let him increase his work travel.

So, no matter what Tamara
Jennifer had reason to believe there were issues she’d left unspoken.

Bridget, on the other hand, was happy not only to let the subject drop but to ignore Tamara altogether for a while. As they parted company an hour later, Bridget vowed to be more guarded the next time she met her friends for coffee. Her “moment” with Dr. Luke meant something to her, and she wasn’t willing to be criticized by Tamara again—whether her behavior was a result of meanness or merely thoughtlessness.

Her tall, slim friend didn’t know what it was like to censor herself the way Bridget did. Tamara always got to play the Outspoken card, which was fine and good for
but Bridget was determined to get to the bottom of her own problems and concerns. And while she’d hoped for her friends’ support in doing so, she didn’t require it.

Bridget, Jennifer and Tamara left the Indigo Moon Café with affected smiles and professed delight in their next coffee date, just seven days away. They openly lamented their inability to see one another sooner than that, or even talk for long on the phone, due to their “crazy schedules.” It was their usual parting ritual—a well-worn script that they’d clung to out of habit. And it had once been completely true, at least when they’d first created and reserved these Friday mornings at nine for each other.

All three of them, however, grimaced, frowned or scowled respectively when they were in their cars and safely out of view of the others.

As they each drove away, all three reflected on the obligation of telling the truth in intimate friendships. Was it really such a necessity? Or, beyond a set point of general veracity, was there such a thing as too much information?


Sunday, September 12

he first text message came in the middle of their family drive to the mall to get new sneakers.

As Jennifer flipped idly through some paperwork Veronica wanted her to sign, Michael navigated the Camry through the leisurely Sunday traffic and chatted to the girls in the backseat about music. Her husband, with clear intent to torture their daughters, kept commenting on the lyrical relevance of every song that played on the radio. The girls would retaliate by laughing and, in some way or other, insinuate that their dad was a very old man. This was a long-standing game.

“Do young suburbanites use phrases like ‘my crib in the hood’ when discussing their four-bedroom homes in their gated communities?” Michael inquired, his tone thoroughly mocking.

Shelby sniggered. “
It’s rap. They’re supposed to use street language.”

Michael turned up the volume a notch and listened to the next verse. “Now, see, that phrase is unclear. Was he saying ‘pimping’ or ‘primping’ right there?”

Veronica groaned. “Mom, tell him he’s being obtuse!” She’d been enjoying the use of that word and employed it whenever possible. “That line makes perfect sense to anyone not born in the Pleistocene era.” She sighed loudly. “It’s ‘pimping,’ okay? Gawd.”

“You sure?” Michael smirked and began bobbing his head like an unlikely hip-hop artist. In wild distortion of the lyrics, he rapped, “I’m
in my car, yo. Gotta get my hair done. All this wind ’n’ rain, yo, is messin’ wid my fun.” He paused and pumped his open palm forward a couple of times. “Yo, yo. Yo!”

The girls dissolved into giggles in the backseat, and even Jennifer couldn’t keep from laughing.

“You’re such a geek, Dad,” Veronica said affectionately. “I’m
glad you don’t teach at my school.”

“Oh, c’mon, I’m cool. Right, Shelby? You’d want me to teach in your school, wouldn’t you?”

Shelby shook her head and rolled her eyes simultaneously, as if one form of negation were insufficient.

He winked at Jennifer and reached with his right hand to squeeze her left. She squeezed back. “What you women need is to hear some
music. A little Joan Baez. A little Santana. They’ve got songs in real English and, if you’re determined to listen to stuff you don’t understand, they’ve got a bunch of Spanish tunes, too.” He began riffling through the CDs in the nook underneath the car radio. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

“Mom!” Veronica cried. “Make him stop before he puts Billy Joel on again.”

“I like Billy Joel,” Jennifer said, because she did but, also, because she wanted to make Michael laugh.

“Finally. An ally,” he said, still searching for a decent CD.

“Besides,” Jennifer continued, “we’ll be at the mall in a few minutes.” She pointed to the sheets Veronica had given her. Permission slips, it seemed, to be part of some Homecoming Dance committee. “So, this is a release to let you get out of study hall every Monday and Wednesday for the next four weeks, and this other one is to agree to let you stay after school for two extra hours every Tuesday night?”

“Yeah. Only until the dance, though,” her fourteen-going-on-forty-year-old daughter said, not giving away any more information than that. “October fifteenth.”

“Why the sudden interest?” Jennifer asked her. “Didn’t you always say how much you hate planning things like this before?” She swiveled in her seat to glance back at the girls.

Veronica shrugged. “But I’m in high school now. I just wanna try it this year. Get involved, you know?”

Shelby had her lips pinched together as if holding back a tide of commentary.

Michael, settling for the Eagles and their
The Very Best Of
collection, said, “Aren’t you the little joiner. Trying to get in good with the popular crowd?” This was more to hassle her than because he meant it. Unlike Jennifer in junior high and high school, Veronica had always been blessed to be pretty and part of the popular crowd. As far as Jennifer knew, there hadn’t been any recent change of status, although her eldest had been getting mouthier lately. And more secretive. Dressing in a range of clothing that could best be described as “formfitting.” Even moving a bit differently, a bit aggressively, if Jennifer thought about it. Was her daughter getting to be

“So, are Ashley, Joy and Heather going to be doing it, too?” Jennifer asked. “Because, if so, maybe we can carpool with their parents to pick all of you up.”

There was an unnaturally long silence. “Umm,” Veronica said. “Heather was, uh…thinking about it.”

“Oh, c’mon!” Shelby burst out. “Tell them already.” She poked her big sister and cackled. “Her friends all think it’s lame, but Tim Taylor is on the committee, so she wants to be on it, too.”

Veronica shoved her. “Shut up, Shel!”

“Who’s Tim Taylor?” Michael asked.

“Just a guy in my grade.” Veronica fidgeted with her fingernails and shot evil glares at her sister.

“A guy who
her. A guy who wants to go out with her. Not just on a date. He wants to be with her forever and ever.”

“Shel. Shut. Up.”

But Shelby did not shut up. “He’s neighbors with my friend Krissie and rides her bus. And he keeps Veronica’s school picture from last year in his wallet. And he talks to his best friend the
way to school about how beautiful Veronica is and how much he loves her and—”

Veronica slugged her sister.

“Ow!” Shelby bellowed.

“Ladies, stop that,” Michael commanded. Then, after a beat, “You gave this guy your school picture?”

“Arrrrghhh!” Veronica screeched. “Just gimme a break, okay? Is it a crime to wanna try something different? It’s just a stupid committee.”

“It’s not a crime, and you can absolutely try it, sweetheart,” Michael said, his voice soothing. “Has, er, Tim asked you out? To this dance or something?”

Their daughter forced the air out of her lungs like she was under doctor’s orders and, eventually, mumbled, “Maybe. Yeah, kinda.”

Michael grinned and winked again at Jennifer. “Maybe, yeah, kinda, eh? Well, he’s a guy with good taste.” Then, to Jennifer, “What do you think, honey? It seems our daughter has her first real date coming up.”

Jennifer sat paralyzed in the passenger’s seat, her heart pounding, her fingers gripping the permission slips with both hands. “It seems so,” she managed to say.

She stole a peripheral glance over her shoulder at her two girls: Shelby, a look of pride gracing her face, probably thrilled she’d succeeded in outing her sister, but Jennifer wasn’t certain. And, Veronica, wearing an expression Jennifer recognized all too clearly—caginess coupled with a simmering excitement. It was exactly what she’d felt when David asked her out for the first time. For
first date.

“So, you’ll sign the forms?” Veronica asked, trying desperately to appear nonchalant and not remotely capable of pulling it off.

Jennifer nodded, unwilling to grill her daughter yet on her relationship with this Tim guy or launch into the list of necessary cautions for dating teens but, oh, she had many questions and even more warnings. She couldn’t believe how Not Ready she was for this stage of parenthood. She forced herself to release her death grip on the permission slips and reach into the glove compartment for a pen.

The opening strains of “Hotel California” began to play and, for a moment, all four of them paused and listened to the haunting guitar solo that stirred her soul and inspired a sense of wanderlust. As the other instruments joined in, she took a deep breath. She could do this. She could put the past behind her so she’d be able to deal effectively with the present. She clicked the pen and glanced out the window. They were less than a mile from the mall.

Her cell phone beeped, making her jump. “Oh,” she said, laughing uneasily. The girls and even Michael rolled their eyes and shot her amused looks.

“Someone’s texting you on a Sunday?” her husband asked, grinning. “Don’t they know this is a day of rest and mindless consumerism?”

She smiled faintly. “Guess not.” She flicked open her phone and pressed her lips together like Shelby had done earlier, an attempt to keep herself from gasping.


His text message read:
Zup? Abt 9-23, r u in? TML8r n LMK.
(Translation: What’s up? About September 23rd, are you in? Text me later and let me know.)

“Anything important?” Michael asked.

“No.” She snapped the phone shut. “Just some computer stuff. I’ll take care of it when we get home.”

“Okay,” he said, and she knew he assumed she meant one of her Web design clients. She also knew how easy it was to mislead him.

When they’d pulled into the mall parking lot and finally hunted down a space, Michael and the girls jumped out immediately. Shelby, who was cold and regretted wearing only a T-shirt, wanted to extract her old unfashionable Windbreaker from the trunk, where it was buried under a picnic blanket and a few boxes. With everyone else out of the car and momentarily busy, Jennifer grabbed the opportunity to reply to David’s message.

She texted back:
CU on 9-23. TTY 2moro.
(See you on September 23rd. Talk to you tomorrow.)

Then she changed the setting on her phone to vibrate.


When the girls were in bed that night, she and Michael sat on the downstairs sofa with a couple mugs of decaf, reviewing their commitments for the upcoming week.

“We’ve got a staff meeting on Tuesday afternoon,” Michael said, “but I should still be able to swing by the school to pick up Veronica. She’ll be done by five?”

Jennifer nodded. “That’s what the form said.” She warmed her hands on her mug. “About this Homecoming Dance and this guy—”

“Tim Taylor,” Michael supplied with a smirk.

“Yes. Tim Taylor. Isn’t she too young for something like this?”

“A dance? Nah. It’s cute. It’s romantic. All of my students have crushes and go to overblown events like this. It’s natural at that age. They ‘date’ for two weeks and break up. And considering how well-adjusted Veronica is socially, I’m surprised there haven’t been more boys asking her out. Though, I guess, they’re doing that group-date thing for longer now.”

Jennifer remembered the many times she’d taken Veronica and her
-loving friends to the movies or the mall only to have them meet up with a group of guys while they were there. They’d all go out for pizza or ice cream afterward, and it was dating of a sort, but it seemed far less worrisome than this one-on-one, formal dance situation. The kinds of things this Tim Taylor guy was saying to his buddy, well, it came across as so…possessive.

“Aren’t you concerned she’ll get too serious too fast?” she asked Michael. “This kid seems
into her. All this talk on the bus to his friend. I don’t know. I don’t want her to end up with some stalker guy.”

He laughed. “I see high school boys every day, honey. And, yes, they’re sex-crazed and insecure, but very few cross the line into stalkerdom.” He shot her one of his typical amused glances. “You’re really funny about this. You know what it’s like to be a teen. One minute you’re ‘in love’ with someone, the next you have no idea what you ever saw in them. I know you dated other people before me—”

“Not in high school, Michael.”

He shrugged. “So, okay, you were shy in high school. And I was awkward. Sometimes I’m still awkward around someone I’m trying to impress.” He shot her a sheepish look, blinked a couple times, then glanced away. “But even in college we were still trying to feel our way with the whole dating game. And we weren’t all that serious about the people we had relationships with back then, even when we were nineteen or twenty.”

Speak for yourself,
she thought, but she only cleared her throat.

“And it’s not like either of us ended up getting engaged to anybody or anything,” he added. “Though I think you were a little more into that computer geek guy than I was into my college girlfriends.” He gulped the first half of his coffee. “What was his name again?”

“Who?” she whispered. Then, “David?”

“Yeah. David. I know he was your first real boyfriend and everything, but even you didn’t get all hung up on him forever after it ended. A few weeks, a month, sure, but you got over it. And you two dated for a lot longer than Veronica will probably be with this guy.” He took another slurp of his drink. “I’m not worried.”

Jennifer wished she could be so unaffected. Then again, this was yet another example of how Michael didn’t understand her. Yet another projection about her thoughts and emotions based on
thoughts and
emotions. So, fine. Michael may not have been hung up on any old girlfriends for longer than a week, but Veronica, if she were anything like her mother, could get hung up on a guy for two decades. And these were the kinds of things that Michael would never comprehend. Would never see.

But, of course, it wasn’t as though she could ever explain it to him. She took one sip of her now-tepid coffee and dropped the subject. What was the point?

As a silent reminder of her alternate reality, her phone pulsed in her right back pocket. She’d slipped it into her jeans and could feel it quivering between the denim folds. It’d been vibrating for the past hour, but she hadn’t wanted to steal away to check the message.

She knew it was from David. He’d already sent her two other texts after she’d replied to his first, the intimacy of his tone escalating exponentially, even in electronic form. And she, of course, had responded in private to both of those messages, too.

She feigned a yawn. “Well…good night,” she told Michael, kissing him lightly on the forehead. “You coming up?”

“In a little bit. I’m going to finish my coffee, maybe grade quizzes for a half hour down here.”

“Okay. Don’t stay up too late.”

He laughed, kind of. It was more like a snickery exhale and accompanied by a gaze she couldn’t readily identify. “Yeah, you either.”

She smiled carefully at him. “I’m going to bed right now.”

BOOK: Friday Mornings at Nine
11.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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