Wednesday, May 20, 2009
All the Wrong Places
Lucy sat alone in the middle of the park bench with a briefcase on one side and her umbrella and lunch sack on the other. If the items did not have the desired effect of preventing anyone else from sitting next to her, they would at least provide a buffer zone around her. She nibbled on her cheese sandwich, watching the park activity around her: a group of teenage boys tossing a Frisbee; a couple holding hands and whispering as they strolled down the walkway; an artist sketching a picture of a young woman holding a flower; a mother teasing her children as she helped them feed the ducks; an old man leaning to kiss the temple of the gray-haired woman sitting next to him; and a group of five women talking as they ate lunch together. The park rang with a mix of birds, laughter, and splashing water. Usually, Lucy appreciated the serenity of the park; it was a quiet place to eat her lunch where she did not have to make small talk with her co-workers and could read without interruption. Today, though, she felt unsettled. She tried again to return her attention to her book, but had read no more than three words before the sound of “Jingle Bells” filled the air. She looked up, wondering why a Christmas carol was playing in the middle of September, to see one of the women juggling with a phone, purse, and bag of chips. As soon as the phone was flipped open, the carol stopped. Lucy rolled her eyes – why couldn’t people take the small effort to change the song on their phone to something more appropriate for the season. It wasn’t that difficult. They were just too lazy to bother. As she packed up and headed back to work, it occurred to her that she could not even remember what her cell phone sounded like. She hadn’t heard it ring in over four months – not since the lawyer called to tell her about her grandmother’s will. She wasn’t sure there was even a person still living that knew her number; she only carried the phone with her in case of emergencies.
She opened the door to her building and walked quickly towards her office, careful not to make eye contact with anyone. She closed the door to her office and turned on her computer. Why had she been so unsettled at the park? Sure, the people seemed happy, but she was happy, too. Her life was fine – she had a good job, a nice home – what more did she need? The computer’s flickering screensaver finally caught her attention and she forced herself to focus on her work. That plan worked for ten minutes until a squeal broke the silence in her office. Curious, she got up and cracked open her door. Lucy saw a woman, whose name she should have known, and Mary, who did something with computers, giggling and squealing like teenagers. What’s-her-name was flaunting a diamond on her left hand. Lucy rolled her eyes, but Mary seemed impressed enough for the both of them. Closing her door again, she walked toward her desk, thinking that at least one person should get some work done in this office. As she rounded the corner, her hip bumped the edge of the desk and a picture of her grandmother crashed to the floor, shattering glass and sending half of the gold-flecked, antique frame under the desk and the other half flying into her leg. Ignoring the slight bit of blood on her calf, Lucy immediately bent to retrieve the picture, at the same time wondering why her eyes were blinking back tears. Her leg didn’t hurt that much and this was just a silly picture – nothing to get emotional about. She gently lifted the photo so as not to bend it or cut it on the broken glass and stood, staring at the picture of Grandma Benson. Esther Benson had been the only parent Lucy had ever known. She had told Lucy how her mother had left barely a month after giving birth, claiming that she never wanted to be a mother and she refused to tie herself down when she still had so much to offer, and how her father had struggled to take care of her. He had worked two jobs and they lived above the garage of a friend’s home, but he had never complained. He always said that Lucy was precious to him and he’d do anything for her. After he died in a car accident, Esther decided to raise her granddaughter, knowing it was what her son would have wanted. Lucy was two years old then, and the only memory she had of her parents was an old prom photo Grandma Benson had shown her.
Deciding once again she had better get back to work, Lucy began to pick up the glass, but was distracted by some folded, yellowed pieces of paper that had obviously been kept in between the picture and the backing of the frame. She unfolded the paper to find a letter, written in faded pencil. It began, “To my Beloved.” Beloved? Lucy sat down on the floor in the middle of the broken glass and began to read the letter. It was long, written by her grandmother to the grandfather Lucy had never met.
Lucy had loved her grandmother and felt loved in return, but hugs and kisses were not common in the Benson family and Lucy grew up seldom hearing spoken words of love. And yet, here, in her grandmother’s own handwriting, were sentence after sentence of devotion, passion, and commitment. She had apparently written it shortly before his death to tell him how much she loved him. The letter recounted their wedding day, singing in the Christmas production at church, the birth of their son, vacationing with friends in the mountains, summer potlucks in the town square, and the day the doctor told her that her husband was going to die from cancer. She told him she would never regret a day because of all the joy and love he had given her.
Lucy swallowed hard and leaned her head back against the desk. This didn’t make sense to her. Her grandmother had been a homebody as long as Lucy had known her. She went to church every Sunday morning, but never stayed for Sunday school, and she went to the grocery store every Thursday. That was it. There were no dinners with friends, holiday parties, or chatting with neighbors. So Lucy did the same – no friends, no clubs, no school activities. She had assumed that was the way it had always been for her grandmother. She remained sitting on the floor for a while, but by the time she stood up, she had made a decision – she was going to find herself a husband. If it was good enough for Grandma Benson, it was good enough for her. If a person needed a husband for a complete life, then she was going to go out and get one.
It had been two weeks since Lucy’s decision to find a husband, but so far, things weren’t going well. A few guys had flirted with her and she thought about asking them out. She even got as far as asking one guy if he had plans for the evening, but she hadn’t been able to follow through with the next question, and he hadn’t taken the hint. As she walked towards the park for lunch, she gave herself a pep talk. She needed to be proactive. Why had she chickened out before asking the man for a date? He was nice, good-looking, and funny. What was the worst that could happen? He’d say no and she’d be in the same situation as when she started – no harm or foul. Or maybe the worst would be that he’d say yes. Then she’d have to spend an entire evening in small talk, trying to be charming and pleasant. She hated small talk. Why couldn’t people just talk about real issues without having to dance through the pleasantries first?
Lost in thought, Lucy didn’t notice the man until she slammed into him. He was solid and she bounced off him, landing on the sidewalk.
“Oh wow, are you alright?” He dropped what was left of the hotdog that had been squished between them and bent down to help her. Her butt was throbbing, but there was no way she was going to tell him that.
“Um, yeah, I’m fine, thank you.” He held her hand to help her stand up. While retrieving her briefcase and lunch from the ground, she glanced up and noticed him trying to wipe ketchup off his shirt... at least she thought it was ketchup – there were various smudges and stains of many colors all over the shirt. “I’m so sorry – I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”
“It’s ok; it was an old paint shirt anyway so it’s not a problem.” She nodded and they stood there staring at each other. Lucy wracked her brain for something to say; she felt really stupid just standing there. She glanced down and noticed the hotdog on the ground.
“Your lunch – I ruined your hotdog. Could I buy you another one?”
He smiled. “That’d be great, thanks.”
They sat together on a park bench, eating lunch and making the dreaded small talk. His name was Chris and he was an artist. He had just moved to town and was living in his sister and brother-in-law’s basement until he could find a place of his own. She told him she’d just moved to town as well, but she had lived here when she was a child so it was a homecoming of sorts. He told her he had another sister in LA and a brother in Houston. She told him that she didn’t have any family. When it was time for her to return to the office, he walked her back to the building. As she opened the door, he stopped her. “I really enjoyed lunch. How about dinner Friday night?” he asked. She turned to face him, still holding the door open.
“Dinner? Friday night? Interested?”
This was it – a date. She should go... shouldn’t she? But what if he was some crazy psycho killer? Sure, he looked friendly enough, but nobody would ever go out with a psycho killer if they had it tattooed on their forehead. Or worse, what if he was really clingy, or... “Um, hello?” He waved his hand in front of her faced. “You still with me?”
“Oh, sorry. I, uh, I was trying to remember my schedule. Um, sure, Friday sound’s fine.”
“Great. Where should I pick you up?”
She hesitated, biting her lip. “Um, I may have to work late. Why don’t I just meet you somewhere.” He frowned, but nodded his head.
“Alright. There’s a great diner on Maple Street. 7 o’clock?” She nodded, said goodbye, and went inside.
Lucy had been sitting alone at the diner long enough to know that there were 235 tiles in the ceiling; nine cars in the parking lot – three red, two blue, one silver, two black, and one yellow; eleven people in the diner – eight customers, two waitresses, and one cook; and forty-seven napkins in the napkin holder. If she hadn’t been so angry and embarrassed, she would have laughed – twenty-eight years old, on her first date, and she’d been stood-up. The waitress stopped by the table, just as she’d done four times before, to make sure she didn’t want something to eat while she was waiting, but Lucy had had enough waiting. “Could I just have the bill for the coffee, please?”
“Sure, honey, but are you sure you don’t want something to eat?”
Annie, according to her nametag, laughed at her hesitance. “Honey, are you hungry?”
Lucy nodded, though Annie barely gave her time to answer before continuing. “If you’re hungry, and you’d have to be after smelling our wonderful cookin’ for so long, you should eat. Now, what do you want? I suggest you have the meatloaf and mashed potatoes.”
Lucy nodded again, not even registering that she was agreeing to the order until Annie smiled and said, “Good. I’ll bring it right out to you.”
The waitress returned, setting down a plate of the largest helping of meat and potatoes Lucy had ever seen. At her mumbled thanks, Annie frowned and asked if Lucy was feeling all right.
“Just checkin.’ I noticed you were staring out the window and checking your watch a lot. I know what a no-show looks like.”
Lucy was speechless for a moment. After five years in the city, she’d forgotten how direct the people in this town were. “I’m fine. I’m sure he got hung up in traffic or something; it’s no big deal.” She was a little annoyed at the pity showing on Annie’s face, and she knew the waitress wasn’t going to let the matter drop, but instead of asking another question, Annie just smiled and said, “Enjoy your meal; just holler if you need something.”
To Lucy’s surprise, the food was delicious... and the waitress wasn’t that annoying. Annie asked a few questions when refilling the coffee or bringing water, but kept the conversations casual, commenting on the weather, the latest movies, and the food. She asked Lucy how long she’d been in town and when she discovered that Lucy used to live there they compared schools and graduation years, trying to figure out if they might have met in the past. Oddly enough, Lucy wasn’t bothered by the chitchat and by the time she got ready to leave, her watch read 9:00. Annie called out goodbye as Lucy was leaving, “I hope you come back again soon. You have to try our chocolate cake; we’re famous for it.”
“I will,” Lucy replied, realizing that she meant it.
Monday morning, Chris was standing in front of her office building, looking very contrite. She sighed and walked towards him.
“Hi,” he mumbled. She decided to skip the small talk.
“Hi yourself. Were you in a car accident on Friday night?” He looked startled, but shook his head. “Did anybody you know die?” Again, he shook his head. Hearing all she needed, she nodded and walked towards the door.
“Wait, Lucy, let me explain.” She sighed and turned back to face him. She crossed her arms and waited. “I’m really sorry. I went to have a drink with some friends. I just lost track of time, you know? That happens to everyone. I didn’t remember until like 8 and by the time I got to the diner you were gone.” Lucy almost laughed out loud.
“I was at the diner until 9.” She enjoyed the look of fear creeping into his eyes... until it turned to pity.
“Oh wow, really? You waited for me that long?”
“No. I wasn’t waiting for you. I was talking with a friend and enjoying a nice meal. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to work.”
“Come on, Lucy. Give me a second chance.” She glared at him.
“This conversation was your second chance.”
It wasn’t difficult for Lucy to forget about the morning’s confrontation. She was 28 years old and if she was going to find a husband, she didn’t have time to waste on guys like that. She was pouring over blueprint plans when she heard a knock.
“Come in,” she said, and the door opened to reveal Ms. Recently Engaged standing timidly in the doorway.
“Ms. Benson, could I ask you a question?” Lucy nodded. “My fiancé and I just bought a new home and we’d like to get it fixed up nice so we can move in right after the wedding. I asked around and everyone said you weren’t very busy yet, so I was wondering if we could hire you to be our designer?” This all came out in one breath causing Lucy to wonder if people really thought of her as this scary or if the woman was always wound this tight. She thought over her workload. She only had 3 clients at the moment since she was still getting settled in the company. The large project was due to wrap up in a week and the other two were relatively small and easy. She could use another account.
“How much time would we have until the wedding?”
“Well, if you can make some quick decisions, I don’t think that’d be a problem. I can take you as a client.”
Lucy heard the squeal again. “Oh thank you so much; Tom will be so excited. This is his wedding present to me, and he said we have to make it perfect! How do we get started?” One breath again, thought Lucy before answering.
“Well, I’ll need to see your place, and we need to talk about your style and preferences and we’ll have to discuss what kind of budget you want to work with. We can set up an appointment at – ”
“Could we discuss it over lunch?” At Lucy’s blank stare, the woman quickly began to back-pedal. “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re probably busy. I’m just so anxious to get started and I tend to get over-excited about things. We should just schedule an appointment, like you were saying.” Looking at the woman’s red face, Lucy had a momentary twinge of guilt and empathy. “Lunch would be fine,” she said, “I know the perfect place. One thing though – could I ask your name?”
The woman smiled. “Debra Morgan; I’ve been the secretary here for five years.”
When Lucy and Debra entered The Diner, she heard Annie call out from behind the counter, “Oh Lucy, I’m so glad you came back. My husband and I were having dinner with his brother and I started thinking – he’d be perfect for you. You want his number?” Lucy laughed.
“Let’s start with a table first and work from there.”
“Oh you’re right; I’m so sorry. There are two of you? Right this way.” Annie took their drink and lunch orders as normal, but as soon as she set the food on the table she turned to Lucy and asked, “So, do you want the number?” Lucy glanced at Debra and then at Annie.
“Annie, I’m not sure – ”
“Oh c’mon, Luce. Steven’s a really great guy. The only better person you could find is my husband, Ryan, and I’m not giving him up. Y’all could meet here. If you want, Ryan and I could eat with you.”
“Alright. I guess have a better chance of not being stood up if you know the guy.” She had meant the comment as a joke, but Annie remained serious and shook her head.
“Oh no, he’d never do anything like that – you’ll see, he’s one of the best. Alright, we’ll work at details later so y’all can get to your food.”
Lucy and Debra began talking about Debra’s hopes for her home, discovering that they shared a mutual passion for antique wood furniture, but the conversation drifted to Debra and Tom’s relationship, movies, office gossip, travel, and books. It was a longer lunch than Lucy had ever taken, but she didn’t really notice; she was enjoying herself too much. Before returning to work, they planned to meet that Saturday evening at Debra and Tom’s new home to take measurements and get Tom’s input on the design plan. Lucy also made plans to meet Annie and the boys Thursday night.
Lucy thought the “double date” went pretty well. She was grateful for Annie and Ryan’s presence because they helped to fill a lot of awkward silences. Their family seemed a lot more interesting than her’s. They were obviously a very close family and she enjoyed hearing them tell stories on each other and laughing at their misadventures. She enjoyed the evening so she was surprised to see Annie’s grim expression when she brought it up at lunch the next day.
“I’m sorry Lucy. He said he didn’t think a second date would be a good idea.”
“But why? I thought it was a nice night. We were all laughing and I thought we were having a good time.”
“We were, but he said he didn’t think you were interested – that you hardly talked to him the whole evening.”
“I know I was quiet, but I just didn’t have much to say.”
“Lucy! He was asking you questions all night, but every time things got personal, you changed the subject.” Lucy sighed and thought about the previous evening. She had been reserved, but it was a first date. Was she just supposed to spill her guts to a total stranger? Annie continued, “Lucy, you have to open up a bit if you want people to like you. I’ve been trying because you seemed so alone, but you make it difficult for anyone to get to know you.” Annie left to help another customer and Lucy was surprised to feel tears in her eyes. She hadn’t had many friends in her life, but she’d convinced herself she liked it that way and it was a personal decision to remain alone. It never occurred to her that people wouldn’t want to be her friend. She had chosen to stay away from people, but could it be that people had also chosen to stay away from her? The realization stung.
Annie returned with a glass of water and a worried expression. “Are you alright, Lucy? You haven’t touched your spaghetti.”
“I’m fine. I was just thinking about what you told me. It was kind of a shock to the system.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Why don’t you bring your food and sit at the counter and we can talk some more.” Lucy nodded and Annie helped her move her lunch over. “Lucy, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No, it’s alright. I guess I needed to hear it.” Annie took plates full of food over to a woman and child in the corner and when she came back, Lucy asked, “Have I told you that I moved back here because my grandmother just died and left me her home?”
Tom and Debra’s house was fairly empty since they weren’t planning on moving in until after the wedding. They had a few odds and ends – some kitchen utensils, a pool table, and a few potted plants – but no furniture. Tom had ordered pizza so when Lucy arrived they sat on the floor in an empty room, eating dinner and discussing ideas for the house. Lucy had already mentioned knocking out a wall and opening the room up, but that idea seemed to make them nervous. She was just about to explain some of the benefits when the doorbell rang. Tom answered it, and when he returned to the room with two women following, Lucy heard the squeal again.
“Ohmigosh! What are y’all doing here?” There was a lot of fast and furious conversation that Lucy didn’t quite follow, but at last, Debra turned and made introductions. “Lucy, these are two of my best friends, Sarah and Danah. They came to surprise me and celebrate my engagement.” She turned to the two women. “This is Lucy; she’s our designer. Oh! Y’all can help us decide on some things – she wants to knock down a wall!”
The two women seemed nice enough, but Lucy really liked them once they agreed with her about knocking down the wall. They all toured the house together, throwing out ideas and opinions. Every room seemed to prompt a story, causing the tour to last a lot longer than it otherwise would. In the kitchen, they began talking about family recipes and sibling water fights while doing the dishes. Lucy told them about how her grandmother always had hot chocolate waiting for her when she got home from school. She always managed to have it ready at the perfect temperature the moment Lucy walked through the door. Then she would start dinner and Lucy would sit at the kitchen table, sipping her drink and telling her grandma about what happened at school that day.
Tom left to return to his apartment around 10:30, and Lucy mentioned that she should probably be getting home as well. Debra grabbed her arm and Sara exclaimed, “Oh no, Lucy, you have to stay and finish telling us about that guy in New York. You can’t leave us hanging like that.”
“Alright, but only five more minutes.” It was 11:30 when they were interrupted by a horrific noise coming from outside. Danah held up one hand, motioning for silence. “Did you hear that? What on earth?”
Sarah leaned toward the window. “It almost sounded like a baby crying... or a dying cow.”
Huddled together, they walked through the kitchen and the noise grew louder as they got closer to the back door. Debra peeked out from behind Lucy’s shoulder. Should we go out there?
Sarah shook her head. “I’m not going out there! Who knows what that is.”
Danah nodded her agreement. “Maybe we should call Tom.”
Lucy rolled her eyes. “I’ll see what it is.” She grabbed her cell phone in case she needed to quickly dial 911, and a frying pan in case she needed to quickly knock someone unconscious. She opened the door, but all she saw was blackness. The loud noise stopped and she was just about to close the door when she heard a quieter noise, like a whimper. She turned on the light and stepped outside. She still couldn’t see anything and she ventured farther outside, pressing the “9” on the phone and raising the frying pan above her head. She could hear the girls talking from the doorway:
“Do you see anything?”
“Don’t ‘shh’ me.”
“Be careful, Lucy.”
She heard rustling behind a bush and pressed the “1.” She walked around the side of the house to view behind the bush. When she saw the little brown ball of fur, she lowered the frying pan and hung up the phone. She gently scooped the shivering puppy into her arms and carried him into the kitchen.
Sarah was the first to notice the animal in her arms. “Oh, it’s a puppy! Look at him – he’s so cute.” They all huddled around, fawning over the pup and scratching his ears. “What should we do with him?”
“Oh, I’d love to keep him,” Debra said. “But, Tom’s allergic.” Danah and Sarah each lived a couple hours away and had no way of getting him home, so it was decided that Lucy would take him home that night, and the next morning Debra would post flyers throughout the neighborhood announcing they had found a puppy. They continued talking while taking turns holding the sleeping pup on their laps. It was 12:40 when they finally left the house to go home... it was 1:15 when Lucy finally pulled out of the driveway with the puppy sitting on the passenger seat.
When she got home, she looked around the kitchen for something to give the pup, but really had no clue what dogs ate. She settled on a bowl of water and some bread. When she realized that sounded like something they fed prisoners, she gave him some cheese crackers too. “Alright then,” she said aloud to the pup, “what the heck do I do with you now?”
Debra and Tom’s wedding had been beautiful. Lucy had been a bridesmaid and it was all she could do not to cry at the wedding. When had she turned into such a sap? She met Danah, Sarah, and Annie at Starbucks after the reception. She had no sooner sat down when Danah asked, “So, who was that with you at the wedding?”
“That was Steven, Annie’s brother. He’s just a friend. He took pity on me when I was complaining about coming to the wedding as a “party of one.”
“What happened to Michael?” asked Sarah.
Annie rolled her eyes. “Oh wait until you hear this one.”
“He was too selfish, it just wasn’t going to work out.”
Annie snorted. “Four months of dating and when they break up, her exact words to me were, ‘He wouldn’t let me hold the remote control when we watched TV.’”
Amid the responding laughter, Lucy protested, “That’s important! If he won’t share the remote, he won’t share anything else.”
Annie looked at her. “Mmhmm. And what was wrong with Caleb?”
“Body odor. Horrible, awful body odor – I couldn’t even finish my meal.”
Danah hid her smile behind her hand before asking, “Lucy, I know people need to have standards, but are you ever going to find a guy who measures up?”
“Yes... unfortunately.” Annie reached over and put her hand on Lucy’s arm. “Hon, are you still upset over Sean?”
Danah looked confused. “Wait a minute. Who’s Sean?”
“Sean was a really great guy. I fell kinda hard for him – I even joined the choir just because he did.”
He wasn’t interested. He got engaged to someone else last month.” A chorus of “I’m so sorry” followed.
“Thanks, but I’m alright. Obviously he just wasn’t the right one. Besides, if things had worked out with him, then I never would have met Luke.”
Annie began to laugh. “Oh, I can’t believe you even brought him up. That guy was insane.”
“Definitely, but at least life was interesting for awhile.” Annie explained to Danah and Sarah. “Turns out this guy had a knife fetish and was a bit of a pyromaniac.” They launched into crazy boyfriend stories for a while and then decided to go see a chick flick so they could see what relationships were supposed to look like.
Lucy opened the door to her home and barely got both feet in the door before a large mound of fur attacked her. “It’s good to see you, too, Jasper. Now get down or I won’t tell you about my day.” Jasper immediately sat down as if eager to hear the tale. As she moved about the house, changing into old sweats, fixing herself some tea, and getting comfortable on the couch, Lucy told her faithful companion about her latest adventures. “I think I’m going to call off this whole finding a husband thing. It’s brought me nothing but heartache and embarrassment. What do you think, Jasper?” Lucy looked over to gauge the dog’s reaction and noticed she’d put him right to sleep. “Hey!” she yelled, eliciting little more than one open eye and a heavy sigh. She laughed and bent over to scratch behind his ears. “So sorry to bore you. I just think some people are just meant to have dogs instead of husbands.”
Lucy sighed and leaned back against the chair. So what if she didn’t have a husband. She’d done just fine for twenty-eight years without one, thank you very much. She grabbed a book to start reading just as her phone began playing “Moonlight Sonata.”