Just a Typical Sunday (a Spoken Word poem)

Just a Typical Sunday

They say it’s Father’s Day

a time to celebrate

the man who raised you

praised you

taught you to be strong

and right from wrong

but they’ve got it all wrong

because to me it’s

just a typical Sunday.

Who were you?

A man with my name

once married to my mother

obsessed with my brother

I was a nobody

quiet, a girl, too smart

for her own self

too smart for you

saw right through

your lazy intentions

and useless inventions

and get-rich schemes

chasing money like a dog

after a car

but it slipped through your fingers

like water

while your daughter

did her own thing

no need for a king

no need for anything.

I learned to survive

in a state of starvation

isolation

no need for attention

so used to desertion.

You ignored my good grades

my sports and school plays

didn’t subscribe to my life

Abused wife?

You took his side

‘cause I must have earned it.

After all

I was nothing

too quiet, a girl

with my own mind

which you never tried to know

and so

nothing I say has value.

Now you lie

in your nursing home bed

stroke-damaged head

and it’s said

that I owe you

attention

my love and affection

long conversations.

But Daddy

when you live your life

in starvation

how do you feed

another?

I never know what to say

or the new rules to this game

you and I just aren’t the same

a shame.

I don’t know who you are

and you only know that I’m

quiet, a girl

not as good as her brother

whatever else you see

through your closed eyes

so don’t be surprised

if my visits are brief

a card, maybe

quick kiss on the cheek

and maybe we’ll speak.

Then I’ll be on my way

not much to celebrate

‘cause what good are fathers anyway?

Father’s Day

is just a typical Sunday.

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And Now, For the Complete Opposite (aka: Vent)

Vent time.

Because honestly, I am too cheerful and positive to do much venting. I tend to keep it in my own head until the lightning dissipates. But, I feel that this must be expressed.

So the thing is, I do not date. At all. Zero dates. Zero romantic interest. Zero flirting with anyone. Period. I am single, but permanently unavailable.

There are two big reasons for this. The first is that two years ago, when I was healthy and happy and in love with myself and in love with my life, I ventured into the dating zone. And it happened. I ended up in a relationship with the man of my dreams. No exaggerating. He was ideal for me, and we were compatible in every possible way. He assured me that he was not looking for something temporary, or just for sex, and I believed him. I allowed myself to be open and vulnerable, and I fell in love with him.

Then, he left.

But here I am, two years later, and I still love him. And I know without a doubt that there is no other man on this earth who could come close to being as compatible with me as he was. And even if someone could come close, he would not be him. So there’s no point in trying.

Reason two — when he left my life, the pain was unbearable. In fact, it is still unbearable. I still cry, sometimes, to think of his absence. It still dampens good experiences to know that he is not there to share them with me, nor can I even tell him about it. I hate that I ever got so close to him, or allowed him to matter to me, because now I have this painful, horrible lack of him.

Lesson learned: Do not ever allow myself to get close to anyone or allow them to matter to me. I know how that story ends, and it is not happy.

I will never date again. That is a part of my life that is over. Done. Behind me. In the past. No romance. No relationships. And absolutely no sex.

Now for the vent. It bothers me, like really bothers me when people tell me that I need to keep an open mind. Be flexible about this — the one thing that I am not at all flexible about. Keep an open mind, because one day you may meet someone who… (Fill in the blanks).

Imagine if I went running in a high-crime neighborhood at night, because everyone else said it was the thing to do. Yes it’s risky, but so what? It’s fun and special and makes life exciting! Now imagine I got assaulted while out running, and beaten almost to death. When the broken bones were healed, and most of the lacerations faded to scars, let’s see…should I go running in a high-crime neighborhood at night again, especially knowing now what I did not know then? Should I keep my mind open to the idea, because I might not be assaulted the next time?

Of course not! I’m not crazy!

And say I were to go mountain climbing, because everyone else believed that it was the best experience of their lives. Imagine I climbed up high, and was amazed by the view. Wow! Hooked on mountain climbing. Best experience ever.

But then, my rope snapped without warning.

Down I fell, head slamming against the rocks, the fall breaking my ribs, nearly crushing my lungs. Now imagine that months later, when I can walk again and breathe on my own, and life is back to a new, though chronically painful version of normal, people were to say, “You should keep your mind open to climbing the mountain again. It can be a healing experience, to get back up there.”

Hell no.

Seriously…WTF? Oh, because the fall maimed me but didn’t kill me, I should be willing to put my life at risk again, because hey, the next rope may not snap, and I’ll reach the summit?

Forget that! Who needs a summit? I will never go near another mountain. Never touch another rope. I may read about mountain climbing from the safety of my room, but I wouldn’t climb a mountain again if someone were to pay me ten million dollars to do it.

And that is how I feel about dating.

Crusaders for Humanity (a love story)

Crusaders for Humanity (a Love Story)

Dedicated to Alan, aka “The Albatross,” aka “Z”

Today, she was going to do it.


Call him on the phone. Invite him him to her apartment — no, to a public place. A coffee shop. A park. It would be better that way, with other people around. Avoid a scene.
She gripped her phone tightly. I’m sorry, Oliver, she would say. I can’t do this anymore. No more secrets. It’s better if we go our separate—


The phone began to vibrate. It was Oliver.


She took a deep breath and answered. “Hello?”


“Come over tonight at seven,” he said. “I’ve been unfair to you lately, I know. But tonight, I plan to make it up to you. I’ll explain everything, I promise.”


It’s too late, she thought. “I’ll be there,” she said, and hung up.


Twenty minutes, she decided as she showered and shaved her legs. She would stop by for only twenty minutes. She would tell him that she could no longer trust him. For months, he had lied to her. Told her that he was going out with the guy, for “poker and beers.” But that one night, while filled with suspicion and jealousy, she had traced his location. It was surprisingly easy to do. A small, round disc, which she’d purchased on Amazon and hidden in his car, after she’d connected it to a tracking app on her phone.
His “poker night” was not at Patrick Harrison’s house, as he’d said, but in an abandoned warehouse somewhere on the seedy side of town. What he was really doing in there was a mystery. Was it a brothel? A meth lab? A squatting facility for druggies? Whatever it was, it couldn’t possibly be good.


“So, did you win big?” she asked the next day.


“‘Fraid not,” he’d said with a tired smile. “Chuck Riley was the big winner tonight. Wiped our pockets clean.”


“I see,” she said.


The warehouse wasn’t the only strange thing she’d come across. There was that mile-long receipt from the Home Depot on his kitchen counter, filled with lumber and PVC pipes and a load of other things she couldn’t identify.


“It’s for a project my humanitarian group is working on,” he explained. Ah yes, his humanitarian group. Crusaders for Humankind, they called themselves. A sort of mercy group, whose aim was to help humankind to thrive.


“So what do these crusaders do?” she asked him. “Help the poor and needy?”


“Something like that.” He didn’t offer any other details.


Lately, he’d been edgy. Distracted, too. The last time they’d met, his eyes kept shifting to his phone, to some invisible spot over her shoulder, everywhere but on her. He’d snapped at her, too, when she asked him what was wrong.


“Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s fine, okay?” He’d pounded a fist on the table, just hard enough to slosh their drinks. It filled her with unease. Either something was very, very wrong, or she was getting her first glimpse of a side of him she’d never seen. A side she wasn’t sure she liked.


So this was it. She would tell him before dinner. Before he could charm her into staying the night, distracting her from her purpose. She pulled on a dress — the purple one that he liked, and a pair of heels, then applied her lipstick. She may as well look nice for the breakup, right? Then she slipped her phone into her purse and drove across town. There was a lot of traffic, and by the time she arrived, it was already after seven.


Oliver’s house was dark. She let herself in, flicked on the living room lamp.


“Hello?” she called. No answer. Leaving her heels by the front door, she padded into the kitchen. On the counter was an empty crystal vase surrounded by a ring of flickering tealight candles. Next to this was a frosty cold wine goblet filled with rosé, her favorite. Despite her resolve, she picked it up, took a sip.


That’s when she noticed it.


A trail of soft pink rose petals led away from the kitchen, toward the french doors, which were open to the backyard. She followed it. The trail continued across the patio, into the lawn, toward the garden shed, whose door was wide open. She took another sip and smiled, then crossed the lawn, relishing the feel of grass beneath her bare feet.


To her astonishment, the shed was empty inside, except for a flight of stairs leading underground. Oliver had never mentioned that he had a cellar. Was it a wine cellar? More petals were sprinkled on the metal steps. Bright lights shone from down below.


“Oliver?” she called down. Then she descended. When she was halfway down the stairs, there was a loud, metallic bang from. Gasping, she turned around. A panel had slid shut behind her, sealing the opening she’d just passed through. She swallowed the sudden feeling of anxiety that bubbled in her chest.


Just then, Oliver appeared at the base of the stairs. “Hayley,” he said. He was smiling, happy to see her. He held out a hand, and she took it, trembling.


“What is this?” she asked. They were in a large, bright room filled with comfortable seating. A kitchen area took up one corner of the room, including a large dining table, where a number of people were gathered. The walls were covered with a combination of beautiful artwork and large TV screens, each of which was playing a different movie. There were doorways, too, branching off toward hidden areas of the cellar. If you could call it a cellar.


“We call it The Retreat,” he said, leading her to a couch, where she sat and took another sip of wine. “Those people,” he said, motioning toward the dozen or so men and women gathered around the dining table, “are my fellow Crusaders for Humanity. We are preparing to launch the world’s largest effort to save humankind. And I’ve decided to include you in our effort.”


“Me? But…” she gaped, unsure how to tell him that she really just wanted to call it quits. It was over. They were finished.


He sat beside her and took her free hand in his. “I know that I haven’t been open with you. But I’d like to change that, beginning right now. You see, the Crusaders and I have been working very hard to do the right thing for all of humanity. And we decided together that the thing that humankind needs most is less humankind.”


She frowned. What on earth was he talking about? “Oliver, I need to talk to you in private.”


Just then, one of the men jumped up from his seat at the table. “Oliver, sir. It’s beginning.”


Oliver rubbed his hands together and turned toward one of the TV screens. Hayley turned, too. This was not a movie, she realized, but a camera trained on a plaza filled with real people.


“Ten thousand capsules,” said Oliver. “Planted in strategic locations by fellow Crusaders, all around the world. Each containing a deadly toxin. Once released into the air, the toxin will attack the vital systems of every unprotected human. Not pets. Not animals. Only humans.”


Hayley stared at him in horror. “What will it do to them?” Her voice cracked, throat dry.


“Kill them, of course. Except for us. And other Crusaders. We are all safe in our various retreats. We have enough food, water, and supplies to sustain a small community of people for the next five years. By then, the toxin will have become inactive. And we—” Again, he motioned toward the group of Crusaders, all of whom were smiling and nodding. “We will repopulate the planet. But this time, we will get things right. Humanity will thrive, and the world will become a much better place to live.”


Hayley felt like all the air had been sucked from her lungs. She set her glass on the small table beside her, then bent forward, resting her head on her knees.


“Are you okay, sweetheart?” Oliver’s hand stroked the back of her neck.


Hayley sat up and looked at him, eyes wide. “So then, you’re not a drug user? You don’t run a meth lab?”


He gave her a quizzical look. “No, of course not.”


“You don’t engage in human trafficking?”


“God, no. You know how I feel about such vile practices.”


She stood, waving her arms toward the TV screens, which flash to scenes in India, China, Australia. The invisible toxin is beginning to fill the air. People are choking, clawing at their chests, dropping to their knees. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time when you said you were going out to poker night with the guys?”


He hung his head, expression sheepish. “Yeah. I’m sorry I lied about it. That was pretty crummy of me.”


The cameras show London, New York City, Rio de Janeiro. Panic fills the streets. People are screaming, trying to outrun an enemy they can’t see. More bodies drop to the ground.


“It’s just, you know, a relationship can’t thrive when two people can’t be honest with each other.”


“She has a point, Oliver,” a woman piped up from the dining table.


Tokyo, Berlin, Stockholm.


“From now on, you have to open up to me. Share your hobbies with me instead of hiding everything. If you don’t talk to me, then I’m left to wonder what you’re up to, and I might jump to the worst conclusions.”


Oliver stood and wrapped his arms around her. “I promise, from now on, I’ll do better. I’ll be your dream boyfriend, okay?”


Hayley cocked her head to one side, considering. Then, over the terrified screams and gagging sounds of most of the world’s population dying at once, she said, “Okay. I’ll give you a second chance. Don’t blow it.”


“I won’t.” He kissed her then, and for that one brief moment, life was perfect.

The Many Flavors of Love (a Valentines Day Love List)

I love the sound of rain drumming against the roof, splashing against the pavement, trickling down the windowpane while I watch, warm and cozy indoors.

I love the way a good book transports me far away from the world I know, inserting me, like a fly on the wall, into the lives of other characters, in other places and times.

I love my three teens, who are now 14, 17, and 19. I love spending time with them, sharing laughter, traveling to new places, enjoying meals. My middle daughter is getting ready to graduate from high school soon, and head off to university. Then I’ll have three years left before my nest is empty.

I love trying new foods, and incorporating recipes from around the globe into my daily repertoire. In our house, vegetarian curries and Asian soups are just as common as spaghetti.

I love my sister and her kids. We talk surprisingly little for sisters who actually get along (She doesn’t respond to texts or phone calls often). But on rare occasions we do manage to connect, it’s pretty positive. She began her family much later than I did, so she and her husband have three very young daughters. Two of them have finally reached an age of comfort with being away from their mom and dad, so now we are beginning to have Auntie outings. Since my own kids are nearly grown, it’s really nice to be able to hang out with my young nieces. The next best thing to being a Grandma.

Fun outing with my daughter (right) and two of my young nieces (center)

I love my ex-boyfriend, who I refer to as “Z.” (The last letter of the alphabet for the last man I will ever date or fall in love with). Yes, it’s been more than a year and a half since we were together. But that means nothing to my heart. I hate that he is gone from my life. I love remembering the wonderful, though brief, relationship we had, how kind he was, and how happy we both were together.

Z and me perfect date San Francisco Japanese tea garden
“Z” and me on a couple of unforgettable dates during a weekend together in my favorite city.

I love my career. I love what I get to wake up and do every day. I work in IT, designing and building software systems that revolutionize business for many people. It’s very fulfilling (and pays well, too).

I love that feeling of euphoria I get at the end of a really intense workout or a long weekend run. Runner’s high is not a myth! Now if only we could experience that in the middle of the run, instead of the burning lungs and aching muscles…

I love writing. I especially love to write stories for other people to enjoy. If you read my stories and find yourself transported into another time and place, like a fly on the wall in some character’s life, then my job was well done.

I love a perfect cup of coffee (Decaf dark roast with cream and Splenda), or a perfect cup of tea (earl gray or chai, splash of milk, plus Splenda). Especially with a good book. Long ago, when I had friends, then sharing a perfect cup of tea or coffee while spending time with a good friend was pretty much nirvana.

Hot cup of tea

I love that this list is actually far longer, filled with music, and flowers, and candles, and soccer, and great movies, like Amelie, or Pride & Prejudice (2005), or Shakespeare in Love. I also love how this list continues to grow throughout my life, as I travel more, try new activities, and grow. Ideally, much of this list would be people-based, since really, things and experiences, while worthy of loving and enjoying, can’t love you back. (But then, I have grown quite used to not being loved back. That has never before stopped me from loving).

Whoever, or whatever you love, may you love them fully today, and every day. What’s more, I wish for you what I have always lacked most in life — that you feel fully, completely, and unquestionably loved in return.

Playing By My Own Rules (aka: Adaptability)

(This is a candid post and may contain inappropriate content for readers under the age of 18)

Here’s the part where I may disappoint you.

You see, I adapt.

Changes come, and I learn to lean into it. Ideas shift, and I shift mine, too. When needed. With each new decade, I learn to love the music (though the oldies are always near and dear, too).

When I was a married woman, and sex meant pain and discomfort and never pleasure, I found a way to adapt. Through fantasy. Harmless daydreams about some other man, in some other place. Fantasies that lifted me up, up, and away from that dreaded marriage bed where my ex-husband did his thing and got his fill while I lay there, suffering for the sake of fulfilling my “wifely duties,” as he put them. Because that was what a good Christian woman was supposed to do. Take it. Submit. Give over her body, because it belonged to him, you see.

But I didn’t have to give over my mind.

Harmless fantasies, so I thought. Until I confessed it to the ex. Because isn’t that what married couples should do? Be honest, and truthful, and share everything, and work through everything behind closed doors?

Nope.

I was punished for my honesty. Punished for my imaginary affair. He even threw out my vibrator. My tiny, self-absorbed world of sex maybe not being the worst thing ever, destroyed. (Ironically, I was punished even more when he actually began cheating with other woman — his whipping boy, as he was unable to punish himself).

So I changed the rules.

“Z,” the wonderful man I dated over a year ago, confessed in the end that I was not the only woman he had been dating from the dating app where we both met. He chose her, he told me. And then, he left.

But know what? I was not devastated to learn that he was not dating me exclusively. I had already suspected it. It was not a big surprise. I was not jealous. That isn’t my way. I was only devastated that he left.

Perhaps you wonder, what would I have done? Stayed with a man who was disloyal? Well…yes. On this condition. He would have had to agree to an open relationship. And to brutal honesty. I’d want to know every detail of every fantasy or encounter. And to safety, because I’d rather not wind up contracting an STI.

Disappointed yet?

Well too bad. These are my rules.

Here’s what I learned: my ex-husband’s infidelity led to my being punished. My fantasizing about some other man led to my being punished. My ex-sort-of-boyfriend was dating another woman, which led to him leaving — aka, my being punished.

So it only seems logical that the way for me to avoid being punished by people crossing some invisible, man-made barrier is to…remove the barrier. Ta-da! No jealousy. No fear that one’s partner may be straying or having thoughts about someone else. No worries that I, being not very good in bed, and not very into sex, would be unable to meet my partner’s sexual needs, because he is allowed to get them met elsewhere — as long as he comes back to me.

(And no, I wouldn’t want to barriers removed so that I can stray. With my low sex drive and indifference about sex, I wouldn’t need that.)

None of the bad stuff. Just absolute trust. Absolute honesty. Absolute intimacy between two people who understand each other enough to admit that perhaps it’s not enough to keep it between two people for life. Freedom for two people who love each other to figure out how to make it work in our own way, by our own rules.

I know. For many readers, this kind of thinking is way too outside the box. But I am a problem-solver. A solutions-seeker. A highly adaptable human being who dislikes pain and prefers to make as many people happy as possible. Myself included.

Anyway, this is nothing more than a thought experiment. As I have mentioned before, “Z” will forever be my last, because I love him, and met my true match in him. I don’t ever wish to be in any relationship with anyone else, whether open or closed.

That, too, is adaptability.

the last (a poem)

that place where songs are birthed

glimmers like dawn on a rippling spring

dew glistening

on pale fragile growth

sweetest perfume of newborn rose

velvet softness of untouched skin

where I once danced free beneath the palms

music spilling from within

red and gold as sun setting on private beach

lyrics of love

of pain

of joy

of rage

of all that beat and flowed and pulsed

until you appeared

 
You, with footprints matching mine on silver sands

You, whose heart pumped the same rhythm

You, with honeyed voice that sang my tunes with yours

 
then pushed me away

drawing dark curtains around what was us

changing substance to smoke

locking the gates of Euterpe and Terpsichore

as I, choking on what remains

clutch dried petals to my breast

in mourning that never ends

living for the memory of dew

memory of dance

memory

of all that beat and flowed and pulsed

 
i have no song left in me.

Pearls (a Short Story)

PEARLS

string-of-pearls

“You burned the toast again.” Stuart made clicking noises with his tongue.

Ruby shot him a scornful look. “I didn’t burn the toast,” she said, setting his plate on the table. “That cheap toaster you bought burned the toast.” She poured more coffee into his favorite mug – the red one with the picture of the hula girl he’d brought home from their trip to Hawaii eight years ago. Now it had a small chip on the rim, a minor defect, like a blemished tooth. Her fingers itched to throw it away, but she knew Stuart would notice its absence.

With a heavy sigh, she sat across from him and fished the soggy teabag out of her cup. “Anything interesting in the news today?”

Stuart folded his newspaper and set it aside. “The usual overblown political circus and a workplace shooting somewhere in Colorado.” He scooped his eggs onto the unburnt center of his toast and bit into it. “The community section mentioned something about that women’s circle again. The Purple People, or something.” He chuckled.

Ruby frowned. “You know perfectly well that they call themselves the Pearls.” The Purple Pearls were like a cult, always trying to recruit people to come down to the community center for Tuesday craft days and Thursday reading groups, and who knew what else. But Ruby had no intention of knotting a purple bandanna around her neck and going on outings with those women, who were always cooing and chirping like a flock of city pigeons.

“Yeah, well turns out that those Pearl girls are planning to take a big trip. Guess where to?”

“Where?”

“Fiji. Isn’t that something?” he added, when Ruby folded her arms and glared at him. “You and me have been talking for years about flying down to Fiji.”

“That’s different.”

“Different how? It’s the same Fiji. Pristine beaches. Crystal clear water, coconut trees. Paradise!”

“But I’d rather go with you.”

“I’ll be here when you get back. You can bring me a new mug.” He held up the chipped red one. “You don’t want to miss your chance. Think about sinking your toes into that white sand. Think of that warm tropical breeze.”

“But I’m not one of them. Those Pearls.”

“You could be. You already know a couple of those women. And that one with the sparkly earrings—”

“Pam.”

Stuart nods. “Yeah, Pam. She isn’t going to stop trying until you give in and join them.”

“I don’t have time for them.” Ruby stood and began briskly scraping their plates into the trash. “I’ve got to finish crocheting that blanket for Sadie’s baby.”

“You could crochet with the Pearls,” said Stuart, “while talking about your Fiji plans. Come on, sweetheart,” he coaxed, softer, when Ruby didn’t respond. “What’s that I keep saying? Come on, now.”

Ruby gripped the edge of the counter and stared down into the abyss of the sink drain. “Don’t fear death,” she started.

“Speak up!”

“Don’t fear death, fear the unlived life.” It was a quote from Tuck Everlasting, a book they’d taken turns reading aloud years ago, Ruby curled into Stuart’s lap on the soft brown sofa after they’d put the kids to bed. Fear the unlived life. Those words had wormed their way into Stuart’s very being. Suddenly fearful that he hadn’t been living life hard enough, well enough, bravely enough, he’d adopted a new favorite word. Yes. Ride a bicycle across three states? Yes. Read fifty books in a year? Yes. Give up his Saturdays to mentor young men at the job training center? Yes, yes, yes. No wonder they hadn’t had time to travel to Fiji together.

And what about Ruby? Was she living an unlived life? She thought of all the years of raising kids with Stuart. Driving Sadie and Laura to school, to tap classes, to birthday parties. Years filled with Christmases and summer barbecues and family trips to the mountains. Years of bandaging scraped knees and cleaning up after pets and sewing costumes for the annual spring play. When the girls were older, Ruby had taken a part-time job as an office clerk, which later turned into a full-time job, which lasted all the way to retirement. She and Stuart had retired on the same day. They’d planned it that way. And after retirement, Stuart had gone right on saying yes to everything and everyone. Everyone but her. Until recently, she’d had to wait her turn for moments with Stuart. She hated to admit it, hated the selfishness of it, but she was glad that now, he was here all the time. Here just for her.

“Doesn’t Pam live pretty close to where you’re going today?” asked Stuart.

Ruby gripped the counter even tighter and swayed on her feet. She’d almost forgotten she had to go. Almost. “Yeah.”

“Then here’s your chance. Ring her doorbell. Say hello. Tell her your bags are already packed for Fiji.”

“My bags aren’t packed.” She turned around to look at him, mouth twisted.

“You could get them packed in two minutes. What would you need for Fiji, anyway? Besides a swimsuit.”

“I don’t have a swimsuit that fits.” Not anymore, now that she’d lost so much weight. “Guess I could get one, though.”

“Now you’re talking.” Stuart’s grin made his eyes light up, made the whole kitchen light up. Ruby almost felt like grinning, too. “What time is Sadie supposed to pick you up?”

Before Ruby could even glance at the big wooden clock, the front doorbell rang. And rang. And rang, three long chimes and a series of short chimes. Sadie must have let the boys ring the bell, she figured, hurrying to the living room. Sure enough, when she threw open the front door, both her grandsons stood there, wearing grins that looked so much like Stuart’s, her heart squeezed tight for a moment, like someone was wringing out all the blood.

Sadie’s face fell when she saw Ruby. “Mom! You’re not even ready to go yet!”

Ruby glanced down at her stained lavender house robe, then placed a hand on her thinning cloud of white hair. “Guess I’ll just go like this,” she mumbled.

“You can’t go like that!” Sadie sounded dismayed. “It’s…it’s disrespectful!”

Ruby scowled, then headed off to pull on some real clothes to appease her daughter. “I’ll see you later,” she told Stuart as she breezed through the kitchen again.

Stuart winked, then waved his arms like a hula dancer. Ridiculous. She pursed her lips. Did they even have hula dancers in Fiji?

Sadie said nothing about Ruby’s too-baggy attire this time. In fact, her words were syrupy sweet as she drove them across town, talking about the boys’ activities and Halloween costume plans in that kitten-gentle voice people used with small children. It dug under Ruby’s skin like a tick, but she just clenched her teeth and stared out the window, picturing pristine beaches and coconut trees. She really could do it. She could fly to Fiji with the girls, maybe sip some kind of tangy, coconutty rum drink under a strip of the bluest sky. She could bring home a mug for Stuart, and maybe a new toaster so his toast wouldn’t get burned. This time, she did laugh aloud.

“Mother, are you even listening to me?” asked Sadie, her voice tinged with irritation.

“Yes,” said Ruby.

Then they were there, pulling into the parking lot. Damn the parking lot, thought Ruby as they trudged across the asphalt. Damn the tall iron bars they passed through. Damn the perfect grass, as green and manicured as a golf course. She wanted to turn and run back to the car, drive it back home, where Stuart was waiting.

“Are you ready?” asked Sadie. She was carrying a bouquet of flowers, just like a bride. Splashy, yellow flowers. Purple flowers. Tiny sprigs of white flowers. She placed them in Ruby’s empty hands. Ruby imagined herself walking barefoot across a beach, long veil flowing behind her, and Stuart in a suit with the pant legs rolled up, standing ankle-deep in the crystal blue waters.

“Hello Ruby.” Pam was here, too. Not on the beach, but here in the green grass, that damned purple bandanna knotted around her neck. Two other women stood beside her. More Pearls. “I asked Sadie if we could join you today, and she said yes.”

Yes yes yes.

Ruby’s head began throbbing. She took tiny steps forward, Sadie supporting one elbow, Pam holding the other. Fiji, she told herself in a stern voice. Think of Fiji.

“These anniversaries can be hard,” Pam was saying. “We Pearls like to support each other. All of these ladies know just what you’re going through.”

Ruby didn’t answer. She was frozen on the spot, staring down at the slab of stone jutting up from the grass.  Her blood had gone cold, like the coffee in Stuart’s chipped red mug.

“One year ago today.” Pam said this like one might say it’s raining outside, or there’s a sale at Penney’s, or we’re out of milk. “I always did like that quote.” She tilted her head to one side, squinting at the stone slab. “Don’t fear death, fear the unlived life. Wonder who said that?”

“Babbitt.” Ruby cleared her throat, tried again. “Natalie Babbitt. It’s from a book. Tuck Everlasting.”

“Well now.” Pam’s dark eyes burned into Ruby’s. “I hope that you’ll come to our next meeting and tell the Pearls some more about this book. We’re planning a big trip together, you know. To Fiji.”

“Yes.” Ruby nodded. There. She’d said it. Yes.

“So you’ll be there?”

“Yes.” Ruby laid the flowers at the foot of the grave, then turned to go. In her fingers, she clutched a single flower she’d separated from the rest. It was purple, like the Pearls. She was never going to join them, she knew. Never going to wear their stupid bandanna or attend their meetings. They might eat up all her time, then she wouldn’t have any left to spend with Stuart.

Tonight, she decided, she would cook pork chops, his favorite dinner. And she would place the flower next to his plate.

“That’s the color of my new bathing suit,” she’d tell him.

“So you’re going to go to Fiji after all?”

“That’s right,” she’d say. “You and me. So pack your bags. We’ve waited long enough.”