“You need to have a fling or two,” Maddy said to her young lover.
She put a finger across his lips. “You could use a few notches on your belt.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t trade you for the world.”
“Why would I sleep with somebody else when I love you?”
“This isn’t about love. I’m afraid you’re going to wonder what you missed, and I’ll lose you to some young thing.”
They’d found each other at a Christmas party for Red Cross volunteers. From the bar to the buffet to the bathroom, whenever she turned around, she seemed to bump into Jake. When she stepped outside for some air, there he’d been again. They’d started talking and the world contracted until they were the only two people in it. When Maddy finally broke it off to collect her casserole tray, he’d taken her free hand in both of his, releasing it only when she mumbled about her babysitter’s curfew.
Their first phone conversation started out cautiously, neither of them quite believing they were moving forward. She’d wound up dancing around the kitchen like the high school girl she’d once been. She felt breathless when she hung up.
She managed to browbeat her ex into taking the kids over New Year’s Eve even though it would cost her a free weekend later. The day dawned with Maddy and Jake toasting each other with leftover champagne while she filled her kitchen with the aphrodisiacal aroma of bacon and eggs for two.
Since the separation, winter had been her loneliest time of year. She’d close in on herself, huddled by her woodstove, fighting to keep the chill from her soul. She poured her love into her three kids, their companionship keeping her from retreating too deep into isolation.
This year was different. The winter bounced by in frothy bubbles of mutual discovery with Jake, warmed by ever-expanding intimacies and fun times, like teaching Jake to ski and introducing him to her kids. Mike, Sarah, and Chris had eyed him skeptically across the dinner table until Chris broke the ice by tipping over his milk. Jake leaned forward and pretended to lap up the spill like a dog. After that, it was all giggles, sled rides, cookies, and storytimes.
Maybe it would turn out to be just an infatuation. Maddy could live with that.
“A dozen roses for Valentine’s Day. He says he loves me; can you believe it?” Maddy said to Janice, her pal from “Singles Mingle Night.” They’d met last summer when Maddy had stuck a toe into the dating pool. They’d found shared interests, at least when it came to men, forming a mutual protection pact against the sad-eyed, middle-aged rejects sniffing around for fresh meat at “The Mingle.” The attractive guys always got snapped up by the aerobics workout babes.
“And he’s only a couple of years out of college.”
“You cradle robber,” said Janice.
“Oh yeah, so he’s younger,” Maddy said, reveling in being the object of Jake’s desire. “You’re just jealous.”
“When do I get to meet this prize?”
“You just keep your claws to yourself, sister. He’s mine.”
“We’ll see,” said Janice.
Maddy decided to let down her guard and believe that Jake really was smitten with her. To celebrate, she’d called her OB/GYN to get a new prescription for birth control pills.
After such a long drought, the sex was a treat she couldn’t get enough of. To begin with, he kissed like they’d just invented kissing. She’d have to make him come up for air and then take the initiative when she was ready to move things forward. She’d guided him along, teaching him about a woman’s body. “Gentle pressure here. A finger right there. Now your tongue. Yes.” Able to relax and take her time, she savored every moment, each more delicious than anything she’d ever had with her ex. Foreplay heaven. Jake’s next girlfriend would owe her big time.
Winter had melted languidly into milder weather and bluer skies. Maddy planted a garden, green shoots bursting out of the ground with new life. Snow peas were the first to harvest.
She wondered about a future with Jake. Their giddy, falling-in-love phase would have to transition into something else eventually.
She performed spring cleaning on the gallery of kids’ drawings and snapshots stuck to the refrigerator with magnets, removing the handwritten “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” affirmation that had taken her through separation and divorce. She replaced it with a new one: “If you love someone, set them free. If they come back, they’re yours; if they don’t, they never were.”
One particularly beautiful afternoon she’d stretched out on a blanket and slathered herself with baby oil to bake in the sun. She closed her eyes while the kids chased each other around the yard and let her mind drift in warm lazy swirls. She’d stopped thinking each day that today would be the day Jake would dump her. Mmm. A baby would be nice. She rolled onto her tummy. She loved babies. Jake would make a great dad. Maybe she’d ditch the birth control and leave it to fate.
When the kids went away to sleepover Y camp, Jake moved in for the week and they frolicked like newlyweds. Maddy made it her mission to blow his mind as often as she could; like on the drive back from a walk in the creek when he had to steer left-handed after she grabbed his right hand and stuck it down her wet cutoffs. When he told her he thought fantasy stuff like that only happened in porno, she grinned and started plotting her next move.
The uncontrolled bleeding hit in late July. Jake hurried over to drive her to the hospital.
“A ‘D and C?’ What’s that?” he asked in the car later.
She shifted around on the bulky sanitary pad. “Dilation and curettage.”
“What’s it for?”
“It’s a procedure for when a woman has lady problems. They poke a tube through your cervix, scrape your uterus, and suck out the tissue that caused the problem.”
“Oh.” After a long pause, he said, ‘Your cervix is near your, you know, vagina?”
She looked out the side window into the darkness. “Uh-huh.”
That had been that. Their silence hurt her in ways that surprised her.
The fling conversation came to a couple of weekends later. Jake had frowned, confused. He said he thought love and sex were inseparable. She told him to stop being so hung up. The rest of that Sunday passed in an uncomfortable truce. Sure, they’d argued before about trivial stuff, like butter versus margarine. This touched the core of something deeper. He left earlier than usual before the kids came back from their dad’s house.
Back-to-school nights and PTA meetings crowded Maddy’s September evenings. Weekends were about homework and laundry. Nights fell earlier. She started looking over her shoulder for the little black cloud that winter might bring. She caught herself being irritable. When Jake said her new hairstyle made her look sexy, she snapped, “So I looked frumpy before?”
She fought back against the looming malaise by scheduling a dance night out with Janice, something they’d picked up the previous fall. She roped Jake in, too. They had a fun time together and Janice dubbed them “The Three Musketeers.” She offered up the Japanese cinema series at the University as another thing to do together.
Maddy leaned back against the kitchen counter, holding Chris in her arms. “I’m not going to the movie,” she said to Jake when he came to pick her up. She glanced down at Chris and rebuttoned his Winne-the-Pooh-print pajama top.
“The kiddos have the sniffles, and I’m not about to dump whiny children on a babysitter. They need my TLC.”
“So, let’s bag it,” Jake said. “We can hang out, watch TV. I don’t give a you-know-what about Japanese movies, anyhow.”
“Yes, but I promised we’d drive Janice. She doesn’t have a car. I’ll call her and tell her you’re picking her up.”
The following week, the indoor-outdoor thermometer read 35 degrees. Maddy phoned Jake to take a rain check on the movie again.
“I just want to tuck everybody in, hunker down on the couch in my fluffy bathrobe and cradle a big mug of hot tea in my hands.”
“Well, if that’s what you want…” Jake had trailed off and hung up.
“Like I said, I really want you to be my date at my office Christmas party this Friday,” Jake said.
Maddy handed him a plate to dry and glanced over at Mikey sitting hunched over his arithmetic homework. She looked out the kitchen window into the gloom and frowned.
“I don’t know. I’m not in the mood for carousing with a bunch of strangers. And you know me. These days I turn into a pumpkin at ten o’clock.” She held out her red, dripping hands, the knuckles showing bony and white – like an old lady’s.
“Take Janice. You guys are buddies. Have a good time without me.”
Maddy carried her coffee to the front window seat. The bright sun sparkled on the fresh white snow and combined with the powder-blue sky to lift her spirits even higher. A great Saturday morning for making snowmen and getting soaked knees with the kids. She took a sip and considered calling Jake. Afterward, they could make a fire, pop popcorn, and hang out.
When Jake’s car turned into the driveway, she felt a smile unfold across her face. Maybe he was psychic. She hadn’t expected to see him this early in the morning after his big party. A nice surprise. She’d make pancakes for lunch. She met him at the kitchen door.
He looked like hell. Red-rimmed eyes, pale and shaky. Possibly hungover, a Jake she hadn’t seen before. He had trouble meeting her eyes. He shook off her hug to slump on a stool at the kitchen island, head in his hands.
She set a mug of coffee down in front of him, folded her arms, and leaned back against the sink.
“I’m sorry, Maddy,” he began.
“I had too much to drink at the party…”
“You don’t have to apologize to me for that.” She smiled. “Looks like you’re paying the price.”
He clutched the mug. “Something happened. With Janice.”
Maddy crossed the kitchen and quietly closed the door to the family room. She steeled herself. “You slept with her, did you?”
“Not exactly?’ What’s that supposed to mean?”
“We were really drunk, and she invited me in…”
“And then you had sex?”
“Kinda? I’m not sure. I mean we didn’t actually get naked.” He paused.
“But yeah, I guess I cheated on you.”
Maddy let the silence hang in the air. He looked forlorn, like a puppy who’d peed on the floor and expected a spanking. She began to shake her head slowly.
“Jake, you’re a real piece of work. Half of me wants to give you a hug and tell you we can work this out. The other half wants to kick you in the crotch as hard as I can.”
“Really?” she went on. “With my best friend? What an asshole.” She paused.
Jake sagged. “If she’s such a great friend…”
“I think you better leave. I can’t stand to look at you. Just go.”
The storm door banged shut behind him. She watched him trudge to his car and drive away. She moved to dump his coffee mug and found herself clutching it with both hands, staring down at her reflection.
“Mommy? Are you crying?” Sarah had come in, her Raggedy Anne dangling upside-down. The yarn hair trailed toward the floor like frozen orange tears.
“Sweetie,” Maddy said, hugging her, “Did we scare you?”
“You sounded mad, Mommy. You’re crying. Where’s Jake?”
Sarah was her middle child, a caretaker.
“Mommy may have made a mistake, honey.” Maddy tried to smile.
“How ‘bout some hot cocoa?” She went to get the milk. When she saw that stupid “love” affirmation on the fridge, she felt her throat constrict.
“Is Jake coming back?” asked Sarah. “I like when he reads stories with funny voices. He makes me feel happy.”
“Yeah, he makes me feel happy, too. Mostly. You go color with your brothers, and I’ll bring in the cocoa when it’s ready.”
Maddy stirred the milk to keep a skin from forming on top. She wondered what she wanted for herself. She poured the cocoa into three mugs to cool and plopped in marshmallows.
She walked the milk carton back to the fridge and ripped down the affirmation. She dialed Jake’s number, parking the phone receiver on her shoulder, and paced around the kitchen.
The phone just kept ringing.
Looking down, Maddy saw she was tearing the paper into little pieces, the words “free,” “love,” and “meant to be” fluttering to the floor like flower petals.
“Loves me, loves me not.”
Peter is a creative writing student returning to a path he accidentally stumbled off thirty-some years ago after he made the mistake of showing his writing portfolio to an advertising agency creative director. Now freed from the constraints of corporate legal department reviews, he is once again able to make up whatever he pleases.