The why of the situation troubled me throughout the following day. I found myself pondering over it at odd times, like when I was wiping up a sprinkling of urine dried on the floor in front of the downstairs toilet. Or when I vigorously scrubbed an unknown sticky red substance from the bottom of the refrigerator, a substance that had mysteriously appeared overnight. I even pondered it as I wandered the aisles of the supermarket where Bethany worked. By dinner I had given myself a headache from thinking about it so much. I tried clearing my head that evening by taking Frank for a long walk.
Bethany would be home in a few days and I wanted to be able to tell her the dog doo mystery was solved. I contemplated approaching Timmy or his mother directly, but was hesitant to follow through. Timmy seemed like a genuinely good kid; I’d known him the entire seven years we’d lived in our house and I never had a problem with him before. He’d been mowing my lawn every week for six months out of the year for the past two years, and he’d never so much as stepped on a flower of mine.
I tried to rationalize my passive actions: it wasn’t my lawn being used as a toilet. Timmy wasn’t my kid. Bonkers wasn’t my dog. Therefore, it wasn’t my problem. Bethany had only asked me to keep her yard clean, and it was probably best if I didn’t get anymore involved. I decided to turn all the information over to her and let her handle it however she chose. I was mulling everything over as I strolled around aimlessly with Frank.
He stopped to sniff a hydrant in front of a charming Cape Cod, and I was surprised when Bonkers’ block head appeared in the front window and he let out a resounding “Woof!” Frank tried to turn tail and run, momentarily forgetting the boundaries of his leash. He made a sound like “yak” before twisting his oblong body around my legs. His leash tightened around my ankles and I toppled to the sidewalk. I landed with a teeth-jarring crash on my ass, biting my tongue and accidentally dropping the leash in the process. Frank, the coward, headed for home as fast as his short little legs could carry him. I slowly stood up and gingerly touched my butt, wincing in pain as I did so.
“Are you okay?” a deep voice asked from behind me.
I turned slowly, embarrassed to be seen in such a clumsy position, and there stood Bonkers and a handsome young man. Bonkers’ companion was tall, broad-shouldered, muscular, and wore a buttoned shirt with a pair of well-fitting jeans. Bonkers tilted his head quizzically at me as his master’s sky blue eyes searched mine with genuine concern.
“I’m fine,” I said with a tentative smile.
“I was beginning to think I was the only person under sixty living in this neighborhood.” He stuck out his hand. “Brandon Matthews.”
“Cami Jo Smith,” I offered as we shook hands. I noticed Brandon wore no wedding ring and I added helpfully, “My next door neighbor, Bethany Martin, is also young and single.”
“Ah, you must be the family with two children on Rain Lane,” Brandon guessed and his blue eyes twinkled in the fading light.
“The grapevine has been working overtime again,” I said with a grin.
I noticed Brandon had a cleft in his chin as we laughed companionably together for a second. He was incredibly attractive, and I was surprised to realize that if I were single I’d want to put my tongue in his cleft. Our laughter faded away and an uncomfortable silence enveloped us with the approaching twilight.
“So, you’re all right then?”
I nodded sheepishly. “It was nice meeting you.”
“Nice to meet you,” he responded automatically as he turned away.
“Wait!” I had no idea what I was about to say. “I already know you and Bonkers.”
“How do you know my dog’s name?” His puzzled expression deepened, and I realized he was contemplating the possibility of me being some sort of psychotic dog stalker.
Instead of answering, I countered with a question of my own. “Does a boy named Timmy Atkins ever walk Bonkers?”
Brandon’s eyebrows drew together and his frown caused the dimple to flicker into view. “Yes,” he answered carefully. “Week days after school, rain or shine. Why?”
“Well, you see,” I began slowly, “Timmy’s been walking Bonkers down Rain Lane and letting him . . . uh, you know, go on lawns.”
“And not cleaning it up?” Brandon asked incredulously.
“Oh, man. I’m so sorry. I can’t believe he did that!”
“It’s okay, really. It’s---“ I was about to tell him it wasn’t even my lawn, but Brandon interrupted me.
“No, that’s not cool. I just got Bonkers a few weeks ago and his barking has already pissed off a couple of my neighbors. Well, at least one.” He glanced at his next door neighbor’s house before returning his attention back to me. “I’ll talk to Timmy and I personally guarantee it won’t ever happen again.”
He smiled and waved before we turned in opposite directions. I headed home, thinking about what I would tell Bethany. I congratulated myself on a job well done and absently played matchmaker between Bethany and Brandon. To me, they seemed perfect for each other.
Halfway home I saw the only other young person in the neighborhood. I had named Heather Tipton the official “hot mom” on our block because her toned body belied the fact that she was the mother of a fifteen year old daughter.
Heather stood barefoot on her lawn in a pair of Daisy Dukes and tight silk t-shirt in a flashy hue of watermelon pink. She was watering her azaleas in front of her sprawling Spanish bungalow. Her house matched her personality, and I secretly felt they both belonged in Beverly Hills instead of our unpretentious neighborhood.
Heather smiled and waved at me before dropping the hose and jiggling up to me. Her breasts strained against her shirt and her long honey-colored hair bounced around them. I was surprised by her approach because we’d always had more of an acquaintance type of relationship. Actually, I had more of a relationship with her daughter Tiffani than with Heather. Tiffani had babysat for me on several occasions and her quirky personality endeared her to the kids forever, which, of course, endeared her to me. Heather was much more predatory than her daughter. She was slightly older than me, divorced, enjoyed imbibing several glasses of wine in the evening, and had kissed my husband a long time ago. That was all I, and everyone else in the neighborhood, knew about Heather.
“You were just talking to Brandon?” she asked, her aquamarine eyes studying me intently.
I glanced around, wondering if the very air on Rain Lane carried gossip into my neighbors’ ears. I reluctantly nodded at her.
“He’s a doll, isn’t he?” she gushed.
“Oh, yes. In fact, I’m going to set him up with Bethany.” Heather’s perfect white teeth snapped together with an audible click, and she managed to purse her full lips into a babyish pout. She looked down her sculpted nose at me, much the same way Bethany had looked at the dog doo in her yard.
I smiled sweetly. “Well, it was nice chatting with you.” I never knew what to make of Heather. My mother used to accurately sum up women like Heather with one word: “catty.” Even Tiffani’s voice dripped with disdain when she spoke of her mother.
I waved at Mrs. Matilda across the street and called a “hello” to Ms. Gertrude. They stood on either side of their white-washed picket fence and gossiped the dusk away. They paused long enough to politely return my wave before tipping their heads together once more. Mrs. Matilda’s steel blue curls stood in sharp contrast next to Ms. Gertrude’s thin pinkish fluff in the waning light.
I pondered over their unlikely-seeming friendship because they were opposites in every conceivable way. Mrs. Matilda’s considerable bulk overwhelmed Ms. Gertrude’s squat frame in much the same way Mrs. Matilda’s three-story Victorian house overshadowed Ms. Gertrude’s chalet-inspired cottage.
Bert and Ruth were rocking on the glider swing on their front porch. Bert folded his funny pages onto his lap and pulled out his lollipop to exchange pleasantries with me. Ruth asked about the kids as she always did, “those two darling children of yours,” and Bert handed me two lollipops from his bag for them.
Across the street, Mrs. Peters’ house stood dark and silent, and I wondered when the new owners would make an appearance. I reached my front door and was greeted by a sheepish Frank, ears and tail drooping to the ground in doggy shame for his abandonment of me.
“When the going gets tough and all that, eh Frank?”
The doorbell interrupted my kids’ homework the following afternoon. I was dumbfounded to be greeted by Brandon, Timmy, and Bonkers. Timmy handed me a homemade card that said “I’m sorry” in blocky, brown letters.
“I’m sorry and it won’t ever happen again,” Timmy said in a rehearsed-sounding voice.
“Okay. But if you do it again, I’ll tell your mom,” I said to the top of his curly red hair. He reluctantly met my eyes and nodded at me solemnly. I lifted the card. “I’ll give this to Miss Bethany.”
“Bethany?” Brandon asked.
Timmy jerked his thumb next door. “It was her yard I was letting Bonkers use.”
“She’s out of town until tomorrow, and I’ve had the unpleasant task of cleaning it up for the past two weeks,” I explained to Brandon’s questioning look.
“Oh,” he said, still looking confused.
Before I could let the matter drop, there was something I just had to know first. “Why?”
Timmy hung his head again. “It’s stupid.”
“I’m sure it is, but you owe her that much,” Brandon urged.
“Miss Bethany’s is the only house on the street whose grass I don’t cut,” Timmy answered. “Last time I quoted her a price, she said she wouldn’t let a mere boy set foot on her precious grass, never mind cutting it!”
“Sounds like her,” I snickered.
“Well . . .” Brandon cleared his throat, clearly feeling uncomfortable. “I guess we’ll be going now. Sorry again about all of this.”
Bonkers loped down the porch stairs, almost dragging Timmy to his knees in the process. Brandon attempted to grab the leash away from Timmy, and they both momentarily struggled against Bonkers weight.
Before I closed the door on the receding trio, a large orange moving truck pulled up across the street. It was immediately followed by a shiny black Cadillac and a silver BMW. A tall, bald, black man (African American, I mean) got out of the drivers side of the Caddy and two teen-agers piled out of the Beemer. Seconds later, an attractive woman, cradling a tiny baby in her arms, joined them. The man put his arm around the woman, and the family stood for a moment gazing at their new home in a picture-perfect moment.
“Well, they’re definitely not Smurfs,” I said to Frank. He responded by snoring, opening one eye, then rolling onto his back and promptly falling back asleep.
Bethany’s flight arrived on time and she called from the freeway, asking me to meet her at her house in ten minutes. I was anxious to tell her about the events of the past two weeks: not only had I found out who her phantom pooper was, and why he was defiling her prized lawn, I’d also single-handedly put a stop to it. Plus, I’d met our handsome single neighbor and had a chance encounter with the infamous Heather.
By the time Bethany arrived, I’d already made a pot of coffee, changed Prissy’s litter one last time, and put out a plate of sugar cookies that Katie Nicole and I had made for Bethany’s homecoming. Prissy and I made a bee-line for Bethany when she burst in: me to help with her bags and Prissy to rub around her legs. Bethany picked up her beloved pet and they rubbed noses before we all settled onto the couch.
I recounted the many adventures I’d had during her absence, and by the time I’d finished speaking Bethany’s permanent expression of polite interest had turned into one of bewilderment. Her mouth was ajar and her brow was creased with a faint wrinkle. The only sounds to be heard were Prissy’s contented purring and the soft tick of the antique grandfather’s clock that stood like a sentinel beside the fireplace.
“I can’t believe it,” Bethany finally said as she tapped a fingernail against the rim of her coffee cup.
“Oh, believe it,” I assured her. “I even took a picture.”
She looked at me strangely before she continued. “I believe you. I just can’t believe Timmy would do it because I won’t let him mow my grass.”
I shrugged. “Kids are weird. Plus, he’s eleven now.” Bethany’s blank look reminded me once again of the one vast gulf between us: she was childless. “Puberty,” I explained.
We sipped our coffee in silence for a moment, contemplating the puzzle of pre-teen hormones and their ill effects. I dreaded the day my own children hit puberty, especially Katie Nicole. I still remembered the rage I’d felt toward my own mother on a monthly basis when I was eleven and twelve. I shuddered at all the door slamming, screaming, and crying yet to come. Thankfully, Bethany interrupted my unpleasant musings by bringing up a very pleasant topic.
“So, tell me more about the yummy neighbor, Brandon.”
I described Brandon, trying to use my artistic talent to bring my mental image of him to life by using only words. I chronicled his virtues right down to most minute detail: his fingernails were trimmed and clean, yet not professionally manicured. Bethany was dutifully impressed by my recall, and I summarized with a warning.
“You better act fast, though, before Heather sinks her claws in him.”
Bethany rolled her eyes. “She has her sights set on anyone with a penis who can still walk.”
“I kind of feel sorry for her.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Cami Jo! Why on earth would you feel sorry for her?”
“I don’t know exactly. I think she’s terribly lonely.”
“Hmph,” Bethany scoffed. “I don’t think the woman has been lonely a single night of her life.”
The next day, Katie Nicole and I decided to bake cookies for our new neighbors. We chose Black and Whites, chocolate cookies with white chocolate chips rolled in powdered sugar before being baked, because they were our favorites. The last batch was cooling on a wire rack next to a sheet of colorful cellophane to wrap them in, when Katie Nicole brought up an interesting point.
“Maybe Black and Whites aren’t the best cookies to give our new neighbors.”
I couldn’t think of a single reason why not; they were the most delicious cookies in the world. “How come?”
“You know . . . our new neighbors are the only African Americans on our street. Black and Whites. Get it?”
I got it, all right, and realized she was right. “Maybe we could change their name,” I suggested.
Katie Nicole had an answer all ready for me. “How about Chocolate Lovers’ cookies?”
“Sounds good to me.”
We were finishing wrapping up the cookies when Bill and Dylan came home from playing golf. We all walked across the street to our new neighbors, and Dylan got to ring the doorbell because Katie Nicole got to hand the cookies to the teen-age girl who answered the door.
“Mom!” The girl called over her shoulder. She accepted the cookies without thanking us and closed the screen door without inviting us in. She eyed us silently with hazel-green eyes until her mother arrived. The mom, who looked younger than the daughter and had an amazingly taut body, nudged the girl out of the way and held the door open for us.
“Come in, come in,” the mom said. Her eyes were a strange shade of yellow, and were even more striking than her daughter’s. Both sets of eyes stood out in sharp contrast to the dark skin surrounding them, and I wondered if they both wore colored contact lenses.
We followed her into the living room which was full of unpacked boxes. The only things in place were the two most important pieces in the heart of any living room: a comfy couch and a large TV.
“Tonya,” The mom said to her daughter, who was standing in the doorway, “go tell your father that people are here.”
Tonya remained in the doorway and shouted over her shoulder, “Dad! Someone’s here!”
The mom smiled and gestured toward the couch. “Do sit down. I’m Amanda, by the way. Amanda Johnson.” She shook all of our hands, a grown-up act that put my kids at ease immediately. Amanda wore no makeup on her dusky skin and she was a natural beauty; so beautiful she could pull off the short hairstyle she wore. In fact, her short dark curls only accentuated her perfect bone structure and slender neck.
The tall, bald, black man I’d seen getting out of the Cadillac, came into the room holding a baby in his large hands. Tonya and a teen-age boy trailed behind him. The three children took after their father, with milk chocolate skin a few shades darker than their mother. The only similarity I could see was Tonya and Amanda’s startling eyes.
“This is my husband, Jeremiah,” Amanda said. She pointed at the two teen-agers hiding behind Jeremiah’s broad back. “They’re Tonya and Jon. And this,” she paused to take the tiny bundle from her husband, “is Abigail.”
“We call her Gabby,” Tonya said as she took a tentative step into the room. Jon continued to hang back by the doorway.
Bill introduced our family next as he shook hands with Jeremiah.
“We live across the street,” I added.
My kids had sat down on the sofa and were looking around at the Johnsons’ stuff. I glanced at the ceiling and was relieved that a good coat of paint had covered the soot spot. I gestured for my kids to come just as Dylan peeked inside a carton.
“We don’t want to keep you. We just wanted to introduce ourselves and welcome you to the neighborhood,” I said.
They thanked us for the cookies, told us how nice it was to meet us, and walked behind us as I herded my kids to the front door. As we crossed the street, Katie Nicole said aloud what the rest of us had only been thinking.
“Miss Amanda could be a supermodel.”
“Or a mighty fine Victoria’s Secret model,” Bill said.
I shot him a look.
“What? She’s hot.”
“Yeah,” Dylan said. “I agree with Dad, she’s hot.”
“Dylan!” I scolded and shot Bill another look.
“It’s inappropriate and disrespectful for you to call a grown woman hot,” Bill said to Dylan.
“But you said it,” Dylan pointed out.
“Yes, but I’m a lot older than you are, and I meant no disrespect by it.”
“Well, neither did I,” Dylan said. “I only meant it as a compliment.”
“Me too,” Bill said and they both turned puzzled eyes to me.
“Just don’t say it anymore,” I said with a sigh. Then I looked at Bill. “Neither one of you. Okay?”
“Okay,” the both responded automatically.
I had just walked through our own front door when the phone began to ring. It was Ralph Alexander, a friend of mine who owned a shop called Comical Candies, where I showed some of my abstract artwork.
“I just sold ‘Francesca’s Fury’,” he announced without preamble. His throaty voice, which always reminded me of a Muppet, was raised over the background noises of customers and the jingling cash register.
“Yay!” I practically shouted. I had paintings hanging in three different establishments around town and it had been months since I’d sold anything. Illustrating children’s books and telling stories paid the bills, but painting abstracts was my passion.
“Congrats,” Ralph said. “But now I have a huge blank spot on my wall.”
I pacified him with, “I’ve been working on something that will be done soon.”
“Good. You can pick up your check anytime,” he said before hanging up.
I’d first met Ralph around the same time that I’d told my first story at the library. Ralph had read a blurb about me in the paper on the same day he was opening Comical Candies. I attended his Grand Opening to buy some candy for myself and, hopefully, replace a rare Flash Gordon comic for Bill. It was the first comic book Bill had ever owned, and he managed to hang onto it in mint condition until we got married. Shortly thereafter, I’d decided to clean house and accidentally threw the classic comic in the trash.
When I entered Comical Candies that first day, Ralph had instantly recognized me from my picture in the paper. He came around the counter to introduce himself and assist me. He not only had the Flash Gordon comic, which he let me have for a steal, he also asked me to decorate his shop. There were only two posters flanking the front door, and as I looked at his bare white walls I saw a vast blank canvas before me.
Ralph gave me free rein of his shop for the next few months, and I filled an entire rear wall with an undersea mural. It was complete with mermaids, a sunken pirate ship, and a strange sea serpent. The other three walls of the shop were reserved for the sale of my paintings, and Comical Candies became my own personal art gallery, and Ralph became my art dealer.
After Ralph called to tell me about the sale of ‘Francesca’s Fury’ I headed straight to my studio to begin working on the fictitious painting I’d told him about. My studio was really just a corner of my husband’s garage; unused tools and lawn paraphernalia were my silent companions. I had limited space to work, let alone storage space for large works in progress, so I only painted when I had somewhere to hang the finished piece.
My studio was my own personal cocoon--- my one kid-free sanctuary. There were no distractions to be found: not a single window to gaze out of nor a clock to incessantly glance at. I sometimes listened to music, but usually chose the whir of the dehumidifier to accompany my thoughts.
I’d been carrying around in my head, for two tortuously long months, an idea for a huge colorful abstract. I’d been unable to start it because of lack of space. Now that I’d sold something, I could get the image out of my head and onto a canvas. I oftentimes went months without painting, but once I finally began my fingers itched until it was done.
The idea had been fermenting in my mind long enough, and when I picked up my paintbrush it poured out of me like wine. The idea was of an entire scene from outer space, with thousands of stars forming imaginary constellations, comets and shooting stars, and everything orbiting around a sickly green sun.
Bethany found me hard at work, playing in paint, hours later in the musty garage. Bill tried to keep the kids out of my hair when I was working, so he’d taken them to get a pizza, catch a movie, and bring home some ice cream afterward. I’d become completely absorbed in the solar system I was trying to create and didn’t even hear Bethany approaching.
“Bill told me earlier you were working, so I just let myself in,” her soft voice said from directly behind me.
I flinched in surprise and the tiny pinprick of orange I was painstakingly dabbing at turned into a dime-sized fiery looking blob.
“Dammit Bethany, don’t do that!” I snapped, thinking she was worse than one of my kids.
“Oops, sorry,” she said by way of an apology, and leaned closer to examine the damage she’d inflicted. She complimented me on the piece, and the sound of awe in her voice softened me considerably. “What’s it called?”
“’Celestial Flight’,” I responded absently. My attention was riveted to the color-splotched canvas, desperately trying to find a way to repair the “oops.” Maybe it can be a meteor, I thought.
“I stopped by to give you this.” Bethany extended an envelope toward me but stopped when she saw my paint spattered hands. “I’ll just leave it here,” she said as she set it on top of the washing machine.
I barely nodded because I was so distracted by the painting. My gaze was drawn to it like a magnet, and I recognized the consuming feeling of borderline obsession which always overcame me when I was inspired. Sometimes as an artist I just had to paint, and I no longer bothered making excuses or apologies for it.
Bethany was chirping away about her appreciation over my handling the “doggy doo-doo situation,” sounding to my ears as unimportant as the twittering of a bird. She trailed off into silence and I took the opportunity to pick up my brush and resume working.
“Well, I can see that you’re busy, so I’ll show myself out.”
The spell was momentarily broken by her words, and I looked her in the eye for the first time since she’d arrived. “I’m a little distracted right now.”
She smiled warmly at me. “I have the utmost respect for artists and their temperaments.”
I almost forgot about Bethany’s visit until I headed to bed at two in the morning. I was about to turn off the last overhead fluorescent light when I noticed the envelope still setting on the washer. I was astounded when five one hundred dollar bills floated down from the Hallmark thank you card. Inside, written in Bethany’s swirling cursive it said:
I am so appreciative for all your help with my recent lawn misadventure. I was able to cancel the surveillance camera and save a bundle of money ~ all thanks to you. Enclosed is just a fraction of how much you saved me. Please accept it along with my eternal gratitude.
I awoke at dawn, excited by the prospect of another day with a paintbrush in my hand. I slid out of bed without waking Bill, took a quick shower, walked Frank, and headed to my studio with a large mug of coffee. I was blissfully painting by six o’clock, and felt like I’d only been at it for a minute when Bill and Dylan poked out their heads to check on me. I asked what time it was, and was surprised to learn that three hours had passed.
I tore myself away from the painting long enough in the afternoon to trudge next door to confront Bethany. Her garden party had ended and her front lawn was free of the hideous sign. Bethany answered the door still wearing her chiffon party dress, and I held out the money without crossing her threshold.
“I’ll kindly accept your gratitude,” I said and shook the money at her.
She refused to accept it, though, and it remained steadfastly in my hand. I looked from it to her crossly. “I would feel funny taking your money.” I extended my hand again like the proverbial olive branch.
“And I feel like you deserve it. Besides, I won’t take it back and if you leave it on the porch it will just blow away.” She folded her arms, crossing them tightly around her narrow waist, and folded her perfectly manicured hands into her armpits. I knew I’d have to fight her in order to get her to take the money back. We faced each silently for a moment, in an urbane feminine version of a Mexican stand-off.
“Okay,” I finally said, somewhat reluctantly, and pocketed the money. I still didn’t like it, but refused to cause a ruckus on her front porch.
“Okay,” Bethany agreed with a smile, but was careful to keep her hands hidden in case it was a trick.
“Well, okay,” I repeated as I turned to go. My foot missed the top stair and I landed flat on my back at the bottom steps of her porch.
“Are you okay?” Bethany asked as she scrambled to help me up.
“I’m okay,” I mumbled, my face burning with the added humiliation.
As my luck would have it, Brandon and Bonkers jogged by just then. Bonkers immediately spotted me and lunged in recognition, which drew Brandon’s attention our way. I raised my hand in greeting and wondered if they’d seen me fall on my backside again.
“Oh, my,” Bethany whispered and I knew she was admiring Brandon’s approaching physique. The muscles in his thighs flexed as he slowed to a walk and approached us. He was careful to stay off Bethany’s grass, and I knew she noticed his respectful choice of routes. I made introductions as hurriedly and politely as I could before I limped off across Bethany’s glorious lawn, feeling like a clumsy jackass.
“Okay then,” Bethany called to my retreating back.
I waved without pausing and headed straight to the relative safety of my studio. Before reaching it, I noticed the Johnsons were in the process of replacing their living room window. A piece of plywood filled the gaping hole next to their front door. I realized that had been all the muffled sawing and pounding I’d heard from inside the garage.
I continued to work on the painting almost night and day for the next week. I stopped occasionally to sleep, eat, walk Frank, and notice the Johnsons had finished their window. Of course, I spent time with my family every day, too. But I was inwardly focused on the painting at all times. The every day tasks I accomplished, like grocery shopping, housework, and kids’ homework only seemed like disruptions in my creative fugue state.
For as far back as I could remember, I always wanted to have kids. It’s funny how when I signed up to be a mom, though, I truly had no idea what a 24-7 job it was. Being a mom meant being a doctor, entertainer, referee, psychologist, chauffeur, teacher, mentor, and a chef all rolled into one! It was certainly a lot of different hats to wear.
On Wednesday evening, I found myself wearing my chef’s hat, literally. It even had “World’s Best Cook” embroidered on it. I made the one and only meal I cooked well: spaghetti and meatballs. Coincidentally, it was also the only thing I cooked that my kids would eat.
Dylan spent most of the meal dominating the conversation about his upcoming soccer camp. Every two seconds I had to remind him not to talk with food in his mouth. After he almost knocked over his milk for the third time, I began to wonder if he wasn’t so much excited about soccer camp as he was nervous about it.
“I hope I get to be the goalie,” Dylan said.
Just then he bumped the edge of his plate, which tipped over and a meatball rolled onto the floor. Frank darted out of nowhere and swallowed the meatball whole. I glanced at Dylan’s sheepish, red face and decided it had to be nerves.
We signed Dylan up for soccer Camp the next evening after dinner. He excitedly ran around, all gangly arms and knobby knees, as I filled out ten different forms. I automatically wrote down the appropriate immunization information, but all I remembered afterward was how I got a brilliant idea for a starburst effect while jotting down the emergency contact number.
On Friday afternoon, I was in my studio, deep in a painting trance, when Bethany momentarily insinuated herself into my stupor. At least she didn’t scare the crap out of me again. I was less surprised by her presence than I was by the two dresses she held aloft. The sequined red dress in her right hand was so low cut that her belly button would show and the slinky black dress in her left hand was so short that everything below her belly button would show.
“I have my first date with Brandon tonight and I don’t know what to wear! Which one?”
I eyed the dresses skeptically. “Neither.”
“I was afraid of that,” Bethany moaned.
As I walked her home she explained that she and Brandon had hit it off so well when they met that they’d exchanged phone numbers. After talking on the phone a few times, Brandon had finally worked up the nerve to ask her out. The prospect of their upcoming date had left Bethany flushed, frantic, and frustrated with her wardrobe. It sounded like a serious case of first date jitters to me.
I cleared clothing off her bed and sat her down beside Prissy, who was disgruntled by the interruption of her nap. I began hanging inappropriate garments back up in her closet, the ugly red dress was amongst the first to go.
“I can’t believe I’ve been so self-absorbed that I missed all of this.” I paused with a hanger in my hands to look at her guiltily. “I wish you had told me.”
“I didn’t want to interrupt you while you were working.”
“Please, in the future, interrupt away for important stuff like this. Here,” I handed her an A-line skirt, “try this.” As she zipped it up around her tiny waist I passed her a blouse. “Do you have shoes to match?”
She nodded and opened her second walk-in closet, which contained several overflowing shoe racks. There were so many matching purses, shawls, scarves, and such a boundless array of hats that it looked like a Prada boutique.
“I can handle it from here. Thanks Cami Jo.” She began buttoning up the blouse as she browsed through her vast selection of footwear.
“Well, I’ll see you later then.”
I heard her mumbling from the back of her closet about buttons and bras as I let myself out.
Bethany’s date with Brandon kept popping up in my head throughout the evening, successfully distracting me enough that I finally gave up painting and joined my family to watch a movie. I slept soundly for eight hours, something I hadn’t done since I’d started painting ‘Celestial Flight.’ I awoke in the morning still thinking about Bethany’s date.
My curiosity finally overcame me and I found myself on her doorstep by mid-morning. She answered the door in baby doll pajamas, singing along with the radio. I glanced around as I hesitantly entered, half expecting to see a pair of Brandon’s boxer shorts on the floor. Bethany caught me peering around and instantly guessed at my strange behavior.
“Come on! It was only our first date.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I take it you had a good time?”
“A very good time,” she replied coyly. Then she spilled every last detail; right down to their romantic first kiss on her front porch at the end of the evening. As she spoke, her cheeks flushed deeply and her dark eyes danced. She reminded me of Katie Nicole after a thorough night of Trick-or-Treating.
“I remember the first kiss.” I sighed wistfully.
“But do you also remember all the uncertainty and heartache that follows the first kiss?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I must have tried to forget that.”
I spent the remainder of the day in my studio finishing ‘Celestial Flight.’ I knew by dinnertime it was finished, but I loathed to call it “done.” Past experience had taught me that I would hang onto it for a couple more days, adding a touch of color here or a brushstroke there, before I could bear to part with it. Then I would sign my name and lose my precious baby forever. I could only hope it would go to a good home where it would be loved and treasured forever.
I called Ralph after dinner and let him know I was almost finished. He grumbled about still having my check, and I promised to get it when I delivered the new piece within a few days. I’d learned over the years that Ralph’s gruff exterior masked a gentle heart. So, when he chastised me I treated him much the same as a dog who is all bark and no bite: I respectfully extracted myself as quickly as possible.
After the kids went to bed, Bill and I watched TV together in the living room. I leaned my head against his chest, closed my eyes, and breathed in his familiar scent, which always made me think of t-shirts line-drying on a breezy spring day. We snuggled on the couch and talked about incongruous things: my painting, the kids, and Bethany’s first date with Brandon. When I told Bill the part about their goodnight kiss, he interrupted me.
“Do you ever miss never getting another first kiss?”
Instead of answering, I leaned over and kissed him gently. As our lips parted I felt my stomach flutter, and my heart skipped a beat with anticipation. After all our years of lovemaking, I still craved his touch, his tongue, his feel. Our kiss intensified and I crawled on top of him.
“A first kiss never made me feel like that,” I said.