By: Jill Olson
Clinking glasses intermingled with twitters of laughter. Bethany had put on a great spread for us to graze on, as we discussed this month’s book. The fire crackled, whispering its presence while coupled with the aroma of pine.
“What a great way to spend a soggy, chilly evening,” I announced to the group of five women. As no one responded to my statement, I glanced around the room. One group of two and one group of three were chattering. I was odd one out, again. I sighed and refilled my glass with wine Bethany had placed on the coffee table which provided a tangible barrier to my membership in this group.
But it was more than my seating location. I didn’t fit with these women. I mentally ticked off my transgressions which kept me shunned. Only single woman, divorced one year ago. Only woman who worked from home, so I didn’t know how the ‘real world’ worked. Only childless woman, another mark of my selfishness.
“Hey, Sarah. Are you with us?” Sally was talking to me. Judging by the bulge in her perfectly made up eyes, it must be important.
I demurred. “Sorry, Sally. I was thinking about something else. Er…our book selection.”
She waved a manicured hand in the air. “Oh, we’ll get there. I was asking you how Valerie is doing. It’s such a shame she had to move away.” Sally ran a hand over her styled hair, which I was sure smelled of peaches. “And after she brought you into our book club.” She clicked her tongue. As if on cue, the rest of the herd straightened and faced me.
“Val is doing great,” I smiled, thinking of last night’s phone conversation. “She loves her new job and is settling into the area.”
“So good to hear,” Marcia crooned. Marcia was good at crooning; she taught vocal music for our middle school. She tapped her fingers on her glass, seeming to hear a rhythm audible to only her cochlea. “I worried about her moving. I’m not sure how much support her husband will provide.” She pursed her lips, signaling she was done with this snippet of conversation.
“Does anyone need anything? More shrimp cocktail, veggies, cheese and crackers? More wine?” Bethany nervously chirped. I could tell every atom in her body wanted to flee to the dining room for respite, but under the guise of being a great hostess.
I dove in for the rescue. “Bethany, everything is so delicious. You’ve outdone yourself, again.” I smiled at her, truly meaning what I’d just said.
Bethany furtively shot me a grimace which made me think she was constipated. Her face homed in on Sally’s. Her puppy-dog eyes waiting for the master’s verbal reward. Of course, none came.
I jumped in again. “Bethany, I’d like your recipe for the veggie dip. It’s very good.” I smacked my lips. “Got some secret ingredient in it? Something like lemon zest?”
“Oh Sarah. Of course you’d be able to identify zest.” Kendra had joined our conversation. “Your writing for the food magazine gives you a leg up on us.”
“How long have you been there again?” Jill was intrigued. She looked for partnerships to market her boutique clothing store.
“My fifth anniversary is next week.” I loved working at Food Exploration and was proud of how I’d worked my way up from weekly columnist to editor.
“Didn’t your husband…sorry…ex-husband get you your job?” Sally’s words acted as daggers, stabbing away the budding jovialness. Red nails smoothed her hair, as she stared at me.
Silence filled the space, as no one knew how to grab her words and destroy them. The wood fire crackled angrily, begging for the opportunity.
Bethany rushed into the void. “What did people think of the book?”
I fumed while the women voiced their opinions. Jill provided her view first, and Sally was close on her heels. Kendra nodded her head in agreement with what was being said.
Marcia queried, “Maybe it’s because I’m around middle schoolers all day, but I wondered what the book would have been like if it had targeted a YA audience”. She leaned forward in her chair.
“There’s quite a market for books in the genre.” Bethany began. “One of my customer service reps published a YA book through an indie press…”
Sally uttered. “It was written for adults. It’s what we’ve got in our hands. Let’s discuss it as it is.”
“I think it’s an interesting premise to explore,” I offered. I hated YA novels and despised talking about them. But, if I could take a view counter to Sally’s, I was going all in.
Kendra nodded then found some words. “I think you both have interesting points.”
I snorted. Kendra. Ever Switzerland.
The evening progressed with Sally’s monopolizing the conversation and tossing out hurtful statements hidden behind a syrupy voice and bright eyes which exclaimed innocence. Bethany quietly ate most of the shrimp cocktail, which would only add to her already plump girth. Jill turned to Marcia, most likely to block out Sally’s words. They shared whispers and giggles. I didn’t think it was about the book’s plot, YA or otherwise. Kendra picked up snippets from each person, announcing their validity.
When the clock struck nine, we all startled. I wanted to think it was from relief; this evening was almost over. I rose to take my plates to the sink. “Bethany, thanks again for hosting.” I surveyed the room. “I’m going to head home. Early morning meeting.”
Others began to rise but were pulled up short. Kendra was speaking. “Before you all leave, I’d like to talk about adding another person to our group. You know, to take Valerie’s place.” She shook her head. “I don’t mean she can be replaced, but…”
Sally was quick. “We know what you mean Kendra.” She stiltedly sat back in her chair, moving as though the proverbial stick truly were stuck up her ass. “Did you have someone in mind?”
Kendra threw back her shoulders. “Yes. A woman named Allie. She’s a sweetheart. Is a social worker for the schools.” She glanced at Marcia. “High school.” Kendra’s eyes took in all book club members now. “She’s single, recently divorced. No kids.”
I was grateful, and somewhat surprised, when Kendra didn’t look at me. Another link in similarity to Allie.
Jill asked, “How do you know her?”
“She works part-time at the downtown bookstore.”
Bethany snapped her fingers. “The independent one. I love that place.”
Kendra smiled. “Yes. I’ve been talking with her for many weeks. She’s very knowledgeable about books.” Kendra drank the last of her wine. “And, she seems to be a nice person.”
I interjected. “I think she sounds like a good addition. It will be nice to grow our group.”
“Yes,” Sally snorted. “And bring you some similarity.”
I turned to face her. What in the hell happened to you to make you such a bitch? “How kind of you Sally, to consider that. Although I feel connections with everyone here.” I raised my glass. “To books.” I drained my wine. “And to the addition of Allie to our book club.”
I knocked on Kendra’s door as I opened it. I was looking forward to meeting Allie at tonight’s book club. Maybe I’d find a kindred spirit.
“Oh hi, Sarah.” Kendra greeted me with a smile and a glass of pinot grigio.
“This will hit the spot. I’ve been working late into the night the last few days to get our next magazine out.” I sipped the wine, then took a bigger drink. “How’s the investment business? Markets have been crazy lately.”
Chuckling, Kendra said, “Yes, I’ve been holding a lot of hands lately.”
“Whose hands have you been holding?” Sally barreled into Kendra’s house. “Have I missed some good gossip.”
Marcia exited the living room and headed toward the dining room table, Kendra’s snacks beckoning. “No, Sally. Kendra was just talking about how difficult her work has been lately.”
“Difficult,” Sally shrilled. “Difficult is trying to create positive PR for a company which would sell itself, if it thought it would make a buck.”
“Then why do you work at AG Cooperative?” Jill asked. “My husband left his last place of employment partly because he believed the leadership was acting unethically.”
“And because you gave birth to a beautiful boy,” I added.
“Yes, I’m lucky Stephen is content to be a stay-at-home dad, and he’s so good at it.” Jill headed back to the living room. “My boutique…”
Bethany interrupted Jill, but only because of social graces involving another person. “Allie’s in the other room you guys. I don’t want her to be alone too long.”
“Hello, everyone. Thanks for letting me join your book club.” She smoothed her jet hair over her left ear, in a gesture I named as nervousness. Green eyes flickering behind glasses made me think of a sorcerer’s orb…all knowing. I shivered.
Everyone uttered exclamations of welcome in various forms. We sat and were silent. Allie smiled, seeming to be content with the silence. Since I wasn’t, I spoke out. “Allie, Kendra tells us you work as a school social worker.” I sipped some wine. “And also part-time in a bookstore. I find both fascinating.”
She smiled, and I felt I was the only person in the room with her. “Sarah, I am grateful to have both jobs. I get to make differences in people lives.”
Marcia squinted. “Allie, I work at Hastings Middle School. Vocal Music. Some of my students could really use the help of a social worker.”
Bethany added, “Or to lose themselves in a good book.”
“Or to find themselves,” I added.
“So, Allie. Are you happy with the market presence your bookstore has?” Sally seamlessly pulled the conversation toward her.
“For God’s sake, Sally. She’s not here to be solicited by you for new work.” Jill harrumphed.
“Actually, Sally. The owner would be the person to speak with. I’m just a part-time worker. I can give her your card and ask her to call you. Maybe set up a coffee.” Allie turned her attention to Sally and smiled so slightly, causing Sally had to lean forward to catch a glimpse.
I chortled and stated the obvious. “Well, that’s the first time I’ve seen Sally speechless.”
Allie turned her smile on everyone in the room. “It can happen when we have an internal debate over some tough issue.” She drank some wine. “It’s when we need the support of our friends.”
Kendra stood. “I’m getting more wine. You all can help yourself to more food. There’s plenty of it.”
“I’m not debating anything.” Sally’s words were angry, but her face wasn’t. To me, it seemed perplexed, as though it couldn’t choose a side.
Marcia leaned forward. “Sally, when we all arrived you were talking about what a struggle it was for you to work at AG Cooperative.”
Jill chimed in. “Yes, you seemed to be concerned about their ethics.”
“Would certainly give me something to debate,” Bethany slowly added.
I knew Sally. She wouldn’t sweat over some piss-ant company. My dislike of her aside, I knew she was great at her job and could work PR at almost any company in the area. I remembered she had been especially prickly last month. I mentally snapped my fingers. “Sally, how’s Eric? We haven’t heard you talk about him for a while.”
“So. I don’t always have to talk about my husband.” She attempted to smooth her hair, but her hand was shaking. She hid it in her lap.
Marcia entered the conversation. “Sals, Melissa has been missing a lot of vocal music lately. She hasn’t been in school.” A brief chew on some peanuts. “Is your daughter feeling all right?”
Ours was a group who put pieces of puzzles together quickly, forgetting the social grace of tact. I watched Jill’s brows furrow as she mulled some memory in her brain. I watched both Bethany and Kendra slightly squirm in their chairs and then steal furtive glances at each other. I knew Sally and Eric deposited cash in the bank for which Bethany worked, and one of the brokers in Kendra’s company handled their investments. Sally had been eager to announce these facts, as she pontificated about women supporting other women in business. My brain clicked onto a plausible explanation for Sally’s over-the-top horridness just as Jill’s mouth opened with her puzzle piece.
“The other day, I heard one of my associates talking with a new customer. She was blond and brash. Breasts created by the hand of a surgeon, not by the hand of God. Bragging about some man she had snagged, crowing he was going to take her to the Bahamas. She wanted some clothes to wear…”
Kendra tried to turn the conversation as it tumbled to its inevitable conclusion. “Some women just like to spend money while they make themselves look important. Your clothes are beautiful, Jill.”
Bethany hurried in, more forceful than I had seen her. “And what do you guys think about the new fashions? I’m not sure I want to…”
“…she wanted clothes to wear for the trip. Said the man was going to leave his family. Had already taken money from their accounts.” Jill’s tongue had taken control over her heart. “She was so brazen about it, I thought she had to be lying.”
Bethany and Kendra slouched in their overstuffed chairs. It seemed to me they were trying to disappear either to escape Sally’s wrath or our questioning eyes.
Marcia held her hand to her mouth as she whispered, “poor Melissa.”
Jill finally realized what she was saying and stopped talking. I saw her mouth, “poor Sally.”
I swallowed the rest of my wine. “Oh no.”
Sally raised her shoulders and chin. I’d never seen her with such steeled resolve. “And now you all know.” She collapsed into her chair, the weight of her sentence and the performance behind it too much to carry. “Now you can all laugh at me.”
I looked around the room at the other six women, five of whom had a history with Sally. I was just the recent target, but she had bullied everyone. I figured their brains were ping-ponging as mine was. Back and forth. Be kind or go in for the kill.
Allie spoke. “Sally, I’m certainly not here to laugh at you. I will listen, if you want. Or, I’m perfectly fine to talk about the book and drink more wine.” She popped a cracker in her mouth while we seemed to be struck mute. “Kendra. The cheese dip is amazing. Does it have a hint of cardamom?
Cardamom. I was slipping. How could the editor of a food magazine miss cardamom? I pulled myself from my safe detour and looked at Sally. Tears were draining from her eyes. Her nose had begun to rival Rudolph’s. She slumped in her chair, defenseless against what might be thrown at her. Too many battles and not enough wins. To my astonishment, I began to feel her distress. I remembered being on the receiving end of an adulterous husband, certain his cruel words and unfaithful actions were my fault. I didn’t want any woman to live in a cavern of self-loathing. Even Sally. I took a breath and formed words.
Bethany beat me to it. “Sally, I’m so sorry for the pain Eric is causing you. It’s not fair to you.”
Marcia echoed, “Sally, this just stinks for you. Eric isn’t worth your tears.”
“I never did think he was worthy of you Sally,” Kendra chimed in.
I finally expelled the breath I’d been holding. “I know what it’s like to feel such betrayal, Sally.” I bit my tongue; certain I’d opened a pathway for her to eviscerate me.
Sally raised her head and offered me a small movement of her lips. “I bet you do Sarah. Wasn’t fair to you either.”
The room fell silent, each woman breathing in her own worst fears about relationships and the partners to whom we open ourselves. Could trust last for decades? How did we define ourselves, if we had to separate from a partner?
Jill brought us back to reality. “Well, I’ll tell you Sally. This woman Eric has taken up with is no catch. She speaks with bad grammar and has back acne.” Jill stood and walked toward Sally. She began rubbing her shoulders. “And besides…she smelled. You know. Like BO, cigarettes, and greasy food.” She shook her head. “Yuck.”
We all held our breath and watched Sally. I wondered how she’d play this.
Sally straightened in her chair. “Then I guess Eric can have her. Acne, BO, and fake boobs.”
Allie spoke, not loudly, but confidently. “We’re here for you Sally. There is safety in numbers. With friends.”
The statement uttered by the club’s newbie catapulted us to a destination in which we never pictured ourselves. Giving kindness and support to Sally.
Our book club never met during the month of December, due to the holidays. But this year, we stayed more in touch with each other than we had in past years. Facebook posts offered words of support to Sally interspersed with recipes for Spritz cookies, fudge, and holiday casseroles. We gravitated toward different roles.
I gave Sally the name of the attorney I’d used when I got divorced. She’d hesitated. I knew the move. Not from fear of seeing an attorney, but from hope it wasn’t a necessary step.
“He’s a good guy, Sally. He’ll look out for your interests.”
“Will you go with me? At least to the first meeting?”
“What?” I gaped at her. Then, another me began to talk. “Sure, Sally. I’ll go with you.”
Jill helped Sally find some new clothes to wear for work. “Make the bastard see what he gave up,” was Jill’s mantra.
Bethany and Kendra offered financial advice. “Once the accounts were released, we hustled to get money put in her name only. Also fashioned a long-term strategy for her, as variables have changed.”
Marcia researched poems Sally could read each evening. “Nigh time creates darkness in our souls. I wanted to get her something which could provide hope.”
Allie offered a list of three therapists from which Sally could choose. “It’s important to take care of your emotional self also.”
A few days before January’s book club, we all received thank you gifts from Sally. Each had been chosen especially for us as individuals. We knew this, because we called each other to exclaim about them. I found I was looking forward to seeing her.
I enjoyed book club at Marcia’s house. Her knowledge of music fascinated me. Her appreciation ranged from Mozart to Queen to BB King. Tonight, she was playing some Vivaldi in the background; the violins singing.
We spent an inordinate amount of time staring at our plates as we filled them with treats Marcia laid before us. Home-made mini quiches, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, chunks of pineapple on colored toothpicks, and fudge-covered cherries kept us from engaging Sally in conversation. We seemed to be more comfortable talking about the food, than her pain.
She let us off the hook. “I’d like to thank all of you for your support last month. I’m moving forward with divorcing Eric. Melissa and I are each seeing a therapist. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll get through this.”
Her eyes rested on the six of us, individually. “You each supplied a piece of something I needed.”
Warmth rolled through my body. I felt her words were genuine. I wasn’t sure what to do with these positive feelings I was having for Sally.
Again, she let us off the hook. “Marcia, you’ve outdone yourself this time. The food looks amazing. Let’s get into the other room and start talking about our book.”
We ambled in, and I was sitting next to Allie. “How are things going with you? You had a break from school over the holidays.”
“Yes, I did. It gave me time to stay with my mother who lives six hours from here. We took walks and reminisced.” She tossed her head back, chuckling. “She made me take seven boxes from her home…all filled with my ‘little girl stuff’. Honestly. I don’t think I want any of it.”
“Just don’t tell her if you toss it.”
“Toss what, Allie?” Jill wanted in on our conversation.
“I was telling Sarah I saw my mother over holiday break, and she unloaded seven boxes of my childhood memorabilia on me. I really don’t have room for it, and obviously she wanted to get it out of her home.”
“Sounds like what happened with my parents, when they downsized,” Kendra offered. “I haven’t really gone through the boxes.”
Bethany interjected, “Who wants to look at our old stuff anyway? Yuck. I don’t need to see how hideous I looked decades ago.”
Sally laughed. “I can’t believe we thought our hair looked good in some of those styles.”
Laughter tittered around the room. Glasses clinked; plates were refilled; ideas shared. I thought this was the most at ease we’d ever been with each other. And, it was Allie’s story which got us here.
Acting as the hostess, Marcia announced, “There’s plenty of food left. Go help yourselves.” She rubbed her hands together. “I want to talk about our book. I really loved the development of the characters.”
“Did you see the turn in the plot coming?”
“And how about what happened to poor Mrs. Devlin?”
“The scenery was so beautiful. Anyway, the way I had it pictured in my head.”
“This author has written some other books. I thought I’d get those from the library.”
“I thought it really spoke to the way we, as women, can be our own worst enemies.” Allie was speaking now, quite deep in her interpretation of the book. “We leave ourselves in situations and relationships where we get belittled or dismissed.”
“Like with Edwina. I couldn’t believe she took crap from Andrew.”
“But, what about Mary Kay? Edwina’s was more noticeable. But Mary Kay’s mistreatment was subtle. I think it’s harder to recognize and then do something about.”
“I thought Mary Kay was afraid?”
“Of being alone.” Sally announced. “We convince ourselves to look the other way, so we don’t have to acknowledge the bad treatment.”
I found myself barging in with my words, an idea in my head. Perhaps from experience. “If we acknowledge the bad treatment, then we have to do something about it.”
“Better to pretend it’s not there, than have to make a choice.” Jill participated with a sniff.
Marcia pushed back a little. “But is it really better?”
Bethany leaned forward; her eyes ablaze. “Mary Kay was in a romantic relationship. This can also apply to friendships or work relationships.”
The group nodded their heads in unison. A hush settled over the room; each woman wound with her memories of times each had allowed herself to remain in a detrimental relationship.
Allie made our thoughts real, for all to see. “I’ve done this before. Allowed someone to ignore the value I brought to them. I had a female friend. We’d grown up together. Went our separate ways for college, but then came back together with jobs in the same city.” She looked around the room. “Not this city.”
A collective sigh escaped all our lips. I sensed no one wanted to be part of Allie’s unfortunate memories. We all leaned forward, eager to hear more of her reveal.
But Allie didn’t oblige us. Just nibbled on her asparagus, then popped a fudge-covered cherry in her mouth.
Jill voiced our thoughts. “What happened? What had she done?”
Allie smiled with only her lips. Her eyes clouded over, not from tears but from secrecy. “Oh gosh. A story for another time.
The silence settled over all of us, magpies quieted. Tongues were held, as brains were engaged. By the scrunches in their shoulders, I could tell each woman was revisiting the memory which had banged on her heart’s door, only a few minutes before. From the strain in their faces, it didn’t seem to be a caller they wanted to welcome in but were doing it anyway.
The following book club brought us closer to spring. Our moods were jovial. Conversations bounced. Women were clustered in small groups yet inviting to anyone who wanted a piece of the conversation. I glanced at these women who had, surprisingly, become my friends.
Jill announced, “This Thursday, I unveil the clothes I’ve brought into the store for spring.” She flicked her fingers. “You will love the colors. Pastels, yet they won’t wash out anyone’s face. I’ll give each of you 35% off your purchase.”
“Jill, thanks. How nice of you.” Marcia spoke up. “I’ve got something for each of you.” She rustled through a box and brought forth six individual fuchsia bags. “There’s a new artist I’ve really gotten into. Combination of blues and rock. I thought you’d like it, so I got each one of you a CD.”
Bethany and Kendra looked at each other, then burst into giggles. Kendra said, “You tell them Bethany.”
Bethany obliged. “Kendra and I have been working together to create a money management class for people going through different phases in their lives.”
Kendra continued, “There’s something for everyone, with the tenant being we are responsible for the money choices we make. It’s a series of classes, geared toward education and financial support.”
“There’s a cost for the class, but we have certificates for the five of you to be participants in our first series…free of charge.” Bethany finished the announcement and beamed.
Allie stood and pulled six tickets from her purse. “These are tickets to the new musical coming to our Civic Center. My gift to you all.”
“Well, this seems to be the night for giving to each other,” I jumped in. “My magazine has been able to snare Mikala, renowned chef and recipient of a Michelin star for his restaurant in San Francisco. He’ll be conducting a food demo class, and I’ve got tickets for each of you to attend.”
Sally gazed around the room. “I have something to offer, also.” She smoothed back her hair. “Well, not for each of you. You’ll have to decide who gets it.” She clapped her hands. “But it is amazing.” Without stopping to breathe she announced, “I’ve won a trip from AG Cooperative. Seems as though they recognize my value after all. It’s a four-day trip to Jamaica. I’m certainly not going to take Eric. So, I’ll take one of you.” She pushed her fingers toward us. “Go ahead. You decide who gets to accompany me.” She then sat back in her chair and beamed.
Everyone’s mouth was open, but no words were escaping. Eyes had turned to slits of disbelief. I broke the silence. “Sally, thanks for the offer. But I’m not going to take a trip and leave out someone from here.”
“I won’t either,” Kendra spoke. Clearer than I’d hear her before.
“Me either,” Jill offered. For emphasis, she crossed her arms in front of her chest.
Bethany added, “I don’t think it’s right to exclude some of our group.”
Sally guffawed. “Oh, come on. It’s a trip to Jamaica. All expenses paid.” She laid her hands out in front of her. “And my company goes first class. For me.” She clasped her hands and laid them on her lap. “I don’t care which one of you goes. Just somebody say you’ll come with me.”
Marcia stood. “I’ve always wanted to go to Jamaica. But not under these terms.” She glanced around the room and dusted her hands on her pants. “I’m going to get more wine.”
“Such a tough condition you laid out for us, Sally. For me, it doesn’t require any thought at all,” Allie had entered the conversation.
Sally perked up. “Great, Allie. It will give you a chance to get to know me better.”
Allie’s eyes briefly closed, and her shoulders rolled forward as though trying to avoid a tough conversation. A sigh leaked out of her lips.
It wafted toward me, and I smelled disappointment. Which was followed by sadness. Then resolve. I no longer thought of Allie as the newbie to our group. She was our group’s center.
“No, Sally. I choose to value my relationships with these other women.”
Sally’s jaw dropped open. Even with a little spinach dip on her teeth, she still looked formidable. “So, no one is going with me? Are you serious?”
I didn’t hesitate. I nodded in agreement with her statement. As I looked around the room, I saw every other woman nodding. In unison. With vigor.
“Well,” Sally exclaimed, sounding like a southern belle who’d just been told her mint julep was sour. “If you can’t see what I’m offering you, then this isn’t the place for me.” She stared at us; feet planted.
I wasn’t sure if it was because she was making a stand, or if she were preparing herself for an imagined onslaught of hugs and apologies. Whatever ideas she had about our weaknesses; they were hers. None of us had to correct her. We knew who we were.
“Then I’m leaving. Not just for tonight, but forever. Don’t invite me back to book club.” She breathed in and exhaled through her nose, reminding me of a bull ready to stampede. “Fine,” she hollered as she strode from the room.
The front door slammed, causing Jill’s Beagle to bark once. Music soothed in the background. Stillness settled over the living room.
Kendra said, “What did you guys think about the book?”
The room filled with observations, laughter, and glasses clinking. I sat back and smiled. I really enjoyed my book club and these women, my friends.