I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was twelve. It took me nearly ten years to get the irony of the first line of the book. Margaret Mitchell may have said that her heroine was not beautiful but she was charming, but you found out later on that she was not charming and though she wasn't beautiful she thought rather highly of her looks. Think about it. Scarlett was proud of her magnolia skin, her green eyes, her pretty legs, the fact that she didn't have to stuff her bra (or whatever they had for bras back in the 1860's), and of course, that famous seventeen-inch waist.
Well, believe me when I say that I, Maya Harte, am not beautiful and generally not charming. I prefer being honest about this. After all, there's no way to miss the fact that although I have a very nice shade of reddish blonde hair, I have dull blue eyes, the freckles on my face connect in such a way as to look like a mustache, and twenty extra pounds on my five-foot-six body. As for the charming part, I'm not saying that I can't be charming when I need to be. It's just that the opportunity doesn't arise very often.
My mother once told me that the most important thing to remember about people was that they were just like you. They had feelings and emotions and thoughts. They had good sides, even if they never showed them to you. I guess she was thinking along the lines of treating people as you would like to be treated, even if she never said that outright. It's too bad that other people didn't get that same lesson.
Mama was thrown out of her family when she was sixteen for getting pregnant with a baby she lost two weeks later. My grandparents, who I luckily never had the misfortune to meet, were extremely religious, she would tell me. And back in the late sixties, in a small town, having a pregnant unwed daughter was a disgrace. So she stayed with an aunt for a while, but the aunt turned out to be no better. In fact, according to Mama, she was even worse. And when Mama got pregnant again three years later, her Aunt Teresa threw her out as well. Mama was just past twenty when I was born, and she moved us to Barnesville.
We lived in a tiny, cramped apartment just within the town limits where the other lower-class families lived. She took a job as a waitress at the town's sole coffee shop during the day and, when I was old enough to look after myself at the age of seven, she took a second job working at a factory in Newstead, a city about thirty miles away. I rarely saw her. Those times that we did spend together are usually fuzzy in my memory --flashes of a young woman aging faster than she should, trying her best to make things seem like they were normal. She always had a warm, if very tired, smile when she walked in the door of our house. On special occasions like my birthday or hers, she would take me to the dollar show and buy me a small popcorn and a soda. We would go to the park and she would push me on the swings, or on the merry-go-round.
As nice as the park and dollar shows were, though, my favorite times were when we would read together. Mama always brought a book home from the library on Fridays. I remember the stories she used to read to me, and even as a child, my imagination would continue far past the end of the story, coming up with situations for the characters to get into.
Those weekends were my escape from school. Being the daughter of an unmarried woman in a largely German-Catholic town was not a ticket to popularity. Added to this were the fact that I was overweight even as a child, I lived in the worst part of town, and I had an unusual name. You can't imagine how much fun they had poking fun at my name. As if that weren't enough of a problem, IQ tests taken when I was eight showed that I was bright enough to be considered gifted. I was put in accelerated programs ahead of the kids who lived in the neighborhood, and so they didn't want to play with me anymore. Still, I had my mother and I had the wonderful world we read about in books, and so I got through it.
I was not the social butterfly of Barnesville Junior High. In fact, the majority of my classmates used me as their social punching bag. As the saying went, you might not be the most popular person in school, but at least you weren't Maya Harte. All of the slam books which became popular in the sixth grade had a question which asked, "Would you go out on a date with Maya Harte?" Every single guy who wrote in the books put no, except for one who said that he would do it if he got paid well. And they made sure I got a good view of that question every time a slam book was passed in my direction.
Most of the girls were okay. A couple of them were even nice to me, but not what I'd call real friends. They never invited me to their slumber parties or shared their secrets with me. In fact, they generally made it a point to ask me to "go away for a minute" so they could talk privately. As we got older, though, they would ignore me and even join their boyfriends in my censure.
And believe me, the boys...they were vicious. They'd follow me home from school on their bikes and make fun of me. Occasionally on those torturous walks home, they'd throw things at me. They'd leave false love letters in my locker. They'd put gum in my desk and tell the teacher that it was mine so I'd get in trouble. I wrote a poem one time about an imaginary friend, and they made copies of it and passed it around. Even some of the girls made fun of me about that. They'd draw exaggerated pictures of me where I looked like a sumo wrestler and leave them on the chalkboard for everyone to laugh at. Things progressively worsened as the years went on.
Mama died the summer I was twelve. She was hit by a car in the middle of town. Most people were willing to say it was an accident, but I knew better and the gossips in town speculated about it. She deliberately ran out in front of that car. Mama was never strong to begin with, being rejected by her own family. Then, when she tried to start over in a new town, she found that things were no better -- in fact, they were even worse. The little town where she hoped she would get a second chance finally drove her to do something crazy.
After the coffee shop closed down and the factory started downsizing, Mama went into one of her moods. She'd start mumbling about how she couldn't pay the rent, and she didn't know what she was going to do, and she was so sad all the time.
When the policemen came knocking at the door to tell me she was dead, I wasn't surprised. And I can't honestly say that I blamed her then or that I blame her now.
After my mother died, there was a big deal about what was to be done with me. The priest at St. Catherine's suggested that one of his parishioners take me in, but there were no takers. Someone else suggested that they try to find my father, but no one knew who he was. There were several snide comments about how Mama probably didn't know who he was, either. The most popular idea in town was that I be sent off to an orphanage.
In the end, my fate was decided in a library. I was reading there one day when a pretty dark-haired girl came up to me and asked, "Have you ever seen a guy naked?"
I looked around to see if she was talking to someone else before I answered. "No."
"You wanna see a picture?"
"They have one here?"
"Yeah." The girl crooked her finger and motioned for me to join her. She walked me to the nonfiction section of the small library and pulled out a book. Opening it to a page, she turned it so I could see the man. It was a picture of a real man, not just some drawing or medical picture with veins and stuff.
"Wow," I said. "That's weird."
"There's another picture here..." She flipped through the book and found another page. When she showed it to me, there was a man on top of a woman.
"What are they doing?" I asked.
"They're doing it. You know, sex."
I could feel myself blushing. "How did you know that was here?"
"They had a book exactly like this in my library back home. I'm Claire Martin."
"That's a pretty name. Where did your parents get it?"
"I don't know...and it was just my mom."
I looked at the picture for a moment. "Do you suppose he's hurting her?"
Claire giggled, and I blushed even more. I thought she was making fun of me until she said, "That's what I thought until I asked my mom. She told me that it didn't hurt much, but that I shouldn't be looking at pictures like that. She said those pictures were dirty."
"They look pretty clean to me," I said. Claire giggled even louder, and I relaxed.
Claire and I had been paying so much attention to the book that we didn't notice the librarian, who had walked over to see what we were giggling about. "What are the two of you looking at?" she demanded.
"Nothing," Claire said, closing the book quickly, but not before the librarian saw what we were looking at.
"Give me that book." The librarian reached out her hand and snatched the book out of Claire's grasp. "You girls shouldn't be looking at things like this." Giving me a frosty look, she added, "Although I shouldn't be too surprised, Maya Harte, that you're taking an active interest in that. You should have enough common sense to know that other girls aren't interested in the sort of things you'd be interested in."
I felt my throat constrict as the tears welled up, but I refused to give the woman the satisfaction of seeing me cry. She was the mother of one of my classmates, head of the PTO, a member of the school board, and very active in her church's activities and charity functions. Eventually, her husband would become the mayor of the town. But on that day, I knew her mainly as the most vocal supporter of sending me to a state home for girls.
Claire put her hands on her slim hips and glared at the woman. "I showed her the book, and a lot of people happen to be interested in things like this, or else no one would ever have kids and this book wouldn't be in the library."
The librarian turned an ugly shade of red. The tears I was about to cry suddenly went away and I could breathe normally again, although I thought I would laugh as the woman struggled to find something to say to Claire.
"Come on, Maya. If we aren't welcome in the library, we just won't come back here."
Claire walked past the librarian and headed for the door. After waiting a moment, I followed her. When we got outside, I asked, "Where are we going?"
"I don't know. You wanna go to my house and watch TV? My mom'll probably be home and we could have something to eat."
Since I didn't have anything better to do, I said, "Okay."
We started walking to her house. "How old are you?" she asked.
"I just turned twelve."
"Oh. I was hoping you'd be older so we'd be in the same grade."
"How old are you?"
"Thirteen and in the eighth grade."
"Well, the principal told me that I was probably going to skip a grade and I'm in the seventh grade now. If I skip a grade now we'll be in the same grade." I smiled.
"Cool." Claire returned my smile. "So, where do you live? Maybe we're neighbors."
My smile faded. "I...uh, live with the nuns at St. Catherine's right now, while everyone decides what to do with me."
"My mama's dead."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"It's okay. No one wants to take me in and some people, like that woman, would prefer it if I got sent to a girls' home somewhere far from here."
"What about your dad?"
"I don't know where he is." I almost said "who," but managed to catch myself in time.
Claire only lived a few blocks from the library. The Martins' house was a pretty lemon yellow, two stories, with a two-car garage and a pretty screened front porch. A swing hung at one end. Claire opened the door and I saw boxes everywhere. Her mother was in the living room, unpacking towels and bed linens.
"Hi, Mom!" she called.
"Hi, honey. What are you doing back so soon?"
"Got kicked out of the library."
"Already? What were you doing?"
"Looking at clean pictures." Claire and I giggled.
Claire's mother turned to look at us, and I was surprised. She was much older than I thought she would be, older than my mother had been. "Who's your friend?"
"This is Maya Harte. I met her at the library. Maya, this is my mom."
"Hi." I gave her a small wave.
"Hello." Mrs. Martin stood up. "Would you girls like something to eat?"
"Sure," Claire said. "Is the TV hooked up and everything?"
"Yes, it is."
"Is it okay if Maya and I watch Days of Our Lives?"
"If you keep the volume down. Your brother got in late last night and he's still sleeping." Mrs. Martin walked into the kitchen to find us something to eat as Claire clicked on the television. A minute later, she came back with a plate of brownies and two glasses of milk.
"Thanks, Mom." Claire changed the channel to show a beautiful blonde woman with a dark-haired man kissing. "This show is the greatest."
Claire and I ate brownies and watched the show. Claire made a lot of comments, some directed at the television and others directed at me so I would know what was going on. I didn't think the show was that interesting, but since Claire thought it was good, I was prepared to say it was good if she asked. After the show was over, Claire switched the channel over to MTV and turned the volume way up as a heavy metal song started.
"Claire Elizabeth! Turn that down!" Mrs. Martin called.
Claire turned down the volume. A minute later, I heard someone stomping down the stairs.
"Is it night yet?" a deep male voice asked.
I turned to see a tall, sleepy-eyed young man leaning against the wall. He looked a lot like Claire so I figured that this was her brother.
"No, it's not."
"Then why did you wake me up?"
"Because I liked the song."
He gave her a glare, but when he noticed me he smiled. "Hi. I'm Reed Martin." He extended his hand, which I hesitantly shook.
"Well, hello, Maya. It's nice to meet you." He wandered out of the room.
"I didn't think your brother was going to be so old," I whispered.
"Oh, yeah. He's twenty-two. My mom always says that I was the surprise package, because I came so far behind him and my sister."
"You have a sister?"
"No. She died when she was four. I never knew her." Claire suddenly smiled. "Hey, do you have to go back to the nuns tonight?"
"I'm supposed to be back before six."
"You think you'd be able to stay here for supper?"
"I don't know...maybe."
"Let me go ask my mom first." Claire got up off the couch and headed for the kitchen. I stood up slowly and walked even slower after her.
"Mom, can Maya stay for supper?" Claire asked.
"If her mother says she can."
"She doesn't have a mom anymore. She died."
"All right then, she can ask her father."
Claire hesitated for a moment, then said quietly, "I don't think she has a dad, either. She said she doesn't know where he is."
"She doesn't? Who is she living with, then?"
"With a bunch of nuns. She said that no one knows what to do with her, so that's where she's staying."
My cheeks flushed and I ducked out of view into a hallway.
"What did she mean by that?"
"I don't know." Again, Claire hesitated. "Mom, that librarian today was awfully mean to her. She accused Maya of showing me dirty pictures when it was the other way around. Maya said that the woman wanted to send her to a girls' home."
"Doesn't she have any family to speak of? An aunt or uncle somewhere?"
"I don't think so."
Mrs. Martin didn't say anything for a second. "Where is Maya now?"
"I think she's still in the living room. Why?" Mrs. Martin didn't respond. I heard Claire ask, "Who are you calling?"
"I'm calling your father and telling him to come home. There's something we need to discuss."
I felt a chill come over me, even though it was warm in the house. Mrs. Martin was going to tell her husband that their daughter had an unsuitable friend, and he should tell her that she could never see me....
"I want to see what we can do to arrange for Maya to live with us."
"Yes. I think it's awful for a woman who is no relation to Maya at all to demand that she be sent away."
And that was how I ended up staying at the Martins'.
Things fell into a familiar pattern for me, which was good. In my relationship with Claire, she led and I followed. Some people might think that it was unhealthy, but I never minded. Besides, if Claire wanted to do something that I really didn't want to do, we didn't do it.
School wasn't much better for me, even with Claire being in my grade. School schedules were so random that we didn't share very many classes together in high school. Even though I lived with the Martins, I was still Maya Harte and I was still an outcast. I was afraid that Claire would hate me when she found out that being my friend would probably make her an outcast as well, but Claire wasn't into all that. Claire honestly didn't care what most of our classmates thought of her. She always said, "Not everybody is going to like me, and I don't care. You shouldn't let them get to you, Maya."
But I couldn't help it. It got worse in high school, where I ballooned to over two hundred pounds. I would walk down the hallways and hear, "It's an earthquake! Earthquake Maya is coming your way! Everyone take cover!" If I wore a red outfit, I was a huge tomato. If the outfit was yellow, I was a school bus. It went on like that, depending on the color. Then there was the class trip where the boys bought a stuffed Miss Piggy doll, tore her apart, and threw her head in my direction. Not only did they do that, but they threw a kitchen magnet that said, "Wake me when I'm a size nine." I still have that magnet.
When I was fifteen, Claire convinced me to go to this teen dance club in Newstead called Neon's with her. The school was taking a busload of people there, and she thought it would be fun, so we went. The moment I stepped onto the bus, all of the boys started pointing and laughing and talking about me. Claire and I sat in a seat together and she played an Anthrax tape, but I couldn't help but hear the comments that were being made about me in the back of the bus.
"Don't let them bother you, Maya," Claire whispered. "Just ignore them, and they'll leave you alone."
The magic words. Ignore them, and they'll leave you alone. Everyone from sympathetic teachers to my mother to Claire told me the same thing, and it wasn't true. No matter how hard I tried to ignore them, they still made fun of me. It was kind of like "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." It was all a lie, but I still held out a glimmer of hope that it would happen. (I would later read a book by Robert Fulghum in which that saying became, "Sticks and stones may break your bones but words can break your heart." It was something that would hold true in my life long after high school was over.)
When we got to the club, Claire and I headed for the dance floor. In the middle of the first dance, I saw my three least favorite people--Rick Bartel, Ryan Evans, and his girlfriend, Mandy. They were laughing at me. I was so humiliated that I called Reed and asked him to come get me. He showed up soon after that and we left.
"What happened, Maya?" he asked as he drove me home.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Were they making fun of you?"
"Didn't you just hear me? I said I don't want to talk about it."
We didn't speak until we reached the house. I was about to go upstairs to my room for a good long cry, but Reed stopped me.
"Would you like to dance with me?"
I turned back to look at him. "I don't want your pity."
"I'm serious, Maya. Would you please dance with me?"
"There's no music, and your parents are in the living room."
"Then let's stay outside and I'll turn on the car radio."
"Someone might see us outside."
"So? Come on. You'll be breaking my heart if you refuse."
He looked so hopeful that I couldn't help but smile. "Okay, but just one dance, and it has to be slow."
"Deal." He extended his hand and escorted me back outside. It took him a few minutes before he found a song he liked -- it was Heart's "Alone."
He made a grand bow and put on hand on my waist and took my other hand. I placed my free hand on his shoulder and we danced. When it was over, I felt a special glow in my heart.
"Now, when you think of tonight, think of this moonlight dance," Reed said quietly. "And forget those jerks you go to school with. Promise me?"
The following Monday, when I walked into my independent study class, I found a note sitting on my desk. I wasn't sure what it was, but it had my name on it. I opened it. Inside, it said, "How'd you like Neon's, you douche bag?" "Hahaha" was written all over the page, and I heard laughter behind me. I turned to see who it was, although it wasn't necessary. I knew who it was. Just like that, they managed to put a blot on what was supposed to be a nice memory.
The one thing they did that always sticks out in my mind the most is when I decided to dye my hair a darker red. Claire curled my hair and it looked really nice. During French class, someone read a note and handed it to me, telling me to pass it on when I was done. I opened it.
"DOESN'T MAYA LOOK ENLARGED TODAY JUST LIKE MARGARET ON DENNIS THE MENACE?"
Again, I heard that mocking laughter. My eyes filled with tears that I couldn't stop from ruining the makeup Claire had painstakingly applied. Just before class ended, the teacher commented the class was unusually rowdy. When it was over, I slipped her the note and told her that it was the reason why.
A few days later, I ran into Ryan in the hallway and he said hello to me. I ignored him, so he said hello again. Finally, he said, "Too stuck up to say hello to me, are you?"
But I refused to say anything, and I was glad that I did. Someone told Claire a few days later that the French teacher had ordered all three of them and a few others to be nice to me for a change.
I could have told her that that would be a lesson in futility. And anyway, it didn't last very long.
I'm not quite sure how, but I did survive four years at Barnesville High School. I had Claire to support me at school and Reed to make me feel a little better when I'd come home. The other thing I had were my stories. In the stories I'd write, I could lose my problems and make people--okay, characters--do what I told them to. It should be no coincidence then that none of the characters were really mean, and those who were obnoxious always got their comeuppance and saw the error of their ways.
I always thought that graduation day would be the clearest event in my memory--after my mom dying. But I don't really remember much about graduating. I graduated third in the class, so I didn't have to give a speech. I was glad about that, because what was I going to say? I would have died rather than get up on that stage for anything more than to get my diploma.
There were more girls than boys in my class, so Claire walked with me. When it was all over, Claire yelled something about thanking God that she was out of that hellhole because she was never coming back. I agreed with her, but somewhere, deep down inside, I knew that I was going to come back. I was going to be successful, and everyone would envy me. I even outlined my plans to Claire, who told me that she was all for it and she'd help in any way she could.
And on that night, I believed that anything was possible.
If high school had tried its best to shut me in a cocoon, then college freed me. If I didn't become a beautiful butterfly, I was at least a butterfly. And I was free.
Claire and I went to State University...Claire because it was the best of the schools she could get into, and me because they offered me a full scholarship, which was essential because I didn't want the Martins to have to pay my tuition on top of Claire's. I'm sure if I'd asked that they would've said they didn't mind doing it, but it made me feel better to know I didn't have to ask them.
Claire and I roomed together in a tiny dorm room and nearly killed each other before the first week was out, but we managed to settle our differences and live together in harmony. And I was glad that we did, because I couldn't imagine life without my best friend.
In college, however, Claire and I did emerge in different directions. Claire, with her bubbly personality and love of people, majored in sociology and became very active with several groups on campus. She even spent two years as a member of the Student Senate, which she insisted gave her the first and last taste of politics she would ever want. Claire was well known across campus, and as ever, she couldn't care less about people's opinions of her.
As for me, my love of writing led me to a group of similar-minded scribblers that Claire gave me the brochure for a few weeks into our freshman year. I hadn't intended to go, my only experience with a writing group being the time I'd walked into Barnesville High's idea of a group, whose members had laughed at the beginning of the story I'd read aloud. Even though the teacher had pulled me aside after the meeting and told me she thought I was very talented, and would be happy to read anything I was willing to show her, I never did give her anything and I never showed up at the meeting again.
Claire insisted that I go, and dragged me to the meeting under false pretenses. She told me that we were going to dinner, and instead we ended up at the meeting. I almost turned around and walked out, but Claire told me to give it a chance, so I did. Within ten minutes, I was grateful. The people I met were very supportive and friendly, and when the first person got up to read a portion of a story, no one laughed...except at the jokes. Two or three other people read, and then Claire pulled out the beginning of a story that I had been working on and read it. I was so mortified, because it sounded so amateurish to my ears compared to everyone else's. But the story got a lot of good responses and some criticism. Everyone got criticism, though, it wasn't just me. And none of it was meant to be humiliating.
Claire told them that I had written it, which led to a discussion about why I hadn't read it myself. But they, more than anyone else, understood why I had been afraid. They had been in my shoes.
I never missed a meeting in the four years I was in college. Over time, I became the warm, supportive person to the neophytes, which I thought would never happen. I even gave the group its official nickname, if inadvertently. Someone had just finished reading a story, and was questioning whether she would be in the right to continue it. I quipped, "Write on." After some laughter mixed with boos and hisses at the pun, the group's president said, "That's what we should call this group." And so that's what we did.
College was a growth period in more than just my writing. It was during my junior year that I finally was able to confront my weight problem, especially the day that I nearly had a coronary walking up a flight of steps. Claire turned to look at me, huffing and puffing. I knew that she was afraid for me, even if she wouldn't say anything. I knew that it was time to start dieting.
Have you ever tried to diet in college? I would've had better odds at winning the lottery, and yet there I was, willpower-free Maya Harte, trying to lose weight. I tried to do it on my own, without asking Claire for any advice. I went to the gym with her every day. While she jogged around the track, I walked it. We both used the weight machines, Claire doing a lot better than I. Bicycling became my big thing, because I could sit and read a book while exercising. I got up to ten miles in about thirty minutes, which was pretty good for me. But I was only losing a few pounds here or there.
That was when I went to Claire. We both knew my biggest problem was that I had a taste aversion to a lot of healthy foods. I would try to eat them and would literally gag. We had to come up with healthy foods that I liked that I could eat. We made a list, then went shopping. By this time, we had moved out of the dorm and were living in a small apartment ten minutes from campus, so eating healthy was easier than it would've been if we'd still been living in the dorms.
Tough as it was, I watched myself like a hawk. If I even considered eating something unhealthy, I heard the voices that had taunted me all through high school. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought about how I'd look when I was thin. I was curious to know what I'd look like. Finally, I started carrying around celery and carrot sticks for hunger attacks, rather than the candy bars I used to have.
Slowly...very slowly...I started losing weight. I didn't really notice it until my pants started getting a little loose, when my bra stopped feeling so tight, when my shirts started fitting better. I was so pleased that I ran out and bought an outfit...size nine. I swore that someday, I was going to be able to fit into that outfit. I continued dieting, spurred on by success. It didn't get any easier, though. Every day was a struggle, to go past the vending machines without buying something, to walk past the cafeteria with its Pizza Hut express without buying a slice of pizza. I occasionally lapsed, felt guilty, and then tried even harder to control myself.
On the day Claire and I graduated from college, I had lost close to seventy-five pounds. I still had about fifty to lose. No one ever said much about it, but I could see in their eyes that they were proud of me. I felt proud of myself, too. I just hoped that it would last.
Claire and I moved to Newstead following our college graduation, because I refused to live in Barnesville until I could come back successful. I still intended to show them all that I was going to amount to something, and even though I worked as a waitress right out of college, I worked every day on the novel that was going to make my career...I thought.
I had come up with a terrific idea that took the better part of two years and a great deal of research to create. I had thought writing a terrific story about a model who returned to her hometown would be easy, but it hadn't been. I wanted to be thorough about the fashion world, and so I had read a number of novels, supermodel bios and everything else I could get my hands on. I had no experience in the field, but I bet that I knew as much, if not more, than people who had spent the better part of their lives in it.
And so I wrote this masterpiece of a novel, almost five hundred and fifty pages, the last page written on my twenty-third birthday. I presented it to Claire with a flourish for her reading pleasure. Claire wasn't a great reader, and in her job as a social worker kept her so busy that she didn't have a great deal of time for it, but she did manage to get it read in a week.
When she handed the manuscript back to me, I waited in anticipation of her loving the book.
"It's not right," she said.
"It's not right, Maya. I mean, it's a good book. No one could ever guess from reading it that you've never been to a fashion show or anything technical. But that's all it is...technical."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"You've created a character you obviously don't care that much for. I mean...look, Maya, the thing I love about the stories you've written before is that you take a lot of personal interest in the characters. You care about what happens to them."
"Even when they're miserable? Right."
"I'm being honest. But the heroine of this one...you may like her, you may manipulate her, but she doesn't come across as being real. She doesn't stand out. It's just not right."
"Great. Thanks for the advice." I snatched the manuscript out of her hands and stalked out of the room--immature behavior, I know. But I had spent so much time on this story, and I thought it was terrific. To hear Claire shoot it down tore at me.
In spite of her opinion, I sent it off to at least two dozen agents. A number of them sent the standard "not interested" letters, a few actually wrote their own "thanks but no thanks" remarks, and of all of them, only one expressed an interest in seeing the rest of the story. But even she turned it down...citing the same problems that Claire did.
Two years of work and six months of pitching down the drain. When I finally gave in to the inevitable and burned the manuscript--Claire told me later that she'd saved the disk I'd put it on, in case I ever thought of revising it -- I felt a strange sense of emptiness. If the best thing I'd ever written in my life was turned down, what point was there in continuing?
My funk lasted the better part of a month, and caused me to gain fifteen pounds. Claire finally told me to snap out of it, saying, "You should write what you know...and yet what you don't know."
"I thought that's what I did with this."
"I mean something you have some experience with. You've never had anything to do with the fashion world...you hate fashion. You should write something about --"
"Living in a small town and being the butt of everyone's jokes? How interesting," I grumbled.
"What's wrong with that? I think I'd like to read it." Claire smiled. "If you wrote it."
"Sure." But I didn't leap up and run to the computer.
Instead, I mulled over the idea of writing my own story, until I realized that I couldn't do it. It was too painful, too personal. It would never work. It was around this time that the anniversary of my mother's death approached, and I got to thinking about her a lot. About how much I missed her. About why she'd ended up in that hellhole of a town.
I spent several days in the library, looking at articles from twenty-seven years ago, trying to get a feel for the situation in that time. When I was ready, I started writing what I thought was my mother's story. I called it Standing in the Rain, borrowing the title from a song about someone pining after a lost love. I wrote about her growing up in a small town, and falling in love with a young man and getting pregnant at sixteen. I wrote about how she was thrown out, living with her aunt, meeting someone else, and being abandoned, pregnant, thrown out by the aunt. And this time, when I finished, Claire had it read in three days and handed it to me with tears in her eyes.
"I couldn't put it down," she said. "This is it, Maya. This is terrific. I loved it."
"Really?" I remembered the expectation I'd had with my last book, and refused to feel smug about this one.
"Yes! You're going to send it out, aren't you?"
"I'm going to try."
And so I did. The first person I tried was the agent who had requested me to send the entirety of my previous book. Caren O'Neal immediately replied, requesting to see the rest of Standing in the Rain, and soon after, she was my agent.
The book was published a little over a year later.
To an outsider's eye, I guess the town of Barnesville would appear as any other small town in the Midwest would appear. It certainly didn't seem like the type of town which could cause anyone such torment, and yet I could testify with great detail that it had.
Barnesville has a population of about twenty-five hundred people. The sign you see when you first enter it says that the population is nineteen hundred, but for some reason I can't fathom there's been a growth spurt. On the western outskirts of town, just inside the city limits where the line is divided between those who walk to school and those who are far enough out to be picked up by bus, sit the government-subsidized apartment housing my mother and I lived in for the first twelve years of my life. Those houses haven't changed, except to get more run-down.
Just a few blocks from there lies the smallest of Barnesville's three subdivisions, smaller homes for people with smaller incomes. The houses here are similar in make and current appearance--not run-down, but they do show signs of wear. The people who own them try to make repairs on their own, when they can, in the hopes of saving money.
There are houses scattered on the north side of town, interspersed with trailer courts here and there. There have been several recent efforts on the part of the businessmen of Barnesville to buy up these trailer courts, get rid of the trailers, and make that part of town look more presentable. Soon after my book was published, the businessmen were successful in buying one of them.
The center of town is much like any other--full of businesses, all situated on about three streets. On Main Street (which divides the town into east and west), there are the two grocery stores, a barber shop, a hair salon, the biweekly newspaper office, a pair of insurance offices, the appliance store, and once upon a time the small cafe in which my mother had toiled for several years. Madison Avenue is the street for furniture stores, the funeral parlor, a small glove factory, and the two Barnesville branches of Newstead banks. Finally there are the health services, which are located on Conner Drive. These include the pharmacy, general health practitioner's clinic, and dental services. We had an optometrist, but he finally closed due to lack of business. A chiropractor is currently doing business in the space left behind. Across the way from there is the town's post office and the new library, where a certain book about the reproductive systems of humans can still be found.
If you take Main Street out where you could turn onto the interstate, you'll find gas stations, hotels, a McDonald's and a Subway, and at the town line, a liquor store. Just outside of town on the southeastern side lies the second of the subdivisions, owned by people who have mortgages on them but are able to pay them without worrying about whether or not they'll be able to do so the following month. These houses are newer than those found on the other side of town, and in good shape.
The schools lay in the eastern part of town. Barnesville Grade School is the newer of the two, and within the past five years had an addition added to it due to the increase in town population--and children. The high school is much older but still in good shape. And across the street from the high school lies the town's largest and grandest subdivision, the only one that actually has a name--Barnes Estates. The houses in this part of town are in immaculate shape, owned by people who pay local boys to mow the lawn and can afford to have a housecleaning service come in from Newstead once a week or so. It's from here that many of the worst offenders from my childhood had come. It was here where the mothers had clicked their tongues behind their teeth when they saw me walk by with my mother, and who had later gotten together on visits to each other to agree that I should be sent far away from their lovely little town, just as people had cast out undesirables in previous centuries. And, to what I'm sure was their horror, it was here that I lived with the Martins when they took me in.
I had decided, long before I ever wrote a page of Standing in the Rain, that one day I was going to live in Barnes Estates.
If I have one great flaw, it is that I'm a terrible procrastinator. The biggest problem I had while writing was that I tended to daydream of other things besides what my characters were doing. I usually daydreamed about what was going to happen after I finished the book. You know, about how a major book publisher was going to instantly realize what a gem my novel was, and the book would be published right away. I'd be famous overnight, and then I'd meet Mr. Right...you get the idea. I told myself so many times that I wasn't going to happen, but that didn't stop me from dreaming.
And then it did happen. Or at least, the first part of it did. Which meant that my dream of returning to Barnesville triumphant, or at least successfully published, could become a reality with a little help from the bank until I received my first royalty check. I made it one of my top priorities, and even took a look at a few houses before I left on a short, six-city book tour. And even though I enjoyed every moment of that tour, I was looking forward to the moment I could return home and decide which house to take. I was looking forward to the day when I would move into a Barnes Estates house. I could hardly wait to take my daily jog through the neighborhood and wave to all those women who had snubbed me all my life.
The only drawback was that I wasn't sure if Claire would agree to move with me. For all the hell she saw me go through in my teen years, she didn't think I needed to revenge myself by living in the nicest part of town. She thought revenge was unhealthy. Besides, she loved our apartment. I hated it. It reminded me too much of the apartment I had lived in with my mother, and if there was one thing I vowed I would never do, it was to live in an apartment ever again. So I put off telling anyone that I was planning to buy a house in town.
My daydreams about telling Claire went in two directions. One side was where Claire was enthusiastic about moving back to town because for some reason, she still thought Barnesville was a nice little town to live in. The other...well, ended with me living on my own. I suppose it wouldn't have been the end of the world, but Claire and I had shared living space for thirteen years. I wouldn't be comfortable without her.
Much as I wanted to procrastinate, I knew that I had to bring up the subject soon, so I decided to mention it at the Sunday dinner following my return from the book tour.
Long before I ever came to live with the Martins, they'd been having Sunday dinners. Mrs. Martin once told me that her family had always had Sunday dinners together when she was a child, and it was the one day of the week where the entire family would eat at the table together and talk. She wanted the same thing for her children. I figured that she'd stop doing it after Claire and I moved out, but she still made dinner long after college. And Claire and I still went. Every Sunday.
Sunday dinners were usually the same. There was typically a roast of some kind. Occasionally, we had ham or chicken, and always fish during Lent. Then there were the vegetables. Lima beans for Mr. Martin, who was the only one to eat them, and corn or green beans for the rest of us. Raw carrots, celery, and cauliflower in water. We also had potatoes and fresh-baked rolls, and always some kind of desert.
Claire and Reed took it all for granted, something I found out the first time I had dinner with them. I thought they were having this wonderful meal to welcome me to the family, and it was the best meal I'd ever had. So I thanked Mrs. Martin and told her what I thought. Reed started chuckling as Claire told me they did this every Sunday.
"You'll get used to it," Mrs. Martin said. "It's nice to be appreciated, though. Some people around here could learn from your example." She frowned at Reed, who stopped smiling.
Ever since then, I've made sure to thank Mrs. Martin for Sunday dinner. Some people might think I was trying to kiss up to her. Others might think I did it so they wouldn't kick me out of the house.
I just wanted Mrs. Martin to know that I appreciated her cooking.
Mr. Martin had retired from his law practice the year after Claire and I graduated from college. The decision, which had been a long time in coming, followed his having a mild heart attack that everyone believed to be more stress-related than anything else. They'd sold the house in Barnes Estates and moved into a house on the outskirts of the second subdivision in town. The main allure of the place had been the large pond which came with the place. Mr. Martin was an avid fisherman, and the pond was well stocked with fish. During the summer, after the dishes were in the dishwasher, Sunday dinners were followed by a trip out to the back patio, where Mr. Martin could see his pond and sometimes even fish from there. We all joked about how he was getting lazy in his retirement, as he'd discovered a way to sit back in a reclining lawn chair, listen to a baseball game, and still catch fish. But on Sundays, we always spent the time talking about things, as families probably should. These were my favorite times, except for this particular Sunday.
I'd finally decided to tell them about my decision. I waited until everyone was sitting around to speak up.
"I've been thinking," I said hesitantly.
"If you haven't been thinking, Maya, you'd be brain dead," Reed teased.
"There are days when I feel that way." I looked down at my hands. "I've been thinking about moving to back into town."
No one said anything for a moment. I finally looked up. Mr. and Mrs. Martin didn't seem surprised, but Claire certainly did. Reed's face was oddly impassive, but his dark brown eyes looked a little confused.
"You never said anything to me," Claire said. "When did you start thinking about moving?"
"Since the end of the book tour." A lie, but she didn't need to know.
"Do you have anything in mind?" Mr. Martin asked.
"Yeah. I've narrowed the field down to two houses in Barnes Estates."
"Back to the old neighborhood," he replied approvingly. He was always one for organization and knowing what you wanted to do before you did it.
I smiled, pleased to have his support.
"Can you afford this? I mean, your advance wasn't great, and your royalty check--" Reed was frowning.
"The advance was enough to last me until the royalty check comes. And the royalty check will be good. I just hit number nine on The New York Times list." I looked over at Claire. "I was hoping you'd want to move with me, but I'll understand if you decided not to."
"With Claire's salary, they'd have more than enough to live on," Mrs. Martin said. "If she decided to go."
Claire smiled. "Of course I'll move. It's not as though I'd be going a long way away from Newstead and my job. Are you sure you want to move back here, though?"
"Positive." I said that quickly.
"Then it's settled," Mrs. Martin said. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
Her comment released all of my tension, and I joined in the laughter that had ensued.
Claire and I were jogging through Barnesville that evening before we returned to our apartment. I was always nervous jogging in the city, especially in the neighborhood we lived in, so we jogged in Barnesville whenever we were there. That night, we jogged from the Martins' house to Barnes Estates, mainly because I wanted Claire to see the houses I had been looking at.
"Tell me something, Maya...just how much of this has to do with revenge?" she asked.
"Revenge? You know me, Claire. I'm beyond things like that."
"Right. And I'm going to win the lottery. Come on, Maya. We talked about this a couple of months ago."
"At that time, you told me that I shouldn't be so vindictive. I told you that I wasn't vindictive, I just wanted to show Barnesville that the town outcast had actually amounted to something. Can you honestly say that if it were you, you wouldn't want to do the same thing?"
"Well--" Claire hesitated too long, and I pounced.
"Exactly. You'd be even more outrageous than I am. All I want is a nice house in the best neighborhood in town and the right to jog past every house in the subdivision every morning, just as those women are going out to get their hair done or go shopping."
"What about the rest of it?"
"The rest of what?"
"Don't play games with me, Maya. I've known you too long. You remember as well as I do what you said on graduation night. When we left Barnesville High, you swore that at our ten-year class reunion you were going to be thin, rich, successful, and proud. You were going to return and snub all those people who would be making friendly overtures to you because you were Somebody with a capital S. How did it end? You were going to have at least one drop-dead gorgeous guy hanging on your every word to prove that someone was actually romantically interested in you."
"Claire, please! I was barely seventeen. I've changed. I'm more mature. Thinking of revenge then was the best way I could think of to get through a bad situation."
"You never once thought about them while you were losing weight and writing your book?"
She had me there, dammit. "So what? Wasn't I allowed to think of what might happen when I became published? And was I not allowed to remember what everyone said about me in high school as motivation to lose weight? I thought it was a damned good motivator."
"Then I'll say this one last time. I'm just going to buy the house and live in town. That's all."
"That's it, then. We won't discuss it again."
"Good. Then may I please show you the house I'm thinking of getting?"
We jogged through the neighborhood. It was a surprisingly pleasant evening for late February, not overly cold. There were several families taking advantage by cooking on their grills, settling around picnic tables in their backyards to feast on hamburgers and potato salad, lemonade and apple pies. At one house in particular I stopped. It wasn't for sale, but the scene out front caught my assistance.
"Maya?" Claire had jogged ahead for several moments before realizing that I wasn't with her. "Are you coming?"
There was a young couple playing on the front lawn with their young son. The father was laughing as he tossed a large plastic ball to the boy, who tried tossing it back and wound up hitting the front door. The mother chased the ball and tossed it back to the father. This scene wouldn't have caught my attention had it not been for one small detail.
The man was Ryan Evans, and the woman was Mandy, his high school girlfriend and wife of six years.
"Maya..." Claire murmured softly.
"I didn't know they lived here," I said.
"Neither did I. But it shouldn't be too surprising. When I saw them back at the five-year reunion, Ryan was just starting out at his father's accounting firm. And Mandy took over as the head librarian a year or so ago, after Mrs. Robinson retired. With some help from his parents, they can probably afford living here now." Claire put an arm around my shoulder and started walking me away from the house. "Come on before they notice you staring at them."
"I don't care what they see," I snapped.
"Yes, you do. And you're really not looking your best right now."
I looked down at my jogging outfit. Claire was probably right. In my mind I could still see the untidy ponytail I'd pulled my hair into before we'd left, and I knew without even looking just how old and faded my sweatpants and oversized black T-shirt were.
"Come on," she said. "Let's keep going."
Reluctantly, I resumed jogging. We got down the block before either of us thought to speak.
"At the five-year reunion...how were you treated?" I asked.
We had never before spoken of the reunion, which Claire had attended. I'd said that I'd have my fingernails ripped out with pliers before I'd go to it, so she went alone. She'd never talked about how it had gone, and I'd never cared enough to ask.
It was a long minute before Claire answered. "You would've hated it."
"I'm sure I would've. That's why I didn't go. Everyone making fun of me five years after I'd managed to pull myself together."
"No. It wouldn't have been like that."
"Then why would I have hated it?"
"Because it was the exact opposite of what you expected. No one would've made fun of you, Maya. They actually would've been nice to you."
"That doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense."
"Everyone asked me about you. They asked how you were doing, and what you were doing. They asked whether or not you'd had a book published, and all of them, without fail, said that they expected you to succeed. They all insisted that you had a lot of talent and determination. Not one of them said a bad thing about you."
"Talent and determination? The determination I can see them understanding--after all, I did spend most of my time writing. But talent? How would any of them know of my talent? They'd never read anything I'd written."
"Quite a few of them had read the three short stories you'd had published in college. Mom and Dad sent notices to the newspaper about them."
I stopped jogging again. "They did?"
"I thought you knew that."
"Sure. The paper had just changed ownership so you got a front-page mention."
"So based on this, everyone decided to be nicer to me. Or at least, behind my back. Wonder what they would've done if I had actually showed up?"
"We'll never know, because you didn't. But you can see why you would've hated it."
I did. They would've pretended like high school, and all its horrors, had never happened. I wouldn't have been able to tolerate that then. I wasn't sure I could tolerate it now.
"What about you? Were they nice to you?"
"Of course. It was being there. It was a lot like high school, and at the same time, it was different. People still separated into their little cliques, but there was more willingness to mingle. Girls who had barely spoken two words to each other in high school were speaking amiably. I suspect that when the ten-year one rolls around, we'll all act as though we were one big happy family in high school."
"Then perhaps it's for the best that I've given up revenge, because I was never that talented an actress." We started jogging again. "Whatever happened to Ryan's sidekick?"
"Who, Rick Bartel? I think he's still in the military. That's what someone said at the five-year reunion. I never figured out how he managed to get into West Point."
"Rick was the BS King of our class, that's how," I replied. "Who else could con the French teacher into drinking spiked Kool Aid? Who else could get away with smoking in the bathroom on our senior trip even when he was caught on video? And can you think of anyone who could get half of the graduating class to think he was gypped out of being valedictorian even though it was his own fault? He blew off his entire senior year, thinking he could coast through it and still take top honors."
"I don't think he ever really gave a damn about it. He never seemed to."
"Believe me, he cared more than he let on to everyone."
"I think I remember hearing that he got married a couple of years ago."
"Good for him. Bad for his wife."
"Come on, people change."
"No, they don't. In ten or fifteen years from now, Rick and his wife are going to have a little boy of their own, and I've got twenty bucks that says the kid turns out exactly like his father. Even if any of the people we went to school with are sorry about what they did now, they won't teach their children to act any differently. Which means that they really aren't sorry for anything except that the bug they squashed came back to life and became a success in the process."
"That's a little harsh, don't you think?"
"Maybe it is, but it's true."
"What about you? Ten or fifteen years down the road, you might have a little girl of your own. Are you going to teach her to be friends with the world?"
"I'll try my damnedest to do just that. It's what my mother taught me, and your mother taught you."
"And yet you can still think of revenge."
"Are we back to that again? I thought we were going to skip it long enough for you to take a look at the house I think I'm going to buy."
"We were," Claire said, but it was clear to me that she was completely unconvinced that it was possible to separate the two.
As the old saying goes, I came, I saw, I bought the house. Well, it took a little longer than that to close on the house, but by the time of Claire's celebration, I was close to owning a lovely home on Coles Avenue in Barnes Estates.
I didn't want a celebration, but as Claire pointed out, I had to do something to celebrate the publication of my first novel. I had left on a book tour soon after the book had hit bookstores without having the chance to really celebrate. I believed that the best feeling of celebration was the feeling I'd had when I'd held the advance copy of Standing in the Rain by Maya Harte in my hand. It was a heady feeling.
Anyway, Claire said that I needed to get out and have some fun so she was going to take me to her favorite bar, which was called C.J.'s. I wasn't the bar type. The word ‘bar' brought to mind images of boozed-up jerks hitting on women and then trying to attack them in parking lots.
Of course, I may have seen Thelma and Louise one too many times.
Worse than the idea of going to a bar to celebrate the biggest event of my life was Claire, who wanted me to flaunt what I didn't have. We were in the bedroom of our small apartment getting ready when the fight broke out. I had picked out an oversized T-shirt and baggy jeans to wear, but Claire tossed them in the trash and decided that I should wear a pair of jeans that were extremely tight and a black, see-through blouse.
"I'll feel like a slut, Claire!" I moaned as she held up the outfit, smiling.
"You will not. Just think of yourself as an attractive young woman and that's what you'll be."
Ha, right. While I didn't spend all my time looking in mirrors, what I saw when I looked in one didn't lie to me. I might've been thinner than I'd ever been in my life, but I was still twenty pounds overweight and it wasn't especially becoming to me. My hair was, in spite of everything Claire and I had tried to do with it, still a reddish-blonde mass of frizz that was too heavy to hold curl for long. She wanted to drag me off to a hair stylist, but I told her that I didn't have time for that nonsense. And you couldn't change your eye color, which left my eyes as the same direct, ordinary blue-grey they'd been since the day I was born. All in all, I would say that I was...average.
My snort of derision caught Claire's attention. "Don't say you can't be attractive. I know you can. Look at the photo of you on the jacket cover of the book." She grabbed the copy of that sat on the nightstand and set it down on the dresser so I could see the picture. "You look very pretty."
"I was primped and fussed over for that...and then they airbrushed the picture. That's what makes me look good. In that get-up, I'll be thinking that I'm a fat slut wearing an outfit that belongs on someone skinnier than I'll ever be."
"Don't do this to me, please! I agreed to go. I don't want to make any more a fool of myself than I already will."
"At least the jeans."
"Uh-uh. I bought those when I was in need of a goal to lose weight and I'm still not there. The jeans are too small."
"Then the shirt! Something sexy. You're twenty-five and you're still dressing in grunge."
"I'll have you know that I looked very respectable during the book tour. Caren said I looked professional when we met in New York." I sighed. "I'll wear the shirt. But if you expect me to get on a dance floor, I'm wearing a pair of jeans I feel comfortable in."
"And I get to do your makeup and hair."
"Hair, but no makeup. What's the point?"
"You look prettier with makeup."
"I feel -- "
"I keep telling you, that's all in your head."
"That's exactly my point."
"Hair and makeup."
"This is my celebration!"
"And I want you to enjoy it to the fullest extent!"
A knock on our apartment door stopped the conversation. A deep voice shouted, "You'd think the two of you would've outgrown fighting! I could hear you down the hall!"
Claire called, "The door's open! We're in the bedroom, still getting ready!"
The door opened and shut. Reed said, "You're never ready, Claire. Every time we try to get Maya to go out, this is what I show up to find. She's determined to dress like she always dresses, and you're determined to dress her up."
"I feel stupid dressing up," I called out as I was putting on a pair of comfortably snug jeans.
"That's because you don't do it often enough," Claire replied, walking out of our bedroom. "You only had to tour for a few weeks, and now you're back to your usual self. If you had a job like mine, where you have to look good all the time, you'd get used to it and you wouldn't feel stupid."
"I like my job. It's provided me with a fairly nice income at the moment."
"One advance check does not a nice income make. Think of all the years where your income was based on occasionally selling a short story and a lot of hard hours waiting tables. Not what everyone expected from number three in the class."
"If any of them had bothered to know me at all, they would've known that that's exactly what they could expect from me nearly nine years after high school." I put on the blouse and took a look in the mirror, frowning at the silver Wonderbra I wore underneath it. I was unbuttoning
the blouse to find a darker bra when Claire walked back in.
"Leave it," she said. "It's a nice contrast."
I was about to disagree when I realized she was right, so I left it on.
"The book tour boosted sales a lot. I cracked a couple of bestseller lists even if I'm not number one. I've got several ideas for my second book, which I expect to start working on soon, and who knows? Maybe it'll be the big blockbuster."
"For your sake, Maya, I hope so. But there are a lot of things that aren't favorable to your future as a best-selling author," Claire said as she hunted through the closet, looking for a pair of shoes.
"Like Danielle Steel and John Grisham and Mary Higgins Clark," Reed added. "Just to name a few."
"To get this far, I had to overcome agents who didn't think my book was worth reading and editors who thought that the whole story should be changed and publishers who were afraid to take a chance on it. And that's not even counting all the agents, editors, and publishers who have been rejecting my writings for the past eight years. All I ever wanted was to see something I wrote in bookstores, and that's finally what happened. Even if it's the only success I ever have, I don't intend to quit writing."
Claire popped her head out of the closet. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be ragging on you. You've gotten this far. You'll probably get everything you want."
I smiled. "Thank you, Claire. I hope you're right."
"Now can I do your hair and makeup?"
"Only if you make it fast," Reed said as he appeared in the doorway. "It's after eight."
It took us about thirty minutes to get to the bar, and the first thing that struck me was that it was almost deafening in there. But then I let my other senses kick and took a good look around.
C.J.'s was a pretty big place, and it was packed. When we entered, we were confronted immediately by the bar area where three bartenders were mixing drinks. The back of the bar was mirrored and covered with just about every liquor imaginable, and few that I hadn't known existed, but then, my knowledge of alcohol was fairly limited. To the right was the game room, where one television blared over the music coming from the dance floor. About a dozen people were playing pool in a cigarette smoke haze which lingered over the lamps that advertised Budweiser beer. Off in one corner stood three electronic dartboards. Three drunken girls hurled darts at the boards, and when one ended up winning, she did a stupid dance to the music the game played, sending her friends into hysterical laughter. Two guys monopolized the pinball machine in one corner, the girlfriend of one watching with a bored expression. To the left of the bar stood the tables and booths, and the omnipresent cloud of cigarette smoke. Those who weren't able to sit down were standing around, and just about everyone was drinking something.
By far, the largest space in the entire bar was taken up by the dance floor. Black lights lit up the entire area, a disco ball was suspended from the ceiling at the center of the room, revolving slowly and catching what light it could. Against the back wall stood the speakers and DJ, who was wearing headphones (presumably to keep himself from going deaf), only occasionally taking them off to listen to someone making a request. When he did play a request, a loud cheer would come up in a certain part of the room as one group or another took over the floor and danced. When the DJ played what he felt like playing, the scene was more general - awkward dancers did their thing on the edge of the crowd, praying not to be noticed, flashier dancers taking more space and standing right underneath the disco ball, catching attention, cheers and jeers. Every once in a while, a strobe light would turn on and make everything seem like it was going in slow motion.
Claire looked for a booth without success, finally settling for two free seats at the bar. "How about a drink?" she yelled over the noise.
"Sure!" I shouted back.
She got herself a Bud Light. I hated beer, so I started to order a Diet Pepsi.
"Come on, Maya! It's your night! Live a little!" Reed said. "I'll have a Budweiser, and get her an amaretto sour --my treat."
I smiled. "Thanks," I said. "Who's driving home?"
"I swear, this is the only beer I'm having." Reed slid a five over to the bartender when he returned with our drinks, waving the change away. "So let loose, have a good time!"
"I'm going to sit here and enjoy a drink," I said.
"You're not going to dance?" Claire frowned. "You always do this, Maya. I take you out and you end up blending into the wallpaper."
"I keep telling you that I'm not flashy! Besides, I really don't think there's anything wrong with the wallpaper look." I took a sip of my drink. "I'll dance later, after I've had a few more of these," I said, motioning to the glass. "But don't let that stop you. Go on over to the dance floor!"
Claire sighed. "You talk to her, Reed. I'm beginning to think that she's deliberately ignoring me." With that, Claire headed for the dance floor. Reed sat down in her spot.
"This really isn't your scene, is it?"
"No." I twirled the straw in my glass. "I never feel comfortable in these places. Especially not next to Claire."
"I remember listening to this comedian a long time ago. He had this running gag about how every pretty girl has an ugly girlfriend. No matter where the pretty girl went, the ugly one went with her, and the guy was just screwed because he couldn't ditch the ugly girl. When I'm
"You're not ugly, Maya."
"I still feel that way. Losing weight didn't change the feeling."
"Listen. Any guy who doesn't see you for the wonderful person you are--"
" -- is missing out, I know. You sound like your father when you say that."
Reed looked horrified. "God help me! I was hoping that I wouldn't hear someone say that for at least another ten years."
I smiled, and he smiled as well.
"Gotcha. You're smiling and in a good mood. How would you like to dance with me? Would that make you feel a little more comfortable?"
"Okay. I won't force you to go out there."
"Maybe for a slow dance later."
"I'm holding you to that, Miss Harte." Reed stood up. "I think I'll go out there and make a fool of myself for a little while," he said.
"Have fun," I replied as I watched him walk away. I wasn't the only one. Several pairs of female eyes watched Reed walk from the bar to the dance floor. It wasn't because Reed was the sexiest guy in the room, because he wasn't. His dark hair was balding more rapidly than Reed was
comfortable with at thirty-five, his nose had been broken in a car wreck when he was a senior in college, and his smile was too lopsided. Reed, however, did have a great body because he worked out all the time, and when he did smile, it was always genuine and warm. He was a friendly
man. Any woman would have been lucky to be his girlfriend or wife.
All of which was why I couldn't figure out why he hadn't remarried after his divorce three years earlier. The divorce was amicable, but although he still had lunch with his ex-wife every once in a while, he didn't love her. He had been involved in a couple of relationships with women since the divorce, so it wasn't because he was gay. But it wasn't one of those things I spent a lot of time thinking about, and I decided that it really wasn't something worth thinking about while sitting in a bar.
I turned back to my drink with a sigh. Something had to be wrong if this was my big night, because I wasn't feeling very excited. I looked around for a while, ordered another drink, and continued looking around at everything going on. I felt a wave of loneliness and realized that it was my own fault if I didn't enjoy my own celebration, so I finished my drink in one big gulp and headed out to the dance floor.
"Maya!" Claire shouted the moment she saw me. "Everyone, this is Maya! Maya, this is...everybody." She ran up to the DJ and grabbed his mike. "Hey, everyone, this is Maya's night! She got her first book published, and it's in bookstores now. It's called...uh, Maya, what was it called again?"
"Standing in the Rain," I replied, laughing. Claire knew damn well what the book was called. She was just trying to get me to show off.
"Right. Standing in the Rain, by Maya Harte. Go buy it!" she called.
"Gimme that!" the DJ growled, snatching the microphone out of Claire's hands. But he smiled at me. "Congratulations, Maya. This song's for you."
The song he chose was Kool and the Gang's "Celebration." Everyone started moving to the beat. I very hesitantly shuffled my feet in rhythm, and after a little bit, I started swinging my hips. A little bit later, I threw in some shoulder action, and before I knew it, I was dancing as wildly as Claire was. Of course, the whole time, I couldn't help thinking that I looked like an idiot, but I convinced myself that everyone else looked like an idiot along with me.
I danced along as the DJ played "Macarena," but Claire got everyone doing the bunny hop to that song. Then came the Grease megamix, and then a slow song that I didn't know the name of. I danced that one with Reed.
"Having fun now?" he asked.
"A ton of fun."
"See how easy it is when you just free your mind?"
"My inhibitions, you mean."
The song ended too soon, and the DJ started playing another dance song. I started dancing when I felt the stupid heel of my shoe twist awkwardly. My ankle overcompensated and I fell to the floor, crying out in pain.
"Maya!" Claire, who had been dancing with a blond-haired man in one corner, pushed her way through the crowd circling around me. "Are you okay?"
"My ankle hurts," I said. "It's these stupid shoes. I knew I shouldn't have worn them."
"Reed, help me get her back to the bar. Clear the way people! Come on, coming through, there's an invalid trying to get to the bar for a drink!" Claire very quickly had a path cleared. Reed picked me up as if I weighed nothing and carried me to a bar stool.
"You should probably elevate your foot," he said.
"I didn't sprain it. It just hurts a little bit. I don't need to take up more than one stool."
"She just needs another drink. Amaretto sour, please," Claire said, pulling out four one dollar bills. "And I'll have another Bud Light."
The bartender handed Claire her beer and mixed my drink. A minute later, he handed me the glass and took the money.
"I felt like a klutz out there," I said.
"Don't worry about it. Every woman out there understood what happened to you."
"Not the guys."
"Were you looking at one in particular?" Claire smiled at me.
"No. I was just speaking in general."
"Then don't worry. They probably understand better than the women. I'm going back out there, if that's okay with you."
"You're starting to make me sound like a jailer. Go ahead and go, for God's sake."
Claire nodded. "Maybe some guy who saw you on the floor will come and sit by you to ask how your ankle is doing."
I shrugged, wishing that she would prove to be right. I knew better, though. I was going to suffer this twisted ankle in silence...and alone.
Claire went back to dance, and I was back where I started--watching everyone walk around and drink, smoke, play pool, and talk. I twirled the straw in my drink, finished it, and ordered yet another. I was struck by the thought that a good book would come in handy in this
situation, since I really hated sitting around doing nothing but look at people and drink. I tried to watch the TV, but all that was on was some show about auto racing.
Just as I was about to finish my drink and order another, I heard a man say to my back, "Hi."
I didn't turn around because I figured the voice was talking to someone else. When he sat down on the bar stool next to me, I realized that he was trying to get my attention.
"Hello," he said again.
"Hi." I found myself staring, but he was rather attractive. He had wavy golden blond hair which occasionally flopped into his olive green eyes. A dimpled smile highlighted his tanned face and strong chin. He was tall--about six-foot-one, and he had obviously seen a gym room recently. He was wearing jeans and a dress shirt with a wide red tie. Although the shirt and tie were a bit out of place, he wore them with such style that it didn't seem all that unusual.
"Saw what happened to you out there. You okay?"
"Yeah. The only thing that really hurts now is my pride."
He smiled. "My name's Colin."
"It's nice to meet you." He extended his hand, which I shook. "Mind if I buy you a drink?"
"Uh..." How the hell was I supposed to handle this? When I was usually at a bar, a male friend of Claire's bought drinks for the whole table and I got included only because I was there. Claire was always giggly and nice...but that wasn't my style. "Sure."
Colin motioned to the bartender, who walked over. "Jim Beam on the rocks for me, and an amaretto sour for the lady."
"Better make mine a plain orange juice," I said. "I think I've had enough to drink for one evening."
The bartender nodded and began making the drinks. I turned back to Colin. "How did you know what I was drinking? Have I had so many that you can smell it on my breath?" I asked.
"No. I've been watching you for a little while."
"I see." Just what I needed. One of those guys who zones in on a woman alone, thinking she's available. "Listen, I don't know what you've got on your mind, but I'm not the type of woman to --"
"You think that I --" Colin's eyes widened for a moment, then crinkled when he smiled. "Oh, no. I'm not the kind of guy who zones in on some woman alone and thinks she's available."
"No way. I've never been the type of guy who could come up to a woman and say, 'Hi, my name is Colin Jeffries, I'm thirty-three, the only son of my parents, Baptist, with no communicable diseases and a fairly good bedroom manner. I own a bar and make pretty good money. Oh, by the way, I happen to be h---- as hell, so how about going to bed with me?'"
I burst into laughter, as did he.
"I just thought I'd be really nice and buy you a drink because you hurt yourself."
"Thanks," I said as the bartender slid our drinks in front of us and walked away without taking any money. "Shouldn't you pay for these?" I asked. "Or are you in good with the bartenders around here?"
"I should hope I am -- I own the bar."
"Oh, of course." His joke. "It would be sort of silly to be patronizing the competition, wouldn't it?"
"Uh-huh." He took a sip of his drink. "And since you know that now, I have to tell you that I had another reason for coming over here. I wanted to make sure you were okay and weren't plotting to call a lawyer in the morning and sue me for damages."
"Why? It was my own damn fault. I mean, I wore these shoes here and then tried to dance in them."
"Some people wouldn't take that attitude. They'd see it as their opportunity to make some money."
"If you really want me to, you'll hear from my attorney in the morning."
"That's okay. I have enough headaches as it is."
The conversation fell off, and it hit met then that he hadn't come over to flirt with me. He just wanted to make sure that I wasn't going to sue him. It was disappointing, but I wasn't going to let him see it. When he didn't walk away after a minute, I wondered what he was still doing here.
"I suppose I could ask you the usual 'where are you from' things, but I hate being like everyone else," he finally said.
"Why do you want to know?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's because you're not planning to sue me. Maybe it's because you fell in my bar and didn't run crying from the place. Maybe it's because you just had a book published." He leaned his elbow on the bar and rested his head in his hand. "You want to know the strange thing? I bought it today."
"Yeah. Well, to be honest, I bought it for my stepsister for her birthday next week. She loves a good book. Is yours good?"
"I like to think so. It was good enough to get published, and that's saying a lot for a first-time writer."
"Unless that first-time writer is a celebrity."
"Which I am not." I took a drink. "So, how long have you owned this place?"
"About six years. There used to be a shoe store in one half of the space, and then a dry cleaner's in the other half. I got a pretty good deal on the two spaces together and...and this is pretty boring talk."
"I think all things you do to get to know someone are pretty boring. You exchange background information, you get into the other person's interests, then other things, and finally you decide whether or not there's enough between you to get into the really meaningful topics."
"Just what are those meaningful topics?"
"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
"The world according to Maya Harte?"
"I wouldn't really know. I've never..." I stopped myself just in time to stop myself from sounding ridiculous by saying I'd never gotten that far. "Besides, you've given me quite a bit of background just in that joke you told."
"I guess I did." He smiled and finished his drink. "So how about you? How would you phrase yourself according to that joke?"
"I don't know. I'm twenty-five, single, a writer, supposedly a Catholic but I haven't been to church in years because I think religion's hypocritical, no communicable diseases because you have to have sex in order to get one...what else was there?"
"I think you covered the basics." He looked around for a moment. "How's that ankle feeling?"
"Not too bad." I couldn't feel a thing, but I figured that that was the alcohol kicking in.
The dance song that had been playing ended and a slow song started. "Do you think you would be up to dancing on it?"
"Oh...well, sure." I smiled, hoping that the smile wasn't the stupid one I thought it was when I looked at myself in the mirror.
"Great. We can take it easy since it's slow."
Colin led me back toward the dance floor just as the DJ sped up the song. Colin frowned and walked over to him. A minute later, the song stopped and a new one started. It was one I recognized by Seal.
"This one is at the owner's request, so enjoy. Nice to see you back on the floor, Maya."
I looked for Claire and found her dancing with someone. She raised her eyebrows at the sight of me dancing with Colin Jeffries, and then gave me a thumbs up sign. A minute later, I caught sight of Reed. He was dancing with a pretty brunette, but he didn't seem very happy. He gave me a little wave when he saw me looking, which I returned.
When the song was over, the DJ glanced at Colin before he started playing a dance number. Colin led me away.
"Listen, I wish I could spend some more time with you, but I have a few things I have to take care of around here."
"Would you like to go out with me sometime?"
"I'd have to think about it." I stopped walking for a moment, put my hand to my chin as if I was actually thinking, and then said, "Sure. I'd love to."
He smiled. "Great. I won't be able to call for the next couple of weeks because I'm actually getting away from this place and taking a vacation."
For some reason, I had the feeling that he was trying to get himself out of the situation gracefully. He was about to tell me he'd call, and then he never would. It had to be a classic blow-off technique.
"How about if I call you when I get back?" he suggested.
I knew it. "Sure."
"Then I'll make sure to do that."
Colin walked behind the bar and pulled two small cards out of a drawer. He grabbed an ink pen from beside the register and wrote something else on one. "In case I forget, call me. You can call me here, because I'm usually here. But if I'm not, here's my home number." He handed me the card. "Just make sure you call me if I don't get back to you when I return." He motioned for me to write down my number, which I did.
After a friendly goodbye, Colin headed for a hallway marked by an "Employees Only" sign.
"So what's that about?" I heard Claire ask behind me.
I turned around. "Nothing."
"And that's why you're holding a card with Colin Jeffries' home phone number on it? Do you know how many women around here would love to have that?"
"Then I guess I'll be putting it in my bra for safekeeping."
"For some of them, that wouldn't be a deterrent." Claire's smile faded. "Reed's got a headache. He says it's from the noise and the smoke, but I'll bet anything that he's had a few more beers than he says he's had. Do you want to stay or go?"
"I'm ready to go. Colin said he had a lot of work to do." I frowned. "Do you think he was telling the truth? Or do you think he was just trying to politely blow me off?"
"He was telling the truth. He's only out here for a few hours every night, and then he's back in his office, working on paperwork and other things."
"How do you know?"
"I asked the bartender once, back when I first started coming here."
"Was he interested in you?" I was praying she'd say no. The last thing I needed was someone after me so they could get close to Claire.
"Nah. I think he'd consider that a conflict of interest, although I'll admit that I was interested in him once upon a time."
Reed walked up to us. "Are we going?" he asked.
"Yeah. Let's go," Claire said.
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