CHAPTER 1 — EARLY SIGNS
On WBCN in Boston this morning, the Cosmic Muffin announced that Mercury is in retrograde, which means it appears to be moving backwards, messing up communication and clear thinking. I wish I believed in astrology or had at least paid attention to the warning.
My colleague, Shelley, and I have just arrived at the annual company holiday party at the Cambridge Hyatt. We’re wearing our smart, black wool dresses and are on a mission to find me a man. I’ve even had my hair done in an attempt to tame my wayward curls and cowlicks. I’m in my mid 50s, claiming to be 5’4” and weight proportionate, a bit of a stretch, but I still look good enough, I think, despite my aging body and wardrobe. I’ve been going part-time to graduate school and have just a couple of courses left. I’ve also been looking for a position in my new field, workplace adult education, while I continue the marketing job I’ve had forever. You’d think that would be enough to keep me busy, but I also want love in my life. It’s been a while, so I’ve enlisted Shelley’s help in the manhunt. She’s a tall, attractive, optimistic woman who still turns heads with her dark, shoulder-length hair, graceful body, and mischievous grin, although she’s been happily married for 23 years. She’s savvy about relationships and must know something I don’t. I’ve been divorced and single for a decade and a half, raising my boys alone and bumbling in and out of disappointing entanglements with unsuitable men.
The large ballroom is noisy and crowded. In one corner, a geriatric band, whose drummer appears to be dozing, plays “Fly Me to the Moon” at a volume that possibly reaches the moon. In the center of the ballroom, red and green lights on a tall Christmas tree blink on and off, the corporate version of strobe lighting. Shelley and I navigate to the bar, where other suits and smart, black dresses stand three-deep, waiting to order drinks. Eventually, we get our Chardonnay and work our way to a relatively unpopulated spot away from the bar. We begin to scan the merrymakers. Almost immediately I notice a tall, rakish looking man in a navy pinstriped suit who stands in a group to my right. “What about him?”
“Him?” Shelley looks in the direction of my nod. “That’s Chet Peterson. He’s a womanizer, married at least three times and still plays around. Forget him.” She looks away, searching for better prospects.
I glance one last time in Chet’s direction. Too bad, Chet. It could have been fun.
“That guy, that guy over there,” Shelley nudges me. “You can tell he’s a good guy. He has kind eyes. You can tell a lot by the eyes.”
“Him? He looks like my cousin, Eli, the Orthodox rabbi,” I reply dismissively, “definitely not my type.”
“Forget the beard. Look at the eyes. He’s looking this way. Smile.”
She’s right. Big, soulful, brown eyes are looking our way.
Dutifully, I smile my flirtiest, attempting to ignore the black, bushy beard that shrouds everything but the eyes. I remember my father’s admonition, “Never trust a man with a beard. He’s hiding something.” But my father wasn’t astute about men either. He had liked and trusted my ex-husband.
Encouraged by our smiles, the rabbi is crossing the room in our direction. He’s about 5’8”, slim, and walks like a duck. Dressed in preppy navy blazer and gray slacks, he looks like an Ivy League rabbi-duck. Not that I’m judgmental.
“Hello, I’m Will Slipway,” he says extending his hand first to Shelley and then to me. “I couldn’t resist your warm smiles.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Shelley says. “I’m Shelley Sullivan and this is my friend Emily Rosenbloom. We’re in the wooden toy marketing department. I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Where do you work?”
“I’m in research and development, up on the hill.” We continue to chat awkwardly for a minute or two, and I am about to back away when Will says, “Would you like to dance?”
He’s looking at me.
“Okay, I guess. I’m a little rusty.”
“That’s okay. I am, too. Shelley, if you’ll excuse us? It was so nice to meet you.”
As Will leads me to the dance floor, I thaw slightly. How thoughtful of him to acknowledge Shelley that way.
We’re clumsy together at first and his hand is damp. “Oops, sorry,” he says as our toes bump.
“That’s okay,” I reply, stifling an ouch. “I don’t know about you, but I haven’t danced for a long time. I guess it takes a while to get back in the groove.”
He squeezes my hand gratefully and we both relax, enjoying a few more dances until the band takes a break. We find an empty table away from the dance floor. Will brings drinks from the bar and we talk, exchanging information about our work, our kids, and interests.
I’ve decided that with a trimmed beard, he might be attractive and am just warming to the idea when he asks, “How long have you been divorced?”
“Almost 14 years.”
“Really? I’m surprised you haven’t remarried.” “I was busy raising my sons,” I hesitate, “and never found the right guy, I guess. How about you?”
“How about me?”
“Yes, how long have you been divorced?”
He hesitates, pushes the melting ice cubes around in his glass and replies, “I’m not exactly divorced.”
Somewhere just below the belt, I feel a thump and let out a deep sigh. “You’re not divorced. You’re married. You live with your wife?”
Oh, geez. “Sort of?” “I live in the same house but mostly in the basement.” “Finished basement, I hope?” I cannot resist.
Ignoring my wisecrack, he looks doleful as he elaborates, “My wife and I married when we were kids. We’ve been married for 26 years but haven’t really lived together, I mean slept together, for the last six years. I’m just staying until my kids finish high school.”
I look away. “That’s different, then. I thought you were single. I’m not interested in getting involved with a married man.”
“Who said anything about getting involved?” he asks indignantly. “I thought we were just having a nice evening, enjoying each other’s company. I didn’t intend anything more than that.”
Am I turning purple with embarrassment? How presumptuous of me! “Oh, I’m so sorry. I just assumed… I assumed the wrong thing. I am sorry and I’ve enjoyed this, too. I think I should go now.”
“No, no need to hurry off.”
“I think it’s best. Besides, tomorrow is a workday. Up and at ‘em.” I fumble with my coat and purse.
He takes my coat and holds it as I slide it on, saying over my shoulder, “It’s been a pleasure, and remember, I don’t live too far from you, so if you ever need a ride to work or anything like that, I’m happy to help.”
“Yes, thanks.” I’m anxious to get out of there, and I leave him at the table without looking back. Me and my assumptions, making an ass of me again.
The next day, a large bouquet of red, gold, and orange winter blooms arrives at my desk. The card reads, “Thanks for the wonderful evening. Will.”
Who’s the ass? Who sends flowers to acknowledge a “nice conversation and a few dances?” I’m tempted to dump the flowers into the wastebasket but take them instead to the receptionist’s desk. “These will look better out here,” I say as I place them on the counter.
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Very sure,” I say as I walk back to my cubicle.
CHAPTER 26 — EVERGREEN FOLLIES
Okay, so it isn’t a rustic B&B in the woods surrounded by flower gardens. No large, fluffy canopied featherbed bedecked with soft pillows and downy quilts invites me to snuggle in. No home-cooked casseroles and freshly baked, grandmotherly cookies, served by a large, cheery, farm-fresh husband and wife await our arrival. No mammoth, deep Jacuzzi sits in the middle of the bathroom, beckoning me. No bathroom.
When Will suggested a weekend away in the New Hampshire woods, my first clue about what he had in mind could have been his recommending that I pack layers of casual, comfortable−emphasis on comfortable−clothes and sturdy shoes.
We drive for hours along winding roads, bordered by tall trees that gradually morph from oaks and elms to white birch and blue spruce. And we’re climbing. I can tell because my ears occasionally pop.
“Where are we going?” I ask. “Did I forget to mention that I need to be back at work Monday morning at 8:30 sharp?”
Will chuckles, “We’re almost there.”
“Did I mention that I’m susceptible to nose bleeds at elevations above sea level?”
He slows the car and pulls off the highway at a large green and white sign reading “Evergreen Campgrounds.”
“Campgrounds? What are we doing here?” I begin to wheeze and wonder if I can find an antihistamine in this car, which seems to be packed to the gills, now that I think about it. What’s he carrying in here?
Will smiles and pats my knee. We are bumping along a rutted, dirt road. The woods are thinning, and I can see tents sitting among the pines. A large body of water suddenly looms ahead, too large to be a mirage. Will turns the car onto a small, gravel patch about 500 feet from a wooden platform. Whew, no tent! We’re probably just turning around because he realizes he’s made a wrong turn.
“Look at this view!” Will exclaims as he stops the car. “It’s even better than I’d hoped. Come on, Emily, let’s take a look around before we unpack our gear.”
Gear? That’s not what I’d call the black, lace nightgown, the carefully chosen shirts and slacks, the bubble bath, body oils, and sunscreen I’ve packed.
“Come on,” Will repeats, taking my hand. “Let’s walk down to the lake. Mmm, smell that clean air! Smell the pine, too. It reminds me of camp when I was a kid.”
That’s the problem. It does smell suspiciously like camp…Camp Chippewa: the early morning compulsory swim class when Bub, the muscled, tanned, hunky waterfront director, had to fish me, floundering and flailing, out of the chilly lake with a long pole, leaving me dripping and mortified on the dock; the long walk to the bathroom in the chill and the dark, flashlight at the ready, when an unidentified flying insect flew into my open mouth and I swallowed; the hurricane, bringing fierce winds and lightning that lit the whole sky, turning night into a ghostly day while we huddled in a couple of lean-tos, watching our tents blow away.
“Yes,” I say, “that’s what it reminds me of, too.”
The lake is beautiful, its gray-blue water lapping at the narrow strip of sand that must be the beach. I wonder what lurks on its muddy bottom, remembering another outing when I waded boldly into marsh water and emerged covered with leeches.
I shudder, still seeing the slimy, black, wormlike creatures attaching themselves affectionately to my flesh, but I decide to keep my concerns to myself, recognizing them as neurotic memories that don’t have to be shared. I’m determined to enjoy the outing Will has planned.
When we’ve climbed back up the slight incline and returned to the car, I ask bravely, “What’s next?”
“Next, we unpack our gear…”
There’s that word again.
“And set up the tent. We want to do that before it gets too dark. Isn’t it great that they have platforms for the tents?”
Ah, that’s what the platform is for. I was afraid of that. “Great,” I say, “you know, I haven’t camped that much…not since I was a kid.” I don’t say that any camping I was exposed to occurred with friends’ families, not my own. My father harbored a healthy aversion to sleeping on lumpy ground in drafty tents and loathed canned pork and beans, even prepared over an open fire. I’m pretty sure I’ve inherited those wilderness-averse genes.
But I’m determined to be a good sport. Maybe I’ll even like camping now that I’m an adult. So many people do. There must be some good to it.
We set up the tent quickly and easily, or, rather, Will does, as I hold and hand him appropriate ropes and pegs. He unrolls a hefty camping mattress, sleeping bags, pillows and extra blankets. The tent is beginning to look almost cozy.
“Emily, you can help me unload the cooking utensils,” Will says, hefting a large carton from the back of his car.
When we have finally unloaded pots, pans, cooking and eating utensils, camper stove, dried foods, canned foods and the requisite can opener—enough equipment to stock an entire camping section at L. L. Bean, I need a break.
“Will, where’s the bathroom?”
“What bathroom? You have all of this wonderful woods…” Noting my look of horror, he quickly says, “Just kidding. This campground has a bathroom, hot and cold running water, even showers.”
“All the amenities,” I say. “Just point me toward that luxurious facility.”
The primitive cement building housing the toilets, sinks and shower stalls is exactly what I remember at Camp Chippewa. It’s even at an uncomfortable distance from our tent; any nighttime visit will require a flashlight. Could it be? Have I been transported back to that childhood nightmare? Nonsense, I’m an adult and this is an adventure.
In the middle of the night, the cry of a hoot owl awakens me, and I recognize the discomfort of an overextended bladder. I need to go to the john. As I lie in the warmth of the down sleeping bag, reluctant to stir and debating how badly I need to go, I hear another sound. Is Will taking a shower? Wait a minute, there’s no shower. We’re in a tent. It’s rain—not a gentle sprinkle. It’s heavy rain, hitting at our canvas tent. Usually I love the sound of rain falling on a window or roof, but now the sound of running water is going to put me over the edge. Should I wake Will? No, better to let him sleep. After all, this isn’t an emergency.
How am I going to cover myself? If Will brought raingear, I have no idea where to find it and don’t have time to rummage around. I grope for my flashlight, lying somewhere to my right beside my sleeping bag. I find it and shine it around the tent, searching for something I can use as a cover. I spot a tarp, folded neatly on a stack of “gear” in the corner. This will do. When I unfold it, I discover it’s huge, big enough to cover my bedroom floor. I fold it over and try draping it over my head and shoulders. The weight almost brings me to my knees, but I straighten up, determined to make it work. With the loop on my flashlight hanging off my wrist and my other hand clutching the tarp, I manage to lift the tent flap and struggle out of the tent.
The rain is heavy and wetter than I remember, but I gamely grasp the tarp and maneuver the flashlight loop off my wrist and the light into my hand. It’s good I have it because no other light, not even a star, appears to guide me. With the rain slapping my face, I can’t see much anyway, but I plod along the dirt path, headed, I hope, to the toilet. As I walk farther down the rutty road, my confidence mounts. I can do this. I’m no Annie Oakley, but I’m no wimp either.
I begin to walk more quickly and have just spotted the cement building that houses the toilet, have just exhaled a triumphant “Eureka,” when my right foot finds a deep rut—the size of a city street pothole−digs into it, twisting my ankle, and I fall, shouting in shock and pain. I would writhe on the ground, but my foot is still stuck in the hole and the ground is too wet and soggy for writhing. Rather, I sink into the beginnings of mud, still covered in tarp. At least that’s working. Since I didn’t hear a snap, I don’t think my ankle’s broken, but I suspect it’s badly sprained, and I can’t extricate if from the hole. Now all I need is a mole or wood mouse to pop up the hole to find out what kind of critter is attempting a home invasion. What if he starts nibbling on my toes? What if I’ve fallen into a foxhole? Ignoring the pain, I begin wriggling and twisting my foot until I’m able to pull it out of the hole. I really want to writhe now, but all I can do is flop around in the muck.
When I try to lift myself to my knees, my ankle hurts too much. Collapsing back onto the ground, I realize I may drown or suffocate before another camper comes along this path in search of the toilet. At this point, my bladder gives way.
Time passes. I have no idea if it’s minutes or hours. Again I try to lift myself off the ground, and this time, I’m able to get to my knees. I begin to crawl, dragging the tarp, burned out flashlight, and wounded ankle behind me.
It’s slow going. The heavy, waterlogged tarp on my back doesn’t make it any easier. Stopping to rest after every five or six knee jerks forward, I keep going. The wind has picked up and I can’t tell if the moaning I hear comes from the wind, creaking tree limbs, or me. I’m just about to sink into the mud in weariness and despair when a voice reaches me.
“Emily, is that you? What in God’s name happened? Where have you been?” Will shouts above the wind, grabbing me under my arms and heaving me to a standing position where I shriek in pain.
“What’s happened? Are you hurt?”
“My ankle,” I manage to groan. “twisted, get me off it!”
Will lifts me off the ground and carries me, tarp hanging off my mud-caked body, back up the path and into the tent not more than 50 feet away.
He removes the soggy tarp, dropping it outside the tent, and then carefully maneuvers me through the open flap and onto his sleeping bag.
“But it will get all wet and muddy,” I protest.
“Don’t worry about that. Let’s get you warm and dry.”
For the next couple of hours, Will ministers to me, getting me out of the soaked, muddy clothes and wrapping me in warm blankets; applying ice to my ankle; brewing me hot, soothing tea; dosing me with Ibuprofen; and sighing and shaking his head in disbelief as I tell my tale.
“Emily, try to sleep now. It’s almost morning and we’ll see how you are then. Maybe we’ll need to find a hospital, but we’ll see.”
“Hospital? Why? Do I have hypothermia? Have I been bitten by a rabid animal? With all that was happening, I might not have noticed.”
“No, you may want to have that ankle X-rayed, make sure nothing’s broken.”
“Oh, that,” I mumble before falling asleep.
Too soon, the sky lightens into day. I open my eyes and groan.
Will, who looks as though he hasn’t slept at all after a three-day binge, rolls over to my side. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s morning already.” Listening for a moment, I add, “And it’s still raining.”
“Go back to sleep for a while. It’s still early.”
When I awaken again, it’s still raining and my ankle is throbbing.
“Will,” I say, “my ankle is killing me. Can I have more Ibuprofen?”
“Not on an empty stomach,” he says, wriggling out of his sleeping bag and stumbling to the food supply where he fishes out crackers and peanut butter, serving them with hot tea and pills.
“Will, I think I’d like to go home now. This has been memorable and I think I’ve had enough.”
“I’m so sorry,” he says, applying fresh ice to my ankle, which has swollen to the size of a prize-winning pumpkin. “I’d wanted to make this a special weekend, taking you to one of my favorite spots, sharing the outdoors, and sleeping under the stars.”
“You know, Emily, when I woke up and you were gone, I was terrified that something had happened to you.”
“Your fears were justified.”
“I don’t know what I’d do if something had happened to you, if you were hurt,” he pauses dramatically…”or worse.”
“I’d say this came close.”
“Emily, I’m trying to say that I love you and want to take care of you always.” My ankle throbs in response.
Photo Credit: Katie Dunlap