A funny take on friendship, travel and the meaning of life.
Hello there, dear reader. I know, directly talking to you is against all rules of good writing, the third wall should never be broken, unlike during the times of Charles Dickens, nowadays we are not allowed to engage this way, but heck, we live only once. The story I’m going to tell you is about living. Not always by all the rules, but definitely going through life with the pedal to the metal.
First, let me introduce myself. My name is Jane. Plain Jane fits me just fine. When the company I worked for presented me with an early retirement package, I sat down with my husband Jim and pulled out the biggest calculator I could find. He was worried, and so was I. The bottom line looked a little shaky, but if we were to downsize over the next two years and cut down on our expenses, we should be okay. At least on paper. My hand trembled when I signed the acceptance of the offer.
Today was my last day at the office. I wore my navy pantsuit, diamond earrings Jim gave me for our thirtieth wedding anniversary, full makeup, and a dab of my favorite Armani fragrance. I also made sure the night before that my gray roots weren’t showing.
The email arrived shortly after ten in the morning. Everyone to the conference room. My retirement party was scheduled to start in fifteen minutes. I took a deep breath, held my head high, and forced myself to smile as I followed the carpeted hallway to the large room used only for upper management meetings. Everyone seemed to be already there. Embarrassing applause broke out as soon as I entered.
A boring speech about the value of my contribution to the company ensued. At least they could have waited till after lunch, I thought, as my boss presented me with a cake, a card sign by everyone, and a generous gift certificate to Michaels. Just think of all the crafts I could do, as starting today, I had no real reason to get up every morning, I thought, as I graciously thanked everyone for being such an excellent team.
It didn’t take long to log me out of the system, as I noticed while I cleared my desk. I quickly said the last goodbye to my co-workers. At least I wasn’t escorted by Andy, the security guard, I thought, just as he showed up at my cubical.
“Need a hand with that?” He asked and pointed to the bankers’ box on my desk.
“No,” I said, hoping that the heat flooding my face wouldn’t give him enough reason to search my belongings box for the possible stollen stapler and company sticky notes. “I got it. Thank you.”
“I’ll walk you out,” he said in a soft voice. “I’m to collect your access card once—” his voice halted.
I looked up. “Let’s go,” I said and picked up my meager belongings.
The thirty years of nine-to-five came to an end. I sat in the parking lot and clenched the steering wheel. Tears ran down my cheeks. I felt cut off. Abandoned. Separated from my…my what? Life? That wasn’t exactly it. Career? Well, there were days that I’d gladly pay someone else to go in and enjoyed my new boss, half my age, breathing down their neck instead of mine. Would I miss my routine? Getting up at six a.m., making two lattes, catching a quick breakfast with Jim, before he headed out the door to start a pot of coffee for his guys at the shop. I recalled looking around the house and wondering when would I get to read all the books gathering dust, to knit something out of the yarn stored in the basement, next to the old photos, waiting for decades to be neatly arranged in scrapbooks. Then I would glance at my phone, pick up the empty cups, drop them in the sink, grab my lunch bag, and head out. What exactly would I miss about that? The sheets of ice I had to scrape off my car during the long Canadian winter?
The engine came to life as soon as I pressed the start button. A deep breath scented by Bath and Body's newest spring car freshener filled my lungs. Exhaling deeply, I silently admitted I would miss this car, as the lease payments would no longer be in our budget. Exiting the parking lot, leaving the company with its quarterly targets behind, it dawned on me. I was free.
I pressed the volume control on my steering wheel. Unwritten was playing. Like a crazy woman, I rolled down my windows, pressed the gas pedal, and sung with Natasha Bedingfield. If anyone bothered to watch me leave, this act would only confirm the correctness of the corporate decision. It was time for me to go, as I was surely coming unhinged.
By the time I pulled into my driveway, my windows were back up, my tears dried. Today was the first day of my life. My new life.
I hauled my bankers' box into the house. It was so quiet. One glance at the kitchen clock told me that it would be over six hours until Jim got home. And then it struck me. What would we be talking about over dinner? I could pull off today; there was enough drama in my final exit. He would surely chuckle, and I’d feel connected. As if nothing had changed. But what about tomorrow? And the day after? What would fill this gaping hole in my life, the forty-plus hours every week? I could do only so much scrapbooking before I glued my fingers together.
The box landed with a thud next to my Lazy-Boy chair. Sinking into the welcoming cushions, I was fully aware that I was about to wrinkle my best suit. Who cared? I pushed back and stretched my legs. I could get used to this. The first genuine smile of the day curled my lips. At least for now. Letting out a long sigh, I reached for the blanket and closed my eyes. The birds were chirping outside. How did I not notice that? The spring was fighting off the last morning frosts, and the grass looked greener every day. Perhaps I could start a little vegetable garden in the backyard. Ginger would know-how. The thought of her triggered a second smile of the day. My artist friend thought quitting my job was the best thing I had done. When I explained that quitting wasn’t really what happened and I have had not much choice in this, she waved her hand. In her mind, it was the best thing that happened to me. Ever. Money? I remember her scoffing laughter.
The ringtone cut into the peaceful tranquility of the house. I reached for my phone.
“Hello?” Ginger said, extending the syllables. “What do you have to report?”
“It’s done,” I said in a curt tone, in no mood for her ever-present cheeriness.
“I was just kidding!” Her panicked voice filtered through the speaker. “I didn’t mean for you to kill him!”
“What?” I checked the screen. The similarity of the voice could have been a coincidence. But the number was correct. “Ginger?”
“Yes?” She stretched the word beyond its limits.
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, come on!” She chuckled. “So, you finally shook off the chains!”
Did I mention that Ginger was an artist? Her life long quest for the enlightenment encompassed songwriting, some singing, ukulele, local theatre, storytelling club, pottery, oil painting fiasco, and organizing community art walks.
“I guess you could put it this way,” I said, unable to suppress the sigh.
“Are you home?”
“Yes,” I admitted cautiously.
“I’ll be over in half-an-hour. We got to celebrate. And I need your help putting finishing touches on Bernice’s birthday gift.”
“All right,” I checked the kitchen clock. When Ginger said she needed half an hour, it was usually closer to forty-five minutes. Enough time for a nap.
“Cheerio,” she chimed into the phone and hung up.
I tapped the screen, put the phone on silent, then set my timer for thirty-five minutes. I nestled back into my pillow and shut my eyes. Bernice’s birthday was tomorrow. Ginger and I were invited to her house. For the last time. As she and her almost x-husband accepted an offer. Who knew where she would live a year from now?
Ginger seemed to have no concern about Berince’s upcoming divorce; her main worry was where Bernice was going to store all those Victorian teapots. Her suggestion of putting the collection on Kijiji enraged Bernice so much that I had to step into the situation and defuse the impending fight.
Naturally, Ginger would toss all the worries into the wind, alongside the flower-patterned teacups, and little sugar cube tongs, unaware that every one of these items carried a piece of Bernice’s heart with them. She built her life around Al and their kids, teaching English at a local college, but only part-time, so she would always have time to make dinners, pick the kids up, that is before they had their cars, and make sure her house was pristine, and in sync with the season.
Her Christmas displays were famous, and the entire neighborhood anticipated her annual open house, as it must have been the best in town. The local paper ran several features over the past four decades on their restored home, the pretty garden, the craft shows hosted in their house, and the neighborhood tailgate cook-off Al and Bernice organized every summer.
My eyes flew open. I would have to tell Jim soon. First, my forced retirement, then this? Why was everything changing so fast?
A knock on the door startled me. Could it be Ginger? I took a deep breath, then pushed off the chair and shuffled to the front hallway. So much for my power nap.
“You got to help me with this,” she burst through the door without a hello. Her long gray hair was fluttering in the draft.
“Do come in,” I said and slowly shut the door. My eyes followed her to the living room, where she plopped herself on our sofa, her patchwork of a coat, and naturally her shoes, still on. Ginger held a vegetable bushel I vaguely remembered purchasing at the farmers market last summer. Unlike today, back then, it was filled with red peppers.
“What did you bring me,” I asked, already on the way to the kitchen. Ginger loved camomile tea. I had a secret theory for that. Her body subconsciously craved it in the desperate attempt to calm her down.
“Don’t fuss with that,” she called after me. “Will have tea at Bernice’s house. But first, I need your help with this.”
Was she confused? The party was tomorrow. But perhaps amid her secret project, she forgot what day it was, which wouldn’t be for the first time.
“So, you brought my bushel back?” I gave her a meaningful look. “Filled with garbage?”
She tsked at me and pulled off the black plastic. “Garbage?” She lifted her contraband toward me. “It’s Bernice’s present.”
My breath caught. Thankfully I wasn’t one to worry about wrinkles, because my eyebrows automatically knitted together so tightly that they must have created a ridge of new depths on my forehead. “What are you on?” I said, ensuring that there was enough disapproval in my tone that it had no chance to escape her attention.
“Of course,” she let out an exasperated breath. “You never like anything that I make.”
I quickly inventoried a few items she created over the past couple of months, like the wind chime made out of five empty beer cans, tied with old shoelaces to a piece of driftwood. Cottage chic, she called it, when she presented it to Jim for his birthday. Or how about the no-sew tie-dyed undershirt bag she wrapped for me just this past Christmas. And then she had the gull to asked me what the girls at the office thought as if I would ever bring her old stretched out shirt into the land of Kate Spade, Coach, and the boss’ Prada.
I sucked in a breath. “It’s not that I don’t like what you make, it’s just at times it is a little too creative for us, the mear mortals.” I sat next to her, somehow hoping that the gesture would spare her somewhat fragile feelings. “Okay, do tell.” I pointed at the item in the bushel. “What is the artist trying to tell the rest of us with this?”
She reached in and grabbed the thing, then pulled it out.
A Halloween decoration? I wrinkled my nose and held my tongue.
“I found this beauty at the thrift store,” she said with pride, holding the skeleton by the little plastic vertebrae. She shook it a little, to loosen up the elbow, perhaps in hopes that if the plastic bones looked a little less out of place, the full beauty of her find would suddenly dawn on me.
“And you are thinking of giving it to Bernice for her birthday? Why?”
“But Jane!” She exclaimed with enthusiasm that was lost on me. “Think about it!”
“Isn’t this exactly what she needs?”
“This?” I shook the thing’s leg. “Who needs a skeleton pocked with red and blue dots? Unless you are a chiropractor or a Chinese medicine doctor.”
“He can be a gift from the both of us; you only have to think a tiny bit beyond the ordinary,” she said in a low tone as if instructing me on the secrets of life.
I shook my head. No way I would be responsible for this pending fiasco.
“Fredy is a symbol.” She added.
“You named it?”
“But of course.” She looked at me, her radiant blue eyes shone with excitement. “He needed a name. Didn’t you?” Ginger patted the medical model and sat it on her knee as if it were a marionette that lost its strings.
“Did you just talk to it?” My eyebrows were half up my forehead. The situation was getting a little weirder than usual. “You are not getting into voodoo, are you, because if you are, I want none of that in my house.” I jumped to my feet.
“Why are you yelling at me?”
“Yelling?” I said defensively. My voice might have gotten a little louder, which would be perfectly natural in this situation anyway. Ginger knew my absolute dislike of anything even remotely touching what some might call the dark arts. I have a phobia of anything magic, wich, or devil related.
Chalk it up to my Christian upbringing, but if anyone dared to bring a book of ghost stories to my house, they would be asked, be it politely, to take it back to their car, and leave it there, should they still choose to have tea with me.
“Ginger,” I took a step back and said in the calmest voice I could muster, “You know how I feel about stuff like that!”
“You are completely overreacting,” she said in an assuring tone.
Her intent failed, as the onset of a mild panic attack didn’t fade one bit. She waved a red bow in front of my face. “As I said, I need your help with this. Why don’t you sit down and hold Fredy.”
“You need to explain this to me. Now.” I said in a low tone.
She blew out her cheeks. “I told you. It’s a symbol. An allegory.”
“Of death?” I planted my clenched fists into my hips.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” she waved me away with the red polka-dotted bowtie. “Of life, naturally. It’s a birthday gift.”
“You need to do better than that.”
“Let me spell it out for you, Jane,” she stretched the a in my name. “Where exactly is Bernice right now.”
I glanced at the clock. My guess would be as good as any. “Home?”
Another wave of her regal hand. “Sure. I called her right after I talked to you. But think about where she is in her life.”
Of that, I thought every day. Bernice’s life was in a hole and a deep one at that. A skeleton? I narrowed my eyes. “And you want to give her this?” My voice rose an octave as the index finger of my right hand shot out, pointing accusatively at Fredy.
“You don’t think it’s appropriate?” Her eyes grew wide, and her voice filled with disappointment as if I just announced that there was no Santa Clause.
“Be serious for once.” I said sternly. This was a bit much. How could she be so out of touch? Not only had Ginger forget to ask about my last day at the office, in addition to that, was she now trying to convince me to give our friend a skeleton for her birthday? Was this the best we could do for Bernice, as the life she had known for over thirty years was completely falling apart?
“I’m perfectly serious,” she tried to sound convincing.
I filled my lungs with air. I needed to put a stop to this. Immediately. “So, your idea of making someone feel better is to rub it in a little more? Pour salt into the wound? What are you going to give me? An ax?”
She actually smirked!
“That is good,” Ginger broke out into a chuckle.
I clenched my fists once more if only to prevent me from wrapping my fingers around the same vertebra she so carefully held Fredy by.
“Get serious.” I needed to sound stern.
It was contagious. My stomach spasmed a little, and a small chuckle forced itself to my nose, producing an involuntary snort, as my lips remained clamped together.
Now Ginger was at it, full force, she leaned into the back cushions of the sofa and howled. “An ax!" Her belly laugh was so deep; I could hold mine no longer.
I burst out laughing.
As tears ran down her cheeks, she pressed Fredy against her chest and kept going. “I…I…”
Now I was all in. I bent forward and then leaned back into the cushions next to her. I laughed from the depth of my soul and didn’t care that new tears sprung from my eyes. This was why Ginger, the eccentric artist, was one of my best friends. She was downright crazy. And we all needed a little crazy in our lives, once in a while.
“Here,” she shoved Fredy into my arms, “I got to go the bathroom, or I’ll pee my pants.” The encore of laugher followed.
“Me too,” I managed to say as a new wave bubbled up in my belly. Unable to say another coherent word, I just pointed upstairs, indicating my choice of the facilities, then dropped Fredy onto the sofa and dashed to the second floor.
The call of nature answered, I turned on the tap and soaped up. Noting the lavender scent of my favorite soap, I reached for the hand towel. I leaned against the sink and looked in the mirror. I was flushed, and my eyes glistened, but the frown was gone. I chuckled, hung the towel, and braced myself.
“Let’s do this,” I said to my image, still a little unsure about the whole idea, but willing to give Ginger the benefit of the doubt.
Back in the living room, Ginger laid out a bunch of tiny dress up items next to her on the sofa. “We got to make him handsome,” she said and shoved Fredy at me once more.
I sat next to her.
“Hold him straight,” she ordered.
As ridiculous as this was, I felt the need to oblige.
“Maybe you can explain to me,” I said, hoping to disturb some of that artistic concentration written on her face, as she fussed over the fabric pieces. “Maybe you can try to explain to me one more time, why do you think this is the best gift for her right now.”
She stretched the elastic attached to the back of the bow over Fredy’s head and placed it around his neck. “Don’t know about the best,” she murmured, “but think about it. Bernice lives in a closet.”
“What?” My eyebrows shot up.
“Now, that’s better,” she said to Fredy, then looked up at me. “Oh, not like that,” she shook her head.
I let out my pent up breath. Not that I would mind, at least there would be a plausible explanation of why her husband decided to leave her.
“What I mean,” Ginger continued, “for the past, what? Thirty? Forty years? She did everything for everyone else and locked her true self in some closet, or a box somewhere in the basement of that victorian mansion, and threw away the keys. Keys!”
She patted her pocket and pulled out her keychain. “This is what he needs.” She jingled the bunch, then pulled one key off the ring. “I need this to get into my house. Oh yeah,” she added. “I almost forgot. The car key.” Ginger pocketed the two small items and proceeded to attach the metal collection to Fredy’s hand.
“You won’t need any of those?” I was a little concerned.
“Not now,” she said and tilted her head. “And if I do, I will just ask Bernice if I could borrow them.”
I shrugged. Why look for logic where there was none.
Ginger pursed her lips and examined her gift-to-be. Her long fingers searched through the scattered miniature clothing items. Were those pet outfits? Or doll clothes?
“I swear I had one,” she pulled the garbage bag out of the bushel and then triumphantly waved a small party hat in the air. “Here it is.”
Ginger stretched the elastic and positioned the final item on Fredy’s head. “He is ready,” she declared. A satisfied grin lit up her face.
“Can I put him down now?” I asked, and when she nodded, I gently placed our dress up doll into the basket. “Now that we have finished our craft,” I spoke slowly as if she were a kindergarten student, “would you please tell me what are you trying to communicate here?”
“I like the way you put it,” she smiled. “Communicate. Isn’t that what all great art does? Communicate a truth?”
I glanced at Fredy. Great art he was not, yet I was genuinely intrigued. What truth was she going on about?
“May not be the truth, but…” she paused. Her face grew a little more serious than usual. “Okay, Jane, here is what I see. And do not get upset with me, for some of this applies to you too.”
A deep breath in.
“I love you both dearly, but can’t stand watching you like this.”
“Like what?” I struggled to keep the defensiveness out of my voice.
“Let’s just talk about Bernice for a moment.”
I nodded, unsure if I would ever be ready for Ginger Freud’s psychoanalysis.
“How long have we known her? Decades. Right?”
I nodded again, thinking back to the ladies’ craft group at our church.
“Tell me. Had she ever done anything bad?”
“Don’t mean breaking the law, or such, but anything crazy. Fun. Careless?”
Not everyone had the luxury of inconsequential sporadic decisions; I wanted to say because most of us didn’t have a cushy trust fund to fall on. Bernice and I had families that relied on us. We couldn’t take off and leave things behind on a whim.
“Do not get upset with me,” she patted my knee. “But when did you, or her, just lived? Simply lived without considering a million little things you had to do every day to keep everyone’s life going? You lived, for the better part of your lives, for everyone else.”
I filled my lungs with air, ready to jump in.
Her hand shot up. “Now, let me finish,” she said, somewhat more sternly than usual. “I’m not criticizing you, your choices. I’m just pointing out the fact that the clock is ticking, and sooner or later, we all will look much like Fredy here.”
She pointed to the dressed-up birthday gift.
“Now, what I want Bernice to remember about this birthday is not signing her divorce papers and worrying about where is she going to store those silly teacups of hers,” Ginger took a deep breath. “What I want her to remember is Fredy.”
She gently patted the skeleton’s cheek with the tip of her index finger. “He will make her laugh, but also think. You can do that, right?” She asked our new friend. Then she used her own hand to nod his head a little.
“Good boy,” she praised him as if he were a pet, then looked at me. “I want both of you to think of the time we have left, not the time we have already spent. And once we are done our thinking, we will live the rest of our days the way we want to. If that means you like making lunches for Jim, and it makes you happy and fulfilled, sure. But what if there is more. You must have a dream or two, something you always wished you could do, or a place to see, and never got to it.”
I looked to the floor. A lump formed at the back of my throat. This was Ginger I didn’t get to see very often. How well did she know me? How well had she known us? I’m one for living without regrets, yet my personal bucket list is a mile long. The list of reasons why I can’t do what I wished I could do is even longer. She was right. Time to do some thinking.
“So? Are you ready?”
“Ready?” I held her gaze, a little worried. “For what?”
“To drive over to Bernice’s house, while she still has one, and present her with Mr. Fredy.”
“But the party is tomorrow,” I said, unsure if she truly got the dates mixed up.
“Oh no, dear,” she said, a mischievous smile on her face. “The real party is today. I got my trunk filled with all that we need. Trust me.”