By the age of forty-seven, I had technically broken nine of the Ten Commandments–although I'm still a bit fuzzy about the whole "graven image" thing. For example, when I was eleven, on a dare, I stole several candy bars from a drugstore. And in high school, telling the fifth-period gym class that Sally Kipman was a lesbian would definitely be categorized as bearing false witness. But in my defense, it was only after she told everyone I was fat because I was pregnant.
Still, I always thought that I would make it to heaven with the sixth commandment intact; that going through life without kill-ing another human being would be a piece of cake.
But I was wrong. And now here I am–ten for ten.
And it all started with my birthday.
I WAS BORN TO be middle-aged. It fits me like comfy flannel pa-jamas that are worn and washed until they are faded and thin; clothing with no eager need to prove anything or be something else–it just is.
Today is my birthday. As of 2:17 this afternoon, I, Odelia Patience Grey, wandered into my forty-seventh year as absent-mindedly as someone who arrives at the supermarket only to realize that they really intended to go to the dry cleaners. I am comfortable with being forty-seven years of age and embrace it with enthusiasm.
I never felt young, not even when I was. When I was sixteen, my family claimed that I behaved more like a thirty-two-year-old. But it's easy to act older in a family suffering from arrested devel-opment. Given the choice, I would not go back and relive my life for anything. My time is now–and, from the looks of it, getting better with each passing year, every marching month.
I was examining my face in the bathroom mirror, sighing slightly as I took inventory of new wrinkles. Enduring crinkly lines on my face was one the few things I viewed as a downside to maturity. Admittedly, I am no great beauty, but neither would anyone mistake me for Medusa. My hair is medium brown, worn just below my chin. My eyes, inherited from my father, are green and close set. A slight bump and a spattering of freckles exist in harmony on my long nose. I'm told I'm cute, if one can still be considered cute at forty-seven.
The evening news drifted in from the television in the bed-room. I listened as I pulled, stretched, and smoothed my round face into alternative looks. A female newscaster was giving a fol-low-up report on the shootings three days prior at a community center. Five people had been injured, including three children.
Two later died. The shooter shot himself at the end, just before the police captured him. It had been a crime fueled by racial hate.
I stopped fussing with my face and looked into my eyes as they stared back from the mirror. The green was dulled with sadness. I could never understand how some people could treat life so cava-lierly. Did they think that once the trigger was pulled, they could yell "cut!" and their targets would magically resurrect like TV ac-tors between scenes?
A deep sigh crossed my lips, a barely audible prayer for the vic-tims and their families.
The news program was turned off. A moment later, I felt a strong hand caress my fat behind through my slinky nightgown. As I leaned back into the warm palm, the hand stopped to cup the fullness, giving my bottom a familiar squeeze. I closed my eyes and smiled. This was love, and love always conquered hate.
"In some cultures," I said with sass, still not turning around, "you'd be forced to marry me after this."
"I think that's a sentence I could live with," my groper an-swered.
The fingers of his hand did a tickling tap dance on my left but-tock, and one finger lovingly found the slight indentation left by a bullet last year–a bullet fired by a killer hell-bent on making me the next victim. Then the fingers went back to a loving caress. Since the shooting, Greg favored that side of my bottom. The hand on my butt moved up to encircle my thick waist and pull me close. Only then did I turn to look at him as he sat in his wheelchair next to where I stood.
Reaching down, I pushed Greg's longish brown hair out of his eyes. I love his hair. It's medium brown, nicely styled, and so silky to my touch. In the last few months he had grown a beard and mustache, which he kept closely trimmed. I had always thought him quite handsome, but now he was a bona fide babe. And he was mine. We had met fifteen months ago when a mutual friend died, and the fire still burned brightly between us. Out of the tragedy of Sophie London's death had come this glowing, healthy relation-ship. At thirty-seven, Greg Stevens is my junior by ten years.
I bent down and kissed him lightly on the lips, tasting some-thing unusual but identifiable. "I can still taste the cigar you smoked tonight," I said, crinkling my nose. "No doubt you got it from Seth Washington."
Greg reached up his other hand and placed it on my other hip, turning me so that I fully faced him.
"Don't blame Seth," he said, giving me his best puppy dog eyes, "I brought the cigars."
I bent down and kissed him again, this time a little longer and deeper, letting him know that I didn't really mind the cigar taste.
Greg had thrown me a birthday party tonight at one of our favorite Italian restaurants. Most of our friends had been there, in-cluding my closest friend, Zenobia Washington, better known as Zee, and her husband, Seth. Now it was just the two of us bedding down for the night at Greg's place–the best part of the day.
"Thank you for the party, Greg. It was wonderful."
"You're welcome, sweetheart," he said, taking one of my hands and kissing the palm. Holding it tightly, he turned the wheelchair and headed out the bathroom door, tugging me along. "Come to bed, Odelia. I have a big surprise for you."
I laughed. "I just bet you do."
If I had known that forty-seven was going to be this much fun, I would have done it years ago.
IT IS NOT AGAINST the law to be a nincompoop. If so, I would have a rap sheet as long as my arm.
Fortunately for me, no one was witnessing my most recent slide into childish stupidity and self-pity. I was wallowing alone like a pig in a mud puddle–or, in this case, a tub of chocolate pudding the size of a child's sand pail.
Now, there are comfort foods and then there are comfort foods. This particular item was my supreme tranquilizing grub. I had other favorites, but they were mere bandages eaten to soothe minor emotional aches and pains. But this, the one I fondly call "bucket-o-puddin'," was akin to full-strength, prescription-only drugs when it came to emotional eating.
When I was a little girl, my mother often made chocolate pud-ding. In those days, it came in a box and we cooked it on the stove. It began as a brown, sugary powder that was mixed with whole milk and then stirred constantly over low heat. That was my job, the stirring. With a wooden spoon I would gently stir and stir and stir, making sure that the precious brown mud did not stick to the bottom of the pan and scorch.
The pudding brand was My-T-Fine. I understand it's still made today, but I haven't seen it in years. My-T-Fine chocolate fudge pudding is one of those happy childhood memories that has dis-appeared from my life without explanation, just as my mother did when I was about sixteen.
Normally, I'm not that fond of pre-made puddings, but not long ago I stumbled across a new brand in the supermarket and decided to give it a whirl. It tastes almost, but not quite, like my beloved My-T-Fine.
I was sitting on my sofa, knee deep into the bucket-o-puddin', watching the movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. It's one of my all-time favorites–not because it stars Kevin Costner, but because it boasts the British actor Alan Rickman cast as the Sheriff of Not-tingham. I have a thing for Rickman. In my eyes, he is right up there with My-T-Fine chocolate fudge pudding.
Sitting patiently on the floor to my left was Wainwright, Greg's golden retriever. Greg was out of town and I was doggie sitting. To my right, ensconced regally on the sofa beside me, was my big, sassy cat Seamus. Seamus isn't much to look at. He has only one eye and both ears are raggedy, as if they had once, long ago, been a chew toy for some other animal. About a year and a half ago, his fur was tinted green by some local pre-teen hooligans wielding food coloring. It's now back to its original champagne color, but I swear that every now and then I still see a hint of emerald in the sunlight. As I studied my cat, he turned to look back at me with that one amber eye. It was a look of frank royal arrogance, leav-ing no doubt in my mind that cats have never forgotten they were once looked upon as gods.
After taking a big bite of pudding, I put a small glob on the spoon and fed it to Seamus. He licked it eagerly, almost as obsessed about it as his human mother. Knowing that chocolate was bad for dogs, I tossed Wainwright a Snausages treat from the bag resting on my lap. The animals seemed happy to join me in my comfort food binge.
The reason for this slide into chocolate sedation was the little black velvet box sitting on the coffee table in front of me. It was closed tight. Inside was a breathtaking diamond engagement ring.
Before leaving to attend a convention in Phoenix, Greg had asked me to marry him. He had popped the question in bed the night of my birthday, and was surprised and hurt when an eager reply did not gush forth immediately. We had talked about it into the wee hours of the morning, but I was still no closer to a deci-sion. However, he had made it quite clear that he expected an an-swer when he got back Thursday, just four days from now. Truth is, I just wasn't sure. I mean, I love Greg and our relationship is won-derful, both physically and emotionally. But do we belong together for the long haul? That's the million-dollar question. As compat-ible as we are, I'm not sure that we want and need the same things to be happy over the next twenty years and beyond.
I put the dilemma and the pudding on hold long enough to shout at the TV. "Go ahead, Alan, cut out his heart with a spoon!"
The phone rang just as I was about to jam another load of pud-ding into my mouth. I put down the container and went to answer the cordless in the kitchen.
"Hello," I answered with little enthusiasm.
"What in the world is wrong with you?" the voice on the other end shouted.
"Hi, Seth, and good day to you, too," I responded calmly.
Seth is as much of a big brother to me as his wife is like a sister, and like most big brothers, he feels free to pass along unsolicited advice and comments. He's also an attorney and is used to think-ing that his opinion is always the correct one.
"Do you have any idea what a good man Greg Stevens is?" His voice had lowered a bit, but it was still demanding.
"Gee, Seth, what do you think?" I snapped back. "I've only been dating and sleeping with the man for the past fifteen months."
I sighed, knowing that Zee had told her husband about the pro-posal and my reluctance to accept it.
"So why aren't you marrying him? He's crazy about you, Ode-lia. Marry him before he finds out he's just plain crazy."
I should have anticipated Seth's reaction. He loved me and thought the world of Greg. He only wanted what was best for both of us. So, damn it, just butt out.
"I never said I wasn't marrying him," I responded in a tight voice. "I just want to think it over. You know, make sure it's the right decision."
"Seth, you leave poor Odelia alone," another voice chimed in. It was Zee, obviously on an extension. "It's her decision. Odelia, honey, we're behind you one hundred percent, no matter what you decide."
"Thanks, Zee," I said into the phone.
"Seth Washington! You know better than to take the Lord's name in vain in this house."
Great, my marriage proposal was causing a battle in the Wash-ington household.
"Like I said, Odelia," Zee continued, "whatever you decide, we're behind you all the way–both of us."
I heard an abrupt click and guessed that Seth had hung up.
"Zee, why couldn't he just leave things be?"
"Honey, Seth loves you. He's just worried about you. He doesn't want you to be alone."
"I don't mean Seth. I mean Greg. Why did he have to propose? Things are great just the way they are. Or were. Now he's changed everything."
"He loves you very much, Odelia."
"I know that," I said, my voice small. Greg's love was something I never doubted.
"It's only natural for him to want to marry you," Zee added. There was a pause and I knew what Zee was going to say next. "Greg isn't Frank, you know," she said in a soft, comforting tone.
Bingo. Right on the money.
Zee was referring to Franklin Powers, an attorney I was engaged to several years earlier. He was a seemingly charming man who had wooed and won me easily, maybe too easily. An attractive man a dozen years my senior, in time he revealed himself to be a control freak given to inflicting emotional torture mixed with violence. Although he never struck me, I had felt that those days were fast approaching. I broke off our engagement just two months before the wedding. The relationship had left me emotionally bruised and beaten and it had been three years before I could date again com-fortably.
I answered Zee truthfully. "I'm not worried about that. I know he's nothing like Frank and would never hurt me that way." Now it was my turn to pause. "Greg wants children. I don't. You and I have talked about this before."
"But have you discussed it with him?"
"Yes, of course." I was tired and it came across in a cranky voice. I wanted to return to wallowing with the animals and rooting for the Sheriff of Nottingham. I was not ready to be grown up about this just yet, not even with my best friend.
"Zee, I don't really want to discuss this right now. Please un-derstand."
"I do understand. And I'm here when you're ready to talk about it."
"Whatever you're eating, put it away. It's not going to help mat-ters."
I frowned. Zee knows me too well. Like me, she's as wide as she is tall, both of us weighing in over two hundred pounds and wear-ing size 20.
"What are you talking about?" I asked, feigning ignorance.
She laughed. It was a smooth, sexy, throaty laugh. If My-T-Fine chocolate fudge pudding had a sound, this was it.
"Don't give me that," she scolded, still laughing. "Right now I'd say you were either up to your elbows in a pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream or a box of Thin Mints. Girl Scout cookie time is a long ways away, Odelia, better pace yourself." She laughed again.
"A lot you know. It's a container of chocolate pudding."
We laughed together and I felt immediately better. But then isn't that what best friends are for?
I hung up the phone and walked back into the living room.
"Oh ? my ? gawd!"
In the middle of the floor lay Wainwright, wolfing down Snau-sages from a torn package. On the coffee table was Seamus, his furry face buried deep into the bucket-o-puddin'. The cat looked up briefly, his usually creamy-colored snout brown, and then went back to his feast. The dog wagged his tail in welcome.
"Sheesh, I can't leave you guys alone for a minute." I scolded the dog, wagging my finger at him. "Your dad would kill me if he saw this." The happy animal thumped his tail again.
It was true. Greg was a loving but disciplined master when it came to Wainwright. And the dog was beautifully trained and loyal. But when the golden retriever stayed with me, I let him get away with murder, sometimes even letting him sleep on my big bed just as Seamus did. Greg tolerated the cat sleeping at the end of his bed when I took Seamus along for weekends, but he would never have broken Wainwright's training.
Seamus, on the other hand, was spoiled rotten and had the fussy disposition that went with such indulgence. Annoyed at my own stupidity of leaving animals alone with food, I grabbed Sea-mus, stuffed him under one arm and toted him, protesting, into the kitchen before he could get pudding on the furniture. I depos-ited him into the sink. Holding him by the scruff of the neck with one hand, I rinsed his face off with the other, accompanied all the time by kitty growls and squirming. Fortunately, no matter what indignities I foist upon him, Seamus never uses his claws or teeth on me. He seems to sense that whatever I do to him, it is for his own good. Near the end of the cleanup, the phone rang again. I snatched at the receiver, loosening my grip from the cat's neck. He used the opportunity to make a break for it and jumped down out of my reach. Oh well, now he was just wet, and water was harmless enough.
"Hello," I barked into the phone.
"I would have thought your disposition would be at least a little better at home," the person on the other end commented.
Damn, it was Mike Steele, one of the attorneys from the office. Correction: the attorney I hated from the office. Michael R. Steele, Esquire, was the poster boy for arrogance.
I am a paralegal in a firm called Wallace, Boer, Brown and Yates, nicknamed Woobie. I had worked for Wendell Wallace for nearly two decades, juggling legal secretarial duties for him in addition to being the firm's corporate paralegal. In recent years, I have done less for Mr. Wallace and more paralegal work. When Mr. Wallace retired, the transition to full-time paralegal was virtually seamless, except now I am assigned to Michael Steele, who recently made partner in the firm–as if he had not been egotistical enough as a senior associate. Another downside is that, although I now have my own private office, albeit a teeny-weeny one, it is just two doors down from Steele's office.
Michael Steele is the firm's problem child, a real pain in the ass to everyone, overly demanding and rude. His redemption is his brilliance in the field of law; in that, he is top notch. And while he does not like me any more than I like him, he, in turn, respects my knowledge and experience.
And here he was, calling me at home on a Sunday afternoon. Now I was really annoyed. This was beyond pudding therapy.
"What do you want, Steele?" I asked without ceremony.
He got to his purpose quickly."I need you to stop in on Sterling Price tomorrow before coming to work. Take your notary stuff. He has some documents he wants notarized, in addition to giving you something to bring back to me. I told him you'd be happy to do it. Sounds like some simple acknowledgments."
"Gee, thanks, Steele, for asking me first," I said sarcastically.
Actually, I didn't mind, though I was not about to say that to Steele. I like Sterling Price. He is one of my favorite clients, and his office is not too far out of my way. I just wanted to give Steele some grief for not checking with me first.
"He's expecting you at eight sharp," Steele said curtly, then hung up.
Rats. That meant I would have to skip my usual morning walk with Reality Check, a support group for large people. My friend Sophie London began the group. When she died, I became the group's leader. Reality Check meets every two weeks to dispense advice, comfort, and support, and to cheer on its members in their daily struggles in an unkind world. Each weekday morning at six, a small band of us walks a section of the Back Bay in Newport Beach. It's a great way to start the day, even if it means dragging my lazy ass out of bed an hour earlier than necessary.