You don't know me yet, so there is no reason you should care that I’m stuck on a highway with a blow out. But maybe we can relate to each other. Maybe you can understand that when I say, “Everything goes my way,” I’m being sarcastic. Not that I’musually dependent on such a primitive form of communication. I’m actually not very cynical at all. I’m more of a glass-half-full-of-vitamin-infused-water person. Sometimes I even believe that if I dream something, or at least journal it, it will happen. But today, at eight forty-five in the morning, as the sun bakes me like a cod against the blacktop of the Pacific CoastHighway, I’m feeling a bit sarcastic.
It’s February but hotter than normal, which means a long, hot California summer is ahead—the kind that seems to bring out the beauty in blondes and the sweat glands in brunettes. I am a brunette. Not at all troubled by it. I don’t even have my hair highlighted. I own my brunetteness and always have, even when Sun-In was all the rage. And it can’t be overstated that chlorine doesn’t turn my medium chestnut hair green. Actually, it’s the copper, not the chlorine, that turns hair green—but that’s a useless trivia fact I try to save for speed dating.
I’m squatting next to my flat tire, examining the small rip. Holding my hair back and offmy neck with one hand, I stand and look up and down the road, hoping to appear mildly distressed. Inside, I’ll admit it, I’mfeeling moderately hysterical.My boss flips out when I’m late. It wouldn’t matter if my appendix burst, he doesn’t want to hear excuses. I wish he were the kind of guy who would just turn red in the face and yell, like Clark Kent’s newspaper boss. But no. He likes to lecture as if he’s an intellectual, except he’s weird and redundant and cliché, so it’s painful and boring.
A few cars zoom by, and I suddenly realize this could be my moment. Part of me says not to be ridiculous, because this kind of thing happens only on shows with a zip code or county name in the title. But still, you can’t help wondering, hoping, that maybe this is the moment when your life will change.When you meet your soul mate.
Like I said, I enjoy my glass/life half full.
Even as an optimist, I see no harm in being a little aggressive to achieve my goals. So with my free hand, I do a little wave, throw a little smile, and attempt to lock eyes with people going fifty miles an hour. And then I see him. He’s in a red convertible, the top down, the black sunglasses shiny and tight against his tan skin.He’s wearing pink silk the way only aman with a good,measured amount of confidence can. At least that’s the way I see it from where I’m standing.
As he gets closer, his head turns and he notices me. I do a little wave, flirtatious with a slight hint of unintentional taxi hailing. I decide to smile widely, because he is going fast and I might look blurry. He smiles back.My hand falls to my side. I step back, lean against my car and try to make my conservative business suit seem flattering.There’s nothing I can do about my upper lip sweating except hope my sweatproof department store makeup is holding up its end of the bargain better than my blowout-proof tire did.
He seems to be slowing down.
Live in the moment, I instruct myself. Don’t think about what I should say or what I could say. Just let it roll, Jessie, let it roll. Don’t over think it.
This thought repeats itself when the convertible zooms by. I think he actually accelerated.
So. My makeup is failing, along with whatever charm I thought I had. I just can’t imagine what kind of guy wouldn’t stop and help a woman. Maybe I’d have more hits if I were elderly.
I do what I have to do.What I know how to do. I change my own stupid tire. Yes, I can, and have been able to since I was eighteen. I can also change my own oil but don’t because then I appear capable of taking care of myself. And I’m really not. Practically, yes, I can take care of myself. I make decent money. I drive myself home from root canals. I open cans without a can opener. I’m able to survive for three days in the forest without food or water, and I never lost sleep over Y2K.
But I’mt alking about something different. I’m talking about being taken care of in an emotional way. Maybe it’s a genetic problem. I don’t know. Somehow I became a hopeless romantic. A friend tried the exorcism-equivalent of purging me of this demon when she made me watch TheWar of the Roses two times in a row, all under the guise of a girls’ night, complete with popcorn and fuzzy slippers.
That didn’t cure me.
I want to be married. I hate being alone.
I lift the blown-out tire and throw it in my trunk, slamming it closed.My skin looks like condensation off a plastic cup. I can’t believe nobody has stopped. Not even a creepy guy. I stand there trying to breathe, trying to get a hold of my anger. I’m going to be late, I’m going to be sweaty, and I’m on the side of a highway alone.
“You need some help?”
I whirl around because I realize that I’ve just been hoping that even a creepy guy would stop, and since my world works in a way that only my negative thoughts seem to come to pass, you can see why the glass-half-full is so important.
The morning sun blinds me and all I see is a silhouette.The voice is deep, kind of mature.
“Well, I did need some help,” I say, fully aware that acting cute is not going to undo the sweat rings that have actually burst through three layers of fabric, so I don’t bother. I dramatically gesture tomy car and try a smile. “But as you can see, I don’t now.”
“Yes. But thank you very much,” I say, for stopping after I’m completely finished. I trudge back to my car and start the air conditioner. Glancing back in my rearview mirror, I study the silhouette. He sort of has the same shape as the guy in my dream last night. My night- mare. It was actually a dream after my nightmare, where you feel awake but you’re not. It wasn’t the nocturnal version of Chainsaw Massacre, but it did involve taffeta.
He doesn’t wave. He doesn’t move. He just stands there, exactly like the guy in my dream. It’s very déjà vu–like and I lock my doors.
I put my blinker on, pull onto the highway, and leave him behind, driving below the speed limit on my flimsy spare tire all the way to work.
I work at Coston Real Estate.We’re squeezed between a wireless store and a Pizza Hut.We stand out a little because of our two huge dark wood doors, ten feet tall and adorned with silver handles. I push open one of the doors and walk in.Mine is the front desk. It’s tall, almost BerlinWall-like. People have to peer over it to see me, and I look very small on the other side.When I’msitting, I can barely see over the top of it.
I walk toward the break room, past nine square cubicles, all tan and otherwise colorless. Even the carpet is tan.On my left are the real offices with walls.
Nicole, inside her cubicle, sees me. “What happened to you?”
We’ve been good friends ever since I started working here, ten years ago. She’s African American, two years younger than I am. She has that kind of expression I wish I could wear. Her eyebrows slant upward toward each other, like a bridge that’s opening to let a boat through. It’s part “you’re weird” and part “I’m worried.” She has sass and I love it. She’s working her way up to senior agent and is one of Mr. Coston’s favorites, but I don’t hold that against her.
I don’t answer because I’m busy staring at her new eight-by-ten framed family picture. It’s very Picture People: white background, casual body language, all four wearing identical polos and jeans. I love that kind of husband, who will wear matching clothes with his family. They’re so adorable.
“Jessie, seriously girl, you okay? You’ve got black smeared across your forehead.”
I tear my eyes away from the photo. “Blow out on the highway.”
The eyebrow bridge is lowered, and she chuckles. “Honey, you look like you changed your own tire.”
I put my forehead against the edge of her cube wall. “I did.”
“Oh.Wow. I wish I knew how to change a tire.”
“No, you don’t. Trust me.”
She reaches under her desk and pulls out a neatly wrapped gift. “For you.”
I smile. I love gifts. I drop my things and tear it open even though I already know what it is. “Nicole, it’s beautiful!” It’s a leather bound journal with gold, embossed lettering and heavy, lined paper inside. “What’s the occasion?”
“It’s February. I know how much this month…Well, it tends to be a long month for you, that’s all.” She points to the spine of it. “It sort of remindsme of the one I brought you back from Italy four years ago. Remember?”
“Yes, it does.”
“So, my friend, happy February.May this month bring you—”
“Love.” From my bag, I pull out a folder and slap it on her desk.
“What is this?” She says it like a mom who has just been handed a disappointing report card.
Carefully, like something might jump out and insult her, she opens the folder. She picks up three glossy photos of several potential loves of my life.
“They’re hot, aren’t they?” I ask.
“Too hot,” she says.
“There’s no such thing as too hot.”
“Suspiciously too hot, like an air brush might be involved.”
I grab the photos from her and turn them around for her to see. With my finger, I underline each of their names: CuteBootsieBoo, SuaveOneYouWant, OneOfAKindMan.
“Jessie CuteBootsieBoo.Mmm. Doesn’t have a good ring to it.”
“It’s their instant message names, Nicole.”
“Yes. And that makes it better?”
I sigh. “You have got to get into the twenty-first century, you know. This is the best way to meet a guy.”
“You can tell a lot about a man by what he names himself.” She looks up at me and shakes her head. “Seriously. You set up a date with one of these and they’ll show up with a beer gut, a walker, or a rap sheet.”
“None of them rap.”
Nicole stands, grabs my arm with one hand and my stuff with the other, and whisks me to my desk. She nearly pushes me into my chair and drops everything in front of me.
“Chill out,” I say as she walks away. “This service guarantees background checks. But if you happen to end up needing a restraining order, they’ll pay for it.”
Nicole gasps and whirls around.
“I’m kidding.” But I have her attention now. I lean back in my chair, looking at the ceiling as my hands feel the leather on my new journal. “This’ll be the year, Nicole.”
“You say that every year. Especially in February, which is why I got you the—”
I snap forward. “But I’ve never taken control like this before. Three online match sites, one dating service.They find what you want or your money back.”
Nicole walks back towardme and leans over the counter. “I didn’t realize QVC sold dates. If you order in the next ten minutes, do you get two for the price of one, plus an eight-pieceTupperware set?” She reaches for my chocolate bowl.
I scowl at her, but lift the bowl up so she can reach it. “What do you know about it? You got married right out of college.”
“Don’t remind me.” She carefully unwraps her candy and takes a mini-bite.
“You never even had to try.” I grab a piece of dark chocolate out of my candy bowl and get the whole thing in my mouth before she takes another bite.
Nicole shrugs and leans against the counter. “Sometimes you just gotta leave these things up to fate.” She goes back to nibbling on her chocolate.
I swirl my hands in the air. “Fate, God, the universe. They’ve all been asleep on the job of setting up a love story for me.” I stand up. “No. I am going to make this happen myself.”
Nicole doesn’t look up from her candy. “Do you even know what it means to be married? To be chained to another person for the rest of your life? To pick up socks and wash underwear and care for a grown man like he’s just popped out of infancy? Huh?”
I glare at her even though she’s got eyes only for her candy. “It’s got to be better than being alone. Or being a bridesmaid eleven times.”
She bites her lip, and finally glances at me. “But you know how…you kind of need everything to be a certain way.”
I nudge my stapler so it isn’t perfectly perpendicular to my sticky notes, just to show her I’mable to handle disorder. I try not to stare at it because now it’s really bugging me. “Are you saying I’m a control freak?”
“With OCD tendencies. You can’t expect everything to be exactly how you want it if you want to live through a marriage.” I stand and start walking slowly toward the back bathroom. “I know what compromise means.”
Nicole follows. “Then why do you get mad when I have to check with my husband before we go out?That’s what marriage is. You can’t even poop without someone else knowing.”
I glance at her to see if she’s serious. She is. Part of me wants to tell her about my dream last night. I always tell her about my dreams. But she’s really pooping on my parade today.We get to her desk and she sits down. I walk on.
I have these dreams. I’m talking nocturnal, not journal. Yeah, I dream in my journal. I admit it. I’ve written in one since I was fourteen, when I found a strange delight every time I drew a heart with a boy’s name attached in squiggly letters.
But back to my nightmare. It started with me in a wedding dress. That’s not the nightmare.That part was actually cool because I was in a dress I designed in my journal when I was twenty-two. The wedding march was playing. I love the wedding march. Nothing can replace it. I cringe every time I hear a country song or bagpipes or something.My wedding, it’s got to be traditional.
I was making my way down the aisle, rhythmically elegant, one foot in front of the other. My shoulders were thrown back, my chin lifted, andmy bouquet held right at my waist. I once saw a bride carry her bouquet all the way down the aisle holding it at her chest. I shudder just talking about it.
The train fluttered behind me, like it’s weightless ormaybe there’s an ocean breeze not too far away. It was long, bright white, and caused people to nod their approval.
Then the wedding march stopped, halting like a scratched record. I looked up to find another bride in my place, wearing my dress, standing next to my guy. I couldn’t see what he looked like; he was facing the pastor. But the bride, she looked back at me with menacing eyes, overdone with teal eye shadow and fake lashes.
I screamed. I couldn’t help it. I closedmy eyes and screamed again.
When I opened them, I could hardly believe what I was looking at. A church full of people, looking at her. And what was I doing? Standing next to her in a bridesmaid dress.
Gasping, I looked down. Hot pink!With dyed-to-match shoes! I glanced next to me and covered my mouth. It was me again, standing next to me, in green. Dyed footwear.
And there I was again, standing next to my lime self, this time in canary yellow. On and on it goes. I counted ten of me before I woke up, gasping for air, clutching myself to make sure I was wearing cotton pajamas.
“Thank God,” I said, but as I looked up, I saw a man in my room.
He was backlit against my window, like the moon was shining in on him, but I don’t think the moon was out. A scream started forming in my throat, but I recognized that he was not in a stance that indicated he was going to stab me to death.There was no knife.Nothing but an easy, casual lean against my window sill. Truly, no less scary.
The scream arrived as I clamored for my lamp. I yanked the string three or four times before it turned on, but when it did, the man was gone.
I realize I am standing in the middle of the hallway near Nicole’s desk. She is gabbing on the phone, but looking at me funny. I go to the coat closet next to the bathroom. I always, always keep a spare change of clothes at work, just in case I have to do something like change my tire. Or someone else’s. It’s happened.
I take out my least favorite suit, which is why I keep it here. It’s lilac with a boxy neckline that makes me feel like I should be a nanny. I head toward the bathroom.
“Stone, get me the ad copy for the new Hope Ranch listings.”
This is my boss,Mr. Coston, dragging me back to reality.He pops his head out the door as I pass by but yells at me like I’m down the hall. I don’t think he even remembers my first name.
“Already on your desk, sir,” I say.
He’s in his sixties, with a loud but raspy voice and shiny silver hair that tops a permanent look of disappointment. “What happened to you?”
“Blown tire.” I hold up my suit. “I was just going to change.”
“Fine. Then get me a latte. Lighten up on the sugar, will you?”
“Right,” I mumble as he disappears. “Lighten up on life, will you?”
I’m the office equivalent of a bat boy. I’m the coffee girl. It’s this one thing that sort of drives me crazy about my job. I do a lot of important things, but when I have to run get coffee, I feel like I’m falling down the rungs of the occupational ladder. It makes me wonder. If I had a job I could get passionate about, would I be so desperate for a husband? I could drown myself in work rather than my dreams.
Well, either way, I’m drowning, and that’s never good.
After I change and decide I really, really dislike the color lilac, I grab my purse and head for the neighborhood Starbucks. It’s five blocks away and I like that. It gives me time to walk and think on such things as to why Mr. Coston has been married for thirty-four years, the exact number of years I haven’t been married. He doesn’t mention his wife much and doesn’t even have a picture of her in his office. He doesn’t wear a wedding band and when he does take a vacation, it’s with his buddies to golf resorts.
It just seems like the world could better balance itself out, that’s all.
I’m nearly to Starbucks. People are leaving with their white and green cups of bliss. The putrid smell of coffee will soon replace the putrid smell of old rainwater evaporating underneath the sun. I’m not a coffee fan. I’m high strung. The feeling everyone wants by drinking coffee I have naturally, just like my chestnut hair.
I’m about to open the door, and then I see him, in all his glory.
Excerpted from Never the Bride by Rene Gutteridge and Cheryl McKay Copyright © 2009 by Rene Gutteridge and Cheryl McKay. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.