Gerri Gilbert answered the door in gray sweats with a tear in the knee, hem on one leg falling down and a gray T-shirt under her black hoodie. Her short, dark brown hair was spiking every which way from bed head. She held a cup of coffee in her hand; her eyes were slits and there was a snarl on her face. "You're five minutes early. Again. We've been over this. Can you please not be early? I value every minute in the morning."
Sonja Johanson put a finger to her lips, shushing Gerri. The sun was barely over the rooftops and she didn't want to wake the house. Sonja wore her salmon sweats, white T-shirt and salmon hoodie, her silky, shoulder-length mahogany hair pulled back in a neat clip.
She backed away from the door and pointed down the street. Gerri stepped outside for a better view. A big pile of clothing, books and what appeared to be miscellaneous junk was on the Jamisons' lawn. Right at that moment their friend Andy appeared in the doorway of her house and with an angry cry hurled the tower to a desktop computer atop the pile.
Andy disappeared into the house and Bryce Jamison backed out of the door wearing business attire that was not fresh, his shirtsleeves rolled up, his collar open, his tie hanging out of his pants pocket and he sported an even worse case of bed head than Gerri. He held a packed duffel bag. "You're fucking crazy, you know that?" he yelled into the house. He turned and stomped past the pile toward his car in the driveway.
"And you're fucking through here!" Andy screamed out the open door. Then she slammed it.
"I think Andy might be coming to the end of her rope," Sonja said gravely.
Gerri's response was a short burst of laughter. "Ya think?" she asked.
"Should we do something?" Sonja asked.
"Oh, hell no," Gerri said, pulling her front door closed. She put her coffee cup on the brick planter that bordered dead flowers and bent to stretch. "It's for them to work out. Or finish off."
"Should we ask her if she's walking?"
"She's not walking today," Gerri said. "Let's get this over with." Gerri started off down the street at a brisk pace.
Just steps behind her Sonja asked, "What do we say?"
"Say nothing. Do nothing."
Gerri looked over her shoulder. "Nothing," she repeated.
Sonja came up beside her. "We should see if she's all right."
"We should give her time to finish throwing things, if that's what she's doing. I'll check in with her before I leave for work."
Sonja tsked. "I tried to talk to her about the relationship quadrant of her houseit's all torn up and the feng shui is a disaster. She's all out of balance. Now look."
Gerri stopped in her tracks. She looked at Sonja. "That's exactly why you'd better stay away from there today. You know how she feels about all your woo-woo stuff. If you pull any of your feng shui, chakra or karma bullshit today, you're going to end up on top of that pile."
"But something could have been done about that!"
"For God's sake," Gerri said impatiently, walking again. "It was destiny."
Ahead of them, about half a block away, a small, lean woman came out of her house, also wearing sweats. She stopped to stretch on her front walk. She was still stretching as they passed and Gerri called, "Morning, BJ." But Sonja added, "Wanna walk with us today, BJ?"
"Thanks, but I need the run," she answered, waving them off.
When they had cleared the house Sonja said, "She's making an awful lot of bad karma, the way she acts."
"She wants to run," Gerri said. "Quit asking her. I'd run if my knees wouldn't collapse."
"But it's unfriendly," Sonja said.
"Some women don't want girlfriends," Gerri pointed out. "I think she's been clear, and not unfriendly. Just private."
"Don't you think that's pretty suspicious?"
"No, I think it's private. Are you going to talk the whole time? Because if you are, I might risk permanent paralysis and just run with BJ."
"Little grouchy this morning? I bet you had liquor instead of chamomile before bed last night."
"Shut up, Sonja," Gerri said.
The 6:00 a.m. power walking had been going on for almost two years; Sonja had initiated it. She was the health guru, the motivator, often the pain in Gerri's butt. It was Sonja's profession. She was a feng shui consultant and home organizer who did personal color charts and something she referred to as life reading, which was like a mini study of your past, present and goals with the objective of total balance and personal success. Additionally she was a vegetarian, novice herbalist, part-time yoga and meditation instructor and impossible perfectionist. Gerri had an entire shelf dedicated to books given to her by Sonja on everything from studying your body's pH to gliding through menopause on herbsbooks stubbornly left unread.
Gerri and Andy had been neighbors and good friends for fifteen years, since before Andy threw out her first husband. They were both now in their late forties while Sonja had just scored the big four-oh. When Sonja arrived in the neighborhood a few years ago, Gerri and Andy welcomed her and immediately grew bored with her naturalist and metaphysical leanings. Howeverand it was a big howeverwhen someone was sick or hurt or in trouble, it was always Sonja who came forth with anything from a massage to a casserole to transportation to, well, whatever was needed. When Gerri had been brought to her knees by a killer hemorrhoid-ectomy Sonja was there, drawing the sitz bath, making broth, administering pain meds and, of course, she was armed with the perfect, natural, gentle laxative.
Gerri had learned you just don't give the right laxative enough credit until you find yourself in that position.
Still, she could be tiresome as hell.
After three miles in just under forty-five minutes, Gerri sweating like a boxer and Sonja glistening attractively, they separated. Gerri entered her house noisily. "Everyone up?" she yelled into the house as she wandered into the kitchen.
Phil was sitting at the table with coffee, newspaper strewn around and his laptop open, going through email and checking the news. "They're up," he said. "More or less."
The Gilbert kids were thirteen, sixteen and nineteen. Boy, girl, boy. "You're supposed to make sure they're up, Phil."
"I did," he said without looking up. "I do every morning."
She trudged up the stairs and started throwing open doors. "Get up! Don't make me late!" Then she backtracked to her shower and wondered why the hell Phil couldn't accomplish one simple taskget the kids out of bed while she was out walking. Despite the fact she was planning to go in late today, it annoyed her. But lately everything annoyed her because she was doing the menopause drill and she was often testy.
She let the water run over her naked body, cool water to lower her body temperature. At the moment all she wanted in life was to feel level. Even. She'd always had a short fuse but lately she was positively electric and could burst into flame anywhere, anytime. She'd been trying on bathing suits one day and when she made her purchase, she'd flared up so bright she thought the clerk would call security to frisk her for stolen goods.
Talking to the mayor at a fund-raiser one night, great balls of perspiration had begun to run down her face. She'd started sleeping naked because of the night sweats and when Phil rolled over, found flesh instead of flannel and began to grope her, she'd mutter, "Don't even think about it."
When she was out of the shower, dry and cool, she had one of those reprieves that came regularlyshe felt perfectly normal, sane and in control. Then came the inevitable guiltshe should be fined for ever snapping at Phil. She didn't know of a husband who pulled his weight as well as Phil. She knew of no family in Mill Valley in better balance, and that was as much because of Phil as Gerri. While Andy was throwing her husband's clothes on the lawn, Phil was doing his morning chore, trying to get the kids up. It wasn't his fault they pulled the covers over their heads, as teenagers did.
By the time she was putting the finishing touches on her face and hair, she was wilting again, her makeup melting off her face as fast as she put it on. She flipped on the little fan that was now an accessory in her bathroom.
When she got back to the kitchen, Phil had gone to work. Jed, her nineteen year old was racing for his car to get to class on time while Jessie and Matthew were arguing over whose turn it was to take out the trash. "Just get in the car," she said. "I'll take care of it myself." After dropping them off at their schools, she called her office. Gerri was the supervisor of case workers with Child Protective Services. She said she had a family situation to resolve and would be a little late. Then she drove back to the neighborhood, but parked in Andy's drive.
Andy didn't answer the doorbell, so Gerri knocked and then rattled the knob. "Come on, Andy," she yelled. A few long moments passed before she saw a shadow cross over the peep hole and the door opened slowly. Andy's curling, shoulder-length black hair was clipped up off her neck, a few tendrils escaping, and her face was a combination of ashen and blotchy from crying. Gerri glanced over her shoulder at the pile on the lawn and said, "Have a little tiff?"
Andy turned and walked back into the house, past the living room into a kitchen that was torn apart, under construction. That would be the relationship quadrant of the house. Andy sat in the breakfast nook where there was a cup of coffee. She rested an elbow on the table, her head in her hand and groaned. "Go ahead. Say it. Say I told you so."
"I'm not feeling that mean at the moment," Gerri said. She went into the disastrous kitchen, grabbed a coffee mug from the sink and quickly washed it. The cupboards had all been emptied of their contents and would soon be ripped off the walls, replaced with new. Gerri poured herself some coffee, then joined Andy at the table. "Must've been a good one."
"Same crap," Andy said. "Out all night, comes home smelling like a whore, lots of excuses about some account executive sitting too close to him at a marathon meeting and smelling him up. No phone call. And apparently they serve booze at those meetings."
"Hmm," Gerri replied, sipping her coffee.
"There's a new twist this time. I spent most of the night hacking into his email account and read all the romantic little notes he's been sharing with some woman known only as Sugarpants."
"Sugarpants?" Gerri repeated, forcing herself not to laugh out loud. "Jesus, that's subtle."
"Erotic emails. Dates being set up. Steamy postmortems on the dates. Do you think if he'd hit me over the head with a naked woman I would have come to my senses sooner?"
"Well, you've suspected."
"God, why didn't you stop me? I must have been out of my mind!"
Gerri just reached out and gave Andy's upper arm an affectionate stroke. As she recalled, Andy couldn't be stopped.
Andy had been the divorced mother of a fifteen-year-old son when she met Bryce a few years ago. He was younger by ten years, sexy and eager, possessing at least eight of the ten requirements to deliver instant happiness to a forty-four year old woman. He made her feel young, beautiful, desirable. Bryce was good with Noelthey were like a couple of kids togetherone of the few men she'd dated who had taken to her son quickly, easily. He had a good job in pharmaceutical sales, though it required considerable travel. She fell in lust with him and for a while there was an orgasmic glow all around her.
Andy was far from straitlaced, but she wouldn't live with Bryce because of Noel, a touchy and vulnerable teenager. Plus, there was the matter of an ex-husband and his wife to contend withAndy didn't want anyone making an argument for custody under those circumstances. And of course, she was in love with him, so she married him.
Bryce quickly emerged as immature, selfish, short-tempered, inconsiderate, in no way prepared to cohabit and, indeed, had no experience in cohabitation. He knew exactly how to treat a woman to get into her pants, how to send her to the moon night after night, but couldn't share the day-to-day workload or be accountable to a partner. He didn't like being questioned about where he'd been nor could he say for certain when he'd be home. The relationship with Noel deteriorated; Bryce became exasperated by the noise, mess and back talk associated with teenage boys. This had the effect of turning Andy, who was by nature a humorous and agreeable woman, into a demanding, suspicious, resentful nag. They were like water on a grease fire. Everything was always about those buttonsyou push mine and I'll push yours.
Bliss hadn't lasted even a year for Andy, but she'd hung in there for three. She'd been talking about a separation and divorce for two years now and whenever she'd get close, two things stalled her out. One, Bryce knew how to turn on the charm when he wanted to and he could treat her to short periods of good behavior laced with hot sex. And, two, it just isn't easy to be forty-seven and acknowledge yourself as a woman who had twice failed at marriage.
"You're going to be late for work," Gerri said. "Let's pull it together."
Andy shook her head. "I called in divorced," she said. "I need a day or two. I have to get my bearings, pack up his stuff, call the lawyer, close the joint accounts."
"This is really it, then?"
"I was through a long time ago. There were just times I thought divorcing him might be more painful than living with him." She blinked and a tear rolled down her cheek. "I guess I'm beyond that now."
"You'll be all right," Gerri said gently, earnestly. "You were all right beforeyou'll be all right again."
"It's so hard," Andy said. "When you don't have anyone."
"Yeah, I know," Gerri agreed. "Yet it's harder when you have the wrong one."