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The problem started calmly enough one day when Susan Roth was having lunch in the hospital cafeteria, eating fast as she always did because somehow the E.R. never seemed to have enough nurses and she needed to get back. She'd just sat down, tossed her napkin in her lap and picked up her fork, when Dennis showed up and asked if he could join her. Unfortunately, she wasn't the kind of person who had an arsenal of lies or excuses handy to avoid people she didn't want to deal with, so she was stuck.
Dennis worked at the coffeehouse, in the strip center across the street from the hospital, where Susan went every day to get her morning dose of caffeine. He was maybe thirty-five. Maybe a little mental. Definitely had a nose the size of a rain-forest banana and enough body hair to survive naked on the tundra. But he had one characteristic that made him a barista par excellence: the ability to commit to memory an endless amount of overblown terminology and use it at will. And no wonder. Any man who can speak Klingon has no trouble remembering what venti half-caf mocha light whip means.
Dennis proceeded to make dumb, painful conversation about things Susan wanted to hear nothing about. His mother was of no interest to her and certainly not his mother's arthritis. No, she didn't think Earth had been seeded by ancient astronauts. And no, Revenge of the Nerds was not the most underrated comedy of all time. Once lunch was over, Susan felt as if she'd done twenty minutes of volunteer work with the socially challenged.
Then he showed up the next day.
She told herself not to worry, that Dennis wasn't actually trying to hit on her. Guys like him rarely got up the nerve to pursue a relationship. Instead, they retreated to their mothers' basements, where they got on the Internet and found virtual girlfriends who were guaranteed never to say no. That was what she told herself, anyway.
Then came day three. "Wow, this is really cool," Dennis said, as he chased a pair of lima beans around his plate. "It's almost like we're dating, isn't it?"
Susan froze. What the hell was he talking about? "Uh, no," she said. "It really isn't like that at all."
"Yeah, I think it is. I mean, what is a date, anyway? A man and a woman eating together and talking? That makes this a date."
"You talk, Dennis. I listen." And only half of that statement was true.
"That's okay. I like women who are good listeners. Not very many are, you know. It's always all about them."
Susan couldn't fathom any woman having a willing conversation with Dennis, much less dominating it. He was one of those irritating, dysfunctional men who preyed on nice, polite, unassertive women who wouldn't tell them to bug off.
Nice, polite, unassertive women like her.
Susan left the cafeteria and headed back to the E.R. in a Dennis-induced daze. A few hours later, Evie pulled her aside and asked her exactly how serious she and Dennis were. After all, she said with a sly smile, they were dating now.
Susan's mouth fell open. "What are you talking about?"
"Come on, Susan. Don't be coy. Patti from labor and delivery was getting coffee this afternoon, and Dennis told her he's been having lunch with you every day. Patti told Sam, and Sam told me."
"Dennis and I are not dating!"
Evie wiggled her eyebrows. "He thinks you are."
"He also thinks he's been abducted by aliens. Do you believe that?"
"Actually, yes," Evie said. "It would explain a lot." Susan couldn't argue with that. But she could argue with Evie's intrusiveness. If not for the severe nurse shortage in this city, people as irritating as Evie wouldn't even be employable.
Truth be told, though, Susan really didn't know why Dennis was targeting her. He was no prize, but she'd never considered herself to be one, either. She was forty-five, and by her own admission no great beauty. She had brown hair she stuck in a ponytail most of the time, brown eyes, nondescript facial features. Cellulite was gaining a foothold in the places where stretch marks hadn't already taken over, lovely souvenirs from the childbearing experience. Since her divorce a year and a half ago, just the thought of leaping back into the dating pool made her nervous. But if she ever chose to, she prayed to God that a whole school of Dennises wasn't swimming around in it.
The next day, Susan ventured into the cafeteria a full hour later than she normally ate, only to have Dennis show up again. And when he started talking about their "relationship," a sick sensation rose in her stomach. She could feel the groundswell of unfounded adoration. The ridiculous assumptions based on nothing.
The creation of a monster.
Be nice, Susan.
Even after all these years, her mother's voice still resonated inside her head. Nice, nice, nice, which meant avoidance rather than confrontation, so the next day Susan steered clear of both the cafeteria and the coffeehouse.
That was when the phone calls started.
Dennis called twice the first day. Three times the next. At all hours of the day and night. He left messages every time, asking her in that whiny, plaintive voice to pick up the phone, even though it should have been clear to him that hell would freeze over first. How he'd managed to get her phone number, she didn't know. He was probably one of those dangerously geeky guys who could hack into the White House computer system and start World War III.
After a few nights of not answering Dennis's calls and then waking one rainy morning to a droning alarm and a demanding teenager, Susan's nice-girl persona was fading fast.
"I forgot," her daughter said, as she poured a bowl of Fruity Pebbles cereal. "I need to bring something for teacher appreciation day."
Susan winced. Words such as those always brought back memories of that horrific evening when Lani was seven and announced, I need a costume for the health play by tomorrow. I'm supposed to be a box of dental floss.
"Something like what?" Susan asked.
"Like a dessert."
"You know you can sign me up for anything we can pick up at 7-Eleven on the way to school."
"They want a Bundt cake."
"That's the one with the weird pan?"
Susan grabbed the milk and knocked the fridge door shut with her hip. "They're getting a box of Ding Dongs."
Lani did that eye-rolling thing, the one that has driven mothers crazy since the first prehistoric kid was told to stop scribbling on the cave walls.
"I told you they want a Bundt cake."
Susan checked her watch, as if she expected to see that a couple of extra hours had found their way into her day. "Time's a little short, Lani. I don't think I can whip up one of those in the next five minutes."
"But it's what they want."
"If you'd told me about this last night — "
"I said I forgot."
"But — "
"It's what they told me to bring!"
Susan clunked the milk carton on the table. "It's Linda Markham, isn't it? She's the one organizing this. This has Linda Markham written all over it. A Bundt cake. Good heavens. As if the rest of us have time to bake. It's no problem for her, of course. She doesn't work. She has a cook, a housekeeper, a gardener — "
Susan stopped short. Were Lani's eyes glistening? No. Not tears. No, no, no. Junior-high hormones could catapult even the most benign situation into a major crisis.
Susan held up her palm. "Okay, sweetie. Okay. We can stop at the grocery store. They might not have a Bundt cake, but we should be able to find something that'll work." And I'll use excuse #17 for why I'm late to work.
Lani shrugged, but the tears kept coming. "I told you I'd get the cake," Susan said, trying to sound patient. "There's no reason to cry about it."
Lani sniffed and wiped her eyes, but still she was crying.
"I said we'd go to the grocery store."
"I don't care about the cake."
"Then why are you — "
"Dad's getting married."
For several seconds, Susan just stood there, not moving. Don was getting married? She hadn't had so much as a date in the past year and a half, and Don was getting married?
"When did he tell you that?"
"Last night when I had dinner with him and Marla." Marla. That woman made Susan absolutely crazy. Don had a lot of nerve dating a woman who was too nice to hate.
"Why didn't you tell me last night?" And why didn't Don tell me before he told our daughter?
Lani just shrugged. "Well," Susan said gently, "I guess we knew this could happen, huh?"
Another shrug. "We really should be happy for him, you know," Susan said in her best Mother of the Year voice, even though it was all she could do not to choke on the words. "Marla's very nice."
Lani looked up, her eyes shimmering with tears. "But this means you and Dad really aren't getting back together."