"And so with this one act, Lincoln changed the course of American history. He was one of the most despised figures in politics in his day, yet he preserved the Union and is considered the greatest president our country ever had. And possibly ever will have."
My face flushed
we'd just begun our unit on the Civil War, and it was my favorite class to teach. Alas, my seniors were in the throes of a Friday afternoon coma. Tommy Michener, my best student on most days, stared longingly at Kerry Blake, who was stretching so as to simultaneously torment Tommy with what he couldn't have and invite Hunter Graystone IV to take it. At the same time, Emma Kirk, a pretty, kindhearted girl who had the curse of being a day student and was thus excluded from the cool kids, who all boarded, looked at her desk. She had a crush on Tommy and was all too aware of his obsession with Kerry, poor kid. "So who can sum up the opposing viewpoints? Anyone?"
From outside came the sound of laughter. We all looked. Kiki Gomez, an English teacher, was holding class outside, as the day was mild and lovely. Her kids didn't look dazed and battered. Dang. I should've brought my kids outside, too.
"I'll give you a hint," I continued, looking at their blank faces. "States' rights vs. Federal control. Union vs. secession. Freedom to govern independently vs. freedom for all people. Slaves or no slaves. Ring a bell?"
At that moment, the chimes that marked the end of the period sounded, and my lethargic students sprang into life as they bolted for the door. I tried not to take it personally. My seniors were usually more engaged, but it was Friday. The kids had been hammered with exams earlier in the week, and there was a dance tonight. I understood.
Manning Academy was the type of prep school that litters New England. Stately brick buildings with the requisite ivy, magnolia and dogwood trees, emerald soccer and lacrosse fields, and a promise that for the cost of a small house, we'd get your kids into the colleges of their choicePrinceton, Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown. The school, which was founded in the 1880s, was a little world unto itself. Many of the teachers lived on campus, but those of us who didn't, myself included, were usually as bad as the kids, eager for the last class to end each Friday afternoon so we could head for home.
Except this Friday. I'd have been more than happy to stay at school this Friday, chaperoning dances or coaching lacrosse. Or heck, cleaning the toilets for that matter. Anything other than my actual plans.
"Hi, Grace!" Kiki said, popping into my classroom.
"Hi, Kiki. Sounded like fun out there."
"We're reading Lord of the Flies'" she informed me.
"Of course! No wonder you were laughing. Nothing like a little pig killing to brighten the day."
She grinned proudly. "So, Grace, did you find a date?"
I grimaced. "No. I didn't. It won't be pretty."
"Oh, shit," she said. "I'm so sorry."
"Well, it's not the end of the world," I murmured bravely.
"You sure about that?" Like me, Kiki was single. And no one knew better than a single woman in her thirties that hell is going to a wedding stag. In a few hours, my cousin Kitty, who once cut my bangs down to the roots when I was sleeping over at her house, was getting married. For the third time. In a Princess Diana-style dress.
"Look, it's Eric!" Kiki blurted, pointing to my eastern window. "Oh, thank you, God!"
Eric was the guy who washed Manning Academy's windows each spring and fall. Though it was only early April, the afternoon was warm and balmy, and Eric was shirtless. He grinned at us, well aware of his beauty, sprayed and squeegeed.
"Ask him!" Kiki suggested as we stared with great appreciation.
"He's married," I said, not taking my eyes off him. Ogling Eric was about as intimate as I'd been with a man in some time.
"Happily married?" Kiki asked, not above wrecking a home or two to get a man.
"Yup. Adores his wife."
"I hate that," she muttered.
"I know. So unfair."
The male perfection that was Eric winked at us, blew a kiss and dragged the squeegee back and forth over the window, shoulder muscles bunching beautifully, washboard abs rippling, sunlight glinting on his hair.
"I should really get going," I said, not moving a muscle. "I have to change and stuff." The thought made my stomach cramp. "Kiki, you sure you don't know anyone I can take? Anyone? I really, really don't want to go alone."
"I don't, Grace," she sighed. "Maybe you should've hired someone, like in that Debra Messing movie."
"It's a small town. A gigolo would probably stand out. Also, probably not that good for my reputation. 'Manning Teacher Hires Prostitute. Parents Concerned.' That kind of thing."
"What about Julian?" she asked, naming my oldest friend, who often came out with Kiki and me on our girls' nights.
"Well, my family knows him. He wouldn't pass."
"As a boyfriend, or as a straight guy?"
"Both, I guess," I said.
"Too bad. He's a great dancer, at least."
"That he is." I glanced at the clock, and the trickle of dread that had been spurting intermittently all week turned into a river. It wasn't just going stag to mean old Kitty's wedding. I'd be seeing Andrew for only the third time since we broke up, and having a date would've definitely helped.
Well. As much as I wished I could just stay home and read Gone with the Wind or watch a movie, I had to go. Besides, I'd been staying in a lot lately. My father, my gay best friend and my dog, though great company, probably shouldn't be the only men in my life. And there was always the microscopic chance that I'd meet someone at this very wedding.
"Maybe Eric will go," Kiki said, hustling over to the window and yanking it open. "No one has to know he's married."
"Kiki, no," I protested.
She didn't listen. "Eric, Grace has to go to a wedding tonight, and her ex-fiance is going to be there, and she doesn't have a date. Can you go with her? Pretend to adore her and stuff?"
"Thanks anyway, but, no," I called, my face prickling with heat.
"Your ex, huh?" Eric said, wiping a pane clear.
"Yeah. May as well slit my wrists now." I smiled to show I didn't mean it.
"You sure you can't go with her?" Kiki asked.
"My wife would probably have a problem with that," Eric answered. "Sorry, Grace. Good luck."
"Thanks," I said. "It sounds worse than it is."
"Isn't she brave?" Kiki asked. Eric agreed that I was and moved on to the next window, Kiki nearly falling out the window to watch him leave. She hauled herself back in and sighed. "So you're going stag," she said in the same tone as a doctor might use when saying, I'm sorry, it's terminal.
"Well, I did try, Kiki," I reminded her. "Johnny who delivers my pizza is dating Garlic-and-Anchovies, if you can believe it. Brandon at the nursing home said he'd hang himself before being a wedding date. And I just found out that the cute guy at the pharmacy is only seventeen years old, and though he said he'd be happy to go, Betty the pharmacist is his mom and mentioned something about the Mann Act and predators, so I'll be going to the CVS in Farmington from now on."
"Oopsy," Kiki said.
"No big deal. I came up empty. So I'll just go alone, be noble and brave, scan the room for legs to hump and leave with a waiter. If I'm lucky." I grinned. Bravely.
Kiki laughed. "Being single sucks," she announced. "And God, being single at a wedding
" She shuddered.
"Thanks for the pep talk," I answered.
Four hours later, I was in hell.
The all too familiar and slightly nauseating combination of hope and despair churned in my stomach. Honestly, I thought I was doing pretty well these days. Yes, my fiance had dumped me fifteen months ago, but I wasn't lying on the floor in fetal position, sucking my thumb. I went to work and taught my classes
very well, in my opinion. I went out socially. Granted, most of my excursions were either dancing with senior citizens or reenacting Civil War battles, but I did get out. And, yes, I would (theoretically) love to find a mansort of an Atticus-Finch-meets-Tim-Gunn-and-looks-like-George-Clooney type.
So here I was at another weddingthe fourth family wedding since The Dumping, the fourth family wedding where I'd been datelessgamely trying to radiate happiness so my relatives would stop pitying me and trying to fix me up with odd-looking distant cousins. At the same time, I was trying to perfect The Lookwry amusement, inner contentment and absolute comfort. Sort of a Hello! I am perfectly fine being single at yet another wedding and am not at all desperate for a man, but if you happen to be straight, under forty-five, attractive, financially secure and morally upright, come on down! Once I mastered The Look, I planned on splitting an atom, since they required just about the same level of skill.
But who knew? Maybe today, my eyes would lock on someone, someone who was also single and hopeful without being patheticlet's say a pediatric surgeon, just for the sake of argumentand kablammy! We'd just know.
Unfortunately, my hair was making me look, at best, gypsy beautiful and reckless, but more probably like I was channeling Gilda Radner. Must remember to call an exorcist to see if I could have the evil demons cast out of my hair, which had been known to snap combs in half and eat hairbrushes.
Hmm. There was a cute guy. Geeky, skinny, glasses, definitely my type. Then he saw me looking and immediately groped behind him for a hand, which was attached to an arm, which was attached to a woman. He beamed at her, planted a kiss on her lips and shot a nervous look my way. Okay, okay, no need to panic, mister, I thought. Message received.
Indeed, all the men under forty seemed to be spoken for. There were several octogenarians present, one of whom was grinning at me. Hmm. Was eighty too old? Maybe I should go for an older man. Maybe I was wasting my time on men who still had functioning prostates and their original knees. Maybe there was something to be said for a sugar daddy. The old guy raised his bushy white eyebrows, but his pursuit of me being his sweet young thing ended abruptly as his wife elbowed him sharply and shot me a disapproving glare.
"Don't worry, Grace. It will be your turn soon," an aunt boomed in her foghorn of a voice.
"You never know, Aunt Mavis," I answered with a sweet smile. It was the eighth time tonight I'd heard such a sentiment, and I was considering having it tattooed on my forehead. I'm not worried. It will be my turn soon.
"Is it hard, seeing them together?" Mavis barked.
"No. Not at all," I lied, still smiling. "I'm very glad they're dating." Granted, glad may have been a stretch, but still. What else could I say? It was complicated.
"You're brave," Mavis pronounced. "You are one brave woman, Grace Emerson." Then she tromped off in search of someone else to torment.
"Okay, so spill," my sister Margaret demanded, plopping herself down at my table. "Are you looking for a good sharp instrument so you can hack away at your wrists? Thinking about sucking a little carbon monoxide?"
"Aw, listen to you, you big softy. Your sisterly concern brings tears to my eyes."
She grinned. "Well? Tell your big sis."
I took a long pull from my gin and tonic. "I'm getting a little tired of people saying how brave I am, like I'm some marine who jumped on a grenade. Being single isn't the worst thing in the world."
"I wish I was single all the time," Margs answered as her husband approached.
"Hey, Stuart!" I said fondly. "I didn't see you at school today." Stuart was the school psychologist at Manning and had in fact alerted me to the history department opening six years ago. He sort of lived the stereotype
oxford shirts covered by argyle vests, tas-seled loafers, the required beard. A gentle, quiet man, Stuart had met Margaret in graduate school and been her devoted servant ever since.
"How are you holding up, Grace?" he asked, handing me a fresh version of my signature drink, a gin and tonic with lemon.
"I'm great, Stuart," I answered.
"Hello, Margaret, hello, Stuart!" called my aunt Reggie from the dance floor. Then she saw me and froze. "Oh, hello, Grace, don't you look pretty. And chin up, dear. You'll be dancing at your own wedding one day soon."
"Gosh, thanks, Aunt Reggie," I answered, giving my sister a significant look. Reggie gave me a sad smile and drifted away to gossip.
"I still think it's freakish," Margs said. "How Andrew and Natalie could ever
Gentle Jesus and His crown of thorns! I just cannot wrap my brain around that one. Where are they, anyway?"
"Grace, how are you? Are you just putting up a good front, honey, or are you really okay?" This from Mom, who now approached our table. Dad, pushing his ancient mother in her wheelchair, trailed behind.
"She's fine, Nancy!" he barked. "Look at her! Doesn't she seem fine to you? Leave her alone! Don't talk about it."
"Shut it, Jim. I know my children, and this one's hurting. A good parent can tell." She gave him a meaningful and frosty look.
"Good parent? I'm a great parent," Dad snipped right back.
"I'm fine, Mom. Dad is right. I'm peachy. Hey, doesn't Kitty look great?"
"Almost as pretty as at her first wedding," Margaret said.
"Have you seen Andrew?" Mom asked. "Is it hard, honey?"
"I'm fine," I repeated. "Really. I'm great."
Meme, my ninety-three-year-old grandmother, rattled the ice in her highball glass. "If Grace can't keep a man, all's fair in love and war."
"It's alive!" Margaret said.
Meme ignored her, gazing at me with disparaging, rheumy eyes. "I never had trouble finding a man. Men loved me. I was quite a beauty in my day, you know."
"And you still are," I said. "Look at you! How do you do it, Meme? You don't look a day over a hundred and ten."
"Please, Grace," my father muttered wearily. "It's gas on a fire."
"Laugh if you want, Grace. At least my fiance never threw me over." Meme knocked back the rest of her Manhattan and held out her glass to Dad, who took it obediently.
"You don't need a man," Mom said firmly. "No woman does." She leveled a significant look at my father.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Dad snapped. "It means what it means," Mom said, her voice loaded.
Dad rolled his eyes. "Stuart, let's get another round, son. Grace, I stopped by your house today and you really need new windows. Margaret, nice job on the Bleeker case, honey." It was Dad's way to jam in as much into a conversation as possible, sort of get things over with so he could ignore my mother (and his). "And, Grace, don't forget about Bull Run next weekend. We're Confederates."