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This is Rick Ramirez, reporting for Entertainment This Evening." The announcer rolls his "R's" to emphasize his Latin heritage; he's a cross between Ricardo Montalban and the used car salesman up the street.
"We're live in Silicon Valley at the celebrated wedding of Ashley Wilkes Stockingdale to the world's most eligible bachelor, John Folger, heir to the coffee fortune. Not since JFK, Jr. have the world's single women mourned a wedding as today, but Ashley is the woman who stole his heart-the woman who left the sworn bachelor no other option but marriage. And we hear the ladies cry, Who is this woman? For more on Ashley, we go to Jen Jenkins in 'copter 7."
"Rick, we're live over the Stanford University chapel, awaiting the much-anticipated arrival of the enigmatic Ashley Stockingdale: A woman who brought Manolo Blahnik, shoemaker to the stars, all the way to California to design her diamond-encrusted bridal slippers. Who is this Ashley?" Jen leans into the camera's lens, "I'm glad you asked.
"Ashley Wilkes Stockingdale came from humble beginnings, and grew up in a quaint California bungalow. The child of a homemaker and a carpenter, Ashley always knew she was destined for something great. Although there was time for frivolity, like high school cheerleading, Ashley was a serious student, passing the California bar her very first time out. And she hasn't forgotten her roots; when asked if Franklin Graham might perform the ceremony, Ashley declined, choosing her beloved pastor instead. Rumor has it she'll arrive in a cream-colored, body hugging Vera Wang gown. The world waits . . . back to you, Rick."
Yes, the world waits. And so do I. There's single for a season, and single for a reason. My singles' pastor used to say that and laugh like staccato Spongebob. I remember thinking it was hilarious until the day I turned thirty. Then my thoughts turned much darker, like hey, maybe I am single for a reason. That's a depressing day, when you realize Prince Charming isn't riding in on a white horse, and J. Vernon McGee is starting to sound awfully handsome on the radio.
I gaze around the singles group and it's rife with its reasons. Tim Hanson has those hair plugs that look like he's sprouting rows of corn on his head. Jake Henley has been pining over an ex-girlfriend that no one's ever seen, for going on three years now. He still talks to her on the phone, and I just want to say, "Wake up, dimwit! She's moved on!" To waste your life on an emotional relationship that is going nowhere is such an easy out, don't you think? It makes him unavailable, and avoiding commitment is now that much simpler.
There's Kay Harding, resident organizer and anal-retentive of the group. She can run everyone's life perfectly and is content to do so. The sad thing is we all go along, without enough will of our own to plan our social lives. Kay does a fine job, and we always have something to do on Saturday night, so who's complaining? Kay's home looks like Martha Stewart lives with her, but she's alone. Just like me. So here I'm left to wonder, if all their reasons are so blatantly obvious, what's mine? And why can't I see it when I see everyone else's so clearly?
When I graduated from law school from Santa Clara University and became a patent attorney, I thought the world was my oyster. My head had a hard time fitting through the doorway, it was so grossly oversized. It's been shriveling ever since with the daily rejection that is my reality.
My mother told me that no man wanted to marry a lawyer. "You're too educated," she'd say. Like I was supposed to dumb myself down for Mr. Right. I laughed at such a ridiculous concept. After all, I'd dated plenty in college, but I waited on real romance because I knew there was someone out there who would make my feet tingle and my brain fog. Alas, I'd settle for a phone call at this point. My mom's intellectual theory is starting to gel like her aspic. But I live in Silicon Valley-it's not like intellect is a bad thing here-so where's my knight in shining silicone?
Family support is everywhere. Besides my mother, there's my brother who calls me "bus bait"-as in, I have more chance of getting hit by a bus than married after thirty. They've proven that study is totally bogus, but does that mean anything to my brother? Absolutely not. I just pity the poor woman who eventually gets stuck with him. He's a bus driver, by the way. And probably the one to run me down just to prove his point.
Don't get me wrong. I live a full life as a Christian single, and I'm not waiting for life to start when I get married. I just can't stop wondering, what is my reason? Do I have some glaring flaw that I cannot be witness to? This kind of thing just drives me crazy, like when men my age marry twelve-year-olds fresh from college. Okay, so they are in their early twenties. But I remember rooting for The Bachelor when he chose a woman twenty-seven. Finally, a man who saw a little age like a fine wine, rather than vinegar past its prime.
Yet here I sit, with all the same single people I've been sitting near for years. Once in a while, we'll get some cute young thing in her twenties and some single guy swoops out of nowhere and whisks her away. Leaving us "reason" people wondering what strange scent we give off. Maybe it's desperation.
I don't feel desperate. I sing in the worship band, I work at the homeless shelter, and I'm busy nearly every night of the week. Granted, my busyness translates into which reality television show is on that night, but I still have my routine.
Kay Harding has taken the podium and her familiar voice breaks into my thoughts. "Saturday night we're going to the local Starbucks for a talent night. If anyone wants to sign up, please see me after Sunday school." Kay takes the pen from behind her ear and attaches it to the clipboard. "I'll send the sign-up sheet around, but see me if you're performing."
The thought of invading a local coffee house and humiliating myself sends my stomach surging. At the same time, I know I'll be there. What else do I have to do? I'm in such a rut. It's like when an engineer tries to explain a new segment of technology to me. I know I'll eventually get it, but the early frustration leaves me wondering why I do what I do.
Jim Henderson is clapping. I call Jim "Wild at Heart Man" because he can't seem to say a thing without quoting John Eldredge. Trouble is, I think Jim missed the message of that book because he's not more masculine, just more annoying. Of course, I'm not one to judge because I've been sitting here, same as him, waiting for someone to bear witness to my feminine wiles.
Seth Greenwood stands up. Seth is the one anomaly in the group. He's handsome, albeit bald, but that doesn't bother me. He has crystal blue eyes and a heart as big as the San Francisco Bay. He's a programmer-read: Geek. But who isn't in the Silicon Valley? He's thirty-four-granted his baldness makes him look a little older-but he's always there for anyone who needs him. Including me. Right now, he's got an out-of-work salesman friend living with him. And that guy brought two cats along. Seth's "reason" is probably just fear of commitment, the universal fear of single men everywhere, but something tells me he won't stay in that trench forever. So I guess maybe he's a "season" man. Time will tell.
Seth takes center stage over the rickety music stand. "On Wednesday night, after Bible Study, we're watching Notorious. It's an old movie with Cary Grant," (the women coo here) "and Ingrid Bergman," (now a few guys whistle). "Anyone interested"- Seth looks over at Kay and her organized clipboard and winces just a bit. "Well, anyone interested can just show up on Wednesday night. We'll know why you're there. Bring a snack, or be at the mercy of my fridge." Seth sits back down, and I feel my smile break loose. Seth encapsulates an invisible charm, like Fred Astaire. You can't really see his attractiveness in a Hugh Jackman way, but there's something about him that throws you off, in a good sort of way.
The singles' pastor stands up. "If that takes care of all the announcements, I have one of my own." Pastor Max Romanski is dreamy to look at, sort of a cross between the quarterback in high school and the president of the student body all grown up. Not the cool guy who peaked in high school, but the one whose gift transcends adolescence.
Max is tall and radiates this vibrant love for the Lord. Just by the way he looks at his wife-all googly-eyed, like a lovesick teenager-makes you appreciate him. And maybe covet just a little bit.
Max's wife, Kelly, is a beautiful, blond, doe-eyed princess. Sweeter than caramel, there is no mistaking why Kelly married. She was the girl in high school we all wished we could be, with the right clothes and the stylish haircut. I can't imagine Kelly ever not knowing how to look.
Max beams a grin, ideal for one of those BriteSmile ads. "Kelly and I would like to announce we are expecting a baby, and we're due in July."
Everyone claps. A polite round of applause that implies joy for the new gift of life, yet an irritable jealousy that no one wants to feel, but who can help it? Every time someone gets pregnant it's just another reminder: There's Absolutely No Chance of That Happening in My Life Anytime in the Near Future. Unless God is planning another Immaculate Conception, and I'm thinking He's done with that kind of miracle.
So I clap a bit more than the others, and smile. It's one of those plastered, fake smiles, but it's all I can manage. I am happy for them, really I am, and I know that envy is a sin, so I force such feelings away. But when I help throw another shower, and when I hold their perfect bundle of joy, it will hurt-and I hate that I feel that way.
I notice that I do better at reacting than Kay Harding. I can't imagine what it's like for her with everything in her life so ordered. You almost believe she could snap up a baby by putting a line item in her Palm Pilot. But it hasn't happened yet and she's past forty. The age that invokes panic in us all.
We move on to prayer. Same old stuff. If we were any shallower in our prayers, we'd be floating. It's all about jobs, and job changes, and maybe moving from one apartment to another. But who among us would dare to bare their soul? It's as though announcing our loneliness is like making it a reality. Heaven forbid we discuss something publicly that actually means something to us. Like, it's been six months and I haven't had a date, or that, as sad as the coffee house talent show is, it's the highlight of our week. But we don't say any of those things. We either say everything's fine, or we whine about our jobs and apartments.
Truthfully, I can't really complain about work. I picked a boring profession, and it is a real snoozer most of the time. Since my expectations weren't high in the first place, I'm content. Being a patent lawyer and working with engineers, you'd think I'd have beaus galore to choose from for potential husbands. However, at work, engineers are on a different plane. They're not thinking about dates or women, they are thinking about an integrated circuit they must procure, and since they can only open one mental compartment at a time, my chance of getting a boyfriend at work is about as slim as Ally McBeal's neck.
After prayer, we go into Bible study. Right now we're studying submission to authority. Maybe Pastor Max is hoping to defer some job prayer requests, but so far it isn't working. Submission, to a single, is a bit like explaining commitment to a male. It makes sense, but you don't really have much of an opportunity to test-drive the sermon without a partner.
We go home to our separate apartments, and we think about submission, but unless the neighbor's cat walks by and we bow before it, the good intentions drift away. I have no trouble being submissive to my boss. She tells me what to do; I do it. It's not a hard concept for me, really. Since there's no one else in real authority over me, I guess I'm okay there.
Max winds up his lesson with a hearty, "Go rejoice and be glad in this day!"
His invocation announces Sunday afternoon has arrived. Now, as a collective entity we will head to a local restaurant, most likely Chili's or Applebee's, and prove to the waitress why we are all single. Kay will order like she's at a San Francisco five-star restaurant, Hold this, this on the side, blah, blah, blah . . .
Someone will inevitably snap at the waitress, usually right before we all pray for the meal. The bill used to come up short, so now Kay ensures that all bills are tallied separately, yet another reason for the waitress to hate us. Someone used to assume that tax and tip is taken off the tally, rather than added, and a few of us had to add an extra dollar. It's never worth the argument, but it makes me cringe at the witness good Christians can be: willing to sacrifice their faith for that extra buck.
So I'm in a rut. And short of jumping from an airplane, which I'm not inclined to do, or planning a vacation, which I can't afford to take, lest someone else takes my position, I have no idea how to get out of my current situation. I've considered on-line dating, but then I think, do I want my computer to reject me, too? Remembering Meg Ryan's excitement when she had e-mail in You've Got Mail, I can't help but think what an empty in box might do to me. Like, "I can't even see you and you're still a loser!"
Maybe I need a makeover, but I already got one of those cute blunt cuts. One thing to remember when you get your hair chopped like a movie star is that they still have that face, and you still have yours. So while it may look cute for Halle Barry to get shorn like a hairless Chihuahua, it is simply not a good look for me. I was going for a Reese Witherspoon look this time, but Reese lives a charmed life. Her hair flips right; mine is in a perpetual state of confusion.
"Are you going to lunch with us, Ash?" Seth asks.
I don't want to admit I have nothing better to do, so I answer, "Of course I am. Wouldn't miss it." I'm downright perky with cheerleader enthusiasm.
"Sam is driving. Do you want to come with us?"
Now, I'd like to think of this as chivalry, but parking is limited at the restaurant and in all probability, it's a logistical issue that drives Seth to ask me about a ride.
"Sure." I shrug, but my heart does a little cartwheel. It's those blue eyes of his. They are like a gemologist's dream of aquamarine and sapphire. The perfect jewel created by God alone, and when they're pointed at you? Well, at the risk of being cliché, my knees go weak. Seth and I have a long history. He calls me when he gets dumped. I call him when no one calls me. We've been friends for years. And friends is all we'll ever be.
So I grab my Prada bag, a gift to myself when I passed the bar, and I follow Sam and Seth to the car. I say follow, because unfortunately, chivalry is dead in Silicon Valley. I know from experience that Seth won't open my door, and he'll make me sit in the back while he rides shotgun. It's hard to overly romanticize an engineer. They are what they are: practical above all else. And at six foot two, sitting in the backseat is wholly impractical for Seth.
I look into those blue eyes, and I envision a future where
Seth thinks of me as a girl. He may have his Master's Degree in Engineering Management, but he's in the first grade when it comes to women. I can picture him pulling my hair before I can picture him kissing me. Of course, this infers I have hair left to pull and sadly, I don't. I used to have cascading tresses like the romance books say, but a picture of Reese Witherspoon in InStyle and I was a sheep to the slaughter.
We pile into the Saab, Sam's beat-up version of the European sedan, and we head to our familiar hangout. The waitresses are probably fighting now as to who will get us in their section.
Lunch is just as I expect. The waitress practically falls to the ground in worship when we depart. Who says we're not witnessing to the outside world when we go out? When you can leave a waitress lying prostrate on the ground, you have yourself some serious faith-spreading.
Seth is back to discussing video games with Sam in the front seat of the Saab. They're talking about some secret key in some corner chamber, and I smile dumbly, like I have any notion as to what they're talking about. Or any care.
When I was in eighth grade and boys discussed video games, I understood. Now that I'm thirty-one I think to myself, If you boys would grow up, you might be having sex by now instead of playing Super Mario XXXIV. But as an aging virgin, who am I to judge?
"You want me to drop you off at church or home?" Sam looks at me in the rearview mirror. His Asian eyes are pleading with me silently to save him the extra jaunt to church.
"I kinda need my car," I say, trying to keep the "You're an Imbecile" out of my voice. Although it should be obvious that I'd like to be taken to where I left my vehicle, I've learned that engineers do not understand simple math: A+B = C. After all, B is an unknown, right? And if B takes an engineer out of his desired path, then the equation just doesn't add up.
I rail on engineers, but if you lived here in Silicon Valley where the men are engineers, and the women are hopelessly single, you'd understand my point. When a new science-fiction movie opens here, it's an event worthy of a costume. A nice dinner out is considered Dave & Buster's, the local grown-up arcade. Just once I want to meet up with a man who knows it's good manners to open a lady's door and let her enter first. Not a race.
Seth turns around, his blue eyes shining with laughter. He instinctively knows where Sam should be driving, but he keeps it all inside. As though he enjoys the private joke of how clueless his friends are. "We're watching The Matrix tonight, Ash. You want to come over?"
"No thanks. I'm doing dinner at my mom's house tonight." My birthday dinner. I don't add that I'll be home in time for Masterpiece Theatre, or that I think The Matrix is stupid. That's blasphemy around here. "Don't you guys ever get tired of our lives in Silicon Valley?"
We're at a traffic signal, and they both turn around and stare at me as if I have whipped cream on my nose.
"What do you mean?" Sam asks.
"I mean, we always do the same things. We hang out at the coffee shop, we see the same movies, we-you know, I can't even think of what else we do. We should plan a trip to the beach and have a wild volleyball game or something."
The light has changed, but they're both still staring. "The Matrix is an allegory, a worldview, if you will."
"We've still seen it a few times," I try half-heartedly. I've started it. Now we'll get into the deeper discussions-like why Spock, without feeling, would sacrifice himself for mankind in Star Trek Genesis.
"Do you want to watch Lord of the Rings?" Seth asks.
I can't help my audible sigh. "No. I'm going to my mom's. Never mind. I was just thinking out loud." That must be the burning smell in the car.
Seth's face screws up into a tight knot. He cannot understand my problem today, and I can't fathom my own lack of interest in the life around me. Engineers have their own language, their own culture. My fear is that I speak it fluently, and if I ever leave, will I still be able to speak English? Or will I revert to discussions about the battle for Middle-earth? These are my people.
"Maybe you need a vacation, Ashley," Seth says.
"Maybe I do." I shrug. "But I can't take one now. We're right in the middle of six new patents at work. There might be some kind of bonus when I'm done . . . maybe then my boss won't be so crazed." But in my heart, I don't hold out much hope. Vacation is a dirty word in the Valley. It's for weaklings and the unemployed. The money in Silicon Valley is great, but the most valuable commodity is time, and my boss owns it. Hence, she owns me.
Affording a vacation means taking the risk you'll come back to the same money and stock options when you leave-and that isn't likely. Choosing a Hawaiian beach over employment somehow feels irresponsible. And finding your next job in a down economy, fresh from the dot-com implosion, is not fun.
If I was a robot, I'd be better suited for life here. In many ways, I used to be robotic, but something in me snapped. Maybe it's my birthday, another year older and wiser and all that. All I know is that I'm suddenly aware of all the colors around me, the beautiful rolling hills and majestic oaks that surround me. It's just like in The Wizard of Oz, where everything comes to life, and I'm aware of my own blatant black-and-white coloring. The green in my bank account has sprung to life, taunting me with its chlorophyll while I wither and die.
We arrive at my car and both men are still looking at me like I've eaten a fish farm.
"Thanks for the ride. Enjoy the movie." I clamber out of the backseat and open my Audi's trunk. Granted, I do it to see if they'll wait and make sure I'm safely into the car. They don't, of course, and I just can't help but see the humor in the situation. I'm laughing in the church parking lot, looking like the weirdo I have become.
My best, and now married, girlfriend, Brea also happens to be in the parking lot, and she's shaking her head at me. There are just a few vehicles left in the lot, and her minivan is near my Audi.
Brea is smiling; her dark wavy hair and trendy glasses make her model caliber. Terminally enthusiastic, Brea is the type of person you don't want to be sitting next to in a meeting because everything out of her mouth is encouraging. She makes us practical people feel like the death knell. But I love her. And so does everyone else. She's impossible not to love.
"You're laughing by yourself. Should I be worried?" Brea crosses her arms and lifts her perfectly-waxed brows.
"I'm weird. Since when did you not know this?" Tactfully, I switch gears. "Where's Prince Charming?"
"John has a meeting with the elder board about the Easter program. Did you do lunch with the gang?" Brea used to be part of "the gang" until John whisked her off into marital bliss. I know there must be realism to marriage that I don't see, but with Brea and Pastor's Wife Kelly, it's invisible. The two of them would be happy if they were each married to Attila the Hun. They'd tell him how powerful and sexy he was.
"Did they do anything special for your birthday?" Brea asks, pulling off her sunglasses and staring at me with earnest hope.
"No. No birthday celebrations. The gang went to Chili's again. The waitress despises us, the Middle-earth battle will rage forever, and The Matrix is playing again tonight at Seth's. Typical day."
"Oh, you! Why didn't you go to Seth's house? It sounds like fun, and you know you like him. I've seen the way you look at him." Brea slides her sunglasses into her thick hair like a casual headband. Her green eyes stare into mine. "Admit it."
"Will you pass a note for me in homeroom?" I jump up and down, thoroughly enjoying my moment of humor.
"Oh, Ash, it's okay if you like someone, you know. Since when did you become so cynical?"
After a long, quiet thought, the accusation brings the sting of tears to my eyes. "Cynical-that's an ugly word. But it's true. I don't know what's happening to me . . ." I pace back and forth in front of her, trying to work it out in my own head as well as explain it to her. Maybe she can help me see straight again, calm my topsy-turvy brain.
"I'm struggling, Brea, and I don't know why. I have everything I thought I wanted . . . but my life seems so empty. I wish I knew what to do next. I guess all my goals have been met and they haven't been replaced with anything new."
She takes my hand in her overly-concerned way. I love Brea. "You don't think a husband will change that, do you, Ash?"
I shake my head. "I know it won't. But it's not just the Husband Hunt that haunts me. On the outside, I look like Miss Success, don't I?" I place the shape of an L on my forehead with my fingers. "I thought I'd change the world. And here I am eating at a chain restaurant every Sunday with people who don't truly care if I come. Or if I'm another year older."
"I think you're just in a mood, Ashley. I've never known you to feel sorry for yourself. And the Reasons love you. Everyone loves you."
"Why shouldn't I feel sorry for myself? I just spent my birthday Dutch treat at Chili's." I'm thinking Brea got a diamond tennis bracelet for her last birthday. That somebody made her a cake from scratch. Does she not see the dichotomy here?
Brea doesn't mean anything by it, of course. She doesn't possess an evil bone in that size-four frame of hers. Brea's whole face suddenly lights up. "I need to tell you something that will cheer you up," she whispers.
Just by the way she says it, I know. "You're pregnant!"
Her smile fades. "How'd you know?"
I laugh. "Something about your glow, I suppose. That and the new minivan you bought after your honeymoon. It's not like you haven't been waiting for this very moment since I met you."
Brea smoothes her stomach. "Can you believe it's finally happening though?"
"No!" I squeal appropriately, pulling her into an embrace. "I'm so happy for you, Brea." I fight the nausea as I stare past her perfect hair and into the empty parking lot. Pastor's Wife Kelly and my best friend. Two preggers announcements in one day is a bit much for me to take. Lord, did you forget it's my birthday? You said you wouldn't give me more than I can handle, but com'on!
I take a deep breath and compose an appropriate smile so I can let my best friend out of my death grip. Brea was created to be a mother. She has all those nesting instincts, like buying a minivan before children. Her constant mothering of me is testament to her abilities: taking me to church, rescuing me from a drunken high school party, and showing me that even though my parents didn't seem to care, God did. I don't know what I would have turned out to be without Brea and her young love of God. Perhaps a slightly high bus driver like my brother.
Brea's children will look like Baby Gap models. She will never dress her kids like nerds, and unlike my own mother, she innately understands the disaster of wearing floods in junior high school or the wrong brand of jeans at all. Brea's kids will be leaders, and Christ in them will be cool. That's a pretty awesome legacy. It makes me wistful and misty-eyed just to think of it.
"When do we get to go shopping for her?" I ask.
"It might be a boy, you know." Brea lifts her eyebrows.
"She wouldn't dare be a boy. Auntie Ashley wants to buy her very cute things in pink." I shove a fist to my hip.
"If he's a boy, John won't appreciate pink. Men are funny that way."
I clap my hands, "We can buy her little Lilly Pulitzer sweaters! And Oilily mother/daughter dresses. I can hardly wait! Pop this kid out!" I rub her tummy.
Brea crosses her arms. "Don't get me all excited. If I have a boy I want to be happy, not disappointed."
I relent. "Okay, so we have to shop at Baby Gap if it's a boy. Still cute! We can get those little chambray caps and maybe some sunglasses. Hey, what about little itsy-bitsy Old Navy jeans?" We both squeal.
Brea's shoulders relax. "I can hardly wait, Ashley." She rubs her tummy again.
"Me either." And I can't. I have heard of Brea's dreams for twenty-five years. Her ultimate goal was always to be a mother, to put into practice all that homemaking she acted out when we played house. (I was always the husband. What does that tell you?)
Brea lives to be Mrs. John Wright. They've left the singles group and are now happily imbedded in the couples group, which will no doubt turn into the young families group. I wish I could go with her, if only because I'm sick of standing in the same place. Being single is sometimes like this great drawn circle. I have all the freedom I can imagine yet this inability to step outside that line, which amounts to no freedom at all. I want to see what it's like where I fear to tread.
Brea hugs me again.
"What was that for?"
"I'm so proud of you, Ashley. I always knew you'd be someone really important. I'm praying my children won't be ditsy like me, but smart like their Auntie Ashley."
I shake my head. "You've always said that, Brea. But you've always been the intelligent one. The one who knew drunken football players didn't want to be just my friend. The one who knew my brother wasn't hiding botany plants for biology in my back-pack . . ."
"Maybe I should home school?" Brea laughs, and tosses her dark brown curls. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her husband, John, catch a glimpse of the movement from the top of the church steps. He watches Brea as if he has a hummingbird in his possession, and he just can't believe he caught her.
Brea knows everything she needs to know about making those around her happy. It's something you can't learn in school, but the world around you changes with such a gift.
I say good-bye, and jump into my little two-seater Audi. Two seats. Without my briefcase, I'd only have need of one.