Ellen Lawrence wants to find a place where she fits—after all, she takes up less room now
Having shed 100 pounds and (most of) the accompanying self-doubt, she's jetted off to her high-school reunion against the advice of her controlling sister. So why not make the return trip by driving cross-country? In a moving van. With her long-lost best friend Alice…
Each with their own baggage, dreaming of a fresh start to a life tainted with secrets and regrets, Ellen and Alice hit the open road. En route to California they meet an Amish runaway, a stray dog, a handsome florist and a surprisingly inept carjacker. And somewhere on that highway, Ellen might just find a place—and a voice—of her own.
|Product dimensions:||8.24(w) x 11.10(h) x 1.19(d)|
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Memories are a lot like men. Some of them look best when viewed from a distance.
Unfortunately, the only way to separate the dreamboats from the duds is to move in for a better inspection. I'd been keeping my distance for a lot of years when I finally decided to take a chance and see what a closer look would show me. My twentieth high school reunion seemed as good a time as any to examine the men and the memories I'd left behind.
"Why would you want to go back for the reunion when you didn't even graduate from the class?" My sister, Frannie, stood in the bedroom of my condo, which sat next door to her own in Bakersfield, California, and watched me pack for the trip back to Ridgeway, Virginia, home of the Ridgeway Rebels, Markson's Manufacturing and, once upon a time, Frannie and me.
It was true I hadn't graduated from Ridgeway High School—we'd moved away when I was sixteen—but I had grown up as part of the class of 1986. I felt a lot closer to them than to my actual graduating class at Hollywood High. "They were nice enough to ask me, so I'm going," I said.
"You never wanted to go before." Frannie's tone approached a whine. "Why now?"
"I never wanted to go before because I was fat." Not "plump" or "chunky" or even "heavy" but fat. Such an ugly word. I hadn't wanted to hear my old friends use it to describe me. "Now I'm not fat anymore and there are a lot of people there I'd like to see again." I mean, how could I pass up the chance to impress my old friends with what a hot item I'd become?
Frannie's expression didn't soften one bit. "Such as?"
"Well…" I tucked a pair of sandals more securely along the side of the suitcase. "Marc Reynolds is going to be there," I said.
In high school, I'd been sure Marc was the most perfect boy I'd ever known. He'd been tall, with a strong jaw, thick brown hair falling just so across his forehead and eyes the color of Little Debbie fudge brownies. One smile from him in the hallway and I'd be floating all day.
So when I found out he was still single—and that he was on the committee planning the reunion—I took it as a sign. I'd spent most of my life as a dumpy plain Jane and figured I had, at best, only a few prime years left. I had to take advantage of them while I could.
"As I remember it, Marc Reynolds wouldn't give you the time of day in high school," Frannie said.
"That's because I was on my way to being fat then." I held up two dresses, both with tags still attached. "Which do you think looks better on me—the blue or the pink?"
"The blue brings out your eyes. And you were not that fat in high school."
"Not as fat as I got later, you mean." I studied the dresses again. "Are you sure the blue looks better? The pink is a size eight." Probably mismarked since it fit me, but it was the only size eight I'd worn in my life.
"Take them both if you can't decide." Frannie came all the way into the room and sat on the side of the bed. "Ellen, I know you've worked really hard, and I'm very proud of you, but you can't think losing a few pounds is some magic trick that will suddenly get you everything you want."
"One hundred pounds. I lost one hundred pounds." I added both dresses to the suitcase and turned to face her. "One hundred pounds is another person. People look at you differently when you weigh two hundred and forty than when you weigh one hundred and forty. Men look at you differently."
"And you think Marc will look at you differently?" The twin worry lines on her forehead deepened.
"I know he will. And more important, I look at myself differently now. I know any man would be lucky to have me." I said this with more conviction than I actually felt, but all the self-help books I'd read had assured me if I kept faking it, the actual feelings of self-confidence would eventually show up. "Marc's not going to know what hit him," I added.
"Maybe he's bald and has a beer belly now," she said. "Maybe he's nothing like you remember him."
Have I mentioned that my big sister hates to lose an argument? "I saw his picture on the reunion Web site," I told her. "He looks better than ever. A few lines around the eyes, a touch of gray at the temples. Sexy as hell."
I glanced at my own reflection in the dresser mirror. My hair was the same rich auburn it had been in high school, thanks to Frannie, one of the best hairdressers in the state of California. She does hair for movie stars. Going to her salon for my monthly cut-and-color was like a trip through the pages of Soap Opera Digest. You never knew who you'd find under the dryer next to you. Once I'd been at the shampoo sink beside Susan Lucci!
"You look great," Frannie said, catching me in my moment of vanity. "That new cut makes you look five years younger, and those highlights I put in really draw attention to your eyes. You've always had such great hair and eyes."
This is the kind of thing well-meaning family and friends say to try to cheer up fat people. If I had a dollar for every time I'd heard "she has such a nice face," I could retire now. But I guess I was glad I hadn't ended up with limp, mousy hair and a big schnoz, in addition to having a big butt and thunder thighs.
I did a half turn to check the rear view. I still couldn't quite get used to seeing my much smaller caboose. Thanks to the millions of hours I'd spent in the gym—and the tummy tuck I'd had last spring—I had a pretty decent figure. And before anybody makes cracks about plastic surgery being cheating, let's see you lose almost half your body weight and not end up with a ton of loose skin with nowhere to go.
I left the mirror and went back to packing. "Yolanda has everything she needs at the shop, but I gave her your number for emergencies." I own a flower shop—The Perfect Posie. I specialize in f lowers for movie sets. That gorgeous arrangement sitting on the piano in your favorite sitcom? I did those. The flowers for that big TV wedding extravaganza a few years ago? That was me. Yolanda's been my right hand at the shop for five years, so I was confident she could keep things going while I had my fun.
"Bring me some postcards for my scrapbook," Frannie said, apparently resigned to the fact that she wasn't going to talk me out of this.
I smiled. "Of course." Frannie has dozens of scrapbooks devoted to every facet of our lives. Not that we have very exciting lives, but Frannie documents every minute bit, as if collecting evidence that we really do exist.
Evidence for whom I haven't decided. We're both single and childless, though I'd like to change that.
"How long are you going to be gone?" Frannie asked. She was still frowning. I ought to tell her how bad that is for her face. The plastic surgeon I'd seen had offered Botox but since I don't have very many lines yet, I'd decided to pass. All that fat under my skin had been good for something after all—not as many wrinkles. That, and I have redhead skin. I can burn on a cloudy day, so I'd worn sunblock out of self-defense a long time before everyone preached about it.
"The reunion is over the long weekend, but I wanted to get there a little early and look around the old hometown." I closed the suitcase and leaned on it, struggling to pull the zipper shut.
Frannie came over to help me. "So how long? A week?"
"At least. I booked an open return on my ticket, in case I decide to stay longer." I tried to keep my expression casual, but Frannie knows me better than anyone.
"You mean in case things get hot and heavy with Marc Reynolds." She punched my shoulder. "Ellen! You haven't seen the man in over twenty years and you're already planning to sleep with him."
Another thing about redheads is that we blush easily. At least I do. Right now my cheeks felt as if they were on fire. "Not planning. I'm just leaving the possibility open. Is that so bad? Jeez, I haven't had sex with anybody but myself in so long, I'd like to think it's a possibility, you know?"
She put her arm around me and hugged me close. "I know. I just don't want to see you get hurt."
"Life hurts, sis. You know that."
She nodded. "I know." We'd been through some times, Frannie and I. I'm not going to talk about them now, but suffice it to say I'd gotten through them with food, and Frannie had focused on worrying about me. I'd given up my food addiction, but Frannie couldn't let go of worrying. I don't think there's a twelve-step program for that one.
"Just tell me this." She straightened and looked me in the eyes. "What happens if you meet up with Marc and you two don't hit it off? You're not going to get all depressed again, are you?"
"I promise I'm not going to drown my sorrows in chocolate doughnuts." I held up one hand, Scout's honor—though I was never so much as a lowly Brownie. "Maybe I'll meet someone else. Or maybe I'll decide they're all a bunch of losers and I can do better." I patted her shoulder. "It's okay. I'm not a fifteen-year-old who cries if you look at her wrong anymore. I'm going to visit the old hometown, maybe spend a day at the lake, see a few old friends and have a vacation. It'll be fine."
She didn't look convinced. "You couldn't pay me enough to go back there."
"Maybe you should go," I said gently. "I think part of getting over things is proving they don't have power over you anymore."
She shook her head. "I'd just as soon forget."
I understood that. No one likes bad memories. I'd tried to bury them for years under food, but it hadn't worked. I hadn't even realized what I was doing until a therapist pointed it out. And I hadn't even told her everything.
I still saw the therapist, just as I still went to the gym. Part of my maintenance plan. Frannie preferred fussing over her customers and her silver standard poodles, Midge and Pidge.
Neither of us had ever married. Frannie said she had no interest in being tied down to anyone. She rarely even dated and seemed fine with that.
I wasn't so satisfied being alone, and I hoped in the near future I could change that. Thirty-eight years is a long time to be single, but I'd spent at least twenty-five of those years behind my wall of fat, insulating myself from the opposite sex and everything else. So I figured in relationship years, I was closer to my early twenties.
I had plenty of time left to meet Mr. Right. Time to try for a different life than the one I'd had so far—a life in which I could really be happy.
* * *
My flight touched down at the Richmond airport at three o'clock the next afternoon, and I collected my bags and went to find my rental car. Today was Thursday. The official reunion started Saturday, which gave me a little time to get my bearings.
Like almost every other small town on the East Coast, Ridgeway had succumbed to urban sprawl. As I headed toward my downtown hotel, I passed acres of houses lined up like Monopoly playing pieces and shopping centers full of the same big-box stores and restaurants you could find in every state in the Union.
Closer to downtown, though, things began to look familiar. I passed the Elks Lodge where Frannie had her junior/ senior prom, and Monroe's Department Store, where Mom worked for a while. I read street signs and remembered which friends had lived on each block.
Frannie and I had both been back here five years ago, when our mother died. We hadn't seen much of Ridgeway then, since we'd spent most of the four days cleaning out her house and planning her funeral. We'd agreed to sell the place to a cousin and then left town as fast as we could, relieved that we'd never have to come back here again.
But this time was different, I told myself. This time I wanted to be here. I wasn't the same person I'd been five years ago or twenty-two years ago, when Frannie and I had headed to California. I could come here and enjoy myself.
It was after six by the time I checked into the hotel. I unpacked my suitcase, freshened up my hair and makeup, then went downstairs to the bar.
I'm not much of a drinker normally, but I was determined not to hole up in my room the entire weekend. Ordering room service was terribly tempting, though. I've always felt so conspicuous eating alone in a restaurant—one of those holdovers from my fat days, I guess, when I was sure people were judging every bite I put in my mouth.
Anyway, I figured a drink would take the edge off my nervousness. And maybe they'd have popcorn or nuts set out, so I wouldn't show up at the restaurant famished.
The bar was a typical hotel "lounge"—tucked into a corner, one side open to the lobby, a television with the sound turned down suspended over the bar. A baseball game was on, and I pretended to watch it while I waited for my glass of white wine. After the drink came, I got up the nerve to look around.
That's when I realized I was the only woman in the place. I took a big swallow of wine. Coincidence? Or was there something I didn't know about this place? Would the other customers think I was a hooker or something?
This is what comes of not socializing much for twenty-two years. I was ignorant of the unwritten rules and silent signals that applied to dating among adults. A man in a brown suit at the other end of the bar caught my eye and smiled. I looked away, and resolved to finish my wine and get out of there as soon as I could.
Brown suit had another idea. He picked up his drink and moved onto the stool next to me. "I hope you don't mind if I join you," he said, "but I hate sitting at the bar by myself. It makes me feel so self-conscious. And well, more alone."