Janelle Meraz Hooper
Bears in the Hibiscus
When Mary’s husband, Brian, decided to end their marriage, it didn’t take him long to pack. That was because he had already been leaving, piece by piece, for years. Most of his clothes were already on the yacht that belonged to his father’s timber company. He had never been the outdoorsy type, so they had no closets filled with tents and blue-speckled coffeepots to sort through like some divorcing Northwest couples did. When the end finally came, she didn’t cry a tear; all she felt was relief. As he rushed from room to room, opening closets and cupboards to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, Mary searched for parting words to mark the occasion. She found none. The best she could think of was a few hand gestures that she managed, with great effort, to keep to herself.
It was a hard adjustment for Mary and her daughter, Kate. Now, nearly two years later, they were comfortable on their own. It was a Sunday morning, and Mary was on her deck. The sun didn't have any real warmth to it yet, but the air was fresh and lightly scented with spring.
She savored her days off, even though she considered herself incredibly lucky to get a job in a literary field at her age. She still didn't know what made the publisher hire her. She’d never used her degree in journalism, and the world was full of writers. Almost all of them were younger and more qualified. It had to be that she and the publisher were both single mothers trying to survive in a new world that had, without notice, changed the rules about men going to work and women staying home to raise their kids, prune the camellias, and make the meatloaf.
At least, the timing was good. Her daughter, Kate, was in high school now, and Mary had baked her share of cookies for the PTA, served on the county’s charity boards, and worked on the state’s political campaigns. She was bored, and ready for some new challenges. Ready but unprepared. Although logic should have told her that her marriage would end someday, she hadn’t made any preparations for joining the workforce. Divorce found her with an empty closet, her nails a wreck from the camellias, and hair that hadn’t seen a good cut since she’d found a coupon in the library parking lot one rainy day.
Oh. And she was an emotional wreck that, for some reason, she was unable to overcome or hide. Other newly divorced women managed to put on a perky face, bravely go to the next singles’ party, and flirt until they dropped. Why couldn’t she? Twice, for days, she’d planned outfits to wear to singles’ events. When she got there, she looked around at the men oozing with so much confidence they hadn’t even bothered to change out of their faded polo shirts and wrinkled khaki pants. Each time, she’d made a quick break for the parking lot. She was not that needy. She would never be that needy. She’d become a nun first.
It had been a shock to be single again, and realize just how little her stock was worth
in the dating market, now that she was no longer in her twenties. Once reality had set in, she was no longer surprised or
hurt when her phone didn’t ring on Saturday night. She had become like the big moon snails on the beach at
Stretched out in the old plastic lounge chair on her deck, Mary forced herself to start a whole new train of thought. She closed her eyes to daydream about the imaginary man du jour. She had a lot of them. Some were serious. Some were funny. Some were short. Some were tall. But they all had one thing in common: they all adored her.
Today’s man was one of the best so far. They were on a yacht
This gorgeous, literate man was nuzzling her neck and the side of her face. Mary could feel the gentle bobbing of the boat beneath them. “I want to make love to you,” he whispered. Feeling no resistance, he pulled the cushions off the bench seats and made a comfortable spot for the two of them on the floor of the yacht and cradled Mary in his arms. He kissed her long and slow on the mouth and ran his fingers through her hair. His hand moved down her neck and easily found her breasts. He slipped his hand underneath her bottom as he pulled one of his legs over hers. His soft laughter surprised her, and she felt the warmth of it on her neck. Before she could ask him what he found that was amusing, he rolled over and looked at the starry sky, took a deep breath of night sea air and said, “You know, I got a bigger boat than I needed for one person just so I’d have comfortable sleeping quarters on board.”
“Is that funny?” Mary asked.
“No," he said, “what's funny is we're sprawled out on the deck like teenagers...let's go below...”
“I kind of like it here.”
“Me too, but there's not as much privacy on the deck as you might think. We're close to the traffic channel and the bigger vessels passing us have a clear view of us snuggled up on our cushions. Besides, I bought matching sheets and everything.” He pulled himself up off of the deck and headed toward the cabin. “I'll turn down the bed and you join me when you're ready. Then he winked at her and added, “If you dare...I plan to have my way with you!”
The mood was broken when the dog next door started howling at a siren on a fire truck blocks away. Mary pulled herself up in her chair and pulled her sun hat down over her forehead. Oh, what was the use? So she was lonely. What else was new? At times like this, she forced herself to remember that she had been alone for years before her divorce. Days and weeks went by when she barely saw her husband. Even when he was home, it was only physically. His mind was off someplace else. At family events, Brian’s absences raised his parents’ eyebrows. Mary made excuses for him, but she, too, wondered what he was up to. Was he really working? She suspected not, but there was no way to prove it, short of hiring a private detective. Snooping on people wasn’t her style, so the loneliness and suspicion seeped into her life, like the mold that worked its way into cracks in her bathroom tile. She much preferred the loneliness she was experiencing now that she was divorced. It was a more honest kind of alone, and it didn’t hurt nearly as much as when she was married and her empty bed refused to answer her question, “Where is he tonight? Who is he with?”
She reached for her coffee cup. It was empty. Great. No sex. No coffee. What's next, world chaos? No wait, we already have that, she reminded herself.
Okay, so Day 720 of celibacy for me. Give or take a month. Was this how Mother Teresa got her start? Mary breathed a wistful sigh and resigned herself to a day that would be minus any gorgeous man who’d gone to the trouble of purchasing matching sheets and pillowcases so he could have his way with her. According to a magazine article she’d recently read, the chances of her ever finding another man to love her was dwindling with each passing year. According to the article, they reached their conclusion by taking the number of eligible men, and subtracting the ones that were unsuitable:
The mentally unstable.
The men totally unsuited to ever live with another woman due to the close proximity of other female influences (mama’s boys).
That left only a handful of eligible men suitable for a woman in her late thirties, and they were dating women in their twenties. Why? Because they could. That left older men. Much older men. Somehow, Mary wasn’t enthusiastic about beginning a relationship with a man who already had three ex-wives and five or six grown kids—all of whom would instantly hate her because she’d be viewed as a threat to their inheritance. Or, maybe, they wouldn’t like the idea of someone replacing their mother. Her friends, who were dating older men, had told her all about it. It wasn’t a pretty story.
She looked at her medium frame in the bathroom and didn’t bother to take inventory of her many assets to boost her spirits as she sometimes did. Instead, she thought, I’m a nice person. If no man wants me, screw him. She no longer needed a man to be complete. She could use the free time to write a great American novel, join the Peace Corps, or learn to play the piano. She had absolutely no musical talent, so learning to play should occupy her until she was well into her eighties. She didn’t consider throwing herself into her work because she was already doing that.
So, what should she do today? She wondered as she reluctantly left her deck chair and went inside. Her weekend time was limited, and she had to make the best of her free Sundays. Mary did a quick mental check of her assets that would have to last until the end of the month. She had eighty dollars in her checking, and nothing in savings, unless she counted the change in the Wonder Woman cookie jar her friend, Roxanne, had given her for her birthday. The library was looking like a good, fiscally responsible place to spend the day.
Was Kate up yet? The quiet on the other side of the door could mean that she was studying in bed, or that she was still asleep. Well, let her sleep. A few more months and she'd be out of high school, and she'd have to find a part-time job. Then, after college, she'd be working the rest of her life. Finally, Mary had learned that times had changed. Women would no longer be able to stay home, raise children, and put away pickles while the husband worked at a fulltime job. We have been liberated. Now we get to clean house, cook meals, take care of the kids, and work a forty-hour week. The Good Ship Lollipop had sailed without them. Mary had loved staying home to raise Kate, but now she asked herself, what was she thinking? How had it never occurred to her that she needed to build wealth of her own for the future?
Apparently, she was one of the last to understand the concept of financial security. A few years ago, when all of her neighbors went back to work and left her to run the neighborhood’s first non-profit daycare, why didn’t she get the message? Now, the few men she did meet asked her four questions before the foam was off the latte: Where do you work? How much do you make? What kind of car do you drive? And, do you own your own home? Mary quickly caught on that, in a community property state, a lot of men were more interested in recouping the money they’d lost in their past divorces than they were in romance. She didn’t know how much she’d have to make, and how big her house would have to be before she’d find a man to adore her like the ones in her fantasies, and she wasn’t interested in finding out.
While Mary straightened her bed, she caught sight of a little handmade sign she'd put on her night table. It simply said: “Harvest Joy”. The sign was meant to remind her that she had a life too. And now, it was up to her to put the joy back into it. She could no longer hold her breath and wait for her husband to take a few minutes from his busy schedule to brighten her day. Wherever she went, she saw relaxed couples shopping together or taking advantage of an unexpected sun break to stroll along the waterfront in the middle of the week. Once, she was so frustrated about being alone on a beautiful day that she struck up a conversation with a couple that was strolling in her direction.
“Tell me,” she asked, jokingly, “how is it you have time to take your wife for a walk on the beach in the middle of the week?”
The man answered with a smile, “Life is short.” His wife leaned into him and hugged his arm. Somewhere, Mary knew, they were still out there, strolling and drinking gourmet coffee from heavy, cardboard cups with custom paper sleeves. How she envied them.
And where was she? Alone. Drinking coffee that would never be sold in a fancy, paper cup. What to do? She picked up the phone and called her best friend, Roxanne. Last night, the crazy redhead had called her at eleven o'clock to say she was in bed with two men, Ben & Jerry. Newly divorced, and with an empty nest she, too, was picking up her life where she'd left off. Roxanne had told Mary that she’d married her high school sweetheart soon after she’d graduated from high school. By the time she divorced twenty years later, there was nothing of her left. The last time she’d seen the real Roxanne was sometime in the summer between high school and college. She missed her. She wanted her back.
“Are you up? Have Ben & Jerry left yet?”
“Oh, my God, I fell asleep,” Roxanne answered. “They're here under the bedcovers somewhere!”
“No, it's all right, here’s the spoon and empty carton. Ben & Jerry are gone.”
“Boy are you lucky. By now you could have Ben & Jerry running all over your new bed set. But then, again, this would be the week to need new bed linens. Our favorite department store is having a $79.00 bed-in-a-bag sale.”
“I’ve got the bed in a bag,” Roxanne murmured, “let me know when they have a man-in-the-bag sale.”
“What's that noise?”
“Tom Brokaw. I fell asleep with the television on.”
“Good Grief. You've got three men in your bedroom.”
“I have to go to the library. Want to go with me and stop for coffee?”
“Let's stop at Gus’s and have coffee and breakfast.”
“Poor Ben and Jerry. How quickly they're forgotten.”
Roxanne ignored her friend. “Let's go before ten, we can get in on the special.”
“Cholesterol at an affordable price! I like it. Can you get dressed and meet me there before the special prices end?”
“If I'm not there, order a special for me. Two eggs over easy, bacon, with dry toast.”
“Trying to make up for last night, huh?”
“Not really, I'm just not sure what tub of processed toxins Gus’s is substituting for their margarine these days. Did you see my bread last Sunday? It had a blue scum on it.”
“Haven’t you heard? Gus’s is going green. Now their butter is half real butter and half olive oil.”
“Do I barf now, or later?” Roxanne asked. Before she hung up, she said, “And, Mary, don't bother to bring your books. It's Sunday. The library is closed.”
“Drat. I need something to read.”
“And so does Visa. I’m going to let my tax dollars pay for my books this month.”
Mary turned and saw a petite teenager wearing a
“Gus’s. Want to go?”
“Does Gus have organic yogurt and Grape-Nuts?”
“No, but he has eggs from free-range chickens and green, wholesome pancakes.”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass. His food isn’t green because it’s healthy. You keep eating that stuff and they'll make you turn in your Splendor card.”
“Because Splendor likes us to be slim so we make their clothes look good.”
“I'll go to Bundle’s, then. They’ll love me even if I have to wrap myself in one of their bed sheets. Besides, I no longer bow towards Splendor every morning during prayers.”
“Since they cut my card into a million pieces right in the middle of the shoe department!”
“Well, that was just plain rude,” Kate chuckled. She and her mother had hit many bumps in the road during the last two years; most of them had been met head-on with humor.
On the refrigerator’s door, Mary kept the postcards that her ex sent their daughter from
“Geez, Louise, next time,” Roxanne had counseled, “get a meaner lawyer.”
“I’m pretty sure there won’t be a next time. I can’t imagine any man being worth the trouble. My radical new financial plan is to learn to survive on my own nickel.”
While Kate was still living at home, one of Mary’s financial survival tactics was to harvest joy on less. Money does not in itself make a quality of life, she’d decided. All right, it helped. But it wasn’t the only ingredient.
She had learned this truth right after her divorce when she was walking in downtown
“Found a job yet,
“No, and my unemployment is about to run out,” the young man volunteered. “I hope I don’t have to move back home!” he said with a laugh. “Besides, I think my mom has made a walk-in closet out of my old room.”
This man was clean, with clothes neatly pressed. He had a light in his eyes. He was bright, articulate, and cheerful. He didn’t at all fit Mary’s vision of someone who was unemployed.
“What are you doing to keep busy?” asked Roxanne.
“Oh, I went to a free concert last night, and this afternoon I'm going to usher at the little theatre. I get
to see the play free that way,”
Mary was impressed. That young man was the inspiration behind the “Harvest Joy” sign on her night table. There was definitely more than one path to happiness, and she was determined to find the best quality of life for her and her daughter that her income could provide.
She reintroduced both of them to the library card, and unplugged the siren’s call to book clubs. Entertaining was scaled down from two or three courses to dishes like homemade soup and bread, meatloaf and baked potatoes, or tacos. Dessert was ice cream, or sometimes, fresh fruit from their apple and cherry trees. Pizza and a movie became pizza or a movie.
Mary was prepared to learn basic plumbing for broken sink pipes to save on plumbing bills, but luckily, Kate had boyfriends who were handy with hacksaws and wrenches, and she rarely started a project she had to finish. At first, she felt guilty, but she was grateful to learn they were more than glad to help. Kate, on the other hand, was devastated that her long hair that clogged the bathroom drain was now permanently burned into the memories of the boys she dated.
At first, their biggest problem was Kate’s wardrobe. The clothes at Splendor were the clothing of choice in Kate’s upscale social group, and they were way beyond what Mary could afford. Luckily, Kate hit upon her own style that didn’t depend upon the latest trends. The savvy teen went classic, and built a wardrobe partially-centered around jeans, assorted university sweatshirts, and matching baseball caps that were perfect in the rainy Northwest. A jean jacket completed her new look. The style was soon copied by her friends, and Mary was sure she heard a deep sigh of relief from some of the other single parents in their group.
Other articles of clothing, like purses and shoes, were picked up at the local outlet stores. The motto, “Never pay retail” became a way of life for Kate and her other frugal friends whose parents were divorced. She also benefited from her father’s passion for shopping, and often returned from weekends with him carrying a bagful of wardrobe treasures from the Splendor outlet stores. Whenever he brought Kate home after one of their shopping trips, Mary could see glimpses of the old Brian in his face, and it made her wistful for the good old days. She was glad Kate got to see her dad in such a joyful, giving mood, and that their daughter was able to comfortably spend time with both of her parents.
For her back-to-work wardrobe, Mary didn’t get away as easy, but she did discover three-piece suits at Bundles. She bought two of them and mixed or matched the jackets to the skirts and pants. It broke her heart to spend her limited funds on the shoe of choice at her new job: an expensive, flat, ugly sandal with cork soles and buckles that she’d refused to wear even when she was in college. She purchased one pair of the gaggers, as she called them, then tried not to look down.
The breakfast she was going to have with Roxanne was also a money-saver. To draw in early birds, the restaurant served a ninety-nine cent special on the weekends. No matter what color its eggs were, the price was right.
You can read Chapter 3, The Montana Kahuna on: