In Retirement Acres, nature abhors a vacuum. Specifically, it abhors the vacuum it sees around a single woman. So they’re constantly trying to fix it.
It started one Sunday, when an older lady rushed to hug me after the service.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” Mrs B announced, apropos of nothing.
“And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” She turned a harsh glare on Mr Shoes, who took a hasty stepped back while crossing himself. (We’re not Catholic.) “Anyone.”
“Yes ma’am,” I answered, thoroughly baffled. Seeing no other alternative, I sought out Little Miss M, hearer of all things inappropriate.
“What’s happening here?” I asked. She barely raised her gaze from her book.
“Mrs. B hit Mr. Shoes the other night in a committee meeting,” she yawned.
“She hit him?!”
“With her purse,” Little Miss shrugged.
I’ve seen her purse; she could keep a water buffalo in there.
“Why would she do that?”
“Mr. Shoes said they shouldn’t ask you to do something because you’d spend all your time at the church and end up an old maid,” she continued, pondering for a moment before she looked up at me. “What’s an old maid?”
“You shouldn’t repeat things that weren’t said to you,” I reminded her. “Mrs. Preacher will find out.”
“Do you want to know what Mrs. Preacher said about it?”
Not especially, child. Not especially.
So it’s really my own fault that I didn’t see what was coming next.
“I have someone I want you to call,” Mrs Andrews announced, triumphantly. “You’re not dating anyone are you?”
“But you already know him,” she replied to herself. “You sat behind him in my science class.”
Before we go any further, you need to know this: I did not grow up in Retirement Acres. I didn’t even grow up in the same state as Retirement Acres. Imagine my surprise when I found out that not only did I grow up there, but my youthful follies are a constant topic of discussion around the morning coffee meeting. I related this to a friend, who studied me for a long moment before asking “…exactly how many years do you not remember?” I would say that it’s an enormous put-on, except that they’re so consistent and frankly I don’t think most of them have the short-term memory for this kind of joke. More than once, I’ve wished to go back and throttle this younger self of mine, because apparently Past Not Really Me hated Future Me.
“I wasn’t in your…Remind me of his name,” I said, conscious that playing along with this game was easier, although I feel like it encourages the wrong behavior.
“Army man,” she said. “You had a crush on his older brother. Anyway, he’s home from the service and he broke up with that girl he was seeing that you hated so much.”
Past Me has had an incredibly entertaining life.
“You can call Meaghan,” Mrs Nightshift chimed in. “She won’t mind. It’ll be just like high school again!”
Meaghan is her daughter. We’ve met once. We were both 35.
“I’ll call his grandma; we can all meet for dinner. She was my college roommate in 1943, and you remember how she used to–well, anyway. How is Thursday?” Mrs Andrews reached into her enormous bag to retrieve her calendar. Amazingly, it was the first and only thing she pulled out. My own bag is one-tenth the size and I haven’t seen the calendar I dropped in there in more than two years.
“I’ll pick you up here,” she decreed. “We can take one car.”
A blind date with two grandmothers. How bad could it be?
Oh, wait…did I just ask how bad could it be? His mother and her most recent husband came to dinner too. We were at least three dates in before I managed to convince everyone that we did not, in fact, need chaperones.
We did finally establish that I was not the girl who sat in his row in science class, but this took three conversations and two yearbooks. Naturally I had questions about the girl he had, until lately, been seeing. Mrs. Andrews told me the story one Sunday morning: It was a real scandal. She waited until he had been deployed to move in with another man. Could I ever?! I actually could not, at this point.
“That’s not exactly true,” he said. “That’s just what I told my grandma.”
“She moved another man into our apartment. Hold on, I’m getting a call.”
It was his mother, who wanted to know if anyone was living in the spare rooms in my house. Just out of curiosity. Also: His father had called, wanted to know if he would stop by. His stepmother had redecorated their house and she wanted someone to see it. This seemed like a more or less normal thing for someone to do. When we arrived, there were two teenage girls also present whose mere existence annoyed him mightily. After they left and we had a short talk on terms one should or should not use to discuss women of any age, I asked were those girls his stepsisters.
At the end of the day, his parents had twelve spouses between them. (Not all at once. They were not nearly so organized.) Many of them had children, some of them had children together, some did not, and then he referred to someone as his half cousin, a concept I still don’t understand.
And then, as fate would have it, I ran into his ex-girlfriend at the gas station.
“Give him my best,” she said. “How’s he doing?
“Fairly bitter,” I answered. “Do you like your new place?”
We spoke for a moment longer, then she left. Pizza was getting cold.
She didn’t move a new man in with him because she didn’t realize they were dating. She thought he wouldn’t mind because he hated women–including her–so much she assumed he was gay. It wasn’t until he got back from his deployment that she even knew he was angry.
That…explained a lot.
“Old flames burn out,” I explained to Mrs. Andrews at Wednesday night supper. I hate to disappoint an old lady who’s just trying to help, but among other things, it freaked me out that his mom kept asking about the dimensions of the spare bedroom while talking about how awful her current husband was. I do, in fact, like the color the room is painted.
“Who made this cake?” Sparky asked.
“I did. It was my great-grandmother’s recipe. Enjoy it, because I’m never making seven minute frosting again because I didn’t realize that was a threat.” My arm still hurt.
“Can I have another piece?”
“You can have the rest,” I said. “Take it home. Have it for breakfast.”
“But I can have another piece now?” Far be it from me to police the Retirement Acres potluck.
“With my blessing.”
I continued to chat with Mrs. Andrews, hopefully out of earshot of Little Miss M. She has ears like a fox, though, and rarely misses anything. Presently, Sparky returned to my table, towing a baffled young man behind him. The young man was eating cake off a napkin.
“You like the cake,” Sparky prodded.
“Yeah, it’s pretty good,” he answered.
“She made it. You should marry her.”
“Sparky!” Mrs Andrews shouted. “That’s not fair!”
“You have a grandson?” This wasn’t news, I just found it difficult to believe he’d managed to keep quiet about it for so long.
“You had your turn,” he snapped. “And you used unfair influence. Besides, we all knew she didn’t like that guy in 10th grade and she won’t like him now.”
“Have I ever seen you before?” the grandson asked quietly. Sparky and Mrs Andrews continued to shout at each other. Partly because they’re both mostly deaf, partly because apparently they’d made some sort of deal, and Mrs. Andrews felt he was cheating.
“I can’t place exactly who it is you belong to.”
“Mrs. Nightshift is my mom,” he explained. “Mary is my aunt. Too bad about the children’s moment.”
“She did all she could.”
“But you’re the one Mom’s always telling Meaghan to call?”
“Meaghan is your…?”
“Sister. And she said she’s really sorry,” he offered.
“She seems nice,” I said. “We’d probably be friends if she lived here and we knew each other.”
“Mom wants to know if you’re going to make it to the class reunion in July.”
“I’ll probably have to miss it,” I said regretfully.
“It’s something in the water,” he assured me. “Can I have some more of this cake?”
“I promised it to your grandfather. You’ll have to take it up with him.”
“Well, that’s never gonna happen. Maybe I can take him coffee on the way to work tomorrow and have some for breakfast.”
A few days later, I ran into him in town.
“He ate all the cake before I could get there,” he lamented. “But he said to tell you it was even better the next day.”
“He sent me a facebook message that said I should call you.” Oh yes. Retirement Acres has facebook.
“He doesn’t know I have a girlfriend,” he explained. “And neither does my mom, so keep it quiet.”
“They worry,” I said. “Apparently you keep to yourself a lot.”
“If I tell them I’m dating, they’ll just take it the wrong way.”
“I’m not sure what the wrong–“
“They’ll want to know when we’re getting married.”
“You should tell them you’re secretly married,” Little Missy advised.
“Why would you even say something like that?”
“It was in a book I read,” she answered. “The woman told people she was married so they’d stop asking questions about when she was getting married, but she was really a spy and she shot people.”
“You read that in a book?”
“I can let you borrow it, but you don’t like scary books.” The kid’s not wrong.
“Aren’t you seven?”
“I’m six, Miss Robin,” she huffed. “If you don’t want it, I’ll just send it back to the library, It was kind of boring anyway.”
“Does Big Miss M know you’re reading spy novels?”
“Just be glad she’s not trying to fix you up with Uncle Morgan. For $5, I’ll tell her you’re not interested.”
“That’s extortion.” “That’s something I learned from this book too.”
“Can’t you just read Nancy Drew like every other six-year-old on the planet?”
“So lame,” she muttered.
Mr. Cycle clapped me on the back.
“How are you doing these days, kid?” he boomed. “Been busy? Working all the time?”
“Now you’re in for it,” Miss P giggled. She was visiting her parents, Mr and Mrs Bob, but had grown up in this church and was therefore wise to their ways already. Her engagement ring came from a gumball machine, and for the life of me I don’t know how she kept Mrs Bob from telling everyone.
“Well,” I said gamely, “I’ve joined a book club and–“
“You should call my son!”
Miss P choked on the tea she snorted out her nose.
“You told them you were single? What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking they would forget.” I turned back to Mr Cycle, who was beaming hopefully. “I thought your son was married?”
“Not as of 10 this morning! You’ve got a three bedroom house, right? I’ll tell him to call you. The number in the directory still good?”
I knew there’d been a drawback to putting all my real information in the church directory. Miss P had her head down on the table, her shoulders shaking with laughter. Her daughter, Little P, wandered up with Little Miss M.
“He got kicked out of his house,” Little Missy informed us. “Everyone in the church knows you have three bedrooms and probably don’t use more than one of them. But he’s either got to move into his dad’s basement or in with you.”
“I’m not sure why ‘in with me’ is even a possibility,” I said. “I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.”
“Well, since you brought it up,” Little P offered, only to be hushed up by Miss P. Mrs Bob was headed straight for the table with a look of grim determination that could only mean we were about to have ‘fun’.
As we moved boxes of books from the back of Mrs. Bob’s car to the library (without the knowledge of the occupant of the library), Little P looked at her mom.
“I hate this new haircut,” she fumed. “These books smell funny.”
“Hair grows back,” Miss P reminded her, not for the first time that week. “Think of all the starving children in China who don’t have hair.”
“I don’t think that’s how that sentence works,” I said. “Why don’t you like it? Is it hard to get used to?”
“One of the boys in my class said it made me look hot,” Little P answered.
“Hot? Aren’t you in the third grade?”
“I’m 12, Miss Robin,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Check, please,” I said to the waiter.
“Okay,” he replied. “But why you’re wasting one whole room as a library is a valid question.”
“It actually isn’t,” I said. “And you can’t afford the rent.”
I called the meeting of the Ladies’ Aid to order, which was no small feat.
“Any old business?” I asked. “Any minutes?”
“I forgot to bring them,” Mrs OnlinePoker said. “But I don’t think we had anything except the cookbook.”
Except. The Cookbook. Oh my stars and garters.
“Any new business?”
“We can’t use most of those recipes,” Mrs. Florist pointed out. “I think someone just downloaded a bunch from online, but then didn’t check to make sure they were edible.”
In fact, this was the case. Most of the time, the offending submitters had not checked to be sure whether the finished product matched the ingredients list. Ten years later, I’m still getting calls.
“Throw them away,” Mrs. Preacher advised. “We don’t want them unless we’ve tried them.”
Bless their hearts, they all looked at me as if I stood a chance of overruling Mrs. Preacher.
“Anything else?” I asked, just to be sure. Nothing all around. We were in the home stretch. Snacks were waiting in the Fellowship Hall, which had been newly painted and passed off as new business when everyone else in the church asked about it. Since we hadn’t had any meeting minutes in nearly six months, it probably wasn’t a lie to say that we approved it and paid for the paint out of the budget. We had a budget, after all; might as well use it.
“Well I have something,” I announced. “As much as I appreciate the efforts, please stop trying to fix me up. This is creating more problems than it’s solving. I’m flattered, but I really haven’t got the time or the energy right now. Should that change, I’ll let you know. Everyone got that?”
“Nope. Not even.”
With that, we adjourned to Mrs. OnlinePoker’s excellent cake and coffee. Mrs. Preacher sat down next to me without waiting for an invitation. What she lacked in note taking skills she more than made up for with her baking skills.
“Heard you took a cab home from the date with Mr. Cycle’s son,” she said. “I could have told him that wasn’t going to work out.”
“Because 12 hours after your divorce is final is no time to start dating?”
“Because everyone knows you’re one of them Wiccans.”
Since we were having this meeting in the middle of a church, I was relatively sure she didn’t know what a Wiccan might be.
I found Little Miss the next Sunday. She and Little P were hiding in one of the Sunday School classrooms, their heads bent together over a book. The possibilities were endlessly terrifying.
“The going price for an answer is now $10,” Little Miss murmured, her eyes glued to the page.
“Who’s letting you read gangster novels?”
“Uncle Morgan gives me the books and $50 to go away. What is it now?”
“Why does Mrs. Preacher think I’m a Wiccan.”
“She doesn’t know what it means,” Little P offered. “But she knew it was something like that.”
I could not imagine what word she might have been thinking of that sounded like Wiccan.
“Lesbian,” Little Miss filled in. “That’ll be $10. But I’ll drop it down to $5 if you’ll tell me what it means.”
“I’ll give you $20 to tell her I’m not,” I said as I cracked open my wallet.
“Keep it,” Little Miss counseled. “You can use it to sign up for a dating service.”