The Incurable Romantic


Chapter One -- Schnookered Beyond Belief

The only thing Michelle wanted to do on her 30th birthday was get plastered. As in drunk, wasted, schnookered, three sheets to the wind. That was the way to end an era...and she indeed felt as if it were an end. And end to being part of Generation X. And end to the expectation of irresponsibility. And most significantly, an end to her employment of nearly 8 years.

Oh yes, she had been fired on her birthday. So she had extra incentive to get sloshed.

The worst part was that the party had been planned for weeks. She'd told all her co-workers to come -- invited everyone, even her deranged, micromanaging boss. It was supposed to be a celebration. And then she realized that everyone had known she was out the door before she did...her boss' supposed method of gathering "confidants" to ease her separation from the company. They were reorganizing, see, and there wasn't any room for a second marketing assistant anymore.

A few insensitive souls had shown up to her party, ready to dish dirt on the boss and whisper to each other how badly Michelle had taken the news. She caught one of these whispers by accident as she turned a corner of the room. It died on the speaker's lips immediately and the offender had left quickly after that. But the damage to her pride was complete. Michelle was quite familiar with the office grapevine having helped it along a few times herself. It would be all over the office by 10 am.

She grimaced through the party, taking shot after shot and chasing it with another beverage, didn't matter what. She got a little tipsy. She got a lot angry. But she didn't get drunk.

Well dagnabbit.

By the time, everyone had stumbled off to their own homes, Michelle was left with a big mess in a small apartment, one very drunk underage sister, and a scowling best friend. Grace knew all her moods...and was never one to be impressed by the mass consumption of alcohol. In the years since college, Michelle had tempered her drinking to the occasional glass of wine. But tonight she could have killed several racehorses.

"I think I'm going to be sick," Her sister, Joanna, said and ran for the bathroom.

"If you miss I will kill you," Michelle called after her with mock cheerfulness.

"That's really sympathetic." Grace replied. "I didn't think you were going to let her drink tonight. She's only 18!"

"I was drinking at 18."

"You were 300 miles away at school. Joanna lives at home. You know you're going to have a lot of explaining to do when she gets home."

"What else is new," Michelle groused. "I've been the bad role model all her life. "Michelle,'" she mimicked her mother. "'why don't you clean your room. You know Joanna does everything you do. Michelle, why don't you have a boyfriend? Everyone else your age already has children. Michelle, why don't you lose some have such a pretty face.' Getting my baby sister plastered is just one more on the list."

Grace was laughing. "It's not that bad."

"Oh yeah? Weren't you in the kitchen tonight when my aunt grabbed my stomach with both hands and said, ‘ babies in here!' I was waiting for the world to end."

"She said the same thing to me," Joanna said as she wobbled back to the bathroom. "So don't go thinking you're special or anything."

"Thank you Kublai Khan," Michelle muttered. "Isn't it past your bedtime."

"Yeah, but your sitting on my bed," Joanna said with a finger aimed at the couch.

"That's my signal to go, I think."

Michelle walked her friend to her car, parked a decent distance from the apartment door. She lived on a quiet street, in a small studio in a uppity part of town. Up until this morning, she could have afforded it.

"Are you going to tell me about it or not?" Grace asked softly as she unlocked the driver's side door.

"I got fired today."

It was apparent that she had not expected that. Her gaze flew up to her friend's face. "You are remarkably calm."

"I am remarkably tipsy." Michelle replied. "The rage will come tomorrow. Together with the heaves, dizzy spells, and a dry mouth."

"Take an aspirin before you go to bed. I'll come over tomorrow. We can talk."

"Okay." It was a relief to have told someone. Knowing Grace she was going to come over armed with her CPA badge. She was going to budget Michelle to death and it would be an awesome task considering Michelle's savings -- or lack of them. But she was going to be supportive too. Fifteen years of friendship did that for them.

Joanna was already asleep when she got back into the apartment. She threw a blanket over her sister and walked away. She came back 30 seconds later with a bucket and a towel...just in case. College life was instructional in so many levels.

As she drew her own covers over her head and felt the room begin to spin, she realized that she had forgotten to take the aspirin. But what was one more headache compared to all the other ones that would confront her tomorrow?


Chapter Two -- Unemployed and Loving It

"Mmmmmmm...latte..." Michelle said in her best Homer Simpson voice. Joanna grinned over her own coffee as they sat in Starbucks, but grinning made her sunglasses move and let the sunlight in and the sunlight hampered with her hangover so she stopped grinning a nanosecond after it had started.

"This is an expense you will have to give up," Grace said as she flipped through the papers in front of her and crunched some numbers in a calculator. Somehow she had managed to make sense of the shoebox of receipts and the checkbook log Michelle had handed over that morning. "Three dollar coffees are out the door." Grace looked at Joanna over the rim of her reading glasses. "So are treating your sister to each meal and shopping expedition."

"Uh oh," Michelle murmured with a sly grin. "She's just a step away from suggesting you get a job, Joey."

"Heavens to murgatroid." Joanna said. "Mom would make me pay rent...and food!"

"Wastrel." Michelle murmured affectionately.

"Wastrel?" Joanna repeated. "You're getting all Masterpiece Theatre on me again."

"Versus your Cartoon Central, I suppose?"

"Do you want the good news or the bad news?" Grace interrupted.

"I'm a pessimist, give me the bad news."

"You are a horrible saver."

Michelle cocked her head to one side. "Bad but not news. Next?"

"You actually have enough to keep you for a couple of months. Long enough to find another job anyway." Grace narrowed her eyes. "If you stick to this budget."

Michelle nearly choked at the pitiful sum. "What do you mean, no take out?"

"I mean cooking."

"And no new shoes?"

"You already put Imelda Marcos to shame." Grace pushed her hand forward, palm up. "Give me your credit cards."


"I want to make sure you don't do the revolving credit thing."

"I AM NOT THAT BAD!!!" Michelle ground out. Joanna had leaned back from the table at the familiar tone.

Grace frowned. "Not according to these bank statements."

"That was when I had an income." Michelle said. "Besides it won't take me long to find something else."

"So are you agreeing with this budget?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"Yeah," Joanna said. "You can ask Mom if you can move back home."

Michelle glared at her sister. "I can also chop my own head off...that doesn't mean I'm gonna do it."

"I think she's finally getting mad about the whole thing," Joanna said with maddening mildness to Grace.

"I am not mad," Michelle said through clenched teeth. "I am always this pleasant."

"Nope," Joanna went on. "You've never been this pleasant before."

"Cut it out," Grace interjected. "You don't know what its like to be fired. It would require you being employed first."

That effectively shut Joanna up, who was grumpy because of her hangover. It didn't make Michelle feel any better, however. Living stringently was a pain in the neck she had hoped was far behind her.

The problem was that Michelle had too much pride to show how much getting fired had hurt. She had grown up in that company, even seen her persnickety boss as a sort of mentor. She had started in data entry and worked her way up to being second in command for the marketing department. The title of Marketing Assistant really hadn't fit her job description. She had been more than an assistant -- often managing large projects from beginning to end, writing budgets, and getting stuff done. She had even taken over managing the struggling department when the director had suddenly quit -- even knowing she was getting in over her head. The title was just a way to classify a job that hadn't existed before she took it on. And to use that as an excuse to fire her was rotten -- just plain rotten.

To everyone else she maintained that it was the best thing that ever happened to her. She joked about being on parole. But inside, she was seething over the unfairness of it all and the blow to her self-confidence that whispered she didn't have specific enough skills to find another good paying job.

Her temper finally erupted a week later, over a curiously minor incident that had never bothered her before. Michelle's apartment was at the bottom of an old San Francisco Victorian home and had a back door that lead to the garden. She was never supposed to use the garden itself, for that was part of her landlord's space, but the door lead to a small, cemented patch that garnered enough sunlight for her to grow a few herbs and flowers. The door was never of the best construction, but Michelle wasn't picky about such things. It stuck sometimes when the wood swelled and other times it slid into the frame like it was greased.

Today it stuck and no amount of pushing or swearing was getting it to budge. Michelle began to slap and kick the offending structure, making her toes ache and the skin on her palms sting. She shoved and swore and prayed and twisted, trying in vain to force the door closed. Finally, with a couple of broken nails and at least one bruised toe, Michelle gave up and began to cry.

It was stupid of course to cry over a door that wouldn't close. Or a broken nail. Or the possibility that her toes would never regain the unblemished quality admired by the local manicure/pedicure salon. But cry she did for several hours. Even while sobbing almost uncontrollably, she managed to scrub the kitchen floors, cook three meals and freeze them, change the linens on her bed and take a shower. All because the stupid back door was still open. She had visions of police tape and furniture having to be draped over the open door for some kind of protection. Just before stepping into the shower, Michelle tried the door again. She got a good grip on the handle and gave it a hard shove.

And nearly toppled when the door slid meekly closed. She started crying again even harder.

Showers were good things. They stopped the crying. Mainly because if she turned the wrong way with her mouth hanging open, she got a throat full of hot water that made her gag. And nothing stopped crying like gagging. One couldn't do both at the same time.

Exiting her bathroom with a terry cloth towel wrapped around her hair and a short robe, she stood looking at herself in the full-length vanity mirror that dominated her whole apartment. She hated her robe. It had been a birthday present from her mother. All Michelle had asked is that there wouldn't be a trace of flowers or dogs or daisies or any other such idiotic décor on the material. She wanted a single, solid color.

Well, her mother couldn't remember if she had specified a particular color. So she bought a robe that made Michelle look like the lead in Joseph and The Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was blinding. And it was the only robe she currently owned so she was stuck with it.

To say that Michelle was comfortable with her appearance was an overstatement. She was resigned to it. It wasn't that she found herself ugly. Far from it. She saw a pretty face that had dark curly hair framing a creamy complexion that had always been blessedly free of teenaged pimples. Her eyes were wide and her lashes had stayed thick. Her lips were full and other than that pesky thin mustache that appeared every couple of weeks or so, she found her reflection quite pretty.

It was everything between her neck and her knees that bothered her. Years of eating fast food had made her a little thick about the waist...not grossly so, but enough to make tucking in a shirt something of a last resort for an outfit. She had inherited her mom's small breasts which was the first part of her anatomy that shriveled into nothing when she dieted. And her derriere would make the people from Buns of Steel doubt their abilities. She was fit enough and healthy -- able to climb hills without losing her lunch and keep up on hikes and such. But a supermodel she was not.

Still, Michelle had hoped her lovelife could have been better. She hadn't been in a serious relationship for a couple of years. Most of her male friends were gay...or married to her female friends. And she had lost her taste for nightclubs. And she probably wouldn't like anyone she met at a library -- simply because she never went there.

She sighed again at the mirror. So now she was overweight, unemployed, and single. And worse, her sister had ratted her out on her mother. She had been summoned home to talk about being fired.

Her mother lived fifteen minutes away in a crowded suburban house that sheltered Joanna, her older brother, grandmother, her mother, step father, two small dogs, a litter of feral cats in the backyard, the occasional squirrel, several hummingbirds, and a fat, domesticated goldfish who swam to the edge of the bowl when it was feeding time.

Going home was like a pilgrimage -- always food laying about the place and the crowds kept you form getting too near the exit. There was never a chance for Michelle to do anything less than stay overnight. Even if she came in at dawn and stayed after everyone had trudged off to bed, it would have caused an argument. So she was determined that if she was going to stay at least a day, the only clothes she would bring were the ones that needed the washer and dryer.

It took three people to unload the trunk of her car. Joanna was grimacing at her load, for it was laundry held together by a loosely netted bag. Michelle figured that it was her punishment for being a snitch and getting her into trouble. Her brother, Charlie, was happily carrying her laptop -- which he had every intention of appropriating during her stay -- so he could participate in some internet role-playing game. Charlie was never one known for ambition. He was the smartest kid in the family -- with a degree in physics and astronomy. But getting a job was something of an issue. Despite being nearly two years her senior, Charlie was happy with his sporadic substitute teacher assignments and living rent free with his mother. In return, he got a bedroom that was larger than Michelle's entire apartment, his meals were always cooked for him, and his laundry done weekly. An avid Dungeons and Dragons player, he had a fondness for elves that was as close to a genetic aberration as this family ever managed. He had also recently acquired an addiction to The Monkees, and was constantly singing the most inane their tunes in some kind of subliminal mental annexation quest. And it had the added pleasure of driving Joanna bonkers.

Joanna was doing her best to suck up. She took her pack directly to the washer and began separating whites and colors as if she intended to do to actually do Michelle's laundry.

Michelle watched her for a moment as Charlie disappeared into his dungeon with her computer. "Don't think this gets you off the hook, you narc!" She said once they were alone.

"I'm sorry!" Joanna wailed. "She hijacked me while I was asleep! You know I don't remember conversations when I'm asleep!"

"So what am I in for?"

"Hard to say," Joanna said as she dropped too much soap into the washer. "But she's buying enough food for all of southeast Asia. And Grandma knows too."

"Of course, she does," Michelle said with a sigh of resignation. Her mother and Grandmother bickered about everything in the world -- but they were always united when one of the kids got in trouble.

"Hey hey we're The Monkees! People say we monkey around! But we're too busy singing! To put anybody down!" Charlie bellowed off key from his bedroom.

"I swear I am going to jam that CD so far down his throat it will take surgery to remove it," Joanna groused.

"Getting to you, is he?"

"Every single day of my miserable life."

Her mother, Camille, was sitting on the couch with her arms tightly crossed. Looking at her mother reminded Michelle that she resembled her father. Camille was small and slim with bottle produced auburn hair that defied gray strands. She didn't look more than a few years older than Michelle herself and often told her co-workers at the Victoria's Secret store she managed that they were sisters. And usually, they got along just fine. Camille was hip and funny and practical -- making her easy to like as a person. It's when she got motherly that the two of them began to clash.

The expression on her mother's face jarred a rather strange memory. Twelve years ago, when Michelle had been 18 and a freshman in college, she had made the mistake of leaving her diary at home during one of her weekend trips. Well, living away from home for the first time had produced a rather exciting life and Michelle had worried that nosy Joanna, who had just learned how to read script, would get her hands on the diary and broadcast its contents to the entire Bay Area. Michelle had called home everyday, a rarity in itself, trying to catch Charlie at home for he would have buried the diary in his sock drawer and forgotten all about it. But his schedule was as hectic as hers and they never connected. Finally an exasperated Camille asked what was going on.

Michelle, recalling the promise her mother made to respect her privacy, took a chance and told her. Three days later her mother called with an ultimatum.

"Come home."

"I can't mom. I have midterms next week."

"You come home or I go there. Choose."

That voice sent a shiver down to her very toes. She came home to see her mother seated on the couch with her arms crossed the same way -- and a very well read, dog-eared diary on her lap. Somehow, her mother had been unable to resist reading the diary -- and misunderstanding its contents.

In the screaming match that followed made everyone else in the house disappear. Unfortunately, it proved to be one of the times when the generation gap reared it's ugly head. Camille had been shocked at the vivid description of a beach party with its young men on the make, unlimited access to beer, and under-aged drunkenness. And the fact that Michelle had made out with a young man she didn't know. The drinking issue was bad enough -- the making out part took a strange turn when the misinterpretations began.

Michelle, like most teenagers, had developed the propensity for using slang at every possible moment. She said things like "bad" when she meant "good", "tripping" when she meant either "making out" or "getting upset/confused", and "wasted" instead of "drunk." Unfortunately, wasted meant something much more biblical to her mother.

"Wasted? You and he were wasted? And then you went out for doughnuts?"

The nonsequiteur question stopped Michelle cold. "We were hungry."

Her mother's face had contorted in disgust. "Without cleaning up first? What kind of girl are you?"

"Cleaning up?" Michelle had asked as a suspicion decided to grow. "What exactly do you think ‘wasted' means, Mom?"

Her mother closed the diary and twined her fingers together, looking remarkably like Dana Carvey's Church Lady. "That is when a man..." she gulped, "spills his seed..."

Then Michelle committed the worst offense of all. She started laughing so hard she couldn't stop. If one took Camille's reaction seriously that night, Michelle was still officially grounded.

And she had that same expression on her now.

"Get that look off your face, Mom," Michelle teased, hoping to diffuse the situation. "I didn't leave my diary here again for you to read so you can't possibly have any dirt on me."

Camille's face flushed as the jab. "I thought that was a cry for help. And as today proves, you never call me when you need anything. You always let me find out things from everyone else!"

Michelle hunkered down on the floor to hug the excited dogs. "You live for the spy stuff. Don't tell me you waited for Joanna to be half asleep by accident."

Her mother sent her an unrepentant grin. "Okay -- so maybe she volunteers more than she realizes. And don't think you're off the hook for getting her drunk."

"I didn't poke it down her throat." Michelle replied. "So don't give me that role model speech again. She's old enough to know better than to do what I do. Now, before you go off into a rampage...I did not do anything to get fired for except to be superfluous."

"I know that," Camille groused. "And I do not rampage."

Once again, Camille had stunned her daughter. "If you know, why did I get the royal summons?"

"Can't I want to see my daughter?"

"You saw me last week." Michelle looked about the house for a clue. "What gives?"

"Well, it's not as if you don't have the time..."


"Okay...I need you to take Grandma to the doctor tomorrow."

"I thought Frank was going to do that?" Michelle said, referring to her stepfather. She could hear him hooting at the football game on television, the sound coming right through the bedroom door. He rarely ever came out except to drive someone around or serve himself a plate of food. Most of the relatives still thought Camille had made up getting remarried.

"He has to work."

"Oh...okay, then." Michelle continued to pet the dogs and regard her mother suspiciously. "Is that really it? All that drama to take Grandma to the doctor?"

"That's all." Camille smiled. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Michelle looked away. "Not really. It was just stinking unfair, that's all."

"The women in this family are survivors. You'll get something better soon. And we're always here for you."

The next day, Michelle remembered just why everyone passed up the honor of taking Grandma to the doctor. If Camille was youthful, she certainly inherited it from her mother. Jackie was 86 years old, looked 65, acted like a randy 12 year old boy, and spoke her mind like it was her last day on earth. She was vain enough to use Oil of Olay every night and insist that everyone call her Mama Jackie. She's throw herself under a bus rather than be known as Grandma. Jackie had heart problems, couldn't read without a magnifying glass and made up 90 percent of what she couldn't clearly hear. And she had managed to harass the DMV into renewing her driver's license. She hated being escorted anywhere...especially to the doctor.

"What does that quack know?" Jackie stomped her feet like a little girl. "He's been telling me I am dying for the last six years." She slapped the hand Michelle lightly rested on her elbow. "I can still walk by myself. You don't have to handle me like a prisoner." Michelle rolled her eyes and maintained a hand behind Jackie's back as she wavered and inched her way down the hill to where the car was parked. "Give me the keys," Jackie demanded. "I'm driving."

"Not my car, you're not."

"I can still spank you."

"Maybe...except you can't run fast enough to catch me." Michelle said with a grin. She opened the passenger side door. Jackie got in with ill grace and snarled, "I can do that thank you," when Michelle leaned in to buckle the seat belt for her.

"I'm not the enemy," Michelle reminded quietly as she stepped around to the driver's side. She buckled herself in and noticed Jackie's elbow standing at a weird angle with her palm covering the seatbelt buckle.

Jackie noticed the significantly raised eyebrows and said. "Your seatbelt is broken."

"How about I give it a try?" Michelle said and snapped it in immediately. "It gets stuck sometimes," she offered when Jackie snorted in disbelief.

Despite the fuss getting her grandmother to the doctor, Michelle rather liked accompanying her. Jackie's doctor was a tall, good-looking man somewhere between 40 and 50. He always flirted with them both and made for some good fantasies after the consultation was over. Jackie, with the insouciance common to the elderly, always managed to sneak in a peck on his cheek. Michelle wished she had reason to do the same. The man was adorable and charming. If only his name wasn't so awful.

"Are you taking your medication?" Dr. Fugelstang asked with a wink at Michelle.

"Of course."

Dr. Fugelstang sent Michelle a droll look that asked for confirmation. "As far as I can tell she does," Michelle said, although she honestly had no idea if her grandmother took them or fed them to the dogs. "She does take all these other things though."

It was the wrong response. Dr. Fugelstang immediately began questioning Jackie. "I thought we talked about all that stuff! Jackie, you can take all the sea kelp and garlic pills and brain oxidizers in the world and they won't do a single thing for you."

"Rat fink!" Jackie bellowed at Michelle. "Yes they do work. I read in this magazine that a man would have died if he hadn't been taking the brain oxidizers."

The doctor sighed. "Which magazine?"

"He would have died!"

"Jackie, if you are alive that means your brain is receiving enough oxygen -- taking a pill once a day has nothing to do with that. It doesn't add anything special to what your body already provides. Now what magazine?"

"National Enquirer. The one that showed Princess Diana and Khadafy on the cover. He tried to contact her in a séance, you know."

He rolled his eyes and began talking to the ceiling. "How did we get on this subject?"

Michelle glanced up over their heads and wondered if there was a hidden camera there. "So she should stop taking those pills right?"

"Right." Dr. Fugelstang smiled at Jackie. "At least your granddaughter listens to me."

"She needs her brain oxidized more than I do." Jackie replied. "Can you introduce her to any nice doctors? She's single you know."


"What did I tell you about calling me that word?" Jackie snapped.

"Excuse me. It's not as bad as rat fink."

"What's wrong with me?" Dr. Fugelstang asked with a grin.

"You're too old," Jackie said with a giggle. "Besides, you're much more my type."


Chapter Three -- Weak Links in the Gene Pool

"Am I fat?"

Generally, this was a question Michelle shied away from. Any affirmative answer was rude and drew attention to her own lack of athletic achievement. Any negative answer was usually a lie. This particular questioner was the only exception. Charlie had raised his scruffy tee-shirt to show a very miniscule potbelly which he was now patting vigorously. Michelle crinkled her nose in mild disgust and looked away.


"But what about this thing?" He had gone from patting to pinching. "I do sit ups all the time and I am a vegetarian, so why do I still have this thing?"

"You might consider not frying your tofu."

"I like it crispy!"

"Are you in your first trimester?"

He looked completely confused. "I graduated from college years know that." Joanna, who was loading dinner plates into the dishwasher, snickered unglamorously.

Michelle sighed as the jab whizzed right over his head. "No, you're not fat."

Charlie muttered and walked away, still distractedly patting his stomach and barely missing the dog's tail. Michelle went back to marinating the various roasts for tomorrow's family reunion and skewering the shrimp and vegetables for the kebobs. Her mother's house was always the center of any family gathering and she had trained her daughters well. While everyone else was scrubbing the polishing, Joanna and Michelle often started kitchen duties the night before.

"What are we celebrating again?" Michelle muttered.

"Dunno." Joanna replied. "Somebody has got to have a birthday."

Michelle did a little math in her head. "Who?"


When people started showing up the next day, it turned out that her cousin, Trudy, had requested the reunion to introduce her new fiancée and soon to be fourth husband. They stood like royalty in the middle of the living room, two hugely tall people, accepting congratulations from everyone.

She sensed Joanna peering over her shoulder at the deafening conversation in the next room. "You know that saying, ‘There's one in every family'?" Michelle said softly. "Well, we have one FOR every family."

"Why did we have to cook for them?" Joanna grumbled. "If she wanted a party, she could have damn well invited people to her house!"

"You have taken up swearing with a vengeance, haven't you?" Michelle commented mildly as she watched the hubbub from the relative safety of the kitchen.

"Dams straight."

"Cut it out. It's not attractive."

"It flipping is..." Joanna started and faltered at the sudden look Michelle sent to her. "You're not my mom!"

"Would you rather discuss it with her?"

"Hell no!" She replied and walked away before another reprimand came her way.

Camille was sending unmistakable signals for her to join the group -- something Michelle was not eager to do. She approached quietly, hoping no one would notice. But with a radar for young women that was formidable, Uncle Vince swung around to face her.

"Hello my darling!" He approached with outstretched arms. Michelle gave a weak grin as she took in the hair he combed from the back of his neck over the bald spot on top and the ends that curled upwards over the rim of the beret he wore to hold it all together. As usual, he was wearing sandals with a pair of faux vinyl pants that rode up to mid shin when he sat down. Despite being nearly 70, Uncle Vince could crush a girl with his embrace. And he often did. At the very last minute, Michelle threw an arm between them to protect her sensitive chest. And she wasn't quite sure if a vague look of disappointment crossed his face. He settled for pinching the life out of her cheeks. "You are soooo cute!!!"

"Hi honey," Her aunt Gina boomed from behind him. She was the woman responsible for bringing this man into the family and while her cheeks were still stinging, Michelle could find nothing nice to think of her mother's oldest sister. Gina, mother to Trudy and wife to Vince, was the family neurotic who was referred to behind her back as VD: The Voice of Doom. "Heard you got canned."

Michelle sent a glare toward her mother, who was within hearing range but kept her back turned in guilt. "Yeah. Something like that."

"What the heck do they know?" Gina bellowed until several other heads turned their way. "You are the best thing that ever happened to them. They'll figure it out soon enough and call you back."

"I don't think I want to go back, Auntie."

"Well...okay...make them suffer then!"

Aunt Gina was really big on suffering. She believed that no one ever suffered as much as she did. She believed that the planets aligned specifically to bring on some new tragedy in her life and regardless of physical evidence, maintained that the planets aligned every time her daughter divorced.

"So," Michelle began conversationally. "Like your new son?"

Gina gave a disgruntled look over her shoulder at where Trudy and her fiancée were cooing at each other. "No."

"Now be nice..." Vince began.

"I am being nice. I didn't say I hated him."

Michelle was actually relieved when the couple began to bicker because it meant she could slip away.

"Hi sunshine!"

Michelle grinned at the tiny woman who was planted in front of her. At under five feet, her grandmother's sister, Georgina, was as sunny and vibrant as her sister was belligerent. She dyed her hair a flaming red, always wore her pearls, and hadn't missed a weekly manicure appointment in fifty years. She was rail thin, carried a black, hard leather purse that was half her size, and ate like a starving horse. "Hi Auntie George."

Her grandaunt laughed at the nickname. "You make me sound like a drag queen!" She nudged Michelle. "But maybe I'd get more action."

"I don't think that's the kind of action you want to get."

"At my age, you can't be too picky."

Michelle moved on to say all the expected things to the happy couple. She mentally gave them two years, since that was generous by Trudy's standards, and counted herself among the lucky.

"Where's your boyfriend?" Trudy asked. Michelle would have liked to deck her, but Trudy didn't have a mean bone in her body. She didn't have that kind of attention span to carry a grudge.

"No boyfriend!" Jackie huffed. "She lives like a nun."

"I do not!" Michelle protested. "I like being single and free..."

"That's okay too," Trudy replied with a sweet smile that said she wouldn't be caught dead at a party alone.

"I want great grandkids." Jackie grumbled. "Before I die would be nice."

Michelle flushed. "Trudy doesn't have any kids either. Bug her for a while."

Trudy sent her a warning look. "Well...I am going to have a step son soon."

"You have a son?" Jackie asked her fiancée with a poke on the ribs.

"And a daughter," he said proudly.

"And an ex-wife?"

"Soon to be an ex-wife," Trudy said uncomfortably. There was a brief moment of silence as that news hit the room. Every Catholic tendency reared in the folks older than fifty and there were a lot of significant looks and crosses crossed.

"How's lunch coming along?" Camille asked Michelle in the silence.

"Almost ready," Michelle said brightly, seeing a way out for herself. "In fact, I'm off to carve the roast."

There was no better distraction for her family than the mention of food. The word ‘roast' ricocheted off the walls with as much rapidity as the word ‘adultery' as Michelle took the side hall toward the kitchen.

Joanna was grinning at her when she got there. "Did I hear that right? Trudy's got herself a married guy?"

"Shhh..." Michelle warned. "Say that loud enough and the old ladies will be in here for a gossip."

"There you are, you brat." Camille said to Joanna. "I've been looking for you. Come in here and say hello."

"Watch out for Uncle Vince," Michelle whispered as a look of defeat crossed her sister's face. Joanna, ever resourceful, took up the large wooden salad serving bowl in her arms, propped it deep in her arms and against her chest. With a defiant grin, she marched into the living room.

"Hello my darling!" Uncle Vince immediately yelled...and it was followed by a loud crunch.

It stands to reason that any family with as many genetic strikes against them as the one Michelle possessed would inevitably select pets that could survive such an environment. In this respect both Shaggy and Brandy were as eccentric as the people who cared for them. First, they refused to believe that they were actually Lhasa Apsos. They believed they were people just like the rest of the family. They slept on people's beds, ate off plates from the table, got their treats from everyone who couldn't resist their hypnotic looks, and learned that Jackie always fed them bits while she cooked.

Shaggy loved carrots...but they had to be julienne carrots. Brandy loved Garbanzo beans. And luckily for them, both these treats were in the salad that dropped to the floor when Uncle Vince crushed both Joanna and the surprisingly delicate salad bowl. Three things happened at that particular moment. The salad bowl cracked, sending a torrent of lettuce, croutons, tomatoes, carrots, Garbanzo beans, and cucumbers tumbling to the ground. Nimble fingered Joanna managed to catch much of it with her blouse. Gina, irate, slapped her husband on the back of the head, sending the beret tumbling and the combed forward hair off the bald spot. And two eager dogs dived for the treats staining the carpet.

Joanna scurried into the kitchen before more of the salad fell to the floor. Vince screamed and grabbed his head as if it were imploding under the glare of the fluorescent bulbs. He hurriedly reached down to grab his beret, which was in the middle of the vegetable mess, and went absolutely still when two dogs began to snarl at his outstretched hand.

Every dog owner knows that no matter how cuddly and sweet their pet is, there will be a moment when that pet would rather bite its owner's hand than give up a treat. Shaggy and Brandy staked a claim on the carrots and Garbanzo beans that littered the ground, growling and snapping at anyone who came close. Nobody moved and slowly both dogs began to eat their treats with one eye trained on the watching intruders. Michelle walked into the commotion to see ten full-grown adults held completely hostage by two over fed, fifteen-pound dogs.

Camille looked across the room at Michelle. "Do something!"

Michelle felt her eyes widening. "Like what?"

Trudy's fiancée gave a dramatic sigh, "Oh for pity's sake! They're just dogs!" And lunged forward for the beret, ignoring the snarls sent his way.

It was this attitude that marked him as a stranger to the family. Everyone in that room was well aware that Jackie loved both those dogs more than everyone combined. Seeing this hulking stranger aggressively push her babies out of the way loosened something primeval in her. With a holler of pure anger, she snatched Auntie George's handbag right off her arm and cracked the young man skull with it. Then she used it to smack the rumps of both the dogs.

Shaggy and Brandy grabbed a mouthful and ran off to a safe hiding place. Frank, feeling as if he had made enough of an appearance, followed the dogs into his room where the three of them presumably began to watch a football game. Trudy bent to see if her fiancée was still in one piece and Auntie George began wrestling her sister for the handbag. "That's GUCCI!"

"Good quality," Jackie replied. "Three in one shot."

"Wow," Joanna whispered from behind Michelle. "Grandma could teach Clint Eastwood a thing or two."

Michelle had both hands pressed against her mouth to stop herself from laughing. There was enough thunder in her mother's expression without inviting any of it in her direction. Charlie knew when he needed to step in and quickly began cleaning the mess up. Trudy and her disgruntled fiancée were still sitting on the floor, for it took all four of their hands to rub the sore spot in the back of his head. With as much dignity as he could muster, and silencing all of Trudy's protests, he thanked Camille for her hospitality but insisted that they were leaving.

Trudy tried to make excuses for him, although no one believed for a moment that the man might be suffering from a concussion. Finally, when the entire family was staring at a closed door, Michelle came in with a plate overflowing with roast beef. "Anybody hungry?"

Once the mad rush to the dining table settled into the usual seating arrangement, the dreaded conversation began.

"So," Gina said to Michelle. "What are you going to do now?"

"I was thinking of taking a couple of weeks off."

"Oh?" She sniffed. "How nice that you can afford to do that."

"I am going to start looking for a job...but it will be my last chance for a vacation if I start something new..."

"You're so cute and so smart." Uncle Vince said from her other elbow. "You just have to focus on the higher goals. Reach for your potential. You can be anything you want to be."

"Especially in the army," Charlie interjected, completely deadpan.

Michelle frowned at her brother briefly. "Uncle Vince, I'm looking for a job...not the meaning of life."

"Ah!" He replied with a knowing wag of his index finger. Michelle waited for the implied revelation. But all he said was, "Ah!" again before digging into the mashed potatoes.

"Forget the job and have a baby." Jackie said.

"She needs a man first," Auntie George replied.

"You don't need a man now-a-days," Jackie stated. "You can go into some freezer shop and buy one of them donor lollipops."

"That's unnatural!" Auntie George said with a curled lip.

"What's unnatural is a healthy, pretty young woman living like a nun!" Jackie said and waved a dirty fork at Michelle. "Why exactly haven't you settled down, young lady?"

Michelle took a sip of her wine for courage and patience. "The right test tube just hasn't come along yet...Grandma."

"This is a vulgar conversation for the dinner table," Camille observed sharply before Jackie could spout any more opinions.

"How about you, Joanna?" Gina asked, turning the spotlight to another youngster. "What are you studying?"

"Anthropology." The blank look on their aunt's face meant she hadn't a clue what that meant.

"Is that like Accounting?"

"No, it's the study of human culture."

"Oh. So you want to be a human resources manager."

Joanna was trying not to choke on her last bite. "Actually, I was hoping to get into archaeology."

"Yeah," Charlie said with a grin. "She's gonna be Indiana Joanna."

"Shut up!" Joanna yelled from across the table. "Mom! Make him leave me alone."

"You're both too old to fight like that." Camille said. "And I'd think twice about criticizing, young man, when you are barely working yourself."

"At least I still have a job! Unlike some people..." Charlie nodded at Michelle.

"Charlie, I'm not the one still living with my mommy," Michelle replied sweetly.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Camille demanded.

"Just that I manage whether I have a job or not," Michelle said, and was quite proud of her calm reply. "I maintain my independence."

"Too independent to have a baby!" Jackie snorted.

Two hours later, when the dishes were cleared and the guests in a semi-stupor in front of the television, Michelle sat outside in the farthest part of the garden smoking a cigarette. Charlie came and sat next to her.

"You can be a total wiener, you know that?" She said between puffs.

"Hey, it's a survival thing."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm surrounded by all you women. A man has to do what a man has to do."

"What about Frank and Uncle Vince?" They exchanged meaningful looks. "I see what you mean."

Brandy came sneaking up to them, sniffing and tentatively wagging his tail.

"Ooohhh...look who's out on parole," Charlie said.

"Jailbreak is more like it." Michelle grinned. "Bad doggie," she said affectionately to Brandy who wagged his tail even more enthusiastically.

"I thought you quit smoking."

"I did," Michelle sighed. "I only smoke when I'm here."

That night, Michelle got to test her inflatable mattress for the first time. She had been intrigued by the infomercial that showed twenty football players bouncing on the sturdy mattress and before she had even been conscious about it, had allowed a hundred and fifty dollars to be deducted from her credit card. The mattress came complete with an electronic air pump that roared ineffectually as she inflated the mattress. As usual, she was camped out on the floor of Joanna's room, preferring the privacy of the small room than the early morning bustle of the living room.

"I think I have splinters on my boobs," Joanna groaned into the darkness as they lay there unable to sleep.

"Can't believe he hugged you anyway." Michelle said. "Why are we related to so many weird people?"

"Just lucky, I guess," Joanna replied with heavy sarcasm. Michelle heard her shift on the bed. "Doesn't it bother you?" Joanna asked. "When they pester you about getting married and having a baby."

"Yeah, it bothers me." Michelle said. "I'm not doing so bad...okay, maybe I need a new job. But what's wrong with being single if I'm happy?"


"I just wish there wasn't that little part of me that agreed with them." Michelle turned on her side so she faced her sister. "Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and wonder, 'Is this all there is?' I don't need Grandma to remind me of what's missing. I want to get married and have kids. But what if it's all hogwash that there's one special person out there. What if that's just something single people make up so that nobody bothers them when they aren't half of a couple? It would be just my luck to wait all my life for a soul mate that doesn't exist."

"Maybe your soul mate got hit by a bus when he was a kid," Joanna said with a snicker.

"That is so not helpful," Michelle said. "Here I am, pouring my heart out to you...and you're telling me my soul mate is dead. Well, if mine is street pizza...yours is probably a fern."

Joanna laughed aloud. "At least he's alive." There was another shifting on the mattress above Michelle's head. "You know, in the darkness it looks like you're getting shorter."

Michelle blinked a little in the silence, broken only by a soft hissing. With a disgusted wave of her arms, she hollered. "My damn bed is deflating!"



© 1999 Copyright held by the author.



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