Excerpt from Holding Hands

Chapter One


“I’M SEEING SOMEONE,” Meredith’s mother said.

Meredith tucked the cordless phone more firmly between her ear and her shoulder, freeing her hands to press the lid of the plastic container containing that evening’s leftovers into place. Emily had moved out several weeks ago, but Meredith still hadn’t gotten the portions right. She’d intended to make stir-fry chicken for two, but somehow she’d made enough for three. This container would be joining the foil-wrapped slab of salmon, the tub of cooked pasta with clam sauce and the chunk of rib-eye steak in the refrigerator. Maybe tomorrow, she’d reheat all the leftovers and serve a buffet dinner.

She let her mother’s words settle into her brain. Several possible meanings took shape: “I’m seeing someone about that thing that looks like a fungus on my toenail.” Or “I’m seeing someone in the rocking chair your dad always loved. I think it’s his ghost. Does that mean I’m crazy?” Or…

“You’re seeing someone?”

“Charlie Abrams. Remember, I told you he and his wife Helen moved here to Sunshine Village a couple of weeks ago.”

“You’re seeing a married man?” The container of stir-fry went forgotten as Meredith gripped the phone, pressing it against her ear to make sure she hadn’t misinterpreted her mother’s words.

“Helen has Alzheimer’s. I told you all this when they moved in, don’t you remember? He’s living in my building, and she’s living in the memory care unit across the way.”

Meredith’s mother probably had told her. She regaled Meredith on a daily basis with news and gossip about her neighbors in the assisted-living community. This one had to go on oxygen for her COPD. That one’s granddaughter visited from California. This one had a big fight with that one over the Sudoku puzzle in the newspaper. So many names, Meredith couldn’t keep track of them.

“What exactly do you mean by seeing him?” Meredith asked.

Her mother blithely ignored the question. “Charlie is such a good husband. He goes over to the memory care unit every day and has lunch with Helen. But she’s been deteriorating for years. Sometimes she doesn’t even remember who he is. Thank God your father went fast, and his brain was still intact. My heart breaks for Charlie, what he’s been through. We’ve been having dinner together. He’s a sweetheart.”

A sweetheart who was hitting on her mother while his wife was living just across the courtyard in the building for residents suffering from dementia. Very sweet.

“We’ve been going to the evening movies together,” her mother continued. “Last night they showed The King’s Speech. An excellent movie, did you see it? It won an Oscar.”

“Mom. He’s married.

“To a woman who sometimes puts her socks on her ears instead of her feet. Honey, we’re all getting old. We don’t have that many years left. We need to grab happiness where we can find it.” Meredith’s mother sighed happily. “He held my hand while we watched the movie. Your father and I always used to hold hands at the movies. It’s been such a long time since I held hands with a man.”

As long as they were just holding hands, Meredith supposed there wasn’t too much harm in it. Her father had died from a catastrophic stroke three years ago, and her mother had been alone since then. For two and a half of those years, she’d remained stubbornly in the house she and Meredith’s father had called home their entire married life. She’d grieved, she’d withdrawn, she’d grown increasingly isolated. Meredith and her sister had finally uprooted her and moved her to Sunrise Village, and the woman had come back to life

Perhaps a bit too much life. But hell, if her mother wanted to hold hands with a man while they watched a movie, so be it. Her mother was still pretty and vivacious. She’d been the queen of her high school’s prom as a teenager, a beauty pageant winner in college, the most popular girl on campus until Meredith’s father had successfully elbowed aside her many other suitors and staked his claim. Now that he was gone, why shouldn’t she go back to being a prom queen?

“Anyway, I wanted you to hear about Charlie from me,” her mother continued. “Your sister freaked out when I told her. I knew you’d be sensible about it.”

In that case, Meredith had better be sensible. “If it makes you happy…”

“I feel reborn,” her mother said, her voice lilting. “Last Saturday, he gave me a single red rose. It was so beautiful. And we’ve had wine up at his apartment, and—”

“I thought all you did was hold hands.”

“That was yesterday at the movie,” her mother explained. “They’re showing fabulous movies here lately. I think they’ve got a subscription with one of those places, Netflix or something. Some of the residents here don’t want them showing anything that doesn’t have a G-rating, but honestly, we’re all adults, and if they can’t handle a few dirty words, they don’t have to watch the movie. Not that there are dirty words in The King’s Speech.”

“Mom.” Meredith sounded to herself the way she did when she used to reprimand Emily or the boys. Behave yourself. Clean your room. Do your homework. Now she was her mother’s mother, scolding. “You’re drinking wine in his apartment?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t get pregnant.” Her mother giggled like a flirty schoolgirl. “Thanks for not freaking out like your sister. Next time you visit, I’ll introduce you to Charlie. He’s a doll.”

Yeah, right, Meredith thought after she said good-bye to her mother and slid the container of stir-fry onto a refrigerator shelf with the other leftovers. A real doll, romancing Meredith’s mother while he had a wife tucked away in the loony-bin across the courtyard.

However, since her sister had freaked out, Meredith would not. In fact, as she sponged down the table and reran the phone conversation in her mind, she realized she wasn’t terribly shocked. Her mother was seventy-five years old. Married forever, widowed for three years, lonely and depressed—and now feeling reborn. To catch a man’s attention again, to be courted, to be the prettiest girl in the room… Lucky woman.

The kitchen tidy, Meredith strode to the mudroom to get Skippy’s leash. He must have heard the rattle of the hook where the leash hung when it wasn’t in use, because he bounded into the kitchen, barking exuberantly. “Hush,” she murmured half-heartedly as she bent over to clip the leash to his collar. Skippy couldn’t possibly remain silent when something as thrilling as a walk loomed in his immediate future.

She moved to the den doorway and peeked inside. Scott lounged in the recliner, his laptop perched on his knees and a football game tumbling across the flat-screen TV against the far wall. “I’m taking Skippy for a walk,” she told him.

He nodded.

“Would you like to join us?”

“I can’t,” he said without glancing her way. “I’ve got all these essays to get through.”

“My mother’s dating a married man,” Meredith informed him.

“Great,” he grunted, distracted from his laptop by the effusive babble of one of the sportscasters as someone did something spectacular on the football field. A catch, a tackle, a touchdown—who knew? Who cared?

Apparently, Scott did. Meredith gazed for a moment at her husband’s back, his broad shoulders filling an old oxford shirt, a few telltale strands of silver woven through the thick dark waves of his hair. If she could see his face, she’d be transfixed by how handsome he still was. Her husband, her mother, her sister, her children—she was surrounded by beautiful people.

Thank God Skippy was a scruffy, mismatched hodgepodge of breeds—terrier with a bit of collie, making him both frisky and bossy. Emily and the boys had insisted that Meredith get a dog to make the transition to empty-nesthood easier, and she’d gone to a shelter and adopted the most forlorn, funny-looking creature there. She appreciated having at least one other family member who wasn’t traffic-stopping gorgeous.

She wasn’t bad looking. But the only way she’d stop traffic would be if she stood in a crosswalk and the drivers chose to obey the law and yield. To this day, she remained astonished that of all the girls at that frat house party twenty-eight years ago, Scott Fischer had chosen to approach her. Even as a nineteen-year-old, she’d been pleasantly plain, with hair the color of mud and eyes the color of weak tea—although Scott had always said they were the color of strong whisky.

She’d asked him once why he’d picked her out of the crowd that night, in the dimly lit, beer-reeking basement of the frat house. “You looked smart,” he’d said.

Fair enough. She was smart. She and Scott had spent their college days, months, years lost in wonderful conversations, analyzing politics, religion, their dreams and fears. They’d laughed a lot, taken long hikes together in mild weather, skied together in the winter. The sex had been phenomenal. That had been enough.

Three years after their wedding, she’d become pregnant with the boys, and she’d gained a lot of weight. Carrying twins meant eating for three, not two, and after they were born, ten pounds remained behind as a souvenir. Another three years and Emily was born, leaving behind ten more pounds. As the children grew, Meredith’s fat cells sent out invitations to all the other fat cells in the vicinity to come and join them. A couple of years ago, Meredith had finally acknowledged that she’d crossed the line from chubby to fat. She’d gone on a slow, sensible diet. Nothing dramatic. Just smaller portions, less bread, yogurt instead of ice-cream. And long, brisk walks.

At long last, she’d reclaimed her pre-pregnancy figure. But Scott never said anything about how much better she looked. Maybe he just didn’t see her anymore.

The autumn evening was cool, the air as tart and crisp as the Cortland apples ripening at the orchard west of town. Meredith headed south, Skippy prancing beside her.

Just before her mother had phoned that evening, Emily had called from school. Despite all of last year’s senior-year-of-high-school craziness, Emily’s zigzagging moods, her theatrics and histrionics and her ability to dissolve into tears over everything from a spat with a friend to a suggestion from her English teacher that she proofread her homework assignments more carefully, from a scuff mark on her favorite shoes to a missed shot on goal in field hockey, from a college rejection letter to a college acceptance letter, Meredith missed her daughter now that she was settled into her college dorm, launched on the next phase of her life. Unlike the twins—lanky, hunky, easygoing boys who even as college first-years had gotten in touch with Meredith only when they’d needed money or CARE packages of food—Emily phoned nearly every day. Sometimes she texted Meredith, but usually she called, aware that Meredith hated the coded jargon of texting, the dropped letters and cryptic abbreviations.

Today’s phone call had been typical. Emily was happy, she was busy, she was as frisky as Skippy, and sometimes Meredith wished she could put her daughter on a leash and rein her in a little. “I got my first paper back in American Society and Culture and I got a check-plus on it, which is like an A. I’m such an effin’ genius, Mom! I signed up for intramural basketball, I don’t know why, I’m not that tall, but everyone said go ahead and sign up so I did. And Mom, I met this really hot guy, he’s a friend of Jane’s, they went to high school together and he is so hot, and he told me his dorm is hosting a party this weekend and I should come. I think I need a new sweater.”

Meredith had asked if the boy was nice, and Emily had insisted that he was hot. Wonderful.

Meredith reassured herself that her daughter had a good head on her shoulders. Emily had spent half her life getting crushes on boys, but she’d never done anything reckless, never gotten in serious trouble. A few broken hearts, but that was part of growing up, and she’d always survived.

As Meredith trotted alongside Skippy in the direction of the town green, she replayed her conversation with Emily and then her conversation with her mother. Why was it that her daughter and her mother were enjoying such exciting love lives while Meredith, who thought her husband was hot even after twenty-seven years, could not remember the last time they’d made love?

They were too busy, she reminded herself. They both had demanding careers, he a university professor of political science and an informal advisor to the governor, she managing the communications department of a regional supermarket chain. After proofreading ad copy, weekly circulars, press releases and staff newsletters all day, and then racing home to fix dinner, and dealing with Skippy, and fielding phone calls from her mother and daughter, how was Meredith supposed to find the time and energy for a roll in the hay? How was Scott supposed to find the time and energy to roll with her?

“I should go home and throw myself at him,” she murmured. “Do a strip-tease right in front of the TV so he can’t avoid looking at me. What do you think, Skippy? Do you think he’d notice me then?”

Skippy stopped sniffing a holly bush, lifted his leg to mark the shrub and sent her a doggy smile, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. A quick bark and he forged ahead, determined to investigate the hydrant down the block.

She and Skippy arrived home an hour later, slightly out of breath. Walking him was a rigorous work-out, often the only exercise she got each day. She filled his bowl with water, gave him a bone-shaped dog biscuit, and then crossed to the den to let Scott know she was back, although if his ears were working he would have heard the slam of the door, the hiss of the kitchen faucet and the rattle of the hook as she hung Skippy’s leash back up.

His ears were not working. He’d fallen asleep in the recliner, his laptop still balanced on his knees and the football announcers droning about yardage and penalties. Most mornings, Scott was awake by five-thirty and out the door by six, heading to campus to use the school’s fitness center before work. He’d shower there and eat breakfast with a colleague or in his office while trawling the political blogs. Most mornings, Meredith slept right through his departure. and then he’d sleep through her return home from her evening jaunt with Skippy.

No wonder they hadn’t had sex in so long. The last time—more than a month ago, Meredith recalled—they’d both been too tired to make much of it.

She entered the den, lifted his laptop off his legs and gave him a gentle nudge. “Scott. You’re sleeping.”

He issued a weary grunt and his eyelids fluttered. If her eyes were the color of weak tea, his were the color of strong coffee, so dark they were nearly black. His hair was too long but she liked it that way, and his face was all sharp angles and lines. He was the opposite of Skippy, his features perfectly blended. The faint lines framing his eyes were like a dash of pepper, adding spice to an already tasty stew.

He blinked a couple of times, gazed up at her and yawned. “Was I sleeping?”

“Go to bed,” she urged him.

“I’ll go to bed.” At least he was agreeable. He stretched, kicked down the recliner’s footrest and hauled himself to his feet. A gentle pat to her arm, and he trudged out of the room, issuing another audible yawn.

Meredith lowered his laptop to the coffee table and pressed the key for the turn-off command. Like Scott’s eyes, the screen blinked back to consciousness, print shivering and then settling against the white background. An email.

She shouldn’t read it.

She couldn’t help herself.

Dear Prof. Fischer, when can we schedule another office hour? I really need to see you. I can come whenever you want me to, even at night if that works for you. Just let me know and I’ll be there. You can call me any time. Caitlin.

At night? Since when did Scott meet students at night?

The girl’s email struck Meredith as a bit…desperate. Beseeching. Like the plea of a lover: Call me any time. I can come whenever you want me to.

Meredith shuddered. She knew Scott wasn’t involved with Caitlin or any of his other students. He never would do that. She had faith in him.

Except… God, he spent most of his waking hours at a campus filled with smart girls. Young, nubile girls in their prime. Girls with smooth faces, girls with quick, sharp minds, girls who undoubtedly got crushes on their professors, especially if their professors were as good looking as Scott.

Girls like Emily, beautiful and full of energy and eager to experience everything, right now.

Girls like Caitlin, willing to come whenever Scott wanted her to.

Grimacing, Meredith shut off Scott’s laptop and the TV. She carried the laptop to the kitchen and left it on the table so Scott would find it easily in the morning. Then she wiped the floor around Skippy’s bowl where he’d splattered water, shut off the light above the sink and headed up the stairs.

She might not be young and beautiful and nubile. But she looked smart, and at one time that had been enough for Scott. Praying it was still enough for him, she eased open the bedroom door.

The light was off. The room smelled faintly of mint. Scott’s breathing whispered the deep, steady rhythm of sleep.

She felt a hard twinge in her gut, in her heart. She didn’t even want him to make love to her tonight; like him, she was tired. But wouldn’t it have been lovely if they’d held hands as they’d drifted into slumber? When was the last time they’d held hands?

So long ago, she couldn’t remember.