He could always go down to the college and see what was up with the Ducks, but their basketball team didn’t look promising.
Maybe something was going on with the Trail Blazers . . .
There was a knock at his door. "Come in," he said, not daring yet to turn around. He knew he’d have to look "up" for whoever had just walked in, but in an end this dead, sometimes it took a few seconds’ worth of effort to draw up that PR smile.
Finally, he turned. It was Sally something-or-other, one of the station’s new production assistants. She was young and beautiful and ambitious. He’d recognized that ambition the first time he’d seen her. Looking at her now, seeing the passionate fire in her gaze, made him even more tired. "What can I do for you?"
"I wanted to thank you for Tuesday night."
Jack thought for a minute. "Oh, yeah. The Bridgeport Pub." A bunch of the producers and videographers had gone out after work. At the last minute, Jack had invited Sally.
She smiled up at him, and he was caught for a minute, mesmerized by her dark eyes. "It was really nice of you to invite me along."
"I thought it’d be good for you to hang out with the producers a little. It’s a tough business to break into."
She took a step closer. "I’d like to return the favor."
He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but that sure as hell wasn’t it. "The Panther center?"
"My little sister was at a party with him on Saturday night. She said he was drinking straight shots and doing all kinds of drugs, and that he took a girl into his room. When the girl came out, she was crying and her clothes were all ripped up. Later that night, a drunk driver hit a dog up on Cascade Street. The rumor is that Drew was driving and the campus police are covering it up. Thursday is the big UCLA game, you know."
Jack hadn’t had a tip like this in . . . ever. "This could be big." He allowed himself to imagine it for just a second–a national story, big-time exposure, his face on every television in America. And Henry, the lead sportscaster, was out of town. A vacation in the Australian outback, no less.
"Can I be your assistant on it?" Sally asked.
"Of course. We’ll need to see if that woman filed any charges against him. We can’t run with campus gossip."
Sally flipped open a small notepad and started taking notes.
"I’ll talk to the news director. You get to work on questions and leads. We’ll start with the campus police. Let’s meet in the lobby in . . ." He looked at his watch. It was twelve-forty-five. "Thirty minutes, okay?"
"And, Sally, thanks."
"What goes around comes around, Jack."
When she grinned up at him, he felt a flash of the old confidence.
By the time Elizabeth got home, she was dog tired. The library meeting had run overtime, her book group had taken almost an hour to get started, and the carpenter she’d interviewed was too damned expensive to do her any good.
Exhausted, she tossed her purse on the kitchen table and went back outside. On the porch, she settled into the rocking chair. The even, creaking motion of the chair–back and forth, back and forth–soothed her ragged nerves.
The endless bronze ocean stretched out before her. The thick green lawn, still damp from an afternoon downpour, glittered in the fading sunlight. A pair of ancient Douglas firs, their boughs sagging tiredly downward, bracketed the view perfectly.
A fleeting if only passed through her mind; she immediately discarded it. Her painting days were long behind her. But if they hadn’t been, if she hadn’t let that once-hot passion grow cold, this was what she would paint.
Close by, a bird cawed loudly. A plump crow, berating her, no doubt, for daring to invade its space.
But this was her place, her solace. From each of the three hundred bulbs she’d planted in the garden, to the picket fence she’d built and painted white, to every stick of furniture inside the house. Each square inch of this property reflected her dreams. No matter how unhappy or stressed-out she felt, she could come out to this quiet porch and stare at the ocean and feel at peace.
She watched the golden sun sink slowly into the darkening sea, then got to her feet and went back inside.
It was time to start dinner.
She had just walked through the front door when the phone rang. She answered it. "Hello?"
"Hey, kiddo, are you done saving the Oregon coast for the day?"
Elizabeth smiled in spite of her exhaustion. "Hey, Meg. It’s good to hear from you." She collapsed into a Wedgwood-blue-and-yellow-striped chair and put her feet up on the matching ottoman. "What’s going on?"
"Today’s Thursday. I wanted to remind you about that meeting."
The passionless women.
Elizabeth’s smile faded. "Yeah," she said, "I remembered," although of course she hadn’t.
Yeah, right. Walk into a room full of strangers and admit that she had no passion? "No, actually, I’m not. It’s not my thing."
"And what exactly is your thing?"
That stung. "You’re using your lawyer voice."
"What are you going to do tonight, alphabetize your spice drawer? Believe me, Birdie, you’re going to wake up one day and be sixty years old, and you won’t remember the last time you were happy."
Elizabeth had no answer to that. The same ugly scenario had occurred to her. Often. "If I went–and I’m not capitulating, mind you–but if I went, what would it be like?"
"A bunch of girlfriends getting together. They’ll probably talk about how it feels to be lost in the middle of life."
That didn’t sound so bad; she’d imagined an Inquisition. Perhaps with torture aids. "Would I have to talk?"
"No, Marcel Marceau, you could sit there like a rock."
"You really think it would help me?"
"Let’s put it this way, if you don’t go this week, I’ll make next week such a piece of hell that by next Thursday you’ll be begging to go."
Elizabeth couldn’t help smiling. Years ago, when Meghann had suffered through her terrible, heartbreaking divorce, Elizabeth had treated her in exactly the same way. Tough love. Sometimes a friend had to strong-arm you; that was all there was to it. "Okay, I’ll go."
"For the hearing impaired, I ask again, you promise?"
This could go on all day. "I promise. Now, don’t you have some deadbeat dad to harass?"
"No, actually, but I have a date. He’s Italian. Giuliano."
"You finally ran out of Americans, huh?"
They talked for another twenty minutes about Meghann’s lack of a love life, then hung up. Elizabeth poured herself a glass of wine and took a pair of chicken br**sts out of the freezer. As they defrosted in the microwave, she checked the answering machine. There was a message from her younger daughter, Jamie, and one from Jack. He was tracking down a big story and wouldn’t be home until late tonight.
"There you have it, sports fans," she said aloud. It was yet another of her crazy-older-woman traits; she talked to herself. "I’m going to the meeting."
She took a shower, then went into her walk-in closet. She stared at her neatly organized clothes. So much of what she bought was bright and colorful: hand-painted scarves, hand-knit sweaters, batik silk-screen prints. She loved art in all its forms. Since her teen years, she’d been complimented on her fashion sense. But none of that helped her now. The last thing she wanted to do was stand out in the crowd.
Look, there. A woman with no passion.
After several false starts, she chose chocolate brown wool pants and a cream-colored cashmere turtleneck. She decided against a belt. It had been years since any of her good ones fit, anyway. She applied her makeup, then pulled her straight blond hair (in need of a dye job, she noticed) back into a french braid. She removed the dangly hammered-silver-and-turquoise earrings she usually wore and put in a pair of pearl studs, then studied herself in the mirror.
"Perfect." She looked as bland as a wren.
At six, she left Jack a note on the kitchen counter, just in case he got home before she did. It was a wasted gesture, of course. With his homing skills, she’d be through menopause by the time he found it.
Twenty-five minutes later, she pulled into the parking lot.
The community college had been built in the late seventies and looked like it. Textured concrete walls supported a flat orange metal roof. Winter-bare trees lined the pathways and gave the campus a strangely sorrowful mien. Haggard, worn holiday decorations–grayed snowmen and faded menorahs–hung from the streetlamps, rustled in the slight breeze.
Elizabeth clutched her handbag tightly under her arm and kept going. As she moved down the interior hallways, she was glad she’d worn her loafers. Her footsteps were muted, barely noticeable. No one would hear a thing if she decided to turn back.
Finally, she came to room 106. Unfortunately, there was no window in the door, no way to peek inside and find a reason to change her mind.
Cautiously, she opened the door. Without allowing herself another pause, she walked inside.
It was a small classroom, ordinary. A green chalkboard showed the eraser-swiped remnants of a math equation. In the middle of the room sat a semicircle of folding metal chairs; some of them were empty; others held nervous-looking women. Off to the left, a white-clothed table held a coffeemaker and a tray of baked goods.
"Don’t be shy. Come on in."
Startled, Elizabeth spun around and found herself nose-to-nose with a stunningly beautiful woman wearing a scarlet suit. A name tag on her lapel read: sarah taylor.
"I’m Sarah," the woman said, smiling brightly. "Welcome to the meeting."
Elizabeth couldn’t manage a smile. "I’m Elizabeth."
Sarah touched her shoulder, gave her a reassuring squeeze. "Everyone’s nervous at first." She turned to the other women. "Charlotte, why don’t you welcome our newest member?"
Elizabeth panicked. She wasn’t really a member, was she?
Charlotte–a large woman wearing black velour sweats and green rubber gardening clogs–was already moving toward her. "Hey," Charlotte said simply. "Welcome to the group. Come on in." She took hold of Elizabeth’s elbow and guided her toward the circle of chairs.
Elizabeth sat down.
Beside her was a tiny, bright-eyed young woman dressed in a denim jumpsuit and scuffed cowboy boots. "I’m Joey," she said, smiling brightly. "My husband left me to join a rock band. He plays the harmonica. Can you believe it?" She laughed. "They call themselves Dog Boys. I call ’em Dog Shits, but not in front of the kids."
Elizabeth nodded stiffly. Joey kept talking, smiling all the while. All around the circle, women chatted with one another about ordinary things. Kids’ school schedules, loser ex-husbands, dead-end jobs, and child-support checks. The voices blended into a steady, blurring drone. More women drifted into the room, took seats in the semicircle. Some joined in the conversation. Others, like Elizabeth, sat quietly.
Finally, Sarah closed the door and took a seat in the middle of the group. "Welcome, ladies. It’s nice to see so many new faces tonight. This is the Women’s Passion Support Group." She smiled. "Don’t worry, we’re not as erotic as that sounds."