Read Hot Flash Holidays Online
Authors: Nancy Thayer
Tags: #Contemporary Women, #Fiction
WHEN SHIRLEY AWOKE AT SIX O’CLOCK ON CHRISTMAS morning, her heart jumped straight from slo-mo sleep mode into speed skating.
At sixty-two, Shirley knew a racing heart was not a good thing. And come on, why was her ridiculous heart flipping around like this? She shouldn’t be nervous. When was she going to grow up? When was she going to stop being a coward? Hadn’t she proven herself enough already?
Gazing upon the beautiful face of her beloved Justin, who snored lustily on the pillow next to her, she told herself, “I can
Pulling on the filmy peach robe that set off her tousled auburn hair, she went to the window and looked out upon her domain, the elegant grounds spreading around the magnificent stone building that once had been a private school and now was The Haven. Wasn’t Shirley the director of The Haven, just as if she were an intelligent person with good business sense? The rule of thumb, she’d been told, was that new businesses didn’t turn a profit until the third year. This was only the beginning of their second year, and already they were beginning to show one.
More than that, she’d provided a nurturing home base for hundreds of women in the Boston area, including her best friends.
Not to mention that while doing all this, she’d continued to stay away from the seductive charms of alcohol. She’d been sober for years now. She was living proof that a person could change her bad habits.
She had all the evidence she needed that she was an intelligent, rational person, right? She should be able to trust her own judgment, right?
On the bed, Justin snorted and puffed volcanically. She’d let him sleep. He deserved it, after the way he’d made love to her last night. Shirley hugged herself. Looking at Justin made her as happy as, well, as a kid on Christmas. She
Justin, and she knew that even though he was twelve years younger than she, he loved her, too, just as sincerely. Her Hot Flash friends just had to stop fretting. They didn’t know all the sweet things he said to her, not to mention the sweet things he did to her!
Shirley padded into the living room and did a few minutes of sun salutations. Then she went through the dining area to the kitchen. She drank her orange juice, ate some fruit yogurt, and brewed green tea, all the time going over her plans for the day.
Because she was a vegetarian, she hadn’t roasted meat for decades. But Justin’s kids were coming for Christmas dinner, and that meant turkey. She’d researched ways to make it tender, juicy, and delicious. She’d bought tons of veggies. And she’d bought a pumpkin pie and a cherry pie from Alan and Jennifer’s bakery, so she didn’t have to worry about dessert.
She had to start the turkey now. She’d decided to put it in a brown paper bag to make it especially tender, so she turned on the oven, organized her roasting pan, and hoisted the heavy bird out of the refrigerator. It was a fresh free-range turkey from a farm. She rinsed it, then rubbed it all over with butter and olive oil. Getting it into the paper bag wasn’t easy, but she managed it and slid it into the oven.
There. That much done!
She washed her hands and her few breakfast things with organic soap, setting them in the wooden rack to dry. She double-checked the living room.
The tree and its presents glittered. And Justin’s present, her
present, was hidden in Shirley’s purse. She’d give it to him tonight when they were alone together. Tears sprang to her eyes as she thought of how Justin would look when he saw it.
She puttered around in the dining area, spreading the holiday tablecloth she’d bought especially for the occasion, setting out the plates and silverware and napkins. For the center of the table, she’d bought a long, low arrangement of red and white carnations—not expensive, but festive.
Everything was ready for the best Christmas of her life.
At ten thirty, Shirley leaned over the bed, put her hand on Justin’s gorgeous naked shoulder, and gently shook him. “Hon? It’s ten thirty. You’d better get going.”
“Mrrph.” Justin opened his eyes. “Okay. Thanks.”
As he showered and shaved, Shirley made the bed and tidied the bedroom. Another good thing she’d accomplished, she thought, was helping Justin get to see his kids more often. Both his ex-wives were angry with him, and Shirley didn’t blame them, because over the years he really hadn’t been very good about paying child support or showing up for scheduled visits. What they didn’t understand, of course, was that Justin was an artist, a writer, a sensitive, poetic soul who just could not be bound by the rigid laws imposed on ordinary people.
Justin hurried out of the bedroom and began pulling on his clothes, his silver hair in its ponytail still damp. Shirley perched on the end of the bed, watching him. God, he was beautiful! It was Fate, really, that had brought them together. They’d met in a management seminar. It was Justin’s own brother, a Realtor, who showed Shirley the run-down old estate that was now the flourishing home of The Haven. No one could tell her that she and Justin weren’t
meant to be.
“Okay, Sweetface, gotta go.” Justin bent over, kissed her, and went off.
Shirley headed into the bathroom for her own shower. The thing her Hot Flash friends just couldn’t seem to get was that Justin was an
He had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English literature, and he’d taught at various colleges and universities, but he’d never been given tenure because the world was swamped with English professors. “Publish or perish” was the unwritten academic law, but as much as Justin had struggled, he hadn’t been able to teach, grade a million papers, sit on endless committees, and still find the psychic energy to write. So when his contract at a junior college was not renewed, Justin had decided to try the business sector. He’d signed up for the management seminar, hoping to learn enough to land a decent day job. He went to work at a real estate office and tried to write at night.
It was a good plan, and Justin did work hard. No one could deny that. It wasn’t his fault that the real estate deals he invested in fell through. His own brother had advised him, and his own brother had lost money, too. But his brother had a lot of money to play with; Justin didn’t. While Justin had been riding his professional roller coaster on its downward plunge, Shirley, with the help of her Hot Flash friends and a few wealthy investors, had gotten The Haven off the ground. It was only natural for her to invite Justin to teach a few courses in creative writing at the spa. His classes were always filled to the max—again, a fact no one could argue with. For a while, Justin rented a condo at The Haven for a nominal amount, but that made Alice cranky, plus it was a slight—
slight—financial negative for The Haven, so Shirley had invited him to move in with her and they rented his condo to Star, the yoga teacher.
Finally, Justin had the emotional space and comfort for writing his novel. He’d slaved over it, Shirley knew. She’d carried endless cups of coffee to him as he sat typing away at his laptop on the dining room table. He’d written hundreds and hundreds of pages in a storm of creation. A few months ago, he’d declared the novel nearly finished. Shirley was sure the work was brilliant, although Justin was too shy to let her read the book.
Perhaps it was because he hadn’t yet been able to get an agent. It wasn’t Justin’s fault. The publishing world was as corrupt and difficult as the academic world. Everyone knew that. He didn’t have the right contacts. He was disappointed—close to despair.
Shirley studied her body in the mirror as she dressed for the day. So many wrinkles, so many lines! Her Hot Flash friends, Polly, Marilyn, Alice, and Faye, could console themselves that no matter how used up their bodies looked, it was all right. They’d given birth to children. Their bodies
been used. The same could be said for the sags and wrinkles on their faces—no one had gotten through the business of motherhood without some difficulties, disappointments, and sorrows. The love, worry, fear, and labor that made them good mothers marked their faces, and because of that, they would not change a thing.
But Shirley had never had children. She had wanted children. With all her heart, she had wanted children. But it had just never been in the cards, and now the marks on her face, the long, deep lines, seemed like the tracks of tears engraved in her skin.
Which was why Justin was so important to her. She could actually help make
dreams come true. That was a luxury she’d never experienced. Alice, Faye, Marilyn, and Polly could close their eyes and remember all the years when their kids went wide-eyed on Christmas morning, or when they gave their kids the puppy or the kitten or the new dress or the bike they’d been longing for. The greatest joy in life wasn’t getting, it was giving. Just once in her life, Shirley was going to experience that.
She couldn’t wait. It really made her
It would be wonderful, seeing the kids open their presents. But it would be a once-in-a-lifetime event on the order of a miracle to give Justin his present tonight.
She knew what Justin was giving her, and it was very important that she give him his present first. She hadn’t even been looking; she’d been dusting the condo. His briefcase had been sitting on the dining room table, next to his laptop and his stack of papers. It had been open, and Shirley had carelessly glanced inside. It was crammed with student essays and handouts for his creative writing course, but wedged down at the bottom was a small black velvet box.
The sight had electrified her as if she’d been struck by lightning.
“Oh my God!” she’d whispered, covering her mouth. Justin was just in the other room. They’d been talking about marriage recently, in a playful, daydreamy kind of way. She knew Justin loved her. She knew he liked to surprise her. She danced away from the dining room table, jubilant. His Christmas present to her was an engagement ring!
“Let’s wait and exchange our Christmas presents on Christmas night,” she’d suggested a week or so ago. “When we’re alone and relaxed.”
“Good idea,” he’d agreed. Today was the first holiday they were spending all together, as if they were a kind of family.
At one o’clock, her cell phone rang.
“Shirley,” Justin said, “Ben’s mom was late getting him here. We’re just leaving Braintree.”
“That’s fine, Hon. Thanks for letting me know!” Shirley wondered what to do about the turkey. She didn’t want it to dry out, so she covered it and left it in the oven.
At two fifteen, the door flew open and they all stomped in.
Angel and Spring wore low-cut jeans with cropped sweaters. Spring’s hair was short, spiked, and blue. Angel’s was long and curly. Both girls wore glittering gold eye shadow and thick, frosted lipstick. Shirley tried to take that as a kind of compliment, that they’d dressed up to come to her place. Ben, only ten, hulked behind his half-sisters, looking sullen.
Shirley chirped, “Merry Christmas, everyone!” Pushing a little switch, she turned on her necklace and earrings so they flashed.
Spring, the most sophisticated at fifteen, rolled her eyes. But thirteen-year-old Angel said, “Cute!”
Ben pulled off his down jacket, dropped it on the floor, and waded into the pile of presents. Grabbing one of the larger ones, he picked it up and shook it. “What’s in here?”
“Well, let’s all get settled and you’ll find out! I thought your father could hand out—”
Ben read the tag. “Mine.” With both hands, in one long, violent tear, he ripped the paper from the box. “Cool! A PlayStation 2!”
“You got PlayStation?” Spring asked excitedly. “Wow! What did we get?”
As if they operated with one brain, Spring and Angel, in sync, threw themselves at the presents, scanning the tags, tossing ones without their names over their shoulders in Ben’s general direction.
“Kids, kids!” Shirley cried. “Slow down! I want to get pictures of you opening your presents!”
But the three kids were like hounds digging for buried bones. They went at the presents in a frenzy, ripping the wrapping paper, shredding the beautiful bows without so much as a glance, tossing each present aside in their hurry to get to the next one.
“We got a DVD player!” Angel trumpeted, sticking out her tongue at Ben.
already have a DVD player, dummy,” Ben sneered.
“We got the coats!” Spring screamed at Angel as she opened a large box. “I told you Shirley would get them for us.”
Shirley perked up, waiting for them to thank her. When they didn’t, she told herself to be glad the girls assumed she would do something nice for them. That was a start, wasn’t it?
“A skateboard! Awesome.” Ben jumped up. “I’m going to take this outside.”
“Wait!” Shirley said. “Let’s have Christmas dinner first.”
“Aw, crap,” Ben whined. “Dad! Come on!”
“Why don’t you go try it out for just a few minutes,” Justin told his son. “While we get dinner on the table.”
not helping set the table if
’s not helping!” Spring snarled.
“No, kids, you don’t have to help,” Shirley hastily assured them. “Everything’s done; I just have to put the food on the table.”
“I’ll just stay inside,” Ben decided, grabbing up his new PlayStation.
“Well?” Spring demanded. “I thought you said dinner was ready. I’m starving.”
Shirley was almost dizzy. The opening-presents event had been a free-for-all, over almost before it was begun. The girls were already ignoring their coats, DVDs, cosmetic kits, and other presents and sat on the sofa, fighting over the television remote control.
Ben leaned against the sofa, fingers flying over his electronic game, already lost in another world.
No one had brought her a present, Shirley realized, with a twinge of disappointment. But no one had given their father a present, either. That was just