I have a bad habit of laughing at the wrong times. Like last Tuesday during prayer meeting. Eddie Cain, a sweet, elderly man who has attended my church for twenty years, stood up and asked for prayer. Nothing humorous about that. But for ten whole minutes-and for the record, ten minutes can be agonizingly long-he shared every detail of his medical malady and then excused himself and headed for the men's room.
Let me just say that incontinence is a serious issue facing many seniors, and I know it's not funny. Only, the way Eddie said, "Preacher, I need y'all to pray for me. I'm having trouble holding m'water these days," just sort of gouged my funny bone. I pressed my lips together and bowed my head like I was getting ready to pray. But the truth was that laughter bubbled just below the surface. I knew if I looked anyone in the eye, I'd lose it.
The heavy silence that followed this man's request and subsequent exit didn't help matters. I kept waiting for someone to say something to ease the tension. Pastor, maybe? Our leader, the shepherd of the flock. But the pin-dropping silence lingered . . . lingered . . . Then, as I sat there replaying poor Eddie's words in my mind, the inevitable happened: I felt a dreaded giggle coming on. I pushed it down not once, but twice. Oh, all right, at least ten times. Fervently, I prayed Pastor would just end the service already before I made a complete fool of myself. But alas, that was not to be.
Still, to my credit, I was totally winning the battle for control. I really was. That is, until my fourteen-year-old son snickered next to me. Oh, my goodness! Spit-flying guffaws burst forth from my innermost being. First I tried to cover them with a cough. That never works. Next I pretended I'd been moved by the Spirit. You know what I mean. Just above a whisper I resorted to the word that remains the same in every language: "Hallelujah." Hey, I'm not proud of it. But in the heat of the moment, I caved in to Christianese.
I don't think anyone was fooled by either diversionary tactic, anyway. Imagine a high-pitched, way-too-forced "Hallelujah" and you can guess why no one bought it. Oh well.
I didn't wait around after the final "Amen." Instead, I beelined for the door and got the heck out of Dodge before anyone could give me that way-to-blow-the-whole-service glare. And then, of course, I was too embarrassed to come back. I begged off Wednesday-night Bible study, then faked the flu on Sunday. To make matters worse, my best friend, Linda, phoned Sunday afternoon to tell me they'd cancelled Tuesdaynight prayer meetings for an indefinite period of time. Pastor Devine claimed it was because of low attendance, and I can't help but feel responsible.
Believe me, I know poor Eddie Cain's plight was so not funny in the first place. But like I said, the stupidest, unfunniest things make me laugh.
Moral of the story? It is quite possible that laughter is not necessarily the best medicine. Because I just feel sick about the whole thing. Although, in my defense, let me just say that with four pregnancies under my belt, it's not like I haven't experienced the same problem. I mean, you try sneezing with nine pounds sitting on top of your bladder. And heaven forbid anyone should make me laugh at the wrong moment during the last trimester.
Not to make this all about me or anything, but I do empathize on some level with the poor man.
Fresh from the memory of such a mortifying experience, you'd think I'd be on my guard for a while. Instead, I made another huge mistake merely a week later when my editor, Tanya, called me from home to break some potentially lifealtering news.
I'm thinking, really, after five years of working with Tanya, who edits my books with the touch of Midas, why I was the last to know about her obsession with Star Wars? She had to have a baby (of which I had no clue until a week before her maternity leave) in order for me to know this.
If she'd have mentioned it in the first place or even hinted that she enjoys the Lucas-film mega-movie empire, I'd have been prepared for her boldly going where no parent has gone before. Oh, wait. That's Star Trek, not Star Wars. Well, either way, if I had known she had a penchant for sci-fi, I would have been prepared for her announcing the child's name. Anakin Skywalker Gordon.
So, there I was, laughing like a lunatic at her little joke. Only to find out, um . . . she wasn't joking. To make matters worse, Anakin is a girl. Although from the photo Tanya proudly e-mailed to me, Anakin Skywalker Gordan looks more like, well . . . Yoda. But I suppose it's not fair to judge. No one else in the world can have babies as beautiful as mine. Besides it could have been worse as far as names go. Flash, for instance, would have been worse, considering her last name. So, that little "Anakin" fiasco happened yesterday when Tanya called to tell me she had decided not to return to work.
Apparently, she doesn't have the heart to leave little Ani (on second thought, I guess Ani works for a little girl). She wants to be a full-time mommy. Admirable, but leaves me in a bit of a lurch.
And after I mocked her choice of a name, even though she knows I thought she was kidding, she's in no mood to go to bat for me with her replacement. Who is a man. Who hates romance novels. Which I write.
This guy will not be swayed by my ever-growing fan base. Because from what I've heard, his vision for the publishing company is about as far away from romance as a person can get. Literary something or other, I imagine. The stuff college seniors deconstruct in English 401, taught by frustrated English instructors who wanted to be authors but who didn't have the guts to live on Ramen noodles and reuse paper towels so they could afford to write the great American novel. Hmm. Maybe they are the smart ones.
Even my agent, who used to think I was the cat's meow, isn't optimistic about my future with this publisher. Methinks my publisher is about to cut me loose. So much for all the hype about loyalty. Guess that's a one-way street and I'm heading the wrong way.
Did I forget to mention I'm a writer? Claire Everett, writer and single mother juggling four kids ranging in age from eight to sixteen, three of whom are boys. My ex-husband and his new younger (and I promise I'm not bitter about it anymore) wife, Darcy, are expecting their first baby this summer (she may have morning sickness, but I'm the one who's truly nauseated by the whole thing).
My kids are excited about the pregnancy and have already started talking about spending more time at their dad's. I'm a little jealous. I admit it. I just have to get a grip and realize that they will naturally want to be around their new baby brother or sister.
Anyway, back to the situation at hand. My agent's hesitation is making me nervous.
"So, where does this leave me?" I ask, hating the tremor in my voice. I mean, honestly, I know God has my life in His hands. I know my writing career was totally His idea and that He's surrounded me with His favor every step of the way. There's no need for me to worry. But why'd I have to go and laugh at Anakin's name? Why? Why? Why?
I finished my last contracted manuscript a month and a half ago. I've been expecting a new series contract soon.Waiting, as a matter of fact, for my editor to get back from maternity leave so she can approve the new manuscript and turn her attention to pushing the review committee to approve a new contract for me. But no, Miss I-want-to-be-a-mommy turned over her job to a woman-hater. And suddenly my job security is gone.
"Look, Claire," my agent, Stu Lindale, says in a smooth voice that, to be honest, I could listen to all day. He'd make a killing reading audio books if he ever wanted to give up agenting. "You still have a name in the industry. I'm sure the other publishing houses would love to get their hands on you now that your contract has expired."
I know he's trying to mollify me, but quite frankly that bites. "What if I don't want to go looking somewhere else?" "You've been wanting a change," Stu reminds me. "Now's your chance."
Hope, like the phoenix, rises from the ashes. "Does this mean we're going to start shopping the new series proposal?" I started it during my recovery from surgery. Carpal tunnel. Had it last year and was forced into a sabbatical. Best thing that ever happened to my family relationships. Maybe not so good for my career, though.
Stu is hemming and hawing about now, and I feel the phoenix crumbling once more into the thick dust that is my life. Stu never hems and haws. He's precise, concise, and, by the way, never charges me for mailing supplies. I like his nononsense approach to my career. So why, all of a sudden, is he hedging?
I just come right out and ask. "So, what's the problem, Stu? You don't like the plot idea?"
"Oh, it's a good idea. The series could easily go on for eight or nine books."
Now that would be job security. I'm not picking up on his reasoning here. Guess I'm going to have to push a little. "Improbable, unsympathetic characters?"
"No. The characters are likeable." He pauses. "Well, the agent comes across a little Magoo, but . . ."
Smirk. Let him wonder if I patterned my heroine's agent after him. I didn't, but let him wonder. Life imitating art imitating life. That's the beauty of writing. Everyone thinks you're writing about them. Very empowering.
Anyway. "So the plot's good, the characters are good. Then what's the problem, Stu? My writing?"
"No, I'd say it's some of your strongest writing so far." You got that right, buddy.
"Good grief, then. What?" One of those well-all-right-if-you're-going-to-pin-medown huffs that Stu's famous for blows through the receiver, and I swear I can almost feel the breeze. "Your readers don't want this Everywoman stuff from you, Claire. They want romance. It's what you're known for, like Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel."
Yeah, minus the furs, cars, and diamonds. Besides, what does he mean "Everywoman stuff"? Okay,my heroine is sort of real. Okay, so maybe she's a lot real-as in a lot of me went into that character. But that should be a good thing. I'm an interesting person, especially since I started getting out of the house more. And no one can argue with the fact that I have quite the quippy sense of humor. But most of all, I am so ready to move on and write another type of book. And I thought my agent was on my side. Creep.
"You just said, not two minutes ago, that maybe I could make a change."
"We were talking about changing publishers. Not genres." "Well, what if this new guy who hates romance is a blessing in disguise? Maybe this is my chance to really give something else a shot."
His silence is excruciatingly loud. My heart starts beating inside my ears.
"Stu? Come on. What do we have to lose at this point? If it doesn't work out, we'll just fall back on romance." "That's a little risky. Can you afford to go without a new contract for much longer?"
Stu knows me well enough by now to know that I am not one of those idealistic authors who write for the euphoria of creating. I have mouths to feed and that takes the green stuff, baby. I huff and stomp the ground like a bratty kid. "Not really."
"Well, then." His tone is sort of high falutin' and smug and ticks me off just a little, but I've learned to schmooze in this business, so I refrain from calling him a big jerk. Apparently oblivious to my restraint, he says what I figured he was going to say. "How about getting a romance proposal out there? And when you get picked up by another publisher, we can mention the other series."
He poses the words in question form, but we both know he's not asking. I give one last-ditch effort to salvage my pride. "You work for me, you know. Not the other way around." "I know, Boss," he patronizes. "So, how about that new romance proposal?"
"I'm going to have to think about it," I say, aware that I'm pouting and that he's acting like the boss (which, in all honesty, he is). "I hate this business."
"No, you don't," Stu chuckles. "You're addicted." "Well, I hate writing romance."
"Romance readers got you where you are today." Now Stu's scolding me? What am I, ten?
"I really hate when you're right." Really, really. "You mean all the time?"
"Funny." Not! He may be right but he's not right. Know what I mean?
"Get that proposal to me soon," he says, and we hang up. Instead of obeying his directive, I stubbornly grab my running shoes and head for the door. Irritation rumbles through me. How come he just assumes my decision will be to go ahead and write the romance? I mean, true, the heart-pounding and heavy-breathing stuff was my first attempt at writing and got me published. Why? Because I was in desperate need of income after Rick walked out on our eleven-year marriage. I figured if I was ever going to do anything but work three waitress jobs, I might as well give it a shot. I chose romance because that's what I read to escape my crappy, lonely life. (That was back before I realized a woman doesn't need romance to be happy.) And guess what? Turns out a lot of people think I write it well. And my wonderful, faithful readers have continued to buy my books, thereby keeping me two steps ahead of the unemployment line and government cheese.
But after providing entertainment for one and a half million romance readers, I feel like I've earned the right to do what I want. I mean, why can't I just be true to my convictions for once and write the story on my heart?
Sigh. The almighty dollar. That's why. And a mortgage, and electricity, and, oh yeah, food. Especially pizza.
Just before I reach the door, my sixteen-year-old daughter pops down the stairs holding her cell phone to her ear. "Hang on, Paddy," she says into the receiver to her on-again-off-again heartthrob. "Where you going, Mom?"
"For a run. Do you mind starting supper? I bought a frozen Stouffer's lasagna. Follow the directions on the box." "Yuck." She wrinkles her perky little cheerleader nose. "Why can't you ever cook a real meal?"
I guess she's forgetting about the canned chicken casserole I made night before last (and that we had again last night so as not to be wasteful). She could give me a little bit of A for effort.
Still, I hide my hurt and answer her question with my trademark rapier wit. "Because I don't want to spoil you, honey." Oh yeah. Good one. Snap, snap, and snap.
Rolling one's eyes should not be an art form, but my daughter has it perfected. "All those preservatives are killing us from the inside out, Mother. We shouldn't be eating this garbage. Especially the little boys. You'll stunt their growth."
Her concern for her brothers is truly touching. "Duly noted." I reach for the door and give her a little wave as she resumes her phone conversation. "I'll be back."
"Wait a sec, Ma. Paddy says you better stay in. He's IMing with one of his friends in Springfield. They're getting hammered with a storm. And it's headed our way."
Yeah, like I'm really going to listen to an adolescent boy. Besides, I'm sick of people telling me what to do. I'm taking a stand. "Thank Paddy for looking out for me," I call, as I step onto the porch and shut the door behind me.
Patrick Devine is the pastor's son and the boy who has captured my daughter's heart every other month during the past six. Intermittently, she's dated Craig Miller, Nate Cooper, and Tyler Lincoln. But she always comes back around to Paddy. I think he may be the one. If not, he'll at least be the one she remembers in years to come as the first boy she ever loved.
Sitting on the step, I pull on my Nikes. The spring wind is blowing like crazy, warm and comforting, breezing up the scents of fresh grass and daffodils, honeysuckle and roses. A sudden gust whips through the gutters with a high-pitched whistle.
I like the idea of running against a strong wind. With Paddy's warning in my mind, I give momentary attention to a distant rumble of thunder. Typical for a Missouri spring. Something about it always makes me feel powerful.Woman against the elements.
Still, I glance at the sky just to be sure there are no threatening clouds. The sun is making a brave showing, trying to peek through. If the storm is moving seventy miles an hour straight down the interstate, it's still going to take almost an hour to get here. Plenty of time to pound my frustrations into the pavement before I'm forced to unplug the electrical appliances. Well, okay, there's no way I'm going to run for a whole hour, anyway. The point is I'm not likely to get soaked before I get back home.
I slide on my headphones, clip my nifty little iPod to my shorts, and off I go. (Yeah, I should probably stretch, but I never do. Too impatient to hit the open road.) Blasting to Hillsongs Youth band, I feel my spirits lifting at the mere mention of Jesus being the center of my life.
I smile and wave at my boyfriend, Greg, as I jog by his house-formerly my mother's house before she hightailed it to Texas last fall to live with my brother, Charley. Funny, I grew up in that house, but my best memories I have from there happened this past Christmas Eve, when I received my first Greg kiss under a construction-paper mistletoe hanging over the doorway to the kitchen. (My second Greg kiss happened less than a minute after the first. My third and fourth happened on my front porch before I watched him walk back to his house.)
Things are going well, I suppose. Except Greg's been trying to pin me down for a serious conversation over the past week. Knowing the possibility is high that he will want to talk about joining our lives, I'm excited and scared all at the same time. So I keep avoiding the issue. And in order to avoid the issue, I've been forced to avoid him, as well.
Only now he's standing on his front porch with a humongous frown on his face. His mouth moves and he jogs down his steps toward me. My chest tightens. Can't a girl go for a run? Spend a few minutes alone and try to figure a way to heat up a cooling career? Bury her head in the proverbial sand so she doesn't have to discuss a future where she might have to give up a little independence?
What is wrong with me? One minute I pray for someone with whom to share my life. The next I worry about whether or not I'll be able to watch what I want on TV or be forced to watch the military channel-ugh-or football.
I need therapy. I know I do. Or at the very least I need someone to help me point my life in the right direction. I've been thinking of looking into hiring a life coach since they're all the rage. Only all the life coaches I've found are full of New Age mumbo jumbo. I want someone whose head is, at the very least, screwed on tighter than mine-and, really, that shouldn't be a tough find.
But there's no time to think about that right now. Greg's striding my way. The closer he gets, the more my heart starts to pick up, and I forgive him for invading my personal space. Greg is gorgeous. Dark hair, Andy Garcia eyes. I think I'm in love. I really do.
He's talking, but I'm not hearing. He points to my ears. Headphones. I slip them off. "Sorry.Want to go for a jog with me?"
Jogging is something we've enjoyed doing together during the past few months. And given my desire to do some thinking, I consider it a generous invitation. I flash him my winningest smile.
Only Greg isn't liking the idea. His brows are furrowed, and his eyes look more like mean, controlling Andy Garcia in Ocean's Eleven and Twelve. Not the sweet, ever patient one in When a Man Loves a Woman. He gives a frustrated grunt and waves his arms like a crazy person. "Are you out of your mind?" he questions in a voice slightly above his normal tone. I get the feeling he's sort of yelling at me. "There are tornados all over the place."
Another fairly common threat during a Missouri spring. I glance at the sky. Darkening, but still pretty bright. No telltale green clouds to indicate a tornado. "Looks okay to me," I say, with flippant disregard for his concern.
His darkening gaze is all I need to tell me what he thinks of my answer. "The squall line is just to our west. And storms travel west to east." I swear, if he says, "Young lady . . ."
I squeeze my brow into a frown to match his, because quite frankly, he's beginning to tick me off a little. "I know that." "I've been trying to call you for thirty minutes." His highand- mighty attitude isn't helping to soothe my irritation. Not one bit. "I assumed you weren't home."
"I had an important business call," I say, taking a page out of Stu's book and trying to sound superior. "I figured you could wait. That's why I didn't take your call.You do remember that I work from my home phone, cell phone, and e-mail?" He gathers what I've come to recognize as a steadying breath. "Yes, I remember." His thoughtful gaze peruses my face, and he hesitates like he's going to say something, then thinks better of it-which is probably just as well. "Why don't you come inside? I have the radio tuned into the weather report. We can run down to the basement if a tornado gets close."
"I can't. The kids are home." "Okay. How about I come over to your house, then? Sadie's at Mom's."
I hesitate. I'm not really ready to let go of my grudge, but the image of cuddling with Greg while the storm rages outside sort of melts away any memory of exactly why his bossiness bugged me in the first place.
He gives me a fake pout. "I'm scared of storms." Grinning like a lovesick fool, I nod. "All right, come over. I'll protect you."
"Hang on while I make sure I unplugged everything." Greg's a double-checker. I'm usually running so late I barely check anything the first time.
I stay on the porch, watching the gathering storm in the west as the sky grows darker by the second. I shudder just as Greg reappears.
I take his outstretched hand and my knees nearly buckle when he laces warm fingers through mine. "You know there's not going to be a tornado, right?" I say. "We never actually get one."
A crash of thunder hammers through the air like a sonic boom and I jump, glad that I'm not out running in it. As Greg's arms encircle me, I gather in the scent of his understated aftershave. Mmm. My stomach hip-hops and I smile into his shining face.
"I could get used to this," he murmurs, just before lowering his head. His mouth covers mine. I don't know if he's trying to make a point or not, but he's never kissed me like this before. My ears roar. I'm not sure if it's thunder or my heart pounding in my ears.
Oh yeah, I could definitely get used to this. Let the storm beat against my house. Let the winds blow. I'm in the arms of the man I love.