By the third time in two weeks that they had to spend the night at the Mrs. Fyler’s, Julie reckoned that more than “dinner out with an old friend” was going on.
For one thing, Mom hadn’t taken so much care getting cleaned up and dressed since Dad’s funeral. In a figure-flattering dress, with perfect hair and face and nails, she looked like a completely different person. When Julie’s little brother Eric saw her that way, his eyes grew wide. Julie’s eyes narrowed. She watched for more signs.
When the signs came, and her mother still explained nothing, Julie held her peace. The new bottle of perfume on Mom’s dressing table...the vase of roses atop the fridge...the expensive theatre tickets poking out of the fancy new handbag (Mom’s first new handbag in Julie’s memory)...and the reappearance of a coat that hadn’t been out of mothballs since Dad got sick....
Maybe it would all go away. Mom-and-Dad-type relationships didn’t just happen with the first guy who took you out. Mom was exploring. Maybe each of the dinners was with a different friend. Maybe the dinners would stop for a while, then start again later. Julie began to watch for those signs, but they didn’t come.
Still, Mom explained nothing.
A month after the first “dinner out with a friend,” there came a sign Julie wasn’t looking for. Seeing her mother so nervous, and fussing not only over herself but over the children, would have alarmed Julie if she hadn’t been half-crazed with curiosity. When Eric looked more like a dapper little doll than Julie had ever imagined possible, and when her own hair and been pulled back so tight that she felt bug-eyed, they were instructed to sit absolutely still, on the edge of the couch, until further notice.
Inwardly, Julie felt as though lots of things were turning over inside her, like clothes of assorted colors in a laundry dryer. Outwardly, she sat as still as her mother could wish. Nothing could move her from satisfying her curiosity.
Poor Eric must have been petrified. After taking one look at Julie, he sat just as still as she did, and barely breathed.
Then the doorbell rang, and Mom answered it looking her prettiest, and the man who came in turned out to be Tim. And Tim was none of the things Julie had imagined.
He was not handsome, but not ugly either. He was not particularly skinny, yet not at all fat. He did not seem like a shining knight, nor like an oily villain. He was just a nervous-looking man, not old really, but a bit older than Mom. He had a humorous face, possibly because his nose wasn’t quite straight; a nice-looking smile; and a habit of looking as if he might smile even when he didn’t – yet it wasn’t a teasing look.
He managed to greet them without pinching their cheeks, ruffling their hair, or remarking on their appearance at all. He simply shook hands with them and said, “I’m pleased to meet you, Eric,” and, “Julie, how do you do?”
Dinner happened. No one stormed away from the table and slammed his (or her) bedroom door. Tim never quite got over his nervousness, but in all fairness, Julie’s insides continued to tumble-dry the whole time, and well into the night. Eric clearly understood nothing that was happening. He chattered happily, cluelessly, and often irrelevantly. He seemed to think Tim was there to visit him. In a way, he was.
For a few months after that, they broke bread with Tim more often, and less formally. They did a lot of things with Tim as a family. Of course, Tim and Mom continued to have dinners out as friends, while the kids stayed at Mrs. Fyler’s.
Julie knew Tim’s nervousness had gone away when Eric fell down and skinned his knees at the zoo, and Tim treated his cuts and fitted him with new pants without blushing one bit. Julie missed her own nervousness when Tim picked her up from school, one day when the buses were on strike and Mom was in a meeting, and Julie found she could talk to Tim without wondering what to say. Without fanfare, he had become part of the family.
Then, without any explanation, Tim stopped being around....