Read the first chapter of my FIRST romantic comedy, Be Cool, Jule.
We met on a Sunday morning at the prescription counter when I was a socially-distanced third in line and he was fourth. I was shifting from one foot to the other, impatient with the confusion at the counter over whether a prescription had been called in–or could it have been picked up by somebody else? Consultations about medications were supposed to be private, but the clerks sometimes shouted to people who couldn’t hear well, and people who couldn’t hear well often shouted back. Everyone within 20 feet of the counter heard everything.
Behind me, a man spoke up, much quieter than the pair at the counter, “Wow, it’s Julie, right? This is great. I’ve been thinking about you.”
I glanced around to see if the man behind the enthusiastic voice was speaking to another Julie, because I couldn’t name anyone who’d be thinking about me, not with such obvious pleasure. A former assistant principal in the school where I worked, possibly, but his voice wasn’t warm, like this one, nor was he young and healthy-looking, with a sturdy, handsome face and welcoming brown eyes. Yes, the man behind the N-95 mask was speaking to me, and he looked like he could easily flip my mattress. (Nothing indelicate implied: I’d been wondering if turning mine would get rid of the sag in the middle.)
He briefly tugged down his mask, revealing the smiling half of his face. “Remember me? I’m Jay…Jay Alva.”
I was stunned that he’d recognized me. In my mask. From the back. Three points for Jay Alva.
I slid my blue paper mask down to return the smile then quickly slid it back up again. “Jay, hi. Sure. How are you?”
Jay Alva, Maureen’s husband. I’d seen him a few times since her funeral, always from a distance, one time inspecting mangoes at a farmers market, and once off-island at a MacDonald’s when I was driving through and had a glimpse of him sitting inside, alone and looking sad. I missed Maureen too, the first friend I’d made at work, and for that entire year, the only.
“Good, good. I’m good.” Jay looked good, and he had a ring on his finger. Married again? I knew exactly how long Maureen had been gone–three entire school years–so either he’d re-married or Maureen was his forever wife. “Everything good with you?”
“Really good,” I said, my regular response for 99 percent of the people in my life. Nothing with me was good. Early this morning my life had been slammed with an impending disaster.
Seeing Jay Alva was a nice distraction. I tamped down the small fantasy that had nothing to do with my dead friend and everything to do with an attractive man looking at me with smiling eyes above his mask. He’d been thinking of me? Well, the isolation of Covid and all those conspiracy theories had made a lot of people more than a little nuts. I had a quick silent talk with myself. Be cool, Jule. Don’t get ahead of yourself. People who say they’ve been thinking of me usually want something. Like a weekend sitter for their pet boa.
As I remembered, Maureen’s husband had a small insurance business off-island, so maybe he’d developed a list of her old friends as sales prospects. Though he wasn’t dressed for business. He wore cargo shorts and one of those short-sleeved fishing shirts with multiple pockets and flaps that let air get to the skin. Maybe he’d become a fishing guide. The hair on his forearms was sun-bleached. Jule, Jule, I told me. Too much noticing!
Jay’s mask did not hide the fact that he was noticing me. “Oh, sorry,” he said, looking down at the designated marks on the floor and taking two steps backward.
“It’s okay.” I patted my upper arm. “I’ve had my shots.” State-wide, infection rates and deaths from Covid were trending down. In-person classes had resumed, and my friends and I were gathering again at our favorite outdoor bar on Friday nights, but I continued to wear my mask in stores and at work because kids were not yet vaccinated.
“Me too.” He patted his own arm, and I noticed his nails looked a lot better than mine, clean and buffed with no ragged cuticles. His hand looked like the kind a person might trust, important, I was sure, for sliding a paper across a desk for a client to sign, like those tricky car finance people.
I moved three feet ahead as the woman at the counter turned her walker and left with her bag of prescriptions tightly clasped over the handle. Jay stepped forward too. “So, how you been?”
“Surviving,” I said, wishing I’d washed my hair that morning instead of hastily twisting it in a ponytail that was probably off center. “No coronavirus for me, not even a cold. But managing classes has been wild, keeping track of who’s remote and who’s in person with all the switching back and forth. Trying to get lessons to kids who don’t have Internet. Running from place to place. It’s getting better.”
“I’ve thought a lot about you teachers,” he said. “Because I remembered… you know.”
I nodded. Maureen. Like everyone in the school, I’d loved her. Jay’s forehead wrinkled slightly. I was not good with silences and now there was no way to politely turn my back and end this chat, so I said, “How’s Mrs. Morgan?” Maureen’s mom, Jay’s mother-in-law and business partner.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Is she still working?”
“Not for a couple of years. I’m picking up her meds.”
I smiled, not sure whether a smile could be detected on the unmasked part of my face. “That’s good of you.” Maureen had talked a lot about her mom and Jay, proud that they got along as in-laws and as partners in the insurance business. She’d been close to her mother and madly in love with Jay, credentials that should have meant she and I had nothing in common. I kept my family at a safe distance, and I’d never been madly in love with anyone. I’d started to believe I was a magnet for bad relationships, no doubt the flaw in my genes.
I was surprised that Jay remembered me. I’d met him once and seen him and Maureen together a time or two before the funeral. She was a fourth-year veteran when I started my first year at her school, and because we both taught English 10 and she was a generous person, she became my guide and my friend. Tragically, in our second year of friendship, Maureen drove into a canal and drowned on her way to school. Driving into water wasn’t uncommon on our Florida coast, because there were saltwater canals and water retention ponds and boat slips everywhere, but I’d thought these accidents were caused by alcohol or drugs or maybe the circumstance of being too old to drive. Maureen wasn’t drunk or high or old–she’d had a cerebral hemorrhage. Our principal had kept the news from us until the end of the day, and no wonder. I’d stayed home the next day and cried, and even when I went back to school it was all I could do to hold myself together. Like Jay and Mrs. Morgan and hundreds of her fans at school, I’d lost a very special person.
“Marie is confused a lot of the time,” Jay said.
“Maureen’s mom. She broke her hip and had a replacement, but she’s been bedbound ever since.”
“She’s in a nursing home?”
“She’s in her own home, with 24/7 caregivers.”
“I’m sorry.” The sad fact made us quiet for a moment. Then I thought I might as well validate my suspicion that he had a business motive for thinking of me. “So are you still in the insurance business?”
“Morgan Insurance, yes, but with a new partner, Kendall Bowen. He’s about my age, a good man.”
We stepped forward again because there was now only one woman in line ahead of us “Listen,” Jay said. “When we get out of here, could we go for coffee? I really have been thinking of you. If you don’t have to be somewhere.”
If this was a warmup to a serious sales talk, he sure knew how to make it charming. Like having coffee with me today was the most interesting and possibly most enjoyable thing he’d do in many moons.
“Sure. I mean, I can go, there’s no place special I have to be.” Just the laundromat and the grocery store and then back to my efficiency, currently stacked with papers to grade. I might do business with Morgan Insurance if that was what he was about, though I had car insurance and I didn’t have enough possessions to bother with renter’s insurance. I could switch the car policy–I’d heard it was smart to shop around every six months for a better deal.
“Great.” He sighed like I’d relieved him of a heavy load. Maybe the insurance business was suffering from Covid too. We’d stood closer together while talking, but he stepped back while I paid for my allergy meds. Then I stood aside and waited while he paid for seven or eight bottles of Marie Morgan’s meds and told the clerk she could email his receipt. A nice guy, I thought, doing errands for his dead wife’s mother. I knew their family had been small, neither having brothers or sisters and Jay with only a foster mom. My first year in Florida Maureen had invited me to Thanksgiving with Jay and the moms, but I made up an excuse about helping at the free community dinner. Then because I hated to lie, I’d gone and done it, and done it ever since.
The same year Maureen died I made a couple of single friends, and the holidays weren’t a problem anymore. I just didn’t think about them. I never considered flying home to Idaho–there was a reason I’d moved as far as I could without leaving the country.
Jay and I walked out into mid-morning heat and stood in the shade of a palm tree, deciding where to meet. “How about The Getaway Cafe?” He squinted in the bright light and put on his aviator sunglasses. “They have great pastries.”
“So I’ve heard.” I’d eaten in every restaurant on Pine Island except this one, a bakery that also had breakfast and lunch sandwiches. “Meet you there?”
“Great.” There was relief above his mask, like I’d made his day. No doubt about it, I was on my way to being a valued Morgan Insurance client. Maybe I’d buy one of those 9.95 life insurance policies like they advertised on television.
Comments about the French pastries at the Getaway Café were so enthusiastic that I’d decided to avoid temptation by staying away. Now I had a good reason to give in, and I was excited, contemplating which beautiful and delicious pastry I’d choose. I was also moderately excited about sitting across a table from Jay Alva.
Unlike every other restaurant on Pine Island, the Getaway Café wasn’t on the island’s main street or even a side street. It was in an industrial park, a white stucco house with fields on both sides, backed by a pond. Despite the unpromising location, the café had quickly become well-known and popular.
As soon as I stepped inside the café I began to salivate, aroused by the warm aromas of roasting coffee and rising bread. Jay walked toward me through the waiting crowd. “The pastries are sold out,” he said. “How about something to drink and a sandwich?”
Sold out? Denied a French pastry, I’d be coming here for one at every opportunity. “A sandwich will be fine,” I said. Even if this turned into a sales pitch without pastries, I was excited to be in this morning crowd with the best-looking man in the room. Well, maybe the only man in the room who didn’t have white hair or a belly pushing out a beach shirt. Still, Jay looked good. Very good. My disappointment faded away.
“You grab a table; I’ll order. What will you have?”
“Iced tea, if they have it. No sugar.”
“Great,” he said again. It had to be a business strategy, the way his eyes crinkled and his cheeks widened beneath his mask at everything I said. “Do you want to come to the counter, or should I choose a sandwich for you?”
“Whatever you’re having.”
“You grab a table; I’ll get in line and order.”
He agreed we should sit outside if possible, so I claimed a two-person table squeezed into a corner of the deck. I took my seat and pretended to be interested in the pond. By turning my head casually, I could catch a glimpse of Jay through the windows. I watched him stand in line, place our order, and pay.
The pond made a nice view, bordered by pines and other native trees. Today the surface rippled in a light breeze, reflecting the sky and sparkling in the sunlight. A flock of white ibis traveled the waters’ edge, stepping gracefully on slender legs as they poked long, curved bills into the mud and wet grass in search of insects. I loved watching birds and I loved watching water react to wind and weather, from balmy to stormy, but today I was more interested in that other view.
It was a nice moment, seeing Jay lift the tray and peer over the heads of everyone inside and finally out to the deck. Looking for me. I knew when he saw me because his eyebrows raised and settled happily, and I felt a thrill of anticipation, even if this was only a business brunch. He turned serious when he reached our table and set down our tuna croissants and iced tea. “I have to apologize.”
I tended to forgive anyone who behaved with kindness and a dash of humility. “The croissant is fine,” I said.
“I mean I have to apologize for thinking of you that way. As someone who’d be useful.”
Useful? I’d taken off my mask, and I suppose my face showed surprise or disappointment, because he started to stutter. “Oh, wrong word. Sorry again! Wow, what a mess I’m making of this.” He pulled down his mask and sat with his elbows on the table, leaning forward, his nice face crumpling in regret. Possibly he’d learned this expression worked well, too.
I sat a little straighter and shook my head to suggest no problem, though regret was building behind my ribs. Casually I nodded to our food. “No apology necessary. You bought lunch.” He sat back, looking properly scolded, and I felt justified. He needed a sitter for his pet boa or he was buttering me up as a prospective client. I’d known that all along.
I looked away toward the pond. The Ibis flock suddenly lifted into the air, either frightened or bound for a better feeding ground. My stomach no longer wanted the croissant, though it did smell good. I sliced off a corner with knife and fork and paused, pretending to study it while I calmed down.
“Yeah, well you see, Maureen said you were a player.”
“What?” My first bite threatened to go down the wrong way.
“Bridge! Sorry I’m… I’m getting this out all wrong. She said you played bridge.”
“Bridge?” This was about bridge? I chewed and swallowed. “I played bridge with Maureen once at the Rec Center. I was terrible.”
“Yeah, that’s what she said. I mean, she said you weren’t good at it. Like me. I mean I’m not good either. I went with her one time–she didn’t ask me again.” Jay frowned at his croissant. “I better shut up and eat.”
My stomach had calmed down, and right now eating seemed a defensive kind of thing to do, but the poor guy kept talking. “The Center still has weekly bridge games, you know. I thought maybe I’d try again, see if I could get better.”
“Um.” He looked so wistful I said, “Jay, how are you, really?”
He leaned back, looking a bit relieved. “Horrible. Oh, do you mean how am I in general or how am I at bridge? In general, I’m okay. I’m rotten at bridge. I’ve been bothered by this idea that I should give it a good try, but I don’t want to go alone.”
I got it. He wanted me to go with him so he wouldn’t be the only idiot there.
“I thought of you just this morning. Mo talked about you all the time.”
“Maureen. She liked you a lot, said you were one of the good ones. When I saw you in the pharmacy it seemed meant to be, but I know that’s selfish. Sometimes I think so strongly about one thing that I forget other important things and what I say doesn’t come out right.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Happens to me, too.” For someone supposed to be good with words, I was horrible at small talk. Words and ideas would pop into my head but I’d hold them back because too often what I said was not as amusing as I thought or came off like an insult or sounded too much like I was bragging or feeling sorry for myself. Maureen, though, had been able to entertain on any topic, including the same ones that didn’t work for me.
Jay looked relieved. “Really? So what do you think?”
“About bridge? Isn’t it kind of an old person’s game?”
“Maybe. Mo said I’d be good if I took the time to learn, but she was so far ahead of me and I’ve never cared for card games. She got into bridge when she was a kid, because of her mom. Said she used to sit in when her mom’s bridge club needed a fourth.”
I had a sudden insight. “You want to do this because of Maureen.”
“Well, I think she’d like it, but no, it’s for me. I need a way to move on, get out and meet people.”
“Like mixing with senior citizens at the Rec Center?”
His smile was tentative and charming. “I guess so. The only pressure would be learning the game, right? No threats, no amorous pursuits.”
I sipped my tea to hide the emergence of a smile. No doubt he knew a lot about being pursued. Women would be all over him, but he still loved Maureen. It was sad but sweet.
“Sorry–sorry again! I should have asked,” he said. “Is there someone who’d mind if we played bridge together? A boyfriend?”
I hedged, ashamed to say no one would care. “It wouldn’t matter.”
“Ah.” He looked relieved.
“How about you?” I glanced at his ring. “Married again?”
“Married?” He followed my glance. “Oh, no. This… I’m a creature of habit, I guess. I forget it’s there.”
This might have been a good moment for him to twist off the ring and hide it in a pocket, but he didn’t.
“So how about it? Rec Center bridge, next Friday night?”
There it was, my way to avoid the dreaded game. I shook my head. “Fridays aren’t good for me.”
“Oh. Sorry.” His eyes were sorry too. Altogether Jay Alva was a compelling man. I wondered if he knew.
I was well practiced in discouraging unwanted proposals, but his reaction got to me. “Listen, Jay, most Friday nights my friends and I chill at a Tiki bar over in Fort Myers. You’d be welcome.”
He tilted his head, interested. “I don’t want to be a fifth wheel.”
“You wouldn’t. You’d be a fourth.”
He smiled. “Do they play bridge?”
“The topic has never come up, but I doubt it.”
“So maybe we can talk about bridge another time.”
“We can always talk,” I said.
I gave him my number and he said he’d call.I wondered right then if I should discourage him, a decent-sounding, fine-looking man who might turn out to be a weight of sadness. But for Maureen’s sake, how could I say no? I wouldn’t let my emotions run wild. Obviously, he was still Maureen’s guy. Besides, my emotions were otherwise occupied. This morning I’d been blessed with a critical issue: my parents had announced their intention to move south. If they carried through, I might have to pack up and move north.
Read the first chapter of the FIRST Lorelai Grant romantic comedy, Be Cool, Jule