We saw him at the same instant, but Betsy said it first. “Ooh, Kate, look at the cute guy!” She grabbed my arm and pointed to the young man jogging toward us on the road ahead. “Look at that body, Kate. He’s gorgeous.”
“I’m looking, I’m looking,” I said, trying to drive despite her urgent grip. I didn’t add that it was a little embarrassing for a pair of forty-two-year-old women in a station wagon to be gawking at a male half their age. But it couldn’t be helped. The figure approaching at an easy pace came straight from a health club ad: sun-blond hair and deep-set eyes, beautifully muscled, about six feet tall. He wore neon orange athletic shorts and white running shoes with a black lightning streak, and from head to toe his skin glistened a warm golden brown.
“Look at that tan. I bet he’s a lifeguard.” Betsy pivoted for a backward stare as he passed the car and ran on.
“Could be.” I sneaked a last glance at the receding figure in the rearview mirror. “But don’t you think we’re a bit old to be chasing men up the street?”
Betsy draped her hand dramatically across her forehead and fell back against her seat. “Old? Old? Kate, is that any way to treat a friend after all these years?”
I laughed. It was great seeing Betsy again. She was as animated and talkative as when we’d been freshman roommates in college. The last time she had flown east, eight years ago, my younger son had just been born, and so much had happened since then that sporadic notes couldn’t convey. But all we had today was a few hours before she drove on to Boston for a national telemarketing conference. I glanced sideways at her, storing up fond impressions: the short brown hair and pixie face, the blue eyes that sparkled at everything. No doubt the wine we’d drunk at the restaurant for lunch had something to do with our buoyant mood, but the time since college seemed to have telescoped down to nothing.
“Let me show you my school,” I said. “It’s only a few blocks away.”
We followed a winding street to a neat brick building surrounded by landscaped lawn. I parked and beckoned Betsy across the grass to a side window.
“Here’s the art room. If the school wasn’t locked up for the summer I’d take you inside.”
“It’s okay. I can see.” Betsy cupped her hands to her eyes and peered through the glass. She was silent for a minute, gazing over the orderly work tables, the bright collages adorning the walls. “So this is where you teach your budding Picassos. Found any yet?”
“Only time will tell. But I love it, Betsy. At this age the kids are so full of imagination and color and joy. They pour their souls into their art, as if every painting were destined for the Louvre.”
Betsy sighed. “Well, I’m sorry to say my kids have no more artistic ability than their mother. Remember how I’d corner you for help every time I had to do a layout for my advertising class?”
“You wrote half my English papers in return.”
“Teamwork,” said Betsy. “What are friends are for?”
We strolled to the car and got in, and my memory floated back to the day Betsy and I had met at our dorm. We’d recognized at once, the way girls do, that I was prettier, with long, tawny brown hair and slender legs. But where I was shy, Betsy was all personality, and instead of regarding me as competition, she welcomed me as a cohort, promising that together we would turn the campus on its ear.
“So what else would you like to see?” I asked, as we pulled away from the school. “The town church? The colonial graveyard?”
“Why don’t we drive over to the house you and Jack want to buy?” Betsy jerked forward and gave a sudden cry. “Look! The cute guy! Catch him!”
A flash of orange at the corner greeted my eye as the jogger reappeared from the loop behind the school, and I slowed to see which direction he would turn next. There was little traffic in this quiet neighborhood, and no one would mind if the station wagon took its time.
“I’ll follow him for a short way at a discreet distance,” I said, “but you have to promise to behave.”
Betsy chortled and rubbed her hands. “It’s just like back in college, Kate. Remember when we led the raid on the guys’ dorm?”
“We? As I recall, you were the one screaming ‘Give us your jock straps!’”
“Well, they started it, didn’t they? They came to our dorm demanding to be showered with panties, and those dumb girls on the second floor couldn’t wait to throw down their frilly undies. What was a liberated woman to do? I had to organize a retaliation.”
“You got us put on curfew for two weeks.”
“Yeah, but it was fun, wasn’t it? Now go get him.”
We crawled along while the cute guy kept up his steady pace, unaware of our trailing car. Even from the back he was lovely, arms pumping in a smooth rhythm, legs kicking up gracefully at each stride. The spinal furrow down his back made my heart do a double beat, and I wondered at my turn of mind. But it was more than his sheer physicality that kept my eyes riveted on the young man. It was a sense of perfection—he looked as if he were born to be running here, at this exact moment, without any other point of reference in the world.
“You think he’s in college?” Betsy asked.
“Older,” I said. “Twenty-three or twenty-four.”
She nodded. “He doesn’t have that unfinished look most college boys have. You know, like they haven’t got all their chest hair yet.”
The jogger reached a four-way stop and continued through. But as we reached the intersection so did a car on the right, and I waited to let it go first.
Betsy uttered a cry and grabbed my arm. “Don’t let him get away!”
“He’s only at the next side street.” I shook off her hand, surprised and a little annoyed. “Besides, you have your own cute guy at home, the cutest guy on campus, everybody said. What’s Dan up to these days? You hardly mentioned him at lunch.”
Betsy brushed at her skirt. “Oh, well, we were too busy playing Remember-What’s-Her-Name, catching up on who got married, pregnant, promoted, divorced. Besides, except for the fact that he’s fast going bald, there’s nothing new to report about Dan.”
“He still enjoys his sportscasting job?”
“And he’s feeling well? Wasn’t it last Christmas you wrote me that he dislocated his shoulder?”
Betsy made a contemptuous sound. “Trying to play football with the neighborhood kids. He seems to think because we live in southern California he’s supposed to act like he showers daily in the fountain of youth.” She gestured impatiently. “Pull up closer, Kate. I want to get a good look at that cute guy.”
I obeyed, not liking the brusqueness of her command. Ahead, the young man continued his effortless run, oblivious of the few passing cars.
“C’mon, Betsy,” I said, growing uneasy with the prolonged spying and nettled by my own disloyal thoughts a moment before. “What does he have that your Dan and my Jack don’t?”
Her mouth quirked into a grin. “Firm flesh?”
“That does it.” Ignoring her protests, I turned the car toward the shore drive. “You really did have too much to drink at lunch. I’ll take you to see the house while you tell me about your life as director of telemarketing and this conference you’re attending.”
“All right,” she said halfheartedly.
For the next few miles I listened to Betsy’s chatter. It was full of jargon like “cross-sell database” and “product life cycle management” that I only vaguely understood. But as she warmed to the subject she seemed to shake off her dejection, and I found myself envying, as usual, her poise and self-confidence. I may have been the prettier, but we always knew who would forge ahead in the world.
“Here it is.” I halted across from a brick ranch with a FOR SALE sign planted on the lawn. Jack and I had toured the house with a real estate agent the week before and knew at once we wanted it. I thought longingly of the stone fireplace in the living room, the country kitchen, the wide backyard where ducks from the lake stopped to preen. “I only hope we can talk the owners down on the price. We really need the space now the kids are getting older.”
“You call your kids old? They’re only eight and ten.” Betsy was staring at the house, and the discontented look had returned to her face.
“Well, of course they’re not old,” I agreed. “I only meant they’re getting so big, and their things take up so much room.”
She ignored me. “You know what the problem is? I should have waited longer to have children, like you did. Then I’d be younger now.”
“You know what I mean. Dan and I married right out of school, and I had Lauren by the time I was twenty-five. She starts college this fall. And Sam’s sixteen. Boy, does that date me. You were smart to hold off, Kate.”
“But I didn’t even meet Jack until I was thirty,” I said, still not understanding her displeasure.
“I know. Forget it. I’m being stupid.” She shifted impatiently. “It’s just that with so many women waiting till their thirties to have children, when people find out how old mine are they assume I must be fifty at least.”
“No way.” I faced her, disbelieving. “What are you talking about? If anything, you look younger than I do. You don’t even have any gray hairs.”
“I pull them out.”
Slowly, I drew a lock from behind my ears. The long hair I’d had in college was years gone. These days I found a chin-length cut with bangs helped soften the creases around my eyes. I pulled a strand forward and worked out a shining white hair. There weren’t many of them, but this one was particularly noticeable.
“See?” I offered it for her inspection.
Betsy gave it a regretful look. “I’m sorry.” Her mouth tried for a smile even as the rest of her face began to fall. Tears shone in her eyes. “And you and Jack are happy?” she demanded. “Really, really happy?”
“Betsy, what’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing much, just a going-away present from Dan. He told me yesterday he’s having an affair and wants a divorce. He figured I could get over it while I’m in Boston. How’s that for a tidbit for the What’s-Her-Name-Game?”
“Oh, Betsy.” I sat back, stunned, groping for an explanation. I pictured Dan as I had known him in college, popular, laughing, books under one arm, baseball jacket slung over his shoulder. I tried to imagine him bald. “And she’s younger? Is that it?”
“She’s thirty-four. But she makes him feel younger, Kate. He says we were too young when we married. He says it’s like we’ve already spent a lifetime together. He tells me he regrets all the fun he missed. I said, ‘What about me? What about all the cute guys I could have had?’” Tears glimmered on her lashes, but she blinked them back. “I don’t know what happened to us. One day we were young and in love, and the next day—poof!—it’s all gone.” She gazed around, as if the peaceful neighborhood before us was an illusion not worth believing. “Anyway, I can’t think about it now. We should go back to your house and pick up my rental car, so I can get to Boston and rehearse my keynote speech.”
She made a curt gesture toward the steering wheel, and I started the car, holding back the words of comfort she didn’t want me to say. We reached the shore drive in silence, then out of nowhere the cute guy jogged directly across our path. In a flash, Betsy took control. “Go get him, Kate. Step on it. I want him.” She pointed, her face set in determination, blue eyes hard and clear.
“Betsy, I don’t think—”
“I want him! Go!”
I punched the accelerator, and the car gunned and lurched forward. Beside me, Betsy clenched her fist.
“Tell the truth, Kate. He’s gorgeous. Look at those pecs. Wouldn’t you love to get your hands on them? Who cares what Dan does when the world is full of cute guys just waiting for me? Let’s waylay him. Let’s jump out of the car on him. Let’s tie him up, take him home, and lock him in your bedroom where we can ravish him to our hearts’ content. Then when he’s exhausted, he can lie there while we kiss him all over that dreamy, adorable body.”
“In fact, we’ll go out and round up a whole harem of cute guys, and we’ll feed them on chocolate and keep them as love slaves.”
“Is this the director of telemarketing talking?”
“No, this is Betsy, the jock-strap-raid commando. Wouldn’t you give anything for it to be that way again, Kate? Wouldn’t you?” She pulled off her shoulder harness, crouched on her seat, and rolled the window all the way down. “Now don’t lose him,” she ordered. “We’re getting close. Go slow.”
I let up on the accelerator, unable to break free of her will. The runner was only a hundred yards ahead, his muscles rippling in the sunlight as he skimmed the path along the shore. I could feel him growing warmer, growing real and near.
“Betsy,” I gasped, as she leaned out the window. “What are you doing? Oh, we’re going to look so foolish!”
“Who cares?” she cried, eyes shining wild. “He’s mine, Kate, mine, and I want him.”
She stretched, fingers grasping, and I reached to pull her back. For a moment the golden body ran next to us in a slow-motion dream. Then the orange shorts spurted forward, and Betsy crumpled into her seat. Too late I glimpsed an octagonal red sign.
We slammed into the intersection, brakes screeching. Squeals and horns answered to left and right. As the station wagon shuddered to a stop in a circle of cars, I pressed back my pounding heart. Beside me, Betsy was huddled into a sobbing ball.
“I lost him! Oh, Kate, I lost him!”
I blocked out the angry voices assailing us and drew her into my arms. On the road ahead a blur of orange flashed and disappeared around the bend.
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1993)