Kick Start

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Chapter 1


I don’t know where I thought I would be at 39, but it sure as hell wasn’t here. I was too smart, too careful, to let it happen to me. But happen it did, with a capital D-I-V-O-R-C-E.

Much like the stages of grief, first came denial.

“You can’t leave, we have children,” I said to my then-husband Rick. Seemed logical to my panicked brain at the time. “Mark’s graduating high school and the girls aren’t even obnoxious yet. They need you.”

Rick just shook his head.

Second came bargaining. But the look in his eyes—vague sadness, steely determination—was one I’d seen before. In his court appearances. There, as a brilliant criminal attorney, Rick Dowling used it to his advantage. I’d never seen him turn lawyer on me, but turn he did. Unfortunately, he had equally cold and skilled friends in family law who were more than willing to take on his case, and my bargaining efforts went nowhere.

Third came anger, which did not follow the established order for stages of grieving, but what can I say? Divorce is not exactly like death. Close, but not quite. Despite his torrid affair with a bottle-blonde, spike-heeled assistant district attorney (one Sandy Meisenheimer) Rick got off owing us only college tuition for Mark, child support for the girls, and a laughable amount of alimony for me. Well, I got the house, the cat and my aging minivan, as well, but those didn’t necessarily feel like “assets.”

Fourth came depression. My house is a gorgeous two-story Tudor: five bedrooms, 3.5 baths, four fireplaces, gourmet kitchen, spacious den, and finished bonus room over the two-car garage, all on a lovely 3/4 acre lot. My dream home—once, our dream home. I’ve been tempted to sell, something I never thought would happen. The house had been the icing on the carefully constructed cake of my marriage.

Now, it was the millstone around my rather stiff neck. I couldn’t bring myself to sell it, though. The house had morphed from its role as Symbol of Dowling Success into Symbol of Dowling Triumph Over Divorce. My mother, at 36, had been left with five children, no job training and two mortgages, thanks to my no-good father. Mama managed to hold it together and keep us in our family home, so I could do no less. Selling meant leaving everything behind, and not just the house. It meant giving up the only home—the only life—my kids have ever known. It also meant admitting Rick and that bitch Sandy had broken me down. Had won. I couldn’t do it. Pride goeth before a fall and all that, but I couldn’t quite manage to put mine aside.

So the kids and I have held on, month after grim month. The girls stand at the same bus stop they have since kindergarten, at the corner of Myrtle and Rosebank, with the same kids they have known forever. In a litigious country where marriages are practically stamped with expiration dates, we have the most divorce-averse neighborhood imaginable. The last one before the Dowling Divorce—as ours became known—was the Sullivan Divorce, circa 1979. Moss Rose Farms simply didn’t do divorce. So tasteless, so lower class.

So what? Rick didn’t care. He wasn’t much on tradition. I was the one who put up Christmas lights and trimmed the Easter egg tree and erected the Headless Horseman on the lawn at Halloween (complete with dry ice to make fog). Rick never gave a rat’s ass about any of that stuff, except when he needed it to burnish the veneer of domestic bliss to impress the partners at his law firm. Of course, the divorce may have tarnished his reputation with some colleagues, but others had stood firm behind him.

So shaking up the Moss Rose crowd hadn’t bothered him. After all, he was trading up for a younger woman. I weathered the velvet-gloved censure of the neighbors as best I could. For the children’s sake, of course.

I had as much use for the honey-coated cattiness of Cross Springs, North Carolina as a catfish did for a skateboard. I hadn’t grown up in this suburban enclave of in-ground pools, manicured lawns, professional landscaping and par 3 golf holes. I grew up on the working side of Nashville, where the driveways were gravel, sidewalks were non-existent and luxury was a riding lawnmower. But this was home to my children.

With Mark heading toward graduation that year, I thought I had made it. I had successfully shuttled one child through the unknowable jungle of Cross Springs society. I had begun to think I might be fooling someone with my self-filed nails and home-colored hair.

Then the other-woman bomb dropped. Turned out the only person I was fooling was me. That’s when I reached step five: acceptance. That is also when the trouble started.


When I was 36, Mama joked with me, “All you need is two more kids and for Rick to leave you and you’d be just where I was at your age.” Mama should be careful what she says.

I had three more years with Rick than she did with Daddy, I suppose, but it made the shock of Rick’s desertion all the harder to bear.

I considered this as I pulled on my tennis shoes and went out in my suburban mom outfit—khaki shorts and scoop-necked cotton t-shirt—to survey the ruins of my once-perfect yard. The Chemi-Lawn guys hadn’t been around since last October. I had to cancel when I realized they were one more luxury I had mistaken for necessity.

The girls had left for school half an hour earlier. Mark was safely ensconced in a dorm at North Carolina State. I pulled on my leather gardening gloves and wished I had bought the cheaper, ventilated ones when I had the chance. Late August and not a hint of autumn to break up the sweltering heat and humidity.

The impatiens I had planted with so much hope and naívète in the spring, hoping things would somehow magically get better once the weather was warmer, hadn’t fared well. The pale green stems ended in brown, shriveled tips that had long ago dropped their blooms and leaves in desperation. They hadn’t had a chance against the summer drought and my depression-induced neglect. I decided to pull them all up, ignoring the buds that might be new growth.

“Summer’s all but over, kiddos. Time to go.”

I had taken to speaking to the cat, the plants, the mailbox. Anything that couldn’t answer back. Still for some reason, I felt less alone now than before Rick left. He had been largely absent the last few years, explaining it away with words like “caseload”, “billable hours” and “research.” The real reason was Sandy…and possibly others before her.

The quality of this alone felt different, though. It might’ve had to do with Mark leaving for college. I always figured the empty-nest thing would wait until my youngest, Christie, graduated from high school. Guess not.

A gold-colored Volvo sedan rolled slowly into view, heading toward the entrance to the neighborhood. Please Lord, do not let her stop. Not now.

The car stopped and the window slid silently down. Katie Warren waved an always- manicured hand. “Yoo-hoo! Linda!”

Good God, she was perky in the morning. I pulled off my gloves and walked toward the street. “Hi, Katie. How are you?”

She ignored my small talk. “I am so glad to see you working on your flower beds. I know it’s been hard maintaining this huge place without Rick.” She cast an eye over the lawn, sprouting weeds in the absence of the lawn service. Not a particularly sympathetic eye to my mind. “I just don’t know how you’ll manage with Mark away at school. I would be terribly tempted to sell if I were you.”

It was uncanny. Katie smiled and seemed, if you didn’t know her, perfectly nice. Underneath the patina of polite Southern charm and beauty, though, she was a pit viper waiting to strike. I had been onto her for years, but no one else seemed to see her as I did. Except my best friend Connie, of course.

“I’ll just have to do my best and see what happens.” I gave her what felt like a horribly fake smile, but it seemed to satisfy her.

“Good luck with it all, poor thing. See you Sunday!” She waved again and drove off.

Sunday. I dreaded Sundays. I used to love our church and my Sunday school class, when Rick and I were both members. Now it was just me. Knowing they had all borne witness to the disintegration of our marriage, while hanging desperately onto their own, weighed on me.

“Hello!” A shout from just past my yard pulled me back from the brink of depression.

Connie Burns, my best friend and neighbor, speed-walked up the driveway with her dog, Tuck. Connie is Moss Rose Farms’ worst nightmare. Married but childless—a career woman with no desire to procreate.

Nantucket, or Tuck, is part sheepdog and part Great Dane. Apparently, not the smart part of either breed. He is, instead, a hairy, slobbery horse of a dog with a tendency to lean against people.

The sight of them cheered me tremendously. “Hello, yourself. What are you doing bopping around the neighborhood on a Monday morning? Don’t you have houses to show or something?”

Connie is a real estate agent and, though I rarely witness her working, she consistently has more closings than anyone else in her office. She claims her “psychic gift” helps her match clients to houses, so she rarely has to show a couple more than one house. I should believe it, since she sold us our house and it was the only one we looked at. But I had watched too many episodes of Myth Busters to buy it without hard proof.

She waved an airy hand at me now. “Not really. Everyone I showed a house to this weekend made offers, so I’m waiting to hear back from sellers.” She pointed to the Bluetooth parked in her ear. “I can do that anywhere.”

I fought back the wave of envy threatening to crash over me. Connie was successful in her own right, but her husband Tim was a dermatologist. So it wasn’t like she even needed to work. She just wanted to and did. I didn’t and I was the one who needed money and had no job skills.

She cast her professional eye over the yard. “You have a lot of work to do if you plan on selling. Are you considering it?”

I yanked a plant out of the ground with unnecessary force. “No, for the hundredth time. I’m not giving up, Connie.”

She squatted down to my level. “Property values in this neighborhood have increased a hundred percent since you bought this house, Linda. You guys were making well over the minimum mortgage payments every month for twelve years, so you have equity out the ass. If you sell, even with the hit home prices have taken, you’ll be able to buy a smaller place outright. You’ll be set, and you won’t have to worry about money for a while. You’ll have time to figure out what to do with your life.”

“I appreciate you trying to help, I really do, but it’s the principle of the thing. I have less than eight years left to pay on this house. With the money Granddaddy left me, I can make the mortgage payments for a while.”

Connie stood up and towered over me, the effect partially spoiled by Tuck, who inserted himself between us. “For eight years? He didn’t leave you that much. How are you going to do it, Linda? You haven’t had a job in sixteen years. Even then, you were earning diddly squat doing secretarial work.”

Okay, I had thought the exact same thing myself, but it sounded so harsh coming from her. I stood and tried my best to tower, but didn’t pull it off like she did, especially with Tuck crushing my right foot.

“That’s true,” I said imperiously, “but I have a plan.” I hadn’t had one until that moment, but felt the need to save face. “I’m going back to school.”

Her jaw literally dropped. Tuck gave a ‘woof’ of surprise. “School? At your age?”

I pulled off my gloves and stuffed them in the pocket of my shorts. “I suppose so. It’s not like I’m a senior citizen. You might as well come in and drink coffee with me. Just put Tuck out back.”

Connie followed me inside, looking rather dazed. I felt like she looked. She put Tuck in my fenced backyard to bark at squirrels and dig holes under my bloom-spent azaleas, then sat at my farmhouse-worthy pine kitchen table. I plunked the course catalog from the community college in front of her. We had been swamped with college material for the past two years, thanks to Mark. He had looked into community college for his first two years to save money, before we knew Rick was going to have to pay his way. I’d been intrigued enough by the variety of courses offered to keep it. I had even been sneaking peeks at it lately, but hadn’t quite worked up the nerve to do anything about it until today.

“Figure out what I need to take in order to make enough to pay for the house,” I ordered, busying myself measuring coffee beans.

She flipped pages as I ground beans and filled the coffee maker. “You just now decided to go back to school, didn’t you?” she asked, not looking up.

“Uh-huh.” The beautiful thing about Connie is that I never need to fake it with her and, when I try, I fail. She knows me too well. She is, though, the most understanding soul in the universe. Good thing, since she can also be a little overly honest at times.

“Do you really want to go, or did you say it because I pissed you off?”

I considered. “Both. After paying the bills last night, I realized I can’t stretch Asshole’s money far enough to cover everything on an ongoing basis. I have to get a job and to do that, I need some training.”

She nodded, still flipping pages. “Good thing for you the economy has reeked so bad the past couple years. This college has short-term training programs for anything imaginable. In eight months you can be,” she raised her eyebrows, “a medical assistant, a dental assistant, a network technology professional or a business office administrator.”

I sat down and scrutinized the page. “Makes me dread going to the dentist even more, knowing they only went to school for eight months. What’s the deal with the business office thing? Is that a fancy term for secretary?”

Connie frowned. “The program is designed to teach students strong administrative, computer and interpersonal skills, promoting greater efficiency in the office. Sounds like a secretary, huh?”

The coffee maker rumbled as it reached the end of the brewing cycle. I went to pour. “Same spiel they gave us at the quickie course I took before Mark was born. How much?”

The figure had me sloshing coffee on the granite counter. “For eight months?”

“I’m sure they’re high quality months,” she said, “worth every penny. But the real question is, how much will you earn if you get this certification?”

She pulled out her phone and pulled up one of the major job search engines. Her fingers flew over the surface. “I’m narrowing it down to administrative jobs within a ten-mile radius.”

“If it’s bad news, I don’t want to know. I’m suddenly pinning a lot on this school thing.”

Connie scanned, then gestured for a pen and paper. I handed them to her, along with her coffee mug, and she jotted down a couple of numbers. “Okay, if we can count the two years you worked as a secretary two decades ago as ‘experience’, you should be able to get something making around thirty-five.”

“Thousand? Dollars?” She nodded. I grabbed the calculator from my built-in desk in the corner of the eat-in kitchen and did some quick figuring. “Even after taxes and Social Security, that’s more than enough to pay the mortgage. And Dipshit’s money will pay for food and gas and clothes.”

She shook her head. “It’s not that much, these days. I make that much in a quarter.”

I tossed the green-eyed monster off my back one more time. “It’s more than twice what I made when Dickhead was in school.”

She rolled her eyes. “Language! You don’t do that around the girls, do you?”

I tried to look prim. This was not easy to pull off. “Of course not. He’s their father, after all, and they’re forced by court order to see him every other weekend.”

“He’s still showing up?”

I shrugged. “So far. I have no idea if he’s seen Mark since he left for school. Mark won’t talk to me about it. But he’s picked the girls up every other Friday night and dropped them off at Sunday school like clockwork.”

“What does he do with them?”

The question was completely warranted. Connie knew as well as I how little time Rick had spent with Ashley and Christine. Ashley was born the year we moved into the house and Christie eighteen months later.

At first, I thought the onus of the mortgage payment was keeping Rick at work all the time. Then I figured out he had less than no use for babies. When Mark was little, I attributed Rick’s hands-off attitude to his law studies, which took all his time since he was still in school. But with two babies under two, I needed help. It never came.

I shrugged again. “So far, there have been a lot of movies and shopping trips. They needed school clothes anyway, so it worked out. Are they having fun? Who knows. The real test will be next year.”

Connie nodded sagely. Though childless herself, she had a bevy of nieces and nephews. She knew, as did I, that twelve was the threshold age for girls and their teen angst. Ashley was eleven.

“True-true.” She saw my raised eyebrows at her kid-speak. “Sorry, I spent yesterday evening with Nate.”

Nate was her nephew, the offspring of her sister-in-law Lacey’s affair with an Atlanta DJ/emcee/hip-hop wannabe. MC Smoov Sam was long gone, but Lacey still loved the hip-hop scene and Nate, now 14, did too. Connie’s afternoons with Nate generally left her with questionable new music, quasi-cool street lingo and a keen longing for her eyebrow-pierced, spike-haired, undoubtedly cool former self.

“Understood,” I said. “Thinking about another asymmetrical haircut?”

“Hardly. But you can’t talk about my hair from back in the day, Lin. I’ve seen pictures of yours.”

Ah, the good old days. Wearing enough hair gel to shore up a third-world country and closing down night clubs dancing to new wave music. High times that led me straight into Rick’s arms. I should have known I couldn’t trust a guy in an alligator shirt who listened to George Michael. Must have been the Paco Rabanne scrambling my senses.

“Back to business,” I said. “We need to decide what I’m taking. Classes start next week.”

“You’re serious about this?”

“I’m not selling the house, Con. I know it’s stupid, but whenever I picture Rick finding out about it and having to see his stupid, smug face, it makes me crazy. I should be a bigger person. I should be able to let it go. But I can’t. My mother was able to get through this same shitty situation and I will, too. I need a way to make more money, though. And I need to occupy myself, though, before I start trying to redecorate on a shoestring.”

We shared a collective shudder. Redecorating is the suburban woman’s Prozac, a cure for whatever ails you. But I had no money, which guaranteed a discount-store disaster.

“Right, then. If you only want to go for the eight months–”

“That’s all I can afford, I think.”

“Then your best bet is probably the business thing. Unless you want to try the computer networking stuff? There are lots of entry-level jobs calling for that.”

I held up a hand. “No. I can operate my word processor, surf the internet and check e-mail. Anything else, I don’t want to know about. Plus, the only work experience I have is business-related. Sort of.”

I didn’t really consider typing my ex-boss’s self-serving memos, setting up golf dates and lying to callers about how he was “tied up in a meeting” as business. But it was all I had.

“Business it is. All you have to do is go down and talk to an academic adviser about getting registered and you’re in.”

A knot formed in my stomach. The same one I faced every time I did something new. It’s not that I’m change-averse. I simply need time to adjust. Lots of time. Like when Rick brought home the DVD player.

So maybe I kept using the VCR until it developed an obnoxious hum and I realized all my must-see movies were only available for rental on DVD, but I adapted. After Mark showed me how to use the DVD player. At least twice a week for the first month. Of course, I fought Blu-Ray tooth and nail and Rick had given up on our marriage before I gave up the fight.

I could do this. It was my choice, after all, and I had incentive. If I needed motivation, all I had to do was picture Rick and Sandy driving up to the house and seeing a “For Sale” sign in the yard. Sandy would probably pop a cap off one of her big teeth she’d be grinning so hard. And Rick’s frat boy face gloating beside her…

Connie’s cell phone rang. After a brief, chirpy conversation, she excused herself. “Gotta run. Got a hot lead on a listing that is perfect for a couple I spoke with on Thursday.” She stuck her head out the French doors and called Tuck.

“Thanks for helping, Con. You’re the best.”

She reined in Tuck and clipped the leash to his collar. “You’re going to go down there, right?”

I held up three fingers. “Promise.”

She shook her head and walked toward the outside door at the front of the kitchen. “You’ve been hanging out with the Scouts too long.”

I held the door for them. “Yeah, well, at least this year, I’ll be in school when cookie season rolls around. For once, I can just say no.”

They were off at a clip. I picked up the course catalog and studied the business curriculum. Computer skills were necessary, it said, and you had to have a laptop. Thankfully, I got to keep my laptop in the divorce settlement. I was reasonably sure I could fake the computer skills. I could do this.

Confidence bolstered, I headed upstairs to shower and dress. I would go to the school straight away. No time like the present. Full speed ahead. I had nothing to fear but fear itself. I ran out of clichés as I shampooed, and the realities of my decision hit me. Not just school, but working full-time after I finished the course, too.

Most likely, I wouldn’t be home when the girls got off the school bus. I wouldn’t be available for carpool to afterschool activities. I would have to plan menus and haul out my Crockpot so the girls wouldn’t become victims of unhealthy drive-through dinners.

Lots of mothers lived like this and their kids did just fine. The girls would adjust. It might even help them become a little more responsible. Especially Christie, who loved being the baby of the family and preferred to act like one. We would survive.

I entertained only the vaguest doubts about myself as I surveyed the fine lines around my eyes and the pool-and-sun-bleached streaks in my unruly brown hair. I still had “it”, buried somewhere under the years of Mommy-ness. I could still conquer the world.

I just hoped the girl I had been, the one who believed she could do anything she set her mind to, still lurked in the recesses of my stay-at-home mom brain. I needed her now. One way or another, I was going to make it, even if I had to snow my way into college and lie like a rug until I found a decent-paying job.

To borrow from Connie, I was gonna fake the funk until I felt the funky-funky flow of cash into my bank account.


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