Disclaimer: Names and identifying features changed or omitted.
I pulled off the offending lace tank top and hung it neatly back in the closet, pausing to admire the uniformity of my new wooden hangers. I’d always wanted matching wooden hangers and a closet that looked like a high-end boutique shop. I might not have achieved the latter when I moved to Bend, Oregon last year, but the hangers?
I tried on two more shirts, holding a small mirror in front of my face and glancing backwards into my full-length mirror.
Do my arms really look like that? And my back? Is it the bra? Oh god. I can’t wear my hair up like this. Look at my double chin.
I yanked the bobby pins out of my side bun. Two months of calorie counting, weight lifting, yoga, and running 50 miles a week, and the reflection in the mirror still betrayed me. I settled on a red floral shirt, dark wash jeans, and a low ponytail.
“I’ll be there at 4:30 to pick you up, if that still works,” I texted my friend, Meghan.
“What are you wearing?” she replied.
I snapped a selfie, strategically cutting out my arms, and surrendering to the fact that this was just as good as it was going to get today.
When I pulled into Meghan’s driveway, she stepped outside in a jaw-dropping maroon dress, her hair and make-up perfect. Playboy bunny meets red carpet knock-out.
“You look gorgeous, as always,” I said, popping out of the car to give her a hug (we had decided weeks earlier that we were definitely “COVID family,” thus able to enjoy embraces).
I hoped I sounded sincere, because I was. Even if I suddenly felt even older and haggier than ever before. We spent the late afternoon enjoying outdoor live music at a lake lodge, every head turning as Meghan walked by, two men even stopping to ask if she was staying at the lodge. The afternoon beer eventually turned into an al fresco “frosé” (frozen rosé) at a bar closer to home.
“Those guys keep looking over here,” Meghan giggled, her eyes fixed on a few men behind me.
I tried to casually pivot, turning back to Meghan with a grin.
“You can say that again.”
“They’re leaving now,” she whispered a minute later.
One of them paused in front of Meghan, the final traces of daylight catching his rugged stubble.
“I just have to tell you, you look great,” he said earnestly, staring Meghan down.
“Thank you so much,” Meghan replied, her picture-perfect smile and big, bright eyes shining. “Where are you from?”
“Seattle,” he replied. “I’m here for a bachelor party and leaving tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Meghan said, a wink in her voice. “What’s your name?”
“Scott,” he answered. After an awkward half beat, he glanced my way.
“I’m Julie,” I heard myself say. “Jules” felt too unfeminine.
He immediately returned his attention to Meghan and I downed the last of my frosé. After he left, the server started putting up chairs and wiping down tables.
“Want to try The Lot?” Meghan asked, referring to another outdoor bar just two blocks away. “I think they’re open ’til 10.”
It was 9:30pm, which is when most of Bend shuts down on a Saturday night, international pandemic or not. As we headed to The Lot, a young man shouted out his car window to ask where we were going, his gaze fixed firmly on Meghan.
As soon as we reached our destination and approached the bar for a drink, three men descended.
“You have to come sit with us,” they insisted, practically dragging Meghan to their table.
I waited for our drinks and then sat down next to Meghan, tugging my high-waisted jeans over my gurgling stomach. We had skipped dinner and all I could think about was my couch, my dog, and the delicious cauliflower pizza I wished I was eating.
Within five minutes, the three, scruffy-haired, patchouli-drenched men offered us mushrooms (which we politely declined) and told us about their Pacific Crest Trail through-hiking adventure.
“Because of those six months, we really learned how to read people,” the tallest, and youngest, of the crew said.
The cutest guy in the group had already cornered Meghan, forcing me to face the remaining two intoxicated men on my own. This is so not where I want to be right now.
“For example, I can tell that she,” the scruffiest and oldest one began, nodding towards Meghan, “is way more open and spontaneous than you. You’re really closed off.”
He went on for a minute and now had Meghan’s attention. Is this really happening? Are they going to keep talking about how this bombshell next to me is superior in every way, including her entire essence?
“That’s no way to live,” they both went on. “You’re clearly so rigid and uptight.”
Meghan took one look at my face and interjected,
“We need more people like Jules. Jules is one of the greatest people I know and I always tell people about the dinner party I invited her to when we first met. She showed up with so much amazing wine and food and even labeled it in case anyone had allergies.”
By then I’d missed my opportunity for a graceful escape to the bathroom. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I am 38 years old, crying in front of strangers. In the middle of a bar. I eventually made it to the bathroom, with Meghan, and found myself saying,
“Yeah, I guess we can go with them to the dive bar downtown.” I can’t ditch you, and maybe I can redeem myself.
An hour later, Meghan was missing and Mushroom Man #3 was two inches from my face, shouting over the blaring music.
“I need you to hug me and prove you can connect on a deep, genuine level with another human being.”
“I’m good, thanks,” I said, staring at the shot of whiskey he had given me.
“Come on,” he persisted, and I wound up with my arms around his short, solid frame. A decision I’d later regret for many reasons, not the least of which involved reeking of incense for the rest of the night.
He wouldn’t let go, so I eventually pulled away, knowing I had -purposely- not given him what he was looking for.
“See, that still wasn’t genuine,” he said. “You’re so closed off. You’re living your life all wrong.”
“I think we’re more alike than you think we are,” I replied, knowing all of the bold, terrifying leaps of faith I’d taken over the past several years.
“No, we’re nothing alike,” he retorted, staring directly into my eyes. “You’re never going to experience what life has to offer if you don’t open up.”
My eyes filled for the second time in as many hours.
What if he’s right? Why can’t I be one of those women who goes on spontaneous camping trips, seduces strange, stubbly men, and embraces her mismatched hangers?
…Why can’t I be a little less me and a little more Meghan?
As I felt the hot tears trickle down my face, Meghan returned.
“He’s being mean again,” I said shakily, reduced to a toddler’s verbal range. “So I’m leaving, and you can come if you want.”
I bolted out the nearest door and pushed through the 20-somethings scattered on the bar’s back deck.
“How the hell did this night happen?” I wondered as I made the long, solo trek back to my car, choking back sobs and grateful that I’d sobered up so I could get home safely.
As I passed through Drake Park, the midnight sprinklers pivoted, drenching me. I almost laughed. Well isn’t this cinematic. I pictured the scene from The Holiday where Kate Winslet bends over her gas stove range, turning on a burner and inhaling deeply. She quickly chokes, running to the window, cracking it open and sighing,
Julie Jules, low point.
As soon as I got home and opened my apartment door, Uncle Jesse lavished me with licks and whines, watching curiously as I sat on the couch and wept – as deeply and fully as I’d wanted to all night. When I ran out of tears, I went to the fridge and fixed my long-awaited dinner, surprised that I had no urge to open a bottle of wine.
The cauliflower crust immediately crumbled into 17 pieces as I tried to flip it and I felt like crying all over again. Why does everything always fall apart?
“I’m home, are you okay?” Meghan texted a little after 1am. “I’m so sorry I didn’t leave with you. I came outside, and you were already gone.”
“I’m glad you’re home safely,” was all I could manage.
I collapsed into bed a short while later, clinging to my favorite life line as I drifted into dream land.
Maybe this will all be funny tomorrow.