ONLY PERFECT MOMENTS
by Lois Jean Thomas
It’s crazy how I got roped into attending this birthday party of a child I don’t even know.
I was supposed to be on a date tonight, with Rodney, a guy I met on a dating app. A second date, actually. But Rodney called me two hours ago and said he couldn’t make it. He said his ex-wife had an emergency, and that he had to watch his daughter.
As gullible as I am, I believed him at first. I even sympathized with him. “What kind of emergency,” I asked him. “I hope she’s okay.” He started hemming and hawing, and I realized that I’d caught him off-guard, that he hadn’t worked out all the details of his lie.
I was bummed out, but not too badly. After our first date, I’d thought Rodney was okay, although I couldn’t see myself falling madly in love with him. The fact that I didn’t outright hate the guy, like what happens after most of my first dates, had been a positive sign. I’d thought that, given time, I could possibly develop feelings for him.
But that’s all a moot point now. I doubt that I’ll ever hear from Rodney again. I don’t think he’s a good enough liar to keep stringing me along.
After he canceled our date, I decided to call my friend Janine, thinking I could spend the evening hanging out in her messy little apartment with her and her son Harley. “Sorry, Mandy,” she told me. “I’m not going to be home. I’m getting ready to take Harley to a birthday party. One of the little boys in our apartment building invited him.”
I knew what Janine wasn’t telling me, that with Harley being hearing impaired, party invitations were a rarity in his young life. She wouldn’t want him to miss out on this one.
“That’s nice,” I said, after my second plan for the night was canceled. “I hope Harley has a good time.”
“I thought you had a date tonight,” Janine said. “With that Ronald or Robert or whatever his name is.”
“It’s Rodney,” I corrected her. “Yes, we were planning on going out, but he canceled.”
When I gave her the details of the cancellation, she said, “That son-of-a-bitch is lying to you.”
“I know,” I said.
“Mandy,” she scolded. “How do you end up with all these losers?”
I didn’t say what I felt like saying, that she had no room to talk. Her track record with men is no better than mine.
Although, I’d thought she had hit the jackpot when she’d married her second husband, Arlen. I can’t say I was exactly charmed by Arlen. He’s a nerdy guy, kind of socially backward. But still a good guy, with a great job and a sizable savings account. And he came without the baggage of an ex-wife or children.
Arlen was great with Harley, and was the only father figure the little boy had ever known. He was even willing to learn ASL. Right before Janine kicked him out of her life, Arlen had gotten to the point where he could flash Harley the “I love you” sign.
Arlen and Janine separated four months ago, and Janine filed for divorce. When I asked her why she was doing such a stupid thing, she told me that all the spark had gone out of their sex life. “I’m too young to be stuck in a loveless marriage,” she carefully explained, as if she thought I was too clueless to understand such a thing.”
Not one to stay single, she’s already getting cozy with a guy who lives on the floor below her.
“I didn’t think Keith was cute at first,” she told me a few days ago. “But he’s growing on me. Last night, he came upstairs and watched a movie with me. After I put Harley to bed, we snuggled a little bit.”
I know Janine well enough to read between the lines of what she tells me. I know full well they did more than snuggle.
I met Keith once. He’s at least fifty, way too old for Janine, and he seems a little sketchy. And, believe me, he’s way too ugly to ever grow on anyone.
“How is Keith with Harley?” I asked Janine.
“He’s okay with him,” she said flippantly.
The vagueness of that response didn’t do much to dispel my concern.
Just when I’d resigned myself to spending this evening alone, Janine said, “Mandy, I can’t stand the idea of you sitting home feeling sorry for yourself on a Friday night. Why don’t you come with Harley and me.”
“I don’t want to crash a kid’s birthday party!” I protested. Janine kept insisting, shooting down all my excuses until I finally agreed to come along.
“The parents will all be staying to help supervise the kids,” she explained to me. “One more adult won’t hurt anything. Since Harley doesn’t have a dad that can come with us, you can be my plus-one.”
I’ve known Janine for seven years, long enough to know that when she gets an idea in her head, no one can talk her out of it.
She and I often laugh about the random way we met, a weird way for a best-friendship to start. I was sitting in my chiropractor’s office with a sore back, waiting for an adjustment. A young couple came into the waiting room. The guy was walking bent over, obviously in a lot of pain.
The two of them sat down across from me. They started communicating with each other in sign language. I figured that at least one of them was hearing impaired.
I saw wedding rings on their fingers. So, I assumed they were a married couple, although they looked incredibly young, barely more than teenagers. The guy was strikingly handsome, with jet black hair and dark eyes. I figured he was either Native American or Hispanic. He had the most perfectly chiseled features I had ever seen on a man. I could hardly look away from him.
The young woman was Caucasian, plump in a pretty way, with gorgeous, expressive, big blue eyes.
I couldn’t help but be curious about the couple. I wondered who they were and what their story was.
The man shifted in his seat and moaned in pain. The woman lovingly rubbed his back. Then she looked at me and smiled. It was such a sweet open smile, the kind of smile that says, “I’ve never known a stranger.”
“He hurt his back,” she explained to me, as if apologizing for the scene he was making. “I had to come with him so I can interpret for the chiropractor.”
“He seems to be in a lot of pain,” I said. “How did he hurt himself?”
The woman leaned toward me and spoke in a stage whisper. “We got a little too carried away in the bedroom.”
Then she laughed. It was the most joyful, most melodious laugh I had ever heard. I had a strange thought: It’s too bad that her husband can’t hear his wife’s beautiful laugh. He would love it.
“How about you?” she asked. “Did you hurt your back, too?
“How did you do it?” she asked.
I wished I had an explanation as risqué as hers. “I was moving furniture,” I told her.
She spent a few seconds signing with her husband, apparently filling him in on what I’d said.
Then she looked me up and down, incredulous. “As tiny as you are,” she said, “you shouldn’t have been moving furniture on your own. You should’ve had some big strong guy moving it for you.” Simultaneously, she signed for her husband, keeping him in on the conversation.
Her sweet, open smile somehow pulled the whole story out of me. “I didn’t have a big strong guy around to help. My boyfriend had just moved out. I wanted to rearrange things in the house after he left. To get a new start.”
“Sorry to hear about your breakup,” she said. “How long were you and your boyfriend together?”
I’m a private person, not one to tell my personal business to a stranger. But somehow, my story kept rolling out of me. “Eight years, off and on. We were engaged twice. We kept breaking up and getting back together."
“So,” the woman said, “It’s probably not over. He’ll be back soon.” She chuckled, then added, “So, you can let him move the furniture.”
“No,” I said. “This time, we’re done for good. He met someone else, and he wants to see if he can make it work with her.”
The woman growled under her breath. “Men are such a**-holes. I hope you slam the door in his face when he comes crawling back to you.”
The sympathy from this total stranger warmed my heart. It seemed as if her incredible blue eyes saw me in a way that I hadn’t been seen in a long while.
“There’s no way I’ll let him back in,” I promised.
I figured I’d told her enough about my life, so I asked her a personal question. “How long have the two of you been married?”
The young woman’s smile widened. “Seven months,” she said, simultaneously signing for the benefit of her husband.
“Wow,” I said. “Newlyweds. Still madly in love.” Both of them nodded.
“I’m Janine,” the woman said. She placed her hand on her husband’s knee. “And this is Jeremy.” We’re Jeremy and Janine Hensley.”
“I’m Amanda,” I said, just before I got ushered into the chiropractor’s treatment room. “Amanda Cooper.”
Three days later, when I walked into the office for my follow-up appointment, I found the Hensleys sitting in the waiting room. Just as I lifted a hand to wave at them, the chiropractor came to get Jeremy. Janine stood up to speak with the doctor. “He’s doing a lot better,” she told him. “His pain level is way down.”
When the chiropractor ushered Jeremy into the treatment room, Janine came over to sit next to me.
“My husband is doing a lot better,” she reiterated. “How about you?”
“A little better,” I said. “But not a hundred percent yet.”
“Has your ex-boyfriend showed up again?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Nope. I haven’t heard a thing from him.”
Not wanting to delve back into the topic of my on-and-off relationship, I turned my focus to Janine’s marriage. “How did you and Jeremy meet?” I asked her.
“We met online,” she said. “About a year and a half ago. On a dating site for the hearing impaired. He’s from Oklahoma. As you can probably tell, he’s Native American.”
I nodded. “He’s really nice-looking,” I commented.
Janine laughed her joyful laugh. “Isn’t he though!” She stuck the tip of her tongue out of her mouth in a lascivious gesture. “I knew that I had to be with him the minute I saw his profile picture.”
“Did you learn sign language for him?” I asked, ready to be impressed by her nobility of character.
“Oh no,” she said. “I’ve known ASL all my life. My mother was deaf. And so was my sister. So, I grew up using sign language.”
“Is it hard to be married to someone who can’t hear?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “No, his being deaf isn’t the difficult part.”
“What is the difficult part, then?” I asked.
She gave a little snort. “It’s the usual bullshit you get when you’re in a relationship with a man. “The lying, the selfishness, the laziness. Him not listening to you. You know what I mean.”
I nodded, sympathizing.
“Even though a deaf person can’t hear,” she said, “they are still capable of listening. Jeremy just chooses not to listen.”
“I know all about that not listening bullshit,” I said.
We sat shoulder-to-shoulder, in silent commiseration with each other.
When Jeremy walked back into the waiting room, he and Janine exchanged a flurry of signed communication. “Just a minute, Honey,” she said aloud as she signed.
“Give me your phone number, Mandy,” she said. As I rattled off the digits, she entered them in her phone. Then she reached for my phone and promptly entered her number in it.
Since that day, Janine and I have been in almost daily contact. I never intended it to be that way between us. It just happened. The Universe must’ve decided that I needed a best friend. So, it put Janine Hensley in my path.
Sometimes, I feel a little smothered by her. She can be a lot. But if a day goes by and I don’t hear from her, I start to miss her.
After my first few times of hanging out with Janine and Jeremy, I realized that they argued constantly, their angry fingers flying, their beautiful faces contorted into ugly scowls. Janine would occasionally vent her frustration by shouting out things Jeremy couldn’t hear. “Why don’t you stop being such an idiot!” Or, “I don’t know why I married your stupid ass!” And, much worse.
Given how rocky things were in her marriage, I was dismayed when Janine started talking about adopting a child. “Jeremy and I want kids,” she said. “But with him being deaf and me having a deaf mother, we figured our chances of having a deaf child were pretty high. So, we decided to adopt a hearing-impaired child who needs a home.”
And so, they applied with an agency to adopt a special needs child, and in less than a year, eighteen-month-old Harley was placed in their home.
Janine and Jeremy split up just a few months after Harley’s adoption was finalized. On top of being fed up with their unending marital strife, Jeremy didn’t like Indiana. He moved back to his hometown in Oklahoma to be with his family. Other than the meager amount of child support garnished from his paycheck every month, he has nothing to do with his adopted son. So, Harley ended up becoming one hundred percent Janine’s responsibility.
Harley is a beautiful mixed-race child with olive skin, big brown eyes and soft black curls. During the time he and his adoptive parents were all together, they were a gorgeous multi-racial family. They turned heads everywhere they went. Janine has one professional photo of the three of them that was taken shortly after Harley’s adoption. She has it hanging in Harley’s bedroom. Although he has no memories of his adoptive father, I guess she thinks it might mean something to him someday. Looking at it makes me sad.
This crazy little birthday party is being held in a room here at the Holiday Inn, where the birthday boy and his parents are going to spend the night. They have decorated the room in a jungle theme, a child’s fantasy world. I don’t think Harley has ever seen anything like it. He’s overexcited by all the visual stimuli. He wants to touch everything. Janine isn’t paying enough attention to what her child is doing. I guess it’s up to me to keep an eye on him. Otherwise, this place is going to get wrecked.
He's pulled a few things off the walls already, and I can tell the birthday boy’s mother is getting irritated. After Harley’s adoption, Janine unceremoniously pronounced me his godmother. I’ve never known what that job entails. But maybe it means I need to step in when things start getting out of hand.
I’ve had a lot of misgivings about Harley’s adoption. I often wonder whether he would’ve had a better chance in life if he’d been adopted by a more stable family, one who had more to offer him. Janine had listed me as a character reference on her adoption application, and I wrote her and Jeremy a glowing letter of recommendation. Which wasn’t entirely true. So, I feel guilty now, as if I bear some responsibility for this mess.
Harley grabs a carboard figure of a monkey, and I can see he’s about to pull off its tail. I grab the hand holding the tail and squeeze it a little, trying to get him to release his grasp. He gives a guttural utterance of displeasure, which gets his mother’s attention.
“What’s going on here?” she asks, clearly thinking I’m the one who is out of hand.
“Harley was about to tear up this monkey,” I tell her, defending myself.
Janine looks her son in the eye, riveting him with a stern gaze. “You need to stop!” she says, speaking as she signs. She’s trying to teach him to lip-read.
Harley is settling down. I can’t help but think that he could be a well-behaved child if his mother would just stay on top of things.
Now, the cupcakes are being served. Enormous cupcakes piled high with frosting and topped with candy decorations. Harley is the first child to grab one, and he wolfs it down. He has frosting all over his face and down the front of his shirt. Now, he’s going in for a second one.
As he wrestles his way through the cluster of children at the cupcake table, he tries to grab a third one. I elbow Janine. “You need to do something with Harley,” I say. “He’s eating too many cupcakes.”
She looks at me as if she thinks I’m stupid. “It’s okay for him to have seconds,” she says.
“But this is thirds,” I tell her.
“I don’t think so,” she says. “I’ve only seen him take two.”
You weren’t watching, I want to say. She’s been too busy using her incredible blue eyes to cast a spell on the one single dad at the party.
Janine lets Harley eat whatever he wants, which is way too much sugar. The poor little guy is already overweight. At six years old, he’s pushing eighty pounds. I’m afraid he’s heading for diabetes.
I’ve tried to talk to Janine about Harley’s overeating. She gets huffy when she thinks I’m criticizing her parenting, especially because I don’t have children of my own. Her logic is that because her son is missing out on the sense of hearing, she doesn’t want to deprive him of enjoying other sensory experiences, such as taste. “He’ll never be able to listen to music or hear the sound of his mother’s voice,” she tells me to justify her overindulgent parenting.
I look at it differently, of course. Harley doesn’t need the disadvantages of health problems and obesity on top of his hearing impairment. But there’s no arguing with Janine.
But I do have to give my friend credit where credit is due. Janine has done an awesome job of teaching Harley ASL. For a six-year-old, he’s amazingly proficient in that method of communication.
She’ll be sending him to deaf school in the fall. It’s right here in Indianapolis, which is fortunate for her. Still, it will be a lengthy daily drive to get him there. But she’ll do it. Whenever I have a day off work, I’ll give her a break and take Harley to school myself. It’s the least I can do for her.
Thankfully, this party has moved out to the hotel’s swimming pool. I’m relieved. There’s not as much for Harley to get into out here. It should be a safe place for him to burn off his sugar rush.
Harley is jumping up and down in his eagerness to get into the pool with the other children. Before turning him loose, Janine looks her son in the eye and speaks and signs the words, “You be good.”
Most of the mothers have put on their swimsuits and are sitting on the edge of the pool, their feet dangling in the water, ready to intervene if any of the children get out of hand. Janine forgot to bring her swimsuit, and she didn’t think to tell me to bring one. So, we’re sitting here on patio chairs alongside the pool.
The single dad has gotten into the pool and is roughhousing with his son. Janine can’t keep her eyes off him. Clearly, the guy works out, as he has impressive biceps and a six-pack. Janine keeps muttering comments about his body. “Let me know if I start drooling,” she laughs. She reaches for the beach towel she brought for Harley and pretends to wipe copious amounts of drool off her face.
Harley is getting wild in the pool, annoying the other children and aggravating other hotel patrons who are trying to enjoy the pool. My heart breaks for him. He has such a hard time fitting in. I know this is going to be a lifelong battle for him.
Another child gets fed up with Harley and splashes water in his face. Harley starts to cry. He climbs out of the pool and walks toward his mother, whimpering.
“He looks exhausted,” I tell Janine.
“That’s the way he acts when he eats a lot of sugar,” she says. “He gets really hyper, and then he crashes.”
Harley tugs on his mother’s arm. It seems he wants to sit on her lap.
“You have to dry yourself off before I can hold you,” she speaks and signs. She points to the beach towel, which is lying on the small table between our chairs.
Harley is shivering. Water is beaded on his shoulders, arms, and fat little belly. Janine signs again, pointing to the towel. Harley appears to be too exhausted to even pick up the towel.
He looks at me, his eyes pleading. I want to say something to him, but I don’t know very many ASL signs. So, I beckon to him, and he comes to me. I pick up the towel and dry him off, then wrap it around his shoulders. His lower lip quivers. I can see that he’s on the verge of sobbing. He stretches his arms out, like a baby who wants to be picked up. I ease him onto my lap. He lays his head against my shoulder. It feels strangely satisfying to wrap my arms around this little butterball. I caress his chubby cheek with my fingertip.
My phone rumbles. I extend one arm to retrieve it from the table. Apparently missing the comfort of that arm around him, Harley snuggles in closer. I wrap my arm around him again and hold my phone out in front of me to check the text I just received.
I’m shocked. It’s from Rodney. “Crisis is over,” he’s written. “My daughter is back with her mother. Is it too late to meet me for a drink?”
“Sorry,” I text him. “I’m busy. I made other plans after you canceled.”
“Bummer,” he texts. “I was looking forward to seeing you again. Maybe we can get together tomorrow or Sunday.”
We’ll see. I’m not getting my hopes up. I set my phone down, then pull the towel snugly around Harley again.
Janine looks over at me and smiles. “Motherhood looks good on you, Mandy,” she says. “You need a kid of your own. Have you made that appointment to talk with your doctor about getting your eggs frozen?”
Janine and I had a conversation about freezing eggs a couple of weeks ago. It was just an idea. Not something I was serious about.
I shake my head. “I don’t know about that,” I say. “I’m not sure that’s something I really want to do.”
“You’re never sure about anything, Mandy,” Janine chortles. “Your middle name should be, I-don’t-know. Amanda I-Don’t-Know Cooper. Girl, you need to learn to make decisions. All kinds of opportunities can pass you by while you’re trying to make up your mind. I’m telling you that you’d better freeze those eggs while you still have eggs left to freeze. You’re going to be forty before you know it.”
She drops the subject, and I’m relieved. I see that she’s watching the single dad again. Apparently, his little boy is a good swimmer, as he has him in the deep end. He helps his son do a fancy flip off the side of the pool, which creates a splash that sends water all the way over to where we are sitting.
Janine gives a little shriek when the water hits her. The single dad glances over at her, smiles, then mouths the word, “Sorry.”
“Did you see what his kid did?” she says. She laughs joyfully as she wipes water droplets off her face. “That was awesome!”
Despite my frustration with her, one thing I can count on is that spending time with Janine always lifts my spirits. I laugh along with her.
And just now, it hits me. There are no perfect circumstances in life, no perfect choices. Only perfect moments. Sitting here with my screwed-up friend with the joyful laugh, while I cradle her unfortunate child in my arms.... Well, this is one of those moments, for sure. As perfect a moment as life will ever give me.