“It’s a meat market, Amber.”
My roommate’s face in the mirror looks a little hurt, because I’m complaining about church.
I’m in her room, tying one of my gym shoes, while she adds a little more curl to her long hair. I have a date with a treadmill. She has an actual date.
“The whole YSA ward thing’s a meat market, or just the pool party?” she asks calmly, not interrupting her work.
“The whole thing. The pool party itself is like the meat market’s huge Labor Day sidewalk sale.”
“Having a separate congregation for young single adults isn’t just about marrying us off,” she says, parroting the official line. It’s familiar, but I listen anyway. She always listens to me. “We get more opportunities for leadership and service, and the activities and programs can focus on our needs and interests.”
I cinch up the other shoe. “Plus we don’t have to go to church with all those women who have husbands and babies already, and be reminded that we don’t,” I add helpfully. Sort of helpfully.
“We don’t yet.” Amber’s an optimist.
“Right. Sorry. I shouldn’t complain. Again.”
She glances at me, smiling faintly, and turns back to the mirror. “It’s okay. I know you like it less than I do. But you’re still giving it a chance for a while, right?”
“Yeah.” I wish I could remove the cynicism from my tone for her sake, but it doesn’t work that way. “Let’s review. The first Sunday we went to church here, two guys asked you out. Last Sunday, two more. Plus they’ve already put you to work in the ward. I’m happy for you. I really am. Meanwhile, nobody even noticed I was there. Tomorrow will be our third Sunday, with more of the same. In the grand meat market scheme of things, you’re prime steak, and I’m day-old, marked-down stew meat.”
She stops working and stares at my reflection. Her eyebrows are knit, and the little smile is gone. I’m criticizing her friend – me. She takes that personally.
I join her at the mirror. “I don’t resent you for it. You’re beautiful and sweet. I’m cranky and cynical. And my butt’s too big.”
“Shel-ly.” She draws out my name. “You’re not always cranky. And even if you were stew meat, which you’re not, people like stews. Including, you know, guys. But you’re not stew meat. My family raises beef, so I should know, right?”
Our freezer’s half full of beef from her family’s ranch. The good stuff. When the supply dwindles, they bring us more.
I have to smile. She’s my best friend, even after two years of rooming together. We’re on our third apartment. “Then I’m a rump roast.”
“Rump’s a good roast,” she says. “But we’re talking about steak. There’s lots of different kinds, including some with better flavor than the cuts everyone knows.”
I’m feeling conciliatory. “What’s a cut that’s kind of tough but tastes good?”
“There’s round steak. You have to cook it just right and slice it thin and at an angle, or it’s tough.”
“Do we ever have that?”
“No.” She smiles. “Dad brings us the fancier cuts. I could ask for some. I love London broil.”
“Okay, so round steak could be me on good days. Tough, and be sure to slice me thin. And I have to be at the right angle. Other days, I’m rump roast, for the obvious matching pair of reasons.”
She turns to face me. “If it’s bad for them to treat us like cuts of meat, how is it okay for you? And stop saying your butt’s too big.”
She doesn’t say it’s not, just that I should stop saying it is. She’s not blind. Her eyes are big now, like she fears an outburst or something.
I shrug. “Maybe it’s not okay.”
“It’s not. Remember that at the pool party next Saturday.”
“Oh, yippee,” I say dryly.
“It’ll be fun.”
If I wasn’t whining already, I am now. “I get that a lot of us are new, and they want us to get acquainted, but this is church. Does it really have to start with how we look in swimwear?”
She unplugs her curling iron and sets it down. “I think we wanted to pick an activity people would come to.”
“All you need for that is food and publicity. But the activities committee, quite naturally, is filled with people who look good in swimsuits, including you. People who think pool parties are great fun. What about the rest of us?”
“Good question,” she says softly. “You could wear something else and not swim.”
“That could happen. I still don’t have a suit.”
“Let’s go shopping again,” she says with more enthusiasm than I ever feel for clothes shopping.
“We tried that. Eighteen stores, was it?”
“It was seven. Some of the suits you tried were pretty nice.”
“I need the one I wore freshman year for water aerobics.”
“Where is it?” she asks. “Does it still fit?”
“It should, but it’s in Nebraska. Let’s go there instead of the party.”
“Let’s call your Mom and have her send it, so you can wear it to the party.”
Her brown, puppy dog eyes win the day. I nod. “I’ll call after the gym.”
“How about now, before the gym?” No pushover, my friend Amber. She gets her way gently, but she gets her way. I call, and Mom promises to send it today.
Amber’s delighted. “So you’re coming?”
“If it gets here in time and still fits, and if I still like me in it – at all – I might come.”
She gives me a squeeze. “That’s good enough for now.”
She may be right – about it being good enough. My old emerald green one-piece flatters my chest without making my butt look any bigger than necessary. I’m not sure the color matters, but we didn’t find a suit of any color in our shopping that flattered me that way. I know it’s not entirely the suits’ fault.
I’m eager to change the subject. “Who’s today’s date?”
“Brian, but he introduced himself as Adam. It was cute. I mean, I guess it was a pickup line, but I liked it. He said, ‘Hi, I’m Adam. I saw you and thought you might be Eve.’”
I facepalm. “Oh, Amber!”
She looks hurt. I’m not looking, but I hear it in her voice. “Are you thinking I’m dumb now too?”
I’ve never thought that, but it’s been a sore point since her high school reunion last weekend. A former classmate who just started some third-tier law school had to say, “Elementary Ed? Really? We always thought you were smarter than that.”
Amber’s barely twenty-three. She graduated high school early and raced through her teaching degree, with an eighteen-month break for a church mission. Now she’s living her dream. She just started her second year teaching first-graders.
I un-facepalm. “Not even close. I’m thinking you’re way too smart to fall for a line like that.”
“I didn’t fall for it. I don’t care that much about his pickup line. He seems nice.”
This time I give her a squeeze. “I don’t know what you get out of our friendship, but you’re really good for me.”
Her smile is back, radiant and sweet. “Aww. What do you mean?”
“You’re like sunshine to my dark clouds.”
“You’re not all dark clouds.”
“Also, you’re a teacher. You work for the angels. I serve the devil.”
She chuckles. “Marketing’s not serving the devil. Go to the gym already. Exercise cheers you up. I’d go with you, but … you know.”
I let go. “On my way. Have a nice lunch.”
Not for the first time, as I walk out the door, I think there’s a really lucky roomful of first graders at her school.
I’m at the gym – speaking of meat markets – on one of 56 identical treadmills with “Life Fitness” scrawled in a pseudo-handwritten font across their control panels. It’s my usual routine: stretch, warm up, 30 minutes at 10 degrees elevation and 3.5 miles per hour, then warm down and stretch again.
I’ve forgotten my over-the-ear headphones, and my phone battery’s down to six percent. I can’t even read an e-book on it for the next half hour. And there’s nothing on the TVs worth watching without audio. That leaves watching the people in front of me – and that means watching their butts.
I’m in the second row of treadmills. In the first row, in front of me, are a woman, a girl, and a man. In front of them, elevated on four stair-steppers for optimal visibility, are three women and a man.
We won’t think about the people behind me. I should stick to the last row of treadmills as a public service.
I’m not totally obsessed with butts, but I used to be, starting when I was fourteen and began noticeably putting the “max” in gluteus maximus. Now I’m only occasionally obsessed. Like before pool parties I can’t avoid.
I have the butt and hips of a generously curvy woman at least six feet tall. On a bad day I think it might be 6’8”. The problem is, I’m two inches shorter than Amber, and she’s only 5’4”.
As every civilized gym-goer knows, “eyes in front” is the unspoken rule. So I watch Stairstepper Three, a gorgeous twenty-something with pretty brown hair falling straight to her shoulder blades. She’s in a navy-blue long-sleeve t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up a little. It’s not tight anywhere, and it’s loose enough around her waist that it bunches at her hips with casual perfection.
She must be six feet tall, but the curvy six-footer I would be, if my height even tried to fit my width, is the opposite of her. She’s trim, with just enough hip and butt to look completely fantastic. My supermax rear would be a crime of nature on her, compelling proof that there is no God, or that he/she/it is outright malicious.
But clearly there is a God. He’s a gifted sculptor who totally rocks as a minimalist.
I watch her move. Her leggings are as tight as her shirt is loose. They’d show every line and jiggle, if there were any. Teenage me would have died of jealousy already, even before I could hate her properly. I hated a lot back then. At least I’m over that.
She hitches up her shirt and puts her hands on her hips. It’s almost breathtaking. And I’m straight, so this is aesthetic, not sexual. That’s why I watch her instead of Stairstepper Four. His loose gray shirt and black shorts don’t need to be tight to show off a pretty nice physique. If I watched his butt for more than, say, ten seconds, I might have inappropriate thoughts. So I don’t.
Stairstepper Two, to the left of Perfect Three, is in tight gray shorts and black leggings. Her pink halter top doesn’t seem daring but shows off some nice shoulders. She’s curvier than Three, but her hips are still much smaller than mine, and she’s probably 5’8”. Her butt doesn’t approach the utter perfection to her right, but it’s respectable.
To her left, Stairstepper One is about 5’6” and looks fit, with a nice butt and ample curves – but still noticeably less ample than mine. She’s pretty enough, but she won’t get a second glance from guys, when she’s next to Two or anywhere in the same ZIP code as Three.
I’m still not watching Stairstepper Four. Nice haircut, not long. Excellent biceps. No visible tattoos. Good chin. I wouldn’t mind seeing his eyes, but I’m behind him. And my ten seconds are up.
I keep returning to Three. Eyes in front.
Between the stairstepper row and me, I make Treadmill One as mid-thirties or better, and Treadmill Two is clearly her teenage daughter. They have the same face and the same blond hair with dark roots, even the same ponytail. The mom’s in a modest, medium blue sleeveless shirt, but I can tell she has a generous chest, almost my size but a little lower – probably an age thing – and she’s at least 5’7”.
Her ankle-length sweats aren’t skin-tight, but they’re revealing enough. When she pauses her treadmill and bends over to adjust her shoe, I have to conclude she has a good butt. It’s close to my size, and just right for the rest of her curves. There’s some jiggling in her thighs and some extra weight around her waist, but not much. If I look that good at her age, after at least one pregnancy, I’ll be awfully lucky.
I don’t watch Treadmill Three at all. By the time I get to him, I’ve realized Treadmill One and Two are his wife and daughter, respectively. He’s in great shape, but I won’t knowingly drill my gaze into the butt cheeks of another woman’s husband. Besides, he looks like he’s pushing fifty.
Stairstepper Three – Perfect Three – is the last of the seven to leave, after almost half an hour.
I finish too. On my way out, at the other end of the treadmill section, I see some competition for Perfect Three. I designate her Treadmill Four. She has a pretty green shirt, black leggings, and long, black, amazing hair with shampoo-commercial shine, cascading down past her waist. She looks a lot like Three, but curvier.
Near the front desk, still on my way out, I see the same girl, almost, but blonde and in stylish purple and silver spandex, with a buff trophy guy at her side.
Then there’s me, in the mirrors near the front doors. I don’t compare well to Treadmill Four or her doppleganger, but I keep fit, and I have a waist. My black shirt, shorts, and leggings don’t betray me too badly. And I regularly thank whatever gods there be, or maybe it’s genetics, for endowing me with an excellent chest. Anything smaller, paired with my expansive rear, and I’d look like a total freak.
Amber’s right. I’m not all dark clouds. I almost smile. Difficult as it is to accept, the truth here is inoffensive enough. I’m not freakishly beautiful, but I’m not a complete aberration in the other direction. I look pretty good, even on a typical Saturday at the gym. Even without my magic green swimsuit.
Another basic truth is, I need a guy. Please, God? I’m already twenty-five.
I half-snort, half-giggle. You’d think my butt’s gravity alone would attract –
I imagine another hurt look from Amber and try again.
I need a good guy who thinks my curves are beautiful and sexy. And, of course, loves me for my sharp mind, delightful wit, and intermittently pleasing personality.
I watch myself produce a wry smile. Would I tell him before, during, or after the honeymoon about spending my afternoon watching women’s butts at the gym? How does a girl start that conversation? “Honey, we’re both eager for you to ravish me, but before this goes any further, you need to know the history of my butt.”
Someone’s coming, so I move on. In the parking lot I relax for a minute in my Hyundai. Then my phone rings. It’s down to two percent.
“Hi, honey. Having a good afternoon?”
“Just finished at the gym.”
I know what she’d say if I told her I’d been studying butts. Obsessing on my butt, and therefore other women’s butts, like I did as a teenager, is not healthy. She’d ask how she could help. Another therapist, maybe?
Because that worked so well before. Because my big butt is all in my head.
I shift in my seat.
Not. Anyway, she’s already helping.
“Only have a minute, but I found your swimsuit. Sent it Priority, so probably by Thursday. I’d forgotten how pretty it is. Quite modest for a swimsuit. Doorbell. Hang on.”
In fact, my suit is about as modest a one-piece as a girl would want to wear after, say, 1960 or so. The thing is, it flatters me like nothing else I’ve ever worn. I should wear it at my hypothetical future wedding.
It will still fit next week. Odds are I won’t have enough of an excuse to skip the pool party. And maybe that’s okay.
At church they said there are about 120 girls and 100 guys in my YSA ward. We’re all out of high school, and none of us is over thirty. I don’t know most of them, because Amber and I just moved from the next town over, and most of the younger ones just arrived for the new school year anyway.
It’s true that encouraging marriage isn’t the only reason my church makes special congregations for young singles. It’s harder that way for us to slip through the cracks and drift away, which people my age pretty much do in droves anyway. But marrying us off is the most celebrated goal.
For me, getting acquainted isn’t a bad idea. I want to marry eventually, so I need to be around single guys and practice not repelling them. And since the surest route to a guy’s heart and brain – except food, perhaps – begins with his eyeballs, my green swimsuit may help.
What I did buy, when Amber and I went shopping, was a nice off-white, sheerish wrap to wear over a suit when I’m not swimming. It has the desired effect without interfering too much with certain other desired effects.
“I’m back,” Mom says. “I sent it to your office. Less likely to get stolen that way. It probably still fits, right?”
“Yup. You’re totally the best Mom I ever had.”
“You know it. And you’re welcome. Send me a picture.”
“I probably won’t.”
“Whatever. Gotta run.”
For a few days I’m too busy with work, mostly, to think much about swimsuits and large body parts, even when I’m at the gym first thing in the mornings. Thursday morning’s a little different; the thought that my green swimsuit will arrive today cheers me all the way to the treadmill. The mood lingers as I start my workout, dial up my daily podcast of industry news, and lock into work world.
By the time Amber’s home from parent-teacher conferences that evening, I’ve nibbled a light dinner, because I’m fooling myself that a regular dinner would show when I model my swimsuit for her. The still-unopened box from Mom is on our kitchen table, and I’ve retreated to my room with something I didn’t even imagine, let alone own, when I left for work this morning. I hear the front door open and wonder how long I have just to admire myself in the mirror.
It’s a few minutes before she calls, “Knock, knock. I’m opening your door.”
Hinges squeak, and I turn toward her. She’s holding my green swimsuit and looking at it, not me, as she enters.
“I had to open your box, which I think is a federal crime. I love this!” She double-takes. “Holy crap, Shelly! That’s gorgeous! You look amazing! New dress, or did your mom send it too?”
“I went shopping at lunch. To celebrate.” To myself I sound almost dazed. I’m not used to looking this good. Or shopping for clothes, when I can avoid it.
“What are we celebrating?”
While I tell her about the big, old client I didn’t know needed saving, but I saved them anyway, and my raise and bonus and promotion, she turns me this way and that, commenting as much to herself as to me. “Surplice neckline. I don’t have the chest for this, but you sure do. Tea length, rosette. Half-sleeves. The navy’s just right. The waist is perfect for your shape, since you’re so in shape.”
Her tone changes. Now she’s talking to me. “Honey, how did this happen?”
“Their CMO told our VP that I communicate, I don’t blow smoke up their skirts when I don’t know something, I spell the company name correctly every time – believe it or not, that was an issue before – I see the whole picture, and I know what I’m doing. Oh, and they like my sense of humor. They were shopping for another agency, but they’re not anymore. It’s a big save. So I am now Digital Marketing Supervisor, which might be a little grander than it sounds.”
“Sounds great to me. Congratulations! But I meant, how did this dress happen? And really, it’s not just the dress. You’re beautiful. Are these the tags?” She picks them up from my dresser. “Okay, Dillard’s. Two hundred fifteen dollars? Good thing you got a bonus. You actually went shopping?”
“I found the right section at Dillard’s, told the lady I wanted to look fantastic, in a work-safe sort of say, and asked if she had anything that might achieve that. She looked at me from ten different angles and said, and I quote, ‘I have something we should try. You might just pull it off.’ Long story short, she may have a customer for life.”
Amber has a conspiratorial smile. “How big’s the raise? And the bonus?”
“Ten thousand and two thousand, respectively. I should pay two-thirds of our rent after this, if not seventy percent.” We’re at 60-40 now, because our incomes are so different. “I want to. Please?”
“That’s not why I asked, but thank you. I was wondering how much you can shop on your own before your head explodes.”
“Maybe a little more now,” I said. “Is this modest enough for church?”
She turns me to face her and pokes out her lips while she considers my question.
“Yes,” she says.
“Do I get more than one word?”
“It doesn’t show any actual cleavage. It’s pretty obvious that it’s hiding some, which is part of why it works so well, but it’s not showing. It has sleeves and shoulders and a back, and it’s long enough. So yes, it’s fine for church. And before you ask me if it makes your butt look big, because you always do, it’s perfect in that department. I’m a little jealous. No way could I look this good in this dress. I don’t have the curves.”
“You’re jealous of me? Are we laying it on a little thick?” I ask, but I’m grinning.
“Don’t pretend you don’t believe me, for once. You’re radiant. It’s not just the dress.”
I nod. “Unbelievable as it sounds, yeah. I believe you. This time.”
She hugs me, then practically dances toward the door. “Put on the swimsuit while I make myself a little salad. Wait. Were you done telling me about your amazing workday?”
“The CMO told his team, ‘In Shelly we trust.’ Ann the VP said she might put that on a plaque or something.”
“Know what? My salad can wait.” She hands me the old green swimsuit. “Tell me more.”
Three minutes later I’m turning this way and that, again, but I’m a little more self-conscious. When she pronounces judgment, I believe her. Again.
“Honey, at least half the straight guys at the party will think you’re sexy. The ones with taste. It still won’t be the suit, but it doesn’t hurt.”
All the straight guys will think she’s sexy, but I’m okay with that. I don’t need them all. I don’t even want them all.
I change into sweats and a t-shirt and look at the other things Mom sent – junk mail, chocolate, girly soaps – while Amber nibbles absently at her salad. I’ve watched her for maybe half a minute when she stops and looks up at me. Her smile is strained.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“Do I seem sad?” She’s genuinely curious. “I was trying not to. It’s such a happy day.”
“You do, a little. What’s wrong?”
“You won’t be angry and call me spoiled?”
“Have I ever been angry and called you spoiled?”
“No.” She takes a deep breath. “I am sad. About something else. I’m really happy for you tonight.”
“So why are you sad, and how can I help?”
“Okay. So. Three Sundays at church. Four dates, four different guys. Another tomorrow night. All of them kind of eye candy, you know? But there’s not much going on in their heads, and I have doubts about their hearts too. Like whether they have hearts.”
She’s rarely so negative about people. This is serious.
“They only care how I look,” she says. “Not who I am inside.”
“Did one of them hurt you? I’ll kill him. Was it Adam?”
“No. What hurts is there’s nothing there. I attract emptiness. I know I sound ungrateful. You haven’t had a date here yet, which is another reason to think these guys may not have souls. And I’m starting to agree about the meat market. All they want is a decent steak. What if they’re scaring away the better guys? Or I am somehow? If there are any better guys.”
“Amber, you’re the best cut of steak, whatever that is. USDA Prime.”
She looks hurt. “It’s all just meat.”
“Let me finish. If they can’t see you’re amazing on the inside too, and they don’t love that even more, they’re shallow. Overgrown children. Losers.”
“I could be all kinds of amazing inside, and they’ll never see it.”
“You are all kinds of amazing inside. Sooner or later we’ll discover some real men, and they’ll find you irresistible for all the right reasons, and you’ll forget about the pretty boys you’ve been dating.”
A faint smile flickers and dies. “Maybe. Where do you suppose we’ll find these real men?”
On Saturday we arrive at the party early, because Amber’s on the activities committee. I offer to help, but they’re already overstaffed. So I stake my claim to a deck chair and head for the pool, before it gets crowded. I’m in my green swimsuit, looking good. I’m a successful marketing professional, sought after by people who love my work and my sense of humor and don’t care at all about my butt.
Guys begin to gather around Amber. That’s normal. I’m a tiny bit jealous but mostly worried. She’s been kind of sad since Thursday night, and her date last night didn’t help – and none of these guys looks like a philosopher.
We’re at somebody’s parents’ place in the foothills, and it’s spectacular. Behind their mansion is their own little box canyon, where steep sandstone walls shade an Olympic-size pool with a wide patio around it, and beautiful landscaping around that. The built-in grill is nearly as big as our kitchen. Matching deck chairs line three sides of the pool. They all recline and have cushions for your head. I can’t imagine having this much money.
The canyon walls might lean slightly inward – I’m not sure – but I’m not claustrophobic. The acoustics are incredibly live, almost like an indoor pool. Amber says they have music recitals here.
The acoustics are squirrelly too. I soon discover that, from a certain corner of the pool, I can hear people talking clearly in some of the seats across the pool. For a while I look for another spot, where I can eavesdrop on Amber and her gaggle. I want to hear how they treat her. But no such luck.
I tread water in the magic corner for a minute and listen to four guys. They’re looking my way, more or less, so I can’t stare long enough to see who’s saying what.
“Target-rich environment,” one says. “See anything you like?”
“You mean anyone? Don’t be a jerk,” says another.
“He can’t help it,” says a third.
“Anyone, if that makes you happy,” says the jerk.
“Too many blondes here,” says a fourth voice. “Wonder how many are real.”
“I’m not picky about hair color,” says the jerk. “I need curves. Serious curves. Curves that need to be posted, or they’ll wreck you.”
“Do all the curves have to be real?” one of them asks.
I’m all for guys liking curves, especially real ones, but I can only listen to meat market shoppers for so long before my mind wanders. Then again, it doesn’t wander very far.
What if I’d caught a few guys’ attention before I got into the pool, and they preferred dark hair and major curves, and they were watching me and hoping I’d get out soon? Not that it would ever happen, but what if it did?
Something in my head would say I should be offended. They’d be interested in my body, not my delightful personality, my blossoming career, etc. But what if I ignored that voice and obeyed the one that whispered to wait ten seconds, then give them a show? Ten-Mississippi, nine-Mississippi, eight-Mississippi …
One-Mississippi. It’s time to get out anyway.
I reach the side of the pool, put my hands on the edge, lift myself up, and hold that position with my arms extended for a few seconds. Then I raise my left leg, put my foot up on the edge, and casually climb out of the pool. I change my mind, turn around, and sit at the edge, dangling my feet in the water.
I’m at the fringe of the acoustic sweet spot. The four guys’ voices are muffled but still audible.
“Over there,” one says. “Near the corner, just got out of the pool. Green suit.”
“I know. I’m watching,” says the jerk. “And yearning.”
I don’t stop to think. I lean back, arms extended behind me, with my palms flat on the concrete.
“Dangerous enough for you?” asks the first guy.
“Holy tabernacles, Batman! I could totally marry that for time and all eternity.”
“Yeah, you’re a pig. She’s a she, not a that. A daughter of God.”
“Too chunky for me,” one says. “Some of those curves should be continued on the next daughter of God.”
I can’t say I haven’t thought that about myself.
“You’re a pig too,” says my defender. Without being too obvious, I try to see which one he is, but I can’t tell.
“The God who made that must really love his sons,” says the jerk. “Think I’ll go say hi. Maybe I should call the temple and schedule a wedding first.”
“A pig like you? They probably won’t let you near the temple.”
I want to hear more, but I probably can’t act natural if I stay, so I stand up and walk away. I feel their eyes on me – some admiring, some not. By the time I’ve reached my deck chair, donned my wrap, spread my towel over my legs to dry, and put on my sunglasses so I can study the guys across the pool, I might be blushing all the way to my toes.
They look young and preppy, and none of them is on his way to meet me yet. Probably not my type anyway. Probably twenty and just off their two-year missions, with some serious growing up to do in the real world.
But I will have to thank Mom again, for sending my suit.
When their heads turn in unison to follow a pretty redhead, I twist myself to the left in my chair, so I can adjust my suit a bit at the rear. I love the feel of the fabric, so I pause for a few seconds with my hand on my butt.
Yes, there’s plenty of me there. But the package looks okay today.
That – of course – is when I hear a guy’s voice from my right, sort of behind my behind, under the circumstances. “Pardon me. Is this seat taken?”
I blush at the double entendre – it has to be accidental – but mostly because my hand is where it is, as he can plainly see. I remove it, straighten out, and look up at him. Maybe he’ll think my face is sunburned.
He smiles, which is nice, and I recognize him. He spoke in church last Sunday, and he was very good. Which means half the girls in the ward now have a crush on him. A totally pure, doctrinally sound, very spiritual crush, of course.
I’m suddenly aware that there are plenty of empty chairs and lots of pretty girls around, but he wants to sit next to me. I smile at him. “Be my guest.”
He’s dark-haired, shorter than average height (which I like), and stocky but not chubby. He resembles the sweet Italian boyfriend-turned-husband in my favorite movie, Brooklyn. The one who loves the baseball team and the sweet, clever Irish girl.
I watch him sit. It’s not like he’s wearing a speedo at a church thing. In fact, he’s in khaki knee-length shorts and a polo shirt. But definitely callipygian. If he has a brain and a heart, like he seemed to on Sunday …
“I’m Adam,” he says, and my heart crashes to the concrete.
“And you saw me and thought I might be Eve? You guys need better pickup lines.”
“No,” he says patiently. “My name’s really Adam.”
“That’s not what the sacrament meeting program said. That was you, right?”
“They used my first name, Philip. I go by my middle name. And did you hear me use a pickup line?”
He has a point. “So you didn’t go out with Amber Nilsson this week?”
“I don’t know anyone named Amber,” he says. “Why?”
“Some guy used the Adam and Eve line on her. She’s my roommate. But his real name was Brad or Brian or something. Seriously, couldn’t he look at least a little further into the Old Testament for his material?”
“Like Isaac and Rebekah?”
I pick a name at random, which is a mistake. “Or Solomon.”
He gives me a mischievous little smile. “That could be fun. ‘Hi, I’m Solomon. May I sing about you? Do you want to see my really big, uh, temple?’”
My unladylike snort makes him grin.
“You’re the one who made that comment in Sunday School, right?” he asks. “The one most of the class disagreed with?”
I know the one he means. “About how it doesn’t make sense to think however we’re born is perfect, because God doesn’t make our bodies, our parents’ genes do?”
“Yeah. I thought it was smart – and brave. Anyway, I’m Adam. You’re probably not Eve. If you are, that’s okay. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Adam. Most people call me Shelly. Short for Rachel. Well, not short, exactly.”
He chuckles. “Rachel? You’re kidding.”
“What’s so funny?”
“As in Jacob and Rachel? Speaking of the Old Testament.”
“My last name’s Isaacson. They got that right in the program. Isaacson, and my mom’s Rebecca. Think about it.”
He’s reaching a little, but Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah, married Rachel. I don’t know whether to laugh or wince. I force a smile.
“Then it’s fate. I’m to marry your brother Jacob. Will I have to bear all twelve sons myself, do you think, or will he have other wives to help me, like the original Jacob did? I’d prefer to be the first, but I suppose we could negotiate. Shouldn’t your name be Esau?”
He laughs heartily, and sincerely, I think. “My only brother, Jim, has one wife and one little daughter,” he finally says. “I’ll introduce you if you want, but don’t get your hopes up. Besides, Holly might kill you. And him. And me.”
“Well, if he has the wrong name …” I concede. “Why aren’t you dressed for a pool party?” I kind of want to see him in swim trunks, preferably without a shirt.
“Cut my leg the other day, working on my sister’s car. Seventeen stitches’ worth of stupidity. Can’t swim for about a month.”
“Youch. I’m sorry. But hey, you had a perfect excuse, and you’re here anyway.”
“It’s a ward activity. The whole thing has a meat market vibe, maybe, but the food looks good.” He grimaces. “Sorry. The actual food.”
“Thought I might look into that, when I’m done swimming.” I check the pool. It’s way too crowded now. “Which I probably am.”
“Can I bring you something?” he asks.
“You can come with me.”
“Best offer I’ve had all day,” he says.
“How many offers have you had today? I’ll save our seats with my towel.”
I stand up and spread my towel across both chairs, nudging them closer in the process.
I consider taking off my wrap. As in, holy crap, I’m trying to be meat.
“Good idea,” he says. It takes me a second to realize he means the towel, not my unuttered thoughts about the wrap. It stays on. “Sorry about the meat market crack,” he adds. “Hope I didn’t offend you.”
We head for the food.
“You kidding? I had the whole meat market discussion with Amber this week, not for the first time. She’s prime steak, by the way. At least a ribeye.”
“If she’s a ribeye, what kind of steak are you?”
I’m still not used to thinking I look good. I answer out of habit. “Compared to her, I’m hamburger.”
We’re at the food table now, and I’m reaching for the buns – no, the hamburger buns, I tell myself – when he holds up a patty with the tongs. He looks back and forth between it and me, kind of checking me out in the process. “Nope. Not hamburger.”
“Then what?” I almost suggest rump roast.
“Have to think about that. Lots of different kinds of steak. All good, if you cook them right.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“First thing I did in my new apartment was get a good grill and a heavy cast iron skillet. Before furniture, even. I’m getting pretty good.” He grinned. “I practice a lot. And I share, so my roommates like it.”
“This isn’t just a really awful metaphor, is it?”
“It’s an actual grill. I mean, half the time I just make burgers or hot dogs, and I’m not crazy about brats, but in between it’s steak, fish, chicken. Or a good pork chop.”
“Doesn’t sound like a student budget.”
“It’s not. Been there, done that. Now I work for a living. Worked then too, but you know.”
Twenty minutes later, we’re still sitting on our deck chairs. I spear the last chunk of cantaloupe on my plate. I’m actively trying not to look at him for a whole minute. I’ve been looking a lot, as we chat, and I think my eyes are starting to betray me. They feel eager. Radiant. Friendly. Interested.
“So Rachel, Shelly, want to do lunch next Saturday?”
“Sure, I guess.” I’m more enthusiastic than I show. “When and where?”
Maybe it’s someplace I can wear my new dress.
“Let’s grill something at my place. Bring a salad, if you want, or we can just make one. We can double with your roommate, so it won’t just be us, in case my roommates are out. Or somebody else.”
I’m strangely nervous. I scramble for a neutral question.
“What will you grill for us?”
“I grill a lot of chuck steak, so maybe that.”
I’ve never seen any of that in our freezer. “You’re the expert.”
“It’s not fancy, but the flavor’s great, and it looks fine. A lot of it’s really tender, and the rest isn’t bad. Just need teeth.”
I resist the temptation to think he’s talking about me, whether he knows it or not.
“Will these do?” I’m not faking my big, toothy smile.
He smiles too. “Yeah.”
“Then I’m in. Thanks!”
The next the temptation is to think he might be a better match for Amber, because beef.
“Pleasure’s mine,” he says.
“What shall I wear? Will there be swimming? Oh, wait. Not with your leg.”
“You could swim, if you want. There’s a pool in the courtyard.”
“I don’t need to swim. It’s not my best look anyway.”
I try not to look shocked that I would say that – or that I actually kind of think that, since Thursday.
He raises his eyebrows and looks like he wants to say something, but he doesn’t.
I get a tiny shrug but no words.
“Just say it.”
He hesitates. “Okay. That’s … hard to imagine.”
“What’s … wait. You mean … ?” My cheeks warm.
I wasn’t fishing for a compliment. I really wasn’t. And I’m totally going shopping again this week. Same place, same wizard lady. I think her name was Marta. Same price range, if necessary. Something more casual than my amazing new dress.
“Sorry,” he says. “I try not to be a meat market guy.”
I’m not sorry. And I have an idea. “I’ll test you right now, just to be sure. Do you like how I look?”
My smile’s involuntary, but I’m okay with it. “Is that why you wanted to sit by me? And ask me out?”
“No. Doesn’t hurt. But you seem smart, like I said. And you’re fun to talk to.”
“Okay, the results are in. We can both relax. You’re not a meat market guy. Now tell me more about me being smart and fun. Start with smart.”
“In Sunday School I was trying to think how to say what you said, but you got there first. My cousin would have hugged you, if she’d been there to hear it.”
“She’s blind. Born that way. My aunt got the measles at the wrong time. Guess sometimes the vaccines don’t work. She says she fully intends to have perfect eyesight in the resurrection, so obviously she was born flawed, and it’s condescending and stupid to pretend it’s perfect that her eyes don’t work.
“One time, somebody heard her say that and thought she didn’t believe in God, which she totally does. Anyway, you were more diplomatic about it than she usually is.”
“I felt a little harsh,” I confess.
“For applying rational thought to their fluffy little doctrinal fantasy? I couldn’t believe the teacher.” He mimics her low, soothing voice, and it isn’t flattering. “‘Don’t you think that’s unkind?’ You just said … Actually, I don’t remember your exact words. But you sounded calm, not hurt, and not confrontational at all.”
“I think I said, ‘It’s not kind or unkind. It’s the truth.’”
“Sounds right. Then you sat quietly and didn’t look ruffled when they went back to the same silliness you’d just called out for them. I was one row behind you and about four seats over. I waited for somebody else to object, but nobody did. I should have. Guess I’m less courageous than you.”
“Probably wouldn’t have made a difference,” I say. “They weren’t exactly open to new thoughts. Or, you know, thoughts. It wasn’t the point of the lesson anyway.”
“See, you are kind,” he says.
“Sometimes I try. Wait. That was kind?”
“To me. Maybe not to them.”
“Yeah. So why do you think I’m funny?” I ask. “Or fun. Whatever you said.”
“You liked my Solomon joke.”
“It was good. Bit edgy for a church activity.”
“You liked that too.”
I nodded. “I really did.”
“Plus we’re at a pool party, and I’m in shorts and you’re in a swimsuit, and we got through all that meat market talk okay. I think that shows we both don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
I feel my eyes twinkling. “Are you saying our bodies are imperfect?”
His eyes widen. “No. Yes. Mine is.”
His mouth opens, but no words come out. Finally he says, “I assume there must be something. Pollen allergy, crooked molar, hangnail. A genetic tendency toward male pattern baldness, which won’t affect you, but your sons will be billiard balls.”
I giggle, which I haven’t done with a guy in quite a while. “You want the whole list?”
“I don’t want any of the list. Can I get you some dessert?”
“Do I look like a girl who eats dessert?”
That flusters him again. “I – you – you look great. I didn’t …” On the plus side, he recovers quickly. “Do you want dessert or not?”
Now it’s a laugh, not a giggle, and my smile is a few levels above please-bring-my-dessert-already. He visibly relaxes, and I answer like I have manners after all. “Yes, please. Whatever has the most chocolate? But no coconut. It’s not an allergy, just an attitude.”
His smile is crooked, and his eyes sparkle. “Be right back.” He stands, but before he walks away, he turns to me. “Thanks for saying yes to lunch.”
I nod. “It’s the least Rachel could do for the son of Isaac.”
“Wouldn’t that be fetching me a drink of water from the well?”
He does know his Genesis. “Go away,” I say.
Hurry back, I think.
While he’s gone, one of the guys I overheard from across the pool catches my eye. He’s on my side of the pool now, a few yards away and possibly coming to see me. I wonder if he’s the jerk, my defender, the continued-on-the-next-girl critic, or the other one. Probably not the critic.
I take a moment to appreciate the view. He’s tall and tanned, lanky and dirty blond. His bright, beautiful green eyes match my swimsuit. His suit’s almost knee-length, with a mesmerizing pattern of dark and medium blues. The same pattern in greens would be even better on him, because green eyes.
If Adam’s cute and verging on handsome, this guy’s objectively hot. Gods forgive me.
“Hi, I’m, uh, Jake.”
Okay, that makes it easier.
“Of course you are,” I say. “Is that your real name?”
He’s taken aback. “Yeah. Well, Jacob.”
“Do you know my name?”
He recovers quickly too. “I hope to know it … soon?”
“I’m Rachel. Don’t let that give you any ideas.”
“What do you mean?”
“Genesis? Jacob and Rachel? Never mind. How old are you?”
“Just off your mission to …”
“Ecuador. Would you like to go out sometime?”
I’ve heard enough to be sure. He’s the good guy, the one who insisted I was a “she,” not a “that.” He called those other guys pigs for me.
“Good for you, Jake! Look, you seem like a nice guy, even if your Old Testament needs some work. No stupid pickup lines, and you get straight to the point. But I’m almost 26, and I’m sorry, but almost 21 is too young for me even to try being interested anymore.”
His shoulders sag a little, and I feel harsh again. He nods slowly. “Okay. That’s fair.”
“You in school?” I ask, almost as an apology. Also, now I’m on a mission.
“Mechanical engineering,” he says.
I’ve known some engineering students. “Do you love it or hate it so far?”
“After one week I think I’m the only first-year who even likes it so far.”
“Lot of math, right?”
“I can handle the math.”
“I believe you. Tell you what, Jake. See the pretty blonde over there?”
“Seriously? Which one?”
“No kidding. At the drink table. Blue swimsuit, nice figure, great legs, curls, sunglasses. Baseball cap.” Amber’s the only girl wearing a cap, but it totally works for her. I could have saved my breath and mentioned it first, but I’m advertising now.
“What about her?” he asks.
“She’s my roommate, Amber. A lot closer to your age, and she’s sweet. Smart too. And like I said, you seem like a nice guy. Just ignore those guys around her, because she’s not attached to any of them, and go say hi.”
I think I see a flicker of hope in his eyes. “Okay. Thanks. Nice to meet you, Rachel.”
I enjoy watching him go. He’s plenty callipygian too. But mostly I’m pleased with myself for finding a potentially good guy for Amber to meet.
Adam returns with a big, chocolate-frosted brownie and a chocolate chunk cookie which might be more chocolate than cookie – and he gives me the choice. I waffle, but he won’t tell me which he prefers. “This is about you, not me,” he says. “I’m happy either way.”
We split both, and our half-brownies disappear first. I’m about to demolish the last bite of my half-cookie, when I notice he’s not eating his half. He’s just talking some and watching me.
The sun seems warmer on my face. Except we’re in the shade. “So … chuck steak,” I say.
“If that’s okay.”
“Sounds great. We are what we eat. Or vice versa.”
Again: holy crap. Did I just say that? And what does it mean?
He hesitates. “Now I have to ask. Are we in the middle of a really bad metaphor?”
I totally blush. “It might not be so bad. But not speaking metaphorically at all, you should finish your dessert, so I’ll feel better about inhaling mine. It’s going straight to my hips, in case you want to think twice about asking me out.”
His eyes follow my hand to my hip. Which wasn’t my plan, but okay.
I sort of expect a witty reply, or a charming, well-mannered one, or both. Instead, he blushes and gets all shy. I’m so hooked.
“Look, I’m sorry for the meat market thing,” he says with his eyes on mine again. “Like I said, I asked you out because you’re smart and fun, not just – ” He’s bright red now, and his isn’t sunburn either.
I’m not helpful. “Not just … ?”
“Not just nice to look at.”
I haven’t put the towel back over my legs. Now I wriggle out of my wrap, fold it loosely, and set it aside. “It’s getting warm out here,” I explain.
I’m slightly breathless.
I’m also lying like a rug. The canyon’s cool enough.
He smiles, and it’s different. I hope it’s about me, but I’m tempted to turn around, in case some other, prettier girl is walking up behind me.
“May I take your plate, etc.?” he asks after a moment.
“Sure. Thanks. May I save your seat, etc.?”
He smiles again. “Please. Be right back.”
I admire him shamelessly as he walks away, until an Amber-size thump jars my chair, and I find her sitting at my knees.
“Hi!” I say with uncharacteristic cheer.
“Hi yourself.” She has a knowing smile. “How’s it going?”
“I am chuck steak.”
Her smiled fades. “You’re better than that.”
“No, it’s just right. Adam – real Adam, my Adam” – I thrill at the possessive – “he’ll be back in a minute – he explained it to me. Often overlooked, but great flavor. Some parts might be a little tough, but some of it’s really tender. I am chuck steak.”
“Okay. Did he really say all that about you?”
“He was talking about actual beef. We talked about the meat market though. He started it. I said you’re a prime ribeye or better, so he asked me what I am. Turns out he grills a lot. Speaking of which, you’re invited to lunch with me at his place next Saturday. Bring a date. We’re having actual steak from his grill.”
“Fun! Thanks! I will. You didn’t tell him you’re a rump roast, I hope.”
“I started with hamburger, so he put me next to a hamburger patty. Couldn’t see the resemblance.”
She giggles. “This is pretty weird, Shelly. But he sounds fun. Anyway, I came to thank you for sending Jake. He’s cute, and he’s a gentleman. I think he might be smart. Can I bring him on Saturday?”
“I only ask” – her eyes sparkle – “because he says you rejected him, which makes him your leftovers.”
“I liked him too.”
“Good. Thanks for the referral! Oh, your guy’s coming back. A real Adam, huh? I’m outa here.”
I pretend not to notice his approach. I lean back, half-close my eyes, stretch a little, and clasp my hands behind my head for full frontal effect.
At this moment I don’t know whether I’ve joined the meat market or transcended it. I catch him admiring me, before he sits back down, but he’s not leering. Is that why this feels like it’s about more than meat?
Anyway, God bless my green swimsuit and the underpaid Developing World piece workers who made it. I hope they’re not slaves or political prisoners. God save them if they are. And God definitely bless all the women with smaller butts, or any size butts, who didn’t buy it, so I could find it on the clearance rack at my favorite mall in Omaha.
Also, God bless Marta at Dillard’s, for being a genius at her job. And God bless Amber, my smart knockout of a roommate. She’s said more good things about me in two years than I’ve said bad things, and she never lets the obvious fact that she’s freaking gorgeous go to her head.
I look cautiously in Adam’s direction. He’s reclined his chair to match mine, and his eyes are closed. I like his relaxed little smile.
I start plotting how to get him to sit by me at church tomorrow. I’ll definitely wear my new dress.
Maybe I could just ask.
I imagine him in a white shirt and tie, maybe a suit. And long pants. Too bad so much good stuff will be obscured. He’s in construction management, but he looks like he does plenty of the actual constructing.
A different question comes out. “So tell me,” I say. “Who exactly is Adam Isaacson, besides a guy who sheds his own blood to help his sister, gives a good talk in church, and likes to grill things?”
He says something about himself, and I should listen, but I don’t. I’m distracted, admiring his upper arms again. And his lower legs. And thinking, if it’s really thought, What kind of steak are you?
I’m probably going to hell.
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