A MOTHER'S GIFT
by Cherie Reich
Julie sat stiffly in the chair. A towel hung over the knee-length black party dress while her daughters applied make-up and did her hair. "I don't know why you decided to give me this makeover, girls. Don't get me wrong. I appreciate it, but here I'm getting all dressed up without anywhere to go."
The girls exchanged knowing glances, and Izzy giggled while she curled a piece of her mom's hair.
"We just wanted to do something nice for you and have a real bonding experience," Cat said while she applied soft brown eye shadow to her mom's eyelids. "Hold still."
"Okay." Julie smiled slightly. Her eyes sparkled in amusement while she tried to relax yet hold still.
Cat and Izzy worked quickly, each one occasionally glancing at the clock as it ticked away the minutes. "Are we ready?" Cat asked Izzy.
"We're ready." Izzy agreed while fluffing her mom's hair that now fell in soft curls to her bottom of her shoulder blades.
"Ta da! What do you think?" Cat handed her mom a mirror.
Julie studied her appearance. The girls had done a wonderful job. They covered the dark circles under her eyes. Her lips appeared plump. She looked a good five years younger. "It's beautiful. Thank you, sweethearts." She leaned in to give each of them a kiss on the cheek and hug.
"Don't mess up your lipstick, mom!" Cat warned.
"Oh, sure. Of course." Julie stood up and slipped her feet into some black flats.
"Izzy, get mom's jewelry while I'll get the other thing." Cat glanced over to the dresser where the dangling pearl earrings were and the heart-shaped gold locket sat.
"Sure!" Izzy ran over and began to help her mom with the earrings and necklace.
Cat left for a moment before returning with a couple sheets of paper. "Mom, we have a surprise for you."
"You're going on a date!" Izzy blurted out.
"Izzy!" Cat whispered harshly. She gave her mom a half-smile. "Don't freak out, mom. We set you up on a date with a really great guy. His name is Charles, and he's an English teacher at Riverwood Community College. He got you tickets to see the mystery dinner theatre at Cedar's Bar & Grill." She held out the pages. "The first one is directions to Cedar's. The second page is a picture of Charles. He's really nice. He's a widower, too."
Julie's lips parted into a perfect 'o.' "What have you done, girls?" Her hands trembled slightly while she took the white computer paper from her older daughter. She barely glanced at them. "I can't go on a date with someone I don't know. How did you meet this man?"
Izzy stood beside her mom, taking her hand in hers. "We met him online. You should go, mom. It's okay. Aunt Sara is coming over to watch us."
"Online? How? What?" Julie blinked, unable to grasp the surprise. This had to be some horrible joke, right?
Cat closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. "We signed you up for a dating site called CupidsArrowsAgain.net. We've been getting on it as you and searching for a good guy for you to date. We found Charles. He's great, mom. You would really like him. He likes reading mysteries and classic rock. He has a daughter, too. She's seventeen."
Julie sank back into the wooden chair. "Catherine Anne, what have you done?" Her tone was deathly quiet and soft. "Not only did you act like me, but you have some man believing that I'm going to have dinner with him tonight. Do you have his phone number? You are going to call him and explain why I'm not coming."
"I do not have his number," Cat mumbled, not looking at her mother. "You have to go and tell him. Please, just go on the date. Please." Her head shot up. Tears formed in her blue eyes. "Mom, please. You haven't been on a date since dad died. You work all the time. We love you, mom, but you have to get out there again. You need to be happy, too."
Julie saw the diamond-like tears in her daughter's eyes. Her youngest daughter held her hand. She never once thought her daughters would go to such lengths for her, yet she was reluctant to go on a date. "I don't think I'm ready."
"It's been ten years." Cat's lip quivered. "It's just a date." She laughed, but it sounded sad. "We're not asking for you to marry him. Just go out on a date." She looked at the clock. "He's waiting for you, mom. Are you gonna leave him waiting?"
"Do you want me to go, too, Izzy?"
Izzy nodded, giving her mom a tight hug that cut off her breathing for a couple seconds. "I do, mommy. Charles is really nice. You'd like him. He never once asked your bra size or showed pictures of his…his thing." She whispered "thing" like it was a secretive dirty word.
Julie gazed at the directions and picture. Charles appeared like a nice-looking man, but for all she knew, he could be a sociopath. Yet, she was meeting him at a public place. She would run in, tell him the truth, and get out of there. Standing up, she glared at both her daughters. "We'll discuss this when I get back."
"You're going!" Cat and Izzy exclaimed in unison.
"Only to tell him what you two did." Her voice was firm and unyielding. The doorbell rang. "That's Aunt Sara. I want you two to go to your room and think about what you did." The two girls didn't move at first. "Go!" They scurried off. Julie sighed and glanced into the mirror. At least she would look pretty when she turned him down.
Julie pulled her blue Saab into the parking lot at Cedar's Bar & Grill. The parking lot was nearly full when she arrived. Underneath the sign, it announced the mystery dinner theatre group "The Bone Appétit." She smiled, knowing she would have loved to go to one of these events, if it was in a better situation.
She entered the restaurant. The scent of cooked meat and bread permeated the area. Wooden benches lined the entrance and two couples were waiting to be seated. Julie peered into the dining room. At the front, a curtain hid a stage. The tables were scattered around the rest of the large room. Her eyes searched for the man in the picture. The sooner she spotted him, the sooner she could leave.
"Julie?" A male voice drifted behind her above the din of the dinner conversations and low rock music playing on the speakers.
She turned, spotted him. "Charles?"
He gave her a lopsided smile, a mixture of nervousness and excitement. He patted his hands on his dark gray trousers, and she noticed that he must have come from the restroom. Offering a hand, he smiled again. "Yes, I'm Charles." He laughed. "I was afraid you wouldn't come."
Julie took his hand, giving it a light shake. "Well, I-"
"If you would come with me, we already have a table. It's right near the front, so we can watch the show." Charles spread his arm, motioning for her to walk beside him.
"Charles, I-I need to talk to you." Julie froze in place.
His smile faltered, and his arm dropped to his side. He adjusted his glasses. "Is something wrong?"
"No…I mean yes, somewhat." Julie wrung her hands. "This is a mistake."
"A mistake?" His face contorted. He wasn't angry, but the hurt read plainly to Julie. "If there was something I did wrong, then please let me know."
"No, that's not it. It's just that." She hesitated. "I found out about you this evening. My daughters thought they were trying to be helpful when they signed me up for that dating site, even though I didn't know anything about it. I'm so sorry." The words came out in a rush, as if she would lose her nerve, if she didn't speak them so quickly.
Charles stood there for a moment, processing the information. "You didn't know about me? You mean to tell me that you've never talked to me before?"
"That's right. I'm really sorry about this." Her cheeks felt hot and turned red from embarrassment. She was going to kill her daughters when she came home. "I'm sure you are a nice guy, but I don't know you. You don't know me. My daughters weren't really trying to trick you. They're good girls, but they didn't know what they were doing." She grabbed her purse, digging for her wallet. "I'd be willing to pay for the ticket, since you already bought them."
He stared at her for a moment. His shoulders drooped. "No, no. I don't want you to have to pay for the ticket." He swallowed hard, glancing between her and the dining room. "Was there anything on the profile true?"
"I haven't seen my profile." She shrugged. "What sorts of things were on it?"
"You like classic rock and mysteries. You enjoy dancing, although you haven't danced in years. You work two jobs to support your children, and you are a widow." He smiled faintly. "There is more."
"It's all true." She found herself beginning to smile. What was she doing? She didn't know him. Searching her memory, Julie latched on what little information she had to go on. "So, you really a widower English teacher?"
"Yes, I've been teaching at Riverwood Community College for several years." He glanced over to their table. "Listen, I know we should probably just call the entire thing a bust, but we are here. There is dinner and a murder mystery waiting for us. We can get to know each other."
She considered it. Charles appeared like a perfectly nice man. She found him attractive. He didn't get angry with her, although he had ever right to be furious. "Well, if you want." She grinned. "I've actually always wanted to go to one of these things."
His smile lit up his face while he motioned for her to come with him to their table. "The Bone Appétit players are phenomenal. It's definitely worth seeing at least once." He held her chair out for her, and she sat down. Maybe the night wouldn't be too bad. Dinner, a show, and then she would head back home to punish the girls.
Julie laughed and sipped on her second glass of red wine. "So, you really had a student turn in a paper with the sentence "Charles Dickens sucks."?"
Charles chuckled. "Yep. The student claims he couldn't get through the first page of the book."
"Well, I have to admit I'm not his biggest fan."
"Neither am I."
The two laughed. The mystery dinner theatre was over. The murder solved. Only a few patrons remained.
A waiter came over. "We'll be closing in thirty minutes. If there is anything else you want, then you need to order it now."
The two looked at each other. "Care for some coffee?"
"Sure," Julie said.
"We'll have two coffees," Charles ordered.
She drained the last of the wine and patted her lips with the cloth napkin. "I had a great time, actually."
"Me too." Charles adjusted his glasses. "I'm really glad we did this, even if it was under false pretenses."
"I agree." Julie hadn't had fun like this in years. The conversation had started out awkwardly at first, but soon, she felt like she had known Charles forever. "How long since you last dated?"
"It's been over six years since I went out on a date, but it was with my wife." His expression grew somber. "Mary died of breast cancer after a two-year battle."
Julie reached over, impulsively taking his warm, rough hand in hers. "I'm so sorry."
"Thank you. It's been a while." He ran his thumb over hers. "How did your husband die?"
"Car accident." Julie breathed in deeply while the waiter produced the two coffees. "I had forgotten to get milk at the store. Cat was sick with strep, and Izzy was crying with an ear infection. I was at my wit's end and called Mark at work to pick up milk." She removed her hand from his and took the hot coffee mug in them. "He never came home." She breathed in the rich aroma and held the bitter-sweet coffee on her tongue before swallowing it.
The silence became palpable between them while the restaurant announced that they were closing in ten minutes. Someone turned up the rock music, and both recognized the song as Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."
"I can't believe how popular this song is now because of Glee," Charles said.
"Hey, I love Journey. They're awesome." Julie began to hum along.
"I love Journey, too." He laughed. "But, don't let my daughter find out. She'll think I'm even lamer than usual."
"Same with my kids." Julie grinned.
"Would you like to go out again sometime, Julie? Maybe see a movie or something?" He looked hopeful, despite the start of the night.
Julie hesitated. She had never planned to stay. She didn't want to date again, but she did find she wasn't so lonely and stressed while being with Charles. Maybe this dating thing wasn't so bad. "I'd like that."