CEREMONY OF INNOCENCE

Chapter 1

I jog the last flight of stairs to the downstairs living room in my grey joggers and favorite black tank. When I reach the bottom I find my best friend Zara Patel sitting on the couch, scrolling through social media posts with her right hand while delicately holding a glass of Pinot Noir with her left. She has turned on the gas fireplace next to her so the room is warm and cozy.

“Sorry, that took so long,” I apologize. “Shay seems to be cutting another molar and has been super clingy these last few nights. And, of course, Dec was begging for another chapter of James and the Giant Peach. So I killed two birds with one stone by rocking Seamus to sleep while reading to Declan about weird anthropomorphic bugs and physically abusive aunts. Just another typical night at Chez Shaw.”

Zara looks up and smiles. “No need to apologize. I was just happy to get to spend some time with your boys before they went to bed. They are getting so big. I swear next time I visit, they’ll be telling me all about their college plans.”

“Shut your mouth,” I admonish. “My boys are staying babies forever!” I make my way over to the bar and pour a glass of wine before joining Zara on the couch. She lets me enjoy one large sip before addressing the elephant in the room.

“So…where’s Patrick?”

I emit a guttural groan. “Do we have to do this tonight?”

Zara bats her eyes innocently. “Do what? I was just inquiring as to whether your soon-to-be ex-husband will be joining us at some point?”

I set my glass down on the black Wayfair coffee table. It seems less embarrassing to just lay my cards out there than to drag out the inquisition. “Patrick goes out on Friday nights and usually doesn’t come home until the next morning. He does the same on Saturday nights too. I don’t ask for details as it is none of my business.”

Zara puts her own glass down and turns to sit cross-legged on the couch facing me. She’s clearly just getting started. “And how is his apartment search going?”

I stall by retrieving my glass, taking another generous sip, and setting it carefully back down.

“He is going to move out, right? You aren’t going to continue cohabitating with your ex until the boys graduate are you?”

I drop my head into my hands and whine. “Zara, why are you grilling me? Can’t we just watch a romcom like we planned? It’s been a really long week.”

Zara pulls my hands from my face and forces me to look her in the eyes. “Listen, I think it’s great that you and Patrick have been able to work past the whole ‘you only found out he was gay because you caught him cheating with your co-worker/close friend’ thing. And from what you tell me it seems you are co-parenting beautifully. Bravo. But this has to stop. It’s been a year for Christ’s sake. Patrick is living here rent-free. You cook for him. You do his laundry. And then you sit at home with the kids on the weekends while he sows his wild oats.”

“Ewww!” I cringe. “I can’t believe you just used that phrase. Okay, Boomer.”

Zara slaps my thigh. “Don’t try to change the topic. Patrick is getting the best of both worlds. A wife at home and an unlimited hall pass. What about you? When’s the last time you’ve gotten laid?”

I laugh involuntarily. “Oh, Jesus. I’m not sure I can even recall. Ummm…definitely not this calendar year.” When I force myself to try to recall my last intimate encounter, I realize it wasn’t last calendar year either. Maybe Zara has a point. My internal epiphany must be evident on my face because Zara launches forward with renewed vigor.

“See! Even you know this situation is untenable. You both deserve the chance to find love again. Not just Patrick.”

Zara’s words hit their mark and I have no retort. She takes my hands in hers and we sit quietly for a few moments.

“The truth is,” I say, before hesitating.

“Go on,” Zara prods.

My throat constricts and I fight back tears as I admit, “I come with a lot of baggage. The most obvious being the fact I have two small children. Granted a lot of divorced women my age are in a similar situation, but I would bet not many also have parents who died in a murder-suicide. I can’t even fathom a man wanting to wade into the mess that is my life. Or at least, not the type of man that I would want to be with.”

Zara gives my hands a squeeze. “I know it’s scary, Maeve. But you have to give it a try. At least test the waters.”

“By doing what?” I interrupt a bit more forcefully than I’d intended. “Making a Tinder profile? I can’t bring randos back to the house with the kids. Nor do I want to. I’ve never been a one-night-stand kind of girl.”

“I know that,” Zara says. “It doesn’t have to be a dating app. What about work? Anyone there you’re interested in?”

“I will not dip my pen into the company ink. Or whatever the phrase is when you are a woman,” I say unequivocally.

Zara laughs. “That’s a good question. What is the equivalent phrase for a woman? Don’t brush your labial paintbrush on the company canvas?”

I giggle before offering, “Don’t fill your clam with the company jam?”

Zara’s mouth drops open and she manages to get out, “You’re disgusting,” before we both bend over in a fit of laughter. After a few moments, we right ourselves and wipe tears from the corners of our eyes.

“Ok,” Zara says when she’s recovered. “What about joining a group? Just make some friends and see what happens?”

Still giggling, I decide to indulge Zara’s brainstorming. If for no other reason than the faster I agree to one of her ideas, the faster we press play on our movie. “What kind of group do you suggest? I don’t really have many interests outside of work and the boys.”

“Hmmm…let’s see,” Zara ponders. “You like to read. Maybe a book club?”

I give her a side-eye. “How many single men do you know who are in book clubs?”

“You have a point,” she concedes.

I reach for my glass on the coffee table and take a long sip while Zara continues to rack her brain. A minute or two later, she snaps her fingers in excitement.

“I’ve got it! Didn’t you register for the marathon this fall?”

I flinch. “Oh, yeah. It was all part of my grand 40th birthday bucket list. Run a marathon and get divorced were numbers one and two on that list. Not shockingly, I’ve made zero progress on either goal.”

My sarcasm does not dim Zara’s excitement. “You’re going to join a running group.”

“What? Why?” I question, unconvinced.

“First, a group will give you tips and help you stick with your goal. I have a couple of work friends who’ve run Chicago and they say a running group is key. Second, you’ll feel so much better if you tick something off your bucket list. And third, who knows? Maybe you’ll meet a friend….with benefits.”

Her enthusiasm is so genuine it’s contagious. I find myself smiling back.

“Okay. I’m game. I’ll find a running group. I’m going to run a marathon.”

“Yay!” Zara claps enthusiastically.

“Now, can we watch The Lovebirds?” I ask.

“Definitely,” Zara agrees. “You know Kumail Nanjiani is my future husband, right?”

“I think he’s already taken,” I point out while pulling my favorite weighted blanket off the back of the couch and draping it over our legs. As I rent the movie from Amazon Prime and Zara and I snuggle into our usual positions, I add, “Maybe we can tackle your lack of love life at our next sleepover.”

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Recovering lawyer. Mom of 3. First novel Darkness Drops Again published June 2020. Pilates instructor. Runner.

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Melissa Manning

Melissa Manning

Recovering lawyer. Mom of 3. First novel Darkness Drops Again published June 2020. Pilates instructor. Runner.

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