Charlotte and Oliver’s romance was rocky from the start.
“Where did you meet this guy again?” Charlotte’s sister Rhonda asked over fajitas and margaritas. “Wasn’t it horseback riding or something weird like that?”
“Rock climbing,” Charlotte answered abruptly. “I joined a Facebook club. It wasn’t weird. My friend Lydia and I did it together.”
Rhonda smirked. “Well, Lydia’s pretty weird, but I won’t say anything else negative if that’s what you’d prefer.” She sawed off a piece of tortilla with her fork, doused it in a glob of salsa on the edge of her plate and shoved it into her mouth.
“Yes, that’s what I’d prefer,” sighed Charlotte. She was 40, and although she felt she looked good, she was getting tired of hearing ‘for your age’ tacked onto the end of every compliment she received lately. She was also sick of conversations with other women who felt the need to interject ‘good for you!’ as a way to express their ‘support’ for her life choices. ‘Never married at 40? Good for you!’ ‘No kids to worry about, eh? Good for you!’ they would smile, as they clutched their own babies slightly tighter on their hips and sashayed down the frozen food aisle to pick up some family –sized bags of tater tots.
The truth was that Charlotte desperately wanted to buy the family-sized bags of tater tots, rather than the individual portions of Lean Cuisine that filled her supermarket cart week after week. A successful CFO at an up-and-coming architectural firm, she’d put certain things on the back burner as she focused on her career. She bought a house at 35, by herself, and filled it with art and Faberge eggs – not real ones, but very high-quality facsimiles. She was certain a marriage and family would follow eventually, but woke up one morning on her 39th birthday in a panic. She downloaded a book titled ‘Find Mr. Right, Right Now!’, which was recommended by four out of the five urban sophisticate bloggers she followed and read about how best to catch up on achieving the domestic bliss she suddenly sensed was overdue.
Quickly, and with the fastidious type-A personality that had allowed her as a child to out-sell every other roadside lemonade stand within three miles of her house through an ingenious marketing campaign involving a rented pony named Mellow Yellow, Charlotte began restructuring her life in order to best acquire a husband. She replaced her yoga classes with kickboxing. She joined several dating web sites connecting local white-collar singles based on a unique algorithm combining astrological data and Goodreads recommendations . She studied micro-brewery and watched Martin Scorsese films. She replaced her signature raspberry champagne cocktail with a vodka tonic and grew out her hair from a sensible bob to a long and layered mane of come hither curls.
Charlotte gave herself 12 months to meet someone suitable and it was almost to the day of that self-imposed deadline that she met Oliver. The Facebook group through which they connected called itself ‘Adventures in Romance’ and boasted a 45% successful marriage rate amongst the ten or so couples who had met online in the group and eventually gone on to exclusively date one another. Charlotte was dragged along on a rock-climbing expedition by her friend Lydia, who promptly tripped over a loose harness on the ground and twisted her ankle before even getting to the cliff.
It was this fortuitous accident that allowed Charlotte to find herself strapped to a tall, dark-haired replacement climbing partner with piercing blue eyes who introduced himself as Oliver. He seemed as charming in person as he was satisfactory on paper, which she had already ascertained when she Googled every member of the group weeks earlier. Her online investigative skills had led to the following knowledge: she knew he was a cardiologist with a healthy Instagram following. She also knew how much his old house had sold for three years ago. She had not known he collected ukuleles, volunteered at a food bank and wrote poetry, but discovered it over the course of the three hour cliff climbing expedition. She also didn’t know he was engaged twice, and had his heart broken each time, a solemn confession Oliver delivered in hushed tones while holding her hands delicately in his own, over fried calamari and martinis on their third date.
“So, what’s wrong with him?” Rhonda swiped her finger around the inside of her margarita glass and licked off the salt.
“There’s nothing wrong with him….” Charlotte paused. “Except. I think he lives with his mother.”
Rhonda shrugged. “I dated a musician last year who lived with his mother.”
Charlotte grimaced. “That musician was 19!”
“Oh, right…” Rhonda grinned. “Well, have you met the old battle axe, yet?”
“Tomorrow for brunch.” Charlotte sighed. “They are coming over for crepes.”
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you,” Rhonda said, holding and twisting them together as she spoke. She noticed a grain of salt on her index finger and licked it off.
“I thought we were having pancakes.” Eunice stared at her plate, which Charlotte had delicately garnished with three layers of home-made crepes and an assortment of fillings.
“They are crepes,” Charlotte said brightly, “Kind of like pancakes, but more upscale.” She smiled and looked at Oliver, who nodded his approval at her little joke.
Eunice looked at Charlotte blankly for a minute, and then turned her eyes back to the plate. “Ollie, where’s the Mrs. Butterworth?”
Ollie? Charlotte winced at the nickname, but Oliver looked pleadingly as if to say ‘just indulge her, please…’
Charlotte pulled the syrup out of the fridge and handed it over, sitting back down to study Eunice. With a figure Charlotte would refer to as ‘squat’, she had a typical post-menopause look; choppy short haircut with obvious streaky highlights. She wore too much powder on her face which had fallen into a layer of dust around her turtleneck collar. Her thin lips were a gash of garish red lipstick, and with every sip of her coffee, she left another ring of it on Charlotte’s stone white china. She seemed as coarse and unrefined as Oliver seemed stylish and graceful, and Charlotte briefly thought to ask whether he’d been adopted.
The one bright spot hidden away amongst Eunice’s overall tackiness was an elegant diamond ring she wore on her stubby left hand. It was in a simple setting of platinum filigree and stood out from the rest of Eunice like a white rose in a field of crabgrass. Charlotte’s eyes were immediately drawn to the size of the stone and even from across the table, she could see its quality. The thing had to be at least 2 karats.
“Never married?” Eunice jolted Charlotte out of her reflections. “What’s that?” Charlotte asked.
“I said – have you ever been married?,” Eunice’s nasal tone was amplified as she wrapped a yellowed handkerchief around her nose and milked it a few times.
“Not yet!” Charlotte grinned and shot another look in Oliver’s direction. He smiled and winked in response.
Eunice noticed the exchange and wrinkled her face in disapproval. She checked her watch. “Ollie, don’t forget you’re driving me to the podiatrist this afternoon.” She looked at Charlotte. “I’m getting my calluses shaved,” she added unnecessarily.
Charlotte reluctantly swallowed a piece of crepe she had just placed in her mouth and pushed her plate away. “Well, don’t let me keep you two,” she smiled coldly.
Oliver gathered his mother’s things and gave Charlotte a quick peck on the cheek as they exited. “The crepes were delicious,” he almost whispered as he followed his mother out the door.
“40 year old women who have never been married are desperate,” she heard Eunice’s nasal-y voice trail off as she shoved herself into the car.
Charlotte watched them drive off and reconsidered Oliver’s suitability. She would give him three months, she decided, before going back to square one.
Over the course of the next several weeks, Eunice proved herself to be a major obstacle in Charlotte’s short-term trajectory towards matrimony. Mostly because she was always there. Oliver seemed incapable of refusing her constant suggestions that she invite herself along on any number of hopeful romantic occasions, quickly turning them into errand runs, as Eunice had a habit of suddenly remembering she needed more Epsom salts or hemorrhoid cream. It was always a product that created an awkward air of embarrassing silence amongst the three of them, which certainly seemed by Eunice’s design, as she sat smugly in the front seat of the car.
The few times they were able to be alone, Eunice would call or text at a rate that was well past intrusive.
“Just call her back,” Charlotte pleaded, as her gazpacho soup actually warmed while she waited for Oliver to finish directing his mother through the simple process of setting up an online Zoc Doc appointment.
“Just one more minute,” Oliver promised, “She’s got a rash.”
Despite the meddling, Charlotte found herself increasingly drawn to Oliver’s quiet, almost passive behaviors. As she projected into their future lives, she saw herself easily taking the reins and guiding him into the marriage and family she coveted. Oliver seemed quite willing to acquiesce to any decision she decreed; he was born to play a supporting role and Charlotte was eager to star in his show. There was only one problem. Someone else was already the star.
“God, I really wish she would just disappear!” Charlotte violently stabbed her fork into a piece of grilled chicken in her Caesar salad over lunch with Rhonda.
“I know a guy,” Rhonda winked. She slowly sawed through her eggplant parmesan with her butter knife for effect.
“Ugh, I wish it were that easy,” Charlotte smiled.
“If he’s such a momma’s boy, why are you hanging around?” Rhonda spoke through a mouthful of eggplant.
Charlotte sighed. “I don’t know….” She trailed off. “I hate losing,” she gritted her teeth.
“You might lose this one, kiddo,” Rhonda intoned sagely, “You know, a boy’s best friend is his mother….” She did her best Norman Bates voice.
Charlotte groaned and ordered a glass of Chardonnay.
A week later, Charlotte had what she would later describe to her sister as a show-down with Eunice. She had arrived several minutes early to pick up Oliver for an art gallery opening and found herself sitting on the couch picking individual black cat hairs off her velvet pant suit. Eunice’s cat’s hairs. Charlotte made a mental note never to own a pet.
“I know what you’re thinking about,” Eunice’s nasal-ey voice drifted through the front room as she descended the stairs in a housecoat with the cat in her arms. She looked like a frumpier version of a James Bond villain.
Charlotte rose from her seat and smiled. “You couldn’t possibly,” she said warmly.
“You think you can replace me,” Eunice accused darkly, glaring down from her vantage point two steps above the floor.
“Eunice, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’ll never have my Ollie,” Eunice said defiantly, “Or this, either.” She gesticulated wildly into the air with the hand that wore the diamond ring.
“As God is my witness,” Eunice trumpeted dramatically, “I won’t let you replace me!”
One week later, there was an answer from above.
Initially, Oliver seemed inconsolable over the death of his mother, which apparently happened during an overly strenuous Jane Fonda work-out session. The doctor explained that one of her leg-warmers got caught on a nearby lamp during a scissor-kick, flipping her head over and onto the smooth marble floor. “She probably never felt a thing,” the doctor assured Oliver, “besides the impression that she looked great in her leotard.”
Charlotte remained by Oliver’s side throughout the funeral and bided her time during an appropriate grieving period. She felt the months she had invested may have finally paid off when Oliver asked her to join him for dinner at very expensive and exclusive restaurant for what he deemed ‘a special occasion.’
It was between the soup course and the mini egg roll appetizers when Oliver pulled a small box from his pocket and placed it on the table. Charlotte’s heart leapt and she pictured Eunice’s ring on her own slender finger. Getting my cake and eating it too, she smirked to herself.
“Charlotte, you should know, my mother was everything to me,” Oliver began, and Charlotte looked down quickly to conceal her eye-roll. “…Until you came into my life,” Oliver finished. “I was hoping to keep both of you in it, but when my moth-“ he stopped himself for a moment, choking back a sob.
Charlotte patted his hand and urged him to go on with a carefully constructed facial expression of concern and support.
“Well,” Oliver continued, “I think I have found a way to hold onto both of you.”
He pushed the box toward Charlotte, who tried not to rip it apart with her impatience.
Inside was a diamond ring, but not THE diamond ring. In fact, for a moment, in the dim light of the restaurant, the shape of the gem looked off. She couldn’t quite make out the cut. Was it an emerald cut? Or a pear-shaped? As she squinted harder, the diamond almost looked…..squat.
“What is this?” Charlotte’s voice lowered a full octave. “This is not your mother’s diamond ring.”
Oliver waved away her question. “Of course not. My mother was cremated in her ring, per her will.”
“This gem is much more special….” Oliver took a deep breath. “Charlotte. I wanted the spirit of my mother in something we could hold and admire for our entire lives. Something I could put on your hand and marry you with, so that a part of my mother would always be there on your finger. Every single second of every single day, with you….with US, forever.”
“Charlotte,” Oliver smiled, “This diamond isn’t my mother’s…..this diamond IS my mother!”
“The thing about Lean Cuisine,” Charlotte said to her sister Rhonda on the phone as she walked briskly through the frozen food aisle, and pulled several individually-sized portions off the shelf and into her cart, “Is that it tastes best while watching a marathon session of John Hughes movies while wearing sweatpants, comfortable slippers and a Snuggie and followed by a large tub of Ben and Jerry’s chocolate brownie ice cream….by myself.”