"Are you sure?" Brandon said.
"More sure than I've ever been in my life," Jane said.
His name was Hugh Stratton. He was tall and handsome and broad-shouldered, with amazing eyes, and when she first walked into the Green Valley Protestant Church, Jane Myers could only look on with longing. If only, if only, she found herself thinking. If only I were tall and beautiful and proud. If only there was glamour on my face, instead of a haze of leftover pimples. If only I weren't short and dumpy and slump-shouldered, my hips too wide and my breasts too small. If only, if only. Then someone like him might notice me.
"Nonsense," her friends said. "It's true that he may be handsome, but that doesn't mean you don't have a chance. Looking like a Greek god doesn't mean he doesn't want someone with brains and talent."
He was handsome, that was to be certain—and, to judge by their interactions, he did want someone with more than half a brain. The rumors went through the church like wildfire: not only handsome, but polite as well, engaging even the blue-haired widows of the congregation in personable and open conversation. Jane, who could not stand to do that herself for more than five minutes at a time, could only marvel. The young, the middle-aged, the teens were equally as enthralled: evidently there was no topic at all on which he could not discourse, be it modern technology or the stock market or the latest episode of American Idol. No less than Maggie Reese, the pastor's six-year-old daughter, was heard to declare in a proud voice that Hugh Stratton was her Prince Charming, and that they would marry in due time and run off to live in a dollhouse together. Hugh, of course, was the target of a fair amount of good-natured ribbing after this pronouncement, but he took it all in good stride. In short: not only was he handsome, but there was more to him than met the eye, and it was clear to Jane that here was a man who would appreciate what she had: brains, and talent.
"But the thing is, I have nothing else," Jane protested.
"That's not true either," her friends said. These were not the friends she'd made at college—not Rita and Marcy and Greg Morse, who were nice people but didn't know anything about Jane Myers, not the real one inside. These were the ones from high school: Brandon and Meredith Chambers, Zach and Christa Crane, Derek Strong and Sajel Malhotra and Arie Chang, the ones who had won her loyalty with love and her love with kindness almost a decade ago. These were the ones who understood her, through and through, and when she met this man, this Hugh Stratton with his marvelous eyes and the boyish charm in his smile, she talked to them about it, and even though she lived an hour away by car (in good traffic) they understood her completely.
"That's not true either," Meredith told her. "Jane, none of us have much to be going on physically, except maybe Arie, and who'd she get married to? Someone she'd been friends with since the first day of college."
"Well, that and the fact that the birth control broke and she wanted to be responsible for once in her life," Brandon interjected as he lumbered through. Behind him on two stubby legs came Laurelyn, the Chambers' daughter. She stumbled to a halt, taking in the scene, and then held out her arms to Jane.
"Anty Kwista?" she said.
"Noooo, not Auntie Christa," Meredith said, scooping up the child. "That's Auntie Jane, Laurie. Can you say, Auntie Jane?"
"Antychane," said Laurelyn. Jane felt a ruddy smile on her cheeks. Evidently that was good enough for her.
"Arie got married, in other words, to someone who loved her for her brains and her personality," Meredith said, "not just the second-biggest pair of breasts any of us can claim."
"Who has the biggest?" Jane asked, confused. Meredith was notoriously slim, Christa hardly less so, and Sajel was average at best.
"You, of course," Meredith said. "What are you, a C-cup on a good day?"
"Sometimes, yeah," said Jane, feeling a little bit uncomfortable. "Depends on, um, on the day, or the brand name." She still wasn't used to discussing this kind of thing—at least, not on the phone where the Chambers' daughter Laurelyn could overhear. Three years old was a little too young for this sort of talk.
"Well, Arie only broke C when she was nursing Rowan," Meredith said. "You're the most well-endowed out of any of us, Jane."
But that didn't seem to make a difference, ultimately, not in her interactions with Hugh: after a polite and almost dreamy initial conversation, he never seemed to pay Jane more mind than he did any others. Of course, this was not necessarily a bad sign; there were a number of eligible young women who were doing their best to make their interest in him very plain, and he was always polite with them but distant, keeping his thoughts close and never showing any interest one way or the other. Jane, who could not think of any legitimate way to seek him out, never had much contact with him after that first conversation, aside from a smile and a wave every Sunday. "Maybe," whispered the blue-haired crones, "he's one of those newfangled fruits they're always talking about."
"What about you?" Jane asked Meredith. "Didn't you get up to a C-cup when you were nursing Laurelyn?" Meredith's was the opinion she would trust most in these situations.
"Me? C cup?" Meredith said, laughing. "Jane, have you checked your eyesight lately?" Laurelyn, squirming, succeeded in liberating herself from her mother's lap and scampered happily down the sofa.
"Why? I'm not much bigger than you," Jane protested.
Brandon laughed again from over her shoulder. "Yeah right. Jane, you must've done yourself permanent injury, with all your posture problems. Come on, stand up, check this out."
Jane stood up, feeling Brandon's presence behind her, his hands on her shoulders. It was, quite possibly, the first time he'd touched her since high school. Would Meredith mind that she, Jane, her husband's ex-girlfriend?— But no, Meredith was just sitting there, observing them with a serene smile.
She felt Brandon's hands drawing her shoulders back, and then pushing the small of her back. She felt the way her whole body changed orientation, like a piece of curved plastic flipping inside out. Now, instead of coiling forward, her spine was arching back. She felt taller—more capable—in charge.
"See?" said Meredith, gesturing. "Look what's been on the front of you this whole time."
"Whoa," said Jane, staring. I never realized. I honestly never realized...
"It's all there, Jane," Meredith said, smiling. "Now you just have to use it."
But that thought made her shrivel up inside. "Use it? You, you mean, like..."
"No, not like that," Meredith said quickly.
"Good, 'cause, I don't want to, to slut myself up like that just to get attention," Jane said.
"To who?" Meredith said, confused. "Where'd you get that expression?"
"Christ, Jane, I thought we'd gotten you over this," Brandon said, circling around to plunk himself in an armchair to her right. It was secondhand, smelly and rather threadbare—like everything here. The Chamberses were doing better than they had four years ago, when Laurelyn upset all their plans, but that still didn't mean they were doing well. "I thought, after you'd gone through The Program..."
"It wasn't that different," said Jane, though it was a weak protest.
"At least you were seeing shades of grey," Brandon said. "There is a gradation between prim-and-proper and complete skank."
"Well, yes, but..." Jane said.
"Have you done it since then?" Brandon asked, half accusing.
"Brandon!" Jane said. "Your daughter is right there!"
"I don't think she's old enough to understand this sort of thing," Brandon said, which Jane thought was an appalling display of irresponsibility. She looked to Meredith, expecting to find agreement—and so she was surprised when Meredith said, "We should introduce you to our friend Caitlyn. She used to think that way too. 'No compromise' and things like that."
"Of course, Jon's been softening her up," Brandon said. "Last I heard I think they were going to start trying to have a baby of their own."
"Probably not," Meredith said. "She called me just the other day. There was a pretty nasty parking-lot accident and her car got totaled, 'cause it was like ten years old to begin with. Might set them back a year or so financially."
"Still, we should introduce you," Brandon said in a different tone of voice. "I think you'd get along with her."
"The point is, no, Jane, you don't have to let anyone else get up-close-and-personal with your, err, assets," Meredith said. "But they're there... And men are visual creatures, as much as—maybe even more than—they are emotional ones. You can use them, even if you don't let anybody else use them."
"I don't want to let anybody use me anyway," Jane said.
"Sorry," Meredith said. "Bad choice of words. We're not asking you to let anybody use you, Jane."
"No—" said Brandon, vaulting off the armchair. Fifteen feet away, Laurelyn was balanced on the arm of the couch and evidently preparing to jump skyward. "No, no— Laurelyn, what did Daddy tell you? The couch is dangerous. Remember what happened to Wally the Wallaby in the story?"
Laurelyn gave him a face of repentance that Jane, personally, would have been hard-pressed to resist. "Sowwy, Daddy."
"I swear, she thinks she's a sparrow or something," Brandon sighed, to which Laurelyn erupted in a profusion of giggles. "I'm not a birdie, daddy!"
.... There is more of this story ...