I was feeling pretty good about turning forty until my doctor told me I could stand to lose a few pounds. She might as well have said Happy Birthday, Janice, you blimp. Everything was good, she said, blood pressure normal, cholesterol fine. I told her yes, I performed a self-exam on my breasts every morning in the shower like a woman my age ought to and she made a pleased sound then said, firmly, that I needed to do something about my weight now because the longer I put it off, the harder it would be for the weight to come off. I decided then and there that 1) I hated her; and 2) I would never schedule a doctor's appointment on my birthday again. While I imagined strangling her with her stethoscope, I asked if she had any suggestions for losing weight. She gave me the usual spiel about watching what I ate, cutting down on the deserts, eating more vegetables, and, of course, get more exercise. I loathed joining a health club and told her so bluntly. She looked at my chart, remarked that I lived on the east side of town and asked me if I knew where the Eastbrooke Mall was. I told her I did, that I shopped there all the time, and asked why she wanted to know. She said the mall was open before official shopping hours to mallwalkers, told me walking would be good for me, that I should think about it. I told her I would.
As a birthday treat I went shopping. Usually a shopping spree will take my mind off just about anything, but I couldn't stop obsessing over what my doctor said. Sure, I had a little extra padding around my curves, but so what? I had never been supermodel thin, never wanted to be. But I also knew she wasn't passing any sort of judgment on me, that she was only interested in my health, and if she said I needed to lose some weight and start exercising then I probably did. And walking around the mall didn't sound too bad, really. Better than a treadmill or a stationary bike. So I bought myself a new charcoal gray warm-up suit and a pair of white leather Reeboks to go with it, a new Discman, and the latest Shania Twain CD, feeling surprisingly good about everything, even turning the big four-oh.
The next morning I got up bright and early, showered, put on my new workout outfit, had a quick, sensible breakfast, put my new CD in my new CD player, got into my BMW and drove to the mall. It was a little after nine when I got there, and already the place was teeming with mallwalkers. There were a lot of senior citizens walking around, surprisingly spry for their age, and a few soccer moms pushing strollers with sleeping urchins in them. I didn't really fit in, but there was nothing new about that. I hit the play button on the CD player and started walking.
Most of the stores were closed. Barnes & Noble, Walgreens, the bank, and a couple of fast-food restaurants in the food court offering coffee were notable exceptions. But I could still peer into the semi-darkened stores as I passed them and window shop, spotting a few things I might have to come back and look at during regular mall hours. I walked at a pretty good clip, I thought, moving to the beat of the music, but when I passed Victoria's Secret I slowed down just a little. There was nothing on display that would have looked good on me, and I didn't have anyone to wear things like that for anyway, but the pictures of scantily-clad women were nice enough to look at.
After the first lap around the mall I didn't feel too bad so I started another, but about halfway through that second lap I started to regret it. I'd done enough for my first day, I thought. Tomorrow I could attempt two passes around the mall. Which I did. But that seemed to be my limit. I'd work up to three times around the mall, but for now two was the most I could do. Jeeze-Louise. Was I really that out of shape?
On Friday I went to the food court after my walk for a cup of coffee. At night the food court might have been where all the teenagers hung out, but in the morning it was where all the older mallwalkers gathered to rest, talk, and sip coffee. I found a table away from the herd of coots and sat down with my paper cup of coffee, tired, but feeling good.
"May I join you?"
I looked up. The woman standing next to the table was the first person my age I'd seen all week. She was an attractive woman, too, a little taller than I was, it seemed, with shoulder-length brown hair pulled into a ponytail. The teddy-bear T-shirt and yellow sweats she had on hinted at a solid figure. Her eyes were chestnut brown, and I found myself staring into them longer than I should have.
"Sure," I said.
I watched her sit down, watched her hands close around the cup of coffee she brought with her. Nice hands, the kind of hands good for holding. Among other things.
"I'm Meredith, by the way," she said.
Nodding at the senior citizens a couple of tables down, Meredith dropped her voice to a whisper and said, "I don't think we're old enough to sit at the grown-ups table."
After that Meredith and I started walking together every morning, talking, joking. She did four laps around the mall but I managed to keep pace with her. Time flew by so fast when I was with her that I never even noticed. When I learned she taught English at the local middle school I laughed, answering her surprised look by telling her I was a writer. Love of the language was just one of many things we had in common, from music to movies. But I couldn't get a read on her about one thing, the one thing I really hoped we had in common, and it hadn't come up, really, so when she suggested one morning that we get together later for dinner I didn't know if I was being asked on a date or not. I accepted anyway.
I met her that night at Farrinelli's. She looked great. The red pullover sweater, khakis, and loafers were very different form the T-shirts, sweatpants, and running shoes I was used to seeing her in. She wore her hair down, which deepened the effect. Even if we weren't on a date, I was glad I'd dressed up a little. I would have felt even more out of place if I hadn't.
Dinner was wonderful. The food, the company, everything. We shared a bottle of wine and laughed like a couple of teenagers. Our conversation was just as easy and flowing as it was while we walked together at the mall. The more fun we had, the more convinced I was that we weren't on a date. It was too laid back to be a date, to comfortable. We were just two friends having dinner. But that didn't bother me too much. She was a good friend to have.
After sharing an order of tiramisu, we paid the bill and headed out together. Meredith walked me to my car. The first hint of autumn was in the air, chilly but refreshing. We reached my BMW. As I was about to say goodnight, to say I'd see her in the morning for our usual walk, Meredith leaned forward and kissed me. It caught me completely off guard. Suddenly her lips were just pressed against mine and I froze, the proverbial deer in the headlights. She pulled back to look at me, panic on her face.
"Oh God," Meredith whispered. "Don't tell me I misread you. Janice, I'm so sorry. I never would have done that if I knew-"
I put up a hand to stop her. "You didn't misread me. I was just so sure you weren't, and I was trying not to get my hopes up. You just surprised me. Can we try that again, please?"
She smiled. "Sure."
I pulled her to me and we kissed again, a better kiss, a real kiss, her mouth hungry against mine, her hands sliding over my hips, my hands moving up her back. When we broke apart this time we were both panting for breath.
"I live not too far from here," Meredith whispered. "Will you come home with me?"
"Yes," I whispered against her lips.
We managed to keep our hands off each other until we got back to her place, but once inside her apartment we were all over each other, kissing, groping, grabbing at each other's clothes. I lifted her sweater over her head, tossed it aside. She undid my skirt and let it fall to the floor. We managed not to trip over each other too much, both of us naked before we hit the bed. We kissed again, hotly, hungrily, exploring each other with our hands, our mouths. I learned how her nipples felt in my mouth, how her wetness tasted on my lips. She learned I liked the feel of a warm, wet tongue where my previous lovers never wanted to go. But she did, again and again. We left each other sweaty and exhausted. I spent the night in Meredith's bed, naked, spooned against her back.
When I saw my doctor again six months later she was pleasantly surprised to find I'd lost fifteen pounds. She asked me if I had been working out regularly. I laughed.
"Yes," I said. "Every chance I get."