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Here is a short sample from the book:
Evening was fading into dusk as she drove into town—just a few blocks of Main Street surrounded by the university. The engine hiccupped, and she glared at the dashboard, willing it to keep going just a few minutes longer. The drive from Philly hadn’t been incident free. She sighed. Apparently rental cars weren’t what they used to be.
“Visiting?” the waitress at the little roadside café had asked an hour ago, when she’d stopped for an early dinner. The exertions of the past day had made her unexpectedly famished.
Was she? That was what Mike had implied, that very morning. Do what you need to do, and then come home, Rachel.
What was she to say? I’m a woman on the verge of middle age, out to find myself… “Going back to school,” she’d mumbled.
The woman had eyed her uncertainly, apparently trying to decide if she was joking. Rachel had simply smiled, willing her to go away.
She sighed at the memory. It was what it was.
It looked…almost peaceful here, she thought now. The setting sun was dappling deeper shadows across redbrick walkways still crowded with students and townsfolk. People streamed out of the coffee shops and bars, the back to school frenzy very much in the air this last day before the semester officially began. Remnants of a summer parade were still evident, streamers strung across lampposts.
Rachel Saunders exhaled deeply, heading toward the apartment building on the outskirts of town. Just maybe, this wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.
It still felt odd, starting college at her age. She was thirty-seven, for crying’ out loud! What made her imagine… She thought of her twins, off to sunny Berkeley, hoping again they’d be okay, that’d they’d…
Stop it, Rachel. They’ll be fine. Don’t be a helicopter mom.
It had been a lark at first, a visceral act, triggered by a dare from Cathy. “Just apply, Mom! You never know.”
Her daughter had always been the brave one. Dave was careful, measured, precise in his planning and actions. Cathy… Sometimes, she worried about the girl. And envied her sense of adventure.
She’d needed the breathing room, she acknowledged to herself. Things with Mike had been tense for a while. And the kids had known, of course. They hadn’t said anything, but the sadness in their eyes had suggested unspoken awareness.
So she’d applied, never really thinking it would come to anything.
The acceptance letter from the University of Delaware had come the day of the big fight, when she’d found out Mike was sleeping with his twenty-five-year-old secretary. Had been, for who knew how long.
Rachel hadn’t been unhappy in her marriage—just not especially happy, either. There had been a certain sterility to it that she’d been trained to accept. Her parents’ marriage hadn’t been any different. It was the way of their world. Fairy tales were for children. Grown ups were supposed to value…other things. Financial security. A solid commitment. A rooted awareness of one’s place in life—even if uncomfortable realities had to be swept under the carpet.
She would’ve been okay with keeping it all going. Until that one betrayal.
If she were honest with herself, it wasn’t just Mike she was fleeing from. Was it? Her mind ran over the catty comments that had followed her around the neighborhood, the smug curiosity from the women she usually socialized with. People who were supposed to be her friends. It hadn’t been entirely unexpected—she had seen similar things done to others. But the heartsickness she’d felt over it all had left her…weary.
A girl could only pretend for so long.
A big part of her was scared silly. It felt decidedly strange, to be cut off. From Mike, from the suddenly ugly matrix of her life. After almost twenty years of marriage… Who was she supposed to be, now?
The first time in her life she’d truly, genuinely been on her own. Before Mike there had been life with the parentals.
Her thoughts flickered to the Chicago ’burbs where she’d grown up, where she’d met Mike. Abe Lincoln High… She grinned for a second, remembering the first time they’d talked. She’d been a shy nerd, more interested in Jane Austen than jocks and their antics. Joanna’d had to drag her to that after-game party—the girl had a major crush on one of the players, and had needed support. Rachel had certainly never expected the team captain to single her out in the crowd.
Mike had spent the entire evening chatting with her, fetching her drinks. Then they’d gone out for a walk, just the two of them, the cool of evening failing to take the bewildered flush off her cheeks.
So gentle, he’d been. And courteous.
Still. She’d been stunned when he’d asked her out. And even more shocked when they’d become a couple.
They’d both been eighteen when they married—Rachel could still remember her parents’ baffled fury over the decision. But they’d been in love! And love conquered all.
And then there had been that other thing…the dark thing she’d never told anyone about…
Truth to tell, there hadn’t been many obstacles to conquer. Mike came from a good, solid family, after all. With a promising future. He’d already been accepted to Northwestern, and the two clans had gathered around them, funding their new life in Evanston. The twins had come less than a year later. The look in Mike’s eyes the first time he’d cradled them had solidified her sense of happily-ever-after.
The smile faded. When had that devotion, that caring, morphed into apathy?
And now here she was, with her harebrained leap of faith. She still didn’t know where things would go with her marriage. Only that she needed this.
Rachel swallowed. Okay, then. The third phase of her life—last chance to find out who she was, beyond Mrs. Michael P. Saunders, daughter of Bridget and George. Mother of Cathy and David. Housewife, soccer mom, proud resident of the Hoffman Estates, Illinois.
She still felt vaguely guilty about putting her own needs first. She knew, cognitively, it was silly—but the decades-long training had seeped into her bones.
She squared her shoulders, trying to find courage. Her time. Hers. A tingle of excitement in her belly balanced the fear as she parked before the building.
And a certain rooted tiredness eased off her shoulders, replaced by an inchoate sense of reinvention. Nothing concrete. Just…not that gray sameness.
Rachel stretched languidly, opening her eyes to darkness. And blinked in confusion for a couple of seconds. The strange feel of a new bed. Mike not there on the other side…
Once again, she fought back the sense of panic that suffused her.
Alone. The thought sent a shiver through her.
Easy, now. Let’s just see what the day brings.
She rose out of bed and stumbled through the unfamiliar room, cursing silently as she stubbed a foot against the bureau beside the door. She pushed the bathroom door open and flipped on the light switch.
Morning, Rachel. She stared at her haggard reflection in the mirror for a few long seconds. Long blond hair in disarray, blue eyes heavy with sleep.
Not that dumpy. You’re not old just yet.
Just not attractive enough anymore to hold onto her husband… She sighed and picked up the toothbrush, trying to find some security in the standard routines.
A minute later, she stood in the hallway, looking around. Two bedrooms and a medium sized living room. Seven hundred and fifty square feet of emptiness. Not exactly posh, either—Rachel had never lived in a student apartment before, not even in the early days of her marriage. But she’d been lucky, she knew, to find a place at all, this late in the year.
She rooted herself once more in the worn, comfortable old morning tasks—showering, making herself breakfast.
She cursed again as she tried to figure out the microwave that had come with the apartment, and the coffee machine she’d bought just the previous morning. Why did everything have to have so many damned buttons and sensors and blinky lights?
She was already tired by the time she’d fed herself. She poured herself coffee and ambled over to stand at the window, slowly sipping in rich, black brew.
And felt the fog begin to lift, suddenly loving the calm. She had always been selfish about the dawn, the solitude and oneness with the world that came with it. The cosmos seemed to be speaking to her alone, in these precious moments before the sun came up and she had to share it with strange, noisy others.
The sun rose as awareness seeped through her. She stared out the window onto the green, prosperous landscape of Newark.
Rachel Saunders raised her face to the light and breathed in…possibility.
~ ~ ~
Shit, this looks crazy. She stood in the doorway, looking around. “Is this International Relations 201?” she asked the coed sprawled in the nearest chair.
The girl nodded disinterestedly.
Rachel edged in nervously. The large auditorium was crammed with chattering young critters. Most seemed to know each other, as best she could tell, but there were a few freshmen there, obvious in their uncertainty. Rachel could empathize.
She grabbed one of the few remaining seats. Already, people were starting to sprawl in the aisles. Prof. de Beers was highly popular, the nice woman at the registration office had told her.
She turned around. A long-haired brunette was sitting right behind—her age, Rachel noted in relief. As was the redhead beside her.
“I’m Cyndi.” The brunette smiled. “This is Julia.”
Rachel smiled back. “Rachel. Glad I’m not the only older student here.”
Julia chuckled. “Not by a long shot. You’re going to like this class, by the way. He really makes global politics come alive. The Great Game, he calls it.”
Rachel eyed her dubiously, then swiveled around as the professor walked into the room, almost effortlessly claiming the space.
~ ~ ~
“Glad you talked me into this.” Rachel sighed, leaning back in her chair, and smiled at Cyndi. The coffee shop was crowded with students yammering about classes and boyfriends and annoying new roommates. Welcome to Brewing Trouble, the happy little sign outside had said.
It had been a long day of classes, late registrations, and having to deal with an endless array of harried, bossy ’crats. There were textbooks and supplies to be bought. And she still hadn’t figured out how to access the course websites. The sheer complexity of the logistics was tiring to even think about.
Cyndi seemed much more comfortable with the pace of things. Probably because she had arrived a month early. Rachel thanked her stars that she had so quickly found this new friend—if not for her, she would’ve felt utterly lost.
She hoped the kids were doing better than she was. Then, almost against her will, her mind drifted to Mike, all alone now in that big house. He’d never really had to take care of himself…
Cyndi cleared her throat. “Rachel?”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to wander off.”
“You okay?” Cyndi’s voice was rich with unspoken understanding.
“Mhm. Still not sure what I’m doing here,” she hedged. “I mean…”
“That it’s for kids? Not people our age?”
She smiled faintly. “Something like that. Where d’you even find the energy?” she asked enviously.
Cyndi smirked faintly. “We aren’t that exceptional, you know. It’s becoming more common for older people to come back to school. I’ve been seeing lots of them around campus, all the time. Women, especially—but some guys, too.”
“Still. Feels odd.”
“Yuh. Know what you mean. But what are we supposed to do? Be good little homebodies?” There was a subtle bitterness in her tone.
Rachel refrained from probing—everyone had her saga.
They exchanged stories, feeling each other out, easing gingerly into this new relationship. Cyndi was from Philly, and had recently gotten divorced. Her son was off to college as well, her daughter a high school senior, living with her dad and his new girlfriend.
Rachel told her about her own estrangement from Mike. Men were crud, they decided. “And that’s why I decided to…”
“Get a fresh start in life?” Cyndi smiled.
She nodded, glad someone actually got it.
Rachel eyed her friend curiously. “And you? What was it that brought you here? Really?”
Cyndi flushed. “Many things. Just…needed a change, I guess. Same as you. That was probably the biggest reason. Things had become too…”
Cyndi nodded. “People come back for all kinds of reasons. Some to make changes.” She smirked. “Others…for, shall we say, more adventurous reasons. The women, especially. And they don’t lack company, if you know what I mean.”
Rachel sipped her latte, glancing sidelong at her.
“They all seem to be with these hunky younger guys,” Cyndi clarified. She shrugged, seeming embarrassed.
“Huh? I mean, I’d heard about the ‘cougar’ thing. But…really?”
Cyndi nodded. “It’s apparently a status symbol for jocks, these days. You met Julia this morning, right?”
The perky little redhead? “You mean…?”
“She’s in a very serious relationship with one. I’ve seen them together—and…”
She shrugged, seeming puzzled. And sad. “He’s actually good to her, Rachel. Good for her, maybe. They…fit—it’s hard to describe.” She paused. “They just moved in together.”
Rachel goggled at her, trying to imagine it. “Not sure I could ever be comfortable with that.”
“Happiness comes in all sizes and shapes, I guess,” Cyndi responded pensively. “As does loneliness.”
That, she could relate to. Rachel sipped her coffee, trying not to be judgmental, and pondered the depth of the cultural changes. Back in her day…
“And why the heck not?” Cyndi muttered almost rebelliously. “My ex is ten years older than me—and I lost him to a twenty-seven-year-old! No one seemed to question that age gap, or feel the need to label it. It’s only when the woman is older that…” She trailed off, staring out at the street.
She smiled after a minute, glancing apologetically at Rachel. “Sorry—didn’t mean to get moody. This isn’t that kind of evening. Tell me about your kids.”
Rachel obliged, understanding the repressed pain all too well. They chatted about things as dusk fell around them, and she found herself loving the intimate evening bustle of Main Street. She liked this town, she decided. Human-sized—so different from the Big City anonymity of Chicago.
“Wanna come to a party?” her friend blurted without preamble.
Rachel eyed her over the rim of her mug. “If you’re talking about the kind of party I think you are…the last time I was at an event of that sort was in high school,” she said drily. And even then, her parents had been strict enough that she’d bypassed the usual teenage wildness.
Cyndi quirked a brow. “I thought you wanted a fresh start?”
Rachel glared at her in mock reproach. “How did you find out about it, anyway?”
“Mm. There’s this girl I met a few weeks ago—a senior, now. She was leading a campus tour I’d signed up for, and we got to talking. Seemed nice.” She shrugged. “She’d just broken up with her boyfriend, as it turned out, and…needed a shoulder to cry on, I guess. A mother figure? Anyhoo. Next thing I knew, we were friends. She’s hosting the thing, at this house she rents with a couple of other girls.
“Not sure it’s my thing, either.” Cyndi reddened a little, fidgeting in discomfort. “Just know that it’s a change. But I don’t want to go alone. Come with?”
Rachel shrugged. “Okay.” Why the hell not?
~ ~ ~
“Wow, this is crazy!” she yelled into Cyndi’s ear an hour later. They’d met up at her apartment building ten minutes ago, and then walked over together through the balmy late-summer Newark evening.
Loud rap music pumped out of speakers, the heavy bass sending shivers through her. The large, dark room was packed, clusters of giggling young people congregating in every corner. In the center of the room, bodies swayed to the heady beat, couples lost in the music and in each other.
“Hi! I’m Lisa,” someone said loudly, startling her. She turned to see a tall young blonde striding toward them, carrying two beer bottles. The girls behind her eyed Rachel uncertainly, as if wondering whether she’d turn out to be an authority figure.
“This is Rachel,” Cyndi yelled back, grabbing the offered drinks and passing one to her. “The friend I was telling you about. Thanks for the invite!”
Lisa giggled. “The more, the merrier. C’mon! Time—to—partaayy!”
“I’m staying put,” Rachel said in mild alarm. Bad enough that she’d been talked into coming here. A party girl she was not.
Cyndi seemed to understand, thankfully, patting Rachel’s shoulder as she turned to follow the gaggle of coeds. “Try to mingle a little.”
Rachel watched her plunge into the crowd, sipping her beer as she trailed after her new young friends…and already weaving a little. Apparently not her first drink of the evening, then—when had she had time to get sloshed?
And she’d apparently felt the need to change into “party clothes.” Rachel glanced again at her friend’s tight skirt and midriff baring tank top, feeling embarrassed for the woman. It was…almost inappropriate.
She stood against the wall and looked around at the unabashed partying. Half drunk young people needing to sublimate the back-to-school anxiety in raucous celebration.
She saw a few guys check Cyndi out as she passed by, appreciatively eyeing her tight ass twitch against the short skirt. Then, not entirely to Rachel’s surprise, a large young man she’d just walked past reached out to take the woman’s wrist and, without a word, drew her toward the sweaty throng in the center of the room. Cyndi looked shocked for a moment as she twisted around, almost shy—but then Rachel watched eagerness ripple across her face, and she followed obediently, dropping her half-finished drink in a trash can as she went. A moment later, she was swaying against the boy, teetering in her heels. A confident hand drifted down to her lower back, and her body was pressed firmly to his, her arms winding around his neck.
Rachel had to admit the woman was in great shape, though. She surreptitiously eyed Cyndi’s taut body and toned legs. And then looked down at herself… acutely aware that she’d kind of let herself go. She used to be a gym fanatic, a few centuries ago. Before the pressures of caring for a family, getting the kids through high school, taking care of the house…
Perhaps that was why Mike had strayed? Of course, he’d let himself go, as well—but the man was never judged, she thought bitterly.
Well. Nothing she could do about all that, now. But she could change the future. And getting back in shape suddenly seemed like a very good place to start.
Still. Standing against the wall, watching Cyndi make a fool of herself, Rachel found it all decidedly strange. What in fuck’s name were they doing here? At their age?
A few guys were speculatively eyeing her as well, she discovered as she glanced around the room, feeling uncomfortable under the ogling. She hid behind a pillar, hoping to be left alone.
So, then, Cyndi was right. Older women were apparently in vogue. The lure of the unattainable, she supposed. Maybe…maybe this really was a positive change. Why should men have all the fun? she thought crankily.
And Cyndi needed this experience, she guessed. She might seem okay on the surface, but Rachel had glimpsed the deep hurt that lay beneath, at having been tossed aside for a younger woman.
She found herself thinking again of Mike, and his twenty-five-year-old paramour.
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