It is official. I have ugly toes. This epic conclusion was reached twelve days and approximately six hours into my forced vacation. Okay, technically, I was fired. But to a self-aware workaholic, losing your job and taking an extended vacation are equally painful. For most of those twelve days and six hours I’d been sitting in my recliner, binge-watching two ridiculously gorgeous men battling evil of the supernatural variety, stuffing my face with acne-inducing snack foods and, apparently, staring at my bare feet peeking out from under the blanket long enough to realize my toes were ugly.
I mean, it’s not like they’re new to me. They’ve been there for thirty-seven years. I think I might have even painted my toenails once or twice in high school. Whether they were pretty or ugly had never before crossed my mind. Can toes even be pretty or ugly? I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it. Or at least I hadn’t until that moment. And with that, I realized I had officially hit rock bottom.
For the first time since college, I found myself smack dab in the middle of an identity crisis. I’d built my life around my work. I’d bought into the belief that if I worked harder than everyone else, wanted it more than everyone else, did everything I could, it would eventually pay off in the end. I’d been close, too. I had worked my way up the ladder from copywriter to assistant editor of a well-respected national magazine, despite knowing exactly zero about home décor when I started, much less the art of gardening.
I was the first one in the door every morning. The last out of the door at night. I worked weekends and holidays and evenings. Whatever it took, I did it. And I was happy doing it. The whole work/life balance b.s.—it wasn’t for me. I loved to work. It was my thing. Now, without the thing, I had no idea who I was.
A buzzing on the side table made me jump, mostly because it had been twelve days and six hours since I’d heard that sound. Scratch that. Seven days. One nice woman had called to offer me a one-time offer to pay five hundred dollars for a week-long cruise to the Caribbean. Had that call come today, I might have fallen for it. But seven days ago, I’d still had my wits about me, so I hung up on her. Other than that, the phone that normally buzzed constantly with emails, page notifications, and phone calls had been silent. A testament to my current sad lot in life.
Slapping away the assortment of candy bar wrappers and empty chip bags that were piled on top of my phone, I reached for it, glanced at the name, and swiped to answer. “Did you know my middle toe is freakishly long? I have ugly toes.”
There was silence for a beat before Mark chuckled. “Well. Okay, then. I’m almost afraid to ask.”
Mark Wright. Best friend. Confidant. Overall voice of reason for crazy and unpredictable Grace. That’s me, in case it wasn’t clear. Grace Myers. Grace Myers with freakishly ugly toes.
“Seriously. My toes are ugly.”
“I'm sure your toes aren’t ugly.”
In the background, I heard Mark’s significant other, Lindsay yell, “Who said her toes were ugly?”
Lindsay. Best friend part deux by default. I love Lindsay almost as much as I love Mark. Mostly because she’d accepted me as Mark’s friend without so much as blinking an eye. It was rare, as I had found out over the years, to find a woman secure enough to handle her significant other having a best friend of the opposite sex. The moment she looked me dead in the eye and asked me point blank if I wanted to sleep with her boyfriend—which of course I answered with a very truthful barfing sound—I knew we would eventually become friends. And we did, so much so that by the time they’d moved in together and started their family, I sometimes spent more time talking to Lindsay than to Mark. And now I got to play the fun auntie with their three boys, ranging in ages from six to thirteen.
“I don’t think anyone told her that,” Mark answered. “Did they?”
“Nope. Figured it out on my own.”
“Exactly why are we talking about your toes again?” he asked.
“I may or may not have been fired.” It hurt passing my lips for the first time and was met by silence on the other end of the line. It was almost like what I imagined those people with loving parents felt like when they delivered disappointing news. I mean, I wouldn’t know really, but that’s how I imagined it felt.
Finally, he sighed. “What did you do?”
There was no point in being offended. Mark knew me too well. “In my defense, she deserved it,” I said. “I sort of called my boss a no-talent, waste of space and told her she was hell-bent on ruining everyone’s lives around her to make herself look good, because that’s the only way she ever will.” I had played those words over and over in my head since the moment they’d spewed from my mouth, eliciting a grin from her and an immediate, “You’re fired.” At that point, I knew I had given her exactly what she wanted. I’d handed control of the situation to her on a silver platter, and she greedily grabbed it up. That realization was almost as painful as the actual firing.
A groan echoed across the line. I heard Lindsay again in the background. “What happened?”
“She had a Grace moment,” Mark said with a hint of a chuckle.
Yes. It had been a Grace moment. A Grace moment that had flushed fifteen years of ladder climbing down the drain. A Grace moment that had essentially killed my career. A Grace moment that beat all other Grace moments, like telling my 8th grade history teacher she was boring, or flipping off the principal behind his back, not realizing he was standing in front of a very reflective piece of glass. There was the Grace moment when I’d poured orange juice down the front of a particularly heinous girl in the university cafeteria or the Grace moment when I’d punched a guy in a bar for slapping my butt, kicking off a massive bar fight. Though, in retrospect, I was still proud of that particular Grace moment. I had a scar on my arm from a beer bottle as a trophy.
Despite my long list of moments, I had still managed to get out of the small town that was the bane of my existence, make it through college, then moved to New York City and landed an amazing entry level job. Over the years, I’d learned to contain my inner Grace in favor of a better title and more money. In other words, I’d flat out pimped my personality for a promotion.
And things had been decent. Not great, but I didn’t want to kill myself every day, so that was good. And, for the most part, I’d had them all fooled into believing I was a normal colleague and worked my way up the ranks, fueled by a killer work ethic, a lack of social life, and a desire to rise to the top. The top being the editor’s desk, which I’d thought I had in the bag. I went out of my way to avoid allowing those I worked with to see the real Grace under the mask, turning down after-hours invitations and stepping out of conversations that weren’t work-related. Apparently, as evident from the lack of phone calls, I had at least done a good job at keeping everyone at a distance. When my former editor, Richard, had announced he would be resigning as editor to take another job, I’d just known the position would be mine.
That was, until the owner’s spawn decided she wanted it. The owner’s spawn, who’d flunked out of college twice, according to the office rumor mill. The owner’s spawn, who would spend the next six months making my life a living hell. The fact she’d only gotten words from me instead of my fists was a minor miracle. I had no regrets.
Well. Maybe a few.
Mostly, I regretted realizing I had ugly toes.
“Are we done talking about your toes yet?” Mark asked. “I called for a reason.”
There was silence, and then they both yelled into the phone. “We’re getting married!”
Ugly toes momentarily forgotten, I slammed the footrest of the recliner down and matched their energy with a “What?!” Then grimaced at the stench that released from under the blanket. I seriously needed to shower. “When?”
I heard Lindsay tell Mark to give her the phone. There was shuffling, then Lindsay said, “Next weekend. And I want you to be my maid of honor. And now that you are an unemployed mooch, you have no excuses! Get your ass in the car and come home!”
My sincere joy over the news—though the short timeline was a little concerning—was immediately replaced with dread. Partly because Lindsay, though my female soulmate in every other way, was a full-on girly girl. To this day, I still haven’t figured out how she managed to raise three boys and still look like a super model in every picture. Not that I really cared—until “maid of honor” had come out of her mouth. From nearly the moment we met, she had been trying to make me over. I had managed to avoid it. Agreeing to be maid of honor meant she would have total reign over my appearance. It was going to suck.
The other part that was going to suck was going home.
Home. I hadn’t thought of Adelaide, Ohio as home for years and for good reason. I hated it. I hated the people. I hated the pretty scenery and the slow, small-town pace of things. I hated how growing up, my last name had carried more weight in people’s decisions about me than my actual presence had. Since the moment I had stepped outside of the town lines, I’d felt freedom from a past that really wasn’t my making.
In the past twenty-two years, I had only been back on special occasions for Mark and Lindsay’s boys—at their births and when I would get a call from one of them, asking if Aunt Grace was going to come to their recital, big game, or school play.
Other than that, Adelaide, Ohio was barely a blip on my life radar. It most certainly was not home.
“So?” Lindsay asked impatiently.
“I’ll be there,” I said, pushing the negative thoughts from my brain. I would wait until I got there to find out why they were getting married now and why the rush.
Lindsay whooped, and I heard her yell, “Aunt Grace is coming!” The sound of three boys cheering warmed my heart.
“Here’s Mark back. Can’t wait! Love you!” Lindsay said with a kissing noise.
“So? How are you really doing?” Mark asked.
The background noise of a chaotic home faded and then disappeared with the sound of a door closing. We were alone now, just like all the years in high school, sitting on the bank of the creek or on a deserted playground, while I screamed, cried, and even sometimes laughed at the tragedy that was my life. To everyone else, what my parents had or hadn’t done appeared to have no effect on me. The way people, both peers and adults, treated me was not my concern. But with Mark, I was safe to let it all out. Only he knew the truth, the real me. And only he knew when to lend a shoulder and when to crack a whip.
Had it not been for Mark, I have no doubt I would have quit high school and probably followed in my family’s footsteps of crime and drugs. Had it not been for Mark, who made me fill out an application for the same college he would be attending and forced me to go with him, I probably would not have even thought of furthering my education past high school. Had it not been for Mark and now Lindsay and the boys, I would be all alone in the world. They were my compass, my light at the end of the tunnel. My world outside of my own world.
“I don’t know. I screwed up this time, Mark. Bad,” I said, once again feeling the weight of my circumstances on my shoulders. “I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Have you tried apologizing?”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I do know I’m not going to do that. That bitch can rot, for all I care.”
“Grace!” He sounded offended, but I knew better.
“Sorry. But it’s true.”
“Then come here. Stay through the wedding. Take time to figure out what you want to do,” he said. “You never know. You might find small town life suits you now.”
“Yeah. Okay. No.”
“Fine. Come here anyway and get your bearings. We have plenty of room, and the boys would love to see you for more than 24 hours.”
“I’m coming. You know I wouldn’t miss you in a tux,” I said with a chuckle, trying to lighten the mood.
“Yeah, well. Her color is pink.” He laughed heartily, knowing I hated pink. Knowledge also possessed by Lindsay.
“Please tell me you’re joking,” I said with a groan. His answer was another laugh. “She’s going to make me wear a taffeta dress, isn’t she?”
“Nah. She’s not cruel.” He paused. “I don’t think, anyway.” He paused again, then moved on. “So, when can we expect you?”
I calculated getting packed, cleaning up the mess that had accumulated throughout my apartment, and the flight. “Tomorrow evening, maybe? I’ll see what flights I can find, and let you know.”
“Sounds good. I’ll tell Lindsay. Do you need me to pick you up from the airport?”
“No, I’ll rent a car.”
“We still have an extra car you can borrow.”
“You know there is no way I want to be responsible for that. I’ll rent one.”
“You’re ridiculous,” he said.
“I am well aware.”
“Okay. Fine. Have it your way. You going to be okay until you get here?”
“Yes. I’ll be fine.” Silence. “Mark. Thank you. As always.”
“Anytime, Walnut. Anytime.” I smiled at the use of my throwback nickname, given to me one day after he told me I had an outer shell as hard as a walnut. “I’ve gotta go. It sounds like Henry copped an attitude with his mom again, by the sounds coming out of the house. Teenagers are fun.”
I chuckled. “Okay. See you soon.”
“Yep. Night.” With that, my lifeline was severed. I found that where before I had been content in wallowing, when I set down my phone at the end of the call, a crushing wave of depression swept over me.
For the first time in my life, I wished for a dog. Or maybe a cat. Some kind of pet to keep me company. Something to call mine. Then I thought of all the hair and cleaning up poop and changed my mind. Maybe a hamster or a goldfish, even. I would have to consider my pet options when I returned. Not that I would ever get one. I’d probably forget to feed it, and it would die a horrible, painful death. But I could at least consider it.
Tired and now borderline irritated, I stood up, scanned the apartment, and cringed. Delivery food boxes and pop bottles littered every flat surface. Blanketing the hardwood floor in a semicircle around my chair were wadded up tissues, victims of my roller coaster emotional state.
In the kitchen, cabinet doors were open, and every cup and glass I owned lined the counters, their contents in varying stages of fermentation. On the stove was a pan containing charred hamburger, abandoned when I’d wandered back to the recliner and lost track of time while it was cooking. That was how many days ago?
Tension knotted in my shoulders as I continued to assess the damage. It wasn’t that I was a neat freak. Not by any stretch of the imagination. In truth, I was never home long enough to make a mess. The thought of cleaning up the remains of a two-week depression binge was overwhelming.
For a split-second, I considered just packing up, walking out the door and leaving the mess for another day. Then an image from the movie Joe’s Apartment flashed in my mind, and I shivered. No, I would book my flight. Then I would clean. Then I would pack. In that order.
I would look at this as an adventure. It had been a while since I had one, and I needed one. Maybe not a pink taffeta adventure, but I would just have to suck that one up if came to that. Because at this point, anything beat sitting in the recliner and staring at my ugly toes.