Jenna followed the signs to Baggage Claim. There was no need to rush, although that was her usual habit. Rush, rush, rush. And then, of course, wait for the bags to arrive. Hurry up and wait. Her life’s motto. She’d usually use the wait time to check her phone. After all, she had been in the air for an hour or more. How had the world gotten along without her? But she had no desire to check her phone right now. She told herself that she was trying not to feel so driven all the time. She told herself she was noticing the world around her; was stopping to smell the roses. Really, she was simply tired.
Living with Jonathan for nine years had been a marathon of non-stop competition that had left her exhausted, and the divorce made her feel like a failure.
Jenna was looking forward to the weekend. It was her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, a huge affair, with extended family coming in from all over the country and every friend and neighbor invited. This shindig was triple the size of their wedding forty years ago. Oh, well. They deserved it. “The kids” were footing the bill. Not equally, as Jenna was paying for the bulk of it, she being in a much more stable financial position than her siblings. She hadn’t wanted them to feel bad about that, though, so she said that it was only fair that she paid more because she could not help the sibs plan and execute the party. She could only be there for the weekend.
During her marriage, she had avoided going home. Gifts arrived in the mail in time for Christmas. She kept in touch, but was always too busy to travel when holidays rolled around and could never make it home. She realized now that she had been keeping her husband and her family apart. He was a lot to take. Most people found him impossible. Jenna had always been competitive and Jonathan’s ambitious nature attracted her. She soon learned that the man was not simply competitive. He never stopped. Everything was a challenge, a contest, a race that he had to win.
Jenna stopped at a cafe along the concourse and picked up a cappuccino to go. When she entered Baggage Claim, there was a crowd of people milling around a carousel. An electronic board above had her flight number blinking on it. No bags had yet appeared out of the bowels of the airport. Jenna walked over and sat in a chair at the side of the hall. She’d wait until the crowd thinned out. No one was waiting for her outside Baggage Claim. She had told them she was unsure which flight she’d be on, so she’d take a taxi when she arrived. Jenna sipped her cappuccino and waited for the irritated travelers to grab their bags and leave. It was a good thing Jonathan wasn’t with her. Her ex would have been pushing people out of his way to grab the bags as soon as they exited the chute.
Maybe I should work on being more Zen, Jenna thought. What’s the point of pushing to be first? The bags will come when they come and they’ll travel around and around on the conveyor belt until I get there.
She sat, enjoying her coffee and deliberately not fishing her phone out of her purse, just to see what that felt like. It was odd, but strangely calming. She continued to sip her coffee slowly. She didn’t even burn her tongue, which was something she used to do almost weekly when she had been married. When the coffee was gone, wandered over to a trash can and threw the cup away and then looked back at the carousel. Most of the people were gone now and there was plenty of space to stand without getting jostled. Her bag was traveling slowly on the conveyor. She walked over and grabbed it, not needing to shove anyone out of the way to do so. She pulled up the handle and wheeled it out the door to the taxi stand.
There was a taxi waiting. The driver saw her coming and pressed the button to open the trunk. As she walked up to the cab, the driver’s door opened, but Jenna called out, “I’ve got it, thanks,” and the taxi door closed again. Jenna lifted her suitcase into the trunk and slammed the lid down. She walked around to the back seat and climbed in.
“Where to?” asked the driver.
“Claremont, please. 1653 Maple Drive.” Jenna pulled her phone out and starting scrolling through messages. There was nothing important. She deliberately put the phone back in her purse.
Slow down, she thought, Breathe.
She noticed the taxi hadn’t pulled out of the parking spot yet, although traffic was light.
“Claremont is on the East Side,” she said to the taxi driver, who, Jenna realized, was staring at her in the rearview mirror.
“Jenna McNamara!” said the taxi driver. She was grinning. “How have you been? I haven’t seen you since graduation.”
Jenna looked at the driver more closely. She was wearing a baseball cap, probably to help keep the afternoon sun out of her eyes. It took Jenna a beat to place the woman. Holy crap! It couldn’t be! But, yes. It was Tina Jaworsky.
“It’s Tina,” said the driver, “From high school.”
She and Tina had been the best students in their high school class. They had spent the entire four years alternating between being number one and number two in almost everything. Tina had been homecoming queen and Jenna prom queen. Jenna was president of the class to Tina’s vice president in their junior year and they switched roles senior year. They were co-valedictorians at graduation. Tina starred in all the plays and Jenna ran the school newspaper and literary magazine. They had both gone off to prestigious universities, although Jenna believed that she could have gotten into Yale if it hadn’t been for Tina. Neither girl had gotten into an Ivy League school, and Jenna was sure it was because they kept each other out. Neither had been the clear winner in the contest. Jenna interpreted this as holding each other back.
Jenna worked as an editor for a publishing house in New York City. Her goal was to either rise to Editor-at-Large at her company or to strike out on her own. This goal was part of her five-year plan.
She had assumed, had she ever thought about it at all, that Tina would have ended up producing plays on Broadway or movies in Hollywood. How in the world did she end up driving a cab back in their hometown?
Jenna sat up straight.
“I’m sorry. Of course, I recognized you, Tina. It’s just so… unexpected. I mean, I thought you moved away after high school?”
“Unexpected” was the most diplomatic word Jenna could think of. Tina had had so much potential. Jenna felt sympathy mixed with more than a bit of smugness at having “won” the rivalry after all these years. Then she felt like a jerk for feeling that way. Oh, that was such a Jonathan-like attitude! She really had to work on that.
Tina pulled the taxi out into traffic and laughed.
“Unexpected is the right word! I never planned to come back,” Tina said. “I got a BA in film and media studies and had an internship lined up with a producer in California, when my father died and I had to come home to help.”
“Oh, Tina. I hadn’t heard. I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks. It was hard on my mom. She didn’t know how to do anything outside of being a housewife. My dad had done it all. She had never even paid a bill! All she had done in her life was to take care of the house and kids. I had to come home and take over the cab company. Good thing I had taken some business courses in the media studies program! I’m the oldest child in my family, so it all fell to me. There were still kids at home who needed to be fed and have a roof over their heads, so the business couldn’t go under. I got it all running smoothly and taught my mom how to run the daily business. She wasn’t stupid, you know? It was just that my parents each had their own thing to do. If it had been Mom who had had the massive coronary, Dad wouldn’t have known how to run the washing machine or boil an egg.”
Tina shook her head in amusement at how her parents had arranged their life together. It seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. Then again, her parents had never argued about whose turn it was to do the dishes, like she and Mark had.
“Mom and I even built the business up over the years,” Tina said with pride. “We’ve got a good-sized fleet now and twenty drivers. I rarely drive. I’m just helping out today. We’ve got two drivers out sick. I’m glad I picked you up, though. It’s so nice to see you.”
Tina smiled into the rearview mirror. She was genuinely happy to see her old school friend. It looked like Jenna had done well for herself. That suit must have cost a fortune, and her wristwatch looked expensive, too. She wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, Tina noticed. No big deal, there. Tina wasn’t married, either. Anymore.
“What have you been up to?” Tina asked, “Your sister Steph said you were in publishing? And you live in New York City?”
“I’m an editor at Silver Press,” said Jenna. “And I used to live in Manhattan, but I moved to the Hudson Valley after my divorce. The commute time is good for reading manuscripts. I couldn’t afford to live in the city without a roommate and I wanted to live alone after a nine-year marriage.”
Jenna tried to sound offhand. She didn’t want Tina, or anyone else, to know how much the end of her marriage had hurt her.
“I get that,” Tina said. “Mark Hanson and I were married for five years and that was four and a half years too long. I’ve lived happily alone ever since we split up.”
“Mark, the star quarterback from Claremont High, Hanson? The one with a different cheerleader on his arm every week?”
“The very same,” said Tina. “It turned out that he didn’t know he was supposed to stop playing around after he got married. Plus, he never got over not getting into the NFL after playing college ball. He had way too much emotional baggage and I should have seen it. But, hey, you know how it is. The quarterback looking at little old me. It was flattering. He just couldn’t get past his past, you know? ‘Hey, dude! Dreams sometimes don’t come true. Deal with it.’ I don’t live in Hollywood. I direct community theater and teach English at CHS. I’m a big fish in a small pond and that’s fine.”
Jenna looked at Tina in the rearview mirror. She really appeared to be fine. She sounded content.
How did Tina do that? Jenna wondered.
She, too, wanted off the merry-go-round. She was a successful editor at a successful publishing house. But she wasn’t running Silver Press, so she hadn’t succeeded yet.
Stop, she told herself. That’s Jonathan talking, again. Let it go. Let him go.
Tina pulled up in front of a brick house on a tree-lined street.
“Here you are,” Tina said. “It was great catching up. Maybe we can talk some more while you’re in town.”
“Oh,” said Jenna, surprising herself by being genuinely disappointed, “I’m only here for one day. I leave tomorrow evening.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. Well, I’ll see you tonight at the party. Steph invited me. I’ll buy you a drink and we can complain about what shits our ex-husbands are.”
Jenna laughed. “Actually, that sounds great.”
She meant it.
Jenna and her sister, Steph, sat at their mother’s kitchen table, drinking coffee and going over last-minute details for the party.
Jenna turned to Steph and said, “Guess who the taxi driver was at the airport? Tina Jaworsky! She said you invited her to the party. Are you two friends?”
“Not really. She’s Linda’s English teacher, and she’s the drama club advisor,” said Steph, referring to her daughter, a freshman at Claremont High, “Tina puts on amazing productions! Very professional. She gets the absolute best out of those kids. People come from all over the state to see CHS shows. You really should come home for one. I’ve been telling you for years that you should. Even before your niece became the next Meryl Streep.”
“Yes, you did. I’m sorry I didn’t take your advice.”
“Anyway, I invited Tina for your sake. We had all invited old friends, and I thought you might like to have your old friend here, too.”
Jenna looked up from her checklist. Old friend?
“Where’d you get the idea that Tina was my friend, Steph? We were rivals throughout school, always competing against each other for everything.”
“Rivals!” Steph laughed. “Give me a break! You two ran that high school together for the four years you were there. I watched you do it. You were together on every committee. You and she shared all the superlatives in the yearbook. Face it, Jenna. Tina Jaworsky was the only friend you had in high school. And you were her only friend. Everyone else was too in awe of both of you to be a genuine friend to either of you. You only had each other.”
Jenna stared at Steph. She was right.
Jenna’s being so competitive had meant that Tina was the closest thing she’d ever had to a friend, and Jenna had only ever seen her as an adversary. Jenna and Jonathan had ended up as rivals, too. She couldn’t blame Jonathan for all of it. She had done her share of sparring throughout the marriage and she had worn herself out. One day, she was sitting in yet another mediation meeting, fighting over a cd of all things. Who had bought it? Who had given it to whom as a gift? Jenna realized she didn’t care. She had snapped, “Just take it! Take whatever you want. I’m done.” She had left the meeting and had signed a settlement agreement the next week that her lawyer told her was not fair, but she didn’t care. She didn’t want to be that person anymore. Everything she hated in Jonathan, she hated in herself, too. Since the divorce, she had been trying to find contentment. Tina had that. Jenna was looking forward to seeing Tina at the party. Maybe she could learn something from her new, old friend.
Jenna and Steph were locking up the VFW lodge. They had stayed after the party so the catering staff could clean-up.
“Did you get the lights in the men’s room as well as the ladies’?” asked Jenna.
“Yup,” said Steph, turning the main lights off and locking the front door, “You spent an awful lot of time laughing at the bar with Tina tonight. Tell me again how she isn’t your friend.”
“Oh, my God! I forgot how funny she was. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in years.”
“Good. You needed it. You know, she’s got the high school drama club in rehearsals for Alice in Wonderland. The show opens in April. You should come.”
“Tina told me about it. Linda is playing Alice. You must be proud.”
“Yes, she is and, yes, I am,” said Steph.
“I’ll be there. Opening night. I promise.”
© 2021 Liza Cameron Wasser