Robin had been sitting in a booth at the Milburn Diner for about twenty minutes before Karen arrived. She spent the time uncomfortably alone. Her orderly life had come to an end that day and she didn’t want to dwell on the wreckage.
She was on her third cup of highly sugared coffee when Karen finally slid onto the bench opposite her. She looked up from the large manilla envelope in her purse to see Karen’s graying blonde hair obscuring her faintly swollen right cheekbone. Her eyebrows raised as she nodded toward her friend’s face.
“You want to talk about that?”
Silence. Then, “Okay. And I thought I had a bad day.”
“You probably did,” Karen answered as she gestured toward the waiter for a menu. “Just because I have obviously had one doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to have one, too.”
Robin nodded. “True.” She sipped her coffee. “Should I ask how the other guy looks?”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
They sat quietly until the waiter asked for their orders – a vegetable wrap for Karen and a short stack of pancakes for Robin. Karen watched the young man’s red-clad back disappear in behind the counter then observed, “Did you ever notice we order the same things every week?”
Robin pursed her lips. “Yes, I have noticed that.”
“I’d say we are in a rut except a few things transpired today that have never happened before.”
Robin dug in her purse and tossed the manilla envelope on the table between them; it landed with a slap. “You can say that again.”
Karen prodded the envelope with her index finger. “Is that what I think it is?”
“I don’t know what you think but I’ll tell you what it is to save wear and tear on your imagination. That envelope contains the remains of my life.”
“Divorce settlement check?”
“Yup. A shiny, new, check for my share of the house and its furnishings and my half of twenty-seven years of marriage. My life reduced to dollars and . . .” she reached into the envelope. “Yup . . . and cents. I thought that he might have rounded it to the next nearest dollar, but no.”
Karen stirred her coffee. “What are you going to do?”
Robin shrugged. “Since all this happened at ten this morning I haven’t really considered.”
Karen raised one eyebrow skeptically. Robin’s jaw set. “Yes, I know that I was aware that this day was coming. I stuffed my head in the sand, all right?”
The waiter placed their food in front of them. Karen smiled at him and waved him away. “All right. I wasn’t going to say that.” She ate a bite of cole slaw. “I only meant tonight. What are you going to do tonight? I presume you surrendered the keys?”
“Yes, everything I own is in storage. Except Harvey and me.” Harvey was Robin’s large, white cat.
“Where is he?”
“With the ex temporarily. He and the Replacement took him until I decide where I want to go.”
Karen’s eyes widened. Robin held up a hand. “Don’t say it; I know.” Robin was inordinately fond of Harvey. “But I have no idea where I want to spend this night or any night. I guess I will have to go to a hotel. I am trying to think of this as a new beginning but every time I look at my life I feel like a failure.” She chewed her pancakes. “My plans are to deposit the check into my bank account and wait for it to clear. Then I will look for another place to live – probably a rental apartment until I figure out what I want. Then, come September, I will return to attempting to teach English Literature to people who don’t want to learn it.” She sighed heavily. “That sounds so ghastly. I really want to pick up Harvey, toss my clothes in the car, and head west on the Turnpike. Like Jack in All the King’s Men. Just fill the car with gas and point it toward California.”
After frowning at each other, the two women ate in silence for a while, then Karen said, “The other guy looks fine, by the way. I missed.”
Robin cocked her head.
Karen sighed and continued. “You know how I have said that this whole retirement thing isn’t working out quite how I imagined?”
“Well, it came to a head today. I found a stack of unpaid bills on a chair in the dining room. That set me off. I have been looking around for a long-term sub or an adjuncting position but Ed feels no compunction to find a job because I get my pension. He doesn’t understand that with him not working, Little Eddie not getting as big a scholarship for college as we had hoped and constantly asking for money, and my mother-in-law staying with us for nearly nine months, the retirement money just isn’t enough to live on. Then I saw on the statement that he took another cash advance on Visa. I just couldn’t take any more. I screamed and threw a mug of coffee at him.” Robin stopped chewing and stared at her friend. “I missed, but it trickled down the wall meaning that now something else needs to be fixed.”
“I guess Ed has had enough, too, because he threw the mug back at me. I tried to duck but it caught me here.” She pointed at her cheekbone.
Robin said nothing.
Karen continued. “So, maybe I will go with you to whatever hotel you are planning on checking into tonight. I really don’t want to go home.” She chuckled. “Hey, maybe I will go to California, too,” she added playfully.
Robin grinned and continued chewing. “Do you really want to?”
Karen looked up from her cole slaw. “Want to what?”
“Go to California. For real.”
“Are you kidding?”
“No. I have the money.” She tapped the manilla envelope. “The ex has to pay for my car. My clothes are in the storage locker; I need only collect them and Harvey and I am ready to go.”
“What about work?”
“I will send them an email and resign.”
“What about your retirement package?”
“I’ll still get it at some point. I am not even eligible yet. They can send me the paperwork when I am ready for it.”
“What are you going to do out there? Where are you going to go?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you’re crazy.”
“Maybe I am but I need a change.” As the idea took shape in her imagination Robin began to really warm to it. “Look, I am unhappy here. I hate my job. My parents are dead. My husband dumped me for a younger woman. I don’t even have a house, anymore. There is nothing for me here. Nothing but you, my best friend, and you can come with me.”
Karen thought then said, “We might kill each other. We are pretty different, you know.”
“We might,” Robin agreed. “We might go out together in a blazing burst of road rage or fly over a cliff like Butch and Sundance. Or I can go alone to build a new life and you can stay here to let your ungrateful family kill you one day, one dollar, one penny at a time.”
Neither woman said anything as the minutes ticked by and the enormity of Robin’s idea sunk in.
“Okay! I am in. I can’t believe I am doing this. It’s the nuttiest thing I have ever done.”
“Let’s go.” Robin signaled for the check.
“Whose car should we take?” Karen asked when they were standing on the sunny sidewalk.
“Mine,” said Robin. “It’s got GPS and neither of us has any sense of direction.”
“Okay, I will go pack a bag and meet you here in . . . what an hour?”
“Two. I have to get Harvey.”
Karen unlocked the door of her minivan. “I cannot believe we are actually going to do this.”
“Well, I am. I have no reason to stay here.”
“Neither do I, really, although I guess I always thought I did; it just took a flying coffee mug to show me how little I actually mean to my family. Besides, I can always come back if it doesn’t work out.”
“You can, although I have no idea why you’d want to.” Robin could almost see Karen’s brain whirring as she considered taking the most radical step she had ever conceived.
“And I have a married nephew out there near Folsom.”
Karen wavered. “I wonder what Ed and Eddie will think about this?”
Robin placed her hands squarely on her friend’s shoulders. “Karen, why do you care? They obviously don’t. Besides, as long as they still have access to the account your pension gets paid into they may not even notice you’re gone.”
That last remark had a visible affect on Karen. Her eyes widened and she poked her friend. “Hurry up. We can make it to Pittsburgh before midnight.”