Bella’s Introduction: A reader, Scott Larson, recently sent me this short story. I’m not a fiction writer and so I can’t claim to be a qualified judge of that genre, but personally, I really enjoyed it, and I particularly appreciated its single-at-heart sensibility. So I asked the author if I could reprint it here, and he graciously agreed.
Scott describes himself as “archetypical of those happy, single-at-heart people.” He has enjoyed 31 years of never-wedded fulfillment. He is an electrical engineer in northwestern Minnesota who enjoys playing piano, drawing portraits, hunting, weight lifting, reading nonfiction and classic literature, and just learning in general. He also likes good food, good wine, and good friends.
Thank you, Scott, for sharing your work!
By Scott Larson
Janet Marie Hutton wanted to sleep in. On a typical day, she donned her running shoes and put three miles behind her before most people stirred. On this day, however, she was visiting her parents for Christmas. She had gone out with some old high school chums the night before and now felt particularly equal to the task of sleeping in.
She would have succeeded, too, except that her parents only had two spare bedrooms. Janet’s younger siblings, Tom and Nancy, and their spouses occupied those rooms. Being the only unmarried guest, Janet was naturally delegated to the living room couch. And, as anyone who has ever been consigned to a living room couch will readily acknowledge, it was not in her power to sleep late. The denizen of the couch must necessarily rouse with the earliest riser, as she has not the protection of wall, nor door, nor darkness. So, once her father’s early morning disruptions penetrated her slumbering mind, she reluctantly forsook her best inclinations and numbly sat up. Real consciousness gradually crept in as she performed her morning ritual of staring blankly out the window. After a brief “good morning” exchange, she at least managed to seize the opportunity to shower first.
Coffee was necessary. As her family bustled about getting ready for the day, she sipped her pick-me-up and flipped through an edition of her dad’s Newsweek magazine. “All I Want for Christmas” caught her eye. The article began:
It’s the most wonderful time of the year—unless you’re single. The weather gets colder, the sky gets darker and there’s one holiday after another to remind you that you’re all alone.
Well, that’s cheerful, thought Janet. She peered out the window to examine the sky. Yep, that slate grey sky announced another cold, dark, dreary day, alright.
Her thoughts involuntarily turned to the previous night. Both of her former classmates had long since ascended into married life. They’d spent the night talking of their children, their husbands, and their busy lives, with scarcely even feigned interest in her goings-on. A camaraderie once fostered by like problems and pursuits had faded into a merely nostalgic affection, unsupported by any material similarity in their current situations. Their inability to relate to Janet’s life didn’t hinder them from reciting every adorable anecdote revealing their children’s virtues, nor did it dissuade them from detailing the minutia of their relationships with their husbands. She had persevered the evening with perfect cordiality, which her fond loyalty to their former attachment engendered. She had amiably elected not to notice their airs of superiority. With flawless composure, Janet had even affected a smile at each of the subtle, indelicate slights that had contrasted her singleness with their success.
A call to pancakes drew her from her reverie. Soon after eating, her grandparents arrived bearing gifts and glad tidings. With typical mirth and chatter, they exchanged their presents and then ate their dinner, from whence everyone retired to the living room for a nice, long afternoon of visiting.
“So… are you seeing anyone, Janet?” her granddad queried.
Janet cringed. Here it comes, she thought. “No, Grandpa,” she tersely replied.
“Don’t you think maybe you’re being too picky? Such a pretty girl should have an easy time finding a fella’.” Now, Janet might properly be classed as “almost pretty,” but she only ever qualified as “pretty” when present and in polite company. Nonetheless, Janet was grandpa’s favorite, and grandpa was always concerned and always biased, as grandpas are wont to be.
“I don’t really want a boyfriend right now, Grandpa.”
“Frank! Leave her alone,” interjected grandma, who had overheard. “She’s 30 years old for Christ’s sake. The girl’s biological clock is ticking. She doesn’t have anyone, and she’s no doubt miserable enough, without your making a big fuss over it.”
Grandma’s accumulated wisdom would not permit her solicitude to end in so eloquent a manner. Since she had an outspoken opinion about everything, she naturally had an opinion about Janet’s tragic situation. And, you don’t live to be her age without learning a hackneyed thing or two: “Now, Janet, there’s someone for everyone. The right fella’ will come along. You always meet them when you least expect it, you know, at the Laundromat or the grocery store.”
“I have laundry machines in my building, Grandma. I don’t go to the Laundromat.”
“What you should have is a house,” came her dad’s voice from the kitchen. “Get yourself a nice guy, settle down, and buy a house together.”
“And, have some little ones,” chimed in her momma, with visions of grandchildren dancing in her head.
Janet desperately tried to divert this cascading onslaught. “I’m going to Maine this spring with a couple friends,” she proffered. “We’re going out on a sloop.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a good place to meet boys,” resounded grandma, not yet through offering creative solutions for Janet’s vexing predicament. “You should place a singles ad. Or, maybe try this Internet thing. They say that’s how all the young people are doing it now.”
Dad walked into the room and handed grandpa more coffee. “Janet’s real good with computers. You should try that Janet. You need to stick your neck out a little.”
Janet shrank, then summoned all of her resolve, forced a smile, and put forward her greatest effort, “I have a lot going on right now. There’s the Maine trip. I’m starting another painting class right after New Years; you know how I love painting. And, I just got promoted at work, so I’m getting quite a bit more responsibility.”
At this news, Janet saw her momma glance apprehensively at her father. Mom quickly adjusted and looked tenderly at Janet, “Your work won’t love you back, dear. There’s more to life than making money.”
Her brother Tom walked back in from the bathroom. “That’s for sure. I’m a much more complete man since I married Charlotte. And, there are other benefits, too!” He winked at his blushing bride across the room.
“Tom!” scolded their mother with a self-conscious smile, as mother’s do when they feel obligated to scold at such delightfully shocking statements.
“What ever happened to that guy Mark that you dated in high school?” asked Janet’s sister Nancy. “I really thought you two were great together. Maybe he’s still single. You should look him up.”
“Really, my life is great. I mean that. I’m very happy,” exasperated Janet.
“Now, now, dear… don’t be so negative,” admonished her mother. “You’ll never find a husband that way. We’re just trying to help.”
Janet absently stared at the floor in resignation. There was no stopping these insufferable people.
At this point, grandpa changed the subject to Tom’s work, and the annual Christmas inquisition concluded for another year.
The following evening, Janet bid her adieus and hugged her fare-thee-wells to her family. Then, she hopped into her car and began her four-hour return trip. In four hours, the radio can easily play forty songs about such diverse topics as true love, bad love, nascent love, enduring love, lost love, found love, forbidden love, and absent love. Janet survived two hours and fifteen minutes of radio, before she killed it and let her thoughts do the talking.
Back in high school and college, Janet had dated a number of boyfriends. But, for one reason or another, it had never quite worked out. Once she started work, she still dated somewhat, but it had gradually tapered off as she tired of the dating scene. Somewhere along the way, it had stopped being fun and had become tedious. Advancing age brought a sense of urgency, and first dates became interviews. Janet eventually recognized this shift, but still found it impossible to relax and enjoy an outing when it seemed as though every potential suitor was either a libertine or a doormat.
Janet had also picked up several hobbies since she entered the working world. She had resumed painting, started writing, read more than ever, and even ventured to take a sailing class. Boredom did not exist. But now, she hadn’t been on a date in nearly three years. She was 30 years old, single, and the unenviable pity of all her married acquaintance.
She thought about her family and the things they had said to her. She thought about her high school friends and the lives they lived. She thought about her life, what it had been, and what she wanted it to be. And when she finished thinking, she just stared at the road ahead and drove alone toward the empty apartment awaiting her, without even coherent thoughts for company.
When the road ended, Janet walked through the dark, cold, starless night into her apartment and set down her suitcase. She put her away her affects, took a shower, and stepped into her pajamas, when a thought occurred to her. What the heck, she shrugged, I might just as well. With that sentiment, she promptly retrieved her best bottle of Chianti from the cupboard and pulled the cork.
Glass in hand, she plopped into a chair in her living room. She peered around the deserted room, her eyes stopping briefly on each vacant chair. Janet leaned her head back, closed her eyes, and sat for a moment, engulfed by the absolute silence. She took a deep breath and let out a heavy sigh. God, how I love being single!
Then, she swirled her glass, scented its enticing flavor, and savored the first sip. She inspected the room again. Her best paintings adorned the wall, testaments to practice and experience. Through her glass bookcase, she could see her favorite volumes, filled with ideas that taught her to think in new ways and systematically improve her understanding and opinions. On her desk sat her fountain pen. They may call her old-fashioned and think her odd, but she preferred to write with her fountain pen. Writing by hand forced her to think about what she wanted to say before becoming distracted by saying it. She eyed her picture album and gloried in the remembrance of so many adventures. Her new running shoes already waited by the door, eager for the chance to wear out quickly. All things considered, Janet was an incredibly well-rounded, accomplished person. Cheerful and spirited, she was universally liked, with an impressive circle of friends.
Besides the freedom to pursue her interests and be herself, singlehood gave Janet the strength of character and autonomy of mind that can stem only from self-reliance. It also afforded the pleasant solitude necessary for careful thinking and unhurried reflection. Her un-single counterparts had other important and fulfilling priorities, but her time was every bit as precious. She spent it proactively living, growing, and experiencing the world in her own way. Being alone was not the unhappy existence that many people imagined—that even she had once imagined it to be. Rather, she had gradually come to realize that its attributes contributed tremendously to her happiness. While she enjoyed companionship, she did not depend on other people for validation or identity. She knew her own heart. Janet Marie Hutton was exactly who she wanted to be.
That night, after she had finished her Chianti and brushed her teeth, she paused for a moment, regarding herself in the mirror. She laughed when she saw her cheeks, flushed from the wine. Well Rudolph, I may not have your shiny red nose, but my cheeks sure do glow. Like Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, Janet was indeed a misfit, widely misunderstood, and often belittled. Yet, she was one of the most authentic, genuinely happy people in the world.
She smiled again as she turned out the light. Tonight, she would sleep on a bed, in a bedroom, rich in comfort, crowded with privacy, and free from interruption. Tomorrow, she would sleep in.