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For Noreen, Tess, and Rosie, walking the beach together every day has been everything. But after all those steps forward, The Wildwater Walking Club is doing some serious backsliding. Now they’re dodging each other in the neighborhood, and Noreen is spending time working on pints of Ben & Jerry’s instead of her romance with Rick, the also-lost boyfriend she met at career counseling.
A new adventure might be just what they need. Their destination: Provence, the ultimate lavender trip. It turns into the trip of a lifetime, filled with Van Gogh and vineyards, wine and chocolate, plus lavender and more lavender. Join Noreen, Rosie and Tess as they get back on track!
I took off down the beach, swinging my arms and stretching out my legs and waiting for the endorphins to kick in. Because no matter how many times in your life you’ve been done wrong, no matter how crappy you feel when you wake up in the morning, walking always helps.—The Wildwater Walking Club: Back on Track
Excerpted from The Wildwater Walking Club: Back on Track
Copyright © 2017 Claire Cook. All rights reserved.
On the one-year anniversary of the day I became redundant, I woke up between crisp white sheets I’d sprayed with a new batch of homemade lavender water before hanging them out to dry on my backyard clothesline. I took a moment to inhale the invigorating fragrance of fresh summer air mixed with the soothing caress of lavender.
“It’s okay,” I whispered to the dark blur of my ceiling. “I still have six months of base pay and benefits left. I don’t need to panic. Yet.”
As a positive affirmation designed to get my morning off on the right foot, even I knew it could use some work.
“Every day in every way I’m getting better all the time,” I whispered.
I gave the sheets another reassuring sniff. “Amazing opportunities exist for me in every avenue of my life,” I tried.
“Every little thing is going to be all right,” I whisper-sang in my best Bob Marley imitation.
My best Bob Marley imitation wasn’t much, so I lip-synched to an imaginary version of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” playing in my head.
I’d completely forgotten I wasn’t alone until Rick rolled over in my bed. I chose to see this not as proof of my lack of focus on our relationship, but as evidence that I was getting comfortable in said relationship. I wiped an index finger across the corners of my lips in case I was getting so comfortable that I’d inadvertently drooled in my sleep. I cupped the palm of one hand and blew into it to assess my level of morning breath.
“Hey,” I whispered.
A small screen glowed softly as he held his phone above us.
I got ready to pull the sheets over my head in case just-woke-up selfies were a new thing.
Rick swung both legs over the side of the bed and reached for his clothes. He put his phone down on the bedside table and pulled on his boxer briefs and jeans.
Rick and I had met at a series of small group outplacement counseling classes offered by a company called Fresh Horizons that had been a part of our buyout packages. The classes had seemed helpful at the time, but I also had to admit that almost a year later, we were both still unemployed, or at least underemployed.
Before we’d taken our respective buyouts, I’d been a Senior Manager of Brand Identity at Balancing Act Shoes. Rick had been some kind of IT ethical hacking wizard at a company that helped financial institutions, as well as the occasional political party, identify their website vulnerabilities. Because the word wizard had actually been in his official job title, I always pictured him sitting at his computer behind a red velvet curtain, shirtless and wearing a pointy white wizard hat with Senior Overlord of Ethical Hacking emblazoned across the brim in gold letters. It was sexy, in a geeky kind of way.
You could say that Rick’s and my former companies had unwittingly played cupid and brought us together. Or because we’d both taken buyouts, you could say that maybe like really did attract like. But then again, you could also say that two people as messed up as we were right now had absolutely no business attempting a relationship until they got their rebound career paths figured out.
A shadowy Rick slid into his flip-flops and yanked his T-shirt over his head.
“Hey,” I said again. I was romantic like that. “What’s up?”
He didn’t seem to hear me. Maybe he was sleepwalking. Or at least sleepdressing.
Rick picked up his phone again and held it arm’s distance away. He gazed at it as if it were some kind of magic orb. Or as if someone really important was on the other end, and he didn’t want to chance losing his phone before he could take the call privately.
Then he flip-flopped out of the bedroom without even glancing in my direction. A long moment later, my front door clicked shut.
“This can’t be good,” I whispered.
. . . . .
I stood on my front steps and watched puffy white clouds and soft blue sky jostle for territory above picture perfect green trees. I swatted a mosquito.
I did a time check: 8:05. The deal was that if my walking partners hadn’t joined me by now, I’d head out on our regular route without them. I’d start off slowly to give them a chance to catch up, in case one or both was running late instead of simply blowing me off.
I sat down on the top step and retied one of my laces. I was wearing a pair of the sneakers I’d bought just in the nick of time before my employee discount expired. This particular model was called the Walk On By. It was strictly a women’s model, and I’d been part of the team that had positioned it as the shoe every woman needed to walk away from the things that were holding her back and toward the next exciting phase of her life. Shed the Outgrown. Embrace Your Next Horizon. Walk On By.
I’d logged lots of miles in these sneakers, but I wasn’t sure I’d gotten much closer to that next exciting phase of my life.
After I’d been tricked into taking a buyout from Balancing Act Shoes and dumped by the guy who’d tricked me in one fell swoop, I’d wallowed for a while. But even rock bottom doesn’t last forever, and eventually I was all wallowed out. At that point I’d somehow managed to get back up on my feet and start walking. Before long two of my neighbors, Tess and Rosie, joined me.
My house was the smallest of five houses built on the grounds of a working lavender farm when the owners decided to sell off some of their property. As my realtor had explained it to me, if you imagined a pie, the original house still owned half, and the five newer houses each had a pie-shaped slice of the other half.
Rosie lived directly behind me on the original lavender farm. I lived on the middle pie slice. Tess lived on a slightly larger slice next to me. The street Tess and I lived on was called Wildwater Way, although there was neither any noticeable wildness nor water in the immediate vicinity. The three of us called ourselves The Wildwater Walking Club, which was a little goofy, but so what.
I took a moment to retie my other shoelace, even though it didn’t actually need it.
Walking solo today would make me feel virtuous. Perhaps even a tad superior. I’d head for the beach and fill my lungs with great big gulps of life-affirming salt air. I thought about how good I’d feel once I found my rhythm and the endorphins started to kick in. How I’d be strengthening my bones and muscles. Preventing heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes. Improving my balance, my coordination, even my mood.
I extended my non-dominant wrist, the one wearing my Fitbit. I twisted my arm back and forth, and back and forth some more, for as long as I could take it.
My faux walk complete, I swore softly and went back to bed.
I’m not going to think about Rick. I’m not going to think, period.
Apparently I’m not going to walk either.
Just when I thought I was doing so well.
Why is it that my life is always two steps forward and one long pathetic slide back?
I know what I’ll do. I’ll create a lavender ice cream flavor for Ben & Jerry. I’ll call it Lavender Fields Forever. They’ll love it. They’ll love me. The three of us will live happily ever after.
But first I have to try all their other ice cream flavors. Research.
I contemplated the weeds in my garden as I circled my spoon around and around in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Hazed & Confused. Then I took a massive bite and let the hazelnut and chocolate iciness melt in my mouth while I checked my Fitbit. 38 steps without moving a foot. Not bad.
I contemplated the weeds some more. They appeared to be coexisting happily with all three varieties of my lavender—Grosso, Hidcote and Munstead. When Rosie had started my lavender garden for me, she’d told me that the trick to taking care of lavender is not to overlove it. Not much danger of that happening.
I stroked Grosso’s foliage to release its feisty fragrance, which was laced with a hint of camphor. I loved its tall, brave, pointy stems and the way the whole plant stretched gracefully and unapologetically, not afraid to take its full space in the world. I widened my own stance and tried to access my inner Grosso.
I racked up 23 additional steps of ice cream-stirring mileage. I sighed a time or two, checked to see if sighing registered on my Fitbit. No such luck.
As soon as I heard Tess’s car pulling into her driveway, I bent over and yanked a weed just so she wouldn’t think I’d noticed her. I stayed low until the whirring sound of her garage door closing stopped.
Tess and I had been doing a lot of this kind of ignoring lately. Waiting until the other one brought in her mail before checking our own mailbox. Making sure the coast was clear before we headed out to our adjacent backyards. Rosie was easier to avoid since a buffer of woods separated us, but I was pretty sure Rosie and I had both pretended not to see each other at the grocery store late one afternoon.
Dodging one another had turned into almost as much of a workout as walking together every day had been.
When I was vertical again, I juggled the ice cream I was holding and spoon-fed myself some Chocolate Therapy. I tried to separate the taste of the chocolate ice cream from the tastes of the other ingredients, chocolate cookies and chocolate pudding. As if somehow this level of discernment might lead me to a deeper understanding of my life, or lack thereof.
One arm was freezing from hugging three pints of ice cream and the other was getting tired from all that twisting. I put the Ben & Jerry’s down on a grassy spot while I switched my Fitbit to my other wrist.
I racked up some more mileage by twisting my fresh arm back and forth.
“Why, Noreen Kelly,” Tess’s voice said behind me.
“Are you actually cheating your Fitbit and eating ice cream for breakfast at the same time?”
I ignored her and pulled another weed.
Tess put on her reading glasses so she could get a closer look at the Ben & Jerry’s on the ground. “Ooh, Empower Mint—I don’t think I’ve tried that one yet.”
Three chickens emerged from the wooded path that connected Rosie’s and my properties. They cut across my backyard in a well-choreographed row. I was pretty sure they were making a beeline for my ice cream.
“Yikes,” I yelled. “The Supremes.”
“Rod Stewart’s right behind them,” Tess yelled.
I scooped up the Ben & Jerry’s containers from the ground and held them over my head.
The hens surrounded us. Rod, their rooster, stood off to one side for reinforcement.
“Come on, you guys,” Tess said. “Cluck off.”
The chickens kept circling.
Even chicken decisions were beyond me right now. “What do you think?” I asked Tess. “Should I let them split one pint, and then you and I can have the other two? Although I’m pretty sure I’ve read that dairy is bad for chickens.”
Tess shrugged. “And then there’s always the issue of ice cream headaches.”
“Good point. Although maybe we could just warn them to eat slowly.”
“There you are,” Rosie yelled as she jogged our way shaking a box of Kashi Good Friends. As soon as they heard the sound of their favorite cereal, The Supremes ditched Tess and me and Ben & Jerry and headed for their owner.
“I’ll be right back,” Rosie yelled, still shaking the cereal box. The Supremes followed her in a single file, Rod Stewart hot on their heels. “And thank you for not giving them any of that. Poultry diarrhea is not a pretty sight.”
Tess and I looked at each other. “Eww,” Tess said. “Thank you for that lovely image.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I know. It’s almost enough to make me throw away the rest of this ice cream.”
And then I dug back into the Hazed and Confused.
“Hey,” Tess said. “You’re not going to hog all that to yourself, are you?”
“Oh, cluck off,” I said.
. . . . .
Rosie, Tess and I sat around my kitchen table, each with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and a big spoon. Tess had pulled her blond-streaked hair back in a ponytail so it wouldn’t end up in the ice cream. Rosie must have just finished taking a shower right before The Supremes and Rod Stewart escaped, because her red hair was getting shorter and curlier as it dried. My dark brown hair was pretty much doing what it always did—just hanging around looking as ordinary as the rest of me.
We were all wearing the perfect ice cream binge outfits: yoga pants and baggy T-shirts.
“Okay, switch,” Rosie said.
We rotated the ice cream counterclockwise.
“You both better be germ-free,” Tess said. “I like to keep my summers healthy so I can build up my strength for another school year.” Tess was a third grade teacher. Even though I’d never seen her in action, I knew she was awesome at her job. And if I ever doubted it, I was pretty sure she’d tell me. I wondered if it was possible to catch self-confidence instead of a virus from an ice cream spoon.
Rosie sampled her new flavor. Rosie was a landscape designer. She had her own clients and also drew plans for her contractor husband’s clients. Her designs were gorgeous. Maybe I could catch some of Rosie’s talent while I was catching Tess’s self-confidence.
Rosie closed her eyes. “Hmm. I’d have to say Empower Mint, Chocolate Therapy, Hazed and Confused. In that order.”
I closed my eyes. “Hazed and Confused, Empower Mint, Chocolate Therapy.”
“No way,” Tess said. “Empower Mint, Hazed and Confused, Chocolate Therapy. But maybe we should do one more round just to be sure.”
We passed our pints again.
“Listen,” I said. “I’m really sorry you caught me cheating my Fitbit, Tess.” The truth was I was probably more sorry about the getting caught part than the cheating part. “And I’m sorry I haven’t been walking lately. I just can’t seem to get my act together.”
“Shit,” Tess said. “You can’t seem to get your shit together. It’s stronger that way.”
“Act is classier,” Rosie said.
“Shit is more real,” Tess said.
“No shit,” I said.
Even though it wasn’t that funny, we all laughed anyway, in that laid-back way of friends who have passed the trying-to-impress stage and genuinely like one another.
“Well, it’s not like Tess and I have been showing up to walk either,” Rosie said.
“Speak for yourself,” Tess said. “You have no idea if I’ve been showing up if you’re not showing up. I could be walking every single morning without you.”
“Sure you could,” Rosie said.
We all sighed, one sigh overlapping the next, kind of like a wave at a ballgame.
“Okay,” Rosie said. “So I tied my Fitbit to the ceiling fan in my office the other day. Just long enough to get caught up on some landscape plans.”
“Genius,” I said.
Rosie dug into the Empower Mint. “Not if you have two tweens in the house. Connor and Nick saw it spinning around and totally fitness-shamed me.”
“One of the teachers at school,” Tess said, “lets the kids take turns wearing her Fitbit at recess. But personally I prefer the dryer.”
“Seriously?” I said. “You put your Fitbit in the dryer? You’re not afraid it’ll melt?”
Tess shrugged. “You just use the air fluff setting and add some clothes to cushion it.”
“Excuse me,” Rosie said. “But I thought we were all supposed to be practically dryer-free now. You certainly made us work hard enough to get the town of Marshbury clothesline ban lifted.”
“It’s called upcycling,” Tess said. “I mean, if we’re not going to use our dryers for towels—”
“Or sheets,” I said.
“Then we might as well find a good use for them,” Tess said. “Plus the energy savings are tremendous on air fluff.”
“Just FYI,” Rosie said, “Dogs wearing a fitness tracker can rack up 7,000 to 35,000 steps per day.”
“But,” Tess said, “dogs really hate it when you put them in the dryer.”
I looked from Tess to Rosie and then back to Tess again. “Not to get all mushy, but I really missed you two.”
“Right,” Tess said. “When you weren’t dodging me out by the mailboxes.”
“I loved it when the three of us were walking together every day,” Rosie said. “But you miss one day, and then it’s so much easier to miss the next one, and before you know it, the entire walking ritual falls apart. Just like family dinner at the dining room table.”
“Maybe it’s because things are so much easier to start than they are to maintain,” I said. I took a quick bite of ice cream so I didn’t have to think about how this might apply to the rest of my life.
“I hate, hate, hate maintenance,” Tess said. She ran one hand through her freshly highlighted hair. “I mean, look at hair color. You should be able to dye your hair once and be done with it until you decide you want another color. Nails, too.”
“Gardens, too,” Rosie said. “People always want me to design and install these elaborate gardens for them, but they’re totally unrealistic about how much work they’ll have to put in to keep them up, even though I warn them.”
“Don’t look at me,” I said. “I pulled three weeds today.”
“So we just have to get back on track with walking then,” Tess said. “Easy peasy lemon squeezy.”
“I think it’s easy peasy chocolate freezy,” Rosie said.
“Potato-potahto,” Tess said.
“I can start Monday morning,” I said. “I’ve got that health coach certificate thing all weekend.”
Tess eyed the empty ice cream containers. “Now I get the extreme ice cream binge. You needed to get it out of your system before you turn all healthy on us and become one of those obnoxious nutritionally superior people.”
“It’s research.” I reached for her ice cream container. “I was thinking I might pitch a flavor to Ben & Jerry’s. It could set me on a new career path.”
“Good luck with that,” Tess said. “Hannah pitched them a flavor for a school project one year, and she had to sign a waiver saying that if they used her idea, she understood that she might only get compensated in ice cream and/or promotional items.”
“They must get inundated with flavor ideas,” Rosie said. “Their lawyer probably makes them do that to protect themselves.”
Getting paid in ice cream was probably not the kind of growth I was looking for. Disappointment rose in my chest as one more career door closed in my face.
I cleared my throat. “So how is Hannah anyway?”
“Hannah?” Tess said. “Hannah? Oh, right, you mean my daughter who finished her freshman year at college and then found a paid internship and a place to stay so she didn’t have to come home for the summer. It took us years to get her brother completely out of the house, so I have to say I didn’t see that one coming. And once again I didn’t schedule any tutoring jobs over the summer because I wanted to have time to spend with her, so I can blame my reduced income on her, too. I think our best bet is to sell the house and buy one of those tiny houses we can hitch to the back of the car and hit the road before the next major holiday. Let our darling daughter see what it’s like to try to track us down for a change the next time she needs mon—”
“I’d love to start walking again,” Rosie said, interrupting Tess mid-rant. “But I keep thinking I’ll never get all the work I have piled up finished before we go away. I mean, this trip sounded like such a good idea at the time. Plus, with the lavender angle, I can totally write it off.”
Tess dug into the Empower Mint. “And I thought I was beyond brilliant getting a cultural enrichment grant. I just have to document the trip and bring back a bunch of cultural crap to share at school.”
I shrugged. “And I figured I was going to be broke soon anyway, so I might as well go for it while I still could.”
“I’ve been wondering when to bring this up,” Rosie said. “And I know there’s not much time left, but the truth is I’m not sure I should go after all—”
“Don’t you dare back out,” I said. “If anyone backs out, it should be me. No way should I be spending that kind of money right now.”
“I’m kind of over the whole trip idea, too,” Tess said. “I kept meaning and meaning to look into the refund policy. Maybe I can find a way to use the cultural enrichment grant for something closer to home. Or even online—I mean, it’s not like the Internet isn’t a boundless source of culture.”
“You don’t want to go with us?” Rosie opened her eyes wide. “Gee, thanks a lot, Tess.”
Tess put her spoon back in the Chocolate Therapy and slid the container to the center of the table. “It’s not so much that I don’t want to go. But at least you two get to be roommates. It’s really hitting me that I’m about to spend eight nights sharing a stateroom with someone I haven’t seen since high school.”
“Oh, you know those old friendships,” Rosie said. “Five minutes in and the years will melt away and the two of you will be just as immature as you used to be. Plus Noreen and I will be there.”
“What’s her name again?” I said.
Tess rolled her eyes. “Joy.”
“See,” Rosie said. “How can we possibly have a bad time with someone named Joy?”
I grabbed three water bottles from the fridge to balance out the ice cream. “What’s she like anyway? Will she want to walk with us?”
Tess took a long slug of her water before she answered.
“So the weird thing is,” she finally said, “the more I think about it, the more I’m pretty sure we never even hung out together in high school.”
“Not at all?” I said.
Tess shook her head. “I’m not sure we had a single conversation in all four years.”
“Really?” Rosie said.
“Really,” Tess said.
Rosie and I looked at Tess.
“Damn Facebook,” Tess said.