Have you ever thought of re-booting your life?
That’s what happens to Kelly Johnson, the heroine in Kaira Rouda’s debut novel HERE, HOME, HOPE.
Read the excerpt then enter the giveaway for your chance to own this award-winning novel
Winner! USA Book Awards Women’s Fiction
Honorable Mention! Mainstream/Literary Fiction, Writer’s Digest Book Awards
Kelly Mills Johnson becomes restless in her thirty-ninth year. An appetite for more forces her to take stock of her middling middle-American existence and her neighbors’ seemingly perfect lives.
Here’s how I knew something about my life had to change.
I was sitting in the dentist’s chair, waiting for the topical numbing goo to take effect on my gum so the dentist could jab a needle into the same spot. My only choice for entertainment was to stare at the light blue walls surrounding me or flip through the channels available on the television suspended on the sea of blue. I chose the latter and stumbled upon an infomercial: Learn to preach in Spanish. The show had just started but the sincere narrator promised to tell me how many souls needed saving, and what an impact I could have, after I took their course, of course. Maybe this was the answer to the problem I couldn’t name, the cause of the sadness just under the surface of my life. I needed to make an impact. I could become a successful Spanish missionary. I stared at the screen transfixed until Dr. Banks appeared to administer the shot of Novocain.
Unfortunately, I missed the rest of the infomercial as my tooth’s issues took center stage.
I was at my dentist’s office because overachiever that I am—even when it comes to grinding my teeth—I had ground down through a thick plastic mouth guard and cracked a tooth. This, I knew, was not healthy, but it was simply a fact of my life. Or was, up until that moment when I knew something had to change. Which, as I said, was just a moment ago.
At age thirty-nine, just, and dreading forty, I have one gray eyebrow hair that angrily grows back when tweezed, two adorable boys—a teen named Davey and a tween named Sean—and a husband named Dave. I also have two loyal and trusty steeds: my dog, Oreo, and my car, Doug. I am in the middle of life. In a suburb in the middle of America. And I cracked a tooth because I am too busy being restless in my subconscious—“chewing things over,” as Dr. Banks put it. And whatever that busy subconscious has been doing at night, during the day it is drawn to infomercials about preaching in Spanish even though I’m not particularly religious and I don’t speak Spanish. I’m a mess, actually, but I have to say, especially compared to some of my neighbors, I’m lucky.
On the misery scale, far beyond tooth-grinding people like me were the people who were unhappy. And then there were the truly miserable like my neighbor Heidi who departed yesterday to I don’t know where, the tires of her black Lexus sedan screeching as she reversed out of her driveway. She fell in line behind the three moving vans that had showed up as I was taking a shower and left fully loaded before I headed out my door for lunch with a friend. Heidi’s kids seem not to have made it either on any of the vans, or in her car, though it appears that the family dog did make the cut. Heidi’s husband—well, soon to be ex-husband—Bob was sitting alone on the lawn in front of his empty, furniture-less house when I left for the dentist. That was miserable.
So at least I know I’m not miserable. I am just in the middle. Middling. Muddling. I’ve looked ahead and thought, wow, there are so many things I want to do. I’ve looked behind and felt proud of what I’ve accomplished, especially how my kids have turned out so far. After Dave and I married, and I got pregnant with baby boy number one, I gladly gave up my job as an account executive at a public relations firm. Sure, I had loved my friends at work and the creativity at the office, but I knew I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. And Dave’s career path at the law firm has been remarkably smooth. It’s worked out as planned, and he’s a partner now.
We have a wonderful standard of living based on Dave’s success, my sons are pretty independent these days, and everyone is happy. So what’s the problem? Well, I feel stuck. Between what I’ve done and what I want to do. I’m not really unhappy, just restless I suppose. And that’s the question I need to wrestle with. What’s next?
The thought of reentry into the PR field is daunting. Regardless of how much progress women have made—and we’ve come a long way, baby—stepping back into that world after a nearly fifteen-year hiatus will mean, if I’m lucky, a job behind the receptionist. Literally behind her, filing. Actually, interns hold those jobs, not somebody like me. And maybe there isn’t even filing anymore? It could all be digital, paperless. So, well, obviously, that field isn’t it. I’d once dreamed, in my most private of dreams, of being a television reporter. I think it’s time to finally cross that one off. That whole high definition television isn’t flattering, even to the twelve-year-olds who anchor the local news every night.
A friend of mine started her successful restaurant while still raising four kids after her divorce. Another friend of a friend makes healthy meals and delivers them to busy working moms’ houses in time for heating and serving. Who am I kidding? I get overwhelmed cooking for just the four of us so a career as a chef is not in my future.
I attended a luncheon just last week featuring jewelry made by women in Kenya. The beautiful woman in charge of the program spoke passionately about how our purchases will make a difference in these burgeoning jewelry designer’s lives. How was I going to make a difference, though, aside from buying jewelry made by a woman in Kenya? I am, at this moment in fact, wearing a gold ring with an elephant carved into the center. The artisan who made it did so with care. Looking at it now, I could almost cry because of its simplicity and beauty. I hope I helped the artist’s life in a small way; but what can I do to help mine?
I can’t feel my chin. That’s disturbing in and of itself, but what’s most disturbing is the fact that my two sons will arrive home from camp at the end of the summer and ask me what I’ve been doing. They’re busy sailing, shooting things, fishing, climbing mountains, swimming, building camp-fires and eating really unhealthy food. Me? Well, I’ve been stewing, thinking, pondering, grinding my teeth, supporting other people’s passions, and, well, eating really unhealthy food. Dave says I’m using carbs and my summertime spending sprees—elephant ring included—to replace the comfort of kissing the boys good night, driving them to practice and basically just caring for them.
After seventeen years of marriage, I’m not about to admit he might be right.
Each summer Davey and Sean are gone, I manage to pack on at least six pounds, not an insignificant amount of weight on a 5’5” frame. I also tend to indulge in shopping sprees that fill my closet with accessories and clothes I don’t need. A check of my closet right now would already reveal a few hangtags. I rationalize that if I keep the tags on, I can always take them back, knowing I never will.
The weight is harder to return, though. This summer I’ve already gained two pounds, and we have another six weeks to go before I get my babies back. They – whoever “they” are – say that once you hit the big 4-0, you gain up to ten pounds a decade just doing what you’ve always been doing. At that rate, plus the annual camp pounds, I’m headed for obesity land, or maybe just the Deep South. Today’s paper claimed that Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana have the highest rates of obesity in the states. Perhaps I’ll find my future there?
Drool just made its way to the crease below my chin. Maybe it’s a crease between my double chins? Here’s the thing: too much time on my hands is making me care about small things and lose sight of the big ones. Ever since I opened that seemingly innocuous letter on December 15 last year, I’ve been torn between trying to be happy in the moment and focusing on my future. I guess that’s what happens when you get a wake-up call.
Mine came in the form of a letter from my doctor instructing me I needed a diagnostic mammogram. And to schedule it right away. Two things I’ve learned since: Don’t have your screening mammogram right before Christmas. Waiting for results during the holiday season was hell. And the second? I am so lucky. After a double needle biopsy; after stitches for the one site that wouldn’t close, just below my nipple; after waiting for four days including the weekend before Christmas; after Googling and finding everything tragic and horrible about ductal cancer; after crying on my couch and trying to be brave; and after the call came telling me that all was benign, I was fine. But shaken.
I know I need to do something. Something more. For me. Outside my comfort zone. Just like my boys are doing while they’re at camp. Sean, for instance, left for camp sure he’d conquer water-skiing this year, and that was his biggest fear. What’s mine? What am I going to tackle? A friend of mine just climbed Mt. Everest, for the fourth time. But that’s not my dream. I hate heights, and cold weather. But last winter I’d decided this year was my year. I’d been given a gift. A cancer-free breast. But now, here I sit, five months into my year, with drool working its way under the blue paper shield around my neck, tracing a line down between my breasts. Maybe I should invent a better dental drape?
Maybe I need a nap?
I never sleep well during my boys’ summer absence. Last night was no exception and I’d had a horrible dream. Not only had my one gray eyebrow hair turned into two gray bristly hedges above my eyes, my face was covered in wrinkles. Not just crow’s feet. Not just laugh lines. Full out, no-you-didn’t-wear-sunscreen and used-mirrors-to-tan weathered lines that looked like crevasses. It was a sign. I need to take charge of my life, take advantage of the sense of urgency I’d felt when I thought I’d had breast cancer. I want to grow old, gracefully and happily. I want to be a grandmother and enjoy slow walks on the beach. But between now and then, I need to get moving. Fortunately I’ve just invested in the latest sonic skin scrubber—like a toothbrush for your face—and it’s guaranteed to keep those wrinkles at bay. At least I think that’s what the saleswoman at the make-up mecca Sephora promised? Or maybe she said it simply helps the lotion sink into the wrinkles better.
I’m a salesperson’s dream. Even a suggestive selling novice can make me buy. Just ask the Sephora saleswoman. She’d even talked me into buying the latest blush, called Orgasm. Everybody had one, she said.
Hey maybe I could work retail. I could talk women into Orgasms. I could convince other women like me that the key to happiness was the next wrinkle filler, scrubber, zapper, blush. I could wear a black apron and learn how to paint on makeup in just the right way to make it appear as if you weren’t wearing any makeup at all. And, since the new look is “dewy” instead of matte—according to my sonic-inspiring saleslady—I would tell women to toss their old facial products and start all over. I could do that!
No I couldn’t. I’d have to work for someone else and pretend to care deeply about makeup. I’d have to go to the mall, thereby being in close proximity to all the things I didn’t need but would buy if given the right push. “We’ll need to give you two bags, honey,” the Sephora Siren had gushed with a big smile while tossing in a couple of free samples.
“Okay, Debbie, that’s all for today. We’ll need a follow up in two weeks, and the bottom guard will be ready then too,” said the perky dental assistant.
I’ve had my head back and my eyes closed. Maybe she’s talking so loudly to try to wake me up? A quick image flashes across my mind. I envision myself climbing into bed each evening, top and bottom teeth covered in plastic. Dave gives up even trying to kiss me good night. I just clack my guards together as a symbol of affection, like a seal slapping her front flippers together. At least my face will be smooth and sonically scrubbed.
As the dental assistant elevates me back to a sitting position, I try to feel my lips. Nope. Chin? Nope. Could I learn to preach in Spanish? Nope. Could I start a restaurant? Could I go back to the PR firm? Could I move to Kenya? Could I sell sonic face scrubbers? Nope. Nope. Nope. And nope. As I head toward the door, friendly helpful Susie sitting at Dr. Banks’ front desk asks when I will be free to come back.
“Really, I’m free anytime,” I slur, sounding and feeling pathetic.
“I’ll call you when the appliance arrives,” Susie chirps back happily.
You’d think I’d ordered a new refrigerator, that’s how happy she was.