I stepped through the office doors, ignoring the too-loud music and smiling at my coworker Dave as I pushed my way past the requisite black-and-orange streamers, the obligatory cobwebs and rubber spiders, that declared this was a Halloween party. Groaning inwardly, I checked my watch; but it was only seven, and the party was just getting started.
I sighed. I had to endure at least two hours of small talk and dodging obnoxious drunks before I could beg off and head home. It was going to be a long night.
“Hey, Jonas!” Dave called loudly, even though I was only a few feet away. He slung his arm over the shoulder of a well-dressed blonde with a plunging neckline who was already working on her second drink of the night. “Have you met my wife?”
I nodded and smiled. “I have,” I lied. “At the Christmas party.”
Dave took a moment to think back on that night, decided that I was right, then turned and pointed at my cubicle. “Do you like your decorations? I know that Halloween is technically over at midnight tonight, but I thought you would enjoy the festive feel. The kids are going to love it.”
At the sight of my cubicle, I nearly groaned aloud. Dave had decorated my it with a gaudy skeleton on the edge of the wall, pointed so it would be looking straight down at me. “You must’ve bought out the party store,” I said with a laugh. “That’s a lot of cobwebs for you to clean up tomorrow.”
Dave shook his head. “Not me, man. When you get sick of it, you just toss it, ’kay?”
“I’m already sick of it.”
Dave laughed. “Sarcasm. I like it. That’s why you get through to the kids. Because you’re funny, and you break down their walls. I wish I could be more like that.”
“I wasn’t being sarcastic, and the kids don’t like anyone, Dave. They’re troubled teens. It’s not personal.”
Dave’s wife laughed, and Dave joined in. “You’re a hoot,” he said, then looked over my shoulder and waved excitedly. “Hey! Erica is here, and she brought her wife.”
Before I could respond, he was gone, his wife stumbling on high heels trying to keep up. I shook my head and grabbed a tiny glass of sparkling cider from the table, perusing the goodies laid out on a tablecloth that was clearly meant for a child’s party.
“I’m glad you came,” a familiar voice said from behind me.
I turned and smiled at Cyrus. “It’s nice to see you, too,” I said, then stuck my hand out to greet the man beside him. “I’m Jonas. I used to be Cyrus’s mentor, before he got his big-shot promotion.”
“That’s not all he was,” Cyrus said, elbowing his companion in the ribs. “This is Steve. We’re just friends.” Cyrus leaned close to me, his voice low. “For now.”
I almost choked on my drink, but caught myself just in time.
“I’m surprised you didn’t bring a date,” Cyrus said. “Surely you’re over that last guy." He paused, waving his finger in the air in front of him as he tried to remember the man’s name.
“Holden,” I offered.
“That’s right. I knew it was a weird name. It’s been a couple of months; you should get back in the saddle.”
“I’m too busy right now, and I have—”
“He’s been in the saddle,” Dave interrupted, pushing his way into our conversation. “He’s been on more blind dates in the past six months than I’ve been on in years.”
I shot him a warning glance, but he just kept talking.
“He’s so picky that every date ends in a disaster. Can you imagine, having such high standards that no man measures up?"
He patted my back in what was supposed to be a friendly gesture. “Old Jonas here is too good for an average guy, but the problem is, even the best guys fall flat under his scrutiny." He looked at his wife adoringly. “Makes me glad that I found the one, you know?”
“That’s enough,” I said, chuckling as I took the drink from his hand. “I thought this was an alcohol-free party. The work week is only half over, Dave, and we’re technically on school property.”
“The administrative building doesn’t count,” he said with a laugh. “And I’m taking a vacation day. I know my limits."
Dave hiccuped and smiled, as if that proved his point. “I’ve got everything under control. Just like you.”
He poked my chest to emphasize the last bit, still smiling. I handed his drink back to him and he immediately went back to the conversation, regaling anyone who would listen with tales of my bumbled conquests, as if I weren’t standing right there.
Cyrus looked uncomfortable, taking his date’s hand and pulling him away for a tour of the office. I humored Dave for a few minutes longer, then tensed as if my phone had buzzed in my pocket.
I took my cell phone out and swiped my thumb across the screen. “I hate to cut this short, but it looks like party time is over for me.”
“Isn’t your kid an adult?” Dave asked. “Can’t he handle things at home for a little longer?”
I shook my head. “He’s fifteen, though he acts grown sometimes. But it’s a school night, and he has a huge project due. Enjoy your day off tomorrow.”
“And Friday!” Dave quipped, toasting the air with his glass. “I’ll see you on Monday.”
I made my way through the crowd, smiling and nodding at everyone who called out to me. I was prepared to explain my early departure, but no one asked, so I made my way down to the parking lot and drove away, carefully watching the road for trick-or-treaters.
As I drove, I longed for the days when Eddie couldn’t wait to dress up and run from house to house, filling his bucket before dark and begging me to empty it and go back for more. I’d given in every time, knowing that one year would be the last year. Now that he was fifteen, he was much too old for trick-or-treat, or the babysitter I’d insisted he have when I was going to be out past dinner.
“I guess there’s no need to hurry home,” I muttered to myself, pulling into the quaint little tavern around the corner from my townhouse. I’d paid for the sitter to stay until ten, and there was no reason to rush through my night out.
The tavern was pretty quiet, even for a Wednesday, when I sat at the bar and ordered a rum and coke.
“Rough night?” Aaron said.
I shook my head. “Not really. Office parties just aren’t my thing." I fiddled with the red straw in the amber liquid, grabbing the cherry stem between my fingers and tilting my head back to eat the liquor-soaked fruit while I considered what I was going to say next.
Aaron beat me to it. “With a mouth like that, I’m surprised you haven’t got yourself a steady man yet,” he teased.
I gave him a wry grin, throwing back the rest of the drink and accepting a second one. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Do you think I’m unreasonable?”
“You’re one of my favorite customers.”
I laughed. “No, I mean dating-wise. Do you think my standards are too high?”
Aaron laughed. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“Come on, Jonas. You come in here and order the same drink, same appetizer, and the same meal every time. No matter how well you’re hitting it off when your blind date walks in, by the time I’m bringing out the burgers, you’re looking for a reason to leave. You don’t even give them a chance.”
“I do have standards, and a kid at home—”
“So do a lot of people. But they still at least finish a meal before they judge every last guy unfit to date. You’re too hard on people.”
I started to protest, but closed my mouth instead. Unlike Dave and the rest of the office, Aaron wasn’t teasing me. He was giving it to me straight, and in that moment, something clicked.
My heart sank, and I let out a heavy sigh, waving away a third drink. “I have to work in the morning.”
Aaron shrugged. “I’m sorry if that stung,” he said.
I shook my head and grabbed my jacket. “No, you’re right. You must be, right? It’s only the umpteenth time I’ve heard exactly that, so it must be the truth."
I finished my drink and set it on the bar. “Can I leave my car here until morning?”
“Of course,” Aaron said.
“Thanks." I started to leave, then stopped. “And thanks for telling me the truth.”
“I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I lied about something like that.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Thanks again.”
The heavy door closed behind me as I stepped out into the night, pointing the key fob at my Audi A5 and making sure the alarm was armed. The car flashed at me, and I went on down the sidewalk, hands in my pockets, still reeling.
Dave was an ass, and he liked to joke at my expense, but Aaron and I had been friends for years, and I knew that he was being completely honest.
I was single because I was difficult. He hadn’t said it in those exact words, but the meaning was clear. If I wanted things to change, I was going to have to start with me.
Gina was studying at the table when I walked in. She smiled at me. “You lasted longer than last time,” she said, gathering up her college books and sliding them into her backpack. “He ate, and his homework is done.”
“Thanks, Gina." I handed her a check. “Are you going to be around much during the holidays?”
“Probably,” she said. “Senior year is kicking my butt, and I want to graduate in May so I can start my master’s.”
“A year early? That’s impressive.”
Her smile was dazzling. “I try,” she said. “Text me and let me know what’s up. I’m sure I’ll be around.”
I nodded, then followed the sound of simulated gunfire up the stairs and onto the landing where the game room was set up. “Killing zombies again?" I asked as I plopped down onto the leather couch beside him.
“Bodocks,” he said, as if that one word cleared everything up.
I shook my head, watching him hunt shadowy figures through dark, terrifying locations. It was the most Halloween-ish thing I’d seen him do in a while, but that didn’t make it any easier to understand. “Maybe this is a little too violent,” I said tentatively. “I don’t remember buying this game.”
“It follows the rules,” he said, pausing the game with an exasperated sigh. “I’m not hurting actual humans. Besides, I’m getting straight A’s—” he paused for effect—“again, and my chores are done, and you promised you would stop worrying about violent video games turning me into a bully. I’m fifteen. I’m good. I promise.”
I put my arm around him, giving him a quick squeeze and chuckling. “You’re right.”
I stopped him before he could start the game up again. “Listen. I want to get your honest opinion about something.”
“All right,” he said carefully.
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing you did. It’s about me. What do you think about me dating?”
“Are you serious?” he turned and looked at me, his dark brown eyebrows rising in question, his deep brown eyes worldly and mischievous all at once. “You date all the time. I’m cool with it. I just think I’m old enough to skip the sitter.”
“You don’t like Gina?”
“I do like her. But I think I can order pizza and do homework without help.”
“I feel better knowing someone is here, just in case.”
Eddie sighed. “I know. Because you’ve seen things, and you know that even good kids make dangerous mistakes.”
“Moving on,” Eddie said, sounding more like a little adult than a teenager. “If you’re not talking about dating, then what are you talking about?”
“Do you think I’m too picky?”
He froze, blinking at me without saying a word. “I don’t think I should answer that.”
“Is this a trick question? Am I going to get in trouble for being disrespectful?”
Smart kid, I thought, laughing. “No. I’m being serious. You know me better than anyone in the world. I’m asking you if you think that my relationships haven’t worked out because I’m too picky.”
“I wouldn’t call them relationships, because you never let them get to the second date. Yes, you’re picky. I mean, you drive a nice car and all that, but it’s almost as old as I am.”
“It’s five years old,” I corrected.
“Whatevs. Anyway, you gotta loosen up. I know you spend all day with screw-ups—”
“Troubled teens,” I corrected.
“You know what I mean. You have to turn that off. The rest of us manage without tons of rules and expectations. You need to chill and quit acting like you’re all that, you know?”
“Give people a chance, and don’t judge them based on stupid stereotypes. Just because someone has a crap job or isn’t ambitious doesn’t mean they’re not a good match for you. Get to know them better before you run.”
“I don’t want to waste my time, or theirs.”
“You don’t think going through men like some hormonal teenager is wasting time? You always tell me to invest myself in things that are important. If having a man is important to you, try giving it more than one night."
He paused and flashed me a wicked smile. “What’s that thing you always tell me when you’re telling me what to do? Oh, that’s right. I say this with love. Stop treating every guy like you’re better than they are. You’re pretty great, but you’re just average.”
I had to laugh. “Remind me never to ask your honest opinion unless I really want it.”
“I will,” he assured me; then his face turned serious. “I want you to be happy. Please, promise me that you’ll give the next guy a little more time before you kick him to the curb?”
My heart melted, and I saw flashes of the sweet toddler Eddie had once been. I tamped down my emotions and nodded. “I promise,” I said.
And I meant every word.