The room is light and airy from the unnecessary amount of windows, a table is decorated with too many fucking cheeses, and Jen’s realizing that book clubs are a whole new kind of nightmare.
It’s not Jen’s fault that she’s sitting here, next to a crowd of book-loving randos; it’s Karen’s fault, because of course it is.
Karen had gotten Jen good and drunk off of one too many glasses of orange wine. Orange wine isn’t even made of oranges, which is so weird, and Jen had to make sure there were no oranges in the orange wine making process (by drinking the whole bottle, for science).
Jen had been defenseless against Karen’s upbeat-yet-very-sad thing, so when Karen had suggested that Jen join her “super cool” book club, Jen had no option but to agree.
Jen grabs a plate full of crackers and cubed cheddar. She finds an empty sofa and dashes to claim it with the same energy as a kid playing musical chairs. This club will be fine, as long as no one makes her talk and no one looks at her for too long.
“So what did we think about Virginia Woolf’s The Waves?”
Fuck. Maybe she should’ve read the book. But who cares? Jen’s taken English classes before. She knows how to bullshit the reading. Every time a book assigned for class was too long, she just didn’t read it. Who the fuck actually reads Paradise Lost? People who are hot for Satan, that’s who.
The front door opens and a woman bursts in. She’s frazzled and there’s a leaf in her hair, which could be a fashion statement? It kind of goes with the woman’s floral dress look.
“I’m sorry I’m late! So so sorry. I’ll make it up to you, I promise,” The woman says to the whole room, for some reason.
Her voice is incredibly apologetic, as if she’s kicked the puppies of everyone in the book club and is coming in to repent about it. The rest of the room responds with quiet nods. The woman visibly sighs and then, of course, she plops down right next to Jen, their thighs almost touching.
Has this woman ever heard of personal space?
The woman leans in close to Jen, and for a second Jen thinks she’s about to be kissed in the middle of a book club (which would be a bold fucking move ), but the woman smiles at her before whispering, “Just between us, I didn’t read the book.”
Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.
“Just between us? I didn’t read it either.”
“Yep. The author’s name sounds like a dog name. I mean... Woof? Come on.”
The woman lets out a quiet laugh and her smile lines make Jen think that this woman must laugh a lot. That’s good. She has a really nice laugh.
“It’s Woolf, but you totally have a point there. I can’t unsee it,” She holds out a hand for Jen to shake, “Hi. I’m Judy.”
“Hi Judy. I’m Jen.”
Judy steals a cheddar cheese cube off of Jen’s plate and pops it into her mouth. If it were someone else, Jen would snap at them for daring to steal her food. But, there’s something about this ‘Judy’ that makes her feel comfortable, and maybe Jen shifts the plate closer to Judy to give her better access.
Judy, with her mouth full of cheese, asks, “So how are we going to play this? Improvise?”
“I’m just going to make shit up. Just fucking wing it. Feel free to follow along.”
Judy tries to do a Carole King impression. She starts singing, “ Where you lead, I will follow…”
Jen rests her hand on Judy’s thigh. “You’re a weird person, Judy.”
Jen reaches up and takes the leaf out of Judy’s hair, before placing it in Judy’s lap. “Here, I be-leaf this is yours.” Jen inwardly cringes at herself. She waits for Judy to react, but Judy just stares at her.
Then, Judy gives Jen the leaf. “No, I think this is yours now. My tree-t.”
Jen fake-glares at her. Then, when Judy looks away for a second, Jen tucks the leaf into her bag for safekeeping.
Karen claps her hands like an overly excited toddler, “Alright! We’re going to try something new this time! Turn towards the person next to you and discuss your favorite parts of the book. We have a bigger group today than most weeks. I want to make sure everyone gets a chance to talk!”
Jen raises her eyebrows at Judy, “Will you be my person? Everyone else here has probably read the book.”
“Yes, I’ll be your person.” Judy shifts her body to face Jen, “So… Virginia Woolf’s number one fan, what did you think about The Ocean?” Judy tries to wink but it comes off as more of a spontaneous eye twitch. It’s surprisingly endearing.
“The Waves, Judy.”
Judy nods, playfully pointing at Jen, “Yep. The Waves. Right. Just as god intended it. Not The Narwhals.”
“Oh, I’d definitely read a book called The Narwhals, Jesus Christ.”
“Right? It’s eye grabbing!”
Jen grabs a copy of the book to make herself look like someone who reads. She flicks through the pages mindlessly.
“Knowing Karen, she might want us to speak up to the whole group. We should probably come up with some shit to say. Or come up with an exit plan. You could do a diversion and I’ll start the car…”
“You’re right. My best guess is water is involved in this book. Somehow. Just a wild guess, really.”
Jen shakes her head, smiling. She’s not used to smiling so much. Strangers are usually fucking annoying. They’re rude to baristas, or they cut off Jen in traffic, or they see Jen scowl one time and never want to interact with her again. She’s never been a fan of the whole meeting new people thing.
But maybe Judy’s different.
“Let’s at least learn the character names. Here,” Jen says, scooting closer to Judy so that Judy can read from her copy, “We can share.”
Judy looks at her and Jen can’t read the expression on her face. It’s some weird mix of shock and hope. Jen feels like she’s a kid again, like she’s giving another kid their first piece of candy ever.
Judy’s brown eyes glisten, threatening to evict some tear drops. She grins a wide grin.
“Yes. We can share.”
Karen’s taking the book club very seriously. She goes around the circle pointing at every person one by one and stares at them until they share a thought.
“The book made me feel like I was getting hypnotized. And not in the sex way,” Someone comments. Karen frowns, nods, then moves on to the next person.
“I think Rhoda needs to try an antidepressant or something. That girl’s got some issues,” A man comments.
The person next to him interjects, “They didn’t have those back then, Phil. Do your research.”
Phil grumbles, “But they had cocaine!”
Karen clears her throat. “So what did we think of Neville?”
“He’s a little gay bitch,” Phil comments, then elaborates, “in a good way, I mean!”
Some teenager on the other side of the room pipes up, “He’s a total simp!”
Jen nudges Judy, leans in a little too close to whisper, “What does simp mean?”
Judy shrugs, “Wish I knew.”
Karen finally gets to them and it’s a lot more nerve wracking than Jen expected it to be. She fiddles with the cuffs of her red blazer, trying to come up with something interesting to say. Judy rests a comforting hand on Jen’s arm and it zaps Jen’s brain into producing intellectual thoughts again.
Jen starts, “I mean, the ocean is obviously a theme here, right? The title’s gotta mean something.”
Karen nods encouragingly, “Say more!”
“Maybe all the characters are stuck in some weird, metaphorical wave together. Or something. It’s like those assholes in Malibu who spend all day surfing and then get mad when the sharks take a chunk out of their legs. Like, if you stay in the ocean long enough, someone’s going to die some tragic death, I don’t fuckin’ know.” (Jen’s read the back of the book summary. There was something about death and connection. That’s enough to work with.)
Judy taps Jen’s arm excitedly, “Ooh! You’re right, Jen. And it’s like… all the characters are treading water? Maybe?”
Karen’s mouth drops open. “Wow! Maybe you two need to run the next book club! You don’t even need me here!”
Jen and Judy give each other a knowing look and high five.
As the book club meeting comes to a close, Jen realizes that she doesn’t want it to be over. It’s nice, bonding with someone. She’s known Judy for approximately two hours, but it feels like it’s been so much longer than that. Talking to her is so easy, like two actors who’ve had their lines memorized for months. Jen doesn’t have to think; she just speaks and Judy understands.
The next book club meeting is a month from now, and there’s no guarantee that Judy will show up to every meeting. Jen doesn’t want to risk it. There’s something about Judy’s smile that makes Jen feel proud, as if making Judy smile is doing the world a huge favor. Whenever Jen’s the reason for Judy’s smile, Jen feels like she’s lifting the sun up over the horizon so it can have room to shine. It’s a new type of feeling.
People rise from their spots on the scattered sofas, the cheese disappears from the table and reappears on to-go plates, and Jen’s still sitting on the sofa, stubbornly not leaving.
Judy stands up, then offers a hand out to Jen, “Need help getting up? Aging can be tough on the knees.”
“Fuck you,” Jen says with no malice.
Judy tilts her head, considering, “Oh I would, but I’m seeing someone now…”
“Oh,” Jen says, hiding her disappointment. She grabs Judy’s hand and stands up with a groan.
“Yeah… she’s so cool… Her name is Virginia Woolf, I don’t know if you’ve heard of her… She’s kind of a beachy gal.”
“Do you always go after dead female authors? Is that your thing?” Jen asks.
“Not dead. And not always authors. But women, sure.”
Jen stares at Judy for a second too long.
Judy takes a step back and asks, “Is that, like, a problem? Or…”
“No,” Jen smiles a tiny smile, feeling more hopeful than she has in years, “Not at all.”
“Good… That’s good!” Judy nods, maintaining eye contact with Jen for a while before breaking away. “Here, this is yours,” Judy hands Jen the book, “Thank you for sharing it with me.”
The book is in Jen’s hands when Judy snatches it back. “Sorry,” Judy says, “Do you have a pen?”
Jen searches her bag and pulls out a blue ballpoint. She hands it to Judy.
Judy opens the book to the back cover and quickly scribbles something down before handing the book back to Jen.
“Gotta run, sorry,” Judy says. And then she’s out the door, gone.
Later, when Jen’s in her bedroom, she empties her bag on to her bed. She spots the leaf and the book amid her normal bag clutter.
She grabs the book, flips to the end cover, and sees Judy’s note.
Here’s my number! I couldn’t LEAF you empty handed.
Jen tucks the leaf into the book like a bookmark. She plugs the phone number into her contacts.
She’s never been more thankful for Karen.