Janine’s Gift

Janine Richardson was an ordinary woman. She was so ordinary in fact that she was certain this was how people described her if they ever stopped to give her a second thought. Janine wore her mousy brown hair in a short bob, in the same style she had worn for as long as she could remember. She was painfully thin, some would even say ‘skinny’, which she grew to learn was not exactly a compliment. Her face was narrow, her coloring pale. If Janine spent more than fifteen minutes in the open sunlight, she would suffer a horrendous sunburn, then peel, but never, ever tan. Her hazel eyes were unremarkable, hidden behind large, round, tortoise shell glasses. Her mouth was neither pouty, nor full and when she smiled, although her teeth were perfectly straight, they appeared too small due to an excess of gum tissue. It was a defect she had always wanted to have corrected, but had never gotten around to doing. As a result of her childish grin, Janine rarely smiled. When she did smile, her mouth formed a controlled, thin-lipped line that curved up ever so slightly at the corners.

Janine was never popular in high school save a few close friends, a trend which continued into her adult life. Primarily the issue was her apparent invisibility. Her personal style of dress was comfortable, in part due to a lack of fashion sense and her predilection for discount clothing stores. Naturally shy, she was not a stellar conversationalist, or story teller at social events. When Janine passed by, men did not turn their heads to look at her and rarely held doors for her. Other women did not seek her out for friendship, and were not generally envious of her with one small exception: Janine was blessed with an extremely high metabolism. She could eat whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, without ever gaining a single ounce. This unique quality led to her adoration and appreciation of foods from around the globe.     

Janine met her husband, Carl McGraff, during their senior year of high school. Carl was one of only two boys who had ever expressed even a vague interest in Janine. She and Carl dated for several months. Janine was unreservedly smitten with Carl and he was passively indifferent to her. During the summer after high school, Janine discovered that she was pregnant. They decided to keep the baby and were married in a small, private ceremony. Carl put off college and went to work for a local Real Estate Agency. On the eve of their marriage, he confessed that he had planned to break up with Janine on the very night that she had told him about the baby. Consequently, her walk down the aisle felt to her more like a death march.

When their daughter, Hope, was born Janine’s life was renewed; she found her purpose in motherhood and was fine with being a housewife. Shortly after Hope’s birth, Carl took up residence in the spare bedroom and there were no further additions to their small family. Still, Carl was enamored of baby Hope. Unlike Janine, Hope was extraordinary. She was blessed with the best mix of Carl and Janine’s gene pool: Carl’s blond hair and ice blue eyes, and Janine’s slight build. Before she even learned her first words, Hope began making lyrical sounds and repeating them. By the time she was four years old she began singing and as she grew, she lit up a room with her mere presence. Hope both resembled and sang like an angel.

Carl and Janine were good parents and the business of their marriage was a success. They owned a small, comfortable cape-cod style home in Portsmouth, Rhode Island with a tidy fenced-in yard. In their savings and retirement accounts, they had an appropriate amount of money. Their garage housed two well-maintained, late model vehicles, one sedan, one SUV. Respected in their small community, they helped neighbors in need, and went to church every Sunday.  

Over the years, Carl had become a Real Estate Broker and by the time Hope was in middle school he owned his own agency. He worked every weekend, partly out of necessity, and partly by choice. He and Janine had few ‘couple friends’, as the other couples in town sensed something was amiss in Carl and Janine’s relationship and distanced themselves, as if a bad marriage might be contagious. The women in town gossiped about or pitied Janine. Did Janine know? They wondered. She must! They assumed. 

Carl had his Monday night bowling league and his Thursday night pool league. He had his friends from high school who had elected to never leave their home town but instead worked as plumbers, electricians, and fire fighters. He knew all of the other small business owners, and the local politicians. Carl was a town institution and an affable guy.

Janine joined the PTA and kept busy by volunteering, first at Hope’s elementary school, then at her middle school, and finally at her high school. She took Hope to her soccer practices, her dance classes, her piano, and voice lessons. She baked for the school bake sales, assisted with the school fund raisers, and chaperoned the field trips. She was a member of the neighborhood book club and on occasion she went out for lunch or dinner with a few of the other mothers where they talked about family and how their children were doing in school.

For fun Janine obsessively watched the food network. Utterly enthralled, she practiced her cooking skills along with the shows. Mealtime was an adventure in the McGraff household. Even Carl raved about her cooking! Often, Janine brought her creative cuisine to Carl’s office for his staff to enjoy. She had always thought working for Carl would make perfect sense, keeping the books, or answering the phones, but he insisted that it would ruin their relationship. Oddly she never felt as at ease at the agency as she thought she should. The female Realtors rarely made direct eye contact with her and always seemed to be in a hurry, on their way to some extremely important showing.

Gourmet Cheese Plate

When Hope began High School, Janine accepted a part-time office position working for a general practioner in their small town. Dr. Sullivan was wonderful to work with and Janine thrived in her position and eventually became the Office Manager. Dr. Sullivan was an old school practitioner; he liked paper files and still made house calls for some of his elderly patients. When he retired and sold the practice four years later, the new young doctor opted to hire his own staff rendering Janine unemployed.

When the time came, Hope was accepted to multiple Universities but was offered a partial scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. The school was an excellent fit for Hope and was close enough for her to come home whenever she wished, which Janine assumed would be often. Carl insisted they could not afford the tuition unless Janine found a new position. With her limited computer skills, the only job Janine could find was as a receptionist for the law firm Stuart, Craig and Glenn, PLC in Providence. Although Janine was not thrilled about commuting to the city, for Hope she was willing to make any sacrifice. The lawyers of the firm, Bob Stuart, Steve Craig and Alan Glenn were all very professional and driven. Janine thought it unusual that all three men had two first names and it brought back a bad memory. Her freshman year in high school, a boy in her class with two first names, Jason Logan, incessantly teased her and coined the knick name, “Skinny Jinny” which had followed her through all four years.

On her first day at the firm, Janine was both nervous and excited. Attorney Glenn accidentally referred to her as Jean. Janine tried to correct him at the time, but he interrupted her and ever since has identified her as Jean. Janine’s one and only friend in the firm, Amy Brown, the Human Resources Assistant, often told Janine she should set him straight. Janine just never saw the point, except that there were times when Attorney Glenn became annoyed that Janine did not answer when he asked for things. It made for an awkward situation. 

While the other office girls, the paralegals and administrative assistants went to lunch together every day from 12-1pm, Janine was never asked to join. She had to cover the phones at all times. The firm believed having a “live” receptionist set them apart from the other firms, and gave them a personal touch. Janine’s lunch break was from 11:00am-12:00pm when call volume was the lowest, yet she was still expected to answer if the phone rang.

On a daily basis Amy joined Janine at the front desk in the event that Janine was chewing when a call came in and she needed Amy to answer on her behalf. Janine had never had a friend quite like Amy. Amy lived for gossip and always had the latest scoop on their co-workers. Janine silently believed that when Amy shared these stories it was horribly unethical, but lunch was the highlight of her otherwise dull day. Janine brought her culinary delights to share as a way to thank Amy for her midday companionship. Over Taiwanese noodles, or sweet and spicy tofu, or lobster tacos with tangy lime sauce, Amy dished the dirt.

Seasonal Vegetables with Hummus and Bruchetta

Apparently Attorney Glenn was sleeping with one of the paralegals. His wife was suing him for divorce and it was very ugly. Attorney Stuart was suffering with some type of horrendous cancer and had been seeking treatment for some time. There was serious concern over the future welfare of the firm if anything happened to him because he brought in all of the largest clients. For Janine, the firm’s daily soap opera was infinitely more exciting than her lackluster life, rendered even more so now that Hope was away at school and rarely found time to come home.

Janine missed Hope terribly! She and Carl went to see every musical theatre production at the Conservatory, even if Hope only had a small role to play. It was one of the few things they did together as a couple. By her senior year at the Conservatory, there were only starring roles for Hope, and Janine realized that their little town of Portsmouth would never be big enough to hold her shining star. She began to panic at the thought of Hope never returning home. Their quaint little house already felt enormous as result of Janine’s loneliness.

One day on a whim Janine asked Amy how she thought that Mrs. Glenn had discovered the affair. Amy said it was probably in the usual way, by reading her husband’s text messages, or reviewing the credit card statements. She added that any woman would have to be blind not to see what was happening, but then some women were that way, or they simply chose to look the other way. Then, Amy began raving about the butter chicken Janine had brought for lunch and insisted Janine had a gift, and she should open a restaurant. Janine rolled her eyes and thought: sure a thirty-nine year receptionist opens a restaurant. I bet that happens every day! Amy went on to come up with names for Janine’s imaginary restaurant: Janine’s Creative Cuisine, or Just Janine’s.   

Chocolate Mousse Cake with Cafe Au Lait Ice Cream

Even though it was silly, Janine allowed herself to fantasize about restaurant ownership. Some days she did not even hear the phone at the reception desk until the fifth or sixth ring startled her back to reality. During slow periods at work, she conducted online searches for commercial real estate for lease and cooking classes. Having a secret wish, made her feel powerful, alive.

After bowling one evening while Carl showered in hall bathroom, Janine heard his cell phone pinging and chiming with messages. She put down the book that she was reading, climbed out of bed and walked into the guest room where Carl’s phone rested on the nightstand. Carl never left his phone lying around. He constantly kept it with him because as he said, in his line of work he could not afford to miss an important client call or message. Janine, who had always respected Carl’s privacy in the past, uncharacteristically flipped through his text messages.

She scrolled through texts from his friends and some work related messages. Then she paused when she saw several messages from Ashley Peterson an agent who worked in Carl’s office. In stunned silence, Janine read the messages and stared in disbelief at photos of the blond-haired, green-eyed, curvy agent. Past encounters with Ashley flashed through Janine’s mind. Ashley had always been pleasant but dismissive at the same time about the food Janine brought or about Janine’s attire: “Well doesn’t that look delicious! If you eat carbs, I mean!” And, “oh, what and interesting blouse!” Janine felt her stomach sicken and her face redden when she read one of Ashley’s recent texts: Miss you already! Have fun going home to your frumpy little wife! In the photos, Ashley was posing in a provocative way, in an extremely revealing outfit.

Janine felt something snap inside of her like an elastic band that had been wound too tight for far too long.

When she no longer heard the water running in the shower, Janine carefully put Carl’s phone back in the exact same location where she had found it. She tiptoed to her room, switched off the lamp, and quickly and quietly dressed in her pajamas before she slipped under the floral quilt of her bed. Once she heard Carl close his bedroom door, she wept silently until her pillowcase was damp with tears and permitted the darkness to hug and envelope her until she slept.

The following week Janine asked Amy if she knew who Mrs. Glenn had hired as her divorce lawyer. Amy answered without inquiry. Amy was her best friend, but Janine knew she was little more than a sounding board for Amy. As Amy prattled on, Janine rarely got in a single word. So while she had planned to tell Amy so many things, like that she had made an appointment for laser gums contouring, somehow she never had the chance. Instead she took a sick day one Friday, underwent the painful procedure, recovered over the weekend, practiced smiling for the next week, and waited for anyone to notice. It took Amy three days and Carl a solid week. The power of invisibility, Janine thought, was that no one even noticed when you were gone.

Her new contact lenses initiated a more expedient response from both Amy and Carl, but Attorney Glenn had asked her if she had changed her hairstyle. No, Janine thought, but it’s long overdue! Being able to see without feeling like she was looking out a thick window had literally opened her eyes to a world of possibilities and her brand new smile gave her just a hint of confidence. 

Johnson and Wales University was conveniently located nearby the law firm, so Janine enrolled in evening cooking classes. After class, when she went home to her empty house, she was too tired to dwell on the fact or too busy with homework. Janine excelled in her classes. One added benefit was that everyone wore chef’s clothing, so there were no wardrobe concerns. She felt like she fit in for the first time in her life.  

Hope’s college graduation marked the last McGraff family celebration. Following the ceremony, they dined in downtown Boston bistro with some of Hope’s friends and their families. It was a spectacular day! Hope could not get over Janine’s transformation and kept saying so. The next day, brimming with pride, Janine and Carl helped Hope pack for her move to New York City where she planned to pursue her dream of performing in musical theatre. They all said tearful goodbyes and Carl and Janine promised to come see every production without fail.

Fourth of July weekend while Carl was attending a real estate convention in Las Vegas, Janine packed her belongings, and assisted by a team of movers, moved into a one bedroom apartment in Providence, close to both work and school. She had never lived in a city before and was excited about the very idea of it and enthusiastic about dining in the wide array of restaurants downtown. She planned to celebrate her 40th Birthday in August with some of her friends from school and with Amy, of course, at a new up and coming restaurant called Out of the Blue.

When Carl returned home, he would find the divorce papers on his nightstand with a pen and a stamped, return address envelope. After all, it was common courtesy, Janine thought, to let Carl know her new address.  

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