Women in Groups

The first time Mary-Louise brought Rick to the weekly Free To Be meeting, Yvette and I didn’t say a word. “It’s supposed to be just for women!” Carla said, and Pam nodded and whispered, “I keep saying we should have a mission statement,” which was a pet peeve of hers because she worked in Human Resources. And then Brenda, who was in charge, asked, “Is this going to be an every-week kind of thing, Mary-Louise? Because then we might have to talk about that.” And Mary-Louise, who forgot that being blonde when you’re fifty-eight isn’t the same as being blonde when you’re sixteen, shrugged in what she thought was a cute way and said, “I just thought he could give us the male perspective.”

Next to me, Yvette sighed and said, “Oh, Lord.” She didn’t complain anymore since she had told Brenda that her calling us “Freedom Fighters” was insensitive and disrespectful to her as an African-American. And when Carla said, “Weren’t those Freedom Riders?” Yvette glared at her and said, “They were fighters, too, weren’t they?” and even though Brenda apologized profusely and never did it again, Yvette told me in private that she’d just decided not to bring stuff up because she didn’t need that shit.

“Well, ladies,” Brenda said brightly, looking around our imperfectly arranged semi-circle, “how do we feel about this?”

“I think part of why we’re here is because we’re sick of the male perspective,” Carla said. She looked at Mary-Louise. “Are you guys dating?”

“About a month,” she said, smiling shyly, as though she’d earned her good looks but didn’t want anyone to think she was flaunting them.

We beamed and cooed, because if we didn’t it would look as though we were being poor sports. The whole point of Free To Be was moving on from divorce, and we all knew the main way to measure “moving on” was to snag a new man. Mary-Louise was the first.

Rick raised his hand. He was thin and bald, and I thought his acting like a first-grader who wanted the teacher to call on him was his way of trying to tell us he would be quiet and respectful. I decided to withhold judgment.

“It’s okay, Rick,” Brenda said. “We don’t actually raise our hands to speak. We just try not to interrupt each other.”

“I want to say that I think this group is a fantastic idea and Mary-Louise admires all of you so much,” he said. “And I’m happy just to sit and listen.”

Brenda said, “I vote for giving Rick a try,” as though we were talking about the new coffee shop up the block and if we didn’t like it, we could just go back to Starbucks. “Ladies?”

Now that we knew Rick was Mary-Louise’s boyfriend, we had to let him stay. I thought how not wanting to look jealous was a huge motivator for women in groups.

“I still think we need a mission statement,” Pam said, “but okay.”


Free To Be started when I told Brenda, who lived down the hall from me at the Plum Street Garden Apartments, that it would be fun to get together with other divorced, middle-age women. The beach town where we lived—teeming with community-college students, leather-skinned surfers, and Silicon Valley commuters—wasn’t an easy place for unmarried women to live on their own. Maybe, I worried privately, no place was.

“I’m the only divorced woman in my family,” I added as we stood by the mailboxes one night after work. “And my best friend, Carol, is still married to her high-school sweetheart, for God’s sake. I feel like a freak.”

“What a fabulous idea!” Brenda said. “I’ll put up a flyer on the bulletin board!”

My long-dead mother would have called her a “go-getter.”

The first week, nobody came, so Brenda advertised on Nextdoor. Some friends of friends were interested, and that is how the six of us ended up sitting in the Magnolia Room at the Community Center every Thursday. We met at seven in the morning because all of us still worked and were too tired to socialize at night. Brenda brought doughnuts.

My favorite part of Free To Be was when someone talked about her divorce. So far, I knew that Brenda’s husband was convicted of tax fraud and even though most of the money had gone to the lawyers trying unsuccessfully to keep him out of jail, there was still enough left over for Brenda to rent a two-bedroom unit with upgraded finishes. And Yvette’s husband Jasper had cheated on her with one of their sixteen-year-old daughter’s friends and the only reason Yvette found out was that the girl’s mother tried to set his car on fire.

Carla liked talking more about how she was sick of men in general and thinking of becoming a lesbian.

“Don’t you have to be born a lesbian?” I asked.

Carla said, “That’s ridiculous, Maureen. We’re all on the spectrum.”

“I thought you had to be born gay.”

“That’s men. Lesbians are different. Have you ever kissed a woman? Really kissed her?”

“No,” I said. It was a sore point with me, because Eugene asking me to do that was when I finally figured out he wanted a threesome, something in which he then admitted to dabbling without me.

Carla shimmied in her seat. “Well, maybe you should give it a whirl. It’s delicious.”

I felt shamed, as though “Kissing a Woman” were a merit badge everyone in the troop had already earned while I was still working on “Blow Jobs.” Brenda would say I should bring that up. Instead, I listened as Carla explained how at the cuddle party she went to over the weekend, some woman giving her a backrub may have elicited sexual feelings. Carla—the youngest of us all at forty-three—was slender, with curly, shoulder-length hair and black-framed glasses that made her look studious. Her marriage ended when her husband chased her and her five-year-old son into the bathroom and then hacked the locked door to pieces with a kitchen cleaver. He didn’t hurt them and was sorry about the door, but I could understand why she might want to go in a different direction.

“What in the hell is a cuddle party?” Yvette asked.

Eugene and I had no children. After thirty years, there didn’t seem to be much that held us together. I often wondered how being divorced would have been different if there’d been children involved. They would be adults now.  They would call me a couple times a week to ask how I was doing. Take me out for brunch on Sundays. Gently encourage me to date.

Ready-made friends.


True to his promise, Rick just sat and listened most mornings, although he had offered succinct opinions on favorite online dating sites (“People lie on all those things!”) and whether men really did want to meet women half their age (“Not if they’re as lucky as I am,” which made Mary-Louise giggle and pat him on the thigh).

But one Thursday morning, I got up and went to get a second apple fritter, and Rick caught my eye. He shook his head at me and winked. It was the winking that bothered me most, as though it would take the sting out of being told I shouldn’t eat so much. That was how he was in his real life, I decided: telling Mary-Louise she should dump the skinny jeans and start acting her age and then winking. Or that her heavy eyeliner wasn’t doing her any favors. Or “Enough already with the giggling.” Wink, wink, wink.

I felt sad for her. And then sad for myself, because by the time you were in your sixties, you knew that finding a man who didn’t wink or want to have threesomes seemed unlikely.

Walking back to our cars that morning, I asked Yvette, “Do you know anyone with a good marriage?”

“Oh, sure, sure I do. Not many. But a few.”

“How do you know they’re good marriages, though? Not just marriages that have lasted. Really good ones.”

“Well, the whole behind-closed-doors thing: I guess you don’t really know.” She fumbled in her purse for her key. “But my parents have been married sixty-three years. And when my dad takes the shuttle to Trader Joe’s to buy groceries, he never forgets to buy flowers for Mom. Yellow daisies are her favorite.”

Sixty-three years. “How lovely,” I said.

“She has Alzheimer’s. Doesn’t know anybody anymore.” At her car, Yvette pulled the door open. “He still buys them.” She lowered herself to the driver’s seat and looked up at me. “And he’s not some namby-pamby, pussy guy. When he heard about Jasper’s car, he said, ‘Hell, I wish I’d lit the match!’”

We said goodbye. Walking farther down the block, I tried to feel uplifted, hopeful. But Rick had rattled me. I had a feeling that the few men in the world who would buy flowers for their demented wives had already been snatched up.


“Tell me the worst thing about Ray,” I said to Carol the next weekend. We were putting away dishes after a spontaneous early dinner. Ray was watching TV in the den.

“Oh, you’ve known us since tenth grade,” Carol said. “He’s a good guy. You know that.”

“That’s why I’m asking. Because I know even the good guys have faults. I just want to know the difference between good faults and bad ones.”

“Well.” Carol leaned against the counter and crossed her arms. “His body’s not what it was. You can see that. He’s got a new outcropping of moles every year. He snores.”

“All things I could live with.”

“He’d be mad if he knew I were telling you this,” she whispered, “but he listens to Lawrence Welk records he inherited from his parents. He says they remind him of home.”

“That’s actually kind of sweet.”

After a moment, she said, “He doesn’t like to make decisions, because he’s afraid if they’re bad, I’ll blame him. Which I wouldn’t, incidentally. He gets that from his parents, too.” She sighed in a way that let me know this had weighed on her for years. “So, I have to pick the new car and decide which charities we give money to. Figure out where to go on vacation, which flight to book, which hotel to reserve. And the really irritating thing is, if it ends up being a lousy trip, he blames me!”

“Really? Ray?”

“He doesn’t come right out and say, ‘This is your fault!’ He just sighs mournfully when he sees me looking at brochures and says, ‘I hope that hotel is better than the one last year.’”

“That doesn’t sound like the Ray I know,” I said.

She pushed herself off the counter. “It could be worse. He could be the kind of guy who has to make all the decisions, control everything. I’ve known a few of those. You couldn’t pay me to be married to a man like that.”

I set the last wine glass on the shelf. I did not say that deciding everything didn’t seem all that different from deciding nothing and then being shitty about it.


Brenda cornered me at the doughnut table before the next meeting, out of earshot. “I’ve got exciting news!” she said. “Someone would like to meet you!”

She said “someone” in that arch, Doris-Day way that was code for ‘a man.’

I tried to smile politely, but I couldn’t imagine how this could be so. Had Brenda decided to make me her pet project and talk me up to all the single men she knew? And just why had she decided this particular man was right for me? What flaws did he have that she herself could not tolerate?

“His name is Marcus Abelar and he lives in 2B. Very pleasant guy, retired, likes to swim laps in the pool. He seems very sensible. And he noticed you!”

I flushed. “What’s wrong with him?”

Brenda laughed. “Nothing I can see. But I guess that’s what dating is for!”


We met at Café Rio, down by the beach. Marcus stood up when I arrived and gently shook my hand. “Nice to meet you,” he said.

I liked a man with a firmer handshake. I thought, Maybe this is his big flaw. Like the Lawrence Welk thing. Something I could live with. How many times do you shake hands with someone once you know him, anyway?

We scanned the menu, made small talk about whether we preferred red or white wine. We talked about the differences between organic and sustainable farming, which Marcus was upset more people didn’t know about. “They’re very different balls of wax,” he said and then told me some stuff about soil management. “I’ve always been fascinated with crop rotation,” he added.

After my first glass of wine, I decided he was oddly endearing. I felt brave. “What was it that made you ask Brenda about me?” I asked.

He twiddled the stem of his wine glass and thought for a while before answering. “I said you looked humble.”

I didn’t know what to think. Nothing about my stylish bob or feverishly moisturized skin or how he liked plump sixty-year-olds who didn’t wear yoga pants to the store.

“You seem like someone who doesn’t always have to be right. My ex-wife had to be right. She wasn’t the easiest person to get along with.”

“I think I’m pretty easy to get along with,” I said. “But I’m the one saying it, right? So maybe I’m biased or defensive or something.”

“See? You’re proving my point.” He smiled and refilled my glass.

He had curly salt-and-pepper hair that was badly barbered and a hangnail on his thumb. And kind, hesitant eyes.

“I’m sorry she was hard to get along with,” I said. “Did you fight a lot?”

“She said it was ‘talking through our conflicts.’ It felt like fighting, though.”

“Eugene and I didn’t argue much. Almost never. I think it would have been better if we had.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Infidelity?”

“How did you know? Is it like a brand on my forehead?”

“I just guessed. It’s pretty common.” I must have looked despondent, because he added, “I’m sorry.”

The waitress arrived with our orders. I watched as he thanked her and raised his hands in mock alarm when she told him the plate was hot.  It seemed to indicate a willingness to take direction from a woman. Not that I was one for giving a whole lot of instructions.

“You seem nice, too,” I said.

“Being nice isn’t the same thing as being humble,” he said, shaking his head, tucking in to his wild salmon. “An entirely different ball of wax.”


“He said it twice!” I told them next Thursday. “Doesn’t that mean he’s going to say it all the time?”

“You don’t really know that,” Pam said. “People are nervous on first dates. They say weird things.”

Carla said, “Right after my divorce, I dated a man who ordered wine at every meal, took a sip, and said, ‘Ahh! A hint of impertinence.’ Every damn time.”

“But, see, he could still be a good guy,” Mary-Louise said to me. She had come without Rick. No one wanted to ask why. “I went out with a guy once who seemed pretty normal until the third date, when he told me the reason he didn’t have any friends was that he was so good-looking. ‘Ball of wax’ isn’t nearly as bad as that.”

Then everyone had a story. The guy who said he was giving away all his earthly possessions except his swords. The guy who talked for ten minutes about the importance of having clean fingernails. The guy who arrived at the restaurant wearing an Armani suit and whispered, “There’s a thong under this, in case you’re interested.”

I thought, It’s like a competition. Like someone’s going to get a prize for the best crazy-man anecdote.

Carla said, “A friend of mine dated a guy who seemed all right at first. Then, when they were ready to have sex, he confessed that he wanted to dress in a clown suit and masturbate while she told him he was naughty.”

“Come on!” Yvette kept shrieking, tears running down her cheeks

“Was he wearing a red nose?” I asked.

Carla nodded. “And big red shoes!”

It took us a few minutes to settle down. I wondered why disclosing the inexplicable ways we’d known men to behave came so easily to us, and then it hit me: Talking about men—those we’d left, those who’d left us, those to come—was why we were here.


That was the last time I saw Mary-Louise. Or Carla, who’d been fellating Rick on his office couch when Mary-Louise burst in, hoping for an impromptu coffee date. Brenda said Mary-Louise was too mortified to come back to our meetings.

“Oh, that’s silly,” Pam said. “It’s happened to all of us. I’ll text her.”

“Don’t,” Brenda said. “She’s already quit her job. She’s moving up to Oregon to be near family.”

Yvette and Pam and I sat in silence for a moment, recalling the disappointments, the betrayals we had known, feeling Mary-Louise’s devastation as our own.

“What about Carla?” Pam asked.

“She says she and Rick are madly in love and they’re going to concentrate on each other right now.”

“I guess the whole lesbian thing is out,” Yvette said.

Brenda shook her head hard, sloughing off the unpleasantness, signifying that it was time for the rest of us to continue the pursuit of our bright and shining futures. “Maybe you ladies can put the word out to your friends? See if we can attract some new blood? And in the meantime, the four of us will carry on. You know, count our blessings. Move forward.” She was trying so hard, smiling her plucky, jagged smile. “We’re all Free to Be, remember? Resilient and brave together.”

She said it as though we were some sort of militia and this was our motto, something one of us should have already embroidered on a pillow. I nodded, but the bravery I’d been trying to muster in the face of unsought freedom seemed a little silly, when what I’d really been doing all along was whiling away time, waiting for who would come next.


“I think I won’t be going back,” I told Yvette on the way to our cars. “There’s something about groups like this.” The resentful longing. Rivalry bleeding into aversion. “It’s easy to get distracted.”

Yvette nodded. “I hear you. I’ll probably keep going, though. I like the doughnuts. And the structure. I really need the structure.” Her voice quavered then, holding back a sob. “The house is lonely without Jasper. Especially in the mornings. You’d think I’d miss him more at night, but it’s the mornings that get me. The way only my side of the bed is messed up. That just kills me.”

I reached out and hugged her sideways against me as we walked. She said, “It’s nice not to have to worry about Thursday mornings, at least.”

At my car, we made sure we had each other’s numbers. I’d just hugged her, so I felt weird about doing it again. She said “I’ll see you” indifferently. It didn’t go with everything she’d just told me.

In the car, I sat for a moment, thinking of all the ways a person could be disappointed. How rejection felt like a sting at first and then hurt in earnest when the shock wore off. Finally I texted, Want to have dinner next week? Before I even put the car in gear, she wrote back, I’m free on Tuesdays.




“I really hope we can be friends,” I said to Marcus as we walked along the shore, leaving bare footprints in the cool afternoon sand. “These days, I am very grateful for friends.”

The sky over Beer Can Beach was thick with dark clouds, the bay gray-green under their weight.

Marcus let go of my hand. “Are you breaking up with me?”

This was only our third date, but it seemed unkind to say so. “You’re a very nice man I would like to be friends with,” I said.

He stared out at the bay, studded to the horizon with tiny whitecaps. “I’m not looking for friends.”

I knew where he was: rushing through the days, longing for the strangeness of this different, unimaginable life—this aloneness—to be over.

“The thing is, I like you,” he said. “I really like you. And if it’s just going to be friends…” Pause. “I’m not sure I have time for that.”

“I totally understand,” I said. My hair was starting to blow in all directions.

He went on about dating: how expensive it was. Time-consuming. Anxiety-provoking. “All the uncertainty. Never knowing what she wants. Not really knowing what I want,” he said.

I nodded, my heart aching for him a little, and smiled into the bracing wind, just beginning to pick up.

Gina Willner-Pardo has written short stories published in Berkeley Fiction Review, Bluestem, Boomer Lit Mag, Pleiades, COG Magazine, Crack the Spine, Five on the Fifth, Mad River Review, Origins Journal, Ragazine, The South Carolina Review, Streetlight Magazine, Summerset Review, White Wall Review, and Whetstone, which awarded her story “Accident” the John Patrick McGrath Memorial Award. She has also written seventeen books for children, all published by Clarion or Albert Whitman. Gina’s book Figuring Out Frances won the Josette Frank Award, presented by the Bank Street College of Education, to honor a book of “outstanding literary merit in which children or young people deal in a positive and realistic way with difficulties in their world and grow emotionally and morally.”