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Mourning a Matriarch: Bay Native “Grandma” Mae Johnston Passes Away at Age 94, Bay Today News, Jun 30
“I expect you home by the end of summer to help plan your engagement party.” Cheramie’s mother arched a commanding brow at her through the sterling-silver Kigu compact in her hand. “The announcements are scheduled to print next month. Finally,” her eyes widened as she drew the i to make the point of how long she’d been waiting to hit send and get on with their lives. “I sent you a proof by email last night.”
“Last night? Like, yesterday night? During the wake? You couldn’t schedule a send for—I don’t know—today even?”
Horrified but not completely surprised, Cheramie scrolled through her emails, and there it was, nestled between condolences and offers and promotions she’d opted into.
Senator and Mrs. Wallace Davies of Boston are pleased to announce the engagement of their daughter, Cheramie Michelle Johnston-Davies, to Richard Drysdale Traeger III, beloved son of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Drysdale Traeger II, also of Boston.
Normally, she appreciated efficiency and foresight, but in this case, it wasn’t necessary. It was extremely unnecessary. All she could do was stare at the screen until little fuzzy black dots appeared and pulsed in front of her eyes.
“Well? Do you have something to say?”
What could she say? She tucked her phone back into her purse and stared through the blacked-out tinted car window, trying to lose her thoughts and feelings among the sidewalk crowd of passersby, uniformed Edgewater Hotel valets and guests.
“Johnston-Davies? That’s not my name.” She was a Johnston. Just a Johnston. Like Grandma Mae.
“What else are people supposed to call you? You’re not an orphan.”
No, not technically but with no father, no siblings and living all the way across the country from her mom, she sure felt like one sometimes. Cheramie sighed. This wasn’t a fight she wanted any part of. “Fine. Fine.” She waved it off.
“Fix your face. You look like someone died,” Mom said, using her fingers to smooth the faint lines at the corners of her own eyes.
“My grandmother died,” Cheramie reminded her. “And you sent me the proof of an engagement announcement during her wake.” She wasn’t ready to head home to the empty house she’d shared with her grandma yet, but she couldn’t stand to be around her mother another minute either. Their relationship was complicated.
“Mae was your father’s mother.” The compact snapped shut. “About time too,” her mom huffed. “When I agreed to you acting as your grandmother’s caregiver, I thought she had a year left…maybe less. But she lived another fifteen years?” She glared at Cheramie. “That woman hated me on sight and didn’t trust me to raise you properly. Do you know what that’s like?”
Like giving the valedictorian speech at your high school graduation only to have your mom walk in after the applause? Or graduating summa cum laude from a state school, but your mother was too ashamed to tell anyone? Yes, Cheramie absolutely knew what it was like to crave love, affection, and validation from a person but never be good enough or smart enough or enough of anything to earn it. And yet here she was, still trying to earn those things because she wasn’t a quitter.
“You can’t possibly know.” Mom looked her up and down. “You’re light-skinned, tall, and the sole heiress to your father’s entire fortune. For that, you’re marrying Richard Drysdale Traeger the Third. Your entire life is set out for you like the red carpet at Cannes.” Her mother lined her lightly tanned forearm against Cheramie’s noticeably paler one. “You’ll never struggle like I did.” Mom never said it out loud, but as Cheramie grew older, she finally understood her mother’s obsession with keeping her out of the sun. Keeping her sheltered and in the shade wasn’t about sensitive burning skin or moles or skin cancer.
And her mother’s words rang true, Cheramie hadn’t struggled. She’d been given everything. But she was still allowed to be sad for more than one hot minute over her grandmother’s death.
Mom put a hand on Cheramie’s knee. “We’ll plan for you to work for a year before you get pregnant. We’ll time it so you can surprise Richard on Christmas or his birthday. He’ll love that. And then you’ll have another baby right away. Tie your tubes. Then you won’t have to worry about your figure anymore. I have a dietitian and trainer already on retainer. A plastic surgeon, too.”
“I’m worth more than my uterus and its ability to house babies.”
“Of course, you are, dear. And more valuable because you have a virgin uterus.” Mom patted Cheramie’s stomach. “We have your grandmother to thank for that at least.”
“Mom!” First of all, how did she know? And second, her virginity wasn’t a conscious choice. She was still a virgin by circumstance.
“Please don’t. I hate that word.”
“You hate the word mom?” That didn’t matter; they were discussing Cheramie’s uterus. “Mother, it’s archaic, misogynistic, and just gross to value a woman by her…to value me by my…” Vaginal state? Virginal state?
“You’re prized. Revered. You’re special.”
To whom? Sex traffickers? Cheramie didn’t want to be prized, revered, or special because of her intact hymen, and she hated that her mother thought of her this way. She was a high school valedictorian, graduated state summa cum laude, and had an extremely bright future ahead of her. But after this conversation, having sex moved right to the top of her priority list. If people didn’t value her after that, she didn’t want to know them anyway.
“It’s perfectly acceptable to be modest. There’s nothing wrong with modesty. I raised you this way, and your grandmother, for all the things we disagreed on, continued to raise you this way too.”
“Before this conversation, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with modesty,” Cheramie grumbled.
“You think that way now, but as soon as you’re back East, you’ll be glad to fit in. Just look at you.” Mom tried to pinch an inch at her waist but failed. “I understand you’re trying to assert your individuality and independence, but like it or not, you’re one of us. And soon, you’ll be a Drysdale Traeger, right where you belong.”
Cheramie placed a hand on the lux Dolce & Gabbana black floral-print midi over top of the whalebone corset bracing her stomach. A dress she’d chosen from the truckload of designer clothes shipped to her from her mother the moment Grandma Mae expired. By the size of the collection and the styles of clothing, it seemed like she’d been curating this wardrobe for years.
“Thank you for wearing the clothes I sent for you,” her mom said. “You needed the right look to be a senator’s wife. And now you have it. I should know.”
The only physical trait Cheramie inherited from her father was his height. In every other way, she was her mother’s daughter. Matching oval-shaped faces; creamy, tawny, indeterminate complexions; and soft, cinnamon-tinted waves gathered into low buns. It usually took someone confused, curious, observant and extraordinarily brave enough three guesses and a myriad of clues to ascertain her genetic heritage.
You don’t look like Mae, are you sure you’re related?
I’m sure. I look more like my mother.
The questions became less frequent, the older she became. But they didn’t become any less hurtful or insensitive, adding to the visual reminder that things were always going to be easier for her.
“What I wear doesn’t mean anything,” Cheramie argued.
“On the contrary…it means everything.”
“We’re not the same person. We don’t have the same goals and aspirations.”
“Denying facts doesn’t make them false.”
Obvious Fact: She and her mother shared DNA.
Grudging Fact: Cheramie, like her mother, was going to be a senator’s wife.
But also, Fact: Cheramie looked forward to all the people she’d be able to help as the partner of a prominent politician. She aspired to be Meghan Markle and Vivienne Westwood remixed—part princess, part punk rock. Proposals for new playgrounds, literary endowments for schools and public libraries, a STEM competition and fair for middle and high schoolers, and a scholarship fund in memory of her father and grandmother were already drafted and ready to send. She refused to squander her privileged position—not like her mother did and vowed to fill her social calendar with commencement speeches and pediatric hospital visits, instead of brunches and fashion shows.
“We’re not the same person, Mom, that’s a fact.”
Her mother ignored Cheramie’s summation, sucked in her cheeks, and puckered her lips. “Give Mother a kiss goodbye.”
Cheramie was getting too old for this but acquiesced.
“If I, were you, I’d leave this dreadful place immediately.” Her mother side-eyed her, gauging her reaction. “I purchased the seat next to mine to put my purse. But you could sit there instead.”
Her mother didn’t really want to give up her purse’s seat. But she would if it meant Cheramie leaving Conception Bay tomorrow.
“Thank you for the offer, but I have to stay and handle Grandma Mae’s affairs.”
Her mother exhaled, pressing a relieved hand to her chest. “Thank goodness; I regretted the offer as soon as I said it. I don’t know what came over me. I’m excited to finally start planning your wedding. Table clothes, flowers, centerpieces.” She fanned herself with her open hand. “The ladies tease me at brunch saying you’re as old as a spinster and take bets that you’ll still back out of the marriage.”
“Why would they say or do those things?” Again, unnecessary and mean too.
“Because you’ve spent so much time with your grandmother, that’s why.” Mom shook her head. “What sort of stipulation is having you personally handle her affairs, anyway? The old woman couldn’t hire a lawyer to take care of some random paperwork. She had enough money, and heaven knows she didn’t spend it.” Mom snorted. “She’s dead… She couldn’t spare a few dollars—”
“Goodbye, Mother,” Cheramie interrupted her before she reached the point where she couldn’t retract her biting remarks without poor excuses. Cheramie reached across her and yanked the handle on the door. “I’ll see you at the end of summer.”
“By the end of summer. Fifteen years has been long enough.” Her mother blew her rapid air-kisses. “Bye-bye, dear.”
Cheramie didn’t return the air-kisses. She wasn’t the air-kissing type. Or even the regular-kissing type, her first kiss being the standard, handsy, exploratory middle-school type and her last kiss being the standard, slightly tipsy, handsy, exploratory college type. Whatever the appeal of prolonged lip mashing so close to someone else’s face was, Cheramie didn’t get it.
It was fine. It didn’t matter. She and Richard were a good match, and thankfully, kissing didn’t preclude good matches. Kissing shouldn’t preclude good matches. Cheramie believed she had more important things to accomplish, a crusader armed with hard drives full of actionable plans. The less time Cheramie spent under the same roof and influence of her mother, the better. Marriage it was. Richard hadn’t done anything to her or against her. Really, like living with Grandma Mae, the pros of being with Richard outweighed the cons.
“Where to?” Cameron Hill, Grandma Mae’s driver and the only person Cheramie considered an actual, trusted confidante and friend, asked, “Do you want me to drive you back to the Bay?”
Cheramie watched her mother strut, hips gliding side to side until she disappeared into the Edgewater Hotel’s lobby. “Hang on. I need to think.” More like overthink. She required time and space to organize her thoughts before they became an overwhelming, useless jumble.
The emotional, needed-a-hug-right-now part of her wanted to retreat into the comfort of the home she’d shared with Grandma Mae. Curl up on the sofa, run a hot bath, sip tea. Any of the above. But only if the rational, responsible part of her could be productive, do some work and feel accomplished first. Cheramie hated loose ends. Loose ends were messy and unfinished like an abandoned jigsaw puzzle or a book part way through. How did anyone live without knowing?
“You know if it were me,” Cameron started, being the excellent friend he was, “I’d probably need at least a night to relax after an obviously overwhelming last few days.” Obviously overwhelming was their not-so-secret code for Cheramie’s mother.
“Working helps me settle,” she argued.
“Working helps you ignore your feelings. Your grandmother, whom you were extremely close with, just died. Not unexpectedly, you know, but still.”
Cheramie’s insides wanted her to get to work, put her head down, and distract herself from what was going on around her. There was solace behind a closed office door. Taking care of Grandma Mae’s affairs was a gift. A way to process her grief and tie up loose ends. She didn’t understand how a good cry helped anyone. Grandma Mae left her a to-do list, her final tax returns, and signing authority to close out utilities and credit cards. Cheramie could grieve and say goodbye to her grandmother one task at a time. This made sense to her. This was helpful.
Putting off to-dos made her skin itch. And one massive to-do had her inheritance bound to it. When ground broke on the revitalization project, she’d receive half of her inheritance and would receive the remaining amounts when it was completed, including the other key to her grandmother’s safety-deposit box. But she wasn’t getting that until the project was completed. Signed, sealed and delivered to the people of Conception Bay.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking about,” Cameron said, “but if it’s anything other than grieving Mae properly, you’re a terrible person.”
Cheramie shot him a look. He was teasing, but he was right. She didn’t want to go back to the house. Not yet. She hadn’t cried either, not even in front of her mother. Especially not in front of her mother. The last time she cried, at her father’s funeral, mom told her to stop making a scene. Cheramie hadn’t made a scene since. Not for anything or anyone. Crying didn’t make her feel better, only worse, shameful and embarrassed.
“You know what your problem is?”
“I have a nosy and opinionated driver.”
“True. But also, number one, you’re emotionally stunted and B, without anyone telling you what to do, you have no idea what to do.”
“You heard me.”
She caught Cameron’s eye in the rearview mirror, and he shook his head. “Not true,” she said. Emotionally stunted maybe, but she had plenty to do.
“I said what I said.”
A hotel valet knocked on Cameron’s window. She had to decide—now. Cheramie pressed her lips together as Cameron signaled to pull away from the curb, the click, click, click like a ticking time bomb.
“I don’t want to go back.”
His brows hitched slightly, then drew together.
“What’s that look for?”
“You just want to drive around aimlessly? Or—”
“Hang around the city. Let’s do that.”
Cameron covered a snicker with a cough. “Sure, let’s do that. Hang around the city without fixed plans.” He cranked the wheel toward the street, goading her.
“No. Wait,” she said, firmly. She didn’t have the capacity for chaos or aimlessness. He was right about that. She needed purpose. “Park the car. Let’s go inside.” Cheramie burst from the back seat of the car. She couldn’t go back to the house, and she didn’t want to drive around. She just missed her grandmother.
“Okay.” Cameron handed the keys to the valet and met her on the sidewalk.
“How much of my conversation with my mom did you hear?”
“All of it. Always. It’s hard not to.”
She nodded. “How did my mother know?”
“That you’re a virgin? You’re changing the subject again.”
Cheramie narrowed her eyes toward him. “I’m not going back to work. That has to count for something.”
“Fine. Are you sure you want me to answer the virgin question?” Talking about her virginity was slightly less torturous than feelings, and now that it was a thing, it needed to be addressed. More than her feelings anyway.
“You’ve been driving Grandma Mae for ten years.” Cameron’s older brother hot-potatoed the job of driving her to and from Seattle to Cameron when he turned eighteen. “Aside from Grandma Mae, you’re the only other person I hang out with. So yes, I want you to answer the virgin question.” Was she prepared to hear the answer? She’d have to be.
“I don’t think your ma knew per se. I think she guessed. She’s very clever at ascertaining information.”
“Am I that easy to read?”
“I’ve seen enough of the small town you live in—which is all of it—and it’s tiny. But everyone knows everyone else’s business, and if your ma hadn’t heard anything otherwise, she ventured a guess.”
“So yes, I’m easy to read?” That was the question she asked.
“Yes, you are.”
“Is it awful that I want to lose my virginity immediately after having that conversation?”
“Are you just trying to prove her wrong?”
“I’m trying to prove to myself that I’m worth more than my uterus.”
“I’ve never heard that before, but I’m sure it makes sense to you.”
“What do you think?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think, but I am in favor. You’re a grown woman and you’re about to get married. You don’t have oats, but you need experience.”
“So, we agree?”
Cameron’s head bobbed up and down.
“I wasn’t expecting you to agree with me.”
“Why?” His baritone seemed surprised. “I’m not your ma. Anyway, you’re going to be married soon. You should at least get some practice rounds in because either you’re going to be disappointed, or he is.”
“How do you know I’ll be bad at sex?”
“Because you’ve never done it before. People aren’t born amazing at sex. It takes practice. And I know you’re the type of person who prefers to excel at things. I mean, look at your clothes.”
“What’s wrong with my clothes?”
“I’ve never seen you in anything like this before. You look like a cross between Peg Bundy, The Nanny and a mob wife.”
Cheramie smoothed her dress over her thighs. “I don’t know what two of those things are. These are nice clothes. Designer clothes.”
“Your regular clothes were nice clothes. This is,” he waved a hand in front of her, “Goodfellas and nineties television.”
“My mom probably spent a fortune on these clothes.” If she was being honest with herself, it was kind of nice that her mother put so much thought and effort into her wardrobe. It wasn’t her brain, but everyone had their strengths, and curating the right look was her mother’s.
“The tea gloves I get. I thought that was a Grandma Mae thing, but I noticed your ma wore them too. But she didn’t tell you to wear a corset, did she? It’s a bit much for every day. Unless someone has a specific kink, most people wear Spanx. Or you could even adopt the body positivity route. Embrace your endowments.”
“How do you know I’m wearing a corset?”
“Maybe I have a kink.”
“Well then, maybe I have a kink too.” She didn’t think she did but made a mental note to look up the term later.
Cameron had her pegged—she thrived on achievement and external validation more than she cared to admit. But how difficult could sex be? She understood how body parts worked. “When am I going to have time to practice?” She had Grandma Mae’s estate to deal with, an engagement party to plan, and a wedding to be wedded at.
He shrugged, but she knew what he meant.
“Now? No, I can’t,” Cheramie said. “I want to try sex. I don’t have time for reps.”
“One thing at a time, then. And what else are you going to do? Deal with your feelings? Your ma’s up in her room somewhere. Your grandmother is—” He hitched one shoulder.
“Are you propositioning me?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa—” Cameron put his hands up in defense. “I’m not suggesting anything between you and me; you’re like my little cousin I hang out with because my ma says I have to. I’m suggesting you and someone else.”
“Like a”—Cheramie lowered her voice—“one-night stand?” She was more curious about this prospect than sitting with her feelings.
“How did you think losing your virginity happens exactly? You’re book smart, but woman, you’ve been sheltered living in that small town.” He shrugged, made a face, and spoke at a normal volume. “No strings attached. Get your first time over with. Figure out what you like and don’t like. Trust me. It’s the only way.”
Cheramie crossed her arms, considering the idea. She wasn’t saving her virginity for Richard on purpose. Living with her grandmother, with their bedrooms next to each other and windows so close Cheramie could wave at Alma Stevens next door while she stood in her own dining room, she didn’t have ample opportunities for sex or any privacy really. Not to mention small-town gossip. Until now, she avoided being the subject of the twisted tales that snaked around town, worsening at every turn. She deserved a prize for that accomplishment alone.
When Cheramie was seventeen, Alma’s niece, Andantina had been accused of being a were-Sasquatch because someone’s brother’s wife’s cousin saw her running around Seattle covered head to toe in hair. The integral missing part of the story was that it had been Halloween night and she was dressed like a gorilla. Context was crucial.
Regardless, by the time Cheramie found out she was unofficially engaged to Richard, Cheramie had given up kissing and the quest to have sex seemed like wasted energy. She’d have sex eventually, on her wedding night, and whenever she wanted after that in the privacy of her bedroom. With Richard. And she’d be good at it.
She could live with that. Probably.
The point was Cheramie could wait. “Let’s go ho—” Though Cameron did make some good points. She didn’t have to wait anymore, and practice sounded like a reasonable idea. Just in case.
They were already in Seattle, away from small-town gossip, and out from under the back-handed commentary of her mother and grandmother. Cheramie had opportunity, motive, and—she glanced down at herself—means. Heck yes, she had means. Ample means.
She could do this. They’d start with parameters…make a list… Maybe she didn’t have to overthink recklessness and indiscretion.
“Okay. So. If I wanted to pick someone up for a no-strings-attached fling, where would I do that?”
“Are you being serious right now? Because I was mostly kidding.” He was mostly trying to save his own butt if something went sideways.
“It’s too late. Kidding doesn’t work with me. I’m too serious. And now I have this idea stuck in my head. We’re doing this. So where are we going?”
He knew what she was like when she got an idea in her head. Cameron jerked his chin toward the Edgewater. “Hotel bar near the airport. People are coming and going. Less chance of running into each other again.”
“You sound like you’ve done this before.”
“I drove an elderly lady around twenty-four seven, three-sixty-five. No offense to Mae, God rest her soul.” He paused. “Regardless, I don’t have time for relationships. I might now, but I definitely didn’t last week.”
Cheramie had no idea what Cameron did when he wasn’t driving. But she trusted him enough to guide her through the process, and for everything else, she trusted herself.
“I’m in. How do we do this?”
“First, since this is your first time, we need to discuss red flags. Specifically, how to recognize them because we want this to go well and for you to have fun—and not end up on a crime podcast.”
“I like to think I’m a good judge of character.”
“I agree. But we still have to be careful because…because reasons.” He gave her a knowing look.
“Okay I get it.”
“Are you ready?”
As ready as she’d ever be. “Let’s go.”
“Hotel bar it is. Let’s scope out the scene, assess the potentials.”
Scope out. Potentials. This was a whole new vernacular for Cheramie. She definitely had to do this. Like he said, she was book smart but sheltered.
“I’ll stick close by. Like, when you go up to the room or whatever.”
She frowned at that, seemingly unnecessary but extremely necessary. Between the choice of being alone with someone she didn’t know and something going horribly wrong or something going wonderfully right, she did want Cameron close by.
“Okay, are you ready now?” Cameron asked again. “Because you’re not moving.”
She started to lose her nerve and her focus. She needed to be clear in her reasoning. “Wait a minute. Why am I doing this again?”
“For practice. Your self-esteem. Your future husband. For all uterus-kind.”
Cheramie nodded. Yes. She wanted to assert her individuality. To prove she had worth beyond her uterus. A little bit to spite her mother, though she’d never admit this out loud to anyone. “And because I have this idea in my head now and I can’t stop thinking about it,” she added.
“Also, in order to avoid going home and confronting your feelings.”
That, too. “I hate feelings.”
“About that… Whatever guy this ends up being…do not—I repeat do not—catch feelings. That will be trouble.”
“Again, have you met me? I just said I hate feelings. I’d be surprised if I even had feelings.”
Cameron stayed mute.
“Just because you ignore them, doesn’t mean you don’t have them. For the record, because I don’t want this to bite me in the ass later, this was your bonkers idea,” he clarified.
“You didn’t disagree.”
“I’m urging you to process your grief…”
“That’s not happening tonight. But fine. This was my bonkers idea and I absolve you of all undue influences over me.”
“You sound like you’re ready.”
A cherry-red Maserati roared by and pulled into the curb in front of them. A bolt of lightning against a blackened sky. Cheramie was determined to lose her virginity tonight, and she was going to do it with whomever stepped out of that car.
End of Excerpt