We reached year forty as a gang, with each of us hitting the milestone painfully yet sporadically throughout the year. First Alison in January, then the rest of us in February, April and July. None of us were despondent about meeting this bump in the road, though the cracks in our lives were starting to show.
We planned to celebrate our collective aging with a ski vacation to Utah in February. So, it was a pleasant surprise when someone suggested a mini-reunion that fall. It was a quick trip to our hometown and, as the one still living there, I was the host. Katherine lived just an hour away, where she worked as a successful executive. Alison also lived close. The others (Jessica, Jane and Sarah) flew in from various and sundry locales.
We were all straight, all married—some of us had kids, some of us didn’t. Life had thus far spared us from its most horrific horrors, though none of us were unscathed. We’d suffered through illnesses, lost parents, and now, for Alison, the prospect of her marriage ending.
Alison didn’t talk about her husband often. Whether it was due to sadness or shame, her eyes dimmed when she mentioned him. (Shame was not warranted; he was a jerk!) Still, she shared enough for us to know that her relationship with him was not a keeper.
To ease her burden that weekend, we kept the conversation light as we crowded around the table of a bar downtown. Our friend Jane was obsessed with the British monarchy and always kept us in the loop on their latest scandals. At the time, Prince Andrew was just emerging as the creep we all knew he could be.
“Total pervert,” Jane said. It pained her to admit that the Windsors were even more flawed than they seemed.
“Yeah, he’s toast,” Jessica chimed in. In truth, Jessica probably didn’t care what happened to the royal family, but her best trait as a friend was her ability to go with the flow. You could always count on Jessica’s support. I didn’t care much about Prince Andrew either, but Jane’s devotion to the cause was endearing.
“I am sure the Queen is f**king pissed,” I added, hoping to get Jane riled up. She took the bait and the conversation continued for a while, stopping only when a couple stopped at our table to say hi to Alison.
They looked about our age, and both were good looking and fit. They reminded me of a couple that would run marathons together. Alison was quick to introduce them as her friends from home, which was now a suburb about 30 minutes away.
“This is John and this is Christine,” Alison said and we all waved a little hello. After a few minutes of small talk, the rest of us went back to our conversation while Alison stepped aside to talk to her friends for a little longer. Eventually, John and Chris moved on and Alison rejoined the group, filling us in on her friends.
“They’ve only been married for a few years,” she started. Apparently John was in finance and Christine was in real estate. He had a daughter from a previous relationship, but she didn’t have any kids. Not much else was said about the two, but later that night, as the rest of us got too tired to carry on, Alison decided to meet up with them for one last drink before coming to my house to sleep.
After the weekend ended, we didn’t see each other again as a group until the trip that winter. We met at the airport in Salt Lake City before catching a van to our rental house in Park City. On our first night in town, we decided to stay in, taking the time to catch up on each other’s lives.
It was evident early in the evening that Alison’s pending split had moved from hypothetical to actually happening in the months since we’d last seen her. She had been furiously texting with her husband since our plane landed, and the tenor of the conversation did not seem good. The relationship was cooked.
Our 40th birthday trip now had a cause—to help our dear friend through the end of her marriage. We all liked Alison and we all knew she deserved better than what she’d received.
To generate a little income for herself, Alison had recently joined one of those multilevel marketing programs that were popular among women of a certain age. Alison was a hustler, always up to one thing or another. Her company sold women’s clothing in a style appropriate for ladies whose eye for fashion was average at best. So that night, she brought our her inventory in the hopes of making a few sales. As she told us more about the demise of her relationship, each of us shelled out a few hundred dollars in pity funds, buying clothes that we would never wear.
It was a show of solidarity for our friend who would soon be on her own. And, as the night carried on, I started to prepare for a week-long rehashing of her sad situation, with Alison crying by the fire as we plied her with vodka and red wine.
As it turns out, my preparation was not needed.
My first sense that things were not proceeding as I’d imagined was when we went shopping the next day. We were in a western-themed boutique that was only mildly interesting--better than a souvenir store but not quite upscale.
“What do you think of this hat?” Alison asked Jessica. It was a feathered cowgirl hat that was not exactly horrible but just off-trend enough to feel like its wearer was trying too hard.
Jessica, ever the kind friend, replied, “Love it!” (She didn’t actually love it.) Looking back, I think the cowgirl hat was our first glimpse of “New Alison.”
The next day we skied a bit, then ended the day at a local distillery that was a favorite of Sarah’s. Sarah recommended some easy cocktails, and most of us took her up on her suggestions. Alison, on the other hand, ordered a glass of Patron, straight up. Jane gave Sarah a quick, wide-eyed glance at Alison’s choice of beverage. “It’s on!” her look silently conveyed.
Again, our conversation began about nothing special. Sarah described to us the celebrity sighting she’d had last time been in Park City.
“The last time I was here I saw Will Ferrell and Idris Elba. They weren’t together,” she clarified.
We were hoping we’d likewise run into someone famous this time around, but so far, the only person who seemed to be in town was Rachel Ray; not exactly an A-list sighting. As we talked amongst ourselves, Alison’s cowgirl hat started attracting some male attention in the bar. Before long, a few keen-eyed gentlemen sidled up next to our table. Trying to be good wingmen, and now that her marriage was over, we pushed Alison front and center.
She entertained their advances for a bit, the Patron giving her confidence as she laughed at their middle-aged jokes. But, soon it was clear that Alison’s heart was not interested in taking it further with these Park City prospects. We all assumed it was just too soon. Alison was not reckless. She had the petite, pixie-like look that never went out of style. And, with the exception of her bedazzled and feathered hat, she dressed fairly conservatively. It fit with her type that she wouldn’t find a new horse to ride that easily. Or, so I thought.
The next day was the second-to-last day of our stay. We were eating lunch mid-mountain at the St. Charles, an exclusive ski-in, ski-out hotel. It was heaven on earth, with a ski valet and a roaring fire outside. We were there only a few minutes, relaxing by the fire, when a familiar couple found our happy group.
“John! Christine!” Alison called. We all turned to look. What were the chances?
Alison seemed genuinely surprised to run into her friends once again. (Of all the roaring fires on all the ski hills). And, this time, John and Chris joined our group and sat down. My second impression of them was not much different than the first. They were a talkative, friendly couple who exuded an energy that was fun but bordered on annoying. They toed the line between being interested conversationalists and nosy inquisitors. They were clearly good friends with Alison and seemed interested in knowing more about the rest of us.
Eventually I tired of their energy and suggested we get back to the ski hill. Like she had that weekend in fall, Alison decided to leave our group to spend a bit of time with John and Chris. This left the rest of us to ride up the ski lift to our next run without her. It was a sunny, clear day, making it easy for us to talk to each other on the ride.
Katherine, never one to mince words, was the first to broach the topic that was fluttering somewhere in the back of my brain.
She leaned toward us on the chairlift as if she was sharing a secret that she did not want overheard. “What are the chances those two showed up here randomly?”
“Zero,” I quickly replied, without thinking. “No chance.”
Sarah picked up the thread of our thoughts and gasped, “You’re right! You are so right!”
“Did you notice she was flirting with them,” Jessica said, seemingly less surprised than the rest of us. "And, not just with John, she was flirting with both of them.”
As I listed to the case unfold, I realized my friends were right. It had been right there to see. A look shared between the three of them. A touch to his shoulder, one to her arm. The chairlift arrived at the top of the mountain and I wondered, would New Alison fess up to her ménage a trios?
We skied down the hill, shouting to each other over the wind in our ears, so eager to unwrap this new information. By the time we reached the bottom of the hill, we’d painted a picture of our friend that was quite different than the one we started with just a few days ago. Though conservative on the outside, something in Alison’s life had led her to this point. Perhaps her self-esteem eroded to a place where only two people could properly build it back up. Or, maybe her need for adventure, which ran in her family, had finally caught up with her. (She had a few relatives that lived on the wild side.)
In any case, we weren’t prudes and quickly decided amongst ourselves to accept it for what it was. I tried not to imagine what the trio were actually doing, however, as I assumed they weren’t really skiing. John was a bit too muscly for my taste and imagining him in a compromising position was just not appealing.
Alison returned to the house much, much later, as if nothing had happened. We were all was desperately tempted to ask her the burning questions: How did you meet them? When did this start? But, we did not. A pact had been made. Truthfully, I am surprised we had the restraint to leave it alone. As a group, Katherine, Jane, Jessica and Sarah were not known to be shy. I think we all knew that Alison would never dare to say more, no matter how much we wished she would.
Her marriage had just ended, after all. It would probably be good to for her to keep her secrets secret for now. Who were we to begrudge her any small joy she found in this new, albeit slightly seedy relationship?
The ski trip came to a close the next day, with all of us hugging goodbye at the airport as we parted ways to find our respective gates. After the trip, Alison distanced herself from us. Whether she felt judged or just felt that our put-together lives no longer fit with hers, I am not sure. I sensed she wanted to wander further away from what was expected of her without the prying eyes of her childhood friends. We heard through the grapevine that the marriage of John and Christine did not last. It was not a big surprise, but I was curious what role Alison played in their break-up. Did these things ever end well?
In the end, the rest of us agreed that the trip had been well worth the intrigue. Had we not celebrated our middle age, had not taken this trip, we may never have met New Alison. We continued to travel together throughout our 40’s, though Alison never joined us again. I wonder if she knows how often we talk about her, imagining what unconventional situation she finds herself in these days. So far, none of us have ventured beyond this vicarious existence into a transformation of our own. But, there is always 50