On the first day of ninth grade, Fitzhugh Hardee Rainwater met the girl who immediately took up permanent residence deep in his heart. They happened to sit together on the back row in the biology class of the dreaded Lucretia Motthoople, a 68-year-old teaching veteran who double majored in boring her self-assured students and terrifying the timid. No one had ever seen a hair astray on the head of this James Longstreet High School institution, fierce neighborhood association president, and proud virgin. She was a dedicated perfectionist who expected nothing less of everyone she encountered. In 46 years of lecturing, she had never permitted a joke to pass her lips, had not missed a single Sunday service at First Baptist Church since hemorrhoid surgery 11 years back, and had lost count of how many days since her last bowel movement.
Her science class would have been a nightmare for the easily frightened Fitzhugh and a bloody bore for the girl sitting next to him. But they immediately bonded, giggling at each other's irreverent cracks about their constipated excuse for an instructor. Fitzhugh was elated a pretty gal was constantly talking to him and causing him to shield smiles and stifle laughs continually. He grew increasingly inspired to refine his own witty remarks and was thoroughly thrilled to induce so many giggles from this indefatigably energetic brunette.
Zada Anais McMayer would inevitably become Fitzhugh's best friend, the closest person to a soulmate he had ever had. They would laugh through many classes together over the next four years as they developed an easy familiarity and bond that proved increasingly soothing, especially after leaving high school when so many predictable rhythms suddenly dissipated. Zada was temperamentally opposite Fitzhugh. Whereas his default mode was shy, quiet, and introspective, she was the center of most any gathering, loud like her mother, and with almost no hesitation.
Her vivacious persona, joyful smile, and uninhibited wit made her a hit with all but bores, prudes, and other dedicated idealists. She was amazingly adept at saying what others thought but did not dare utter aloud, albeit usually with a tart twist that made her instantly memorable and the star of many subsequent stories. She enjoyed legions of friendly acquaintances and few friends because of her penchant for endlessly teasing whoever was present and her almost complete lack of tact and volume control.
She was invariably the queen bee at parties, loudly entertaining guests with her flirtatiousness, bawdy stories, and lightning wit with no boundaries. Though certainly better than average-looking, it was generally only much later after meeting her that people realized she wasn't actually a beauty. Her incredible toothy smile and expressive big brown eyes were her best physical features, but it was her apparent fearlessness and joie de vivre that made her so electric and often the object of envy.
Yet those same qualities intimidated both men and women since Zada had no compunction asking the most personal questions and offering the most intimate observations, no matter the company. Her enjoyment of making others squirm pushed people away. She wasn't mean. She just had an Andy Kaufmanesque curiosity about how people would react in unusual situations. Fitzhugh told her she was a performance art psychologist. But what he found refreshing and hilarious – like when his parents complimented how he had decorated his apartment, and Zada told them he needed a bigger bed – many others took as insensitive and even insulting. Lots of girls thought she was utterly uncouth and the antithesis of a lady, while most boys found her fascinating, funny, and mildly frightening.
Zada was definitely and defiantly her mother's daughter. By her 40th birthday Magnolia Newmar McMayer ("MNM" to some of her fans) had gone through five husbands (Dixon – Zada's dad – Armistead, Wyatt, Blaine, and Gram) and long since lost count of how many boyfriends and other dates she had enjoyed. At least as loud as her daughter, she was likewise utterly uninhibited but still sweet. Once, following some surgery, Magnolia was seen at the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store, where she plopped down on the check-out counter two large containers of Depend underwear.
"Well, hello! How are you?" the check-out gal asked cheerfully.
"Incontinent. How 'bout you?" Magnolia smiled at full volume.
Though Zada rarely expressed bitterness over growing up with a merry-go-round of men, Fitzhugh suspected the experience had scarred her. Neither "Bio Dad," as Miss McMayer dismissed her father, nor any of the four stepfathers had remained in reliable touch with her, and Mr. Rainwater sensed she had almost no faith in men.
As an attractive, fun, and sexually eager college girl, she rarely had trouble getting dates. Whenever there was a dry spell, she would flirt even more and suddenly become socially tactful. Especially if interested in a good-looking but somewhat shy boy, she enjoyed giving him a thrill by asking him out. But she had never had a romantic relationship survive more than a few months. She had to be her uninhibited, bold, and saucy self, which soon tended to turn off most guys. Because she was always "on" with never-ending wisecracks and insisted on being the star of every scene, the few fellows who didn't feel threatened by her ultimately found her exhausting.
Fitzhugh and Zada's close friendship flummoxed folks who didn't know them well, but it felt natural to them. For him, she seemed to personify so much of what he yearned to be: comfortable, confident, forward, fun, and happy. Greeting Zada was like taking the first bite of warm blackberry cobbler with melting ice cream on top. To be with her was to be imbued with so much more hope, excitement, humor, and endless possibilities than Fitzhugh ever felt with anyone else and certainly when alone. If down and lonely, a call to the Zadaphone brought an almost guaranteed endorphin rush, and a visit to her upstairs garage apartment – the Zadapad -- was to jump through the Looking Glass into enchanting Zadaland where Queen Zada held hilarious court. When in a particularly Zadarific mood, she would decree they create their own Jack Kerouac-style Zadaventure with the two of them road-tripping at the spur of the moment to wherever.
More importantly, she was the one person with whom he could be completely candid and know she would never think less of him -- or betray his confidence. Though she seemed almost incapable of keeping any of her own opinions and Zadadventures secret, she so treasured Fitzhugh as her one true confidante beyond her mother that she never considered revealing any of his confessions. That his exploits were minuscule compared to hers also helped.
Zada was the sister he never had with whom he could talk about girls and receive only encouragement, advice he wanted to believe was sound, and reassurance. Though his refined and modest mother was temperamentally in another galaxy, Ruby Rainwater soon sussed that her son's lone female friend adored him and could at times even be something of a surrogate mother.
Zada made him laugh like no one he ever knew, as well as a partner in loads of exploits he lacked the chutzpah to try on his own. In doing so, she significantly broadened the boundaries of his experience and boosted his confidence.
Best of all, though most who knew her would have guffawed at the notion, he saw Miss McMayer as the ideal therapist since they could and did talk openly about almost anything. Indeed, their total trust had weathered all the rapid changes of adolescence and early adulthood. No matter what fears he conveyed, she could get him to ridicule them and feel less strange. He also enjoyed being able to soothe her concerns and provide a reliable straight male's perspective, which she craved, never having gotten such from any of her five father figures.
For her, Fitzhugh was about the only guy she had ever liked who hadn't quickly tried to get in her pants. She deemed this fellow only child a genuine Christian southern gentleman who loved her like the brother she had always wanted. He also provided the adoring attention and unswerving emotional support with no strings attached she desperately longed for, and any time she needed it – even when she called at 3 a.m., lonely and unable to sleep. To her, he was the ideal straight man and audience for her never-ending shtick, and she cherished his witty commentary. Above all, he was the one man whose love for her had been constant and never doubted.
She especially enjoyed shocking him with frank tales of her sexual, drug-taking, and other exploits foreign to his shackled shores. She particularly delighted in how awed he was by the large, long mirror on the wall contiguous with her bed that was the source of her many "mirror moves" tales. It was a hoot to impress him, and she treasured how he never thought any less of her, no matter the mischief.
Zada loved him devotedly. Indeed, Miss McMayer displayed an uncompromising zeal to protect him from anyone – especially female – she saw as posing harm. Though she pushed him to date more, more than once, she caught herself sighing when he relayed how well a date had gone.
When others learned how much time she spent with Fitzhugh, she would inevitably be asked if they were a couple. Though she found him handsome enough, she yearned for a hunky Mr. Alpha Charisma. Most importantly, since no romance of hers had ever lasted more than four months – and she had never remained friends with any former beaus -- the thought of similarly losing her best friend was terrifying. With no other mate – male or female – had she ever felt remotely as close.
But she had long believed and never tired reminding Fitzhugh and anyone else – including her thoroughly approving mother – that, should she still be single at 30, she would marry him. Though truly touched, the object of her intention remained distinctly skeptical. Yet, she still stated her plan to folks as matter-of-factly as announcing she was going to the grocery.
On a visit to his parent's home when 19, she casually leaned on his father's chair while he read the newspaper.
"You know, if I'm still free at 30, I'm marrying Fitzhugh," she announced with a slight grin.
"No kidding?" Mr. Rainwater lowered the paper to laugh as Zada thoroughly enjoyed his son's acute embarrassment.
"Yeah, what do you think of me as your daughter-in-law? Think I might bring some desperately needed spice and color to this family?"
"My dear, I think you would definitely do that – better than anyone I know," Mr. Rainwater chuckled.
"Thanks, Pop," she patted his shoulder. "And I think you'd be a pretty cool daddy-in-law, and I'll be the daughter you always wanted."
"What if Fitzhugh's already married when you turn 30?" Mrs. Rainwater asked with a smile.
"So he'll just have to divorce her," Zada shrugged before at last giggling.
Though they entered college in the same class, Miss McMayer was distinctly more interested in sowing swell times than schoolwork. The only degree she ever seriously thought about was an MRS and, considering her mother's track record with men – as well as her own – she was distinctly skeptical about that. Flunking several classes and dropping many more, Zada was a fifth-year junior when Fitzhugh began graduate school.
Yet, she had enjoyed college way more than most. She took a cue from the many heroes and heroines of hers, who were famous actors, actresses, and singers who lived extravagant lives and died young. She didn't have a death wish and was quite streetwise, but still saw life as entirely too dominated by misfortune, pain, tragedy, and, worst of all, loneliness. There seemed almost no one or anything to rely on, and the whole mess was over far too soon anyway especially one's youth. She was never academically interested, seeing her best assets as her exhilarating personality, looks, wit, daring, and penchant for making a merry time. Zada viewed everyone chained to a see-saw oscillating between pain and boredom. So she resolved to carve out as much joy as she could, resigned that life is a cheat no one can win anyway. She had especially enjoyed the freedom afforded by her own apartment since starting college. Though her university years had failed to produce any academic achievement or direction, she was mostly satisfied with all the memorable hijinks she had overseen or what she and Fitzhugh termed "Zadaciously fine times."
That was the whole point.
Zada's sixth collegiate fall semester began brighter than usual. She shared none of Fitzhugh's nostalgia for the summer since hers had been exceptionally challenging. The break-up with her boyfriend Dylan, her pronounced loneliness, seeing less of Fitzhugh now that he was dating Amy, and the difficulty of frankly facing her frayed family history through intense analysis with Dr. Shapiro had all made her feel especially vulnerable. But she emerged from the summer stronger as well. She recognized affable Dylan lacked the assured personality she needed in a mate, her friendship with Fitzhugh had actually become tighter as she confided in him more, her stress brought her closer to her mother, and insights gained from therapy appeared to have helped. She had even discovered what felt like a fervent fascination with psychology and chose it as her new major, encouraged by having aced a psychology class she enjoyed that summer, as well as her own therapy. Though the new major would delay her graduation still further, it was the first of her five majors she was actually enthused about, and she figured her life experiences and expert Zadar could make her a thoroughly successful therapist.
By far the most exciting development in Zadaland that fall term was her rapid pursuit of a new romantic leading man: Hemp Peterson. Friends or at least friendly acquaintances since ninth grade, he had long been on the Zadar for being a stand-out high school football player with the kind of hunky build that most excited her. But she also recognized a decent fellow who loved to have fun and was way too laid back ever to be rattled by her teasing – indeed, he enjoyed it and returned the favor in a friendly way. She also felt sure she couldn't shock him since they had shared a lot of acquaintances and many a joint at various parties over the years.
Zada took further comfort from the fact his family was alternative like hers. She thought it a hoot how his parents had been (and remained) hippies who ran Spanish Castle Magic (named for a Jimi Hendrix song), an artsy downtown store specializing in tie-dye t-shirts, vintage clothing, Indian jewelry and rugs, psychedelic posters, and bongs. After their son, they had Misty Dawn, Crystal Sands, and Petal Rainbow – who had briefly dated Fitzhugh in college. Hemp's name was actually the initials for young Mr. Peterson's full name: Hendrix Eric Morrison Peterson. Zada loved how he was named for the rock stars Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jim Morrison. She envied how the family was close, and all the children chose to work in their parents' shop. She also adored how his whole family called her romantic target Hemp.
He had long taken a shine to her as well but, though they shared friends and had run into each other often over the years, they never seemed to be both single simultaneously. Though that was no deterrent for Zada, it was for Hemp. Never a Type-A personality, even when he wasn't dating anyone, Hemp just never got around to following through on his notions of calling her. Something always seemed to come up: either other girls seeking him out, getting stoned, or both.
"Operation Hemp," as Zada declared it began one early evening in late August. She and Fitzhugh were enjoying a Thursday dinner at the Brown Bean Restaurant in the Piedmont Hotel downtown across from campus. Mr. Rainwater had just exclaimed to Miss McMayer how she seemed to be in the most serene spirits in a long time.
"I'm at last getting my ass together," she looked at him seriously. "After five years of fucking around, I finally found a major I'm excited about, I'm facing up to some big psychological problems I avoided my whole life, and I'm convinced I can be a super shrink. Shoot, with as many problems as I've got, as streetwise and Zadar-intuitive as I am, with my love of gossip – the juicier, the better – and my awesome personality, who wouldn't want to have his head shrunk by Queen Zada?" She spread her arms and flashed her most Zadarific smile.
At that moment, Hemp Peterson slowly wandered into the restaurant, looking even more laid back than usual. With his hair unkempt and part of his tie-dye t-shirt hanging out of his blue jeans, at first Fitzhugh thought he might be stoned. It was certainly unusual to see him alone.
"Hemp!" Zada called excitedly, motioning to him to come over to their table. He smiled, waved, and walked their way.
"Well, hey there, sexy man. What's afoot in happy Hempland?"
"Ah, not too much … I guess." He started to say more, but scratched his head, looked at the floor, and chuckled sheepishly.
"What's the matter, cute thing? The Zadar's getting some distinct signals Mr. Hemp's been better. Dish, big boy."
"Ah. It's all right. I suppose."
"Don't you lie to me, Hemp Peterson. I've known you way too long to fool. Seriously, what's up, babe?
"Well. Sadie left me."
"No! I warned you she was a real heart-breaker – and right in this very restaurant last fall. Fitzhugh and Braxton were here too."
"Yeah, I remember all right. You called it," he replied sheepishly.
"Aw, Hemp. I'm sorry. What happened?" Zada asked while putting her hand on his arm.
"Well, we'd been dating for almost a year, and then she got a new place over the summer and asked me to move in so she could afford the rent. So I did, and then when I came back from the shop last night, she was gone and had taken all her stuff with her."
"No!" Zada exclaimed. For one of the few times in their nine-year friendship, Fitzhugh detected genuine shock from Miss McMayer as her eyes and mouth were as wide open as he had ever seen them. He thought he also detected excitement.
"She didn't even leave a note or a voice mail. All she left was her key on the kitchen table."
Zada's mouth remained frozen wide in a look of horror. Fitzhugh had never felt sorry for Hemp before, envying how care-free he seemed, but he now shared Zada's compassion for their mutual friend.
"What makes it worse is my name's the only one on the lease," Hemp sighed and shifted his feet. "She got me to sign it before I even moved in, but somehow I guess she just never got around to signing it herself, so now I'm stuck with all the rent which I can't afford."
"And I guess Miss Sadie Simmons is just a good-for-nothing Yankee bitch," Zada declared in a tone loud enough for heads to turn. Queen Zada was now on the royal warpath. "The unmitigated gall of that gal. Oh, Hemp. Have you talked to her?"
"No. She won't return my calls. But Georgialina McClusky just told me on the way over she saw Sadie holding hands with Billy Sherman."
"Oh! The chutzpah of that whore," Zada declared as still more heads turned their way. "Honey, you've just come in from a Category Five shitstorm. Oh, poor baby. Hemp, I'm so sorry," she lamented while patting his arm.
"Thanks, Zada. I really appreciate it."
"Hemp, I'm awful sorry too," Fitzhugh spoke up. "But let me tell you something that'll hopefully give you some comfort. Maybe not now, but soon. That Billy Sherman character is one sorry horn dog if ever there was one. He broke my sweet Amy's heart something terrible a year and a half ago. And it turns out that scumbag didn't just cheat on her with one gal, but with a whole slew of 'em. So God help Miss Sadie if she thinks she's found Mr. Fidelity."
"Ah, the hell with that hussy," Zada practically spat, now fully wound up to fifth gear. "Screw both of 'em. Oh, Hemp, baby, I'm so sorry." Zada jumped up to give Hemp a hug and patted him on the back several times. "Sit down, you poor thing. Join us. You need some friends, sure enough."
"Yeah, come on. Pull up a chair and join us, Hemp," Fitzhugh echoed. "Let us know how we can help."
"Thanks, y'all, I really appreciate it. Let me first make a quick pit stop. I'll be right back," he said before heading for the men's room.
"Oh, man. The poor guy," Fitzhugh declared.
"Right, and just ripe for Zada. Your scene just ended, and it's time for you to exit," Zada decreed.
"What?" Fitzhugh asked incredulously.
"Don't argue with me, Fitzhugh," she pointed a French fry at him. "You've got the gal of your dreams while I've been alone stuck with Mr. Orgasma for over two months."
"My vibrator, moron. And I've been jonesing for this hunk ever since ninth grade. I promised you a year ago when he came in here that the next time he was single, I was setting him in my Zights and bagging that big buck -- and I meant it. He is one testosterone-rich environment and the huge hunk now in the Zweet spot of my Zadar screen. So it's time for you to skedaddle."
"First of all," Fitzhugh leaned forward, "I don't think this is behavior fitting for a friend, especially your best friend. I can well imagine the reaction if the roles were reversed."
"Bat squat. I've always encouraged you to bird dog any babe. Hell, I almost called a few on your behalf. Right here in this restaurant, I tried to hook you up with that little hottie, Harmony Hill. And I coached you all the way in your pursuit of Amy. So you owe me, Fitz."
"Can I at least finish my dessert?"
"Yeah. Here, I'll help," she remarked while taking a generous spoonful of his blackberry cobbler with melting ice cream.
"Gee. You gonna' help me pay for it too, Zada? And, as I was saying, second, and way more important, don't you think Hemp may be just a little shell-shocked to be hit on now – the very moment he stumbles in here reeling from learning his live-in girlfriend just left him for another man? Might this be just a tad too much chutzpah even for your royal Zadaness? You really think he's in any kind of shape for romance? The poor guy's not even 24 hours from discovering his woman left him."
"And that just shows you don't know shit about your own sex. It's gals who go into convent mode after a breakup — "
"I'm Zada, dumb bunny! But most gals get all down and introspective and just want to hang out with their girlfriends. Not guys. Y'all immediately want to release all that stress and anger by getting laid – and with whoever's available," she declared while eyeing herself in her pocket mirror combing her hair.
"You're Fitzhugh. We're the exceptions. Another reason we've bonded so well. Now is the perfect time to target Hemp, and I'm just the woman to do it," she smiled with raised eyebrows.
"Zada, please promise me – and yourself for your own peace of mind – that you'll be gentle with him. Hemp's in a whole heap of hurt now and likely extremely vulnerable."
"Of course, I will," she answered as if insulted while applying a little makeup. "This is ideal for both of us," she looked up at him. "He's got just the personality for me – laid back but not some boring goody-two-shoes like Dylan or any of that redneck trash I've fed off for years. I'm not blowing this, and I'm sure as hell not gonna' let anybody interfere, including you. Now get. Here he comes. Mr. Peterson is about to be Zadafied," she pronounced with a mischievous grin.
"Incredible," Fitzhugh remarked as he stood. "This is off the charts, Zada -- even for you. Just remember, the man has some mighty raw nerves exposed and is really reeling. Oh, here. You're now picking up my tab this evening," he said while tossing the bill her way and leaving a tip under his glass. She only frowned for a second before her face lit up as Hemp arrived.
"Fitzhugh's feeling kinda' constipated and needs to go home and take his laxative," Zada smiled. "Better make it 'Extra Strength,' Love."
"Oh, bummer, man," Hemp said with a look of concern.
"Don't worry, buddy," Fitzhugh patted him on the back. "I'll somehow survive. Zada wants to treat you to dinner, Hemp, and I think that's a real fine idea too. Y'all have fun," he said as he shook Hemp's hand before leaning down to give Zada a peck on the cheek and whisper in her ear, "Gentle."
With her eyes never leaving Hemp's, she quickly patted Fitzhugh's back and immediately began chatting up the target. Before he got out the door, Fitzhugh couldn't help but chuckle.
Late the next afternoon, while grading the first fall freshman essays in his teaching assistant's office, Fitzhugh's personal phone rang. It was the Zadaline. This should be intriguing, he figured.
"Mission accomplished?" He asked drily.
"Her Zadaness can report Operation Hemp is a total success," she declared in an ebullient tone. "The target has been captured – completely."
"Three cheers for Her Zexiness. Just please treat him with care and don't abandon him after twenty minutes," Fitzhugh replied.
"How dare you!"
"Well, your track record is pretty replete with just that. Exhibit A: Dylan Miller."
"This is totally different and you know it. Hemp's been on the Zadar ever since I was a child, and I learned last night Miss McMayer's been on his a long time too – and did I ever. Mmm, good. Wanna' hear some details? Lots of exciting mirror moves to share."
"You have changed, Fitzy."
"Miss Amy has totally tamed you."
"I prefer 'civilized,' but 'tamed' will do."
"Me and Hemp are so meant for each other, Fitzhugh. We had such fun talking and laughing. He brought a joint over, and we got major mellow – when not laughing ourselves on the floor – and then had some super stoned sex."
"Okay. Well, I'm glad y'all made a fun evening. I gather you definitely picked up his spirits."
"Straight up," she giggled.
"Double entendre detected. Score one for Zada."
"You're just jealous. Admit it, Fitz."
"Oh, yeah. I'm shattered. I think I better break up with Amy to become the next big target on the Zadar screen."
"Too late, Love. The Zadar's been disconnected. Hemp and I are now a couple and – fasten your seatbelt, honey, and prepare to be jealous – I'm closing down the Zadapad to move in with Hemp."
"You are kidding!" He gasped in a loud voice before cringing he could have been heard in the hall.
"Nope. He needs help paying the rent, and we totally click."
"Oh, Zada, listen to yourself. This is insane. You have a one-night stand — "
"The nerve of you! I've known him since the first day of ninth grade – and so have you."
"You have sex with the guy one time — "
"Oh, we got down, and dirty way more than once, and the Promised Land was reached -- many times," she volunteered with a triumphant giggle.
"Zada, listen to me. I'm totally serious and implore you to please be, too. Look, I don't begrudge you a great time with Hemp, and I'm genuinely happy y'all hit it off so well. But, as your long-time best friend who knows you pretty well, please take some time to think before you move in with someone. You've never lived with a man. You wouldn't even have a female roommate. At least date him for a few months."
"Oh, don't blow a bowel, big boy. In fact, Fitzhugh, you know what you're becoming? A big fucking hypocrite. You moved in with Little Miss Amy on y'all's first date and have lived there ever since," Zada declared defiantly.
"That is so unfair. First of all, I'd gotten to know her thoroughly after hours and hours of talks in the office for four months while she was still my student. Second, I still kept my place and, since classes began, I only stay at her place on the weekends."
"Well, then I Zuss y'all are pulling apart. Probably intensifying your jealousy about me and my Hemp."
"'My Hemp.' You spend one night with the guy, and now he's yours. Do you hear how absurd you sound?"
"That's right. He did spend one night with me and, believe me, he is mine. If you'd grabbed the opportunity when you had the chance with me, you'd know exactly what I mean."
"Zada, can we please return to reality? Just what do you think your mother would say about your moving in with a man after one date? And, heck, it wasn't even a real date."
"I don't give one sexy damn what she says about it," Zada answered angrily.
"Sounds to me like you've already talked with her, and she agrees with me," he observed.
"Who the hell is she of all people to give me or anyone advice about men? I can point to five failed husbands and more loser boyfriends than she can even remember. The prosecution rests."
"And I say her history informs and validates her judgment about this matter all the more," he argued. "Look, if you won't listen to me or your mother, exactly what would Dr. Shapiro say about this? Seriously. How many times have you told me he's stressed how paramount it is to reduce all 'unnecessary drama' in your life and to resist the temptation to be so impulsive and make reckless decisions that bring short-term thrills but long-term pain? Isn't 'stability' what he's repeatedly said you most need in your life? Now that's the man you admiringly call your 'Jewru,' Zada. And he's right. So what would he say about you moving in with Hemp?"
"This will give me stability. It's not healthy for me to be alone. You of all folks, Fitzhugh, should know that by now."
"I know you didn't answer the question," he observed.
"Well," she said before pausing, "Who says he has to know?"
"Oh, Zada, he's your therapist, for Heaven's sake!"
"Well, not right away, at least. After a while, I can tell him, once 'stability' has been established," she giggled.
"Are you still stoned?" He asked, only half-joking. "Did you commit to move in with a man amidst some marijuana fog while crossing the 'Orgasmic Finish Line'?"
"Ah!" she squealed, laughing. "No, but if he'd asked me then, I likely would have. But, seriously, Fitzhugh, he's broke and needs help paying the rent, and his is the only name on the lease which the landlord's already told him he can't get out of."
"Zada, Hemp's a big boy — "
"And I can sure vouch for that!" She laughed.
"Stop it. I'm being serious. Does everything have to be reduced to a sex joke?"
"Who says I'm joking?"
"Look," he sighed in exasperation. "We're getting nowhere, I've got a slew of bloody dreadful essays to grade, which I stupidly promised the class to return in the morning, and I'm already exhausted — "
"I'm the one who should be, yet I feel exZilarated – totally Zadafied," she chuckled.
There was a long pause as Fitzhugh didn't know what to say. He loved Zada and knew he would likely be laughing with Amy about this very conversation later that evening, assuming he could finish grading all those papers in time. He also acknowledged Zada's hilarious, impulsive persona was a huge reason they had long been so close. But the depression he saw her endure and struggle against after the breakup with Dylan that summer had exposed the all too painful reality behind her blustering, bawdy front. He grieved to see her on the cusp of making such an obvious big mistake just when she appeared to be doing so much better.
He also grimaced at the thought that for years he may have actually been an enabler for her risky, self-destructive lifestyle, acting as a voyeur who could enjoy witnessing and hearing all about her eccentric exploits without ever having to live with any of the ugly fall-out. Suddenly feeling overwhelmed by waves of guilt crashing over him, he wondered if his dearest friend might be way more psychologically troubled than he ever realized. And just how good of a real friend have I been to her? He now cringed at frankly examining that question.
"Hello. You still there? Tired of playing 'Fitzhugh to the rescue'?" Zada sounded as if she had just been declared the winner of a debate.
In a softer, tired, resigned, and worried tone, Fitzhugh made a final plea. "Will you please at least promise me you will not move out of the Zadapad before first discussing it with Dr. Shapiro? Don't you still see him a couple of times a week? You can't even wait a few days to make this move? What about breaking your own lease? And I find it tough to believe sweet, laid-back Hemp is pressuring you to do this. And, if he is, then that's all the more reason to stay put, Zada. And, if you think I'm being alarmist about this, please talk to your other friends, especially girlfriends like Deangela or Georgialina. I bet you can't find one person – no one who really cares about you – to support your immediately moving in with anybody." After a pause, "And thank you for letting me finish. I appreciate it."
"It just hurts," she sighed bitterly, "That you of all people can't be happy for me when for the first time in months I'm finally happy and excited about a guy – and a really good guy you've known as long as me."
"Zada, I bet I may want you to be happy more than anyone but your mother. I'm just concerned you're in a state of momentary exuberance after a long period of pain and are making a really impulsive and reckless decision with lasting consequences. As your best friend who loves you, I just beg you to please think about this and not decide anything for several days. Hemp's not going anywhere, and I can't believe his kind parents wouldn't help him financially. Just please don't rush into anything and talk with Dr. Shapiro first. Think of your own best long-term interests. And thanks for listening. I do love you."
There was a long pause. "I know you do, and I love you…. And I'll think about it. I'm not promising anything, but I do appreciate your concern. Are you not at least a little happy about Hemp and me hooking up?"
"I said I'm glad y'all had a swell time, and I do wish y'all all the very best, dear, and he may well prove to be Mr. Right. But being sure of that will take time, and rushed choices don't tend to work. You know that, Zada. Look at your own life … and your mom's."
"Okay. I said I'd think about it," she said with a long sigh.
"Thank you, sweetie. That's all I could ask for, and I'm truly grateful to you. And -- full disclosure -- I readily admit I'd miss the heck out of not being able to decompress at the Zadapad. My life would definitely be less joyful," he added with a chuckle.
"Shoot, come on over to the Hemp-Zadapad! Or, no, I think it should be the Zada-Hemp Pad. Yeah. Much better. We'll all have a blast."
"Best regards, babe. But just remember," he hesitated and quickly cupped the phone to hide a chuckle. "You're still mine at 30," he barely managed to finish before they shared a laugh.
It would be a pronounced relief for all who loved or cared about her when Zada didn't move in with Hemp. The idea was all her spontaneous initiative anyway, and she did wait to talk with her psychiatrist before making a choice. He strongly advised against it, as had her mother, Fitzhugh, Deangela, and Georgialina. So Zada decided to at least delay the move. But, to the delight of those who knew her, that fall, she and Hemp still became a couple who appeared quite compatible. His folks helped him out financially, and his old buddy Braxton Bragg Cunningham agreed to move in with him to split the rent.
Later that fall, Fitzhugh would make a special visit to the Zadapad since he was sure Zada would be hurt without advance notice he was about to propose to his girlfriend, Amy. Though believing Zada would strongly support him, knowing how Amy had made him happier than ever, he still wanted everything to be just right before offering the ring to her. Now that Zada and Hemp had been dating for almost two months, he also believed she would not be jealous.
"Zada," he announced after visiting for a while, "I want to show you what I'm going to offer Amy tomorrow evening. And, as my dearest, closest friend, I'd really like your blessing," he said gently upon sharing the ring.
"Oh, Fitzhugh, it's lovely!" Zada proclaimed. "You're proposing to her, and she's not even pregnant," she laughed and hugged him.
"Unfortunately, I couldn't afford an expensive one, and I sure hope she never asks how much this one cost. Momma and Daddy loaned me some of the money for it."
"Oh, who cares? Amy won't. Shoot, she'll be thrilled you got this for her – but do be sure and tell her you had to borrow money for it. So how you gonna' propose? Are you taking her to an expensive restaurant? Going out of town?"
"Tomorrow, I'm taking her to the site of our first date, the Alpha Gyro Grill, and then I'll find an excuse for us to mosey up to the rooftop deck and present the ring where we first kissed."
"Aw. Lovely! Simple romance on steroids! She'll really dig that. Super swell, babe. I'm really happy for y'all. So when do you want to officially get hitched?"
"It's an indefinite engagement, ideally after we've finished our education and I've started working full-time. For now, I just want to bury any possible lingering doubts about my commitment."
"Cheers. She'll appreciate that, Fitz. I sure would." With a pronounced pout and her hands on her hips, she added, "I'm still waiting for somebody to write my first poem."
"I'm sorry, dear," he answered with a sad face and hugged her. "One day. I promise."
"You better – and soon -- or I'll haunt your ass 'til you do," she said, pointing at him.
"Okay, it's noted. Now, are you and Mr. Hemp still doing well?"
"Very swell, Shug. He's by far the best beau I've ever bagged. Dylan aside, I realize that's not saying a lot, but Hemp's super sweet, relaxed enough to put up with all my high energy, and a real calming influence on me too. His family loves me, and I love them. Plus, he's the best lay I've ever had. In fact, he's the first dude with whom I always reach the Promised Land."
"Well, hallelujah," he replied and got up to leave. "Alas, I've got a passel of papers to grade tonight since I want to be free of work this weekend."
They hugged and kissed goodbye, and he headed to the door. As he opened it and looked back to wave, he noticed her face wore an exaggerated sexy expression.
"But remember," she began.
"I know. At 30," he replied and grabbed his right buttock.
"That ass is mine," she pointed at it, grinned, and blew him a kiss.