"Check Your Junk"
A second-chance romance takes a single mom by surprise in this delightfully witty story by Jo Piazza, author of WE ARE NOT LIKE THEM.
Happy New Year’s Eve, Heartbeat! Whether you enjoy our final love story of the year popping bottles in the club or popping melatonin well before midnight, we’re so happy to ring in the New Year with you. “Check Your Junk” is a hilarious and heartfelt story by my dear friend, the prolific Jo Piazza. Snarky single mom Sophie has given up on love, after a perfect date inexplicably ghosts her. But things are not what they seem… Will Sophie find her man this New Year’s Eve?
Next year, we’re going to be doing things a little differently at Heartbeat. We’ll be delivering our short stories biweekly—once every two weeks—instead of weekly. This is to ensure we keep sending you quality short romantic fiction, as well as keeping up with the demands of our busy writers’ lives.
Hannah and I wish you all the best for a love-filled 2023!
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“Check Your Junk”
Is there any point at all to a New Year’s resolution you know you won’t keep? It’s a much more complicated question than that one about the tree falling in the woods. For me, at least.
I wouldn’t have cobbled together a resolution at all if my kids' school hadn’t made “asking your parents their resolution” a part of the weekly kindergarten “homework.”
“Be more adventurous,” I had told my five-and-a-half-year-old son, Ben, before the holiday break and then written it down on the worksheet next to his resolution: “Eat more candy.”
When he raised an eyebrow at me, he looked exactly like his dad did and I had to turn away. “Be more adventurous” didn’t sound like the me my son knew. It sounded like something stitched on a pillow, or stenciled on shiplap at Home Goods. Be adventurous. Embrace the moment! Good Vibes Only! I was not that kind of mother.
Ben put the resolutions on the fridge when his teacher sent the worksheet home. It felt like he was taunting me.
I don’t feel at all adventurous at 7 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, alone on my couch, takeout en route, old episodes of The West Wing on my laptop. I could have gone out. My sister, Eliza, took Ben for the night. He’s ringing in the New Year with sparkling apple cider and a Paw Patrol marathon with his cousins about ten miles away.
“You’re not invited, Sophie,” Eliza told me. “Take the opportunity to go out and have eleven drinks and don’t worry about hungover parenting in the morning.”
She’s calling now. FaceTime. I answer with audio only because I don’t want her to see me in pajamas and my mouth guard.
“Do you already have your retainer in?” she asks when I answer.
“Have you reached the part of West Wing where Mrs. Landingham dies? I hate that episode.”
“I’m not watching The West Wing.”
“You’re a terrible liar. You know there’s still time to shower and go out.”
What she says next blurs into a single sentence as if she’s worried I’ll hang up if she pauses for punctuation.
“I’m only pestering you because I love you and I worry about you and if you don’t want to go out tonight that’s fine because I know that New Year’s sucks and is lame and I can’t even believe I am trying to get you to go out on such a contrived and sucky holiday, but you’ve got to start somewhere and maybe tonight is the night to do that I mean because you know you haven’t been out much since Alex….since you know…..god, Sophie sometimes I could kill him for leaving you the way he did….ugh that was a really poor choice of words…I’m a little drunk. But it IS time to get back out there…….it’s time….I mean you did go on that one date and even though that didn’t end up the way you wanted it was still fun and I’m sure what happened on that date won’t happen again…it was really weird what happened right? So I get why you wouldn’t want to put yourself out there again but remember all the shitty dates you went on in your twenties and then you finally met Alex and that was totally worth it…until it wasn’t in the end…sorry I brought it up…so all I’m saying is maybe you should just put on some pants and go to the bar down the street and just see what happens for an hour because Mrs. Landingham will still be dead when you get back.”
I have a lot of rebuttals for my sister. The first of which is that I’m not avoiding going out because of that one bad date I went on six months ago. Because frankly it wasn't a bad date. It might have been the best date of my life, even better than all those dates I had with Alex back in the early days of our relationship before things got real and serious and harder than the two of us ever expected, before I suddenly became single again last year at age forty.
As I’m about to say this to Eliza I hear a piercing scream in the background and my sister puts the phone down to break up a fight between our children.
In the meantime I’m forced to remember the date that wasn’t a date. It had started on a night like this one. Well, not exactly like this one because it wasn’t New Year’s Eve, but it was a night where I didn’t feel like going out and Eliza forced me off the couch. She’d taken Ben to her house for the night and then came back to my place, practically dressed me like I was a toddler and marched me down the street to this wine shop I’d probably passed a few dozen times and never even noticed. My sister always noticed those kinds of places. Noticed them and then jotted them down on a list on her phone.
It had been so long since I’d had anything resembling a night out that I drank my first glass of wine as fast as I usually finished off a can of La Croix.
“Easy there!” Eliza had said. “People will think you just got out of prison.”
“Sometimes it feels that way.”
“Self-imposed. You are the one who chooses not to leave your house.”
That’s when we saw him. He was standing at the end of the bar pouring what appeared to be orange wine into a pretty young woman’s glass.
“Is wine orange now?” I’d asked Eliza.
“I believe it can be, but only in some parts of Brooklyn.”
“It looks like Tang,” I’d marveled, none too quietly. It must have been pretty loud because the cute wine man looked over at me and laughed. A good laugh, a kind of rumbly laugh that let me know he actually thought it was funny. The girl he was pouring wine for laughed too, but not in the good way.
Before I knew it, the wine guy was standing over our little table.
“Would you ladies like to try a glass?”
“It looks radioactive,” I said.
“Excuse her,” my sister replied like a regular human. “She doesn’t get out much.”
“It’s natural wine,” the dude said. “A little fizzy, sorta tart and you’ll have way less of a hangover because it's organic.”
“Are you the bartender?” Eliza asked.
“Wine salesman. I’m trying to get these guys to buy a case of this.”
“How’s that going so far?” I’d said with maybe a touch too much skepticism.
“Terrible. So can you try it and act like you really like it so they’ll put it on the menu.”
“Sure.” I had shrugged. “I’m a huge fan of Gatorade.”
He didn’t laugh this time and I was surprised when I was disappointed. After all, I hadn't expected him to find me funny the first time.
He poured me a glass and it did taste like fizzy Tang with a little hit of a burn, which to be honest wasn’t at all unpleasant. When the wine man left us Eliza informed me that he was flirting with me. I told her that was impossible and went off to the bathroom.
When I returned my sister was gone, wine man was sitting in her seat and my glass was newly full.
“Your sister said she had an emergency at home. She seemed really upset that she had to run out, but she asked if I might be able to keep you company. I hope everything is OK. I’m James, by the way.”
Eliza just loved putting her middle school drama skills to the test. In the seventh grade she’d been the understudy to the understudy for Cosette in the Makefield Heights Community Theater production of Les Mis and she brings it up more often than you’d think. I picked up my phone to text her but she had beaten me to it.
Please have fun with this handsome man and his terrible wine. You deserve it. He’s divorced. I checked. I also googled him and he doesn’t seem like a serial killer.
And one last PS.
I took your apartment keys so you’re pretty much stuck with him until I decide to tell you where I’m gonna drop them off for you. LOVE YOU BYE.
I had smiled politely at James while mentally plotting ways to murder my sister.
“I’m actually finished for the night,” he said. “Want to go somewhere else? I’m starving.”
“Sure,” I replied, because I didn’t exactly have a choice. I took in his rumpled khaki pants, plaid button-down shirt and Patagonia puffer vest and assumed he’d suggest something fairly vanilla. A bistro, maybe Italian, possibly a chain somewhere in the neighborhood. I didn’t pay much attention to the direction we were heading as we strolled out of the bar. He talked the whole way which was nice because he had a voice like a public radio host and that sort of cadence is soothing when you’re a little drunk on bad wine. I learned that he was divorced, and was a former investment banker who started importing wine on the side when the market crashed. He then decided to take the leap into doing it full time when his ex-wife started sleeping with her orthodontist. James was younger than me by about five years, no kids. He’d spent the last two years traveling the world looking for orange wine.
“I used to travel a lot,” I finally said, though it had been a relief just to listen to someone else’s story instead of telling my own.
“I was a travel editor. Ended up going to forty-three countries in ten years.”
“The dream,” he said.
“It was. Although I don’t know if I appreciated it enough at the time. At some point everything becomes work.”
“When was your last trip?”
“Out of the country? Six years ago. No seven. Before my son was born. My honeymoon. We climbed Aconcagua in the Andes. Or tried to. My husband got altitude sickness.” I knew that I should be saying ex-husband, but I wasn’t there yet. All the self-help books I’d read told me there was no good time to get there, but they also implied I should be well on my way. James didn’t seem fazed and I assumed Eliza had given him an abridged version of my sad story so I kept going. “We were medi-vacced out of the last camp before the peak. Ended up in the ICU in Mendoza for a week.”
“It was wonderful, actually. He was fine. Just needed to be under observation and we watched like two dozen movies and all the seasons of Twin Peaks on his laptop. It was the first time either of us had sat down and taken a breath in about a decade. I suppose there are worse ways to spend your honeymoon.”
I had managed to smile at the memory as James ushered me through a door and into a dark stairwell.
“Are you going to murder me?” I honestly wasn’t even that fazed by the notion. When you’ve been through hell and back, when you’ve had your whole life trampled on the way I had for the past two years, not much gets to you, even being led into what might be a dungeon by a wine-selling stranger.
“I wasn’t planning on it.”
“Good to know.”
He pushed open a red velvet door, a door actually coated in red velvet, and nudged me inside.
There’s no description for what was in that basement. It was a restaurant. It was a cabaret. It was a magic parlor. James nodded to the hostess, who was dressed as a ninja, and we were taken to a table like he was a regular. He told me to order the steak frites if I was a meat person. I told him I didn’t believe in any other kind of person and he ordered the steak for both of us. Then the magicians started coming to the table, one after the other. Slight of hand technicians, illusionists and mentalists. And instead of being cheesy and lame, it was actually kind of magic, excuse the pun, mostly because of the surprise of it all.
The drinks were strong and the conversation was delightful. James had hated a lot of the same things I hated which I always find refreshing. Some people want to like the same things as another person, but give me a man who also despises social media, Uber, McDonald’s new french fry recipe and people who talk on wireless headphones in public and I get a little turned on.
We split a crème brûlée that was lit on fire right in front of us with a Bic lighter and a handheld fan.
“Nightcap?” he asked.
I hadn’t checked my watch or my phone since we walked through the fuzzy door and I was shocked that two and a half hours had already passed. My sister had to be about ready to give up the location of my keys.
I was about to say, “I can’t. I really should get home” when a text came in from my sister.
I left the keys in the 24-hour bodega down the street from your place. Hope you had fun!
“Yeah, a nightcap sounds great.”
The nightcap evolved into karaoke and it turned out that James and I both did a mean “Islands in the Stream.” He took Dolly’s parts while I did Kenny. We didn’t even have to have a discussion about it.
It was during the chorus that I decided I wanted to make out with him. Maybe it was the way he hit the high note when he crooned, “And we rely on each other, ah ha” or the way he had been looking at me all night. A look no one had given me in years, like I was someone interesting and sexy and a real human in my own right, not just a single mom, not just a sad sack who gave up her cool and interesting job when she got married only to see that marriage last less than seven years. James leaned in when I talked and he kept making that grumbly laugh at all my stupid sarcastic jokes. He also checked out my boobs when I’d unbuttoned an extra button during a trip to the bathroom which pleased me to no end.
But it was his rousing rendition of “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” that sealed the deal. That was when I decided we were gonna do it.
So after he walked me home I made the first move. In front of my door I gripped the back of his head, holding his curls tightly in my fist and hungrily pressing his soft lips to mine. I didn’t ask him to come in. I yanked him through my door.
I was the one who unbuttoned his shirt and relished the fact that his body beneath the blue button-down wasn’t as perfect as it appeared with clothes on. Underneath the shirt he was softer and dimpled and hairy in strange places. He was real and that was much more of a turn-on.
The sex itself was exactly what I needed. He knew what to do, where to touch and when. It wasn’t over too quickly, but it also didn’t last too long. It’s like he knew I didn’t particularly want or need to draw it out. Rather, I had to scratch a particular itch that had eluded me for a long time.
Afterwards he rubbed the sore spots in my shoulders and my neck and that was almost as good as the orgasm. We dozed off for a couple of hours. It was still dark when he had whispered in my ear, “When do I need to leave?”
“Probably now,” I’d whispered. “My son will be back from my sister’s first thing in the morning.” James rolled over on top of me, hard again, and the second time was even better than the first, mostly because we both knew we could easily please the other.
“Can I see you again?” he asked simply as he kissed my forehead and told me he could show himself out.
“Sure,” I replied. Why not? Those self helps book I’d read since Alex had been gone also told me to get back out there, get back on the horse, embrace the new me, dust myself off and all that bullshit.
I had written down my email, always more reliable than my phone which my son was always stealing to watch obscure YouTube videos involving squirrel obstacle courses.
There was no doubt in my mind that James would email me, maybe even later that day.
But he didn’t.
Not the next day, or the day after that. Not a few weeks later. Nothing for the last six months. I can’t say it crushed me. I’d been through much worse, but it stung, the disappointment returning in drips when I passed the door to the stairway leading to the magic restaurant or the wine bar where we met, or even once when I had a crick in my neck and thought about how good it felt when his thumbs kneaded into the hard parts of my muscles after we’d fucked.
And then I mostly forgot about him, mostly. Or at least I did until Eliza brought him up on New Year’s Eve.
When she returns to our call after breaking up the children’s fight, I blow the subject off like it was no big deal and tell her that maybe I’ll peel my ass off the couch to grab a drink before midnight.
“You won’t,” she sighs. “But promise you won’t forget to come to that auction at Lila’s school next week. I can’t bear to face the school moms alone after I totally forgot to do anything to help them plan this fucking thing. I need you to come and get drunk and bid on bad children’s artwork with me.”
“Done. When is it again?”
“Tuesday. I emailed you all the details.”
“I didn’t get it.”
“Check your junk. A bunch of auction stuff slipped into my junk mail.”
“No it didn’t. That was just your excuse for not helping them with the auction. Hold on, I'll check.” I grab my computer. “Nope, not in there. Maybe I deleted it. Jesus, there are a lot of penile enhancement in emails here. I should clean this out.”
That’s when I see it. Subject line: Sail Away With Me. A Kenny and Dolly lyric.
You’re probably sick of hearing from me by now but I thought I would try one more time. I really did have a great time with you and I would love to see you again.
It was the fourth email. All of them came in the week after we met. He’d been in here all along. In my junk.
I read each of them out loud to Eliza and she’s at my house in about twenty minutes, breathless, her makeup impeccable and slightly tipsy. “This is gonna be fun!”
“I can’t believe you left Matt with all the kids. Including mine.”
“Oh, can’t you believe it?”
“I guess I can believe it. So what should we write back?”
“We’re not writing anything. We’re gonna go find him. It’s New Year’s Eve, Sophie. This is a situation that calls for running through the streets like Billy Crystal while you plan your contrite, but slightly humorous speech about why you never wrote back to him. According to Instagram he just left some place called the Top Hat.”
“That’s the magic bar we went to.”
“How do you have his Instagram?”
“I found it after he ghosted you. Just wanted a peek. First I found his wine company and then I found a pic where he was tagged and then I found him. You know stalking people is so much easier than when we were in high school and we would just creep around the mall hoping to bump into someone at the Chik Fil A or Walden Books.”
At the magic place we’re greeted by the same ninja from six months earlier, except this time she’s covered in glitter. I know it’s a long shot, but I ask her if James is still there.
“He is not here,” the ninja whispers. “But I could conjure the illusion of him.”
“That is intriguing, but not at all helpful,” my sister says as she plucks a neon green Jello shot from a passing waiter’s tray. The ninja removes her mask.
“James actually just left. I think he said something about going to Rubio’s.
I shrug at Eliza.
“It’s this new hot restaurant across town,” my sister informs me. “Very cool. Meghan and Harry ate there the other night when they were visiting town. They had the pork chops.”
I do wonder, not for the first time, if maybe my sister is at least a little as lonely as I am and make a note to check in with her more often.
At Rubio’s there’s a scrum of very good looking and well-dressed people crowding around a hostess stand.
Eliza straightens herself to a full five foot three and bats her eyes at the very handsome host. “Look, we don't need to come in. We don’t have a reservation and there is nothing cool about us. But have you seen this guy?” She thrusts her phone at him with James’ Insta on the screen.
The host’s face lights up. “You just missed him! He brought over a case of orange fizzy wine…for midnight. Also brought me this.” He reaches behind his host podium and produces a brown paper bag with a chocolate donut inside the size of a baby’s head.
“I told him my blood sugar gets low sometimes when I’m working late.”
“How thoughtful,” I murmur, much more disappointed than I expected to be when we began this wild goose chase. Frankly I’m used to being disappointed, to not having things turn out as I expected and yet I’m starting to feel like I want this to work out. I want to see this lovely man again. I want to have an adventurous night filled with surprises that ends with orgasms and neck rubs and I’m willing to run all over town to get it.
“Do you have his phone number?” I blurt out.
“Sorry. No,” the host says, his mouth full of donut and a chocolate smudge smeared on the side of his lip. I feel a real camaraderie with that smudge. “Check out Drag City. It’s bingo night and I think his little brother is performing.”
“James’s brother is a drag queen?”
“None other than Mys. Teri Novel.”
“I’ve heard of her,” Eliza says. “She does musical renditions of abridged Agatha Christie novels to the tune of Queen songs.”
“That is highly specific,” I say.
“But it sounds delightful doesn’t it? There’s BINGO and a show tonight,” the bouncer says and swallows the remaining pastry in a single bite.
Drag City is packed and I’m ready for a drink. Eliza commandeers a table not three feet from the stage. A gorgeous singer with a head full of pepto pink curls and a yellow ball gown reminiscent of an extra-sparkly Belle from Beauty and the Beast is finishing up her set. My sister orders us a bottle of sparkling wine.
“Orange?” I ask.
“No. A normal color.”
I’m so absorbed in scanning the crowd for James and then enjoying my first few sips of champagne that I don’t notice anyone take the stage. Suddenly a beautiful drag queen is belting out “Can’t Stop Me Now” with the lyrics changed to reflect the plot of Death on the Nile and a man is playing the piano with the gusto of Billy Joel after a bottle of red. I grab Eliza so hard my nails make marks on her bare arms.
My cheeks flush and a surge of electricity runs through my body. It’s James at the keys. He’s even more handsome than I remembered. Handsome and an excellent piano player. He catches my eye before I can look away and instead of looking at me with the irritation of a man who was unceremoniously ghosted after a night of truly excellent fun and sex he just smiles and gives me a little nod.
I nod back. I smile back. I sip my champagne and then raise the glass to him while I cross my legs as tightly as I can to stop from twitching with the giddiness of a thirteen year old girl who just got passed a note by her crush.
I need to get my shit together. I stand and kiss my big sister on the top of her head, grateful, for once, for her persistence. “Just running to the bathroom,” I tell her.
In the toilet stall I fumble around in my purse, digging through tampon wrappers, loose sticks of gum and at least two broken phone chargers. My fingers brush the little suede change purse I’m searching for. I pull it out and read the weathered note Alex stuck in here for me. My husband had perfect handwriting, a trait I always admired about him.
You deserve everything. You deserve to climb all the mountains, to see all the continents, to do all the things.
He must have written this note on one of his last days, one of the days after we finally made the call to stop the treatments, to stop the pain, to stop fighting the inevitable. I don’t remember leaving his side during a single hour of that time but I must have because in the weeks that followed my sweet and sexy and always adventurous husband’s funeral I found these notes tucked into the unlikeliest pockets of my purses, my overnight bags, the kitchen drawers. And then the other ones he must have given Eliza to hide all over our house, a veritable scavenger hunt of reminders that I deserved to live a good life without him. I kiss the tissue-soft paper, take a breath and get ready to head back out there to whatever this new year has in store for me. Then I read the final line of the note out loud.
You deserve to have all the adventures.
James has the microphone in his hand when I return. One glance at his face shows me that he’s as relieved to see me as I am to have found him again. I wonder if he thought I was running away when I left the table for the bathroom. I’m overwhelmed with the idea that I need to reassure him as quickly as possible that I am not going to run away. I am fucking here for this.
So instead of returning to my sister I head toward the stage, not allowing myself to think, to get nervous, to feel the hundreds of eyes on me. As I wobble up the stairs James points to a sparkly clock in the corner. It’s nearly midnight. His brother begins crooning “Islands in the Stream.” The crowd starts to count down. I feel like I’m slow walking through a fizzy dream sequence by the time James is standing right in front of me.
5, 4, 3, 2….
His kiss lands right at midnight.
Our next story on Heartbeat will be by Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau, author of French Kissing in New York.
Follow Heartbeat on Instagram at @storiesbyheartbeat for upcoming behind-the-scenes sneak peeks at Anne-Sophie’s story!
Three quick things from Georgia:
I’m loving Wednesday on Netflix: so much quirky goth Tim Burton fun.
Looking for a joyful, funny, heartfelt read to beat those January blues? Amy Poeppel’s The Sweet Spot has got you covered. Join me at the NYC launch on 1/31/23 at PT Knitwear (free!) or pre-order now for its 2/14/23 release.
I’m recently returned to Brooklyn from five weeks of international travel visiting family with our new baby. I never want to leave my apartment again. All I want to do is focus on the fourth revision of my new book and make it irresistibly wonderful for you. If you need me, send smoke signals.
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