An hour later, the rest of the book club has arrived—also early—through the side door, which Dory has clearly unlocked again, failing to be quiet enough for me not to notice. At seven I flip the Open sign to Closed, cash out the till and turn off the front lights, before making my way down the dark aisle between the western romances to the long velvet curtains that separate the back room from the rest of the shop.
Years ago the cozy space used to be the children's section, back when the bookstore was a general interest one, where Mom used to host Saturday morning storytime. Now it acts as an event space for visiting romance novelists, as well as the gathering spot for the book club every Thursday night. I pause before the velvet drapes, listening to the not-so-hushed chatter of my best friends, and stifle a giggle. Even though I said I didn't want to make a big deal out of my thirtieth birthday, I'm secretly glad they planned something.
"Honey I'm home," I call out and the whispering decreases in volume and increases in urgency.
The drapes part and Dory appears, grinning. She's taken off her jean jacket and is wearing a gorgeous bright wrap dress that cuts into a V, revealing a silver necklace decorated with beautiful gemstones. She presses a champagne flute into one of my hands and a paper noisemaker in the other and everyone else shouts Happy Birthday in a very Something Borrowed surprise-party moment. Like Rachel, the heroine of one of my favorite rom-coms, I'm not surprised, but I fake it just the same.
Beautiful floral buntings drape from wall to wall, tiny paper lanterns in various shades of blue hang from the ceiling, and in the corner, a white poster board is taped to the bookshelf and features a dozen pictures of me with my closest friends—the women in our romance-novel-loving book club.
"You guys," I say, wiping away a tear.
"Someone put the music on," Cleo says. At six-foot-one, she towers above everyone else and we're all used to listening to her because we can't hide from her. Emily lifts the glass cover on the vintage record player, pops a record on and lowers the needle. Not surprisingly, Dolly Parton's Jolene album starts playing. Cleo and Jacynthe groan.
"What can I say? I love Dolly," Emily says. "You want to pick the music, you put the record on." She tucks her black bob behind her left ear. "Can we give her the gift?" Emily says.
"Already?" Dory says, looking around the room at the other three women. They're all nodding.
"You're going to love it," Emily says to me. "It's completely one of a kind."
"What she means is no one else would want this gift," Cleo laughs, taking long strides in her black Converse high-tops to pick up a tray of oysters from the top of a short bookshelf on the right side of the room. There's also a tray of sushi, a bowl of chips and guac, and a small cooler stocked with various drinks in cans and bottles.
"Here, everyone take an oyster and then let's just give her the gift," she says, holding out the dish.
"Are you ready?" Dory says excitedly. Her brown eyes are shining.
"I'm not sure whether to be excited or afraid," I say, taking an oyster and adding mignonette to it before popping it in my mouth. "But I'm loving that all of you did this for me."
Dory puts down her glass and claps her hands. "OK, who has Part One again?"
Jacynthe, my roommate from my first year in Kappa Kappa Gamma, who speaks fluent French and only wears black, pulls a slim envelope from between two books to her right, and then hands it to me.
I hand my glass to Dory, place the empty oyster shell back on the tray, then take the envelope, prepared to read a card filled with thoughtful sentiments from these women I love, the women I've spent every Thursday night with for the past several years. Sometimes it crosses my mind that the group means more to me than everyone else because I'm single. Jacynthe's divorced with a toddler, Emily had a baby two months ago. Dory's been married for nearly a decade and has two kids, and Cleo's been with her girlfriend for several years, too. They're all busy with work and families. So it means even more that they planned this.
I slip a finger under the seal and open the envelope and pull out a homemade folded card, the creamy textured paper rough to the touch. The room is quiet except for Dolly quietly singing "When Someone Wants to Leave," and all eyes are on me. On the cover is an illustration of a woman sitting on a bus, looking out the window. She has long, wavy dark-brown hair like me, big sunglasses resting on her lightly freckled nose. Jacynthe's the artist of the group, and I suspect she drew it. "Is this me?" The skin around Jacynthe's eyes crinkles as she smiles and nods.
"Just open it," Dory says.