T hi s i s a B orzoi B ook
P ubl i s hed by A l fred A . K nopf
Copyri ght © 2011 by J enni fer Cl os e
A l l ri ghts res erved. P ubl i s hed i n the Uni ted S tates by A l fred A . K nopf, a di vi s i on of Random Hous e, Inc ., New Y ork.
K nopf, B orzoi B ooks , and the c ol ophon are regi s tered tradem arks of Random Hous e, Inc .
LIB RA RY OF CONGRE S S CA T A LOGING-IN-P UB LICA T ION DA T A
Cl os e, J enni fer.
Gi rl s i n whi te dres s es / by J enni fer Cl os e.— 1s t ed.
p. c m .
eIS B N: 978-0-307-70041-4
1. W om en— Fi c ti on. 2. Chi c k l i t. I. T i tl e.
P S 3603.L68G57 2011
813’ .6— dc 22
T hi s i s a work of fi c ti on. Nam es , c harac ters , pl ac es , and i nc i dents ei ther are the produc t of the author’ s i m agi nati on or are us ed
fi c ti ti ous l y. A ny res em bl anc e to ac tual pers ons , l i vi ng or dead, events , or l oc al es i s enti rel y c oi nc i dental .
J ac k et i mage by M ay er George V l adi mi rov i c h / S hutters toc k J ac k et des i gn by A bby W ei ntraub
T O M& D
w i th l ov e
The Rules of Life
JonBenét and Other Tragedies
An Animal Cal ed Ham
Cigarettes at Night
Black Diamond, Blue Square
The Day They Captured the Pigeons
Jesus Is Coming
Flushing Wil ard
Until the Worm Turns
A Note About the Author
Reading Group Guide
I sabela’s sister, Moly, was married with ten bridesmaids in matching tea-length, blue floral Laura Ashley dresses. It was, Isabela believed, the most beautiful wedding anyone would ever have. She was twelve.
“More beautiful than Princess Diana,” her mother told Mol y that morning as she helped her get dressed.
“I need more bobby pins,” her sister replied.
Isabel a sat on the bed with her hair in a tight French braid. Early that morning, the hairdresser had teased and twisted her hair back, stuck baby’s breath in it, and sprayed it with an entire can of hairspray. From the side, it looked like a plant was growing out of her head. She kept touching it lightly to make sure the braid was stil there, and every time she did, she was surprised at the crispiness of her hair.
“Isabel a,” Mol y said. “If you keep touching your hair, you’re going to ruin it.” Isabel a put her hand in her lap and watched Mol y fluff her own crispy hair. Mol y stared at herself in the mirror until her face got white. “I feel funny,” she said. “A little sick.”
Isabel a walked downstairs, where she saw her mom running around like a crazy person and her dad walking briskly and trying to look busy so he wouldn’t get yel ed at. “Mol y thinks she’s going to throw up,” she announced. Her mom took the stairs two at a time to get to Mol y. Her dad gave her a little smile with no teeth, and continued his pacing.
The Mack family had been getting ready for this wedding for over a year. It was al they talked about, al they thought about. It was getting tiresome. Isabel a’s parents wanted everything to be perfect. They’d had the trim on the house repainted and the garden redone. “What’s the point?” Isabel a asked. “No one’s going to see the house.” Her parents just shook their heads at her and Mol y rol ed her eyes.
Isabel a’s mother and father went on a diet. They walked every morning and ate fish for dinner. When Isabel a’s dad ordered a steak or put butter on his bread, her mom would shake her head and say, “Oh, Frank.”
“What’s the difference?” Isabel a asked. “No one’s going to be looking at you guys.” As soon as she said it, Isabel a felt bad. She hadn’t realized how mean the words sounded until they were out of her mouth, which had been happening a lot recently. It surprised Isabel a, how nasty she could be without even trying.
Isabel a’s mother hung the wedding picture in the front hal . It was the first thing people saw when they walked into the Mack house. If you looked at it quickly, it was just a blur of blue dresses and big hair. As the years went by, it began to look like something you would see in a magazine, in an article titled “Fashion Mistakes of the Early ’90s.” Even the faces in the picture seemed to change. The bridesmaids began to look embarrassed to be caught in such blue dresses. But there was nothing they could do about it. They were trapped there, framed for the whole world to see.
“Whoa,” Isabel a’s friends would say when they saw it.
“I know,” Isabel a would say. “It’s horrendous.”
Before Isabel a moved to New York, her mom made her clean out her closet. “There are things in there that you haven’t worn in years,” she said.
“Let’s get it al cleaned out and I’l give it to the Salvation Army.” She said it in an upbeat voice like it would be a fun thing to do. “You’l feel so much better when it’s done,” her mother added.
“I real y doubt that,” Isabel a said.
Isabel a sorted through old notebooks and shoes. She threw out T-shirts from high school sports teams and col ages she’d made in junior high. In the back of her closet she found the blue floral beast. It was even worse in person. Isabel a thought the color would have faded over the years, but it was just as vivid as ever. She held it up for a moment and then brought it to the dress-up chest in the playroom. Maybe her nieces would like to play with it. She shoved it in with the pirate costumes and princess dresses and forgot about it.
New York in September was busy, like everyone was in a hurry to get back to real life after the lazy summer. Isabel a liked the feeling of it, the rushing around, and she let herself get swept along the sidewalks. She walked quickly, trotting beside the crowds of people, like she had somewhere important to be, too, like she was part of the productivity of the city, when real y she was just going to Bed Bath & Beyond to get a shower curtain.
Isabel a had decided to move to New York because she didn’t have a plan, and New York seemed like a good one. Her friend Mary was moving there to go to Columbia Law. When Mary announced this, Isabel a was floored. “You got into Columbia?” she asked. “How?”
“Thanks a lot,” Mary said. But Isabel a knew she didn’t real y care. It wasn’t that she thought Mary was dumb. She just didn’t know when Mary had
found the time to make a life plan, study for the LSATs, and apply to schools. Isabel a had barely finished her final photography project senior year.
“That’s not what I meant,” Isabel a told her. She thought for a moment, and then she said, “Maybe I’l move to New York too.” Isabel a hadn’t considered this before, but as soon as she said it, she knew it was a good idea. She had a roommate and a city al picked out, and that was something.
Isabel a told her parents that she was moving to New York. She expected them to ask more questions, to want to know the details of what she planned to do there. But Isabel a was the youngest of six, and her parents were not nostalgic about their children moving out of the house. Each time one of their children left, another one returned, and they had started to think they would never be alone again. “New York sounds great,” they told her. “We’l help you pay rent until you find a job.”
Isabel a was almost insulted, but she understood. They wanted her out of the house and on her own, so that she didn’t end up like her brother Brett, who graduated from col ege and then moved back home for two years, where he spent most of his time playing video games in his pajamas.
During those two years, her parents had many whispered conversations where her dad said things like, “Five years to graduate from that col ege, and the kid’s just going to sit around here and pick his nose? Not on my watch.”
The apartment that Isabel a and Mary found was barely bigger than Isabel a’s bedroom at home, but the broker told them this was as good as it would get. “For this neighborhood,” she said, “with a doorman, this is the size you can expect.” She sounded bored, like she’d given this speech to thousands of girls just like them, who were shocked at the amount they would have to pay to get their own shabby little corner in the city. The broker didn’t real y care if they took it or not, because she knew there was a long list of girls just like them, fresh to the city and desperate for a place to live.
If they didn’t take it, surely one of the others would.
Isabel a and Mary signed the lease and moved into the apartment, which had gray wal s that were supposed to be white and a crack in the ceiling that ran from the front door al the way to the back windows. When Isabel a stood in the bathroom, she could hear the upstairs neighbors brushing their teeth and talking about their day. They were from somewhere in the South, and their accents made everything more amusing. Isabel a often found herself sitting on the side of the tub, her own toothbrush in hand, task forgotten, listening to one of the girls talk about a date she’d been on.
Sometimes the neighbors smoked cigarettes in their bathroom, and the smoke traveled down the vent, seeping into Isabel a’s bathroom and making the air hazy.
They hung mirrors on the wal s to make the apartment seem bigger, and put up bright yel ow curtains to distract from the grayness. They put up a fake wal to make Mary’s bedroom, a slim rectangle that held her bed and desk and not much else. The wal was thin and Isabel a could hear when Mary sneezed or turned a page. Mary was always shut up in her room working, which drove Isabel a crazy.
“What are you doing?” she’d ask through the wal .
“Studying,” Mary always replied.
“Again?” Isabel a would ask. Mary would sigh.
After the first month, Mary started to go to the library more. “I’m too easily distracted,” she told Isabel a. It was quieter in the apartment with Mary gone so much, but Isabel a never real y felt lonely. And if she did, she’d go to the bathroom and listen to her neighbors chat, breathing in their smoke and laughing along with them as they said things like “Y’al knew he was a bump on a log” and “Back that train up!”
Isabel a got a job as an assistant, working for two high-level executives at a mailing-list company. She wasn’t sure what they did exactly, but she did know that they cal ed her their “executive assistant” and that her main job every morning was to get Bil a corn muffin with raspberry jel y and to get Sharon a chocolate chip muffin. Bil asked for his muffin, and Sharon did not. This was part of the game. Each morning, when Isabel a placed the muffin on Sharon’s desk, she said, “Oh, I shouldn’t!” but she stil ate it. “I was just getting Bil ’s muffin and I thought maybe you’d want one?” Isabel a would say in response. As long as she did this, they seemed happy.
Isabel a’s days and weeks fel into a routine, but she always felt like there was something else she should be doing, something better that was waiting for her. Sometimes on Saturday afternoons, she and Mary went to the park across the street and ate hot dogs in the sun. Mary always brought her textbooks with her, and took notes and read. Isabel a just stared at people.
“This is the first fal that I haven’t gone to school,” Isabel a said to her once.
“Mmm-hmmm,” Mary said. She turned a page and uncapped a highlighter.
“Maybe that’s why I feel so weird al the time,” Isabel a said.
“Maybe,” Mary said. She fil ed the whole page with yel ow smudges and Isabel a was jealous of her. She didn’t want to go to law school, but Mary had purpose and assignments and for that Isabel a envied her. Al Isabel a had was two bosses who just wanted muffins. And sometimes jel y.
Their friends from col ege, Kristi and Abby, lived in the same building as they did. Kristi was the one who’d recommended it to them. “You have to live in a doorman building,” she’d said to Isabel a, as though it was something everyone already knew. “It’s not safe otherwise.” Sometimes Isabel a went out with them, but they exhausted her. Kristi and Abby always wanted to get dressed up and go out for sushi or go to a party where you had to have your name on a list to get in. They both worked in PR and al they talked about was events and RSVPs, which Kristi pronounced “Risvips” for some reason. “I can get you on the list,” Kristi would often say to Isabel a. Isabel a didn’t want a list. She just wanted to get a drink.
Sometimes, if she was lucky, Isabel a could convince Mary to go out. They usual y just went to Gamekeepers, the bar right down the street.
“Come on,” Isabel a would say. “It’s so close! We can be there in two minutes and have a drink and be home in an hour.” She always hoped, of course, that once they got there Mary would stay out later, but getting her out was the first step.
Gamekeepers was a brightly lit bar, with neon signs on the wal s and a black-and-white tiled floor. In the back room, there was a whole wal of bookshelves crammed ful of every board game ever made. The first night that Isabel a and Mary went there, they stood in front of the wal and stared at al of the games. The bar had al of the big hits—Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly—and some older games too, like Operation, Boggle, Life, and Sorry!
“Whoa,” Mary said, as they stared at the shelves. “This is crazy.” Al around them, people were playing games on long wooden tables, rol ing dice and slapping cards.
“Oh my God,” Isabel a said. She pul ed a box off the shelf. “Look, they have Pig Mania. I can’t believe it.”
“What is that?” Mary asked. She looked at the box.
“It’s this game, from the seventies, I think. You rol pig dice and get scores for different things.”
“Weird,” Mary said.
“The seventies were weird,” Isabel a said. “Come on, let’s play.”
They rol ed the pigs, but Isabel a could tel that Mary wasn’t into it. Two guys came over to join them, which was encouraging at first, but then they started snorting and squealing when the pigs rol ed into any position that looked dirty. “I got Makin’ Bacon!” Isabel a screamed, and they just snorted louder. One of them was so drunk that he kept swaying and bumping into the table, causing their drinks to spil and the pigs to topple.
“I think we should go,” Mary said. She stared at one of the snorters. “I have to get up early to study anyway.”
“Fine,” Isabel a said. She surrendered the pigs to the boys so that they could rol them alone.
“You’re leaving?” the drunk one said. He closed his eyes and Isabel a wondered if he had fal en asleep, and then he opened them and repeated his question. “You’re leaving?”
“Yeah,” Isabel a said. Mary was waiting for her by the door. “I have a lot of things to do tomorrow,” she said. “Just a real y busy day.”
Isabel a met a boy named Ben and went on a date. She wanted something to fil her empty weekend days when Mary was studying and Kristi and Abby did things that Isabel a had no interest in, like going to the gym or shopping in SoHo. Isabel a went to the gym with them once, and Kristi wore earrings and a necklace while she ran on the treadmil , which bothered Isabel a so much that she couldn’t ever bring herself to go back again.
“I’ve never been on a date before,” Isabel a said to Mary as she got ready that night.
“You’ve been on plenty of dates,” Mary said.
“No,” Isabel a said. “I’ve been out to eat with boys who were my boyfriend, but that’s not dating. That’s just paral el eating.”
Mary looked up from her books and tilted her head. “Paral el eating,” she said. “Huh. Sometimes I think you should have been a lawyer.”
Isabel a and Ben starting spending a lot of time together, but he never real y wanted to do anything. He was fine sitting on the couch in their apartment. “Maybe we should go out?” Isabel a would suggest. “To a museum or the zoo or something?” Ben just laughed at her and patted her knee.
She and Ben went to bars with flip-cup tables and jukeboxes that played Neil Diamond. They danced on floors covered with sawdust and drank shots with clever names like Baby Guinnesses and Buttery Nipples. On the weekdays, they’d drag themselves out of bed, get bagels at the corner, and head off to work on different subways. On the weekends, they’d stay in bed for most of the day, getting up in the late afternoon to get brunch.
They mostly stayed at Isabel a’s apartment, because Ben’s place smel ed like ramen and feet and had a sign over the door that said “Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women.” He had two roommates, large looming boys who sat on the couch in their boxers and were always eating huge bowls of cereal and watching ESPN. They didn’t seem to mind Isabel a’s presence, but they didn’t real y notice her either. Any conversation she tried to start with them usual y ended in a grunt, and so she was happy that Ben preferred her apartment.
Ben slept easily in her bed, his mouth open, covers kicked off. Sometimes Isabel a woke up with a headache and hated him for being able to sleep. Sometimes she crept into Mary’s room and got into bed with her. “He’s snoring,” she’d whisper. And Mary would grunt and rol over.
The more Ben stayed there, though, the more time Mary spent at the library. Their apartment, which was cramped with two of them, could barely hold three. Isabel a got the sense that Mary was getting more and more annoyed at her, pointing out that the garbage was ful , saying things like “I guess I’l go get more toilet paper, again,” and shutting her door extra hard when she came home. Once, in the middle of the night, Ben left the toilet seat up and Mary fel in as she sat down. Isabel a tried to make it up to her, cleaning the bathroom and buying candy. She could tel that Mary appreciated her efforts, but the apartment remained crowded, and stil sometimes caused Mary to sigh loudly or snap about the dishes, depending on the day.
Isabel a was surprised to find that she could do her job in a constantly hungover state. She wasn’t sure if this was a wonderful discovery or a sign that she should run. Either way, her performance reviews were superb.
“Stick with me for one year and you’l go places,” Bil always said to her. He had a big stomach and ate Greek salad for lunch every day, which made him smel like onions, always. Isabel a knew that he thought the Greek salad was super healthy, and for that she pitied him. She also wished he didn’t smel like he did.
Sharon was less direct. “I got a run in my panty hose,” she would announce. Then she would stand and stare at Isabel a, making a face that said, What should we do about the pickle we’re in? until Isabel a offered to go get her new ones.
Standing in Duane Reade, picking out someone else’s panty hose, Isabel a thought, “This is real y happening.” She chose a control-top package and went to the counter to pay.
In late October, Isabel a’s sister, Mol y, brought her two girls to the city for the day. They came on the train from Philadelphia, wearing matching plaid jumpers and clutching American Girl dol s. Mol y insisted that they come to Isabel a’s apartment so that she could see where she was living. They al stood in the TV room and looked around. Missy and Caroline used the bathroom and sat on Isabel a’s bed.
“It’s very efficient,” Mol y said, and gathered up her things to go.
As they walked down the street, Missy, the older one, told Isabel a about their trip in. “There was a man sleeping outside the train station,” she said. “He made some bad choices in life.”
“Real y?” Isabel a asked. She looked at Mol y out of the corners of her eyes.
“Yeah,” Missy said. She grabbed Caroline’s arm and started offering advice. “Watch out for dog poop on the sidewalk,” she said. “Don’t look at anyone, or they’l take you.”
“Missy, no one is going to take you guys,” Isabel a said. Missy, who was nine, shook her head like Isabel a was stupid. “They told us about it in class, Auntie Iz. There are kidnappers everywhere, but especial y in New York.”
Al of Isabel a’s nieces and nephews cal ed her Auntie Iz, a ridiculous nickname given to her by her oldest brother when he had his first baby. It made her sound like some wicked aunt in a fairy tale, like a forgotten character from The Wizard of Oz.
Missy stood there with pursed lips and wide eyes, as though she wanted to warn Isabel a of the dangers of New York. Missy was a clone of Mol y, and sometimes, even though she was only nine, it was hard to like her. Isabel a bent down to Caroline. “No one’s going to take you,” she whispered in her ear. Caroline smiled.
They trekked around American Girl Place, watched a movie, bought some new outfits, and had tea with the dol s. Caroline’s dol had a Mohawk
in the front, where she had tried to cut the bangs. “I wanted her bangs to be gone,” Caroline explained. She touched her forehead. “Like mine.”
“That’s why she’s not al owed to get another dol for at least a year,” Missy said. She fed her dol some tea. “Because five-year-olds don’t real y know how to take care of them.”
After tea, Ben met them in Central Park and chased the girls around like a monster, while Mol y and Isabel a sat on a bench. “He looks like a keeper,” Mol y said. She elbowed Isabel a. “Maybe this is the one?”
Isabel a sighed. Mol y had been trying to marry her off since she was in seventh grade.
“You know, Isabel a, you need to make sure that he stil respects you. The only thing a girl has is her reputation.”
“Oh my God,” Isabel a said. “Mol y, please stop.”
“You can listen to me now or learn it on your own later,” Mol y said.
“If you talk about the cows and the milk, I’m done,” Isabel a said. “You sound just like Mom.”
Missy came running up to them, her hair escaping from her ponytail and her cheeks flushed. She looked adorable, and for a moment, Isabel a wanted to grab her in a big hug. Then Missy said, “Ben is so funny.” She turned and smiled at Isabel a. “I hope you marry him.”
Missy leaned in close to Mol y and whispered something. She looked concerned, but Mol y told her not to worry. Missy ran back to Ben, who raised his arms and started stomping toward her. She squealed and ran.
Mol y said, “Missy just asked me if you were poor. She asked if you needed to move in with us. She said she’s never seen a place to live that’s so smal .” Then Mol y tilted her head back and laughed and laughed with her mouth open so wide that Isabel a could see her fil ings.
Isabel a had always thought that New York would be devoid of animals, but that wasn’t true. They were everywhere. They were just the kind of animals you didn’t want to see. “I read somewhere that in New York you’re never more than five feet away from vermin,” Mary said. This knowledge haunted Isabel a. The building posted a sign-up sheet once a month for exterminators, and each time the list went up, it was immediately fil ed with capitalized, underlined descriptions of what people needed to get rid of. “MICE!!!” the list read. “ROACHES AGAIN!!!” it said.
Isabel a and Mary could hear scratching between their wal s, and they were sure it was a mouse, although they’d never seen him. “I hear it,”
Isabel a would say. They named him Brad and pretended he was the only mouse in the place. When he scratched at night, it made Isabel a squirm in her bed. If she heard him, she wouldn’t get up until it was morning, afraid that she’d run into him on her way to the bathroom. Even if she had to pee, she’d wait. The mouse was probably giving her a bladder infection.
Because their apartment was approximately a hundred degrees on any given day, the sliding windows had to be left open. They had no screens, so very often Isabel a woke up to the butt of a pigeon facing her. They cal ed the pigeon Pete, and tried to figure out why he only came to Isabel a’s window. Pete perched there almost every morning and cooed and pooped on her windowsil . It was possibly the grossest thing she could imagine.
“Pete, get out of here!” she would scream.
“Don’t yel at him,” Mary would say. “You’re going to scare him and he’l fly into the apartment.”
Isabel a thought she was overreacting, until one morning when she screamed at Pete and he flew backward into her room. She ran to get Mary, who grabbed a broom and slammed Isabel a’s door shut. She was always good in these types of situations.
“Okay,” she said. “When we open the door, you run to the window and open it as far as it wil go. I’l shoo him out.”
“You’re so brave,” Isabel a told her.
It took almost an hour and a lot of screaming, but Pete found his way back outside. They stood sweating and panting, shaking their heads at each other. “I never thought there’d be so much wildlife in New York,” Isabel a said.
“Me neither,” Mary said.
Ben took the train to Philadelphia with her for Thanksgiving. He ate turkey and played with the kids and was charming in a way she hadn’t known he could be. Isabel a’s mom insisted on wrapping up loads of leftover pie for Ben. They took the train back together and he rested his hand on her thigh the whole way. The week after, she didn’t hear from him once, and she wondered if she’d imagined the whole holiday.
It got colder, but their apartment stil hovered around a hundred degrees. In Rockefel er Center, families of five came to see the tree, and walked around holding hands in a line, forcing Isabel a to dart around them on her way to work. It was like one big game of Red Rover, and Isabel a felt sure that she was losing.
Isabel a went home for Christmas alone, with two bags of dirty laundry. The night before she left, she and Ben went out to get drinks. They laughed and had fun, and as they stopped for pizza on the way home from the bar, Isabel a began to think she was wrong to imagine that there was any trouble between them. Later that night, as Ben played with her hair in bed, she let out a happy sigh and he said, “My ex-girlfriend used to make me play with her hair before she fel asleep.” Isabel a pul ed away from him, but his fingers were tangled in her hair and he ended up pul ing out a few strands.
“What?” Ben asked.
“Nothing,” Isabel a said. How could she explain what he did to her? She let him lie there, holding the hair he’d torn out of her head, and think about it.
Christmas at the Mack house was loud and busy. Stuffed reindeer peeked out from the corners, and Scotch tape and snickerdoodles were everywhere. Al of the grown-ups played board games while the kids ran around upstairs. It was safer that way, Isabel a knew. Mack board-game nights weren’t for children.
The night before Christmas Eve, they played Scattegories, and things were already getting messy. Her brother John was mad because he’d brought Cranium to play but had been overruled. “I don’t think we should play anything that involves clay,” Brett said.
“Yeah,” Isabel a said. “It might get physical.”
There were twelve players, so it was impossible to tel if anyone was cheating. Isabel a’s partner, her sister-in-law Meg, chugged appletinis al night and taunted the other teams. “Whooo!” she kept squealing. “Wooohoo! We are going to kick your asses.” Then she held up her hand and made Isabel a give her a high five.
Isabel a’s mother had banned al premade pitchers of drinks after the pomegranate martini incident of Thanksgiving 1998, but someone must have forgotten. When Isabel a had walked into the kitchen that night, she’d seen a big pitcher of unnatural y green liquid. “Appletinis,” Meg had said brightly. “Do you want one?” It was the last complete sentence she said that night. Isabel a’s brother Joseph quietly ignored his appletini-loving wife, leaving Isabel a to high-five her alone.
Brett had barely spoken since he’d tried to submit “whore” in the category of “things that are sticky.” Isabel a’s mother had exclaimed, “Sweet Jesus” and closed her eyes in horror. Never mind that the letter for that round was H, and Isabel a’s mother should have been concerned that her twenty-seven-year-old son couldn’t spel .
Mol y talked about Ben, and Isabel a regretted ever introducing him to her family. “He was so cute with the girls,” Mol y was saying. “Just real y adorable.”
Isabel a saw Caroline run by in a flash of blue, and soon al of the kids were rumbling downstairs from the playroom. Most of them were in costumes, and carrying plastic teacups for reasons they never explained. Scattegories was forgotten. Mol y suggested that al of the kids could sleep in Isabel a’s room, as a treat, but only if Isabel a agreed, of course.
“Can we, Auntie Iz?” they asked her. “Can we sleep in your room?”
Isabel a looked at Mol y, who didn’t look back. “Sure,” Isabel a said. “You can sleep in my room.”
Caroline cheered, then tripped herself on the long blue dress she was wearing and started crying. Isabel a picked her up and held her in her lap.
Caroline had always been her favorite. When she tried to whisper, she talked right into people’s mouths. Last Thanksgiving, when she’d dropped a drumstick on the floor, she’d said, “Fuck it.” And when Mol y had asked her where she’d learned that word, she shrugged and said, “Grandma Kathy.”
“Did you get me a present, Iz?” Caroline asked.
“Caroline, that’s rude,” Missy said. She patted Isabel a’s arm. “Auntie Iz doesn’t need to get us presents.” Missy, stil worried about Isabel a’s possible poverty, treated her like a homeless person that the family had taken in.
Mol y looked over at her girls, and her eyes narrowed at Caroline’s costume. “Is that my bridesmaid dress?” Mol y asked.
“No,” Isabel a said. “That’s my bridesmaid dress.”
Mol y rol ed her eyes up at the ceiling. “You know what I mean. Caroline, where did you get that?”
“In the dress-up chest,” Caroline said.
Mol y turned to Isabel a. “How did that get in there?”
“What else was I supposed to do with it?” Isabel a asked. “Goodwil wouldn’t take it.” Brett laughed from across the room and Mol y narrowed her eyes.
“They were very in at the time,” Mol y said. “You don’t remember, but those dresses were the thing to wear.”
“I’m sure they were,” Isabel a said. “That dress has been in the dress-up chest forever, by the way.” Caroline watched Isabel a and Mol y talk, turning her head as each one spoke.
Isabel a could tel that Mol y wanted to say more, but she turned away and took a sip of her wine. Isabel a took the kids upstairs to get them settled in her room, and she heard Mol y talking in the kitchen. “So, Missy thought that Izzy was poor,” she said. She laughed loudly. “I know! Do you believe it?”
There were so many bodies in Isabel a’s bed that she was afraid it would break. Little kid limbs were everywhere. Four of her nieces were shoved into the bed, and Isabel a kept waking up to feet and hands flying through the air. When she final y fel asleep, she woke up less than an hour later to screaming. Her nephew Connor had been locked in the closet. “You guys,” Isabel a said, but she couldn’t get enough energy to real y yel at them.
Her nephews were blobs of shadows on the floor, and after she rescued Connor, she told them al to be quiet and go to sleep.
In the morning, al of the kids were gone except for Caroline, who sat on the bed talking to her orange teddy bear, explaining how Santa got into the house. Isabel a smiled at her. “Where is everyone?” she asked.
“They went downstairs,” she said. “I didn’t want you to be alone.” Caroline touched the top of Isabel a’s head with her chubby baby hand, and Isabel a wondered how Mol y had been able to produce such a sweet child when she was such a horrid person.
There was a missed cal on her phone from Ben, but he hadn’t left a message. Isabel a had thought it would feel better to be home, away from him. But it didn’t. She cal ed him back and he didn’t answer. She didn’t leave a message.
On Christmas Eve the whole family went to St. Anthony’s to watch the pageant. Caroline was a nervous-looking cow, and waved her hoof as her mother snapped pictures like a spazzy paparazzo. The church was noisy, ful of chattering and shuffling, until a pint-sized Jesus and a mini Mary walked out to the manger, and then the whole place became quiet.
Isabel a stil remembered being chosen to play Mary in fourth grade. Her teacher asked her to bring a dol for the baby Jesus, and she took the job very seriously. She went home and, after careful consideration, picked her Cabbage Patch Kid Rosco. She apologized to the others, and explained that Rosco was little and bald and right for the part. He would make a great Jesus.
Every night, Isabel a would wash Rosco’s head in the sink and then careful y dry it. She would dress him in his blue terry-cloth pajamas and tuck him into bed next to her. “You’re going to play Jesus,” she would whisper to him. “Don’t be nervous,” she would say. “You’re going to be great.”
The night she played Mary, she felt holy, as though she were a saint of some kind. “It was my holiest Christmas,” she wrote in her diary.
On the altar, mini Mary said something to Caroline and then petted her as though she were a real cow. Caroline stared at the dol in the manger and Isabel a felt something like jealousy. After the pageant, they al walked out into the cold air, their breath making white clouds as they wished everyone they saw a Merry Christmas, and Isabel a thought that it didn’t feel like Christmas at al . Al the kids went to their own houses to wait for Santa, and in her bed that night, Isabel a missed the sound of other people’s breathing.
Back in New York, everything was cold and slushy. “At least the snow was pretty for a minute or two, right?” Isabel a asked Mary. Mary just shook her head and closed her door. She had a head cold and new classes to deal with.
Ben was around less and less, and when they were together they seemed to squabble. “Don’t put al your chickens in one pot,” Kristi advised her.
“That boy wasn’t for you anyway.” She said it with such authority that Isabel a almost believed her.
Isabel a got knee-high rubber boots to wear on her walk to work. When she’d first seen people wearing these, she’d thought they were just trying to be cute, but now she realized they were necessary for the three-foot-wide puddles of dirty, cold water that surrounded the curbs and gathered in the streets.
Sharon had decided to go on a diet for New Year’s, and so the muffin game got more complicated. “Are you sure?” Isabel a would have to say. “I can’t believe you’re on a diet,” she would sometimes add. The one morning she didn’t get a chocolate chip muffin, Sharon made her file clients by their Social Security numbers. Isabel a never made that mistake again.
Even with her boots, Isabel a’s feet always felt wet and cold. The heat in their apartment was on ful blast, and there was nothing they could do to turn it down. They had to keep the windows open to avoid suffocating, and Isabel a was always afraid that the pigeon would come back. At night, she woke up in the apartment sweaty and dehydrated, flapping her arms to protect herself from imaginary birds.
It seemed like spring would never come, but it did. And mysteriously, Ben started appearing more and more. He offered no explanation of where he had been al those nights when she’d tried to cal him. He just showed up al the time again, wearing his white basebal hat, smiling and laughing, buying her drinks, dancing, and waking up in her bed.
“What do you think happened?” Isabel a asked.
Mary shrugged. “Maybe he was hibernating,” she suggested.
Isabel a was promoted at work, and a new assistant was hired to get muffins for Bil and Sharon. When Isabel a was training the new girl, Bil said to her, “You have some big shoes to fil . This one here was a dynamo.” He put his hand on Isabel a’s shoulder, and she could smel onions. She hoped the odor wouldn’t stay on her sweater. Sharon wished her luck, shook her hand, and gave her a card that had an office ful of monkeys on it.
On the inside of the card it said, “We’l miss you at this zoo!” Isabel a moved to the floor above and didn’t see any of them much. Sometimes she found herself at the bakery downstairs about to buy muffins before she realized she didn’t have to do that anymore. She thought of Sharon saying,
“Oh, I couldn’t,” as Isabel a placed the muffin on her desk, and she hoped the new girl understood the rules and remembered what to do.
Mary started her summer internship at a law firm downtown, but at least she was more wil ing to go out at night. At Gamekeepers, over a game of Scrabble, she told Isabel a that she’d be moving out in the fal .
“I need my own place,” she said. “I love living with you, but I have to study al the time. Plus, I should live closer to campus. And you don’t want to live al the way up there.”
“I know,” Isabel a said. “I’m distracting.”
Isabel a found a one-bedroom apartment on the West Side. She was sad not to be living with Mary anymore, but the new apartment had screens, so that was something.
The last night in the apartment, Isabel a and Mary went to Gamekeepers with Ben and his roommate Mike. They played Connect Four and Sorry!, and then Ben pul ed Life off the shelf. “How about this one?” he said. “A good old-fashioned game of Life.”
They spun the spinner and gathered jobs and paychecks and children. Isabel a hadn’t played in a long time, and she found it sort of boring. Mary and Mike lost interest and got up to order new drinks at the bar.
“You know,” Isabel a said to Ben, “when I was little and my family played Life, we had this rule. If any of the pegs fel out of your car, then you lost them. It was considered a car accident and the plastic peg was dead. You had to give it back.”
“Real y?” Ben sounded bored.
“Yeah,” Isabel a said. She’d told that story before, and usual y people at least laughed a little. Ben just looked around the bar.
“Don’t you think that’s kind of a mean rule?” Isabel a asked him.
“I guess,” he said. He rattled the ice in his glass. “I have to go to the bodega to get smokes.”
“Okay,” Isabel a said. When he left, she pul ed one of his pegs out and laid it down right next to his car.
The dead-peg rule had always made Isabel a cry. Somehow, her little pegs never seemed to stay put, and they always popped out. “That’s the rule, Izzy,” her brother Marshal always said to her when she tried to protest. It was so rotten, Isabel a thought, the way that everyone squealed and laughed when someone’s peg fel out, the way they al clapped at that person’s misery and misfortune. Mol y would always pat Isabel a’s back when this happened and say, “If you can’t fol ow the rules, then maybe you shouldn’t play.”
Ben came back inside, but he didn’t notice his dead peg.
Isabel a went to the bar and ordered shots for herself and Mary. “Here,” she said, handing it to her. “No excuses. This is a time of mourning.
We’re never going to live together again.”
“Don’t say that,” Mary said.
“It’s true,” Isabel a said. She could feel herself getting sentimental, which she always was. Sometimes she missed people before they even left her, got depressed about a vacation being over before it started.
“Wel then, cheers,” Mary said. They clinked the glasses, touched them to the counter, and drank.
“You’re going to miss me,” Isabel a said. “There won’t be anyone to blame for the dirty dishes in the sink.”
“I don’t leave dirty dishes in the sink,” Mary said.
“Exactly,” Isabel a said.
Ben and Mike came over and suggested another bar. “This place is beat,” Ben said. He leaned back and stretched his arms.
“We can’t go anywhere,” Isabel a told him. “We stil have to finish packing. The movers are coming early.”
“Okay,” Ben said. “Talk to you tomorrow.” Isabel a noticed that he didn’t offer to help her move, but she didn’t say anything. She and Mary had another drink and headed back to the apartment, which was ful of boxes and stil had stuff al over the floor.
“What is this stuff?” Mary asked.
“Crap,” Isabel a said. “It’s just al crap.” She kicked at a pink hand weight. “When have either of us ever lifted weights?” she asked.
“I think I bought those thinking I’d lift weights in my room,” Mary said.
“How did that go?” Isabel a asked.
“Not great,” Mary said. “I think that’s why they were underneath the couch.”
“Here,” Isabel a said. She reached into her pocket and took something out. “I stole these for us.” She opened her palm and showed Mary two pink peg people from Life and two pigs from Pig Mania. She handed Mary a peg person and a pig. “They’re us,” she said. “Roommates always.”
Mary laughed. “Who’s the pig?” she asked.
In her new apartment, Isabel a glued the pig and the peg person on a piece of cardboard and hung it in a frame by the door. People always commented on it when they walked in. “Hey, look,” they’d say. Sometimes they recognized the peg from Life, and some people even knew where the pig was from, which usual y made them laugh. When the glue wore out and the peg person or the pig fel down, she didn’t throw them out.
Instead, she glued them right back on and said a silent prayer that they were the only critters in her home.
O ur friend Elen dates ugly boys,” Lauren used to say. She said it al through colege. She said it to warn attractive boys who were interested in El en. “You’re not her type,” she’d try to explain. “It’s weird, I know, but you’re far too good-looking for her.” Most of the time, these boys didn’t listen.
They’d just nod and keep staring at El en, thinking about how they were going to approach her, as Lauren insisted in the background, “Our friend El en dates ugly boys.”
Al of El en’s friends accepted this. They weren’t surprised when she introduced them to boys with receding hairlines and mild cases of rosacea.
They didn’t laugh when she picked out the one guy in the bar with braces and said, “Look at him!” When she got breathy and excited about someone new, they al mental y prepared themselves to meet a guy with a creepy carnival mustache and a mean case of dandruff. Even in first grade, when the only acceptable boys to like were Jon Armstrong and Chris Angelo, El en announced that she liked scabby Matthew Handler. It was just who she was. El en dated ugly boys.
It was surprising, mostly because El en was pretty—and not just your average, wel -groomed and wel -dressed kind of pretty. She was the kind of pretty that people noticed, the kind of pretty that made people watch her walk by. She had long eyelashes and skin that didn’t seem to have any pores. There was a glow about her, something that always drew boys to her side. If she’d been anyone else, Lauren might have been too jealous to be her friend. But it never mattered, because El en would look at al of her admirers gathered round, and point to Mr. Fatty and say, “I choose you.”
Lauren got to keep the rest of them.
Some friends are gossips and some are sloppy drunks. If you like them wel enough, you ignore this trait and continue to be their friend. And that’s what they did with El en—they tolerated her taste in men.
Once, in col ege, El en kissed a guy who lived down the hal from them. They cal ed him the Wildebeest because he was portly with wild curly hair and he snorted when he laughed. He was the guy who got drunk at parties, stripped naked, and did the worm on the floor in a pool of keg beer.
They al knew him. They al liked him wel enough. And they were al shocked when El en announced that she’d kissed him the night before when he’d walked her to her door.
“Hold on,” Isabel a said. “Please back up. You made out with the Wildebeest?”
El en shrugged. “I didn’t plan it,” she said. “He offered to walk me home and he’s so funny.”
“Of course he’s funny,” Lauren said. “He’s a Wildebeest. Wildebeests are supposed to be funny. But Wildebeests are not for making out with.”
El en was unashamed. She just smiled and shrugged and went back to her room. Al the girls stared at each other and shook their heads.
“Making out with a Wildebeest,” they whispered to one another. “What wil be next?”
For the most part, El en’s boys were harmless. That’s not to say that they al had sparkling personalities or quick wit to make up for their appearance. No, some of them were truly blessed with nothing. But stil , the girls never real y objected to El en’s choices. “Different strokes for different folks,” their friend Mary always said whenever El en brought home another one. And they al laughed and let her be. “What harm could it do?” they asked each other. And so they let El en have her ugly little fun.
But then she met Louis. And Louis was awful.
Louis weighed about ninety pounds, had soft, wispy blond hair, and wore the same pair of rust-colored corduroys their entire junior year. He was pretentious and social y awkward and El en was crazy about him. Louis sat in their apartment and chain-smoked cigarettes while he ignored al of them. Once, when Lauren asked El en for an opinion on which shirt she should wear out that night, Louis weighed in. “It can be dangerous to care too much about clothes. It makes you shal ow,” he said. Then he reached into his pants pocket, took out a paperback copy of Why I Am So Wise by Nietzsche, and started reading.
“I hate that guy,” Lauren said later that night. “He’s such a dick.”
“Relax,” Isabel a said. “It won’t last. They never do.”
The first time Louis dumped El en, they silently cheered. But a week later, the couple was back together, and Louis showed up again in their apartment, smoking cigarettes and making comments about how sil y girls were in general. Louis broke up with El en over and over again, and she kept going back to him. None of them understood it.
“He looks like Ichabod Crane,” Lauren said once. “I mean, what I think Ichabod Crane would look like if he wore the same pants for a year, you know?”
“I just don’t understand when he has time to wash those pants,” Mary said. “He wears them every day. That’s just so gross.” They al agreed.
After graduation, Louis broke up with El en again. He told her that he couldn’t be tied down, that he was going to travel through Europe alone and needed his freedom. “Please let this one stick,” they said to one another. Sure, El en was devastated now, but she’d meet someone else, someone who would make her happier. They were sure of that. It was al for the best.
They al spent a year after graduation living with their parents in their respective suburbs, saving money and looking for jobs. It was miserable, sleeping in twin beds in their childhood rooms, sending out mil ions of résumés, and trying not to get annoyed when their parents said things like
“What time wil you be home?” and “No drinks upstairs.”
Lauren, El en, and their friend Shannon al moved to Chicago that summer. El en had gotten a job offer in Boston but had turned it down, claiming that she had always wanted to live in Chicago. “It’s such a fun city,” she said. “The lake is so great.” Lauren and Shannon rol ed their eyes at each other. They knew she was lying about the lake. Louis was from Chicago and El en was just hoping he’d come back there soon. It was sad, real y.
Even a little pathetic, they thought.
But they didn’t real y care that much. One year after graduating, they were final y on their own. They rented an apartment on Armitage with two and a half bedrooms, one tiny bathroom, no air-conditioning, and a giant deck. It was almost like col ege, except they had to get up and go to work every morning.
It was so hot that summer that no one could stay inside. They tried (for the sake of being grown-ups) not to go out every night. They sat on the deck in ponytails and shorts, reading magazines and painting their nails, trying to imagine a breeze from Lake Michigan. Eventual y, someone would suggest having a beer or a glass of wine. They’d sit awhile, and someone would suggest going to the bar below them, just for one drink, just to sit in air-conditioning for a while. And before they knew it, it was two in the morning and they were listening to Karen, the crazy bartender with missing teeth at Shoes Pub, tel them about Craig, the asshole who broke her heart.
Lauren blamed the weather for a lot of what happened that summer. It drove them out of their apartment, to bars and street fairs and concerts. It made them restless and irritable while they waited for something to start. They al knew they ought to feel different in their new lives, but they felt the same and it put them on edge. Hot and impatient, they fidgeted in the heat, grumbling and asking each other, “What next? What next?”
El en was at a loss without Louis. She hadn’t so much as flirted with an ugly boy since he’d left for Europe. He sent her postcards from Paris and Florence that said things like Be yourself or be nothing and Live humbly but live true.
Lauren and Shannon snatched these cards from the pile to read them before El en did. It was one of their greatest sources of entertainment.
“Live humbly?” Shannon said. “Uh, yeah. I’m pretty sure his parents are paying for his humble trip around Europe.”
They always put the cards back in the mail so that El en could take them to her room and read them over and over again. They knew she was pining over him in there.
“We’ve got to get her over this,” Lauren said. So they dragged her to bars and scouted for unattractive men. A few times she even met some homely boys, let them buy her a drink, and talked to them for a while. But when the girls got close, they heard what El en was saying to these guys.
“He real y broke my heart,” she’d say. “I just real y miss him.”
“What can we do?” they asked each other. They shook their heads in disappointment. Why couldn’t she just let it go?
They al got tickets to a concert at the old steel factory down the street, to see a young, handsome singer who wrote tortured love songs and whined about the troubles of being twenty-five. Their friend Isabel a was visiting from New York, and she came over before the concert to drink beers on the porch, but al she did was wander around and say, “This place is huge. Your apartment is huge.”
“Yeah, we like it,” Lauren said.
“No,” Isabel a said. “You have no idea. You should see my apartment in New York. It’s teeny. And expensive. This place is a mansion.”
“Then move here,” Lauren told her. “Move to Chicago!” Isabel a just smiled and continued to look around in wonder.
Lauren and Shannon were in a fight that started when Shannon cal ed Lauren a slob. “Isabel a, don’t you think it’s disgusting when someone leaves Q-tips on the sink?” Shannon asked. Isabel a shook her head and kept quiet.
“You’re the one who sits in that bathroom for an hour and plucks your hairy eyebrows,” Lauren said. “If anyone’s a pig, it’s you.”
Isabel a just smiled and looked happy that she didn’t have to weigh in. Now Lauren and Shannon were sitting on the porch, sighing and scoffing to let everyone know that they weren’t speaking to each other.
El en was in the kitchen pouring wine when Isabel a asked her, “So, have you seen Louis since he’s been back?”
It was like a movie: El en spil ed her wine, Isabel a jumped, and Lauren and Shannon forgot they were ignoring each other and looked at each other with wide eyes.
“Louis is back?” El en asked.
“Yeah.” Isabel a made a face. “Sorry, El en. I thought you knew.”
El en shook her head and swal owed some wine. “No,” she said. “I didn’t know.”
“Sorry,” Isabel a said again. “I just assumed he would have cal ed you. I saw Phil last weekend and told him I was coming here for the weekend and he mentioned it. He just got back a couple weeks ago. I’m sure he was going to cal you.”
They al looked at El en, who was now calmly drinking her wine. Lauren could tel that she wasn’t upset. Surprised, yes. But not upset. They’d known El en long enough to be able to read her mood by the way she held herself, and right then, she was as straight as a pole, alert, and excited.
“Fuck,” Shannon said softly.
“Yeah,” Lauren answered. “I know.”
They went to the concert, where Lauren and Shannon made up, then got in a fight again when Shannon forgot to watch the Porta-Potty Lauren was in, and let a man open the door, which had a broken lock. “Everyone in line saw me with my pants down,” Lauren screamed.
“So what’s new?” Shannon asked.
They went to a bar cal ed Life’s Too Short near the old Cabrini-Green buildings. The whole area was under construction and the streets were lined with half-built condos and shel s of townhouses. Because nothing was around it, the bar paid no attention to the city’s rules about shutting down by four a.m. The bartenders let everyone stay in the bar’s outdoor area. Nothing good ever came of this, but they kept going back.
They sat in a corner of the patio where they could see everyone that walked in. They were fascinated with watching Margaret Applebee, a girl
they knew from col ege. She’d always been kind of fat, but had dropped about forty pounds that year and was, according to Shannon, “whoring it up al over town.” She was talking to their friend Mitch McCormick, pressing herself against his arm, and they were al waiting for him to tel her to go away.
“Who does she think she is?” Shannon asked. “Like Mitch would ever be interested in her. It’s so embarrassing.”
“She’s persistent, though,” Lauren said. “You gotta give her that.”
“I don’t even recognize her,” Isabel a said. “She lost forty pounds? She’s a whole different person.”
None of them saw Louis walk in. They were al so focused on the Margaret Applebee fiasco that they didn’t notice him until he was standing at their table saying, “Hey, El en.” El en tried to smile and then immediately burst into tears.
“She’s real y drunk,” Lauren said to Louis.
He took her by the arm and led her away from them. Now they watched the two of them, heads bent together, talking quietly to each other.
“Oh shit,” Shannon said. “Margaret Applebee is gone. We missed it. Where’s Mitch?”
El en came back over to the table, crying harder now. She couldn’t real y talk, but they could guess what had happened.
“He’s a jackass,” Lauren said.
“He’s not worth it.” Isabel a rubbed El en’s back.
“You should just forget him,” Lauren said.
“I think Mitch went home with Margaret Applebee,” Shannon said.
El en was up and out before any of them the next morning, and she came back to the apartment with Bloody Mary ingredients, a large block of cheddar cheese, and a log of summer sausage.
“I’m sorry, you guys,” she said. “For how I freaked out last night.”
“No worries,” Shannon said. She’d already made herself a Bloody Mary and was now cutting off hunks of cheese and sausage to shove in her mouth. Isabel a lay on the couch, listening to the conversation. She was too hungover to move, but made a noise and motioned for some cheese and sausage. Lauren cut some off and brought it over to her.
“I cal ed Louis this morning to apologize to him too,” El en told them.
“Why?” Shannon asked.
“Because I want to be friends,” El en said. “I at least want to be friends with him.”
“Do you think that wil work?” Lauren asked.
“I think it’s my only choice,” she said. They were quiet for a few moments.
“There’s something weird about summer sausage,” Shannon said.
“There’s a lot of things weird about summer sausage,” El en said.
“It should be disgusting,” Lauren said. “I mean, you leave it wrapped up and unrefrigerated forever, but when you open it, it’s stil delicious. It’s one of the great world wonders.”
“I think it’s curing my headache,” Isabel a said. She tried to sit up and then lay right back down. “Never mind,” she said.
“I think you guys might stil be a little drunk,” El en said.
Later, they al agreed that she was a disaster waiting to happen.
Lauren met Tripp at a bar in Bucktown that had maps al over the wal s and pool tables in the corner. He wasn’t much, but she kept seeing him. For her birthday, he gave her gift certificates to the bar downstairs and a dirty romance novel that you buy at a grocery store. “I know you like to read,”
he told her. The card read Dear Lorin, Happy Birthday. Sincerely Tripp.
“Do you think he knows he spel ed your name wrong?” El en asked.
“He didn’t even put an exclamation point after ‘Happy Birthday,’ ” Shannon said. She frowned at the card. “So serious. Happy Birthday—period.”
“I’m just cal ing because I’m bored,” Lauren explained to her friends when she dialed his number.
“You must be,” they answered.
Chicago was smal that summer. No matter where they went, they ran into people they knew: Tripp, Louis, and even Margaret Applebee were always around. If they didn’t see them at Shoes or Kincade’s, then they saw them at Big John’s or Marquee Lounge. And if they didn’t see them at any of those places, they always found them at Life’s Too Short.
Every once in a while, El en would announce that she wanted to meet someone. She’d talk to the first boy who offered to buy her a drink. They would smile, encouraging her from across the bar. Then Louis would show up and El en would stop talking to the boy and come back to them.
“Ignore him,” they’d tel her, and she would nod. About thirty minutes later, she’d decide to just say hel o to Louis. “I have to be civil,” she would say.
She would cry a little and tel him that it was hard to just be friends with him. Some nights he would enjoy the attention, pul ing her aside and talking closely to her. Other nights he would get angry and tel her that he couldn’t deal with her, then storm out of the bar. Almost always, she’d cry back at the apartment, while they drank beer and ate late-night macaroni and cheese.
“You can find someone else,” Shannon would tel her as she chewed the bright orange noodles.
“This whole thing is getting real y predictable,” Lauren would say.
They could have changed their patterns, Lauren thought later. They could have tried to go someplace new so that they wouldn’t see the same people over and over again. It just never real y occurred to them at the time.
Their new favorite thing to do on Sundays was to sit on the back porch, drink Bloody Marys, eat summer sausage, and talk about the weekend.
Shannon was mildly obsessed with Margaret Applebee, and wanted to talk about her al the time.
“Just because she’s not fat anymore, she’s a huge slut? I mean, come on,” Shannon said.
“Maybe she wants a boyfriend,” El en suggested. “I don’t think she’s ever real y had a boyfriend before.” She didn’t like it when they talked about Margaret Applebee.
“Wel , she certainly doesn’t have a boyfriend now,” Lauren said. “She probably just has herpes.”
“Oh, Lauren.” El en looked at her like a disappointed mother and shook her head a little. “What’s going on with Tripp?” she asked, to change the subject.
Lauren shrugged. “Not much. We see each other when we see each other.”
Tripp and Lauren sometimes went days without speaking. She kept thinking they would either decide to start real y dating or stop seeing each other altogether. But things just kept going like they had been. Most of the time, she saw no reason to change this. Once, she saw him go home with another girl from Life’s Too Short and it felt like someone slapped her. It was over, she decided. But then a week or so later, she saw him and made no mention of it. She would ignore it, she decided. After al , it’s not like they were exclusive or anything. He was just a good way to pass the time until something better came along.
At the end of July, their friend Sal ie cal ed to tel them that she was engaged and getting married in a month. And also, one more thing: She was pregnant. They weren’t sure what to say, so they told her congratulations. They couldn’t believe it. Sal ie and Max had dated in col ege, where Max was known for doing keg stands until he vomited and Sal ie sometimes forgot she had a boyfriend and kissed other boys at the party. They were getting married? They were having a baby?
“I think it’s exciting,” El en said.
“You think it’s exciting that their lives are over?” Lauren asked her. She was appal ed.
“But you know them,” El en said. “They’re in love.”
Lauren snorted. “They’l be divorced in five years,” she said.
“I hate to say it,” Shannon said, “but I kind of agree.”
Lauren learned something important at Sal ie and Max’s wedding: You never want to be the first one of your friends to get married. If you are, just resign yourself to the fact that your wedding wil be a shit show. Most people are stil single, open bars are a novelty, and no matter how elegant the wedding was planned to be, it wil wind up looking like a scene out of Girls Gone Wild.
They almost didn’t make it to the actual ceremony, because Lauren was throwing up al morning. “Please wait for me, you guys,” she kept saying before she ran back to the bathroom. “I’l be ready in just a minute.”
They had five friends in town for the wedding, camped out al over the apartment on couches and air mattresses. When their guests had arrived the night before, they’d done their best to be good hostesses and show them a fun night, but had ended up staying out way too late. It was al they could do to shower and put on clean dresses.
“Is this going to be a long mass?” their friend Mary asked. She had gotten ready and then lain down on the couch to take a nap in her dress.
“You’re going to get wrinkled,” El en told her.
“I real y don’t care,” Mary said. She kept her eyes closed.
El en was the only one who seemed to be excited about the wedding. She hadn’t stayed out too late the night before, and she was ready on time, looking fresh and ironed. She sat on the edge of one of the couches with her ankles crossed and watched as the rest of them scrambled to get ready.
The wedding was a mess. Everyone stampeded the bar and ordered tequila shots until the bride’s father demanded that the bartenders stop serving them. Their friend Isabel a was one of the bridesmaids, and she informed them that the bride’s mother had been crying al morning. “She kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this is how it’s happening,’ ” Isabel a said. “It was awful.”
Their friend Joe threw up on the dance floor and it had to be cleared and cleaned before anyone could continue dancing. One of the bridesmaids was found passed out in the bridal suite and had to be sent home. People made out in corners, girls fel down and ripped their dresses, and final y the band stopped playing and everyone was kicked out and decided to go to Life’s Too Short. Shannon kept slurring, “Their lives are ruined, you know. Their lives are ruined.”
Louis was at the wedding and they al knew this meant El en would cry. Louis and El en danced together at the reception and then sat alone at a table in the bar. They were sure that Louis would stand up at any moment and storm out, but every time they looked over, El en and Louis were laughing and he was touching her knee.
Tripp was at the bar and when he saw Lauren he said, “Oh, you’re here?”
“See?” Lauren said to Shannon. “Chivalry is not dead.”
Tripp didn’t say anything, and Lauren had a feeling that he didn’t know what “chivalry” meant. It was becoming clear that he was stupid. She would have to end it. But before she could say anything else, he walked away.
“What a loser,” Lauren said. Shannon nodded.
The night ended when Tripp and Margaret Applebee left together. Lauren started crying, and Shannon and Isabel a decided they should go to the diner and eat. Lauren ordered eggs and corned beef hash, poured ketchup al over her plate, and didn’t eat anything.
“He’s not worth it,” they said to her. She went home, left her dress in a pile on the floor, crawled into bed, and cried until she fel asleep.
By the time Lauren woke up the next morning, most of their guests were gone. Only Isabel a remained, sitting on the couch with Shannon. They both
looked like hel .
“Where’s El en?” Lauren asked.
Isabel a shrugged. “She didn’t come home. We think she stayed at Louis’s.”
“I can’t believe she went home with him,” Shannon said.
“Who? El en or Margaret Applebee?” Isabel a asked.
“Both, I guess. But I was talking about El en,” Shannon said.
“Can we please not talk about Margaret fucking Applebee?” Lauren said. She could feel Shannon and Isabel a exchange a look behind her back.
El en came home later that afternoon, carrying al of their usual supplies for a Bloody Mary–and–summer sausage picnic. She hummed as she mixed together a pitcher of drinks, and bounced around the kitchen getting glasses and knives.
“You seem happy,” Shannon said.
“I am,” El en said. She smiled. “You guys, I had a real y good night. Louis and I decided to get back together.”
“Oh,” Lauren said. She waited for someone else to be supportive.
“You can’t date him,” Shannon final y said. “He’s awful. He’s awful to you, and he’s awful to us, and he’s just awful.”
“He does seem to make you real y unhappy most of the time,” Isabel a said.
“Do you real y think that?” El en asked. She looked straight at Lauren. “Lauren,” she said. “Do you think that?”
Lauren had no idea why she said what she said next. Sometimes she thinks back to that moment and imagines that she could take it back. She blamed it on being hungover, on the wedding, on Margaret Applebee, but real y she had no excuse. Because what she said was “He’s just so ugly.”
El en was cutting the summer sausage when Lauren said this, and they al watched the knife slice right through her finger. Her hand was completely covered in blood before she even looked down.
“Holy shit,” Shannon screamed. Isabel a ran inside to get a towel, and Shannon cal ed 911. When they answered, she apologized and then spent five minutes on the phone explaining why they didn’t need an ambulance.
“Come on,” Lauren said. “We’l take a cab to the hospital.”
El en’s face was white and she refused to take the towel off to look at her finger. “I think I cut it off,” she kept saying. “I think I cut off my whole finger.”
Lauren assured her that her finger was stil attached. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You’l just need a few stitches.”
They had to wait over two hours in the emergency room. A man sat across from them with his head leaning against the wal . When he was cal ed to go in, he left a bloody headprint behind.
Lauren and El en didn’t talk much while they waited. El en looked like she was going to pass out any second, and Lauren didn’t think it seemed like the right time to continue their conversation. Maybe El en hadn’t even heard her when she’d cal ed Louis ugly. It was possible, she thought. They sat in silence until the doctor cal ed them in. Lauren walked back to the examination room even though El en hadn’t asked her to.
The doctor looked at El en’s finger quickly and started numbing it for stitches. “That’s a nasty cut,” she said. “How did this happen?”
“A knife,” El en said. “It was summer sausage.”
“Summer sausage bites back,” Lauren said. El en looked at her with her eyebrows wrinkled together while the doctor stitched up her finger.
Lauren apologized later, but they both knew it was too late. “I don’t know what’s best for you,” Lauren said. “You’re the only one who knows that.”
El en said she understood. “Lauren,” she said. “I get it. You were just being a good friend. Don’t worry. I’l be fine.”
When El en and Louis got engaged, Shannon screamed. “Wel ,” she said, after she stopped screaming, “I guess some people just want to be miserable.” They al went to the wedding and tried not to be somber. After al , she was their friend and they wanted her to be happy.
They lost touch with El en. Not al at once, but little by little, so that they didn’t even notice until it had already happened. Maybe it was hard for El en to be around them, since she knew they didn’t approve of her marriage. Maybe their lives just went different ways—Lauren and Shannon both moved to New York and El en moved to a house in the suburbs. Sometimes they thought that Louis was behind it, that he had forbidden El en to see them. In the end, Lauren thought it was probably a combination of everything, but she knew they would never real y know.
Lauren talks about that summer a lot. It has a point, a moral of some kind, but she’s not quite sure what it is yet. When people tel her that their friend is marrying a guy they hate, she says, “Have I got a story for you.” When she gets a Christmas card from Sal ie and Max with a picture of their two little boys on it, she shows it to people and says, “You’ve got to hear about this wedding.” And whenever she’s at a party and someone serves summer sausage, she says, “Did I ever tel you about my friend El en?” and if the person she’s talking to shakes their head no, she says, “Wel , let me tel you. We had this friend. And our friend El en, wel , El en dated ugly boys.”
I sabela didn’t want to go to the wedding.
They were Ben’s friends. She had never met the bride or the groom, and besides, she was fairly certain that she and Ben were going to break up any day. While she was getting ready that morning, she sat down on the bed and said, “My head hurts.”
“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” Ben said. He was tying his tie and not looking at her. She knew he real y wouldn’t care if she didn’t go and that pissed her off.
“Your tie is crooked,” she said, and stood up to finish getting ready.
They were early to the church, which never happened with them. Ben hated weddings. During the ceremony, he’d rol his eyes or sometimes say,
“Oh God, ” if the couple read their own vows or started to cry.
They sat in the pew and Isabel a paged through the program. “You know who’s going to be here?” Ben asked. “Mike’s girlfriend. You know, the one that looks like JonBenét.”
Isabel a had been hearing about this girl for months but had never met her. A while back, Ben caught her lying on the couch watching E! True Hollywood Story: JonBenét. “Why are you watching this?” he asked.
“There’s nothing on,” Isabel a said. Little girls marched across the stage with their faces ful of makeup. JonBenét stood in the middle of them, twirling an umbrel a and smiling.
“This is real y creepy,” Ben said.
“I know.” Isabel a couldn’t take her eyes off the screen. They were such little girls, but their hair was so big.
“I know a girl who looks just like her,” Ben said.
“JonBenét,” he said.
Isabel a turned to him. “You know a little girl who looks like her?” she asked, and Ben shook his head.
“No,” he said. “You know my buddy Mike? His girlfriend looks just like her. It’s fucking creepy.”
Isabel a didn’t believe him. “Ask my friends,” he said. “I swear, she looks just like her.”
Al of his girlfriends confirmed the story. “She’s a dead ringer for JonBenét,” they said, and then they laughed. “Plus,” they told Isabel a, “she’s crazy. She’s obsessed with getting married and talks about it al the time. She introduces herself to people as ‘Mike’s girlfriend and future fiancée.’
She sends him pictures of engagement rings constantly. She buys bridal magazines and carries them around with her!”
Isabel a wasn’t sure she believed al of it, but she stil couldn’t wait to meet her.
She looked around the church for someone who fit the description. “Is that her?” she whispered to Ben, and pointed to a smal blond girl sliding into a pew in front of them.
He shook his head and smiled. “No,” he said. “When you see her, you’l know. And you’l die.”
Ben hadn’t official y moved in, but he was in between apartments and his stuff was overtaking Isabel a’s place. When the lease was up on his old apartment, she’d told him he could stay with her until he found a new place. They hadn’t talked about it since. That was three months ago.
“I can’t believe he’s stil staying with you,” Lauren said one night. “You only let me stay with you for two weeks.”
“I never kicked you out,” Isabel a said.
“Yeah, but you made me sleep on the couch after the first two days,” Lauren said.
“That’s because you licked me in your sleep,” Isabel a said.
“I told you, I was having a dream,” Lauren said.
“That doesn’t make it okay,” Isabel a said. “Anyway, I’m sure Ben wil find a place soon.”
“Maybe you should ask him,” Lauren said. But Isabel a didn’t want to, which she knew probably meant that she real y should. Instead, she decided she wouldn’t worry about it for a while.
Ben sold medical supplies for a smal company based in Tennessee. Isabel a wasn’t sure what it was he actual y did. He didn’t go to an office. He worked from his computer at home, and then drove around in his car, delivering products and doing presentations. His workday lasted from about
eleven a.m. to three p.m., when he returned home to watch The Simpsons and smoke a joint.
Isabel a was home sick when she discovered this. “Why are you home so early?” she asked. For a second she thought he’d come back to take care of her. Maybe he’d brought her soup or ginger ale.
“I’m usual y done around this time,” Ben said. He settled himself on the couch and Isabel a sniffled into a tissue. She stood there waiting for him to ask her if she needed anything. “What?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “Nothing.” She took a NyQuil and went back to bed. She had fuzzy dreams until Ben turned on the television in the bedroom and woke her up. Isabel a stared at Ben that night while he slept and tried to figure out how he’d gotten there.
Isabel a and Ben fought al the time. They even fought the first night they met, when he cut in front of her to go to the bathroom at a bar. She yel ed after him and continued to yel at him through the door. “Sorry,” he said when he came out. “It was an emergency.” Ben was tan with messy hair and a white smile. Isabel a forgave him and went back to his apartment that night. He had black lights and a gravity bong. He reminded her of the boys she’d been in love with in high school, relaxed and impossibly sure of himself.
The fights they had now were much worse. Isabel a had never fought like this with anyone before. With Ben, she had al -out, drunken marathon fights that lasted for hours. She was sure the neighbors thought they were crazy.
Isabel a woke up the morning after these fights with a sore throat from yel ing and swol en eyes from crying, sure that she had done damage to her insides. Ben was an asshole, a jackass, a dick. But just when Isabel a thought the end was near, she felt a little hole of panic open. He was also funny, and could be sweet. Was she real y ready to let that go? Wasn’t she partly to blame for the fight?
The ceremony was a ful mass and Ben shuffled his feet and breathed loudly through most of it. Isabel a kept turning to give him a look. She gave him these looks often, the kind that you give to smal children to let them know their behavior is inappropriate. Usual y he just ignored her.
After the wedding, they al stood outside the church waiting for the bride and groom to make their exit. Ben smoked a cigarette and talked to some friends, and Isabel a watched the clouds and tried to calculate how much longer it would be before they were at the reception and she could get a glass of wine. She was interrupted from her dreaming by Ben’s voice. “Hey!” he said. “Look who it is.”
Isabel a saw Ben slapping the hand of his friend Mike, giving him a half hug–handshake–pat on the back. “Mike, you remember Isabel a?” Ben smiled at her and she smiled back. Ben almost never remembered to introduce her. He was just excited for her to meet JonBenét.
“Yeah, definitely. How’s it going?” Mike nodded to her. “And this is my girlfriend. You guys have met, right?”
Isabel a watched the tiny girl emerge from behind Mike. She was a pixie! Isabel a hadn’t even noticed her standing there. Al of her features were teeny; her hands and fingers were almost childlike. Isabel a stared at her. She couldn’t help it. It was JonBenét, and no one had been exaggerating about the resemblance. If anything, they hadn’t prepared her for this. Isabel a got goose bumps just being near her.
“Hi, Ben.” JonBenét had a raspy, breathy voice that made her sound like she’d just been running. “Wasn’t the wedding beautiful? I told Mike in the middle of it that if one more person from his fraternity gets engaged before us, I’m done!” She laughed and turned to Mike. “Right, baby?”
Mike ignored her. “You guys want to get over to the reception? It’s not supposed to start for another hour, but maybe we can convince the bartender to get us some drinks.”
“Yeah, sure,” Ben said. “You guys want to ride with us?”
Isabel a gave Mike shotgun so she could sit in the back with JonBenét. “Mike just got a new car,” she said to Isabel a. “And I said to him, What’s that? I can’t wear that on my finger.” She laughed and waved her left ring finger in the air.
Isabel a laughed and caught Ben’s eye in the rearview mirror. They smiled at each other.
The reception was at a country club in some New Jersey suburb. Isabel a felt like she’d been to a mil ion of these weddings. By now, they al blended together in a blur of fabric-covered chairs, pink napkins, and crab cakes. Isabel a looked around. The centerpieces made her sad.
“Isn’t this beautiful?” JonBenét said to them. She sounded dreamy, like she couldn’t believe her eyes. Mike put his hand on her back and she smiled up at him. He didn’t look at her. Isabel a had once seen a TV show cal ed Tarnished Tiaras that exposed the truth behind child pageants. It focused on one mother who offered spray tans to the little girls to make some money. She stared at JonBenét and wanted to ask her if she ever got a spray tan. But she stopped herself.
The bartenders were stil setting up. They looked up warily when they saw the four of them approaching. “Hey, man,” Ben said to one. He lifted his chin in a nod and the bartender did the same back. Isabel a was always amazed at how people just liked Ben immediately. Strangers in bars and people on the street treated him like an old friend. They welcomed him wherever he went. Isabel a didn’t even think he noticed. It was just the way things always were for him.
“You got any Red Bul ?” Ben asked. The bartender shook his head.
“Ben,” Isabel a said. “You can’t order that.”
“What are you, fifteen? We’re at a wedding.”
Ben rol ed his eyes. “Relax,” he said. “They don’t have it anyway.”
“But you can’t drink that at a wedding,” Isabel a explained.
“You have a lot of rules,” Ben said. “I’m going out for a cigarette.”
Isabel a ordered a white wine and stood by herself on the side of the room. She watched the bride and groom arrive and hoped that they wouldn’t come anywhere near her. They had no idea who she was.
When Ben final y came back, about ten minutes later, he was carrying a brown paper bag and smiling a proud smile. “What?” Isabel a asked.
“Red Bul ,” he said. “I got it at a convenience store down the street. Now I can just order vodka on the rocks. Pretty smart, huh?”
Somewhere after the dinner was served and before the cake was cut, Isabel a lost Ben. Everyone at their table was up dancing and mingling.
Isabel a sat there and drank wine. She felt like a fool.
JonBenét smiled at her from across the room and then walked over to the table. “Hey, Isabel a.”
“Hey,” Isabel a said. She was happy not to be sitting alone.
“Where did your date go?” JonBenét asked, smiling.
“Oh, I don’t … I don’t know. I haven’t seen him in a while.”
“He’s probably off somewhere with Mike getting into trouble. Boys can be such shits sometimes, right?”
Isabel a laughed. JonBenét was being very kind, but Isabel a found it hard to look at her straight on for too long. It made the hair on her arms stand up. She thought about the JonBenét footage that showed her in the swimsuit competition of the beauty pageant. She wished she had never seen that part of the documentary. It haunted her.
“So, how did you and Ben meet?” JonBenét asked.
“In a bar,” Isabel a said. Sometimes she tried to make the story a little better, to embel ish it with details. But she didn’t feel like it right then.
“Mike and I met at a wedding,” she said.
“Yeah, his cousin married one of my friends from col ege. It’s funny, isn’t it? The way things happen?”
Isabel a nodded. “Yeah, it is.”
How she met Ben could have been a cute story, Isabel a realized. If they ended up together, she could tel people, “That Ben! So impatient, so impish!” But for that to happen, Ben would have to be a different person. And he wasn’t. He was just a cocky boy who didn’t want to wait his turn.
That was al . He had to go to the bathroom. That was their story. The next time someone asked, “How did you meet?” Isabel a could say, “Ben had to pee.”
JonBenét chattered on about the different people at the wedding. She talked about her friend’s wedding that she was in next month. “The bridesmaid dresses are beautiful,” JonBenét assured her. Isabel a had never met someone so in love with weddings. She tried to picture JonBenét as a bride, but she kept seeing the real JonBenét, overly made up in a poofy dress.
Ben came back about twenty minutes later, and JonBenét stood up. “I should go find my prince.”
“Where have you been?” Isabel a asked. “I’ve been sitting here by myself for almost an hour.”
“Whadya mean, by yourself? There’s people al around.”
“These aren’t my friends, Ben. You just left me alone. Everyone’s been staring at me. I was sitting al by myself before she came over here.”
“So what? Are you mad because you had to hang out with crazy JonBenét?”
“She’s not that bad, Ben.”
“She’s crazy,” Ben said, like it was a fact. Like it was something everyone knew.
Isabel a felt bad for JonBenét, the way that everyone at the wedding was talking about her, like she was some kind of freak show. No one knew what went on in her relationship with Mike. No one even real y knew her. Maybe she loved Mike more than he liked her. And wasn’t that horrible?
Wasn’t that sad? But people forgot about that. They didn’t see a tragedy, just a good story. To them, it was just some girl they could point to and say, “Wel , at least my life isn’t as fucked up as that.”
“So what if she wants to get married?” Isabel a asked. “Why is that the worst thing in the world? It’s not such a crazy thought. She and Mike have been dating for a while. Isn’t it weirder that Mike is avoiding it?”
Ben shrugged. He took the straw out of his drink and downed the rest of it. “Why do you care?” he asked.
“I just think it’s mean the way that you and your friends treat her. I mean, what about Mike? If he doesn’t want to marry her, then why doesn’t he just break up with her?”
“Not everyone is dying to get married, Isabel a.”
“I’m not saying that everyone is. But she clearly wants to. And if he doesn’t want the same thing, then shouldn’t they just break up?”
“Why are you fighting with me?” Ben asked. She hated when he did this, when he turned things on her. He could act however and say whatever he wanted, and if she cal ed him on it, then she was the bad person who’d instigated the fight.
“I’m not fighting with you,” Isabel a said. She knew that the night was already gone. It was ruined. They should just leave now instead of indulging in an evening of arguments and accusations.
“Real y, wel , that’s what it feels like. I need a new drink,” Ben said, and walked away.
Ben loved this stupid game show cal ed Deal or No Deal. He loved the part when people had the chance to walk away with a ton of money and then made the wrong choice and left with nothing. It made him laugh out loud.
“Don’t you feel bad for them?” Isabel a would ask.
“No,” he always said. “They’re stupid. They deserve it.”
When Isabel a watched him laughing at those people, she felt like she was sitting next to the cruelest person in the world.
Less than a week after the wedding, Ben moved out. They had final y broken up, and it was just as awful as Isabel a thought it would be. She couldn’t sleep and so she stared into the darkness every night. She was alone, and she felt the aloneness in everything she did. But that was just at first. It went away after a while, or maybe she just stopped noticing it.
She never ran into Ben, although she always thought she saw him in a crowded bar or walking down the street. Her eyes played tricks on her everywhere she went. But that, too, went away and then the only time she real y thought about him was when she smel ed pot.
The weird thing was that long after she got over Ben, Isabel a thought about JonBenét. She couldn’t even recal the girl’s real name, and stil she entered her mind with alarming frequency. Isabel a remembered how she had laughed at JonBenét without real y knowing her and how kind the girl had been to her that night. She thought about how everyone gossiped about her behind her back and wondered if she knew. And mostly, Isabel a wondered if JonBenét was final y engaged or even married by now. She almost e-mailed Ben once, just to ask. Isabel a wished for JonBenét when she threw pennies into fountains, when she blew on eyelashes, and when the clock read 5:55. She wished for her that she was married. She wished for her that she had a beautiful wedding. She hoped she was happy.
A bby’s family was weird. She had, on some level, always known this, but as she got older it became much more clear. When Abby was four, her dad’s uncle died and left them al of his money—and there was a lot of it. Instead of using it to buy a house or a boat, like normal people, her parents bought a farm in Vermont and spent their days smoking pot and refurbishing antique furniture. Sometimes her dad cal ed her mom Lil’ Bit, and sometimes they let their friend Patches park his trailer on their property and live there. Yes, Abby’s parents were weird, her sister was even stranger, and the whole lot of them together was sometimes too much to bear.
Abby didn’t try to hide this information. In fact, it was usual y the first thing she told people. “My parents are weird,” she’d say, as soon as the topic of family came up. “They’re hippies,” she’d add. A lot of times, the people she was talking to would nod their heads like they understood and say, “I know, my parents are total freaks too.” If this happened, Abby had to explain further. “My parents grow pot,” she’d say. “My mom raises chickens for us to eat.” If this didn’t get a rise out of them, she’d say, “My dad once kidnapped the neighbor’s peacocks.” That usual y shut them up.
Abby wasn’t complaining when she told people this. She just wanted it out there. It was better, she’d learned, to tel people right up front, instead of waiting for them to ask questions like “What line of work is your dad in?” and having it al come out like that.
When Abby was thirteen, her parents sent her to boarding school. They talked about sending her to the local high school, they even entertained the idea of enrol ing her in the hippie high school that took place on a VW bus and drove around the country, to teach kids through real-life experience. But in the end, her parents decided on Chattick, a real y wel -known and snobby boarding school in Connecticut, where al the kids had parents who were lawyers or bankers, and everyone bought their chicken in grocery stores.
At boarding school, Abby learned to study. When she arrived that first year with a canvas bag of clothes and a homemade patchwork quilt for her bed, she knew she had her work cut out for her. She studied hard, taking notes on the silver link bracelets al the girls wore and the bright patterned duffel bags they carried home at the holidays. She made lists and bought these things for herself, quickly and quietly, so that no one remembered that she hadn’t had them before, no one knew that she looked any different than when she’d first gotten there. Sometimes she thought she should have been a spy.
By the time she was a freshman in col ege, she had it down. When she met her freshman roommate, Kristi, she appeared total y normal. But stil , she told Kristi about her family as soon as it was acceptable. Abby had perfected her five-minute rant about her parents, and she performed it wel .
Kristi laughed in al the right places, and Abby was sure that they would be friends.
And stil , Abby tried to keep her friends at a distance. She was quieter than the rest of them, always listening, always watching to see if there was something she was supposed to be doing. It was exhausting, but she knew the alternative was worse. By senior year, she had been to stay with the families of al of her col ege roommates. She’d been to Chicago and Philadelphia and even California, but she’d never invited anyone to Vermont.
She also discouraged her parents from coming up for Parents’ Weekend. “It’s no big deal,” she always said. “No one is real y coming.” This was a lie, of course, and she felt bad about that, but she didn’t have a choice. It was one thing to hear about her family. It was another thing to see them.
Kristi was the one who brought it up one weekend when most of their friends were out of town for one reason or another. “I’m so bored I could die,” Kristi said. She rol ed over onto her back and sighed. “I could literal y die.”
Their friend Isabel a laughed. “Don’t be dramatic or anything.”
“I’m serious,” Kristi said. “We can’t stay here this weekend. There’s nothing going on. Let’s do something.”
“What do you want to do?” Isabel a asked. Abby stayed quiet. They were in her room, which always put her on edge. After freshman year, wherever the group of them lived, Abby always got a single. It calmed her to at least have a place where she could go and shut the door and not have to worry about anyone watching her. She hated when they gathered in here.
“Let’s take a road trip,” Kristi said. She rol ed over and sat up. “I know! Let’s go to Vermont.” She pointed at Abby. “Come on, we’ve never been there. I want to see the farm.” She started bouncing up and down on Abby’s bed. “Come on! Please! Let’s go to the farm!”
“You guys, it’s so boring there,” Abby said. She tried to stay calm. “You think it’s boring here? You’l real y die there.”
But the girls kept insisting and Abby didn’t want to protest too much, in case that would seem weird, and so it wasn’t long before the three of them were in Kristi’s car on the way to Vermont.
Abby knew as soon as they arrived that it would be a disaster. Her mom answered the door with unbrushed hair, wearing thermal pants and a Tshirt. “Welcome, girls,” she said when they walked in. She hugged each of them, and Abby noticed that she wasn’t wearing a bra. “We’re so glad you could make it,” she said. “Leonard is off somewhere, but he’l be back for dinner.” The girls nodded and fol owed Abby upstairs with their bags.
They stared out the windows at the farmland, and Abby wished she’d grown up in a suburb.
Her dad never returned, and so they started dinner without him. “I just don’t know where he could be,” her mom kept saying. They were almost done eating when he got back. “Mary Beth, I need your help,” he said. Then he turned to look at the ful table and said, “Oh, hi, girls. Welcome to Vermont.” Isabel a and Kristi smiled at him and said, “Thanks for having us,” but he wasn’t listening.
“Dad, what’s going on?” Abby asked.
“The neighbors are neglecting their exotic birds,” her dad said. He stood in the doorway and stamped his feet on the welcome mat. “The neighbors are neglecting their exotic birds,” he repeated, and her mother just nodded, as though this was a normal thing to say. “I know,” she said.
“It’s so sad.”
“The neighbors have just let the birds out of the pen. They’re wandering al over the property and we need to get them. Mary Beth, can you help
me find a flashlight and a bag large enough to fit a peacock?”
Abby wanted to die. This was worse than she ever could have imagined. Isabel a and Kristi sat in silence and her mom got up to gather supplies.
“The neighbors have these birds,” Abby started to explain.
“Exotic birds,” her dad said.
“Right,” she said. “Exotic birds. And they aren’t taking care of them.” She turned to her dad. “Are you going to steal them?” she asked.
“No,” her dad said. “We’re just going to convince them to come here. Bob up the street is helping me.”
“Bob’s a vet,” Abby explained to Isabel a and Kristi. She felt like she was interpreting.
“We have to wait until it’s dark,” her dad said. “Peacocks are blind at night, so we can just put it in the bag and get it to the truck. The peahens are easy. They fol ow wherever the peacock goes. Did you know that?”
“Fun farm facts,” Abby said under her breath.
“Be careful,” her mom said. “I don’t want you to get arrested because of the peafowl.” Her dad nodded, took the bag, and he was gone. Abby looked at her friends and tried to think of something to say.
“Your parents are so cool,” Isabel a whispered to Abby later that night. They were lying in bed after smoking her dad’s pot on the back porch. Kristi was passed out in the other bed. Abby had offered them the pot as soon as they were done with dinner. It seemed the least she could do after the exotic bird hoopla.
“They real y aren’t,” Abby said. “They’re horrifying.”
Isabel a laughed. “That’s not true,” she said. “You just can’t see it because they’re your parents.”
“You wouldn’t feel that way if they were your parents,” Abby said. “Trust me.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But I think they’re great.”
When Abby stayed at Isabel a’s house, her mom made them spaghetti and meatbal s and they ate at the kitchen table with the whole family. They watched movies in the basement, and Abby slept in a guest room with a flowered comforter that matched the wal paper border in the room. Her mom wore a bra the whole time. It was the perfect weekend.
Later that night, Abby heard her dad’s truck drive up the road. She got up and went to the window. Isabel a got up and stood next to her. Kristi snored behind them. “What’s going on?” Isabel a asked.
“I think my dad has the birds,” Abby said.
They watched as he unlatched the back door to the truck and then stepped back and began making a series of loud noises.
“Oh my God,” Abby said. “He’s making bird noises.”
“How does he know how to do that?”
“He doesn’t.” But they watched as a peacock bobbed its way out of the truck and fol owed her dad to the pen.
“Oh!” Isabel a said. “Oh!” The two peahens hopped out after him. “Look at that,” she said. “Look at that, they’re fol owing him!”
They were both stil a little stoned, and they stared as the birds made their way to the new pen. Once they were there, the peacock opened up his feathers into a tal spray of blues and yel ows. The peahens stood on either side of him. They were pure white, which made his feathers seem brighter.
“Wow.” Isabel a sounded like she had just witnessed a miracle. Kristi snorted in her sleep.
“Don’t tel anyone about this, okay?” Abby asked her.
Isabel a nodded but didn’t take her eyes off the birds. “Okay, sure.”
Abby had asked her mom once why they’d sent her to the schools they had. Why couldn’t they have put her in public schools? “We just wanted you to get a good education,” her mom said. Abby found this a stupid reason. Didn’t they know she’d be al alone? Didn’t they know that as soon as they sent her away, she’d be separated from them and she could never real y go back? Didn’t they know that they couldn’t send her to those schools and walk into the kitchen and say, “The neighbors are neglecting their exotic birds,” and expect her to be okay with it?
When Abby met Matt, she knew that he was going to save her. He was the answer, of course, the thing that would make her real y normal. He worked at Morgan Stanley, was from a suburb of Boston, and liked the Red Sox. He was so normal that it made her heart pound.
“He’s a great catch,” Kristi said to her. Abby knew this before Kristi told her, and for once she didn’t care whether Kristi approved.
New York made Abby happy. This was, she thought, because she was not even close to the weirdest person there. Every day she was there, she started to relax a little more, and soon she wasn’t looking around at people wondering what they were thinking of her. She left the apartment without looking in the mirror a hundred times, and when she walked down the street and tripped a little, she wasn’t even embarrassed.
Abby and Matt moved in together after a few months of dating. “That’s real y quick,” Kristi said to her. But Abby didn’t care. And when they got engaged, she knew that al of her friends were surprised, but again she didn’t care. She was on her way to a normal life, and she wanted to get there as fast as she could.
Matt came to the house in Vermont only once. He’d met Abby’s parents twice before, when they came to the city for a visit. Out of their element, they could almost pass as normal. But after the engagement, Abby decided it was time to bring him home. She warned him that her parents were different in the house. “Abby,” he said, rol ing his eyes, “I get it, okay? I don’t care if your parents are nudists. I can handle it.”
“How did you know about the nudist part?” Abby asked him. He looked at her for a moment and then smiled. “You think you’re so funny, don’t you?” he asked. “Just relax. It wil be fine.”
Abby’s sister, Thea, came home for the weekend too. “I should meet your intended,” Thea told her on the phone.
“Sure,” Abby said. “I guess you should.”
Thea came home and brought her new baby girl, Rain. Thea and Rain lived on an organic farm in Vermont. “We work the farm and earn our keep,” Thea explained to Matt that night. She was breast-feeding Rain and let her breasts wag back and forth as she switched Rain to the other side. Abby could tel that Matt was trying hard not to look at them.
“Is this making you uncomfortable?” Thea asked him.
Matt shook his head. “No. No, this is fine.”
Thea smiled. “Breast-feeding is the most natural thing in the world, Matt. I forgot what it’s like with most people on the outside. At the farm, if Rain
is hungry and I’m not around, one of the other lactating mothers wil feed her.”
“What kind of farm does she live on?” Matt whispered to Abby in bed that night. They had shared a joint walking around the farm and now he was giggly. “That’s like Jim Jones shit,” he said. “Lactating mothers … what the hel is that?”
“So you don’t want to move there with me?” Abby asked, and he laughed.
“I’d move anywhere with you,” he said, sliding his arms underneath her shirt and around her stomach. He rested his head in her neck and she thought he was sleeping until she felt his shoulders shaking. “But I won’t drink the Kool-Aid,” he managed to get out above his laughter. He lifted his face to look at her. “Even for you, Abby. Even for you, I won’t drink the Kool-Aid from the lactating mothers.”
After Matt’s visit, Abby felt herself slipping back in time. It took her hours to pick out which shoes to wear, and when she final y did, she immediately regretted her choice. Her clothes seemed to fit differently, tight in places they never were before, too loose in others, and she pul ed at them, trying to figure out why they didn’t look right. “Do I look okay?” she asked more often. She stared at herself in the mirror until Matt grew impatient, tel ing her she looked fine when he wasn’t looking at her at al .
Abby couldn’t help what was happening. She needed Matt around al the time, felt confused when he was gone, fol owed him around the apartment, her toes hitting his heels when he stopped short. “Your wanting,” he said one night, “is overwhelming.” It sounded poetic, but Matt was not a poetic person. One night, she woke up holding a fistful of his shirt. Matt stared at her across the darkness, then shook his shoulders like a dog does when it’s wet, and rol ed over to face away from her. She knew he would be gone soon.
Three months after Abby woke up holding Matt’s shirt, she arrived alone at her parents’ house. As she pul ed into the driveway, she thought, “The neighbors are neglecting their exotic birds.” That was not unusual. Ever since the peacock incident, that sentence came into Abby’s head at the oddest of times. “The neighbors are neglecting their exotic birds,” she wanted to say when there was a lul at a dinner party or a friend told her that she was pregnant. And so she wasn’t surprised that on the night she came home to tel her parents that she wasn’t getting married, it was that thought that ran through her head: The neighbors are neglecting their exotic birds.
It was no stranger than what she had come to tel them: that the wedding was off, that Matt had moved out, and that they would probably not be able to get a refund on anything. She turned off the car and thought about her options. “The neighbors are neglecting their exotic birds,” she said out loud to no one. Her breath made little puffs of white in the winter air, and she sat in the car until it was too cold to bear, and then she walked inside the house.
“Mom, I’m not getting married,” Abby said as soon as she walked through the door. Her mother was reading a book on the couch, and she marked her place with her finger before she looked up.
“What?” she asked.
“I’m not getting married.” Abby made no move to take off her jacket or move farther into the room.
“Al right, then,” she said. “Why don’t you come on in, and we’l talk about it?” She put the book down on the couch and stood up. “Would you like some tea?” she asked. Abby nodded.
Abby’s mom didn’t even look surprised to see her. She’d driven al the way from New York, walked into the house unannounced, and her mom acted like she’d been expecting her. Abby had never been able to shock her mom. Once, in col ege, Isabel a had said, “Can you imagine if you had to tel your mom that you were pregnant?” She shuddered after she asked this and Abby made a sympathetic noise, but she couldn’t real y relate.
Abby could have told her mom that she’d been arrested for heroin possession while carrying on a lesbian affair, and she would have taken it in and then suggested that they talk about it.
“So, wil we stil have the party then?” her mom asked. They were sitting at the kitchen table with their tea, and it took Abby a minute to realize that she meant the wedding. She and Abby’s father were never official y married, of course, so maybe she thought they just decided to skip the legal part and live together forever.
“No, Mom,” Abby said. “No party, no wedding.”
“So you and Matt are …”
“Done. We broke up.” She nodded and blew on her tea.
“I’m sorry, honey,” she said. “That’s a shame.”
Abby wanted her to scream or cry or jump on the table. Tears of frustration came to her eyes, and she shut them tightly.
“Oh, sweet pea. Oh, Abby,” she said. “Come here.” Abby let her mother pul her onto her lap like she was a little girl. She cried for about two minutes and then felt like an idiot sitting on her mom’s lap, and so she got up and went back to her seat.
“I’m fine,” Abby said. “It was for the best.”
“Then this is the right thing to do,” she said.
“Mom, I don’t think we’l be able to get much money back,” Abby said. “It’s only three weeks away. I don’t know what they’l do.”
Her mom was already waving her hands at her. “That is not for you to worry about. Money is just money.” Abby wondered, not for the first time in her life, if her mom would stil think that money was just money if she didn’t have so much of it.
“I have to stay here for a couple of days while Matt moves his stuff out of the apartment,” Abby said.
“Of course,” she said. “Do you need help with anything else?”
“Not now,” Abby said. “But I have to start cal ing people soon, I guess, to tel them that the wedding is off. I guess that’s what I should do.”
“I can do that,” her mom said. “These things happen al the time. No big whoop. We’l get it al straightened out.”
“Thanks,” Abby said. “Can I have a real drink?”
“Sure, honey. Wine or vodka?”
“Vodka,” Abby said. “I think this cal s for vodka.”
The next morning, Abby walked downstairs to find her dad making eggs in the kitchen. He saw her and gave her a hug. “Your mom told me what happened, kiddo. I’m real y sorry about that,” he said.
“Do you want some eggs? Sunny side up or scrambled?”
“Sure,” she said. “Scrambled, I guess.”
Her dad nodded and turned back to the stove. He whistled while he cracked the eggs and beat them with a fork. “If you like, you can help me feed the birds when you’re done,” he said as he put the plate in front of her.
“Sure, Dad,” she said. She waited until he walked out of the kitchen, and then got up and scraped the eggs into the garbage.
Abby put on rubber boots that were by the back door, and borrowed her mom’s winter jacket. Stil in her pajamas, she slogged through the snow to the chicken coop. She thought about brushing her hair, but there was real y no need to. She pushed open the door to the coop and smel ed the coop smel of poo and bird dirt.
“Dad?” she cal ed.
“Back here, kiddo.”
She walked past the cages, wrinkling her nose at the dirty birds. Abby’s parents had started raising birds when she was twelve. “We eat so much poultry,” her mom explained. “And people are starting to talk about the way these birds are raised. This is much more humane, Abby. We know that the birds are fed right, and treated right.”
Her parents didn’t kil the birds themselves. They had someone come in and do it for them and prep the meat. Abby had never seen it happen, but less than a year after they built the coop, she stopped eating meat.
“Abby, don’t be ridiculous!” her mother would say. “This is good for you. This is delicious meat!”
“It makes me sick!” she’d say. And it did. The thought of chewing chicken in her mouth made her want to gag. When she tried to eat it, it refused to go down her throat. Once, she got a bite halfway down and then promptly threw up on her plate. “Fine,” her mom said after that. “You don’t have to eat chicken anymore.”
Abby’s dad was pouring seed from a bag into a trough. “Want to start feeding them?” he asked. She took a plastic pitcher they kept there and fil ed it with the feed. She poured the right amount into each of the birds’ feed bins. Every time a bird came clucking up to her, she stuck her tongue out at it.
Thea cal ed that afternoon. “I heard what happened,” she said. “Mom cal ed and left a message. That’s rough.”
“Yeah,” Abby said. “I guess you get out of your maid of honor duties, though.”
“I guess.” Abby could hear her light a cigarette and take a drag.
“Mom and Dad are being real y calm,” Abby told her. “It’s like nothing happened.”
“You know how they are,” she said, exhaling the smoke and choking just a little bit. “Plus, they never real y liked Matt.”
“Yes, they did.” Abby felt wounded to hear this.
“Oh, Abby. I don’t mean that they hated him. But you know. He wasn’t their type.”
“Why? Because he showered and wore clean clothes?”
“No, because he always thought he knew everything. You could sense it about him. Not that I minded him. He had a real y interesting energy.”
“Do you want to say hi to your niece? She’s right here.”
“Sure, put her on the phone.”
Abby heard rustling and then she heard Thea say, “Say hi to your aunt Abby. Tel her hel o!”
“Your mother is a moron,” Abby said into the phone, and then she hung up.
“We should go snowshoeing,” her mother said on the third day she was home. “It wil do you good to get out in the fresh air.”
“Okay,” Abby said.
“You’re so young,” her mom said as they trekked across the snow. “You’l see that this is for the best.”
“I’m twenty-five,” Abby said. “When you were my age, you already had Thea.”
“Wel , I wasn’t married.”
“So you think I should get pregnant?”
“Oh, Abby,” she said. “I hate to see you so sad.”
“Thea cal ed,” Abby said. “She told me that you and Dad never liked Matt.”
“That’s not true. We like anyone that you bring home. Anyone you like, we like.”
“But that’s not the same thing. Did you real y like him? Are you happy we’re not getting married?”
Her mom sighed. “Abby,” she said. “You have always known what you wanted. I never doubted you. But things happen for a reason, and if there was trouble, then yes, I am glad that you aren’t getting married.”
“I didn’t say there was trouble.”
“People don’t cal off weddings if everything is hunky-dory.” Her mom’s nose was dripping, and she wiped it with her glove. Abby looked down at the snow and pressed her weight forward on her snowshoes. “Come on,” her mom said. “We should get back. Your father wil be worried.”
Abby watched her mom pat her arm, but she couldn’t feel it through al the layers of clothes. She watched her go pat, pat, pat on her sleeve. Then her mom turned and started off ahead of her, stomping in the fresh snow. Abby waited until she was about ten steps in front of her, and then she fol owed.
Before Abby left New York to come home, she sent an e-mail to al of her friends that said: “The wedding is off. No one reason, just lots of little ones. I’l explain more later. Abby.”
She was sure her friends had been cal ing and e-mailing, but she didn’t get any cel service at her parents’ house. For once, she was relieved.
Usual y it drove her crazy, and she would stand on chairs and hold the phone up in the air to try to get some sort of signal. “Come on!” she would say to the phone. “Give me something.”
This time, Abby hadn’t even taken her phone out of her bag. She knew she’d eventual y have to go back to New York and face it. She would have to see her friends and drink vodka and listen to them tel her that it was for the best, that she’d be happier in the long run. She would exhaust herself, going out almost every night, deconstructing every part of her relationship with Matt until it wasn’t hers anymore. She would do it, but just not yet.
“We can stil live together,” Matt said, after he told her about the wedding.
“No,” Abby said. “No, we can’t.”
Abby’s parents didn’t have cable, so she watched old movies until she thought she could fal asleep. She read the books that were left in her room: Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, A Day No Pigs Would Die , and Bridge to Terabithia . She didn’t remember them being so sad. They were al so sad.
Abby didn’t want her mind to be free for even a second. Because when it was, she heard Matt saying, “Abby, I don’t know about the wedding.”
“What don’t you know?” she asked him.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” he said. He didn’t even sound mean when he said it. Actual y, he sounded nice and a little apologetic. Like he was sorry for what he was doing. Like he was sorry for ruining her life.
When she didn’t feel like reading anymore, she wrote. She made lists of things to do when she got back to the city. A list of things to buy for the apartment now that Matt was gone. A list of shows that she could watch now that he wasn’t there. She wrote down names of people who had been through worse things than this: her aunt Eda, the war widow; her friend Crystal, whose parents were kil ed in a car crash; Helen Kel er; Baby Jessica.
When she tried to go to sleep, her head was fil ed with the weird things people had said to her. She lay and listened to them, and then final y she got up to write them down. She thought maybe if she got them on paper, they would stop bothering her. She got out a pad of paper. The neighbors are neglecting their exotic birds, she wrote. Then, I won’t drink the Kool-Aid. Then, It’s a more humane way to kill birds. Then, We can still live together. Then, I’m not getting married. She read these over again and again, until the sentences didn’t mean anything. Then she closed her eyes and fel asleep.
Abby woke up to the sound of a child screaming and sat up in bed with her heart pounding. She’d been having a nightmare, but she couldn’t remember what it was about. She walked downstairs, and found her mom peering out the kitchen window.
“It’s the peacock,” she said, without turning around. “He’s been getting noisier. One of the peahens is sick, and we think he’s upset.”
The peacock bleated and bobbed around the pen, and the peahens fol owed. One of the peahens was slower than the other one, and she limped as she tried to keep up.
“Why is she fol owing him like that?” Abby asked. “Why doesn’t she just take care of herself?” It made her angry, that stupid fucking bird, using al of her strength to waddle after him.
Her mom shrugged. “If we knew that,” she said, “we could solve al the mysteries in the world.”
Abby watched the peacock raise his feathers, and they were beautiful. The peahens raised their feathers too, but they were shorter and not nearly as magnificent, which seemed unfair. The peahens waddled around, fol owing the peacock wherever he went. He couldn’t see in the night, so he wandered aimlessly in the pen. Go the other way, she wanted to scream at the gimpy peahen. Stop worrying about where he’s going and just rest.
It seemed to Abby that the peacock was strutting, showing off his feathers to an invisible audience in the night. It didn’t look like he was worried about the peahen. He looked selfish and self-absorbed, like he knew he was beautiful. Abby watched his feathers blow in the wind, and she watched as the peahens fol owed with al of their strength. They fol owed because it was al they had ever done; they fol owed because it was al they knew how to do.
W hen Isabela waitressed in colege, she saw customers come in for blind dates al the time. “Has a man named Stuart come in yet?” they would ask. Or “Is there someone here who’s waiting for a Jessica?” When Isabel a would shake her head, they would look around nervously. “I’m meeting someone,” they would explain, and she would nod. “Someone,” Isabel a would think. “Someone that you don’t know.”
Isabel a always felt bad for these people, wandering into a restaurant, looking for something but not knowing what it was. “How sad,” she always thought to herself. “How sad and a little pathetic.” She remembered this as she agreed to go on her first blind date. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,”
she said to Lauren.
“You promised,” Lauren said. “You have to.”
It was the summer of yes—that’s what Isabel a and Lauren decided. “We’re going to say yes to every invitation that comes our way,” they told each other. “We’re going to be positive, and put positive energy out there, and then we wil meet someone.”
Mary decided that she would be a spectator for the summer of yes. She was studying for the bar exam and made it clear that she couldn’t say yes to anything. “I’m going to have to pass,” she said. “But I total y support you guys.”
“You think we’re crazy, don’t you?” Lauren asked.
“Maybe a little,” Mary said. “But it can’t hurt to say yes, can it? Plus, if you get Isabel a to go on a date, then it wil al be worth it.”
“That’s what I was thinking!” Lauren said.
“You guys, I’m right here,” Isabel a said.
“Yeah,” they said, “we know.”
Isabel a hadn’t dated anyone since Ben moved out. “Get back out there!” her friends kept saying. Isabel a didn’t want to.
“Get back on the horse,” her sister, Mol y, told her.
“You get back on the horse,” Isabel a said to her.
“Nice,” her sister said. “Very mature.”
Her cousin suggested online dating. “That’s how I met Roy,” she said. Roy was a dentist with a beak for a nose, and he slurped his spit whenever he talked. “Wow,” Isabel a said. “I’l think about that.”
“I think I miss Ben,” she told Lauren one night.
“No, you don’t,” Lauren said.
“But sometimes, I real y think I do.”
Lauren sighed. “Isabel a, you miss the essence of a boy. That’s al .”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. It’s better that he’s gone. He was a pothead, remember?”
“What are you?”
“I’m a pot enthusiast,” Lauren explained.
“Right,” Isabel a said.
Isabel a had never lived alone before, not real y, anyway. She’d gotten her own place years ago, but Ben was there almost every night, and then he moved in. Now that he was gone, it was just her and the dust bal s.
Sometimes she talked out loud just to hear her voice. She missed having someone there to discuss what to eat for dinner. “I think I’l make a tuna sandwich,” she would say to no one. “Or maybe a veggie burger,” she would tel the couch.
She started sleeping with the television on at night. It blared reruns and gave her strange dreams. One night she woke up to a pop! and the TV
screen was black. She sat up in bed and looked around. The air smel ed like electrical burning, so she unplugged the TV and tried to go back to sleep.
“I could’ve died,” Isabel a said to Mary the next day. “It could have exploded and started a fire al over the place.”
“I think you would have woken up,” Mary said.
“I wonder what happened.”
“I kil ed the TV,” Isabel a explained. “I was too needy.”
“You have to meet my friend Jackson,” her coworker told her. “He’s an accountant, he loves to go wine tasting, and he’s a ton of fun.”
“Okay,” Isabel a said. “Yes, okay.”
Her coworker arranged it so that Isabel a and Jackson would meet at a bar and then go to a Mets game. “You are going to have so much fun!”
her coworker told her. Isabel a smiled and felt sick inside. “Oh, one more thing, just so you aren’t surprised,” her coworker said. “Jackson is a little bit bigger than most guys.”
“Okay,” Isabel a said. “Thanks for the heads-up.”
It turned out that Jackson was, in fact, obese. And by the third inning, he was so drunk that Isabel a couldn’t understand him. He yel ed at the guy in front of him for standing up, he yel ed at the beer man for being too slow, and he yel ed at the hot dog guy for running out of relish.
“What about me says, Set me up with an obese person?” Isabel a wailed to Mary and Lauren later that night. She had made it through the game and then gone to chug wine at Lauren’s apartment.
“Nothing,” Mary said firmly. “Nothing about you suggests that you should date an obese person.” Lauren nodded in agreement.
“Your coworker is obviously an idiot. Or an asshole,” Lauren said. “I’m not sure which, but she’s one of them.”
“You guys, I mean he was real y fat. Seriously.” She took a Kleenex and blew her nose. “Great,” she said. “I’m the meanest person. I date fat people, and now I’m obviously going to hel .”
Isabel a’s friend from high school came to visit. Kerry Mahoney was a chipper blonde who wanted everyone to be married. “I am total y setting you up with my cousin,” she said. “He’s cute and fun, and you guys total y have the same sense of humor. I’m going to give him your number, and maybe you guys can get together next week.”
“Yes,” said Isabel a. “Can I see a picture of him? Okay, yes.”
Isabel a walked into Mexican Radio and looked around for someone who matched the picture she had seen. A boy with brown hair was at the bar, sipping a giant frozen pink drink with mango floating on top. He looked at her and smiled and she smiled back. “Isabel a?” he said in a singsong voice, tilting his head to the right.
“Hey-a,” she said. She meant to say hi, but it came out wrong. It was just that she was shocked that she was on a date with a gay man.
“First obese and then gay,” she said to Lauren later that night.
“At least it wasn’t both at once,” Lauren said.
“Are you ever afraid that you aren’t going to meet anyone?” Isabel a asked Lauren one night. They were finishing their last drinks at the bar, and Isabel a final y asked the question she’d been thinking for a while now. She didn’t want to say it out loud. She was embarrassed that she even thought it, and waited for Lauren to lecture her about being a strong woman. Instead, Lauren finished her drink, crushed an ice cube in her teeth, and said, “Al the time.”
“I’m exhausted,” Lauren said. She was on two kickbal teams, a softbal team, and was an alternate for a beach vol eybal league. “I have scabs al over my legs,” she said, pul ing up her pants. “Look! Look at this!”
“I don’t think the summer of yes should be taken so literal y,” Isabel a said. “It’s not like you have to do everything people ask.”
“Yes, I do,” Lauren said. “That’s what I set out to do, and now I have to fol ow through. I just didn’t know that everyone was going to ask me to be on so many intramural teams. Am I that athletic?”
“Not real y.”
“I didn’t think so.”
Isabel a met a guy sel ing art at a street fair on the Upper East Side. “I’m just trying to make a living doing what I do,” he said. “I’m trying to perfect my craft.”
He was handsome, and so when he asked her to hang out, she said okay. “I wil ignore his weirdness,” she told herself. “I wil not be judgmental.
This is the summer of yes.” She gave him her number and he cal ed the next day.
“A friend of mine from art school is having a party in Greenpoint. You want to go? You can bring some of your girls if you want.”
“Yes,” Isabel a said. She hung up and went to Lauren’s apartment to beg her to come with.
“Please?” she asked. “Please? For the sake of the summer of yes?”
“Fine,” Lauren said. “But if anyone there asks me to play on any teams, then I’m saying no.”
“Fair enough. Oh, and it’s also a costume party,” Isabel a said quickly.
Lauren stared at her. “What kind of costume party?”
“Um, so Kirk kind of explained it as that—wel , um, okay. So, what everyone is going to do is dress up as their spirit animal.”
“Isabel a, are you serious?”
“Yeah. He kind of sprung it on me at the end.”
“He sounds like a freak,” Lauren said.
“Yeah, he might be.”
“I hate the summer of yes,” Lauren said.
“I don’t think I have a spirit animal,” Isabel a said.
Lauren ended up making out with a guy at the party who was wearing a green sweatsuit and shamrock antlers. “What are you?” Lauren asked him when they walked in.
“I’m the spirit animal of St. Patrick’s Day,” he said.
“That’s real y stupid,” she answered.
“That’s what I’m going for,” he said. Twenty minutes later, they were grinding on the dance floor and Lauren was wearing his shamrock antlers.
Kirk was dressed up as a deer. “I’m gentle inside,” he told Isabel a. She wanted to hit him with a car.
“What are you?” he asked her.
“A bunny,” she said.
“That’s your spirit animal?”
“No, it’s just the costume I had.”
“Isabel a, do you mind if I make an observation?”
“Go for it.”
“You strike me as a closed-off person.”
“That’s too bad,” Isabel a said. She watched Lauren and tried to gauge how much longer she would have to stay.
“Would you like to have dinner with me?” Kirk asked.
Isabel a thought for a moment. “Absolutely not,” she said.
Isabel a decided to quit her job at the mailing-list company. “I don’t even understand what I do,” she would say when people asked her to explain her job. “I organize lists, okay?”
The thing about this job was that Isabel a was good at it. She had been promoted three times since she’d started. “I am now an account manager,” she told Mary. “I am an account manager of a mailing-list company.”
“It’s a good job,” Mary said. “Your salary is decent, the hours aren’t bad. It’s a good job.”
“I hate it.”
“Then you should quit. If you real y hate it, you should quit. But you should do it now. You’ve been saying that you hate it for a long time, but the longer you wait, the harder it wil be to leave.”
“I want to work at a publishing house,” Isabel a said.
“Then you better get on it,” Mary said.
Isabel a nodded. She hadn’t updated her résumé in five years. It took her a week to find the file, and when she did, she realized that she should just start over. “The last thing on my résumé is an internship at Harper’s Bazaar, ” she said, looking at the piece of paper.
“You have to do it sometime,” Mary said. “Just get it over with.”
Isabel a sent out e-mails to every single person she knew who might have a contact in publishing. She typed cover letters and perfected her résumé. She hounded the HR departments of every publishing house she could think of. She did not get one single interview.
“Why did I waste al this time?” Isabel a moaned to Lauren one night. “Why didn’t I do this two years ago?”
Lauren didn’t say anything, and it didn’t matter. Isabel a already knew the answer. She hadn’t noticed how much she hated her job when she was with Ben. He distracted her from the misery of list sel ing. And now, it just glared in her face.
“I wil probably end up running the fucking company,” Isabel a said. “I wil probably be the best list compiler and maker in the whole world. And I’l have Ben to thank for it.”
“That should be your acceptance speech,” Lauren said.
Mary cal ed her, out of breath. “My brother’s friend Andrew works at Cave Publishing, and he said that they need a new assistant. I have the e-mail of the woman who’s doing the interviews, so e-mail her right now. Okay? Are you ready? I’l read it to you now.”
“An assistant?” Isabel a asked. At the list company, she had her own assistant.
“Isabel a,” Mary said, with warning in her voice.
“Just take the e-mail and send her your résumé. You have to start somewhere, okay?”
Isabel a sweated through the entire interview. Her upper lip had never been so wet, and she was sure she wouldn’t get the job. She assured the woman that she wouldn’t mind starting over as an assistant, that she wouldn’t mind a pay cut, and that she was eager to learn.
The woman took notes as Isabel a talked. “I real y want to make a change,” Isabel a said. “I’m not chal enged at my current job, and I’ve always wanted to get into publishing.” Isabel a hoped she sounded desperate enough, but not pathetic.
She got the job and was offered a salary that was about half of what she was making. “So, I’l eat macaroni and cheese a lot,” she said, trying to convince herself. Her parents told her they would help her out at the beginning. Isabel a wished she could say, “No thanks, I’l make it work!” but her new salary barely covered her rent, so she just said, “Thanks. Hopeful y it won’t be too long.”
At her old job, people had treated Isabel a like she was a savant. “So organized!” they would crow when they walked by her office. “So efficient!”
they would cry when she doled out tasks. Now she sat in a cubicle that was covered in paper. “I don’t even know what to do with most of it,” Isabel a admitted to Mary. “They keep handing me stuff, and I literal y don’t know what to do with it.”
“You’l get the hang of it,” Mary said. “Give yourself a break. It’s only been a few weeks.”
At night in her apartment, Isabel a talked out loud more often. “I’m tired,” she said to the TV. “It’s exhausting having no idea what you’re doing al day,” she told the rug. “I think I’m just going to order Chinese,” she confessed to the coffee table, while lying on the couch.
“Maybe you should get a dog,” Lauren suggested. “Or a cat.”
“Lauren, if you ever tel me to get a cat again, we are not friends anymore. Okay?”
“Touchy, touchy,” Lauren said. Then she considered it and said, “That’s fair.”
“I met a guy,” Lauren told her. “He’s great.” Isabel a immediately hoped that it wouldn’t work out, and then felt awful about that. Lauren was her friend, but she didn’t want to be the last single one standing.
“Come out with us tonight,” Lauren said. “He’s going to bring some friends. What do you say?”
“Yes,” Isabel a said.
Isabel a walked into the bar, and Lauren rushed up to her. “So, none of his friends could make it. Sorry! But I want you to meet him.” She grabbed Isabel a’s hand and pul ed her over to the table. “This is Brian,” she said, and Isabel a was relieved. He looked like Bert from Sesame Street—no, he looked like Bert with pockmarked skin. Isabel a smiled. “It’s so nice to meet you.”
Isabel a sat and drank her vodka soda, while Lauren and Bert held each other in long hugs. “How’s the new job?” Lauren asked, with her face in Bert’s shoulder.
“Great,” Isabel a said. “Everything I hoped.”
Isabel a’s new boss was cal ed Snowy. She had a skunk stripe in her hair and was frighteningly skinny. Sometimes when she walked down the hal , Isabel a was sure her legs were going to pop right off, like a Barbie dol ’s. Snowy was only ten years older than Isabel a, and a star in the publishing world. When Isabel a started, Snowy told her that she wanted to be a mentor, not a boss. “I want to help you learn, to help you become a star here.”
Snowy had two assistants, and Isabel a was hired to be the second one. The first assistant was a twenty-two-year-old named Cate, with shiny brown hair and an amazing wardrobe. The day Isabel a started, Cate took her to lunch at a fancy French place and used Snowy’s credit card. “I used to be the second assistant, but the first girl left because she said Snowy was impossible to work for,” Cate told her.
“Is she?” Isabel a asked.
Cate shrugged. “I mean, yeah, she’s a nightmare. But don’t worry. Just do your job and try not to get upset when she yel s.”
“Okay,” Isabel a said. They went back upstairs and Cate showed Isabel a how to do Snowy’s expenses.
That night, when Mary asked Isabel a how work was, she said, “Today, I got career advice from a twenty-two-year-old.”
“It’l get better,” Mary said.
“God, I hope so.”
About three times a day, Snowy dropped a pile of little scrap papers and Post-its on Isabel a’s desk. They had handwritten notes on them, most of which made no sense. “Here,” Snowy would say as she gave them to her, “file these.” Isabel a, unsure of what to do with the notes, typed them up and kept the originals in a file folder, in case Snowy ever asked for them. One time, Isabel a found a Kleenex in the pile of papers. “What am I supposed to do with this?” she asked Cate.
Cate just wrinkled her nose and said, “Gross.”
One morning, Snowy dropped a manuscript on Isabel a’s desk. “Why don’t you read this and get back to me?” Isabel a held it with both hands on the subway home, afraid that she was going to lose it. She stayed up most of the night, reading it and writing out notes. Everything she wrote sounded stupid. The main character is too one-dimensional, she wrote. Then she crossed it out. The main character does not have enough depth, she wrote instead. “At one point in my life, I was smart,” she thought.
In the morning, Isabel a’s head and eyes hurt. When she went into Snowy’s office to drop off the manuscript, she thought she was going to wet herself. She felt homesick for the list company, just for a second, and then handed her notes to Snowy. When Snowy handed them back to her later, Isabel a could see that she’d crossed out almost every note Isabel a had written. No, she’d written in mean red pen. Not clear enough.
“You’l get the hang of it,” she told Isabel a. Isabel a went to the handicapped bathroom and cried for ten minutes. Then she got up, splashed her face with water, and went back to her desk. Cate smiled at her sadly.
Cave Publishing was closed the last week of August, and Isabel a decided to go home. Her mom had suggested it, and Isabel a almost wept with relief when she did. She was tired of getting Snowy coffee. She was tired of having Snowy tel her that she was doing her job wrong. She was tired of the name Snowy.
“That would be great, Mom,” Isabel a said. She was looking forward to having someone cook for her. She could stay in sweatpants al day if she wanted.
“Oh, that wil be fun!” her mom said. “Plus, you can help out with Connor. I’m sure he’l love to see you.”
Isabel a’s nephew Connor was spending most of the summer at her parents’ house. He had been asked to leave camp after he screamed at a counselor for changing the schedule. Apparently, the Guppies were supposed to have free swim after crafts, and the unassuming teenager had tried to mix it up and take them to archery instead. Connor flipped out and charged the counselor, head-butting him and screaming, “You idiot
asshole!” The head of the camp thought that Connor showed signs of “unusual aggression,” and that it would be better if he didn’t come back to camp. With no backup child-care plan for Connor, Joseph had asked his parents for help.
“I didn’t know you could get kicked out of camp,” Isabel a said to her mother.
“I didn’t know either,” her mom said. “But it would be great if you were here to spend some time with him. He’s a little difficult these days.”
Every morning at eight-thirty, Isabel a’s brother dropped Connor off. Joseph was balding at a rapid rate. He looked old and tired to Isabel a. He was probably upset, but he appeared formal and detached; that’s how he always was. “Good morning, Isabel a,” he would say. Then he would bend down to talk to Connor, who scowled and remained silent.
Connor had been tested for every behavioral abnormality under the sun and had been diagnosed with some frightening acronyms. Now they were working with a therapist to “overcome his chal enges.” He was odd. Isabel a couldn’t deny that. But she’d always had a fondness for Connor.
He was her oldest nephew and always told her she was his favorite aunt. He always chose to sit next to her. He was sensitive. (Plus, his mother had run off with a man she’d met on the Internet, leaving Connor and his sister with their dad. You had to cut the kid some slack.) Last Thanksgiving, Connor made up a game. He would draw a box, then draw three objects. “Okay,” he’d say. “You’re locked in a room with a gun, a bomb, and a phone. What do you do?” No one else but Isabel a would play the game.
“What would you do, Auntie Iz?” Connor asked.
“I would use the phone to cal outside,” Isabel a said. “I would warn them to get away, then I would blow a hole in the wal with the bomb and have the gun just in case anyone dangerous was out there.”
Connor looked pleased with her answer, and said quickly, “Okay, good one.” He nodded his head four times. Then he started drawing another room with three new objects.
Al week, Isabel a tried to keep Connor occupied. She took him swimming, she took him to play tennis. They went to see a movie, and went to check out books at the library. But on the last day Isabel a was there, they ran out of things to do. They sat in the playroom, staring at each other.
“Do you want to play a game, Auntie Iz?” Connor asked. Isabel a didn’t, but she said yes.
“Okay, so here’s the game. It’s cal ed Deaf or Blind. So first, you tel me if you would rather be deaf or blind.”
“Blind,” Isabel a said. Connor looked annoyed. He was holding earplugs he’d found in her dad’s room.
“You should choose deaf,” he said. “It’s better.”
“But I want to make sure I can stil hear music. I’m going to choose blind.”
Connor shook his head like he couldn’t believe she was making this choice. “Okay,” he said, “hold on.” He went over to the dress-up chest and rummaged around for a while, until he found a bandanna that had once been part of a cowboy costume.
“You know,” he said, “it’s a lot scarier to be blind.” Isabel a nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. I’ve never picked blind before. It seems scary.”
“I think I’l be okay,” Isabel a said.
“Are you scared?” he asked.
“Just a little bit, but not too much.” Connor looked at her with admiration.
He stood behind her and wrapped the bandanna around her eyes and then tightened it. Isabel a saw the blackness, and then, as he pul ed it tighter, bursts of light started to explode. “You can’t see, right? Auntie Iz, you can’t see anything, right?” Isabel a shook her head no.
“Okay,” he said. “Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to go in another room and you have to count to a hundred and then come find me. You can cal my name three times. Wait, no, only two times. If you cal my name three times, then you lose points, okay? And I’l answer you so that you can try to hear where I am.”
“Got it,” Isabel a said.
“Okay. This is hard, though, Auntie Iz. You have to listen with your insides. You can listen in a way that you didn’t before. Okay?”
Connor walked out of the room and then Isabel a heard him stop. “But Auntie Iz? If you get scared or fal down, you can take it off, okay? That’s okay.” Isabel a nodded. She felt Connor touch her eyes softly. “You real y can’t see, right? Okay, here we go.”
Isabel a heard him run out of the room and shout, “Okay, go!” She was counting to one hundred in her head, and then she heard him say, “Auntie Iz, you have to count out loud!” So she started over. “One, two, three, four,” she said, and then she heard him scream, “Slower!” so she slowed down.
She heard a door slam downstairs and then voices. Her mother was talking to Connor. Isabel a could tel that he was frustrated that she was interrupting the game. Then she heard her brother’s voice. They were talking to Connor like he was younger than he real y was, and Isabel a felt bad for him. She hadn’t noticed how their voices changed when they talked to him. She heard them ask him about where she was.
“No,” she heard him say. “No, you can’t get Auntie Iz now. She can’t come in here yet. She’s blind,” and Isabel a was struck by how he said that last word. He said it like he was proud of her for choosing the blindness, like he was amazed that she would choose not to see.
She could hear Connor’s voice start to rise. His pitch got higher and his volume louder as he said, “No, you said three-thirty and it’s only three o’clock. I’m not ready. I’m not finished.” Isabel a knew that he was shaking his head as he said this, tightening his arms and shaking them back and forth with quick, little movements. She had seen him work his way into a fit a number of times in the past week, but now she just listened.
“I’m not done, I’m not ready!” he said. “Izzy is stil blind, and I didn’t know you were coming yet. I’m not done! I’m not done!”
Isabel a listened to him as he shrieked so high and loud that she knew the neighbors could hear. “This isn’t how it was supposed to go!” he yel ed. She listened to her mother and brother try to quiet him down, try to plead with him to settle himself. But he didn’t. Connor screamed with al of his might. He fought against it with everything he had. Al he wanted was to know what to expect. His world didn’t look like he’d thought it would, and she understood. How could he keep calm if he couldn’t see? Isabel a lay on the floor of the playroom upstairs and listened. She heard the screams and she knew exactly how he felt. He was right—she could hear it on her insides.
T he bartender at McHale’s was sleazy in an attractive way. This annoyed Lauren. She couldn’t make sense of it. She was disgusted with Preston, yet stil happy whenever he threw a lime at her from behind the bar. “He’s gross,” she tried to explain to her friends. “He has dirty blond hair that he slicks back behind his ears with little curls at the end. It always looks greasy. His eyes are a filmy blue, like he’s thinking pervy things. And he has this big scar on his chin that I just always want to touch.”
“So he’s dirty sexy,” her friend Shannon said.
“Yes!” Lauren said. “But why?”
“Dirty sexy can’t real y be explained,” Shannon said. “It’s kind of like ugly sexy. Only you feel worse about it because you think you should be above the sleaze.”
Lauren felt better for the explanation, but it stil unsettled her to be around him. “I wil not sleep with him,” she told herself. Two weeks after she started working there, she stayed with Preston to have a drink after work and found herself having sex with him in the walk-in fridge. One second she was drinking a vodka soda, and the next thing she knew there was a bin of lettuce shaking above her head. She couldn’t serve a salad for weeks without feeling trashy.
“So much for that,” she said to Shannon. Shannon just shrugged.
Lauren was sure that Preston was not the right guy for her. But stil , she found herself in his bed. She lay behind him and sucked his blond curls when he was sleeping. She knew it couldn’t end wel .
Lauren was almost out of money when she decided to be a waitress. She had been looking for PR jobs in New York for a month and hadn’t even gotten an interview. So she started applying at bars in SoHo and gastropubs in the West Vil age. (She figured if she was going to be a waitress, she would like to do it in a place where she might see famous people.) But none of those places wanted her. It turned out that being a waitress in New York was more competitive than being in PR. Aspiring models and actresses flooded every restaurant, elbowing one another with bony arms to win the right to serve food. Lauren didn’t have a chance.
A friend suggested that she apply at McHale’s, an old-fashioned restaurant in Midtown with a wood-paneled dining room and a meatloaf special on Wednesdays. McHale’s was the kind of place that made people nostalgic for a time when businessmen drank at lunch and people ate pot roast on Sundays. It had a bar with red leather stools and a mean vodka gimlet. They offered Lauren a job the day she walked in and she took it.
And just like that, Lauren was a waitress. It was only temporary, of course. It was just an in-between job, something to make money while she was looking for her next move. She could tel that it made the customers happy when she told them this. They were more comfortable once they knew that Lauren had plans. She was just too pretty, too charming to simply be a waitress.
Lauren figured she would work at the restaurant for three months, maybe six months max. But a year went by and she was stil there. She stopped sending résumés out to PR firms. She couldn’t even remember what she thought she had wanted to be.
At the very least, Preston was a distraction from the detour her career had taken. He wasn’t a big talker, and Lauren found herself fil ing up the silence when they were together. That was how she came to tel him the story of the ham.
In her high school biology class, Lauren dissected a pig. Each pair of students got their very own formaldehyde-soaked piglet to cut up. As they sliced and dismembered the little porkers, the teacher told them different facts about the pig’s stomachs and reproductive organs. He walked over to Lauren’s pig and pointed to the rump. “This is where ham comes from,” he told her. Lauren looked up. “Ham comes from pigs?” she asked.
“Doesn’t ham come from a ham?” Everyone laughed. As soon as the question was out of her mouth, she knew it wasn’t right. A ham wasn’t an animal, of course. She was only confused for a second or two. But the thing was, she knew what the ham would look like if there was such a thing.
She could picture it perfectly, as though she had actual y seen it before.
She told Preston this story when they were lying in bed together. She didn’t know why she told him. Lauren hated the story, hated explaining how she’d thought a ham was an oval-shaped hunk of an animal that slurped across the ground. “You know,” she said, “I thought it would be a ham.” As she said this, she moved her hands in an oval motion. “A ham, ” she emphasized, as though this would explain it.
Preston laughed so hard that he cried. “Did you think it had just that one bone?” he asked. “I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I didn’t think about it.”
He held his stomach and rocked back and forth. “Ow,” he said, wrapping his arms around himself. “Ow, it hurts! I can’t stop!”
A week after that, he woke up and said, “I don’t think this is going to work.” She was stil in his bed in a T-shirt and underwear and didn’t know what to say. Immediately she felt sorry for the ham—it had been a mistake to tel him about it. That much she knew.
After Preston broke up with her, Lauren started going to the park during the day. Al of her friends worked in offices and she couldn’t stand to be in her apartment alone. She would go to the park and lie on the grass, waiting for the day to be over so that she could start her shift at the restaurant.
She liked watching the clouds. She liked the way they always kept moving, even if it was so slowly that you couldn’t tel which way they were going.
Lauren bought a book about weather and learned the names of the clouds. She would chant them under her breath as she looked up: “Cumulus, stratus, cirrus, pileus.” She learned everything she could about clouds to fil up her time. She learned that cirrus was a Latin root meaning curl of hair. “Cirrus,” she’d whisper, standing behind Preston, staring at his hair. “What?” he’d say. “Nothing,” she’d answer. Her favorite cloud was cumulonimbus. It sounded like a magic word. It sounded like something dirty.
Her friends were concerned that she was going crazy. “You should quit your job,” Shannon told her.
“Yeah,” Isabel a agreed. “Don’t make yourself sick over this guy. He’s just a dirty bartender.”
“A dirty sexy bartender,” Lauren said.
Shannon nodded sadly. “Yeah, he is. You should definitely quit.”
Preston walked in late for the lunch shift and slid behind the bar to start cutting fruit. Lauren raised her eyebrows at him from across the room, where she was rol ing silverware. “You’re late,” she said to him.
“Real y, my dear?” Preston asked. “I thought I was right on time.” Preston was a person who got away with saying things like “my dear” to girls he’d just dumped. Lauren hated him for this.
“Late night?” Lauren asked. “You look like shit.” Preston laughed because he knew he didn’t and tucked in his shirt.
Carly, the other waitress, burst in and threw her bag down before running to the bathroom. On Lauren’s first day of work, Carly had told her that she had a tattoo of a lawn mower on her pubic bone. “See, the lawn mower is right here,” she said, touching the space right above her crotch. “And then I shave the hair in front of it to make it look like it mowed a path. Upkeep’s a bitch, but guys love it. Want to see it?”
“No thanks,” Lauren said. “Maybe another time.”
Lauren was sure that she would die young. Maybe she would get a tumor or die in a freak subway accident. More likely, she would be murdered by a serial kil er. Dateline would do a special and interview everyone at the restaurant. “She was a pretty nice girl,” Carly would say. Maybe she would offer to show the cameraman her tattoo. Preston would pretend to be upset, but would real y be excited at the thought of being on TV. “We dated,” he would tel them. “She was a special girl,” he would say, and then look down for dramatic effect.
People who knew Lauren from col ege would watch this and wonder what the hel happened to her. They would ask each other why Lauren was hanging out with Ms. Lawn Mower Tattoo and Mr. STD Bartender. They would be sad for the way things turned out for her, and then they would turn off the television and forget about it.
Lauren tried to go out with her friends and have a normal social life. She would meet them after her shift ended and pretend that she wasn’t exhausted and didn’t smel like hamburger meat. She told herself that she needed to keep doing this.
“I have to find a real job,” she would tel her friends.
“So find one,” they would say. They didn’t understand. They talked about e-mail programs and corporate retreats. They compared health plans and 401(k)s and Lauren felt lonely.
Carly came out of the bathroom and asked Preston for a glass of cranberry juice. “I have a UTI,” she confided to Lauren. Lauren just nodded and continued to rol the silverware.
“It’s that new guy I’m seeing. I can’t get enough!” Carly bumped her hip against Lauren’s as though they were old friends, two gossiping gals trading sex stories.
Lauren excused herself from the UTI talk to go back to the manager’s office. She had requested next weekend off and wanted to make sure that Ray hadn’t put her on the schedule. Lauren had to go to her friend Annie’s wedding on the Cape. Annie and her fiancé had bought a house in Boston and e-mailed pictures of the renovation of the rooms as it went along, with commentary like “Mitchel put in the tile in the upstairs bathroom al by himself. I knew there was a reason I’m marrying this one!”
Annie was the kind of friend who needed to do everything first. Lauren knew what she must have been like in third grade, fil ing out tests and raising her hand for the teacher, shouting, “Done! I’m done!”
When she’d gotten the save-the-date card last year, Lauren had been sure that she would have a job by the wedding. When she’d gotten the invitation two months ago, she’d stil thought there was hope. Now she knew that she would have to see al of these people and tel them that she was a waitress. A waitress who had sex in walk-in refrigerators.
Lauren’s first customers of the day were two women, a brunette and a blonde. They had a young boy with them who belonged to the blonde. Lauren could tel by the way he kept trying to impress the brunette that she wasn’t his mother. He wiggled in his seat and said things like “A horse says, Neigh!” Then he laughed and slid down the booth to the floor, pretending to be embarrassed when she noticed him.
Lauren didn’t dislike children, but she also couldn’t say that she liked them. She was sure this was going to be a problem. Shannon assured her that it was normal, but her friend Kristi told her it was not. “That makes me sad,” she’d said to Lauren, and Lauren felt ashamed.
The two women each ordered a chicken salad with fat-free raspberry vinaigrette, and the little boy ordered bacon and French fries. His mother laughed like he had done something clever. She looked at her brunette friend and shook her head and smiled as if to say, Isn’t he a riot? Isn’t he the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen? Lauren waited with her pen above her pad for the mother to make him order something else. The mother didn’t say anything.
“So, you want me to bring an order of fries and a separate order of bacon?” she final y asked. The mother looked at her like she was stupid and nodded.
Lauren walked to the computer to put the order in. She didn’t even know how to place an order of bacon. At McHale’s, bacon was something that went on a burger or a BLT. It was not something that people ordered a plate of.
“Preston?” she cal ed to him down the bar. “Do you know how to place an order of bacon?”
“Bacon? Where does bacon come from? A ham?” Preston asked, and then laughed.
“Don’t be such a shit,” Lauren said.
“What’s with the attitude, peaches?” Preston asked. “Just a little joke. You like jokes, don’t you?”
Lauren sighed and turned back to the computer. Final y she ordered a BLT with extra bacon, hold the bread, tomato, and lettuce. Then she walked back to the kitchen to explain to Alberto what the order meant before he came out yel ing.
When Lauren got back, there was another customer in her section. “He just sat there,” Carly said. She sat on a bar stool and sipped cranberry juice, looking miserable. Lauren didn’t feel like fighting with Carly today, or hearing the details of her UTI, so she picked up her pad and went over to the table.
“Hi,” Lauren said.
“Hi,” the man said back. He was about thirty, but he was dressed like he was older; his hair was swirled in an old-fashioned part and his suit was impeccable. He wore heavy-looking cuff links of a bear on his right wrist and a bul on his left. Lauren hated him on the spot.
“Can I get you something to start?” she asked.
“Wel , to start with, you could smile. Would that be too much to ask?”
Lauren looked up and locked eyes with him for a second. People were always tel ing her to smile. Construction workers on the street and random guys in bars would just cal out to her, “Hey, beautiful, smile!” They said it like they were doing her a favor, like they could make her happy with this little tip.
“My mouth turns down,” Lauren said. “I’m not unhappy.”
“Whoa, okay. That’s more information than I asked for.”
Lauren sighed. “You told me to smile, implying that I was unhappy. But I’m not. My mouth turns down and sometimes it looks that way.”
“So what are you?” the guy asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Wel , you said you’re not unhappy and you clearly aren’t happy. So what are you today?”
“I guess I’m neutral.”
“Wel , neutral, it’s lovely to meet you. Can you get me a Glenlivet on the rocks?”
Lauren nodded and turned away. She was used to creepy customers. And she knew from experience that this guy was a self-important creeper, which was the worst kind. He thought that Lauren should be thril ed to be his waitress. He thought he was different from every other customer.
Lauren placed the drink order at the bar and then went to deliver the food to her other table. The boy clapped his hands when she put down his plates of fries and bacon.
“And pickles!” he cried. “I want some pickles.”
Lauren wanted to tel him about the rise of childhood obesity, but she went back to the kitchen and pul ed four pickles out of the pickle tub and put them on a plate. When she placed them in front of the boy he said, “You’re a pickle,” and pointed to the brunette. Then he clamped both hands over his mouth and laughed and bounced on his seat.
She picked up the Glenlivet from the bar and deposited it on the table. “Are you ready to order?” she asked. She looked down at her pad. She didn’t want to meet his eyes.
“I know you from somewhere,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” she answered. “People say that a lot. I’m a familiar-looking person.”
“No, I definitely know you from somewhere. What’s your name?”
Lauren looked up at him. She debated giving him a fake name. Maybe this would be the serial kil er who would murder her. Carly could tel the cameras that she felt guilty for not waiting on him. “It could have been me,” she would cry through purple mascara.
“Did you forget?” he asked.
“Did you forget your name? It’s taking you a long time to answer.”
“Lauren,” she said. She figured if he was going to murder her, he was going to do it whether or not he knew her real name.
“Lauren,” he said. “I don’t know any Laurens.” He looked at her careful y.
“I told you, I’m a familiar-looking person,” she said. His stare was upsetting. She wanted him to stop looking at her. He ordered a steak sandwich and another drink. Lauren looked down, surprised. She hadn’t realized he had finished the first drink while they were talking. She took the empty glass and walked away.
“Lauren, who’s the hottie over there?” Carly was looking much perkier after her third glass of cranberry juice.
“Just some guy. He’s kind of a creep,” Lauren said, and waited for Preston to look her way so that she could order the drink.
“So you’re taking next weekend off?” Carly asked. “Ray asked if I could cover your shift.”
“Yeah, I have to go to a wedding,” Lauren said.
“Oh, fun! I love weddings,” Carly said, and then she sighed. “I want to get married.”
“Is that a proposal?” Preston asked.
“Yeah, right, Preston. Like you could handle al this!” Carly did a shimmy to make her boobs swing back and forth and Preston laughed.
“Preston, can you get me this drink?” Lauren pushed the slip across the bar.
“What’s with you, sourpuss?” Preston asked.
“Why is everyone saying that to me? I’m fine,” Lauren said.
“Clearly,” Preston said.
“It’s just these customers are bugging me today,” Lauren said. “See that table over there? The mom let her son order bacon for lunch.”
“Grody!” Carly said.
“Yeah, grody!” Preston mocked her. “Plus, do you know how many little bacons had to die for that lunch? It’s real y a shame.”
“Shut it, Preston.”
“Here’s your drink, sunshine!”
The man smiled at Lauren as she carried his drink over. “Is that man your lover?” he asked.
“Lover?” Lauren asked. “No, that man is not my lover. Where are you from? Who talks like that?”
“I do,” he said, and sniffed.
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” Lauren said.
“You did mean to, and you didn’t, so don’t worry.”
“I’m a very successful man,” he said.
“It is. A lot of people are jealous of me. I make a lot of money.”
“A lot. More than you could probably guess.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes,” he said. “I thought of where I knew you from, by the way.”
Lauren’s heart started pounding. “Real y?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered. “I used to see you in the park.”
“Yes, Madison Square Park. You used to lie there and talk to yourself.”
“What?” Lauren felt dizzy.
“I used to work right there, and we’d see you on our lunch break. One of my buddies thought you were retarded.”
“I didn’t—that wasn’t me. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, come on, Lauren, give it up! I saw you. I saw you every day. Don’t be upset about my buddy cal ing you a retard, he was just playing around.
Anyway, when he said that, I told him, ‘I’d stil sleep with her. She’s stil hot, even if she is a retard.’ ”
“I didn’t” was al Lauren could say.
“So, what were you doing there anyway? You were there every day and then one day you weren’t there. I always wondered what happened to you.
I always wondered what you were doing, lying there and talking to yourself.”
“I wasn’t doing anything,” Lauren said.
“Wel , Lauren, you must have been doing something.”
Lauren wished she hadn’t told him her real name. She didn’t like the way it sounded coming out of his mouth.
Lauren never told her friends how much she went to the park after Preston dumped her. They wouldn’t have understood that it was the only place she wanted to be. She figured she’d just keep going there forever, lie on the grass and look at the clouds, happy in her own world. But then one day she went to the park and it rained. It rained big, thick drops that made noise when they hit the ground. Lauren watched as the white light clouds soiled themselves, turning an army brown and final y a slimy black. She lay there, feeling the people around her gathering their things and leaving.
But she stayed, watching the clouds quiver and final y release. She kept her eyes open the whole time. She didn’t even blink.
One drop hit her chest and stayed intact, a tiny puddle of rain wobbling on top of her skin. Others fel on her face, sliding off the grooves of her nose and mouth. Some hit her eyebal s, and she thought they ran right inside her head, through her eyes and al the way to her brain. She let them al fal on top of her, let them soak her one at a time.
She watched a cloud turn into a shape that she recognized. It was a ham—but not the ham she had seen in her head. No, this was an ugly ham, a deformed ham. She watched it float along the sky and she was repulsed. It had bumpy skin and big nostrils. It was so fat that it looked like it was going to burst. She stayed there and watched as it floated away and got eaten by the other clouds. And then she left.
Lauren didn’t go back to the park after that. She hadn’t wanted to. She wasn’t total y over Preston, but something in her shifted. Wanting him back was like wanting to cut off your arm or have your toes poked with needles. It didn’t make sense. Her friends never knew exactly what had happened, but they were just happy she was getting back to normal.
“Breakups are tough,” Isabel a said. “But you got through it!”
“I’m glad you’re over him,” Shannon said. “Now you need to go find another asshole to fuck with your head.”
But none of them knew that it was the ham that had done it. How could something that Lauren made up in her own head turn so ugly? How could her creation get so out of hand? It was that ugly ham that made her move on.
Lauren was stil standing at the man’s table. She couldn’t seem to make herself walk away.
“Would you like to have dinner with me sometime?” He smiled and sat back, like he was sure she would be flattered at this invitation.
“No,” she said. “I real y wouldn’t.”
“I’m very successful,” he said. He slurred a little.
“Why are you here alone?” Lauren asked.
“I’m celebrating. I’m celebrating a big deal.”
“I’m very successful,” he said, sounding impatient. “I told you that already.”
“Wel , you’re not the type of guy I want to go to dinner with.”
“Oh no? Who is, then? That bartender over there?” He said the word “bartender” like he was saying “pimp” or “homeless person.”
“No,” Lauren said. “He’s not my type either.”
“Oh, wel , look at you, Miss High and Mighty! Are you going to meet someone in the park?”
“You’re a jackass,” Lauren said.
“And you are a rude waitress,” the man said. “A rude waitress who just lost herself a tip.”
“Good,” Lauren said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Why don’t you just sit down for a minute?” the man asked. “I feel like we got off to a bad start.”
Lauren rested her hands on the back of the chair across from him. Her knees felt wiggly. “I’m okay,” she said.
“I didn’t ask if you were okay,” the man said. “I asked if you would like to sit down. I would buy you a drink if you did. I just closed a huge deal.”
“I know,” Lauren said. “You told me. Why do you keep tel ing me that?”
“It’s the kind of thing people like to know,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing you want to tel someone about yourself.”
Lauren straightened herself up and looked him in the eye. She smiled widely, showing him al of her teeth. “Thank you, then,” she said. “Thanks for sharing.” She walked away from the table. The man sat there holding his drink.
“Carly, I need you to finish up that table for me,” Lauren said. “I can’t wait on that guy anymore.”
Carly nodded. “Sure. Is he rich?”
“He might be,” Lauren said. “You should ask him.”
“Hey, Lauren,” Preston said. “This guy at the bar just ordered a gril ed ham and cheese. You want to go tel him that he shouldn’t eat the precious ham animal?”
“You are a moron,” Lauren said. “You know that?”
“I’m just saying, there are a lot of hams getting slaughtered around here today,” Preston said and smiled.
Carly looked back and forth between them, like she was waiting for a fight to break out. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Lauren said.
At the other table, the little boy was standing on the seat of the booth wiggling his hips and singing, “Ooh, baby, baby. Ooh, baby!” His mother clapped and laughed until his knee knocked over the water, and then she told him to sit and motioned to Lauren that they needed help cleaning up.
This was not what Lauren went to col ege for. This was not where she was supposed to be. These were not the kind of people she was supposed to be around. She took a deep breath and whispered, “Cumulonimbus.” She closed her eyes and saw the Ham—the real Ham—basking in al of its glory. It looked nothing like the monster she’d seen at the park. This was a handsome Ham. It had whiskers that blew in the wind, and Lauren thought it was smiling at her. She opened her eyes, feeling better. “Did you say something?” Preston asked her, and she shook her head. She picked up a towel from the bar and went to go clean up her table. She had the Ham back. Tomorrow, she told herself. Tomorrow she would quit.
W hen Mary was nine, she stole a prayer. It happened by accident, but it happened just the same. She was kneeling in front of the prayer candles at church, blowing softly out of her mouth, and watching the flames flicker. She made a little circle with her lips and held her hands folded in front of her mouth, as though she were praying. Mrs. Sugar watched her closely, giving her warning looks with her thick eyebrows, while she tried to pay attention to the rest of the class, which was stil lined up to give confession. Mrs. Sugar had a nice-sounding name, but real y she was a witch. Every time she looked over, Mary pressed her lips together.
Mary had gone to confession first, and had already said her two Hail Marys and her three Our Fathers. Now there was nothing left for her to do except kneel quietly and blow at the candles. She sent the flame to the left, to the right, and then straight back. It leaned and bounced but always came back to the center, standing straight and tal . And then, it happened. She breathed a little too hard, and the candle sputtered out.
Mrs. Sugar was by her side before she even realized what had happened. She leaned down and grabbed the top part of Mary’s arm, whispering because they were stil in church, but whispering meanly. “Do you know what you did?” she said. “You stole someone’s prayer. Someone lit that very candle with a personal prayer, an intention. And now it’s gone. Vanished. And it’s al because of you.”
Mary cried and was sent to sit on the bench in the vestibule to wait. She sniffled as she sat, wondering what Mrs. Sugar was going to do to her.
But while she was back there, James Lemon farted loudly, making the rest of the class laugh and scream, and Mrs. Sugar got distracted as she ran around trying to calm everyone down. For the rest of the day, Mary waited for her punishment, but it seemed Mrs. Sugar had forgotten al about the candle and the stolen prayer.
Mary, on the other hand, never forgot. Anytime she lit a candle, she felt guilty. She kept thinking that this feeling would go away, that eventual y something bigger and more important would come and take the place of this memory. But it didn’t. For years, anytime that she went to church, she put a dol ar in the box to light a candle. “For the one that I stole,” she would whisper, and then she would light it. She lit a candle in Rome her junior year, and another in Ireland. When she moved to New York, she lit one in St. Patrick’s, and that was her last one. She stopped partly because she was rarely in church anymore, but also because she figured that however big the prayer was that had been attached to that candle, she’d more than made up for it by now.
Mary was quitting. That’s al there was to it. She’d always said that as soon as she passed the bar, she was done. No more cigarettes. She’d never been a real smoker anyway. It was just something she did when she studied late at night. And when she drank. But that was al over now, she told herself. She was a lawyer now. A lawyer who didn’t smoke.
Mary was hired at Slater, a big law firm right in the middle of Times Square. Its real name was Slater, McKinsey, Brown, and Baggot, but no one ever got past the Slater. She was hired along with nine other brand-new eager lawyers, and al of them were taken out on a boat cruise, where they were served piña coladas and reminded that they were incredibly lucky, that this was the job of a lifetime, that they better live up to their promise, and that they must pass the bar.
She spent the summer studying for the bar, holed up in her apartment drinking Red Bul and eating bananas, because she’d heard that they were good for concentration. Her friends sometimes dropped in to check on her, and while she knew they were being nice, she wished they would just ignore her until it was over. “It’s not normal how long you can stay in one place,” Isabel a told her one night. She’d stopped by and found Mary sitting at her desk, where she admitted she’d been since that morning. “I think you should at least get out of the apartment once a day. Maybe we should go for a walk?”
But Mary refused. She didn’t have time to leave her apartment. She went to the store once a week for supplies, jumped rope for exercise, and treated herself by leaning out her window and smoking out into the darkness. “Just until I finish the bar,” she would sometimes say out loud, and then stub out her cigarette with purpose and force, so that it bent in half, as if to say, See, cigarette, I won’t need you for long.
After she took the test, Mary thought she would feel relief. But al the weeks of studying had taken their tol and al Mary felt was strange. She could feel al the caffeine she’d drunk stil throbbing through her system, and her hand seemed unfamiliar now that it was no longer holding a pencil al the time. Sometimes Mary was sure she could stil feel the pencil in her hand, the way she imagined people with missing limbs would feel.
It was because of al of this that Mary decided that she would not throw away her half-finished pack of cigarettes right after the bar, as she had original y planned. She would finish this pack she had, and then she would quit when she started at the firm. No sense in making too many changes at once.
But when Mary started at Slater, she found she needed her cigarettes more than ever. Al of the other new lawyers, who she’d imagined would be her friends, were competitive and nasty. Some of them were secretive about their desire to be the best. Others, like Barbara Linder, fol owed Mary around, asking her what she was working on, how many hours she had logged that week, and what the partners had said to her.
Slater had a tradition of announcing congratulations to the new lawyers who passed the bar over the loudspeaker, and then having a cocktail reception. For weeks, Mary wondered what it would be like if she didn’t hear her name, if she was the one person of the group to fail. Until she heard the results of her test, there was no way she could stop smoking. And then when she did find out that she’d passed, the relief was so
immediate and overwhelming that she made a weird noise and got tears in her eyes. Also, she wet herself just a little bit and so she let herself have a cigarette. If you pee in your pants, she thought, you deserve at least that.
Mary was at the office until at least nine every night, and that was if she was lucky. She was exhausted and sad to go to sleep at night because she knew it would mean the whole thing would start al over again soon. Each morning, as she walked from the subway to her building, she thought, “If I get hit by a car today, I won’t have to go to work.” She didn’t want to get seriously hurt, of course. She just wanted a minor bump that would send her to the hospital for a week or two, where she could watch TV and eat Jel -O.
No one had told her it would feel like this. She’d gotten so much advice about her first year at a law firm, but no one had ever said, “You wil be constantly afraid.” And that’s what she was. She was afraid that someone would come to her with work to do, and she was afraid that no one would come to her with work to do. She was scared that she was missing something in her research. She went over each assignment she was given, and then she was terrified that they would al think she was slow. Whenever someone said “case law” or “document review,” her first instinct was to hide underneath her desk.
Sometimes, just as she was finishing up one project, feeling like she’d accomplished one thing, someone would come to her office to give her a new task. She was sure she was failing.
At night, Mary would take breaks and leave her office to go to the roof for a cigarette. It was wrong, she knew, but she couldn’t help it. She only smoked at night. During the day, there were too many people around and she didn’t want them to think that she was actual y a smoker. She looked forward al day to standing outside and lighting her cigarette. She loved those five minutes of quiet, standing and blowing smoke. She breathed in and out, and told herself that smoking, for her, was a little bit like meditation. It was keeping her sane.
There was a lot to worry about those first few months, but one of the biggest things was this: Mary was afraid that she was getting fat. Each night that she ate dinner at the office, she felt her ass getting bigger. When it came time to order, she would look through the menus in disbelief that she was staying for dinner again. Sometimes, in a fit, she would order lobster or two different entrées. “They want me to stay, they can pay for it,” she would think as she clicked in her order on her computer. Other times she’d order from the diner, cheeseburgers and fries, and a milkshake for good measure. After these giant meals, she would go up to the roof and smoke. Breathe in and out, she would repeat. Breathe in and out.
In the bathroom, she examined her butt, turning to the side and running her hands over it, trying to measure how much bigger it was than the day before. She’d seen her cousin Col een gain fifty pounds during her first year at a law firm. Col een went from normal to almost obese in a matter of months, and she grabbed the weight and held on to it. “It’s worse than having a baby,” she’d said last Thanksgiving. “It’s just part of the job,” she’d told Mary. And then she’d eaten two pieces of pecan pie.
Mary had sworn that it wouldn’t happen to her, but she hadn’t known it would be so hard. She always wanted to leave the office and she always wanted to stay. She wanted al of the partners to like her, to praise her. She lived for one of them to say, “Nice job” or “Thanks for the help.” It didn’t come often, but when it did, it felt like getting an A. Or at least a B. And there was nothing that Mary loved more than getting good grades. Maybe that made her pitiful, but she couldn’t help it. And so she stayed, and she sat in her chair for fifteen hours at a time, eating Chinese food, popping dumplings into her mouth, slurping up sesame noodles, and hoping for someone to notice her work. And then she would go home and look at herself in the ful -length mirror, studying the bulge that was threatening to explode, wondering how long it would be before she erupted into a truly giant person.
Each time she bought a pack of cigarettes, she said, “Last pack,” as she unwrapped the plastic at the top. She was basical y done smoking, she told herself. It was real y just a formality until she was an official nonsmoker. And so when Isabel a came over to her apartment, sniffed the air, and said, “Were you smoking in here?” Mary said, “No, I quit.”
She knew she’d gone too far. Once she started lying about it, there was no going back. “I don’t care if you smoke,” Isabel a said. She gave Mary a strange look. “I was just asking.” But stil , Mary denied it. She hid her cigarettes in her bedside table, tucked in the back of the drawer, wrapped in an old bandanna. Each time after she smoked, she wrapped up the pack of cigarettes with the lighter, folding them in the cloth, and careful y placing them back where nobody could find them.
Brian Sul ivan was made a junior partner at thirty-three. He was the one al of the first years wanted to be, the one they al talked about. He was handsome in a prep school way and looked like every cute boy that Mary had a crush on in high school. He was the first person to ask Mary to write a memo, and she was flattered. “Real y,” she asked. “A memo?” She sounded like a parrot.
He laughed and leaned on her desk. “Look,” he said. “I know it feels impossible now, but it’l get better. I promise.” He put his hand on her shoulder, and Mary almost turned her head and leaned down to kiss it. It was the first time in a week anyone had touched her, not counting the toothless woman who’d pul ed on her leg as she was going down to the subway. Her face got hot, as though she had actual y leaned over and placed her lips there. Brian removed his hand before she could think much more, and she was left in her office with her embarrassing thoughts.
Mary had always been scared of her imagination. When she was younger, she used to think, “What if I stood up in the middle of class and told Mrs. Sugar to go to hel ?” Then her cheeks would flush at the thought and her heart would start pounding, as if she was real y going to stand up and scream. “I’m not going to do it,” she would tel herself. She would try to calm down, but then she would think of it again, how she could have just screamed, how no one would have stopped her, and she would get nervous again. It was the potential of what could happen, the possibility that she could do something so reckless. That’s what scared her.
Brian Sul ivan brought al of that back. Every time he came into her office and stood next to her desk, Mary imagined what would happen if she put her hands on his belt buckle and started to take off his pants. Her blood pounded in her ears, and she tried to reassure herself that she wasn’t going to do any such thing. But then she’d pass him in the hal , and she’d think, “What would happen if I just went up to him and said, ‘Let’s have sex right now’?” She tried to tel herself that she was in charge of her actions, that her brain couldn’t take over. And then she thought, “This is what happens to people right before they go insane.”
Brian found Mary on the roof one night, sitting on one of the stone benches, her head leaning back as she smoked her Marlboro Light very slowly, letting the smoke trickle out of her mouth and escape into the air. “Hey,” he said. “So, you’re a smoker.”
Mary snapped her head up quickly, causing her to cough and choke for a few seconds before she could speak. “No,” she final y said. “I’m not a smoker. I’m quitting.”
“Oh,” he said. “Okay.” He pul ed out an unopened pack of cigarettes and hit them against the heel of his hand, then unwrapped the plastic and crumpled it into a bal , never looking away from her. “I’ve been quitting for years.” He raised his eyebrows and took a cigarette out of his pack, held it in his teeth, and smiled.
Mary gave a weak laugh and held her cigarette low. “I real y thought I would’ve quit by now,” she said. “But it’s been a harder adjustment than I planned on.”
“Because I make you nervous?” Brian asked.
“What? No!” Mary said. She sounded too forceful. She’d meant to sound calm, but it came out in a little yel .
Brian laughed. “It’s okay,” he said. “I mean, when I first started, even the secretaries made me nervous. Everyone knew more than I did.”
“Oh,” Mary said. She realized that he had meant something very different, and she made herself laugh again. “Yeah, wel . I guess it goes away eventual y, right?”
“That it does,” Brian said. He blew circles in the air.
Brian and Mary started smoking together at night. She always hoped she’d see him and she always felt sick when she did. She should not be doing this, she told herself. He was a partner. He was her boss. But she looked forward to their conversations al day. When two days in a row passed without them running into each other on the roof, she felt desperate. When he returned on the third day, she almost jumped off the bench.
Every piece of information she got about him felt like a gift. She gathered al that she knew and went over it in her head. He had two brothers, he was the youngest, he liked gherkins and sour Altoids but hated any kind of soda. He was a Yankees fan, cal ed his grandfather “Oompa,” and looked best in light pink shirts.
They talked about col ege, and she found out that he’d played lacrosse. “Wel ,” she said, “that’s no surprise.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked her.
“Just that, you know, you kind of look like a lacrosse player,” Mary said.
“Real y?” Brian asked. “How do you mean?”
“I mean, you just look like you went to prep school and played lacrosse. I don’t know.” Mary took a drag of her cigarette and tried to sound not stupid. “Al the boarding school boys at my col ege, they al played lacrosse and just had a look.”
“Wel , I did go to prep school,” Brian said. “But I didn’t go to boarding school. My roommate did, though, and he was weird.” Brian stopped talking and Mary wasn’t sure if he was done. Then he flicked his cigarette and continued. “I’d never send my kids to boarding school,” he final y said. “It fucks them up.”
Everything she learned in these five-minute conversations just made Mary like Brian more. And once when she was assigned to his case in a big meeting, he winked at her, and she thought that maybe she didn’t have control of her brain anymore. With each day, there was a greater chance that she was actual y going to act on one of her total y absurd thoughts. There was no going back.
Mary told her friends that there was a cute lawyer at the firm, but that’s as far as she let herself go. They were out for drinks one night and she just wanted to say his name, so she said, “There’s this guy at my firm, Brian, who’s pretty cute. He’s a partner, though.” Then, because she regretted saying his name, she said, “I’m not interested in him or anything. Maybe he’s not even that cute. I can’t tel anymore.”
Lauren nodded and said, “It’s probably the cutest-boy-in-the-class syndrome.”
“The what?” Mary asked.
“Cutest-boy-in-the-class syndrome,” Lauren repeated. “You know, when you spend al your time in a class and it’s boring and you get a crush on a guy, who looks super cute in the class but then when you go out in the real world, he’s not. It’s just that you were only comparing him to that smal group, so there was a curve.”
“Huh,” Isabel a said. “I never thought about it like that.”
“I mean, that’s just the name, but it applies to al sorts of things. Like why camp boyfriends always turned out to be nerds. Or how a work crush can happen on a guy that’s real y not al that great.” She shrugged and tried to look modest, as though she were the one to discover this phenomenon.
“It’s good to remind yourself of it, though,” she said. “So you don’t end up sleeping with a bartender who’s a total life loser, or something like that.”
“Or something like that,” Isabel a said. Mary nodded, as though they had figured it out, but she knew Brian didn’t fal into that category. She didn’t know where he fel , but it wasn’t there.
They kissed one night in her office, late, after everyone else had gone home. The two of them had ordered Thai food, and Mary had eaten very little, afraid that her skirts were going to stop fitting soon, and sure that when Brian looked at her, al he saw was a big ass.
He came into her office and stood behind her so that she couldn’t breathe. When she got up to go get a piece of paper from the other side of the room, she turned and was facing him, their mouths close. And then they were kissing, and she tasted the curry he’d eaten that day. It made her dizzy, but it al seemed a little unreal, like walking outside in pajamas.
When she got home, it was hard to remember if it had happened or not. She barely slept, and when her alarm went off she was happy to get up.
She laughed in the shower as she got ready; giddy and tired, she lathered her hair and laughed.
She didn’t see Brian al day. He wasn’t on the roof that night, and she knew something was wrong. Two more days passed and the only time she saw him was from down the hal as he went into a meeting. She was such an idiot. He was her boss. This was not something she would ever do, and she decided that she would clear it up as soon as she got the chance.
A few nights later, she was in her office and he walked by. Before she knew it, she was cal ing out his name. He looked surprised, but just raised his eyebrows and stepped inside. “Yes?” he said.
“Hi,” Mary said. “So, I just wanted to apologize for the other night. It wasn’t professional, and I regret it.”
“Okay,” Brian said.
“Okay,” Mary said. He looked like he was going to leave, but Mary wanted to say more. “I mean, if there were different circumstances, maybe. But you’re my boss, and we work together.”
“That’s the least of it,” Brian said.
“What?” Mary asked. “What do you mean?”
“Mary,” Brian said, “I’m engaged. You knew that.”
“I didn’t know that,” Mary said. “How could I have known that?”
Brian laughed. He sounded a little evil. “You knew,” he said.
“I didn’t know,” Mary said. Her voice sounded like she wasn’t sure if she believed herself or not.
“Of course you knew,” Brian said. He sounded impatient. “Remember the week after you started when everyone had cake in the big conference room? It was for my engagement. Carla arranged it.” Mary vaguely remembered standing with plastic plates, eating white frosted cake that wasn’t good but was better than sitting at her desk.
“No,” she said. She shook her head. “No, I don’t remember.”
Brian laughed meanly again, and Mary realized that he was maybe the kind of guy who contained the potential to be very cruel, the kind of guy who believed the lies he told. “Look,” he said. “Whatever you need to tel yourself. Just don’t repeat it around here.”
“I wouldn’t tel anyone. Don’t you tel anyone.” This came out sounding stupid, like a child deflecting an insult by repeating it.
Brian just nodded. “Okay,” he said. He turned and walked out of her office.
Mary sat at her desk for a while, not knowing what to do. She’d never done anything this bad in her life. She’d never cheated on anyone, never stolen a friend’s boyfriend, never kissed a guy who was taken. Engaged. The word was weighted.
Had she known? She didn’t think so, but maybe she was just trying to make herself feel better. She considered going to confession and then decided against it. She’d always hated confession, ever since the first time she went, when she told the priest that she was afraid of the albino janitor who cleaned the school.
“I’m afraid of Andy the janitor,” she’d said. “Because he’s an albino.”
“That’s not a sin, Mary,” Father Kel y had said. He’d sounded annoyed, like she didn’t understand what it was she was supposed to tel him. But Father Kel y was wrong. Mary knew that it was a sin to be afraid of Andy the albino. She didn’t want to look down when she saw him, didn’t want to go to the other side of the hal when they passed each other. He always smiled at her, like he understood, and that made the whole thing worse.
She wanted to cry when he did that. She didn’t want to be afraid of him, but she couldn’t help it and it made her feel awful, like she was the worst person in the world. And no matter what Father Kel y said, it was a sin. She knew that much.
Mary turned back to her computer as if she was going to do more work, and then she decided against it. She had to get out of the office. She walked al the way home, even though it was so cold that she couldn’t feel her toes after the first block. She didn’t want to stop for anything, didn’t want to wait for the train to come. She just wanted to keep moving, and so she did. She walked forty blocks to her apartment, and by the time she got there, her nose was running and her eyes were watering, spil ing down her face. She wasn’t crying, though she wished she were. It was just the cold.
She went up to her apartment and started running a bath, which she’d never done the whole time she’d lived there. She had trouble unbuttoning her blouse because her fingers were numb, but she managed, and got into the bath, which was so hot it burned her skin for the first few minutes.
Mary stayed in the bath for over an hour. Whenever the water started to cool, Mary drained a little bit and added more hot water. When she was sure she could feel her fingers again, she got out and put on her most comfortable pajamas, thin flannel pants and a long-sleeve T-shirt that was worn and soft. She curled up on her couch underneath the blanket. She wanted a cigarette. But she wouldn’t let herself have one. Not tonight and not ever again. She sat there for a moment, and then she got up and started lighting al of the candles in her apartment. This would have made her mother very nervous. “You’l fal asleep and burn the place down,” she would have said. But Mary was wide awake and not afraid of starting a fire.
She turned off the lights and sat on the couch, watching al of the flames light up the room. She breathed in and out until she didn’t want a cigarette anymore. She sat there for a while, and then she leaned over to the candle closest to her and blew, softly at first, and then harder, so that the flame vanished. She got up and walked around to each candle, blowing them out, watching as the flames turned into long winding tails of smoke, and she watched them curl and twist, up in the air, until they were gone. And then she went to bed.
H is name was Harrison, but no one ever caled him Harry. Isabela learned that right away.
Isabel a was drunk. It was happy hour and her friends had ignored her requests to go somewhere that served food. She’d ended up sitting on a bar stool in her rumpled work clothes, plotting to stop for pizza on the way home, when Harrison approached her and introduced himself. And because she could think of nothing better to say, she asked, “Do people cal you Harry?”
“No,” he answered. He looked as though she’d asked if people cal ed him Bob or Walter.
“Oh,” she said. She shouldn’t have had the third dirty martini. She could hear her voice from somewhere deep inside her head. And from in there she sounded retarded.
Isabel a was tired. It was already almost eight o’clock and it would be a lot of work to talk to someone new. She had to be at the office early the next day. She contemplated excusing herself, getting up, and leaving. She could be home in her pajamas with pizza in thirty minutes.
But then her plan seemed too hard to carry out and so she let herself sit there. And after a few minutes, she leaned forward on the stool in a wobbly way and kissed Harrison in a crowded bar.
And that was how Harrison and Isabel a met.
Her friends cal ed him handsome, but what he was, was pretty. He had high cheekbones, delicate features, and flawless coloring—porcelain skin and cheeks that flushed natural y when he was excited. His shirts were never wrinkled. Even untucked at the end of a day, with his tie pul ed loose, he looked staged, like somebody had gotten him a wardrobe for “end of the workday.”
Around him, Isabel a felt sweaty and bloated more often than not. She wanted to apologize when she got a pimple or had to blow her nose. She was fairly certain he never had boogers.
Harrison met new people graceful y, shook guys’ hands and grasped their arm with his left hand. He kissed girls on the cheeks and remembered names. He was always interested in conversation, tilting his head at whoever was talking, nodding and interjecting every so often, but not enough to be obnoxious.
“He’s the one!” Isabel a’s friends said. “We can’t believe you found him!”
The ones with boyfriends and fiancés were relieved for Isabel a. She was twenty-seven and they al agreed it was about time. The single ones were sort of happy and a little annoyed. They’d been at the bar that night too. Isabel a was pretty, but not gorgeous. Where had they been when he’d come up to her? (But for the most part, they were happy, of course.)
Harrison knew how to date. He made plans to go to dinner at restaurants where they could drink margaritas and hear each other talk. He took her to movies and then to a diner for gril ed cheese. He always paid. He cal ed when he said he would, and held the door for her. The first night she stayed at his apartment, he woke up early and came back with two cups of coffee.
“I like him,” Isabel a told her friends. She sounded miserable. “He’s real y fun. It makes me feel sick.”
Isabel a knew enough by now to know that this wasn’t a common occurrence. You didn’t just bump into a nice guy that you liked every day. She was positive that she was going to mess it up.
Harrison and Isabel a had been dating for three weeks when he mentioned the ski trip. He brought it up casual y one day, as though the thought had just occurred to him that very moment, asking, “Do you want to go skiing for New Year’s?”
Isabel a was in a panic almost immediately. She had been up most nights wondering if they would exchange Christmas presents, imagining the horror of handing him a wrapped box and being greeted with an uncomfortable look. New Year’s hadn’t even entered her mind yet. She was trying to deal with one holiday at a time.
“New Year’s? A bunch of my friends are renting a house in Vermont. It should be fun.”
“Fun” was a relative term, Isabel a knew. Something that seemed fun when compared to doing nothing could real y end up being a horrific mistake. And a weekend with strangers could be up there with a car crash.
“Do I know any of them?”
“Um … I’m not sure. You met Parker, right?”
Isabel a shook her head.
“Oh, I thought you did. Wel , look, they’re a fun group. It’s not that big of a deal. If you want to go, great. If not, don’t worry about it.”
“Do you even want me to go?”
“It just kind of sounded like maybe you didn’t real y.”
“If I didn’t want you to go, I wouldn’t ask you.”
“Stop being so weird,” he said, and poked her in the stomach. “It’s real y not a big deal. Just let me know.”
Isabel a wondered what it would be like to be a boy. She knew that Harrison meant it when he said it wasn’t a big deal. He real y wouldn’t care. He didn’t have to obsess over her response or if she would go or not. If she were a boy, she would be much more successful. She was sure of it. As it was now, she wasted days at work analyzing things that Harrison had said to her. When he told her it was interesting that she had a goldfish, she lost a week of productivity.
What did she know about dating, anyway? Nothing. She thought back to the sixth-grade sex-ed class they’d had at St. Anthony’s. The girls were put in a room with the school nurse and forced to read scenarios out of an old pamphlet. “Kate and Michael have been going steady for a month,”
the book read. “Michael wants Kate to try heavy petting, but Kate doesn’t feel ready. What do you think she should do?”
The nurse cleared her throat, blushed, and addressed the girls. “So, does anyone have a thought on what Kate should do?” The room was silent.
Final y someone asked, “What’s heavy petting?”
In the other room, the boys told them later, a priest had drawn a large dome on the blackboard. “Do you know what this is?” he asked them. He sounded angry and annoyed. He put a dot on top of it. “That’s a penis,” he said.
That was her education? How was she prepared for this? There was no scenario in that book about starting a new relationship with a Harrison.
There were no tips on whether or not to go on a trip so early in a relationship. (Or if there were, they never got to them. Because once they found out what heavy petting was, they laughed for a week and a half.)
“You should go,” her friends al said. The fact that she hadn’t skied in years and didn’t real y miss it wasn’t something they were concerned with.
The drive up there would take almost five hours. What would they talk about? They had never been in a car alone that long. What if it was just silence? After sleepless nights and countless conversations, she agreed to go. Immediately after, she felt sick.
The ski house was built to sleep as many people as possible. Most rooms had two sets of bunk beds and stairs that led to another room with a futon. When they got there, it was already dark and she could hear laughing as they stood outside the door. It was so cold that Isabel a could feel the inside of her nose freeze when she breathed. The night seemed darker after coming from the city, and it made Isabel a shiver. More than anything at that moment, she wanted not to be there. What had she been thinking coming up here? She didn’t know these people.
Isabel a let Harrison walk in front of her and she walked behind him, pretending to look for something in her purse. There were about a dozen people in the kitchen and living room, sitting around, drinking and laughing. There was a footbal game on the TV, which no one was watching.
Everyone smiled and there were shouts of “Hey” and “What’s up?” Isabel a waited for Harrison to introduce her and then stood there while he pointed to everyone and said their names. She didn’t remember any of them.
Harrison grabbed her bag to take it upstairs and she fol owed him. They peeked in the rooms, looking for an empty one, but there were bags on al of the double beds. The only thing free was a set of bunk beds in the corner of one of the rooms.
“Looks like this is us,” Harrison said. “Do you want the top or the bottom?”
Isabel a wasn’t sure. If she slept on the bottom, she would be eye level with the other couple staying in the room. If she took the top, she ran the risk of fal ing out of bed and paralyzing herself while waking the whole house up.
“Um, the bottom, I guess.”
Harrison threw the bags on top of the beds and turned to her. “You ready for a drink?” he asked. She nodded and fol owed him downstairs silently.
That weekend, Isabel a sat close to Harrison, holding his hand and resting her head against his shoulder, which she never did. When he left the room for more than two minutes she started to panic at the thought that she was stuck with these strangers. She acted like a different girl than she was. Harrison didn’t seem to notice.
The first night there, Isabel a was cornered by one of Harrison’s friends from col ege. Her name was Jocelyn. She was drunk and a close talker.
“I don’t real y know my dad,” she confided to Isabel a. “He never real y wanted a daughter and I’m not sure he ever loved me.”
She was leaning in so close that her giant boob was resting on Isabel a’s arm and her breath was on Isabel a’s cheek. Was this girl hitting on her? Isabel a felt like crying. She kept trying to catch Harrison’s eye so that he could save her, but every time she did he gave her a look like, I’m glad you’re fitting in.
At the end of the night, Jocelyn held Isabel a in a too-long embrace and muttered something about how glad she was to meet her. And then she said, “I love you.” Isabel a was in a loony bin.
“Isn’t Jocelyn nice?” Harrison asked. They were standing side by side in the bathroom, brushing their teeth. The floor was freezing and it made
Isabel a’s feet cold right through her socks. She was drunk and had to close one eye so that the reflections of her and Harrison in the mirror would stop moving.
“She would be nice if she was in therapy,” Isabel a said. She stumbled a little bit and leaned on the sink. Harrison caught her arm.
“So judgmental,” he said. He tried to make it sound like a joke, but she knew he was annoyed.
She spit out her toothpaste and rinsed off her toothbrush. “Do you realize that at the end of the night, she said, ‘I love you’ to me? That doesn’t strike you as a little strange?”
“She’s an emotional girl. You just need to get used to her.”
“Did you use to date her?”
Harrison laughed. “I wouldn’t cal it dating. It was a long time ago.”
Harrison rubbed the back of her thermal shirt and she leaned her head against him. Al she wanted was to be back in the city at one of their apartments, where they could sleep in the same bed.
“Good night,” Harrison said and swung up to the top bunk.
“Night,” Isabel a whispered into her pil ow.
Isabel a didn’t real y want to go skiing, but the alternative was staying in the house al day with the few people who weren’t going either. Jocelyn was one of them, so Isabel a put on her long underwear and ski pants, her thermal shirt and her puffy jacket. She looked like a marshmal ow.
Isabel a had skied when she was younger, but lately had realized that she didn’t like it al that much. It was scary—absurd, actual y—to climb onto a metal contraption that would take you up a mountain so that you could zip back down again.
It became very clear while talking about this trip that Harrison was an excel ent skier. He mentioned winters in Vail and Beaver Creek, and spring skiing in Aspen. He knew the names of his favorite runs, and would say things like “The speed you can get on Pepe’s Face is crazy.” Isabel a just nodded.
“You can go ski with your friends if you want,” Isabel a offered. She was relieved when he declined.
“The whole point is for us to hang out,” he said, and pul ed her hat down over her eyes like he was one of her older brothers.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m just not sure that I’l be able to keep up with you. It’s been a while since I skied.”
“No problem,” he said. “We’l start on some blues until you get the hang of it.”
By the second run, Isabel a was pretty sure that she’d never get the hang of it. Harrison skied ahead of her, swooshing in the snow like a professional. Isabel a made a snowplow and took wide turns down the mountain. Every time she felt like she was going too fast and about to lose control, she let her knees buckle and fel to the ground.
“Just trust yourself a little more,” Harrison advised her. “The fun part is when you start going real y fast.”
“Fun until you crash,” she said.
How could she not have remembered how terrifying it was to ski? Even the chairlift scared her as it chugged high off the ground with nothing to keep them from fal ing out.
“Could you not swing your legs so much?” Isabel a asked Harrison. She tried not to sound so panicked.
“Such a little worrywart,” he laughed.
The day seemed impossibly long. The snow was icy and Isabel a’s gloves were wet from fal ing. She sat inside the lodge to warm up while Harrison went on a couple runs by himself. When Harrison came back in to get her, she tried not to look sad and fol owed him back out to the slopes.
Isabel a kept waiting for it to come back to her, but her legs kept buckling and shaking. And when Harrison said, “One more run and then we should go in,” she was so happy that she almost cried.
They were the last ones back to the house and there was no more hot water. Isabel a shivered in the lukewarm spray and told herself the weekend was almost over. Everyone was tired from skiing, and wore sweatpants and pajamas. Isabel a came downstairs in jeans and a sweater and felt like an idiot.
They played old col ege drinking games, and Jocelyn claimed Isabel a for her flip-cup team. Isabel a was relieved. Skiing was not her thing, but flip cup she was good at. She didn’t even mind that Jocelyn hugged her every time they won. She figured that Jocelyn was trying to make it up to Isabel a for sleeping with Harrison. It was sort of nice, in a weird, messed-up way.
Isabel a got drunk and happy. These people weren’t al that bad. She dragged Harrison to the middle of the room and danced with him. She was fun! Harrison’s friends would know that now. She made everyone do tequila shots and tried to suggest body shots, but Harrison shut that idea down.
“Time for bed, little lady,” he said, and picked her up over his shoulder. He smacked her behind, and the last thing she remembered was Harrison dropping her on the couch because they were laughing too hard.
The next morning, Isabel a woke up with a headache and waited for Harrison to climb down the bunk bed ladder, but he kept sleeping. The other couple in the room got up and got dressed, and Isabel a faced the wal and pretended to sleep until they were gone. She lay in her bunk and listened to the sounds of everyone else in the house as they started their day. She heard pots being clanked around, smel ed coffee. She heard the television being switched on and cheers for some game.
“Harrison, are you awake?” she whispered to the top bunk.
Isabel a could hear half snores coming from above. This wasn’t like Harrison to sleep so late. She slid out of her bunk and peered up at him. He was sleeping on his side with his mouth wide open. He looked like a little boy.
“Harrison,” she said, and poked him on the shoulder. He made a gurgling sound and opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, but didn’t wake up.
What was she doing here? She had been wondering it al weekend, but now she just wanted to cry. She thought of al the places she could be, with people she knew. Instead she was in a house of strangers. Pieces of the night before came back to her and with each flash, Isabel a was more and more mortified. She couldn’t face these people. Harrison probably didn’t even like her anymore.
She climbed up the ladder and sat in the bunk at the edge of Harrison’s feet. She wil ed him to wake up for seven minutes. Then she lay next to
him so that she was closer to the wal . She put her head on his pil ow and stared at him. When he final y opened his eyes a few minutes later, he let out a startled scream.
“Isabel a, what the hel ?” He half sat up and looked around, trying to figure out where he was. When he had calmed himself, he lay back down and crossed his arm over his eyes.
“My head,” he said, “hurts like a motherfucker.”
Isabel a laughed. She’d never heard him talk like that. He uncovered his face and smiled at her. “Oh, you like that? You think that’s funny? You can’t be feeling too great yourself, Little Miss Tequila.”
“Don’t say that word,” Isabel a warned. The only thing worse than being in a house ful of strangers was throwing up in a house ful of strangers.
Harrison smiled and closed his eyes again. “I don’t think I can go skiing today,” he said.
“Oh, thank God,” Isabel a said. She was so sore from yesterday that it hurt to talk. “Maybe we can go get lunch in town?”
“Isabel a, I don’t think I can move right now.”
Harrison never cal ed her Iz or Izzy. It was always Isabel a. It was always formal. It made her think of Ben and the way that he would sing to her in the mornings, “Izzy, Isabel a,” kissing her stomach until she woke up. Thinking of Ben made her lonely, which wasn’t what she’d expected. She hated Ben. But she knew him, at least. She wouldn’t have to be polite with him if he were here right now. She could tel him to get up and go downstairs with her. Instead, she was stuck here with Harrison, who cal ed her by her ful name and was never mean. It was basical y like being with Miss Manners.
Isabel a lay next to him while he slept. Once she got up to go to the bathroom and ate a granola bar she had in her bag. She sat in the bottom bunk for a little while and read her book, but she couldn’t concentrate so she climbed back up the ladder and lay down next to Harrison again.
Maybe she didn’t real y know him, but compared to the people downstairs, he was her closest friend, her al y. She wasn’t leaving his side.
Sometime after the sun went down and it was night again, Harrison woke up. Isabel a was staring at the ceiling. “What are you doing?” he asked her.
“Thinking,” she said.
“You look like a crazy person,” he said and laughed a little bit. “Have you been here al day?”
She nodded. “I didn’t want to go downstairs,” she said. Her eyes started to fil with tears. “I didn’t know anyone, so I just stayed here.”
Harrison turned toward her and smoothed back her hair. Al she wanted was not to cry. She couldn’t cry; they hadn’t been dating long enough. He would think she was crazy, a nut.
“Sorry,” he whispered right next to her ear.
“That’s okay,” she said. “You know, they probably think we’re making out up here. No one’s come up al day.”
Harrison smiled. “Then maybe we should prove them right,” he said and slid himself on top of her careful y.
“I’ve never had sex in a bunk bed,” she said.
“There’s a first time for everything,” he said. “Just don’t fal off.”
Harrison stayed by her side that night, and she was grateful. They went to a local bar, for which she was also grateful. She stayed even closer to Harrison than she had the night before. Part of her was touching him at al times.
“So, you want to go skiing tomorrow?” he asked. “It’s our last chance. Plus, I think we can go on some diamonds.”
Isabel a said, “Absolutely.”
The second day of skiing started off better. It had snowed the night before, so when Isabel a fel , she fel on soft snow instead of the ice. It was also a little warmer, and Isabel a even started to have some fun.
Harrison was conscious of her at al times. He was faster than she was, but he always waited at certain points to let her catch up. This was a big mountain, and there were different forks and turns you could take. Harrison always pointed out the path they were going to take on the map before they went.
For the last run of the day, Harrison wanted to try something different. Isabel a felt bad that she had been holding him back on the easier mountains and so she agreed. They had to take two chair lifts up and would ski down a blue, then a black, then finish on a blue. “It’s easy, see?”
Harrison said, running his finger along the map. “Just keep staying to the right and you’l get to the next run. I’l wait for you at the top of each.”
Isabel a nodded. She was cold again and ready for this day to be over. Just one more run and the whole day would end on a good note.
The second chairlift was higher than any of the other ones they had been on. It stopped halfway up the mountain and Isabel a started seeing black.
“Scared?” Harrison asked.
Isabel a nodded and Harrison just laughed. He thought it was real y funny. She felt like she was dying. The metal creaked and kicked and the lift started moving again. Isabel a waited for the whole chair to plummet to the ground, and was surprised when they skied off at the top.
“Okay, so you remember the way?” Harrison asked. He put his sunglasses down and smiled at her. She nodded. Almost over. It was almost over.
They started down the mountain and it was going okay. Isabel a had gotten used to the blues and her snowplow wasn’t such an embarrassing giant wedge anymore. She even let herself go a little fast sometimes. She finished the run and skied up to Harrison.
“Awesome,” he said. “Ready for the next one?”
He was already moving before he finished talking. There were moguls at the top of the run and Isabel a hesitated. She saw Harrison flying down the mountain, and then the next second she was on the ground, rol ing down the steep hil . One ski came off and al she could see was black when she hit the ground. She knocked over another skier and the two of them tangled up together and slowed down to a stop.
“You okay?” the guy asked her. She nodded.
“Wel , then watch it next time. You shouldn’t be on this slope if you can’t handle it,” he said and stood up and skied off.
Isabel a sat in the snow. She only had one ski and couldn’t even see where the other one had gone. That guy had been such an asshole, she thought as she climbed back up the hil . What a jerk. They could have been kil ed. It wasn’t her fault, total y, was it? No, he had gotten in her way.
The whole time she climbed back up the hil and struggled to put the runaway ski back on, Isabel a thanked God that Harrison hadn’t been there to see it. That would have been mortifying. She crawled up and snapped her boot back into the ski. She sat for a moment to get her bearings, and then she stood up. She had to ski down. There was no other way off the mountain. She was a little turned around, but stayed to the right. That was what Harrison had said to do.
She skied down the rest of the mountain and didn’t see Harrison once. Maybe she’d taken too long after her fal . She skied right up to the lodge and took her skis off. She was done.
Isabel a clomped into the lodge in her boots and took out her cel phone to cal Harrison. “Where are you?” he asked when he answered. “I was getting worried.”
“I’m at the lodge,” she said. “I fel .”
“I’m at the lodge too,” he said. “Where are you?”
“I’m right by the food counter.”
“I don’t see you.”
Isabel a looked around for Harrison and then realized that this lodge looked very different. “Um, Harrison, I think I’m somewhere else. The sign says the Blackbear Lodge. Do you know where that is?”
Harrison was quiet for a moment. “That’s on the other side of the mountain. How did you get there?”
Isabel a could tel he was laughing. Her eyes started to fil with tears again.
“I don’t know! Where am I?”
“Stay there, okay? I’l come to you,” Harrison said and hung up.
Isabel a limped over to the counter and ordered hot chocolate. She had started crying a little, which made her nose run even more. The cashier was a high-school boy and he looked frightened of her. He was probably scared she was going to talk to him and tel him her problems.
She took as many napkins as she could and walked with her hot chocolate back to her table. On the way, she spil ed hot liquid on her hand. Now the tears started again. She was pathetic. She was a pathetic person.
Isabel a was blowing her nose when Harrison walked in.
“Hey there,” he said. “There’s my little Rand McNal y.”
Isabel a laughed and then started crying again. She couldn’t stop. Now this real y would be the end of them. Harrison would see how crazy she was and he would have to break up with her. Then they would have to drive back to the city together. This was a nightmare.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Harrison pul ed up a chair and took her hand.
“Nothing,” she said, wiping her face with the back of her hand. “Nothing, it’s stupid. I’m just real y tired and I got so cold. And I’m embarrassed that I got lost.”
Harrison laughed in a kind way and leaned over to kiss her cheek. “That’s al ? You’l be fine, my little ski bunny. My little lost ski bunny.”
Isabel a laughed and then felt stupid for crying. “So how do we get out of here?”
“We have to go back up the lift and then back down the other side of the mountain. It’s a good run, though,” he said quickly.
“I don’t know if I can go back up there,” she said.
“Wel , I could go by myself and then ski back down to the main lodge and get the car. But it would take a while.”
Isabel a leaned her head back.
“You know,” Harrison started and cleared his throat. “I’m real y glad you came this weekend.”
Isabel a righted her head and looked straight at him. “Real y?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I real y like you, you know.”
Isabel a smiled at him. “Probably just because of my navigational skil s,” she said.
“Probably. So whadya say? You want to brave the mountain? I promise not to rock the ski lift,” he said, holding up his right hand.
Isabel a was tired and cold and she didn’t real y feel like skiing and was stil terrified of the actual ride on the ski lift, but it seemed ridiculous to sit here and wait and do nothing while Harrison got the car. How bad could it be?
“Are you up for it?” he asked. He looked hopeful.
“Yeah,” she said. “Okay, let’s do it.”
B ridget Carlson was the kind of friend you couldn’t get rid of. You could try—you could ignore her e-mails, let her phone cals go to voice mail, move to a different city, let her birthday pass unnoticed, take her number out of your cel phone—but she would find you. She was persistent, if nothing else. She tracked down new addresses, new phone numbers, new e-mails, and she would claw her way back into contact with you, until you had no choice but to acknowledge her.
This was how Cate found herself, against al better judgment, agreeing to have lunch with her. For weeks, Bridget had been leaving messages on her voice mail. “Caitlin, it’s me,” the messages said. “I’m coming to New York and we are meeting up if it’s the last thing we do. It’s been too long.”
The messages almost sounded like threats. They could, at the very least, be perceived as mild harassment. Cate’s cel phone had a message almost every day, and then somehow Bridget found Cate’s work number and started cal ing her there too.
“Why aren’t you answering your phone?” Isabel a asked her. Cate was peering at the cal er ID, letting it ring and ring.
“It’s this girl from col ege,” Cate said. “She won’t leave me alone.”
“Is she a friend?” Isabel a asked.
“Not real y,” Cate said. “Sort of, I guess. But no, not real y. I just need to wait until her trip is over and then I’l cal her back.”
And then one day, the cal er ID said “Unavailable” and Cate picked up. “Gotcha,” Bridget said on the other end. “Caitlin Johnson, you are one hard person to get a hold of. You have got to meet me for lunch!” Cate was so surprised that she just said, “Okay.”
“I have to meet someone for lunch,” Cate told Isabel a.
“Snowy is going to kil you,” Isabel a said.
Cate considered this. Snowy had spent the better part of the morning screaming at Cate. “Three years!” she had yel ed. “Three years you’ve worked here and you don’t know how to do anything!” Yes, Snowy would probably kil her.
“I have to,” Cate said. “I already promised.”
“Is this the stalker?” Isabel a asked. She squinted as if trying to understand.
“Yeah, but I just need to get it over with.”
“It’s your funeral,” Isabel a said. “We have a meeting at three, don’t forget.”
“I won’t,” Cate said. She grabbed her bag and headed toward the door. “I’l be back in an hour,” she cal ed over her shoulder.
Cate met Bridget the first day of col ege, when Bridget knocked on her door during orientation. “Hel o,” she cal ed. “Caitlin or Maya, are you in there?” Cate was alone in her room, unpacking underwear into her dresser. Before she could answer the door, the knob turned and Bridget walked right in. “Hi,” she said. “I’m just going up and down the hal introducing myself to people. Al the names are on the doors, so it’s total y easy. Are you Caitlin or Maya?”
“Caitlin,” she said. “But everyone cal s me Cate.”
Bridget jumped on Cate’s bed and sprawled out, leaning against her pil ows and putting her arms above her head. “I love the name Caitlin,” she said. “I’m total y going to cal you Caitlin.”
Bridget was short, with a big chest and a raspy voice that made it sound like she’d been at a great party the night before. She was bossy and happy. From the start, she was kind of annoying, but Cate was so lonely those first few days that she would have sold her soul for someone to walk to the dining hal with. They were inseparable for the first week of col ege, but as the year went on, they both met other friends, and their paths slowly went separate ways. Bridget was always there, of course. They’d get together every once in a while, and invite each other to parties they were having. Cate always said yes when Bridget invited her somewhere. She felt like she owed her something for her friendship during those first solitary days of col ege.
And Bridget wasn’t an awful person. Not exactly. She was just, in her own way, exhausting. She never relaxed, never sat back calmly. She was always on the edge of her seat, laughing and cutting in on other people’s stories to tel her own. When you asked Bridget how she was, things were always amazing, wonderful, perfect! When she lost her job, she was thrilled to have the free time to explore other opportunities. When she was in a relationship, she was crazy in love, and when she was dumped she was excited to live the single-girl life and really get to know herself.
It was infuriating to listen to her spout her happiness, her absolute joy at being herself. At first, you might think that she was putting on an act. But what was even more annoying was when you realized that she believed everything she was saying. In col ege, Bridget always assumed that she was invited everywhere. Overhearing talk of a party meant that she was, of course, going to go. It never occurred to her that people might not want her around. The thought just never crossed her mind.
When Bridget got back from her semester abroad in London, she developed a strange English affect in her voice. “This lift,” she would say, waiting for the elevator, “is taking forever.” It made you want to punch her.
But if Cate was being honest, there was a reason she kept in touch with Bridget, and it was this: Her lack of reality was fascinating. Listening to her tel stories was hilarious and horrifying at the same time. When her boyfriend cheated on her, Cate offered sympathy and Bridget just shook her head. “Can you believe,” she said, “that he’s so scared of being in love with me that he cheated?”
Cate logged these stories in her brain, saving them up to tel friends later. She had a whole catalog of Bridget stories to pul out at parties. They were unbelievable. The girl was a complete loon. It was comforting to Cate that no matter how messed up she was or how many mistakes she made, she wasn’t nearly as crazy as Bridget.
It was early October when Cate went to meet Bridget. It was one of those warm fal days in New York when everyone walks around without jackets and soaks up the last of the sun. There were no clouds in the sky and everyone seemed happy. As Cate walked among al of these smiling people, she felt anxious. She knew she should have stayed at work, but she told herself that Bridget would just have hounded her until she met her. Better to get it over with, she told herself.
From down the block, Cate could see Bridget sitting at an outside table at the restaurant, wearing sunglasses and a shawl. Cate could tel that she thought she looked like a movie star. Her face was tilted back toward the sun and she had the happy little smile of someone who is perfectly content. As Cate got closer, she saw that there were two glasses of white wine on the table and immediately she felt relieved. This lunch would be much easier to handle with alcohol.
Bridget shrieked as soon as she saw her, causing everyone to turn and stare, which embarrassed Cate to no end. “Caiiitliiin! Oh, how are you?”
Bridget opened her arms wide for a hug, and then kissed both of Cate’s cheeks. This would have been a little pretentious for anyone, but Bridget was from Pittsburgh, which just made the whole thing absurd.
Bridget pushed her sunglasses up on her head in a theatrical way and leaned back to laugh. “It is just so damn good to see you! I can’t believe it.
You look wel ! I ordered some wine for us. Now, I know it’s a school day for you, but I thought we needed to celebrate. A little day drinking never hurt anyone, no?”
As always with Bridget, Cate barely said a word. Bridget rattled on about her job, and revealed that she was working on a memoir in her spare time. “I’ve always been a great writer,” she said. “There’s a lot of people interested to see it when I’m done. So we’l see! Maybe I’l have a fabulous book deal by the end of the year,” she said and then laughed. “So, how are you?” she asked. But before Cate could answer, Bridget started describing how she’d redecorated her apartment, how she seemed to have a gift for choosing color palettes and antique pieces that just seemed to fit.
They ordered a second glass of wine and Cate drank while Bridget fil ed her in on the cooking class she was taking. Then she told her about the trip to Italy she was planning. “I just feel so lucky,” she said. “To have a job I love that pays me enough that I can do other things that I love. Do you know how rare that is?” she asked.
“I do,” Cate said.
Bridget sighed, and took a sip of her wine. “Caitlin,” she said. “There was something else I wanted to tel you.”
“Real y?” Cate asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I wanted to tel you that I’m dating Jim.”
“You know, Jim from col ege. Turns out he works near my building in Boston and we ran into each other at a happy hour. And you know, trouble!”
Bridget raised and lowered her eyebrows and pursed her lips, then laughed out loud.
“Oh, now, don’t look so shocked! Look, I wanted to tel you because I know you and Jim had that thing in col ege,” Bridget said and took a sip of her wine. Her face suddenly grew serious. “But, I mean, col ege was about a mil ion years ago! And I knew that you wouldn’t real y mind, but I stil wanted to tel you myself. You know how funny girls can be about these things.”
“Yeah,” Cate said. “I do.”
“Oh, I knew you wouldn’t mind! I told him that you’d be fine with it. Boys are so sil y, aren’t they?”
“So, how long have you two been, um, together?”
“Almost a year. Wel , about nine months. And I wanted to tel you earlier, but we’ve both been so busy that we’ve barely spoken!”
“I know,” Cate said and raised her hand to the waiter for another glass of wine.
“Oh, you are so bad,” Bridget giggled.
“So is it serious?” Cate asked. Her head felt light, and she struggled to keep her voice steady.
“Yes,” she said. “It is.”
“But it’s only been nine months, right?”
“Wel , yes. But he’s already looking at rings.”
Bridget made a big show of clamping her hands over her mouth and making her eyes wide. “Look at me,” she said. “I can’t keep a secret to save my life! But between you and me? This is it.”
Cate picked up her glass of water and drank the whole thing down in one swal ow. She was afraid that if she stopped, she would throw the glass on the floor. Jim. Jim? Jim and Bridget? This didn’t make sense. She was making it up in her head. Maybe Bridget was even crazier than Cate had ever known. The waiter brought over a new glass of wine, and Cate picked it up and started drinking it like it was water. She was so thirsty al of a sudden.
“We’re going to Italy together, and I just know he’s going to do it there,” Bridget said.
“Yeah,” she said. “Isn’t that romantic?”
Jim was the person Cate stil thought about, the person that her mind went to when things got bad. It was stupid and she knew that. It was obvious that they’d never get back together, but stil she liked to think, “What if?” She knew that he would date other people, she’d even thought that maybe he’d be married soon. But to Bridget? No. Not to Bridget.
“Caitlin,” she said. “Caitlin, does this bother you? Oh, that’s not what I meant to do.”
Cate shook her head. “No one cal s me Caitlin. Did you know that? Not one other person on this earth cal s me Caitlin.”
“I know,” she said. “That was always our thing. I love the name Caitlin!”
Cate left the restaurant in a hurry. Al of a sudden, she needed to get out of there. “I have to get back to work,” she said, throwing some money on the table. “My boss is on the warpath.” Bridget was saying something but Cate wasn’t listening. She stood up and her chair hit the table in back of them. “Sorry,” Cate mumbled. “Sorry, sorry,” as she wove in and out of the tables. She took a left on the street and walked quickly for a few blocks before she realized that she had no idea where the subway was.
Cate stopped for a second, just outside a little park, and leaned her head against the fence to gather her thoughts. There was a man in there feeding pigeons, and Cate watched him throw the seeds out at the dirty birds. They gathered al around him, pecking at the ground. How gross, she thought. How gross to let those disgusting creatures get close to you.
And then it happened. Cate hadn’t noticed, but there was a net on the ground, and the man bent down and in one swoop had gathered al of the pigeons inside. He picked up the bag of pigeons, walked to a white van, got in the back, and drove away.
Cate looked around, waiting for someone else on the street to react so that they could stop this man. What was he doing? He was stealing pigeons! People walked past Cate on the sidewalk, and she tried to catch someone’s eye, but they al kept walking. No one cared. No one had even noticed. “Didn’t any of you see him?” Cate wanted to scream. “There’s a thief in our midst!” But she didn’t. No one would have listened anyway.
Cate went back to work, sweaty and disoriented. Isabel a looked up as she ran to her desk. “What happened to you?” she asked. Cate shook her head and picked up a bottle of water she’d left on her desk. She unscrewed the top and held up one finger while she chugged most of it.
“You won’t believe me,” she said when she was done. “But you have to believe me.”
“Are you drunk?” Isabel a asked.
“No,” Cate said. “I had some wine. But listen, I have to tel you something. And you have to believe me.”
“Snowy is going to freak out if you aren’t ready for the meeting. It’s in twenty minutes, you know.”
“I know, but just listen to me! Listen.” Cate told her about the pigeons. She described the man who’d scooped them up and taken them away.
Isabel a listened, raising and lowering her eyebrows as the story went on.
“Why would anyone steal pigeons?” she asked when Cate was done.
“I don’t know,” Cate said. “It’s crazy, right?”
“Yes,” Isabel a said. “It’s crazy.”
“You believe me though, right?”
“Cate, are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I’m just tel ing you, it was the weirdest thing. He just scooped them up, like it was his job. Like he was sent there to do that.”
Isabel a shrugged. “Maybe it was,” she said. “Maybe he works for the city.”
“No,” Cate said. “I thought of that. The van wasn’t marked.”
Isabel a sighed. “Okay, so it was just some crazy man. Why do you care?”
“It’s not right,” Cate said. “It’s not right that people can just go stealing pigeons in broad daylight.”
“They’re disgusting,” Isabel a said. “I say, let anyone who wants to take them go ahead.”
“But you believe me, right? You know I’m tel ing the truth?”
“Yes,” Isabel a said. “I believe you. Can we just go over the stuff for the meeting now?”
“Yeah,” Cate said. “Okay, sure.”
“Cate, are you sure you’re okay? Did something else happen?” Isabel a asked.
“No,” she said. “I’m fine. Let’s just get this over with, okay?”
Cate started to write an e-mail to her friends about Bridget, but she didn’t get far. How embarrassing was it that her ex-boyfriend was dating Bridget Carlson? She looked at the sentence she’d typed and erased it. It was pretty embarrassing, she decided. She stared at her computer and tried to figure out how long it would be before everyone knew about Bridget and Jim. Knowing Bridget, she was probably posting it on Facebook right then. Her status would probably read, “Bridget Carlson is madly in love with Jim.” Cate wondered if Bridget had a blog. She hadn’t mentioned it, but if anyone was going to fil the world with pointless information about her life, it would be Bridget. This lunch was probably going to be in Bridget’s memoir.
Isabel a gave Cate suspicious looks al afternoon. Cate tried to ignore her. Once, she started to tel Isabel a what had happened. Isabel a didn’t know Bridget, so she couldn’t possibly know the extent of the awfulness. Cate tried, but she couldn’t get the words out.
Isabel a had saved Cate in the meeting. She’d talked for the both of them, acting as if Cate was involved in the work she’d done. “Thanks,” Cate said to her when they got back to their desks.
Isabel a just shrugged and shook her head. “Sure,” she said. “No problem.”
Isabel a was always so serious. She constantly reminded Cate that she was older, and said things like “When I was your age” and “You’l understand in a few years.” Whenever Cate told her to calm down, she said, “I don’t have any time left to fool around.” Isabel a was only three years older than Cate, but she acted like she was a hundred. If Cate told her about Bridget and Jim, there was a good chance she would shake her head and say, “Oh, children these days.”
Cate’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing the rest of the afternoon, but she refused to answer it. “What is going on?” Isabel a demanded.
“I’m just trying to avoid a phone cal .”
“The stalker?” Isabel a asked. “Why don’t you just look at the cal er ID?”
“No. You don’t know this girl. She could be cal ing from any number.”
“I guess,” Isabel a said. She chewed on her lip and looked concerned. “You know, I was thinking about the pigeons.”
“Real y?” Cate asked.
“Yeah, I mean, you’re right. It could have been just some random man stealing them.”
“I know,” Cate said. “But why wouldn’t anyone have stopped him?”
Isabel a shrugged. “Sometimes I think that if you do something with enough confidence in New York, you can get away with anything. If you pretend to have authority, people never question you.”
“I think you’re right.” Cate swal owed, looked back at her computer, and started typing.
Cate left work and stood on the corner waiting for the bus. A pigeon bobbed its head and walked toward her. She waited for it to stop and turn around, but it kept coming. Its beak was open, like it was going to bite her. She kicked her shoe at it and backed up, but it just flapped its wings at her. The people across the street watched her, giving her strange looks. The pigeon kept coming closer, and Cate wondered if it was a rabid pigeon. Was there such a thing? She kicked at it again and screamed, “Aughh!” Final y it turned to walk away. “Fuck you,” Cate said to its back.
She could have sworn it turned around to look at her. “You better watch it,” she said. “There are people out there who can take you.” The man next to her moved two steps away.
Cate stopped on the way home to get a bottle of wine, and opened it as soon as she got into her apartment. She poured some into a glass and took a sip before she even took off her jacket. No matter how many times she’d tried to make sense of it, she couldn’t. “Bridget and Jim,” she repeated aloud. “Bridget and Jim.”
Final y, after a couple glasses of wine, she picked up the phone and cal ed her friend Julia. “You won’t believe this,” Cate said. “I had lunch with Bridget today—I know, I know, she’s a crazy person. But listen to what she told me. She’s obsessed with Jim and total y stalking him. Yes, that Jim. I know, she’s nuts.” Cate took another sip of wine and smiled. “I think she’s breaking him down,” she said. “You know how she is. I know, I know. You almost feel sorry for him. Poor bastard.”
R iding backwards on a train makes me sick,” Lauren said. Everyone ignored her. They were sitting in a four-person seat on the Long Island Rail Road, facing each other with their knees touching. “I’m serious, you guys, I might throw up. I always get motion sick when I ride backwards.”
“You feel sick because you drank about forty-five vodka tonics last night,” Mary said. She leaned forward and sniffed. “You smel like you just took a shot. I’m serious. I can smel liquor on your breath.”
“Please stop it,” Lauren said, closing her eyes and leaning her head back against the seat. “Could someone please just switch with me?”
“Fine, I wil ,” Isabel a said.
They stood up and grasped elbows, turning until they were on opposite sides. Lauren knocked Mary’s coffee when she sat down and Mary swore at her. They were al annoyed. They were on their way to Long Island for a wedding shower and they were al annoyed.
“This isn’t helping,” Lauren said, and leaned forward to rest her head in her lap. “I hate Long Island.”
“No kidding,” Isabel a said.
Their friend Kristi was engaged. They were al happy for her. They were al bridesmaids. They were al sick of celebrating it.
Kristi was real y embracing her role as a bride-to-be. She never said things like “Let’s talk about something besides the wedding,” or, “You don’t have to buy me a present for every party.” She wanted al of the attention and she wanted al of the presents. This was her time, she kept reminding them, like it was something she’d earned.
This was Kristi’s sixth shower. First, her mother’s side of the family had thrown her a “Time of Day” shower. They were al given a time of day, and had to buy a present that went along with it. Isabel a got two a.m. “What am I supposed to get them for two a.m.?” Isabel a asked everyone. She agonized over it, ignored Lauren’s suggestion to buy them handcuffs, and final y bought sheets.
Kristi’s second shower was thrown by her father’s side of the family. (Her father’s side had been excluded from the first shower, because of some family drama that none of the bridesmaids cared about.) They traveled to Rhode Island to sit in a tiny living room and listen to Kristi’s aunt complain about not being invited to the other shower. “She could have had my invitation,” Mary whispered to Isabel a.
Kristi’s third shower was thrown by her fiancé’s groomsmen. It was a couples’ shower to stock the bar, and everyone was supposed to bring a bottle of liquor and glasses. “What kind of groomsmen throw a shower?” Lauren asked. “Are they gay? I’ve never heard of such a thing. And you know what? I’m not going. I’m not in a couple, and I need the liquor more than she does.” Lauren ended up going to the party and drinking almost the whole bottle of liquor she’d brought. “I need it more,” she kept saying.
The fourth shower was thrown by Kristi’s friends from work, and she insisted that they al go. “I need my bridesmaids there,” she said. “Why?”
Lauren asked. “To wipe her ass?” The fifth shower happened because Kristi kept saying, “No one can believe that my bridesmaids haven’t thrown me a shower.” They had a brunch at Mary’s apartment to shut her up. “Is it just bagels?” she asked when she saw the food. When she opened up the present they got her, she said, “Who is this from? Oh, al of you. Is there another part? No, just this? Okay.”
Now they were on their way to Long Island for Kristi’s sixth shower and their patience was wearing thin. “My mother’s bridge group wants to throw me a shower,” Kristi said when she told them about this shower. “I just couldn’t say no!”
The thing was, Kristi wasn’t their first friend to get married. They had stood up in weddings of friends from home, friends from col ege, friends from work. Every time they were sure that they were done, someone else got engaged. And al that meant was that they would continue to spend their weekends at wedding showers.
They were good bridesmaids at the showers. They trekked out to Long Island and the suburbs of New Jersey wearing pastel dresses and carrying presents. They cheered for stainless-steel pots and flowered serving trays. They gathered ribbons and crafted large bouquets out of paper plates, while taking notes on who gave the bride the toaster and who gave her The Cupcake Cookbook. They gasped in mock horror when ribbons were broken—“That’s six babies now,” they’d warn with smiles and raised eyebrows. When margarita glasses were unwrapped, one of them always said, “We’l be over to put those to good use,” and the older women at the shower would laugh. They organized games to play, wound up timers, and put together quizzes titled “How Wel Do You Know the Bride?”
As the weddings increased, it was harder to be pleasant. After they’d attended five showers, the novelty wore off. By the time it got to fifteen, they were tired of cleaning up wrapping paper. And when they had attended over twenty showers, they were flat-out exhausted. Who on earth needed an ice-cream maker? Why did anyone want a deep fryer? And where were the happy couples (who lived in tiny Manhattan apartments) going to store twenty-four wine glasses and a bread maker?
The train pul ed into the station, and they al got up and left in silence. They stood in the sun for a moment. “It’s real y nice out today,” Mary said.
Lauren ran to a garbage can on the platform and threw up. “Yes,” Isabel a said. “It’s beautiful out.”
As Kristi unwrapped mixers and place mats, Lauren and Isabel a snuck out to the patio to have a cigarette. “I bet she gets pregnant right away,”
Lauren said. She was sipping her third mimosa, and was in much better shape already.
“Why?” Isabel a asked.
“Because then she’l have a reason for everyone to give her more presents. We’l have to throw her a baby shower too, and talk about her being pregnant, and then we’l have to babysit the little fucker.”
“That’s lovely,” Isabel a said. She peeked through the sliding glass doors to see if anyone missed them. Mary had been grabbed and chosen to write down al of the gifts, and she was looking around the room for them. She seemed pissed and Isabel a felt bad, but better her than them. Their friend Abby was constructing a bouquet out of the ribbons Kristi threw at her as she tore into the packages. Abby worked with her head down, like a child in a sweatshop. Kristi had debated whether or not to even make Abby a bridesmaid in the first place. “I mean, I know she’d be honored,” Kristi said. “But maybe it would be too much, since she just cal ed off her own wedding not long ago. I don’t want her to be a downer.” Abby had shown up at every shower and party, and been a good sport. And now, here she was threading ribbons through a paper plate. She glanced up and saw Isabel a through the glass door. Her eyes looked wounded, like she believed that Kristi was getting married just to punish her. Abby gave Isabel a a smal smile and kept her fingers moving, twisting and tying to make that stupid ribbon hat. Isabel a tried to smile back and then had to turn away.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Lauren said. She was cranky. “This is my fifth wedding this year. And I’m done with it. What I don’t get is why there have to be so many showers just for one person. And why do they have to have themes? Why? Just to make it more annoying than it already is?”
Isabel a shushed her and then glanced inside to make sure no one had heard. The theme for this shower was “My Favorite Things.” They had al received invitations that read: “Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes! Please come and celebrate with our bride-to-be, Kristi Kearney. Bring her one of your favorite things!”
“I should have brought her cigarettes,” Lauren said thoughtful y. She took one more drag and then stamped her cigarette out on the ground. “They are one of my favorite things. Thank God I have them today. Kristi’s being a nightmare, huh?”
Isabel a didn’t have anything to say. Kristi wasn’t a bad person, she didn’t think. But she was acting like one. “Maybe she’s just stressed,” Isabel a said. They had been talking about Kristi for months now. If the wedding didn’t come soon, they were going to have to stop being friends with her.
On the eve of Kristi’s engagement party, Todd’s great-aunt died. There was talk of rescheduling, and Kristi came to see them, crying. “I’ve just real y been looking forward to this,” she said. “How could they do this to me?”
“But someone died,” Lauren said.
“I just think we stil could have it. I mean, it’s a party for me,” Kristi said. She put her head in her hands and they al looked at each other. Then they al kept drinking.
The party ended up happening. And later, Kristi would say that it was a shame that the aunt’s death had put such a damper on it. “I just felt like I couldn’t real y be as happy as I wanted to be, you know? Like I had to dial it back to be appropriate. It was real y unfair.”
“Do you think she needs to be on medication?” Mary asked later. No one laughed.
They kept waiting for it to stop, waiting for Kristi to realize that she was acting like a beast. But she never did. At her bachelorette party, she cried when one of their friends announced that she was pregnant. “I just real y wanted this night to be about me,” she wailed.
When Lauren hired a woman to come to the party and sel sex toys, Kristi turned to her and said, “This seems like something you would want more than I would. I mean, I have Todd now and we’re getting married, so I don’t real y need a vibrator. But it’s fun for the single girls, I guess.”
“Last night I added up al the money I spent on weddings this year,” Lauren said in a dreamy voice. “It was over five thousand dol ars. I could have gone on a trip to Belize and then bought a new wardrobe.”
“I realized yesterday that my credit card bil is never going to be paid in ful . Never,” Isabel a said.
They weren’t real y talking to each other. It was the same conversation they’d been having since the weddings started. They finished their cigarettes in silence.
“We should go back in there before Mary never forgives us,” Isabel a said.
“Fine,” Lauren said, and drank the rest of her mimosa in one gulp.
The food at the showers was always the same: ladylike salads, teeny sandwiches, cut-up fruit, white wine and mimosas, mini cakes for dessert.
Lauren piled an alarming amount of mini sandwiches on her plate. “I would kil you for a cheeseburger,” she whispered to Mary.
“I might just kil you for fun,” Mary said. “How could you leave me in there alone? I had to write down al the presents by myself. And they kept asking me if I was dating anyone. Then, one woman who was hard of hearing said, ‘What? Who are you dating?’ And I had to yel loudly across the room, ‘I’m not dating anyone!’ ”
“Swear to God, it happened.”
One of the bridge friends clinked her glass with a spoon until the room quieted down. “Welcome, everyone! I just wanted to say a few words about our lovely bride-to-be, Kristi!” Everyone in the room clapped.
“Why are they clapping for her?” Lauren asked. “She didn’t do anything.” Mary and Isabel a both shushed her and she just rol ed her eyes. The woman talked about Kristi and how she had watched her grow up. Lauren shoved a whole sandwich in her mouth and chewed while the bridge lady spoke. When Mary gave her a look, she swal owed and said, “What? I’m hungry.”
“Our theme for today is ‘My Favorite Things,’ ” the woman continued. “I hope that everyone is ready to explain the special meaning behind her gift for Kristi!” Then the woman started singing, “Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes,” and she raised her arms for everyone to join. Al of the women in the room chimed in, “Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes!” They kept singing and started swaying back and forth. Abby was standing unfortunately close to the woman who’d started the singing, and the woman wrapped her arm around Abby’s shoulders, forced her to move in time with the music, and looked at her with an encouraging smile until Abby started to sing along with her. A few of the women were snapping their fingers. Lauren looked at Isabel a and Mary and said, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, right?”
They struggled through the lunch and chatted with al of the women. They cleaned up bal s of wrapping paper and stray ribbons, helped clear the plates and glasses, and then carried al of the presents to the car while Kristi thanked her guests. Abby told them that she had an appointment in the city that she had to get back for. “Go,” they al told her. They almost pushed her out the door. “Get out while you can.”
Mary arranged the presents in the back of the car. “It’s almost over, right?” she muttered to herself. “Please tel me this is almost over.”
Kristi asked them to help drive the presents back to her parents’ house, so that they could unload. Then she insisted that they al come inside so that she could show them pictures of what the centerpieces were going to look like. They sat on the couch and tried to admire the pictures. Lauren leaned her head back and closed her eyes. Isabel a was sure she was sleeping.
“So, we should probably try to get the next train,” Mary said, as though it had just occurred to her.
“You guys aren’t staying?” Kristi said. “I thought we could al have dinner and hang out.”
“Oh, I guess we didn’t realize that,” Mary said. “We were planning to get back to the city tonight.”
“It’s just that it’s my shower,” Kristi said. She sounded wounded, like she had just told them it was her last day on this earth and they were leaving anyway. Isabel a could see Lauren and Mary start to panic.
“I know you two have stuff to get back for, but I could stay,” Isabel a said. She hoped the other two appreciated her self-sacrifice. Mary perked up right away.
“We real y do wish that we could stay, but it just doesn’t seem like it wil work out,” Mary said. Isabel a wondered if she was the only person who could hear the joy in Mary’s voice.
“Could you stay over?” Kristi asked Isabel a. “I have a fitting tomorrow and you could come along.”
“Sure,” Isabel a said. “That would be fun.”
Kristi showed Isabel a a tape of the band they had chosen, and then they sorted through some of the shower presents, and discussed whether Kristi should have the band announce the wedding party or not. Final y, they got ready for bed in the room where Kristi had grown up. Isabel a lay in one of the twin beds and looked at a picture of Fred Savage that was stil taped to the bedside table.
“Iz, are you awake?”
“Uh-huh,” Isabel a said.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Do you think Lauren is acting weird to me?”
“Not real y. Weird how?”
“It just doesn’t seem like she’s happy for me,” Kristi said.
“She’s happy for you,” Isabel a answered.
“I don’t know. She seems a little distant. I guess maybe it’s just hard for her to understand.” Isabel a didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to be in this conversation.
“I mean, Abby’s not real y into the whole bridesmaid thing, but she has her reasons,” Kristi said. “But what I don’t get is why Lauren’s being a pain.”
“Lauren seems fine to me,” Isabel a said.
“It’s just, you know, sometimes I worry about her,” Kristi said.
“I just feel like she’s lonely, you know. Like she’s not meeting any guys and it seems like the way she’s going, she won’t.”
Isabel a was quiet for a few moments. She didn’t know how to answer.
“Wel , the thing is that you don’t meet someone until you do.” Isabel a started off talking slowly. “And the older we get, the harder it is. And maybe not al of us wil meet someone.”
“Wel , you can’t think like that,” Kristi said. “Look at you and Harrison. You found each other.”
“But who knows what wil happen? And what if it ends and I don’t meet anyone else? What if Lauren never meets anyone else? Is that the end of the world? People live, you know.”
In col ege, Kristi’s boyfriend cheated on her almost every week and Lauren was always the first one to comfort her. One time, she planned a bar crawl just to cheer Kristi up. Isabel a could stil remember the way they rode their bikes from bar to bar, with Lauren and Kristi leading the way, swerving and laughing. Isabel a was always jealous of Kristi and Lauren in col ege. They were so close that sometimes they seemed like one person instead of two.
“Wel , I’m just glad that you have someone,” Kristi said. “It makes me happy when my friends can final y understand how great it is to have someone, you know?”
“Yeah,” Isabel a said. “I do.”
When Kristi got married, she and her husband stood under a chuppah. “We’re not having a traditional Jewish wedding,” Kristi told them a mil ion times. “We’l have a priest do the ceremony. But I don’t want Todd to feel completely left out, so we’re having a rabbi up there too.”
The rabbi explained how the chuppah represented the new home the couple was starting. Then she had the family drape a cloth over their necks.
“With this cloth, we are creating a chuppah within a chuppah,” the rabbi said. “This is to symbolize that Kristi and Todd wil be bound to each other in a way that is special only to them.” Kristi and Todd stood with their shoulders touching, wrapped in the cloth. It reminded Isabel a of the way that Lauren and Kristi used to huddle together, whispering and laughing at jokes that only they understood. “A chuppah within a chuppah,” the rabbi said again. Lauren sighed and rol ed her eyes at Isabel a. Isabel a tried to smile, but for the first time that day she felt like crying. She watched Lauren fidget in her bridesmaid dress, and watched Kristi and Todd smiling together, their faces almost touching. “A chuppah within a chuppah,” she thought. Isabel a felt tears come to her eyes, but just as she was about to cry, Todd smashed the glass with his foot and everyone yel ed, “Mazel tov!”
S hannon knew the first time she saw him. His voice was soft and smooth and luling, his build was fit and strong. As he spoke, her eyes went in and out of focus and she couldn’t make herself look away. He was on TV, but it seemed like he was in the room, talking only to her.
Dan sat next to her on the couch, staring at the TV screen, his eyes stil and his mouth open. He shushed her when she started to say something.
“Do you know who that is?” he asked her. His voice sounded hushed, like he was speaking in a church. “That’s our next president.”
“Do you real y think?” Shannon asked. She rubbed the back of Dan’s neck. “It would take a lot for him to win.”
Dan final y turned away from the TV. He looked disappointed as he shook his head. “You’l see, Shannon,” he said. “Believe me, you’l see.”
Later, Shannon would tel everyone this story. She would explain the way Dan’s voice changed when he spoke, the way it made a little hop of worry enter her chest. Her friends would humor her. “I’m sure on some level you did know,” they would say. “Hindsight’s twenty-twenty,” they would add. It didn’t matter. Only Shannon knew how she felt that day when she first saw the Candidate. Only she knew that his voice made her start sweating, made her heart beat fast, the way an animal reacts right before it’s attacked.
Dan had always loved politics. He was a cable news junkie who yel ed along with the left-leaning political pundits as they got enraged about the state of the government, the failings of the current administration. He talked policy at parties and argued laws at bars. Shannon met him watching the 2004 presidential debates at a dive bar on the Lower East Side. Over Mil er Lite drafts, he explained the details of the Swift-boating. Shannon nodded drunkenly and thought, “This guy is smart.” They stood outside and smoked cigarettes and talked about the ridiculousness of the last election. “It turned this country’s electoral system into a joke,” Dan said. And then Shannon kissed him.
Her friends approved. “I get it,” Lauren said. “He’s hot, in a nerdy, political way.”
“He’s nice,” Isabel a said. “A little intense, maybe. But nice.”
Shannon didn’t care that he was intense. He was hers. Right after they met at the debates, they started dating and volunteering, urging people to get out and vote. For days before the election, they sat in the volunteer center and made phone cal s until Shannon’s fingers felt numb from dialing. “I think we can do this,” Dan said. Shannon had never found someone so attractive in her life. They made out in a closet in the back of the volunteer center for ten minutes and then went back to their cal s.
That night, they drank and watched as the Democratic candidate lost. “Four more years of this,” Dan said. “I don’t know if I can take it.” Shannon took his hand and held it in her lap. She wasn’t as upset as he was, but she tried to look like she was. “I’m so glad that I’m with someone who understands,” Dan said. Shannon just nodded.
Shannon and Dan moved in together and hosted dinner parties for their friends where political talk ruled the conversation and lively debate was encouraged. Dan sat at the head of the table and quoted articles he’d read, pul ed out old New Yorker s to back up his point. He talked and lectured, raising his glass of wine when he made important points, as though he were their leader. Sometimes Dan almost crossed the line—like the time he cal ed her friend Lauren ignorant, after she admitted that she’d voted for the Green Party candidate in 2000 because she’d felt bad for him—but most of the time, the dinners were free of fighting and ful of wine, and Shannon was happy.
Dan worked in advertising, but his heart wasn’t in it. He sat around al day, writing catchy copy to accompany ads. “I want to do something that matters,” he always said. Shannon would nod in agreement. “I want a job I care about,” he would say, and Shannon would groan in sympathy. She thought it was just talk, just something people say to get through their day. But the more the young senator from Il inois showed up on TV, the more Dan talked about his discontent. He complained about his hours, his pay, his mindless duties. He slammed dresser drawers in the morning as he got ready for work, and drank a beer each night as he sulked in front of the news. And then one day he came home and announced that he was going to volunteer for the campaign.
“Do you have time to volunteer?” Shannon asked.
“The question is,” Dan answered, “how do I not make the time?”
Dan organized ral ies and trained volunteers. He went door-to-door making sure people were registered to vote. He skipped three days of work to attend a volunteer training camp in Chicago.
“I asked you last week if we could go on vacation, and you said you couldn’t take any days off,” Shannon said.
“This isn’t vacation,” Dan said. “This is our country.”
He came home from the volunteer camp with a graduation certificate and newfound energy. “This is it,” he kept saying. “This is the time.”
“The time for what?” Shannon muttered.
“What?” Dan said.
“Nothing,” she said.
At night, al they talked about was the election. Dan analyzed every word that came out of every candidate’s mouth. He sat no more than two feet from the TV, so that he wouldn’t miss a thing. “Did you hear that?” he asked, pointing at a face on TV. “Did you hear the tone she used when she said his name? Unbelievable.”
Shannon learned how to knit and sat on the couch twisting yarn into rows as Dan muttered to himself. “How can you knit at a time like this?” he asked her once. He looked at her like her yarn was the reason his Candidate was down in the pol s.
Dan pored over newspapers, websites, and right-wing blogs to see what the opposition was saying. When Shannon asked him if he wanted to go out to dinner, he just shook his head no. They ate takeout in front of the TV almost every night. More and more often, she found him asleep on the couch in the morning, his computer propped up next to him and CNN chattering in the background. He’d wake up and rub his eyes, then immediately focus on the latest news. “I can’t believe I missed this,” he’d say. He’d turn up the volume. “Shannon, can you move?” he’d ask. “I can’t see the TV.”
Dan applied for every job the campaign had. “How much does this one pay?” Shannon asked once.
“Does it matter?” Dan asked. “You don’t get this. I would do it for free.”
“It would be kind of hard to pay rent then, wouldn’t it?” Shannon asked.
Dan walked away from her and turned on the TV, to CNBC. Shannon fol owed him into the room, but he didn’t look at her. “I was kidding,” she said. “God, don’t be so sensitive.”
“This matters to me,” Dan said.
“I know,” she said. “It matters to me too.” Dan raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything more. Shannon sat down on the couch next to him and watched the wild-eyed political commentator scream. It was the blond man, the one who interrupted his guests and got on her nerves. “He spits when he gets excited,” she said. And then they watched the rest of the show in silence.
When Dan quit his job, Shannon was supportive. “It wil be hard,” she said. “But if it’s important to you, it’s important to me.” She was pretty sure she meant what she said.
“I’l be traveling a lot,” Dan said. “But it’s what I always wanted to do.”
“Of course,” Shannon said. She didn’t real y know what she was agreeing to, but her answer made Dan happy.
Later, Shannon explained it to her friends. “It’s too good to pass up,” she said. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“Wel , you knew this about him when you met him,” Mary said. “I guess this doesn’t come as a huge surprise.”
“It just sucks for you,” Lauren said.
“Yep,” Shannon said. “Yep, it real y does.”
At first, Shannon stil saw Dan about once a week. Then his trips started to overlap with each other and he didn’t seem to have time to come home in between. Soon, he was flying from stop to stop with barely enough time to cal her and tel her where he was going. Shannon realized that if she wanted to see him, she’d have to go to him. And that’s what she did.
Shannon shivered in New Hampshire while Dan arranged an outdoor ral y. She attended a fund-raiser in Chicago and then took a bus to Iowa and painted campaign signs in a high school, while a snowstorm raged outside and Dan worried that the old people wouldn’t be able to drive to the school. Shannon painted poster boards red, white, and blue. She painted the Candidate’s name in fancy block letters, and made signs that said
“Davenport for Change.” She painted “Hope” over and over again, so many times that the letters started to look funny and the word lost its meaning.
Shannon went to Boston and fol owed Dan around to three different events in one day. She shook hands with the Candidate and nearly blacked out from excitement. She listened to him give the same speech over and over and she cried every time. He talked about the hardships people have to face, and he talked about wanting a better world for his children, and Shannon clapped and cried.
Shannon shouted that she was “fired up and ready to go” in seven different states. She passed out buttons and helped set up chairs. And sometimes, when she went to bed at night, she heard ral y cries in her head, soft and far away. They sounded so real that she was sure there were people gathered outside her apartment, huddled together, chanting the Candidate’s name as she tried to fal asleep.
Dan returned to New York for an event and Shannon recruited al of her friends to come. They waited in line at Washington Square Park for three hours, getting crushed by the crowd. “Dan wil be so happy that you came,” Shannon told them.
“Where is he?” Lauren asked.
“Up there.” Shannon pointed to the stage. Dan darted by.
“That’s fun that you got to see him last night,” Isabel a said.
“Oh, wel , I actual y didn’t,” Shannon said. “He ended up working al night. He slept here.”
“In the park?” Mary asked. “Gross.”
“Tonight, maybe?” Isabel a asked.
Shannon shook her head. “He’s off to Pennsylvania,” she said. The girls were quiet for a minute.
“Wel ,” Lauren said. “It wil be over soon, right?” Shannon started to agree, but the music came on and they al turned to the stage, and clapped and cheered.
As the primaries got closer, Dan traveled so much that Shannon didn’t even have time to go see him. He’d be in a city for twenty hours and then on his way to the next one. Even phone cal s became rare. Sometimes, though, she caught a glimpse of his head on the border of the TV, running from side to side in a gymnasium after the Candidate finished a speech. She watched for him closely, waiting for his blond head to flash on the screen.
“There he is,” she’d cry, although no one was there to hear her. And then as soon as she spotted him, he’d run off the other side, gone from her
When the Candidate won Iowa, Dan cal ed from the campaign center. He sounded muffled and far away. Shannon could hear screaming in the background and Dan had to yel to be heard. His voice was thick, as though he’d been crying or was just about to start.
When Dan did come home, he was exhausted and wrinkled. Sometimes, he’d been up for days. His hair stood up in clumps and his eyes were bloodshot. He’d come into the apartment, shower, and head straight for bed.
Shannon talked to him while he slept. She told him about her job while his eyes stayed closed. “Mmm-hmm,” he’d murmur sometimes.
Dan wore two BlackBerrys, strapped to either side of his belt. “You look like a nerd,” Shannon always told him. He didn’t care. Once when Dan was home and lying in bed, Shanon saw a red mark on his hip. “What’s that?” she asked. She touched it lightly.
“It’s from the BlackBerry, I think,” Dan said.
“You have a scar from your BlackBerry vibrating against you?” Shannon asked.
“I guess so,” Dan said.
“And that doesn’t strike you as strange? As not right?”
“Not real y,” Dan said. He rol ed over and turned out his bedside light.
“You’ve been branded,” Shannon said. But Dan was already asleep.
Every time Dan got ready to leave again, they fought.
“When wil you be home?” Shannon would ask.
“You know I don’t know that,” he’d say.
“Do you even miss me?” she’d ask.
“Shannon,” he’d say. “Don’t start this now. You know I miss you. Don’t fight with me right before I leave.”
Sometimes she let it drop, but sometimes she didn’t. Sometimes she’d poke and whine until they fought. It felt good to scream at him, to scream at someone. Once she asked him, “Let’s say that you got to have dinner with one person and you had to choose: me or the Candidate. And you hadn’t seen me in a month. Who would you pick?”
“You, of course,” he said. He came over and kissed her good-bye. It was a lie. She knew deep inside that she was his second choice. Always.
He’d fal en for someone new. And infatuation was winning.
Once after he left, the dog jumped onto the bed, lifted his leg, and peed. Shannon didn’t even yel at him. “I understand,” she said to the dog as she stripped the sheets. “It’s a shitty situation.”
As months went by, Shannon forgot what it was like to live with Dan. Some nights she convinced herself that he was gone for good. If he did leave, she decided, she would take his TV.
Her friends were worried about her. They took her to brunch and brought over wine. “How are you doing?” they asked.
“Good, good,” Shannon always said. What was she supposed to say? That Dan would rather campaign in Texas than spend time with her? That she’d been abandoned? That the Candidate had stolen her boyfriend? It was easier to just say, “I’m doing great.”
“You’re such a good sport,” they’d say.
Shannon drank the wine and agreed. “Yep, that’s me.” It was better, she thought, than the truth.
At the end of August, Dan got four days off from the campaign. Shannon thought they’d have al sorts of time together, but when he was in the apartment, al he did was e-mail with his campaign friends. He was constantly looking at his BlackBerry. They went to dinner, and Dan remained hunched over, his fingers clicking away. Sometimes he’d laugh at a response he got, or nod in agreement.
“Don’t your fingers hurt?” Shannon asked him. He looked up, surprised.
“No,” he said. “They’re fine.”
“Do you think you could put that away for twenty minutes while we eat, so that I could actual y talk to you while we’re in the same city for once?”
He whistled. “Whoa, Shannon. Calm down.” He put his BlackBerry down next to his plate and held up his hands in a fake surrender. “It’s away,” he said. “Okay?”
“No,” she said, holding out her hand. “Away, away. Give it to me. I’l keep it in my purse.”
“Shannon, come on. Don’t overreact.”
She kept her hand out. “I’m not overreacting. You’re not even e-mailing about work stuff, are you? You just miss your little campaign friends.”
Dan handed over the BlackBerry, but looked at Shannon with narrowed eyes. “You’ve real y got to figure out how to deal with your issues,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s total y the problem.”
The last night Dan was home, he wanted to go on a double date with his campaign friend Charlotte and her boyfriend, Chet. “Why?” Shannon kept
asking. “Why do we have to go out with them?”
“I want you to meet her,” Dan said. “I think you’l real y hit it off.”
“I kind of doubt it,” she said.
“Come on,” Dan said, and final y she agreed.
On the way downtown, Dan told Shannon that Charlotte and Chet were having some problems. “Chet’s not thril ed that Charlotte’s traveling so much,” he said. “He’s not taking the campaign too wel .”
“Who is?” she asked.
He just shook his head.
They went to a tiny Mexican place in the West Vil age that served mango margaritas that tasted like candy. Dan and Shannon got there first, and stood at the bar drinking their margaritas. “Oh,” Dan said, “there they are!” He waved his hand up in the air and a tal blonde waved back.
Charlotte was almost six feet tal and very thin. She was the kind of person you don’t think is that pretty at first, but upon closer examination, you realize that she’s gorgeous. Her angular nose was striking and her long limbs were graceful. She could have been a model. When Shannon stood next to her, her head came right up to her boobs.
“Shannon, hi!” she said, and she surprised Shannon with a hug. Shannon’s face smooshed into Charlotte’s chest and she could barely breathe.
Final y she let Shannon go, but stil held on to her shoulders. “It is so nice to final y meet you.”
Shannon finished her margarita and shook the empty glass at Dan. “I’m ready for another one.”
They waited a long time for a table and got two more rounds of margaritas. Chet and Shannon drank while Charlotte and Dan talked about the people they worked with.
“And Kel y,” Charlotte said, rol ing her eyes. “Can you believe the way she sets up the events? I mean, putting the chairs in a semicircle? Where does she think she is?”
Dan doubled over with laughter and Chet and Shannon looked at each other. Shannon licked the salt off her glass. “Semicircles, huh?” she asked. “Crazy.” Dan stopped laughing and tilted his head at her. She smiled back.
By the time they sat down, Shannon could feel mango margaritas sloshing around in her stomach. The waiter put a basket of chips on the table and everyone grabbed for them. Charlotte took a handful and shoved them in her mouth. Then she started waving her hands around like, Wait, don’t talk! I’ve got a story to tell! Chet looked at her from the sides of his eyes, and Shannon wondered if he hated his girlfriend too. Charlotte swal owed her chips and wiped the grease off her lips. She took a sip of her drink and smiled.
“I forgot to tel you guys,” she said. “Last night, I had the most graphic, realistic, and extremely satisfying sex dream about the Candidate.”
“Wel , it looks like we know who the next Monica Lewinsky wil be,” Shannon said. She laughed and no one else did. Dan looked at her with his mouth open. “What?” she asked. “She can talk about the next president of the United States giving her an orgasm and I can’t make a Lewinsky joke?”
Charlotte looked down in pretend embarrassment. “Oh my God, ” Shannon said. “You brought it up. With your boyfriend sitting right there.”
Shannon meant to point at Chet, but he was closer than she thought and she ended up poking him on the cheek. He jumped in surprise. Shannon got the feeling he hadn’t been listening to anything they’d been saying.
They finished their enchiladas quietly, with pleasant, bland conversation. On the way home, Dan reprimanded Shannon. “I can’t believe you said that,” he told her. “Charlotte was pretty upset.”
“Oh, was she?” Shannon asked. “Do you think that Chet and I were upset that we went to dinner with our significant others that we never see and al they talked about was the random people they work with on the campaign? People that we don’t know and have never met. It was so boring. And it was rude.” Shannon’s eyes started to tear up and she sniffled. Dan let his shoulders drop.
“I’m sorry, Shannon,” he said. She shrugged and he grabbed her arm until she looked at him. “I mean it. I know this is hard for you and I real y appreciate your support. You know that, right? You know how much that means to me.” Shannon shrugged again and let him hug her.
“We shouldn’t have gone to dinner with them,” she said. “That’s not fair. You’re leaving tomorrow.”
“You’re right,” Dan agreed. “It should have just been us. Charlotte suggested it and I didn’t know what else to do. She’s having a hard time with Chet. I’m not sure they’re going to work it out. I feel real y bad for them.”
“Yeah,” Shannon said. “How sad for them.”
Shannon dreamt of the Candidate. She dreamt that they ran into each other at the grocery store and laughed about buying the same pasta sauce.
“You like Ragú too?” Shannon said to him, and they laughed and clutched arms. She dreamt that he came over for dinner and she told him how he was making her life so hard. He smiled. He shook her hand. He talked about hope and belief and getting fired up! Shannon awoke from these dreams feeling exhausted and confused, until she noticed that she’d left the TV on CNN. They were showing a tape of the Candidate at some campaign stop. He was smiling and frowning, laughing and tilting his head to show concern. Shannon looked at him closely while he talked and gestured. Did he know? Did he know that he had stolen her boyfriend? Did he know that he was ruining her whole life plan? Did he know that he was making her miserable?
He finished the speech and a Stevie Wonder song came blaring out of the speakers. He clapped his hands toward the audience, gave a serious look, and then smiled and went to shake hands. He swayed his shoulders and hips to the song. She decided that the answer was no. He didn’t know any of it.
Everyone asked about Dan; people at work, friends, family, even the neighbors wanted to know what he was up to. “How’s he doing?” they would ask. “How’s the feeling on the campaign? Do we have this one wrapped up?”
Shannon knew they were al nervous. They were scared that they’d wind up with an old man and a crazy-booted gun lover in the White House. “It’s going great,” she would tel them. “Everyone’s feeling positive.”
“But what about this Muslim rumor?” they would insist. “Do you think we can shake this? What about the flag pin?” they asked. Shannon looked at their wrinkled eyebrows and tried to reassure them, but she barely had anything left.
As the election went on, the rumors got nasty. People tried to paint the Candidate as anti-American, finding incriminating old footage of a reverend he knew, and playing it on what seemed like a twenty-four-hour loop. When this news broke, Shannon didn’t talk to Dan for a week. He was jumping from event to event, trying to make people forget they’d ever heard the words “God damn America.”
When Dan final y did cal , it was in the middle of the night and Shannon wasn’t sure if she was dreaming.
“I just wanted to say hi,” he said. He didn’t sound like he knew she’d almost put out an Amber Alert on him.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Just tired. I keep thinking they can’t do it again. They can’t steal another election from us.”
“That’s good,” Shannon said. She was stil half caught in sleep.
“They can’t take this away,” he said. “The Candidate deserves this. We need him. The country needs him.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Shannon said. “They can’t take it away,” she repeated.
“That’s right,” he said. “And if they do, we’re moving to Canada.”
One evening in early fal , Shannon walked the dog up Broadway with her friend Lauren. The air was starting to turn and the wind made Shannon shiver just a little. The two of them were deciding where to get a drink, and Shannon was trying to hurry the dog along, pul ing him past hydrants he wanted to sniff, when a smiling boy with a clipboard stepped in front of them. “Excuse me,” he said. “Do you have a minute for the Democratic candidate?”
Lauren started to say something, but Shannon spoke first. “Do I have a minute for the Candidate?” she asked. The boy nodded and smiled and Shannon felt heat rush into her eyes. The dog sniffed the boy’s leg and stood very stil .
“Yes,” he said. “If you have just a minute for me, I can tel you about how you can help—”
“Do I have a minute for the Candidate? Do I? Have a minute? For the Candidate?” The boy nodded again, but now he looked nervous. “Let me tel you something,” Shannon said. “I have given the Candidate weeks—no, months—of my life. No, I don’t have a minute for him. You want to know why? My boyfriend has left to travel around with him. He quit his job to work for the campaign, and I haven’t seen him in a month. A month! I’m not sure if he’s ever coming back, and the thing is, he doesn’t even care! He doesn’t care because al he wants is to work on this godforsaken campaign that is just so important. More important than anything else, including me!”
The boy began to back away. “Okay, then,” he said. “I didn’t mean to—”
“You didn’t mean to what? Interrupt my walk? Stop me on a cold night and make me listen to you tel me how amazing this Candidate is? Yes, you did. And I’ve heard it. I hear it al the time. From my boyfriend, from everyone. I get it. He’s amazing.”
“Yes, he is,” the boy said quietly. Shannon narrowed her eyes. Lauren tried to pul her arm and make her walk away, but Shannon stayed right where she was.
“Why are you even here?” she asked.
“To inform people about the change we want to see in the world,” he said.
“No,” Shannon said. “Why are you here?” she pointed to the sidewalk. “Why are you in New York? You think you need to convince people here to vote for him? Let me give you a heads-up, buddy. He’s got New York, okay? We got it. We’re Democrats here. And you’re on the Upper West Side, of al places. For God’s sake. Don’t waste your time. Go somewhere else! It doesn’t even matter if I vote. I might not even bother. Did you hear that?
I might not vote!”
The boy kept walking backward and then turned and ran down the street, clutching his clipboard to his chest. He kept glancing back to see if Shannon was chasing after him. A few people stood on the sidewalk and stared, and Lauren took five steps to the right, trying to pretend that she didn’t know Shannon.
“Every vote counts,” an old lady said to Shannon. “Don’t be stupid.”
“Oh, fuck you,” she said. The dog hung his head. He looked embarrassed. Shannon started to walk down the sidewalk toward her apartment.
She walked quickly, and Lauren had to jog to keep up.
“Are you okay?” Lauren asked.
Shannon stopped. “Yeah. I guess maybe I’m not handling this whole thing as wel as I thought.”
“Real y?” Lauren said. “Do you think?”
“Whatever,” Shannon said.
“Hey, I get it,” Lauren said. “If you want to go back and push down that old lady, I’m al for it.”
“Maybe later,” Shannon said. “Drinks first.”
On Election Day, Shannon slept in. She got coffee and took her time walking to the public school where she would vote. Everyone at work would be late because of voting, and she might as wel take advantage of it. She at least deserved that much.
Shannon had butterflies in her stomach as she walked, but they weren’t from excitement. She’d been counting down to this day for months, and now that it was here she didn’t quite know how she felt about it.
As Shannon turned on Ninetieth, she saw that the line stretched al the way down the block. People were laughing and waving to their neighbors.
Moms from the school were sel ing baked goods and hot chocolate. “Al the proceeds are going to the school,” they kept saying. The group at the front was rowdy and slaphappy from standing in line for so long, and they started cheering as people came out of the building. “Whoo!” they yel ed.
“You made a difference! Good for you!”
Everyone was acting like this was some strange election-themed street fair. Shannon debated going back to bed and not voting at al . She could just tel everyone she had. What was the difference? In the end, she stayed put, but she put on her sunglasses and refused to smile at anyone around her.
Shannon saw a guy she knew from work walking down the line. “Hey!” he said to her. He held up his hand for a high five and Shannon gave him a
weak slap. “What a day, huh?” he asked. He turned his face to the sun and smiled. Like it was Christmas. Like there was a miracle to observe.
“Yep,” Shannon said. “What a day. Where did you come from? Were you in the front of the line?”
“Yeah,” he said. “But I gave my place to an elderly lady. I told her I’d go to the back of the line, you know? It’s the least I can do.”
This wasn’t the New York that Shannon loved. These weren’t the people who normal y lived here. Everyone had gone crazy. Dan was gone and maybe he was never coming back. Shannon thought, as she waited in line, that she was crazy too, that she should have never waited for Dan in the first place. She should have made him choose: “Me or the Candidate,” she should have said.
Shannon thought this as she stood in line and as she voted. What had she done? Why had she chosen to stand by and support Dan as he’d left her? When she came out of the building, the group of people waiting to get in smiled and waited for Shannon to smile back. She didn’t. Final y, one of the women said, “I hope you made the right choice.” Shannon just looked at her and said, “Me too.”
That night, Shannon sat in a bar with her friends to watch the returns. Everyone was anxious, and they drank quickly. “So, our feeling is hopeful but cautious, right?” Mary said.
“Sure,” Shannon said. She was drinking faster than any of them. Vodka went down like water. No one real y noticed until she fel off her stool.
“Whoa,” Isabel a said. “Are you okay?”
“Maybe we need some chicken fingers,” Lauren said. She held up her hand for the bartender.
“She’s just real y excited,” Shannon heard Mary tel ing someone at the bar. “Her boyfriend’s been working on the campaign and now he’l final y come home.”
“He’s not coming home,” Shannon tried to say. But it didn’t come out right and no one seemed to understand her.
When the Candidate gave his speech that night, Shannon cried, of course. Everyone did. The whole bar watched in tears because it was amazing and inspiring and they were al relieved. But Shannon didn’t cry like the rest of them. She didn’t have little tears dripping out. No, Shannon had flared nostrils and she heaved and hyperventilated and her face turned red. It was the way she used to cry when she was little, when her mom used to say, “You need to calm down” and would send her upstairs to do just that. Shannon sat in the middle of everyone and cried like a red hog.
Al of her friends sat around her, taking turns patting her on the back. Final y, Lauren took her home and made sure she got into bed and took some Advil.
“Just go to bed,” Lauren said. “You’l feel better tomorrow.”
“Nothing wil ever be the same,” Shannon said.
“That’s right,” Lauren said, misunderstanding. “It’s al different now.”
Dan was offered a job in D.C. shortly after. Shannon cried and they fought, and he took the job and moved there. They tried to make it work for a while. She took the train to visit him, and he drove up to New York on free weekends. But it wasn’t working. Shannon couldn’t shake the feeling that she was his second choice, that Dan had chosen someone else over her. She couldn’t forgive that.
One of the last times Shannon visited Dan, she ran into an old friend from col ege. He was sitting in a bar, drinking beers with a friend. He told her that his longtime girlfriend had joined the campaign and then gotten a job with the administration. She was in charge of finding hotels for the president and his staff and was currently in Germany. “I haven’t seen her in two months,” he said.
“Are you stil together?” Shannon asked. He shrugged and took a long drink.
“How can you be with someone if you never see them?” he final y responded.
“That,” Shannon said, “is a great question.”
Dan and Shannon broke up over the phone about two weeks after that. She blamed the Candidate for their breakup. (She didn’t cal him the president, like everyone else. To her, he would always be the Candidate.) When Shannon thought about it, the Candidate was probably responsible for al sorts of breakups. She and Dan were just the tip of the iceberg. Al over America, boyfriends and girlfriends had been ripped apart in the name of Hope.
Shannon was angry that no one was covering this news story. People were talking about health care, but no one was talking about the Relationship Misery Phenomenon that the Candidate had caused. She started writing an op-ed for the New York Times but she didn’t get very far.
She couldn’t put into words what had happened.
Shannon stopped reading the newspapers. She stopped watching CNN and MSNBC. Every day that she woke up seemed to matter less. It was Tuesday or Monday or Friday or Wednesday. What difference did it make? She didn’t care who the president was or what changes he was going to make to the country. She was alone and that was al she had room to think about.
Her friends tried to cheer her up. “Come on,” they said. “Come out. Forget about Dan.” But Shannon refused.
“You know,” Lauren said, “you were too good for him anyway.”
“That’s just something people say,” Shannon said.
“Shannon,” Lauren said, “the guy wore two BlackBerrys on his belt. He wasn’t perfect.” But this only made Shannon cry.
In her darkest moments, Shannon wished it had gone another way. Lying in bed at night, with her head under the covers, she wished that the Candidate had lost. She never admitted this to anyone, and she wasn’t sure that she real y meant it. But maybe she did. She felt reckless when she had these late-night thoughts. She was a lifetime Democrat and here she was wishing that the Republicans had squeaked out another one.
Sometimes she laughed by herself, feeling giddy, the same way she’d felt when she’d stolen a candy bar in the fourth grade. How ashamed her parents would have been if they’d known. How ashamed she was of herself when she looked in the mirror in the morning.
She thought of cal ing Dan just so she could say, “I wish he’d lost,” and then hanging up. But she couldn’t do it. She was afraid it would only reaffirm his belief that he was right to choose the Candidate over her, that it was the smartest thing he’d ever done.
Shannon wished that she were a stronger person, a more selfless soul that would be happy to put the needs of her country ahead of her own. But maybe she wasn’t. Maybe she was nothing more than a weak and selfish brat who wanted what she wanted. Oh yes, she was ashamed.
She started watching a lot of reality TV. She watched it for hours at a time, surprised when she looked up at the clock and found that a whole day had slipped by. It soothed her to see people eat bugs and search for love in rose ceremonies. It gave her peace.
Shannon used to judge people who watched these shows, this trash TV. Now it was al she could stand to do. She watched whatever was on—
dysfunctional famous families, snotty teenagers at reform camp, even a couple with a litter of in vitro babies that squabbled and screamed. But her favorite one of al , the one she waited al week to watch, was a weight-loss show where morbidly obese people were sent to a ranch and forced to exercise and starve themselves to a healthy weight.
These people cried and fought. They fel down on the gym floor and begged not to be sent home. They tried to undo al of the bad choices they’d made. Shannon watched in her bed, curled up under the blankets, bawling at the big people as they struggled to break out of their giant bodies.
She wept along with them as they ran on treadmil s and lifted weights. She cried for their struggle and the goals they wanted to reach. She understood them, after al . Al they wanted was a new beginning. Al they wanted was some hope.
I sabela and Harrison were going to Boston. Harrison wanted to get on the road early, and set the alarm clock for five a.m. “This isn’t early,” Isabela told him when the alarm clock started buzzing. “It’s the middle of the night.” Al morning, Harrison told Isabel a to hurry, which made her want to get back into bed. Final y, at eight-fifteen, they were in the car and heading out of the city. Isabel a asked if they could stop for coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts and Harrison wrinkled his nose and said, “Dunkin’ Donuts? Real y?” But he pul ed over and went inside to get it for her.
“Here,” he said, handing her the big Styrofoam cup. He sniffed.
“You don’t want any?” she asked.
“I’l wait,” he said.
They were going to Boston to see Harrison’s friends Brinkley and Coco. Brinkley and Coco had had a baby a few months ago and kept insisting that they come visit. Isabel a had heard the names Brinkley and Coco so much during the past week, she’d thought it was going to push her over the edge. Al of Harrison’s friends had names that reminded her of cartoon animals. These names used to be funny to Isabel a. Now they were just annoying.
“What’s the baby’s name again?” she asked, even though she knew. “Bitsy?”
Isabel a sipped her coffee and stared out the window. She was excited about going to Boston, even if she didn’t care about seeing these people or meeting their baby. It was October and Isabel a felt like she should be going somewhere. Fal always did that to her. It made her restless, like she was late getting back to school; like she should be registering for classes, and buying pencils and notebooks and folders that matched.
She’d bought a pink outfit for the child with little polka dots on the feet. She’d shown it to Harrison before she wrapped it. He nodded and said,
“Nice.” She also bought a little pink bunny to go with it, but at the last moment left it out of the package. It was soft and worried-looking and Isabel a had a feeling that the baby wouldn’t appreciate it. She pictured it lost among a shelf of bigger animals, and so she shoved it into a drawer in her bedside table and continued wrapping the present.
Harrison had gone to col ege in Boston too, and Isabel a often wondered if they’d ever run into each other on the street or brushed shoulders at a bar. She’d asked him this once when they had just started dating and it seemed romantic to think that they might have been in the same place years ago.
“Probably not,” he said.
“No,” she agreed. “Probably not.”
Harrison had gone to Tufts and was two years older, while she’d been at Boston Col ege, on the other side of the city. It made her sad to think they’d never be back there again, never bounce from bar to bar drinking and dancing just because they could, just because they should. It wasn’t that she wanted to be in col ege again, exactly. No, she just missed it sometimes, the aftermath of those nights out, inexplicable bruises and lost wal ets, phone numbers being requested, make-outs with near strangers in crowded bars.
Harrison didn’t seem to miss the past at al .
“But don’t you wish you could go back, just for a week?” she asked.
“I guess maybe,” he answered. She knew he didn’t mean it.
Isabel a could spend hours looking at pictures from col ege. She liked to set them next to the more recent pictures from weddings and reunions and compare the two. It wasn’t that they looked old now—they weren’t even thirty! It was just that they looked so young in the col ege pictures, so baby-faced and rubbery. Isabel a studied the different shots of them, dressed up in ridiculous costumes or bundled up for a footbal game. It amazed her, how eager their expressions were, like they couldn’t wait to get to the next party, like there was just so much fun waiting for them.
Isabel a couldn’t get over the way their skin looked in these pictures. It was dewy and pink and she couldn’t imagine what they’d ever complained about. It looked as though they were smothered in highlighting cream. Now they were dul er and more matte. And she was pretty sure they were going to stay that way.
Even Harrison’s col ege pictures made her sad—him in a dirty house standing next to a keg, his arms around friends and a half-drunk smile on his face. It made her homesick that she would never know him there. They’d met after they both had jobs, and it broke her heart that she’d never know the col ege Harrison. She studied the pictures of him with his col ege girlfriend, trying to figure out what they were like, jealous that the girl in the picture knew Harrison in a way that she couldn’t.
The ride to Boston took a while and they listened to NPR for most of the way. Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! was on, which was Harrison’s favorite show. He laughed at things that Isabel a didn’t find funny. She wanted to ask him what he was laughing at, but knew that the answer would probably be a look that said, You’re not as smart as I am so you don’t get it, and so she stayed quiet.
Isabel a fel asleep toward the end of the drive, and woke up confused and cranky as they pul ed into the driveway. Her mouth was open and she had drool on her cheek. She wiped it away and looked at Harrison, annoyed.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” she asked.
“You’re already up,” he said and turned off the ignition.
Brinkley was outside the house with their golden retriever, and Isabel a watched him wave and wished that they hadn’t come. She wiped her mouth again to make sure she got al the drool off and ran her fingers through her hair.
“Ready?” Harrison asked. She opened the door and got out.
Brinkley walked over to greet her and kissed her on the cheek. Al of Harrison’s friends had impeccable manners. She resisted her impulse to curtsy.
“Coco’s inside with the baby,” he said.
The baby (Isabel a had to admit) was gorgeous. There was none of the ruddy-faced pimply skin newborns sometimes have. This baby was pink and cream, with dark hair and deep blue eyes. Isabel a didn’t want to be in love with her but immediately was.
Coco was funnier than she remembered, which was maybe due to the fact that she’d gotten a little fat during her pregnancy. She had always been a tiny girl, but now on her short frame was the unmistakable blubber of leftover baby.
“Al I want now is sausage,” she told Isabel a with wide eyes. “It’s unreal. Red meat and sausage.”
She offered Isabel a a glass of wine and poured some red into two oversized glasses. “I’m not real y supposed to drink if I’m breast-feeding, but fuck it. I just went nine months without a drink. Plus, I go crazy by the end of the day with just this little blob to keep me company,” she said, smiling at the baby.
Isabel a liked Fat Coco more than she’d ever liked the other one.
They drank until dinner and nibbled on cheese and crackers. They passed around the baby and Coco opened the present. Isabel a held Elizabeth and wished that she’d brought her the bunny. By the time they sat down, they were al a little drunk.
Brinkley put the steaks on everyone’s plates and gave Coco the largest one, which struck Isabel a as incredibly kind. She’d always thought Brinkley would be the kind of husband who wouldn’t want a chubby wife. But he didn’t care! Coco had just had their baby and he was grateful.
Isabel a felt tears come to her eyes and made a mental note to stop drinking the wine.
Harrison and Isabel a made a plan to go to Newbury Street to walk around and have lunch, but by the time Isabel a was showered and dressed and got down to the kitchen the next morning, there was another plan al set. Coco was packing a picnic basket for them to bring to Boston Common.
Who owned a picnic basket? Did everyone have one except for Isabel a?
Isabel a kept looking at Harrison to catch his eye. This was not the plan. But he didn’t seem to notice. He poured himself a cup of coffee and talked to Brinkley about some guy they knew who’d been fired for stealing from clients. Isabel a wasn’t sure, but she thought the guy’s name was Mortimer.
Harrison leaned over his coffee, stuffing his nose right over the top as he inhaled. “Now, this,” he said, looking at Isabel a, “this is real coffee.”
Isabel a hated him so much she almost spit. His nostrils looked huge when he smel ed the coffee, and she felt nauseous. She smiled and asked for Advil.
Isabel a hadn’t been on a picnic for as long as she could remember. Maybe even longer. And she knew why. It was uncomfortable to sit outside and awkward to pass around thermoses fil ed with soup, trying not to spil them on clothes, holding on to napkins as they blew away. She was smiling, though, so as not to be rude. Her head hurt from the wine and she wished that she were stil in bed. It was cold when the wind blew—too cold, certainly, to be sitting outside for a meal.
Boston Common was pretty, especial y with al of the leaves changing colors and the beautiful brownstones in the background. Everyone in Boston looked cleaner and more awake than people in New York. But Boston Common was not Central Park, and it looked smal and eager to Isabel a, like it was trying too hard.
The baby was bundled up to the point of insanity. Al Isabel a could see was a teeny nose sticking out of a pile of blankets. Coco leaned over and touched her nose to the baby. Isabel a felt something that was certainly jealousy, although she wasn’t sure why. She wished that she wanted to sit closer to Harrison and have his arm wrapped around her, but she didn’t.
Harrison was explaining how the hedge fund he worked for was adjusting to the economy and how their outlook was changing. Every time he said the word “derivatives,” Isabel a’s temples throbbed. Coco and Brinkley listened intently, and not just to be polite. They were interested in what he was saying.
He was boring, Isabel a realized. She watched him tel a story about work and it hit her: He was boring, and his friends were boring, and this picnic right now was boring. Harrison probably had a secret desire to get married and move to Boston and get a golden retriever and be boring al the time. She didn’t know him at al .
And worse, what if he didn’t want to marry her and move to Boston? She wasn’t quite sure she wanted to be with him, but she was quite sure that she wanted him to want that. Her brain swirled inside her head, and she closed her eyes and tilted her head back to face the sun.
Sometimes Harrison seemed like an old man, crooked and worn out. He was cranky at the end of workdays, loosening his tie and watching the evening news. They probably shouldn’t have moved in together so soon, but rent in New York was insane and both of their leases were up and they were spending almost every night together anyway. It seemed like a good idea. Now Isabel a couldn’t imagine how they would ever get out of it even if they wanted to.
“Do you ever hate Ken?” Isabel a had asked her friend Mary a couple of weeks ago. They were getting manicures on a Wednesday night after work and the question just came out. Ken was Mary’s new boyfriend, a nice guy who made al of their friends comment, “Oh, there he is. That’s what she’s been waiting for,” as if finding your perfect match was a guarantee as long as you were patient enough.
Mary raised her eyebrows and looked closely at a nail she’d just smudged.
“Hate him?” she asked.
“Yeah. Hate him,” Isabel a said. “The other night I looked at Harrison and I just … I don’t know.”
“I don’t know if I ever hate him,” Mary said. “But he sure bugs the living fuck out of me sometimes.”
That night they al went to the North End for Italian food. They ate pasta and drank less wine than they had the night before, and Brinkley, Coco, and Harrison al exchanged information about people they’d gone to school with.
“Cathleen’s pregnant again,” Coco said. “But she’s not real y tel ing anyone yet, so don’t say anything.”
Coco always knew the best gossip, and almost everything she said was fol owed by a disclaimer that she wasn’t supposed to repeat it. The first time Isabel a had met Coco was at a wedding of Brinkley and Harrison’s friend Tom. Coco spent most of the reception sharing bits of information with Isabel a. The bride had cheated on the groom in col ege with another friend, Dave, who hadn’t been invited to the wedding, and also one of the bridesmaids had been in love with the groom since freshman year!
Isabel a took these confidences to mean that Coco real y liked her, that she wanted to be friends, and she was flattered by the attention. But after a few more encounters, Isabel a realized there was nothing special about her. Coco just couldn’t keep a secret.
Back at their house, Coco put out cookies and poured everyone some wine. The baby was wide awake, and lay on the floor on a pink blanket with a mobile of stuffed farm animals above her. She babbled at them like she was tel ing a story.
“You have a lot to say tonight, don’t you?” Coco asked the baby.
“Just like her mother,” Harrison said, and they al laughed.
For some reason this made Isabel a feel left out, like she was crashing a reunion. She sat on the floor next to the baby, pretending to be so interested in Elizabeth that she didn’t care about the conversation around her. The three of them were stil trading information about people from col ege, but they had moved on to peripheral friends, people Isabel a had never even met.
“Dorothea got laid off!” Coco almost yel ed this one, so happy that she’d remembered it. She tucked her legs underneath her, gearing up to tel the whole story. “She was just about to be promoted too, or that’s what she thought. And she was looking at places to buy in the city when they cal ed her in. Can you believe it?” She took a sip of wine for dramatic effect. “She’s pretty embarrassed about it, so don’t broadcast it or anything.
She had to move back in with her parents on Long Island. Can you imagine? Ugh,” Coco shuddered.
Isabel a actual y could imagine it and she wondered if she was the only one. Her life, as it was, felt very thin, very transportable. If she were to lose her job, moving back in with her parents might be exactly what she’d do. She wasn’t married to Harrison, and they didn’t have a child. She could just sel her bed and couch and pack up and move home to her parents’ house, easy as pie.
This wasn’t normal, she didn’t think. But was Coco more normal? They were almost the same age and Coco had started a whole other life with babies, and golden retrievers, and picnic baskets. It was a life that felt miles away for Isabel a.
Isabel a sat cross-legged in front of the baby and started tickling her toes. “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home …,” she began quietly. Elizabeth’s eyes grew very round and she looked serious. “This little piggy ate roast beef, and this little piggy had none.” Elizabeth was almost completely stil , her eyes fixed on Isabel a. “And this little piggy went weee weee weee, al the way home!” Isabel a finished and tickled the baby up her legs onto her stomach. Elizabeth looked frightened for a moment and then started to laugh and snort.
“You’re so good with her,” Coco said. Isabel a was offended that she sounded surprised.
“Isabel a has a lot of nieces and nephews,” Harrison said, not unkindly, though it made Isabel a feel like an awkward teenager who they were trying to praise and include. She excused herself shortly after and went upstairs to bed. The three of them stayed up late talking and it felt lonely to listen to their voices from another room.
Isabel a didn’t sleep wel that night and was up and dressed, sitting by her packed bag, before Harrison was even out of the shower. Coco had bagels and muffins and coffee ready, so they sat down to eat, and Isabel a was sure that this weekend was never going to end. She sipped her coffee, wanting the good-byes and hugs and promises to visit soon to be over already. Harrison was slow to gather his things and lingered at the table. Isabel a thought she might stand up and scream.
Final y they were on their way. Isabel a wanted to drive by Boston Col ege, maybe stop in the bookstore to buy a sweatshirt. The car windows were down and the wind blowing in was such perfect fal wind that it made Isabel a happy. She put her hand outside and felt the crispness mixed with leftover summer.
“Did you have fun?” Harrison asked her, looking sideways and reaching over to put his hand on her thigh. “I’m sorry if it wasn’t exactly what you wanted to do.”
“Would you ever want to move to Boston?” she asked.
“No,” he said. He looked over at her again. “Why? Is that something you think you want to do?”
She felt immediate relief and shook her head no. She smiled at him.
“It’s a nice place to visit, a great city for col ege, but I can’t picture living here again,” he said. “It’s like a fake city, you know?”
She laughed a little, thril ed that he’d said just what she was thinking. Isabel a had flipped back and forth on Harrison so many times this weekend that she’d lost track of where she was. What did that mean, exactly? She thought it couldn’t be good.
She took his hand and kissed it, then held it in her lap. “It was great,” she said. “Real y fun.” He smiled and looked back out at the road.
“That baby’s pretty cute, right?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, and took back his hand to turn the wheel.
As they pul ed up to the campus, Isabel a felt the same way she had when she’d returned each fal . Her stomach dropped with excitement and her throat tingled. She started looking around as though she was going to see someone she knew. Groups of girls were walking to the dining hal in pajama pants and messy ponytails. They were laughing and screaming, and Isabel a wanted to join them and eat bacon and eggs while they talked about the night before. What happened? Isabel a wanted to know. Who made out? Were there any boys there you liked?
Isabel a and Harrison walked around holding hands, and Isabel a pointed out the dorms she’d lived in and different buildings to Harrison. He was bored, she knew, and she didn’t care.
“Isn’t it pretty here?” she asked. “Isn’t it prettier than Tufts? It’s real y the prettiest campus I’ve ever seen.”
Final y he laughed and put his arm around her shoulders. “You might be a little biased, don’t you think?” he asked. He was talking to her in his aren’t you cute voice, which he used to use a lot more at the beginning of their relationship. He hadn’t used it much recently and Isabel a wasn’t sure if this was normal or not.
Isabel a had realized a couple of weeks ago that this was the longest relationship she had ever had. She was now twenty-nine. She could no longer compare this to crazy Wil from col ege or Ben the Stoner. Now this had turned into her “real relationship,” the one she would have to compare every other relationship to. Or not compare it to, if it was the one that would last.
In col ege, twenty-nine had seemed impossibly old. By now, she’d thought, she’d be married and have kids. But as each year went by, she didn’t feel much different than she had before. Time kept going by and she was just here, the same.
It seemed like it al happened easier for everyone else. Look at Harrison’s friends. They just got married and had kids and didn’t seem to think about it too much. Maybe that was her problem. Maybe she was thinking about it too much. Or maybe the fact that she was thinking about it meant it wasn’t right.
There was one morning recently when they were lounging in bed, which was unusual for Harrison. Sundays were his day to go running, and he was usual y up and out the door before she woke up. But this Sunday he didn’t go anywhere. They ordered breakfast in from the Bagelry and watched Meet the Press with the New York Times spread al over the bed.
It bothered her that he was such a go-getter on the weekend. It made her feel lazy to stay in bed when he was out running. That morning she was ready to pick a fight with him over leaving the apartment. And then, like he knew what she was thinking, he didn’t go anywhere.
“No run today?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Don’t real y feel like it,” he said.
Isabel a had two tiny stuffed pigs that she kept on her night-stand, named Buster and Stinky. Harrison had always thought it was odd, the way she loved stuffed animals, the way she was drawn to little figurines and fuzzy things. “You’re so weird,” he said, laughing, when she made a stuffed frog ribbit at him. And she knew he meant it.
Boyfriends in her past had found this trait cute and charming. They had indulged her with little fuzzy animals as presents. Ben had even gone so far as to give them little voices (usual y when he was stoned) and march them across the bed to make her laugh.
Harrison had largely ignored Buster and Stinky, except once when he had used Buster as a Hacky Sack during a long phone cal . But that morning, Isabel a came back from the bathroom to find the two pigs in the middle of the bed in a compromising pose. She stared at them for a minute before it registered that they were in the 69 position.
She stood at the end of the bed until Harrison final y looked up.
“Good Lord,” he said. “Bunch of dirty pigs around here. They must have learned it from watching you.”
“You know,” she said, “that they are both boys, right?”
“Are you saying that two male pigs can’t be in love? Did you learn nothing from the penguins at the zoo?”
Isabel a laughed and climbed back into bed with him. For the rest of the day, anytime she left the room Harrison arranged the pigs in another dirty pose. Yes, she thought at the end of the day. Okay, I could be with him forever.
She worried that maybe they’d been dating too long to end up together. It was like when you tried to jump off the high dive and if you did it right away, you were fine. But if you stood there looking down, thinking of al the bad things that could happen, you were doomed. You would just climb back down the ladder to the safety of the ground.
Harrison was standing next to a dorm building, checking his BlackBerry. She watched him from behind. How was she supposed to be okay just hating him and then loving him on alternate days? What if that never stopped?
She went up behind him and stood on her toes until her nose was right next to his ear, and then she snorted softly and slowly. He tilted his head like she was tickling him, and he lowered his BlackBerry. She kept snorting until she heard him laugh and then she stopped and kissed the back of his neck.
“Hey, dirty pig,” he said, turning around. “There you are.”
“There you are,” she said. She put her face next to his and snorted again until he smiled and kissed her.
E veryone was talking about babies. It al started when someone suggested that Shannon was getting married because she was pregnant. “She just met the guy six months ago,” their friend Annie said. “And here we are at their wedding. It’s a little suspicious.”
“You think there’s a bun in that oven?” Lauren asked. “I don’t think so.”
“Maybe she just wanted to get married,” Isabel a said. Then, to change the subject, she asked their friend Katie how her pregnancy was going, and Katie launched into a speech about how hard it had been for her to get pregnant the second time. “You just always think it wil be so easy,” she said. “I already had Charles, and I just figured I’d be able to get pregnant whenever I wanted.” Katie paused here to take a sip of her water, and Lauren looked hopeful that the conversation was over, but then Katie continued. “Anyway, I bought a book cal ed Taking Charge of Your Fertility , and it real y changed my life,” she said.
Annie squealed, “I bought that book too! It’s amazing.” The two of them began discussing how they tested their cervical fluid to find out when they were ovulating.
“Cervical fluid?” Lauren whispered to Isabel a.
“Discharge,” Isabel a whispered back. Lauren put down her cake and picked up her drink.
“That’s real y gross,” she said.
“No kidding,” Isabel a answered.
When the two girls started comparing the difference between fluid that was like “egg whites” and fluid that was “fluffy,” Lauren got up to get them new drinks. When she came back, they were talking about placenta. Isabel a grabbed the drink from her and smiled.
“Remember when Michael Jackson said he grabbed the baby with the placenta stil on it?” Lauren asked. Isabel a laughed and shook her head.
“What?” Lauren asked. “That’s real y my only placenta story. I’m just trying to participate.” The two of them snorted with laughter.
Everyone kept bringing up Michael Jackson. He had died earlier in the week, and every time Isabel a turned on the TV, he was looking right back at her. It was impossible to forget about him. Even the band at the wedding was playing a lot of Michael Jackson. Shannon’s wedding was turning into a Michael Jackson memorial concert. It was weird.
“You know what song has been in my head for like a week?” Lauren asked. “ ‘Bil ie Jean.’ It just keeps playing, and I don’t know what to do about it. Do you think it wil make me go insane? It’s just always there in the background of my brain, ‘Bil ie Jean is not my lover …’ ”
“You have the worst voice,” Isabel a said.
“It’s real y sad about Michael Jackson,” Katie said.
“I don’t think it is,” Lauren said. “I don’t know why, but I wasn’t sad at al .”
“Do you know what you’re going to name the baby?” Isabel a asked.
“Wel , I like Jason but I’m not sure.”
“Maybe you should name him Blanket,” Lauren said.
Isabel a wanted everyone to stop talking about babies before Mary came over to the table. Mary was pregnant two weeks ago, but no one knew that. She’d confessed to Isabel a and Lauren one night when they were at her apartment. Lauren had brought champagne over to celebrate her new real estate job. “Come on,” Lauren said when Mary said she didn’t want any. “I’m final y gainful y employed. If you can’t celebrate that, what can you celebrate?” She’d poured the glass anyway, and held it in front of Mary, right under her nose, until Mary turned her face away and said, “I’m pregnant.” Just like that.
“Oh, fuck,” Lauren said, lowering the glass. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“I can’t believe it,” Mary kept saying. “I just can’t believe it.”
“Wel , it’s pretty good timing,” Isabel a said. “I mean, you’l be married soon.”
“Yeah,” Mary said slowly. “I just didn’t plan it. I didn’t think it was going to happen like this.”
Then she cal ed Isabel a a week later to tel her that she wasn’t pregnant anymore. “I’m not sure what happened,” she said. “The doctor said it’s normal.”
“Wel then, I’m sure it is,” Isabel a said.
“I feel so stupid,” Mary said. “I know I didn’t plan it, but then I wanted it. Now I feel like I wished it away.”
“I don’t think it works like that,” Isabel a said.
“I guess not.” Mary didn’t sound convinced.
Now they were at Shannon’s wedding, and stil al anyone could talk about was babies. “Do you know why Kristi said she couldn’t come to the
wedding?” Katie asked. “Because they only travel when her mother-in-law can come with and she was busy. They can’t leave the baby even for a night, because Kristi only breast-feeds. She never even pumps. That is weird.”
“Isn’t the baby almost a year old?” Isabel a asked. They both nodded.
“Gross,” Lauren said.
Ken was worried about Mary. He told Isabel a after the wedding. “I’m worried about her,” he said. Isabel a hugged him. He was a nice guy.
“I think she’l be okay,” she told him. He nodded. Whenever he stood next to Mary, he had his hand on her arm.
Katie was talking about her birth plan for the second baby. Lauren looked at her with disgust and fear. This was nothing, Isabel a thought. Harrison and Isabel a had seen the actual video of Charles’s birth. It happened quite by accident. Katie and Tim invited them over for dinner one night, and as they were drinking wine, admiring the baby, and eating mini quiches, Katie asked, “Do you want to see the birthing video?” Isabel a was sure that neither she nor Harrison said yes, but they didn’t say no either, and so they found themselves watching Katie writhing on the TV while a slimy Charles made his way into the world. When they walked out of the apartment that night, Harrison hit the elevator button and simply said, “Holy shit.”
Isabel a loved him for that.
“They aren’t that good of friends,” she felt compel ed to tel him. He just shook his head and put his eyes to the ceiling. “Holy shit,” he said again.
Lauren had pul ed the first layer of her bridesmaid dress over her head and was dancing around to “Beat It.” “I think maybe no more cocktails for Lauren,” Isabel a said to no one in particular.
“That’s just real y inappropriate,” Katie said. Isabel a made a mental note to tel Harrison this later. “Do you believe she thinks that’s inappropriate?” she’l say. “How about showing your friends a video starring your vagina?” And he’d laugh.
Isabel a hadn’t seen Harrison in a while. He was probably avoiding being anywhere near Katie. Isabel a was sure that he was afraid of Katie after the video. She didn’t blame him.
She walked outside and saw Mary and Ken on the other side of the stone patio that overlooked the ocean. Mary leaned her head in the nook of Ken’s arm and he kissed the top of her head. Isabel a felt like she was spying, but she stood and watched them.
Harrison walked up behind Isabel a and smiled when he saw that she was crying. “Are you crying?” he asked. She shook her head no. “You are the worst liar,” he said. Isabel a always cried at weddings. (Although normal y she cried at the ceremony and not the reception.)
“Everything okay?” Harrison asked.
Isabel a nodded. “I’m just happy.”
“Clearly,” he said. He pul ed a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to her so that she could blow her nose. Harrison always brought handkerchiefs to weddings so that he could hand them to Isabel a. He was the only person she knew besides her grandfather who carried actual handkerchiefs.
The first time he’d handed one to her, it was like finding a twenty-dol ar bil in her winter jacket: unexpected and incredibly lucky. It thril ed her, the happiness that came with that gesture—and it never went away, it never even faded. Every time he gave her his handkerchief, she was dizzy with fortune.
“You missed a great conversation in there about childbirth,” Isabel a told him.
“I’m sorry I missed it,” Harrison said. “Did Katie pul out some photos of Charles in the birth canal?”
“Not this time. There was just a lot of talk about placenta.”
“ ‘Placenta’ comes from a Latin word meaning ‘flat cake,’ ” Harrison said.
“How do you know that? Why is that something that you know in your head?”
Harrison shrugged. “I heard it somewhere.” He smiled.
“I think you watch too much Discovery Channel,” Isabel a said.
When Harrison gave her a dog for her thirtieth birthday, she was overwhelmed at the responsibility. “I think I’m going to kil it,” she kept saying. He assured her that she would not. Isabel a had wanted a dog for a long time, but once she had him she was sure she wasn’t ready. She could step on him, forget to feed him, or leave something poisonous out for him to eat. The possibilities were endless.
The second night he was at the apartment, Winston cried so much that Isabel a ended up lying on the floor next to him. She woke up to Harrison standing above her saying, “Who owns who?” Winston was curled in a tight bal by her stomach, and she looked closely to make sure he was stil breathing. Then she looked at Harrison, rubbed her eyes, and said, “I think he might own us, but we’l see.”
Harrison smiled. “You’re a good mom,” he said, and then he went to brush his teeth. Just like that, out of the blue, You’re a good mom.
“Do you want to go back in?” Isabel a asked him. “Katie is talking about her birthing plan.”
Harrison considered. “No,” he said. “I do not.”
Isabel a twisted the handkerchief in her hand and smiled.
K en’s father had died, and so Mary couldn’t be as honest about things as she wanted to. “I’m al my mom has,” Ken said whenever Mary mentioned anything.
“She has three other kids,” Mary said.
“None like me,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulder.
Mary tried to be charitable. After al , she was Catholic. She could suffer in silence. She tried not to say anything when Ken spent whole weekends at his mom’s house, doing her taxes or helping her pick out a door for the new garage. “My dad took care of al that stuff,” he said whenever Mary complained that she didn’t see him enough.
On Mary and Ken’s first date, Ken took a cal from his mom in the middle of dinner. “I’m sorry,” he said when he got back. “My mom gets nervous when I don’t answer. My dad passed a few years ago, and so she’s al alone.”
Mary could have cried from happiness. She was on a blind date with a truly nice guy who loved his mother and wasn’t afraid to tel her. Three dates later it wasn’t as charming.
Ken moved into Mary’s apartment but warned her that he could never tel his mom what he’d done. “But we’re thirty,” Mary said. She’d never found him less attractive.
“My mom is just old-fashioned,” he said. “And I don’t want to upset her. She’s been through so much with my dad and everything.” And so Mary wasn’t al owed to say much more.
“Some umbilical cords are stronger than others,” Lauren told her. It sounded like the first line of a horror movie.
“Cal me Button,” Ken’s mother said when they got engaged. “Or Mom.”
Everyone cal ed Ken’s mother Button. They always had. Most people didn’t even know that her real name was Virginia. “My dad just thought I was cute as a button,” she explained once to Mary. “And the name stuck.”
Mary couldn’t imagine cal ing a grown woman Button. Cal ing her Mom was worse. Mary was certain the offer was insincere. She wanted to keep cal ing her Mrs. Walker, like she always had. But now that the subject had been broached, she knew she couldn’t, so Mary just said, “Thank you,”
and stopped cal ing her anything.
“What am I supposed to do?” Mary asked Isabel a. “His family is obviously crazy.”
“So is Harrison’s family,” Isabel a said. “They never hug. Did I tel you that? They literal y just wave at each other from across the room when they haven’t seen each other in months. It’s bizarre.”
“Wel , Ken’s mother hugs her children when they leave the room for more than five minutes.”
“That’s kind of weird.”
“Harrison’s family doesn’t ever talk on the phone. Never. Except if they’re going to meet somewhere and they want to confirm the time.”
“Ken’s family only goes out to eat at T.G.I. Friday’s or Chili’s,” Mary said, and Isabel a laughed.
“Harrison’s brother eats with his hands and never says ‘Excuse me’ when he leaves the table. He just gets up to go.”
“I don’t think Button wants us to get married.”
“Yeah. I think she wants Ken to pay attention only to her.”
“Ew,” Isabel a said.
Every summer, Ken’s family went to Lake Minnetonka in Cable, Wisconsin. “Don’t you guys ever want to go somewhere else?” Mary asked.
“That’s where we go,” Ken explained. “My dad started taking us there when I was just a baby.”
Mary and Ken had been dating for two years, but Mary was never invited to “the lake.” Ken came on vacation with her family, but never mentioned it when he went away. Now that they were engaged, Button cal ed Ken to tel him to extend the invitation to Mary. He told her as though she should be thril ed. “You’l get to see the lake!” he said. She smiled. No lake could be worth a week with Button.
It took them al day to get there. They had to fly into Minneapolis–St. Paul International, and then drive three hours to the lake. When they arrived, Button was standing on the porch, waiting for them. “I’m so glad you could join us,” she said to Mary with just a trace of a fake British accent. It
sounded like she had been practicing the sentence.
Mary saw that Button was trying to smile but couldn’t quite get her mouth to go the right way. Ken went in to change into his bathing suit and ran down the path to the lake before Mary had even gotten inside. She gave him a look that said, Don’t leave me alone here, but he just cal ed out,
“Come meet me when you’re ready!” Mary and Button stared at each other on the porch.
“Let me show you your room,” Button said, and led Mary to a slim rectangular closet off the kitchen. There was a cot set up in there that took up most of the room. Mary put her bag down and tried to seem pleased to be sleeping in an old food pantry.
“Thanks so much for having me,” Mary said. “I’m so excited to be here. Ken always talks about this place.”
Button was flustered. “Wel ,” she said. “Wel , how nice.”
“Do you need help with anything? Dinner or anything like that?”
“No, we’re al set,” Button said. “Dinner is at six.” When Mary was final y alone in the pantry, she decided to lie down and take a nap.
“This is my family now,” she thought to herself. “I am going to be legal y bound to Button.” She tried to tel herself not to be so overdramatic, but then she imagined spending holidays with these people and let a single tear slide out of her eye. She was al owed a single tear. She was going to have a mother-in-law named Button.
The lake was pretty but freezing. Ken took her out in one of the kayaks, assuring her that she wouldn’t die. “Here,” he said, tossing her a life jacket.
“Put this on.”
They paddled out to the middle of the murky lake. Mary was in the front because Ken said the heavier person should be in the back. She kept trying to turn around to ask him questions, but when she did the boat wobbled and so she remained looking straight ahead. The paddles were dripping into the boat and a pretty big puddle was gathering around their feet. The only nice thing about being in the boat was that Button was getting smal er and smal er on the shore. Mary was just starting to enjoy herself when she heard Ken say, “Uh-oh.”
“What?” Mary whipped her head around and the boat tipped to the right. “What uh-oh? What?”
“No big deal,” Ken said. “But we should start paddling back. I think there’s some holes in the boat.”
Mary grabbed her paddle and started slapping it in the water. She could hear Ken laughing. “It’s okay,” he said. “I promise, even if the boat sinks we aren’t that far out. We can swim in.”
When they got back, Button was standing on the shore with her hand pressed over her chest. “Oh, I was so worried!” she said. “What on earth made you think to take the kayak out? We haven’t had those out in years.” Mary thought Button was looking at her while she said this.
“Mom, we’re fine,” Ken said. He was tal er than his mother, and when he put his arm around her, she looked tiny.
“Wel ,” Button said. “Wel , I was worried.”
“I know, Mom, I know!” Ken and his mother walked ahead down the path to the cabin. Mary walked behind them, shivering, with wet feet.
It became clear to Mary that the Walkers had a routine at the lake and that just by being there, she was disrupting it. Sunday night they went to the Lodge for dinner and had wal eye pike and cheese curds. Monday night was hot dogs on the gril . Tuesday night was taco night. When they went to the grocery store, Mary suggested that they get salmon to gril and the whole family looked at her like she was nuts.
“We only eat fish at the Lodge,” Ken’s sister said. Mary nodded like this made sense.
They went down to the Lodge on Wednesday night for bingo. “You know what this place reminds me of?” Mary asked. “The summer place they go to in Dirty Dancing, you know?” Ken’s sister laughed.
“Dirty Dancing?” Button asked. “What kind of a movie is that?”
Mary felt as though she had just admitted to Button that she watched hard-core porn, and so she shut her mouth and focused on her bingo cards.
Ken was in the other room getting his mother a gin and tonic. He walked in and looked around the bingo tables to see where they were sitting. Mary and Button waved their hands at him together. Ken saw Mary and smiled and then started walking over.
“Oh,” Button said, “He saw you first. I guess you’re his number one girl now.”
For a moment, Mary thought she had heard wrong. And then for another she was just too creeped out to answer. Final y she said, “I’m wearing a pretty bright color. It was probably just easier to see me.”
Ken’s siblings didn’t cater to Button the way that he did. They were perfectly nice to her, of course. They just didn’t watch her every move to make sure she was okay at al times.
“Maybe it’s because he’s the oldest,” Isabel a said to her on the phone. Mary had driven into town and cal ed Isabel a from a pay phone. She had no cel service in Cable and she needed to talk to someone before she lost her mind.
“Maybe,” Mary said.
Every year, Ken’s family took a picture in front of the lake. This year, Mary volunteered to take it and Ken said, “No, you should be in it.” Button straightened her shoulders and Mary said, “How about I take one of just you guys and then one with me?” Button smiled at her.
On the plane ride home, Mary counted the mosquito bites on her legs. “Twenty-three!” she announced to Ken. “No, wait—twenty-four!”
Ken laughed. “I told you that you shouldn’t have gone running without bug spray on. You didn’t believe me.”
“I just thought I would be faster than the bugs,” Mary said.
“I’m glad you got to see the lake,” Ken said, and Mary smiled.
“Do you think we’l be able to go next year, with the honeymoon and everything?” Mary asked. “I’m not sure I have enough vacation time.”
“We’l work it out. Even if you can’t make it, I’l have to sneak away for a few days to get up there.”
“It’s a long trip for just a few days,” Mary said. Ken patted her knee.
When they got married, Button cried. Mary was pretty sure that they were sad tears and not happy tears. “You’re crazy,” Ken said. “My mother adores you.”
Ken danced with his mother and it was the happiest she looked al night. Mary stood near her for a little while at the reception, and when a waiter passed with a tray of shrimp, Button said, “You know that Ken can’t eat shrimp, right? He breaks out in hives.”
“Yes,” Mary said. “I know.”
“Oh, okay.” Button seemed relieved. “I just wanted to make sure. I just didn’t know why you would ever serve shrimp at your wedding if you knew your husband could break out in hives.”
Mary went to the bathroom and locked herself in the handicapped stal . She stood in her dress and breathed deep breaths until she heard Isabel a walk in.
“Mary?” Isabel a cal ed. “Are you in here?”
Mary unlocked the stal and stood there. “Button,” she said.
Isabel a nodded. “Harrison’s mother told me last weekend that she thought polka dots were out of style.”
“So?” Mary asked.
“I was wearing my pink-and-white polka dot dress,” Isabel a said.
“Okay,” Mary said. “Okay.” She and Isabel a walked back out to the reception.
When Mary found out she was pregnant, Ken cal ed his mother right away. “She’s crying,” he mouthed to Mary. Mary smiled.
They al went out to dinner to celebrate. “We should know the sex of the baby soon,” Mary said.
“Oh no! You’re going to find out?” Button looked horrified.
“Yeah, we thought it would be nice to prepare.”
“But it’s the greatest surprise of your life. Why would you ruin that?”
Mary didn’t know what to say.
“You’l have to move out of that neighborhood,” Button said. “You can’t have a baby there. It’s rather sketchy.” The neighborhood they lived in hadn’t been sketchy since the seventies. Now it was stuffed ful of Starbucks and Baby Gap and no one in their right mind would cal it sketchy.
“Maybe,” Ken said. “We’l think about it.”
“Have you thought of any names?” Button asked. Mary knew she was trying to be nice.
“We thought maybe Parker if it was a boy. And if it’s a girl, we like Lola.”
“Lola? You can’t cal a baby Lola! It sounds like a prostitute.”
“Mom,” Ken said, laughing. “It doesn’t sound like a prostitute.” Mary stayed silent.
“What about Brittany or Tiffany?” Button offered, looking at Mary. “Or Mandy or Christina?”
“Maybe,” Mary said. “We’ve got some time to decide.”
Button nodded. “Wel , if you name her Lola, then maybe I’l cal her something else.” She looked pleased, like this solved the problem. Mary tried to catch Ken’s eye, but he was looking at his cheeseburger.
“She wants her grandchild to be a teenybopper!” Mary said. “Brittany and Tiffany? What kind of names are those? Those are pretend names that you gave your pretend children in second grade!”
“Real y?” Isabel a asked. “I always went with Brandy at that age.”
“Sorry, okay. So she has bad taste in names.”
“Bad taste? She wants her granddaughter to be a teenage singer who wears leather pants and vows to stay a virgin before getting pregnant at seventeen.”
Mary started to cry and Isabel a patted her back. “Maybe it wil be a boy,” she offered.
The baby was born with al of his fingers and toes, which made Mary happy. She hadn’t been that worried, but there’d been one night before she knew she was pregnant when she and Isabel a had drunk enough wine for a smal country. And so, when she was able to count everything for herself, she was relieved.
He was a chunky little baby and they named him Henry, after Ken’s dad. Mary knew it made Ken happy and also she liked the name Henry. Mary liked to hold his feet and put them in her mouth.
He had light blond hair and blue eyes, like Ken. Sometimes when he was concentrating on going to the bathroom, it looked just like Ken when he was working on a case he thought he was going to lose.
“He’s the cutest baby you’ve ever seen, right?” she asked Ken.
“Yes,” he said. “I think he is.”
Button came over the day they got back from the hospital. “I just can’t wait to see him!” she said to Mary when she walked in.
“You could have come to visit in the hospital,” Mary said.
Button shook her head. “No,” she said. “I remember how it is. You need some time alone to get it together. My mother-in-law stormed into the hospital right after I had Ken, and it was just too much! People didn’t do that in those days.” She leaned down to whisper to Mary. “Between you, me, and the lamppost, my mother-in-law was a little bit of a terror.” She winked at Mary.
Henry waved his hands and feet in the air. “Oh!” Button cried. “Look at those feet! Don’t you just want to eat them?”
“Al the time,” Mary said. She leaned over and smiled at Henry. “Look who it is,” she cooed at him. “Look who came to see you! Grandma Button is here.”
“I think he needs to be changed,” Button said. “It’s the kind of thing you should do right away.”
Mary picked up the baby and brought him to the changing table. She started to wipe him, but Button came over and edged her out.
“No,” Button said, grabbing the wipe from Mary’s hand. “You want to do it like this. Here, let me show you. Go like this.”
J esus is coming.”
And then: “Jesus is coming, folks, you should be ready.”
Isabel a looked down the subway platform to see if she could find the man who was trying to tel her about Jesus. She couldn’t see anyone, which made her nervous. His voice boomed around her: “Are you ready? Jesus wil know if you aren’t ready.” It was Friday night and Isabel a just wanted to get home. Lately, she’d had the feeling that someone was going to push her onto the track while she waited for the subway, and just because this man was talking about Jesus didn’t mean he wouldn’t be the one to do it.
“Wil you be ready when he comes? Wil you be ready?” the voice echoed down to her. Isabel a shivered and hoped that the train would come soon.
The whole week, things had been off for Isabel a. New York, it seemed, was out to get her. It started on Sunday, when a crazy bearded man spit at her on the street and cal ed her a cunt. Monday, while she was watching TV, a giant roach the size of a smal dog crawled out from behind the bookshelf and died in the middle of the room. It shook and gyrated and then final y stopped moving. Isabel a thought it might have had a seizure.
Tuesday, there was the situation with her underwear. Her laundry was delivered to her door that night. Usual y this made her feel wonderful y organized and put together—for only a dol ar a pound, she could drop off al of her dirty laundry and have it delivered clean and folded the same day
—but this time, as she unpacked the bag, she found a pair of underwear that didn’t belong to her. It was a large, flesh-colored, silky pair of underwear with a rose on the waistband. She held it between her thumb and pointer finger like it was dirty, although she realized it must have been cleaned and washed with her things. Her dog, Winston, sat and stared at the underwear, his head cocked to one side, trying to figure out why Isabel a was holding it in the air.
In the end, she threw it out. She thought of returning it but figured the cleaners wouldn’t know who the owner was anyway. It was such a smal thing, but it made Isabel a feel sick, like someone had broken in and touched al of her underwear. It didn’t make sense, she knew. After al , she paid these people to wash her underwear. She did it on purpose. But it stil left her uneasy, the thought that people’s personals could get mixed up so easily—that someone else’s underwear could find its way into her drawers.
On Wednesday, Isabel a found a whisker on her chin. She hadn’t noticed anything strange that morning, but when she touched her face that night, there it was: a coarse black whisker. When had it had time to grow? “This is not right,” Isabel a said to the mirror as she plucked the whisker out.
“This is not right!”
“What?” Harrison asked from the other side of the door.
“Nothing,” Isabel a said.
Thursday, Isabel a found out that Beth White was getting a divorce. She couldn’t believe it. It left her unsettled. Beth and Kyle had gotten married five years ago, in a perfectly bland New Jersey wedding where they’d had a DJ instead of a band and served chicken instead of steak. They weren’t the kind of couple you looked at and thought, “Now, that’s what love looks like” or “That’s what I want to have someday.” But they were a couple that was compatible in a very ordinary way, and Isabel a had always thought they were a good fit.
Isabel a had been one of Beth’s bridesmaids, and she remembered how Beth was so bloated the day of the wedding that her dress wouldn’t zip.
Isabel a had known Beth for twelve years, and for ten of those years, she’d been with Kyle.
“I’m moving into the city,” Beth said when she cal ed Isabel a.
“Oh,” Isabel a said. “Great. What about the house?”
“We’re sel ing it. Didn’t Lauren tel you? I asked her for some real estate advice and she recommended someone to us. I’m getting out of this godforsaken suburb. We can hang out al the time!”
“Great,” Isabel a said. “Great.”
Friday, Isabel a’s boss asked her to type up some notes. It was a job Isabel a used to do when she was Snowy’s assistant, but she’d been promoted to assistant editor over a year ago. So when Snowy walked by and dumped notes on Isabel a’s desk, she was thrown. Was she being demoted or had she imagined her promotion in the first place? Had time gone backward? She stared at the notes for a while, and then put them in a neat little pile in the corner of her desk.
“Did you know that Snowy asked me to type up her notes?” Isabel a asked Cate.
“She does the same thing to me,” Cate said.
“Doesn’t she know that she has two new assistants?” Isabel a asked, and Cate shrugged.
“Probably not,” she said. “The woman is bat-shit crazy. Plus,” she said lowering her voice, “I heard she’s worried about her job.”
“Isn’t everybody?” Isabel a asked.
Cave Publishing was in trouble. The CFO had been sending around e-mails that referenced the economy in vague terms. He used words like
“cutbacks” and “accommodations,” but no one knew what he was trying to say. Cate was convinced that they would al be fired soon.
“It’s just a matter of time,” she kept saying to Isabel a. “Make sure you have money saved. This shitbox of a company probably won’t even give us
By the time Isabel a made it to the subway station on Friday, she felt defeated. It was so hot that she was sure she was going to melt. “Jesus is coming,” the voice said. Isabel a wiped the sweat off her forehead. She thought she might faint.
Isabel a went home, turned on the air conditioner, and lay down on the bed. Maybe, she thought, things just seemed worse because of the heat. It always made people agitated when it got this hot—the air seemed to stick in the middle of the buildings and that made it hard to breathe. There was no such thing as a breeze in New York, and the whole city started to smel like garbage. That’s al it was, she decided. The weather. She tried to stay completely stil . The air conditioner whirred in the window. Soon the sweat started to evaporate and she started to feel better. Harrison was away on a business trip for a few days. Isabel a decided that she would order Thai food for dinner and stay in. She might feel better for now, but it was safer to stay in the apartment. No sense in going out.
Isabel a’s left side hurt. It started in her shoulder, then moved up to her jaw and down to her leg. She complained for a month, until Harrison told her she had to go to the doctor. “I mean, it’s probably an advanced tumor,” she said to Harrison. “What can they do for that?”
“I promise, it’s not a tumor,” Harrison told her. She knew he had no authority to make such a promise.
“Fine,” she said. “I’l go to a chiropractor.”
“You have a mean case of TMJ,” the chiropractor told her. “You’re carrying a lot of stress on this side. Your alignment is al off.”
“So what can I do?” Isabel a asked.
“I’l show you some stretching exercises. And you should get a mouth guard to stop clenching your jaw at night. You can come back and see me.
But what you real y need to do is lower your stress level.”
“Oh,” Isabel a said. “That’s al ? Thanks.”
“You should take yoga,” Mary told her. “It wil relax you.”
Isabel a went to hot yoga, which turned out to be a horrible mistake. The room was a hundred degrees, and Isabel a could barely breathe. “You may feel nauseous or faint during class,” the instructor told everyone. “This is normal. This is a normal reaction. Just work through it.”
“This is not normal,” Isabel a thought. During tree pose, her legs were so sweaty that she slipped and fel .
“Don’t go to that yoga class,” Lauren told her. “Oh my God, that’s, like, the worst one. Go to hatha.”
Isabel a’s new yoga class was better. It was a normal temperature, and kind of reminded her of church with al of the chanting and bowing and putting hands in prayer position. At the end of the class the teacher sprinkled them with lavender water as they lay stil , which was nice. But her yoga mat smel ed like feet, which got in the way of her transcendence.
“Maybe we should move out of New York,” Isabel a said to Harrison. “Things aren’t going wel here.”
“It’s not like other cities are in great shape,” Harrison said. “Plus, we both stil have our jobs.”
“For now,” Isabel a said.
“For now,” he said.
“I pushed someone on the subway,” Isabel a admitted. “They were going too slow, and I just pushed a little bit.”
Harrison laughed. “So you think you need to leave New York?”
“Yeah,” Isabel a said. “I always said when I push someone, it’s time to go.”
“Wel , that’s something to think about.”
Isabel a went out for drinks with Lauren and Mary. Al they wanted to do was talk about Beth White.
“The house is a piece of shit,” Lauren told them. “They didn’t take care of it, and in this market? They aren’t going to get anything for it.”
“Spoken like a wonderful real estate agent,” Mary said.
“I told them not to sel ,” Lauren said. “Beth wouldn’t hear of it. She said she wants it gone.”
“Jesus,” Isabel a said. “What happened, exactly? Does anyone know?”
Lauren shrugged. “She said it was mutual.”
“That sucks,” Mary said.
“I was wondering why they weren’t having kids, though, you know?” Lauren said. “I knew something was up.”
“She told me that she’s getting custody of the dog,” Mary said.
“That’s the saddest sentence I’ve ever heard,” Isabel a said. When she got home that night, she looked at Winston and said, “You would go with me, right? You love me more.” The dog yawned, and looked away.
“What’s happening?” Isabel a asked Cate. She’d gotten stuck on a subway with no air-conditioning and was twenty minutes late to work. When she walked onto her floor, the conference room was ful of people and some of them were crying.
“They closed the whole YA division. They just told everyone today.”
“So al those people are just fired?”
“Yeah,” Cate said. “Crazy, right?”
“How can they just close a whole division?” Isabel a asked. Her dress was stuck to her legs, and she tried to pul the material away without being
“The company is in some serious trouble,” Cate whispered. “I say, we’re lucky if we’re stil here in a couple of months.”
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” Harrison told her. “Just make sure your résumé is updated, and do your job. That’s al .”
Isabel a felt sick to her stomach, and heard the yoga instructor in her head saying, “You may feel nauseous. This is a normal reaction.”
“But that’s al that I’ve worked for,” Isabel a said. “If I leave now, with the title I have, I won’t be able to get a job anywhere.”
“You stil have your job for now,” Harrison said. “You’re very resourceful.”
“You’re very resourceful? What kind of a thing is that to say to someone?”
Harrison told her to calm down, and she started screaming. “I hate when people tel me to calm down! You calm down. Don’t you cal me resourceful, and then tel me to calm down.”
Isabel a packed a bag and left the apartment. “I’l be back tomorrow,” she said. Harrison stood in the door and looked confused.
Isabel a went over to Mary and Ken’s apartment. Ken took one look at her and carried Henry into the other room.
“I think you’re just stressed from work,” Mary told her.
“Maybe,” Isabel a said. “But I don’t think that’s it.”
“It doesn’t sound like Harrison was real y out of line, though,” Mary said.
“No,” Isabel a said. “I’m out of line.” She thought about her left side, al gnarled and crooked. Then she sent Harrison a text message that said,
“I’m sorry. I’m crazy.” He wrote back, “That’s okay.”
Isabel a and Mary drank a lot of wine, and Isabel a ended up sleeping on the couch. She woke up to Henry dancing in front of her while he watched Sesame Street. “Hi!” he said to her. Isabel a saw how ful his diaper was before she smel ed it. She sat up and smiled at him. “Hi,” she said back, and this pleased him so much that he smiled and squatted.
“I think Henry needs a new diaper,” she cal ed to Mary. Then she stood up and ran to the bathroom to vomit. She heard Henry banging on the door. “Ummmbl l !” he screamed. Isabel a knew he was saying, “Let me in! What are you doing?”
“Not now, Henry!” Isabel a cal ed.
“Bl l , baaa!”
“I know,” Isabel a said. “I’m a disgrace.”
Every day at work, Isabel a was sure she was going to be fired. And, as if that weren’t stressful enough, Peggy, one of the copy editors, wouldn’t leave Isabel a alone. She asked her about every comma, every semicolon, until Isabel a wanted to scream. Peggy was in her forties and wore odd-colored pantsuits with large shoulders and funky buttons. Whenever Isabel a looked at her, she thought of her fifth-grade social studies textbook.
Peggy looked like she should be in there, with a caption that said, “Someday you wil work in an office and you wil have coworkers. Women and men work together as equals.”
Peggy alternately repulsed Isabel a and made her sad. She complained about her almost every night to Harrison. Then one day she came into work and found out that Peggy had been fired.
“They got rid of half of the copy editors,” Cate told her. “Crazy Pantsuits is gone.”
Isabel a went home that night and cried. “I feel so bad,” she said to Harrison. He rubbed her back and said, “I know.”
Lauren had been trying to plan a trip for al of their col ege friends for the past year. She’d started out suggesting that they go to the Bahamas, but was met with too much resistance. Final y, she planned a weekend in the Hamptons. “This is pathetic,” she kept saying. “This was supposed to be a trip for our thirtieth birthdays, and it’s a whole year later. And al we’re doing is going to the beach?”
“It wil be fun,” Mary told her. “The Hamptons wil be perfect.”
Beth White was excited about the weekend. She kept sending e-mails out to the whole group that said things like “Watch out for the divorced lady” and “It’s like a reverse bachelorette party for me!” It was making everyone uncomfortable.
“I think she’s lost it,” Mary said.
“No kidding,” Isabel a said.
Harrison lay on the couch and read the paper while Isabel a packed for her trip. Winston was curled up on his chest. Every so often, Winston lifted his head and licked Harrison’s chin. Winston was a little white fluff of a dog and when he sat stil , he looked like a stuffed animal. Isabel a loved him more than anything. As soon as she got her suitcase out, he wouldn’t look at her. He turned his head away and only paid attention to Harrison.
“Harrison, if we break up, would you give me the dog?” Isabel a asked.
Harrison lowered the paper and looked at her. “Excuse me?”
“Beth White is getting the dog, but she said that she had to fight Kyle for him.”
“Oh,” Harrison said. “I see.”
“So would you give me the dog?”
“No,” Harrison said. “If you broke up with me, I would kidnap Winston. Then I would take him around the country and photograph him in different states, so that I could send you the pictures and taunt you.”
“Fair enough,” Isabel a said. She sat down on the bed and rested her head on Harrison’s chest, right next to the dog.
“I love you,” she said.
He took the end of her hair in his hand, twirled it around his finger, and said, “Good to know.”
“You look tired,” Isabel a said to Mary. They were sitting on the top level of the double-decker train to the Hamptons. Mary stared out the window with dark circles under her eyes.
“I didn’t sleep wel last night,” Mary said. “Can I tel you something weird?”
“Always,” Isabel a said.
“Okay, but you have to promise not to tel anyone else. It’s real y weird.”
“I woke up from a nightmare and I was biting Ken on the arm,” Mary said.
“Jesus, what was the dream?” Isabel a asked.
“Wel , I dreamt that Ken was marrying this big black woman. And he kept saying, ‘Sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry. We can stil be together, but I have to marry her.’ And I was crying, and then the woman came over and started fighting me. I bit her ankle, and then I woke up to Ken screaming.”
“That is real y weird,” Isabel a said.
“I know. What if that’s what I do now? What if I just keep biting Ken in my sleep?”
“I don’t think that wil happen,” Isabel a said.