The Breakup Club (Red Dress Ink)

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The Breakup Club Melissa Senate

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THE BREAKUP CLUB A Red Dress Ink novel ISBN 1-55254-400-1 © 2006 by Melissa Senate. All rights reserved. The reproduction, transmission or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without written permission. For permission please contact Red Dress Ink, Editorial Office, 225 Duncan Mill Road, Don Mills, Ontario M3B 3K9, Canada. This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, incidents and places are the products of the author’s imagination, and are not to be construed as real. While the author was inspired in part by actual events, none of the characters in the book is based on an actual person. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental and unintentional. ® and TM are trademarks. Trademarks indicated with ® are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Canadian Trade Marks Office and/or other countries. for Adam About the Author Bestselling author Melissa Senate has written four novels: See Jane Date (which was made into a TV movie for ABC Family), The Solomon Sisters Wise Up (which took her on a whirlwind three-city book tour of Italy), Whose Wedding Is It Anyway? (chosen by Marie Claire as a Top Ten must-read pick) and The Breakup Club (her latest). She lives on the southern coast of Maine with her husband and young son. For more information about Melissa and her books, please visit her Web site at

Acknowledgments XOXO to… 2 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Kim Witherspoon and Alexis Hurley at Inkwell Management Joan Marlow Golan and Margaret Marbury at Red Dress Ink The two great loves of my life: Adam Kempler, husband extraordinaire (who reminds me every day to take it bird by bird), and Max, the world’s greatest kid. And for their unwitting inspiration, a big fat clink of the glass to: Josh Behar, Mark James, Lucia Macro, Kelly Notaras and Mike Shohl.

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Chapter one Lucy What did I know about breakups? I married my first boyfriend. Everything I knew about breakups I learned from my younger sister, Miranda. She’d been broken up with at least ten times in her twenty-nine years, yet she never saw it coming. It was always the same story. They were in bed (usually his, because Miranda had roommates), she asked where the relationship was going, and ten or twenty or two hundred minutes later, she was informed that the relationship was going nowhere because it was over. She then tearfully collected her toothbrush and facial cleanser, the box of Tampax under the sink, her nighties and her books (purposely leaving something behind, like her leather jacket or contact lenses), stuffed everything into a large brown paper bag she’d found wedged between the refrigerator and oven and ran crying out of his apartment building. She stopped at the corner, huddled under the awning of a twenty-four-hour deli, and called me from her cell phone while the paper bag ripped, the contents of her life with Jim, Mark, Peter, Ethan, Andrew, Gabriel, et al, dropping to the sidewalk. And so at midnight or two in the morning, my phone would ring, Miranda sobbing and sputtering on the other end. Miranda: “Eeeee…woo…uhh mahhhh.” Me: “He threw up on you?” Miranda sobs harder: “Eeee…bwoh up wi muhh!” Ah. Translation: He broke up with me. If my husband happened to be out at midnight or two in the morning delivering a baby (he’s an obstetrician), rather than go pick up my sister and leave our twelve-year-old daughter, Amelia, alone in the apartment, I’d instruct Miranda to calm down, take deep breaths and hail a cab. Since she rarely had more than six bucks on her, I’d meet her taxi in front of my building and pay the driver. Then I’d take her torn brown paper bag, hand her a few tissues for her running mascara and red nose, sling an arm over her shoulder and lead her upstairs, where we’d order in Chinese food and watch her favorite movie, Muriel’s Wedding, until she was ready to tell me what happened. What happened was always more or less the same thing, with minor variations: she was too this or too that; he met someone else; he was moving to Boston/Botswana/the Upper West Side and wasn’t into long-distance relationships; she caught him cheating; he didn’t want her to leave a toothbrush in his toothbrush holder; it wasn’t her, it was him; it was her, she asked where the relationship was going. Et cetera. 4 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Miranda would scarf down her spring rolls and her shrimp dumplings and half of my sweet-andsour chicken and break open the fortune cookies, looking for assurances of future love, and I’d hold her hand and reheat her tea and hand her another box of tissues. Then she’d burst into a fresh round of tears and croak out, “I…tau…eee…wuv-d…muh.” Translation: I thought he loved me. The last time was six months ago and had taken even me by surprise. Miranda had been so in love, and the boyfriend, Gabriel, had shown up at every family function during their year-long relationship. I’d liked him, my daughter had liked him—even my husband, who couldn’t stand any of Miranda’s boyfriends, had liked him. After every breakup, she’d sob out the same question: “What’s…wong…wid…meeee, Luceeeee?” What’s wrong with you is what’s wrong with me, little sister. Which was: we were bad at reading signs. I attributed this to growing up with an odd mother who would be, say, making a quiche lorraine from scratch, then suddenly take off her apron, hang it up on its peg by the cookbooks, announce she was leaving and then not return for a few days. During our childhood, our mother left a total of forty-nine times. We never saw it coming, because there were no signs. When her internal bomb imploded, it was time for her to go, and she went quietly, no muss, no fuss. Sometimes she was gone for an hour, sometimes for days. Never longer than one week. Once, she rented a house at the Jersey shore in the middle of winter, and when I asked her what she did all alone for seven days in the freezing cold, she said she read four Janet Evanovich novels from the town library and knitted herself a scarf (half of one, anyway). My father was a quiet, even-tempered man and let her have these “moments.” “Your mother is taking some me-time,” he’d tell us when she’d get up from the couch in the middle of Wheel of Fortune and return three days later. “Your mother is crazy,” Miranda would whisper to me, rolling her eyes. And then she’d link her arm around mine, her attention seemingly focused on Vanna’s sparkly dress. So when Larry—the husband I chose because he lacked a crazy gene—went completely nuts during Thanksgiving dinner this afternoon, I was as shocked as everyone else. “Has he been acting strangely lately?” the various relatives sitting around the dining-room table asked me. Nope. He hadn’t been. Or at least I didn’t think so. As I said, I was bad at reading signs and I knew nothing about breakups. So I didn’t know that my husband’s temper tantrum—over a paper plate—was a big neon sign that a breakup was coming.

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We had two Thanksgiving traditions. The first was that dinner was always at our apartment. Actually that was less a tradition and more a result of the fact that no one else ever offered to host. Aunt Dinah (my father’s sister) hadn’t cooked a hot meal since Uncle Saul died. “Who wants to cook for one?” she’d say before driving off to Boston Market for her contribution of two pounds of mashed potatoes. My sister couldn’t cook and had the aforementioned roommate. My husband’s sister couldn’t fit more than three people into her tiny studio apartment. Larry’s parents, recently retired professors of comparative literature at Rutgers University, where they’d met and had a long tenured life together, were staunch vegetarians and brought their own food to all family functions. My parents took off for their gated community in Florida the second the forecast called for temperatures under sixty-five. And Larry’s elderly grandparents could barely lift a fork. Which left me. I’d managed to make an entire traditional feast for eleven and edit a manuscript for work (I was a senior editor at Bold Books) without a) getting turkey guts on a single manuscript page or b) burning anything because I was so caught up in the unauthorized biography of Chrissy Cobb, the nineteen-year-old pop singer who had lifted her shirt on live television six months ago and got herself banned for life from the networks. “Like I need those conservative assholes?” the gorgeous but grumpy singer countered in a Rolling Stone magazine interview. “Like Oprah or Live with Regis and Kelly are TRL. Puhleeze!” All of which made her a worthy subject of a Bold Books “instant” book. Instant books are conceived, written, edited and sent through the stages of production at warp speed to capitalize on the timeliness of a media frenzy. The life and times of a nineteen-year-old didn’t amount to many chapters, so it was a short biography, something to be grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day when I was working and cooking inside a too-small, too-hot kitchen and being interrupted for more Diet Coke, more hummus, more ice cubes by the relatives. The edited manuscript was due to production on Monday, and since I was gunning for a promotion at Bold (the editor in chief, Futterman, had announced his intention to promote one of his three senior editors to executive editor), I had to spend the entire weekend working on it. Whora Belle—oops, I mean Wanda Belle—senior editor of romance, had the whory edge (I had a suspicion that she and Futterman had once been involved), and Boy Wonder (oops again, I mean Christopher Levy), senior editor of true crime and mysteries, had the male-bonding edge, but I had the seniority. Which meant absolutely nothing to a jerk like Futterman. Although I’d given the assistant editor, who was my one staff member, two weeks to do a preliminary edit on the Cobb Bio—a luxury in the world of instant books (overnight was more like it)—she hadn’t done anything but take the manuscript and then give it back. Forget the glaring inconsistency in the second chapter, she didn’t even catch the typo in the first sentence:

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When pop singer Chrissy Cobb lifted her tiny tank top on national television, baring her siliconeenhanced brests for all of America… Ah, something else to be grateful for—yesterday had been the assistant editor’s last day. Hence the untouched manuscript—what was I going to do, fire her? Give her another mediocre performance review? Under a mangle of black tights and loose M&M’s in her desk drawer, I also found four unread book proposals on the eighteen-month-old baby boy who survived alone in the woods for three days after getting separated from his parents on a camping trip. ABC was airing a TV movie on the story in June, and Futterman wanted an instant book on shelves exactly one week before airtime, to capitalize on ABC’s promotion. Working today—all weekend, really—would help land me that promotion. And it wasn’t as if I were taking time away from my husband and daughter, which led me to our second Thanksgiving Day family tradition: the Thanksgiving Day parade. Every year, Larry and Amelia took the crosstown bus from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where we lived, to the Upper West Side to watch the parade, unless one of Larry’s patients went into labor, a hazard of marrying an obstetrician. Regardless, every year, Larry’s entire side of the family came over two hours early and were always annoyed that Larry and Amelia weren’t home. Did I mind that I was stuck entertaining the relatives (mostly Larry’s) while Larry and Amelia escaped to the Thanksgiving Day parade in this year’s terrific weather (fifty-one degrees!)? No. Larry often disappeared with Amelia moments before company was due, especially if the company included our various relatives, even his own. Did I yell at him for it? Nope. I’d rather he spent some alone-time with our daughter than save me from his parents, who were prone to conducting long, dry debates about the “death of literature” while sipping white wine. Larry’s job called him away from home at odd hours, evenings, weekends, middle of the night. Daddyand-me time was precious to Amelia. Larry Masterson, M.D., OB, was a darling of the Upper East Side moms who flirtily referred to him as Dr. Masterful. I did and didn’t get it. Larry is a good-looking man, yes, but he’d slowly morphed from the hot med student I’d married at twenty-two to a soft-bellied, balding thirtyfour-year-old in comfortable slacks and horn-rimmed glasses. Yet despite his fleshy cheeks and Pillsbury stomach and the Rockports, the mothers swooned. Perhaps it was his bedside manner, which was spectacular outside of our bed. My marriage had been blah for months now. Not years. Just months. Just recently. An affair? I wondered occasionally. But when? How? Larry was either delivering a baby at three in the morning or spending weekend afternoons enlightening Amelia on the finer points of menstruation in dry, dull clinical terms that held her enrapt. Amelia, who had the attention span of a toddler but the worries and questions of an adolescent, loved listening to her father’s documentary-style monologues on Your Body. He was a doctor. He knew. What he said was official. 7 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Between Larry’s office hours and all the weekend calls from his service about water breaking and preterm labor, Amelia rarely saw her father, despite our living only three avenues and two blocks from his Park Avenue practice. So if he actually had the opportunity to take his daughter to the parade for a few hours while I got stuck with the Mastersons, fine with me. Besides, I had Miranda to entertain me. My sister was funny as hell (Amelia idolized her “supercool!” aunt, especially in contrast with her super-uncool aunt, Larry’s sister). And if Miranda was with me, she wasn’t standing in front of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment building at one in the morning, staring up at his windows and wondering if he was in bed with someone else. I had no doubt he was; Miranda held out hope. Rewind to fifteen minutes ago, when Larry and Amelia returned from the parade. “We’re back!” my daughter called as she and Larry hung up their jackets in the hall closet. “How dare you!” my husband’s mother snapped, hands on hips. “I came all the way into the city on the busiest travel day of the year, and my only grandchild is nowhere to be found for two hours!” My mother-in-law, who lived ten miles away and dressed in fuchsia sequins as though she were headed for the opera and not the casual afternoon dinner we always had, was placated in seconds by the World’s Best Preteen with a few hugs and kisses. The female relatives helped me set the table and lay out platters and bowls of the delicious basics —garlic mashed potatoes and baked sweet potatoes, two kinds of stuffing, cranberry sauce, creamed corn and three kinds of South Beach Diet–approved side dishes for Larry, who’d started four days ago (why not wait till after Thanksgiving?), plus two pies, pumpkin and apple. The male relatives, on the other hand, sat on their butts, talking about the Yankees. Amelia put her hands on her hips and yelled, “Hey, why are only the women doing the work? This isn’t the twentieth century, you know!” “Trust me, it’ll be the same when you get married,” my mother-in-law said in her most worldweary tone as she heaped mashed potatoes into a serving bowl. If you were looking for one word to describe Marian Masterson, Milton scholar, cynical would do. Larry scooped Amelia into a hug. “Amelia May Masterson, you are absolutely right. And I hope and pray that your grandmother is wrong. Your mom is senior editor of New York Times bestsellers, and she works just as hard as I do, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be helping with the setting up and serving too. Or why any of you lazy bums shouldn’t be helping,” he called out with a raised eyebrow at the male relatives. Ah, Larry, I may not see you much, but I always remember why I married you. 8 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Okay, everyone, come and get it!” I announced, setting down the scrumptious-looking twentyfive-pound turkey on the dining-room table in front of Larry’s seat, as he was “family carver.” Everyone sat, sipped their sodas and began passing around side dishes. “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?” aforementioned wonderful husband bellowed. Conversation stopped. Heads turned. Eyes swung to Larry. What was wrong? Had a morsel of stuffing or the bowl of mashed potatoes accidentally brushed up against the turkey platter? Larry was taking his new diet very seriously, so I had basted the turkey with fat-free, sugar-free, carb-free, everything-free “oil” spray. Turkey sans skin and a few of the side dishes were about all he could eat. I put the turkey platter in front of his place setting and let it block all the delicious foods that he couldn’t eat. Larry stood at the head of the table, staring at his empty plate. His very attractive holiday-themed heavyweight orange paper plate, decorated with tiny turkeys along the rim. Why spend the wee hours scraping food off the good china when there were gorgeous paper plates that could just be tossed into the trash? “Duh, Daddy,” Amelia said. “It’s a plate.” “Larry, what’s wrong?” I interrupted, able to spot steam coming out of my husband’s ears at first smoke. My husband, my completely normal (until that moment) husband, suddenly flung the plate into the air, then pushed the turkey platter off the table with all his might, which was considerable, given that he was six feet and well over two hundred pounds. The turkey went flying, knocking the bowl of garlic mashed potatoes upside down (of course) onto Larry’s mother’s lap, and the cranberry sauce onto the salmon walls of the dining room, blending in quite well, actually. “Paper plates!” he yelled. “And plastic cups?” He grabbed a faux highball glass and waved it at me. “Are you KIDDING me? It’s a HOLIDAY, for God’s sake! How goddamned tacky is this!” Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. What the hell? “Your husband has the maturity and self-control of a four-year-old,” my aunt Dinah whispered to me, shaking her head. “In all my years of marriage, your uncle Saul never once pushed food off a table.” “That would explain why Uncle Saul was three hundred pounds,” my sister whispered to Amelia with a wink. “I had a three-hundred-pound uncle?” Amelia yelped, eyes and mouth open wide. “Omigod!” Aunt Dinah smacked her lips. “He was a big man, but healthy as a horse.” 9 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Healthy men aren’t huge!” Larry shouted at my aunt, throwing his arms up in the air. I’d fought against crazy my entire life, but here we were, a bunch of nutcases. All of us. Larry, clearly, and myself surely, since I’d married a lunatic, but the entire family too. At the moment— this turkey-on-the-floor-instead-of-on-our-paper-plates moment—Larry’s parents were whispering between themselves, most likely about how they only used paper plates at barbecues. Larry’s sister was freshening her lipstick, which wasn’t so crazy, actually, since there was no food to ruin her glossy red mouth. My aunt Dinah was ruminating to no one in particular about the appeal of large men. And Larry’s grandparents, hard of hearing and of eyesight, were waving me over. I bent down next to Grannie Ellie. “It’s okay, Ellie. We’re—” “Dear,” she interrupted, “Albert and I prefer dark meat. A thigh or a drumstick.” I smiled and patted Grannie Ellie’s hand. “Why don’t you start with a delicious baked sweet potato?” As I forked a sweet potato onto each of their plates, I realized the only uncrazy person in the room was a twelve-year-old. Amelia was looking at her father as though he had seven heads. “Are you totally insane?” Amelia screeched at him, hands on hips. “What are we supposed to eat now, Daddy?” Good question. Even Harry, our cat, sniffed at the turkey and rejected it. Larry covered his face with his hands and sank dramatically onto his chair. Then he reached into his pocket, withdrew his wallet and placed five one-hundred-dollar bills on the table along with his Visa card. “Lucy,” he said to me, “take everyone out for dinner.” Sure. No problem. A table for eleven—ten minus King Nutcase—at a moment’s notice on Thanksgiving at four o’clock in Manhattan. I don’t think so. “So, are you seeing anyone special, Miranda?” Larry’s mother asked as though we’d given our thanks, heaped our plates full of turkey and all the trimmings and had begun small-talk hell. And as though she weren’t busy removing gobs of mashed potatoes off her lap. “I’m developing a very close relationship with the guy who takes the delivery orders at Wan Fu,” Miranda said, dabbing at a glob of cranberry sauce on her sleeve. “In fact, why don’t we call him now and order takeout for eleven—make that ten,” she added, glaring at Larry. “It’s just the bottom of the turkey that hit the floor—the rug, really,” Larry’s mother said, bending down and scooping up the turkey with a fork in each end. She picked up the platter, 10 ♥ela_vanilla♥

called Harry to come eat the potatoes and carrots that had landed all over the floor, despite the fact that Harry was a) a cat and b) not a vegetarian like herself, and then put the turkey back on the platter. It’s fine,” she added, as though she’d be the first to dig in. “I’m not eating a dirty turkey!” Amelia yelped. “Harry pees on that rug! Daddy, what is wrong with you! You wouldn’t let me get a pretzel at the parade so I could save my appetite, and now I’m starving!” “Let’s just sit down and eat,” Larry’s father declared, as though his son had spent his formative years pushing turkeys off tables. “The turkey is fine.” “Neither turkey is fine,” I heard Miranda whisper to no one in particular as she eyed my husband. “Larry, I’d like to speak to you in the kitchen,” I said through gritted teeth. He sulked his way through the swinging white doors and stood in front of the refrigerator. As I followed him in, I had a sudden urge to shove him inside the freezer. “Amelia had the right question. What is wrong with you?” I asked. “What the hell was that about?” “Paper plates?” he said, wrinkling his face in disgust. “Plastic cups? It’s fucking Thanksgiving. We have company.” “We can hear you!” trilled Larry’s mother. “And there are children present!” Larry rolled his eyes and continued sulking. “Are you insane?” I asked. He rolled his eyes. “Oh, that’s a very mature response. What you should be saying is, ‘I screwed up.’” My mouth dropped open. “How dare you? Who the hell do you think you are?” “I think I’m a very busy doctor who delivered three babies last week and performed four amnios and had God knows how many emergencies. I didn’t think I needed to supervise the setting of the table too. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would have been if a friend or colleague had stopped by? Paper products at Thanksgiving dinner!” He shook his head and closed his eyes. “You probably set out paper napkins, too, instead of cloth.” Again with the head shaking. I stared at him, waiting for the Pod person to shrivel up and normal Larry to return. Wasn’t happening.

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“Do you know what I am, Larry? I’m a very busy working mother and wife who cooked this entire meal by myself despite my own emergencies at work. Despite my working late every night for the past six weeks so that I get the promotion to executive editor that I want so badly. Despite my helping Amelia with her science-fair project and attending her modern-dance recital alone, taking your grandmother to her doctor’s appointment and buying holiday gifts for your office staff! And I also spent time choosing very nice, heavyweight, holiday-themed paper plates and plastic faux highball glasses so that I could entertain instead of clean. If that’s not good enough for you, then next year, you handle the dishes.” “Why are you wearing a fisherman’s sweater?” Larry asked suddenly, looking me over, top to bottom. “Are we going fishing?” His gaze moved to my head. “Don’t you know you have a lot of gray hairs?” he said, his expression contemptuous as he plucked a white strand from the side of my head and held it out to me. “Ow!” I yelled, batting the hair away. “What the hell do you think you’re doing!” Did he need medication? Could you suddenly go crazy out of nowhere? What was going on? What had happened to my perfectly normal husband? How did you go from having a wonderful time at the Thanksgiving Day parade to flipping out over a perfectly nice paper plate and pushing a twenty-five-pound turkey off a table and pulling gray hairs from your wife’s head? “What’s wrong, Larry?” I asked him more gently, searching his hazel eyes for any kind of clue. “Are you listening to me? I’m asking you to tell me what’s wrong. I’m putting aside for the moment that you just ruined Thanksgiving dinner for, I should add, mostly your relatives. Without a shred of anger in my voice, I’m asking you to tell me what’s wrong.” He looked around the kitchen, looked everywhere but at me, then took a deep breath. “I need fresh air,” he said, staring at my shoes. “Are you wearing clogs?” I glanced down at my red leather clogs. “Is that a rhetorical question?” “You could stand to lose twenty pounds yourself,” he said, giving me the once-over. “You can borrow my South Beach book anytime. Or you can sign up to join online—” He held up a hand as though I’d tried to interrupt him, but I hadn’t said a word. I was too busy trying to decide if I should have him committed. “I’m going out for some air,” he said. “Listen, you jerk,” I said, jabbing a finger at his chest. “You think you’re going to ruin Thanksgiving dinner for everyone—and my entire night—by suddenly going nuts, and then just leave?” Not that I wanted him around suddenly. “I don’t think so.”

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“I’ll be back later,” he said, pushing his way through the swinging doors. I heard him say, “I’m going out to pick up a quart of milk. Be back soon,” and then the sound of our apartment door opening and closing. I glanced at my reflection in the shiny door of the microwave oven. What was wrong with my fisherman’s sweater? I wore it every year on Thanksgiving. It was another tradition. And yes, Dr. Jekyll, these are clogs. Amelia pushed through the swinging doors. “Is Daddy okay?” she asked, wrapping a long curl around her finger—her nervous gesture. “Yeah, Daddy’s fine,” I assured her with a squeeze of her shoulders. “He’s just exhausted from working too hard—and suffering from potato-chip withdrawal.” “Can we get Chinese from the place Miranda always orders from?” Amelia asked. “I’m dying for sweet-and-sour chicken. Do you think they have sweet-and-sour turkey?” I smiled. “They just might today. Ask Miranda to take everyone’s order.” And so after thirty minutes of ten people grabbing at the one Wan Fu menu that Miranda carried everywhere and changing their minds and can-I-have-brown-rice and make-sure-it’s-vegetabledumplings-and-not-pork, we spent the next ninety minutes waiting for the food delivery and debating whether Larry deserved a harsh talking-to or sympathy for working too hard (it was sixfour in favor of a harsh talking-to). When the food arrived, hands grabbed at little white boxes and popped plastic lids off containers, plates were held out for sampling, and we finally ate. The conversation turned from Larry to how residents worked thirty-six hours straight without sleep or a break (Larry hadn’t been a resident for a long time), then to Amelia’s favorite teachers, then the issue of grade inflation on college campuses, then my in-laws’ annual speech about how it took a pound of grain to feed one cow, then Miranda’s love life or lack thereof, then how Uncle Saul had loved sweet-and-sour chicken and, finally why wasn’t there such a thing as sweet-andsour turkey? Four hours after Larry left, we were well into the fortune cookies and pumpkin pies before anyone (except me) realized that he still hadn’t returned with that quart of milk.

I thought I heard a key in the door around one in the morning, but it turned out to be Amelia’s Teen People falling off her chest and onto the living-room floor. My daughter lay fast asleep at one end of the velvet sofa, and my sister at the other. Amelia’s foot was pressed up against Miranda’s ear. After the Chinese food fest and dessert, the relatives had gone, most of them assuring me that Larry would snap out of this “diet nonsense” that made him so cranky about trifles but insisting 13 ♥ela_vanilla♥

that I should give him hell when he got home. Grannie Ellie and Grandpa Albert had taken the unused packets of soy sauce, duck sauce and the chopsticks. Grannie Ellie made me promise that next year I’d save a drumstick for her. I scooped up Amelia, who could sleep through a stampeding herd of buffalo, and carried her into her bedroom (no easy feat even though she weighed only ninety-six pounds), burying my face in her wildly curly light brown hair, which smelled of her favorite green-apple shampoo. Her face, scrubbed free of the makeup she begged me to let her wear for the holiday, was utterly untroubled—a very good thing given that her father had had a meltdown in front of her eyes. I laid her down on her bed, tucked her in under her bright pink comforter, kissed her forehead and watched her belly rise up and down with each sleeping breath. I had few vices—too much coffee maybe, entertainment magazines and some bad TV—so when I needed to calm down, to count my blessings, I had only to watch my daughter sleep. It was as good as yoga for me. On her bedside table was a photo of me and Larry that Amelia had taken with her very first camera, a birthday gift from Miranda. Amelia had made the heart-shaped pipe-cleaner-andPopsicle-stick frame herself in first grade as a Valentine’s Day present to Mommy and Daddy, then stole it for herself. I loved the photo. Larry and I were sitting on a giant mutant pumpkin surrounded by hundreds of pumpkins, big and small. We were cheek to cheek and smiling huge smiles that we had no problem holding even though it had taken Amelia a good five minutes to finally snap the photo. Ah. Now I really did hear Larry’s key in the door. I put the photo back down, raced into our bedroom, jumped under the covers and pretended to be sleeping. There was no way he was kissing or back-massaging his way out of this one. You could stand to lose twenty pounds yourself… Jerk. I felt him standing over the bed, peering to see if I was awake. He stood there for a moment, then I heard him unzip his pants. Whoa, buddy, if you think for one assholic minute that we’re going to— Nope. He didn’t think so. I heard him open and close the door to our master bathroom, gently click open the shower-stall door, and turn on the water. I flipped over onto my other side and eyed his clothes, draped over the easy chair by the window. Had he been with another woman? Was he washing off the evidence of perfume and lipstick and sex? Was he having an affair? The pockets would tell.

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I jumped out of bed, held my breath and reached into his coat pockets. Nothing but his brown leather gloves and a pack of tissues. I grabbed his pants and sniffed them for telltale scents. Nothing but Larry’s usual clean doctor smell. A combination of Ivory soap and dry cleaning. I rummaged through his wallet. Nothing. No phone numbers. No women’s business cards. No condoms. Larry wasn’t having an affair. I wouldn’t kid myself into thinking I’d know; even the smartest women could be fooled by the dumbest of men, and Larry was particularly intelligent. But in my gut, I knew he wasn’t cheating on me. I was ninety-something percent sure, anyway. I was about to drape his pants over the chair exactly as he had and chalk up his crazy behavior to a lack of fruit and carbs when I closed my eyes and stuck my hands into both pants pockets. If you were going to snoop, you should always snoop thoroughly. Aha—got something! A cocktail napkin! Oh God. Had Larry been at a bar with a woman? Not likely. Upper East Side doctors with wedding rings didn’t frequent bars in the neighborhood. Way too risky. I flipped over the napkin. Coffee Pot: established 1998. Did people carry on affairs at coffee lounges? Coffee Pot was a cute hangout in our neighborhood, frequented by the young and old. Would Larry really carry on an affair two blocks from our apartment? No. He went to blow off some steam, have some decaf (one of the few beverages allowed by his diet) and watch the big-screen TV always tuned to CNN. In the other pocket was a five-dollar bill, three quarters and a folded prescription from his own prescription pad. Ah, I thought, he probably wrote himself a prescription for Valium. As I unfolded it, his familiar bad handwriting jumped off the little piece of paper in blue ink: New Year’s Resolution Not resolutions. Resolution. Singular. Larry had one New Year’s resolution and it wasn’t to lose those twenty-five pounds or to stop having fits over paper plates.

Dr. Larry Masterson, M.D. 920 Park Avenue New York, NY 10028 (212) 555-2323 NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION LEAVE LUCY (Leaving Lucy doesn’t mean you’re leaving Amelia). 15 ♥ela_vanilla♥

_________________________________ unless box is checked, Rx may be filled generically.

That was it. My husband’s one New Year’s resolution was to leave me. What a touching annotation: (Leaving Lucy does not mean you are leaving Amelia). “The period goes inside the parenthesis when a complete sentence is used parenthetically,” I said to the piece of paper. I suddenly felt as though I were standing on Mars. Or Mercury, maybe. A planet where there was very little air. Numb. Dizzy. Nauseous. Was the room spinning, or was that my head? I heard the water shut off, then the faint click of the shower door opening. I shoved the prescription back inside Larry’s pocket, then quickly returned to bed. I lay on my side, facing away from the bathroom door, and pulled the down comforter up to my chin. Do not cry. You’re a loud crier. He’ll hear you! The bathroom door opened. There was steamy vapor, then the smell of Larry—the Ivory soap, the doctor smell. The scent of Head & Shoulders. I could hear him collecting his clothes from the chair. Opening the closet door. Closing the closet door. And then he slipped into bed, completely naked as far as I could tell, and in exactly two minutes and twelve seconds (I was staring directly at a digital alarm clock on my bedside table), he was snoring. I flipped over onto my back as soundlessly as possible and opened an eye. Larry was now on his back, his mouth hanging slightly open. This time, watching someone sleep was not as good as yoga. As I watched his flabby stomach rising and falling, red-hot anger boiled inside me. Yeah, good luck, buddy! You can’t even keep your own list of resolutions—correction, your one stinking resolution—where your wife, whom you resolve to leave, can’t find it, and you think you can survive out there without her? Ha! You won’t last a day! His hand lay over his belly button. The gold wedding band on his ring finger was barely visible in the darkness. The sting of tears hit the backs of my eyes. Was my husband going to leave me? Was he? I stared up at the ceiling. No. He wouldn’t leave me. He might want to leave me right now. He might be thinking of leaving me. Fantasizing about it, perhaps under the influence of his sugarfree, good-carb-only, no-refined-flour haze. But he wouldn’t do it. Come on. When had Larry kept a New Year’s resolution? Chapter two 16 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Miranda “I must, I must, I must increase my bust!” I opened one eye. My twelve-year-old niece, Amelia, was standing in front of the couch I was sleeping on—had been sleeping on—whisper-chanting “I must, I must, I must increase my bust” over and over while flapping her arms like a chicken. “What are you doing?” I asked her. She popped up an index finger and continued chanting and flapping. I glanced at the cable box above the giant television across from the sofa. It couldn’t be morning already. But according to Time Warner Cable, it was 9:04 a.m. Ugh. I rubbed my stomach and my temples simultaneously. I had a wicked Chinese food hangover. Thanks to Larry Masterson ruining Thanksgiving dinner, I’d managed to be the thousandth person to place an order from Wan Fu, which entitled me to free sesame noodles, the dumplings of my choice and ten percent off the tab, which had been in the hundreds. As if Larry Masterson needed the discount. And despite the fact that I ordered from Wan Fu at least four times a week, I couldn’t get Ng, order-taker, to save my status as winner for my next call when I’d be paying. To jack up Larry’s bill, I’d ordered tons of extras and then eaten way too much. With every bite of sweet-and-sour chicken, every morsel of General Tso’s chicken, every errant noodle of lo mein that dropped off the chopstick and onto my lap, I thought of Gabriel, my ex-boyfriend, who’d never managed to master the use of chopsticks either. We’d ordered in at least a thousand times during our almost-year-long relationship. Last night, in my daily attempt to get over him, I’d vowed to try something new, an entrée that Gabriel, not an adventurous eater, wouldn’t have chosen. But between Larry’s parents’ bean curd in brown sauce and Lucy’s dull beef and broccoli, I’d fallen asleep with my tummy full of shrimp lo mein (Gabriel’s favorite) and my head full of the same old one-track thought: Gabriel Anders. “You couldn’t possibly marry Gabriel,” Lucy had once said. “You’d be Miranda Anders. It’s too hard to say. Miranda Miller-Anders is even worse.” But to me, Miranda Anders was poetic proof that we were meant to be one. Miranders. Like Bennifer. Well, sort of. And not that that worked out. After all that Chinese food, a couple of glasses of wine, the entire It’s A Wonderful Life, eight different conversations with Amelia (who’d fallen asleep on the couch with her foot in my armpit the moment I asked her about her classes), two chapters of my dog-eared What Color Is Your Parachute?, a People and a Marie Claire, I’d finally conked out around midnight. After an hour or so of staring at the wallet-sized photo of Gabriel I kept in my purse. So much for yesterday’s attempt to get over him. 17 ♥ela_vanilla♥

I loved falling asleep on Lucy’s couch, which was humongous and plush and came complete with cuddly throws and little pillows with embroidered elephants. I didn’t live that far away, just a few blocks north and two avenues east, but our apartments were night and day. My sister lived in a palace, a fifteen-hundred-square-foot two-bedroom apartment on the thirty-first floor in a luxury doorman building with floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room, a terrace with views of the East River, and a health club and pool on the second floor. I lived in an eight-hundredsquare-foot fifth-floor walk-up with a roommate who’d moved out three days ago, leaving me high and dry for his share of December’s rent, due in days. “I paid you for November’s rent and I’m leaving a week before the end of the month,” former roommate Seth said. “So technically you owe me.” I wished Amelia could be my new roommate. She was one cool kid. Too bad she only got ten bucks a week for allowance. “Twenty-four, twenty-five…done!” Amelia said, catapulting herself onto the far end of the couch and pushing my legs out of the way with her feet. “I’ve been doing my chest exercises for a month, and I’m still flat as a quarter.” She grabbed my Cosmo off the coffee table. “I’m never going to look like this,” she complained, holding up the cover—a blonde with enormous breasts. “Amelia, you’re twelve. That model is at least…sixteen. Okay, bad example. Anyway, trust me, it’s airbrushing. The art director at Bold Books does it all the time to enhance certain features on the covers of our books. Smaller nose? No problem. Bigger boobs, no problem.” She looked down at her chest. “Well, I wish someone would enhance certain features of mine. How am I ever going to get a boyfriend when I’m the flattest girl in my school?’ “You’re the flattest girl?” I asked, doubting that. Twelve-year-olds were flat. “I’m the flattest of my friends. Madison is already wearing a bra. Not even a training bra. A real bra. That’s why I’m doing the chest exercises. To speed things along. I’m in seventh grade now. I need tits.” I tickled her stomach with my foot. “I’m not so sure flapping your arms up and down will make your chest grow any faster. One day you’ll wake up and they’ll just be there.” She glanced down at her I Love New York T-shirt, then at my braless tank top. “One day I’ll have what you have? Are you sure?” I nodded. “I’m sure. I was an A cup until I was fifteen, if that’s any help.” She grimaced. “I’m a nothing. A zero. I’m so flat, I’m not even a bra size yet.” “Meems, you’re twelve. I’m twenty-nine.”

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I knew Amelia—or Meems, as I liked to call her—couldn’t or wouldn’t have these kinds of conversations with her mother, and her father was too busy shoving turkeys off tables to offer any kind of sound pediatric advice about adolescent development and puberty, so I was all she had. We headed into the kitchen and looked for good cereal, but Lucy only kept boring healthy cereals like Total and All-Bran. “What do you think your dad would do if he found Cap’n Crunch in his cereal bowl?” I asked Amelia as we doused our Total with many teaspoons of sugar. “Plain or with Crunch Berries?” she asked. “Crunch Berries.” “I think he’d spontaneously combust,” she said. “Where’d you learn that phrase?” I asked, adding another packet of sugar. “Mommy said it the other day. Something about work. I’ve been using it in sentences ever since. On Wednesday, I told my teacher that if he kept giving us so much homework, I’d spontaneously combust. He gave me five extra credit points for vocabulary!” I high-fived her, and she grabbed a book off her lap, held it up to her face, and ate and read. I glanced at the cover. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, without whom I wouldn’t have made it through my preadolescence. And now I knew where she got the bust chant. It was so easy to forget what it was like to be twelve, until you were twenty-nine and had an older sister who forgot what it was like to be almost thirty. And single. And in love with your ex-boyfriend who wasn’t even interested in being friends. Wasn’t that part of the breakup deal? I really want to be friends… Apparently not. I grabbed an old Cosmo from Lucy’s pile of women’s magazines and flipped through it for articles on love. Aha! A quiz: “Will He Ever Propose?” Despite the fact that Gabriel had broken up with me six months ago, I was still hopeful that he’d come to his senses. I’d been dumped before, but Gabriel wasn’t just another boyfriend. He was the guy I wanted to marry. The only guy I’d ever wanted to marry. The only guy I’d ever want to marry. He’d broken up with me at my friend Georgie’s wedding, but I had this ridiculous fantasy that he’d propose to me at my friend Emmalee’s wedding, which was three months from now on Valentine’s Day.

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“The dad in this book is so normal,” Amelia said around a mouthful of cereal as she tapped Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret with the edge of her spoon. “He’s not on a count-the-carbs diet. He doesn’t go jogging twice a day. He doesn’t push turkeys off the table.” “Well, according to this quiz, Meems, nothing is normal,” I said. “Good answer,” Lucy said, pushing through the swinging white doors into the kitchen. She kissed Amelia on top of her head and started brewing a pot of coffee. Lucy’s light brown chin-length hair was sticking up in a few too many different directions, and there were bags and dark circles under her eyes. She and Larry must have had some whopper of a fight when he finally got home. Which must have been very late since I hadn’t heard him come in. I raised an eyebrow at her and she shook her head, which was sign language for I don’t want to talk in front of Amelia. I gobbled another bite of cereal. “This quiz says that there’s no ‘normal’ when it comes to relationships, that we all have our own individual normal-monitors and we have to do what is right for us. So just because Gabriel broke up with me doesn’t mean it’s not normal for me to give him time to realize I am the one for him.” Amelia laughed. “Was that English?” I swatted her on the head with the almost-empty cereal box. “Time was a month,” Lucy said. “Maybe two. Not six.” I shrugged. “Okay, it’s a long time to hold out, but I’ve heard stories of people waiting years for their true loves to come to their senses.” “Miss Havisham waited like a hundred years,” Amelia said. That was me. Miss Havisham. Except at least she was actually engaged to her guy before she hung a wedding dress in her closet. Mine would soon be yellowed and hanging solely by cobwebs and there hadn’t even been a proposal. There was supposed to be a proposal, but instead of actually saying words to that effect, he broke up with me. All night long at Georgie’s wedding, I had idiotically said things like, When and if we get married, Gabriel, I’d love bridesmaid dresses like those. When and if we get married, Gabriel, let’s hire that band. When and if we get married, Gabriel, let’s use this caterer. “We are not getting married!” he’d yelled in my ear. We were slow dancing to a George Michael song. Thank God the band was so loud or everyone around us might have heard Gabriel’s pronouncement. 20 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Miranda,” he said, lowering his voice, “I care about you, but I’m not ready to get married.” “I know,” I said, wrapping my arms around his neck. “I meant one day, some day, some day soon, or when you’re re—” He removed my hands. “I want to break up. I’m saying it loud and clear so that I don’t mislead you.” No. No. No. No. No. I was dizzy. Light-headed. And I’d barely had a drop to drink. My legs felt like rubber. I tried to link my arms around his neck again, but he put his arm out. No, no, no. “You mean you want us to take a break,” I said, hoping he’d smile and say, Yes, that’s what I meant, but in fact, no—I’d never want a break from you. I love you, love you, love you. “I want to break up,” he yelled. “Break UP. As in WE’RE OVER. Miranda, if I did want to get married, I’m sure I’d want to marry you. You’re a wonderful person, a sweet, kind, beautiful, interesting person. But I’m not ready. And I just want out, okay?” Later that awful night, when my phone rang, I let the machine get it. If Gabriel thought for one second I was waiting by the phone for his of-course-we’re-not-breaking-up apology…he was right. But he didn’t have to know it. It wasn’t Gabriel. It was my friend Emmalee, who’d been pelvis to pelvis with her boyfriend all during Georgie’s wedding. Well, for the few hours I’d stayed, anyway. “I’M ENGAGED!” she screamed into my answering machine. “I’M ENGAGED. WHOOHOO!! He asked me during the cake-cutting! I looked all over for you, but you and Gabriel must have sneaked off to your hotel room for some nookie-nookie. Miranda, you must be one of my bridesmaids! And my fiancé—oh my God, I LOVE saying that!—is asking Gabriel to be an usher as we speak! How adorable will that be? You and Gabriel walking down the aisle at my wedding! How romantic is that! I can’t wait to show you my ring. It’s GORGEOUS! And guess what—we’re speeding the plans so we can get married on Valentine’s Day! That’s only nine months from now! Omigod, I’m going to be married in nine months! I’m going to throw the bouquet right at you! You are so next, Miranda!” No, I was so dumped. She exclamation-pointed for another thirty seconds, then hung up with an “I have a hundred more calls to make! Bye!” The next day, I’d managed to buy a card, a present, see the ring, make the appropriate whoohoos and eat half a celebratory burrito without ever mentioning that Gabriel broke up with me or bursting into tears. The moment I left the restaurant, I sobbed all the way home. 21 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Emmalee called later that night. “Why didn’t you say something? I’m SO sorry. If you can’t deal with being in the wedding with Gabriel, I’ll totally understand.” I can’t deal. “I wouldn’t miss being your bridesmaid for anything,” I’d said instead. “A few gallons of ice cream, some Woody Allen movies and Muriel’s Wedding, and I’ll be over Gabriel in no time. Really. By your wedding day, I’ll be like, ‘Gabriel who?’” “You’re such a trouper, Miranda. You are an amazing friend!” I was such a trouper, such an amazing friend, that in five minutes she forgot my broken heart and had moved on to what cut of bridesmaid dress I thought would best suit her sisters’ figures. Every couple of hours over the next few months Emmalee would remember that my heart was broken in five hundred places, say “Omigod, are you okay?” and then move on to whether she should offer beef and fish or chicken and fish. “Neither of you is invited with a date,” she’d said quite officially a week after Gabriel and I broke up. “That way, you don’t have to spend a second thinking about it or worrying about it. Okay?” Your friend is getting married. You will put all thoughts of your own situation out of your head and be happy for Emmalee. Happy. Happy. Happy! “Omigod, Miranda, can I use your wedding gown?” she asked in the next breath. “I love it! My father can put the thousand bucks toward a really good photographer! I waited for her to add, And it’s not like you’re ever going to wear it, but she had either developed tact and sensitivity or she was too busy fantasizing about herself in my long, cool satin I’d-like-to-thank-the-academy gown. Before you think there’s something seriously wrong with me for buying a wedding gown when I wasn’t even engaged, let me immediately point out that the wedding gown was free. And someone else’s really. I’d been walking along Lexington Avenue on my way to the subway when I passed a dry-cleaner’s shop, and hanging in the window was a gorgeous wedding gown. It was strapless, satin and utterly beautiful, no beads, no seams. I went inside to get a closer peek so that if Gabriel ever proposed, I’d remember exactly what I wanted in a dress. “Take it! Take it!” the proprietor said in broken English, waving his arm at the gown. “No room. Left here over four months. Policy thirty days! Take!” And so I left with someone else’s abandoned wedding gown. I insisted on giving the dry cleaner my name and number, just in case whoever brought it in came back for it. Though I guess if you

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brought a wedding gown to the cleaners, it had already had its day. And so it hung, symbol of hope, symbol of my future, in a bag in my closet. “Can I wear it?” Emmalee asked. “It’s probably taking up a ton of room in your tiny closet anyway.” “Em, there’s always the chance that Gabriel and I will get back together. We’ve only been broken up for a week. Can you hold off for a—” “Sweetie,” she said, putting her hand on mine. “He’s already seeing someone. And it seems serious, so…” My heart stopped beating. I felt like I was going to faint and gripped the sides of our table to keep me upright. Already seeing someone. Serious… “It’s yours,” I said before rushing out of the restaurant, tears running down my cheeks. She’d come over that night to pick up the dress. “I’m soooo sorry for upsetting you earlier, Miranda. But maybe it’s better that you know he’s moved on. Right, sweetie?” Her fakeconcerned gaze moved from my face to my closet. And in minutes she and my dry-cleaned gown were gone. I shook all thought of Emmalee out of my head as Lucy handed me a mug of coffee and raised an impressed but surprised eyebrow at her daughter. “How do you know about Miss Havisham? You haven’t read Great Expectations.” While Lucy was turned away from me, I shook my head wildly at Amelia. Do not tell your mother I let you watch the Gwyneth Paltrow-Ethan Hawke version of Great Expectations! “I saw the movie,” Amelia said, grinning at me. “With what’s-her-name—Bette Davis? What a classic!” I blew a kiss at my niece. She was the classic. “Gabriel is sowing the clichéd oats, that’s all,” I insisted. “Dating other people. It’s almost a good thing. By dating other women, he’ll see how amazing our relationship was, how well we connected.” Amelia chomped on another bite of cereal. “There’s a girl at my school who’s been waiting for her ex-boyfriend to come back for, like, three days now. Everyone thinks she’s a total idiot. We’re all, like, MOVE ON.” “Three days, huh?” I asked. “Well, three days in middle school and six months in adultville are pretty much the same, so I’m not that abnormal.”

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She raised one eyebrow, a gesture she’d picked up from her mother. “What’s so great about Gabriel, anyway? I know he’s really cute, and he was always nice to me, but why’d you like him so much?” Correction: Love. And make that present tense. “I could list all his amazing attributes, Meems,” I told her, “but it’s really all about chemistry. And ours was perfect.” “Then why’d you break up?” she asked around a mouthful of cereal. Good question. I shrugged. “He wasn’t ready for a serious relationship.” Amelia gnawed her lip. “I don’t even like anyone yet. Is that normal?” “Totally,” I said. “Right, Mom?” I called out to Lucy, but she was staring into space, at the refrigerator, actually, as though she were about to cry. “None of the girls in this book have boyfriends,” Amelia said, upping her milky chin at the novel. “They’re all more concerned about their periods. Speaking of which, when am I gonna get mine?” “I was fourteen,” I told her. “So don’t spend all your spare time checking your underwear when you go the bathroom. Trust me, when it comes, you’ll know.” Amelia scowled. “How old were you, Mom?” No answer. More refrigerator staring. Then Lucy started and looked at me, then Amelia. “Sorry, what, hon?” Amelia rolled her eyes. “Mom, are you editing a manuscript in your head again?” She peered at her mother. “Wow, you have giant dark circles under your eyes.” “Nothing a little Maybelline cover-up won’t fix,” I said. Not that Lucy ever wore makeup. “I was thirteen,” Lucy said suddenly, ten beats off the conversation. She was staring out the window now. “Thirteen? I might have to wait an entire year? Everything takes forever,” Amelia complained. She tucked the book under her chin, carried her bowl and spoon to the sink, then headed out of the kitchen. A second later, she popped her head back in. “Is Daddy home?” Lucy nodded. “He’s in the shower. He went out for a jog.” Amelia popped her head back out.

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“What’s he jogging off?” I asked Lucy, returning my attention to the quiz. “He doesn’t eat anything.” “He’s just having an almost midlife crisis,” Lucy said, slathering butter on an English muffin. “The diet, the working out, the new clothes—” “The assholic mood swings,” I put in, checking my e-mail on her laptop. “Hey, look what Aunt Dinah e-mailed. It’s a picture of Larry from last night.” Lucy glanced at the screen. It was a photo of her husband’s enraged face, the turkey caught midpoint on its path down the table. Lucy’s eyes glistened with tears. Aunt Dinah had recently bought her first digital camera and was taking a course at the senior center on how to use it. Her first assignment was to take ten pictures from her Thanksgiving holiday. I’ll bet hers were the most interesting. “Sorry, Luce,” I said. “I shouldn’t have shown it to you.” “No, it’s okay. I’m just tired.” “I think you should print this out and put it on his scale,” I told her. “Clearly, giving up white flour and sugar and endlessly worrying about his glycemic index is turning your husband into a pyscho, and I think he should know it.” “It’s just a midlife crisis,” Lucy said again, pouring us both a mug of coffee. “I’m sure he’ll settle down. It’s just like when he took up kaballah and got angry that I wasn’t exploring my soul or whatever.” I nodded, having no idea what she was talking about. Lucy and Larry were five years older than I was. They weren’t in midlife yet. How could Larry be having a midlife crisis at age thirty-four? “Isn’t your blind date at noon?” Lucy asked me. “You’d better go home and get ready.” Oh yeah. My blind date. No matter what was going on in Lucy’s world, she always had time for my love life. “I am ready,” I said. “You’re wearing that on a blind date? Red corduroys and a black Janis Joplin T-shirt and—” She ducked her head under the table and then shot back up, raising an eyebrow. “Converse hightops? Very feminine, Miranda.” “It’s the not-trying-too-hard look,” I told her. I was not trying to the point that I hadn’t even given the blind date two thoughts since I woke up. “It works for girls at my school,” Amelia said, pushing her way into the kitchen and pouring herself a glass of orange juice. “No one gets dressed up for a date.” 25 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Excellent point,” Lucy said. “Twelve-year-olds don’t. Twenty-nine-year-olds do.” Amelia gave me an I-tried shrug and left the room again. Lucy eyed me. “Miranda, it’s a date. Not a hike.” “What does it matter?” I said. “I’m never going to like anyone you set me up with.” “You’ll like someone eventually,” she said with complete confidence. I shook my head. “I’m in love with Gabriel, Lucy. I’m not going to like anyone else.” “Honey, Gabriel broke up with you six months ago. It’s over, Miranda. Long over. You have to move on.” I couldn’t, though. Because Gabriel and I were going to get married one day, when he was ready. He said so. Miranda, if I did want to get married, I’d want to marry you…. But I’m not ready…. The thing about a comment like that when you were madly in love and getting dumped was that it gave you something to hold on to. So I held. Maybe he’ll be ready when he turns thirty, I kept telling myself. I was still telling myself, despite the fact that his thirtieth birthday came and went two months ago. The birthday card I sent, spritzed with my perfume and every-drop-of-whitespace filled with my feelings for him, was never acknowledged. Nor were my phone calls. Or letters. I’d called a few too many times before I realized that he was never home because he had caller ID and was simply not answering. (Lucy had provided that brainstorm.) And there was only the one card. And two letters. For an entire year of dating and six months of waiting, hoping, dreaming, that wasn’t too bad. Was it? I had to move on. I had to. And I had! I’d agreed to today’s blind date, hadn’t I? “Miranda, go home and change,” Lucy said. “Larry was nice enough to arrange this fix-up, and you really should put some ef—” “Fine, I’ll go change,” I interrupted in my best world-weary voice. “Can we change the subject now? What are you doing today? Shopping with Amelia?” Lucy always took Amelia shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving for the first rush of the holiday-season sales. I couldn’t even bear to be outside in Manhattan on Black Friday. You couldn’t walk down the street without getting hit in the leg with a shopping bag. She gnawed her lip, then busied herself at the sink, washing Amelia’s dishes. “I have to go into the office for a few hours. Katrina’s last day was Wednesday, and she didn’t touch the Cobb bio, plus I have a bunch of résumés to go over and—”

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“Are you okay?” I asked, knowing full well she’d tell me nothing. Part of the problem with working in the same office as your older sister who was a hundred rungs above you on the career ladder was that she didn’t share much of her personal business at home either. She didn’t answer me. She turned around and began straightening napkins. “Lucy? Did you and Larry have a huge fight over what happened last night?” She didn’t turn around. She shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” “Okay,” I said. I hesitated just in case she might turn around and tell me everything, but no dice. So I thanked her for the Chinese feast, yelled a see you later at Amelia, and left. I had two hours to prepare for my blind date. And since I didn’t plan to prepare at all or change out of my I’mreally-not-trying look, I took myself and the Cosmo to Starbucks. I had a quiz to score.

Why oh why had I let Lucy set me up on this can-I-excuse-myself-to-go-to-the-bathroom-andescape-out-the-window-please! blind date from hell? Actually, I shouldn’t blame my sister. I should blame Lucy’s insane husband. My brunch date was one of the residents Larry knew from Lenox Hill Hospital, where he was affiliated. Everyone I knew was trying hard to knock into my extra-thick skull that there was Life After Gabriel, Men After Gabriel, and the more I crossed my arms over my chest and insisted that I could never love anyone else, the more blind dates were thrown my way. I said yes not to prove them wrong, but because I hoped like hell they were right. And so I here I was, in my favorite brunch spot with one Phineas Rigby, whose parents must have pegged him for a future orchestra conductor at birth. Phineas? What kind of name was Phineas? Out of sheer politeness I didn’t ask, but Phineas immediately launched into a very long story about the history of his name. This, after correcting me when I called him Phin—well, Finn, in my mind—with an “I prefer Phineas.” Apparently, the name Phineas had something to do with both the Bible and Jules Verne. “Jules Verne was an adventurer, right?” I asked. “An explorer?” He eyed me with an I thought you were supposed to be an editor and therefore reasonably intelligent skepticism. “He was a highly regarded French author. Around the World In Eighty Days? You must have read it in high school or college.” Oh. Well, it wasn’t like I hadn’t heard of Jules Verne. I knew he had something to do with the exploring the world. “Julia Roberts named her boy twin Phineas,” I threw in to get us on a

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subject I knew something about: celebrities and trivia. And an award-winning segue, if I did say so myself. “But I think she spelled it differently.” He raised his eyebrow in the same impressed-but-surprised way Lucy had this morning. “You don’t know who Jules Verne is, but you know the Australian neurosurgeon who successfully separated the conjoined Aboriginal twins last year? I’m impressed.” He held up his mimosa to toast me, his expression conveying his newfound respect for me. Huh? I shook my head. “I meant Julia Roberts the actress. You know, Pretty Woman? Erin Brockovich?” The expression changed. He then flagged down the waiter and spent the next two or three minutes discussing the brand of champagne used for the mimosa, which wasn’t to his liking. No news flash here: My sister wasn’t a screener. If the guy was single and under forty—and on his way to becoming a doctor—that was all she needed to know. “Even a seemingly bad date isn’t a waste of time,” she’d said after the last fix-up ended with the guy getting back together with his ex-girlfriend in the middle of our date. I wasn’t making this up. Joe—a normal name!—my depressed date, had been pining for his ex. At least we had something in common. Suddenly there his ex was, by fate or stalking, I wasn’t sure. A few sobs later, they were embracing at the bar, and then apologizing to their respective dates—myself and a tall, confused-looking guy—before leaving the restaurant hand in hand. When I told Lucy this, she chastised me for not going over to the confused guy’s table and introducing myself. “He was obviously single!” Lucy said. “You could have just sat down, had the waiter cancel her order and bring yours over instead.” Deep, deep sigh. This was what my life had come to. Was I furious that Joe, whom I’d sort of liked in a platonic way, had left me before our entrées had even arrived? Was I mortified? Completely and utterly dejected about dating? Au contraire. I was thrilled. Because if it could happen to good old Joe, it could happen to me. I could be, say, having brunch with a doctor-to-be named Phineas, listening to a plot synopsis of Around The World In Eighty Days, awaiting my country omelet, when my own ex-boyfriend, Gabriel Anders, could come walking in alone or on a date, take one look at me, radiant at a corner table in my borrowed cream cashmere sweater and brown suede jeans, my long and wildly curly blond hair looking particularly Pre-Raphaelite instead of a frizzy mess, and yadda, yadda, yadda, we’re leaving together, hand in hand, lip on lip. Miranders!

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In the midst of this fantasy, I checked in on Phineas to see if I was being rude yet by tuning him out and dreaming of another guy. Nope. He was off Jules and on to the Bible. As his mouth moved this way and that for forkfuls of his omelet and to drone on, I fantasized that Phineas was Gabriel. Mmm…instead of Phineas sitting across from me and waxing boring about diseases of the small intestines (something called Crohn’s disease ran in his family), Gabriel was sitting there, waxing mushy about how much he’d missed me, how much he wanted me back… “You have to stop thinking about him,” Lucy had said numerous times. “Every time he comes to mind, think of your toilet bowl after you’ve used it.” That was easy for Lucy to say. Lucy, who’d gotten married twelve years ago when she was twenty-two. Larry Masterson had been Lucy’s first boyfriend. First everything. They’d been college sweethearts. That’s how much Lucy Miller-Masterson didn’t know about moving on. Anyway, most guys I dated were only too happy to talk about their ex-girlfriends or ex-wives, especially with a little encouragement. By the end of most of my dates, the guys were generally close to tears, and I’d had a great time. “Stop talking about Gabriel on your dates!” Lucy had yelled. “And stop asking them about their exes!” she’d demanded the last time a guy reported in that he’d left our date feeling vaguely suicidal. “Talk about books. That’s a good neutral subject that you know a lot about.” “So, Phineas,” I said, between bites of omelet. “I don’t know much about small intestines, but we definitely share a love of books, despite the Jules Verne thing. I’m an editor. I’m sure Lucy mentioned that.” “Aren’t you just an assistant?” he asked, chomping on a slab of bacon. “Yeah, so?” “And you work for the romance novels editor?” he added. I repeat: Yeah, so? “So now’s the time to make a move,” he barreled on. “You don’t want to get pegged as a romance novel editor. Can’t you get an interview at Random House or—what was the name of the publishing house that Jackie Onassis worked for?” “Doubleday,” I said. “And news flash—they publish romance novels too.” He didn’t look convinced—or sorry. “Um, a little defensive? Anyway, you don’t have to work on them. You could work for the editor of literary fiction. I’m sure Jackie Onassis wasn’t editing cheesy bodice rippers.” 29 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Jerk face! “I like romance novels. A lot,” I said through gritted teeth. He wrinkled his too-small nose. “Oh come on. How could you? I mean, you went to college.” Did I have permission to get up and leave? Who was this snot bag? So did I say, You know what, Phin? You’re a pompous, obnoxious snob, and I don’t want to spend another second in your dreadful company? Or did I press my hand to my forehead and complain about a terrible headache? The headache. Under normal circumstances I’d tell him off, but given how Lucy looked this morning, I didn’t want to add to her headache. And trust me, Larry loved reporting every bit of my bad behavior from previous dates to Lucy. The only reason he continued to set me up was because Lucy told him it would keep me too busy to hang around their apartment and drink all his precious Diet Coke. And, right now I hated romance novels because they spanned a weekend yet ended with the hero proposing marriage to the heroine, whereas after an entire year of a relationship with the guy of my dreams, there was only an it’s-not-you, it’s-me speech. A problem, considering I reported to Wanda Belle, senior editor of Romance. Occasionally Wanda handled other types of books, an unauthorized celebrity biography, or a disaster novel about an avalanche. But mostly, it was all romance, all the time. Lucy got me the interview at Bold Books. (Unfortunately, my life not going according to plan mattered to Lucy.) That was four years ago. FOUR YEARS AGO. And I was still Wanda Belle’s editorial assistant. I was considered a great assistant because I was fast and thorough and had absolutely no ambition, which meant I never bothered her about a promotion to assistant editor. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. What I did know was that one day Gabriel would come back to me, and I’d wear my dry-cleaned gown. What was that old poem about setting something free and if it came back to you it was yours? Although I technically hadn’t set Gabriel free. And there was that last part about if it never came back to you, then it never was yours in the first place, or something incredibly negative and pessimistic like that. Ugh. Bad example. Anyway, Gabriel Anders wasn’t going to magically appear in this restaurant and carry me off in his arms, away from Phin— Or maybe he was! Because there he was! Gabriel. In the flesh. Standing not five feet away from me, being led to his table by the hostess! There was a woman trailing after him. Shoulder-length, straight, light blond hair. Vivid blue eyes. Tall and willowy. She looked like a cross between Paris Hilton and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. She dressed like Paris. 30 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Because I was staring at him, he looked over and his eyes popped, then he sat down and held the menu in front of his face. Paris, clearly clueless to the presence of Gabriel’s ex-girlfriend not thirty feet away, yanked the menu away with a smile and then laid a hot kiss on him. I could see him turning slightly red. He eyed me for a quick second, then the menu went back up again, only to be pulled down once more as Paris, clearly clued in, glared at me. I looked away fast, pretending great absorption in Phineas’s explanation of the differences between major pain relievers. Gabriel’s preparing to come over and tell me he can’t live without me. Really. Any minute now. I wasn’t that big of an idiot. And I didn’t want to cry in front of Phineas, who was still debating the painkilling effects of acetaminophen versus ibuprofen. I excused myself to the bathroom so I could burst into I-have-to-get-over-him tears in private. So much for private. The restroom was a two-staller and both were occupied. I stood in front of the huge mirror above the sink, willing my reflection not to lose it. My eyes were glistening and my lower lip was trembly. The restroom door opened and I told myself to pull it together. It was Gabriel’s date. She planted herself next to me and slicked on some raisin-red lipstick. “Stalking is against the law,” she said, not even eyeing me in the mirror. Huh? “Excuse me?” I asked. “I was in here first.” She blotted her lips, then turned to face me. “Listen to me closely. I can have you arrested for this—and trust me, I will. My cousin is a Manhattan A.D.A. You’ve sent your letters and cards, you’ve made your calls, you’ve accidentally bumped into Gabriel a few too many times for the pathetic-meter, and now you’re tracking down where he’s having brunch with his girlfriend? Enough is enough.” Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa. “For your information, I’m on a date,” I said, so mortified I was surprised I could even speak. “This happens to be my favorite restaurant.” So there! She turned back to the mirror and tucked a piece of her perfect hair behind her ear. “Whatever. Just keep on moving on, sweetie.” BITCH! I grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser on the wall and dabbed under my eyes, willing tears. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” I said, sniffing. “Gabriel will kill me.” I shook my head and threw the crumpled paper towel away. “No. Just forget it. You’re right—I need to move on.” I

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sniffled again for good measure, then reached for the doorknob. If she was stupid enough to take the bait, she deserved what was coming. She grabbed my arm. “What. Just tell me.” Bingo. I let go of the doorknob, sniffled again and bit my lip. “It’s just that it’s really hard to move on when Gabriel calls in the middle of the night and tells me he misses me and then comes over. My friends tell me I shouldn’t keep sleeping with him while we’re broken up, that it’s just a booty call, but—” Ah, the look on her face was just delightful. There was really no need to go on. She stalked off to her table; I headed back to Phineas. At Gabriel and Paris’s table, there was a slight scene. A commotion. She threw her napkin at him, then ran away. Gabriel looked over at me, then shook his head and chased after her. Now I really did have a headache. Chapter three Christopher “Waaah! Waah-waaaah! Waaaaaah!” Was that a short cry? Or a long cry? A my-foot-is-stuck-in-the-slats-of-the-crib cry? Or a mydiaper-weighs-five-pounds-come-change-me-now cry? On the way to Ava’s bedroom, which was really a converted walk-in closet, I consulted The Modern Dad’s Handbook. Chapter Two, “Learn Cry Language,” was bookmarked, as was Chapter Four, “Diaper That Tush Like a Mom.” I was already getting better at being a weekend father. Last weekend, I’d raced into Ava’s closet whenever she so much as peeped, holding The Modern Dad’s Handbook with one hand and Ava with the other. This afternoon, I walked, flipped to the right dog-eared chapter, determined her cry to be a short one, and knew the possible cause before I even got to Ava’s crib. A short cry generally means your baby wants your attention. Time to wake up from nap or time to eat or time to change my diaper, buddy! I checked my watch. Ava had napped for an hour and a half, which according to Ava’s Checklist, a five-page, single-spaced detailing of all things Ava, authored by her mother, was typical. The last item I checked off was: 12 p.m.: Naptime. Change Ava’s diaper, dress her in footsie pajamas, put her down in crib. Kiss her forehead, say “night-night, Ava, Daddy loves you,” then blow kiss, smile, and slowly retreat backward, shushing the entire time, and leave door slightly ajar. 32 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Note: Please do not deviate from Ava’s schedule, as it will upset her routine. My wife— Okay, hold on there. I had to stop calling her that. Not that Jodie wasn’t my wife, technically. But to think of her as my wife when she was living an hour and a half away in her boyfriend’s four-bedroom brick Colonial, a dream of hers for as long as I can remember (the house, not the boyfriend), was just plain FUCKING STUPID. Addendum to Checklist: Please do not curse in Ava’s presence. I don’t care if you drop a brick on your big toe—not one expletive. The addendum was an entire page, double-sided. I couldn’t curse, drink an alcoholic beverage, including a single beer, smoke (not that I did), use free weights within one hundred feet of Ava, boil water for any purpose, put Ava in her bath without testing the water temperature with my wrist, use any product other than her approved list on page three… Ava was standing up in her crib, holding up her arms. She stopped waah-ing the moment she saw me. “Hi, sweetsies, Daddy’s here.” “Da,” she said. “Da.” I hadn’t known I had magical powers until Ava was born. I couldn’t make my wife happy, but I could make Ava stop crying. It was my thing. When Jodie and I were still living together, I’d come home from work and hear Ava shrieking the moment I stepped out of the elevator onto our floor. In our apartment, I’d find Jodie, exasperated, blowing strands of hair out of her eyes, bouncing a crying Ava in her arms with a frustrated, tearful, “She won’t stop crying!” And then I’d take Ava, cradling her carefully in my arms, and I’d gently rub her belly while shushing her with a “Daddy’s here.” She’d peer at me, curious, her changing blueish-grayishalmost-hazelish almond eyes alert as she studied my face. She’d just lie there, staring up at me, and I’d press a finger to her lips, her forehead, then raise her up to nuzzle her belly. Jodie, relieved yet resentful, would disappear into the bedroom, but not before muttering, “Well at least you do something around here.” Buzz! That wasn’t a strange noise of Ava’s requiring The Checklist or The Modern Dad’s Handbook. That was the doorbell. Which meant it was Ginger. Which meant I had to pretend I wasn’t home. She’d wait a few seconds for me to respond, and when I didn’t, she’d press her ear against the door, strain to listen, then gnaw her lip and head back down the hall to her apartment, 3C.

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Ginger liked me. That way. And though she was very attractive, her vocabulary stank. That probably sounded judgmental, but I wasn’t a jerk (though Jodie would snort at that); I was an editor. Words meant something to me, simple words, big words, all words. In the same brief conversation, I’d used the words emasculating (in an incoherent mumble about why my marriage broke up) and imbibing (when Ginger caught me staggering out of the elevator the night I moved in. I wasn’t a lush; I’d just needed to obliterate all thought that first night of living without my wife and my child), and Ginger hadn’t known what either word meant. Then again, maybe that was a good thing. Maybe life with Ginger wouldn’t be complicated, as it had been with Jodie from the start. Ha. Who was I kidding? All women are complicated. My first crush in first grade, a six-year-old redhead named Julia, was complicated. And a woman with a less complicated vocabulary could list the ways you were a jerk in much faster and simpler terms than a Scrabble champ. Ginger’s name wasn’t really Ginger; it was Gertie, short for Gertrude. She’d been named after her maternal grandmother. I knew all this because Ginger tended to open her door when she heard me opening mine, and she’d strike up all kinds of conversations while taking out her (sometimes empty) little wicker trash can to the garbage chute, or while running out for milk “unless you happen to have a little to spare for my coffee—or if you have time, we could just go grab a cup at Starbucks…” I usually made up excuses and lied about having milk or the time for even a quick cup of coffee, but occasionally I’d say “sure,” needing the company—and company who didn’t know me and therefore couldn’t make a single judgment about my parenting skills or lack thereof. So Ginger would come in for a cup of sugar or a few tablespoons of olive oil and ask me pointed questions, make slightly sexual innuendos, and I’d fantasize about having sex with her on my desk—hard, fast, and porn-nasty. But then cold water would splash on my face when Ginger would ask something about Ava, how that “darling baby of yours” was. I’d snap out of the fantasy, slightly guilty for my one-track mind when it came to the only neighbor who ever actually said hello. Not that I said hello to anyone, either. A nod of acknowledgment, maybe. Our building wasn’t the type conducive to knowing your neighbors. Ginger and I were the only ones who looked over thirty and were. I was thirty-two. Ginger had never mentioned her age, but I’d give her thirtyfive, thirty-six. Two months ago, Jodie and Ava had moved out of our fourteen-hundred-square-foot, twobedroom apartment in a high-rise looking over the East River. I could neither afford the rent on my own or bear to stay there anyway, and so I’d moved to a not-so-nice seven-hundred-fiftysquare-foot, one-bedroom apartment with a decent-sized walk-in closet/nursery overlooking a brick building across the street. “Waah! Waah-waah!” 34 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Uh-oh. Shush-shush. Quiet, Ava. You don’t want Ginger to know we’re here, or she’ll ask if she can come to the playground with us. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Ginger as a person; she was very nice, banal as that word was, but it was fitting. She was nice. She was a caring, compassionate, lovely person, but I wasn’t looking for anything resembling a relationship of any kind—sexual or otherwise—at the moment. The thought of walking to the playground, pushing Ava’s stroller, while a woman other than Jodie walked beside me was oddly unbearable. A man, a woman, a baby. Three words I never thought I’d personally put together in a sentence that included me. But since those words did include me, they were supposed to include Jodie too. Me. Jodie. Ava. Father. Mother. Baby. Instead, it was Ian (which for some reason he pronounced Eye-in). Jodie. Ava. It was Eye-in pushing the stroller, Jodie’s arm wrapped around his, as they walked to the playground in Chappaqua, where they lived and to which Jodie had always aspired (Chappaqua was one of the United State’s most affluent towns). My wife and my daughter. And Eye-in. One day, I had a family, and then one sucky, fucky Christopher, we need to talk conversation later, I was completely alone. No wife. No baby. The silence, as they say, was deafening. To go from family to nothing, from a strong wife and a needy infant, was not to relish the sudden quiet, the sudden freedom. It was weird. Not that I’d ever gotten used to being married in the first place—its demands, its compromises, its high-highs and low-lows—let alone to being a father, which beat marriage’s highest highs and lowest lows by a landslide of poop. I never felt up to being a husband or a father. I hadn’t even been ready to get married. Before I asked Jodie to marry me, we’d been a couple for almost two years, and from day one, she’d been after me to improve. Improvement was the name of the game. At first, I liked it, having someone push me. Jodie cared deeply about my socks. She cared about what time I woke up in the morning so that I could eat well, work out, and read the New York Times before work. She talked tirelessly about my career path, my projected raises, the size of my office, which was always too small for her liking and windowless. She slowly got rid of my rumpled guy clothes and replaced them with similar clothes that were somehow sharper. She let me know when I needed a haircut and dragged me in when I waited too long. At first, all that attention was welcome. I’d liked how organized my life suddenly was. But then it got annoying. I didn’t appreciate having an argument over the fact that I was reading the Daily News instead of the Times. I resented her insistence that I talk to Futterman, my boss, about a ten-percent raise instead of the crappy four percent we got every year. I wanted my clothes and hair left alone. 35 ♥ela_vanilla♥

The problem was that Jodie was a lawyer. She won every argument on basic logic. Will a wrinkled shirt get you promoted to executive editor? No. So why would you wear a wrinkled shirt? After a while there were no arguments. We simply stopped talking. We’d been on our way to breaking up, but there was something between us, something special, the thing that had kept us together for those two tough years as we negotiated how to have a relationship with each other. I’m not even sure what it was. Chemistry, maybe. The early chemistry that made us work, click. Just when I’d be ready to walk out the door and tell her to go find the guy she wanted me to be, she’d be sitting at the kitchen table, eating her Wheaties or ridiculous scrambled tofu, and I’d just look at her for a moment, overcome with tenderness, with love. And then she got pregnant. I was almost thirty-one; she was thirty-three. She wanted a baby, was ready for a baby. “You’re not ready for marriage, let alone parenthood,” she’d said, “but if you tried, Christopher, if you’d really make an effort, you’d be great.” I said I’d try. I wasn’t ready for marriage and I definitely wasn’t ready for parenthood, but Jodie was pregnant. And I did try. “You’re not even trying!” Jodie would scream and shut herself behind closed doors. Her mother, Dina, who never understood what Jodie saw in me but did concede that I actually was trying, used to console me. “It’s the hormones,” Dina would assure me. “Once the baby comes, everything else will come together.” It didn’t. From my performance in the delivery room (I didn’t coach aggressively enough, apparently) to buying Huggies instead of Pampers newborn diapers, to dabbing an alcoholdipped Q-tip on Ava’s healing belly button instead of around it, to holding her wrong, putting her down for her naps wrong, tiptoeing too hard, singing lullabies too softly (“What’s the point if she can’t hear you?” Jodie had snapped), I was a dud at dadhood. Once, when she was six months old, Ava fell off the couch on my watch. That was the first time I cried as an adult. Alone, in private, I cried my eyes out. That Ava could have been hurt due to my carelessness was overwhelming, as was my entire existence. We came home from the pediatrician’s office (Ava was just fine except for the goose egg on her forehead), and I went into our bedroom and I sobbed. I loved Jodie even when I didn’t like her, but I more than loved Ava. To paraphrase Woody Allen in Annie Hall, love was too weak a word for what I felt for that tiny crying creature who had my eyes, my mouth, my hair. I lurved my daughter, my Ava. I looved her. I lurfed her. But lurve and two bucks would get me on the downtown number four train to work and that was about it. Loove and my magic ability to get Ava to stop crying wasn’t enough to stop Jodie from 36 ♥ela_vanilla♥

going back to work after her maternity leave and complaining about me over coffee breaks and then lunch and then dinner to one of the partners in her firm, a man ten years her senior who’d been hot for Jodie since the day she’d started at the firm. “What you need,” he’d told her, “is someone to take care of you for once.” Jodie often told me what Eye-in had to say. When my mother-in-law was still fighting for our marriage to work, she would assure me it was sleep deprivation that was the root of our marriage problems. Once the baby slept through the night, Dina said, Jodie would calm down. By the time Ava was finally sleeping through the night, by the time I was getting comfortable with my new identity as husband and father, my wife and then nine-month-old daughter were gone, living with a man who could, and I quote: “make millions on Wall Street and change a diaper. Not many men in Armani suits can say the word poopie.” I’d met Eye-in several times. He seemed okay enough as strangers on the street went, but I hated his guts. And then my mother-in-law began hating my guts for not being what her daughter wanted and needed. “If you were more ambitious, more everything, my granddaughter’s parents wouldn’t be headed for divorce court!” she told me once. And of course, per Murphy’s Law, because my wife and child were gone and I had nothing to do but stare at an empty apartment and wonder where the hell my life had gone, I put my energy into my job. I was still rumpled in my khakis and in need of a haircut, but I’d worked my ass off for the past two months, acquiring “guy” books (as my female co-workers referred to them) at Bold Books, where I was a senior editor making a perfectly decent salary for anyone but Jodie. I’d be at work, editing a manuscript or working on an art form for a book that needed great packaging to sell it, and I’d glance at the clock on my computer and it would be nine-thirty at night. On weekends, if I wasn’t visiting Ava, I was in the office. All I did was work. Two weeks ago, Jodie and I finally worked out a custody arrangement. Before then, I’d been taking the train out to Chappaqua every Saturday morning to visit Ava. I’d play with her in her new and gigantic nursery/playroom for three hours, put her down for her nap, then take the train back to Manhattan and stare at the walls of my tiny new apartment until I forced myself to do some work to fill the void until the following Saturday. Jodie finally declared me fit for unsupervised weekend visitation (oh, thank you, Queen Jodie!), and our new arrangement was that I picked up Ava after work on Friday and returned her on Sunday morning. So far, so good. Jodie had stopped by a few weeks ago to inspect my new apartment for babyproofing and to make sure I had everything Ava would need. I passed inspection—thanks to a guy I used to work with who was married with two kids under two. He and his wife and the 37 ♥ela_vanilla♥

kids had come over, and my newly decorated bachelor pad was completely upended. The coffee table was sent to Goodwill. Every electrical outlet was plugged up. Potentially poisonous plants were given away. My cleaning supplies were removed from the cabinet under the sink and placed in one above the refrigerator. Ava’s makeshift nursery was stocked with diapers, wipes, thermometers, nail scissors, all kinds of ointments, baby medicines, and everything and anything an eleven-month-old baby could ever need. Except a father who had any idea what he was doing. “Hello? Christopher? You there?” Ginger was whispering through the door, unnecessary since Ava was clearly not sleeping. “Waah! Waah-waah!” “Uh, got my hands full changing Ava,” I called out. I nuzzled Ava’s head. “It’s okay, sweetsies,” I whispered to her scalp. “Do you need help?” Ginger called back. “No, I’ve got it. Thanks, though. See you later.” Silence. And then. “Okay. I’ll check in on you two later.” Please don’t. I waited until I heard her door close down the hall, and then I grabbed Ava’s stroller, her diaper bag, one of her bottles from the fridge, and I tiptoed out, closing the door and locking it as quietly as possible. As I waited for the elevator, Ava thankfully silent, I heard a phone ring down by Ginger’s door, then her loud hello. Saved.

“Did you know your baby is wearing only one shoe?” I was standing on the corner of York and Eighty-fourth, waiting for the light to change. My hands were on the push bar of Ava’s stroller, which was on the sidewalk and not in the street (as dictated by Ava’s Checklist). I felt a tap on my arm. “Your baby’s missing a shoe,” the same voice said. I glanced at the middle-aged woman standing next to me, then at Ava’s feet. She was indeed missing one pink leather shoe. “Thanks,” I said to the woman. “I’ll go hunt it down.” “Clean it first,” she said, wrinkling her nose at the piles of garbage bags awaiting pickup on the curb. “The streets are disgusting.”

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I nodded and turned Ava’s stroller around, looking everywhere for her shoe, which she must have kicked off along the way. We’d only gone half a block, but I didn’t see her shoe anywhere. Had a dog grabbed it? “Looking for this?” asked a thirtyish woman wheeling a stroller toward me. “I found it up the block. When I noticed you turn around, I saw your baby had only one shoe on, and I picked it up for you.” “Thanks.” How had two strangers noticed Ava was shoeless, but her own father hadn’t? I knelt down next to Ava and tried to put her shoe back on. She wiggled her foot away. I tried again. More wiggling. I stuck the shoe into her diaper bag and wheeled her stroller back around toward the park. “You’re the parent,” another female voice informed me. “Just remember that. If you need to put on her shoe and she’s resisting, just shove it on her foot. End of story.” I glanced up. Oh no. Noooo! It was the Know-It-All-Mom Posse. Shit! They’d surrounded me last weekend in the playground. Two blondes, and a brunette. All in their thirties, all in the same outfit: cropped down jackets in sherbety colors, one-hundred-fifty-dollar jeans, high-heeled black boots. I realized I was blocking their path, and scooted Ava’s stroller out the way. “We’ll wait for you,” one of the blondes said. “You’re heading to Carl Schurz playground, right?” “Um, yeah,” I said. “But I need to make a couple of stops, so go ahead.” “Just remember, you’re the parent,” the other blonde said in that tone, and I wanted to take the red scarf around her neck and pull both ends tight. The brunette gave me a condescending smile. “You’re doing fine.” Duh. I know. I don’t need you to validate me, okay, honey? Not that I was defensive. Or anything. Off they toddled with their strollers. Once Ava’s shoe was back on (now that I didn’t care if she wore it or not, she let me put it on with zero resistance), she took her hat off her head and began chewing it. I headed for the deli on the corner and grabbed a banana for Ava’s afternoon snack, mostly because it was the one food that didn’t require cutting. I could just hold it up to her mouth and she’d take a bite. 39 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Careful of bananas. They’re constipating. No more than one banana per weekend… That was on page two of Ava’s Checklist, under the heading of meals and snacks. “Ooh, what a darling baby! But I wouldn’t let her teethe on that hat. There’s all sorts of dangerous dyes.” Please don’t be talking to me. I peered over at the woman waiting in line behind me. Yup, she was talking to me. I tried to take away the hat, but Ava held firm with a “Waah! Waah-waah!” “Well, she wants it,” I said. “If she wanted to chew on glass, would you let her?” the woman asked. Why, yes, of course! “You’re the parent,” she continued. “It’s up to you. She can’t have everything she wants and she needs to start learning that now.” Was You’re the parent in some guidebook I hadn’t read? I’d been told that fifty times in the past eleven months, forty of those times in the past two months by Jodie, and at least ten times during the past two weekends, when my life as a single father had really begun. I handed the clerk a ten-dollar bill and waited for him to ring me up. “I really wouldn’t let her chew that,” the woman reiterated, shaking her head slightly. “I thought I was the parent,” I retorted. Her cheeks turned red. “Fine, let her get sick.” “Have a nice day,” I said, and got the hell out of there. Could I put a sign on my forehead that said, Don’t Talk To Me, Please? I made it to the light without another word from a stranger, mostly because no one passed me. As I entered Carl Schurz Park, I bought a hot dog from the vendor and scarfed it down. Ava eyed it, and I was about to offer her a bite when I remembered the No-No Foods list on page two. No: grapes, peanuts, popcorn, hot dogs, candy, or any hard, round food that can’t be cut into tiny pieces. I bent down and offered her some bun. She flung her hat on the ground and grabbed the bun, which she gobbled up. A kid on a skateboard promptly ran over her hat.

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I stuffed the hat in my pocket, wondering how long it would take someone to say, “Did you know your baby isn’t wearing a hat?” I wondered if I would do this kind of thing too one day. Would I go around stopping mothers and fathers with baby strollers and pointing out what they could clearly (or not) see for themselves? Did you know your baby looks like an elf? You didn’t? Oh, well she does! When I entered the playground—a huge fence-enclosed space surrounded by trees that blocked the playground from view on all sides—I immediately spotted the Know-It-All-Mom Posse on the benches between the sandbox and the toddler apparatus. I headed for the benches in front of the baby swings and sent them telepathic messages: Stay where you are. Don’t come near me. Do not, I repeat, do not, speak to me. One thing I liked about playgrounds, particularly this playground, aside from the fact that it was a two-minute walk from my new apartment, was that you rarely saw families. On weekends, dads were out in full force, especially in the morning when moms were having their alone-time. Today (a Friday, but a holiday Friday), the playground was full of dads, full of singles with strollers. Not single-singles, just not duos with strollers. As in no families. I saw moms with strollers. I saw dads with strollers. But rarely did you see a mom and dad together at the playground. That solo quality made me comfortable. Mothers liked to travel in packs, I noticed, twos and threes, and sometimes an entire playgroup taking over the sandbox, but they weren’t families. And not families meant I didn’t have to be reminded of what I had just two months and one day ago. Oh Lord, whip out the violins, right? I reached into the diaper bag for the insulated pack and pulled out Ava’s bottle of formula, which she eagerly accepted. “Breast is best.” No. No. No. Nooooo! Please go away. I will pay you a thousand dollars to just GO AWAY. Not that I had an extra thousand. I paid a fortune in child support, despite Jodie’s insistence that she didn’t need my money, that Eye-in was “quite wealthy.” “Well, Eye-in isn’t Ava’s father, is he?” I’d snapped back at Jodie. “And since I am and always will be, whether you like it or not, I’m paying child support. And a lot of it!” “That’s great, Chris,” she’d hurled back. “Spite yourself. That’s your favorite thing to do.” We had a great relationship. Really. Just great. “Sweetie, don’t you know that breast is best?” I didn’t even have to look up to know it was the long-haired blonde from the Know-It-All-Mom Posse. 41 ♥ela_vanilla♥

I had a better question for her. No, I had two: Will you ever mind your own business? And will you ever stop calling a stranger, a grown man who was neither your husband nor son, sweetie? “Omigod, do you see how fast that nanny is pushing that baby on the swing?” said the brunette to the blonde Posse leader. “He can’t be older than six months!” Head shaking. Tsk-tsking. Go Away. Leave. Skat! The blonde had me wedged in by her Bugaboo, a status stroller that cost seven hundred fifty dollars. “Doesn’t your wife know breast is best?” the Posse leader asked. She sat down on the bench, opened her puffy down jacket, fiddled with her shirt and gave her baby lunch. I looked away. I always felt funny watching a woman—even Jodie—breastfeed. Yeah, yeah, it was PC to say it was earthy and beautiful to watch your wife breastfeeding your baby, but it was actually kind of sexy and the opposite of sexy at the same time. I supposed it was the momentary exposure of the breast—the very idea of the breast—that was sexy, the glimpse, the flash, the wonder. Wonder. Ha. I didn’t need to wonder what a controlling Know-It-All would be like in bed. I already knew. Not that Jodie was as bad as Blondie. Jodie was a strong woman, with strong opinions, and I’d always found her intelligence, her confidence, incredibly sexy. It was later that she became a know-it-all and I became a know-nothing. God, Christopher, not like that. You have to support her neck! Christopher, no—her diaper is on too low! Christopher, no, stop it—you really think I’m in the mood for sex after the day I’ve had? She was never in the mood for sex, which was understandable, given her all-consuming job as a lawyer—which she wanted to quit from the minute she found out she was pregnant—and her exhausting job as a mother. “Breast milk really is best,” blond Posse leader went on. “Exclusive breastfeeding will make your baby smarter, less prone to illness—especially those pesky ear infections—and give her important antioxidants that you won’t find in formula. Skylar hasn’t had a single ear infection. How many has your daughter had? I’ll bet at least three, and she’s what? a year, right?” Buzz! Wrong! You don’t know it all! “She’s such a dumpling!” the brunette put in. “Let me guess. Thirteen months!” Buzz! Wrong. “No, I’d say more like ten months. She’s tiny!” the other blonde said. 42 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Buzz! Buzz-buzz-buzz! “She’s eleven months,” I finally said. “It’s the antibodies in breastmilk that substantially re—” “Look,” I said, “the commute on Metro North is almost an hour, so—” She interrupted me with an I-know-it-all pat on my arm. “Breast milk will keep for up to two hours if you have a good insulated pack. Do you?” SAVE ME. “Leave the poor guy alone. From the looks of that adorable little girl, he’s doing just fine.” Was I hearing things? I glanced up and almost dropped Ava’s diaper bag. I’d not only been saved but by her. By the woman who’d caught my eye last weekend. She was petite and curvy, with short, wispy light blond hair and light brown eyes, and she carried her baby in a Bjorn. She reminded me of an actress whose name I can’t recall. The one who used to be involved with Ellen DeGeneres. Yes, please be a lesbian so that nothing will ever come of my attraction to you. I wasn’t here to pick up women. This was a playground, not a bar. Or a club, or wherever the hell people met people. After only two years of a serious relationship and nine months of marriage, I had no idea how to be single. Not that I was single. I was married. And until a judge signed otherwise, there was a chance that Jodie and I could work things out. She could move out of Eye-in’s four-bedroom colonial—the one she’d always dreamed of. She could stop being a stay-at-home-mother—the job she’d wanted since she found out she was pregnant. And we could go back to what we had…which wasn’t working. Jodie had broken up our family, endured the wrath of her in-laws, the shock of her own parents and siblings, the behind-her-back whispers of her friends. She’d gone through all that to leave me. She wasn’t coming back. That my wife had an affair without my suspecting it for a second pissed her off to no end. “You didn’t even know,” she’d screamed. “I’ve been fucking another man for months, and you didn’t even know! That’s how detached you are, Christopher. That’s how not-there you are!” I hadn’t known. Hadn’t suspected. I found out because she told me. She sat me down and told me.

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I’ve been having an affair. It’s not just sex. It’s love, Christopher. I’m sorry, but I’ve fallen in love with this man, and he’s asked me to move in with him. I want this, Christopher… Just like that, my marriage was over. My family was gone. Sometimes I found myself touching the spot on my ring finger where the silver band had been; it now sat at the bottom of my pencil cup on my desk in my new apartment. The Posse leader eyed my savior and was about to say something when some of the baby swings freed up. “Ooh, look, those nannies are finally leaving the swings. Let’s grab those three!” Off they flew. I smiled at the woman. “Thanks for saving me,” I said, gesturing at the busybodies. “I’m pretty new at all this. And I’m trying. I really am.” She smiled back. “Don’t let the sanctimommies get to you.” Sanctimommies! I was in love. Not only did she have a good vocabulary, but she was funny! “I’m Christopher and this is Ava,” I said. “Kaye,” she said. “And this is Jake.” We admired each other’s babies for a few seconds. “You can’t be that new,” Kaye said. “Your daughter looks like she’s about a year old.” “Eleven months,” I said. “But my wife and I have only been separated for two—” I stopped talking when I realized she was glancing—uncomfortably—around the playground for somewhere to escape to. “Oh, there’s the friend I’m meeting,” she said on cue. “Bye.” And off she rushed for the far end of the park and sat alone on a bench. Mothers really liked me until they found out I was a separated single dad with weekend custody. They immediately assumed I left my marriage, my family. “Breast really is best,” the busybody trilled again as she and the Posse passed my bench. “Would you like to spare one of yours?” I asked. “I’m all out at the moment.” She rolled her eyes. “There’s a reason you’re so defensive. It’s because you’re formula feeding. You should really read the research. Just check online.” Thankfully she and her Posse headed toward the far side of the playground, where someone was making animal shapes out of balloons.

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I took Ava out of her stroller and sat her on my lap so she could look at the toddlers climbing the two low steps to the baby slide. “If you leave those Cheerios on the seat of the stroller, pigeons will swoop.” Good God, that was a man’s voice. I glanced up to find a thirtyish guy in a Yankees cap parking his stroller next to mine. “So?” I said. “So then the busybodies will swoop, complaining about vermin and germs.” I laughed. “That’s the first thing someone’s said to me today that has made sense.” He nodded back, and we sat there, in blessed silence for quite a while. “Ah, there’s the wife,” my comrade said, waving at a dark-haired woman heading over. He went from comrade to family. My cue to leave. Fast.

On the way back to my apartment, I had only two comments and three choruses of “What a beautiful baby!” I made it inside without “running into” Ginger, which was a good thing because I had to pack up Ava for the ride back to Eye-in’s. I’d promised Jodie I’d bring Ava back this afternoon so that she and Eye-in could take the baby to some special playgroup thing tonight. I’d had Ava for less than twenty-four hours of a four-day weekend. The next holiday was mine. One Metro North ride later, I was in Chappaqua. The four-bedroom Colonial went on forever. Just when you thought it was ending, it continued on sideways. I could see Jodie in the kitchen window; she was washing dishes, and the lawyer was behind her, his arms braced around her on the sink. Either he was helping her wash the dishes or they were having sex. I didn’t want to know. Jodie noticed me and started, and they both suddenly snapped to attention. They came out, hovered and fussed and fired off questions about whether I’d followed Ava’s Checklist, then disappeared inside, hugging and kissing, one happy family. The moment the door closed, leaving me literally out in the cold, I missed Ava. Chapter four Roxy My mother was humming the wedding march at the top of her lungs. I could hear her even though I was upstairs in my old bedroom, a heavy down comforter pulled over my head. 45 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Dum, dum da-dum! Dum, dum da-dum! Dum, dum, da-dum dum da-dum dum da-dummmm!” she sang-hummed up the stairs. She and my aunt Maureen burst into the bedroom. “Rise and shine, Roxy! It’s your wedding day!” My mother pulled the blankets off me. “Roxy, it’s noon! Up, up, up! We let you sleep way too late. It’s time for your minifacial! We’ve already done ours.” My mother’s hair was in tiny pink curlers all over her head, and her face was covered in a dry green mask. My aunt Maureen’s mask was pink. “I don’t think I can do it,” I whispered. My aunt raised the blinds in my room. I shut my eyes against the sudden glare. “Don’t think you can do what?” she asked. “Roxy, I told you not to drink too much last night!” my mother snapped. “I told you your bachelorette party shouldn’t be the night before your wedding! Now she’s hungover,” she complained to her sister. “No wonder she slept till noon! She’d still be sleeping if we hadn’t come to wake her up!” I hadn’t been sleeping. Not for hours. Nor was I hungover. I had exactly one glass of white wine last night at Hot Stuff, the silly male strip club my bridal party insisted we go to. “I don’t think I can marry Robbie,” I whispered. “What, sweetie?” my aunt asked. “I don’t think I can marry Robbie,” I repeated. “I don’t think I can do it.” My aunt and my mother looked at me, then burst out laughing. “You’re good,” my mother said, tapping her green cheeks to test for dryness. “You almost had me there. ‘Can’t marry Robbie,’” she repeated, shaking her head and smiling. I sat up and closed my eyes. For a moment I saw white, then black, and I fell back on my bed. My stomach was flip-flopping. My head was pounding. “I’m serious,” I said. “I don’t think…I don’t think it’s what I want.” “Would you listen to the diva drama queen here?” my mother asked my aunt. She took my hands and sat me up. “Honey, it’s called Wedding Day Cold Feet. Butterflies. Jitters. A case of nerves. Of course you want to marry Robbie.” I shook my head. “I don’t. I really don’t.” My aunt laughed. “You’ve got the jitters bad. I know just what you need,” she said, flipping her index finger at my nose. “You need a cucumber mask and fresh cut cucumbers on your eyes while you’re having your mani/pedi.” 46 ♥ela_vanilla♥

A wave of nausea came over me and I must have turned as green as I felt, because my aunt grabbed my hand and led me to the bathroom. “Okay, sweetie pie,” she said, gesturing at the toilet. “You sit there and let me grab my facial kit.” I sat on the cold white toilet lid and stared at the huge pink flowers on the shower curtain, the fluffy pink bath mat, the grout in between the tiles on the floor. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. Last night at Hot Stuff, when a stripper with a mullet and no neck gyrated a foot in front of my face, I’d leaned over to my maid of honor and one of my oldest friends, Patty, and whispered, “I don’t want to marry Robbie.” “Shut up!” she’d said on a laugh, flinging the cherry from her drink at me. And before I could say, No, I’m dead serious, she was up on our table for six, shimmying her ample chest at No Neck. My bridal party was too tipsy for any kind of serious conversation, and so I’d gotten through it, forcing myself to think in between gyrations, in between calls for shots, in between discussions of whether we liked it better on top or on bottom, whose fiancé/boyfriend/husband liked it kinky, and how many babies we wanted. “None,” I’d said. “I want none.” “That’s not a number,” my friend Jolie pointed out. My cousin Jeanne flung another cherry at me. “You once said you wanted eight kids.” “I was eight when I said that,” I’d pointed out. I was now twenty-five. Too young. I didn’t envision having a baby until my early thirties. Midthirties, maybe. “You’d better start on your honeymoon,” my mother-in-law had said a hundred times since Robbie and I got engaged last year. “Your first will be born when you’re twenty-six. You’ll space them two and a half years apart, and Robbie wants four, so—Wait, how many years is that in total? Robbie Senior!” she’d screamed to her husband, “We need your calculator.” There was no talking to Rita Roberts. Her real name was Doreen. She’d changed it to Rita when she and her husband, Robbie Roberts, Senior, got married twenty-seven years ago. Robbie Roberts, Senior, was a personal injury lawyer, and Doreen had been his secretary. They’d both thought that a man named Robbie Roberts, an up-and-coming personal-injury attorney with his own commercial on local television, needed a wife who matched.

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I once asked Robbie, Junior, if he’d ask me to change my name had it been Christine or Elizabeth instead of Roxy. “Of course,” he’d said, dead serious. Then he’d grinned. “I wouldn’t change a hair on that gorgeous head of yours. If your name was Wilma, that would be fine with me. If your name was Vomit, I’d still want to marry you.” Doreen. Rita Roberts had once been a young woman named Doreen. A completely different person. “No, silly,” she’d said when I asked her if she missed her name or felt like she’d lost her old self. “It’s just a name.” It bothered me, though. I tried to imagine Rita Roberts as Doreen, as this other woman with a different name. I imagined her in her secretary garb from twenty-five years ago, her high eighties hair. My mother was rinsing off her mask. She blotted her face with a towel and I saw myself, twentyfive years older. The same dark brown doe eyes, the same pale complexion, the same slightly long nose, the same full mouth. We even had the same bleached-blond hair, except mine was past my shoulders and permed and hers was very short and layered. Even our bleached-blond eyebrows were the same. Too thin, I saw now. My aunt came bounding in with her giant red bag. Red was skin care. Pink was cosmetics. Babyblue was hair. My aunt managed a hair salon, Hair and Now, and was considered one of the best hair stylists in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I tried to open my mouth to speak, to say again that I didn’t think I could do this, marry Robbie, who would not call himself Rob even though he was twenty-five years old and not, say, seven. But my mouth was dry. My throat was parched. And my eyelid was twitching. “Here, hon, take these,” my aunt said, sliding two Tylenol tablets into my palm. She handed me a Dixie cup filled with water. “You’ll feel better in ten minutes. Oh, and just you wait till you feel this cool cucumber mask on your face. Mmm! It smells so good and is so refreshing!” My mother stood in front of the sink, applying moisturizer to her face. I loved when her face was devoid of any makeup, which was rare. Her face was so beautiful, but she liked her makeup heavy—foundation, pink blush, black eyeliner and thick frosty lipstick. “Da dum da-dum! Dadum da dum!” she sang-hummed again. “Da dum da dum da—” “Will ya pipe down?” my father bellowed from my parents’ bedroom down the hall. “I’m trying to read the paper!”

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Please don’t pipe down, Mom. Please don’t. Please keep singing Dum dum dum da-dum in higher and higher pitch so that it takes over my every thought. Because marrying Robbie Roberts would be dumb, dumb, da-dumb. No. Not dumb. Just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wra-wrong. “Okay, Rox,” my aunt said, sitting down on a step stool in front of me and slathering the cool green mask on my face. It did feel good. “Your job is to sit here and breathe. Your reign as Princess for a day has begun. If you want anything, you just ring this little bell.” She indeed produced a little silver bell and placed it on the top of the toilet tank. “You are not to move a muscle.” But then how will I make my escape?

My parents’ marriage in a nutshell: breakfast, lunch and dinner—Mom serves, Dad sits and reads newspaper. Chews in silence. Mom asks what he thinks of new kitchen window curtains. No response. Mom asks again. No response. A minute later, Dad asks for more ketchup on his eggs, his hamburger, his French fries. Mom squeezes it all over his lap instead and bangs bottle down on table. Dad asks, What the hell is wrong with you! Mom bursts into tears and runs into bedroom. Dad shakes his head, wipes at his lap with a napkin. Keeps eating and flipping pages. My relationship with Robbie in a nutshell: longevity. Robbie and I have been a couple for nineteen years. And we’re twenty-five years old. It would take a few years, but it would happen. Robbie and I would become my mother and father, my aunt and her husband, Rita and Robbie Roberts, Senior. I knew it with absolute certainty. The main reason I was so sure was because it was what Robbie wanted. Tradition. Order. Expectations and expectations met. Comfort. And Robbie Roberts got what he wanted. He was good that way. Last year, when we got engaged, we moved into a one-bedroom apartment three blocks from our parents’ houses, which were around the corner from each other. Robbie liked a three-course meal every night, except Friday, when we ordered in either Chinese or a pizza, and Sunday, which was “family night.” One Sunday we ate at my parents’ house. One Sunday we ate at his parents’. “Why should I cook a three-course meal five nights a week?” I asked him constantly. “It’s ridiculous. I work full-time too!” “You do the traditionally female stuff. I do the traditionally male stuff,” he said. “If I could cook, I would. But I’m a terrible cook. And you’re a great cook. If you could hang window blinds or build bookshelves from scratch, you would. See?”

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I saw. And so I cooked (an appetizer, an entrée, a dessert), and he made sturdy bookshelves. I cleaned and he fixed the vacuum cleaner. Add in the inevitable lack of conversation, the inevitable lack of sex, the inevitable lack of stimulation of any kind, and we would be our parents. “That’s crazy,” Robbie had once said when I voiced my fears. “We’ve been a couple since we were six years old. That’s almost twenty years. And we still have scintillating conversation, hot sex and stimulation of all kinds. After twenty years! You’ve got nothing to worry about.” I met Robbie in Mrs. Puffero’s first-grade class. At six years old Robbie was already Mr. Personality, Mr. Confidence, Mr. Popularity. During show-and-tell on the third day of school, he took my hand and led me up to the front of the circle and announced that he was going to marry me one day. Mrs. Puffero laughed. Our classmates made spitting sounds. But Robbie beamed at me and squeezed my hand tight. We were best friends throughout our childhoods. At nine, ten, eleven years old, when Robbie was supposed to hate girls, he included me in everything. G.I. Joe fights, bug-watching. Bike races. And when we were twelve, at our elementary school’s sixth-grade graduation dance, we kissed for the first time. A lip kiss during a slow song. Robbie was the most popular boy in school. By default, I was one of the most popular girls. “Why are you so quiet?” girls would ask me all the time, looking at me closely. It was just my way. But I was labeled stuck-up. Robbie was the opposite of quiet. Through junior high and high school, Robbie Roberts was my boyfriend. I never kissed another boy. Touched another boy. Felt another boy’s arms around my waist. “Trust me, they all kiss the same,” my mother had once said when I asked her if she thought it was weird that I’d probably marry my only boyfriend. “And what do you mean probably? Of course you’ll marry Robbie.” There were times over the years when I wanted to break up with Robbie. Times when I was sick of him. Times when I was attracted to other guys. Times when I just wanted to know what it felt like not to be Robbie Roberts’s girlfriend. Not to feel so defined by that label. But something always kept me by his side. There were my father’s drinking binges, which made me run crying and shaking to Robbie’s house, which was almost directly behind ours and an easy walk through three backyards. There was the constant bickering. There was my case of mono, which brought Robbie to my house every day despite his parents insisting he not see me until I was cured. There was Robbie’s inability to pass his driver’s test, which was very depressing to a seventeen-yearold. (He finally passed last year.) There were family problems on both sides, there were fights with friends. There were proms. There was Robbie’s father’s cancer scare. And then there was college (of course we went to the same school, Brooklyn College), where Robbie majored in

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business and I in English. There were guys everywhere. Different guys. Even if they were mostly from Brooklyn and not the great beyond, those glittering lights across the river. More than once I’d asked Robbie if he regretted never being with another girl, another woman. Didn’t he wonder? Didn’t he have any wild oats to sow? Didn’t he want to sleep with someone else? “Why would I want to sleep with anyone else?” was Robbie’s answer. “First of all, I love you. Second of all, you’re the most beautiful girl in Brooklyn. Probably in the entire world.” There were times over the years when that answer was all I needed to hear, when I needed to hear just that so badly that it took care of things for a while. Things such as my fears. My worries. My dreams of what lay beyond Bay Ridge. “There’s nothing beyond Bay Ridge,” Robbie would say. “Everything you need, everything I need, is right here in Brooklyn.” Robbie loved Brooklyn. On the weekends, he wore sweatshirts with Brooklyn across the front that he bought in souvenir shops as though he were from Kansas. Except for a few trips to a few Caribbean islands, Robbie had never left New York City. He didn’t want to see the Grand Canyon (“we have enough potholes in the city—why do I need to visit some giant hole in the ground?”). He didn’t want to see the Eiffel Tower (“the French hate our guts!”). He didn’t want to see the Taj Majal (“the what?”). “I’m going to propose to you the day I make my first million,” he’d said the day we graduated from high school. He’d proposed the next day, actually. I said yes because we were Roxy & Robbie 4 Evah. Because I was eighteen. Because I wanted freedom from my parents. Because I thought we could run away together, see the world, explore. Robbie had wanted to get married right away, but I kept saying “next year,” then “when we graduate from college,” then “when we get settled,” then anything I could come up with to hold him at bay. When are we going to set a date? he wanted to know. Why don’t you want to marry me this second? Don’t you love me? I did love him. Very much. But I confused not wanting to marry him at all with not wanting to marry him yet. “I’m twenty-four years old!” he’d said last year. “I’ve made my first million—well on paper. I’m ready, Roxy. Really, really ready. Don’t you want to be rocking little Robbie, Junior, Junior?” Robbie, Junior, Junior. No. I didn’t want that at all. And I wanted a baby about as much as I wanted to…get married. I’d tried to explain to Robbie. I didn’t want us to end up like our parents, screaming, yelling, fighting, then suddenly making out in the middle of the kitchen, then more screaming. I didn’t 51 ♥ela_vanilla♥

want to wear curlers in my hair in the middle of the day. I didn’t want to wear curlers in my hair ever. I didn’t want to know only members of my family and people who lived within a quartermile radius. I didn’t want to never know if I could have made it out there. “First of all, Rox, our parents have good marriages,” Robbie would say. “And that’s what marriage is. You fight, you make up, you live your life. It’s real life. And as for ‘out there’—out where? Manhattan? What is the big whoop to you about Manhattan? It’s just full of cutthroat, overly ambitious morons from everywhere else in the country who want to work their asses off till midnight and be snots to everyone. Trust me, I deal with lawyers from Manhattan all the time. They’re the worst of the worst.” Robbie was a personal-injury attorney. When he graduated from law school, he joined his father’s practice. “And our little boy will be Robbie Roberts, Esquire, the Third,” Robbie had said more than once, beaming. “Robbie Roberts Junior Squared! Robbie Roberts Cubed!” “What if it’s a girl?” I’d ask. “Then it’ll be Robbie Roberts I, II and daughter,” Robbie said. “Or something like that.” “What if she doesn’t grow up to become a lawyer?” “Aw come on, Rox. Why do you have to spoil my fun? You know I’m just kidding. I wouldn’t care if our kid was a gay circus performer.” When he said things like that, my love for him would seep into the cracks and crevices in my heart, and I’d be reassured. That he was the guy for me. That he was and always had been my best friend, supporter of my dreams. That he wasn’t our parents. That we wouldn’t become our parents. That I wouldn’t live and die in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, without experiencing anything else. That he was, indeed, open-minded. It had been Robbie, after all, who’d helped me get my current job, a giant step to my dream. Robbie had been the one who’d shown me the advertisement in the Bay Ridge Brouhaha for an editorial assistant. When I’d graduated from college, I’d been all excited about getting a job in a major publishing house in Manhattan. Random House. HarperCollins. Harlequin Enterprises. I’d sent my résumé to every publishing house there was. I didn’t get a single response. I’d been an assistant editor on my college literary magazine and discovered I was particularly good at editing. Good at figuring out what was wrong with a story, where something needed beefing up or cutting out. And I was good at working with the writers, able to articulate what they needed to fix without coming across as a know-it-all, like the editor of the magazine, a senior who didn’t like me for some reason.

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She hated the stories I passed on to her for inclusion in the magazine. “This is a literary magazine. We don’t publish genre stories. If you want to read romance stories or cheesy whodunits, pick up a copy of True Confessions or whatever.” So when I was twenty-two and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, Robbie had come over with the ad from the Bay Ridge Brouhaha. He and his father had just put in a half-page ad for their law firm, and he noticed the big ad for the assistant to the editorial department. “It’s only the Bay Ridge Brouhaha,” he’d said. “I know it’s not Random House. But it’s a start in your field.” My personal life got me the job. I knew Bay Ridge inside and out, and that’s what the editors and reporters needed. In three years I’d worked my way up to editor and reporter of the Neighbors in the News section. I covered store openings, residents who did interesting things, and marriages, engagements and obituaries. Recently I’d edited an article written by my own mother about the Marone family’s claim to fame. Which was that in the entire history of our family, there hadn’t been a single divorce. My mother was trying to get this piece of family trivia into the Guinness Book of World Records and thought she’d need some publicity to back it up. “If it’s in print, they’ll believe it. Right, Rox?” she’d asked. “If it’s true, they’ll believe it,” I told her. And it was true. No one on either side of the family had ever gotten divorced. There was a separation or two. There was a jail sentence or two. There were illnesses, both mental and otherwise. But no divorce. Which I didn’t understand at all. In the Roberts family there were many divorces but only one major illness, Robbie’s father’s second cancer scare last year that made me understand and appreciate Rita Roberts in ways I couldn’t before. The cancer scare that had Robbie on his knees by his father’s hospital bedside, proposing to me again. “I couldn’t make it through this without you, Rox,” he’d said. “I need to know you’re going to be my wife—not some day. A day. I need to set a date. Please, Rox.” Those beautiful green eyes of his were filled with tears. This guy—this guy I’d known my entire life, who’d been through it all, through thick and thin—was asking me to finally say yes. And so I had. I’d said I would marry him “next year,” which seemed so far away then. My mother and his mother were thrilled. They immediately took over the planning of the wedding and chose the date: the day after Thanksgiving for the steep discount. Today was that day.

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Two hours later, my minifacial complete, my hair in giant curlers, my pedicured feet in the glamour-puss high-heeled maribou-feathered sandals my maid of honor had given me last night, I was escorted downstairs to the living room, aka Wedding Central. My female relatives, future female relatives and bridal party were racing around, fluffing taffeta, applying bridal-party makeup, checking hosiery for snags, threatening the florist on the phone, chugging Diet Coke, and popping M&M’s. I was now sitting on my throne, one of my mother’s kitchen chairs, in front of the bay window. I watched the cars. I could see the entrance to the Uptown number four train on the corner. My mother sat at my side, applying the top coat to the three coats of Rock-Me Red on my nails. My aunt stood behind me, curling, twisting, gelling, spraying, and bobby-pinning my hair into an updo exactly like Scarlett Johansson’s in a photo she’d pulled out of People. My mother-in-lawto-be sat three inches from my face, to which she was applying way too much makeup. “I want you to picture yourself in a meadow, looking up at fluffy white clouds,” my aunt told me. She was into meditation lately and offered it for ten dollars extra with any hair color service at her salon. It was difficult to think of fluffy clouds and chirping birds while looking into the tanned and Botoxed face of Rita Roberts. “No, I don’t like that pink,” Rita said in her nasally voice, wiping away the Passion-Pink lipstick she had spent ten minutes applying to my mouth. She reached into her purse, which never left her body, and pulled out a gold tube. “With your coloring, you need red, not pink.” My coloring? I didn’t have coloring. My dark brown hair and dark brown eyebrows had been bleached white-blond for years. “The color palette for the wedding is pink,” my aunt snapped. “It matches the roses in her bouquet.” “Fine, but she’ll look washed-out,” Rita said, crossing her arms over her chest. “She’ll look pasty in her wedding pictures for the rest of her life.” For the rest of her life… “Do you have a certificate in cosmetology and makeup artistry, or do I?” my aunt snapped at Rita. “Stop it, the both of you,” my mother said, blowing on my nails. “You’re upsetting the bride.” The bride was already upset.

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Rita Roberts pursed her lips, then leaned in close to me. “Roxy, I’ve been meaning to ask, but I know how touchy you get…I assume that you’ve finally agreed to change your name after the wedding?” Not this again. Not today of all days. Or actually, maybe today of all days was the perfect time for this conversation. “I’m keeping my own name, Rita. I feel strongly about it. It’s my name. I should be able to decide what it is.” She shook her head. “Does Robbie know this?” “Yes, he does,” I said. “And? He’s fine with this nonsense? I doubt that.” He wasn’t fine with it. Let’s talk about it later, he’d say, then he’d turn up in a couple of hours with a written list of why I should take his name. “Roxy Marone or Roxy Roberts,” my mother said. “Why is this even a question? Roxy Roberts is adorable!” “And do you want your kids to have a different last name?” my aunt threw in. “Roxy Marone and Robbie Roberts, Junior, Junior?” The three of them laughed—as they always did—whenever anyone mentioned the Junior, Junior. I, personally, wanted to SCREAM. “Now, Roxy, listen to me,” my future-mother-in-law said, leaning in even closer. I could see Robbie’s face in hers. They had the same eyes—the same beautiful pure green almond-shaped eyes. They each had a dimple in their left cheek. “We’ll deal with the name business later. But listen to me, sweetie, you want to try for a baby tonight,” she told me. “It’s late November, which means if you conceive tonight or this week, the baby will be born at the end of August. That’s ideal. Three weeks inside the house to prevent germs, and by the time you’re ready to go out for your first stroll, it’ll be perfect September weather. Oh fiddlydink,” she said, throwing up her hands. “I forgot something at my house! I’ll be right back!” And she disappeared into the kitchen, where our side door led to a shortcut through the backyard to Robbie’s house, which was around the corner. I am not having a baby this year or even five years from now. Maybe when I’m thirty-five… How many times did I have to say that? AND I AM NOT CHANGING MY LAST NAME! “What if there’s an Indian summer?” my aunt said. “You should wait a couple of weeks, Rox. You don’t want to be walking a baby up and down the avenue in ninety-degree heat. Trust me, I know. I had two summer babies.” 55 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Shush,” my mother scolded. “Roxy doesn’t need to be thinking of making a baby tonight. When she comes back from the honeymoon is fine.” My aunt nodded. “You’re right—especially because the honeymoon will be the last time she has sex!” They laughed as though that was funny. She slid a section of my hair around her curling iron. “Ah, this reminds me of my own wedding day. Me, so in love, so excited to marry Vince. We were so crazy for each other that an hour before the ceremony—and mind you, this was almost thirty years ago—we snuck off to the limo waiting outside my mother’s house and fogged up the windows. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other!” My mother smiled and shook her head. “Me and Johnny too.” My parents had been crazy in love? Unable to keep their hands off each other? My parents bickered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That they had ever been crazy in love was impossible to even imagine. But they must have been. I hoped they’d been. My aunt sent a withering glare at someone behind me, then took two cotton balls from my mother’s makeshift manicure table and stuffed them inside my ears. “The bride doesn’t need to hear that the flower girl’s bouquet is wilted,” she yelled toward my cousin Lisa. “Or that her cousin Jeanne can’t zip up her dress because she ATE A BIG MAC AND A LARGE FRIES every day for lunch for two months.” She leveled a glare at her own daughter, whose fellow bridesmaids were huddled around her, struggling with her zipper, which wouldn’t budge. In the mirror across from me on the wall, I saw two of my bridesmaids helping my cousin Jeanne out of her bridesmaid dress and into a very tight-looking bra-to-ankle girdle. “I can’t even get this thing on!” Jeanne shouted. “Forget it! I’m never getting into that dress!” “Dum dum da-dum!” my mother began bellowing, glaring at my cousin and gesturing wildly at me, Princess for a day. No upsetting the bride! The other bridesmaids tried to calm down Jeanne, who was now stuffed into the girdle and looking incredibly uncomfortable. The bridesmaids helped her into the dress, which they finally managed to zip up. And then Jeanne bent to pick up her shoes, and there was the sudden ripping of fabric, followed by a gasp, followed by Jeanne bursting into tears. It’s okay, Jeanne, I wanted to say. Don’t worry. You don’t have to wear that dress because I’m not getting married today. I’m going to slip out the door when no one is paying any attention to me. I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing. But I couldn’t imagine marrying Robbie either. What the hell was I going to do? It was both way too late and not too late at the same time.

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My mother knelt down next to me and pressed her cheek close to mine. “You’re me twenty-six years ago,” she whispered, her eyes pooling with happy tears. “And Robbie is your father. Well, you know what I mean.” I knew exactly what she meant. Perhaps I could imagine slipping out the door, after all. My aunt, my mother and future mother-in-law stood before my chair, staring at me. They all nodded, tears in their eyes. “Rox,” my aunt said, pulling the cotton balls out of my ears. “Close your eyes, hon. I want to give you one last spritz of hair spray before I put on your veil.” I closed my eyes and welcomed the force field of hair spray. For two seconds, I was completely invisible inside a sticky mist. There was a knock at the side door. It was Robbie. He stood in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, beaming at me. The nausea was coming back. I closed my eyes and saw black, then little white stars. Dizzy. Dizzy. I grabbed the sides of the chair to steady myself. “Shoo!” his mother said. “You’re not supposed to see her till the ceremony!” “I can’t wait, Ma. I need to kiss her one last time before we’re man and wife.” “Husband and wife,” I corrected. He smiled, his dimples popping, his beautiful green eyes sparkling. Robbie was so cute, so Brad Pitt cute/good-looking that it was hard not to just stare at him for a moment and appreciate his looks. “Husband and wife. Whatever and wife. I just want us to be married.” That was all Robbie had ever wanted. “Okay, one good kiss, but then we need Roxy back inside to put on her veil,” his mother said. He dashed over to me and knelt down. “I can’t wait,” he whispered, his arms around my neck. “I can’t wait to marry you. Tonight is the first night of the rest of our lives, Rox. It’s you and me forever.” “I—” My mouth went dry. How do I tell you? How do I say it? I don’t know what to do… Before I could form another thought, he kissed me, and for one moment everything inside me tingled. Robbie was that kind of kisser. “Enough, enough!” Rita Roberts trilled, shooing Robbie away with a playful swat. When the front door closed behind Robbie, my aunt fixed my lipstick and attached the veil. “Okay, hon,” she said. “I want you to go outside and test the veil. Do the bridal march up and 57 ♥ela_vanilla♥

down the walkway three times. See if it holds. Use the back door—otherwise the neighbors will swarm and we’ll never get to the church on time.” “Oh my!” my mother said, her hand on her chest as I stood up. “Would you look at my baby in her veil? Oh, Roxy! You look so beautiful! You are me twenty-six years ago. Maur, is she me, twenty-six years ago, or what?” You and me forever… Aunt Maureen began crying. “She’s you. One-hundred-percent you. Oh, I can’t even talk! I’m bawling here!” She’s you… My purse was on the kitchen counter. I clutched it and stepped outside, gulping in air. And then I ran for the subway.

At the entrance to the steps leading to the subway station, I hesitated. I could go home and show Aunt Maureen that my hair hadn’t drooped and that my mascara hadn’t run despite how hard I was crying. I could go home and slip into my wedding gown. Or I could walk down these steps. I could walk down these steps into the subway, slide my MetroCard, push through the turnstile, get on a train and not attend my own wedding. I walked down one step and stood there. “You, you gonna move or what?” “Oh, sorry,” I said to the group of teenagers barreling down the stairs. “Train! Hurry up!” one of them yelled to another who was in line buying a MetroCard. I ran down the stairs, slid my card through the turnstile and bolted through the open doors of the Uptown number four before the doors pinged close. When the doors did close, I panicked. Oh my God, wait a minute, I’m not supposed to be on this train. I’ll get out at the next stop and just come back. But when the train stopped at the next station, I didn’t get up. Or the next. Or the next. And when I knew I’d gone too far, it was too late; the subway was jammed. Today was Black Friday—the start of the holiday shopping craze. I held on to a pole and stared at the back of someone’s head for forty minutes.

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At Forty-second Street, I got out for no particular reason. It was the center of the city, midtown. Any way I went from here I’d still be in Manhattan for a long time. I looked around Times Square. Across the street was a Starbucks. The perfect place to stop and think or not think. I needed hot coffee. “Venti skinny mocha no whip!” called out the clerk. “Hey, congratulations. Getting married today?” Oh God. My hand flew up to my head. I forgot I was still wearing my veil. No wonder everyone was staring at me. I thought it was my movie star makeup job. I was about to take it off when I changed my mind. If I went back to Brooklyn, if I did marry Robbie Roberts after all, I didn’t want to mess up Maureen’s hard work on my hair. It had taken my aunt ten minutes to work the veil into her updo. I’m sorry, Mom, I said silently to the ceiling. I’m really sorry. I know you and Daddy paid a small fortune for this wedding. I know how excited you are. But I don’t think I can do it, Mom. I want something else. Every time I told myself I was getting up and getting back on the subway, my body wouldn’t move from my little stool. My cell phone rang. Answer it, I ordered myself. You can say you went for a walk, your last as a single woman. You can buy yourself some time. But it wasn’t my mother or Rita Roberts or Robbie calling. It was a number I didn’t recognize. “Hello?” I said. “May I speak to Roxy Marone, please?” “Speaking.” “Hi, Roxy. My name is Lucy Miller-Masterson. I’m a senior editor at Bold Books. You sent in your résumé last week?” My mouth dropped open. I had seen the advertisement in the New York Times for an assistant editor at Bold Books and immediately sent in my résumé and three of my best clippings, but I didn’t hold out hope. I never received responses to my résumés. “Hello?” she asked. Talk, Roxy! “Yes,” I said. “Hello.” “I was impressed by your résumé and the clips you sent,” she continued. “I’d like to schedule an interview.” 59 ♥ela_vanilla♥

YES! “That would be great,” I said. “Any time that’s convenient for you.” “That would be right now,” she said on a laugh. “My assistant editor’s last day was Wednesday and where am I on a holiday Friday? In the office.” She laughed again, but she did sound sort of frazzled. “I can come now!” I said way too loudly. “Can I come now?” Silence. “I don’t see why not. I’m planning to leave at five-thirty. Can you get here by fourfifteen at the latest?” “Yes. Absolutely.” Wait a minute. No I couldn’t. It was now three forty-five. I glanced down at myself; I wore jeans —tight jeans—and a see-through button-down shirt with a camisole underneath. How would I have time to buy an interview suit? How would I have time to wipe half the gunk off my face? “Great, Roxy, I’ll see you at four-fifteen.” Click. Bold Books was four blocks from here. I had a half hour. It had to be fate. Someone, someone who cared deeply, was telling me to go on this interview instead of to my wedding. The Fates of the universe had given me somewhere to go, something to do instead of marrying Robbie. Don’t let your life depend on this interview, I told myself. If it doesn’t work out, don’t make it be an either/or. You either want to marry Robbie or you don’t. I don’t. I am so sorry, Robbie. But I don’t. I don’t. I took out my cell phone and stared at it. All I had to do was call him and tell him. The phone shook in my hand. Do it. Just do it. I dialed. “Hey baby!” he said. “I’m in my tux!” “Robbie, I’m so sorry.” I burst into tears. “What’s wrong, honey?” he asked. “What happened?” “I can’t.” “Can’t what?’ he asked. “I can’t marry you, Robbie. I don’t want to marry you.”

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“Oh, Jesus, Rox, not this again. Not now. Not on the day we’re getting married. Don’t do this to me. I can’t spend an hour reassuring you that you really want to marry me, Rox. I have to get ready for my wedding. Rox, come on.” “Robbie, I’m in Manhattan. And I’m not coming home. I’m sorry. I love you but I want something else.” “Is this a joke?” he asked on a nervous laugh. “Rox? Did my asshole cousin put you up to this? Yo, Tommy, I can hear you laughing, you loosah!” he shouted good-naturedly. “Robbie. This isn’t a joke. I’m not going to marry you. I’m not coming home. I’m sorry, very sorry.” “Roxy, you’d better come home right NOW! Don’t pull this on me! Roxy, are you listening? Roxy!” I held the phone away from my ear. “Roxy, sweetie, come on, honey, I love you. Roxy? Roxy! Goddammit! Are you there?” “Goodbye, Robbie,” I whispered into the phone and then I hung up. I took a very deep breath and waited. The phone would ring again in about two minutes. Make that one minute. “Hi, Mom,” I said. “Have you lost your mind? What in God’s name is wrong with you? You get yourself on a subway back to Brooklyn this instant!” “Mom, I’m not coming home. I’m not going to marry Robbie. I’m so sorry, Mom, but I can’t do it. I thought I could, I thought it was what I should do, but I don’t want to marry him.” “This isn’t about what you want!” she screamed, and then there was dead silence. “Roxy, of course this is about what you want. I’m talking crazy now. But what you want is to get yourself back on the subway. You’ve got butterflies, Rox. That’s all. Butterflies. We’ve all had them. Me, your aunt Maureen, Carla. Even Jackie. Well, maybe not Jackie. Honey, butterflies are normal. Come home right now, and we’ll all do a shot of Baileys for our nerves.” “I’m not going to marry Robbie, Mom,” I said on a sob. “I’m sorry. I’m not coming home. I love you and Dad, but I’m going to stay here and get a job and start a new life for myself.” Silence. And then, “What kind of life? Roxy, you have a wonderful life here! With people who love you. Robbie is crazy in love with you. Seventy-five people are coming in two hours to see you get married!” “I’m sorry,” I said.

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“I don’t know who you think you are, Roxy. But you’re going to find out and you’re going to be sorry. I don’t know what else to say to you.” “Bye, Mom,” I whispered, and turned off my phone, then pulled open the door of 1550 Broadway. Chapter five Lucy I was the only idiot at the office today. Granted, Bold Books, Inc. had only sixteen employees, but fifteen of them, including the two who were after my promotion to executive editor, were spending the day after Thanksgiving shopping, watching televised sports, eating turkey sandwiches from turkeys that hadn’t spent time on the floor, or whatever else people did, and I was here. At work. Better here than at the apartment, where I’d be waiting for Larry to come home from the office so I could continue tracking his facial expressions. That was how I’d spent my morning— peering at him closely for signs of impending abandonment, looking for clues in how he ate his scrambled eggs and the way he folded his newspaper. How had Larry spent his morning? Like every other morning. He showered. Jogged. Dressed. Read the Times. Watched MSNBC. Walked Amelia to her friend Lizzie’s. If he hadn’t called his every relative to apologize for his “crazy behavior” last night with a “Hee-hee, it was the stress, the sugar withdrawal… Glad you enjoyed the Chinese food. See you soon. You take care too—” I might have wondered if I’d dreamed the entire thing. For me there was, “Sorry about last night, Luce” and a quick dry peck on the cheek. Then he went to work himself. His mother had called just as I was leaving for the office; had she left her reading glasses at our apartment? She hadn’t even mentioned the turkey. My aunt Dinah e-mailed to ask if she should submit the photo of Larry, veins popping in his neck, hands gripping the turkey platter, for her course’s final exam. Larry had flipped out, Larry had apologized, Larry—and everyone else, apparently—had moved on. So perhaps there were no signs. Perhaps it was possible for someone to act completely “normal” while planning to walk out the door on people, on a life. I’d once asked my mother if she thought about us—me and Miranda and our dad—while she was walking around a strange town or reading Stephanie Plum novels, and she said, “Not really.” It took me a while to learn that not thinking was the entire point. But you couldn’t plan to leave your wife, your marriage, your daughter, your life of twelve years and not think about it, could you? Then why had Larry acted so…normal this morning? Where were the surreptitious glances? Where were the sorrowful looks? Where were the signs? 62 ♥ela_vanilla♥

I wondered what kind of prep you did for a resolution like Larry’s. New Year’s resolutions always required prep. For diets, you cleaned out your kitchen cabinets of anything fun to eat while watching television, like cookies and chips and Coke and full-fat ice cream or my personal favorite, Doritos. For an exercise program, you joined a gym or bought free weights and a giant rubber band and cute clothes made out of Lycra. You subscribed to magazines like Self and Fitness and taped up diets and workout programs on your refrigerator. If you were going to leave your wife, how did you prepare? You’d need a new place to live, I supposed. Unless you were moving in with someone. A girlfriend, for example. Tears stung the backs of my eyes and I gasped from the sudden pressure in my chest. Stop thinking about it. Stop, stop, stop. I’d been at work for three hours and all I’d accomplished was staring out the window and tapping my pencil and calling potential assistant editor candidates whose résumés passed muster. If I was going to get through the next six weeks, I needed an assistant editor—and right away. Each Bold Books senior editor had only one support person. And forget about asking Miranda to pick up some slack. Wanda Belle would go screaming to Futterman, our editor in chief. And someone would make noise about nepotism. Anyway, Miranda was more of a slacker than a slack-picker-upper. Roxy Marone was due here in fifteen minutes. If she had a single brain cell, she was hired. I’d interviewed six people for the position already, and not one was right for the job. There was the young woman who told me she thought the entire concept of disaster books was despicable for capitalizing on the suffering of others. She wasn’t wrong, but if you wanted to work at Bold Books, the leading publisher of disaster books, that philosophy wasn’t a great one to have. Then there was the young man who wanted to be Stephen King’s editor. When I let him know that Stephen King wasn’t one of our authors and that I wasn’t the editor of horror novels, he thanked me for my time and actually got up and left. None of the résumés I’d received this past week stood out, and of the four people I called today to arrange an interview (as if Bold should have a Human Resources department), only one had actually answered the phone. Why had I scheduled an interview I wasn’t remotely up for? I was going to ask an eager beaver coherent questions and then listen to her answers? I was going to make a judgment on anything today? I pushed aside the Cobb manuscript and threw down my pencil. Was I nuts for not confronting Larry the second he came out of the shower last night? But what was I going to say? I rummaged through your pockets and found your New Year’s resolutions, and not that you’ve ever kept one in your life, but you’re not really gonna leave me on January 1, are you? Actually, yeah, I could have said that. But every time I opened my mouth to say something this morning, it closed.

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If I told Larry I found his resolution and asked point-blank if he intended to leave me, he’d say, No, honey, of course not, I was just angry last night and thinking out loud—on paper. And then on January 1, he and a suitcase would be walking out the door. I knew my husband. What I had to do was change his mind without ever bringing it up. Make his home life very pleasant. I could do that, couldn’t I? Larry was clearly going through a midlife crisis. What was the big deal if I tried to make his life a little more bearable while he sorted things out for himself? If paper plates and plastic cups were such a big faux pas (as they apparently were to Larry all of a sudden), I’d haul down the good china from the hutch. If a fisherman sweater was such a big deal, I’d wear something else. Clogs offended him? Reminded him of nurses, perhaps? I’d wear loafers. Too many grays? Some Miss Clairol would take care of that. I’d gained a few pounds? Maybe I’d cut out some sweets too. We could do South Beach together. And maybe I’d start pushing dinner off tables, too, ruining major holidays for the entire family and scaring my daughter. Screw him. How dare the bastard! You want to leave me? Go right ahead, you immature nuisance! You potbellied prick! He pushed a turkey off a table on Thanksgiving because he was offended by a paper plate? Who the hell did he think he was? And when had he become Martha Stewart? I will be fine. I will vacillate between getting a complete makeover and wearing clogs every day for the next six weeks to dare him into leaving me. I slumped over my desk, dropping my head onto my hands. Take deep breaths, Lucy. Deep breaths. You have a daughter to protect. You have a job. A promotion to win. Focus. Focus. Focus. I sat up, picked up my pencil and tapped it against page two hundred four of the Cobb bio. Then I gnawed my lower lip and swiveled around to look out the window. The credenza against the window was piled with the proposals I’d found buried in the assistant editor’s drawer. Hmm. I was the senior editor of female-oriented nonfiction. In my piles of proposals there had to be at least a few self-helps for saving your marriage from the twelve-year itch. I pawed through my stacks. Ah. Here was one. Make Your Husband Horny! Where was my REJECT stamp when I needed it? I was supposed to make Larry stay with me because I finally learned how to give a decent blow job? Because I paraded around in slutty see-through teddies? I had self-respect! I flipped through Make Your Husband Horny! Here were some of the nonsexual suggestions: Ask him about his day and really listen! When he comes home from work, don’t complain that he didn’t ask you about your day—ask him about his! That’s how you make your husband horny! Really? The last time I asked Larry about his day he told me he preferred not to spend his nonepisiotomy hours talking about stitching up a woman’s vagina. 64 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Put on those high heels. Buy a pair of fishnets. Put on some perfume. And not your expensive stuff. Buy some cheap musk from a drugstore. He’ll go wild! Larry had allergies. He’d go wild from sneezing and hives. I put a needs-a-read sticky on Make Your Husband Horny! and set it aside. There were at least four other proposals for making your husband fall in love with you all over again. I grabbed them all, put my feet up on my desk and flipped through. Work and receive counseling at the same time! How was that for the efficiency Futterman was always after us to achieve. Before I could read one sentence, my phone rang. It was the security guard downstairs alerting me that Roxy Marone was here to see me. I told him to send her up, then headed out to unlock the door to the office for her. The elevator pinged open, and a strikingly pretty but heavily made-up young blonde in a wedding veil, jeans and a puffy hot-pink down jacket walked out, looking to the left and then the right. “Roxy?” I said, praying she was simply lost. She turned around so fast that the veil wrapped around her head. She fought it for a second, her face turning redder and redder. Was she suffocating or just embarrassed? “Are you getting married today?” I joked, pointing at the veil. Forget her having a brain cell. Now I had to waste fifteen minutes “interviewing” her so she couldn’t later claim discrimination against—what? Brides? Who showed up to an interview in a bridal veil and/or porn-star makeup? Her face turned red and then white. She grabbed the veil off her head, mutilating her chignon in the process. “I’m so embarrassed. I was so focused on preparing for the interview that I forgot it was even on.” I offered a smile. “Well, then, you must be marrying the right guy. Otherwise it would have itched or something.” She burst into tears. I had to remember to ask her what kind of mascara she used. Not a single black skid mark. Okay. Focus here, Luce. Your interviewee is not only wearing a wedding veil, she is crying. Hard. Offer the poor girl a tissue! I led her to my office, handed her my box of Kleenex and gestured for her to sit. “Are you all right?” I asked rather unnecessarily. She dropped down on the chair and dabbed under her eyes with the tissue. “I can’t believe this. For years I’ve dreamed of getting an interview at a publishing house like Bold Books. And here I 65 ♥ela_vanilla♥

am, and I’ve blown it in the first five seconds.” She shook her head and buried her face in the veil crumpled on her lap. “Maybe I should just go home and marry Robbie Roberts and try to be happy. If I leave now, I can probably make it on time.” My mouth dropped open. “You came here instead of going to your wedding?” She nodded and dabbed under her eyes again. “I guess that doesn’t exactly demonstrate my sense of commitment and responsibility and stick-to-it-ivness.” “Unless he’s the wrong guy for you,” I said. “Then it demonstrates those things just fine.” “How?” she asked. “If you leave the wrong guy at the altar, you’re being responsible to yourself. That’s pretty important.” Her eyes widened and she sat up straighter. “Thank you. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.” She should have stopped there, but because she was young and nervous and highly emotional at the moment, she talked and talked and talked and talked, mostly in circles, about how she’d known for a long time she shouldn’t marry Robbie but she just went along, letting her mother and future mother-in-law plan the wedding. I wondered if this was how Larry felt. You’re ambivalent about something, such as getting married or leaving your wife of twelve years, so you act weird for a while, like saying yes to a swan ice sculpture and polka-dot mashed potatoes or shoving a turkey off a table, and then you slowly spontaneously combust until the day you just walk away. Roxy had walked away because she had a gun to her head. Larry chose New Year’s Day because he liked making resolutions. He never kept one, but he liked making them and was very serious about them. A few years ago he’d resolved to run the New York City marathon and joined the Road Runners Club and bought one-hundred-fifty-dollar Adidas sneakers and ten pairs of running shorts made out of wicking material. He’d resolved to learn Spanish, become a vegetarian, handle his anger at the barking Boston terrier next door. He’d lasted a week at most with all of them. Ah. So even if he did leave me, he’d come back in a week. And then I’d slam the door in his face! How dare he! I had no idea what I would do. “I’m so sorry,” Roxy said, blowing her nose. “This is so embarrassing. You must be so busy, and here I am sob—” “How do you know?” I asked her, leaning over my desk. “I mean, without going into personal details, of course—how do you know for sure you don’t want to marry this man?” 66 ♥ela_vanilla♥

How does Larry know for sure he wants to leave me? “If I married Robbie Roberts,” she said without hesitation, “I would slowly suffocate. I’d be sitting at my desk at work, writing my Neighbors in the News section, or I’d be home, making ravioli, his mother hovering by the stove to make sure I didn’t overboil the pasta, and I’d just slowly stop breathing.” Larry had resolved to leave his marriage because of an orange paper plate. Grounds for divorce: she used paper products for a holiday dinner! A national holiday! Roxy, on the other hand, had had to choose between marriage and living. “So let’s go over your résumé,” I said, and her entire face lit up. I scanned her work history again; her only experience was a neighborhood weekly newspaper, the kind that you get free in your supermarket or bins on the street. But her clips were great, very well written, engaging and concise. “I really enjoyed reading your clips,” I told her. “You have an intelligent and entertaining writing style.” She beamed. “Thanks!” “Tell me about the last story you worked on,” I said. “Well, I recently edited a story my mother wrote for the paper. It’s about how she’s trying to get us into the Guinness Book of World Records for the fact that in the history of our family, there’s never been a single divorce. She wrote about how my aunts and cousins and grandparents and great-grandparents have been through it all—war, illness—mental and otherwise—jail, this, that, bad breath.” “Interesting!” I said. “Hey, at least you’re not going to ruin her chances to get into the Guinness book.” She brightened. “I didn’t think of that.” She smiled again and visibly relaxed. I liked this girl—in many ways, she reminded me of my younger self, so focused on her dream of being an editor. She didn’t have experience working on books, but reporting and editing for a weekly paper required hard work and time-management skills and dealing with many different kinds of personalities. Plus, her specialty and what Bold Books produced weren’t all that far removed. She dealt with neighbors who had news. I dealt with celebrities (well, not with them) who were news and daytime TV talk-show issues. She had to understand timeliness, what was interesting to people. “Who is your favorite author?” I asked her. If she said Joan Didion or James Joyce, she was out. “My very favorite is Nora Roberts” was her response.

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She was hired. I had to check her references and go through the motions of showing Futterman her résumé. He had no time or interest in new hires who weren’t senior level or above. He’d pretend to glance at her résumé and clips, then say, “If you like her, hire her.” It was the one plus of not having an HR department. So welcome to Bold Books, Roxy Marone. “Okay, well, thank you so much for coming in, Roxy,” I said. “You’ll be hearing shortly.” Her face fell again, and then she sat up straight. “Okay.” She stood and extended her hand. “Thank you very much for meeting with me on such short notice. It would be a dream come true for me to work at Bold Books. Thank you for your consideration.” Was I ever that earnest? That hopeful? I smiled. “Roxy, I don’t think there’s any harm in letting you know that you’re a very strong contender for this position. A front-runner, actually.” She beamed. “Thanks! Oh, I just realized that I’d better give you a different number than the one on my résumé. That’s my home address, which I share with my fia—my former fiancé—and I can’t exactly go back there. I’m staying at a hotel until I find an apartment.” Miranda needed a roommate right away! “If you’re looking for a place to live, my sister, Miranda, is looking for a roommate. In fact, she’s desperate for a roommate. She’s an editorial assistant here at Bold, so you could even question her about the place, get the dirt.” Her eyes sparkled. “Do you think I could meet her right now?” I scribbled Miranda’s phone number on a sticky. “Here’s her number. Give her a call.” She beamed and thanked me three times before leaving. What a good influence Roxy would be on Miranda. Roxy had left a relationship that wasn’t working. She was following her dream. She was striving. And she would be able to pay the rent come next week, when I called her and offered her a job. An hour and a half later, the Cobb bio finally finished, four proposals to read over the weekend in my briefcase, I dropped a memo in Futterman’s in-box so that he’d know I was at the office on a holiday weekend. Huh. There was a memo, dated today, from Wanda Belle, a report and proposal for an instant book about a bigamist in Kansas, an otherwise completely normal traveling salesman named Bob Smith, who’d managed to marry four women in neighboring towns. I looked under Wanda’s memo for something from Christopher, but Boy Wonder either hadn’t been in or wasn’t smart enough to leave something to show he had been. Ha. Christopher was plenty smart. He hadn’t been in.

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When I finally left the office just after six, I wasn’t surprised to see Roxy Marone’s veil smushed into the little trash can by the reception desk.

Whenever Larry and I got into a whopper of a fight, I watched our wedding video. Not that last night could be counted as a “fight.” There was no yelling. No slammed doors. Just the silent and deadly piece of paper in Larry’s pocket. I slid our wedding video into the VCR and pressed Play, then lay back on my bed and waited for its therapeutic effects. When Larry and I did get into one of those yelling/door slamming/go-tobed-angry whoppers, I’d hit Play and in moments I’d be smiling at myself in my pretty cotton dress with its empire waist that hid my three-months-pregnant belly, my heart, soul and mind touched by the look in Larry’s eyes—love, excitement, anticipation. That look, which I’d seen in his eyes countless times over the years (though not lately), would get me up off the bed or couch to find Larry and offer a “We’ll figure it out, hon.” And we always had figured it out, for twelve years. Not quite a year into dating, Larry’s lack of patience had led to, “I have to have you right now, Luce.” Which led to, “I’ll pull out, I promise.” Which led to, “Ahhh, Oooooh!” Which led to, “Um, Luce?” The “Um, Luce?” was followed by a “Let’s not worry till we have to worry.” Which was followed by waiting. My period never did come. Not once did Larry say, We’re only twenty-two, we have our whole lives ahead of us, I’m in med school. What he said was, “Will you marry me?” We were so in love in those days! And so I married him in the park and got through morning sickness in the bathroom at Bold Books, where I was an editorial assistant. My old boss, a single woman named Charlotte, was sure I wouldn’t come back to work after my maternity leave, but I had. I wanted to be an editor. I wanted to be a mother. And thanks to Grannie Ellie, a retired pediatric nurse turned loving nanny, I was able to be both. As I watched the video, I stared at my mother, who stood smiling with my father and Miranda and Aunt Dinah and Uncle Saul to our right. (The cheerless Mastersons stood on our left.) Was that how you coped with whatever was wrong with your marriage, Mom? You simply went on impromptu vacations by yourself several times a year? If that saved her marriage, perhaps it wasn’t so terrible, even if it was at the expense of everyone else’s feelings. But if the marriage was so bad that she needed to escape it in such an odd way, perhaps the marriage shouldn’t have been anymore. Perhaps leaving for good was the answer. But I didn’t want Larry to leave. I didn’t want Larry to go “on vacation” several times a year.

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Why did Larry want out now, now that things were so…nice? Not that it was nice that we’d stopped kissing goodbye or good-night. Or that we rarely spent time together unless it involved Amelia. Or that we really didn’t talk unless it was about Amelia—her report cards, a cute account of our first-bra shopping expedition at Macy’s, the effect on Amelia of her friend Lizzie’s parents’ separation. “That’s life, unfortunately,” Larry had said about Lizzie’s parents, and I’d nodded, safe in the security of my own marriage, of Amelia’s home life. It wasn’t nice that we hadn’t had sex in months. It is for Larry because he’s getting it somewhere else, a voice said. Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know! I don’t know anything! I watched my twenty-two-year-old self wrap my arms around Larry’s neck for our I-do kiss. I watched Larry scoop me up in his arms and spin me around until his mother started worrying out loud that it might hurt the baby. He laughed and slid me down his body, kissing me passionately. You couldn’t hear it or see it in the video, but just then he’d whispered, “I love you so much, Lucy Miller-Masterson.” I love you, too, Larry. I was going to save our marriage. I would never buy paper plates again. I would color those gray hairs. I would not wear fisherman sweaters. Away with the clogs! I would go on South Beach myself and become the pretty young thing in the wedding video. Except I wasn’t twenty-two, dammit. I was thirty-four. I’d be thirty-five in a few months. Did how I looked define me? Please. How was I supposed to teach Amelia to respect herself if I didn’t respect myself? I turned off the video and turned on DVR to my favorite show, BBC’s What Not to Wear. Except that this episode, style gurus Trinny and Susannah, whom I adored, were ripping apart a woman who could’ve been me: a hapless working mother in ill-fitting undergarments and shapeless, colorless clothes. “Do you honestly not see how truly, truly awful you look?” one of the gurus said to the woman. I dragged myself over to the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door and examined myself. I’d changed from my work clothes—a pair of jeans and a pinky-red sweater with little embroidered cats all over it—to my comfy sweats. Sweats. A week ago, Miranda called to ask if Amelia and I would meet her for an early dinner, and when I said I was already in my sweats, she said she was too, no need to change. When I arrived in my oversize gray sweatshirt and sweatpants, my white athletic socks and white

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sneakers, Miranda was wearing tight lavender velour yoga clothes with the word hey! written across her tush. Those were sweats? Do you honestly not know how truly awful you look? I thought about what I wore to work on Wednesday: a shapeless beige sweater with some pilling. A boxy black skirt that was slightly too long. Nude hose. My white Keds that I always meant to exchange for the black flats I kept under my desk. But the sneakers were so comfortable! And did my footwear matter more than my brain? My feet wouldn’t get a book on the New York Times bestseller list. I’d never been much into fashion, and I’d stopped thinking about style altogether when I came home from the maternity ward. What’s your excuse for your hair? I asked myself, conceding that it was a blah brown color lightly streaked with gray and prone to frizziness that only a precious forty-five minutes with a blow-dryer and a tube of gel could tame. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d had a trim. Or worn makeup. I peered closely at my face. At the moment, my eyes were puffy from the crying I’d done last night and this morning. And from the lack of sleep. Maybe I could use a little makeover myself. A big makeover. But when, exactly, was I supposed to transform myself? Larry’s “personal time” was my Amelia time. I couldn’t have quality time with Amelia and a semi-high-powered full-time job and keep a spotless home and look like glamorous Wanda Belle. I could barely do the important two. Which reminded me: what the hell was I doing? I was doing it again, that’s what. I was blaming myself for Larry wanting to leave me. It wasn’t my fault! If he wanted the twenty-two-year-old he married twelve years ago, he would have to wake up and smell the calendar. If he wanted the good china, he’d have to do the dishes himself. I loved Larry and he was supposed to love me. If he wanted a perfect home, if he couldn’t take me a few pounds heavier, with a few gray hairs, then screw— “She looks like a frumpy old sow!” said one of the style gurus on What Not To Wear about their makeover candidate. “No wonder she can’t get a second date! But that’s about to change, if we have anything to say about it!” Did someone say date? Good God. That was what single people did. That was what Miranda did. My heart pounding, I grabbed the pad of paper off my bedside table and wrote New Year’s Resolutions across the top. Then I listed them: 1) Save your marriage. (Somehow.) 2) Change. (Without compromising yourself. Again: somehow.) Chapter six 71 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Miranda There was a loud ringing noise in my ears. I flipped over in bed and pulled the comforter over my head, trying to get back inside my dream. Gabriel was nuzzling my neck. Whispering sweet, sexy somethings in my ear. No, not sweet. Not sexy. He was angry. Hurt. “How could you do that to me, Miranda? How could you tell my new girlfriend that you and I are sleeping together when it’s not true? If you really loved me, you couldn’t possibly be so mean and spiteful and immature…” Ahh! It had all just been a dream! I hadn’t seen Gabriel and his girlfriend during my blind-date brunch yesterday. I hadn’t told the girlfriend that Gabriel and I were sleeping together. Gabriel didn’t hate my guts for trying to ruin his relationship with said girlfriend. I wasn’t mean and immature. But then Gabriel’s gorgeous face morphed into Phineas’s small face. After calculating the bill to the penny with what we each owed, Phineas had said, “And let’s not bother with the I-had-alovely-time-I’ll-call crap, eh?” None of it was a dream. And the loud ringing noise was the telephone. I grabbed the cordless. “Gabriel?” Why did I say that? What was wrong with me? I needed it to be Gabriel so that I could apologize for my very bad behavior. When I’d gotten home from my date yesterday, I’d vacillated between calling and not calling for an hour before I finally picked up the phone, punched in Gabriel’s number and waited. No answer. No machine. No nothing. I’d spent the afternoon feeling like the world’s biggest loser, and even Muriel’s Wedding hadn’t made me feel better. Then again, I’d fallen asleep in my clothes in the middle of it. “Colin,” said a male voice. An English accent. A very nice English accent. “Colin?” Did I know a Colin? I didn’t. “Larry Masterson gave me your number a few weeks ago,” he said. “We work together at Lenox Hill. I’m an intern.” Oh. Another blind date. Another Larry connection. “I’ve been really busy at the hospital and meant to call sooner,” he went on, “but I’m going to be in your neighborhood later today, and I was wondering if you’d like to join me for a cup of coffee.” Are you going to talk about Jules Verne? Are you going to make fun of my job? Are you going to not be Gabriel?

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What was I supposed to do? Go on yet another blind date that would end the same way? A new guy wasn’t going to cure me of my feelings for Gabriel; I knew that had to come from me. And according to Lucy, it would come from me if I got out there and stopped hanging around my apartment—or hers—moping. “Miranda? You there?” Colin asked. Oops. “Sorry. I’m here. I was just trying to grab my Pop-Tart out of the toaster and talk at the same time.” It was amazing what you could come up with when you didn’t care what someone thought of you. Yes, I eat crap for breakfast! So? “Chocolate frosted?” he asked. “That’s my favorite.” Hmm. Maybe he wasn’t a pompous Jules Verne–reading poop-head. He was English. His name was Colin. There was a chance—a chance in hell, but a chance nonetheless—that he looked either like Colin Firth, whom I loved, or Colin Farrell, whom I wanted to undress. Meeting him would get me out of my apartment and doing something proactive. I could post Roommate Wanted notices on the bulletin board at the coffee lounge if the chick Lucy gave my number to didn’t work out. Roxy Marone had called yesterday—two minutes after I got home from my Gabriel debacle—to ask if she could come see the apartment, and I almost bit her head off. But she was coming over today at eleven. Which was in ten minutes, and the place was a wreck. “Sure, Colin. I love spontaneity.” That was a lie, actually. I didn’t like spontaneity at all. “Great,” he said. “How about DT*UT, the coffee lounge on Second Avenue, at four.” “Perfect. How will I know you?” “I’m tall, six-one, and I’ve got dark brown hair and brown eyes, and I’ll be the idiot in scrubs because I left my apartment today without my backpack of clothes. Is that all right?” It was. And his brown/brown combo put him in the running for both Colins. I told him to look for the nervous petite blonde. Not that I’d really be nervous. That was the great thing about being in love with someone else—you were never nervous about blind dates. There was a knock at my front door. My front door, not the downstairs door, which meant it could only be The Traitor, my now officially former roommate, Seth. I bid goodbye to today’s blind date and headed to the door, and there, indeed was Seth Gersh, handing me back my keys on a new, heart-shaped pink velvet key chain—clearly his way of saying I’m sorry but I’m in love.

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Seth had moved out of my apartment to move in with his girlfriend, who until a week ago had been his ex-girlfriend. She’d dumped him almost a year ago for an investment banker. Seth was a waiter/writer I’d met at the coffee lounge where I’d soon be meeting Colin. It was a great place to spend a few hours on one two-dollar cup of coffee while reading manuscripts. Anyway, Seth and I had both needed roommates at the same time, so he’d moved into my place, taking the screened-in section of the living room as his bedroom. Instead of pining alone, we’d pined for our lost loves together. Lucy hadn’t liked the scenario one bit. She didn’t like Seth (she thought he was a whiny intellectual) and didn’t see any opportunity for a potential relationship. “I’ll miss you,” Seth said. “And don’t lose hope over Gabriel. Just look at me for inspiration.” I hugged him as the buzzer sounded. “Ooh, that’s someone coming to see the apartment. Want to meet my potential new roommate?” He nodded. “I’ll give you the thumbs-up or down when she’s not looking.” I opened the door to one of the too-pretty twenty-somethings you see all over the city. If she weren’t short, I’d swear she was a model wannabe. But I’m five-five, and she was a little shorter than me. She was too pretty and had too much presence. She had enormous dark brown eyes and shiny dark brown hair, straight and just above her shoulders, and a milky-white complexion, like Jennifer Connelly. Hadn’t Lucy told me the girl she was sending over was blond? Maybe I’d heard her wrong. “Miranda?” she asked. “I’m Roxy.” “Come on in,” I said, closing the door behind her. While she was looking around the tiny bathroom, which needed some Comet and a sponge, Seth shot me the thumbs-down, then yanked me into the tiny kitchen. “She’s too gorgeous,” he whispered. “You don’t want a babe like that living with you, trust me. If you did get Gabriel back, he’d go after her. Tell her you’ll get back to her and then lose her number.” I had two simultaneous thoughts: Jerk. And Oh God, he’s right. My third thought was: I may be pathetic, but I’m not that pathetic. “It’s a great apartment,” Roxy said without a trace of sarcasm. “Gorgeous and dumb,” Seth whispered. “A lethal combo. Get rid of her.” I rolled my eyes at him. He nodded at me and my potential new roommate, then finally left. “It’s so weird,” I said to Roxy. “He was my old roommate and now he’s gone, just like that, and you’re here. Something seems fated in all that. So can I get you something to drink? I only have water.”

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She laughed. “Water’s good.” A minute later we were both settled on the futon, sipping our water. “So all I know about you is that you went on an interview at Bold Books with my sister, and she told you I needed a roommate.” “Well, let’s see. I’m twenty-five. I’m from Brooklyn. Bay Ridge. Until a half hour ago I worked at a local newspaper. I have so much vacation time coming to me that my boss didn’t require notice. So now I’m really hoping your sister will hire me.” She turned red. “Not because I’m jobless—I have a good nest egg in the bank, so I can afford the rent for a while if I don’t get the job. You don’t have to worry about that. My fingers are so crossed that Lucy hires me. Working at Bold Books is my dream job.” “Well, don’t feel too bad if you don’t get it. I work there too and I hate every second of it.” Her face fell. “Really? Why?” “Maybe because I have zero interest in being an editor.” She smiled. “That would do it. So why do you work there?” I grabbed my What Color Is Your Parachute? and held it up. “I can’t figure out the color and I was sick of temping and needed benefits, so Lucy got me an interview. I’m the assistant to the romance editor.” “I love romance novels.” Ugh. Why did she have to be nice and not a snotty pretty person? I hated nice gorgeous people. She glanced around the room. “So behind this screen is my bedroom?” I nodded. “The screen’s not exactly a door, but it’s something. And your share of the rent is cheap. Well, cheaper than mine. And my bedroom is pretty small.” I gave her the two-minute tour, which was all that was required to show the place. The apartment was eight hundred square feet, which meant one small bedroom, one semi-decent-sized living room, half of which was the makeshift second “bedroom,” one small bathroom, one small kitchen, and one foot-long, foot-wide hallway connecting it all. “Can I move in today?” she asked. Today? “I guess. Although the landlord throws a fit if you move in furniture after a certain time.” She said she didn’t have any furniture. Not even a bed. All she had was herself. Which meant there was a breakup involved.

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“Well,” I told her, “you’re in luck, because Seth left his futon in the little bedroom. He moved back in with his girlfriend. All you need are new sheets. I definitely wouldn’t sleep on his. What do you think he did for eight months while waiting for his girlfriend to take him back?” She laughed and pulled a little notebook out of her purse and jotted down “new sheets” under a long list of things to buy. A living, breathing, paying person was right here, right now. I wouldn’t have to post ads and deal with the phone ringing off the hook at work for a week and than arranging showings and worrying about being murdered by opening the door to a total stranger. Plus, Lucy had Roxy’s résumé and all sorts of personal info on the application she must have filled out, so if she turned out to be a weirdo, we had her social security number. “Welcome to your new home,” I told her. Tears welled up in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m just really emotional lately.” I handed her a box of tissues. She was still gorgeous even with a bright red nose. “I guess your sister mentioned the whole wedding thing,” she said. I shook my head. “What wedding thing?” “Well, I was supposed to get married yesterday, but instead I went on the job interview.” I gaped at her. “Wow, Bold Books really must be your dream job.” She laughed, then sobered up. I wanted details, but she was looking out the windows through the burglar bars the way I always did when I was down in the dumps, and I got the feeling I shouldn’t pry. Yet. That was what later was for. “I should warn you,” I said. “If we do end up working together, we’ll be roommates and coworkers. What if we hate each other’s guts? There’ll be no escape.” “I could never hate anyone wearing such a great outfit,” she said, blowing her nose. I laughed. I was still wearing yesterday’s clothes, the ones Lucy insisted I change for my date with Phineas. I had a feeling Roxy Marone and I would get along just fine.

While Roxy checked out her new neighborhood, I walked to the coffee lounge to meet Colin. Please be normal, I prayed to the Fates of the universe. Just let me have one normal date. If he’s

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normal, I promise not to think about Gabriel. I promise not to talk about Gabriel. I promise not to tell anyone’s current girlfriend that I’m sleeping with her boyfriend, especially when it isn’t true. I recognized him the second I pulled open the door. He didn’t look like Colin Farrell. He looked like Colin Firth! He was tall and lanky and adorable. Dark wavy hair. Brown, sweet, smart eyes. Double dimples. “Miranda?” he asked in a hopeful way. I nodded. “Colin?” He nodded. “I saved us a couch in the back. Unless someone stole my jacket and someone else stole the seat.” I smiled and he led the way to our overstuffed sofa. “Why don’t you make yourself comfortable, and I’ll go get us some coffee and something delicious. What’ll you have?” “Surprise me,” I told him. He came back with two peppermint mochas with whipped cream and two decadent treats—a scrumptious-looking brownie and a huge berry scone. We sipped and tasted and then talked. “So I hear you’re an editor.” “I’m just an assistant,” I said, beating him to it and bracing myself for the disdain. “To the editor of romance novels.” He beamed. “That sounds fun. Is it?” So he wasn’t Phineas! “Well, it would be if I wanted to be an editor.” “What do you want to do?” he asked. “I have no idea. I only know I like to talk.” He laughed. “It took me a long time to figure out I wanted to be a doctor. It took a friend getting diagnosed with cancer at age thirty. Before that, I floundered. I was a stockbroker, a financial planner, I even went through a year of law school.” I was in love. He was a former flounderer! We tasted more of our treats, then talked movies we’d seen, songs we liked, restaurants we ate in. Suddenly I saw us dancing cheek to cheek at the Bold Books company Christmas party, which was in a couple of weeks. “Your brother-in-law didn’t mention how pretty you are,” he said suddenly, waving a piece of brownie in front of my lips. 77 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“My brother-in-law didn’t mention how charming you are,” I said. He smiled and clinked his coffee mug against mine. I am over you, Gabriel Anders. Miranders is no more!

I woke up with a huge smile on my face on Sunday morning. Life was looking up. I had a roommate. And I had a second date with Colin—tonight! I grabbed the phone and called Lucy. “I owe you. I’m in love.” Dead silence. “Are you being sarcastic?” “Not a drop. He’s so cute. So nice. So funny. So smart. So normal. So interesting. So everything!” “Hallelujah!” Lucy shouted. “Miranda, I’m thrilled. Oh wait a minute, Amelia’s grabbing the phone.” “Hey, kid,” I said. “Can I come over this morning?” she asked. “I hear you have a new roommate.” “That’s right,” I said. “Sure, come on over. You can help me plan a new outfit for my hot second date with Colin tonight. We’re having dinner!” “Ooh, I want to hear all about him,” she said. “See you in like twenty minutes.” Lucy was back. “Wow, so you just saw him yesterday and you’re having dinner tonight?” “We just clicked. Really clicked. Amelia’s coming over. That’s okay, right?” “Are you kidding?” Lucy said. “Of course she can come over. You’re actually excited about a new guy for the first time in six months. You’re going to talk about something other than Gabriel. One day you’ll talk about something other than a guy, but we’ll save that. I’m really happy for you, Miranda.” Yahoo for me! After we hung up, I bounced out of bed and headed into the kitchen to make coffee, but Roxy had beat me to it. A Post-it note pointing to the pot said: Just Made. Hope you like it semi-strong! Wow. Thank you, powers that be, I said to the ceiling. Seth never made coffee. Or washed a dish. The doorbell rang, and Roxy poked her head from behind her screen. 78 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“That’s my niece,” I told her, heading to the door to buzz in Amelia. “And guess what? I have a second date with the guy I met yesterday!” “Wow, that was fast,” she said, smiling. Amelia bounded in. Her cheeks were pink from the cold. She took off her coat and threw it on the couch. “Oops,” she said, eyeing Roxy. “I’m so used to Miranda’s old roommate. Seth was a total slob and didn’t care where I threw my jacket.” Roxy smiled and put on her own coat and headed for the door. “And neither do I. Nice to meet you, Amelia. See you two later.” Amelia went over to the window and stared out. “Everything okay, Meems?” It wasn’t like her to have nothing to say about a new roommate. Especially one who looked like an actress. “Lizzie’s parents are officially getting a divorce,” Amelia said, her voice quiet. “It was supposed to be just a separation, some time apart. But they told Lizzie last night that they’re filing for divorce.” I squeezed Amelia’s shoulder. “How’s Lizzie doing?” “She’s really upset. I couldn’t even make her feel better. She was crying her eyes out. For Thanksgiving, she had to go to two dinners—one with her mom and one with her dad. She was barfing by the time she got to pumpkin pie at her dad’s. And her mom cries all the time.” She suddenly burst into tears. I brought her over to the couch and sat down next to her, my arm over her shoulder. “Meems, what is it, honey?” “Mom and Dad are gonna get a divorce. I know it. It’s just like what happened with Lizzie’s parents. Lizzie’s dad started acting really weird, and then one day he just moved out. And now they’re getting divorced. That’s what’s going to happen to Mommy and Daddy.” “Sweetie, your mom and dad are fine,” I said, then felt a twinge because I didn’t know if that was true at all. She threw herself back on the sofa. “Then why aren’t they even talking to each other?” “They’re not talking?” She shook her head. “They walk past each other without saying a word.” “They’re probably just still in a little fight over what happened on Thanksgiving,” I told her, pushing an unruly curl behind her ear. “I’m sure it’ll blow over. Tell you what. Why don’t I 79 ♥ela_vanilla♥

come over and hang out with you tonight. We can rent Princess Diaries one and two and get Jiffy Pop.” “Every time you make Jiffy Pop, it never pops,” she said. “And what about your hot date? I thought you were having dinner with what’shisname. What is his name, anyway?” “Colin,” I breathed. “Colin the cute.” “Colin? Like Colin Hanks?” Who? “Like Colin Firth.” “Who’s that?” she asked. Ah, the age gap. She leaned back against the sofa, holding a throw pillow against her stomach. “Well, you might as well not go on the date anyway, because ten years from now you’ll be having Thanksgiving dinner and he’ll push the turkey off the table because you used paper plates and plastic cups and then you’ll yell at him in the kitchen and then you’ll get divorced and your kid will be really depressed.” “Sweetie, your parents aren’t getting divorced. And they’re not in a fight because your mom yelled at him. Your dad’s just acting a little odd because he misses sugar and white bread and Doritos. I’m sure everything will go back to normal in a couple of weeks, when his body adjusts. Your dad was a total carbaholic!” She didn’t look convinced. “Why do people break up? How do you go from loving someone so much to not wanting to even live with them? I don’t get it.” “What about that girl you used to be friends with in fourth grade. Diana?” “Dana.” “Well, weren’t you best friends in fourth grade?” I asked. “Yeah, but she changed. She started smoking and wearing really weird clothes.” I nodded. “That’s what happens sometimes. People change. Or we change. Sometimes it’s no one’s fault.” “Lizzie’s mom caught her father in bed with another woman,” Amelia said, her expression somber. “Her mom followed her dad one night when he said he was going to the gym in their building to work out. But she followed him to the fourteenth floor and saw him go inside an apartment. She knocked on the door and said, ‘I know you’re in there!’ and then she heard the

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woman saying something like, ‘I’m not dealing with this.’ And her dad came out and they were fighting right there in the hallway. His pants weren’t even zipped!” “Amelia, how in the world do you know all of this? Better question—how does Lizzie know all this?” “Her mother whispered the whole thing on the phone to her sister, and Lizzie had snuck out of bed and listened. I don’t want Mom and Dad to get divorced,” she said, letting out a deep breath. “I’m gonna sneak some sugar in dad’s coffee tomorrow morning. Sugar withdrawal is making him too weird. I want things to go back to how they were before.” “Careful,” I said, tapping her nose. “He’ll accuse your mom of sabotage.” She smiled. “Yeah, you’re right. Maybe I’ll just leave him one of my Mallomars to tempt him. Mom hates Mallomars. He’ll know it wasn’t her.” She sat up. “So you really like this new guy, huh?” “So far so great,” I said, wiggling my eyebrows. “Meems, if you want me to come over tonight, I’ll cancel him in a second.” “Nope,” she said. “I have a plan now. Operation Sugar Sneak.” Her crisis at a more comfortable place in her head and heart, she pulled Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret out of her backpack. She held the book in one hand while flapping with her other arm, then switched hands and flapped the other arm. I had to be careful with what I said to Amelia. I didn’t think Larry and Lucy were headed for a separation, but you never know. I didn’t think Gabriel was going to dump me, and he did. And during my entire childhood and teenage years, I expected my parents to announce every week they were splitting up, yet they never did. You just never know. Love and life were just plain unpredictable. The entrance of one adorable, smart, funny, sweet guy named Colin into my life was proof of that.

You know those couples you saw kissing in public? I was now officially half of one. Our first kiss was over a pot of four-cheese fondue and white wine. Our second, right in the middle of Second Avenue. And our third, fourth, fifth and sixth were rolled into one in front of my apartment building. Mmm…Colin was such an amazing kisser! “I can’t stop kissing you,” he said. “But it’s freezing out here.”

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How to ruin your second date: invite him upstairs too soon! I decided not to listen to every magazine article I’d ever read. I smiled and invited him in. He smiled and we ran upstairs. The moment we got into my apartment, he kissed me again. We even managed to take off each other’s coats while lip-locked. While I sent him off to the hall closet with our coats and scarves, I ran around the apartment to every photo of me and Gabriel and threw them into a drawer. And then we shared a glass of wine. We kissed. He told me a funny story about his sister, Claudia. We kissed some more. And more. His lips were on the back of my neck and his hands were on the clasp of my supersexy black lace bra when the phone rang. For the first time in six months, I didn’t lunge for it in the hopes it was Gabriel. I actually let the machine get it. Hi, it’s Miranda. Leave a message. Beeeeeep! “Miranda, this is Amy Eames, your ex-boyfriend’s fiancée. Focus on the word ex. And now focus on the word fiancée. Yes, fiancée. Your pathetic little ploy to break up me and Gabriel backfired in your ugly face. He proposed to me last night to prove just how much he loves me. We’re getting married this fall. So if I were you, I’d stop calling him. I’d stop the cards and letters and stalking. I’d stop being so pathetic. It’s over, honey. Enjoy your night.” Click. I stared at the phone. Colin was looking at me as though I had four heads. You are on a date with a nice, cute, funny, smart guy. Get your act together, moron! But the more I tried to force my expression into something other than an about-to-crumble quivering mess, the more my lower lip trembled. When I’m ready to get married, I’m sure you’ll be the one… “I just don’t get it,” I whispered. “Why not me?” Colin gnawed his lip. “Um, Miranda, I’m not so sure we know each other well enough for this conversation.” “I just don’t understand,” I said, tears falling down my cheeks. “We even look alike, the fiancée and me. Same blond hair. Same blue eyes. Same body, even though she’s taller. Why her and not me?” Colin stared at the floor, the ceiling. The windows. “Love works in mysterious ways—isn’t that what they say?” I burst into tears. 82 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Colin looked at me for a moment, awkwardly rubbed my back for two seconds, then got up and went to the closet and put on his coat. “Miranda, you’re clearly not over this guy, whoever he is, and to be honest, I’ve been there and done that with a woman before, so I’ll just let myself out.” But— I heard his boots thudding down the stairs and then the downstairs door slam.

Buzz! Buzzzzzzzzzzzzz! Who was that? I’d just managed to drift off to sleep. I opened an eye and glanced at the bright red numbers on my digital alarm clock—11:58 p.m. Who the hell was at the door at midnight on a Sunday night? Maybe it was Colin. Maybe it was Gabriel. Maybe I was on drugs. When I opened my bedroom door I heard singing. Off-key. Worse than a contestant Simon would rip to shreds on American Idol. Roxy was already by the window in the living room, a hand pressed over her mouth as she stared down toward the street. “Roxy? What’s wrong? Is someone trying to break in? I’ll call the police—” “No, it’s nothing like that,” she said. “It’s Robbie. My ex-fiancé. Wow, that sounds weird.” “The ex-fiancé part or the singing?” I asked. “Both.” “Why is he singing?” “I think he’s attempting to serenade me,” she said, staring down at the street. I glanced out the window, and there was a guy—quite good-looking as far as I could tell, with curly blond hair, both hands on his chest, well, on his navy-blue down jacket—belting out “Unchained Melody.” “Shut up, you lunatic!” screeched someone from a nearby window. “I’m going to call the cops!” someone else shouted. “Roxy! Let me up! I love you!” He strained his neck to look up four flights. “Roxy! Please!” There were tears in her eyes. But she backed away and sat down on the sofa, her arms braced out on either side of her. “Are you going to let him in?” I asked. “I don’t know what to say to him.” 83 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“You can’t just let him suffer out there,” Miranda said. Her eyes filled with tears again. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, call nine-one-one.” As she grabbed her jacket and cloppety-clopped down the stairs in her boots, I watched the exfiancé pace, then strain his neck to look up, then pace, and then finally drop down on the stoop, his hands on his knees, his body shaking. He was clearly crying. He jumped up suddenly, and there was Roxy. She sat down next to him and handed him a tissue. I was trying very hard to identify with Roxy, to understand her, but all I could feel was Robbie— brokenhearted, dumped Robbie—who’d come all the way from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to the Upper East Side of Manhattan (an hour’s drive or subway ride) to serenade her, to try just one more time to change her mind. But just like Gabriel, Roxy wasn’t going to change her mind. I could see it in everything she did, how happy the stupidest things made her. This morning I had caught her holding her apartment keys in her hand and smiling like an idiot. She wasn’t going back to Robbie. Just like Gabriel wasn’t coming back to me. I peered down at Roxy and Robbie on the stoop. He was shaking his head; she was talking. Then he was talking and she was shaking her head. And then she put her hand on his shoulder and shook her head again, and he bolted. I know just how you feel, guy. Chapter seven Christopher Four people hated my guts: 1) My wife. 2) My mother-in-law. 3) My coworker Wanda Belle. 4) My coworker Lucy Miller-Masterson. Numbers 1 and 2 hated me for being a disappointment. Numbers 3 and 4 hated me for being a threat. Talk about a dichotomy. Recent example of how I was a disappointment to my wife and mother-in-law: Four months ago, my wife (holding Ava on her lap), my mother-in-law and I were sitting on hard-backed chairs in Ava’s pediatrician’s waiting room. I was staring at a Reading Is Fundamental poster while my

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wife and her mother argued over whether you were or weren’t supposed to flatten a goose egg on a baby’s forehead with a quarter. Apparently, in my mother-in-law’s day, you were. “We wouldn’t even be having this stupid argument if your husband actually watched Ava while he was watching her!” my mother-in-law, Dina, had snapped. “And thanks to you,” she added with a glare at me, “now she’ll get sick from all the germs in this place!” A few sets of waiting room eyes glanced from Ava’s black-and-blue bump to me. Then there was the head-shaking and then the flipping of magazine pages and Jodie alternating between, “Who has a big, bad boo-boo on her forehead? That’s right, you!” and “Christopher, how could you have been so careless!” A good example of how I was a threat to my coworkers was occurring right here, right now, a Wednesday afternoon, in my boss’s office. A huge corner office befitting the editor in chief of a small though successful publishing house, Edwin Futterman’s lair might as well have been a rat hole for how big it felt at the moment. There were only two guest chairs in front of Futterman’s desk and three of us waiting for him to get off the phone and to the meeting he’d called with his senior editors. Usually, Wanda Belle would lunge for one of the guest chairs, but today she held back for good reason. One of us was getting promoted today to executive editor. One of us would become manager—boss—to the other two. And if Wanda Belle wasn’t The One, she didn’t want to be caught stealing a chair from her new boss. Wanda, as usual, was dressed to thrill. She was in her mid-thirties and almost beautiful. She was all sharp edges, from her cheekbones to her hips to her eyeglasses. Her hair didn’t move, either. She was blond—sexy white-blond—but her hair ended severely in two poke-you-in-the-eye points just above her shoulders. She wore tight Edwardian-style clothes all the time. Maybe it befitted the editrix of romance novels, which were her specialty. She liked tiny tight jackets with frilly shirts and long tight skirts and very high-heeled boots. Lucy Miller-Masterson, on the other hand, was something of a mess, but she was naturally pretty and she really cared about her work. Wanda did, too, but in a different way; Wanda cared in a manner that served her, whereas Lucy cared about the books themselves—the readers, the authors, the writers for hire, the covers, the marketing plan, the everything. She’d once said she envisioned her daughter as a potential buyer for every single book she worked on. If it wasn’t good enough for her daughter (excluding the sexual content, of course) it wasn’t good enough. That was Lucy Miller-Masterson. Lucy looked uncharacteristically pulled together today—as she had all week—as though she were going on a job interview and wanted Futterman to know it. Her expression at the moment was: I Will Kill You If You So Much As Take The Last Cup Of Coffee From The Awful Coffeemaker In The Kitchenette. God help us all if she wasn’t the one Futterman promoted.

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I hadn’t seen Lucy look this okay since last year’s company Christmas party. Lucy rarely dolled up, but for the party (her husband had come with her), she’d gone all out in a little dress and her hair was sleek instead of frizzy. Today Lucy wore a corporate beige suit. She looked like a vice president, right down to her hair, which was brushed instead of pinned back on top of her head with one of those giant plastic hair clips. “Is there a problem, Christopher?” Lucy whispered to me with her I’m-going-to-kill-you miniglare. “A problem?” I repeated. “You were staring at the top of my head,” she said. “No problem. I was just thinking about something.” The three of us stood, our arms crossed over our chests, staring at the floor and out the window behind Futterman’s balding head, while we waited for him to get off the phone. “No, you listen to me!” he yelled, pointing in the air. “You tell him if he doesn’t turn in the manuscript in exactly two weeks, he’s in breach of contract and he’ll pay us back every penny of the advance! I want that book on my desk by December fifteenth!” He slammed down the phone. “Idiot!” he muttered. Then he looked up at the three of us. “Ah, sit down, please.” None of us moved. He glanced at his two chairs and sighed, then intercommed his admin to bring in another chair. He did this every time he called a staff meeting of his three senior editors, and after every meeting, he had the third chair removed since it upset the feng shui. Ben, his admin, appeared with the chair. The moment it touched the ground, Wanda and Lucy rushed to sit on the outside chairs. Which made me the monkey in the middle. Futterman looked us over. “As you know, I’ve had a very difficult decision to make. One of you has been promoted to executive editor, and the other two will report to the executive editor, who will report to me. This will streamline the editorial process here at Bold. You are all strong candidates—however, only one of you can be selected. That person is—” His phone rang. Lucy looked like she was going to explode. Wanda’s neck was pulsing. Futterman spent another five minutes yelling into the phone at the production manager while the three of us visibly sweated. Finally he hung up. “Where was I?” “That person is,” Wanda supplied.

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“Ah,” Futterman said, clasping his hands on the desk and eyeing us. “That person is Christopher.” Yes! You could feel the tension, the glares, the what-the-fuck, the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me, the Ishould-have-gotten-it emanating from either side of me. Wanda turned to me first. “Congratulations. Well, I’d better get back to work, boss!” I could almost see the steam coming out of her ears. Lucy stood. “Yes, congratulations, Christopher.” She gnawed her lip, glanced at Futterman and then fled. “They’ll get used to it,” Futterman told me.

The first thing I did when I left Futterman’s office was call Jodie. “Let me guess,” she barked into my ear before I could say a word. “You can’t pick up Ava on Friday night because you’re meeting a friend for drinks. Or you have a date. Or you have to work late and you want to know if you can just pick her up Saturday morning. Well you can’t. Eye-in and I have tickets to a matinee and we’re meeting friends for brunch beforehand—” A date? Was she kidding? “Jodie, I called because I have some good news,” I interrupted, my parade a little wet. “And?” And this woman is not your wife anymore. Why did you call her? Why was she the first person you called? I swiveled around in my chair and stared out at the overcast gray day. “And I got promoted,” I said, my pride returning. “To executive editor. Big raise. Twenty K,” I whispered. “Whoo-hoo, so now you’re up to eighty a year,” she said—in that tone. “Christopher, Eye-in’s Christmas bonus was ninety thousand.” Well whoo-fucking-hoo for him! “I just wanted you to know that I plan to increase Ava’s child support payments.” And that you can come back now. See, I am ambitious. I can make a “decent living.” I can be a husband and a father… “Christopher, don’t be ridiculous. We don’t need your money. Rent a nicer apartment.” 87 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Why had I called her? Why? What had possessed me? I swiveled back around. “I’ll be over at six-thirty on Friday to pick up Ava. And I’m increasing her child support whether you like it or not!” I added before hanging up. Then I picked up the receiver and slammed it down three times. When I came up for air, Lucy and Miranda were both standing in front of my office, staring at me. Oh shit. Would I ever learn to close the door before I called Jodie? When had she and I ever gotten through a phone conversation without making me see red? “I guess when your wife is living with another man, she shouldn’t be the first person you call with your good news,” I said. Ba-dum-pa! They looked at each other in that way people did when they felt bad for you but had no idea what to say. “Lesson learned and all that,” I added like an idiot. I glanced at the cover mechanicals in Miranda’s hand. “Need me to sign off on those?” Miranda nodded. “These too,” Lucy said as they dropped off their mechanicals into my in-box. She looked closely at me for a moment. “I guess I should let you know that I hired an assistant editor. She starts Monday. Her name’s Roxy. Futterman approved the hire.” “Great,” I said. Lucy fidgeted for a second. “Congrats on the promotion, Christopher.” “Yes,” Wanda added, poking her face in my office door. “A hearty congrats.” She and Lucy eyed each other with upped chins. This was going to be trouble. I smiled and willed my phone to ring. It actually did! And everyone dispersed. Of course the call was from a disgruntled author complaining about his low print run; Futterman transferred it to me “now that you’re the executive editor.” A few minutes later, when I headed into the kitchenette for a bracing cup of coffee, I heard my name. “He got it because he’s a man,” Wanda was whispering. “Well, at least we won’t be sitting in Futterman’s office ten times a day, listening to him think out loud,” came Lucy’s voice.

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I got the promotion because I’ve been working my ass off for the past five years. And because for the past two months, when Futterman was watching our every move, I was here every night till nine and worked every non-Ava weekend, too. Who knew the best way to earn a promotion was to have your wife leave you with nothing to do but either cry like a weenie or work really, really hard?

On Friday night, when I arrived back home with Ava fast asleep in her stroller, the pom-pom of her tiny pink wool hat a pillow against her temple, Ginger opened her apartment door. She wore a bathrobe. Slinky and red and loosely tied. “Hi,” she whispered. “The little darling’s asleep?” I nodded. “I’d better get her inside and transferred to her crib before she wakes up.” She deflated a bit. “Do you have any bath oil? I was just about to take a hot bubble bath when I realized I don’t have any bubble bath. I thought I might borrow some of Ava’s. Even bubblegum flavored will do.” She smiled and leaned forward a bit, revealing her always-sexy cleavage and a long thigh. I could just make out a scrap of lace. What I wouldn’t give for a couple of hours in bed with Ginger. Even a half hour. I could celebrate my promotion, forget the Queen of Emasculation, and lose myself in Ginger’s hot body. Ava was sleeping. And she’d sleep till morning, most likely. Ginger was mine for the taking. I slapped my forehead. “Sorry, but I’m all out. Last weekend, when I went to give Ava a bath, I was all out of bubble bath and had to use Irish Spring and I forgot to buy more and—” Could I ramble on any more? “Well, I could run to—” she began. “And Ava’s got a little bit of a fever,” I added fast, “so I’d better just get her inside and into bed.” I smiled and unlocked my door as fast as I could and got myself on the other side. I knew Ginger was still standing there, thinking, trying to come up with a reason to knock gently. After a minute, I finally heard her door close. I won’t use you, Ginger. You’re too nice a person. And there are a lot of bitches out there.

There were times when I looked at Ava in her stroller or her crib and I couldn’t believe this perfect little creature was mine. She was stunning. Yeah, yeah, I knew all parents feel that way about their kids, but Ava truly was gorgeous. She had huge slate-blue eyes and long brown 89 ♥ela_vanilla♥

eyelashes, and now that her eyebrows had finally come in, she really looked like a little girl. Her shiny wavy brown wisps of hair were streaked with lit gold, and though I could never get the tiny barrette to stay on the way Jodie could, I did try. I was trying at the moment, since Ava was asleep. She didn’t like me fiddling with her hair while she was awake. “You need a bigger section of hair.” NO! Could I not take my daughter to the playground on a Saturday morning and sit in peace while she napped in her stroller? Or would the Know-It-All-Mom Posse surround me every weekend? I recognized the blond Posse leader’s voice without even looking up from my sunny bench. Even if I didn’t, I’d recognize the Posse’s shoes. High-heeled black boots, all of them. Damn. I’d been planning to take advantage of Ava’s morning nap by editing a manuscript, this one about a guy who stopped talking for a month. His great experiment cost him a girlfriend and his job, since both required communication, but he didn’t say a word for thirty days. Futterman loved the premise and ended up paying a fortune for it, and advance word from the sales reps was that it was going to be a hot seller. The author was already booked on the Late Show with David Letterman to coincide with publication week. “Here, honey, let me help,” Posse leader said, sitting down next to me. She took the barrette from my hand and in two seconds had a perfect little swath of hair sticking up. Stop calling me honey! I had to learn how to do it sometime. I undid the barrette and tried again, but the barrette slid down to Ava’s scalp. Posse Mom laughed and attached it for me. I nodded a thanks. “So,” she said, adjusting her green scarf. “Did you know the three of us are a playgroup? We met in Lamaze and have been meeting weekly ever since. Our fourth member moved, and Raising Your Well-Adjusted Baby says the optimum playgroup has four members. So we have an opening. Are you interested?” No. I knew exactly what a playgroup was. Jodie had been obsessed with joining a playgroup the minute we brought Ava home from the hospital. A playgroup was a group of moms who met once a week with their babies and sat around talking about their deliveries or how much weight they had to lose and whose umbilical-cord stump had or hadn’t fallen off yet. No, I wasn’t interested. Posse leader bounced her daughter on her lap. “Our babies are all the same age. Plus, the three of us think it would be fun to get the man’s point of view.” The brunette laughed. “We’re hoping you’ll help us understand our husbands.” 90 ♥ela_vanilla♥

I smiled. “I wouldn’t rely on me as a model for all men.” The other blonde glanced at Ava, who was now awake and reaching for me with a huge smile. “Well, you’re doing a lot right, obviously. Your baby girl is healthy and happy and clearly adores you.” Did I need to have my hearing checked? Or did someone—a mother, mind you, and a member of the Know-It-All-Mom Posse—actually compliment me with actual praise? “Ooh, you use Pampers Cruisers?” the Posse leader said, pointing at the purple package in the basket of my stroller. “Those are my favorite diapers, too. I love the way they smell—before they’re used, I mean,” she added, laughing. I actually laughed, too. I also loved the way Pampers Cruisers smelled. Like baby lotion. Like baby. Like Ava. “I hope you’ll join our playgroup,” the brunette said. “What’s your name, anyway?” “Christopher.” “Well, Christopher, I’m Nell,” Posse leader said. She gestured at her friends. “Their names are easy to remember because they’re both Jen. If you do decide to join, we meet here every Saturday morning and when it gets too cold, like next weekend is supposed to be, we meet in one of our apartments.” “My place is pretty small,” I said. “That’s okay,” the blond Jen said. “I live in a studio. A big studio, but still a studio. My poor son has to sleep in the middle of the living room. My husband and I haven’t been able to watch TV since he was born!” “Ava’s bedroom is a small walk-in closet,” I offered. “I feel better now.” They laughed, and suddenly there we sat, bouncing our babies, feeding our babies, changing our babies, trading stories, laughing, and saying “Oh, I know!” to just about everything. Perhaps I’d judged these women too fast. Unless they were setting me up for something and about to move in for the kill. “So what do I bring to the playgroup?” I asked. “If I decide to join, I mean.” “Well, if you’re hosting at your apartment, you make sure you have Diet Coke and a clean bathroom, and that’s about it.” I smiled. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. “That I can do.”

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Five minutes later I had their addresses and they had mine. If it was below forty-five degrees next weekend, we were meeting at Nell’s apartment. “So tell us this, Christopher,” brunette Jen said. “Why don’t men help around the house? Why do they leave the housework and everything to do with the baby to the mother? If my husband and I are going to the playground, he’ll sit on the couch until I tell him I’m ready. He leaves it all to me to pack Conner’s diaper bag and get him dressed.” “Maybe because we’re always told we’re doing everything wrong,” I suggested. “So we just don’t even bother trying.” “Bull,” Nell said, jabbing a manicured finger at my chest. “Men are just lazy.” I winked. “That, too.” I noticed Kaye, my savior, across the playground by the bumpy slide. Her baby—six, seven months old?—was at the top of the slide, and she was leading him down, holding him by his sides. At the bottom, she scooped him up and swung him around. Our eyes met—for just a moment—and I saw her surprise that I was sitting with the Posse of my own free will. “So why’d your marriage break up?” Nell asked. A little personal, don’t you think? “Nell,” blond Jen trilled. “You can’t ask that!” Nell wrinkled up her face. “Why not? Should we talk about the weather instead? Baby poop? Why shouldn’t we talk about real stuff?” “We broke up for a lot of the reasons you’ve been talking about,” I offered. “I didn’t do what she wanted, I guess.” I could see I’d scared them. “So she left. She fell for someone else and that was that.” They gasped in unison. “Your wife left you? For another man?” I nodded. Brunette Jen’s mouth was still open. “She had an affair right after she had a baby?” “Are you sure you’re Ava’s dad?” blond Jen asked before I could even address brunette Jen’s question. All heads whipped to her with stern expressions. “Sorry,” she added. “Tacky question. I take it back.” “Well, considering that Ava looks exactly like me, I’m sure,” I told her.

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They glanced from Ava to me and nodded their heads. Ava did look exactly like me. It drove Jodie crazy. She used to always stare at Ava, searching for some tiny bit of her own features, but they were all mine, all Levy. “Are you hoping to get back together with your wife?” Nell asked, caressing her baby’s— Skylar’s—back. I shrugged. “Part of me wishes we could make it work for Ava, and part of me knows that Jodie and I made a terrible team.” They all gnawed their lips and nodded. “Did you know that Ava’s shoes are on the wrong feet?” Nell asked, pointing at Ava’s pink shoes. I glanced at my daughter’s feet and my stomach twisted. Her perfect, tiny, adorable, little feet were probably squished and on their way to deformity. Why hadn’t I noticed her shoes were on the wrong feet? “I’ve done that,” blond Jen said. “Yesterday we were practicing walking for five minutes before I realized I put Emma’s shoes on the wrong feet. It happens to the best of us.” “Are you saying you’re the best?” Nell asked her, eyebrow raised. “No, I’m just say-saying—” blond Jen stammered, then smiled when Nell nudged her in the ribs with a wink. The Posse would either chew me up and spit me out in a sewer opening or they’d teach me something. I’d give them one shot at this playgroup thing. One shot. Chapter eight Roxy There were many messages left for me on my voice mail since leaving Robbie at the altar. Robbie’s friends (with minor variations): “You’re a selfish little bitch! I wish you the very worst!” My parents’ neighbors: “Dear, we haven’t received back the blender and didn’t want to trouble your parents or the Roberts—bless their hearts.” Disguised voice (three times—no variation): “Whore!” Every bridesmaid: “It’s another guy, isn’t it!” Rita Roberts: “You broke his heart!” 93 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Rita Roberts: “How could you do this to him?” Rita Roberts: “How could you do this to us!” Rita Roberts: “I thought I knew you!” Robbie (just once): “Roxy, I love you. We can get through this. Call me? Please?” My mother: “Have you come to your senses yet? Call me when you have.” Patty, my maid of honor: “Honey, I wish you’d told me how you were feeling.” My cousin’s friend’s seventeen-year-old sister: “I always thought Robbie was soooo cute. You don’t mind if I go for him, do you? I mean, it has been, like, a week since you dumped him.” Nine days, to be exact. Nine days ago, when I took the subway to Manhattan instead of reporting back to my aunt on how my veil had held up, I had no idea that my entire life would change. An interview. A makeover (a makeunder, the stylist had said). A new apartment, a new roommate. A job offer! I’d done it: I’d gotten the job of my dreams. When Lucy had called a few days ago to offer me the position of assistant editor at Bold Books, I’d been speechless. Twice she’d had to ask if I were there. After we hung up, I did the Snoopydance around my makeshift bedroom, then grabbed the phone again and punched in a familiar number until I realized what I was doing. I’d been about to call Robbie. About to scream my head off that I’d done it, gotten the job, yay!, let’s go celebrate! But then I’d deflated. I couldn’t call Robbie to say any of that. I couldn’t call him at all. And so I picked up the phone again to call someone else, but there was no one else to call. My mother would say, Roxy, I just don’t understand you. Patty would say, Are there any good clubs by your office? My father would simply shake his head and go back to the newspaper. My aunt Maureen would scold me for letting another stylist touch my color. My hand had itched on the phone’s keypad. How I was dying to call Robbie and tell him about the job. He was the only one who’d say, Awesome, Rox! I knew you’d do it! Wow, my Roxy, a hot-shot Manhattan editor with her own office! He would be so proud of me, proud for me. Stop it, I’d told myself. Put the phone down. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have the good parts of Robbie without the bad. You made your choice. Just when I’d been about to take myself out to a lonely celebration dinner, Miranda had come home from work and been a lifesaver. She’d canceled her plans and off we’d gone for Thai food. I’d always wanted to try Thai, but Robbie wouldn’t eat anything he couldn’t readily get at a family barbecue.

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Thank God for Miranda. Today was Sunday, and as I stared at the phone, wondering who I could call to share my excitement about starting my new job tomorrow, she handed me my coat and announced we were going to her favorite Mexican restaurant to celebrate my last night as a person without any work to do. “So can she go for him?” Miranda asked now as we settled into our booth in the colorful restaurant, a piñata hanging above our heads. A waitress handed us menus and set bowls of tortilla chips and salsa on the table. “Can who go for whom?” I asked, deciding between the enchiladas and the fajitas. “Your friend’s cousin’s aunt’s brother’s sister—or whoever that was who wants to make a play for Robbie,” Miranda said, sliding the bowl of tortilla chips toward me. “Is he up for grabs?” I froze, the tortilla chip turning to cardboard in my mouth. “I don’t know.” “Whadaya mean, you don’t know?” she asked. “You left him at the altar. You moved into a new apartment. You broke up with him.” “Are you breaking up with me?” Robbie had asked the night he came to my apartment to serenade me. “How can this be it? This can’t be it.” It was so hard to look into his face, that beautiful, sweet face, those green eyes so sad, so conflicted and confused. “I don’t know, Robbie,” I’d told him. “If you want me to be totally honest, that’s the answer. I don’t know. I only know I don’t want to get married.” “To me?” he asked. “To anyone? Right now? What?” “I don’t know.” “Jesus, Roxy, what do you know?” “I know I want to be on my own right now,” I said. “For how long?” I shrugged. “Robbie, I only know that I don’t want what you want. I don’t want the traditional life I somehow managed to get myself into when I moved in with you. I don’t want to cook three-course manly meals five nights a week and spend my ‘free’ nights at our parents’ houses. I don’t want to clean while you fix the toaster. I don’t want to have a baby at twenty-six. I don’t want three kids before I’m thirty. I don’t want to spend evenings chatting over coffee with the female relatives while you and the male relatives watch sports or play poker. I don’t want to take my husband’s last name. I don’t want to be our parents!” “What do you want, then?” he asked. “For me to cook when I’m awful at it? For you to fix the vacuum when you don’t even know the difference between a Phillips-head screwdriver or a flat95 ♥ela_vanilla♥

head? You do some things and I do others. Other things we figure out together. You want to keep your last name? Fine, you’ll hyphenate. It’s give and take, Roxy, that’s all.” “We’ve argued about this stuff over and over, Robbie. And we get nowhere. Let’s just stop arguing.” He took a deep breath and shook his head. “So you run away and get a new apartment and completely change the way you look and that’s that? What am I supposed to do?” “I don’t know. I hate to keep saying that, but I really don’t know.” “This doesn’t make any sense to me, Rox. I love you, you love me.” He glanced at me sharply then. “Or is that the problem? You don’t love me? Is that what this is really about?” I felt tears sting the backs of my eyes. I put my hand on his shoulder. “I don’t know.” He’d looked at me and then got up and ran. “How do you not know?” Miranda asked as our waitress delivered our burritos. “I don’t get that. Either you do or you don’t, right? If you did, you’d be with him.” “I guess for right now, that’s the answer.” “So he is up for grabs,” she said. “Why, do you want his number?” I snapped. Let’s move on. Let’s talk about Bold Books. “Bitchy!” she teased. “Look, I’m just trying to figure out how you feel so I can try to understand how Gabriel feels. If he’s as confused as you are, maybe there’s hope for me.” “I’d really hate for Robbie to pin his hopes on me, Miranda,” I said as gently as I could. She stabbed a fork into her burrito. “Love sucks.”

But work did not suck. Work was wonderful! My first day of work at Bold Books dawned bright and sunny and I was too full of nervous excitement to wait for Miranda, who refused to get to the office a second before nine-fifteen. I ended up arriving a half hour early, even though Miranda insisted that no one except the nerds in production got there before nine on the dot. Because I didn’t have an ID card, the security guard made me wait in the lobby until another Bold Books employee could vouch for me. Luckily the first to arrive was my boss, Lucy. “Hi, Lucy! I’m so excited about my first day!” I chirped the moment she walked through the revolving door. 96 ♥ela_vanilla♥

She looked at me in total confusion. She had no idea who I was. Ah. The hair. The glasses. The lack of hooker makeup. The lack of veil. “This is how I look when I’m not getting married,” I joked, then worried I sounded too cavalier. “I had a makeover.” She stared at me. “You’re the same woman I interviewed a week ago? The Friday after Thanksgiving? The blonde in the veil? My sister’s new roommate?” “I’m the very same person.” “Wow,” she said, signing us in. We headed for the elevator. As we rode up, she never took her eyes off me. “What did you do? Go to a salon and say ‘change everything’? I can’t believe what a completely different person you look like. It’s amazing.” I smiled and nodded. “This is my natural color,” I said, pointing at my dark brown hair. “And it’s straight, which is my natural texture. And it’s six inches shorter. I have on a quarter of the makeup and glasses instead of contacts, and a professional outfit instead of tight jeans and a down jacket.” You can stop talking now, Roxy. She smiled. “You’re a whole new you.” “That’s exactly what I am.” I loved my new look. I still had trouble recognizing myself when I looked in a mirror, but I liked what I saw. This new Roxy Marone was a million miles away from the bleached blond bimbette I used to look like. Upstairs in the Bold Books offices, Lucy introduced me around. There weren’t many employees, around fifteen. There was the editor in chief, Edwin Futterman, a tall, imposing man who shook my hand and welcomed me to the team and then shooed us out of his office. There was an exceptionally good-looking executive editor named Christopher Levy, who was Lucy’s boss. There was Wanda Belle—Miranda’s boss—who was the senior editor of romance and the most glamorous woman I’d ever seen. Lucy herself looked a lot more “editorly” than she had during my interview. Then she’d looked sort of…messy, her hair frizzy, no makeup, a pilled sweater with appliqués of little animals all over it, high-waisted jeans and white sneakers. Today she wore a black suit, a bit bankery, and black pumps, and her hair was nicely brushed. Then there was Miranda, who was trendy and so pretty with her wildly curly blond hair and pale blue eyes. There was Davis, Christopher’s assistant, who was shy and serious and polite and, according to Miranda, gay. There were three production people, a contracts manager who also handled sub rights (I didn’t even know what that meant), the receptionist and the editor in chief’s assistant, an older woman named Camille who handled all personnel matters and had me fill out at least ten forms. 97 ♥ela_vanilla♥

At nine-thirty, Lucy called me into her office and explained the basics of the job. She’d gone over much of it during the interview, but now she actually handed me manuscripts! Half of the job would be clerical and half would be supporting her in performing the duties of an editor. I would basically be her backup. My first task was to read the edited manuscript of the Chrissy Cobb bio, since I’d be assisting Lucy with the copyeditor’s queries. And she also wanted me to study the back covers of Bold Books’ other celebrity biographies and try my hand at writing back cover copy for the Cobb bio. Too exciting! “Oh, and Roxy,” Lucy said as I turned to head back to my office. “I debated and second-guessed and then just went with my instincts—here,” she added, handing me a large, flat box, the kind used for a man’s dress shirt. I opened it, and there lay my veil, neatly folded, albeit a bit wrinkled in spots. I stared down at it and from out of nowhere, tears pricked my eyes. When I’d stuffed the veil into the little garbage can in the Bold Books reception area, it had represented everything I didn’t want. But now, it was just a pretty piece of tulle, white sheer fabric representing hope and happiness. “Did I make the wrong choice?” she asked. “I didn’t mean to be presumptuous. I just thought that, out of the heat of the moment, you might want it, whether to give away or to store in your attic.” I glanced down at the veil and then covered the box. “No—I’m glad you saved it for me. It’s a reminder of what I’m trying to do. When I look at this veil, it helps me understand why my parents are so angry at me. Why Robbie’s friends hate me. Why my friends don’t understand.” Lucy nodded. “Roxy, I know you must be going through a tough time. And starting a brand new job on top of it can’t be easy. Just remember to cut yourself some breaks, okay?” “Thanks so much,” I said. “For everything.” How lucky was I to have such a nice boss! She smiled and then her phone rang. I headed back to my office, lugging my manuscripts and books with the veil box balanced on top. Just as the box was about to fall, along with some of the books, Miranda grabbed it. “Hi, roomie,” she said, setting the box on my credenza. “How ya settling in?” “Great! I love it here!” “Ugh, Roxy, it’s work. Not a Caribbean island,” she said, mock-rolling her eyes at me. She smiled, then disappeared. I laughed and swiveled in my chair. I might as well be sunbathing with a Diet Coke in one hand and a good book in the other for how happy and relaxed I was. I had done it. I was here. I glanced around the tiny six-by-six office with its tiny window and view of the ugly office building across the street, and I was instantly blown away by happiness. 98 ♥ela_vanilla♥

This was how a bride was supposed to feel on her wedding day. This was love.

Okay, the first three times he walked past my office (in a thirty-minute period), I didn’t think anything of it, other than, Wow. He is HOT. The fourth time, I realized that he was walking past on purpose. The fifth time, I got bold. “Excuse me?” I called out. He stopped in the doorway. Tall. Dark. Truly handsome. Built. Expensive suit. Expensive glasses. He looked smart. I smiled. “Today’s my first day and I don’t know the area very well and I was wondering if you knew a good place for friends to go out to dinner.” He grinned. “Why don’t I take you on a test run of a great new restaurant Friday night?” Yes! “That would be great.” “Meet you out front at six?” he asked, his gorgeous blue eyes twinkling. I nodded and smiled and he was gone. I immediately grabbed the phone and buzzed Miranda. “Emergency.” She was in my office in three seconds. I explained. “Holy shit!” she said. “That’s Harrison Astor. Distant relation of the Astors. He’s a big-deal consultant Futterman brings in a few times a year to study the books and how Bold does business. Finance and efficiency—boring stuff like that. Wow, Roxy—if you’re looking for the opposite of Robbie, you’ve found him.” The opposite of Robbie. Why did that suddenly sound very scary?

“No. No. No. No. And no,” Miranda said, sliding my clothes around in my closet on Thursday night. “Why is everything you own beige? And unsexy?” Tomorrow after work was my date with Harrison. My first date in twenty years! My first date with another man. And I had nothing to wear. Nothing date-worthy, anyway. I had a closet full of hotsy-totsy clothes back in my closet in Bay Ridge, but all the new clothes I’d bought were “business casual.” Muted separates. Sensible shoes. Professional handbags. I’d been able to wear 99 ♥ela_vanilla♥

whatever I wanted at the Bay Ridge Brouhaha, but at Bold Books, I wanted to project professional. Ambitious. Dedicated. Serious. After two weeks of the new and improved me, I still had trouble recognizing myself. I’d had all that long, curly blond hair since I was sixteen. Aunt Maureen had been supplying the free perms since I was twelve, but for my Sweet Sixteen, she and my mother had confabbed that it was time to turn me into “the woman I could be,” which was the motto of Aunt Maureen’s hair salon. Hair and Now: Be All The Woman You Can Be. And so I went from dark brown to light blond with hotter makeup to match, also compliments of my aunt. The night before my sixteenth birthday, Robbie and I had made love for the first time. We’d been talking about it for the past year, and I’d been ready for months, but I wanted to wait for my Sweet Sixteen. When Robbie came to pick me up for my party, a huge affair at a teen club, his eyes popped out of his head. “You look so hot,” he’d said. “You know what’s weird, though? I’m really glad that last night was our first time. Because if we’d waited until tonight, you wouldn’t have looked like you.” “I’m still the same me, though,” I’d said, annoyed. Then, I hadn’t understood the sentiment. But now when I looked in a mirror at this stranger, this dark-haired stranger without the wild curls, without the eyeliner and lip gloss, without the tight jeans and too-high heels, I didn’t feel like me at all. I flipped through the clothes in my makeshift closet for the perfect date outfit. “What about this?” I asked Miranda, pulling out a beige cable-knit turtleneck and brown tweed pants. “The personal shopper at Macy’s said it was business casual and nice for evenings out.” “Yeah, for tea with your aunt Bessie,” Miranda said. “Wait here.” She returned with five hangers holding slinky things. “Look, if you want to be conservative at work, fine. I dress like a slut or a hiker at work because I’m almost hoping someone fires me to kick-start my butt. But you are not going on a hot date looking like a bank teller.” She held outfits against my body. “Okay, forget black. With your dark hair and eyes, you need color.” She held up a slinky red dress with a high neckline. “This one. Trust me.” The dress was great. I had many like it in my closet at home—at my old apartment. But sexy wasn’t how I wanted to project myself anymore. I wanted Harrison Astor to look at me and see smart. Ambition. I wanted him to see Roxy Marone, whoever she was beginning to be. I was done with the makeup and the vavoom outfits. Miranda rolled her eyes. “Roxy, there’s something called a middle ground. Just because you don’t want to be a hot babe doesn’t mean you have to be a prissy schoolmarm.”

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I laughed. “Okay, how about that one?” I pointed at a beige matte jersey top and skirt with interesting swirls of color. Miranda eyed the outfit. “It says lunch to me, but it’s a start.”

Six o’clock came and went. Six-ten. Six-fifteen. I stood in front of the Bold Books office building, my cheeks cold from the December night air. No Harrison Astor. Six-thirty. I looked back toward the revolving door. A lot of people were exiting the building, but not Harrison. Had I been stood up? Should I go upstairs and see if he was in his office, held up in a meeting or an important call? Shouldn’t he have come down to let me know he needed another half hour? I might not know the protocol of dating, but I did know rude. I’ll give him two more minutes, and then I’m leaving. It was now six forty-five. I willed my feet to move. When I got to the corner, I closed my eyes and hoped I’d hear a “Roxy, wait!” but I didn’t. Great. I’d been stood up on my first date in twenty years. And since Robbie had been the best girlfriend I’d ever had, once again I had no one to call for commiseration.

I came home to a note on the refrigerator. Rox—sleeping over at Lucy’s. Can’t wait to hear how the date went!! See you sometime in the afternoon. Don’t forget one second of the date. I want to hear every detail!—Miranda No, you don’t. I stood in the middle of the living room, the half that wasn’t my bedroom and burst into tears. The phone rang. I let the machine get it. “Roxy? Roxy, are you home?” My mother. I lunged for it, just needing to hear her voice. “Mom, I’m here.” I clutched the phone to my ear, willing her to tell me everything would be okay, that there were ups and downs, but not to worry. “We need to discuss the returning of the gifts,” she snapped. “I thought I might come visit you tomorrow. I tried talking to Robbie about it, but he said whatever you want to do is fine with him.”

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It wasn’t a “Don’t worry,” but she was willing to schlep into Manhattan on one of my father’s precious days off? That was big. That meant she missed me. Needed to see me. Even if it was to yell at me or “talk some sense into me.” “You want to come see my new apartment?” I asked. “Well, I’m really interested in just getting this gift business taken care of, but I suppose I could see your new place,” she said. It was almost like a hug. Half a hug, anyway. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t cry. “Roxy? Are you okay? You don’t sound good.” “I’m fine, Mom, really.” Or, at least I will be. “What time will you be here?” We settled on ten o’clock. A minute after we hung up, the phone rang again. “Mom, I’m fine, really.” “It’s not your mom,” a male voice said. Robbie. “I know I said I wouldn’t call you, but—look, Roxy, I can’t go from everything to nothing. I know you don’t want to marry me, okay? But does that also mean you don’t want anything to do with me? You don’t even want to be friends?” I closed my eyes and let his voice wrap around me like a soothing balm. “It’s been two weeks since the—” He hesitated. “Roxy, in twenty years, two days haven’t gone by without us talking.” “I know, Robbie,” I said. I miss you too. Like mad. But I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t give him the wrong impression. “I miss your friendship, Rox. I miss you. Just you, that’s all.” “Me too, Robbie,” I said. “And of course I want to be friends.” “Good. So what do friends talk about? Let’s see. How’s this hot new job I heard you got? Congratulations, by the way. I always knew you’d be an executive editor at a major publishing house in Manhattan someday.” Oh, Robbie, I thought, my heart squeezing. “I’m just an assistant editor—”

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“Just? Are you kidding me? Roxy, I’m so proud of you. So tell me all about it. What kinds of books are you working on? Have you met any famous authors? Do you like your boss? What are your coworkers like?” Except for the visiting consultant, they’re great. I sat down on the sofa and told Robbie all about Bold Books, feeling much better as I went on and on about the Chrissy Cobb bio and the manuscripts I was reviewing for Lucy, and how editorial meetings worked and how lucky I was that my roommate and coworker was turning into such a good friend. By the time I shut up, I was excited about my new life again. “Sounds really great, Roxy,” Robbie said. “I’m really happy for you. So the new apartment is working out? It’s a safe building?” “Yes,” I told him. “I guess I’ll need to come pick up my stuff sometime.” “No rush, Roxy. Whenever, okay?” “Okay.” “So…are you seeing anyone?” he asked. “Robbie…” “I thought friends talked about that kind of thing,” he said. “Look, Rox, if we’re really going to be friends, I need to get past that you’re not my girlfriend anymore. That you’re not going to be my wife. There’s no time like the present to start accepting reality.” Stop reminding me why I loved you so much and for so long. Stop reminding me why I was able to say yes to you when I knew that marrying you would kill me. “Actually, I did have a date tonight,” I said, holding my breath. “Or I was supposed to. I got stood up.” It all came back—the anticipation. The waiting out in the cold. For forty-five minutes. The finally giving up and leaving. The having no one to call. I leaned back against the sofa, stared up at the ceiling and took a deep breath. He was silent for a moment. “You okay?” I’ll be okay. “There are good guys out there, Rox,” he said. “Assholes too. But don’t worry. The good guys outnumber the jerks.” “I know. I had one of them.” Silence. 103 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Well, I’d better get going,” I said. “Thanks for calling, Robbie. For being so understanding. It’s more than I deserve from you.” “No, it’s not,” he said, and hung up.

“There’s no elevator?” my mother muttered into the intercom at ten o’clock sharp the next morning. “I have to walk up five flights of stairs?” “Well, four, really,” I said, and buzzed open the downstairs door. The apartment was one of those old tenements, five stories, four apartments to a floor. Despite the two hours I’d spent scouring last night, getting out my aggression and disappointment over my date with a sponge and a duster, I couldn’t make it look shiny and new no matter how much Pine-Sol and Pledge I used. I heard my mother trudging up the steps. She was forty-six years old, taught senior aerobics, was in excellent physical shape and had no reason to huff and puff except to try to make me feel guilty. I opened the door and saw the top of springy too-blond hair as she rounded the stairwell below. She wore a royal-blue pantsuit and carried a large shopping bag. She stopped on the landing to the fifth floor, looked at me in the doorway and froze. “You look like my little girl,” she said, touching her hand to her heart. “You look like you did when you were fifteen.” I laughed and ran to her and we hugged. “Before puberty and bleach and perms and sexy clothes.” I took the shopping bag and led her inside. She looked around, her forehead wrinkled. “You’re sleeping in the living room?” she asked when I showed her my makeshift bedroom. “This is where you’re sleeping? The living room?” “I have a door,” I said, pointing to the two folding screens from Pier 1 Imports that separated my bed from the living-room sofa. She shook her head. “This isn’t living. This isn’t how an adult lives.” “Mom, this is how twenty-somethings live in Manhattan. Rents are high. You make do.” I loved my makeshift bedroom. I loved my lumpy futon. I loved the stack of manuscripts and Bold Books that lay on my bedside table. I loved the entire apartment, from the tiny white bathroom with its uneven floor tiles, to the tiny galley kitchen that you couldn’t even turn around in. I loved sitting on the windowsill of my “bedroom area” at night, looking out at the night sky 104 ♥ela_vanilla♥

—well, at the apartment buildings across the street, really. At the twinkling lights promising everything. In every light there was potential. “I don’t get this at all,” my mother said with the accompanying head shake. “You could be living in a gorgeous three-family house in Bay Ridge with nice furniture and a handsome husband who loves you. You could be sleeping on three-hundred-thread-count sheets that your aunt Maureen bought you from the registry. Do you know that Robbie won’t return the gifts yet because he believes in you?” “Believes in me?” I asked. “Meaning what?” “Meaning that he knows you’ll come home. He knows you need a few weeks to get this Manhattan thing out of your system.” Argh! “Mom, this isn’t a passing fad. It’s not something I’m trying out. This is my life.” My life. Warts and all. I wasn’t going to let one no-show of a date send me running home to my mommy and Robbie. No way. Tears came to her eyes and she put a hand on my arm. “No, Roxy. Your life is in Brooklyn. With Robbie. You’re twenty-five years old. You should be married and taking care of a husband and a house.” “Mom, do you really believe that?” I asked. Did she? “You do realize this is the twenty-first century?” She ignored me and pursed her lips in the direction of the kitchen. “Is that a cockroach crawling up the wall of the kitchen?” I followed her eyes. “It’s just a scuff mark, Mom.” She threw up her hands and set the shopping bag on my bed and dug in. “I brought you some things from your apartment.” I wasn’t about to tell her I didn’t want anything. I wasn’t sure I didn’t. I’d left some things behind that would give me incredible comfort. Little things, like my Pat the Bunny alarm clock that I’d had since I was seven. She set a picture of me and Robbie on my bedside table. That wasn’t what I had in mind. Roxy & Robbie 4 Evah was written in script across the gold ceramic frame I’d bought at one of those make-your-own-frame places in the mall. The picture was from our engagement party. “That’s it?” I asked. “I also brought this,” she said, handing me my cropped pink leather jacket with the faux fur trim that Robbie had bought me last year for Valentine’s Day. 105 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“This is definitely the old me,” I said, caressing the pale gray fur. I loved the jacket. Not that I’d ever wear it again in this lifetime. My mother patted my hand. “I’m starving. Let’s go have brunch. And Roxy, there’s no old you or new you, Rox. There’s just you.” So let me be me, I thought as we put on our coats (I left the pink one on my bed) and headed to a nice brunch spot in my neighborhood. The place seemed to pass muster with my mother. I ordered a triple espresso and drank it fast. “What is this?” my mother asked, eyeing her entrée. “Is this food?” I glanced at my mother’s lunch—a breast of chicken atop several inches of various layers of rice and vegetables. “It looks scrumptious.” She sneered. “So this is why you broke Robbie’s heart and embarrassed your family? For a folding screen and vertical food?” “Mom, please try to understand. It’s not just that I want to live here in Manhattan. It’s that I don’t want to marry Robbie.” She shook her head. “How could you not want to marry Robbie? You’ve been in love with him your entire life. He is your life. This is a phase. Just like your aunt Maureen and Rita say it is. You’ll snap out of it. And look at you—you cut off your beautiful long hair and dyed it back to brown. You’re in head-to-toe beige. Your sweater doesn’t show your waist off at all. You have no color in your face.” “Mom, it’s called the corporate look.” She rolled her eyes. “This is how you’re going to attract a man better than Robbie?” “This is how I’m going to get promoted,” I snapped. “I’m not looking for a man, Mom. I’m looking for—” “For what?” “I don’t know.” She threw up her hands and took a bite of her chicken. “What kind of ridiculous spices are on this? Who doesn’t know how to season a chicken?” I sighed. “How’s Dad?” She waved her hand. “How do you think? Anyway, you should be asking how Robbie is.” “I know how Robbie is.” 106 ♥ela_vanilla♥

She pursed her lips at me. “Well, I’ll tell you something, Miss Smarty-Pants. For someone who professes to be so happy, you look downright miserable. You clearly need to come home.” I am home, I wanted to say. Scuff marks, being stood up, crazy vertical chicken and all.

“If that jerk even looks in your direction, I’ll fling the rubber chicken entrée at him,” Miranda said as we got ready for the Bold Books holiday party in the women’s restroom at the office. “I still can’t believe he stood you up—and in the cold!” “I’m trying to forget it,” I said, exchanging my small diamond stud earrings—a college graduation gift from Robbie—for more festive silver hoops. Exactly one week had passed since my almost date. It turned out that Harrison’s last day doing whatever consultants did had been the night we were supposed to meet. A few days ago he’d left a message with the receptionist: Sorry I missed our meeting. Time got away from me. Will reschedule, if possible. Oh, gee, thanks! Miranda had heard that Harrison had been invited to the party. “Well, if he does come and you’re uncomfortable, you just tell me and we’re out of there, okay?” I smiled. “It’s okay. But, thanks, Miranda. A lot.” She winked at me in the mirror and applied sparkly sand-colored eyeshadow to her lids. “I hate not having a date. It’s like telling everyone at the party that you don’t have a love life.” “I actually like not having a date,” I said, trying to make the ends of my hair flip up or under. Useless. “Nothing awful can happen.” She smiled. “Nothing ever happens at a Boring Books—oops, I mean Bold Books—holiday party. There’s always assigned seating, the music is very elevator, and unless someone drinks too much and does something embarrassing, it’s a very slow three hours. The best we can hope for is one of the nerds in production asking us to dance.” “I could use a nerd right now,” I said. “A nice, sweet, standup nerd.” She laughed. “Me too.” We gave ourselves a final once-over in the full-length mirror, then left for the party, which was held in a fancy restaurant’s private lounge. In our flippy dresses—mine velvet and high-necked and Miranda’s satin and short—we arrived at the party to find most of the employees (Harrison not among them, thank God) standing around the bar, chatting to their dates or introducing them.

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By the coat check, there was a small table with name cards. “Why does Futterman confuse parties with weddings?” Miranda complained. “What’s with the seating plan? Why can’t we sit where we want?” I found my little folded name card. Table Number One. I looked for Lucy’s name card. I hoped to sit at her table. I’d been working for her for three weeks now, and though she was a wonderful boss and took the time to explain what she wanted me to do and gave great feedback, she wasn’t much of a small-talker. Parties like this were a great way to chat up your boss and score some brownie points. Especially when their first impression of you was of a sobbing runaway bride in hooker makeup. Ah—there was Lucy’s card. Yes! She was at my table! “Table Number One,” Miranda said, scooping up her card. She peered at mine. “I’m sitting with my roommate and my sister? Great opportunity for me to get to know my coworkers! Is Futterman a moron or what?” I shrugged. “Maybe he just wanted us all to be more comfortable, have fun.” I was relieved to be with people I knew. Making small talk with coworkers was sometimes a killer. Small talk in New York City often meant spending twenty minutes just discussing your commute. We soon found out who the fourth person at our table was. Christopher Levy. He was sitting alone and clearly waiting for his table-mates to join him so he could start the tiny salad on his dinner plate. As we headed over, Miranda whispered, “Forget about being asked to dance. Even the production geeks have dates.” “There’s nothing wrong with not having a date,” Lucy said as she came up behind us. “Where’s Larry tonight?” Miranda asked Lucy as we sat down at our table. “A patient went into labor,” she mumbled. “Lucy’s married to a hotshot doctor, and you’ve met their gorgeous preteen daughter,” Miranda said to me. “Christopher is—” She glanced at him and hesitated. “Christopher has a gorgeous baby girl. Only a year old.” He smiled. “Christopher is separated from his wife is what I think Miranda was about to say. And it’s perfectly fine to say that aloud. The part about the gorgeous baby daughter is all true.” I had no doubt. Christopher was one cute guy. The band began playing elevator music as dinner was served. Miranda poked at her prime rib. “Who wants to trade this for the pasta?” “I will,” I said, passing her my linguini. “I’m not hungry anyway.”

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“Big mistake—the prime rib is delicious,” said Edwin Futterman, who was suddenly standing in between Christopher and Roxy. He seemed nice enough as big bosses went, if often distracted and unwilling to make any kind of small talk with underlings. “Welcome to the holiday party,” he said, raising his champagne glass at us. “I hope you all enjoy yourselves. Ah, our newest employee,” he added with a smile at me. “Shall we partake in our new employee round table?” Everyone rolled their eyes. “Spirit, people!” Edwin said. “Holiday spirit!” “What’s the new employee round table?” I asked. “We all have to say one thing about ourselves that would surprise everyone,” Lucy explained. “Roxy, as the newbie, you go first,” Edwin said. I thought of saying I used to be a completely different person. But that wouldn’t surprise Lucy, who’d seen me as that different person. And not attending my wedding wouldn’t surprise Miranda. “No one in the history of my family has ever gotten divorced,” I said, then realized that wasn’t a surprise to Lucy. “You’re kidding!” Edwin said. “That’s fabulous. I’m on my third wife. No one in the history of my family has ever had only one spouse!” He laughed, raised his champagne glass to us, and said, “Okay, now the rest of you go around the table and say one thing that would surprise everyone. It’s a fun one for sisters. Have at it,” he added, and then flitted off. Dead silence at the table. “Christopher,” Lucy said, “You’re the big boss now. Manage us.” He sighed. “Fine. I order everyone to drink their wine.” We laughed and sipped our wine. And sipped some more. By the time the other three tables of Bold Books employees were slow-dancing to a Celine Dion song, we’d finished two bottles of wine. “One thing about me that would surprise all of you,” Christopher said, raising his glass, “is that I was stood up tonight by a one-year-old. Yes, that’s right. My daughter was supposed to be my date, but my wife and her live-in boyfriend were too worried I’d mistake Jack Daniel’s for baby formula.” Mouths dropped open. “Jodie walked out on you?” Lucy asked. “Why did I think it was the other way around?” 109 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Because you wrongly think I’m a jerk,” he said, pointing a bread stick at Lucy. Miranda stared at her plate. “Want to hear something surprising about me? I actually made the guy I want to marry propose to someone else.” “How’d you do that?” Lucy asked, raising an eyebrow. “Oh, just another long, embarrassing story,” Miranda said, pushing linguini around on her plate. Lucy reached across the table for Miranda’s hand. “You okay?” Miranda shrugged. “The hope’s gone. All these months I’ve been hoping he’d come back, and now there’s nothing to hope for anymore.” Poor Miranda. She’d told me the whole sorry story and swore she was getting over it all, but clearly she wasn’t. We ordered another bottle of wine. We picked at our dinners. We ate all the rolls and bread sticks and asked for more. We watched our coworkers dance. “So tell us something surprising about yourself, Lucy,” I ventured. “My husband’s New Year’s resolution is to leave me,” Lucy said. Miranda spit out her wine. Christopher and I just gaped. Lucy took a deep breath. “I found it written down on a piece of paper in his pants pocket. He actually wrote it on a prescription pad, as though it would cure his misery. Resolution: Leave Lucy.” “Oh God, Lucy,” Miranda said, grabbing her hand. “Why didn’t you tell me? I’m so sorry. When did this happen?” Lucy shrugged. “The night he flipped out over the paper plates and flung the turkey off the table.” “My mother did that once,” Christopher said. “She spent a hundred hours cooking, and then one snide comment from my father and she picked up the platter and upended it on the floor by his feet. We went out to dinner every year after that.” “So we’re not the only crazy family out there,” Lucy said to Miranda. While the band broke into a terrible rendition of “Celebrate” by Kool & the Gang, the four of us sat silently watching. “You know, Roxy,” Miranda said with a smile, “I’m not sure you qualify for this table. Table One is clearly reserved for dumpees.” 110 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“A breakup is a breakup,” Lucy pointed out. “I know that, and I haven’t even been officially broken up with yet.” “And I was stood up for my first date in twenty years,” I reminded Miranda. “That gives me special associate status.” I’d glanced around a couple of times for Harrison, but thankfully he never did show up—his M.O. Miranda laughed. “Agreed. All rightie, then, people. The first meeting of the Breakup Club is officially called to order. And I order another round.” “Hey, I’m the boss,” Christopher said with a smile. Lucy held up the last bread stick. “Yeah, but I’m Miranda’s sister and Roxy’s boss. And I concur. Another round. With one caveat. Nothing said here tonight leaves this table.” “That’s right,” Christopher said. “It’s the holiday party and it’s tradition to drink too much and act like an ass. So anything said here tonight gets forgotten at midnight. Deal?” Four glasses clinked. Chapter nine Lucy If Larry were good at reading signs, he’d have noticed that when I arrived home from the holiday party, I was uncharacteristically tipsy and chatty and sitting next to him, thigh to thigh, something I never did. Something we never did. He didn’t notice. Especially because his attention was on popping pistachio nuts into his mouth and watching a Stupid Pet Tricks segment on Letterman while reading the Times. I, on the other hand, was suddenly great at reading signs. For example, when I sat down next to him, the sharp edge of a pistachio shell cutting into my thigh (Larry was allotted thirty pistachio nuts a day on South Beach and left the shells everywhere), I immediately sensed his discomfort. He’s having an affair, I knew with absolute conviction. But maybe not! I thought with equally absolute conviction. Then why hadn’t he noticed my new look? Not that my subtle attempts at sprucing up counted as a new look. I would not compromise myself to keep my husband, so I was compromising at compromising. I was trying, that was all. I’d bundled the sweats and stacked them up on my closet shelf. I’d sorted through my underwear drawer and thrown out all the comfortable granny panties. I borrowed Amelia’s hair gel. And lip gloss. I stopped wearing my white sneakers. And my clogs. And my fisherman sweater. If he noticed, he didn’t say anything. The only thing he 111 ♥ela_vanilla♥

did seem to notice was that the paper plates were history, even the everyday ones I used for bagels and toast and grilled-cheese sandwiches. That he’d noticed. A few days ago, when we were all actually in the kitchen together, he’d picked up his cloth napkin (I also chucked our perfectly good paper napkins and resurrected the cloth ones we’d gotten as a wedding gift and rarely ever used) from his place setting. “Now this is a well-set table,” he said, nodding at the matching place mat. Amelia looked at him as though he’d grown an extra head. Then she wolf-whistled at me. “Wow, Mom, you look nice! Daddy, doesn’t Mom look nice?” “What, hon?” Larry had said, looking up from his New York Times. “Yes, Amelia, you look very nice,” he said. “That’s a new shirt, right?” Amelia rolled her eyes and wound her finger in front of her ear. “I have a performance review coming up,” I’d said. “So I’m just trying a bit.” Look at me, dammit, I willed Larry. Look. Notice. I’m your wife. But he didn’t look up. “I’m sure you’ll do fine, dear.” He stood, brought his dishes to the sink, kissed Amelia goodbye and left. Blind and deaf. “Why didn’t he kiss you goodbye?” she’d asked. “It’s just the bad carb withdrawal,” I’d assured her—and myself. She’d made a snorting noise and went back to studying for her history test. I willed myself to forget all that, but then made the mistake of glancing at the TV. My husband couldn’t possibly be more interested in a trained German shepherd than in me, could he? The three glasses of wine, the shot at the bar and the Cosmopolitan I’d had had surely done awful things for my reputation at work yet wonderful things for my bravado. I took off my jacket, trailed my hand up Larry’s thigh and began kissing his neck. “You missed a great party,” I said. “I wish you were there.” That was true. On both counts. I’d had a great time, even if I was dimly aware I’d be mortified in the morning when I realized what embarrassing personal details I’d shared with the three people with whom you should never share such personal details, embarrassing or otherwise: your boss, your direct report, your sensitive baby sister. And I did wish Larry had been there. Sitting next to me, his arm slung casually across the back of my chair. Shaking hands with those he’d met over the years. My husband. My support. My best friend. 112 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Former support. Former best friend. I glanced at the row of photographs lining the mantel of our fireplace, so many photographs of Larry and me. Our wedding photos, pictures of us with Amelia at various ages. Family functions. Larry and me. Me and Larry. He smiled at me without looking away from the screen, where a black and gray puppy was squeezing mustard onto hot dogs. “Glad you had fun.” I trailed my hand along his thigh and began kissing his neck, which did seem less jowly now. Or was that the last rum and Coke talking? “Luce, honey,” he said, removing my hand. “I’m trying to watch this.” “You’d rather watch Stupid Pet Tricks than have sex?” I asked, unbuttoning my blouse. “Surely not,” I added in as seductive a voice as possible and straddled him. He immediately pushed me off him. “Lucy, I said I was watching this! And you wrinkled the newspaper!” There was that pressure in my chest again. I blinked back the sting of tears. For a moment I was tempted to take the vase of flowers off the table and smash it into the television screen and grab his Times and shred it into a thousand pieces, but of course I did not. I might have been tipsy, but I wasn’t out of my head. For a moment I wished that I were, though. So I could forget how he’d just made me feel. “I didn’t get the promotion,” I said, my heart feeling smaller and smaller and smaller with every beat. I hadn’t told Larry the bad news the day I’d gotten it myself; I’d been unable to talk about it. “Futterman gave it to Christopher.” “What, hon?” Larry said distractedly, looking from the TV to me. “I wasn’t paying attention.” The TV won again as a cat played a great game of golf with her paw. “Nothing,” I said, standing up and heading for Amelia’s bedroom. Only that our marriage is clearly over. That’s all. I peered into my daughter’s bedroom. She was sleeping, a long light brown curl across her face. I tiptoed in and brushed back the curl and kissed her forehead, then sat down on the little white vanity stool next to her bed and watched her breathe. When that had worked its yoga effects, I went back to Larry on the couch and sat down next to him. It was time. I took a deep breath and held it. “Larry, I’ve been thinking about making a list of New Year’s resolutions. Have you made any?”

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He cracked open a pistachio with his teeth and popped it in his mouth. “Luce, I’m really trying to watch this, okay? Anyway, you know I never keep my resolutions.”

I woke up with a killer hangover. Had I announced to my boss, direct report and baby sister that my husband’s New Year’s resolution was to leave me? Yes, I had. Take blanket. Pull over head. Do not emerge. At nine o’clock, I was still under the covers, my head pounding too hard for me to even think about moving, rising, making my way two feet to the bathroom for the Tylenol. And then of course the phone rang so loud in my right ear that I saw stars. “’Lo,” I mumbled into the receiver. “Lucy, it’s Roxy,” came Roxy’s chirpy voice. How was she so cheerful so early? “Are you feeling all right?” “Fine,” I said. “Just running a little late.” The longer I stay in bed, the longer you’ll all have to forget everything that came out of my mouth. “I’m glad to hear it, because Edwin asked me to give you a call and make sure you were coming in. He told me to tell you he’s scheduled an important meeting at ten.” Figured. “A staff meeting?” “No, just you, Christopher, Miranda and me.” I sat up. “What’s the meeting about?” Had I stripped and danced on the bar? Had I told Futterman he was a sexist chauvinist piglet for promoting Christopher and not me or Wanda? Had we all made incredible fools of ourselves in ways we forgot and were being called to task for inappropriate behavior at the company holiday party? “Sorry, I don’t know,” Roxy said. “He just told me that it was very important and about something very exciting for Bold.” Oh. So we weren’t in trouble. But why the four of us? I understood me and Roxy, since she reported to me. And me and Christopher, since I reported to him now. But why Miranda? I made it in to the office with two minutes to spare. At the sight of me, Roxy hurried into the kitchenette and handed me a mug of coffee as we entered the conference room. Christopher and Miranda were sitting at the long wood table, staring into space and tapping pens against Bold Books notepads and sipping steaming coffee. Christopher looked a bit tired, but he was so annoyingly good-looking that being bleary-eyed didn’t affect him. Miranda yawned twice in the

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same thirty seconds, but she didn’t look the way I felt. And Roxy was as professional and pert as ever. Maybe it was an age thing. Maybe when you hit your mid-thirties, you couldn’t have five drinks and expect to stand up the next day. “Morning, people,” Futtterman said as he entered the room and took his usual seat at the head of the table. He set down a stack of magazines and newspapers, then held them up, one by one. “People magazine, front cover—Brianna Love. Entertainment Weekly, front cover—Brianna Love. Glamour magazine, Good Housekeeping, Vogue, front cover—Brianna Love. Time magazine—front cover—Beau Wellington. Business Week—Beau Wellington. Another People, front cover—Bri and Beau: America’s Favorite Couple. Individually Beau and Bri are hot news, and since they became a couple a few months ago, it’s been a media frenzy.” Beau Wellington, son of one of America’s most popular political families, was a movie-star handsome widower with a young daughter. Brianna Love was the new Julia Roberts. They were gorgeous, famous and rich, and their faces were everywhere. Two months ago, I’d submitted my own proposal for a biography about them. I’d attached clippings and covers from several of those magazines, written a three-page proposal, and I’d gotten it back with a Post-it: L—good idea, but c’mon, they’ll be broken up by the time we get a manuscript into production.—E “I have it from a close personal source that Beau and Bri are engaged,” Futterman announced. “It’s going to be announced exclusively on Sixty Minutes tomorrow night as part of a feature about Beau’s philanthropy and dedication to the plight of America’s poorest children.” Aha! You should have listened to me, I thought smugly. “Beau and Bri are planning a major televised wedding, à la Prince Charles’s wedding to Diana, on July twenty first,” Futterman continued. “I want an instant bio—Beau and Bri: The Courtship of the Century. And I want it on shelves the day before the wedding, to capitalize on the publicity.” “What if they break up?” Miranda asked. “Then the demand for their story will be even bigger. A dating couple’s breakup isn’t big news, but an engaged couple—given who the groom is—is. Beau Wellington doesn’t go around getting engaged every day the way Brianna has. The announcement of their engagement and televised wedding is going to create an incredible media frenzy. Whether or not they go through with the wedding is beside the point.” The wedding was beside the point? Tell that to the billion-dollar wedding industry. And most human beings. 115 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Brianna’s one of my favorite actresses,” Miranda said, flipping through one of the magazines. “I’ve seen all her movies at least three times.” One of the reasons Miranda liked Brianna Love so much was that Brianna had had two very public breakups and sobbed about them to every women’s magazine and TV talk show. Plus, Brianna always played the underdog in her movies. “Everyone knows that,” Futterman said to Miranda. “Including me. That’s why you’re on the team.” “What team?” I asked. “The four of you are now Team Wedding,” Futterman explained. “That’s why I arranged for you to sit together last night and get to know each other. Well, Lucy and Miranda already know each other, of course. Anyway, for the next two months, you will live, eat, breathe and sleep this project. I want that book on the shelves on July twentieth. And Lucy, you’ll be writing this one. None of our authors can possibly do this in time. I’ll clear your calendar and we’ll need to draw up a contract.” It was now December twenty-second. Forget what I said about having a hangover. It was reaching migraine status. Futterman stood up and we all did too, but he lowered his hand. “Sit, sit. I want you to stay and discuss how you’ll operate as a team. I envision Christopher line-editing and researching the groom—he edited a bio on the Wellingtons a few years ago. Miranda, you’ll research Bri and serve as fact-checker, copyeditor—there won’t be time to freelance anything—and team assistant. Roxy, you’ll research and report on the wedding plans, and Lucy, of course, will put it all together in sparkling prose no later than eight weeks from today.” The moment Futterman left, Christopher held up his hand and said, “Say aye if working on this project will send you to an early grave.” Three hands joined his along with a chorus of “ayes.” “Let me talk to Futterman,” he said. Five minutes later, he was back. “Team Prairie Bigamist is already in progress with Wanda as project editor. Short of telling Futterman that we don’t want to work on the book because we’re all having romantic crises—” “If anyone can get us all switched with Prairie Bigamist, it’s you, Luce,” Miranda said. “Futterman adores you.” I snorted. “He adores me so much he promoted me to executive editor!” “Try,” Miranda said. “Just try.”

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I glanced at Christopher. “Can’t hurt,” he said with that sheepish smile of his.

“You look sharp, Lucy,” Futterman said when I arrived at his office for our meeting that afternoon. “New suit?” “Yes,” I said. “And thanks.” For some reason I thought a new suit, a half hour with a blow-dryer and cloth napkins would be enough to keep my husband interested in me. “Edwin, there are a couple of things I’d like to discuss. First, why I wasn’t chosen for the executive editor promotion.” Futterman sighed. “Lucy, you’re a strong editor and a top-notch manager, but you need to better balance work and your duties as a parent.” Before I could even begin to utter the word discrimination, Futterman ran down how many times I’d left early in the past month for Amelia Necessities—school events, illnesses, doctor appointments. “Whereas Christopher didn’t even take paternity leave,” he continued. “Nor has he taken a single sick day or personal day since his daughter was born.” And that made him employee of the year? No wonder his wife left him, I thought meanly. Then again, what had trying to be wife and mother and editor of the year gotten me: my husband had made a resolution to leave me and I’d been passed over for a promotion. “Was there something else?” he asked. “I’m meeting with Team Bigamist in five minutes.” Yes. You look like a poodle. Why do you have a perm? “Speaking of Team Bigamist,” I said, trying not to look at the top of his head and its springy curls. “Our team would like to switch to that project, if possible.” He glanced up at me. “Why?” I felt my cheeks burning. You are not going to tell the editor in chief that you, your assistant editor and your sister are such wussy babies that you can’t work on a project about fairy-tale love and a fairy-tale wedding while your own love lives are in the toilet. If Christopher wants to speak for himself, fine. I cleared my throat. “We just thought that such a strong team of staffers might be more wisely utilized by the more serious, heartrending Bigamist project.” He raised an eyebrow. “Sorry, Luce, but I’m satisfied with the teams as they are. Plus, you yourself submitted a proposal for a book on Beau and Bri some months ago. And Wanda 117 ♥ela_vanilla♥

submitted a proposal for the bigamist book. So I think we’re in order. Let Wanda know I’m ready for her crew, will you?” he asked, effectively dismissing me. “Oh, one more thing,” he said as my hand was on the door. “Your new assistant editor—what’s her name again?” “Roxy,” I said. “Right, Roxy. I was struck by what she said last night about the zero divorce rate in her family history. That could make a potential bio or memoir for our spring list. Can she write? Or perhaps we could assign it.” “She’s fabulous at writing back cover copy,” I told him. “Why don’t I have her write a proposal and we’ll go from there?” He nodded. “There are countless books on how not to get divorced. But not a single one that I can think of about a family who actually stands as an example. What are their secrets, blah, blah, blah. I think it would make a fine book.” Futterman was a jerk, but a smart jerk. I’d buy that book in a heartbeat.

There wouldn’t have been another meeting of the Breakup Club in any kind of sober world, but when I reported back to Team Wedding that there was no hope of switching projects, Christopher suggested we all go out for a reasonably inexpensive dinner at Futterman’s expense to figure out how to proceed without being in a funk for the next two months. Two plates of nachos and a one-margarita-per person rule adhered to, we’d hashed out a timeline for research and a breakdown of chapters. Not bad for two hours’ work. I held up a People magazine with an article about the couple. “Listen to this. ‘I can’t believe I ever thought I was in love before,’ Brianna told reporters. ‘To think I went through all that breakup brouhaha and brokenhearted periods where I ate too much fat-free frozen yogurt and moped and whined to my friends and family and whammo—six months later I meet my one real love.’” “That’s lovely,” Miranda said, a forkful of flan in her hand. “Hindsight always is.” “I agree,” I said, “But I like what she’s saying. Can you imagine if Larry doesn’t walk out the door on New Year’s Day? All these weeks of my angsting and worrying and crying into my pillow will have been for nothing.” “Not nothing,” Christopher said. “Because at least you know how you feel.” I stared at him. “I have no idea how I feel.”

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Roxy scooped salsa onto her chip. “You just said you’ve been crying. So you must love your husband very much.” “Or maybe she’s just mourning the end of the marriage,” Christopher said. “It’s scary as hell to suddenly have your marriage fall apart when you thought everything was fine. Or fine enough.” “Luce, which is it?” Miranda asked. “Is it Larry you love or is it your marriage?” What kind of question was that? “Both, of course.” “You know,” Roxy said, “I never would have thought the two could be mutually exclusive. But I loved Robbie and there’s no way I would have loved our marriage. That’s why I didn’t go through with it.” “But then you couldn’t have loved him,” Miranda said. “He is who he is, right? And you didn’t love that person.” Roxy shrugged. I shrugged. Christopher shrugged. Miranda shrugged. We stirred our margaritas and dipped tortilla chips in salsa and considered everything. Maybe I didn’t know how I felt. “I don’t want my marriage to end, but why exactly? I do love Larry, but our marriage has been a crock for at least a year. We don’t talk, we don’t have sex, we’re like roommates.” My eyes welled up and I blinked back the tears. There was no way I’d cry in front of this crowd. But then an image of Larry floated into my mind—of nothing in particular, just his face, the face I’d loved and looked at for twelve years—and I felt unbearably sad. “No, I do know how I feel. I do love Larry. I just don’t love how our marriage has been for the past few months.” “How has it been?” Miranda asked. “You and Larry always seemed great. Fine. A team—well, with the exception of Thanksgiving.” “Couples can act or seem perfectly fine when they have company,” I pointed out. “Before Larry shoved the turkey off the table at Thanksgiving, wasn’t he his regular self? Wasn’t he his regular self for twelve years?” “That’s so scary,” Roxy said. “I broke up with Robbie because I did know what I would be getting. But from what you’re saying, everything can change down the road anyway. If Robbie had been perfect for me, he might not be twelve years from now.” That was true. Could I imagine that the passionate med student I married at twenty-two would morph into a wham-bam-I-forgot-all-about-you-ma’am familiar stranger at thirty-four? “People change,” Christopher put in. “No, scratch that. I think Jodie left me because I didn’t change.”

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“Or maybe she changed,” I said. “Maybe Larry changed on me and there’s nothing I can do about it. If he changed and now wants something different, how do I compete with that?” “You can’t change who you are for someone else,” Roxy said. “Ever.” “So he’s going to walk out the door on New Year’s Day?” I asked. “That’s it? Twelve years over?” We all went back to stirring our drinks and dipping our chips. “This is going to sound awful,” Roxy said, “but sometimes I wish my parents would split up, and they’ve been married for twenty-six years. They barely speak to each other. When they do, it’s never kind. They complain about each other all the time. But whenever I’ve spoken to people about it, like Robbie or my aunt or friends, they’ve all said that’s what marriage is. Some days you bicker, some days you don’t.” Miranda snorted. “That’s what marriage is? That’s what I hoped and prayed for with Gabriel? A lifetime of bickering or status quo?” Christopher leaned back in his chair. “I have to say, Jodie and I did a lot of bickering. When we got through a day without fighting, we weren’t exactly jumping each other’s bones. We just sort of coexisted.” “Okay, now this is just depressing,” Miranda said. “This is what happens when lovebirds get married? Why?” “Yeah, why?” Roxy asked. “This is what my family’s biography is going to be about? This is how they managed to avoid divorce? By being unhappy for generations?” “What biography?” Miranda asked, sucking on a lime. I quickly explained Futterman’s idea for a book about Roxy’s family’s marital success rate. Roxy’s mouth had dropped open when I told her. She couldn’t wait to write a proposal. And if she wrote well, Futterman would approve contracting Roxy to write the book herself. Otherwise, we’d hire a writer. But I knew Roxy would do a great job. She’d need editorial guidance at organization and focus, but the girl could write. “First of all,” Christopher said, “congrats on the project. And second of all, not all married couples are unhappy.” “Yeah, just fifty percent of them,” Miranda said. “But none of those fifty percent is from Roxy’s family,” I said. “Those are amazing statistics.” “Yeah, but I know my parents aren’t happy,” Roxy said. “Miserably married isn’t good.” 120 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“What about the other Marones?” Miranda asked. “Are they happy?” Roxy gnawed her lip. “That’s hard to say. Sometimes they seem madly in love, and sometimes I’ve been afraid blood will be drawn.” “I hate to tell you this,” Christopher said, “but that’s normal.” Miranda made a face. “Great. I can’t wait for my prince to come now!” I laughed. “Miranda, I know many happily married couples. Aunt Dinah and Uncle Saul were happy. Mom and Dad, sort of. Many of Amelia’s friends’ parents.” “I know some happily married couples too,” Christopher said. “Me too,” Roxy added. “Whew,” Miranda said. “I was losing all hope.” “Who thinks Beau and Bri will be filing for divorce five months into the marriage?” Christopher asked. “Cynical!” Miranda said. “If you’re marrying the right person—” “The right person?” I repeated. “I thought Larry was the right person. Christopher thought Jodie was the right person.” “Well, that’s not exactly true,” he said. “She was pregnant and—” Huh. “So was I. A friend of mine once told me I’d never know if Larry proposed because I was pregnant or because he really wanted to marry me, and I said it didn’t matter, because we loved each other and that was what mattered. But maybe it did matter.” “Or maybe it is just time and changing and has nothing to do with how much he loved you twelve years ago or six years ago,” Christopher said. “I didn’t start out wanting to marry Jodie, but I ended up wanting to be her husband more than anything.” “What are you all complaining about?” Miranda asked. “I didn’t even get a chance to have my marriage to Gabriel fall apart. Didn’t I deserve a chance?” We all stared at her. “Duh. Kidding,” she said, and I flung a tortilla chip at her. “Anyway, Luce, what about what Larry said last night? That he never keeps his resolutions?” I shrugged. “So he’ll leave and then come back a week later, off South Beach, off the gym, off learning Spanish or giving a flying fig about paper plates. And we just go from there?” 121 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“There’s nowhere else to go,” Christopher said.

It was all a white-flour and bad-carb-induced bad dream! Larry wasn’t leaving me on New Year’s Day! I knew because a few days before December 31, he asked if I’d like to go to Ellabet’s for New Year’s Eve dinner, and Ellabet’s was not only where he’d proposed to me, but where our wedding dinner was held. The tiny Italian restaurant meant so much to the both of us. It was our place. If he were going to tell me he was leaving me the next day, he would tell me in a restaurant we hated. The holidays had passed in a blur. Between reading and sorting through the research on Beau and Bri, organizing the outline, helping Roxy organize her own outline for her family biography, buying gifts for the relatives and getting through three family dinners, I’d managed to lose four pounds in almost two weeks. My gift from Larry was a cashmere bathrobe, which was both romantic (because it was cashmere) and not (because it was a bathrobe). According to Amelia, he’d picked it out himself, sort of. At first he’d chosen a gray robe, but Amelia had insisted on the pale pink with tiny rosebuds. When he gave me a fast, dry kiss on the cheek after unwrapping the must-have iPod I bought him, I immediately knew it was a sign that he was, indeed, leaving me in a week. But then he made reservations at Ellabet’s. Which required planning, doing and feeling. I heard horn blowers and noisemakers on the street below and glanced at my watch. Six-thirty. Larry and I were leaving for Ellabet’s at seven. Amelia was spending the night at Lizzie’s. Miranda, who’d called to wish me a Happy New Year and blown a loud horn into my ear, was going to a party at her friend Georgie’s apartment. Roxy was ringing in the new year alone for the first time; she was looking forward to celebrating with herself and working on her proposal. And Christopher was spending New Year’s Eve and Day with his daughter after an hour-long telephone showdown with Jodie. As much as I was starting to like Roxy and Christopher (I already adored Miranda), I couldn’t wait to let my membership in the Breakup Club lapse. I’d spent two hours getting ready, finally deciding on a red velvet dress that Miranda made me buy at Bebe, a store a woman my age shouldn’t even enter. “Ready?” Larry asked, coming into the master bedroom. He glanced at me. “Wow. You look great.” I beamed and dabbed some perfume behind my ears. He noticed! A half hour later, we were at Ellabet’s, still tiny, still low-lit and romantic after all these years. The waiter took our order (I chose the mushroom ravioli as I had twelve years ago on our wedding night; Larry, the salmon with absolutely no oil or sauce and dry vegetables).

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“What gorgeous plates and silverware,” Larry said, eyeing his place setting. He picked up the fork and examined it. “Great lines.” I stared at him. Was I supposed to get excited about a cool-looking fork? Since when did Larry Masterson care about utensils? Before I could form another thought, he reached across the table for my hand. “Lucy, I just want to tell you that I think you’re a very fine person.” Lucy, I just want to tell you that I love you. That you look beautiful tonight. That I’m sorry I’ve been a freak these past six weeks. Those sentiments seemed glaringly lacking from that sentence. He took a sip of water. “I think I should say this as plainly as possible, without preamble. I want a divorce.” My mouth dropped open as though I didn’t know it was coming, as though I hadn’t known for over a month that this was coming. I grabbed my hand away. “You took me here to tell me you want a divorce?” “I want us both to be able to come here again. I proposed to you here and we celebrated our wedding here, so I feel I should unpropose to you here. That way we take the personal out of the place. We both love Ellabet’s, so let’s give it back to each other.” If my mushroom ravioli were here, I’d throw it in his face. “You’re completely off your rocker,” I said. “Do your patients know this? That their births and babies are in the hands of an OB with a mental defect? I hope you’re seeing a good shrink, Larry. Someone who can prescribe medication.” “Lucy, I expected this kind of reaction from you. Why can’t you just accept that our relationship isn’t what it used to be? That we had some nice years, but we’ve grown apart. We were kids when we got married. And who knows—” I stared at him. “And who knows what? If we would have gotten married at all had I not gotten pregnant?” He gnawed his lower lip. “I don’t love you anymore, Lucy.” Chest pressure. “Why not?” I whispered. “Why?”

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He shrugged. “I realized a few months ago or so that I felt like I was living with a friend, a roommate. I care for you, of course, and I like you, but I don’t love you anymore. Not the way you’re supposed to love your wife.” There was very little you could say to that. Very little. “Are you having an affair?” I asked. “That’s beside the point.” Asshole! Jerk! Do not cry, Lucy. Do not break down in tears. Hold it together. I took a deep breath. “You’re going to have to tell Amelia,” I said, unable to imagine him doing so. “You’re going to have to explain it to her.” He nodded. “I’ll tell her tonight.” “You’ll tell her on New Year’s Eve? Nice, Larry.” “Fine, I’ll tell her tomorrow.” I shook my head. “You’ll tell her the day after tomorrow. Don’t ruin her New Year’s Day either.” “Fine,” he said. “You’ll keep the apartment, of course. There won’t be any disruption to your life or Amelia’s. I’ll continue to pay my share of the mortgage and I’ll provide more than generous child support for Amelia.” No disruption to our lives. No, not at all. Where there was a husband and a father, there would now be no one. Amelia would now have “visits” with her father. He took a deep breath. “I say we eat, discuss how we’ll arrange things, and then officially begin our separation after dinner, even if we’re still living together until Friday for Amelia’s sake.” “Larry, I have better things to do than watch you eat a piece of dry fish,” I said before running out of the door. “Happy New Year!” a couple called to me, blowing their noisemakers.

The moment I was outside, I threw up in a garbage can on the street like Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman. And then I reached for my cell phone until I remembered that Miranda was probably getting ready for the party at her friend’s. She didn’t need me to bring her down tonight. “Eeeee…woo…uhh mahhhh,” I sobbed to no one in particular. 124 ♥ela_vanilla♥

I didn’t call anyone. Not Miranda. Not my parents. Not any of my friends. Suddenly I couldn’t imagine forming the words. Larry is leaving me. Larry told me he wants a divorce. New Year’s Eve had fallen on a Wednesday, and Futterman had given us Friday as a holiday, so I still had two more days before I had to show my face to anyone I knew. Amelia had spent yesterday, New Year’s Day, with her friends, so I’d spent the day walking aimlessly in the cold. I don’t love you, Lucy. Today was Friday, the second day of January, and any minute now, Larry was going to come home and tell his daughter that he was leaving, that he wanted a divorce, and then he would be gone. One minute Amelia’s life would be what it was, and the next, something completely different. And I was powerless to protect her from it. He rang the doorbell like an idiot, and I ran to answer it. “Don’t you think she’ll wonder why her dad rang the doorbell?” I whisper-yelled at him. He ignored that and said, “Wish me luck.” He hesitated for a moment at her bedroom door, then tapped and walked in. I stood just outside her door against the wall, my eyes closed, my breath held. You’ve got to hold it together for her, I ordered myself. You’ve got to let her know we’ll be okay. “Amelia—” he began, and that was as far as he got before he burst into tears and sank onto the floor, sobbing. He got up and waved his hands dramatically. “I can’t do it! I can’t tell her!” He covered his eyes with his hands. “Honey, your mother will explain everything. I’m so sorry, sweetie. I love you.” And then he was out the door with the last of his suitcases. Oh God. “Mommy?” Amelia asked, her voice broken. “What’s going on?” “Come sit with me on the love seat,” I said. She stretched out a curl and wrapped it around her finger. “No. I want you tell me right now. Right here.” “Amelia, before I say anything, I want to make one thing very clear. Your father—” “Loves you very much,” she screamed. “This isn’t about you! It’s about me and your mother! I’m not divorcing you, I’m divorcing your mom! I know all about it and it’s bullshit! I hate him and I hate you!”

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She ran into her room and slammed the door, screaming and sobbing, and my legs gave out and I dropped to the floor. I grabbed the console table for support and got myself up and went into her room. “Get out!” she screamed. “Get out! I hate you!” She started throwing things, her clock, her phone. Her Hello Kitty alarm clock hit me on the forehead, and a trickle of blood made its way down my face. “Mommy?” she screamed when she realized what she’d done. And then she ran into the bathroom and locked herself in, sobbing hysterically. Did I go in there? Did I drag her out and hold her until she calmed down? Until we could talk? Did I call Miranda and ask her to come over? What the hell was I supposed to do? “Amelia, let me in, please. It’s just a little nick. I’m fine.” “Then go away!” she screamed. “Amelia, I’m hurting as bad as you are.” I had no idea if I was supposed to say that, if I was supposed to be strong for her and see her through this. I had no idea what Dr. Phil would advise. She opened the door. “Then why didn’t you stop him!” she screamed at me. “Why did you let him leave us!” “There wasn’t anything I could do, Amelia. It was his decision.” “That’s not true! You could have done something! You could have opened the china cabinet and set the Thanksgiving table with good dishes! You could have poured orange juice into a nice pitcher instead of putting the carton on the table! You could have done South Beach with Daddy. You could have dressed better. You could have dressed like Samantha Perlmutter’s mother, and then maybe Daddy wouldn’t have left.” She ran into her room and slammed the door. Samantha Perlmutter’s mother dressed like Britney Spears. She wore cropped sweaters and miniskirts with knee-high boots. She was partial to rhinestone studs and shaking her butt. “Amelia—” The door opened before I could say anything else, which was a good thing since I had no idea what I wanted to say. “Look at you!” Amelia said. “Your hair’s a mess and you’re wearing gray sweats and mismatched socks! How could you even walk around the house like that? Don’t you care how you look?” No. Because my husband told me he wanted a divorce. This was how you looked the day after, and the day after that. I was sure I’d look even worse tomorrow. 126 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Amelia Masterson,” I said through gritted teeth, “I know you’re upset, but don’t you dare talk to me that way! Don’t you dare insult me.” “It’s not an insult!” she yelled. “It’s the truth!” The door slammed again. “Amelia, your father won’t come back just because I break out the good china and wear threeinch heels and get my hair highlighted!” The door opened. “How would you possibly know?” The door slammed. I let out a very deep breath and again ordered myself to stay in control. Amelia was twelve. In the throes of adolescent angst and identity crises. This was no time to lecture her. I’d simply have to show her just how wrong she was. Chapter ten Miranda “I’m not going to say a single word about my wedding,” Emmalee trilled over our soup-andsalad combos on Friday night. “If you hear me say one word, you have permission to squeeze this ketchup bottle all over my sweater, which I bought at Jeffrey last week—on sale and it was still a fortune.” If you thought I had drama-queen tendencies, meet Emmalee. Emmalee’s let’s have dinner, we’ve haven’t gotten together in so long, which turned into let’s just grab an early bite because Ted’s in the mood for sushi later, was due to Gabriel calling Ted, her fiancé, with the good news two weeks ago. I’d say Emmalee’s phone call and concern were just a tad late. Emmalee spooned a tiny drop of dressing on her salad. “Georgie told me you seemed so down in the dumps on New Year’s Eve. You didn’t meet anyone at her party? She said she invited a few cuties for you.” Yeah. A few cuties. There was Mike, who kept asking me if I liked the hummus dip. Four times. That was his small-talk ability. And I clearly liked the hummus, since I ate the entire bowl. There was John or Jim—I wasn’t sure of his name—who stared at my chest any time we spoke and never once looked into my eyes. Then there was cute Ed who burst into tears when the clock struck midnight because he missed his parents and hated New York and wanted to move back to Oklahoma. “I still can’t believe Gabriel is engaged to someone else!” Emmalee said, munching romaine leaves. She peered at me. “Are you okay?” I shrugged. I might be more okay if I hadn’t spurred him on in the first place. 127 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Ted and I are in the biggest fight,” Emmalee went on without waiting for my answer. “The minute Gabriel told Ted he was engaged, Ted told him that of course his fiancée was invited to the wedding. I felt so funny about it—that’s why I didn’t call right away.” She slapped her hand over her mouth. “Oops, I’m not supposed to mention my wedding.” “You know what, Ems? Forget Gabriel. I mean, forget him in the same sentence with me. I’ve been paired with another usher at your wedding. That’s all that matters. I’ll be fine. In fact, I’m almost glad he’s engaged because now I have to get over him, right? There’s no hope left.” Annoying tears filled my eyes. Shit, shit, shit! Emmalee wasn’t the friend with whom to even think about crying. She was a when-we’re-going-through-the-same-thing-we’re-best-friends kind of friend. And when we were both in serious relationships, we were fun friends. Now, we were something else. But we had both been through breakups before, not as bad as this one, and she’d been there for me then (albeit because she was brokenhearted too and what does misery love?). But I’d always remember that tiny bit of Emmalee who could be a good friend. “Speaking of hope, Miranda,” she said, picking the croutons out of her salad. “Ted and I were finalizing the seating arrangements last night, and we realized that if we put you at the singles table instead of at the wedding party table, you’d be engaged in no time! There will be three single guys at the wedding! And one is really cute. The other two are okay, well one is okay. But they’re all nice. The cute one isn’t as nice as the just-okay one….” If I walked away, would she even notice, or would she still be talking by the time I got home? “Are you sure you’re still okay with being a bridesmaid?” she asked. “I’ll really understand if you can’t handle it. I can’t even imagine how painful it must be—on all counts.” She was becoming so unbearable that I wanted to be her bridesmaid just to spite her. Please drop a piece of romaine lettuce soaked in Caesar dressing onto your Jeffrey sweater. Nothing would make me happier at the moment. No such luck with the lettuce and dressing. “Because, and omigod, Miranda, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I was talking with Georgie, and she sort of made a good point that you might get really upset at my wedding when you actually see Gabriel—especially because his fiancée will be there too.” Phone the press! She cares. She really cares! “And then my pictures will really suck,” she continued, tucking her blond hair behind her ear. “I mean, if you’re not smiling and glowing and looking thrilled, the entire bridal party shots will be totally off. The wedding party shots too. Do you think you’ll be able to smile?” “Am I smiling now?” I asked. 128 ♥ela_vanilla♥

She cocked her head at me. “Yeah.” “Do I absolutely hate your guts right now?” No response. Nervous stare. “I’m kidding,” I said, even though I wasn’t. “I’ll be fine, Emmalee. Your pictures will be fine. Don’t worry about me.” “Miranda, are you sure you’re okay? Because you seem kinda mad right now, and this is what I’m afraid of. My wedding is my day, you know? And it’s only six weeks away. I just want everything to be perfect.” “Emmalee, you know what?” I said, standing up and slipping on my coat. “You’re right. I can’t deal. I really don’t want to mess up your pictures, so I think I’d better drop out of the bridal party.” “I totally understand,” she said, her hand on her mouth in mock concern. “I’m sure I can return your bridesmaid’s dress. It’s a good thing we didn’t do alterations yet!” Emmalee’s bridesmaid dresses were gorgeous. Long red velvet, strapless. No bows. No pouf. Just beautiful. It just figured it was the kind of dress you actually could wear again.

The second I turned the corner onto my block, I spotted Amelia’s telltale puffy hot-pink down jacket. She was sitting on the stoop of my apartment building, throwing rocks at a tree trunk. She kept missing, though, and hitting the nice parked car instead. A Lexus. I glanced at my watch. It was almost eight o’clock. What was she doing out alone at this hour? And was that a suitcase next to her? “Amelia?” I called out as I neared her. She grabbed the suitcase and stood up. “I’m never going home again! I’m moving in with you.” She was crying. “I can move in, right?” Whoa boy. “Meems,” I said, putting my hands on her shoulders. “First tell me what’s wrong.” “Daddy left. He told Mom he wants a divorce and then he left. Suitcases and everything. Just like Lizzie’s father.” She broke down into sobs. Oh no. No, no, no. Oh, Lucy. I hugged Amelia tight. “Meems, come inside. It’s cold out here.”

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For the past hour I’d been crying over Gabriel and the world’s most insensitive bride when my sister’s husband had walked out on her. When my beloved niece’s dad had left. I am a self-absorbed loser. I am over you, Gabriel Anders. Miranders is no more. I will never even think your name again. I grabbed the suitcase and led Amelia upstairs. “Does your mom know you’re here?” “I don’t care what she knows,” Amelia said. “It’s her fault he left.” “Why do you think that?” “Look at her!” she yelled between sobs. “She looks like my math teacher who everyone makes fun of. If she looked like Samantha Perlmutter’s mother, Daddy wouldn’t have left. Why couldn’t she have tried?” She broke down into sobs. R-ring! I glanced at my cell phone. Lucy. I took the phone into the kitchen and answered. “If she’s there,” Lucy said, “just say wrong number so she doesn’t know it’s me. I’ll be there in five minutes.” “Wrong number,” I said. I hated hanging up. Are you okay? I wanted to ask. But how stupid a question was that? Of course Lucy wasn’t okay.

When Lucy arrived, Amelia refused to look at her. In twelve-year-old fashion, she sat on the sofa, her arms crossed over her chest, her expression stony. “Let’s go home, Amelia,” Lucy said, reaching out her hand. “I’ll make some hot chocolate and we’ll talk things through, okay?” Amelia grabbed her hand away. “No. Not okay! There’s nothing to talk about! I hate you and I hate Daddy!” I’d never seen the look on Lucy’s face before. “Well, I love you, Amelia,” Lucy told her. “My heart happens to be broken right now and I know yours is too, and I thought we would get through this together.” “Why is your heart broken?” Amelia asked, eyeing her mother nervously. “Sweetheart,” Lucy said. “Your father broke up with me. That’s what it means when one person in the marriage wants a divorce.” 130 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Amelia’s lip trembled. Divorce was a difficult concept for a twelve-year-old to wrap her mind around. But any adolescent understood breakup. “That’s why he left,” Lucy went on. “Because he doesn’t want to be my husband anymore. He will always be your father, though. He doesn’t have to live with you to be your father, Amelia. He loves you and always will.” Amelia started crying again, but this time she flew into her mother’s arms. “Why did he have to leave? Why?” Tears rolled down my cheeks. Lucy just held Amelia tight. “Let’s go home, sweetie, okay?” “Okay,” Amelia said. “But I have to pee first.” She disappeared, sniffling, into the bathroom. “I don’t understand,” I whispered to Lucy. “What happened?” She shrugged. “He’s keeping his New Year’s resolution. He told me New Year’s Eve. I should have confronted him when I found the stupid piece of paper. Maybe we could have worked it out —” “Lucy, it’s not your fault he left,” I said. “Then why did he leave?” she asked, her voice breaking. “Amelia is right. Why? Why doesn’t he love me anymore?” She burst into tears, my older sister, the strong one, the one who’d been protecting me for as long as I could remember. I squeezed her into a hug on the couch, and she put her head on my shoulder and cried. I heard the bathroom door open, and I knew Amelia was standing there in the doorway. Watching your own mother cry was very tough stuff. I’d seen my own mother cry only once, when she’d gotten the news that her mother had died. The phone had rung in our house, and I—a couple of years older than Amelia was now—had answered it. It was the police. My grandmother had had a heart attack in the produce aisle of a supermarket. My mother listened to the officer, tears rolling down her cheeks, and when she hung up, her legs gave out and she dropped to the floor and sobbed. I’d run to Lucy’s room to get her, and Lucy had come out and just hugged my mother, just held her and let her cry, like I was doing now with Lucy. After that, my mother stopped leaving for her “me-time.” “Why do they leave?” Amelia asked in such a low voice I wasn’t sure I heard her right. “Why should I ever bother liking a boy if he’s just going to dump me anyway?” Lucy straightened up and quickly dried her eyes. Amelia stood in the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest. “Women break plenty of hearts too,” I said. 131 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Yeah, name one heart you broke,” Amelia countered. “Lester Furman, in the seventh grade.” “No one is named Lester Furman,” she said. I could still see him, little Lester Furman, five feet tall, scrawny, all nose. His great passion aside from chess? Me. “Do you remember Christopher at my office?” Lucy asked Amelia. “You met him last year when you came in for Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. His wife left him. Just up and left him for another man.” “Great,” Amelia said. “So husbands and wives just walk out. People just leave their kids. That’s really great. I’m going to grow up and get my heart broken and be unable to function, just like Aunt Miranda.” “Hey!” I snapped. “That’s not nice.” “Well, it’s true!” Amelia shot back. “Amelia Masterson,” Lucy said, “I’m going to give you a very small bit of leeway. But let me make one thing clear—being mean to the people who love you most in life isn’t wise.” Amelia’s face crumpled. “And, I just realized something,” Lucy continued. “Your aunt Miranda does look like Samantha Perlmutter’s mother. And it didn’t make Gabriel stay, did it?” “Aunt Miranda’s not a mom, though!” Amelia said. “It’s totally different!” She disappeared back inside the bathroom. “Who’s Samantha Perlmutter?” I asked. “One of Amelia’s classmates. Her mother’s thirty-eight and dresses like Britney Spears. She thinks if I dress like that, her father will come back. Maybe I should show her that it won’t happen.” “Yeah, but what if it does? What if you dolled yourself up and Larry took one look at you and came running back?” “Is that what it takes?” she asked, her voice tired, defeated. “Is that all I need to be to get my husband to want to be my husband? Sexy? Sex is one tiny iota of a marriage. There are so many other facets, from daily life to children to family to sharing. Sex goes. Sexy goes. That’s not what connects two people in a marriage.”

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“Well, you were right about sexy clothes not keeping Gabriel around,” I said. I had more hot dresses and slutty see-through teddies and edible underwear than room for them in my apartment. I was a thin blonde with big tits—the three biggies on the scale of superficiality that a guy was supposed to want. And where was my great love? Marrying someone else who looked a lot like me. Because it wasn’t the size of your chest or how thin you were or your blond hair. It was YOU. It was who you were. What you looked like was just a piece of a much bigger picture. “That’s it,” I told Lucy. “From this moment on, no more moping. No more whining. No more waiting. Starting right now, I’ll set a new example for Meems. I know you’ll need the help.” “You’re a good baby sister,” she said. “And a very good aunt. I can take care of myself, but I will need help with Amelia.” “You’ve got it,” I promised.

Roxy and I sat on the living-room floor of our apartment with Diet Cokes, Jiffy Pop, which I didn’t burn for once, and the New York Natterer open to the personal ads section. An hour ago I’d come home shaking, and Roxy made coffee and listened to me talk nonstop, about Emmalee, about my promise to Lucy, about how I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. She’d grabbed her coat, told me she’d be back in less than a minute and left the apartment. Less than a minute later, I heard her running back up the stairs. She set down two copies of the New York Natterer, a very popular free weekly newspaper. “We’re going to get proactive and become masters of our romantic fates!” Roxy said, handing me a pen and a pad of paper. “We’re each going to place a personal ad and become dating fools.” “I’ve been a dating fool,” I reminded her. “I want just one guy. The right guy.” “He’s out there,” Roxy said, pulling her shiny brown hair into a low ponytail. “You might not find him right now, but he’s out there.” “Then what’s the point of this?” I asked, holding up the paper. “Why put myself through the torture of a hundred horrible blind dates with SWM seeks? And with a personal ad, there’s not even a middleman to yell at. At least when Lucy set me up, I was able to curse out her husband behind his back and blame his bad taste.” Not that he would be setting me up anymore. “Miranda, I hate to sound like a self-help book, but I’ve been reading so many submissions at work that I can’t help it. The torture, according to all the books, is part of the process. I’d love to meet the right guy for me too. But six weeks after I walked out on my own wedding? I don’t 133 ♥ela_vanilla♥

think so. I put so much stock into that one date with Harrison, when what I need to want is experience. I want to have a romantic dinner with a guy who isn’t Robbie. I want to kiss a guy who isn’t Robbie. I want to sleep with a guy who isn’t Robbie. Actually, that’s all I really want. I just want to have sex with a guy who isn’t Robbie.” “You’re a guy’s dream!” I assured her. We spread out the papers and read through the ads. Roxy liked the idea of newspaper personals instead of online personals because she didn’t want to put any stock in a photo. To respond to a personal ad in the New York Natterer, a guy called the 800 number, pressed in your mailbox number, listened to your greeting, and then left you a message, leaving his phone number. If you liked what he had to say, how he sounded, you called back. If you got along on the phone, you made a date. It was that simple. That anonymous. We scanned the ads, circling ones we liked for help in writing our own. Grace Seeks Will, but don’t be gay. SWF, 30, looking for friendship first. Like Vin Diesel movies? Then don’t respond to this ad… Gabriel liked Vin Diesel movies. Busty blond babe seeks supersuccessful SM, 30–35, with full head of hair… SWF, 29, smart, sincere, creative, looking for nice guy, late 20–30s, for possibilities… Hmm. That last one was normal. It sounded sort of like me. That was weird. That two completely different women could place a very similar ad. It reminded me that I had no idea what I was going to get. After an hour of reading the ads and tapping our pens against our pads of paper, Roxy and I still had no idea what to say in our ads. “Why don’t we write ads for each other?” I suggested. “That way they’ll be honest and we can say things about each other that we wouldn’t feel comfortable saying about ourselves.” Like attractive. Or sexy. Or any of the adjectives I had a hard time attributing to myself since getting dumped. Roxy handed me her sheet. SWF, 29. Blond bombshell with heart and soul seeks counterpart… I handed Roxy hers. SWF, 25. Sophisticated author seeks… “I’m not an author yet,” she said. “I haven’t even finished writing the proposal.” “If you’re writing a proposal, you’re an author,” I assured her. 134 ♥ela_vanilla♥

She beamed. “To true love for you,” she said, holding up her glass of Diet Coke. “And to a hot one-night stand for you,” I added, laughing. “Hey, let’s go plan date outfits. First dates and then second dates. Between us, we won’t have to buy anything new.” We went through Roxy’s closet first. “Same old story in here. Business casual. Lunch dates. Everything’s beige. Or gray. There’s not a single V-neck! And why are all your sweaters boatneck cable-knits?” “It’s my new look,” she said. “What look? Young Martha Stewart?” She smiled and nodded. “All my other clothes are still in my closet at home. At Robbie’s apartment, I mean.” “Are you ever going to get them?” I asked. “You must have a ton of stuff you want.” She sat down on the bed. “I haven’t been able to go back. Everyone hates me in Bay Ridge. No one in my family is even talking to me. Except my mother, to yell at me. If she didn’t yell at me, I don’t know what I’d do.” “Just because you didn’t want to marry Robbie?” I asked. She nodded. “Not marrying Robbie was like telling them I’m too good for them. That I don’t want to live like them. That’s how they took it. I want something else than what they have? Fine, Miss Big Shot. Go ahead. Have a nice lonely life.” “But you’re not lonely, are you?” She shook her head. “Well, sometimes. But I love my job. I love this apartment. I love being here. And I love that I’m writing a book—well, a proposal for a book. But it’s weird when your family just turns their back. I feel like I have no net. Next week I need to start my interviews with some of my relatives about their marriages, and I have no idea if they’ll even agree to talk to me.” I nodded, but I didn’t know how Roxy felt. My parents were far away and out of it anyway, but I always had Lucy and Amelia, and even Aunt Dinah could be counted on in a pinch. “Well, you have me,” I said. “That almost counts.” She smiled. “It counts big time.” “Eww, we’re sappy new best friends!” I said.

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She laughed, and we headed to my closet. Roxy put together a bunch of date outfits in five seconds. For someone who liked pearls and one-inch heels, Roxy sure knew how to slut up an outfit. “This is how I used to dress,” she explained. My closet was now in perfect order. I had three first-date outfits and two second-date outfits, to be rotated. We would choose third-date outfits when I got there. And hopefully there would only be one third-date guy. Okay. I was now on my way to setting a good example for my niece by getting on with my life. I grabbed the phone to check in on my sister and settled back against the pillows on my bed for a long talk. I wasn’t used to comforting Lucy. I had no idea what to say or how to help, but listening required no experience at all. Chapter eleven Christopher “Waaaah! Waah! Waah!” I peeled open an eye and glanced at the clock on my bedside table—1:23 a.m. Ava had been waking up every ten minutes since eleven that night. Gas? Teeth? Growing? According to the Modern Dad’s Handbook, the actual physical process of growing could make babies squirm in their skin. I wished I could call the Posse. I’d stopped thinking of them as the Know-It-All-Mom Posse and just redubbed them the Posse. They were still know-it-alls, especially Nell, who grated on my nerves, but they cared so much about their kids, their marriages, their families, their every single thought, that it was impossible to hate them. I always knew women talked a lot, but until I joined the Posse, I had no idea how much or how intimately. I’d been to a few playgroup sessions, and the conversation was the same. They talked penis size. They talked arguments. They ranted about mothers and mothers-in-law. They despised their sisters-in-law. The ped said began at least fifty percent of all statements uttered by the three of them. Any one of them would have great suggestions for calming Ava, but I couldn’t make calls at one in the morning. I’d already been stupid enough to call Jodie around midnight, when the crying had escalated and my aforementioned magic ability to soothe her had—poof—disappeared. “Jesus, Christopher, you can’t even handle some crying? Maybe we should rethink this custody arrangement,” Jodie had snapped into my ear. Why did I call her? What was wrong with me? Did I not already know that when the clock struck midnight, Jodie turned into the wicked witch of Westchester County? “Jodie, she’s not crying. She’s colic-crying. She’s shrieking. She’s unsoothable. I thought you might know what’s bothering her.” 136 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Because of my crystal ball?” ARGGGGH! “Forget it,” I said. “I’ll figure it out.” “She’s probably just teething,” Jodie said. “Try some Baby Orajel. You do have a tube, right? It was on the checklist for what to keep stocked.” “Yes, yes, I have some.” “If she doesn’t respond to that in fifteen minutes,” Jodie added, “you can give her a dose of Infant Tylenol. The exact measurement is on the checklist. Follow it to a T. Ooh, my poor baby. I can hear her. I wish I were there.” Me too, I thought for exactly one second. Not this you, though. Not the mean you. The you who cheated on me. The you who took my baby and left me. For some Wall Street schmuck. I want the you I fell in love with. The you who doesn’t exist anymore. “Call me back if she doesn’t respond to the Tylenol,” Jodie said. “I will,” I’d said, and hung up, sad, weary, bleary. The Baby Orajel had worked for a little while. So had the Baby Tylenol. But I couldn’t give her another dose for six hours. I grabbed The Modern Dad’s Handbook and headed to Ava’s closet for the tenth time since putting her down to sleep at seven-fifteen. Unexplained crying…check baby’s temperature… There was only one way to take a baby’s temperature, and I wasn’t sticking a Vaseline-smeared thermometer in a crying Ava’s butt. I would if I had to, but at one in the morning, I couldn’t bear to. Touch hand to baby’s forehead… She wasn’t hot. For the past couple of weeks, whenever Ava cried while we were outside, someone invariably said she must be teething. So I tried more Baby Orajel, squeezing the clear gel onto my index finger and then smearing. Ava bit my finger. Ow! I sat down on the rocking chair my mother insisted I needed and sang “Hush Little Baby.” Ava shrieked louder. I tried “Old MacDonald.” Louder shrieking. Finally I tried a beautiful song called “Hallelujah” from the Shrek soundtrack and she stopped crying for three seconds. 137 ♥ela_vanilla♥

I sang “Born To Run,” “Brown Eyed Girl” (even though Ava’s eyes were blue), “Stairway To Heaven,” “Hava Nagila.” (I’m half-Jewish, on my father’s side.) She shrieked. And shrieked. The Barney theme song. “Blue’s Clues.” “Dora the Explorer.” Shriek. Shriek. Shriek. Could you develop colic at one year? WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! I gently rubbed her belly and walked the length of the apartment. The cries quieted but didn’t stop. I sat back down in the rocker and propped her against my chest so that her stomach had some pressure against it. And then I read her the start of chapter five of The Wedding of The Century. “What did Beau do when he learned that he was going to be a dad for the first time? He immediately signed up for a course on baby rearing. New Baby 101. He learned how to change a diaper. How to burp a baby. How to feed baby—bottles and solids. Beau Wellington, attorney, activist, heir, learned the skills required to be a hands-on dad because ‘that’s what taking care of business is all about,’ Beau told the New York Times recently. And when tragedy struck, his wife of five years killed in a car accident, Beau was suddenly the widowed father of a three-yearold daughter. Was he nervous about handling parenthood on his own? ‘I can never be Jessamin’s mother,’ Beau told GQ magazine, ‘but I can be the best father I can possibly be. I owe my baby that much. I owe my late wife that much. And I owe myself that much.’” “The words are right, Ava,” I whispered in her ear. “But is he full of what’s in your diaper? Or is he telling the truth? What do you think?” “Waaah! Waaaaah!” Buzz! Buzz! Shit. The front doorbell. It was either the police, arresting me for noise pollution, or a blearyeyed neighbor. Or Ginger. I carried a crying Ava to the door and peered through the peephole, begging Ava to shush. It was Ginger. “I’m afraid to open the door,” I said. “Then her shrieking will really wake up the building.” She laughed. “Could you use some relief? I’d be happy to hold her for a while, or walk her. Maybe a new face will calm her down.” I’d try anything at this point. 138 ♥ela_vanilla♥

I opened the door, which shushed Ava for exactly seven seconds. The most minute change in air temperature, such as the whooshing of a door, could affect her. Ginger smiled at me. She wore workout clothes, black yoga pants and a tight white T-shirt. She looked pretty without makeup. “Why don’t you go make us some tea,” Ginger said, “and I’ll try calming her. I’ve babysat four nieces and two nephews from infancy. Shoo,” she told me, gesturing toward the kitchen. I couldn’t wait to get away from Ava. Sorry, Ava. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I just need a break. I need to be alone in a room without you in it. In my tiny kitchen, I made two mugs of Lipton and couldn’t believe I actually had both milk and sugar. I even had milk and sugar bowls. Jodie had made me a list of Essential Things You Need But Would Never Think of Buying, like a potato peeler. A sugar bowl. Sugar—even though I took my coffee and tea black. Jodie had insisted I have her creature comforts on hand just in case she ever came over to pick up Ava. As the tea steeped, I realized the crying had stopped. I brought out the tea and a bag of Milano cookies. “You’re good,” I said, smiling at Ava fast asleep against Ginger’s chest, her beautiful little face at peace, her tiny bow mouth slightly open. Ginger smiled a sexy smile. “No. I’m very good.” O-kay, you can go now. No tea for you. No sexual innuendos. “I’ll just go lay her down in her crib,” Ginger said, walking toward Ava’s closet. Mission accomplished, she was back. She sat down on the love seat and wrapped her legs beside her. “Mmm, this tea is delicious.” She bit into a Milano, patting the seat next to her. “Come sit, Chris. Relax. She’s asleep.” I stretched and yawned for good measure. “I’m exhausted. She’s been waking up every half hour for two hours. I’d better get my thirty minutes while I have the chance.” She was checking me out. Her eyes were moving over my body, from my faded Princeton T-shirt to my Levi’s. Another thing an unsolicited separation was good for: a hard body. Nothing like some heavy lifting to work out your aggressions. She smiled. “Go ahead. I have tomorrow off, so I’ll stay for a couple of hours and take care of her if she cries.” My eyes were drooping. I knew I could probably trust Ginger. But probably negated going into my bedroom and leaving her totally alone with Ava. “Maybe I’ll just sack out on the couch,” I said. “Go ahead,” she said again. “Consider me on duty.” 139 ♥ela_vanilla♥

I smiled at her. “I can’t tell you how I much I appreciate this. You’re one hell of a neighbor.” She winked at me, and I collapsed on the couch across from her. “I know what you need,” she said, suddenly kneeling next to me. I could smell her perfume, a light delicious musk. “A back rub.” A back rub was exactly what I needed. If she came on to me, or pressed those amazing breasts against my back, it was going to take an extraordinary feat of willpower not to rip her clothes off. If she comes on to you, shriek in surprise, thereby waking up Ava, thereby putting Ginger back to work. Situation resolved! The moment her hands crawled under my shirt and pressed into my back, I wanted her. Don’t do it, Chris. Do. Not. Do. It. It would just be sex. I wasn’t interested in Ginger that way. I very likely wouldn’t be interested in any woman that way. She pressed harder, massaging, massaging, massaging. “Why don’t you take this off?” she said too close to my ear. “I’ll be able to cover more ground.” I lifted up my torso enough to pull my shirt over my head. I could feel her admiring my body. And then she did it. She gave one good press, taking out every knot between my shoulders, and her breasts caressed my back and I turned over and kissed her, hard, hot. Not nicely. As in, Do not mistake this for romance. She kissed me back, just as hard, just as hot. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted you to do that,” she said in a hopeful, sweet voice. Effectively softening other parts of my anatomy. She wanted romance. And sex. But she wanted romance. “You’re a great person, Ginger,” I said, sitting up. “But I can’t do this. I’m just not anywhere near ready or open for anything.” She nodded. “I can understand that. Your wife left, what—four months ago? You have a oneyear-old daughter you’re just getting to know.” Why do you have to be so nice and understanding! Why can’t you be a royal bitch who I can use? “Go to sleep,” she told me. “I have no business making out when I’m on duty anyway.” I smiled and squeezed her hand and then fell asleep in two seconds.

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I opened an eye. Was that Jodie’s voice? “I SAID WHO THE FUCK IS SHE?” That was Jodie’s voice. Jodie’s yell. I sprang up, exhausted, my eyes not fully opened. Jodie stood over me, furious, shaking, Ava asleep in her arms. What was Jodie doing here? How was she here? Ah. The emergency key. I hadn’t wanted to give Jodie a key to my apartment, but she insisted on it for emergencies, and apparently, a crying baby was an emergency, after all. Ginger stood in the living room, nervously collecting the dirty tea mugs. She brought them into the kitchen, then reappeared. “I’ll just go now.” She dashed out, and I heard the apartment door click shut. “Ava was sick with God knows what last night, crying for hours, and you had an overnight date?” Jodie snapped, her voice dripping with venom. “You called me because Ava was interrupting your hot night of sex?” “Jump to conclusions much?” I asked, pulling on my pants, which I could barely remember taking off in the middle of the night. I hated sleeping in pants, and I’d fallen asleep on the couch, my belt buckle pressing into my stomach. “Oh, I think the evidence speaks for itself,” Jodie said. “The only thing missing is the condom wrapper. And I do hope you used one.” I pulled on my T-shirt. “If circumstantial evidence gets you this ready to convict, it’s a good thing you quit your job, Jodie.” “Asshole,” she snapped. Ava stirred in her arms, and opened those big blue eyes. “Hey, sweetie,” I said, wiggling her tiny hand. “Feel better this morning?” Ava gurgled something indecipherable. But her eyes were clear, her cheeks unflushed, and she was one hundred percent fine. Her mother, meanwhile, was the opposite. Her eyes were shooting sparks, her cheeks were red, and she was one-hundred-percent pissed off. “Let me make something clear before you leave,” I said. “Ginger is my neighbor. She helped me out last night when Ava was up every twenty minutes all night long. Nothing happened.” Jodie snorted. “Oh right. Like I believe that. I came in to find you in your underwear on the couch, and a woman making coffee in the kitchen. But nothing happened.”

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“First of all, it’s none of your business,” I said. “Second of all, who are you to talk? There’s a man sleeping in your bed and making coffee every morning.” “That’s different,” she shot back. “Eye-in and I are living together. We’re planning to get married.” The air whooshed out of my lungs. It was the first time she’d said it. And it knocked me down onto my butt on the couch. Married. Jodie was planning to get married. But we’re married. We are married. You’re my wife. This didn’t make sense. Nothing made any fucking sense! “Come on, Christopher,” she said in her usual half snappish, half sensitive way. “We’re living together. Of course we’re planning to marry.” I took a deep breath. I couldn’t speak. Couldn’t find my voice. Or air. “I don’t think you should be having sex during your weekends with Ava,” Jodie said, settling Ava in her stroller and strapping her diaper bag onto the push bar. “If I have to get a judge to order it, I will. I’ll do whatever I have to, Christopher. Including undoing our arrangement.” Bitch! Could she stop me from seeing Ava? Could she stop our weekends? She was the lawyer, not me. “Listen to me clearly,” I bit out. “I am not having sex with anyone. That woman is just a hardcase who lives down the hall. I have zero interest in her. In fact, she came on to me last night and I stopped her.” “Well, bully-bully for—” Jodie said and then froze. Ginger was suddenly standing at the far end of the living room, her lower lip quivering as she stared at me. “I forgot my purse,” she said, her voice trembling. She didn’t look at me as she grabbed it from the love seat and then ran out. Suddenly the apartment was very quiet. The silence was unbearable.

An hour later, I was still shaking. I called Lucy and told her I could use an emergency meeting of the Breakup Club. “Me too,” she said. “Oh no, Luce. Don’t tell me he made good on his New Year’s resolution.” There was silence, which meant she was trying not to cry. Finally she said, “I’ll call Miranda and Roxy. See you soon.”

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An hour later, the four of us sat on my living-room floor, breakfast from the diner balanced on hardcovers on our laps. “Why are men such potato heads?” Miranda asked, opening all the coffee containers to figure out which ones were black and which were regular. “And let’s skip right over Larry, since Lucy doesn’t even want his name mentioned, and go straight to you, Christopher. How could you refer to Ginger as a ‘hardcase’? That’s so beyond mean. Not that I’m calling you a potato head,” she added. I smiled. “It’s okay, Miranda. Potato head describes me perfectly.” Lucy sipped her coffee. “Especially because Ginger doesn’t sound like a hardcase at all. She sounds like a wonderful person.” “But imagine how threatened Christopher must have felt,” Roxy said, poking at her cheese omelet. “His ex-wife was ready to drag him into family court. He said whatever he had to to calm down Jodie.” “Wife. Not ex-wife,” I reminded them. “Wife.” They stared at me. I ran my hands through my hair and let out a deep breath. “Ex-wife is right. She might as well be.” I wrapped my hands around my foam cup of coffee and took a long swallow. “I can’t even bear to talk about it anymore. I’ll knock on Ginger’s door later and try to apologize.” “I’m sure she’ll understand,” Miranda said. “She sounds like a pretty understanding person.” “I know I said I don’t want to talk about Larry,” Lucy said, “but what do I call him? Is he my husband? My ex? My soon-to-be-ex-husband?” She flung her toast back onto her plate. “You can call him Jerk Face,” Miranda suggested, rubbing Lucy’s shoulder. “No—Asshole Jerk Face,” Lucy said. She sipped her coffee. “Let’s go back to not talking about him. Hey, since we’re all here, how about we touch base on Beau and Bri and their fairy-tale life? I can live vicariously.” We spent the next hour going over where we were. Lucy was almost finished with the first draft, and Miranda was almost finished fact-checking and proofreading for consistency. Roxy had five folders of wedding details; the happy couple and their plans were all over the media, the focus of TV specials and articles about everything from where they were registered to who was designing Bri’s gown to how many tiers their wedding cake would be. Roxy also mentioned a beautiful photograph she’d found for the front cover, of Beau and Bri and his five-year-old daughter holding hands and facing away from the camera, walking in the park. I wanted to know if it was true, this stuff about Beau taking baby-rearing classes and being a hands-on dad. This past Friday I’d called Beau’s PR people, ostensibly for fact-checking and to 143 ♥ela_vanilla♥

see if I could get an interview (Lucy had tried multiple times), but I mostly wanted to know how he was doing it, raising his daughter himself after the death of his wife. “We have no comment,” said the woman who answered the phone. “No, we do have a comment. We’re disgusted by the unauthorized biography and the fact that you’re capitalizing on their celebrity. Should either of them wish to release a memoir, their potential readership may be diminished because you’ve already published an unauthorized bio.” “It’s all spin,” Lucy told me. “I’m sure he employs nannies around the clock and always has, even when his wife was alive. I just can’t verify it. Do you really think he’s ever changed a diaper full of shit?” I stared up at the ceiling for a moment. “Can she do it?” I asked, my voice so low I wasn’t sure they could even hear me over the music. “Can Jodie stop me from seeing Ava?” “I don’t think so,” Lucy said. “But if she tries, just know you’ll be able to stop her from trying to stop you. That’s what courts are for.” I leaned back, my appetite and my interest in spending another second talking about Beau and Brianna’s perfect life both gone. “You’re a great dad,” Miranda said. “No matter how many times you put her left shoe on her right foot, you’re a great dad for loving her so much.” “I second that,” Lucy said, pouring syrup on her pancakes. “I’m trying to make Amelia understand that just because her dad left doesn’t mean he doesn’t love her, but she’s so mad at him. She won’t talk to him. She barely talks to me anymore.” “I didn’t want to talk to Jodie for weeks after she left,” I said, “but I had to. Otherwise I couldn’t see Ava.” “I wish Robbie didn’t want to talk to me,” Roxy said. “He calls twice a week, every week. He keeps it light, but it would be so much easier on both of us. Talking to each other only makes us miss each other.” “He can’t let go, Roxy,” Miranda said. “Because if he did, he’d be giving up. He’d be giving up hope. And he’s clinging to it. Like I did.” “Maybe we should send Robbie this,” Lucy said, taking a women’s magazine out of her tote bag. She pointed to a cover blurb. “Brianna’s Five Surefire Ways To Get Over Your Ex So You Can Get On With Yourself!” “Oh, I’d like to hear those,” Miranda said. “‘Number one,’” Lucy read. “‘Accept any fix-up or date you’re offered.’” 144 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Miranda smiled. “Ha! Already doing that! Roxy and I will be soon be the dating queens of New York. Our personal ads will be printed in Wednesday’s Natterer.” “Good for the both of you!” Lucy said. “Ugh, no way am I ever dating,” I said. “Last night is a perfectly good example of why dating spells disaster.” “That wasn’t a date,” Lucy said. “That was an ambush.” I let out the breath I’d been holding all morning. “What about you, Lucy?” Roxy asked. She mock-shivered. “I haven’t had a date since my junior year of college. I’ll hold off a little bit.” “What’s number two on Bri’s list?” Miranda asked. “List five things about your ex that you didn’t like,” Lucy said. “I’ll go first. Let’s see, I didn’t like Larry’s…” She gnawed her lower lip. “That’s weird. Now that I actually have to think of something I didn’t like, I can’t.” “How about his obsession with paper plates?” Miranda suggested. “No—I have a better one—his habit of pushing turkeys off tables on major holidays!” Lucy laughed. “I didn’t like that at all. Either one.” We spent the next hour topping each other with the stupid things we didn’t like about our exes, from the way Jodie made scrambled eggs (she never scrambled them enough), to the way Gabriel never said “bless you” when Miranda sneezed, to the way Robbie had to have a three-course meal every night of his life. And then we traded bacon for sausage and rye for a slice of wheat toast and the sun was going down before I even realized we’d been talking for hours. Chapter twelve Roxy I had dates! Only two set up so far, but two shining new possibilities to show me a brand-new world (and a world that didn’t involve getting stood up). The personal ad had come out two days ago. So far I had twelve responses, most of them from toads. Miranda had fifty-six. It seemed guys wanted a blond bombshell more than they wanted a sophisticated writer. Eight of my respondees had also responded to Miranda’s ad, and when we compared their voice mail messages, we found they had completely different things to say to a woman they thought was a serious author and to a woman they thought was a blond bombshell. Of the four I had left 145 ♥ela_vanilla♥

on my list, one spoke with so heavy an accent I couldn’t make out the last three digits of the telephone number he left. Another spent his entire two-minute voice mail allotment telling me how nervous he was, then got cut off before even mentioning his name, let alone leaving his phone number. And then there were two: Didier (who mentioned he wasn’t remotely French), a television news producer who lived in Soho. He liked “bad TV and bad girls, but good books and good jokes.” The “bad girls” part struck me as a little iffy, but Miranda said a runaway bride—not that I’d mentioned that to Didier—made me an instant bad girl. In other words, she’d said, it was a synonym for interesting. “Interesting?” I’d repeated, wrinkling my face. “The word is confused.” Miranda insisted the “good books” made up for the “bad girls.” I thought they canceled each other out, but I was willing to meet him for coffee. He was intelligent and funny on the phone, told me a couple of crazy stories about his job (he worked on the eleven-o’clock news), and he sounded adorable. Plus, he wasn’t blond or green-eyed like Robbie. Dark haired and dark eyed was a plus. Dark was different. So was Kansas, where he was from. Didier was a long way from home. Robbie had never left home. Well, except to move around the corner with his girlfriend of twenty years who came complete with his mother’s recipes for lasagna and pot roast. Date Number Two was Nathanial. Twenty-eight. Six-one. One seventy. Brown/Blue. Wall Street. Stockbroker. Upper West Side with a roommate, his cousin. Loved sports, Mexican food, smart people, nice people, traveling. Hoped to hear from me soon. And he had, right away. He didn’t sound especially interesting, the way Didier had, but we spoke so easily—about everything and nothing—for a half hour on the phone, until Miranda swiped across her neck with her hand. Apparently, you were supposed to leave something to talk about on the actual date. Tonight, a cold and flurrying Friday, was Didier. Sunday night was Nathanial. After work, Miranda poked her head into my room with two outfits on each arm, but this time I wanted to dress myself. Be myself—whoever that was starting to be. A nice sweater, nice pants, nice shoes. Nothing tight. Nothing fancy. Just comfortable. Clothes that made me feel good. Didier and I were meeting for coffee at Starbucks at seven-thirty. I arrived on time but didn’t see anyone matching his description. I hopped up on a stool at the long counter against the floor-toceiling window and waited. And waited. Five minutes late. Ten minutes late. Deep sigh. Another no-show? Was this what dating was going to be like? No. There he was. And very cute! Tall, dark and deliciously cute, with a mop of silky brown hair and intense dark eyes. I recognized him by the red tie he’d said he’d wear. He eyed the women lining the counter—his gaze stopping on a long-haired blonde for a little too long considering I’d 146 ♥ela_vanilla♥

said I was the opposite of blonde—and then he spotted me. He smiled instantly, revealing toowhite teeth. “Roxy?” he asked. I nodded. “Didier?” He nodded and extended his hand. “Nice to meet you. You’re everything I imagined you were from our conversation.” Off to a good start! “You too,” I said. “So, how about we go order something to drink and maybe split a really gooey treat.” He shook his head. “Nothing for me, thanks. The prices in here are crazy.” He pulled a small silver travel cup from his knapsack. “Office coffee’s free.” “Very economical of you,” I muttered. “I’ll be right back.” Okay, so he was saving money for a downpayment on an apartment. Or for a vacation to Alaska. Don’t judge too fast, Rox. But wasn’t there such a thing as good first-date behavior? I might not have had a date since show-and-tell in first grade, but I had a clue. I returned with my latte and a fudge brownie with two forks. He practically scarfed down the entire thing before I even stirred Sweet ’n Low into my coffee. “So you said you were from Bay Ridge, right?” Didier asked. “I have to tell you, I was a little worried. But you hide it well. I’d never guess you were B&T.” An insult five minutes into our date wasn’t a good sign. B&T stood for “bridge and tunnel.” It’s what people like the new me called people who lived in the “outer” boroughs of New York City (the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island) or parts of New Jersey, “tacky” types (to use the snobs’ word) who had to commute to Manhattan via bridges and tunnels for work or entertainment. “Not everyone in Brooklyn looks like they just walked off the set of Saturday Night Fever,” I said, stabbing the last bite of brownie before he could eat that too. “Not that there’s anything wrong with looking like that.” My entire family looked like that, and Saturday Night Fever was made almost thirty years ago. He smiled. “Ah, you’re a sensitive one. Good to know. I’ll watch what I say.” Instead of watching what you say, how about if you don’t have insulting thoughts in the first place? 147 ♥ela_vanilla♥

He held up his Thermos. Did he want me to get him a free refill? “How about a toast?” he asked. I held up my latte. “To?” “To getting to know each other,” he said. Okay. Better. Maybe the guy had simply walked in nervous. Miranda had cautioned me to allow leeway for boy-nerves. “To getting to know each other,” I repeated, and clinked the thermos. He shifted his stool closer to mine so that our thighs were touching. A hand suddenly rested on my thigh. I was never so aware of a hand before. “You look so hot in that sweater,” he said, eyeing my cream-colored turtleneck, which was hardly sexy. “I’d much rather eat you than a brownie,” he whispered, shoving his hand between my legs and grabbing my— “Hey!” I said, jumping up. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? We’re in Starbucks, for God’s sake!” As if grabbing someone’s crotch was appropriate anywhere. The too-white teeth gleamed at me. “I know—isn’t it hot?” What was hot was my coffee, which I wanted to throw in his face. “Have a nice life,” I said, and got the hell out of there. What a pig! Five blocks later, I managed to calm down. I took myself to a different Starbucks, ordered a double espresso and the brownie I hadn’t gotten to enjoy and I gobbled it up. Sigh. I was zero for two at this dating thing. I’d gotten stood up and I’d gotten felt up. But hopefully, up was the key word. Surely dating couldn’t go downhill from here.

The next morning, buoyed by Miranda’s, “Forget that slime! You’re writing a book proposal! And you have a hot date with a really nice-sounding guy tomorrow night,” I took the train to Bay Ridge. The last thing I wanted was to show up in the old neighborhood looking miserable. So I got happy fast. I thought of the book proposal. I thought of the interviews I’d set up with my mother and my cousin Daria, a married mom of twin two-year-olds. All the questions I had about my family’s marriages would now be answered. And I had carte blanche to be as nosy as I wanted. My mother had been thrilled when I told her about the book. “A book about us! We’ll definitely make the Guinness Book of World Records now!” Within a half hour, she’d called everyone she’d ever met to tell them that not only was there going to be a book about the family, but her daughter was writing it. At least I hadn’t had to worry about being pelted with tomatoes

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when I stepped out of the subway station. I might have left Robbie at the altar, but I’d done so to become a famous writer. I was meeting Patty, former maid of honor and one of my oldest friends, for brunch before my interview with my mom. How good it would feel to hang out with Patty. It would be like old times—well, almost like old times. During the past couple of months, we’d barely spoken, except to have awkward small-talk. She couldn’t understand how I could walk away from a great guy like Robbie, walk away from what she thought was a perfect life. And I couldn’t understand how she couldn’t understand. As the train rumbled and shook underground, carrying me back to Brooklyn, I felt so disconnected from Bay Ridge and the people and places who’d made up my life. This was the very train, the number four, albeit going in the opposite direction, that I’d taken to Manhattan the day I’d run away from my wedding. And here I was, going back for the first time since Thanksgiving weekend. The train lurched to a stop, and so did my heart at the familiarity. The signs. The kiosks. The regulars. There was something very soothing about coming home after a long time away, even if I didn’t want to live there. As I walked the four blocks to the coffee lounge where I was meeting Patty, I passed Robbie’s law office. He was very likely working there right now. I glanced up at the windows and thought about stopping in for just a moment, then checked myself fast. What I needed was a hug. And I’d get that from Patty.

“Your mother won’t return any of the wedding presents,” Patty said after the waitress set down our omelets and two more mugs of steaming and much-needed coffee. “She says she knows you’ll come crawling back with your tail between your legs.” “Now that’s faith,” I said. “It’s why you’re here, though, right?” she asked, pushing her long red hair behind her shoulders. “Actually, Patty, I’m here because I’ve been offered the opportunity to write a book about my family, and I’m going to interview my mom and my cousin Daria to include in the proposal I need to turn in.” “I heard. You writing a book. How la-di-da,” she said, sipping her coffee. Patty was a lot like my mother: she liked things to stay the same. “So that’s the only reason you’re here?” “Not you too, Patty. Don’t tell me you’re disappointed I didn’t say I was here to get back together with Robbie.” 149 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“My problem isn’t the reason you’re here, Roxy. It’s that you’re here.” Huh? She stared at me. “Roxy, is it really over between you and Robbie? For good?” “Why, do you want him?” I joked. She looked away and turned red. I sat up in my seat. “Patty?” She poked at her omelet. “I’ve always thought he was so cute. And he’s such a great guy.” Patty and Robbie? I couldn’t see it. Then again, I couldn’t see Robbie with anyone but me. It had been me and him for too long. She pushed her plate away. “Now that you’ll be hanging around interviewing your family, you’ll be back in his face. With you in Manhattan, I thought I had a chance. But now, forget it.” Would Robbie go for Patty? She was the queen of traditional. I stuffed my mouth with a bite of my omelet to give me a reprieve from answering. I had no idea how I felt about this. Is Robbie up for grabs? Of course he was. He had to be. I’d let him go. One no-show and one crotchgrabber and I’m suddenly unwilling to let someone else have Robbie? Is that what’s going on? “Patty, is this some sort of ploy to get me all jealous and running back to him? Are you in cahoots with my mother? With Robbie?” “Wow, you really think the entire world revolves around you,” she snapped. “I told you this because I’m crazy about Robbie and always have been. I repressed it for years, but once it was clear you weren’t coming back, it all came up and out.” I stared at her. “I didn’t know,” I said. “I never knew.” Had I been a Bridezilla like Miranda’s friend Emmalee? My entire life? Without realizing it? How could I not notice a good friend of mine was in love with my boyfriend? With my fiancé? “Well, now you do,” she said. “Don’t look at me like that. Like I’ve been keeping a big secret from you during our entire friendship. You’ve been doing the same thing, keeping it a secret from me and Robbie. You were always waiting to make your great escape.” “Patty, first of all, that’s not true.” “And second of all?” she asked. “I don’t know.” Her eyebrow shot up. “So Robbie’s off-limits?” 150 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“I’m not saying that. I have no rights to him. In fact, I’ve started dating. I placed a personal ad in the New York Natterer.” Be my friend and don’t go after him. How about that? She looked at me as though I sprouted a second nose. “Well, Robbie’s so broken up about you that I doubt I even have a chance, but if I don’t try I’ll never know.” Unfortunately, that was my motto.

“Why are you ringing the bell?” my mother asked when I arrived at her house. “You don’t have to ring the doorbell. Do you think I ring the doorbell when I go visit Grandma and Grandpa?” “I won’t ring the doorbell the next time. Okay?” I peered behind her, afraid that the living room would be stuck in time and that my wedding gown would still be hanging in plastic on the back of the closet door. But the room was as it always was, tidy and smelling faintly of Lysol. “Did you run into Robbie?” she asked as she set down a tray of cut vegetables and dip and two glasses of soda. “Nope.” “Well that’s too bad.” She sat down across from me on the easy chair and folded her hands in her lap. “Let’s start the interview.” I pulled out my mini tape recorder, set it on the table, and pressed Record. She burst into tears. Oh, Lord. Enough was enough. “Mom—” “What are you doing?” she asked, dabbing under her eyes with a tissue. “You’re living in a corner of a room with a folding screen for a door and dating God knows who, and who knows what will happen to you?” “Mom—” She held up a hand. “I don’t know what’s out there, Rox. I don’t know what’s going to happen to you. With Robbie, I know. I won’t have to worry for a second. I know exactly what your life will be. But with you out there, living somewhere else, dating who knows who, falling for this one and that one.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to you.” Ah. I was beginning to understand where she was coming from. She was just scared for me. 151 ♥ela_vanilla♥

I sat down next to her and took her hand in mine. “Mom, first of all, I love how much you care about me. And I know this might not be much help, but I’m glad I don’t know what’s going to happen.” “But you’re not safe, Roxy.” “From what? Getting my heart broken? Getting fired? Getting evicted? Having my husband leave me with two kids? What?” “All of that. With Robbie—” “Mom, who’s to say what would happen ten, twenty years from now if I married Robbie? Who’s to say he wouldn’t cheat? Or that I wouldn’t? Or whatever.” “But even if he did any of those things, you’d still have your marriage. The safety and security of your marriage.” Not this conversation again. “Roxy, things happen,” she continued. “People change. Times change. You have ups and downs in a marriage. And you go on.” Are you saying you know Dad cheated on you and you went on? Is this why there hasn’t been a divorce in generations of Marones? “Do you love Dad?” I asked. Silence. Arms crossed over chest. “Mom. Do you love him?” “I want you to shut off that recorder,” she said. “This isn’t going in the book.” There might not be a book. Not if this was the Marone family secret. A pair of blinders? No expectations? No love? I let out a huffy breath and shut off the tape recorder. “Roxy, I love your father more than anything else in the world, except for you. I love him with all my heart and always have. That’s what sustains a marriage. All I’m saying is that if I had a nickel for every time I didn’t like something he did, or every time our marriage went through a bad patch, I’d be a billionaire.” “I don’t get this. Why do you love him? And please don’t say, because he’s my husband.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Because he’s my husband.” “What does that mean?” 152 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“It means we’ve been through twenty-six years together. Raised a child together. It means he’s been by my side for everything I’ve gone through for twenty-six years. Think about what that’s entailed. The hardships, the ups and downs, the disappointments, the tears. And then all the wonderful stuff. Your father has been by my side for it all. When you called from Manhattan on your wedding day, what do you think I did when you hung up? I collapsed in your father’s arms. That’s what marriage is. It’s being there.” I tried to imagine what the Breakup Club would say to all that. Lucy: She has a point. Miranda: Depressing! Christopher: It’s complicated. Me: It is complicated. Because it makes sense. But there has to be something between the fairy tale—between Beau and Bri—and my parents. There has to be. And that’s what I want. My mother stood and began fluffing the throw pillows. “Go interview your father,” she said. “I’m done for now. He’s upstairs in his den.” Deep sigh. So much for these interviews bringing me back to my family, closer to my family. So far all I felt was farther and farther away. I had enough for the book proposal—my mother hadn’t given me much, but I could add a lot of backstory and history—yet for the book, I’d have to interview my mother in stages, take baby steps to get her to open up. And my father? All I’d get out of him was, “Rox, your mother is a fine woman.” I trudged up the steps and tapped on the door of my dad’s den. He was sitting in his easy chair recliner, his feet up, a remote control in one hand and the Daily News in the other. “Dad? Is now a good time to interview you for my book proposal?” His nose was in the paper. “What are you going to ask?” I came in and sat down on the ottoman across from him. “Can you turn off the TV?” “I’d rather leave it on,” he said. “I’ll lower it.” Gee, thanks. “Dad, how would you describe your marriage to Mom?” “It’s fine,” he said, his gaze moving from the television to the Daily News. I waited for him to continue. He didn’t. “Can you expand on that, please?” “What you want me to say?” he asked, glancing at me for exactly one second. “I want to know why your marriage is fine.” 153 ♥ela_vanilla♥

He barely glanced up. “Why? Because it’s not bad. That’s why.” Okay, Dad. I’ll quote you on that. I stood up. “When I wake up in the morning and hear your mother puttering around downstairs,” he said, his eyes on the television, “I feel good. I get up, I take a shower, I read the paper, I eat breakfast. I watch some TV. I go to work. I come home, knowing she’ll be here. That makes me feel good.” I clicked off the recorder, smiled and knelt beside his chair and kissed his cheek. It was something, at least. “The game’s coming on,” he said, nodding at the TV. “Ask you mother to bring me up a glass of orange juice, will you?” “Sure, Dad. Thanks.” As I closed the door on my way out, I realized that he hadn’t changed. This was who he’d always been. He was the man my mother married, the man my mother loved. And my mother, puttering around the kitchen, was the woman he loved. It worked. It might not work for me, but it worked for them. And that was all that mattered.

My cousin Daria canceled the interview. She and her husband had gotten into such a whopper of a fight that they weren’t speaking at the moment. “That stupid fucking asshole!” she screamed into my cell phone. “If he thinks I’m going to change both twins’ poo diapers, he has another think coming! Maybe I’ll just empty the contents of the diapers onto his precious Barcalounger!” I held the phone at a slight distance from my ear. “Daria, can I ask you a really personal question for the proposal?” “I guess.” “Do you ever think about divorce? Or worry about divorce?” “Of course not,” she said. “I love the asshole.” I could hear a baby crying. Then another. “There they go. I’d better go see what’s going on with the munchkins. Love ya! I’ll reschedule, okay, hon?” On my way back to the subway, I passed by Robbie’s office, and again I stared up at the windows. I tried to imagine him and Patty kissing. Him and Patty in bed. But all I saw was Robbie and me kissing. Robbie and me in bed.

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When I got home, I forced myself to check my voice mail for my personal ad. Proactive, I reminded myself. I had four new messages. Three who sounded perfectly nice—and one who sounded very, very familiar. “Hi, Roxy. My name is Rob Roberts. I’m twenty-five and live in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where I grew up. I’m crazy about Brooklyn, but I’m also crazy about my ex-girlfriend, this amazing, intelligent, questioning, beautiful woman named Roxy Marone. We were all set to get married, but she left me at the altar because she felt suffocated by our lifestyle. Well, two months have gone by, two Roxy-less months, and if she’s willing, I’d like to take her on a date, in Manhattan, and introduce her to the new guy I’m willing to be. Trying to be. Can be. As you know, Roxy, I’ve always liked sophisticated writers. Clearly.” I clutched the receiver to my heart. And then I took a deep breath and called him back. “Patty mentioned the ad?” I asked. “Yup. She wasn’t tattling on you—she was just trying to be a good friend and let me know gently that you’re moving on. She’s been really amazing these past two months. Take today. She came by the office at lunchtime with an entire home-cooked meal in a basket. The works—salad, baked ziti, bread, and an amazing cannoli.” Did you sleep with her? “So, are you willing to go on a date with me?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “I—” Miss you. A little too much. And I don’t want to come running back because I’m scared of what’s out there. Because I’ve seen a bit of what’s out there and it stinks. Or because Patty is going after you full throttle. This is Rob Roberts… That made me smile. Maybe one date. One date in Manhattan, on my new turf. “Okay, Rob Roberts. You sound like a nice guy. I’m looking forward to meeting you. How about next Friday night?” That would give me an entire week to mentally prepare. “Perfect,” he said. “I’m looking forward to meeting you, too.”

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Please, please, please don’t be a jerk, I prayed to the Fates of the universe Sunday night before my date with Nathanial. We were meeting in a small supper-club-type restaurant on the Upper East Side. Live jazz and fondue and wine. I’d never listened to jazz before. I’d never had fondue before. And I knew nothing about wine, except that I’d had too much of the red variety at the holiday Christmas party last month. Nathanial sounded just like the real opposite of Robbie. Which was exactly what I needed. When I arrived at the restaurant, Nathanial was already there, waiting at the bar. Score one for you, Nathanial. An actual punctual guy! He was tall, dark haired and very cute, even cuter than Didier! He was also very built, I couldn’t help but notice. We smiled, shook hands, and were led to an intimate table by the window. We ordered a glass of wine each and the fondue, and we made small talk about everything from personal ads to midtown (where we were at the moment) to movies. We avoided the big no-nos: politics, mothers, sex, exes. Granted, there were no excited “me too’s!” But there was conversation. He said something, then I said something, on the same topic. And then one of us would change the subject to food or the last trip we took. (He told me all about scuba diving in the Bahamas, and I tried to tell him about the book I was writing, but the words family and marriage in the same sentence made his eyes glaze over and I changed the subject to Top Five Favorite Movies.) He leaned over. “I like you.” I leaned over. “I like you too.” And then he kissed me. A soft, sweet kiss that fell completely flat. No. No, please. This guy is wonderful. He’s from a farm in Pennsylvania! He’s lives in Manhattan! He’s smart, funny, nice, thoughtful, interesting. He mentioned that his sister recently got married, and when I asked if she kept her own name, he said, “Of course. Don’t most women?” And he’s not Robbie. So, please, if you’re listening. Let me feel something. I leaned over and kissed him. He smelled delicious. Like Aramis, which Robbie had worn since he was fifteen and which I loved. Stop thinking about Robbie! I ordered myself. Concentrate on Nathanial. Untraditional, Manhattany Nathanial. “One more kiss,” I whispered. He smiled and leaned toward me, his sexy blue eyes twinkling, smoldering. The minute his lips touched mine, I wondered what kinds of cheeses went into the four-cheese fondue. Grrr. 156 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Two days later, upon hearing that Robbie and Patty were “spending an awful lot of time together” (my mother’s information), I went out with Nathanial a second time because he asked so nicely and because he was so hot and because the last second date I had was in first grade, when Robbie patted the bench next to him in the cafeteria, opened his Scooby Doo lunch box and gave me his entire snack pack of Oreos. You are so good-looking, so smart, so nice to waiters and movie ticket takers! So why isn’t the earth moving? Even just a little? That night, as I lay in bed tossing and turning and trying to fantasize about Nathanial, Robbie called to confirm our date on Friday (“Hi, it’s Rob”) and mentioned that Patty had invited him to my cousin Jackie’s wedding in a couple of weeks. According to Robbie, Patty had recently broken up with a guy she’d been dating and wanted a date to the wedding, someone she could feel very comfortable with. Someone who’d make sure her every dance was spoken for, especially because she’d already bought “a hot dress and killer heels.” Interesting, I thought, gritting my teeth. I would be at that wedding. Jackie was my cousin! “So where are we going for our date?” I asked Robbie, who I still couldn’t think of as Rob, even if he finally was. Crazy. “Have you been to Thai Alert? It’s the hottest new restaurant in Soho. I thought we’d start there and then go see a new off-Broadway play that got rave reviews in the New Yorker. And afterward we can discuss the merits of the play at Xando.” Thai food? Soho? The New Yorker? Since when did Robbie “Baked Ziti and Poker” Roberts read the New Yorker? Or know from off-Broadway plays? Or Xando, a super-trendy bar downtown where celebrities were always spotted. “Pick you up at six?” he said. “The curtain’s at eight.” I was too surprised—by everything, including my jealousy—to speak. I mumbled an okay and got off the phone fast. Then I called Nathanial to thank him for a lovely evening. And said yes to a third date. Chapter thirteen Lucy The one thing I couldn’t get used to was that the entire king-size Sealy Posturpedic was mine. There was no more left side and right side. There was just the middle, which I tried to sleep on and couldn’t. Every night I scooted back over to the right side of the bed. But at least I got rid of Larry’s three pillows, too-firm squares that smelled like Head & Shoulders. I’d actually gotten 157 ♥ela_vanilla♥

rid of them one by one. That first night, New Year’s Eve, I’d thrown them all across the room, then ran sobbing to pick them up and put them back, one perfectly on top of the other the way Larry liked them. The next night I did the same thing. The night after, when Larry bungled his talk with Amelia and left me to do his dirty work, I took one of the pillows, brought it out into the garbage chute in the hallway and dumped it on top of the collection of greasy pizza boxes and recycling. A week later, one pillow was left, its Head & Shoulders scent just as strong. When Amelia had returned from their first Saturday visit and reported that her father changed the subject to her classes every time she asked him a real question, like Are you ever coming home? I dumped the last pillow. I was getting used to the little things. Setting two plates for dinner and Sunday breakfast instead of three. Making all the spicy enchiladas and burritos I wanted because Amelia and I loved Mexican and Larry didn’t. Leaving my cosmetics spread out on the countertop in the bathroom. Not shaking my head at the contents of Larry’s electric shaver, which he always dumped into the sink and never rinsed—now the sink was always shiny and clean. Answering nosy neighbors’ questions (“Lucy, I just realized I haven’t seen Larry in ages. Is everything all right?”), with “Everything is just fine, thank you.” Living without Larry for the first time in twelve years. “It’s a phase,” my aunt Dinah told me a few days ago. “Your uncle Saul left me a few times over the years. Packed his suitcase and went to a motel and he always came back. Trust me, Larry will be back.” What was this, a family thing? “He left and went to a motel? And that was fine with you?” “He always came back,” my aunt said. “That’s what matters.” Did I even want Larry back? After what he did to me in Ellabet’s? After what he said? How could I go from listening to I don’t love you, Lucy to welcoming him back into my home, my life, my bed? I didn’t ask that out loud. My relatives and his were calling and stopping over every day to console me and Amelia. I had more Tupperware containers of casseroles and frozen chicken parts in my freezer than I could ever eat in a lifetime. With every goodbye and kiss on the cheek came the expression of the same sentiment: “He’ll come to his senses, Lucy. It’s only been a month. Don’t you worry.” According to my mother-in-law, Larry was renting a studio apartment on the Upper West Side. “It’s a box!” she told me on the phone last week. “He can’t possibly be happy there. When he wasn’t looking, I put a photo of you and Amelia on the kitchen window. You should see that kitchen—you can’t even turn around in it!”

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Amelia refused to go near his apartment. She wouldn’t acknowledge that her father lived somewhere else. And so Larry met Amelia in the lobby of our building every Saturday afternoon and they went to the movies, where they didn’t talk for two hours. “Is he having an affair?” all the relatives wanted to know. Larry wasn’t talking. No one knew. “Why else would he have left?” my father-in-law asked once. “Why else would a man leave a nice home? Of course he’s having an affair!” “Oh, what do you know!” my mother-in-law snapped at him. A lot, probably. More than probably. I was ninety-nine-percent sure Larry’s father was right. So what was my status? Was I single? Or married? What were the stages of separated? Was I going through a divorce? Despite Larry’s New Year’s Eve announcement (I had received no divorce papers or telephone calls from divorce lawyers, and the relatives’ consensus seemed to be that Larry was suffering from temporary insanity), I had no idea what the answer to that question was. I took many long walks on weekends and during my lunch hour to try to think, to figure out how I felt, what I wanted. Today’s lunch-hour walk took me to Beau and Bri’s neighborhood, Greenwich Village. They lived in a billion-dollar brownstone on Perry Street, which I was having trouble finding. Roxy had gone on a field trip to the neighborhood last week and had taken some great shots of the brownstone, but I needed to see it firsthand to describe it vividly for the book. I also wouldn’t mind a glimpse of Beau and Bri, something to help burst the bubble of perfection. I wanted to see Bri without makeup, looking haggard—as if she could. I wanted to see Beau waiting to cross the busy street like a regular person. But first I had to find Perry Street. Ah—a man was walking toward me. I’d catch his eye and ask. But I didn’t—couldn’t—catch his eye. Despite the fact that I was staring at him to make him look at me, he didn’t even notice me. Neither did the next man. Or the next man. I stopped and glanced at my reflection in a bakery store window. No wonder she can’t get a date. She looks like a frumpy old sow… Look at you! If you looked like Samantha Perlmutter’s mother… “Excuse me,” I said to the man waiting at the corner. “Can you tell me where Perry Street is?” Notice me. Admire my lovely blue eyes. Stare at my tits. Do something to show me I’m an attractive woman. Objectively speaking. “I dunno,” he said, and walked away. Frumpy old sow…no wonder she can’t get a date…. 159 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Lucy? Are you okay?” I glanced up to find Wanda Belle staring at me. “I’m fine,” I said, sniffling. Just fine. I’m a frumpy old sow, but I’m fine. Really. “You left these in the kitchenette,” she whispered, dropping off the edited first chapter of Beau and Bri: The Courtship of the Century onto my desk. “They’re the originals.” “Thanks,” I said, surprised. Just a couple of months ago, Wanda would have relished this kind of opportunity. She would have waited to return the pages to me when she was sure Futterman would hear so that he’d know how inept I was for the promotion to executive editor. She leaves original edited manuscripts in the kitchenette! Where spilled coffee and globs of jelly from doughnuts could obliterate original pages! Wanda and I had been competitors at Bold Books for years. I’d begrudged her ability to work late every day and all weekend since she was single and childless; she begrudged me my need to leave early because Amelia was sick or had a recital. But there was no more campaigning to do. Christopher had gotten the promotion. Wanda and I were equals. And she was offering a handshake. As she turned to go, I took in her hair, her clothes, her shoes, her makeup, her jewelry. How did she pull this off every day? Even when I was single, I didn’t look like this. Granted, no one was too gussied up, but some women managed to look sophisticated even in a college sweatshirt. “Wanda, do you have plans tonight?” She eyed me. “Why?” “I was just wondering if you dress up so beautifully every day because you have plans every night or if you just like to dress up.” She seemed surprised by the compliment. “I don’t even think of myself as dressed up. This is just how I dress. My only plans tonight are to go grocery shopping.” I tried to imagine Wanda Belle pushing a grocery cart in the Food Emporium, struggling to open those thin plastic bags in the produce aisle, spending too much time in the cleaning supply aisle, debating whether to buy a Swiffer. “I need an overhaul,” I said quite honestly. “Head to toe. And I don’t know the first thing about achieving a look like yours.” “I do,” she said. “It’s called Bloomingdale’s. We can accomplish everything there—clothes, shoes, hair, makeup, jewelry, and accessories.” 160 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“How much time do you think that would take,” I asked. “A couple of hours?” She laughed. “Try doubling that. It’ll require an entire weekend day.” And just like that, Wanda Belle and I had weekend plans.

On Saturday, Wanda and I met at the Lancôme counter in Bloomingdale’s. I wore my usual weekend ensemble of baggy jeans and “mom” sweater. Wanda looked as though she’d stepped out of Vogue. In moments I was seated on a plush chair, my hair pulled back with a headband as a beauty consultant examined me from the neck up. She slathered my face with delicious-scented creams and potions and lotions, then applied tubes and pots of what seemed to be foundation but were, I was to learn, primers, concealers, base, powder. There was also eyeshadow, eyeliner, lip liner, lipstick, blush. “Are you ready for the new you?” Wanda asked, twisting the counter mirror so that I could see. Wow. I looked…pretty! Very pretty. Sophisticated. I looked like I was going to a wedding or on a romantic date. I looked the way Wanda Belle looked every day. “Now we’re going to take this off,” the consultant said. “And you’re going to do it yourself.” A half hour later, I’d come close. I’d learned how to sweep sand-colored shadow across my eyes to bring out their blue color. How to line the lower rim of my lashes to make my eyes pop. I knew where the apples of my cheeks were. How to use gloss to make my lips look bigger. I learned how to be a girlie-girl. And all for the price of two shopping bags of every cosmetic, cream and brush I’d used. Almost three hundred dollars! “You’re worth it,” Wanda said. “Just remember that. And you’ve worked damned hard for the money.” I glanced at myself in the mirror. I looked like a different woman. No frumpy old sow in that mirror. “Now for the clothes,” Wanda said, her hazel eyes sparkling. After watching me gravitate to and grab the drab, tried-and-true baggy, boring clothes I always wore, Wanda took everything off my arm, dumped it on a salesclerk, and then deposited me in front of a full-length mirror. She held up colors, styles, jackets, skirts, pants, dresses—and either shook her head or nodded, making yes or no piles. In the fitting room, I tried on so many articles of clothing from her yes pile that I couldn’t lift my arms or legs after a while. She stood outside my room, had me twirl in front of the three-way mirror, and studied me from head to toe. 161 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“No. Wrong color!” “Boat necks are for sailors!” “No pleats!” “A-line only!” Five times she disappeared and reappeared, her arms draped with more clothes. Finally she announced we were done. I was the proud owner of two of everything. Two new suits—creative corporate, Wanda had called them—two fun skirts, two pairs of pants, two sweaters, two blouses, and three dresses—two for work and one for evening. Wanda thought I should hold off on buying a more complete wardrobe until I lost the fifteen pounds I wanted to shed and until I developed my own personal style, which seemed to be tailored clothes with pretty, feminine touches. We then hit the footwear department, where I tried on gorgeous shoes that actually were comfortable. I bought a pair of black pumps with crocodile toes and buckles and some highheeled Italian leather boots. Then we headed to the belt-and-hosiery department, where I bought my first pair of fishnets. I spent way too much money and we weren’t even finished yet. There was still the matter of my hair. When I left the salon and looked at myself in the mirror, I didn’t recognize the woman looking back at me. Sophisticated, glamorous, pulled together. My hair was just an inch shorter—and chin length—but swingy and bouncy, and the new chestnut-brown color shimmered with its new highlights and lowlights. I had youthful bangs that suited me. “If you want him back, this will do it,” she whispered. I looked at her. “Office gossip?” She nodded. “I’ll tell you something, though, Lucy. I look like this twenty-four/seven and it’s never kept any of my boyfriends from leaving. You don’t see me going home to my gorgeous husband, do you?” “Then what’s the point?” I asked. “Why not be comfortable like I was before? Why go through all this trouble and expense?” “Because looking great really does help perk you up. And when you’re confident about how you look, you feel more powerful.” She freshened her lipstick. “Then again, I didn’t get the promotion to executive editor, did I? I’m not living with my true love, am I? So who the hell knows?”

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“I guess all we can do is try,” I said. “We try until we figure out what works for us. This look works for you. I have no idea if it’ll work for me. I love it—I love how I look. But I can’t imagine keeping up with it. A half hour for makeup? Another half hour for my hair? Another half hour trying to figure out what tops go with what skirts and pants?” She smiled. “You’ll do fine. Even if it’s just a happy medium.” “A happy medium,” I repeated. “That’s actually it. That’s the answer. A happy medium is what we’re supposed to want, but for some reason it’s never enough. I love my job as is, but I wanted that promotion for the recognition.” “Me too,” Wanda said. “It just figures that Christopher’s the only one who wasn’t actively campaigning for it.” “You know what, let’s forget the subject of work. How about dinner? My treat. As a huge thankyou.” She beamed and off we went. But when we sat down in the little French restaurant, I realized that if my new look didn’t wow Larry, then this wasn’t just a midlife crisis. He wasn’t just bored. He didn’t just need some me-time. He didn’t love me anymore, and a hot-shit Lucy wasn’t going to make a bit of difference.

Appreciative glances galore. Life was different when you looked like Wanda Belle. When an attractive man in his thirties smiled at me while we were waiting to cross the street, I wanted to yell, It’s makeup! Three hundred dollars’ worth of makeup. You get the same person underneath! When I arrived home, Amelia was sitting on one of the couches in the lobby of our apartment building, her nose buried in the new Harry Potter novel. She must have forgotten her keys. “Hi,” I said. She glanced up and smiled then continued reading. “No comment?” I asked. The book must have been really, really good. She glanced up again and then her eyes popped open. “Mom?” I nodded. My own daughter hadn’t recognized me! She stood up and stared at me. “Mom?” she asked again, her mouth open. I laughed. “Pretty hot, huh?” 163 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“You look amazing!” she said. “Wait till Daddy sees you! He’ll definitely come home.” “Amelia, we can’t count on that.” But I was counting on that. Right or wrong, I wanted Larry Masterson to take one look at me and tell me he was a fool, a bad-carb-withdrawal-suffering fool. I wanted him to love me again.

I found out the next morning that Amelia had called her father the minute we’d gotten upstairs and invited him over for dinner for a “big surprise.” He’d declined. She’d invited him for breakfast the next morning. He’d declined. He was supposedly otherwise engaged for the next month. Finally Amelia realized that all she’d had to do to get her father and mother together in the same room was to ask her father to pick her up at the apartment for their weekly visit on Saturday. He’d declined. Amelia had hung up on him. While Amelia sulked in her room, I sat on the couch and stared at my reflection in the big-screen TV. All I could see was my silhouette. Tears pricked the backs of my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. I’d been trying to teach Amelia that what we looked like on the outside didn’t change who we were on the inside, and yet here I was, hoping and praying that my husband, who had up and left me, would take one look at his hotsy new wife and come home. As if lipstick would make him love me again. Maybe it will. Maybe how I look on the outside will change how I feel on the inside. And since I feel like crap, it’s entirely possible! But if that were the case, wouldn’t I feel like a million bucks? The phone rang and I took a deep breath. Perhaps it was Larry with an apology for Amelia. Actually, it was Larry with a bombshell. “I’d really like Amelia to meet and get to know the new woman in my life,” he said as though he were telling me what the weather was like. “I think it would help if you were there to facilitate.” I closed my eyes and let myself cry, let the expensive mascara I’d painstakingly applied this morning run down my cheeks. “I think it’s best if we meet in a restaurant,” he said, oblivious, as usual, “just in case Amelia gets upset. At twelve, adolescents hate making scenes, they hate people staring at them, so she’ll be less likely to start a big ruckus. She may even like Sally.” Sally. My husband had a girlfriend and her name was Sally.

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What was I supposed to do now? I was an intelligent woman with a brain and twelve years of experience at motherhood. And yet I had no idea what to do. Did I agree to the dinner? Did I go? I called Miranda. “What a dipshit Larry is!” she yelled in my ear. “I mean that with all due respect,” she added. “It’s okay,” I said. “So what do I do?” “Well, on one hand, it may be important for Amelia to begin to accept that her dad left. And that he’s dating another woman. So, maybe the dinner is a good idea. And it probably would make her feel better if you’re there. Emotional support.” “A lot of emotional support I’ll be,” I said. “I’m meeting the woman my husband left me for.” “But maybe it’ll be good for you too, Lucy,” she said. “You haven’t seen Larry since what— January second? Maybe seeing him will help you figure out how you feel.” “And if I realize that I really do want him to come home?” I said. “What then? It’ll be just peachy to come to that realization when I’m sitting across from the woman he’s sleeping with.” “Lucy, I think that whatever happens, finding out how you really feel is never the wrong way to go.” “How did you get to be so smart?” I asked. “Someone else’s problems are always easier to manage,” she said. “Call me if you need me.” I was sure I’d be calling back in five minutes, after I told Amelia about the dinner. I’d gauge her reaction, then decide what to do. “Finally!” Amelia said, all smiles, when I told her about our potential Friday evening plans. “You’ll finally be in the same room together at the same time. He’ll take one look at you and the girlfriend will be history! He’ll come home.” My daughter had blinders on. “Amelia, he has a girlfriend. That’s the key word here.” My husband has a girlfriend. A girlfriend named Sally. She rolled her eyes. “Have a little faith, Mom.”

On Friday night, Amelia dressed up in her father’s favorite outfit, a dress she’d always dismissed as “dorky.” She pulled her hair back from her face with a headband, something else her father liked. As we walked out the door of our apartment, our Larry-less apartment, I felt like an imposter. Who was this stranger in the high-heeled boots with three different shades of 165 ♥ela_vanilla♥

eyeshadow on her lids? Who was this sweet kid next to me looking like Chelsea Clinton in the late nineties with her headband and bows? “You look so great, Mom,” Amelia said as we entered the restaurant, a low-lit new American on the Upper West Side. “Everything’s going to be okay. I know it!” I squeezed her hand. “Amelia, he may be in love with Sally. You need to be prepared for that. You and I might look different, but that doesn’t mean we’re not the same people we were a week ago. Okay?” “I know, I know,” she said dismissively, her eyes gleaming with excitement. “Ready?” “Ready.” I took a deep breath and peered past the hostess’s station. I spotted Larry and Sally immediately. They sat next to each other, holding hands on the table. Sally was very attractive, tall and thin, her neck laden with interesting jewelry. It was so strange to see Larry so intimate with another woman. She wasn’t a patient or a friend’s wife. This was his girlfriend. As the hostess led us over to the table for four, Larry stood. “Hello! Amelia, it’s so good to see you. Hi, Lucy. Sally, I’d like to introduce you to my lovely daughter, Amelia, and this is her mother, Lucy.” Her mother, Lucy… “Sally’s an interior decorator,” Larry said. “That means she decorates houses,” he added to Amelia. “She’s even in the running for her own home-decorating show on a cable network. Isn’t that amazing? She’ll be the new Martha Stewart!” I suddenly felt as though I’d been kicked in the stomach. It all made sense now. The obsession with using “tacky” paper plates for Thanksgiving. The plastic cups. The big deal about cloth napkins. Interior decorating was actually about exteriors. Like my crumbling looks and bad place settings. It had never been bad-carb withdrawal. It had simply been Lucy withdrawal. Our life withdrawal. He didn’t love me anymore. And it didn’t hurt anymore. Not the way it had. Larry was an empty shell, decorated by a twenty-pound weight loss and some sharper clothes. Amelia was looking from Sally to me, from me to Sally. “You two could be twins,” she said. She was beaming at her father. “We do have similar hair,” Sally said with a tight smile. Amelia ignored Sally. “Dad, don’t you notice anything different about Mom?” 166 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Larry looked at me. “She’s wearing makeup, right?” Amelia frowned. “I mean, doesn’t she look amazing?” “You know what looks amazing?” Larry trilled. “Everything on this menu! I don’t know what to choose. Amelia, what are you thinking of ordering?” She stared at him, clearly confused. Clearly hurt. She glanced at her menu for exactly one second. “Dad, Mom looks just like her now. So can’t you just come home?” Larry, the girlfriend and I turned beet-red. “Amelia, honey,” Larry said, but stopped there. “Where’s the waiter?” he asked—loudly. “I’m starving! I called ahead, and they’ll serve anything on the menu to your specifications. No sauce, no problem.” I stared at him for a moment, then at the girlfriend, then I turned to Amelia. “Sweetheart, why don’t I try to answer your questions at home.” Her eyes filled with tears and she ran to the door. Larry looked perplexed. The girlfriend feigned concern and touched his arm. “She’s only twelve,” she said. “She’ll come around.” “That’s right, Larry,” I said as I stood up and fished in my purse for the coat-check tickets. “She’s only twelve. So whether you like it or not you’re going to have put some effort into getting her through this.” I turned to leave. “Oh, and by the way, we won’t be staying for dinner.” He seemed about to respond, but a waiter was passing by, and Larry flagged him down. “I can get the salmon without the butter sauce, right?” Larry asked. I rolled my eyes. “He’s all yours,” I said to Sally with a smile. Chapter fourteen Miranda Instead of sipping wine in low-lit cafés with interesting new men, I was having odd telephone conversations with the weirdos who responded to my personal ad. “Hullo?” “Hi, this is Miranda! You responded to my ad in the New York Natterer.” 167 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Um, yeah, which one were you?” Which one? How many had he responded to? “I was the blonde in publishing,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Um, let me look it up in the paper.” I heard rustling. “The lawyer?” “No.” “The bombshell? “Um, yeah.” Why had I let Roxy write that? “Oh great! Hi! I’m so glad you called me back. Do you want to know what I’m doing right now?” Talking on the telephone to a stranger? “Sure,” I said. “I’m lying naked on my bed, fantasizing about your measurements. Thirty-six, twenty-six, thirtysix?” “Way off,” I said. “Thirty, forty, forty-two.” Silence. “Wait. That’s not bombshell. That’s fat—and flat chested!” “Buh-bye!” Next up in my Respondees to Call Back notebook was Paul. After the “Hi, this is so weird, where are you from,” came, “So you mentioned in your greeting that you’re in publishing. I just got a rejection letter from the New Yorker on my short story. Can I read it to you?” “The story or the rejection letter?” “Both,” he said. “Um, can I call you back?” “Are you trying to get rid of me?” he asked. “No, I—” “Look,” he snapped, “I don’t have time to waste, okay?” Click.

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The next two calls were equally awful. There was Steve, who worked in television as an editor of documentaries. He answered every question with either a yes or no. Then there was Phillip, an attorney, who barked questions at me as though he were cross-examining me. And then there was Seth, who sounded remarkably like my former roommate in the message he left on my voice mail. I dialed his number. “Hello?” he said. “Seth?” “Miranda?” I rolled my eyes. “Do you know why I’m calling you? Because you responded to my personal ad in the New York Natterer. Didn’t you recognize my voice in my greeting?” “Ooh, busted! Nope, I didn’t. Tell you the truth, I don’t really listen too closely to greetings. I’m more focused on what I’m going to say so the woman will call me back.” Unbelievable. “But aren’t you living with your girlfriend? Don’t tell me she broke up with you again?” “No, things are going really great,” he said. “I just thought I should date a little for backup. She’s totally high-strung. She could kick me out at any time. It’s so much easier to date when you don’t need a girlfriend, you know.” No, I really didn’t know.

I was giving this dating thing one more shot. And then I was retiring. Today’s guy was Jonathan. We made it past the phone call, mostly because I kept it very short and sweet. We were meeting for coffee at a Starbucks near the Pottery Barn where I was meeting Lucy and Amelia later to buy Grannie Ellie a birthday present. I was to look for the tall guy with blond hair. He’d be carrying a copy of The Fountainhead, a book he should have gotten over in college. I spotted him immediately and headed over. The minute he saw me, he looked like he was going to cry. “You got your coat in Banana Republic, right?” he asked, eyeing my snazzy pale yellow coat that Lucy had bought me for my birthday. “Leigh had that exact one.” Tears came to his eyes. “Oh God. Why am I talking about my ex-girlfriend on a date with a brand-new person who probably thinks I’m a big loser now.” 169 ♥ela_vanilla♥

I smiled. “Au contraire,” I said, and sat down. “Tell me all about it.”

Poor Jonathan really had it bad. He’d cried so much during the past month that he’d gotten fired from his job, since he was a customer-service manager. At least I was never that bad. I might have cried at work, but always in a bathroom stall! I was fine. I would be fine. My personal ad experience had been a huge bust, but I was fine. I would persevere. I would keep my chin up, per Brianna. I would work on Tip Number Four for Getting Over Him and Getting on with Your Life: Volunteer for a cause you believe in. I was skipping over Tip Number Three, since I didn’t want to do it. Get rid of those photographs and letters. You can keep two photographs for your album—but the shrine of memories—the mementos and cards and matchbooks from restaurants you ate in together—has got to go! It wasn’t like my memory box was sitting on my bedside table. I wasn’t staring at Gabriel’s picture on a nightly basis anymore. But I did know that all things Gabriel were in a box under my bed. I didn’t want to throw away any of it. My cell phone rang on the way to meet Lucy and Amelia. Lucy had assured me she’d be all right —and in fact, she was keeping half her new look, finding a happy medium that suited her. But Amelia was down in the dumps. She understood why her dad wasn’t coming home, but she was angry. Better to be dealing than in denial. It was Emmalee on the phone. Which was what voice mail was for. “Hi, Miranda! I wanted you to know that I’m inviting you to my wedding with a date now. That seems only fair, even though you’re not serious with anyone, and it’s serious-only. I’m making an exception in your case. Let me know no later than next Monday if you’re bringing someone. Bye, hon!” I was beginning to truly hate Emmalee.

I looked all over Pottery Barn for Lucy and Amelia, but they must not be here yet or I kept missing them. I found the perfect present for Grannie Ellie in every aisle. Grannie was easy to please. I was almost settled on a gorgeous six-foot-high mini grandfather clock when I heard that voice. “Ooh, Gabriel, this is the one!” Yes. It was that voice. That voice that had sneered into my answering machine. I panicked and backed up until I found myself between two huge hanging rugs. Kilims.

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“Whatever you like is fine with me,” I heard Gabriel say. “Gabriel, c’mon,” his fiancée said. “You promised to get into the registry. Which one do you like?” “Sweetheart, I love you. If you love this one or that one, that’s all I need to know. China doesn’t matter to me, you do.” And they started making out, slobbering all over each other in front of a bunch of forks. When I was sure they weren’t coming up for air, I ran.

Tip Number Three: Dump those pictures and letters and mementos. There is no reason on earth why you should hold on to them. And if you think there is, just imagine how you’d feel if you found a pile of photographs and letters from your new boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend… He was getting married. He was registering for china. For silverware. I reached under my bed for my Gabriel box. Everything that had anything to do with our relationship was in that box. Pictures. Postcards (only one, actually, when he went to London with friends). The matches from restaurants we’d been to. Mementos from every stupid thing we ever did. I took out my favorite picture, one of Gabriel close up, all dimples. I thought of Chapter Seven of Beau and Bri’s book, where Lucy listed Bri’s Surefire Tips. Sometimes we’re holding on to the safety of the relationship, of what we wished the relationship could have been. Sometimes, if we really looked into our own hearts, we’d see we weren’t so madly in love either…. If you’re spending so much time loving someone you can’t have, you’re not loving yourself—the key to happiness. Self-help was so annoying. I didn’t even know how I felt anymore. I just felt numb. Did I really have to throw away everything? Wasn’t that extreme? These were my memories. Wasn’t I entitled to them? Sure, Miss Havisham. Hang on to those memories forever. I put on my coat, grabbed my memory box and headed downstairs to the garbage cans in front of my building. There are three kinds of apartment buildings in Manhattan. Little tenement dumps like mine, brownstones or nice buildings with or without doormen. Dumps like mine kept their garbage cans right in front of the building. I lifted up the lid. Ew. Smelly. In you go, box of memories. 171 ♥ela_vanilla♥

I dumped the box upside down. Pictures, matches, mementos in the garbage. That was what my relationship with Gabriel had come to. A year of loving him, six more months of waiting for him, and my memories were worth nothing but the garbage can on the street? Noooooo! I thought, lunging for my favorite picture. Hadn’t Bri said I could keep two photos for my album? But the garbage can was full of crap. White plastic bags and loose trash. Instead of finding my favorite picture of Gabriel, I had a half-eaten slice of pizza in my hand. “Are you hungry?” asked a guy who was passing by. “Uh, you can have a slice of my pizza. It’s half pepperoni.” I glanced at the box he held out to me and was either so taken by his generosity or so embarrassed that I burst into tears. “My boyfriend broke up with me,” I said, sobbing. “I threw out our pictures and mementos of our relationship and now I’m trying to find them again.” “Well, they’re probably covered with all sorts of gross crap,” he said. I nodded and realized I was still holding a half-eaten slice of someone else’s gross pizza. I chucked it with a shudder. “Probably.” “Do you want to go get a drink or something?” he asked. “We could go to Mo’s right on the corner and have Hurricanes.” “Are you asking me on a date?” I asked. “I’m bawling my eyes out over my boyfriend.” “Ex-boyfriend,” he pointed out. “Anyway, I’m not a pyscho killer or anything. I live in the building next door. I see you practically every day. We leave at the same time for work in the morning.” “Oh,” I said. “Well in that case, if you’re really okay with sharing your pizza, I could go for a slice. Two. Maybe three. And that drink.”

His name was Jason and he lived with his boyfriend, also named Jason. On the way to the bar, we scarfed his pizza, and then over Hurricanes he told me how he threw away all his mementos from a relationship with an ex into the East River, then actually dived in after them. He almost drowned for a jerk. It wised him up fast. “Yours are better left where they are,” he said. “But what if he mysteriously ends his engagement because he suddenly realizes he’s supposed to marry me?” I asked. 172 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Then you’ll make new memories,” he said. “You’re not going to want memories of the time before he broke your heart in a million pieces. It’s about the new. Not the old.” Jason was right. “Sounds to me like you’re hanging on out of fear of what’s out there,” he said. “Not because you really still love this guy.” I shrugged. “I really don’t know anymore. I am trying, though. I put a personal ad in the New York Natterer. I’m following Bri Love’s advice for getting over your ex. I’m up to volunteering for a cause I love. I don’t even know what that is.” “Why don’t you try tutoring?” he said, taking a bite of his slice. “If you’re in editorial, you must be great at English, and if your twelve-year-old niece is your favorite person, you clearly like teens. You can mix the two. I’m a high-school teacher—history—and my school is always looking for volunteer tutors. Especially with Regents prep.” “Tutoring in high school?” I repeated. “Huh. That sounds fun.” “If you want, I’ll arrange a meeting for you with the assistant principal.” Tutoring. Huh. Why hadn’t I thought of that? “That would be great.”

High school looked exactly the same as when I left it, except there was a guard posted at the main entrance and I had to show ID and sign in. There were the same endless hallways painted beige. Rusty-looking lockers. Wooden bathroom doors. Jason arranged for me to meet one of the English teachers who tutored on the weekends. Anna introduced me to a ninth-grader named Candace who needed help with reading comprehension for the Regents exams, which you had to pass to graduate with a Regents degree. We headed into the library and sat down at the end of a long study table. Candace was adorable. She carried a backpack that was bigger than she was, stuffed with notebooks and textbooks. She pulled out a study guide. “I’ve read this stupid thing like four times and I still get the first answer wrong.” I read the paragraph, about migrating birds. Then read the first question. Wow, this was hard. We bent over the guide and got to work. I hated standardized tests. All these annoying multiple choice answers. A, B, C or B & C. Or none of the above. Ugh! Soon enough, Candace was putting her notebook away. The hour was up? I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was fifteen minutes past time. “I’ll read it over tonight,” she said. “I’ll try to remember what you said about breaking up the paragraphs.” 173 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Anna came over. “You were great. Have you ever thought about teaching?” “Teaching? Me?” “Why not?” she asked. “I don’t know, I guess I never thought of myself as adult enough to boss around kids.” She laughed. “I’ll tell you what. You can come as show-and-tell to one of my classes—explain what an editor does, and then you can observe my lesson. I’ll clear it with the principal.” Any excuse to take a personal day.

On Monday morning I called in sick. Wanda was in a particularly nice mood, which made me feel guilty for two seconds. “Feel better. If you need anything, just give a shout and I’ll send the temp uptown with some chicken soup.” I hated when Wanda was nice. It made staying at Bold too easy. If she were a raving bitch, I would have quit a long time ago. What did you wear to be show-and-tell at a high school English class? Over the weekend, I’d called my new friend Jason, and he said casual was fine. But shouldn’t I dress up? I didn’t even have any dress-up clothes. The dress code at Bold was “business casual,” but all the assistants dressed down, so I never bothered to amass a real wardrobe. I raided Roxy’s closet. She had great corporate clothes. She had five pairs of the same semi-dressy pants in different colors— light beige, medium beige, light gray, dark gray, black. I decided on the dark gray and paired it with her heather-gray wool turtleneck, which I loved. I added a funky brooch from my jewelry box, my most boring black boots, and I was off. Anna introduced me as an editor at a publishing house in Manhattan, and I walked up to the front of the class, as nervous as I was twelve years ago when I’d have to give an oral presentation. I gave my rehearsed opening, about how I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life when I graduated from high school, so I went to college to give me a few more years to figure it out. I told them I majored in English and then applied for an entry-level job in publishing when I graduated. They were staring at me, rapt, firing questions. They had no idea that important people like editors started out as assistants. They seemed truly enchanted with the idea that they could be editorial assistants and become big-shot Manhattan editors too. “Do you know J.K. Rowling?” a girl asked. I laughed. “No. I wish I did, though.”

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They fired off more questions, and then the conversation turned to what professions they wanted to pursue, but then my fifteen minutes were up, and I couldn’t believe it had gone so fast. I’d thought I’d have trouble filling five minutes. Then it was time to observe Anna in action. She was a great teacher. A couple of times she looked like she wanted to pour water on a couple of kids’ heads, but she had excellent control of the classroom, clearly loved her job and her students, and it showed. She’d had to interrupt her lesson at least twenty times in the forty-five-minute class to tell a student to stop talking, to pay attention, to sit down, to stop eating. But she’d engaged them in the lesson. They raised their hands, they shouted out answers, they related some of the answers to their own personal experience. The experience was so uplifting, so empowering. What she was doing was so important. After class, I asked Anna if I could arrange to observe a few other teachers’ classes. She said she’d talk to the principal for me and give me a call later in the week. I think I’m meant to do this. I just might be meant to teach high-school English. For the first time in forever, my heart lit up. And it had absolutely nothing to do with a guy.

“A teacher? You’re not serious,” said my date, an equity analyst. We were sitting at a little square table for two in a trendy bar. I hadn’t planned on calling anyone else from my Respondees list, but the Breakup Club convinced me to give it one more shot now that I had a shiny new attitude. “I’m very serious,” I said. “High-school English. There I’ll be, standing up in front of twenty, thirty teenagers, discussing Romeo and Juliet. Or To Kill a Mockingbird.” He was staring at me as though I had four heads. “You’re actually planning to go back to school, full-time, for a master’s in teaching high school?” “A master’s in education,” I corrected. And what part of that wasn’t he understanding? He shook his head. “You’re going to put yourself tens of thousands of dollars in debt so that you can earn thirty thousand dollars a year and have chairs thrown at you? You’ll tell a kid to stop talking and he’ll tell you to fuck yourself.” I’d like to tell you to stop talking. “I don’t have a romanticized view of teaching,” I said, taking a sip of my red wine. “You can’t have one, especially if you want to teach in the city like I do. I realize that I’ll have to learn classroom-management skills and deal with mind-bending bureaucracy and—”

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“Irregardless, isn’t teaching blue-collar?” he interrupted. “I mean, anyone can be a teacher. My aunt Delores is a teacher. Come on. You can do better than that.” For someone who clearly knew it all, why couldn’t he see that I was restraining myself from punching him in the face? “First of all, it’s regardless. Second of all, teaching isn’t blue-collar, but even if it were, that would be fine with me. Third of all, anyone can’t be a teacher. You need to be a long list of adjectives that you, for one, sorely lack.” I was so happy I didn’t have to feign a headache. “We’re not a love match,” I said, threw a ten on the table for my wine and walked away.

I’d been tapping my pencil against page 207 of Beau and Bri: The Courtship of the Century for almost an hour when the phone rang. Great! Procrastination that I didn’t engineer myself! I’d been to the coffeemaker three times, sharpened my pencils twice, stretched and done two downward dog poses—in a skirt—to avoid reading another word of this fairy tale. Lucy had done a great job—the book was un-put-down-able. But I wanted to read it for fun—not for work. And I had months to go before I could turn in my resignation. I’d just made the deadlines for applying to graduate schools for the fall. Which meant I had almost seven months to go at Bold Books. Lucy was so proud of me that she was sending me on a week’s vacation in early August to the European city of my choice. That was some nice sister I had. “Miranda Miller,” I said into my phone. Thank you for interrupting me, whoever you are! “Hi, my name is Callie. This is going to sound really weird, but did your dry cleaner give you a wedding gown that was hanging in his window?” Eeep. “Um, yeah.” “Did you wear it yet?” she asked. “No,” I said. My ex-friend Emmalee is wearing it tomorrow night in her wedding, though. “I did try it on a bunch of times, so, if you need it back, I should probably take it back to the cleaners. A different one, of course. One who won’t just give it away after ninety days.” She laughed. “That’s totally okay. I don’t want it back. I noticed it wasn’t in the window months ago, and I started feeling funny about something, so I figured I’d call whoever had the dress and warn her.” “Warn her about what?” I asked. It turned out Callie caught her new husband of two hours pressing his pelvis against a bridesmaid at the reception. He claimed to be drunk, but she’d had the marriage annulled. She brought the 176 ♥ela_vanilla♥

dress to the cleaners because she wanted it out of her apartment, but she couldn’t bring herself to toss it in the garbage can. The gown had been worn in a cursed wedding. “It has bad vibes,” she said. “I thought whoever had it should know.” I couldn’t help smiling. “I appreciate that. Are you sure you don’t want it back? You could sell it. It’s really gorgeous.” “I never want to see that dress again. Good riddance.” “Good luck out there,” I told her. “You too,” she said.

I’d been to so many weddings that I had a closet full of cocktail and black-tie dresses. For Emmalee’s wedding, I decided on my favorite, a slinky pale pink satin dress with tiny pink rosebuds along the low V-neck. It was both vintage and modern at the same time. A little makeup, a spritz of Coco, and I was off to say goodbye to Emmalee, to wish her well in her new life. When I called her to let her know I wasn’t bringing a date, she’d said, “Oh, you poor baby! It’ll be Valentine’s Day, too. Don’t you worry, hon. You’ll be sitting at the singles table. You’ll have at least three guys to dance with.” You’re so thoughtful, Emmalee. I really don’t know what I’d do without your friendship! And so on Valentine’s Day night, I, along with two hundred and fifty other guests, watched Emmalee walk down the aisle in her borrowed dry-cleaned dress with the bad vibes, her arm linked around her father’s. Her dad was trying not to cry. So was Emmalee.

She looked so beautiful, her dark brown hair down in gentle waves, her hazel eyes sparkling more brightly than her two-carat diamond ring. The gown wasn’t cursed, and it wouldn’t curse Emmalee’s wedding. It was Callie’s ex-fiancé who had bad vibes. Not the gown. I knew I was saying goodbye, that I wouldn’t see Emmalee again, and between that and the ceremony, the beautiful words from the rabbi and minister, out came the Kleenex. In the receiving line, I hugged Emmalee. “You look so beautiful,” I said. “I cried my eyes out during the entire ceremony.” Emmalee half rolled her eyes. “Miranda, this is my wedding day. Can’t you put aside your own problems for a few hours and celebrate?”

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I turned bright red. “No, Em, I meant—” But she was already on to the next guest, hugging, kissing. I hereby dub you Bitchalee! I’d stay for one drink during the cocktail hour and then I was outta there. As I headed into the reception room, I noticed Gabriel’s fiancée standing alone at the bar in her gorgeous red velvet bridesmaid dress. I spied the man himself with the other ushers on the other side of the room, the photographer ordering them around. I stood next to her and ordered a glass of champagne. “I just wanted to say I was sorry for that day in the restaurant,” I said, my eyes on the crowd—and nowhere on Gabriel. “It was stupid and immature of me.” She lifted her chin. “Well, like I said, it got me what I wanted, so no harm no foul.” I nodded and sipped my champagne. “Don’t even think about asking Gabriel for a dance,” she said, before turning on her three-inch heel and walking away. Huh. I hadn’t thought of it. Not once. In fact, I hadn’t thought about Gabriel since I’d arrived. It had been Emmalee I’d been thinking about: the loss of our friendship, which had morphed into something else. Either she’d changed or I’d changed or we’d both changed. We’d never be friends the way we once were. Just as I would never be the Miranda who stood outside Gabriel’s window, hoping his shadow could cross the light so I could see him just one more time. I raised my glass to myself and took a sip of bubbly, then put down the glass and left, hoping Roxy might be in the mood for a movie. Chapter fifteen Christopher On the way to Chappaqua on Friday night, I read the final section of the Courtship of the Century. The book would be a bestseller. I knew it. It had everything. It even made me want to be Beau, a perfect citizen, a perfect father, a perfect husband-to-be. I was so sick (read: jealous) of the sight of his perfect face in the photographs that in one copy of the manuscript I colored in his perfect teeth with black pen. “It’s spin,” Lucy had reminded me at our last meeting. “It’s pure spin, pure PR. It’s all made up from carefully orchestrated previous interviews with the couple and their people. We’re perfect examples of how you can never know what’s going on in someone else’s house, someone else’s life. Even people who supposedly seem to have it all have problems.”

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When I arrived at the house, Jodie was cooking and Eye-in was making a bookcase. It was exactly like Jodie had always dreamed. Didn’t seem to be any problems there. “Christopher, come sit for a minute,” Eye-in said. “There’s something important that Jodie and I would like to discuss.” They want to kill me so they can marry immediately without Jodie committing bigamy? They want to move to California with Ava? They— I sat on the far side from him and Jodie on an uncomfortable chair. Ava sat in her playpen across the living room, playing with her talking Elmo. Her stroller and diaper bag were at the ready as always by the door. Make this quick, Eye-in. He clasped his hands on his lap. “Jodie and I have been talking about our future, and we are definitely planning to marry. When things between you and Jodie are resolved, of course. In that event, I’d like to adopt Ava. I love her as though she were my own flesh and blood. I’ve known her from the minute she was born.” My blood boiled. “I don’t recall seeing you in the delivery room, Eye-in. In fact, I believe I was there. Why? Because I’m her FATHER.” “Chris, calm down,” Jodie said, shaking her head. “You always have to get all riled up.” “This isn’t all riled up!” I shouted. “This is me controlling myself with every ounce of my being.” “Christopher,” Eye-in said. “We’re just asking you to think about it. Jodie and I like the idea of us all having the same last name. That’s all. Jodie will be changing her name to mine when we marry, and it’ll be nice if Ava has our last name, too.” Jodie smiled. “Ava Tarrington. Doesn’t that sound elegant?” I ignored that. “The answer is no.” “Chris, she’s still your daughter no matter what her name is.” “Oh really?” I said, ready to KILL. “I heard the word adoption. That’s not about changing her name. That’s about changing her father. How dare you even ask such a thing?” Eye-in and Jodie glanced at each other. “Fine,” Eye-in said. “I hear you. Let’s forget adoption. Perhaps we can just legally change her name.” “Let me make myself perfectly clear,” I said. “Her name will be Ava Levy until she decides to change it herself if and when she marries. You will adopt Ava over my dead body.” 179 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“You’re so dramatic,” Jodie said, rolling her eyes. “No, this is dramatic,” I said. “I will fight you with my last breath. Just try me.” I stood up, scooped an oblivious Ava from her playpen, put on her jacket and settled her into her stroller. And then I headed out, restraining myself from slamming the door behind me. Halfway down the block, my heart beating like crazy, I knelt down and stroked Ava’s cheek. “I’m your father, Ava Levy. And I’m very proud of that.” “Chris! Wait.” I turned around to find Jodie running after me in her purple fleece. She caught up to me and stroked Ava’s hair. “I’m sorry, okay? Let’s just forget it was brought up. We’re just talking aloud, I guess. It was a shitty thing to do to you. We honestly didn’t know how you’d react. And to tell you the truth, I’m glad you reacted the way you did. I have to say, you’ve really changed, Chris.” Jodie’s faint praise did absolutely nothing for me. But for Ava’s sake, I smiled at my daughter’s mother, told her we’d get through this transition just fine, and then left her standing in the middle of the street. I had a train to catch.

On Saturday morning, I made Ava my mother’s recipe for scrambled eggs (apparently, milk was the special ingredient), and then, on my way out, I knocked at Ginger’s door as I’d been doing every day for the past month, but again there was no answer. I didn’t feel like going to the playgroup, but the Posse threw fits if someone didn’t show up for any reason other than a death in the family or green slime running down a nose. I couldn’t say I liked Nell and the Jens; they weren’t particularly nice people, and they spent their playgroup one-upping each other on their kid’s development. “Conner didn’t sit up till he was seven months? Skylar sat up at five months!” The playgroup it would be, though. It was too cold for the playground, and there wasn’t much else to do on a cold Saturday in Manhattan with a one-year-old. The Children’s Museum would be packed, as would the other museums. At least two hours with the Posse would get me out of my apartment, out of my own head, and Ava loved crawling around and pulling up to standing with her pint-sized friends. The playgroup was meeting at Nell’s this morning. She lived in a huge two-bedroom on the thirtieth floor with sweeping views of the city and the East River. “One day I’ll give you this again,” I told Ava as we headed inside.

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“Chris, why are men such pigs?” Nell asked the second I walked in. I took off Ava’s coat and hat and brought her into the living room, where Nell and the Jens and the babies were hanging out on the plush rug. “Sloppy pigs or sexual pigs?” I asked. “Both,” Blond Jen said with a smile. “Sexual,” Nell interjected. “Last night my husband told me he wanted a threesome for his birthday!” I suddenly imagined Nell and the Jens naked on the rug, kissing, slurping, sucking, their hands roaming all over each other. I wasn’t even particularly attracted to any of them, but the word threesome in a room of three women brought certain things to mind. “I told him I’d think about it,” Nell said, her eyes on me. She was flirting with me again. She often did, slinking up against me in the narrow kitchen, arranging herself in provocative poses. Bringing up sex and watching me for my reaction. “That’s probably your biggest fantasy, right?” she asked. “My biggest fantasy is getting back together with my wife,” I lied. I didn’t even know why I’d said that—to knock Nell down a peg, maybe. It certainly wasn’t true. I loved the idea of mother, father and baby living together in one big happy family, but I definitely didn’t want to spend even five minutes in a room with Jodie. Nell looked as though as I’d splashed cold water in her face. She didn’t like the answer one bit. “That’s so sweet,” she gushed, handing her daughter her sippy cup. “Your wife doesn’t know what she’s missing,” brunette Jen said, sending the Posse a quick eye roll. Did she think I missed it? “Ava’s so lucky to have a great dad like you,” blond Jen added. Get me out of here, I thought, watching Ava have a mini tug-of-war with Skylar for Conner’s Care Bear. We moved from sex to what foods the babies were eating, to their sleep schedules, their naps, how often they moved their bowels. The time ticked by so slowly. Only a half hour had passed the last time I’d looked at my watch. Then an hour. I’d never make it a second hour. And then I got lucky. Emma and Conner began fighting and yawning and rubbing their eyes. It was time for those two to take a nap, which

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meant playgroup was disbanding early. While I settled Ava in her stroller, the Jens said goodbye and wheeled their crying babies out. I could still hear them screaming in the hallway. “Ava is so well behaved,” Nell said. “Those two,” she added, gesturing at the door, “aren’t parented properly. Conner gets away with murder, and Emma is disciplined for every little thing she does wrong.” And you’re a perfect parent, I thought, rolling my eyes. I settled Ava in her stroller, and two minutes later she was asleep, which never happened. I usually would have to walk her back and forth for a good five minutes before she’d lull to sleep. “Ooh, it’s raining,” Nell said. “You can wait out the worst of it, if you want. I’m dying for a Bloody Mary. Want one?” The rain was coming down heavily. But did I really want to be trapped inside with Nell? “Keep an eye on Skylar for a sec, will you?” she asked, disappearing into the kitchen. “Two Bloody Marys coming up.” “Make mine a virgin,” I said. “A virgin,” she repeated, coming back inside the living room with two Bloody Marys. She walked over to where I sat on the couch, and I thought she was going to place my glass on the end table next to me, but instead, with a glass in each hand, she straddled me and rubbed herself up against me. “What could you possibly want with a virgin?” she purred. “What you need is an experienced woman.” She ran her tongue over my lips. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. “Don’t make me spill these,” she said, rubbing herself against my lap. “This couch is off-white.” I took one drink and set it down, then the other. “Nell—” “I know,” she said. “You’ve wanted to do this from the first minute you laid eyes on me.” No. Actually. I haven’t. “Nell,” I said, pushing her off me. “We can’t do this.” She laughed. “We are doing this.” I moved her off me. “I’m not breaking up a family.” She laughed. “Christopher, it’s just sex. Delicious sex. Our little secret.” She trailed a finger up my chest. “Wouldn’t it be fun to have this hot little secret from the Jens?” 182 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“No. I’m not interested, Nell. I mean it.” She finally looked at me, really looked at me. “You’re going to tell me you’re not attracted to me? I’ve seen the way you look at me.” “You’re a beautiful woman, Nell. But I’m not interested in sleeping with someone’s wife.” “I’m not ‘someone’s wife.’ I’m Nell. Don’t label me.” Was she nuts? “Nell, I’m not looking for a fling.” She glared at me. “The door is that way. Oh, and you’re out of the playgroup.”

On Sunday I took Ava for a stroll along Second Avenue. I saw two-thirds of the Posse (the missing third being Nell) standing in front of Starbucks. I tried to avoid them, but they chased me down. “You’re such a pig!” blond Jen said. “Nell told us what you did. You have no respect for marriage. Yours didn’t work out, so you don’t want anyone’s to work out.” If Nell needed her friends to believe that I came on to her, so be it. When it came to self-defense, I preferred to save my energy for fights that really mattered, like for my right to be Ava’s father. I continued on my way. I had important business to attend to: posting flyers. Weekend Dads’ Playgroup: Separated Dad with Weekend Visitation of One-Year-Old Looking To Join or Start Playgroup… I posted them wherever I was allowed—Gymboree, a couple of coffee lounges, the playroom of my old building. By Sunday afternoon, there were eight of us. At our first meeting, no one put on a diaper backwards. No one talked sex. No one straddled me. No one talked wives or relationships. We talked sports—and sometimes babies while the little ones played—rather nicely—together. This was a playgroup.

On my way home from work on Monday, I knocked on Ginger’s door. I heard a teakettle whistling and shoes clicking on the hardwood floor and then silence, so I knew she was inside.

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I was used to people hating my guts, used to apologizing, used to it getting me nowhere. But I’d knock on Ginger’s door until she opened it. Which might be never. I rang the doorbell. “Ginger, I know you’re in there. I can hear you moving furniture.” She turned up the music. Destiny’s Child, I was pretty sure. “Ginger,” I shouted. “Please open up. I really want to talk to you.” No response. “Okay, but I’m just going to sit out here on the Welcome mat until you open the door. You’re going to need milk or coffee or groceries eventually.” No response. Five minutes passed. She changed the CD to Norah Jones. Ten minutes passed. “Ginger, I’m still here.” Ten more minutes passed. Five more. “Ginger, I’m going to make myself comfortable, if you don’t mind. I’ll just spread out on the dirty floor.” Time passed very slowly when you were flat on your back on a tiled floor. Norah Jones was replaced by a Blondie album I hadn’t heard since elementary school. “Ginger, I think I see a mouse. Yup, that is definitely a mouse, wrinkling its nose at me, determining if I’m edible.” The music lowered. “I didn’t think mice liked rats,” she called out. I jumped up. “Ginger, please open up. Please let me talk to you. Please.” The door opened. She stared at me, her expression stony. “What could you possibly have to say? ‘I’m sorry’? I don’t really care if you are, Christopher. You said a really shitty thing and there’s no getting around it. So why don’t you stop knocking on my door, and we’ll just move on.” “Move on as in pretend we don’t know each other?” She nodded. “Ginger, the problem with that is that I do know you. And I think you’re great. I didn’t mean what I said that day. Jodie was threatening to stop me from seeing Ava, my back was up, and I said whatever I could to stop her.” “Christopher, that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t excuse you. A friend doesn’t say what you did for any reason.” 184 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“Then let me say this—that day I probably didn’t realize how much your friendship meant to me. I know now. I had no idea how much I’ve come to rely on your smile every morning. How much it means to me for you to knock on my door and ask how I’m doing, how Ava’s doing, your offers to run out and pick something up that Ava might need. You babysat Ava in the middle of the night when I was exhausted and needed to rest. I’m so used to demands—demands that I do this, that, change, improve—that I’m completely unused to someone asking very nicely if I actually need help. I am sorry, Ginger. From the bottom of my heart, I’m sorry.” She bit her lip. “That’s an apology I can accept.” “So would you like to come over and hang out? We can order in Mexican or Indian.” “I’d love to, but I have a hot date,” she said. “You know, you almost did me a favor by being a class-A jerk. I liked you against my better judgment. I knew falling for a newly separated guy—a new dad, too—was a risk, but sometimes you can’t help how you feel. You were so mean to me that I forced myself to get over you fast. And now I have a second date with a terrific guy.” I smiled. “I’m glad. You deserve the world, Ginger.” “You do too. And I think you’re on your way to getting it.” I extended my hand. “Friends?” She shook. “Friends.”

Ava woke me up on Saturday morning at the crack of dawn. I sat with her on the sofa, one eye open on Sesame Street. Big Bird was rollerskating with Elmo and a girl monster. “Bi-buh,” Ava said, clapping her hands. I stared at her. “Bi-buh?” I glanced at the television. Big Bird! “Your first word!” I screamed. “You said your first word!” I scooped her up and danced up and down the hallway, then I put her down in her playpen and called Jodie. Ava said da for “Dada” and muh for “Mama,” but bi-buh was her first non-mama or dada word. And it was two words! “Ava said her first word!” I told Jodie. “Bi-buh!” Jodie laughed. “Chris, she’s been saying bi-buh for weeks.” “Oh. Hey, I thought she wasn’t supposed to watch television.” “Sesame Street is educational,” Jodie said. “And anyway, all things in moderation. Right?” “Moderation does seem to be the name of the game.” 185 ♥ela_vanilla♥

“How’s Ava?” she asked. “She’s great. We’re great.” I brought the cordless over to Ava’s playpen. “Ava, say hi to Mama.” “Muh. Muh,” Ava said, clapping. “Da,” she said, raising her arms to me. “Jodie, I’d better get going. Ava wants out of the playpen.” “Chris, thanks for calling to tell me she said her first word, even if it wasn’t. It was her first word with you, and that’s the same thing. It’s nice that it’s such a big deal to you and that you shared it with me.” “I’m sure there’ll be a lot more to come,” I said. “Definitely.” I hung up and stared at the phone. That was the first phone call Jodie and I had ever gotten through without a yell, snide remark, curse word or lingering bad feeling. We were actually civil to each other. Not being hated was quite a nice feeling.

Later in the morning, the temperature climbed to the low forties, so I bundled Ava up in the little pink down jacket and pom-pom hat I’d bought her for her birthday, packed up her diaper bag and settled her in her stroller. On my way to the elevator I stopped at Ginger’s apartment. She opened the door wearing a sexy kimono. “Up for a walk to the park?” I asked her. “It’s gorgeous out.” “Hi, sweetie,” she said to Ava, kneeling down to give her pom-poms a little pat. She stood back up and whispered, “I’d love to, but I have company.” She gestured back inside her apartment and smiled. “We’re having brunch and then going for a walk in Central Park.” “Good for you,” I whispered back, squeezing her hand. “Have fun.” “Jiffy Pop tonight?” she asked. “Annie Hall is on at eight.” “I’ll be over at seven-thirty,” I said. “I want to hear all about this guy.” She laughed. “You’re going to make a great girlfriend.”

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at their feet. Blond Jen nudged Nell and they all glanced over at me, then turned back. A fourth mom’s head peered out from behind brunette Jen and eyed me. Ah, so they had already replaced me. They all slid their butts to the left on the concrete rim so that their backs were to me. How mature! You’re not chasing me out of my favorite playground, Posse. I took Ava from her stroller and settled her on my lap. She watched a pigeon circle a baggie of Cheerios and Goldfish crackers. “Kicked out of the clique?” I glanced up. There stood Kaye, the woman who’d saved me from the Posse way back when. Her baby was in a Bjorn at her chest. He wore a blue knit cap with Jake embroidered along the rim. I nodded. “I think they realized I wasn’t a mother.” She smiled and started walking away, toward the swings. “Wait,” I said. “I—eh, this is going to sound stupid, but I just wanted you to know that I think you got the wrong impression that first day we spoke. I didn’t walk out on my wife and Ava. It was the other way around. My wife left—” I shook my head. “Why am I telling you this?” “You’re saying you’re not the bad guy.” “Yeah, but my wife wasn’t either, really,” I said. “Well, except for cheating on me. Dumping me. Moving in with her boyfriend. Except for all that.” I smiled. “When it comes right down to it, she wasn’t happy, couldn’t get happy with what she had, and so she left. I guess it’s really as simple as that, as gray area as that.” “It took me a long time to get to that point,” Kaye said. I glanced at her. “You?” She pulled off her gloves and wiggled her ringless left hand. “My husband left us two months after Jake was born. He fell in love with a flight attendant on his way back from a business trip in Milwaukee.” I stared at her for a second, forcing my gaping mouth to close. “You know, I’m thinking of starting a bench playgroup for single parents who just want to stare into space. Interested?” “Only if complaining, venting and occasionally bursting into tears is allowed,” she said. “Oh, all those things are requirements.” She sat down. “Sign us up.” Chapter sixteen 187 ♥ela_vanilla♥

Roxy At exactly six o’clock on Friday night, the Bold Books receptionist buzzed my office. “Rob Roberts is here to see you.” Rob Roberts. For our first date. When I rounded the reception area and saw him standing there, I sucked in my breath. Robbie was a good-looking guy, but in an expensive dark suit and carrying a dozen long-stemmed red roses, he was drop-dead gorgeous. Three onlookers were gawking in the small space. Miranda was pretending to teach Lucy how to use the receptionist’s outdated phone system. Christopher was pretending to be absorbed in a fax he’d supposedly just received. Yet all three were checking out Robbie. He seemed genuinely pleased to meet such important new people in my life—my boss, my roommate, and the big boss, well under Futterman. After introductions and hand-shaking and a chorus of “nice to meet you,” Miranda mouthed, Wow. “I know you sometimes work weekends,” Robbie said to me. “So I figured these flowers would brighten up a Saturday at the office.” I saw Lucy mouth an Aww! to Miranda. Christopher was nodding in you-go-guy way. “Thanks,” I said, touched by the gesture. I led him to the kitchenette to grab a vase and fill it with water, then we headed to my tiny office. He glanced around. “Very impressive digs, Roxy. And if you don’t mind my saying so, you look beautiful.” Was I actually blushing? “Thanks, Robbie.” “I go by Rob now, actually.” I smiled. “Rob.” Outside, he hailed a cab and off we sped. We sat in the back seat in companionable silence, looking out the window at the scenery of a weekend night coming to life in Manhattan. I’d had sex with Robbie how many times since we were sixteen? Thousands? Yet I was so aware of him sitting next to me, aware of his strong shoulder so close to mine. His muscular thigh. When he turned to point out the colors of the top of the Empire State Building, I stared at his mouth. Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to kiss him, rip off his clothes and jump his bones. The taxi came to an abrupt stop in front of Thai Alert, jarring me out of my little fantasy.

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“I think you might like the Pad Thai,” he said as we sat down at our table and opened our menus. “I researched the different entrées and that sounds like something you’d like.” “You researched Thai food?” He nodded. “I know you always wanted to try it.” Robbie was a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. A steak and baked potato to be exact. Unless noodles were pasta with marinara sauce, he didn’t eat them. Thai was big. “So you’re a lawyer?” I ventured, playing along with our first date. He nodded. “I specialize in personal injury. Right now I’m working pro bono for Betty Fusco. Eighty-one years old and eighty-one pounds, and down she goes on the sidewalk in front of Bartuli’s Bakery because the jerk wouldn’t salt the sidewalk in front of his shop after a snowstorm in December. She broke her hip and her collarbone and spent over a month in the hospital, heartbroken over being separated from her mangy little dog that a neighbor took in for her. Bartuli and the city and her insurance company gave her the huge run-around—but I didn’t. I’ve known Betty my entire life. She babysat my mother, did you know that? I care about Betty. I care about everyone in Bay Ridge. These are people I’ve known my entire life. And when they’re failed by the system, I step in.” Robbie had always been so dedicated to helping people, especially children and the elderly and the poor. He was often chided for “ambulance chasing,” but he did nothing of the kind. “So you must love Bay Ridge,” I said. “You must want to live there for the rest of your life.” “Not necessarily,” he said, looking at me. “If—for example—the woman I loved wanted to live on Mars, I’m pretty sure I’d be happy there.” “Would you?” I asked. “Be happy there or move there?” “Both.” “I’d both move there and be happy there,” he said. “I’ve learned a thing or two these past few months, Roxy. I don’t want to say something cheesy like ‘home is where the heart is,’ but home is definitely where the heart is. And my heart is, and has always been, with you.” I took a deep breath and smiled, suddenly shy, suddenly nervous. As always, he picked up on my mood. “So you’re an editor?” he asked, smiling. “I’ve love to hear about your job. It sounds fascinating.” 189 ♥ela_vanilla♥

For the next twenty minutes he listened and asked questions. We talked work, movies, books, politics (which we strangely agreed on). We talked everything but us. “Hey,” he said, twirling noodles around his fork. “This is really good.” “Surprised?” He nodded. “I was going to force myself to eat whatever was served to me. But I really like this. Whodathunk, eh?” he added in a Brooklyn accent. Three hours later, after a play we discussed for a half hour at the trendy bar, Robbie escorted me out of our taxi and toward my building. It was a cold night. “I had a great time,” he said. “Me too.” And I had. “Would you like to go out again sometime?” he asked. “Next Friday night?” Friday night was my third date with Nathanial. “I don’t know, Robbie.” He glanced at me. “I understand that you want to take this slow.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it at all. What was I doing? Dating my ex-fiancé? That was insane. He leaned toward me and kissed me, and as always, I melted into it. “I’ll tell you what. When and if you want to, you ask me out for our second date, okay?” I took a deep breath. “Okay.” He smiled. “I’ll wait till I see your light turn on upstairs.” I kissed him on the cheek and headed in, walking to the window in the dark. I peered down onto the street, lightly lit by streetlamps, and there he was, glancing up. When I realized that I didn’t want him to walk away, I snapped on the light. He smiled up at me and then disappeared into the night. How the hell had he done it? How could he actually make me fall for him again by calling me twice a week for two months and taking me to a Thai restaurant and a pretentious play and telling me that he’d live anywhere I wanted? “Idiot,” Miranda said, when she came home a half hour later. “It’s not the Thai food or the stupid play or even that he’d live in Manhattan. It’s him.” “Him? I’ve known Robbie my entire life. I didn’t marry him for a reason, Miranda.” “Yeah, so figure out what that reason was.” 190 ♥ela_vanilla♥

The following Friday, my third date with Nathanial, I was a woman on a mission. A misguided mission, according to Miranda. “You’re not suddenly going to fall for Nathanial just because you don’t want to be in love with Robbie,” she said. “Nathanial bored you. You said kissing him was like kissing your uncle.” “Nathanial is a great guy,” I said. “He’s smart, kind, funny, warm—and very interested.” “So’s Robbie.” I told her to mind her own beeswax and then raided her closet for the slinkiest outfit I could find. I’d bought a sexy red bra and a thong and slipped them on. I spritzed perfume in strange places. “You can’t create lust,” Miranda said, packing an overnight bag. “I shouldn’t even spend the night at Lucy’s—I should stay here so you can’t sleep with Nathanial.” “There’s always his place,” I pointed out. “No woman likes to go to a guy’s apartment the first time they have sex,” Miranda said. “Women like to be on their own turf.” I tugged one of her long blond curls. “Thank you for worrying. But I’ll be fine, I promise. And who says I’m going to sleep with him? I’m just trying to figure out how I feel.” “Good luck,” she said, giving my hand a squeeze. Yeah, good luck. Robbie had called every night since our “date” last week. Sometimes we had short conversations about long, tiring days at work, and sometimes, like Wednesday and last night’s conversations, we had longies about our families. I’d just found out this week that Edwin Futterman had approved my proposal for the book about my family, and the first person I wanted to tell was Robbie. Little things like that had been stopping me in my tracks all week. A gold star from Lucy on a reader’s report, and I wanted to call Robbie to share my pride. A report of child abuse in the morning newspaper, and I wanted to call Robbie just to hear his voice, just to be reassured of I didn’t even know what. Since I’d been at work when I’d found out that my book proposal had been approved, I shared the great news with the Breakup Club, and Lucy, Miranda and Christopher had celebrated with me after work last night for a little while at a tapas café, then everyone had had to leave. Lucy and Amelia were having dinner with Amelia’s friend Lizzie and her mother; apparently they’d formed something of their own mini support group. Miranda was studying for an SAT-like examination required of applicants to graduate schools of education. And Christopher was picking up Ava. I’d been so excited to get back home to my laptop to work on the book. But before I settled down to work, I’d wanted to tell Robbie. 191 ♥ela_vanilla♥

He was so proud of me. I went on and on about my outline and how I planned to approach the book, chapters devoted to certain couples, anecdotes from other relatives, some figures and facts about marriage, and of course, my own take as someone who’d opted out of marriage. And then I asked him why he thought no one in the history of the Marone family had ever gotten divorced. “Because they want to be together,” he’d said. “It’s that simple.” “Marriage can’t possibly be simple.” “Marriage isn’t simple, but wanting to spend your life with someone is.” Clearly, it wasn’t. “So even though a wife throws a fork at a husband,” I said, “or a husband cheats or a wife cheats, or they haven’t had sex in fifteen years or they barely speak in a day, they want to be together? I don’t get that at all.” “I guess because you don’t feel it,” he said in a low voice. “Huh?” “There’s no one you want to spend your life with,” he explained. “Unfortunately for me. When you do feel that way, Roxy, you’ll understand. You take the bad with the good. The poorer with the richer, the sickness with the health, the however the rest of it goes. It’s not all lust and scintillating conversation. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes you’re just at peace deep inside yourself because that person you married is yours.” I shook all thought of Robbie out of my head and forced myself to think hot thoughts of Nathanial, good-looking, dark haired, undimpled Nathanial. If I slept with him, wouldn’t I fall for him? Not that it worked for guys. But didn’t women get emotional over men they slept with? Yeah, men they’re already in love with—or at least in serious like with, I heard Miranda say in my head. I wanted to sleep with Nathanial, whose middle name I’d already forgotten. I wanted to want another guy. I couldn’t want Robbie. It just didn’t make sense. Not after everything that had happened. And so after a nice (if dull) time in a French restaurant, in which we went over the same ground we had covered on dates one and two—our siblings (neither of us had any), our college majors, which films we thought would win the Academy Awards—I invited Nathanial upstairs for a nightcap. I eyed Miranda’s note on the coffeepot: Sleeping over at Lucy’s against my better judgment! Don’t do anything you’ll regret. I tossed her note in the silverware drawer, then headed back into the living room, where Nathanial sat on the futon, his arms folded behind his head. He stared at me; I stared at him. And

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before I had the glasses even steady on the table, I straddled him, pressed myself against that amazing chest, that amazing pelvis. In two seconds, a purple square wrapper was on the floor. And for the next half hour, I had incredibly boring sex with a guy who wasn’t Robbie. Of course, Nathanial didn’t fall asleep two seconds later or mysteriously remember that he had a midnight dentist appointment or that he had to get up really early in the morning for work (not that I had firsthand experience with this, but I did listen to my friends). Instead, he stroked my hair. He told me I was lovely. He asked if I was hungry and wanted him to whip me up an omelet. A half hour later, he lay spooned against me, fast asleep. And that was when I allowed myself to cry as quietly as I could.

The next morning, Nathanial was leaving as Miranda was arriving. He kissed me and said, “I’ll call you tonight.” “I have a wedding tonight,” I told him. “I’ll call you soon, okay?” He eyed me, then smiled and left. Miranda folded her arms across her chest. “Unbelievable. You’re the guy.” She grabbed my hand and sat me down on the futon. “So did you sleep with him? How was it?” I tied my bathrobe tightly around me and dropped down like a lump on the futon. I covered my face with my hands. “Rox?” Miranda said, sitting down next to me. “What?” “He’s not Robbie,” I said. “Granted, Robbie is amazing in bed. But it wasn’t just that the sex with Nathanial was dull. It was that he wasn’t Robbie.” I stared at the condom wrapper. “Why wasn’t it better? Nathanial is so hot! He’s everything I’m looking for in a guy. Why don’t I feel anything?” Miranda squeezed my hand. “Rox, it’s not about the checklist, it’s about the guy. Even I know that, and I don’t know anything.” “No, I don’t know anything.” “You know bad sex from good,” Miranda said, handing me half her cream-cheese-and-loxtopped bagel.

Brianna Love’s wedding dress cost twelve thousand dollars. A bargain by Hollywood standards. I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon trying not to think about Nathanial or Robbie, or Jackie’s wedding, which I’d have to leave for in a few hours. 193 ♥ela_vanilla♥

And so I lay on my bed, alternating between reading Chapters Seven, Eight and Nine of Beau and Bri: The Courtship of the Century and reading People magazine, which had a spread devoted to her wedding plans. Her gown was so similar to mine—except mine was eleven thousand four hundred dollars cheaper—low cut and ornate with puffs and beads and cap sleeves and yards and yards of tulle and a train that went on and on. “I’m just a simple girl,” Bri told the People reporter. “But on my wedding day, I really will feel like a princess!” I hadn’t even liked my wedding gown. How stupid was that? My mother loved it. Rita Roberts loved it. “I just want something simple,” I’d said for the hundredth time from my perch in front of the three-way mirror in the bridal shop. “Simple is boring!” they said in unison. “This is a wedding gown.” But I hated it. I tried on twelve other dresses, all of which were wrong, wrong, wrong. And then Rita asked me to try on the one she and my mother loved. She took a picture of me with her cell phone (gotta love technology) and sent the photo to Robbie with a what do you think? A minute later, his mother handed me the phone. You’re too beautiful for words, he’d text-messaged back. By then I’d pretty much stopped trusting my judgment when it came to my wedding. I didn’t like anything. Not the entrée samples. Not the wine. Not the flowers. Not the bridesmaid dresses, which were between teal and royal-blue. I wasn’t sure if I hated everything because I didn’t want to get married or because I hated everything. And so I said okay to everything to make it go away. Forgetting that the day after Thanksgiving was going to come whether I hid under the covers or not. I flopped over onto my stomach, picked up my pencil and got back to Bri and Beau’s fairy-tale life.

My cousin Jackie was eighteen years old. She was saying “I do” to her high-school sweetheart, a nice guy named Vincent who adored her. No one on either side of the family thought she was too young. I was planning to interview her and her husband when they returned from their honeymoon. On the phone a few weeks ago, Jackie had said, “Do I like that he hangs out with his stupid friends every Friday night? No. Does he like that I scream my head off if he dares leave a dirty sock on the bathroom floor? No. Does either of us think we’re always gonna want to have sex three times a day?” She laughed, then said, “Yeah. Vince is so hot. Anyway, Roxy, if we didn’t think we’d be married forever, we wouldn’t be getting married, would we?” Good point, my cousin.

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And so, on this very cold February night, I took a car service to Bay Ridge, to the church in which I myself was going to be married. Everyone whom I’d interviewed or had yet to interview had been married in this church. They’d taken their vows of for better or for worse to heart, and for better or for worse, they were still married, still loving, still fighting, still doing what it took to stay together, because no matter what, they either loved each other or they loved the marriage. And that was what it took—I was beginning to understand—that was the secret. As Robbie had said, they had to want to be there. Both parties had to either love the other or they had to love the marriage. It turned out to be as simple and as complicated as that. As I headed up the stone steps, I spotted Patty’s unmistakable gorgeous red hair. She’d just walked inside. I strained my neck around the tall men in front of me; yup, there was Robbie, right beside her, his hand on the small of her back. My stomach twisted. Then it twisted again for twisting in the first place. I broke up with him. I ran away from our wedding. For a reason! Reasons! I don’t want to go on a second date with him. Then why does the sight of Robbie with Patty break your heart? Why can’t you wish them well? It’s just a platonic date, I reminded myself. He’s not in love with Patty. You don’t have to worry. Hypocrite, I yelled at myself. You had sex with someone last night! I took a deep breath and forced myself up the stairs. My aunt Maureen (she wasn’t the mother of the bride; Jackie was the daughter of my father’s sister) suddenly grabbed me into a hug, and I was so happy to see her after all these months that I almost started crying. “Look at you!” she said, cradling my face between her hands. She studied my scalp. “Whoever did your color did a decent job,” she added, winking at me. “God, I’ve missed you.” “Me too, Aunt Maureen,” I said. “I’m sorry I’ve been such a stranger.” She shook her head. “I’ll have none of that. I know you’re figuring stuff out. It’s not easy being twenty-five and independent. But it’s probably a good thing to be. I’ve spent the past three months trying to get your mother to believe that, but she’s holding out for you to come home.” I squeezed her hand. “Thanks, Aunt Maureen.” “Your uncle is talking football with his cronies,” she said. “How about you escort an old broad inside.” I smiled and slipped my hand around her arm and inhaled her perfume and felt both stronger and sadder. How I’d missed her. How I’d missed home. My father’s brother, my uncle Frank, stood in the center of the last pews, directing guests. “Bride’s side or groom’s,” he asked me. 195 ♥ela_vanilla♥

I smiled at him. “Uncle Frank, it’s me, Roxy.” He eyed me. He had no idea who I was. “Roxy Marone,” I said. “Your brother’s daughter?” “Roxy?” He squinted at me. “You’re not Roxy.” “I changed my hair. It’s dark again and shorter and straight.” “Rox?” He squinted again. “You don’t look like you at all.” I smelled my mother’s trademark perfume—White Shoulders. “This is what you want?” she whispered into my ear from behind me. “For your own family not to recognize you?” I whirled around and just hugged her. She sighed and shook her head, but hugged me back. “Do you recognize me?” I asked her. She eyed me. “Yes.” Tears came to my eyes, and she whipped a tissue out of her little beaded purse. She dabbed under my eyes. “I may not understand you, but I love you.” “Me too,” I said, and we hugged again. I felt eyes on me and I turned to find Robbie staring at me. Then Patty looked over and frowned, and I looked away. It was going to be a long night.

At the reception I said hello to relatives I hadn’t seen in months, but most of them didn’t recognize me. They smiled polite smiles, momentarily confused at how this person they didn’t know knew their names or children’s names. My former bridesmaids acted strangely around me. “You just don’t look like you,” they said. “Or act like you.” “But I’m me!” I told them. It was no use. Conversations petered out and they drifted away. For the first two hours of the party, I sat with my parents and their crowd. I watched Robbie and Patty dance. Watched her arms around his neck. His hand at her waist. Her mouth so close to his ear, his neck, his mouth. Finally, I couldn’t take it. I stared at the seven-tiered wedding cake. “May I have this dance?” I turned around to find Robbie holding out his hand. “I don’t think Patty would like that,” I whispered. I’d forced myself to lay low, out of his radar and off the dance floor. Patty had been nice enough to ask how I felt about her going for Robbie. 196 ♥ela_vanilla♥

It wouldn’t be fair of me to parade around the dance floor. I’d been thrilled to have an excuse to say no to a few drunken male guests. “Patty’s making out with Evan by the buffet,” he said, smiling. “I think it started as an attempt to make me jealous, but now they’re really going at it.” I glanced over, and there, indeed, was Patty, lip-locked with Evan McDonald, a guy who’d been nuts about her for a long time. I took Robbie’s hand and we began slow dancing to Frank Sinatra. “I guess I was hoping you might be a little jealous at seeing me with another woman,” he said. “I know, immature. But a guy can hope. I guess I just have to say goodbye.” But—but what? I could feel Robbie sizing up my hesitation. “Roxy, if you have feelings for me, say so. Say something.” “I slept with someone else,” I said before I could stop myself. The words came out of my mouth almost on their own. “Are you in love with him?” he asked, no change in his voice. Or his expression. I shook my head, surprised that I’d told him, surprised by his lack of reaction. “I thought that if I slept with someone else, the spell of us would be broken. That I could move on.” “And?” “And it didn’t change a thing. I’m as confused as ever.” “Did the bastard hurt you?” he asked, his green eyes glinting. “No,” I said. “Not at all. Other way around, in fact. I think he really liked me.” Robbie stepped away from me. Now his expression changed. “So you’re going around breaking hearts.” “I’m just confused, Robbie.” He let out a deep breath and ran a hand through his silky blond hair. “You know what, Roxy? I finally have it through my thick skull that I’m not what you want. I thought I could show you that I am. I thought that by answering your personal ad, I could show you that the guy you let get away is the one you’re actually looking for. That I can order Thai food with the best of them. That I support you in your decision to keep your own name. That I’ll wait till our thirties to start a family. That I’ll live in Manhattan or Mars or anywhere you want. I thought if I could show you that I’ve changed—that I’m willing to change—that you’d come running back to me. But now I finally realize that’s not the case. Because you’re not looking for a guy who wants this or 197 ♥ela_vanilla♥

that. You’re looking for something else. I don’t know what that is. So I just need to let you go. Bow out gracefully, as the song says.” He turned to walk away. “Robbie—” I had no idea what I was going to say. But I didn’t want him to walk away from me. Please don’t go. “Oh yeah. One more thing. I go by Rob now.” And then he disappeared into the crowd.

At the crack of dawn I was still flipping and flopping on the twin bed in my old bedroom in my parents’ house. I needed to see Robbie. I needed to try to explain. I threw on my wool coat and my boots and slipped down the stairs and out the back door in the kitchen. I ran the three blocks to my old apartment and let myself in, using the key I never could take off my keychain. I knocked on the apartment door. Nothing. I knocked harder. Finally I heard footsteps. Then the locks turning. And then there he was, sleepy and rumpled and gorgeous. “I think I understand what I was looking for, Robbie. I mean, Rob.” He gestured for me to come inside and closed the door behind me. “What’s that?” “Hokey as it sounds, I was looking for me. And I didn’t think I’d ever find who that was by becoming Roxy Roberts and cooking elaborate meals and hanging out with the female relatives. I still don’t want to do any of that. But I do know that I love you.” And that was the truth. I loved Robbie Roberts. I didn’t love what came with him, but I loved the person he was. Not the person he was trying to be. I finally understood that I loved that he was trying. We could both try. But we had to start from scratch, as these new people we’d become. His shoulders sagged with relief. “I love you too, Roxy. It took me a long time to realize how stubborn I was about some ridiculous things. I don’t have to live in Brooklyn to be close to my family. I can live a half-hour drive away. You don’t have to change your name to make me sure that we’re married. You don’t have to cook when I can either learn or starve. It’s you I want, Roxy. Not a lifestyle. You.” Tears filled my eyes. “We’ve got a lot to learn about ourselves and each other.” He nodded. “A lot to learn.” I smiled. “So, I was wondering if you’d like to go on that second date sometime.” “Yes, I would,” he said, beaming. “Are you free right now?” “Oh, I’m free,” I said.

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At work on Monday morning, Team Wedding met in the conference room to celebrate our hard work. Lucy had turned in the final manuscript of Beau and Bri: The Courtship of the Century. “This weekend I almost had my membership in the Breakup Club upgraded from special status to official member,” I told Lucy, Miranda and Christopher as Christopher passed out plastic cups of orange juice. “Robbie was about to walk away for good. But I came to some big realizations and we talked for hours about who we are and what we want, and tonight we’re having our third date!” “I guess I’ll be sleeping over at your place tonight, Lucy,” Miranda said, winking at me. Christopher raised his cup of orange juice. “Here, here. To the Breakup Club.” “Actually, I think we should change our name,” Lucy said. “To what?” I asked. Lucy smiled. “The Wakeup Club.” Four cups of orange juice clinked in the air. ~end~

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