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The Magic of Found Objects / (by Maddie Dawson, 2021) -

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The Magic of Found Objects /    (by Maddie Dawson, 2021) -

The Magic of Found Objects / (by Maddie Dawson, 2021) -

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: 153
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The Magic of Found Objects / (by Maddie Dawson, 2021) -
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2021
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Maddie Dawson
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Lauren Ezzo
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/ / / upper-intermediate
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upper-intermediate
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11:42:59
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128 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Magic of Found Objects / :

.doc (Word) maddie_dawson_-_the_magic_of_found_objects.doc [1.09 Mb] (c: 4) .
.pdf maddie_dawson_-_the_magic_of_found_objects.pdf [1.92 Mb] (c: 4) .


: The Magic of Found Objects

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PROLOGUE I came into the world as both a surprise and a complication, which tells you everything you need to know about how things have gone ever since. My twin brother and I were conceived at Woodstock. And by Woodstock, I mean the music festival. Summer of _69 and all that. The time of the moon landing, the birth of the gay rights movement in Greenwich Village, and half a million hippies converging upon a little town in upstate New York. Woodstock: Peace and Love. Remember that iconic photograph? You know the one I mean. The hippie couple wrapped in a blanket, embracing and looking bleary-eyed at the camera? When Bunny, my grandmother, was telling me the story when I was six, I asked her if those people were my parents. Could have been. Looked a bit like them. Bunny didn_t think so, though. She laughed and said she wasn_t sure my parents had even had a blanket with them. My mom, she told me, was different from anybody my dad had ever known. (I knew that part. My mom is different from everybody.) Back then, when he met her, she was a beautiful girl, an artist who wore silver amulets and bracelets and long skirts and tie-dyed shirts she made herself, and she practiced magic. She did batik and macram?. Her name was Janet, but she had switched the letters around and called herself Tenaj. Was it love? It sounds like love, but maybe it was something else altogether. One of those mysterious moments in time. She might have bewitched him, my grandmother whispered, with a little laugh. She put her finger to her lips and her eyes twinkled. Our secret. My father isn_t anyone you could imagine being bewitched. He was a regular farmer_s son from rural New Hampshire, named Robert Greer Linnelle, and he was eighteen years old when he met her, and what I think is that he was bedazzled by everything he saw at Woodstock. He had graduated from high school two months before_and on a little whim, according to Bunny_he and his friend Tom drove a pickup truck to upstate New York to see the music festival. He was going to come back and settle down and work full-time on the farm after that. But then_over the years, she has always lowered her voice for this part_somehow with the music and the mud and the secondhand marijuana smoke and the magic, he fell in with Tenaj. Fell in were the words she used. Fell in the mud? Fell into her body? Fell in love? All of it, she said. She laughed. The full catastrophe. And after the concert was over, he didn_t go back to the farm that was waiting for him, back to his father who was counting on him and who was furious. My grandmother wouldn_t say she was mad at him, too, but once she admitted she had been _a little disappointed._ Scared for him. Still she understood how he felt, she said. She knew what love could do. But mainly it was his back-home girlfriend, Maggie Markley, who was the maddest. She had been in agreement with the rest of the town that she and Robert had a relationship that was the sun, the moon, and the stars. She hadn_t wanted to go to Woodstock with him because she was working, and that little decision turned out to be the worst mistake of her life. That_s how come my parents were pretty much strangers to each other when they got married, and they lived in Woodstock in a little tiny house together, no bigger than somebody_s corncrib. And that next May, my brother and I came tearing into the world, shaking our fists and wailing out our own brand of music_we had our mother_s eyes and our daddy_s curled-up fists, my grandmother said_both of us probably fed up with the cramped quarters in my mother_s little body and looking for some decent room where we could stretch out. Were we welcomed into the world? I don_t know. Bunny doesn_t talk about this point. I was named Phronsie, after a character in a book that my mother loved in childhood_Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. Phronsie was the youngest_a sweet, blonde, curly-haired toddler who was doted upon by the family. And they named my brother Hendrix, because well, guess why. Hendrix and I are from the mud and the music; we are from Tenaj_s silver bracelets and the New Hampshire dirt under Robert_s fingernails, from marijuana smoke and cornfields. We were born to a witch and a farmer who had nothing in common. Sounds like a fairy tale, doesn_t it? But everybody knows that fairy tales don_t last. My father went back to the cows and the chickens and the dirt, and my mother drifted away with her artwork and her magic, turning found objects into art. He hardened up, perhaps so angry over this adventure he_d taken, which he saw as his first and last lapse of judgment. I_m sure, knowing him, he was ashamed of himself for the way he turned his head from his planned path in life and fell into Tenaj, so he doesn_t like to speak of her or those times to us. All I know is that Hendrix and I crashed down to earth as surprises and complications, and we were left with magic flickering in our DNA and practicality knitted into our bones. It_s been a war inside us ever since. And I_m not sure either one of us has ever figured out what love really is supposed to be about. CHAPTER ONE 2006 It_s Friday night at midnight, and I_m in my bed, lying next to Mr. Swanky, my snoring little pug, trying to decide between having a good cry or taking a bubble bath when my cell phone rings. It_s Judd, of course. Time for our Dissect-A-Date debriefing. He doesn_t even say hello. He says, _Okay, Phronsie. Out with it. How_d you do?_ _Not great,_ I tell him. _Let me get the paperwork._ I_ve been on my forty-third internet date, out with Mr. Cyber Security Previously Married No Kids. Judd_s been out with Red-Haired Nurse Who Lives with Her Mom. _You go first,_ I say. I call up the spreadsheet on my laptop. When all is said and done, I_m going to write an article about the travesty known as online dating. It will be honest, searing, and hilarious. It will be called either _How to Finally Give Up Looking for Love_ or _The Successful Guide to Finding Love in New York City._ Depending on which way this ends up. Maybe I_ll quit my job as a publicist and go on talk shows and give advice. I could be known as _Phronsie the Dating Whisperer._ He lets out a big sigh. _As usual, I_d have to say meh. She wasn_t very interesting. Doesn_t know anything about football. Kept checking her phone. I ended up leaving when one of my old ladies called and wanted to know if I could come unclog her sink, and so that_s how I really spent my evening. Plunging Mabel_s kitchen drain._ _Ha! Is that a euphemism?_ He laughs. _If only._ It_s true that Judd has old ladies, and they all have crushes on him. It_s kind of a situation. He has young ladies, too, to be clear. He owns a gym downtown, and besides having muscles, he has nice brown eyes and a killer jawline, and women of all ages flock to him for their training. The ones over seventy keep proposing marriage. One of them_perhaps it_s Mabel, I can_t remember_says he either has to marry her or go for her forty-something daughter or her twenty-something granddaughter. Somebody in that family has to marry him, she says. _Let_s move on to the checklist,_ I say. _Okay. Did Red-Haired Nurse Who Lives with Her Mom look like her profile picture?_ He sighs. _Who knows? Who remembers? Write down no. Nobody I_ve met so far looks like their profile picture._ _Did she ask you any questions about yourself?_ _Not a one._ _Okay. I_ll skip the rest. Overall scale of one to ten?_ _Um, one point five. It was a bust. We drank a beer, she tossed her hair, told me how immoral football is, and then my phone rang, and I ducked out. End of story._ I can tell by his breathing that he_s working out while we talk. Judd doesn_t waste time merely talking on the phone; he_s always doing lunges or squats at the same time. _Okay,_ he says. _Your turn._ _Awful. Black hole of despair. Bad haircut, didn_t ask even one question about my life. Works for a big firm, blah blah blah, frets about cybercrime, married twice before, griped about how men can_t be themselves with women anymore. More or less your typical troglodyte._ _This dating scene sucks,_ he says, huffing and puffing. _Let_s go to the diner._ It_s always about the diner for Judd. _Luckily or unluckily,_ I say, _there are three other guys who want to meet me for coffee. I_ve said no to two of them_but one of them looks promising. A firefighter who started a fund for kids whose parents died in 9/11. I might marry him just for that._ _Nice. Now diner, diner, diner._ _No, no, no. Mr. Swanky and I are comfortable, and besides, he doesn_t want me to go out, do you, Mr. Swanky G. Pug?_ I lean over and pet his soft little ears, and he stretches out and I swear he smiles at me. _Mr. Swanky can_t express his opinion, and even if he could, luckily for everyone concerned, he_s an understanding and forgiving dog who wants you to live your best life,_ Judd says. _Come on. Meet me in the stairwell in five minutes. I have something important to tell you._ _You can_t just tell me now?_ _I cannot._ _Oh God. Is this going to be heavy? Like, you_re moving out or something?_ _I_ve had one of my major thinks. An epiphany._ _Always a dangerous thing. Okay. I_ll meet you in seven minutes, not five. But I have to warn you I don_t have any makeup on, and I_m not changing out of my leggings and T-shirt._ _And how is this different from any other night?_ he says. _When have I seen you with makeup, is the real question. I figured you_d thrown it all out by now._ _I save it for dates. Seeing all the bottles lined up on my counter gives me hope._ _This is exactly what we need to talk about._ _The bottles on my counter?_ _No. Hope._ Judd Kovac has been my good friend for thirty-one years. We met on our first day of kindergarten back in Pemberton, New Hampshire, when the teacher, Mrs. Spencer, sat me down next to him on the rug at circle time. Fifteen minutes later she separated us because we couldn_t stop talking. I think he was bragging about how loudly he could burp. Turns out that was the beginning of a lifelong conversation on that topic. It doesn_t even matter at this point that we don_t have all that much in common, besides the fact that we both escaped our family farms in New Hampshire and moved to Manhattan. Now that we_re in our midthirties, we live two floors apart on the Upper West Side. Due to the mysteries of rent-stabilization rules in New York City, we are both in illegal, but affordable, sublets that could be reclaimed at any moment by the lawful tenants who live elsewhere. (Don_t ask; it_s complicated.) We_ve become true New Yorkers, toasting periodically (usually me) to the fact that we narrowly escaped the fate of farm life that our parents tried to foist upon us. Every now and then one of us (usually him) will get nostalgic and start idealizing the simple pastoral life we left behind, the one containing lots of cows and goats. But that_s generally only when the subway is down. And in case you_re wondering_and I know you are_outside of one disastrous, experimental make-out session when we were fourteen, our relationship has never gone down the rabbit hole of romance. We are not each other_s types, that_s why. He goes for women who could have appeared on America_s Next Top Model, whereas I . . . well, I just can_t make myself care enough to go to all that trouble. I barely put on mascara for work, and even then I smudge it half the time. Also, I hate wearing high heels on my off hours, and I refuse to wear any outfit that requires a special bra. (I have exactly one saggy, flesh-colored bra, and when that one loses the last of its elastic_well, that_s when I_ll consider going and buying another.) As for him, he_s a great guy, but he doesn_t have a lot of nuance to him. He likes problems a person can fix, like weight gain. Bloat. Signing up for gym memberships. And he can_t stand still_he_s always doing boxing moves or bouncing up and down on his toes. Also, I hate to mention it, but he doesn_t separate the whites from the darks when he does laundry, so his clothes are always a little dingy. And he thinks that Meryl Streep is overrated. Meryl Freaking Streep! But I suspect we_re in one of those friendships that might last for life. I saw him through the tragic moment when his high school girlfriend, Karla Kristensen, (aka The Love of His Life) married someone else, and he comforted me with Toaster Strudel and cream puffs (big deal for a gym guy) through the demise of my short-lived marriage to Steve Hanover, even though he didn_t approve of either of those foods or of Steve Hanover (aka The Love of My Life). Also, after all these years, I appreciate that he doesn_t tease me about the fact that I am terrified of heights, bees, haunted houses, thunderstorms, and the possibility of snakes coming up through the toilet bowl_and I pretend not to see that he_s crying in movies that have to do with dogs dying. Anyway. We_d both been pretty much living the single life in New York City for years, basically hanging out together because, frankly, we were still hung up on our previous relationships . . . and then a year ago, we were at our third wedding reception in two months, when Judd suddenly turned to me and said, _You know something? I_m sick of this. What we_re doing with our lives is bullshit. We need to get back out there and meet people for real._ I looked down at my patent leather Jimmy Choo Wedding Reception High Heels, bought under duress. _And by people, I_m assuming you_re referring to_?_ He looked me in the eye. _Yeah. Our future spouses. I_m thinking this is our year to meet them. We_re going to get serious about getting serious. You in?_ Well, of course I was. I_d been bumbling around year after year since my divorce, not really finding anybody who would play the part of Husband in my fantasies about marriage. Ever since Steve Hanover took what I used to call my heart and stomped on it, I_ve lost a bit of my mojo. I_m mostly content to come home, strip off my glamorous work clothes, scrub off my mascara, put on leggings, and sit down at the kitchen table and make myself work on the novel that I_ve been writing off and on for five years now. The novel that makes me feel I_m more than simply The Person Who Attends Other People_s Weddings and Then Goes Home to Listen to Her Eggs Drying Up. But now, Judd and I were going to tackle the problem head-on. Action! We did our old Pemberton High handshake to seal the deal. _And,_ he said, _I think we_re going to have to do online dating. And spreadsheets. No going out with people from work either! Or blind dates. We_re going to be organized about this! We are going to rock this thing! We_ll have a system in place! We_ll report to each other! Dissect-A-Date, we_ll call it._ Judd has never found a situation in life that couldn_t be improved by launching a planned attack, especially if it involves a spreadsheet. Overnight, we turned into each other_s dating concierges and post-date consolers. Dissect-A-Date provides everything from fashion advice to profile consultations and postmortems. We also give tips on getting along with the opposite sex when necessary. _Women like to feel you really see them,_ I instructed him. _You have to listen without interrupting. And then ask questions. Also noticing her shoes will go a long way. And it should go without saying, no burping._ _Okay. And I need to tell you that men don_t love it when women are extra picky about ordering food in a restaurant,_ he said to me. _Only allow yourself to badger the waiter about the origins of one ingredient per date. You do not need to see the late chicken_s vision board._ Our dating experiment did not start out well. There were lots of duds. One night, three months in, when we were at my apartment watching Friday Night Lights and eating popcorn, I told him that maybe, instead of finding somebody and getting married, I would just write books, take a succession of lovers, and perhaps learn to do interesting things with scarves and shawls. _It_s possible,_ I said, _that the short, stunted little marriage I already had was it for me in the matrimony department._ _Come on. That_s ridiculous. You_ll meet somebody else. You just got to put yourself out there. It_s a numbers game._ _But here_s the problem. I don_t remember how to fall in love,_ I told him. _I sit across the table from all these perfectly presentable men, and I simply can_t remember what switch gets flipped to make me care about any one of them._ _Seriously? Listen to me,_ he said at last. _This is the writer in you, isn_t it? You_re always overthinking things. The way I see it: love is a decision, not a feeling. That_s what you may be forgetting._ _I used to be so good at it,_ I told him. _Then the other day I actually found myself asking Google, _How do you fall in love?__ He shook his head. _Yeah? And what wisdom did the Google have to offer?_ I shrugged. _Google said you can_t force it. That_s why it_s called falling._ The diner is hopping. Alphonse, our favorite waiter, greets us when we come in: _Phronsiejudd! At last the night can begin!_ And then he rushes over with our favorite beers_me a Blue Moon and Judd a Sam Adams. Alphonse and Judd have to take a few minutes to discuss the Jets (as usual), which are disappointing (as usual). Alphonse, jolly, gregarious, is grinning and snapping his towel as he talks, but I_m watching Judd. There_s something weird about him tonight, the way he_s fidgeting and smiling too hard. He keeps cracking his knuckles. As soon as another party comes in_five loud, dressed-up people, all smiling_Alphonse glides away to seat them, and I turn to him. _So what_s this great epiphany you had?_ I say. He turns to look at me, and his eyes are bright and kind of crazy. He leans forward and takes my hands. Very uncharacteristic of him, taking my hands. _Look at me. Look at my face. Do I look different to you? Because I think I might have gone two notches up on the maturity scale. I suddenly know what I want in life._ _Wait. Did this come from being on a date you hated?_ _I think maybe it did. That horrible woman with her hair tossing propelled me into maturity._ _And what do you want?_ I release my hands from his and take a sip of my beer. He leans even closer, and now his eyes are practically boring into mine. _I want to get married._ I study him silently, uncomprehending. _To you,_ he says. _I want to marry you._ I laugh. It_s so ridiculous. Ludicrous, even, this idea, sailing in from out of the blue. Trust me; there has been nothing_nothing_in the thirty-one years of our friendship that has this making any kind of sense. _You do not want to marry me, and you know it,_ I tell him firmly. _I know what this is. You_re having your annual going-home-for-Thanksgiving angst. This is a Tandy_s crisis, plain and simple. And marriage to me won_t solve it._ He laughs. _No,_ he says. _This is way bigger than Tandy_s._ Okay. Let me stop here and tell you about Tandy_s. Tandy_s is a bar and grill in our hometown. And every year, when Judd and I go back home to Pemberton for Thanksgiving, it_s become a tradition for all our old high school friends to meet there every night, once we_ve gotten through with our family responsibilities and put our parents to bed, that is. Everybody shows up. At first Tandy_s nights used to be all about everybody knocking back some beers and complaining about their parents. Then the diamond rings started showing up on the fingers of the Early Marriage Adopters, as Judd calls them_and after that came a sprinkling of infants. (That was fine; we could still cope.) But now that we_re all in our midthirties, not only has every other person in our high school class acquired a spouse, they now also have kids. Real kids. And not just babies anymore; they have middle-sized children. And mortgages! The dreaded minivans! Orthodontist bills! And what do we have? By Tandy_s standards, we have zilch. (My heartbreaker of a marriage didn_t even last long enough for me to show my husband off to the Tandy_s crowd.) I_m not going to lie_our trip back on the train has been known to turn into a Greek tragedy_complete with some gnashing of teeth, spilling of regrets, rending of garments, you name it. Mostly by Judd, if you want to know the truth. He_s often saying he feels pathetic, which is so crazy, because Judd is doing great. Both of us are. We just don_t have any spouses and kids. We_re behind in that department. What our classmates don_t realize is that Judd has his own gym and was written up in the New York Post for the way he gets little old ladies to bench press. He has groupies! (And so what that they_re senior citizens?) As for me, nobody at home quite gets it that I_m working for a New York publisher, and that I got to meet Anne Tyler one time. And that I own ten black leggings and fourteen black turtlenecks, and I go to book launches and corporate cocktail parties. And that Judd and I see celebrities all the time, get takeout at three a.m., and know the ins and outs of the New York subway system, even the mystifying weekend schedule. We understand rent stabilization, for pity_s sake. Also, I_m writing an actual novel. I_m on page 135 of it, which is decent progress, considering I work all the time and only have evenings and Saturday mornings at Starbucks to work on it. But no_we don_t have babies and two-car garages and picket fences. And more times than I like to admit, frankly, I_m eating dinner out of a Styrofoam takeout carton, standing over the sink, having just run in from work even though it_s almost bedtime. But I like New York life, really. I picked this. I knew early on that New Hampshire wasn_t where I was supposed to be, and I escaped. I went to NYU, and then stayed. Judd came to Manhattan ten years ago_not because of me, but because in his rambling search for employment and a new start, he_d gotten a job as a personal trainer in a New York gym. I suspect he really came because the per capita number of supermodels is so much greater in New York than on the farm. (The boy appreciates beauty.) So why do we forget all that when we_re faced with our old friends and their settled-down lives? I do not know. I remember them as teenagers_the girls gossipy and funny, chewing gum, making big plans, and the boys handsome and strong, all of them smelling of Old Spice as we_d make out in their pickup trucks in the woods. I loved them then, and I love them now, even as I am so glad deep down that I didn_t stay and marry one of them. The Old Spice guys are doughy and complacent now. They_ve somehow turned into our fathers, pontificating about the weather and the price of beans. The women are sarcastic in their discontent, hands on hips, eyes rolling. Men! they say. Why can_t they ever listen! But you get with a bunch of people you used to love, and see them coupled up, passing around pictures of their babies, and you can_t help but notice the looks that pass between husbands and wives, and the way they finish each other_s sentences, steeped in all that intimacy and knowing . . . and sometimes seeing that just kills you is all. Even my twin brother, Hendrix, fell in love in high school and never looked back. It was as though he and Ariel Evans, his chemistry lab partner, had been destined from birth to be together. They now have three little boys, and Ariel, despite her ethereal name, manages their household like she_s the CEO of a well-run corporation, making lists and schedules and barking out commands to keep all four of her males in line. And Hendrix seems just fine with that. When I once pulled him aside and asked how he adapts to all the organization his life contains_not to mention the nagging_he just shrugged and said, _So Ariel nags_so what? I love her. She_s not perfect. This is what marriage looks like, Phronsie._ He sounded impatient, like he was having to teach me remedial life skills or something. And_well, now that I_m thirty-six, I have to admit that I really, really want what Hendrix has. Somebody just for me. I want a guy who has his own side of the bed next to my side of the bed, whose clothes hang next to mine in the closet, and who will take the scary spiders outside and let them loose, and who will understand the look I get on my face when I want to leave a party. Who knows that I like chocolate rum raisin ice cream best of all, but red raspberry can do in a pinch_never vanilla. And who tells me all his secrets and listens to all of mine when he_s lying across the pillow from me. Who lights up when he sees me. Who has hidden places in his personality that only I know about. And, what the hell, I want somebody to be listed as next of kin on the hospital form, should it come to that_a guy who has the legal right to visit me if I_m ever in the ICU. And, despite my never thinking this desire would sweep over me, I want a baby. I badly want a baby. Which is a big surprise, even to myself. But I do. But this guy across the table_the one proposing_well, he isn_t the one for all of that. He_s great. He_s fun, he_s nice, he_s interesting. He knows the part about the chocolate rum raisin ice cream, and he_s willing to carry spiders outside. But the simple fact is: he is not in love with me, and never has been. Period. Alphonse swoops down just then, bearing a plate of eggplant fries and hummus, and plops it down in front of Judd. The diner_s idea of health food. _This is on the house, Juddie my buddy,_ he says. _Not to be pushy or anything, but you look like you could use some oil and salt. And thanks for helping me move my stuff the other day, man._ _Anytime. You know that,_ Judd says, and they do a fist bump and Alphonse glides away. _When did you help him move?_ I say. _Oh, last week. He found a cheaper rent, and so he needed some help with the couch and a desk. I went over and helped him load up the truck._ He eats a handful of eggplant fries and looks at me. _Look. I know what you_re thinking. But this isn_t about Pemberton or Tandy_s or anything like that,_ he says. _I want to get married, to you, and it_s not about what anyone else thinks._ _But it_s not really about me either,_ I say. _And you know how I know that? Because we are not in love. Case closed._ _I know, but that_s the best part. Just hear me out. This is brilliant when you think about it. First premise: Nobody wants to be alone for their whole life. I don_t, you don_t. Second premise: We_re already old friends. Unlike most of the people we know who got married because they were madly in love, we still actually like each other, and they don_t. Third premise: We have what most marriages are aiming for, which is true compatibility. We put up with each other._ _Judd, I . . . forgive me, but putting up with each other is not a very high mark. That won_t get us through the first six weeks._ _Wait. Look at this. Before we came tonight, I made a little temporary engagement ring for you out of a twist tie I had._ He reaches into his sweatpants pocket and pulls out a piece of wire covered with peppermint-striped paper, all knotted up into a circle, and hands it to me. _The good thing about this kind of ring is that it_s adjustable. And replaceable._ He gives me a big smile. _You could get a new one from me every week._ _Wow. You are really going all out with making a compelling case._ _I know. I_ve put a lot of thought and effort into this._ I feel dazed. How long has he been thinking about this? Also, it_s interesting that he doesn_t even bother to dispute my claim that we_re not in love. He_s not even put out by my refusing him. I take a sip of my beer and look over at the normal people in the diner, people who are talking and laughing and who presumably know who they should marry and who they should not. Who have never had to explain to another person that being in love is an important component to married life. _I just don_t see how you can discount love like this,_ I say. _It_s insulting to love to talk like it doesn_t matter._ _No, no. It does matter. But the truth is, this is love. You don_t recognize it. But love is all this good stuff that we already have__he stops to wave his arms in the air, taking in everything__the history we share and these diner evenings and the times we_ve eaten popcorn while we watch Friday Night Lights. I put butter on my popcorn for you, Phronsie! That_s what love is_not all that moonlight and sonnets and walking in the rain bullshit. Nobody wants to walk in the rain! Nobody! And nobody likes suspense or playing games._ _I don_t know,_ I say slowly. _Look. I made up my mind that if we both had unsatisfactory dates tonight, I was going to ask you. Because, Phronsie, face it: we are not happy with dating. We_ve put a whole year into finding spouses, and look at it this way: maybe we couldn_t because we are the spouses. You know?_ My face feels hot. I lower my voice. _Judd, please. I want to be in love. And you do, too. Remember that? Remember Karla Kristensen and your year of pining away? No offense, but it was kind of a big deal in your life._ _No offense to you, but how has that worked out in either of our lives? I believe you were, as you call it, madly in love when you got married before and__ I flap my hands at him, beseeching him to stop. I was married to Steve Hanover for eight months, two weeks, three days, and either ten or eleven hours. And yes, I was in love with him beyond all sanity. But it went badly. Maybe he was too handsome for me_he was a 9.8, while, with excellent lighting and a new haircut and color, I can achieve an 8.2 for maybe fifteen whole minutes before I slide back down to a 7. Possibly you have to stay in your own category, looks-wise. Anyway, I came home from work unexpectedly one day (which a person should never, ever do, by the way), and there he was in our bed with some woman underneath him. Her legs were spread out on my bedspread, and before I started to scream, all I could think was that sex really looks and sounds quite ridiculous when you arrive upon it without warning. When it_s not you doing it. I hit him on the butt. I also threw my purse at her little pink polished toenails. I made screeching noises and pulled at my own hair. And then I delivered the ultimatum_that she was to get out of my apartment in two minutes or I was calling the cops. It took her nine whole minutes to leave. And when she did, Steve sailed out right along with her. He said something about a lawyer, and also that he wished me good luck. He looked only vaguely chagrined that he_d been caught so dramatically. He actually said maybe it had been for the best, that at last I knew the truth. The best? Who was he kidding, using the word best? And yet . . . and yet, when Steve Hanover proposed, he had gotten down on one knee next to the boathouse in Central Park. His eyes had been glistening with tears of joy. It felt like magic. A crowd gathered and people cheered for us. There was an actual diamond engagement ring involved. We held it up for the crowd to see. And when he left . . . well, I hate to admit this because I want to be a strong, independent, fearless woman, still fighting and rebelling and raising hell, but the truth is that Steve killed off something in me. I stopped feeling like there was somebody out there who was going to really understand me. Who would take care of my bruised little heart. I guess I just stopped trusting in love to be the thing that would save me. So now the contrast is not lost on me. Here I am, getting my second marriage proposal of my lifetime, and I_m sitting in a diner, under fluorescent lights that do not bring out my best features, especially at 1:05 a.m. And the gentleman proposing is now going on and on about how nobody we know who married for love is happy over that choice. He_s naming names, counting them on his fingers. This one is having an affair; this one wants separate bedrooms and separate vacations. These two don_t speak. And in fact, hadn_t I noticed that the whole scene at Tandy_s the past few years has just been filled with married people arguing? Judd is now leaning forward, and his eyes are lit up from within, burning into mine. _If you look around, we_re the only ones who still get along, and you know why? Because being madly in love is a temporary condition of insanity, that_s why. Wait until this weekend when we go see Russell and Sarah to meet the new baby. Those two are so in love that they_re practically ready to kill each other._ The twist tie ring sits between us on the table, getting wet from the condensation from the beer bottle. In another hour, it will revert back to just being a piece of wire. He stops talking for a moment. I look at his eyes, the swoop of dark hair he has falling across his forehead. He looks older than he did the last time I really took a good look at him. We_re both older. God, we_ve been friends for so long. He knows my family history: my witchy, hippie mom in Woodstock and my algebra-teaching stepmom who worries about everything_and my grumpy old dad. He_s the one who can make my dad smile. He_s hung out with me and Hendrix our whole lives, slept over at our house countless times. We were the Three Musketeers. Also, I know his parents_two sweet, baffled people from Hungary who married late and were nearly fifty when he, their only child, came barreling into their lives. They didn_t even know children had to have birthday parties! And they never once went to a football game of his. Thought they weren_t invited maybe. _I gotta ask you something,_ I say. _Are you doing this because you_re giving up? Is it because you_re afraid you_re not going to meet anyone you really could love?_ _What? No. No, Phronsie. I don_t want to meet anyone else. I don_t know anybody I_d rather be with than you. And I_m sick of dating. I want to be married. I want to have children. I want a regular life, like the other grown-ups. That_s it. My whole case. I want to marry you._ _I_m sick of dating, too,_ I tell him. Forty-three men and not one of them looked like anybody I could ever love. _But,_ I say, _there is this firefighter who wants to have coffee with me . . ._ He puts both his hands down flat on the table and smiles. _Okay, so go ahead and date the firefighter. Date number forty-four. It_s fine. Go see if he_s your Prince Charming, but I bet you anything he isn_t. Anyway, even if he is, it would take you decades to fill him in on everything about you, stuff that I already know and accept. I accept you, Phronsie. Just let that sink in._ My head is spinning the slightest bit. Like the way I felt one time on the roller coaster right before I threw up. I think Judd was there for that time, too. _Also,_ I say. _How to put this delicately? You like women who have . . . good looks. Push-up bras. Legs up to their armpits. And that_s fine. For you. But I don_t care about any of that. I can_t make myself go beyond, shall we say, a certain level of body maintenance. I will not, for instance, ever get a bikini wax. So if you_re expecting that, you are going to be__ He is waving his arms around in front of his face. _Stop, stop, with the bikini whatever. No! No to that! God!_ _Well? It_s a reasonable question. I_ve seen who you date._ _I don_t care about any of that stuff. Seriously. You have to believe me. I want this. This. And I also happen to think we_ll be terrific parents. We_ll have kids and take them to the park, and ride bikes together. We_re going to rock this parenthood thing._ Yes. Parenthood. He loves children; he would read them stories and let them climb on his back. I_ve seen him with Hendrix_s kids. I_ve seen him making kids in the park laugh, even here in New York. _So . . . in this plan of yours . . . what about sex?_ I say. He bugs out his eyes. _Did I not just tell you there would be children? Obviously there will be sex._ _Well, that_s the part_I mean, we never have. Aren_t you worried that maybe we don_t have any, um, chemistry?_ _Nope. Sex is the easy part,_ he says. _Of course we_ll have sex. It just won_t be the driving force. Our friendship is._ _No offense, but I kind of like the driving force aspect. Driving force actually makes me swoon, now that I think about it._ _Well,_ he says. _I can manufacture driving force if that_s what you need. But we are not going to have romantic suspense and agony, if that_s all right with you. That I don_t want._ My mind scrolls back through all the dating disasters I_ve endured. Years of them. All the hours and hours of waiting for the guy to call, worrying that I wasn_t attractive enough or attentive enough or didn_t have enough sparkling conversation to get through an evening. The fake laughter I manufactured too many times to count. The flattery and flirtations I mastered. The times I_ve slept with a man because of what felt like a genuine mutual attraction . . . and then afterward endured days of torment, waiting for him to call. Followed, of course, by all the meditation and soul-searching and serious talks with my girlfriends when the jerk didn_t call. All of it has been so demoralizing, so soul-crushing. Maybe because it_s technically the middle of the night and I_m overtired, but I suddenly feel so furious at Mr. Cyber Security Previously Married No Kids for his cavalier attitude toward me. For the smirk on his face as he described how confusing it was to be a man trying to talk to women these days. In fact, I realize, I_m angry at the whole lot of them_the whole cadre of forty-three men I_ve gotten myself dressed up for. Angry about the manicures and pedicures and lipstick purchases, the hair appointments, the nice underwear, the hopes rising and falling, rising and falling. The notes I take afterward. The story I_m going to write. Furious about the number of times I_ve played _Love Has No Pride_ by Bonnie Raitt and screamed along to the lyrics. The only good part, I realize, has been telling Judd about these dates afterward, listening to him laugh. Hearing him tell about the vacuous women he_s been seeing. He_s smiling at me. _I don_t think,_ he says, _that I want to live in a world in which this isn_t the kind of love that really matters._ I get a little shiver at that. It_s really his best line. _Okay. I have some questions. If we got married,_ I say, _would that mean you_d call in sick for me when I can_t go to work? Because when I call, I always think it sounds like I_m faking._ _What? Well, yes, of course._ _And you_d rub my feet sometimes?_ _Okayyyy . . ._ _With no complaining about it, right? And, how about Mr. Swanky? He likes to sleep on the bed, you know._ _Phronsie, I_m not going to kick the dog off the bed._ _And . . . and . . . we_ll cook together and go grocery shopping and plan meals and throw parties for our friends sometimes? And we_ll sleep in the same bed, and you_ll hold me while I fall asleep?_ He_s smiling. He really does have a lovely smile. _Yes, all that. And I_ll take care of the children with you, and we_ll go on family vacations together. All of it. Marriage. Parenthood. All the good stuff._ _What about my novel?_ _What about it?_ _Will you not give me a hard time when I need to write it, even if it_s in the middle of the night or when you want to do something else, but I need to write?_ He stares at me. _I don_t care if you write a novel. Write it whenever you like._ _And no cheating?_ _No cheating._ _Ever, ever, ever?_ _What_s with you? I said no cheating._ _One more thing. Will we fall in love, do you think?_ He runs his hands across his hair, hard. _Phronsie, you may be missing the point. What we already have is love. There_s no falling to be done. We_re upright. This is what upright love looks like. Rubbing feet and going grocery shopping together_this is winning at love, as far as I_m concerned._ I drink the last of my beer and look at him. He raises his eyebrows questioningly, and I nod, so he puts the twist tie ring on my finger. _Wait. This is not official. I might need to talk to Sarah and Talia about this,_ I say. _Just to run it by them._ He laughs. _No, I understand. We can_t make a move without Sarah and Talia._ Sarah and Talia are my best friends; they were the first people I clicked with when I moved to New York. We were all Sex and the City together right after I graduated from NYU. I got to be Carrie Bradshaw because I was a writer and my hair looked like hers. We all went on dates and we drank a lot of wine, and we had fun, glamorous jobs, and we were dramatic and gloriously young with lots of good hair products and no bags under our eyes_and one by one, we met guys who became our husbands: Russell with Sarah, Talia with Dennis, me with Steve. Only their guys stuck around, and now they are having babies. Sarah and Russell just had one last week. They named the kid Willoughby after a street Russell lived on in Brooklyn. When we get back to our building, I look at Judd there beside me in the brightly lit lobby, at his large moist hands, his bright eyes, the little hairs under his nose that would like to turn into a mustache except he shaved them probably sixteen hours ago. The little crinkles around his eyes are now permanent, not just when he laughs. I see the same crinkles when I look at myself in the mirror; when I don_t get at least eight hours of sleep, I look like my face is collapsing in on itself. I_m a little bit stunned at how old_or rather mature_we_ve suddenly gotten overnight. We take the stairs up to my floor in silence_Judd always thinks people have to take the stairs instead of the elevator so we_ll still have muscles and bones that work when we_re eighty_and when we get there, we stand in the stairwell awkwardly. Oh God. Is he going to make a move on me? Am I ready for this? Then he puts his arms around me like we_ve done casually a bunch of times before. But this time he looks at me and smiles and then puts his mouth down on mine, hard. We don_t fit together, somehow. His nose hits my nose too hard, which makes my eyes water. This kiss is somehow too wet and also it doesn_t connect. Between my eyes watering and all the saliva that suddenly has sprung up between us, all I can think of is drowning. And would I be terribly awful if I mention that his nose hairs are tickling me? We move around a bit and try to make it work, but then he pulls away and laughs. He shrugs. _Not the end of the world. We_ll work on it,_ he says cheerfully and gives me a high five. _Also, can I borrow my ring back? My bread is going to get stale without it._ CHAPTER TWO I wake up the next day realizing I_m as close to a panic attack as I_ve been since Steve Hanover walked out on me. Mr. Swanky stares at me with his head tilted to the side, as I down two pharmaceutically required cups of coffee and start pacing around the apartment. _Am I really considering marrying Judd?_ I ask him. _Because that_s insane, right?_ He lies down with his head on his paws. I can tell he_s thinking it over. _Well, you_re right. I can_t be serious. There are absolutely forty-nine obvious reasons not to marry him that I didn_t even begin to think of last night._ As soon as it is even a remotely decent hour, I call Talia. She_s married to Dennis, a surgical resident who works about nine thousand hours a month, so she_ll be able to come up with at least a few reasons why marriage might not be the best thing ever. _Not to alarm you or anything, but I_m afraid I_m having a possible psychological emergency,_ I say to her as soon as she answers. _Can you meet me at Franco_s?_ _Oh my God,_ she says. _Do not tell me you_re moving out of the city._ _No, no._ _And it can_t be that you have an incurable disease either. Please. Although if you do have an incurable disease, forget I said that insensitive thing._ _No. It_s good news. I think. It might be. I mean, you_ll tell me if it is. It_s about marriage._ _Okay. Don_t give me any more details until I see you. If this is about one of your forty-three dates suddenly proposing marriage, I_m going to need some liquid fortification._ I see her immediately upon arrival at Franco_s. She_s dressed in an electric-blue tunic and leggings, with her red hair up in a bun, waving her arms in the air and calling, _Yoo-hoo!_ She_s managed to get our favorite table over by the window. The waiter comes over to take our order_mimosas and cranberry scones, our usual_and as soon as he_s gone, I put my napkin in my lap and say, as casually as I can, _So . . . it_s Judd. He proposed to me last night._ _Holy shit!_ she says. _I_m going to need about four of these drinks!_ She studies my face. _Hmm. Let me think. Not saying he_s the candidate I would have expected, but still . . . a good guy. I like him. Dennis likes him. As much as Dennis likes anybody who_s not working at the hospital. So what brought this on, if I may ask?_ I give her the rundown of Judd_s proposal: friendship over romance, no jealousy or drama, partners forever, babies, security, on and on. _It actually made a little bit of sense at the time, but then I couldn_t sleep all night, and now I_ve had two cups of coffee, and I_m hyperventilating, and I just feel . . . crazy. I asked him what about being in love, and he said that hadn_t worked out so well for me in the past, and that life shouldn_t look like a romantic comedy, and if this companionship we have isn_t love, then he doesn_t want to live in the world anymore. Or something. I don_t know what to do._ I_m so tired I just want to put my head down on the table and rest awhile. _So, that_s crazy, isn_t it? Nobody should get married for those reasons. Right? This is nuts._ Talia is trying to hide a smile. _Well, for starters, he has a little bit of a point,_ she says. _Call it what you will_love or friendship is all semantics_but I think it_s possible that this has been the path you two have been on for years. It_s just taken some wide detours. Like the Steve Hanover detour, for instance._ She leans closer. _Have you slept with him?_ _No! Judd_s not_he_s never acted like we were anything but pals._ _So you_re saying you_ve never had sex with him. Never?_ _Never._ _Not even for boredom? Or availability? In all these years? Why not?_ _We haven_t had sex because we . . . just haven_t. It_s not that kind of relationship._ She frowns. _Well, you_re definitely going to want to make sure that part works before you sign on. He_s not against it, is he? Oh my God, is he one of those guys who dates supermodels but actually he_s really gay?_ _No. I know this dude. It_s always been women for him._ _Okay, then. Well, you_ll have sex with him, and then you_ll know if you should marry him._ _It_s probably going to be embarrassing. You know. Because we know each other so well . . . but haven_t been attracted in that way. Last night he kissed me and all I could think of was that his nose hairs were tickling me. Is that a bad sign?_ _You just have to do a little mental adjustment. Move him out of the friend zone and into the hot boyfriend zone. It takes some imagination. Luckily, he_s really handsome. And built. So it shouldn_t be hard._ _Yeah. He is._ I look down at my hands. Talia sees my face and reaches over and touches my arm. _Honey. It_s fine, trust me. Some love stories don_t follow the usual trajectory. Also, for some people, sex isn_t the main thing. Just jump his bones, and you_ll see what_s what._ _I guess so. I_m a little concerned, though. I want it to be hot sex. Everybody wants a life with hot sex. What if he_s not attracted to me?_ Talia says, _Of course he_s attracted to you. He wouldn_t be suggesting you get married if he wasn_t attracted to you._ She folds her napkin. _Maybe it_s time for me to let you in on a little secret. I hate to break it to you, but sex is not all that hot once you_ve been married for a couple of years. And, also, really now, consider how little good sex you_re actually getting in your life these days. You_ve been on forty-three of the craziest dates I_ve ever even heard of. Remember the guy who brought a rubber snake with him just to see if you were afraid of them? And the one who said he_s on his tenth lifetime and that he thinks you were his naughty nursemaid back in the eighteen hundreds?_ _I know. It_s been a bad run._ _Okay. So if you_re asking, I think you should marry him,_ says Talia. _He_ll be loyal to you for the rest of your life. He_ll be like your own personal Saint Bernard. Unlike your stupid ex-husband, whom I would still like to go punch in the face, you can count on Judd._ We sit there in silence for a moment, me picturing all the tears I_d shed over Steve Hanover. And realizing how much I_d let that bad experience keep me from ever trusting again. Talia reaches over and takes my hand. _I know, honey,_ she says. _Everything else aside, Judd makes you laugh, he loves the same movies you do, and he loves your dog, and_I think this is huge_he won_t bring rubber snakes around you or try to get you to quit your job so you can take care of his every need. You already like being with him, and that_s worth everything. You_re just having trouble letting your heart trust again. But Judd isn_t going to break your heart, sweet pea. He wouldn_t have asked you to marry him if he didn_t truly want to spend his life with you. He_s a grown-up, and he_s dated enough that he knows what he wants, and it_s not supermodels. It_s you._ I wipe away a stray tear. _And I can have a baby,_ I say. She sees my face. _And you can have a baby. Only don_t move to New Jersey when you do, unless I_m going there, too._ It_s a beautiful fall day, and so I walk through the park to my office. I need to pick up a file about the proposed book tour for one of my more controversial authors. But mostly I_m heading there because I love going in on Saturdays and working on my novel when it_s just me. I can sit at my desk and type for hours without interruption; no Mr. Swanky to ask to go in and out, no coffee shop patrons talking out loud next to me. No people. Just me and my novel. But then suddenly I find myself next to a playground, which feels very auspicious, filled as it is with adorable little humans, all running and laughing and shouting. And their parents_ah, the parents seem to me to be beautiful, stylish-looking, well-adjusted adults_both men and women_holding paper cups of coffee and talking and smiling. I am going to belong here. I_m going to be one of those women pushing a stroller with a new baby in it, while my adorable little boy runs over to the climbing structure_he_s just like his father, loves to climb. That_s what I_ll say to the mom next to me, as I take the baby out of her stroller, and I_ll smile down at the baby as she curls her little fist around my finger and coos. And that night, Judd will give them a bath while I cook dinner, and then while he does the dishes (he loves to do dishes), I_ll put the children to bed and sniff their sweet-smelling hair and nuzzle their soft little cheeks, and then I_ll work on my novel, propped up on pillows on our bed, while Judd_well, I don_t know what Judd is doing. Push-ups in the living room or something. Figuring out somebody_s physical fitness plan. Last year when my friend Sarah told me that she couldn_t take her eyes off babies everywhere she went, I was like, _But why?_ And she gave me a funny look and said, _Because they_re so cute. And they_re the future and the meaning of life, and I love the way their cheeks are so fat, and the way they have such goofy smiles, and . . ._ And she went on for a lot longer than was absolutely necessary, listing every little thing about babies she could think of, even expounding about their toes and their eyelashes, until we reached the subway and I had to say good-bye to her. And when I got on the A train and settled into my seat, I felt like I_d just escaped from a very boring movie or a political rally by a not-very-galvanizing candidate. But now. Now I get exactly what she was talking about. I really could get married to Judd. All I have to do is make a few minor, minor adjustments to my expectations, a few tweaks_and we could be just like these parents, right here in the park. I watch for a few more delicious minutes, and then I tear myself away. CHAPTER THREE Tiller Publishing Company is located in a skyscraper-ish building overlooking the FDR Drive and the river. I work on the fourteenth floor, in an office that not only has a big window, but also came furnished with the most amazing pink brocade couch. Like a fainting couch. And bookshelves! Filled with books. There_s a coffee room down the hall and a big conference room with a long walnut table and twelve chairs all lined up, where we have our weekly meetings under the watchful eye of Darla Chapman, the head of publicity. I_ve been there ten years and am now second-in-command to Darla, which is why I get one of the bigger offices with a couch. As one of the more senior people there_let_s face it, I_m something of a dowager here, rather like the Queen Mother_I_m assigned to mentor the younger publicists, who are always hanging around my office bringing me their questions and problems. That_s who mostly sits on the fainting couch these days_people who want to know the best way to tell an author that we_re probably not going to be able to send him on a thirty-city tour for a book about the life of an aquarium guppy. Publicity can be a grinding job when you_re having to manage authors_ expectations all the time, dealing with a dwindling number of magazines and reviewers and book tours and budgets. You have to get good at smiling while you say, I_m sorry, but that_s probably not going to happen, a lot. As I_m walking down the hall to my office, I hear, _Oh, hey, Phronsie,_ from the office next to mine. My heart sinks. I won_t be alone after all. It_s the new guy_Adam Cunningham. He started two months ago, and he_s a displaced surfer from California and has no background in marketing. He just likes to read, he told me, and somehow from that and the fact that his father is somebody important, he got an interview and talked his way into getting hired. Cutely strange-looking, with curly tangled hair that_s blond on the top and various shades of dark as it gets closer to his scalp. Beach hair, he told me once. Can_t do a thing to tame it. _Hey, so what are you doing here on a Saturday?_ he says, smiling. He wheels his chair back from his desk and puts his hands behind his head. He has large, white, even teeth. He_s always smiling, flashing those teeth at me during staff meetings, mostly from across the conference room table. Sometimes he makes faces at me, like when I_m trying to be serious and he_s trying to get me to laugh. _Well,_ I say, _I_ve got an author who_s stirring up some trouble, and I came to get the file so I can start figuring out what to do about her before Darla weighs in on the whole mess._ I lean against his doorframe. _But you! You_re new to the city. Aren_t you required by law to be out there soaking up all the fun things?_ Go, go, go, I am thinking. He shakes his head. _Actually,_ he says, clearing his throat, _I_m here because I_m trying to do extra work to suck up to Darla so she_ll let me have some extra days off Thanksgiving week. My family is making a huge hairy deal of the fact that I_m missing out on my grandpa_s birthday. I think he_s turning one hundred and forty-two, and it_s all hands on deck._ _Oh. Well, she_ll probably say yes to that. She likes suck-ups._ Actually, Darla has told me she_s had her doubts about whether he_s going to work out, and that I should let her know if there are any red flags with him. I saw from the file that he_s twenty-eight, but he seems younger than that. Maybe it_s the surfer-boy persona. He_s too . . . too . . . something for this job, Darla said. Too quirky maybe. _Keep an eye on him._ It_s true: he is a little strange and offbeat. For instance, he has two little ceramic gnomes who sit on the windowsill like they_re standing guard. Gnomeo and Juliet, he told me. Gnomes. And now that I look over, I see that they_re not on the windowsill anymore; they_re sitting on his desk in a little platter of dirt, and Adam_s holding a miniature tractor in his hand. He sees me looking, but does he put it down and look appropriately embarrassed? He does not. He just smiles at me and shrugs. _Gnomes are creatures of the land,_ he says. _I found them a tractor, and so then I thought I_d bring them in some dirt to farm._ _Sure,_ I say. Perhaps, as his official mentor here, I should tell him that a lot of people might not bring in their odd personal collections to the office right after being hired. Especially if they_re trying to fit into the corporate culture. But why should I be the one to quash his originality? I find him kind of brave, to tell you the truth. He may even be a marketing genius, despite not having any training. One day at a staff meeting, for instance, he made a pitch for having an author do a reading at the Stardust Diner, a New York landmark where the waiters and waitresses break into oldies songs while they serve the food. Seems the book was about rock _n_ roll, and why not have it celebrated right there, in between songs? That_s what he said at the meeting. Everyone was silent, looking down at their hands, waiting to see what the correct response might be, as dictated by Darla_s expression. As I may have mentioned, I_ve worked there for ten years, longer than anyone, so I cleared my throat and said this sounded like a splendid, radical idea, but Darla frowned and said it wasn_t _the kind of thing we do._ Yeah. So he probably won_t be here long. He_ll discover that we_re way too boring for him, and that will lead him to remember that the Pacific Ocean really does have excellent waves, and he_ll pack up his gnomes and their tractor and go back. Right now he_s smiling at me. He_s got his feet propped up on his desk, like he_s right at home. He_s wearing brown leather sandals. _So to tell you the real truth, I_m actually hiding out here. My apartment is about the size of a hamster cage, and I have this roommate who rehearses operatic duets in the bathroom with his girlfriend. Something about tile providing the best acoustics. I don_t know._ _And what? You don_t think opera is more important than showers?_ _Of course. Opera is more important than everything! At least that_s what I_ve learned. But every now and then a guy just wants to brush his teeth without the third act of La Boh?me happening all around him._ He laughs and picks up the gnome and says almost shyly, _Okay, so now can I tell you the real reason I_m here?_ He looks so adorably serious and vulnerable holding that silly little thing that I almost want to go over and hug him. _There_s another real reason? Is this when you tell me you_re planning a takeover of Tiller Publishing or something like that? Stealing trade secrets?_ He laughs. _Nope. The real thing is that I_m writing a novel,_ he says quietly, as if this is a shameful secret and he might be overheard. I know the feeling. _And there_s something about the vibe here that makes it kind of a good place to work on it. I don_t know, but I like working on it here._ I nod, and for some reason_though I haven_t mentioned my novel to any other person there_I find myself telling him that that_s why I_m there, too. Then I_m suddenly terrified he_s going to suggest that we read each other_s pages or form a writing group or something hideous like that, so when my cell phone rings, I_m relieved. It_s Judd. I shrug to signal to Adam that I have to take this. _Hey, so how did Talia vote?_ says Judd. _She thinks we should do it,_ I tell him, walking back to my own office. I smile at Adam. _She says you_ll be like a faithful Saint Bernard._ _Well,_ Judd says. _I_m not so sure that_s the most flattering thing anybody_s ever said about me. But does this mean what I think it means? We_re a go?_ _Judd, nobody on earth uses that terminology for marriage. You don_t say _we_re a go._ And anyway, I_ve still got a coffee date with a firefighter tomorrow. Remember?_ _Of course I remember,_ Judd is saying. _The way I see it, we_re just one heroic firefighter away from wrapping this up._ __Wrapping this up_? Again, Judd, this is not__ He laughs. _Okay, okay, so what do the romantic guys say?_ He makes his voice go to what he considers romantic but isn_t. _Let_s see. I_m pining for your answer, sweet Phronsie. Your eyes are like molten pools of lava . . ._ _Stop it,_ I say. But I_m laughing. _So listen, I_m going to be home later. You want to come over? Have dinner? And maybe . . . ?_ _Oh. Can_t,_ he says. _I forgot to tell you last night that I agreed to go camping overnight with Sean Johnson and his two boys. They_re picking me up in a few minutes, as a matter of fact._ _Judd! Don_t we have the thing with Russell and Sarah tomorrow evening?_ _We_ll be back in the early afternoon. I think Sean just wants me to go so his kids won_t outnumber him. And so I can fight off bears if need be._ _Oh,_ I say. _Well, all right. Have fun. Don_t get eaten by bears. See you!_ _Enjoy your firefighter,_ he says. _Bye._ Enjoy your firefighter? Enjoy your firefighter? I sit there, contemplating all the levels of that statement. Does he really mean it would be fine with him if I met someone else? He does. I think he really does. He_d be happy for me if I fell in love with someone else. He is absolutely non-possessive, non-jealous_and I_m sorry, but I hate that. I turn on the computer and see an email Darla has written me about my problematic author. I have been in charge of Gabora Pierce-Anton for years now, one of the superstars of children_s literature_only now she_s written a book that is politically and racially insensitive, and it_s up to me to deal with her. We_ll discuss this at the staff meeting on Monday, Darla wrote. I have some disturbing news about her plans for a book tour. Great. Love disturbing news at a staff meeting! And really, really love that Darla won_t tell me what it is in advance so I can prepare. Adam shows up at my door. He_s holding his backpack. _I_m taking off,_ he says. _See you Monday._ _Okay. Good to see you. Hope you get to enjoy the day._ But he doesn_t move. Just stands there, smiling at me. _And hey_are you_I mean, did I discern from that phone call I was eavesdropping on . . . um . . . that you_re getting married?_ _Am I?_ I laugh, flustered. _I_m_well, I_m thinking about it. This guy is my oldest friend from childhood, and he thinks we should get married because we_re getting up there in years_haha_and sick of dating, and we didn_t meet anybody else yet._ I throw my hand out into the air in what is meant to be a cute, dramatic gesture of carefreeness, and instead hit it on the filing cabinet. I try to keep my expression neutral so he doesn_t see that I_m in so much pain I_m seeing stars. _Oh._ Adam shifts the backpack to his other shoulder. _Is this one of those pact things? Like you get to a certain age and then if you haven_t met someone else, you marry each other? Like some kind of romantic comedy thing._ _Well. No. Not really. He just sprung this on me last night. You know. The way one does. You know, the old _let_s get married because we haven_t met anyone else_ thing._ What is wrong with me? Why am I talking like this? Like none of this matters to me. When I know that if Judd wanted to cancel his camping trip and stay home and have sex with me_well, that might seal the deal right there. If it was good enough, I might even cancel the firefighter. _Huh,_ he says. _Well. Congratulations? Maybe?_ _That sounds about right,_ I say. _Congratulations maybe._ _And hey, good luck with your novel._ _You too. Also, I guess it goes without saying that we won_t talk about this, right?_ _Correct._ After he leaves, I turn on the computer and open the file with my novel and read the last chapter I wrote. It_s blah. I crack my knuckles, then pack up my files having to do with my problem author, who I suspect is about to become The Bane of My Existence, and I make my way home. I go out for coffee with the firefighter the next afternoon. I tell myself this is giving falling in love a chance to bat last. I even dress up for the occasion. My best blue silk shirt and really nice black pants with no rips in them. I straighten my hair with the flat iron, even. I am halfway hoping he_ll show up in his firefighter suit, smelling vaguely of smoke and heroism. I hope that he_ll have ruddy skin and bloodshot eyes. He_ll be tender and solicitous. He_ll have recently saved a few children and some elderly people, and he_ll be so humble about it that I_ll have to drag the story out of him. I will be swept off my feet, and I_ll have to explain to Judd that true love does exist after all, and I can_t marry him. I_ve written in my head a whole scenario of the dramatic life we_ll have_he_ll save lives and I_ll quit my job and write full-time_and then when I walk into the Starbucks where we are to meet, there he is. I know him immediately. Unlike the rest of the people in there, he radiates confident heroism. It_s crowded so I thread my way among the tables to get to him, a tall guy with dark brown hair, and he_s reading the front section of the Times and looking like he could leap into action at any moment if, say, someone started choking on their latte. If the milk foamer behind the counter caught fire, he would be our man. From his profile, I already know his name is Oliver Tansey, and although he is not wearing his firefighter suit, he looks like he might have just taken it off and put on civilian clothes. I start immediately wondering if I should keep my maiden name because Phronsie Tansey may just be the most absurd name ever. When he sees me, he puts the paper down and uncrosses his legs and stands up with a slight smile on his face. He has lovely brown eyes. And one of those heroic clefts in his chin. A denim shirt. Jeans. _Phronsie Linnelle?_ he says. _Oliver,_ I say. _How nice to meet you._ My voice is only the slightest bit squeaky. We shake hands, and he offers to go up to get us something to drink. _Just coffee,_ I say. _Venti caff? Americano with cream. No sugar. Thank you._ _Decaf?_ he asks. _Why? What have you heard?_ I say. He blinks in surprise, not expecting me to be so humorous, I guess, and I say, _No. Regular. Sorry. I was joking._ _Oh,_ he says. _I_ll try to behave myself. But maybe ask for a double shot of espresso for my Americano. Unless you_re already too frightened of me._ _No, no. Coming right up,_ he says. Eyes crinkle in a facsimile of a smile, but he looks a little frightened maybe. See? This is a problem I keep having. Men do not seem to appreciate my jokes. Maybe all the men with my kind of humor were snapped up long ago and aren_t on dating sites. As he makes his way to the counter, I sit down and watch him. He_s slender and wiry. Nice butt. Probably excellent at leaping from burning buildings if that becomes necessary. He_s probably the guy you want to hold the net while people jump. But maybe not the guy you want with you at the comedy club. He comes back with our steaming cups and sits down across from me, smiling, and we start the business of oiling the creaky dating machinery. We both know the drill. The questions. What do you do when you have time off? Have you ever been married? Are you dating a lot these days? What_s your idea of a really fun time? Mountains or seashore? Sleep late or get up early? Wine or beer? Star Wars or Star Trek? When it_s my turn to talk, I veer off script. I_ve been on too many dates, and so I decide not to do the usual patter anymore. I take a deep breath, lean forward, and smile, and I start expounding about my complete lack of knowledge about the Stars_both Trek and Wars. And telling him some vaguely adorable stories about New Hampshire farm life_the day the chicken got into the kitchen and challenged the cat to a duel, and that time that someone spiked the punch at the 4-H dance_and I_m just about to ask if he believes we_re in for a zombie apocalypse sometime in the future, a fun question I just thought up, when suddenly his face changes. He puts down his cup of coffee and says to me in the voice a college admissions dean might use when he_s seen your unfortunate transcript from junior year: _Okay, well. Thank you so much. It_s been awfully nice to meet you._ _Um . . . yes,_ I say uncertainly. He_s looking over my head at someone. I turn around, and sure enough, there_s a woman who has just come in, and she_s looking at him like she may have murder on her mind. _You know her?_ I say, swiveling back to look at his face, which has turned the color of one of the fires he_s put out. _Should we be concerned?_ _Yes. No,_ he says. _I_m sorry. I didn_t think she_d show up._ _She looks mad,_ I say. _Is she stalking you or something?_ _I_m sorry. I have to go,_ he says. She_s not making her way any closer; in fact, when I peek around, I see that she seems to have decided to lean against the window, studying him. She_s wearing all black, and her blonde hair is slicked back. She looks like she might be packing heat, if you ask me. _Why is she so angry? You_re allowed to be here, aren_t you?_ _Listen, I might have married her. By mistake. We went to Vegas . . . a group trip . . . I might have had too much to drink._ _You married someone by mistake?_ I laugh, and then I see his face and see that it_s not funny at all. He_s married, and he_s dating, and his wife is right here in the building with us. I make a quick executive decision to go to the restroom rather than walk past her, and when I come out, thank goodness they are both gone. Date forty-four: Lying Cheating Firefighter. This is a first: the wife showing up. It will make a good report. I might have to lead with this when I write my story about online dating. Chalk up another point for Judd. CHAPTER FOUR My stepmother calls me on the phone when I_m getting on the subway to go back home. _I_ll have to call you back, Mags,_ I say, _I_m going underground,_ which sounds pleasantly ominous, I think. I don_t think she hears me because she says, _Oh, Phronsie, your father__ and then sure enough, the service goes off, and the subway is whisking me off in a subterranean rush. I turn my phone over and over in my hand, stare at the overhead ads for hair transplants, look at a woman across from me kissing a baby_s head. I would like to kiss that baby_s head myself. Let_s see. Your father . . . what? Your father . . . is dead? Your father . . . loves you so much even though he never acts like it? Your father . . . is the hardest man I_ve ever had to deal with, and I wish he_d never left your mother and come back to me . . . ? Any of these feel possible. I feel all the pricklings of dread coming over me. It_s been a tough few years for him and for Maggie, worse than usual in a series of routine hard ones. This was the year they had to make the difficult decision to sell off a lot of the farmland. Government subsidies had dried up, the price of milk had gone down, the prices for feed had skyrocketed. Add to that years of bad weather_springtime snowstorms, followed by floods and then hot, dry summers_so that when developers with money moved in closer, it was harder to say no. Friends were selling and moving away. My father clenched his jaw and said no way. He_d keep going. And he had good reason, I suppose. The farm had been bought by his great-great-grandfather Hiram Linnelle and kept in the family for well over a century. We were all raised on the stories, told with a kind of stubborn New Hampshire pride. We are the Linnelle family. We survive everything. Each generation worked the land, growing corn, raising cows and chickens, facing hardships. Everybody succeeding at it, more or less, until my dad. Yet for years, he kept plugging away at it because he had to. How would it look if he was the one who let it all go to hell? He invested in equipment. Added a little farm stand. He got up early in the mornings, he stayed out in the barn or in the fields until late at night; he worked alongside the field hands, planting and fertilizing and organizing. He was always tired, always sunburned, always halfway fed up, ready to explode. He had a way of taking off his hat and rubbing his hands across his hair real fast, like he had some demons in there he was trying to evict by force. Did he ever stop and look around him and just appreciate the place? I don_t know. After all, it_s a beautiful piece of land, our farm, with its stately white clapboard farmhouse, and two ponds and a little stream that meanders along around the back. There are gigantic oak trees that shade the house and also hand out acorns like they_re generous benefactors inviting the squirrels to a feast. And there are two barns, one of which my dad turned into a home for his mother, Bunny, after he married Maggie and needed the main house for our little family. The Bunny Barn sits next to the sunflower field, behind the main house, so for most of the year, a person can stand on tiptoes in our kitchen and see Bunny_s windows and the little trellis that runs up the side of her barn, dotted with morning glories. But life was never easy. As everyone kept explaining to me and Hendrix, this family enterprise was both our duty and our privilege. Not everyone had land. We were People of the Land. The lucky ones. Maggie, who was a teacher during the school year, spent her evenings doing the books and paying the bills, and her summers were devoted to selling sunflowers and corn and eggs at the farm stand. Hendrix and I worked there, too, from the time we were old enough to toddle out to people_s cars with their bags of produce. Maggie and I made little dream catchers in the summer and we baked pies and fried up apple cider doughnuts in the fall. There was a field of Fraser firs that we sold at Christmas. Hendrix and I were responsible for feeding chickens, collecting eggs, bringing cows in and out of the barn, taking care of the baby goats, and picking the flowers. Maggie cooked dinner every night, helped us with our homework, and invited our friends to come over for parties. There were hayrides and ice-skating parties, swimming in the pond, and sleeping out at night under the stars. Sort of your basic, idyllic, hardworking childhood home situation. Or would have been_except that through it all, my father strode through our lives with a pained expression on his face, like there was some horrible secret wound festering in the center of him, something that was wrestling his soul to the ground. There was no joy in his face when he looked out at the farm, no moments when I_d be outside with him and simply feel he was taking it all in, basking in his love of the land. He wasn_t happy. My theory is that he never really wanted the farm life in the first place. Here he was, a cherished only child, a hardworking, innocent, chores-doing kid who won prizes in 4-H for the best goats, and so it was simply a given that he would take over the farm someday. No one ever asked him if that was what he wanted. Because if he didn_t take it, who else would keep it going? But then, just as that transfer was about to happen_right after he_d graduated from high school and was ready to take over a lot of the farm operations_he decided to just take a little tiny weekend off. A no-big-deal road trip with his buddy. The two of them headed to a farmer_s field outside of Woodstock, New York, for that little weekend concert, having no idea that his whole life was about to turn upside down. He hadn_t even arrived at the concert yet when_BAM!_he discovered Tenaj, followed by days of free love and freedom and music. And then, so quickly after that_another BAM! And another! Babies! Two of us! I can just picture it. He must have been reeling from the shock of it all. Falling in love, veering off course from his intended life, and then coping with the shock of having Hendrix and me, born when he was just nineteen years old. It must have felt like he_d driven over a cliff. The country wedding, the baffled fury of his parents. All of it had to have roiled inside his good-boy soul, his stern New Hampshire upbringing. It_s tempting to believe the family myth that he spent the next few years trying to get back to the stability that had been the hallmark of his childhood. That he regretted what had happened. But I_m the writer in the family, and I think differently. I think he was madly in love with Tenaj. Sure, he had a girlfriend back home, but I think he loved my mom in a whole new heart-stopping way, and I think he embraced his new freedom-loving life as a hippie, playing the guitar and painting houses for a living. I can picture him coming home each day to his mystical little wife and his two conceived-in-love infants and thinking this was the way life should be. Free and easy, filled with music and sunshiny magic_nothing like the farm life with its demands and disappointments, its headaches and its hard work. I_ll bet he never wanted to go back. But then, when Hendrix and I were nearly two, our grandfather died, and that_s when my dad_s dream world came crashing down. My grandmother needed him to come back home. Somebody had to run the farm. She wasn_t one for letting it all go, selling it off to strangers, was she? No, she needed him back, and she made him return. And, just like that, it turned out the whole Woodstock thing had been a little detour after all. Like an extended vacation, the kind where you acquire a wife and a couple of kids without even meaning to. He brought us back with him, all three of us, and according to stories I_ve heard, my mom lived with him and Bunny in the farmhouse and worked alongside them at the little farm stand. Among the pies and the ears of corn, she offered her hippie-type artwork for sale: tie-dyed shirts, macram?, and the jewelry she made from objects she found. Bunny has told me that Tenaj, bless her heart, tried hard to be accepted in town_but nobody was having it. Nobody liked her or made her feel welcome. She was a sweet little thing, my mama, and talented and creative, Bunny said, but they didn_t want to buy her little found-object art. They didn_t want to invite her to their coffee klatches. They were on the Maggie Team. Bunny might have secretly been on the Maggie Team, too. Surely Tenaj wasn_t what she had in mind for her son. Maggie was much more aligned with the values Bunny would have held. But Bunny told me once that her only concern was that her son be happy. If he had a wife and children, then she was determined to accept his choice, and look for the good in the situation. She was not going to risk losing her son and her grandchildren simply because he_d fallen in love with somebody who was different. But the upstanding folks of Pemberton, New Hampshire, weren_t quite as generous. The way they saw it, Maggie, as the beloved townie girlfriend, had the prior claim to Robert Linnelle_and there was no way they were going to accept this hippie girl as Robert_s wife. Anyway, after looking this interloper over carefully, they figured that Tenaj had clearly been a mistake. And too bad about us babies . . . such unfortunate carelessness. A nice hometown boy getting taken advantage of that way. He_d have to come to his senses, they said. And so he capitulated, I think. It_s a very old story: if I were writing the story of his life_and someday I just might_I_d say he gave up the woman he really loved as well as the dream of being free and living a life with art and music and tie-dye. Became the farmer everyone expected him to be. No surprise, I suppose, that after a while my parents split up, and my mom took Hendrix and me back to Woodstock with her. Later, there was a big battle for him to get us back, but that_s a whole other story. Things went bad for my dad as the years went on. He developed an ulcer. A farmhand embezzled some money. Four calves mysteriously died. A flood made it impossible to plant one summer on the largest field, followed by two years of drought. The government subsidies stopped. Then, after I_d been in New York for seven years, Bunny got sick and had to be moved to a memory care facility. That spring a developer came up with a number that couldn_t be turned away. My father signed the papers. We all came home for that because Maggie said he needed us around him. To support him. Instead, he raged at us. Told us to go back to our _real lives._ To forget where we came from. He said all kinds of things Maggie assured us he didn_t mean. And since then, although he_s apologized, he_s grown quieter and more morose. His hands shake a little now, and he seems to be hitting the bourbon harder than I remembered. Your father . . . your father . . . Misses you. Loves you. Wishes he_d been better to you. Wishes you_d never been born. CHAPTER FIVE I call Maggie back as soon as the subway comes above ground. _Tell me,_ I say, all out of breath as soon as she answers. I brace myself in case hospitals are going to be involved. Or worse. _Is everything all right with Dad? What_s going on?_ _Oh. Sorry. It_s not such a big deal,_ she says. _I_m just . . . you know. Making mountains out of molehills, as your father would say._ The big sigh that follows tells me everything I need to know. I get it. Nothing serious really, but just a lot of . . . stuff to worry about. There was an early morning frost a week or so ago, and my father slipped on some black ice and twisted his ankle. Nothing to be done for it, she says, just another one of those things involving my father refusing to take care of himself. He wouldn_t go to the doctor, even though he can barely put any weight on that ankle. On and on. _It_s the usual with him,_ she says. _I_m telling you so you can join with me worrying about gangrene setting in._ _Shall we schedule the fitting for the artificial limb yet?_ I say, and she laughs. I get my worrying talent from Maggie. We always joke that even though we_re not genetically related, somehow I inherited her worry gene. She_s the one I can call up when I have a scratchy throat and by the end of the call, we_ll somehow have cheered ourselves up by imagining all the other diseases it probably isn_t. Brain cancer, for instance. _So, I_m hoping Thanksgiving will make your dad feel better,_ says Maggie now. _You know how he gets when the weather gets cold anyway, and he_s taking it extra hard now that the construction has started. Every time they_re out there pouring another damn foundation, he goes into one of his funks. But you kids will cheer him up._ Maggie knows perfectly well that I can do nothing that would cheer him up; that is, unless I had a personality transplant, time-traveled back to a past that never existed, and was a different sort of daughter, born to a different sort of mother. Didn_t work in New York, hadn_t ever dated the boys I dated, didn_t marry the guy I could only stay married to for eight months. Had been content to sell sunflowers and milk cows and feed chickens and keep the accounts for the farm. Had married some local guy who liked to fix stuff. Had a bunch of blond-haired, trouble-free children who would call him Gramps and to whom he could teach a love of tractors. A thought flickers in my head. If I married Judd, my father would be proud. Judd has always been somebody who could make him smile. My dad always said he was the best of the bunch of kids Hendrix and I ran around with. Strong, practical, and hardworking. Why couldn_t I fall for a guy like that? That_s what he wanted to know. Why did I always have to like the dangerous ones? _Hey,_ I tell her. _I_m doing a little survey about love and marriage. Do you think marriage can work if the two people aren_t in love but are just really, really good friends?_ _What are you even talking about with this? Are you thinking of getting married?_ _Just answer the question. I_m asking for a friend._ _I don_t believe you. You_re thinking about getting married again. Wait. This couldn_t be Judd, could it?_ _I said I_m asking for a friend,_ I say. _Did Judd propose? Oh my gosh. He did, didn_t he?_ _Well, in a manner of speaking . . . yes, I guess you could call it that,_ I say. I_ve reached my apartment building by now, and I wave to Tobias, the doorman, and get in the elevator. (Judd isn_t here to make me take the stairs.) _We_re sort of sick of dating, and we are such good friends, and he said that he thinks romantic love is nothing more than a recipe for disaster, and that we_d be good parents, and we should move our lives along._ I unlock the door to my apartment, and Mr. Swanky jumps down from the couch, where he_s been snacking on my bedroom slipper. He comes over, wagging his tail, and he licks my hand, asking forgiveness. My slipper, he says, was asking for it. _Let me get this straight. Is this just for having kids? Or do you love him?_ _Do I love him?_ I say slowly. _That_s the big question. I mean, we hang out together all the time. It_s just not . . . what I would have expected, you know. No . . . fireworks. It_s good. Comfortable. He says that_s the best kind. So I guess my question is: Do you think this is the best kind?_ She takes a deep breath, and my heart clutches. We_ve never ventured into a discussion about the fireworks kind of love versus the comfortable kind, and I suddenly feel weird about asking her this question. I wish I could take it back. After all, poor Maggie is married to a man who broke her heart by cheating on her. Presumably he voted at one point for fireworks, with my mom, and then he had to change his mind. And also, even more dangerous territory here: Maggie never got to have her own kids_a topic that I know instinctively is off-limits. I_m not sure if they ever tried and couldn_t have a baby_or if Hendrix and I took up so much space in their lives that there was no room for a Robert/Maggie baby. Sometimes I wonder if she ever thinks she would have been better off if my dad had just stayed the hell in Woodstock, and then she could have found a different man and probably had her own kids, and she wouldn_t have had all this heartache. It had to have occurred to her. I feel awful bringing it all up. She says, _Well, I_m not so sure you two don_t love each other, to tell you the truth, and you just don_t know it. Maybe you_re expecting it to look different, so you don_t recognize it._ _Yeah,_ I say. I go into the kitchen and open the refrigerator and decide finally on some tired mushrooms and peppers for dinner. _That_s legit. I_m sure I_ve been contaminated by romantic comedies. I can_t picture Judd chasing me through airports, trying to keep me from getting on a plane and flying away from him._ She laughs. _No, I suppose not. But, honey, we know he_s from a good family, and we know he_s not a serial killer, which was what I_ve been really worried about, you know. That you_d meet some New York guy that none of us had ever heard of, and that you_d fall in love before you realized his tendencies to murder people in their sleep, like what happened to a poor girl on the news__ _Hey, I_m a better judge of character than that,_ I say, getting the paring knife out of the drawer. _I haven_t even dated any serial killers. And I_ve been on forty-four dates in the last year._ _This is what keeps me up nights. Thinking of you on forty-four dates with strange men._ _You and me both,_ I say. I tuck the phone under my chin and cut the stems off the mushrooms. _Believe me, it wasn_t all that much fun. I_m just coming home from the forty-fourth one now. With a New York City firefighter. Should have been great. But wasn_t._ _And did you really think you and some anonymous firefighter were going to immediately find_what? Passion and sex? That_s what you_re going on these dates for?_ _Mags. Of course that_s what I_ve been going on these dates for._ _But is that more important than a companion you feel good about? Somebody you know and trust to always have your best interests at heart? Maybe you_re the one discounting love, did you ever think of that? Love is what you_re left with when all that goes away._ _Okay, then, now we_re getting somewhere,_ I say. _You_re decidedly, then, in the category of marriage can work between friends. Yes?_ _Well, let me put it this way. I think it can work between you and Judd,_ she says. _I always thought he was such a nice kid. He_ll take care of you, that_s for sure._ _Ugh. I don_t need taking care of,_ I say. Old argument. _I know you don_t. But you know what I mean. Everyone needs taking care of. Can_t you take it in that spirit instead of getting offended? He_ll be your partner. He_ll be there for you, as you young folks say._ And then speaking of people needing to be taken care of, I can hear my father_s voice in the background. Asking her a question. She needs to get off the phone and make him some food. Or just pay him some attention. Just like that, the call is over. My dad comes first. Always has, always will. Before she hangs up, she whispers into the phone, _Just say yes. And bring him home for Thanksgiving. Promise me._ _Of course,_ I say. As soon as I get off the phone, I call the memory care center at Hallowell House just because I miss my grandmother, and sometimes I can reach her if she_s having a good day. She might be in the sunroom right now and they could take the phone over to her because she_s doing fine, and why yes, the nurse on the floor will tell me, yes, she might like a call from home. _It_s your favorite granddaughter!_ I always say when I get her. And she used to say, _Ah, my darling. You aren_t just my favorite granddaughter, you_re my favorite human!_ But it_s been months now since that has happened. Mostly, if I get her at all, she tries to talk to me and then gets frustrated that she can_t make the words come out like she wants them to. There are long gaps. I don_t mind the gaps; I_ll wait patiently for however long it takes for her to get the words out. But it_s hard on her. She was always so smart and so precise in her speech, so good at articulating her feelings, that I can_t even imagine how tough it must be for her to be stuck inside her own head, with so many words already gone. Sure enough, that_s what today is like. They hand her the phone. I can hear her breathing, hear the little noises she makes. _Bunny, I miss you!_ I say. _And I have some news!_ I always feel like I_m shouting when I talk to her, as if all it takes is a louder voice to reach her. _Judd and I_do you remember Judd?_he and I are going to get married! Isn_t that wonderful?_ There_s a little mewing sound. Like she_s crying. _Bunny? Are you okay? I_ll come and see you at Thanksgiving! Like I always do! We_ll have dinner in your dining room and then I_ll bring you home with me to see the rest of the family! And that_s when Judd and I are going to tell everyone!_ _Oh,_ she says. _Ohhhhh._ There_s a muffled sound, the phone falling onto her wheelchair perhaps. And then after a moment, someone must have come and picked it up. They hang it up again, and I_m there with only silence. CHAPTER SIX I was five years old the day I finally got up the nerve to ask my grandmother if my mama was dead. I whispered the question in case I wasn_t allowed to know. Nobody ever mentioned my mama anymore. But Bunny wasn_t one of the people, like my daddy and Maggie, who had so many rules about stuff you could and couldn_t talk about. She let me spend as much time in the Bunny Barn as I wanted to. I sat on her lap while she read me stories or put my hair in braids. Her barn was my favorite place to be because it smelled good in there, like new sawdust and lemon Pledge and oatmeal cookies. There were shiny floors and new lights in the ceiling. Bunny had made the workmen put in a window seat, which she said was just for me, and we sewed a blue calico cushion. Hendrix was not allowed to go near the window seat, or so I told him; it was just for me and Bunny. He didn_t want to anyway. Hendrix had the fields and the corncrib and the other barn. He had Daddy; I had Bunny. In the barn, the air felt like it was soft and pink. My stomach didn_t hurt when I was over there. At my house, just across the yard, the air sometimes felt all gray and cloudy, and it was hard to breathe sometimes. When I asked her the question about Mama, she was ironing some shirts. I felt her stop and turn and look at me. She took a deep breath like something sad was stuck in her throat, and she said, _No, no, honey. Of course she_s not dead. Your mama is just fine._ I said this next part very, very carefully, smoothing my dress over my knees, and not looking at her. _Then why doesn_t she come and get me and Hendrix and take us home?_ _Well, sweetie, this is your real home now. With me and your daddy and Maggie._ _But she said she would come and get us._ She put the iron down on the ironing board and wiped her hands on her apron and looked at me. _The truth is that your mama and daddy both agreed you should live here with us. Your mama misses you, but she thinks this is the best place for you. And you and Hendrix will go and see her every summer when she doesn_t have to work so hard and can put all her attention just on you._ I wasn_t sure how far I could push this, but I took a chance and said to her, in a very low voice, so low that maybe she wouldn_t hear it at all, _I heard him tell Maggie that my mama is a bad mother. He said she_s a witch. The real kind._ _Oh,_ said Bunny, and the air around her head turned a different color. _Well, she_s not a witch. Your mama is a very nice person. She_s just a little bit different from some other people, but that is not a bad thing, and your daddy knows that. He didn_t mean that, I_m sure._ But Bunny hadn_t been there the day when Daddy came to visit us at Mama_s house and then made me and Hendrix go home with him. She didn_t know how mad he was. He did mean it. Usually when Daddy came to visit, it was kind of a nice time. He sat on the porch, and we sat on his lap, and he talked to Mama and to all her friends. Sometimes he played music with everybody. Sometimes he was having such a good time that I thought he might stay, but then he didn_t. He always said he had to go back to the farm, but that he_d come again to see us. But then one day he showed up when we were playing outside in the field next to our house, and it was the day after our birthday_we were four now!_and Hendrix and I wanted to run over to his truck to hug him. But as soon as he got out of his truck, I got scared because his face was hard and angry, and he didn_t even say hello. He said, _What are you doing outside by yourselves?_ in a voice that was so hot and mad it was like it burned a hole in the air. _What_s going on here?_ he said. _You_re filthy. And your hair is all tangled, and you_re not wearing any clothes._ _I am wearing my queen dress,_ I said to him very sternly. _Maybe you can_t see it._ He walked over in a very hard way and picked us up, and his belt buckle scratched my legs. I was squirming trying to get down, but he gripped us tighter, me in one arm and Hendrix in the other. _You are wearing underpants,_ he said. _And it_s dangerous out here by yourself!_ He started walking with us toward the house. _Janet! Get out here! Damn it, Tenaj! Or whatever the hell you call yourself!_ When he got to the porch, he put us down hard, and he kept his hands on the tops of our heads so we couldn_t run away. We had never seen him like this. I was too shocked to move. _What in the world is going on?_ said my mama, and she came out on the porch. She was smiling at him, like she wasn_t scared at all. _Robert, I had no idea you were coming! Come on inside and let me get you something to drink._ I had never seen her be worried about anything, and she didn_t look worried then either. Everybody loved her. She wore long floaty dresses, and she was always finding things on the ground and then twisting them together or gluing them. She sold her artwork at fairs where she had a booth, and people would come up and buy them, and pet our dog, Starlight, and talk to me and Hendrix. We were always picking up things to give to her_rocks and feathers, pieces of metal or glass, and she_d take them and study them closely, her head right next to ours, and she_d say in her soft, soft voice, _Wow! This is so far-out. Why, thank you, my lambs!_ She had so many names for us: we were lambs and cakes and honey pies and darlings and sweet patooties. Hendrix could be Henny Penny and I was either Baby or Fwonzie because that_s how Hendrix said my name. She was so very soft and calm. Her skin was warm and smooth, like she was made from sugar. Once we went to a fair and some man gave us cotton candy, and I thought, This is what it_s like to hug my mama. She was cottony and sweet and soft, and her voice in my ear, singing us lullabies or telling us to go and play, was always like something that could make you fall asleep just from hearing it. She had all the colors around her. Like the piece of glass that hung in the front window and spun around, casting rainbows across the room, skittering across the wooden floor. I knew she was going to make things better. She was even smiling at him so friendly-like; she would get him to be nice. _Robert? Honey? Let_s all come in the house and talk._ But he was too mad. He started telling her that he had no idea she let us play outside unsupervised, and that we weren_t safe here anymore, and we were dirty, and we weren_t even dressed_and she said we were perfectly happy and fine, but then, while she was talking, he put us in the truck and told us to stay there, and he went in the house with her. And Hendrix and I sat there very quietly, but the seat was hot on our bare legs, so after a while we got out of the truck and sat in the dirt instead. Hendrix was crying and he said we should run away, but I wasn_t sure. I told him Mama would make all the bad stuff go away. She had a lot of ways of making things okay, like when we were hungry or tired, or sick of having her work. She had cushions and pillows and good things to eat, and she could sit with us and comb our hair with her fingers. She was always talking to people and laughing. _I don_t like him,_ said Hendrix. _Mama will fix him,_ I said. _He loves Mama. He was kissing Mama one time._ We watched the door. We could hear yelling voices inside, and Mama_s friend who liked to make soup, Stony, came out of the house and got into his truck without even seeing us. When he backed up, Hendrix got up to go see where he was going, and then there was a loud scary sound from the truck stopping, and Stony jumped out to see if we were okay, and we were_we hadn_t been anywhere near the back of the truck, but after that everything went even worse anyway. Suddenly our daddy was there waving his arms and shouting, and Mama came outside and tried to make him calm down, but nothing was going to calm my daddy. He was that mad and shouting. He said we could have been killed. A woman named Petal who lived next door came and took me and Hendrix to her house for a while and fed us some lunch, and then a little bit later when we were playing and drawing pictures, our daddy came over and said we were going home with him. _Is Mama coming, too?_ I asked him, and he said no. I put my hands on my hips and I stared at him as hard as I could. _I want Mama to come!_ _You come with me and get in the truck,_ he said. _Now._ _Why are you taking us?_ I yelled, and he said because it was best, that_s why. I wanted to tell him that we were not dirty and that we loved to play outside in our underpants and that we didn_t want to go with him, but he was not a man who listened. I said I wouldn_t go with him until I said good-bye to our mama, but he didn_t think that was a good idea either. I could tell he didn_t know about good-byes being important_we even had good-bye songs we sang when somebody was leaving, even to go into town for a little while_and so I tried to tell him we had to sing the song, but he kept saying no no no no no. And so then I just ran around him and into the house and I hugged my mama, who was crying, and I was crying, and then he came in and said she had to get it together, so she started trying to act like everything was fine, which scared me even more because her voice was all different and didn_t go with the look in her eyes at all, it was all caught up in her throat, and she said she_d see us soon, that everything was okay, and we would have lots of fun in New Hampshire. The way she said it meant that she was not happy at all and we were not going to have lots of fun in New Hampshire, whatever New Hampshire was. She said she was sorry about the yelling, but we had a nice daddy and a really nice grandma named Bunny, and to please tell Bunny hi. She gave me an extra-long hug and she whispered in my ear that she would come and get us, and then Daddy came over and said that was enough, and he took me out of my mama_s arms and put my red shorts and purple T-shirt on me even though those two things did not go together at all, and he put Hendrix into some stupid-looking sailor suit that somebody had given him, and then he took us to the truck and put us inside once again. And we rode for a long, long time in the backseat of the truck with Daddy driving and driving and driving without even putting on the radio one time. I cried for a long time in the backseat. I was crying for so many things, but mostly for my mama sitting there in the house without me to collect rocks and sticks for her in the field and to hug her in the morning, which she needed me to do. Also, my daddy_s truck smelled funny, like animals, and there were pieces of hay on the floor that stuck to our feet. It got dark, and headlights would come into the truck and ride along the ceiling and then disappear, and I stopped crying and watched them all very, very carefully and wouldn_t let myself fall asleep like Hendrix did because I had to watch to see if Daddy was going to be dark green again, or if he would just be quiet brown worried Daddy, being lit up every now and then by the lights of the other cars coming toward us. Even then, I could see the muscle in his jaw working itself up and down, up and down. And then when it seemed like we would be in the car forever, we suddenly turned and drove on something that sounded like little rocks being thrown everywhere, and I stood up on the seat so I could see, and in front of us there was a little house with the lights all on, and a porch with rocking chairs. And I saw an old woman coming out of the front door_Bunny, though I didn_t remember her then_and she was shielding her eyes in the headlights until Daddy turned them off. She came out to the truck and opened the back door just as Daddy was doing the same thing, and I heard her say, _So you got them. Are they okay?_ He didn_t say anything, but just handed us to her, one by one, and she hugged us and we buried our heads in her sweet-smelling neck and her fuzzy blue bathrobe, and there was pink and softness. And that was how I met Bunny again, although she tells me that I lived there with her long ago when I was just a baby, and my mama and my daddy were both there in New Hampshire until my mama got mad and left. _You don_t remember that,_ she told me. _But I have loved you ever since you were just a little teeny tiny baby. Even before you were born, I loved you._ For a while after that, it was just us and Daddy and Bunny living in the farmhouse while we waited for what was going to happen next. I thought that what we were waiting for was for my mama to come and say that she and Daddy loved each other, and that we would all live together. Or maybe she was just going to come and get us. She had said she would come, I told Hendrix. I said to him: we just have to wait. Daddy and Bunny seemed like they were waiting, too. We were all a houseful of sad people who weren_t where we were supposed to be, and something had to happen, but nobody knew what it was going to be. Hendrix and I had our own separate rooms during the waiting time, but every night, we made a nest of blankets on the floor in my bedroom, and we curled up together on the floor. Hendrix was a boy who cried a lot, and his nose was always running, and he jumped when there was a loud noise, and it was my job to keep reminding him that we were going to be okay and that Mama was coming. I told him stories at night in the dark, about Mama coming back, and Daddy loving her and laughing. I said that everybody loved Mama so much, and Daddy was just upset for now, but he would remember soon and then they would be together again. And he would laugh and be regular nice Daddy again. But then before Mama could get there, this woman Maggie started coming over, which Bunny said was such a good thing for everybody, especially Daddy because they had been boyfriend and girlfriend a long time ago, she said, and it was nice that Maggie was going to love him again. _And you are going to love her, too, because everybody loves Maggie!_ Bunny said. I did not love Maggie at first. She talked baby talk to Hendrix and me, even though we were almost five by then. And she thought a lot of things were important_like wearing your hair in a tight high ponytail and keeping your fingernails clean. Fingernails! I couldn_t believe it. Fingernails were for digging in the dirt. But then I saw that Maggie coming over had been what we were waiting for that whole time. Not Mama at all. And now it had happened. When Maggie came over, Daddy smiled a lot and wore his hair slicked back. Sometimes we all even danced in the living room, and Daddy acted silly and would pick us up and spin us around. I still wanted Mama, but I also thought it was kind of good the way he was when Maggie was there. He didn_t look like somebody who had a bad stomachache all the time. And then one day they sat us down and told us they were going to get married. Everybody had on big smiles, and Maggie hugged us, and Daddy said there was going to be a wedding in the garden. Maggie said we_d get to wear fancy clothes, which Hendrix did not want to wear, but I did. I said I wanted to wear a pink shiny dress with lace and a twirly skirt, like I had seen on television one time. Maggie said that would be fine, and also she would find some little white patent leather shoes if I wanted, too. Which I most certainly did. The wedding was on a hot, sunny day, and lots of people came, and Hendrix and I did the Chicken Dance, and people laughed and clapped for us and ate a lot of food and said it was so great that now we had a new mom. I think that_s when it hit me what had just happened. One minute I was flapping around like a chicken, and then I heard the news that Maggie was now my new mom, and I started to get that funny feeling again. Like I wasn_t going to get back to where I was supposed to be. Maggie was tall and had bony elbows and knees, and there was never a spot on her lap that felt right. And she was always working, working, working, always rushing_washing clothes, hanging them out on the line, collecting the eggs, planting flowers, working at the farm stand, cooking dinner, sweeping, dusting, setting the table, washing the dishes, giving me and Hendrix baths. She had strong, hard hands and a look on her face like she meant business. Things had to be done. She hummed while she worked, a sound that reminded me of a bunch of bees. I didn_t like bees. _I like things to be clean and neat around here,_ she said. _We_re going to spiff ourselves up._ That was what we did all the time: we spiffed ourselves up. And even if you saw a feather on the ground, or a piece of glass, you shouldn_t pick it up, because there was nobody who would say, Wow! That_s so far-out! Nobody to turn it into a piece of art. Here, you didn_t touch stuff on the ground because it was dirty, and it was trash. In the fall, when Maggie took us to register for kindergarten, she told the lady at the desk that our names were Frances and Henry. _Those are better names because people know those names already,_ she explained to us. _When you_re Frances and Henry, you_ll fit in better here. And you want to fit in, don_t you?_ She bought us little toy license plates for our bikes with those names on them, just to prove her point. _See? They don_t even have your other names on the license plates in the store._ So the day I asked Bunny if my mama was dead and she said she wasn_t, I said, _Well then, will you take me to see her?_ She got very quiet, like for a minute she was thinking of saying yes, but then instead of yes, she said in a bright, almost crazy voice, _I have a good idea. Do you want to make a picture about how much you love her?_ _That is not a good idea,_ I said. _Because how is she going to see the picture when she isn_t here?_ I worried that Bunny might be a little bit silly. _Maybe you could just look at the picture yourself, and that could remind you of how much she loves you._ _No,_ I said patiently. I was going to have to explain everything to my grandmother. She didn_t know anything. Finally I said, _But you know what would work? I could make a little magic tube that I can talk into and she_ll hear me when I talk, and I can tell her stuff whenever I want._ Bunny laughed and shrugged her shoulders. _Okay,_ she said. _If that_s what you want to do._ So we made a tube from the toilet paper cardboard thing, and I decorated it with stick-on stars that Bunny had in her kitchen drawer, and she wrote my name and then I made her write my mama_s name: _Tenaj._ And then I drew hearts and purple flowers and a big yellow star. _So I_ll talk to my mama right through here where this star is, and she can hear everything I say,_ I explained. _Okay,_ said Bunny. _I think this is a brilliant idea._ _It_s magic, that_s why,_ I said. After that, I would get under my bed and talk to Mama. I told her everything_that Hendrix and I were fine, and that we loved her, and she should come and get us. Maybe she should come in the night and we could sneak out and see her, and then she could take us back to her house. We could bake bread again, and I could smear the butter on it, like I used to do, and she could laugh and tell me again that I was her favorite butter-spreader because I did it just right, putting on lots and lots of butter. And then we could make necklaces out of the sparkly pieces of rocks that we glued together. I waited. But even though cars would sometimes go by in the night, and I_d hear the hum of their engines from far down the road, Mama never came back for me. CHAPTER SEVEN At precisely four o_clock that Sunday, Judd and I are standing on the stoop at our friends Russell and Sarah_s Brooklyn brownstone, holding appetizers and a bottle of wine, and we are looking around at Brooklyn the way Manhattanites always look at Brooklyn: like we_ve landed where dreams go to die. The air even seems odd here, what with trees and bushes everywhere. Not enough truck exhaust. No screeching of brakes or sirens. And the sidewalks are filled with families with strollers, with older kids zooming along next to them on scooters. _Are we going to have to move to Brooklyn, too, once we decide to have kids?_ Judd says. _I mean, I think the leaves are a nice touch_but it_s a hell of a long subway ride back to Manhattan._ _I think it_s the law,_ I tell him. _You get to be a Manhattanite up until you decide to procreate_and then you_re required to move to either Brooklyn or New Jersey. But we_ll resist. We have perfectly reasonable apartments, and we just have to decide which one of them we_re going to live in._ _Scofflaws,_ he says. _I like that about us._ I_m a little nostalgic for the days when all our friends lived in Manhattan. Before a few of them took off for New Jersey, there were eight of us, four couples, who got together at least twice a month to hang out. We went to avant-garde Broadway shows, to microbreweries in Red Hook, to the Rockaways for suntans and Mexican food on the beach. Once we took a road trip and got rooms at a funky hotel in Niagara Falls. It had been lovely_even though now that I_m really remembering it, also awkward as hell. They were all in love, having sex like rabbits, and I was there with Judd, who was just a friend. They_d go off to bed, and Judd and I would sit in the bar and nurse our martinis and watch sports. He presses the buzzer for 3B, and says to me in a low voice, _Here_s to a new baby in the world. Let_s just hope Russell and Sarah haven_t killed each other by now._ _It didn_t sound good the last time I talked to her,_ I say. _He_s against disposable diapers and pacifiers._ _And he says she_s gone psycho on him,_ Judd says. _I_m not sure Russell can be domesticated._ _We_ll do this so much better,_ he says. He smiles, but I notice he doesn_t lean over and kiss me when he says it. It_s the kind of remark a person would expect to be accompanied by a kiss on the forehead at the very least. We get buzzed in, and we go tromping up the stairs to the third floor. Judging from the number of strollers and car seats in the hallway_as well as the noise from every apartment we pass on our way up_it_s clear that the residents of this Brooklyn apartment building have very healthy reproductive lives. _It_s humbling when you see this many strollers in one place,_ says Judd. _Look at this one. A jogging stroller! I think we should get one of these, so we can run in the park with the baby._ _You know what I picture? We_ll be in the park, and you_ll take the baby for a run with the stroller while I sit on a bench and work on my novel and wait for the two of you to come back._ _Your novel?_ he says. _That_s what you think of?_ He gives me a little sock in the arm. _Since when is that the most important thing in your life?_ _Judd, it_s very important. I work on it all the time._ _Okay, okay,_ he says. _So you_re writing it. But when are you going to be finished with it?_ _Look, I_m making progress, okay? I do have a full-time job, you know, and when I get home, I_m tired. Also, it_s hard, and I don_t have anybody to read it._ _Good Lord, all these excuses,_ he says and laughs. I notice he doesn_t offer to read it. Which is fine. I know it_s not good_not yet. I_m stuck, is the truth of it. The woman in my novel comes home from work one day and finds her husband in bed with someone else, and I want it to be a funny story_even uplifting_but it just keeps drifting over into being morose. I gave this woman a great job and jokey best friends, and I even provided her a wonderful renovated kitchen, but she still just cries. The last dozen pages are her complaining to a psychiatrist that she feels like she doesn_t believe in love anymore. She and I share so many losses, all from just one man leaving. Trust me; I see what I_m doing here. Now I look over at Judd, doing his little going-upstairs dance, jabbing at the air like he_s in an imaginary boxing match. Okay, I tell myself, so what if he never reads my pages or understands what I_m trying to achieve? He_ll cheer me on in his own absent way. And the best part is that I will never be in danger of falling madly in love with him and getting hurt. I won_t ever be writing a novel about him. It just won_t happen. My heart will be so perfectly safe. I reach over and touch him on the arm, and he turns and smiles at me. The noise level starts to increase the closer we get to their door, which is thrown open by Russell. He_s wearing a screaming baby tied to his chest and looking like an extra in Night of the Living Dead, except that his hair is perfectly combed and gelled. His hair is sort of his trademark. The apartment is a disaster zone, which is so unlike Sarah_s usual way. I mean, to be honest, before Russell came along_sure, there was clutter. But it was fun clutter, Sex and the City kind of clutter: wineglasses on the coffee table, copies of Cosmopolitan magazine, high heels artlessly kicked off and landing in two different directions, some lacy laundry strewn about here and there. Even after she and Russell got married, they had sort of a modern hip/cool couples clutter thing going: their sweaters and hoodies resting adorably together on the ottoman, like the laundry itself was also in a relationship. But this. Overturned baby bottles. Spilled milk. It_s the smell of we_re-in-over-our-heads and why-didn_t-anyone-warn-us, of tears and sleeplessness. There are whiffs of recrimination and regret. I feel slightly dizzy. Sarah appears just then, and she has the look of a vampire who has been without blood for too long a time. Her eyes are rimmed with red. I want to reassure her that this is what life is all about, and that it will get so much better in time, but I_m afraid she_ll pull a tire iron out from underneath the pile of newspapers and kill me with it. I don_t even get to admire the baby, because as soon as I get my coat off, Sarah bursts into tears and drags me into the bedroom, where she tells me that Russell is the most useless human ever to be drawing breath and that she has made a terrible mistake in marrying him. He doesn_t even know how to operate the washing machine. He says he needs creative stimulation. He wonders when they_ll have sex again. She sits down on the bed and says, _Why did you guys let me marry him?_ I don_t think it would be a good idea to remind her that Russell is a musician and an artist, and she fell so hard in love with him that she didn_t notice that he can_t even tie his shoes properly. He_s not a bad guy; he_s just a bit clueless about regular life things except for hair gel. He is not the person who is going to turn into someone helpful just because he succeeded at a little thing like reproduction. But I say none of that. Marriage is complex. We can_t solve Russell right now. Instead, I say, _Wait a second._ I hold up my hand. _Wait, wait, wait. How long since you_ve had any sleep?_ She stares at me. _Sleep,_ I say. _S-L-E-E-P._ _I-I don_t know._ _You don_t even remember sleep, do you? You need to get in your bed. Right now. Get in your bed._ _I can_t. I_m having a party._ _Judd and I don_t qualify as a party. Take off your clothes and get in your bed, and I_m going to turn out the light, and you are going to sleep._ _The baby will get hungry._ _That_s why God invented bottles._ _It_s not that easy_the milk__ _It is that easy._ (I don_t know what I_m talking about, of course.) _You need sleep. I_m counting to twenty and then I_m turning out the light._ She finally gets in bed, and I cover her up with the blankets. _Stay with me,_ she says in a tiny little voice. _Lie down beside me._ _Okay,_ I say, and I kick off my shoes and get up on the bed next to her. _Your baby is really very cute,_ I say. Actually, I haven_t gotten a good look at the baby, because she_s screaming so much, and Russell is walking back and forth with her like he_s in a walking road race. _I know. I like to just stare at her._ _Maybe that_s why you_re so tired. You_re staring at the baby instead of sleeping._ _Maybe._ We lie there for a while. There_s finally silence from the living room, thank goodness. Maybe Sarah can really go to sleep. _She_s quiet,_ I say. _I still hate Russell, you know._ _I know. Can I ask you one little thing before you go to sleep?_ _Yeah._ Her voice is muffled in the pillow. _Do you think I should marry Judd, even though we_re just friends?_ She lifts her head up and looks at me. _Seriously? Does he want to?_ _Yeah. He thinks best friends might have an easier time with this parenting business. He thinks romantic love is a hoax._ _Hmm,_ she says. _I may not be psychiatrically intact enough to weigh in on this, but I say go for it. I mean, he knows how to do laundry at least._ _He doesn_t separate the whites from the darks._ _Phronsie. Shut the hell up and marry that dude. He knows where the washing machine is, at least._ Then she falls into sleep so deep it may actually be classifiable as a coma. I tiptoe out. When I go back into the living room, Judd is wearing the baby on his chest. He looks like a natural. I admit it: there_s something so sweet about a big, muscular, handsome guy all dressed up in a baby. He grins at me and points to himself. Willoughby has gone to sleep. Russell is also passed out on the couch, snoring with his mouth open and one arm flung out. His hair still looks good, I notice. I go into the kitchen and wash the dishes and wipe off the counters. I boil water for pasta and cook the lasagna Sarah was going to make, and then I fry up some ground beef and onion and add tomato sauce to it, and then I look in the fridge for mozzarella and ricotta cheese, but there isn_t any, so I tell Judd I need to go out to the bodega at the corner to buy some. He points to the sleeping baby on his chest and says, _I_ll go to the store. You gotta have you some of this lusciousness._ I want to protest because she_s so comfortable, and also what if she looks at me and screams and then we will all know that I_d be a terrible mother, but he_s already removing her and is tying her onto the front of me. She makes sweet little sounds as she_s being transferred. Grunts or breathing sounds or something, and then, to my astonishment, she makes little fists and stretches and pooches out her lips as she settles against me. Who knew newborns know how to make a fist? This one probably learned it from Sarah. As soon as he closes the front door, I am seized with a fit of terror. This little face, this weight against my chest, the slight mewing noises she makes as she sleeps. What if she stops breathing? It_s like half of my whole body just wants to curl around her, and the other half wants to run after Judd and give her back to him. She likes him, after all. The whole time he_s gone, I walk around the apartment, trying to calm myself down by humming little tunes at her. And then the worst happens: she wakes and looks at me with one eye, and it hits her that she_s been handed to an incompetent buffoon. She screws her little red face up, and the only way I can keep her from screaming is by walking in circles at a velocity of five miles per hour and singing _Love Has No Pride,_ which is the only song now that I can remember the words to. By the time Judd gets back, she has opened her eyes and is beginning to wave her fists around in the air. When he comes over and unties her and puts her back on his chest and she goes right back to sleep, I think I could marry him. Obviously he was issued some genetic material for parenting, like a set of instructions, that I maybe didn_t get. Maybe she likes his pheromones. A lot of ladies seem to. In our marriage, he can be in charge of calming the babies down, and I can do laundry. He can do dishes. I_ll tell it bedtime stories; he can teach it calisthenics. I watch him for the rest of the evening. He_s so solicitous and kind. Funny. We sit at the table with Russell and eat the lasagna. Sarah sleeps and sleeps. Judd wears the baby all through dinner, and he looks down at her with such twinkling eyes. He actually knows how to eat lasagna without even dropping one bit of cheese on the baby_s head. I drink a glass of wine and feel bravery coursing through my veins. Russell is making a joke about birth being the most intense biology lesson imaginable, and Judd catches my eye and winks at me. A long, slow wink. Oh my goodness, oh my goodness. I feel that wink viscerally; it actually sets off a flutter somewhere deep inside me. The first flutter caused by Judd, and I suddenly know that I really am going to do it. I am going to marry him. I wonder if I should tell him just yet. But the truth is, it feels like it_s a fun little secret that only I know. And if I tell him, and he reacts by talking about something ordinary, if he doesn_t sweep me up in his arms and start kissing me, if it turns out that he doesn_t feel the same kind of flutter_well, I can_t chance it. I don_t want to have to get mad at him_and then feel guilty about getting mad at him, because romance and kissing are not part of our deal and I know that. Deep down, I know that. Walking home, I_m tense. We talk about how adorable Willoughby is, and how stunningly clueless Russell is, and how sad it is that Sarah can_t get any sleep. We speculate about how long the marriage has, and whether it_s more likely to end in murder or divorce. _You know,_ he says, _I was thinking I could probably go over after work a couple of days a week and help them out._ See? That is just like him: coming up with a concrete way he can help. This is what is so wonderful about him: he_s the first guy on the scene to help people move, debug their computers, tune their cars even. Go camping with them and their children so that bears won_t eat the kids. He_s kind of amazing. _Also,_ I say, _you could check the premises for murder weapons._ _And that,_ he says and smiles. I reach over and take his hand. _Can I tell you something kind of huge?_ _Yes._ _I think we_I mean, I want to__ I close my eyes and start flapping my hands. _Back up. I_m hyperventilating._ He stops walking, as if that_s what I meant by back up. He_s looking at me funny. _This is hard,_ I say. _It is hard, isn_t it? Same thing I realized when I was about to say what I think you might be about to say._ _You know what I_m going to say?_ He puts his hands in his pockets. _You_re going to say you_re going to marry me, right?_ _Right._ _So . . . good,_ he says. He smiles. _Nice._ _I am going to pretend you said, _Oh, my dear, oh the wonderful love of my life, please let me take you upstairs and ravish you!__ He blinks. _Okayyy. Oh, my dear, oh the wonderful love of my life, please let me take your upstairs and ravish you!_ And this is the moment his phone rings. I shake my head no, but it_s useless: he gives me a regretful look and answers the phone. It_s one of those calls that I think of as his _yo, bro_ kind of interchanges. There_s a lot of those. This one is one of his trainers, Mercer, whom I can hear bleating into the phone, _Yo, bro, there_s a situation here, you know? Down at the gym?_ Judd paces around, fielding talk of keys gone missing, and a special elite client who_s training for a triathlon and . . . blah blah blah. I see the way this one is going. It_s freaking Sunday night, but that_s the way Judd_s gym operates. They do anything for their clients. He says he_ll come down and unlock the place. Of course he does. When he clicks the phone off, he turns and looks at me. _I gotta go,_ he says. _Go,_ I say. _It_s fine._ He looks at me incredulously. _Wait a second. Are you mad? You_re actually mad._ _I_m not exactly mad, but I_m disappointed. We were having a momentous thing between us just now, and you had to go answer the phone, and now you_re leaving._ He looks exasperated. _I_ve got to go unlock the gym. It_s my work._ _It_s the weekend, Judd. Sunday night! The gym is closed. And it_s going to take you nearly an hour to get all the way downtown with the subways on weekend schedule. And then an hour back. It_s like I_m not your priority. This. Us._ He stands there, running his hands through his hair, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. _Phronz. Listen. I thought the plan was that things weren_t going to change between us just because we_re going to be married. The idea is that we_re still going to be each other_s best friends, and_call me crazy, but in my book, best friends support each other_s business, am I right? I gotta just go do this one thing. Okay? Am I going to be in trouble now every time I need to work?_ I put my hands on my hips. We_re just like any couple, arguing in the street. _Judd, don_t you want to have sex with me?_ He runs his hands through his hair, rolls his eyes. _Of course I do. I_m a guy. Also, I_m going to marry you._ _Then why doesn_t it happen?_ He looks up at the sky beseechingly. _Phronsie? Seriously? Come on,_ he says. _Let me go help out this guy. We_ll get to this sex stuff, you know we will, and it will be amazing. I promise you amazingness. I_ll fall at your feet. I_ll bring you red roses. Whatever you think you need._ _Just . . . go,_ I say. _Go. Do it._ _Oh!_ he says. _I almost forgot. I have something for you._ He digs in his pocket and pulls out a bright green twist tie. _I bought a new loaf of bread, so I have a brand-new ring for you. Wove it into a circle and everything. Here._ He grins, bounces up on his toes. Does a few boxing moves. Oh my God. He_s so impossible. Or maybe it_s me. Maybe what I_m signing on for isn_t going to look like love. Why do I even expect that he_ll suddenly change and want to be romantic? _Could our lives not be a comedy routine?_ I say. _Could we just pretend to be normal?_ _This is normal. This is the real way love should be!_ He blows me a kiss and turns and walks back down the street, back to the subway. He calls me later to say he_s stuck at the gym fixing a plumbing issue, and now he_s going out for a much-needed beer with Mercer. _You_re not still ticked off at me, are you?_ he says, and I sigh and say no. Because there_s no point being mad. He_s my best friend. And if it was unthinkable that I would have been mad at him last week for going out for a beer after work, then I shouldn_t be mad at him now just because of a little thing like we_re going to get married. Mr. Swanky thinks that if I want romance, maybe I should watch Sleepless in Seattle for the millionth time, and so that_s what I do. Just in case Judd comes over after having a beer with Mercer, though, I take a nice bubble bath and get myself cleaned up a bit. Just in case it_s going to be our first time. CHAPTER EIGHT The year after my dad and Maggie got married, when I was six years old, our cat, Mama Kitty, died. She was just a barn cat_not particularly friendly or anything, didn_t even have a real name so she was definitely not a pet_but I came upon her dead body one summer afternoon out by the barn, next to a raspberry bush, and when I saw her there, so still and quiet for the first time ever, with the green-headed flies buzzing around her matted fur, I just sat down on the hard dirt and stared. The flowers were all in bloom, and it was a yellow-green afternoon, with the breeze blowing my hair. I felt like I could hear everything that the whole sky was saying. Birds were making a big racket, and I heard Maggie call me in for lunch. There was the sound of the tractor down by the cornfield, and an airplane flew overhead, leaving a long, lazy white trail. But I just sat there. The sky said, Your mama is dead, too, little child. You know she is. _Bunny said my mama is not dead,_ I said out loud. A fly landed on Mama Kitty_s belly and walked up to her mouth. The fly said, Bunny doesn_t know. If your mama was alive, why didn_t she ever come see you? The white trail from the airplane whispered as it was fading from view, turning back into the blue, You know she would have called you if she was alive. You know she would have. She said she was going to come get you back. I sat there for a very, very long time. Maggie stopped calling my name after a while, and then started back up again. I lay down in the grass next to Mama Kitty, and I told Mama Kitty that I wished she hadn_t always run away whenever I would try to pet her, and also that I had loved her kittens, and pretty soon I started to cry. And that_s what was going on when Bunny came and found me. _Here you are!_ she said. _You should get out of the dirt. Maggie_s been looking for you for lunch, you know. Didn_t you hear her calling?_ And then she said, _Ohhhh. Are you crying? What_s the matter, child?_ I couldn_t say what was the real trouble, so I said I was sad about Mama Kitty, and Bunny said she understood about that. She hugged me and we walked back to the house, and later we all had a little funeral and buried Mama Kitty in the yard, and Bunny said nice things about her, and so did I and so did Maggie. But that night, after we lowered her into the hole in the ground, my stomach started hurting, and it just kept on rumbling and hurting and keeping me awake at night. It was the kind of stomachache that a little girl would get when her mother was dead, I thought. Everything was terrible for days. I got in a fight with Hendrix and got sent to my room. I dumped out four puzzles onto the floor and got sent to my room. I said I wouldn_t go get eggs from the henhouse and got sent to my room. Every night I had to eat dinner up there all by myself as a punishment, and instead of eating, I threw my dinner out of the window and watched as it landed on the grass and the dogs ate it. Finally, Bunny said I should come and stay with her for a little bit. _What_s going on with you?_ she said. And so I told her. _My mama is dead, and that_s why she doesn_t come to see me._ To my surprise, she didn_t try to tell me that Mama was perfectly fine and alive somewhere like she did the year before. Instead, she said, _We are going to fix this, little one,_ and she clamped down her mouth and narrowed her eyes the way she did sometimes when she was having a big think. And then the very next week, Bunny told the rest of the family that she and I were going to visit her sister Alfreda, who lived in Pennsylvania, and who needed company in the nursing home. Hendrix couldn_t go, she told them, because only one child at a time was allowed to visit patients there, and she had no one to watch him when I was visiting, and no one to watch me when it was his turn. That next Saturday, which was a very hot day in July, we got in the car, and we drove for a long time, and then when we were miles away from home, Bunny said to me, _We_re not going to go see my sister, you know. We_re going to Woodstock, and we_re going to look for your mama. And this is going to be just our secret, and we aren_t going to tell anybody else what we did._ I thought the top of my head was going to come right off. I grabbed on to Bunny_s arm, which made the car swerve all over the road. And I was laughing and kicking my legs against the dashboard, and I wanted to jump out of the car and run around in a circle I was so excited. We had a map that was spread out on the front seat, which Bunny would pull over to look at from time to time. I was nearly out of my mind with excitement and questions, bouncing up and down on the seat and singing all the songs I knew, until Bunny said maybe I should try to take a rest. I looked out the window at all the fields flying past, then at the mountains as we turned onto the state highways. Then I sang more songs. When we stopped for lunch and ice cream, Bunny cleared her throat and said my mother might not be like I remembered her. It had been a long time, and she hadn_t been able to reach her to tell her we were coming. _Things are going to be fine,_ I said and wiped my sticky hands on my shirt. And then I got up and spun around and around, mostly because I didn_t want to see Bunny_s face anymore. She had started out on this trip so happy, and it seemed like the closer we got to my mom, the more worried she looked. My mama was going to be so happy to see me. I said that over and over again so Bunny wouldn_t be scared. When we pulled up to the old house, I jumped out of the car and ran up the steps to the front porch, even though Bunny and I had discussed this. How we would go carefully and easily up to the door. We didn_t know for sure who lived there, she said, so we would knock politely on the door and wait to see who came. But it was Mama who came to the door. Mama! I started to cry the minute I saw her. I felt like a balloon that had just lost all its air. She was standing at the old white screen door with the torn screen, and she opened it, and her face was lit up like the moon. All the colors dancing all around her. She was wearing a shirt that was soft and blue and filmy with little shiny things on it and her old blue-jean shorts, the ones she was always sewing stuff on. And she didn_t say a word; she just picked me up and held me close to her, and we stood that way until I could hardly breathe anymore. She smelled just the way she used to smell, like something sweet. Like the earth and soap. There was music playing inside the house and people talking, and Mama was saying my name over and over. _Tenaj,_ Bunny said from behind us. _Honey, it is so good to see you!_ And Mama let me go then, but I kept both my arms around her waist, and the two of us moved over to be hugged by Bunny, too. Bunny had set down a big bag that she_d brought, and the three of us just stood there together like we were one person with six legs and six arms all mashed in together. _Look at my baby!_ Mama said. _Oh my goodness! Look at you! You_re six years old, and you_re so grown up now!_ Her face changed suddenly, and she looked at Bunny, like she was scared. _But where is my Hendrix?_ _He_s at home, honey. He_s fine,_ said Bunny. _I just brought Phronsie this time. She_s been wanting to see you so much, and I thought she and I could get away with a little secret visit._ _Hendrix would tell everything to everybody,_ I explained. _He_s a big blabbermouth._ _Is he?_ said Mama. She was smiling and wiping away tears. _Oh, come in, come in. I can_t believe you_re here. You_re really here!_ Then we went inside, and I remembered the place like it was part of my bones. It was like my brain kept going click, click, click as it saw things it recognized. The colors! The way Mama had a color for everything. Each wall had its own feeling_orange and yellow and some kind of shade of blue_and the couch was purple, and there was a red wooden table, and a rug that had big round circles of different kinds of green. It was like you were in a big box of crayons, in Mama_s house_so different from my daddy and Maggie_s house, which had big brown chests of drawers and tables and bookshelves, crowded in against every wall and so heavy and dark they looked like they ate all the light in the room and might come and eat you, too. It made my heart beat faster, just to see it all, like it was from a dream. And that guy, Stony, was there looking just the way he looked before, and the woman, Petal, from next door was visiting, and everybody hugged me and said I was so big, and some of them remembered Bunny, too. Mama made us some tea that tasted like leaves and grasses, and we sat in the living room on the big paisley pillows, and then we walked outside and picked up little flowers and pieces of fluff for Mama_s art, and we just talked and talked. I told her about the farm and Bunny_s barn, and how Hendrix liked to play with the baby goats and that I wanted a puppy because our old dog was so old and wouldn_t climb the stairs anymore to sleep in my room, like he used to. Bunny was smiling now, and Mama made her laugh a couple of times, and Bunny put her hand to her throat and said, _Oh my!_ when Stony teased her about looking too young to have a granddaughter my age. Bunny and Mama started talking about things that had happened before I got born, when she and my daddy had a wedding right out there in the field, and how fun it had all been. _We stood right over there,_ Mama said. She pointed to a place in the field where there was a little tree standing all by itself. _And your daddy wore a shirt that I_d made for him_and it had puffy sleeves and all kinds of embroidery on it. Remember that, Bunny?_ _Well,_ said Bunny. She turned away, like she_d seen ghosts out there in that field. _Yes, it was quite a shirt. It was that._ And Mama laughed, too, and said it might have been a little over the top, that shirt, but she had been proud of it_and the two of them smiled at each other. Then Bunny said well again and looked over at the house and moved her handbag over to the other shoulder. I got a little shiver, and then all of a sudden, I started to get that sad kind of stomachache again. Because I could see this wasn_t going to last. Soon it was going to be time to go get back in the car, and Mama would still live here, and I would still live in New Hampshire and be Maggie_s girl_and when I was Maggie_s girl, I was not Phronsie because I was Frances_and little by little, I would forget about being the girl who twirled around in the field finding pieces of feathers and wearing sparkly clothes like my mama did. And then Bunny cleared her throat and put her hand on my arm and said we should all go into town and get something to eat at the diner, so we did. Mama sat next to me in the big orange booth and she told Bunny that she was making a little bit of money now from her art. She said she was getting by and that there was a whole bunch of people who were doing art with her, and they had a co-op thing going on. There was magic in the art, she said. I started playing with her hair, which was long and curly and yellow, like mine, except Maggie always had me wear mine in a tight high ponytail to keep it out of my face. But Mama took the ponytail holder out, and she combed her fingers through my hair and said how pretty it looked. She said my eyes looked just like hers. _You look just like pictures of me when I was a little girl,_ she said in kind of a dreamy voice. _As my mama would have said, you_re my spittin_ image._ That_s when I felt brave enough to say the thing I had wanted to say since we got there, but which I didn_t know until right then that I could ever say. _Do you ever miss me?_ I said. _I miss you every single second,_ she told me. Her eyes got shiny, so I took her fingers and played with all of them, one by one, sliding her rings on and off. She had rings with beads on them. _Well then,_ I said, _how come you don_t ever come and see us? Why are you so far away?_ I swallowed hard. _I thought you died._ She and Bunny looked at each other. I saw Bunny nod. _He doesn_t tell them I call?_ Mama said. I looked from one of them to the other. Bunny cleared her throat again. _You call? On the phone?_ _I call every week. I beg to talk to them. He always says they_re busy or they_re taking a nap or they_ve gone to the store. Once he finally said it would be too upsetting._ Bunny banged her hand on the table, and she looked away with a mad look on her face. She shook her head, and she said this was something that had to get fixed. _I tried a few times to come see them. Stony said he_d drive me, but Robert said he wasn_t going to allow me to see them even if I did get there. He said_he said it_s not good for them._ She started tearing up the paper napkin in front of her. _Does he even give them the presents I send? For their birthday? For Christmas?_ Bunny shook her head. _Nothing. He_s never mentioned anything._ _Maybe it was the magic that scared him,_ Mama said, and Bunny said, _Hush with that kind of talk. It_s him. This is all on him._ _And the divorce decree said there_d be visitation,_ Mama said. _But that doesn_t happen, and I can_t afford an attorney._ _No,_ said Bunny, and I had never seen her look so mad. _This is the end of that, though. You don_t worry about this for one more second, you hear me? I_m taking care of things from now on. There_s going to be visitation._ On the way home, Bunny said that it wasn_t going to be a secret after all that we went to see Mama. That she was going to march in the front door, and she was going to make sure that my daddy did what the court said he had to do. The next day there was a big fight and lots of yelling. Hendrix and I were supposed to be upstairs in our room, but I could hear Bunny telling my daddy that he had to do what the court said, and my daddy said the court didn_t know everything that was right. _Children need to see their mother,_ she said. _That is what is right._ He yelled a whole bunch of things, how our mother wasn_t good. He said Woodstock was a bad place, and he told Bunny that Mama had let us run wild. He was also mad that Bunny took me up there without telling him. That was lying. I tried not to listen, but I couldn_t help it. The yelling was all over the whole house. It bounced against the walls and filled up all the spaces, even where Hendrix and I were hiding behind the door. Then Bunny told him that he was the wrong one here. She kept saying, _She is their mother. And Phronsie thought she died, Robert. This child has been suffering because of you and your stupid pride._ After that, the grown-ups found out we were listening, and even though there was more of a fight to come, Hendrix and I got taken by Maggie over to Bunny_s barn, where we slept for a few nights, and when we came back to our regular house, everybody was acting like nothing had happened at all, except the air still felt thick with something bad. Every summer for the next four years, Maggie would drive me and Hendrix to the little ice cream place in Massachusetts, where Mama would be waiting in Stony_s old pickup truck, and we would eat an ice cream cone, and then Mama would take us back to her house. Hendrix and I would spend a couple of weeks with her and her friends, and we would swim at the swimming hole and we_d listen to the music that her friends made, and we_d help Mama with her art collection, and we_d sleep outside some nights in the tent with her and see the fireflies and we_d help her pick the strawberries and the tomatoes. She and I would make bread, and she would tease me about how much butter I liked, and then she would bring out the jar of honey, and we would load up the pieces with butter and honey until they were just completely perfect. That_s what Mama would say: _This is just completely perfect._ She was witchy and magic and knew how to harness the moon energy and how to make people fall in love with her. I thought she was everything. Hendrix, though, was a little bit homesick. I could always tell what he was thinking because he and I had been together even before we were born, and I knew he liked things to be all normal and regular. I could see in his eyes that he felt scared when Mama would talk about magic and moonlight. So I tried to keep him happy when we were there, telling him stories at night, letting him sit in the front seat in the truck when we went places, giving him the biggest piece of bread with the most butter and honey. Just so he would smile and be happy there. And things didn_t get weird for a very long time. CHAPTER NINE News flash: Judd did not come over to my apartment after having a beer with Mercer on Sunday night, and therefore, we did not make love for the first time ever. Surprise, surprise. I wake up on Monday morning, feeling grumpy and unsettled. What does it say about us that he didn_t even want to stop by? Doesn_t he want to have sex with me? Then, while I_m in the shower, mulling over the question of whether I have the right to be disappointed, Mr. Swanky eats all the leftover popcorn from last night_s movie marathon and throws up on the carpet, and after I clean that up, I discover I_m out of coffee beans, and so I miss the 8:06 subway because I have to stop to get takeout coffee in order to live, and the line is ridiculously long. Well? I have to stand in it, fidgeting and fuming. I need coffee. Life without caffeine is unthinkable. Then, when I get to work, there_s Darla beginning the staff meeting by saying, _We have a very difficult situation here with Phronsie_s author._ Some context here: Darla Chapman has been the head of publicity for Tiller Publishing for two years, and as far as I can tell, nothing has ever derailed her. She_s known in the business as a firecracker, even a firebrand, with plenty of ideas for how to get our authors front and center in the vast, loud world of publishing, where it seems as though every third person you meet has a new book out and needs it reviewed by someone. She also has social relationships with bookstore owners, magazine editors, other publishers, and media experts. And not only that, but she also has four children, a banker husband, a live-in nanny, a cook, four dogs, two cats, a Komodo dragon, three cell phones, and a pager_and yet somehow she always seems preternaturally calm. Maybe it_s because she_s about seven feet tall and has a deep, contralto voice that commands attention. I think she terrifies most problems into submission, to tell you the truth. When she says there_s a very difficult situation, I think most of us in the conference room start to imagine that it may be time to take cover under our desks. Adam, sitting across the conference table from me, gives me a look meant to approximate a silent scream and then quietly adjusts his shirt so that a little gnome head comes peeking out of his pocket. He shifts his gaze down when Darla shoots a look in his direction. Then she fixes her stare on me. _Phronsie,_ she says, _you_re the resident expert here, so would you like to fill the rest of the group in on the Gabora situation as it now stands?_ So I explain. Gabora Pierce-Anton is a positively ancient, sweet-faced, beloved children_s book author who years ago was one of the backbones of Tiller Publishing. However, she writes books that depict life from a simpler time. She tells the story of the adventures of Peter and Eleanor, two wealthy children who are able to disappear through a little door and go back and forth in time. Sometimes they just zip back to visit their great-grandmothers_ childhoods where they learn to roll hoops and knit scarves and cultivate family values, but they have also gone to other continents and, over the years, have visited nearly every epoch you can think of, from dinosaurs to space travel. Parents and grandparents have flocked for years to buy these sweet, charming little books. _But her latest,_ I say, _coming out after a five-year hiatus, is about Thanksgiving, and_well, the plot is that little Eleanor and Peter zipped back in time and befriended some little Pilgrim children and _helped out_ the Native Americans by teaching them how to prepare the Thanksgiving feast. Eleanor even showed them how to set a proper English table, and the Native Americans were so, so grateful._ There are groans around the table. Adam says, _How in the world did this ever make it through our editing process?_ Darla steps in. _We_re dealing with that now,_ she says and gives Adam a fierce look. What I suspect is that we_ve just always given Gabora a free pass on anything, because her books sell so well. And she did agree, grudgingly, to abandon the word Indians and go with Native Americans instead. _Early reviews have been devastating and rightly so,_ I say. _Publishers Weekly and other publications had some harsh words about the cultural insensitivity and irresponsibility of allowing such a view to escape into the world. There have been protests, and we were asked by several Native American rights groups to pull the book._ Darla interrupts me. _Which would be unheard of. So, after several high-level meetings, we decided our response would be to simply forego the usual widespread publicity tour that Gabora is accustomed to. The book would be out, but we would be silent about it. No publicity. Maybe the whole thing would just . . . go away. A few diehard fans might buy it, grandmothers who weren_t politically inclined, and that would be that._ _We salute you, Gabora Pierce-Anton, at the end of a brilliant career,_ says one of the other publicists, and everyone chuckles a little. Darla taps on the table with a long pink fingernail. _But now the bad news is that Gabora has contacted lawyers, with encouragement from her two grown daughters. And she is insisting on going ahead with bookstore appearances that were previously scheduled by us, back in the summer when we assumed we_d be proceeding as we always have with her books. Her attorney says she wants to go FULL SPEED AHEAD, all caps,_ Darla says. _She wants to confront her critics, and she has contacted bookstores on her own_or her daughters have, more likely_and they have bookstore appearances lined up._ _But do bookstores want this kind of attention?_ Adam asks. _Don_t misjudge her appeal,_ says Darla. _The fact is, bookstore owners are rallying around her. There are now readings scheduled the week of Thanksgiving, in South Carolina, ending on Wednesday night itself. And with predictions of protesters, we can_t just leave our frail little author out to fend for herself. The optics are very bad for that._ She looks at me. _I_m afraid we_re going to have to ask you to postpone your Thanksgiving travel plans,_ she says. _You need to be with her. You_ve traveled with her before, and you know how to keep her in line. Rumor has it she_s been known to get a little tipsy at times._ Ah yes. Once she tipsied herself into an endcap of books and gave herself a concussion. Another time she fell out of the backseat of the car when her driver opened the door she was leaning upon. _But wait,_ Adam is saying. _This seems insane. Are people seriously going to go to a bookstore reading for a children_s author when they_re supposed to be making their turkey dinner? I bet we could talk those bookstores into canceling. There_s hardly anybody who_s going to show up for this._ Darla looks at him and narrows her eyes. _Adam, would you like to rethink what you just said, in light of what our responsibility is to our authors?_ she says. He looks down; he probably would rather not. _You know what?_ she says in her deepest no-nonsense voice. _Phronsie is going to need your help with the tour. I_ll need you both to escort Gabora to her events and keep her out of trouble and see that she_s protected._ I look over at Adam, who has settled back in his seat and is tapping a pen against his thumb. So much for extra days off for him. And for me, too. Even if by some miracle, I_m able to leave for New Hampshire after her reading on Wednesday night, I_ll still miss my favorite part of our family Thanksgiving celebration, which takes place in the few days beforehand. In the ideal, perfect world of family traditions, Judd and I usually take the train home on Monday and then go to Hallowell House, where Bunny lives, and then I bring her home with me. Hendrix and his family come up, and we usually spend Tuesday and Wednesday working on the Thanksgiving dinner, doing chores, polishing the silver, playing games, and visiting. Hendrix and his kids drive the tractors_or at least they have in past years. There_s not much land left to drive tractors upon these days. But Gabora takes precedence. I know this. After the meeting, I go into full-throttle mode. Call the bookstores where she_s scheduled, hoping they_ve rethought things. But nope. They_re not backing down. They have people signed up to come see her. They want to show their love. _Are there going to be protests, though?_ I ask. _Oh, who knows?_ says one bookstore owner. _We_re just thrilled to have Gabora Pierce-Anton coming to our little indie bookstore. We can handle the rest._ So that_s that. I call Judd and tell him the news that I probably won_t make it to New Hampshire until Thanksgiving Day. He is crunching an apple while we talk, and he doesn_t seem all that concerned. _At least we can still get together at Tandy_s on Friday with all the peeps,_ he says. _Oh, and guess what. I talked to a guy who comes into the gym, and he has a little wholesale jewelry business, so I_m meeting him there tomorrow night. I_m getting you a real ring. A metal one. I want you to have something to show everybody._ _Well,_ I say. _Huh. That_s nice of you._ He laughs. _I just want you to have a pretty ring so that even though you_re marrying a guy out of friendship, you don_t have to suffer when the other ladies want to see your ring._ _Oh God,_ I say. _You are so crazy._ _But wonderful crazy,_ he says. _Well,_ I say. _That_s one way to look at it._ Late in the afternoon, I call Maggie on the speaker phone and tell her about my work situation and how sad I am not to be there early in Thanksgiving week. Maggie says, _Well, but will Judd still come ahead of time?_ _He_s planning on it. He said he_s buying me a ring so I can show it off to the other women._ _A ring! That_s great. Are you happy?_ _I think I am. There are still a couple of little personal details to be worked out between him and me. You know._ _The fireworks?_ I laugh. _Exactly. The fireworks, yes._ _Look, he_s a good, healthy, red-blooded man, so you_ll figure it out. And as I may have mentioned, I_m just so relieved that now we don_t have to worry about you dating serial killers._ _What is it with you and these serial killers? Trust me. Whenever a serial killer asks me out, I always say no._ _Serial killers make themselves look very normal and very attractive to young women,_ she says. _You could meet a psychopath and not realize what you were dealing with. That_s what can happen if you think you_re running out of time._ _Okay, Mags, that_s it. I gotta go._ I turn my chair back around and my stomach drops. Adam is standing at my door leaning against the doorjamb with his arms folded. He_s smirking at me. I swear, the guy is smirking. And I have no idea how long he_s been there or how much he_s heard. Damn that speaker phone. I hang up and bark, _What?_ He_s not thrown a bit. He saunters in and sits down in the chair across from my desk. He_s still got that slightly smiling expression on his face. Let me be clear about something: Adam doesn_t so much as sit in a chair as he inhabits it. He slouches down, stretches out his legs. If his feet could reach my desk, I swear he_d put his feet up on it. He also still has that little gnome sticking out of his shirt pocket. Juliet this time. This guy is impossible. _So break it to me gently. This Gabora . . . is she really a nutjob? Like how bad is it really going to be? Is she, like, senile? I read the book after the meeting, and I can_t believe we_re publishing it. What were they thinking?_ _Close the door, please,_ I say. While he_s doing that, I try to control myself. My face feels like it_s still blazing from a mixture of embarrassment, fury, and a whole host of other emotions that haven_t yet introduced themselves by their full titles. When he turns and looks at me, I say in the coldest voice I can muster, _Listen to me. Gabora Pierce-Anton is a respected children_s author, and she_s partially responsible for our jobs even existing here. She may not be to your taste, and she may not even be up with the current line of thinking about anything you care about, but she is an author who belongs to our company, and I want you to go into this tour with the attitude that you are going to contribute in such a way as to protect her, to make sure she_s all right and comfortable, and to show the utmost respect for her and for Tiller wherever you go. You are representing this publisher, and I am not going to tolerate all this joking about her._ I might as well set the tone for this tour right this minute. That_s what I_m thinking. He has not taken his eyes off me the whole time I_m scolding him. He_s looking right at me, right into my eyes, and then he sits up a little straighter and salutes me when I_m all finished. _Yes, ma_am,_ he says. Like it_s all a big joke. _Do not,_ I say. _Do not?_ _Do not even . . ._ I can_t think of what I was going to say. _Do not even try to make light of this conversation,_ I finish lamely. _Absolutely not,_ he says. _This is a very serious conversation. High seriousity._ But he looks like he just might start laughing, and I know that if he does, then I will start laughing, too, because, let_s face it, I am never good at this kind of thing. Scolding. Which is why I will probably make a lot of mistakes as a mom, and disciplining the children is yet another thing that will have to fall to Judd, and Adam is looking at me in such a way that I want both to smack him and, for some reason, to kiss him at the same time. I stand up to shift the energy in this room. _That_s enough. I have some calls to make. You need to leave._ He stands up and prepares to go. But then he stops at the door and turns and looks at me. It_s hard to describe the exact way he looks at me; his blue eyes are directly staring into mine, and his mouth is a hard line, like he_s trying hard not to smile. _So,_ he says, _just for the record, with all due respect, I don_t happen to think you_re running out of time._ CHAPTER TEN Every year when Maggie would drive Hendrix and me to meet up with Mama at the ice cream place halfway between New Hampshire and Woodstock, my heart beat so hard that the blood pounded in my ears like a drum. It was because the best time of my year was about to begin, but first we had to get through the very worst time. Maggie called out to us in the backseat as she drove, saying all these things she was worrying about as we got closer. Things like, _Don_t go swimming if there_s not a grown-up watching you,_ and _Be sure to take your vitamins every day and make sure you eat plenty of fruit and drink milk, because you don_t want to get sick while you_re there._ She said, _If anybody is smoking something, and it smells funny to you, I want you to promise me that you will go outside and get away from it._ I poked Hendrix when Maggie said that, just to make him laugh. The switch from Maggie to Mama at the ice cream stand was always a bad moment. Everybody was all fake nice about it, but I could feel the tension. Maggie didn_t like to take us to the place to hand us over, and she certainly didn_t like to see Mama, but I heard her telling Daddy one time that as much as she hated it, she was always the one who was going to do the switch because she didn_t trust him to see Mama again. _What do you think I_m gonna do, Maggie?_ he yelled. And she said, _How about the mistake you made with her that other time?_ And then she laughed like she was joking, except she wasn_t, you could tell from her eyes. _I_ve gotta keep my eye on you, mister._ I thought about that for a long time. I knew by then that my daddy and mama had met at Woodstock, and that he got married to her there and made me and Hendrix, so was that the mistake? Were me and Hendrix the mistake? But how could we be a mistake? People can_t be mistakes. Everything changed as soon as Maggie pulled her station wagon out of the parking lot to head back home. That_s when Mama stopped acting like she was a calm grown-up lady, and she did this little dance with her arms in the air that she said a person should always perform when seeing somebody after a long time. It was a silly dance, really, shimmying and clapping and then a full-body hug, spinning around, and then a dip. It made her laugh every time. I was always willing to join right in, but Hendrix was a little shy and had to be coaxed. She_d go over and take him by the hands and jiggle him around until he was laughing. She was fabulous, our mama. That was my new word the summer I was seven. I used the word fabulous over and over because that was the word my mama liked, too, and also everything about her was fabulous: the floaty clothes she wore, her long yellow hair cascading down her back, messy and tangled up, like a nest of something. It felt like she could do anything. Life was like one big party time, with people coming to sleep over without even having to call first. Music was always playing, either on the record player or from somebody sitting on the floor playing a guitar. One guy who came over a lot had a harmonica that he played nearly nonstop. My mama was always singing _You Are My Sunshine._ It ran through my head all the time, that song. Also, there was a big firepit in the center of the yard, with stacks of wood around it, where we_d sit at night and sing songs. The house was next to a big, open field, which was dotted with flowers_white and pink and yellow, like someone had thrown little bits of paint here and there, just for fun. When I wasn_t out running around with Hendrix, Mama and I sat on the porch and she taught me to sew things. She also told me stuff she believed, like how you were supposed to have as much fun as you could. You had to find work that was like play, and then you could be having fun all the time. Some people didn_t know that life wasn_t supposed to be hard. _Which is fine for them,_ she said. _If people want to think that life is hard for them, then they are welcome to that idea, believe me. But you don_t have to see it that way. You can look for good things instead._ Look for good things. Nobody at my New Hampshire house ever talked like that; there was always some big problem going on, and even if we_d been outside at night, Daddy or Maggie would never have stopped walking and said, _Look! Just look at those millions of stars!_ And yet Mama said that nearly every night. Mama was always looking for signs. Seeing a cardinal meant that somebody we loved was thinking of us. If we saw a snakeskin, that meant that we were going to have big changes. If your right palm itched, you were going to get some money_and if your left palm itched, that meant you were going to have company. Or maybe I have it backward. She also had a lot of beliefs. She said, _Things always work out for the best._ She said, _We were put on this earth to be happy and free._ She said, _Everybody just wants to be loved. And if you close your eyes and think really hard, you can picture love flowing to every single person out there in the world. And they will feel it because all love is energy._ She said, _When you miss somebody really, really bad, all you have to do is think of them, and if you think hard enough, they_ll feel it and they_ll start thinking about you, too. Like if you sing them a song, your voice will travel up into space and find their voice singing it right back to you._ One day, just she and I were sitting on the porch, and I was sewing a big red heart on one of the dish towels, and she said, _Watch this. I_m going to flow some love to Hendrix right now, and he_s going to come out of the house and find me, because he felt all that love swirling around the house looking for him._ She closed her eyes and scrunched up her face, and sure enough, in a few minutes Hendrix came drifting out of the house and sat down next to her. She and I both laughed. _What?_ he said. _Why are you laughing at me?_ _We_re not laughing at you,_ Mama said. _I sent you some love in the air, and you felt it. And you came out._ _Well, Frances was laughing at me,_ he said. _My name is not Frances here,_ I hissed at him, and I looked at Mama quickly to make sure she hadn_t heard. I didn_t want her to know about my Maggie name. But Mama was humming a little song, and she didn_t seem to notice what Hendrix had said, or maybe she just didn_t like to get into discussions about what our life in New Hampshire was like. Instead, she jumped up and said, _Let_s go swim in the river, and we_ll look for rocks and feathers, and then tonight_tonight we_ll catch us some fireflies._ _Will we keep them in a jar?_ Hendrix wanted to know. _No, no, heavens,_ she said. _They would die in a jar. They_ve gotta go see the other fireflies, just like we have to see all the people._ _We could poke holes in the top,_ said Hendrix, and she picked him up and swung him around and told him he could keep a firefly in the jar for ten minutes, but then he_d have to say good-bye and let it fly back home. I was a different girl there, and Hendrix was a different boy. The grown-ups treated us like we were part of the whole scene, and they said bad words around us without saying, _Ooh, pardon my French,_ and they told funny stories, and they fell down on the pillows sometimes, kissing and hugging. That was where I learned the startling fact that everybody has a butt. Mama also let me turn on the oven when we made bread, and I could sit on the counter while she cut up vegetables because I had my own little knife. Hendrix and I picked blueberries, and Mama taught us to roll out the crust and push it down into the pie plate. One day, when we were eight, everybody in the house had a cartwheel contest outside in the field, and Mama could do the most. Then we played Pile Up, and everybody got on top of everybody else and we were all laughing and pushing and yelling, and I think it was the most fun I ever had. I nearly peed my pants I was laughing so hard. Only Hendrix wouldn_t play. He sat down on the ground just watching us, with his head resting on his hands. Then that night, in the dark, he said to me, _Do you think it_s okay that Mama does cartwheels and plays Pile Up?_ _Why wouldn_t it be?_ _Because . . . because it_s not like she_s a real mom, you know?_ he said. _No other moms do that stuff._ _Are you crazy? That_s the good part of her,_ I told him. _It_s because she knows how to have fun and have adventures. She doesn_t always get so worried about every little thing!_ _I think she should worry a little more,_ he said quietly. _I had a splinter in my foot, and she said it would just go away._ _And did it?_ _No,_ he said. _I took a knife and pushed it out myself._ _That_s good, Hendrix. That_s a good skill to have._ _Phronsie, I am eight years old. I shouldn_t have to take out my own splinters with a knife. It_s like we don_t even have a mom when we_re here!_ You see? Already it was turning out that there was a Maggie Team and a Mama Team. If the two teams had different dugouts, like with the Little League, you could see that Hendrix would go to the Maggie dugout and I_d be across the field in Mama_s dugout, making clover necklaces and waving to him from far away. When we_d get back to New Hampshire after our two weeks with Mama, there were always a lot of questions. _What did you do? Who lives in the house with your mom? What kinds of food did you eat? Was somebody watching you the whole time? The whole time? Was your mother well, or did she do kind of nutty things?_ I made Hendrix promise he wouldn_t tell the part about how he ate the brownie with the dope in it. I had to pay him fifty cents and do his job of collecting the eggs from the henhouse for a whole month, but it was worth it. He didn_t mention it. And then, a funny thing: After my daddy and Maggie asked us those few questions, there was never anything else they wanted to say. Mama didn_t get mentioned for the whole rest of the year. She_d send a box at Christmas and on our birthday, and it would be filled with odd little things: pieces of ribbon, a ukulele song book, feathers, buttons, torn-up pages from a calendar, and some loose squares of old jeans. Maggie would shake her head and throw the whole thing away because, she said, the box smelled like that hippie smell, patchouli. _Robert, I tell you, she_s getting worse,_ I heard her say one time. _Why even bother to send a box if it_s not going to have anything in there a kid could play with? Broken glass! They could have gotten hurt._ But I didn_t think so. I knew that everything my mama sent to me meant something wonderful to her. They were messages, all meant to be reminders of things we_d done together: the stuff we_d collected, the songs we_d played on the ukulele, the jeans we_d embroidered. I knew she was sending me some love, the best way she knew how. And I_d sneak out to the trash can and get the stuff Maggie threw away and put it all under my bed. And at night, I_d sit on the floor and bury my face in it, just breathing in the scent of my mom. I didn_t talk to her on the toilet paper roll anymore because I knew by then that was stupid, but I did write her letters. I told her how I kept everything she ever sent and that I made a collage in art class with the buttons and feathers. And then I folded my letters away because I didn_t know her address, and I knew my father would never mail them for me. I_d get in my bed at night and sing _You Are My Sunshine_ and pretend that she was singing it right then, too, and that our two voices were meeting somewhere up in space. CHAPTER ELEVEN I_m exhausted by the time I get home from work, but I call Hendrix to tell him about the Thanksgiving plan. Over the years, despite our different dugouts, he and I have done pretty well at divvying up the responsibilities of being the children of the Robert and Tenaj and Maggie Triumvirate, as we call it. We have staked out our territory, family-wise. Hendrix has always been the perfect child when it comes to being loyal to the whole farming, life-in-New-Hampshire thing. He stuck it out with farming, year after year, wearing his maroon down vest in the winter and his ratty old T-shirts in the summer, working side by side with our dad, planning, planting, pruning, growing, harvesting, hiring field hands, driving the tractors, tallying up the figures_both he and my father committed one hundred percent until it became clear that the farm_s situation was so dire that it could no longer support Hendrix and his family. At which point_and with the permission of our father, who gave it wholeheartedly_Hendrix and Ariel took their three little boys and moved to Massachusetts, where he got a job managing a tractor store, and she started working as a school secretary. But I_m the perfect child when it comes to staying in touch with everyone; I_m the one who makes the phone calls and arranges the visits. I ask about everyone_s health and what they_re having for dinner, and who they_ve talked to recently, and I know my parents_ aches and pains, the bitterness they don_t want to talk about, their fears, their silences, their quiet evenings, their deep well of sadness that can never be erased and never be spoken of. And furthermore, what I know is this: that deep down in the dark recesses of their three o_clock in the morning thoughts, Hendrix and I are the flesh-and-blood reminders of an affair that shouldn_t have taken place. Getting Hendrix to settle down on the phone is a feat in itself. He_s always got about five things going at one time. In the background, I can hear Ariel banging pots and pans and talking to the children about homework and washing hands and, _What_s that on the floor? No, pick it up. No, now. I said pick it up now._ _Can you talk for a second?_ I say to him. _I just need to tell you__ _Wait a second. Ariel, it_s Phronsie. Phronsie. Yes, on the phone. Kids, can you please just pick up whatever that thing is and be quiet for like one tenth of a minute?_ A beat of silence from him, with protests roaring in the background. _You can_t? Are you quite sure? Try it anyway, how would that be?_ He comes back to the phone. _Hello, sister of mine! I_m so sorry about all this commotion. How are you? It_s been way too long!_ _I_m good,_ I say. _You sound . . . busy. Kids doing okay?_ He says everybody_s fine. Work, school events, house stuff. You know. The whole nine yards. He has that tired but satisfied tone you hear so often in married couples with kids. _Good. Well, I just wanted to tell you that I can_t come early for Thanksgiving. A work thing has come up__ _Oh no! That_s our favorite time together!_ _I know,_ I say. And then I tell him the short version about Gabora and the Pilgrims. Maybe he could pick up Bunny from the nursing home on Monday night? He says he_d be happy to. Somebody in the background is yelling about whose turn it is to feed the dog. _So, if you have another one tenth of a second,_ I say, talking quickly now, _did you know that Judd asked me to marry him?_ There_s a silence. Then he laughs. _What?_ he says. _Wow. I did not see that coming. I thought you guys were strictly pals._ _Yeah, that_s what I thought, too,_ I say, _but it seems that I_ve said yes. A new direction in my life!_ There_s another beat of silence and then I hear him say, _Guys, I_m going to take the phone outside now. I gotta talk to Phronsie._ _Uh-oh, this sounds like a serious talk,_ I say. _Well, I worry about you,_ he says. I can hear him breathing hard as he walks. _Don_t get me wrong. Judd_s the nicest guy in the whole world. But he_s . . . ordinary compared to you. Don_t take this the wrong way, but you_ve got a lot of our mom in you__ _Thanks,_ I say sarcastically. _No, I mean all the best parts of her_all the fun and creative stuff,_ he says. He pauses. _Phronsie, you know I adore you. You_re the most adventurous person I know, and when you had that marriage to Steve Whoever, and I watched you get so hurt, I just hoped there was somebody out there who could appreciate all the great parts about you._ _And you don_t think it could be Judd. Is that it?_ He laughs. _Well, marriage is freaking hard sometimes. And I_ve studied you my whole life. Before I even knew I was alive. Even in the womb, I think you were redesigning the place and making sure it wasn_t too boring. I just wonder if you_re going to be as happy with all the conventional life stuff Judd_s attached to. That_s all._ I laugh. _Well, womb-mate, I appreciate your concern for me. But I really do think Juddie and I are going to be fine together. I_m not as much like Mom as you think, maybe. I want kids and a real life with a man who_s not going to cheat on me. I_m ready for this._ _Well,_ says Hendrix. _If you_re happy, then I_m happy. And now I_ve got to tell you that Ariel is just practically leaping at me, trying to get the phone away. She has somehow surmised exactly what_s going on, and she has to weigh in. So I_ll say good-bye. See you whenever you get to Thanksgiving._ And then there_s Ariel in my ear: _Phronsie! Omigod! Congratulations to you! Welcome to the married-people club._ _She was in it before,_ yells Hendrix from a distance. _She left the club. Whose turn is it to feed the dog because whoever it is better get to it!_ _Well, welcome back to the club,_ says Ariel. _New, improved partner. Am I right?_ I squeeze my eyes closed. _Thank you,_ I say. _Yeah. He_s an improvement._ _So_we won_t see you before Thanksgiving? Is that what I_m hearing? Boys, would one of you for God_s sake just get out of this kitchen so I can get this soup made? Why are you all underfoot? Scram!_ _Dad said I had to feed the dog!_ _I_ll be there_just not until after the dinner itself._ _Oh. Well, good, then,_ she says. Her voice is the distracted voice of someone who_s dealing with a roomful of chimpanzees. _Anyway, honey, I couldn_t be more thrilled for you and Judd. And you know what I_m thinking? Maybe we can all go on vacation together sometime. The boys just love Judd!_ _Sure,_ I say. That_s a comforting and strange thought. I try to visualize us all camping out somewhere in the woods, or even at a resort somewhere, lounging by a pool. I have to say that no mental images come to mind. She laughs. Maybe she can_t picture it either. But it doesn_t matter: in another minute, she_s hung up, gone back to her life, where her whole existence depends upon taming wild chimpanzees and holding tight to her very loving husband. I sit there for a moment in the silence. How is it that some lucky people avoid all the pitfalls of love_the cheating husband who blindsides you, then the indignities of _putting yourself out there again,_ waiting for someone to click on your profile, the retelling again and again of your life story to a random, bored stranger, and then the slow realization that time may be running out and that you need to figure out how to settle for a life that is so far from what you imagined? How, indeed, do they get that lucky? CHAPTER TWELVE The summer I was ten, I asked Mama why she never married anybody else after my daddy. I was expecting her to say, Because I still love your daddy, and someday we_re going to get back together again! And then I would say I thought she had a good chance of getting him away from Maggie, who wasn_t nearly as nice as Mama was. She was sewing a butterfly onto Stony_s jeans. She stared down at the jeans like the whole secret of life was contained there and said, _Umm . . . because . . . I didn_t want to._ I decided to help her along. _Because you still love Daddy,_ I said. _I bet that_s why._ _Well . . . no._ She sighed. _I don_t want to be married to him. Or to anybody for that matter._ I looked out at the fields and thought about this. It seemed she should be married to somebody. _What about Stony?_ I asked her. _Because he sleeps in your bed with you, and I think he likes you a whole lot. And I bet he would want to marry you if you told him._ _Nope,_ she said. _I just don_t like being married, I guess. I like being free._ I almost laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of this. I had never heard of such a thing. Everybody got married! And if they weren_t already married, then they were waiting to get married. Or hoping to get married, like my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Stepkins, who was waiting for her boyfriend to get out of the army and come and marry her. I draped myself across the back of her chair and started playing with her hair, twirling it around my finger. _Well, why don_t you like it?_ _Because marriage isn_t so great for women, Phronsie. We can do just fine in life without a husband._ She broke off the thread and tied a knot in it, and then held out the jeans to look at her work. _Look at me, for instance. How happy I am. Do you think I_d be this happy if I had some husband telling me what to do?_ _You could tell him not to tell you what to do!_ _Oh, but once you marry somebody, sweetheart, then all bets are off. He_s your partner, and he thinks he gets to tell you what you_re supposed to look like and act like, and even though you might not want to, you find you_re putting everything you want aside. Like if you want to do art, and he wants you to start a business with him? Or you want to do art, and he thinks you should be in there making dinner? No, thank you. It_s not a good deal if you like being free and doing what you want in your life. Trust me._ _My teacher wants to get married._ _Fine,_ she said. _I wish her every happiness._ _Also Maggie and my dad are married. Did you know that?_ I slid my eyes carefully over to her face when I said the name Maggie, just so I could see if I_d hurt her feelings. I didn_t know quite where the pain might lie. _Yes,_ she said. _I did know that._ Her voice seemed so easy and calm, so I ventured a little further. _Did that make you mad when they got married after he was married to you?_ _Nope. I understood it perfectly._ I left her chair and went and hung on the railing to the steps. _Well, what if you wanted to have another baby? What about that? You_d have to get married then, wouldn_t you?_ _Another baby!_ she said and laughed. _I am so done with all that. But just so you know, even if I did want a baby, I could just have one. I wouldn_t have to get married for that._ She stood up and stretched her arms overhead and did a couple of deep knee bends. The sparkly things on her shirt caught the sunlight and flashed at me. I walked my two fingers up and down on the porch railing banister, pretending they were people needing to jump over the places where the blue paint was chipping off. _But I thought you couldn_t make babies if you weren_t married._ _Some people want you to believe that, but it_s not really true. Like, I had already started making you and Hendrix long before your daddy and I got married._ _You did? How did you do that?_ She looked at me. _Has anybody ever thought to tell you about sex?_ I shook my head and stubbed my toe on the riser to the step as hard as I could. _I mean, I know a lot about it._ _What do you know about it?_ _Well, I know that you have to be in a bed. And that when you do it with somebody, it makes babies. And you have to be married._ She pursed her lips. _Good God. You_re ten years old, and you_well, never mind. It_s time you knew the real story. I_ll tell you all about it._ _Hendrix doesn_t know about it either. I know way more than he does. Like, get this! Last year, we went to a wedding with Daddy and Maggie, and when the bride and groom kissed at the end, Hendrix leaned over and said to me, _I think they_re doing sex and they_re making a baby now._ And I had to tell him that it_s not sex when you_re standing up. He said sex was kissing for a long time, and I said you also need a bed. So sex is kissing in the bed, isn_t it? When you_re married._ She was smiling and shaking her head. _Oh, sweetie. You don_t have to be in a bed. It_s just comfortable there._ I looked at her for a long time, feeling a little bit shy. _Well. If you don_t have to be married to have babies, then why did you marry my daddy?_ _I_ll tell you the truth. When I got pregnant, Bunny said we needed to get married. So we did._ _But I don_t get it. Why would she want you to get married if marriage isn_t good for women?_ _Well, some people don_t think women should have babies by themselves. They think women need men to hang around and take care of them. Which would probably be great, if men didn_t think they got to be the boss of us._ I could feel myself blinking very fast. _Is that why you and my daddy didn_t stay together? Because he wanted to be the boss of you?_ I could actually picture that. I remembered the day he came and picked us up, and the way he was so mad at her. And how at home, he was the one who always got to say what was going to happen. He was the boss of everybody. _Oh, honey, it_s so complicated. Who knows? We just didn_t work out, that_s all. We weren_t so good at regular life together. We wanted different things. That_s all. You can probably tell how different we are from each other._ _Yes,_ I said quietly. And then she laughed. _He loves the Woman with the Organized Hair,_ she said. _That_s the kind of woman for him. Somebody who has all her hairs trained to obey her commands, to all lie down going the same way._ I laughed, too. _I wonder if I_ll get married,_ I said. _If you want to, you should. But if you don_t want to, don_t listen to anybody tell you that you have to, okay? You_ll be just fine either way._ She flexed her bicep. _Strong women, remember? Strong, free women!_ That day, after lunch, she took Hendrix and me to the river, and we sat on the sand and she told us the whole story of sex and love and how people decide who to love and how it_s all magic and mysterious and it_s a force in the world that_s very powerful, and when it takes over your life, you think you_ve discovered the whole world because you_re so happy and proud, and that_s called being in love and it_s worth everything. Everything. Because you_re all lit up from the inside. Something has happened to every single one of your cells, she said_scientists have proven that. We nodded. Hendrix and I were mesmerized by the whole story_except when she got to describing the mechanics of everything, the penises and vaginas part of the situation. We covered our eyes, and she laughed and said, _Okay. You think this way now, but this is going to be a very, very fun part of your life, and it_s all about love and being close to somebody you love. But you shouldn_t do it for a very, very long time. Not until you_re grown up and completely ready and you really, really love somebody._ And she hugged us both, one on each side. _I am never doing it,_ said Hendrix. _I know that for a fact._ Well, she said, he shouldn_t say that for sure. She thought love might change his mind. Love was everything. It ran the whole universe. _Just always remember that love will get you through anything._ I had told Hendrix my theory about how our family was split up into two teams, and later that summer, he asked me, _Are you on the Maggie Team or the Tenaj Team?_ I knew already he was on the Maggie Team, because of how worried he always was when we were with Mama. And bad things happened to him, just coincidences, although Tenaj said there were no such things as coincidences. He stepped on a piece of glass in the field and had to get stitches. He would have headaches and stomachaches. The smell of the marijuana smoke made him sick. He got burned one Fourth of July by a sparkler. He cut his thumb on the can opener. He had nightmares because of the bats that flew around in the trees. He was homesick. _It_s only two weeks, Henny,_ I would say to him. _Can_t you try to have fun?_ _This isn_t fun,_ he said. _It_s highly dangerous._ I said there was nothing dangerous, that he needed to learn to have fun, to be brave and adventurous. I said he should even try being like me. I danced and stayed up late and wore cast-off clothes that were like costumes and learned to play the ukulele. I wore a tie-dyed shirt and embroidered jeans and kept my long hair in braids, and people said I looked just like a hippie chick. _Try to enjoy things for a change,_ I told him. And then one day everything went sideways. It started out as any ordinary hot day. We_d lain around all morning, listlessly. I played the ukulele, Mama finished designing some cards, and Stony and some other friends were milling around drinking beers and working on the trucks. Hendrix was whiny. Why couldn_t we go do something? At last we packed everything up. It took a huge effort to get that many people to actually get moving. But we did it. We went down to the river_Mama and Stony and a whole bunch of other people. We took a picnic basket with egg salad sandwiches and potato wedges and carrot sticks and beer. There was iced tea and lemonade and apple slices. Some pears and raisins. Some more beer. We spread out on towels and blankets on the sand and the rocks. I watched as Hendrix, who was usually not all that brave, waded into the water. And then I saw his face change when he was staring at the big rock that sometimes people jumped from. I saw him decide to do it, too. He looked around, licked his lips nervously, did a couple of boxing punches into the air. He was a skinny, pearly-white kid with no fat on him whatsoever. His hair was shorter than anyone else_s. He breathed with his mouth open. But now he was going to be brave. I saw Hendrix think that, just like there was a thought balloon that came out of his head. It wasn_t all that reckless a thing to do, to be honest. But he was Hendrix, and he was always getting hurt. And this time, after he climbed to the top of the rock and stood there for a moment, holding his arms close to his side and closing his eyes, I saw him almost come back down. But he didn_t. With a suddenness that was almost breathtaking, he jumped. He flailed in midair, waved his arms around, kicked out his legs. I held my breath, seeing him soaring there before gravity grabbed hold of him. Then I stood up. He hadn_t jumped far enough out, and there was an awful moment when I realized he had hit the edge of the rock. I threw down the egg salad sandwich I was eating and ran. He hadn_t come up. I was screaming and screaming, but I didn_t even know if the sound was getting out, because people just kept talking and laughing on the rocks. _Hendrix! Hendrix!_ I kept shouting his name and running into the water, and as if in slow motion, other people started yelling and coming after me, too. There was red in the water where he had jumped, and he still had not surfaced. The men dived down and brought him to the surface. They carried him to the shore, and he was lying in their arms. I was shaking on the shore next to them, wet and shivering, holding my hands up to my face, not quite able to make myself look. My teeth were chattering so hard I thought they might break off in my mouth. An ambulance came. The sirens, the white look of Hendrix_s face, the gash on his head. His eyes were open. He looked at me, and he was so not in his head that I could barely stand it. I touched his hand. I said, _You_ll be okay,_ which I did not for one second believe, but it seemed like something that might help him. Mama went with him in the ambulance. She was clutching her skirt and a string necklace she always wore that had stones on it. Lucky stones, she_d told me once. She was white and quiet, and I wondered if she thought he was going to die, like I did. Her face was hidden by her sheet of hair, and I couldn_t see her eyes. I wanted to see her eyes, to know if she was as scared as I was. I needed to know if this had been my fault for telling him to be brave. But then they went away. Like that, they were gone, the siren shrieking down the road, the sound getting smaller and smaller until you couldn_t hear it at all. The day they left behind was a ruined, horrible gray thing that settled over all of us who were left on the shore. Petal helped pack up the food, and Stony carried me to the truck and tucked me in with a blanket because I was shaking so hard. The other people stood around describing to themselves what had happened, what they_d seen, when they first noticed the trouble. Then they all got in their cars and trucks and left. Went back to their houses in town. We went home, it got dark, I sat on the porch by myself watching the day fade away. Watched the night as it crept across the sky. Too scared to move. I made deals with the universe. If I can sit here and count to one thousand, then Hendrix will be okay. If I can just not blink for the rest of the night, then Hendrix will come wake me up, and it will be morning and I will have been in my bed this whole time, and the whole thing will all have been a bad dream. Finally, there was a sweep of headlights, the sound of tires on gravel, a car swinging into the driveway. Someone was coming. Mama was home, coming back for me. She got out of her friend Eric_s car, and I waited to see if she picked up Hendrix from the backseat, but she didn_t. I ran to meet her, and she put her arms around me, and then Eric waved and backed up and drove away slowly. I heard him call out, _I_ll come back for you later to take you back to the hospital if you need me to,_ and she said, _No, I think I_ll be here with Phronsie._ The headlights brushed the porch as he went. Mama said to me, _He_s okay. I just wanted to come and see you before you go._ _Before I go?_ We sat on the porch steps, her and me, and she took my hand and told me that Maggie and my daddy had driven there, and they were at the hospital with Hendrix. They were waiting until the doctors said it was okay for Hendrix to leave, and then they were coming to pick me up, too, and take us back to New Hampshire. _I don_t want to go back there._ _I_m sorry, but that_s just the way it has to be._ _Are they mad?_ I saw her face change as she tried to figure out what to say to me. _Tell me!_ I said. _They think it was your fault, don_t they? But it was my fault he jumped off the rock! I said he should try to be brave._ I started to cry. _Sssh,_ she said. _It was just an accident. These things happen. You didn_t make it happen._ I leaned against her, and she put her arm around me. Then, from out of the darkness, after a long time, she said, _You know what I was thinking about tonight? I saved your life one time._ _You did?_ I said. _When you were born. You and Hendrix were born at home, in the back bedroom of our little house. And your daddy was there, and my friend Annie Louise, who was the midwife. It took a very long time for the two of you to decide to come out, I think. And first Hendrix came out, and then you came out after him. A few minutes later. You weren_t breathing so well. You were a little gray thing, and Annie Louise looked worried, and then I sat up in the bed and I said, _Give her to me._ And Annie Louise handed you to me, and I put you up next to my breast, and I stroked your cheek and your forehead, and I looked into your face, and I said, _I am your mama, and I am going to take care of you always always always, and I want you to breathe because you can do it. I want you to stay here. Stay here, stay!_ And you know what happened? You made this little noise, and then you started to breathe and cry, and you turned pink and you looked at me with those wide eyes, and you calmed right down._ _I decided to stay,_ I said slowly. The shaking was beginning to go away. _Yes. You decided to stay._ I loved her so much, loved the world that I was seeing through her eyes, loved all the colors she had around her and the way she always said that anybody could be her friend and how she knew that love ruled the world. Also, I had been there, and I knew it wasn_t her fault, what Hendrix did. And I would explain it to everyone in the whole wide world if I had to. She was watching us and paying attention. It had all happened too fast, was all. I held her hand and looked up into her eyes and smiled. I beamed over love love love love love to her like she had taught me to do. And we sat together and waited for the storm that was on its way to us. My daddy and Maggie showed up an hour later, furious and silent. As soon as they got out of the car, I could see my daddy_s jaw working itself in and out, in and out, and Maggie_s lips were in a thin, hard line. _Where_s Hendrix?_ I said, and my daddy_s eyes swiveled over to me like he was noticing me there for the first time. _He_s in the car. Get your things,_ he said to me. Mama went to the car to sit with Hendrix, and Maggie and my daddy followed me into the house. They stood there like statues, but I heard Maggie suck in her breath. Just the way they looked around at the house, at the cars in the front yard that needed work, at Mama_s little glass trinkets hanging in the windows, at the sagging porch and the furniture that was mostly just pillows. Nothing in the whole house had any structure to it_the beds were simply mattresses tossed on the floor, and even the tables were wobbly and scarred. The dining room table was an old door held up by cinderblocks. There was artwork piled around, and plates left over dirty from last night_s feast. There was Stony_s pipe left out, next to a pan of half-eaten suspicious brownies. Suddenly I could see the whole thing through Maggie_s eyes, and I was embarrassed for my mother: the torn tie-dyed curtains, the wet towels on the floor, and the bare mattress that had been dragged by somebody into the living room. Filtered your things,_ said my daddy. _And get Hendrix_s stuff, too._ _Robert, this can_t go on,_ said Maggie. _Look at this place! That_s a marijuana pipe over there! And all this mess! I can_t believe people live like this. Around children!_ _I know,_ he said in a hard, tight voice. Then he looked at me again. _Are you all right?_ _Yes._ _Then go get your things. Now,_ he said. But his voice was gentler than I expected it might be. He had gotten scared for Hendrix, and that fear had made him softer. I did what he said. I picked up all our clothes that were scattered all over the place, and I took a rock that Mama had said we were going to paint on, and a little dove carved out of ivory that she wore sometimes around her neck. Just because I knew from the looks on their faces that there would be no more visitation. No more switches at the ice cream place in Massachusetts. They were done with letting us come up here. I saw it all through Maggie_s eyes, and I felt sick inside. But as awful and terrifying as that day was, it wasn_t even the worst day. The worst day was when I turned on my mama myself. CHAPTER THIRTEEN After I get off the phone with Hendrix and Ariel, I go into the kitchen and open the refrigerator and stare into it. Mr. Swanky saunters in with me to look. He sighs. There are three blueberry yogurts, a half bottle of wine with the cork floating in it, a moldy lemon, a bag of string cheese, and a jar of pickles. There is really only one impressive thing: an eggplant the size of Texas. What was I thinking when I bought it? That I was going to have a dinner party for eighteen? I rummage through my purse for my phone, and I call up Judd. _Hey, want to come over for dinner?_ I say brightly when he answers. _I_m making an eggplant parmesan that_s the size of a football field._ But he can_t. He is helping someone; of course he is. Helping a guy at work set up a training schedule to run a marathon in the spring. And then_well, he_s going over to set up a stereo system for a guy named Bernie. He_s always got somebody else who needs his help. _Okay,_ I say. _You could come after._ He hesitates. _Really it_s probably not the right night. This guy_s apparently got a complicated setup with woofers and tweeters, and it_ll be late, so I_m probably just going to want to shuffle on home and crawl into bed. I_ve got a seven a.m. appointment tomorrow with a senior women_s group. That_s a lot of strenuous ladies to deal with first thing in the morning._ _Okay,_ I say. I look through the kitchen window at the fire escape next door. Lights are coming on in all the apartments. There_s a beat of silence. Then he says, _So what_s up with the eggplant parm thing?_ _Nothing. I just thought it would be nice. We could eat together. You know, since we_re engaged and all._ He laughs. _Laugh if you want to, but I_ve heard that often people who are engaged eat dinner together every night. And sometimes they even sleep in the same bed._ _I_ve heard that, too,_ he says. _And I would come, honest, if it weren_t that I have these other plans._ _All right. It_s fine. Forget it._ _So what else?_ he says. _Uh-oh. I know that tone. You_re ruminating._ _I just_well, tonight I talked to Hendrix and Ariel, and I realized that I want to get married because I_m lonely. It_s not just that I_m sick of dating. I want normal life. Like us, spending time together, sitting on the couch, talking about our plans and our day, and to be partners. A couple._ _I know,_ he says. _And we are like that sometimes. But we also have work and responsibilities._ _But if we were really a couple, then you_d have already told me you were staying late, and then when you got done with work, you_d come home to bed at our place, and I_d be waiting up for you, and it wouldn_t matter if you had to get up early in the morning. Because this is where you_d live. And . . . and we_d figure out things together. That_s what partners do. We haven_t even talked about where we_re going to live once we get married. Whose apartment we_ll go to._ _You decide,_ he says. _I_ll move to yours if you want. It_s bigger, right?_ _Yes, it_s bigger, but the point is, we should talk about it._ _We will talk about it. We_re going to talk about all the things we need to get to before we get married,_ he says. _We have some time, you know._ I don_t answer. I say I should go, I_ve got to salt the eggplant. I don_t want to be on the phone when he tells me he has to hang up because the guy is there right now. I don_t want to be shut down. I will do the shutting down, thank you very much. _Okay, bye,_ I say. _Eggplant parm tomorrow. Bring your appetite._ Later, I take Mr. Swanky out for two walks because he demands it. And after staring at my novel and deciding the scene with the woman talking to her psychiatrist needs to be cut in half, I fall asleep on the couch, reading, with the light on_drop in my tracks is more like it_and I wake up later with my neck hurting. I_m still wearing my shoes, for heaven_s sake, from the last time I went out. I stagger into the bedroom and put on my sleep stuff, which consists of leggings and my long-sleeved T-shirt, heavy socks (don_t judge me_it_s fall, okay?), and I get myself underneath the quilt and turn off the light. Outside, I can hear sirens far away, and the sound of cars on the street four floors below. In the hallway, a woman is laughing, and a man says, _Ssh. It_s two thirty in the morning._ And I am nowhere near sleep. I lie there on my back, and I think about Maggie and my father, and what my mother would say about my getting married to Judd. Did she even believe all that stuff she once told me, how marriage is bad for women? Are her words like a little curse I carry around in my heart? Every time I hear myself saying that I_m getting married_I felt this when I was telling Hendrix and Ariel even_I believe it for exactly that instant. And then later, like the way a necklace can get itself all tangled up in a drawer, without anyone interfering, I find myself asking again: Am I marrying him? No, really, am I really doing this? Is this the right thing? I flop over onto my stomach and let out a big sigh. And then onto my back again. Damn it, he could try to be in love, couldn_t he? He could make this so much easier. But maybe he can_t. Maybe that_s not even what_s wrong here. Maybe I_m the one who can_t try to be in love. Oh, I don_t know, I don_t know, I don_t know. And just like that, I suddenly find myself getting out of bed, throwing on my ratty old blue bathrobe over my leggings and shirt, and I get my keys and go into the elevator and go up to the sixth floor. Judd_s apartment is 6145, and I go and knock on the door. I_m only knocking for politeness_s sake. I have the key to his place, and he has the key to mine, so we can feed each other_s plants or save the other person from a possible lockout. He doesn_t answer the knock, and so I go inside. It_s dark, but I can see the dim night-light in his room, and I can hear him breathing_a nice, even sleep breath. I go stand at the door to his room. _Judd,_ I whisper. _Judd, it_s me._ Nothing. He_s just a big breathing mound under the covers. Judd keeps such a neat apartment; he would never let clothes take over the bedroom, as happens at my place. His rooms even smell nice, like lemon Pledge. I think it_s possible that he dusts. _Judd, I need to ask you a question._ I wait for what seems like forever, and then I go over to his bed and stand over him. He turns over. He must be in the deepest level of sleep possible. Honestly, I feel like I wake up if the curtains so much as move in my room. Does the man not ever worry about break-ins? Who in America today can sleep this soundly, life being what it is and all? So I sit down on the edge of the bed, and stare at him, and finally he opens his eyes and looks at me. I can barely make out his features_just the shine of his eyes from the streetlight coming through the curtains. _What?_ he says from sleep, and then he looks happy. _Oh, you brought the pastrami. I was hoping you_d do that._ _What pastrami?_ _You know what pastrami._ _I didn_t bring any pastrami. You_re having a dream._ _Oh,_ he says. He closes his eyes again. _Judd, I need to talk to you._ _I_m on the subway,_ he says. _No, you_re not, Judd. You_re in your bed, and I need to ask you a very important question. You don_t even have to open your eyes. Just answer my question._ _What is it?_ _Do you love me?_ _Yeah,_ he says after a while. _Yeah?_ _Yeah._ _All right, I have one more question for you in that case. Do you think you_re in love with me?_ _What?_ _You_re not, are you? I keep expecting that you_re going to change and want to be in love with me,_ I say. _But you don_t. And I don_t think_I mean, I know. I know I don_t want to go through life this way, with someone who doesn_t think I_m really special. You don_t want me the way I need to be wanted._ And to my own mortification, I start to cry. _You_you just treat me so ordinary. All the time, like I_m just one of your guy friends or something._ _Wait a second,_ he says. He_s awake now. He sits up in the bed and looks at me. He turns on a lamp next to the bed, and it makes a nice, soft puddle of light all around his bedside table. He has a water glass, an alarm clock, a jump rope, and a Men_s Health magazine on his table. A jump rope? It_s just as well I_m calling this off before I have to sleep with a man who jumps rope before sleep every night. His face is creased with sleep. _You say I don_t want you?_ I am crying too hard to speak. I just nod at him. He sits there in the bed, looking at me like maybe this is all a bad dream. And then he says, _Wait. What_s really going on? What_s the matter? Is it the pastrami?_ _Judd! You are not awake, and there is no pastrami. We are talking about you and me! And love! The love you don_t feel! Wake up! _ He rubs his eyes and looks at me. _There_s no pastrami?_ _No._ _And you_re crying. Because you think I don_t want you. What the hell time is it?_ _I don_t know. It_s probably three a.m._ He sighs. Rubs his eyes. Yawns. Then he says, _Come closer, will you?_ _I don_t want to._ _Then I_ll come there,_ he says, and he sits up and moves over closer to me on the bed and puts my head on his shoulder. _Nothing good has ever happened at three in the morning. It_s the hour of terrible thoughts._ _I suppose so, but I_ve been having these thoughts for days._ _I_ve made such a mistake,_ he says after a minute. _Asking me to marry you._ _No. Not showing you how much I want you to be with me. I do love you, Phronsie. I really, really do. I couldn_t go through life without this_what we have. You know that._ His voice is fully awake now. _But you don_t feel__ _Oh, stop with that telling me about what I don_t feel,_ he says. And he puts his finger on my chin and tips my head up, and he puts his mouth on mine and kisses me, like, for real. A kiss a person could remember. Then he pulls away and looks at me. _Here. I think you should lie down next to me,_ he says, and I do. _Are we going to sleep together?_ I say. He laughs. _That_s what I had in mind. Is that okay?_ He_s leaning over me, propped on one elbow. I realize this is what I have wanted_his body, the way his body would feel, the heft of it leaning over me, reaching for the light switch. Something so routine as that kind of wanting. _Yeah. We should._ _We totally should. Should have long ago, probably._ _Well, at least sometime in the last few days. After we_you know, decided. Only I suddenly can_t remember how you start._ _I think we should just close our eyes and start touching, and it will all come back to us._ _Okay,_ I say. He holds on to me. And then he tentatively kisses the top of my head, and he does that for a long time, and then he kisses my forehead and the tip of my nose, which may be slightly damp and probably even gross, and then he kisses my cheeks and moves down to my lips, and then Judd is kissing me for real. He kisses me. Like, really kisses me. Judd and I are lying in bed kissing. The next thing that happens is that his hands are warm underneath my T-shirt, and when he takes off his T-shirt, I close my eyes and make up my mind that this is going to be perfectly normal, having his skin next to mine. It is not going to be embarrassing even though he likes women who have much better bodies than I have. I am going to put out of my head that this is Judd, my friend, the one who burps on command for fun, and whom I_ve seen naked from the time we were little, except lately, of course, when it might count for something. All the systems take over. It_s Judd, and he is here on top of me, and he_s both familiar and exotic at the same time, which could be a wonderful combination. And will be, just as soon as I shut the hell up in my mind and stop overthinking things. He sits up and, without looking at me, takes the rest of our clothes off of us, throws them off the bed, and then runs his hands over the length of my body. I try not to think of what he_s thinking as he looks at all of me. _Is this . . . okay?_ I say softly. He closes his eyes. He says, _It is. It_s everything._ Which_well, okay. I_m glad he thinks that. It is not everything, however. It is not, for instance, the moon and the stars, and it_s not the firecracker or the sudden blinding flash of light. It is a first effort. Embarrassing in only the tiniest sense. Putting the condom on, for instance. When he makes love, it turns out that he closes his eyes very tightly. Who does that? Also, he sighs a lot. My arm gets caught underneath us, and I have to shift him over a little bit. There_s a moment when I think I_ll be smothered from his mouth on mine. It_s a little bit like watching someone else doing it, from afar. But the parts all work. When we are done, he looks at me, relieved. _That was fun!_ he says. Fun, he says. And I say, _Yes._ And a few minutes later, he is so relieved that he falls asleep. I stare at his face, which is so soft and unprotected in sleep. His cheekbones and his excellent jawline. His eyelashes, peaked nose, and some little lines forming, heading down to his mouth now like they_d been drawn in with a pencil. Stubble where whiskers are growing even as we lie here. He is my destiny, I think. I try that thought out again. I am going to make up my mind once and for all. He is my destiny, and I am going to stop asking myself the question every couple of hours: Am I going to marry this dude? Because I am. True, he is not cuddly. He is not romantic. He doesn_t stare into my eyes. He doesn_t make things flutter inside me, except for that once. But on the plus side, he makes me laugh, he bounces on his toes, which is entertaining, and he walks backward down the street when he_s telling a story just so he can see my face. He_s kind to old ladies. He washes dishes, he never yells, and he folds up the paper bags very nicely when we come in from the store. Babies like him. That could be love right there, if you add it all up. On the minus side, sex might not ever mean as much as I want it to. It might always be just this, an exercise that we have to schedule. He may never stare into my eyes and send shivers all the way down my body. But maybe that_s not important. And . . . well, big on the plus side_I have seen him successfully carry a baby on his chest. I lie there in the dark, adding up the pluses and minuses, and realize I_m not going to get any sleep at all. And then, right on schedule, Steve Hanover comes roaring into my thoughts, as he so often does after I_ve made love with somebody else. I married him out of that obsessive, can_t-live-without-seeing-him-for-one-more-second kind of love. He made me feel_electrified, like I was seeing the world in technicolor, like I could do anything. But now I see it true. I was always off balance, insecure around him. Always with a stomachache that he_d see the real me and it would be over. This stops now, I say to myself. No more stupid suffering. I_m going to join the ranks of married people_Sarah and Russell with their fights, Hendrix with his admission that marriage is sometimes freaking hard, Talia who says the hotness just dissipates into thin air. I_m going to be one of the grown-ups, the people who know that love is sometimes simply a matter of having someone there to show up and battle back the loneliness with you. Someone to sleep next to, to cook eggplant parm for, to watch a movie with. I turn and look at his sleeping face, at the shadows the streetlight is casting across his cheekbones, at his rather majestic nose. This familiar, dear face of my friend_I don_t think I_ve ever really studied him so closely, all these years. He_s just been a fixture in my life. But now. Now he_s taken on another shape in my head. The shape of husband. He is going to be my husband. Replacing the husband who failed me. I reach over and touch his cheek, softly. I can do this. I can have a plausible, successful marriage with this guy. It doesn_t have to be fireworks. In the darkness, it almost seems as if he_s shifting before my eyes, turning into the man I_ll see across the pillow for the rest of my life. We_ll have children and we_ll bring them up in New York, and people will forget that we weren_t always a couple because we_ll fit together when we walk down the street. We_ll be like Hendrix and Ariel, marching forward into the uncertainty, not even acknowledging that it_s a risky road we_re walking. I finally fall asleep with my head on his shoulder, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world. CHAPTER FOURTEEN It went just the way I thought it would go after Hendrix_s accident: we couldn_t go see Mama anymore. Oh, I argued with Maggie and my dad plenty. I said it wasn_t Mama_s fault that Hendrix had gotten hurt. I said it could have happened anywhere. I said we needed to see her. But they were resolute. _It_s not safe there. She and her friends take drugs. It_s not a place for children. If your mother wants to see you, she can come here and stay in a hotel and have proper visitation with a chaperone._ _Like that would ever happen,_ I said. I couldn_t picture my mother ever coming back to New Hampshire, where they despised her. And stay in a hotel, and be chaperoned? Never, never, never. _You_re being mean,_ I said to my father. _I know you love her, but she_s not a responsible person,_ he said calmly. _She can_t be trusted because she_s impulsive and she_s flighty, and she holds her stupid art above everything else in her life. Even her children_s safety. And that is not what grown-up people do._ So I wrote her long letters that I never sent. I wrote stories about her that I kept in a notebook under my bed. I let my hair grow long like hers, and I embroidered hearts on my jeans. One day I was snooping in my father_s desk drawer, and I came across the carbon copy of a letter he_d had his attorney send to her. I couldn_t make out everything it meant, but it said that she shouldn_t try to get Hendrix and me back again or else there would be legal action taken. The police would be informed that she lived in a house where there were drugs. There was another thing shoved into that envelope. A little piece of paper, folded up. I opened it, and there, in my dad_s scrawly, loopy handwriting, was my mama_s phone number, written with a blue ballpoint pen so hard that it perforated the page. He_d written the number and then _Tenaj_ right under it. He even wrote _Janet_ in parentheses, like he still couldn_t get over the fact that she changed the letters around. I put it in my pocket, because someday I might want to call her up. It had been two years since I_d heard her voice. It was just that I didn_t know what I_d say to her. I kept the piece of paper in my underwear drawer, just in case. And then one day everything changed. I got my first period. The day it happened I was at school wearing a pair of white jeans. These were statement jeans that I_d wheedled out of my parents for my thirteenth birthday. Maggie, of course, would have preferred for me to wear dresses to school, but I wasn_t having it. It was 1983_girls were wearing tight jeans and ruffles, lots of eye makeup and big hair. I had longed for a maroon and emerald-green jacket with padded shoulders, but Maggie had reached her limit with the white jeans. And now they were ruined. It was not all that unexpected, this period. I was thirteen and a half. I_d had a box of Kotex in my closet for two years just in case. All my friends got theirs ages ago. Missy Franklin got it in fifth grade and lorded it over everybody else, swanning around the locker room each month moaning about The Curse. But now it was my turn, and the first thing I thought was that this was the most shocking thing in the whole world. Women put up with this? If this kind of thing happened to boys, I knew for sure that Hendrix would just die of it. I was in the stall in the girls_ bathroom upstairs, and Jen Abernathy was talking to me out by the sink, and I knew she was reapplying her eyeliner, and she was telling me she wanted to ditch Spanish and would I go with her to sneak out of school, and I just said, _Jen. Oh my God, Jen. I just got it._ And she thought I meant I just got it why Spanish was worth ditching, so I ended up having to explain. No, IT. I just got IT, Jen, you dope. She came over and knocked on the stall door and said, _Seriously? You just right now got your first period?_ _YES!_ I said. _You don_t have to tell the whole world about it. Do you have any pads?_ But she did not. And the stupid pad machine in the girls_ room was always empty, so Jen wadded up some paper towels and stuck them underneath the stall door, and she said, _Just put these in your underpants until you get home._ This did not seem like a foolproof plan. But I did it anyway, and then we both nearly fell down laughing at the way I looked when I tried to walk with that big, bulky, scratchy wad of paper towels stuck between my legs. I could hardly think of anything else for the rest of the day. And when the school bus dropped Hendrix and me off at our road, he wanted to race me to the front gate, and when I said no, he said, _God, you_re being such a weirdo,_ and I said to him, _Listen to me. I am a woman now. I am officially now in my reproductive years, and you need to stop calling me names. Women deserve respect._ I started telling him about the period thing for his educational awareness, but he said I was grossing him out, so I hit him in the arm as hard as I could, and he said he was going to tell Maggie on me, and I said I_d do even worse to him next time if he did, and then when we got in the house, I started to cry for no good reason, and then I walked upstairs and got rid of that huge wad of sandpaper I was wearing and put on a proper pad from my closet, and all of a sudden, all I wanted in the whole world was to talk to my mom. I dragged the upstairs extension from the hall into my bedroom and dialed her number. Downstairs, I could hear Hendrix and Maggie talking. She got home from school every day just before we did so we couldn_t get into any trouble, she said, and she usually had cookies and milk for us, and she wanted us to tell her about our day and what homework we had. Like we were five years old or something. It was as though she_d taken a course called _How to Be a Real Mother,_ and she wanted to get a good grade by the end of her life. Whatever. The phone rang about five times and then I heard this soft voice saying hello. Only she said it like one syllable: _low. Her voice was sleepy, like she just woke up, which is probably exactly what was going on. She slept ridiculously late sometimes. For a minute I couldn_t even talk because the tears got all jammed up in my throat. Finally she said, in a cheerful voice, _Is this a crank call? Are you about to ask me if my refrigerator is running?_ And that made me start laughing. And then I said, _Mama, it_s me._ And she said, _Oh my God. Phronsie?_ _I got my period today,_ I said. _I wanted to tell you._ All of a sudden I felt stupid, like this wasn_t a good reason to call her for the first time ever. But she was cool with it. _Oh, honey! You did? Your first period?_ she said. _Yes._ There was a silence. Then she said, _Wow! Well, this is a very heavy moment in your life. Let me put my teacup down and study about this. And you know what? It_s a full moon, which is very auspicious._ I heard a bunch of muffled sounds, some strains of music in the background. I could picture her in her little studio, the paisley curtains blowing behind her in the window, the candles all around her, the wooden door propped up on cinderblocks that she used as a table. Then her voice again, dry and soft: _Tell me this: When you discovered it, were there any wild animals around you?_ _Mom, I was at school. In the girls_ bathroom. I hope there were no wild animals in there. Because if there were, they would be rats._ _Well,_ she said. _That_s a good point._ Her next question was, did I notice any signs when I was walking home later_feathers, or little rocks shaped like hearts? How did the clouds look? _There_s snow on the ground, so I couldn_t see many rocks or feathers,_ I said. We always looked for signs, me and her, when we were together. Her windowsills were filled with stones she_d bring home with her, and each one gave her a different energy. _Did you see any tracks in the snow?_ she wanted to know. I didn_t, so she got out her book of spells, which is exactly what I wanted her to do, and she said she was making me a concoction of raspberry leaves and some echinacea and a red ribbon and a cardinal_s feather she had lying around. She was going to call for a prayer circle for me at the full moon ceremony she was going to have that night with her friends. Then she said that I was now in a long chain of women_women who had bled and brought forth life on earth. It was a sacred trust, being a woman. I must learn to pay attention to outward signs, she said. I would probably start to feel very intuitive, in tune with the moon. Her voice was soothing and sweet. _Just think_the chain of womanhood is being handed down from me to you. You are a citizen of the greatest tribe of humans there could be. Woman power, my sweetest! You_re an agent of your own destiny. And you must get those around you to celebrate your entry into womanhood with a menstruation ceremony._ _That_s not very likely,_ I said and laughed at the idea of me, Maggie, my dad, and Hendrix even talking about menstruation, much less conducting a ceremony for me. _Come on,_ she said. _Tell the Woman with the Organized Hair that she should do something special for you._ I laughed a little bit, just to show that I was in on the joke. _I haven_t even told her yet,_ I said. _I wanted to call you first._ I knew that would make her happy, and I think it did. Because next she said, _Well, if you want to call me again, I_d like that._ She paused, and then said: _Hey, I have an idea. What if you went to the store and bought a phone card, and then we could talk anytime? Because I think your dad will blow a gasket if he sees my number on the phone bill._ _Okay,_ I whispered. _Do you think you could get a phone card?_ _Yeah,_ I said. _Good. I_m glad you called me for this. It_s a blessing to talk to you,_ she said. _Okay, good-bye,_ I whispered. I was looking at my bedroom door, listening for sounds. Was Maggie going to come up to see what I was doing? After I hung up the phone, I went downstairs for a snack. Maggie was in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher, which was usually my job, and she said to me, _So, Frances, Henry said you have something important to tell me._ _Yeah,_ I said. _Whatever. I got my period._ And she nodded and pursed her lips, all businesslike. _Funny that Henry had to be the one to tell me,_ she said. I said that I would have told her, but I had had to run upstairs to get some supplies because the school didn_t have any, and she asked me if I had everything I needed. Then she wanted to know if I had cramps. When I said I did, she had some boring medical thing to say about cramps_like how they_re caused by the fluid buildup. And you have to be sure to drink a lot of water and get plenty of sleep when you_re having your period. Then she stood there looking at me and wiped her eyes. _You_re growing up so fast,_ she said. _Yeah,_ I said. I knew she would want to manage the whole thing. That_s why I hadn_t wanted to tell her first. Because there had already been too many times when Maggie stepped in to manage everything about me. She knew when I should go to bed and when I should wake up, and how many vegetables I ate each day, and how many pieces of fruit. She knew all my teachers_ names and who my friends were, and when I needed vaccinations and dental cleanings, and what kinds of things were under my bed and what television shows I watched, and how my digestive system was working, and how often I should take a bath_and I was sick of it. Sick to death of being under the Maggie microscope. Maggie put her arm around me when I went to the fridge to get a drink of water, and for a moment, we stood like that, and I tried to make her happy by putting my head next to her shoulder, and I could hear her heart beating and smell the laundered scent of her blouse, but as soon as I could, I moved away. I couldn_t stand to be touched, and the smell of the laundry soap was making me feel sick. It was like my skin was alive or something. She stared at me for a long, long time, and then she sighed and said maybe we_d have hamburgers for dinner, to give me some iron. She said, _You know, you have to not use your period as an excuse to be in a bad mood._ _I_m not,_ I said. _I just have a headache and cramps, and I_m tired, is all._ _Okay,_ she said. Then she said, _It_s an exciting thing, your first period. You could have a baby now, you know._ She smiled at me and added, _But don_t._ _I know,_ I said. I got an apple and walked out of the kitchen. All I could think of was that tonight, up in Woodstock, New York, some women were going to gather to do a moon ceremony for me with a talking stick and some feathers, and here was Maggie making sure I knew how dangerous periods were. When I got to the stairs, I called back, _By the way, I think I want to go back to being called Phronsie. That is my real name, after all._ Boom. The silence from the kitchen was thick, like a bomb had gone off. I felt pretty good about that. Having Mama back in my life after the period call was a little bit like having a huge, delicious secret. I bought a phone card like she suggested, and a few times a week, I_d go call her from a pay phone located out behind Dinah_s Dress Shoppe, which had closed down the year before. The phone booth was way in the back of the parking lot, hardly ever used, and it was cramped and filled with papers and broken glass, but over time I came to think of it like another home, and I fixed it up. I cleaned out all the trash and brought a little plastic stool from home and left it there so I_d have someplace to sit. While I talked to Mama, I would draw pictures, and I propped the pictures I did against the walls of the phone booth, and so it was like my own personal little art gallery. On the days when I called her, I would get off the school bus in town instead of going home. I told Maggie that I liked to go to the pet shop and pet the puppies and play with the kittens. I wanted to be a vet, I said, and this was going to give me some good experience. I think Maggie was just relieved not to have me brooding and underfoot, so she ignored the fact that I had never once thought I would become a vet. She said, _Just don_t talk to strangers._ As if there were any strangers in our little town. It was a whole town of non-strangers. But, there_s this: if she_d known how magical and weird the conversations were that I was having, she might have preferred I was talking to strangers. Mama wasn_t like anybody in Pemberton, that_s for sure. Or maybe anyone in the whole state of New Hampshire. She talked to me about everything. She believed in goddesses, of which she was one, and apparently so was I. She was also a witch and she had a group of women she called _the women who run with the wolves,_ and she told me they spoke of their vaginas like they were personal friends of theirs, not simply parts of their bodies. We roared with laughter over that. _Of course my vagina speaks to me as well,_ she said, _but it_s mostly my stomach I hear from._ Just her voice_her throaty, low voice coming to me through the receiver_moved me beyond words. I told her all my problems. All of them. And I asked her all the questions I couldn_t ask anybody else. Was it worth it to take science when all I wanted was to be a writer? Should I wear eyeliner only on the bottom edge of my eye or draw the line up near my top lid? Should I stay mad at Hendrix for telling Billy David that I had a crush on him? What was the best thing to do to get to be friends with catty girls? How often should I shave my legs? Should I buy my own bras because the ones Maggie bought for me were horrible? Her advice was never anything I expected to hear. _Yes, take science. You never know what you_ll need in your life as a writer. Eyeliner: everywhere you want! Look how you want to feel inside! Don_t stay mad at anybody. Maybe Billy David needs to know you have a crush on him; that kind of information could change a person_s life. As for the catty girls . . . who needs _em? Ignore them until they behave. Leg shaving: a barbaric ritual sold to women by the patriarchy. Bras: same thing. But if you wanted a nice lacy one, and Maggie doesn_t want you to have it, go find one yourself._ There are signs everywhere you look, she said. Messages coming to you. You just have to watch for them. There were other things, too, random things. Back when she was a teenager, she_d ironed her hair every single morning before school. She had wanted to be a ballerina and a concert pianist and a witch. In ninth grade, she was voted homecoming queen in a tie vote, and she won in a runoff, but she let the other girl wear the crown and she wore the sash because she really didn_t care and the other girl did. Now she wished she_d let her wear the sash, too. She_d had eleven boyfriends before she met my father. She_d had such an interesting life, and here I had practically nothing. I had_what? A farmhouse and a stepmother who was uptight and a father who scowled all the time, and a brother who never wanted to talk about anything real. Besides all that, I had homework and good grades and a job on the school newspaper. _No, no, no,_ she would say to me. _Stop with that kind of talk. You_re at the beginning. You_re creating your reality, and the words you tell yourself, the story you believe about yourself, is the way things are going to turn out for you. You have to fill your heart with love for yourself, Phronsie. That is the first and most important thing you have to do. Everything you want will follow from that._ _Okay,_ I_d say quietly. Sometimes she was talking to me from work, from the gallery, and she had to stop to wait on customers. She always made fun of the city people, people who came up from New York City, wanting only to gawk at the hippies and buy paintings that would match their couches, she said. Once I heard her order a customer to leave the premises immediately for asking if she could repaint something a more orangey color. _Grief is not orange,_ she said. _And this is a painting about my grief._ _Wait a minute. What is your grief?_ I asked her when she came back to the phone. _You,_ she said. Then when I was silent, she said, _No, no! That sounds horrible. You could never be my grief. My grief is that I don_t have you here with me. That_s always my grief. But it_s little. Just a little manageable-sized grief. I keep it in my back pocket and it only comes out when I let it, when I_m painting. I just want you to know that I_m someday coming back for you._ After that, we talked all the time about the extravagant measure of our sadness for each other. _Today I missed you one thousand elephants._ _Yesterday I took the grief out of my pocket when it was the size of a Chiclet, and five minutes later, it blew up to be the size of an aircraft carrier. But I shrank it by telling it to go away. I filled up the grief with love, and it slinked off._ _I took my grief out to the cornfield and buried it,_ I told her once. _But it beat me back to the house. It was sitting next to Maggie when I went inside for dinner._ Tenaj never did come back for me, and from that I figured out that grief is something you can get used to. You shrink it down, put it in your pocket, like a phone number scrawled on a piece of paper, and maybe after a while, you just leave it in your drawer and don_t carry it with you at all.

  • The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever /  .   (by Jeff Kinney, 2011) -   The Diary of a Wimpy Kid:
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  • The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw /  .   (by Jeff Kinney, 2009) -   The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The
  • The Little Mermaid. Ariel And The Prince /  .    (Disney, 2012)    The Little Mermaid. Ariel And

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