Looking back, the knock on the door should have scared me. It should at least have come as a surprise. My house — the same one I grew up in — is set at the farthest curve of a culde- sac in Pleasant Ridge, Illinois, a Chicago suburb of fourteen thousand souls with quiet streets, neatly kept lawns, and well-regarded public schools. There are rarely pedestrians or passersby on Crescent Drive. Most weeks, the only signs of life after ten p.m. are the flash of headlights on my bedroom wall on the nights that my next-door neighbor Mrs. Bass has her Shakespeare Society meeting. I live alone, and I'm generally asleep by ten-thirty. But even so. When I heard the knock, my heartbeat didn't quicken; my palms did not sweat. At some level underneath conscious thought, a place down in my cells where, the scientists tell us, memories reside, I'd been waiting years for that knock, waiting for the feel of my feet moving across the floor and my hand on the cool brass knob.
I pulled open the door and felt my eyes get big and my breath catch in my chest. There was my old best friend, Valerie Adler, whom I hadn't spoken to since I was seventeen and hadn't seen in person since high school ended, standing underneath the porch light; Valerie with her heart-shaped face and Cupid's-bow lips and lashes heavy and dark as moth's wings. She stood with her hands clasped at her waist, as if in prayer. There was something dark staining the sleeve of her belted trench coat.
For a minute, we stood in the cold, in the cone of light, staring at each other, and the thought that rose to my mind had the warmth of sunshine and the sweet density of honey. My friend, I thought as I looked at Val. My friend has come back to me.
I opened my mouth — to say what, I wasn't sure — but it was Val who spoke first. "Addie," she said. Her teeth were gleaming, perfect and even; her voice was the same as I remembered from all those years ago, husky, confiding, an I've-got-a-secret kind of voice that she currently deployed to great effect, delivering the weather on the nightly newscasts on Chicago's third-rated TV station. She'd been hired six months ago, to great fanfare and a number of billboards along the interstate announcing her new gig. ("Look who just blew into town!" the billboards read, underneath a picture of Val, all windswept hair and crimson, smiling lips.) "Listen. Something...something really bad happened," she said. "Can you help me? Please?"
I kept my mouth shut. Val rocked back on high heels that seemed no thicker than pins, gulping as she raked both hands through her hair, then brought them to waist level and began twisting her belt. Had I known she had that haircut, that buttercup-yellow color, that shoulder-length style, with layers that curled into ringlets in the rain, when I'd given my hairdresser the goahead? I made a point of not watching her station, but maybe I'd caught a glimpse of her as I changed channels or the billboards had made an impression, because somehow here I was, in flannel pajamas and thick wool socks, with my ex-best-friend's hair on my head.
"Look at you," she said, her voice low and full of wonder. "Look at you," said Valerie. "You got thin."
"Come in, Val," I said. If time was a dimension, and not a straight line, if you could look down through it like you were looking through water and it could ripple and shift, I was already opening the door. This had all already happened, the way it always did; the way it always would.
Copyright © 2009 by Jennifer Weiner, Inc.
I led Valerie into the kitchen, listening to the drumbeat of her heels on the hardwood floor behind me. She wriggled out of her coat and used her fingertips to hang it over the back of a chair, then looked me up and down. "You weren't at the reunion," she said.
"I had a date," I answered.
She raised her eyebrows. I turned away, filling the kettle at the sink, then setting it on the burner and flicking on the gas, unwilling to say more.
My night had not started out well. On the dating website's advice, I'd met the guy, my sixth blind date in as many weeks, at the restaurant ("Do NOT invite a stranger to your house!" the website had scolded. "Always meet in public, always carry a cell phone, car keys, and/or enough money for transportation, and always let a friend know where you are!") I'd gotten the first parts of it right, driving my own car, with my cell phone charged and enough money to cover the bill in my wallet, but I hadn't been able to fulfill the last part, on account of being, at the moment, friendless (friend-free?), so instead, I'd printed out a note in eighteen-point bold type and taped it to my fridge: I WENT TO MEET MATTHEW SHARP ON FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 23. IF ANYTHING HAPPENED TO ME, IT'S PROBABLY HIS FAULT. I'd added my date's telephone number, the name and address of the restaurant, and a photocopy of my insurance card. I'd thought for a minute, then added, P.S.: I WOULD LIKE A MILITARY FUNERAL...because, really, who wouldn't? Buglers playing taps equals guaranteed tears.
"Addie?" the man by the hostess stand said. "I'm Matthew Sharp." He was on time, and tall, as promised. This was a refreshing change: the five guys I'd previously met were not, in general, as promised. Matthew Sharp was neatly dressed in a tweed sports coat, a dark-blue button-down shirt, pressed pants, and loafers. His breath, as he leaned close to shake my hand, smelled like cinnamon, and a mustache bristled over his lip. Okay, I thought. I can work with this. True, the mustache was an unpleasant surprise, and his hairline had receded since he'd posed for his online picture, but who was I to complain?
"Nice to meet you," I said, and slipped my black wool coat off my shoulders.
"Thanks for coming." He looked me up and down, his eyes lingering briefly on my body before flicking back to my face. He didn't look appalled, nor did he appear to be edging toward the door. That was good. I'd dressed in what had become my date uniform: a black skirt that came to precisely the center of my knees (not short enough to be slutty, not long enough to be dowdy), a blouse of dark-red silk, black hose, black boots with low heels, in case he'd been lying about his height or, less likely but still possible, in case I needed to run. "Our table's ready. Would you like a drink at the bar first?"
"No thanks." The website recommended only a single glass of wine. I'd keep my wits about me and not give him any reason to think I had a drinking problem.
The hostess took our coats and handed Matthew a ticket. "After you," he said as I tucked my scarf and hat into my purse and shook out my hair. My calves had finally gotten skinny enough for me to zip my knee-high boots to the very top. I'd gone to my hairdresser that morning, planning on nothing more than a trim, but, buoyed by Paul's repeated use of the word "amazing!" and the way he'd actually gotten teary when he'd seen me, I'd allowed myself to be talked into six hours' and five hundred dollars' worth of cut, color, and chemicals, and left with a layered bob that Paul swore made me look sixteen from certain angles, honey-blond highlights, and conditioner with a French-sounding name, guaranteed to leave my hair frizz-free and shiny for the next four months.
I asked for a glass of Chardonnay, Caesar salad, and broiled sole, sauce on the side. Matthew ordered Cabernet, calamari to start with, then a steak.
"How was your holiday?" he asked.
"It was nice," I told him. "Very quiet. I spent the day with family." This was true. I'd taken the full Thanksgiving dinner — butternut squash soup, roast turkey, chestnut stuffing, sweet potatoes under a blanket of caramelized marshmallow, the obligatory pumpkin pie — to my brother, Jon, at his assisted-living facility on the South Side. We'd eaten sitting on the floor of his small, overheated room, our backs against his single bed, watching Starship Troopers, which was his favorite. I'd left by three and been back home by four. There, I'd made myself a cup of tea, added a slug of whiskey, and left a dish of chopped turkey and gravy out for the little black cat that frequents my back door. I'd spent the evening sitting in the living room, one hand on my belly, looking at the shifting grays and lavenders of the sky, until the moon came up.
"How about you?"
Matthew told me he'd had dinner with his parents, his sister, and her husband and kids. He'd cooked the turkey, rubbing butter and sage under the skin and slow-roasting it over a bed of onions. He said he loved to cook, and I said I did, too. I told him about my adventures in guacamole. He told me about the shows he watched on the Food Network and the hot new restaurant in Chicago he was dying to try.
The waiter slid our plates in front of us. Matthew tucked a tentacle into his mouth. "How's your salad?" he asked. A bit of fried breading was stuck in his mustache, and I had to fight an impulse to reach over and brush it away.
"It's great." It was overdressed, each leaf oily and dripping, but that was okay — a bad salad was a perfectly reasonable tradeoff for, finally, thank you God, a decent date. I chewed a mouthful into lettuce-flavored paste, and we smiled at each other.
"Tell me about your job," Matthew said.
"I paint illustrations for greeting cards."
He actually seemed interested, which was a pleasant change from my previous dates. How had I gotten into that line of work? (Through my mother, who'd written copy for the same line of cards and had submitted one of my watercolors without telling me years ago.) Did I work from home? (Yes, I'd set up a studio in the dining room, with my easel by the window, where the light was best.) He asked about the hours, about my training, about whether I got lonely working all by myself, instead of in an office. I could have given him a soliloquy, an essay, could have sung an entire libretto on the topic of loneliness, but instead I'd just said, "I don't mind being by myself."
He told me about his job running a chain of self-storage warehouses in Illinois and Wisconsin. I asked about where he'd grown up and where he lived now, lifting a soggy crouton to my lips, then setting it back on the plate, untasted, waiting for the moment that had come during each of my other dates, when he'd start trashing his exwife. Of the five men I'd gone out with, four of them had proclaimed that their exes were crazy (one had upped his diagnosis to "certifiably insane"). The fifth was a widower. His wife had been a saint, which sounded even worse than crazy when you were the potential follow-up act.
He was nice, I thought, as Matthew expounded enthusiastically on the hike he'd taken just last weekend with the Sierra Club. "I go out with them a few times a month," he volunteered. "Maybe you could join me?"
My first thought was that he was kidding — me, hike? Where, from the Cinnabon to the Ben & Jerry's? I still had to remind myself that I was now more or less normal-sized, and that Matthew had never seen me in my previous incarnation. "Sure. That sounds like fun." A hike in the woods. I let myself picture it: a red fleece pullover, a hat that matched my mittens, the thermos full of hot coffee that I'd bring. We'd sit side by side on a blanket in the leaves and watch as a stream burbled by.
Our entrees arrived. My fish was mealy at the edges, translucent in the center, tasting as dead as if it had never been alive. I managed two bites while Matthew told the story of how his colleague, a middle-aged middle manager named Fred, had suddenly taken it into his head to get his eyes done. "He came into the office and he looked — Well, one of the secretaries said he looked like a squirrel with something jammed up his..." He paused. A dimple flashed in his cheek. "Like a startled squirrel. Like his eyes were trying to jump right out of his head, and I heard that when his granddaughter saw him for the first time she started crying." He chuckled. I smiled. Love me, I thought, and sipped my wine and trailed one manicured thumbnail delicately along the edge of my blouse, beneath which my breasts swelled, clad in itchy lace, helped along by heavy-duty underwire.
Matthew leaned across the table, with his tie dangling dangerously close to the puddle of beef blood on his plate. "You're a really unique person," he said.
I smiled, shoving my doubts about the syntax of "really unique" to the back of my mind.
"I feel so comfortable with you. Like I could tell you anything," he continued.
I kept smiling as he gazed at me. He had nice eyes behind the glasses. Kind eyes. Maybe I could talk him into shaving the mustache. I could see us together, on a slope covered with fallen leaves, my mittened hands around a cup, the coffee-scented steam curling in the air. Please stop talking, I begged him telepathically. Every time you open your mouth, you are jeopardizing our beautiful life together.
Sadly, Matthew didn't get the message. "Six months ago," he began, with his eyes locked on mine, "I woke up with a bright light shining through my bedroom windows. I looked up and saw an enormous green disc hovering above my home."
"Ha!" I laughed. "Ha ha ha!" I laughed until I realized he wasn't laughing...which meant that he wasn't kidding.
"I have reason to believe," he continued, and then paused, lips parted beneath his mustache, "that I was abducted by aliens that night." He was so close that I could feel his beefy breath on my face. "That I was probed."
"Dessert?" asked the waiter, sliding menus in front of us.
I managed to shake my head no. I couldn't speak. I was single, true. I was desperate, also true. I had slept with only one man at the shamefully advanced age of thirty-three. I'd never heard the words "I love you" from someone who wasn't a parent. But still, I was not going home with a guy who claimed to have been violated by space aliens. A girl has her limits.
When the check came, Matthew slipped a credit card into the leather folder and looked at me ruefully. "I guess I shouldn't talk about the alien abduction on first dates."
I adjusted my neckline. "Probably not. I usually wait until the third date to talk about my tail."
"You have a tail?" Now he was the one who couldn't tell if I was kidding.
"A small one."
"You're funny," he'd said. There was a kind of drowning desperation in his voice, a tone I knew well. Help me, he was saying. Throw me a rope, give me a smile, let me know it's okay. I got to my feet while Matthew searched his pockets for a few bucks to tip the coat-check girl, then followed him through the restaurant, waiting as he held the door. "You seem like a good person," Matthew said in the parking lot, reaching for my hand. I moved sideways, just enough so that I was out of his reach. You're wrong, I thought. I'm not.
Outside, the predinner mist had thickened into a chilly fog. Streetlamps glowed beneath golden halos of light. Matthew ran his hand through his hair. Even in the cold, he was sweating. I could see droplets glimmering through his mustache. "Can I call you?" he asked.
"Sure." Of course, I wouldn't answer, but that didn't seem smart to mention. "You've still got my number, right?"
"Still got it." He smiled, pathetically grateful, and leaned forward. It took me a second to realize that he intended to kiss me, and another second to realize that I was going to let him. His mustache brushed my upper lip and cheek. I felt absolutely nothing. He could have pressed a bottle brush or a Brillo pad against my face; I could have been kissing his lapel or the hood of my Honda.
By the time I got home, he'd already left a message, long,meandering, and apologetic. He was sorry if he'd freaked me out.He thought that I was great. He was looking forward to seeing me again, maybe on Sunday? There was a movie that had gotten a good write-up in the Trib, or a hot-air-balloon festival. We could drive out, pack a picnic...his voice trailed off hopefully. "Well," he said. "I'll talk to you soon." He recited his telephone number. I thumbed number three for "erase," kicked off my boots, twisted my bright new hair into a plastic clip, then sat on the edge of my bed with my face in my hands and allowed myself one brief, dry, spinsterish sob. Don't get your hopes up. The website didn't say that. It was what I told myself as inoculation against the fantasy, persistent as a weed, that one of these guys could be the one: that I could fall in love, get married, have babies, be normal. Don't get your hopes up. I'd chant it like a mantra on my drive to the Starbucks or the Applebee's or, with Date Number Four, the bowling alley, where, it turned out, the fellow had had the ingenious notion of combining a first date with a fifth birthday party for his son (his exwife had not been glad to meet me; neither, for that matter, had his five-year-old). Don't get your hopes up...but every time I did, and every time I got my stupid heart crushed.
"Oh, well," I said out loud. Funny. That had been nice to hear. But it was so unfair! To get a date on the Internet, a woman had to be many things, starting with thin and proceeding relentlessly to attractive and pleasant and a good listener and good company. Young, of course. Still fertile, still cute, with a good body and a decent job and a supportive (but not intrusive) family. The men didn't even have to be sane.
I looked at the clock, the antique pink-and-green enameled clock on chubby gold legs that I'd bought myself for my birthday. It was just after ten. The reunion would be in full swing. Merry Armbruster had called me that afternoon, making one more last-ditch plea for my attendance. "You look fantastic now! And I'm sure everyone's forgotten about...well, you know. We've all grown up. There's other things people will want to talk about."
Thanks but no thanks. I swallowed my vitamins with a glass of water and chased them with a shot of wheatgrass (I'd been drinking the stuff for two years, and it still tasted exactly like pureed lawnmower clippings). I hung up my date uniform, replaced the lace bra with a comfortable cotton one, pulled on my favorite flannel pajamas and a pair of socks, then sat back down on the edge of my bed, suddenly exhausted. Just lately, I'd been thinking a lot about the girl I'd been, and what she would have made of the woman I'd become. I imagined the little me standing at the doorway of my bedroom, once my parents', in a neat cotton sweater and a pleated skirt, dark-brown hair caught in a ponytail and tied with a ribbon that matched her kneesocks. At first she'd be pleased by the rich color of the paint on the bedroom walls, the oil painting that I'd done of a lighthouse casting its beam of gold over the water, hanging above the window. She would like the enameled vase on the bedside table, the crisp linen bedskirt and the trellised iron headboard, but then she'd realize that it was my parents' bedroom. Still here? she'd think, and I'd have to explain how I hadn't meant to stay, how I'd tried to go away to college, how I'd planned to live in a big city, to have boyfriends and an interesting job, to make friends and take trips and have an apartment that I'd decorate with souvenirs and statues and photographs I'd have taken on my travels around the world, how I'd planned on all of that, but somehow...
I rolled onto my side. My blood buzzed, and my thoughts were darting wildly, jumping from my date who'd looked so promising, to the website where I'd found him, to my exboyfriend Vijay, who'd been "ex" for four months, and who'd never exactly been a boyfriend. You couldn't call him a boyfriend, I guess, if we'd been out together in public only once, but I'd loved him with an intensity that I thought — or at least hoped — was reserved for the first man you'd wanted who'd broken your heart.
I squeezed my eyes shut and let my hand rest briefly on my belly, holding my breath as I pressed. Still there. The lump — it was actually more of a stiffness than a lump — was still there, between the ridge of my pubic bone and my belly button. I pushed at it, prodding with my fingertips. It didn't hurt, exactly, but it didn't feel normal, either. I didn't know how long it had been there — for years I'd been so fat I could have been gestating twins and probably not noticed — but I was sure that I knew what it was. Hadn't I watched my own mother die of the samething? First her breasts, then her liver, then her lungs and her bones, then everything, everywhere.
I'd scheduled an appointment with my doctor for next week, the soonest they could take me. The receptionist's chirpy voice had cooled noticeably at my name, and I knew why. Last year I'd called in a panic after my fingers had found an odd-shaped protuberance on the side of my abdomen...which had turned out to be my hipbone. Well, how was I supposed to know? I thought, as sullen as I'd been when the nurse delivered the verdict, then stepped outside the exam room to laugh her stupid highlighted head off. You spend ten years in the neighborhood of three hundred and fifty pounds and see how well you recognize your own bones when you find them again.
Besides, this time it felt different. Big, strangely stiff, growing each day. I knew what it was, and deep down, I'd known that it was coming. Bad luck always found me. I was a bad-luck kind of girl. The cancer had eaten my mother and found her sweet, and now it had returned to Crescent Drive, hoping I'd taste the same. And maybe that wouldn't be so awful, I thought, as I lay on my fancy bedding, staring up at the crown moldings I'd hotglued in place with my birthday clock ticking quietly beside me. I could just give up on everything, starting with Internet dating. No more freaks and geeks and unexpected mustaches; no more regular-looking guys who turned out to be from the Twilight Zone. I could just read, stay in bed eating shortbread cookies and gelato, and wait for the end...and with that, I heard the knock at the door, and I went downstairs to find my best friend standing there, just like old times.
Copyright © 2009 by Jennifer Weiner, Inc.