Okay, here's one of those life lessons I think we all know. When someone
looks you in the eye, takes a deep breath, and says, "We have to
talk," nothing good is going to come from it. People do not feel
they have to warn you when they are about to pay you a compliment or
give you that gold bangle you've been angling for. But when you hear
the word talk, especially from one of your nearest and dearest, the
correct response is to do pretty much what my dog, Annie, does when
someone says bath in her presence. You run. You swallow back the sick
feeling in your stomach, and you ignore the ice sliding down the back
of your neck, and you take off. Because even those of us who insist
that oh, no, we had no clue what was coming, we never dreamed of it
. . . well, somewhere deep down we did know. We just couldn't face it.
So we pretend we didn't hear the T word, and we run. At least, that's
what I did when my husband, Jake, said those fateful words on a peaceful
Saturday in Manhattan, when we were sitting around not doing much of
anything. I immediately got to my feet.
"I think I'll go for
a run," I chirped. I always get chirpy when I'm in denial about
something. "It's a perfect day for it, and I'm doing so well with
the diet, I'll just take a quick jog around the park."
Jake and I both knew I didn't
jog anymore. Not since I'd gained thirty-two pounds. For the record,
the two of us also knew my diet wasn't going all that well either, but
that was one of the things we didn't discuss-one of the many things,
I realized later, when I looked back on it. "I've lost another
two pounds," I lied gaily.
said Jake with a big fake smile. I'd been seeing a lot of that fake
"Britney Spears, move
over," I said inanely. She was the only pop reference I could think
of at a moment's notice. My husband liked it when we sprinkled our conversation
with pop references, because he thought it made us seem hip. And if
we could claim a personal relationship to the pop reference-no matter
how distant-he was really happy, because that made us seem successful.
Being successful is very important to Jake. But I'd been slipping up
on my pop culture lately-the damn stuff moves so fast-because I'd been
busy battling the writer's block from hell. Which is not a good thing
when you write books for a living. But I'm getting ahead of my story.
Jake knew the names of so
many of those interchangeable young blond starlets who careen back and
forth between rehab and multimillion-dollar movie deals because he was
a photographer, and he'd taken pictures of quite a few of them back
when they were still living in Manhattan, waiting tables and trying
to make it as serious actresses. Before they wised up and moved to Los
Angeles, the starlet's natural habitat.
"I'm going to go change
into my running clothes," I went on in my chirpy voice, as I started
out of the living room. But then I couldn't resist going back to plant
a little kiss on the top of his head. "Love you," I said,
and raced out before he could come up with an answer-or avoid coming
up with one. Like I said, we all know what it means when a Talk is looming.
But instead of heading for our bedroom, I took a quick detour to the
kitchen to grab one of the cocoa-flavored diet bars I substitute for
breakfast every morning-except when I sneak one after breakfast because
we don't have any real chocolate in the house. And yes, I know all the
clichés about eating sweets when you're stressed. But chocolate
helps. A lot. That's another life lesson I've learned.
Jake has always told me I
fell in love with him because he's shallow. "You married me because
I gave you permission to be shallow too," he said, after we'd exchanged
our vows at City Hall. We both laughed, and I thought how lucky I was
to be married to a man who had such a terrific self-deprecating sense
of humor. I mean, most guys take themselves so seriously. And the truth
was, Jake isn't shallow, he's just not as intense as I am, which puts
him in the same category with almost everyone except a couple of religious
fanatics and my mother, the Feminist Icon. I felt blessed beyond my
wildest dreams to have snagged a gem like Jake. Not that I ever shared
that mushy sentiment with him. Jake and I were into snappy patter.
Of course, it doesn't hurt
that Jake is gorgeous. The man has these fabulous green eyes, a great
mouth, cheekbones that balance his square jaw perfectly, and dark wavy
hair that hugs the back of his head in a way that makes you want to
kiss it. On top of everything else, his hair is frosted ever so slightly
with gray-Jake is a few years older than I am-and it looks fabulous
on him, so you know he's going to age beautifully. He's slim but well
built and about six feet tall.
But it really was the you-married-me-because-I-gave-you-permission-to-be-shallow
line that got me. And he did give me permission-maybe not to be shallow
but to have fun. Fun was a four-letter word to me before Jake came into
my life. (See above reference to intensity.) That probably sounds weird,
since I was in my thirties when we met and should have been past needing
permission for anything. But I was a late bloomer-seriously late. And
while I've read enough self-help books to know that we all have to take
responsibility for our own emotional growth, I will say that my early
years were not exactly conducive to blooming.
As i made my way down the
hall to our bedroom, I looked out the wide window that fronts Central
Park. The condo Jake and I lived in was on the Upper East Side, almost
directly across the park from the co-op my mother used to own, where
I spent what I guess you could say were my formative years. I'm one
of those rare creatures who were born and bred in Manhattan, except
for two years when my family lived up in Rye. Since that hiatus probably
caused-or at least heavily contributed to-the breakup of my parents'
marriage, I'm a little ambivalent about the suburbs. Although, to be
fair, I'm ambivalent about most things. Deep down, at my core, where
it really counts, I'm marshmallow fluff. And someday, damn it, I'm going
to figure out how to be proud of that. Or reconciled to it.
My mother's West Side apartment
was in one of those build- ings noted for their prewar charm and dicey
plumbing, and since she had zilch interest in domesticity it was never
really decorated, or even painted, as I recall. When Jake and I bought
our condo we opted for a brand-new building and a wildly expensive decorator
to "create our environment." As far as I was concerned, the
result-except for our bedroom, where I'd prevailed-was terrifyingly
sleek, and the place was as inviting as the lobby of a high-end insurance
company. Our chairs, tables, and sofas were limited editions designed
by a sculptor in some Nordic country where the sun doesn't shine much.
And the pièce de résistance, which Jake just had to have,
was a high-tech clock in the foyer. The thing cost as much as a car-a
cheap one, but still a car. It was hooked up to an international satellite
system so it could tell you the time in Borneo and the weather in Tanzania;
I think it could also launch rockets. I was always afraid that one night
it would go rogue and start a war.
Naturally this haute furniture
cost a fortune, and even though the decorator swore we were buying investment
pieces that would hold their value, I would have balked at the price.
But Jake loved it all-and I've always thought it was because of the
I told myself I understood.
Jake had grown up as the only child of a hardworking single mother who
held down two jobs so her talented son could go to the city's best art
school and study photography. If he was into pricey and showy, it was
understandable. Besides, I wasn't sure what I was into-there's that
ambivalent thing again-although I knew my taste was cozier than Jake's.
But I wanted him to be happy. When Jake is happy, it's like having a
ringside seat at the best Fourth of July fireworks ever. Sparks of pleasure
just seem to fly off him. What woman wouldn't want to be around that,
especially if she felt she'd caused it? And our new condo had produced
a Vesuvius of sparks from Jake. In the beginning, anyway.
So we had those glitzy big
windows overlooking the park and a large-for-Manhattan gourmet kitchen
we never used, and the building itself had a professionally equipped
exercise room and a roof garden. Jake and I had everything we needed,
except closet space. We used to have enough of that before I had three
wardrobes: sizes four, ten, and fourteen. Jake was always telling me
to dump either the clothes that didn't fit or the pounds.
"You're just torturing
yourself, Francesca," he'd say, as I stood in front of the jammed
racks trying to find the one skirt that actually fit me. "Why do
you want to be miserable?"
Well, I didn't, of course.
But I still hung on to the size fours-also known as my Happy Clothes-and
I haven't met a woman who can't relate. (If such a woman does exist,
I propose that we shoot her.) I fought to get into those minuscule garments-for
eight months I ate five hundred calories a day, supplemented with vitamin
B shots, and I almost passed out twice in Barnes & Noble-and I knew
I could get back down to that weight again. I just had to change a lifetime
of bad eating habits, stop trying to solve all my problems with chocolate,
and become someone who likes to jog-or, at least, walk fast. But if
I packed up the tiny jeans and the itsy-bitsy skirts and sent them to
Goodwill, I'd be admitting defeat-or, okay, accepting reality. I'm not
a big fan of reality.
On the Saturday in question,
I couldn't make myself open the closet door. I lay down on our bed and
closed my eyes. There was a snuffling noise somewhere in the vicinity
of my right ear.
"Go away, Annie,"
The snuffling was followed
by a couple of snorts. I gave up and opened my eyes to face my dog.
Annie was a rescue, so her ancestry has always been a mystery; it's
clear that several large breeds were involved in her family tree, and
at least a few of them were mega-shedders. Coal-black mega-shedders.
We had to dump the decorator's favorite white rug after only a couple
of weeks because of Annie. However, Annie has a beautiful face, a terrific
dog smile, and a heavy-duty work ethic about her gig as Francesca's
Best Friend. Part of that job, as she sees it, is to keep me in line,
which is why she was nosing me to get off the bed. It was at least six
hours before I was supposed to call it quits for the day, and Annie
is a stickler about my schedule. I finally managed to convince her to
lie down next to me by bribing her with the dog cookies I keep in my
nightstand. Annie will do anything for a cookie; she's my dog, after
all. Once she settled down, I closed my eyes again.
One reason I didn't want
to open the closet was the new gown-a size sixteen-that was hanging
on the special rack our closet consultant (yes, I know, I know) had
installed for my party clothes back in the days when I still told myself
I loved going to parties. I'd bought the gown because Jake and I were
going to an awards dinner that night; the honoree was a friend of ours
named Andrea Grace. Andy, as she is known to her intimates, is a television
producer. She'd worked for the Big Three (that would be CBS, NBC, and
ABC), as well as Lifetime and Hallmark, and now she was striking out
on her own as an independent. That's why the National Academy of Women
in Film decided to give her a dinner and, probably, a really ugly little
plaque. Jake had been asked to say a few words to introduce her acceptance
speech, because he and Andy were working together on several of her
new projects. I'd also been invited-as Jake's date, of course.
That's what I'd become, the
wife who was also invited. It hadn't always been that way. As I mentioned
before, I'm an author, and my debut novel was hailed as a success by
everyone. But, as I've also mentioned, I'd been having a little trouble
with writer's block. . . . Okay, let me rephrase. I'd been wrestling
with the mother of all writer's blocks for three years, and there were
times when I found it depressing to hang out with people who were getting
awards-or people who were merely functioning, for that matter. I wasn't
proud of this, but it was the reason I'd backed out of a couple of social
events in recent months. No one wants to talk to a depressed person
at a cocktail party; eating finger food without getting arugula caught
in your teeth is enough of a challenge. Besides, I knew Jake was okay
with going to these shindigs on his own, he could talk better to all
the successful folk if he didn't have to keep including me in the conversation.
It was actually a nice thing I was doing for Jake when I stayed home-or
so I told myself.
I shifted on the bed so I
could cuddle closer to Annie. She actually hates cuddling, but some
rule in the Good Dog Manual decrees that she has to allow it when she
knows I'm feeling needy. There was a part of me that wanted to run back
to the living room and scream at Jake, I just said I love you, damn
it! Say something back! I know, even though you're ten years older than
I am, that you look better than I do. But you're supposed to cherish
me anyway. The vows didn't say "for better or for better"
when we got married. But I don't scream. A shrink I once saw told me
it's because I heard too much screaming growing up. And besides, fighting
with Jake was sure to bring on the Talk. My stomach lurched just thinking
about that. I hopped off the bed, and Annie heaved a sigh of relief.
I opened the dreaded closet,
found the jogging suit with the top that was long enough to cover my
hips, and pulled it on. Then I forced myself to look in the mirror.
Even when I'm slim, I'm built like one of those heroines in old-fashioned
novels everyone describes as sturdy. No one has ever been able to explain
why I am this way. My father's family, the Sewells, are tall lanky wasps.
My mother's father was Greek American, and the women on his side were
all downright skinny. The wild card in my genetic mix is my maternal
grandmother. I'm not sure what her original heritage was, since she
died when my mother was three and no one talks about her much. But I
figure someone in her family tree must have had child-bearing hips.
And sturdy thighs.
Excerpted from Looking for a Love Story by Louise Shaffer
Copyright © 2010 by Louise Shaffer. Excerpted by permission of
Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission
in writing from the publisher.
Read Chapter 1 of Serendipity
Read Chapter 1 of The
Three Miss Margarets
Read Chapter 1 of Family Acts
Read Chapter 1 of The
Ladies of Garrison Gardens