Almost: A Novelby Elizabeth Benedict
ALMOST, Elizabeth Benedict's fourth novel, is "her most spirited to date" (New York Times Book Review). Forty-something narrator Sophy Chase has just begun a lighthearted, romantically adventurous life in New York City when she learns that her almost ex-husband has been found dead on the New England resort island where she left him just months before. Lured back to… See more details below
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ALMOST, Elizabeth Benedict's fourth novel, is "her most spirited to date" (New York Times Book Review). Forty-something narrator Sophy Chase has just begun a lighthearted, romantically adventurous life in New York City when she learns that her almost ex-husband has been found dead on the New England resort island where she left him just months before. Lured back to the island by feelings she thought she had left behind, Sophy must navigate treacherous emotional terrain involving her grown stepdaughters, a former lover who is now a celebrity lawyer, the mystery of her husband's death and her own darkest impulses.
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A High Note
I have this boyfriend who comes to visit me it's mostly a sexthing. Unless I visit him, in which case it's mostly a babysittingthing. I'm not sure which turns me on more. You don't think ofBritish Jews, if you happen to know any and I didn't until DanielJacobs as world-class lovers, but he must be an exception, or itcould be the antidepressants he takes, which not only keep the bluesat bay, but orgasms too. In Daniel's case, for, oh, forty-fiveminutes, give or take a few. My friend Henderson calls him the BionicMan.
That's how I'd have begun this story if I'd sat down to writeit two months ago, instead of now. I'd have put it firmly in thepresent tense, the intense present, a time that felt electric to meand that I know I don't want to part with yet. Two months ago, thestory would have been all about the sweet madness and the math. Andwhy not? When the numbers are in this range, you feel some obligationto history to keep a record. Remember that old Irving Wallace novelThe Seven Minutes, about what goes through this woman's mind in theseven minutes of intercourse? Not one reviewer griped, Seven? That'sit? Not one of them said, Irving, you sure this isn't autobiography?
Without my telling him, the doorman knows not to buzz me ifpackages, even groceries, arrive after he's seen dashing Daniel comeupstairs. Phone messages on my machine pile up as thickly as pinkWhile You Were Out slips impaled on an upright skewer. I always turnoff theringer on the phone and mute the voices on the machine,incoming and outgoing, so that we're not distracted. Or bombarded. Myalmost-ex sometimes calls, in tears, to say he wants me back, and myeditor, practically in tears, to remind me that my novel based on thelife of Lili Boulanger is budgeted for this year and I am elevenmonths late. And my other editor, a guy I call the Eighth Deadly Sin,who tries to tempt me to ghost another celebrity autobiography. He isa twenty-seven-year-old manic depressive with his own imprint whohired me to write the life story of a daytime TV personality, which Ifinished in three months and is about to be published without my nameon it, thank God.
As book-writing goes, other people's autobiographies arechild's play. You're handed the central character, the dramatic highsand lows, the bittersweet, inspirational ending, a deadline thatleaves no room for writer's block, and money, real money. Enough toleave my husband, Will O'Rourke, and dog Henry, move back to NewYork, and live for a while in this studio-with-alcove furnishedsublet in Greenwich Village with two walk-in closets, galley kitchen,central air, and a look of Pier One exoticism on the cheap. Anabundance of wicker, batik, cotton throw rugs, and bayberry-scentedcandles that I often light when Daniel leaves.
The other people I don't want disturbing us are my mother,whose memory is on the fritz, and who sometimes calls to ask how oldI was when my father left, and my best gay friend, Henderson, whosemessages I love, except when they're broadcast into the boudoir, asthis one was on an overcast afternoon: "Sophy, I trust you're notpicking up the phone because you and Daniel are having one of thosemarathon sessions. Hi, lovebirds. Would you believe I lost the nameof that guy who does interventions again? My birth father wasabsolutely blotto last night at Così fan tutte, and my wickedstepmother and I have decided it's time to send in the Eighty-secondAirborne. I hope this is a quickie, because I really need to talk toyou before the sun goes down."
Since I moved back to the city in March, my life often feelssurreal and overloaded, like an electrical extension cord with toomany attachments, on the verge of blowing a fuse. Henderson claimsI'm suffering from what Jack Kerouac called "the great mad joy youfeel on returning to New York City," though I think it's the genericgreat mad joy of jettisoning a tired old life for a shiny new one.Some days I'm Gene Kelly doing his waterlogged soft-shoe and singin'in the rain, happy again. On more difficult days, I'm Dorothy, wide-eyed at the phantasm of Oz but terrified I'll never find my way home,or never have another home to find my way to. Being able to focuscompletely on Daniel for several hours at a stretch keeps me fromgoing off the deep end. Or maybe maybe Daniel is the deep end, andwe are a couple of ordinary junkies who don't even know we have aproblem. You forget, being married, that sex can take up so manyhours of the day.
A quickie in Daniel's book is half an hour, and never mindforeplay, never mind the nerves on the back of my neck, the world ofwhispering and slowness. Daniel's cut-to-the-chase is an acquiredtaste, I know, but now that I've got it, I'm not sure I want to goback to the evolved, sensitive-guy approach. When I told my bestwoman friend, Annabelle, that on my birthday Daniel and I were at itfor forty-three minutes according to the digital clock on mymicrowave, which I can see in certain positions from the bed acrossthe room Annabelle said, "That's a very good birthday present,Sophy." Afterward he gave me another present, a framed gelatin printof a photo of my beautiful, sad-eyed Lili Boulanger he had an artdealer colleague in Paris track down, wrapped in wrinkled Pocahontasgift paper. Then we staggered to his house at the end of WaverlyStreet, stopping at Balducci's and Carvel to pick up dinner for hisfour Vietnamese orphans, Tran, Van, Vicki, and Cam, two boys and twogirls.
Of course they're not really orphans, because Daniel is theirlegal father, but so far they have lost two mothers apiece, theVietnamese women who bore them and Daniel's wife, Blair, who is, asit says on all those old tombstones, Not Dead Only Sleeping, in anursing home on the North Fork of Long Island, with a spot-on view ofa meadow, a salt marsh, and the daily sunrise, none of which she isever likely to lay eyes on again.
Daniel explained all of this to me over coffee, days after Ihad moved back to the city and we met at the gay-lesbian-all-welcomeAA meeting in the gay-lesbian-all-welcome neighborhood where we live.But by all welcome, they don't only mean boring straight people likeDaniel and me; they mean cross-dressers, transsexuals, and asurprising number of people who haven't made up their minds. He and Iended up there separately and by accident, thinking it wasnondenominational, but we stayed because, story for story, it's thebest theater in New York, a darkly inspirational, Frank Capra-in-dragmovie that could be called It's a Wonderful Life One Day at a Time.It's also a place where a man telling his life story can say, "Duringthat period, which went on for five years, I was so busy drinking I mean, honey, I was taking Ecstasy as a mood stabilizer that Iforgot to meet men and have sex, which brings us to Fire Island," andseventy-five people will howl with sympathetic laughter.
Daniel and I innocently sat next to each other, and heinvited me out after for coffee at Dean & DeLuca on Eleventh Street.I was still thinking about the speaker at the meeting whose name wasRobert S., and who wore a platinum pageboy wig and a chartreuse DKNYminiskirt and said to us, "Girls" though I was the only one in theroom "I am waiting for God to work her magic," and I suppose I waswaiting myself. That's what made me ask Daniel, at the start of ourfirst date as I began to take inventory of all the ways heappeared different from my gray-haired, salty-looking husband where he stood on God.
"Off to the side," he answered, "quite a way. But here I am,knee-deep in drunks who talk about the Almighty as if he lives nextdoor. It's a lot for an Englishman to sign up for. We have a longtradition of drinking ourselves to death quietly and all alone. Thenagain, this wasn't my idea." Daniel had the look of a youthful TomWolfe, long-limbed, clean-shaven, wearing a suit I didn't know thenwas an Armani; and there was not a strand of gray in his fine brownhair. He might have been my age, mid-forties, or a few years younger.
"Whose idea was it?"
"My physician advised me three years ago that I'd die inshort order if I didn't quit. And what about you? Where do you standon God?"
I said that for the first ten years I went to meetings, I hada difficult time overcoming my godless Unitarian upbringing, but inthe last six months, I found myself leaning in another direction,dispensing with some of my skepticism. I wasn't a practicingUnitarian any longer, I told him; I considered myself lapsed. Tryingthat out for the first time, the "lapsed." Daniel laughed out loud.But I wanted to play it for laughs; I was flirting like crazy. Ihadn't slept with anyone but my husband for the ten years of ourmarriage, plus the two years before, and I wasn't leaving anything tochance.
"And what's at the core of a lapsed Unitarian's beliefsystem?" he asked.
"Nothing to speak of, so there's room for reconsideration,but not much motivation for it. What about you?"
"I'm Jewish," he said, "but in the English style, sort ofhalf a Jew, as if it were only one of your parents, and you're notcertain whether to take it or leave it."
"What's the other half, in your case?"
"Pure capitalist. I come from a long line of merchants. Furand microchips. My great-grandfather was furrier to the czar. Myfather was the last furrier in London to move away from the East Endwhen the Bangladeshis moved in. He went to Golders Green in 1962 andsold dead animals until the PETA people threw a can of fuchsia painton my mother's full-length sable, which coincided roughly with thediscovery of the microchip. He and my older brothers are computerconsultants to the Queen. They have the lucrative gift of being ableto endure long hours of bowing and scraping. I'm the youngest of foursons and, some say, the family rebel. Instead of software, I peddlepaintings."
In AA, of course, you are not supposed to tell anyone yourlast name, but Daniel blithely told me his. I knew it from going togalleries during all the years I lived in New York and reading artreviews in the Times during all the years I didn't.
A cappuccino or two later, we were swapping infertilitystories like girlfriends, by way of explaining how he ended up withfour imports and I ended up with no offspring at all, except thisgryphon-like dog Henry, whom I had left with my husband until I gotsettled. I didn't tell Daniel that night that Henry had been Will'spresent to me when I quit trying to get pregnant. "I still carryaround a picture of him, ugly as he is."
"Your husband?" Daniel said, visibly startled.
And I didn't tell Daniel about the immense sadness that hadmade me stop trying to have a baby. It was our first date, after all,and I wanted him to think my past was safely behind me, buried likenuclear waste, in airtight containers, even though I'd walked out onit only a handful of days earlier. Instead, I entertained Daniel withstories of my test-tube encounters with Green-Blue, the code name forthe nuclear physicist at the California genius sperm bank I hadwanted to be the father of my child, after it became clear thatWill's sperm motility wasn't what it had been when he'd fathered mytwo grown, soon-to-be-ex stepdaughters.
"Green-Blue is six-one, IQ of one fifty-six, and the father,as of two years ago, of thirty-one children of lesbian mothers andstraight single women scattered across the fault lines of SouthernCalifornia. They Fed Exed me the stuff in tanks of liquid nitrogen.But I ovulate funny. It was like waiting for three cherries to comeup on a slot machine. And my husband was convinced that the onlysperm donor in the joint was the skaggy-looking guy who ran thebusiness and called me at seven in the morning mind you, that'sfour A.M. in California to say, 'Sophy, I have to know, is yourtemperature going up or down?'"
Daniel told me that he and Blair had done the temperaturebusiness, test tubes, and Pergonal injections. She had even made anappointment with a faith healer named Falling Rain Drop, who insistedthey participate in a fertility dance in Washington Square Park everyday at dawn for a week. Daniel refused.
The years of trying piled up, and Blair, pushing forty-three,grew impatient and fearful. In one fell swoop, they adopted threesiblings, two boys and a girl, ages approximately six, four, and two,who had been living in an orphanage in Hoa Binh for six months, and afourth child, Vicki, whose sad face in a photograph Blair could notresist. They nearly emptied out the orphanage and filled every roomin the narrow, turn-of-the-century brownstone Blair had inheritedfrom her stockbroker father.
Adopting all those children, you could say she was Mia Farrowminus Woody, and now, poor lamb, poor Blair, she is Sunny von Bulowminus the millions. Not that they are destitute; Daniel's two artgalleries are doing record business, despite his long afternoonabsences. He was a willing partner in the international quest forchildren, and he is a devoted father, though he is often sleep-deprived and frequently flummoxed, as when his five-year-old said tohim, "If you don't buy me a Beanie Baby, I'll say the F word all thetime, starting right now."
He wants me to think and seems to believe himself and itmay be the truth that his essential nature is now subsumed by thecondition of being overwhelmed. "I used to have a personality," hewill say, "and a life I rather liked. Now I run an orphanage on astreet where I am the only heterosexual man for ten blocks in everyblinking direction."
On the other hand, I'm not sure what that personality was,the one he claims to have had. He can predict whether a client willprefer a Miró etching to an obscure Delvaux oil painting, and he isconsulted by museums and foreign governments to detect forgeries, butin matters of his heart, nuance is a rare commodity. When I asked himhow his marriage had changed over the years, all he said was, "Oncethe children arrived, we quit having sex on Saturday afternoons."
My friends are divided over the nature and severity of Daniel'saffliction. Those who have spent time in England insist that hispassport is his destiny, and his answer to my question about hismarriage passes in that population for soul-searching. Other friendsascribe his limitations to gender. "He sounds just like a man,"Annabelle said, "but worse." It may be most accurate on any continentto say that he is what Winston Churchill said about Russia: a riddlewrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
But there is something else you should know about Daniel: Ithink he is still in love with Blair. She has this embalmed, waxy,forever-thirty-nine, Dick Clark quality. Perfect, silent, stricken,enveloped in the aura of her New York Stock Exchange pedigree and alife of excruciatingly good deeds. She founded and ran a literacy-and-reading center for inner city families and was always getting plaquesand certificates from the mayor, the governor, Channel 7, theAmsterdam News, El Diario, and the Helen Keller Foundation. Danielsells modern masters, wears Armani underwear, and a wristwatch asthin as a quarter, but his living room walls are now crammed withthree-dollar pressed-wood plaques and ersatz diplomas from local TVnews anchors who think Blair should have shared the Nobel Peace Prizewith Nelson Mandela.
Poor thing was hit by a UPS truck the year before whilebicycling on Hilton Head Island, where she was attending her onlysister's wedding. Can Daniel marry again without divorcing his brain-dead wife? The subject has not come up between us. We are efficientcommunicators in the sack and above-average conversationalists onterra firma, but on the question of our future I mean anythingbeyond tomorrow we are neophyte speakers of English, permanentlystalled in the present tense.
Blair is a tough act to follow, though I give it all I'vegot. In addition to baking Christmas cookies with Daniel's childrenin June, I frequently do a full-dress imitation of Dorothy in TheWizard of Oz, which they have seen on video twenty-five or thirtytimes. I braid my hair and wear a polka-dot pinafore and a pair ofglittery red shoes I found in a thrift store; and I rigged up alittle stuffed dog, attached to a real leather leash, which I drag upthe stairs of their brownstone and then sling over my shoulder,squealing, "Toto! Toto! I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!"
One night I made the mistake of imitating their father forthem. I put on one of his silk suits over my own clothes and cartedfour metal lunchboxes and a handful of naked Barbie dolls into thebedroom where they waited for me, perched on the edge of Vicki's bed Vicki, the oldest, Vicki, who keeps a shelf of books about childrenwho have no parents. This child who first heard English spoken threeyears ago has read The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, PeterPan, Pippi Longstocking, and, in a category of loss entirely its own,The Diary of Anne Frank.
That night I studied each of their faces and said in thelowest growl I could summon and my best English accent, "What's allthis blinking mess in here?" I pretended to trip and sent thelunchboxes and Barbies flying. They landed hard and clattered acrossthe bare wood floor. From downstairs, Daniel hollered, "What's allthat blinking noise up there?" and we collapsed with laughter, and Iwas still laughing when Tran said to me, "Now do Mommy."
"But I don't know Mommy."
"You don't know Dorothy, either," Vicki said. I knew onlythat I was bound to fail in this, but four pair of beautiful, almond-shaped black eyes were on me, and I could not deprive them of anothermother, even of the flimsy imposter they knew to expect.
I slipped out of Daniel's clothes and tried to organize agame of Chinese checkers with them, tried to be a funny, light-hearted, old-fashioned, TV kind of Mom, before TV moms were cops andcardiologists, but my heart wasn't in it, or maybe I mean that Ididn't want them to see how much it was in it, so I held back, andthe whole thing fell flat. "Who wants peanut butter?" I saidlamely. "Who wants to take a Tarzan bubble bath? Who wants anenormous plate of asparagus for dessert?" But none of them laughed,and I was relieved when Van said, "Do Dorothy again."
At breakfast they have said to me, "Do our dad, please."
"The school bus is outside."
"Then do Toto."
"Honey, let Sophy finish her cereal."
"One little time, and we'll never ask you again."
"I will," said Cam, the youngest, always out of synch withthe consensus.
"Don't get dressed up," Tran said. "Just talk funny and throwthe Barbies."
Early on, when Daniel and I were in bed and it was dark andour skin was as slippery as the inside of an oyster, hewhispered, "Do me."
"Baby, I am doing you."
"Imitate me. The way you did today at lunch."
"Don't stop moving."
"You're out of your blinking mind."
"'I have a little, uh, Chagall etching in the vault, uh, youmight find enchanting. Once in the collection of His Majesty the Shahof Iran. Or was it the Duke of, uh, Windsor? Two-point-five.'"
"His etchings never sold for that much."
"'For you, then, two-point-three.'"
"I never bargain. Or mix up monarchs."
"You are out of your mind, Daniel."
"I know you know."
The truth was we both were. Fourteen days before, in ahowling March nor'easter, on an island called Swansea, off the coastof Massachusetts a place as desolate as the Hebrides that time ofyear I had left my husband and a hideous hybrid hound dog withpointy ears. He was not only my consolation prize for not having ababy, but a sign from God, I'm sure, that had I succeeded, the poorcreature would have been Rosemary's Baby. I had driven away from aten-year marriage with what I could fit in a rented Toyota and apromise I did not think I would keep: to reconsider my decision whenI got to New York.
So much has happened since then. For one thing, the dog isgone. For another, I've just begun to write the story of my own life,at a desk in the house on Swansea that I walked out of in March, andI'm on a firm deadline. The story starts on a high note: a womanleaves her husband in search of happiness and ends up on a big-cityroller-coaster ride that feels for moments at a time like sheerbliss, an urban fairy tale come true. Then, out of nowhere, her newlife takes a plunge, then another, and a few dips, and before longshe feels like Job. But there isn't much of a story to tell unless afew things go wrong, is there?
I'm not going to trouble you with the story of my entire lifesince before my birth, like David Copperfield. I think it's best tostick to what's happened lately, starting two months ago, the morningof June twenty-second, when I was still in New York, still caught up,for the next few hours, in the great, mad joy of just being there,the morning of the day the police called.
Excerpted from Almost by Elizabeth Benedict. Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Benedict. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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