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"A daringly sympathetic portrait of a stepmother forced to make an impossible choice."—Vanity Fair
"Fun, smart and warmhearted..."—O Magazine
"Medoff's talent for characterization is evident in her latest novel, a richly layered tale about that complicated thing called family...[Her] fully realized novel beautifully explores the most important relationships we create: as parent, as sibling, as spouse."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Medoff produces another fallible, witty, realistic heroine with whom readers will identify. Eliot's biased and evolving narration brings the characters to life in this gripping story of personal growth. By turns hilarious and heart-wrenching, Medoff's honest writing and realistic dialogue make the book truly enjoyable, while a Sophie's Choice moment and its repercussions make it a real page-turner."—Booklist
"Every woman has one: the guy who got away. So what happens when he walks into your life again? If you were happy before-can you still make that claim? The choices we make-and the ones we don't make-form the backbone of Jillian Medoff's wonderful novel. These are characters you know, or might even have been, and their trials and tribulations are by turn devastating, hilarious, and painfully familiar."—Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of Sing You Home and House Rules
"I Couldn't Love You More might look like fluffy summer fun— and it is fun, witty, and big-hearted— but it is also a thoughtful examination of the choices we make and the devastating prices we pay."—Jennifer Weiner, New York Times bestselling author of The Next Best Thing
"I COULDN'T LOVE YOU MORE is a sheer pleasure to read. Boasting clear, beautiful writing and characters who could be people I know (and love), it's a gripping story that doesn't let up. But more than that, Medoff is that rare thing, a novelist brave enough to unleash the complex, strong emotions of which literature is made."—Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man and The Astral
"The incredibly talented Jillian Medoff is one of those authors whose storytelling is so honest it feels more like truth than like fiction. Funny, wrenching, suspenseful, and smart, I COULDN'T LOVE YOU MORE is one of those books that stays with you long after you've finished the last page."—Lauren Grodstein, author of A Friend of the Family
"How well Jillian Medoff writes about love - familial and romantic - and how deftly she brings her heroine, Eliot, to an almost unbearably suspenseful climax. A deeply satisfying novel."—Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy and The House on Fortune Street"I Couldn't Love You More hits the universal truths, the deepest search for identity, family and belonging. This captivating page-turner draws readers right into the intricacies of the human heart."—Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Birds of Paradise and Crescent
"The witty and (sometimes) wise heroine of I Couldn't Love You More is an unmarried wife, a mother, a step-mother, a daughter, a sister, a would-be lover and she is approaching middle age. Need I say more? Jillian Medoff has written an honest and comic novel that is unflinching and tremendous with love."—Binnie Kirshenbaum, author of The Scenic Route
"Incisive, poignant, witty....How can a book be so harrowing and so acidly funny at the same time? I closed this addictive novel with a satisfied sigh."—Jancee Dunn, author of Why Is My Mother Getting A Tattoo? And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had To Ask
"A thoroughly involving and intimately real portrait of a blended family in crisis. Jillian Medoff takes you inside the mind of a narrator undergoing life-changing events, and the voice in her head could be yours."—Janice Erlbaum, author of Girlbomb and Have You Found Her
"Unflinching in its honesty, I Couldn't Love You More is an intimate story of contemporary family love — with all its maddening and miraculous complexities. Jillian Medoff's writing dazzles the brain, cracks up the funny bone, and breaks open the heart. Her characters are so realistically layered, you'll sometimes want to hug them and sometimes want to shout at them, but you'll never want to forget them."—Seré Prince Halverson, author of The Underside of Joy
At the beginning of my daughter’s princess party, right before Cinderella is scheduled to arrive, my sister Sylvia announces, apropos of nothing, that she is going blind.
Alarmed, I look up. “What do you mean by ‘blind’?”
“I mean I’m having trouble seeing out of my eyes.”
We’re standing side by side in my foyer, where I’m trying to corral ten pint-sized princesses into the adjacent living room. Sylvia is studying her eyes in the mirror, and I want to give her my full attention, but Cinderella is due any minute, and the girls are running wild.
“Did this just happen?” I ask, catching a petite Snow White before she clips a corner. “Careful, princess, careful.”
“No, it’s been gradual.” Still staring at her reflection, Sylvia grimaces. “Last week, when I was reviewing a deposition, I noticed the words were blurry and kind of dark. But it was midnight, so I figured I was just tired. Now, though, I can barely see my hand in front of my face.” To prove her point, she holds up her hand at arm’s length and then squints, as if pretending to count her fingers.
She had me until the demonstration. I believed her vision was blurry. The deposition made perfect sense. I could even accept that she’d been at her office until midnight. But once she started with the fluttering fingers and the fixed zombie eyes, I knew exactly what was happening. My thirty-six-year-old sister was about to snatch the spotlight from her four-year-old niece—on the kid’s birthday, no less—and it was up to me to stop her.
“Please, Sylvia,” I say delicately. “Can’t this wait?” But I don’t hear her response because there’s a loud crash in my kitchen, followed by screeches of laughter. As bands of roving girls stampede by, I spy my daughter’s curly red hair among the swishing ponytails.
“Hailey! Let’s settle down, okay?” I reach out to grab her, but she’s moving too fast.
“In a second, Mommy!” she promises as she dashes away.
Sylvia is petulant. “Something’s wrong, Eliot. Please take a look.”
“I’m not an ophthalmologist,” I remind her, which of course makes no difference—when she tilts her head forward, I (ever-dutifully) lean in to examine her eyes. But before I offer my expert opinion, I scout around for our little sister, Maggie, who has once again wandered off.
I spot her across the room. “Maggie! What are you doing?” We refer to Maggie as “little,” but she’s actually thirty-three, although you wouldn’t know it from the way she’s crouched underneath my dining room table. “Cinderella will be here any minute. You said you were setting up the living room.”
She crawls out from between two chairs. “I decided to build a fort instead,” she says as she stands up and brushes herself off. Her jeans are covered with crumbs, which tells me that I didn’t vacuum as well as I’d thought. “What if the princesses need to hide from the dragon?” Maggie pauses. “Wait a second. I think I’m mixing up my fairy tales.”
Sylvia nods. “It happens. They’re highly complex narratives.” Beside us, she’s blinking rapidly, as if signaling Morse code to a distant ally.
“What’s wrong with her?” Maggie asks.
“She said she’s having trouble with her eyes.”
“I’m blind, Eliot,” Sylvia corrects me.
“Again?” Maggie sighs. “Didn’t you ‘go blind’ when we took Hailey to that Chihuahua movie? You were so bored you raced out of the theater yelling, ‘Oh God, my eyes,’ and then went down the street and got your nails done.”
“I wasn’t bored, Maggie. It was a corneal abrasion. I almost had to wear an eye patch.” Sylvia turns to me. “How can you just stand there? Do you not even care? This is serious, Eliot.”
“Of course I care,” I reply, but Hailey’s back and tugging on my hand.
“Cinderella’s coming! Mommy, we have to get ready. I love her so, so much.”
I need to make a move, but seized with sudden indecision, I just stand there for a second, watching the door and praying that my daughter’s favorite princess shows up soon.
Cinderella is the centerpiece of Hailey’s birthday party. I’d hired her from All Star Atlanta, a troupe of actors who perform at children’s parties around town. Although the cost gave me pause, once her booker described the two-hour interactive floor show, which featured a selection of preapproved princess activities, including a princess sing-along, I was sold.
“Let’s go, princesses!” I call out weakly. I feel self-conscious shouting at the girls while their mothers stand by, idly watching, but once my own mother steps in, we’re able to sweep all ten children into the living room. The adults follow behind, even Sylvia, although her eye affliction forces her to move very slowly.
My sister’s drama isn’t unusual, but it is inconvenient, especially today. Hailey recently changed nursery schools, so this party is a chance for her to spend time with her new pals outside of class. If I had more space, I would’ve also invited their mothers, but my house is far too small for so many people. As it turned out, two of the mothers did ask to stay, although they both offered, graciously, to lend a hand with the kids. And while I was anxious to make a good impression, I can see now that my husband, Grant, had a point when he said I was overthinking the event.
“It’s a birthday party,” he reminded me during my decorating frenzy. “She’s only four.”
“I know, I know. I’m done, I’m done. Okay”—I held out my arms—“what do you think?”
We both looked around. Our house was buckling under the weight of pink streamers, pink balloons, pink Mardi Gras beads, and pink feather boas. My kitchen table was set for a tea party that could rival any held at Versailles, and there was a banner suspended from the ceiling that read Welcome to the Ball in gold glitter script. But when I started to pull down the streamers, conceding that, yes, it probably was a bit much, Grant shook his head. “Absolutely not. It’s perfect—like we’re inside a big pink piñata!” He squeezed my shoulders. “Hailey will love it, Eliot—you did a great job.”
Hailey is the youngest of three girls. Because she is so often denied the same privileges we grant her elder sisters—later bedtimes, certain TV shows, pricey Game Boys—I wanted her birthday to be special. So along with the princess theme and decorations, we asked her guests to dress up as their best-loved fairy-tale heroines, which is how we ended up with five Cinderellas, two Snow Whites, and three Sleeping Beauties. Each girl is wearing a miniature ball gown, bejeweled tiara, and plastic high heels, and they’re all giddy at the prospect of meeting the real-life Cinderella.
I was a little nervous about hosting nine kids we don’t know, but so far they’ve all been very sweet to Hailey, if a bit wound up. And it’s to the mothers’ credit that despite never having met my sister before, the two women are listening to Sylvia with genuine concern.
“This isn’t a joke, Eliot,” she says, feeling around for a chair. “I really can’t see.” She sighs heavily. “I guess it’s true: fertility drugs can have a terrible effect on your vision.”
Phoebe, the alpha mother, reaches out to guide her into a chair. “Are you taking Clomid? My friend took Clomid, and she had the same problem. In fact, her vision got so bad she had to stop driving…” Trailing off, she notices a bevy of girls using my brand-new couch as a trampoline. One of them realized that by launching herself off the arm of the neighboring (equally new) recliner, she could practically fly, and the others are clamoring behind her, demanding a turn. “Careful with your dresses!” Phoebe shouts. This, it occurs to me, is what she meant by “lending a hand” with the kids.
“Did you know Sylvia was taking fertility drugs?” I ask Maggie.
“I didn’t even know she wanted children,” Maggie replies, and we both turn to Sylvia, but she’s focused on Phoebe.
“My God!” she exclaims. “Your hair is gorgeous and looks so soft. May I touch it? Please? Just one quick pat?”
Phoebe has very short, frosted blond hair that hugs her scalp like a swim cap. Although it’s nicer than, say, my hair, which is a mousy auburn shag cut to hide my thinning part, it’s no more gorgeous than anyone else’s. But Sylvia has the uncanny ability to zero in on a perfect stranger’s hidden vanity, and soon she's petting the woman’s head as they discuss deep-cleansing shampoos and the benefits of learning Braille. Meanwhile, Phoebe’s daughter has taken off her ball gown and is doing belly flops in her underwear onto my expensive leather sofa.
“Mommy!” I hear my own daughter shout. “Where’s the special guest?” Hailey is standing on the arm of the recliner, tottering in her plastic heels. “We’ve been waiting so long.”
“Careful, princess,” Maggie says, racing to grab Hailey before she topples over.
“Catch me, Aunt Maggie!” Arms outstretched, Hailey flings herself at my sister, who catches her easily and then dances her around the room. Maggie is agile, with an athlete’s grace, and their impromptu waltz is surprisingly elegant.
“What a stunning girl,” Phoebe says to her companion, unconsciously fingering her own cropped hair. “What I wouldn’t give for curls like that.” Given the way Phoebe stares, I know intuitively that she’s referring to my sister’s long, reddish-gold ringlets, not my daughter’s messy red mop.
“That’s Maggie,” Sylvia tells the mothers, as if addressing the studio audience. “She’s the pretty sister. Eliot’s the good one.” She grins. “I’m the bad sister, the one with all the issues.”
Chuckling, Phoebe smooths her knee-length skirt. “Well, I’m a bad girl myself—reformed, of course.” She touches Sylvia’s shoulder. “You should probably relax if you’re feeling unwell.”
“I probably should,” Sylvia agrees. She offers the woman her arm. “If it’s all the same to you, Ellie, I think I’ll lie down on the couch. Could you ask the kids to clear out for a while?”
“Sylvia,” I plead, trying to tamp down my frustration, “please don’t do this now. Cinderella will be here any minute, and we need the living room. Why don’t you go upstairs?”
“And miss Hailey’s birthday party?” Sylvia replies sweetly. “No way.”
Phoebe turns to her friend. “Can you give me a hand here?”
And so it happens that my perfectly healthy, eagle-eyed sister gets two complete strangers to help her traverse my tiny living room floor. One offers her aspirin; the other, a cup of tea.
“Get ready, girls!” I cry out, clapping maniacally. “Cinderella’s coming!”
“News flash,” my mother says, walking in. “Cinderella isn’t coming.” She spots Sylvia lying on the couch. “Oh, my God, Eliot—is she okay?”
“Cinderella’s not coming?” Hailey shrieks. She’s back up on the recliner, stomping her plastic high heels into the rich brown leather. “That’s not fair!”
Several of the princesses start to cry; the rest fall, keening and moaning, to their knees. Watching this, I get a sense of what Graceland was like the day Elvis died, and I blink back sudden tears of my own. Three weeks of preparation, and in less than two minutes, Hailey’s party has fallen apart. Adding insult to injury are my two guests misguidedly ministering to my sister.
“Apparently,” my mother says, “Cinderella slipped a disk doing a gymnastics routine somewhere in Dunwoody. Call the guy back. He’ll tell you the whole story.”
This makes the princesses cry harder. “I want gymnastics!” Hailey shouts, and her friends rally to her cause, yelling, “Gymnastics, gymnastics!” over and over until Sylvia bolts up from her sickbed to shush them.
“So, Eliot, what’s your backup plan?” asks Phoebe, who along with the other adults is waiting for me to take action.
I can barely hear her over the princesses’ wailing. “Backup plan?” I say blankly.
“You don’t have a backup plan?” She’s incredulous. “I hate to tell you this, dear, but if Cinderella really is laid up in Dunwoody, you have a long afternoon ahead of you.”
As it turns out, Phoebe is right. Cinderella’s aborted appearance dampens everyone’s mood. Had Grant been here, he would have told jokes—or juggled, even—and added some much-needed levity. But earlier he received an emergency call from his teenage daughter, Charlotte, my elder stepdaughter, and had to run out. So with Grant gone, Sylvia (thankfully) resting upstairs, and Maggie disappeared (again), it falls to me to entertain the princesses alone.
For the next two hours, I try everything: freeze dance, musical chairs, pin-the-crown-on-the-queen, a tea party, even a princess parade. But nothing cheers the girls up. All they want is Cinderella, which I understand. Despite my brave face, I’m crushed she’s not here, especially when I spot a heartbroken Hailey peeking out the front window, searching for the missing princess.
Eventually, Maggie wanders over. “I want cake,” she says, pulling me up off the floor, where I’m overseeing a lackluster game of hot potato. We retreat to the dining room to join my guests, who are sitting with my mother, sipping decaf and nibbling Cheddar Goldfish. I’m about to admit defeat and send everyone home when I see Gail, my seven-year-old stepdaughter, organizing a game of duck, duck, goose. That’s my girl, I think, watching with pride as she tries to salvage her little sister’s birthday. She won’t give up without a fight, either.
Unfortunately, news from the front isn’t good.
“Hailey’s friends are bored,” Gail tells me, walking over. “They said this is the worst party ever.”
“The worst princess party in the history of all princess parties?” Smiling, I hold her fingers and twirl her around and around. In honor of her sister’s birthday, Gail is wearing a miniskirt I found in a vintage store on Peachtree. As she spins on her toes, the skirt flares up. Underneath, she has on a pair of camouflage-print shorts. “Well, I appreciate your help. Hailey is lucky to have you for a sister.”
“Which is more than we can say about your aunt Sylvia,” Maggie observes. “Considering she lied about taking fertility drugs so she could sleep all afternoon.”
“Maybe she really doesn’t feel well,” I say. “Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.”
Maggie snorts. “And you guys call me the dumb one.” She turns away, flicking her long hair in my face. Sylvia doesn’t always lie; Maggie really is the prettiest of us, although her cool beauty—luminous blue eyes, straight white teeth, perfect lips—belies a lovable loopiness, which you can feel in the warmth of her smile. When my sister smiles, it’s like seeing the sun come out.
I check my watch. “It’s time for cake. Gail, please round up the princesses. I’ll go upstairs and find Sylvia.” But as I get up from my seat, my mother stops me.
“Let Sylvia be. She’s not feeling well.” For some reason, this cracks her up.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” she says, then laughs even harder. “Eliot, you stay here. I’ll get the cake.”
A few minutes later, I’m down on my knees, helping Hailey rebuckle her plastic shoes, when the princesses start to yell. My mother must have brought out the cake, I think, but when I look up, I see it’s not the cake they’re cheering—it’s the person holding it. Dressed in a sequined cocktail dress, a platinum wig, heaps of plastic bracelets, and (my) diamond stud earrings, Sylvia steps into the dining room, balancing the cake in a pair of gloved hands. Her dress is gaudy, her wig askew, both gloves have holes, and her lipstick is smeared, but my sister has never looked more dazzling.
“Hello, ladies,” she says. “I’m Princess Petunia. Cinderella couldn’t make it today, so she sent me.”
The ten princesses swoon. “Are you a real princess?” they all want to know.
“Of course I’m a real princess. Why else would I be here?” Sylvia holds out the enormous cake, which I take from her hands. “It’s me,” she whispers.
“I know,” I whisper back. “You look amazing.”
Hailey is overjoyed. “You’re not a princess. You’re Aunt Sylvia!”
“No, I’m Princess Petunia, and I’m here to make your wishes come true.” Then, from out of nowhere, Sylvia produces a handful of necklaces—one more glittery than the next. She goes around the table, drapes a necklace over each guest’s head, and kisses her cheek. “You are so beautiful,” she says solemnly. “Thank you for coming.”
Shrieking with pleasure, Hailey tosses her necklace into the air. The other princesses see this, and nine more go flying. And suddenly my ordinary little house has sparkling jewels raining down from the ceiling.
“Mommy,” I hear. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy—this is the best party ever!”
“You saved the day, Sylvia,” I say. “Princess Petunia saved the day.”
It’s later, much later, after all the princesses have gone home, after Hailey and Gail have opened all the presents and misplaced all the cards, after we’ve vacuumed up the glitter and runaway beads and dried frosting, after Charlotte and Grant have finally walked in. A half hour ago, Grant went upstairs with the girls, so I’m left with my mother and sisters to do the party postmortem.
Sylvia beams. “I did save the day, didn’t I? That party was a disaster until I showed up. Thank God for me.”
My mother is hiding a smile, and I can tell she has a secret. “What?” I ask her.
“Sylvia has something important she wants to share.”
“Don’t say it, Dolores,” Sylvia warns. “It’s my news, not yours.” But she’s smiling, too, and a beat later, she and my mother are laughing hysterically.
Watching them, it strikes me that when Sylvia is my mother’s age (seventy-eight), she will look just like her. Sylvia has the same shoulder-length, fiery red hair my mother had when we were kids, although my mother’s is silver now and cut in a sleek bob. They also share a perpetually bemused expression, as if they know something you don’t. Sylvia, Maggie, and I don’t resemble one another—or our mother—but you can tell we’re related. We all have the same fair skin, light eyes, and freckles. And, of course, there’s the red hair, which we also share in one shade or another.
“Come on,” Maggie says. “Tell us your news already. Oh, I know: you’ve gone blind.”
“Don’t be dramatic, Maggie,” Sylvia says. “It’s so unbecoming.” She looks at my mother, and for a second they say nothing. Then they both speak at the same time.
“I saw Finn!” Sylvia shouts. “Finn Montgomery—remember Finn, from Emory?”
She saw Finn? My Finn? Hearing this, I freeze. But wait, there’s more.
“Your sister’s pregnant!” my mother blurts out. “She’s due next May!”
Maggie throws her arms around my neck. “You’re pregnant? Eliot, that’s so great!”
“I’m the one who’s pregnant, you dope,” Sylvia says, then turns to my mother. “I told you I wanted to wait, Dolores. Roger doesn’t even know yet.”
“Hold on.” Maggie is confused. “So that stuff about fertility drugs was true?”
I’m still reeling. “You saw Finn? He’s back in Atlanta?”
My mother is unconvinced. “Oh, Sylvia, you’re always seeing someone. Two months ago you were convinced you saw Yasir Arafat. I told you: the man’s been dead for years.”
But Sylvia has moved on. “So remember I had those stabbing pains in my stomach, and I was sure I had abdominal cancer? Well, I called an oncologist, but the same day—the! same! exact! day!—I missed my period. Guess what?” She sits up. “It’s not cancer.”
“You’re really pregnant?” Maggie sounds concerned. For the record: Sylvia once toted an infant Hailey through the mall in a puppy cargo bag because the BabyBjörn “compromised her spine.” “She can breathe just fine in there,” she snapped when the security guard in Victoria’s Secret threatened to call the police. (I heard this story only after the fact, but it was the first—and last—time Sylvia babysat.)
“I planned to tell you earlier,” she continues, “but I felt so sick all day. And those kids—Jesus Christ, Eliot, are they always so freaking loud?”
“You’re really pregnant?” Maggie repeats.
“Stop saying that, Maggie! When it was Eliot, you were like ‘You’re pregnant?’ but since it’s me you’re like ‘You’re pregnant?’ Why can’t you just be happy for me?”
“We are happy for you,” Maggie and I say in unison. But unable to help myself, I add, “So where did you see Finn? Was he alone?”
Sylvia rolls her eyes. “God, could you be more self-involved, Eliot? We’re discussing my unborn child here. But no, he wasn’t alone. I saw him at the movies, sitting with some blonde.” She barks with laughter. “Oh, my God, he got so fat. The theater was packed, but you couldn’t miss him. The guy’s, like, huge.”
Finn fat? Impossible. I exhale in relief. “I doubt Finn got fat, Sylvia.” It’s weird to say fat, even weirder than saying Finn. We don’t allow the word fat in our house. I’d rather have Hailey tell someone to fuck off than call her fat. “It could’ve been anyone.”
“Oh, so now you don’t believe me? You think I lied about that, too?”
“I didn’t say you lied. But you only met him once. And if the place was packed…” I shrug.
“Eliot, do you really think I’m so insensitive that I would make up a story about seeing Finn, a guy it took you years to get over? What kind of person do you think I am?”
“That’s not what she said,” Maggie points out.
Sylvia whips around. “Why are you two ganging up on me?”
“We’re not,” Maggie says, but it’s too late. Sylvia is on a tear, ranting about how selfish and jealous we are, how thoughtless and rude; how she’s finally pregnant after all these years, but the only thing we can focus on is Eliot and her fat ex-boyfriend.
“This was supposed to be my moment,” she sniffs, glaring at me. “You always do this.”
Although this signals the end of the evening, it’s not the end of the story. Princess parties are over when the clock strikes twelve, but families go on forever, which is why I’m not all that worried about Sylvia being angry. Still, I do feel awful when she storms off, especially since there was something so magical about the party. In a single afternoon, I saw her transformed from a sister into a princess, from a princess into an expectant mother, and from a mother back to herself. And the truth is, sometimes my sisters and I do get jealous, and sometimes we do say things to—and about—one another that are thoughtless and rude. We don’t mean them, though. It’s just whenever we’re together, we slip into our old familiar roles. As the eldest, I’m in charge, Maggie is the one we look after, and Sylvia is caught in the middle. Despite our best efforts to transcend them, these roles are ingrained and immutable; and because of this, we behave accordingly, even against our better judgment.
I’m sure most people think it shouldn’t matter at this point who among us is the prettiest or smartest since we’re all adults now, each with lives of our own. But it does matter—it will always matter. I mean, if you don’t know your place in the family, how can you possibly know your place in the world?
There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.
—Willa Cather, O Pioneers!, 1913
I’m a light sleeper, which means I’m usually awake before everyone else. Today is no exception, although I’m lost in thought when the alarm goes off, so the buzzing startles me. Groaning dramatically, Grant shuts it off, then leans over to kiss me good morning, but I’m already getting out of bed.
“Hey, wait a second,” he says, pulling me back. “What’s the big rush?”
I shrug. “No rush…although it is five thirty. One of us should get in the shower.”
I refer to Grant as my husband, although we’re not really married. We’ve been together five years, though, and we’re raising three girls: Hailey, who turned four yesterday, is our daughter, and Charlotte and Gail, who are fourteen and seven, are from his first marriage.
“That so?” Lying on his side, Grant grins at me, creating tiny creases in the corners of his eyes. He’s forty, two years older than me, and has started to show his age in interesting and not unattractive ways. “Okay, Eliot, let’s hear it. What’s bothering you?”
“Nothing’s bothering me.” But then I smile, unable to help myself. Like my mother, I’m a lousy liar and an even worse secret keeper.
“In other words, you’re still annoyed at me for yesterday.”
“Annoyed?” I reply, wide-eyed. “What could I possibly be annoyed about?”
I can’t stand confrontation, so I shy away from arguments, even when—like now—I not only am irritated but also happen to be justified. My sisters may tease me about being a goody-goody, but they’re not altogether wrong. I’m always opening doors for strangers, giving up my seat, helping them with their bags when I can barely manage my own. As with many good girls, anger is my Achilles’ heel—my kryptonite, if you will—that is, the fear that if I get angry at Grant, if I get angry at anyone I care about, I’ll drive them away.
Grant sighs. “Eliot, I thought we resolved this last night. Charlotte waited for over an hour, but Beth never showed up. So, what was I supposed to do? Leave her there?”
“Of course not, but why didn’t you insist she come back here? Wasn’t that the original plan—Beth would pick up Charlotte and bring her home?”
When Grant got divorced, he and his ex-wife, Beth (whom Sylvia instantly christened “the Sculptress”), decided he would retain custody of their two daughters, so Charlotte and Gail live with us full-time. Beth is supposed to have them on alternating weekends, but she often makes other plans or forgets about them entirely. Yesterday, when Charlotte called Grant, frantic, from her art class, she was convinced her mother had been in a terrible accident and was lying in a ditch somewhere. But the Sculptress was merely out with a friend, sipping a midafternoon tea that turned into a late afternoon drink. When Charlotte found this out, she demanded that Grant stop by the restaurant and make sure her mother was okay. The Sculptress was fine, of course, but Grant, who is loath to refuse his girls anything, agreed.
“I’m just surprised it took you so long, that’s all,” I say.
“See!” Grant exclaims. “I knew you were mad.”
Despite his insistence, I’m really not mad. How can I be mad? Grant Delaney is a man who rescued his daughter when she was stranded at art school. He’s a man who shouldered the entire burden of raising his two young children when his wife walked out. Unlike my own father, unlike most men, Grant is a man who stepped up.
I sigh. “I’m not mad. But come on, Grant—it took you three hours to make a forty-minute trip. You did the same thing during Gail’s slumber party. You went out for ice at eight, and didn’t come back until eleven thirty. It’s”—I search for the precise word—“inconsiderate. Did it ever occur to you that I might need a hand?”
“Eliot, your mother and your sisters came over to help you. Did you really need me and Charlotte, too?”
“Grant, you know my family wasn’t here to help.”
“What about all the other kids’ mothers?”
“There were only two, and both of them turned out to be Gluckmans.”
When I was young, we lived next door to Sol and Greta Gluckman, a couple who argued with the windows open. “I’m a sexy girl, Solly,” the three-hundred-pound Greta used to shout. “And I deserve nice things. So get off your fat ass and find a fucking job.” After that, Gluckman became our family’s code word for indolent divas that live off someone else’s hard work. My estranged father, Barney Gordon (né Giordano), is a Gluckman. So is Beth, an unemployed painter whose art is distinguished by large-scale renderings of human genitalia and whom Grant continues to support, even though they divorced more than six years ago.
“What about Sylvia?” Grant asks. “Last night you told me she dressed up like a princess; that she saved the day.”
“For ten minutes. I also told you she announced she was blind, collapsed on the couch, and then hid upstairs for the next two hours.” Despite myself, I have to laugh.
Grant laughs, too. “Your sister is going to milk this pregnancy for all it’s worth. Poor Roger…Sylvia is such a pain in the ass.” But he also sounds amused. Grant likes Sylvia a lot. He likes Maggie, too, but feels indebted to Sylvia. After all, she’s the one who introduced us.
Grant is an art director at an advertising agency that was sued a few years ago for fraud or breach of contract—I don’t remember now, or maybe I never knew. Sylvia’s firm handled their defense (“successfully handled their defense,” she likes to remind me). Afterward, when both teams went out for a celebratory lunch, Sylvia sat next to Grant, who, she found out, was funny and available. Describing him, she said he was more appropriate for me, which meant she’d already considered dating him herself but then decided against it. “Trust me, Eliot,” she swore. “He’s awesome—handsome, smart, and divorced.”
“Since when is being divorced a good thing, Sylvia?”
“Don’t be dense. Everyone knows divorced men make the best husbands. Why would you marry a guy who hasn’t been broken in first? It’s like riding a wild horse. Trust me,” she repeated. “It’ll be love at first sight.”
I can’t say that I loved Grant at first sight, but I did love looking at him. His appeal is more rugged than pretty: dark, seductive eyes; black, curly hair threaded with silver; and the faintest hint of a five o’clock shadow. Although he’s not a tall man, whatever Grant lacks in height, he makes up in strength. He’s well built, with broad shoulders and muscular arms, so he’s good at opening jars and shrink-wrap packaging. He’s also got a strong character, which, unlike biceps, doesn’t soften with age.
I used to believe in love at first sight. I went to college at Emory, where I fell desperately, achingly, in love with Finn Montgomery, and my world turned upside down. When we graduated, Finn moved to New York City, and I haven’t seen or spoken to him since. So now that I’m thirty-eight and have some perspective, I believe in lust at first sight and love that grows over time.
When Sylvia suggested I meet Grant, I was almost thirty-three. I’d dated several guys on and off over the years but hadn’t had a life-changing love affair since Finn and I split up ten years before. At thirty-three—at any age, I suppose—ten years felt like forever. So I was ready to meet someone—just not someone who’d been rejected twice, first by his wife and then by my sister.
“Thanks, Sylvia,” I told her. “But no.”
“Eliot, don’t be an idiot. Grant is perfect for you. I’ll come along, and”—she paused—“we’ll meet him at his country club.”
This, she knew, would sway me, not because he might have money, but because I love to swim. In the water, I feel clean and contained, as though I have total control over my environment. (My sisters also love to swim. Maggie and Sylvia, in fact, were both all-state champs in the hundred-meter breaststroke; it’s how they paid for college. I—the one my mother insisted go to a fancy private school—took out loans I only recently paid off.) Although Atlanta is hardly lacking in pools, I assumed that by mentioning Grant’s “country club,” Sylvia was implying that he loved to swim, too.
Grant’s “club,” however, turned out to be a neighborhood rec center with a dilapidated game room. There was a pool, but it was very small and surrounded by clusters of families.
This is it? I looked around. Where are the lap lanes and diving boards?
“That’s him.” Sylvia pointed to a guy wearing swim trunks walking toward the shallow end. “That’s Grant.”
The guy’s back was turned, so I couldn’t see his face. What I could see, though, was his naked upper body, which formed a perfect V, his lean, powerful legs, and the confident way he moved. “That’s Grant?”
“I told you he was handsome, Eliot,” Sylvia said, watching me watch him. “You always doubt me.”
“I don’t always doubt you.” Studying Grant, I started to get excited. It had been a long time since the curve of a man’s back made me giddy, yet there I was, my legs a little loose, my head a little light. What an unexpected twist, I thought as a great laugh bubbled up inside me. That’s Grant! He was about to step into the water when he turned slightly, and I realized he was holding a baby. “Hey, Sylvia,” I asked, confused. “Whose baby is that?”
“What baby?” my sister replied. And just like that, I knew we had a problem.
“The baby he’s cradling in his arms.”
“It’s his. How great is that? See, I told you he was perfect.”
“He has a kid?”
“He has two. The older one is on the diving board.”
Glancing up, I saw a girl, about nine or ten, standing at the end of the board, contemplating a jump. “Come on, Charlotte!” I heard Grant shout. “You can do it.”
Turning toward him, Sylvia waved. “Hey, Grant, you big freak…this is my sister Eliot—the one who used to eat dog food! Remember I told you about her?”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Sylvia had already slipped off her sandals and was dunking her feet in the water. “Here, Eliot.” She patted the ground. “Come on, girl. Sit, Eliot, sit.”
I never ate dog food. Once, when I was ten and Sylvia was eight, she dared me to bite a Milk-Bone dog biscuit. It was no big deal, but our mother, a semi-successful author, later referenced the incident in her two memoirs that chronicled her turbulent marriage to—and messy divorce from—our father, Barney. The whole thing would’ve been long forgotten had she not changed my single bite of a Milk-Bone to an entire bowl of kibble, a detail that the press picked up and blew out of proportion. What everyone failed to realize, however, was that the only reason my mother included the story at all was to make some convoluted point about my father’s lack of parenting skills.
I glanced at Grant again, but this time with disappointment. Sylvia hadn’t said anything about children; and not only did this guy have two (two!) girls, but one was still in diapers! I loved kids, but this was too much, too soon. Tired of being duped by my sister yet again, I stormed out of the pool area but then realized I couldn’t leave because she had the car keys. Frustrated, I went into the game room, where I watched Sylvia through the window. I could see her talking to Grant, who was bobbing around in the water with his baby. He appeared to be laughing at something Sylvia was saying. They looked natural together, like close friends, which only made me feel worse. So what if I wasn’t interested in this sad, wifeless man and his two motherless children? He was still my date, not hers.
Inside the game room, I was suffocating; my T-shirt was soaked with perspiration. Outside the window, I could see the pool, cool and inviting. So with nothing better to do and nothing to lose, I stripped off my clothing, ran out the door, and dove into the clear blue water.
The backup alarm buzzes. This time, when Grant reaches over to shut it off, he purposefully grazes my breasts. “Let’s blow off work. We can stay in bed and have sex all day.”
“With each other?”
“Ha ha. Aren’t you witty this morning?” Pinning me to the bed, Grant hovers above my face, then releases his arms and flops on top of me. His skin feels warm against mine.
By now it’s ten to six, and Grant needs to get showered, dressed, and out the door by ten after, or it won’t pay for him to leave until nine. We live thirty miles north of Atlanta, and getting anywhere in less than an hour requires mastering the city’s unrelenting traffic patterns. Grant’s office isn’t far mileage-wise, but he supervises five designers and likes to get in before they do. My office is all the way downtown, but I have a flexible schedule, so I can work wherever I want as long as I meet my deadlines.
I’m a business writing specialist for Oliver Morgan Consulting, which means I help companies repackage their communications to make bad news sound pleasant. Although it’s not a dream job or a calling, I’m surprisingly good at it.
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I’m bent over the side of the bed, retrieving my reading glasses, when Grant moves behind me and presses his penis against my ass. He’s as hard as a rock. “I want to mow so badly.”
In our private bedroom parlance, to “mow”—long “o”—is to have sex. We also “do it,” “have relations,” and, on occasion, “fuck.” Mowing came about when Gail overheard Grant say he wanted to “do it all day.” “Do what, Daddy?” she asked, to which a rattled Grant blurted out, “Mow the lawn.” These days, we don’t mow as often as we’d like, but neither do we let the grass grow too high, if you know what I mean.
Grant wraps his legs around mine and runs his hands, palms down, back and forth over my nipples. “Charlotte was stranded,” he whispers. “Please don’t be mad at me.”
“We’re gonna be late.” But I close my eyes and sink into the bed. How can I be mad at him? Even with five years and three kids between us, Grant Delaney is a man who still makes me weak.
“You threw Hailey a great party. And you’re absolutely right, I was inconsiderate. I should’ve brought Charlotte straight home, but she asked me if she could see her mother…” He runs his fingers down my stomach and along my inner thighs.
“And you didn’t want to be stuck here with all those kids—”
“And yes, the princess thing was a bit much. So after we saw Beth, Charlotte and I may have stopped for a snack—”
“Hoping to miss the whole party…” I moan softly.
“Not the whole party…” With his thumb, he rubs my skin in light circles, making me shiver. The feeling is so good, I almost can’t bear it.
“So you admit you abandoned me…” I trail off, no longer caring about the party, about the time, about anything. The house could burn down around us, but as long as Grant keeps touching me in precisely that way, it won’t make one bit of difference.
Grant kisses me, openmouthed, a loving kiss of apology. “Yes, I admit it. But there was so much pink in this house, Eliot.” He pauses. “I’m sorry I bailed on the party.”
Kissing him back, I’m aware of nothing but his mouth on my mouth, the rhythm of his long fingers moving inside me. Suddenly, he pulls away.
“So now that I’ve admitted to poor judgment,” he says, “will you also admit you were angry at me?”
When I don’t respond, he pushes me onto my back, bends my knees, and then starts to lick me, very gently, between my legs.
Despite Sylvia’s assurances, Grant had no idea that she and I were coming to his club that afternoon. Her grand plan was to parent-trap us together: two bruised, bumbling losers who couldn’t see the potential romance that was right in front of them if she hadn’t pointed it out so selflessly. (Like many children of divorce, The Parent Trap is the Gordon sisters’ all-time favorite movie, so much so that Hayley Mills, the original star, inspired my own Hailey’s name.) And parent-trap us is exactly what Sylvia did. She called Grant up, found out where he was, and convinced me to ride shotgun.
At first it didn’t work. Although perfectly nice, Grant was not someone with whom I saw much of a future. I was polite, certainly, but also relieved when he took his girls home. The younger one was cranky and squirming. The older one needed sunscreen, and then a snack, and then she had to call her mother two, three, four times. What was Sylvia thinking? After all the years I spent crying over Finn, why would I want a man with two children; a man with—okay—an impeccable body, but also an ex-wife, a peeling nose, and what was guaranteed to be a long and pitiful history?
“You haven’t even heard his story yet,” Sylvia said on the drive home. “All you need to know is that he’s devoted to those two gorgeous children. And I have eyes, Eliot. I saw the way you looked at him.”
“So what?” I said, breaking my vow not to discuss it with her. “How many times did the older one call her mother? Four? Five?”
“Her name is Charlotte. And the little one is Gail.”
“They’re both little, Sylvia.”
“And the reason she calls her mother so often,” she continued, ignoring me, “is because she can’t get an answer. The Sculptress isn’t there, Eliot. She’s not interested, which is where you come in. After a few months with you, those kids will forget all about her, then bam—who’s the mother now? But you do what you want. All I’m saying is he’s a nice guy.”
“So why don’t you go out with him?”
“Why the hell would I want to raise someone else’s kids?”
To be fair, I didn’t make it difficult for Grant. He called a few days later, and I agreed to have dinner, which was a surprisingly pleasant experience. As the weeks went on, Grant continued to ask me out, and I continued to go. Why not? I figured. He was gracious and complimentary, called when he said he would, and showed up on time. He told me he’d never dated a green-eyed redhead before and referred to me as a “bonnie Irish lass,” or he’d suddenly shout, “Erin go Bragh!” like some kind of mating call, which was totally random but also pretty funny considering my mother is a Jew from the Bronx and my dad an Italian Catholic from New Jersey. It was nice to be with a man who thought I was pretty and told me so in a way that felt honest. Eventually, I spent time with Charlotte and Gail, who, it turned out, weren’t so bad, either. “They adore you and so do I,” Grant told me. “We’re so much happier when you’re around.”
It felt great to be wanted, to have a purpose again, so I began to reconsider. Then one night Grant told me something very personal—something, in fact, that changed my entire perception of him. And after that, our fate was sealed.
We were sitting at dinner, reminiscing about the day we first met. “It’s ironic that I was at the pool that afternoon,” he said. “I…uh…don’t really like the water. Beth had promised to take the kids swimming, but she flaked out at the last minute, so I took them instead.”
“Well, you looked like you were having fun. At least you did when Sylvia and I got there.”
“To be honest, I don’t remember you and Sylvia showing up at all. I remember holding Gail and then wading into the pool—”
“Well, I remember.” I laughed. “I was watching you through the window. You were having a grand old time, playing with Gail in the water and flirting with Sylvia. God, I was so annoyed at her. All I wanted to do was go home, but at the last minute, I just said ‘Fuck it’ and jumped in. I really didn’t expect to see you again.”
But the moment I dove in, Grant said, was critical for him. “Eliot, here’s the thing: I wasn’t flirting with Sylvia. I wasn’t even aware that Sylvia was there. Nor was I having a ‘grand old time’ with Gail. I was actually having a—I don’t know what to call it—an out-of-body experience, I guess.”
“What do you mean? Like a panic attack?”
Grant, it turned out, has an Achilles’ heel, too. But unlike my own fear of anger, his kryptonite is a pathological fear of the water. It’s a genuine phobia. When he steps into a pool or lake or, God forbid, the ocean, his arms and legs stiffen and his breathing gets labored. A little bit deeper, panic sets in and then disorientation. Even if the water comes up only to his knees, if he has nothing to grab hold of, his throat closes, his chest constricts, and he’ll gasp for air until he blacks out. Supposedly, when Grant was three, his father tossed him into a lake to teach him how to swim. He jumped in right after, and Grant was perfectly safe, but Grant says he can still remember the terror, the way he was flailing, and then—boom—he was under.
Can you imagine hurling a toddler into a lake? When he was alive, Fred Delaney was a military man with old-fashioned ideas about parenting, so I can definitely picture it happening. Given Grant’s profound hydrophobia, then, he never should have gone into the water, but it was so hot out, and Gail was so miserable.
He shrugged. “What could I do? She needed to cool off.”
As soon as he waded in, though, he realized his mistake. Afraid he was going to pass out, he rushed to the side. Then he heard someone shout, “That’s Eliot!” And when he looked up, he was shocked to see Sylvia standing by the pool, pointing to the deep end. “That’s my sister!”
“You were like a mirage,” Grant said. “There I was, waist-deep in the water, when I lifted my head and saw you dive in. Sunlight ricocheted off the window at the same exact second I touched the wall. Then, ta da, my heartbeat slowed down, my breathing evened out, and my panic receded. I felt like you and I had an instant connection, like we were meant for each other. It was love at first sight,” he added. “Well, for me, anyway.”
Grant is a dreamer, a genuine, true blue romantic; he honestly believes in magical moments and everlasting devotion. It’s one of the reasons we’re so compatible: like Grant, I believe in true love. Take Finn, for instance. He may not be in my life anymore, but I’ve never thought that our love wasn’t true. It was just of a particular time and place. When we graduated, Finn was offered a job in Manhattan, but I didn’t go with him. For years afterward, I was convinced I had made a terrible decision, even though it was like most of my decisions, which are less decisions than default options—that is, months of hemming and hawing until something has to give one way or the other. Case in point: One week after Finn got the offer, he was speeding up I-95 with all his belongings. I, on the other hand, was still dragging my feet back in Atlanta, rereading Let’s Go: New York City. By the time I was ready to discuss the possibility of moving, Finn was already ensconced in a new life. Had he and I gone up to New York together, we might have salvaged our relationship, but because of my nondecision decision, Finn went alone and never came back. But that’s only the first half of the story.
The second half is that I met Grant. It may not have been love at first sight (for me), but it didn’t matter. Once he told me about his fear of water, Grant bloomed into a whole person, complete with myriad dimensions. It was like looking through a prism and seeing an entire spectrum of colors where there once was only white. I no longer saw a rejected sad sack. Suddenly, I saw a brave, wifeless man slogging through the pool, protecting his fragile, motherless daughter. Suddenly Grant was heroic: a committed, loving father who could be—who wanted to be—depended on.
Thank God, I realized. Thank God I didn’t go with Finn to New York.
Three months later, he asked me to move in. Six months after that, I was pregnant. And now, at five years and counting, our relationship is solid, and we’re both happier than we ever thought possible.
By this point, Grant is determined to get an answer. “It’s okay to be angry,” he says, raising his face from between my knees. His lips are shiny. Abashed, I avert my eyes. “Everyone gets angry.”
I look down. My entire body is pulsating. “You’re stopping?”
“Stopping?” Grant wipes his mouth. “Tell you what. Admit you were mad at me, and I’ll do anything you want.” Raising his eyebrows, he smiles. “Anything…”
I roll my eyes, but I’m smiling, too.
“People get angry,” he continues. “People make mistakes. Hopefully, they’re forgiven. It’s called being human. You, Eliot Gordon, are human. If you get angry, I promise the world as we know it won’t end.”
He’s touching me again, working his way over my coarse hair, then reaching deeply inside me. I gasp but don’t move, and Grant works harder. His fingers get slick. I’m sprawled against the pillows. One hand dangles off my knee, and I use it to pull him closer.
“I’m sorry,” Grant says, “about the party.”
“I was”—I gasp again—“annoyed you didn’t come straight home.”
We both laugh, and then we kiss and kiss, and he sucks on my tongue until I’m moaning beneath him, telling him, “It’s okay; it’s okay. Come on, Grant, come on.”
He’s up on his knees, and I’m lying beneath him. He arches his broad, beautiful back, then shifts his weight, and just as he’s about to thrust inside me, there’s a soft tap, tap, tap on the door.
Together, Grant and I hear this through our rock-hard haze; and together, we groan.
There’s another tap. “Daddy, it’s Gail. My stomach really hurts. Can I come in?”
“Hailey! Charlotte! It’s time to wake up.”
A half hour later, showered and dressed, I walk down the hall, calling out to the kids. Our house is a nondescript, two-story A-frame, with the kitchen, dining room, and den on the first floor and three bedrooms and two bathrooms on the second. Charlotte has her own room, and Hailey and Gail share. Although the house is a rental and cramped for five people, it has a partially finished basement and a small backyard with a deck.
“Come on, guys! I can’t be late today. I have an important meeting this afternoon.”
Gail is asleep in my bed, so I peek into the hall bathroom, looking for her sisters.
“Oh, hi,” I say to Charlotte, who’s studying her face in the mirror as she applies another coat of black eyeliner. “You’re up.”
Charlotte is petite like her parents, and standing on her sisters’ stepstool, she looks younger than fourteen. But then she opens her mouth. “I’ve been up,” she says tersely, not to me but to her reflection.
Unlike Gail, who at seven speaks as if everything has just dawned on her, Charlotte is measured and controlled. Although my conversations with Gail are often confusing, they can be highly entertaining, which is more than I can say for her big sister. Charlotte is polite but distant, which for a stepmother is a sign that you’re failing as a parent. A child will tell you she hates you only if she feels secure in your love and confident you’ll never leave. (Or, I suppose, if she really does hate you.) That Charlotte barely addresses me by my name after five years of living together reveals how little faith she has in our relationship.
I move behind her, hoping my presence will persuade her to lighten up on the eyeliner. “Would you like a waffle?” I ask, transfixed by how painstakingly she works. Never in my life, not even when I had an existential crisis in my mid-twenties and foolishly took the LSATs, have I been able to harness that degree of concentration.
Charlotte has her father’s dark eyes and olive skin. In a few more years, once her features sharpen and her acne clears up, she’ll be a knockout. Both my stepdaughters will, which I feel comfortable saying only because their good looks can’t be attributed to me. I could be pretty myself if I made an effort, but upkeep is a constant battle for a woman nearing forty, and I laid down my weapons a long time ago.
I study our reflections. Charlotte radiates youth—chocolate-brown eyes, glossy black hair, red, red lips—whereas my own pale face barely registers. It strikes me that this is just the beginning, that over time I’ll grow fainter and fainter until I’m nothing more than a ghostlike shadow on the glass. This is what it means to lose your looks, I guess. You retain your same features, but they get stripped of their color.
“Excuse me, Eliot,” Charlotte says. “Do you need to get in here?”
Glancing up, I realize my head is blocking her view. “Oh. Sorry”—I step sideways—“I thought I saw a crack in the mirror.” I speak to her reflection, which now crowds out mine. “So, how about a waffle?”
“I don’t have time, but thanks.” She blinks a few times, then starts to outline her other eye.
It’s only six thirty, but Charlotte is already up and dressed, and because of this, I say nothing about the thick black eyeliner or bloodred lipstick. Nor do I comment on the ripped fishnet stockings, floor-length skirt (is it a towel? a bedspread?), or silver skull dangling between her breasts. I also notice a single streak of blue dye, like a skunk’s stripe, in her hair. Still, I say nothing. I don’t even suggest that she put on a bra. I do, however, ask again if I can make her a waffle. This time I squeeze her shoulders, not in a needy way, but like an affectionate gal-pal. My hands are on Charlotte’s arms, and I exert just enough pressure to say, I know you’d rather be at your mom’s house, but you’re here now and I’m making waffles, so why don’t you have one? It’s only a waffle; it doesn’t mean you love me. Or words to that effect.
“Like I said, Eliot, I’m not hungry. And just so you know? Mom’s show is at eight, so we need to get there by seven forty-five. We can’t be late, okay?”
Charlotte is referring to her mother’s art opening, which is Thursday night at a gallery downtown. Both she and Gail are going and then spending the night at the Sculptress’s apartment. The girls are so excited, they haven’t talked about anything else for weeks.
Still looking at herself, Charlotte piles her hair on top of her head. “I told Gail I’d give her a French braid,” she muses. “Maybe I’ll wear mine up, too.” Both girls are obsessed with their hair. They play with it nonstop—brushing, braiding, curling, clipping. It’s enough to drive you mad, their fingers always tangled up in their scalps, clumps of lost strands in the sink, the tub, the floor, the sheets. In my worst moments, I imagine the clumps growing, untamed and unyielding, until they take over our living room, like the endless jungle of Georgia kudzu that blankets the trees along the highway.
“That’ll be nice,” I tell her, stifling the urge to brush her bangs out of her eyes. No need to invade the kid’s personal space so early in the morning.
“Although long and totally straight, like ironed, would make more sense. I mean, it is an art exhibit, so a cool retro style would be good. Anyway,” she adds, “it’s really important to Mom that Gail and I are both on time and dressed up.”
“Sure.” But I’m momentarily confused. “The show is Thursday, right? Not tonight?”
“Yes, Eliot. It’s Thursday.”
I understand that from Charlotte’s perspective to love me is to betray her mother. I also understand, probably better than most, that when your parents split up, you have to choose between them. My sisters and I survived our parents’ divorce only because the choice was made for us, although it did make sense that if my mother was the victim, then my father was her persecutor. Like Charlotte, I was too young to understand that human beings are complex creatures and function not in black and white but in shades of gray. Now that I’m an adult, however, and have experienced divorce from Grant’s perspective, I know Barney must have had a separate yet equally valid point of view; but back then it was too confusing to sympathize with him or even to remain neutral. As it was, it took all my energy just to hate him. Charlotte doesn’t hate Grant, but she does think he’s an asshole. Rather, the Sculptress thinks Grant’s an asshole and communicates this through Charlotte. This makes me an asshole, too, by association.
I point to her lips. “What color is that?”
“Sex Me Up Red. It’s Mom’s favorite.” Charlotte puckers. “Like it?”
“Love it,” I say, and give her one more supportive pat before walking away.
When Grant and I enrolled Hailey at her new school, Riverside Country Day, Charlotte got shafted, not in a big way, but in a way I worry she may resent. I used to drive her to school in the morning, but Riverside is all the way downtown, so now I drive Hailey, which means Charlotte has to get up an hour earlier to catch the bus. Because I feel guilty about this, I let a lot go, raccoon eyeliner and Sex Me Up Red being the least of it. In general, though, I rarely criticize Charlotte and make it a point to celebrate her every accomplishment, no matter how minor (“You folded the laundry? That’s amazing! Grant, Charlotte sorted our socks all by herself!”), if only to ensure that her future therapist will be unable to track any latent feelings of low self-esteem back to me.
Grant tells me this is crazy, that when she’s in my house, Charlotte is my child, and these dispensations I give her serve only to create, not diminish, a second-class status. “You wouldn’t let Hailey walk around like a vampire, and you shouldn’t let Charlotte. Set limits, Eliot. For all we know, this is gateway behavior. Next, she’ll be cutting school and getting stoned.”
“Gateway behavior?” I squinted at him. “You’re high right now, aren’t you?”
Grant is a nervous Nelly about his children and compounds his anxiety by reading far too many magazine articles about good girls gone bad, all of which confirm his fear that Charlotte will end up not just pregnant but also strung out on crack. The only reason he doesn’t confine the poor kid to a thirty-foot tower is that I’m here to remind him that his soon-to-be junkie still carries Mr. Nibbles, her childhood bunny, around in her backpack. What I don’t tell him is that Charlotte has a website, complete with daily blog and homemade videos, which I discovered when I overheard her talking to the Sculptress. I have mixed feelings about this site, just as I have mixed feelings about anyone, stepdaughter or not, sharing her private issues in public forums. So far, though, the only questionable material I’ve seen are some nasty posts about her dad and a picture of herself wearing her mother’s T-shirt, the one that says Pussy Power in raised red letters. Until Charlotte does something dangerous, I don’t plan on telling her I know about the site, and even then I may not tell Grant, although that’s more to protect him than to protect her.
The truth is, Grant has no idea how I should raise Charlotte and Gail simply because he’s their real (excuse me, biological) father. It’s altogether different for me, being both their stepmother and their sister’s real (ahem, biological) mother. If the Sculptress were dead, I could be everyone’s mother. But she’s not. Beth is alive and absent, so it’s much more complex. Charlotte and Gail don’t understand why their mother doesn’t want them around, a question that fills them with acute anxiety that can be allayed only by more of her, which is something she refuses to give. But what I can do, because I’m here and because I have firsthand knowledge of just how awful this refusal feels, is offer more of myself to compensate. In theory, this is more understanding, more compassion, more time; but in practice, it often translates into more Sex Me Up Red, more raccoon eyeliner, more blue hair dye. Not to mention that everything I give must balance out equally in all three girls’ ledger books, the ones I carry around in my head.
Perhaps I’m trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, but I don’t know how to live otherwise; I don’t know how to be. Does giving more make me a good person? Does balancing the books make me a good mother? Will I ever be a good enough mother for Beth’s children? A better mother to Hailey? These are not trick questions. I really don’t have the answers, so rather than consult a Dummies book for stepmothers, I’ve decided to do it all, just in case. Even if my girls see me as nothing more than some woman who serves up breakfast, ferries them to school, and pulls hair clumps out of the drain, I still want them to know that to me, they’re more than one of mine and two of hers. To me, they’re three sisters and three daughters. I want each to feel as special as the other and, most important, as beloved as Hailey. And if what I have to offer, if what I can give, is a toasted waffle with sugar-free syrup and a ride to their mother’s show, then they might as well take it.
Standing in the doorway of Hailey and Gail’s bedroom, I watch my four-year-old sleep. Hailey has bright red hair like her aunt Sylvia and grandmother. Sylvia’s original red has faded (her current color is courtesy of a guy down on Peachtree), and my mother’s is gone, but Hailey is a pure, unadulterated, shock-to-the-system redhead. My daughter, truth be told, is a quirky-looking child and less classically beautiful than, say, her sisters. With her flame-colored hair, corkscrew curls, and silly freckles, she has a Bozo-like quality—give her a big nose and floppy shoes, and welcome to the Big Top. But she’s my quirky clown child, and seeing her curled up on her side, her hands tented prayerlike beneath her chin, leaves me limp with devotion.
“Hailey,” I say softly, walking over to the bed. “It’s time to wake up.”
Rather than rouse her, I slip into her bottom bunk wearing my skirt, jacket, and loafers, then ease her into my arms and hug her against me. Hailey’s breathing is restful but quiet, and as I lie with her, I adjust my own breathing so that we inhale in unison, our chests rising and falling as though we share one set of lungs, a single beating heart.
I’m about to doze off when Gail suddenly appears at the door. She leaps into bed with us, her long brown hair flying behind her.
“Oh, my God, Eliot,” she yelps, throwing off the blanket. “You’re totally dressed.”
“Oh, my God, Gail! You’re totally not.”
Gail wedges her body between me and Hailey, and together we make a three-girl sandwich, with Gail as the salami and Hailey and me as the bread.
“I’m still sleeping,” Hailey whines. “Stop talking, you guys.”
“I’m still sleeping,” Gail mimics. “Stop talking, you guys.”
“Well, you seem to be feeling better,” I say. “Sleeping in my bed must agree with you.”
She shrugs. “Maybe I should stay home today, just to be sure.”
“Sounds great,” I say brightly.
“Sure, I’d love to have someone do the laundry, go food shopping, and cook for the week while I’m at work. We can also call Daddy, who I’m sure has his own list of chores.”
“Forget it.” Gail rolls her eyes. “I’d rather go to school.”
Gail and I are great buddies. She was only a toddler when I came into her life, and unlike Charlotte, who was eight when her parents split up, Gail claims to have no memories of the time before I arrived. Gail is easygoing and playful. We can have fun in ways that I can’t have with Charlotte because we’re too distant or with Hailey because we’re too close.
Parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but I suppose many of us do. In fact, Grant once told me that because Charlotte has Beth and Hailey has me, Gail belongs to him. “She’s no one’s favorite,” he said proudly. “She’s the cheese; she stands alone.” This shocked me—not that he felt this way, but that he said it out loud. I always thought having a favorite child was a shameful secret, one you never admit. Nor is a favorite something you choose; it’s a feeling, an instinct, that catches you unawares. Grant is an only child, so he doesn’t understand that being favored isn’t a gift. On the contrary, the weight of a parent’s love can be an impossible burden, which is why I sometimes feel compelled to protect Gail from her father’s good intentions.
“Eliot, did you know that my mother is a sister-goddess?” Gail says. “She and her friends take sister-goddess classes.”
“What are sister-goddess classes?”
“Pleasure classes, like how to get your heart’s desire. Anyway, all her sister-goddesses will be at her show on Thursday. And you know what else? Charlotte said she’d fix my hair, maybe in a French braid, because it’s such a special occasion.”
“She told me. I think that’s a great idea.” I look at my watch. “We need to get going, or else you’ll be late for school.”
I try to get up, but Gail won’t let me. “Two minutes, Eliot. You’re so warm and cozy.”
Seeing this, Hailey snaps awake. “No, Gail, stop that! She’s my mom, not yours.”
“Hailey,” I admonish her, “I don’t like that at all. Tell your sister you’re sorry.”
Although I may be overly sensitive, Hailey’s possessiveness does concern me. It’s hard to distinguish between typical four-year-old behavior and genuine resentment. It also makes me worry that there may be real bitterness between them someday and what I can do—what I should’ve done already—to prevent it.
But if Gail is bothered, she doesn’t show it. “Relax, Hailey. We’re just laying here.”
“Now it’s really time to go.” Before we get up, though, I give Gail a tight squeeze, as if I can validate my maternity by sheer strength alone. “Love you,” I whisper.
“Love you, too. But I really want to stay home today. Please, Eliot?”
Grant has already left, so it’s up to me to feed the girls breakfast, walk Gail to school, drive Hailey to Riverside, and get to my office. At the end of the day, I do the same, just in reverse. Although Grant pitches in when I ask (and I do ask), our life is a well-oiled machine, and I’m chief engineer. Sure, it annoys me when he takes advantage, but he doesn’t do it often and, like this morning, apologizes afterward. Ultimately, we both want the same thing: for the girls to remain children as long as possible. This means they need consistent schedules and clearly delineated boundaries. And it’s our job, as parents, to enforce them.
It’s true that I always try to do the right thing—the good thing—for myself and my children. But this isn’t because I think I have all the answers or because I’m so righteous. On the contrary—it’s because I learned at a young age that the world is a vast and unforgiving place. Anything can happen: fathers walk out, mothers’ careers flounder, money dries up, grandparents drop dead. So amid all the chaos, following the rules makes me feel safe.
My mother was forty when I was born, forty-two when she had Sylvia, and forty-five when she had Maggie. This may not be unusual now, but back then it was very unconventional—as was her writing career. By the time I was born, she’d already published three novels, and although she hadn’t planned on having children, my father, an only child, wanted a big family—four kids, at least—and eventually wore her down. They settled on two (Maggie wasn’t planned), but neither of them had the temperament for kids. Overwhelmed and depressed, my mother retreated to her work. Or, lonely for company, she’d bitch to me about my father, confiding cringe-worthy details about their marriage as if I were her friend, not her daughter. Similarly, my father quickly realized that big families were loud, messy, and exhausting—nothing at all the way he’d imagined. He was an insurance salesman and started spending more and more time on the road. So with both parents disengaged from our day-to-day lives, my sisters and I were raised like feral animals, with no set schedule for bedtime or meals. We ate Apple Jacks for dinner while watching TV and showed up at school wearing yesterday’s clothes, which were the same clothes we’d slept in. We were untrained in basic hygiene (I had no idea, for instance, that you washed your hands after you peed) and walked around with dirty teeth and knotted hair. My mother wasn’t unclean, but she was inconsistent and preoccupied with more worldly activities than child care. Her writing was her first—and often only—priority. So, depending on how it was going, she was either cold and detached or far too needy, which left me constantly bewildered as to where I stood: was I her burden or buoy, the child or parent?
Growing up, I wanted the same rules and restrictions that other kids were rebelling against, which is why I make sure my children have clean clothes, fresh milk, and napkins. It’s why I tell Gail to help Hailey get dressed but stick around to button her shirt and put her shoes on the right feet, why I make waffles with sugar-free syrup and fresh strawberries for breakfast. It’s also why I make a waffle for Charlotte, who claims she doesn’t want one but peeks into the toaster just the same.
“It’s an extra,” I say, handing it to her as she runs out to the bus stop.
The screen door slams. As I watch through the kitchen window, I see the wind lift up her cropped top and expose her smooth, tan belly. It’s why seeing this irritates me, why I want to march her upstairs and make her put on a sweater despite the warm September morning. But it’s also why, when she wolfs down the waffle in three bites and turns around to wave, I smile big and wave back.
“Have a good day, Charlotte!” I call out, adding, “I love you!” even though she’s already gone. Because every kid wants a mom to see her off to school, just like every kid—whether she’s yours or someone else’s—wants a mom to call out, “I love you!” behind her, even if she pretends not to hear it.
Atlanta, Georgia, is a sprawling metropolis with a colorful history. In town, you’ll find stately old neighborhoods boasting glorious dogwoods, plantation-style mansions, and good ol’ boys in seersucker suits and white leather bucks. It’s a gorgeous city, leafy and green, and God knows if I had any money, I’d live in it. But my house is miles and miles outside Atlanta proper, way past the double-looped highways and beyond the endless suburban strip malls and half-finished housing developments. We’re north of Alpharetta, all the way up in Sandy Oaks, which is like any exurb you’ll find outside Denver, Chicago, or Miami. We have everything you can find in town—schools, gyms, nail salons, Target—except for a real city’s distinctive charm and character.
Hailey’s new school, Riverside Country Day, is in the heart of real Atlanta. I spent my teen years in a nearby neighborhood after we moved down from New Jersey and then spent another four years at Emory. So even though Riverside is a long trek from Sandy Oaks, driving Hailey back and forth every day connects me to my past. It also gets me closer to my sisters and mother, all of whom live within a ten-mile radius. Grant and I have discussed moving down here, but real Atlanta has become too expensive for us, even with our combined salaries.
Hailey and I are on the highway, heading down to school, when my phone rings.
“Hello, Eliot? Are you there?” It’s Sylvia. “You are not going to believe this!”
“Sylvia, I’m here. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Eliot. I shouldn’t even speak to you after your rude behavior at Hailey’s party, but guess who I’m behind right now! Right at this very minute!”
“Who, Sylvia?” I ask, although I already know.
“Finn—Finn Montgomery—I told you he was back in town!”
For a second, I’m stunned. What’s Finn doing in Atlanta?
“Hello?… Eliot? Are you there?” I hear her smack her phone. “Fuck this phone!”
“Where are you?” I ask, squeak actually. Hearing her say Finn has caused a weight to press down on my windpipe.
“On 85-South, near Georgia Tech. Finn is three cars away. Can you believe it?”
“You’re driving?” She’s driving? Is this some kind of joke?
“Of course I’m driving. How else would I get to work? Oh, my God, Eliot—he looks good, too.” She thinks for a second. “So who was the fat guy I saw at the movies? It wasn’t Finn unless he dropped fifty pounds since last Thursday. That’s not impossible, you know.”
Now I’m annoyed. “Stop it, Sylvia. You didn’t see Finn—at the movies or on the highway. It could be anyone in that car, and you know it.”
“I’m telling you, Eliot. It’s him. He even has an Emory sticker on his back window. Hold on…he’s changing lanes…wait…wait… He’s getting off! Should I follow him? Holy shit, I am such a good sister.”
“Sylvia, we’re almost at Hailey’s school. I’ll call you later.”
“Who cares about Hailey’s school? Did you not hear me? I saw Finn! And you’re like, whatever? Eliot, Finn is here, on this highway, in this city, right now. It’s not whatever.” And with that, she hangs up.
I turn to Hailey, who’s in her car seat behind me. “You okay back there?” I ask, but my phone rings again. “Please don’t hang up on me, Sylvia.”
“I didn’t.” It’s Maggie, and she’s very excited. “Sylvia just saw Finn, and this time she was right next to him, like practically touching him! She also said he’s not fat! Isn’t that great?”
I sigh. “Sylvia was driving on the highway. It could’ve been anyone, Maggie.”
“It wasn’t him?” Maggie is crushed. “But he had an Emory sticker on his back window.”
“Think about it: How many people in Atlanta have Emory stickers?”
She thinks about it. “A lot?” she asks.
This conversation is absurd, even for my sisters. And I’m mad at myself for getting sucked into Sylvia’s nonsense. I haven’t seen or spoken to Finn in fifteen years, so I don’t care if he’s in Atlanta, and I certainly don’t care if he’s fat.
I change the subject. “So, Maggie, guess what I heard. Mom told me Dylan stuck a love letter on your windshield. Is that true?”
“Maybe.” But when she starts to laugh, I have my answer.
Maggie works for Unbound Vision, a company that produces industrial films for CNN. She’s never had any interest in making movies, so no one is sure how she fell into this job, nor do we know what she does all day. She says she helps run the office and is “sort of involved in postproduction, but not really,” and for all her talk of being so busy, she seems to have a lot of free time. She talks on the phone and goes to cocktail parties, although she has a wide circle of friends, so who knows how many of these parties, if any, are business related. Unbound Vision is small, so my guess is that she does a bit of everything—secretarial, fund-raising, marketing—but she’s not paid very much and lives with two roommates. Still, my mother loves to tell people about her daughter’s career in the entertainment industry, even though the only movie we’ve seen—a grainy video describing quality control procedures at a poultry-processing plant—had us swearing off Chick-fil-A for six months.
Maggie met Dylan Warner six years ago when Unbound Vision was working on a film about elementary school education. Dylan, who teaches third grade at Riverside Country Day, is a friend of the guy who directed it and was brought in as a technical adviser. Although Dylan didn’t get paid for his two-day stint, he did meet Maggie, and they’ve been dating ever since. I think it’s interesting that although our parents’ marriage was tumultuous, Maggie, Sylvia, and I have each maintained fairly stable relationships—or at least Maggie’s seemed stable. Three weeks ago, Dylan got down on one knee and took her hand. “I love you, Maggie,” he told her. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” But my sister, who is plagued by my same lack of decision-making skills, has yet to agree. “We’re only thirty-three,” she keeps saying. “How are we supposed to know what we want for the rest of our lives? I can’t even decide between tuna or turkey for lunch.”
“So,” I ask now, “do you plan to write Dylan back?” Spotting the exit for Hailey’s school, I merge to the right.
“I thought about it, but he said he doesn’t want to see me until I’ve made a decision. How am I supposed to get a letter to him?”
“I don’t know, Maggie. Mail it?”
I have a real soft spot for Dylan. Not only does he clearly adore my sister, but he also has a mischievous snakes-and-snails quality that reminds me of Finn, now that I think of it. He’s good for Maggie: he grounds her in reality but appreciates her flakiness. He’s smart, too. It was Dylan, in fact, who encouraged us to send Hailey to Riverside. His classroom is housed in the same building as Hailey’s pre-K, so I’ve seen him a few times since he and Maggie went on this hiatus. Despite their current status, he is always friendly and never fails to ask after Hailey.
“Listen, Maggie,” I say, “I’m five minutes from school. Why don’t I stop by his room and see him?”
“And say what?”
“That you miss him, that you love him, that you can’t live without him. I mean, the guy proposed. Don’t you think it’s unfair to make him wait? It’s been six years already.”
“Eliot, he hasn’t been waiting six years. He only asked me to marry him three weeks ago.” She pauses and then starts to hum, signaling that she’s about to say something annoying. “I was thinking this might be a good time to call Barney.”
“Come on, Maggie. That’s ridiculous.”
“It is not! Just because you pretend the guy doesn’t exist doesn’t mean I have to go along with it.” Her voice drops. “He’s our father, Eliot.”
“That doesn’t make him any less a stranger.”
“And you don’t think it’s weird that he’s just, like, out there but we never speak to him? I mean, does he ever think about us? Don’t you wonder about that?”
I don’t answer.
“Well, I do, and I’m tired of you and Sylvia calling me an idiot every time I bring him up. He’s our father,” she repeats. “And I think we should contact him. I’m going to contact him—and you can’t stop me, so don’t even try.”
I sigh. This is what Sylvia and I mean when we say Maggie doesn’t think things through. She was just a baby the first time Barney left, but she’s somehow convinced that her life would be perfect if only he’d stuck around. When she’s upset, especially about men, she threatens to track Barney down, as if he’s the one who can solve all her problems. It kills me to tell her this (although I often do), but if the man wanted to be in our lives, he would be.
“Listen, Maggie,” I say sternly. “Don’t call Barney. He can’t do anything for you.”
“How do you know?”
“Unlike you, I wasn’t a toddler when he lived with us. We had a relationship, so I think I’m more than qualified to assess what he can and can’t do.” That I was seven years old during this supposed relationship is immaterial. I’m five years older than Maggie, and as the eldest sister, my worldview is broader and more mature simply because I’ve been alive longer. “Barney will only disappoint you,” I add, softening. “If you’re going to call anyone, it should be Dylan. He’s the one waiting to hear from you. He’s the one who loves you.”
She doesn’t answer right away. She’s going to lose him, I think. “Don’t be an idiot, Maggie. Just pick up the fucking phone and tell him you love him too.”
“Don’t call me an idiot,” is my sister’s reply.
Nestled deep in the woods, Riverside Country Day sits on a hundred acres of prime Atlanta real estate. Throughout its vaulted history, the school has educated hundreds of well-bred southern children, including (as of two weeks ago) Hailey Harper Delaney.
“When are we being there, Mommy?” she asks from the back. “Cars are so boring.”
“We’re here, sweet pea. All we have to do is drive up the hill and park the car.”
Riverside is enormous. The campus is lush and green, with rows of tall trees that hang over the main road, creating a natural canopy. There’s also a working farm where students grow a variety of esoteric lettuce strains; a barn with real hay; and a pasture, tack room, and stable where students stall their own quarter horses. The only drawback for us is the hour-long commute each way in Atlanta’s relentless traffic.
I glance at Hailey in my rearview mirror. In her plaid skirt, white blouse, and black Mary Jane sneakers, with her wild red hair and wraparound sunglasses, she looks so cute, so Sister Agnes Aloysius meets Madonna, I want to eat her up. Catching my eye, she waves from her car seat.
Oh, my God! Did I just say the only drawback is its location? It’s actually the cost. Riverside is so outrageously expensive, I assume—foolishly, I realize—that the cost is a burden for everyone. Along with the tuition, Grant and I pay for horticulture services, stable maintenance, and Hailey’s uniforms. There’s also a development fund, orientation fees, and countless candy sales and book drives. All told, Riverside’s price tag is equivalent to twice our rent, but who am I to complain? After fourteen years here, she’ll be able to grow her own arugula.
“Look, Hailey—horses!” Outside the car, three ponies gallop through the pasture. This isn’t a school; this is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer circa 1944, and we’re driving past the set of National Velvet. “Have you learned anything about horses yet?”
“They poop in big piles, Mommy.” Hailey cracks herself up. “Big fat piles of poop.”
And here I was thinking all that money isn’t worth it.
There’s no point, however, in cataloging Riverside’s virtues. It’s like any private school that caters to wealthy families, which we are not. But Grant was insistent we enroll Hailey here, and adman that he is, he waged a persuasive campaign. “Look at this place,” he prodded, waving the glossy brochures in my face. “Their college placement statistics are on a par with the best prep schools in the country. They have two pools—you love to swim, Eliot—and horses! They have actual horses that Hailey can ride.”
He lobbied for my mother’s and sisters’ support, and they all jumped in full force. Sylvia had one of her law partners write a recommendation for Hailey, and Maggie asked Dylan to fast-track her application. Not that we needed their help: Grant wasn’t above presenting Hailey as a scion of literary royalty who was already exhibiting her grandmother’s literary genius. (Indeed, just last week, Hailey pointed out that “the name Beff starts with ‘F.’ Right, Mommy?”)
Getting in, though, was easy. Grant’s biggest hurdle, it turned out, was me.
“No way,” was the first thing I said. “It’s too much money. Maybe later, when she’s in high school, but why should we spend twenty-five grand on crayons and glitter glue?”
“It’ll be tight,” Grant conceded.
“Public school is just as good, and the money we save will send her to college, or beauty school, if it turns out I’m wrong.”
“I don’t disagree.”
“That’s your argument?”
“I want this for her,” he said quietly.
“You want it for yourself,” I said, and again he didn’t disagree. But Grant’s attitude toward money differs from mine. Maybe it’s because his parents were wealthy, but where I’m vigilant about saving, Grant can be…not reckless, necessarily, but not careful, either. He’s certainly less uptight than I am. In fact, when we met, he said he didn’t care about money at all. Well, you should, I wanted to say. According to Sylvia, you’re twenty thousand dollars in debt.
Like me, though, Grant doesn’t like to say no. It’s one of the reasons why, when he and the Sculptress were married and struggling to make ends meet, he didn’t encourage her to find a job. It’s also why he continues to pay a not insignificant portion of her monthly expenses, even though she’s a fully functioning adult who could, ostensibly, take care of herself. But as much as I wanted to agree to Riverside, I also thought it was foolish to spend that kind of money. Seeing Grant’s excitement, though, I knew I had to let him down easy.
“Let me put it another way, Grant,” I said gently. “It’s fucking insane. Besides, we have three kids. How can we send one to a fancy private school and the other two to public?”
“First of all, we make a lot more money than I did when Charlotte and Gail were Hailey’s age. Second, if either of them wanted to go, I’d find a way. And third—and most important—they’re happy where they are.” He paused. “Do you really want to deny Hailey a life-shaping opportunity simply because her sisters don’t have it, too? We work hard, Eliot. Why should Hailey suffer because Beth chooses not to earn a living wage?”
Grant kept at it and eventually I gave in, although once I toured the school, I saw his point. How could I not? The grounds are unbelievable, particularly the library and, as Grant pointed out, the dappled palominos. But what really clinched it for me was that parents are welcome anytime in the student dining center. “Grant, look at this!” I yelped. “They have six flavors of frozen yogurt and twelve different toppings!”
Hailey’s pre-K and Dylan’s third-grade class are housed in the lower school. After pulling into the parking lot, I find a spot and shut off the car. “We’re here, Hailey!”
“I hate school. I want to go home.”
“We don’t use the word hate, Hailey. Besides, you love school. You have nice teachers, new friends, and lots to do. And when you graduate, statistics indicate that you’re more likely to go to a better college, have a profitable career, and a satisfying retirement. This is the path to Emerald City, sweet pea. You remember The Wizard of Oz, don’t you?”
“It stinks here like horse poop. Don’t make me go, Mommy. Please don’t leave me!”
And then, to really kick off the day—which at twenty-five grand a year is costing me, roughly, $24 per hour, not including after school—my flame-haired money pit bursts into tears.
Despite my initial misgivings, I’ve come to love Riverside. In fact, every time I set foot on campus now, I’m filled with a profound sense of well-being. Once I pass through the gates and travel up the long, winding hill to the classrooms, the air seems crisper, colors and sounds that much brighter. Everything I see—the towering trees, topiary gardens, and castlelike chapel—is grand and imposing, but also familiar, as if part of a dream I once had or a picture book I read when I was very young.
By this point, Hailey has flung herself to the ground and is refusing to walk. “It’s not fair!” she shrieks. “I hate this place, Mommy. This place is fat. It’s, like, the fattest place that ever lived!”
“Hailey, listen,” I say calmly. “If you stop screaming and go to class nicely, I’ll bring you M&M’s later.” After ten minutes of yelling, cajoling, demanding, and pleading, this—bribery—is all I have left.
She pauses. “I can eat them before dinner, right?”
My cell phone rings. It’s Grant.
“Fine, Hailey,” I say, to which she picks herself up, dusts herself off, and runs into her classroom. Sacrifices and compromises, I remind myself. It’s the key to good parenting.
Grant’s voice is clipped. “Gail’s school called. She’s sick. The nurse said she threw up her entire breakfast. Did she eat anything weird this morning?”
Excerpted from I Couldn't Love You More by Medoff, Jillian Copyright © 2012 by Medoff, Jillian. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted April 29, 2012
A wonderful book detailing the journey of one woman's struggle with family and marital relationships. This book will make you cry but also has moments of joy and laughter. Above all you will finish this book wishing Eliot were a friend of your own.
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Posted July 21, 2012
We have a blended family with two girls...my daughter and my husband's daughter. I too, have known my non-biological daughter since she was 7 (now 26). I could totally relate to the main character in the book. This is an absolutely wonderful read for a mother...I couldn't wait to read it when i went to bed and didn't want it to end...All the characters are truly interesting in their own right. I laughed, cried but most importantly, learned the true value grace and acceptance, especially when it came to the relationship between the step mother and biological mother. Not that i have any issues with my husband's ex wife but it did give me pause to see her in a totally different light.
Wonderful story, very well written, highly recommended.
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Posted May 24, 2012
I have been reading " I Couldn't Love You More" for over a week. This is very unusual for me. I just had to savor every word of it. I had to take time to take it all in. Like a delicious Godiva truffle, I wanted to take my time to chew over what Jillian Medoff was "saying." This is an extraordinary piece of literature. It's one that warrants such time-taking. It's a book I wanted to cherish and reread, personally. It may be one of those "nightstand" books because I'd like to keep opening it to passages to think on again and again. This may give you some idea of the quality of Ms Medoff's writing.
I'm not surprised she worked under and studied with some of the finest authors of our times...
it shows up in her work.
I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't do some influencing herself.
The book also meant a great deal to me as a mother and step-mother. Her ability to translate this very delicate balance of love and responsibility,
of wanting to be loved and wanting to do what's right is just masterful.
Her telling of that risk of giving it all in mothering for what may be receiving little or no return in the long run is what each of us mothers understands...but it's more so for step-moms.
The risks in this book are just staggering. And they kept me nailed to the novel mind and spirit.
At last, I thought, someone gets it down on paper.
I write notes about books as I read them, and I read without reading any reviews or summaries of my books if I can help it. In this case, I kept things to a minimum. So one of my notes to myself was about Sophie's choice. Yes, there is that happenstance in this book and it's as horrifying here and as smashing of lives as you can imagine. The dysfunction of families, and the particular dynamics of three significantly different sisters (all playing their Shakespearean roles) is hilarious enough to break the underlying tensions. But, these are not the only things that captured me about this novel.
Primarily, and in addition to what I've already said about the mothering, I was captivated by its quality of voice. That's a rare thing to me. To so clearly hear the author's voice was stunning. It was hypnotic. It felt as if I were sitting on the sofa of my very best friend and she was telling me her life story. I felt I was hearing her secrets; her intimate thoughts and feelings that she kept inside but was now sharing with me.
This book begins in a sort of monologue. At least, to me there was little dialog.
This sort of thing is ordinarily not appealing to me. But, as I said, it was simply golden in Jillian Medoff's hands. To this day I'm in awe of that.
As I write this, I wonder if my readers will even comprehend how something can be told without an emphasis on dialog and be so powerful and absorbing to the reader!
It would be redundant to tell you what "I Couldn't Love You More" is "about," so I won't do that. Only, I will say it is such a beautifully created story of love and sacrifice and redemption. I thought Jillian Medoff's quote of a Willa Cather saying was significant in the beginning of her book:
" There are only one or two human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before."
This is one of those tellings of one of those lives and times. It may be we've all experienced much of what Ms Medoff describes in her story. It may be this that makes it so relavant and so poinant. And, it's a profound and wonderful telling.
I hope you get your own copy to read and share. You can never have mine...
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Posted July 17, 2012
I just finished the book and couldn’t put it down. It is easy to relate to the different situations that happen during the book and each character reminds you of someone you know.
Everyone has that one guy that got away. The one who you always keep in the back of your mind, the one who always think about “what if I had done _____ differently.” Eliot’s thoughts and feelings towards Finn are easy to relate to when she meets him again. You witness her put everything at risk, slightly cheering her on, slightly telling her to stop and stay away from him. However, it takes meeting that person again; later on in life, to realize that you’re not actually missing out and that the then “terrible-break up” opened the door for better opportunities and in Eliot’s case, meeting a loving and caring “husband” and great father. This whole concept, especially when she almost throws it all away, keeps you turning the pages, supporting her through her sorrow and hoping for the best.
A definite beach read/great for plane rides/commuting to and from work.
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Posted June 26, 2012
Posted June 9, 2012
When I first started this book I realized that the author had a fantastic writing style. While I couldn’t understand why anyone would put up with sister like Sylvia, I have been around people like that in my life and the author truly hit the mark. Do I find it a stretch that Maggie and Eliot would have a close relationship with someone who is so self absorbed she tries to make her 4 year old nieces birthday party all about her? To be honest I did. But, being step-mom myself I have seen people in my life that closely resemble some of the characters in the book. People that will try to hold together relationships with “family” members because they think it is the right thing to do, when so clearly it isn’t.
I found the plot to be ok for the most part, and did like how Eliot described her life with Grant, Hailey, Charlotte, and Gail. Even Beth. And when her first love, Finn, comes back into her life, I even understand the initial fascination there. But, even though I understood it, there were some things I just couldn’t get past.
What person would allow their “boyfriend” to totally support their ex-wife who practically gave up on her kids to pursue the life of an artist? Especially when you see the hurt the children are caused because of it? My husband’s ex-wife did the same thing but left her kids to be with her boyfriend. She rarely saw them in the beginning of our marriage and even when she started to have a relationship with them again I would have NEVER let him give her any money. SHE LEFT HER KIDS! To me, that seemed totally unbelievable…maybe I’m the only one.
Back to Sylvia. What person would want to spend time with someone who is so totally focused on herself and on being the center of attention, even if that means she has to lie about illnesses and such to get pity from people? I know that it was their sister but it wouldn’t matter to me, i would have been much more forceful about putting her in her place. To try to actual take away from other events so all the attention was on her. I also know people like this but thankful don’t associate with them…and wouldn’t, even if they were family.
On to Finn. I also remember my first love and our relationship ended abruptly, much like Finn and Eliot. If he called me today and wanted to talk I would absolutely strike up a conversation with him. In the beginning, I found Eliot’s reaction to Finn very believable. But, as the story stretched on, I didn’t understand the fascination. The plot wasn’t developed enough there for me to truly understand how she could be that torn between the two men in her life – torn enough to cause her family such pain. And, I also didn’t understand why both sisters were so fascinated by the possibility that he may be in town, to even go so far as to follow him home. Again, seemed like a stretch.
So, all in all, not a bad read, just some things I feel I wasn’t able to relate to. Although I do know, things like this happen every day.
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Posted June 8, 2012
Medoff combines the intricacies of a modern relationship with family dynamics in a twist-and-turn novel that kept me reading all night!
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Posted June 7, 2012
Posted May 29, 2012
Eliot Gordon is a working mother with three daughters and a husband, ok well not a husband legally but figuratively and two of the girls are really step daughters. This is her life, her family and she loves it just the way it is. She also has her mother, two sisters (and one is so funny) and an absentee father. Eliot works very hard at making sure the girls are all loved and treated fairly. She seems very aware of evil stepmothers and doesn’t want to be one. She looks out for the girls as any real mother would. Overall her life is pretty normal, with a fair amount of normal family drama.
Out of nowhere, her former college lover turns up. Her first love, the one that got away, the guy she pined after for years, Finn Montgomery. And when he shows up, Eliot turns back into the girl who can’t say no to him, the girl who obsessed over him. But this time it’s different, this time she has a family—a family who needs her attention and she begins to spiral out of control. And as she begins to spiral so does her family.
I Couldn’t Love You More starts off with a getting to know Eliot and her family, her life. I really enjoyed getting to know her family. Grant (her husband) seemed like a great guy and I loved how all the characters had their good and bad points. The only thing that seemed odd to me was how her sister, Sylvia kept bringing up Finn, especially when they all knew he wasn’t good for her. I guess I wouldn’t tell my sister anything about the guy if I didn’t want them to reconnect. That seemed odd to me, but her sister was one who seemed to enjoy a drama filled life.
Just as I was starting to feel a little bored, the story picks up a notch with the arrival of Finn. By this point I’m pretty attached to Eliot and her family, so when she starts talking to Finn—I got a little frustrated. I mean it really ticked me off. But there again, some women can’t seem to help themselves and I totally saw it coming with Eliot’s personality.
I truthfully thought I knew where the story was headed. I was a little disappointed with where I thought things were going—but then BAM! Medoff threw the story in a direction I totally didn’t see coming! I’d say this is one of the biggest turn of events in a book I’ve ever read! From that point on I couldn’t, wouldn’t put the book down! And I’m going to end there, because you need to go get your own copy of I Couldn’t Love You More to find out what I’m talking about! I will not spoil it! I so recommend it!
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Posted August 23, 2014
Posted September 20, 2013
Posted April 20, 2013
Good book and a quick read. Combining families and dealing with an ex-wife can be challenging. Eliot is a good mother, but finds herself questioning her past and wanting to relive her first love. It comes at a cost. Ending was perfect.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 15, 2013
Posted September 16, 2012
Interesting story, but such weird characters--especially the 3 sisters! A silly past love interest and a tragic accident creates all sorts of situations. Everyone seems to get well and grow up by the end. A real soap opera!
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Posted August 21, 2012
What a good read! I could not put it down. I had this overwhelming
desire to see what happens next. I love the simple prose. Easy to
understand and simply written. I definitely recommend it...
Posted August 16, 2012
Beautifully and intelligently crafted. Smart, funny, full of heart,
suspenseful, and deeply insightful. Bravo! Jillian Medoff is such a
great writer. I can't wait to read everything else she's written.
Posted August 16, 2012
a brilliant book. works on so many different levels. i loved it, loved
it, loved it. Plan to give to everyone I know.
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Posted July 11, 2012
Excellent character development, although I didn't always LIKE the main character, I felt like I knew her! Pros: great writing about difficulty of parenting and the choices you made in life. Large and small. Cons: sort of drags in the middle, main character makes stupid mistakes and the tragic outcomes are hard to digest. But it takes courage to write about choices that people make, split second mistakes that cost more than you can give and love that isn't always picture perfect with a pretty bow on top.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 2, 2012
This book started out as a decent beach read, and then the novel took a sharp turn midway through. The critical event occurred, and the entire plot went downhill, becoming predictable and unbelievable. I ended up just scanning the last 200 pages to confirm it would end as I thought it would. I love beach reads and don't expect great works of literary art from them, but the characters and their relationships were poorly developed, and the reactions to the chains of events were completely far-fetched. So disappointed in this book!
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Posted June 26, 2012