Read an Excerpt
By Holly Chamberlin
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2002 Elise Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJanuary, Boston
January in Boston is probably like January everywhere in America. At least in the sense of its being a month of grand resolutions and well-meant gestures—as well as a month of postholiday disappointment and incipient depression as the resolutions and gestures begin to break down.
Nice time of the year to be born.
I'd just turned thirty-two. And I was a workaholic.
Not really. Though sometimes, especially on those days when I was the only one left in my downtown Boston office after six-thirty, I'd get all panicky and think that if I wasn't very careful I could very easily slip over the line and go from being your typical hardworking single woman to being a painfully skinny spinster, scarily devoted to her filing system and not so secretly in love with her abusive, Scotch-swilling boss.
Or, maybe I would go the other way. Maybe I would wind up a coldhearted, hard-assed, too-tanned, slave-driver type female executive with helmet hair, no husband, and surprisingly few girlfriends.
But I was determined not to allow that slippage to occur, either way. Absolutely not. Because I'd decided I wanted something significantly different for my life.
I wanted legitimacy. The kind that, for a woman, doesn't come even with a solid career.
And my career was solid. In fact, my annual review was scheduled for the following day. If it went well, there was a chance—slim, but I was hoping—that I would be named a senior account executive at EastWind Communications. That's the marketing/PR firm where I'd worked for the past five years. It's a smallish firm, owned by a guy named Terry Bolinger, and its work focuses on nonprofits and organizations that barely make a profit.
I liked being at EastWind.
More information. I lived—and still live—in the South End, officially an historic district of Boston. I own a condo in what was once, way back in the nineteenth century, a single-family brick house. Think New York brownstones but brick. Thanks to the building department's controls, the structure is still charming, as is the entire block, with its brick sidewalks, huge old trees, and lovely, well-tended front gardens.
I had—and still have—a cat named Fuzzer. And yes, on occasion I was definitely frightened of becoming a looney cat lady. Especially if the single situation persisted for much longer.
Which, I vowed upon turning thirty-two, it wouldn't. It couldn't. Because things were going to change. Five, ten, twenty years ahead when I looked back on my life, I was going to refer to this as The Year. The year I met my husband, the man of my dreams.
Tall or medium height, it didn't matter. Neither did hair or eye color. He'd have a fine intelligence and a large sense of humor, i.e., he would appreciate the Three Stooges as well as Jerry Seinfeld, and Margaret Cho as well as Monty Python's Flying Circus. He would be kind and loving and he'd be a hardworking man, as laziness is, for me, the ultimate turnoff. Above all he would have a huge capacity for love and devotion and treat me like a great gift and be respectful of my parents and tolerate with grace—if not really like—my more difficult friends and family members.
The man of my dreams.
Well. That was the hope, anyway. That I'd meet my husband in the very near future. I didn't have much of a plan. I didn't even make an official resolution. I'd never gotten very far with resolutions. In fact, the last official resolution I'd made—at least, the last resolution I'd remembered making—was during my sophomore year in college when for some unaccountable reason I was dating a born-again Christian and inspired by lust I resolved to spend my life as a missionary in some "godless savage land." Those were his words.
Okay, I knew why I was dating the guy. He was gorgeous. Extremely disturbed, but very, very nice to look at. Which is pretty much all I got to do because, you know, those born-again Christian types aren't into premarital sex. Catholics aren't either, but we all cheat. We're all going to Hell, but it just might be worth it.
Anyway, though my common sense and my experience in the dating trenches and my recently acquired cynicism about everything romantic told me I was nuts to be thinking in terms of finally meeting Mr. Right, my heart, that disturbingly powerful organ, told me otherwise. It told me that if I just approached it with openness, I would, indeed, meet my very own hero.
Okay, sure, delude yourself. Knock yourself out. It's your funeral, Erin.
That was Reason. It spoke to me several times a day. Often, it interrupted my sleep. It just had to share its opinions; it just had to pass judgment.
It was one of those workaholic days.
The phone rang just as I was about to pack up for the fifteen-minute walk home. I debated whether to answer it. I checked my watch. Six-forty-five. Not an unheard-of time for a disgruntled client to call and lodge a lengthy complaint. Then again, maybe it was bad karma not to take the call, being on the verge—possibly—of becoming a senior account executive. I was—am—nothing if not responsible.
I picked up on the fourth ring.
"Hi. It's me, Abby."
"Hi. I wasn't going to pick up the phone. After-hours cranky clients."
Abby laughed. "Tell me about it."
Abby worked—and still works—as a fund raiser for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A career in development or, if you like, advancement, sounds all sophisticated and civilized until you start to hear stories about the people Abby has to deal with on a daily basis. Mainly, the outrageously childish women of the Brahman set. My take on the situation is that these women have far too much money and far too much free time on their hands. My Grandmother Morelli had a favorite saying, one she usually delivered with an ominous look at my habitually out-of-work cousin Buster: "The devil finds work for idle hands."
Anyway, how Abby hadn't already put one of those vicious, gossipy, nastily meddlesome ladies—potential donors, all—out of her misery, I just didn't know.
Well, I did know. Abby was genuinely nice. The genuinely nice person is a rarity. I am nice but perhaps not genuinely. I mean, I'd never laugh openly at someone with a silly walk but you can be sure I'm guffawing inside.
"What's up?" I said.
"I thought you might want to have dinner. I know it's last minute, but ..."
"I'd love to," I said and I meant it. Spending time with Abby would be a great way to ignore my mounting nervousness about the next day's review. It also would be a chance to talk about my mother and her latest escapades. Selfish reasons, mostly, for wanting to get together with a friend, but understandable.
"Great," she said. "I was thinking Biba. Is that okay?"
It was. I agreed to meet Abby in half an hour—she was cabbing over to Boylston Street from Huntington and Massachusetts Avenue—and hung up.
From my office on Boylston Street, Biba was only a three-minute walk. I decided that instead of hanging around the deserted office, I'd take a brisk walk through the Common. Not that my office was in any way unpleasant. The entire EastWind Communications floor had been redesigned about a year earlier. The space was well-lit and nicely decorated in calming beige and taupe with artful splashes of warm colors, deep reds and yellows. My own office boasted a hypermodern beechwood and black leather couch and two matching chairs for clients. And I had a large, south-facing window with a ficus jungle in colorful Aztec-influenced pots.
Still, I was a big fan of walking, not as much for the exercise as for the stimulation of urban sights and sounds. Plus, the Common is such a beautiful place to walk, rich with history. Back in colonial seventeenth century, the land was the common grazing ground for local farmers. As Boston grew and became less rural, more urban, somebody had the wisdom to preserve the land as a public park. Now, it's laced with tree-lined paths, scattered with monuments to the heroes of liberty, and largely safe at night.
I bundled into my brown mouton coat, a piece I'd bought ten years before in The Antique Boutique in New York. The coat, which I call the Bear, is the warmest coat on the face of this Earth. Over the years I'd managed to find an almost perfectly matching hat. A cream-colored wool scarf, brown leather gloves, and I was ready.
The air was cold and clear, and even though the holiday lights had been removed from the trees, and the annual ice sculptures had melted or been chipped away by bored kids, there lingered the scent of celebration. And the enticing, romantic scent of smoke from the fireplaces in the homes along Beacon Street. It's one of the few joys of winter in Boston: A lungful of cold, crisp air laced with a hint of cozy hearth.
I was not alone in enjoying the evening. It seemed lots of people had chosen to cut through the Common on their way home or to meet friends. In spite of the freezing weather, a couple embraced on the little bridge. In the spring and summer, tourists ride the stately swan boats back and forth under that bridge. I imagined for a moment that the scene was frozen on canvas. I even gave the painting a title: "The Dream."
Then—I heard excited shouts and laughter coming from the Frog Pond, frozen over for late fall and winter. It's the city's most popular and picturesque skating venue, a brainchild of our mayor.
I decided to watch the skaters for a few minutes. It had been a long time since I'd worn skates—white, with rabbit fur pom-poms—and it would probably be a long time before I ever wore them again. When it comes to most sports, I am strictly a spectator. I do après ski quite skillfully.
The Frog Pond was jammed with skaters. Lots of couples. Mostly young, one probably in their seventies, looking spry and healthy, typical hardy New Englanders. A boy about twelve, wearing a striped Dr. Seuss Cat-in-the-Hat hat, shot around the slower skaters, zipping backward, then forward again, making loop-the-loops. A girl about ten in a fancy red velvet skating costume, trimmed in white fur, did careful pirouettes at the exact center of the rink. A group of teenagers, baggy pants wet from trailing on the ice, hauled each other around the rink by the hand. Fell on each other. Screamed and hooted with hormonal glee.
It made me smile. Fun is catching. Two golden retrievers bounded around and around the frozen pond, barking excitedly, agreeing with me.
Then, I spotted a family of four. Father, mother, two little kids, maybe five and seven. All members of the same team, all bundled to the teeth in shiny ski jackets and mile-long scarfs and fuzzy woolen mittens and goofy, brightly colored knit hats. Laughing. Hanging on to each other, grabbing arms and legs. The father catching the mother as she slipped, kissing her on the nose.
And suddenly, I didn't feel like smiling anymore. This happy family had so much. I didn't begrudge them their riches. I just ...
So simple. It should have been so simple to fall in love, marry, build a family. But sometimes it seemed so impossible, such a far-away dream. How did you start the process? Was there a magic word or ritual? Did you just have to want it badly enough?
Would it be too insane, I wondered, to go up to the wife/mother of that happy family and ask her for some pointers?
Reason told me, Sure. Go ahead. Make a jerk of yourself.
Here's the bitch of it. At twenty-one, the dream—husband, family, a lovely house with a dog in the yard, a cat on the hearth, an antique mirror over the beautifully upholstered couch—seemed too mundane and dead-end to consider.
I was different.
It wasn't something I could explain very easily. I just wanted something—else.
That dream of husband and house seemed so easy to acquire, so unquestioned. Everybody did it. Why would I want what everybody else had? Wasn't I glad to be different, to go my own way, make my own life, all independent?
Okay. I was young. I thought I'd chart a new course. I thought I'd be some kind of new woman. I thought too many women fell for the dream that started with the white gown, princess for a day, and ended bitterly in divorce court. Didn't almost all women fall into marriage and family, only to learn that the dream's daily trappings were stifling to the self and the soul?
Yes, maybe my mother taught that to me, often, though obliquely, hinting that this was the case with her. She'd married at twenty-one and I'd never seen her happy, only put upon, and used up. Or, it occurred to me, much, much later, acting that way.
Okay. So I had made my own way, built a career, traveled, dated a fair share of exciting, interesting men. In retrospect: self-centered artists; self-absorbed Internet gurus; self-aggrandizing brokers—none with an ounce of energy for anyone but themselves.
And then I'd turned twenty-eight. And the pangs began. Mild yearnings at first, for what, exactly, I couldn't even name.
Suddenly, going to a friend's wedding dateless didn't seem like striking a blow for the happy, independent woman.
It just seemed—lonely.
Lacy white gowns and sparkling headpieces are fun!
That was Romance speaking up. It was new in town. Reason had tried to shut it down. But the yearning was big and clear and specific and Romance would not be silenced. It had appeared to remind me that I wanted to be married to that intelligent, funny, kind, and hardworking man. Okay, with brown eyes. It had appeared to remind me that I wanted to have children. Two, maybe three, healthy and happy and bright-cheeked. It had appeared to remind me I wanted a big, Victorian-style house on a tree-lined street, with a backyard big enough for a picnic table and a swing set and, of course, a barbecue. It had appeared to remind me I wanted there to be a little white church in the center of town—not Catholic—where my beautiful husband and children and I would attend Christmas Eve services. It had appeared to remind me I even wanted to be a soccer mom—as long as I didn't actually have to play.
But Reason mocked me. There's just one little problem, Erin, it would say. Time's running out. Your biological clock is ticking away. Did you know that a woman who gives birth at the age of thirty-five and older is considered to be of Advanced Maternal Age? AMA. And therefore she and her baby are at much greater risk for all sorts of calamities than, say, a twenty-five-year-old and her baby. So get a grip. Accept the reality. The door's just about to close.
I looked at the mother/wife and her brood. It was hard to tell at that distance, with her face mostly covered by her scarf, but when she laughed her voice sounded young and clear. I guessed she was about my age. Give or take a year. Which meant that she'd had her children in her twenties.
Let's face it, Erin. Reason again. If a man can date a twenty-five-year-old, he will. Even if the twenty-five-year-old makes less money and has less experience than the thirty-two-year-old he thought he might want to ask out. Until the twenty-five-year-old came along. Oh, sure, in the man's mind, the thirty-two-year-old woman definitely has something the twenty-five-year-old doesn't. Wear and tear.
I didn't want to feel bitter, really.
And I couldn't even blame anyone for my being in that place. I'd made the decisions all along the way. The decisions that got me where I was—thirty-two, single, and with no good prospect on the horizon.
I loved my job and I was proud of my career and my condo and my travels. But at the same time, I wanted what I suspected it might have been too late for me to have.
I wanted to fall in love. I wanted it to be real. And I wanted it to last forever.
I watched as the skating family tumbled off the ice. For a moment, I listened to the laughter and shouts of the other skaters, to the excited barking of the dogs.
Then I pulled my coat closer around me and walked on.
Excerpted from Living Single by Holly Chamberlin Copyright © 2002 by Elise Smith. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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