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My best friend, Gwen, talks like an auctioneer when she's excited. Her hands f lit about and her mouth moves so rapidly she's already halfway through the story by the time you can say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up. Start at the beginning." Her mind has a tendency to race ahead, and getting her to explain anything in a simple, chronological sequence is almost impossible. This time, though, she spelled it all out pretty clearly, with only occasional lapses into stream-of-consciousness neuroses peppered with expletives. Who could blame her for those little slips though, when the Creature from Planet Blonde was treating her like the gassy old family dog, making her ride in the backseat for thirteen hours on twisty coastal roads, filling her head with suspicions about Coop, who's probably the only man in the western hemisphere with the body of a rock star but the heart of a
Oh, wait. I'm doing it now, too, aren't I? Okay, let me back up a little.
I was packing for Paris when I realized I had absolutely nothing to wear. It was one of those dry-mouthed, cold-sweat moments that sometimes hit you when you're leaving the country in less than twenty-four hours with your very French fiancé to meet his upper-crust Parisian parents. We were staying for a month and so far I'd packed my favorite pair of threadbare plaid pajamas, the oversized Mickey Mouse T-shirt I've been wearing since I was twelve, a pair of ancient Levi's with four patches sewn into the butt and my toothbrush. I'm not very schooled in the art of fashion, but even I knew I couldn't very well make a glamorous impression with that wardrobeat least, not without accessorizing heavily.
There was no question. I had to see Gwen, stat.
A little background: I met Gwen twelve years ago, during our sophomore year at Analy High. I was the new kid, walking around with that dazed, I'm-never-going-to-survive-until-three-o'clock catatonic stare. The minute I stepped foot in the Home Ec room I spotted her and my listless I-don't-care-if-you-talk-to-me-or-not mask slipped away just like that. The morning sunlight through the dirty windows lit her like a starlet waiting for her close-up. She was wearing leopard-print kitten heels and a boxy 1950's pink wool suit. At her throat was a strand of pearls, matching earrings shone from the dark, meticulously arranged sweep of her shoulder-length bob. But here was the touch that rendered her truly surrealthe over-the-top Gwenism that made me wonder if I'd stumbled through a metaphysical portal and come out in 1957: on her head was a pillbox hat. It sat at just the right, casually precise, slightly f lirtatious angle, and I could tell by her smirk that she knew the effect was dazzling.
Gwen Matson's reputation at Analy High could be summed up in two words: total freak. Everyone there considered her a tragic example of what could happen if you were just a little too weird to be cool. She was cuter, smarter and better dressed than anyone at that small town schoolshe was even valedictorian and yearbook editorbut the popular kids treated her like a leper because she insisted on walking around in pillbox hats, patent leather shoes and kid gloves. This was the nineties and Grunge was King. Gwen was the anti-Grunge; she'd sooner set her own hair on fire than don a f lannel shirt.
In sharp contrast to Gwen's stubborn eccentricity, I was a die-hard conformist. Gwen's willingness to stand out terrified me, so much so that I was afraid, in those first few seconds, to befriend her. I hesitated there in the doorway of that stuffy Home Ec room, hovering between my just-try-not-to-be-noticed past and the bright pink future of a friendship with Gwen. I guess her allure was more powerful than my fear, because I stepped forward and said in a small, trembling voice, "Hi. My name's Marla." She seized my pale fingers and we shook hands like the wives of ambassadors meeting on the steps of the White House. "Gwen Matson," she said. "Charmed, I'm sure."
As soon as we finished high school we ditched that northern California hippie town and headed off to UCLA together. I studied modern dancea useless degree, but I couldn't help myself. I'm very impractical. It's one of the few things Gwen and I have in common, though for me it manifests in a rather crippling inability to make a decent living. Gwen's impractical in a different way; she'll pack four mink stoles, three pairs of stilettos, a satin gown and a cigarette holder for a trip to my Colorado hunting cabin in December. She doesn't even smoke. On the career front, though, Gwen's impressively together. She double majored in business and costume design. Now, at twenty-eight, she owns a beautiful little vintage clothing store in Los Feliz and she designs for a handful of little theatre and indie film companies scattered throughout L.A. It's widely understood that Gwen only designs for period pieces, and only when the period is somewhere between 1952 and 1963. Everyone's learned not to even call her unless their show falls between those dates; otherwise, their Juliets always end up looking suspiciously like Jackie O.
Determined to solicit Gwen's professional advice, I left my barely packed suitcase gaping open on my bed and drove east from Santa Monica toward Los Feliz. On the way, I stopped at a Rite Aid and bought a few things I'd need for the trip: Visine, mascara, ear plugs, a French manicure kit (when in Rome ). On my way to the register I passed through the stationary aisle and a small leather-bound book caught my eye. It looked completely out of place there amidst the juvenile primary-colored spiral-bound notebooks and plastic neon pencil boxes. It had a soft, buttery cover and the pages felt substantial as I f lipped through them. I couldn't find a price tag, but I stuck it in my plastic shopping basket anyway. It was an impulse buy, like the Snickers bar or Cosmo you snag just before you reach the checkoutit had the same reckless, slightly sinful f lavor, even though I wouldn't normally classify a blank book as indulgent.
When I got to the register, the girl rang up everything else, her long, clawlike fingernails f lying over the keys with practiced ease. When she got to the journal, though, she stood snapping her gum, f lipping it this way and that with a puzzled look. "Where'd you get this?" She had a thick accent, maybe Puerto Rican.
"Umstationary aisle," I said.
"This is not a product we carry."
I furrowed my brow. "But it was there. On the shelf."
"I don't know what this is." She snapped her gum some more, then called out to a short, acne-ridden boy at the next register. "Hey, Tom, you know what this is?"
The boy glanced over his shoulder. "Looks like some kind of book." He went back to ringing up an endless pile of Huggies for a sad-eyed mother.
All at once I could see they weren't going to sell it to me, and the thought made me feel oddly bereavedeven a little desperate. "You know what? I just realized. That's my journal. I bought it at a bookstore down the street." I reached out and yanked it from her, laughing my most convincing vapid laugh.
She looked suspicious, but only shook her head in a way that communicated her thoughts on the subject perfectly ("Why didn't you say so in the first place, bitch?"). She announced my total and handed me my receipt. I escaped with the mysterious book tucked safely inside the white plastic sack, feeling as if I'd gotten away with something.
I'm not religiously inclined, but I do believe in fate and omens and mysterious forces pulsing just under the surface of our painfully normal lives. Looking back on it, I see myself as a messenger that day, a delivery girl, probably one of millions, transporting a necessary object from one place to another. I was like an ant, clutching a crumb in my pincers, following my instincts blindly, all the while working for the good of the colony.
I had no way of knowing that little leather-bound journal would save my friend's life. Well, her love life, at leastwhich maybe, in the end, is the same thing.
I pushed the glass door open and the bells jangled brightly, drawing Gwen's attention. She was at the counter in a bold black-and-white spiral-print sheath. In one gloved hand she gripped her phonethe retro kind that makes you think immediately of Marlene Dietrich in a feather boa, lounging on satin sheets. Her lips were painted that old-fashioned cherry red that no one under the age of eighty can pull off. Except Gwen, of course.
"So, tomorrow, then?" she was saying into the phone as her eyes followed me around the store. I was browsing, but without much intent. I knew I would have to surrender to her superior taste if I was going to pack a suitcase filled with Paris-worthy ensembles. "Eight o'clock? You think she can get here from San Diego that early?" There was a pause. Gwen played with the rhinestone earring in her hand. She considers pierced ears gauche and always removes her right clip-on before answering the phone, just like the women of film noir. "Okay, great. I guess I'll see you then. Can't wait. Bye."
"Was that Coop?" I asked as she hung up.
She nodded, looking dazed. "Oh my God, Marla. What am I going to do?"
She let out a gusty sigh and adjusted the white scarf at her throat as if she found it suddenly constricting. "We're leaving for our trip tomorrow."
"Oh, rightto Mendocino?"
She nodded, and I noticed then that she'd gone utterly pale. I let go of the wool blazer I'd been examining and went to the counter. "What is it, G? I thought you were really looking forward to that."
"Was looking forward to it, yes. Not now."
I folded my arms. "Uh-oh. What month is this?" She rolled her eyes. "Yes, we've been dating three months, but"
"Gwen, don't do this. You always do this."
She slapped the counter and her gloved palm made a hollow thudding sound against the glass. "I'm not doing anything! Guess whose retreat got canceled because the swami kicked it?"
"What?" She was losing me, here.
"Oh, God." She yanked at her scarf again, this time more violently. "I'm going to have a panic attack. I can feel it."
"No, you won't. Just breathe. Come on, in and outyou remember. Inn ooouut. There you go. That's right." I spoke in soft, placating tones like a Lamaze coach. "Here, let's just get that scarf off, okay?" I reached over and untied it with considerable effort; in tugging at it, she'd worked it into a tight little fist of a knot, but I managed to get it off her and a faint wash of pink started to bloom in her cheeks again.
"So, let's just start at the beginning," I said when I was conf ident she wouldn't hyperventilate. "Whose retreat got canceled?"
"Dannika's," she croaked.
"And who's Dannika?"
"Coop's best friend from college."
"Okay," I said. "So, she's going to Mendocino with you?" She nodded, her face the picture of misery. "She's driving us. Coop's car is too small."
"And why is this freaking you out? Because she's female?"
She narrowed her eyes at me. "Female, I could handle. In spite of your insinuation, I've come a long way. Coop has no idea of my unstable past. Unfortunately, this particular female friendhis best friend," she enunciated the words and raised her voice slightly, imbuing the phrase with ominous significance, "happens to be a statuesque, blond, stunningly beautiful, world-class yoga goddess."
My eyes widened. "Wait a minute. You're not talking about Dannika Winters, are you? The Dannika Winters?"
She slapped the counter again and this time the glass rattled, sending a display of sparkly chokers sprawling across the f loor. "Yes! I'm talking about the Dannika Winters!"
"Oh my God. That is so cool. I've got like four of her DVDs."
Gwen's jaw dropped in indignant shock. "Is this what I need to hear right now?"
I put my hand on hers. "I'm sorry, G, you're right. That was totally insensitive. I mean, no wonder you're freaking out. She's like Uma Thurman, Grace Kelly and Cameron Diaz all wrapped up into one incredibly f lexible, probably totally vegan body."
"Marla," she said, her voice a warning.
"But I'm sure she's unbelievably shallow with no real substance." I saw Gwen's brown eyes regain some of their sparkle when I said this, so I pressed on, ad-libbing bravely. "I bet her poses are done by stunt doubles. When she's supposed to be meditating, she's actually doing her nails."
"You're so right." Gwen's mouth curved into a wicked smile. "I bet she's got the IQ of a hamster."
"Oh, totally. You think anyone who looks that good can conjugate verbs?"
A shadow of doubt passed over her features. "She did go to college, though "
"So what? Anyone can go to college these days. She's the Vanna White of yoga. She'll be a has-been before her time. Sad, really."
"You're right," she said. "Who cares about stupid old Dannika Winters? She's no threat to me."
I clapped my hands. "Exactly! She's Coop's friend, you're his girlfriend. Period."
Her face fell. "Wait a minute. What if he's leaving something out? Suppose they're more like friends with benefits?"
"Right. Because he'd definitely want to be trapped in a car for sixteen hours with his girlfriend and the chick he's doing it with on the side."
She cocked her head. "I guess you're right. That would be pretty masochistic of him."