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If my sister were my husband, I'd divorce her."
"You don't have a husband, Deborah," my mother reminded me. "Forty-three years old and still no husband." I could feel her disappointment coursing through the telephone wires.
"I was talking about my relationship with Sharon, Mom," I said. "About the fact that when you're incompatible with your spouse, you can divorce him, yet when you're incompatible with your sister, you're stuck with her for life. It doesn't seem fair somehow."
"What doesn't, dear?"
My mother wasn't senile, just in denial when it came to her two daughters and their lifelong bickering. She spoke of her "girls" as if Sharon and I were the chummiest of chums, as if she didn't realize that my sister and I had nothing in common except the accident of our births. She ignored our snits, our spats, our she-did-its; made light of the potshots we regularly took at each other; pretended there weren't months, even years, during which we were estranged.
"Never mind," I said. "About divorcing Sharon, I mean. Divorcing her would be a non-event at this point. Everybody's already done it."
Well, not everybody. The truth was, three men had divorced my sister. Husband number one was a TWA pilot who fell in love with a flight attendant during a long layover in Paris and never came home. Husband number two was a polygamist who was married to four other women in four other states and is presently serving a long prison sentence. Husband number three, a dashing fellow, decided that he nolonger wanted to be a fellow, announcing on his forty-fifth birthday that he intended to undergo a "sexual reallignment." Now I ask you: Is it any wonder that Norman, Sharon's eighteen-year-old son by the polygamist, chose military school over Syracuse, becoming one of the only Jewish cadets ever to attend the Citadel?
Not that my track record was so hot. Sharon may have been a compulsive marrier who'd waltz down the aisle with just about any man who asked her, but I too had involved myself with an embarrassing cast of characters. Like the bond trader who spent the last six months of our relationship bonding with my best friend on her waterbed. Like the computer programmer who bought me a diamond ring from Cartier that was really a cubic zirconium knockoff he'd hondled from a street vendor. Like the traveling salesman who shouted out the names of other women whenever we had sex and expected me to believe it was because he had Tourette's syndrome. As I said, my judgment wasn't exactly unerring when it came to men, but at least I didn't marry the bozos.
"About the party," said my mother, pulling me back into the conversation, "you will fly down for it, won't you, dear? It isn't every day that I turn seventy-five."
The purpose of her long-distance phone call that Sunday afternoon in January had been to inform me that Sharon, the dreaded sibling, was hosting a birthday luncheon for her the following month and that I was expected to drop everything and be there. Never mind that I lived a thousand miles away in Manhattan. Never mind that I had an extremely demanding job as a writer for the venerable From This Day Forward, the longest-running daytime drama on television. Never mind that I was about to enter into a thrilling affair with one of the show's hunkiest actors and that the last thing I wanted to do at such a crucial stage in the romance was leave town. (Yes, I'd been unlucky in love in the past, but hope springs eternal.) Apparently, Sharon had decidedwithout consulting me, of coursethat the party was to be held in Florida, where she and my mother resided.
"Please, Deborah. I would love it if both my girls were there," my mother persisted.
"But your girls haven't spoken to each other in two years, ever since we had that squabble over Lester."
"Lester. Sharon's third husband. The one who looked better in her lingerie than she did."
"Oh, that one."
"Yes. After she and Lester broke up, I merely suggestedbecause I caredthat she shouldn't rush into marriage, that it was important to get to know the man first. And what was her response? `You're just jealous, Deborah, because you couldn't get a man to marry you if you paid him.' Then I said something equally childish, and she slammed down the phone. In a way, it's been a relief not to have spoken to her in two years, sort of like having an illness and being in remission."
"Nonsense. You and Sharon are sisters, and sisters should communicate with each other. At their mother's birthday party, for instance."
"If I show up at the party we'll communicate all right, but it'll be the same old nastiness. I'll say, `Hello, Sharon, you're looking well.' Then she'll say, `So are you, Deborah, although I thought shoulder pads went out with Joan Crawford.' Then I'll be forced to retaliate with, `Yes, but fortunately for you, Sharon, padded bras have made a comeback.' It'll be ugly, Mom. I'm telling you."
"And I'm telling you that you'd be pleasantly surprised if you came. I think Sharon would appreciate it if you were there."
"Oh, Mom." I sighed, wishing she would get it. "Sharon would appreciate it if I were in Mogadishu."
"What I'm trying to say is that she likes me far away, and the feeling's mutual."
It was sad, really. Sharon was two years older than I was, my contemporary. We should have been pals, buddies, confidantes. But for some reason she resented me, had always resented me, and I honestly didn't know what I had done to inspire her ill will. Yes, she was the firstborn, and yes, firstborns often resent the little squirts with whom they're made to share their toys, their friends, their parents. Like many older siblings, Sharon was told she couldn't go to the movies or the hamburger place or the school picnic unless she dragged her baby sister along, only to have me act up and ruin her fun. But I had loved her so when we were kids, loved tagging along on her adventures. I had idolized her, revered her, tried to imitate the way she talked, walked, dressed. I was grateful to her for looking out for me and sorry for the burden I must have been, and I'd said so on numerous occasions. Why didn't any of that count? Why did she have to drag her bitterness toward me into adulthood? Why did she have to give me a dig, a zinger, a putdown every time we saw each other? And worse, why did I have to react the way I did, allowing her to push my buttons, as they say? Why did I have to fire a zinger right back at her and then retreat, withdraw, wither under the weight of her simmering rage? Wasn't it time to let it all go?
"Where is Sharon having the luncheon?" I asked my mother, knowing I would probably give in and attend the party, in spite of my protests.
"At her house. She insisted."
Insisting came as naturally to my sister as breathing. "So she's put herself in charge of your birthday, just like she puts herself in charge of everything."
"Well, she is a professional party-giver, Deborah."
I couldn't argue with my mother there. Sharon was a wedding planner. ("Wedding architect" was what it said on her business card.) For those who could afford her services, she coordinated virtually every aspect of her clients' nuptialsthe florist, the caterer, the photographer, et cetera. She even pumped the bride and groom for information about their guests and then drew up seating plans in an effort to avoid the sort of petty slights that were the hallmark of her relationship with me. Though she had clients up and down south Florida's east coast, the bulk of her business came from Boca Raton, aka "Boca," a sort of Great Neck with palm trees. Sharon was a big success in Boca, not only because she lived there (in a gated golf community where the houses are enormous and right on top of each other"McMansions," I call them), but because the kind of wedding that was her signatureostentatious, glitzy, unrestrainedwas so, well, Boca. In Boca, where even the maids wear Rolexes, you either had a Sharon Peltz wedding or you didn't get married at all.
"You could fly down for the weekend and stay with me," my mother suggested. "It's awfully cold up there in New York, isn't it?"
"Very," I said, peering down at the ratty flannel nightgown and wool socks I was wearing. Even though there was plenty of heat in my apartmentthat awful, dry heat that makes your skin crack, not to mention your scalp flakeI couldn't get warm, couldn't thaw out. Maybe a trip to Florida wasn't a bad idea after all. "You're right, Mom," I said finally. "Your seventy-fifth birthday is special and I wouldn't miss it for the world. I'll make plane reservations as soon as we hang up."
Okay, I told myself. So you'll have to put up with Sharon for an afternoon. You're a big girl. You'll live.
I brightened at the thought of seeing my mother and of being able to mellow out at her house in Sewall's Point, a lush, tropical peninsula linked by a causeway to the city of Stuart, about an hour north of Palm Beach.
She and my father had bought the place, a rustic, two-story, wood-frame house overlooking the St. Lucie River, as a winter escape for the family when Sharon and I were in high school. My father, a doctor in Westport, Connecticut, had dreamed of living in Florida full-time once he retired, but he died of cancer just before his sixty-second birthday and never realized his dream. A year-to-the-day after his funeral, my mother realized it for him: she sold our house in Westport, packed up her belongings, and moved them and herself to Sewall's Point. Before long, she made friends in the quiet, close-knit community, did volunteer work for the Council on Aging, the Historical Society, and other nonprofit agencies, and eventually took a more challenging volunteer job, becoming a mediator in small-claims court, of all things. Her mission was to get people who were suing each other to settle their differences without having to go to trial.
I found it pretty ironic that she spent several days a month encouraging plaintiffs and defendants to come to a compromise, yet she couldn't get her own children to agree on much of anything. We couldn't even agree on Stuart versus Boca. While I thought Stuart was uniquely charming in its low-key, unhurried lifestyle, Sharon found the place deadly dull, provincial, a cultural wasteland. (This from a woman whose idea of "culture" was watching brides and grooms do the Macarena.) As a result, Sharon settled in Boca after college, which was fine and dandy with me; whenever I visited my mother, I felt secure in the knowledge that my sister was an hour and a half away.
I said goodbye to my mother, booked the flights, and hurried into the shower. Philip Wiley, the hunky actor I mentioned earlier, was picking me up at seven, and while I still had an hour before he arrived, I wanted to take my time getting ready.
You see, in the six years I'd worked for From This Day Forward, I had never dated an actor from the show, never even had a brief dalliance with one. As a result, I was giddy with the novelty of the situation, giddy with the idea that a catch like Philip Wiley, who had worked withdone love scenes withthe most beautiful women in the world, was interested in me.
Not that I'm a dog or anything. I will never be mistaken for one of those stunning creatures who appears on soap operas, but I have what my mother calls a "sweet face," which I take to mean that I am neither beautiful nor homely but winsome, perhaps because I smile a lot, as opposed to my sister, who does not. (Not at me, anyway.) What's more, while my hair isn't worn in a particular style, other than it's shoulder-length and parted on the right, it's thick and glossy and a rather lustrous reddish-brown, and no matter how humid the conditions, it doesn't go limp on me. As for my figure, it's about what you'd expect for a forty-three-year-old woman with a sedentary job and a fondness for moo shu pork. In other words, I still get the occasional wolf whistles from construction workers, but I could stand to lose a few pounds.
When my doorbell rang at just after seven o'clock, I practically leapt across the apartment to answer it.
"Hey, don't you look super," Philip observed as I opened the door. A tall, fortyish, sandy-haired ex-model who'd been raised in London and spoke with a clipped, veddy veddy British accent, Philip played the role of Holden Halsey on our show. His character was the long-lost brother of Jenny Halsey Slater Peters Dyer Ruzetsky, a woman who'd been married even more times than my sister.
"Thanks for the compliment," I said. "Please. Come in."
"Love to," he said. Then he turned suddenly, grabbed me by the shoulders, and kissed me.
Gee, this guy doesn't waste any time, I thought as the kissing went on for several seconds, several very stirring seconds.
"So this is where you live, Deborah," he said, finally coming up for air. He surveyed my living room, a generic rectangular space that I had furnished from a Pottery Barn catalog. Buckingham Palace it wasn't.
"Yes, this is home. Let me take your coat," I said, and offered him a drink.
"Scotch would be lovely. With a splash of soda and a wedge of lemon, if you've got it." Philip removed his coat and handed it to me, flashing me his Holden Halsey grin, a veritable spectacle of perfectly aligned white teeth. I was tempted to ask if they'd been bleached and/or bonded, but I already knew the answer. There wasn't a cast member on the show whose body parts hadn't been enhanced in some way.
I prepared his scotch and poured myself a glass of wine, placed both drinks on a tray along with cocktail napkins and a bowl of salted peanuts, and hurried back into the living room.
Philip wasn't there.
"Philip?" I said, wondering if he had changed his mind about our date. "Hello?"
When I got no response, I set the tray down on the coffee table and went to look for him, eventually finding him in the guest room that doubled as my office. He was standing beside my desk, his head buried in a file folder marked "From This Day Forward #12,136."
"Philip?" I said. He jumped. I had startled him. "What are you doing?"
He slid the folder back onto my desk and smiled sheepishly, a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
"I came upon the file quite by accident," he said, batting his long golden lashes at me. "I hope you're not angry, Deborah."
"Actors aren't supposed to read our breakdowns," I reminded him, a "breakdown" being a scene-by-scene outline of each episode. "Woody's adamant about that."
Woody Davenport, the head writer of From This Day Forward, was my boss, responsible for creating the overall "bibles" of the show, the long-term storylines covering up to a year's worth of plots, characters, cliffhangers, and resolutions.
"You wanted to find out what's going to happen with Holden. Is that why you read the breakdown?" I asked.
"Well, I was curious to see where Woody's taking the character," he admitted.
"He would have a fit if I told him," I said. "He really does have a cardinal rule about this."
It's a given in the business: Let actors in on the future of their characters and the next thing you know they're demanding rewrites, calling their agents, whining, and the show becomes a cesspool of battling egos.
"Then don't tell him," said Philip. "It won't happen again, so why raise his blood pressure?"
I wasn't sure what to do. I didn't want to lose my job, but I didn't want to lose Philip, either.
"You know, I'd never seen a breakdown before," Philip mused. "I had no idea how hard you must work. All those pages and pages you've got to come up with every week, the carefully laid-out scenes, the dramatic moments, the continuity from show to show. You're very good, Deborah. Very talented."
"Oh. Well. Do you think so?"
"I do indeed. I certainly couldn't write a breakdown. It takes a special kind of skill that I don't have. You, on the other hand, have itto the max."
I felt my expression soften. "It's nice to have the positive feedback, Philip. Thanks."
Sensing that he had melted my anger, that his flattery had melted it, he walked toward me and took me in his arms. "I meant what I said about poking my nose where it doesn't belong. It won't happen again, Deborah. Forgive me."
He drew my face close to his and kissed me, more insistently this time. I forgave him. Who wouldn't?
We returned to the living room, arm in arm, sipped our drinks, and went to dinner. At the restaurant, Philip was extremely attentive to mereverential, almosteven while signing autographs. He held my hand, then brought it to his lips and kissed itpalm, fingers, knuckles, you name it. By the time dessert and coffee were served, I had forgotten about the incident in my apartment involving the breakdown.
Seconds after bringing me home, Philip was all over me, murmuring terms of endearment to me as he nibbled away at my lips. I cut things short, though, reminding him that I had to get up early for Woody's Monday meeting, an exhausting, day-long event that was held at his extravagantly decorated Park Avenue apartment and was mandatory for breakdown writers.
"When can I see you again?" Philip asked as we stood by the door. "Next weekend? Friday night? The sooner the better."
"Friday night would be wonderful," I said, flushed with the intensity of his ardor and my own.
We kissed goodnight and then he left.
I leaned against the door for several minutes, eyes closed, heart racing, reining Philip's every word and gesture. It seemed to me that I had finally managed to snare a good one. I congratulated myself.