By Susan Shapiro
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Susan Shapiro
All rights reserved.
the art of losing
I'm stacking the basket of bride-and-groom candles on the counter at Party City on Fourteenth Street in a last-minute stop to fill Sarah's goody bags when she says, "There's been a change of plans. Andrew took the museum job."
"Which job is that again?" I ask, adding the final miniature wax couple, balancing the bonbons we just bought at the chic chocolatier around the corner on my other arm. I'm worried they'll melt before her rehearsal dinner tonight and that the overpriced confections look too tiny. If I could eat candy, I'd devour twenty of the truffles and pralines in one gulp.
"He'll be renovating Cleveland's Natural History Museum," she says.
The cashier rings up eighty-nine dollars. Expensive little tchotchkes. I reach for my wallet to treat, but she whips out her American Express, mumbles "Don't be silly," and swipes.
"So you two will be long-distance for a few months?" I ask. "We did that when Jake was shooting the cop show in L.A."
"No." She signs the receipt. "We're subletting my apartment."
"Buying a bigger place? In the meantime, you can crash with us." The last time we roomed together a decade ago, we were both single. It was right after my live-in lying ex, a.k.a. the Sociopath, dumped me. Sarah and I would stay up all night drinking cheap wine, chain-smoking, and making crank calls to all our exes. Why do breakups suddenly seem more fun than weddings?
"Julie, the museum's undergoing a fifty-million-dollar renovation."
"That means they really like Andrew, right?"
"It means he has to make a three-year commitment," she says. "And I'm going with him."
"What?" My mouth drops. "You're moving? For three years? Quitting your job? What will you do?"
"I'll be his wife. Dr. Zane says you don't land a great husband, then ruin it with long-distance right after you close the deal." She laughs as I follow her out of the store. I'm carrying her bags in both hands, surprised they're so heavy.
My therapist, Dr. Ness, says "Love doesn't make you happy, you make yourself happy." But the beginning of Sarah's weekend wedding extravaganza is probably not the best time to play dueling shrinks.
"You're really leaving?" I try to keep up as she zigzags through the ragtag crowd to reach the corner of Sixth Avenue. "When?"
"After the brunch on Sunday. You and Jake are coming, aren't you?"
"Wouldn't miss it." I nod, totally stunned, pretending not to be devastated.
I know Andrew's from the Midwest, but so are we. Sarah and I grew up next door to each other in the Chicago suburbs. Our mothers, best friends and fellow domestic goddesses, remained so thin and stylish during four simultaneous pregnancies that Sarah and I, the only girls, eternally bonded over feelings of inadequacy. In between being Mommy's Little Helpers at multiple brothers' brises and bar mitzvahs ("Blessed with a boy, mazel tov!") we plotted escape. No wonder we became career-obsessed urbanites — it's the only arena where our maternal figures can't compete. We like to joke that we're mutant left-wing aliens who were mistakenly dropped into the wrong plaid-wearing, conservative, sexist clans.
Which is why I'm flabbergasted that she's throwing away the city and work she adores for a guy. Since Sarah and Andrew sparked at their SoHo architecture firm a year ago, he's never once mentioned moving back to his hometown — or kidnapping her. If he had, I wonder if I still could have been his biggest advocate, reassuring her that his grad-school wardrobe and eyeglass frames are easily upgradable, that his habit of quoting Homer Simpson isn't juvenile, and that the square soul patch on his chin looks hip. Not to mention constantly disputing her long-held dogma that marriage only leads to divorce, domestic abuse, or brain death. Now I feel duped. Along with my gift of crystal wine goblets from ABC Carpet, I have an urge to slip Andrew a plastic razor with a note saying we're all over ironic facial hair. Luckily Dr. Ness never lets me act impulsively.
"You'll get there early tonight with the camera and sign-in book, right?" Sarah asks. "There's a cab. Love you madly." As the yellow taxi comes to a halt in front of her, she grabs the bags of meltable newlyweds and chocolates from me and climbs into the backseat, leaving me standing alone on the curb, arms empty.
"You won't believe what happened," I shout, running into our Greenwich Village apartment, where I find my husband in the bedroom. "Sarah's moving! Andrew took a job renovating the Cleveland history museum."
"I hear they have a cool planetarium," says Jake.
"What's the point of a planetarium if it's in Ohio? She's deserting me!" I wonder how he can possibly not grasp the impact of this catastrophe. Why is Jake taking his favorite gray button-down shirt from the closet and putting it in his suitcase? "What are you doing?"
"Great news. They picked up the Doctors on Mars pilot. Shooting starts Monday in Studio City." He folds two pairs of jeans into the black Italian leather suitcase I bought him at Barneys to celebrate his last pilot deal.
"That's in California," I say rhetorically, recognizing the excited "I just got free dugout tickets to the World Series" gleam in his eye.
"They wanted me to fly to L.A. tonight," he says.
"You can't! My whole family's flying in for the wedding!" I panic at the thought of being bombarded by the Illinois branch without my Jake shield. I hate this feeling; it's like trying to put my hand in a subway door that's closing too fast to catch.
"Don't worry. I told them I can't miss my wife's best friend's wedding. So they switched the meeting. I'm leaving Sunday morning."
He looks proud of himself, as if it proves he's Husband of the Year. But he's packing two days early. This isn't up for discussion. He's already there.
"What about the HBO show in Jersey?" I sputter.
"That's half-hour cable. You said push for the big time — network, prime time, one-hour dramas. NBC's green-lighted thirteen episodes. I'm doing what you told me."
I recall my exact words: You have to promote yourself in this cutthroat biz 'cause nobody else will. Since when does he listen to me?
"I have to run to my agent's to hammer out the contract." His lopsided curly brown hair falls in his eyes as he ties the laces of his new white and blue Nikes, making him look like a little boy about to sprint away. "I'll meet you at Sarah's dinner at eight."
He rushes out, forgetting to kiss me good-bye.
"What a double sucker punch. First Sarah, then Jake. Both leaving on Sunday," I tell Dr. Ness, thanking God I decided to keep my 6 P.M. Friday shrink appointment. "Maybe I should just relax and eat whatever I want this weekend."
"Why don't you snort some heroin too while you're at it?" He smiles.
"Heroin was never my style." I smile back.
"With your personality, you could get addicted to carrot sticks."
He scrutinizes a note in his leather date book, shuts it, then takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. Hasn't he been sleeping well? I tighten the buckles of my new Prada sandals, thinking they're worth the three hundred bucks for making my sizeten clown feet look sleek.
"It's not like they're going off to war," I venture. "Sarah's found her soul mate and this could be Jake's big break. I should be happy for them." I cross my bare legs from the chill. Did he turn up the air-conditioning? Damn the fashionista who says you can't wear pantyhose with open-toed shoes. Obviously a thoughtless, thighless size two. (Even at my skinniest in control-top Spanx, I'm a six.) "I'm just not good at surprises, that's all."
He gives me his "you're being an idiot" eye roll.
"What? I'm denying my darkness and pain again?"
"Yes. You're in shock and denial."
If anyone would know, it's Dr. Ness. He's the dashing substance-abuse specialist whose claim to fame is unhooking me. I call him the Superman of Psychotherapy since he's a peculiar mix of moralistic and reckless, with a savior complex on the side. His dark wavy hair, chiseled features, and thick gold-framed lenses give him a nerdy Clark Kent aura, as if he's concealing his real identity.
"Well, I'm not going to drink or smoke, if that's your worry," I say, craving a Virginia Slims menthol and a vodka martini. "Sarah hired the best caterer in the city. Why can't I loosen up my diet for two days?"
He moves his cell phone from the shelf to the table next to him and stares at it, as though he's expecting an important call. Then he looks up, as if just remembering I'm here, puts his glasses back on, and says, "Don't use food to quell distress. You have to make friends with your hunger."
"I have enough friends," I snap. "I'm sick of starving on twelve hundred calories a day. Last night I dreamed of vanilla cupcakes with candy hearts on top. What would Freud say?"
"It's not physical hunger. You're emotionally ravenous," he reminds me. "Pinpoint what's missing inside."
"Aren't you listening? It's pinpointed! Sarah and Jake are leaving while my whole crazy Midwest mishpocheh's flying in to shove food and alcohol in my face." My brain understands why Sarah's moving, but my selfish heart is not letting her go. "What if I just wing it for dinner at the reception tomorrow?"
He's pissing me off, but that's what I pay him for. Over the last two years, Michael Ness has been my critical sounding board, career counselor, diet doctor, and father figure, despite being only thirteen years my senior. A nutrition and exercise fanatic, he's six feet tall and a slender 165 pounds. (I ask and keep track.) His willingness to answer my personal questions and expose his own addiction history made him the most potent expert in my bestselling self-help book Up in Smoke, which chronicles how he helped me quit toking and smoking after two decades of two packs a day and other debauchery. If it weren't for him, I'd never have banished my bad habits or nailed the book deal.
"When you're careless with food, everything feels chaotic and you spiral out of control," he's still hectoring.
"Give me a break! I'm 128 pounds. For a big-boned, five-foot-seven thirty-seven-year-old, that's perfect." I tug on the loose waist of my black skirt to show him. "I've got your Nazi diet laws down. I can chill for one weekend."
"Julia, do not ask for trouble."
Right after I nixed nicotine, he made me give up alcohol, the diet pills I became dependent on, and the Juicy Fruit gum I was shoving into my mouth two packs at a time to replace the cigarettes. He then banned all bread products and food freedom, insisting that if I'm not careful my orally fixated internal wiring will only perpetuate "the substance shuffle."
"I'm not. I'm skinny, smoke-free, happily married, with a skyrocketing career." How defensive and superficial I sound. Yet since finally getting my own byline, after toiling as a low-paid women's magazine copyeditor since college, I'm not letting a bit of bad news set me back. I'm no sore loser who resents others' good fortune. Just the opposite. I teach my readers how to get clean by finding their bliss. I'm a bliss pusher! "With Up in Smoke royalties and signing my second book deal last month, I've tripled my income."
"You've tripled your megalomania," he says. "Don't exaggerate or deviate from the truth."
"I'm not deviating!" Is it my imagination or is he being more extreme than usual? "You know, the Today show producers want me back. I could be their on-air addiction expert." I brush my hair behind my ears. I had it cut in the editrix Anna Wintour's Cleopatra style and blown dry, treating myself and Sarah to a French manicure and pedicure this afternoon, so he'd see me dolled up before her dinner. Does he notice? "I can handle a few special meals. I'll stick to protein."
"Five thousand calories of cheese, nuts, and meat will make you sick — and fat. Figure out your menu beforehand. Have fish, vegetables, and salad," he instructs in his stern principal's voice, then adds, "Julia, there's something we have to talk about."
"Why you're being such a prick today?"
"Look, I told you, addicts can't handle spontaneity. Shocking changes are about to take place. You're not the type who can roll with it. Make sure you get enough sleep. Don't give yourself choices or allow last-minute substitutions based on your mood."
"Please. I haven't touched a cigarette, joint, pill, or piece of bread in twenty-four fucking months. Entertainment Weekly calls me the Diva of Deprivation. You're the only addiction I have left."
In my "save the world" fantasy, I'm the white Oprah and he's my more handsome Dr. Phil, with hair. Okay, so being a feminist fervently dependent on a male is oxymoronic, but he's my magic elixir. Aside from his two-hundred-dollars-an-hour fee, there's no downside. For the last two years I've tasted joy for the first time in my life.
"Listen, Julia ..."
"I know. Food's the hardest dependency to conquer because you can't quit. You have to be moderate and eat three times a day. I get it. For Christ's sake, I just sold a whole book about it." Following his strict low-carb regimen and "learning to suffer well" system, I dropped twenty-two pounds while remaining substance-free — the miraculous feat I'm recounting in Food Crazy, my new self-help sequel.
"So how will you handle the emptiness?" he asks.
"My rewrite's due in six months. I'll throw myself into finishing," I say, but something's wrong with the leather strap of my sandal; it's hurting my ankle.
"You won't miss Jake?"
Dr. Ness calls my workaholic husband's demanding TV jobs his mistresses, christening the latest two Laverne and Shirley. But since my spouse's agent is married to my agent, and he makes three times my salary, I can't kvetch about a few months apart. "Too much vork should be the vorst problem ve ever have. Nu?" Jake often says in his grandfather Alfie's Yiddish accent.
"I'll miss the hell out of him. But his last L.A. show about those buff cops screwing each other was canceled in three weeks. I warned him no female police captain in the history of the force is built like Gisele." I scan Dr. Ness's spiky cactus plants and ebony shelves. The quirky antique clocks telling different times look mysterious, like him. This is my safe place, two blocks from home, a confessional where I go religiously every Monday and Friday, like bookends framing my week. "Right now I have to focus on getting Sarah wed. It'll be such a trip to have both families in town."
"Trip, as in nuclear explosion?" he asks.
How well he reads me.
"Last night, when I e-mailed my dad that I can't wait to show him the new Italian and French editions of Up in Smoke, he wrote back: 'Stop wasting your talent on psychobabble. Repression is the greatest gift of the human intellect.' He always makes me feel inadequate." I bend down to loosen the shoe's strap and rub my sore skin.
"Feelings are misleading," Dr. Ness reiterates.
That's his main mantra, along with "Don't trust your instincts" and "Live your least secretive life"; he writes them down for me on the back of his business cards. I keep them all in my bedroom drawer, checking them frequently, the way some women reread letters from old lovers.
"Your book is smart, honest, and has helped many people," he says. "I'm proud of you."
Finally, a rare compliment! But the digital clock says five to seven; we've gone over. I have to hurry uptown to make sure Sarah won't screw up marrying Mr. Mistake-on-the-Lake.
"Listen, I have something for you." Standing up, I hand him a silver shopping bag. "For your birthday. A little early." He was born in August, the day before my father. It's a black suede laptop tote from the Flight 001 store in the West Village. "Figured you could use it on your annual summer trek to Arizona."
"Thank you." He takes my present hesitantly, staring at me with a strange expression. "Julia, there's something I need to tell you."
Is he not accepting presents anymore? Jake and Sarah find it bizarre that I bring my therapist gifts. But I couldn't have published my book without him since he reviewed and edited every single page as I cranked them out. "Don't tell me. You're firing me as a patient because I'm too taxing?"
"I wish I had longer to prepare you. I know the timing is terrible, but I don't really have a choice." He pauses awkwardly. "I need to move to Arizona year-round." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Speed Shrinking by Susan Shapiro. Copyright © 2009 Susan Shapiro. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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