***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 Emily Liebert
“But I don’t want fruit for breakfast, Mom!” Gia planted her chubby elbows on the granite countertop and scowled at Charlotte. “I want pancakes. With lots of syrup.”
“Gia, we don’t have time for pancakes today. Mommy has an appointment at ten thirty with Aunt Elizabeth. Maria will be here any minute. And I still have to shower. So please eat the fruit, sweetheart.” Charlotte darted around the kitchen in her silk La Perla robe, tearing through her morning to-do list. Let dog out in backyard. Feed dog. Give dog fresh water. Make list for supermarket. Load dishwasher. Gather dry cleaning to be dropped off. “It’s good for you, Gia. Fruit is good for you.” The first day of school couldn’t arrive soon enough.
Gia folded her arms across her chest and shook her head defiantly. “Fruit has a ton of carbs in it.” She pushed the plate away from her as if to declare pancakes carb free.
“Who told you that?” Charlotte glanced at her nine-year-old daughter, the apparent nutrition expert, in her oversized Justin Bieber nightshirt.
“Olivia’s mom. She knows everything about healthy stuff. She’s really skinny.”
“Is that so?” Olivia’s mom, Avery—who was precisely the type of person to have a name like Avery before names like Avery were even trendy—was really skinny. Too skinny, actually.
“Yup. She said I have to eat only protein and vegetables if I want to look like her.”
“Interesting.” Charlotte didn’t appreciate the unsolicited advice from skele-mommy. “Well, I think you look perfect just the way you are.”
In Charlotte’s opinion, prepubescent girls were not meant to be starving themselves or adhering to stringent dietary restrictions. There’d been none of that in her day. Charlotte had been pleasantly plump, as her maternal grandmother had affectionately referred to her, until she was at least fourteen, at which time she’d shed most of the baby fat. After that, her physique had been what one might call “sturdy” or “solid.” Fat wasn’t the right word. But thin wasn’t either. And skinnywas out of the question, given her genetic inheritance. Charlotte’s own mother, while striking in many ways, had thighs so substantial she used to brag, “I could crush a can of creamed corn between these babies!” And her father’s protruding paunch preceded his entrance into every room. The writing was on the wall.
Still, by the time Charlotte was a freshman at Cornell University, she’d found a way to tame her voluptuous figure with control-top stockings and other gut-sucking paraphernalia. And by the time vanity had really set in, she’d found a way to stick her finger down her throat following every meal. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a means to an end: finding a rich, handsome husband to take care of her.
“Then why are you making me eat fruit?” Gia arched an eyebrow, a signature gesture that evoked her father. The same father who’d insisted that Gia was “unnecessarily overweight” and that if she didn’t slim down she’d be tormented by the kids at school. He’d suggested that the sooner she learned to adjust her diet to reflect the crawling metabolism she’d been bestowed with—a dig at Charlotte’s side of the family—her life and theirs (that part had been left unspoken) would be much easier.
Of course, Charlie had a point. Charlotte didn’t want Gia to be persecuted by her classmates any more than he did. But she also didn’t want Gia to grow up insecure about her body, desperate to conceal her ample rear end and padded midsection, as Charlotte had. It was easy for Charlie to set forth directives, especially when the onus was on Charlotte to follow them. He wasn’t the one who had to put a plate of fruit in front of Gia every morning. Or make up excuses to leave the playground early, before the ice-cream truck arrived, so that she didn’t have to deny her daughter the simple childhood pleasure of a snow cone. So what if she was a little overweight? She was only nine, for God’s sake! Nine-year-olds deserved to eat snow cones!
“I’m not making you, Gia. Clearly you haven’t taken one bite. Can you please just eat it, so I can get ready? You can have pancakes tomorrow. I promise.” Charlotte sat down at the kitchen table—adjacent to the breakfast bar, where Gia was perched on a barstool—sinking her tired body into one of the six cushioned chairs upholstered in deluxe celadon linen. She surveyed her Architectural Digest–worthy kitchen with its stark white frameless cabinets, black granite worktops crafted from volcanically formed natural stone, top-of-the-line stainless-steel appliances, and the pièce de résistance—an Italian glass chandelier, a modern interpretation of vintage Murano, that she and Charlie had purchased on their honeymoon in Florence—to preside over it all. She knew she was blessed.
“I don’t want pancakes tomorrow. I. Want. Them. Now!”
Charlotte sighed. She didn’t have the energy to fight with Gia. Not today. Especially since it wasn’t her battle; it was Charlie’s. She still had to deal with her sister, and it wasn’t even nine a.m. And that would extract every morsel of vitality from her being. It always did.
“Fine, sweetheart. Whatever you want.” She stood again, defeated, walked toward the freezer, retrieved two Eggo buttermilk pancakes, slid them into the toaster oven, and swiped the bottle of syrup from the refrigerator, setting it on the counter in front of her triumphant offspring.
“Great.” Gia revealed a complacent grin and dropped her arms to her sides. She’d won and she knew it. Granted, Charlotte hadn’t put up much of a fight, but then, she rarely did. She was the pushover parent. The good cop, if you will. Something for which she knew Charlie resented her.
It was impossible to pinpoint when things had turned for her and Charlie. There wasn’t a day or a month or even a year when their relationship had suddenly morphed from two people so madly in love it felt incomprehensible that they’d ever been able to breathe without each other to two people passing through the hallways of their house and their lives with little more than a quick conversation, a peripheral smile, and a chaste peck on the lips. What she wouldn’t give to return to that dispassionate contentedness. Now things were different. Most days, it felt as if she were dangling from the roof of the tallest skyscraper, which had been erected with layer upon layer of resentment. One rancorous floor on top of another, the windows welded shut to constrain the dense fog of suffocating bitterness. After all, it was one thing to be miserable. But quite another for people to know about it.
It would have been easy enough to blame their troubles on parenthood, a common scapegoat and credible culprit in destroying marriages, transforming them from spicy to icy faster than you can say “breast pump.” But that wasn’t the entirety of it. Charlotte would have loved more children. Gia hadn’t been an easy baby, but wasn’t there some sort of memory-erasing serum that obliterated all the physical and emotional pain inherent in childbirth and child rearing in those first few years? The sleepless nights. The hundred-and-four-degree fevers. The projectile vomit. The lavalike poops that seemed to erupt at the most inopportune times, like when you’d been waiting in a long line at the supermarket and were just about to load your items onto the conveyer belt at checkout.
They’d tried for a second baby when Gia was four. Charlie had wanted a boy. But month after month, test after test, the words not pregnant had taunted her. Three characters fewer and she’d have been a mother of two. Maybe of a Charles Crane, Jr. Would that have made things better?
They’d gone through five rounds of IVF, which had only intensified the ubiquitous strain in their marriage. Charlotte had been hyped-up on hormones. Charlie had grown intolerant of her radically swinging moods. And Gia, just a toddler, had been forced to listen to her parents throw down over things as innocuous as a glass of spilled milk. Turns out it was something to cry over.
There were still good days, though they were few and far between. Occasionally a whole week would pass without a fight and, for a brief space in time, Charlotte would remember why she’d fallen in love with Charlie in the first place. She could tell he was feeling the same way. Something in the way he looked at her, even touched her. If she was really lucky, she’d wake up to him caressing her back, knowing that he’d been watching her sleep with a certain fondness she cherished and tried desperately to preserve. How was it possible, she’d often wondered, that one person could evoke such radically far-flung emotions in another? How could she feel such intense tenderness for Charlie on any given Monday and by Wednesday have to restrain herself from wringing his neck?
“Here you go.” Charlotte placed Gia’s second pass at breakfast in front of her. “Just don’t tell your father.”
“My lips are sealed.” She pretended to zip her mouth shut with the tips of her thumb and index finger pressed together. “As soon as I eat these.” She giggled.
“Thanks.” Charlotte smiled as her daughter drenched her pancakes in a puddle of maple syrup. Sometimes it was easy to forget she was just a little girl.
Once Maria had arrived, a few minutes before nine, as she always did, rain or shine, Charlotte withdrew to her expansive white marble master bathroom to treat herself to a relaxing steam shower before meeting Elizabeth. It was remarkable, really, the way Gia’s whole attitude shifted when she was in the presence of anyone but Charlotte or Charlie. Suddenly she became obedient—polite, even—dispensing pleases and thank yous as if she had an excess to relinquish. But as soon as Charlotte so much as walked by the room where Gia and Maria were playing, invariably Gia’s diva demeanor would rear its ugly head. And then some.
Charlotte cranked the faucet all the way to hot, slipped out of her robe, and let it fall to the floor, where Janna, her housekeeper, would find it later on and dutifully return it to its hook on the other side of the bathroom, which was the size of a studio apartment in New York City. This was Charlotte’s favorite time of the day. The one hour of peace and quiet between Maria’s arrival and commencing the myriad errands and appointments that typically confronted her. There was no one to tug on her arm or interrupt her train of thought with a question that, surely, they could answer on their own.
Sometimes she had to remind herself that she’d gone to an Ivy League school and graduated magna cum laude. That she’d then landed a coveted position, albeit entry-level, at one of Manhattan’s most distinguished advertising firms and that, during her two-year tenure, she had been tapped as the company’s rising star. Then she’d met Charlie and decided to marry him within months, had gotten pregnant shortly thereafter, and had taken a “leave of absence”; still, that did not mean she’d forfeited her brain cells in exchange for a sprawling lawn and designer shoes.
Charlotte examined herself in the mirror, as she did every morning, zeroing in on each imperfection. The crow’s-feet radiating from the corners of her eyes and fanning down her cheeks. The sagging breasts. The way the undersides of her arms flapped like slabs of meat. The fact that her inner thighs kissed when she walked. And the saddest truth of all: her visibly bulging belly nine years post-baby. She needed a spray tan, a bikini wax, and either a diet plan that might actually work or liposuction.
Charlotte knew she wasn’t fat, per se, but you didn’t have to be fat to be considered fat when you lived in the Manhattan suburbs. If you were so much as average, you weren’t thin enough. Ladies’ lunches were salads only. Oil and vinegar on the side. Sugar-free iced tea or water with lemon, and no carbonation for fear of bloating. Regular exercise classes were a given—no less than six times per week, pick your poison, depending on how much you were willing to sweat. Personal trainers were another option, but not nearly as social. Because, ultimately, it wasn’t just about how you burned off your salad. It was about who saw you burning it off and how good you looked doing it—clad in Lululemon with a fresh blowout and an artfully made-up face, just enough effort to make perfection appear effortless.
Charlotte grimaced and slathered a mud mask on her face, which she’d let set while she exfoliated the rest of her body. Short of plastic surgery, it was the best she could do. She opened the heavy glass door to the shower, releasing a gust of thick, warm steam, and stepped inside the one place where she could shut off from the rest of the world, even if only for ten delicious minutes of solitude.
But before she could close the door behind her, the phone rang, dislocating her serenity. She didn’t have to answer it. What could be so important? Who could be so important? Gia was home with her. Charlie was at work. Her parents were definitely still asleep. And she was about to go meet Elizabeth. Most likely, it was a prerecorded message from some insurance company, informing her that—no matter what rates she currently had—they could do better. Still, she couldn’t fully relax without knowing who was on the other end of the line.
She scampered across the bathroom and into her bedroom, her damp feet padding through the plush white wall-to-wall carpeting, which they had to have cleaned every two months thanks to their dog Lolly’s eternally muddy paws. The phone chimed for a fifth time as she lunged for it.
“Hello?” she answered breathlessly and somewhat accusatorily. As in What could be so important that you have to interrupt my steam shower?
“The appointment was rescheduled,” Elizabeth droned through the receiver.
“What do you mean it was rescheduled?” Charlotte propped herself against the side of her king-sized bed. Heaps of pillows in different shapes, sizes, and patterns dressed the ornate wrought-iron headboard. It was hopelessly romantic. Hopelesslybeing the operative word.
“I mean it’s not happening today, so you’re off the hook.” Elizabeth delivered the news without so much as a hint of gratitude that Charlotte had rearranged her day to accompany her sister to her new shrink. The new shrink that, with any luck—more like a minor miracle, actually—would be the last in a long line of shrinks who Elizabeth had decided “didn’t get her.” Or “didn’t understand all that she’d been through.” Because no one could ever understand the depths of her sister’s pain. No matter how hard they tried or how many degrees they had hanging on their office wall.
The things was, Charlotte had actually been looking forward to this appointment. Sure, she’d sat alongside Elizabeth for more therapy sessions than she cared to remember, but this time she had a purpose. A goal. She’d planned to tell this counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, whatever she was, that she needed her sister’s help. That, while she understood—perhaps better than anyone else—the impact of the unthinkable tragedy Elizabeth had endured, there had to be a light at the end of the ten-year tunnel. And if there wasn’t, Elizabeth had to find a way to function as a normal, or at least useful, member of society, which meant assisting Charlotte in taking care of their sick parents. She’d pilfered the last part from Charlie.
“I don’t want to be off the hook. I was looking forward to meeting Dr. Lisa,” Charlotte griped, though she’d been instantly skeptical of the informal designation. In her estimation, anyone who used their first name to follow their title came off sounding more like a late-night radio-show host than a steadfast medical practitioner.
“So what happened?” Charlotte walked back into the bathroom to turn off the shower and to dab at the hardened mask on her face with a wet washcloth. “Did you make a new appointment?”
“Not yet. I have no way to get there,” Elizabeth mumbled.
“I don’t understand.”
“What’s not to understand? I. Have. No. Transportation.”
“What’s wrong with the Jeep?” Just three months earlier, Charlie had succumbed to Charlotte’s unremitting pleas to buy her sister a new car. Elizabeth’s twenty-year-old Volkswagen, which she never washed or had serviced, had smelled like a garbage dump and had been breaking down twice a week, and Charlotte, the ever-dutiful sister, had been driving all around town picking her up.
“Nick has it.” Nick was Elizabeth’s boyfriend. Her notoriously irresponsible boyfriend, whose penchant for gambling at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods every few weeks had earned him his “winning” reputation.
“Okay, well, where’s Nick’s car?” Charlotte rolled her eyes in anticipation of the answer. Rather, the excuse. “Don’t make me pull teeth here, Lizzy.”
“I don’t know.” She was immediately defensive, as well she should be. They both knew, at this point, that it was more of an indictment than an innocuous query. “He said something about a friend borrowing it.”
“A friend.” Charlotte exhaled dramatically. “I see. So, what? He took your car for the foreseeable future, leaving you bound to your apartment indefinitely? That sounds like a good plan.”
“Start? You think this is the beginning? This has been going on for three years, Lizzy. It’s not only your life that’s inconvenienced by his crap.” Charlotte flung her muddy washcloth into the laundry basket and instinctively ran the palm of her hand over her skin to make sure it was as supple and smooth as the bottle had promised.
“Oh, I’m sorry, did I get in the way of your regular facial or massage? Which one was it today?”
Charlotte clenched her jaw and balled her free hand into a tight fist, coaching herself to breathe in and out. In and out. She wasn’t going to allow herself to be sucked into Elizabeth’s vortex of misery. Again. “Let’s drop it, okay? Just try to give me a little advance notice when you reschedule.”
“Do you want to use the Range Rover until Nick gets his car back?”
“That would be helpful.”
“I’ll pay for the cab over here.”
“Can’t you come get me?”
“Lizzy . . .” Charlotte stopped herself and took another deep breath. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”