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"They're so normal."
Luisa lit her cigarette and snapped the lighter shut. "And how is that a problem?"
"I didn't say it was a problem. But they named their dog Spot."
"The dog does have a spot, Rachel."
It was true. The dog in question had a spot. And as dogs went, Spot was okaynot too yappy or slobbery. In fact, he was a completely normal dog, exactly right for his owners, Charles and Susan Forrest, my future in-laws and the source of all this rampant normalcy.
The phrase my future in-laws still felt unreal to me, even though Peter and I had been engaged for several months now and in spite of the very real engagement party we were currently attending at the Forrests' San Francisco home. Or, to be more accurate, the engagement party from which Luisa and I were sneaking a break. She had wanted a cigarette, and the sight of my family mingling with Peter's family, especially our grandmothers with their heads close together, undoubtedly hammering out just how many children we should have, was enough to make a little second-hand smoke seem nearly appealing.
We'd slipped out of the house through the side door and walked the short distance to the top of the Lyon Street steps, which led down from Pacific Heights to the Palace of Fine Arts and the Bay beyond. The steps were the local hot spot for underage drinkers on a Saturday night. Clumps of kids gathered on the landings, discreetly sipping from beer cans and plastic cups and apparently unconcerned that even in June the air was damp and chill.
I heard the staccato of high-heeled feet approaching, and one of the kids looked in our direction and whistled, a long, piercing wolf whistle. Since Luisa and I had already been there for several minutes, I knew the sound had nothing to do with us. I turned, and sure enough, Hilary was heading our way. Six-foot tall women with platinum hair and a proclivity for small clothing generate a disproportionate amount of whistling, especially in a city where most people's wardrobes are comprised largely of f leece.
Fortunately, Hilary enjoyed the occasional objectification. She f lashed the whistler a smile and pulled herself up to sit on the stone railing. "I thought I'd find you two out here."
"Luisa needed a cigarette," I explained.
"And you're freaking out," Hilary said.
"Not at all," I said, which was almost the truth. There was nothing quite like being the guest of honor at an engagement party to remind a person she had commitment issues, not to mention several other relationship-related neuroses, but I was proud of the progress I'd made in developing emotional maturity. Between the party and the quality time Peter and I had planned with his parents over the next few days, my skills were definitely being put to the test, but I was confident the Forrests would never guess just how new I was to this whole normalcy thing.
"I don't know how you people do it," said Hilary.
"'You people?'" asked Luisa, raising one dark, well-shaped eyebrow.
"Do what?" I asked, wishing I had Luisa's one-eyebrow-raising skill.
"Long-term relationships," said Hilary. "You and Peter. Jane and Sean. Emma and Matthew. You, too, Luisa. At least, until Isobel dumped you." Luisa, Hilary and I had been roommates in college, which was starting to become longer ago than I cared to admit. Jane and Emma completed the group, but they were both on the East Coast this weekend: Jane home in Boston with her newborn son and Emma at the Southampton wedding of her boyfriend's sister.
"Isobel did not dump me," said Luisa evenly. She stubbed out her cigarette and lit another. "After careful consideration, we mutually decided our relationship had run its course."
"And before Peter, my longest relationship only lasted three months," I pointed out. Technically, it had been closer to two and a half months, but it seemed fair to round up for the purpose of this discussion.
"Ben and I haven't been together anything like three months, but it's felt stale ever since I got over the thrill of being with a guy who carries a gun. And that was during the second week," said Hilary. Her boyfriend of the moment, Ben Lattimer, was an agent with the FBI's financial fraud unit, and he did carry a gun, but it didn't seem to be providing much in the way of defense against Hilary. Her blunt manner masked a deep affection and fierce loyalty where her friends were concerned, but her attention span could be short when it came to romance, and it sounded as if Ben was on his way out, whether he was aware of it or not.
"Have you considered giving a guy a chance for once?" I asked.
"I have given him a chance, and it was fine for a while, but now he's getting all mushy on me. You know how I feel about that."
We did know, having listened to more than a few discourses from her over the years on how love, like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and a nonsurgical cure for cellulite, was a nice idea but equally lacking any basis in reality. "Are you sure? Ben's sweet, and he seems mentally stable, and he's really good-looking," I said.
"He's taller than you, too," said Luisa. "How often does that happen?"
"And how often do all of those qualities come together in one man?" I added.
"How will I ever find out if I'm stuck with him for the rest of my life?" Hilary countered, swinging one long leg with impatience.
"Do you want me to talk to Ben?" I offered. It would be a good opportunity to exercise my emotional maturity. "I can help you work things out."
Hilary made a noise that was somewhere between a snort, a laugh and a sigh.
"I'll take that as a no," I said, disappointed.
"Speaking of good-looking," said Luisa, "what's the story on Peter's colleague, Abigail?"
Abigail lived here in San Francisco, where she ran business development for the West Coast office of Peter's company. She'd started working for him the previous fall, and it had been a bit unnerving at first to realize he was spending most of his waking hours with someone who was both brilliant and looked like a better version of Christie Turlington, but fortunately her tastes ran to women rather than men. "I think she's single," I told Luisa. "Peter says she's sort of guarded about her personal life. Not shy so much as cautious."
"I wonder why that is," said Luisa. "You'd think somebody that beautiful wouldn't have anything to worry about."
I brightened. Hilary might not want my help on the romantic front, but maybe Luisa would. "You know, Peter and I could set you"
"Thank you, but I can handle my own personal life," Luisa said.
"Because we'd be happy to"
She interrupted me again. "Rachel, that's very thoughtful but not necessary."
"Since when are you so eager to get involved in other people's love lives, Rach?" asked Hilary. "First offering couples therapy to Ben and me and then trying to hook Luisa up with Abigail?"
"I need something to do. My own love life is so normal. Isn't it better to take an interest in other people's relationships than look for reasons to mess up my own?"
"Have you considered simply enjoying the normality of your own life while simultaneously staying out of the lives of others?" asked Luisa.
"I know that's what I'm supposed to do, but I have all of this free emotional energy that I used to expend on maintaining my neuroses, and now I don't know what to do with it."
"Rach, don't take this the wrong way, but you haven't exactly perfected normal yet."
Hilary was hardly in a position to be evaluating who was and who wasn't normal. "It took a while, but I'm totally normal at relationships now," I told her, trying not to sound defensive.
"Of course you are," said Luisa, but her own voice held a note of skepticism.
"While we're talking about normal, I still wouldn't describe him as such, but our old friend Iggie looks a lot better than when he lived across the hall from us sophomore year," said Hilary. "He's almost attractive, in a revenge-of-thenerds type of way."
"Huge piles of money will do that for a guy," I said, glad of the change in topic from my relative normality to somebody else's.
"Will he really be worth that much, Rachel?" asked Luisa.
"That's how things are shaping up." Winslow, Brown, the investment bank where I worked, was competing with several other firms to handle the initial public offeringIPOof Igobe, an Internet company founded by our former classmate, Igor "Iggie" Behrenz. Iggie had been the quintessential computer geek in college, except instead of being shy and dorky he'd been arrogant and dorky, so confident in his future success that he was frequently unbearable. He hadn't changed much since then, but I was still repairing the damage from a minor misunderstanding in which I'd ended up as the lead suspect in my boss's murder. Winning his IPO business offered a chance to shore up my position at the office, however unbearable Iggie might be. Our pitch was conveniently scheduled for Tuesday morning at Igobe's headquarters in Silicon Valley, and I'd invited him to the party tonight hoping it would improve our odds. "Iggie's stake will be close to a billion dollars when his company goes public," I told my friends.
Hilary whistled. Her admirer below turned to look, wondering if she was belatedly returning his show of appreciation, but her thoughts were somewhere else entirely. "A billion? As in a one with nine zeros after it?"
"That's obscene," said Luisa. Her family practically owned a small South American country, but even their fortune seemed modest in comparison.
I worked in an industry where the net worth of the top performers regularly topped the hundred-million mark, but I had to agree: a billion did seem excessive. "Everyone's looking for the next MySpace or YouTube, and a lot of people think Iggie's got it," I said. "This IPO should be the hottest deal of the year."
"You know the article I'm working on about the newest generation of Internet start-ups?" Hilary asked us. We nodded as if we did, but while I had a vague recollection of her mentioning a San Francisco-based assignment that dovetailed nicely with the party, I tended to lose track of what she was working on at any given moment. A freelance journalist, she jumped from topic to topic much as she jumped from man to man. "I've decided to make Iggie's company the focus. It shouldn't be hard to score an exclusive interview with Iggie, and I've been digging up some interesting material on Igobe."
"What does the company do?" asked Luisa.
"It develops technology that masks people's identities online," I explained. "Once you download its software to your computer, your privacy is protected when you're surfing the Web."
"Which means you can visit all the porn sites you want and nobody will ever know," translated Hilary.
"Isn't that a relief," said Luisa dryly.
"A lot of people seem to think so," I said. "And they're going to make Iggie a very rich man."
"I only remember him as the geek who was handy to have around whenever that evil bomb icon popped up on my Mac," said Luisa.
"Well, he's still a geek, but he's a billion times handier now," said Hilary, her smile mischievous. "And he might just come in handy tonight."
"Why do I have a feeling I don't want to know what you're plotting?" I asked.
"Plotting?" she asked with mock innocence. "Moi?"
"You're incorrigible," said Luisa, something she'd said to Hilary on more occasions than any of us could remember.
"And that's why you love me," she replied easily.
"Oh, is that why?" asked Luisa, but she was laughing. "I knew there had to be a reason," I said, but I was laughing, too.
A gust of frosty air rose up from the Bay just then, and we all shivered in our lightweight summer dresses. "We should get back to the party," I said. "It's freezing out here, and Peter's probably wondering where I am."
"And Ben's probably wondering where you are, Hilary," said Luisa pointedly.
"Probably," said Hilary, but the mischievous smile was still there. "More importantly, I promised Iggie a dance."