In this tightly interconnected collection of ten short stories, author Laura Ruby chronicles the progress of Lu, Beatrix, Roxie and their various steps and exes as they take the perilous plunge into the maelstrom of the so-called "blended family." Both ruefully funny and wickedly insightful, I AM NOT JULIA ROBERTS offers finely-observed, honest and affecting takes on kids, step-kids, divorce, remarriage...and the movie Stepmom.
|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
|Sold by:||Hachette Digital, Inc.|
|File size:||459 KB|
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I'm Not Julia Roberts
By Laura Ruby
WARNER BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Laura Ruby
All right reserved.
Songs to accompany your life: "Heart like a Raisin"; "The Propeller Beneath My Wings"; "Time and Time Again in a Bottle"; "I Want to Smack Your Hand"; "Crazy."
The children were ugly. All scabbed knees and crooked teeth, lank ponytails and greasy bangs, stained purple mouths unhinged to the uvulas. They rushed at their parents and at one another, swinging heavy backpacks, pelting chalky pebbles, kicking out with their thick institutional shoes.
Lu stood away from the little clots of moms and the occasional dad, smoking a cigarette. She had quit some six months before, but when her husband told her that she would have to care for the boys all by herself for the week he was in Dallas, something thin and brittle inside her snapped. After four days with her nerves stretched colorless, smoking was the only thing keeping the cancerous thoughts from finding form on her tongue.
She smashed the butt under her boot while she eyed the school entrance, the endless stream of children draining from it. She watched as stout women in teddy bear sweatshirts tenderly clasped grape-sticky kids to their bosoms. Scraps of conversation floated around her.
"Britney had three hours of homework last night. What is with these teachers?"
"Is that the way you talk to me? Is it? You better watch that mouth!"
"I should be more patient with her. You knowthese Protestants, always going on about what the Bible says, as if anybody really knows. They don't even believe Mary is a saint."
Lupe Klein, neither Hispanic nor Jewish, raised a Lutheran, was tempted to say, "We don't believe anyone's a saint." But perhaps she was wrong. Perhaps, Lu told herself, these ugly children did beautiful, thoughtful, saintly things-splinted the broken wings of baby robins, tended to ailing grandmas and -pas, gave their last pennies to the poor. Perhaps she was too angry and shallow, too roiled with resentment, to see the beauty beneath the ugliness. Perhaps she was the wicked one.
In front of her, a tall boy plucked a knot of hair from the scalp of a smaller boy. The small one smacked a palm to his head and howled as the tall one waggled the knot, its tiny white roots quivering.
Christ. We're all doomed.
A woman standing next to her clucked her tongue. Lu thought it was an unconscious comment on the hair pulling, but the woman said, "Sometimes they keep them."
Who keeps who where? "Excuse me?" Lu said.
The woman, who had spectacularly tidy hair, nodded toward the school doors. "Sometimes they keep certain classes after school. You know, if someone is pushing someone else in line, or something like that. There have been times I've waited ten or fifteen minutes."
"Oh," Lu said. "Right."
"I'm Glynn," the woman said.
Lu swallowed a sigh. "Lu."
"My son's in kindergarten. Afternoon session." Glynn smiled encouragingly, but Lu offered no more information. She had discovered very quickly that the word stepmother had a negative effect on most of the women in the school yard, and she was too fragile to risk a response. Lu wasn't sure what she would say if Ms. Tidy's face tightened, if it fell, if she said, "Really?" and leaned in, eager for the whole sordid story.
Lu was spared the small talk when Britt found her. He muttered a stiff, "Hi," through his glittering braces and trained his eyes on his own ankles.
"Hey, Britt," Lu said, her voice sounding peppy and false. "How was your day?"
"Stupid," he said. "Mrs. McGorney's an asshole."
Glynn and two other moms whipped around to stare, and Lu shot them a glare that was pure overcompensation. "A lot of people are," she said. "Most of the time you just have to put up with it."
Britt bobbed his head in a way that neither agreed nor disagreed, shrugged off his backpack just as Ollie waded through the throng of plaid skirts and wrinkled uniform trousers. As usual, he was crying, his upper lip blurred with snot. His untied shoelaces flapped.
"What now?" Britt growled under his breath.
Lu hushed him, though she had been thinking the same thing. She bent at the waist, bracing her hands on her knees. "What's the matter, Ollie?"
"I forgot my pencil case," he said, hiccuping through his tears. "My money was in it." Ollie was wide through the cheeks and soft through the body. The only thing pointed about him was his chin, which he worked silently in his grief.
Lu closed her eyes. A thousand questions coursed through her head, the answers to which, she knew, would only frustrate and annoy her. Why did you take your money to school? Why did you put it in the pencil case? Why do you always insist on bringing things with you just so that you can leave them behind? "How about we go back and get your pencil case?"
This just made Ollie cry harder. "We can't! They lock all the doors and you can't get back in!"
"Then you'll have to get your pencil case tomorrow." Lu moved behind him and hefted the thirty-pound pack off his shoulders so that he could stand up straight.
Ollie stamped his foot. "But what if my money gets stolen!"
"How can your money get stolen if no one can get back into the school, you freaking moron?" Britt said.
"Let's try to be civil, shall we?" Lu resisted, rather valiantly, she thought, the urge to smack Britt upside the head.
But the insult seemed to comfort Ollie somewhat, and he wiped his nose and cheeks with the back of his hand. "Can we go to school early tomorrow?" he said as they walked to the car. "So that I can be the first to go inside?"
"I think we can do that." At eight, Ollie still hadn't quite grasped the concept of time, and Lu was sure she could convince him that they were leaving early no matter what time they left. But then she was equally sure that as soon as he saw the line of children that had, inevitably, arrived before him, he would be flattened by a fresh wave of grief, and she would have to spend fifteen minutes consoling him before he would get out of the car.
Better to get up early.
Ollie's plump little hand tugged at her sleeve. "Ice cream?"
"I have soccer practice," Britt said, face suddenly tense with alarm.
"We can get ice cream and still get you to practice," Lu said. Ice cream was soothing and peace promoting. Ice cream was magical. Ice cream was something you could use later. When you asked for ice cream, you got it. Now I'm asking you to put your dirty socks in the hamper.
"But he eats so slow!" Britt said. "Practice starts at three-fifteen! And I still have to change!"
Ollie glowered. "I want ice cream."
"Mother fricking mother," said Britt, drawing more glares. "I just want to get to fricking practice!" He thrust both arms in front of him as if the boat were sinking and he had no choice but to swim for it.
Lu's tongue curled ominously around various threats, epithets, incantations, and she reached for her cigarettes.
"Loopy," said Ollie, releasing her sleeve and pinching his nose, "those make you smell."
They made it, just barely, to Britt's practice ("Fricking A, toad, will you stop dripping that fricking ice cream all over my fricking uniform?"). All Lu wanted to do was get Ollie set up with some puzzle books so that she could sit down on the couch, Picky a soothing bun in her lap. She had read somewhere that stroking pets for ten minutes a day could lower blood pressure. She wanted to work her fingers in Picky's tufted underbelly, unwind to his bumblebee buzzing, pet herself into a coma.
When they got back home, however, Devin was draped facedown across the couch, stupefied by MTV, and Picky was nowhere to be found.
Lu balanced an apple between Devin's shoulder blades, sure she could count his ribs right through his T-shirt. A few months before, he'd gone vegan. "Where's the cat?"
"Huh?" Devin did not take his eyes from the TV but deftly reached around and retrieved the apple, shined it on the couch cushion.
"My cat, Devin. Where's my cat?"
"Dunno," he said. "Around."
Lu could feel the thump of bass drums in her feet. "Did you forget to turn off the stereo downstairs?"
"Shoop's down there."
Lu dragged a hand through her snarled hair, pulling on it painfully. When she was single, she never had knots. "Don't you think you should join him?"
"He's okay." Devin's eyes narrowed, and Lu turned to the TV, only to see a teen Barbie look-alike-openmouthed and glistening with sweat-grinding her hips at the camera. She wore her tiny pink panties over her jeans. Lu blinked. Were girls wearing their panties that way now? Had she been so traumatized by the transition from hip chick to mother hen that she hadn't noticed that underwear was no longer under anything?
"Hey, Dev, what the fuck . . ." A pale and shaggy boy about Devin's age stood in the doorway to the family room, scratching at his scalp. "Oh, sorry. I didn't know anyone else was here." Lu was relieved to recognize his look: psycho-punk with a Gen-Z edge. Long shaggy hair, tight black pants, and an eyebrow ring.
"Devin, why don't you go downstairs with your friend?" Lu pointed to the soda cans, paper plates, sneakers, and other assorted litter, the slime trails of teenagers. "I'd like to make this room more habitable for humans." She put her hands on her hips, going for authoritative yet cool. "And please, guys, the language? I'd like to see if I can keep Ollie from swearing like a rap star before he's ten."
Devin grunted and slid off the couch, grabbing one of the cans. The two boys stomped down the stairs to the basement, their reedy, warbling voices wafting up.
"Who's the chick?"
"She's all right. You think she'd do me?"
What the cat loves: the smell of Ward's shoes, nail files, bathtubs, laser pointers, shrimp.
What the cat hates: vacuum cleaners, thunder and lightning, the tang of citrus, driving to the vet, big dogs, boys.
When they were little, they were adorable.
"Devin, Britt, and Ollie," Ward had said that first date, unraveling the ready strip of photographs that all dads tote around. They were twelve, ten, and five, respectively.
"Devin, Britt, and Ollie," Lu repeated. Whatever happened to Mike? Or John? Images of an old puppet show she had seen when she was a kid bounced through her thoughts. Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
She lifted the strip of photographs. "Kukla," she said.
The boys were small, doe eyed, and elfin featured. Someone, their mother, Lu supposed, had coaxed each boy's thick dark hair into sweet curls that would have undone Bill Sikes and Fagin alike. Ward saw them one evening a week and on weekends. Easy enough, he told Lu, because right after the divorce he had bought a house just a few blocks from the ex and her new husband. "The boys can just walk over."
"Great!" said Lu, lighting a cigarette in a toast to conveniently located ex-wives. Her mother had warned her against dating divorced men, but Lu was in her mid-thirties and had just moved back to the Midwest. Who the hell else was she going to date?
To her surprise, her first meeting with the kids was so pleasantly uneventful that Lu was soon dining with Ward and his children every Wednesday, dropping by every weekend. Unlike some of the horror stories she'd heard, the boys were always polite to her, never calling her rude names, never dismissing her out of loyalty to their mother. Of course, during their longer weekend visits, Lu was often out showing shockingly overpriced condos to wealthy people, but still, those brief visitations were comfortable and reliable as a Volvo.
Then one evening-three years after they met, five months after their wedding, twelve hours after they bid on a Tudor just fifteen minutes away in historic Oak Park-the bell rang and Lu opened the door to find Devin and all of his belongings on the porch, his mother's car peeling away from the curb. "Devin's all settled in high school now," Ward said. "How can I ask him to switch, leave all his friends? That would just upset him more than he is already."
"He stares at my breasts, Ward."
"It's only for a few years."
"I could be dead in a few years."
It seemed to Lu that Devin had turned from an elf to a monosyllabic troll overnight. Something heavy and damp and odorous that the ex had thrown off like an old coat in a hot spell. And that wasn't all she threw off. In a long and detailed letter sent with the boy, the ex announced that she could no longer take Britt to the orthodontist, citing scheduling conflicts with that office, and could no longer support Ollie's psychotherapy, citing philosophical conflicts with modern psychology. Then there were the half days, vacation days, parent-teacher conferences, soccer practices, and sick days from school that she thought Ward could handle. Or perhaps Lu could help with? "I understand," she wrote, "that a real estate agent's hours are quite flexible."
"Let me guess. Ontological conflicts with the concept of childhood? Theoretical conflicts with the idea of responsibility?"
"She has to work, Lu." The ex was marketing director at Heartland's Best Foods, maker of Ollie's brand wheat bread. Lu wondered which had come first, the boy or the bread.
"And what am I? Chopped liver?" Lu said. "I am, aren't I. Lu's Best Liver."
"Come on, Lu. I'll take care of most of it."
Most of it? The note had also mentioned that Britt's history project-a diorama on the Crusades-was due on Tuesday, and he still hadn't gone to the library. Lu's hysteria mounted, and she could feel a pulse in her eyeballs. "There's nothing like a little Loopy Liver to liven up your life!"
"What am I supposed to do? I called. I discussed. I yelled. They're my kids, Lu. Tell me what choice I have."
She stood there in the cramped kitchen, holding a bunch of mismatched silverware that she had been planning to give to Goodwill, and wondered how she could have been so thoroughly duped.
Her eyeballs kept her up at night, thrumming away into the dawn.
Ollie was perched at the kitchen table, delicately licking his ice-cream cone. He ate so slowly, it had melted all over his hand.
"Ollie, did you see the cat anywhere?"
"Stevie said a cat had babies under his porch. There are twenty babies. They don't have any eyes."
"I meant Picky. Did you see Picky?"
Ollie made a face. "I saw him drinking out of the toilet bowl this morning. Why does he do that? It's gross."
"Yeah, well, you pick your nose. That's gross, too."
"I do not pick my nose!"
Lu gave him a look and a napkin.
Picky, short for Piccolo, was a little gray pelt of a thing, a tiny scrap of biology that Lu had found huddled in the bottom of a garbage can at a New York City apartment building, back in her other life. He had stopped growing at six months, retaining the size and energy of an adolescent. Though he was close to seven years old, Lu still had to pluck him from the top of the screen door, where he often got stuck, splayed like a science experiment.
Picky was a living retreat for Lu, a handful of calming noises and familiar smells (his fur was loamy and sweet, like beets). When she got home from work, Picky would methodically clean each of her fingertips with his tongue, sanding away the limp handshakes, defiant keys, strange doorknobs, and stained countertops. And in this crowded house full of increasingly unfamiliar activities, loud noises, and unanticipated demands, Picky reminded her who she had been. Or at least reminded her that she had been someone else once.
Excerpted from I'm Not Julia Roberts by Laura Ruby Copyright © 2007 by Laura Ruby. Excerpted by permission.
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