Laura Barrett has it all—a supportive husband, a beautiful baby daughter, and a career in television that has made her face familiar to millions. But there’s a shadow over Laura’s happiness. And when a man approaches her after she leaves work and calls her “Marta,” Laura knows that what she’s feared for so long has finally arrived. The postcard with the coffin on it confirms that her idyll is over.
Marta was a teenager, growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, when she did something terrible one night in a run-down motel, and she’s been running from it ever since. For twenty years, Laura has been trying to erase Marta from her memory. Now a man from her past is confronting her, demanding answers. At first, Laura thinks she can control the situation. But suddenly, she’s facing every mother’s nightmare: her daughter is kidnapped.
To get her baby back, Laura’s going to have to risk her marriage, her career, and her life, and finally face up to what happened that night so long ago. Gripping and suspenseful, The Last Good Night “ratchets up the tension and fully involves the reader in her heroine’s harrowing ordeal” (Publishers Weekly).
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.32(w) x 8.18(h) x 1.07(d)|
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IT WAS THE last good night, really.
The light from the all-night deli across the street filtered through the lace curtains and fell in shadows across my legs. Outside, the West Village street was deserted except for a delivery truck unloading bundles of the next day's newspapers by the closed metal shutters of the corner store. The wind blew dried leaves across the pavement and the season's first blast of steam heat gasped and sputtered as it made its way through the radiator.
Sophie whimpered softly in my arms. I looked down at her puffy slit eyes neither awake nor asleep, focus d up at me. Her irises are black, bottomless. Sometimes I think she can read my mind, literally read my every thought. She pursed her full red lips. It was one of the first things David noticed about her as we rested in the recovery room those first hazy drug-soaked moments five months ago, the baby across my chest, David by my side. "Someone stole your lips," he said. I traced their outline now, wiping a tiny bubble of spittle from her chin and then licking it from my finger.
Sophie's face suddenly turned purple, deep as an eggplant, as she began to sob. Her arms, her legs are pillows of flesh, boneless, pliant. Her wrists are fat, smooth, and hairless, like the wrists of a plump old lady. The only thing missing is a narrow gold watch and lilac perfume. I offered her the bottle of formula sitting on the floor and held her close to my face while I continued rocking back and forth in the mission chair. The smell of talc and formula and a musty amber scent all her own, like dank
cherry wood and cobwebs, engulfed me. I shut my eyes and inhaled deeply, swallowing it, drowning in it. Her fine dark hairs tickled my nose. Sophie's hair is straight, like David's, on the top and sides of her head, but erupts into a patch of wild curls, like mine once did, in the back. I've tried to wet down the renegade ringlets, tame them, this unexpected fragment of my past self, recognizable as if from a foggy distance, but they always bounce stubbornly back.
I wonder what else will spring out suddenly, unbidden.
I sat her up, burped her, wiped the white liquid that spilled from her mouth. Her cheeks, red and chubby, had patches of parched skin from drool and dry heat. Sometimes, in profile, there is a fleeting expression on her face that is exactly like my mother, Astrid a puzzled consternation nestled in fat. This is what David says: "Nature versus nurture is a joke. Babies come out with their own little agendas. It's all genetics after all, don't you think?" He never met my mother, and wouldn't know, even if I told him of the resemblance, if I'm right or not. Certainly, he wouldn't be troubled by it.
I heard David snoring in our bedroom down the hall. It amazes me that he is able to sleep through the crying, that he truly does not hear, the way I do, every whimper, every breath in the night, hear it in his sleep, in his very bones.
It was another hour before Sophie finally fell to sleep.
Before I left her, I stood in the doorway looking back into the dark room, and hurriedly made the sign of the cross on my fore- head three times. It is one of my secrets, this ritual, always three times, always furtive. If anyone ever catches me at it, I pretend to be rubbing something off my skin, an eyelash, a piece of dust.
I'm not Catholic, I have no religion at all.
I only crave protection.
I shut the door to Sophie's room and climbed quietly back into my own bed, with its soft mattress, Porthault sheets, and extra pillows. David was sprawled on his back, the eyelet quilt across his stomach, his caramel-colored hair standing up on end. I closed my eyes and tried to sink into all the plushness, but my body only skimmed the surface, rigid and resistant.
I lay still a moment more and then got out of bed.
I closed the bedroom door behind me and padded barefoot into the living room. Kneeling by the television, I felt behind a stack of magazines for a videotape, pulled it out, opened the black plastic box, and slid the tape into the VCR. After five seconds of static, music piped up, a graphic of Manhattan's skyline filled the screen, and the title appeared: The New York Nightly News with Laura Barrett and Ron Kheeler. I turned the sound down, embarrassed at the thought of David coming out and finding me.
I looked at the two faces on the screen, smiling and then still, as the titles and music dissolved and the camera moved in closer.
My own face, so smooth and confident as I began, "Good evening," my eyes opening expressively, my hands resting on the desk. When I first started in television, my eyes roamed the screen nervously, looking to connect with the unseen viewer are you there? or there? My arms rose from the desk, explicating, distracting. Early errors in out-of-town debuts. The way I clutched the microphone in two hands, as if praying, because I had once seen Barbara Walters do it. The makeup I applied myself, too vivid, with glossy lips that surrounded my words in pools of obscene red light. Small markets, small starts.
I slid my hands into the pockets of my silk bathrobe and sat back on the sage velvet couch.
Years ago, I took all of my savings and hired a coach to view my tapes. Maggie Tildon sat in silence through the entire first half hour, her scrawny legs crossed at the ankles, her lips pursed, as she took copious notes. When the tape ended, she pulled her thick glasses lower on her tiny nose and started reading her comments in a gentle voice, couching her criticisms, dulling them, until, frustrated, I insisted: Tell me the truth; don't spare me. That's how badly I wanted it.
After that, we spent weeks watching and rewatching the tapes. She had me slow down my speech, still my eyes and hands, lower my voice. She told me to smooth my hair closer to my head so it didn't look so cheap, dull my lips, square my shoulders to look more authoritative. She changed the way I dressed to more conservative suits, and told me to favor stronger colors. Even when they hurt, I welcomed every suggestion as she cut deeper and deeper, deconstructing me, remaking me. I was just so desperate to leave the past behind.
I watched the tape until the end. It was recorded a week ago, a memento of my last broadcast as co-anchor of the local evening news.
Often during the last week at home, I put the tape in and stared at my own face on the screen, a comfort, a reminder, a lie. This is who you used to be, this is who you are.
And all the while I watched it, I was wondering this: What did they see in it, in me, the network honchos in their leather and art-filled offices high above Manhattan, to make them offer me the national slot?
Others were wondering exactly the same thing the media critics who thought co-anchors were by their very nature a bad idea, the network reporters who had been dutifully trudging through the ranks from small domestic bureaus to Washington and then overseas, all aimed at getting them to the anchor desk, only to find the network had chosen someone who'd only done the local news. Not everyone wished me well.
WHEN THE TAPE ended, I got off the couch, ejected the video, hid it once more behind the television, and went to make a pot of coffee. While I waited for it to brew, I picked up the copy of People magazine that was resting on top of the refrigerator. I turned to page seventy-three. My own face smiled back at me from the right-hand side, greasy with fingerprints from secretive studying, blurring the words that trumpeted my soon-to-be debut as co-anchor of the National Evening News with Quinn Hartley. This was what the network had figured on, all the hoopla that came with their unexpected choice, the frenzy that a new face can bring.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down at the butcherblock counter. Outside, dawn was just beginning to break, pearly gray and wintry. I sipped the hot black coffee and stared once more at the print.
All last week, I wheeled Sophie back and forth past the newsstands, eyeing the magazine displayed in multiples, my face inside each and every one. And each time, a wave of nausea and fear washed through me. It hadn't seemed real before.
I've had press before, of course, but it was always strictly local, circulated only within the borders of whatever city I found myself working in. Who recognizes the news anchor of Burlington outside of its city limits, or Pittsburgh? The fame was contained, held in check. Restaurants seated me in front to impress the other customers, and people looked twice at me on the street. But I could leave the city, and twenty miles away, no one knew me, no one looked.
I was safe.
There are things you don't let yourself think about, things that you cram into a molten ball and stash deep within the caverns of your gut. Even as I moved to bigger and bigger markets and finally New York, I put out of my mind where it might be headed.
Sometimes now I look back and try to find the exact point where I should have put a halt to it all, when I should have thought about the consequences.
But I didn't.
I went along with the tests to see how I worked with Quinn Hartley, how we sounded together, how we looked, to see if there was that incalculable something between us: chemistry, alchemy, ratings magic. Part of it was simple curiosity would I make the grade? Part of it was ambition. It is difficult, after all, to say, This is enough. I'll stop here, when you are being offered so much more.
Anyway, I never thought I'd get it.
I rested my mug on the countertop and carefully ripped the article out of the magazine. Folding it in half, I took my coffee in the other hand and returned to the living room with its doubleheight swagged windows, Aubusson rug, and custom-made Italian chairs, all the carefully accumulated accouterments of permanence. When we moved in, I was seven months pregnant. It was our first real place as a family, and I wanted it to be perfect. The scent of all the anonymous apartments I'd had in all the anonymous cities still clung to me, gray impersonal rooms that could be vacated at a moment's notice when I got the call to move on. And all the while, longing for a home.
On the bookshelf, there is a large burgundy leather loose-leaf, and I pulled it down gently. Inside, I had pasted the articles that trailed after my professional career, from Burlington, Providence, Pittsburgh, a scrapbook of the past fourteen years until I made it to New York, complete with grainy photographs of my face behind a series of studio desks. I flipped past the page that held tabloid photos of my wedding to David three years ago, inky shots of us standing outside Tavern on the Green. Our faces, perhaps because of the long-distance lens, seem strangely expressionless, handsome cutouts of a bride and groom. We had only known each other six months, love was still most of all a hunch.
David has clippings of his own. A professor of urban planning, he wrote what everyone thought would be a well-received if sleepy book three years ago tracing the history of a single Manhattan block from colonial times to the present. Somehow it became a surprise bestseller and was even optioned for a miniseries. Magazines were suddenly clamoring to do profiles of him, intrigued by his ideas as well as his shaggy handsomeness and charm, hostesses wanted him for dinner. Women, enamored of his book jacket photo, so studious and so sensitive, sent him love letters disguised as philosophical analyses of his work. I had just come to New York to anchor the local news and one of my first assignments was to interview him.
My arrival, heralded in the press and in repeated promos on television, fully occupied me at first, but after the initial onslaught, I found myself left much to my own devices to fill the twenty-three hours when I was not on-air. The city left me breathless and unsteady. David, who had grown up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, had seen a lifetime of people come here to conquer it anew. "Just like you," he teased on our first date. "It's a city of phoenixes, all that small-town ambition burning up whoever comes near it. Everyone here is the one who got out of wherever it is they can't wait to forget. It's a whole goddamned city of amnesiacs."
"What about you?" I asked.
"Me?" He laughed. "When I went to college, they asked me the name of my hometown paper in case I did anything particularly notable. The only thing I could think to answer was the New York Times." He smiled. "Actually, I'm jealous. No one who was born here has nearly as much energy as you infiltrators."
I wonder if he looks at the articles about himself behind the closed door of his study, or if he rereads the love letters on discouraging afternoons. I suspect that he does, though I've never caught him at it.
I came to an empty page and pasted the People article onto it.
I WAS ON my third cup of coffee when David came up behind me and kissed the back of my neck, his lips still dry and caked with sleep. "Good morning."
"So today's the big day."
"Nervous?" he asked.
"Why should I be nervous? Just because every television critic in the nation will be watching and every women's group has written to tell me I'm their next great hope?"
"I'll take that as a yes." David poured himself a half-cup of coffee and filled the rest of the mug with milk. He took a sip and leaned back against the counter, the white T-shirt he had slept in falling in ripples against his solid frame. I knew if I touched it how soft it would be, how warm. "You'll be fine. They wouldn't have chosen you if they didn't think you could do the job." He smiled. "Of course, that's what they said about Connie Chung, too."
"It's your optimism I find so irresistible."
"Not my piercing intellect?"
"Don't flatter yourself."
"So, how did our little peanut do last night?" he asked.
It was what we always came back to, Sophie. It was where we found each other.
"All right," I answered. "Only one bout of projectile vomiting."
"Don't you think we should talk to someone about this?" David asked nervously. He was a first-time father at forty-one, the baby melted all his usual wryness, it just dripped away.
"I put in a call to the secretary of health, but she hasn't gotten back to me yet."
"And I thought you finally had some clout."
"Seriously, David, she's fine. We can't call the doctor at every sputter."
"Actually, we could."
"Does the story of crying wolf ring any bells with you?"
"No. I don't believe I've heard of that one." He smiled, but he still looked worried.
I smiled and ran my hand down his bare arm. When we first met, his parents had both recently died and, beneath his sheen of sophistication, there was a stunned, raw quality about him, as if nothing had quite scratched him before. The first night we slept together, he clutched me even in his sleep with such tenderness that I felt something deep within soften, shift. The largeness of his six-foot-three-inch body, the way it wrapped so thoroughly about mine, seemed to offer a refuge when I thought I had long ago given up the possibility of such a thing. It was so alien to me at first, and so welcome, this first real taste of security. It still is.
"Come on," I said now, prodding him gently. "Let's go look at her."
We tiptoed into the baby's room and stood together over the wicker bassinet. Sophie was snoring lightly, the fluffy white blanket up about her ears. "Our perfect little girl, our perfect little peanut," David whispered.
She opened her eyes and stared up at us.
"Come here, precious," David said as he reached his large hands into the bassinet and picked her up. "Mmmm." He nuzzled her neck and then looked over her drowsy marshmallow body and smiled at me. "We did a good thing," he said softly.
"Family hug," he said, and he reached his free arm around me, the three of us clinging to each other in the center of the room.
THESE ARE THINGS I never thought I'd have: a husband, a child. Family.
Sometimes it feels like luck, pure luck. Someone else's luck, a mistake to be corrected.
OUR NEW NANNY, Dora, arrived twenty minutes later, bundled in layers of wool, two scarves, and a baseball cap, her wireframed glasses misted with condensation. She washed her hands and went in to look at Sophie, who was swaying contentedly in an electric swing and batting with athletic determination at the hanging plastic rings. "Hello, little girlie, hello, little baby," Dora cooed in her nearly impenetrable St. Lucian accent. I often found myself nodding in polite agreement when I hadn't the vaguest idea of what she had actually said.
I went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. Then I lay on the bedroom floor, did seventy sit-ups, twenty lifts with each leg, and fifteen push-ups before showering. I've always been terrified there's a fat woman lurking within, just waiting to escape. Staring in the mirror, I began to apply makeup to my long, narrow face with extra care. I paused for a moment and appraised myself. My thick shoulder-length hair is cut into a bob by the most expensive stylist in New York. Its once unruly curls are chemically straightened so that they fallin a smooth, perfectly natural-looking sheet by someone else, who uses a secret formula from Italy that frizzy-haired women fly across the country for. A third person painstakingly paints it with four different shades of blond, completely erasing any evidence of its black beginnings. My brows are professionally shaped and lightened to match. I even have a new nose, thinner, straighter, shorter than the original, acquired twelve years ago because I was told it would look better on camera. Is it any wonder that celebrities sometimes slip and refer to themselves in the third person? I leaned closer and patted cream underneath my eyes to cover the circles. Other on-air women I know go to the studio bare-faced, letting the makeup artist start fresh, but I never do.
"You look good," David said as I came out of the bathroom.
"You always look good."
"That was meant to be a compliment."
"Did they messenger over an outfit? Did they give you rules about jewelry?" he asked. "Did they remind you that an open neck means an open person?"
"Come on. You need me to keep you honest," he teased. David maintains a certain ruefulness when it comes to the background of my work, as if the politics and image-making are somehow unseemly, or worse, amusing. His own brush with notoriety left him glazed, intrigued no doubt, but winded and suspicious. Within six months his book was off the bestseller list, the magazines were hungry for the next new face, and David was back where he said he preferred it, in the quieter and more manageable world of ideas, teaching his classes, working late in his study, giving occasional quotes to the more academic journals. Still, there was a passion and a pleasure in his eyes during that singular period of glare that I sometimes miss, even if he doesn't. Or says he doesn't.
"And you need me to keep you from being too sanctimonious," I replied.
He laughed. "I'll be rooting for you," he said as he touched the small of my back, and I knew that he would be. It is one of the things we understand about each other, the love we both have for what we do, the room it takes. He leaned over to kiss me. "Good luck."
After he left, I stood in the foyer fingering the gold clasp of my pocketbook that rested on the otherwise empty marble table. I've always been wary of tabletops, fearful of what the artifacts that accumulate on their surfaces might betray. The choice of books, the odd necklace, the lipstick. The papers, the tissues, the detritus. When I was young, I thought: If a Martian landed here and saw this tabletop, what would he presume about my life? And I carefully chose and arranged the fragments accordingly. Though I no longer think of Martians, I am still careful.
I told David about it once. Before I even finished speaking, he came up with a theory that had something to do with my being an expatriate (I came from Germany when I was nine, settling first in Florida). "You didn't know anyone, you didn't speak the language, so surfaces took on a particular importance," he suggested, pulling thoughtfully at a stray lock of hair behind his ear. David has theories about so many things the layout of a perfect city, how a married couple should divide their finances, the proper way to peel a cucumber each embraced with equal hope and fervor.
"Maybe," I said doubtfully, and let it go.
I finished collecting my papers and then, slipping out of my heels, I tiptoed once more to Sophie's room, hiding behind the door. Dora was on the floor rattling toy keys at Sophie, who lay on her back with her feet and arms in the air, wriggling with delight.
I watched them a minute longer, and then, reluctantly, I left.
THE CAB CAREENED down a block of crumbling tenements, soiled liquor stores, hunched-over men, puddles of garbage, turned the corner, and pulled up to a row of brick buildings onthe far west side of Manhattan. I paid the driver, gave him an autograph for his wife, and got out in front of the only clean façade. Looking down the broad street, with its Toyota and Chrysler showrooms like glass-plated slabs of suburbia somehow misplaced on the edges of the city, I saw a wedge of the Hudson River, gray and forlorn in the late autumn sun. Across the street, where one of the more rabid of the daytime talk shows is filmed, a few tourists walked by pulling cameras out of thick down jackets and taking pictures of the marquee. The buildings are lower here, squat outposts with vast satellite dishes on their roofs aimed diagonally up at the sky, while on the ground, limousines and town cars wait to whisk guests away from this otherwise forsaken part of the island.
I turned to the scrubbed creamy building with its famous matte gold logo sitting proudly above the entrance. My heart lurched a fraction of an inch. I wondered if it always would, if it does for all of them.
I walked into the main lobby. The receptionist, Donna, a light-skinned Puerto Rican woman in a white appliquéd sweater, glanced up from behind the large round desk and smiled. I smiled back and we looked awkwardly at each other, uncertain of whether to go further, inquire about health, ask for baby pictures. I often see other people pause and rest their attachés on Donna's desk while they ask after her two-year-old daughter with cystic fibrosis, but she never mentions the child to me, just smiles shyly across the divide of those who go on-air and those who don't.
I stepped to the left where the entrance is watched over by two uniformed security guards standing beside the steel arch of a metal detector. I nodded to them both and walked slowly by the hip-height security scanner, which read the ID card inside my jacket and emitted four high-pitched beeps of acceptance.
Instead of turning left to the local studio as I had for the past three years, I went right and walked down a long corridor of thinly painted white brick to the elevator that would take me to the studios of the National Evening News. My pulse raced and a film of sweat began to trickle down my back. I kept waiting for someone to tell me I had made a mistake, tell me to go back, who did I think I was kidding?
Finally, I reached the studio and pushed open the heavy glass door. I walked past the reception desk and paused at the edges of the main newsroom. The far wall was dominated by a large map of the world, the countries marked off in pastel colors, at once vast and manageable. Beneath clocks set to every time zone, forty people sat huddled over desks cluttered with video monitors, computers, and straggly copies of the day's newspapers, calling out to each other, glancing up at the four television sets overhead each tuned to one of the networks, rushing thin white and pink sheets of copy back and forth, eating candy bars, yelling into telephones. Up front at the assignment desk, three women sat monitoring the wire reports and the constant hum of their voices mixed with the churning of the computer printers and the newsroom banter. The sound wrapped around me, seeped into my skin, wriggled into my arteries, the insistent hum that obliterated everything around it, outside it, with its steady pulsing rhythm of now, now, now. It is what I love best.
Susan Mahoney, the assistant producer of the news, glanced up from her computer and smiled. "Well, well. Look who we have here."
Others in the room turned. A slow ripple of applause waved through the air and then trickled out as people called out greetings, wishes of good luck, congratulations.
Susan stood up and began to wend through the narrow aisle between the desks, her legs, encased in black leggings and intricately stitched cowboy boots, moving with a sure athletic stride. Her long blond hair was tied back in a ponytail, and she wore no makeup on her pretty dry-skinned face. With her Chapstick and her readiness with a curse and her delicate gold pinkie ring with its aquamarine flower, she is a unique blend of the girlish and the macho that thrives in the hothouse of newsrooms, fueled by alcohol and sarcasm and working hours inhospitable to outside romance. "Welcome to hell," she said, as she came up to me. "Are you ready?"
"I hope so."
Susan stepped back and looked me up and down. "So do I." She smiled. "You'll be great. Just don't let Quinn big-foot you. He's sure to try to step on every line." Susan knows on-air talent well, how to treat us, coddle us, soothe us, and she knows too how to set us up against each other just enough to get the best results. We are children to her, talented and precocious children.
Just then, an assistant hurried over and announced to Susan, "The tape on the Métro bombing just came in."
Susan nodded. "We'll talk later," she said to me, and rushed away to one of the fourteen editing rooms that line the newsroom behind walls of tinted brown glass.
I walked around to a few of the other producers' and writers' desks, said hello, and then went into my new office to the left of the main room, shutting the door behind me. I flipped on the lights. With its pale pink walls, gray couch and carpet, it had the sterile cleanliness of a hotel suite. There were no loose papers yet, no photographs. The large Sony TV was dusted and blank, an imposing matte black. I slid out of my coat, put it on the mahogany stand, and walked over to my desk, where three bouquets of flowers were waiting. I quickly read the cards to see who they were from the executive producer, Frank Berkman, the network news vice president, Ken Draper, and my agent, Jerry Gold. I slipped the white cards into my desk drawer and sat down.
The buzz outside was distant now, the voices neither male nor female, just a carpet of words. Occasionally, when something is happening, something big, involving wars, flames, hostages, guns, ambulances, death counts, the intonations change and the heightened syllables spread through the room like a virus. But today it was just a steady even pulse. I glanced at the corner of my desk, where there was a basket stuffed with unopened fan mail forwarded from the local show. I had asked the station to stop messengering it to me at home after reading too many letters filled with unwarranted advice on child care, diatribes about my hair style, descriptions of problems in the writers' own lives, sad and intimate scrawls from people who thought they knew me. The worst were filled with rambling sexual fantasies, with dangerous offers, with a fierce if incomprehensible anger.
There was one man who wrote me every week for a year. He broke into my house and ate dinner in my kitchen, leaving dirty plates and a love letter behind. When the police finally caught him trying to sneak into the studio, he didn't understand what all the fuss was about. He was certain we belonged together. Couldn't they see that? Sean McGuirre, his name was. He only got six months.
I shifted my eyes, turned on my computer and brought up the station's NewsMaker program where the stories that were slated for the day were listed. Next to each story there was an initial to specify who would read it, "L" for me, "Q" for Quinn. I carefully counted the "L's" and then the "Q's," making sure that they were balanced. Airtime equals power, and I learned early on that you won no points for sweetness or self-sacrifice. Quinn would always do the lead-ins, though. It was one of the many things he made sure of when he got the bad news of my arrival.
I leaned forward and began to scan the stories themselves. The second item was about a terrorist bomb on the Paris Métro that had killed two young girls. I stopped, shuddered. Since having Sophie, any story about children being hurt makes my stomach collapse and a well form in my throat. More than once during my maternity leave, I found myself tearing up while watching the local news, which specializes in such catastrophes. I told myself it was hormones, that it would stop, lessen, but it hasn't. I'm terrified that it will show on-air, that I'll drip, leak. I know that a single blunder, a drop of sweat, a blank stare, an emotional gaffe, will be instantly more memorable to viewers, and to the network, than an entire career of professionalism. On television, where two seconds can come to define a life, the only truly unpardonable sin is losing control.
I moved on to the item on negotiations in the Middle East. Though I miss reporting now that my job is behind a desk, the recitation of the action fascinates me in itself, the irrefutable fact of other lives, other calamities, other triumphs, other worlds.
And then there is the camera. The camera that grants life with its glass eye.
The very first time I sat before it and let it train its eye on me, I felt like an amorphous shadow finding its contours, its colors, its fit at last.
Though it's more fashionable now to deny that. To talk only of the responsibility, the importance of the news. And surely that is part of it.
Still, everything pales next to the time I spend before the camera, when every gesture, every breath, every nanosecond matters as I speak live to thousands and thousands of people and they listen. Tonight, it would be millions.
I pulled my chair closer to the desk, my forefinger moving down the computer screen, my lips moving soundlessly.
But somewhere during the read-through was it the third story, the fourth? I realized that I'd been running through the print without seeing it, without connecting to it at all. What I was watching instead, as if through the wrong end of a telescope, far away, miniaturized, adrift in space, was Sophie, curled up soft and fleshy, wriggling exactly as she had when I left.
I wondered if she was sleeping, one dimpled hand pressed to her perfect mouth, her tiny fingers bent, or whether she was beginning to stir, to cry.
No one told me how physical this love would be, like a craving.
I was startled out of my reverie by the ringing of the white phone on my desk. I picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
No one answered.
There was breathing, only breathing, a man's, a woman's, I couldn't tell.
"Hello?" I said again.
After a few more breaths, the other person hung up.
I put the receiver down. It was probably just someone who had forgotten that I had moved into this office.
I moved the cursor three pages back, and started again.
AT FIVE O'CLOCK, I left my office and headed for the makeup room down the hall. I settled into the thickly padded mustard vinyl chair and stared into the mirror. The makeup artist, Perry, looked up from her brushes and her pots. "Well, hey there."
I smiled, and watched the smile form across my face in the mirror. "Hi. How are you?"
"Fine. Well not really fine, but you know. Okay. I finally broke up with my boyfriend, Billy. I forgot, you're new, you don't know about Billy, the alcoholic, can't commit, sometime Broadway stagehand. Anyway, it took me two years, but I finally ditched him. I'll tell you all about it later. More important, how are you?"
"All right. A little nervous, I guess."
Perry stepped closer and tipped my face up to the fluorescent lights as she began to wipe off my old makeup. "Not bad. Not bad at all. Motherhood agrees with you. You wouldn't believe the undereye cream I usually have to use. I'm impressed."
"I may be easy, but I'm honest." Perry laughed. Twenty years ago, she was a cheerleader in Nebraska, and though her waist has thickened an inch or two, she still has the pert-nosed clearskinned good humor of one of the truly popular girls, just bad enough around the edges to make her interesting. I'm fascinated by her, by all of them, the girls things came so easily to, the girls who, even when they stumble, do it with an innate confidence that I can only imitate. "Pictures," Perry demanded. "Let's see some pictures."
I slipped a single photo out of my suit pocket. Sophie, just after a bath, swathed in a hooded towel, her skin dewy, translucent, her grinning face as fat and ruddy as a Brueghel.
"God, you're lucky," Perry exclaimed.
I smiled and put the photo back in my pocket while Perry pushed aside the black quilted imitation Chanel bag on the Formica counter and reached for her instruments. She began to apply foundation to my face with a wedge-shaped white sponge. I closed my eyes, soothed by the strokes, by the thick creamy layers themselves, and listened to Perry's love problems.
She stopped talking when Quinn Hartley strode in. "Nice suit," she said to him.
"Armani." He glanced at himself in the mirror, straightened the lapels of his jacket, smoothed the temples of his black graystreaked hair, and turned to me. "Just stick to the script tonight, all right? Let's not try any of this ad-lib stuff right off the bat."
I nodded. I'd watched Quinn Hartley, and respected him, for years, first as a White House correspondent then as an anchor, impressed with his deep resonant voice and his debonair clothes, his disheveled hair and his ruthless questions. Known for his fiery attacks on the status quo in his younger days, he now projected a calm and erudition that fledgling anchors around the country imitated. Still, I'd heard rumors that he once punched a colleague in the face in an effort to get to the President first as he rushed to board the helicopter on the White House lawn, that he had purposefully left the blood streak from a bullet graze on his forehead when he reported from Angola. In a business where a large ego is considered a necessity, his is legendary. We both knew he didn't want me here, sharing the show that had been his alone for the last six years. Everyone knew that.
Quinn sat down and waited for Perry to finish with me. "So," he said, "today's the anniversary of the California earthquake. Last time I checked, they were still arguing about whether to show the famous 'dead woman on the freeway' footage."
"The one with the mutilated arm sticking out the window?" I asked. "I was in Providence when that happened. We didn't show it, but the rival station did. And let me tell you, they whupped us in the ratings."
"That was local. You're in national now. Decisions have more far-reaching implications," Quinn said. He turned to Perry. "What do you think of this tie? The colors looked brighter in the store. Is it too dull?"
Perry picked it up and fingered the cool heavy silk. "It's perfect."
WITH MY HAIR and face in place, I went to say hello to the people in the control room. I walked up the back stairs by the side of the studio and entered the long narrow room, where two levels of desks and computers sat facing a wall of forty monitors. The engineers and assistant directors were just settling in for the newscast. Tony DeFranco, whose job was to slug in the by-lines beneath the faces on the news, was the first to look up. "Well, L.B., good to see you." He wiped a sprinkling of fine white powder from his jelly donut off his hand and offered it to me. It was a good sign that I already had a tag, L.B.
"How's it going?" I learned from the very start, a number of cities ago, that these men and women who others never saw could make me look good, or not. I needed all the help I could get.
"Just fine, ma'am."
"Ma'am? When did I become a ma'am?"
"When you went from local to national."
I smiled, shook a few more hands, and left.
When I got back to my office, about sixty percent of the newscast had been completed. I began to read the stories that were tagged for me out loud, playing with intonations, "The thirteen-year-old boy doesn't consider himself a hero. The thirteen- year-old boy doesn't consider himself a hero."
Over the loudspeaker that reached every corner of the newsroom, I heard the announcement, "Five minutes."
My foot began to jiggle rapidly up and down beneath my desk. I turned off the computer, went to the locked file cabinet, got out a pair of gold button earrings, put them on, took them off, put them back on, and left my office.
No one in the newsroom looked up, no one talked to me as I made my way to the studio. Everyone has their pre-show ritual, ridiculed but respected, and this is mine. I pumped my fists again and again until my knuckles ached.
All I could think of was this: Don't fuck up, don't fuck up, don't fuck up.
THE STUDIO WAS dark save for the brilliant white lights trained on the small set itself, the desk with its built-in video monitors and two chairs anchored in the harsh white light, a separate constellation. The air surrounding it was black and icy, the air conditioning cranked as high as it would go to counteract the heat under the lights. The cameramen wore sweaters and leather jackets. I stepped carefully over the thick black cables on the floor and said hello to the studio director, Al.
"Welcome to the nuthouse," Al said.
I walked up to the set and settled into my chair, into the warmth of the lights. I glanced down at the three video screens inset in the desk, and then up at the TelePrompTers, at the cameras aimed at me, and at the clock, ticking away the seconds in red.
I touched the edges of the desk, the papers.
I plugged my tiny headphone into the desk and heard Susan Mahoney up in the control room say hello into the earpiece.
Fifty-four seconds before we were to go on-air for the sixthirty broadcast, Quinn hurried in and sat down beside me. It's a game to him, how close he can cut it, how fine, how dangerous. "Do us all a favor and don't screw up," he said.
I looked over at him and decided to take it as a joke. "I'll try."
Quinn nodded as he leaned back in his chair and began to whistle "Hard Day's Night." His ritual.
I checked myself one last time in the small compact I stashed behind the desk while Al rushed up and put the last of the fresh pages of copy in front of us.
I heard Susan whisper in our ears, "I have a good feeling about this." And then, "Twenty seconds...fifteen seconds...ten seconds...and go."
I could feel the blood rush to my face and suddenly everything was gone, everything but this. I looked directly into the camera and smiled as I heard Quinn say, "Good evening. Tonight I'd like to welcome Laura Barrett to the National Evening News...."
THREE MINUTES INTO the broadcast, while film of the Paris Métro played across the screens, Susan spoke into my ear from the control room. "You're doing great."
I smiled. Despite all the odds, I am one of those who flourish
AFTER THE BROADCAST, Frank Berkman, the executive producer, came out of his office for a brief postmortem. Berkman, who came armed with a string of Emmys and a reputation for journalistic innovation, was brought in ten months ago from a rival network to help the show rise out of third place. I was his idea. Everyone quieted at his approach. He is an achingly thin man with thin dry lips and thin hair and thin gray skin, as if the incessant rhythm of the newsroom had eaten through his flesh. Even his sentences are parsed, thin, minimal. Unlike many in the business, he keeps his personal life out of the office and out of the press, which only adds to the rumors and the mystery about him. He is loyal, untrustworthy, brilliant, or merely lucky, depending on whom you believe. The only hard facts that had become known in the newsroom so far were that he always walked to work no matter how bad the weather, he ate lunch at his desk as often as possible, he never returned phone calls, and he had a predilection for Savile Row suits.
He leaned against an empty desk and crossed his arms before his concave chest. "Not bad," he said, looking at me.
"But what happened at the end?"
I said nothing, just shrugged apologetically.
"I realize that you were used to happy-talk on the local news," Berkman continued, "but we do not engage in banter on national broadcasts."
Quinn stood with his rolled-up Wall Street Journal in his hands, banging it against his thigh.
I looked nervously back to Berkman, who had nothing more to say. He slowly uncrossed his arms and turned back in the direction of his office.
"Thanks for the flowers," I called after him as he began to walk away.
Berkman swiveled, looked at me, nodded, and left.
"Flowers?" Quinn asked. "What's next? Heart-shaped boxes of chocolates?"
I WENT BACK to my office and shut the door.
I sat at my desk, resting my head in my hands, my eyes shut, feeling my skin peel off my body layer by layer, leaving a pulpy space behind. Only during the live broadcast did it seem to fit airtight.
I glanced at my watch.
David would be waiting for me at home, Sophie snuggled tightly in his arms. Sometimes he dances about the living room to Patsy Cline with her, Sophie smiling at the first notes of Patsy's smooth and mournful voice, turning to the speakers, anxious for more.
There had been offers of celebratory dinners from my agent, Jerry, from the network news director, from people who suddenly wanted to know me better, but I only wanted to go home.
THE AIR WAS dense and moist as I left the building. I pulled up the collar of my coat. The streets were dark save for the pools of yellow light from the street lamps. I had gotten into the habit long ago of walking at least part of the way home alone, though David tried to talk me out of it, reminding me of the muggings and rapes I reported every night on the local news, about the dangers of the neighborhood, and the possibility of deranged fans. He even bought me an illegal Mace spray to carry in my pocket. Still, I continue, finding in the night streets the promise of anonymity that first brought me here. Even now, I told myself, I can change neighborhoods, change names, dye my hair, who would find me?
I turned the corner onto Eleventh Avenue, where a trio of men stood before the liquor store pooling money, and headed south, walking quickly, my arms wrapped about me while I played it over and over in my mind Quinn's lopsided toothless smile, Berkman's voice, "We do not engage in banter on a national broadcast" dissecting it, putting the fragments back together one way, and then another.
And I thought of Sophie, of going home to Sophie, with her scent of cherry wood and cobwebs, and the way she fit into my chest like a long-lost puzzle piece.
Half a block away, I turned around suddenly, thinking I heard someone behind me. I fingered the tiny canister of Mace in my pocket. But there was only emptiness, silence. I continued walking.
I heard the voice again, just a mumble at first, the words indistinguishable.
And then I heard it clearly. "Marta."
I kept on, my head down, my arms tight about my torso. "Marta," the man said louder.
I froze, the blood suddenly still in my veins as I turned around and saw him.
Copyright © 1997 by Emily Listfield
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Last Good Night includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Emily Listfield. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Emily Listfield begins the novel quite simply: “It was the last good night, really.” And with this cryptic start, she launches the riveting story that introduces us to Laura Barrett, a newscaster struggling with the pressures of a new high-profile job, another mark of achievement in her seemingly perfect trajectory. But her crystalline world starts to fracture when a stranger calls her “Marta.” As the story continues, Listfield connects the bright, successful Laura to the mysterious Marta, a young girl living in a destitute hotel in Florida. Tracing her own story back to Marta’s helps Laura take charge of her life and build her future on her own terms.
Questions for Discussion
1. On the second page of the novel, Laura thinks: “I wonder what else will spring out suddenly, unbidden.” What conclusions did you draw from Laura’s enigmatic statement? Where did you think the book was heading?
2. Laura recounts her husband saying, “Nature versus nurture is a joke. Babies come out with their own little agendas. It’s all genetics after all, don’t you think?” How does this line of thinking counter Laura’s? What does this mean for her fivemonth-old daughter? Where do you think the novel ends upon the nature versus nurture question?
3. On one of their first dates, David confesses to Laura: “When I went to college, they asked me the name of my hometown paper in case I did anything particularly notable. The only thing I could think to answer was the New York Times. . . . Actually, I’m jealous. No one who was born here has nearly as much energy as you infiltrators.” (9) How does the setting of New York City help define Laura as the extreme outsider, or “infiltrator”? Is it a role that she’s used to playing?
4. When describing her makeup artist, Laura says that she “is fascinated by [Penny], by all of them, the girls things came so easily to, the girls who, even when they stumble, do it with an innate confidence that I can only imitate.” Although Laura herself seems to be one of these perfect girls, she admits that it’s only on the surface, an act. What does this tell us about Laura?
5. Chapter 2 is the first time that we meet Jack, when he calls Laura by the name we eventually learn is really hers. Who do you think Jack is at first? Does he seem like an old friend or someone dangerous?
6. “It is not always so simple to tell when something is over, after all—love, for instance, or grievance, is sometimes only hiding no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that it is gone.” (32) When Laura uses this thought to explain Jack, what does it make you think about him? And what is the grievance she’s talking about?
7. When Marta and Jack first meet as teenagers, their eyes meet in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. “[T]hough he was seated in the center of a crowded table, [Jack] seemed separate from his friends.” (142) How do we understand Jack’s personality from this short example? Does the adult Jack prove to be the same or different than the young Jack?
8. When speaking of her relationship with Jack, Laura says: “There were none of the feints and parries of dating. We understood from the very beginning that the first and only thing that had ever really made sense was each other. Why should we pretend otherwise?” (161) Discuss the relationship between Jack and Marta. How does this compare with Laura’s relationship with David?
9. On page 187, when she sees “Jack being led to the police car [she] looked at them all a moment more, and then . . . ran.” Can we ever really forgive Marta for letting Jack go to jail for her and reinventing herself as Laura? Does Listfield ultimately redeem Laura?
10. “[L]ove is a difficult thing to calibrate or predict. Especially someone else’s. It is, rather, an easy thing to be mistaken about, to underestimate or overestimate. It’s rare that we ever truly discover the precise nature of another’s love. I’m not sure we would want to if we could.” (217) How does this line of thinking apply to Jack and David? Can we relate it to Astrid and Garner?
11. How does the side story of the Townsends tie in to the novel? Why do you think Listfield incorporates it in to The Last Good Night ?
12. Why is the Townsends’ home filled with “Madame Alexander dolls with rouged cheeks and enormous eyes, dressed in tutus and taffeta gowns” (247)? Do you find this a joyful image or a dark one?
13. Almost every chapter, especially once the story progresses, starts with a reference to “when it started.” What is the “it” that Listfield and Laura refer to? And when do you think “it” really started?
14. What do you make of Astrid and Garner? Do you ever sympathize with the mother? Does Laura’s understanding of her own mother change as she herself becomes a mom?
15. What do you think would have happened if Marta had appealed to the cops who arrested Jack? Do you think that she would have been blamed for the murder herself? Should she have turned herself in despite the consequences?
16. On her website, www.EmilyListfield.com, the author writes: “I’ve always been fascinated by the question of how well you can ever know another human being.” Talk about how The Last Good Night itself explores that question. Is it just Laura whom we discover new things about, or do other characters surprise us as well?
17. What do you think will happen between David and Laura after the end of the novel? Will they stay together?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Call your local news station to find out whether they provide guided tours of the studio. How does seeing a real studio flesh out the scenes at Laura’s workplace and with her cohost Quinn?
2. Take a photo of a celebrity from People magazine and try to reimagine them as they might have looked in a past life, as Jack did with Laura’s photo. Compare your own against another one done by another member of your book club—do your “past” photos look similar?
3. Laura’s agent, Jerry, tells her when the Marta story is published that he has already gotten three book offers (324). Think about if you were publishing your own memoir—what would you say about your own life? Would you be comfortable publishing it for all to read?
4. If you could reinvent yourself, pick up from your current life, and move to a new city to start a new career, where would you go and what would you do? What would be the most difficult things to leave behind? What would you be glad to start over again?
A Conversation with Emily Listfield
You wrote this book earlier in your career as an author; it was published almost twelve years ago and now is being reissued in 2009. How has the experience of writing changed for you over the years? Do you remember doing anything differently when you wrote this book than you do nowadays?
In some ways writing never changes. There is always the struggle to get inside your characters’ hearts and find the best way to convey their lives and actions. I am more patient with the process now than I was earlier in my career, though, perhaps because I have gone through the bouts of self-doubt as well as the pleasure of seeing a completed book more times. I think, too, that as with anything, you continue to learn the craft the more you practice it. On a personal note, when I wrote The Last Good Night, I had a very young child. My daughter is fifteen now and she most certainly does not sit on my lap anymore while I type!
You thank both the news media world and police department in your acknowledgments; did this book require a lot of research?
One of the things I like best about writing novels is that it gives you an excuse to enter into other people’s worlds, to ask questions and observe places you might not otherwise have access to. When I began writing The Last Good Night, I called up a local television anchor, Dana Tyler, and she very graciously allowed me to follow her around for a few days as she prepared and then went on air to deliver the evening news. It was fascinating to go behind the scenes, from the makeup room to the set. It really is the only way to truly reflect the pacing and color of a world you are not familiar with. I have also found the police department very generous in their help. They get a kick out of describing what they go through and helping to get the details right.
Do you imagine that after the last page of the novel, Laura goes back to using her real name, Marta?
The goal for all of us is the integration of our various selves, who we once were and who we have become. Laura, because she spent so long denying to herself and others that Marta even existed, is an extreme case of this. You can never truly erase your earlier identity or your actions, though—they are a part of your psyche. That said, it is valid to choose how to blend the past with the present self you have created, which has a truth of its own. Laura can no more go back to being Marta than she can deny that Marta existed.
A lot of your books deal with domestic suspense.What do you think attracts you to this genre?
Questions of character, identity, love, and doubt all play out in our most intimate relationships. How we treat each other, whether we tell the truth or hide parts of ourselves, how we parent and pair up are the fabric of our lives. The ramifications of our decisions can reverberate through generations. These themes are universal and reflect our deepest desires, hopes, and fears. Though the canvas might seem small, the issues are enormous and, to me, endlessly compelling.
How has the world of television changed since you wrote this book?
In a relatively short amount of time, the world of television news has changed immensely. The twenty-four-hour news cycle has spread to numerous channels, and the Internet has made split-second reporting the norm. This has created a vast need for fresh news at an unbelievable pace. There are more ways to get information and more people to get it from. Though this has brought more news anchors to the forefront, a star system still exists—and Katie Couric is still the only woman to anchor a network evening news program. When she took over, the scrutiny of her was far greater than it would have been for a man. The press reported not only on her skills but her personal life, her wardrobe, makeup choices, and temperament. Clearly, as far as we have come, there is still a way to go for women in the news.
Almost all of your novels are set in New York City. What is the role of the city in your works?
I remain fascinated by New York. It is a place that lures people with the promise that they can find themselves, or lose themselves, both of which offer ripe areas of investigation for a novelist. Having grown up here, I see pieces of my past self on so many corners. At the same time, I am in awe of all those who dare to come here to reinvent themselves. New York is a character unto itself, a galvanizing force. Its challenges and promises highlight the desires and insecurities of all who live here. There are so many concentric circles of groups in the city, so many different ways to exist. It is rare to be a stranger in the place you know best, to be at once an insider and an outsider, but New York makes that possible.
What are you working on now?
I am currently hard at work on a new novel that explores what happens when politics and long-held family secrets collide. The cost public figures and their families pay for keeping secrets or conversely, for revealing them, is fascinating to me in this age when so little is kept private.