The follow-up to her highly praised debut story collection, The First Hurt, Rachel Sherman’s Living Room is a beautiful and disarmingly direct portrait of a family in trouble. With the tone of a modern-day Jewish The Ice Storm set in Long Island, imbued with Alice Munro’s fascination with personal history, Living Room is a deep exploration of the ripple effects of mental illness on a family, as well as a look at generational differences in mating and marriage, and a wry, wise look at suburban angst.
“The fractured lives of three generations of women told with zero sentimentality and a huge amount of heart. Living Room is edgy, moving, smart, funny and altogether human. Rachel Sherman is the real deal.” —Dani Shapiro, New York Times–bestselling author of Inheritance
“Sherman turns her unflinching, unsentimental eye once again on deepest suburbia, where personal history festers rather than heals. [Living Room] hums along, its heavier moments tempered with plenty of dark humor and incisive language; but it’s the intimate character sketches that truly resonate.” —Time Out (New York)
“Often praised for her lack of sentimentality, Sherman doesn’t hesitate to capture her characters’ weird, unbecoming thoughts . . . Her writing lends itself to the form: her story structures tight as fists, her prose terse and unadorned.” —The Rumpus
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Abby walks Jenna toward her house, across the high school fields. She looks out at the road that runs next to the grass, making sure that no teachers are around.
The sky is gray and it looks like rain but Abby leads Jenna slowly. Her house is so close to the school she can hear school sports games — the yells from the chalk-against-blackboard–like squeak of the metal bleachers — even with the windows closed. She always tries to make the time from the school to her house last as long as she can.
Abby looks over at Jenna, walking forward against the wind. A flash of the bright, shiny pink lining of Jenna's bomber jacket peeks out while she brushes back her hair with her hand. It is getting colder, and Abby folds her army jacket around herself. The wind picks up, then seems to let go.
Abby can hear the bell ring, and looks at her watch. It is the second class she is skipping today, but for good reason. Last period (gym) she spent in the girls' bathroom, with Jenna, getting her eyebrows plucked.
Abby touches the new thin line of hair above her eyes as they enter the woods at the edge of the field.
"Don't touch too much," Jenna says, getting close to Abby, pulling her hand away from herself. "You'll get zits."
Jenna knows these things. Her mother is an aesthetician. Last period, in the girls' bathroom, Abby looked into Jenna's green colored contacts while Jenna bit her lower lip and stared above Abby's eyes. Up that close Abby could see where the mascara had congealed on Jenna's eyelashes.
Jenna had drawn lines beneath each of Abby's eyebrows with blue eyeliner to guide her.
"You have such fucking long eyebrow hairs!" Jenna laughed.
It felt like tiny pinpricks, how Abby imagines acupuncture feels. It felt good to sit and let pretty Jenna Marino with her down-turned mouth and her soft brown hair, her perfectly shaped eyebrows and her mother's special tweezers, pluck her away.
Now they are going home for Jenna to finish the job. Now it is time for wax.
At the small opening in the woods, there are old tackling dummies, just behind the trees, forgotten. There is something about being in the woods, looking out from the edge of them, onto the field, down to the school, that makes Abby feel safe.
"So," Abby says as they stand lighting cigarettes, out of sight. She knows it is inevitable, so she takes a breath and says it: "There's a guy that lives with us, a housekeeper kind of, from Sweden."
Someone honks their horn from the parking lot. "What?" Jenna says.
"It's called an au pair. He is. But he's only nineteen. His name is Jorgen," Abby says, pronouncing his name the way he does: U-rine.
"U-RINE?" Jenna laughs, inhaling.
"That's how you say it, not how you spell it," Abby says. She points ahead to the small opening in the woods.
Jenna exhales a big, long plume. "So what does U-RINE do?"
"Um, just cleans our house," Abby says, thinking, suddenly, how strange it sounds. "And does our laundry."
Abby watches as Jenna's face scrunches up, her beautiful skin wrinkling around her nose. She laughs, and Abby does too.
"U-RINE," Jenna says, making a face. "Is he hot?" She French-inhales her last drag and then drops her cigarette, stomping it.
Abby exhales, shakes her head no, putting her butt out on a tree trunk. They both rub their fingers with pine needles as they walk to cover up their smoky smell.
"Come on," Jenna says. "Not even a little?"
"No," Abby says, pointing to her house once they are past the line of bushes that separates her lawn from the next. She feels like Jenna might not believe her.
"You have a really nice lawn," Jenna says as they walk across it.
Abby walks ahead and opens the back door that leads into the kitchen. She watches Jenna's face as she enters.
Jorgen is at the counter, making chicken — plain, the way her mother taught him. He parts his hair to the side and has acne and a thick accent. He has been here for almost two months, since August.
Abby's mother had to teach Jorgen to cook because he only knows from meatballs.
"Hi Jorgen," Abby says. "This is Jenna."
Abby watches Jorgen as he looks past her, to Jenna. She turns around and sees that Jenna is leaning over, taking off her shoes, and that the way she is leaning makes her breast show, the cup of her bra to the side so you can see her nipple.
All she really knows about Jorgen is that he sleeps with the fluorescent overhead lights on in the basement and that he told her and her parents, one night at dinner, that his best friend back home is in a wheelchair.
Now here he is, looking at Jenna's breast.
"Let's go upstairs," Abby says, walking past Jorgen out of the kitchen.
"Do you want a schnack?" Jorgen asks.
"No," Abby calls back, making sure that Jenna is right behind her.
The au pairs have been around forever. There had been a new girl each year, shipped from Sweden, always the same age, always blond and ready.
Au pairs were good for sitting and modeling on the couch when she did her art class assignments, drawing their ears and noses, and good for teaching her how to knit. Sometimes they were sweet, and then Abby felt bad that she liked her house better in the summers, between them, when it was just her and her mom and dad.
She liked some girls more than others. Then, this year, Abby's mother decided to get a male au pair.
"You might like a man better," her mother told her.
Her mother had called her into her room and moved her feet under the covers, to the side, so that Abby could sit next to her on the bed. She told Abby she was making sure to pick an unattractive one because otherwise it would make Abby uncomfortable.
From her bed, her mother picked Jorgen. She showed Abby his picture: a plain boy with darkish blond hair swept to the side. He looked like a dork in his red tracksuit (the au pairs always had shiny tracksuits, flip-flops with pointed plastic on the bottom so that it cushioned their feet, and they all loved Nike but said it wrong, without the long "e," like "bike").
Abby shrugged. She didn't care, then. She didn't even think of him until he arrived in the same red tracksuit, smelling strange, his English worse than the others', one of his two front teeth a little brown.
Jorgen disgusted her. He said his name was pronounced "urine." He didn't know what he was saying, and Abby didn't tell him.
Now Abby leads Jenna up to her room, and as soon as the door is closed Jenna begins to laugh.
"That guy is such a fucking loser!" she says. Her white shirt slips down again so Abby can see the top of her lacy bra.
"I know," Abby says.
Abby sits on her bed and watches Jenna look around her room. Abby sees that she is staring at two framed pictures of Japanese cutouts her parents brought back from a trip they took without her.
"Lay down on your bed," Jenna says, taking a white plastic jar from her silver bag and getting up to sit beside her.
"Why?" Abby asks.
"The wax," Jenna says. "What do you think?"
Abby had forgotten about the wax. Jenna is here for a reason.
Jenna spreads the wax above Abby's lip with a thin wooden stick. It is the cold kind, Jenna says, easier. She wonders if Jenna always carries wax around, just waiting for the next hairy girl to clean.
Abby closes her eyes and Jenna counts to three, then rips the stuff from her skin. This time it really does hurt.
"Fuck!" Abby says.
"Holy shit!" Jenna laughs, holding the wax up to show the hairs that have come off with it, tangled inside the goo like a web. "You're like a man!"
Abby doesn't say anything. She touches her new, smooth lip and feels herself blush.
Still, she is grateful. Jenna Marino, the girl with the young mother who all the teachers recognized in her face and in her laugh, is at her house. "You're just like your mother," said her English, Spanish, and math teachers — the classes that Jenna and Abby shared. Her mother, everyone learned early last year, had her when she was a senior at their very school. Her mother walked down the same halls, unlocked the same lockers.
"Do you think Jorgen is a virgin?" Jenna says, getting up to throw the wax in the garbage. "Sit up," she says, coming back to sit next to her and taking one of her arms. She scoops the wax with the stick and begins to spread it from Abby's wrist to her elbow.
Abby watches. She has not thought about Jorgen's virginity before.
"Yes," she says.
"That's pathetic," Jenna says, then turns back to Abby. "I mean, he's a fucking guy!"
"Yeah, I know," Abby says.
Jenna laughs, her mouth open, and Abby smiles. Jenna rips the hair from both of Abby's arms, then holds the skin down, patting it, taking out lotion from her bag and rubbing it on her gently.
"Great!" Jenna says. "Come here!"
Abby follows Jenna to her own mirror. Both of their faces hardly fit inside the circle.
"Look!" Jenna says, pointing to her red upper lip and raw-looking eyebrows. "The swelling will go down. It looks SO much better already!"
Abby looks and sees. She compares her own eyes (they are smaller), her lips (they are bigger) and her teeth (they are whiter) to Jenna's. She can hear Jorgen banging pots downstairs. Jenna smiles so her dimple shows.
Surprisingly, Abby does not feel ugly next to Jenna. No, she sees, she is even a little pretty. Just different, darker, pointed. Her smile is less wide, but she is just as hairless.
"See?" Jenna smirks. "Thank God you agreed," she says, because it had been Jenna who approached her in the bathroom, told her she could do something for all that hair.
Abby hadn't asked, but now she sees. It is what she has been waiting for. She watches in the mirror as Jenna turns and licks her on the cheek quickly, then looks into her mirror eyes and laughs again.
At night, once she is in bed, Abby imagines having a good-looking au pair. A light blond one. He can wear a tracksuit, but it has to be black. He wears the au pair sandals, but only when he is in the house.
His name is Lars, like that German foreign exchange student they had last year at school.
"Can I get you a snack, Abby?" he asks her when they are alone.
They eat potato chips together at the kitchen table and laugh and punch each other lightly on the arm.
She imagines Jenna coming over, and Lars ignoring her, only looking at Abby.
When Jenna tries to get Lars's attention, he hardly notices; when she shows her boob, he looks away.
He is a different kind of au pair, a different kind of man. Specially picked to come to her house for a year.
Lars lets her draw him and drives her places, but mostly, he is her friend. He is special, better, not like that.CHAPTER 2
Headie knows she has to answer the door or people will think she's dead. She is old and people think things like that, even when there is no reason. Recently she had gotten sick, which made it worse. People calling, acting as if they just wanted to chat. This new illness has her inside her house except to go to synagogue and get her hair done once a week. Outside, the doctor says, are germs.
"Who is it?" she says as loudly as she can. She had been on her way to the bathroom, on her hands and knees, when the doorbell rang.
"Delivery," a man's voice says. "For Mrs. Headra Goldstein."
Slowly, on all fours, she turns around for the door.
"What is it?"Headie asks. She does not want him to give her something she does not want.
"I don't know, ma'am."
"Who's it from?" she asks.
"A Mr. Jeffrey Schecter," the man says. "From New York."
The voice sounds impressed. It should be, she thinks. Her son Jeffrey is a lawyer.
Headie pushes herself to her feet, her head up last. She feels dizzy as she wraps her bathrobe around her and unlocks and opens the door. A cool breeze comes in that she can feel under her bathrobe. A short man in brown shorts and matching uniform shirt holds a box on her doorstep.
"It looks like a computer, ma'am," he says.
The man has a blond buzz cut and is clean-shaven. Headie wants to invite him in. She could defrost one of the bagels that Jeffrey brought up the last time he visited from New York. They could sit at the table and talk about the man's job, wife, and children. Headie could listen, pour him coffee.
Instead Headie signs the slip, thanking the man. She watches as he walks back to his brown truck, into the gray day. He is short but proportioned. She looks at his thick calves and imagines taking out a picture of her younger self to show him.
Headie closes the door and carries the package to the kitchen table, walking slowly on her crumpled toes. The package is too small to be a computer, she thinks, and too light. Perhaps Jeffrey sent her a new dish rack, all folded up. This would be nice, Headie thinks, but unnecessary.
She takes a knife from the drawer and slides it in between the cardboard. Then she sees them: the people dancing out of the corner of her eye. Men and women at a ball, ignoring her, smiling.
Headie shakes her head and they disappear. She has to open the package quickly; it is past her bath time and there are things to do.
She breaks open the box and undoes the bubble wrap. On top of it is a note.
Enjoy! It says. Call Millie to help you! Love Jeffrey, Liv, and Abby
Inside is a flat white device she takes out and opens. Her fifteen-year-old granddaughter, Abby, brought one just like it on her last visit. It is a computer.
Headie's elderly life, six months earlier, had gotten a second wind. Her second husband, Allen, had died five years ago, and it had taken her awhile, but she had become a volunteer librarian. She bought a used red convertible but never put the hood down. She drove to the library and back.
Only a few months ago, Sam Toubin baked her a challah shaped like a heart. He brought it over, and the two widowers sat in Headie's living room in her dead husband's chairs, eating chopped liver on saltines.
But then Headie got sick. And when she felt better, her doctor said that the library had too many germs for her to be there. Sam Toubin fell ill, too, and now she has to stay in her house alone with no one to cook for. She separates the space of the day into meals, vacuuming, reading mystery novels, and more vacuuming. She goes to bed early so that the day will pass.
Headie gets back down on her knees, leaving the computer to sit on the table for now. She takes her bath every day at three. It is almost time — she can feel it. But the bathtub seems so far away. The carpet is an ocean of brown. She still can't tell if she likes the color of the carpet that Allen picked. She thinks about this a lot, looking closely at it as she crawls.
She needs to get to her bath. She can see her big Jean Naté bottle through the open bathroom door down the hall up ahead. The bottle comes up to her waist. Allen gave it to her for her birthday when they first got married. Now it sits on the tiles in the bathroom. Allen always gave her more than what she needed.
The bottle needs refilling. She always keeps it full.
When Headie takes a bubble bath she pours the soap in the cap, then gently empties the cap in the bathwater. She then fills the part of the bottle that she has used up with water before getting out. This has diluted the bubble bath over the years, and now the liquid is only the faintest yellow. It still makes bubbles, though. It is enough.
Headie pauses on the floor, a hallway away from the bathroom. Halfway down the hall, she feels dizzy again. She is tired.
She turns herself on her back and looks up at the ceiling. She rests midway, putting her ear on the brown carpet. It does not sound like anything.
Headie began crawling a few weeks earlier. It suddenly occurred to her when she was down on the floor trying to pick up a piece of lint. Why get up only to sit back down? She wondered why she had never thought of this before.
Headie gets back on her knees, making prints with her hands in the carpet. She will have to vacuum again, striping the pile back to its back-and-forth pattern before bed.
Jean Naté, Jean Naté, she thinks. What the hell does that mean?
She sees the couples dancing again. It started a bit before she began to crawl. The men that she sees always wear tuxes; the women are bright colored dresses, blurs.
Headie knows that this is strange, but she doesn't mind. When she turns her head they always go away.
On Fridays, before Headie and Millie go to synagogue, they stop at the Jewish cemetery and help each other, sister-in-law and sister-in-law, climb to their dead husbands' graves. Headie has lived in the area her entire life — coalmining northeastern Pennsylvania. Just the other day Millie told her that she read they had the largest population of elderly people in America. It was like the area had aged with Headie — both used to feel so young.
Millie is her second husband's sister. She is heavy and breathes hard. They both have old ankles, and some days it is more difficult for one of them to walk than the other. When they are both having trouble, feet swollen and cramped, one holds the back of the other's coat while she bends down to pick up a rock and places it on top of the stone.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Living Room"
Copyright © 2009 Rachel Sherman.
Excerpted by permission of Open City Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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