Life is sweet for New Yorkers Molly and Gabe: They're young, in love, and newly engaged.
But when Gabe sells his first novel—a thinly-veiled retelling of his wild love affair with ex-girlfriend Talia—and it becomes a national sensation, Molly can't help but feel like the third wheel. To make matters worse, Talia reappears in Gabe's life, eager to capitalize on the book's success and to rekindle what she had with Gabe... at least, that's how it seems to Molly. But of even more concern? Gabe doesn't seem concerned at all. Instead, he's delighting in his newfound fame and success.
Jealous, paranoid, and increasingly desperate, Molly starts to spin out of control. Her social life, work life, and love life all go to pieces. As fact and fiction, and past and present, begin to blur, Molly realizes the only way out of this downward spiral is to fight her way back up. But what—if anything—will be left of her life and her relationship when she arrives?
Perfect for fans of Liane Moriarty and Jennifer Weiner, Otherwise Engaged explores the life we seek when the life we have... suddenly goes down the drain.
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About the Author
Lindsey Palmer is a writer, editor, and educator. She worked as Features Editor at Self, and previously at Redbook and Glamour. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she earned a Master of Arts in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and taught high school English for several years. Nowadays she's a scriptwriter at BrainPOP, an animated educational site for kids. Lindsey lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and newborn daughter.
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For one weekend this landscape is ours. It's a dewy July morning, the sun poking through the branches, making squinting unnecessary. But I'm wide-eyed anyway, awake since dawn, hunched over on the little porch watching sparrows flit through pine trees and ants scribble across my skin. Gabe is still asleep inside the yurt. I hear his faint snores, and I notice I've matched my breathing to his. It's like a fiber connecting our bodies through the canvas flap and ten feet of humidity, like part of the silken web I see winking in the light, flexible in the breeze. My vision darts, on the lookout for a spider. But it turns out I'm edgy for the wrong reason: A moment later, a mosquito probes my ankle, breaking skin, and by the time I smack the spot it's gone, leaving a fresh pink mound in its place.
"Oh fuck," I say, my first words of the day, voice raw.
I hear Gabe stir inside, and I can picture him waking: the long lean of him arched in stretch, a tangle of chestnut hair swooped over big sky eyes. The image makes me go weak and tingly. I know in a moment he'll call out to me — the anticipation is delicious. Until then, I savor the quiet. I spot something out past our clearing in the woods, a flare of cardinal red tucked in the bramble, a petal or a wing or a balloon fragment. It flashes in the sunlight, daring me to go explore.
But Gabe's gravelly morning voice pulls me back in to the promise of comfort and warmth: "Molly!" I hear a crescendo of wind through the leaves, the screen door's creak, and then Gabe again: "Good morning, Molly-moo. I was calling you."
I crane my neck, and there is my Gabe. Two years in, and the sight of him can still flood me with feeling — how lucky I feel to have found him, how grateful I am that such a brilliant and beautiful man has chosen me, how downright giddy I get when he flashes me his half-asleep half-smile. I'm suddenly pulsing with lust. I follow Gabe back into the yurt — the mattress is a magnet — and as we intertwine ourselves, I listen to the birds singing sweetly above us, as if they're composing a soundtrack just for Gabe and me, telling us we belong here, together.
We hike until the sun is high in the sky, and canoe until it nearly disappears again. Then we use twigs and magazine pages to build a fire, and we watch the inked art transmute into rainbow flame. All day I'm like a metronome, counting heartbeats, and steps across the trails, and oar strokes through the water. Also, Gabe's and my rotations around the sun: thirty for me, thirty-one for him, and as of today, a pair of them together. We char hot dogs and s'mores to celebrate the occasion.
"I have a surprise for you," Gabe says, his sticky smile glistening in the firelight.
"What is it?" I'm wary of surprises, preferring predictability and clear expectations. My lap is littered with graham cracker crumbs, and my mind is itchy with a sudden memory of a talk with my friend Kirsten: Your two-year anniversary, and Gabe planned a romantic getaway? Hmm, my friend said with a conspiratorial lilt. My own response was feigned bewilderment. Kirsten's fourth finger, dotted with diamond, dangled before me like a secret divulged. I flicked it away and said, Stop it, silly.
Not that I haven't thought of it, many times, stomach aflutter. Engagement and marriage excite me in the same way fairies and princesses did when I was little, for their magic and sparkle and mystery. But I was never one to don a tiara and a wand for Halloween; even as a kid, pretending at those kinds of fantasies felt too indulgent. Similarly, now, I have trouble imagining myself married, or even admitting that I want to be. Wishing to become a wife would be an admission that my current life isn't good enough. And if there's one thing I've learned, it's to be grateful for what you have. When I explained all of this to Kirsten — marriage's most ardent proselytizer, someone who seems to have been born a wife — she smiled skeptically, and I diverted the conversation to less charged territory.
"Follow me," Gabe nudges me now. My heartbeat quickens, ringing in my ears, and I try to ignore it. "Come on, Mollymoo." He slings a tote over one shoulder, and I track its bob and dip down the path to the lake, wondering at its contents: a bottle of booze, a steno pad, and maybe something more? I imagine myself tethered to Gabe for the rest of my time, for moments wonderful and terrible and mundane. I try hard to picture it, and the image flickers like figures in the distance at dusk — here and then gone. I trudge faster to keep up, aching to stay close.
Gabe parts saplings that look like skinny arms, holding them aside for me and pointing to a clearing. Taking in the view, I make my gaze soften, like it's a Magic Eye: The sun goes melty, like eggs over easy, yolks on the brink of bursting.
"Okay, I've got three things," Gabe says. He passes me sparkling wine and a joint, numbers one and two. I'm happy and a little fidgety as I guess at number three. With each sip of cool bubbles I grow happier, and with each inhale of warm smoke I get calmer. I'm amazed by my boyfriend, who couldn't have picked a more perfect way to propose.
The eggy sun soon cracks, going runny over the wavy water. I lace Gabe's fingers through my own, and together our arms invent a dance, loop-de-loops and big backstrokes and spinning undulations, Gabe following my lead. These same movements make up my earliest memories — me a wisp of a girl, hair wild, skip-skittering across a Maine shore. That was before a stony hardness took up residence inside of me, numbing out any softness. For a moment, I'm that little kid again, reckless and carefree. Then Gabe reels me in like a yo-yo, and our torsos press together, all heartbeat and pulse. The air is a ricochet of cicadas, the water a murmur of ripples. Gabe whispers in my ear, "Last but not least," and I urge myself, Remember this, Molly!
There's a rustling of paper, and my shoulders slump. Proposals don't usually require notes, right? Still, I hold onto a shred of hope. Gabe's smile is sheepish as he opens a folded sheet. "I wrote you a love poem."
It's instinct; I adjust my expectations in a snap, burying my blip of disappointment under a sheet of contentment. Everything's fine. My boyfriend wrote me a love poem! I make a choice to bask in it — this piece of my Gabe, this gift he's sharing with me — and before I sharpen my focus to concentrate on the poem's specific contents, three or four lines are gone, faded to echoes over the lake's nervous surface. Gabe is still reciting: "Orange of my sigh, dapple of your thigh."
After he's done, Gabe bows inelegantly. I stand on tiptoes to kiss him. "Thank you, my Scrabe." "Scrabe" is a portmanteau of "scribe" and "Gabe." I coined it on one of our first dates, when Gabe took me to a bookstore and gave me a tour of all the writers who inspired his work. Gabe lit up at the new nickname, and then made sure it stuck, my sweet narcissist. I ad-lib now in the style of his poem: "Apple of my eye, capsule of my guy."
"Happy anniversary. Here's to us."
I repeat his words back to him and we clink glasses.
"To many more," Gabe says.
But exactly how many more? I wonder in a flash, before willing the question away. "I love you," I say. I kiss my boyfriend of two years and we drain our glasses.
* * *
As Gabe sleeps easily beside me on the lumpy mattress, my night crawls along, a steady hum of nerves punctuated by short naps. At the darkest hour, I submit to Gabe's snores and slip into sleep.
We wake to a shout of "Yooo-hoooo!" It's Carol, who steps inside our yurt like an invader, although in truth she owns the place. She holds out a roll of toilet paper like it's a gag gift.
Gabe gets up, guileless in his boxer shorts. "Thanks," he says. "We could use the reinforcements." I mumble hello from under the covers, shy in my silk shift. Carol hands me a laminated pamphlet and I feel her looking at me looking it over. There's a portrait of her in profile and, below it, bold claims in block lettering:
Relationship counselor, seer of past and future, gifted and experienced.
I'm intrigued, despite myself. I glance from the pamphlet to the person and back to the pamphlet; Carol's photo is unretouched. Both versions of her have graying hippie hair and chunky turquoise earrings. It's a look I recognize from Gabe's mother, Barb.
"Eighty dollars a session," Carol says. "A real bargain." She peers back and forth between Gabe and me. "I specialize in young couples who are on a kind of precipice."
Gabe's glance at me is ironic, but then he blinks back to sincere. "Cool, we'll think about it."
Now Carol shifts to guidebook mode, advising us where in the area to find fresh eggs, thrifting, and antiques. As Gabe sees her out, she again recommends her fortunetelling: "I really think you two could use it. You're clearly lovebirds, but you both seem a bit, well, moody. A double session's one-fifty. Please consider it." She looks at us intently. "You ended up here for a reason, you know."
Her footsteps are barely beyond earshot before Gabe is reduced to fits of laughter, which prove contagious. Gabe is the better mimic. He continues Carol's sales pitch, pressing his fingers to my temples and delivering a faux-astrology reading: "Molly Stone, I sense that you possess a mercurial nature. This, of course, was fated by the celestial position of Mercury at the moment of your conception. Alas, you were born under the shadow of Uranus." Gabe's bare butt is a shock of pale skin in my face.
"Very professional," I say, swatting him away. "Where should I leave my payment? Also in the shadow of Uranus?"
Gabe flops over on the bed and flips open Carol's pamphlet. I peer over his shoulder, searching for something else to poke fun at, a misspelling or a bad clip-art logo. But Carol's branding is sparse and grammatically correct. She describes the future like it's a physical place, easily accessible to her trained mind. I, on the other hand, have always thought of the future like a magic trick, shadowy and shifty, something to be vigilant against and brace oneself for.
I glance at Gabe, who's reading Carol's bio, his lip twisted up and his eyes narrowed. I know this look well. It means he's disappeared into himself, memorizing this moment and storing it away — for a story. I'm in awe of this, how Gabe sees his surroundings not just as they are but as potential for his work, how he can mine reality for his fiction, translating and transmuting our world into new ones of his invention. I find it so courageous.
"What are you, a Capricorn?" Gabe asks distractedly, a sliver of his attention returned to me.
I couldn't care less about horoscopes, and I know Gabe isn't really expecting an answer. "Can I see your poem?" I ask. He hands me the sheet and I skim at random: "candle of my pie, cider of my cry," and again, "dapple of your thigh."
"What, as in, cellulite?" I ask. Gabe looks at me like I'm a puzzle, so I point to the line, and then run his fingers along the dimpled flesh below my butt, my steadfast companion since adolescence.
Gabe's laugh is all chest. "Oops, I didn't realize." It's a relief when he can laugh at his writing, and I giggle too as he tickles me inward toward smoother skin. "I was thinking of this part right here."
* * *
Driving back to the city, zipping past cows and barns and freshly mown fields, Gabe and I collaborate on an ode to cellulite, and then another to stretch lines and crow's feet and thinning hair, all the lovely indicators of age. It's a pleasant way to pass the time. Early on between us, I remember Gabe noting how much he liked driving because it was one of the few times he wasn't staring zombie-like at a screen; so, when he found himself behind the wheel, he made a point not to just tune out to the radio, but instead to tune in to his thoughts. I liked this. The two of us have had some of our best conversations in cars, plus long stretches of serene silence.
I spread my palms across the dashboard, inspecting my smooth skin and bare nails (and bare fingers, too, I think, before banishing the observation). I imagine my hands mottled and lined, knuckles gnarled. I wonder how the decades will change my insides, too. And when I'm forty then fifty then sixty, will Gabe still be by my side? I let myself wish for it, for just a moment.
There's a beep of sudden cell service, and my phone displays six missed calls: Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom. Annoyed, I click the screen dark, although my mother's persistence remains festering inside of me.
"Ode to dark spots?" Gabe suggests. But I shake my head. I'm now picturing my own body aged, mutated to become my mother's, my future life a copy of hers, all alone in a big, echoey house. The two of us are like twins, people always exclaim, as if that's clearly a cause for celebration. Even our names are near-doubles — Molly and Emily — a fact I find equal parts comforting and unsettling.
Halfway home, Gabe and I stop at a farm stand. We buy blueberries, realizing too late that they're actually from New Zealand. This makes us laugh, and still, we gobble them by the handful. "Open wide," Gabe says through a full mouth, and I bare my bruise-colored tongue. "Here it comes, imported all the way from down undah." He tosses me a berry, underhand. It takes five until I catch one — I swallow it whole in shock.
Gabe lifts his arms in victory, then nearly shouts, "I have something to tell you. It's important!"
"Oh?" Oh! I think, dutifully taking in the panorama — farmland until the horizon, sky a clean sheet. I go damp under my t-shirt. Of course Gabe would choose broad daylight to mark a milestone, I realize now. He thrives on sun and space. I remember my phone filled with my mother, and I soften toward her and her surfeit of attention. Gabe drapes an arm over my shoulder, and my mood soars. How I adore his paperlight touch, how I appreciate his affection that's ardent but only in bouts.
He scoots to face me head-on. Here we go, I think, this is it. I'm nervous, but excited, too — I can admit that to myself.
"Molly," Gabe says, staring me square in the eye, "I finished my novel."
"Wow!" I swallow sharply, as the news settles like a stone in my stomach. My eyelids drop, eclipsing the world into darkness. Part of me wants to crumble to the ground into a fetal curl. But I don't give in to the urge. Instead, I force my eyes open and spread my mouth into a smile. With effort, I bury my previous expectations. With focus, I say to Gabe, "I'm so proud of you! Congratulations, my Scrabe."
I am proud of him, very, very, very. I picture Gabe's novel like an Athena sprung from his head by axe and computer keys, emerged in full armor. How strong and brave he's been to birth it.
"I'm still tweaking it here and there, but I'm almost ready for you to read it," Gabe says. His eyes have turned timid and hopeful, and I think, Oh, precious boy, how lucky I am that you are mine.
"I'd love to," I say, meaning it. Water pools in my eyes, that's how thrilled I am for Gabe.
A breeze sends a rustle through the trees, and I'm suddenly chilly. "Should we head back?" I say. Gabe helps me up, and I wipe dirt from my shorts and stamp my feet to rid them of pins and needles.
Trudging to the car, aware of the muddy sink of each step, I consider Gabe's offer for me to read his work. As far back as our first date, he told me about his novel; back then, he'd just begun writing it. I remember leaning in like an accomplice, coaxing out details over our second and third drinks. In those early days, I begged for chapters, synopses, even single sentences, so eager was I to get glimpses into my new boyfriend's thoughts metamorphosed to the page. Gabe was kind but firm: Not yet. No. Still not yet. He did show me a short story once. It was a history of a man's regrets told over the course of his whoosh down a waterslide, two decades condensed into the two-minute ride. I found it really moving. But I was also distracted by the misplaced modifiers and run-on sentences, so I marked the errors, then handed the pages back to Gabe. He was quiet, before pointing out that he hadn't asked for notes. True. Fair. But didn't he want his work to be grammatically correct? I ventured. I was focused on the wrong things, Gabe replied, nostrils flared. He never showed me another piece of his writing, and his accusation haunted me: I was focused on the wrong things.
I haven't asked Gabe about his novel since. On mornings when he's writing, I've made a habit of becoming quiet and still, and I've grown to covet that time. It's felt like meditation, evanescent and gauzy. It's sometimes easy to forget that during that same time, Gabe has been working toward something concrete, a pile-up of pages, a record. But, of what? I wonder now, curious and a little excited.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Otherwise Engaged"
Copyright © 2019 Lindsey Palmer.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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