"Adams is that rare writer who sends out every laugh with a sting in its tail. Most novels fade from the memory. This one sticks."Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
Inside their picture-perfect homes, the residents of this quiet California suburb are not at all what they seem.
Lance is a former weatherman, now a buff yogi, stay-athome dad, and manager of his daughter's Girl Scout troop's cookie distribution. Belle is his precocious and quick-witted daughter. Darlene is a classic Type A work-a-holic, she has little time or patience for the needs of her husband and daughter
And just down the street are Alec and Wren. Alec, a womanizing businessman, is also the financial backerand sometimes morebehind Darlene's burgeoning empire. Meanwhile, Wren is a doting mother and talented yogi, ready to lay down the mat for a quick session with Lance.
As looming Santa Ana winds threaten to turn brushfires into catastrophe; Playdate proves that relationships are complicated and the bonds between families, spouses and children are never quite what they seem. What happens next door, beyond the hedges, in the romper room and executive officeit's all as combustible as a quick brushfire on a windy day.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.68(d)|
About the Author
THELMA ADAMS has been Us Weekly's film critic since 2000; after six years reviewing at the New York Post. She has written for Marie Claire, The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Self. She lives in New York with her family.
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By Thelma Adams
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Thelma Adams
All rights reserved.
Vermonters ignore nor'easters. Tornadoes in Tulsa are local news. Santa Ana conditions come with Southern California real estate. So, that first October morning when hot winds swooped in from the high deserts across the drought-stricken county, most San Diegans didn't cancel plans or playdates. And then the chaparral began to burn like flammable pajamas.
At dawn, an eighty-five-mile-per-hour gust snapped a power line east of rural Ramona. Sparks ignited the eucalyptus below. Fragrant flaming leaves littered the patched roof of a Witch Creek Canyon ranch house, which appeared deserted even in use — as a meth lab. The ensuing chemical explosion dispatched an armada of flames that, once airborne, replicated the process. The Witch Creek Fire was born.
High winds carried bright-eyed embers west, burning buildings and brush in Rancho Bernardo and Poway. The walls of fire would later accelerate with a rapidity that stunned the laid-back locals. Still, that first morning, it had yet to jump Interstate 15 to threaten the coast. There, fifty miles to the west, it was a chill fifty-five degrees at six-thirty A.M. Free of cinders and ash, the sky hung banner-blue above the quaint ENCINITAS sign that arched over the main drag in the sleepy seaside San Diego suburb (population 59,620, median household income $76,500).
A few blocks uphill, morning dew soaked the lawn surrounding Rancho Amigo Elementary School. A half mile farther, the school day yawned open at 1212 Pacific Breeze, where stalks of orange-streaked birds-of-paradise and fuchsia bougainvillea fringed the relatively modest two-story stucco Spanish Revival. Inside, morning light eased rather than burned through the French doors in the downstairs bedroom, adjacent to the empty nursery. It stretched across the carpet and onto the icing-pink floor of a pristine Barbie Dream House. Inside, ten-year-old Belle's box turtle thrust his bucket-shaped head against the faux-kitchen window, orange eyes aglow.
Above Boxy's head, in the dollhouse's lilac and lavender second-floor bedroom, Prince Charming Ken reclined on the white canopy bed stripped naked, crown intact. Little Red Riding Hood Kelly lay on her side facing him; she was fully dressed, yes, but the wolf, inevitably, was poised at their feet. Nearby, Businesswoman Barbie's legs protruded from a plastic crib like the stiff limbs of a corpse in a Dumpster.
Upstairs, in the big house, the king-sized bed shuddered from the quiet ministrations of Darlene, thirty-four, who had given her husband, Lance, a quick blow and then mounted him. She was working slowly and quietly back and forth, trying to find the right spot, the right speed. She had promised Lance that they would try to make another baby, and though she hated approaching sex like just another box on her checklist, here she was, at six-thirty A.M., with her hands planted on Lance's shoulders as her back arched and then flexed.
Lance's eyes remained closed. The thirty-five-year-old had been dreaming of awakening in his mother's cottage with the smell of fish cooking and the sounds of a distant struggle, and he couldn't quite climb back there to determine what was coming next, so he submitted to his supple wife in a not-unpleasant dreamy way.
Darlene had her hand cupped over his mouth so he stayed silent and was building up speed, panting quietly, when the bedroom door opened. Belle stood inside the doorway. Their only child wore faded, green-striped Ariel the Mermaid pajamas and clutched a droopy Mrs. Bunny by the waist. She dropped the weary, wash-worn stuffed animal she had had since birth (and which had recently reappeared nightly in her bed, after being relegated to a distant shelf for nearly three years). Belle stood rooted to the carpet and stared uncomprehendingly, until her mother sensed her presence.
Darlene gazed abstractedly over her shoulder, her blond stringy hair matted to her flushed forehead, rubbery in her tan nakedness. For a beat, she stared at Belle, not seeming to recognize her. Then Darlene's eyes cleared. "Belle," she called, reaching an arm back toward her daughter, "Belle." That was when the girl found her slipper-clad feet and flew out the bedroom door.
"We're only making love," Darlene called after Belle.
"Only?" Lance said, opening his dark eyes for the first time, and rising out of himself like a diver surfacing.
"I was talking to Belle," Darlene said, prematurely pulling off Lance. His dick thwacked his own belly as it landed. "Didn't you see her?"
"See her? She was in here? Shit, Darlene, didn't you lock the door?"
"We never lock the door," Darlene said.
"Well, you didn't this time."
"You jumped me," Lance said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and pulling the clock closer to see the time. "That was a sleep fuck."
"Sometimes a girl has to take fate into her own hands."
"Is that a complaint?"
"No, Darlene." Lance swung his legs out of the bed and grabbed two baby wipes from the bedside table, swabbing his penis with one, then his armpits and chest with the other. "If Belle hears us arguing, she'll think she's done something wrong."
"Well, we weren't doing anything wrong," Darlene said. She grabbed a blue chenille bathrobe and shrugged it on.
"I know, baby, I know," Lance said, approaching Darlene and tying the self-belt around her waist. He kissed her gently on the center part of her hair. "I salute your initiative."
"You certainly did," Darlene said, laughing.
"I'll start the coffee and talk to Belle while you take your shower and get ready for work. Do you want Cracklin' Oat Bran for breakfast?"
"Can you manage eggs?"
"Sure," said Lance.
"Pepper jack omelet?" she asked.
"Deal," he said while rummaging in the hamper for yesterday's board shorts and the T-shirt that had become his uniform. When they left Barstow (the isolated desert city 160 miles northeast that ranked as one of California's ten poorest), Lance went from professional weatherman at a local news station to stay-at-home parent. He missed the external reinforcement of regular employment, but he embraced the satisfactions of full-time parenting in a way that Darlene didn't. He had become Rancho Amigo Elementary School's most active male volunteer and the sole father to have appeared regularly at the weekly Girl Scout meetings. He put on the dirty clothes, then stuffed the rest of the laundry in a pillowcase and tossed it over his shoulder. "Hi ho, hi ho," he muttered, as he headed out the bedroom door and down the stairs to find his daughter.
Belle was hiding out in the laundry room beyond the kitchen and adjacent to the doors to the garage and the backyard. She would have gone outside if she could have figured out the locks and the security code. Perched on the dryer, pointy chin on knees, she stared out the window at the gently steaming swimming pool, her face taut. Rashy patches were rising on her cheeks. Belle mostly resembled her father, olive-skinned, long-legged, and dark-eyed. Her high arched brows were her best feature, opening up her face with an intelligence she hadn't yet grown into. She was handsome rather than pretty, her features softened by the feminine mouth she'd inherited from Darlene along with her mother's appeasing smile, nowhere in evidence at that moment.
Since the Ramsays left their Barstow backwater on Route 66 in January, Belle had become graver, and the adjustment period showed no signs of lifting. Her face had grown thinner and longer, losing the rounded girlish cheeks; it was finding its way toward the woman she would ultimately become, the face she would shape through her own experience.
And this morning had only complicated the situation. It was as if her mother had become a total stranger, to be avoided like an unfamiliar person in a car offering candy; this frightened Belle, almost more than the fact that the naked woman she'd walked in on only moments earlier had shown no glimmer of recognition, no acknowledgment of a connection between the two of them. That woman glaring at her upstairs hadn't been Belle's mom but some vampire sucking the lifeblood out of her father.
At the time, Belle's first instinct had been to rescue her father, but she had feared getting in trouble; yet for what? What had she seen: her mother atop her apparently dozing (if not dead) father? Oh, tartar sauce, Belle thought, what crime had she committed? What rule had she broken? So she had crossed the threshold into her parents' room. Since when had that been forbidden? The door wasn't locked. But there was her mother, or an unreasonable facsimile, shooting daggers.
Belle feared her parents' anger, not because it occurred frequently, but because she was a good girl. Her self-esteem hinged on this, as it did on an A average in school (not counting gym and music), and the atypical ability to speak only when spoken to in the company of most adults. It certainly didn't hang on her dramatic ability or natural beauty. Belle's exaggerated fear of parental reprisal was just on the cusp of adolescent revolt.
On that early October morning when the haze still clumped like dust bunnies to the western horizon, Belle was desperate not to slip from her parents' good graces. Like most middle-class, college-educated parents of their generation, Lance and Darlene had never hit her, although the occasional quick shake, hard squeeze of an arm, or twist of a collar was allowed. The primary disciplinary threat was exile, being sent outside the circle of their love.
Belle had stumbled into a clearing in her own house where she was unwelcome. She didn't like this new house anyway, with her parents' bedroom upstairs and hers down below and miles away. Darlene had tricked her into moving with promises of goodies and a private swimming pool. Darlene had assured Belle she would make new friends in Encinitas — things parents said to get their way. Belle had traded the friends who understood her jokes for a canopy bed, a Barbie Dream House, and a turtle. She hadn't even held out for a puppy.
"Hey, doll face," Lance said softly as he entered the laundry room, as if trying not to frighten away a dove.
"Are you okay?" she sputtered from her dryer perch.
"Of course I'm okay, baby," he said reassuringly.
"I saw Mommy sitting on top of you, choking you," Belle whispered, "and when she turned around, she had her demon face on."
"Mommy's sorry," Lance said. "She didn't mean to scare you. She was surprised to see you. You scared her as much as she scared you."
"I don't think so, Dad," Belle said, wiping her drippy nose with the back of her hand.
"I think so. She was right: we were just —" He stopped, thinking of tantric terms, and then used the limp, "making love."
"If that's making love, I'm going to be a nun."
"You can't," Lance said. "We're not Catholic."
"We could convert," Belle said. "Or maybe I'll just try screwing."
"Where did you learn that word?"
"Mom," she said.
"Great child-rearing technique," he said to himself.
"You married her."
"Mom," Belle said. "Do you like her?"
"Of course I do. I love her," Lance said quickly. But realistically he knew it was the reflexive "love" of married couples treading choppy water.
"I don't like her," Belle said defiantly. She looked into Lance's eyes to register his reaction, and saw the pinprick of hurt; she'd scored a direct hit.
"Sure you do," Lance said. "You just may not like her today."
"Why do parents want to know what you feel, and then tell you that you don't feel it?" Belle asked. Right then, Belle really did dislike Darlene. But this was the first time she'd said it aloud. Even Belle knew that pushing her father away wouldn't work. She understood that while parents agonized over preferring one child over the other, kids didn't. If they preferred one parent over the other, so be it. Belle favored Lance; she always had. She looked up to him literally and figuratively. He was the Zeus of her world, loved and feared. She wanted to tell him everything. And he wanted to hear it — but that didn't mean she'd make it easy on him. Especially after whatever weird thing he was doing with Mom.
"I do want to know what you feel, Belle."
"I don't belong here," Belle said. "I want to go back to Barstow."
"We can't," Lance said. "Mom's got a job here."
"You don't, Dad. Why not leave her here?"
"We're a family."
"She could visit us on weekends," Belle said. She resented that her mother kept saying the move to Encinitas was good for all of them, but it had mainly been good for her. She was so consumed with being busy and driving a new car and buying shoes at Nordstrom's that she didn't seem to realize that she had dragged them all out of Barstow and away from their friends and stranded Belle in the dreaded Rancho Amigo Elementary School. And Mom expected her thanks, as if it were an improvement to fall to the dregs of the school food chain. "Or we could come here on weekends. I could handle this place on weekends."
"Is school that bad?" Lance asked, as he reached into the full laundry basket beside the dryer where Belle was sitting and pulled out a fitted sheet.
"Worse." Belle's mouth was squeezed into a knot.
"Here," Lance said, "help me fold the sheets. I never get the fitted ones right by myself."
Belle slipped off the dryer. She faced her father with her palms up. He flicked the far end at her and she caught a length of elastic. They were silent as they sorted out the corners, retreated a few steps away from each other to stretch the sheet straight, and gave it a shake to flatten it between them.
"I miss my friends," Belle said.
"You have friends here," Lance said, tucking one corner into its mate. "What about Sam?"
"He's a boy."
"I'm a boy."
"You're a dad," Belle said dismissively, walking toward Lance to relinquish her corners and taking up the fold they'd made below. "I miss my real friends. I miss me with my friends. No one gets me here. They're too stupid."
"No, they're not," Lance said.
"See? I tell you how I feel, and then you tell me I'm wrong."
"You can make friends here. It just takes time," Lance said, and then he turned his attention to finishing the sheet to stem the flow of stock parent statements from flying out of his mouth.
Sensing she'd pushed too far, Belle said, "You're my best friend."
"Me, too," he said, carefully placing the folded sheet in an empty basket beside the full one. "C'mon. Help me crack eggs."
"You smell funny."
"Like baby powder," Belle said.
Lance led Belle into the adjacent kitchen; she choo-chooed behind, her hands on his hips. He opened the stainless steel refrigerator and gathered the eggs, milk, and grated cheese, then transferred the armful to the granite kitchen isle. He reached for a Pyrex bowl from a cupboard, bent for a whisk from a drawer, and placed both on the counter. Then he began to crack eggs with Belle beside him. He handed her the whisk so she could scramble, then asked, "Eggs for you, too?"
"No," Belle said. "I want Cinnamon Toast Crunch."
"Deal," he said. "But you have to have O.J."
"Gag me. It tastes yucky with cereal."
Belle shrugged and said, "Let me see your neck."
"To check for strangle marks."
"Why would Mom strangle me?"
"I don't know," Belle said. "You tell me."
"You missed that yolk," Lance said, ashamed. As they stood side by side in the kitchen, with Belle's wild head of black curls at Lance's hip, he experienced such a feeling of oneness that it scared him. How would he pull himself back together if something happened to her? He relished these moments of gooey eggs on their hands; the brush of his arm hair against Belle's; and the simple knowledge that Cinnamon Toast Crunch was his daughter's favorite cereal, having vanquished Lucky Charms and an austere period of plain organic yogurt.
This quiet harmony Lance and Belle shared was what he had imagined he would experience with Darlene as their marriage ripened. Instead, as the newness of their passion waned, a gulf had appeared between them, competitiveness entered the void, and, it seemed to him, a desire on Darlene's part to assign blame. He still wanted to bridge that gulf, but wasn't sure how.
Lance was a go-with-the-flow guy in the choppy waters of a marriage in flux; his instincts were to dive under the wave and catch the next one. He fought that gut feeling, and tried to hang on to how it used to be. In the beginning, he had welcomed Darlene's vitality: she glowed in a way he didn't. It was as if the sun were a desk lamp aimed at her. Sure, she had a vulnerable side that he connected to, a flurry of self-doubts that she wasn't afraid to share with Lance. In the early days, he had been her father confessor. But it was her passion that attracted him; other women had seemed as dull as faded denim in comparison. She dreamed big and included him in those dreams. And yet Lance hadn't anticipated Darlene's restlessness, how she courted drama and then retreated to Lance to smooth her ruffled feathers. Lance gazed down at Belle and the bowl's frothy eggs: was he selfish for still wanting someone who laughed at all of his jokes? Shit, yes, but that didn't change a thing.
Excerpted from Playdate by Thelma Adams. Copyright © 2010 Thelma Adams. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPart I: Tuesday,
Part II: Friday,
Part III: Saturday,
Part IV: Sunday,