Her girlfriends and her mother keep telling her that a woman who is about to turn forty needs to approach dating as a job, but Kat's decided to opt for early retirement. It's not that she hates men; she just doesn't trust them. After all, her soon-to-be ex-husband, Logan, has dropped all contact with their son, just as her own father did to her thirty years before.
While Kat prepares her students for the messy business of getting personal, she has no intention of getting herself tangled up in bedsheets and emotions. But Magnus Grimmson, the tall, good-looking, tongue-tied Icelander in the front row, doesn't appear to pose any threat. In fact, the man seems to need more help deciphering women than Kat does decoding men.
Then Kat receives a letter from her father that turns her life upside down. A former spy, Kat's father writes that he wants to get to know her. But her father's reappearance causes unexpected complications, and suddenly Kat finds herself questioning whom she can trust and discovering that she still has a lot to learn about men, friendship, and the kind of nonverbal communication they don't teach in school.
Darkly humorous, emotionally honest, and unabashedly sexy, Alisa Kwitney's novel affirms that forty isn't the end of the road -- sometimes, it's a new beginning.
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Read an Excerpt
"You're too young to retire from sex."
"But I'm too old to put up with all the bullshit that's involved," said Kat, leaning back in her chair and crossing her legs. "Besides, the only men I find attractive are the ones I'd be insane to get involved with."
This comment received a mixed review from her friends -- a wry smile from Zandra, a look of concern from Marcy. Shit. Kat had learned the hard way that if she didn't present her depression in a sufficiently amusing manner, she'd wind up having to sit through a steady barrage of unsolicited advice. See a therapist. Take an evening course. Try the new generation of mood-altering drugs.
Yet as much as Kat longed to avoid being on the receiving end of any more prepackaged wisdom, she wasn't sure that she could sustain the requisite level of wit to satisfy her friends. Her feet were sore from walking ten blocks in three-and-a-half-inch heels and her head was beginning to throb from the drone of fifty other peoples' dinner conversations.
"But Kat," said Marcy, "the last time you were single was ten years ago. Are you saying your taste in men hasn't changed at all?"
"Well, I no longer fantasize about Kevin Costner."
"No, seriously. Let's talk about what would attract you now." There was a look of missionary eagerness on her pretty, fine-boned features.
"Marcy, I beseech you, no in-depth analysis." Underneath the table, Kat surreptitiously slipped out of her stilettos. "How about a nice, safe topic, like the pros and cons of government-sponsored torture?"
"Very funny." Zandra reached for her martini, jangling the silver bracelets on her arm. "Am I allowed to mention that there's a guy over at that table who's checking you out?"
Kat tucked her bare feet under her chair. "You always think men are checking us out. He's probably looking for a waiter."
In contrast to Marcy, who seemed to have lost all her fashion sense, Zandra was improving with age. Ten years earlier, when they'd first become friends while watching their toddlers in the playground, Zandra had concealed her hair in bandannas and her body in baggy overalls. Then, sometime last fall, Zandra had stopped trying to restrain her abundant curls and started wearing fitted clothes that flattered her generous, hourglass figure. Not surprisingly, her transformation had coincided with the advent of a new man in her life. Well, not actually in her life, Kat thought, since the man only made sporadic guest appearances. But it was this very unpredictability that kept Zandra on constant French-bra-and-matching-panties alert.
Marcy, on the other hand, had gone from gamine short hair and funky vintage dresses to a lank bob and shapeless designer shifts. Looking at her now, Kat could hardly recognize the bohemian waif she'd met fifteen years earlier in a summer Shakespeare production. It was a classic case of mommification, but in Marcy's case, she hadn't managed to have the child yet.
Thinking about it made Kat realize that she probably needed a style overhaul herself. She'd been wearing the same tailored, mannish chic for over a decade.
"No, he's definitely looking at you, Kat," said Zandra, gesturing with a toothpicked olive. "See, the blue shirt, over there?"
Kat wondered if she should try something different with her hair. Layer it? Lighten it? Cut it all off? "I see him."
"You're not even looking, Kat."
"I'm using my peripheral vision. Not my type."
Zandra looked skeptical. "And what exactly is your type?"
"Borderline." Now that her divorce was almost final, Kat was aware that her friends felt she ought to be past the stage of obsessive thinking and intense bitterness. Without ever saying so directly, Zandra and Marcy had let Kat know that there was a rough timetable for adjusting to breakups. After six months, Kat had reached the point where she was expected to provide a few sardonic anecdotes about her soon-to-be ex, as well as some fresh tidbits of carnal misadventure with new, prospective mates.
But she couldn't find the motivation necessary to give a convincing performance. Kat no longer believed she would discover some magical fit with a man. Sure, if she looked hard enough, she could probably find a partner for some mutual genital friction, but she'd given up all hope of someone taking her through the hot, sweaty crucible of transformative sex.
Kat turned to Zandra. "Why don't we talk about your love life? Are you still seeing the semi-famous guy?" As the man in question was also semi-married, Zandra had kept his identity a secret.
"We're taking a break right now. He says he needs some time to be on his own and figure out what he wants."
Translation: He was blowing her off. Kat tried to think of a tactful way of putting this. "I hate to say it, but I think you'd better brace yourself. When men say that, they almost never decide that what they really want is more intimacy."
Zandra lifted her chin a fraction. "Well, I'm not as certain as you are that it's all over. But you don't see me just sitting around, refusing to meet anyone new." This was true enough. Zandra believed that romance came to those who pursued it, and her quest for an enlightened partner seemed to entail a never-ending array of workshops with titles such as Tantric Vegan Cookery and Spirit Guide Hiking.
Marcy, on the other hand, had been dating the same passive-aggressive underachiever for seven years. As far as Kat could tell, his main attraction was that he gave Marcy something to complain about.
"And how are you and Steve doing, Marcy?"
"We're talking about going to Iceland this winter."
"Iceland? In winter?"
"It's actually supposed to be very pretty, and not as cold as people think." Also, Kat assumed, it was cheap. Steve was a forty-two-year-old struggling jazz musician, and his refusal to stop temping and get a steady job meant that he lacked the funds to travel anywhere nice with Marcy, let alone get married and have a child with her.
"So, what do you do on a winter vacation in Iceland?"
Marcy stirred her martini. "Well, there's supposed to be a fabulous nightlife."
Which meant that Marcy was going to wind up alone in her hotel room while Steve drank himself into a stupor. Looking at Zandra (trying too hard in an African beaded choker and low-cut red blouse) and Marcy (not trying hard enough in a gray velvet chemise), Kat wondered why the hell she'd been voted the sick puppy of their trio. She also wondered how long she had to stay before pleading a headache and heading back home.
Adding to Kat's general feeling of malaise was the fact that the restaurant, Carnivore, was dark and hot and packed tight with college students and young professionals, all bombarding one another with flirtatious pheromones.
Kat couldn't even get her drink refilled, as the waitstaff were making only brief appearances at each table before vanishing into the back, presumably to play a hand or two of poker before returning.
Zandra had said that a night out was just what Kat needed. If grouchy was an improvement on miserable, then her plan was working.
"Where is our waitress, anyway?" Kat scanned the room. "We should never have told her we needed another minute to make up our minds."
"Speaking of making up one's mind," said Zandra, "have you decided what you want to do about your birthday next week?"
"Yes," said Kat. "Ignore it." It wasn't the fact of leaving her thirties that disturbed Kat. The way she saw it, she was still youthful enough to wear her hair long and her jeans low, yet old enough to know not to flash her thong when she sat down. After spending much of her twenties in open auditions, Kat no longer fretted about her looks, her talent, or her ability to withstand rejection.
But with her personal and professional lives on hold, Kat wasn't quite in the mood to celebrate the fact that her life was now approximately half over.
"But Kat, you can't just ignore the big four-oh," said Zandra. "Marcy and I were talking about throwing you a surprise party, but we decided you'd probably kill us."
"Oh, dear God. Promise me you aren't going to do anything like that. You aren't, are you? This isn't some elaborate deception where you pretend to be really frank and open while secretly plotting to confront me with a cross section of my past?"
Marcy put her hand on Kat's arm. "Are you having feelings about reaching middle age?"
Kat laughed. "Yes, I feel this incredible urge to go buy elastic pants and start shopping in bulk. No, Marcy, I'm not depressed about getting older. In fact, I kind of like the fact that for the first time in over twenty years, there isn't a man in my life and I don't care."
"Of course you don't need a man in your life," said Zandra. "But I get the impression that you've closed yourself off. I hate the idea that your experience with Logan has made you hate all men."
"Oh, Zandra, please." Kat pushed away from the table, her chair scraping along the floor. "Listen, it's not that I hate men. I don't. In fact, there are many ways in which I prefer them to women. Men tend to be more direct than women, more decisive and goal-oriented. I like the fact that men seem to worry less than women about other peoples' opinions. And, since I am heterosexual, I do find myself physically attracted to them from time to time."
Zandra raised her eyebrows. "Okay, if you admire them so much, then explain why you've decided to keep them all at arm's length."
"Because," Kat said firmly, "I don't trust men. I figure it's best to keep a lion tamer's attitude -- you never know when the other half of your act is going to forget its training, revert to instinct, and bite the hand that feeds it."
"So you assume that all men are going to wind up disappointing you," said Marcy.
"It's a safe assumption. If you're married long enough, you should expect periodic unreliability, chronic disappointment, even an occasional lapse in faithfulness. In fact, just to be on the safe side, I always figured it was best to have a few flirtations going on the side. I didn't actually sleep with any of them, but it reassured me to know that if Logan ever did cheat on me, I'd know where to go."
"Wait a second. You never said anything about this before." Marcy leaned forward. "Who were they?"
"My trainer, an old college friend, and the carpenter who built our living room bookcases."
"But you didn't actually have physical contact with them?"
"Well, there was a lot of meaningful stretching with the trainer, and my old friend gave me a foot massage. But no sex. And now that I'm single, I don't find any of them appealing anymore."
"Did you ever wonder if you might have protected yourself too much?" There was an expression in Zandra's eyes that Kat couldn't quite read. "Do you think maybe part of the problem was that you made yourself emotionally unavailable to Logan?"
Kat shook her head. "I'm sorry, no, I'm not buying that. Maybe I didn't trust Logan completely. The way I see it, intimacy is a pretty hazardous occupation, and you'd have to be delusional not to know that you can wind up getting hurt. I just never anticipated the extent of Logan's betrayal."
"But you were always complaining that your marriage wasn't working," said Zandra, her tone almost accusatory.
"And he kept saying that I was being too negative! Still, I can accept that he'd want to leave me without any attempt at working things out. But it would never have occurred to me in a million years that Logan could just walk away from his only son. Do you realize that it's been over four months now without so much as a phone call or an e-mail? Four months!" Kat paused to take a slug of her drink and wound up draining the glass. "You know what? On second thought, maybe I do hate men."
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, saved by the appearance of their waitress.
"How are you doing, ladies? Need any more drinks, or are you ready to order?" She paused, peering at Kat. "Hang on a moment. Didn't you used to be on that show . . . what was it called again, it's on the tip of my tongue . . ."
"She was Helen Jessup on South of Heaven," said Marcy. Kat kicked her in the shin with one stockinged foot.
"Oh, my God!" The waitress stared at her, wide-eyed. "The bitchy rich girl, right? I used to watch that. You hired North Sullivan to investigate kidnapping threats, but it was just a ploy to keep him away from your sister." The waitress gave her a thorough visual assessment. "Your face looks great."
Was this a compliment or a suggestion that she'd been nipped and tucked? Kat decided she didn't want to know. "Thanks."
"I've tried out for a few of the soaps, but so far, nothing. Not even a day part." The waitress was young, a dyed blond, with a large jaw and a blotchy complexion. Kat wondered if she was supposed to say something encouraging.
"It's a tough business," she murmured, remembering how much she had hated people telling her that when she was younger.
"But what can I do to improve my odds?"
Kat decided to be truthful. "Well, you're not conventional-looking. That can be a problem -- you're not quite ingenue material, but you're a little too young and sexy for most character roles. If you gained some weight, you might be able to land a quirky first role that would allow you to . . ."
"Right. Well, I'll come back when you're ready to order."
"But we are ready . . ." Kat began, but the waitress was already storming off, indignation in every bounce of her lithe, young body.
"Great going, Kat," said Zandra. "Ever consider laying off the truth serum?"
"She wanted advice. What was I supposed to do, lie?"
"Kat, there are times when it's kinder not to be honest."
"Oh, please. That's such a cop-out."
"So what good did it do to tell the waitress what you really thought? Now she's hurt and insulted and we're not going to get decent service."
Reaching under the table, Kat slipped her feet back into her high heels. "You know what? I think I'm going to call it a night." Wincing a little, she fished a twenty out of her purse and laid it beside her drink.
"Oh, come on, Kat, don't be so dramatic." Zandra tried to hand Kat her money back. "Sit down, we'll get another drink. The waitress is bound to come back eventually."
"I'm not being dramatic, I have a blister on my foot." Kat pulled on her navy blue French Officer's coat. "Look, I'm just a little tired tonight. Enjoy yourselves. I'll call you tomorrow."
"Are you going to be all right?" Marcy looked so concerned that, for a moment, Kat worried that she was doing something socially inappropriate.
"Of course I'm going to be all right."
"Come on, Miss Diva," said Zandra, patting her seat. "Sit your butt back down. If that shithead Logan's still bugging you this badly, then damn it, we'll talk about him."
"It's not that. Look, we'll talk tomorrow. Marcy, I suppose I'll see you at work?"
"Actually, I'm teaching the afternoon and evening classes this session. But we can still meet for lunches."
"Sounds great." As Kat made her way through the obstacle course of chairs and tables and busboys, she was aware of her friends' eyes on her. Well, she thought, now they're free to analyze my inert sex life. It occurred to her that she had just cemented her position as the odd one out.
Which was strange. Without considering it before, Kat had always thought of herself as the axis of their trio. She was the one the other women called. She was the one who'd brought them all together.
When had it changed? Thinking it over, Kat realized that there was no precise date, but at some point during the past six months her friends had drawn away from her and closer to each other.
Outside the restaurant, Kat paused to ask one of the smokers standing on the threshold for a cigarette. Was her reaction to the divorce really that inappropriate? Not as far as Kat could see. She exhaled a plume of smoke into the soft October night, thinking that, from now on, she would have to make more of an effort to conceal her feelings from her friends.
After the second block, her shoes hurt so much that she tried to hail a cab. No luck -- they were all off duty. Walking slowly and painfully past the crowded sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, Kat noticed that despite the deceptive, springlike warmth of the evening, some of the trees planted along the sidewalk were changing color. I shouldn't have worn my long coat, Kat thought. This is probably one of the last nights I won't need it. Everywhere she looked, Kat saw people taking advantage of the good weather -- older couples strolling hand in hand, buxom mothers and proud new fathers pushing baby carriages, young couples embracing each other with blissful obliviousness in the middle of the sidewalk.
It had been a lovely day in April when Logan had announced that he was leaving. Kat took one last drag of her cigarette before stamping it out, wishing the rain and cold would come and chase all the happy people away. Copyright ©2006 by Alisa Kwitney
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
Sex as a Second Language
By Alisa Kwitney
Questions for Discussion
1. A major theme in this novel is the "second language" of subtext -- saying one thing but meaning another, implications, social cues, and how people misread and misuse these elements of language. Identify and discuss instances in the novel that exemplify the difficulty and dangers of navigating subtext.
2. What are your impressions of Kat, Zandra, and Marcy when you first meet them? How does your opinion change by the end of the novel?
3. Kat makes her living in an industry built on facades and deliberate projecting. How has her career influenced the way she sees herself? How has it prepared her for life post-acting?
4. Kat struggles with two absent fathers -- her own, with whom she hasn't ever had a real relationship, and her husband, who not only walks out on her, but who abandons and doesn't call, write, or see his nine-year-old son. Compare and contrast Ken Miner and Logan Dain and their relationships to their families.
5. Lia and Kat are both abandoned by their husbands and left to raise a child on their own. How are their situations similar? What makes them, and their responses to their circumstances, different?
6. Magnus notes that he knows a power struggle when he sees one -- and he sees one going on between Kat and her mother, Lia. What are the conflicts between the two over the course of the novel? How does Kat demand respect from her mother? In what ways does Lia rise (or not) to the occasion?
7. How much does profession define the characters in this book? Do you think it's easier or harder for the women in this novel to redefine themselves as they change professions, or for the men?
8. Kat says she doesn't trust men, but she is let down by more than one woman in this novel. In Sex as a Second Language, do you feel that one gender is more untrustworthy than the other? Give examples to support your opinion.
9. How are Dashiell and Kat alike? How are Zandra and her son, Nico, alike? Using the novel as your resource, discuss how parents can indirectly, and sometimes unintentionally, influence the personality of their children.
10. Magnus is in a difficult situation. Do you think Kat would have been less upset with Magnus if he'd told her the truth before they had sex? Are you sympathetic to his predicament? Why or why not?
11. Were you surprised to learn that Zandra and Logan had been having an affair? When did you first suspect that Logan was the "semi-famous, semi-married" man?
12. The rock climbing wall is used as a metaphor both early and late in the novel. What does the wall itself, and Kat's ability (or inability) to climb it symbolize?
13. This novel is populated with salesmen, actors, and spies. What kinds of themes is the author incorporating by using these types of characters? Why do you think she specifically chose acting and espionage as the "worlds" of the main characters?
Enhance Your Book Club Experience
This novel is framed by specific portions of a book called Speaking Naturally: Communication Skills in American English. For fun, pick up a copy yourself, or purchase an audiobook version and share it with your reading group. In learning how foreign students are taught to understand American culture, you may gain a new perspective on the mutability of spoken and body language.
Sex as a Second Language is considered break-out women's fiction, a story that utilizes many of the techniques and familiar characteristics of romance and chick-lit, but goes beyond the confines of those genres. For your next book club gathering, compile a list of elements that you think are common to romance and chick-lit novels. Discuss how Sex as a Second Language uses or defies those elements.
On page 94, Kat reminisces about learning to make and use "invisible ink" with her father. Make your own using any one of the recipes found at kidzworld.com/site/p3844.htm. You can also have fun learning about and writing messages using secret codes and ciphers, like the null cipher Ken Miner uses to leave notes for Kat (where only the first letter of each word is important). Check out the codes explained at theproblemsite.com/codes for starters, or visit library.thinkquest.org/04oct/00451/topsecret.htm for more about what it takes to be a spy!