Stella Sparks is on good terms with her ex-husband, Terry, despite the fact he left her for another woman. Stella is philosophical—the marriage had run its course, they remain friends and the wellbeing of their kids is central to both of them. Stella's two closest friends, Carly and Jesse, envy her togetherness and wish they could emulate it. Jesse's husband, Steve, is a control freak who's driving her crazy, but she has two small children and can't see a way out. Carly, meanwhile, suspects her husband is having an affair and isn't sure what to do about it. Stella's life takes a distinctly upward turn when she meets a handsome, apparently single—no ring, anyway—father at her son's school speech night. For Carly and Jesse, however, the search for happiness and fulfillment proves more elusive. With a healthy dose of humor and romance, Stella Makes Good is about the games we play, the secrets we keep, the unpredictable nature of life, and the importance of female friendship.
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Stella Makes Good
By Lisa Heidke
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2012 Lisa Heidke
All rights reserved.
When I said 'I do' forever, I never thought I'd end up saying 'I don't any more'. Divorce? Not me. Ever.
And I'm not divorced ... yet. But my husband and I are separated. Terry has a girlfriend. Actually, he's living with her. I'm not feeling sorry for myself, though. I'm in a good place. Happy with my life, friends.
Terry and I met in the early nineties at an inner-city bar. He came out with a ridiculous pick-up line, something like, 'Do you believe in love at first sight or should I walk past you again?' Yes, it was dumb and cheesy, but obviously I was in the mood for dumb and cheesy because I laughed. I thought he was cute. It helped that he was unsure of himself and nervous as hell. And at least he didn't say, 'What time do you have to be back in heaven?' I have standards.
Within a week, we decided we were in love. Three months later, we moved in together. The following year, Ben was born. I often wonder if we'd have stayed together if Ben hadn't been conceived. We met, fell in love, shacked up, got pregnant. In short, we were running on a treadmill of relentless forward motion. Then I fell pregnant with Hannah. Two kids! Marriage would complete the circle. So, Terry and I did what was expected. Three months before Hannah was born, we united as Mr and Mrs. I was ready to forgo my maiden name — Templeton. I know that's not politically correct, but I liked Terry's surname, Sparks.
Stella Sparks. It had a glamorous ring to it. Besides, the name Stella Templeton had never done me any favours. I hoped Stella Sparks would.
Our marriage was good, really good ... until it ran out of steam.
The bartender coughed and handed over my change.
It was my shout. Place? Local pub. Three girlfriends hanging out at nine o'clock on a Thursday night, catching up for New Year's drinks. Date? January thirtieth, two days after the start of the school year. It felt more like two weeks. Teenagers!
I picked up the bottle of wine and headed back to the girls.
'So,' Carly was saying as I sat down, 'what's everyone's mantra for the year?'
She'd asked the same question for the last three years and I couldn't for the life of me remember what I'd said twelve months ago. I poured the wine instead of answering.
Jesse groaned. 'I'm not playing this game.'
'Why not?' Carly snapped. 'What else are you doing?'
We clinked glasses and she took a large gulp of wine before continuing. 'Anyway, I've got mine — fuck buddy.'
'Carly!' Jesse cried.
I shook my head. Carly could be a loose cannon, especially after a few drinks. She liked to shock people and Jesse always fell for it. I wasn't sure if Carly was serious or not. Her marriage had been through its ups and downs over the years, but I hadn't heard her complain about Brett recently.
'That's not a mantra,' I told her.
She smiled and flicked her long blonde hair behind her shoulders. 'My game, my rules.'
With a slow, deliberate movement, Jesse picked up her glass. 'I know what I want.'
'What does that mean?' I asked.
'It means I know what I want from life and this is my year to go for it. That and maintenance. I'm finding wrinkles on my ears. I can't wing it any more. I have to look after myself, otherwise ...' She trailed off.
Jesse thought her husband, Steve, was having a mid-life crisis because he was arrogant, rude and hated her friends. He wasn't having a crisis, he was just a prick, full stop. But Jesse seemed devoted to him and did everything she could to keep him happy, including Botox, beauty care and endless sexual favours. I knew she hoped that if she kept herself looking gorgeous and him feeling manly, one day he might tell her he loves her — like he used to years ago. And she does look great — flawless, unlined olive complexion, intense green eyes, wavy, sandy-coloured hair. Jesse's a real catch, unlike Steve, who's rather ordinary.
'What about you?' Carly asked me, snapping her fingers to bring me back from my mental drifting. 'We need your mantra.'
'I can only commit to a month,' I said. 'Anything beyond that is a bonus.'
She sighed. 'Get on with it.'
I took a sip of wine. 'Fun.'
'Too short,' Carly said.
'How about "I take control of my life".'
Jesse and Carly looked at each other. Carly swigged her wine before answering. 'You can do better.'
'What? It's not like maintenance and fuck buddy are so great.'
Carly shrugged and cast her eyes around the room.
'What about "I choose to be happy"?' said Jesse, looking anything but.
Jesse sometimes had great highs, where she was on top of the world, all smiles, hugs and good times, tempered by times when she felt low, sad and uninteresting. She'd been in a depressed phase since before Christmas and was finding it hard to pull herself together. I'd noticed that her little quirks had returned too — the foot tapping, repetitive counting.
'Finding a suitable fuck buddy would definitely make me happy!' Carly cut in.
'What's gotten into you tonight?' I asked.
'Nothing. Just being honest.' She nodded towards a group of men at a nearby table. 'Maybe one of them would be up for the job.'
I rolled my eyes, then turned a deep shade of pink when I followed her gaze and realised who she was talking about.
I'd met Mike seven weeks ago at my son's end-of-year speech night. We were both seated towards the back of the hall and I'd immediately noticed him. He was tall and tanned, with collar-length salt and pepper hair with a bit of a fringe thing happening and an easy smile. Even more interesting was the absence of a wedding ring ...
After the speeches were over, I made a point of bumping into him.
'Come here often?' I'd asked. It was a pathetic opening but it was all I had.
'Only when I'm certain there'll be attractive women here,' he said, smiling broadly.
I extended my hand and smiled self-consciously. 'Stella Sparks.'
'Mike Thompson,' he replied, taking it. 'Divorced?'
'Presumptuous,' I said, then grinned. 'Separated.'
'Me, too.' His tone was light. 'Sorry. People talk. You're in good company, though.'
'I dread to think what else you've heard.'
'All good, I promise.'
Instant rapport? I wouldn't go that far, but he was easy to talk to and handsome. Bonus points: he didn't appear up himself or sleazy. Another thought had struck me then: if he knew about my marital status, he must have noticed me before.
We got to talking, and the following week we met for coffee ... And that was as far as it had gone. The coffee date was a disaster. It was almost Christmas, the kids were on school holidays, and I was nervous — worried people would see us and talk. I hardly remembered our conversation ... I guessed I came across as some moronic twit. But I'd put it behind me, determined to focus on my children and newly found freedom.
Then, horror of horrors, I'd run into him in Woolies two days ago in the fruit and vegie section. I'd stammered something about how nice it was to see him again and that I was meeting friends tonight and it would be great if he could come along. Lo and behold, there he was, barely three metres away and smiling at me.
I smiled back. Jesus! I felt sixteen again. And I had absolutely no intention of revisiting that annus horribilis.
'See,' said Carly. 'You're eyeing them off, too.'
'You're all talk,' I said, dismissing several erotic thoughts from my head. I wasn't looking for a romantic interlude. I liked Mike, but I was terrified of falling in lust only to have it all fall apart. Yes, I was getting ahead of myself, but that's me.
'I'm not and I'll prove it to you.' Carly stood up and walked towards their table.
As she did, several men turned to look at her. Despite her often excessive consumption of alcohol, Carly's a stunner — athletic, tall, a bit like a greyhound. A good-looking greyhound with long blonde hair. Lately, though, when we're out together, I feel as though I'm minding an eighteen-year-old. It gets tiring, especially when I then have to go home and deal with my own teenagers.
'Everything okay with you?' Jesse asked, refilling my glass.
'Sure,' I said.
'Kids doing okay?'
'They're teenagers. Their lives revolve around themselves and their friends. They're not happy with the disruption of the separation and Terry's new girlfriend, but they're handling it.'
'It can't be easy.'
'No, but there's no alternative.'
Truthfully, my and Terry's romantic life had been kaput for several years. Occasionally, we'd tried to reignite the flame by having weekends away from the domesticity that had engulfed our lives, but the passion never lasted. Then, seven months ago, we'd gone to Fiji, just the two of us. Without Hannah and Ben, we'd quickly realised what we'd known, deep down, for years. The kids were the glue holding us together, and when they weren't with us? Well, we wished they were.
Terry and I had never been the sort to hold hands while walking along the beach, cuddle at the movies or kiss spontaneously. There were rarely any public displays of affection. That just wasn't us. At least, it wasn't me. But it seemed these were the exact intimacies Terry had been missing. Soon after Fiji, his idle lunchroom chat with a colleague turned into coffee at a nearby cafe ... which turned into lunch, and the lunches quickly progressed to dinners. Thankfully, the affair wasn't drawn out. Terry had the decency to tell me he had feelings for Amanda. I didn't blame him. In fact, I felt relieved. I wouldn't say I was happy that our marriage was over, but I understood where he was coming from.
So far, relations between us had been cordial. I was staying in the family home with the kids, so life hadn't changed too dramatically. I just had one less person to wash for, prepare dinner for and generally clean up after. I was under no illusions it would always be so, especially once we started negotiating the financial and property settlement, but for now Terry and I were fine.
Last week, he'd moved into Amanda's apartment. I couldn't think of anything worse than shacking up with someone new minutes after leaving a long-term relationship, but there you go. It was what Terry wanted, so good luck to him. The kids weren't as accepting of his new life. It was incredibly stressful for me having to coax them into ringing their dad or having a meal with him. As for staying the weekend with him and Amanda, forget it. That meant that when the kids weren't at school or with their friends, they were my responsibility. It was wearing me down.
Then there was Terry's mum, June. A few months ago when Terry and I told her we were separating, she wasn't impressed. She actually clipped Terry around the ears. That was a sight — a seventy-year-old woman hitting her forty-year-old son about the head. Looked like it hurt too. Poor June. When I'd taken her shopping last week, she hadn't mentioned the separation. When I brought up the subject, she threw me a blank look, like she didn't understand what I was talking about. She'd been a bit forgetful of late so I hadn't pursued the conversation, but thought, wait until she finds out about Amanda!
Anyway, the upshot was I wasn't looking for anyone new, and definitely not a fuck buddy as Carly claimed she wanted. That's why it took me by surprise when I noticed my toes tingling when I thought about Mike.
'Should we do something about her?' Jesse said, drawing me back to the present.
Carly was flirting up a storm with her new friends.
'She's a big girl. Give her ten minutes.'
Jesse nodded. 'Sometimes I envy you,' she said. 'You're free. You have no one to answer to.'
'Except my kids,' I cut in.
'That's different. They won't always be living with you. You can have your own headspace. You can please yourself, not always be worrying about what your husband thinks.'
'How's it going with Steve?'
'Same old, same old. He can't get enough sex, but he doesn't care about me enough to introduce me to his colleagues. I had to beg him to take me to the company Christmas party. A couple of times when I joined in the conversation, he frowned, as if I was going to say something wildly inappropriate.' She sighed and looked up from her glass. 'And you know what, Stella? I never do. I keep it all hidden.'
I wanted to tell her to wake up to herself and dump her dickhead husband. But I'd told her that a couple of times already. I wasn't going to add anything to this conversation by suggesting it a third time.
She sighed. 'I'm just being dramatic.'
I wasn't so sure. And I wondered what she'd meant about keeping things hidden.
From what Jesse had told me, Steve spent a lot of time working late and hardly ever gave her the time of day when he was around, except for when he was after a blow job. I knew he hadn't always been so dismissive of her. When I'd met him several years ago, he'd been open, accommodating and much kinder to Jesse. These days, I hardly ever saw him. Before Terry and I split, we'd occasionally had them over for a barbeque, but Steve had usually ended up drifting away from the conversation towards whatever the kids were watching on television, or else he'd sit there looking superior and raising an eyebrow if he didn't agree with what was being said. It gave us the impression he thought he was better than us, and that we should be honoured that he'd deigned to be in our company.
'And,' Jesse said, drawing me back into the conversation, 'I really want another baby.'
I took her hand. 'You any closer?'
She took the last sip from her wine glass and shook her head. 'I don't blame Steve. I know he's busy, tired and fed up. He doesn't want to add to the pressure by having another mouth to feed.'
'You can afford it,' I said.
'Emotionally, Stella. Steve says he doesn't have the energy or time to devote to raising another child. But yes, he says it wouldn't be financially viable either.'
'You're talking about a baby here, not a new car.'
She shrugged and we both looked at the empty bottle on the table.
'Should I buy another one?' she asked, just as Carly bounced back.
'I've met the most amazing guys,' she told us. 'Mike's a dad from school, and the others work with him. We're all heading out to this other place later. Want to come?'
I glanced over at Mike who was looking sheepish.
'Which place?' asked Jesse.
'Party! I meant party,' Carly said, slurring slightly.
'I don't think it's a good idea,' I said, feeling nervous.
'But they're doctors,' she added huskily, leaning over the table. 'Who's for more wine?'
'I'm in,' I said distractedly. 'They don't look like axe murderers, but you never know.'
Jesse nodded. 'Looks can be deceptive.'
'Please!' Carly snorted, and headed towards the bar.
Jesse's mobile rang. She took it from her bag and walked outside.
Carly returned with a new bottle of wine and poured a couple of glasses. 'Want to join them?' she said, looking over at Mike and his friends.
I shook my head, suddenly feeling shy as I remembered the disastrous coffee date. 'You go. I'll wait for Jesse.'
'Whatever.' And she was off.
I watched as she flirted with Mike's friend. He had dark curly hair that sat just below his collar, sort of messy and unkempt, a three-day growth, and he was tanned and tall, just like her. Mike was probably a bit older than we were, but the other two looked young, well under thirty. I felt a bit rude not going over to say hello. I had asked Mike here, after all. But I was nervous. It was better to say nothing than to start a conversation and say something stupid.
I glanced at my watch, conscious of the time. I was working tomorrow. I was a librarian; so was Jesse. That was how we met, ten years ago, working together at the library, cataloguing non-fiction.
When I told people my profession, they immediately gave me a sly — or in many cases, not-so-sly — once-over, then they'd say, 'But you don't look like a librarian.' As if it was a compliment.
'Really,' I'd say. 'And what are librarians supposed to look like?'
Then they'd throw me a few stereotypes from the fifties, which was when my eyes glazed over. No, I didn't wear thick, horn-rimmed glasses. No, I'd never worn my hair in a bun, nor was I mean or a spinster. I did wear cardigans, though.
'Hey,' said Jesse, walking back to our table, 'Steve's just rung. He's been held up at work. I told the babysitter someone would be home by ten, so it looks like I'm done for the night.'
'But this is our night. We've been planning this for ages. Can't you ring the babysitter?'
'Truthfully, Stella, it's not worth it. Besides, I'm tired.'
There was a squealing sound and we both looked over to where Carly was standing with Mike and his friends.
'Sorry to dump her on you,' Jesse said.
'Yeah, don't worry. I'll see she gets home in one piece.'
I watched Jesse push her way through the crowd towards the exit sign, then turned my attention back to Carly. She was sitting on the doctor guy's lap now.
Mike smiled at me, stood up, beer in hand, and came over. 'This seat taken?'
I stammered something unintelligible and smiled. Where was my brain?
'It was clear you weren't going to join me,' he said, and sat down. 'So, do you want to talk about the coffee date?'
I blushed. 'It wasn't a date, and no, not really.'
'Pity. I thought it had gone well, that was until you stopped responding to my text messages.'
'I sent you messages.'
'Thanks and Nice to see you again weren't the kind of messages I had in mind.'
Excerpted from Stella Makes Good by Lisa Heidke. Copyright © 2012 Lisa Heidke. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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