Ever since she can remember, Aly has been fixing everything around her: her parents’ marriage, her colleagues’ work problems, and her friends’ love lives are just a few examples. After a chance meeting with an ex who has gone from living in his parents’ basement to being a married project manager in three years, she realizes she’s been fixing her boyfriends, too....
So, Aly decides to put her talents to good use and, alongside two work friends, sets up the Fixer Upper, an exclusive, underground service for women who are tired of unpaid emotional labor. Using little tricks and tips, Aly and her friends get the men to do the work themselves—to get out of the job they hate, sign up for that growth seminar, do more parenting. Before long, a high-profile Instagram star hires them to fix up her app developer boyfriend. There’s just one catch—he’s also Aly’s childhood best friend and first love. As Aly tackles her biggest “fixer upper” yet, she’ll have to come to terms with their complicated history and figure out how much to change someone she’d always thought was perfect as he is....
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"I'm afraid we aren't able to accommodate a table for one this evening, madam."
The concierge at the Darlington was handsome in a bland sort of way. He had the sincere, apologetic look perfected, almost. But he apparently couldn't hide the irritated wrinkle above his eyebrow or how his gaze kept shifting to the couple behind me. The kind of customers he wanted, dolled up to the nines, and more importantly, not alone.
Here we go.
I bared my teeth in a fierce smile, trying to ignore the embarrassment staining my cheeks. Giving me away. Not now, Aly.
"Well... I mean... you took my reservation, so... could you please see what you can do?" I straightened my spine and tried to emulate someone else. An Amazonian warrior, perhaps, desperately in need of a steak and a quiet night. Or someone like my friend Tola, who would never take no for an answer. Yes, what would Tola say? "Especially as it doesn't say anywhere on your website about not accepting solo diners."
"Madam, it's just not... " He sighed and turned his attention back to the reservations list in front of him. No way, mate, say what you like, I'm not just going to slither away.
I looked past him to the high vaulted ceilings, opulent chandeliers, and soft rose crushed-velvet seats. I deserved an evening of decadence, of perfect wine pairings and food where the chef was making a statement. And just because I was dining alone didn't mean I was going to miss out.
Third Thursdays were the only time no one needed anything from me. They were my one night of freedom to blow off some steam, take myself on an adventure, treat myself the way I'd be treated if I was in a relationship. Seeing a new exhibition, going to a show, eating something that would make me mouth "wow" to myself and look around for someone to talk to about it. To work my way through an expensive couple of glasses of wine, safe in the knowledge that I wasn't missing out, wasn't being left behind. That for a glorious few hours no one was going to ask me for anything.
It's just not profitable. That's what he wanted to say. And he was going to try, ever so delicately, to shame me into giving up. But it had taken months to get comfortable dining alone, and I wasn't going to let a snooty waiter throw me off. This was my night.
"Look, man." I felt the man in the couple behind me lean forward, finding myself overwhelmed by a sudden cloud of cologne. "Just find her a table, okay? Otherwise I'm pretty sure it's discrimination."
The concierge pressed his lips together, and I could tell he was weighing up the likelihood of a social media storm: Diners in London restaurant come to aid of lone female, who just wanted to try the chef's award-winning tortellini.
I briefly considered bursting into tears, just to see if it got me anywhere. The concierge seemed to sense that was my next move.
"One moment," he snipped, and disappeared.
I turned to the aftershave fiend behind me to thank him, and blinked in surprise.
"Aly!" His face lit up, and he put out an arm so he could sweep in and kiss me on both cheeks. The woman at his side smiled, tilting her head slightly in that way that suggested she expected an introduction immediately.
"This is my wife, Diana."
I nodded at her, uncertain. She looked so chic and I tried not to scan her as she was scanning me, taking in her luscious dark hair and painfully stylish-yet-understated outfit. We seemed to come to the same conclusion at the exact same time: Jason had a type and he had definitely upgraded.
I pulled a hand through my dark curls, suddenly self-conscious.
"Married! Wow! Congratulations!" I was a walking exclamation machine. I paused, looked at him again, and blinked. "Honestly, I barely recognize you."
This man had slicked-back blond hair, a fitted shirt, and smart black trousers. I squinted a little and wondered if he'd had his teeth whitened. The Jason I knew five years ago had lived in cargo shorts and oversized T-shirts with holes and tied his scraggly strawberry-blond hair back with a piece of string. He'd lived in his parents' basement, teaching guitar to local kids without really more in mind for his life than that. There were no hard feelings when I ended it, it had just... run its course. They usually did, one way or another.
I'd liked him, though; his hippie, easygoing approach meant he was my exact opposite. His cargo shorts had hundreds of pockets that always held cardboard protein bars in case of emergency. He used to misquote philosophers and pretend he was making it up on the spot.
I couldn't remember if that was what finally pushed me to end the relationship. That or the pinkie fingernail he always kept long for strumming-that super-long nail always freaked me out.
"Oh, I'm sure. I had a bit of a... well, an epiphany, I suppose?" He turned to his wife. "Aly and I dated when I used to be a lazy bum living at my parents'. In fact, I owe it to her that I finally grew up and got my act together!"
Diana raised an eyebrow and looked at me quizzically. I half shrugged in response.
"All that talk of potential, and that I could really do something with my life if I found what I was passionate about!" He still talked with his hands, and I noticed his gold wedding ring glinting in the light. His nails were all cut short.
I laughed, feeling myself blush. "Sorry, that's my particular brand of enthusiasm. Love waxing lyrical about potential. It gets old."
"No." He reached out to touch my arm, kindness in his eyes. "I kept thinking about what you said, and I decided I wanted to get my own place, you know? And then I got that email from that free course you'd signed me up for and thought, why not? I got a job, met Diana, and now we're here celebrating buying our first home!"
"Wow!" I breathed, blinking again. "All that in five years? That's amazing."
I suddenly realized where the conversation was about to shift, and there was no way to avoid it. I rallied my energy for the inevitable: Who's doing better now? Who's winning at life?
There it was, that ever-so-slightly pitying head tilt, and then...
"So what about you, what have you been up to?"
Apart from arguing with a concierge about being able to dine solo in a restaurant on a Thursday night?
"Oh, you know"-I waved away his question casually-"still living in London, working in marketing. Getting turned away from fancy restaurants."
They laughed politely, and I watched in horror as a queue started to form behind us. The concierge was busy raging at his manager, sending me death glares.
"So are you still at the marketing agency? You wanted to be... brand manager or something, right?" Jason prompted, and I tried not to wince.
I was taken aback by the fact that he remembered. I shouldn't have been, Jason had been sweet, after all. He'd taught me to surf one weekend in Cornwall, and we'd sat on our boards in the ocean whilst he told me I was an old soul. He played guitar beautifully and wore these little woven bracelets he made when he got fidgety. But the basement and the fact that I'd seen him once blow his nose into a sock because he couldn't be bothered to find a tissue were the fingernails in the coffin. And now he was a married homeowner with coiffed hair.
I reached for my pre-prepared standby statement-enthusiastic and successful, but not boastful. Busy, potentially important, but not stuck up. The statement that said: I'm having such a great time living my life I'm not even considering competing with you and your family and your marriage and your home. The statement that said: I am H-A-P-P-Y.
"Head of branding, yeah!" I yelped. "I'm... on my way! Still at Amora, ever so busy, we're really growing from a boutique agency to a place with lots of big-name clients. I'm working with some great tech firms right now! I'm... still living in the city, loving it, breathing it all in, you know? Every day is an adventure! The interviews for head of branding are in a couple of weeks, actually..."
Oh god, I had clearly been talking about that promotion five years ago, and as much as Felix promised me I was close, I was in exactly the same place.
"We'll keep our fingers crossed for you," Diana said kindly, clearly recognizing I was absolutely no threat.
"And what about beyond business? Are you seeing anyone special?" That eyebrow wriggle was starting to annoy me. His wife tapped his shoulder with her clutch.
"Don't ask people that!" she hissed, and for a moment we shared solidarity.
I shook my head and smiled to say it was fine, assuming a singsong voice. "Everyone is special in their own way, Jason."
"So, no one more special than anyone else?"
Even Diana looked irritated that time.
Why did the happily coupled always insist on parading their status in front of everyone else, like we were the last ones left in a musical chairs semifinal? Better hurry up or there'll be no one left...
I winked winsomely. "I guess I'm just having way too much fun."
I could almost see them think it: Fun like dining alone in a fancy restaurant that won't let you in?
I winced, looking around for the next topic of conversation, but luckily Jason had that misty look in his eye and took care of it for me.
"I really do want to thank you, Aly. Honestly, if you hadn't pushed me, I'd never have changed my life for the better." He gestured at Diana and she laughed.
"Unrecognizable," I said tightly, then smiled. "I'm really happy for you, Jason."
He tilted his chin at the returning concierge and lowered his voice. "And if he won't let you dine, you're welcome to join us. You shouldn't be denied a dinner just because you got stood up! Feminism!"
I tilted my head at him and looked at his wife, who gave me a bemused shrug.
"That's very kind, but I wasn't stood up, I just booked to-"
"Miss Aresti, please follow me." The concierge gathered up the menus and nodded his head toward the dining room.
I turned back to Jason and Diana, speaking a little too loudly. "What a relief. If I hadn't been able to review this place tonight, my editor would have skewered me!" I almost felt the concierge twitch and saw that smile on Diana's face again. Good for her, she deserved a Jason 2.0. "Congratulations on the house!"
I followed the concierge, head held high, and then paused, looking back. "Hey, Jason, do you still play guitar?"
He shook his head, good-natured as ever. "Nah, I don't really have time for that stuff anymore."
I nodded and turned back, unsure why I'd needed to ask.
The concierge raised an eyebrow, as if I should be eternally grateful for his attention, and I followed, taking a seat and ordering without a pause. I always looked at the menu online before dining out.
I could tell he wanted to tell me he wasn't a waiter, and wasn't going to take my order, but he simply assumed a long-suffering smile and listened. It felt like a win.
When my order was accepted, my glass of wine arrived, and I got out my book. Finally, I could breathe.
This was meant to be a treat, not an ordeal. Once a month, rain or shine, I bought a delightful meal, drank something delicious, and read my book at a restaurant in London, one hundred percent alone, whether I was seeing someone or not. It was the one time I didn't have to pretend to be anyone else, didn't have to do anything for anyone. Didn't have to go on a date with someone, fizzing with hope, only to find they were thirty-five and hadn't dealt with their childhood traumas, didn't know how to ask a question and listen to the answer, and still weren't wearing matching socks. It was easier to date myself.
Besides, I was still licking my wounds after Michael. I'd met him at the farmers' market on a Saturday morning, buying fancy olives. He'd looked across at me and simply said, "Hello, you," in this surprised delight, as if he'd been waiting for me and hadn't believed I'd ever appear. Michael had a really lovely smile, and he made the best cappuccino I'd ever tasted outside Italy. Which, in hindsight, wasn't really a good reason to fancy someone.
I'd helped him find a new flat after his horrible houseshare came to an end. And then I spent a week helping him move and painted his walls and helped him set up his council tax payment. Our dating life was mainly a lot of time walking around IKEA and building his furniture. After that, he said it was moving a little too fast, and I was "exhibiting girlfriend-like behavior." But he thanked me for getting a great deal on the movers.
And so here I was again, returning to myself. Making an effort. The dinners could feel awkward sometimes, but I kept doing them, hoping that one day it would get easier, until I looked like that woman I'd once seen in New York, dining alone at the bar. She'd looked so relaxed, so confident, sipping her wine and reading her book, occasionally taking delicate bites of asparagus. I'd decided I wanted to be like that. No matter how many times the waiters looked at me with pity.
Normally, after the first five minutes of feeling on display, I settled into it, but tonight my eyes kept straying to Jason across the room, so well-groomed, so successful. Five years had passed, and he'd turned into a completely different person. Whilst I, Alyssa Aresti, identifier of potential and nagger into self-actualization, was still in exactly the same job, the same damp London studio flat, and still single at thirty-three. I had none of the markers of thirty-something success to my name.
I wasn't sure why seeing Jason succeed irritated me so much. Perhaps because I'd spent so long trying to encourage him, trying to help him figure out what he wanted. How many hours had I scoured the internet and done job quizzes with him? How many times had we had conversations about personal hygiene, and not yelling upstairs to his parents that we were having "alone time" whenever we'd been about to have sex?
The race through your twenties and thirties wasn’t meant to be a competition. Success looks different for everyone, and we’re not all looking for the same things. Logically, I knew that. But as I watched Jason and his wife drink from their bottle of champagne, toasting their new home, I knew I was lying to myself.
Whatever game we were playing, he’d won. And I had a feeling I’d helped him do it.