The Other F-Word: A Novel

The Other F-Word: A Novel

by Natasha Friend

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Overview

Milo has two great moms, but he's never known what it's like to have a dad. When Milo's doctor suggests asking his biological father to undergo genetic testing to shed some light on Milo's extreme allergies, he realizes this is a golden opportunity to find the man he's always wondered about.

Hollis's mom Leigh hasn't been the same since her other mom, Pam, passed away seven years ago. But suddenly, Leigh seems happy—giddy, even—by the thought of reconnecting with Hollis's half-brother Milo. Hollis and Milo were conceived using the same sperm donor. They met once, years ago, before Pam died.

Now Milo has reached out to Hollis to help him find their donor. Along the way, they locate three other donor siblings, and they discover the true meaning of the other F-word: family.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374302344
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/07/2017
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Natasha Friend is the award-winning author of Where You'll Find Me, Perfect, Lush, Bounce, For Keeps, and My Life in Black and White. She lives in Madison, Connecticut, with her family.

Read an Excerpt

The Other F-Word

A Novel


By Natasha Friend

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2017 Natasha Friend
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-30235-1


CHAPTER 1

HOLLIS


The picture of Pam hanging over the fireplace was like the portrait of Phineas Nigellus hanging over the headmaster's desk at Hogwarts. Watching. Judging. Pam was a perpetual presence, a denim-clad specter presiding over the suckfest that was Hollis Darby-Barnes's life.

Pam's eyes: the golden brown of a Siberian tiger.

Hollis's eyes: the brown of a dung beetle.

Pam's hair: the neat, feathered cap of an Olympic skater from the 1980s.

Hollis's hair: a blender experiment. Bon Jovi, the perm years.

Hollis wanted to rip Pam off the wall and throw her into the fireplace. Also, she wanted to throw Pam's cat into the fireplace. Pam's cat was named Yvette. She was fifteen — exactly a year older than Hollis — but unlike Hollis, she had white, fluffy hair, a smashed-in face, and a problem with fur balls.

Hollis hardly remembered Pam. She wasn't biologically related to Pam. She felt no emotional connection to Pam whatsoever. And yet Hollis's mother continued to insist that Hollis share Pam's last name, Barnes. This, among a million other things, pissed Hollis off.

It pissed Hollis off that her mother still wore Pam's bathrobe. It pissed Hollis off that her mother referred to Pam as Hollis's "mom." It pissed Hollis off that even though Pam died seven years ago, her mother had yet to go on a single date. Worse than anything, it pissed Hollis off that her mother maintained Pam's Hotmail account. Because A) Pam was dead, and B) who the hell had a Hotmail account?

"Why?" Hollis would ask her mother every time she placed an order on Amazon as PjBarnesie_373@hotmail.com.

Her mother always gave the same answer: "Pam was the love of my life. It makes me feel better to know she's still here."

"But she's not still here," Hollis would say.

"When a package arrives with Pam's name on it, I feel like she is."

It was a freaking losing battle. Did Hollis want Pam's memory hanging around their house like a bad smell? No, she did not. But what could she do? Her mother was all she had. Leigh Darby wasn't a bad mom as mothers went. She didn't do drugs. She didn't bring perverts home from bars. She didn't dress like a stripper. She made good money as a real estate agent. Every morning, Hollis's mother got up, took a shower, blew her hair straight, and put on a pantsuit. She poured cereal for Hollis. She went out into the world, smiled, and said things like "cozy three-bedroom" and "granite countertops."

Then she came home, put on Pam's bathrobe, and talked to the picture above the fireplace. "My feet are killing me, babe." Or, "Guess what, babe? I made a sale today!" Would Hollis's mother ever take Pam down and move on with her life? No, Hollis was certain she wouldn't. Even four years from now, when Hollis left for college, her mother would still be here, festering. So would Yvette, no doubt. That cat refused to die.

God, it was pathetic. Even more pathetic than the fact that today was December thirty-first and Hollis had no plans whatsoever for New Year's Eve.

"Honey?"

Hollis looked up from her cereal bowl. She gave her mother a blank stare.

"Pam just got an email."

This depressed Hollis even more. And pissed her off. "You know dead people can't get email, right?"

"It's from Milo Robinson-Clark."

Okay, wait. "What?"

Hollis's mother smiled. "Milo Robinson-Clark is trying to get in touch with you."

Milo Robinson-Clark. Milo Robinson-Clark. Why does that name sound — Oh God. Lodged in Hollis's mind was the image of a little dark-haired boy on the other end of a seesaw. Train conductor overalls. A red juice mustache.

"That kid we met when Pam —"

Hollis's mother nodded vigorously. "That's right."

"What were his moms' —?"

"Suzanne and Frankie."

"Right," Hollis muttered. Then, "Jesus."

Milo Robinson-Clark emailed a dead woman. He emailed a dead woman to contact the girl he met once, a million years ago, on the other end of a seesaw. This made no sense. It only made sense if he didn't know Pam was dead, and even then —

"How does that make you feel?" her mother asked. She sounded like the stupid grief counselor Hollis had been forced to see after Pam died. Draw a picture of your feelings, Hollis. Use this puppet to have a conversation, Hollis. How does that make you feel, Hollis?

How did Hollis feel about her sperm donor's son suddenly popping up in Pam's Hotmail inbox? She felt weird, that's how she felt. She felt weird all over. Hollis barely remembered meeting Milo Robinson-Clark. She'd been, what, six years old? There was a photo somewhere.

The whole thing had been Pam's idea. Right after her ovarian cancer diagnosis, Pam had tracked down Milo's moms through some lesbian life partner/sperm donor website. Hollis wasn't exactly sure how it worked, except that sperm donors had ID numbers, and her donor's ID number and Milo's donor's ID number matched, so that's how Pam and Leigh and Suzanne and Frankie found each other. The four moms had conducted a reunion of sorts. There was a playground. A picnic. Hollis vaguely remembered brownies.

And then Pam got sick, like really fast, and that was the end of that. Because Hollis's mother was swept up in caring for Pam and then she was swept up in grieving for Pam, and Hollis never saw her half brother again.

Half brother. God.

Hollis was struck, once more, by the bizarre nature of her existence. Most of the time she just futzed along through life — going to school, doing her homework, eating and sleeping and reading — and then, out of nowhere, a lightning bolt would strike.

I was conceived in a petri dish.

My father is out there.

I have a half brother.

"Jesus," Hollis muttered again. "Why does he want to get in touch with me?"

Her mother shook her head. "He doesn't say."

"He doesn't say?"

"I have it right here."

"What?"

Her mother held up a piece of paper. "The email. I printed it out."

Hollis felt her stomach tense.

"'Dear Pam,'" her mother began reading, with no regard. "'My name is Milo Robinson-Clark.'"

No forethought.

"'I got your email from my mom Suzanne.'"

Still no indication whatsoever from Hollis that she wanted to hear this.

"'You may not remember me, but we met seven and a half years ago in Brooklyn, where I still live. Your daughter, Hollis, and I have the same sperm donor. Which is actually why I'm writing. I'm hoping you'll pass this message along to Hollis and tell her that I'd like to hear from her. She can email or text or call me, whatever works. Or I can email or text or call her, if you send me her info. Thanks. Hope you and Leigh are both well. Milo.'" Hollis's mother looked up. "So?"

Hollis stared at her.

"What do you think?"

"What do I think?"

"Do you ..." Her mother hesitated. "Would you like me to give him your email address or your cell phone number so he can contact you?"

Hollis picked up her spoon and shoved a massive bite of Froot Loops into her mouth. Chewed, swallowed, shoved in another bite. "Whatever," she said finally, spraying cereal chunks onto the table.

Hollis's mother hated the word whatever. She called it a passive-aggressive conversation-blocking tool, but this time she didn't comment. This time, for some crazy reason, she took it to mean, Do whatever you want. Which is why, ten hours later — when Hollis's mother went to pick up Chinese food and Hollis was lying in her bed, staring at the ceiling — Hollis's phone pinged from the pocket of her hoodie.

She checked: area code 917. She read: Hey. It's Milo.

Hollis almost laughed. It was such a casual text, like they weren't on a hyphenated-last-name basis. Like it wasn't completely absurd and random for her sperm donor's other kid to suddenly be contacting her when they only met once, a million years ago, on a seesaw in Brooklyn.

Hey, Hollis texted back anyway.

Happy almost new year.

To u too.

How r u?

Ok.

How r your moms?

Um Leighs good. Pams dead tho.

O shit. I didn't know.

No biggie. It was 7 years ago.

It occurred to Hollis that it was rude of her mother not to let Suzanne and Frankie know that Pam had died. Because, well, wasn't there some protocol for informing your biological daughter's half brother's lesbian moms that your own lesbian partner was dead?

Hollis stifled a snort. This was so weird.

I know this is weird, Milo Robinson-Clark texted.

Hollis was so spooked she sat up. It was like he had read her mind or something, which clearly he hadn't, because how could he read her mind? It's not weird.

No?

No.

Well it's about to get weird cuz I have something to tell u.

Ok.

R u ready?

Yes.

I've decided to find r sperm donor.

Breath caught in Hollis's throat. She stared at her phone. She read the text again just to make sure she'd read it right. Then she exhaled. Y?

Medical reasons.

R u ok?

Yes.

Do u need a kidney?

No.

Bone marrow?

No.

???

It's complicated.

Hollis waited. If Milo Robinson-Clark wanted to tell her about his mysterious medical condition, he would. And apparently he did not, because his next text read, R u in?

In?

For finding r donor?

Okay, wait. WTF. Hollis's heart was suddenly pounding so fast she needed to lie back down. She tried not to think about this. She tried not to let these thoughts infiltrate her mind. I am a freak of nature.I am a lab experiment.I am only half a person. Most of the time she succeeded. But sometimes, just sometimes, she fantasized about tracking down her donor, setting up a time and a place to meet, and then — right after she said "Hi, I'm Hollis" — slapping him across the face.

Because Hollis was pissed at the guy. She didn't even know him and she was pissed. Even if he did donate out of the goodness of his heart to help lesbians make babies. The way Hollis was "made" was fast, cold, and impersonal. Her existence had nothing to do with love. And if you're not going to make a baby out of love, at least have a one-night stand with some hot stranger you met at the Laundromat. At least then there's human contact. A connection between two people. It isn't fair to just go and squirt your jiz in a cup, take your cash, and then not even think about where your DNA is going and who might be affected.

Hollis's phone pinged. Pls? I don't want to do this alone.

Milo Robinson-Clark did not want to find their sperm donor alone. He wanted Hollis to join him. He was offering her a chance — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet her genetic father, to have all of her unanswered questions answered. Hollis would be crazy not to take it, wouldn't she?

But no, hell no, sorry, no. The anger that was usually just simmering beneath the surface of Hollis's skin now rose like a tidal wave, taking all good things with it.

I'm out.

Hollis texted the words. Then, for good measure, she chucked her phone across the room and cracked a picture frame. Which made her feel a little better. But not much.


MILO

How to explain?

1) His immune system was a paranoid schizophrenic.

2) A peanut was not just a peanut; it was an enemy combatant to which there was only one response: Attack! Attack!

3) He was fifteen years old and he was a prisoner of war.

Okay, maybe that was too dramatic. Milo wasn't literally imprisoned. He was just allergic to dairy, eggs, wheat, gluten, all melons, citrus, tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts, tree nuts, coconut, fish and shellfish, soy, and casein. He occasionally — but only occasionally — had to be hospitalized for an allergic reaction. There was that time in sixth grade when he'd eaten a coconut bar on his class camping trip. He had asked the head teacher, who had asked the mom who made the bars, if they were okay for him to eat. Lists were checked and double-checked. Milo had been assured that the bars were safe. No one knew about the coconut. He had never eaten coconut before, and he had never been tested for it. He had no idea he was allergic until he took a bite of coconut bar and his throat closed up.

That visit to the hospital had been crazy. Random details still floated around Milo's brain: the starfish ring on the nurse's finger, the antiseptic taste of the tube they jammed down his throat, the crushing pain in his chest as he gasped for air and found none. Had there been a light, or a tunnel of some sort? If there had, he didn't remember it. But in the moment when he woke up and Suzanne and Frankie were hugging him, crying and laughing, he knew that he had dodged a bullet. According to the attending physician, Milo had been clinically dead for three minutes.

There had been lesser reactions. Times he had needed to use an inhaler because his chest was tight, or an EpiPen because his mouth was suddenly tingling and his lips were swelling up like balloons. Milo was used to it. Used to wearing a medical alert bracelet. Used to checking ingredients. Used to carrying Benadryl and epinephrine at all times. If he ate the wrong thing, he could die.

Milo knew this and, for the most part, acknowledged that being alive was preferable to being dead. But sometimes he just wanted to eat pizza and french fries like a normal teenager. He wanted not to be the skinniest kid in the locker room. He had been called Twiggy since he was ten years old. Or Skeletor. Or Skindiana Bones. There were so many good nicknames. It was hard to pick a favorite.

Milo knew he wasn't alone. His moms — growing up gay in the Midwest — had endured their share of name-calling. They'd told him all about it. Dykes! Carpet munchers! They had suffered, Milo was sure, more than he ever had. Still, could they blame him for wanting his life to be easier?

The TGFB1 gene. That's what Milo's allergist had mentioned at his last appointment. Dr. Daignault was referring to a new study reported in Science Now, suggesting that a single genetic aberration of the "transforming growth factor beta 1" could explain everything from hay fever to food allergies to asthma. One mutated gene could be responsible for Milo's whacked immune system — one mutated gene that he didn't get from Frankie because they shared no DNA, and he didn't get from Suzanne because she wasn't allergic to anything. "What about Milo's biological father?" Dr. Daignault had asked as Milo and his moms sat on the hard orange chairs in his office. "Any known allergies?"

"Lactose," Suzanne had answered. "And ragweed pollen."

"Anything else?"

"Not as far as we know."

"Have you considered asking Milo's biological father for some genetic testing? Could be instructive."

Ask his father for genetic testing? It was one of those crazy moments when Milo heard the word "father" and remembered that he actually had one. Not just a sperm donor: a father.

Suzanne and Frankie had been open about his conception since Milo was a little kid. "A good and generous guy gave us some seeds so we could grow you!" The story sounded a lot like "Jack and the Beanstalk": mysterious man, magic seeds. A fairy tale. For a long time, whenever Milo thought of his donor, he pictured a giant in the sky, strumming his golden harp. It was stupid, he knew. Juvenile. Just like it was juvenile to walk through Park Slope looking at all the dads and wondering if one of them could be his. There was no logic to it. For one thing, the sperm that made Milo came from a cryobank in Minnesota — where Frankie had gone to graduate school and where, presumably, Milo's donor still lived — so the odds of him walking around Brooklyn were slim. Also, Milo had never seen a picture. Did the guy have a beard? Glasses? They could pass each other on the street and not even know they were related.

There was a baby album. Pictures of Suzanne pregnant with Milo, lounging on a beach chair, a glass of lemonade perched on her high, swollen belly. Suzanne looked different then. Softer. Her hair hadn't gone gray yet. It was long and chestnut colored, and she wore it in a thick braid down her back. Her face, normally sharp and angular, looked round. There were pictures from the actual birth, Milo covered in slime — which he could do without — and about a million pictures of both his moms holding him, kissing him, feeding him, burping him. Frankie looked the same. Short and stocky, with flaming red hair cut close to her scalp and spiked up in front. There was a series of shots of Frankie holding Milo against her chest, tucking his little bald head under her chin. Milo liked looking at those pictures, but they weren't the big draw. In the back of the album there was a pocket. And in that pocket was the personal profile for Donor #9677.

Race: Caucasian.

Ethnicity: Scottish-Italian.

Religion: Open-minded.

Milo must have read that piece of paper a thousand times. This man was his father. He was, according to the profile, six feet tall. He had hazel eyes. His hair, like Milo's, was dark, thick, and curly. Did he have to get it cut every four weeks to avoid looking like a mushroom? Did he also have dark, thick eyebrows? What about body hair? These were the little things Milo wondered about. The big things — the TGFB1 gene, whether his father had been skinny, or nerdy, or a failure with girls, whether he ever wondered where his sperm went — stacked up in Milo's brain like blocks, threatening to topple. There were so many questions.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Other F-Word by Natasha Friend. Copyright © 2017 Natasha Friend. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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