The Best of Us
TINA ANTONELLI STARED AT the heavy, cream-colored invitation like it was a loose diamond she’d unearthed in the sandbox at the neighborhood playground. No, it was even more valuable than a diamond, she decided as she leaned against her kitchen counter and felt her nightgown-clad hip squish into something. Grape jelly, she thought absently, recalling her early-morning frenzy of sandwich making for school lunches. She reread the first line of calligraphy:
Please join us in celebrating Dwight’s 35th birthday!
Dwight Glass. Her old friend. How could he be turning thirty-five when she still pictured him at twenty: thin and awkward as a praying mantis, with a shock of brown hair always falling into his eyes? Dwight had lived in one of the coveted private rooms that encircled the grassy quad at the University of Virginia. While other students tossed around Frisbees or footballs on the sprawling lawn, the guys shirtless in the springtime and the girls wearing bright miniskirts or sundresses, Dwight rarely ventured past the little awning in front of his room. He always seemed to be sitting in a straight-backed chair, wearing an oxford shirt with one too many buttons done up, a thick textbook resting on his lap.
Our plane departs from Dulles International Airport on Sunday, August 18, at 10 a.m. and returns Saturday, August 24, at 5 p.m.
“Our plane,” Tina said, the words as airy and sweet in her mouth as a spoonful of chocolate mousse. She’d heard that Dwight had bought his own Gulfstream a few years ago.
We’ll stay in a villa in Jamaica that comes with a chef who will fulfill all of our culinary requests. You can choose to surf or snorkel, take a helicopter tour of the island—or do absolutely nothing but relax on a private beach and lift a champagne glass for the birthday toast!
A little moan escaped from Tina’s lips. A cook. A private beach. Champagne. She envisioned a whitewashed villa with floor-to-ceiling windows thrown open to reveal a white-sand beach; white couches in the living room—and on the beds, crisp white sheets. Everything could be white because she wouldn’t have to worry about four small children and one large dog spilling, shedding, messing, and breaking.
“Mommy!” Or yelling.
“Just a sec, honey,” she said.
She imagined herself in a new bathing suit, bronzed like the girls in the Bain de Soleil ads, and mentally erased the pouch of her belly and the crow’s-feet framing her eyes. Why not? She was being offered the trip of a lifetime, from a guy she’d kissed once in college (alcohol was involved, of course; lots of alcohol and dim lighting and the bittersweet knowledge that graduation was just around the corner) and who had drifted in and out of her life in the decade and a half since then. Anything was possible.
The telephone rang.
“Did you get it?” Her best friend, Allie’s usually low, melodic voice tumbled over the line, containing unfamiliar hints of helium.
“It just arrived,” Tina confirmed. “I thought it was a Drugstore.com delivery, so I opened the door in my nightgown to grab the box and I saw this freaking messenger in a tuxedo standing there! How many invitations did Dwight and Pauline send, do you think? It must’ve cost a fortune to have them hand-delivered!”
“Just three,” Allie said. “You and Giovanni, me and Ryan, Savannah and Gary. Pauline called me last week for the addresses.”
“And you didn’t tell?” Tina squealed.
“And deprive the messenger of seeing you in a nightgown with no makeup?” Allie said. “Come on. I never would’ve ruined the surprise for you.”
“I am too wearing makeup,” Tina protested. “It just happens to be left over from yesterday. I fell asleep while putting the kids to bed and woke up in a miniature race car bed at five a.m., looking like a raccoon.”
“I heard Angelina Jolie does that every single night, too,” Allie teased. “Anyway, Pauline told me she was thinking about having a party for Dwight’s thirty-fifth when I talked to them at my birthday party last year. I had no idea it was going to be this kind of party, though.”
“Or that it would be just us,” Tina said. “Doesn’t he have any other friends?”
“Come on, Tina.” Allie’s tone softened the rebuke. “They’re inviting you on an amazing trip. And he’s a sweetheart. Be nice.”
That was Allie: In college, Allie had lived next door to Dwight, although he’d been chosen to receive one of the quad’s private rooms because of his academic record, while she’d been awarded one for her leadership qualities. Whenever Dwight had joined their group for pizza and beer or study sessions, it was because Allie had pulled him along—sometimes quite literally by the hand. Back then, she’d read to a blind man once a week at the library, loaned out her class notes to anyone who asked, and smiled at strangers she passed on the street. She was still doing those things—except now she was volunteering at a homeless shelter and baking cookies anytime the PTA asked. The smiling hadn’t changed, either.
“Okay, okay, but it’s completely insane!” Tina said as she shoved a box of Cheerios into the already crowded pantry. “A weeklong birthday party in Jamaica!”
“It gets better,” Allie said. “Pauline e-mailed me photos of the place. There’s an infinity pool with a waterfall and a huge hot tub and you won’t believe how beautiful the beach is. It’s just going to be us and the staff. Can you believe it?”
“The staff,” Tina repeated in a mock British accent. “But of course. I take my own miniature-size staff everywhere, too, you know. They even accompany me when I go to the bathroom, unless I race there first and lock the door.”
Allie laughed. “Tell you what, I’m about to run to Starbucks. Want me to swing by with lattes?”
“Are you kidding?” Tina said. “First a private jet and butler, now coffee delivery. I think I’ve stumbled into a Calgon ad.”
“Or not,” Tina said.
“See you in twenty,” Allie said before hanging up.
“Sorry, honey.” Tina hurried into the living room, where Jessica, her four-year-old, was lying on the couch, watching Dora the Explorer. A little puddle with an unmistakable smell had formed on the carpet next to her.
“I frowed up.” Jessica stated the obvious.
“Oh, baby . . . oh, God, Caesar, no! No! Get away from that! Disgusting!”
Tina lunged and grabbed their big, shaggy mutt by the collar, dragging him through the back door and putting him in the yard. She hurried back into the kitchen, scooping up a roll of paper towels, a spray can of carpet cleaner, and a bucket from the cabinet under the sink. Jessica was the second of their kids to be hit by the stomach bug; Paolo, their eight-year-old, had just gone back to school yesterday after thirty-six hours of retching and moaning.
“I want apple juice,” Jessica whimpered. Tina leaned over and touched her lips to her daughter’s clammy forehead. She felt a flash of guilt as she remembered arguing when Jessica had protested going to pre-K earlier that morning; she’d thought Jessica’s illness was born from the desire for the ginger ale and extra television time she’d seen her big brother receive.
“I’m sorry, honey, we’re out. Do you want water?”
“Apple juice.” Jessica began to cry, a thin, thready sound. Caesar scratched at the back door, doubtless digging deeper gouges into the wood. Tina thought about the enormous jumble of dirty laundry on the basement floor, the egg-encrusted dishes littering the kitchen sink, the new stain on the rug, which already resembled a Rorschach test. She had an hour and a half before she needed to pick up Sammy, her two-and-a-half-year-old, from preschool, and soon after that, the older kids would filter in, demanding snacks and needing rides to soccer practice and slinging backpacks and lunch boxes and shoes across the living room. She’d meant to start fresh today, to begin an exercise routine, to cull the outgrown clothes from the overflowing closets in their brick rambler, to read the newspaper so she’d have something other than the kids to talk about with Gio tonight. How did she always manage to get so far behind before the day had really begun?
I want my mom, Tina thought, feeling the familiar grief rise in her chest and settle into a hard knot. It had been six years since her mother died from breast cancer, and not a day passed that Tina didn’t ache for her. Sometimes, like now, the memories slapped into her like rogue waves at the beach; other times they pulled her deep into a murky undertow that made breathing a struggle.
“Hang on, baby.” Tina ran to the basement, got a fresh washcloth from the dryer, and rinsed it in warm water before hurrying back to wipe down Jessica’s face and lips. “I’m going to get you apple juice,” she promised. She found a blanket crumpled on the floor and made an executive decision to ignore the fact that it was covered in dog hair. She shook it out and covered Jessica. “Just wait a minute, honey. Mommy’s going to fix everything.”
She ran back to the phone and dialed Allie’s cell number.
“Can you grab a couple of those little boxes of apple juice from Starbucks?” she asked. “Jessie’s sick.”
“Oh, my poor goddaughter,” Allie said. “Of course. Anything else? A muffin?”
Tina caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror on the dining room wall. Still in her grape-jelly-stained nightgown, her too-long dark curls bouncing wildly around her face, evidence of the four children she’d carried forever imprinted in the roll around her stomach.
“Yes,” she said, defying the promises she’d made to herself to begin a diet today—another diet. “Can you make it two muffins? Blueberry Streusel for Jess and low-fat bran for me. No, screw it, two blueberry. I’ll pay you back.”
She put the phone back in its charger, feeling beyond grateful that she and Allie had become best friends in junior high school and had both settled in their original hometown, less than five miles away from each other in Alexandria, Virginia. They’d shared all the milestones in life—first boyfriends, proms, weddings, childbirth, the loss of Tina’s mom . . . Their husbands, Giovanni and Ryan, even worked in the same general field, since Gio was a construction manager and Ryan an architect, and they’d become buddies, too. Allie was the only person Tina could imagine inviting over before she’d had a chance to clean up and take a shower.
Tina reached for the invitation and read it one final time, then dropped it into the trash can, feeling a pang as it landed on top of toast crusts and stained paper towels. She thought about what it would be like to sleep as late as she liked, to sit down at a table and savor a gourmet meal—rather than gobble leftover mac-n-cheese—to sink into the soft sand and read an entire book. She used to love reading; when was the last time she’d actually cracked the cover of anything longer than a pamphlet of potty-training tips? She could almost feel the sun’s warmth tickling her skin, taste the sweetness of a pineapple-rum drink, smell the coconut suntan lotion . . . They hadn’t been on a vacation, other than a few family trips to the shore, since their kids were born. Money was far too tight.
But she hadn’t been able to make it to the hairdresser’s for three months; it would be impossible to escape to Jamaica for a week.
She’d write a letter to Pauline declining, and send Dwight a little gift. Maybe a bottle of champagne, even though he probably drank far more expensive stuff than she could afford. Allie was right; it was incredibly nice of him to invite them.
She put the carpet cleaner back under the sink, making a mental note to pick up Popsicles when she went to get Sammy at preschool. Poor Jessica would have to come along for the ride; she’d make sure to keep the windows rolled down and bring along a paper bag.
How could she and Gio ever go away, when there was no one they could leave their children with?
* * *
Allie Reed juggled a tray of lattes and a paper bag filled with muffins and juice boxes as she dug into her jeans pocket for the keys to her blue Honda minivan. She pushed the Unlock button for the door, then arranged everything: drinks in the cup holders, bag on the passenger’s side floor, purse on the seat next to her. She glanced at the dashboard clock and made a quick decision. There hadn’t been any line at Starbucks, for once, and the grocery store was on the way to Tina’s house. She had time.
She pulled out of the parking lot, waving her thanks to the driver of an old pickup truck who slowed to let her go ahead of him, and steered toward the Safeway a half mile away. Because she and Tina talked almost every day, she knew that Tina was running low on milk and just about everything else, that Gio was working long hours, and that her old friend was probably only one more interrupted night’s sleep away from becoming ill herself. She’d joked around when Tina mentioned wearing a nightgown and day-old makeup to greet the messenger, but the truth was, she was worried.
Allie’s kids were older now—Sasha was nine and Eva was seven, both in school all day long—but she’d never forget the heavy, gray exhaustion that had enveloped her during their early years, when someone always seemed to be teething or wetting the bed or tripping and banging her head against the edge of the coffee table. She’d managed to power through it with the help of a constantly brewing pot of coffee, three-mile, stress-relieving runs when Ryan got home at night, and the occasional Saturday when Ryan had gotten up early and snuck out with the girls for pancakes. But the memory of the effort it required to maintain a constant vigil, to anticipate the dangers of bottles of cleaning fluids and speeding cars and exposed light sockets, of all the nights that felt like she’d caught a series of naps rather than a proper sleep, made her feel as if she’d gone through a kind of war.
Right now, though, her life was back in balance, and it felt especially sweet. Allie loved her part-time job as a social worker, and she could fit in clients around the girls’ schedules. They weren’t rich, but Ryan’s commissions as a residential architect, combined with her income, meant money wasn’t a concern. She and Ryan were going through a particularly good stretch in their marriage, too. Watching him patiently coach the kids on Sasha’s soccer team—who seemed to morph into a giant, thrashing mass of limbs around the ball—or run alongside Eva’s two-wheeler, steadying her until she learned to pedal unassisted, conjured in Allie a different kind of love for him, deeper and richer than she’d experienced during the early days of their relationship. More and more lately, she found her eyes seeking out his during little moments, like the time Eva successfully recited a line in a school play, or when Sasha suddenly grasped the basics of multiplication. Seeing his pride and joy made her own multiply.
“Choose your husband well,” Allie’s mom had once said. “Because you’re going to give him the most important job in the world: father of your children.”
Allie had chosen exceptionally well. If they had sex a bit less often these days, if all of their activities seemed to revolve around the girls—well, wasn’t that to be expected when you had young kids? She was one of the lucky ones, Allie told herself, rapping her knuckles on the dashboard as she pulled into a parking spot at Safeway. She never let herself take it for granted; it was one of the reasons why she served lunch at a homeless shelter every Tuesday and donated counseling sessions to abused women—why she paid into the karma coffers every chance she got. Life had treated her very gently so far. She prayed it would continue to do so, even though she secretly worried that every extra day of good luck was pulling the pendulum back a bit farther, tempting it to swing that much harder in the other direction.
She shook off her superstition as she hurried into the grocery store. “Good morning!” she called as she passed an employee stocking shelves with soup cans.
She began loading a cart: organic 2 percent milk, a large bottle of apple juice, wheat bread for toast, bananas and saltines, two freshly made pizzas from the deli section, and a big green salad. She tossed in a stick of butter, just in case Tina was low, then found the medicine aisle and added a bottle of children’s Motrin, bubble gum flavor. That would take care of Jessica as well as dinner tonight. Allie crossed over to another aisle and picked up People and Cosmo—the good stuff; this was no time for the brain fiber of Newsweek. There was just one more thing she needed. She scanned the ice cream cases until she discovered the Häagen-Dazs, and added a pint of chocolate to her cart. She hesitated, feeling as though she’d forgotten something, then picked up a box of the brightly colored Popsicles her girls always wanted when they were sick.
Ten minutes later, she was turning in to Tina’s driveway. She walked through the kitchen door, using the key on her chain.
“Coffee delivery!” she sang out. “And apple juice for my sweet goddaughter.”
“We’re in here.” Tina’s voice came from the living room. Allie rounded the corner and saw Tina on the couch with Jessica sprawled in her lap. They were both pale and listless; it was hard to say who looked worse.
“Oh, my God, you even remembered the cinnamon sprinkle on the foam,” Tina said, closing her eyes as she took her first sip of latte. “I love you.”
“You’re talking to the coffee, right?” Allie said, fitting a straw into the little hole in the top of a juice box and handing it to Jessica.
“Of course,” Tina said. “But you’re not half-bad, either.”
Allie gave Jessica’s fine brown hair a quick stroke. “I have to get something out of the car. Be right back.”
She brought in the groceries and filled Tina’s refrigerator and freezer, then opened the dishwasher door.
“What’s going on in there?” Tina called. “I hope you’re not throwing a wild party. Or if you are, that you call me when it’s time for the Jell-O shooters.”
Allie laughed and finished rinsing and loading the glasses and plates. She wiped down the counters before going back into the living room.
“I’m not working today,” she said, picking up Tina’s feet so she could sit on the end of the couch, then dropping her friend’s feet into her lap. “So I figure that gives me plenty of time to talk you into coming to Jamaica.”
“What, and leave all this?” Tina tried to smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes.
“Here’s your muffin.” Allie handed it to her along with a napkin. “Did Gio get home late again last night?”
“Eight,” Tina said. “It’s this blasted shopping center. Two of the plumbers didn’t show yesterday, and they’re already behind schedule . . . I shouldn’t complain; it’s not that late. It’s just the whole homework-dinner-bathtime routine is so hard to do alone.”
She tilted back her head and closed her eyes, but not before Allie caught the sheen of tears in them.
“I know,” Allie said. She and Tina could do this; they could flow from jokes to confessions to painful subjects during the course of a single conversation. It was one of the things Allie most valued about their friendship. “It was hard for me with just two kids. I remember once when Eva was around one and I had her in the tub, and then I heard something crash in the kitchen. I ran down and Sasha was standing there with glass all around her. She’d tried to pull a big pitcher of lemonade out of the refrigerator, and of course she’d dropped it. So I picked her up and carried her to the living room and checked to make sure she wasn’t bleeding. She wasn’t, but, oh, my God, if that pitcher had landed on her head . . . And then it hit me: I couldn’t hear anything upstairs. I ran so fast up those steps, I swear my feet didn’t touch them. But Eva was just sitting there, filling up her little plastic cups and pouring them out.”
“That kind of thing happens to me all the time,” Tina said. She lifted her head and looked at Allie again. Her big brown eyes had lines of red running through the whites, like road maps documenting her exhaustion. “Ricocheting from crisis to crisis. Worrying there will be a time when I won’t get there fast enough. Just one time.”
“Come to Jamaica,” Allie said.
“I can’t,” Tina said. “The kids.” She bent her head and kissed the top of Jessica’s head, as if in apology, then gave Allie a wry smile. “Unless I bring them along, but somehow I don’t think Pauline had that in mind. I have a feeling we’d be asked to leave the first time someone threw up in the hot tub. Or definitely the second.”
“My mom and dad are going to watch all the kids,” Allie said. She’d set it up with her folks the previous week and had been dying to tell Tina. “They can stay at my house with my kids, and my parents will sleep there.”
Tina’s eyes grew wide, even as she protested. “No,” she said. “That’s too much for them.”
“My girls are so excited,” Allie continued. “They’re going to help with the little ones—they’re like babysitters in training. I told them we’d pay them twenty bucks each. You know your kids love them. And my mom loves you. She really wants to do this.”
“I love your mom, too, but it’s too much,” Tina said again, but Allie kept talking over her.
“Tina, come on. My mom taught second grade for thirty-two years. And she’s still got more energy than both of us combined. She’d be insulted if she heard you say that!”
Allie looked at her friend and remembered, as she so often did, the time when she’d played tennis with her father on a Saturday afternoon a decade earlier. Walking to his car after the game, he’d complained of a feeling of tightness in his left arm. He’d blamed it on a muscle pull and said he was going home to lie down. But something in his face had sent an icy tingle down Allie’s spine. Instead of driving home, she’d called Tina, who was just coming off a shift at the hospital where she worked as an ER nurse. Tina had asked quick, crisp questions—Did her dad seem confused? Did he have any other symptoms?—and when Allie had responded yes, come to think of it, he’d walked right past his car, and his face was pale, not at all flushed, like you’d expect after an hour of exercise in the heat, Tina hadn’t hesitated.
“I’m turning around and heading to your parents’ house. I’ll meet you there,” she’d said. “It might not be anything, but it’s not worth taking a chance.”
“Okay,” Allie had said, putting her car in drive. “I’m leaving now.”
“Allie? Call 911 first.”
“Really? Do you think—” Allie had begun, but Tina had cut her off: “Do it right now.”
Her father had made it home and was lying on the couch, suffering a massive heart attack, by the time the paramedics arrived. Allie’s mother was out running errands. He was alone, and almost certainly would have died had it not been for Tina’s intervention.
Now Allie reached over and rested her hand on top of her best friend’s. She and her mom had talked about it, and this was a gift they wanted to give to Tina. “There’s this terrific seventeen-year-old who sits for us sometimes—Lia. Remember I’ve mentioned her? She’s going to come over every afternoon for a couple hours to give my mom a hand. We can put the kids in day camp, too. It’s one week. They’ll be fine.”
“I can’t—” Tina began, but this time she cut herself off. Allie could see tears filling her eyes again.
“You need to,” Allie said. “Please. Just come.”
“More Dora,” Jessica said, nestling against Tina’s body. Her eyelids were drooping. “More apple juice.”
Allie reached over, grabbed the second apple juice box off the coffee table, and handed it to Jessica as Tina mouthed, “Thank you.”
“We’ll let them watch lots of movies,” Allie said. “And order pizza. We can cook some stuff and leave it in the freezer beforehand so my mom won’t even have to worry about meals. Doesn’t that sound good, Jess?”
“More Dora,” Jessica repeated, her voice almost robotic-sounding.
“And they say TV doesn’t kill brain cells,” Tina joked. Allie could see something come into her friend’s eyes, something she hadn’t seen in a while. A brightness.
“I may love you just as much as I love coffee,” Tina said. “And that’s saying something. Do you think when Pauline says we can get everything we want at the villa, that includes liposuction?”
“Oh, sure,” Allie said. “We’ll squeeze it in before the champagne and caviar and after the deep-tissue massages.”
Tina tilted her head back against the cushion, and a huge smile spread across her face. Allie held her breath.
“I’m in,” Tina finally said.
* * *
“This house has amazing bones,” Savannah McGrivey said, being careful to keep her voice enthusiastic but not cross the line into gushing. No one trusted a gushing real estate agent.
She led the way through the living room and into the dining room. “The crown molding is original, and so is the wainscoting.”
She stepped back and let the fortyish, prosperous-looking couple take in the space in silence. They’d pulled up in a BMW convertible twenty minutes into her open house, after she’d lit an orange-blossom-scented candle and put bouquets of blue and yellow wildflowers in the powder room and decluttered and scrubbed the kitchen counters. You’d think the owners would’ve listened to her suggestions to move out some of the furniture to make the rooms seem bigger, to replace the paisley wallpaper in the dining room with a fresh coat of neutral paint, to tear up the worn runner on the stairs. Savannah had even e-mailed them the name of a reasonably priced contractor, but they’d acted almost offended.
Isn’t our house good enough? the husband had asked as Savannah considered the dated family photos in ugly gold frames lining the wall above the staircase banister. She’d turned to him with a smile, mentally accepting the fact that the portraits of their bucktoothed, turtleneck-wearing kids would stay.
“Of course it is,” she’d said.
She hadn’t been lying. But couldn’t they see that good enough wouldn’t cut it—that a little extra effort could mean the difference between a sale and a future spent languishing on the market?
She had an innate sense of how far she could push clients, and she knew it was time to let it go. But she began to question her decision as she saw her potential buyers notice the peeling edges of the wallpaper, the wife’s manicured fingernail tracing a seam like it was a scar.
“What year was it built?” the husband asked. His potbelly strained against his blue golf shirt, and he rubbed it like he was trying to conjure good luck from a Buddha. He was probably hungry. Damn. She should’ve gone with freshly baked cookies instead of a scented candle.
“Nineteen eighty-five,” Savannah said. Smile, she reminded herself, making sure to include the wife in her gaze. When Savannah had first opened the door, the wife had looked her up and down, then reached for her husband’s arm. Wives tended to react that way to Savannah.
“Needs a little work,” the husband—Don? Dan? Did it matter?—said. “If you tore down this wall, opened up the kitchen . . . maybe bumped it out in back.”
His wife yawned. She’d said they had young twin daughters; no way would they want to take on the hassle of a renovation along with a move. It all boiled down to maintenance, Savannah had learned. Forget houses with character and potential and quirky charm—people were too busy these days to act on a romantic fantasy of buying a fixer-upper. They wanted something pretty and pleasing, with no major flaws.
“Honey, we’ve got that other place to look at,” the wife said.
“Would you like to leave your e-mail address so I can keep you apprised of new homes that come on the market?” Savannah offered.
“That’s okay,” the wife said, and ten seconds later, they were gone.
Savannah closed the door behind them and leaned back against it, rolling her head in circles to get the kinks out of her neck as she kicked off her three-inch heels. She’d woken up too early this morning, again. She’d known it the instant she saw the weak gray light seeping in around the edges of the window blinds, and the anxiety that gripped her had immediately chased away the possibility of falling back asleep.
For the first thirty-five years of her life, she’d been a world-class sleeper. Nine, ten—even eleven a.m. on the weekends was her routine. On the rare occasions when she did wake early, she’d roll over and spoon against her husband, Gary’s back, soaking in his warmth, until she dozed again.
But for the past two months, their queen-size bed had seemed too big, and the sheets were always cold against her skin.
At some point Savannah would come face-to-face with her husband again to sign divorce papers. Gary had indicated he wouldn’t balk at a fair division of their assets, which surprised her, given how few scruples he’d shown recently. But apparently the selective memory that had caused him to forget the fact that he wore a wedding ring had kicked back in, because he hadn’t objected when Savannah’s lawyer demanded compensation for the years Savannah had spent supporting Gary. She’d been so proud when he could officially add the initials “M.D.” after his name, feeling as though it was their shared triumph. How ironic that an anesthesiologist had caused her the most pain she’d ever felt in her entire life.
But at least she’d be able to keep their pretty home, with its wide front porch and soaking bathtub and kitchen skylights on an eighth-acre of land in Charlotte, North Carolina. Gary would pay monthly alimony that would cover half the mortgage payment plus a thousand for expenses, just as he’d been doing ever since he’d cleared out his closet, packed up the expensive electronics, and taken the barbells he almost never used. She thought of those thousand-dollar checks as her screw-you money. She never spent them on car repairs or the electricity bill. Instead, she treated herself to massages and yoga classes, lacy push-up bras and pedicures, and an injection of Botox for the frown lines that had deepened since she stumbled across those messages on Gary’s BlackBerry.
So she tore through his money, watching her hair become glossier, her clothes nicer, her body fitter. It didn’t help as much as she’d thought it would. Still, Savannah knew she’d never looked better. She’d always been striking, with her hourglass shape and long, wavy hair with streaks of red and gold, and the sort of full lips most women had to purchase from plastic surgeons. But she’d lost ten pounds after the separation—adultery accomplishing what the Atkins diet and regular kickboxing sessions couldn’t—and now her stomach was almost completely flat, and her already strong jawline seemed more pronounced.
Savannah walked into the living room and flopped down on a couch—upholstered in a client-repelling old-lady floral, of course—and pulled her laptop out of her shoulder bag. She’d kill time until the doorbell rang again by buying flannel sheets online, then she needed to book an eyebrow and bikini-line waxing.
She also had to make a decision about Dwight’s invitation. Dwight, she thought, as a smile played on her lips. He was such an adorable geek. She was pretty sure he’d had a crush on her in college, since he’d been pathetically eager to help her through her math classes, but she’d never minded the attention. What was the harm in teasing him a little, in leaning over the table to let him glimpse her cleavage, in gently raking her fingernails through his hair as he turned bright red and tried to keep his mind on his stuttered explanations of variables and exponents? She was just giving him a little ammunition for his nocturnal fantasies; it was a form of charity, like dropping a few dollars into the church collection basket.
They’d all known Dwight would become a millionaire—that was as clear as the fact that Tina and Gio would get married right out of college, and that Allie would find the perfect husband, produce two perfect kids, and stay as perfectly adorable as she’d been her freshman year. Savannah wondered if the others had seen her own future as clearly as she’d predicted theirs. Was it obvious that Gary was a user, that he’d unimaginatively dump Savannah for a young, blond nurse, trading up as so many of her real estate clients did?
Savannah had never truly cheated on Gary, but not for the lack of opportunity. She’d flirted with plenty of guys, though, and even kissed a few. But it never went any further than a few hot moments in the darkened basement at a party while everyone else chatted upstairs, or a lingering glance with a stranger at a bar that led to a quick tryst in the hallway outside the bathroom . . . What was the harm in a few kisses, a quick pressing up against an intoxicatingly new man? Flirting made her feel sexy, and when she came home, lifting the covers and whispering, “Wake up, honey,” while she ran a finger under the waistband of Gary’s pajama bottoms, she knew he was the one benefiting from it.
If Gary wanted to have a bit of fun with The Nurse, Savannah would’ve been furious, but she would’ve understood on some level. Guys were like farmers; they felt the need to spread around their seed. She would’ve made Gary sleep on the couch for a few weeks. But then she would have put on his favorite garter belt and black, silky stockings, and strolled into the den to invite him back into their bed. Her message would have been clear: This was what he’d miss if he strayed again.
But Gary hadn’t apologized when she confronted him. He didn’t beg for her forgiveness, or send roses. Instead, he moved in with The Nurse—who wasn’t even that pretty! But she was young; Savannah would give her that. Try to hold on to him for another ten years, though, sweetheart, she thought as she felt her eyes narrow. In another decade, Gary would be richer and more established and he’d still look good. He was tall and lean, and his hair was just starting to turn silver around the temples, which suited him. But The Nurse wouldn’t fare so well; she had the sort of thin, pale skin that would wrinkle quickly and severely, and her pear-shaped figure—which no doubt had been the catalyst for their relationship, since Gary was an ass man—would eventually lose its battle against gravity.
Savannah wondered if The Nurse wanted kids. Savannah most definitely didn’t; it didn’t even feel like a choice. It was more of a . . . certainty, like the fact that she had blue eyes and was highly allergic to shrimp. Gary hadn’t wanted kids, either—at least, the Gary she’d once known hadn’t. He was a stranger now, this man who hummed every time he shaved, who pretended he didn’t read her People magazines in the bathroom, who had naturally broad shoulders that she used to love resting her head against.
Savannah forced away the memories and began to search the Internet for new sheets. She was considering a chocolate brown set trimmed in hot pink satin when an e-mail popped into her in-box. Allie.
Have you gotten any special deliveries recently?
Savannah typed back: Yes, my new vibrator arrived this week. How did you know?
She grinned as she hit Send. Allie was such a good girl; Savannah could almost hear her squeal.
The messenger came yesterday, Savannah typed. Unbelievable!
Are you guys coming? Can Gary get off work?
Savannah’s fingers paused over the keyboard. It would’ve been better if the invitation had come last year, when she and Gary were still together. Or next year, when Savannah could show up with a suitcase full of bikinis and a hot new boyfriend. She’d told her friends in North Carolina, but no one in the group from college knew because for some reason, saying the words—I’m separated—seemed almost as hard as actually going through a separation.
Screw it, she thought as she exhaled loudly. She’d pick up a new sarong and get a spray tan with Gary’s next check, and she’d go to Jamaica. She’d dance barefoot to steel drum music on the beach and take a few windsurfing lessons, and fool around with the instructor, if he was as hot as Savannah imagined a windsurfing instructor was constitutionally required to be. She’d even give Dwight a few free glimpses of cleavage, for old times’ sake.
Wouldn’t miss it, Savannah typed.
She couldn’t tell Allie about the looming divorce, not now. Allie would immediately phone, asking sympathetic questions in her gentle social worker’s voice, and Savannah would probably do something ridiculous, like burst into tears. And then a good prospect would walk in the door and size everything up—ugly picture frames, bucktoothed children, peeling wallpaper, sobbing real estate agent—and flee.
She’d call Allie later, when she had a glass of good scotch in hand—the expensive, aged scotch Gary splurged on and adored, which Savannah had relocated to under the sink on his moving day.
Yippee! Allie wrote back.
Savannah could almost see her leaping into the air like the high school cheerleader she’d been. Savannah pictured Allie with her reddish brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, her big blue eyes bright, her perfect teeth displayed in a big smile. Since Allie went running almost every day, she’d probably be wearing spandex—but nothing too tight or revealing, which was a shame, because Allie had a cute little body, even if she was flat-chested. Why not show it off while she still could? For that matter, why not just buy a set of better boobs?
I can’t wait! Allie wrote. Hugs!
Savannah smiled. Allie’s relentless optimism could grate at times, but maybe it would be contagious on this trip, and Savannah could use a little infusion of joy. Sure, it might feel odd to be the only single one, but Savannah had always felt comfortable around Gio and Ryan. She’d kicked back with them on the couch many times, shouting orders at the football players on TV and drinking Sam Adams from the bottle, leaving Allie and Tina to gossip in the kitchen. In fact, Gary was the one who hadn’t fit in with them; he had no interest in sports.
See you soon, babe, Savannah typed.
She needed to get used to doing things alone. She needed to feel desirable again. This trip would be a good start.
* * *
You could divide the ten women sitting around the big rectangular table into two equal-size groups, Pauline mused as she reached for the silver coffee service and freshened her cup of French roast.
Group A was composed of the high achievers: the well-connected women who brokered seven- and eight-figure deals and jetted to Tokyo for a day. They wore plain business suits and expensive watches, had short hair—Pauline imagined their schedules were too busy to accommodate blowouts—and frowned while their fingers flew across their BlackBerrys.
Then there was Group B, the ones like her. The spouses.
Pauline had already figured out that the high achievers had joined the board of Children’s Hospital to balance the gritty realities of their day jobs, during which they screwed over employees and fattened the bottom lines of environment-polluting companies. They could tell themselves that they were doing some good—plus, it was a networking opportunity.
The spouses, on the other hand, did it to fill time, because the alternative was to shop, or take another exercise class, or look around for a room to redecorate.
The pot of coffee felt light in Pauline’s hand, and as if he’d sensed her thoughts, Caleb, the house manager, turned to look at her. She glanced pointedly at the server, and he came over, relieved her of it, and replaced it with a fresh one.
“Anything else, Ms. Glass?” he whispered.
She shook her head, and he stepped back, his movements so smooth and discreet that he seemingly melted away.
Pauline hid a small, satisfied smile. Soon after she and Dwight had gotten married, eighteen months earlier, they’d moved into a home with a library big enough to seat twenty people. She oversaw a staff composed of Caleb, a maid, a gardener, and a part-time driver. Their two-story garage held five cars, including a classic Karmann Ghia, as well as Dwight’s collection of vintage arcade games.
Pauline had grown up with some money—her great-grandfather was one of the founding members of the stock market—but the perception, carefully cultivated by her mother, was that the family was wealthier than they actually were. There was a big difference between founding the stock market and buying a lot of early shares, and while her grandfather had been a genius, he’d lacked common sense. Still, her trust fund had covered a top boarding school in Massachusetts and her degree from Vassar.
Pauline was about to turn twenty-seven and was working at an art gallery in Georgetown, on one of D.C.’s most exclusive streets, when she answered the phone call that would forever change her quiet, comfortable life. On the other end of the line was Val, her old boarding school roommate, who’d suggested a blind date with her husband’s boss.
“He’s kind of shy, very rich, and brilliant,” Val had said, reeling off Dwight’s attributes as efficiently as a police officer detailing a suspect’s vitals. “He created a dot-com company right after he got out of college and took it public, then he sold most of his shares just before the Internet bubble burst. Now he’s got his fingers in a lot of different ventures. He’s thirty-one. Not bad looking. I was seated next to him at a dinner last night, and I asked if he was dating anyone. He said no and asked if I knew anyone . . . so I thought of you. What do you think?”
“Sure,” Pauline had said, a little too quickly. Why had Val picked her, especially since they didn’t talk all that often? she’d wondered. Maybe all of Val’s other friends were already taken.
She’d cringed, glad that the gallery was empty of customers and that Val couldn’t see her face. Pauline certainly wasn’t in old maid territory yet, but she’d long carried the expectation that she’d marry, and marry well. It was unspoken but understood, as clear as the rule in some families that only a union within the same religious faith would be acceptable. Pauline sometimes wondered if things would be different if her older sister—her only sibling—hadn’t been born with congenital birth defects that required round-the-clock care. Therese was unable to speak and had the mental capacity of an infant, yet was fully grown. Her parents had entrusted her to a private institution, but Pauline knew insurance covered only some of the costs. And shortly after Pauline had graduated from college, her father had passed away from a brain aneurysm, leaving only a small portfolio and a smaller insurance policy.
As Pauline had traveled through her twenties, she’d begun noticing the changes: Her mother had suddenly professed an interest in taking over the gardening that had always been left to professionals; and she’d stopped traveling, complaining that planes were too crowded to make the experience enjoyable. Then the small warnings had erupted into larger ones: Her mother began talking about downsizing to an apartment—“All these stairs are so rough on my knees!” And Pauline had noticed a cherished heirloom diamond ring was missing from its usual place on her mother’s right hand. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to ask why.
Pauline had tried to slip her mother money, but her mother always refused to take it. “Buy yourself a pretty new dress,” she’d say, but that seemingly carefree comment would be followed by a question with tension underlying it: “Meet anyone interesting lately?”
One night shortly before Val’s unexpected phone call, Pauline had been unable to sleep and was flipping through television channels when she’d paused on a poker tournament being broadcast live from Vegas. The camera had zoomed in on a guy who looked like he was barely out of his teens. He wore a black hoodie and sunglasses and had spent a long time studying the five cards in his hand.
“I’m all in,” he’d finally said, pushing his pile of chips forward.
The poker player and Pauline’s mother were different genders, races, and ages, but in that moment, they could’ve been the same person. Her mother was going all in on Pauline, and while some daughters might’ve chafed under the weight of the implied responsibility, Pauline never did. She had the exact same goals for herself—or maybe she’d unconsciously absorbed her mother’s so long ago that they’d become part of her.
Kind of shy. Pauline had repeated Val’s words as she’d gotten dressed for her blind date, choosing a taupe silk sleeveless wrap dress. Very rich. She’d pulled her blond-streaked hair back into a chignon, applied brownish black mascara, and dotted the insides of her wrists with a delicate floral perfume. Thirty-one. She’d taken a final, appraising look in the mirror after she inserted her two-carat diamond teardrop earrings—fakes, but good ones—into her lobes. From a distance, she was classically beautiful. Closer up, one saw past the tricks of makeup and noticed that her eyes were set a fraction too close together, her mouth was a shade too small, and her nose was too narrow, as if someone had placed two strong hands on the sides of her features and squeezed.
Still, she’d once read that the three things women needed to be gorgeous were great hair, teeth, and skin. Those she had; those could be bought.
When she’d first glimpsed Dwight, what she’d felt more than anything was disappointment. The doorman had phoned to let her know Dwight was in the lobby of her apartment, and she’d picked up her clutch purse, counted off sixty seconds in her head, then gone to meet him.
Not bad looking, Val had said, but Pauline thought the assessment was overly generous. Dwight was as skinny as some of the women in her Pilates classes, wore a brown jacket with oddly large lapels, and had an angry red zit on his chin.
But she’d smiled, and reached for his hand, and spoken his name in a soft voice. And then he’d led her to his Mercedes, and whisked her off to one of those restaurants that was so exclusive it had no name on the door. Or maybe it was a club? She’d had no idea.
Don’t screw this up, she’d warned herself as she sipped a glass of crisp Sancerre and perused the menu. One of her most embarrassing secrets was that she hated expensive food. Escargots, foie gras, and lobster tasted like slime and lard to her. What she really adored was comfort food: If she was on death row and being granted a final meal, she’d order mashed potatoes with gravy, roast chicken, and hot, yeasty buttered rolls—the kind that came out of a refrigerated cardboard tube.
Of course, that night in the restaurant—club?—she’d ordered the escargots and lobster, and she’d smiled through every bite. To this day Dwight thought she loved them. He had no idea that when he was out of town, she snuck down to the kitchen and made a piece of cinnamon toast for dinner, layering the sweet cream butter on thick and sprinkling on a perfect combination of cinnamon and sugar before carrying it to her room on a tray to savor slowly.
Now she put down her cup of coffee and tuned back in to the board meeting—or as she’d once referred to it in an e-mail, the “bored meeting.” Luckily she’d caught that Freudian slip before blasting the message to the group.
“So we have venue and entertainment taken care of for the auction,” Delores Debonis, the chairwoman, was saying. She was in Group B, the spouses, but you’d never know it by the way she obsessively checked her iPhone. She tapped her pen against the table. “Flowers. Who wants to handle flowers?”
“I will,” Pauline said, just as another woman at the end of the table spoke the identical words.
The other woman deferred to Pauline with a gracious nod. “Please. I’ll find something else.”
“Thank you.” Pauline smiled back, just as graciously, and swallowed a yawn.
“Food,” Delores Debonis said loudly, and Pauline started, thinking for a second that Delores was demanding a snack. “We’ve received bids from three catering companies with proposed menus for passed hors d’oeuvres and the seated meal. I’ve made copies for everyone.”
Delores reached for the papers in front of her and handed them out.
“Aren’t stuffed mushroom caps kind of . . . I don’t know . . . nineteen nineties?” someone said, wrinkling her nose as if one of the unfashionable fungi had materialized in front of her.
“I agree,” another woman added. “It shows a lack of creativity. The first caterer isn’t impressing me.”
A third woman cleared her throat. “I’m worried we won’t have enough passed hors d’oeuvres. Six selections for two hundred people isn’t much variety. And what about the vegetarians? I only see two non-meat or seafood options.”
Pauline allowed her mind to drift again, as she did so often during these meetings. She began to think about what would happen the day after the auction, when they’d leave for Dwight’s birthday trip to Jamaica along with his college friends—people Pauline barely knew and probably had nothing in common with.
She’d made a massive mistake.
What had come over her? Why had she blurted out the idea the moment it popped into her head, without even sleeping on it first? Now it was far too late to cancel the trip; the invitations had been delivered, and everyone had sent back gushing acceptances. She was going to be stuck spending an entire week with these people.
“So no mushroom caps,” Delores was saying. Tap, tap, tap went her pen. “Are we in agreement about the goat cheese—Pauline?”
She hadn’t realized she’d stood up until she heard Delores speak her name.
“Are you unwell?” Delores asked as every head swiveled to look at Pauline. “You’re so pale.”
“It’s nothing,” Pauline said. She pressed her hands together to camouflage their sudden trembling. “Excuse me a moment.”
She walked down the hallway to a bathroom, locked the door behind her, and studied her reflection in the large oval mirror. Delores was right; she did look even paler than usual.
She might as well get this over with, she thought as she slipped her skirt down over her hips and sat on the toilet. And there it was again: a streak of red on her panty liner. She stared at it, wondering how much longer she could blame it on Dwight’s traveling, on bad timing, on it being harder for a woman to get pregnant after she turned thirty.
Dwight wanted children. It wasn’t something they’d discussed at length, but an older woman who’d been friends with Dwight’s mother had asked about it at their wedding reception, and he’d said, “Of course.” As if it was such a given that his response had required no thought at all. Dwight and the woman had turned to look at her, and she’d smiled. “One or two, definitely,” she’d said. “Or three or four,” Dwight had said, and the old woman had laughed and said, “You’d better get started!”
To her surprise, Pauline had discovered she liked the idea of a little girl in a dress with a wide silk sash, throwing a tea party for her dolls. Pauline had trouble envisioning a baby, but she could see a daughter at age five or six—after the mess of diapers and formulas and spit-up was over.
Did Dwight wonder why it was taking so long, too? Maybe he was beginning to suspect that Pauline had a problem, that a life with her wouldn’t be the one he was counting on.
The natural thing to do would be to go to a fertility doctor. But she couldn’t. She knew there would be questions she couldn’t risk Dwight ever learning the answers to. She covered her mouth with her hand, feeling nausea rise up through her throat.
The irony didn’t escape her that she was feeling ill for a reason that was the precise opposite of the one she’d hoped.
Her nausea passed and she stood up, flushed the toilet, and washed her hands. Then she walked back into the boardroom. People were waiting for her.
“What did I miss?” she asked, forcing a smile as she slipped into her seat.
Excerpted from The Best of Us: A Novel
by Sarah Pekkanen
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are
provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
distributed without the written permission of the publisher.