Okay, here’s one of those life lessons I think we all know. When someone looks you in the eye, takes a deep breath, and says, “We have to talk,” nothing good is going to come from it. People do not feel they have to warn you when they are about to pay you a compliment or give you that gold bangle you’ve been angling for. But when you hear the word talk, especially from one of your nearest and dearest, the correct response is to do pretty much what my dog, Annie, does when someone says bath in her presence. You run. You swallow back the sick feeling in your stomach, and you ignore the ice sliding down the back of your neck, and you take off. Because even those of us who insist that oh, no, we had no clue what was coming, we never dreamed of it . . . well, somewhere deep down we did know. We just couldn’t face it. So we pretend we didn’t hear the T word, and we run. At least, that’s what I did when my husband, Jake, said those fateful words on a peaceful Saturday in Manhattan, when we were sitting around not doing much of anything. I immediately got to my feet.
“I think I’ll go for a run,” I chirped. I always get chirpy when I’m in denial about something. “It’s a perfect day for it, and I’m doing so well with the diet, I’ll just take a quick jog around the park.”
Jake and I both knew I didn’t jog anymore. Not since I’d gained thirty-two pounds. For the record, the two of us also knew my diet wasn’t going all that well either, but that was one of the things we didn’t discuss—one of the many things, I realized later, when I looked back on it. “I’ve lost another two pounds,” I lied gaily.
“Terrific, Francesca,” said Jake with a big fake smile. I’d been seeing a lot of that fake smile recently.
“Britney Spears, move over,” I said inanely. She was the only pop reference I could think of at a moment’s notice. My husband liked it when we sprinkled our conversation with pop references, because he thought it made us seem hip. And if we could claim a personal relationship to the pop reference—no matter how distant—he was really happy, because that made us seem successful. Being successful is very important to Jake. But I’d been slipping up on my pop culture lately—the damn stuff moves so fast—because I’d been busy battling the writer’s block from hell. Which is not a good thing when you write books for a living. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
Jake knew the names of so many of those interchangeable young blond starlets who careen back and forth between rehab and multimillion-dollar movie deals because he was a photographer, and he’d taken pictures of quite a few of them back when they were still living in Manhattan, waiting tables and trying to make it as serious actresses. Before they wised up and moved to Los Angeles, the starlet’s natural habitat.
“I’m going to go change into my running clothes,” I went on in my chirpy voice, as I started out of the living room. But then I couldn’t resist going back to plant a little kiss on the top of his head. “Love you,” I said, and raced out before he could come up with an answer—or avoid coming up with one. Like I said, we all know what it means when a Talk is looming. But instead of heading for our bedroom, I took a quick detour to the kitchen to grab one of the cocoa-flavored diet bars I substitute for breakfast every morning—except when I sneak one after breakfast because we don’t have any real chocolate in the house. And yes, I know all the clichés about eating sweets when you’re stressed. But chocolate helps. A lot. That’s another life lesson I’ve learned.
Jake has always told me I fell in love with him because he’s shallow. “You married me because I gave you permission to be shallow too,” he said, after we’d exchanged our vows at City Hall. We both laughed, and I thought how lucky I was to be married to a man who had such a terrific self-deprecating sense of humor. I mean, most guys take themselves so seriously. And the truth was, Jake isn’t shallow, he’s just not as intense as I am, which puts him in the same category with almost everyone except a couple of religious fanatics and my mother, the Feminist Icon. I felt blessed beyond my wildest dreams to have snagged a gem like Jake. Not that I ever shared that mushy sentiment with him. Jake and I were into snappy patter.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Jake is gorgeous. The man has these fabulous green eyes, a great mouth, cheekbones that balance his square jaw perfectly, and dark wavy hair that hugs the back of his head in a way that makes you want to kiss it. On top of everything else, his hair is frosted ever so slightly with gray—Jake is a few years older than I am—and it looks fabulous on him, so you know he’s going to age beautifully. He’s slim but well built and about six feet tall.
But it really was the you-married-me-because-I-gave-you-permission-to-be-shallow line that got me. And he did give me permission—maybe not to be shallow but to have fun. Fun was a four-letter word to me before Jake came into my life. (See above reference to intensity.) That probably sounds weird, since I was in my thirties when we met and should have been past needing permission for anything. But I was a late bloomer—seriously late. And while I’ve read enough self-help books to know that we all have to take responsibility for our own emotional growth, I will say that my early years were not exactly conducive to blooming.
As i made my way down the hall to our bedroom, I looked out the wide window that fronts Central Park. The condo Jake and I lived in was on the Upper East Side, almost directly across the park from the co-op my mother used to own, where I spent what I guess you could say were my formative years. I’m one of those rare creatures who were born and bred in Manhattan, except for two years when my family lived up in Rye. Since that hiatus probably caused—or at least heavily contributed to—the breakup of my parents’ marriage, I’m a little ambivalent about the suburbs. Although, to be fair, I’m ambivalent about most things. Deep down, at my core, where it really counts, I’m marshmallow fluff. And someday, damn it, I’m going to figure out how to be proud of that. Or reconciled to it.
My mother’s West Side apartment was in one of those build- ings noted for their prewar charm and dicey plumbing, and since she had zilch interest in domesticity it was never really decorated, or even painted, as I recall. When Jake and I bought our condo we opted for a brand-new building and a wildly expensive decorator to “create our environment.” As far as I was concerned, the result—except for our bedroom, where I’d prevailed—was terrifyingly sleek, and the place was as inviting as the lobby of a high-end insurance company. Our chairs, tables, and sofas were limited editions designed by a sculptor in some Nordic country where the sun doesn’t shine much. And the pièce de résistance, which Jake just had to have, was a high-tech clock in the foyer. The thing cost as much as a car—a cheap one, but still a car. It was hooked up to an international satellite system so it could tell you the time in Borneo and the weather in Tanzania; I think it could also launch rockets. I was always afraid that one night it would go rogue and start a war.
Naturally this haute furniture cost a fortune, and even though the decorator swore we were buying investment pieces that would hold their value, I would have balked at the price. But Jake loved it all—and I’ve always thought it was because of the price.
I told myself I understood. Jake had grown up as the only child of a hardworking single mother who held down two jobs so her talented son could go to the city’s best art school and study photography. If he was into pricey and showy, it was understandable. Besides, I wasn’t sure what I was into—there’s that ambivalent thing again—although I knew my taste was cozier than Jake’s. But I wanted him to be happy. When Jake is happy, it’s like having a ringside seat at the best Fourth of July fireworks ever. Sparks of pleasure just seem to fly off him. What woman wouldn’t want to be around that, especially if she felt she’d caused it? And our new condo had produced a Vesuvius of sparks from Jake. In the beginning, anyway.
So we had those glitzy big windows overlooking the park and a large-for-Manhattan gourmet kitchen we never used, and the building itself had a professionally equipped exercise room and a roof garden. Jake and I had everything we needed, except closet space. We used to have enough of that before I had three wardrobes: sizes four, ten, and fourteen. Jake was always telling me to dump either the clothes that didn’t fit or the pounds.
“You’re just torturing yourself, Francesca,” he’d say, as I stood in front of the jammed racks trying to find the one skirt that actually fit me. “Why do you want to be miserable?”
Well, I didn’t, of course. But I still hung on to the size fours—also known as my Happy Clothes—and I haven’t met a woman who can’t relate. (If such a woman does exist, I propose that we shoot her.) I fought to get into those minuscule garments—for eight months I ate five hundred calories a day, supplemented with vitamin B shots, and I almost passed out twice in Barnes & Noble—and I knew I could get back down to that weight again. I just had to change a lifetime of bad eating habits, stop trying to solve all my problems with chocolate, and become someone who likes to jog—or, at least, walk fast. But if I packed up the tiny jeans and the itsy-bitsy skirts and sent them to Goodwill, I’d be admitting defeat—or, okay, accepting reality. I’m not a big fan of reality.
On the Saturday in question, I couldn’t make myself open the closet door. I lay down on our bed and closed my eyes. There was a snuffling noise somewhere in the vicinity of my right ear.
“Go away, Annie,” I murmured.
The snuffling was followed by a couple of snorts. I gave up and opened my eyes to face my dog. Annie was a rescue, so her ancestry has always been a mystery; it’s clear that several large breeds were involved in her family tree, and at least a few of them were mega-shedders. Coal-black mega-shedders. We had to dump the decorator’s favorite white rug after only a couple of weeks because of Annie. However, Annie has a beautiful face, a terrific dog smile, and a heavy-duty work ethic about her gig as Francesca’s Best Friend. Part of that job, as she sees it, is to keep me in line, which is why she was nosing me to get off the bed. It was at least six hours before I was supposed to call it quits for the day, and Annie is a stickler about my schedule. I finally managed to convince her to lie down next to me by bribing her with the dog cookies I keep in my nightstand. Annie will do anything for a cookie; she’s my dog, after all. Once she settled down, I closed my eyes again.
One reason I didn’t want to open the closet was the new gown—a size sixteen—that was hanging on the special rack our closet consultant (yes, I know, I know) had installed for my party clothes back in the days when I still told myself I loved going to parties. I’d bought the gown because Jake and I were going to an awards dinner that night; the honoree was a friend of ours named Andrea Grace. Andy, as she is known to her intimates, is a television producer. She’d worked for the Big Three (that would be CBS, NBC, and ABC), as well as Lifetime and Hallmark, and now she was striking out on her own as an independent. That’s why the National Academy of Women in Film decided to give her a dinner and, probably, a really ugly little plaque. Jake had been asked to say a few words to introduce her acceptance speech, because he and Andy were working together on several of her new projects. I’d also been invited—as Jake’s date, of course.
That’s what I’d become, the wife who was also invited. It hadn’t always been that way. As I mentioned before, I’m an author, and my debut novel was hailed as a success by everyone. But, as I’ve also mentioned, I’d been having a little trouble with writer’s block. . . . Okay, let me rephrase. I’d been wrestling with the mother of all writer’s blocks for three years, and there were times when I found it depressing to hang out with people who were getting awards—or people who were merely functioning, for that matter. I wasn’t proud of this, but it was the reason I’d backed out of a couple of social events in recent months. No one wants to talk to a depressed person at a cocktail party; eating finger food without getting arugula caught in your teeth is enough of a challenge. Besides, I knew Jake was okay with going to these shindigs on his own, he could talk better to all the successful folk if he didn’t have to keep including me in the conversation. It was actually a nice thing I was doing for Jake when I stayed home—or so I told myself.
I shifted on the bed so I could cuddle closer to Annie. She actually hates cuddling, but some rule in the Good Dog Manual decrees that she has to allow it when she knows I’m feeling needy. There was a part of me that wanted to run back to the living room and scream at Jake, I just said I love you, damn it! Say something back! I know, even though you’re ten years older than I am, that you look better than I do. But you’re supposed to cherish me anyway. The vows didn’t say “for better or for better” when we got married. But I don’t scream. A shrink I once saw told me it’s because I heard too much screaming growing up. And besides, fighting with Jake was sure to bring on the Talk. My stomach lurched just thinking about that. I hopped off the bed, and Annie heaved a sigh of relief.
I opened the dreaded closet, found the jogging suit with the top that was long enough to cover my hips, and pulled it on. Then I forced myself to look in the mirror. Even when I’m slim, I’m built like one of those heroines in old-fashioned novels everyone describes as sturdy. No one has ever been able to explain why I am this way. My father’s family, the Sewells, are tall lanky wasps. My mother’s father was Greek American, and the women on his side were all downright skinny. The wild card in my genetic mix is my maternal grandmother. I’m not sure what her original heritage was, since she died when my mother was three and no one talks about her much. But I figure someone in her family tree must have had child-bearing hips. And sturdy thighs.
Excerpted from Looking for a Love Story by Louise Shaffer. Copyright © 2010 by Louise Shaffer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.