Speaking of kisses, I know this may sound weird, but in the past month, I have set up three first dates for Teddy, my ex-husband. I'm not sure he's had any kisses--restorative or otherwise--from any of the three women, but at least on tonight's date, he called to say the woman actually liked what he calls his First Date Outfit, the purple shirt with the orange hummingbirds. If you ask me, the hummingbird shirt is a test he unconsciously gives women, and frankly, it's often lethal. If he detects even the slightest wince when a woman first sees it (and he has a finely tuned wince detector, believe me), he won't ever call her again. Of course this latest woman loved it: he was dating the receptionist from my work, Kendall, and if there's anything she would respect, it's a man who can confidently pull off wearing anything purple. She likes unconventional types.
That's the good news. The bad news, I suppose, is that it's only ten minutes until nine and he's already back at my house, drinking wine and getting ready for the post-date analysis.
Until Teddy arrived a few minutes ago, I'm afraid I had been conducting a dangerous experiment in the upstairs bathroom, totally unlike anything I've ever done in my life: giving myself blond highlights with one of those do-it-yourself kits. I had just finished putting white goop on the last strand of hair at the very back of my head, craning my neck around so I could see it in the mirror, when I heard the back doorbell ring and then heard Teddy calling, "Lily? Lil, you decent?"
I ran to the top of the stairs and stage-whispered, "No, I'm not decent--don't come up." I didn't want to yell for fear of waking up our four-year-old son, Simon, who actually can sleep through anything, including possibly a helicopter landing on the roof--but you never know. I'd just spent an hour singing songs and reading him stories to help him fall asleep, and I wanted to make sure he would stay asleep. Sometimes, you know, just the whiff of intensity in a parent's voice can bring a kid to full alert status, if he suspects that all the fun is happening without him.
"Well, get decent and come on down here," Teddy called up way too loudly. "I've brought us some wine."
I gave my reflection one last desperate, prayers-to-the-universe look--I looked kind of bizarre, really, with all those white stripes all over my brown curls, like somebody in a community theater production playing a ninety-year-old woman--and then, because I didn't want Teddy to know what I'd been doing since he'd immediately see how desperate I am to change my life, I put a towel over the whole mess and went down to hear about his date with Kendall.
It's one of those unseasonably warm nights in early June, so he and I go sit out in the rocking chairs on my back porch, which looks out over a little inlet on the Long Island Sound, in Branford, Connecticut. Everybody in the six houses along our little bay colony--unofficially called Scallop Bay because of its shape--seems to be outside tonight, as though they're all here to usher in the first warm nights of late spring. You can see their silhouettes against the lit-up windows, hear their bug zappers and the strains of music from their stereos, make out the jumpy flames of their candles. The air tonight smells like a combination of dead fish and low tide, a smell that Teddy hates (he thinks the Environmental Protection Agency should be out here every day, measuring our air currents and possibly bringing in buses to evacuate us away from this odor)--but to me it's just the backdrop smell of ordinary beach life. That's probably because I've lived here in this converted beach cottage, a hulking blue duplex that backs up to the Sound, for most of my life--lived here, in fact, even before I was born. I tell people that I was once an egg and a sperm cell here, my essence riding around in my mother and father, and one day, perhaps due to my subliminal urging, they hooked up so that I could get started. This smell, this air, even these splinters on the porch: this is all probably encoded somewhere in my DNA.
"So why in the world are you back here so soon?" I ask Teddy. I accept the glass of merlot he's holding out to me and try surreptitiously to straighten the towel wrapped around my head. My scalp is itching something fierce. What do they make hair color out of, anyway--ground-up fire ants? "This hardly even qualifies as a full date, you know," I say. "I think legally you're still in the first half, and we may have to send you back in."
"Lily," he says, giving me his deadpan look and tuning up his whine. "I'm not going back in. Your friend Kendall is out of her mind, as I'm sure you knew. You planned this date for your own sadistic amusement, didn't you?"
This is exactly what he said about the last two dates: Jillian, my hairdresser, and Norma, who works the drive-through at my bank. Both of them are sweet and attractive and actively looking for a nice man, but with both of them, I was accused of sadistic intentions. Jillian, Teddy said, announced at the outset of the date that she had PMS and also that she'd once had Botox injections, two things he didn't want to hear about; and Norma's crime--I forget Norma's exact crime, but I think she told him she never liked Meryl Streep movies. And--well, neither of them raved about the First Date Outfit.
"Oh, Teddy, for God's sake. All your really good people these days are out of their minds in one way or another," I say. "Come on. You've got to get a grip."
"I know, I know. It's me, isn't it?" he says mournfully. "I'm really not meant for getting along with the other humans." This is one of his favorite topics--Teddy Kingsley, adrift in the world of crazy people, the sole voice of reason howling alone in the wind. He's a New Age psychotherapist, and he spends his days with well-meaning though often eccentric people who optimistically ask for Reiki and Rolfing and aromatherapy and crystals, which he doles out with doses of calm, measured gloom. I've actually heard him say to clients, "Well, this may not work as well as you hope . . ."--which cracks me up every time. He thinks positive thinking and affirmations are a waste of human energy. True happiness, he says, comes from lowered expectations.
"Listen, you big galoot, the time of everybody being fully sane has long passed," I tell him cheerfully. "Forget that. The modern-day quest is just to find people whose insanities fit together nicely with our own. Now tell me what happened with Kendall so you can get back and continue your date. She's probably waiting for you in a parking lot somewhere. Believe me, Jillian and Norma may have been mistakes, and I'm sorry for that, but I think Kendall is your woman."
He laughs, a raspy sound, like two dry husks rubbing together.
"Come on. You said when you called from the restaurant that she loved the shirt," I say. "So what happened then?" Teddy is possibly the only man in the world who would make a cell phone call to his ex-wife while his date is in the ladies' room, just to give a mid-date progress report, only to hang up quickly when the date returned. I could hear Kendall's bright, curious, uncomplicated voice saying, "Oh! Who are you talking to?" and him mumbling, "Omigodshe'sbackbye" before a great deal of muffled-sounding fumbling, and then the cell phone (with me in it) seemed to land inside his pocket, from where I heard clanking of dishes and silverware and the faraway sound of Teddy's raspy laugh.
He stretches out his long legs and leans back in the rocker. He's handsome, really, or would be if he didn't look so worried all the time. He's tall and kind of bony-skinny, with curly, longish dark hair and big vulnerable brown eyes, but he has the naked, startled look of somebody who never learned how to hide his feelings so that the rest of us can't poke at them. He's the type of man people tend to instinctively speak softly to, perhaps because they don't want to be responsible for getting him further alarmed than he already seems. And right now he's a man with a long story to unpack, and he doesn't care how long it takes to tell it. This is because he has no hair-care products ticking like a time bomb on his head.
May I just stop right here and tell you the two things about hair coloring that are beginning to occur to me? One is that I, who am usually so careful about everything--I even go downstairs twice each night just to make sure I've locked the front door--got so distracted by Teddy's arrival that I didn't check the time when I finished applying this stuff, and so I have no idea when it needs to be rinsed off. That's the first thing, and it seems very, very bad. The second thing is, it might not have been the best idea to just smush my hair up underneath a towel after I'd painstakingly made such long, careful streaks. A third thought pops up then, too, which is that maybe nothing dreadful has happened yet, and I could run in the house right now and rinse the whole thing out immediately, and we could just forget this ordeal, and I could keep my boring long chestnut brown hair that I've had since I was a child. What was I thinking, anyway, doing this to my hair? It was obviously a moment of insanity.
I take another sip of wine to calm myself down. I am in need of a change. This is a change. Teddy is saying, "She hates me. She hopes she'll never see me again. Right now she's calling all her friends to tell them how terrible things went. I know her type. She's one of those women who probably calls her friends 'girlfriend,' as though that's their title. And she's saying, 'Girlfriend, this guy was such a bore. He'd never even been to Canc*n or on a singles cruise. He didn't even appreciate my espa-somethings.'" He looks at me. "What are those shoes people wear, that look like they were made from a bunch of old wine corks and a lot of too-long shoelaces?"
"Espadrilles," I say.
"Right. Whatever. She must have gone on about them for ten hours. At least. The whole first half of the date. I thought I would go into a coma hearing about those shoes. Oh, and Lily, by the way, just so you know, she lives way out in the middle of the woods, like where a wicked witch would draw children to with bread crumbs--there aren't even any streetlights or sidewalks--and the house is filled with hundreds of thousands of cats, all of which she's named. And she talks to them like they're people. 'Sadie, get off the couch, so Teddy can sit in all your filth and cat hair.' 'Bubby, go do that in the litter box when we have guests.' It was unbelievable. And all these cats are just sitting there looking at me, telepathically communicating, 'You take your pants off here, bud, and we're shredding those private parts you've been taking such good care of all these years. Don't even think you're leaving with your manhood intact.'"
"But she liked your shirt," I point out.
"Yeah, probably because it had birds on it, and she was thinking of it as food for her feral cats. That's all that was." He sighs. "Then, after she's lectured me about her shoes and she's introduced me to all the hostile cats, we finally get to the restaurant, and the waiter comes over to take our order, and she can't just order something off the menu. Oh, no. She has to ask him approximately four million questions about the food--how they make it, what it has in it, where it used to live before it came to the restaurant, who it hung around with and what its name was when it was still a cow. You know. Then she made the chef--the chef, a busy man who should be back in the kitchen making sure that botulism isn't being introduced into the food sources--the actual chef, Lily, had to come out into the dining room, to our table, just so he could reassure her that the mango salsa didn't have any cilantro, and that the swordfish had never, for one minute, been inside a freezer, and that the asparagus hadn't come from South America, because as anyone would know who cared, workers are mistreated in South America."
I look at him, trying not to laugh.
"God, you know how I hate having authority figures come to my table," he says, whining, in full Lovable Curmudgeon mode now. He sniffs. "Jeez, it smells particularly awful here tonight. Do you think it's possible that the Sound has turned somehow into a toxic waste site and that the government doesn't want us to know?"
"It's just nature."
He looks at me for a long time. "Say, why do you have a towel on your head? You always wash your hair in the shower in the morning, and then you blow it dry on the medium-heat setting after you put on your white terry cloth bathrobe and that rose-scented after-bath splash that you pay an arm and a leg for even though Wal-Mart probably has the same stuff for half the price. Why the change?" He narrows his eyes. "Uh-oh. What have I interrupted? Is there a guy here, ha-ha-ha, waiting for you to come back upstairs?"
"Ha-ha-ha," I say. We both know there have been no guys. I am the only celibate thirty-four-year-old I know. Maggie says I'm pathologically celibate. The truth is I don't have time for a new man. I have Teddy hanging around all the time. When would I see someone else? That's when Maggie points out that nowhere in my divorce agreement did it specify that I was responsible for lining up a new partner for Teddy before I could find one for myself. "But I just want him to be happy," I tell her. "Think of him as my project. When I get him settled, then my project will be settling me."
"Um, I don't think that's how the world works," Maggie told me, but who is she to talk? She's married to her boyfriend from fourth grade, the only guy she ever loved (violins, please), and--well, he's turning out to be what we in the advice business would call a Problem Husband.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Piece of Normal by Sandi Kahn Shelton. Copyright © 2006 by Sandi Kahn Shelton. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.