Pele is far from Stevie’s mind on the warm September morning that her new garden is scheduled to open. For one thing, she’s a long way from Hawai‘i—in Chicago, a tough-guy city if ever there was one. And for another, she’s all grown up. Thirty-six years old. An age that, in her better moods, on her better days, seems in perfect balance. Eighteen years of living as somebody’s daughter, under parental control, followed by eighteen years of independence. By her reckoning, that means she ought to have a pretty fair shot at being her own person. A person who calls home a Brooklyn Heights floor-through apartment with eye-catching French flea market linens on the bed and well-used chef-grade cookware in the kitchen. A person with reliable friends and a regularly exercised passport. A professional person, too—one who is, to be exact, making her mark upon the land. What’s more, this person is determined not to let anything interfere with a day on which both she and the elaborate garden she designed are going to be celebrated. Not even the fact that somebody just dumped her. Especially not that.
When Stevie gets out of bed in her room at a small, European-style hotel on East Delaware Place, her head aches and her mouth is dry. She fights the urge to rush out and buy herself coffee, pastries, and a pack of the American Spirit cigarettes she still craves whenever something major goes wrong. Instead, she clips back her hair and puts on running clothes—an athletic bra engineered to immobilize C-cup breasts, loose-legged purple shorts, and a mustard-yellow T-shirt decorated with a big bunned wiener that reads:
Hot Dog! Johnny’s
Soon she’s jogging along a lakeside path, red-faced already in this low late-summer sun, glad for the sweet-smelling freshwater breeze. Fog hugs the waterfront, the shoreline that is Stevie’s favorite thing about the city, and through the fog she catches glimpses that remind her of a veiled belly dancer, undulating against the Gold Coast’s rigid street grid. Land curves in and out, so sensuous, so seductive, it’s easy to imagine that only some supreme feminine force of nature could have shaped it. Stevie knows better.
Her research into all things Chicago has taught her that most of the shore, like the rest of the city, is man-made, an illusion created with ton upon ton of dumped landfill. “Shit,” Stevie hisses. Just thinking of dumped landfill is enough to bring her own dumping front and center again.
She’s told no one any details of the breakup. Not even Lorna, her best friend since college. Especially not Lorna. And that’s because she knows exactly what Lorna will say: “First words, Stevie. Let’s talk about first words.”
Lorna has a theory—annoyingly accurate by now—that every man, right off the bat, says something that reveals with astonishing precision what your relationship with him will be like. “And you’d pay attention, too,” Lorna contends, “if only you weren’t stone-deaf to anything but that sneaky devil with the romance-o-meter whispering in your ear. Telling you not who they are, but who you want them to be. So you miss what really matters. When some guy says ‘I don’t deserve you,’ listen up, Stevie. That guy is not flattering you. That guy is preaching the goddamn gospel.”
That guy was just Exhibit A. Over the years, Stevie has given Lorna ample additional evidence to prove her point, standouts being the lover who said “You are exactly the kind of woman I should fall for” (Stevie had failed to give proper emphasis to the word “should”) and another who claimed “You make my life so full” (soon enough, he’d sink back into depression).
What was the first important thing Brian had revealed? The words that, in the world according to Lorna, contained the tiny, tightly coiled kernels of their future—or, rather, their past. Nothing comes. It’s easier to recall how she met Brian than what tumbled out of his mouth after she did.
They were collaborating on a symphony hall that his firm had designed, and no sooner did they shake hands than he presented her with an architectural drawing of the building, complete with computer-generated landscapes. Not only had Brian done her job for her, he’d done it in a completely crappy, generic way. What was he thinking, plopping down a woodland-style trout stream right beside a sleek modern building in downtown Pittsburgh? Every bit as ridiculous, in Stevie’s opinion, as garnishing a plate of lox and bagels with bean sprouts—a textbook example of what she calls Fake Nature. How did Brian explain himself? He must have said something. Oh, yes. Now she has it. “This ought to give you an idea,” he’d told her, “of what works for me.”
At the time, she’d taken his remark only as an indication that it would require a jolt into hyperspace to bring this bucko in the stylish black-framed eyeglasses up to speed. And though every fired-up fiber in her body wanted to, she couldn’t do it by yelling at him. If she tried, she’d only sputter and lose steam, like some worn-out machine, and then on top of being frustrated and upset, she’d be humiliated. In situations like this, Stevie’s quiver held only one arrow—a well-earned professional reputation for walking at the first sign of disrespect. “If all you want is some toady to haul around rocks and shove shrubs,” Stevie informed Brian, “find somebody else.”
He wasn’t the first arrogant architect she’d encountered, not by a long shot. But he was by far the best-dressed, most attractive, age-appropriate one who, according to advance reports, also happened to be divorced. Leaving the room, certain that he’d come after her, she was glad that the asymmetrically cropped skirt she was wearing gave him a damn good look at her legs.
Brian made it up over good wine and lamb shanks at a little Italian place in the West Village, his treat. “We just got off on the wrong foot,” he told her. “Forget what I said. Let’s start over from scratch. What are your ideas? How do you think it should look?”
So she took out a felt-tip pen to sketch on the back of her menu. A tree-lined promenade alongside a shallow, shimmering ribbon of water. Dramatic high-tech lighting for the evening, a friendly park-like feeling for the day, and a sloped entryway to emphasize the site’s steep grade changes. When she put down her pen, all the anger that had backed up on her like a bad case of indigestion was gone, released by that little burst of creativity. Brian not only praised her concepts but wore a persuasively contrite expression. Stevie, at least, was persuaded.
“First time I’ve ever been out front on a project this big,” he said. “Guess I got a little carried away. That’s an amazing shape you want to build everything around. How’d you come up with that?”
“Oh,” she’d said, “it just seemed appropriate to the site.” She didn’t want to risk her credibility with the truth. Which was that the shape had come to her before she ever saw the site, the sort of fantastic confluence that happened sometimes before a big project beckoned.
Then Brian pointed to the window by their table and she saw fat flakes of snow dancing down to powder the narrow cobblestone street and storybook townhouses. A sight that notched their dinner way into red on the romance-o-meter. This was at a time in New York when even if by some miracle you lived a day without hearing or uttering a single sentence connected to the catastrophe, the tendrils of 9/11 were always there, entwined with the heightened reality of ordinary needs—for sustenance, connection, and, of course, sex. Making all more urgent, somehow. More necessary.
When Stevie left the restaurant with Brian hours later, the sidewalk wore a thick coat of snow. They held on to each other to keep from slipping, and skittered sideways into their first kiss, one that started out all cozy and considering, but soon grew greedy enough to knock them off their feet—a slapstick beginning that did nothing to chill the heat between them. After scrambling upright again, they forgot about getting Stevie a taxi. Instead, Brian steered her to his place on Hudson Street, where they made love until morning. Flinging themselves on his Italian leather sofa. Falling onto his low-slung platform bed. Sloshing around in his canted-stone-slab bathtub. He was every bit as good at kissing as the perpetually broke artist Stevie had had a fling with in her twenties, the one whose best quality, apart from his kissing, turned out to be that he was a dead ringer for Adrien Brody (though who knew that then?), and Brian had the far bigger plus of being successful enough—or so she imagined—not to be threatened by her success. And he wasn’t. Not yet, anyway.
By the time Stevie returned to Brooklyn Heights to change clothes for work, she had done what Brian asked. She had forgotten he’d ever uttered those lousy first words about what worked for him (and never mind her). It would be quite a while before she began to suspect that apart from the wild, athletic lovemaking that had hooked her, Brian went in for Fake Intimacy just like he went in for Fake Nature, and the mingy amounts that satisfied him would leave her starving.
But the first-words theory is Lorna’s, not Stevie’s, and what Stevie whips herself for now is not paying closer attention to the Jamaica sago tree that was in Brian’s living room, its jungly fronds brown-tipped and shriveling. It wasn’t that Stevie ignored the plant itself. In fact, she insisted on taking it home, where she repotted it, sunned it in a westward-facing window, left a classical music radio station on during the day to soothe it, and carried it into the bathroom for an extra dose of humidity when she showered. The plant thanked her, too, with sturdy new growth. The important thing she overlooked, the thing that should have set off alarms, was how, once the tree was healthy and happy again, she could not bring herself to return it to Brian. And who did that say the most about—him or her?
As if mistakes could be outrun, Stevie quickens her pace on the lakeshore path. She needs to mold her heartbreak into something more manageable. You’re just being tested, she tells herself. And this time it’s your final exam. Once you ace it, Stephanie Anne Pollack will graduate and get a diploma. No more knocking yourself out to earn love from difficult, demanding men.
Later, doubling back past Oak Street Beach, she’s convinced that this little dream will come true. Riding the hotel elevator up to the sixth floor, red-faced and still panting, she can see herself ready to cross the stage to accept her imaginary diploma, flushed now not with exertion but a sense of achievement.
It is still too soon for her to realize just how long her walk across that stage will be. It is still too soon for her to feel the core of her life heating up, threatening to erupt.
There is a page in Stevie’s red leather-bound journal reserved for an ever-lengthening list of prominent people who had flaws that should have disqualified them from their chosen professions. The fashion designer who couldn’t sew. The songwriter unable to read music. The balding, pigeon-toed dancer with terrible posture. In every case, the flaw was what ended up making that person distinctive. The fashion designer compensated with brilliant fabric draping. The songwriter compensated with extraordinary productivity. The dancer compensated by making hats, pigeon toes, and terrible posture the trademarks of his louche, sexy style. The list helps Stevie feel better about her own flaw, which is that in a business where so much depends upon the ability to stake out boundaries and translate blueprints with cartographic precision, she has absolutely no sense of direction. None. Not in the way of her colleagues, anyhow, each of whom seems to have sprung from the womb with an unerring, built-in compass. If any of them were to catch Stevie assessing a site with her battery-operated global positioning device, they’d laugh their asses off.
Stevie has no doubts about the cause of her deficiency. The is- land world where she came into consciousness was a small, swirling wonder, an orb spat out by Pele, with spellbinding cathedrals of precipitous, uninhabitable mountains in the center and—past verdant water-carved lava ridges, closer to shore—the gentle slope of places where people lived. Roads meandered, twisting to accommodate a wily old banyan, curving to the course of a rascally little stream, mindful of how every living thing had a personality, if not a tongue to tell its story. Neither towns nor land fit into tidy rectangles, and there were just two directions people ever discussed as they went about their routine business: makai, toward the sea, and mauka, toward the mountains.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Better View of Paradise by Randy Sue Coburn. Copyright © 2009 by Randy Sue Coburn. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine 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.