“Okay, we’re coming up on our final hill.” Sandra, my instructor, puffs into her microphone, reaching out from her bike to dim the spin room’s lights even further. “I know it’s crazy cold out there, folks.” She takes a jagged breath as she prepares to urge us on. “I know the sun’s not even up yet. But you are. And you’re here. And you’re going to make it—harder. Let’s make it harder! Give me a full turn to the right in . . . five, four, three, two, one . . . go, go, go!”
This was a huge mistake.
Reluctantly, I turn the dial and bear down with my heels, trying to shift the work to my hamstrings, trying to pull my focus up—up from the sizzling pain in my legs. But it goes to my eyebrows, behind which is a dull throbbing with a pointy wake, like a wine with full top notes and an acidic finish. Fucking bourbon. Fucking Jeff. I tug my towel off the handlebars, swiping my forehead to keep the sweat from stinging my eyes. How many drinks did I even have? One right when I got to the bar. One when he texted he was running late. One when he said he was getting on the subway. And one when I finally decided the subway ate him.
I grab my New York Sports Club water bottle, squeeze another Emergen-C-laced stream into my mouth, my eyes darting to my dark phone tauntingly resting above the resistance dial. Nothing—no word. I thought for sure he’d call around two with some implausible-slash-charming excuse. Or cut straight to leaning on my doorbell.
“And get ready to stand in . . . four, three, two—come on, up, up, up!”
I heave myself erect and immediately feel like cayenne pepper’s been dropped into my airways. I gasp, trying to focus on exhaling to clear the carbon and acid.
“We’re gonna hold it here. Just hold it here. Find the pace, find the rhythm, one, two, one, two.” She exhorts us to speed up. Or maybe just me. Maybe everyone else feels like they’re getting their hair shampooed. I glance around, taking in the expressions of agony and determination.
“I want you to give your all. Don’t hold back!” she shouts at us. “I want you to push yourselves to exhaustion!” As if I’m going home to sleep after this. As if this isn’t just the first in a long series of things I have to accomplish before I can crawl into bed tonight. The quarterly report, the teleconference with the Houston office, the projection spreadsheet, the second teleconference to recap the first. And dammit, finding five minutes to fix the smudge on my thumb because I ran to the bar instead of waiting for the polish to dry. Why didn’t I just buy the bottle at the salon? Whatever. But not whatever if Jeff’s coming tonight. He has to come tonight. Not coming to my party would be—he’s coming. I’ll just move my one o’clock back and grab a polish fix instead of lunch. My Power Bar backs into my throat. Probably expired. Fucking crazy Charlotte and her crazy fucking stale Power Bars. How my roommate can spend half her time carrying around that ratty Tiffany’s catalogue with the corners turned down, plotting her next purchase, and the other half at the dollar store buying translucent toilet paper I will never—I’d much rather use Charmin and eschew shopping in Midtown.
“Okay, guys, almost done. We’ve just got a last hill and then a one-minute sprint to the finish.”
You’ve got to be kidding me. Seriously, I am going to puke expired Power Bar right over the handlebars. My legs are burning, my lungs are burning, my arms are going wobbly, I can’t, I can’t—
“Okay, guys, let’s see some joy!” Sandra adjusts the dial on her iPod. Two beats in, I sense everyone perk up. Kelsey Wade detonates out of the speakers, and heads begin to bob, set mouths murmur lyrics, legs speed up. “I’m unstoppable, unbreakable, unbendable. When you look at me my heart stops—unmendable.” I’m not thinking about my throbbing brow or my screaming shins or even Jeff Stone. Around me, women’s wheels whir as their thought bubbles inflate with ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands, ex-bosses . . .
Sandra presses her microphone right to her lips. “What do you have left?” She lets the question hang, looking meaningfully at all of us before screaming, “Don’t hold anything back!” Her voice reverberates over Kelsey’s, echoing the essence of the song. “Give it all!” And we do. I turn the resistance dial farther, digging deep, letting the adrenaline carry me, the lyrics, the beat. “Can you do it? Can you?” We don’t know, but we’re trying, we’re trying, we’re trying—
“And . . . done,” Sandra says on the last beat. “Spin out your legs.” She scrolls to Kelsey’s latest ballad, and we all sit back, smile wearily at one another, and chug our water. My silenced phone lights up. Not Jeff. Los Angeles area code.
I guarantee no one else is listening to this song and getting a call from this number right now.
“Okay, bring your bike to a complete stop, and let’s stretch.”
No sooner does that call go to voicemail than my parents’ number sets the phone vibrating again. I hit ignore.
We finish cooling down, and I unlock my shoes and dismount, grabbing my bottle and towel. I hit play on the second message. “Happy birthday to you,” my mother sings. “Happy birthday, dear Logan . . . ” I can picture her, an inveterate early riser, sitting with her finger poking through the coiled cord of the ancient beige phone she refuses to replace. “Twenty-seven,” she adds after the song. “I cannot believe it. How did you get so old?” She laughs awkwardly. “I’m going to Babies R Us today—Helen’s daughter’s having her third,” she can’t help telling me, and I immediately feel bad. Bad that I’m not currently giving her grandchildren and bad that she can’t be more accepting of the life I’m building, one that will get me there eventually. God—and maybe Jeff—willing. “Anyway, call me when you get some free time.” She always says this. As if my bon-bon window is coming up in a few hours. “Tonight I’m helping out at the church, but I’ll be home by eight if you’re home.” On my birthday? “ ’Bye!”
Sandra notices the contraband phone at my ear and raises an eyebrow before ripping open the Velcro on her shoes. “It’s my birthday,” I explain. “I was using the wishes to keep me going.”
“Happy birthday! How old?”
“I’m heading into my night-cream years.”
She smiles as we both make our way to the door. “You looked fierce today.”
My eyes widen, and I laugh. “Oh, my God, Sandra, I was dy-ing. Dying. Like carry-me-out-on-a-stretcher dying.”
“Well, Wade.” She shrugs. “No one could tell.”
Skipping lunch continues my totally-wrong-call streak marking this auspicious day. How could I have known that my boss would forget to book a room for the teleconference, leaving our team of financial analysts to meet in the one with the relentless heater, which brings out the carpet’s Christmas-parties-of-yore aroma? That getting out of there for everyone would hinge on my having to prematurely share the spreadsheet I’m generating? Which, after tearing my bag down to the lining, I decided had evaporated, forcing everyone to sit there for an hour while I pulled the numbers out of my ass. An hour that I had fantasized would involve a bubble bath, Florence and the Machine, and leisurely applied four-step eyes, an hour in which I could conjure a little sparkle, a little romance.
Instead, I shove my down-clad hip against our front door in a panic, to find Charlotte lounging on the living-room floor of our lower Second Avenue high-rise apartment. She peruses Bluefly while she waits for her arm hair to lighten beneath smears of cream bleach.
“Anything good?” I ask by way of greeting as I drop my straining bag on the little glass-topped dining table and roll my cramping shoulder.
She readjusts her robe to cover a bit more of the boobs her ex gave her. “I can’t decide if I want this Marc Jacobs hobo. I don’t like the color, but it does have his name on it.”
“What about his face?” I hastily unzip my coat and drop it over the Ikea dining chair that’s starting to tilt aggressively.
“What do you mean?”
I kick off my boots. “A big jpeg of his face silk-screened on the side. Or his armpit from the cologne ad? What about that giant hairy armpit, and you could paint ‘M.J.’ over it with nail polish? Did you find the screwdriver? We should fix this chair.”
“Why are you home? I was just about to come meet you.”
“I can tell.” I rush past her half-naked figure to my room, the only space in the apartment that was too small to subdivide. I always pictured myself in a brownstone walk-up in the village, a place with character, not a box whose charmlessness I’ve overcompensated for with a proliferation of Pier 1 pillows. “Jeff hasn’t replied to the Evite yet, but he checked it at seven, which means he was confirming the location, so I need the red dress.” I swipe it from the floor where I dropped it last night in a fit of horny inebriated frustration.
“I don’t understand your relationship with that dress,” she calls.
“Char, any chance you can vacuum while your bleach bleaches?”
I bite my tongue about it being her month to clean, because I don’t have time for yet another Dust Bowl dustup. I unzip my pants and toss them into the spot the dress was keeping warm. “That’s because you’re a blonde.” Since the ex. “You’d look good in a suit made of Swiffers. This dress never fails.”
“It failed last night.”
“No,” I correct her, carefully rolling up my stockings. “He never saw it. The rules set forth by the Intergalactic Alliance for Getting Laid say that his eyeballs must connect with the color waves.” I shimmy into it and then peer into the smudged jewelry-box mirror over my dresser to twist up my brown hair. I wonder if it’s age or fatigue that has hollowed my cheekbones, made me look more like my father than I did a year ago, the same wariness to the eyes, although his are the Wade blue. “Never. Fails.” I refresh my blush and smudge some liner, a look my mother endearingly terms nightwalker.
“I’m getting the bag.” I hear her pound the laptop definitively. “Oh, Sarah and Lauren texted. They’re both running late, but they promise they’ll try to be there,” she says in a way that suggests they really called to lower my expectations. I feel that little twist, that ouch. “Why are we meeting all the way in Midtown again?”
“Because it’s elegant, it’s Gershwin, it’s New York! Charlotte, where are my silk heels?” I call from the bottom of my closet.
“Out here. They’ll get ruined in the salt.”
“Then what are they doing out there?”
“I was going to borrow them.”
I slip-slide on the scuffed parquet to spot them sitting by her room.
“Now what am I going to wear?” she asks petulantly.
“You have a wall of shoeboxes.”
“But I don’t like any of them.”
“I need to drop you on a desert island with the stuff you already own, romantic-comedy-style, so you can go through an adventure with your stuff and come out remembering what you loved about your stuff in the first place.” She just looks at me as if she’d mistakenly pressed the SAP button on the remote. “Okay, well, let’s do the wall this weekend, for real.” I shove my arms into my wool coat that is not in any way warm but won’t make me look as if I’m trying to skip a few steps by wearing my mattress to the bar. “The paint and sandpaper are just sitting in the closet. I don’t think I’ll have to work Saturday. Let’s do it.” I transfer my keys, lip gloss, condoms, and wallet to my clutch. “We can get some wine, order in . . . ”
“Okay.” She shrugs, typing her credit-card number. But we both know we won’t. Sarah brought me into the apartment share with Rachel, who worked and split the second bedroom with Lauren, who went to school with Charlotte, a chain of friendship strung out like paper dolls. But the links are gone—engaged, enrolled, enticed away. “Oh, answering machine.” She points to the blinking light of our land line. This is the one other connection we share, Midwestern parents who hate us living in New York and want to know they can reach us, even in case of blackouts, terrorists, or the Rapture.
“My mom?” I ask.
“No. It was Kelsey’s assistant.” She taps her fingers together eagerly, as she does on the rare occasions when my life brushes contact with my famous cousin’s.
“Delia,” I say, referring to Kelsey’s and my other cousin, with whom I share a birthday.
Charlotte nods as I realize I never listened to my first voice mail from this morning. “I think she said they’re in L.A. I wasn’t really listening,” she lies. “Maybe Kelsey will call you one of these years.” Charlotte rolls over, as if getting a tan from the eighties light fixture. “Then we could sell the answering machine. You had to get left behind.” She resmears her flaking bleach.
“Kelsey e-mails me.” It’s my turn to lie. When I was little, I always felt my mom and Delia’s combining our parties stole my thunder, but now this annual exchange of good wishes is my one remaining link to Kelsey, however superficial. “I’ll listen when I get back. How do I look?”
She appraises me from where she lounges. “Annoyingly hot for three minutes of effort.”
“Perfect. See you there.”
I keep my phone within earshot until the bar gets too packed, then make sure I can catch it lighting up with the eye I don’t have set on the door. As my other friends and colleagues arrive to toast me—or put overpriced drinks on my tab—I nurse my sidecar through a straw to keep my gloss perfect until he gets here. I don’t slouch, eat a Marcona almond, or excuse myself to pee. Halfway through my second drink, the headache I’ve been only a mouthful of water ahead of all day breaks.
“Happy birthday!” Lauren tugs Marshall through the suited crowd that new way that she has, hands twisted up by her shoulder, ring facing out. I pull her into a hug, smelling her Pantene and missing those nights pre-Marshall when we’d both get home from work well past midnight and commiserate over a carton of frozen yogurt in the dark galley kitchen.
“Can we buy you a drink?” she offers, and Marshall shoots her the look of a squirrel whose nut’s just been hijacked.
“My usual, thanks.” I’m tempted to ask for something aged to annoy him further, but I know he’ll grab me a well drink anyway.
“These banker bars have you over a chair. I’m getting juice,” he announces, and huffs away.
Lauren smiles after him and then reflexively at her ring, which is surprisingly large, but apparently his mother shamed him into it. “You are fabulous,” Lauren says, trying to pull a few inches away to look me over. “The red dress. Who’s coming?”
“Logan!” she exclaims as I resume my door vigil. He has to come, he just has to. “I thought you were done with him.”
“No, I told him to go fuck himself after the Labor Day weekend house-share debacle, but two weeks ago, he sent me flowers at work. Out of the blue. Peonies. In January. Like, thirty of them.”
“Which you threw in the trash,” she says sternly.
“Which I wore in my hair when I had sex with him a few hours later. Okay, and that’s a lot of opinion from—” Future Mrs. Squirrel. “You.”
“He’s never taken you to meet his parents.” She invokes the smugly judgmental tone of the newly engaged, as if we’re here to discuss my report card. “You’ve never even met his sister, and she lives in the city!” She brings up the source of breakup number three of I’ve-lost-count. “I just don’t understand why you keep giving him more chances.”
“Because I want to go to brunch with someone. And Jeff and I have this . . . thing. He’s gotta grow up sometime.” I flex my palms to the ceiling, knowing I’m leaving out that, despite the constant e-mails, texts, and IMs, we haven’t seen each other since the peonies. The same ballad from the cool-down at the gym comes on and I imagine Kelsey has a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. “Standing, reaching, calling, dreaming to get there—to get there.”
“One whiskey soda, a red wine.” Marshall slides our drinks in front of us. “And my juice.” He reaches into his jacket, extracts a flask with all the stealth of a UN missile inspector, and dumps some vodka into his OJ. I’m tempted to pull out a few bucks and tell the cheap mofo to treat himself, but my bridesmaid dress has already been altered.
“Don’t we have a nice guy for Logan?” Lauren inquires, and he squints like she’s asked him if they have a parasol.
“Really, I appreciate it.” I don’t. “But I’m great.”
Marshall points to the speaker. “Kelsey’s label’s stock is down.”
“This single didn’t hold at the top for as long as her others.”
“Well, she has more number ones than Mariah Carey, so I doubt they’re going to fire her.”
“Tell her to stick with dance tracks. That’s money.”
“Oh, I’m not in touch with Kelsey,” I demur, hating when anyone outside my closest circle knows we’re related but having to concede that as my friends pair off, that circle is widening beyond my control. “Oh, look, one of the couches is free.”
“Because Kelsey’s an asshole?” he follows up. Lauren jabs him with her elbow.
“Because our dads had a falling out, and our families stopped speaking.” I reflexively run my finger over the small scar at the base of my hairline, as if reciting the answer from the Braille of raised skin. “But I wish her well.” I repeat my stock deflection as I press into the mingling throng.
I glance at my phone. Where is he? Two texts from Sarah, who’s still waiting for the train and isn’t sure she’ll make it, but nothing from Jeff. Why did I pick Midtown? Why couldn’t I just pick a local dive bar? Why do I need wood paneling and gold-embossed cocktail napkins? I look up at the murals of New York in the twenties. Because I spend my days in a cubicle and my nights in a box. I start to flag. I want to eat. I want to slouch. I excuse myself and make my way, past Charlotte lip-locked with a random, to the tiled hallway outside the bathrooms where I can kick off my heels and rest my forehead against the wall. I unpin my hair, hoping to relieve the tension across my scalp. The cold marble sends seismic ripples up my legs to my brain. Right.
I squeeze behind blazered backs to the couch where Lauren is falling asleep on Marshall’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I have to go,” I say, tugging at the wool sleeve protruding from under Marshall’s ass. “If Jeff shows up, tell him I left. With a guy. Who likes red.” I kiss her cheek and then, with a wave to my drunk colleagues and gym buddies, turn to the door, which I proceed to shove toward like a hurricane correspondent. I press my weight against the glass, stumbling past the smokers—and into Jeff.
“Careful, now, you’ll crush your cupcake.” Smiling, he holds up the wax-paper bag from my favorite bakery with one hand and slides the other around my waist, his mouth connecting with my neck. Immediately, I’m laughing. I’m laughing in the glittering cold on a perfect New York night with my boyfriend.
He reluctantly breaks our hourlong kiss to drain the last of the Sicilian red into my glass at the quiet wine bar, and my gaze holds on his forearms, the dark hairs, the tan line from the diving watch he wore over the holiday. How is it possible to be hot for someone’s forearm? “You still have some catching up to do. I had a lot at my work dinner. Those Germans are tough to keep up with.”
He squeezes my thigh under the table and signals for the check, the hidden hand roving to my hem, then moving the hem up while he kisses my neck and earlobe. His fingers pause when he discovers the tops of my stockings, the bare skin beyond, and he grins, his dark hair flopping over his brow. So worth feeling the clasps digging into me all goddamn evening. “Are you wearing panties?”
“Only one way to find out,” I say, my lips grazing his cheekbone.
“Oh, no.” He shakes his head as he passes his credit card to the bartender, his hand inching higher. “There are so many ways.”
I laugh and reach for my crocheted scarf, loopping the cashmere loosely around my neck. He untucks my hair and lets it fall before kissing me again. “I love your hair,” he says. “No one has long hair anymore.” I nod, drenching myself in the compliment, despite seeing three women in this place alone with pristinely barrel-curled waist-length hair. Mine has not seen the loving attention of an appliance in quite some time.
Jeff signs the check. I hop down, making an effort to keep my movements fluid and contained, despite how everything in my vision swings slightly.
He helps me on with my coat, leading me out onto Madison, where the cold creates halos around embracing couples walking briskly as one. My coat opens so he can still see the dress as I extend my arm for a taxi. He presses his chest against mine and takes my face in his hands. “You look tired.”
I nod, wanting to curl inside his concern. “This senior analyst promotion isn’t at all as advertised. What happened to ‘management’ meaning assistants and an actual office with actual walls?”
He kisses my cheekbone. “Something more than a ten-percent increase to offset thirty more hours of labor?”
“When moving up felt up, not sideways, you know?”
“Mm,” he agrees, nuzzling my neck.
A cab pulls over, and he pops the door. I slide in. And then it shuts after me. Stunned, I twist to the window, my earring catching in the open weave of my scarf. I lower the window while trying to untangle myself with wine-numb fingers. “You’re not coming?” I can’t stop myself from asking like Charlotte talking to the TV.
He smiles. “I have an early meeting, and it sounds like you need to rest up, birthday girl.”
I need you to know if I wore panties or not, if we’re taking an inventory of what I need. I sit back, and he steps back, and here I am—back.
It’s not until I get in the door and am kicking off my salt-stained shoes that I realize I left the cupcake at the bar. Perfect. I go to the kitchen and pull out a box of stale Corn Pops. I drop onto the couch we got in the West Elm sale that was comfortable in the store and stare at the red and green lights Charlotte nailed up last month and will probably never take down. I munch on a handful of Pops and stare at the fresh bleach spot on the carpet that still needs vacuuming. I notice the blinking and reach over to hit play. “Logan, happy birthday!” Our crackly machine can’t suppress Delia’s exuberance. Delia wouldn’t have let me throw the party uptown. A few years older, she was always the practical one, reminding Kelsey and me that it was time to let the frog go, time to do our homework. “Another year, can you believe it?” I can’t. “Call me, want to catch up. Let me give you my new cell.”
She rattles off her number, and the machine goes quiet. The Christmas lights blink. I look at my doorway, and I can’t. I can’t take this dress off and go to sleep, admit that this was it, the birthday he put me in a cab, that I’m about to get into bed alone and wake up hungover, that I’m here, again, having to make a decision to wait for the next flirty e-mail, the next text, the next late-night phone call, or I have to get over him all over again. “Fuck,” I say quietly to the scorch mark on the ceiling. Then I realize Delia’s never asked me to call her back before.
One a.m., ten L.A. time. Delia will be at her birthday dinner, and I can leave a message and go eat these Pops properly—in the bathtub. She answers on the first ring. “Happy birthday!”
“Delia, you, too!” I say, trying to moisten my mouthful. “Hope I’m not interrupting your party!”
“No! We did this tasting-menu thing early, an oma-something.”
“Yes. Oh, my God, they gave me something that tasted like a perm and looked like a used condom.” She lets out a whoop like I haven’t heard since we last spoke, four or five birthdays ago. “I don’t know that everything that gets dragged up from the sea should wind up on a plate, you know what I’m saying?”
“I couldn’t agree more.” I smile.
“How was your birthday?”
“Terrific.” I hedge. “I had a party at this Holden Caulfield-y place, and now I’m just struggling to keep my eyes open.” I cross to the bathroom to see if Charlotte still has any Ambien left to quell this building clench under my ribs.
“Well, I won’t keep you. I just wanted to ask. Kelsey has a break next week before her tour starts, and she’s dying to see you.”
My reflection in the medicine cabinet shows my shock. “She is?”
“Totally! She misses you so much. How long has it been since we’ve all hung out?” She doesn’t pause for me to answer. “Uncle Andy and Aunt Michelle would love to see you.” Really? “Let me e-mail you a ticket. What do you say?”
I look at the lines, the ones my concealer has settled into around my tired eyes, the ones thick with blackened grout in the wall behind me, the ones on the spreadsheet I apparently left on top of the toilet this morning, and I take a deep breath.
“Sign me up.”
Today I am learning that if you want to pretend things are one thing when they’re another, it helps to have millions of dollars at your disposal. For example, it was easy—as I leaped over the three-foot gulch of black slush into the moneyed interior of the town car, as I sank into its leather seat and swiveled open the gratis Evian, as I lay back, letting the driver glide me through Manhattan’s rush-hour-congested streets—to tell myself, despite coming off two nights of anticipatory insomnia, that I was on my way to a vacation and not a reunion.
And then, on the plane, even as pictures of my host flashed from the tabloids and smartphones of my fellow passengers, I merely reclined my seat to a true, all-the-way-down flat and said yes to the nuts (warmed), the champagne (chilled), and the fudge sundae (piping). In my extra-wide chair, the coach footprint of which crams half a family, I didn’t even get my usual clammy hands when the pilot asked for the doors to be sealed. Two and a half movies of my own choosing while the engine was drowned out by courtesy Bose headphones was better than sex with Jeff Stone. If I had completed this journey only to find myself watching Charlotte shave in our living room, this would have been eight hours of the honeymoon I may never get to take. I now understand how bad movies get made and bad wars get started—it’s hard to think through anything when you’re this comfortable.
But now, as the sun-saturated wind whips my face through the opened limo window, not even the air—fresh, vast, with a hint of brine—not even the view of the Pacific on one side and lush hills sloping up to estates on my right, nothing can calm me. Because every estate might be her estate, and I am now only minutes away from facing the path not chosen. My cell rings, and I dig into the pocket of my handbag.
“Logan?” my mom says cautiously, despite having called me.
“Yes, hi.” I press the lever on the control panel, and the shaded window seals me back inside the dim AC.
“I was just calling because—are you okay?” she asks.
“You didn’t call me back.”
“Work’s been crazy.” I shamefully trot out the overworn excuse.
“I’m sure,” she replies, not really knowing how to connect with me on this, having never worked outside the home herself. “Your father didn’t get in until six-thirty last night.”
“Wow. How is he?”
“Oh, good. Well, you know him,” she says vaguely, and I don’t ask for clarification. “Did you have a fun birthday? You had a date with your boyfriend, didn’t you? When are we going to meet him?”
“Yes, it was, well, I ended up having to work, so—thank you for the gift card.” I switch tracks, creating a pause.
“I’m glad you liked it. We took a guess.”
“No, I’m sure I’ll find something great at Penney’s.” Once I rent a car and drive to New Jersey to find one. The van ahead of us slows abruptly, and my chauffer hits his horn.
“Sounds like you’re out and about? I don’t understand how you like living somewhere so loud.”
“Actually, I’m in . . . ” But I can’t say—losing touch with Kelsey is probably the only thing I’ve ever done that my mother approves of. “Midday traffic. What about you two finally visiting? I could put together a fun time—” I hear a pot clank and change topics again before she can say no. “You’re cooking?”
“I’m making a casserole. With a salad and beans.”
“Sounds great,” I say, picturing them cooked to the palest green and able to fall through a sieve.
“Well, I better get this finished,” she says, sensing we’re close to exhausting our few tacitly agreed-upon friction-free topics. “You know how he hates to get in the door before dinner’s ready.”
And all at once, I’m sad for her, but I don’t know how to fix it, short of moving home to a place that never felt like one. “I love you, Mom.”
I stare at the phone as it dims, giving in to the familiar sink. With a tiny jolt of adrenaline, I form a text to Jeff. “What am I resting up for?” My thumb hovers over the send button as the car slows at the first driveway with a gatehouse. The uniformed guard nods to my chauffeur, and the heavy gate swings open, letting us into what looks like Central Park.
“Be there in two shakes,” the driver says as we move up the winding path through oleander, whose pink blossoms make the foliage appear dotted with confetti, as though we missed the parade. We wind around the tennis courts, plural.
“Are you from Oklahoma?” I ask, identifying the familiar cadence of home that’s intensifying my nerves.
“Sure am. Why?”
“You a friend of Andy’s?” He looks like one of the guys our dads used to pop a beer with.
“Met on varsity, class of ’82, then we both ended up at the insurance company. But I wasn’t a paper pusher like him. I worked the lobby. Big demand for security after the bombing. Anyway, hurt my back, ended up on disability. Andy suggested I come out, drive the little lady around. But you really need to have logged time as a fighter pilot for this job.” He chuckles. “Always dodging something.” The car pulls up at the hilltop mansion, which, like my driver, also feels transplanted, with its red brick façade, cream trim, and columned wrap-around porch. It harks to the houses Kelsey’s mom, Michelle, would drive us past on the way to ballet. Little girls in shell-pink leotards and tight buns, we twisted in our duct-tape-patched seats talking in if-onlys and somedays.
I realize my hands are shaking and go ahead and hit send.
The engine hasn’t even cut before Delia comes rushing down the veranda’s stairs, her rubber flip-flops smacking the brick. “Logan Wade, get out of that car!” she calls. Peering at the house door I climb out and into her embrace, her clipboard momentarily sticking into my spine. “Let me look at you.” She steps back, and I take her in, too. Her resemblance to Michelle has strengthened with age. “I was trying to add it up this morning—have I really not seen you since you left for college?”
“No, there was that Christmas we ran into each other at Marshall’s.”
“You were with Grandma Ruth, so that had to be over ten years ago. You’re skinny,” she pronounces.
“It’s New York.” I demur, my eyes scanning the porch only to find it vacant. “Hard living.”
“Well, a few days of Uncle Andy’s cooking’ll give the boys something to look at. You met our driver, Peter.”
“Yes.” I smile as he sets my suitcase at my feet. “Thank you so much.”
“You have a great time.” He winks as he returns to the wheel.
“How’re your folks?” She takes the handle for me.
“Good, thanks. Dad’s still working. Mom’s got her church group. Still waiting for my call to say I’m having triplets and moving next door. How are yours?”
“Oh, they’re a hoot. Healthy and all that. They miss Oklahoma, but they just couldn’t take the winters anymore. Thankfully, my brother moved down there to keep an eye on ’em. I’ve never known how you and Kelsey do it—being only children is such a responsibility. Come on in.” I follow her up the steps, squinting as the sun catches the crystal dragon on her hoodie. Her hair is still that same reddish color, the same long shag she could have gotten at Super Cuts.
We step right into a double-height living room with three sitting areas, the ocean rippling in every window. I spin in search of my host. “This is the main room, or greeeeeeeat room, which Michelle says like the queen of England and I say like Tony the Tiger.”
“Wow, Delia, this place is amazing!” Where is she?
“This was one of the first houses built here in Malibu, and as soon as Michelle and Kel saw it, they were in love. Everything else is glass and cement boxes. I know it’s big, but I still think it’s cozy, don’t you?” The room immediately conjures the collages Michelle used to make with us out of back issues of Good Housekeeping. Every detail is inviting, from the salmon chenille pillows to the mohair throws on the overstuffed couches. I look to the grand staircase, my ears primed to make out footsteps. “Off there is the kitchen.” She points, “Chef Angela should be in there, let her know what you like. The other day, I was having such a crank, PMSing out my ears. I asked her to make me a burger that tastes like Sonic’s and she did, just unbelievable. In that wing, you’ll find the breakfast room, den, and staff quarters. Seriously, make yourself at home—well, not in the staff area.” She chuckles. “They might have a say about that.” She points to the other side. “And in that wing is Michelle’s sitting room, the game room, screening room, sun room, and the offices. The gym, dance studio, recording studio, and salon are in the basement.”
“And where’s Kelsey?” I ask, unable to wait a minute longer as I follow her up the stairs.
“Oh, Logan, Kelsey’s break has gotten screwed with its pants on. I’m so sorry.” Her shoulders sink.
“She was supposed to shoot a Vanity Fair cover next month, but the photographer had a conflict, so they had to bang it out this week. I just snuck away to get you settled.” She pushes open a door at the end of the hallway. “This is yours.”
“Wow.” My jaw breaks a spring at the canopy bed, the fireplace, and the balcony overlooking the trees. “It takes a week?” I ask.
“Uch.” She rolls her eyes. “I can only say this: David LaChapelle and a camel with an attitude problem. They’re shooting in the Mojave. Kelsey wanted to do an Arabian thing.”
“I understand. Nothing I do at work takes as long as projected. And none of it involves dromedary mood swings.”
Looking past me, she laughs a moment later. Her BlackBerry buzzes, and she shakes her head in what seems an attempt to wake up. “So! I have to get back out there. Michelle’s in sequin overdrive, Andy’s obsessing about overages, even though they don’t come out of our pocket.”
“How are they?” I ask. “You know, otherwise.”
“Otherwise?” She mugs. “Just kidding. Michelle is great—you know her, she thrives on the nuttiness.”
“And Andy?” I inquire about my estranged uncle, trying to sound casual, polite.
“Andy’s Andy.” She smiles.
“I heard he’s . . . ”
“Sober?” she finishes for me. “Oh, for a while now.” She tucks her tongue in the corner of her mouth. “Since Kelsey’s first tour.” She considers. “I think, you know, Kel and Michelle finally had some leverage. And he had something he wanted to be around for. You have my cell?”
“Yes. So, sorry, but I’m not going to see Kelsey?” I ask as I simultaneously think, could I really have come all this way not to see her? And could I just get to enjoy all this and not have to see her?
“Oh, no, I’m doing everything a girl can so you sit tight.” I place my tote on the duvet, and it tips, the tabloid I picked up on the plane sliding out. Delia’s smile falters as we stare at Kelsey’s first love, Eric Lamont, and his new girlfriend. “I’m so embarrassed—I meant to throw that out at the airport.”
“Oh, my gosh, don’t be—usually, we don’t give a rat’s ass, but this—now that Eric’s getting serious with this woman.” She swipes it up and sticks it in her clipboard. I nod as if I didn’t cross the Rockies perusing the pictures rehashing Eric and Kelsey’s relationship, from its genesis on Kids, Inc., through the very public breakup last year. “She’s going to need—it’ll be really good for her to see you.” She hugs her board to her chest. “I know it will.”
“I’m glad to hear you think so. It’s just, you know, I haven’t seen her since—”
“Oh, please, you two were attached at the hip!” If Delia knows that the one time we’d spoken, Kelsey offered me the job she ended up taking, she doesn’t let on. “Used to drive me crazy when I babysat you guys. No, she’s super excited. Everyone is. We just have to get the girl home!”
“And you’re sure it’s okay for me to be here in the meantime? I could stay at a hotel.”
“Don’t be silly. I feel terrible. Dragging you across the country and making you wait around. Who should feel terrible is that camel.” She smiles. “I’ll keep you posted.”
She gives me another hug and closes the door, shutting me inside the quiet. I pull out my phone to wait for Jeff’s text and place it on the night table, where its black face sits like charred toast. Out the bathroom window I see Delia hop into a town car.
Agitated with anticipation that has yet to be relieved, I make my way back along the hallway in search of clues to whom I may or may not get to reconnect with, based on the whim of a camel. I stop to study the photos on the wall. Pictures of our grandmother, her yellow vinyl-sided house, and various extended family members, but my parents are markedly missing—as am I.
I move from frame to frame like a sniffing hound, finally finding a copious display atop the white grand piano. After years of feasting on the bread crumbs of magazine layouts, billboard ads, and tabloid pictures of her with her head tucked, hat and sunglasses obscuring her unreadable face, it’s dizzying to see unretouched photos of Kelsey, taken with personal cameras. She finally resembles the blurring image I carry of her in my memory, laughing open-mouthed, the corners of her eyes watering.
Then I’m surprised by the glint of dormant jealousy at images of Kelsey, Delia, and Michelle, draped under towels on a boat, swinging skis from a lift chair, making faces in a dressing-room mirror. Michelle looks beautiful, her blond hair now streaked gray as she embraces Kelsey in that famously daring dress she wore when she won all those Grammys. There are lines around Michelle’s light blue eyes, but they are as sweet as I remember. I run my thumb along the gemstones bordering the picture. No question, I owe the ambition of my Pier 1 pillows to Michelle Wade.
At the piano’s curved end I lift a picture of Andy and Michelle huddled in rain ponchos and recognize the observation deck of the Empire State Building. I wonder if Kelsey is on the other side of the lens, wondering if she thought of me as she looked down on my city. I tilt it to the window, studying Andy’s smile.
“Can I get you anything?”
I jump, the frame clanking back onto the piano. “Oh, no, thank you. I’m great.”
The uniformed woman nods deferentially and departs. But I’m not great. I’m dry-mouthed and a little sweaty and . . . needing more. Up the hall in the opposite direction I pass an open door that reveals a king-size bed with a needlepoint pillow resting in front of two perfectly plumped rows of peach damask. “Bless This Mess.” And I remember Michelle needlepointing in the wings while Kelsey warmed up for one of her hundreds of contests. Fringed in lace that has since yellowed, it is the centerpiece of the pristine space.
I continue to the end, placing the master suite as just on the other side of Andy and Michelle’s. I’m reaching for the crystal knob when I think I hear something. I pivot—and spot the red light of a camera where the dentil molding meets the ceiling. I smile to communicate that I was just kidding and concentrate on strolling back to my room. Oh, me? Just having a good time checking out the doorknobs. “Lovely!” I say out loud like an idiot.
I close the door behind me and, finding no cameras, face-plant on the bed.
Between the aching temptation to snoop and the images staring from every surface, from which my family and myself are so pointedly absent, I force myself to stay by the pool, even when the temperature every morning hovers in the sixties. I try to read, but one ear is always on the driveway. Jeff, annoyingly, offers no response and, hence, no distraction. Angela, however, distracts me with anything I can dream up, from cheese fries to soufflé, explaining that she gets zero gratification from making oil-free garbanzo-bean salads for the girls in the office.
From the food to the view to the horse-hair-filled chaise cushions, this is an unbelievably great life. There is no question.
The late-afternoon sun has finally lifted the air into the eighties, and as it slips off my toes, I sense it’s time for a last dip. I take a peek at my phone, but I haven’t heard from Delia since this morning, and her cryptic text—Blech!—did not herald a reunion. I can hear the girls calling good night to Angela. When I asked about their roles, three sets of hands started hair twirling as if they were doing a group charade of cotton candy while announcing: “branding,” “developing,” and “scheduling.”
The quiet deepens. I look again at the cornices of the pool bungalow and then the house. No cameras trained directly on the pool. As it seems official—this is my Kelsey Wade–sponsored retreat—I drop into the bathtub-like warmth, thinking, screw it—then untie my bikini and leave it in a small heap on the stone. It feels delicious, conjuring that summer Andy made his quota and Michelle got a membership to the town pool. We swam every day, even when it rained. I smile as I picture Kelsey in her stretched-out Care Bears suit, stomping in the puddles where the cement was cracking, belting “Singing in the Rain.” I dive down, taking a lap underwater, relishing the undulating silence.
“Fuck! Security!” I hear the voice before I can surface. “Security!” Bulleting my head into the air, I swipe at my seaweed-like clumps of hair as a speeding golf cart jostles two guards across the lawn. They swerve to a halt at the hedge and leap out, guns drawn. I swivel to see the threat and register that it’s me—me! “Oh, God, Andy!” This cannot be happening. “It’s Logan!” I frantically yell.
A man even bigger than Andy comes racing from the house. “Get back!”
“It’s me!” I swim for the wall and press myself into it. “Logan.” I splutter, water in my eyes, nose, and throat. “Your niece—”
“Don’t fucking move,” the huge man instructs as he hauls me out onto the stone. I try to cover myself with my hands, freezing at the sight of two cocked guns.
“I’m—I’m Kelsey’s cousin—”
“What the . . . ?” Michelle is suddenly there, swiping my towel off the chaise and pushing past the guards to hold it in front of me. “Logan? What on earth?”
“Delia called me, brought me,” I rush, as she races across the veranda. “I thought you—”
“Don’t shoot!” Delia cries, flapping her arms. “It’s a surprise for Kelsey!” Oh, no. No, no, no.
“Oh!” Michelle says. “Oh! Well . . . sweetie, well, cover yourself.” My eyes on the metal barrel, I slowly wrap the terrycloth around me.
“She’s here to keep Kelsey company.” Delia puffs, dropping her hands to her knees to catch her breath.
“Wow.” Michelle nods from Delia to me. “Well, we just didn’t recognize you all grown.” I smile feebly while the security guys return their guns to their holsters. I wonder if I have peed myself or the feeling is coming back into my numb legs and that’s water. “Andy, isn’t this funny?” Michelle prompts him.
“Well . . . ” He lifts his hat and lowers it. “Well, now,” he says with more conviction. “You gave us a shock, didn’t she?”
Michelle smiles and shakes her head emphatically. “Did she!”
He lets out a short laugh. “I was all, ‘Logan Wade is in our swimming pool as naked as the day she was born!’” Delia laughs. Michelle laughs. My teeth are chattering. “Well, give your uncle a hug.” I have to tell myself to step toward him and then realize I have the excuse of the towel. “Or—uh, later, when you find your suit.” He blushes, and while I have many memories of him flushed, I’ve never seen him blush. “Logan Wade, right here in my pool, crazy.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Kelsey’ll be so excited!” Michelle brings her hands down between her bobbed knees before throwing her palms to the sky. The hulking bodyguard clears his throat. “Thanks, GM.” She pats his arm. “False alarm.”
“Is Kelsey here?” I ask as the golf cart is driven away.
“Still asleep in the van,” Delia says, picking up the Bluetooth that my near death caused to fall from her ear. I didn’t realize how much makeup she had on to greet me. The thick lashes are gone, as is the color in her cheeks, replaced by a bruise of exhaustion beneath each eye. “They kept Kel on that camel till almost four o’clock this morning.”
Andy bends to sift a leaf from the pool.
“So she doesn’t know I’m here?” I try to confirm with Delia, trying not to let my alarm read. Kelsey likes surprises as much as Andy does—at least, she used to.
“Delia knows how to keep things fun. I’m just thinking.” Michelle tilts her head. “Let’s throw a sheet over you when Kelsey comes in!” Oh, God.
“Awesome.” Delia looks to Andy, who gives a sign-off nod. “I’ll tell Angela about dinner.”
Andy squints at where the water is sucked in under the stone. “That filter’s not working like it should.”
“So, wow, when did you get in?” Michelle asks.
“The day before yesterday. Delia sent me a ticket. I’m sorry. I misunderstood. I thought—”
“And you’re leaving when?” Andy asks.
“The day after tomorrow, if that works for you. That’s all my vacation days, so . . . ”
“Uh-huh.” His lower lip puffs out.
“We’re just going to make the best of your time left, aren’t we, hon?” Michelle turns to him.
“Sure thing,” he confirms as he trails GM back to the house.
“Is it okay that I’m here?” I ask her, officially wishing that I wasn’t.
“Oh, don’t mind him, he just gets a little lost at dusk,” she says matter-of-factly, and I wonder if dusk is code for happy hour. A breeze starts to circle my bare feet. “Wow, Logan . . . ” Her hand goes to her chin as she takes me in. “You and Kel could be sisters. You really grew up beautiful.”
“Thank you. You, too.”
“Oh, pshaw, it’s a gallon of Juvéderm keepin’ age at bay. Forty-eight next September, God help me.” She chuckles. “Now, how long has it been?”
“Since you and Kelsey left for L.A.,” I answer.
“Oh, for Kids, Incorporated, right,” she says, her eyes losing focus as she remembers. “So Kelsey was almost eleven, and you were just—”
“Thirteen.” I wonder if she’s going to bring up the accident.
“We’ve all come a long way!” She laughs. I guess not.
“Yes, this house,” I say with real awe.
“It’s something, huh?” She grins.
“You’re the reason I got myself to New York,” I say, eager to share the thought that passes through my mind at least once a week. “I always loved your—how you wanted to make things fabulous.”
“Aw,” she says, putting her hand over her heart as her eyes tear up.
I feel my own dampening. “You know, I think I’m just going to go upstairs and put on something dry.”
“Of course, so stupid of me. You must be freezing. I never stick a toe in that pool between October and April. Hank keeps the water warm, but the air gets a real bite. Go take a nice, toasty bath, and we’ll catch up at dinner.” She takes me by the shoulders and places a firm kiss on my cheek as the early-evening sky shifts to indigo. “It’s so great to have you. Kelsey will love it.”
I scurry up to the veranda and enter the transformed great room. Around Andy, flat-screen TVs have sprung from every surface, even the gilt mirror above the fireplace has moved aside to reveal one, each tuned to a twenty-four-hour news network. And every recessed light, every lamp, every crystal sconce, is lit. Huddling in my towel, I hurry to the stairs just as Kelsey shuffles in through the open front door, still looking half-asleep and wrapped in a pink blanket. She startles. We stare at each other for the longest moment before her blue eyes widen. “Logan?” she asks, sounding almost frightened as Michelle’s sandals take the steps behind me and Delia’s flip-flops hit the hallway.
“Hi,” I say, infusing the solitary syllable with as much apology as I can.
“Surprise!” Delia proclaims. “Logan came to see you!”
“Isn’t this great?” Michelle asks, louder than is required to be heard over the pundits’ buzz.
Her face still slack, eyes apprehensive, she stares at me as if questioning the veracity of my appearance.
“Kel?” I say tentatively. Andy turns from the couch.
“Kelsey?” Delia prompts. “Logan missed you.” Kelsey looks from Delia to an inscrutable Andy.
“We’re burritos!” she suddenly exclaims. I look down at myself in my towel, realizing that we mirror each other with our gripping fingers tucked under our chins. She throws her blanket off like a cape, revealing a T-shirt and cut-offs, and jogs over to engulf me in a hug.
I feel a warm shock at her reception but am unable to return it without pulling her against my naked body. “Sorry, I’m—I was skinny-dipping, actually. I didn’t know when you were going to—whatever. Hi!” I lean into her and tilt my elbows forward as a gesture of embrace. She stiffens almost imperceptibly. “It’s so good to see you!” I say through her sprayed-crunchy chestnut waves.
“Yeah!” She matches my enthusiasm before pulling back and turning to Delia, her face reslackening. “I’m gonna try to keep napping. Come get me when it’s time for dinner.” She ascends the stairs, and I’m left to watch the soles of her bare feet as she disappears.
Two hours later, I’m dressed, blown out, and fully made up as I perch awkwardly on the patio wall while Andy intently mans the steaks. The minute I see Kelsey, I’m going in for a do-over hug. I’m just going to step up, arms wide, face beaming—
He stands over me in his canvas apron, the shadows obscuring his face. “Hi!” I rise, pulling my wrap sweater tight with crossing arms. “How’s the grilling?”
“Oh, fine. Look, I, uh, just before everyone comes down . . . ” He tilts back as if wishing only his loafers needed to be present. “I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry for the suffering that my addiction may have caused you. Okay?”
Despite the rote delivery, my stomach twists in on itself. “Yes, I . . . I didn’t even—” I start to lie, but he cuts me off.
“Great.” He drops his arms heavily around me, and I tell myself to hug back. “You seem just fine.” He pats me and retreats to his smoking meat.
“Honey, that smells fantastic!” Michelle emerges from the glass doors in a pair of capris, and I shakily follow her to the wrought-iron table. “Angela has perfected Coleman’s potato salad, Logan, honey. You’ll think you’re back home at the diner. We even have Frito chili pie. You’re in for a real treat.”
“I’ve been worshiping at the altar of Angela since I arrived.” Desperately wishing that wine was being offered, I drag out one of the heavy dining chairs.
“Hit the fairy lights, would you, babe?” Michelle calls to Andy. Carrying a platter, he bumps a column with his elbow, illuminating the pergola. “Now it’s a party,” Michelle pronounces as she tugs her napkin from its crystal ring.
“You all set out there?” Delia steps onto the patio, her clipboard in hand as she sips a soda.
“Is that girl still sleeping?” Andy shakes his head.
I see past him to the glowing great room, where Kelsey is dropping weightily down each step of the staircase, her gaze cast to the hem of her sweatpants. “I think she’s—” I hesitate when she pauses before raising her face and breaking open a smile. “Coming now,” I finish, psyching myself to take this from the top.
“That smells so good, Daddy. I could eat a horse, seriously.” Kelsey gooses Delia, who jumps before swatting her on the butt with her clipboard. “Logan, how good is this food? We even have queso.”
“So good.” I go to stand, but my metal chair barely budges. “Let me give you a proper—”
“Oh, my God, sit, eat!” She waves me down. I hover over my plate, knowing that any later attempts are going to be flat-out weird. Deciding for me, Kelsey grabs a piece of corn bread and folds herself into a seat.
I focus on replacing my napkin. That went great.
“Dig in!” Michelle sinks a spoon into the potato salad. Kelsey takes a long gulp of her iced tea, eyeing me over the tumbler.
“How was your nap?” I ask. And the last decade and a half?
“Oh, I couldn’t really. Just went over the choreography in my mind.”
Kelsey and I both reach for the coleslaw spoon. “Sorry.” I drop it.
“You’re the guest,” she says, stretching to flip a heaping scoop onto my plate. “I was thinking.” She turns to Andy. “I don’t know about another LaChapelle shoot. Next time, we should go with Leibovitz, and then—”
“Kel.” Andy shakes his head once, while continuing to chew.
“You want to work with that freak show again?”
“No,” he agrees.
“Right—” But she stops as he swivels his eyes in my direction, then back at his plate. Kelsey picks up her fork.
“This is so fun!” Michelle fills the silence. “Logan, right here at our table.” I struggle for appropriate conversation, but every polite inquiry sounds like a blog post. “Oh, Delia, how’s your momma doing after that root canal? Those things are hell.”
“Talking funny, but good. Thanks for asking.”
“I spent a week with a mouth full of cotton. Looked like a fat chipmunk, didn’t I, Kel?”
Kelsey nods as she takes another mouthful. We all eat for a few cricket-filled moments. Kelsey drops her head to Delia’s shoulder.
Andy pushes his chair back. “I’m gonna watch the game.”
“But we haven’t had a proper meal at an honest-to-goodness table in weeks,” Michelle says. “Kelsey, how funny was that camel?”
Kelsey straightens up. “So funny. Logan, you will not believe this.” As Andy resumes eating she launches into the story at full throttle, complete with voicing the thoughts of the camel, until I’m holding my sides from laughing. And yet, despite the empirical intimacy, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m still watching her on a screen.
Between You and Me
Years later, Kelsey has been propelled by her relentless parents to mega-stardom, her voice a radio fixture and her face on billboards worldwide. Meanwhile, Logan is trying to carve out her own life in New York City despite the constant reminders of her cousin’s absence. Though she has long since stopped trying to solve the mystery of their last hours together, the inexplicably fractured memories haunt her.
Then on Logan’s twenty-seventh birthday, she gets the call that she’s been longing for—and dreading. Before she can second-guess herself, she’s on a plane to L.A. to reunite with Kelsey and the parents who ripped them apart, but Logan will soon learn that some family secrets are kept hidden for a reason.
Behind the Scenes of BETWEEN YOU AND ME with Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
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Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why do you think Logan agrees to become Kelsey’s assistant? When things begin to fall apart, why does she stay?
2. Reflecting on her childhood with Kelsey, Logan remembers, “We used to imagine we were secretly really not just cousins but sisters, never actually saying which parents we’d erase from the equation if we could.” (p. 66) As children, which parents do you think the two girls would have chosen to keep? Would their choice be different in the present-day?
3. Early on in the tour, Logan says to Kelsey, “You really don’t have to…endear me, entertain me, engage me. If it starts with an ‘e,’ you don’t have to do it. I’m here. I’m in. It’s not your responsibility to make this a good time for me. Consider my presence an off switch.” (p. 80) Is Logan true to her word? To what extent does Kelsey take her up on this? You might refer to their conversation on page 155 as a point of comparison.
4. Michelle is an especially complex character— see more