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It was a Monday night. The remains of a chicken Caesar salad were congealing gently on the side of my desk, and the mug of coffee next to my elbow—my fifth of the day—was now cold. I looked at the tiny clock at the edge of my screen: 9:23 p.m. There was no way I was getting out of here before midnight.
“Do you need anything?” I looked up to see Jennifer, the assistant I shared with the other account directors, standing in front of me. She’d arrived with the apple-cheeked, milk-fed look of a woman who had wandered in straight from the farm (even if, in her case, that farm was Yale). Now, after only a few weeks with us, her skin had already taken on the vitamin-D deficient pallor of someone unfamiliar with daylight. I felt a twinge of guilt: she was like a sweet little lamb being slowly, methodically sheared by the city.
“No, I’m all set, thanks.” I looked at her more closely. She was wearing lipstick. Red lipstick. “Are you going out tonight?” I asked.
“No!” she said, nervously fiddling with the gold chain around her neck. “I mean, sort of. I had plans or whatever, but I can stay here as long as you need me.”
She was wearing a dress, too, a floral tea dress that suited her tiny waist. It was definitely a date. “Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I don’t need you to stick around, honest. What time are your plans?”
She shifted her weight to her other foot and tried to look casual. “Um, twenty minutes ago?”
“Then what are you still doing here? Go!” I said, shooing her away.
Her eyes widened, her mouth breaking into a wide grin. “Are you sure?”
“Oh my God, thank you!” she said, scrambling around her desk and gathering her bag. “I really, really appreciate it. I’ll be in super early tomorrow morning, I promise.”
“Relax, you’re fine. I’m off for the rest of the week, but I’ll be on email all the time, so just drop me a line if there are any major fires. Hopefully I’ll wrap most things up tonight.”
Jennifer hesitated. “You’re sure you don’t need me? I don’t mind staying, really.” Half of her body was already out the door.
“I know, but I’m fine. Really.”
“Okay, well … have a good trip! Let me know if you need anything!”
“I will. And Jen?”
“You look great.”
She beamed at me and slipped out the door. I heard her heels clacking down the stairwell and the sound of the fire-exit door swing open and clang decisively shut.
I sighed and turned back to one of my many color-coded spreadsheets. I was working on a major new digital campaign for Spike, a low-cost airline that had been plagued with a myriad of health and safety scandals recently: salmonella in a batch of their in-flight meals, child harnesses that snapped when tested, and one particular incident where a marauding band of mice chewed through a nest of wiring during a flight to San Jose. We were rebranding them as the “Airline of Adventure,” complete with GoPro footage of various lunatics jumping off buildings and abseiling down crevasses. Because surely, at this point, it was only those lunatics who would willingly board one of their rickety planes.
Regardless of my thoughts on the ethics of fudging airline safety, the Spike business was a huge slice of the BlueFly budget, and it was essential that the campaign went off without a hitch. As a result, I’d been pulling sixteen-hour days for the past three weeks, taking phone calls from the nervous CEO late into the night and early in the morning. One of my eyes had developed a twitch a week ago, and now that twitch had a twitch. And, of course, with the worst possible timing, I had to take a week’s vacation to travel to the north of England because my sister had insisted on getting married in a castle (which, if you’d met Piper, wouldn’t come as much of a surprise). And to add insult to injury, my ex-boyfriend would be there, too. Trust Piper to marry the best friend of the one man I never wanted to see again. And at this rate, I wouldn’t even have time to wax my legs before I left.
My phone flashed up with a message.
Are you bailing on me tomorrow?
It was my best friend Jess, who had defected to the wilds of New Jersey two years ago with her husband and baby son, and who I had since managed to visit a grand total of three times. I know, I know, I’m a terrible friend. Something Jess hasn’t held back on telling me. Another text flashed up.
Let me rephrase that. DO NOT BAIL ON ME TOMORROW. You do not want to piss off a pregnant lady because I will crush you.
I’d promised her I’d swing by her place on the way to the airport the following morning, but had, in all honesty, already been planning to make my excuses and spend the morning in the office. But seeing her text messages, I knew I was toast.
Of course I’m still coming! Can’t wait. Xxx
I placed the phone back on the desk and turned back to my spreadsheets. I saw the phone flash up again from the corner of my eye.
You’re a liar but I love you. Let me know what train you’re on and Noah and I will meet you. X
I took a sip of cold coffee and grimaced. Midnight, I thought to myself. I won’t stay any later than midnight.
* * *
I woke up to the mechanized chirrup of crickets.
My eyes stuttered open and I fumbled in the dark until my fingers curled around my phone: 6:33 a.m. I let out a plaintive moan. I thought about closing my eyes again, letting sleep pull me gently back under, but the little blue envelope on my iPhone had an angry red number hovering above it: fifty-seven new unread emails. The Shanghai office had been busy overnight. I tapped with a reluctant index finger and scanned through a series of minor and major disasters that would need rectifying, and felt my chest tighten with each swipe.
6:37. Time to get up. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and suddenly regretted my decision to take an Ambien last night. I shielded my eyes from the sun, now streaming through the window, and sat for a moment while I made a mental calculation of what I had to do today: gym, train, Jessica, plane. England. The ex. I let out another groan and glanced down at my pillow longingly.
I forced myself onto my feet. I had a 7 a.m. training session this morning, and Jeff would make me do extra burpees if I was late. Tuesday at 7 a.m. had been spent with Jeff for three and a half years now, ever since I had tried to squeeze myself into a dress I used to wear back in college and couldn’t get it past my knees. All the days and nights spent at the desk had caught up with me, and the only solution was to subject myself to twice-weekly punishment sessions with Jeff, and frequent pre-dawn runs along the river. It was brutal. It was endless. It was, it appeared, the routine I would be following for the rest of my life. Why couldn’t exercise be like money, or Starbucks points, where you could amass a stockpile and then spend it gradually over time for the rest of your life? Instead, I found that if I took even a week off, my lungs reverted to their previous flaccid state, and my ass started inching toward the backs of my knees. And so, onward I fought.
I padded into the bathroom and flicked on the light, wincing slightly before switching it back off again. Brushing my teeth in the dark felt safer and more humane. Face washed and hair tied up in a fresh ponytail, I pulled on the gym clothes I’d left carefully folded for myself the night before, and scooped some coffee grains into the French press. I glanced up at the clock hanging above the range. 6:48: two minutes to spare. I straightened the covers and double-checked that I had everything I needed for the trip, including the lurid green monstrosity that Piper had decided was the maid of honor dress. I was going straight to the station after the gym and couldn’t afford to come all the way back to the apartment for an errant shoe.
Dress, shoes, make-up, Ambien all accounted for, I had a quick last look around the apartment before heading out the door. It was a tiny studio, but it was all my own—the first place I’d been able to afford by myself in the city. There comes a time in a person’s life when, if single, one should live on one’s own, mainly because the only possible roommates available to one are the deranged and mentally diseased. The commute from Bay Ridge—where I’d lived for the past seven years, ever since I moved out of the place I’d shared with Jess in Sunset Park—had been brutal, but not as brutal as the feeling of being the oldest, and lamest, person in the neighborhood. When Len, the grizzled old bartender at McDougall’s, was replaced by a smirking twenty-three-year-old wearing a Hypercolor tank top, I went home, prepared a financial spreadsheet, and called a real estate broker: I would move to Manhattan, where I would be poor but would at least feel young. (I felt more poor than young, but it was still worth it.)
The new place, nestled in an old tenement building in the East Village, was tiny and extortionately priced, but I could afford it (barely) thanks to my recent promotion to account director. It was beautiful—all exposed bricks and high ceilings—and I’d been slowly replacing my old Ikea furniture with purposely distressed vintage pieces that had originally been bought at a garage sale in Michigan and resold at a tremendous mark-up to city rubes like me. I was fine with this.
I tore down the stairs and burst onto the street. It was a beautiful morning: the sky was a faultless blue, the day’s inevitable mugginess had yet to descend, and the street sweepers had already come through, so the road wasn’t littered with the previous night’s detritus of beer bottles and vomit. I sipped my coffee on the way, and listened to the quiet rhythms of the city waking up: the metal shutters sliding open, the pails of water being tossed onto the sidewalk, the quiet tick of town car engines cooling as they waited for their breakfasting businessmen. I walked into the gym, the familiar smell of sweat, chlorine, and overpriced air freshener welcoming me. 6:59 on the nose.
A large, muscular man with a head shaped like a triangle and a sadistic grin stood up when I walked through the door: Jeff.
“Morning, Ruby,” he said. “Ready for the pain?”
“Not really,” I said, but it didn’t matter—it was going to happen anyway.
I sweated my way through the usual series of increasingly grueling and bizarre exercises, Jeff standing over me and occasionally bellowing what he thought was encouragement, but would more accurately be classified as harassment. “Lower! Deeper! Faster! Harder!” he said, over and over. Taken out of context, it would sound as if he were directing fringe porn. I squeezed my eyes shut and thought about the coffee and bagel that awaited me at the end of this, and considered, not for the first time, the irony of working out this hard in order to maintain some semblance of the body I’d had at nineteen, when my diet had consisted entirely of Cheetos, Diet Coke, slices of processed cheese, and cheap vodka. I pushed the thought out of my head and did another rep. This is about being strong and healthy, I told myself, not about being thin. (Okay, it was a little bit about being thin.)
In addition to allowing me to eat a guilt-free bagel, exercise helped temporarily to dislodge the tight knot of anxiety that had nestled itself in my breastbone—like a tiny, fluttering baby bird with an extremely sharp beak—ever since the promotion. With every squat thrust, it flew higher and lighter until, by the end of the hour, I couldn’t feel it at all. Today it was particularly useful, considering the amount of pre-travel/wedding/family/ex-boyfriend anxiousness pressing firmly on my shoulders.
“One more circuit and we’re done,” Jeff said, idly flexing a bicep in the mirror as I began yet another set of weighted lunges. I suppressed the urge to thwack him over the head with a kettlebell.
Workout done, shower taken, and personage assembled, I made my way to the subway, wheeled suitcase dragging noisily behind. The city had stretched its limbs and was fully awake now, and I had to shoulder through a crowd lined up outside a bakery, all desperate to get their hands on a freshly baked cronut despite the fact that no one in the city ate gluten anymore (except me). I dodged a woman struggling to free her stiletto from a subway grate, a vagrant pushing a shopping cart full of dismembered mannequins, and a squall of hungover-looking college students before descending into Second Avenue station.
The subway was, as ever, a minefield of smells and sounds and strangers’ limbs. I normally avoided the subway—the BlueFly office was within walking distance—but there was no way I could walk the thirty-plus blocks across town to Penn Station, and a cab would take twice as long to snake its way through the morning traffic snarls. I pushed my way onto a busy F train, enraging everyone in the vicinity by having a suitcase with me during rush hour, and let my face arrange itself into its Don’t Fuck With Me expression (a mix of boredom, stand-offishness, and vague menace). I found a (hopefully) non-living place to hold on, and spent the next twenty minutes scrolling through my iPhone—thirteen new emails had come in during my gym session—and trying to ignore the truly appalling stench coming from the man next to me. I stole a glance at him: he looked normal, handsome even—fortyish, with an appealing shock of salt and pepper hair and wearing a good suit—but he smelled like he’d rolled around in a mix of garlic and wet dog hair.
I looked at him again, more closely this time. There was something familiar about him … maybe I’d worked with him before? Did he go to my gym? And then I remembered: I’d swapped a few messages with him on OkCupid the month before. We’d even arranged a date, but I’d had to cancel at the last minute because of a work emergency. I felt his eyes on me and stared hard at my phone. Please don’t recognize me, I prayed silently. Please, garbage man, leave me in peace.
“THIRTY-FOURTH STREET, HERALD SQUARE!” The conductor’s voice crackled across the loudspeaker and I pushed my way through the door and onto the platform, leaving a wake of disgruntled tsks as I pulled my suitcase off behind me. The doors started to close and garbage man locked eyes with me, a look of recognition written across his face. I looked away and the doors clanged shut behind me, whizzing him up to 42nd Street. I smiled to myself as I lugged the suitcase up the stairs: another tiny victory won.
I emerged from the station and began my cross-town journey on foot. The heat of the summer had started to press down on New York like a thumb, and by the time I walked into Penn Station, sweat had begun to trickle down my back.
“Can I interest you in free highlights? Our brand-new salon has just opened…” “Free sample of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Chocolate! The first chocolate substitute made entirely of beetroot!” “Half-price tickets to the Knicks!” I hustled my way past the tourists and ticket touts and promoters pressing leaflets into any passing hand. There was a time when I would have taken the handsome man up on his offer of a free haircut, but experience had taught me the hard way that by “new salon” he meant a back-alley joint in Chinatown where they would bleach my hair orange and charge me $110 to fix it. That is the thing about New York: its beautiful, maddening essence. No one gets anything for free here. You have to work for it.
I hurried down the long, curved, white corridor, flying past Nathan’s and the souvenir stands and the bookshop stacked high with the latest pulpy bestseller. The floors were now scattered with the detritus of the morning commute: splashes of coffee splattered on the polished concrete, along with flimsy paper bags that had held now-eaten croissants and egg sandwiches, an abandoned sports section lying limply on a nearby bench. The rush had ended, and an echoey calm had fallen on the station. I saw my train listed on the board—the 6929 to Millburn—and headed toward the platform. I was early, so I stopped at a bagel cart on the way and ordered a whole-wheat bagel (cream cheese on the side) and a coffee (black).
I was furiously blowing on the scalding coffee when something caught my eye: staring out at me from the magazine rack was none other than my ex-boyfriend, his face smiling smugly out from the cover of TechCrunch magazine. “Can Ethan Bailey Save the World?” the headline asked, as if specifically designed to annoy me. “I’m guessing not,” I muttered as I pulled a copy from the rack and slapped it down on the counter.
“Four dollars,” said the unsmiling man, hand outstretched. I peeled off the bills and shoved the magazine deep into my bag, where I could feel it throbbing, and then headed off to catch my train.
The Morris and Essex line is a miniature socio-economic tour of the Greater New York area. I stared out of the window as we chuntered through Chelsea, speeding past the boutique shops and expensive cocktail bars, out past the High Line and over the Hudson River into New Jersey. Through Hoboken and into a sea of squat industrial parks dotted with billboards advertising strip clubs and loan sharks and auto-body shops until the first ad for West Elm appeared and you knew you were out in the suburbs.
I finished off the last bit of bagel and pulled the magazine out of my bag, holding it gingerly between thumb and forefinger as though it might be radioactive. Which it sort of was, at least to me. The coffee I’d gulped down made an unwelcome reappearance in my esophagus. I leaned in and inspected the photograph. He hadn’t changed at all. If anything, he was now better looking. He had the confident sheen of wealth shining out of every pore, and had obviously used some of his apparently now-vast fortune to have his teeth straightened and whitened. His dark hair was slightly shorter, but still curled around his temples, and his eyes were the same greenish-gold I remembered. Yes, it was definitely him: a beacon of success, heralded the world over as the designer of a generation, and presumably described as one of the city’s most eligible bachelors somewhere in the article. At least he was still a bachelor the last time I’d allowed myself to Google him (once every two months, no more) following his split from some leggy fashion editor.
I skimmed the article, which contained the word “genius” so many times I seriously considered sending a thesaurus to the sub-editor, and allowed myself to stare at the accompanying photographs for exactly four minutes. There he was with the late Steve Jobs, arm tossed jovially around his shoulder as they grinned out at the camera in matching turtlenecks. Now he was at the Met gala, aforementioned leggy fashion editor wrapped around him like a baby monkey on a tree branch. And finally, there was a picture of him with his business partner, arms slung around each other’s shoulders and smiling at each other as if they both couldn’t believe their luck.
I couldn’t believe it, either. If you had told me ten years ago that Ethan would end up designing one of the most used and best loved apps of all time, I would have laughed in your face. Actually, first I would have asked what an app was, and then I would have laughed in your face.
I closed the magazine and shoved it back in my bag. You know that feeling when you put coin after coin into a slot machine without winning a single penny, only to walk away and watch the next person who drops a quarter in win the jackpot? That was the feeling that I had been living with for the past seven years, ever since Ethan’s face appeared in Wired in an article entitled “Rising Stars.” I drank half a bottle of vodka with Jess that night, eventually setting fire to the magazine and placing it in a garbage can in what Jess had promised would be a “cleansing ritual,” but which ended up just melting the (plastic) garbage can to the living room carpet and resulted in a serious deduction from our security deposit.
The trees whizzed by as the train sped deeper into New Jersey. I closed my eyes and leaned against the window, head knocking rhythmically against the pane as the train clicked over the tracks. Tomorrow, I would see him again—the first time in nearly ten years. What could I possibly say to him? Would he even talk to me? What if he still had feelings for me? Or, worse, what if he didn’t? I swatted the thought from my mind like an errant fly. The man opposite caught my eye and gave me a friendly smile. He was dressed in a suit, but the edges of his cuffs were frayed and his collar slightly yellowed, and he had the harried look of a man teetering on the brink. I looked back at the whizzing trees, which were thinning slowly and being replaced by identikit clapboard houses and the occasional strip mall. What if I still loved him after all this time? What the hell was I supposed to do then?
“NEXT STOP, MILLBURN!”
I bumped my suitcase down the steps and onto the platform, waving away the frayed man’s offers to help. It was deserted at this time of day, and I felt strangely criminal being outside the confines of the city and out in the open on a weekday morning. I blinked into the bright sunshine before pulling my phone out of my bag and scrolling through my emails: no major disasters, thankfully. I breathed a small sigh of relief and headed out of the station.
“Ruby! Over here!” I heard Jess’s voice before I saw her, standing by an enormous silver SUV and waving her arms maniacally despite the fact that she was the only person in the parking lot. A smile burst onto my face and I broke into a run.
Jess wrapped me in a hug. “Thank God you made it—I was worried you’d get lost or something!” She was pregnant—heavily pregnant—but she was still all long limbs and blonde hair, though the peroxide had been replaced by more honeyed tones, and her limbs were swathed in a pair of leggings and an expensive-looking maternity tunic. She looked like a glowing, glorious little egg. It was strange to imagine a tiny person swimming around inside her, all tiny fingernails and nose and presumably tiny internal organs squashed inside. It made me feel a little nauseous to think about it. Babies are miracles, sure, but sometimes the specifics veer a little too close to science fiction for comfort.
“Jess, I’m thirty-two years old and I was at your house three months ago—how could I have got lost?” I peered through the back window and waved at Jess’s two-and-a-half-year-old son, Noah. He gave me a long, wary look from his car seat in return. Children are like bears: they can smell fear.
I hauled my suitcase into the trunk and climbed into the passenger seat. The soundtrack to Frozen was playing on the stereo and Jess shot me an apologetic smile as she pulled out of the parking lot. “He’s obsessed,” she said, nodding toward Noah. “It’s all he’ll let us listen to. I keep trying to introduce other things to him, but he’s not buying it. The other day I put on Pharrell because another mom told me she’d used it to break her daughter’s Frozen addiction, but he just screamed the whole way through. Didn’t you, buddy?” Noah let out a triumphant shout from the back seat, and she rolled her eyes. “So for now, we’re stuck with Elsa and that snowman guy until we can stage an effective intervention. Sorry.”
“I’m actually kind of into it,” I said. This was a slightly gray shade of the truth: I’d taken myself to see Frozen on a particularly dark day back in January and had found myself sobbing uncontrollably during “Let It Go,” much to the horror of the multitude of dads who had been shooed out of their homes for the afternoon to take their children to see it for the tenth time. The experience had been mildly cathartic, but not one I was particularly keen on replicating. I’d been struck by waves of retrospective humiliation for weeks, usually while in client meetings.
We cruised into downtown Millburn, which felt more like a 1950s simulacrum of a town than an actual place. “I feel like I’m in a tank,” I said as we drove past a succession of coffee shops, children’s clothing boutiques, and ye olde candy stores. The SUV was a few feet off the ground and made everything—the other cars, the neat rows of shops, the moms pushing their kids along the street in strollers—look puny and vulnerable, like the plastic figurines lining the toy store window.
“I know,” Jess said, “it’s a little ridiculous, but Noah generates so much stuff. The kid is like a pack mule. Plus it’s great for when the in-laws are in town.”
We pulled into the driveway, stopping just short of a Radio Flyer tricycle that had been abandoned in front of the garage. The house, a three-bed that Jess and her husband had bought two years ago, was a dove-gray Cape with daffodil trim. There was a wraparound porch with a trellis on which ivy climbed, and flowerboxes along the railings and on the windowsills. It looked exactly like a dollhouse I’d had as a kid, and I was always surprised when I walked inside and discovered that the furniture was real sized, not miniature. The yard was dotted with Noah’s various toys, including a wooden Peter Pan house and a tiny cherry-red car, and I took a moment to marvel at the idea of leaving stuff out in the open and not worrying about it being stolen.
“Your house continues to be sickeningly perfect,” I said, shutting the car door and gazing up at the whitewashed shutters and neat slate roof.
“It’s a little small, but it does the job. We just had the lawn reseeded, and Ben is obsessed with watering it. As soon as he gets home from work, he’s out there with a hose and a magnifying glass, checking on his sproutage. We’ll need more space soon, though,” she said, idly stroking her swollen stomach. “This is just a starter home, really.”
I murmured something noncommittal and smiled. Noah was only three feet tall, and the baby would be the size of a volleyball when it was born: did they really need more than three bedrooms? It seemed that as soon as someone turned thirty, they suddenly needed at least three times the amount of space previously required, regardless of how many children they had or how many things they owned. Square footage, front- and backyards, his and hers sinks—everyone seemed to be in the grip of their own personal Manifest Destiny. I thought about my cozy studio, everything tucked neatly into its rightful place: surely, at a push, Noah and the baby could fit in there? Maybe they could each sleep in a drawer, like an illustration from a children’s book. Not that I wanted to test out the theory. First of all, it would be kidnapping. Second, they would definitely get drool over my sweaters, which would be gross.
Jess unhooked Noah from his seat and he flopped forward onto her shoulder. I saw her stagger slightly against his weight and rushed to help. “Do you want me to carry him?” I asked.
Jess waved me away. “I’m like an ox these days. You should see my biceps—I could win strongman competitions. Ben keeps saying that he’s going to sell me to the circus. Now, are you hungry? I’ve got some stuff in the fridge I could throw together for a salad, and I baked some cookies this morning. Oooh, and Ben brought back these amazing salted caramel truffles the other night—you have to try one. Let me just get this little guy settled and I’ll make some coffee.”
Noah ran ahead into the kitchen, shouting something indecipherable and punctuating each statement with a loud whimpering noise. I looked at Jess for a translation.
“He’s hungry,” she said, hurrying after him. “We’re late for his lunch.”
I stayed back in the hallway for a moment, breathing in expensive cedar-scented candles and freshly baked cookies, undercut by the faintly sour smell of often-spilled milk. There were pairs of shoes lined up neatly by the door; I slipped mine off and placed them next to Ben’s neon-green running sneakers. The air settled around me, the dust motes sparkling in the late-morning sun streaming through the window. The inside of the house was as beautiful as the outside, all polished hardwood floors and walls painted in tastefully muted colors. There was a framed wedding photo sitting on the mantelpiece over the little brick fireplace, next to a photo of Jess looking exhausted but deliriously beautiful, holding a newborn Noah to her chest. There was an old wine crate full of toys tucked into the corner of the room, and the coffee table was stacked with Early Reader books. I felt like an alien that had been unexpectedly beamed onto the surface of an unfamiliar planet.
In the kitchen, Jess was assembling a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with military precision. She cut off the crusts, sliced it into long, thin fingers, and placed it on a plastic plate featuring the cartoon face of a lion. I watched from the doorway for a minute and was struck, as I always was by these little domestic tableaux in which Jess now starred, by both a violent, primordial jealousy and a desire to run screaming out of the house in order to take deep lungfuls of clean, free air. The flight instinct was usually the more dominant.
“Lunchtime, buddy!” Jess placed the plate on the tray of his high chair and gave his hair a light tousle.
Noah took one look at lunch and started to whimper. “Jiffy! Jiffy!” he cried.
“Okay, sweetie, I’ll get it.” Jess took another plastic plate from the cupboard, this time featuring a cartoon giraffe, and slid the sandwich onto it. She spotted me in the doorway and smiled. “His favorite plate,” she said, rolling her eyes but still displaying a level of saintly patience that had materialized as soon as Noah had been suctioned out of her after a long and difficult labor. Before motherhood, Jessica would have been described with a long line of colorful adjectives, but patient would not have featured on the list.
Noah now happily munching away, Jess turned to me, her hand resting calmly on her bump. “You want coffee, right? Ben does this cold press thing that he’s obsessed with. And please, eat a cookie! Ben can’t eat them because of his stupid Paleo diet, and I’ll just end up throwing them out when you leave to stop me and Noah from eating them all.” Noah let out a little moan of despair and started licking the jelly from the sides of his sandwich fingers to comfort himself.
I plucked an oatmeal and raisin cookie off of a sunny yellow ceramic plate, Noah eying me with undisguised rage as I took a bite. “These are delicious,” I said, sending a gentle spray of crumbs onto the oak table.
“All done!” Noah called. His plate was empty—the kid must have a Hoover inside him. Jess lifted him out of his high chair and handed him a cookie, which he accepted with a look of happiness usually reserved for Oscar winners, before scooting off into the living room.
“You’re like Queen Etsy or something out here,” I said, gesturing around the room.
Jess shook her head. “Seriously, this is nothing. You should see some of the houses Noah’s friends live in—not a single surface that hasn’t been slapped in chalk paint and decorated with vintage seltzer bottles. We went to a birthday party for a two-year-old last week and the mom had made carob and quinoa cookies and balanced them on top of these tiny little milk bottles. It was nauseating. I was, of course, insanely jealous.”
“How are you getting along with the other moms? Are you guys all playing nicely?”
“A few of them are pains in the ass, but most of them are cool. Lots of former Brooklynites who’ve come here to breed and die—they should probably just set up a shuttle service between here and Park Slope. It’s like the hipster version of Florida or something.” She got up and started fussing around with an expensive-looking coffee maker.
“I’ll do that!” I said, lunging toward the counter.
She shooed me away. “I’m pregnant, not crippled. Besides, this machine is like the Enigma code—I’d never ask you to try and crack it. Now, where did Ben put that Jamaican blend? It’s to die for—you’ve got to try it. I can only smell it at the minute, obviously, but seriously—it’s heaven.”
I watched her with a sense of quiet disbelief, still not quite able to reconcile the domestic goddess in front of me with the woman I’d shared a room with in college. It was as if a little switch had gone off. One day, she was smoking like a trooper and telling expletive-riddled stories about interviewing New York’s latest playboy in a strip club in Queens, the next she was worrying about the provenance of her artichokes and the competitiveness of Monkey Music class. This was the woman who had once hijacked an idling limousine and demanded that it take us to a pop-up cabaret in Williamsburg, and who had slept with not one but three of the New York Yankees. I wondered briefly whether Jess’s lifetime season ticket to Yankee home games was still valid.
But it wasn’t just Jess who had undergone a transformation. A few years ago, it was as though a high-pitched whistle had sounded and all of the women who I’d spent my twenties carousing with pricked up their ears. One by one, they disappeared, swept away to a suburban enclave or less “intense” city, never to be seen in a dive bar or nightclub again, all citing the same reasons: it was too expensive, there was nowhere for their existing or hoped-for children to play, the competition for schools was crazy, there was no space. On the rare days I got out of work early enough to have a drink with someone, there was now no one to call. I felt like one of those Japanese soldiers hidden in the jungle years after the Second World War had ended, vowing never to surrender.
Noah wandered in, a pile of board books stacked precariously in his hands. “Story, Mommy?”
“In a second, sweetie,” Jess said. “Why don’t you do a puzzle?” He toddled off looking mildly disgruntled. Jess placed a mug in front of me—in the same sunny yellow as the cookie plate—and sat down with a sigh. “Okay,” she said, “tell me everything. Bring me all of your dispatches from civilization.”
I shrugged. “There isn’t much to tell, really. Work’s good. Crazy busy, but good. A new restaurant opened up on Jane Street that you’d love—they do amazing Thai food…”
She waved away the pad thai talk. “Ruby, we don’t have much time. That kid in there is a ticking time bomb, so let’s get to the good stuff. Have you had any decent sex lately?”
“Nothing noteworthy,” I said, flicking an errant crumb off my lap. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hadn’t been on a date in months, let alone had sex.
“What about Mark? Is he still buzzing around?”
“No, he buzzed off a long time ago, thank God. He kept telling me about what he ate and how much exercise he did every day, in minute detail. It’s like he thought I was his Fitbit or something. Anyway, I have more important news.”
I reached into my bag and pulled out the now dog-eared copy of TechCrunch. “So this is happening,” I said, waving the magazine in front of me slightly maniacally.
Jess stared at the cover in silence for a minute before snatching it out my hand. “You have GOT to be kidding me. How the hell do they expect him to save the world through a food delivery app? What, General Tso’s chicken for all?”
“Something about redistributing restaurant food waste to the poor,” I said. “Anyway, that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that I am going to see him in”—I glanced up at the kitchen clock—“thirteen hours, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to say to him. I mean, what do I say to this?” I jabbed a finger at Ethan’s grinning face.
“I think I’d start with hello,” Jess said. “And maybe ease up on the finger pointing.” She looked down at the cover. “He is super hot. He wasn’t this hot when you were together, was he? I know I only met him once, but I feel like I would remember it more clearly if he had been this good-looking.”
“I thought you couldn’t remember anything about 2005,” I said.
“True. But still, I think this would have made an impression. So, what’s your game plan?”
I threw myself back in the chair. “Avoid him as much as I can, I guess.”
“Why would you want to avoid this?” Jess asked, gazing at Ethan’s face. I snatched the magazine back and shoved it in my bag.
“Um, because he’s my ex-boyfriend? Because we haven’t spoken since we broke up a decade ago? Honestly, it’s embarrassing that I’m even worrying about it—Justin Timberlake still had curly hair when we were together, for God’s sake.”
“You never forget your first love,” she said wistfully.
“You’re telling me that you remember that bartender from the Last Drop?”
“I do, actually. Sometimes, in a low moment, I think about his forearms.”
“Okay, well, I do not think about Ethan’s forearms, or any part of him for that matter. It’s ancient history.”
“Stop being such a Grinch. I think it’s romantic! The two of you getting thrown back together—at a wedding, of all places! A wedding that’s happening in a castle! It’s like a fairy tale or something!” Jess reached over and took a bite out of a cookie, chewing contemplatively. “You should at least try to have sex with him.”
“This isn’t a fairy tale, this is my life, and no one is having sex with anyone.”
Jess raised an eyebrow.
“You know what I mean.”
“Unfortunately, I do,” she said. “That’s exactly my point.”
Noah’s voice broke the silence. “Mommy! I spilled!”
“It’s just water, right, honey?”
“I spilled the blue!” he called back, voice quavering slightly.
“The blue? Oh Jesus, the finger paints,” she said, taking off with impressive speed. “Coming!”
We rushed into the living room to find a puddle of thick blue paint spread across a patch of hardwood floor. Noah was sitting in the middle of it, blue-tinted tears streaming down his face. “My blue!” he wailed.
“My floor!” Jess wailed.
“I’ll get the paper towels,” I said, turning on my heel and heading toward the kitchen.
“Wait, I’ll get them,” she said. “You hang on to this one and make sure he doesn’t rub anymore of it into the floor or his eyes or whatever.” She thrust Noah into my arms and hurried out of the room.
“Hello!” I said brightly. My voice sounded oddly strangled.
He eyed me suspiciously, his legs and arms dangling limply as he considered the situation. “I want to get down,” he said. He started to wriggle. “Down now.”
“Just one sec, buddy,” I said, tightening my grip to keep him from slipping to the floor. “Mommy will be back in just one second.”
“Down!” he shouted, kicking out. “Down! Down! Down! Down!” The sound was not unlike the police siren I’d heard while on a work trip to Copenhagen last year.
“Noah! Don’t kick your aunt!” Jess lifted him out of my arms and replaced him with a wad of damp paper towels. “I’ll take care of him—do you mind clearing up the spill?”
“Of course!” I crouched down and started scrubbing the stained floorboards while she carried Noah upstairs. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been more grateful to be on my hands and knees.
Twenty-five minutes later, the paint puddle had been wiped away (thankfully it was water-based) and Noah had been cleaned up. Jess had found two fingers of peanut butter and jelly sandwich stuffed down his pants, which explained the speed at which he’d earned his cookie, and he was now playing with a fire truck in a slightly desolate manner.
“Where were we?” Jess said, settling back into the sofa cushions and keeping a wary eye on Noah. “Oh yeah, you were planning on ignoring your handsome, rich ex-boyfriend. Don’t do that.” She reached over and took my hand, and I knew exactly what was coming.
“Please don’t,” I said. “Not the speech.”
“Ruby, you are smart and sexy and funny and generally wonderful. You deserve to be happy.”
“And I watch you going through this life of yours, so focused on your career, so determined to shut out any distractions, and I worry about you.”
“There’s no need to worry about me.”
“Just do me a favor and keep an open mind, okay? That’s all I ask: just be open to the idea that you might still have feelings for the guy.”
“I really don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
“In that case, you shouldn’t have a problem with promising me you’ll keep an open mind.” She sat back, triumphant.
“Fine,” I groaned. “You win. Now can I have another cookie before we go?”
“Of course you can,” she said, patting me on the head. “Good girl.”
Jess drove me to the airport, Noah burbling excitedly as the planes came into view. She hugged me hard when we got to the curb. “I know this is stressful, but it’s going to be fine,” she said. “Text me when you land. And when you see him. And when you get to the castle. Seriously, just text me all the time.”
“Noah, say goodbye to Aunt Ruby!”
I leaned into the back and planted an awkward kiss on Noah’s hand, which he promptly wiped off. I gave Jess a hug and opened the door. “No giving birth until I get back, okay?”
“Trust me, I’m not in any rush. Have a safe flight and keep me posted! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”
“That leaves me a fair amount of liberty.”
She glanced at Noah in the rear-view mirror and quickly flipped me off. “Love you!”
I watched her car speed off and felt a pang of anxiety. Jess meant well, but with all the will in the world, there was no way I could just relax about seeing Ethan again. I had to be prepared.
* * *
I spent the flight sandwiched between a gangly man wearing a safari jacket and a teenaged boy who had doused himself in Drakkar Noir before take-off. I wasn’t sure whose benefit this was for, but it certainly wasn’t mine. I swallowed my usual in-flight cocktail of zinc, vitamin C, and Ambien, and woke up as they were urging us to return to the upright position. One of the gangly man’s legs had migrated into my leg space over the course of the flight and I gave his foot a nudge and shot him what I hoped was a polite but firm smile. He pretended to be too engrossed in the latest Cameron Crowe movie, as if that were even possible.
The plane landed at Heathrow. I shuffled silently through passport control and baggage claim, eyes bleary and legs stiff. When I finally emerged at the arrivals gate, it was nearly eight o’clock in the morning. Piper and Charlie’s flight from Boston wasn’t due for another hour, so I found an empty bench, switched on my iPhone, and bedded in for a long wait. Turns out I didn’t have to wait very long.
I looked up to see TechCrunch’s pin-up striding across the concourse toward me. He had the same walk, loose-limbed and slightly swaggering, though his shoulders were broader and his clothes fell differently now, more easily. His hair was the same shock of black curls, but I could see a few threads of silver scattered through them, and it was more closely cropped than before. His eyes, though. His eyes were exactly the same. I was shocked—appalled, actually—to find my bloodstream suddenly coursing with dopamine. It’s him, I thought to myself. Of course, it’s always been him.
“Ruby,” he said, more of a statement than a greeting. He leaned in and kissed my cheek perfunctorily, leaving a good inch of air between his lips and my face.
In that moment, two things were immediately and immutably certain: I was still in love with him, almost giddyishly so, and he was not in love with me. In fact, he seemed very much the opposite.
“Ethan!” I did a sort of half-salute that I instantly regretted.
“Good to see you,” he lied.
“You too!” I said, too brightly. “What are you doing here?”
“I live here now,” he said. “Not at the airport. I mean, in London.” I was pleased to see him a little flustered. “I came to pick up Charlie and Piper.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s nice of you.”
“Yes, well … Did you just get in?”
“A few minutes ago.”
We settled into an awkward silence, both of us staring intently at the arrivals gate, willing Piper and Charlie to appear. A few minutes passed. I caved first.
“I’m just going to run to the bathroom. Would you mind watching my bag? I promise there are no explosives in it!” I caught the look of confusion on his face as I walked away and hurried toward the bathroom. Inside, I splashed my face with cold water and inspected myself beneath the harsh fluorescent lights. My face, as feared, had puffed and swelled during the flight, and I could see the insistent black stub of an errant hair springing from my chin. My hair, which I’d had blown out two days before, hadn’t fared much better, and was now an odd combination of flat and flyaway. In what cruel universe did a first encounter with an ex-boyfriend occur immediately after a long-haul flight? Why the hell had I just mentioned the threat of explosives to him? And how was it that I could see him again after ten years and still feel that same flip in my stomach, like driving over a speedbump too fast and being momentarily weightless?
Get a grip, Atlas. I slicked on some red lipstick, but it only succeeded in making me look more sallow. I sighed and trudged back out to the arrivals area.
Thankfully, a distraction had arrived in my absence: Ethan was now clapping Charlie on the back and pulling my sister in for a hug. I took a deep breath and strode toward them.
“Ruby!” Charlie gathered me up in a bear hug and shook me back and forth, my feet dangling in the air. “You made it!” He put me back on the ground and put both hands on my shoulders. “I am so glad you’re here. Piper, aren’t we glad she’s here? Man, that flight was amazing. They had all of the Rocky films on board—even Rocky 5! Can you believe it?”
“I can believe it,” I said.
“And they gave us these little miniature ice-cream bars halfway through. Did you get ice cream on your flight?”
“I slept most of the way.”
“Well, that’s a shame. We’ll have to get you an ice cream today to make up for it. Ethan, do you know any good ice-cream places?”
“Uh, sure, there’s probably one at the train station…”
“I’m fine, thanks.” I extracted myself from Charlie and walked over to my sister, who was frowning at her phone. “Are you going to say hello to your big sister already?” I asked, pulling her in for a hug. She was tiny—even smaller than usual—and her fine blonde hair was piled on top of her head, displaying her long, thin neck and delicate ears. She’d always been the ballerina of the two of us—graceful and fine-boned. I was built a little more hardily.
“Sorry,” she said, accepting the hug reluctantly. “It’s nice to see you and everything, it’s just—I mean, do they even have 4G here? I’m not getting any reception and I need to call the caterer.”
“It’s nice to see you, too,” I said, releasing her. I was used to Piper’s somewhat reserved approach to familial affection: when we were kids, she’d scream bloody murder if anyone tried so much as to hold her hand, let alone kiss her. The Ice Princess, we called her. I still did, when she wasn’t around to hear it.
“Here, you can use mine,” Ethan said, handing her a shiny new smartphone.
“Is this the new model?” she asked, eyes wide. “It’s not even out yet!”
“Perk of the job,” he shrugged, running a hand through his hair. My guts twisted a little tighter.
“Did you see the photos of the Beefeaters? Aren’t they just darling?” We turned to see a middle-aged couple struggling with a trolley loaded high with luggage come steaming out of the arrivals gate. “Sorry we’re late,” the man called. “Barbara wanted to freshen up before she saw you, Ethan.”
“Oh hush,” Barbara said, landing a lipsticked kiss on Ethan’s waiting cheek. “Don’t listen to a word he says. It’s so good to see you, though! Isn’t he looking handsome! My other son, that’s what I tell people when I see you on the television. ‘Look!’ I say, ‘That’s my son Ethan!’ And they say, ‘Barbara, I didn’t know you had another son!’ And I say, ‘Well, he might not be blood, but he’s as close as you can get.’”
“It’s good to see you, too,” Ethan said. “And you, Bob.”
“Hello, son.” The two men shook hands, the older man pulling Ethan in for the manliest of hugs.
“Enough already!” Charlie laughed. “A guy could get a complex listening to you two. Ruby, you remember my parents, right?”
Barbara squinted at me for a minute before a smile broke out across her face. “Ruby Atlas! I haven’t seen you in years and years! You haven’t changed a bit!”
I watched Ethan’s eyebrows rise almost imperceptibly. “It’s so nice to see you,” I said. “And you too, Mr. Armstrong.”
“Please, call me Bob. Where’s that father of yours? Is he off selling sand to a beach somewhere?”
I ignored the dig and the jocular laugh that came with it. “He and Candace are going to meet us at the hotel in Bamburgh,” I said. “They decided to make a little road trip out of their visit.”
Barbara’s eyes widened. “Is he still with Candace? Well, isn’t that nice.” I could tell that she didn’t think it was nice at all, and felt a flash of pity for my stepmother. “Your mother was a doll,” she said, placing a hand on mine. “It’s too bad she can’t be here to see this wedding. She would have loved it. Such a class act, your mom.”
“We all miss her,” I said, pulling my hand from under hers. At this moment, on top of everything else, I couldn’t allow myself to think about my mother, or her absence.
“We should get going,” Ethan said. I could see that he’d overheard the whole thing from the embarrassed look on his face. “There’s a car waiting outside.”
We gathered our bags and headed out toward the parking lot. He strode ahead and I hurried to catch up with him. “Thanks for the out,” I said, quietly. “I couldn’t really handle that conversation right now.”
He nodded and then walked faster, nearly breaking into a run. It was obvious to anyone that he was trying to get away from me, so I dropped back and let myself be left. There was no point chasing someone who had no interest in being chased, at least not by me at that particular moment in time. I followed slowly behind the group, wheeled suitcase clacking on the pavement slabs.
Copyright © 2016 by Melissa Pimentel