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NELLIE COULDN’T SAY what woke her. But when she opened her eyes, a woman wearing her white, lacy wedding gown stood by the foot of her bed, looking down at her.
Nellie’s throat closed around a scream, and she lunged for the baseball bat leaning against her nightstand. Then her vision adjusted to the grainy dawn light and the pounding of her heart softened.
She let out a tight laugh as she realized she was safe. The illusion was merely her wedding dress, ensconced in plastic, hanging on the back of her closet door, where she’d placed it yesterday after picking it up from the bridal shop. The bodice and full skirt were stuffed with crumpled tissue to maintain the shape. Nellie collapsed back onto her pillow. When her breathing steadied, she checked the blocky blue numbers on her nightstand clock. Too early, again.
She stretched her arms overhead and reached with her left hand to turn off the alarm before it could blare, the diamond engagement ring Richard had given her feeling heavy and foreign on her finger.
Even as a child, Nellie had never been able to fall asleep easily. Her mother didn’t have the patience for drawn-out bedtime rituals, but her father would gently rub her back, spelling out sentences over the fabric of her nightgown. I love you or You’re super special, he’d write, and she would try to guess the message. Other times he’d trace patterns, circles, stars, and triangles—at least until her parents divorced and he moved out when she was nine. Then she’d lie alone in her twin bed under her pink-and-purple-striped comforter and stare at the water stain that marred her ceiling.
When she finally dozed off, she usually slept hard for a good seven or eight hours—so deeply and dreamlessly that her mother sometimes had to physically shake her to awaken her.
But following an October night in her senior year of college, that suddenly changed.
Her insomnia worsened sharply, and her sleep became fractured by vivid dreams and abrupt awakenings. Once, she came downstairs to breakfast in her sorority house and her Chi Omega sister told her she’d been yelling something unintelligible. Nellie had attempted to brush it off: “Just stressed about finals. The Psych Stat exam is supposed to be a killer.” Then she’d left the table to get another cup of coffee.
After that, she’d forced herself to visit the college counselor, but despite the woman’s gentle coaxing, Nellie couldn’t talk about the warm early-fall night that had begun with bottles of vodka and laughter and ended with police sirens and despair. Nellie had met with the therapist twice, but canceled her third appointment and never went back.
Nellie had told Richard a few details when she’d awoken from one of her recurring nightmares to feel his arms tightening around her and his deep voice whispering in her ear, “I’ve got you, baby. You’re safe with me.” Entwined with him, she felt a security she realized she’d yearned for her entire life, even before the incident. With Richard beside her, Nellie was finally able to succumb again to the vulnerable state of deep sleep. It was as if the unsteady ground beneath her feet had stabilized.
Last night, though, Nellie had been alone in her old ground-floor brownstone apartment. Richard was in Chicago on business, and her best friend and roommate, Samantha, had slept over at her latest boyfriend’s. The noises of New York City permeated the walls: honking horns, occasional shouts, a barking dog … Even though the Upper East Side crime rate was the lowest in the borough, steel bars secured the windows, and three locks reinforced the door, including the thick one Nellie had installed after she’d moved in. Still, she’d needed an extra glass of Chardonnay before she’d been able to drift off.
Nellie rubbed her gritty eyes and slowly peeled herself out of bed. She pulled on her terry-cloth robe, then looked at her dress again, wondering if she should try to clear space in her tiny closet so it would fit. But the skirt was so full. At the bridal boutique, surrounded by its poufy and sequin-encrusted sisters, it had looked elegantly simple, like a chignon amidst bouffants. But next to the tangle of clothes and flimsy IKEA bookshelf in her cramped bedroom, it seemed to veer dangerously close to a Disney Princess ensemble.
Too late to change it, though. The wedding was approaching fast and every detail was in place, down to the cake topper—a blond bride and her handsome groom, frozen in a perfect moment.
“Jeez, they even look like you two,” Samantha had said when Nellie showed her a picture of the vintage china figurines that Richard had emailed. The topper had belonged to his parents, and Richard had retrieved it from the storage room in his apartment building’s basement after he proposed. Sam had wrinkled her nose. “Ever think he’s too good to be true?”
Richard was thirty-six, nine years older than Nellie, and a successful hedge fund manager. He had a runner’s wiry build, and an easy smile that belied his intense navy-blue eyes.
For their first date, he’d taken her to a French restaurant and knowledgeably discussed white Burgundies with the sommelier. For their second, on a snowy Saturday, he’d told her to dress warmly and had shown up carrying two bright green plastic sleds. “I know the best hill in Central Park,” he’d said.
He’d worn a pair of faded jeans and had looked just as good in them as he did in his well-cut suits.
Nellie hadn’t been joking when she replied to Sam’s question by saying, “Only every day.”
Nellie smothered another yawn as she padded the seven steps into the tiny galley kitchen, the linoleum cold under her bare feet. She flicked on the overhead light, noticing Sam had—again—made a mess of the honey jar after sweetening her tea. The viscous liquid oozed down the side, and a cockroach struggled in the sticky amber pool. Even after years of living in Manhattan, the sight still made her queasy. Nellie grabbed one of Sam’s dirty mugs out of the sink and trapped the roach under it. Let her deal with it, she thought. As she waited for her coffee to brew, she flipped open her laptop and began checking email—a coupon from the Gap; her mother, who’d apparently become a vegetarian, asking Nellie to make sure there would be a meat-free option at the wedding dinner; a notice that her credit-card payment was due.
Nellie poured her coffee into a mug decorated with hearts and the words World’s #1 Teacher—she and Samantha, who also taught at the Learning Ladder preschool, had a dozen nearly identical ones jammed in the cupboard—and took a grateful sip. She had ten spring parent-teacher conferences scheduled today for her Cubs, her class of three-year-olds. Without caffeine, she’d be in danger of falling asleep in the “quiet corner,” and she needed to be on her game. First up were the Porters, who’d recently fretted over the lack of Spike Jonze–style creativity being cultivated in her classroom. They’d recommended she replace the big dollhouse with a giant tepee and had followed up by sending her a link to one the Land of Nod sold for $229.
She’d miss the Porters only slightly less than the cockroaches when she moved in with Richard, Nellie decided. She looked at Samantha’s mug, felt a surge of guilt, and used a tissue to quickly scoop up the bug and flush it down the toilet.
Her cell phone rang as Nellie was turning on the shower. She wrapped herself in a towel and hurried into the bedroom to grab her purse. Her phone wasn’t there, though; Nellie was forever misplacing it. She eventually dug it out of the folds of her comforter.
Caller ID showed a blocked number. A moment later a voice-mail alert appeared on her screen. She pressed a button to listen to it but only heard a faint, rhythmic sound. Breathing.
A telemarketer, she told herself as she tossed the phone back on the bed. No big deal. She was overreacting, as she sometimes did. She was just overwhelmed. After all, in the next few weeks, she’d pack up her apartment, move in with Richard, and hold a bouquet of white roses as she walked toward her new life. Change was unnerving, and she was facing a lot of it all at once.
Still, it was the third call in as many weeks.
She glanced at the front door. The steel dead bolt was engaged.
She headed to the bathroom, then turned back and picked up her cell phone, bringing it with her. She placed it on the edge of the sink, locked the door, then slung her towel over the rod and stepped into the shower. She jumped back as the too-cold spray hit her, then adjusted the knob and rubbed her hands over her arms.
Steam filled the small space, and she let the water course over the knots in her shoulders and down her back. She was changing her last name after the wedding. Maybe she’d change her phone number, too.
She’d slipped on a linen dress and was swiping mascara over her blond eyelashes—the only time she wore much makeup or nice clothes to work was for parent-teacher conferences and graduation day—when her cell phone vibrated, the noise loud and tinny against the porcelain sink. She flinched, and her mascara wand streaked upward, leaving a black mark near her eyebrow.
She looked down to see an incoming text from Richard:
Can’t wait to see you tonight, beautiful. Counting the minutes. I love you.
As she stared at her fiancé’s words, the breath that had seemed stuck in her chest all morning loosened. I love you, too, she texted back.
She’d tell him about the phone calls tonight. Richard would pour her a glass of wine and lift her feet up onto his lap while they talked. Maybe he’d find a way to trace the hidden number. She finished getting ready, then picked up her heavy shoulder bag and stepped out in the faint spring sunshine.
THE SHRIEK OF AUNT Charlotte’s teakettle awakens me. Weak sunlight sneaks through the slats of the blinds, casting faint stripes across my body as I lay curled in a fetal position. How can it be morning already? Even after months of sleeping alone in a twin—not the king I once shared with Richard—I still lie only on the left side. The sheets beside me are cool. I am making room for a ghost.
Morning is the worst time because, for a brief moment, my brain is clear. The reprieve is so cruel. I huddle under the patchwork quilt, feeling as if a heavy weight is pinning me here.
Richard is probably with my pretty young replacement right now, his navy-blue eyes fixed on her as his fingertips trace the curve of her cheek. Sometimes I can almost hear him saying the sweet things he used to whisper to me.
I adore you. I’m going to make you so happy. You are my world.
My heart throbs, each steady beat almost painful. Deep breaths, I remind myself. It doesn’t work. It never works.
When I’ve watched the woman Richard left me for, I’m always struck by how soft and innocent she is. So like me when Richard and I first met and he would cup my face between his palms, as gently as if it were a delicate flower he was afraid of damaging.
Even in those early, heady months, it sometimes seemed as if it—he—were a bit scripted. But it didn’t matter. Richard was caring, charismatic, and accomplished. I fell in love with him almost immediately. And I never doubted that he loved me, too.
He is finished with me now, though. I’ve moved out of our four-bedroom colonial home with its arched doorways and rich green sweep of lawn. Three of those bedrooms remained empty throughout our marriage, but the maid still cleaned them every week. I always found an excuse to leave the house when she opened those doors.
The wailing of an ambulance twelve stories below finally prompts me to get out of bed. I shower, then blow-dry my hair, noticing my roots are visible. I pull a box of Clairol Caramel Brown from under the sink to remind myself to touch them up tonight. Gone are the days when I paid—no, when Richard paid—hundreds of dollars for a cut and color.
I open the antique cherrywood armoire that Aunt Charlotte purchased at the GreenFlea Market and refurbished herself. I used to have a walk-in closet bigger than the room in which I now stand. Racks of dresses organized by color and season. Stacks of designer jeans in various states of distressed denim. A rainbow of cashmere lining one wall.
Those items never meant much to me. I usually just wore yoga pants and a cozy sweater. Like a reverse commuter, I changed into a more stylish ensemble shortly before Richard came home.
Now, though, I am grateful that when Richard asked me to leave our Westchester house, I took a few suitcases of my finer clothes. As a sales associate at Saks on the designer-label third floor, I depend on commissions, so it is vital I project an aspirational image. I stare at the dresses lined up in the armoire with an almost military precision and select a robin’s-egg-colored Chanel. One of the signature buttons is dented, and it hangs more loosely than the last time I wore it, a lifetime ago. I don’t need a scale to inform me I’ve lost too much weight; at five feet six, I have to take in even my size 4s.
I enter the kitchen, where Aunt Charlotte is eating Greek yogurt with fresh blueberries, and kiss her, the skin on her cheek feeling as soft as talcum powder.
“Vanessa. Sleep well?”
“Yes,” I lie.
She stands at her kitchen counter, barefoot and in her loose tai chi outfit, peering through her glasses as she scratches out a grocery list on the back of an old envelope between spoonfuls of her breakfast. For Aunt Charlotte, momentum is the key to emotional health. She’s always urging me to join her for a stroll through SoHo, or an art lecture at the Y, or a film at Lincoln Center … but I’ve learned activity doesn’t help me. After all, obsessive thoughts can follow you anywhere.
I nibble a piece of whole-grain toast and tuck an apple and a protein bar in my bag for lunch. I can tell Aunt Charlotte is relieved I’ve landed a job, and not just because it seems as if I am finally getting better. I’ve disrupted her lifestyle; normally she spends mornings in an extra bedroom that doubles as her art studio, spreading rich oils onto canvases, creating dreamy worlds that are so much more beautiful than the one we inhabit. But she’ll never complain. When I was a little girl and my mom needed what I thought of as her “lights-out days,” I’d call Aunt Charlotte, my mother’s older sister. All it took was the whispered words “She’s resting again,” and my aunt would appear, dropping her overnight bag on the floor and reaching out with paint-stained hands, folding me into an embrace that smelled of linseed oil and lavender. Without children of her own, she had the flexibility to design her own life. It was my great fortune that she put me at the center of it when I needed her most.
“Brie … pears…” Aunt Charlotte murmurs as she jots the items on her list, her handwriting full of loops and swirls. Her steel-gray hair is swept up in a messy bun, and the eclectic place setting before her—a cobalt-blue glass bowl, a chunky purple pottery mug, a silver spoon—looks like the inspiration for a still-life painting. Her three-bedroom apartment is expansive since Aunt Charlotte and my uncle Beau, who died years ago, bought in this neighborhood before real-estate prices skyrocketed, but it has the feel of a funky old farmhouse. The wood floors slope and creak, and every room is painted a different color—buttercup yellow, sapphire blue, mint green.
“Another salon tonight?” I ask, and she nods.
Since I’ve been living with her, I’ve been as likely to find a group of NYU freshmen as a New York Times art critic along with a few studio owners gathered in her living room. “Let me get the wine on my way home,” I offer. It is important that Aunt Charlotte not see me as a burden. She is all I have left.
I stir my coffee and wonder if Richard is making his new love coffee and bringing it back to bed, where she’s drowsy and warm under the fluffy down comforter we used to share. I see her lips curve into a smile as she lifts the covers for him. Richard and I would often make love in the morning. “No matter what happens during the rest of the day, at least we had this,” he used to say. My stomach tightens and I push away my toast. I glance down at my Cartier Tank watch, a gift from Richard for our fifth anniversary, and trace a fingertip over the smooth gold.
I can still feel him lifting my arm to slip it onto my wrist. Sometimes I’m certain I catch on my own clothes—even though they’ve been cleaned—a whiff of the citrus scent of the L’Occitane soap he washed himself with. He feels linked to me always, as close yet diaphanous as a shadow.
“I think it would be good for you to join us tonight.”
It takes a moment for me to reorient myself. “Maybe,” I say, knowing I won’t. Aunt Charlotte’s eyes are soft; she must realize I’m thinking about Richard. She isn’t privy to the real story of our marriage, though. She thinks he chased youth, casting me aside, following the pattern of so many men before him. She thinks I’m a victim; just another woman cut down by the approach of middle age.
The compassion would be erased from her expression if she knew of my role in our demise.
“I have to run,” I say. “But text me if you need anything else from the store.”
I secured my sales job only a month ago, and already I’ve been given two warnings about my tardiness. I need a better way to fall asleep; the pills my doctor prescribed leave me sluggish in the morning. I haven’t worked in almost a decade. If I lose this job, who else will hire me?
I sling my heavy bag over my shoulder with my nearly pristine Jimmy Choos peeking out of the top, lace up my battered Nikes, and put in my earbuds. I listen to psychology podcasts during my fifty-block walk to Saks; hearing about other people’s compulsions sometimes pulls me away from my own.
The muted sun that greeted me when I awoke tricked me into thinking it was warming up outside. I brace myself against the slap of a sharp late-spring wind, then begin the trek from the Upper West Side to Midtown Manhattan.
* * *
My first customer is an investment banker who introduces herself as Nancy. Her work is consuming, she explains, but her morning meeting was unexpectedly canceled. She’s petite, with wide-set eyes and a pixie cut, and her boyish frame makes fitting her a challenge. I’m glad for the distraction.
“I have to dress powerfully or they won’t take me seriously,” she says. “I mean, look at me. I still get carded!”
As I gently nudge her away from a structured gray pantsuit, I notice her fingernails are bitten to the quick. She sees where my gaze has landed and she tucks her hands into the pockets of her blazer. I wonder how long she’ll last in her job. Maybe she’ll find another one—something service oriented, perhaps, involving the environment or children’s rights—before the field breaks her spirit.
I reach for a pencil skirt and patterned silk blouse. “Maybe something brighter?” I suggest.
As we walk the floor, she chatters about the five-borough bike race that she’s hoping to compete in next month, despite her lack of training, and the blind date her colleague wants to set her up on. I pull more items, sneaking glances at her to better gauge her shape and skin tone.
Then I spot a stunning black-and-white floral Alexander McQueen knit and I stop walking. I lift a hand and run it gently down the fabric, my heart beginning to pound.
“That’s pretty,” Nancy says.
I close my eyes and remember an evening when I wore a dress nearly identical to this one.
Richard coming home with a big white box tied with a red bow. “Wear it tonight,” he’d said as I modeled it. “You look gorgeous.” We’d sipped champagne at the Alvin Ailey gala and laughed with his colleagues. His hand had rested on my lower back. “Forget dinner,” he’d whispered in my ear. “Let’s head home.”
“Are you okay?” Nancy asks.
“Fine,” I reply, but my throat threatens to close up around the words. “That dress isn’t right for you.”
Nancy looks surprised, and I realize my words came out too harshly.
“This one.” I reach for a classic tomato-red sheath.
I walk toward the fitting room, the garments weighing heavily in my arms. “I think we have enough to begin with.”
I hang the clothes on the rod lining one wall, trying to focus on the order in which I feel she should try them, beginning with a lilac jacket that will complement her olive skin. Jackets are the best place to start, I’ve learned, because a customer doesn’t need to get undressed to evaluate them.
I locate a pair of stockings and heels so she can better assess the skirts and dresses, then swap out a few 0s for 2s. In the end, Nancy chooses the jacket, two dresses—including the red one—and a navy suit. I call a fitter to hem the suit skirt and excuse myself, telling Nancy I’ll ring up her purchases.
Instead I’m drawn back to the black-and-white dress. Three are on the rack. I scoop them into my arms and take them to the stockroom, hiding them behind a row of damaged clothes.
I return with Nancy’s credit card and receipt by the time she is slipping into her work clothes.
“Thank you,” Nancy says. “I never would have picked these, but I’m actually excited to wear them.”
This is the part of my job I actually enjoy—making my customers feel good. Trying on clothes and spending money causes most women to question themselves: Do I look heavy? Do I deserve this? Is it me? I know those doubts well because I have been on the inside of the dressing room many times, trying to figure out who I should be.
I slip a hanging bag over Nancy’s new clothes and hand her the garments, and for a moment I wonder if Aunt Charlotte is right. If I keep moving forward, maybe my mind will eventually follow my body’s propulsion.
After Nancy leaves, I help a few more customers, then head back to the dressing rooms to restock unwanted items. As I smooth clothing on hangers, I overhear two women chatting in adjoining booths.
“Ugh, this Alaïa looks awful. I’m so bloated. I knew that waitress was lying when she said the soy sauce was low sodium.”
I recognize the Southern lilt immediately: Hillary Searles, the wife of George Searles, one of Richard’s colleagues. Hillary and I attended numerous dinner parties and business events over the years together. I have listened to her opine on public versus private schools, Atkins versus the Zone, and St. Barts versus the Amalfi Coast. I can’t bear to listen to her today.
“Yoo-hoo! Is there a salesgirl out there? We need some other sizes,” a voice calls.
A fitting-room door flies open and a woman emerges. She looks so much like Hillary, down to the matching ginger locks, that she can only be her sister. “Miss. Can you help us? Our other salesgirl seems to have completely vanished.”
Before I can answer, I see a flash of orange and the offending Alaïa is flung over the top of the fitting-room door. “Do you have this in a forty-two?”
If Hillary spends $3,100 on a dress, the commission is worth enduring the questions she’ll throw at me.
“Let me check,” I reply. “But Alaïa isn’t the most forgiving brand, no matter what you’ve eaten for lunch.… I can bring you a forty-four in case it runs small.”
“Your voice sounds so familiar.” Hillary peeks out, hiding her sodium-bloated body behind the door. She shrieks and it’s an effort to keep standing there as she gapes at me. “What are you doing here?”
Her sister chimes in, “Hill, who are you talking to?”
“Vanessa is an old friend. She’s married—uh, she used to be married—to one of George’s partners. Hang on a sec, girl! Let me just throw on some clothes.” When she reappears, she smothers me in a hug, simultaneously engulfing me in her floral perfume.
“You look different! What’s changed?” She puts her hands on her hips and I force myself to endure her scrutiny. “For starters, you little wench, you’ve gotten so thin. You would have no trouble wearing the Alaïa. So, you’re working here now?”
“I am. It’s good to see you—”
I’ve never been so thankful to be interrupted by the ring of a cell phone. “Hello,” Hillary trills. “What? A fever? Are you sure? Remember the last time when she tricked you by— Okay, okay. I’ll be there right away.” She turns to her sister. “That was the school nurse. She thinks Madison is sick. Honestly, they send a kid home if they so much as sniffle.”
She leans in to give me another hug and her diamond earring scrapes across my cheek. “Let’s make a lunch date and properly catch up. Call me!”
As Hillary and her sister click-clack off toward the elevator, I spot a platinum bangle on the chair in the dressing room. I scoop it up and hurry to catch Hillary. I’m about to call her name when I hear her voice wafting back toward me. “Poor thing,” she says to her sister, and I detect real pity in her tone. “He got the house, the cars, everything…”
“Really? She didn’t lawyer up?”
“She turned into a disaster.” Hillary shrugs.
It’s as if I’ve slammed into an invisible wall.
I watch as she recedes in the distance. When she presses the button to summon the elevator, I head back to clean her discarded silks and linens off the dressing-room floor. But first, I slip the platinum bracelet onto my wrist.
* * *
Shortly before our marriage ended, Richard and I hosted a cocktail party at our home. That was the last time I saw Hillary. The evening began on a stressful note when the caterers and their staff failed to show up on time. Richard was irritated—with them, with me for not booking them an hour earlier, with the situation—but he gamely stepped behind a makeshift bar in our living room, mixing martinis and gin and tonics, throwing back his head and laughing as one of his partners tipped him a twenty. I circulated among the guests, murmuring apologies for the inadequate wheel of Brie and triangle of sharp cheddar I’d set out, promising the real food would soon arrive.
“Honey? Can you grab a few bottles of the ’09 Raveneau from the cellar?” Richard had called to me from across the room. “I ordered a case last week. They’re on the middle shelf of the wine fridge.”
I’d frozen, feeling as if everyone’s eyes were on me. Hillary had been at the bar. It was probably she who’d requested that vintage; it was her favorite.
I remember moving in what felt like slow motion toward the basement, delaying the moment when I’d have to tell Richard, in front of all of his friends and business associates, what I already knew: There was no Raveneau in our cellar.
* * *
I pass the next hour or so waiting on a grandmother who requires a new outfit for the christening of her namesake and putting together a wardrobe for a woman who is taking a cruise to Alaska. My body feels like wet sand; the flicker of hope I’d experienced after helping Nancy has been extinguished.
This time, I see Hillary before I hear her voice.
She approaches as I’m hanging a skirt on a rack.
“Vanessa!” she calls. “I’m so glad you’re still here. Please tell me you found—”
Her sentence is severed as her eyes land on my wrist.
I quickly slip off the bangle. “I didn’t … I—I was worried about leaving it in the lost and found.… I figured you’d return for it, or I was going to call you.”
The shadow clears from Hillary’s eyes. She believes me. Or at least she wants to.
“Is your daughter all right?”
Hillary nods. “I think the little faker just wanted to skip math class.” She giggles and twists the heavy band of platinum onto her wrist. “You saved my life. George only gave it to me a week ago for my birthday. Can you imagine if I had to tell him I lost it? He’d divor—”
A flush blooms on her cheeks as she averts her eyes. Hillary was never unkind, I remember. Early on, she even used to make me laugh sometimes.
“How is George?”
“Busy, busy! You know how it is.”
Another tiny pause.
“Have you seen Richard lately?” I aim for a lighthearted tone, but I fail. My hunger for information about him is transparent.
“Oh, now and then.”
I wait, but it’s clear she doesn’t want to reveal more.
“Well! Did you want to try on that Alaïa?”
“I should get going. I’ll come back another time, darling.” But I sense Hillary won’t. What she sees before her—the dented button on the Chanel that is two years old, the hairstyle that could benefit from a professional blowout—is a vision Hillary desperately hopes isn’t contagious.
She gives me the briefest of hugs, then begins to leave. But she turns back.
“If it were me…” Her brow furrows; she is working through something. Making a decision. “Well, I guess I’d want to know.”
What is coming has the feel of an onrushing train.
“Richard is engaged.” Her voice seems to float toward me from a great distance away. “I’m sorry.… I just thought you might not have heard, and it seemed like…”
The roaring in my head suffocates the rest of her words. I nod and back away.
Richard is engaged. My husband is actually going to marry her.
I make it to a dressing room. I lean against a wall and slide down onto the floor, the carpet burning my thighs as my dress rides up. Then I drop my head into my hands and sob.
Copyright © 2017 by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen