Optimistically moving her family from suburban Dallas to Manhattan, Allison Brinkley finds New York unexpectedly bewildering, until an encounter with a famous pop star who has been cast in a Broadway musical provides her with a surprising opportunity.
*Starred Review* Allison Brinkley and her family uprooted their life in Dallas to move to New York City for her husband's job. With a tiny apartment with a kitchen barely equipped to make a meal, astronomically high tuition for their children, and a teaching job that basically ends before it begins, Allison is ready to call it quits. However, when she hits a parked car outside of her son's school, leaving her contact information for the absent owner changes the entire trajectory of what she thought she knew about life in the big city. Glitz and glam meet bullheaded, spoiled, drunk, high, and hormone-crazed teenage celebrity pop star in Poeppel's outstanding sophomore work (after Small Admissions, 2016). She drops Allison into the role of personal assistant to teen pop star Carter Reid, who has landed his first part on Broadway. The kicker: he will do anything to get out of his contract. It is Allison's job to clean up his act and get him to commit. A tribute to Broadway, teen celebrity life, and a mother who has now seen it all, this work is tough love at its finest and a great read for those wanting a ride on the wild side. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
OUR FIRST MORNING IN NEW York City, before anyone else in the family had shown signs of life, I was up, surveying the situation. In bare feet and pajamas, mug of coffee in hand, I stood in the open doorway of our new apartment, wondering if you even use a doormat in a carpeted hallway. When I heard a creak down the hall, I ducked back inside before a man heading out with a pug under one arm and a newspaper under the other could spot me in my sleepwear.
The left side of the small living room, opposite the north-facing windows that overlooked a beige brick building, was a wall of boxes. I found one that was especially well labeled (“**OPEN FIRST**”) and began unpacking towels, stuffed animals, lamps, school supplies, and toilet paper so we would have the essentials right from the start. Before going to bed the night before, I had unpacked the coffee maker, mugs, and cereal bowls. I had a hammer and nails handy so that I could hang pictures, along with a baggie of magnets to clutter up the refrigerator. The Jawbone speaker was on the kitchen counter, ready to play pop music to get my kids in a chipper mood for their first day as New Yorkers. Above all, I wanted everyone to feel at home, in spite of the upheaval. One needs a doormat, for example. Or so I thought. Standing in the living room that morning, with the doormat still rolled up, I had a suspicion that the universe was scoffing at me and my futile attempts to settle in. But I didn’t let that dampen my mood; I was finally getting the chance to live in Manhattan.
As soon as I heard voices coming from the kids’ rooms, I went old-school and turned on the Beastie Boys’ “Body Movin’.” But before we could get some action from the back section, the doorman called up with a noise complaint. The new refrigerator was wood-paneled and nonmagnetic, a barren expanse, and the box I’d carefully labeled “FRAGILE! WINEGLASSES!” made a sound like a package of Legos when I went to open it. Our furniture seemed confused and uneasy to be sitting thirteen stories in the air. I couldn’t shake the worry that it was all too heavy and eventually the floors would give way, sending couches, beds, book boxes, and the upright piano through the ceilings until finally all of our possessions landed in the lobby. Our cat, Jasper, was hiding in a closet behind our GE Spacemaker stacked washer/dryer, my children were cranky and nervous about starting school the next week, and my husband was stressed about his new job.
I took a deep breath and continued unpacking.
We had been living in New York for less than two weeks when we had our first, full-blown crisis. I didn’t know how to handle it and almost called my mother for advice, but I stopped myself; she was still mad at me for moving away. I called Sara instead, my one and only friend in the city. As someone who had lived in New York for years, she was, in my mind, an expert.
“Is this bad?” I asked her.
“Honestly, I wasn’t listening.”
I closed the door to my bedroom and spoke clearly. “The principal says Jack offered a girl in his class a dollar to see her vagina.”
“That seems like a low offer to me.”
“Not for a third grader.”
“He obviously hasn’t adjusted to Manhattan prices. Did he have a dollar?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. Why?”
“It speaks to intent. Maybe he was asking hypothetically.”
“But I’m asking—is this really bad? It’s only his first week at this school, so can they kick him out? And does this point to something seriously wrong with him? Like is my son a sexual deviant?”
“Whatever,” she said.
“No—that’s why the school is so mad. He’s old enough to know better. Do you think he hates women?”
“To the contrary,” Sara said. “So did she?”
“Unveil the vag?”
“No! And she’s very upset. Jack has to write an apology.”
“You’re blowing this way out of proportion.”
“It’s not me. The teacher asked him to write a letter. And she used the word ‘troubling.’ Like the act was a predictor of something worse to come. Like when young kids torture animals, it’s considered ‘troubling.’?”
“Asking for pussy and lighting a cat on fire are not the same thing,” Sara said bluntly. “He was probably testing limits. Or thinking entrepreneurially, like ‘How can I turn a single dollar to my advantage in this shit economy?’ That’s not troubling. That’s enterprising.”
What I found most troubling, infuriating, actually, was that the girl’s mother didn’t call me directly. Or tell me to my face. I had seen her each day at pickup since school started, surrounded by her many friends, and we’d been added to the school directory already. She could have talked to me so we could smooth things over privately. But instead she went over my head and ratted Jack out.
“A written apology—”
“Why should he apologize?” Sara asked. “No money changed hands, so technically it’s not even solicitation. It’ll blow over. A week from now you’ll be laughing about this. Did you start work yet?”
“Tomorrow,” I said. “What if he grows up to be a regular customer at a strip club? Where all the dancers know him by name.”
“You’re busy, I know. Sorry.”
“No, but my boss just came in, and I can’t wait to tell her about this.”
“No! Don’t . . . ,” I begged, but I could hear her saying, “Hey, so my friend’s male chauvinist piglet tried to pay for a peek of snatch . . . ,” as she hung up.
That’s the problem with Sara, other than being inappropriate and never available. She has no clue about discretion. Or about children. But she lives here, which makes her the only local friend I have. I need her.
I went back to the living room, past dozens of half-unpacked boxes, wondering how many people Brittney’s mother had already told. Had she destroyed our reputation before we’d ever had a chance to build one? Jack would have to throw himself at everyone’s mercy and hope for forgiveness. I wanted to shield him from further embarrassment, given what he would face at school the next day. As a teacher, I knew the staff would convene around the school secretary’s desk and have a laugh at Jack’s expense. And the only people who gossip more than teachers are elementary school children.
If this sort of misstep had happened back in Dallas, I would have met the moms for margaritas, and they would have made me feel better. Oh, Allison, we love Jack, bless his heart. I would have called up the girl’s mother to talk; Bygones, she would have reassured me. We were known there. No moms knew me here.
I considered calling Lilly who was supposed to be my local mom friend. In college she had repeatedly made the case that New York City was the best—no, the only place on earth to live and had always urged me to move there. And then she’d promptly abandoned the place the moment I decided to take her advice. I put my phone back down; I was still, perhaps unreasonably, smarting from our last phone call in the summer.
“It took only twenty years,” I had joked, “but I’m finally moving to New York!”
I waited for her exclamations of joy but heard nothing.
“Lilly? Bad connection?”
“Just bad timing, sweetie. We’re moving to Montclair. Like, we’re literally moving as we speak. I’ve got boxes all over the place.”
“What?” Lilly leaving New York? Impossible. “Very funny.”
“It was time,” she said flatly and yelled instructions to the moving men who were in her apartment.
“Why? Time for what?” I asked. Lilly had been selling me on New York since the day we’d met. She was the one who had taught me that if I knew the inner workings of Manhattan, I could see a Broadway play for only ten dollars. She was the one who proved to me that the subway was indeed the fastest way to get around the city and that runway models, such as the dozens she worked with at her mother’s agency, had acne in real life. “But you always said you could never imagine living anywhere else. That you loved the smell of concrete. That you were allergic to every other place on the—”
“I’ll still see you all the time,” she said. “I can hop on the train from New Jersey whenever I like. You, me, and Sara; we’ll grab drinks anytime. But I’ve had it with the noise, the schools, just the whole . . . I don’t know . . . scene. Montclair is amazing. You’ve got to come visit.”
Her desertion, at the moment I was arriving, felt like a personal betrayal, and I didn’t feel like calling her to commiserate over Jack’s school incident. She would probably just tell me to move to Montclair.
I checked the time; Charlotte would be heading home from cross-country practice at Van Cortlandt Park within the hour, and Michael would be getting out of the meeting he was holding with the entire staff at his firm. Meanwhile, Jack was in his room with the door closed, and my homesick fourteen-year-old was in hers. For some reason our new living room didn’t seem to function as a family room, so the kids often retreated to their corners, and it was quieter than I was used to. I admit, I was homesick, too.
Since Jack and Megan were doing homework, I settled in to do mine: I continued the hunt for the many people we would need in our lives: a dentist, a veterinarian, a piano teacher, and a pediatrician. A math tutor, a hairdresser, a dry cleaner, and a handyman.
Dallas had been such a mellow, comfortable place to live. The streets are broad, the winters are mild, the air-conditioning has oomph, and parking is plentiful. But truth be told, I had grown a bit restless there.
Moving to Texas had been easy. I was welcomed. Literally. Instantly. On our first day in the Dallas house, a decade ago, as I unpacked my doormat and took it outside to the front steps, my neighbor Natalie walked up with her tanned, blond, preteen daughter and a heaping plate of homemade snickerdoodles. The recipe, calling for two pounds of butter, was taped to the Saran Wrap. “In case you want to give it a try,” Natalie said.
We liked each other right off the bat. She became one of my walking friends, meeting me in our driveway twice a week at six thirty in the morning with her gooey-eyed cocker spaniel.
Over the years that our families lived side by side, Natalie’s daughter Carrie, a fan of football, fast cars, and country music, grew up to be a partier, so Natalie confiscated booze whenever she or the cleaning lady found any half-empty bottles under her canopy bed. “You in need of some cheap rum?” Natalie would ask me. “I found a handle in the backseat of Carrie’s car.” Carrie got a coveted spot on the cheerleading squad once she got to high school and wore her short flouncy skirt to school every Friday; Megan’s eyes would lock on those bouncy pom-poms and never blink, pupils turning into little cartoon hearts.
Charlotte, on the other hand, grew up to become decidedly antiparty and anticheerleader.
“What does it say about our society,” she ranted one night at my mom’s house for dinner, “when males get accolades for knocking each other down for sport and giving each other concussions with subsequent long-term brain damage, while the women dress up as sex symbols and chant inane rhymes in order to support some brutish, caveman rituals? Disgusting.”
“I like her,” Megan said.
“Popularity shouldn’t be based on sex appeal,” Charlotte said.
“She’s popular because she’s always sweet and nice to everyone. Unlike some people I know.”
“I’d say that you’re both one hundred percent right,” my mother interjected, playing her role of keeper of the sibling peace.
When I told Natalie that the firm had made Michael an offer for a major promotion as long as he agreed to move to the East Coast office, she got teary and said, “Oh, how awful!” She caught herself and suddenly hugged me, saying, “What I mean is, awful for me. But hey! New York City! How exciting!”
“Yes, it is,” I said. “I think it would be great.”
“I mean, I would never want to live in New York, not ever in a million years, but how thrilling for you!” She looked away for a moment, imagining perhaps feminist demonstrations and political marches, and said, “Come to think of it, I can picture Charlotte fitting right in there.”
My mother reacted to my news in a way that was far easier to interpret. “Have a nice life,” she said when I told her. Neither one of us took that comment seriously, but I was starting to wonder how long she planned to punish me.
“You’ve got so many close friends here, so many people who love you and Michael and the kids. I don’t see why you would want to throw that away,” she had said.
I wasn’t willing to admit to anyone that so far I wasn’t feeling the love in New York. I was starting to get the feeling that no one cared how I was doing. New Yorkers have a way of looking at you as if to say, “Let’s just see how long you last.” I was up for that challenge. Fine, I’ll show you, I thought.
Michael had initially been on the fence about moving to New York, even after I was all in. As soon as I’d landed a teaching job, I couldn’t be dissuaded by anyone. I got a perfect long-term sub position: I would be replacing an English teacher who’d abruptly decided to get married and was taking a one-year leave of absence to move to Boston with her husband-to-be. It was the perfect combination of serendipity and connections: a teacher friend of a friend had recommended me, and I took the job right away, knowing it might very well lead to a long-term position.
The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that an adventure and change would be good for all of us, while Michael continued to worry about uprooting the kids. We went out for dinner one night to make our decision, one way or the other.
“We’d be crazy to turn this opportunity down,” I said.
“Three kids and no backyard?”
“Who needs a backyard when we have Central Park, and our kids will never drink and drive.”
“I read that sixteen thousand pedestrians get hit by a car every month in New York. That’s more than five hundred a day.”
“You’ve been offered your dream job. It’s an honor; it’s what you’ve worked for your whole life.”
“But if it’s bad for the kids—”
“It’ll be great for the kids. When I was visiting New York in college, I remember looking at all the faces on the subway and thinking, ‘This is real life.’ Dallas isn’t real life.”
“It’s real to me,” Michael said, looking around the restaurant. He waved at someone across the room. I turned to see who it was and waved to the couple as well; I’d taught both of their children.
“But New York would be so much . . . realer. I have such a good feeling about it, like this is exactly what we need.”
“What do we need that we don’t already have? I’d miss the guys. Where am I going to play golf?”
“Lawyers in New York play golf somewhere.”
“What about Dorothy? Do you really expect your mom to move again because of us? We’ve all got a good thing going here. Why not stay put?” he asked.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I think it had to do with my urge to stir the pot, to keep things interesting, to stop aging. “Adventure,” I said, picking up my glass and swirling the wine in the bottom. “Stimulation. It’ll keep us young and edgy. It’s so sexy to live in a big city.”
Michael perked up. “Go on,” he said.
“At our age, we’re on the very brink of becoming frumpy and dull. Do you want that? Or do you want a new lease on life?”
“What did you mean by ‘sexy’?”
“It’s a turn-on, don’t you think? I picture a big night out, a party with interesting, smart, quirky people. High heels and a low-cut, hot wrap dress.” I touched my toe to his calf. Men were so easy.
“That sounds fun,” he said.
“It would be a jolt, in a good way. Invigorating.”
“Your cheeks are pink,” Michael said.
I felt it, too, my reaction to the prospect of change.
“But I don’t know,” Michael said, shaking off my fantasy. “Yanking Charlotte out of school before her senior year?”
“Every single college on Charlotte’s list is on the East Coast, so if we move to New York, we’ll be so much closer. She could come home for Thanksgiving or maybe even a weekend or two.”
“Yeah, that’s true, but—”
“Our kids,” I said with a confidence I was beginning to feel, “will become more interesting, independent, open-minded people.”
But here we were, a week-and-a-half in, and, so far, life in Manhattan was making one kid a pervert, one a depressive, and the other an asshole. Megan was lost and couldn’t get the hang of things academically. She wore her misery all over her body like an ugly outfit. Her skin had broken out, and her shoulders slumped inward until I thought they might touch in the middle. Even her hair was limp.
“Where’s that chipper face?” I’d ask.
She would shrug. “How should I know?”
Charlotte, meanwhile, was sulky and rude, which wasn’t entirely surprising given that she was seventeen, but she hadn’t so much as smiled once in the time we’d been here. She had been cautiously optimistic about the move when we first discussed it last spring, but bam!—did she ever go sour on the idea after she started dating her very first boyfriend. The timing was a bitch: She and Theo got together at the end of the school year and spent the summer falling in love. The goodbye scene with her robotics-club beau was tearful and tragic for both of them, and the only way we got her on the plane to LaGuardia was by promising a family trip back to Dallas over the winter break.
“You’ll see each other in four short months,” I said, handing her a tissue across the aisle. She gave me a mean look and blew her nose. By the time we landed, she added a new feature to express her anger and resentment: she went mute. She now huffed around and wouldn’t speak to us, even when we asked a direct question. “Who wants dim sum? Hellooo?” Nothing.
My mother was never one to be swayed by teenaged drama, but I knew perfectly well what she would say: I told you so.
I checked the time and realized I needed to give some thought to dinner. I looked up from my computer and into the kitchen. Our apartment wasn’t what I’d hoped. In Dallas I’d had a granite island, two sinks, a six-burner stainless-steel Viking, and a Sub-Zero. A wine refrigerator and a butler’s pantry.
“Why in God’s name would you abandon this glorious kitchen?” my mother had asked. “Trading this house for a New York apartment”— she pointed at me—“will in every conceivable way be like going from an Escalade to a Vespa.”
“Vespas happen to be extremely cool,” I said, “so now I know we’re doing the right thing.” It was the kind of logical fallacy a student would make in a losing argument.
“Well, don’t expect me to follow you this time. I’m not downgrading from my beautiful boxed garden to some Chia Pet on a windowsill.”
I figured that once Michael and I found a wonderful place to live, she’d change her mind. Unfortunately, the real estate broker assigned to us by the relocation company said that we should forget those tree-lined streets in the Village, and we couldn’t get into any of the uptown co-ops that were known as “A+” or even “A” buildings. We were too disconnected, he said, and our financials weren’t in line with what those co-op boards required.
“What do you mean?” Michael had asked.
“The kind of apartment you have in mind,” the broker had explained and then looked down at the notes he’d taken from the hour he’d spent on the phone with me, shaking his head, “four bedrooms, plus a study-slash-playroom-slash-guestroom, living room, dining room, we’re talking at least double the budget you set. Maybe more.”
Michael whistled. “That much?” he asked.
“It’s New York,” the broker said, as if that explained everything.
I nodded, agreeing with him completely.
“What?” Michael asked me. “This is absurd.”
“We’re moving to the capital of the world,” I said. “Of course, that comes at a price. It’s not all about hearth and home, you know.”
“It’s a little about hearth and home,” Michael argued.
“We’ll get a perfectly nice place,” I said. “We just have to be flexible.”
“Now that I think about it,” the broker said, “?‘B’ buildings aren’t really going to work for you either. Let’s forget all this co-op and brownstone talk. Let’s take a look at some nice, high-rise condo buildings. No application process, closer to your price range. Quick and easy. In fact,” he said, looking up at us suddenly, “have you considered renting?”
So we looked at Upper East Side and Upper West Side condos, all lacking in charm and personality. We finally found an apartment north and west of Columbus Circle on the thirteenth floor of a twenty-story building. It wasn’t one of those classic New York prewar architectural wonders like I’d seen in so many movies. And it wasn’t like the brownstone Lilly had lived in when I’d gone home with her during college. It was built in 1983. Boring, boring, Marriott-like. It had no views to speak of, but if I leaned out the living room window and craned my neck to the right, I could catch a tiny sliver of Central Park. It had a slightly depressing vibe; our lobby felt like a doctor’s office. And Jack’s “bedroom” was eight feet by ten feet. It held a twin bed, a tiny desk, and that was it; his clothes were in a closet in the hallway.
Worst of all: the girls had to share a room. Charlotte heard that news, and her attitude about the move swung from heartbroken about leaving her new boyfriend to disgusted by her terrible parents. From slightly apprehensive to utterly horrified.
“We can’t share a room,” she’d said.
“Sure you can,” Michael said.
I nodded. “It’ll be like a slumber party every night of the week!”
Charlotte actually stomped her foot. “If New York is so absurdly expensive,” she’d asked, “then why are we even moving?”
“Because it’s New York,” I said. “We’re going to love it.”
“And no one, I mean no one, moves for their senior year in high school.”
“I’m sure someone has,” Michael said, “somewhere.” He looked at me.
“Name one,” Charlotte said. “My college counselor says this is the dumbest thing ever.”
“That’s not what she said,” I reminded her. “She said it’s unusual, but that you can spin it to your advantage with the right attitude. You can write your essay about how swimmingly you handled change.”
“Why can’t you guys just wait and move next year?”
“I told you. Dad’s promotion—”
“Well, I want to stay here,” she said, “and live with Gram.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You mean with Theo?”
“No way,” Michael said.
“All I’m saying,” Charlotte said, “is that we should leave the option on the table in case I don’t get into a decent high school.”
Call me naive, but I wasn’t too worried about schools.
Jack was easy: he got a spot at the neighborhood public school. It was a short walk from our apartment and known to be excellent, according to every online forum I consulted.
The situation for the girls was totally different. The deadlines for the public middle and high schools had passed, so we had to go private or face having them placed randomly in whatever schools happened to have room for them. So we started the off-season private school application process, and they promptly got rejected by seven schools. Only one place took them: a brand-new, shiny, for-profit school called Orbis Academy, not far from Gramercy Park, a school that had branches—actual franchises—in other cities in the world.
“Well, isn’t that just fucking fabulous,” Charlotte had remarked when the email acceptance came. “Megan and I will be attending the McDonald’s of private school education.”
“Don’t say fucking,” I said. “And it’s only for a year.”
Orbis was bright and beautiful, and the science facilities, even Charlotte had to admit, were state-of-the-art, but getting there from the new apartment involved a lengthy subway commute. Charlotte did a search on Google Maps and announced that she hated me. “This is seriously going to suck,” she said. “Please can I just stay here with Gram and graduate with my class?”
It was out of the question, of course, and by that time, the momentum was unstoppable: I’d accepted my new job, put the house on the market, and paid the tuition at Orbis.
I saw something moving in the corner of the living room and spotted fat, old, matted Jasper, who had finally ventured out from behind the washing machine after a week of hiding, and was now slinking around behind the couch. I went to pat him, and he jumped out of a half-empty box of books and rubbed up against my leg. I was relieved by this first show of affection since we’d moved and stroked the top of his head. “Hey there, Jasper, you like it here?” I asked, rubbing his ears.
He hissed at me and clawed my hand.
“Oww, you little shit!” I hissed back. Apartment living, with our thin walls and floors, was teaching me to mind my volume, so I kept my cursing level permanently set to low.
I ran my hand under the kitchen faucet, wrapped a paper towel around the scratch, and then texted Charlotte to get her ETA. The message didn’t deliver, which I hoped meant that she was on the subway. I decided to treat myself to a glass of wine, to toast what had been a rather difficult day: my offspring had risked expulsion, my hand was bleeding, and I had a growing sense of doom that was killing my New York buzz. Above all, I wanted to raise a glass to my final evening of summer vacation, the last night before I would be back in the classroom teaching full-time again, plunged into the day-to-day work that would consume me for the entire academic year.
Since my wineglasses had shattered into tiny crumbs of stemware in the move, I filled up a coffee mug with red wine and started cooking dinner. I opened the little kitchen cabinet that held the small amount of food I’d bought and took out a box of pasta and a jar of sauce. From a box in the hallway, I found the large spaghetti pot and a pan for garlic and ground beef. I took out the red pepper flakes, the salt, and the olive oil. In these few small acts, I had used up every square inch of the counter space in the kitchen. I realized that with an arm outstretched I could touch the counters on all sides without taking a step.
Cooking suddenly seemed too hard. The oak cabinets felt weighty and out-of-date. I couldn’t remember where I’d packed the colander and hated the idea of cleaning up the mess I was about to make.
“Maybe we’ve made a mistake,” I said to Jasper.
Doing domestic chores wasn’t the way I wanted to spend my last evening before my school year started, so I went back to my laptop and ordered Chinese. While I waited for the takeout to arrive, I called my former neighbor Natalie and left a message. And then I remembered: tonight was book club. They were all going to—whose house was it this month? Sue’s?—to drink Chardonnay and talk about novels, their husbands and exes, their jobs, their kids, or whatever TV show everyone was hooked on. I sent a group text message to the girls: Miss you lovely ladies! I added a frowny face, deleted it, and added a smiley face instead.
The front door opened, and I heard Michael calling my name before he’d even come inside.
“Hey,” I said. “How was—?”
“Guess what happened?” He was flushed and breathless, briefcase in hand, suit jacket over his arm. He looked at me expectantly, actually waiting for me to guess.
“Umm . . .” I threw my hands up randomly. “You got us theater tickets to Hamilton?”
“No, but I like your thinking. Guess again.”
“You’re the employee of the month.”
“I just got interviewed”—he paused—“by Humans of New York. Where are the kids? I want to tell them everything.”
“They’re doing homework, but Charlotte’s not back yet. I have news, too. Here,” I said and got another mug from the kitchen. “Have some wine. You’ll need it.”
“I’ll tell you after you’ve finished it.”
“I hope it’s not that bad,” he said, “because I’ve had such a fantastic day.”
I felt a twinge of jealously, thinking of him working side by side with the beautiful lawyer who’d followed him from Dallas to Manhattan. I’d confronted him already, and we regularly went round and round about her.
“Oh, great. So you and Cassandra had a fun time together?”
Michael smiled at me and shook his head.
“What?” I said. I narrowed my eyes at him. “I know what I know.”
“Is that like ‘It is what it is’?”
“Don’t mock me.”
He kissed the top of my head. “For the one hundredth time, I’m not sleeping with Cassandra. I’m not attracted to Cassandra.”
“Who the hell has a name like Cassandra anyway?” I asked. “She’s just calling attention to herself with a name like that. And why do you always pronounce it like that—Cass-ahn-dra? Why not Cassandra, like a normal person?”
“You say tomato—”
“And you know perfectly well I have proof of . . . something.”
“It’s flimsy. It’s not even about anything. Any judge worth his salt would throw you out of court.”
My proof: Michael brought her along from the Dallas office as part of his “team,” and then she’d posted on Facebook: “Check out my hot NYC pad!” and tagged Michael in the picture of her new bedroom. It was disgusting.
“And besides,” Michael said, “I’ve got counterevidence now: she apparently got a serious boyfriend who’s into mixed martial arts. I even saw a picture; he looks like John Cena.”
I turned this new piece of information over in my mind. “Did John Cena move here with her?” I asked.
“Not yet, but—”
“Ah-ha,” I said. “See?”
“See what? When are you going to come check out my new office? And let’s go out for dinner this weekend. Have you noticed how many terrific restaurants there are in our neighborhood? I’ve been bookmarking the heck out of Yelp.”
“Food is expensive here,” I said. “I bought a gallon of milk today for seven dollars.”
“We can afford dinner.”
“Maybe. But you can’t afford me and a mistress, that’s all I’m saying.”
He clapped his hands together. “I’m a bona fide Human of New York! Can you believe it? I wonder if I’ll make it into a book.”
I decided not to tell him about Jack quite yet. Why ruin his mood?
“I’m going to change into jeans. Want to take a walk later?” he asked and went back to our room.
I heard Charlotte’s key in the door and sighed with relief. She didn’t say anything or even look at me as she came in, but I thought for a second—incorrectly, as it turned out—that she’d smiled as she dropped her bags and kicked off her shoes.
“Everyone’s home,” I called out to Megan and Jack.
Jack came into the living room, looking sulky and tired, followed by Megan, who looked unhappy and frustrated. She was holding a paperback of Romeo and Juliet. For once it would be nice to see my children not completely miserable at the same time.
“Ah! Here we are,” I said, forcing myself to keep up my good spirits in the face of gloom. “The band’s back together!”
“What’s for dinner?” Jack asked.
“Chinese,” I told him. “It’s on the way.”
“Did you get dumplings?”
“How was school?” I asked Charlotte.
She pulled off her baseball cap; her hair was in a messy braid down her back. “Awful.”
“Awful how?” I should have left well enough alone.
She didn’t answer. I started to ask if she’d heard from Theo, but I thought I’d better not bring him up, lest she burst into tears.
“Were your classes okay?” I asked instead.
“How was running?”
She rolled her eyes and took off her socks.
“Was it fun? Honey? What’d you do?”
“I ran. Duh.”
“Do you like the coach?”
She turned her back on me and pulled out the elastic holding the bottom of her braid.
She sighed like she couldn’t believe anyone could be so irritating.
“I am,” Megan said. “When’s dinner?” She had showered and changed into pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. She was standing with the weight on her heels, her toenails wet with pink polish.
“I ordered about twenty minutes ago.”
“I hate the subway,” Charlotte said on her way to her room. “I’m covered in Ebola. It fucking sucks here!”
Three sentences? This was progress! I made a quick calculation with my fingers. “That was a haiku, Charlotte!” I called after her. “Like an ode to Manhattan.”
“Leave me alone!” she yelled. “And nobody bug me while I’m facetiming Theo,” and she slammed the bedroom door.
“She seems pretty good,” I said to Jack and Megan. We heard music turn on.
“She’s turning into a serious bitch,” Megan said. “I don’t even like her anymore.”
“Don’t call your sister a bitch.”
“Well, it’s true. And you don’t like her, either,” Megan said.
“Your dad’s home,” I said in order to change the subject, “and he says he just got interviewed by the Humans of New York guy.”
“Wait, what? For real?!” Megan said and ran on her heels to find him in our room.
Jack kicked the side of the couch.
“Five-seven-five,” I said.
“A haiku. Do you have homework?” I asked.
“My teacher hates me. She looks like she’s mad at me all the time.”
“Like she scowls at you?”
Jack made a face to show me.
“I’m sure she likes you just fine.” How to broach the subject? I lowered my voice. “So about what happened today . . .”
“I wrote the letter already.”
“Oh. Shouldn’t we talk about it first?”
“I don’t feel good. Can I stay home tomorrow?”
“Nope,” was all I said. I had a very high bar for my kids when it came to missing school, like fever or uncontrolled bleeding. “Is your homework done?”
“I have to do a reading response in my journal.”
“Can I see the apology you wrote?”
“Really, I think I should take a look.”
So’s her hooha, I thought, and that didn’t stop you. “I feel like I should help make sure the tone is right.”
“The only help I need is getting some food in my face.” He walked to his room and slammed the door. It was a wonder any of our doors were still on their hinges.
I went to pick up Charlotte’s backpack off the floor and saw her physics test sticking out of the top. I stopped short of pulling it out all the way to find out how she did; it felt like something that would get me into trouble, but peering in, I could see “13” scrawled on the top. Thirteen? Thirteen? How does a straight-A student even get a thirteen on a test? I heard the buzzer, dropped the backpack on top of a box marked “KITCHEN—random,” and opened the door to meet the Chinese food delivery guy. Jesus. Is she going to have to rethink her college list? How could she go from As all the way to Fs? From ninety-eights to thirteens? And why thirteen? I’m not superstitious, but that seemed like a bad omen.