Authors: Taylor Jenkins Reid
o, honey, what are your plans for your birthday? The big three-oh is coming up!” my mother says when I finally pick up the phone. Her voice is cheerful. My mother is always cheerful. My mother is the type of woman who rarely admits she’s unhappy, who thinks you can fool the whole world with a smile.
“Uh,” I say. Do I have a chance to prevent this calamity? I could tell her that I have plans, and then she might give up on this whole thing. But she’s already bought Charlie’s ticket. Uncle Fletcher is coming. “No, nothing. I’m free,” I say, somewhat resigned.
“Great! Why don’t you and Ryan come over, and I’ll make you dinner?” She says it as if the world’s problems have just been solved. My mom didn’t really make dinner when we were younger. There simply wasn’t time. Between working a full-time job as a real estate agent and doing her best to get the three of us to and from school and finished with our homework every night, we ordered a lot of pizzas. We had a lot of babysitters. We watched a lot of TV. It wasn’t because she didn’t love us. It was because you can’t be two places at once. If my mother could have solved that physical impossibility, she would have. But she couldn’t. So even though I know she’s not actually going to be making dinner, that this is all a ruse, the idea of a home-cooked meal by my mother sounds sort of nice. Not in a nostalgic way but rather in a novel way. Like if you saw a duck wearing pants.
“OK, sounds good,” I say. I know that this is my moment. I should mention that it will be just me. Here is my opportunity to start the conversation.
“Oh, I wanted to ask you,” my mom jumps in. “Would it be OK if I invited my boyfriend, Bill?”
Hearing my fifty-nine-year-old mother use the word
is jarring. We need a new word for two older people who are dating. Shouldn’t our vocabulary grow with the times? Who is taking care of this problem?
“Uh, no, that’s fine. I was going to say, actually, that Ryan won’t be joining us.”
“What?” My mother’s voice has become sharp where it was once carefree.
“Well, Ryan is—”
“You know what? Whatever works for you two works for me. I know I sometimes get greedy with wanting to see the two of you all the time.”
“Yeah,” I say. “And I know that Ryan—”
“I’m really eager for him to meet Bill, too,” my mom says. “When he gets the chance. I know you two are busy. But one of Bill’s boys is married to just this shrew of a woman, and I’ve been telling Bill about how I really hit the jackpot with Ryan. I guess it’s different, sons-in-law versus daughters-in-law, but Ryan is such a good addition to the family. It does make me worry, though. Who will Rachel choose? Or worse! Charlie. I swear, the boy’s probably got ten kids in six states, and we’d never know it. But you, my baby girl, you chose so well.”
This is one of the things my mother says to me most often. It is her way of complimenting both Ryan and me at the same time. When Ryan and I first got married, he used to tease me about it. “You chose so well!” he would say to me on the way home from her house. “So well, Lauren!”
“Yep,” I say. “Yeah.”
And in those two affirmative words, I dig myself deeper into the hole. I can’t tell her now. I can’t tell her ever.
“So what does Ryan have to do that is more important than his wife’s birthday?” my mom asks, it suddenly dawning on her that this situation I’m presenting is a bit odd.
“Huh?” I say, trying to buy myself time.
“I mean, how could he miss your birthday?”
“Right, no. He has to work. It’s a big project. Super important.”
“So you two are celebrating on another night?”
“Well, that’s great news for me!” she says, becoming delighted. “I get you all to myself. And you’ll get to meet Bill!”
“Yeah, I’m excited about that. I didn’t know you were dating anyone.”
“Oh,” my mom says. “You just wait. You will just die. He is so charming.” I can practically hear her blushing.
I laugh. “That’s great.”
“So me, you, and Bill, then?” my mom confirms.
“Well, how about Rachel?” I say. I don’t know why I’m playing this game. I know everyone on God’s green earth is going to be there.
“Sure,” my mom says. “That sounds lovely. My girls and my man.”
Ugh. My mom has no idea how she sounds when she says stuff like that. I mean, maybe she does know how she sounds, but she doesn’t know how she sounds to me. So gross.
“Let’s tone down the ‘my man’ stuff there,” I say, laughing.
She laughs, too. “Oh, Lauren,” she says. “Let loose a little!”
“I’m loose, Mom.”
“Well, get looser,” she says to me. “And let me sound ridiculous. I’m in love.”
“That’s awesome, Mom. I’m really happy for you.”
“Tell Ryan he has to meet Bill soon!”
“Will do, Mom. I love you.”
I put down the phone and drop my head into my hands.
I’m a liar, liar, liar. Pants on fire.
he next couple of weeks are hard. I don’t go out anywhere. I stay in bed, mostly. Thumper and I go on a lot of walks. Rachel calls me every night around six to ask me if I want to get dinner. Sometimes I say yes. Sometimes I say no. I don’t make plans with friends.
I watch a lot of television, especially at night. I find that leaving the TV on as I fall asleep makes it easier to forget that I’m alone in this house. It makes it easier to drift off. And then, when I wake up, it doesn’t feel quite so stark and dead in the morning if I’m accompanied by the sounds of morning television.
I wonder, constantly, about what Ryan is doing. Is he thinking of me? Does he miss me? What is he doing with his time? I wonder where he is living. Numerous times, I pick up the phone to text him. I think to myself that nothing bad can come from just letting him know I’m thinking about him. But I never send the text. He asked me not to. I’m not sure if never hitting send is a hopeful or cynical thing to do. I don’t know if I’m not talking to him because I believe in this time apart or if I think that a simple text won’t matter anyway. I don’t know.
I imagined that by the time a few weeks had passed, by the time Thumper and I had gotten into a rhythm with our new life, I would have made a few, some, any observations or realizations. But I don’t feel as if I know anything more now than I did before he left.
To be honest, I think I was hoping that Ryan would leave and I’d instantly realize that I couldn’t live without him, and he’d realize he couldn’t live without me, and we’d come running back to each other, each of us aching to be put back together. I imagined, in my wildest dreams, kissing in the rain. I imagined feeling how it felt when we were nineteen.
But I can see that it’s not going to be that easy. Change, at least in my life, is more often than not a slow and steady stream. It’s not an avalanche. It’s more of a snowball effect. I probably shouldn’t pontificate about my life using winter metaphors. I’ve only seen real snow three times.
All of this is to say that I have to be patient, I guess. And I can be patient. I can wait this out. Four and a half weeks done. Forty-seven and a half to go. Then maybe I will get my moment in the rain. Maybe then my husband will come running back to me, loving me the way he did when we were nineteen years old.
he night of my birthday, Rachel rings my doorbell promptly at six thirty.
“Well,” she says, stepping into the house. “Uncle Fletcher is staying on Mom’s couch. Grandma Lois apparently refused to crash at Mom’s and instead decided she’s staying at the Standard.”
“The Standard? The one in West Hollywood?” I ask. Rachel nods. The Standard is a very hip hotel on the Sunset Strip. It has clear plastic pods hanging from the ceiling instead of chairs. The pool is packed year-round with twenty-year-olds in expensive bathing suits and more expensive sunglasses. Behind the check-in desk is a large glass case built into the wall where they pay young models to lie there by themselves and have people stare at them. You heard me.
“What on earth is Grandma doing at the Standard?” I ask Rachel.
She can’t stop laughing. “Are you going to be ready to go soon?”
“Yeah,” I say, heading off to look for my shoes. I call to her from the bedroom. “But seriously, how did she end up there?”
“Apparently, a friend of Grandma’s just told her about Priceline,” Rachel says.
“Uh-huh,” I call to her as I look under my bed for the other sandal I’m missing.
“And she went to the Web site and clicked on an area of the map that looked like it was halfway between us and Mom’s.” Rachel lives close to me in Miracle Mile, and my mother, once we all moved out of the house and she could downsize, found a place in the hills. Grandma could have easily stayed with any of us. We’re always within a twenty-five-minute car ride if you take back roads. And we always take back roads. I’d go so far as to say that finding the most esoteric way to get from one place to another is our family’s biggest competition. As in “Oh, you took Laurel Canyon the whole way? It’s faster to cut through Mount Olympus.”
“OK,” I say. I found the sandal! I walk out to the living room.
“And then she said what she was willing to spend.”
“And she agreed to stay at whatever hotel would be that cheap.”
“OK, but the Standard is kind of expensive.”
“Well, she must have been willing to pay a lot. Because that’s where they put her.”
“She was expecting, like, a Hilton or something, right?”
“That is my guess.”
I start laughing hard. My grandmother is a fairly hip lady. She knows what’s what. But she has the most delightfully curmudgeonly attitude toward things she calls “farcical.” The last time I saw her, I told her about how Ryan and I order pizza using an app on our phones, and she said to me, “Sweetheart, that’s farcical. Pick up the darn phone.”
“She’s not gonna like the lady in the glass wall.”
“No, she is not,” Rachel says, laughing.
“OK, I’m ready. Let’s get this over with.” I open the front door for Rachel, and then I wave to Thumper as I go.
“Happy Birthday, by the way,” Rachel says to me as we head to her car.
“Did you get my birthday voice mail?” she asks me.
“Yep,” I say. “Voice mail, text, e-mail, and Facebook post.”
“I’m nothing if not thorough.”
“Thank you,” I say to her as we get into the car.
It felt good to be bombarded with her happy thoughts all day. I had e-mails from friends. Mila took me out for Thai food. Mom called. Charlie called. It was a good day. But my brain was focused almost exclusively on how Ryan did not call. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. It shouldn’t still be a surprise. He told me he wasn’t going to call. But it’s all I can think about. Each time my phone beeps or I get a new e-mail, I hope. Maybe he won’t be able to resist. Maybe he’ll have to call. Maybe he’ll want to hear my voice.
It doesn’t feel like a birthday without him. He was supposed to wake me up by saying, “Happy Birthday, Birthday Girl!” like he does every year. He was supposed to take me out to breakfast. He was supposed to send flowers to work. He was supposed to come to my office and take me out to lunch. He used to put so much effort into my birthday. Specifically because he knew I hated birthdays. I don’t like the pressure to have fun. I don’t like to get older. And so he would distract me all day with special presents and thoughtful ideas. One year, he sent me to work with eight birthday cards so I could read one for every hour I was there.
Ryan should be making me dinner tonight. He is supposed to make me Ryan’s Magic Shrimp Pasta, which is, from what I can tell, just shrimp scampi. But it always tastes great. And we only ever have it on my birthday. And he always makes it so that I will look forward to my birthday. Because I get to eat Ryan’s Magic Shrimp Pasta.
He was able to take me out of my own head. He was able to make me happier, to change me into a happier person. And where is he now?
It occurs to me, however, briefly, that maybe he’s there. Maybe he’s at the party. Maybe everyone knows but me. Maybe he’s waiting for me.
Rachel turns on the radio, in effect blaring my own thoughts out of my head. I’m thankful. When we get off the main road, Rachel turns the music down.
“This isn’t going to be that bad,” she says, when she pulls into my mother’s neighborhood.
“No, I know,” I say. “It will be sort of like watching bad improv comedy. It’s unbearable but entirely nonthreatening.”
“Right, and if it’s any consolation, everyone is here because they love you.”
Rachel pulls up in front of my mother’s house. She turns the wheels in and yanks the emergency brake. The streets are steep and full of potholes. You have to watch where you park and where you step. I look out my window at my mom’s place. My mother couldn’t throw a surprise party to save her life. I can already see the shape of Uncle Fletcher’s bald head through the living-room curtains.
“All right,” I say. “Here goes!”
Rachel and I walk to my mom’s front door and ring the doorbell. I guess that’s the code. Everyone quiets inside. I don’t know how many people are in her house, but it’s enough to make a big difference when they quiet down.
I hear my mom come to the door. She opens it and smiles at me. I don’t know why I was getting so sentimental in the car. Ryan hasn’t made me Ryan’s Magic Shrimp Pasta the past two birthdays. We got into a fight about whether the shrimp was fully cooked, and he hasn’t made it since.
Rachel and my mother look at me expectantly, and then it happens, louder and more aggressive than I could have ever imagined.
I was expecting it, and yet it shocks me. There are so many people. It’s overwhelming. There are so many eyes on me, so many people staring. And none of them, not one of them, is Ryan.
I start to cry. And somehow, maybe because I know I can’t cry, because it will just ruin everything if I cry, I stick my head up, and I smile, and the tears recede. And I say, “Oh, my God! I can’t believe this! I feel like the luckiest girl in the whole world!”
• • •
When the fanfare dies down, it gets easier to process. People stop looking at me. They turn toward each other and talk. I go over to the kitchen to get myself a drink. I am expecting perhaps wine and beer, but right in front of me, on the kitchen counter, is a punch bowl.
Charlie comes up behind me. “I spiked it,” he says. I turn around to look at him. He looks much the same as when I saw him a few months ago. He’s filled out since he was a teenager, grown out instead of up. He appears to have become lax about shaving, and his greasy hair implies he may have become lax about shampooing, too, but his ice-blue eyes shine brightly. It feels so nice to see my brother’s face in front of mine. I hug him.
“I’m so glad to see you,” I say. “If this weird party had to happen, I’m glad it at least brought you home.”
“Yeah,” Charlie says. “How are you doing?”
“I’m OK,” I say, nodding my head the way I do. It’s still uncomfortable to be the one in crisis. Charlie is normally in some sort of dramatic trouble. I’m supposed to listen to his problems. Not the other way around.
“OK,” he says. He seems content to let that be it. He may feel just as awkward being supportive as I do feeling supported.
“So how was the flight?” I ask.
Charlie opens the fridge and grabs another beer for himself. He doesn’t really look at me directly. “Fine,” he says, as he twists off the cap and snaps it directly into the trash. Sometimes I worry that he is too good at flinging bottle caps where he wants them to go. It’s something that requires practice, and I worry about how often he practices.
“You’re hiding something,” I say. I pull the ladle out of the punch bowl and put some punch in a clear plastic cup. I’m pretty sure my mom shopped for this party at Party City.
“No, nothing. The flight was good. Did you see the streamers in the dining room?”
“Are you kidding me?” I say, defeated. “Now I owe Rachel five bucks.” I take a sip of the punch. It’s strong. It’s absolutely dreadful. “Oh, my God, you actually spiked this.”
“Of course I did. That’s what I told you.” Charlie pushes his way through the doors of the kitchen and heads back into the living room. I take another sip, and it burns going down. But for some reason, I keep the drink in my hand, as a line of defense against the litany of questions I’m in for. And then I barge through the doors myself.
• • •
“So where is Ryan?” asks my mom’s best friend, Tina. I make up something about work.
Then my second cousin Martin chimes in with “How are things with you and Ryan?” I tell him they are fine.
There don’t seem to be many of my friends here. No one invited Mila, for instance. It’s just my mom’s friends and almost our entire family. I spend a half hour deflecting birthday wishes and questions about Ryan’s whereabouts as if they are bullets. But I know that Grandma Lois is the real person to fear. She has the most frightening question to ask me. If all of these well-wishers are evil mushrooms and turtles I must jump over and stomp on, Grandma is King Koopa, waiting for me at the end. What I find comforting about this analogy is that Rachel and Charlie are my Luigis. They will have to go through all of this on their own sometime in the future. Maybe they’ll do it differently from how I have, but most likely, the end will be the same.
Regardless, I figure I’d better get it all over with, so I go looking for Grandma. When I find her, she is sitting on the sofa by herself. I take an extra big gulp of punch before I sit down next to her. It stings on the way down.
“Hi, Grandma,” I say, hugging her. She can barely lift herself off the couch, so I do most of the work. It seems to me, when you get older, your body goes one of two ways: pleasantly plump or spritely skinny. My grandmother went pleasantly plump. Her face is round and gentle. Her eyes still twinkle. If it sounds like I’m describing Santa Claus, that’s because there is a bit of a resemblance. Her hair is wild and bright white. Her belly, however, does not shake when she laughs like a bowl full of jelly. And I think that’s an important distinction.
I sit down a bit too close to her, and the couch starts to sink in the middle. We’re both gravitating toward the center. But it seems rude to move over.
“Honey, move over,” Grandma says to me. “You’re dragging me down off the couch.”
“Oh, sorry, Grandma,” I say, as I slide to the middle. “How are you?”
“Well, the cancer’s coming back, but other than that, I’m fine.” My grandmother always has cancer. I don’t actually know what this means. She’s never really clear on it. She just says she has cancer, and then, when you ask her about it, she won’t pin down what type of cancer or whether she’s actually been diagnosed. It started after my grandfather died six years ago. At first, we would get up in arms every time she said it, but now we just let it go. It’s a weird family quirk that I don’t even notice until there’s another witness to it. A few Thanksgivings ago, we invited Ryan’s friend Shawn to join us, and as we all got into the car on the way home, Shawn said, “Your grandmother has cancer? Is she OK?” And I realized that it probably seemed absurd to him that she had announced she had cancer again and no one batted an eyelash. I get the distinct feeling she is hoping for cancer so that she can be with my grandfather.
“And things are good at home? With Uncle Fletcher?” I ask.
“Things are fine. I’m boring, Lauren. Stop asking about me. What I want to know is—” Here it comes. The moment I have been dreading. Here it comes. “When are you and that handsome grandson-in-law of mine going to give me a great-grandkid?”
“Well, you know how it is, Gram,” I say, sipping the punch to buy myself some time.
“No, honey, I don’t know how it is. You’re thirty years old. You don’t have all day.”
“I know,” I say.
“I’m not trying to be a pain. I just think, you know, I’m not going to be around forever, and I’d like to meet the bundle of joy before I go.”
Whether she has cancer or not, my grandmother is eighty-seven. She may not be around for many more years. It suddenly occurs to me that I am the only way she will ever meet a great-grandchild. Uncle Fletcher doesn’t have any kids. Rachel isn’t going to have one anytime soon. Charlie? Please. And because my marriage is a colossal failure, because I’m so disconnected from my own husband that I don’t even know where he lives, she may never get that chance. Me. I’m the reason she won’t meet the next generation. I could give that to her, if only I’d been good at being married, if only I’d succeeded.
“Well,” I say, drinking the last of the punch in my cup, “I’ll talk to Ryan.”
“You know, your grandfather said he wasn’t ready for kids.”
“Yeah?” I say, relieved that she is talking about anything other than me. “And how did that go?”
“What could he do?” my grandmother says. “It was time to have kids.”
“Just that simple, huh?”
“Yep.” Grandma pats my knee. “Things are a lot simpler than you kids make them out to be. Even your mother. Sometimes, I swear.”
“Mom seems to be doing OK,” I say. I look across the room and see her talking to an older gentleman. He’s tall and handsome in a silver fox sort of way. He’s looking at her as if she has a secret and he wants to know what it is. “That isn’t Bill, is it?”
Grandma squints. “I don’t have my glasses,” she says. “Is it a handsome man?”