An excerpt from Between you And Me
by Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus
“Okay, we’re coming up on our final hill.” Sandra, my instructor, puffs into her microphone, reaching out from her bike to dim the spin room’s lights even further. “I know it’s crazy cold out there, folks.” She takes a jagged breath as she prepares to urge us on. “I know the sun’s not even up yet. But you are. And you’re here. And you’re going to make it-harder. Let’s make it harder! Give me a full turn to the right in . . . five, four, three, two, one . . . go, go, go!”
This was a huge mistake.
Reluctantly, I turn the dial and bear down with my heels, trying to shift the work to my hamstrings, trying to pull my focus up-up from the sizzling pain in my legs. But it goes to my eyebrows, behind which is a dull throbbing with a pointy wake, like a wine with full top notes and an acidic finish. Fucking bourbon. Fucking Jeff. I tug my towel off the handlebars, swiping my forehead to keep the sweat from stinging my eyes. How many drinks did I even have? One right when I got to the bar. One when he texted he was running late. One when he said he was getting on the subway. And one when I finally decided the subway ate him.
I grab my New York Sports Club water bottle, squeeze another Emergen-C-laced stream into my mouth, my eyes darting to my dark phone tauntingly resting above the resistance dial. Nothing-no word. I thought for sure he’d call around two with some implausible-slash-charming excuse. Or cut straight to leaning on my doorbell.
“And get ready to stand in . . . four, three, two-come on, up, up, up!”
I heave myself erect and immediately feel like cayenne pepper’s been dropped into my airways. I gasp, trying to focus on exhaling to clear the carbon and acid.
“We’re gonna hold it here. Just hold it here. Find the pace, find the rhythm, one, two, one, two.” She exhorts us to speed up. Or maybe just me. Maybe everyone else feels like they’re getting their hair shampooed. I glance around, taking in the expressions of agony and determination.
“I want you to give your all. Don’t hold back!” she shouts at us. “I want you to push yourselves to exhaustion!” As if I’m going home to sleep after this. As if this isn’t just the first in a long series of things I have to accomplish before I can crawl into bed tonight. The quarterly report, the teleconference with the Houston office, the projection spreadsheet, the second teleconference to recap the first. And dammit, finding five minutes to fix the smudge on my thumb because I ran to the bar instead of waiting for the polish todry. Why didn’t I just buy the bottle at the salon? Whatever. But not whatever if Jeff ‘s coming tonight. He has to come tonight.
Not coming to my party would be-he’s coming. I’ll just move my one o’clock back and grab a polish fix instead of lunch. My Power Bar backs into my throat. Probably expired. Fucking crazy
Charlotte and her crazy fucking stale Power Bars. How my roommate can spend half her time carrying around that ratty Tiffany’s catalogue with the corners turned down, plotting her next purchase, and the other half at the dollar store buying translucent toilet paper I will never-I’d much rather use Charmin and eschew shopping in Midtown.
“Okay, guys, almost done. We’ve just got a last hill and then a one minute sprint to the finish.”
You’ve got to be kidding me. Seriously, I am going to puke expired Power Bar right over the handlebars. My legs are burning, my lungs are burning, my arms are going wobbly, I can’t, I can’t-
“Okay, guys, let’s see some joy!” Sandra adjusts the dial on her iPod. Two beats in, I sense everyone perk up. Kelsey Wade detonates out of the speakers, and heads begin to bob, set mouths murmur lyrics, legs speed up. “I’m unstoppable, unbreakable, unbendable. When you
look at me my heart stops-unmendable.” I’m not thinking about my throbbing brow or my screaming shins or even Jeff Stone. Around me, women’s wheels whir as their thought bubbles inflate with ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands, ex-bosses . . .
Sandra presses her microphone right to her lips. “What do you have left?” She lets the question hang, looking meaningfully at all of us before screaming, “Don’t hold anything back!” Her voice reverberates over Kelsey’s, echoing the essence of the song. “Give it all!”
And we do. I turn the resistance dial farther, digging deep, letting the adrenaline carry me, the lyrics, the beat. “Can you do it? Can you?” We don’t know, but we’re trying, we’re trying, we’re trying-
“And . . . done,” Sandra says on the last beat. “Spin out your legs.” She scrolls to Kelsey’s latest ballad, and we all sit back, smile wearily at one another, and chug our water. My silenced phone lights up. Not Jeff. Los Angeles area code. I guarantee no one else is listening to this song and getting a call from this number right now.
“Okay, bring your bike to a complete stop, and let’s stretch.” No sooner does that call go to voicemail than my parents’ number sets the phone vibrating again. I hit ignore. We finish cooling down, and I unlock my shoes and dismount, grabbing my bottle and towel. I hit play on the second message. “Happy birthday to you,” my mother sings. “Happy birthday, dear Logan . . .” I can picture her, an inveterate early riser, sitting with her finger poking through the coiled cord of the ancient beige phone she refuses to replace. “Twenty-seven,” she adds after the song. “I cannot believe it. How did you get so old?” She laughs awkwardly. “I’m going to Babies R Us today-Helen’s daughter’s having her third,” she can’t help telling me, and I immediately feel bad. Bad that I’m not currently giving her grandchildren and bad that she can’t be more accepting of the life I’m building, one that will get me there eventually. God-and maybe Jeff-willing. “Anyway, call me when you get some free time.” She always says this. As if my bon-bon window is coming up in a few hours. “Tonight I’m helping out at the church, but I’ll be home by eight if you’re home.” On my birthday? “ ‘Bye!”
Sandra notices the contraband phone at my ear and raises an eyebrow before ripping open the Velcro on her shoes. “It’s my birthday,” I explain. “I was using the wishes to keep me going.”
“Happy birthday! How old?”
“I’m heading into my night-cream years.”
She smiles as we both make our way to the door. “You looked fierce today.”
My eyes widen, and I laugh. “Oh, my God, Sandra, I was dy-ing. Dying. Like carry-me-out-on-a-stretcher dying.”
“Well, Wade.” She shrugs. “No one could tell.”
Skipping lunch continues my totally-wrong-call streak marking this auspicious day. How could I have known that my boss would forget to book a room for the teleconference, leaving our team of financial analysts to meet in the one with the relentless heater, which brings out the carpet’s Christmas-parties-of-yore aroma? That getting out of there for everyone would hinge on my having to prematurely share the spreadsheet I’m generating? Which, after tearing my bag down to the lining, I decided had evaporated, forcing everyone to sit there for an hour while I pulled the numbers out of my ass. An hour that I had fantasized would involve a bubble bath, Florence and the Machine, and leisurely applied four-step eyes, an hour in which I could conjure a little sparkle, a little romance. Instead, I shove my down-clad hip against our front door in a panic, to find Charlotte lounging on the living-room floor of our lower Second Avenue high-rise apartment. She peruses Bluefly while she waits for her arm hair to lighten beneath smears of cream bleach.
“Anything good?” I ask by way of greeting as I drop my straining bag on the little glass-topped dining table and roll my cramping shoulder. She readjusts her robe to cover the boobs her ex gave her. “I can’t decide if I want this Marc Jacobs hobo. I don’t like the color, but it does have his name on it.”
“What about his face?” I hastily unzip my coat and drop it over the Ikea dining chair that’s starting to tilt aggressively.
“What do you mean?”
I kick off my boots. “A big jpeg of his face silk-screened on the side. Or his armpit from the cologne ad? What about that giant hairy armpit, and you could paint ‘M.J.’ over it with nail polish? Did you find the screwdriver? We should fix this chair.”
“Why are you home? I was just about to come meet you.”
“I can tell.” I rush past her half-naked figure to my room, the only space in the apartment that was too small to subdivide. I always pictured myself in a brownstone walk-up in the village, a place with character, not a box whose charmlessness I’ve overcompensated for with a proliferation of Pier 1 pillows. “Jeff hasn’t replied to the Evite yet, but he checked it at seven, which means he was confirming the location, so I need the red dress.” I swipe it from the floor where I dropped it last night in a fit of horny inebriated frustration.
“I don’t understand your relationship with that dress,” she calls.
“Char, any chance you can vacuum while your bleach bleaches?”
I bite my tongue about it being her month to clean, because I don’t have time for yet another Dust Bowl dustup. I unzip my pants and toss them into the spot the dress was keeping warm. “That’s because you’re a blonde.” Since the ex. “You’d look good in a suit made
of Swiffers. This dress never fails.”
“It failed last night.”
“No,” I correct her, carefully rolling up my stockings. “He never saw it. The rules set forth by the Intergalactic Alliance for Getting Laid say that his eyeballs must connect with the color waves.” I shimmy into it and then peer into the smudged jewelry- box mirror over my dresser to twist up my brown hair. I wonder if it’s age or fatigue that has hollowed my cheekbones, made me look more like my father than I did a year ago, the same wariness to the eyes, although his are the Wade blue. “Never. Fails.” I refresh my blush and smudge some liner, a look my mother endearingly terms nightwalker.
“I’m getting the bag.” I hear her pound the laptop definitively. “Oh, Sarah and Lauren texted. They’re both running late, but they promise they’ll try to be there,” she says in a way that suggests they really called to lower my expectations. I feel that little twist, that ouch. “Why are we meeting all the way in Midtown again?”
“Because it’s elegant, it’s Gershwin, it’s New York! Charlotte, where are my silk heels?” I call from the bottom of my closet.
“Out here. They’ll get ruined in the salt.”
“Then what are they doing out there?”
“I was going to borrow them.”
I slip-slide on the scuffed parquet to spot them sitting by to her room.
“Now what am I going to wear?” she asks petulantly.
“You have a wall of shoeboxes.”
“But I don’t like any of them.”
“I need to drop you on a desert island with the stuff you already own, romantic-comedy-style, so you can go through an adventure with your stuff and come out remembering what you loved about your stuff in the first place.” She just looks at me as if she’d mistakenly pressed the SAP button on the remote. “Okay, well, let’s do the wall this weekend, for real” I shove my arms into my wool coat that is not in any way warm but won’t make me look as if I’m trying to skip a
few steps by wearing my mattress to the bar. “The paint and sandpaper are just sitting in the closet. I don’t think I’ll have to work Saturday. Let’s do it.” I transfer my keys, lip gloss, condoms, and wallet to my clutch. “We can get some wine, order in . . .”
“Okay.” She shrugs, typing her credit-card number. But we both know we won’t. Sarah brought me into the apartment share with Rachel, who worked and split the second bedroom with Lauren, who went to school with Charlotte, a chain of friendship strung out like paper dolls. But the links are gone-engaged, enrolled, enticed away. “Oh, answering machine.” She points to the blinking light of our land line. This is the one other connection we share, Midwestern parents who hate us living in New York and want to know they can reach us, even in case of blackouts, terrorists, or the Rapture.
“My mom?” I ask.
‘No. It was Kelsey’s assistant.” She taps her fingers together eagerly, as she does on the rare occasions when my life brushes contact with my famous cousin’s.
“Delia,” I say, referring to Kelsey’s and my other cousin, with whom I share a birthday.
Charlotte nods as I realize I never listened to my first voice mail from this morning. “I think she said they’re in L.A. I wasn’t really listening,” she lies. “Maybe Kelsey will call you one of these years.” Charlotte rolls over, as if getting a tan from the eighties light fixture. “Then we could sell the answering machine. You had to get left behind.” She resmears her flaking bleach.
“Kelsey e-mails me.” It’s my turn to lie. When I was little, I always felt my mom and Delia’s combining our parties stole my thunder, but now this annual exchange of good wishes is my one remaining link to Kelsey, however superficial. “I’ll listen when I get back. How do I
She appraises me from where she lounges. “Annoyingly hot for three minutes of effort.”
“Perfect. See you there.”
I keep my phone within earshot until the bar gets too packed, then make sure I can catch it lighting up with the eye I don’t have set on the door. As my other friends and colleagues arrive to toast me-or put overpriced drinks on my tab-I nurse my sidecar through a straw to keep my gloss perfect until he gets here. I don’t slouch, eat a Marcona almond, or excuse myself to pee. Halfway through my second drink, the headache I’ve been only a mouthful of water ahead of all
“Happy birthday!” Lauren tugs Marshall through the suited crowd that new way that she has, hands twisted up by her shoulder, ring facing out. I pull her into a hug, smelling her Pantene and missing those nights pre-Marshall when we’d both get home from work well past midnight and commiserate over a carton of frozen yogurt in the dark galley kitchen.
“Can we buy you a drink?” she offers, and Marshall shoots her the look of a squirrel whose nut’s just been hijacked.
“My usual, thanks.” I’m tempted to ask for something aged to annoy him further, but I know he’ll grab me a well drink anyway.
“These banker bars have you over a chair. I’m getting juice,” he announces, and huffs away.
Lauren smiles after him and then reflexively at her ring, which is surprisingly large, but apparently his mother shamed him into it.
“You are fabulous,” Lauren says, trying to pull a few inches away to look me over. “The red dress. Who’s coming?”
“Logan!” she exclaims as I resume my door vigil. He has to come, he just has to. “I thought you were done with him.”
“No, I told him to go fuck himself after the Labor Day weekend house-share debacle, but two weeks ago, he sent me flowers at work. Out of the blue. Peonies. In January. Like, thirty of them.”
“Which you threw in the trash,” she says sternly.
“Which I wore in my hair when I had sex with him a few hours later. Okay, and that’s a lot of opinion from-” Future Mrs. Squirrel. “You.”
“He’s never taken you to meet his parents.” She invokes the smugly judgmental tone of the newly engaged, as if we’re here to discuss my report card. “You’ve never even met his sister, and she lives in the city!” She brings up the source of breakup number three of I’ve-lost-count.
“I just don’t understand why you keep giving him more chances.”
“Because I want to go to brunch with someone. And Jeff and I have this . . . thing. He’s gotta grow up sometime.” I flex my palms to the ceiling, knowing I’m leaving out that, despite the constant emails, texts, and IMs, we haven’t seen each other since the peonies.
The same ballad from the cool-down at the gym comes on and I imagine Kelsey has a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. “Standing, reaching, calling, dreaming to get there-to get there.”
“One whiskey soda, a red wine.” Marshall slides our drinks in front of us. “And my juice.” He reaches into his down jacket, extracts a flask with all the stealth of a UN missile inspector, and dumps some vodka into his OJ. I’m tempted to pull out a few bucks and tell the cheap mofo to treat himself, but my bridesmaid dress has already been altered.
“Don’t we have a nice guy for Logan?” Lauren inquires, and he squints like she’s asked him if they have a parasol.
“Really, I appreciate it.” I don’t. “But I’m great.”
Marshall points to the speaker. “Kelsey’s label’s stock is down.”
“This single didn’t hold at the top for as long as her others.”
“Well, she has more number ones than Mariah Carey, so I doubt they’re going to fire her.”
Tell her to stick with dance tracks. That’s money.”
“Oh, I’m not in touch with Kelsey,” I demur, hating when anyone outside my closest circle knows we’re related but having to concede that as my friends pair off, that circle is widening beyond my control.
“Oh, look, one of the couches is free.”
“Because Kelsey’s an asshole?” he follows up eagerly. Lauren jabs him with her elbow.
“Because our dads had a falling out, and our families stopped speaking.” I reflexively run my finger over the small scar at the base of my hairline, as if reciting the answer from the Braille of raised skin.
“But I wish her well.” I repeat my stock deflection as I press into the mingling throng.
I glance at my phone. Where is he? Two texts from Sarah, who’s still waiting for the train and isn’t sure she’ll make it, but nothing from Jeff. Why did I pick Midtown? Why couldn’t I just pick a local dive bar? Why do I need wood paneling and gold-embossed cocktail napkins? I look up at the murals of New York in the twenties. Because I spend my days in a cubicle and my nights in a box. I start to flag. I want to eat. I want to slouch. I excuse myself and make my way, past Charlotte lip-locked with a random, to the tiled hallway outside the bathrooms where I can kick off my heels and rest my forehead against the wall. I unpin my hair, hoping to relieve the tension across my scalp. The cold marble sends seismic ripples up my legs to my brain. Right.
I squeeze behind blazered backs to the couch where Lauren is falling asleep on Marshall’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I have to go,” I say, tugging at the wool sleeve protruding from under Marshall’s ass. “If Jeff shows up, tell him I left. With a guy. Who likes red.” I kiss her cheek and then, with a wave to my drunk colleagues and gym buddies, turn to the door, which I proceed to shove toward like a hurricane correspondent. I press my weight against the glass, stumbling past the smokers-and into Jeff.
“Careful, now, you’ll crush your cupcake.” Smiling, he holds up the wax-paper bag from my favorite bakery with one hand and slides the other around my waist, his mouth connecting with my neck. Immediately, I’m laughing. I’m laughing in the glittering cold on a perfect New York night with my boyfriend.
He reluctantly breaks our hourlong kiss to drain the last of the Sicilian red into my glass at the quiet wine bar, and my gaze holds on his forearms, the dark hairs, the tan line from the diving watch he wore over the holiday. How is it possible to be hot for someone’s forearm?
“You still have some catching up to do. I had a lot at my work dinner. Those Germans are tough to keep up with.”
He squeezes my thigh under the table and signals for the check, the hidden hand roving to my hem, then moving the hem up while he kisses my neck and earlobe. His fingers pause when he discovers the tops of my stockings, the bare skin beyond, and he grins, his dark hair flopping over his brow. So worth feeling the clasps digging into me all goddamn evening. “Are you wearing panties?”
“Only one way to find out,” I say, my lips grazing his cheekbone.
“Oh, no.” He shakes his head as he passes his credit card to the bartender, his hand inching higher. “There are so many ways.”
I laugh and reach for my crocheted scarf, loopping the cashmere loosely around my neck. He untucks my hair and lets it fall before kissing me again. “I love your hair,” he says. “No one has long hair anymore.” I nod, drenching myself in the compliment, despite seeing three women in this place alone with pristinely barrel-curled waistlength hair. Mine has not seen the loving attention of an appliance in quite some time.
Jeff signs the check. I hop down, making an effort to keep my movements fluid and contained, despite how everything in my vision swings slightly. He helps me on with my coat, leading me out onto Madison, where the cold creates halos around embracing couples walking briskly as one. My coat opens so he can still see the dress as I extend my arm for a taxi. He presses his chest against mine and takes my face in his hands. “You look tired.”
I nod, wanting to curl inside his concern. “This senior analyst promotion isn’t at all as advertised. What happened to ‘management’ meaning assistants and an actual office with actual walls?”
He kisses my cheekbone. “Something more than a ten-percent increase to offset thirty more hours of labor?”
“When moving up felt up, not sideways, you know?”
“Mm,” he agrees, nuzzling my neck.
A cab pulls over, and he pops the door. I slide in. And then it shuts after me. Stunned, I twist to the window, my earring catching in the open weave of my scarf. I lower the window while trying to untangle myself with wine-numb fingers. “You’re not coming?” I can’t stop
myself from asking like Charlotte talking to the TV.
He smiles. “I have an early meeting, and it sounds like you need to rest up, birthday girl.”
I need you to know if I wore panties or not, if we’re taking an inventory of what I need. I sit back, and he steps back, and here I am-back.
It’s not until I get in the door and am kicking off my salt-stained shoes that I realize I left the cupcake at the bar. Perfect. I go to the kitchen and pull out a box of stale Corn Pops. I drop onto the couch we got in the West Elm sale that was comfortable in the store and stare at the red and green lights Charlotte nailed up last month and will probably never take down. I munch on a handful of Pops and stare at the fresh bleach spot on the carpet that still needs vacuuming. I notice the blinking and reach over to hit play. “Logan, happy birthday!” Our crackly machine can’t suppress Delia’s exuberance. Delia wouldn’t have let me throw the party uptown. A few years older, she was always the practical one, reminding Kelsey and me that it was time to let the frog go, time to do our homework. “Another year, can you believe it?” I can’t. “Call me, want to catch up. Let me give you my new cell.”
She rattles off her number, and the machine goes quiet. The Christmas lights blink. I look at my doorway, and I can’t. I can’t take this dress off and go to sleep, admit that this was it, the birthday he put me in a cab, that I’m about to get into bed alone and wake up hungover, that I’m here, again, having to make a decision to wait for the next flirty e-mail, the next text, the next late-night phone call, or I have to get over him all over again. “Fuck,” I say quietly to the scorch mark on the ceiling. Then I realize Delia’s never asked me to call her back before.
One a.m., ten L.A. time. Delia will be at her birthday dinner, and I can leave a message and go eat these Pops properly-in the bathtub. She answers on the first ring. “Happy birthday!”
“Delia, you, too!” I say, trying to moisten my mouthful. “Hope I’m not interrupting your party!”
“No! We did this tasting-menu thing early, an oma-something.”
“Yes. Oh, my God, they gave me something that tasted like a perm and looked like a used condom.” She lets out a whoop like I haven’t heard since we last spoke, four or five birthdays ago. “I don’t know that everything that gets dragged up from the sea should wind up on a plate, you know what I’m saying?”
“I couldn’t agree more.” I smile.
“How was your birthday?”
“Terrific.” I hedge. “I had a party at this Holden Caulfield-y place, and now I’m just struggling to keep my eyes open.” I cross to the bathroom to see if Charlotte still has any Ambien left to quell this building clench under my ribs.
“Well, I won’t keep you. I just wanted to ask. Kelsey has a break next week before her tour starts, and she’s dying to see you.”
My reflection in the medicine cabinet shows my shock. “She is?”
“Totally! She misses you so much. How long has it been since we’ve all hung out?” She doesn’t pause for me to answer. “Uncle Andy and Aunt Michelle would love to see you.” Really? “Let me e-mail you a ticket. What do you say?”
I look at the lines, the ones my concealer has settled into around my tired eyes, the ones thick with blackened grout in the wall behind me, the ones on the spreadsheet I apparently left on top of the toilet this morning, and I take a deep breath.
“Sign me up.”
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