Veronica sat in the back of the Hungarian Pastry Shop waiting for her older sister, Lillian. She surveyed the compact room, while contemplating a dash outside for a smoke. The café's clientele were mostly regulars who came laden with dog-eared, beverage-stained reading materials and stayed for hours sharing a table with fellow bohemian throwbacks while consuming innumerable cups of coffee. A laptop was as rare a sight in the Hungarian Pastry Shop as was a pencil in Silicon Valley. In keeping with the times, however, the patrons had been forced to give up smoking, at least while inside the café. When Veronica was a student, smoking Lucky Strikes or Gitanes with your coffee was de rigueur. Now smoking was permitted only at the tables on the sidewalk out front, which lay in the formidable shadow of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
As she waited for Lillian, Veronica sipped a cup of Viennese coffee and ate a hamantasch, a triangular pastry with poppy-seed, prune, and walnut filling. For nearly fourteen years, since Veronica was a freshman at Barnard and Lillian had just started in the M.D./Ph.D. program in neuroscience at Columbia, the two sisters had met more or less consistently the first Monday of every month at 9:00 A.M. in the dusky but warm and sweet-smelling hangout.
Veronica, a half-pack-a-day smoker, hated being told she couldn't smoke, because it reminded her that she shouldn't smoke, which made her defensive and angry, a state of being she found very uncomfortable. But perhaps it was better under the pastry-shop rules that she wasn't allowed to smoke on these Monday mornings with her sister, since she was then spared Lillian's medically detailed descriptions of the long and painful death that awaited her if she continued to smoke. Veronica, however, wasn't in the habit of thinking quite that far into the future and, besides, she just loved to smoke -- she loved the taste, the smell, the way she looked with a cigarette in her hand, and most of all she loved feeling, even if just for the duration of the cigarette, defiant. What exactly she was defying -- death, her sister, the surgeon general -- she wasn't at all sure.
Veronica wished desperately for a cigarette to go with her coffee as she strained her eyes in the dim light shed by the bluebell-shaped wall lamp just above her table. She was reading over the script she had written for an episode of Ordinary Matters. Later that morning, the draft was due to be delivered to a head writer for his review, which would lead to inevitable rewrites before final approval by the associate producer, Jane Lust. Not once, in the five years Veronica had been a sub-writer for Ordinary Matters, had the head writer flat out accepted what she'd turned in. Veronica believed the head writers returned each and every script for rewrites, regardless of its merit, to ensure that none of the sub-writers got big ideas about moving up. They needn't have worried about Veronica. She had no desire whatsoever to become a head writer. Such a promotion would mean more money, benefits, and perks, but it also would mean joining the office corps, which would seriously curtail the pursuit of her greater ambition to write musicals. When Veronica was hired, Jane Lust had told her that if she had any sense she wouldn't take the job, that writers shouldn't write as a sideline, that she would end her days as a soap-opera writer. She said that statistically Veronica would have a greater chance of breaking into a writing career if she were an actor on the show, that the names of sub-writers who ever went on to write anything, much less get published or produced, could be easily scribbled on the inside cover of a pack of matches.
Veronica closed the script and pushed it away. Soap operas, she decided, were even more implausible than musicals. Her eyes were wandering over this month's art exhibit on the pastry shop's walls -- watercolor landscapes of industrial New Jersey -- when she felt a stir go through the café. Whenever Lillian entered a room, heads visibly turned. Both men and women did double takes, repeatedly sneaking glances to discern which famous movie star or supermodel they had spotted on her day off. And there she was, placing her order at the counter, six feet tall, blond, gorgeous. Years of living with her sister's beauty had not made Veronica's pangs of jealousy any less sharp, but what had evolved was this: Veronica's desire to be Lillian was now only a desire to know what it was like to be Lillian. Taken on its own, Veronica's beauty was quietly arresting, but her average height, dark eyes, short dark hair, became mothlike beside Lillian's flame.
"So who is Dr. White's wife going to sleep with this week?" Lillian asked, gesturing at the script. Veronica knew Lillian was just winging it with this question -- she never watched the show. Even when Veronica had arranged for her to become the show's consultant on neurological issues, Lillian still never watched. Since Lillian was a neurologist at St. Luke's Hospital and a researcher in Berlin Hoshi's lab at Columbia's Center for the Neurobiology of the Mind, Jane Lust was eager to hire her. Amnesia was a staple on Ordinary Matters, but now and again narcolepsy or Alzheimer's disease would turn up and Lillian would give the writers the appropriate medical jargon.
Professionally, Lillian was something of a renegade. Her Ph.D. was in neuropsychology and her medical specialization was neuro-rehabilitation after head injury. While some of her colleagues thought she was a genius, "a scientist before her time," most thought she wasn't serious enough about her work. She was employed by a hospital that had no neurology department to speak of, she was an associate in a notorious eccentric's lab, her publications were all over the place in terms of subject, and, worst of all, she hired herself out to lowbrow ventures such as soap operas and insurance companies. In Veronica's opinion, by far the most deplorable thing said about Lillian was that she owed the continuous publication of her work and her position in Berlin Hoshi's lab entirely to her exceptional beauty. Some of this Veronica had learned from Lillian and some of it she got from her own boyfriend, Nick, whose childhood friend had gone to medical school with Lillian. Veronica told Nick not to pass along his friend's gossip to her, but she secretly loved to hear about her sister from another source.
"This week's candidate," Veronica said, "is Dr. Roger Norman, the psychiatrist who is trying to cure her nymphomania." Eve White had already slept her way through the entire Paramount Medical Center staff -- in fact, the scriptwriters had to keep writing in new doctors, orderlies, male nurses, and patients for her to seduce. "I doubt it will get by the head writer, though, since Dr. Norman is Eve's only hope. If they have sex, she either has to be killed off or cured. And those options are unlikely, since this nympho thing has been a ratings bonanza." Veronica ate the last bite of her hamantasch. "I think they'll want to milk it a few more months, but we're just about out of men for Eve."
"How can you eat that thing? Poppy seed and prune?" Lillian said. Even with her face smooshed up in a sour look, she was ravishing.
"Lillian, you've been watching me eat these pastries for years," Veronica said. "What's different about it today?" Her sister loathed the sugar-drenched pastries from Eastern Europe which, she had once said, suggested the added ingredient of the sweat from the brow of a fat, sharp-tongued housewife.
"Nothing. I'm pregnant. I home-tested positive this morning."
"Lillian," a waitress called out, then delivered a cup of black American coffee.
"That was quick," Veronica said, referring to the conception, not the coffee.
A few months earlier Lillian had announced to Veronica that she had decided to have a baby. She was thirty-five, she explained, and it was time. There was no man she was particularly interested in and certainly no one she wanted to share the experience with. As for raising the child, men didn't seem do that much anyway unless, as in the case of widowers and househusbands, they did it all. She would just have to rely on Margaret Mead's dictum: Fatherhood was a social invention.
"It's a new millennium and an election year. That should fill up your newness quotient for a while without your having to go and have a baby," Veronica had said at the time, and then swiftly repressed Lillian's plan. Veronica now realized that she had refused to believe her sister because she dreaded the possibility of being replaced. She knew she should be experiencing joy and elation at Lillian's good news, which she was, but she was also, unreasonably, irrationally, jealous.
"Is there a father?" Veronica asked. She looked around the room to make sure no one was listening. The only person nearby was wearing headphones. He seemed thoroughly engrossed in his heavily highlighted copy of Ulysses. Of course, she thought, there had to be some sort of father -- even if he was just a sperm donor -- but Veronica could imagine her sister devising some way even more incredible than divine intervention.
"Alex Drake, a patient at the hospital," Lillian said, sipping her coffee. "He came to the ER. He'd fallen into a mirror while doing a headstand in yoga and had lacerations on his shins and thighs. The nurse at reception heard 'head injury' instead of 'headstand' and I was called. When I got there, I was told I wasn't needed, but I caught a glimpse of him. His physical beauty indicated a solid gene pool, so I got hold of a blood sample and did some tests." She sipped her coffee. "I obtained his address, waited until I was ready, then followed him into a juice bar. I'll spare you the rest."
"How -- " Veronica had to ask.
"Doctored condom." Lillian shrugged.
"Jesus, Lillian, the guy doesn't know?" Veronica asked.
"Of course not. He's an out-of-work actor with an apartment full of aromatic candles." She rolled her eyes. "If this zygote has any luck, the new-age genes will be regressive. I did ask him all about his family, trying to get a better sense of his gene pool. His mother and father are both doctors, which I found encouraging. I started probing deeper into the origins of his surname -- was he descended from Sir Francis Drake? -- when he told me he had been adopted and was currently in the process of trying to locate his birth parents." She laughed and rolled her eyes again. "What he doesn't know can't hurt him. Just think how many men willfully don't know who their children are."
"Still," Veronica said, "I'm not sure it's fair."
"If this world were fair, we would be sea anemones -- self-fertilizing hermaphrodites. How's Nick?"
Lillian did not like Nick. In the four years he and Veronica had been together she had met him only a few times and yet her negative opinion of him was solid. She was the only person in the world Veronica knew who wasn't completely seduced by Nick's boyish charm, sophisticated intelligence, and quick wit. When Veronica had asked Lillian why she didn't like him, she had explained, "Neither he nor his paintings suspend my powers of disbelief." Since then, Veronica had rarely mentioned him and Lillian used him only to change the subject.
"His next opening is in April. You're invited of course." Veronica's eye landed on a brightly colored painting of the bridge over the Delaware River in Trenton. Written in large red lettering across the trusses was the slogan TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES. Growing up in a nearby town, Veronica had crossed that bridge many times and had always felt sorry for Trenton not being able to keep what it made. "Lillian, it's Valentine's Day. Do you know what that means?"
"A lot of people will pretend they love each other. Flower shops, chocolate shops, card shops, and restaurants will make a mean profit." She sighed, pushed her hair behind her ears. "And our father died exactly twenty-five years ago today."
In the course of Veronica's life, the impact of that fact ebbed more than it flowed, but somehow Lillian's simple statement just then made Veronica feel as if sorrow might drown her. Perhaps it was her sister's tone, so full of muted anger and disappointment and, Veronica was sure, the hint of accusation. She wished she would never think again about being the only other person in the car when the accident happened. She remembered the button on her father's shirt. It had been unbuttoned. Just before the crash she had reached over to fix it. Veronica, however -- out of habit, disposition, perhaps even self-discipline -- never stayed long on the brink of despair. She forged ahead, sure that the moment would right itself soon enough.
"Yes, but Lillian, isn't it a remarkable coincidence that you found out you were pregnant today?" she said.
"I don't believe in coincidence."
"Did you ever blame me?" Veronica blurted out. She and Lillian spoke about the past even less than they discussed Nick. Every so often they would talk about their mother, Agnes, when she called from New Zealand -- but even those conversations were short.
"Dad's death?" The guy with the headphones had fallen asleep, Ulysses his pillow.
"Probably," Lillian said, then drained her coffee. "But mostly I was jealous that you were in the car. I still want to know where he was taking you. I always had the sense from Agnes that she believed he was taking you to meet his other family. I just want to know why he chose you to go with him and not me, wherever he was headed."
Veronica's memory of the accident was very muddled, but she was pretty sure they had no specific destination. "We weren't going anywhere. He just felt like getting out of the house, going for a drive." For a while after his death, her mother would ask, "Where was he taking you, Veronica? It's okay to tell me. It's over. You can tell me now." Veronica remembered her father singing to her in the car. She remembered reaching over to button his shirt. And she remembered believing she had been the cause of the accident, even though her mother assured her that her father had suffered an aneurysm, that there was absolutely nothing that anyone could have done.
Veronica wanted to ask Lillian what she meant about being jealous of her as the one who was in the car, especially since Veronica had spent her life since the accident wishing that this one fact were not true, wishing for it, much to her own horror, even more than wishing her father hadn't died. But Lillian looked at her watch and stood up to leave.
"So which would you prefer," Veronica asked, "a boy or a girl?"
"Oh, I don't care," Lillian said, putting on her jacket. "My zygote is doomed either way." And she left the Hungarian Pastry Shop to the requisite swivel of a head or two.
Copyright © 2004 by Jenny McPhee
No Ordinary Matter
Veronica Moore writes for a daytime drama while secretly composing a musical and has fallen in love with Alex Drake, who plays a neurologist on her show. Lillian Moore is a neurologist who is pregnant from a one-night stand. Veronica and Lillian have hired Brian Byrd, P. I., to uncover the mystery surrounding their father's death. Before they know it, unexpected answers come crawling out of the woodwork. The sisters meet monthly at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, where they entangle their futures and unravel their pasts, setting the stage for a series of revelations that will change the course of everyone's lives. This fast-paced narrative is full of situations worthy of the steamiest of soaps, and yet McPhee renders this fantastical world delightfully ordinary.
No Ordinary Matter is as addictive as a soap opera, as high-kicking as a Broadway show, as insightful as an MRI, and as satisfying as a buttery croissant. With its sly charm and witty sophistication, McPhee's new novel is another sparkling gem from a rising literary star.