Chapter 1: The November Dinner
"I hate my husband."
Deirdre Wylie hurled her overstuffed red bag onto the table at which her three friends sat drinking wine. She was half an hour late for their monthly dinner, and it was all Paul's fault. She'd reminded him at least twelve times today that he had to be on time because it was moms' night out, and still he was late. And she was drenched, from the storm that had been raging all day and was still driving pellets of icy rain against the dark windows of Cleopatra, Homewood's new French-Egyptian place. And then, she'd been in such a rush to get here that she'd hit a squirrel, sending its small furry body flying right over somebody's white picket fence.
"I mean it," she said, shaking the rain from her auburn curls and collapsing onto a chair. "I really hate him."
Lisa was the first one to start laughing. Then Anne, whose lusty chuckle was always such a surprise, erupting from her lean body in its conservative business clothes. Last Juliette, who was her best friend in the group and usually tried to be supportive, even when Deirdre herself suspected that whatever tantrum she was having wasn't worthy of anyone's support, including her own.
"That Paul," Lisa said, obviously working to make her voice sound serious. "He's such a monster."
"You ought to divorce him immediately," said Anne, leaning back in her chair and stretching so that Deirdre caught a flash, beneath Anne's starched white business shirt, of a lace bra in a fierce red that matched her lipstick.
"I'll take him," said Juliette. "I love Paul."
Everyone loved Paul -- all her friends, all her family. Okay, even she loved Paul, the sweetest, gentlest man on earth, the very opposite of the bad boys who had trampled her life from her teens straight into her twenties. Unlike those other men, Paul was someone with whom she could plan a wedding, weather in vitro, raise twins, take out a mortgage, drive a minivan, program the TiVo, and clean out the refrigerator. Unfortunately, he just wasn't someone who turned her on.
Not like Nick Ruby, her old boyfriend, player of the upright bass, comrade in her now-defunct singing career, still-ranking holder of the title of Best Lover of her life. Nick Ruby, whom she'd read in the Times this very morning was playing in New York, where he'd recently relocated, which just so happened to lie a mere fifteen miles due east of the chair in which she now sprawled.
And that was the problem, wasn't it? It wasn't that Paul was late, or that she'd hit the squirrel, or that Zoe had thrown up in the car, or that the dentist had told her she needed three crowns and a root planing, or that the roof had sprung a leak. The problem was something that didn't, at first glance, seem like a problem at all: the idea that a more exciting life, a life she had once had and might still have again, was coming to town.
"Nick Ruby's moving to New York," she blurted out.
The name meant something only to Juliette, who sucked in her breath. "The Berkeley guy. The musician."
"Mr. Sex," said Deirdre, nodding while draining the bottle of wine into her glass.
"Oh, God," whispered Juliette. "I'm nervous already."
"Why are you nervous?" said Deirdre. "You're not the one who's thinking about having an affair."
Although she was focused on Juliette, out of the corner of her eye Deirdre saw Anne and Lisa exchange a quick glance.
"See, that's why I'm nervous," said Juliette, a tremor in her voice.
"Are you actually thinking about having an affair?" asked Anne.
Was she thinking about it? Sure, she was thinking about it. Would she really do it? That was far more questionable. Affairs were so time-consuming. So messy -- all that showering, all those changes of underwear. All that lying.
The itch she was feeling seemed at once vaguer and larger than simply a sexual one.
"Maybe what I want isn't him," she said. "Maybe what I want is to sing again."
She'd given up her musical career as precipitously as she'd ended her relationship with Nick, turning down a starring role in the touring company of Cats to go to graduate school in social work, her first disastrous foray into the helping professions. After social work -- she and Paul were already married by then -- she'd tried being a stockbroker (except she kept trying to talk people out of buying stocks), a decorative painter (until she began telling her customers that faux finishes were tacky), and a nursery school teacher (her very briefest career of all).
Why didn't she ever try singing again? she wondered. She'd had a passion for it she'd never found in either the worthier or the less pressured professions she'd tried. And she missed the person she'd been back then, the sexy girl who wore see-through shirts onstage, the better to show off her lush breasts, who drove alone in an old Cadillac convertible from California to New York, who was never afraid, never doubted herself.
"I used to be a babe." Deirdre sighed. Ten years and twenty pounds ago.
"I always wanted to be a babe," said Anne, pale and thin, her wispy pale brown hair cropped short, androgynous in her corporate suit, her bright lips the only obvious flag of her sexuality.
"I hated being a babe," said Juliette, who was still a major babe, in Deirdre's opinion, though she seemed to be doing her best to keep that under wraps, cloaking her still-slim figure in oversize knits, perennially yanking her long dark hair back in a knot.
"I'm still a babe," said Lisa, smiling at the young waiter who'd been hovering near their table, crooking her index finger at him, which was all it took to make him rush over, order pad at the ready.
See, I want to be more like that, thought Deirdre, admiring Lisa's confidence, her certainty. Lisa was not beautiful -- Juliette was the truly gorgeous one of their group, and even Deirdre herself might, given time and effort, have Lisa beat in the beauty department. But Lisa kept herself in impeccable shape, her stomach taut after four pregnancies, her skin and teeth flawless, her straight blonde hair so even at the bottom it might have been cut in one clean chop, as with a guillotine.
"The lamb is the thing to order here," said Lisa, snapping her menu shut. "That's what I'll have. Rare, of course."
Juliette and Anne, always reluctant to counter Lisa's dictates, ordered the lamb too, and Deirdre was about to follow suit. But then she thought: I don't want lamb. I do not want the fucking lamb. I'm not even hungry. Waiting for Paul to come home, growing more agitated by the second, she'd gobbled chips and olives and cheese, and now she didn't feel like eating anything at all.
"I'm just going to drink," she told the waiter. "Can you please bring another bottle of wine?"
The other women looked shocked. "But you have to eat something," said Juliette.
"No," Deirdre answered. "I have to lose weight. Come on, ladies, don't you ever want to throw off all the rules of our suburban lives -- the three square meals a day, the fresh sheets every Friday -- and go a little wild?"
But what was wild by the definition of their circumscribed world? Juliette thought a new rug for the living room might provide the satisfaction Deirdre was looking for. Anne suggested a job, something steadier and more lucrative than singing. Lisa mentioned a new Power Pilates class at the gym, which would burn off a lot of energy, though Juliette wondered whether yoga, the calming kind, might be a better idea. Deirdre kept drinking wine and shaking her head.
"Maybe what you need is a Pocket Rocket," Lisa finally suggested.
Lisa had been promoting the Pocket Rocket, a miniature vibrator, for several months now, as enthusiastically as she'd recommended using toothpaste as silver polish (Deirdre didn't own any silver, and if she did she wouldn't polish it) and putting your kids to bed by seven o'clock (good luck: Zack and Zoe, though mere first graders, were usually wide awake playing video games long after she and Paul had conked out).
"I'd rather have a good penis, thank you," said Deirdre. "If only I knew where to find one."
"Penises aren't very efficient," Lisa said, "whereas the Pocket Rocket guarantees you an orgasm -- zip zip zip -- every time."
"I don't think that thing would work for me," said Juliette.
"It works for everyone," pronounced Lisa.
"Even if you've never had an orgasm?" asked Juliette.
"You've never had an orgasm?" said Anne, her face registering real shock. "Not even by yourself?"
Juliette blanched. "Especially not by myself."
"I guarantee," said Lisa. "Use this thing, even with Cooper -- even with Paul, Deirdre -- and you'll have the best sex of your life."
That Deirdre could not buy. "I don't believe a mechanical device could give me better sex than I had with Nick Ruby."
"I've got to admit," said Lisa, "I think the best sex of my life happened without electronic intervention too."
Just then the waiter appeared bearing plates of lamb, his cheeks as pink as the meat. Deirdre suppressed a grin and raised her eyebrows at the other women, who sat back and refused to meet her eye. They were all, she could tell, trying to keep from laughing. As soon as the waiter retreated -- very reluctantly, Deirdre guessed -- they all leaned back in to hear Lisa's story.
"Okay," she said, slicing into her meat. "It was when I worked on Wall Street, when I was a money trader, and this other trader and I had been flirting for weeks. He was this fabulous-looking guy, hugely confident, dated models, that kind of thing. Anyway, late one afternoon after the markets had closed, we were standing by the coat rack talking, and on impulse I reached out and grabbed him. I mean, grabbed him. Neither of us said anything. Everyone had already left the office, so we did it right there on a desk, with our clothes on."
"Weren't you embarrassed when you saw him the next day?" Juliette asked.
"Embarrassed? Ha!" Lisa cried. "I loved knowing I had this secret power over him, that I could have him whenever I wanted."
Anne sighed deeply. "That's the way I feel about Damian."
A woman who was still dreamy about her husband, after ten years of marriage? Given that Anne's husband, Damian, a long-haired and languid British filmmaker, was sexier than all the other husbands combined, Deirdre could just manage to buy it. But that didn't mean she wanted to hear about it.
"Husbands don't count," Deirdre told her.
"Okay, okay," said Anne. "Before Damian, my best was in a gondola. The ski type of gondola, in Zermatt -- we're talking the Matterhorn, all the way up. Two Austrians. Rolf and Wolf."
"You're kidding," said Deirdre, though the blond massiveness of Rolf and Wolf had already taken sweaty form in her mind.
"I'm kidding about Rolf and Wolf -- I never did get their names."
"Didn't you feel" -- Juliette seemed to be searching for the right word -- "squished?"
"Precisely," said Anne, smiling. "What about you, Juliette?"
Juliette shook her head. "No orgasms, no great sex."
"But still," said Anne. "There's got to be one time, one person that stands out."
"All right, then I'd have to say my first boyfriend, when I was seventeen," said Juliette. "My mother and I had just moved to Paris, so I was still this young American girl, very naive. He was French and -- well, you know about French men."
"Not really," Deirdre said. Though the article this morning had said that Nick Ruby had spent a couple of years in France.
"French men, when they're in love, devote everything to pleasing the woman."
"And yet...," said Anne.
"Sometimes even a French man can't do enough," Juliette said. "But still, I was so in love. He made me happy that my mother had dragged me to France. He even made me stop longing for my father."
They all knew the basics of Juliette's story: handsome American actor father marries beautiful French mother and installs her in his tiny Pennsylvania hometown with their new baby while he leaves for months on the road. Parents penniless but madly in love until Juliette's mother gets sick of being penniless and decamps with the by-then-teenaged Juliette for Paris. Father disappears into the maw of Hollywood; mother bitter and alone, but at least back in France.
"So what happened?" asked Deirdre.
"My mother engineered the breakup. He was an art student and that scared her. She'd married my father for love and felt that had been a huge mistake. She talked me into going to New York, to FIT, for a year. By the time the year was up, of course he had found someone else."
"That's awful," said Deirdre.
"No, I actually ended up thinking my mother was right," Juliette said. "She said I should marry for security, and I think that was smart in a lot of ways."
"But what good is security," said Anne, "if you can't have orgasms?"
What good is security, thought Deirdre, if you had to be married to Cooper Chalfont to get it? Deirdre loved her friend, but she couldn't stand Juliette's stiff of a rich husband.
"You won't need Cooper for security," Deirdre said, "once you get your therapy degree."
Juliette, whose son, Trey, had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, was thinking of applying to graduate school in occupational therapy at one of the programs in the city for next fall.
But now she said, "If I get my degree."
Deirdre frowned. Not that she was any big career dynamo -- Anne was the only one of their group with a serious full-time job -- but she disapproved of Juliette's seemingly total lack of ambition. It only gave Cooper more of a hold over her, Deirdre felt, and the occupational therapy idea had at least seemed to offer her friend some future that didn't depend completely on her husband.
"I can't believe you're having doubts again," Deirdre said. "I thought you'd decided you really wanted to do that."
"Yeah, but I'd give it up in a second if I could have another baby." Juliette looked around the table, her large hazel eyes resting on each of them in turn. "That's what I really want."
"You do?" said Deirdre. Since they'd met over six years ago, as sleep-deprived first-time mothers pushing carriages zombielike down the main street of Homewood, Lisa had gone on to have three more children, but the rest of them had held fast. Deirdre had had so many problems getting and staying pregnant the first time, that when she had twins there was no reason to risk another pregnancy. Anne and Damian, both with demanding careers, had decided to limit it to one. And Deirdre had always assumed that Juliette, whose son had so many problems, wouldn't even consider chancing another child.
"I thought," she said now, "because of Trey..."
"Trey isn't what's stopping me," Juliette said. "I haven't worked up the nerve to ask Cooper."
"What does Cooper have to do with it?" Lisa asked, neatly cutting the last slice of her lamb in two and popping half of it in her mouth. "With me and Tommy, money and work are his domain, and house and kids are mine."
"Yes, but," Juliette said, looking even more rattled than she had during the Pocket Rocket discussion, "anything significant, Cooper insists that I consult him."
Lisa shook her head. "If I wanted another baby, I might give Tommy a heads-up, but then I'd just go ahead and have one."
Juliette shuddered. "Cooper would be really upset if I did that."
"I have to say I agree with Juliette," Anne said. "I can't imagine doing anything important without discussing it with Damian, and vice versa. We're partners in everything, which is how I want it."
"But there must be something you want, just for you," said Deirdre. "Something that isn't necessarily first on Damian's list."
Anne pushed away her half-eaten food and looked around the room. "I'd like to own this place," she said. "That's my version of having another baby, opening a restaurant of my own."
"You never told us that," said Deirdre. Anne seemed to have an endless capacity to surprise, with her sexy lingerie hiding beneath her straitlaced suits, her brainy demeanor masking her passionate heart.
"It's always seemed so unattainable, since I'm the big breadwinner, the one who's got the health insurance," said Anne. "I'll do it someday, when one of Damian's films hits it big."
"You can't put everything off for someday," Lisa said. "I learned that when my mother died." Lisa had been only sixteen when her mother died of cancer; Anne too had lost both her parents when she was still in college.
"I agree," Anne said, "but I really think someday's coming soon. Damian's finishing up his new film, and I think this could be the one."
They sat there silently for a moment and then Deirdre said, "What about you, Lisa. What's your goal?"
"I don't have one," Lisa said, managing to make it sound as if not having a goal was the smartest plan of all.
"Oh, come on, there must be something you want." Deirdre was in awe of Lisa's confidence, except when it veered toward smugness. "How about running a multinational corporation? Or becoming the first woman president?"
"No. Really. My life is exactly the way I want it."
"You're too perfect," Deirdre teased. "You obviously have to die."
"You haven't declared a goal either," Lisa said.
Hadn't she? It was just that she wanted so much, it was hard to narrow it down to any one item.
"I want to be a babe again," she said finally.
"Not exactly a full-time job," Anne pointed out.
"Being one isn't a full-time job, but becoming one might be, at least for a while," said Deirdre. Undoing six years of chocolate chip cookies was going to take a lot more than skipping a single dinner -- especially if she drank the calories instead.
"I can give you a diet and exercise plan," said Lisa.
"Um, no thanks," Deirdre replied. Whatever regimen Lisa prescribed, Deirdre knew, would almost certainly be too healthy and rigorous for her. "I also want to go see Nick Ruby at one of his club dates, and I was thinking you could all come with me. We could do it for our next dinner."
Her friends traded glances. Doubtful glances.
"Come on, you guys!" said Deirdre. "If you're there, you can keep me from getting into too much trouble."
"All right," said Juliette, looking at Anne and Lisa. "We'll go with you."
Deirdre took a deep breath. "And I think I want to try singing again," she said.
At that moment, a piano sounded across the room. She hadn't noticed the black baby grand when she swept into the restaurant in a tizzy over Paul's lateness. And then she'd been so involved in conversation, she hadn't spotted the twins' nursery school teacher and her old boss, Mrs. Zamzock, her hair tightly curled and her lips colored her trademark magenta, taking her place on the piano bench.
"Oh my God," she said, ducking into her sleeve. "It's Mrs. Zamzock from Duckling Academy. This is so embarrassing."
"What's so embarrassing?" asked Juliette.
"Maybe you should get up and sing with her," said Lisa.
"If you want to be a singer," said Anne, "you could start now."
"I don't want to be a lounge singer in New Jersey!" said Deirdre, horrified. "I want to be a star!"
They all looked at her. Had she actually said that? Did she actually mean it?
"Don't you dare laugh," she warned them.
"We weren't going to laugh," promised Juliette.
"All right, let's make a pact," said Deirdre. "By the time we all meet next month, let's each do something to get closer to what we want."
"Maybe we should make it a race," Lisa said. "Make it more interesting."
"A race?" The word alone made Deirdre's pulse quicken in a queasy mixture of excitement and -- what was that? Oh right: fear. A race would mean she'd have to stop spouting off and actually do something.
"Yeah," said Lisa, leaning forward as if she were already at the starting gate. "Don't worry, I'll think of some challenge for myself, something major. What do you think, ladies?"
"I could introduce the baby idea to Cooper," Juliet said, giving a little shiver she didn't even seem aware of.
"Bring it up after sex," Anne advised, reapplying her lipstick, "or even better, during. That's my plan with Damian and the restaurant discussion."
Deirdre felt a vibration that seemed to originate in her chest and up through her neck and lips and brain, shooting right out of the top of her head. She felt electric with the sense that everything was about to change, not just for her, but for all of them. She had provoked it, she reminded herself; she had wanted it. And now she had no choice but to scurry to keep up.
Copyright © 2004 by Pamela Satran