How to Be a Grown-Up Chapter One
Although Labor Day was late that year, the heat still sat on the back of my neck like a wet towel. I stood on the porch with my three-year-old, Maya, and watched through the trees for a car kicking up dust on the road. After two weeks at my mother-in-law’s place outside Woodstock, NY, with no air-conditioning and no WiFi, we were both Ready To Go.
“Rory, honey!” she called from inside. I cringed. Terms of endearment were never a good omen.
“Did Maya touch my dream catcher?”
Maya shook her head, her ponytail, still wet from the swimming hole, swiping back and forth across my thigh. “I don’t think so, Val,” I replied. “You were really clear with her about what not to touch!”
“If you say so.”
I liked Val, more than most other women like their mother-in-laws, but one more hour of trying to be polite in that humidity and something Edward Albee was going to break out between us.
The original plan had been that my husband, Blake, would be with us for the whole trip. We’d hike the Catskill Mountains with our ten-year-old, Wynn, and take both kids to the man-made beaches along the Esopus Creek. But then Blake got yet another callback for this Netflix series he’d been auditioning for and had to jump on a plane to LA at the last minute. I was deeply rooting for him to get this part, rooting from the subatomic particles that flurried in my atoms. He needed it. We needed it.
Blake was that rare animal, a professional working actor, and he had been since he was a kid. But after Maya was born, the flow of residuals slowed to a trickle, revealing our income’s instability like a cracked riverbed. Our whole summer, our whole lives, were now coming down to his landing this role, which was as within his power as winning the lottery.
“Mommy, listen!” Maya started jumping and pointing. The screen door squeaked open, and Wynn ran out to join us on the porch just as we glimpsed the rental car coming up the drive.
“Yay!” I joined in their happy dance before bending to grab a duffel. The car cleared the maples and there he was. Blake Turner. Sitting at the wheel of a red convertible.
I looked down at our two weeks’ worth of clothes and toys and sports equipment. Even if Maya sat on my shoulders we wouldn’t fit.
I was about to open my mouth and ask some variation on, What the what, Blake?!
But then I caught his face. Despite seeing his kids for the first time in weeks, something that would normally make him literally do cartwheels, he was struggling to smile.
“Well?” Val came out. “Did you get it?”
Marrying an actor was not something I’d set out to do.
It was, in fact, the embodiment of my parents’ worst fears—any parent’s, probably. Right up there with your child joining a cult—or having no sense of humor. Certainly for Sheryl and Randy McGovern of Oneonta, New York, this was nowhere in the plan. My parents had met at accounting school, and I’d like to be able to tell you they’re not exactly what you’re picturing—that they have a leather fetish or even high cholesterol. But they are exactly, endearingly, the people you would trust to keep you out of trouble with the IRS. So I lose a lot of time imagining what it was like for them the first day I came downstairs in the sparkly beret I salvaged from the YMCA lost-and-found and forced them to sit through my third-grade rendition of “Hey, Big Spender.”
Amazingly, they were supportive. Mystified. But supportive. Even when I decided I wanted to forgo a traditional college education to attend the performing arts conservatory at SUNY Purchase, where I discovered two unexpected things: first, set design. Second: Blake Turner.
The first time I saw him on campus, I thought I was hallucinating. I thought some potent combination of homesickness and paint thinner had conjured my teen crush, as if he were a genie sprung from the well-kissed pages of Tiger Beat magazine. I could not believe Blake Turner, the Blake Turner, was at my college.
As he slipped into his cafeteria chair in his ripped plaid shirt, dirty wool hat pulled low over his painfully beautiful features, only one sentence blared in my head: I will die if I don’t touch him. I immediately ran back to my room and called my seventh-grade best friend. Because it was 1992 and no one had e-mail yet.
We knew his story by heart. How he was nine when he was scouted to be in Cooties. Then, once that was a blockbuster, and he played Harrison Ford’s son in that drama about the horse farm, before you knew it he was a bona fide heartthrob. But then he just kind of . . . disappeared.
Campus rumor had it that, as he coasted into puberty, with his aquamarine eyes and floppy brown hair, he started losing every part to these real-life buddies his age named Leo and Toby. So his agent told him to bide his time, that once he reached his twenties, with his looks, the number of parts would blow wide open and he’d be steadily employed again.
So he walked among us at Purchase where I, and everyone else who liked boys, swooned for his Hamlet and his Ernest, his Jean Valjean and his Equus. Especially his Equus.
Toiling in the nerdy set design department, spattered in paint, dusted with plaster, hair knotted with a pencil, tool belt dragging down the waistband of my (what would now be considered mom) jeans, I didn’t stand a chance.
“Of course, you stand a chance!” my best friend, Jessica, would yell at me as I stared longingly at him across some God-awful house party. “Lots of famous people are married to normals.” Blake was famous-in-waiting—about that there was no question. The only silver lining in the looming black sky of graduation was Blake’s inevitable success and that we’d always be able to say we went to college with him.
“They like being the hot one,” Claire, our third roommate, agreed.
In hindsight, it’s hilarious that this was their argument: famous men marry average women. Not, “Hey, he’s a college guy with a penis who’s had a few drinks. I bet with very little prompting, he would agree to put it in you somewhere.” We were young, steeped in the romance of our undergraduate studies, and playing the long game.
Of course, after graduation, the further I got into my twenties, when marriageability should have been the criterion, the vaguer my objectives became. I got excited about a guy because he was excited about me. Dating in New York felt like I was constantly, breathlessly trying to capture vapor with a butterfly net. Whether the vapor was poisonous was a let’s-cross-that-bridge question.
Then, occasionally, on the nights Jessica and Claire were out of our tiny East Village apartment, and I’d catch Blake on TV, in an old movie or doing a guest spot on ER, I’d feel that heat pulse through my skin like I was thirteen again. Every time, I had the instinct to lift my hair from behind my ears, as if he could see me through the screen.
Then one autumn night, shortly after my thirtieth birthday, Jessica and I ducked into a bar on Avenue B we hadn’t planned to go to, but the temperature was doing one of those abrupt plummets and we were both underdressed. Jessica’s boyfriend, Miles, was in Chicago for his master’s in fine arts, and they were trying on a separation that never stuck. Most likely due to dispiriting nights like that one.
I was about to wriggle ahead to get us drinks when Jessica grabbed my arm, throwing me off balance in my Sexy Shoes—the ones I pointlessly wore to bars that were so crowded I could’ve been wearing bunny slippers and no one would’ve known. “It’s Blake!”
“Oh my God, where?” I ducked my head, untucking my blond hair and checking my teeth with my tongue at the same time as my feet started backing toward the exit.
“By the bar. Say hi,” she said forcefully in a way that would eventually serve her well with two sons.
“No! He has no idea who I am.”
“Then introduce yourself and say you went to a college the size of a public bus with him.”
“I can’t.” I dared to gopher my head over the crowd and she was right. Blake Turner. At the bar. Gone was the plaid shirt, the Dinosaur Junior tee, the hat that could have walked down the aisle at graduation by itself. He was wearing a tight-fitting dress shirt and good jeans. He had a Wall Street haircut. But the face was just the same. I was all hot static in an instant.
“What is wrong with you?” Jessica demanded. “You’re thirty! You just negotiated a raise from the biggest bitch in your department.”
“I don’t know,” I groaned. “When I look at him, I think I still have braces.”
“You are hot, Ror. Hot.” It was impossible for me to metabolize that. I think some part of our brains freeze in puberty, and where you were in the social hierarchy is the image you carry around for the rest of your life. This goes both ways. When I see class president Cindi Sherwood working at the gas station down the road from my parents’, she still smiles at all the male customers like they’d be lucky to get one minute of her broken-tooth time. In my mind’s eye, I was waiting for my growth spurt, for my boobs, for my Clearasil pads to finally do something. While I never crept past 5'3", the fact that when my boobs finally arrived, they left me with an admittedly enviable figure was something I just could not hold in my head.
“But what about my sloping eyebrow?”
“You crazy fucking nutcase. No one can see that but you.” She took my shoulders. “I will give you twenty dollars to go over there right now.”
“But I didn’t shave.” And that’s thirty. He won’t remember my name, but if he does, the only logical next step is sex.
“If you don’t do this and he marries Jennifer Garner, you will regret it for the rest of your life.”
“Okay.” I was about to nut up. In my version of the story, I was seconds away from breathtaking bravery. But . . .
“Rory McGovern!” It was like Bono knew my name. I spun slowly to face—
He threw his arms out and hugged me. Really hugged me. “This is so awesome.” He turned to the guy he was with, a shorter blond with a weak chin. “I went to college with these guys!” he said, meaning us. “This is my friend, Chester. We’re doing True West at the Cherry Lane. Can I buy you a drink?”
“I’m so stoked to see you guys. They were both super talented in school,” he explained to Chester, who didn’t seem to care, while I got jostled by people trying to find space where there was none, and searched for the perfect pithy anecdote to sum up my life. “Hey.” He smiled at Jessica. “Still writing?”
Drum roll to the: “Yes, but” . . .
“Yes,” she answered, bracing her smile, “but not creatively.” The nauseating “yes, but” had become the refrain when running into anyone from school where we’d been dancers and painters and poets. Now we were Pilates instructors and makeup artists and tutors. “I work at a website,” Jessica added. “It’s a news aggregate. I’m editing.”
“Cool.” He nodded. “What about you, Rory? Still wielding that nail gun?”
I couldn’t believe he remembered that. Me crawling around the set during tech for Private Lives, him with his shirt off making out with Condra (moon in Sanskrit). And I got so distracted by the way he held her face that I nearly nailed him to a flat. “I am now fully licensed. I also have a black belt in power sanding, and in several states I’m allowed to carry a concealed awl.”
He laughed. In my mind, I threw my fists up overhead like a triumphant boxer. “So you’re still doing set design?”
“Actually Jessica rescued me.” I put my arm around her waist. While waiting for her Big Idea for the next Great American Something, Jessica had started writing for women’s magazines. When she burned out on reporting “20 Ways to Make Him Wild” and “I Was a Child Bride,” she eventually got a job at Domino magazine, reasoning, “We all need something to sit on. You can masturbate on your couch, you can menstruate on your couch, I don’t care. It’s no longer my problem. I’m just telling you about the couch.” When her editors needed someone to make a $500 coffee table look like a $5,000 table, she called me. When I realized it paid better than trying to build an entire set out of toilet paper rolls for some shithole black box on Twelfth Avenue, I stayed.
Then the editor from Domino moved to Elle Décor, where I met a photographer who recommended me to an art director at Architectural Digest, and eventually I was freelance styling for photo shoots all over the city and able to move down from Morningside Heights and rent my own tiny studio in a brownstone on West Eightieth Street. I had made it.
You know, except for the my-cross-eyed-assistant-is-engaged-so-what’s-wrong-with-me thing.
“I’m a stylist for shelter magazines,” I told him.
“That sounds like fun.” He smiled kindly.
“Oh, who cares. You’re in True West!” I gushed. “And we saw you on Desperate Housewives.”
“And CSI,” Jessica chimed in.
“And that movie with Vincent Gallo about the hustler.”
“It’s a living,” he demurred.
“No, you’re famous,” I rebutted him. I mean, not famous how we’d thought he’d be famous. Maybe famous only to us, but the real kind was clearly only minutes away. All you had to do was look at him.
He leaned down, the tips of his fingers in the small of my back, his lips grazing my ear. “Want to find a table in the back?”
“Let’s get another drink,” Jessica prompted us.
One drink turned into three. A natural raconteur, Blake regaled us with behind-the-scenes stories from the sets he’d been on, until Jessica and I were holding our stomachs from laughing so hard.
Chester looked peevish. “You want to get out of here?” He abruptly stood and addressed Jessica.
I knew she was being the Pan Am stewardess of wingwomen, but I let her go, feeling instantly nervous to be alone with Blake. “I’m sorry,” I said, apologizing that he’d inadvertently gotten stuck on a date with me.
“You like crepes?” he asked.
We walked across Tompkins Square Park to the all-night stand on Avenue A while he told me how rehearsals were going, how Chester was holding back. We shared a Nutella banana, and I couldn’t feel the cold anymore.
“You have whipped cream on your lip,” he said.
“What?” Kill me.
“No,” he said, when I failed to get it. And he leaned in and swept it away with the tip of his tongue before pulling back.
It’s hard to believe that fairy tales weren’t written by single women, that it wasn’t really Hannah Christian Andersen. Because there are hours, nights, when we are suspended in such exquisite perfection that we are aware, even as they are happening, that only clogs and soot can await us in the morning.
I took his hand and pulled him toward the curb, my other arm hailing a taxi. “Eightieth and Amsterdam, please.”
I rested my head back on the seat next to his and he looked in my eyes. He placed his hand on my thigh (thankfully skipping my prickly calves) and slowly moved it up. Not speaking. Until his fingers grazed the lace trim of my thong. Which he edged aside and slipped a finger inside me.
He hadn’t even kissed me yet.
As the sun rose, I girded myself for him to be on the sidewalk with the morning edition, but he held me until my alarm. And we had sex again while I should have been at spin class with Claire. I called the calorie expenditure even.
I had never felt anything like what it was with Blake. And it wasn’t just that I’d had eighteen years to build it up in my mind. Blake knew how to touch me—my insteps, the soft skin on the underside of my forearms, behind my ears. And what he didn’t know, he asked, and in a way that dissipated any shyness. Then he wanted to know where I liked to have brunch. We walked through the park, and that night he cooked me dinner. He was just . . . there. Blake Turner, in my butterfly net, in my studio apartment—in me.
“Well?” Val prompted him again as we stood on her dusty driveway under the blazing sun. “Did you get the Netflix thing?”
He shook his head.
“Oh, Blake,” I said, an ache rippling out from my breastbone, “I’m so sorry.”
He picked up his phone from the passenger seat of the convertible. “My agent left the message while I was in the air. Fucking coward.” Blake had started swearing again, having decided that Wynn was ten and had heard it all by now and that Maya was still small enough not to be paying attention. I did not agree, but this didn’t feel like the moment to bring it up.
“Oh, honey, you’ll get the next one,” Val said, her gaze already off him as she pointlessly started moving the luggage around the porch. “You want a frozen banana?”
Ignoring her, he picked up his smile, got out of the car, threw his arm around Wynn’s neck, and pulled him to his side. “You guys have fun?”
“We caught a frog,” Wynn said. “I looked it up. It’s a Northern Leopard.” They told him all about our short-lived adventures in amphibious pet ownership while Blake scooped up Maya and tickled her tummy with his nose, making her squeal.
“Last bathroom visit, guys,” I announced. They ran into the house, and I expected Blake to take me in his arms and squeeze me as he always did after being away. But he just walked past me to open the trunk.
Okay . . .
“So, we’ll talk tonight?” I couldn’t help but seek confirmation.
“Let’s just pack up.”
I nodded, unsure what to do. Step back and let him realize this exercise defied the law of physics? Or try to manage it.
“Wow, we sure have a lot of shit,” he said angrily as he struggled to close the trunk with half our luggage and Wynn’s bike still on the ground.
“Well, we thought we’d have an SUV like we rented to drive up,” I said, stuffing what I could in all the floor spaces. Wynn and I would have to ride with our legs crisscrossed.
“Yeah, it was all they had left.”
“When you made the reservation?” I prompted him.
“I forgot, okay. Look, some of this crap will just have to stay here until next time.”
“No!” Maya burst into tears as she returned to find him unloading one of her Hello Kitty bags filled with stuffed animals. “Not my fwiends!”
“Not that one, Blake. It’s okay, Maya, we won’t leave your friends.”
He scowled and I reopened the trunk. “Let’s just go through everything and figure out what we can leave here.”
“You’re leaving stuff here?” Val asked, coming outside again as if she’d been listening for her cue.
“Yes, is that okay?” I asked, because her son had absented himself from the conversation as he always did when we needed anything of her. Even staying for two weeks to cover the gap between camp and school and not one, as would have been her first choice, had been completely negotiated between Val and myself.
“Well.” She pursed her lips. “I’m having friends up to stay when the leaves change.”
When Blake’s grandparents died, Val had come into a little money; she bought a farmhouse and moved up to Woodstock. Gone were her shoulder pads, her broker’s license, her struggles as a single mother. Instead she studied Reiki, wrote iffy poetry, and threw pots. Everything she’d wished she’d embraced as a teen in the sixties and a big f-you to what Scarsdale had raised her to want: the dentist she landed at Boston College, whom she dutifully supported through his DDS, until he left them for—wait for it—his big-breasted dental hygienist and screwed her out of alimony.
Hence the wind chimes. The Don’t Frack with Me bumper stickers. And a deep unwillingness to do anything asked of her.
“That’s not until late October, Val. We’ll get it before then,” I assured her.
“Well, sure.” She looked away, trying to be casual. Subtle. “If you have to.”
I was ready to get in that clown car, hold my husband’s hand over the gearshift, and put a hundred miles between me and Woodstock. “Okay, guys, let’s get going!”
It’s hard to pinpoint on a long, hot family ride in creeping holiday traffic that someone is actively not talking to you, as opposed to just trying to survive, but I started to suspect, sometime around the George Washington Bridge, that Blake was not talking to me.
And we needed to talk. Had needed to talk for months. To keep our Screen Actors Guild health insurance, Blake needed to book $30,000 worth of union jobs each calendar year. His theater work didn’t count toward it, and neither did all the nonunion film stuff he did for friends, but between residuals and Something Always Coming Through, we had squeaked by. I should clarify that none of this would have been possible without The Apartment.
Blake had inherited the rent-controlled lease to the classic six on West Fifty-Sixth Street where Val had decamped with him after the divorce. It was supposed to be transitional, but after Rudy Giuliani came into office and the city went from being a place families fled to to a place you donated sperm, blood, organs, anything! to stay—a rent-controlled apartment just blocks from gentrifying Columbus Circle was something no one would give up.
So with our low rent, our union health coverage, our ability to jointly cover child care until our kids started public pre-K, we had just made it, without any financial cushion, from month to month. For ten years. One hundred and twenty months. With any injury, strike, or root canal threatening to submerge us.
So when this year started and he failed to book a single pilot, I began suggesting that we might want to have The Talk. What was the plan? Would we keep doing this until the kids left for the college we couldn’t help pay for? Zeroing out our bank account every month? Waiting for the euphoria when he got a job? The euphoria that was feeling more and more like we were just junkies living from fix to fix.
But then he went up for this new Netflix series. It was a leading part, the game changer, his Don Draper. The closer Blake got to forty, Jon Hamm, who was still waiting tables when he auditioned for Mad Men, was referenced in our house with the frequency some families talk about Jesus.
The studio flew Blake to LA, put him on camera, tested him with Maria Bello, tested him with Katherine Delaney, although he couldn’t get a handle from the dialogue if they were supposed to be his wife—or his mother. Back and forth through the spring and into the summer. He didn’t want to take another job in case he had to “jump.” I took as much freelance work as I could scrounge up, but things were getting very, very scary. I leaped for the mail every day like a teenager, looking for the residual checks that were getting us through.
“Blake, I’m so sorry,” I said as we pulled up at our building. “But as soon as the kids are down, we really need to start to figure this out.” He was dropping us off with all the gear before going to return the car.
“Sure,” he said, without looking at me as he left.
While he was gone the kids and I unpacked, then started laundry and had dinner. Then went to the park to enjoy one of the last summer evenings. I was laying out their school clothes for the next day when a text finally came from Blake: “Ran into Jack. Grabbing a drink.”
It seemed that I’d been asleep for hours when I felt him slide in next to me. I didn’t want to fight. I wanted to curl into him, feel his fingers in my hair, his heartbeat under my cheek that told me I wasn’t alone, that we would figure this out. Team Turner.
But he didn’t move any closer. He was sweating whiskey.
“Did you have fun?” I whispered.
“Got a call from Pete. Someone dropped out of that short he’s directing in Rhode Island,” he said groggily. Outside, the late-night traffic made a soft whir, a stop/go in time with our conversation. “Ten-day shoot.”
“Okay?” I said it like a question. “When?”
“But you haven’t seen the kids in two weeks.”
“We’ll FaceTime. I’ll catch the train in the morning after we drop them off.” He wasn’t asking; he was telling.
Ten more days. As a solo parent. I could do it. If this was what he needed.
“But when you get back, Blake, we’re going to talk.”