Okay, so it’s Sunday, my road STILL has patches of ice. The Golden Globe Awards are tonight, Gwyneth Paltrow was on SNL last night, and the sun has FINALLY been out enough that I am beginning to feel hopeful it will not be winter forever. But I can’t write about any of that stuff. WHY?
Because my publisher has given me the okay to share with the first chapter of my tenth novel, WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE, which will be published May 10th. What can I tell you? This is a full-service blog. And if you like it, I MIGHT be able to share Chapter Two as well. We shall see. I promise to return to my pop culture and motherhood mutterings soon, but for now I’m really excited to show you what ELSE I’ve been writing since, oh, 2009 or so. Hope you like it!
The table was sticky, there was a cloudy smudge on my water glass, and we’d been seated for ten minutes with no sign of a waitress. Still, I knew what my dad would say. By this point, it was part of the routine.
“Well, I gotta tell you. I see potential here.”
He was looking around as he said this, taking in the décor. Luna Blu was described on the menu as “Contemporary Italian and old-fashioned good!” but from what I could tell from the few minutes we’d been there, the latter claim was questionable. First, it was 12:30 on a weekday, and we were one of only two tables in the place. Second, I’d just noticed a good quarter inch of dust on the plastic plant that was beside our table. But my dad had to be an optimist. It was his job.
Now, I looked across at him as he studied the menu, his brow furrowed. He needed glasses but had stopped wearing them after losing three pairs in a row, so now he just squinted a lot. On anyone else, this might have looked strange, but on my dad, it just added to his charm.
“They have calamari and guac,” he said, reaching up to push his hair back from his eyes. “This is a first. Guess we have to order both.”
“Yum,” I said, as a waitress sporting lambskin boots and a miniskirt walked past, not even giving us a glance.
My dad followed her with his eyes, then shifted his gaze to me. I could tell he was wondering, as he always did when we made our various escapes, if I was upset with him. I wasn’t. Sure, it was always jarring, up and leaving everything again. But it all came down to how you looked at it. Think earth-shattering, life-ruining change, and you’re done. But cast it as a do-over, a chance to reinvent and begin again, and it’s all good. We were in Lakeview. It was early January. I could be anyone from here.
There was a bang, and we both looked over to the bar, where a girl with long black hair, her arms covered with tattoos, had apparently just dropped a big cardboard box on the floor. She exhaled, clearly annoyed, and then fell to her knees, picking up paper cups as they rolled around her. Halfway through collecting them, she glanced up and saw us.
“Oh, no,” she said. “You guys been waiting long?”
My dad put down his menu. “Not that long.”
She gave him a look that made it clear she doubted this, then got to her feet, peering down the restaurant. “Tracey!” she called. Then she pointed at us. “You have a table. Could you please, maybe, go greet them and offer them drinks?”
I heard clomping noises, and a moment later, the wait in the boots turned the corner and came into view. She looked like she was about to deliver bad news as she pulled out her order pad. “Welcome to Luna Blu,” she recited, her voice flat. “Can I get you a beverage.”
“How’s the calamari?” my dad asked her.
She just looked at him as if this might be a trick question. Then, finally, she said, “It’s all right.”
My dad smiled. “Wonderful. We’ll take an order of that, and the guacamole. Oh, and a small house salad, as well.”
“We only have vinaigrette today,” Tracey told him.
“Perfect,” my dad said. “That’s exactly what we want.”
She looked over her pad at him, her expression skeptical. Then she sighed and stuck her pen behind her ear and left. I was about to call after her, hoping for a Coke, when my dad’s phone suddenly buzzed and jumped on the table, clanging against his fork and knife. He picked it up, squinted at the screen, put it down again, ignoring the message as he had all the others that had come since we’d left Westcott that morning. When he looked at me again, I made it a point to smile.
“I’ve got a good feeling about this place,” I told him. “Serious potential.”
He looked at me for a moment, then reached over, squeezing my shoulder. “You know what?” he said. “You are one awesome girl.”
His phone buzzed again, but this time neither of us looked at it. And back in Westcott, another awesome girl sat texting or calling, wondering why on earth her boyfriend, the one who was so charming but just couldn’t commit, wasn’t returning her calls or messages. Maybe he was in the shower. Or forgot his phone again. Or maybe he was sitting in a restaurant in a town hundreds of miles away with his daughter, about to start their lives all over again.
A few minutes later, Tracey returned with the guaca-mole and salad, plunking them down between us on the table. “Calamari will be another minute,” she informed us. “You guys need anything else right now?”
My dad looked across at me, and despite myself, I felt a twinge of fatigue, thinking of doing this all again. But I’d made my decision two years ago. To stay or go, to be one thing or many others. Say what you would about my dad, but life with him was never dull.
“No,” he said now to Tracey, although he kept his eyes on me. Not squinting a bit, full and blue, just like my own. “We’re doing just fine.”
× × ×
Whenever my dad and I moved to a new town, the first thing we always did was go directly to the restaurant he’d been brought in to take over, and order a meal. We got the same appetizers each time: guacamole if it was a Mexican place, calamari for the Italian joints, and a simple green salad, regardless. My dad believed these to be the most basic of dishes, what anyplace worth its salt should do and do well, and as such they provided the baseline, the jumping-off point for whatever came next. Over time, they’d also become a gauge of how long I should expect us to be in the place we’d landed. Decent guac and somewhat crisp lettuce, I knew not to get too attached. Super rubbery squid, though, or greens edged with slimy black, and it was worth going out for a sport in school, or maybe even joining a club or two, as we’d be staying awhile.
After we ate, we’d pay our bill—tipping well, but not extravagantly—before we went to find our rental place. Once we’d unhitched the U-Haul, my dad would go back to the restaurant to officially introduce himself, and I’d get to work making us at home.
EAT INC, the restaurant conglomerate company my dad worked for as a consultant, always found our houses for us. In Westcott, the strip of a beach town in Florida we’d just left, they’d rented us a sweet bungalow a block from the water, all decorated in pinks and greens. There were plastic flamingos everywhere: on the lawn, in the bathroom, strung up in tiny lights across the mantel. Cheesy, but in an endearing way. Before that, in Petree, a suburb just outside Atlanta, we’d had a converted loft in a high-rise inhabited mostly by bachelors and businessmen. Everything was teak and dark, the furniture modern with sharp edges, and it was always quiet and very cold. Maybe this had been so noticeable to me because of our first place, in Montford Falls, a split-level on a cul-de-sac populated entirely by families. There were bikes on every lawn and little decorative flags flying from most porches: fat Santas for Christmas, ruby hearts for Valentine’s, raindrops and rainbows in spring. The cabal of moms—all in yoga pants, pushing strollers as they power walked to meet the school bus in the mornings and afternoons—studied us unabashedly from the moment we arrived. They watched my dad come and go at his weird hours and cast me sympathetic looks as I brought in our groceries and mail. I’d known already, very well, that I was no longer part of what was considered a traditional family unit. But their stares confirmed it, just in case I’d missed the memo.
Everything was so different, that first move, that I didn’t feel I had to be different as well. So the only thing I’d changed was my name, gently but firmly correcting my homeroom teacher on my first day of school. “Eliza,” I told him. He glanced down at his roll sheet, then crossed out what was there and wrote this in. It was so easy. Just like that, in the hurried moments between announcements, I wrapped up and put away sixteen years of my life and was born again, all before first period even began.
I wasn’t sure exactly what my dad thought of this. The first time someone called for Eliza, a few days later, he looked confused, even as I reached for the phone and he handed it over. But he never said anything. I knew he understood, in his own way. We’d both left the same town and same circumstances. He had to stay who he was, but I didn’t doubt for a second that he would have changed if it had been an option.
As Eliza, I wasn’t that different from who I’d been before. I’d inherited what my mother called her “corn-fed” looks—tall, strawberry blonde, and blue-eyed—so I looked like the other popular girls at school. Add in the fact that I had nothing to lose, which gave me confidence, and I fell in easily with the jocks and rah-rahs, collecting friends quickly. It helped that everyone in Montford Falls had known each other forever: being new blood, even if you looked familiar, made you exotic, different. I liked this feeling so much that, when we moved to Petree, our next place, I took it further, calling myself Lizbet and taking up with the drama mamas and dancers. I wore cutoff tights, black turtlenecks, and bright red lipstick, my hair pulled back into the tightest bun possible as I counted calories, took up cigarettes, and made everything Into A Production. It was different, for sure, but also exhausting. Which was probably why in Westcott, our most recent stop, I’d been more than happy to be Beth, student-council secretary and all-around joiner. I wrote for the school paper, served on yearbook, and tutored underachieving middle school kids. In my spare time, I organized car washes and bake sales to raise funds for the literary magazine, the debate team, the children in Honduras the Spanish club was hoping to build a rec center for. I was that girl, the one Everyone Knew, my face all over the yearbook. Which would make it that much more noticeable when I vanished from the next one.
The strangest thing about all of this was that, before, in my old life, I hadn’t been any of these things: not a student leader or an actress or an athlete. There, I was just average, normal, unremarkable. Just Mclean.
That was my real name, my given name. Also the name of the all-time winningest basketball coach of Defriese University, my parents’ alma mater and my dad’s favorite team of all time. To say he was a fan of Defriese basketball was an understatement, akin to saying the sun was simply a star. He lived and breathed DB—as he and his fellow obsessives called it—and had since his own days of growing up just five miles outside campus. He went to Defriese basketball camp in the summer, knew stats for every team and player by heart, and wore a Defriese jersey in just about every school picture from kindergarten to senior year. The actual playing time on the team he eventually got over the course of two years of riding the bench as an alternate were the best fourteen minutes of his life, hands down.
Except, of course, he always added hurriedly, my birth. That was great, too. So great that there was really no question that I’d be named after Mclean Rich, his onetime coach and the man he most admired and respected. My mother, knowing resistance to this choice was futile, agreed only on the condition that I get a normal middle name—Elizabeth—which provided alternate options, should I decide I wanted them. I hadn’t really ever expected that to be the case. But you can never predict everything.
Three years ago my parents, college sweethearts, were happily married and raising me, their only child. We lived in Tyler, the college town of which Defriese U was the epi-center, where we had a restaurant, Mariposa Grill. My dad was the head chef, my mom handled the business end and front of house, and I grew up sitting in the cramped office, coloring on invoices, or perched on a prep table in the kitchen, watching the line guys throw things into the fryer. We held DB season tickets in the nosebleed section, where my dad and I sat screaming our lungs out as the players scrambled around, antlike, way down below. I knew Defriese team stats the way other girls stored knowledge of Disney princesses: past and present players, shooting average of starters and second stringers, how many Ws Mclean Rich needed to make all time winningest. The day he did, my dad and I hugged each other, toasting with beer (him) and ginger ale (me) like proud family.
When Mclean Rich retired, we mourned, then worried over the candidates for his replacement, studying their careers and offensive strategies. We agreed that Peter Hamilton, who was young and enthusiastic with a great record, was the best choice, and attended his welcome pep rally with the highest of hopes. Hopes that seemed entirely warranted, in fact, when Peter Hamilton himself dropped into Mariposa one night and liked the food so much he wanted to use our private party room for a team banquet. My dad was in total DB heaven, with two of his greatest passions—basketball and the restaurant—finally aligned. It was great. Then my mom fell in love with Peter Hamilton, which was not.
It would have been bad enough if she’d left my dad for anyone. But to me and my dad, DB fanatics that we were, Peter Hamilton was a god. But idols fall, and sometimes they land right on you and leave you flattened. They destroy your family, shame you in the eyes of the town you love, and ruin the sport of basketball for you forever.
Even all this time later, it still seemed impossible that she’d done it, the very act and fact still capable of unexpectedly knocking the wind out of me at random moments. In the first few shaky, strange weeks after my parents sat me down and told me they were separating, I kept combing back through the last year, trying to figure out how this could have happened. I mean, yes, the restaurant was struggling, and I knew there had been tension between them about that. And I could vouch for the fact that my mom was always saying my dad didn’t spend enough time with us, which he pointed out would be much easier once we were living in a cardboard box on the side of the road. But all families had those kinds of arguments, didn’t they? It didn’t mean it was okay to run off with another man. Especially the coach of your husband and daughter’s favorite team.
The one person who had the answers to these questions, though, wasn’t talking. At least, not as much as I wanted her to. Maybe I should have expected this, as my mom had never been the touchy-feely, super-confessional type. But the few times when I tried to broach the million-dollar question—why?—in the shaky early days of the separation and the still- not-quite-stable ones that followed, she just wouldn’t tell me what I wanted to hear. Instead, her party line was one sentence: “What happens in a marriage is between the two people within it. Your father and I both love you very much. That will never change.” The first few times, this was said to me with sadness. Then, it took on a hint of annoyance. When her tone became sharp, I stopped asking questions.
HAMILTON HOMEWRECKER! screamed the sports blogs. I’LL TAKE YOUR WIFE, PLEASE. Funny how the headlines could be so cute, when the truth was downright ugly. And how weird, for me, that this thing that had always been part of my life—where my very name had come from—was now, literally, part of my life. It was like loving a movie, knowing every frame, and then suddenly finding yourself right inside of it. But it’s not a romance or a comedy anymore, just your worst freaking nightmare.
Of course everyone was talking. The neighbors, the sportswriters, the kids at my school. They were probably still talking, three years and twin little Hamiltons later, but thankfully, I was not around to hear it. I’d left them there, with Mclean, when my dad and I hitched a U-Haul to our old Land Rover and headed to Montford Falls. And Petree. And Westcott. And now, here.
× × ×
It was the first thing I saw when we pulled in the driveway of our new rental house. Not the crisp white paint, the cheerful green trim, or the wide welcoming porch. I didn’t even notice, initially, the houses on either side, similar in size and style, one with a carefully manicured lawn, the walk lined with neat shrubs, the other with cars parked in the yard, empty red plastic cups scattered around them. Instead, there was just this, sitting at the very end of the drive, waiting to welcome us personally.
We pulled right up to it, neither of us saying anything. Then my dad cut the engine, and we both leaned forward, looking up through the windshield as it loomed above us.
A basketball goal. Of course. Sometimes life is just hilarious.
For a moment, we both just stared. Then my dad dropped his hand from the ignition. “Let’s get unpacked,” he said, and pushed his door open. I did the same, following him back to the U-Haul. But I swear it was like I could feel it watching me as I pulled out my suitcase and carried it up the steps.
The house was cute, small but really cozy, and had clearly been renovated recently. The kitchen appliances looked new, and there were no tack or nail marks on the walls. My dad headed back outside, still unloading, while I gave myself a quick tour, getting my bearings. Cable already installed, and wireless: that was good. I had my own bathroom: even better. And from the looks of it, we were an easy walking distance from downtown, which meant less transportation hassle than the last place. I was actually feeling good about things, basketball reminders aside, at least until I stepped out onto the back porch and found someone stretched out there on a stack of patio furniture cushions.
I literally shrieked, the sound high-pitched and so girly I probably would have been embarrassed if I wasn’t so startled. The person on the cushions was equally surprised, though, at least judging by the way he jumped, turning around to look at me as I scrambled back through the open door behind me, grabbing for the knob so I could shut it between us. As I flipped the dead bolt, my heart still pounding, I was able to put together that it was a guy in jeans and long hair, wearing a faded flannel shirt, beat-up Adidas on his feet. He’d been reading a book, something thick, when I interrupted him.
Now, as I watched, he sat up, putting it down beside him. He brushed back his hair, messy and black and kind of curly, then picked up a jacket he’d had balled up under his head, shaking it out. It was faded corduroy, with some kind of insignia on the front, and I stood there watching as he slipped it on, calm as you please, before getting to his feet and picking up whatever he’d been reading, which I now saw was a textbook of some kind. Then he pushed his hair back with one hand and turned, looking right at me through the glass of the door between us. Sorry, he mouthed. Sorry.
“Mclean,” my dad yelled from the foyer, his voice echoing down the empty hall. “I’ve got your laptop. You want me to put it in your room?”
I just stood there, frozen, staring at the guy. His eyes were bright blue, his face winter pale but red-cheeked. I was still trying to decide if I should scream for help when he smiled at me and gave me a weird little salute, touching his fingers to his temple. Then he turned and pushed out the screen door into the yard. He ambled across the deck, under the basketball goal, and over to the fence of the house next door, which he jumped with what, to me, was a surprising amount of grace. As he walked up the side steps, the kitchen door opened. The last thing I saw was him squaring his shoulders, like he was bracing for something, before disappearing inside.
“Mclean?” my dad called again. He was coming closer now, his footsteps echoing. When he saw me, he held up my laptop case. “Know where you want this?”
I looked back at the house next door that the guy had just gone into, wondering what his story was. You didn’t hang out in what you thought was an empty house when you lived right next door unless you didn’t feel like being at home. And it was his home, that much was clear. You could just tell when a person belonged somewhere. That is something you can’t fake, no matter how hard you try.
“Thanks,” I said to my dad, turning to face him. “Just put it anywhere.”
Have a good night, everyone!