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Authors: Liza Palmer

Girl Before a Mirror

BOOK: Girl Before a Mirror
3.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub




Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination
nor both together go to the making of genius.
Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.

—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I got a ways to go

And I'm carrying a heavy load

But baby I want you to know

Baby I want you to know

That I never been so sure

and I never wanted nothing more

That you were who my love is for

You were who my love is for.

—Jill Andrews, “My Love Is For”



“I don't understand what Bruce Springsteen has to do with why you haven't been on a date in over a year,” Hannah says.

“You haven't heard the ‘Thunder Road' story?” Michael laughs.

“Everybody has a ‘Thunder Road' story,” I say, smiling at the approaching waiter as the single candle flickers in the scoop of very pink gelato. My friends sing me “Happy Birthday” and I can't help but smile. They're off-key and terrible.

“Make a wish!” Allison says.

A moment. I close my eyes and breathe in.

You can wish for anything, Anna. You're forty now.


My mind riffles through the wishes I have for this next year as if they're in a virtual photo album: me atop mountains, the breeze blowing my hair back. The pages flip and now we're in Paris, meandering through a farmer's market. Flip. Drinking a pint of Guinness overlooking all of Dublin. Flip. A red gingham tablecloth, a picnic, and the Jefferson Memorial. The flips are
growing more manic. A gray-shingled cottage in a small beach town along the California coast. Flip. Fresh, lavendery linens, a perfect Sunday morning with nowhere to go, and a muscular chest beneath my cheek. Flip. I'm dressed to the nines and accepting the Clio. Flip. I'm lying on the grass and covered in squirming golden retriever puppies.

I open my eyes. Everyone is staring at me. Concerned.

“It's just a wish, not an exorcism,” Ferdie says, taking a swig of his beer. My mind goes blank and I blow out the candle. I'm forty years old and I have no idea what to wish for.

My friends clap as I pull the candle from the gelato and lick the end. Raspberry. The other desserts arrive and we all dig in.

“So, the ‘Thunder Road' story,” Allison asks, pulling the chocolate monstrosity she and Michael ordered closer to her.

“I went out to dinner with this guy who worked in my building. He seemed nice enough.”

being the operative word,” Nathan adds.

“Never a good sign,” Hannah says, taking Nathan's hand in hers. He makes no attempt to hold Hannah's hand back. She smiles and picks up her fork, digging into her tiramisu. We all let her think we didn't see. We've been not seeing Nathan's annoyance at Hannah for years now.

“Dinner is fine. Not terrible. Worthy of a second date, anyway, and as we're driving home, ‘Thunder Road' comes on the radio,” I say, stopping to take a bite of my gelato.

“That's such a great song,” Ferdie says.

“Somehow I don't think that's where the story is headed,” Hannah says, laughing. Nathan rolls his eyes.

“I just wanted to put it out there. It's not the song's fault,” Ferdie says.

“Always the protective brother,” Hannah says.

“He's being protective of the song, not me. So,” I say, nudging Ferdie. “So this guy starts singing along—not really knowing the words, but enough. Enough for me to think better of him, you know?”

“Knowing the lyrics to ‘Thunder Road' is a definite plus on a first date,” Michael adds.

“Right? And it was one of those beautiful D.C. nights right before the summer turns evil and there we are: windows down and singing along with The Boss. Then we get to that part—” Allison pulls her cardigan over her face, attempting to shield herself from what's coming next. Michael barks out a laugh and she continues to cringe as if both I and the story I'm telling are some kind of horror film. “We get to that part, ‘
you ain't a beauty, but hey you're all right
.' ” The table gasps in unison. I continue, “And the bastard motions to me.” I raise my eyebrows and hold my hand aloft.
“You ain't a beauty, but hey you're all right.”
And then I just sit back and nod.

“Your wedding vows are writing themselves,” Michael says, cracking both of us up.

“No. That . . . that didn't happen,” Hannah says.

“Oh, yes it did,” I say, taking another bite of my gelato.

“And he just . . . he just kept singing?” Hannah asks.

“Like nothing had happened. Like he was just hilariously acting out the song,” I say.

“No no no no no,” Hannah says, picking up her wineglass.

“And it was right then—and you know I don't care about looks, but I sure as hell know that the person you're dating should think you're the most beautiful woman in the world,” I say. I catch Michael gazing at Allison as she finishes off their chocolate cake. Hannah and Nathan can't make eye contact.
Ferdie gives me that sheepish grin of his. I know he hates this story, but telling it helps. “I needed a break. Ever since the divorce, I'd been way too focused on moving on with the wrong kind of men. But in that moment, I knew enough to know I was nowhere near ready for the right one.”

“So you put yourself—”

I interrupt Hannah. “On a Time-Out, yes.”

“Since when?” she asks.

“It was just before summer last year, so—”

“A year? You've been doing this for over a year?” she asks.

“I needed to take some inventory,” I say.

“You needed a training montage. We get it,” Michael says.

“A training montage?” I ask, laughing.

“Yeah, you needed to run through North and South Philly while being thrown oranges and then hit sides of beef,” Michael says absently. We all just look at him. He finally notices our expressions. “Please tell me you know what I'm talking about.”

“Oh, we know,” Ferdie says.

“Oh, we got it,” I say.

“Thank God, I thought I had to get a new group of friends there for a minute. Who doesn't know about
?” Michael asks.

“The question is: Are you at the Philadelphia Museum of Art yet?” Allison asks, clearly more used to Michael's
analogy than the rest of us.

“That's the only question?” I ask. She laughs.

“No, I get it. Are you ready for the fight? Ready to step into the ring?” Michael asks.

“I think you're taking this whole
thing a bit too far,” I say.

“I mean, I don't think
analogies can ever be taken too far, but that's just me,” he says. I laugh.

“Kids have a way of making personal inventory–taking impossible. Sadly, no training montages for us,” Hannah pipes up.

“Unless this is a training montage containing a series of clips where I try to figure out where all our money and sleep went,” Nathan says.

“Sense of self, cleanliness, how many elastic-waist pants you now own . . . ,” Allison adds.

“Chronicling all the neuroses you've clearly passed on to them as you watch them interact with other kids,” Michael says.

Everyone laughs, happy to move on. Hannah's eyes dart to her wineglass, her finished dessert, and Nathan now looking at his phone under the table. She looks back up at me and I smile. Allison excuses herself to the bathroom and Hannah joins her. I take this opportunity to check the time. Ten

“You got somewhere to be?” Ferdie asks, eyeing me.

“I have a plan,” I say.

“You're Marpling someone, aren't you,” he says.

“What?” I ask innocently.

“Without question,” he says.

I ignore him. And I totally am.

It was in my second year at the local community college that I came up with my Marple Theory.

The Anna Wyatt Marple Theory is named after Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple, the elderly lady detective who brought countless criminals to justice. Miss Marple was effective because everyone underestimated her and no one ever noticed
her observing, chronicling . . . working. No one ever noticed her at all. Ergo, the Anna Wyatt Marple Theory was born: If people don't perceive you as a threat, how will they see you coming? They won't.

A text from Audrey. It's an address on K Street. From where we are in Adams Morgan, it won't take me long at all to get over there.

“Your boss is texting you at ten
on a Sunday?” Ferdie asks, craning over to see my phone.

“Nosy,” I say, tucking my phone back into my purse.

“Marple away, birthday girl, Marple away,” he says, finishing his beer.

I smile at Ferdie and let him chastise me. Thing is, my birthday dinner was lovely. There were flowers delivered to my apartment this morning from Michael and Allison, and I had a lovely lunch with a couple of people from work. While I don't regret or second-guess my decision to go on a dating sabbatical for the last year, I do welcome the prospect of not having to go home to an empty house just yet. Michael's words come roaring back. Am I ready to step into the ring yet? Guess that's a resounding no. I check back in just as Nathan is settling the bill, much to everyone's chagrin.

“It's on me. I insist,” he says, sending the waiter away. Hannah beams. We are all unfailingly polite and thank Nathan for his generosity. We always do. That's the deal: he buys dinners and we act like he wasn't a complete jerk the whole time.

“We'd better get going. The babysitter is going to think we finally made a run for it,” Michael says. Allison nods. We gather our belongings, make our way out of the restaurant, and say our good-byes.

“Happy birthday, Anna,” Nathan says. I situate my purse over my shoulder, hold on to my phone with the address to where I'm going, and try to stabilize the beautiful handmade mug Allison made me inside the very elaborate pink gift bag it came in.

“Oh, thank you,” I say, reaching out and putting a hand on his arm. He smiles and softens for the slightest of moments, his salt-and-pepper hair ruffling in the summer wind. He says his good-byes to everyone and walks over to his waiting car, beeping it unlocked. Hannah's smile falters as he strides away. Michael and Allison remind me that our book club is reading
and that they're making Danish meatballs for our gathering.

“Don't you mean—”

“We mean Danish meatballs. They're
,” Michael says as he hails a cab.

“Even though they may very closely resemble Swedish meatballs,” Allison adds.

“Let's just say there will be plenty of dill and discussions about what exactly happened in that closet between Gertrude and Hamlet,” Michael says, arm held high into the night sky.

“I thought we were reading
Twelfth Night
,” Ferdie says, scrolling through his phone.

“Nope, that's next,” Allison says.

“Next?” Hannah asks.

“We're reading Shakespeare in order,” I say.

“Nerds.” Hannah laughs.

“Proudly,” Michael says, as a cab slows in front of him. He opens the door and signals to Allison.

“Happy birthday, my darling,” she says, giving me a huge hug.

“Thank you,” I say, letting her warmth surround me. One
last smile and she walks over to the cab and climbs in. Once she's in, Michael walks back over to me.

“Happy birthday,” he says, towering over me one minute, then engulfing me in a hug the next. He bends down just enough to whisper “and the rest is silence” in my ear. I can't help but laugh. A quick squeeze and he's climbing into the cab with Allison. They wave and speed off.

“I'm sorry about . . . ,” Hannah says, gesturing over to Nathan waiting in the car. Ferdie walks a few steps away to where his bike is chained to a parking meter.

“Oh, honey, don't worry about it. Birthday dinners for your wife's friends are a scourge to couples everywhere,” I say.

“I keep thinking it's a phase, you know?” she says, in a shocking moment of honesty. One I will ask her about later and she will “forget” ever happened. “How did you . . . how did you know it was over with Patrick?” I decide to answer with the truth.

“We were driving home from somewhere and having one of our fights—the same fight, really. Right?” Hannah nods and allows a small smile. “Always the same fight. And then this calm passed over me. Completely out of place. I remember it so vividly. Like I could breathe again. And then this germ of an idea: I could get out. It shouldn't be this hard.”

“Marriage is hard.”

“But not all the time.” Hannah pulls a tissue from her purse and dabs at her eyes. “I'd forgotten what being happy felt like. Happy with him, anyway. I filed for divorce a week later.”

“Happy. God, we were so happy,” Hannah says.

“I know.”

“I was much thinner back then!” Hannah laughs.

“Honey, you're beautiful. Stop with that,” I say, watching as Hannah pulls at her clothes, trying to smooth out her growing curves. Curves made from trying to comfort herself in a loveless marriage.

“If I could just lose a little weight, you know? Maybe we could—”


“Leave it to me to be the crying girl at your birthday,” Hannah says, looking back at Nathan. She gives him the “just a sec” sign and he nods. God, they were so in love. They were the couple you hated because they could never keep their hands off each other. They were scandalous and hot and he was all she thought about and vice versa. Now they can't even look at each other.

“You going to be okay?” I ask, tucking her hair behind her ear.

“Yes. Of course I am. Now. Enough of my histrionics, it's your birthday,” Hannah says, giving me a big hug. She was always such a good hugger. “Happy birthday,” she whispers in my ear.

“Thank you,” I say as we pull apart.

“Don't work too much tonight.”

“I won't.” Hannah reaches out and squeezes my hand. “Call if you need anything,” I say.

“I will. Ferdinand Wyatt, come over here and give me a hug.” Ferdie walks over and lets Hannah lunge into him with a hug, idly patting her back with his mitt of a hand. She busts him about getting a real job and walks off to the car.

Tonight's festivities, while lovely in every way, still feel a bit off. In transition. There's been a lot of that “in transition” feeling over the past year. On top of the dating hiatus, my training montage
has also been about cleaning house of all the friends in my life whom I've outgrown or who just weren't working anymore. And while that may be empowering in the abstract and feel impressive as I wax rhapsodic about it to my therapist, the truth of it—the daily reality of it—is much quieter. The lack of white noise in my life has been a bit harder to get used to than I thought it would be. Having people around that caused drama was, I'm finding, quite the hobby of mine. Now that it's gone? It's just me. In my apartment. Feeling evolved and valiant as I smugly troll the various social media of ex-friends who look like they're having way more fun than I am.

BOOK: Girl Before a Mirror
3.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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