Read Nine Perfect Strangers Online

Authors: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers (3 page)

“Turn left in one kilometer,” ordered her GPS.

“I don't want to turn left in one kilometer,” said Frances dolefully.

She wasn't even meant to be here, in this season or hemisphere. She was meant to be with her “special friend” Paul Drabble in Santa Barbara, the Californian winter sun warm upon their faces as they visited wineries, restaurants, and museums. She was meant to be spending long lingering afternoons getting to know Paul's twelve-year-old son, Ari, hearing his dry little chuckle as he taught her how to play some violent PlayStation game he loved. Frances's friends with kids had laughed and scoffed over that, but she'd been looking
forward
to learning the game; the story lines sounded really quite rich and complex.

An image came to her of that detective's earnest young face. He had freckles left over from childhood and he wrote down everything she said in laborious longhand using a scratchy blue ballpoint. His spelling was atrocious. He spelled “tomorrow” with two m's. He couldn't meet her eye.

A sudden rush of intense heat enveloped her body at the memory.

Humiliation?

Probably.

Her head swam. She shivered and shook. Her hands were instantly slippery on the steering wheel.

Pull over
, she told herself.
You need to pull over right now.

She signaled, even though there was no one behind her, and came to a stop on the side of the road. She had the sense to switch on her hazard lights. Sweat poured from her face. Within seconds her shirt was drenched. She pulled at the fabric and smeared back strands of wet hair from her forehead. A cold chill made her shake.

She sneezed, and the act of sneezing caused her back to spasm. The pain was of such truly biblical proportions that she began to laugh as tears streamed down her face. Oh yes, she
was
losing her mind. She certainly was.

A great wave of unfocused primal rage swept over her. She banged her fist against her car horn over and over, closed her eyes, threw back her head, and screamed in unison with the horn, because she had this cold and this back pain and this broken bloody heart and—

“Hey!”

She opened her eyes and jumped back in her seat.

A man crouched next to her car window, rapping hard on the glass. She saw what must be his car pulled up on the opposite side of the road, with its hazard lights also on.

“You okay?” he shouted. “Do you need help?”

For God's sake. This was meant to be a private moment of despair. How deeply embarrassing. She pressed the button to lower the window.

A very large, unpleasant, unkempt, unshaven man peered in at her. He wore a T-shirt with the faded emblem of some ancient band over a proud solid beer belly and low-slung blue jeans. He was probably one of those outback serial killers. Even though this wasn't technically the outback. He was probably on holiday from the outback.

“Got car trouble?” he asked.

“No,” said Frances. She sat up straighter and tried to smile. She ran a hand through her damp hair. “Thank you. I'm fine. The car is fine. Everything is fine.”

“Are you
sick
?” said the man. He looked faintly disgusted.

“No,” said Frances. “Not really. Just a bad cold.”

“Maybe you've got the proper flu. You look
really
sick,” said the man. He frowned, and his eyes moved to the back of her car. “And you were screaming and sounding your horn like you … were in trouble.”

“Yes,” said Frances. “Well. I thought I was alone in the middle of nowhere. I was just … having a bad moment.” She tried to keep the resentment from her voice. He was a good citizen who had done the right thing. He'd done what anyone would do.

“Thank you for stopping but I'm fine,” she said nicely, with her sweetest, most placatory smile. One must placate large strange men in the middle of nowhere.

“Okay then.” The man straightened with a groan of effort, his hands on his thighs to give himself leverage, but then he rapped the top of her car with his knuckles and bent down again, suddenly decisive.
I'm a man, I know what's what
. “Look, are you too sick to drive? Because if you're not safe to drive, if you're a danger to other drivers on the road, I really can't in good conscience let you—”

Frances sat up straight. For heaven's sake. “I just had a hot flash,” she snapped.

The man blanched. “Oh!” He studied her. Paused. “I always thought it was a hot
flush
,” he said.

“I believe both terms are used,” said Frances. This was her third one. She'd done a lot of reading, spoken to every woman she knew over the age of forty-five, and had a double appointment with her GP, where she had cried, “But no one ever said it was like this!” For now they were monitoring things. She was taking supplements, cutting back on alcohol and spicy foods. Ha ha.

“So you're okay,” said the man. He looked up and down the highway as if for help.

“I really am perfectly fine,” said Frances. Her back gave a friendly little spasm and she tried not to flinch.

“I didn't realize that hot flashes—flushes—were so …”

“Dramatic? Well, they're not for everyone. Just a lucky few.”

“Isn't there … what's it called? Hormone-replacement therapy?”

Oh my Lord.

“Can you prescribe me something?” asked Frances brightly.

The man took a little step back from the car, hands up in surrender. “Sorry. It's just, I think that was what my wife … Anyway, none of my business. If everything is okay, I'll just be on my way.”

“Great,” said Frances. “Thank you for stopping.”

“No worries.”

He lifted a hand, went to say something else, evidently changed his mind, and walked back toward his car. There were sweat marks on the back of his T-shirt. A mountain of a man. Lucky he decided she wasn't worth killing and raping. He probably preferred his victims less sweaty.

She watched him start his car and pull out onto the highway. He tipped one finger to his forehead as he drove off.

She waited until his car was a tiny speck in her rearview mirror and then she reached over for the change of clothes she had waiting on the passenger seat ready for this exact situation.

“Menopause?” her eighty-year-old mother had said vaguely, on the phone from the other side of the world, where she now lived blissfully in the South of France. “Oh, I don't think it gave me too much trouble, darling. I got it all over and done with in a weekend, as I recall. I'm sure you'll be the same. I never had those hot flushes. I think they're a myth, to be honest.”

Hmmph
, thought Frances as she used a towel to wipe away her mythical sweat.

She thought of texting a photo of her tomato-red face to her group of school friends, some of whom she'd known since kindergarten. Now when they went out to dinner they discussed menopause symptoms with the same avid horror with which they'd once discussed their first periods. Nobody else was getting these over-the-top hot flushes like Frances, so she was taking it for the team. Like everything in life, their
reactions to menopause were driven by their personalities: Di said she was in a permanent state of rage and if her gynecologist didn't agree to a hysterectomy soon she was going to grab the littler fucker by the collar and slam him up against the wall, Monica was embracing the “beautiful intensity” of her emotions, and Natalie was wondering anxiously if it was contributing to her anxiety. They all agreed it was totally typical of their friend Gillian to die so she could get out of menopause and then they cried into their Prosecco.

No, she wouldn't text her school friends, because she suddenly remembered how at that last dinner she'd looked up from her menu to catch an exchange of glances that most definitely meant: “Poor Frances.” She could not bear pity. That particular group of solidly married friends was meant to
envy
her, or they'd pretended to envy her anyway, for all these years, but it seemed that being childless and single in your thirties was very different from being childless and single in your fifties. No longer glamorous. Now kind of tragic.

I'm only temporarily tragic
, she told herself as she pulled on a clean blouse that showed a lot of cleavage. She tossed the sweaty shirt onto the back seat, restarted the car, looked over her shoulder, and pulled out onto the highway.
Temporarily Tragic.
It could be the name of a band.

There was a sign. She squinted.
Tranquillum House
, it said.

“Left turn ahead,” said her GPS.

“Yes, I
know
, I see it.”

She met her own eyes in the rearview mirror and tried to give herself a wry “isn't life interesting!” look.

Frances had always enjoyed the idea of parallel universes in which multiple versions of herself tried out different lives—one where she was a CEO instead of an author; one where she was a mother of two or four or six kids instead of none; one where she hadn't divorced Sol and one where she hadn't divorced Henry—but for the most part she'd always felt satisfied or at least accepting of the universe in which she found herself … except for right now, because right now it felt like there had been some sort of cataclysmic quantum-physics administrative error.
She'd slipped universes. She was meant to be high on lust and love in America, not pain-ridden and grief-stricken in Australia. It was just wrong. Unacceptable.

And yet here she was. There was nothing else to do, nowhere else to turn.

“Goddamn it,” she said, and turned left.

3

 

Lars

“This one is my wife's favorite.” The vineyard manager, a chunky, cheery guy in his sixties with a retro mustache, held up a bottle of white wine. “She says it makes her think of silk sheets. It has a creamy, velvety finish I think you'll enjoy.”

Lars swirled the tasting glass and breathed in the scent: apples and sunshine and wood smoke. An instant memory of an autumnal day. The comfort of a large warm hand holding his. It felt like a childhood memory but probably wasn't; more likely a memory he'd borrowed from a book or movie. He sipped the wine, let it roll around his mouth, and was transported to a bar on the Amalfi Coast. Vine leaves over the light fixture and the smell of garlic and the sea. That was a bona fide happy memory from real life with photos to prove it. He remembered the spaghetti. Just parsley, olive oil, and almonds. There might even be a photo of the spaghetti somewhere.

“What do you think?” The vineyard manager grinned. It was like his mustache had been perfectly preserved from 1975.

“It's excellent.” Lars took another sip, trying to get the full picture. Wine could fool you: all sunshine and apples and spaghetti and then nothing but sour disappointment and empty promises.

“I also have a pinot grigio that might appeal …”

Lars held up his hand and looked at his watch. “I'd better stop there.”

“Have you got far to travel today?”

Anyone who stopped here would be on their way to somewhere else. Lars had nearly missed the small wooden
Tasting Cellar
sign. He'd slammed on the brakes because that's the sort of man he was: spontaneous. When he remembered to be.

“I'm due to check in at a health resort in an hour's time.” Lars held the wineglass up to the light and admired the golden color. “So no alcohol for me for the next ten days.”

“Ah. Tranquillum House, right?” said the manager. “Doing the—what do they call it?—ten-day cleanse or some such thing?”

“For my sins,” said Lars.

“We normally get guests stopping in here on their way home. We're the first vineyard they drive by on the road back to Sydney.”

“What do they have to say about the place?” asked Lars. He pulled out his wallet. He was going to order some wine to be delivered as a welcome-home treat.

“Some of them seem a bit shell-shocked, to be honest. They mostly just need a drink and some potato chips and they get the color back in their cheeks.” The manager placed his hand around the neck of the bottle, as if for comfort. “Actually, my sister just got a job working in the spa there. She says her new boss is a bit …” He squinted hard as if trying to see the word he wanted. Finally, he said, “Different.”

“I'm forewarned,” said Lars. He wasn't concerned. He was a health-retreat junkie. The people who ran these places tended to be “different.”

“She says the house itself is amazing. It's got a fascinating history.”

“Built by convicts, I believe.” Lars tapped the corner of his gold Amex against the bar.

“Yeah. Poor buggers. No spa treatments for them.”

A woman appeared from a door behind him, muttering, “Bloody internet is down
again
.” She stopped when she saw Lars and did a double take. He was used to it. He'd had a lifetime of double takes. She looked away fast, flustered.

“This is my wife,” said the vineyard manager with pride. “We were just talking about your favorite Sémillon, love—the silk-sheets Sémillon.”

The color rose up her neck. “I wish you wouldn't tell people that.”

Her husband looked confused. “I
always
tell people that.”

“I'm going to get a case,” said Lars.

He watched the wife pat her husband's back as she moved past him.

“Make it two cases,” Lars said, because he spent his days dealing with the shattered remnants of broken marriages and he was a sucker for a good one.

He smiled at the woman. Her hands fluttered to her hair while her oblivious husband pulled out a battered old order book with a pen attached by a string, leaned heavily on the counter, and peered at the form in a way that indicated this was going to take some time. “Name?”

“Lars Lee,” said Lars, as his phone beeped with a text message. He tapped the screen.

Can you at least think about it? Xx

His heart lurched as if at the sudden scuttle of a black furry spider. For fuck's sake. He'd thought they were done with this. His thumb hovered over the message, considering. The passive-aggressiveness of the “at least.” The saccharine double kiss. Also, he didn't like the fact that the first kiss was uppercase and the second was lowercase and he didn't like the fact that he didn't like this. It was mildly OCD-ish.

He tapped in a rude, boorish uppercase reply:
NO. I WILL NOT
.

But then he deleted it, and shoved his phone back into the pocket of his jeans.

“Let me try that pinot grigio.”

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