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Authors: Elizabeth Berg

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Once Upon a Time, There Was You

BOOK: Once Upon a Time, There Was You
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Also by Elizabeth Berg

The Last Time I Saw You
Home Safe
The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted
Dream When You’re Feeling Blue
The Handmaid and the Carpenter
We Are All Welcome Here
The Year of Pleasures
The Art of Mending
Say When
True to Form
Ordinary Life: Stories
Never Change
Open House
Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True
Until the Real Thing Comes Along
What We Keep
Joy School
The Pull of the Moon
Range of Motion
Talk Before Sleep
Durable Goods
Family Traditions

Once Upon a Time, There Was You
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Berg

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

RANDOM HOUSE and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Berg, Elizabeth.
Once upon a time, there was you: a novel / Elizabeth Berg.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-1-58836-893-5
1. Divorced people—Fiction. 2. Teenage girls—Fiction. 3. Parent and child—Fiction. 4. Domestic Fiction. I. Title.
PS3552.E6996O62 2011
813′.54—dc22    2010049690


To Kate Medina


Marriage is a funny thing. Even when it’s over
Maybe especially then

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This

There are two dilemmas that rattle the human skull:
How do you hold on to someone who won’t stay?
And how do you get rid of someone who won’t leave?

The War of the Roses

There are rocks deep enough in this earth that no matter what the rupture is, they will never see the surface. There is, I think, a fear of love. There is a fear of love

Let the Great World Spin



Other Books by This Author

Title Page





Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35


About the Author


hen John Marsh was a young boy, he used to watch his mother getting ready to go out for the evening. He stood beside her dressing table and listened to the
sounds she made tamping down her lipstick, and he took note of the three-quarter angle with which she then regarded herself in the mirror, as though she were flirting with herself. He watched how rouge made her cheeks blossom into unnatural color, and how the little comb she used to apply mascara made her blond lashes go black and spiky. She always finished by taking her hair down from pin curls and brushing it into a controlled mass of waves, which she then perfumed with a spicy scent that reminded him of carnations and oranges, both. Finally, “How do I look?” she would ask him, and he never knew what to say. What he felt was:
. For though he had stood beside her, watching her every move as she transformed herself, he was never sure that the made-up woman before him was still his mother, and this made for a mixed feeling of fear and confusion. Nonetheless, he always smiled and said softly, “Pretty.”

Before he turned six, she was off living in another state with a man who did not care for children. The rare times John saw her, she came and stayed in a nearby Howard Johnson, and she would
buy him dinner there. While he ate, she would sit smoking, sneaking looks at her watch.

Many years later, on the eve of his wedding day, thirty-six-year-old John sat in a bar talking to his best friend, Stuart White (Stuart himself happily married for twelve years), about how he was suddenly consumed by doubt. He sat morosely on the stool, chatting now and then with the women there, many of them beautiful, and understood that it wasn’t that; it wasn’t that he wanted anyone else. When the blonde sitting next to him offered a cigarette, John took it.

“What are you doing?” Stuart asked. “You don’t smoke. And Irene
cigarette smoke.”

“Yeah, I know,” John said. “I think she has an allergy or something.” He put a match to the end of the cigarette.

“Whoa,” Stuart said. “Are your

“My hands aren’t shaking!”

“They are, too, man. Look at them.”

John looked at his hands, and his friend was right: there was a fine tremor.

He ground out the cigarette, shoved his face into his hands, and moaned.

Stuart said, “Okay, okay, buddy, you just need to calm down. Try this. Think about when you asked Irene to marry you. Why did you ask her?”

John looked over at him. “She didn’t wear makeup?”

hen Irene Marsh was a young girl, she used to have a play space in the basement where she lined up her many baby dolls. One by one, she fed them, burped them, and rocked them to sleep. It brought her a rare peace, to care for her babies. It took her away from what went on between her parents, the yelling and
the hateful silences, which were worse than the yelling. She sang lullabies into plastic ears and rocked inert little bodies; she prayed each night on her knees to get old enough to live with someone else, in love.

Which was why it was a little surprising that, on her wedding day, she sat weeping in the bride’s room. The place was ornately decorated: a multitiered chandelier, embossed ivory wallpaper, two elegant club chairs upholstered in tangerine silk, the table between them holding a bouquet of white freesia and a crystal bowl full of Jordan almonds—for good luck, Irene knew. In the adjoining powder room was a vase of creamy white orchids, pristine linen hand towels, and a gold basket of might-needs decorated by a length of wide satin ribbon. When Irene had shown the bathroom to her best friend and only bridesmaid, Valerie Cox (Valerie herself happily married for nine years), Valerie had said, “Oh, everything is so
!” Irene had stood there, imagining herself as the speck on the ground, Valerie as the plane rising higher in the air. What Irene had felt about the décor was only a sense of outrage, at the excess.

Fifteen minutes before the ceremony was to begin, Irene sat on the bench before the white vanity with her back to the mirror. She had just put on her wedding gown, a dress that was purposefully plain and might in fact work for everyday, were it not floor length and made from ivory Qiana. Her hair was loose about her shoulders, not as yet styled into the upsweep she’d planned; her satin heels lay in a little jumble on the floor beside her, her veil across her lap. The bridal bouquet sat unpacked in its box in a corner of the room.

“But I thought you were
,” Valerie said. She was standing before Irene, holding her friend’s trembling hands in her own. “You said you were absolutely sure!”

“I know, but I want to go home. Will you take me?”

“Well …” Valerie didn’t know what to do. She spoke in a near whisper, saying, “Irene. You’re thirty-six years old. If you want children—”

“I know how old I am! But you shouldn’t get married just to have children. I can’t get
just to have children!” She drew in a ragged breath, snatched a tissue off the dressing table, and blew her nose.

Valerie spoke slowly, carefully, saying, “I don’t know; getting married to have children isn’t such a bad idea. And besides, you
John. Don’t you?”

Irene stared into her lap, picked at one thumbnail with the other.


She looked up. “I can’t go through with this. Please, Vee. It’s wrong. Go and get the car, okay? We have to hurry. If you don’t want to, I understand. I’ll take the bus. There’s a bus that goes by here.”

Valerie cracked open the door to see if anyone was out in the hall: no one. Then she knelt on the floor before Irene and looked directly into her eyes. “Listen to me. If you do this, you can’t take it back. Do you understand that? It’s not just a little tiff and then you apologize and get married next week instead. If you do this, it’s the end of you and John. Do you understand that?”

Irene nodded. “I do. So to speak.” She tried to smile.

Valerie stood, crossed her arms, and sighed. “What about all those people out there? There must be two hundred people! Do you want me to make an announcement or something?”

“Oh. Yes. Yes.” Irene rose and carefully draped the veil over one of the club chairs. “Apologize for me, okay? Say I’m sorry. I
sorry. And be sure to say that I’ll send all the gifts back, right
away. Tomorrow. I know this is hard. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

But then Irene’s father poked his head in the door and said gruffly, “Let’s go,” and Irene put her veil on, stepped into her shoes, and linked her arm through his.

“Irene?” Valerie said, and Irene said, “No.”


hen eighteen-year-old Sadie Marsh comes from California to visit her father in Minnesota, she sleeps in a bedroom decorated for her much younger self: a ruffled canopy bed, a white dresser with fairies painted on it, wallpaper with pink and white stripes, a bedside lamp with a wishing well base. Neither John nor his daughter has ever made a move to change one thing about that room; Sadie still sleeps under a pile of stuffed animals, the ones she left behind.

It’s a warm Sunday in late August, and John is sitting on the front porch, feeding peanuts to the squirrel that has ventured up the steps and over to him. He’s waiting for his daughter to come out the door to announce that this is really it; she has everything now, she’s ready to go to the airport. She’s been here for the usual length of time—one week. She’s not even gone, but already he is feeling a wide band around his middle start to tighten. When he drops her at the airport, neither of them will express any regret at her leave-taking: it is an unspoken agreement that they keep every parting casual, that they do not make a bad situation worse with what they both would describe as fussing and carrying on, a phrase that John’s Atlanta-born mother was fond of using, and one that she in fact employed every time
parted. “No fussin’ and cahn’ on, now,” she would say, her white-gloved hand beneath
his chin, her eyes crinkled at the sides the way they did when she smiled. “I’m gon’ see you real soon, just you wait; you won’t hardly know I’ve been gone.”

He did wait. And wait.

Sadie has Irene’s looks: auburn hair, hazel eyes that lean toward green, a fair complexion that burns at the mention of sun. She’s tall, with a delicate bone structure, wrists so tiny she can almost never find a watch to fit her. But her nature is more like her father’s: she’s an outdoor type, confident in athletics, a person who is more irritated than inspired by poetry, an even-keeled young woman who rarely takes things personally. She has a loud laugh, an infectious one; even when Sadie was a toddler, Irene would say, “You can’t hear her laugh and not join right in, even if you’re mad at her.
if you’re mad at her.”

John hears Sadie coming down the stairs and tosses the rest of the peanuts into a corner of the porch. The squirrel stands there on its hind legs, its tail flicking, then opts for running off the porch rather than heading for the feast. “Hey!” John says. He moves to the top step to watch the squirrel run to the elm tree on the boulevard, then rapidly ascend. From the highest limb, it stares down at John. “Get your
,” John says, pointing, but the squirrel only stares.

BOOK: Once Upon a Time, There Was You
7.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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