ALL THEY WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS . . .
1. A relationship that runs deeper than the foam on my cappuccino.
2. A shot at writing about Tom Hanks while he's still alive instead of slaving away over celeb obituaries at the
New York Herald.
3. A chance to develop “compassion” in my articles and not be “overly critical of my subjects,” as per my boss, Marty. As if! I am
not critical, Mr. Short-Sighted Idiot with the Sexy Blue Eyes. You just wait and see.
4. A wish that my sister, Ricki, and my best friend, Emma, would break away from those self-centered jerks they're dating and find the real deal. If the real deal exists, and I've got my doubts.
5. A second chance to live the life I misplaced somewhere . . .
1. To make Nate happy.
2. To run my Christmas shop in Nag's Head, North Carolina, and listen to the surf over a cup of coffee with my best friend, Ben.
3. To figure out why Nate isn't happy, what I'm doing to make him unhappy, and then make him happy.
4. To spend Christmas in New York City with Jane and Emma, and Nate, if he isn't still mad at me for getting mad at him for spending so much time with his why-isn't-she-your-ex wife.
5. To figure out whyâif I've got the guy and the job and maybe even the ringâI'm so unhappy . . .
1. The pregnancy test is pink . . . the pregnancy test is pink . . . Okay, I will not freak out. I am calm. Controlled. After all, Randy and I want to have a babyâjust not my ex-boyfriend Jonathan's baby. What was I thinking, having ex-sex with that cheating cad? I'm calm, I'm calm. Of course, this is the end of my career at the bank. I'll be demoted. Run out of town. Abandoned by Randy. Living on the street in a box under a sagging wreath. Oh. My. God . . . I'm sorry, what was the question again?
Christmas. It's a time for going into debt, neuroses-gone-wild, dates from hell, seriously spiked eggnog, and maybe even a miracle or two. And for three women on the verge of what seems like certain holiday disaster, it just may be the season to toast the best times of their lives . . .
eople have died for millions of years and been put to rest without my shining obituaries,” I told my boss over the phone. “I think you'll survive one day without me.”
“Of course, of course, Jane,” Marty responded in that hushed New York accent that reminded me of a younger, less hyper Woody Allen. “But first and foremost, I wanted to make sure you're okay. Ms. Jane Conner on a sick day! You, who never call in sick and rarely take vacation. Well, are you okay?”
“Fine.” I pressed the hot teacup against my forehead, over my temple, against the throbbing cheek that wasn't plastered to the phone. My eyes burned like pearl onions and the network of pain inside my head was so tangled and intense, I just wanted escape. “I'd be perfect if I could have everything above the neck surgically removed.”
“Oh, dear.” Confusion and concern mixed in Marty's voice. “Well, that's not good at all, is it? We've got to get you into shape.”
“I'm working on it.” The teacup was scalding my cheek, but somehow that felt good. “I've got an appointment with an ear, nose and throat guy to zap this thing once and for all.”
“Good. Very good.” Sometimes Marty Baker spoke so softly I imagined he'd trained for the priesthood. It's amazing that a man as kind as Marty had risen to a position of power in the editorial pit of snakes, but I counted myself lucky to have him as a boss. Besides his mild manner he was cute in a nebbishy sort of way. He'd be a possibility if I didn't have steady studly Carter. “Good to see a specialist,” he went on. “Well, okay, then. You rest up. The only questionable item is the Yoshiko Abe interview.”
I switched the phone to my left ear and pressed the hot mug to my aching cheek as I remembered the Japanese violin prodigy I was slated to meet this afternoon. “Oh, right. Can you reschedule?” I wanted to sit with an adolescent musician like I wanted a hole in the head. On second thought, the hole in the head might assist in sinus drainage.
“She and her mother are flying to San Francisco tomorrow for the Klein competition, then back to Japan, so it's just got to be done today. But not to worry. I can put someone else on it. Genevieve will do it.”
Genevieve? My nemesis.
“Not her,” I objected, trying to avoid the image of Genevieve Smythe resting her pert little size six Pradas on my desk and laughing at my notes. “Can you give it to someone else?”
“Oren is on loan to Arts until after Chanukah, and Lincoln is on vacation. It's got to be Genevieve.”
“I'll do it.” I hated myself for saying it, hated that I'd spend the afternoon cajoling another pent-up prodigy instead of pampering myself in bath gels, but it seemed to be the only way to make the image of the diabolical, power-mongering Genevieve disappear from my scope. “Make the interview for three at Oscar's and I'll do it.”
“Are you sure?” Marty sounded concerned. “It's not fair to you, really. If you're not feeling wellâ”
“Just reschedule it, okay?” I said, losing patience with Marty's idealistic concerns about fairness in the workplace. Did he really believe in that myth?
“Okay, okay. Oscar's at three. And you feel better, okay? Let me know in the morning if you need more time to recover. We'll talk tomorrow, then.”
Tomorrow. Closing my eyes, I imagined that by tomorrow I would feel better. Tomorrow I'd be able to breathe through my nose, wonder of wonders. In a few days I would wake up and not have to spend the first hour of my day hacking and snorting into a tissue. I would be freaking out from cigarette cravings and wanting to have sex with my boyfriend again. Order would be restored, damn it.
I hung up from Marty and went back to my number two priority after getting healthyâmy novel. I tucked a strand of jet-black hair behind one ear and hitched my nightgown up so that I could sit in lotus position on the sofa with my laptop balanced on the triangle of legs. Since I had the day freeâsort ofâI had planned to crank on the novel, a work in progress that I had started writing in the middle, mostly owing to the fact that I understood the gravity of a killer first line and therefore had not yet been able to come up with one.
The first line.
Ignoring the pain in my face, I sucked the salt from the end of a pretzel stick and wondered what that elusive opening sentence might be.
Every book needs a great first line to hook the reader with subtle promises of texture and intrigue, engaging emotional involvement, poignant insights, pithy observations, and yeah, some of that romance crap, too.
“Sure, romance sells,” my agent friend Raphaela had told me. “But follow your muses. Do something different. God knows, we'd all like to read something fresh.”
“Fresh,” I said now over a mouthful of pretzel. “Right.” So I'd have to trash the story of my ill-fated marriage and the subsequent steady stream of loveless relationships. Not that I really cared. In the city that never sleeps, romanceâespecially bad romanceâwas so ten minutes ago.
I gnawed on the pretzel, savoring. Numm . . . burnt black on one side, fat crystals, crispy but not crumbly. With my sinuses clogged I could only half taste it, which made it less effective as a placebo: I still wanted a cigarette. Was it a mistake to quit smoking while I was trying to break into a new field of writing?
I had a good thirty pages under my belt, which my friend Emma Dee was reading for me. Thirty pages of smoking sex and cutting dialogue. As soon as I sold this book, which, of course, I had to write (a mere technicality!) I could quit my job at the
and stay home every day. I leaned back against the upholstery and focused on the pretzel taste, slightly diminished since my sinuses were blocked, but I wasn't going to let a sinus infection ruin my cushy morning at home. This was the life of a freelancer. Big sigh! Sleep in. Work in my nightie. Ignore the phone. I hadn't felt so free since my mother died nearly four years ago.
Which might sound like a terrible thing to say, but there you have it: having watched her suffer on a respirator during the last few months of her life, I'd been relieved. As the oldest child, and the only one in town at the time, responsibility for Alice's care had fallen on my shoulders during the short span from diagnosis to deathâMay to October. A smoker all her life, she wasn't surprised to hear lung cancer, though I think she'd hoped for a fighting chance of survival in the beginning. But two months after the diagnosis, she was told to get her affairs in order, and less than a month after that my mother, a former Poet Laureate at Columbia University, could barely rasp out a simple haiku. That summer had ticked off so quickly: the doctor's visits, the daily pilgrimages to the apartment I'd grown up in on the Upper West Side, the negotiations with health care workers and the addition of oxygen tanks and a fat hospital bed that faced the sliding glass windows. With my younger sister Ricki up in Providence starting summer semester of grad school, I'd been thrust into the caretaker role, the loyal, local daughter who could do nothing more than be present to observe the process with a sense of alienation and helplessness.
If death is truly the final journey of a lifetime, shouldn't we have some say in planning the itinerary? I could accept losing my mother, but to see her slip gradually into breathlessness was an image that caused me pain for years.
I shuddered, then noticed the blank monitor mocking me. Quickly I typed:
Just because I haven't nailed down a plot doesn't mean that I won't.
Yes, the words still flowed for me, along with postnasal drip. I was blowing my nose as the phone rang again. I snatched it and barked out a hello.
“Jane, it's me. What are you doing home?” It was Ricki, her voice backlit by strains of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and the jingle bells that chimed whenever the door of her shop opened.
“You sound like a Hallmark commercial,” I told her as I balled up the tissue and tossed it into the pile on the coffee table.
a Hallmark commercial,” she said merrily. After grad school Ricki had followed her heart and (in my opinion) a beef jerky of a man to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where she'd opened up a shop that featured warm and fuzzy Christmas paraphernalia.
When I had visited her last August I'd felt a mixture of amazement and horror at my sister's skill in creating a Christmasland that featured holiday crafts and decorations, a myriad of exquisitely decorated trees, and an overwhelming potpourri of scented items. I was impressed by the functional items such as napkins and chair covers and potholdersâall decorated with miniature Santas or angels or holly sprigs. With the smell of spiced cider and the chime of the bells, the shop transported sweaty tourists from the beach to a wonderland of Christmas nostalgia. “This shop is like a scene from
It's a Wonderful Life,”
I'd accused my sister, and Ricki had swooned over the connection, adding: “I love that movie! I sell the DVD in âFilm Forest,' that section behind âSanta's Workshop.'”
That was my sister, the Christmas junkie. I wasn't sure how her studies at Brown University had led her to this sentimental retail folly, but at least she seemed to enjoy what she was doing.
“I called the office and they told me you were sick,” Ricki said. “What's up?”
“Another sinus infection. And this after I gave up smoking.”
“Janey! You're smoke-free? Congrats! Was it going to be my Christmas present?”
“Don't get too excited. Right now I'd kill for a cigarette, though a butt just might kill me.”
“Poor baby! Are you taking care of yourself?”
“I'm on it. This time, I'm not messing around with the GP. I'm going straight to a specialist. Got an appointment with an ENT inâ” I checked the clockâ“soon. I'd better get out of here.”
“Are we still on for the âSingles in the City Christmas' dinner? I was just about to book my flight to New York but I wanted to make sure you're not planning to fly off for an interview in Belize or Paris or Prague.”
“I write celebrity obits now,” I said with the dull tone of a woman announcing the death of her career. Granted, in the beginning I'd been intrigued by the formulaâencapsulating a life in three hundred words or less, but lately I'd become bored with it.
Dead Reporter Walking.
“My days of exotic assignments are over, at least for the time being.” Not that I'd ever landed an international assignment, but it was useless to remind Ricki that my promotion to the Death Squad was a far cry from a Pulitzer nomination. The day I was hired by the
Ricki called various Manhattan liquor stores until she located one that would deliver a bottle of champagne. She was my one-woman cheering squad; the quixotic optimist to my goth fatalist.
“So we're on for Christmas?” she asked. “I'm planning to come early this year. We can ride the Ferris wheel at Toys R Us and wait in line at FAO Schwarz. Ice-skating at Rockefeller Center. Lunch at Tavern on the Green. Dessert at Serendipity. I love New York at Christmastime!”
I pictured myself chain-smoking out in the cold while Ricki sought Christmas inside the Fifth Avenue department stores. I would need an entire carton to keep up with my sister the tourist. “I was thinking more along the lines of a stiff vodka at Firebird,” I said, “but the answer is yes, book your flights. We'll do the holiday thing here.”
“Oh, goody. Goody gumdrops.”
“Ricki, I think the Christmas music is affecting your brain function. And what about Nate? Tell me he's not going to sulk for months because you're spending Christmas with me.”
“Nate's going up to Providence to be with his kids. He'll be fine,” she said. “You go, see your ear, nose, and throat guy. Feel better.”
“Later,” I honked, my head thick with congestion and pain. And already it was time to close my laptop and get dressed and seek help from the sinus guru. Hard to believe it was December already, but I was relieved that Ricki was coming for Christmas. She would make me drink spiced cider, watch a few Christmas videos, and mist over about that little girl who thinks she's found Prancer. Nothing wrong with having a good Christmas cry with your little sister at Christmas. Hey, what are holidays for?