Looking back, the knock on the door should have scared me. It
should at least have come as a surprise. My house -- the same one I
grew up in -- is set at the farthest curve of a culde- sac in
Pleasant Ridge, Illinois, a Chicago suburb of fourteen thousand
souls with quiet streets, neatly kept lawns, and well-regarded
public schools. There are rarely pedestrians or passersby on
Crescent Drive. Most weeks, the only signs of life after ten p.m.
are the flash of headlights on my bedroom wall on the nights that
my next-door neighbor Mrs. Bass has her Shakespeare Society
meeting. I live alone, and I'm generally asleep by ten-thirty. But
even so. When I heard the knock, my heartbeat didn't quicken; my
palms did not sweat. At some level underneath conscious thought, a
place down in my cells where, the scientists tell us, memories
reside, I'd been waiting years for that knock, waiting for the feel
of my feet moving across the floor and my hand on the cool brass
I pulled open the door and felt my eyes get big and my breath
catch in my chest. There was my old best friend, Valerie Adler,
whom I hadn't spoken to since I was seventeen and hadn't seen in
person since high school ended, standing underneath the porch
light; Valerie with her heart-shaped face and Cupid's-bow lips and
lashes heavy and dark as moth's wings. She stood with her hands
clasped at her waist, as if in prayer. There was something dark
staining the sleeve of her belted trench coat.
For a minute, we stood in the cold, in the cone of light,
staring at each other, and the thought that rose to my mind had the
warmth of sunshine and the sweet density of honey. My
friend, I thought as I looked at Val. My friend has come
back to me.
I opened my mouth -- to say what, I wasn't sure -- but it was
Val who spoke first. "Addie," she said. Her teeth were gleaming,
perfect and even; her voice was the same as I remembered from all
those years ago, husky, confiding, an I've-got-a-secret kind of
voice that she currently deployed to great effect, delivering the
weather on the nightly newscasts on Chicago's third-rated TV
station. She'd been hired six months ago, to great fanfare and a
number of billboards along the interstate announcing her new gig.
("Look who just blew into town!" the billboards read, underneath a
picture of Val, all windswept hair and crimson, smiling lips.)
"Listen. Something...something really bad happened," she said. "Can
you help me? Please?"
I kept my mouth shut. Val rocked back on high heels that seemed
no thicker than pins, gulping as she raked both hands through her
hair, then brought them to waist level and began twisting her belt.
Had I known she had that haircut, that buttercup-yellow color, that
shoulder-length style, with layers that curled into ringlets in the
rain, when I'd given my hairdresser the goahead? I made a point of
not watching her station, but maybe I'd caught a glimpse of her as
I changed channels or the billboards had made an impression,
because somehow here I was, in flannel pajamas and thick wool
socks, with my ex-best-friend's hair on my head.
"Look at you," she said, her voice low and full of wonder. "Look
at you," said Valerie. "You got thin."
"Come in, Val," I said. If time was a dimension, and not a
straight line, if you could look down through it like you were
looking through water and it could ripple and shift, I was already
opening the door. This had all already happened, the way it always
did; the way it always would.
I led Valerie into the kitchen, listening to the drumbeat of her
heels on the hardwood floor behind me. She wriggled out of her coat
and used her fingertips to hang it over the back of a chair, then
looked me up and down. "You weren't at the reunion," she said.
"I had a date," I answered.
She raised her eyebrows. I turned away, filling the kettle at
the sink, then setting it on the burner and flicking on the gas,
unwilling to say more.
My night had not started out well. On the dating website's
advice, I'd met the guy, my sixth blind date in as many weeks, at
the restaurant ("Do NOT invite a stranger to your house!" the
website had scolded. "Always meet in public, always carry a cell
phone, car keys, and/or enough money for transportation, and always
let a friend know where you are!") I'd gotten the first parts of it
right, driving my own car, with my cell phone charged and enough
money to cover the bill in my wallet, but I hadn't been able to
fulfill the last part, on account of being, at the moment,
friendless (friend-free?), so instead, I'd printed out a note in
eighteen-point bold type and taped it to my fridge: I WENT TO MEET
MATTHEW SHARP ON FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 23. IF ANYTHING HAPPENED TO ME,
IT'S PROBABLY HIS FAULT. I'd added my date's telephone number, the
name and address of the restaurant, and a photocopy of my insurance
card. I'd thought for a minute, then added, P.S.: I WOULD LIKE A
MILITARY FUNERAL...because, really, who wouldn't? Buglers playing
taps equals guaranteed tears.
"Addie?" the man by the hostess stand said. "I'm Matthew Sharp."
He was on time, and tall, as promised. This was a refreshing
change: the five guys I'd previously met were not, in general, as
promised. Matthew Sharp was neatly dressed in a tweed sports coat,
a dark-blue button-down shirt, pressed pants, and loafers. His
breath, as he leaned close to shake my hand, smelled like cinnamon,
and a mustache bristled over his lip. Okay, I thought.
I can work with this. True, the mustache was an unpleasant
surprise, and his hairline had receded since he'd posed for his
online picture, but who was I to complain?
"Nice to meet you," I said, and slipped my black wool coat off
"Thanks for coming." He looked me up and down, his eyes
lingering briefly on my body before flicking back to my face. He
didn't look appalled, nor did he appear to be edging toward the
door. That was good. I'd dressed in what had become my date
uniform: a black skirt that came to precisely the center of my
knees (not short enough to be slutty, not long enough to be dowdy),
a blouse of dark-red silk, black hose, black boots with low heels,
in case he'd been lying about his height or, less likely but still
possible, in case I needed to run. "Our table's ready. Would you
like a drink at the bar first?"
"No thanks." The website recommended only a single glass of
wine. I'd keep my wits about me and not give him any reason to
think I had a drinking problem.
The hostess took our coats and handed Matthew a ticket. "After
you," he said as I tucked my scarf and hat into my purse and shook
out my hair. My calves had finally gotten skinny enough for me to
zip my knee-high boots to the very top. I'd gone to my hairdresser
that morning, planning on nothing more than a trim, but, buoyed by
Paul's repeated use of the word "amazing!" and the way he'd
actually gotten teary when he'd seen me, I'd allowed myself to be
talked into six hours' and five hundred dollars' worth of cut,
color, and chemicals, and left with a layered bob that Paul swore
made me look sixteen from certain angles, honey-blond highlights,
and conditioner with a French-sounding name, guaranteed to leave my
hair frizz-free and shiny for the next four months.
I asked for a glass of Chardonnay, Caesar salad, and broiled
sole, sauce on the side. Matthew ordered Cabernet, calamari to
start with, then a steak.
"How was your holiday?" he asked.
"It was nice," I told him. "Very quiet. I spent the day with
family." This was true. I'd taken the full Thanksgiving dinner --
butternut squash soup, roast turkey, chestnut stuffing, sweet
potatoes under a blanket of caramelized marshmallow, the obligatory
pumpkin pie -- to my brother, Jon, at his assisted-living facility
on the South Side. We'd eaten sitting on the floor of his small,
overheated room, our backs against his single bed, watching
Starship Troopers, which was his favorite. I'd left by
three and been back home by four. There, I'd made myself a cup of
tea, added a slug of whiskey, and left a dish of chopped turkey and
gravy out for the little black cat that frequents my back door. I'd
spent the evening sitting in the living room, one hand on my belly,
looking at the shifting grays and lavenders of the sky, until the
moon came up.
"How about you?"
Matthew told me he'd had dinner with his parents, his sister,
and her husband and kids. He'd cooked the turkey, rubbing butter
and sage under the skin and slow-roasting it over a bed of onions.
He said he loved to cook, and I said I did, too. I told him about
my adventures in guacamole. He told me about the shows he watched
on the Food Network and the hot new restaurant in Chicago he was
dying to try.
The waiter slid our plates in front of us. Matthew tucked a
tentacle into his mouth. "How's your salad?" he asked. A bit of
fried breading was stuck in his mustache, and I had to fight an
impulse to reach over and brush it away.
"It's great." It was overdressed, each leaf oily and dripping,
but that was okay -- a bad salad was a perfectly reasonable
tradeoff for, finally, thank you God, a decent date. I chewed a
mouthful into lettuce-flavored paste, and we smiled at each
"Tell me about your job," Matthew said.
"I paint illustrations for greeting cards."
He actually seemed interested, which was a pleasant change from
my previous dates. How had I gotten into that line of work?
(Through my mother, who'd written copy for the same line of cards
and had submitted one of my watercolors without telling me years
ago.) Did I work from home? (Yes, I'd set up a studio in the dining
room, with my easel by the window, where the light was best.) He
asked about the hours, about my training, about whether I got
lonely working all by myself, instead of in an office. I could have
given him a soliloquy, an essay, could have sung an entire libretto
on the topic of loneliness, but instead I'd just said, "I don't
mind being by myself."
He told me about his job running a chain of self-storage
warehouses in Illinois and Wisconsin. I asked about where he'd
grown up and where he lived now, lifting a soggy crouton to my
lips, then setting it back on the plate, untasted, waiting for the
moment that had come during each of my other dates, when he'd start
trashing his exwife. Of the five men I'd gone out with, four of
them had proclaimed that their exes were crazy (one had upped his
diagnosis to "certifiably insane"). The fifth was a widower. His
wife had been a saint, which sounded even worse than crazy when you
were the potential follow-up act.
He was nice, I thought, as Matthew expounded enthusiastically on
the hike he'd taken just last weekend with the Sierra Club. "I go
out with them a few times a month," he volunteered. "Maybe you
could join me?"
My first thought was that he was kidding -- me, hike? Where,
from the Cinnabon to the Ben & Jerry's? I still had to remind
myself that I was now more or less normal-sized, and that Matthew
had never seen me in my previous incarnation. "Sure. That sounds
like fun." A hike in the woods. I let myself picture it: a red
fleece pullover, a hat that matched my mittens, the thermos full of
hot coffee that I'd bring. We'd sit side by side on a blanket in
the leaves and watch as a stream burbled by.
Our entrees arrived. My fish was mealy at the edges, translucent
in the center, tasting as dead as if it had never been alive. I
managed two bites while Matthew told the story of how his
colleague, a middle-aged middle manager named Fred, had suddenly
taken it into his head to get his eyes done. "He came into the
office and he looked -- Well, one of the secretaries said he looked
like a squirrel with something jammed up his..." He paused. A
dimple flashed in his cheek. "Like a startled squirrel. Like his
eyes were trying to jump right out of his head, and I heard that
when his granddaughter saw him for the first time she started
crying." He chuckled. I smiled. Love me, I thought, and
sipped my wine and trailed one manicured thumbnail delicately along
the edge of my blouse, beneath which my breasts swelled, clad in
itchy lace, helped along by heavy-duty underwire.
Matthew leaned across the table, with his tie dangling
dangerously close to the puddle of beef blood on his plate. "You're
a really unique person," he said.
I smiled, shoving my doubts about the syntax of "really unique"
to the back of my mind.
"I feel so comfortable with you. Like I could tell you
anything," he continued.
I kept smiling as he gazed at me. He had nice eyes behind the
glasses. Kind eyes. Maybe I could talk him into shaving the
mustache. I could see us together, on a slope covered with fallen
leaves, my mittened hands around a cup, the coffee-scented steam
curling in the air. Please stop talking, I begged him
telepathically. Every time you open your mouth, you are
jeopardizing our beautiful life together.
Sadly, Matthew didn't get the message. "Six months ago," he
began, with his eyes locked on mine, "I woke up with a bright light
shining through my bedroom windows. I looked up and saw an enormous
green disc hovering above my home."
"Ha!" I laughed. "Ha ha ha!" I laughed until I realized he
wasn't laughing...which meant that he wasn't kidding.
"I have reason to believe," he continued, and then paused, lips
parted beneath his mustache, "that I was abducted by aliens that
night." He was so close that I could feel his beefy breath on my
face. "That I was probed."
"Dessert?" asked the waiter, sliding menus in front of us.
I managed to shake my head no. I couldn't speak. I was single,
true. I was desperate, also true. I had slept with only one man at
the shamefully advanced age of thirty-three. I'd never heard the
words "I love you" from someone who wasn't a parent. But still, I
was not going home with a guy who claimed to have been violated by
space aliens. A girl has her limits.
When the check came, Matthew slipped a credit card into the
leather folder and looked at me ruefully. "I guess I shouldn't talk
about the alien abduction on first dates."
I adjusted my neckline. "Probably not. I usually wait until the
third date to talk about my tail."
"You have a tail?" Now he was the one who couldn't tell if I was
"A small one."
"You're funny," he'd said. There was a kind of drowning
desperation in his voice, a tone I knew well. Help me, he
was saying. Throw me a rope, give me a smile, let me know it's
okay. I got to my feet while Matthew searched his pockets for
a few bucks to tip the coat-check girl, then followed him through
the restaurant, waiting as he held the door. "You seem like a good
person," Matthew said in the parking lot, reaching for my hand. I
moved sideways, just enough so that I was out of his reach.
You're wrong, I thought. I'm not.
Outside, the predinner mist had thickened into a chilly fog.
Streetlamps glowed beneath golden halos of light. Matthew ran his
hand through his hair. Even in the cold, he was sweating. I could
see droplets glimmering through his mustache. "Can I call you?" he
"Sure." Of course, I wouldn't answer, but that didn't seem smart
to mention. "You've still got my number, right?"
"Still got it." He smiled, pathetically grateful, and leaned
forward. It took me a second to realize that he intended to kiss
me, and another second to realize that I was going to let him. His
mustache brushed my upper lip and cheek. I felt absolutely nothing.
He could have pressed a bottle brush or a Brillo pad against my
face; I could have been kissing his lapel or the hood of my
By the time I got home, he'd already left a message,
long,meandering, and apologetic. He was sorry if he'd freaked me
out.He thought that I was great. He was looking forward to seeing
me again, maybe on Sunday? There was a movie that had gotten a good
write-up in the Trib, or a hot-air-balloon festival. We
could drive out, pack a picnic...his voice trailed off hopefully.
"Well," he said. "I'll talk to you soon." He recited his telephone
number. I thumbed number three for "erase," kicked off my boots,
twisted my bright new hair into a plastic clip, then sat on the
edge of my bed with my face in my hands and allowed myself one
brief, dry, spinsterish sob. Don't get your hopes up. The
website didn't say that. It was what I told myself as inoculation
against the fantasy, persistent as a weed, that one of these guys
could be the one: that I could fall in love, get married, have
babies, be normal. Don't get your hopes up. I'd chant it
like a mantra on my drive to the Starbucks or the Applebee's or,
with Date Number Four, the bowling alley, where, it turned out, the
fellow had had the ingenious notion of combining a first date with
a fifth birthday party for his son (his exwife had not been glad to
meet me; neither, for that matter, had his five-year-old).
Don't get your hopes up...but every time I did, and every
time I got my stupid heart crushed.
"Oh, well," I said out loud. Funny. That had been nice
to hear. But it was so unfair! To get a date on the Internet, a
woman had to be many things, starting with thin and
proceeding relentlessly to attractive and
pleasant and a good listener and good
company. Young, of course. Still fertile, still cute, with a
good body and a decent job and a supportive (but not intrusive)
family. The men didn't even have to be sane.
I looked at the clock, the antique pink-and-green enameled clock
on chubby gold legs that I'd bought myself for my birthday. It was
just after ten. The reunion would be in full swing. Merry
Armbruster had called me that afternoon, making one more last-ditch
plea for my attendance. "You look fantastic now! And I'm sure
everyone's forgotten about...well, you know. We've all grown up.
There's other things people will want to talk about."
Thanks but no thanks. I swallowed my vitamins with a glass of
water and chased them with a shot of wheatgrass (I'd been drinking
the stuff for two years, and it still tasted exactly like pureed
lawnmower clippings). I hung up my date uniform, replaced the lace
bra with a comfortable cotton one, pulled on my favorite flannel
pajamas and a pair of socks, then sat back down on the edge of my
bed, suddenly exhausted. Just lately, I'd been thinking a lot about
the girl I'd been, and what she would have made of the woman I'd
become. I imagined the little me standing at the doorway of my
bedroom, once my parents', in a neat cotton sweater and a pleated
skirt, dark-brown hair caught in a ponytail and tied with a ribbon
that matched her kneesocks. At first she'd be pleased by the rich
color of the paint on the bedroom walls, the oil painting that I'd
done of a lighthouse casting its beam of gold over the water,
hanging above the window. She would like the enameled vase on the
bedside table, the crisp linen bedskirt and the trellised iron
headboard, but then she'd realize that it was my parents' bedroom.
Still here? she'd think, and I'd have to explain how I
hadn't meant to stay, how I'd tried to go away to college, how I'd
planned to live in a big city, to have boyfriends and an
interesting job, to make friends and take trips and have an
apartment that I'd decorate with souvenirs and statues and
photographs I'd have taken on my travels around the world, how I'd
planned on all of that, but somehow...
I rolled onto my side. My blood buzzed, and my thoughts were
darting wildly, jumping from my date who'd looked so promising, to
the website where I'd found him, to my exboyfriend Vijay, who'd
been "ex" for four months, and who'd never exactly been a
boyfriend. You couldn't call him a boyfriend, I guess, if we'd been
out together in public only once, but I'd loved him with an
intensity that I thought -- or at least hoped -- was reserved for
the first man you'd wanted who'd broken your heart.
I squeezed my eyes shut and let my hand rest briefly on my
belly, holding my breath as I pressed. Still there. The lump -- it
was actually more of a stiffness than a lump -- was still there,
between the ridge of my pubic bone and my belly button. I pushed at
it, prodding with my fingertips. It didn't hurt, exactly, but it
didn't feel normal, either. I didn't know how long it had been
there -- for years I'd been so fat I could have been gestating
twins and probably not noticed -- but I was sure that I knew what
it was. Hadn't I watched my own mother die of the samething? First
her breasts, then her liver, then her lungs and her bones, then
I'd scheduled an appointment with my doctor for next week, the
soonest they could take me. The receptionist's chirpy voice had
cooled noticeably at my name, and I knew why. Last year I'd called
in a panic after my fingers had found an odd-shaped protuberance on
the side of my abdomen...which had turned out to be my hipbone.
Well, how was I supposed to know? I thought, as sullen as I'd been
when the nurse delivered the verdict, then stepped outside the exam
room to laugh her stupid highlighted head off. You spend ten years
in the neighborhood of three hundred and fifty pounds and see how
well you recognize your own bones when you find them again.
Besides, this time it felt different. Big, strangely stiff,
growing each day. I knew what it was, and deep down, I'd known that
it was coming. Bad luck always found me. I was a bad-luck kind of
girl. The cancer had eaten my mother and found her sweet, and now
it had returned to Crescent Drive, hoping I'd taste the same. And
maybe that wouldn't be so awful, I thought, as I lay on my fancy
bedding, staring up at the crown moldings I'd hotglued in place
with my birthday clock ticking quietly beside me. I could just give
up on everything, starting with Internet dating. No more freaks and
geeks and unexpected mustaches; no more regular-looking guys who
turned out to be from the Twilight Zone. I could just read, stay in
bed eating shortbread cookies and gelato, and wait for the
end...and with that, I heard the knock at the door, and I went
downstairs to find my best friend standing there, just like old
Excerpted from BEST FRIENDS FOREVER © Copyright 2010 by
Jennifer Weiner. Reprinted with permission by Atria Books. All
Best Friends Forever
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Atria
- ISBN-10: 0743294297
- ISBN-13: 9780743294294