Jul 15 2012 1:00pm
As an editor at a hip women’s magazine, Diana Hudson’s job is to spot mistakes and erase them. But when her boss discovers she’s been applying the same critical eye to her love life, she decides it’s time for Diana to re-edit her style manual for love. She offers Diana the chance to write her first story for the magazine—the EX files—a series of articles about whether spending time with old flames can kindle new fires. For the aspiring writer it’s an irresistible, though admittedly awkward, opportunity — especially when her photographer and BFF Nick is sent along to document whether “Mr. Wrong Then” might be “Mr. Right Now...” But as Nick focuses his lens on Diana’s love life, she’s not the only one who begins to see things from a different angle...
Get a sneak peek of Kelly McClymer’s new novel The Ex Files (available now) with an excerpt of Chapters 2-3.
List Not, Lest You Fall
I turned thirty at 4:06 a.m. Awake. Alone.
When I was twenty-one, I thought thirty would come in with a clap of thunder. Or at least with a surprise party thrown by my handsome and successful husband and attended by a hundred of my closest friends.
That had been my goal, my dream, my vision—number one on my to do list.
I sat up in the dark and double checked the date on my cell phone. Yep. Awake and alone at thirty. Sounded like the title of one of those self help books that tell women they have more of a chance of contracting ebola than finding a husband. Happy birthday to me.
My phone vibrated to let me know I had a text message. Happy Birthday! You’re worth every stretch mark! See you when I get home. Mom.
Not exactly a clap of thunder, but close. 4:06 a.m. I considered calling to thank her. This hour of the morning was not made for hard labor. But she’s in Africa on safari and chances are good that she asked my Dad to send the text right at 4:06 a.m. on the dot. She’s like that.
The sound of anew text being delivered hit the silent darkness like an angry mosquito. Happy Birthday, Princess! Have a piece of cake for me when you wake up. Call you later. Dad.
He wouldn’t call. He never called. He probably wouldn’t have remembered to text me if Mom hadn’t threatened him with dire consequences if he didn’t send her text on time.
The third buzz was the charm. Y’up, B-girl? Emily.
I called her back.
She skipped hello. “It doesn’t matter. You’re better off waiting until you’re thirty-five to get married anyway.”
“That’s not why I’m awake. There was an accident.” The floor was cool on my bare feet when I slid out of bed. From the window, I could see the cars. One had a creatively trailing fender. No doubt the source of the horrendous scream of metal that had penetrated the soothing sounds of my white noise machine.
“Another one? Taxi or civilian?”
I squinted, looking down 14 floors to the street below. “A Beamer and an Audi. But everyone seems well enough to wave their hands in each others’ faces.”
“Civilians shouldn’t be allowed to drive in the city.”
“You know it. Phone shots?”
The thought was tempting. Too tempting. But if I admitted that, Emily would know that I had been obsessing over the fact my life plan would be majorly off track if I didn’t get married in the next twenty-one hours. I decided to distract her. “Mom managed to send a text at exactly 4:06 a.m.” The Beamer driver was now waving his arms at the cop on the scene. The Audi driver stood in the strobe of red and white looking like the bad guy in a mafia movie.
“Considering Dad texted me immediately afterward, I think she asked him to do it.”
“I hope I’m that good a mother when my daughter turns thirty.” Emily’s voice held a wistful note. “You’re so lucky.”
Lucky. Sure. “You will be a great mother. When you have kids. I bet you’ll be the kind of mother who doesn’t even once contemplate celebrating your daughter’s sixteenth birthday with an announcement that you’re divorcing her father and reclaiming your life from the doldrums of family servitude.”
“She loves you.”
“In her way.” The way that made her book a trip to Africa on 24 hours notice without considering she’d miss her daughter’s thirtieth birthday. I put a note to call my mother when she got home on the running to do list I keep on my cell. The power of positive thinking got me through college with my eye on the goal, not on my tendency to run through roommates or wear out computers, keyboards, and printers. Surely it could help me overlook my mother’s idiosyncrasy. She thought life plans were dangerous. Including mine.
As the tow truck moved away with the Beamer listing behind, I wondered if tow truck drivers and policeman thought like my mother. After all, they got to see a lot of life where planned and unplanned collided. Advantage unplanned. Me? I hated crossing things off the plan because the deadline had passed instead of because I’d accomplished the goal.
Emily offered, in a sleepy voice, “Don’t cross anything off The Plan. Let me do it when we have dinner.”
“Thanks. It’s my plan. I’ll do the crossing out, thank you very much.”
“I’m your best friend. And it’s your birthday.”
“I can handle it. It isn’t the first time my plans have hit a snag.” I hadn’t planned for my parents to get divorced, but I tried not to let it interfere with The Plan that was going to take me through college and into adult life with maximum success. At twenty-one, I’d graduated with a degree and a job offer thanks to The Plan. I hadn’t seen any reason why my thirtieth birthday wouldn’t offer the same satisfaction. I had made an inspiration board of my future: me in a close fitting wine colored suit (wine is a good color for my fair skin and red hair, contrary to those old wives’ tales), raising a glass with a sheepish smile as my husband toasted me.
I hadn’t been able to quite picture the husband—he was a tall blur in dark gray, tailored Armani whose voice rang out deep and sincere as he thanked me for the joy and organization I’d brought into his life, even while working hard to earn the Pulitzer for my articles on the lifestyles of modern women.
Crap. Happy birthday to me again. Two major goals missed.
“Are you sure? My life is all about arts and crafts. It could be my birthday gift to you, since you won’t let me throw you a surprise party. One crossed out marriage deadline. No big deal.”
“Two, actually. No article yet.” Three if you counted the surprise party that Emily is planning that is definitely not a surprise. Not that she knew I knew.
Emily was silent for a moment, and then offered, “Would you like a smiley sticker? Or maybe a glitter star? We could cover those suckers up like they never existed.”
“No glitter. No smiles. Save those for your students.” It’s not that my boss doesn’t approve of the ideas I submit on a weekly basis—it’s just that she thinks a staff writer can handle it better than I can, since I’m just an editor. Editing and writing have to be mixed carefully, she says, or the end result will resemble a Molotov cocktail.
Like the sleepy street cleared of mangled cars and irate drivers, my life seemed no different. I missed two major life goals on The Plan and I’m still standing. I forced a cheery tone. “At least I have the wine suit, even if I don’t have the husband and career to match.”
“That’s the girl. Think positive.That suit makes you look serious, sexy and smart. No way will Dragon Lady refuse you the next article. I can feel it in my bones.”
“That’s called exhaustion. What are you doing awake anyway? Your kids will eat you alive if you don’t get your eight hours.” Emily taught kindergarten.
Another hesitation. “I will if you will.”
“Deal.” I’d find out what was keeping Emily the perpetually perky awake tomorrow, after I’d dealt with The Plan.
“Sure you don’t want to do phone shots?”
“My head’s already on the pillow,” I lied. At thirty years and fifteen minutes old, I accepted that I wasn’t going back to sleep.
“You never know, maybe something in The Plan will survive this birthday. You still have the rest of the day to go.”
I resisted the urge to out her about the no-surprise surprise party she was planning for me. “You’re not channeling a bad romcom are you? One where I meet and marry Mr. Right in one day?”
“No.” She paused. “But Dragon Lady could always assign you the article on romantic camping vacations. You’re pitching that one, today, right?”
“Fingers crossed. Now get some sleep so I don’t have to hear all about a glitter catastrophe in the classroom at dinner tonight.”
“Right. Simple. Just the four of us. Unless you want me to plan a surprise party?”
“Simple is good. See you tonight.” I hung up. Emily is incapable of keeping a secret long enough to plan a surprise. She has not so subtly asked my restaurant, wine and food preferences over the last few weeks—several times, because she doesn’t even keep a to do list. I don’t hold that against her, though, because Emily takes after her kindergartners in many ways, and it is best to be as prepared for chaos as possible when she’s around.
Life is Full of Little Surprises
I arrived at the restaurant exactly on time, to find my other best friend lurking in the entryway, ready to provide moral support. “Ready to be surprised?” Nick said as he handed me a glass of Sangiovese and a small box wrapped in a page from the Voice.
“By the party or your gift?” I teased. Nick’s gifts were legend among our friends.
He smiled. “Both, of course.” His gaze flickered to the back room where Emily waited to shout surprise and give me a mild heart attack. “Go ahead and open it here. You may need it in there.”
Need it?…I didn’t want to ask. I handed him back the wine and quickly opened the box. “A pen on a chain. Just what an editor needs. I wonder where I should attach it?”
He grinned, handing me back the wine and plucking the gift from my hand before I could examine it well.There was always a twist with a present from Nick. As a proverbial starving artist, he tended to make his gifts from things he scrounged from the trash. “It’s a necklace. Turn around.”
I stood still as he fastened the pen necklace around my neck. Fortified with a gulp of wine, I asked, “Exactly why am I going to need a pen at my surprise birthday party?”
He finished locking the clasp and squeezed my shoulders once, quickly, before he herded me toward the back of the restaurant. “Maybe I’m wrong.”
It wasn’t hard to put on my I-had-no-idea-face when I walked in the private room Emily had reserved and was greeted with a wave of fairly coordinated shouts of “Surprise! Happy birthday Diana!” And the release of a roomful of pink and purple helium balloons.
Emily can’t keep surprises, but that doesn’t mean she can’t leave me speechless on a semi-weekly basis. The party looks nothing like the one in The Plan. It’s not just that Emily is not a man, not my husband, or not wearing Armani. No, The fluttery sea blue lace of her dress suits her fairy princess nature as she embraces me. Like Nick, Emily is different. I seem to be a magnet for different—in friends, in roommates, in parents. No matter how much I adore her, I can’t help but be relieved that I’m not greeted with a mail-order husband and a quickie wedding. Emily knows how seriously I take my goals—although she doesn’t always approve.
So, I had to celebrate my thirtieth without the husband, the career, the discreet champagne-colored balloons my imaginary husband would have chosen. So what? I have friends, and … I looked around the room … sort-of-friends to help me celebrate, despite the sickeningly cheerful pink and purples balloons floating above the table. At least no balloons could destroy the taste of good food— and the party had been arranged at Martelli’s, my favorite Italian restaurant.
Just to be sure, I had left a menu, marked with my favorites, stuck to the fridge door. It disappeared two weeks ago. Hint taken right on schedule. Now if only I could have been left alone with a lovely plate of spaghetti Bolognese and a bottle of Sangiovese, I‘d have been happy.
Unfortunately, Emily, knowing how much I dislike missing a milestone on The Plan, was determined to make me enjoy the evening. “Sangiovese?” She looked at the glass in my hand, and then the one in hers.
“Nick,” I explained with a nod to the coward, who had seated himself as far from the pink and purple draped birthday throne as he could. No doubt he had thought the pen would be useful for popping balloons. A very tempting thought.
Emily’s expression cleared. “Of course. Here.” She extended the glass and poured the wine in her glass into the one I held. “Happy birthday.”
“Are you really surprised?”
I looked at the balloons. “Stunned.”
“Just wait. There’s more.” She smiled. The crazed smile of a Kindergarten teacher in the last minutes of the last day of school. And then she trundled out a cart from behind the discreet little curtain in our private dining room and my mood plummeted to dungeon depths. Mold. Damp. Spiders and worse skittering through the dark recesses of my imagination. I definitely did not leave any hints that would require her laptop. Or the projector ominously attached to it by a coiled white cable.
Nick gave me an encouraging lift of his beer from across the table. No rescue from that quarter. A square of bright light flickered and resolved against the whitewashed cinderblock wall. The horror of me, at five, one huge pink frill with a smile that stretched from ear to ear revealing gums and tongue and missing tooth, roots me to my chair.
My boss turned to me with an upraised eyebrow—I am certain she practices the expression in the mirror she does it so perfectly every time. Her glance caught on a bit of lint resting on the shoulder of her black suit jacket and she brushed it off with one elegant flick of her hand. “Your fondness for pink runs deep, doesn’t it Diana?” Everyone laughed but me. I pasted on a frozen smile, as I always do when my boss reveals her utter lack of appreciation.
Frantic, I sent eyebrow S.O.S. signals of distress to Emily. Psychic messages: No. Stop. No. No, no, no, no…no….
Apparently Emily mistook my horror for humor, because she hit a key on her laptop and sent the movie of me splashing into action against the white wall of the restaurant. Part of the painfully young me was obscured by a potted palm. Not enough.
How did she manage to keep this secret from me? Am I slipping? Can’t meet a major life goal or two in a timely manner, and now suddenly I can’t ferret a secret out of an open book like Emily?
“Once upon a time there lived a Long Island girl named Diana. The little girl had a plan. In fact, she called it The Plan.” Everyone laughed and I had to see why, even though I knew I‘d regret it.
The pink frill had disappeared to be replaced by me in a purple toga, with a pink plastic bow slung over my shoulder. The toga was purple because from age four to age eight I would only wear shades of pink or purple. As I watched, the little me leapt about shouting, “I want to be a princess.”
With my life passing before my eyes, I wanted to leave the restaurant. But I was stuck, because Emily was pleased with herself and I would rather sit through the humiliation than publicly crush her. My mother could be heard from behind the camera saying, “A goddess is better than a princess, Diana,” before I send an arrow straight into the eye of the video camera lens.
As if the arrow had the power to collapse time, I appeared at age six, in pink this time, with a big gap where I‘d lost my top two front teeth. Apparently I‘d given up the idea of being a princess for the more appealing goal of sticking my tongue as far as possible through the hole in my smile. And then I’m a shiny pink mushroom in the school play, shakily reciting my one line—”Under a tree I sit, waiting for a friend to visit.” Everyone laughed again.
Three quarters of a bottle of wine later, after a spectacle that included a curveless 12 year old me in my first (red, not pink or purple) bikini, I wave goodbye to my mother and father as I drive away in my used blue Jetta, vanity license plate reading The Plan. I had thought I was so clever — setting The Plan in motion.
A curly THE END…or is it?… metamorphosed from pink to purple to the wine color of my favorite suit as the expose of my life came to a close.
The End. Thank God. Time at last began to move naturally again, and the sound of the blood moving through my veins quieted. “Diana, what I didn’t know about you.” Allie, a former roommate twirled a pin between her fingertips. She was talking to me, but her eye was on the nearest man, as usual.
“I am a woman of mystery.” I have definitely had too much wine. Allie is the roommate who stayed for six weeks and then went off with my then-current boyfriend, Alejandro, and my peach angora sweater. She left a note saying that we were better off just friends. I’m not completely certain whether she meant she and I, or Alejandro and I, but I forgave them both, even though I still miss the sweater. I’m used to losing roommates and boyfriends, but I usually manage to hang on to my favorite clothes.
I make my living in relationships. A good living, but not a great one—yet. I put together a section for The Female Eye on how to get a man, how to keep him, how to talk to him, how to get him to listen, even how to dump him when you decide you don’t want him. The irony of my job has not escaped me through the years, but never seemed so sharp as it did when I was surrounded by friends and co-workers in celebration of my birthday. My thirtieth birthday. 3-0. I’m not the only one without a date. But then, no one else at this table makes a living trying to create-maintain-tweak the perfect relationship.
Emily snapped her laptop shut. “Don’t be a snot, Allie. Diana needs our help. She missed a step on The Plan. A big one. Unless…” She looked at me. “You didn’t get married since this morning did you?” Everyone laughed. Again.
I glared at her. “No.” If I were in charge of the world, I would have sensitive friends, who would reassure me that thirty is not old and that the soul mate I deserve is just around the corner.
“Well then. I think we should all help Diana find her Mr. Right.” Emily looked around the room. “After all, she has done her best to help all of us when we needed it. Right?”
“And when we didn’t need it,” said one of my many previous roommates whose name had slipped my mind, but whose fascination for serving sauerkraut with everything he ate had not.
I looked at Nick, pleading with him to stop this. He kept his eyes on Emily. Probably with the same fascination as happens when you see an accident about to occur and there’s no way to stop it.
Allie, always one to look for the short cut, asked the obvious question, “Are you even dating?”
“No.” Just the the bare word, no elaboration.
My boss, aka Dragon Lady, aka Olivia Wallace, raised her barely touched wine glass for the first toast of the evening. “To Diana, who has become the arbiter of the Perfect Man, without having to maintain one of her own.” She sipped the wine politely, but then washed it down with a belt from her ever present glass of scotch, neat.
Why did Emily have to out me to my boss? Business is a bitch to a woman who dares to age. I’ve been pitching high concept article ideas for an under thirty audience. Had my chance to write passed me by? Worse, would I soon be put to pasture editing the how to survive divorce and middle age articles? Is there the equivalent of Bo-Tox for careers?
A man with a paunch and a sparse brush of gray hair is still a lion. But a woman with a wrinkle—opportunities are not us. The little laugh lines around my eyes that hadn’t bothered me yesterday, suddenly seemed like burgeoning Grand Canyons. Thank God the restaurant went in for muted light and artful truth.
I could feel the chance to earn a Pulitzer slipping away, which was not helped when Emily rose from the table and lifted her glass in my direction. “To Diana, queen of the single lifestyle section. May she meet her Mr. Right and get The Plan back so we can all do this again at her wedding.”
“May she reign long,” my boss added with a wave of her scotch glass. Who can tell if she means it? She might, of course. I don’t flatter myself that she loves my work—a suburbanite with an SUV and a TV that plays “Sex and the City” reruns non-stop could do my job. No. She simply hates change. The employees who stay are the ones who realize that her cries of “I want new! I want fresh!” really meant “I want the same thing packaged as something different.”
Even though she hasn’t given me one of the writing assignments I asked for weekly, she loves my ideas, she says. And I believe her, because she always assigns them to another writer—usually Tandy Baker, a woman with the depth of skim ice on a winter river. I even dared to ask her why, once. Can’t achieve your goals if you’re too timid to push for them. “You just need to find the perfect idea,” she told me. “One that only you could write,”…as if there is such a thing. Perfect man, perfect idea, my life is apparently off track because I can’t seem to find either one.
Glasses raised to a general murmur of “Queen Diana.” One of my friends far down the table lifted her glass and laughed, “Queen of the List you mean.”
Paolo, another former roommate, snickers. “Surely you should retire those things, now that you are a decrepit old woman.” Paolo is handsome, a struggling actor who says he’s twenty-six. I realize I never considered dating him. Probably because he never considered paying the rent after he moved in. I finally made him a calendar with the date the rent was due circled. He moved out the next day.
Nick—a man who has become a friend without a way station at either boyfriend or roommate—laughed and raised his glass. “To burning the list at last.” Et tu, Nick? I forgive him though. He had drunk too much, as he tended to do when forced into a large crowd of mostly women.
“Here here.” Even Emily joined the enthusiastic toast. Traitor.
“My lists keep my life organized and focused—unlike some of yours.” I didn’t want to be defensive, but it was my birthday. My thirtieth birthday. You would think someone would be kind. Of course, they had now all seen me in a purple toga and a bikini without a curve in sight. “Paolo — who helped you get that walk-on part on off-off-off Broadway? You would have missed that call-back if I hadn’t made you a list and a map.”
He bowed. “I concede, Diana, Queen of Lists. If I can be of service, I shall.”
“Sit, Paolo. Let me talk.” Emily dismissed him with a flip of her hand and turned back to me. Not content with humiliating me visually, Emily outed my deepest secret. “I understand grocery lists, to do lists and—” she smiles at Phil. Have I mentioned Emily is married? Happily too. Five years. Phil is not only a great guy, but so far he has been a great husband, too. She didn’t even have a goal, just fell into it as easily as wiggling into spandex.
Oblivious to the black currents of jealousy stirring in me, she continued. “—honey do lists. I even understand keeping a little black book of current lovers. But I draw the line at keeping a list of every past boyfriend along with how they measured up against your Ten Commandments of Love and Marriage.”
I confess, for a moment I considered taking revenge by dragging her husband into the ladies’ room and sharing a passionate kiss. But it wouldn’t have worked. He’s not my type. Or, more precisely, he’s too exactly my type. Emily, when she is exasperated with his need for precision and order, often swears that he and I could be identical twins separated at birth if only we weren’t opposite sexes.
Everyone laughed at the idea of my detailed boyfriend rating list, except Olivia, who hadn’t heard whispers of my infamous black book. Okay, if so many people have heard of it, it can’t really be classified as a secret, but I wish it was. At least, from my boss. “You keep a list of the old boyfriends?” She was focusing extra carefully and licking her lips, a sure sign that she was well on the way to forgetting everything that happened at the party.
I wish I could have said the same. Sometimes I blink and I see the absurdity of my life, and then it disappears in the next blink and everything seems normal and right. For example, many of the guests at my birthday party were former roommates of mine. In the five years since Emily moved out to get married, I have had many roommates. This means many people who have seen me in my sweats with no makeup, but don’t like me enough to live with me for longer than a few months at a time. I’d live alone, if I could afford it. I almost can. Fortunately, since I am once again looking for a roommate. Looking for a new roommate is almost as bad as having to White-out a missed goal.
“What else would a good Queen of Lists do? After all, they have to meet her standards don’t they? No lying, cheating, stealing. Seems reasonable. But what else does she want a guy to do? Leap over tall buildings? Outrun locomotives?” Nick. Again. Et tu too, Nick?
“You forgot the commandment against stabbing me in the back.” Despite my intention to be light and breezy, my voice sounded tight. He sat back a bit sheepishly, while everyone else sat forward just a touch.
Emily pointed to the small stack of presents and said somewhat over brightly, “Never mind the past, let’s get to the presents.”
I could not help but whisper a silent thanks that Emily was the one roommate who stuck with me through college and right up until her marriage—even though at that particular moment I wanted to strangle her with my pantyhose.
“First,” I stood up, not surprised to find the room spinning. After all, the evening had been aroller coaster ride, complete with lots and lots of wine. “The Queen needs to visit the ladies’ room.”
Emily, finally aware that I was not enjoying this as much as she thought I would, popped up. “Good idea. Just one more thing.”
“You must embrace your inner pink one more time, and then let go,“ she said, handing me a ruby crusted hatpin of my grandmother’s. I recognized it from my mother’s jewelry box. The gesture touched me. Emily is not the planner I am, but she must have begged the hatpin from my mother before the big safari.
“For girlhood,” she explained. “It’s symbolic.”
“Kindergarten teacher,” I countered, before I chose the balloon closest to me, which just happened to be next to Olivia’s ear. Serendipity indeed. “This is for you, Emily.” I pushed the pin into the pink latex and the balloon popped. Loudly.
Olivia jumped a little, but her drink did not spill. Before she said a word, Emily shouted, “Everyone, now! Free your pink and purple!”
For a moment there was a whirl of arms and elbows and an ebb and flow of laughter punctuated by pops as the other guests used the pins by their plates to pop balloons. Emily’s eyes met mine and she grinned as she handed the last balloon to Olivia to pop and everyone settled speechless in their seats.
In the satisfying silence, as bits of pink and purple latex confetti floated to the floor, the tablecloth, onto the guests, I did not regret that some of the things on my to do list missed the big 3-0 deadline. Life can throw curves. I can adapt. Thirty-two sounds like a good age to be married. And the Ten Commandments of Love and Marriage were still a sound set of principles to use to help me find the right guy.
No one noticed when I slipped away to the ladies’ room.
Copyright © 2012 by Kelly McClymer
Kelly McClymer fell in love with Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White as a child. Her most prized possession is her copy of The Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Her favorite fairytale remains “The Six Swans” — where a young sister must not speak a word for six years in order to save her brothers from their stepmother’s evil spell. You can find out more about Kelly and her other books on her website http://kellymcclymer.com