A Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Awards 2007 Nominee! A July 2007 Book Sense Notable!
Just a few months shy of her 30th birthday, Gus Curtis finally feels like she has it all: a strong career, great friends, and a wonderful boyfriend.
But all of this comes crashing down when Gus discovers Nate, her “Mr. Right,” hooking up behind her back with her so-called “friend” Helen. Soon it seems like the life Gus has worked to make so adult looks a lot like the one she already had as a teenager, and Gus is left with more questions than answers:
Can she win Nate back before she turns 30 alone? (And if so, does she really want him?) Is Helen really as devious and manipulative as she seems, or, worse, is Gus more like her frenemy than she ever imagined? And is she ever going to grow up?
With the clock ticking down to her birthday, Gus discovers that sometimes the best thing about best-laid plans is trashing them altogether.
I blame it on Janis Joplin.
Because until that song came on, I was fine. Fine.
So what if I hadn’t seen Nate since the memorable night I’d walked in on him kissing someone else two and a half weeks ago, which was seventeen total days, not that I was counting?
So what if he was supposed to be my boyfriend?
And so what if the girl he was kissing was none other than Helen Fairchild, my freshman year roommate way back when?
Who, until that night, I’d thought valued our shared history and mutual exasperation enough to consider me a close friend—the sort of close friend who would find my boyfriend to be off-limits?
Seriously, I was fine.
I took a deep breath, and told myself that I didn’t care in the slightest that Nate and Helen had just swept inside the bar together, looking flushed and giddy and bringing with them a swirl of cold weather from the fall night beyond. I didn’t care that every single one of our mutual friends, all of whom were gathered together to celebrate a birthday, looked from the two of them to me to gauge my reaction. I didn’t care that my heart—which I would have told you had broken into pieces too small to be seen with the naked eye and thus couldn’t possibly break any further—thumped painfully in my chest, clearly whole enough to keep hurting.
If I burst into tears, I would never forgive myself.
I was so busy trying to look like I didn’t care and wasn’t close to tears, in fact, that Amy Lee had to kick me under the table to get me to notice that she and her husband had returned from the bar, bearing armfuls of drinks.
“Stop staring at them,” Amy Lee ordered.
“It’s fine,” I told her, which was surprisingly hard to do through a clenched jaw. “After all, who cares that we were together for almost four months after knowing each other since college? Who cares about history? I’m perfectly fine with this.”
Amy Lee sighed, and exchanged what I could only describe as a significant look with Oscar. Then, she and Oscar settled themselves on either side of me on the plush banquette. In support.
Or, possibly, to restrain me.
The two of them were a perfect example of the whole opposites attract thing, I thought, looking at them through the big mirror on the far wall. Amy Lee looked crisp and pulled-together at all times, while Oscar always looked as if he’d just stepped off a skateboard. They’d met in dental school and fallen in love, apparently over molars. It was to their credit that I found that story romantic despite my long-held dental phobia.
Amy Lee slid a beer in front of me.
“Listen up, Augusta,” she ordered me. Her use of my full, legal name—which I hated and therefore generally responded to only in places like the DMV—earned her a baleful glare.
But I listened.
“I get why you want him,” she said. “Everyone adores Nate. He’s practically made a career out of being adorable.”
“I don’t think he’s adorable,” Oscar said from my other side. “Not that he’s not adorable, of course. I just don’t think about it.”
“I think even I had a crush on him for like fifteen seconds in college,” Amy Lee continued, ignoring her husband. “How could you not? He was like the college version of the captain of the football team. All puppy dog eyes and that bashful smile.”
“Yeah, that’s really adorable,” Oscar retorted. “Let’s talk more about his rugged good looks, so maybe I can have a crush on him too.”
Amy Lee had all the delicacy of a steam roller. I assumed this served her well in dentistry, but tonight it made me want to upend a drink over her head.
“‘Puppy dog eyes and that bashful smile’?” I echoed. I glared at her. “Why do you want to hurt me?”
“But here’s the thing,” Amy Lee said as if I hadn’t spoken. “You’ve known the guy since we were all eighteen and only hooked up with him this summer. That’s hardly raging hot chemistry, now is it?”
“He hasn’t been girlfriend-free since college!” I protested. “He was with that horrible Lisa for years!”
“I’m just saying it took you an awfully long time to get together with him,” Amy Lee said. “Okay, sure, you liked him more than the weirdos you usually date, but still.” She took a sip of her drink, which, unaccountably, appeared to be a Coke. I scowled at it, and she muttered something about designated driving.
As that was normally Oscar’s role, I looked at him.
“I plan to drink a lot tonight,” Oscar told me, his eyes across the bar on The Happy Couple. “I might toast Nate’s bashful smile a few times, too.”
Since he was staring at Nate, I gave myself permission to do the same. I watched as Nate peeled off his winter coat, and exchanged manly handshakes with his buddies. I watched as Helen floated merrily on the end of his arm like a particularly well-tweezed balloon.
Seventeen days had not dimmed the pain even a little bit, it turned out, despite several bold proclamations to the contrary I’d made in the shower earlier that evening. If Gretchen, the birthday girl, hadn’t called me personally and begged me to come, there was no way I would have attended this party. It had been bad enough to stand there that night two and a half weeks ago, face to face with the evidence that he and Helen were on kissing terms. Sitting in a crowded bar with half of Boston looking on as I was humiliated with every snuggle and simper was, it turned out, worse.
Nate and I first met years ago when we both attended Boston University. We became members of a wider group of friends who fell into two rough and interwoven groups themselves: those who had originally gone to BU together and others who had met thanks to summers spent on Cape Cod. We all became one big group of people who were loosely connected and spread out across the greater Boston Metropolitan area, leading to a rollicking social life with competing parties almost every weekend.
And in this big group, Nate was the favorite. Everyone loved Nate. He was so good-looking and sweet-faced at eighteen that some women (who will remain nameless) had been known to lurk around the bushes to take pictures of him on the sly. He was also nice, which was so surprising it often stopped people in their tracks. He was sweet to everyone, universally considered cute, and unfortunately, taken. Girls mooned over him and treasured the intimate conversations they had with him every now and again over beers when his girlfriend was somewhere else. Guys pounded him about the shoulders when they met him and thereafter, inevitably, called him “solid.” Everyone loved Nate from afar until he’d finally broken up with Longtime Lisa (as she was known) for the last time in April.
The month of May was like the first season of Desperate Housewives, with all the girls playing Edie and Susan to Nate’s Mike the Plumber, in a pitched battle to soothe his broken heart. Amy Lee and our other best friend, Georgia, took bets and predicted—accurately—that it would all end in rebound tears.
By the time Nate and I hooked up at a Fourth of July party, I figured we were out of his rebound woods. I’d been waiting for Nate for a long time. Amy Lee had a point about the kind of guys I’d dated throughout my twenties—commitment-allergic “musicians” and banker boys had been my specialty, and I was over them. More than that, Nate and I were a good match. Even an obvious match. I might not have the kind of irritating (to other women) bland attractiveness that girls like Longtime Lisa had, but I felt I was cute enough. More to the point, we had all the same friends. We liked the same things. We’d even lived in the same freshman dorm. I liked the story we could tell about how, once upon a time back in college before he’d fully committed to Longtime Lisa, he and I had almost kissed outside Sicilia’s Pizza at 3:30am.
Getting together with Nate made sense. It was the third part of my three-part plan for my twenty-ninth year, the one I’d come up with shortly after turning twenty-nine the previous January. The key to being a well-adjusted adult, I’d decided, involved three things: good friends, a good job, and a good boyfriend. I already knew that Amy Lee and Georgia were the best friends anyone could want—we’d been friends for over ten years and were practically family, and yet we had a much wider, active social group too, so no one had to feel claustrophobic. I was a librarian in a small museum near Boston Common, and I loved it. So what could be better than a boyfriend so perfect that other women plotted ways to impress him? A boyfriend who I’d actually been friends with for years? With Nate, finally, everything was as it should be. I could see our future stretch before us, one perfect fantasy after the next. I had nothing to fear from thirty. I was a complete adult, life was going along as planned, and there would be no need for the stereotypical I’m-about-to-turn-thirty breakdown.
And the fact that Nate was so cute that even Amy Lee sighed over him was just a bonus.
Across the room, Nate shifted position on his barstool, so I could see his puppy dog eyes for myself. And also the person those eyes were focused on: Helen.
I felt rage sweep through me, prickling along my scalp and then shooting along my skin to the tips of my toes.
The thing about Helen was that she was that girl, I thought as I knocked back my beer, and then helped myself to the rest of Oscar’s. He didn’t complain, he just raised his brow at Amy Lee and then launched himself toward the bar for refills.
You could say that I’d conducted a study of Helen, I thought then. It began the day she sauntered into the tiny, concrete-walled room we would be sharing for our freshman year, smiled at me and the remains of my high school hair, and claimed the bed beneath the windows. The better bed. I didn’t even put up a fight. I was dazzled.
Helen, with her fashionably ratty jeans and casual assumption that everyone wanted to hang out with her, was cool. Impossibly cool. Even the fact that she had one of those jarring donkey laughs like Janice on Friends just made her interesting, when on anyone else, a laugh like that would be dorky beyond belief. Nothing about Helen was dorky.
Helen had no qualm about walking up to the cutest boy in our dorm and asking him what was going on that terrifying first night at college, and then inviting herself along. She didn’t care if the more insecure girls hated her. She intimidated our RA simply by turning up and draping herself across a chair in that boneless way she had. She didn’t seem to notice any of the tension or envy she kicked up in her wake.
Helen was a guy’s girl. She never met a guy, in fact, who didn’t want to be her friend. She never met a girl who did. I, meanwhile, was very much the opposite. My knowledge of boys at eighteen came entirely from fantasy novels and certain WB shows. I was a girl’s girl. The moment I met Georgia and Amy Lee, I knew I would be friends with them, because we were all the same beneath the skin. Living with Helen was like seeing behind a curtain. I got to see what it was like to be everything I couldn’t be.
She was that girl. The one I had believed for eighteen years existed only in the imaginations of Hollywood screenwriters. And the fact that she was my roommate meant that I got to be that girl along with her, if only in my own mind.
Between worshipping her at eighteen and wanting to leap across a crowded bar to strangle her at twenty-nine, however, there was the entire span of our friendship. There were the random nights out we’d had in those chaotic years after college, just the two of us, where I would marvel at her near-superhuman ability to attract cute boys and she would tell me how much she relied on my friendship. There were the phone conversations when she’d tell me long, hilarious stories about her romantic exploits that always ended with some guy begging for another chance while Helen tried to extricate herself. These were the things that made me roll my eyes when I saw her number on Caller ID, and they were also the things that made me smile when I thought about her. There was no one quite like Helen. I’d known that even as a teenager.
When she’d started playing her little games with Nate over the summer—all those sidelong glances and overly intimate smiles she was so good at—I’d just gritted my teeth and ignored it. That was just Helen being Helen, I’d thought. That was the sort of thing she did, it didn’t mean anything, she couldn’t help herself. I’d spent long hours on the phone assuring Georgia and Amy Lee that of course it was annoying that Helen had no boundaries, but that of course nothing would happen, because even though she drove me crazy most of the time, she and I were friends. Having lived directly across the hall from us freshman year and having been less enamored of Helen than I was, Amy Lee and Georgia were understandably skeptical. But they both loved me too much to actually come out and say I told you so now.
“Here’s a shot of Jagermeister,” Amy Lee announced, slapping the shot down in front of me. I blinked, unaware until that moment how far inside my head I’d gone. “I think you should view it as an anesthetic. Numb the pain, sing Happy Birthday, and when you go home tonight, you’ll at least never have to face the two of them for the first time ever again.”
I was already feeling blurry around the edges, but I took the shot.
“Let’s stop staring,” Amy Lee suggested. I realized it wasn’t the first time she’d said it. “Let’s talk about how Georgia’s job is ridiculous. I’ll start. It’s ridiculous.”
Georgia was a lawyer, and, like tonight, was forever traveling for work. When particularly morose—which usually meant she’d over-served herself vodka without the Redbull—she could sketch the layouts of most major domestic airports on cocktail napkins. This time she was in Cleveland. Or possibly Cincinnati. Somewhere out there in the middle. She had left me several supportive voicemails and a largely profane text message, encouraging me to ignore Nate and remember that Helen wasn’t worth being upset about.
Though she didn’t use those words.
With Jagermeister, I decided, that should be no problem whatsoever.
Later, I felt blurred right through to the core when I ran into Nate outside the bathrooms.
We stared at each other in the tiny little alcove, festooned with flyers for local bands and supposedly hip postcards.
For a moment we were completely alone. Helen was nowhere near. I wouldn’t have chosen a noisy bar to finally have a moment to ourselves, but it was the first one we’d had in seventeen days. I couldn’t be choosy.
But then, with only the slightest lingering glance, Nate slid past me.
It took another whole breath for me to realize that he actually, seriously, really wasn’t planning to speak to me.
“Are you kidding?” I demanded. “You’re giving me the silent treatment? You have the audacity to give me the silent treatment?”
“Gus.” Nate sighed, and shook his head. His silky brown hair tumbled across his forehead, and he shoved it back with one hand. His voice matched his eyes: sweet, rich chocolate. His hand raised as if he wanted to touch me, then dropped. “You seem so upset.”
“Weird,” I said through the tightness of my throat. “I wonder why? I guess that obnoxious single phone call failed to make me feel better about stuff like you lying to me and—”
“When you’re calmer, and maybe not as drunk, we can talk,” Nate said. As if he was being generous. “If you want.” As if he was doing me a favor.
“Or maybe you can go to hell,” I countered, hurt and furious. “How could you, Nate? How could you do something—”
I would have kept going. I might even have started to yell. But he reached out and put his hand on my arm.
I went mute.
“Gus,” he said fiercely, his eyes darker than usual and sad, too. “You don’t know how much I wish I hadn’t hurt you.”
“Then why did you?” I had to fight to get the question out, past the emotion clogging my throat.
“You want things I can’t give,” he said in that same hushed, hard tone, never breaking eye contact. “You’re sweet and smart and funny and… I’m not who you think I am. The thing with Helen just proved that. I’m just not…” He broke off then, and ducked his head. When he looked up, his expression made me feel sad.
“You’re just not what?” I prompted him, although everything felt precarious and I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear his answer.
“I’m just not who you want me to be,” he whispered. “I wanted to be. I really did. More than you’ll know.” He dropped his hand, and stepped back. “It’s better this way, trust me.”
As I said, I blame Janis Joplin. And Amy Lee for introducing the Jagermeister as well as the thought of singing, into the night. Mix Janis with a few too many beers and unnecessary anesthetic shots, roast it all on the flames of a broken heart, betrayal, and It’s better this way and what did anyone expect?
It started with Bon Jovi. When I was growing up, no one admitted listening to Bon Jovi, and now that we were almost thirty everyone seemed to know every line of “You Give Love (A Bad Name).” The bar erupted in sound, as everyone indulged in air guitar and the birthday girl herself rocked out in the middle of what was, on some nights, a makeshift dance floor.
This was probably what made me believe that I, too, should take to the floor.
The guitar kicked in.
Janis started to wail, “Come on, come on, come on—”
What happened next was probably inevitable.
Which didn’t make it any less embarrassing.
I started off just singing. Then, right around the second chorus, something flipped inside me and I thought, what the hell?
This was always, I had discovered through years of trial and error, the moment at which I should stop whatever it was I was doing and take deep breaths until the what the hell feeling passed. The what the hell feeling was not my friend.
So, obviously, I ignored every lesson I’d ever learned in the span of my twenties and kept right on singing. Even louder than before.
Janis Joplin lured me on, with her scratchy voice and obvious pain. I thought, Janis and I have a bond. Then I thought what the hell again, and the next thing I knew I was shouting out the lyrics.
Directly to Nate and Helen.
Into their faces, to be precise.
My memory got a little foggy on the details, whether from Jagermeister or shame I would never know for sure, but I retained a crystal clear recollection of myself standing on a chair as I towered above the two of them, shrieking out my extremely drunken version of “Another Piece of My Heart.”
I didn’t know which was worse: the appalled look on Nate’s face, Helen’s frozen smirk, or the sympathetic expressions both Amy Lee and Oscar wore as they drove me home to my little apartment around the corner from Fenway Park. All I knew was, I’d be seeing them play inside my head for the foreseeable future.
Outside my apartment building, I waved the car away and paused to take a deep breath while I reviewed the wreckage. I didn’t feel blurry any longer, just slightly sick. The late October night was so cold and dark, however, that it was hard to take a deep breath. I was reduced to taking a few shallow ones instead. Somehow, that made it all seem worse.
I was turning thirty years old on the second of January, my perfect boyfriend had cheated on me with my freshman year roommate and then dumped me, and I had just humiliated myself in front of every single one of our mutual friends.
The good news was, it couldn’t get worse.