Redefining who we are in our family takes courage and an indestructible sense of humor.
Being the middle child is never easy, but thirty-six-year-old Jill Bendel is about to find out just how hard that job is when her mother throws away her sensible pumps, packs up her collection of classical music and runs away from home.
Longtime wife and mother Ruth Bendel loves her family but hates her life. Husband Richard doesn’t even know how the steam iron works, let alone how a woman works. When Ruth’s last nerve snaps, she finally does what she’s wanted to do so many times before—she gets an apartment, a job, a new life and new friends.
How will her pampered family survive ?
Who will take care of her son Doug’s daughters when he flies off for a romantic week with his wife? How can youngest daughter Melissa contemplate getting pregnant now that she’s the child of a broken home? How is Jill going to juggle the demands of her own marriage, her kids, her siblings and her career while simultaneously trying to get her parents to reconcile? Why is it that when things fall apart, everyone expects Jill to put them back together?
Maybe she ought to run away from home, too.
Judith Arnold is a bestselling and award winning author with more than ten million copies of her novels in print. Before turning to fiction writing, she was a working playwright with plays staged in California, Connecticut, Washington, D.C. and off-Broadway in New York City, as well as in Calgary, Canada. A native New Yorker, Judith lives in a small town near Boston.
"…an intriguing book." -- Rose Selcer, Goodreads
felt a connection to the characters…" -- Christa
"…funny, touching, and ultimately inconclusive, but that's life, isn't it?" -- Amy Parsons, Cupcake’s Book Cupboard
It was perfect.
All right, it was small. Three rooms, the ad claimed, but Ruth would hardly call the kitchen—an L-shaped configuration of Formica counters with painted metal cabinets above and below, a stove that had cooked at least twenty years worth of meals, a stainless-steel sink that wasn’t stainless and not even enough space for a table and chairs—an actual room. A cooking alcove, maybe. A galley. An applianced hallway. She could probably jam a small, square table into the corner, with one chair. Pushed all the way in, the chair wouldn’t block the doorway into the entry, at least not much. A second chair would interfere with the refrigerator.
Ruth didn’t need a second chair.
According to the rental agent, an unnaturally perky woman in a polyester suit that struck Ruth as a little too formal for the occasion, the living room was eighteen by twenty feet. Ruth would bet the diamond earrings Richard had given her for her fiftieth birthday that the agent was exaggerating by a few feet. And the carpet—it wasn’t quite shag, but the nap was longer than it should be. It reminded Ruth of how the front yard looked in the rainy early days of summer when the lawn service skipped a week of mowing because the ground was too wet. Ruth might not have minded the carpet’s uncut-grass length if it was also uncut-grass green. But it was a dull neutral shade, somewhere between taupe and khaki.
"It matches with everything,” the rental agent boasted.
It matches with nothing, Ruth thought.
The bedroom was small, too. Like the living room, it overlooked the parking lot. Beyond a hedge of yews bordering the lot was a broad four-lane avenue, and on the other side of the avenue was a strip mall with the First-Rate convenience store where Ruth would begin working next week.
Imagine: Ruth Bendel, a college graduate who’d written her honors thesis on Arcangelo Corelli’s use of suspended seconds, running a cash register at First-Rate.
Cash registers were complicated, she reminded herself. And even without having to master the buttons and scanners and "enters” and "deletes” on the cash register, Ruth would find the job challenging. The rituals, the responsibilities, the schedule, the social environment— everything would be different. Unfamiliar. A whole new way of life.
A double bed would just about fit inside this room, she thought as she surveyed the bedroom. Only one closet, but it was wide and she didn’t have to share it with anyone. The apartment also had a coat closet in the entry and a walk-in closet adjacent to the bathroom, as well as access to its own locked storage cage in the building’s basement.
That would be enough, she assured herself as she did a mental calculation of just what she was planning to bring with her and what she would leave behind. She wouldn’t need that many clothes, really. At First-Rate she’d be wearing an official red apron over her outfit to identify her as a store employee. So there was little point in filling the apartment’s closets with chic ensembles.
Not that she’d ever been particularly chic. Once Frugal Fannie’s had gone out of business, she’d cut way back on buying trendy clothes. She couldn’t see spending a fortune on a fancy garment so distinctive she might only wear it once. Good, solid, clothes, classic styles that lasted forever—that was her preference, especially when they were on sale.
So she’d pack some slacks, a few skirts, a few sweaters and move them here. With her red First-Rate apron covering everything she had on under it, why knock herself out?
The closet would do, she decided as she shut its hinged panel doors and surveyed the room once more. A double bed, a dresser, a night table... It would all fit in somehow. And she could buy a couple of plastic bins and stash them under the bed. They were good for storing linens and sweaters.
Better yet, she could buy a platform bed with drawers built into the frame. She’d always thought platform beds were amazing. Such a smart use of space, and they seemed so... Swedish. Sweden was an idyllic country, politically progressive, with excellent health care and maternity-leave policies. The word Eden was tucked inside Sweden. That had to mean something.
Richard had always been opposed to platform beds. "A bed should consist of a mattress and a box-spring,” he’d insisted. "A platform topped with foam padding doesn’t offer the proper support.” Since he was a doctor, she was supposed to accept his opinion as scientific.
But all those Swedish people didn’t seem to be hobbling around like cripples. They were too busy skiing and playing hockey to kvetch about their bad backs. Platform beds were probably as orthopedically sound as any other bed. And extra storage space never hurt anyone.
What did Richard know, anyway? He was a cardiologist. Since when was he an expert on the subject of back support?
"There’s a laundry room in the basement,” the rental agent noted, hovering near the window as if she wanted to draw Ruth’s attention back to the spectacular view of the parking lot. "Very well lit, very safe. The buildings are secure. We’ve never had a problem here.”
Well, there was always a first time. Ruth had enough Russian blood in her to expect the worst. But how much more dangerous was this apartment than the house? Richard had installed an alarm system shortly after they’d moved in, and Ruth had screwed it up so many times, pushing the wrong buttons or the right buttons in the wrong order and accidentally summoning the police, who would then bill her a hundred dollars for the false alarm, that Richard had wound up having the system removed. What a waste. Ruth had never felt safer with it.
"This particular unit,” the rental agent said, "gets a lot of sunlight. It’s really a very bright unit.”
Ruth wished she wouldn’t call the apartment a "unit.” It was a residence, a dwelling. A home.
Not a home like the house where her children had grown up and where Richard still lived. Not a spacious colonial with rhododendrons and daffodils and spirea that Ruth herself had planted, and ancient pines bordering the backyard and towering above the roofline. Not a house with a kitchen big enough to prepare a Thanksgiving feast or a Seder for the whole family and a finished-basement rec room with a ping-pong table, and a formal living room that always looked pristine because it was so rarely used. Not a house with an elegant master bedroom suite, with two walk-in closets and a sleek fiberglass tub in the bathroom.
This place—this unit—was very bright. That would be enough.
It would be perfect.
Like a silken waterfall, our shantung scarf will leave you feeling caressed and refreshed as it spills over your skin. Drape it around your arms like a stole or fling it dramatically over one shoulder. Loop it in a sassy sash around your waist. Wrap it multiple times around your neck, stand on a chair, tie the end to a tree limb and jump.
With a groan, Jill shoved away from what she euphemistically called her desk. It was in fact just an extension of the kitchen counter, beige laminate atop a cabinet of drawers crammed with scissors, rolls of tape, unsharpened pencils and other school supplies. Her printer sat on the floor underneath the counter in the space where her feet were supposed to go, forcing her to straddle her chair with her legs spread wide enough to facilitate childbirth.
Geoffrey had emailed her several photos of the scarf, which she’d printed out, spread across the counter and stared at for the past two hours, hoping for inspiration. Unfortunately, the scarf didn’t have much going for it. It looked nothing like a waterfall, silken or otherwise. And the Black Pearl catalog refused to refer to the available colors in ordinary language. There was no red scarf, although it could be purchased in "cherry” and "persimmon.” No green scarf, but customers could choose from "lime” or "mint.” Not purple but "grape,” "plum” and "eggplant.” Not brown but "chocolate,” "mocha” and "taffy.” Not black but "licorice.”
The hell with flinging the scarf over your shoulder. You might as well eat it.
Or use it to hang yourself.
"Shit,” Jill muttered. She could curse out loud because Abbie and Noah weren’t home from school yet. Once they got home, she had to be a Good Mom. Good Moms didn’t say "shit” within range of their children.
She shoved away from her computer, crossed to the refrigerator and pulled a can of Diet Coke from the bottom shelf. She’d managed to cut back to only two cans a day and intended to wean herself completely before Abbie’s bat mitzvah, eight months from now. Interesting people, exotic people, people with actual lives, got to wean themselves from booze, cocaine, cigarettes and compulsive sex. Jill was trying to wean herself from Diet Coke. She didn’t want to analyze what that said about her.
Taking a swig, she savored the fizzy burn of the carbonation across her tongue and up into her sinuses. She hoped the caffeine would give her brain a needed jolt, like those paddles doctors used to restart the hearts of patients in cardiac arrest. Jill was in mental arrest; she needed her brain shocked back to life, stat, as they said in medical dramas on TV. Geoffrey needed the shantung-scarf copy by five p.m. Which meant she had to get it written and emailed by three. Once the kids got home, Jill’s time, like her language, was no longer her own.
Geoffrey Munger, the editor of the Black Pearl catalog, favored what he called "nature-based yet sensuous metaphors” in the copy describing the company’s offerings. Lois Foreman, the editor of the Prairie Wind catalog, had a strong preference for "bright and breezy.” Sabrina Lopez, the editor of the Velvet Moon catalog, preferred "edgy and erotic.” Jill appreciated how lucky she was to be writing catalog copy for three different companies—not just because the money was three times better than writing for only one but also because the three different commissions offered her creative variety. She only had to remember which catalog she was writing for on any given day.
She also had to try not to let the catalogs’ refusal to describe colors by their actual names distract her. "Blue” didn’t exist for any of the companies that employed Jill. A customer could buy a garment in periwinkle, navy, aqua, royal, sky, tiffany, ocean, peacock, azure, powder or indigo. Not blue. Never blue.
Another hit of Diet Coke and she was back at her desk, shoving the blues to a remote corner of her brain and reminding herself that today she was writing for Geoffrey Munger at Black Pearl. If she sent him edgy and erotic text instead of natural yet sensuously metaphorical text—if, for instance, she described the shantung scarves as being ideal for lashing one’s lover to a four-poster—he’d probably keel over.
She stared at her computer monitor so long her eyelids synchronized their blinks with the pulsing cursor. A sharp shake of her head broke her trance, and she took another stab at describing the scarf Black Pearl hoped to entice thousands of women into purchasing. More refreshing than a waterfall, lighter than a breeze, perfect to protect bare shoulders during a romantic evening stroll. Our shantung silk scarf is available in every color of the rainbow. Be playful in persimmon. Lyrical in lemon. Mysterious in midnight. This scarf is available in a wide array of hues to match your wide array of moods.
The phone rang.
"Shit,” Jill said.
She supposed she could ignore the phone and let the caller leave a message. But before the machine picked up, she’d have to listen to four more rings, which would shatter her concentration. As if one ring hadn’t already shattered it.
She allowed herself a brief fantasy of setting up her catalog copy business in a real office rather than a corner of the kitchen—an office with a separate phone number, just for her. She imagined commuting to her office every day... in bumper-to-bumper traffic, in blizzards, in flooding downpours and tornado-like microbursts.
No. She’d settle for an office right here in the house, but soundproofed so she wouldn’t hear the family phone when it rang. In the unfinished part of the basement? Too dark, and there were spiders. In the attic? Too hot, and there were spiders. Maybe she could hire a contractor to build an extension off the back of the house. An office suite, spider-proof, with a private bathroom and kitchenette to go with the private phone line. It would only cost about twice what she earned in a year.
The phone rang a third time. Two more rings and the machine would pick up.
Her caller might be one of the kids. Or the school nurse, informing her that Noah had puked his lunch all over the floor in gym, or Abbie had gotten her period and needed Jill to bring her some clean panties and jeans. That very disaster had occurred last spring, and for the following week Abbie had moped around the house, whining that the humiliation had been so awful she wanted to die.
Jill was a Good Mom. How could she ignore her ringing phone when the caller could be her daughter, wanting to die?
She shoved away from the desk, mumbling a few therapeutic curses, and strode around the center island to reach the phone. "Hello?”
"Jill? It’s your mother.”
As if, after thirty-six years as Ruth Bendel’s daughter, Jill wouldn’t recognize the woman’s voice. "Hi,” she said.
"Have you got a minute?”
Jill sighed. Her monitor glared at her, the cursor flashing imperatively, a computer version of a nagging, wagging finger. "I really don’t,” she said.
"I’ll be quick,” her mother promised. "I want you to invite your brother and sister to your house this weekend. Saturday afternoon would work. No need to fuss.”
Jill was a Good Daughter as well as a Good Mom, so she refrained from cursing—just barely. "You want me to host a family gathering?”
"I’d host it, but I think it’s better if everybody isn’t at my house.”
"Why do they have to be at my house? What do we need a gathering for? And so last-minute. We’re all busy, we all live hectic lives—”
"I know, but this is important. And it’s better we get together to discuss it. It’s not something I want to talk about over the phone.”
Jill suddenly felt wobbly. She gripped the kitchen counter and swallowed. "What is it, Mom? Is Dad sick?”
"Everyone is healthy,” her mother said, sounding vaguely annoyed, although Jill failed to see anything annoying about good health. "Just call your brother and sister and invite them to your house. One o’clock? Two? Whatever is easier for you.”
What’s easier for me is not doing this, Jill thought glumly. "Why can’t Doug host this gathering?” she asked. No point suggesting that Melissa might handle the hostessing duties. Melissa lived in Manhattan and the rest of the family lived in the suburbs west of Boston. Besides, Melissa was ditzy and disorganized and couldn’t be counted on to do anything useful.
"You know Doug,” her mother said.
Yes, Jill knew her brother. He was like her father: brilliant, a doctor, with an ego the size of Antarctica before global warming had reduced its glaciers. Doug’s wife loved to entertain, though. "I’m sure Brooke—”
"Don’t start with Brooke,” Jill’s mother said. "She’d turn it into an affair, with catering and a music ensemble and a bartender mixing drinks on the three-season porch.”
A bartender sounded good to Jill.
"She’s so... elaborate,” her mother continued. "She’s wonderful, I love her like a daughter, but...” A long, deep sigh. "You know Brooke.”
Jill knew Brooke well enough to know Brooke might indeed hire a bartender, which made her the ideal person to host this gathering. "Mom, you’re asking us to turn our schedules upside-down. Abbie and Noah have soccer games Saturday morning, and I’m supposed to put together a family reunion in the afternoon?”
"They shouldn’t have games on a Saturday morning. It’s not fair to the Jewish kids.”
As far as Jill knew, none of the Jewish players in the town’s soccer league—including Abbie and Noah—were the least bit bothered about missing Saturday morning services to play soccer. "I don’t see why you can’t tell me what this is about,” she said. "You’re asking us to rearrange our lives. Doug plays golf with Dad on Saturday afternoons. Brooke probably spends the entire day getting a facial or something. Melissa has to schlep all the way up from New York. What’s the big mystery?”
"It’s not a mystery.” Ruth’s tone was tart. "It’s just not something I want to discuss over the phone.”
"So we have to have a party?”
"Not a party. A get-together.” Her mother sighed again. "If you don’t think it’s important when your parents are going through something...”
"What are you going through?” Jill asked with forced patience. "We’ve already established that no one’s sick.”
"I’ll tell you on Saturday. You said you didn’t have any time to talk, so I’ll say good-bye. I’ll see you this weekend. Give me a call, let me know what time.”
Right. As the hostess, as the person who had to telephone her siblings and organize this stupid party—correction: get-together—and run out to stock up on gourmet coffee because Doug wouldn’t drink the stuff that came in a can, and organic herbal tea for Melissa, assuming she was still on that kick, and the sticky honey rugelach her father loved, and she’d have to vacuum because her mother would notice if she hadn’t, and Gordon would crab about how her mother was too demanding and she really ought to develop enough backbone to say no to the woman every now and then, Jill would get to decide what time this affair would take place.
Through the window she heard the low-pitched rumble of Abbie’s school bus chugging past the house. The bus dropped Abbie off at the corner, and it took her anywhere from five to fifteen minutes to walk the half-block home, depending on how much she and Caitlin Orensky had to discuss in person before they parted ways, entered their own homes and started texting each other.
In any case, Jill didn’t have time to prolong this conversation, let alone decide whether lemon, as in "lemon shantung scarf,” was actually a lyrical color—whether any color could be lyrical, although she did like the alliteration. She wasn’t going to get the catalog copy done by three, damn it. She might not get it done by five. Geoffrey would fire her, and all because her mother was being not just demanding but ridiculously cryptic.
"Just tell me what’s going on,” she said, deciding she could be demanding, too. "Tell me, or I won’t host this thing.”
"I really don’t want to talk about it on the phone.”
"Why? Do you think the NSA has my line bugged?”
"What’s the NSA? One of those spy things?” A pregnant pause. "All right, Jill. I’ll tell you. But please don’t tell Doug and Melissa. Let Dad and me tell them in person.”
Jill hadn’t realized this was a question requiring a response until her mother’s silence stretched several long seconds. "Okay,” Jill agreed. "I won’t tell.”
"Your father and I are getting a divorce.”
Jill almost gasped. Almost laughed. The very idea was so shocking it was hilarious.
She wasn’t naïve. She was aware of the statistics—half of all marriages and blah-blah-blah. She counted among her acquaintances a fair share of divorced people. Two of her closest friends from college were divorced. Connie and Bill McNabb from down the street got a divorce last year and sold their house at a loss. Everyone in the neighborhood had seemed more upset by the puny price they’d accepted for their four-bedroom contemporary than by the news that the McNabbs were splitting up. Their divorce might not have threatened the other married couples on the street, but it did threaten their property values.
Divorces didn’t happen in Jill’s family, though. The marriage of her grandparents on her mother’s side had survived World War II, most of which Grandpa Schwartz had spent in a cold, damp trench somewhere in Belgium while Grandma Schwartz collected tin cans and grew vegetables in a ten-by-twenty-foot plot behind their three-decker in Roxbury. Then Grandpa Schwartz had come home and their marriage had survived a move to Brookline, Grandma Schwartz’s frequent spasms of hysteria, and Grandpa Schwartz’s fondness for schnapps. It had survived financial ups and downs and passionate fights and their son Isaac eloping with a shiksa. Grandpa Schwartz was gone now, his butt no doubt planted firmly on a bar stool somewhere in heaven, and Grandma Schwartz was missing about half her mind, but the remaining half seemed to be coping well enough, supported by the competent staff at the assisted-living facility she’d moved to last year. The Schwartz grandparents had stayed together until Grandpa Schwartz shuffled off his mortal coil.
The same with Jill’s paternal grandparents. The Bendels had been a perfect match, both of them slight and pale and meek. Grandpa Bendel had been bald, Grandma Bendel had had breasts, but other than that they’d been more or less interchangeable.
So neither of Jill’s parents had come from broken homes. And until a minute ago, Jill hadn’t come from a broken home, either.
"How can you get a divorce?” she wailed. For some reason, her mother’s announcement seemed like a personal affront. What Jill had really wanted to shout was, How dare you? Which didn’t make sense. It was her mother’s divorce, not hers. Her mother’s and her father’s. "You’ve been married for forty years.”
"Forty-two, but who’s counting? We can talk more on Saturday. I know you’re busy. You’re working on one of those catalog jobs? I shouldn’t keep you.”
Don’t do this,Jill thought, unsure of what this was. Don’t guilt-trip me about my work. Don’t dump a bombshell on me and hang up.
Don’t get a divorce.
"What happened?” she asked. "Did Dad... do something?” She couldn’t imagine her father doing anything divorce-worthy. Sixty-four years old and the man had never even gotten a speeding ticket. The idea of his having an affair, or visiting porn websites, or... what? Switching his voter registration to the Republican party? Jill’s mother would probably kick him out of the house for that.
"It’s not any one thing, Jill. It’s nothing I can explain when you haven’t got any time to talk.”
"You haven’t got time,” her mother reminded her. "We’ll talk later. Call and let me know when we should come on Saturday.”
Before Jill could argue with her, before she could insist she did have time even though she didn’t, before she could plead with her mother, and cry and stamp her feet and declare that if her parents did this stupid thing she’d hold her breath until she turned blue and passed out, her mother had hung up the phone.
Jill didn’t have much choice but to hang up, too.
She crossed back to her desk, weak and dizzy. What could have precipitated such a drastic move by her parents? What could her father have done to drive her mother away?
What if it was Jill’s mother who had done the doing? What if Ruth had fallen in love with someone else? A neighbor. Someone from her synagogue. A younger man. A younger woman. What if she’d suddenly discovered she was a lesbian?
What if she’d decided to join the Republican party?
Jill couldn’t imagine that. Lesbian, maybe. Republican, never.
Words swam before her on the computer monitor: romantic, rainbow, midnight. Forty-two years, she thought. It wasn’t being the child of a broken home that upset her; it was the idea that something she’d depended on, something that had lasted longer than her own life, something she’d had such tenacious faith in, could suddenly stop existing.
If she could misread her parents’ marriage so totally, how could she trust her judgment on any other issue? If Ruth and Richard Bendel could get a divorce after all these years, why shouldn’t Jill also assume that gravity didn’t exist, and chocolate-chip cookies lowered your cholesterol, and Abbie didn’t need a bat mitzvah, and the shantung silk scarves being peddled by Black Pearl actually felt more like sandpaper than a waterfall against one’s skin?
The back door swung open and Abbie swept in, her eyes bright, her hair windblown and her backpack dangling heavily from one shoulder. "I hate pre-algebra,” she announced with operatic grandeur. "Three worksheets are due tomorrow. Three. And Mr. Parshna knows it takes, like, a half hour to get through a worksheet. He said so, he said he expects us to spend, like, a half hour on a worksheet, and then he gives us three and says they’re due tomorrow. Like I don’t have anything better to do.”
Jill should say something. Something sympathetic about the work sheets, something supportive of Abbie’s math teacher, something about not dumping her backpack on the kitchen table if she was planning to eat a snack, because the during the trip home from school the backpack had probably been sitting on the floor of the bus, where it would have picked up enough germs to poison the population of a small nation.
But her lips refused to move. If she spoke, she might say something about her parents’ divorce. And she couldn’t tell Abbie about that. Abbie adored her grandparents. She would be devastated to think they no longer adored each other.
Of course they adored each other. Forty-two years of love didn’t just evaporate overnight. The whole thing was absurd.
On Saturday, the Bendel family would converge at Jill’s house and she would work this thing out. She was the fixer, the solver, the person who held her loved ones together. The Bendel everyone depended on.
She’d make this right.
"Are you okay, Mom?” Abbie asked.
"Sure,” Jill managed. She turned from her daughter, her beautiful daughter, whose blondish-brown hair looked a lot more like a silken waterfall spilling down her back than Black Pearl’s silk scarf ever would. "I’m just a little distracted, that’s all. I’ve got to write this copy before Noah gets home.” The middle-school bus dropped Abbie off a half-hour before the primary-school bus dropped Noah off. In thirty minutes, maybe Jill could spew out some text for the catalog.
"Once he gets home,” Abbie said, sounding far too wise for her years, "life as we know it comes to an end. Can I bring an apple to my room? I’ve got to get started on these stupid math sheets.”
Jill usually banned food from the kids’ bedrooms, especially food that could drip juice onto the carpet. But she needed to be alone right now as much as Abbie needed to do her math sheets. "Go ahead,” she said. "Just be careful.”
"Oh, darn. I was planning to be careless,” Abbie said sarcastically as she swung open the refrigerator door. "Yay, you bought Granny Smiths. I love Granny Smiths.” She waved a round green apple in her mother’s direction. "I don’t know why Daddy and Noah like those Cortlands so much. These are much better.” She took a bite, grinned and tore a square of paper towel from the roll next to the sink. "Any apple they name after a grandma has to be the best,” she said before scooping her backpack off the table and prancing out of the kitchen.
Abbie idolized her grandmother. What would she think if she knew her grandmother was planning to divorce her grandfather? What would she do? Abandon Granny Smith apples for Cortlands?
Jill wanted to cry. She wanted to be a Bad Mom and curse. She wanted to be a Bad Daughter and call her mother back and accuse her parents of being idiots.
Instead, she guzzled some Diet Coke and typed, "Our new shantung scarf will wrap around you like a fresh breeze.” The hell with alliteration. And waterfalls.