An excerpt from the new novel by Delia Ephron
I have a snapshot of me standing on Finn’s shoulders when I was twenty-nine, a trick we’d perfected. I would sprint toward him and work up enough steam to climb his back to his shoulders. I look triumphant and not a little surprised to have done this—it was unlikely I would ever stand on a man’s shoulders, having been neither a cheerleader nor a gymnast, and I am not physically daring (a deficiency). I was unhappy that day on a Maine beach fifteen years ago, but you’d never know it from the four‑by‑six glossy. Finn and I broke up that afternoon.
In the photo I am looking at now, you can read my mind. I am depressed. I’m hunched on a stone bench, wearing a black quilted jacket, not flattering. There I am looking like winter on a June day. Behind me in the distance lies the little port, dotted with sailboats and small yachts, one of Siracusa’s few sweet spots.
My hair, always a tumble, is messy in a way that suggests I hadn’t bothered with it. My eyes are hidden behind sunglasses. This seems intentional. I was confronting the camera, my face turned toward it but flat.
I had neither the inclination nor the energy to strike a pose. Who took the picture? I can’t remember. Events that day are muddy. Suppressed? It’s been a year and some of us no longer speak, not the ones that you would expect or maybe you would. I didn’t. Since the photo is on my cell, odds are Michael is the photographer, although possibly not, because I am centered in the photo. The subjects in Michael’s shots are frequently missing the tops of their heads or their arms.
Snow should never have been on the vacation at all. It was a grown-ups’ trip, but Taylor never went anywhere without her, so Finn said. Although you never know in a marriage who is responsible for what, do you? Husbands and wives collaborate, hiding even from themselves who is calling the shots and who is along for the ride.
She was ten years old and a mystery, Finn and Taylor’s daughter.
“She is brilliant,” said Taylor, but in England the year before Snow had spoken rarely and then softly. Her mother had ordered for her. The waiter would look at Snow studying the menu, clearly intelligent, and Taylor would speak. Snow often read straight through a meal, the iPad on her lap. When I asked her a direct question, she looked to her mother. Anxious, I’d thought. For rescue. “You prefer milk chocolate, don’t you?” said Taylor. “You loved that movie Pitch Perfect? Didn’t we see it three times?”
For Michael and me Snow was wallpaper.
I’ve barely begun, and undoubtedly with that remark, I’ve turned you against me. I’m like that, unpleasantly blunt. Some people like it, some hate it. I tend not to worry. Finn would be horrified to hear that even if he were not Snow’s father, but not Michael because he’s a writer. Writers often forgive cruel observations. They even admire them. It makes them feel empowered, justified, off the hook for their own ruthless words. For doing that thing writers think is their right: taking a friend, swallowing him (or her) whole, and turning him into a character to suit their own fictional purposes.
The trip was my idea, a moment of spontaneity, enthusiasm, and slight inebriation. Liquor played a role right from the start.
Since our summer fling years before, Finn and I had maintained an attachment that neither of us fully understood. We were given to bursts of e‑mail intimacy, intense for a few months, then lapsing for longer. The intermittent friendship was solely between us. We’d been at each other’s weddings, but the four of us never got together socially. Then I discovered that by chance we’d all be in London at the same time. We had dinner. Then another and another. We had little in common (except that Finn and I had history, which is not quite the same as something in common). They weren’t from our world—Michael’s and mine— which turned out to be relaxing, and yet they were curious and playful. Especially Finn. Taylor was obsessed with culture, which I admired, although I wasn’t. Good travelers, different travelers. “Where should we meet next year?” I’d said on our last night together. I raised my glass. “To next year.”
I still wonder about that moment. What if I’d let that convivial feeling pass?
Taylor mostly planned the trip, her thing, fine by me. Michael normally scours travel books for weeks before we leave, hunting out the obscure and offbeat—on a trip to Paris he’d whisked me off to the Musée de la Vie Romantique to see a cast of George Sand’s arm and her lover’s too, Chopin—but he was in the home stretch on a novel and utterly preoccupied.
I’m used to this. I’ve done it to him. I haven’t written a novel, nothing major like that, but I write too, mostly articles for magazines and websites. Writers have to allow each other a private world. Finishing is always more compelling than anything else, than anything real. A thrilling narcissism sets in. It’s so much fun. I could never deprive Michael of that. I was good about tolerating it. I took pride in tolerating it. I put up with silent dinners—a “What?” two minutes after I’d said something interesting.
“It’s not a good time to go anywhere,” he said.
“It’s too late to cancel. It’s all in the works, much of it paid for. A break may help you, it really might. Please. I want it desperately.”
An eight-day vacation—how could that hurt when I was adrift? Panicked. It was the most difficult time of my life.
From the start it was a conspiracy between Lizzie and Finn to be together. Michael and I were in the dark. We’d had such a lovely time the year before in London. We happened to be there when they were, and met several times for dinner. The fivesome was comfortable. Snow really enjoyed it.
Why not repeat the experience?
“That’s so brave of you to travel with Lizzie, she is terrifying,” my friend April told me. She remembered Lizzie from our wedding. As a toast Lizzie had recited three haikus she’d written about Finn, all about how she never thought he’d get married, and then she presented him with a book, Toilets of the World. The book was what it sounds like, photographs of toilets from Appalachia to Madagascar. That is Lizzie, highbrow and low, equally intimidating. Finn loved the book. He kept it on the coffee table. It was his childish notion of a shocker. At the time I found it only silly, the book a bit of foolishness. Looking back, reconsidering everything, I think it was a way for Lizzie to be there every day of our lives, reminding Finn of something, something about the two of them, a kind of I get you and she doesn’t. Eventually I got rid of the book and Finn never noticed. If something’s not in front of his face, it’s not on his mind.
I spend a lot of time reconsidering what I thought, but it’s nobody else’s business. I’m certainly not seeing a shrink. I don’t have the problem.
Way back when we first got married twelve years ago, Finn was starting the restaurant and we were a good team. I have class. He needed that. He became the hometown boy with something extra, me. I’m from the Upper East Side, the best private schools, Vassar, summa cum laude. My hair was long, thick, blond, and straight. I had power hair. That made me more of a catch. “If you have hair like this,” my mother said, “you only need to be half as pretty.” Once I’d snared a husband, I didn’t need long hair and chopped it off. Now I have it cut at the local men’s barbershop. Under my direction, Rudy does it short and slicked back off my face. I keep it smooth and shiny with a L’Oréal gel. No other woman in town goes to Rudy, and it’s safe to say that no other Portland woman of my acquaintance has my talent with home hair products. (I’m being funny here, and the reason I point this out is that people often don’t know when I’m funny and when I’m not.) Even though Finn complains about the money I spend on clothes, he likes a cutting-edge wife.
It’s difficult to keep that up, to maintain originality in Portland, Maine. I find it a welcome challenge.
Finn and I met when I was twenty-six (he was three years older) and teaching English at a private school in New York, Spence, the same one I’d graduated from. I’d stopped in Portland on the way to my summer camp reunion, and he was driving a water taxi, subbing for a friend (unlicensed, he told me later, and I guess that is part of his story). He showed me his “joint,” as he called his future restaurant, then just a dusty empty space with grimy leaded windows. We sat on the floor—it was actually a subfloor, the linoleum had been stripped off—and ate lobster rolls. I believed in him, believed that he would be successful, I’m not sure why. Perhaps mere instinct. As a mother I’ve learned that instinct is very important and some have it and some don’t. I have instinct. Besides, on the way there, he’d known every single person we passed. That impressed me. Now I realize everyone knows everyone in Portland.
He wore khaki shorts with big flap pockets. When he came to New York, my mother was horrified. “Men in shorts,” she shuddered. And he pronounced the t in often, one of her personal pet peeves. Out to dinner at Gerard, where jackets and slacks are the rule, he wore them, but not socks.
“You wanted to get away from your mother,” said April.
I wanted to shine. It’s so much easier to shine in Portland.
I had to improve Finn’s wardrobe, which I did by giving him presents, always coming home with a shirt or sweater, gradually weeding out the old. Once a week I threw something of his away or gave it to our cleaning lady for her husband.
Lizzie sent me an e‑mail in January. “So is it still Italy?” I was surprised. I’d expected her to forget. I said, “Snow’s heart is set on it.” “Works for us,” she wrote.
Wonderful, I thought. I was excited. It would be like two adventures in one, traveling with them and in a foreign country. Besides, Lizzie and Michael could keep Finn busy because Snow and I don’t like to stay out late and Finn does. These differences that don’t matter at home can be a bit of a hiccup on a vacation. Also, honestly, there is such a thing as too much togetherness, and on a trip Finn and I sometimes run out of things to say. That would never happen if we were with Lizzie and Michael. Still, how stupid was I? Lizzie told me to make all the decisions. Of course she didn’t mean that, I realized later, because if Lizzie can’t force everyone to do what she wants, she’s not happy.
When Lizzie e‑mailed, Snow and I had already spent hours together at the computer Googling Venice: gondolas on shimmering water, ancient palazzos, sunburnt colors. “Streets of water?” Snow was captivated.
By nature my daughter is reserved. I always say that Snow is living proof that still waters run deep. Not only is she shy, diagnostically shy (I’ll tell you about that later), but some might experience her as aloof. I live for her smiles. When she lights up, I do too.
“We should do all of Italy, not just Venice,” I said.
This is a tradition, by the way, although I’m not sure it is anymore. Every June we would take a three-week vacation as a family. A blowout. Snow and I would decide where, and for months and months we prepared.
As far as I am concerned there is no point in traveling unless it’s five stars. I cannot see flying across the ocean to stay in a hotel room with coarse sheets or with a worse bathroom than the one we have at home. I was figuring Rome, Ravello, Venice. Then Lizzie e‑mailed, “How about going to Sicily?”
I ran it by Gloria, our travel agent, who is a treasure. She suggested Taormina. She knew a gem of a place to stay, even knew the manager. Lizzie insisted instead on Siracusa. It doesn’t have a five-star hotel—that tells you something right there. A very ancient world, Lizzie assured me, off the beaten track. From Siracusa it was only an hour and a half to Taormina, which she called a tourist trap with a view. If I wanted to go I could hire a car. In fact, Taormina has an extraordinary ruin, a teatro greco, but to be accommodating I agreed to skip it. I’m very accommodating, although I’m not sure anyone realizes it.
Lizzie is uncultured. That’s something you’d never suspect. “In London, she bragged about never having been to the Tate,” I told April. “Trips to other countries should not be wasted. Who brags about missing those remarkable Turners?”
“What’s really wrong with Lizzie,” said April, “is that she doesn’t have children. Women who don’t have children are entirely different from those who do.”
“She’s nice to Snow,” I said.
“Nice isn’t what I’m talking about. This may be a terrible thing to say but women without children lack depth. Emotionally they’re stunted.”
Secretly I have always thought that too. Until April said it aloud, however, I had never quite admitted it.
So it was agreed. Lizzie and Michael would be with us on the southern part of the trip: Rome, Siracusa. Then we’d go alone to Ravello and Venice: Snow, Finn, and I.
Finn never asks about vacations. I tell him where we’re going, when we’re leaving, and pack the clothes, even his.
The day before we left, Snow and I drove to CVS to buy sunblock. “Call me Tawny,” she said.
“I want to be Tawny.”
“Why? I love your name. You were born in a blizzard and the next morning the world was blanketed in beauty. That’s why we named you Snow.” I had told her this time and again. I thought of it as a lullaby. “Where did you come up with Tawny?”
“Celebrity mug shots. On the computer. There was a woman named Tawny Nichols.” Snow is very graceful, and with one movement she smoothed her hand over her head, drawing all her long sleek hair, blond like mine, to the side and over her shoulder. “I’m ready for my mug shot.”
“Mug shots are taken when you are arrested.”
“I know,” she said.
Snow is sometimes unintentionally provocative. It comes from innocence, her naïveté. While I am careful never to react, Finn gets off on it. He laughs and she’s never sure if his laughing is good or bad. She looks at me wondering. If it’s appropriate I smile. Otherwise I shake my head.
I often think about that conversation with Snow and wonder if it wasn’t a warning, if I should have been more protective. No, according to April. Mothers feel guilty about everything even when it’s not their fault.
Promised K I’d get out of it. Had every intention. Mornings I’d lean against the counter drinking coffee watching Lizzie make a smoothie. The speed with which she can do things in the kitchen used to dazzle me—tops popped on plastic containers, bits of banana, blueberries, whatever tossed into the blender. A handful of ice. The freezer kicked shut while she tipped in the soy. Masterful.
I’d drink my coffee intending to tell her. Any second now. Days went by. Weeks. Aware of my cowardice, if that explains it, I considered telling her while the blender was making that god-awful noise. Telling her when she couldn’t hear—a sick amusement. Evenings mostly I wasn’t around, and Lizzie provided the excuse, assuming I was at my office. Writing. “You’re so involved with that novel.”
“You’re so involved with that novel, you haven’t taken your suitcase out of the closet yet and we’re leaving in two days,” said my wife, sipping Pinot Noir. Lizzie was obsessed with an Oregon Pinot Noir. She fixes on things and brags about them, in this case because the top twisted off.
“Someone should have invented this no‑cork thing years ago,” she said.
Why am I even mentioning this?
Spoken words are irretrievable. They can be bombs.
I don’t love you anymore, the man said to his wife, telling one horrible truth, omitting others.
I don’t love you anymore and haven’t for some time, Elizabeth. I’m not going to Italy. Almost said it out of curiosity. For some excitement. To wake the dead.
But didn’t. Couldn’t face the hysteria. Her energy turned on me. I understand why men leave notes on mantels and disappear.
The night before the trip, she swabbed a piece of bread in olive oil and was about to pop it in her mouth when she looked up. Here it comes. I saw the thought flit through her head. I’m happy here. She was reassuring me, isn’t that ridiculous? It doesn’t matter that there is not a fucking thing left to say. I’m happy here.
There was so much familiarity in our marriage that I didn’t need her to be there to be there. I could supply her lines. Her thoughts.
But then I’m a novelist. That’s my job.
I recalled a comment Lizzie once made about a couple we knew. “Casting,” she said, about their marriage. Probably that’s what has kept our marriage going—we’re whom we think we should be with, whom everyone else thinks we should be with. Everyone who matters in New York City. In our circle. Journalists. Editors. Writers. I’m being ironic. I’m not that much of an asshole.
At least we were traveling with Finn and Taylor and that child of theirs who keeps to herself. It would relieve the monotony of scraping the bottom of my brainpan to find something to say to L that isn’t hostile. That was my thinking to the extent I thought about it. I couldn’t be friends with Finn. He doesn’t read, that I’d ever noticed. Not that I have a lot of male friends. The very idea of friends seems female. But he’s a great traveler and I am not. I prefer to be home, especially preferred it then.
It’s madness to travel with a woman you’ve lost interest in. The isolation. The sexual expectations, which I had no intention of fulfilling. At least in that manner I could be loyal.
I can tell my story as well as the rest of them. Although I’ll mess with you now and then, I warn you. I like to do that. Until I took this trip, I didn’t grasp all the angles I could play.
“Forget Michael and Taylor. Let’s just us go,” I told Lizzie.
I said things like that to frazz her. Lizzie’s cute when she’s frazzed. She pretended I hadn’t said it and went all Hillary Clinton on me, super serious, like she was planning a Mideast summit. “I think we should go to Siracusa.”
“I’m not kidding. Let’s ditch them.”
“Siracusa looks falling down and great.”
“You know you’d rather travel with me than Michael.”
She kept repeating it. “Siracusa.” Like I knew where it was. What it was. Like anyone did. Lizzie’s nuts. Wherever it was—in Sicily it turned out, western or eastern coast, whatever—I figured it was good for Tay. I said, “Get Taylor someplace real.”
Taylor is a good person, she’s a great mother, and she knows how to take care of things, but if she never spoke to a foreigner she’d be happy. She works up a sweat about these trips, about all the art, the architecture, the culture, then hires a guide to whisk her and Snow around and about. Nothing unexpected. Nothing left to chance. Spending money. She’s genius at spending money. My money.
On the buildup to this fiasco, Lizzie and I were texting ten times a day. I started hounding her at Christmas. “Italy in June. Remind Tay, remind Tay, grazie prego.” Badgered Lizzie’s brains out. Taylor had no idea I was feeding Lizzie, making it happen, getting a bit of control. What’s that called? Passive aggressive. I was having a passive-aggressive field day pulling Lizzie’s strings so she’d pull Taylor’s, and getting off on it. It never crossed Tay’s mind.
I swear I could come home dead drunk—I have—and as long as it didn’t interfere with Snow’s homework or bedtime, Tay wouldn’t notice.
I was smoking again. And worried she was going to detect it and go ballistic. Smoking. It’s worse than drinking in this fucked‑up world. Worse than some felonies but don’t quote me on that. I’m just blowing smoke. Thank God for Binaca. I used it like bug spray. Round the clock.
I was considering seeing a shrink.
That’s not what you would expect. You’d expect one of the other three would have been going that direction, but I was screwed up. Cheating. It was on my mind.
I should have married Lizzie, although she wouldn’t be half the mother Taylor is.
“Taylor is very organized and efficient,” said Lizzie. “She’s brilliant at what she does.”
Taylor, who runs the Portland Visitors’ Bureau, has single-handedly increased tourism by five percent, and yours truly benefits from that. But who was Lizzie kidding? She thought if she said that to me about Taylor, I’d think she liked Taylor. She tolerated Taylor because Lizzie had a thing for me. Women think men are stupid, or at any rate stupider than they are.
“Taylor will take care of me in my old age,” I told Lizzie. “If I get an awful disease, I know she’ll be there at the hospital, bossing the doctors.”
“How do you know you’ll die first?” said Lizzie. “You know what? I hope you get a horrible disease so she can take care of you. I hate to think you’re staying in a marriage for something that’s never going to happen.”
Not that she’s wrong, but over time Lizzie’s personality could do you in.
But she’s fun. First Siracusa night and day and then she was off and running about how Sicily invented ice cream, it’s her favorite food, and we had to go there and eat it. Those tourist books are full of crap. But Siracusa sounded great, Lizzie great. She’ll take a meaningless thing and spin it until we’re like dogs, tongues hanging out, panting to go. Signing her e‑mails Angelina Pistachio, Carmela Vanilla.
Siracusa fucked up Taylor’s whole trip, which, truth be told, I loved.
From SIRACUSA by Delia Ephron, published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Delia Ephron