Beach Read

Page 19

But she’d had this uncanny feeling, a fear she’d come face-to-face with his ghost if she’d shown up there at just the right time.


I would’ve seen him everywhere. I would’ve wondered how he’d felt about every detail, remembered a particular snowfall he’d described from his childhood: All these tiny orbs, January, like the whole world was made out of Dippin’ Dots. Pure sugar.

He’d had a way of describing things. When Mom read my first book she told me she could see him in it. In the way I wrote.

It made sense. I’d learned to love stories from him, after all.

She used to pride herself on all the things she had in common with him, regard the similarities with affection. Night owls. Messy. Always late, always carrying a book.


Careless about sunblock and addicted to every form of potatoes. Alive when we were on the water. Arms thrown wide, jackets rustling, eyes squinting into the sun.

Now she worried those similarities betrayed the terrible wrongness that lived in her. Maybe she, like her father, was incapable of the love she’d spent her life chasing.


Or maybe that love simply didn’t exist.


The Interview

I’D READ SOMEWHERE that it took 10,000 hours to be an expert at something. Writing was different, too vague a “something” for 10,000 hours to add up to much. Maybe 10,000 hours of lying in an empty bathtub brainstorming added up to being an expert on brainstorming in an empty bathtub. Maybe 10,000 hours of walking your neighbor’s dog, working out a plot problem under your breath, would turn you into a pro at puzzling through plot tangles.

But those things were parts of a whole.

I’d probably spent more than 10,000 hours typing novels (those published as well as those cast aside), and I still wasn’t an expert at typing, let alone an expert on writing books. Because even when you’d spent 10,000 hours writing feel-good fiction and another 10,000 reading it, it didn’t make you an expert at writing any other kind of book.

I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t be sure I was doing anything. There was a decent chance I’d send this draft to Anya and get an email back like, Why did you just send me the menu for Red Lobster?

But whether or not I was actually succeeding at this book, I was writing it. It came in painful ebbs and desperate flows, as if timed to the waves crashing somewhere behind that wall of fog.

It wasn’t my life, but it was close. The conversation between the three women—Ellie, her mother, and Sonya’s stand-in, Lucy—might’ve been word for word, although I knew not to trust memory quite so much these days.

If memory were accurate, then Dad couldn’t have been here, in this house, when Mom’s cancer came back. He couldn’t have been because, until he died, I had memories of them dancing barefoot in the kitchen, of him smoothing her hair and kissing her head, driving her to the hospital with me in the back seat and the playlist he’d enlisted me to help him piece together playing on the car stereo.

Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind.”

Mom and Dad’s hands clasped tightly on the center console.

Of course I remembered the “business trips” too. But that was the point. I remembered things as I’d thought they’d been, and then the truth, That Truth, had ripped the memories in half as easily as if they had been images on printer paper.

The next three days were a fervor of writing, cleaning, and little else. Aside from a box of wrapping paper, a handful of board games, and a great deal of towels and spare bedding, there was nothing remotely personal in the upstairs guest bedroom. It could’ve been any vacation home in America, or maybe a model home, a half-assed promise that your life too could be this kind of generically pretty.

I liked the upstairs decor significantly less than the warm boho vibe downstairs. I couldn’t decide whether I felt relieved or cheated by that.

If there had been more of him, or of her, here, she’d already done the heavy lifting of scrubbing it clear.

On Wednesday, I photographed the furniture and posted it on craigslist. On Thursday, I packed the extra bedding, board games, and wrapping paper into boxes for Goodwill. On Friday, I stripped all the bedding and the towels from the racks in the second upstairs bathroom and carried them down to the laundry closet on the first floor, dumping them into the washer before sitting down to write.

The mist had finally burned off and the house was hot and sticky once again, so I’d opened the windows and doors and turned on all the fans.

I’d gotten glimpses of Gus over the last three days, but they’d been few. As far as I could tell, he moved around while drafting. If he was working at the kitchen table in the morning, he was never there by the time I poured my second cup of coffee. If he was nowhere to be seen all day, he’d appear suddenly on the deck at night, writing with only the light of his laptop and the swarm of moths batting around it.

Whenever I spotted him, I instantly lost focus. It was too fun imagining what he could be writing, brainstorming the possibilities. I was praying for vampires.

On Friday afternoon, we lined up for the first time, sitting at our tables in front of our matching windows.

He sat at his kitchen table, facing my house.

I sat at my kitchen table, facing his.

When we realized this, he lifted his bottle of beer the same way he’d mock-toasted with his coffee mug. I lifted my water glass.

Both windows were open. We could’ve talked but we would have had to scream.

Instead Gus smiled and picked up the highlighter and notebook beside him. He scribbled on it for a second, then held the notebook up so I could read it:



I suppressed a laugh, then fished a Sharpie out of my backpack, dragged my own notebook toward me, and flipped to a blank page. In large, square letters, I wrote:



His smile leapt up his face. He shook his head, then went back to writing. Neither of us said another word, and neither of us relocated either. Not until he knocked on my front door for our first research outing, a steel travel mug in each hand.

He gave my dress—the same itchy black thing I’d worn to book club—and boots one slow up-and-down, then shook his head. “That … will not work.”

“I look great,” I fired back.

“Agreed. If we were going to see the American Ballet Theatre, you’d be perfect. But I’m telling you, January, that will not work for tonight.”

“IT’S GOING TO be a late night,” Gus warned. We were in his car, heading north along the lake, the sun slung low in the sky, its last feverish rays painting everything to look like backlit cotton candy. When I’d demanded he pick out my new outfit and save me the trouble, I’d expected him to be uncomfortable. Instead he followed me into the downstairs guest room, looked at the handful of things hanging in the closet, and picked out the same denim shorts I’d worn to Pete’s bookstore and my Carly Simon T-shirt, and with that we’d set off.

“As long as you don’t make me listen to you sing ‘Everybody Hurts’ twice in a row,” I said, “I think I can deal with a late night.”

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