And yet! Here I was, face pressed into a beaded throw pillow, brain sizzling in the saucepan of my skull. I ran to the downstairs bathroom. I didn’t need to throw up, but I was hoping that if I pretended I did, my body would fall for it and evacuate the poison in my gut.
I threw myself onto my knees in front of the toilet and lifted my eyes to the framed picture that hung from a ribbon on the wall behind it.
Dad and That Woman were on a beach, dressed in windbreakers, his arms wrapped around her shoulders, the wind pulling at her pre-white blonde hair and pushing his only-just-graying curls flat against his forehead as they grinned.
And then, in a more understated but equally hilarious joke from the universe, I spotted the magazine rack beside the toilet, which contained exactly three offerings.
A two-year-old Oprah Magazine. A copy of my third book, Northern Light. And that damn The Revelatories—a hardcover with one of those shiny AUTOGRAPHED stickers, no less.
I opened my mouth and retched heartily into the toilet bowl. Then I stood, rinsed out my mouth, and turned the picture frame around so it faced the wall.
“Never again,” I said aloud. Step one to a hangover-free life? Probably not moving into a house that drives you to drink. I would have to find other coping mechanisms. Like … nature.
I went back to the living room, fished my toothbrush from my bag, and brushed at the kitchen sink. The next essential step for me to go on existing was a coffee IV.
Whenever I drafted a book, I pretty much lived in my illustrious give-up pants, so aside from a collection of equally terrible sweatpants, I’d packed pretty lightly for this trip. I’d even watched a handful of lifestyle vloggers’ videos about “capsule wardrobes” in an attempt to maximize the amount of “looks” I could “build” from a pair of Daisy Dukes I mostly wore when I was stress-cleaning and a collection of ratty T-shirts with celebrities’ faces on them—remnants from a phase in my early twenties.
I pulled on a somber black-and-white Joni Mitchell, stuffed my booze-bloated body into the denim cutoffs, and put on my floral-embroidered ankle boots.
I had a thing about shoes, from the very cheap and tacky to the very expensive and dramatic. As it turned out, this “thing” of mine was fairly incompatible with the whole capsule wardrobe concept. I’d only packed four pairs, and I doubted anyone would consider my sparkly Target tennis shoes or the over-the-knee Stuart Weitzman boots I’d splurged on to be “classic.”
I grabbed my car keys and was heading out into the blinding summer sun when I heard my phone buzzing from within the couch cushions. A message from Shadi: Made out with the Haunted Hat, followed by a bunch of skulls.
As I stumbled outside again, I typed back: SEE A PRIEST IMMEDIATELY.
I tried not to think about last night’s humiliating face-off with the neighbor as I jogged down the steps to the Kia, but that just freed up my mind to wander to my least favorite subject.
Dad. The last time we’d gone boating together, he’d driven us to the man-made lake in the Kia and told me he was giving it to me. It was also the day he told me I should go for it: move to New York. Jacques was already there for medical school, and we were doing the long-distance thing so I could be with Mom. Dad had to travel a lot for “work,” and even if I ultimately believed my own story—that our lives would always, ultimately, work out—a big part of me was still too scared to leave Mom alone. As if my absence would somehow make room for the cancer to creep back in a third time.
“She’s fine,” Dad had promised as we sat in the frigid, dark parking lot.
“It could come back,” I’d argued. I didn’t want to miss a second with her.
“Anything could happen, January.” That was what he’d said. “Anything could happen to Mom, or me, or even you, at any point. But right now, nothing is. Do something for yourself for once, kiddo.”
Maybe he thought my moving to New York to live with my boyfriend was, at its core, the same as him buying a second house to hide away with his mistress. I’d given up grad school to help take care of Mom during that second round of chemo, put every cent I could toward helping with medical bills, and where had he been then? Wearing a windbreaker and drinking pinot noir on the beach with That Woman?
I pushed the thought away as I slid into the car, the leather hot against my thighs, and pulled away from the curb, cranking down the window as I went.
At the end of the street, I turned left, away from the water, and headed into town. The inlet that reached down along the right side of the road threw slivers of sparkling light against my window, and the hot wind roared in my ears. For a minute, it was like my life had ceased to exist around me. I was just floating past hordes of scantily clad teenagers milling around the hot dog stand on my left, parents and kids lined up out the door of the ice cream shop on my right, packs of cyclists riding back toward the beach.
As I cruised down the main drag, the buildings clumped closer until they were pressed shoulder to shoulder: a tiny Italian restaurant with vine-covered terraces flush with a skate shop, pressing it into the Irish pub next door, followed by an old-fashioned candy shop, and finally a café called Pete’s Coffee—not to be confused with Peet’s, though the sign looked, actually, like it was specifically trying to be confused with Peet’s.
I pulled into a parking spot and ducked into the sweet chill of Pete Not Peet’s air-conditioning. The floorboards were painted white and the walls were a deep blue, speckled with silver stars that swirled between tables, interrupted by the occasional framed platitude attributed to “Anonymous.” The room opened directly into a well-lit bookstore, the words PETE’S BOOKS painted in that same auspicious silver over the doorway. An elderly couple in fleece vests sat in the half-collapsed armchairs in the back corner. Aside from the late-middle-aged woman at the register and me, they were the only people here.
“Much too nice of a day to be inside, I s’pose,” the barista said, as if reading my thoughts. She had a gruff voice to match her blonde crew cut, and her tiny gold hoop earrings winked in the soft lighting as she waved me forward with a set of pale pink fingernails. “Don’t be shy. We’re all family at Pete’s.”
I smiled. “God, I hope not.”
She slapped the counter as she laughed. “Oh, family’s tricky,” she agreed. “Anyway, what can I get you?”
She nodded sagely. “Oh, you’re one of those. Where are you from, honey?”
“New York most recently. Ohio before that.”
“Oh, I’ve got family in New York. The state, not the city. You’re talking about the city though, aren’t you?”
“Queens,” I confirmed.
“Never been,” she said. “You want any milk? Any syrup?”
“I’d do some milk,” I said.
“Whole? Half? One-sixteenth?”
“Surprise me. I’m not picky when it comes to fractions.”
She threw her head back and laughed again as she moved lackadaisically between machines. “Who has time to be? I swear, even North Bear Shores moves too fast for me most days. Maybe if I took up drinking this ‘jet fuel’ of yours it’d be a different story.”
Having a barista who did not drink espresso wasn’t ideal, but I liked the woman with the tiny gold earrings. Honestly, I liked her so much that it sent a little pang of longing through me.