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Authors: Laura Caldwell

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BOOK: A Clean Slate
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“Oh, God, you're home.” I was so relieved that I actually leaned my head on the dirty phone box. “You're not in Palm Beach.”

“Palm Beach? That was months ago.”

A chilly feeling passed through me. “Lane, something's wrong.”

“I know, sweetie. Now hold on for a second, so I can sit down.” I heard Laney closing her refrigerator and, a moment later, her slight exhalation as she sat on the couch. “Okay. Shoot.”

How did she know something was wrong with me? “Well, uh, for starters, apparently Ben and I aren't dating anymore.”

“Apparently? Honey, he dumped you months ago, and
you've
got
to move on. Really. He's just not worth this moping around.”

“Months ago?” My voice came out tiny and scared.

“On your fucking birthday, remember?”

A group of women came into the bathroom, giggling and shoving past me.

I ducked my head and cupped my hand around the receiver. “That's just it. I can't remember.”

“Where are you?”

“Chuck's.”

“The bar by Ben's place?” Her voice went a little high. “You didn't go to his apartment again, did you? Kell, you've got to—”

“Laney, listen to me. I don't remember.” I enunciated my words. “I don't remember selling my town house. I don't remember Ben breaking up with me. I can't seem to remember anything about the last five months.”

A small silence. “Are you kidding?”

“Why would I kid about that?” My voice got loud and one of the women swung around, raising her perfectly arched eyebrows at me. I ducked my head again. “I need your help. I don't know what's going on.”

“Whoa. Okay, look, I'll jump in my car and be there in ten minutes. Wait for me outside.”

 

Laney's light blue, beat-up Mustang convertible screeched to a stop in front of Chuck's. Before I could take two steps, she'd jumped out and was running around the side of the car. Her dark brown hair was in its usual perfectly messed style with a swoop of bangs over one eye. She wore a black miniskirt, black knee-high boots and a fuzzy orange cashmere sweater.

She gave me a quick hug, then pulled back and held me at arm's length. “You okay?”

“Not really,” I said, but then I couldn't help smiling.
Laney did that to me. Just being around her made me feel better.

“What are you grinning at, girl? You've totally freaked me out. Get in the car.” She gave me a pat on the ass and opened the passenger door.

“So what's going on here?” she said when she'd taken the driver's seat.

“I was hoping you could tell me.”

“First things first.” She lifted a cardboard coffee carrier, two white cups from Starbucks tucked inside, steam seeping from the openings in the top. “You sounded like you hadn't gotten your fix yet.”

“Oh!” I said. “White chocolate mocha?”

She nodded.

“Nonfat?”

“Of course.”

“I
love
you.” I took a sip, the warm, creamy concoction sweet on my tongue.

I know that lots of people hate Starbucks. They complain that these little green-and-white stores are the devil's work, the corporatization of the coffee world, but I just don't care. I've tried the others, the mom-and-pop coffee shops, the trendy little tea places, and nobody—and I mean
nobody
—makes anything close to my white chocolate mocha. It's comfort in a cup.

Laney squeezed my hand, then put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb. “All right, tell me what happened today.”

I went through the whole thing—the dry cleaners, my town house, Beth Maninsky, and finally my talk with Ben. As I spoke I stared at the hula girl that was stuck to Laney's dashboard, the one that made swivels of her hips each time the car bumped or turned. For some reason, the movement of the girl's tiny hips soothed me. Laney had owned the hula girl since high school, and it had been on the dash of every
car she'd had since. It was a permanent fixture, something I could recognize.

“Kell, I don't get this,” Laney said. “Your memory was fine last week.”

“Was it?”

“Yeah.”

Silence filled the car.

“Jesus,” Laney said. “Are you telling me that you really can't remember anything about the last five months?”

“Nada.”

She stared intently at the road. “What do you remember about your birthday?”

May 3. May 3. May 3. I chanted the date in my head as if it might conjure up some images, but I could only remember my thoughts about my birthday in the weeks leading up to it. I'd been expecting Ben to propose on that date. I'd told him in February, a few weeks after Dee died, that I wanted to get married, that I wanted to be engaged by my birthday, and Ben had indicated he wanted the same thing. So as that day drew near, I made sure to have my nails done to perfection. I'd shaved and plucked nearly every stray hair on my body. I'd even bought a new black dress to wear to dinner. But the actual day of my birthday? I couldn't recall a thing, and I told Laney as much.

“Oh, boy.” She sighed.

“What? What happened?”

She gave me a sidelong glance. “Maybe we shouldn't go there just yet. You should sleep, you know, then see how you feel.”

“Other than scared shitless, I feel fine.
Tell
me.”

“I don't know…”

“Laney!”

“Are you sure?” she said. “Do you really want to hear it?”

“Of course.”

“Okay, well, I told you Ben dumped you that night.”

I felt my mouth form a tight line. “Yes, so you said.”

“He's a complete shit. Absolutely no sense of timing. But that's not the only thing that happened.”

“What,” I said, “is the other thing that happened?”

Laney stopped at a light and gave me a look. “I hate to be the one to tell you this.”

My stomach twisted. “Just get it out.”

“Bartley Brothers laid you off.” She squeezed my hand. Someone honked behind us, and Laney gave the driver the finger before pulling into the intersection.

“You've got to be kidding me,” I said. “Tell me that you are kidding.”

Laney shook her head. “Sorry, hon.”

“They
fired
me?”

“No, no. You got laid off. Major difference.”

“How so?”

“They gave you nine months' severance pay.”

My mouth snapped shut for a moment. I didn't know what to think about that. On one hand, I'd worked my ass off at that place, praying that it would pay off one day, that I'd be a partner eventually. To have that all washed down the toilet was maddening. But on the flip side, I'd been bordering on miserable there for the last few years, and I'd always secretly wanted to be one of those people who got axed with a golden parachute.

Then the effect of what Laney was saying hit me. “Are you telling me that I got laid off on my thirtieth birthday?”

“'Fraid so, sweetie.”


And
Ben broke up with me?”

“Pretty much.”

A few seconds went by. The hula girl's hips swirled and swayed as Laney turned a corner. “That,” I said finally, “has got to be the worst goddamned birthday on the planet.”

The car was quiet for a minute, but pretty soon, a short,
reluctant chuckle came out of my mouth. “It would almost be funny if it wasn't so sad,” I said.

“Right. Under different circumstances.”

Another half chuckle, a sort of shocked cough, escaped me, and Laney followed with one of her own. And then I couldn't help it—I did it again. A few seconds later we were both giggling, slowly and stupidly at first, until the sound caught a rhythm that rolled and grew louder, and soon our laughter filled the car. It felt like the first time I'd laughed in forever.

I was wiping my eyes, trying to get myself under control, when I noticed that Laney had stopped in a circular drive of one of the Lake Shore Drive high-rises near Addison.

“What's going on?” I said. “What are we doing here?”

Laney pursed her mouth and gave a quick whistle, the way she did when she was nervous. “You don't remember this, either?”

I glanced out the window at the building—tall, made of huge gray blocks, a plate-glass window in front of a large marble lobby. As far as I knew I'd never been in the place.

I looked back at Laney. “What's to remember?”

“You live here.”

3

I
walked into the lobby and took in the details, hoping for something that would trigger my memory, some plant or chair or
something
that said,
Yes, I live in this building.
But the gray marble floor seemed as unfamiliar as the front desk and the man sitting behind it, so when he stood and said, “Afternoon, Miss McGraw,” I almost choked.

Laney put her hand on my arm and steered me to the left. “How are you, Mike?” she called over her shoulder as we walked.

“Fine, Laney. Have a good one.”

“How does he know me?” I whispered.

“I told you,” Laney said, keeping her voice low, “you live here.”

“Then how does he know you?”

“Because I'm a fabulous friend, and since you won't go
out anymore, I visit you all the time. I know that guy better than you do.”

We'd reached the end of the marble hallway. Laney turned me to the right and walked me through double doors into a sitting room. At the end of the room was a set of elevators, where Laney was directing us.

“What do you mean, I won't go out?” I said.

Laney made that nervous whistle again. “Well, aside from your frequent trips to Ben's place, you rarely leave the house, so I bring you food, and we hang out and talk.”

I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment and tried to conjure an image of an apartment, Laney and I sitting on a couch talking, maybe giggling, but my mind was a blank.

“What do we talk about?”

We'd reached the elevators. Laney hit the button for the twelfth floor. “You know—Dee, your mom, Bartley Brothers. We talked about Ben a lot, of course. You kept saying that now that he'd broken up with you, you were never going to have your first kid before you were thirty-five. And you talked about how much you loved your town house.”

“I did love that place. So why did I sell it?”

“That's what I've been asking you. You made a chunk of cash on it, but you weren't really hurting for money. You just kept saying that if you weren't going to live there with Ben, you weren't going to live there at all.”

I scoffed. “That's ridiculous.”

Laney stared at me for a second. “Exactly. You really don't remember any of this, do you?”

I shook my head. “So what about you?” I said. “What's been going on with you? I can't remember that, either.”

“Well, we haven't talked about that much.”

“Why?” And then I realized. “Oh, I'm such a horrible friend! I'm so sorry. You've been coming over here, listening to my woes, and we haven't spent any time on you, is that it?”

Laney shrugged. “You needed me.”

“Well, of course, but that's not an excuse.”

“Sure it is. Seriously, it was nice to be needed. It's no big deal that we didn't talk about me that much.”

“It is a big deal.” I followed her out of the elevator. “I'm really sorry.”

“You'd do the same for me.”

“Still—”

Laney put her hand on my shoulder and stared into my eyes. “You've been bad, Kell. I mean really, really depressed. It's been a little scary, if you want to know the truth.”

Just those words felt scary to me. Generally, I can handle the crap that life dishes out. I'd seen my mom go through a million brief relationships and fall apart with each one, so I'd found my own way to hold it together. Even after Dee died, when I was the saddest and angriest I'd been in my whole life, I was still able to work, to go out with Laney for margaritas and talk about it. I was able to keep going.

Laney gave me a reassuring smile. “Do you have your key?”

I stuck my hands in my pockets and pulled out a few bills, a lip balm and a small key ring. Hanging from the ring were three keys, along with the little sombrero key chain that I got during a trip to Tijuana, and the silver pendant with the Bartley Brothers logo that the bank had given as a Christmas present last year. I made myself focus on the keys. One was my mailbox key—or rather, what I'd
thought
was my mailbox key this morning. The second was a small one for my gym locker, and then there was a third. It was a gold key with a fat, square head, and it seemed like it was glinting malevolently at me under the fluorescent lights of the hallway.

Laney pointed at it. “That's the one.”

 

“Oh my God,” I said.

The place was a disaster. I don't mean the structure of the apartment itself. The white walls were unmarred, and there was a large bedroom, an equally large living room with a street view, and a European-style kitchen with new appliances. But there was stuff everywhere, as if a tropical storm had blown through the place. My clothes were strewn over the bed, the couch, the dresser. Wads of Kleenex overflowed from the wastebaskets, and old mugs with crusty tea bags sat on the nightstand and coffee table. A ton of pictures I'd taken of Ben were on my dresser, as if it was a shrine to him.

“Christ,” I said. “It's a train wreck.”

Laney nodded but stayed quiet.

I looked down at my feet and saw my favorite smoke-gray sweater crumpled next to the couch. “How could I do this to cashmere?” I said, picking it up.

I recognized most of the other stuff, too—my furniture, my clothes, my sage-green duvet on the bed and framed photos that I'd taken of Laney, my mom and Dee. But nothing else about the apartment seemed like mine.

“I must have been really down,” I said as we stood in the middle of the living room, surveying the damage.

It's a known fact to Laney and me that whenever I feel crazy or out of control, my cleaning skills completely leave me. You can always tell the state of my life by the state of my apartment. I'd just never seen any of my places that bad before.

“That's an understatement,” Laney said simply.

We walked through the place again, and this time I tried to take in more than the filth. I noticed a new phone in the kitchen, a white model that matched the appliances, with a plastic-covered panel that listed the names of people who were on speed dial. I'd written only three names there—Ben, Laney, Ellen.

“Who's Ellen?” I asked.

Laney took a seat on one of the stools that looked into the kitchen. “Ellen Geiger.”

I blinked a few times. “Why is Ellen Geiger on my speed dial?”

Ellen Geiger was a psychiatrist I saw briefly after Dee died. I thought she was nice enough, a good person to talk to, and she had helped me sort out a few things. But I remember I felt I was coming out of my mourning, that I could deal with the pain and anger on my own, so after a while I just stopped going.

“You keep Ellen Geiger in business,” Laney said.

Too frightened to ask what she meant, I went about opening the cabinets. My nice set of pots and pans looked dusty and unused, my refrigerator and freezer nearly empty except for a loaf of bread that was starting to green around the edges and a tub of chocolate chip ice cream with severe freezer burn. I opened the cabinet next to the fridge, and there, in front of an old bag of pretzels and a few cans of tuna, were four brown plastic bottles. Prescription bottles. I picked up the first three, reading the medications noted on the white labels—Wellbutrin, Prozac, another Wellbutrin.

I looked at Laney. “Antidepressants?”

She nodded. “You've been trying a few of them.”

“And?”

“They don't work so well.”

I turned back to the cupboard and looked at the fourth one. The label stated that it was for pain, and it bore bold orange warnings about taking it only with food. It had been prescribed by Dr. Markup, the general practitioner whom both Laney and I had seen for years.

“Pain relievers?” I asked Laney.

“You've been getting these nasty headaches. Migraines, I guess.”

This was all so confusing—this apartment that didn't
seem like mine, the depression and headaches I didn't remember. I felt completely removed from the life I'd supposedly been leading. Maybe if I heard more about it…Maybe I
needed
to hear more.

I sat on the counter facing Laney. “Okay, tell me.”

“I did. You've been down.”

“No, I mean give me the whole chronology—how it went, when it started, you know.”

She grimaced and shifted on the stool. “Well, there's no doubt that it started on your birthday. You were all giddy that morning. You called me from work to say that you were looking good, feeling good and ready for your dinner with Ben. Then an hour later, you called again from your cell phone, and I could barely understand a word you were saying.”

“I was crying?” I tried to jump-start some memory.

“No, you were
raging.
You know how you get sometimes?”

I nodded. It wasn't something I was proud of, but I had an occasional flaring temper that I had no control over, which is why I'd wanted to strangle the dry cleaner this morning and the reason, a few hours ago, I'd been plotting ways to terminate everyone in my management company.
Ex-
management company, I reminded myself.

“You told me that they'd laid you off,” Laney continued. “Budget cuts or something. They tried to give you six months' severance, you railroaded them into nine and that was it. They said you could stay on for a month or so. They were going to assign you a desk and a cubicle so you could look for a new job.”

“That's insulting!”

“Exactly. You couldn't believe that this place that should have been making you partner was offering to put you in a cube so you could try and start over somewhere else. You told them to go to hell and just walked out.”

“And so I wasn't depressed yet?”

“Oh no.” Laney chuckled. “Just pissed off.”

“Okay, so then what?”

“Well, naturally you went shopping.”

I nodded. It made absolute sense to me. I was required to shop as part of my job because I was a retail analyst for Bartley Brothers, and it was my duty to keep up on trends, but I also used retail therapy as a pick-me-up. Laney did, too. It always did the heart good to spend money you shouldn't on something that made you look or feel fantastic.

“So you bought these great shoes to go with the black dress you were wearing for dinner,” Laney said.

I was tempted to interrupt and ask for details about the fabric and the heel, but decided it probably wasn't the time.

“Anyway,” Laney continued, “you were actually fine by the time Ben came to pick you up. He took you to the Everest Room. He told you how sorry he was that you got laid off, how ludicrous it was for them to let you go. You were sure he was going to propose. You said besides being fired you were having a great day. Everything felt perfect—the candles, the champagne—and so when he said he needed to talk about something, you thought that was it. But instead, he started this spiel about how he thought he'd be ready, he
wanted
to be ready to marry you, but he wasn't. He gave you that bullshit line about how it wasn't you, it was him.”

I crossed my arms and leaned back against the cabinet. “Please tell me I dumped the champagne bucket over his head.” If there ever was a legitimate time for one of my temper tantrums, that night sounded like it.

“I wish,” Laney said. “You just told him to leave, and once he was gone, you realized that you had to pay the bill.”

I tried to laugh, I really did, but Laney's words sounded like a bad joke. A pathetic woman who'd given her man an ultimatum to marry her or else, sitting there with her “or else”—a full bottle of champagne and the bill. So instead
of a laugh, my voice came out a groan, and then I couldn't help it, I let the tears come.

“Honey.” Laney jumped up from the stool and came around the bar to hug me. “It's okay.”

“I'm sorry,” I mumbled through my tears and Laney's fuzzy sweater. “You've done this already, haven't you?”

“Doesn't matter.” She stroked my hair. “Let it out.”

How could Ben, the man I thought I wanted to marry, be so thoughtless? We'd been together for four years, forever it seemed. We were meant for each other. How could he just end it all when he'd given me the impression that he wanted the same thing I did?

As I sniffled and cried some more into Laney's sweater, I started to wonder about Ben's desires, what he had really wanted. It wasn't that I didn't remember the talks we'd had about marriage. Those had happened in February and March after Dee died, a time I recalled clearly. But maybe he hadn't really wanted a life together. Maybe he simply hadn't disagreed with me when I said I did.

“And so that was it?” I said to Laney, using a paper towel to wipe my eyes. “That's when I got so depressed?”

“Yes and no.” Laney picked up a stray pen, staring at it as if she was thinking hard. “You were down, don't get me wrong. You'd taken two big blows in one day, and only five months or so after Dee died. You were crying a lot and acting a little weird, but something else happened a few weeks later.”

BOOK: A Clean Slate
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