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Authors: Caren Lissner

Starting from Square Two

BOOK: Starting from Square Two
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Praise for Caren Lissner's first novel,
Carrie Pilby:

“Woody Allen-hilarious, compulsively readable and unpretentiously smart.”

—Philadelphia Weekly

“Lissner's heroine is utterly charming and unique, and readers will eagerly turn the pages to find out how her search for happiness unfolds.”

—Booklist

“In language both witty and sweet, Lissner describes the exploits of her 19-year-old heroine, detailing a transformation that is subtle, careful and believable. Instead of completing a total (and predictable) turnaround, Carrie, a genius who has just graduated from Harvard, goes on a quest for a way to live among others, having fun while still adhering to her strict moral code. The results are hilarious and impressive.”

—Philadelphia City Paper

“Debut author Caren Lissner deftly delivers a novel that is funny, sarcastic and thought-provoking.”

—Romantic Times

“Caren Lissner will break your heart, twist your mind and bust your gusset, often in the same sentence.”

—J. Robert Lennon author of
On the Night Plain

Starting from Square Two
Caren Lissner

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I must first thank Howard Walper, who often Instant Messages me with unsolicited advice on my writing, work, free time and personal life. Everyone should have a friend like Howard. Seriously, he offered amazing insights into this book. I would also like to acknowledge Farrin Jacobs, my editor, for doing such a great editing job and for putting up with me; Cheryl Pientka, whose monumental feats have included putting out fires (literally) and most impressively, putting up with me; and Marc Serges, for being brilliant and also putting up with me; Dawn Eden, for enthusiasm, encouragement and suggestions, and Jeff Hauser, for support and ideas.

I am very grateful to the following for always encouraging my writing: Stacie Fine, Stacie Fine's mom, Janet Rosen, Matt Greco, Eileen Budd, Dan Saffer, Jim Damis, Mary Beth Jipping, Barry Macaluso, Julia Hough, Regina Hill, Shanti Gold, Bridget Grimes, Angela Gaffney, John Prendergast, Neil Genzlinger, Eliot Kaplan, Robert Donnell, Linda Wiedmann, Cheryl Shipman, Dennis and Valerie, John R. Lennon, Jon Blackwell, Michael Malice, Jodi Harris, my parents, my brother Todd, Al Sullivan, Jennifer Merrick, Lucha Malato, David Unger, Joe Barry and everyone with whom I work (and yes, who puts up with me) at the fine Hudson Reporter newspaper chain. Finally, no one is to blame for my writing habit more than the outstanding writing and English teachers I had, just some of whom are included here: Frances Doane, Michael Ferraro, Barbara Kitrosser, Mary Sandholt, Roslyn Schleifer, Walter Hatton, Diana Cavalho, Kristin Hunter Lattany, Cary Holiday and anyone I've forgotten.

Chapter
1

“I
t can't be that bad,” Gert said.

The D train was careening through the subway tunnel, passing through areas of light, then darkness. Gert was squeezed on one of the long gray seats next to her former college roommate, Hallie. Looming high above them was Hallie's high school friend, Erika, who was tall and always wore huge black boots.

“It
is
that bad,” Hallie said to Gert. “You have no idea what it's like out there.”

Gert looked up at Erika, who was strap-hanging. They weren't really straps, though. They were metal triangular things. When was the last time they were straps, Gert wondered.

She's triangle-hanging,
Gert thought to herself.

She'd have said it aloud if Marc were there. He liked corny observations.

Then she felt bad. It was impossible not to think of him in relation to everything. She'd done it for eight years of her life.

“Let me ask you a question,” Hallie said to her.

“Fine,” Gert said. “Ask me a question.”

“You were married to Marc for five years, and you'd dated
him for three before that. In those eight years, did you come across even one other man who, had you been single, you would have considered dating?”

Gert shrugged. “I wasn't thinking like that,” she said, “because I was with Marc.”

“But,” Hallie said, “during that time, did you ever just
happen
to meet a man who was remotely attractive, normal, in his twenties and not taken?”

“No,” Gert persisted. “I wasn't trying.”

“What about in the course of your regular business?”

“I wouldn't have noticed.”

Gert wondered if, in some small way, Hallie and Erika occasionally felt a secret bit of satisfaction that the accident had happened, so they could finally prove to her that the dating scene was just as bad as they'd always said.

But true friends could never wish that on her, could they?

 

Gert knew they were only trying to help by dragging her out. Everyone was always trying to “help”—like the people who told her that eventually, it would hurt less, or that she was strong and she'd move on. But they had no idea how many times per day she heard expressions, songs or references that reminded her of him. Every time something bad happened to her, or she felt lonely, she thought of him on impulse, as she'd done for most of her adult life—and was reminded again that he was gone. They'd met sophomore year of college, so that was eight years or 2,920 days of memories she had to suppress in order to even feel remotely okay. Didn't people understand that?

The only people who did understand were the women in her support group on Long Island, where she went every week. Among her circle of friends, there was not exactly a surfeit of twenty-nine-year-olds who had lost their husbands. Most of them had not even been married yet. And Gert, who had counted herself so lucky for so long, and who had been far outside the realm of her lonely single friends, was now—because of one horrible day—among their ranks.

It had only been a year and a half since the car accident. That was barely enough time to even accept what had happened. It was also barely enough time to stop having those brief moments when she felt as secure as she used to be, then, in a flash, remembered that everything was all wrong.

But Gert was finally giving in to one of Hallie and Erika's many exhortations to go out. It certainly would be healthier than sitting home all night. Still, her heart wouldn't be in it and her mind wouldn't be on it. She'd just be going through the motions—like she did with so many things these days.

 

Gert looked at Hallie and Erika. Both of them had complained about dating since college graduation. They always made it sound like war, packed with battle plans and tricks and conspiracies. Gert had been skeptical in the past. Wasn't dating supposed to be fun?

In college, it had been. It went like this: A guy in your class or dorm would strike up a conversation, he'd invite you for coffee or a movie, you'd flirt relentlessly in the study lounges, and eventually the conversations would turn into heated dormroom aerobics. Or in the case of Marc, the two of you were at the bookstore, and he saw you buying a used copy of Calculus for $44.99 instead of $60 new, and he said, “Where'd you get that?” and you talked about how you almost placed out of the class entirely and how you both thought that math was the worst and best subject in the world. It was the worst because it was boring, but it was the best because it always provided finite answers—no room for guesswork or interpretation. You came to realize you both liked things you could count on. You were in the same lecture, so you could study together. You got an A-minus and the first intense relationship of your life.

Gert's other dates, before Marc, hadn't been bad, either. There was cynical Andy, who was obsessed with Ultimate Frisbee and PEZ dispensers. Paul, the head of the political union, called the profs and deans by their first names when he saw them on campus. He went to their office hours even if he wasn't
in their classes, because other students didn't take advantage of them and he figured it was a good time to schmooze. But neither of them was as driven or interesting as Marc, a guitar-playing business student who had three red-haired Irish brothers, none of whom looked a thing like him.

Gert's closeness with Marc was what made her realize that someday, she might need to be with someone again. The idea of going through the rest of her life without a person beside her to help her through it was torture. But she couldn't imagine dating right now. No one could possibly have Marc's ideas and expressions, those idiosyncrasies and small kindnesses that made her smile. There couldn't possibly be anyone like him.

 

Gert looked at Hallie, dressed so scantily in the middle of February. Hallie's dating troubles always had seemed self-imposed. When Hallie had told Gert about the guy who'd said, “I actually drive better after a few beers,” Gert couldn't believe Hallie hadn't walked out on him right then. But Hallie had told Gert she wanted to stick with him because he was “sensitive.” Next, Hallie met a guy who didn't drive drunk, but had big ears. So Hallie stopped dating him. Gert worried that Hallie was focusing on all the wrong things.

One day Gert actually told Hallie that her priorities seemed skewed.

“You meet a nice guy and his forehead's too high,” Gert said. “You meet a jerky guy and you date him anyway and end up bitter when he doesn't morph into a poet. You hate bars but you go to the same ones five days a week. Why don't you just relax a little and have fun?”

Hallie got angry. She said Gert had no idea at all what it was like out there.

That's the phrase Hallie had used: Out There.

Like it was a jungle.

 

The subway bumped a bit, and everyone grabbed their belongings to prevent liftoff.

“Well?” Hallie said.

“Well, what?” Gert asked.

“Name one decent guy you've met since college who's single.”

Gert sighed. “Marc's brother Michael,” she said. “He's normal. He's nice. So there
is
one who exists.”

“And you'd date him?” asked tall, ponytailed Erika, from somewhere near the ceiling.

“I didn't say I would date him,” Gert said. “He's Marc's brother. I'm just saying he exists.”

“Isn't he the short one with the mutton chops?” Erika asked.

“No. Eddie's married.”

“Is he the one who wears stained overalls and lives in Maine and breeds Sea Monkeys?”

“Patrick doesn't breed Sea Monkeys; he's a crabber. And
he's
married too.”

“Oh. So you mean the third brother, the eighteen-year-old.”

“Michael's twenty-two now,” Gert said.

Hallie and Erika looked at each other.

“So you would date a twenty-two-year-old?” Hallie asked.

“I didn't say
I
would….”

“See!” Hallie said, her voice surging with victory. “That is exactly my point, and something you will learn soon enough. There are no single guys who don't have at least one major flaw, and a flaw, I might add, that would stop you from dating them—even if everything else was great. Why? Simple math. Women are interesting and honest and sensitive. Most men are not. There is only one normal, decent single guy for every five women in this city. This is what's known as the Great Male Statistic. Girls don't want to face the GMS. They want to believe there's someone for everyone. The truth hurts. You only start coming to terms with the GMS when you're twenty-six or twenty-seven. It actually killed Sylvia Plath. She finally found this guy in grad school who she thought was so great, and she married him, and he cheated on her.”

“Didn't Sylvia Plath have a history of mental illness since she was an undergrad?” Gert asked.

“Incidental. She didn't kill herself until Ted Hughes cheated. The truth is, the really good men are snapped up quickly. You get into your mid-twenties and it's five to one. Don't give me that look. You don't believe it because you don't
want
to.”

Gert was ready to go home. “Then why are we doing this?”

“Because looking for the one in five,” Hallie said, “is still better than being alone.”

 

The bar was two blocks from the mouth of the subway. When the women emerged on Bleecker Street, a frigid wind swept through, grazing their bare arms. Hallie wrapped her hands around herself as she walked, but insisted to Gert that she wasn't cold.

“The only way to get into a lasting relationship is to find one before you finish college,” said Erika, her dirty-blond ponytail bouncing behind her.

“Absolutely,” Hallie said. “Look when both of you met your boyfriends. Sophomore year. And—poof—you had taken them off the market forever. Denied to older women like us.”

Erika said, “I gave up Ben at twenty-four, and someone else got him.”

“And how long did that take? Five months?”

“Not even,” Erika said, looking down at her boots. “Three.”

Gert had heard many times about how Erika had met and lost her college boyfriend. Erika and Ben had started dating around the same time as Gert had started dating Marc—sophomore year. But Erika broke up with Ben five years later. She was pretty, a lot of guys liked her, and her friends and family kept telling her not to settle down so quickly. She wasn't sure she was ready to make a lifelong commitment, and she didn't feel hopelessly, madly in love with Ben, the way she'd always dreamed she would be.

So she told Ben she needed a few months off. Better to figure out what she wanted now, she said, than when it was too
late. She dated a few guys, realized Ben was much better than everyone she'd met, and called him up one night.

It was too late.

 

They passed a guy with a huge backpack who was slumped against a building, drunk. A policeman was kneeling down to talk to him. The thick smell of beer-soaked sidewalks and vomit invaded Gert's nostrils. She remembered it from frat parties in college. It was a sad smell—the smell of being among two hundred happy people but just wanting to be with the one who made
you
happy. It was a memory she could do without.

“At least you got to be Ben's first love,” Hallie said to Erika. “I'll never get to be anyone's.”

“I hate her,” Erika said.

“Don't start.”

“I'm going to read her Web log tonight and put crap on her message board.”

“Again?”

Gert had heard all about Ben's wife, Challa, and her Web log. Challa wrote every few days in her “blog” about her life, for all the world to see. It told of romantic trips, of art classes the couple took together, of how wonderful Ben was with the baby, and of Ben's dream to renovate an old farmhouse in New England where they could raise their family. Erika told Gert and Hallie about the night Ben had sat on her dormroom bed in college and first told
her
of this dream.

“That should be me,” Erika always said to them. “She's an imposter, living my life. And here I am, sitting in my pajamas in front of the computer, reading about it.”

 

Hallie, Erika and Gert had problems with the first three bars they passed. Blastoff was playing eighties music. (“Eighties music was never good the first time,” Erika sniped. “Just because today's music is so bad, suddenly we think ‘Der Kommissar' is good?”) Gert passed on the biker bar—too intimidating. Hallie thought there were too many women in Atlantis.

“They should open a really hip bar that refuses to admit women if they're underdressed,” Hallie said.

“Aren't you part of the problem?” Gert asked.

“I can't take a stand on it alone,” Hallie said. “The stakes are too high. If everyone would just say no to overexposure to the elements, I'd put on a sweater, by gum!”

Gert laughed. Hallie sometimes used funny expressions like “by gum.” It did lighten the mood a bit. But these days, it seemed like practically the only time her old roommate said things like that was when she was drinking or drunk.

Gert remembered meeting Hallie on move-in day at college. She'd liked her new roommate instantly. Hallie was a short, chubby-cheeked girl who laughed at everything and constantly poured her heart out about all her unrequited crushes. And just as Hallie was willing to share her problems, she was nosy and would ferret out all of her friends' concerns. If something was bothering Gert, Hallie would be unrelenting in drawing it out of her and making her feel better. The two of them often left a night of studying on their respective beds to head to the corner coffee shop to hash out their problems over espresso. They would leave after two hours with a clear course of action: Call their crushes. Study harder. Hang around over break. Hallie was a psychology major, so she liked helping people deal with their dilemmas.

BOOK: Starting from Square Two
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