Authors: Caroline Angell
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For my grandmother, the original Charlotte
I'm blessed to have wonderful people in my corner, who have spent many hours reading drafts, giving advice, discussing the fictional lives of the people I invented, lending me their kitchen tables and bits of their lives, and most of all, loving and supporting me. Thank you to my generous family: Mom, Dad, Gramma, my stepparents, Glenn and Diane, and my sisters, Betsy and Emily. And thank you to my brilliant friends: Heidi Donohue, Roddy Flynn, Cara Gabriel, Erin Kaufman, Anais Koivisto, Carl Menninger, Janet Patton, Jessie Redden, Amal Saade, Heather Fain Schaefer, the Schneider family, Margo Seibert, Amanda Thickpenny, Monica Waldie Timmreck, and Justin Waldie.
Thank you to Allie Larkin. You got this ball rolling, and I'll never forget your help.
Thanks to everyone at my agency, Levine Greenberg Rostan, particularly Lindsey Edgecombe. Thank you times a million to my agent, Victoria Skurnick, a smart, honest, kind, and lion-hearted lady whom I feel lucky to be connected to.
Thanks to everyone at Henry Holt who had a hand in the production of this book, especially Rita Quintas and Meryl Levavi. I am so grateful to my fantastic editor, Barbara Jones, whose insight, spirit, and sensitivity transformed the story. Thank you to Stella Tan for your input, and for the grace with which you handled all the details.
To the Truman family, the Warren-Fulcher family, and the Donohue family: Thank you for sharing your kiddos with me. This story is what it is because you let them sing with me and be silly with me and drive me bananas and inspire me. The world is better because of people who parent with their whole hearts, and you are among them.
The day she died was not beautiful. There have been a few world disasters in my lifetime, generation-defining events, and the ones I remember most clearly were marked with the hideous irony of a perfect blue sky. But the day Gretchen McLean died was miserable and drizzly, with periods of that nasty, keening wind that blows your raincoat hood straight back from your head and whips the garbage on Lexington Avenue into your face. It was appropriate, almost righteous. Towers fall, and the sun should not warm your skin; buses explode, and the breeze should not trace gentle ripples across the reservoir. But on the day that Gretchen died, even the weather seemed to understand its role. Because on the day that the mother of two little boys dies without warning, the wind should absolutely howl.
February, the day before
“I left the juice box on the counter. You might want to take a paper towel too. He squeezes them when he puts the straw in,” Gretchen tells me. “Right, George?” She pokes little George in the belly.
“All over me when I put the traw in,” he confirms. I'm pretty good at deciphering George-speak now, but it took me six or seven months to catch on. Gretchen understood it from the moment it started, which I'd prefer to chalk up to her intuitive mommy-skills, rather than to my slow-babysitter syndrome.
I walked in the door exactly seven minutes late today, which is an unusual occurrence. Of course, today is the day that Gretchen is in a hurry to leave, and now her meticulousness, which I normally laugh at, is giving me a complex. I'd love to give her an acceptable excuse for my lateness, but the wrong comment could lead to revelations I'm not willing to share. I don't want to risk it, even though we've known each other for two years and, in some ways, are as close as family. The less you know about someone, the easier it is to make up the details, which is exactly what you want to do when it comes to the person who will help raise your children.
Gretchen hands George his shoes and then tears off a paper towel, folds it up, and puts it under the juice box on the counter. “Or would you rather I put it in the stroller, Charlotte?”
“The counter is fine.”
“Hey, I meant to text you,” she says, “and then I think I forgotâdo you have plans tonight?”
“Do you need me to stay late?”
“We thought we might go out,” says Gretchen. “But no big deal if you can't stay. We'll do it another night.” I wonder if she means that, or if she made the reservation a while ago and took it for granted that I would be able to stay. I rarely say no to her, and I know I'm not the only one.
“I think it will be fine.” I calculate the extra hours in my head and console myself with the thought. “You should go out. I'll stay.”
“Thank you! That's great. Oh, before I forget, one of the stroller wheels keeps turning sideways. Makes it drag a little, just fyiâ¦” She is back to business, and I pull out my phone to text Everett, who is probably still in my bed.
“Have to work late. Go back to New Haven if you want to. Will feel bad if you stay an extra day. Don't be mad.” I send the text and then regret that last insecure sentence.
Everett, my good friend from grad school, had shown up unannounced at my door at 9:30 last night with two things on his mind, both of which kept me tossing and turning longer than preferable. I'm not used to having another person in my space all night, so at 6:37 a.m. I was wide awake and spinning, despite having slept for only a couple of hours. Mornings with Gretchen and the boys are more difficult if I make less-than-stellar choices the night before, but on the whole, I like my employment situation and would like it to stay as it is. I have no family in New York, and barely any of my friends from school have relocated here. Gretchen's family has become somewhat of a refuge for me in this city, where everyone is in such a hurry not to look each other in the eye. Babysitting in Manhattan is a decent living, and since keeping a roof over my head is a priority for me, working for Gretchen has been ideal. But that isn't a thing you can say to someone like Everettâsomeone who proclaims he would rather eat chickpeas out of a tin can in a basement in Bay Ridge than sacrifice one minute where he could be Making Art. Luckily, his trust fund and his acceptance to Yale's doctoral program have kept him from such a fate thus far.
“Me riding in the troller, Tahr-lette?” George asks, bringing me back to the present.
“Yes, bug, you're riding in the stroller.”
“And we go get Matt?”
“Yes, we're picking up Matt,” I say. Impatience won't do; the day is just starting, and it's a marathon, not a sprint. George is at that toddler stage of communication where I have to repeat everything he says back to him, so he can be sure his objectives are understood and will be met. “Can you fasten those shoes, pal? Do you need a little help?”
“Me do it,” he says, with great authority.
“Good job, Georgie,” Gretchen says, leaning down to kiss him. “Mommy has to go and run a few errands, and I'll see you in a little bit.
“Grocery tore, Mommy?”
“Yes, and the drug store, and the library. And maybe Banana Republic,” she says to me with mock apology. “I'm a sucker for the forty-percent-off signs.”
“Me too,” I say.
“You and Matt are going to play on the playground with Charlotte,” Gretchen says to George.
“Me go down that widdle side, Mommy?”
“Which little slide?”
“That widdle twisty side?”
“Sure, you can show Charlotte that little twisty slide.”
“That sounds like fun, Georgie,” I say.
Gretchen slings her bag over her shoulder, not Marc Jacobs, not Chanel, even though I know she can afford it. “Okay, you guys,” she says. “Have fun. See you later.”
I start to gather up our things for an outing, but the stroller-packing process is sluggish for many reasons, none of which I can attribute to Georgie.
“We're gonna need to stop for something caffeinated,” I say. “I'm as slow as a baby in a lead diaper today.” George laughs so hard he falls over sideways. He loves to be in on jokes about babies.
“The Philharmonic is playing my first solo piece in the next concert series,” Everett had said last night when I, already in my pajamas, had opened my door to him. “At Carnegie Hall.” He said it casually, like it was no big deal, even though we both knew it was. At the same time, he was holding up a bottle of really nice bourbon as if we were celebrating, and the juxtaposition confused me. How did he want me to react?
After we'd finished our master's program, Everett had taken a year off to see what kind of work he might be interested in pursuing, and then applied to Yale the following year to become a doctor of musical arts. He'd had minor projects come and go, but nothing on this scale, which is how I'd justified not being in attendance for any of them in the past few years. This was a big one. I should have been going crazy, and he should have been going crazy. Instead, we acted like we were sitting around the poker table, waiting for the other one to give up a tell.
“You should come with me to hear it,” he said, while I was busy not saying anything, like an asshole. “I'll take you to the after-party. And we can sit in the audience together and be elitist. Or mock other people for being elitist. Your choice.”
“Only if you promise not to crush all the tiny bones in my hand if the first violin goes sharp,” I said.
“So, you'll come?”
“AhÂ â¦ when is it?”
“Are you frantically rewriting?”
“More constantly than frantically.”
I squeezed my fingers together to relieve the tension in them as I stared at Everett, still just outside the door to my apartment, and I tried to think of something to say. Indecision overwhelmed me, but it wasn't an unfamiliar feeling, particularly in my recent history. Three years ago, my life had been as linear as a road map, the progression so natural that sometimes it took me a while to notice the milestones. I could draw a straight line from Yamaha preschool to the beloved record player my parents kept in our upstairs hallway, where I would sit and fixate for hours as a kid; from the evolution of my high school passions, Joni Mitchell to Vivaldi to Sondheim to the Clash; from conservatory in the Midwest, to graduate school in New York, to scholarships and recitals and being chosen over and over and over.