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“How?” I ask her.

“What do you mean, how? I had no choice. That’s how.”

I look up at my mom, a woman I respect and admire. A woman with three kids and no husband but, at fifty-nine, a new boyfriend. My mother is going to have sex tonight. She’s going to have the kind of sex that makes you feel like you invented sex. And my grandmother is going to lie in her hotel room, convinced she has cancer, so that she can one day soon be with the man she had no choice but to love, the man who took care of her and stood beside her until the day he died, the man who gave her children and came home every day and kissed her on the cheek.

I don’t know where I fit in. I don’t know which one of these women I am. Maybe I’m neither. But it would be nice to feel as if I was one of them. That way, I’d have a road map. I’d be able to know what happens next. I’d be able to ask someone what I should do, and they could answer me, truly answer me.

If I’m not one of them, if I’m my own person, my own version of a woman, in my own marriage, then I have to figure it out for myself.

Which I really don’t want to do.

• • •

I’m just coming out of the bathroom when I finally see Rachel again.

“You owe me five dollars for the streamers,” she says.

“I’m good for it,” I say.

“How are you holding up?”

“You mean with the charade?”

“Yeah,” she says. “And the rest of it.”

I breathe in deeply. “I’m good,” I say. I don’t know what the actual answer is. I don’t think it’s that I’m good, though.

“Have you met Bill yet?”

“No.” I shake my head “But he seems nice from afar.”

“Oh, he’s totally nice. And he treats Mom like she’s a princess. It’s kind of weird. I mean, it’s great. But then also you’re, like, ‘Ew, Mom.’ And Mom just eats. It. Up. Ugh, you know how she is, you know? It’s like, she just loves the attention.”

“Well, you know Mom,” I say. “I’m going to get another drink.”

Rachel and I head into the kitchen. When we burst through the double doors, we catch my mom and Bill kissing. Bill pulls away, and Mom blushes. I’m nearly positive that his hand was up her shirt. Rachel and I just stand there for a moment as Charlie comes bounding in from the living room and crashes into the back of us. Mom starts fixing her hair. Bill is trying to act normal. It’s easy for Charlie to put together what he’s just missed. It’s entirely PG-13. But it’s a mother and her boyfriend being walked in on by three adult children, so it’s uncomfortable.

“Hi, kids,” my mom says, as if she had been doing the dishes.

Bill puts his hand out to introduce himself to me. “Bill,” he says, grabbing my hand and shaking it hard. His eyes are green. His hair is salt-and-pepper gray, although more salt than pepper. He’s got one of those megawatt smiles.

“Lauren,” I say, making eye contact and smiling, like I’ve been taught to do.

“I know!” Bill says. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”


“Rachel, will you help me bring this cheese platter out into the living room?” my mom says.

“Yeah, OK,” Rachel says, smiling and taking so much delight in the awkwardness of this that you’d think she’d have brought popcorn. She picks up a tray and heads out with my mother.

“I just came in for a beer,” Charlie says, grabbing another one out of the fridge and heading back out. He doesn’t even take the time to snap the cap in the trash. He’s out of here in two seconds flat. Now it’s just Bill and me.

“Happy Birthday,” Bill says.

“Oh, thank you very much,” I say. Why is this so awkward? I guess I don’t usually meet any of my mother’s boyfriends. I mean, I know she’s had them, but they don’t often last long enough to get invited to a birthday party. “So you’re a mechanic?” I ask. I don’t know what else to ask.

“Oh, no,” Bill says. “We met at the mechanic. That’s probably where the wires got crossed. No, I’m a financial adviser.”

“Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. That’s funny. What a random thing to think you were.”

“No problem,” Bill says. “I’d love to think of myself as a mechanic. I can’t fix a goddamn thing.”

“Not a leaky-faucet-fixing kind of guy?”

“I can help with your taxes,” he says. “That’s the kind of guy I am.”

Bill puts his arms behind him on the counter and rests against it. The way he relaxes makes me relax but also makes me realize that he wants to talk to me for a while. He’s getting comfortable. This is . . . I think he’s trying to get to know me.

“And you work in alumni relations, right? That’s what your mom told me.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I like it a lot.”

“What do you like about it?”

“Oh, well, I like interacting with the former students. You meet a lot of people who graduated recently and are looking for guidance from older alumni, and then you also get people who graduated years and years ago and are looking to mentor someone. So that’s fun.”

“You’re inspiring me to call my own alma mater,” he says, laughing. “Sounds like you’re doing some good work.”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Bill was married for a long time and my mom is his first, or one of his first, girlfriends since his wife passed away. This is all very new to him.

“So you have kids of your own?” I ask him.

He nods, and his face brightens. “Four boys,” he says. “Men, really. Thatcher, Sterling, Campbell, and Baker.”

Oh. My. God. Those are some of the worst names I have ever heard. “Oh, great names,” I say.

“No,” he says. “Their names suck. But they are family names. My wife’s family. My late wife, rather. Anyway, they are good kids. My youngest just graduated from Berkeley.”

“Oh, that’s great,” I say. We talk about Rachel and Charlie, and then, predictably, we get to the topic of my mother.

“She’s really something,” Bill says.

“That she is,” I say.

“No, I’m serious. I’m not . . . I’m not well versed in the dating pool. But your mom really gives me hope. She makes me excited again. Is that OK to say? Is that weird that I said that?”

“No,” I say, shaking my head. “It’s nice to hear. She deserves somebody who feels that way about her.”

“Well,” he says, “you know what that is, right? From what your mom tells me, you and Ryan are quite the pair.”

It’s all too much. My mother in love. This man baring his soul to me for no good reason. Ryan not being here. It’s all too much. I walk over to the punch bowl and pour myself a cup. It’s almost full, the punch bowl. My mom must keep refilling this thing. Get a grip, Mom. No one likes the punch. I take a sip, instantly remembering how strong and foul it is. I chug the whole thing, forcing it down and putting the cup back on the counter.

Bill looks at me. “You OK?” he says.

“I’m fine, Bill.” Everyone needs to stop asking me that question. My answer isn’t going to change.

• • •

I’ve had two more cups of punch by the time the cake comes out. My breath, at this point, seems flammable. As my mother and the rest of my family join around the cake, the candles sending shadows flickering high above, I look around and have this moment where I feel as if I can see very clearly what a shit show my life has become.

I am turning thirty. I am thirty. And I’m celebrating, not with the man I have loved since I was nineteen, but with Uncle Fletcher, who is staring at me from across the table. He just wants the cake. This isn’t what thirty is supposed to look like. It’s not what thirty is supposed to feel like. By thirty, you’re supposed to have things figured out, aren’t you? You’re not supposed to be questioning everything you’ve built your life on.