Excerpt: Always the Last to Know
This excerpt is from Sadie’s point of view. She’s the younger sister…the flighty one, compared with Perfect Juliet. Sadie’s been trying to make a life in New York City for the past ten years, and here she is, taking the reins and popping the question to her seemingly perfect boyfriend, Alexander.
“You’re engaged? Oh! Uh . . . huzzah!”
Yes. I had just said huzzah.
You know what? I couldn’t blame myself. Another engagement among the teachers of St. Catherine’s Catholic Elementary School in the Bronx. The fifth this year, and yes, I was counting.
I couldn’t look away from the diamond blinding me from the finger of Bridget Ennis. The stone was the size of a bumblebee, and my hypnotized eyes followed her hand as she waved it in excitement, telling the rest of us teachers—six women, one man—about how romantic, how unexpected, how thrilling it had been.
I had nothing against Bridget. But it had been raining diamond rings lately, and despite my having had bubbly hopes on my own last birthday, the fourth finger of my left hand remained buck naked.
Bridget was talking about save-the-date magnets and paper quality and color schemes and flower arrangements and the seventy-nine dresses she was already torn between. Bridget was an only child from wealthy parents. This did not bode well for me, her sort-of friend. Please don’t ask me to be a bridesmaid. Please. Please. I am way too old for this shit.
“My daddy said whatever I want, and I want it to be perfect, you know?” Bridget looked at me, and I felt the cold trickle of dread. “Sadie, obviously I want you as a bridesmaid.” Her pure green eyes filled with happy tears.
Oh, the fuckery of it all.
“Of course!” I said. “Thank you! What an honor!” My cheek began to twitch as I smiled.
“And you, Nina! And you, Vanessa! And of course, Jay’s three sisters and my gals from Kappa Kappa Gamma. And my cousin, because she’s like a sister to me. Do you like violet? Or cornflower? Off the shoulder, I was thinking, but I think my dress might be off the shoulder and . . .” I stopped listening as she began speaking in tongues intelligible only to those addicted to Say Yes to the Dress.
“You don’t have to say yes, idiot,” came a low voice next to me. Carter Demming, my best friend at St. Catherine’s.
“She’s sweet,” I murmured back.
“Oh, please. Let her sorority sisters be her bridesmaids. Show some dignity for your age.”
“Your most fertile years are behind you.”
“Miss Frost? I need you for a second,” Carter said loudly. “Mazel tov, sweetheart,” he added as Bridget brushed away more glittering tears.
We left Bridget’s cheery classroom and went to the now-empty teachers’ lounge, where we teachers discussed which kids we hated most and how to ruin their young lives (not really). Carter posted the occasional Legalize Marijuana sticker somewhere, just to torment our principal, the venerable and terrifying Sister Mary.
I was the art teacher here. No, I could not support myself on a teacher’s salary at a Catholic school in New York City, but more on that later. I loved teaching, though it hadn’t exactly been my dream. Just about every kid loved art. If I didn’t have the same stature as the “regular” teachers, I made up for it by being adored.
“So you’re thinking about marriage and why you’re still single,” said Carter, pulling out a chair and straddling it.
“Yep.” I sat down, too, the normal way, like a human and not a cowboy.
“So propose already.”
“Propose marriage to your perfect boyfriend.”
“Why should men have to do all the work? Do you know how hard it is to buy the perfect ring, pick the perfect moment and place, say the perfect words and still have it be a fucking surprise? It’s very hard.”
“You would know.” Carter had been married several times, twice to women, once to a man.
“Listen to your uncle Carter. Some men need a shove toward the altar, honey. Shove him. Do you really want to go out into the Tinder world again?”
“Your window is closing. Match and eharmony worked fifteen years ago, but now they’re filled with criminals. As you well know.”
“He was a minor felon, and it wasn’t exactly listed in his profile. But yes, I see your point.”
Alexander (not a felon) and I had been dating for a couple of years. We had a marriage-worthy relationship by any measure. Maybe it was the distance factor—he was a traveling yacht salesman (someone had to do it)—so we weren’t bothered by the slings and arrows of daily life together. He was constant—we saw each other almost every weekend. He brought me presents from his travels—a silk scarf printed with palmetto leaves from the Florida Keys, or honey from Savannah. He’d met my parents, charmed my mother (not an easy task), chatted with my father and wasn’t in awe of my older sister, which was definitely a point in his favor. Alex had great stories about his clients, some of them celebrities, others just fabulously wealthy. He was, er . . . tidy, a quality that shouldn’t be undersold.
Why he was dating me, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure. “You have no idea how hard it is to find a nice girl,” he said once, so I guess it was that.
But I wasn’t really a girl anymore, not like Bridget. Already past my prime fertility years, according to Uncle Carter, who did tend to know everything.
“Hello?” he said, scratching his wrist. “Sadie. You’re in vapor lock. Make a move.”
Another fair point. “Yeah,” I said. “Sure. I could do it. We’re seeing each other tonight.”
“See? Written in the stars.” He winked at me. “Now, I have to go wash the grime from these little motherfuckers off me because I have a date.”
“I don’t want to know.”
“Josh Foreman,” he said, referring to the security guard who worked at St. Cath’s.
“His hands are so soft. That smile. Plus, he screams like a wildcat in bed.”
“And . . . scene.” I brought my hands together, indicating cut. Carter grinned and left the teachers’ lounge.
More evidence of Alexander’s plans to marry me someday flashed through my head. Once he’d said, “Margaret’s a nice name for a girl, don’t you think? I wouldn’t mind a daughter named Margaret.” Another: “We should look at property on the Maine coast for a summer place. It’s so beautiful up there. And Portland has a great art scene.”
Maybe it was time for me to take action. It was just that when I pictured being married, it was never to Alexander.
The vision of a black-haired, dark-eyed boy standing in the gusty breeze came to mind. My own version of Jon Snow, clad in Carhartt instead of wolfskin.
But Noah and I had tried. Tried and failed, more than once, and that was a long time ago.
Bridget’s bumblebee ring flashed in my mind. Call me shallow, but I wanted a big diamond, too. My materialism ended there. (Or not . . . was it too soon to picture buying a brownstone in the Village? Alexander was loaded, after all. As for a wedding, we could elope. No color schemes or Pinterest boards necessary.)
He was due in around four, depending on traffic. Where was a romantic place in New York in January? It was freakishly mild today—thanks, global warming!—so maybe I could go to Chelsea Market and buy some nice cheese and wine. We could watch the sunset from the High Line and I’d just say it: “I love you. Marry me and make me the happiest woman on earth.” And the tourists and hipsters who frequented the area would applaud and take pictures and we’d probably go viral.
I imagined calling my dad tonight. He’d be so happy.
Yes. I’d propose tonight, and enter the next phase of my life, where I was sure Alexander and I would be very, very content.
As luck would have it, the temperature took a plunge, as weather in the Northeast is cruel and fickle. What had been sixty-two was the low forties by the time Alexander met me in front of the Standard, an odd-looking hotel that straddled the High Line. “God, it’s freezing,” he said as the wind blew through us. “I found a parking spot on Tenth, but I didn’t know it would be this cold.”
“Oh, it’s not so bad!” I said. I had a plan, and I was sticking to it. “Just brisk! The sunset will be gorgeous.” Or it wouldn’t. There was a thick bank of clouds on the horizon, the kind that swallow up the sun. Only one other couple seemed to be around, the other folks hurrying to wherever New Yorkers hurry.
“Christ. I didn’t dress for this,” Alexander said. Neither had I—pretty black knit dress, hair in a ponytail (now being undone by the wind), the necklace he’d given me for Christmas and a cute red leather jacket that did nothing to keep me warm. Should’ve worn pants. And a parka.
“Well, come on,” I said. “We don’t have to stay too long. It’ll be fun.”
He followed me down the sidewalk, past clumps of grass and dead flower bushes. Come spring, this most elegant of New York’s parks would be filled with color and life, but as it was, it was a little, uh, barren.
Shit. Well, I’d make it quick. “Sunset’s in ten minutes,” I said.
“I’ll be dead by then.”
“I’ll revive your cold, hard corpse. Or at least give it a really strong attempt, then go into the Standard and drown my sorrows at the bar.”
He laughed, and my heart swelled a bit. He really was a good, kind person. Great husband material. Never too demanding, always cheerful . . . the opposite of Noah, which was probably no coincidence. I glanced at the other couple. Would they film us when I got down on one knee? Also, should I get down on one knee? These were my only black tights.
“I cannot believe you’re saying this!” Ah. The other couple was fighting. Not a great sign.
Alexander sighed. “Are we about done, babe? I’m starving.”
“I bought cheese.” I pulled the block out of my bag. Shit. We’d have to bite right into it, since I didn’t have a knife.
“Hon. It’s forty degrees out here. Maybe thirty-five. It’s supposed to snow tonight.”
“It’s not so bad. See? That other couple’s brave. Plus, we’re Yankees. This is practically summer.”
He glanced at the other couple. “They have winter coats on.”
They did, those down coats with patches that announced them as explorers of Antarctica. The woman crossed her arms. “Are you shitting me, Dallas?” she practically yelled.
“I never said I wanted to be exclusive! That was all in your head!” the unfortunately named Dallas answered.
“How many women have you been seeing, you cheating bastard? Belinda? Are you seeing that whore again?”
“She’s not a whore!”
“So that’s a yes! Jesus! We’re done, asshole. If I have an STD, I will slit your throat and burn your apartment to the ground.”
She stomped past us, cutting us a look.
The cheater skulked past us, arms folded, head down against the wind.
“Okay, so that was fun,” Alexander said. “They do have the right idea about leaving, though. What do you say, babe? Shall we go? Grab a drink somewhere with heat?”
Do or die. “Right. Okay.” Shit. We were sitting. I scrambled to my feet. “Um, can you stand up for a second?”
“About time. Do you want to go out for dinner?” The cold wind whipped his blond hair, and his ears were bright red.
“Just one thing first.” I looked into his eyes, which were watering a little from the wind. Just then, the sun slipped behind a bank of clouds that had come out of nowhere. So much for fiery skies burnishing the moment.
It didn’t matter. I loved him. He was rock solid, this guy, and we . . . we had such a good thing going. Before I changed my mind, I knelt down. Felt my tights catch on the rough surface of the walkway.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Alexander Mitchum, will you marry me and make me the happiest man—shit, I mean woman—alive?” The wind gusted again, blowing my hair into my face.
“Uh . . . what are you doing, Sadie?” His face was incredulous.
“I . . . I’m proposing.” My heart felt like the sun, abruptly swallowed in clouds. Do not make me go back on those dating websites, Alexander Mitchum.
“I’m the one who’s supposed to propose.”
“Okay! Sure. Go for it.” Thank God.
He laughed a little. “Well, babe . . . I’m not ready. There are things I need to have in place. A ring, for one.”
“We can get one later. Cartier is open till seven. Probably. Not that I checked.”
He laughed. “Well, I’d like to surprise you. When the time comes.”
“I’m down on one knee here, Alexander.”
“Get up, then! This is crazy.” He pulled me to my feet. I felt my tights tear. “You nut. It’s the man’s job to propose.”
Sexist, really. “It seemed like a good idea. I mean, we’ve been together two years. We’re the right age.” I forced a smile.
“What is the right age, really? Is there an age that’s wrong?” he asked, but he kissed my forehead. “I’ll do it when the time is right. Okay?”
Well, didn’t I feel stupid. “Okay.”
“I want the moment to be when we’re not freezing our asses off in the dark. Don’t worry. It’ll be perfect.”
My heart felt weird. Happy weird, or disappointed weird? “I mean, now that we’re talking about it . . . you could just . . . ask.”
“No. I want it to be really romantic. Not on a night so cold my balls are retracting.”
In case there was any doubt that my plan sucked, those dark gray clouds opened and a cold rain started to fall.
“I’m gonna pass out if I don’t eat soon. Want to grab something, then go back to my place and fool around so we can salvage this night?”
Feeling like a dolt, I followed him to the stairs that led to street level.
Alexander’s phone chimed. He studied it, then looked up. “Shit, babe,” he said. “I have to go up to Boston. That idiot Patriots player is pitching a fit over a painting of himself that was supposed to be hung on the ceiling over his bed, and the designer put it on the wall instead. What time is it? Damn. I’ll have to drive up tonight.” He looked at me. “Want to come? We could grab some fast food on the road and stay overnight. A suite at the Mandarin with some spa time tomorrow, maybe?”
That was the thing about Alexander. He was so thoughtful. But my feeling of ineptitude lingered.
“I think I’ll just go home. I have a painting due Sunday.”
“Gotcha.” We stood there awkwardly. “Want me to drive you home?
“Subway’s faster,” I said.
“Well. Drive safely.”
“I will. Talk to you, babe.” He kissed me quickly and strode off.
It really was cold. I started walking toward Eighth Avenue to catch the subway. Soon, I’d be home. Maybe I’d take a shower to warm up. Order Thai food and work on that blue-and-white “like Van Gogh except not as a swirly” painting I’d been commissioned to do. Bitter sigh, followed by the reminder to be grateful that I had these gigs at all and wasn’t living in a paper bag.
Just then, my phone rang. My sister, Juliet, who almost never called me. “Hi!” I said. “How are you?”
“Listen, Sadie,” she said, her voice strange, and instinctively, I stopped walking, my free hand covering my ear so I could hear her better. “Dad had a stroke. He’s in surgery at UConn, and it’s pretty bad. Get here as soon as you can.”