CHAPTER ONE

 

The only thing worse than finding out your boyfriend is cheating on you with a beautiful woman is finding out he’s cheating with an average woman.

 

Allie Denty learned this the hard way, when she got off work early and walked into her bedroom to find what appeared to be a seal flopping under the covers of her previously made bed.

 

It was hard to say who became aware of whom first, or who was more surprised. At almost the moment Allie entered her bedroom, a woman she’d never seen before popped her head up from under Allie’s 450- thread- count Martha Stewart sheets and

screamed like a banshee.

 

“But—” Allie began in shock, as if they’d been in the middle of a conversation.

 

She didn’t have time to finish the thought, whatever it might have been, because the woman leaped off the bed, stumbling to pull the sheet around herself, only to reveal Kevin, whose hands were bound over his head with his Jerry Garcia necktie.

 

The tie Allie had given him for Christmas last year, even though it cost more than all the other ones at Macy’s.

 

Every muscle in Allie’s body clenched and she looked in alarm from the banshee to the boyfriend she’d so foolishly—and so completely—trusted.

 

“What the—” Allie tried again. “Kevin! What is going on?”

 

The woman had stopped screaming, but her breath continued to sputter out in ragged gasps.

 

“Allie,” Kevin said, but it sounded like he was trying on someone else’s voice. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Allie, this isn’t . . .”—it was clear halfway through his sentence that he knew how lame it was—“what it looks like.”

 

“It looks like you’re fucking some other woman in my bed,”Allie said. To hell with manners. She’d just discovered that she was less attractive to her boyfriend than a woman who, now that

she got a better look, could have played the before in an ad for just about any diet, exercise, or lifestyle cosmetic ad in The National Enquirer. Her light brown hair was lank and shapeless; her eyes were the same dull shade as her hair; her mouth a thin pink line, too small in a somewhat doughy face.

 

And her butt—which Allie unfortunately got a good look at—was even more cottage-cheesy than Allie’s.

 

Granted, she had a perfect, straight nose. But was that what Kevin was attracted to? A model- perfect nose on an otherwise completely unremarkable face?

 

“Well,” Kevin said, struggling out of his bindings. “It’s complicated . . .”

 

Allie didn’t remember what came after that. Not a denial exactly. How could he deny it? Good Lord, the condom was still hanging off his shrunken skipper. Wasn’t what it looked like? It was exactly what it looked like.

 

Nothing complicated about it.

 

“I should go,” the woman said, hastily pulling her clothes on.

 

“You think?” Allie gaped at her. Then horrible realization came over her. “Wait a minute, aren’t you the one who brought those paper samples to the office last month?”

 

“Your order will be ready on the seventh!” the woman said defensively. “There was a delay with the printer for the watermark.”

 

This was surreal. The unremarkable woman who had sold them Kevin’s new letterhead at a deeply discounted price, the woman who had asked to use the restroom and who had then—Allie couldn’t help noticing—taken a very long time and emerged with a bit of toilet paper stuck to her shoe, was now in bed with Kevin and marking the end of Allie’s past two years.

 

“Allie, we can work this out.” Free of the necktie, Kevin got out of bed, just like Allie had seen him get out of bed naked a million times before. Only there wasn’t usually another woman in the room.

 

Fortunately, Paper Girl didn’t wait around; she just thundered from the room and a moment later the front door slammed.

 

Fine.

 

One gone, one to go.

 

“Really, Kevin? The discount paper vendor? Seriously?”

 

“She didn’t know about you,” Kevin said in defense of the one person whose emotional stake in this was the smallest.

 

“What, did she forget I was the one who placed the order with her a few weeks ago? When she got here, did she miss the pictures of us all over the place? My stuff in the bathroom? Is she blind? She shouldn’t have been here, Kevin”—her voice shook with anger—“but more than that, you shouldn’t have brought her here—”

 

“I know.”

 

“—so now you get out.”

 

He was maddeningly calm. “Let’s talk about this—”

 

“Get out,” Allie said, and her voice grew stronger as she said it. “Get out!” She picked up his jeans from the floor, his underwear, his stupid Star Wars T-shirt. “Get the fuck out!” She hurled his clothes at him and pushed him out of the bedroom toward the door.

 

“But—”

 

“You can get your stuff out of here later. Or I’ll send it. Just”—she shoved him toward the front door—“get”—she picked up his damn Hanes 32 briefs and threw them into the hall, hoping

modesty would make him go after them like a dog—“out!” She slammed the door and turned around.

 

Immediately she heard a noise in the hall.

 

A woman’s voice.

 

Oh, God, she’d been waiting for him. Coconspirators, keeping secrets from Allie, comparing notes, hooking arms and leaving together. It was disgusting to contemplate.

 

For a long moment Allie stood there, listening to the murmuring voices through the door, fearing she might hear a giggle or an outright laugh. But all she heard was talking, then shuffling

footsteps, the ding of the elevator’s arrival, and then . . . nothing.

 

Nothing except for the low moan that rose in her own throat, a moan that slowly rose to an explosion of sobs. She hadn’t seen this coming. That had always sounded so stupid when it was other people saying it, but it was the honest- to- God truth. She’d never dreamed Kevin would be anything less than faithful to her, just like she was—unquestioningly—to him.

 

Come on, it wasn’t like he was some sort of hot-stuff hunk with movie- star looks. He was an average Joe. An average Kevin. With a high IQ and a decent personality. Every once in a while he’d made her laugh. Well, chuckle anyway.

 

For two years—two long, ignorant years—Allie had given up the dream of finding a soul mate because she believed Kevin was so good for her. They’d just moved into her apartment together, and were looking for a new place. A bigger place they could buy together.

 

She’d thought they were on the path to a pretty good life partnership.

 

Instead, he was sleeping with another woman when he thought Allie wasn’t going to be home.

 

Who was he?

 

If he wasn’t who she’d thought he was, who was he?

 

And what had happened to the guy she thought she knew? Did he just . . . not exist? Could she have been that wrong?

 

“Allie!” Kevin’s voice was faint outside the window but it still startled her. “Allie, please!”

 

She stood motionless, like an animal frozen with indecision.

 

Cross the road or run back in the woods?

 

“Can you at least throw me my wallet and my keys?”

 

Her eyes fell on the bedside table. There they were. Just like every night. Evidently that was his bedtime ritual, no matter what he was going to spend his time doing in bed.

 

And no matter with whom.

 

She considered throwing them in the incinerator. That would certainly create a moment of great satisfaction.

 

Revenge was always tempting. However, it was seldom satisfying and almost always had some stupid ramification you didn’t think of. In this case, she’d probably have to endure an hour and a half of him sitting out there, waiting for AAA to come open his door, or for Lexus to cut him a new key and bring it to him, and then there would be calls from his credit card holders, and—she didn’t want to deal with it.

 

She grabbed the wallet and keys and went to the living room, where there was a tiny balcony.

 

He was standing in the grass below.

 

“You want these?” She held them up.

 

“Yes, Allie. Please.”

 

“Then take them.” She hurled the wallet, and enjoyed the solid thump when it hit him in the forehead. That was one good thing about having had an older brother growing up—she didn’t throw like a girl. “And don’t forget your keys.” She raised them in her hand.

 

“Not in the face!” he shrieked.

 

Even in her anger, the pool of betrayal and hurt feelings, she wished he would be a little more of a man about it.

 

What would the neighbors think?

 

She dropped the keys over the railing instead of hurling them.

 

There. Let him climb through the azaleas to find them. He was no longer her problem.

 

She went back to the bedroom, stripped the sheets off the bed, stuffed them into the washing machine, set the water to hot, and dumped in half a box of soap. After a moment’s hesitation she added several cups of bleach.

 

Then she went to the bathroom to wash her hands. She spent a long time at it, scrubbing as if she could wash the last hour away, to make it so it had never happened.

 

Finally she gave up and stood in front of the mirror, gazing into her own confused face. What had just happened? Where had she gone wrong? And when?

 

The woman gazing back looked like she’d given up a long time ago. The hair was dry, and where once it had been a silky light blond, now it was brassy from home coloring. Her cheeks looked soft . . .  no, doughy. The lines by her eyes, which didn’t bother her most days, looked, today, like they were carved in with the sharp edge of a putty knife.

 

Worse, by far, the optimism that she’d always taken for granted in her soul had gone to sleep somewhere along the way—maybe a long time ago, now that she thought about it. There was nothing happy in her eyes. She looked defeated.

 

She felt defeated.

 

She was defeated.

 

Allie sank to the floor, her body suspended not by bones but by deep, heaving sobs. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Had happened. Had probably been happening for a long time and she just hadn’t noticed.

 

Stupid.

 

Stupid stupid stupid.

 

She hated Kevin.

 

But when it came right down to it, she knew this was her fault. It wasn’t the other woman she couldn’t compare to—it was herself. Where had Allie gone?

 

Somewhere she’d let go of her dreams and, at the same time, she’d let go of her hopes. She’d settled for a life of tedious temp jobs and a rented apartment and a man she didn’t really love, a man who clearly didn’t deserve her trust.

 

Allie had settled for all of that.

 

And for that she hated herself most of all.

 

*

 

“Noah, it’s me. Again. I’m sorry to be a pain, but I just . . .” Allie swallowed, trying to keep her voice from wavering. She didn’t want to sound pathetically needy.

 

Though, given the fact that this was the third message she was leaving on his cell phone—and the fact that he would see she’d called about a dozen more times without leaving messages—she was already in the first- class section of the Pathetically Needy Train.

 

“. . . just wanted to talk to you,” she ended lamely.

 

Where was he anyway? Noah was a workaholic—she could always get ahold of him because he was always at his architectural drafting board, either at home or the office, working.

 

Then again, he had mentioned he was seeing someone “newish” so maybe he was out with her, whoever she was.

 

Allie disliked her already.

 

The poor girl didn’t stand a chance. And Allie was feeling just uncharitable enough to hope that Noah would dump her soon so Allie could have him to herself again.

 

Not “have him” have him, of course. There wasn’t anything romantic going on. Never had been. They’d been friends since eighth grade, as soon as it was no longer taboo for boys and girls to talk to each other without making dramatic gag noises.

 

Not that it would be hard to feel for a guy like Noah. Allie and her friends used to joke that he looked like Matt Dillon’s better looking brother back when Matt Dillon was a current reference (and not long after Allie’s room had been plastered with magazine cutouts of Matt Dillon). At six foot, he was a comfortable four inches taller than Allie, and he was broad enough that she felt feminine next to him (as opposed to Kyle Carpenter—from the summer after college—who, at five foot nine, had made her feel like an Amazon).

 

But despite the fact that he looked like her teenage crush and was the perfect height for her,

Allie never even hinted at having a Thing with Noah because she didn’t want to lose their friendship.

 

Really.

 

He was her best friend and the only person she could call in the middle of the night with a question about, say, Green Acres and get an answer that was (1) correct and (2) didn’t involve expletives about calling in the middle of the night with a question about Green Acres.

 

That wasn’t the kind of friendship a person should risk.

 

So instead Allie had dated a series of guys who weren’t quite right for her: from Luke Dashnaw, who quit his job as an investment banker to become a clown ten months into their relationship; to Stu Barker, who was a Buddhist and spent one day every week in complete silence, meditating and fasting; to Kevin, who had sex with the paper salesgirl in Allie’s bed when Allie wasn’t home.

 

Allie was beginning to wonder if she’d be better off by herself.

 

She was also beginning to worry that soon she wouldn’t have much choice. Despite very frequent and very concerted efforts to the contrary, she knew she wasn’t as pretty as she had once been. Her thirty-eight-year-old face was starting to sag a little; the years of indulgence had puffed out her chin and hips; the summers at Tally-Ho pool in Potomac, languishing under the sun with only a thin film of baby oil between her skin and the UVA and UVB and UV-Whatever-They-Discovered-Next rays, had etched lines into her face that wouldn’t otherwise have been there.

 

Thinking about it now, Allie felt her spirits dip even lower.

 

There was only one thing she could do to feel better. It would cost her, of course, but sometimes you couldn’t put a price tag on mental health.

 

Or, actually, you could, and if you considered that it was $150 per hour and maybe once a week, a little shopping trip was nothing.

 

So she went to Sephora.

 

It was like taking a short trip to paradise; a place where everything was pretty, everything smelled good, everything was tempting, and all of it promised to ease life’s little problems.

 

Immediately upon walking into the overlit, glistening black-white-and-red that was her personal heaven, Allie felt better.

 

Not that she came here that often. To the contrary, she usually settled for the drugstore brands, but every once in a while she just couldn’t resist going.

 

Now was one of those times.

 

Because not only had she just ended a relationship—one of the top three reasons to go straight to Sephora—but she had her twentieth class reunion coming up. Come to think of it, that had to be in the top three, too. In fact, she’d stand her ground in saying either of those were a better reason to splurge than a wedding.

 

Anyway, here she was.

 

“Can I help you find something?” a girl who was almost half her age and half her size asked Allie.

 

“Yes.” Allie was prepared. She had a wallet full of credit cards. “Show me all of your favorite things.”

 

The girl looked confused. “What exactly are you looking for? Like, mascara, or”—she looked Allie over—“microdermabrasion?”

 

Under any other circumstances, Allie might have been insulted, but she’d been as low as she could go this week, selfesteemwise, so she was willing to admit she needed help.

 

“I want to know about anything you have that will make me look better,” she said. “Show it all to me.”

 

The girl was like an obedient dog, tentatively moving toward the hamburger that had dropped on the kitchen floor. “Are you sure?”

 

“Yes. Absolutely.”

 

“Cool. Because we just got this moisturizer that everyone is saying gets rid of fine lines in, like, days . . .”

 

For the next hour, Allie followed the waif through the store, trying mascaras, foundations, creams, lotions, perfumes, even tooth whiteners. There was Dior, Lancôme, Fresh, Urban Decay, bareMinerals, LORAC, and a hundred other brands Allie wouldn’t normally have even considered because their prices were so high.

 

She wasn’t able to get it all—a hundred and twenty-five bucks for an ounce of skin potion was still too much, no matter how desperately unhappy she was—but she got enough to make for a very satisfying walk back to the car and drive home.

 

She’d realized, as she’d shopped, that her anguish wasn’t really all about Kevin. In fact, very little of it probably had to do with Kevin. Every time she tried to fit him into the puzzle piece of her heart that felt missing, he didn’t quite fit.

 

Yes, he’d cheated on her, he’d betrayed her, he’d made her feel like a loser and a fool, but maybe she understood why. At least a little bit.

 

She and Kevin had a very companionable relationship. They went on nice dates together, liked the same restaurants and the same wine. But at night when they came home, more often than not Kevin would stay in the living room, watching the Biography Channel, or Discovery, or something while Allie went into the bedroom and watched Sex and the City, or Six Feet Under, or Big Brother. Something that Kevin would regard as far too lowbrow for his tastes.

 

And while they did have sex regularly, it was just that: It was just regular and, frankly, it was just sex.

 

There were no fireworks.

 

There weren’t even pathetic little sparklers.

 

On paper, Kevin had made a lot of sense. He was an attorney with a firm that had a reputation for moving its junior associates up to the top of the ranks quickly. He loved D.C., just like Allie did (even if he didn’t love it for the same reasons), and had every intention of staying and making a life here, in one of the better northwest neighborhoods. He worked harder than everyone else at his firm to get further faster, and to make his goals reality.

 

As a matter of fact, that was how Allie had gotten stuck in the hamster treadmill of just doing temp work. Kevin had needed her help to get all that extra work done, so despite her English degree from Rutgers, she’d worked as his paralegal, researching with him, well into dawn on many nights, and picking up temp work for the cash to contribute to the house hold.

 

In retrospect it looked like a really foolish thing for her to have done, but she’d truly believed in Kevin, even if she didn’t love him passionately, and she’d believed they were building a life together.

 

Turned out they were.

 

His life.

 

So as she came home from Montgomery Mall, with her expensive little shopping bag of treats, she found that she was much more interested in getting herself back than in getting him back.

 

It was a good feeling.

 

The next several hours of exfoliation, conditioning, blow-drying, and makeup were good ones. Positive steps in what had been a negative rut.

 

It wasn’t a movie make over, of course. It was home maintenance, though high- quality home maintenance. Plus, she still had these extra fifteen pounds or so to deal with, and she was not excited about going to the class reunion with them.

 

Not that she had been a gazelle the last time they’d seen her. She’d never been Audrey Hepburn, but at five foot eight she had been athletic and strong, and had had big boobs so it was generally acknowledged that she was pretty hot once.

 

Built, they said back then, though that weird little expression had come and gone pretty quickly.

 

Anyway, Allie’s curvy physical assets had earned her a lot of privilege throughout high school and college: She’d never lacked a boyfriend, something that was terribly important at the time; more than one restaurant meal had been free; she’d flirted her way out of three speeding tickets; and one summer night, when she’d been wearing a particularly excellent dress she’d gotten from The Limited, a guy had offered her a million bucks to sleep with him. That was when Indecent Proposal was in the theaters, so it was neither a sincere nor original offer, but it was a nice sentiment.

 

Yup—those were the glory days when curves and boobs were acceptable and a Big Mac wasn’t a sin.

 

Then Kate Moss had come along and ruined all of that. And Vincent Gallo did those stupid Calvin Klein heroin-chic shots that fed the trend that did not eat. Sure, everyone complained about it but nothing changed. Thin had been in now longer than any other trend in recent history. Even Tyra Banks argued against ultrathin models one day, but named ultrathin models on America’s Next Top Model the next.

 

Because, upon reflection, even without the extra fifteen, Allie might have gone to her reunion feeling unfashionably fat. But now? She felt like Mama Cass would have taken her in hand, muttering, Come over here, Allison, let’s have a ham sandwich while they choose teams for Reunion basketball.

 

The truth was, even when she’d gone to Liz Claiborne the other day to try to find some new clothes that might flatter her and lift her spirits, everything she’d tried on in her previous “fat size” was too small and she’d had to go up yet another size.

 

But Allie was dealing with what she had, and she was doing her best. At this point, the plan was still to go to the reunion and if she couldn’t miraculously drop a bunch of weight then maybe the makeup would draw attention to her better assets so no one noticed the worst.

 

That was what the salesgirl had said anyway.

 

Once she was all dressed up with nowhere to go, Allie got herself a glass of wine and decided to test the waters of the reunion by looking at the Web site Cindy Barlow—yes, the always overachieving reunion chair had actually purchased a domain name—had set up.

 

Allie went to the message boards at Classmates .com and clicked on the board labeled winston churchill high school—20-year reunion—who’s coming? A bunch of people had already checked in:

 

Peter Ford: Bulldogs still rul!

 

Peter Ford was a jock who could barely count to ten, but who made himself a hero by establishing a record in yards run on the football field.

 

What Allie remembered best about him was that he pulled her shirt up in front of everyone during gym in seventh grade.

 

Lucy Lee: Will definitely try to make it. Anyone know what happened to Paulina Sams?

 

Lucy had been the smart girl who had the unusual distinction of also being really popular. She was an anchor on the local news now.

 

Allie had always felt like a complete loser in comparison to her. It seemed ominously clear that she would continue to feel that way.

 

Yancy Miller: Paulina Sams lives in Seattle now. She has two kids and she’s pregnant with number 3. Her husband is an exec with Starbucks. She probably won’t be able to come because of the baby.

 

That figured. Yancy Miller had been the biggest gossip in school. Allie wasn’t even sure she’d been friends with Paulina, yet there she was with all the information.

 

Allie looked on. Then she saw it.

 

Victoria Freedman: I’ll be there—watch for me!

 

Of course she’d write something like that.

 

Vickie had been the bitchiest girl in school, from sixth grade right on through twelfth. She’d grown up a few doors down from Allie and they used to play together when they were very young. But once Vickie’s father had struck it very rich, they’d moved out of Fox Hills and into the much pricier Potomac Falls neighborhood. After that Vickie went out of her way to make it clear she’d never had anything to do with Allie or anyone else who wasn’t in the popular group.

 

Watch for me.

 

Allie figured it was wiser to watch out for Vickie. And she would, that was for damn sure. They wouldn’t have any contact unless Vickie saw Allie before Allie could hide.

 

Yancy Miller: Saw you on MSNBC talking environmental law, Vickie! Way to go!

 

Suck- up.

 

Wilhelmina Fram: Cannot attend.

 

Who was that?

 

Allison Denty: Will attend with guest.

 

That was all she’d written. Allie Denty will attend with guest.

 

And now they could scratch that guest.

 

Noah Haller:  Will be there.

 

Thank God.

 

Even if he wasn’t actually going with Allie, she was so glad he was going to be there. One friendly face in the crowd, one person who would get it when the Vickie Freedmans and Lucy

Lees walked by all high- and- mighty.

 

Thank God for Noah.

 

Allie looked at the bottom of her glass. There was only a stain of wine left. She decided she could either refill the glass and take the chance on being really sorry tomorrow, or she could opt for herbal tea.

 

The latter seemed wiser.

 

In the kitchen, she took out a box of Bigelow’s Red Raspberry tea and heated the water in the micro wave. She opened the tea bag and the smell of raspberry drifted up into her memory. It had been years since she’d had this stuff. When she saw it at the grocery store last week, she couldn’t believe it was still for sale. She got two boxes of it but hadn’t thought to actually have any until right now.

 

When she dunked the bag into the boiling water, the smell took her back, through her twenties, and back to her teens when she and Olivia used to make raspberry tea lemonade at home since Snapple was so expensive.

 

Allie paused. Olivia. There was the one person she’d been trying not to think about. The one person whose memory brought back actual pain.

 

And the one person she was both hoping and hoping not to see at the reunion.

 

The relationship was completely unresolved. They’d been best friends for years, then had one blowup, and Olivia had left and that had been the end of their relationship. Poof! Like it had never happened, no matter how much Allie thought about it or missed it.

 

Olivia had left in a hurry halfway through senior year. It had been February. Her mom had left that bum she was married to (way more than a day late and a dollar short), packed a suitcase for herself and one for Olivia, and she’d taken her daughter and disappeared into the night.

 

Well, maybe it hadn’t been night exactly. Allie wasn’t sure. It had happened after she and Olivia had had the Big Blowup and they weren’t speaking at the time. All Allie knew was that Olivia, her former best friend of half a de cade, was in school one day and gone for good the next.

 

It had been awful, of course. Confusing and upsetting and the source of a lot of speculation. Yet privately, though she never admitted it out loud, Allie had been a little bit glad. Since they’d stopped being friends, it had been very hard to figure out exactly what they were. It had been even harder to figure out just how to act in this new, undefined state.

 

It was painful to pass Olivia in the halls and have to squelch the urge to run to her, giggling and gossiping—or maybe whining and complaining—about what ever had happened in Ms. Rosen’s music class, or what dumb thing George Riggs had said this time.

 

It was even more painful to see Olivia instead acting all chummy with Vickie Freedman and her ilk, ignoring Allie just like the rest of them did.

 

Just like the rest of them used to ignore Olivia, too.

 

She turned into one of them, so it was something of a relief when Allie didn’t have to face that every day anymore.

 

But in the privacy of her room, without Queen Bees and Bullies to contend with, the heartache of losing her best friend was almost too much for Allie to bear. Everywhere she looked there was a reminder—pinups they’d swooned over, records they’d sung along with, collages of words and pictures significant only to them, mixed tapes of their songs. So much of their time had been spent in Allie’s room that once Olivia was gone it felt like something was missing.

 

She could only guess it was considerably easier for Olivia. After all, she’d left and hadn’t even bothered to say good- bye to Allie. She’d never given Allie a chance to defend herself, and she certainly hadn’t given her the benefit of the doubt when it came to believing her.

 

She’d just dumped her. And the years dissolved like cigarette smoke in the front courtyard during lunch hour. There wasn’t a hint of their friendship left in Olivia’s eyes.

 

Supposedly no one knew a forwarding address, although it had taken Allie months to screw up the courage to casually ask Vickie and her friends during yearbook signing at the end of the year.

 

Eventually, Allie worked up her own anger. What kind of person, no matter how mad she might have been at Allie, and no matter how wrong she was, just up and left after nearly six years without so much as a good-bye?

 

So, to the point, why would Allie want to see her again now, after all these years?

 

She didn’t.

 

Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be any point in sweating it, either. Olivia had graduated from a different school. Someplace in California, Allie had heard, though the information wasn’t reliable. Wherever it was, Olivia had probably made friends there, in her new life, and didn’t have any intention of coming back here.

 

It was, Allie reminded herself, a relief.

 

Now. If only Vickie Freedman felt the same way . . .

 

But no, Vickie was still local. And if she was anything like she used to be—and there was nothing in her personality to suggest she wouldn’t be exactly how she used to be—she would do something to make Allie’s life just a little more miserable.

© 2013 by Beth Harbison