Chapter One

Hear Me Out (*Catch-up Here)

Heather’s best friend Chelsea was a bloodhound for plot holes, fallacies, and faulty arguments. She could sniff out a rationalization before Heather could order a cold brew, throw it back, and formulate a rebuttal.

Heather arrived early for their lunch date, sipping coffee and going over her talking points and The Ten Golden Rules of Arguments, the first one being Be Prepared. A yellow legal pad sat on the table next to a drained cappuccino cup, the brown foam clinging to the insides.

With a yellow #2 pencil Heather checked her calculations. She had run and re-run the numbers convincing herself. If Heather persuaded Chelsea that this future she had planned was the right one, she could proceed with confidence. She functioned in the same way for Chelsea, but Chelsea required less advice with her solid marriage, two boys, successful freelance career. Heather, on the other hand, had needed help since Derek’s affair five years ago.

Chelsea listened, provided real talk, and for the most part agreed with Heather’s journey from heartbreak to acceptance. Chelsea was a master at the second rule of argument: knowing when to press and when to walk away.

If heads of state had a Chelsea in their lives, porn would be wiped off the internet and people would eat more vegetables.

Heather’s plan to sell the apartment she’d inherited from her aunt Hazel would allow her son Jacob to go to his dream university and graduate without crippling debt. It would fund Heather and Derek’s plans to scale their bespoke furniture design business while ending their marriage. Money equaled just enough freedom to not make everyone miserable.

Her friend would be thrilled when Heather said, “The money will eventually move Derek out of the house, and we can divorce like normal people who function like siblings – partially annoyed, mostly functional, but for the most part pretty good friends.” Today when Chelsea asks, as she inevitably will, “How does this benefit you?” Heather will say, “Hear me out. I need this to shore up a solid future for me to lean into when the tsunami of my clichéd, but empty-nest-anxiety, comes at me like a flock of Hitchcock’s birds. It’s a long-term plan to ease us all into a different future.”

When Chelsea puts her hand up and says, “That’s a pretty good deal for Derek,” Heather will say, “This is for me, not Derek.” She’d practiced it in the mirror that morning, squinting at herself, searching for hidden insincerity. There was no falseness in her features, just the faint expression of a woman who’d entered an elevator, pressed the twenty-second floor and when the doors opened, the building was gone. Twenty-two years of marriage and no husband, no business, no future to show for it. She deserved a transition period.

“Sue me, if I need a minute.” she said to her reflection that morning knowing she was arguing with herself, Chelsea and the world. When someone cheats in a relationship you get rid of them. You fall apart, tell everyone, file for divorce and kick them out of the house.

You don’t live together so your kid who has cystic acne and is going through the kind of puberty where his arms are longer than his legs and he’s starting freshman year in high school as a kid who can’t catch a ball, doesn’t have to shuttle back and forth to an unfinished apartment because the father can only afford the chair he makes himself.

You don’t try to understand the cheater’s point of view and examine the divorce settlement for a fair and equitable plan and re-consider because on some level you feel like it’s your fault. She’d already stayed long after she’d known their connection wasn’t the kind of epic love movies were made of.

These thoughts were for her, not Chelsea. Heather was leaning into the third rule of arguing.  Stick to what you want to say.

When Chelsea flashed the disbelieving side-eye about maintaining a business with her soon-to-be ex-husband, Heather will point to the numbers. The demand for custom furniture is booming. If they invest in the business, produce and distribute they can separate without losing everything they built over the years.

Chelsea moved past the cafe window and through the front door like the force of nature she was. She dropped her car keys on the table with a clatter, and said, “Hi H. Hey, before we start chatting and I forget, I’ve been meaning to ask you, how’s that organic farm box/meal service you signed up for? Is there enough food?”

Without thinking, Heather said, “Yes! The three of us can hardly finish it all before the next one comes,” The moment the word ‘three’ left her lips she knew all that rehearsing had been for naught. Heather clapped her hand over her mouth. Rule number six Watch out for crafty tricks had been violated. Chelsea had gotten her to incriminate herself in the first five seconds.

“You’re still cooking and feeding him. That’s a pretty good deal for Derek.”

“What am I supposed to do? He lives in the basement! I’m making dinner for Jacob. How would it look to sit there, just of two of us, knowing Derek is downstairs eating peanut butter.”

Chelsea gave her the, you could have divorced him five years ago, look.

She replied. “I should have dumped everything I’ve worked for? Grow old in a house I wrestled from my husband, wander around admiring the baseboards while my pubic hair turns grey?” At that moment Heather moved her plans to sell the apartment into her bag and zipped the top compartment shut.

“Stop fast-forwarding to your eighties.” Chelsea tugged out the chair and sat, never breaking eye contact.

It was true, Heather could zoom into the future too quickly, imagine herself in a nursing home alone and indulge herself in a forecast of doom. This was her entire life she was thinking about chucking. A person had to catastrophize so you didn’t miss any details of difficulties to come.

A woman wearing a blue striped apron set food on the table Chelsea must have ordered on her way in knowing what Heather would want, certain she hadn’t eaten and would likely need a bowl of kale, an ancient grain, and avocado for this conversation. Any conversation that included the future.

Chelsea unwrapped a fork and knife bundle, smoothed the paper napkin on the table, and pulled a Sharpie from her bag. “Don’t speak. Just listen. Okay?”

Heather nodded like a little kid who’d had her plans dashed by the bossy babysitter whose outfit she loved. She watched while Chelsea drew a four-square box next to a brown coffee-cup logo. “These are your options, as you see them.” In the first box, she wrote a DK, “Divorce and Keep the Business.” In the next box, she wrote MK, “Married and Keep the Business.” Heather opened her mouth to protest. She planned on divorcing Derek, just not this very second! But Chelsea made a noise that sounded like “zip it,” and Heather did. She finished the boxes with DQ & MQ, “Divorced or married, you quit the business.”

“Well, we can’t quit the business right away. That’s our livelihood,” said Heather giving away everything in that moment. “If one of us leaves, there is no business, no income.” She was in a sweat trying to catch up. She’d just blown Rule Five, Excel At Responding to Arguments.  

Chelsea knew Heather better than she knew herself and gave her a look that said, Who do you think you’re talking to? “H, I know which box you think you want to live in the rest of your life. The first one is divorce and keep the business. That’s the perfect purgatory for you. It’s the easiest one to defend to yourself and others if anyone asks. You divorce a cheating husband but keep the business for financial reasons. Also, let’s be honest, it requires no real change in your life.” She tapped the marker in the Divorce and Quit the Business box. “I want you to think about this one here.”

“I lose everything then. Once Jacob goes to college, that’s an empty box for Heather,” she said, trying for the distance of a third-person point of view. “Poor Heather. Alone in a box, forever eating the tiny cans of soup for one.”

“Would I do that to you? No. I want everything for you. This is the fullest box.” Chelsea drew one big circle around the four-square with arrows pointing to the edges of the napkin. “This box is filled with everything outside of it, all the possibilities in the universe. You could start a new business, meet a new man, hell, meet a dozen new men, volunteer in India like you’re always talking about.”

“I’m not always talking about India.” Heather saw she was losing this argument and tried clinging to factual inaccuracies. Yes, she’d mentioned India, because it did seem like the country could use a spare set of hands at times. “Also, as I know you remember, I tried dating and that didn’t go well.”

“You went out with one guy with a nose hair beard and gave up.” Chelsea rested her fingers on the back of Heather’s hand and took a beat. “I know you’re good at working with what you have. You’ve honed the skill of making do, keeping promises. You’ve built a business on a shoestring with only the two of you—no investors, no trust fund, just hard work. You promised Derek everything and you’ve given it your all,”

Heather felt the warmth of her friend’s support and deep knowledge of her life. “What if you visualized something new for yourself? And, the way to do that is to see what the outside of the box looks like.”

Neither Jacob nor Derek ever considered her life as they moved forward in their days. And she’d gotten used to it. She had. It was fine, until someone did stop and notice that she had become second to the family in a way that went beyond being a partner, a mother.  Heather could feel her eyes go wide, and soon they would fill with water and she’d be crying in her quinoa.

“Hear me out,” Chelsea said, using Heather’s favorite phrase. “You can’t imagine a future. I get that. So I propose you go to that adorable apartment in New York that you finally have access to. RIP late aunt Hazel,” Chelsea crossed herself. “Stay for a month to see how different life would feel if you plopped yourself into a new space. Live like a single person. Meet people. Go on a date. Open yourself up. Invite people in.”

Heather bit the inside of her cheek. She’d come to argue for selling the apartment not moving into it. She had a plane ticket, a realtor meeting her there. Jacob had accepted his dream college’s offer. If she admitted all of this now Chelsea, who was so much better at debate, would talk Heather out of her plans. A plan she saw that she had already decided upon. Had a deadline for. Had settled into.

So Heather paced herself. She knew not to agree too quickly or she’d give herself away. She fished around in her bowl and speared a cherry tomato, arranged her face like she was newly considering this option. She did not say that she had run the numbers, talked to Derek, that she was leaving the next day for New York and had engaged a company for an estate sale. She chewed a bit of cilantro and swallowed, raised her eyes to the window, decidedly not meeting Chelsea’s gaze, and said, “Okay.”

Chelsea narrowed her eyes. She knew Heather was hiding something. She was so much better at The Rules, how to retreat and wait. The skills of arguing in public. She also knew her friend had made a strong case, not one that Heather was likely to forget.

“So, who’s going to cook the organic vegetables for Derek while you’re gone?” Chelsea said, capitulating with a final one-two punch.

Heather thought to herself CheckMate, Chelsea. Nicely played, because in the very corner of her mind, Heather wondered if she should be asking the same question.

xo Ann

So, what do you think? Would you read this book? Did it make you feel anything?

As always a big thank you to Samantha Hoffman for editing this piece. She edits all my essays. Click for her services.