I know I’ve posted a bunch of these sneak peeks, but this novel has been ever evolving, thanks to revision requests from agents and editors. I really think every revision has made it better. But, I know this is the last one (finished just the other day) – I have to turn my attention to my next book. Here’s a sneak peek at that one – Feel No Evil. It was supposed to just be a short story, but so many readers have clamored for more of it, that it will be my next novel (which I’ve promised to an editor at one of the big houses). So, here’s the latest (and longest – I’ve included the prologue and the WHOLE first chapter)…
The paparazzi start trailing me the moment I pull out of my driveway at 532 Rockwell Circle. My street sounds fancier than it is – mostly ranches and capes dot the landscape of postage stamp size lots, a slice of blue collar in this mostly upper-middle class Long Island town. My street has never seen a line of paparazzi follow anyone and they certainly have never seen the paparazzi follow a worn out mom dragging her cranky son to Shop Rite for eggs and milk. My neighbor glances up from watering her mums and stares at the spectacle, jaws slack, until muddy puddles form at her feet.
It is an achingly beautiful October day, the kind of day that reminds me why autumn is my favorite season – blue skies and no humidity, the tiniest bite of a chill in the air, mild enough though, that the sweatshirt jackets necessary this morning will be stuffed in backpacks by this afternoon. I would love to take a detour, take my four year old son, Sam, to the playground. I would love to catch him at the bottom of the slide, give him a push on the swings while he pretends to be on a spaceship, valiantly pumping his little legs. Only, I can’t. I constantly glance in my rear view mirror. Are they still there? Where will these pictures end up? How much more can my family take? Like the silver spheres of a pinball machine, these thoughts bounce around my brain.
In the parking lot I shield Sam from the cameras exploding like flashes of lightning around us as we try to make our way into Shop Rite. He is gripping a handful of my shirt in each fist, his face pressed into my stomach. His voice is muffled, as he wails, “Why are all these people around us, Mommy? Why are they keeping us from going in the store?”
“Please,” I beg the faces behind those massive lenses, “you’re scaring my son. We just need to get food.” One photographer steps back a few feet, letting us by. Maybe he’s a parent, maybe he just feels bad for me. Maybe, he’s realized I’m not that interesting.
So, how in the world did I, a bedraggled suburban mom of four just trying to get through housework, carpool, homework and errands end up fodder for the tabloids, a sex tape of me whipping its way around cyberspace? I’m no Kim Kardashian. Let’s get that straight. I’m one of those people sometimes referred to as a “pillar of the community.” You know, I’m the mom in the PTA you can count on to run the book drive for needy kids and then lug all the books to the community center three towns over. I’m the one you can call at 8:30 Monday night with a Tuesday morning cupcake emergency. I’ll stay up until midnight swirling icing and sprinkling sparkly sugar just so, a nod to my pre-child life as a pastry chef.
Last year I chaired six East Hollow Elementary School PTA committees. That didn’t even include the Hebrew school Mitzvah Fair I organized. This year I’m chairing six again. So, yes, I am a good person with morals almost to a fault. My own mother used to tell me that I was too good before she passed away. “You’re always bending over backwards to please people, Maxie,” she tsk-tsked every time I put my own needs aside, which I’ve done pretty much my whole life.
I’m not what you would call sexy, either. Maybe I was circa 1988 with my big, wild, caramel curls and tight acid wash jeans. Now my uniform consists of a velour tracksuit (Target, not Juicy) and my hair up in a ponytail. It’s not even a chic, glossy ponytail – it looks more like a rabbit’s tail, puffy with bits of frizzy fluff framing my cheeks. If my bangs weren’t side swept, they’d be grazing my nose, it’s been so long since I’ve had a haircut. It’s the only spot I bother to beat into submission with a flat iron and every time I do it, I swear I am going to make a salon appointment that day. Oh and that lustrous caramel – my favorite thing about myself – gone, replaced by Garnier Dark Natural Blonde, #80, bought whenever it’s on sale at Walgreens or CVS. The day I noticed my honeyed locks growing in gray was a sad one.
After I finally make my way into the store, I turn from the end cap of Cheerios to see my face staring back at me from the cover of Us magazine, the lovely sunny yellow letters below, proclaiming me to be the Suburban Sex Goddess. I squeeze the box of Multi Grain Cheerios in my hand until it has fine wrinkles lacing the top. Sam whines, “I want the Fruity ones too!”
“Ask me in your nice voice,” I chide, glad to be snapped out of my reverie by my usual task – instilling manners in an instant-gratification-obsessed I-want-it-now child.
“Mommy, please may I have the Fruity ones?”
“Yes, you may,” I answer, hoping no one notices me giving in to sugar and artificial colors, which may be as bad in this town as my face plastered across Us with a tawdry headline. I can just hear the whispers, She’s embroiled in this Internet sex mess – and she feeds her kids sugar in the morning. She’s not what I thought she was.
So, how did I end up the Suburban Sex Goddess with my naked, pumping butt plastered all over the Internet? I honestly have no clue. Well, let me rephrase that – I know how, I just don’t know why. All I know is that every time I think about that video, I wish I had taken the Pilates class at the gym next to Sam’s preschool. Why my not so spectacular rear end would wind up one of the most viewed videos on the Internet, causing a blogstorm and even being Tweeted about mystifies me.
I truly cannot understand why anyone would want to watch me have sex, talk about me having sex or even blog about it. According to Oprah though, it’s because I am everywoman. I am every mom who is too tired, too run down to do anything for herself – yet there I am in all my imperfect glory – gray roots showing, cottage cheesy butt pumping. I am lost in the moment, reveling in my womanhood and therefore, I am a new icon. At least according to Oprah.
It all started with a request – one little request – and my desperation to please, my desperation to make sure my husband, Nick, never strayed. But, it became something bigger than either of us could have anticipated and instead of saving our marriage, it destroyed it. Though, I suppose it was on that path already – this just hastened the final blow.
Still, I trusted Nick – really. I trusted him as much as I ever trusted anyone, actually more. But, he’s the proverbial traveling salesman. He’s away at least one week out of every month and often more, giving him plenty of opportunity to have an affair – or at least a fling. Even worse, his job hawking restaurant supplies brings him into contact with all those svelte, little fashionistas manning the helm of swanky restaurants. Somewhere in the back of my mind was this tiny fear that one of them, young and beautiful, would catch his eye.
My senior year in high school my boyfriend cheated on me with Angela, a vicious wisp of a girl with black slashes of eyeliner and garnet lips, her halo of buttery blonde curls in stark contrast. She’d trip kids on crutches, laughing as they splayed out on the floor and tormented anyone showing even an ounce of flab in the locker room. For all I know, she punched puppies too. She thought nothing of stealing someone’s boyfriend – to her that was even better than finding your own.
So, it didn’t mean a thing to her that Jason and I dated for almost a year. She could give him what I wouldn’t and that was all the ammunition she needed. I had let Jason get to third, but I was a virgin and terrified that if we had sex I’d get pregnant, my parents would find out, it would hurt, Jason wouldn’t love me anymore or I would suffer some unknown punishment for my wanton behavior – not necessarily in that order.
I finally decided right before our one year anniversary that I loved Jason and wanted to lose my virginity to him. I had it all planned out – it was perfect. I knew his parents were away for the weekend – I would show up at his house in my new blush lace bra under a pale pink, deep V-neck sweater, a condom tucked into the pocket of my favorite faded Levi’s. My health teacher had handed out the condoms the week before and I hid it from my parents, sticking it in a small pocket inside my backpack.
I even bought Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers at the little liquor store that never checked IDs. The six pack was tucked under my arm as I climbed the steps to his massive oak door. I rang the bell, but there was no answer. I tried the door handle and it opened, so I walked in. And there to the left of me on the couch in the formal living room was Angela straddling Jason. They were both naked and the plastic under them made a creaking noise as Jason jumped up, almost knocking Angela to the floor. As he did, a crystal tumbler flew off the coffee table shattering in what seemed a million glittering shards. Another tumbler with a mere trace of amber liquid – scotch I assumed – sat next to the empty spot. All I remembered thinking as I ran out of that house was that I hoped they cut their bare feet on the shards of crystal – in my poetic teenage mind those sparkling fragments represented my broken heart.
The next day Angela said, “Well, maybe if you’d done it sooner, he wouldn’t have cheated. He got more from me in two weeks than he did from you in a year. I mean, who waits a year to do it?” As I walked away biting my lip and blinking back hot tears I wished that I had smacked her. I never spoke to Jason again, never asked him for an explanation – I didn’t want to hear it. I’ve worried about an Angela showing up in every relationship I’ve had since then – someone who can give my boyfriend or husband exactly what he wants. I know that might seem a little crazy – it was so long ago, but who can really explain what gets stuck in one’s head from our youth? We all carry something with us into adulthood – some tiny, or not so tiny, scar that shapes the way we behave in relationships, whether we realize it or not. This is my thing.
The final nail in my anxiety – putting on the charm is part of his job, part of why he’s so successful. It worked on me. I was a pastry chef at one of those swanky restaurants when our glossy haired hostess brought Nick back into my kitchen. Our eyes met over the loveliest tinplate madeleine mold he was showcasing and I was gone. He had the longest lashes I had ever seen on a man, black fringes that framed gorgeous azure pools. He didn’t even have to tell me that his mold would turn out the most delicate madeleines, didn’t have to sell me on the twenty nine piece pastry tube set I ordered, either. Ditto for the six piece pastry cutter set and the tinplate brioche mold. I would have ordered his whole damn lot if I didn’t have the restaurant’s owner to answer to.
When he delivered my order, there was a rolled up note tucked into the largest pastry tube. It was written in neat script on cream paper with deckled edges. I bit my lip and tucked my hair behind my ear, before daring to look down. It simply said, “I’m sweet on you.” A grin spread across my face. So corny, it was cute. Plus, I was always a sucker for good penmanship. My mother always told me, “Look for a man with good penmanship – it means he cares about the details and will take the time to do things right, instead of just rushing through them.” It had been so long since I met someone I was excited about.
If I had really thought about it, I would have realized that good penmanship is a pretty flimsy reason to fall for someone (in fact now, I’d do the opposite – I’d look for someone with messy writing, maybe it would mean that he’s not all about appearances). But it wasn’t just that penmanship and those blue, blue eyes – Nick swept me away on whirlwind dates. We had great sex – really great sex. He asked me once if I married him for the sex and I had to admit, “Well, yes, actually I kind of did.” But, I reasoned, his generosity in bed reflected on him as a person, so it wasn’t that shallow.
A marriage based on sex – a house of cards if there ever was one, but it worked for us. There was more, of course there was more. His smile. His gifts – the first one, a white men’s shirt, sleeves rolled up and a bottle of my favorite perfume. “This is all you ever need to wear when you’re with me,” he whispered. It was an amazing departure from the lacy teddies, the breath sucking corsets, the way too short negligees my last boyfriend (a controlling banker who lasted a mere five months) had bestowed upon me.
Nick thought I was sexy in a more cerebral way than most of my exes. He laughed at my jokes. He asked my opinion on books and movies. He never once told me, “Just show up and look hot” (as that banker did). Nick reminded me of my ex, Ben. Ben and I spent hours talking, just talking, about everything under the sun – music, books, politics, food. We’d sit cross-legged on my bed, knees touching, entranced with each other’s voice. But, at twenty-two relationships implode with the slightest spark. I spent years trying to duplicate that connection, and finally I thought I had found it. We might not have spent hours talking, like I did with Ben, but we were grown-ups – who spent hours talking as grown-ups? We had amazing sex, but he didn’t treat me like a sex object like the other men I dated after Ben did. How could I not love Nick?
So, when after a mere six months together that stick, you know the one, turned up with two pink lines, I didn’t panic. I thought, well, now I have an excuse to be with this person forever. Oh, that was the other reason I married him – he was my “baby daddy,” but that stemmed from the sex, didn’t it?
Sure, I was nervous he would bolt, who wouldn’t be? Especially considering the circumstances under which we met. But I just felt like it was fate that made the condom break. Fate that made his sperm leak out and join my egg. I still feel that way when I look at my daughter, the most amazing accident ever – even now, when she’s a bundle of teenage hormones, when she is so tightly wound, that I swear I can see her vibrate. She wears her new body like armor. I wish I was that confident as a teenager. I was all Farrah Fawcett wings, braces and jutting elbows and knees. I was so scrawny; my nickname was “Stick.”
Emma carries herself like she’s twenty-five – hips swaying. It scares the crap out of me. It’s one thing to get accidentally pregnant on the doorstep of thirty, quite another thing entirely to get knocked up at sixteen or, god forbid, younger. I ask her about boys – silence. I tried to have the talk with her when she got her period. Now you are a woman. She slammed the door in my face with the chilling words, “I know all about it, Ma.”
“How?” I wanted to yell. “You’re my baby.” She was barely eleven. I got my period at that age too and I knew nothing. When my mother gave me the Now you are a woman talk, I was completely horrified – sure I would never do that. I wanted to know where Emma got her information. I knew that health didn’t cover the topic until the next semester. I never did find out, but it kept me awake at night wondering how much she knew and how she felt about it – horrified, as I was, or intrigued?
I had become so obsessed thinking about Emma’s burgeoning sexuality and what kind of trouble might be in store, that I was neglecting my own a bit. When Nick made his request before one of his many trips, whispering, “I need something to keep you near,” I thought, this is our glue, we need this. And then, What if I don’t and he strays? He held his cell phone in his palm, so harmless. “No one will see it. Come on, it’ll be fun,” he pleaded. “I’ll just hold it up over us and take a quick video. Then, I can look at it when I’m lonely in Boston or Baltimore or wherever it is I’m heading next.”
“I’m all cottage cheesy,” I protested.
“You look phenomenal,” Nick soothed. “Seriously, Max, why can’t you just realize how beautiful you are and how much I love to look at you?” He ran his hands down the length of my body, from neck to feet as he murmured, “Would I love to do this if I didn’t find you beautiful? Loosen up. Let go of all of your crazy hang ups. Just be. Come on, how often do we get to do this?”
He was right. It was a rare morning that all the kids were in school and we were both home with nothing on our agenda but a little canoodling. After my fourth I got my tubes tied, since I seemed to get pregnant from just a look, so we didn’t even have to worry about birth control. Nick gave me his best puppy dog look, the one he reserved for asking for very special favors.
“Believe me, most forty-four year olds would kill to look like you – most twenty-five year olds would kill to look like you. I bet you still weigh what you did when I met you.”
Nick could believe whatever he wanted, he could think I bounced back like Heidi Klum, but the truth was that after four kids, the weight had rearranged itself. I may weigh the same (OK, what’s a pound, or five?), but a greater proportion of that weight has settled around my hips and butt – sort of an evolutionary nod to when mothers needed a shelf to perch their young on while they wandered in search of berries.
No matter what changes pregnancy and birth wrought though, my husband always had a voracious desire for my body, standing at attention at even the slightest indication that I was ready for a little recreation. A glance can make that man hard. And I was always grateful, really grateful, except after my babies when my breasts were leaking and sore, my bottom felt like a Mac truck had passed through and my mind was on one thing – sleep. For years it seemed like an endless round of diapers, nursing, toddler tantrums and toilet training. We’d finally emerge from the haze briefly, rediscover each other and boom, I was pregnant again. We did have a longer break in between the third and fourth, though. And, believe me, I was elated each time – I truly loved being pregnant, but each kid widened the quickly growing chasm between us. When our youngest hit four last spring, we finally got back in the saddle, so to speak. And, it was good, really good, to be there – at least until our getting back in the saddle was shared with an international audience.
Honestly though, there have been times that I wondered if Nick only loved me when I was naked, we argued so much out of bed. Petty things like who unloaded the dishwasher more often or why there were four loads of laundry in baskets at the foot of our bed – just waiting for me to fold them when I didn’t go to work. Our arguments were like tiny cracks that can eventually crumble a foundation. We almost collapsed many times, saved only by falling into bed, falling into each other. Even after four kids; a dog, a cat, a guinea pig and countless fish; a house; a minivan – we still connected, still drove each other nuts.
So, how could I say no to his request to just make a little video – a tiny short video? The thought that he would be alone in his room with just my image comforted me. It eased my worry, valid or not, that he might satisfy his sexual cravings with some anonymous person during his many travels. He didn’t seem unhappy on the surface, but sometimes I just had this nagging feeling that there was something brewing just beneath his veneer of perfection. Sadness? Restlessness? Frustration with all of our little fights? I wasn’t even sure – it was just my intuition and nothing I could put my finger on. But, it made me nervous as hell.
Nick was still, at forty-five years old, in amazing shape. He jogged three nights a week after the kids were in bed, shunned sweets for fruit. If he wanted to get a little something on the side, it would be no problem for him. Sometimes it seemed like he had so many opportunities, especially with the young hostesses who guided him into the kitchen to peddle his wares. I did believe him when he said he’d never stray, this little video just seemed like insurance.
I said, “OK, I’ll do it. If it’ll really keep you company while you’re away and make you less lonely.” I told myself it would stay on his phone. In that way it was safer than using a video camera – no worries that a babysitter would pop in a DVD for the kids and find something X-rated, gasping as he or she raced to find the stop button. No worries that my children would be in therapy for the rest of their lives after having glimpsed their parents’ naked forms plastered across the flat screen. No, it would be fine. It might even give a little jolt to our marriage. It will stay on his phone, I told myself again as he raised the camera eye over us. Only, it didn’t.
I was at the kitchen table, immersed in writing out checks, cursing myself for not setting up online payment accounts for the stack of bills in front of me, when I heard the blood curdling scream. My mom-locator told me it was coming from Emma’s room. I bounded up the stairs, two at a time. OK, so I took the first two at once, then walked gingerly up the rest rubbing my hamstring. Grim scenarios darted through my mind. Emma had fallen while dancing around to music on her iPhone and cracked her head open on the desk. Masked kidnappers were pulling her out the window (never mind that it was broad daylight and her bedroom is on the second floor). I tried to calm myself as I reached the last step – maybe it was just that the wrong boy texted her. I threw open the door to hear another scream, this one even more bone chilling, “Motherrrr!!!!!”
Emma has never called me, “Mother.” First it was, “Mommy,” then, “Mom.” Now, I’m lucky if I get a “Ma.” I was filled with dread. I committed some faux pas – of that I was sure, for which it will take Emma days to get over, or weeks, if there is no retail apology. “Yes, Sweetie? What’s wrong?” I asked brightly. First rule of parenting: never let them smell your fear.
She swiveled in her desk chair, her face white as the loose leaf paper in her open binder, her clear blue eyes narrowed in the death stare I perfected – the one that gets my kids to stop cold in their tracks. Grainy images flashed on the computer monitor behind her. I leaned over her shoulder to look a little closer. My mouth dropped open. “Emma! Are you watching what I think you’re watching?”
In response, Emma spit, “Look a little closer, Mother. You’ll know exactly what I’m watching.” I really truly wanted to smack her, put her in her place. Tell her how disrespectful she was being, but something caught my eye. That something was my face. My face plastered across the monitor, mouth open, tongue darting over my lips, eyes closed. Now it was my turn to scream, but no sound came out. Nothing.
I quickly reached over and clicked the little “x” at the top of the screen. I clicked it about ten times before turning back to Emma. I said nothing. “Care to explain,” she asked. A page pulled right out of my playbook, just like the death stare. It’s my one size fits all question – failing grade, cell phone overage, broken vase – “Care to explain” throws the ball back in their court. Makes them own up to their actions.
Emma was tapping her foot, staring me down. It’s truly bittersweet when your kids are taller than you are. She must have gotten her height, like those azure eyes, from Nick – five feet, seven inches at fourteen and a half. She wouldn’t grow much more – but, already she was a head above me. “Well?” she breathed. “Why, why, why would you ruin my life like this? What kind of sick people are you? How was I even born into this family?”
I had no answers. “I want your father to love me,” sounded too desperate. “Where did you get this?” I asked quietly.
“Ashley e-mailed it to me. You know, Ashley – the one you said was ‘too fast’ and I shouldn’t be friends with her, because she wore eyeliner in sixth grade? Like half the girls didn’t wear eyeliner by then. Ashley’s the most popular girl in my grade – she probably sent this to everyone.”
Emma started pacing and running her hands through her ridiculously shiny, perfectly coiffed hair. She never touches her hair once it’s done and snaps at anyone who does, “Causes frizz! Hands off!” She ran her hands through it so much that it was starting to look like when she was a little girl coming in from playing in the snow. I’d take her hat off and her hair would stand straight up. Every time she’d run to look in the mirror as soon as that hat came off and laugh so hard – rolling giggles. My heart ached missing that little girl. Now, she won’t even wear a hat, no matter how cold. “It’ll wreck my hair,” she hisses if I even suggest it.
“Ohmigod – what if she sent it to Jack? Ohmigod!” It came out as one word that Emma kept saying in a whisper – a mantra, “Ohmigod. Ohmigod.”
I moved slowly and put my arms around her. She threw them off and snarled, “Get out of my room. I never want to see you again. Really, I don’t. I’ve heard of kids who divorce their parents. It can be done.”
Walking down the stairs, I realized that I was so concerned with Emma seeing the video, so completely horrified that she saw me like that, I didn’t stop to think how it even got on the Internet, why it got on the Internet and how I was ever going to fix this. In the annals of parental embarrassment, this was off the scales. Even I knew that. This was going to take more than a trip to the mall to fix, even with a stop at Nordstrom’s.
Did Nick lose his cell phone? Did he leave it somewhere that someone, anyone, could have seen the video and sent it to himself or uploaded it? No, I would have known if he lost his cell phone. Plus, he told me that he uploaded the video to his laptop right away and deleted it from his phone, so there wasn’t any chance the kids could accidentally click on it if they played a game on his phone. Did he leave his laptop somewhere? Maybe the creepy guy from accounting Nick always told me about logged on and saw it. That was really unlikely. It had to be Nick – no one else had access to his laptop. He had a password to get on it. The creepy accounting guy could never even get near the video.
I looked at my watch – I had half an hour, forty minutes tops, to figure this out before having to pick up Will and Trevor from Hebrew school. If I slipped in a Thomas DVD for Sam, I might actually get to use most of that time. “Sam,” I called. “Do you want to watch Thomas?”
Sam bounded into the room excitedly, shouting, “Thomas! Thomas!” I settled him in the den with a bowl of Goldfish crackers and headed down to the basement. What would I do without Thomas, my faithful friend? Sam had so many varied interests and was so ahead of his age cognitively, but I loved that he still got excited for Thomas – I knew I would mourn the day when it started to bore him.
Nick would be home soon I realized, so I had to hurry – my half hour was whittled down even more. He had left his laptop in his basement office – a rarity – because he had a dentist appointment and was running late. He always took it everywhere with him, so this was probably my only chance to snoop around. Although, honestly I couldn’t imagine that he would post it. But, I had heard of guys sharing videos with friends. I thought it was mostly twenty-somethings, but maybe men in their forties did it too – to prove their virility. Nick certainly didn’t need to do that, but maybe it was some strange, swaggering thing and he sent it to his single buddy, Pete. Smarmy Pete, who has Internet sex and probably would know exactly how to distribute a video.
I opened his laptop, clicked on “administrator” and typed in the password – Nick had given it to me when my laptop was dead and I needed to use his to write up a PTA flyer. There was that bright blue “e” for Internet Explorer, just waiting for me to click and snoop. I prided myself on not being a snoop. I had never checked Nick’s e-mail before this. Quite honestly, I didn’t want to know if there was something questionable. I used to be a snoop when I was young and the memory of walking in on my boyfriend cheating was still fresh, but my snooping caused more pain than it was worth, so I swore off of it. This begged for snooping, though. I would be furious if he forwarded the video to Pete – furious and a tiny bit flattered. He wouldn’t have sent it, if he didn’t think I looked at least a little hot. No! I was a feminist. My self-esteem was not so low that sharing that video – objectifying me – would ever be OK.
I took a deep breath and went to “favorites,” clicked on his e-mail. I didn’t know what I would find in his sent messages or even how long he saved them for, but I needed to know how that video got out there and circulating, if I had any hope of trying to stop it. Of course, the horrible realization that was winding its way around my insides, setting my cheeks aflame, told me that once it’s out there, it’s out there and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to take it back.