They Keep Telling Me the Alternative is Worse
NEW JERSEY, JUNE 2008
“Morning, Nora,” his silky voice oozed as he eased himself from me.
I sighed, almost purring, my toes going into a curl. Some dream – and some mean feat, because the rest of my body apparently couldn’t move. Especially my hands, currently clamped onto something firm and very warm, expanding and contracting beneath my palms.
“Jesus, Nora, you’re so hot…” His lips trailed to my breast, his leg twining mine. “Already you’re getting me…” He shifted and something very solid finished that statement, sliding against my thigh.
Reality clicked and my eyes snapped open. “Oh my God – Alex?!”
Alex Edelstein. He of the blazing smile, poster boy good looks and all of twenty-eight years. He lifted his sculpted chest from me and looked down, morning lust thickening his grin. “You know? You got great tits for—”
“Off!” I yelled, pushing. He rolled away and I scrambled against the headboard, grabbing sheet. “What the hell are you doing!”
He slid his unabashed nakedness next to me. “Pretty much the same thing we were doing last night?”
I stared at him, aghast. Not because I had apparently spent the night with this young buck seventeen years my junior, but because I couldn’t recall a damn moment of it. “You have to be kidding.”
“Nora…” He kissed my shoulder. “You telling me you can’t remember?”
I flinched, trying to around one cerebrum-crushing hangover. “All I remember is Judy and Helen and…Jeff took me out, and…” It began to eke back. “For my birthday and – ow.” I grabbed my head.
Alex’s arm caged me as his hand slid up my sheeted leg. “You can’t still be pissed at me, not after last night, huh?”
I knew there was a reason I should be, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember why. My current reason was more visceral: even his breath against my cheek hurt. “God, Alex, give me a break, okay? I’m kind of hungover.”
“So am I.” He grinned. “Way over.”
Mercifully, my phone buzzed. I ducked under his arm and twisted toward the night table. “H-Hello?”
“Hi, Mom! Happy birthday!”
“Lindsey?” Twenty-two and infinitely more contemporary to who was simmering in my bed. “W-what’s up?”
She paused, my ever-perceptive daughter. “Are you okay?”
Alex arched a smile and discreetly took his tight little casing to the bathroom. I turned against the wall, tamping down a veritable carnival of stomach flips. “The guys from work took me out last night…and now I’m paying for it…ow.”
“Jeez, Mom, what were you drinking?”
“What was I drinking…?” My mind blanked. “Good question.”
“Chocolate martinis,” Alex supplied from the bathroom, shower water raining.
So much for discretion. I tossed him an unseen scowl. “Doesn’t matter, Linnie, Whatever it was, it’s come back to haunt me.”
“You’re such a lightweight. Go drink some Gatorade. Now listen, I got a ten o’clock, but we’re stopping in Atlanta, so I won’t be in until four. American flight 1776. Too funny, huh?”
Enough to make my head pound. “For landing in Philadelphia, it’s actually not. Why can’t New Orleans flights stop here in Trenton? It’d be so much easier.”
“Yeah, but landing in Philly means we can stop at Arch Street for fried wonton before we go down the Shore. By then I’ll be starving.”
I flung an arm over my eyes. “By then I should be able to eat.”
“Wow, Mom, I thought turning twenty-one was huge, but apparently forty-five is bigger.”
“Oh, honey, if that were only it. As it turns out yesterday I…” Good God. I sat straight up. “ Got to go, Lindsey. Meet you at the doors.”
I lunged for my robe, sprinting into the bathroom as I tied it around me.
“That was your daughter, right?” Alex called from the shower. “Doesn’t she go to Tulane?”
Discuss Lindsey with this infant bastard? I slammed the toilet handle down.
“AHHH!” he shrieked, a rush of freezing water hurling him against the tile.
I ripped open the curtain. “You son of a bitch! You stole my job!”
He threw his leg over the tub and came at me, as magnificent as a Caribbean resort ad. “I didn’t! I would never!”
“You would and you did!” I turned toward my bedroom then froze, stopped by the sight of his strewn suit, my dress, our accompanying cotton and silky peripherals and aside the bed – too many empty square packets. God, I wanted him dead. “Oh no…I didn’t.”
“You couldn’t get them open fast enough last night.”
“Last night was a figment of your imagination.” I snatched a pill bottle from my dresser, thinking of the conversation with my doctor the week before.
“So that’s why I’ve been finding half the hair on my scalp in my brush?”
“Hypothyroidism,” my doctor had said. “Very common, but look at it this way. The medication will probably recharge that sagging libido you’ve been worried about.”
Alex leaned over my shoulder. “Birth control pills, I hope?”
I swallowed one, waterless. “Oh do get out.”
His face fell. “No joke, Nora, last night was one of the best of my life.”
I looked to this guy, six inches taller, jetty-eyed and seductively stubbled and I had to think: if I were twenty years younger he’d be at the top of my list. But I wasn’t and he was long overdue leaving. Especially when I caught my post-coital self in the mirror: hair gnarled, neck blotchy, eyes gone bloodshot. I pulled my robe tighter, sucking in some sag. I was too old for al dente in the morning.
“Alex, if sleeping with a drunken woman old enough to be your mother is your idea of a big time, I seriously think you should reevaluate your standards.”
“And I think you seriously underestimate yourself.” He slid his hands down my ass. “You still have one rockin’ body, Nora.”
I slid away from him. “And you’re still full of shit. For Christ’s sake, get dressed and go home already.”
“Can I at least get a cup of coffee on the way out?”
“Don’t push it, sweetie.”
I left for the bathroom to take care of a few necessities, like inhaling Advil, scrubbing the fur off my teeth and emptying one voluminous bladder, seriously wishing Alex was still in the shower when I flushed the toilet. Once in the kitchen I opened the French doors to the Saturday morning tableau below, seeing Mrs. Jabbers walking her idiot Pomeranian, Malika and Carl a balcony across tending their potted tomato crop, and Ramon chatting with the Levinskeys. Terrific. How the hell would I get this kid out of my condo now?
I lifted a weak wave to Malika before retreating to Mr. Coffee, its clock telling me it was nearly ten-thirty. Oh boy, I thought, checking the hallway for Alex, am I in for it now. Then why did I do it?
Alcoholic amnesia was a ruse because it all comes back to you eventually, byte by painful byte. Like the day before which had sailed along so benignly, only to crash and burn by late afternoon. As a mortgage loan officer I should have seen it coming, but I was all about hitting the streets and working the client in front of me, relying more on the daily rate sheets than the daily news. It was a style that had always served us well, meaning me and my boss, Len Bukowski, the branch manager of Colonial State’s Trenton office.
He had just come back from the corporate headquarters in Newark. The entire office seemed to freeze when he walked in, his face drawn, his eyes glazed over. Not surprising. The news hadn’t been good for weeks. The company’s stock was dropping so fast it seemed to defy the laws of gravity, the paper so worthless you might have hung it on a roll. Still, I tried to remain optimistic, even when the new foreclosure figures showed a twenty-percent increase. Colonial State was the largest and oldest mortgage banker on the East Coast, and you didn’t stay in business as long as they had without hitting some snags.
Not to sound smug, but I was the Alt-A specialist, the go-to girl for the below-market mortgage. Call me naïve, but I couldn’t help thinking there’d always be a need for the subprimes I’d been selling. Alt-A’s were tailored for the upper tier, and in New Jersey there was just too much money rolling around at the top, with too much bad credit keeping it company. And I’d been so good I’d made enough to buy my condo cash, fatten my 401k, and cover my kids’ college tuition so both graduated out of debt. Which also made my company and Len rich in the process.
But I’d been around real estate since the age of eighteen, starting at my ex-husband’s parents’ brokerage, typing carbon-copied agreements of sale. Eventually, I worked my way up to polyester suits, leather briefcases and my own real estate license, getting so good at turning over property I became one of the youngest members of the Million Dollar Club, back when selling a million dollars’ worth of property actually meant something. From there it was only a short hop to the financing end, offering paper on anything from first-time homebuyers to multi-million dollar mansions. As a divorcee with two young children, I worked hard not only to prove to my oh-so-imperious ex-husband I could make it without him, but to also to myself, that the right combination of effort and smarts was as potent a springboard to success as a college degree and a penis. So when Len called me into his office not ten minutes after he returned from corporate, I had twenty-seven years of street-level confidence behind me as I took the chair he offered.
“Nora.” He paused, the room so quiet I could hear my heart pounding. He slid an envelope forward. “This is for you.”
“What is it? I already got my commission this…” All at once I couldn’t move. If my heart raced before, it pounded out of my chest now. I slit it open. Inside was a check for three thousand dollars.
I couldn’t breathe.
“I’m sorry, Nora,” he said, his fingers stabbing his hair. “I fought like hell, but they didn’t want to hear it. You’re a subprime rep, and that’s all they could see. They’re going to pay your health insurance for eighteen months, and you’ve already got the car to keep.”
I looked at the check: three thousand dollars. Was this their idea of a civilized and guilt-free boot out the door? “A measly three grand for seven years of working my ass off? For Christ’s sake, Len, I made you a millionaire.”
“You don’t think I know that?” He reached into his top drawer and pulled out another check. “And that’s why I’m doing this. Here.”
This check was his own. I stared at him. “Five thousand? Are you insane?”
“I’d like to buy all that toilet stock you bought on my advice instead of banking your commissions. God, Nora, it’s the least I could do.”
It was getting hard to see. I shoved his check back. “I don’t want your charity and I sure as hell don’t want any more of your advice.” I stood, leaning across his desk. “Don’t fire me, Len. You know you don’t want to. Mortgage is all I know – it’s all I do, day and night. I got nothing else.”
He shifted in his chair. “Nora…”
“Don’t make me beg. Not when you can send me to Princeton Square. Three thousand units, Len. A whole goddamned city. Christ, I’ll make us a mint.”
“I wish I could, but I just can’t.”
“But you’re the branch manager! How’s that possible?”
“Because it’s already been assigned.”
He almost looked guilty, and in a second I’d know why. “Alex Edelstein.”
And twenty-four hours later he slithered into my kitchen, smiling, shower-refreshed, looking every bit the relaxed young exec as he held out his hand. “Friends?”
I ignored him, looking out my window to the still-populated courtyard. Good thing I owned my condo outright. No landlord to throw me out from the scene I was destined to make.
Alex helped himself to coffee then eased into a stool. “I know this is weird, but I’ll be cool, don’t worry. I guess because it’s Saturday everyone’s home.”
I poured my own cup. “Lucky me.”
“So. You going to see your dad tomorrow?”
“Just because it’s Father’s Day? How bourgeois.”
He took a sip, languidly leaning back. “Well, am I. My ‘rents moved to Cherry Hill, which is great because now they’re just ten minutes from Center City. Yours live at the Shore, Long Beach Island, right? Like right on the beach? A real big house?”
How much idle office chatter had this boy absorbed? I ignored him, sipping coffee. It hit my stomach like granite.
“I’m going to my parents now. Jason’s high school graduation was Thursday, so we’re having a barbecue tonight. Did you have a party for Lindsey’s college graduation?”
I glanced out the window again, wishing he’d shut up. “Tomorrow.”
“Yeah?” He took two quick sips. “So is everyone going to be there?”
Ramon and the Levinskeys had left.
“I saw your brother had a location shoot in New York. Is he coming, too?”
I glared at him. After all these years it still jarred me when a stranger casually mentioned Marty. Because like anyone notably named, as in Cruise or Streep or DeNiro, when someone asked – with tongue firmly implanted in cheek – if my surname stemmed from the same familial branch as the Hollywood one, they fully expected me to rejoin with a pointed as if. But in truth I’d have to answer yes. Martin Van Cleef was my brother. Which sometimes was a real pain in the ass, no matter how much I loved him.
Oh no…the Bochners were out now. And he was on the Homeowners’ Board.
Alex laughed, raking his fingers through his wet hair. “You know, believe it or not, I’ve been trying to break into acting myself. I even had an audition last week for a commercial, but they canceled it at the last minute.”
Mrs. Bochner ran our condominium association’s website. And now they were bringing out folding chairs.
Alex hopped off the stool, coming at me. “Hey, you know what? I have some head shots in my trunk.”
Oh, what the hell was I afraid of? I looked to Alex. “What?”
“Head shots,” he said. “Do you want one?”
My cup hit the counter. “All right, time to leave.”
He laughed. “I didn’t mean—”
“Yeah. You probably didn’t. But leave anyway.”
He squeezed my shoulder. “Look Nora, I really like you. And I’m really sorry Len kept me instead of you. I know it’s not like I’m better.”
I shrugged him off. “Right. It’s more like you’re cheaper. Now get out.”
I swept to the front door, throwing it wide, and he slinked past me, looking a little desperate. I’m sure his very presence almost ensured an exit audience, but I was beyond caring. I’d been screwed, soundly and thoroughly. I slammed the door for added effect, turning toward my suddenly ringing phone.
“Hi, Nora, it’s your mother.”
Why did she always said that? Like her voice wasn’t imprinted on my brain. “Hello, Mom.”
“Happy birthday. Hey, you sound awful.”
“Well considering I lost my job for a birthday present, not to mention waking up to—” Even though I was long-divorced and the mother of two grown kids, there were still some things I wouldn’t discuss with my mother. “Oh, forget it, that’s impressive enough.”
“My God, Nora, how terrible. Do you need some money?”
Being a parent myself, I know it’s the first impulse. “No Mom, I’ll be fine. I’ll get unemployment, and I do have a little money in the bank.” Very little.
“And they gave you severance, right?”
“Three thousand dollars? To corporate, that’s barely lunch money.”
“At least it was something.”
“Mother, it was an insult. Three thousand dollars when I made them millions? Now all I’m left with is a bunch of worthless stock and a 401k that bleeds value every quarter. Shame on me for thinking this ride would last.”
“Shame on you is right because from what I’ve been reading, the whole market is going to blow up any day now. And that’s why we’ve been thinking…” She cleared her throat. “We’re going to sell the house.”
“Sell the house? When did you decide this?”
“Not overnight if that’s what you’re thinking. With the economy the way it is, we’ll never get more than if we sell it now. It’s the best time of the year to put it on the market, with so many people down here getting drunk on the whole Shore thing. And since we’ll be in Slovakia all summer getting Karl and Anna’s inn going, the house can be shown anytime. So what do you think?”
“What do I think? Ma, I can’t believe you’re selling.” The beachfront house on Long Beach Island was the closest thing we’d ever had to an Old Homestead, my family’s summer house since my grandfather bought it in 1959. My parents had always loved the place as much as I resented it, my teenaged years seeing it only as an annual separation from my friends.
“Why?” my mother said wryly. “You want it?”
“You can’t be serious.” Except for the occasional day trip, I haven’t spent any substantial time there in years, especially since my parents sold their home and business in Trenton five years earlier to winter in Tampa. “You know I hate the Shore.” And for someone born and bred in New Jersey to say that, it was almost as bad as kicking babies.
“Then really, Nora, why would you care?”
“Who says I do?” I said, sipping coffee. Ugh, it tasted like acid. “You just surprised me, that’s all.”
“Like how your son did, showing up with his new girlfriend. This one’s got a pierced tongue. Cripes, how can they do that? But that surprise was nothing compared to your brother’s.”
“Marty? What happened?”
“Come down and see.” Then dear old Ma went and hung up.
No surprise there. My mother always loved a good cliffhanger.
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