Regular readers of NJ Spotlight know that August is our time for kicking back and taking advantage of the lull in the news cycle. To tide you over during our summer hiatus, we’re posting excerpts from books by New Jersey authors or with Garden State hooks. We’ll be back tanned and ready on September 3.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who lives in New Jersey, is acclaimed for her magazine profiles. Her debut novel, which has been published to great reviews, deals with three Ms — midlife, malaise and marriage (breakdown). Hepatologist Toby Fleishman is going through a bitter divorce from his wife, Rachel. But there’s more than one side to the story.
Solly, his nine-year-old, woke up, but Hannah, who was eleven, wanted to stay in bed. “Sorry, kid, no dice,” Toby told her. “We have to be out the door in twenty.” They stumbled into the kitchen
with unfocused eyes, and Toby had to muck around in their bags to find the clothing they were supposed to wear for camp that day. Hannah snarled at him that he’d chosen the wrong outfit, that the leggings were for tomorrow, and so he held up her tiny red shorts and she swiped them out of his hands with the disgust of a person who was not committed to any consideration of scale when it came to emotional display. Then she flared her nostrils and stiffened her lips and told him somehow without opening her teeth that she had wanted him to buy Corn Flakes, not Corn Chex, the subtext being what kind of fucking idiot was she given for a father.
Solly, on the other hand, ate his Corn Chex cheerfully. He closed his eyes and shook his head with pleasure. “Hannah,” he said. “You have to try these.”
Toby was not above being grateful for Solly’s sad show of solidarity. Solly understood. Solly knew. Solly was his in a way that made him never wonder if all of this had been worth it. He had Toby’s same internal need for things to be okay. Solly wanted peace, just like his father. They even looked alike. They had the same black hair, the same brown eyes (though Solly’s were slightly larger than Toby’s and so gave the appearance of always being a little scared), the same comma-shaped nose, the same miniatureness — meaning not just that they were short, but they were short and regular-sized. They weren’t slight or diminutive, so that if you were to see them without a height benchmark, you wouldn’t understand just how short they were. This was good because it was hard enough to just be short. This was bad because it meant disappointing people who had seen you in just such a benchmark-deprived way and had expected you to be bigger.
Hannah was his, too, yes, except that she had Rachel’s straight blond hair and narrow blue eyes and sharp nose — her whole face an accusation, just like her mother’s. But she had a specific kind of sarcasm that was a characteristic of the Fleishman side. At least she once did. Her parents’ separation seemed to ignite in her a humorlessness and a fury that had already been coming either because her parents fought too often and too viciously, or because she was becoming a teenager and her hormones created a rage in her. Or because she didn’t have a phone and Lexi Leffer had a phone. Or because she had a Facebook account she was only allowed to use on the computer in the living room and she didn’t even want that Facebook account because Facebook was for old people. Or because Toby suggested that the sneakers that looked just like Keds but were $12 less were preferable to the Keds since again they were exactly the same just without the blue tag on the back and what about being too-overt victims of consumerism? Or because there was a sad popular song on the radio about a long-gone romance that meant a lot to her and he had asked her to turn down her speakers while he was on the phone with the hospital. Or because later when she explained why that sad popular song was so meaningful by making him listen to it she seethed at him because he didn’t appear to magically understand how a song could ignite in her a nostalgia that she couldn’t possibly have had, never having had a boyfriend. Or because he wondered if her skirt was too short to sit down in. Or because he wondered if her shorts were too short if they showed the crease between her buttocks and thighs and were even so short that their full pocket linings couldn’t be contained by them and so extended beyond the shorts’ hem. Or because he asked where her hairbrush was, which clearly implied, to her, that he thought her hair looked terrible. Or because she. did. not. want. to. see. The Princess Bride or any of his old-man movies. Or because he ran his hand across her head one day in a display of tenderness, ruining her very perfect middle part that had taken ten minutes to get right. Or because no. she. did. not. want. to. read The Princess Bride either, or any of his old-man books. Yes, her contempt for her parents, which seemed manageable when it was aimed at both Rachel and Toby, was absolutely devastating in its current concentration when it was directed only at him. He had no idea if she saved any of it for Rachel. All Toby knew was that Hannah could barely look at him without her lake-water eyes narrowing even further into lasers and her nose becoming somehow pointier than it was and her lips turning white with purse.
They inched toward camp, irate and unfocused, because they were tired (See, Rachel? See?).
“I hate camp,” Hannah said. “Can’t I just stay home?” She’d wanted to go to sleepaway camp for the whole summer, but her bat mitzvah was in early October, and she had still needed June and July to learn her haftorah.
“You’re leaving in like a week. One more lesson left.”
“I want to leave now.”
“Should I maybe rent you an apartment in the interim?” Toby asked. Solly laughed at least.
They arrived at the 92nd Street Y, along with all the mothers in their brightly patterned leggings and their exercise shirts that said YOGA AND VODKA OR EAT SLEEP SPIN REPEAT. This place cost about as much as sleepaway camp, and Hannah kept asking if she could skip being a camper and instead become some kind of counselor assistant, which you weren’t allowed to do until tenth grade anyway.
“Even then, it still costs money to go,” Toby said when he looked at the Y’s website. “Why do I have to pay for you to learn how to be a counselor while they use you as an actual counselor?” he’d asked her in the spring.
“Why did you have to pay to learn how to be a doctor while they used you as an actual doctor?” she’d answered. It was a good point.
Toby thought then how sharp she was, and how he wished she didn’t deploy this sharpness exclusively against him. She was becoming, it seemed to him, the kind of girl that it was completely exhausting to be.
They had made it with maybe six minutes to spare. The Y took them to a campus in the Palisades every day, and if you dropped them off too late, they had to spend the entire day in the room with the very little children. Hannah declined her father’s offer to escort her to her gathering classroom, so he took Solly to his. Toby watched him as he participated in the last minutes of the morning slime experiment, and was just about to exit the lobby when he heard his name being called.
“Toby,” called a low, breathy woman’s voice.
Toby turned around to see Cyndi Leffer, a good friend of Rachel’s who had a daughter in Hannah’s grade. She took a moment to survey him. Ah, this. He knew what was coming: the head tilted twenty degrees, the exaggerated pout, the eyebrows simultaneously raised and furrowed.
“Toby. I keep meaning to reach out to you,” Cyndi said. “We haven’t seen an inkling of you.” She was wearing turquoise spandex leggings that had purple clawprints on the upper thighs, like a streak of purple tigers was climbing toward her crotch, trying to get to it. She wore a tank top that said SPIRITUAL GANGSTER. Toby remembered Rachel telling him that parents who sub out y’s for i’s in the middle of their girls’ names, and vice versa at the end, are not giving their daughters much of a chance in the world. “How are you doing? How are the kids doing?”
“We’re okay,” he said. He tried to not adjust the angle of his head to match hers, but his mirror neurons were too well developed and he failed. “We’re plugging along. It’s a change, for sure.”
Her hair was dyed in that new way where the top was purposefully dark and it progressively faded until the ends were blond. But the dark part of the roots was too dark — it was the darkness of a younger woman — and against the border of her forehead all it did was accentuate the relative raggedness of her skin. He thought about a physical therapist he’d slept with a few weeks ago, about how she had the same hairstyle but that the dark part had a warmer cast to it and wasn’t so stark against her same-age-as-Cyndi skin.
“Had things been hard for long?” she asked. Jenny. The physical therapist’s name was Jenny.
“It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Toby and Rachel had separated at the very beginning of June, just after school ended, the culmination of an almost yearlong process, or maybe a process that began shortly after their wedding fourteen years before; it depends whom you ask or how you look at a thing. Is a marriage that ends doomed from the start? Was the marriage over when the problems that would never get solved started or when they finally agreed that the problems couldn’t be solved or when other people finally learned about it?
Of course Cyndi Leffer wanted information. Everyone did. The conversations were always artless, and they were always the same. The first thing people wanted to know was how long things in the marriage had been bad for: Were you unhappy that night at the school gala, when you were showing off your college swing dancing lessons? Were you unhappy at that bat mitzvah when you took her hand and kissed it absentmindedly during the speeches? Was I right that at parent-teacher conferences when you stood by the coffee and she stood by the office checking her phone you were actually fighting? How it shook people to see someone extricate themselves from a bad situation; how people so brazenly wondered aloud every private thing there was to wonder. Toby’s cousin Cherry, who was prone to long, disappointed stares at her husband, Ron: “Had you tried therapy?” His boss, Donald Bartuck, whose second wife had been a nurse on the hepatology floor: “Were you unfaithful?” The camp director at the Y, when Toby was explaining that his kids might be a little shaky since when camp started, they’d just separated: “Did you guys have a regular date night?”
These questions weren’t really about him; no, they were questions about how perceptive people were and what they missed and who else was about to announce their divorce and whether the undercurrent of tension in their own marriages would eventually lead to their demise. Did the fight I had with my wife on our actual anniversary that was particularly vicious mean we’re going to get divorced? Do we argue too much? Do we have enough sex? Is everyone else having more sex? Can you get divorced within six months of an absentminded hand-kiss at a bat mitzvah? How miserable is too miserable?
How miserable is too miserable?
One day he would not be recently divorced, but he would never forget those questions, the way people pretended to care for him while they were really asking after themselves.
Author photograph courtesy of © Erik Tanner
Excerpt from Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Copyright © 2019 by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Purchase this book at Penguin Random House.