“Katherine Heiny's work does something magical: elevates the mundane so that it has the stakes of a mystery novel, gives women's interior lives the gravity they so richly deserve -- and makes you laugh along the way.”
Single, Carefree, Mellow is that rare and wonderful thing: a debut that is superbly accomplished, endlessly entertaining, and laugh-out-loud funny.
Maya is in love with both her boyfriend and her boss. Sadie’s lover calls her as he drives to meet his wife at marriage counseling. Gwen pines for her roommate, a man who will hold her hand but then tells her that her palm is sweaty. And Sasha agrees to have a drink with her married lover’s wife and then immediately regrets it. These are the women of Single, Carefree, Mellow, and in these eleven sublime stories they are grappling with unwelcome houseguests, disastrous birthday parties, needy but loyal friends, and all manner of love, secrets, and betrayal.
In “Cranberry Relish” Josie’s ex—a man she met on Facebook—has a new girlfriend he found on Twitter. In “Blue Heron Bridge” Nina is more worried that the Presbyterian minister living in her garage will hear her kids swearing than about his finding out that she’s sleeping with her running partner. And in “The Rhett Butlers” a teenager loses her virginity to her history teacher and then outgrows him.
In snappy, glittering prose that is both utterly hilarious and achingly poignant, Katherine Heiny chronicles the ways in which we are unfaithful to each other, both willfully and unwittingly. Maya, who appears in the title story and again in various states of love, forms the spine of this linked collection, and shows us through her moments of pleasure, loss, deceit, and kindness just how fickle the human heart can be.
Katherine Heiny's fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Narrative,Glimmer Train, and many other places. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and children. This is her first book.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE DIVE BAR
So picture Sasha innocently sitting alone in her apartment on a hot summer afternoon and the phone rings. She answers and a woman says, “This is Anne.”
“Who?” says Sasha.
“I think you know,” Anne says.
“Well, I don’t.” Sasha is not trying to be difficult. She honestly doesn’t know. She is trying to think of possible Annes whose voices she should recognize. Is it someone she missed an appointment with? Is this the owner of that camera she found in a cab last month and kept—
“I’m Carson’s wife,” Anne says.
Sasha says, “Oh!” And even if she sat around from now until eternity saying Oh! every few seconds, she would never be able to inject it with as many layers of significance and wonder again.
“I was thinking we ought to have a drink,” Anne says. And to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, Sasha does not know quite what to say. Should she meet her for drinks? Now what should she do? Well, what would you do if your married lover’s wife asked you?
After the phone call, Sasha finds she is too agitated to stay in the apartment, so she calls her roommate, Monique, at work. Monique is just leaving, so they decide that Sasha will walk down Broadway from 106th Street and Monique will walk up Broadway from Thirty-sixth, and they will have a drink in whichever establishment they happen to meet in front of.
Because Sasha is anxious, she walks faster than Monique and they end up meeting in front of a Taco Tico on Sixty-fourth Street, but they cheat slightly and go into an Irish bar next door.
“Wow,” says Monique when Sasha tells her about Anne’s phone call. “That must have been so humiliating for her when you didn’t recognize her name.”
Sasha frowns slightly. Isn’t Monique supposed to be on her side about this? Besides, it wasn’t that she’d forgotten Anne’s name, it was that Carson never used it. Always he said my wife. I have to go, my wife is expecting me. Let me call my wife and tell her I’ll be late.
“And how did she know your name?” Monique asks.
“I guess Carson told her that when he told her about me,” Sasha says.
“So when are you meeting her?”
Monique looks startled. “That’s a long way away.”
“I think so, too,” says Sasha. “But she was all sort of businesslike and obviously flipping through a calendar, saying, ‘Now let’s see when can I fit you in,’ and next Wednesday was evidently the first opening.”
“Do you think she’s planning to murder you?” Monique asks, finishing the last of her beer.
“No, because we’re meeting at a bar on Amsterdam and Ninety-ninth,” Sasha says. “It’s not like she’s luring me to some remote underpass.”
“Not to change the subject,” Monique says, digging into her bag and pulling out a brochure. “But will you come with me to this singles volunteer thing tomorrow? We’re refurbishing a brownstone for a needy family.”
“I thought you were doing that singles grocery night thing,” Sasha says. “On Thursdays.”
“Well, I was until last Thursday!” Monique says, looking all het up. “When I had this long intense talk with a man in the checkout line and it turned out he works for Lambda Legal and was just there because he needed salad stuff.”
“They should limit entrance to the store on those nights,” Sasha says.
“So will you come with me?” Monique says. “Or, unless, I guess, now that Carson has left his wife, maybe you’re not single anymore.”
This sounds vaguely insulting, and more than a little negative, so Sasha says, “I’ll see.”
After meeting Monique, Sasha takes the subway down to Carson’s club, where he’s been staying for the past two weeks. Sasha loves his club—the threadbare stateliness of it, the way the staff flirt with her, the masculine rooms. She doesn’t care if he lives there forever.
She happens to meet Carson in the lobby, where he is collecting his mail, and in the elevator, she tells him about the phone call.
He looks startled. “She called you?”
“Yes, and asked me out for a drink.”
“Well, I don’t think you should go,” Carson says. “She’s not a nice drunk.”
The elevator stops and some other people get on, so Sasha is left to digest this piece of information in silence. Anne is not a nice drunk. She can add this to the only other two details Carson has ever revealed about Anne, which is that she works as an administrator for a nonprofit charity for the homeless and that it drives him crazy the way she never empties the fluff out of the dryer filter. Sasha wonders if it’s some sort of flaw in her character that she was never more curious about Anne. Shouldn’t she have been fascinated, eaten up by jealousy, followed them on marital outings?
Once they get to Carson’s room, she says, “How is she not a nice drunk?”
Carson is flipping through his mail. “She just repeats herself endlessly. But she repeats herself endlessly when she’s sober, too.”
Another piece of information! Maybe Sasha should have been asking questions all along. “But why do you think she wants to meet me? Is she going to murder me?”
“Ha,” says Carson, dumping his mail on the desk. “She might bore you to death, but otherwise you’re pretty safe.”
The fact that Carson finds Anne so boring is slightly shocking to Sasha. It seems to her that Carson is interested in everything. You could tell him a story without one single redeeming feature, like that the man at the bodega gave you Canadian money for change, and he would say, “Really? Which bodega was that?” (This actually happened to Sasha last week and she put the coins in her wallet and keeps accidentally trying to buy stuff with them and being yelled at by street vendors all over Manhattan.) The idea that Carson could be bored by anyone, let alone someone who maybe loves him, is distressing.
“And why did you tell her my name, anyway?” Sasha asks.
“She asked,” Carson says. “The night I told her about the affair. She said, ‘Tell me about her, I want to know about this person who’s so important to you.’ ”
Sasha says nothing. Carson told his wife about the affair two weeks ago. He said he hadn’t meant to do it, but they were discussing their marriage and she was being all nice and sympathetic and told him he could tell her if there was someone else, that she would understand. Since then, he has said, somewhat cryptically, that her attitude seems to have “undergone a change.” Even just thinking about this, it is hard for Sasha not to shake her head at the universal stupidity of men.
Sasha and Carson go out to dinner, just like a married couple. Well, maybe not a married couple, but a legitimate couple, at least, not caring anymore if anyone sees them. During dinner, he asks about the book Sasha is writing and Sasha is suddenly conscious of being boring. Should she be talking about Syria, or global warming?
It’s only due to Carson that Sasha writes books at all. He was the one who encouraged her when an editor approached her about writing young adult romance novels, who told her, who cares if it’s YA, you’re still making a living by writing, and he was the one who sent her two dozen salmon-colored roses during the weekend in which she had to read two dozen young adult romances so that she could write the next one in the series. (She did it, too, though sometimes she feels she was never the same afterward.) And now Sasha, who never even had much of a job before, has a career, of sorts, and is offered four-book contracts and gets to stay home all day in her pajamas and really loves what she does. Also, Carson has proven exceptionally good at trouble-shooting plot issues. The only person better at it is Monique, but she gets upset if Sasha doesn’t use her ideas, and Carson doesn’t seem to care. He can reel off a dozen possible solutions and doesn’t mind if she rejects them all.
So she tells him that all the characters in this book live on an island and she needs to find a way for all of them to miss the last ferry home, and they discuss that for the rest of dinner.
Then they go back to Carson’s room and get ready for bed, brushing their teeth together (another married couple thing!) and Carson spits in the sink and says, “I’m going to go apartment-hunting tomorrow, and I was hoping you’d come with me.”
“I have to go to this volunteer thing with Monique,” Sasha says, without planning to. “I already promised.”
Sasha and Monique show up at the brownstone for the singles volunteer day, along with about thirty other people. The renovation is being run by a short and short-tempered redheaded man named Willie, who seems ready to shout at any of them with the slightest provocation. Sasha can understand why he’s so grouchy, though: he has to oversee a bunch of volunteers who are all busy checking one another out instead of doing home repair. She almost feels a little sorry for the needy family who is going to move in, picturing the very low standard to which their new home will be refurbished.
Willie assigns them partners of the opposite sex and sets them to work on various tasks. Sasha’s partner is a tall blond guy named Justin and their task is to remove the wallpaper in the living room. Every fifteen minutes, Willie blows a whistle and you can switch if you don’t like your task (or, more likely, your partner, Sasha suspects).
Sasha and Justin mainly ignore each other and get on with their task. Even after the whistle blows four times, they’re still working together. But when they finally take a break and go to the water cooler, Justin looks at her for a moment and Sasha suddenly knows, with an instinct born of long experience, that he is about to tell her that he has a girlfriend or to ask for her phone number. Or both.
And sure enough, Justin says in a low voice, “I have to tell you something. I’m not really single. I just came here because my friend Paul didn’t want to come alone.”
“Me, too,” Sasha says. She hopes they are not going to have some long discussion about their respective relationships.
But Justin doesn’t mention his girlfriend again. He only says, “I’m thinking maybe I should have a singles volunteer day at my apartment. It needs repainting and a whole bunch of other stuff.”
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