I'd had my share of rain. My mother's illness and death had weighed on me, but the years before had been heavy, too. I was only twenty-eight, and yet I'd been living like a spinster on the second floor of my older sister Fonnie's house while she and her husband Roland and their four dear beasts lived downstairs. I hadn't meant for things to stay this way. I assumed I'd get married or find a career like my school friends. They were harried young mothers now, schoolteachers or secretaries or aspiring ad writers, like Kate. Whatever they were, they were living their lives, out there doing it, making their mistakes. Somehow I'd gotten stuck along the way--long before my mother's illness--and I didn't know how to free myself exactly.
Sometimes, after playing an hour of passable Chopin, I'd lie down on the carpet in front of the piano and stare at the ceiling, feeling whatever energy I'd had while playing leave my body. It was terrible to feel so empty, as if I were nothing. Why couldn't I be happy? And just what was happiness anyway? Could you fake it, as Nora Bayes insisted? Could you force it like a spring bulb in your kitchen, or rub up against it at a party in Chicago and catch it like a cold?
Ernest Hemingway was still very much a stranger to me, but he seemed to do happiness all the way up and through. There wasn't any fear in him that I could see, just intensity and aliveness. His eyes sparked all over everything, all over me as he leaned back on his heel and spun me toward him. He tucked me fast against his chest, his breath warm on my neck and hair.
"How long have you known Stut?" he asked.
"We went to grade school together in St. Louis, at Mary Institute. What about you?"
"You want my whole educational pedigree? It's not much."
"No," I laughed. "Tell me about Kate."
"That would fill a book, and I'm not sure I'm the fellow to write it." His voice was light, still teasing, but he'd stopped smiling.
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing," he said. "The short and sweet part is our families both have summer cottages in Horton Bay. That's Michigan to a southerner like you."
"Funny that we both grew up with Kate."
"I was ten to her eighteen. Let's just say I was happy to grow up alongside her. With a nice view of the scenery."
"You had a crush, in other words."
"No, those are the right words," he said, then looked away.
I'd obviously touched some kind of nerve in him, and I didn't want to do it again. I liked him smiling and laughing and loose. In fact, my response to him was so powerful that I already knew I would do a lot to keep him happy. I changed the subject fast.
"Are you from Chicago?"
"Oak Park. That's right up the street."
"For a southerner like me."
"Well, you're a bang-up dancer, Oak Park."
"You too, St. Louis."
The song ended and we parted to catch our breath. I moved to one side of Kenley's long living room while Ernest was quickly swallowed up by admirers--women, naturally. They seemed awfully young and sure of themselves with their bobbed hair and brightly rouged cheeks. I was closer to a Victorian holdout than a flapper. My hair was still long, knotted at the nape of my neck, but it was a good rich auburn color, and though my dress wasn't up to the minute, my figure made up for that, I thought. In fact, I'd been feeling very good about the way I looked the whole time Ernest and I were dancing--he was so appreciative with those eyes!--but now that he was surrounded by vivacious women, my confidence was waning.
"You seemed awfully friendly with Nesto," Kate said, appearing at my elbow.
"Maybe. Can I have the rest of that?" I pointed to her drink.
"It's rather volcanic." She grimaced and passed it over.
"What is it?" I put my face to the rim of the glass, which was close enough. It smelled like rancid gasoline.
"Something homemade. Little Fever handed it to me in the kitchen. I'm not sure he didn't cook it up in his shoe."
Excerpted from The Paris Wife by Paula McLain Copyright © 2011 by Paula McLain. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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