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You Deserve Each Other: Chapter 4

It’s day one of being clued in on the fact that I’m locked in a battle of wills, and I’m lagging behind. Nicholas has enjoyed a leisurely stretch of uninterrupted time surveying our battlefield while I grapple blindly like a video game character stuck in a glitch. He’s been strolling along, hands clasped behind his back, burying land mines with finesse. He’s going to win this, like he wins everything. I think of his gold Maserati and my Saturn sharing curb space.

I groan and nearly give in when I sit up in bed and pluck off the Skittle he’s left half-melted to my arm, leaving behind colorful mermaid scales.

Nicholas doesn’t work today but he’s gone somewhere else after dropping off those stupid cookies, probably off to braid his mother’s hair. Does he even eat the Skittles or does he simply dump them there, trying to piss me off?

I’m tempted to pack my bags and go right now, but that would be playing into what he wants. If anyone’s going to pay Deborah back for three hundred customized champagne flutes with N & N on them, it’s going to be him, out of guilt, after he dumps me. Afterward, I’ll hock my engagement ring and take a well-deserved honeymoon by myself in celebration. A singlemoon.

I’m thinking of ways I can get him to break first, like withholding sex, but truly I don’t think that would faze him. It’s been nine weeks since the last time he unenthusiastically gave me the business. If it weren’t for the perks of shorter, infrequent periods, my strict adherence to a birth control regimen would be for no purpose whatsoever.

Maybe I can set up a fake online profile to catfish him. When he falls for it I can point at my handiwork and get righteously angry. I’ll storm off.

His mother will burst into tears. I’ll take a picture of the moment and have it framed.

I’m going to blame the Skittles for what happens next.

I troop into the bathroom with a pair of scissors, pull down a hank of hair over my forehead, and snip it off before I can lose my nerve. The eyes in my reflection are wide and maniacal and I love it. I love the Naomi who can do things like this and not give a shit. Nicholas doesn’t like bangs?

Fantastic. I don’t like Nicholas.

I notice my new bangs are slightly crooked, so I snip them to even them out. I end up overcorrecting so I have to snip again, and what I’m left with is not at all like Brandy’s cute hairstyle.

I’m left with a sight that makes me mutter, “Ah, fudge.”

It’s even worse than being a kid and your frugal mom, who only goes to the salon to get her own hair done, puts a bowl over your head and cuts beneath the rim. I look like I got my hair cut by bending too close to a shredder. And there are two layers to the bangs, somehow. If I try to even them out any more it’ll be chewed off almost to the scalp.

I stand in my empty house for a minute and listen to the whoosh of car tires spraying through leftover rain, estimating how far ahead of me Nicholas is, how many moves I need to make in order to catch up. I peer outside and observe a suspicious development: my flat tire has pumped up back to life. Either someone changed it for me or I imagined the whole ordeal. Right now, the latter seems more likely.

I see that he didn’t wash the dishes like he promised, and I almost admire the evil touch. Neglecting to wash dishes is one thing. Voluntarily saying you’re going to do it and then not doing it is an act of hostility.

He has, however, rinsed out his coffeepot, because he’s the only one who uses it. More proof that he’s being an ass on purpose. I place it back in the sink and decorate it with maple syrup. Then I write a message to him on the whiteboard, telling him I can’t wait to marry him. I call him Nicky, which I’ve never done before, and after I get over the dry heaves that this gives me, I draw two interlocking hearts.

Let’s see what you think of that.

Smirking, I tunnel into my closet and emerge from it in the most glorious anti-Nicholas costume I can find: a Steelers hoodie that belonged to my ex-boyfriend. I found it in my drawer two months ago, and I think it was Nicholas’s remark that I don’t know anything about sports and therefore had no reason to hold on to the hoodie that prompted me to tuck it away for a rainy afternoon.

The hoodie is a middle finger by itself, but to add insult to injury I shimmy into leggings he finds embarrassing because they’re so old and worn that they’re see-through in places and there’s a quarter-sized hole on one butt cheek. These leggings and I have been through a lot together.

Breakups. Bad dates. That time Tyra Banks yelled at Tiffany on America’s Next Top Model. My parents/ siblings canceling plans to come visit me, always and without fail, even though they’ll gladly spare the time to drive to Florida to watch NASCAR races. These leggings are like comfort food and I’m never giving them up.

I top it off with the sort of makeup that his mother would call “unseemly” or “unbecoming.” My lips are the color of fresh blood, making my mouth more eye-catching than the Babadook’s. My eyeliner is a thick swoop of black that extends way past its cue, and my eyelids glitter all the way up to my eyebrows like a pageant contestant. It’s not enough. I add pounds of blush and bronzer until my face is indistinguishable from a Mardi Gras float. I have bypassed “unseemly” and cannonballed head-first into Deborah’s nightmare. I look exactly like her husband’s first wife, the notorious Magnolia Rose.

I give myself a round of applause and send up a kiss of thanks to Magnolia Rose, my greatest hero for refusing to stop going by Mrs. Rose after the divorce even though her marriage to Harold only lasted a year and didn’t bear any fruit. She’s currently living in Key Largo with husband number five, who’s twenty years her junior and nephew of the guy who invented Marshmallow Peeps. She has fifteen parrots living in an aviary that’s the size of my bedroom and they’re all named after murderers on Law & Order. I know this because she added me as a Facebook friend, probably to needle Deborah, who has twice tried to sue Magnolia for emotional distress caused by “ruining Harold.” I want to be Magnolia Rose when I grow up.

Nicholas will obsess over who I’m wearing this kind of makeup for until it gives him an ulcer. My reflection in the mirror tips her head back and laughs like her skin is about to burst open with a hundred flying demons.

Yesterday I was listless and my favorite thing to do was wallow, but today I crackle with wicked energy. Everything has changed now that I have a plan.

Our wedding is set for January twenty-sixth, so I have three months to wear Nicholas down to a lifeless nub. I’m going to adopt ten dogs and turn Nicholas’s study into my Dog Room. It’ll be nice to avoid the hassle of getting my address changed at the post office or setting up Internet and cable somewhere new like Nicholas is going to have to do. Sucks to be him! The landlord gave us a great deal and rent is cheap enough that I’ll be able to afford it on my own even though the Junk Yard pays peanuts. The economy’s in the toilet and I need all the help I can get.

In my mind I hear him sneering: The store’s on the brink of collapse, and I get an uneasy fluttering in my abdomen. He’s wrong. My job’s not in jeopardy and I’m going to be fine. If anyone’s going to be out of a job, it’s him. A new dental practice opened up at the first stoplight, Turpin Family Dentistry, and they accept so many insurance providers that Dr. Stacy Mootispaw has called it “grotesque.”

I don’t have health insurance, but the cost of paying out of pocket might be worth it to have Nicholas see me go to Turpin’s for a cleaning. It’s a scenario I dream about while scouring his baked-on veggie pasta from the casserole dish.

To pump up my courage for what I’m about to do next, I listen to three angry Eminem songs and then dial a number I have listed in my contacts as 666. I never call this number. My phone tries to save me by spontaneously shutting off and rebooting, but there’s no stopping me now.

I’m at least a hundred moves behind Nicholas on our battlefield. I’m surrounded by undetectable explosives and he’s frolicking through the wild-flowers without a fear in the world. He’s been baiting me so long that I don’t know how much of his BS is calculated and how much is inadvertent. I’m not sure I know him at all. But I sure as hell know his mother.

“Hello?” says Mrs. Rose.

“Deborah!” I fluff up my tone with sugar and honey, spinning in Nicholas’s swivel chair. I’m in his office, where he doesn’t like me being because he needs privacy for Calls With Mother. The two of them should run a motel together.

“Naomi?” She sounds uncertain. The third syllable of my name is muted; she’s pulled away from the phone to check the caller ID and make sure my voice isn’t an auditory hallucination.

“Hope you’re not busy,” I say with a huge smile on my face. It’s Saturday morning. Deborah’s got more activities on her calendar than the president, and I’m definitely interrupting something. “I wanted to talk about the floral changes that were made to my wedding without my consent.”

I can tell she didn’t expect any pushback on this, but she recovers quickly. Her voice is the soothing lullaby of reminding Harold to take his fish oil pill. “I hope you don’t mind, dear. The florist couldn’t schedule the appointment for any other time, and I didn’t want to bother you. I know how busy you are at the … oh, I can’t remember where it is you go all day.

The Dump, it’s called?”

“Yes,” I say brightly. “The Dump.” I burrow under trash piles like a gopher. “I never did get that new florist’s number from you, after you switched businesses for the third or fourth time. Do you have it handy? I want to tweak a couple of things.”

“Tweak?” She sounds startled. “I’m sure it’s much too late for that. It’s all set in stone now.”

“Deborah,” I laugh. Deborah, Deborah, Deborah. “You saw the florist only yesterday! I’m sure she’ll be open to listening to the bride. Who is me. I’m the bride.” I twirl my villain mustache. I have never been more opposed to being a bride. They’d have to drag my unconscious body up the aisle, a ventriloquist throwing her voice to mimic my vows. “The flowers you picked just aren’t my cup of tea.”

“Delphiniums are out of season. Carnations will look so lovely at a January wedding.”

“Carnations are outdated.” All of my instincts are telling me that Deborah and Harold used carnations for their own wedding. “I’m thinking

…” I see my colorless reflection in the glass of a framed picture on Nicholas’s desk. He’s six years old and a small fish dangles from his hand.

Bluegill. He’s smiling so big that his eyes are squinty, cowlick much more prevalent than it is now, two front teeth missing. His mother stands behind his shoulder, long melon-pink nails digging in. I envision her doing the same at our wedding, whispering into his ear.

“Magnolias,” I finish.

Foam gurgles from my blood-red Babadook mouth and giddiness overtakes me. It’s the closest to joy I’ve gotten in a long time. I’m going to follow this feeling straight down into hell.

She’s so quiet, I have to check to make sure the line hasn’t gone dead.

“Deb?” I prompt, biting my knuckles to keep from losing it.

“I don’t think Nicky would agree with that choice,” she eventually forces out.

“Nicky told me it’s fine.” I spin my chair again, knees to my chin. The seat is luxurious leather and marvelously comfortable, like sinking into a hot tub. My computer chair is two inches shorter than I’d like and made of wood. I got it from a yard sale. I put a lumpy pillow on it for comfort, but the disparity here is outrageous. This chair is mine now.

“Besides,” I add. “It’s my wedding, isn’t it? I should get what I want.”

“It’s Nicky’s wedding, too.”

What does Nicholas care? He’s going to marry at least three times in his life. When I’m sixty, I’ll bump into him with a comb-over and a twentysomething on his arm, because men are terrible and they can get away with it. “You know what they say,” I reply cheerily. “Happy wife, happy life! He’ll do whatever it takes to make me happy. He’s learned by example, watching how good your husband is to you.”

I’ve never gone against Deborah’s orders, even politely. It’s easier to let her have her way. This is a brand-new experience for Deborah, and probably for her book club who’s listening in. She’s sitting opposite the mayor and her entire sorority, straining to keep a smile pasted on while spiritually strangling the breath of life from me. Her nasty habit of putting people on speakerphone so everyone present can share a laugh has come home to roost.

“That number, Deb?” I goad, crossing my feet on Nicholas’s desk. A stack of files falls off, fanning across the floor like a royal flush.

“Um. Yes. Let me see.” She’s floundering. She can’t give me a fake number, but she can’t give me the real one. This is not a bluff and I will absolutely order a billion magnolias to adorn St. Mary’s. Imagine Harold’s face when he sees the invoice.

Deborah stalls as she riffles through her Rolodex. I hear her teeth clink together. I stay completely silent until she gets back to me and spits out each number.

“Thanks!” I chirp. “While I’ve got you on here, mind giving me the baker’s number as well? I know I’d originally suggested Drury Lane in Hatterson, but I believe you chose to go somewhere else? Is that correct?

I’m sure you know best. Anyway, I’d like their contact information, please.”

Acid drips from Deborah’s mouth. “Why would that be necessary, my dear? I’ve already gotten the cake taken care of.”

“I want to thank you for that. You’ve been great! Just so great. With your time, your money. Why don’t I take some of the burden off you? You deserve to relax and enjoy your golden years. They go by so fast. I’m just going to take over a few moving parts here and there, and don’t you worry about a thing, Deb.”


“All you’ve got to do is show up for the wedding. I want you to have a good time. Can’t have a good time if you’re busy organizing it all!” If my voice notches up any more octaves it will become a whistle.

“I don’t think Nicky—”

I cut her off. “That number, Deb? Thanks so much.” No one’s ever dared to shorten her name to Deb in her life and I’m abusing the unearned privilege with foam dripping down my chin, soaking the front of my favorite Steelers hoodie.

When Deborah angrily recites the baker’s contact information, each clipped digit is code for I’ll kill you if it’s not vanilla and chocolate marble. It inspires me to change the cake topper from our previously tasteful splash of flower petals. Nicholas’s groom figure will be the knock-off Spider-Man from the dollar store, Tarantula-Boy. I’ll be represented by a half-melted pillar candle with googly eyes, and everyone Deborah knows and loves will have to see. When Nicholas cuts the cake, one of my googly eyes will slide off like an omen. I’ll smile at him with my red horror mouth and wild stare that will make him detest the color of champagne for all time, and his blood will curdle.

“Thaaaanks,” I trill. “Deb, you’re the best.”

“I hope Nicky is all right with this,” she says darkly.

“Don’t you worry about him. I’ve got our Nicky covered. And soon he’ll have his new mother-in-law to fuss over him, too. It’s so cute, he was telling me the other day he’s going to start calling her Mom after the wedding. My mother will lo-o-ove it.”

A phantom hand reaches through the phone and wraps around my throat.

“That’s nice,” she rasps.

“Isn’t it? We’re spending Thanksgiving with her. And Christmas.

Nothing’s more important than family, you know.”

Deborah’s rattled, but she’s a pro. She reminds me that she mastered The Art Of Being A Bitch decades prior to my birth by replying, “Oh yes, I quite agree. But I’d reconsider those plans, because on Thanksgiving I was going to cut you both the check for the caterer, and Christmas happens to be the very day my seamstress needs to fit you again. If you don’t show up, who knows what might happen? I’d feel just terrible if you walked down the aisle in a dress that couldn’t zip all the way up.”

In my mind’s eye I see the bejeweled candelabra centerpieces at the reception hall detonate in an aerosol mist. I’m replacing them with foil confetti and ten-cent plastic doves. Everyone will think the elegant Mrs.

Rose in her Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs selected it herself and wonder why the décor looks like Valentine’s Day favors at a nursing home. They’ll gossip that she’s filed for bankruptcy.

I let out a short laugh. “That would be a disaster! Good thing I’ve got a long veil.” I’ve been on my best behavior these past few minutes, but I can’t resist throwing in: “See you for Sunday dinner, D.”

I end the call and admire my chipped, uneven nails. I do another chair spin. A land mine over in Nicholas’s end of the field explodes.

It’s Sunday and Nicholas cannot believe I still haven’t changed out of my best hoodie for dinner at his parents’ house. I give him a disapproving look when he mutters under his breath. I’m a loyal fan of the Steelers.

They’re my favorite sportsball team and I would die for them.

He’s still mad about the magnolias. Mrs. Rose tattled on me, crying to him through a sea of sodden handkerchiefs, and he appeased her by promising to keep the carnations and uphold the family name. Magnolias are utterly undignified. I am utterly undignified. He frowns at me to say You’re a disgrace, but I know his real frown is due to the shrapnel in his leg. I’m a motivated soldier now, outfitted in full tactical gear. I’ve weaponized his unwitting mother against him: she’s been calling him nonstop all day for comfort, and every time the phone rings I see him die a little more inside.

“I can’t believe you,” he says.

“I can.” I sound much happier than he does, even though this is usually the part where he puts on his Good Little Boy grin and I mentally check out so that his family’s rude comments have less power over me.

We’re in the car on the way to see Debberoni and Harry. They live in the lone quasi-exclusive neighborhood Morris has to offer, big fish in a small pond, just the way they like it. They don’t inhabit spaces where they’d let just anybody in. They have “a man” to do their gardening and “a woman”

to do their cooking. Mr. and Mrs. Rose don’t regard them as important enough to call by name. They put on such airs, the first time I visited I expected to see bars of gold used as doorstoppers. You’d think Harold had been secretary of state instead of an investment banker.

I hear the crinkle of plastic and look askance to see a bouquet of flowers resting on the back seat. For one stupid, miserable beat my heart leaps into my throat and I think they’re for me—but then I see.

Of course. They’re roses.

I can’t help myself. “Wow, thank you for the flowers. You’re so sweet.”

“Oh.” His cheeks turn pink. “They’re for Mom, actually.”

“What’s the occasion? Is it her birthday?”

Her birthday was in January, same as Nicholas. He bought his mom a treadmill she circled for him in a catalog, and on top of that he proudly presented her with this little scroll of paper that said he’d gotten a star named after her.

“No. The flowers are … just because.”

I shouldn’t let myself be affected by this, but I am. This man sucks at being a fiancé. Imagine how much he’ll suck as a husband. “It’d be nice if you treated me like you treat your mom,” I say to the windshield, because I’m not quite brave enough to say it to his face. In my head I repeat what I just told him and my eyes bulge. I’ll take Things I Never Thought I’d Say for two hundred, Alex.

“You want me to give you stuff because you make me feel obligated to, not because I want to?”

I consider it.

“Yes. At least then I’d be getting flowers. If I waited for you to want to give me flowers, I’d be getting as many then as I’m getting now. Which is none.”

“Oh my god, Naomi,” he sputters. “You told me forever ago that you don’t want flowers. You said you didn’t need them.”

“Well, I didn’t mean it! Obviously I want flowers. What girl doesn’t?

Can’t wait till I have an adult son so I’ll finally get some.”

I can feel his burning stare. “If I told you I didn’t want something, would you buy it for me anyway?”

I turn to him. “Why would you want flowers?”

His laugh is chilling. “Yeah, why would it ever occur to you to give me anything? A token of affection? Of course you don’t think about that.”

am giving him something. Patience. It is a gift. I’m giving him a miracle in that I don’t launch myself onto his seat and throttle him for insisting we hang out with his friends on my birthday and treat them to wings and cheese fries; for staying late at work on the Fourth of July when I wanted to go to a water park, but purchasing an enormous ball of fire for his mother— him, king of monologuing about the impracticality of gifts. If the galaxy imploded tomorrow, my last intelligible thought would be Ha ha, there goes your fucking star, you bitch!

“How long have you been stewing in this?” he demands to know.

An eternity.

“I’m not stewing. I’m fine.”

“Sure.” Another humorless laugh. “Mad at me for not bringing you presents. Meanwhile you ignore me at home, staring at the TV. You sit there like a doll on the shelf. You pout when we go to these dinners at my parents’ house, but you don’t have any family who live nearby and I’m struggling to give us some kind of family foundation here. It’s amazing we still get invited over, frankly, because you exist inside your own head the whole time. No animation from you whatsoever from the second we get in the door.” He shakes his head. “I might as well be there alone.”

For a moment I’m stunned, because he’s not supposed to know I’m inwardly pouting at these dinners. From my point of view, I’ve put on a convincing presentation of being happy and content. If he’s known all along that I’ve been faking it, why hasn’t he called me out on it before?

I spend the rest of our journey to Sycamore Lane thinking about how my next fiancé is going to be Nicholas’s polar opposite. He’ll have long blond hippie hair and a beard, an artist who rubs Pop Rocks on his teeth.

His name is Anthony but he writes it & thony. He’s indisputably an orphan.

Then we’re in the driveway, narrowing in on what is sure to be two awful hours. I can’t remember the last time Nicholas and I had fun in each other’s company. We practice our in-front-of-other-people smiles and he hurries around the side of the car, reminding me of his one redeeming trait: there’s something mesmerizingly fluid about the way he moves his body when he’s not busy stomping to make a point.

His eyes snap to mine through the window, and his hand reaches for my door.

Then he smirks and chooses to open the back seat instead, grabbing the roses. He walks alone up to the porch. I follow behind him like a stray dog and wish that I could bark and snarl like one.

A Shakespearean plaque is bolted to the brick siding: A ROSE BY ANY

OTHER NAME WOULD STILL SMELL AS SWEET. There’s not supposed to be a still in that quote. I looked it up once to make sure it was a typo but never pointed it out to Mr. and Mrs. Rose because I don’t want them getting a new one with the correct quote. I derive vicious pleasure from knowing their plaque is wrong.

I think about the first time I stood on this doorstep, nervous and optimistic, hoping so hard that I’d fit seamlessly into their world and they’d treat me like part of the family. Nicholas had wrapped his arm around my shoulders and kissed my cheek, grinning from ear to ear.

They’re going to love you, he’d said.

The door opens. Deborah bares all her teeth at me in a smile she doesn’t mean, and I want to stick my finger down my throat right in front of her.

Nicholas and I exchange one last look of mutual loathing before we grin and hold hands. He squeezes. I squeeze back harder, but end up hurting my own fingers.


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