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The Frog Prince

Here comes the bride, all dressed in white. There goes the groom, running from the room…

And there’s my single mom, spending the next twenty years paying for a lavish wedding that didn’t even last a year.

Frick.

What happens now? What happens when you’ve had the fairytale?

When you’ve done the big wedding? The dream honeymoon? What happens after the fantasy’s over?

You file for divorce. Di-vorce. Such a big concept for what amounts to a little word.

I still can’t quite say it, can’t feel anything when I think it, can’t imagine that we’re now talking about me.

But I was the one in the wedding gown, and then I was the one talking to a lawyer, and I was the one who had to ask my brother and my girlfriends and their boyfriends to help me pack so the movers could move me.

I’ve recently changed cities. Jobs. Lives. I’m starting all over again. But of course it’s not the same. It’ll never be the same. Because I’ve done it. I’ve been married and divorced and I’m not even twenty-six.

Long and short of it? He was perfect. I was raised in the country; he was French, together that made us French Country. Perfect. The house was perfect, the car, a smoky gray Citron, was perfect, the clothes and restaurant and champagne…perfect, perfect, perfect! He even respected me.

Not perfect.

Hindsight’s amazing. I can see now there were problems in our relationship, huge problems, like trust, respect, and sexual compatibility. I should have known Jean-Marc wasn’t attracted to me. I should have known he was avoiding physical intimacy. But I didn’t. I blamed it on the wedding, new financial commitments, the stress of me moving into his house.

Maybe if I’d dated more…

Maybe if I’d had more realistic expectations…

Maybe if I hadn’t read fairy tales and then later all those romances I bought at the used bookstore…

But back to reality, and I’ve got more than enough to deal with in reality, what with my new job, in my new apartment, in my new city, with my new boss who doesn’t seem to approve of anything I do.

In fact, right now, my new boss Olivia Dempsey is standing next to my desk at City Events here in San Francisco and she isn’t happy. She’s currently conveying her unhappiness in a very loud, crisp voice.

“I thought we talked about this,” Olivia says, fashionably slim, toned arms crossed. “You have to take charge of your life, Holly. You’re dying on the vine, girl.”

I don’t look up as I don’t want to hear this, at least not again, not so soon this week. Didn’t I just get the need-to-get-out-more pep talk on Monday?

“You were crying in the bathroom again, weren’t you?”

I open my mouth to deny it but she holds up a finger, and wags it in front of my face. “Oh no, no lying. No denying. And you weren’t just crying, you were sobbing.”

“I wasn’t sobbing.” I shoot her a disgusted look, because even the word sobbing is irritating, but I know my eyes are red.

Olivia leans down, puts her face in mine. “Sara heard you.” Sara being another member of Olivia’s team.

I’m beginning to think I’m not ever going to warm up to Sara. She tries too hard to get Olivia to like her.

“I’m over it,” I say, forcing a toothy grin and feeling absurdly like the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood. “See?”

“Hmmph.” Is all Olivia gives me, but Olivia has no idea how hard all this is for me. No one knows how hard this has been.

There are days I still don’t know how I manage to climb from bed and stagger into the shower, days where I still cry as I make coffee and try to apply mascara and eye liner between mopping up tears. It’s just that I’d barely gotten used to the idea of being a bride and now I’m a…divorcee…?

 “You need to start getting out,” Olivia adds firmly, her tone no-nonsense. “It’s time for you to be pro-active, not reactive.”

Of course she’d think like this. She grew up immersed in the world of professional sports and everything to Olivia is about offense and defense. If Olivia were an athlete, she’d be a quarterback and a pitcher rolled up into one.

“I’m getting out,” I say, shifting uneasily, knowing that Olivia’s voice carries and I’m not particularly eager to have the rest of the staff hear my shortcomings. Again. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

It was supposed to be a joke but she doesn’t laugh. “This is work, Holly.”

“Exactly.”

Olivia rolls her eyes. She’s beautiful. Even when she rolls her eyes she looks sleek. Sexy. With the ultimate in DNA—Olivia’s mother is a former model, the blonde glossy type that graced the pages of Sports Illustrated, while her father dominated the Oakland Raider’s offense, a star wide receiver still talked about in hushed voices twenty years later–Olivia’s perfection. She modeled for two years in Paris but hated it, apparently modeling wasn’t challenging, as it did nothing for her mind.

“This is no social life,” she says, leaning against the edge of my desk, her long legs even longer in snug low- waisted trousers, her black cashmere turtleneck sweater cropped short enough to reveal two inches of flat, tone midriff.

I feel like a slice of Wonder bread. “I don’t need one.”

Her gray-green eyes narrow, squint. She looks at me hard, the same up and down sweep she gives decorated ballrooms before handing responsibility over to an underling. “You need something bad, girl.”

Yes. I need my bed with my duvet pulled up over my head, but it’s only Wednesday and I have two more days before I get to dive back between my covers and stay there for the rest of the weekend. “Am I not performing?” I ask, trying to shift the focus from personal back to professional. Olivia was the one that hired me three months ago. She’d be the one that’d fire me.

Another narrowed gaze inspection. “You’ve lost your…edge.”

Edge? I don’t remember having an edge. I was desperate when I interviewed for the job, but there never really was an edge. I mentally add ‘Get Edge’ to my increasingly lengthy to-do list.

“You need attitude,” she continues. “Presence.”

I say nothing because quite frankly, I do have an attitude and I suspect it’s not the one she wants.

“What do you do when you go home, Holly?” Olivia’s fine arched brows beetle. “Sit down in front of the t.v—”

“No—”

“Eat your way through a bag of chips? A carton of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey?”

“I don’t even like Chunky Monkey.”

Olivia is gaining momentum. Her purple black polished nails tap-tap the laminate on my desk. Her stellar eyebrows flatten. “You’re getting fat.”

The word fat hangs there a moment between us, pointed, sharp. Ugly. This is a full-scale assault.

For a moment nothing comes to mind and I inhale hard, topple forward in my chair, feet clattering to stop my fall.

I check to see if anyone else has heard. This is about as low as anyone could go. She knows it. I know it. “I’m not fat.”

Surreptitiously I glance down at my lap, honing in on my thighs. They do look rather big, but that’s because I’m wearing speckled wool pants, and the fuzzy spotted texture isn’t exactly slimming. “My clothes fit fine.”

Olivia shrugs. Says nothing.

I feel all hot on the inside, hot and prickly and a little bit queasy. I move my right thigh, check the shape. It does look rather spread out on the chair. “I need to work out,” I add, awkwardly. “I haven’t joined a gym since moving here.”

She shrugs again and I look up, see my lunch still sitting on my desk. A half-eaten burrito, guacamole and sour cream oozing, obscuring the chicken and black beans. I can picture my leg naked. Or what it must look like naked if I ever looked at myself in a full-length mirror anymore because I avoid mirrors, especially full-length mirrors. I haven’t taken a look at myself naked in oh…three months…ever since I moved to San Francisco and realized I couldn’t bear to look me in the eye, couldn’t bear to see what I—once so pathetically hopeful—had become.

But beyond the burrito and the mirror, it’s not all bad. I still drink diet-coke. I’ve always drunk diet-coke. There are limits to indulgence and I know mine.

“The point is,” Olivia says more delicately, “You go straight home after work. You sit on your couch. Veg in front of the t.v. That’s no life, and you know it.”

For a moment I say nothing, because I’m not even thinking about my new apartment in San Francisco, but the house I’d left in Fresno where until recently I’d been a spanking new wife.

The house in Old Fig Garden was originally Jean-Marc’s house, a 1950’s ranch that looked cozy and cottagey with a split rail fence and hardy yellow summer roses. After we married I couldn’t wait to make the house mine, too, and I loved personalizing it, adding festive, feminine touches like the new cherry sprigged dishtowels from bridal shower one hanging on towel bars in kitchen, or the sparkly crystal vase with zinnias and yellow roses displayed on Jean-Marc’s dining table. We had new 300 thread count sheets on the king bed and fluffy white and blue towels in the bathroom and it was like a dollhouse. Charming. Warm. Storybook.

Turns out I wasn’t the storybook wife.

“Holly.”

Olivia’s impatience cuts and I look up quickly, so quickly I have to bite my lip to keep the rush of emotion away.

“You moved here to start fresh.” Olivia taps her nail on my desk. “So do it.”

Olivia’s right. I’m lonely as hell, but I’ve hit the place where its not just a little lonely but really lonely. The lonely where you slide below the radar screen, lonely where you’ve become pathetic, lonely where it’s better to just stay inside, hidden from civilization.

I don’t belong in civilization. I’m a misfit. A blight.

Well, maybe not a blight. But I definitely feel like a pimple on a chin. As you know, not a good way to feel.

Cautiously I shift my left leg, checking to see if the left thigh spreads as much as the right. It does. I suppress the rising panic. I’m in trouble, aren’t I?

I look up, meet Olivia’s eyes. “I am a little…big…ger.”

The light of battle shines in Olivia’s eyes. “It’s not the end of the world. Yet.” She sounds crisp now, decisive, as if we’ve settled on a plan, and she leans forward, urgency in her voice. “The key is to get a grip. Face whatever it is you’re avoiding.” She pauses, considers me. “Are you still in love with him?”

Him? Him, who? And then I realize she’s talking about Jean-Marc. “Y–no. No,” I repeat more forcibly because I’m not. How could I still be in love with a man that essentially rejected me on our honeymoon?

But Olivia isn’t convinced. “Do you need professional help? There’s no shame—”

“No.” God, this is so humiliating. Olivia could be my mother. My mother would handle a conversation this way. “I’m fine. I’m…better. Getting better.” And bigger, according to Olivia. I squeeze out a smile. “But you’re right. I need to take charge. Join a gym. Take better care of myself.”

“What else?”

What else? I thought that was really good stuff.

Olivia rises, and her stomach goes concave making her trousers hit even lower on her magnificent hipbones. “You need friends.”

“I have friends.”

“Where?” I open my mouth but she holds up a slender honey cocoa finger. “Don’t say here. Work isn’t your social circle. If you got fired—”

“Am I getting fired?” Olivia doesn’t own the company, but as a director, she’s high up in management, knows everything, has a say in everything. It doesn’t hurt that Olivia has that enviable trait called star quality. People want to be around Olivia. Customers flock to City Events to work with Olivia. Olivia makes things happen.

“No.” Olivia glances at my half-eaten burrito in the foil wrapper, the crumpled napkin on my desk, the diet-coke with the smudge of lipstick on the rim and the files spread open in front of me. “You work hard, you’re conscientious, detail-oriented.”

But?

“But what happens here, at your desk, is only part of the job,” she adds. “We’re all responsible for bringing in new accounts, for promoting City Events, and one of the best ways to sell City Events is by selling you.” And she smiles, a dazzling smile of lovely straight white teeth—her own, not veneers. “But you know that, Holly, and that’s why I hired you.”

I like her, I really do, and yet right now I’m wanting to crawl under my desk now and stay there forever.

More pathetic internal monologue: if Jean-Marc had loved me I wouldn’t be here now, in San Francisco, in a strange cold apartment, at a strange confusing job trying to figure out where I got it wrong, how I failed in love, why I’m the first of my friends to marry, as well as the first to divorce.

Rationally, I know Olivia is trying to help me. It’s her job to give me feedback and direction, but honestly, her cool crisp analysis cuts, wounding my already bruised (shattered?) self-esteem. I know we’re not supposed to rely on others for our self-worth. I know we’re supposed to look inside for validation but how are you supposed to like yourself, much less love yourself, when the person you trust most asks you to just go away?

“Two words,” Olivia says, holding up two fingers and looking down her long elegant nose at me.

“Zone Diet?”

“Image. Success.”

I can feel my thighs sprawl on the chair, the weight of my limp ponytail on my neck. How can it only be Wednesday? I need Friday. I really need Friday.

“You’ve got to take charge, Holly. I know you said in the interview you’ve just been through a rough patch—divorce, you said—but it’s time to return to the land of the living. Get back in the ring. Make something happen.”

“Right.” And she is right. More or less.

“We’re going out for drinks after work. Join us. You already know some of my friends, and you’ll meet some new faces. It’ll be good for you.”

“Right.” Her friends are gorgeous. And manically extroverted. A thought comes to me. “But cocktails have calories.”

“A lot less than a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.”

Enough said.

Olivia walks away. I stare at my desk.

So that’s where we are. I’m Holly Bishop, living the suddenly single girl life in San Francisco, which is also the Turtleneck Capital of the US. Everyone here wears turtlenecks, lots and lots of black and gray turtlenecks with the inevitable leather coat, barn coat, barn leather coat. It might be the City by the Bay, but it’s also the City of Cold Hands, Neck and Feet.

Despite the need for sweaters even in July, I’m told that San Francisco is a great city to live in. You don’t have to drive to get around, there’s decent public transportation but I don’t know anyone that actually takes the public transportation. We drive on the West Coast.

And drive.

And drive.

We also pay huge sums to park. We pay for parking at work. We pay for parking at home. We pay for parking each time we head out to shop or see a flick or do anything remotely fun. (This is new to me. I was raised in a small town where you got angle parking on Main Street.)

But I’m not in Kansas anymore, or in California’s Central Valley, for that matter. I live in Cow Hollow, a great neighborhood not far from San Francisco’s Marina district, and work South of Market, which used to be cagey but now is cool at City Events, which as you can tell, is far hipper than I am.

Olivia hired me because I had the good sense to talk sports during the interview (thank God for a sport loving brother) and I pretended my limited PR skills in Fresno translated into something bigger than it did. And Olivia, showing rare sensitivity during the second interview, didn’t call me on the fact that a Fresno Golf Tournament isn’t exactly on the same swish scale as SF’s annual Leather & Lace Fundraiser Ball, and hired me despite my profound lack of interesting experience.

For three months she’s let me work at my own pace but clearly she’s ready for change. She wants something more from me. And she’s not the only one. I’d love more, too.

But what?

And how?

I eye my cold burrito in the creased foil wrapper. I should throw the rest of my burrito. Get started on my new life plan now. But I don’t have a new life plan yet. I don’t know what to do…

Correction. I don’t know what to feel.

This is the part I can’t talk about, because it’s been so long since I felt anything, much less anything good, that I just don’t know what’s normal anymore. But I am trying.

I left Fresno, a huge step for me since I knew next to no one in SF, but I did it. I found an apartment on my own. Searched the want ads and applied for jobs. I interviewed, even though most of the time I had no idea where I was going—and once I was hired by City Events I put on my happy face and went to work. Every day. On time.

Despite the fact there’s this ridiculously massive hole in my heart.

And people who say there’s no such thing as a broken heart, or pontificate on the physiological impossibility of a heart actually breaking, these people don’t know hurt. Because the day Jean-Marc finally said I-don’t-love-you, and I-will-never-love-you-that-way, my heart just stopped.

It stopped. It stopped because everything inside me was squeezing so hard and tight and kept squeezing until there was nothing left of me, at least not in the middle of my chest where my heart used to be.

So here I am in San Francisco trying to start over, as well as figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

And that’s where it gets murky because honestly, what am I supposed to do with the rest of my life? I’m a disappointment to my mother (I hate that she’ll be paying for my wedding forever). I’ve lost my new in-laws, although they do live in France and only met me once. And even my oldest friends have gone strangely silent.

So what do I do now?

I eat what’s left of my cold burrito.

Five thirty arrives and Olivia appears at my desk with her coat and purse slung over her shoulder. I save the document I’m typing up and look at her.

“Ready?” she says and I’m momentarily perplexed.

Ready? Ready for what?

“The others are waiting at reception.” Olivia taps her watch. “Drinks. Remember?”

No. I’ve obviously forgotten and I open my mouth to beg off but Olivia shakes her head. “I’m not letting you out of this. The city will never feel like home if you don’t give it a chance.”

She does have a point and I could use a new home. I can’t remember the last time I really felt like I belonged somewhere. “Give me just a second,” I say, pushing away from my desk and heading for the ladies room where I do a painful inspection.

Pale. Lumpy. Frumpy. My God I look tired.

I rummage in my purse, search for something to help revive the face, and find an old lipstick, a brownish shade that does nothing for me and apply some anyway. Hmmm. Brown lipstick, a black turtleneck, lavender circles beneath the eyes. Not exactly a come-hither look.

Maybe some hair would help so I lift my limp brown ponytail, pull on the elastic, freeing hair which becomes limp brown hair with a slight kink in it from the hair elastic. I fluff the hair. Comb the fingers through it. The ends stick out. Doris Day crossed with Chubbakah.

Irritably I pull the hair back into a ponytail again before wiping off the brown lipstick. Just get the hell out of here, I think, particularly as I don’t even know why I’m doing this. I’m not in the same league with Olivia. Olivia’s friends are all city girls. Sophisticated, urban, glam. I’m one step removed from country, and it shows. I wasn’t raised on a farm but I know my farm smells. They call the 99 Highway the scratch-and-sniff drive because it’s all sulfur, dairy and manure. But the 99 leads home. Or to what used to be home.

Olivia’s waiting at the front door with Sara and a couple of other girls who work in various City Events departments. “You look great,” Sara says with a big smile.

We both know she’s lying, but that’s how we women are. Practical and impractical. Helpful and cruel.

We leave our loft office, take the elevator down, exit the building and Olivia’s cell phone rings before we’ve even crossed the street.

“The Barrio,” she says into the phone, “and if we’re not there, then try Lucille’s.”

The phone rings three more times during our five minute walk. She gives the same info each time. Try the Barrio, and if not the Barrio, then Lucille’s. Olivia always makes the decisions, but then, she is the Queen and everyone wants to know the Queen and they want to keep the Queen happy.

We reach The Barrio. “How many people are coming?” I ask, as the club’s salsa vibe pulses out the windows and the Laffy Taffy purple front door.

“Five. Ten. Fifteen.” Olivia shrugs. “Who knows?”

And twenty minutes later I wish again I’d just gone home. I feel huge. Plain. Horrendously fuddy duddy. The salsa music is hot, sultry, sexy and Olivia and her circle feel it, slim shoulders shaking, amazing tone bodies in the groove.

I stand at the tall red and stainless counter holding my drink feeling like a Popsicle stick. I don’t really know what to do with salsa music. Or reggae. Or rap. Where I come from it’s country or hard rock. Jocks and goat ropers. In Visalia I was exotic but here, I’m just white and self-conscious and uncoordinated.

Olivia laughs and I glance her way. She’s sparkling and her laugh still hangs in the air. Despite the loud music, the raised voices, the speakers thumping, Olivia commands attention, and her dramatic coloring just plays off the crimson and ochre painted walls. Here at The Barrio she looks tall and thin, and as she leans back against the bar stool, even more of her stomach shows.

I hate her.

No. I hate me.

Olivia was right. I am fat. Whenever I stop tucking my shirt in that means I’m fat. And I’ve given up belts. Another sign of fat. The long loose skirts—fat.

Fat, fat, fat.

Rejected, dejected. I’m beginning to scare even me.

This has got to stop.

I need my old jeans back. I need the old me. The one that was fun. The one that laughed and didn’t take herself so damn seriously. The one that didn’t spend an entire Saturday in bed reading Oprah Winfrey’s bookclub novels where every child either drowns or gets abducted which I read crying and sniffling into my pillow because while I haven’t drowned or been abducted I do feel lost. Really lost and I’m not sure how to find where it is I’m supposed to go.

How pathetic does that sound? Snap out of it, Holly, I say, taking another sip from my icy salt-rimmed margarita. You’re not Hansel or Gretel. Not Snow White, or Belle from Beauty and the Beast. You can’t be lost. You’re an adult. Twenty-five. College educated. There’s a way out of this and you’re going to find it.

The thing to do is keep it simple. Take it a step at a time. Maybe Olivia is right. Start a diet. Then join a gym. Then get the legs waxed, and you know, reclaim the self.

I take a bigger sip from my hand blown margarita glass thinking it wasn’t so long ago that I had a decent body. Eighteen months ago I was that wide-eyed bride and I’d worked hard to look magnificent for the wedding. Slim, tone, fit. Ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.

The wedding photos never made it into an album. I still have the photos, though, in a big brown mailing envelope, a stack of glossy photos that will never get looked at, a stack of photos of a bride and groom laughing, smiling, photos that should have been cherished but won’t be.

I wish I’d known then that it wasn’t going to last. I wish I’d known what he was thinking. Feeling.

Funny, when I look at the photos now, especially the one where we’re dancing, our first dance, Jean-Marc’s unhappiness is so obvious. If you look at his face, you can see it there in his eyes. If you know Jean-Marc, you can see the emptiness behind the smile, the distance there. He’s not actually smiling. He’s already detached himself.

He’s already divorcing me.

“Another drink?” Aimee, Olivia’s friend, Director of Fundraising for the Met Museum, is gesturing to me and my now nearly empty glass.

I look up at her, but I don’t see Aimee, I see Jean-Marc and we’re on our honeymoon in the South of France. We’re doing everything big, everything splash, and I’m standing in the doorway of our suite’s living room, wearing a Victoria Secret’s pink lace teddy and not much else (but the hair’s done, lots of sexy tousled curls and flawless make up) and I’m smiling at him even as I try not to cry.

You don’t like this?

It’s fine.

You don’t want this?

You look great.

But you don’t want me.

I’m just not in the mood.

It’s our honeymoon, Jean-Marc.

Holly, I can’t.

Why not?

He says nothing. Why not? I shout.

Because I don’t love you that way.

I drain the rest of my hand-shaken, fresh fruit juice Margarita. Tequila’s good. It works. “One more,” I say to Aimee, blinking hard, refusing to cry, refusing to think about the disaster honeymoon, refusing to think about the pile of sexy lingerie that never got worn, refusing to accept that I own more Rosenthal than common sense.

That way? What the hell does that way mean?

Touching my tongue to the edge of the salt-rimmed glass, I’m suddenly hugely grateful for tequila and lime juice and Mariachi bands.

California would be nothing without Mexico.

end of excerpt

The Frog Prince is available in the following formats:

frog_450x2

Warner Books

ISBN: 978-0446694490

May 18, 2005

Digital:

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