Book Excerpt - Everyone Is Beautiful by Katherine Center

Friday, March 13, 2009

Everyone Is Beautiful
Katherine Center
256p, Ballantine, ISBN: 1400066433
About the Book

Lanie Coates’s life is spinning out of control. She’s piled everything she owns into a U-Haul and driven with her husband, Peter, and their three little boys from their cozy Texas home to a multiflight walkup in the Northeast. She’s left behind family, friends, and a comfortable life–all so her husband can realize his dream of becoming a professional musician. But somewhere in the eye of her personal hurricane, it hits Lanie that she once had dreams too. If only she could remember what they were.

These days, Lanie always seems to rank herself dead last–and when another mom accidentally criticizes her appearance, it’s the final straw. Fifteen years, three babies, and more pounds than she’s willing to count since the day she said “I do,” Lanie longs desperately to feel like her old self again. It’s time to rise up, fish her moxie out of the diaper pail, and find the woman she was before motherhood capsized her entire existence.


The day I decided to change my life, I was wearing sweatpants and an old oxford of Peter’s with a coffee stain down the front. I hadn’t showered because the whole family had slept in one motel room the night before, and it was all we could do to get back on the road without someone dropping the remote in the toilet or pooping on the floor.

We had just driven across the country to start Peter’s new job. Houston, Texas, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’d had the kids in our tenyear-old Subaru the whole drive, two car seats and a booster across the back. Alexander kept taking Toby’s string cheese, and the baby, except when he was sleeping, was fussing. Peter drove the U-Haul on the theory that if it broke, he ’d know how to fix it.

On the road, I was sure I had the short end of the stick, especially during the dog hours of Tennessee. But now Peter was hauling all our belongings up three flights of narrow stairs, and I was at the park, on a blanket in the late-afternoon shade, breast-feeding Baby Sam. Peter had to be hurting. Even with our new landlord helping him, it was taking all day. And I was just waiting for him to call on the cell phone when he was ready for us to come home. Or as close to home as a curtainless apartment stacked high with boxes could be.

We ’d been at the park since midmorning, and we were running low on snacks. Alexander and Toby were galloping at top speed, as they always did. I’m not even sure they realized they were in a new park. They acted like we might as well have been at home, in Houston, the only place they’d ever lived. They acted like the last five days of driving hadn’t even registered. I, in contrast, was aching with loss.

I didn’t like this park. Too clean, too brand-new, too perfect. The parks at home had character—monkey bars fashioned like cowboys, gnarled crape myrtle trunks for climbing, discarded Big Wheels with no seats. And we’d known them backward and forward—every tree knot, every mud hole, every kid.

This park, today, felt forced. It was trying too hard.

I surveyed the moms. Not one of them, I decided, was a person I wanted to meet. And just as I was disliking them all and even starting to pity them for having no idea what they were missing, park-wise, Toby— my middle boy, my sandy-haired, blue-eyed, two-year-old flirt—watched a younger kid make a move for the truck in his hand, and then, unbelievably, grabbed that kid’s forearm and bit it.

The little boy screamed as Toby pulled the truck to his chest. “My truck!” Toby shouted. (He always pronounced “truck” like “fuck,” but that was, perhaps, another issue.)

And then, of course, all hell broke loose.

I jumped up, startling the baby out of a nap and off my boob. I ran across the park, wailing baby on my shoulder, shirt unbuttoned, shouting, “Toby! No!” Toby saw my horrified face and instantly started to cry himself—though he was no match for the little kid he ’d bitten, who was now screaming like he was on fire. His mother, too, had sprinted from her perch, dropping her purse on the way, and was now holding him as if he’d been shot. “Is it bleeding?” she kept asking the boy. “Is it bleeding?”

It was clearly not bleeding. Isn’t that the number one rule of parenting? Don’t Make Things Worse?

All the other parents, meanwhile, had gathered around us to see what the heck was going on. My shirt was hanging open, the baby was still shrieking, and I remembered from one of those parenting books I used to read—back when I used to do that type of thing—that when a child bites, the parent of the biter must give attention to the bitee. I turned toward the little boy and reached out to comfort him, and, at the same moment, his mother actually tightened her grip on him and rocked away from my hand so that I missed him altogether. As if I myself had done the biting. As if I were about to attack again.

I regrouped. “I’m so sorry about that, sweetheart!” I said to the boy, who was not, you might say, in a listening mode. Next, I tried his mother. “I’m so sorry!” I said. “He ’s never done that before!” She was staring at me, but not at my eyes, and it took me a second to realize that it was, in fact, my uncovered magenta nursing bra she was looking at. I buttoned my shirt and started to try again when Alexander took that moment to push Toby down and take the very truck that had started all this commotion.

Toby let out a wail like a scalded dog, and Alexander threw the truck with all his might into a nearby bush. “No biting!” he said, pointing at Toby. “Biting is rude!” Toby got up to run after the truck and soon they were both tangled in the bush, wrestling for it.

Here was a moment when I was truly outnumbered. With two kids, in moments like this, you at least have an arm for each. With three kids, you’re just screwed.

“Stop it! Both of you!” I shouted, sounding just like my own mother had years ago when she had been outnumbered, too.

And then, I did the only thing I could think of. I set Baby Sam down on the sidewalk—at ten months, he wasn’t crawling yet, or even thinking about it—stepped into the bush, took the truck, and wedged it high in the branch of a tree. Then I grabbed the two boys by the scruffs of their necks, dragged them to our blanket, sprinted back over to my nowalmost- purple-with-hysteria Baby Sam, picked him up, put him on the boob, and then marched back to where the boys were.

“Anybody who moves off this blanket gets a spanking,” I said in my meanest mom voice, sounding for all the world like a 1930s gangster. It was an empty threat. Peter and I weren’t spankers. And I wasn’t about to spank anybody in front of the still-gaping crowd of Cambridge parents ten feet away. But, honestly, what else was I going to do? Send the boys to their room? I wasn’t even entirely sure where our apartment was. The bitee and his mother eventually gathered themselves up and limped out of the park, giving us the cold shoulder the whole way. It occurred to me that park etiquette probably dictated we should be the ones to leave. But, since we were waiting on Peter, we stayed. I tore open some cheese sticks. Alexander and Toby soon forgot about the whole thing—though not until after I’d given them the best talking-to I could muster about how we all had to work together in this time of transition—and they were back on the swings in no time. Alexander, sweetly, got down again and again to give Toby another push.

The old crop of parents trickled out, replaced by the after-work crowd. This batch was preppier and wealthier—pushing Bugaboos and carrying $200 diaper bags. One woman caught my eye as someone I might like to be friends with. She wore stylishly frayed khakis and clompy leather sandals. I kept an eye on her and willed her to come over and talk to me. The bitee ’s mother excepted, I hadn’t talked to an adult since ten o’clock that morning, when we’d said good-bye to Peter. And then she did come over. Her daughter toddled up to our blanket wanting to look at Baby Sam, who was now eating from a spilled constellation of Cheerios in front of him. The mom stood beside us, and I squinted up at her in the late-afternoon sun. I could tell she wanted to ask me a question. And from the way she was composing herself, I guessed it was a good one. I was hoping for “You’re new here, aren’t you?” or something like it. Something that might lead to a real moment of exchange between the two of us, or, at the very least, a phone number from her and an invitation to call. I’d only been away from home six days, but already I was hungry for friends.

She did have a question for me, it turned out. And it was not about how long I’d been in town. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she squatted down next to her toddler—who was now picking up our Cheerios one by one, too—took a gander at me, sitting next to my ten-monthold, and said, “When are you due?”

Here is my policy on that question: Don’t ever ask it. Even if you’re talking to a woman who is clearly about to have quintuplets. Just don’t ask. Because if you’re wrong, you’ve just said one of the most horrible things you can say to a woman. If you’re wrong, you’ve ruined her week—possibly her month and even her year. If you’re wrong, she will go home and cry, and not even be able to tell her husband what she’s crying about. He ’ll ask over and over as she lies facedown on their bed, and she ’ll have no choice but to say, “It’s nothing,” and then, “Please, just leave me alone.”

This woman in the khakis, she was wrong. And I did go home and cry, but not until much later, because just at the moment she spoke, before I had even settled on a response, another woman approached us and leaned in to peer at me.

“Lanie?” she asked.

I met her eyes. I was pretty certain I didn’t know a single person in Massachusetts, and so, given the circumstances, it was amazing, even to me, that I recognized her. It was Amanda Hayes from Houston, my high school’s favorite cheerleader, and, even all these years later, she had not changed at all. If anything, she looked better. But still exactly as blond, lean, and smooth as she had been years ago. She might as well have been carrying pom-poms.

“Hi!” I shouted, too loudly. “Hello!”

I might have been fueled by my fight-or-flight reaction to the woman in khaki pants, but I stood up and gave Amanda Hayes, a girl I’d barely known in high school, a hug. Then I threw myself into a kind of conversation-on-steroids with her, acting far more delighted to see her than I might have otherwise. I would have been friendly in any situation,just as we ’d always been friendly to each other during assigned seating in Chorus, but I might not have been quite as riveted.

I was hoping that, witnessing a reunion of two women who had a real connection to each other, the when-are-you-due girl might feel out of place and wander off. She didn’t. Her child continued to eat my Cheerios, and she continued to stand there, smiling as if she were part of the conversation, as if the three of us moms were friends, drinking mojitos and whiling away another afternoon with the kiddos.

I asked Amanda every single question I could think of, trying to fill any conversational pauses before Khaki Pants started up again with her pregnancy topic. What was Amanda doing in town? How long had she lived here? What were her thoughts on Middle East peace? Where did she get those great sunglasses?

And Amanda, bless her, met my enthusiasm for our chat head-on. She answered all my questions, and volleyed several back at me, and just when I was starting to feel like we’d built a conversational wall that the woman in khakis couldn’t scale, Amanda’s daughter, Gracin—who was almost four and, it turned out, exactly one day older than Alexander—came running over to ask for a Band-Aid.

“Did you get an ouchie?” Amanda asked.

Gracin pointed at her arm. There was no ouchie.

“Oh.” Amanda peeled a Band-Aid from a stash in her pocket, then put it on Gracin, who ran off. Watching her go, I noticed she had Band-Aids all down her legs.

“She loves Band-Aids,” Amanda told us, with a what-are-yougonna-do shrug.

And then, in that moment, Amanda paused to gaze at her daughter, now climbing up the ramp of the slide, and take one of those small moments that parents sometimes indulge in when their children are a little at a distance. She was admiring her, and possibly even wondering what stroke of insane luck had brought that exact child into her life, and feeling grateful for all her blessings. Amanda got caught up in watching her daughter, and I got caught up in watching Amanda, and so I was a split-second late cranking up the conversation again—and into that little gap, Khaki Pants leaned in, touched my sleeve, and said, “So. When are you due?”

Amanda snapped around to look at me. “You’re pregnant?” she asked, ready to be delighted.

I couldn’t decide what to say. Time got very slow. Baby Sam was chewing on a rock. Alexander had captured a bug and was building a little mud house for it. Toby had found a fallen branch and was dragging it around the park, showing it off. The sun had set and the light was fading from the sky. Peter still hadn’t called. Finally, faced with the prospect of having to say, “No, I’m just still fat from my last pregnancy. And it’s possible I weigh even more now than I did when I was actually pregnant because it’s been a tough year and my husband keeps bringing me tubes of
frozen cookie dough,” I said, instead, in a voice that seemed to rise up without my permission: “Yes.”

Amanda started to clap with enthusiasm. “Four kids?” she said. “Four kids!”

Khaki Pants, who’d been sure of it all along, said, “It’s so awful to be pregnant in the summer. Aren’t you hot?”

A little woozy, now, from my sudden imaginary pregnancy, I just nodded and said, “I sure am.”

I had the strangest moment of relief right then, in those seconds, as the impact of what I’d said washed over us. I let myself believe it just a little, and I let it explain a lot of things about why I just could not seem to pull myself together. I was pregnant again! Morning sickness, back pain. One baby still nursing. Three boys, a husband who obsessed over his work, no help. And no money at all. Of course I hadn’t worn any lipstick since Toby ate my last tube in the checkout line at the grocery! I was too busy to look good! Being pregnant is hard work!

Amanda sized up Baby Sam. Then she said, “How old is this one?” “Oh,” I said. “He ’s a lot older than he looks.” I didn’t have a lot of experience with lying, but it seemed like a good idea to be vague. I started packing up my diaper bag. It was time—past time—to move out. I shouted to the boys, “Let’s go see Daddy!”

While I folded our blanket, Khaki Pants said, “I have a friend who got pregnant again on the night of her six-week checkup.”

Amanda chimed in, “I have a friend with triplets.”

There was a pause, then, as all three of us stopped to pay silent tribute to the women we knew whose asses were being kicked even harder than our own were. Then we all seemed to realize at the same time that, with the addition of this fourth child, I would soon fit into that category. The category of people you make small talk about at the park: “She has four kids and no help.” I didn’t mind. It was better, certainly, than, “Her baby is ten months old and she still looks pregnant.”

Amanda touched my shoulder. “I am so throwing you a shower!” It seemed like a rash gesture. But we’d just had quite a conversation. And seeing someone from your hometown when you’re far away can be a crazy thrill. Besides, after our turbo-chat earlier, she knew all about me. She knew I could really use a shower, both literally and figuratively. She pulled a business-size card out of her wallet that read “The Boatman Family” and had her phone number beneath. She said, “Call me and we’ll figure out the date.”

“I will,” I said, dropping the card into my big purse that housed everything I might ever need: wallet, keys, Q-tips, diapers, wipes, juice boxes, organic granola bars, pacis, and, down at the bottom, crushed cookies, stray raisins, and, this week, an old PB&J congealing inside its Ziploc bag.

Baby Sam loved to go through that purse and pull every single thing out, even separating the credit cards in the wallet from their nooks, beaming like a treasure hunter. He could dismantle and destroy the entire contents in under ten minutes. And even though I’d have much preferred a bag that was orderly, and even though I could’ve solved the problem so easily by just, simply, not handing him my bag, I let him have it time and again. It was such an easy response when he started fussing. I found, these days, I was so desperate for harmony that I gladly traded the contents of my bag—and all hopes for maintaining any level of organization—for even five minutes of everybody happy.

Taking Amanda’s card, I knew that within twenty-four hours Baby Sam would find it in my purse, put it in his mouth, chew on it until it looked like a wad of gum, and then leave it on the floor where I’d step on it in bare feet many hours later on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. But it was okay. I wouldn’t have called her anyway.

Excerpted from Everyone Is Beautiful by Katherine Center Copyright © 2009 by Katherine Center. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Group, 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.

About the Author
Katherine Center is the author of The Bright Side of Disaster. She graduated from Vassar College, where she won the Vassar College Fiction Prize, and received an MA in fiction from the University of Houston. She served as fiction co-editor for the literary magazine Gulf Coast, and her graduate thesis, Peepshow, a collection of stories, was a finalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. A former freelance writer and teacher, she lives in Houston with her husband and two young children.

Today's Book Excerpt is part of this book's virtual tour, courtesy Pump Up Your Book Promotion.

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7 People said

  1. Interesting excerpt!

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  2. I did do a review of it on amazon, but I am thrilled to tell anyone who will listen what a great book it is! highly recommend!

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