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I Couldn't Love You More
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Eliot Gordon would do anything for her family. A 38-year-old working mother, she lives an ordinary but fulfilling life in suburban Atlanta with her partner, Grant Delaney, and their three daughters. The two older girls are actually Eliot's stepdaughters, a distinction she is reluctant to make as she valiantly attempts to maintain a safe, happy household . . .
Then Finn Montgomery, Eliot's long-lost first love, appears, triggering a shocking chain of events that culminates in a split-second decision that will haunt her beloved family forever. How Eliot survives — and what she loses in the process — is a story that will resonate with anyone who has ever loved a child.
With hilarious honesty, emotional depth, and a knockout twist, I Couldn't Love You More illuminates the unbreakable bonds of family and reveals the lengths people will go to save one another, even if we can't save ourselves.
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Once Upon a Time
AT THE BEGINNING of my daughter's princess party, right before Cinderella is scheduled to arrive, my sister Sylvia announces, apropos of nothing, that she is going blind.
Alarmed, I look up. "What do you mean by 'blind'?"
"I mean I'm having trouble seeing out of my eyes."
We're standing side by side in my foyer, where I'm trying to corral ten pint-sized princesses into the adjacent living room. Sylvia is studying her eyes in the mirror, and I want to give her my full attention, but Cinderella is due any minute, and the girls are running wild.
"Did this just happen?" I ask, catching a petite Snow White before she clips a corner. "Careful, princess, careful."
"No, it's been gradual." Still staring at her reflection, Sylvia grimaces. "Last week, when I was reviewing a deposition, I noticed the words were blurry and kind of dark. But it was midnight, so I figured I was just tired. Now, though, I can barely see my hand in front of my face." To prove her point, she holds up her hand at arm's length and then squints, as if pretending to count her fingers.
She had me until the demonstration. I believed her vision was blurry. The deposition made perfect sense. I could even accept that she'd been at her office until midnight. But once she started with the fluttering fingers and the fixed zombie eyes, I knew exactly what was happening. My thirty-six-year-old sister was about to snatch the spotlight from her four-year-old niece—on the kid's birthday, no less—and it was up to me to stop her.
"Please, Sylvia," I say delicately. "Can't this wait?" But I don't hear her response because there's a loud crash in my kitchen, followed by screeches of laughter. As bands of roving girls stampede by, I spy my daughter's curly red hair among the swishing ponytails.
"Hailey! Let's settle down, okay?" I reach out to grab her, but she's moving too fast.
"In a second, Mommy!" she promises as she dashes away.
Sylvia is petulant. "Something's wrong, Eliot. Please take a look."
"I'm not an ophthalmologist," I remind her, which of course makes no difference—when she tilts her head forward, I (ever-dutifully) lean in to examine her eyes. But before I offer my expert opinion, I scout around for our little sister, Maggie, who has once again wandered off.
I spot her across the room. "Maggie! What are you doing?" We refer to Maggie as "little," but she's actually thirty-three, although you wouldn't know it from the way she's crouched underneath my dining room table. "Cinderella will be here any minute. You said you were setting up the living room."
She crawls out from between two chairs. "I decided to build a fort instead," she says as she stands up and brushes herself off. Her jeans are covered with crumbs, which tells me that I didn't vacuum as well as I'd thought. "What if the princesses need to hide from the dragon?" Maggie pauses. "Wait a second. I think I'm mixing up my fairy tales."
Sylvia nods. "It happens. They're highly complex narratives." Beside us, she's blinking rapidly, as if signaling Morse code to a distant ally.
"What's wrong with her?" Maggie asks.
"She said she's having trouble with her eyes."
"I'm blind, Eliot," Sylvia corrects me.
"Again?" Maggie sighs. "Didn't you 'go blind' when we took Hailey to that Chihuahua movie? You were so bored you raced out of the theater yelling, 'Oh God, my eyes,' and then went down the street and got your nails done."
"I wasn't bored, Maggie. It was a corneal abrasion. I almost had to wear an eye patch." Sylvia turns to me. "How can you just stand there? Do you not even care? This is serious, Eliot."
"Of course I care," I reply, but Hailey's back and tugging on my hand.
"Cinderella's coming! Mommy, we have to get ready. I love her so, so much."
I need to make a move, but seized with sudden indecision, I just stand there for a second, watching the door and praying that my daughter's favorite princess shows up soon.
Cinderella is the centerpiece of Hailey's birthday party. I'd hired her from All Star Atlanta, a troupe of actors who perform at children's parties around town. Although the cost gave me pause, once her booker described the two-hour interactive floor show, which featured a selection of preapproved princess activities, including a princess sing-along, I was sold.
"Let's go, princesses!" I call out weakly. I feel self-conscious shouting at the girls while their mothers stand by, idly watching, but once my own mother steps in, we're able to sweep all ten children into the living room. The adults follow behind, even Sylvia, although her eye affliction forces her to move very slowly.
My sister's drama isn't unusual, but it is inconvenient, especially today. Hailey recently changed nursery schools, so this party is a chance for her to spend time with her new pals outside of class. If I had more space, I would've also invited their mothers, but my house is far too small for so many people. As it turned out, two of the mothers did ask to stay, although they both offered, graciously, to lend a hand with the kids. And while I was anxious to make a good impression, I can see now that my husband, Grant, had a point when he said I was overthinking the event.
"It's a birthday party," he reminded me during my decorating frenzy. "She's only four."
"I know, I know. I'm done, I'm done. Okay"—I held out my arms—"what do you think?"
We both looked around. Our house was buckling under the weight of pink streamers, pink balloons, pink Mardi Gras beads, and pink feather boas. My kitchen table was set for a tea party that could rival any held at Versailles, and there was a banner suspended from the ceiling that read Welcome to the Ball in gold glitter script. But when I started to pull down the streamers, conceding that, yes, it probably was a bit much, Grant shook his head. "Absolutely not. It's perfect—like we're inside a big pink piñata!" He squeezed my shoulders. "Hailey will love it, Eliot—you did a great job."
Hailey is the youngest of three girls. Because she is so often denied the same privileges we grant her elder sisters—later bedtimes, certain TV shows, pricey Game Boys—I wanted her birthday to be special. So along with the princess theme and decorations, we asked her guests to dress up as their best-loved fairy-tale heroines, which is how we ended up with five Cinderellas, two Snow Whites, and three Sleeping Beauties. Each girl is wearing a miniature ball gown, bejeweled tiara, and plastic high heels, and they're all giddy at the prospect of meeting the real-life Cinderella.
I was a little nervous about hosting nine kids we don't know, but so far they've all been very sweet to Hailey, if a bit wound up. And it's to the mothers' credit that despite never having met my sister before, the two women are listening to Sylvia with genuine concern.
"This isn't a joke, Eliot," she says, feeling around for a chair. "I really can't see." She sighs heavily. "I guess it's true: fertility drugs can have a terrible effect on your vision."
Phoebe, the alpha mother, reaches out to guide her into a chair. "Are you taking Clomid? My friend took Clomid, and she had the same problem. In fact, her vision got so bad she had to stop driving…" Trailing off, she notices a bevy of girls using my brand-new couch as a trampoline. One of them realized that by launching herself off the arm of the neighboring (equally new) recliner, she could practically fly, and the others are clamoring behind her, demanding a turn. "Careful with your dresses!" Phoebe shouts. This, it occurs to me, is what she meant by "lending a hand" with the kids.
"Did you know Sylvia was taking fertility drugs?" I ask Maggie.
"I didn't even know she wanted children," Maggie replies, and we both turn to Sylvia, but she's focused on Phoebe.
"My God!" she exclaims. "Your hair is gorgeous and looks so soft. May I touch it? Please? Just one quick pat?"
Phoebe has very short, frosted blond hair that hugs her scalp like a swim cap. Although it's nicer than, say, my hair, which is a mousy auburn shag cut to hide my thinning part, it's no more gorgeous than anyone else's. But Sylvia has the uncanny ability to zero in on a perfect stranger's hidden vanity, and soon she's petting the woman's head as they discuss deep-cleansing shampoos and the benefits of learning Braille. Meanwhile, Phoebe's daughter has taken off her ball gown and is doing belly flops in her underwear onto my expensive leather sofa.
"Mommy!" I hear my own daughter shout. "Where's the special guest?" Hailey is standing on the arm of the recliner, tottering in her plastic heels. "We've been waiting so long."
"Careful, princess," Maggie says, racing to grab Hailey before she topples over.
"Catch me, Aunt Maggie!" Arms outstretched, Hailey flings herself at my sister, who catches her easily and then dances her around the room. Maggie is agile, with an athlete's grace, and their impromptu waltz is surprisingly elegant.
"What a stunning girl," Phoebe says to her companion, unconsciously fingering her own cropped hair. "What I wouldn't give for curls like that." Given the way Phoebe stares, I know intuitively that she's referring to my sister's long, reddish-gold ringlets, not my daughter's messy red mop.
"That's Maggie," Sylvia tells the mothers, as if addressing the studio audience. "She's the pretty sister. Eliot's the good one." She grins. "I'm the bad sister, the one with all the issues."
Chuckling, Phoebe smooths her knee-length skirt. "Well, I'm a bad girl myself—reformed, of course." She touches Sylvia's shoulder. "You should probably relax if you're feeling unwell."
"I probably should," Sylvia agrees. She offers the woman her arm. "If it's all the same to you, Ellie, I think I'll lie down on the couch. Could you ask the kids to clear out for a while?"
"Sylvia," I plead, trying to tamp down my frustration, "please don't do this now. Cinderella will be here any minute, and we need the living room. Why don't you go upstairs?"
"And miss Hailey's birthday party?" Sylvia replies sweetly. "No way."
Phoebe turns to her friend. "Can you give me a hand here?"
And so it happens that my perfectly healthy, eagle-eyed sister gets two complete strangers to help her traverse my tiny living room floor. One offers her aspirin; the other, a cup of tea.
"Get ready, girls!" I cry out, clapping maniacally. "Cinderella's coming!"
"News flash," my mother says, walking in. "Cinderella isn't coming." She spots Sylvia lying on the couch. "Oh, my God, Eliot—is she okay?"
"Cinderella's not coming?" Hailey shrieks. She's back up on the recliner, stomping her plastic high heels into the rich brown leather. "That's not fair!"
Several of the princesses start to cry; the rest fall, keening and moaning, to their knees. Watching this, I get a sense of what Graceland was like the day Elvis died, and I blink back sudden tears of my own. Three weeks of preparation, and in less than two minutes, Hailey's party has fallen apart. Adding insult to injury are my two guests misguidedly ministering to my sister.
"Apparently," my mother says, "Cinderella slipped a disk doing a gymnastics routine somewhere in Dunwoody. Call the guy back. He'll tell you the whole story."
This makes the princesses cry harder. "I want gymnastics!" Hailey shouts, and her friends rally to her cause, yelling, "Gymnastics, gymnastics!" over and over until Sylvia bolts up from her sickbed to shush them.
"So, Eliot, what's your backup plan?" asks Phoebe, who along with the other adults is waiting for me to take action.
I can barely hear her over the princesses' wailing. "Backup plan?" I say blankly.
"You don't have a backup plan?" She's incredulous. "I hate to tell you this, dear, but if Cinderella really is laid up in Dunwoody, you have a long afternoon ahead of you."
* * *
As it turns out, Phoebe is right. Cinderella's aborted appearance dampens everyone's mood. Had Grant been here, he would have told jokes—or juggled, even—and added some much-needed levity. But earlier he received an emergency call from his teenage daughter, Charlotte, my elder stepdaughter, and had to run out. So with Grant gone, Sylvia (thankfully) resting upstairs, and Maggie disappeared (again), it falls to me to entertain the princesses alone.
For the next two hours, I try everything: freeze dance, musical chairs, pin-the-crown-on-the-queen, a tea party, even a princess parade. But nothing cheers the girls up. All they want is Cinderella, which I understand. Despite my brave face, I'm crushed she's not here, especially when I spot a heartbroken Hailey peeking out the front window, searching for the missing princess.
Eventually, Maggie wanders over. "I want cake," she says, pulling me up off the floor, where I'm overseeing a lackluster game of hot potato. We retreat to the dining room to join my guests, who are sitting with my mother, sipping decaf and nibbling Cheddar Goldfish. I'm about to admit defeat and send everyone home when I see Gail, my seven-year-old stepdaughter, organizing a game of duck, duck, goose. That's my girl, I think, watching with pride as she tries to salvage her little sister's birthday. She won't give up without a fight, either.
Unfortunately, news from the front isn't good.
"Hailey's friends are bored," Gail tells me, walking over. "They said this is the worst party ever."
"The worst princess party in the history of all princess parties?" Smiling, I hold her fingers and twirl her around and around. In honor of her sister's birthday, Gail is wearing a miniskirt I found in a vintage store on Peachtree. As she spins on her toes, the skirt flares up. Underneath, she has on a pair of camouflage-print shorts. "Well, I appreciate your help. Hailey is lucky to have you for a sister."
"Which is more than we can say about your aunt Sylvia," Maggie observes. "Considering she lied about taking fertility drugs so she could sleep all afternoon."
"Maybe she really doesn't feel well," I say. "Let's give her the benefit of the doubt."
Maggie snorts. "And you guys call me the dumb one." She turns away, flicking her long hair in my face. Sylvia doesn't always lie; Maggie really is the prettiest of us, although her cool beauty—luminous blue eyes, straight white teeth, perfect lips—belies a lovable loopiness, which you can feel in the warmth of her smile. When my sister smiles, it's like seeing the sun come out.
I check my watch. "It's time for cake. Gail, please round up the princesses. I'll go upstairs and find Sylvia." But as I get up from my seat, my mother stops me.
"Let Sylvia be. She's not feeling well." For some reason, this cracks her up.
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing," she says, then laughs even harder. "Eliot, you stay here. I'll get the cake."
A few minutes later, I'm down on my knees, helping Hailey rebuckle her plastic shoes, when the princesses start to yell. My mother must have brought out the cake, I think, but when I look up, I see it's not the cake they're cheering—it's the person holding it. Dressed in a sequined cocktail dress, a platinum wig, heaps of plastic bracelets, and (my) diamond stud earrings, Sylvia steps into the dining room, balancing the cake in a pair of gloved hands. Her dress is gaudy, her wig askew, both gloves have holes, and her lipstick is smeared, but my sister has never looked more dazzling.
"Hello, ladies," she says. "I'm Princess Petunia. Cinderella couldn't make it today, so she sent me."
The ten princesses swoon. "Are you a real princess?" they all want to know.
"Of course I'm a real princess. Why else would I be here?" Sylvia holds out the enormous cake, which I take from her hands. "It's me," she whispers.
"I know," I whisper back. "You look amazing."
Hailey is overjoyed. "You're not a princess. You're Aunt Sylvia!"
"No, I'm Princess Petunia, and I'm here to make your wishes come true." Then, from out of nowhere, Sylvia produces a handful of necklaces—one more glittery than the next. She goes around the table, drapes a necklace over each guest's head, and kisses her cheek. "You are so beautiful," she says solemnly. "Thank you for coming."
Shrieking with pleasure, Hailey tosses her necklace into the air. The other princesses see this, and nine more go flying. And suddenly my ordinary little house has sparkling jewels raining down from the ceiling.
"Mommy," I hear. "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy—this is the best party ever!"
* * *
"You saved the day, Sylvia," I say. "Princess Petunia saved the day."
It's later, much later, after all the princesses have gone home, after Hailey and Gail have opened all the presents and misplaced all the cards, after we've vacuumed up the glitter and runaway beads and dried frosting, after Charlotte and Grant have finally walked in. A half hour ago, Grant went upstairs with the girls, so I'm left with my mother and sisters to do the party postmortem.
Sylvia beams. "I did save the day, didn't I? That party was a disaster until I showed up. Thank God for me."
My mother is hiding a smile, and I can tell she has a secret. "What?" I ask her.
"Sylvia has something important she wants to share."
"Don't say it, Dolores," Sylvia warns. "It's my news, not yours." But she's smiling, too, and a beat later, she and my mother are laughing hysterically.
Watching them, it strikes me that when Sylvia is my mother's age (seventy-eight), she will look just like her. Sylvia has the same shoulder-length, fiery red hair my mother had when we were kids, although my mother's is silver now and cut in a sleek bob. They also share a perpetually bemused expression, as if they know something you don't. Sylvia, Maggie, and I don't resemble one another—or our mother—but you can tell we're related. We all have the same fair skin, light eyes, and freckles. And, of course, there's the red hair, which we also share in one shade or another.
"Come on," Maggie says. "Tell us your news already. Oh, I know: you've gone blind."
"Don't be dramatic, Maggie," Sylvia says. "It's so unbecoming." She looks at my mother, and for a second they say nothing. Then they both speak at the same time.
"I saw Finn!" Sylvia shouts. "Finn Montgomery—remember Finn, from Emory?"
She saw Finn? My Finn? Hearing this, I freeze. But wait, there's more.
"Your sister's pregnant!" my mother blurts out. "She's due next May!"
Maggie throws her arms around my neck. "You're pregnant? Eliot, that's so great!"
"I'm the one who's pregnant, you dope," Sylvia says, then turns to my mother. "I told you I wanted to wait, Dolores. Roger doesn't even know yet."
"Hold on." Maggie is confused. "So that stuff about fertility drugs was true?"
I'm still reeling. "You saw Finn? He's back in Atlanta?"
My mother is unconvinced. "Oh, Sylvia, you're always seeing someone. Two months ago you were convinced you saw Yasir Arafat. I told you: the man's been dead for years."
But Sylvia has moved on. "So remember I had those stabbing pains in my stomach, and I was sure I had abdominal cancer? Well, I called an oncologist, but the same day—the! same! exact! day!—I missed my period. Guess what?" She sits up. "It's not cancer."
"You're really pregnant?" Maggie sounds concerned. For the record: Sylvia once toted an infant Hailey through the mall in a puppy cargo bag because the BabyBjörn "compromised her spine." "She can breathe just fine in there," she snapped when the security guard in Victoria's Secret threatened to call the police. (I heard this story only after the fact, but it was the first—and last—time Sylvia babysat.)
"I planned to tell you earlier," she continues, "but I felt so sick all day. And those kids—Jesus Christ, Eliot, are they always so freaking loud?"
"You're really pregnant?" Maggie repeats.
"Stop saying that, Maggie! When it was Eliot, you were like 'You're pregnant?' but since it's me you're like 'You're pregnant?' Why can't you just be happy for me?"
"We are happy for you," Maggie and I say in unison. But unable to help myself, I add, "So where did you see Finn? Was he alone?"
Sylvia rolls her eyes. "God, could you be more self-involved, Eliot? We're discussing my unborn child here. But no, he wasn't alone. I saw him at the movies, sitting with some blonde." She barks with laughter. "Oh, my God, he got so fat. The theater was packed, but you couldn't miss him. The guy's, like, huge."
Finn fat? Impossible. I exhale in relief. "I doubt Finn got fat, Sylvia." It's weird to say fat, even weirder than saying Finn. We don't allow the word fat in our house. I'd rather have Hailey tell someone to fuck off than call her fat. "It could've been anyone."
"Oh, so now you don't believe me? You think I lied about that, too?"
"I didn't say you lied. But you only met him once. And if the place was packed…" I shrug.
"Eliot, do you really think I'm so insensitive that I would make up a story about seeing Finn, a guy it took you years to get over? What kind of person do you think I am?"
"That's not what she said," Maggie points out.
Sylvia whips around. "Why are you two ganging up on me?"
"We're not," Maggie says, but it's too late. Sylvia is on a tear, ranting about how selfish and jealous we are, how thoughtless and rude; how she's finally pregnant after all these years, but the only thing we can focus on is Eliot and her fat ex-boyfriend.
"This was supposed to be my moment," she sniffs, glaring at me. "You always do this."
Although this signals the end of the evening, it's not the end of the story. Princess parties are over when the clock strikes twelve, but families go on forever, which is why I'm not all that worried about Sylvia being angry. Still, I do feel awful when she storms off, especially since there was something so magical about the party. In a single afternoon, I saw her transformed from a sister into a princess, from a princess into an expectant mother, and from a mother back to herself. And the truth is, sometimes my sisters and I do get jealous, and sometimes we do say things to—and about—one another that are thoughtless and rude. We don't mean them, though. It's just whenever we're together, we slip into our old familiar roles. As the eldest, I'm in charge, Maggie is the one we look after, and Sylvia is caught in the middle. Despite our best efforts to transcend them, these roles are ingrained and immutable; and because of this, we behave accordingly, even against our better judgment.
I'm sure most people think it shouldn't matter at this point who among us is the prettiest or smartest since we're all adults now, each with lives of our own. But it does matter—it will always matter. I mean, if you don't know your place in the family, how can you possibly know your place in the world?
I'M A LIGHT SLEEPER,
- On Sale
- May 15, 2012
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- 5 Spot