***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Abbi Waxman
In which we meet our heroine and witness a crime of thoughtlessness.
Imagine you’re a bird. You can be any kind of bird, but those of you who’ve chosen ostrich or chicken are going to struggle to keep up. Now, imagine you’re coasting through the skies above Los Angeles, coughing occasionally in the smog. Shiny ribbons of traffic spangle below you, and in the distance you see an impossibly verdant patch, like a green darn in a gray sock. As you get closer, the patch resolves into a cross-hatching of old houses and streets, and you have reached Larchmont. Congratulations, you’ve discovered a secret not even all Angelenos know. It’s a neighborhood like any other, but it boasts a forest of trees, planted generously along semiwinding streets that look like they were lifted wholesale from a Capra movie, and were actually all planted at once in the 1920s.
The houses are big but not showy, set back with front gardens that make the streets seem even wider than they are. Even today, most of the houses look the way they always have, thanks to historical preservation and a general consensus that the whole thing is hella cute. The trees have grown into truly beautiful examples of their kind; magnolias drift the streets with perfume, cedars strew them with russet needle carpets, and oaks make street cleaning and alternate side parking a necessity.
Larchmont Boulevard is the linear heart of Larchmont Village, populated by cafés, restaurants, boutiques, artisanal stores of many kinds, and one of the few remaining independent bookstores in Los Angeles. That’s where Nina Lee Hill works; spinster of this parish and heroine both of her own life and the book you’re holding in your lovely hand.
Knight’s has been in business since 1940, and though its fortunes have risen and fallen over time, a genuine love of books and a thorough knowledge of its customers have kept it in business. It is like all good independent bookstores should be, owned and staffed by people who love books, read them, think about them, and sell them to other people who feel the same way. There is reading hour for little kids. There are visiting authors. There are free bookmarks. It’s really a paradise on earth, if paradise for you smells of paper and paste. It does for Nina, but as our story opens, she would happily go back to the part where we were all being birds, and poop on the head of the woman in front of her.
The woman was staring at Nina in what can only be described as a truculent fashion, jangling her extensive, culturally appropriative turquoise jewelry.
“I want my money back. It’s a very boring book; all they do is sit around and talk.” She took a breath and delivered the coup de grâce. “I don’t know why the manager told me it was a classic.”
Nina looked around for Liz Quinn, the guilty party. She could hear the distant rustling of washable silk as Liz went to ground in the young adult section. Snipe. Nina breathed in hate and breathed out love. She smiled at the customer. “Did you read it all the way through?”
The woman didn’t smile back. “Of course.” Not a quitter, just a whiner.
“Well, then we can’t refund your money.” Nina curled her toes inside their fluffy socks. The customer couldn’t see that, of course, and Nina sincerely hoped she looked calm and resolute.
“Why not?” The customer was short, but she managed to draw herself up a couple of inches. All that Pilates finally paying off.
Nina was firm. “Because we sold you a book and you read it. That’s pretty much the whole life cycle of bookstores right there. If you didn’t enjoy it, I’m very sorry, but we can’t do anything about it.” She looked down at the book on the counter. “You really didn’t like it? It’s generally considered one of the greatest novels of all time.” Nina resisted the impulse to pull out her imaginary blaster and blow the woman’s head off, and got a microflash of the bit in Terminator 2 where his silvery head splits in the middle and waves about. Liz was always telling her to be warmer toward the customers, and to remember they could go online and buy any book on the planet faster than Knight’s could order it. Nina needed to make it a friendly and personal experience, so they liked her enough to give the store a) more money and b) more time than they had to give That Other Place. Independent booksellers called it the River, so as to avoid saying it out loud. But as Nina often thought, denial ain’t just a river in South America.
The woman made a face. “I don’t know why; the heroine sits around and gazes out of the window. If I spent all my time sitting on my butt pondering life, I assure you I wouldn’t be as successful as I am.” She shook back her long blond hair, with its carefully casual beachy waves, and had another thought. “If I don’t like the food at a restaurant I can send it back and get a refund.”
“Not if you’ve eaten it.” Nina was confident on this one.
“Can I get a store credit at least?”
Nina shook her head. “No, but may I suggest a library card? At a library you can borrow the book, read it, and give it back totally free of charge.” She forced a smile. “There are actually two within walking distance of here.” She was sure Liz would be happy to lose this customer. Pretty sure.
Nina sighed. “There’s parking at both.” She slid the book back across the counter. “This is still yours. Maybe you could try it again sometime. I’ve read it about twenty times, actually.” (This was a gross understatement, but Nina didn’t want to blow what was left of the customer’s mind.)
The woman frowned at her. “Why?” She looked Nina up and down, not unkindly, just trying to work out why someone would do something so strange. Nina was wearing a pale green vintage cardigan over a blue dress, with a cardigan clip across the collar. Apparently, this clarified things for the customer, because the woman’s expression softened to sympathy. “I guess if you’ve got a boring life, other people’s boring lives are reassuring.”
Nina stepped on her own foot and seethed as the woman dropped Pride and Prejudice carelessly into her fancy handbag, bending the cover and dinging the pages.
Two minutes later, Liz appeared over the top of the graphic novels shelf. “Is she gone?”
Nina nodded, viciously tidying a pile of bookmarks and trying to forget the callous book treatment she had just witnessed. “You’re a craven coward, and wouldn’t even emerge to defend your second favorite nineteenth-century writer. For shame.”
Liz shrugged. “Ms. Austen needs no defense. You did fine, and besides, I’ve never forgotten a long conversation I had with that particular customer about LSD and the boundaries of consciousness.” She straightened some copies of Roller Girl. “I thought I was asking about her vacation, but it turned out she’d stayed home and gone further than she ever thought possible.” She tipped her head down to peer at Nina over her glasses, Liz’s short, dark hair barely touched with gray, despite the several careers she’d had, and the many cities and lives she’d been part of. “There was a long portion about the deep inner beauty of yogurt when viewed through the lens of hallucinogens that put me off Yoplait for life.”
Nina regarded her carefully. “I find that story almost impossible to believe.”
Liz turned and walked toward nonfiction. “I should hope so, seeing as I completely made it up.”
Nina looked down and smiled. She’d never felt more at home than she did at Knight’s, with the plentiful sarcasm and soothing rows of book spines. It was heaven on earth. Now, if they could only get rid of the customers and lock the front doors, they’d really be onto something.
As the only child of a single mother, Nina’s natural state was solitude. Growing up, she saw other people with fathers and brothers and sisters, and it looked like fun, but generally, she thought she was better off without a crowd. That might be overstating it; sometimes she ached for them, especially in middle school. There were lots of kids who had older brothers or sisters in the high school, and those kids had a protective glow around them she envied. Older siblings would wave at recess, or even stop by to chat and confer greatness. Then, in high school, Nina would listen to the kids with younger siblings complain about them but wave, or go over and chat. She saw the relationship, the shared address, and wondered about it.
Nina’s mother had her after a very brief liaison with some guy she met in those strange times before Google (1988 BG?), where all you had to go on was what someone told you in person. Nina often shook her head over the crazy risks those Gen X-ers took. No online database of criminal records, no checking social media for wives and children, no reading back through months of feeds looking for clues. They would have to physically talk to a stranger without knowing any backstory. They could pretend to be a whole new person for everyone they met, without the effort of creating a matching online profile; the potential for dishonesty and deceit was shocking. Anyway, Nina’s mom wasn’t even sure of the guy’s name, and wasn’t worried about it. She was a news photographer; she traveled the world and took lovers whenever they presented themselves, without guilt or complications. I knew I wanted you, she would say to Nina. God only knows if I would have wanted him.
At first, Candice had taken Nina everywhere with her, carrying her under one arm and putting her to bed in hotel room drawers. After a year or two, Nina got inconveniently big and wriggly, though, so Candice found a nice apartment in LA, and an even nicer nanny, and left Nina to get on with the business of growing up. She’d show up three or four times a year, bringing gifts and strange candy and smelling of airports. Nina had never really gotten to know her, though Candice had loomed large in the child’s imagination. When Nina first read Ballet Shoes, as a child, she’d realized her mother was Great-Uncle Matthew.
Her nanny, Louise, had been a wonderful parent; funny and interested and bookish, loving and gentle. She’d created a peaceful life for Nina, and when she’d come to Nina’s college graduation, she’d hugged her, cried a little, then moved back South to help her own, older daughters raise their children. Nina had been far more devastated by Louise’s departure than she’d ever been waving good-bye to her own mother. Candice had started the race, but Louise had carried Nina over the finish line.
Nina hadn’t missed her mother as much as she’d missed having a father. She wasn’t entirely sure what fathers actually did, day to day, but she’d seen them standing on the sidelines at peewee soccer, or showing up at the end of the school day with their hands in their pockets. In middle school, they’d become totally invisible, but then in high school they’d reappeared, driving the car for late-night pickups and avoiding everyone’s eye when a crowd of teenage girls piled in, smelling of drugstore body sprays and showing liberal amounts of nascent cleavage. Nina found them mysterious. Visiting other people’s houses, she would see their moms—often, in fact, become friendly with their moms—but she left high school without ever truly getting the point of dads. They were a nice bonus, like a pool, or a cute dog, or a natural predisposition to clear skin.
“So, what’s tonight?” asked Liz. “Delicate Ladies Book Club? Transgender Support Bridge Night? Decoupage Devils?”
“You think you’re very funny,” replied Nina, “but truthfully, you’re just jealous I have a wide variety of activities to keep my mind alive.”
“My mind needs no encouragement,” said Liz. “In fact, I’m taking up hard drugs in the hope of killing off some brain cells and leveling the brain/body playing field.”
This was actually true for Nina, too. Not the hard drugs, but the part about her mind needing no encouragement. As a child she’d been told she had ADD, or ADHD, or some other acronym, but her school librarian had simply clicked her tongue and told her she was imaginative and creative and couldn’t be expected to wait for everyone else to catch up. She’d started giving Nina extra books to read and encyclopedias to gnaw on. This approach, Nina now realized, was in no way medically recommended, and didn’t do anything at all for her math skills, but it did mean she arrived in high school having read more than anyone else, including the teachers. It also meant she thought of books as medication and sanctuary and the source of all good things. Nothing yet had proven her wrong.
Nina eyed her boss. “Tonight is Trivia Night.” She knew Liz wanted to join her trivia team but couldn’t work up the energy for the required late nights and weekly study sessions.
“They didn’t ban you yet? I thought they were going to ban you for winning all the time?”
“They did ban us from one place, but there are plenty of bars where they’ve never heard of us.”
Liz raised her eyebrows. “You’re a trivia hustler?”
Nina shrugged. “Living the gangster dream.”
Liz looked at her. “Go on. Do it.”
Nina shook her head.
Nina sighed. “You have to give me a category.”
“Too easy. A hundred-pound octopus can squeeze through a hole the size of a cherry tomato.”
“He opened one of the first Saab dealerships in America.”
“Has the shortest day of all the planets. Can I stop now?”
“Does it hurt your head? Do you see auras around things?”
“No, but your expectant expression is low key stressing me out.”
Liz cackled and walked away. “You have no idea how amusing that party trick is,” she added, over her shoulder. “Don’t forget to dress nice tomorrow. Mephistopheles is coming in.”
“OK.” Nina frowned after her, then tried to remember how long Jupiter’s day actually was. She couldn’t help it; it was . . . 9 hours and 55 minutes. Thank God for that. Not being able to remember something was, for Nina, torture. It was like an itch on the roof of your mouth, or when you get a bug bite between your toes. You have to go after it, even though it’s almost too much sensation to deal with. Liz thought all the clubs and activities Nina did were a way to be social, but she was totally wrong. Left undistracted, her brain tended to fly off the rails and drive her insane with endless meandering rivers of thought, or constant badgering questions she needed to look up answers to. The trivia, the reading, the book clubs . . . they were simply weapons of self-defense.
In which we learn a few things that irritate Nina.
Nina walked home in the golden light of her evening neighborhood, the magical hour beloved of lighting directors and single young people dreaming their plans for the night. Around her, people walked their dogs after work, talking on their phones, oblivious to the slanting sun glinting on windows and door knockers, the colors of the pastel sky as gauzy as any red-carpet lineup. Nina often reflected that LA was not a pretty city, architecturally speaking, but the sky made it beautiful several times a day. As with all things Hollywood, the lighting guy is God.
For example, at this time of day the sun made a great deal of her dark red hair. Had Nina known how pretty it looked, she would have taken a photo of herself, but sadly, she was thinking about pickles—sliced, whole, or relish, discuss—and missed the opportunity. In general, she wasn’t the kind of woman who turned casual heads; her looks were an acquired taste, and her resting expression suggested you weren’t going to be given much chance to acquire it. She was small and slender and gave the overall impression of a baby deer, until she spoke and you realized you’d been looking at a fox all along. As her good friend Leah once said, she wasn’t mean; she was painfully accurate.
Nina rented the guesthouse of one of the larger houses on Windsor Boulevard. It was a charming little place, completely separate from the main house, with its own entrance. Absolutely perfect for Nina. The owners were friends of Nina’s mother, and when Nina finished college, this couple had miraculously just finished renovating their guesthouse. They generously offered to rent it to Nina, who couldn’t have been happier to accept.
Her cat, Phil, was sitting on the gate, waiting for her. Phil was a tabby of the brown and cream variety, with a black tip to his tail and white feet. He jumped down as the gate opened and preceded her up the stairs, the tip of his tail forming a jaunty accent like a marker flag on a toddler’s bicycle. Nina noticed he’d left a large but very dead worm on the doormat. He stood next to it casually, like, oh yeah, I’d almost forgotten, I brought you a worm. Nothing special, just a deadly worm I captured with my own paws and brought back for you. Thought you might fancy a little smackerel of something after work, you know. (He was apparently channeling Pooh Bear.)
Nina bent down and stroked his head. “Thanks, Phil. This is an incredible worm.” Phil rubbed against her legs, totally stoked with himself. Other cats might stay in all day, lounging around and licking their butts, but he was out and about Getting the Job Done. “I’m going to save it for later, though, if that’s all right with you.” Phil shrugged.
Nina opened the door and walked in, kicking off her shoes and surreptitiously placing the worm on the kitchen counter to be thrown away when the cat wasn’t looking. She looked up at the giant clock on the wall; still an hour before the trivia thing started. She turned on the kettle; time to chill and tidy. She loved her apartment, even if calling it an apartment was a bit of a stretch. It was basically one big room, with a tiny kitchenette and bathroom, but what it had in abundance was light and bookshelves, and really, what else does anyone need? Big double windows on the south and west walls filled the place with sun and color, and the shelves went from floor to ceiling. One single bed nestled against the wall, which left room for an oversize armchair near the window, where Nina could—and did—sit for hours and read her butt off. The Persian rug was all reds and oranges and tigers and birds, a souvenir of some trip of her mom’s, and had shown up a week or two after Nina had moved her stuff (a bed, a chair, six boxes of books, a kitten, a coffee maker, and a large bulletin board) in. The note attached had read, Hey, had this in storage for years, thought you might like it. Let me know if you want the rest of the stuff.
Rest of the stuff? Nina had called her mom immediately. “Hey, Mom. Where are you?” This was her standard greeting.
“I’m in London right now, darling. Where are you?” Her mom was Australian, but her accent had softened over the years to the occasional hint. She said sockAH instead of soccer, or lollies instead of candy, but it wasn’t like she walked around in a hat with corks dangling from it.
Nina had smiled to hear her mother’s voice, the part of her she was most familiar with. “I’m in Dubai, Mom, at the top of the Burj Khalifa.”
“Really?” Her mom sounded excited. “How’s the view?”
Nina had sighed. “No, I’m in Los Angeles, right where you left me.”
“Oh.” Her mom was clearly disappointed Nina hadn’t inherited her wanderlust. She didn’t say it in so many words, but she didn’t have to.
“What’s with this carpet?” Nina had asked, poking the rolled-up rug with her foot.
Nina could hear her mom sipping tea. She had probably been doing three or four things at the same time as taking Nina’s call. One thing at a time? Where’s the fun in that? “Well, I lived in LA when I was pregnant with you, remember?”
“Of course.” Nina knew her own origin story by heart, as everybody does. Her mother hadn’t been a slut, exactly, but she hadn’t been interested in romantic relationships. Nina had asked her many years earlier why she’d chosen not to have an abortion, and Candice had laughed in her usual way.
“Because I thought it would be an adventure, and it was.” AdvenchAH.
“The rug is gorgeous. What’s the rest of the stuff like?”
“Well, I think there’s all kinds of things. Go look if you want.” She’d told her where the storage unit was, and now, as Nina looked around her happy little place, she was looking at furniture she might have peed on as a baby. A small kilim sofa, an ottoman from Rajasthan, which Phil thought was his, and as much of her mom’s art collection as she could drag out of storage. The one wall that wasn’t covered with books was covered with photographs; images by Ruth Orkin, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Inge Morath and a few snapshots Nina liked that she’d taken herself; posters and magazine covers featuring the TV shows and celebrities of her childhood; her “visualization corner,” with its bulletin board and calendar (don’t mock; you only wish you were as organized as Nina); photos of Nina’s mom and Phil as a kitten. A single Malm bed (btw, the plural of Malm is just Malm, like deer; Malms sounds wrong, although it also sounds like a delicious marshmallow candy—ooh, are those chocolate malms?) from IKEA—with the optional storage drawers, please note—was tucked against a wall.
Stooping to pick up the mail, Nina fed Phil and poured herself a glass of wine. Then she wandered over to her visualization corner and stood there, frowning at her bulletin board, with its inspirational images, quotes, and life hacks she never actually put into practice. She enjoyed being organized but always felt there was so much room for more. She loved having color-coordinated folders and lists and spent half an hour each morning reviewing her planner, setting her goals and intentions for the day, and generally pondering. This was time she had, of course, set aside for that purpose in her planner. She only wished there was more to actually, you know, plan. She sometimes made lists of things she’d already done solely so she could cross them off, which she couldn’t help feeling was pretty pathetic but strangely satisfying.
She’d graduated from UCLA with a useless but interesting degree (Art History, thanks for asking) and took the job at Knight’s while she worked out what she wanted to do now she was grown up. She spent the next few years actually growing up; having short-lived love affairs and one slightly longer love affair and then some more short ones, and Getting in Shape and Being Vegan and Paleo and then Giving Up And Eating Everything Again. She took up yoga, then spinning, then a combination yoga and Spin class she inwardly referred to as Spoga, then decoupage and knitting and a series of those evenings where you drink wine and paint, but she had a niggling suspicion she was underperforming in some way. Surely her purpose in life wasn’t simply to read as many books as possible?
Many of her friends were in long-term romantic relationships, but Nina was single. She liked sex; she enjoyed people with different points of view; she dated. But dating in LA was an Internet-enabled contact sport, and after a dozen evenings that established new lows for interpersonal behavior, she’d decided to Take a Break from Dating. It had been a lot easier than the time she’d tried to give up caffeine.
Nina worried she liked being alone too much; it was the only time she ever fully relaxed. People were . . . exhausting. They made her anxious. Leaving her apartment every morning was the turning over of a giant hourglass, the mental energy she’d stored up overnight eroding grain by grain. She refueled during the day by grabbing moments of solitude and sometimes felt her life was a long-distance swim between islands of silence. She enjoyed people—she really did—she just needed to take them in homeopathic doses; a little of the poison was a cure.
In solitude she set goals and made them, challenged herself and accepted the challenge, took up hobbies and dropped them, and if she periodically cleaned off her bulletin board and stuck up new goals and plans and dates and budgets and bought a new planner in the middle of the year and started over, so what? Nina leaned forward and crossed off that day’s date on the calendar, even though it wasn’t fully done yet.
See? One hundred percent ahead of the game.
Nina’s trivia team consisted of her and her three closest friends and was called Book ’Em, Danno, because why not? They were unassailable on books (Nina), history and geography (her friend Leah), contemporary popular culture (Carter, an ex-boyfriend of Leah’s who’d been too smart and funny to completely let go of), and current events and politics (her other friend, Lauren). All of them were equally good, in true millennial fashion, at classic popular culture (1950–1995, Lucy Ricardo to Chandler Bing) and identifying international snacks. Despite the fact that Nina was a football fan, their Achilles’ heel was still sports. In an effort to broaden her athletic knowledge, Nina had started reading Sports Illustrated, but so far all it had done was give her dirty dreams about a Norwegian snowboarder whose name she couldn’t even pronounce.
Having been thrown out of their last regular bar for never letting anyone else win, Book ’Em, Danno was now cautiously testing a new venue. Sugarlips was in Silver Lake, had been open two months, and served a vast selection of sodas (international and domestic) alongside the traditional panoply of craft beers. It was also making a name for itself by serving bowls of dry breakfast cereal as bar snacks, which presumably explained the name.
“How is it?” Lauren was watching Carter try a prickly pear soda. Lauren had dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark soul that delighted in humor other people might consider sardonic. She reminded Nina of a really good loaf of sourdough bread—crusty on the outside, with a soft and rewarding interior.
Carter shrugged. “You know, I’ve never had anything else prickly pear flavored, so I realized halfway through I didn’t have a frame of reference. But it tastes like . . . watermelon bubble gum?” He took another sip. “It’s kind of awesome, but I should probably be stoned to truly enjoy it.” He didn’t look like the kind of guy that got stoned; he looked like the kind of guy who helped old ladies across the street and regularly took Communion, but, as we all know, appearances are very deceptive. He had the symbol of the Rebel Alliance tattooed on his arm, and the Force was strong in his family.
“No.” Nina shook her head. “Keep your head in the game. You know the rules.”
“It might make me quicker.”
Lauren snorted into her beer. “Yeah, because that’s something people say all the time: We need to move with maximum speed and efficiency; break out the pot.”
The trivia contest began, and Book ’Em kicked butt for an hour or so. Then a late entry arrived to harsh their mellow.
“Oh crap,” muttered Carter. “Look who it isn’t.”
Nina craned around. “Who isn’t it?”
“Dammit,” said Leah. “It’s You’re a Quizzard, Harry.”
Nina kept a straight face, but inwardly she was vexed. Quizzard was really the only challenge they had in the East Los Angeles bar trivia world, which, admittedly, is an extremely small world, but Nina was competitive.
They watched as Quizzard, which was three guys and a girl, like the bizarro-world version of them, sat down at a table across from them. The team leader was clearly the tall guy who narrowed his eyes at Nina, and then raised his hand in mock salute.
Nina held his gaze for a second, then yawned hugely.