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Sweet Virginia (Out of Line collection)

Caroline Kepnes

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2020 by Caroline Kepnes

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

  Published by Amazon Original Stories, Seattle

  Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Amazon Original Stories are trademarks of, Inc., or its affiliates.

  eISBN: 9781542020633

  Cover design by Zoe Norvell

  In Shelby’s precious Hallmark movies, it’s always snowy at Christmas and the woman becomes a softer, superior version of herself as she falls in love with the man. The movies are benzos for the soul. They relax Shelby. They make her laugh. It’s safe in Hallmark land. Snow never gives way to slush, and Shelby lives vicariously through her favorite Hallmark queen: Candace Cameron Bure. In Christmas Under Wraps, maybe the best one out there, Candace plays a physician marooned in small-town Alaska. She’s lovable and loving with shiny hair, a head full of nice thoughts, and eyes like a doe. She deserves all the good things guaranteed to be hers by the last scene, the things she didn’t even know she wanted, but again, it’s always the same.

  The credits roll too fast, smothered by commercials, and Shelby gets whiplash. She isn’t anything like Candace Cameron Bure, and she’s not fielding job offers in Alaska. Shelby’s not a doctor. She’s already married, she has a son, and she shouldn’t fantasize about meeting a plaid hunk with veneers and biceps. Hallmark is a lie. Hot cocoa can’t change your life, and nobody masturbates in these hyper-clean TV hamlets. (Last night Rajid thought Shelby was sleeping. She wasn’t.) Nobody gets diarrhea. (Shelby has to stop drinking so much hot chocolate.) And oh sure, Candace and her milquetoast man kissed under the mistletoe, but wait until Candace gets pregnant. Wait until she gets fired in her first trimester and try to make a movie about that, Hallmark.

  Another one begins, and Shelby turns up the volume, willing the corny music to seep into her bloodstream and transform her into the plucky leading lady with smaller pores, a brighter smile, a wide-open heart.

  See, Shelby got fired because of Hallmark movies.

  Well, sort of. She never fit in at City Woman, and she knew it, but as a forty-one-year-old journalist who never wrote that thing that validated her decision to keep her maiden name, there were limits to what she could expect from a job. She had to leave her house in Suburb, Virginia, by eight to get to the Semi-City, Maryland, office on time, and in the car she’d laugh at her life, rushing to get from a home that didn’t feel like home—she’d never pictured herself living in a development so close to Best Buy—to a job that didn’t feel right. She couldn’t keep a straight face at work, and her boss, Annette, would never hesitate to call her out. “What’s so funny, Shelby?”


  “But you’re smirking, yes?”

  She was smirking because she couldn’t take it seriously, and she couldn’t blame them for not taking her seriously. Annette didn’t like her. But as Rajid said, You don’t like Annette. She’d go into the office and pitch ideas, Annette would shoot her down, and Shelby would simmer. But two days later, she’d revisit her writing and cringe. Did she really pitch that?

  She devised a plan: Write a “Modern Love” essay for the New York Times. Blow up. Move on. But after two years at City Woman, Shelby had thirty-eight pages of false starts. Nothing clicked. And if she couldn’t tell the story of her relationship with Rajid, then what did that say about her? About them?

  Things were better when she finally got pregnant. Surely she’d crack “Modern Love,” because the pregnancy was a surprise, a blessing. She was falling for Rajid all over again, remembering how satisfying it was to please him, to give him what he wanted. He hadn’t been this happy since they’d adopted their dog, Scrumptious. He was working harder than ever, and she was taking it easy on the weekends, rediscovering those dopey, addictive movies. The stories felt different now, as if the pregnancy had activated the shiny, perky woman inside her. She wasn’t cynical anymore. She was a Hallmark woman. Womanly. And because she didn’t like boundaries, because she still couldn’t crack “Modern Love,” she marched into City Woman determined to convince Annette and the others that she should write about Hallmark movies—you know, those corny fairy tales we all secretly love to binge?

  Annette was puzzled. “Shelby . . . I don’t get it. You’re being ironic, yes?”

  Annette didn’t know Shelby was pregnant. Shelby and Rajid had agreed it was better to wait. Shelby was emotional. Intense. “No, Annette. I’m not being ironic. I’ve been realizing that I genuinely love Hallmark movies. I want to write about them.”

  “You mean as a hate watch, yes? Shelby, they’re anti–single women. They’re anti–gay women. They’re anti–all women who aren’t cookie cutters willing to give up their ‘big city’ careers for love with some dullard.”

  There was laughter in the room, and Shelby was tense. She was not a tradwife. She wasn’t a small-minded enemy of all things good in this world, and she hadn’t anticipated a political debate. “Annette,” she said. “I agree with you on all counts, but this is more about the isolated, enduring appeal in spite of those issues.”

  Annette shrugged. “I wouldn’t know,” she said. “I’ve never actually watched one. I mean, they’re banal and sexist, yes?”

  Annette was always doing that. Ending her sentences with the word yes, passive-aggressively commanding you to agree with her. “But that’s you,” Shelby said. “Many women are still watching . . .” She looked around the room, searching for an ally, but none of the women were going to admit to indulging in a little banal and sexist Hallmark every now and then. So Shelby just plowed ahead, like a pioneer in one of her beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder books, babbling about the movies, the career women and their inadequate Bluetooth boyfriends, and the narrative convenience of being dumped or transferred to a remote location right before Christmas.

  She hadn’t practiced at home, and she was all over the place, conscious of how often she said the word Candace as if Candace Cameron Bure were her friend. She used the word narrative too much, off on a tangent about the message that breakups and career hiccups always lead to falling in love. “If you think about it,” she said, “we’re drawn to these sanitized career women because, unlike us, they’re all actually very passive, and therein lies the guilty pleasure. We all secretly wish we could be that way, right? Never mind the hunky man, the happy ending. It’s about the fantasy that the world tells you what to do and you do it.” She was losing them. She would not lose. “Think about Christmas Under Wraps. Candace doesn’t decide to move to Alaska. She has no choice. And look how well it works out for her!”

  This was a bombshell, but Annette and the others were mute. Blank. Shelby knew there would be a group text later that night—How crazy was Shelby today?—but she tried to recover. “Look,” she pressed, using her hands now. “Hallmark taps into the unsayable thing that we all feel . . .” Drumroll. Eye contact. “We all want to run away. Candace shows up in Alaska, and she’s pouting in stilettos. She’s a ball of cookie dough, and the quirky small town is a rolling pin, and the boring guy is another rolling pin, you know?”

  They didn’t know, but she so rarely had the floor, and she couldn’t stop now.

  “He teases her, and she c
onforms to his way of life. Going with this cookie dough metaphor . . . the remarkably unremarkable man puts her in the oven, you know?” No, they didn’t know. “He kisses her and the kiss is magic and now she’s a cookie and he’s gonna eat that cookie, you know?” Again, no. “The bottom line is that getting forced out of her comfort zone was the best thing that ever happened to her. And what a relief, right? It’s okay to fantasize that your life blows up, that the universe knows better than you, that Santa Claus exists and actually . . . cares about you finding the right man.”

  Shelby was “laid off” two days later.

  Three days after that, she was carrying groceries in from the car, still livid—did she really bring Santa Claus into it?—and increasingly paranoid that her negative thoughts and adrenaline would hurt the baby growing inside her. She put a bag on the counter and opened an email from Annette.

  So . . . you printed some stuff before you left. I think it’s an essay? You want us to send it to you, yes?

  Shelby’s heart stopped, and she dropped her phone, and damn Annette, and damn Shelby for being so angry at being fired—don’t call it laid off—that she forgot to pick up her pages. Now all the City Woman women would get to critique her doughy, unformed thoughts. They’d call her slovenly and self-obsessed. She shouldn’t care what they think. She was pregnant, and maybe the universe had been looking out for her, trying to send her home. Maybe those City witches actually did know about the pregnancy and had wanted her gone. But she did care, and now something else was wrong. The house was cold. Quiet. Her eyes darted to the kitchen door. It was wide open, and she knew before she knew. Scrumptious got out. She ran outside and she ran down the street and she called his name—she was already crying—and there was a UPS truck down the hill. The driver was hunched over Scrumptious. “He came out of nowhere . . . I can’t believe this. I can’t believe what I did.”

  Shelby put a hand on the driver’s shoulder. “No,” she said. “I did this. I left the door open. It’s all my fault.”

  He did the kind thing and let her cry and told her that it wasn’t her fault, and he said that these things happen, as if doors open themselves.

  It’s been over a year since they lost Scrumptious, and Shelby is still atoning, still feeling like she’s on probation in her own home, in her life.

  Her mother insisted on moving in after the dog died, and Rajid thought it was a great idea. Shelby did give birth to Henry, the baby they call the Baba, but they don’t trust Shelby, not yet, and Mommy isn’t here to help. She’s here to protect Henry from his own mother.

  With Rajid busy at work and Mommy in charge of the Baba—It’s not like I’m gonna be alive forever, let me have my fun—Shelby is free to play busy. She’s tried to get freelance work, but nobody’s biting. So on she goes, hiding in her office, emailing old contacts, asking about full-time jobs that no longer exist, bingeing on Hallmark movies as she peruses her half-baked essays, her kind but firm rejection notices. She’s been telling gullible Rajid that her freelance career is taking off (ha!) and he believes her—See, Baba. I knew everything would work out—and then another day comes, another editor tells her, Thank you, but no thank you. Mommy isn’t supportive of Shelby’s “free writing”—she won’t utter the word freelance—but she’s relieved that Shelby’s not fixated on City Woman anymore.

  They’re all in the house right now. Rajid is in the kitchen, and Mommy is upstairs, singing to baby Henry. Do they secretly know that Shelby is a liar? Do they know that she hasn’t gotten the green light on a pitch since she was ousted from City Woman, and do they realize that she thinks about those City witches every day, replaying the bad pitch in her mind as she remembers their hostile, nude-palette faces? Rajid will have to know at the end of the year when it’s time to deal with taxes. But she’ll lie and tell him that she’s “chasing money,” and he’ll remember that phrase from when they were young, and he’ll believe her. He always believes her. He and Mommy believed her yesterday when she said she was tired from researching preschools, and that was a lie. She’d fallen into a rabbit hole via Annette’s Instagram, zooming in on her “working vacation” photos with her boyfriend in the Maldives, reading all the comments, all the praise, and no, that wasn’t “research.” It was anger mismanagement. Like eating a whole cake in the middle of the night.

  Shelby turns up the volume on a Hallmark movie and her phone buzzes. Rajid: How’s it going, Baba?

  Shelby responds: Great. Just need five more minutes for the Times editor, Baba. You know he didn’t have to give me an extension so now it’s my turn to be timely.

  Rajid gives her a thumbs-up, and will Shelby go to hell for lying to her husband? Will he go to hell for failing to see through the lie? Shelby has five minutes, and she opens her “Modern Love” mess and finds her thoughts on Baba, their term of endearment. It’s better than she remembered. She waxes poetic about family language, how the word grew and became their version of baby. But scroll down, and she’s ranting about Mommy and Rajid. They say the Baba is special, but we go to the park and you know what? All the babies are the same. They don’t talk. Shelby winces. She deletes. She likes conversation. She does. You can’t discuss things with a baby, and is she a monster for missing those days with the City wenches? She’s too impatient to be a mother, and she should have known it before she got pregnant. Now it’s too late, and her five minutes are up, but she can’t give up. Not yet. She opens another “Modern Love” rough draft about her engagement. Maybe this one is better, softer.

  She and Rajid have been together since sophomore year of college—Shelby was hell-bent on finding someone early so she didn’t waste time dating, and soon they were living together in a tiny studio in Alphabet City.

  They were cool, or maybe just young, six months out of college. Rajid wanted to be a stand-up comic, so he was a telemarketer by day and a shy, sober, earnest fledgling comedian by night, revising his jokes in his little notepad. Hopeful. Shelby was at Jane magazine, and she was thriving, feeling all the excitement of her future without any of the pressure to make it start now. She was writing small pieces, but the big one would come when the time was right.

  One night Rajid came home with a bag from Barnes & Noble. He set the book on the one table they had in their tiny apartment.

  “What’s this?” Shelby said.

  “It’s a gift,” he said. “Open it.”

  Shelby smiled. Sweet boyfriend. Always bringing her magazines and books. Always knowing what she wanted. She pulled the book out of the bag and felt the blood rush to her cheeks. “Oh,” she said, her eyes latching on to the word KAPLAN. “Oh.”

  Rajid put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her neck. “Oh,” he said. “Yes.”

  Shelby’s mind was racing. The LSATs were a private running joke. They’d get fed up with being poor and agree that they needed more than one table. They’d go back and forth. You go to law school and be the grown-up. No, you go. But it was only a joke, and now Rajid was sending her to law school, and his hands were clamped on her shoulders. Every joke is based in reality, and she’d always expected that he’d go grow up because she was actually in her career. She loved her job. She loved the feel of his hands on her body. She wanted a future with this man and he wanted her to go to law school and could she get on board with that plan? He was breathing on her, waiting for her. She pictured herself in a classroom. She liked the idea of an irrefutable license that validated her intelligence and her abilities. He squeezed her shoulders, and his hands liberated that little voice in her head. Do you really love your job, Shelby? Do you really want to be in a field where your success depends on your ability to get along with editors? Didn’t you want to go to law school in high school, before Rajid? She could see a new kind of future, and it felt good. It felt right. She didn’t have to be Carrie Bradshaw. She could be Miranda, the one in the suit. Yes. What Rajid wanted was what she wanted, and she felt relieved at the idea of an office where no one would be sizing up her pants every day.

ajid took his hands away and burst out laughing. “Oh, no,” he said. “Shelby, Shelby, Shelby. No, no, no.” He did that a lot. He said her name three times. Like her name was a magic word, which it was. And then he turned her body around and dropped to one knee. “Shelby,” he said. “Will you marry a tax attorney?”

  He had a ring, and she said yes. She didn’t tell him that she’d just been fantasizing about law school. There was no point. She was always changing her mind, imagining all the roads not taken. She was spongy, and sponges can’t make big life decisions. They had a little warm champagne to celebrate the engagement, and Rajid boxed up his notepads full of jokes. The end.

  And it really was. Rajid doesn’t harbor resentment. He never shouts about his “sacrifice.” Shelby reads the last line of her engagement essay: How do you figure out what you want if the person you love knows what he wants? I’m in my forties, playing what-if-I-went-to-law-school, but Rajid hasn’t opened his comedy notebooks since the night we got engaged.

  It’s not a “Modern Love” story. She’s just whining, as if hindsight isn’t twenty-twenty for everyone. An active imagination is an asset at work, but it’s a liability in love, and she has no regrets. She was a writer. She is a writer. Rajid knew who he was, what he wanted. That’s not his fault, and her five minutes were up ten minutes ago. She closes her laptop and looks in the mirror. She isn’t smirking anymore.

  She leaves her office and walks into the kitchen, and Rajid is wearing a suit. It’s a necessity—he goes to an office—but it feels like he’s taunting her with his cologne. He sneezes and she asks God to bless him and he reaches for Kleenex. He’s been fighting a cold for weeks. His sinuses clear up for a day, and he goes to the office and boom. Sick again. He rubs his forehead. “You win, Baba. I can’t breathe, and I can’t take it anymore. Can I try your neti pot?”

  Shelby looks around the kitchen. She doesn’t want to share her neti pot. She doesn’t want the neck inside his nostrils. Is she really going to be clingy about a neti pot, as if she needs it to be hers so that she can be more than a part of the Baba? It’s too big of a question. “Where’s Mommy?” she asks. “Is Henry up yet?”