Mad LoveSuzanne Selfors
For my grandmother, Maxine McLauchlan
Sixteen Years Later
Seven Months Later
Notes from the Author
“Behold,” the Queen of Romance
declared as she gazed upon her
baby girl’s face for the very first time.
“I have given birth to a new story,
and I shall name this story ‘Alice.’ ”
Sixteen Years Later
When you’re sixteen, summer is supposed to spread before you like a magic carpet, waiting to carry you to new, exciting places. Paperback novel in hand, bare feet buried in speckled sand, long kisses with the boy in the kayak—that’s what it’s supposed to be about. Summer, with its coconut and pineapple flavors, with its reggae rhythms, with its endless possibilities for adventure and romance.
But if you asked me on that Monday in July, I’d tell you that there was nothing exciting about my summer forecast. My magic carpet looked more like a plain, beige indoor-outdoor kind of thing and it was nailed solidly to the ground.
If Mom had been home we might have driven to the coast or we might have rented a cabin by the river in Leavenworth. If I’d had friends here in Seattle, I might have met them at Alki Beach or at Greenlake. But I’d left my friends behind when I dropped out of Welmer Girls Academy. And when they started asking way too many questions about why I left school, I stopped answering. It’s really hard to have best friends when you’re living a secret life.
So there I sat, on the beige living room carpet, with twenty paperback romance novels stacked in front of me. I opened one of the books to its title page: Hunger of the Heart by Belinda Amorous. A few weeks ago I’d promised autographed books for a bookstore event, figuring that my mother would be around to sign the books, no problem. But today was event day and Mom wasn’t here. I gripped one of the midnight blue, fine-tip pens that she preferred. Call it what you might—identity theft, forgery, fraud—it had to be done. So, after a steadying breath, I signed her name, making the little heart above the i like she always did. Surely no one would figure out the truth. If a reader questioned the extra curl in the d or the slight tilt of the s, I’d just say that signatures change over time, just like people.
But what I wouldn’t say was that my mother had changed so much, she could no longer sign her own name. Belinda Amorous, the Queen of Romance, could no longer do much of anything.
And that was the secret.
So I signed all twenty copies of Hunger of the Heart. It had been a bestseller three years ago. Its cover was typical—a painting of a shirtless, square-jawed man and a busty, full-lipped woman. Their hair was blowing in the wind and their faces were clenched in what I’m sure was the artist’s interpretation of passion, but it kind of looked to me like the woman was about to hurl. Maybe that’s how you feel when a really handsome, half-naked guy grabs you around the waist and tries to kiss you. I don’t really know since I’ve never been held by a handsome, half-naked guy, or any guy for that matter.
With a sigh, I closed the last book.
Forgery complete, I dumped the books into a shopping bag and slid my arms through my favorite little backpack purse. That’s when my phone buzzed. Two weeks ago I’d set its alarm for 9:30 a.m. And every morning for the past two weeks, after hearing the alarm, I’d rushed to the living room window. What was there to see out the window at 9:30 a.m.?
It’s nice when you can depend on things. Like knowing that the newspaper would be waiting on the stoop, not that I read it, but it’s nice knowing I could if I wanted to. And knowing that I had enough milk for cereal and that I could eat that cereal while watching reruns of this reality show about a bunch of rich girls who get million-dollar sweet sixteen parties. And knowing that at 9:30 a.m., the boy on the skateboard would glide by my window.
I held my breath and waited for that whoosh of black hair, white T-shirt, and blue jeans to speed by. I first noticed him two Mondays ago when I’d been checking to see if it was a long-sleeve or short-sleeve kind of day. It was one of those moments my mother always writes about—a rush of instant, powerful attraction. Sure, I’d experienced it before. Let’s face it, the world is full of good-looking guys. But this hit me hard, like a slam to the chest. And I’d been going back to the window ever since.
A summer job must have kept him on such a precise schedule. I never opened the window and yelled, “Hello.” I never waved. Just watched. And I made up this story about him in my head. His name was Skateboard Guy and he’d just moved to Seattle. He didn’t have a girlfriend and he worked as a lifeguard at Alki Beach. One day, in my story, I go swimming and even though I’m a good swimmer, I get pulled out to sea by a rogue wave and he saves me on his Jet Ski. Of course there’s mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I was considering adding a vampire element to the story but hadn’t worked that out yet. But, vampire or not, I was fairly sure that if he held me in his arms, and if he happened to be half-naked, I wouldn’t want to hurl.
While the shopping bag of signed books waited on the carpet, I waited by the window, straining to see down the sidewalk. And then he appeared, right on time, rolling along on his yellow skateboard with its red dragon. With each stroke of his foot against pavement he came closer, his cuteness exponentially increasing. When he was in perfect focus, a smile broke across my face and I leaned against the glass. Skateboard Guy, where are you going? Will you take me with you?
Then he passed by, disappearing around the corner. That was the extent of our relationship. I suppose I shouldn’t use the word “our” since he had no idea we were even having a relationship.
Red and blue jeweled shadows fell across my arms as I closed and locked the apartment door. A giant stained glass window crowned our building’s entry and when sunshine poured through it, the foyer looked like the inside of a kaleidoscope. When we first moved into the building I used to dance through the colorful shadows. But that’s the kind of thing a five-year-old did. Forging my mother’s name is the kind of thing I did these days.
Crossing the foyer, I slid on my sunglasses, turned the front door knob, and stepped into an unusually hot summer morning.
“Hello, Alice,” a cheerful voice called down. Mrs. Wanda Bobot, who lived upstairs, stopped watering her Spanish lavender and leaned over her balcony railing. “Where are you off to?”
“Elliott Bay Books,” I answered. “I’ve got some signed books to drop off. Mom signed them before she left.”
“Oh dear.” Mrs. Bobot set her watering can aside and tightened her bathrobe belt, hoisting her double Ds a few inches higher. “I completely forgot. Is that romance writer event today?”
I shuffled. “Yeah. I said I’d go in Mom’s place. You know, just to answer questions. No big deal.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Of course it’s a big deal. Your mother would be so proud.” Then Mrs. Bobot pursed her lips. “Is that what you’re wearing?”
I glanced at my peach tank top, khaki shorts, and flip-flops. “Uh-huh.”
“I’m just thinking, sweetie, you might want to dress a bit more appropriately. After all, you are representing your mother. Your very famous mother.”
I suppose a sundress and heels might have been a better choice for the daughter of a romance writer, but I wasn’t a sundress-and-heels kind of girl. Dressing up meant styling my long hair and putting on makeup, two talents I didn’t have. “There’s no time to change.”
“Do you want us in the audience?” Mrs. Bobot asked. “A couple of friendly faces? You never know how many people are going to show up at this sort of thing. It would probably help t
o have us there.”
“No way,” a sour voice called from inside Mrs. Bobot’s apartment. “I’m not going. Romance novels suck. They’re totally and completely stupid.”
I clenched my jaw. Nasty comments about the romance genre were nothing new, and nasty comments from that voice were to be expected. It belonged to Realm, Mrs. Bobot’s granddaughter, who spent a month with her grandmother every summer. Realm, by the way, was the name she’d given herself. There’d been some sort of ceremony in her cul-du-sac, during which she’d scrawled her birth name, Lily, onto a piece of paper. Then she’d torched the paper. It had broken into tiny flaming flecks and had drifted into nothingness.
Mrs. Bobot turned away from the railing and stuck her head into her apartment. “Must you be rude? Does it help anyone? Does it make you friends or make the world a better place?”
“Whatever,” Realm replied. “I’m just expressing my opinion.”
Taking Realm to a romance event would be like unleashing a killer bee at a garden party. “You don’t need to come,” I called, starting down the brick steps. “It’s no big deal. I’ll only be there for a few minutes, to hand out these books.”
Mrs. Bobot returned to the railing. “You’re sure you don’t need us? You’re sure we won’t be letting you down? Come to think of it, I do have things to do. I was going to bake raisin cookies. And a woman is coming by to look at the vacant unit. But I’ll come to the event if you need me.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, relieved. I didn’t want Mrs. Bobot in the audience. It’s easier to tell lies when there are no loving eyes staring back at you.
I told lots of lies.
Deception had become my life. It wasn’t a compulsion. I didn’t do it for some sort of thrill. I lied constantly because I’d promised my mother that I’d never tell anyone the truth about our situation. Lie upon lie upon lie, heaped into a great big pile. Like a dung beetle, I maneuvered that pile everywhere I went. And I was sick of it.
“Drink lots of water today,” Mrs. Bobot called. “It’s going to be a hot one.”
Thirty minutes until the event started—just enough time to get from Capitol Hill, where I lived, to Pioneer Square. The bus ride was stuffy and filled with the usual assortment of the unwashed, the weird, and those of us who were just trying to get somewhere without making eye contact. I went over a little speech in my head. Thank you for coming to Elliott Bay Books. This is my mother’s and my favorite bookstore. Mom wanted to be here but she couldn’t because she’s overseas researching her next novel.
My mother’s readers would expect the Queen of Romance to be doing something glamorous like traveling overseas, or getting fitted for a ball gown, or training a new butler. What a joke.
If they only knew the truth.
The bus turned down First Avenue, passing the crowded public market with its overflowing flower and vegetable stands. Passing the place where they made melt-in-your-mouth miniature doughnuts, and the corner newsstand that carried papers from all over the world. “Heat Wave Predicted for Seattle,” a headline read. Nothing like pavement to bring out the best on a hot day. Everyone on the street walked slowly, as if in a daze. Scorching heat in Seattle was as rare as a straight man at a romance writers’ convention.
A few stops later, I stood in the heart of Pioneer Square, Seattle’s historical district. A sign hung in the big front window at Elliott Bay Books: MEET OUR LOCAL ROMANCE WRITERS: MONDAY, JULY 20, 10 A.M. Taped to the window were red paper hearts, paper cupids, and three author photos in which each writer posed like a show dog. My mother’s photo was totally ridiculous. She lounged on a red velvet couch, a diamond tiara sparkling amid her blond curls, a pink evening gown clinging to her curvy figure. Belinda Amorous, the Queen of Romance. With a box of truffles and a Persian cat at her side, she looked like a spoiled hotel heiress. The marble fountain pen propped in her right hand was the only clue that she actually did anything. I hated that photo, which was plastered on the back covers of her novels. It was an image created by Heartstrings Publishers. Another lie. We didn’t even own a cat.
Someone from Elliott Bay Books had stuck a sticky note below the photo: “Ms. Amorous will be represented by her daughter.” I caught my reflection in the window. No one would recognize me as Belinda’s daughter. The brown hair had come from the father I’d never known. The brown eyes and wide feet were probably his too.
Tom, the event coordinator at Elliott Bay Books and onetime boyfriend of my mother’s, opened the door. “Hi.” He ran a hand over his wiry beard. “We’ve got a full house.”
“Great,” I said through clenched teeth. Crud! Lots of people meant lots of questions, which meant lots of lies.
“How’s your mom?” Tom asked. “Did she get a chance to sign those books?”
“Yeah. She came home for a few days but she’s off again.”
“Lucky lady to be out of the city. It’s supposed to be blazin’ hot all week.”
I took off my sunglasses and followed Tom downstairs, through the coffee shop where customers sat at little wooden tables, and into a rustic basement room. Folding chairs had been set up in rows. Happily chatting women filled the chairs and a dozen more stood along the wall, forming a colorful mural of handbags, iced-coffee drinks, and lipstick. My heartbeat doubled. I’d been to tons of these events with my mother over the years, but never on my own.
I wiped my sweaty palms on my shorts and followed Tom to a table. The other two romance authors were already seated. I’d met them before but couldn’t remember their names. Each wore a sundress and heels. I tugged at my tank top, making sure it covered the top of my low-rise shorts. Then I set the shopping bag under the table and sat in the empty chair. Folding my hands on the table, I tried to look confident but I’m sure everyone could see my heart pounding beneath the peach-colored cotton.
“How’s your mother?” the nearest author whispered. Her name tag read “Nessa Van Nuys” and she’d gained at least a hundred pounds since her author photo.
“Fine. She’s overseas.”
“Oh. That’s nice. You know, she was my inspiration to start writing.”
The other writer smiled and fiddled with her string of pearls. “I always thought that photo of her was so beautiful. I wanted a life just like that.” Her name tag read “Cookie Sparrow.”
I chewed on my lower lip as Tom introduced us to the crowd. He explained that I was Belinda’s daughter and would answer questions on her behalf. He did a sales pitch for our books, The Greek Tycoon’s Wild Bride, On Holiday with a Swarthy Scoundrel, and Hunger of the Heart. When he opened the floor for questions, a white-haired woman with cat-eye glasses raised her hand. “Where’s your mother?”
I cleared my throat. Was I supposed to stand? “Um, thanks for coming to Elliott Bay Books. This is my mother’s and my favorite bookstore. Mom wanted to be here but she couldn’t because she’s overseas researching her next novel.” My response sounded totally rehearsed.
“Um, all over, really. She’s seeing as much of it as she can.”
“Oh.” The woman smiled. “What an exciting life she lives.”
I nodded. The woman’s eyes glazed over as she sat, her brain clearly intoxicated by the myth of Belinda Amorous—the beautiful, glamorous, rich, adventurous romance writer.
The truth was, a nurse had probably helped my mother take a shower that morning. Then she’d been wheeled into the hospital’s dining room where she’d picked at some scrambled eggs and stared out the window as if the grass had some sort of hypnotic power.
A pale woman in a sparkly pink blouse raised her hand. “I already read Hunger of the Heart. I’ve read all of Belinda’s books. It’s been three years. When will we see her next book?”
“Soon. She’s working on it.” My underarms felt sticky.
“Excuse me.” It was a guy’s voice, which was a bit of a surprise. One of the readers must have dragged her husband along. I hadn’t noticed him because he sat in the back row, partia
lly concealed by the big floppy sun hat that bobbed in front of him. He wore a black hoodie, its hood pulled over his head.
“Yes?” Tom pointed to him. “Do you have a question?”
The guy stood. “I have a question for Alice.”
I tapped my flip-flops against the floor. Though his eyes were somewhat shaded by the rim of his hood, his gaze was intense. “Yes?” I asked.
“I have a love story to tell,” he said. “And I need you to write it for me. When can you get started?”
A few women chuckled, then a long span of silence followed as the guy continued to stare at me. Was this a joke?
Tom cleared his throat. “You mean you want Alice’s mother to write it? Alice is the Queen of Romance’s daughter. Maybe you didn’t hear my introduction.”
“I know who Alice is,” the guy said. “I want her to write my story.”
The word “want” hung in the air, adding an eerie note to the atmosphere. I shifted in my seat. “Well, that’s very nice and everything, but it’s your story so you should write it yourself.”
“I’m not a writer,” he said. “But I lived the story, so I remember every single detail. All you have to do is read through my notes, then write it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, realizing this wasn’t a joke. “But I’m not a writer either. Good luck though.” I forced a smile, then looked away.
Tom rescued me by calling on someone else, and the attention turned to the other two writers. The guy sat back in his chair, disappearing, once again, behind the sun hat. I slumped against my own chair, relief washing over me. I’d done what I’d set out to do—protect my mother’s secret. For a brief moment I felt proud of myself, but as Cookie Sparrow made a joke, and as laughter filled the bookstore, the familiar ache of loneliness pressed against my chest. It felt as if I’d been on my own forever, and in many ways I had.