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Manhattan, the coldest night of the year -- six best friends rush to attend a celebration. Blown by wind and snow, the women arrive flushed, each caught in midadventure....
Tonight's the night of nights -- to rejoice in a new lover, leave an unfaithful husband, or decide to have a baby on one's own. These "six in the city" profes-sional women fight for their female choices. Sparks and zingers fly across the table....Love lives, secrets, and friendships go up in candle flame.
Who will win -- the romantics or the realists? How can working women triumph in such trying times? While the cell phones chime and the biological clocks rewind, the friends enact a timeless ceremony. Here is our urban "friends-as-family" generation -- Beautiful Bodies is a dazzling comedy of manners in the grand tradition of Dorothy Parker and Mary McCarthy.
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Laura Shaine Cunningham is an award-winning journalist and playwright as well as the author of five books, including Sleeping Arrangements and A Place in the Country. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar, Allure, Vogue and many other publications. She was born and raised in New York City. Her new novel, Dreams of Rescue, is forthcoming from Atria Books.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In which Jessie Girard ponders the possibility of love, buys food for a party, and suffers "hostess regret."
She was out, at night, in New York, laughing on the near-empty street, laughing like a crazy person, which perhaps she was. She didn't feel the record-breaking cold; she was wearing an extra mantle. She was afraid to name the feeling, but she recognized it. Only love could warm you like this, lying soft and unseen, like a cape across your shoulders. She felt wrapped in cashmere and wondered for an instant if all the conspicuous consumption of good woolens and fur that she'd just walked past in the brighter lit shopping district of SoHo was an attempt to substitute for this sensation, when it was missing.
The five-below-zero temperature created an optical illusion as Jessie walked toward her loft. Her vision altered -- she looked out at her street as if through too-strong prescription glasses. The buildings appeared sharp and overly outlined, so distinct that they seemed to move toward her, doubling in dimension, like a 3-D effect in novelty films she'd seen as a child. She felt keen, sharpened herself: everything had just changed for the better. Oh wasn't it wonderful? She laughed again, almost "hearing" his voice as she conducted both sides of a conversation that played on in her mind.
How could she have forgotten love? What had she been doing, thinking, that this could have been lost to her for so long? She felt as if she had been shaken from a dreamless sleep that had lasted nearly a decade.
It had been at least that long since Jessie had nourished delusions of domestic nirvana. She'd been divorced from her childhood sweetheart for years, divorced also from the goal of a marriage. She had edited out a wedding as the hoped-for ending (although from time to time, the image did pop up, like one of those gimmick greeting cards: bride and groom, atop the cake). For years now, she had mentally cried "No" at the unbidden nuptial apparition. She knew better, she thought. When she wanted male companionship, Jessie imagined the comfort of a standing body hug, the clinch at the sink, a warm belly at her back in bed, for better sleeps. Someone to say "I have a cold" to, split an entrée, walk her home from a distant party. Maybe down the road, a friend. A traveling companion to see the world with, when her work was done, if it ever was...Yes, she sometimes thought she might like to share her life, but she'd considered herself content to go it alone.
And now, a man had taken her by literal surprise and left her in, of all things, a state of grace. She had forgotten even the possibility of falling in love. The "falling" part was apt -- she had in fact tumbled backward onto a bed.
As she walked up her block, the memories of the past few days insulated her from the bitter temperature (the date later proved to be the coldest night of the year). How on earth could she have forgotten sex? It had been three years, her longest intermission...but still...
She was still laughing at the jokes they had shared -- "I can feel my bones creak." And the way her body had remembered for her, and she'd found herself rotating her hips in the time-honored way, hopping into unaccustomed positions. Oh yes, she'd remembered thinking, I used to do this -- as she'd kissed his chest, nursing on his vestigial nipples...
Oh, dear, Jessie ordered herself, stop thinking of the vestigial nipples...She had to descend to earth...She reached into her pocket to hold the glove that he had lost, and she had found. What is love without a talisman? The old sheepskin glove kept the shape of his fingers, even the lines of his palm. She held it as, only last night, she had held his hand. She must remember to tell him that she had his glove; she had found it in her pocket, after she boarded the plane.
On this particular night, Butane Street appeared as desolate as a moonscape, lunar in its loneliness. The last people she had seen were two blocks past. Later, she would recall them also, as signs of the specific quality of this night. There had been three lone individuals -- a drug dealer, incongruous for Christmas, peddling his pharmaceutical presents; a man exposing himself in a doorway; and a woman in a motorized wheelchair, buzzing past, a beatific smile on her face.
On another night, Jessie might have wondered how that woman could be happy, paralyzed, making her way alone, but tonight she thought she knew. On another night, she might have resented the drug peddler more, now she thought, It's terrible, but it must be anesthesia for people in pain. On another night, she might have been disgusted by the flasher; tonight, she felt sorry for him, waving his penis in the cold, tugging at himself for carnal consolation.
A great benevolence had descended upon Jessie; she was warmed and buoyed by her past weekend, the newness of being touched again. She had thought that might never happen. Especially now, since the past few years, and the series of harsh events, one of which had left its imprint on her body. Could it be so simple? That all she had needed was that touch? Could one other person make the entire difference? Between going forward, with an inner tremble, or rushing ahead, uplifted and glad, ready for whatever might happen next?
Tonight, she was facing a social challenge, but it didn't truly daunt her. If she looked at the logistics -- that she had to prepare a party in less than an hour -- she would have to admit defeat in advance. She was too happy to concentrate on details; her euphoria separated her even from herself. In her mind, she was back in Colorado. She was thinking not of what she had to do, but what she had just done. The kissing, the holding...she saw, in her mind's eye, his face, his chest -- to which she had said a playful good-bye, ducking her head under his sweater as they sat in his parked car at the airport. She could still feel his skin, pick up the scent, and taste him on her tongue. She finally understood everything she'd ever read of magic spells and cloud nine.
Should she tell her friends about the weekend? Or, better to keep the secret, sweet and private, to herself? If she spoke the words aloud, would the spell disintegrate into the atmosphere, like the vapor rising from the gutter grate?
Stop thinking about this, she told herself. Get the apartment in order, cook the food, uncork the wine, light the candles. Her pace quickened, in step with her thoughts: get upstairs, turn on the oven, clear the worst of the debris. She recalled the mess upstairs -- her laundry on the bed, all her research materials on the table and started to laugh.
I am doomed, she told herself, with an inner giggle. It was as if the gods had conspired. Not only had the weather not "cooperated" -- it was now deteriorating. The ice storm that had delayed her return flight to New York by a day had now rejoined her here. The wind picked up as she walked; the forecast was that snow would follow.
Jessie fought the river wind as she made her way on the long, final block west. The wind was so powerful it blew her one step back, for every two she took forward. A few times, she had to stop, to rebalance her shopping bags. Her hands gripped the sacks, heavy with Australian red wine, Pellegrino water, the five Cornish hens, and ten pounds of Yukon gold potatoes.
Oh why had she bought such heavy food? Why potatoes? Most of the women were dieting; they might get angry at the sight of the potatoes. They might identify with the potatoes. At the moment, Jessie herself felt not unlike a potato, bundled in her beige down coat, bulky and lumpy, her head sticking up like a knobby growth.
She had walked a good twelve blocks from Dean & DeLuca. Her boots had failed to be waterproof and now her feet felt like the potatoes too, only frozen. As she paused, one shopping bag slipped, and the bottom hit the slush on the sidewalk. The sodden paper gave way, and the hens slipped out, five goose-pimpled poultry corpses, falling into the gutter of Hudson Street. Jessie cursed as she tried to retrieve the hens. More groceries spilled into the street. The three so-called blood oranges that she had intended to serve macerated in cassis rolled toward a sewer opening. Oh, what had she been thinking to have a dinner party at her apartment? Why hadn't they all just chosen a restaurant? But that had seemed much too impersonal for this evening's occasion.
An hour earlier, she had hit the ground running. She'd dropped her suitcase off at the loft, then taken the airport cab straight to Dean & DeLuca to buy as many prepared foods as possible. Oh why had she gotten ambitious at the food counter? Why hadn't she just gone ahead and bought the meal, precooked?
As she crawled on the pavement, trying to retrieve all the food that had spilled, Jessie recalled her rationale. She wanted tonight to be different, so special...beyond catering, past takeout. She would cook every item herself, to ensure its perfection. That had seemed more festive somehow, more personal. It was just as easy to roast the hens as buy them already cooked and costing ten times as much. Those itsy-bitsy hens -- it seemed as if the smaller they were, the more they cost.
I can do an apricot glaze, she had told herself, but she hadn't answered the unasked question: when? When would she have time? Then, of course, she didn't dare wait for delivery; she'd better get to roasting right away. She'd counted on getting a taxicab, forget the cost -- it was a bad and also important night. Time was all that mattered. She'd stood at the curb, flailing for a cab, and of course, there had been none. So here she was at 5:30 P.M., with uncooked little chickens, going up to a semiclean apartment, with her five best friends expected in an hour.
It was impossible. They would understand of course -- they were her friends. They had known one another for so long, seen one another's unretouched moments. This was the old Theresa House gang, her first friends in the city. They all "went back"; they'd seen each other...
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