About the Author
Renée Carlino is a screenwriter and the bestselling author of Sweet Thing, Nowhere But Here, After the Rain, Before We Were Strangers, Swear on This Life, and Wish You Were Here. She grew up in Southern California and lives in the San Diego area with her husband and two sons. To learn more, visit ReneeCarlino.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Sweet Thing Prologue
Airports are the great human distribution factories, and people-watching here can provide a writer with infinite possibilities. Every second there is a new, brief snapshot of humanity; it’s an endless stream of fodder. In fact, next to me in the security line at this very moment is a Tibetan monk, standing perfectly still and wearing his patience like a mask; a mother discreetly nursing her baby; and a marine, looking sharp and prideful in his best dress blues. I wonder where they are headed today and for the rest of their lives. I wonder if I can discover something unique and worth writing about by simply observing them in line. As I watch, I think about the imagery I will create, the picture I want to paint. I imagine colorful words dancing across the page. My hand twitches from the desire to jot down the details pooling in my head.
“Do you need a hand?”
I’m jolted out of my trance and realize my kids are bouncing around, the security agent is barking, I’m holding up the line, and we’re all still wearing our shoes. Shit.
The face belonging to that voice looks to be that of a woman in her midtwenties; her long dark hair is pulled back into a flawless ponytail. She’s dressed in what I would call monochromatic collegiate wear; basically she looks like a Gap ad, and she’s holding a little gray bin with her shoes and belongings nestled perfectly inside it. The dark eyebrows that frame her big, round, hazel eyes are arched, waiting for my response.
“Yes! Please! Will you grab his shoes?” I point to my three-year-old son. “Would you mind carrying him up there for me?”
On the other side of the metal detectors I study the girl while we put shoes on the boys.
“What’s your name, kid?” She has a fairylike voice, but her choice of words is anything but.
“Cool name,” she says and appears to truly mean it. “I’m Mia—nice to meet you.”
“I’m Hayden!” shouted my four-year-old.
“I like your name, too.”
I stand up and introduce myself. “Hi, Mia, I’m Lauren. Thanks for your help. Corralling kids at an airport can be crazy.”
I inspect her appearance and feel unusually drawn to her. She’s thin, fit, her skin vibrant and her face calm. I see something in her that resembles the me of ten years ago. She’s so put together, just like I was at that age; it’s those few years right before the real world gives you a swift kick in the ass. I thought about cutting my head open and spilling the contents into hers so she could skip over the impending crap I knew she would soon face. The problem with that idea is that wisdom is not the same as information; it’s something entirely different. It’s often mistaken for good advice, but wisdom cannot be imparted to someone. Wisdom can only be earned; it’s a by-product of experience, not necessarily knowledge, otherwise I would be stalking Oprah right now, begging for a transfusion.
Maybe your early twenties are about wearing daisy dukes, withdrawing from a zillion college courses, changing your major five times, one-night stands, alcohol poisoning, having sex with your neighbor while his girlfriend watches, dating a distant cousin, cocaine, bad credit, or bad eye shadow. Either way, by twenty-five most of us start thinking about other things. The big questions: What do you want to do with the rest of your life? Who will you marry if you marry at all? What career will you choose? Do you want children? It seemed like everything I knew at twenty-five morphed into everything I didn’t know by twenty-six, when I was suddenly hit with the realization that many of the decisions we make in our twenties are permanent.
Those decisions seem easy for some and, sure, you could say those people are just the shallow puddles we trudge through, but I would argue that those people are lucky because right now as I watch this girl—the past me—looking serenely self-possessed, I know that she is standing on a great precipice. I can tell by looking at her that she is the still water you only ever skip rocks over. The world as she knows it is about to be turned upside down, and if she doesn’t learn to swim, her own depth will drown her. I feel a strong desire to whisper “surrender,” but I don’t. Like everyone in this airport, she is headed somewhere, possibly the first stop on that brutal journey of self-discovery. Like the rest of us, she will have to learn the hard way that we are not always in control. Sometimes it takes the love of others to show us who we really are.
Navigating an airport with two small children is no easy task, and before I get on that plane, I’ll wonder if I packed enough snacks, if the DVD player is charged enough, or if I’ll have enough energy to rock my thirty-pound toddler in the space between the smelly lavatory and flight attendants’ station. As I chase my kids around, trying to squeeze Benadryl into their tiny mouths, I wonder if the decisions I made in my twenties were right for me. Will my marriage endure the test of time? Am I a good mother, wife, writer, neighbor, dog owner? Then I remember the journey that brought me to those decisions, and that memory gives me great solace, because the memory is a reminder of who I am among all the chaos that is life.
Before I head to my gate, I look over at Mia and wonder what she thinks of me, all frazzled and disheveled with food stains on my clothes. I wonder if she knows that sometimes we figure things out, and then life changes and we have to figure it all out again. I’m sure she’ll learn that soon enough, and I’m sure she’ll have her own story to tell. . . .|Sweet Thing TRACK 1: Fledglings
The airport security agent was losing his patience. “Ma’am, I said you need to remove your shoes and place them into the bins.” She wasn’t intentionally ignoring him; she was preoccupied—well, more like staring into space. If we were graded on how efficiently we removed our belongings in order to place them in those little gray bins, I would have gotten an A-plus. The woman in front of me, however, was failing miserably. Her two children were running around, screaming like banshees, while she appeared to be daydreaming.
I tapped her shoulder lightly but she didn’t respond. Finally I cleared my throat and said, “Do you need a hand?” I figured I might as well since I wouldn’t be going anywhere until she did.
She mouthed the word shit, then said, “Yes! Please! Will you grab his shoes?” She pointed to a little blond, blue-eyed cherub. “Would you mind carrying him up there for me?”
I walked up to the little boy, who immediately quieted. I gave him a big smile, then yanked his shoes off and threw them into the bin moving swiftly down the conveyor belt. “Ready, kid?” He nodded and I picked him up and carried him toward the metal detector. The warmth of his little arms around my neck radiated through me. I smiled at him, crossed my eyes, and made a silly face. His giggle sounded like music. I pried his clinging legs and arms from around me to set him down.
We ushered the little boys through the metal detector and then proceeded to collect our things on the other side. I followed her over to the benches to help put shoes back on the boys. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Cash,” he said shyly in his small, squishy voice.
“Cool name.” In fact, it was my favorite. “I’m Mia. Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Hayden!” shouted his dark-haired brother. They were almost identical in height, but Hayden had dark hair and dark eyes.
“I like your name, too,” I said, smiling.
His mom stood up and introduced herself. “Hi, Mia, I’m Lauren. Thanks for your help. Corralling kids at an airport can be crazy.” She let out a long breath.
I noticed that we resembled each other. Same straight, dark hair, fair skin, and hazel eyes. It was eerie. She could have been my sister, or maybe she was me in ten years? There was something different about her, though. Her eyes were sunken and hollow, and she looked exhausted. In that moment I wondered if I would ever be a mother, or if I even wanted to be. I thought maybe if I found the perfect husband—stable, wealthy, business-minded—it could be a possibility, but definitely not in the near future. I decided if I did have children, I would surely have my shit straighter than this lady.
For being all of twenty-five, I was admittedly a bit of a control freak. I actually used to embrace that facet of my personality. I thought being an independent woman who was in control and made decisions with her head and not her heart was evolved. Making the right choices equaled guaranteed success in my mind. Of course, I didn’t know then that my definition of success would change so drastically.
My eyes scrolled down the monitor, searching for flight 25, DTW in Detroit to New York City’s JFK. Failing to remember what gate the clerk had mentioned, I cursed myself. I was nothing if not punctual. Okay, 35B. I walked briskly, passing Lauren and her two kids as she chased them around outside the duty-free. Flying must suck for her. For a brief moment, I hoped we weren’t on the same flight and then I immediately felt guilty for the thought. I decided I’d offer to help if she ended up on my flight, seated anywhere near me, though I’d much rather sleep.
I love flying. It’s an escape for me. There’s nowhere to be; it’s like surrendering to fate. Fate was always such a hard concept for me to understand, but I bought into it when necessary, like on a plane or the subway. When I fly, I allow myself to believe in fate simply because it’s too tedious to worry about whether or not the pilot is pouring whiskey in his coffee. I let everything go when I fly, just like when I play the piano. It’s the closest I get to religion; it’s the closest I get to faith.
I’d have no one to answer to for a couple of hours and I was looking forward to it. I promised myself I wouldn’t think about anything. I wouldn’t worry about what I would do with my father’s apartment, his belongings, the café, or pretty much anything else my father owned in New York. I would just get out there and continue living his life until I could figure out what to do with my own.
When my father had passed away suddenly a month before from a heart attack, I’d been devastated. Although I’d grown up in Ann Arbor, essentially raised by my mother, Liz, and stepfather, David, whom I referred to as Dad, I was still very close to my biological father, Alan Kelly. I’d spent summers in New York, helping out with his café, hanging with the then-bizarre East Village crowd. My father was the only child of Irish immigrants. His parents had given him every last penny to open Ave. A Café in the East Village in 1977, renamed Kelly’s Café in ’82, and then finally renamed again to simply Kell’s in ’89. In the ’70s it was the ultimate hangout for any troubadour and trobairitz alike. It was, and remains, a place with a liberal and artistic vibe, something my father practically exuded directly from his pores. It would be bittersweet to be back there.
I made it to my gate on time. There was no sign of Lauren. I breathed a sigh of relief and then directed a brief request to the universe asking that it seat a tired, antisocial traveler next to me. I boarded and found my seat quickly. I threw my bag in the overhead bin, sat down, and began my preflight ritual: super fuzzy socks on, earbuds in, Damien Rice on the iPod, travel pillow around the neck. I was ready. The window seat remained empty as the last few passengers came on board. I had a ridiculous grin on my face, prematurely thanking the universe for leaving the seat empty until I glanced up and saw a guy headed toward me. I have to admit, he was gorgeous, but as soon as I saw the guitar case, my stomach turned sour.
Oh no, please, world, do not let this egoist, wannabe, probably smelly musician sit next to me.
As he approached, he blurted out, “Hey!” Pausing, he looked right into my eyes and said, “Do you want the window seat? It’s all yours if you do.”
“Huh? Uh, no thanks.” What the hell is this guy doing?
“I’m a terrible flier,” he said, hesitating. “Please, I need to be in the aisle, I’m sorry, do you mind? I’m Will, by the way.”
Moving to the window seat, I mumbled, “Yeah, fine, you can sit there. I’m Mia.” I stuck my hand up in a motionless wave, intentionally avoiding a handshake.
Don’t get me wrong, I love music; I live for it. I’m classically trained on the piano and I can hold my own on almost any instrument. Growing up in Ann Arbor, it seemed like every kid played the piano or the freakin’ cello, but I had a knack for music in general, much of which I owed to my father. During the summers in New York, he exposed me to world music, rock and roll, blues, jazz, you name it, then I would go home and work on Rachmaninoff’s Opus 23 all winter long. Playing the piano the way I was taught, combined with the loose methods my father encouraged during those summers, always created this blend of discipline and revolution in my style. I tried to embrace the blend, but sometimes it felt like a conflict.
I believe my mother was drawn to my father’s love of music, his free spirit and beatnik ways, although she would never admit that. She referred to what she had with him as one wild week for a very naive nineteen-year-old. It was the summer of 1982 and she had been in Cape Cod on a family vacation when she and a couple of friends decided to take a day trip to New York. One day turned into five, and my mother returned to Cape Cod knocked up. My father owned it from the beginning, but my grandparents wouldn’t allow their teenage daughter to move to New York, unmarried and pregnant. As I got older, I wondered why my father hadn’t followed my mother to Ann Arbor. I knew he wanted to take responsibility for me and I knew he cared for my mother, but I don’t think he was ever a one-woman kind of man. His lifestyle was so far removed from anything that resembled traditional domesticity.
After I was born, we lived with my grandparents while my mother attended the University of Michigan, eventually acquiring a law degree. That’s where she met David, and they’ve been inseparable ever since, even practicing law at the same firm. I think my stepdad provided my mother with the sense of stability that my father couldn’t, or wouldn’t. I admired David for that. He treated me like his own, and even though I sometimes disagreed with him, especially as a teenager, I always felt loved by him.
In the beginning my father would come visit me for long weekends here and there until I was old enough to travel to New York for the summers. He and David had an enormous amount of respect for each other, even though they couldn’t have been more different. What they had in common was an unconditional love for my mother and me. After my father became aware of the fact that I called David “Dad,” he simply said, “He is your dad, luv, just like me, but to keep it straight, why don’t you call me Pops?” And so I did.
My mother’s group of androgynous, pseudointellectual friends would have referred to me as the ultimate indiscretion if it weren’t for the fact that I was gifted musically, valedictorian of my class in high school, and now an Ivy League graduate. Choosing a business major over the arts at Brown was a surprise to everyone, but I yearned for a more organic experience when it came to music. I didn’t want to spend one more minute trudging through a Bach piece while being hypnotized by the metronome. I wanted a...
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