Excerpt: Dancing at all the Weddings
Vivacious and talented Elaine Richman is faced with choices: A risky life in the New York theatre; an exciting life with college sweetheart, actor/director Jake Applebaum in Hollywood; a secure life in Boston with predictable lawyer David Alter, the match anointed by her domineering mother because ‘he’s the kind you marry.’
On the way to a dream, it is possible to collide with another dream’s seduction, only to learn there is no fulfillment on the path to safety. Elaine goes through the wringer to meet herself, proving there is no expiration date on talent or true love.
Marry someone I don’t love?
You can learn to love him.
Her mother’s haunting words played over and over in her head. The woman was dead; yet, her voice was loud and clear. Was that her mission in life? To learn to love someone she didn’t love?
It was another one of those early morning awakenings. It only happened when she had something major, something catastrophic, on her mind. Half-past four. How she hated it. Her normal sleep cycle was eight hours, sometimes nine. That’s when she felt really on top of it. But today, she lay there, listening to her husband’s soft snoring, hoping it would lull her back to sleep.
After an hour when sleep didn’t come, she slipped quietly out of bed and into a warm-up suit, went downstairs out the back door and walked in the light rain for a long time, returning home only after she knew David would have left for his office. She’d left a brief note for him so he wouldn’t worry at her absence. His response was a little heart and his initial, D.
By half-past eight, it felt like lunchtime because she had awakened so early. She was hungry. Opening a can of sardines, she laughed and wondered if she was mad at her stomach. Sardines on toast, not her usual bran or blueberry muffin. And freshly ground coffee made in her French press. Hot, black, delicious French roast.
She was good at coffee. Even with the immaculate stainless steel and granite appliances at her fingertips to do her bidding, she had never been one to bustle around a kitchen. Cooking was not her strong suit; yet, the kitchen was where she would end up despite 4,000 square feet from which to choose. The charming contemporary architecturally designed house had been decorated a la Architectural Digest rules which meant that everything was destined to last forever. A wedding present from her husband’s parents, it was twelve miles west of Boston in prestigious and scenic Weston.
This isn’t how she planned it; how she thought it was going to be. But that was the whole point. She hadn’t planned it; yet, here she was in the middle of it. That’s what comes of not following a dream, of drifting off, reacting instead of acting, letting things just happen and going along because ease and comfort were less of a strain than facing your life.
As Mrs. David Alter, twenty-seven-year-old Elaine Richman had been plunged into a life of privilege where everyone’s motto was ‘it’s better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick.’ She had wanted a baby soon after they were married, but David wanted to wait until he was more established as a lawyer. For the past year, they had been trying to get pregnant, but she had developed some ambivalence about it. Filling up the cavity inside her with a baby wasn’t the answer. It wasn’t that she never wanted children. She didn’t want David’s children, which was inconvenient since he was her husband. They would be celebrating their fourth wedding anniversary in two days.
What else do you want for our anniversary, dear, besides a divorce?
Elaine’s mother would violently rotate in her grave, as she had anointed the match. This comfortable life in Weston, as the wife of an up and coming lawyer, was what her mother wanted for her. Elaine had had another dream and she only had herself to blame for allowing it to get hijacked. Besides, what did she really know about love and marriage? Everything she knew about love came straight from the movies.
For the past four years, she had kept herself busy hosting dozens of coffee mornings in her beautiful home to raise money for orphans and for the less fortunate. She had co-chaired endless committees for abused women and children and homeless people. Then the click in her head came. More like an explosion than a click. This wasn’t her. She was living someone else’s life. Once that click came, she didn’t know how she would tolerate another conversation with her contemporaries about the exact size and clarity of so and so’s diamond; the five star hotels and spas in the world that were not to be missed; the newest, the latest, the best. She needed more, and she was now faced with the ‘more’ in the reappearance of her college sweetheart, Jake Applebaum. He hadn’t given up his dream the way she had. After graduating from college, he had raced out to Hollywood and made his way, first as an actor and now as a director, while her dream of being an actress had been pushed aside. It was a myth made up and promoted by celebrity publicists that you can have it all.
Elaine poured herself another cup of coffee and for the hundredth time went over everything in her head. She’d seen on the news that Jake was shooting a film in Boston. She could have left it alone, left it as one of those college romances that remained a sweet memory. Surely everyone had a ‘Jake Applebaum’ in their lives. The one you didn’t end up with, but could have or should have, or maybe fantasized about your whole life. Without thinking it through, she contacted him. The rest happened so fast. Seeing him again, all the old feelings got stirred up. They’d never gone away. She succumbed to an uneasy affair which led to lies and deception. And she was now faced with compelling new choices. Jake made it very clear that he wanted her to divorce her husband and marry him. She didn’t know if this was normal, if it was unusual, if it was bad, if she was bad, if what she felt for Jake was really love.
Her father died when she was ten; her only role models of a real family were what she knew from plays, television, and the movies. She had studied for a career in the theatre. It had been her dream since she was eleven years old. Her widowed mother had been supportive until she received the health diagnosis. Her days were numbered. She wasn’t going to leave her daughter alone in the world. It was only then that she pushed for marriage to David. Elaine had to choose between a challenging and uncertain life as an actress and the secure route to a safe and comfortable life as the wife of an attorney. But it was a done deal, not really a choice. Sophie Richman was a formidable creature, especially after she became ill, and convinced her daughter she could learn to love a man she didn’t love. Time had proved that there is no guarantee of fulfillment on the path to safety.
And then, when she wasn’t looking, Jake re-entered and took center stage. All she had to do is figure out who she was going to be for the rest of her life. It wasn’t an easy choice, because while her original dream of the bright lights of Broadway had been snuffed out, there was something surprisingly seductive about the no-struggle life in Weston. The rest of her life? She didn’t know what she would be doing that afternoon let alone figure out the rest of her life. Was it to be her predictable life with unexciting husband David who was a good man, or was it going to be an unknown future with exhilarating, totally exciting lover Jake? With Jake, she wouldn’t have to make a choice between career and marriage. She could have them both. David wanted a wife, period. For him, that meant home and children with no room for any foolish acting aspirations for any wife of his.
Elaine and David. Elaine and Jake. Conflict upon conflict. Who to love? Her mother would stamp out any kind of notion about leaving David. Her mother had made sure her daughter settled for the one who would last – Architectural Digest rules. Her mother. Her mother. Her mother. But her mother wasn’t here now. Elaine had no excuses; no one to blame for her mistakes. This was her chance to – to what? Defy her dead mother? Hurt her husband? Leave her house in Weston? Go off with Jake to Hollywood?
David or Jake? Two men couldn’t have differed more in their attitudes about life, their professions, the way they looked, and even the way they dressed. At least something brought a smile to Elaine’s face as she pictured the two of them. David was a conservative Boston lawyer; Jake was a flamboyant New Yorker who had moved to California to pursue a movie career. His dressy casual style was a complete contrast to David’s conservative Ivy League attire. Jake was Italian designed all the way, even to his scent. David thought males who wore cologne were sissies.
David’s world was Brooks Brothers. Non-iron, button-down collared Oxford dress shirts no matter the season, three for around $200, were considered a great buy. And he never wavered from those wool knit ties and cordovan leather shoes. He was beginning to lose his hair and would most likely be bald by forty. Jake would most likely have his thick, dark curly mane, maybe not still black, in his eighties. His warm green eyes could melt her. David’s eyes were steel blue and sometimes frightened her. Jake’s world was pressed jeans, leather ankle boots and leather jackets with labels like Armani, Prada, and Gucci. David wore light blue cotton suits in the summer and navy pinstripe wool suits in the fall and winter, and one would think he was positively married to the grey wool herringbone Chesterfield coat he owned.
At home on weekends, brushed cotton twill trousers, a lamb’s wool v-neck sweater, always blue; and in the summer, it all looked the same except it was a lighter fabric. Jake didn’t vary his mostly black wardrobe. There weren’t the four seasons to consider in California. Both men were classical in their way, but at opposite ends of the spectrum. But this was far more serious than which man qualified to appear on the cover of GQ.
As for her own style, Elaine wasn’t a slave to fashion, but she did like to know what was happening. She had a good figure and could have worn any style, but mostly went for comfort and always looked well put together. For her birthday one year, David bought her a tan, wool wrap waffle cardigan. Tan and brown shades were her most unflattering colors. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, she told him she liked it. The next year, he bought her a similar wrap sweater in silk and cashmere. At least the ivory color blended better with her palette. What he lacked in imagination, he made up for with excess. They were not cheap sweaters. That was before he started buying her jewelry. Elaine quite liked the pearls and the diamond necklace and the assortment of rings, until she found out that David’s mother had picked everything out to save her son time. Jake had never given her any presents, at least not anything store-bought. He had only opened her up to a world she never would have known without him; a world that had only existed in her imagination until him.
Elaine bit into a blueberry muffin, even though she wasn’t sure how well it mixed with sardines. Her stomach would have to forgive her this time. She was tormented. On the one hand, Jake, the future. On the other hand, David, the present. She knew how she had got to where she was. What she didn’t know was where the hell she was going. If only she could get her mother’s voice out of her head telling her that David is the kind you marry. This was her life, her life, her life.
Boston-born Susan Surman, author of Dancing at all the Weddings, lived abroad for over twenty-three years in London and Sydney as an actress and playwright (Gracie Luck/Susan Kramer), performing in London’s West End, Edinburgh, Sydney Theatre Company, Ensemble Theatre before returning to the States. Surman has also written Max and Friends; Sacha: The Dog Who Made It to the Palace; The Australian Featherweight; The Noble Thing. Plays include: In Between; George; The Australian Featherweight.
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