**The Hole in the Middle is free download from May 17-19 only!**
Book Blurb: I Don’t Know How She Does It for the This Is 40 generation, The Hole in the Middle introduces Sophie Whelan, a woman who has it all – including a hideous boss, a distracted husband, daycare woes, problem employees and a 40th birthday on the horizon. Precariously close to slipping off of the treadmill that is her daily grind, Sophie is startled by the reappearance of Will Shannon, the great unresolved love of her life. As she remembers the vivid drama of their college romance, Sophie confronts the choices she has made in life and in love and looks for the one answer that has always eluded her: what does she really want?
CHAPTER 1: MONDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2011
It’s a grey morning in the windswept parking structure across from the hospital, affectionately known as “The Baxter”. I’m huddled in my minivan with the heat going full blast, gazing out at the unlovely view of the flat, cloudy sky and the forlorn stand of leafless maple trees lining the concrete wall opposite. I’m not here for the view, though. This parking spot may be short on ambience, but it has cell phone reception, and I’m surveying the voicemail landscape before venturing into the office. I punch in my code and wait.
The disembodied voice speaks: You have nine new messages.
Nine. That’s not so bad.
First message. Click. Barry, definitely. He never leaves messages.
Next message. Click. Ditto. But two hang-ups before nine-fifteen is unusual. I feel my shoulders start to creep up with anticipatory tension.
Next message. Message marked urgent. Uh oh. “Hi, Sophie. It’s Barry. I see that you’re not in yet. I need to speak to you about the Gala as soon as you do get in. There’s a problem and you need to get on top of it.”
Next message. “Hi Sophie, it’s Anna from the toddler room at daycare. Scotty is pulling on his ear and seems a little fussy. He’s OK to stay for now, but if he gets any worse we’ll have to ask you to pick him up. OK? Sorry about that. We’ll call you later with an update.”
What? No. I dropped him off half an hour ago and he was fine. A little phlegm-riddled, maybe, but nothing more. If I believed in God, I would pray. Maybe I should anyway, just to hedge my bets.
Next message. “Hi Sophie. It’s Janelle Moss.” The lead volunteer on the Gala, an event controlled by a group of very wealthy women who have intense and competing agendas that I don’t even begin to understand. Every conversation with these people is a minefield. Happily, managing Gala volunteers is one of the few things in the office that I’m not responsible for, and whatever the problem, I’m going to punt it right back to Justine. “I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to talk to Justine yet, but we’re looking at a little change in direction on the creative for the marketing materials. Happy to chat once Justine has filled you in. Bye now.”
Next message. “Sophie, it’s Justine. Major screw-up at the Gala meeting last night. We need to talk urgently. Call me.” Justine is my colleague and sometime friend, when it suits her. She runs the Event Planning department, which means that the Gala is her problem.
Next message. “Sophie, my dear. It’s Lillian. I was hoping to catch you in person. How I hate these dreadful machines! Do give me a call today if you can. The issue is rather time sensitive, as you young people are fond of saying.”
Lillian Parker has been one of my favorite people on earth since my last year of university, when I lived in her rambling house, paying criminally low rent in exchange for house-sitting services during her frequent sojourns abroad. Her annual holiday party is this weekend, and I can see the invitation in my mind’s eye now, poking out of the pile in the corner of my desk that I lovingly call my Guilt Stack. It’s not like Lil to get worked up about RSVPs, which is why the card is still buried in the Guilt Stack, but I’ll move it up to the top of the pile and deal with it once I get into the office – or by Thursday at the latest.
Next message. “Hi Sophie. It’s your mother. Look honey, I know you’re busy but we have to talk about Christmas. It’s urgent.”
Instinctively, I check the date on my BlackBerry. Have I lost a week somewhere? But no, it’s only December 5th.
“First of all – dinner. I’m going to do a turducken again this year, but did Jesse like it last year? I know he said he did, but he didn’t have seconds, so I’m not convinced. Your brother and Dana liked it – come to think of it, did you like it? Anyway, if you and Jesse are OK, we’ll go with the turducken again, but I want you to be honest with me if you aren’t OK with it. Anyway, assuming that you are, we’ll go with usual sides – mashed potatoes, turnips, that rice dish that you like and probably some creamed spinach or something. I was going to do mini shrimp cocktails for the appetizer, but did you tell me that Jesse isn’t eating seafood these days? If not, I could always just do a soup, maybe roasted red pepper – that would be nice with the turducken. I’ve been talking to your brother about dessert – he says that he doesn’t care, but I know he prefers the pumpkin pie and you always say that you prefer the lemon meringue. So I guess I could make both, if it’s really important to you to have lem –“
Next message. “It’s your mother again. The machine cut me off. Anyway, call me about dinner. And then I need you to think about what the kids want for Christmas. Are you doing stockings at your house or mine? If you are doing them at mine, I’ll need to get the old stockings out and do a few repairs – they were looking kind of threadbare last year. And also I’ll need to know if you are bringing everything for the stockings or if I need to buy some things as well. Are you going to stay overnight here on Christmas Eve? Because if you are, we’ll need to make a plan for dinner on the twenty-fourth. Beef might be nice. Does Jamie still like those transformer robots? Because I saw a robot kit that looked amazing. It said it was for thirteen years and up, but Jamie is such a smart little boy, I think he’d really like it. Maybe it’s something that he and Jesse could do together; Jesse’s been working so hard. And for Scotty I was thinking that it’s probably time to get him playing hockey; wouldn’t Jesse love that? Maybe some little skates and a helmet and a stick? How cute would that be? I’m around this morning, then out for lunch with Jennie Birkin – you must remember Jennie; you went to school with Andy Birkin. Then I’ll be back for a couple –“
End of messages.
I feel a little warm and light-headed now, and I pull down my visor mirror for an assessment. Every day of my thirty-nine years looks back. Grey coat, grey suit and grey roots: I really need to get my highlights done. More alarmingly, I can feel an aching weariness in my chest. I’ve noticed it with some regularity lately, and it makes me nervous. Some days it’s just a knot of anxiety, but today it feels like the hole in the middle of a donut: empty but for the wind whistling through it. I know I shouldn’t feel this hollowed out and used up at thirty-nine, but I don’t have time for that kind of reflection today.
I rummage through my purse, and locate my triage kit to deal with the problems I can solve. I pull out the bottle of cough suppressant and take a long swig that burns going down, and then squeeze a couple of drops of Visine into each eye. Then I attack the area under my eyes with concealer and everything else with bronzer. And with that, I’m ready to brave the germ screening desk.
I’ve invested considerable time and energy in my relationship with Max, the guy who has been guarding the germ desk for the past six months; I know the names of his grandchildren and their ages, and how Max developed a herniated disk last year, and that Max’s wife wants him to get a storage locker for his model trains. And because our conversations have covered extensive areas of Max’s life and times, there has been little opportunity to explore the subject of my health, which is exactly the way I want it.
But today, Max is missing. Nigel, according to his security tag, is sitting in Max’s chair. And judging from the length of the line, Nigel takes his job very seriously. When I get to the front, I consider batting my eyelashes, but I suspect that insouciance of this kind has a shelf life, and mine is getting awfully close to the expiration date. I give him what I hope is a winning smile instead.
Nigel is clearly unmoved. He picks up his clipboard and clears this throat. He’s going to make me do the survey. I can’t believe it. Max never made me do the survey. I wonder if that’s why Max isn’t working here anymore.
“Have you experienced any coughing in the past twenty-four hours?”
“No.” This is absolutely true.
“No.” Not more than everyone sneezes when they wake up in the morning, that is. Take Jesse, for example. He sneezes practically every morning, sometimes eight times in a row. It doesn’t mean that he’s sick. I myself am not a chronic sneezer like Jesse, but there is no reason to draw any dire conclusions just because I was sneezing this morning.
“No.” I can’t say for sure. I don’t have a thermometer in my portable pharmacy. And again, there are lots of other possible explanations for the flush in my cheeks today.
“Flu-like symptoms of any kind?”
Nigel peers at me over the top of the clipboard. If Nigel wants to, he can insist on taking my temperature, and then I’ll be in deep trouble. But as much as he wants to, he can’t find justification today. I almost pump my fist in the air as he moves onto the next person in line. But with Max gone, I know this is only a temporary win. Nigel is cut from a different cloth entirely. Society requires people like Nigel; without them there would be no parking officials or mall cops or hall monitors, and we would live in a state of anarchy. And it’s important to remember this, because I dislike Nigel so intensely at this moment that I’m beginning to imagine terrible events that might befall him, and prevent him from coming to work ever again. Not death, of course, I’d never wish for that. A debilitating injury would be quite enough.
For the record, I approve of the hospital’s infection protection measures, at least in a theoretical sense. And I would definitely comply with them if I were providing front line health care and believed that I posed any risk whatsoever to the hundreds of sick children upstairs. But I’m the Director of Communications for the hospital, so I spend my days reviewing press releases and dealing with media requests, ducking my boss and trying to persuade my assistant to do some work. I’m not saving lives. There are lots of people in this building who do, but I’m not one of them. And if I followed the letter of the law, and kept my flu symptoms at home, I would have worked exactly thirteen out of the last forty-five days.
In the meantime, though, it’s already nine-ten and I’m late for work.
My assistant Joy is at her desk: a mixed blessing. She raises her tweezed eyebrows at me and murmurs, “Slow start this morning?” before turning back to her computer, where she is communing with her Facebook friends, or possibly buying designer knock-offs on eBay. But I’m not ready to declare this day a complete write-off, at least not yet, so for now I’ll act as though she works for me, and that we’re both happy about it.
“Good morning, Joy,” I say. “I need to speak to Justine right away. Can you find her and see if she can pop by?”
She eyes me with a combination of contempt and petulance, and my request hangs, unacknowledged, between us. “Your phone’s been lighting up all morning,” she says. “And Barry’s been by twice looking for you. It’s about the Gala.”
The Gala is the hospital’s major fundraiser of the year. It is a lavish dinner-dance for two thousand of the city’s established and upwardly mobile, and it raises over a million dollars for our medical research each year. It is organized by a committee of well-heeled volunteers, who have lots of extra time and opinions about everything from the shade of the napkins to the font on the tablecards. It is also – mercifully – not in my portfolio, except in a tangential sense, since I oversee the marketing for the event. I’ve attended a few committee meetings, mostly as moral support for my colleague Justine, but I begged off last night to nurse my cold.
“I’ll go and see him once I’ve had an update from Justine. So if you could get her for me that would be great. Thanks,” I say, retreating into my office, and closing the door behind me.
I see my computer sitting innocently enough on my desk, but I’m not fooled. Recently, I have fallen into the habit of ascribing human characteristics to my computer, and unfortunately, our relationship has taken a turn for the pathological. This week, I’m having trouble shaking the irrational conviction that my computer is poised for an attack; each morning, I quake inwardly as I push the power button and hear, in the hum of waking machinery, a marauding army of data collecting itself and preparing to barrel over the horizon at me.
I log in, and the screen fills with email; definitely more than twenty… could it be as many as fifty? I look away in horror. The computer seems to vibrate with a malevolent energy; like a rabid dog, I’m convinced that it senses my fear. I back away and step out into the hallway. “And, Joy? Could you please call everyone and postpone the staff meeting? I’ve got to sort out this thing with Justine.”
Joy has been at the hospital for twenty-seven years. Her seniority guarantees her a position with someone on the Executive Team, but she gets passed around like a hot potato because she has the worst attitude in the secretarial pool. She is also not particularly competent, and it’s hard to tell if she’s bad at her job because she hates it, or if she hates it because she’s bad at it. You could spend a lot of time on this age-old philosophical debate about chickens and eggs, but the real take-away is this: getting good secretarial help is not unlike winning at musical chairs: the people who think it has anything to do with luck are usually the ones left standing when the music stops. Your chances are always going to improve if you’re willing to keep your elbows out, but I, against a mountain of evidence disproving it, have always clung to the belief that civility is rewarded in the end. And even if I were prepared to sink into the fray, my bargaining power is constrained by the fact that my department, Communications, is a cost center not a profit center, which is to say that we spend money instead of bringing it in. This is a designation that presages all kinds of large and small disappointments. It’s the profit centers who hold the real power in any organization, and which are routinely showered with staff and budgets. Not for the first time, I consider the merits of my career choices.
Joy actually rolls her eyes. “They’re not going to like it, you know. It’s the second time this week. Erica is totally pestering me about getting some time with you.”
“I get it,” I tell her. “I’ll meet with them today. I just can’t do it right now. Can you please let them know?”
Joy sighs heavily and departs.
“Thank you, Joy,” I call after her. “I really appreciate it!”
Deep down, I suspect that the real reason that Joy works for me is that I am the only person in the office who is willing to put up with her. As I do each morning, I remind myself that Joy is paid to show up every day and make my life easier. The fact that she refuses to fulfill this basic requirement calls for a serious conversation with the HR department, but I would rather suffer than invest my emotional energy in a doomed attempt at performance management. I’m just going to wait until someone with less power than I have is hired, so that I can pass Joy off and continue the cycle of dysfunction.
I should have checked my email first. I feel a little light-headed, and am taking deep calming breaths as Justine appears in my doorway. Justine is the Director of Special Events and the only person with less actual power than I have on the senior management team. I feel for her. Event planning is a career for masochists. Events can fail for almost infinite and wholly unpredictable reasons. Providing name tags? You’d better hope that the temp who is preparing them remembers to include the appropriate honorific after the name of the megalomaniac on the Board. Using audio-visuals? Pray that the AV department sends the smart guy who actually knows how to use the equipment and not the stoner who is mailing in his last few years until he can trigger his pension and still hasn’t really figured out how to work those new-fangled computers. Serving food? Look out for the myriad of allergies – news to you – that are likely to endanger the life of a major donor. While you’re at it, hope that the bartender has recovered from the fight with her boyfriend and decides to show up after all. And here’s the kicker: even if you throw the best event in the world, the volunteers will take all the credit and you’ll be left managing feedback like “Didn’t you think the vinaigrette was a little too citrusy? Can you make sure that doesn’t happen again next year?”
Justine is made from tough stuff, though. She’s been managing events for close to fifteen years and has nerves of steel. But today, she looks panic-stricken.
“What happened last night?” I ask. “Barry is freaking out. He’s practically stalking me. What’s going on?”
Justine groans. “It was horrible, Sophie. You can’t imagine.”
“I don’t understand. I thought we were just rubber-stamping approval for the art for the posters and website last night. It was supposed to be a short meeting.”
“I know,” says Justine. “Claudio did a great job on the art. Very sexy – gorgeous models, loincloths, Cleopatra – everyone loved it.”
“So what’s the problem?”
Justine wrinkles her nose as though she has just tasted something bitter. “They don’t like the theme anymore,” she says.
I’m stunned. We have spent months trying to get the volunteers to agree on a theme for the evening. Every single detail flows from the theme – music, entertainment, décor and most importantly from the perspective of the volunteers, wardrobe. It was a big day when they finally settled on Walk Like An Egyptian, which the volunteers felt provided an aesthetic bridge between the retro cool of eighties girl band music and the sophisticated elegance of the wildly fashionable Halston-style goddess dresses. More importantly from my perspective, the decision allowed us to move forward with hiring an outside designer and getting the promotional materials done. In truth, the website should have been up a month ago. We are supposed to start selling tickets next week.
Justine shakes her head. “Apparently, the fundamental appeal of the Egyptian theme had to do with being able to get the Bangles to perform.”
“The Bangles,” I repeat. This is news to me. How did this never come up? “Didn’t they break up, like, twenty years ago?”
“Well, it turns out that they’re back together. They’re doing a reunion tour, and Janelle saw them in L.A. last month. But they’re committed to a long-term gig in Vegas through the spring and can’t do the Gala.”
“Can’t we just get another girl band?”
“I tried that.” Justine grits her teeth. “Just be glad you weren’t there, Sophie. It was a freight train. It couldn’t be stopped. Janelle converted every single person on the committee in the space of ten minutes. By the end, everyone agreed that the theme was too stiff without the Bangles tying it together.”
“Stiff? What about the male models in loincloths, the belly dancers, the palm trees and the dance party in the Pharaoh’s tomb?” I can’t believe this is happening.
Justine’s smile turns nasty. “Do you know what the real problem is?” she asks. “They suddenly realized that they’d all be wearing the same dress. Not that anyone was crass enough to come out and say it.”
“Oh my god,” I say. “There’s no way they’ll change their minds, then?”
“I need to think,” I say. “Don’t cancel anything.” I suddenly remember Barry. “What are we going to tell Barry?”
“I think he knows,” says Justine. “Janelle said that she was going to tell him.”
As if on cue, Joy pops her head in the door. “Barry wants to see you now,” she says.
“Are you coming with me?” I ask Justine.
“Not a chance, friend,” she replies. “My ears are still ringing from the slap down I got from him this morning. I’m planning on staying out of his way for as long as possible. Anyway, you can handle him. He likes you. More than he likes me, at least.”
“Low bar,” I say.
**Contact the author, Kate Hilton!
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