An excerpt from Tom Perrotta's new novel, Mrs. Fletcher.
Valentine’s Day felt like just another Saturday in winter, which was bad enough in itself. Eve kept herself reasonably busy during the daylight hours — food shopping, laundry (there was so much more to do now that Brendan was home, especially since he’d gotten into CrossFit), bill-paying, a solo afternoon walk around the half-frozen lake. When she got home, she roasted a chicken with fingerling potatoes and brussels sprouts, a delicious, lovingly prepared meal that she ended up eating by herself, because her son had plans he’d forgotten to mention.
“Sorry,” he said. “Thought I told you."
Yeah, she thought. Your bad.
“Who are you going out with?”
“Chris Mancuso,” he said. “I don’t think you know him.”
“Why can’t you eat here and then go out?”
“We’re gonna get pizza and watch the hockey game. Is that a problem?”
“Fine. Do what you want.”
“Jeez, what’s the big deal?” he asked. “When I was away at school, you ate by yourself every night.”
It was true, of course. She’d happily eaten alone in the fall, because that was how it was supposed to be. His absence was part of the necessary and proper order of things. His presence now was the problem — a huge backward step for both of them — along with his uncanny ability to take up more than his share of space in the house while giving so little in return.
“You’re right.” She waved him toward the door. “Go have your fun. Don’t drink and drive.”
“I know, I know,” he said in a weary voice, as if he were a mature adult who could be counted on to make good decisions. “Enjoy your chicken.”
She lingered at the table for as long as possible — she owed herself that much — and then dragged her feet on the cleanup, doing her best to stave off that troubling moment when there was nothing left to do, the official beginning of what she already knew would be a melancholy and restless night.
It had been like this all winter long. She found it difficult to relax after dark — couldn’t curl up with a book, or settle down long enough to watch a movie from beginning to end. She was full of nervous energy, a nagging, jittery feeling that there was somewhere she needed to go, something else — something urgent and important — that she needed to do. But that was the catch: there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do.
All the freedom she’d experienced in the fall, that giddy sense of new horizons, all that was gone. She wasn’t a student anymore, puzzling over feminist theory, drinking and dancing with her friends, exploring her sexuality, making stupid but sometimes exhilarating mistakes. She was just plain old Mom, chopping onions, feeling neglected, cleaning lint from the filter. Her life felt shrunken and constricted, as if the world had shoved her back into an all-too-familiar box that was no longer large enough to contain her. Except that the world hadn’t done any shoving. She’d volunteered for her confinement, climbing in and pulling the cardboard flaps down over her head.
She told herself that she’d done it for Brendan’s sake. After all, he was the college student in the family, not her, despite the fact that she’d completed her first semester with flying colors, earning a solid A in Margo’s class, and high praise for her final paper, which explored the fraught relationship between radical feminism(s) and the transgender movement.
This is excellent!!! Margo had scrawled on the back of the essay, in sloppy, barely legible cursive that Eve couldn’t help but think of as manly, even though she knew it was a faulty mental reflex, a kind of residual transphobia. But Brendan came first: he was the one who really needed to be taking college classes during the spring semester, and ECC was the logical place for him to do it. Eve understood that it was a tricky moment in his academic career — his confidence at an all-time low — and it had felt right to give him some space, to spare him the embarrassment of attending the same college as his mother, of possibly bumping into her at the library — if he ever actually went to the library — or having to compare his grades to hers.
It had seemed like a minor sacrifice at the time — a brief hiatus from her continuing education — but it turned out to be a much bigger loss than she’d anticipated. Without a class to get her out of the house — to focus her thinking and provide her with a community of like-minded people — her intellectual life ran out of steam and her social life went into a coma. She felt like a teenager, grounded indefinitely for one stupid mistake, though she was also the parent who had imposed the punishment, which meant that, as usual, she had no one to blame but herself.
Facebook wouldn’t let her forget what day it was for a second, flooding her news feed with images of hearts and flowers, a seemingly endless torrent of saccharine memes, happy couple photos, and loving tributes to loyal partners.
Thank you, Gus, for twenty-two years of red roses!
A romantic dinner for two at the Hearthstone Inn. So blessed . . . This wonderful man didn’t just make my DAY! He made my LIFE!
I love you, Mark J. DiLusio!!!
Snuggling by the fire with my handsome hubby on V-Day Somebody’s gonna get a little surprise tonight . . . #feelingnaughty
She tried her best to be a good sport, issuing a handful of half-hearted likes and offering a supportive comment when she could, but she gave up after a few minutes of resentful scrolling. It wasn’t that she begrudged her friends their happiness — she wasn’t that kind of person — she just wished they’d be a little quieter about it, a little more private.
You won, she thought. There’s no need to gloat.
She knew that the winners didn’t think they were gloating — in their own innocent minds, they were just celebrating the holiday, sharing a sweet sentiment with people who cared — but it was hard for Eve not to take it personally, not to feel like a weepy high school girl stuck at home while everyone else was slow-dancing at the prom. It had been a lot easier to be a loser back in the days before social media, when the world wasn’t quite so adept at rubbing it in your face, showing you all the fun you were missing out on in real time.
Eve closed her eyes and let out a heavy sigh, the way she always did before she started watching porn. It was somewhere between an admission of defeat and an attempt to clear her head, to create a mental space free of judgment and open to erotic suggestion.
She had cut way down on her porn consumption in the past few months — that was one upside of Brendan’s return — but she still found herself visiting the Milfateria from time to time, usually on nights like this when she was bored and lonely and looking for some- thing to cheer her up, or at least distract her for a little while.
I deserve some pleasure, too, she reminded herself, which wouldn’t have been such a terrible status update — not to mention an epitaph on her fucking tombstone — if only she’d had the courage to post it.
She didn’t think Brendan would be home anytime soon, but she went upstairs and latched the bedroom door behind her, just in case. Then she took off her jeans, got into bed, and started searching, clicking on any thumbnail that caught her eye.
In the Milfateria, at least, no one knew it was Valentine’s Day. The people in the porn videos just did what they did, all day, every day, with boundless energy and unflagging enthusiasm, regardless of the calendar. They fucked on Christmas; they fucked on Earth Day and the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving; their fucking was not affected in the least by wars or terrorist attacks or natural disasters. They never got sick, never got tired, never got old. Some of them were probably dead, Eve realized, not that she’d have any way of knowing which ones. But here they were on her screen, going at it with abandon, having the time of their lives.
Good for you, she thought. Keep on doing what you’re doing.
She was happy for them, but she wasn’t especially aroused, which was not an uncommon occurrence in recent weeks. She just didn’t know what she wanted anymore. The lesbian MILF stuff made her nervous, and she hadn’t been able to find a new category to take its place. Some items on the menu seemed a little too familiar, while others were waaaay too specific. Usually she ended up sampling the Homemade MILFs, ordinary women having fairly straightforward sex, mostly with their husbands, if you could believe the brief descriptions that accompanied the videos.
The problem was, Eve had become a lot more interested in the women than she was in the sex. She kept trying to figure out who they were, and how they’d ended up on her laptop. Had they volunteered, or had their partners pressured them? Did it occur to them that their kids might someday watch the video? Their parents? Their neighbors and co-workers? Were they in denial, or did they simply not care? Or maybe they were proud, like they were finally getting a chance to show the world their best selves.
She must have clicked on twenty different videos, looking for something that would get her out of her head and into her body, but nothing worked. It was sad to fail at masturbation — again, no one to blame but herself — but at least it was better than failing with a partner. You didn’t have to fake anything, or apologize, or offer comfort, or pretend it was no big deal. You could just close your computer, shake your head, and call it a night.
Eve was fast asleep when her phone dinged, shocking her back into consciousness. She sat up and threw off the covers, her groggy brain sorting through disaster scenarios as she tapped in her security code.
The text came from a number she didn’t recognize. It was three words long, a sad little joke from the universe.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
She took a moment to breathe, and get her heart rate under control.
Who is this?
There was a brief pause, and then a pleasant bloop!
Its me Julian
The glow from the screen was painfully bright. Eve’s fingers felt fat and clumsy as she typed.
How did you get this number?
Class list . . . last semester
Was that possible? Eve couldn’t remember putting her cell number on a class list. But maybe she had. In any case, another text had already arrived.
Am I bothering you?
She wasn’t sure how to answer that. It was sweet of him to remember her on Valentine’s Day. But not in the middle of the night. That wasn’t okay. Except it wasn’t the middle of the night, according to her bedside clock, just a few minutes after eleven. In any case, Julian had already moved on to the next question:
R u in bed?
And the next:
R u naked?
Eve tugged on the blankets, covering her bare legs. She wasn’t naked, but she was pretty close. Just underwear and a T-shirt, not that it was any of his business.
Julian . . . please don’t do this.
There was a longish pause.
Dont you miss me?
This was an easier question. Of course, she missed him, just like she missed all her new friends from the fall — Amanda, Margo, Dumell, the whole short-lived gang. And she owed him an apology, too, for everything that happened on that night in November, and for ignoring the emails he’d sent her in the days that followed. But this wasn’t the time or place for either of those conversations.
Have you been drinking? she asked.
Im kinda wasted
Where are you?
His reply arrived in multiple parts, a rapidly accumulating stack of bubbles.
Visiting my friend at UVM
This girl was hitting on me at a party
and I kept thinking
Id rather be with u
Eve laughed, because it was so crazy for him to be thinking of her under those circumstances. Except it wasn’t completely crazy.
Not crazy at all, come to think of it.
This girl, Eve wrote, because she suddenly needed to know. Was she pretty?
What did she look like?
Julian took another moment to gather his thoughts.
u r hotter . . .
Waaay fucking hotter
That’s sweet, she told him, adding a smile emoji. I’m flattered.
Two more messages arrived just as she’d sent hers off.
I jack off all the time
thinking of u
Eve grimaced. A murky sound escaped from her throat.
Julian . . . This isn’t a good idea.
Im so fucking hard right now
She closed her eyes and tried not to think about that.
I could send u a pic, he added.
Good night, Julian. I’m turning off my phone now.
He didn’t protest, didn’t even try to change her mind.
She didn’t really turn off her phone, but he didn’t text her again, which was too bad in a way, because she really did miss him, and thought he would’ve liked to know — not that she ever would have told him — that she was touching herself and thinking about his body. The orgasm that had eluded her before was suddenly within easy reach — right there at her fingertips — and a lot more intense than any she’d had in recent memory.
Thank you, she would have liked to tell him. Thank you for that. ●
Tom Perrotta is the bestselling author of nine works of fiction, including Election and Little Children, both of which were made into Oscar-nominated films, and The Leftovers, which was adapted into a critically acclaimed, Peabody Award-winning HBO series. His other books include Bad Haircut, The Wishbones, Joe College, The Abstinence Teacher, Nine Inches, and his newest, Mrs. Fletcher. His work has been translated into a multitude of languages. Perrotta grew up in New Jersey and lives outside of Boston.
To learn more about Mrs. Fletcher, click here.