Check out the first chapter of my historical romance, The Beginning of Everything, below – available now on Amazon and in Kindle Unlimited.
“Elizabeth Anne Reynolds!” Ruthie Ginsberg’s voice rose to an ear-splitting pitch as she threw open the door to her adorable little butter-yellow ranch house and scooped Betty into her arms. “It feels like forever since we last saw you!”
Ruthie had been married for a little more than six months, but it only took her about a month to lose all sense of self. Nowadays, everything was we and us and our. Betty couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her best friend without her husband, Joseph, and she was starting to wonder whether they’d already scheduled the surgery that would officially join them at the hip.
“I brought a bottle of chardonnay,” Betty said, her heels sinking deep into the thick carpeting as she stepped into the living room. She could hear voices coming from further inside the little house and for a few seconds, she had a strong urge to grab Ruthie by the arm and steal her away. They could go downtown on the L and Betty could have Ruthie all to herself like she used to when they were girls.
That would be nice.
But Ruthie was already pulling her deeper into the house. She relieved Betty of her coat, then took the wine out of her hands and made some impressed sounds as she inspected the label. “This is so grown-up!”
“I know!” Betty beamed. She was twenty years old and she had a good job in the city, but nothing had made her feel quite as grown up as going to a wine bar after her shift and laying down her hard-earned cash for that bottle of good chardonnay. “The man who sold it to me said it’s ‘fruit-forward with a smoky finish’… whatever that means!”
Ruthie giggled and Betty swelled with pride as her best friend linked arms with her and guided her toward the dining room. Betty knew the layout of the little house well – she’d been at the housewarming party right after Ruthie and Joseph got back from their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, and she came over once a month ever since to have Ruthie trim her split ends on a stool in the kitchen.
Ruthie was just a homemaker trimming hair for a little mad money. She didn’t have a cape like they had at the salons, and Betty always left the house feeling itchy with dozens of little hairs under her collar, but it was always worth the discomfort to enjoy the feeling of Ruthie’s delicate fingers against her head as she washed Betty’s hair in the sink. Ruthie always took a long time, getting distracted and chatting and letting the warm water cascade over Betty’s forehead, and Betty would look up at Ruthie’s crisp white ceiling and occasionally steal glimpses at her pretty blue eyes. Sometimes Betty would look at the underside of Ruthie’s bust shimmying as she worked shampoo into Betty’s dark locks. It wasn’t like Betty could help it – Ruthie never was very aware of her body while she was distracted with Betty’s hair, and sometimes her stomach would press up against Betty’s arm while she worked, her chest just inches from Betty’s face.
It always made her cheeks flush a violent red, and then she’d have to lie and tell Ruthie the water was too warm and it was making her feverish.
Betty always seemed to be just a little bit too warm in Ruthie’s presence, and the Peter Pan collar at her neck felt a little tight as they went into the dining room now. Tonight kicked off the first of a series of dinner parties that Ruthie had decided to throw in order to comingle her old high school friends with Joseph’s new friends from the Chicago Tribune, where he worked as a salesman.
“Look who I found!” Ruthie said, her voice climbing into a shrill register again as she drew everyone’s attention. “And she brought wine!”
Every face turned to Betty and Ruthie standing in the arched doorway, and Betty felt like she was on display – especially once she’d done a scan of the room and realized that there was only one other single person here tonight, a stranger who was looking somewhat slack-jawed at her.
“Sorry,” Ruthie said, leaning close and whispering into Betty’s ear. “But we can’t very well have a dinner party with an uneven number of guests – it would throw the whole flow of the conversation off.”
Betty was just about to point out the fact that she still lived with her parents and the three of them had had quite a few successful dinner conversations after her brother moved out, odd-numbered though they were. But Ruthie didn’t give her the chance. She set the wine bottle down on the table and grabbed Betty by the hand, dragging her over to the man who would be her companion for the evening.
“This is Ed,” she said. “He works with Joseph at the Tribune – he’s a typesetter. Isn’t that neat?”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Betty said, holding out her hand. When Ed took it, she noticed his fingers were permanently stained with dark newspaper ink, and she was relieved when none of it rubbed off on her hands.
“This is the friend we were telling you about,” Ruthie told Ed. “Betty works downtown, too.”
“Oh?” Ed said, and the slight derision that appeared on his face didn’t escape Betty, even though it was only there for a second. One of those ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ types, Betty thought as she appraised him and Ed asked, “What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m a secretary,” Betty said. She could talk at length about how she’d gone to secretarial school after high school because it offered her an alternative to getting hitched like the rest of her friends – at a price much more affordable than college. She could tell him that, in the six months since she started working for the Lumbermens insurance company, she’d already been promoted from the steno pool and gotten assigned as a personal secretary in the claims processing department. But Ed didn’t really want to know all that – he was just being polite. And this was going to be a long dinner party.
“Interesting,” he said.
“It is interesting,” Betty told him, and when Ruthie caught the edge in her voice, she stepped in. She and Betty may have gone down very different paths after high school, but they’d known each other long enough to read one another’s moods from ten yards away.
“And, of course, you know Nancy and Charlie,” she said, pulling Betty’s attention away from Ed.
Betty, Ruthie and Nancy had all been cheerleaders together in high school – go Wildkits – and Charlie was the star quarterback. He and Nancy had gotten married right after graduation and she already had a bun in the oven – they were the epitome of an All-American family unit, and Nancy was positively glowing with happiness as she daintily sipped apple juice from a wine glass.
“You look great, Nancy,” Betty said, going over to hug her. She’d never been as close with Nancy as she was with Ruthie, but the three of them had had their fair share of sleepovers when they were younger. “How far along are you, three or four months?”
“Five!” Nancy said, beaming at Charlie, who took his cue to wrap his arm proudly around her shoulder.
“Wow, you wasted no time at all,” Betty said, feeling a little bit dizzy before the chardonnay had even been opened. Motherhood – now there was another thing that, like marriage, she was in no hurry to get to. Unlike every single one of her high school friends, it seemed.
“I can’t wait to meet this little one,” Nancy said, her hand on her stomach. She looked at Betty – a little sadly, it seemed – and asked, “What about you? Are you looking forward to finding Mr. Right?”
Nancy’s eyes flitted subconsciously over to Ed, who was now helping himself to a bottle of gin on the sideboard. He poured himself a glass and grimaced as he took the first sip. He wasn’t ugly or anything – a little bit paunchy around the middle, maybe – but Nancy and Ruthie had both given Betty looks that made her think they expected her to make a love connection tonight.
When was she supposed to fall in love with this man she’d never met before? In between the salad course and the entrée? Would he help her put on her coat at the end of the night and look into her eyes, and suddenly she’d be ready to get hitched? Was that how it worked for other girls?
Maybe that wasn’t exactly what Ruthie had in mind when she invited Ed to even out the conversation, but it sure felt like lately, all of Betty’s friends were collectively holding their breaths and waiting for her to find the one. And that was to say nothing of her mother, who got more desperate by the day.
It was like there was a clock counting down right above Betty’s head, and she was the only one who couldn’t see it. Six months, twelve days and twenty-one hours until Betty Reynolds officially becomes a spinster. Except even if she could see the clock, she would have had a hard time figuring out what everyone else was so concerned about. She had a good job. She was saving up to rent her own apartment. And she’d never even been in love – it didn’t look like Ed No-Last-Name, the typesetter with the inky fingers would be the one to break that pattern.
“Maybe someday,” Betty told Nancy.
Nancy looked a little uncomfortable for her, then Joseph pulled the cork out of the chardonnay just then and poured a glass for Betty and Ruthie. Ed poured a few more glasses from the minibar for the other men, and while they all just stood there and sipped for a minute, Betty took a few seconds to swirl the light golden liquid in her glass. She smelled it before she took a small taste, just as she’d watched the man at the wine bar do it.
It was a ten-dollar bottle and she’d expected it to be a revelation, but it tasted just like all the other white wine she’d ever had – like grapes that had gone slightly fermented. Oh well.
“I think the roast should be done now,” Ruthie said after a minute. “Joseph, will you help me take it out of the oven?”
They disappeared through a swinging door on one wall and then a good deal more giggling emanated from the kitchen than was strictly necessary for a roast-extraction. Then, about ten minutes later, they all sat down to eat. Betty tried to feign surprise when Ruthie herded her toward the empty seat beside Ed, and she spent the whole meal trying to maintain a polite detachment from him lest he get the wrong idea and start thinking that this matchmaking nonsense was actually going to work out in his favor.
Ed was probably a perfectly nice guy. One of Ruthie’s other nearly-spinster friends might be happy to snatch him up. But Betty was waiting for one of those see each other from across the room, heart stops in your chest, can barely breathe, love at first sight moments, and what had happened when she met Ed was about as far from that as she could get without flatlining in a bad way.
Betty’s mom called that love at first sight idea silly romantic drivel – she blamed it on Betty’s brother, Robert, and said he was infecting the whole family with his crazy Hollywood notions. But Betty couldn’t imagine spending the next sixty years of her life with someone who made her feel less alive than she did when she was getting her hair washed.
“So, Betty, tell us about working in downtown Chicago,” Nancy said after a little while. “It must be stressful.”
“Sometimes,” Betty said. “On my first day working for Mr. Peters, I was so nervous I knocked a cup of coffee over on his desk and I had to spend the whole afternoon retyping a stack of insurance claims that got ruined. I figured he’d send me right back to the steno pool, but he was pretty understanding about it.”
Ruthie raised an eyebrow, as well as her wine glass. “Is he single?”
Betty let out a small sigh, trying not to let it show on her face. Why did everything always have to come back around to that? What would happen if she did get married – what would they have to talk about then? She glanced at Nancy sipping her apple juice. Babies – that’s what.
“No,” Betty said. “He’s married, and at least sixty.”
“Oh,” Ruthie said, disappointed that there wasn’t more of a story there. She switched gears quickly, though. “Ed, did you know that Betty-”
“Okay, that’s enough girl talk for one night,” Joseph said, cutting off his wife mid-sentence. It was rude – definitely not something the etiquette maven Emily Post would have approved of at her dinner table – but Betty could have gotten up and hugged Joseph right then and there for the interruption. Oblivious, he asked, “Charlie, how’s it going working for your old man?”
“Not bad, but I can’t wait to save up the money to open a shop of my own,” he said. Charlie’s dad ran a mechanic shop here in Evanston and Betty’s father had been taking the family cars to the Thompsons for years. They were honest workers who didn’t overcharge and always did the work right, but the subject of carburetors and oil changes bored Betty to tears almost as much as talking about her marriage prospects.
Fortunately, Ruthie proved to be a stern hostess. She let the conversation go on for a couple minutes while she passed around second helpings of juicy pot roast and the buttery new potatoes she’d baked to go with it, then she put her hand delicately on her husband’s arm and said, “Yawn, sweetie. No offense, Charlie, but half the people at this table think you two must be speaking a foreign language right now.”
“What’s so unrelatable about serpentine belts?” Charlie asked, looking to his wife for support.
Nancy gave him a sympathetic smile – the exact same one she’d given Betty when she asked her when, oh when, she was planning to fall into line with the rest of the girls from their graduating class and get married. It shut Charlie up, though, and then Ruthie turned her attention back to Betty.
“Tell us what Robert’s up to in California,” she said, her eyes glittering with anticipation. For Ed’s sake, she explained, “Betty’s older brother moved to Hollywood last year to be an actor.”
“Oh, wow,” Ed said, showing a little more interest in that news than he’d shown in Betty’s career. “Has he been in anything I would have seen?”
“Not yet,” Betty said. “He’s still trying to get his big break. But he goes to loads of auditions and he’s gotten called back a couple of times. I talked to him last week and he said he had a meeting with an agent coming up, so that could be really good for him if it works out.”
“That’s so exciting!” Nancy said. “What kind of films does he want to make?”
Betty laughed. “Any kind he can book, I think. But he pictures himself as a leading man – a Marlon Brando or a James Dean type.”
“Robert? James Dean?” Charlie asked with a snort, and Nancy smacked his chest with the back of her hand.
“Be nice,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Charlie said. “But I went to school with the guy and he’s more of a Desi Arnaz. Don’t you all think?”
He looked around the table for confirmation and Joseph nodded, a little reluctantly. They weren’t wrong – Robert had acted in all the high school plays and he’d distinguished himself as a fantastic comedic actor, but he was determined to leave all that behind when he went to Hollywood because it was the leading men who became household names, not the funny guys.
“My mother thinks all of it is an impossible pipe dream,” Betty said. “She and Dad wanted him to apply for a college scholarship instead, but Robert told them college would still be here if Hollywood doesn’t work out.” She gave a little chuckle, thinking back to the peculiar shade of purple that her mom had turned the last time Robert called home. “I’m not sure my mom will still be here, though, at this rate. She lays an egg every time he calls from LA.”
“I don’t blame her,” Nancy said, her hand on her stomach again. She was still four months away from having that baby but it seemed like she had started thinking like a mom at the moment of conception. “I think it’s neat that he’s following his dreams, but I could never do that. I don’t think I’d be too comfortable with it if one of ours decided to do it, either.”
She looked at Charlie, her brow knit with concern. She hadn’t even had this one yet and already, she was thinking multiple kids into the future.
“Well, I think Robert’s a badass,” Betty said, drawing a couple of surprised looks on account of her language. “He’s going his own way and damn the consequences. I think that’s brave.”
Ruthie smiled at Betty, but Joseph muttered into his glass of gin, “Or foolhardy.”
With both Ruthie and Betty working on it, the chardonnay bottle was empty long before the party ended and the conversation turned to the movies, books and television that everyone had seen lately. They talked for a good half an hour about The Andy Griffith Show alone, and by the end of the night, Betty had completely forgotten that she was supposed to be there ‘with’ Ed – until he picked up her coat for her and offered to drive her home.
“Joseph is calling a taxi for me,” she said as she allowed Ed to help her into her coat.
“It’s no trouble,” he said, touching his fingers to the tip of his nose in a display of sobriety and adding, “I’m completely sober and a real good driver.”
“No, thank you,” Betty said. “I always take a taxi when I leave here.”
Ed looked a little put out at not being allowed to drive her, and they had to go back and forth with offers and refusals a couple more times for etiquette’s sake, but in the end, Betty won with only a small compromise. Ed would stand on the sidewalk with her until the taxi arrived, then slip the driver five dollars to cover her fare.
“It’s only a ten-minute ride,” Betty objected. “I have the money.”
“I’m sure you do, working girl,” Ed said, then handed the money through the passenger window anyway.
Betty had to struggle not to roll her eyes as she plastered on a smile and said, “Thank you.”
Thank you, but this doesn’t mean I owe you anything, she thought as she climbed into the back of the yellow Checker Taxi. Ed waved as the car pulled away from the curb, and behind him, Betty saw Ruthie stepping onto the front stoop to wave goodbye.
Joseph stepped out beside her and put his arm around Ruthie to shield her from the cold, and she nestled against him with a smile. Everyone else seemed to know exactly what they wanted and most of the time, it just so happened to be what was expected of them. There was something missing in Betty’s life and she wasn’t quite sure what it was, but she was sure that it wasn’t a husband.