The following excerpt is from The Shortest Way Home by Miriam Parker, published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC, and is reprinted here with permission. Copyright (c) 2018 by Miriam Parker.
The Shortest Way Home – excerpt
On the way back to town, I started chewing on the cuticles of my free hand. A nervous habit.
“You’re doing it,” Ethan said. He took my hand; usually that was a gentle gesture, but now it felt antagonistic. To be fair, my cuticle chewing drove Ethan crazy. I kept my hand in his for a few minutes, to appease him and also to quiet my mind, which was reeling.
“I know,” I said.
“I’m just trying—”
I gritted my teeth and walked in silence for a few minutes.
“Ugh,” I said. “I’m starving.”
“We might as well have lunch,” he said. “We’re a little late for our reservation, but I’m sure they’ll seat us.” It was after two p.m.
We were both hungry. Maybe that was it.
By the time we got to the restaurant, we were not really speaking. And before they could offer us a table, Ethan sat at the bar. He always did that when we were fighting. He preferred having serious conversations at bars rather than across tables. Maybe because it seemed less confrontational.
A kind older bartender with gray hair to his shoulders came over to greet us.
“I’m Reed,” he said. “I’ll be at your service today.” He gave us wet lavender-scented towels for our hands and put a big bowl of rolls in front of us.
“Hi, Reed,” I said, grabbing a roll from the basket. It was already in my mouth when I thanked him.
“Nice to meet you,” he said. “How do you like Sonoma?”
“We just had a wine tasting at Bellosguardo,” I said, well into my second roll. “It was beautiful and the wine was perfect.”
“So you’re ready for some sustenance,” he said. He presented us with menus. “I spent thirty years toiling away for the Chicago Public Schools, living in that frozen town, teaching children, and every night before I went to sleep, I told myself that one day I’d live in wine country and I would never use a snow shovel again. I used to come out here every summer and help out on farms and in restaurants. I even managed to buy a little piece of land that I would set up camp on for the summer. Solar shower and everything. Now I have a little cottage on that land that I built with my own two hands and I can walk to work. And that snow shovel? I turned it into a piece of art that hangs over my mantelpiece. Whenever I feel a little sad, I look at that shovel and think, ‘I’m living the dream.’ This is a special place; only a certain kind of person can live here.”
“What does that mean?” Ethan asked.
“You know, it’s just . . .” He gestured to the room. “It takes a certain kind of person.” Reed winked at me.
“I’m jealous that you get to live here,” I said. Ethan shot me a look.
We both glanced at the menu. I was too hungry to really make decisions. I was pretty sure Ethan had predecided what he was going to order based on TripAdvisor recommendations, but I hadn’t.
“Reed,” I said, “I’m going to need your help. What’s your favorite thing on the menu?”
“Well, I’m sure you’ve heard about the crème brûlée, but my favorite thing right now is the pasta in brown butter sauce. The menu changes every week, based on what’s available seasonally, but this is pretty special.”
“Sold,” I said. I looked at Ethan. “Do you want to share the pasta and something else? Maybe the duck breast?” Ethan hated sharing with me, but I always asked.
This time, he didn’t even have the courtesy to say no. He just said, “I’ll have the steak frites, medium well.”
“Medium well? Are you sure?” Reed asked.
“Medium well,” Ethan said.
Reed nodded and recorded the order. He then brought us each a glass of Pinot Noir and a bottle of water. We clinked glasses in silence. I wondered what Reed was thinking about us. It was a game that we played when we were in restaurants that I liked to call Unhappy Couple. We would judge each couple in the restaurant based on how they interacted with each other, if they smiled, if they talked (so many people didn’t even talk to each other in restaurants, I wondered why they went out at all), if he stood up when she went to the bathroom or returned. If they were courteous to the waitstaff. It made us feel like our relationship was the good one.
Now, all of a sudden, we were the bickering couple in the restaurant. If Reed played Unhappy Couple in his mind, he had a lot of material. Certainly, he was judging Ethan’s steak order. Waiters always did.
Perhaps as a peace offering, perhaps as a house specialty, he brought us a dish of olives, the kind that melt in your mouth. I had never had olives this divine before. We sipped our wine in silence and devoured the olives. We each left a little pile of pits in our napkin.
“These olives are incredible,” I said.
“Locally grown, in my backyard, in fact,” Reed said.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” I said. I could tell that I was embarrassing Ethan. He hated it when I talked to strangers. He preferred to observe rather than interact. But I liked to get to know people; maybe it was because of my midwestern roots. “It’s impressive,” I said to Ethan when Reed had gone to check on our lunch order.
“The olives?” Ethan asked.
“They’re amazing, but that’s not what I mean,” I said. “Reed. He’s impressive. What he did. Following his dream.”
“Hannah, you can’t dream all the time. Sometimes you have to be practical. He had his career and then he’s doing what he wants in his retirement. He’s probably got a great pension from Chicago and this job just keeps him busy.”
Reed came back and placed our meals in front of us and refilled our wine. I had a taste of pasta, which was sweet and salty and perfectly al dente. Ethan focused on cutting his meat into tiny pieces but ate only one French fry.
“Mine’s good,” I said. “Want a taste?”
He ate another fry and didn’t respond.
“I seem to have lost my appetite,” I said, slamming down my fork.
“Too much bread?” he asked.
“No,” I said. Ethan did know that bread was my vice. More than ice cream or candy or wine or even French fries. I loved bread—all bread—from artisanal corn bread and focaccia to Wonder Bread. Especially Wonder Bread, actually. The way you can make it into little bread balls. The way it tastes with raspberry jam. It was the one food from my childhood that made me nostalgic and that I craved. When I was little, both of my parents worked crazy-long hours, my mom as a nurse and my dad as a truck driver. When they got home, all they would do was sleep and watch game shows on television. I remember sitting in the living room with them one night at around six o’clock, watching my dad nap on the recliner and my mom nap on the couch while I flipped through my library book, hoping someone would make me dinner, finally deciding on making myself a peanut butter and honey sandwich on Wonder Bread. Of course, after everything that happened, I would be nostalgic for those lazy days. “Well, I wouldn’t want to waste my whole life waiting for a dream to come true when I could seize it right now. Why not have your life be your dream?” I felt tears come to my eyes. All of a sudden, I felt so passionate. I did want my life to be my dream. “Remember that song ‘Working for the Weekend’? Why not work for the week?” My life in Iowa certainly was not varied and it definitely wasn’t fun. I knew that there was more out there and I went after it.
“What about other dreams?” he asked. He put his hand over mine, probably trying to remind me of the house with the yard in Bedford where we would build a huge tree house like the one we’d seen on HGTV, so the kids could have sleepovers in it; the Tribeca apartment that I had leased, sight unseen, with a portion of my signing bonus, where we would live together when we got to New York after graduation.
“Everything happens for a reason,” I said.
“You know I hate that ‘fate’ nonsense,” he said. We had an ongoing debate about the concept of fate. I’d always believed in it, which annoyed him, because he was a firm atheist. It wasn’t a religious thing for me, just kind of a sense.
“Well, I like to believe it’s true,” I said. “Don’t you think it was meant for us to meet?”
“Not right now,” he said. “I feel like we have nothing in common right now.”
That was a punch in the gut. I stood up. “I’m going to the bathroom. Don’t eat the crème brûlée without me.”
Normally, we were totally in sync. We’d be judging the other diners and making up stories about people’s lives—on a regular day, we’d be inventing an entire backstory for the people at the winery, the history-obsessed dad, the son trying to escape, the overworked mother. On a regular day, we’d even be into figuring out how to fix the place. We often spent hours riffing on marketing ideas for failing businesses. We’d done it in the car on the way up: How do you help the hotel with the crooked sign and one rusty minivan in the parking lot? What draws truckers in to truck stops? Is it a mistake to have a T.J. Maxx next to a Bed Bath & Beyond in a strip mall?
Is it better to start your own sandwich shop or buy a Subway franchise? It was like our business school version of I Spy. But I didn’t feel like inventing stories as I made my way back to the table.
“What is going on with you?” I asked as I cracked the brûlée with the back of my spoon.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I started to feel worried about our future.”
“Why?” I asked. “We’ll be in New York together. We can show each other the places we liked when we lived there before. Before we knew each other.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll both be busy working a million hours. It won’t be like grad school. And I felt something weird at that winery. Like you liked it a little too much. Besides, I know how much you hate New York.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. Although we both knew that he was right.
We were quiet for a minute. Up until this moment, our prospects had felt pretty secure. We were both thirty, were about to finish graduate school, were about to embark on fruitful careers.
Ethan was going to start a company with his two best friends from MIT. I had this amazing opportunity at Goldman. His company would be super successful. I would move up at Goldman. We could live the American dream. I could have the life I dreamt of growing up—a house from the Luxury Homes and Estates section of the New York Times Magazine (which I later learned was just a real estate advertising section, but I had fallen for it, it seemed editorial to me), furniture from Town & Country, and two children who would never, ever eat Wonder Bread, unless I decided to make a from-scratch, organic modernist take on Wonder Bread and say things like “This is what Mama used to eat when she was a little girl.” It was all rolled out in front of me: the most socially acceptable life I could possibly imagine. I just needed to consent to it.
“What were the other wineries you wanted to go to?” I asked, a little half-heartedly.
He shrugged and handed his credit card to Reed. “I think I’m going to go back to the hotel to take a nap. Why don’t you go without me? There was that one we passed on our way back to town that you can walk to. Ravenswood?”
I guessed he was testing me, to see what I would do. We stood up and said good-bye to Reed, and Ethan kissed me on the forehead, which felt like a more distant gesture than usual.
“I’ll see you later,” I said. “Besides, I think I left my wallet at the winery.”
He hated when I lost or broke things, which I did with regularity.
He turned and walked back toward the hotel. I stood in front of the restaurant, watching him. Wondering if he would look back. He didn’t.
Miriam Parker has worked in book publishing for more than eighteen years, and is currently the Associate Publisher of Ecco. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Wilmington and a BA in English from Columbia University. Her short stories have been published in The Florida Review and Fourteen Hills. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her spaniel, Leopold Bloom. The Shortest Way Home is her first novel.