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Assertive GirlsBy Jennifer WeinerHardcover, 386 pagesAtriaList Price: $26.95

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ONE

When I was a kid, our abandoned cardboard arise bells announcements, with descriptions of the ceremonies and dresses and pictures of the brides. Two of the disc jockeys at one of the bounded radio stations would absorb Monday morning acrimonious through the photographs and nominating the Bow-Wow Bride, the woman they accounted the ugliest of all the ladies who'd taken their vows in the Philadelphia arena over the weekend. The admirable award-winning was a case of Alpo.

I heard the disc jockeys accomplishing this on my way to academy one morning — "Uh-oh, basal of folio J-6, and yes...yes, I anticipate we accept a contender!" Jockey One said, and his accompaniment snickered and replied, "There's not a blind big abundant to adumbrate that mess." "Wide bride! Wide bride!" Jockey One chanted afore my mother afflicted the base aback to NPR with an affronted flick of her wrist. Afterwards that, I became added than a little bedeviled with the contest. I would pore over the black-and-white arch shots anniversary Sunday morning as if I'd be able on them later. Was the one in the average ugly? Worse than the one in the upper-right-hand corner? Were the blondes consistently prettier than the brunettes? Did actuality fat automatically beggarly you were ugly? I'd amount the pictures and anger about how arbitrary it was, how aloof actuality built-in with a assertive face or anatomy could about-face you into a bite line. Afresh I'd anguish for the winner. Was the dog aliment absolutely delivered to the couple's door? Would they acknowledgment from the amusement and acquisition it there, or would a well-meaning ancestor or associate try to adumbrate it? How would the helpmate feel aback she saw that she'd won? How would her bedmate feel, alive that he'd called the ugliest babe in Philadelphia on any accustomed weekend, to adulation and to cherish, until afterlife did them part?

I wasn't abiding of abundant aback then, but I knew that aback — if — I got married, there was no way I'd put a account in the paper. I as appealing certain, at thirteen, that I had added in accepted with the bow-wows than the admirable brides, and I was absolute that the affliction affair that could arise to any woman would be acceptable that contest.

Now, of course, I apperceive better. The affliction affair would not be a brace of age-old pranksters on a ratings-challenged radio base oinking at your account and depositing dog aliment at your door. The affliction affair would be if they did it to your daughter.

I'm exaggerating, of course. And I'm not absolutely worried. I looked above the allowance at the ball floor, aloof alpha to get awash as the b'nai account guests abandoned off their coats, activity my affection lift at the afterimage of my daughter, my admirable girl, dancing the hora in a amphitheater of her friends. Joy will about-face thirteen in May and is, in my own bashful and absolutely aloof opinion, the loveliest babe anytime born. She affiliated the best things I had to action — my olive skin, which stays tan from aboriginal bounce beeline through December, and my blooming eyes. Afresh she got my ex-boyfriend's acceptable looks: his beeline adenoids and abounding lips, his dirty-blond hair, which, on Joy, came out as ringlets the abysmal gold of clover honey. My chest additional Bruce's angular achievement and angular legs accumulated to actualize the affectionate of anatomy I consistently ample was accessible abandoned acknowledgment to all-powerful or surgical intervention.

I absolved to one of the three confined set alternating the edges of the allowance and ordered a vodka and cranberry abstract from the bartender, a handsome boyish man attractive afflicted in a annoyed anemic dejected polyester cape shirt and bell-bottoms. At atomic he didn't attending as addled as the waitress beside him, in a bogie costume, with seashells and affected kelp in her hair. Todd had capital a awakening seventies affair for the affair adulatory his access into Jewish adulthood. His accompanying sister, Tamsin, an ambitious abyssal biologist, hadn't capital a affair at all and had grudgingly decrepit the chat "ocean" the eleventh time her mother had asked her. In amid pre-party visits to Dr. Hammermesh to accept her breasts enlarged, her thighs reduced, and the millimeters of balance beef below her eyes eliminated, Shari Marmer, the twins' mom, had arise up with a compromise. On this icy night in January, Shari and her husband, Scott, were hosting three hundred of their abutting and angel at the National Constitution Center to bless at Studio 54 Beneath the Sea.

I anesthetized below a aperture draped with affected seaweed and strands of aphotic dejected chaplet and wandered adjoin the table at the room's entrance. My abode agenda had my name stenciled in active calligraphy on the aback of a cockle shell. Said carapace independent a t&t medallion, for Tamsin and Todd. I squinted at the carapace and abstruse that my husband, Peter, and I would be sitting at Donna Summer. Joy hadn't best up her carapace yet. I peered at the addled accumulation of active girls until I saw Joy in her knee-length aphotic dejected dress, assuming some affectionate of complicated band dance, easily clapping, achievement rocking. As I watched, a boy abandoned himself from a array of his friends, above the allowance with his easily shoved in his pockets, and said article to my daughter. Joy nodded and let him booty her duke as he led her below the strobe that casting air-conditioned bubbles of bluish light.

My Joy, I anticipation as the boy confused his weight from bottom to foot, attractive like he was in atrocious charge of the bathroom. It isn't politically absolute to say so, but in the absolute world, acceptable looks action as a get-out-of-everything-free card. Beauty clears your path, it smooths the way, it holds the doors open, it makes bodies absolve you aback your homework's backward or you accompany the car home with the gas barometer on E. Joy's boyhood would be so abundant easier than mine. Except...except. On her aftermost address card, she'd gotten one A, two B's, and two C's instead of her accepted A's and B's (and worlds abroad from the beeline A's I'd gotten aback I was her age and had added accuracy than friends). "She aloof doesn't assume as engaged, as present," her abecedary had said aback Peter and I had gone in for our parent-teacher conference. "Is there annihilation abnormal activity on at home?"

Peter and I had annoyed our heads, clumsy to anticipate of a affair — no divorce, certainly, no moves, no deaths, no disruptions. Aback the abecedary had bankrupt her eyeglasses on her board and asked about boyfriends, I'd said, "She's twelve." The teacher's smile had been added than a little pitying. "You'd be surprised," she said.

Except I wouldn't. Added mothers, maybe, but not me. I kept a abutting watch on my babe (too close, she'd apparently say). I knew her teachers, the names of her friends, the horrible, bellicose boy accompanist she likes, the cast of twenty-bucks-a-bottle absterge on which she assault the aggregate of her allowance. I apperceive the way she struggles with account and is a adept at math, and that her admired affair in the apple to do is bathe in the ocean. I apperceive that apricots are her admired fruit, that Tamsin and Todd are her best friends, that she worships my little sister and is abashed of all-overs and bees. I'd apperceive if annihilation had changed, and Joy's life, I explained, was the aforementioned as it had anytime been. Her abecedary had smiled and patted my knee. "We see it a lot with girls her age," she'd said, putting her glasses aback on and casual at the clock. "Their worlds aloof get bigger. I'm abiding she'll be fine. She's got complex parents and a acceptable arch on her shoulders. We'll aloof accumulate an eye on things."

As if I don't do that already, I'd thought. But I'd smiled and thanked Mrs. McMillan and promised to alarm with any concerns. Of course, thirty account later, aback I'd gone beeline to the antecedent and asked Joy whether annihilation was wrong, my claiming had been met with the shrug/eye-roll aggregate that is the authentication of boyish girls everywhere. Aback I'd said, "That's not an answer," she'd replied, "Seventh grade's harder than sixth," and opened her algebraic book to let me apperceive definitively that the chat was over.

I'd capital to alarm her pediatrician, a psychologist, her old accent therapist, at the absolute atomic the school's arch and advice counselor. I'd fabricated a account of possibilities: apprenticeship centers and homework-help websites, abutment groups for parents of abortive accouchement or kids with audition loss. Peter had talked me out of it. "It's one division of seventh grade," he'd argued. "All she needs is time."

Time, I anticipation now. I sipped my alcohol and shoved the worries away. I've gotten acceptable at that. At the age of forty-two, I've decided, ruefully, that I'm hardly absorbed adjoin melancholy. I don't assurance happiness. I about-face it over as if it were a bottle at a flea bazaar or a rug at a souk, attractive for chipped rims or apart threads.

But not Joy, I anticipation as I watched my babe drag aback and alternating with the boy's easily on her hips, bedlam at article he'd said. Joy is fine. Joy is admirable and lucky. And in the address of almost-thirteen-year-olds everywhere, my babe has no abstraction how lovely, or how lucky, she is.

"Cannie!" Shari Marmer's articulation cut above the awash atrium of the Constitution Center, area guests were clustered, cat-and-mouse to booty their seats for dinner. I afraid my carapace and my alcohol and gave a halfhearted beachcomber as she hustled over, all ablaze red aperture and blepharoplasty, a new design anchoress trapped in the Admirable Canyon of her cleavage. "Yoo-hoo! Can-nie!" Shari singsonged. I groaned inwardly as she affective my arm with her French manicure. Aback I approved to cull away, her duke came with me and concluded up lodged below my appropriate breast. My embarrassment was afire and excruciating. Shari didn't arise to notice.

"You and Peter are sitting with us," she said. She swept me into the dining room, area I saw thirty tables for ten draped in aquamarine tablecloths with seashell centerpieces, topped with ablaze disco balls.

"Great!" I said. Why? I wondered. Shari and Scott had relatives, grandparents, absolute accompany who should accept been sitting with them. And it wasn't as if Shari and I bare to bolt up. Our kids were best friends, and alike admitting we'd never become accompany ourselves, we had years of aggregate history and saw anniversary added plenty. Aloof aftermost ages we'd spent an absolute day together, rehashing our latest reality-TV fixation and annoying thirty pounds of potatoes for our synagogue's anniversary preschool Latkefest. Peter and I could've been over at Gloria Gaynor with the Callahans, or at Barry Gibb with Marisol Chang, whom I'd admired aback I'd met her ten years ago in Music Calm class.

"What do you think?" Shari asked me, bouncing her toned, sculpted, and possibly lipo'd arm at the allowance as we fabricated our way adjoin the arch table.

"It's fantastic," I said loyally. "And Tamsin and Todd did a admirable job."

She anchored her anchor on my arm. "Do you absolutely anticipate so?"

"They were great. You attending amazing." That, at least, was the acknowledged truth. Eight years earlier than me, Shari had been in announcement in New York afore alliance and motherhood. Her job now was self-maintenance, and she formed at it harder than I'd formed at any paid application I'd anytime had. Frying potato pancakes in the synagogue's kitchen, I'd listened, afraid and exhausted, as Shari had declared her rounds: the claimed trainer, the yoga and pilates, the facials, the waxing, the laser treatments and the beard tinting, the low-cal, low-carb commons delivered anniversary morning to her door. It was, perhaps, the one acceptable affair about never accepting been admirable — you didn't accept to annihilate yourself aggravating to ascendancy on to article you'd never had in the aboriginal place.

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"And the party?" Shari fretted. "It's not too much?"

"Not at all!" I lied.

Shari sighed as a gold-medallioned, Jheri-curled DJ who was a asleep ringer for a pre-incarceration Rick James led her parents to the advanced of the allowance for the absolution over the bread. "Tamsin's furious. She says that abyssal analysis is a austere science, and that I'm..." Her bejeweled fingers absorbed into air quotes. "'Trivializing her ambitions' with seashell centerpieces and bogie costumes." She blinked at me with her anew widened eyes. "I anticipate the waitresses attending cute!"

"Adorable," I said.

"They should," Shari muttered. "I had to pay them added to abrasion bikinis. Article about the bloom code." She towed me through the crowd, accomplished the tables draped in ocean-blue tablecloths, and over to Donna Summer. Of the ten bodies at the table, six were family, two were me and Peter, and numbers nine and ten were the programming administrator of the city's accessible radio base and his wife. I coiled at my husband, who was continuing in the corner, abysmal in chat with a gastroenterologist of our acquaintance. Bigger Peter than me, I thought, and sank into my seat.

The age-old woman to my larboard peered at my abode card, afresh at my face. My affection sank. I knew what was coming. "Candace Shapiro? Not Candace Shapiro the writer?"

"Former," I said, aggravating to smile as I advance my napkin over my lap. Aback the gastroenterologist wasn't attractive so bad. Ah well. I declared I should be flattered that Shari still anticipation my name was account dropping. I'd accounting one atypical beneath my own name about ten years ago and, aback then, had produced a abiding beck of science fiction beneath a pseudonym. The pay for sci fi was a lot worse, but anonymity angry out to clothing me abundant bigger than my fifteen account of acclaim had.

My seatmate placed one spotted, afraid duke on my forearm. "You know, dear, I've had a book central me for the longest time."

"My husband's a doctor," I told her gravely. "I'm abiding he could advice you get it out."

A puzzled attending above the age-old party's face.

"Sorry," I said. "What's your idea?"

"Well, it's about a woman who gets afar afterwards abounding years of marriage..."

I smiled, sipped my drink, and approved to about-face her abridgment into a affable becloud of sound. A minute later, Peter appeared at my side. I attempt him a beholden smile as he took my hand.

"Excuse me," he said to the woman. "They're arena our song. Cannie?"

I got to my anxiety and followed him to the ball floor, area a few developed couples had formed their way in amid the kids. I coiled at Joy, connected up to bulb a quick kiss on the cavity in Peter's chin, and leaned in to his tuxedoed chest. It took me a minute to admit the music. "'Do It Till You're Raw' is our song?"

"I had to get you out of there, so it is now," he said.

"And actuality I was, acquisitive for article romantic." I sighed. "You know. 'I Had His Baby, But You Accept My Heart.'" I adequate my audacity on his shoulder, afresh coiled at Shari and Scott Marmer as they fox-trotted accomplished us. Scott looked euphoric, aloof up and appreciative of his children. His annular amber eyes and his baldheaded atom gleamed beneath the disco lights, alternating with his cummerbund, fabricated of the aforementioned red glassy as Shari's gown. "Can you accept that's activity to be us this fall? I looked at Shari added closely. "Except I apparently won't be accepting my implants active beforehand."

"No need," Peter said, and biconcave me. Aback the song was over, I aloft my easily to my hair, which acquainted fine, afresh abandoned them to my hips, encased in atramentous velvet. I anticipation I looked all right. No beneath an ascendancy than my babe had active off on my ensemble. True, she'd done so with a beneath than agog I assumption it's okay, and told me on our way into the architecture that if I took my shoes off at any point in the black and wandered about like a abandoned person, she would accurately affranchise herself, which accouchement were accustomed to do these days.

I wondered, the way I consistently did on occasions like this, what bodies anticipation aback they saw me and Peter together, and whether it was some aporetic adaptation of He's affiliated to her? Clashing poor, paunchy, balding Scott, Peter was alpine and lean, and had abandoned gotten better-looking as the years had progressed. Sadly, clashing the surgically bigger Shari Marmer, the aforementioned could not be said of me. Ah, well, I thought. I should attending on the ablaze side. Maybe they all affected that I had the adaptability of a nineteen-year-old Romanian aerialist and the acuteness of a porn brilliant and could do all address of crazy actuality in bed.

I boxlike my amateur and aerial my arch as the DJ played "Lady in Red" and Peter took me in his accoutrements again. I was bent to be a acceptable role model, to set a acceptable archetype for my daughter, to be advised on the agreeable of my appearance as adjoin to the admeasurement of my thighs. And if I was activity to be advised by the admeasurement of my thighs, let the chat go out that I was absolutely an absorbing seven pounds thinner than I was aback I'd gotten married, acknowledgment to an indescribably abhorrent six weeks on the Atkins Diet. Plus, except for a blow of arthritis and the casual aback spasm, I was disgustingly healthy, while Peter was the one who'd affiliated a cholesterol botheration that he had to amusement with three abstracted medications.

I looked up to acquisition him staring at me, his forehead hardly furrowed, eyes intent.

"What is it?" I asked hopefully. "Do you wanna go accomplish out in a stairwell?"

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"Let's booty a walk." He snagged a few beef satay sticks and a bowl from a casual waiter, added some raw vegetables and crackers, and led me up the access to the Signers' Hall, with life-size statues of the men who'd active the Constitution.

I leaned adjoin Ben Franklin and took a attending around. "You apperceive what? Our country was founded by a agglomeration of short, abbreviate men."

"Better diet these days," said Peter, ambience his bowl on a cocktail table by the balustrade and giving John Witherspoon a affable bang on the back. "It's the abstruse to everything. And you're cutting heels."

I acicular at George Washington. "Well, so is he. Hey, did Ben Franklin accept VD, or was that addition else?"

"Cannie," Peter said soberly. "We are in the attendance of abundant men. Molded brownish replicas of abundant men. And you accept to accompany up crabs disease?"

I squinted at Ben's biography, on a babyish ellipsoidal applique on the aback of his chair. It fabricated no acknowledgment of any awful souvenirs he ability accept best up during his years in Paris. History was a whitewash, I thought, bridge the attic and aptitude over the balustrade to attending bottomward at the assassin dancers, ambagious berserk as a distinctively complete Studio 54 adumbration descended from the beam (instead of sniffing cocaine, the man on the moon appeared to be account from the Torah). "This affair is insane," I said.

"I've been cerebration about something," Peter said, attractive at me steadily over George Washington's wig.

I hoisted myself up assimilate the stool in advanced of our cocktail table. "Joy's party?" Our daughter's bat mitzvah, and the affair that would follow, were abounding months abroad but had already emerged as a hot affair about our house.

"Not that." He took the bench above from me and looked at me sweetly, about shyly, from below his connected eyelashes.

"Are you dying?" I inquired. Afresh I asked, "Can I accept your beef stick?"

Peter exhaled. His amber eyes channelled in the corners and his teeth flashed briefly as he struggled not to smile.

"Those weren't accompanying questions. I'm absolute sympathetic," I assured him. "I'm aloof additionally absolute hungry. But don't worry. I'll do the accomplished devoted-wife-of-many-years thing. Ascendancy your hand, beddy-bye by your bedside, accept your anatomy blimp and mounted, whatever you like."

"Viking funeral," Peter said. "You apperceive I appetite a Viking funeral. With ablaze arrows and Wyclef Jean singing 'Many Rivers to Cross.'"

"Right appropriate right," I said. I had an absolute book on my laptop labeled "Peter's Demise." "If Wyclef's busy, should I try for Pras?"

Peter shrugged. "He could use the work, I guess."

"Well, you anticipate it over. I absolutely don't appetite you addictive me from above the grave because I assassin the amiss Fugee. And do you appetite the music afore or afterwards they set your body on fire?"

"Before," he said, accomplishment his plate. "Once you ablaze a body on fire, it's all decline from there." He munched ruminatively on a allotment stick. "Maybe I could lie in accompaniment at the Apollo. Like James Brown."

"You ability accept to absolution an anthology first, but I'll see what I can do. I apperceive people. So what's up?" I aloft my countenance in a alive manner. "Do you appetite a threesome?"

"No, I don't appetite a threesome!" he boomed. Peter has a absolute abysmal voice. It tends to carry. The three women in strapless gowns who'd wandered into the hall, apparently for some beginning air, stared at us. I gave them a affectionate absolve and mouthed, Sorry.

"I want..." He bargain his articulation and stared at me, his aphotic amber eyes intent. Alike with all the little businesses of ten years of alliance amid us, the conversations about aback to get the roof anchored and area to accelerate Joy for summer camp, his boring could still cook me and accomplish me ambition we were about all alone...and that I absolutely was as agile as a Romanian gymnast.

"I appetite to accept a baby," Peter said.

"You want..." I acquainted my affection alpha pounding, and my clover dress aback acquainted too tight. "Huh. Didn't see that coming. Really?"

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He nodded. "I appetite us to accept a babyish together."

"Okay," I said slowly. This was not the aboriginal time the achievability of a babyish had arise up over the advance of our marriage. There'd be a adventure about some talk-show host or country accompanist on the news, the appreciative mother of twins or triplets "born with the advice of a surrogate," an announcement that consistently fabricated me cycle my eyes. It would be like me adage that the oil in my car had been "changed with the advice of a mechanic," as if I had article to do with it added than advantageous the bill. But if we were activity to accept a babyish who was biologically our own, there'd charge to be a third affair involved. Joy had been built-in two months early, via emergency C-section, which had been followed by an emergency hysterectomy. There'd be no added babies for me. Peter knew this, of course, and alike admitting he'd acicular out the pieces about surrogates, he'd never pushed it.

Now, though, it looked like he was accessible to push. "I'm fifty-four," he said.

I angry abroad and apprehend out loud from James McHenry's plaque: "'Physician, aggressive aide, and politician.' And a absolute aciculate dresser."

Peter abandoned me. "I'm accepting older. Joy's growing up. And there ability be possibilities. You ability accept applicable eggs."

I batted my eyelashes. "That is, easily down, the best adventurous affair you've anytime said to me."

Peter took my hand, and his face was so open, so hopeful, so accustomed and babyish that I was ailing with affliction that my one attempt at accustomed motherhood had arise via my benumbed jerk of an ex-boyfriend instead of with my husband. "Don't you anytime anticipate about it?" he asked.

My eyelids started to prickle. "Well..." I befuddled my arch and swallowed hard. "You know. Sometimes." Obviously I'd wondered. I'd daydreamed about a babyish we'd accomplish together, a abstaining little boy who'd attending like Peter, with flashes of his dry humor, like calefaction lightning in the summer sky; one absolute little boy to go alternating with my absolute girl. But it was like absent about actuality in the Supremes, or acceptable a marathon, or, in my case, active a marathon: a fantasy for a apathetic afternoon in the hammock, article to mull over while ashore on a aerodrome or active on the turnpike, annihilation that would anytime absolutely happen.

"We're so blessed now," I said. "We accept anniversary other. We accept Joy. And Joy needs us."

"She's growing up," he said gently. "Our job now is to let her go."

I freed my duke and angry away. Technically, it was true. With any added going-on-thirteen-year-old, I'd accede unconditionally. But Joy was a altered story. She bare appropriate absorption because of who she was, the things she struggled with — her hearing, her account — and because of who I'd been.

"Our lives are wonderful, but everything's the same," he continued. "We alive in the aforementioned house, we see the aforementioned people, we go to the Jersey bank every summer — "

"You like it there!"

"Things are good," he said. "But maybe they could be alike better. It wouldn't annihilate us to try article new."

"Back to threesomes," I said, bisected to myself.

"I anticipate we should at atomic booty a look. See what's what." He pulled a business agenda out of his wallet and handed it to me. Dr. Stanley Neville, changeable endocrinologist, offices on Spruce Street — in the aforementioned building, I acclaimed ruefully, as the doctor who advised my afresh diagnosed arthritis. "He can do an ultrasound of your ovaries."

"Good times," I said, and gave him aback the card. I anticipation of our lives, altogether arranged, the three of us safe, cocooned from the world. My garden, afterwards ten years of attention, was in abounding flower, with espaliered roses aggressive the brick walls, hydrangeas with dejected and violet blossoms as big as babies' heads. My abode was aloof the way I'd consistently capital it. Aftermost month, seven years of analytic had assuredly yielded the absolute green-and-gold aged grandfathering alarm that sat on top of the access and melodically bing-bonged the hours. Aggregate except for the tiny and no agnosticism fixable amount of Joy's grades was perfect.

Peter affected my shoulder. "Whatever happens, whether this works out or not, our activity is acceptable aloof the way it is. I'm happy. You apperceive that, don't you?"

Beneath us, a array of waiters and waitresses, in their bodysuits and bikinis, exited the kitchen address bloom plates. I nodded. My eyelids were still burning, and there was a agglomeration in my throat, but I wasn't about to alpha bawl in the average of the Constitution Center. I could abandoned brainstorm the account that would alpha if Shari got wind of it. "Okay," I said.

"Candace," he said fondly. "Please don't attending so worried."

"I'm not worried," I lied. He handed me his plate, but for one of the attenuate times in contempo memory, I wasn't athirst at all. So I set it aback on the table and followed him bottomward the stairs, accomplished the windows and the moon blind aerial in the sky, calamity the backyard with its ablaze light.

Copyright © 2008 by Jennifer Weiner, Inc.

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