This is a book about Acton, Massachusetts.
So naturally, I would like to dedicate it to Andy Bauch of Boxborough.
And to Rose, Warren, Sally, Bernie, Niko, and Zach of Encino, California.
I am finishing up dinner with my family and my fiancé when my husband calls.
It is my father’s sixty-fourth birthday. He is wearing his favorite sweater, a hunter green cashmere one that my older sister, Marie, and I picked out for him two years ago. I think that’s why he loves it so much. Well, also because it’s cashmere. I’m not kidding myself here.
My mother is sitting next to him in a gauzy white blouse and khakis, trying to hold in a smile. She knows that a tiny cake with a candle and a song are coming any minute. She has always been childlike in her zeal for surprises.
My parents have been married for thirty-five years. They have raised two children and run a successful bookstore together. They have two adorable grandchildren. One of their daughters is taking over the family business. They have a lot to be proud of. This is a happy birthday for my father.
Marie is sitting on the other side of my mother and it is times like these, when the two of them are right next to each other, facing the same direction, that I realize just how much they look alike. Chocolate brown hair, green eyes, petite frames.
I’m the one that got stuck with the big butt.
Luckily, I’ve come to appreciate it. There are, of course, many songs dedicated to the glory of a backside, and if my thirties have taught me anything so far, it’s that I’m ready to try to be myself with no apologies.
My name is Emma Blair and I’ve got a booty.
I am thirty-one, five foot six, with a blond, grown-out pixie cut. My hazel eyes are upstaged by a constellation of freckles on the top of my right cheekbone. My father often jokes he can make out the Little Dipper.
Last week, my fiancé, Sam, gave me the ring he has spent over two months shopping for. It’s a diamond solitaire on a rose gold band. While it is not my first engagement ring, it is the first time I’ve ever worn a diamond. When I look at myself, it’s all I can see.
“Oh no,” Dad says, spotting a trio of servers headed our way with a lit slice of cake. “You guys didn’t . . .”
This is not false modesty. My father blushes when people sing to him.
My mother looks behind her to see what he sees. “Oh, Colin,” she says. “Lighten up. It’s your birthday . . .”
The servers make an abrupt left and head to another table. Apparently, my father is not the only person born today. My mother sees what has happened and tries to recover.
“. . . Which is why I did not tell them to bring you a cake,” she says.
“Give it up,” my dad says. “You’ve blown your cover.”
The servers finish at that table and a manager comes out with another slice of cake. Now they are all headed right for us.
“If you want to hide under the table,” Sam says, “I’ll tell them you’re not here.”
Sam is handsome in a friendly way—which I think might just be the best way to be handsome—with warm brown eyes that seem to look at everything with tenderness. And he’s funny. Truly funny. After Sam and I started dating, I noticed my laugh lines were getting deeper. This is most likely because I am growing older, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s because I am laughing more than I ever have. What else could you want in a person other than kindness and humor? I’m not sure anything else really matters to me.
The cake arrives, we all sing loudly, and my father turns beet red. Then the servers turn away and we are left with an oversized piece of chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream.
The waitstaff left five spoons but my father immediately grabs them all. “Not sure why they left so many spoons. I only need one,” he says.
My mother goes to grab one from him.
“Not so fast, Ashley,” he says. “I endured the humiliation. I should get to eat this cake alone.”
“If that’s how we are playing it . . .” Marie says. “For my birthday next month, please put me through this same rigmarole. Well worth it.”
Marie drinks a sip of her Diet Coke and then checks her phone for the time. Her husband, Mike, is at home with my nieces, Sophie and Ava. Marie rarely leaves them for very long.
“I should get going,” Marie says. “Sorry to leave, but . . .”
She doesn’t have to explain. My mom and dad both stand up to give her a hug good-bye.
Once she’s gone and my father has finally agreed to let us all eat the cake, my mom says, “It sounds silly but I miss that. I miss leaving someplace early because I was just so excited to get back to my little girls.”
I know what’s coming next.
I’m thirty-one and about to be married. I know exactly what is coming next.
“Have you guys given any thought to when you might start a family?”
I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes. “Mom—”
Sam is already laughing. He has that luxury. She’s only his mother in an honorary capacity.
“I’m just bringing it up because they are doing more and more studies about the dangers of waiting too long to have a child,” my mom adds.
There are always studies to prove I should hurry and studies to prove that I shouldn’t and I’ve decided that I will have a baby when I’m goddamn good and ready, no matter what my mother reads on the Huffington Post.
Luckily, the look on my face has caused her to backpedal. “Never mind, never mind,” she says, waving her hand in the air. “I sound like my own mother. Forget it. I’ll stop doing that.”
My dad laughs and puts his arm around her. “All right,” he says. “I’m in a sugar coma and I’m sure Emma and Sam have better things to do than stay out with us. Let’s get the bill.”
Fifteen minutes later, the four of us are standing outside the restaurant, headed to our cars.
I’m wearing a navy blue sweater dress with long sleeves and thick tights. It is just enough to insulate me from the cool evening air. This is one of the last nights that I’ll go anywhere without a wool coat.
It’s the very end of October. Autumn has already settled in and overtaken New England. The leaves are yellow and red, on their way to brown and crunchy. Sam has been over to my parents’ house once already to rake the yard clean. Come December, when the temperature free-falls, he and Mike will shovel their snow.
But for now the air still has a bit of warmth to it, so I savor it as best I can. When I lived in Los Angeles, I never savored warm nights. You don’t savor things that last forever. It is one of the reasons I moved back to Massachusetts.
As I step toward the car, I hear the faint sound of a ringing cell phone. I trace it back to my purse just as I hear my father rope Sam into giving him a few guitar lessons. My father has an annoying habit of wanting to learn every instrument that Sam plays, mistaking the fact that Sam is a music teacher for Sam being his music teacher.
I dig through my purse looking for my phone, grabbing the only thing lit up and flashing. I don’t recognize the number. The area code 808 doesn’t ring a bell but it does pique my interest.
Lately, no one outside of 978, 857, 508, or 617—the various area codes of Boston and its suburbs—has reason to call me.
And it is 978 specifically that has always signified home no matter what area code I was currently inhabiting. I may have spent a year in Sydney (61 2) and months backpacking from Lisbon (351 21) to Naples (39 081). I may have honeymooned in Mumbai (91 22) and lived, blissfully, for years, in Santa Monica, California (310). But when I needed to come “home,” “home” meant 978. And it is here I have stayed ever since.
The answer pops into my head.
808 is Hawaii.
“Hello?” I say as I answer the phone.
Sam has turned to look at me, and soon, my parents do, too.
The voice I hear through the phone is one that I would recognize anywhere, anytime—a voice that spoke to me day in and day out for years and years. One I thought I’d never hear again, one I’m not ready to even believe I’m hearing now.
The man I loved since I was seventeen years old. The man who left me a widow when his helicopter went down somewhere over the Pacific and he was gone without a trace.