Title: Forever is the Worst Long Time
By author: Camille Pagan
Release Date: Feb 7th, 2017
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Women’s Fiction
From acclaimed author Camille Pagán comes a wry, heartfelt exploration of love and loss.
When struggling novelist James Hernandez meets poet Louisa “Lou” Bell, he’s sure he’s just found the love of his life. There’s just one problem: she’s engaged to his oldest friend, Rob. So James toasts their union and swallows his desire.
As the years pass, James’s dreams always seem just out of reach—he can’t finish that novel, can’t mend his relationship with his father, can’t fully commit to a romantic relationship. He just can’t move on. But after betrayal fractures Lou’s once-solid marriage, she turns to James for comfort.
When Lou and James act on their long-standing mutual attraction, the consequences are more heartbreaking—and miraculous—than either of them could have ever anticipated. Then life throws James one more curveball, and he, Rob, and Lou are forced to come to terms with the unexpected ways in which love and loss are intertwined.
Say Hello to author Camille Pagan!
I’m the author of the novels FOREVER IS THE WORST LONG TIME (out 2/7/17: http://amzn.to/2bsushm), THE ART OF FORGETTING, and the #1 Kindle bestseller LIFE AND OTHER NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES, which was recently optioned for film.
In another life, I was a health editor at Real Simple and Fitness magazines; these days, I write for publications like Fast Company, Forbes, Men’s Health, O: The Oprah Magazine, Parade, and others.
When I’m not at my computer, you’ll find me with my nose in a book, running after my two kids, or planning my next trip (most likely to Puerto Rico, where my husband was born and raised). Visit me at www.camillepagan.com.
“This story ends with loss,” said your mother. “I’m only on the first chapter, but I can tell.”
It was the spring of 1998, and I had just let myself into Rob’s apartment. Your mother was sprawled out on the sofa with her nose in a novel; a messy knot of golden-brown hair peeked out from above the edge of the pages. The late-afternoon sun cast fractured light over her body, and she looked celestial—sort of like a miniature angel, I remember thinking. Of course, I didn’t know she was your mother then. It was the first time I had ever laid eyes on her.
“Don’t they all?” I quipped, trying to act as though I weren’t unnerved. Rob had told me she would be there, but I was expecting someone generically pretty, dimly bright, and socially adept enough to sit up and greet a stranger when he walked into the room. That is, someone more like the type of women Rob had always dated.
She set the book on her stomach. Her eyes were suddenly focused on me, but she didn’t seem to be taking my measure. Instead, she was looking at me like—well, like she already knew me. “They do,” she said, still lying there. “They really do.”
“Then why bother?” I asked, pointing to her paperback, which was Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. (Read it sometime.) I was getting my master’s degree in creative writing and was in the habit of asking rhetorical questions, particularly about books.
“Because there’s no such thing as life without heartbreak,” she said, swinging her legs around so she was right side up. The novel fell neatly into her lap. “And just as well. Otherwise none of it would matter.”
I stared at her, slack-jawed, trying to come up with a semi-intelligent thing to say in response. It was a relief when Rob strode into the living room.
“I see you’ve met Louisa,” he said, smiling broadly. “James, Lou. Lou, James.” He walked to the sofa and slung Lou over his shoulder. “Big news, my friend,” he said to me, Lou’s feet still in the air. “I’m literally holding the future Mrs. Logan. We got engaged two days ago.”
Lou squealed, and he gently put her back on the ground.
“You’re getting married? No way!” I said, my voice cracking. I’ve never been a particularly cool cat, and this was no exception. Meeting your mother was not unlike having my home hit by a meteorite. The odds of it happening were impossibly slim, and yet there it was: this incredible incident that had just left a hole in the middle of everything.
“Way,” he said.
Rob being as lumbering as he is, and Lou being a pocket-size person, he had to bend down to kiss her. As their lips met, I bristled, as though I were witnessing a crime against nature rather than two twentysomethings in love.
“Um,” I said, glancing around, wishing for another person to commiserate with, someone who would shrug and say, “Insane, right?”
Instead, I caught Lou’s eye. And what did she do but shrug and give me a look that said, “Insane, right?”
I thought I might die.
Instead, I took a deep breath—James, man, act like someone with a fully functional frontal lobe—and forced my mouth into a smile. “When did this happen?”
What I meant was, how was I just hearing about it? Rob had been my best friend since the fourth grade. If I knew anything about him, it was that while he wanted a wife, some kids, and the whole white-picket-fence package, he didn’t want any of that until he had banked several million and was on the losing side of forty.
When he called the month before to tell me he was dating someone seriously, and that I should fly my miserable ass (sorry to be profane, but that is what he said, and by the time you read this you’ll know it and dozens of other expletives I’ve never even heard of) to New York to meet her, I understood that he was in love.
His invitation was a welcome opportunity to temporarily abandon all the writing I wasn’t actually doing, as well as the thirty-two undergraduate creative-writing papers I was supposed to be grading (no fewer than five of which would be at least partially plagiarized). But I was anticipating a meet-and-greet nestled in a relaxing weekend. Not a wedding announcement.
Rob put his arm around Lou’s narrow shoulders, and she beamed up at him. “It’s sudden, to be sure,” he said to me. “But when you know, you just know. You know?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
But as Lou turned from Rob to me, I knew something that was at distinct odds with what he was describing. And that was that Lou was wrong—completely wrong—for my oldest friend.
“And now I’ve finally brought my two favorite people in the world together,” he said. “Let’s go somewhere nice to celebrate and charge it to the company.”
Rob had attended the University of Virginia on a full ride, graduated in three years, and gone directly to Columbia Business School.
Afterward, he had landed a plum position at a large international bank that is no longer in existence. At the time, even he suspected the company was perhaps a skosh evil, but none of us yet knew that he was working for an institution whose financial solvency revolved around destroying people’s dreams.
Lou pulled Rob closer. “No, no, let’s do something fun and easy,” she said. “Fun and easy, right, Jim? Do you like Italian?”
I liked Italian well enough, but I was stuck on the Jim part of her sentence. No one called me Jim; that had never been my name. And yet now it was, at least to Lou.
“Sure, I’m flexible,” I said, and by this I meant, You may refer to me as Larry or Pookums if you’re so inclined, and I’ll eagerly answer. Something in me was unfurling fast, and it was wonderful or terrible, depending on how you looked at it. Maybe both. I had no business being envious of Rob, or paying any heed to the feral attraction I was feeling for his fiancée, even if I thought it was strange that he had a fiancée. I was his best friend, and it was my job to act as such—toward both of them.
After I stashed my suitcase in the corner of the living room and ran to the bathroom to make sure I didn’t smell like an airport urinal, we grabbed our jackets and headed out.
Rob and I had to work hard to keep up with Lou, who walked awfully fast for someone with such short legs. We stopped at a liquor store—back then, there weren’t so many wine shops everywhere, even in New York—and bought an unchilled bottle of champagne and a bottle of red wine. Then we wandered over to a restaurant on Avenue A at Eleventh Street. It was the kind of place that looked like it was one health inspection away from being shuttered, but Lou said the pasta was handmade and we would absolutely love it.
“So where did you two meet?” I asked after we had been seated at a four-top in the corner.
“It’s kind of a funny story,” Rob said, turning to Lou.
She laughed—a deep, throaty laugh, not at all the jingle I was expecting based on her squeal when Rob was holding her upside down—and began. “I was at Starbucks at Astor Place.” (Yes, we had Starbucks back in the Dinosaur Days, though perhaps it, too, will be extinct by the time you read this.)
“And I bumped into her—” said Rob.
“More like spotted me from across the café and made a beeline for me—”
“All right, I saw her sitting at the bar and made a beeline for her.” “Ah, the meet-cute,” I said.
“No, no,” said Lou lightly. “It was more romantic than that. Almost serendipitous, really.”
I flushed; I wasn’t trying to make it sound unromantic, per se, even if a small part of me wasn’t particularly enthused by their tale. “Okay, no meet-cute. Meet-serendipitous. Carry on.”
She was instantly appeased. “As it happened, I was reading Neruda,” she said. (The love poet. Of course you were, I thought.) “And Rob looked at me and said, ‘Before I loved you, love, nothing was my own.’ So I let him buy me a second cup of coffee.”
I resisted the urge to snort at Rob, who was looking quite pleased with himself. “Neruda, huh? I thought you were more a case-study kind of guy.”
“I’m an educated man,” he protested.
“Yes, Mr. MBA, I am aware. I’m just saying—” “That I don’t know poetry?”
“That at most, you might have memorized a line or two to facilitate your pursuit of women.”
Rob put his hand on Lou’s shoulder. “I won’t argue with that. But as far as I’m concerned, there are no women. There’s only Lou.”
“We went on a date the next day,” said Lou.
“And by the following week, she had moved in with me,” said Rob, not bothering to hide how proud he was of his evolved status as half of a cohabiting couple.
With her legs twisted like a pretzel beneath her and her head held high, there was a fierce elegance to Lou that I couldn’t recall ever noticing in another woman; and if I had, I certainly hadn’t stopped to admire it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Which meant I had to continue to make conversation or risk coming off as her fiancé’s weird staring friend who had to be tolerated, if only for a weekend. “Are you a dancer?” I asked lamely.
She smiled. “I wish! Dance is an expensive hobby, Jim. My mom didn’t have money for that sort of thing.”
I let my gaze drop to her caramel-colored sweater. It was pilling in some places, and worn thin in others. She had managed to make it look stylish, but upon closer inspection, it probably wasn’t the kind of garment she would choose were a newer item of clothing available. “Sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be. I’m flattered that you’d think that of me. But no. I’m a poet.”
Be still, my beating heart! She announced it like she was the queen of England. As mentioned, I was in a writing program at the time and so every other woman I knew was a writer, with a good percentage of them dedicating themselves to the craft of poetry. But not a single one of them ever said it like that.
“Do you have your MFA?” I asked.
She laughed lightly. “Oh, Jim. No, no, no. I work in the mail room at a literary agency and spend seven hours a day sorting other people’s ambitions.”
“And the eighth?” I prompted. To be honest, I wanted to know how she occupied all twenty-four hours, but it seemed ill-advised to ask just then.
She gave me a wry smile. “I spend it crying in the bathroom.”
The proud poet, crying in the bathroom. What a flurry of contradictions she was; what a whirl of emotions was washing over me. I tried to imagine something unpleasant—say, an anesthesia-free root canal—but as I turned my thoughts inward, Lou was still right there in the center of my mind.
“Not for long,” said Rob, and for a moment I almost thought he was telling me that I would only feel the way I was feeling for a short while longer, which probably would have been the best-case scenario. As he continued, however, I realized he was talking about Lou’s agency job. “Soon she’ll be able to stay home and write all day and do whatever she pleases.”
The waiter had uncorked and poured our red wine, and I took a long drink from my glass, then another, and a third for good measure. “You’re twenty-five?” I asked Lou. Rob and I were twenty-five, and I guess I expected she would be our age.
“No, twenty-two,” she said, reaching for her wine as well. She looked at me over the edge of the glass as she took a sip. “I graduated last spring.”
Twenty-two seemed awfully young to be a full-time writer, but at that point in life, I had very particular ideas about how writing was to be done.
“So you’ll write poems part of the day and spend the rest of it baking, Sylvia Plath–style?” I said.
Lou and I chuckled, but Rob frowned. “Uh, didn’t she commit suicide?” he said gruffly.
Lou put her hand on his arm. “A little writerly humor, sweetheart.” “Did you forget about my raging case of foot-in-mouth-itis?” I asked Rob.
“You think you’re bad?” said Lou. “Two weeks ago, my supervisor’s boss called down to the mail room, and I accidentally said, ‘Love you!’ before hanging up the phone.”
“That’s a good one. But have you ever been the jerk who told a blind man to watch his step as he walked into the street, as I did last week?” I asked.
Rob, who had finally started to laugh, added, “Worse, I was walking down Sixth Avenue the other day and saw my friends Jess and Aidan walking toward me. So I yelled, ‘What’s up, assholes?!’ It wasn’t until I saw the looks on their faces that I realized they were total strangers!”
“You didn’t—did you?” cried Lou.
“I did!” he said, and the three of us looked at each other and laughed even harder, until our laughter became howls and tears leaked from the corners of our eyes. It was one of those moments when you feel unbelievably lucky to have been placed on the planet at the same time as the people in your life. As I wiped my eyes and looked across the table at Lou, I silently thanked her for so swiftly smoothing over the situation. “What about you, Jim?” asked Lou later that evening. We had moved on to a tiny bar that played old jazz and were standing around waiting for Rob to fetch us drinks (his treat; he always tried to buy the first round). “Rob says you’re a writer, too.”
“I am,” I said, sounding far less resolute than she had. “Fiction, right?” she said.
I nodded. “I’d like to write novels. I’m hoping to land a teaching job to support myself.”
She was staring at me so intently that I thought maybe I had pesto stuck between my bicuspids. “Rob says you’re crazy smart, but sounds like you’re practical, too. I like that.”
I shrugged, simultaneously embarrassed and flattered. “You want to pass that on to my father? He’s holding out hope that I’ll become a mechanical engineer.”
She laughed and accepted a glass brimming with red wine from Rob, who had just returned. “Being something for someone else is a perfectly good waste of a life, isn’t it? At any rate, I get the impression you’re great just the way you are, Jim.”
Don’t swoon, don’t smile, don’t think about kissing her, I told myself, sticking my nose into the wineglass Rob had just handed me.
Unaware of my angst, Lou picked my brain about books for a while, then quizzed Rob and me about our childhoods and how we had become friends. (In brief: He walloped me on the playground one afternoon during elementary school, and though I may or may not have cried instead of fighting back, we were both given detention. A few evenings of mopping the school floors together—yes, in our day child labor was not just permitted, but actually encouraged—and we realized we could both quote ninety-seven percent of Star Wars Episodes IV and V and lived seven blocks away from each other. The rest, as they say, is history.)
The bar had been a good choice. Whereas some people get rowdy while drinking, I suffer from an alcohol-induced narcolepsy of sorts, and when we returned to the apartment I instantly passed out on the sofa without having to think about Rob and Lou retreating to the bedroom they shared.
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of Rob tinkering in the kitchen; Lou was nowhere to be seen.
“She gets up early on the weekends and goes out to write,” said Rob, answering the question I had not asked as he walked into the living room. He was clutching a cup of coffee for dear life, and his eyes were as bleary as I’m sure my own looked. But at once he perked up. “Well?” he asked, sitting on the end of the sofa. “What do you think?” What I thought was that there was a perfectly lovely woman I had been seeing back in Ann Arbor—Kathryn Pierce, her name was—and I would have to go home and end things with her. And that was because I had just discovered that there was a void in me, and “perfectly lovely” was never going to fill it.
“She seems great, Rob,” I said.
He ran his hand through his hair. “Isn’t she? She’s had such a rough life, and yet she’s so unjaded. And God, is she gorgeous or what?”
I recalled Lou’s almond-shaped eyes, which were a greenish hazel in some light, and brown in others. I thought of her golden mane of hair, her impossibly small wrists, her rose of a mouth. “Yeah,” I said.
“I feel like I just won the lottery.” “You did. You really did.”
“You’ll be my best man, right?”
The wedding. Of course, there was going to be a wedding. I squinted at him. “When is it?”
He frowned. “Does it matter?”
My conscience kicked in, thank God, and I was able to string together the phrases that I should have immediately blurted out. “Of course not! Stupid question. Get married on New Year’s Eve—or my birthday, for that matter. I’ll be there with bells on, and would be honored to be your best man.”
“That’s great, James.” Rob took a sip of coffee, then looked at me. “You’re like a brother to me, but better. No one knows me like you do, and if you’re there, it means I’m making the right decision.”
“Right.” I nodded, wishing that the sofa contained a portal that would suck me in and transport me back in time, or forward, or to any point at which I was not bending beneath the horrible weight of the lie I was about to utter, and all the lies that would inevitably follow. “I’m already looking forward to it.”
The internet was a fairly new thing in those days, and I didn’t have a personal computer, let alone a cell phone, on which to conduct impulsive searches for useless trivia. And so, on Sunday night as my plane lifted over LaGuardia, I scoured the cobwebbed corners of my mind for a few lines I had read years earlier as an undergraduate.
The plane was touching down at Detroit Metro when they finally came to me. They were Neruda, too, but from a very different poem.
I could not recall the exact phrasing, but it was along the lines of, dark things must be loved secretly, in the space between the soul and the shadows.
Oh come on, you ridiculous sap, I chided myself as Lou’s sparkling face surfaced in my mind yet again. It was true that I knew—just as sure as you know you’re alive when you begin to rouse in the morning—that she would be an important part of my life, and not only because she was going to be Rob’s wife.
But was it really love? Or had I simply placed Lou on a pedestal and given myself permission to idealize her, all things right and rational be damned—and this decision set love in motion?
I still wonder about that. If I had made different choices then, such as telling Rob what I really thought about his impending nuptials, he would have married Lou all the same. Then I would have estranged myself from him—from both of them—and everything else that came next would have been different. And that, I will admit, is a version of history I can’t bear to imagine, as fraught as the following years may have been.
But as you know, that’s not where this story ends.
Excerpted from Forever is the Worst Long Time by Camille Pagán with permission of the publisher, Lake Union Publishing. Copyright © Camille Pagán 2017. All rights reserved.
Thank you, Camille, for allowing me to feature you and your fabulous new release on Forever is the Worst Long Time. Your cover is absolutely stunning & it sounds like an absolute gem of a read!