Emily Giffin's new book, First Comes Love
Check out this excerpt from international bestselling author Emily Giffin's new book, First Comes Love. She'll be joining Canadian Living at Indigo on July 21, 2016!
A Canadian Exclusive: Join Jes Watson, Editor in Chief of Canadian Living, in conversation with Emily Giffin, the international bestselling author of Something Borrowed and The One & Only, about Emily's new novel, First Comes Love at Indigo Sherway Gardens on July 21 at 7 p.m. Plus, the first 50 people to join the book signing line will receive a complimentary gift bag.
Josie It is the first day of school, a symbolic and hopeful fresh start, at least that’s what I tell myself as I stand before my captive, well-scrubbed audience of ten boys and eleven girls in my J.Crew finest—gold ballet flats, gray pants, and a pink, sequined sweater set. Sitting cross-legged on the braided rug, some children beam back at me, while others wear blank expressions, waiting without judging. It is the beauty of first graders. They are guileless, not a jaded one among them.
Odds are good that they’d heard that they’d scored in the great, mysterious teacher lottery, before they even walked through my classroom door, adorned with a construction paper maple tree, cut-outs of twenty-one personalized bluebirds, and a banner swinging from the boughs that exclaims: Welcome to Miss Josie’s Nest!
After fourteen years teaching at the same elementary school, I had a reputation as fun, energetic, and creative. I am not considered strict, but also not a pushover. Incidentally, I am also known as the “pretty teacher” which some parents (fathers and mothers alike) seem to value as much as anything else, including straight-up intelligence, a sentiment that has always confounded and vaguely annoyed me. I mean, I know I’m not teaching quantum calculus, but I am instilling critical survival skills in children, teaching them how to add and subtract, tell time, count money, and most important, really read, unlocking the mystery of consonant combinations and abstract sounds, blended together and pronounced as words, strung together in sentences, filling the pages of books, whether with or without pictures. It might seem like Groundhog Day to some, including a few of my colleagues who really need to change professions, but I am passionate about what I do, thrilled to watch things click for a new crop of children every year.
Yet amid the anticipation is always a melancholy feeling that the summer is over, coupled with a familiar prickling of self-doubt and anxiety that marks all my first days of school, both as a teacher and a student before that. I consider all of the potential obstacles ahead, wondering how many of my kids will have ADHD or dyslexia or other garden-variety learning issues. Who will become frustrated or disheartened when they fall behind their peers? Which children will have impossible-to-please parents who will bombard me with emails and calls, make outlandish suggestions for our curriculum, or point out grammatical errors in my newsletters under the guise of constructive criticism? (No matter how many times I proofread my correspondence, it is inevitable that at some point during the year I will misspell a word or misplace an apostrophe, mistakes that somehow seem more egregious from a teacher than, say, a lawyer or doctor).
Then there is the disturbing matter of Edie Carlisle, the firstborn of my most significant ex, Will Carlisle. Will and I broke up years ago—eight to be exact—but I’m not yet over him, at least not completely. And I simply can’t believe that his little girl has been assigned to my class, a fact I try in vain to forget as I launch into my script, a variation of what I say every year.
Hello, boys and girls! My name is Miss Josie! I grew up right here in Atlanta and graduated from the University of Georgia. Go Dawgs! I love animals and have a rescue dog named Revis. I have one sister and a beautiful four-year-old niece named Harper. My favorite color is hot pink, like my sweater. My hobbies include swimming, reading, baking cookies, dancing, and playing board games. I’m good at keeping secrets and being a trustworthy friend. I hope you will all be good friends to one another this year. I’m so excited to get to know each and every one of you and feel very lucky to be your teacher!
It sounded pretty good, the exuberant delivery elevating it to a solid A, even though I could hear the annotated version in my head, which went something like this:
Every time I say “Miss Josie” I think it sounds like a stripper—a job I fleetingly considered taking one summer in college because strippers make a hell of a lot more money than waitresses. And teachers, for that matter. I have a dog, and a sister named Meredith. She drives me nuts, and I would mostly avoid her altogether if it weren’t for my niece Harper. I used to have an older brother, but he died in a car accident a long time ago, something I don’t like to talk about, especially to my students. I think the subject of one’s favorite color is supremely boring because it really doesn’t tell you much of anything (color for what—a car or a purse or your bedroom walls?), but for some inexplicable reason, you all seem hyper-focused on it, so I’m going to say hot pink because roughly half of you will be pleased with my choice and at least a third of you will marvel over the coincidence of sharing the same favorite hue. Swimming isn’t really a hobby, just things I sometimes do at the Y in an attempt to keep off the weight that I’m prone to gaining around my midsection (from all the cookies I bake, then eat), something you seem not to notice or at least not judge. I do enjoy board games, but I’d rather play drinking games with my friends—or go dancing with them (did I mention I could have been a stripper fifteen pounds ago?). I can keep secrets, especially my own, which is a good thing, because if your parents knew some of my skeletons, they might send around a petition to have me fired. Friendship means everything to me because I’m thirty-seven and can’t find a decent man to marry which is depressing both because I don’t want to be alone, and because I adore children more than anything else in the world. I know I’m running out of time, at least to birth my own. Please be nice to each other this year because the one thing I will not tolerate on my watch is mean girl (or boy) escapades—though fortunately those dynamics don’t really kick in until next year, yet another reason to teach the first grade. I’m so excited to get to know each and every one of you, and that includes you, Edie Carlisle. Did your father tell you that he dumped me right before he married your mother and had you? I will do my best not to hold this against you, but please show a little mercy and keep your happy-home anecdotes to a minimum.
I smile down at their eager, shining faces and say, “So? Do you have any questions for me?”
Four hands shoot into the air, and as I consider who is the least likely to ask the one I have come to loathe, a fidgety boy with messy hair and ruddy cheeks blurts it out: Do you have a husband?
Three seconds flat. A new record. Congrats, Wesley, I think, glancing at his laminated nametag that I made over the weekend, making a mental note to work it into the curriculum that a bare left ring finger means please do not ask questions on the topic of marriage. Perhaps I could squeeze it in between our cloud and weather unit and the introduction to the metric system.
I force a bigger, brighter smile, doing my best to ignore the knot in my chest. “No, Wesley. I’m not married. Maybe one day! And let’s try to remember to raise our hands before we call out. Like this,” I say, raising my hand for a visual demonstration. “Okay?”
Wesley’s head bobs up and down while I reassure myself that surely Edie knows nothing about my relationship with her father. After all, any knowledge of his romantic past would indicate inappropriate mothering—and I’m sure that Andrea (pronounced on-DRAY-ah) Carlisle has immaculate judgment, to go along with her impeccable taste I’ve gleaned from stalking her Pinterest page. Gluten-free snacks! Homemade Halloween costumes! Post-pregnancy workouts you can do with your child! Paint colors for a serene master suite! Thank God the woman’s Instagram and Facebook profiles are set to private—a small blessing from the social media gods.
As if on cue, Edie raises her hand as high as it will go, elbow straight, fingers erect and skyward. She is holding her breath, her little chest puffed out, her bright, blue eyes wide and unblinking, conjuring Swimmy’s gaze when I tap on his glass bowl. I look right past her, though she is seated front and center, and field a question from the back of the rug about my favorite food (pizza, unfortunately) and then my second favorite color (yawn).
“Hmmm. Maybe blue. Or green. Or orange. Orange is good,” I stall while doing a quick scan of Edie’s features, searching for a resemblance to Will. She has his olive complexion and mouth, her lower lip significantly fuller than the top, but the rest of her features belong to her mother, who often appears in the oversized pages of The Atlantan, either cozied up to Will or expertly posing, hand at her waist, elbow jutting out, with one of her couture-clad gal pals. I’ve only seen her in person once, about four years ago, as she strolled down the cereal aisle of Whole Foods, pushing her precious Lilly-Pulitzer-clad toddler in her well-organized, produce-rich cart. (Even back then, I knew from the usual two degrees of Buckhead separation that her child’s name was Edie, short for Eden, Andrea’s maiden name). Wearing black Lululemon workout gear and flip flops, Andrea looked effortlessly chic. Her skin glowed from a recent workout or facial (perhaps both); her limbs were long and toned; her thick, wavy, blonde ponytail was threaded through a Telluride baseball cap. I covertly trailed her for three aisles, torturing myself with her self-possessed air, graceful gait, and the deliberate way she checked labels while murmuring nurturing commentary to her daughter. I hated myself for being so mesmerized with her every move, and felt something approaching shame when I plucked her truffle oil of choice from the shelves, as if that single, overpriced ingredient might bring me one step closer to the life she had, the one I so coveted.
Not much has changed since that day, other than the addition of Edie’s little brother Owen (with whom Andrea was actually five weeks pregnant at the time, I later calculated). I catch myself staring at Edie now, who is propping her raised hand up with the other, demonstrating that she has as much staying power as her mother. Reminding myself that it isn’t Edie’s fault that her father left me, or that I never learned what to do with that damn truffle oil and really had no business shopping at Whole Foods, aka Whole Paycheck, in the first place, I force myself to acknowledge her. “Yes? Edie?”
“Um,” she says, her expression blank, her eyes darting around the room as her hand falls limply to her lap. “Umm . . . I forgot what I was going to say.”
“That’s okay. Take your time,” I say, smiling, a portrait of patience, perhaps my best trait these days.
Her face lights up as it comes to her. “Oh, yeah! Um, do you have a boyfriend?” Edie asks, throwing salt on my wounds.
I stare back at her for a paranoid beat, then make the sick, split-second decision to lie.
“Yes! Yes, I do have a boyfriend,” I announce, lifting my chin a few inches, clasping my hands together. “And he’s amazing. Just amazing.”
“What’s his name?” Edie fires back.
“Jack,” I say which has been my favorite boy name since I first watched Titanic. I am also a sucker for all things Kennedy, choosing to focus on the Camelot version of JFK rather than the Marilyn Monroe, sordid side.
“What’s his last name?” Edie presses.
“Prince. Jack Prince,” I say, then add a wistful footnote. “Unfortunately, Jack doesn’t live in Atlanta.”
“Where does he live?” asks a girl named Fiona whose brutally-short bangs do not take into account her cowlick. An oversized bow perches atop her head, seeming to mock the unfortunate back-to-school cut.
“Africa,” I say. “Kenya to be exact. He’s a doctor in the Peace Corps. Working at a refugee camp.”
The lie feels therapeutic, as does my silent afterthought: Take that, Edie. Your daddy’s in wealth management, a euphemism for playing golf with his blue-blood friends while occasionally shuffling around family money they never earned.
“Has Jack ever seen a lion?” asks a miniature boy named Frederick with a soft voice but perfect diction. I feel instantly protective of wee Freddie, projecting that he will become a favorite. (No matter what they tell you, all teachers have pets.)
“I’m not sure, Frederick. I’ll ask Jack that question later when we Skype—which we do every day—and get back to you tomorrow,” I say.
Because after all, it is way tougher to answer a yes-no question about lion spotting than it is to manufacture an entire transcontinental relationship.
A barrage of frantic questions ensues about whether Jack has had any run-ins with tigers or alligators, hippos or monkeys. First graders love a good tangent. So do I actually, and as tempting as it is to keep talking about my darling, do-gooding beau, I know it’s time to take control of the situation and actually teach.
The rest of the day hums along smoothly, as I memorize my students’ names and get to know their personalities. I even mostly manage to forget about Will until Edie loses her bottom left tooth eating her carrots and hummus at snack time. She’s already missing her bottom right, yet she is as jubilant as a tooth virgin as her classmates gather around to examine the bloody trophy. A veteran at loose and missing teeth, both in the actual pulling as well as the recovery and storage, I help her rinse out the gap in her gum, then clean the tiny tooth, stowing it safely in a Ziploc baggie that I keep in my desk for such occasions. I pull out a pink Post-It note from another drawer and write “for the tooth fairy,” then draw a heart and slide the note into the baggie, sealing it.
“What do you think she’ll bring you?” I ask, gazing down at my plump heart, then looking right into Edie’s pretty eyes.
“Same thing she brought me for this tooth,” Edie says, pointing to the inside of her mouth as she thrusts her tongue into the hole. Her voice is low and raspy—the kind of voice that will one day drive guys crazy.
“And what was that?” I ask, wondering about her mother’s voice, knowing that I’ll be unable to resist gathering intelligence all year long. I have already asked several questions about her little brother, learning that Owen’s nickname is “O”, that he has an airplane-motif bedroom, and that he “goes to Time-out a lot.”
“She brought me a dollar coin,” Edie replies, which gives me a fresh pang, along with a wave of disappointment that I can’t paint Will and Andrea as overindulgent parents. Most Buckhead fairies vastly overpay, but a dollar coin was both an appropriate amount and more satisfying than a crumpled bill. Damn.
As I hand the baggie to Edie, I regret my heart on the Post-it, worried that her parents will read into the artwork. But it is too late for a re-do, as Edie is already gripping it with a proud smile. She then marches over to her cubby and stows it in the back pocket of her pink monogrammed butterfly backpack. I tell myself that it’s no big deal, that Andrea and Will are likely too busy and too happy to scrutinize something so trivial. More important, I tell myself that I am a good teacher and a good person—and that sweet Edie deserves that heart even though her father shattered mine.
Excerpted from First Comes Love by Emily Giffin. Copyright © 2016 by Emily Giffin. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.