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‘When It Happens to You’: Molly Ringwald's novel on modern love and loss

Actress and ‘80s idol Molly Ringwald has yet again traded in a script for her own pen with “When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories.” After her nonfiction debut in 2010, Ringwald has tread into the fiction world this time, painting sometimes devastating portraits of contemporary relationships through a series of intertwining short stories.
/ Source: TODAY books

Actress and ‘80s idol Molly Ringwald has yet again traded in a script for her own pen with “When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories.” After her nonfiction debut in 2010, Ringwald has tread into the fiction world this time, painting sometimes devastating portraits of contemporary relationships through a series of intertwining short stories. The book opens with “The Harvest Moon,” which introduces a stay-at-home mom struggling with her distant husband and daughter. Here’s an excerpt.

As far as Greta knew, there was nothing in the sky that night.

Laying on her back in the bathroom on the cool of the white marble tiles, she heard the summons again. Her husband tapped the horn of the car: one long, noisy beep followed by two shorter taps, as if in apology. She strained to close the zipper on a pair of jeans without pinching the soft flesh of her midsection. It was a task she found both onerous and humiliating, primarily since she had purchased the pair less than a month ago having gone through the same depressing experience with every other pair that lay folded in her dresser. Another short beep to remind her (in case she had forgotten) that her husband and daughter were waiting in the idling car, but this really had been sprung on her, and there might be photos. She wanted to at least make an attempt at presentability. There weren’t many photos of the two of them anymore, not like the early days, before Charlotte was born. Now any photo seemed to be taken from their six-year-old daughter’s height — hardly a flattering angle: the upward tilt of Greta’s crooked smile, and the heavy lower lids of Phillip’s distracted and vaguely startled eyes, as though he didn’t quite expect to find himself there.

Finally she managed to maneuver the zipper most of the way, but left the top button unbuttoned. She pulled her oversized T-shirt over it and grabbed a sweater on her way out the door, stuffed it into her bag, and ran to the car. Phillip had backed it out of the driveway and waited at the curb.

“Sorry,” she said through the open window.

“We’re going to miss it, Mama.” Charlotte pouted.

Greta glanced at her daughter strapped into the backseat, still dressed in her pink gymnastic unitard and flip-flops. The air had begun to cool and Greta could see the gooseflesh on Charlotte’s skinny arms.

“Did you pack her a sweater?” Greta asked Phillip.

“I thought you did. Isn’t that what was taking so long?”

Greta didn’t answer, ashamed that she had packed a sweater for herself but not for Charlotte.

“I can go back,” she said, but Phillip was already driving down the street, away from children’s sweaters and dinner half-prepared. She tried to remember if she had locked the door behind her, but figured that they would be gone for such a short amount of time, the chances of a break-in were unlikely.

“I’m not cold,” Charlotte insisted. She had her legs stretched out onto Phillip’s seat in front of her.

“I know, honey, but we aren’t outside. Put your feet down.”

Charlotte dropped her legs in a dramatic fashion. “Daddy lets me.”

Greta studied the side of her husband’s face. Squinting into the sun, he almost looked as though he were smiling. But his jaw was rigid. Greta could tell that he was grinding his teeth, and thought about reminding him of the warning their dentist had given Phillip at his annual checkup, but she decided against it. He careened down the hill, running through yellow lights on their way to the ocean. Charlotte made excited noises that increased in volume with each turn.

“Whoaaaaa . . . whoaaaa!” She exaggerated with the movement of her body as though they were thundering along a roller-coaster track.

“What do you think, the ocean or the mountains?” Phillip asked.

“Well, I hope the ocean, because that’s where we’re headed,” Greta said.

Phillip glanced over at her, did a quick inventory of her face, and then looked back at the road.

“I mean, this is your thing,” she said. “I didn’t even know anything about it.”

“They only happen every twenty years,” he said quietly. “It seems like a shame not to at least make the effort.”

“That means that the next time there’s a harvest moon, I’ll be a grown-up!” Charlotte told her mother. “Right, Daddy?”

“That’s right, sweetheart.” Phillip smiled at her in the rearview mirror. Greta watched the lines appear around his eyes and along the sides of his mouth as he smiled. It made his face look like it was melting, softening, but then just as quickly his jaw set and the determination reappeared.

“What makes this one so special is the fact that it’s so close to the equinox,” Phillip explained in a louder voice so that his daughter could hear him from the backseat. “Usually it’s days, or maybe even weeks apart, but this time it’s only six hours!”

“‘Equinox,’” Charlotte repeated gravely.

Greta was sure her daughter didn’t know the word. She turned around and said, “Equinox means when day and night are about the same length.”

“I KNOW!” her daughter screamed. Phillip startled and the car swerved slightly into the other lane and then back again.

Greta grabbed onto the dashboard, hitting an imaginary brake with her foot. “Jesus Christ!” She ran her hands through her hair, grabbing little fistfuls of it.

“Charlotte!” Phillip said, raising his voice.

“You told me already, Daddy! She’s always telling me things I already know.” Charlotte pointed at her mother accusingly, and when both parents were silent, at a loss for words, she started to whimper for effect.

“It’s true, I did tell her,” Phillip said to Greta in a low voice intended only for her. “While we were in the driveway.”

Greta waited for Phillip to discipline Charlotte. Paternal authority always carried more weight —though perhaps it only seemed this way to Greta, since it had been the case in her own childhood home—but when Phillip failed to say anything, Greta turned around to lecture her daughter herself.

Charlotte was no longer trying to cry, her tiny shoulders folded inward with an approximation of sadness, but staring at a bug scuttling across the windowpane beside her. She watched it in silence, patiently and oddly still. Just as the bug reached the edge of the glass, Charlotte reached out her little hand and squashed it with her thumb. Greta half expected her to lick it off like their big overweight tabby would have done. Bile rose up from her stomach to the top of her throat, shocking her. She clamped her hand over her mouth.

“Stop the car!” she tried to yell, but with the bile flooding into her mouth and her hand pressed tight to her lips, the words were indecipherable.

Phillip pulled over to the side of the road, and Greta lurched out of the car before he came to a complete stop. She took her hand away from her mouth and spit onto the ground. The ocean air slapped her skin and whipped her hair around her face. Hunched over, she waited to see if there was anything more to come, but all she had was the sour taste in her mouth.

She could hear Charlotte’s muffled voice coming from the backseat, asking Phillip if Mama was okay. The blood rushed to Greta’s head and she straightened up slowly, feeling dizzy. When she looked across the beach parking lot and up at the darkening sky, she couldn’t see the moon. If it was there, it was covered in the heavy low-slung ocean mist.

Phillip got out of the car and told Charlotte to stay where she was. Greta watched the overgrown palm trees swaying in the breeze. She had always felt a sort of kinship with the palm trees, transported here from somewhere else. Having grown up outside of Seattle, Greta was accustomed to her oceans surrounded by the great majestic cedar trees of the Pacific Northwest.

“What happened?” Phillip said, skirting along the gravel. He reached Greta and placed his hand on her shoulder.

She shrugged. “Could be the hormone shots. It’s a possible side effect,” she said.

He took his hand off of her shoulder and brushed the hair away from her face. It nearly made her cry from the tenderness. A tenderness long absent, but somehow unnoticeable until it’s back—even the smallest taste of it.

“I hate to break it to you,” she said, trying to smile. “But I don’t think there’s any moon tonight. Harvest or otherwise.”

He scanned the sky, searching for a sign of the moon. The setting sun cast a reddish glow over everything, briefly turning his blond hair rosy-colored, like the frosted pink mane of one of their daughter’s stuffed ponies. Greta giggled at the image. Phillip glanced at her with annoyance. “We’re missing it,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She tried to assume the right expression, the patient, wifely expression that would say even though this isn’t my fault, I’ll accept the blame.

“I guess we should have gone to the mountains.” He sighed.

Greta took his hand and laced her fingers through his. “We still can. It’s not all the way dark yet. Why don’t we do that?”

Opening the door for Greta, he kissed her quickly on the forehead and headed around to the driver’s side.

Excerpted from It Books by Molly Ringwald. Copyright © 2012 by Molly Ringwald. Excerpted by permission of It Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.