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Miss Understanding: A Novel Excerpt from Miss Understanding: A Novel

by Stephanie Lessing

Chapter 1

I’m not sure if this qualifies as some sort of obsessive compulsion or just a simple fear of children, but I’ve just taken my third consecutive home pregnancy test and I’m about to reach for my fourth. One can never be too sure, that’s why I’ve taken to buying these little sticks in bulk.

Of course the results are always negative, because the truth is I’ve only gotten my period maybe a handful of times in my entire life -- and I’m about to turn thirty. There’s obviously something wrong with me.

Something very unfemale.

And yet, I live in fear.

After twenty-six rings, I pick up the phone and then hang it back up. I like to think this is our little signal but in all likelihood Chloe isn’t aware of the fact that I’m trying to avoid her, which I can only mange to do for so long -- because she keeps calling back.


“Hi, it’s me.”

“So I imagined.”

“I was just wondering what you’re planning to wear tomorrow.”

“Shouldn’t you be asleep? It’s nine-thirty.”

“I was asleep. I had a nightmare.”

“About my clothes?”

“You were wearing a turban.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t embarrass you.”

“Just tell me so I can picture it.”

“Either shorts or sweats, something nice, I’ll see.”

“I’m getting up and coming over to help you.”

“No you’re not. Go back to bed.”

“Zoe, you have to make them think you’re an ally. If you dress yourself, you’ll show up looking like an angry, confrontational, anti-social freak, who came from left field. Let me help you at least appear to be one of them.”

“I appreciate your faith in me, but the truth is I refuse to use some sort of wardrobing affectation as a tool to influence people. Either they’ll like and accept my ideas for the magazine or they won’t. I couldn’t care less what they think of my appearance.”

“So, really what you’re saying is you have no idea what to wear.”

“That too. But I’m on the verge of a break-through.”

“I know that’s not true and I know you’re pretending not to care. You’re the one who always says, ‘clothes make the man because they can make a woman believe anything.’”

“When did I ever say that?”

“I don’t know, but it got stuck in my head somehow. Even though I’m not even sure what it means.”

“Me neither, but if I did say it, I’m sure it was in the context of not giving a shit. There’s no sense in trying to hide what I am. I’m sure Dan’s already explained to the editors that I intend to make changes in the magazine -- changes that reflect my values. I don’t think they’re expecting someone to walk in there dressed like a model. But if you’re that afraid, come over and do what you have to do. I’ll wear whatever you want me to wear. I’ve got eight million other more important things to worry about and I’d like to get started obsessing on them right away. So let’s get this over with. ”

When Chloe arrives at my apartment, she’s wearing a velour sweat outfit with some kind of skirt over her pants, an abnormally long, skinny, knitted scarf around her neck -- and a pair of well-oiled cowboy boots. All this and it’s about eighty degrees outside.

“Is it cold in your apartment?” I ask.

“Don’t worry, I won’t pick out anything like this for you. I was half asleep when I got dressed.”

“I’m not worried. I don’t have any sort of ranch-wear or anything velour. In fact, I’ve got nothing. You were right in suspecting I was exaggerating when I hinted at a breakthrough. All I did was walk into my closet and then walk back out. I can’t imagine how you’re going to pass me off as a Deputy Editor of anything, least of all a fashion magazine.”

“I thought Michael finally threw that thing away,” she says pointing to the “Save the Peregrine Falcon” t-shirt I’m wearing. I’ve had it since middle school and it still fits me. For some reason, I stopped growing in seventh grade.

“Nope. I still have it. He tries to hide it from me every now and then but I always find it.” I look down at my t-shirt. The picture of the falcon is so hideous and frightening, no one would want to save it, and yet I can’t part with it. I have a thing for unlovable birds.

My sister and I make small talk for about thirty seconds and then she heads off to my closet to do her job. I follow her into my room and sit on the bed facing the window, trying to make it clear that I’m ignoring her, but she doesn’t notice things like being ignored and immediately tries to get me involved.

“How is this possible?” she calls out.

“How is what possible?” I call back.

“Everything in here is pea green.”

“Pea green is my favorite color.”

There’s a few moments of blissful silence but then she starts in again. “You don’t even own a belt or one pair of normal looking shoes or any pantyhose with feet and believe it or not, I just found your field hockey skirt from eighth grade.” Suddenly the tone of her voice changes and she says, “Although we might actually be able to use this somehow.”

I walk over and take a quick look at my sister who’s sitting on the floor of my grossly oversized closet, looking up. She’s always been the type of person who believes that if you pray very, very hard, things you really want will fall from the ceiling. She looks so hopeful in there despite the fact that the only thing my closet is really good for is hiding cartons of art supplies I have no intention of unpacking. I haven’t painted anything in months. At this point it’s healthier if I just forget I ever tried and use the cartons for additional seating -- particularly since I’m not really into decorating with furniture in the traditional sense.

Chloe spots a bunch of copies of Michael’s latest book hidden in the back of my closet. She digs one out and starts flipping through it.

“Is this the one he’s traveling around to promote?” she asks. She reads the title with the same degree of enthusiasm Michael intended, ‘The New Conservatism: It’s All Right!’”

“I’m afraid so and how embarrassing is that title?”

“You should be more supportive of the books he writes. He can’t help it if they’re boring.”

“I am supportive, considering how I feel about them.” I take the book out of her hand and glance over the back cover copy.

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate his long-winded, antiquated notions of the importance of American polemic supremacy. On the contrary, I find it very comforting to know that I live ‘under the corpulent wing of the prodigious father of all other nations.’ I just can’t believe anyone would go around bragging about it. The fact that I am knowingly and willingly living and sleeping with a Republican makes me the biggest hypocrite I know.”

“I wonder if Dan’s a Republican,” Chloe says biting her lip.

Everything about my relationship with Michael reminds me of the time Chloe gave a speech in front of the entire school on how high school students need to get more involved in the animal rights movement. The speech was surprisingly educational; unfortunately, Chloe wore a fur vest to school that day.

The truth is I’m in love with Michael for all the wrong reasons. And by reasons, I mean key body parts. I can’t help myself. He’s so long and lean and muscular, all of his clothes lie perfectly flat on him. His long body and long straight bangs are a killer combination for someone of my height and hair texture. Sometimes I think our whole relationship hinges on the fact that I admire him for never looking wrinkled. And like most couples whose relationships are based on purely external features, we’ve learned how to live with our differences simply by fighting.

From the book Miss Understanding by Stephanie Lessing. Copyright © 2006 Stephanie Lessing. Published by Avon Trade, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.