Beach Read by Emily Henry
I HAVE A FATAL flaw.
I like to think we all do. Or at least that makes it easier for me when I’m writing—building my heroines and heroes up around this one self-sabotaging trait, hinging everything that happens to them on a specific characteristic: the thing they learned to do to protect themselves and can’t let go of, even when it stops serving them.
Maybe, for example, you didn’t have much control over your life as a kid. So, to avoid disappointment, you learned never to ask yourself what you truly wanted. And it worked for a long time. Only now, upon realizing you didn’t get what you didn’t know you wanted, you’re barreling down the highway in a midlife-crisis-mobile with a suitcase full of cash and a man named Stan in your trunk.
Maybe your fatal flaw is that you don’t use turn signals.
Or maybe, like me, you’re a hopeless romantic. You just can’t stop telling yourself the story. The one about your own life, complete with melodramatic soundtrack and golden light lancing through car windows.
It started when I was twelve. My parents sat me down to tell me the
news. Mom had gotten her first diagnosis—suspicious cells in her left breast—and she told me not to worry so many times I suspected I’d be grounded if she caught me at it. My mom was a do-er, a laugher, an optimist, not a worrier, but I could tell she was terrified, and so I was too, frozen on the couch, unsure how to say anything without making things worse.
But then my bookish homebody of a father did something unexpected. He stood and grabbed our hands—one of Mom’s, one of mine—and said, You know what we need to get these bad feelings out? We need to dance!
Our suburb had no clubs, just a mediocre steak house with a Friday night cover band, but Mom lit up like he’d just suggested taking a private jet to the Copacabana.
She wore her buttery yellow dress and some hammered metal earrings that twinkled when she moved. Dad ordered twenty-year-old Scotch for them and a Shirley Temple for me, and the three of us twirled and bobbed until we were dizzy, laughing, tripping all over. We laughed until we could barely stand, and my famously reserved father sang along to “Brown Eyed Girl” like the whole room wasn’t watching us.
And then, exhausted, we piled into the car and drove home through the quiet, Mom and Dad holding tight to each other’s hands between the seats, and I tipped my head against the car window and, watching the streetlights flicker across the glass, thought, It’s going to be okay. We will always be okay.
And that was the moment I realized: when the world felt dark and scary, love could whisk you off to go dancing; laughter could take some of the pain away; beauty could punch holes in your fear. I decided then that my life would be full of all three. Not just for my own benefit, but for Mom’s, and for everyone else around me.
There would be purpose. There would be beauty. There would be candlelight and Fleetwood Mac playing softly in the background.
The point is, I started telling myself a beautiful story about my life, about fate and the way things work out, and by twenty-eight years old, my story was perfect.
Perfect (cancer-free) parents who called several times a week, tipsy on wine or each other’s company. Perfect (spontaneous, multilingual, six foot three) boyfriend who worked in the ER and knew how to make coq au vin. Perfect shabby chic apartment in Queens. Perfect job writing romantic novels—inspired by perfect parents and perfect boyfriend—for Sandy Lowe Books.
But it was just a story, and when one gaping plot hole appeared, the whole thing unraveled. That’s how stories work.
Now, at twenty-nine, I was miserable, broke, semi-homeless, very single, and pulling up to a gorgeous lake house whose very existence nauseated me. Grandly romanticizing my life had stopped serving me, but my fatal flaw was still riding shotgun in my dinged-up Kia Soul, narrating things as they happened:
January Andrews stared out the car window at the angry lake beating up on the dusky shore. She tried to convince herself that coming here hadn’t been a mistake.
It was definitely a mistake, but I had no better option. You didn’t turn down free lodging when you were broke.
I parked on the street and stared up at the oversized cottage’s facade, its gleaming windows and fairy tale of a porch, the shaggy beach grass dancing in the warm breeze.
I checked the address in my GPS against the handwritten one hanging from the house key. This was it, all right.
For a minute, I stalled, like maybe a world-ending asteroid would take me out before I was forced to go inside. Then I took a deep breath and got out, wrestling my overstuffed suitcase from the back seat along with the cardboard box full of gin handles.
I pushed a fistful of dark hair out of my eyes to study the cornflower blue shingles and snow-white trim. Just pretend you’re at an Airbnb.
Immediately, an imaginary Airbnb listing ran through my head: Three-bedroom, three-bath lakeside cottage brimming with charm and proof your father was an asshole and your life has been a lie.
I started up the steps cut into the grassy hillside, blood rushing through my ears like fire hoses and legs wobbling, anticipating the moment the hellmouth would open and the world would drop out from under me.
That already happened. Last year. And it didn’t kill you, so neither will this.
On the porch, every sensation in my body heightened. The tingling in my face, the twist in my stomach, the sweat prickling along my neck. I balanced the box of gin against my hip and slipped the key into the lock, a part of me hoping it would jam. That all this would turn out to be an elaborate practical joke Dad had set up for us before he died.
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