I'm Fine And Neither Are You
By Camille Pagán
Lake Union; hardcover, $24.95; eBook, $4.99
Honesty is the best policy, except maybe when it comes to marriage in Camille Pagán's fifth novel, I'm Fine And Neither Are You.
Penelope Ruiz-Kar wears many hats, among them wife, mother, breadwinner. She is doing it all, but barely keeping it together.
Meanwhile, her best friend, Jenny Sweet, appears to be sailing through life. Jenny's passionate marriage, pristine house, and ultra-polite child are in stark contrast to Penelope's underemployed husband, Sanjay, their unruly brood, and the daily grind of her career.
A shocking tragedy then reveals that Jenny's life is far from perfect. Penelope is reeling and vows to stop keeping the peace and deal with the issues in her relationship.
Pagán writes in the voice of Penelope, "Sanjay and I met sixteen years earlier at Hudson, a now-defunct glossy magazine that envisioned itself as the love child of Harper's and Vanity Fair. I had been working as a junior editor for nearly a year when he was hired as an assistant to the music editor. The attraction had been instant - I could still recall the electricity that shot through me when our eyes locked as we were being introduced, and the flutter that stayed in my stomach long after he sauntered away, all long limbs and quiet confidence.
"Within months we were a couple. We had seemed so perfect for each other that I remember wondering why we hadn't come together even sooner. We both aspired to be writers - me, children's books; him, music journalism - and wished to one day have families happier than the ones we had grown up with. We talked for hours before lapsing into the most comfortable silence, and traveled well together. Any arguments we had were swiftly resolved in bed.
"But after two years of dating, I abruptly decided I wasn't ready to settle down - which really meant 'I'm only twenty-five and I'm scared of how serious this is.' I knew the minute I broke up with him that I shouldn't have, but the wheel was in motion and I did not allow myself to consider that I might have made a mistake. We were too young to choose life partners - and besides, he probably would have broken up with me eventually. Wasn't it smarter to preempt him and deal with the loss on my own terms?
"That was the story I told myself for several years. At first, I proved just how not ready I was to settle down by dating a succession of jerks. Then I entered a semiserious relationship with a stoner who loved me even more than weed and wanted to know why I refused to say those three words to him. I finally told him it was because I didn't, and spent the following year solo. It was then that I realized that living without Sanjay was far worse than living with the fear that he might leave me. I'd made a terrible mistake - possibly the biggest of my life. But it was too late.
"He had left Hudson several months before we broke up, and through our friends I learned he was still working as a research assistant for a historian at Columbia and dabbling in writing on the side. He had moved from Harlem to Greenpoint, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, and had a serious girlfriend - a woman of Indian descent I bet he loved, even if our friends were too nice to tell me as much.
"Then one rainy September evening we bumped into each other outside his favorite bookstore in the East Village. I would call it a coincidence, but it was really the consequence of me indulging myself by walking past his old haunts, as I occasionally did on my way home from work or when I should have been doing something productive. I didn't really think I would see Sanjay - not on a random Friday night. Yet just as I was approaching the shop, he emerged from it.
"I remember thinking my eyes were playing tricks on me. How could the tall man in dark jeans and a corduroy blazer possibly be Sanjay? Surely this was another handsome if awfully thin Indian guy. Had I conjured him up? Maybe I would duck behind my umbrella and scurry past so I wouldn't look like the stalker I sort of was.
"Then he called to me: 'Penny.'
"Our eyes met and I gave him a self-conscious smile.
"'Hey,' we said at the same time. Then we both laughed.
"He was holding a book wrapped in a paper bag in one hand, and he gestured with it. I folded my umbrella and joined him under the bookstore awning, which was sending water cascading down in front of us. We watched it for a while before speaking.
"'How have you been?' he said.
"'I've missed you,' I confessed.
"'I've missed you, too.' Though he was sheepish, I thought I saw something else in his eyes. After three years, he probably didn't love me anymore. Yet as I stared deeper into the black pools of his pupils, I allowed myself to consider that maybe he did.
"'Do you want to get out of here? Go get a cup of tea, or whatever you'd like?' I said, and I mean it. This was nothing if not love at second sight. When I saw him striding out of the bookstore, I understood my life would never be the same - if only he would take me wherever he was going.
"He did not respond for several seconds, and my heart gave me a little lurch as I prepared to hear him say no.
"'Yes,' he said.
"We were engaged two months later and married within a year. I had never been one for weddings, and the three hundred people Sanjay's parents invited to our reception put me off of them for good. But we emerged from the experience as blissful newlyweds. Finding and furnishing an apartment; hosting dinner parties and our first Thanksgiving dinner; traveling to new places, whether it was a Puerto Rican restaurant in the Bronx that purported to have the best empanadillas in New York, or to Mumbai to be feted by his father's family - it was all an adventure with Sanjay at my side. And though that giddy pace slowed when his premed classes began to eat up his nights and weekends, it remained a heady time, brimming with possibility and promise.
"I had never wanted out back then."
Penelope comes up with a radical proposal for Sanjay: both will write a list of changes they want each other to make, and then commit to complete and total honesty.
What seems like a smart idea unravels rapidly, and reveals new rifts and even deeper secrets. As Penelope stares down the possible implosion of her marriage, she must ask herself: When it comes to love, is honesty really the best policy?
Pagán is the author of four novels, including Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties; Forever is the Worst Long Time; The Art of Forgetting; and the #1 Amazon Kindle bestseller Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, which was recently optioned for film. She is also a journalist and health editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Forbes, and Real Simple. Find out more at www.camillepagan.com.