THE ROM CON Excerpt
Releases November 7, 2023! Pre-order here.
Gran picks up her teacup again. “Enough of my blathering. What else is new with you? How’s work?”
“It’s good,” I tell her, the question earning a genuine smile. “Busy as always.”
For the last four years, I’ve worked as an editor at Siren, a female-run, female-focused news and entertainment website that covers everything from current events to fashion to relationship trends to pop culture. My boss, Cynthia Barnes-Cooke, founded the site out of her apartment nearly ten years ago, though today Siren employs more than twenty full-time editors and two hundred contract writers. We produce at a punishing pace, publishing more than two hundred pieces of content a day, and I love everything about it: the responsibility of managing a team of writers, the diversity of content I get to work on, helping shape the growth strategy. In our last funding round, the site was valued at more than $200 million.
“Any update on the book? How’s it coming?” Gran asks casually, focusing studiously on dipping her tea bag instead of on me. Even so, I feel myself deflate.
Gran is one of the few people to whom I’ve confessed my ultimate career ambition: to write the next great American novel—or at least, something buzzy enough to get picked for Reese’s Book Club or O magazine’s list of “Summer’s Hottest Beach Reads.” Natalia thinks I’m psyching myself out by starting with such lofty expectations, but I hardly think I’m setting the bar too high (and as Gran’s so impartially pointed out, Reese or Jenna or Oprah would be lucky to have me). The only problem? I have no clue what to write about. I know what it takes to stand out in the publishing world, and none of my ideas feels fresh or high-concept enough. What’s the point of writing a book if it’s just going to fade into the background like some sort of literary wallflower?
I’m a wannabe author with writer’s block. I hate myself for the cliché.
“No update. Still searching for a topic that’ll set the publishing world on fire.”
Gran hums noncommittally, sipping her tea.
“I’m going to be in another wedding,” I blurt before she can work her way up to a follow-up question I won’t have an answer for.
“What number is this one?”
I wince. “Lucky number seven.”
“Pretty soon you’ll be the girl in that movie, with all the bridesmaid dresses.” She looks tickled.
“I will not be that girl, because I sell all the dresses before they even get back from their honeymoon.” Thanks to a bridesmaid’s best friends, eBay and Poshmark. “But you’re gonna love this next part.”
Her eyes light up. “Is it a destination wedding?”
She claps her hands in delight. “Can I be your plus-one?”
“You know what, maybe. I’d certainly have more fun with you than as the perpetual third wheel with all my couple friends.”
“I wouldn’t want to steal the spotlight from the bride,” she says, deadpan.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” I respond, just as seriously.
“Or maybe you’ll meet someone by then!” Ever the optimist.
“Maybe I’ll win the lottery, too,” I say dryly. And frankly, I’m gonna need to if I have a prayer of continuing to afford the never-ending merry-go-round of bachelorette parties, bridal showers, and tropical nuptials I’m forced to attend. I have half a mind to start a GoFundMe to finance my lifestyle as a serial bridesmaid. No one would be able to resist my tear-jerking backstory: destitution via wedding gift.
I heave a sigh. I hate that I’m starting to hate weddings. “Let’s face it, weddings just aren’t any fun without a significant other. It’s like they’re designed to make single people feel pathetic and inadequate. And you know I hate saying that out loud because it goes against everything I stand for.”
It’s the truth. I’ve never bought into the narrative that life doesn’t start until you meet “The One” or that I won’t be whole until I’ve found my “other half.” In fact, I’m that annoying friend you can count on to trot out trite platitudes like “A man can’t love you until you love yourself” or “A fulfilling life starts by being full.”
But I can’t deny that when I arrive back to my empty apartment each night, I wish there was someone waiting inside for me. Sometimes I even imagine I’ll see him when I swing open the door, this phantasm who looks a little like Henry Cavill or Scott Eastwood or maybe a Magnum, P.I.–era Tom Selleck (there’s just something about that mustache–chest hair combo that gets my motor running). Someone who’d be interested in the tiny, insignificant details of my day, who’d take my side on every petty grievance, then mount his steed and ride into battle, vowing vengeance on those who dared to wrong me. Someone who’d ruin my perfectly curated Netflix queue of time-traveler romance and angsty teen dramas with sweaty man shows like Jack Reacher or Yellowstone. I ache for someone to curl my body against on the couch, to fall asleep in the embrace of a man who’d spoon me so tight I’d overheat.
“Wanting a partner isn’t a weakness,” Gran reminds me, as if she can read my thoughts.
“I know that. I just feel like all these weddings have turned me into this Bitter Betty, and that’s not who I am. Most of the time I like being independent.”
“Maybe you’re too independent,” she muses thoughtfully. “Men like to feel needed, you know. Sometimes I would pretend I couldn’t open the pickle jar just so your grandfather could feel useful.”
I wave a hand dismissively. “Women in your generation were different than mine. We don’t have to make ourselves small for men to feel big.”
She freezes with the teacup halfway to her lips. “I’m sorry?”
Crap. I’m so comfortable with my grandma that I somehow forgot the first rule of journalism: Know your audience. “That came out wrong. What I meant was—”
“Oh, I know exactly what you meant.” She bangs her cup down on the saucer so roughly, tea splashes over the side. “You think you’ve got it all figured out, Miss Modern Gal-About-Town? You think you have nothing to learn from the women who came before you? Never mind the hard-earned lessons learned from a nearly fifty-year marriage. What could this old fuddy-duddy possibly have to teach you?”
I hold up my hands in surrender. “Point taken. That was very judgmental. I didn’t mean it the way it came out, and I’m sorry.”
She pins me under her gaze, her expression shrewdly assessing. “You know, the world you’re living in might look different than mine did, but the rules haven’t changed. Men still want the same things.”
I can’t help myself. “Like what, to be waited on hand and foot? To have their laundry folded and dinner on the table when they walk through the door?”
Her eyes narrow. Pretty sure if I wasn’t twenty-eight, she’d paddle me. “They want to feel like men. They want to pursue, provide, and protect. That’s biological, no matter what you want to tell yourself.”
“Maybe that’s my problem, then,” I muse. “I don’t need a man to provide for me. And I can kill my own spiders. Heck, I can even have a baby on my own! Honestly, sometimes I think women have evolved past men entirely.”
“Well, keep telling men you don’t need them, and don’t be surprised when you find yourself all alone.”
Ouch. “That was harsh, Gran.”
“The truth hurts, doesn’t it? I swear, your generation needs a reprogramming. You’re all too liberated for your own good. I should sign you up for The Bachelor,” she mutters, then suddenly straightens and snaps her fingers. “Wait.”
“You are not signing me up for The Bachelor.”
She ignores me, squinting into the air as if racking her brain. “Yes, I’m sure I still have it. It’s got to be in the study . . .” she murmurs, then gets to her feet, padding down the hallway that leads to the back of the house.
I resign myself to going along on this tangent and follow dutifully behind her, and eventually she veers off into her home office, heading straight for the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves spanning the back wall. She slips on the glasses hanging from a chain around her neck and starts grazing the spines with her fingertips, brushing past my grandpa’s old engineering texts and Ludlum thrillers, and her own cozy mysteries and romance novels.
While she hunts for whatever it is she’s looking for, I peruse the framed photos lining the shelves, which is akin to taking a trip through time via fashion. My favorite is the one of my grandparents all dressed up—he in his Navy dress whites and she in an off-the-shoulder red dress and fur stole that would fetch a mint in one of the city’s upscale vintage shops. In a posed family portrait, she’s every bit the stately matriarch in a boxy Jackie O suit and white gloves. There’s one of my grandpa with his arms around their boys, the Jersey shoreline in the background, the sea air wreaking havoc on their windblown hair. And then I spot a picture of them with my siblings and me from a family trip we took to the Grand Canyon, my awkward stage on full display in braces and curly bangs. “Ugh, why is this the picture you chose to frame?”
She pauses her search to glance over, then clucks her tongue. “Oh stop it, you look adorable. A little gawky, maybe. But look at the swan you grew into.”
“You used to tell me I looked ‘gamine’ instead of ‘gawky.’” I remember this detail so vividly because it’s one of the many reasons I fell in love with the written word, that just a slight variation in letters had the power to improve the mindset of an awkward, gangly teenage girl. “Anyway, it’s a real mystery why I never heard back from those model searches I was constantly entering at the back of Teen magazine.” I place the frame back on the shelf, stealthily nudging it behind a couple of others.
“Aha! I knew I still had it.” She pulls a dark hardback from one of the lower shelves and hands it to me triumphantly—and when I see the title, I nearly choke on my tongue: I Do: Rules & Etiquette for the Military Wife.
“Oh, my . . .”
I drift toward an overstuffed floral love seat set up in the corner of the room and switch on the reading lamp. Inside the front cover is a faded inscription on the flyleaf: Welcome to the club, Joanie! Everything about the book—from its worn linen cover to the thick card stock and its musty smell—appears ancient. I check the copyright: originally published in 1952. “Where did you get this?”
“Every woman who married a Navy man was given this book.”
“You’re telling me this was government-sanctioned? As in, required reading?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. It was a bit of a joke among the ladies, though I can’t say we ignored the suggestions.”
I start thumbing through the pages, noting the chapter headings with wry amusement—Indoctrination of Wives; An Efficient Kitchen; Matri-Money—when a loose sheaf of papers falls from the back cover onto the floor. I bend to pick them up and unfold them gingerly, noting the signs of age in the creased and yellowed pages. They seem to be ripped from a magazine.
I read the headline on the top sheet and gasp. “Gran, you have got to be kidding me.”
I hold it aloft like a prosecutor presenting damning evidence. “‘125 Tips to Hook a Husband’?!”
She squints at the page for a moment before breaking into a grin. “I’d forgotten I’d saved this.” She plucks it out of my hand, skimming it and occasionally chuckling to herself.
“Okay, you need to explain yourself.”
She waves a hand, as though such reading material is as normal and mundane as the Sunday paper. “It’s just an article I ripped out of an old McCall’s or Ladies Home Journal a long time ago. Back when I was single.”
I do some fast math. “You’ve saved this since the fifties?” I say, incredulous. “Did you use this to trick Grandpa?”
She recoils, affronted. “Excuse me? Of course I did not trick your grandfather! My goodness, you’re really on a roll today,” she huffs.
“Well then, why do you have it?” I ask, suitably chastened.
“What do you mean, why? I didn’t meet your grandfather ’til I was nearly thirty! I was considered a spinster in most circles. I needed all the help I could get!”
I narrow my eyes, not missing her subtle dig—I’m nearly thirty. No one’s better at camouflaging an insult than my grandmother. “Thanks for that.”
She smiles innocently, passing the pages back to me. “You should take this advice. There are a lot of great tips in here.”
I scan the list, then snort. “Like ‘Read the obituaries to find eligible widowers’?”
She shrugs. “It’s not the worst idea.”
“‘Learn to sew and wear something you’ve made yourself.’”
“It shows him you’re thrifty!”
“‘Ask his mother for recipes.’ I hate cooking.”
She looks scandalized. “Whatever you do, don’t tell a man that. Or his mother.”
“‘Find out about the girls he hasn’t married and don’t repeat their mistakes.’”
“That one’s just a no-brainer.”
“‘Point out to him that the death rate of single men is twice that of married men’?!” I throw the pages down. “Gran, be serious.”
“What? Statistics don’t lie! No harm in instilling a little fear,” she says defensively.
“I am not using these ‘tips,’” I say, my fingers locked in tight air quotes, “to trap a husband. They’re ridiculous and antiquated and you know it.” I scan the list again anyway, shaking my head. “Funny, though. I can’t believe women actually used to do this stuff.”
“Oh, I think you will use them.”
I glance up. “Excuse me? How’s that?”
A slow, devious smile blooms on her face, melting the years and lines of age away. It takes me a second to place the familiar glint of mischief in her eyes until I realize: It’s the same teasing gleam I see when I look in the mirror.
“Because it’s my birthday, and this is what I want as my gift.”
I cross my arms and tilt my head, my body language communicating: You can’t be serious. She meets my gaze steadily, her smug expression confirming: As a heart attack.
“What, the Hamilton tickets weren’t enough?”
She throws up her hands. “Cass, just read the book and give some of the tips a shot. What do you have to lose?”
“Uh, my dignity?”
“Pfft.” She waves a hand. “Overrated.”
“You’re actually suggesting I behave like a submissive 1950s trophy wife?!”
“I’m suggesting you consider that some of those tips might actually have merit. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result, right? You’re sitting here telling me you wish things were different, but you’re not willing to change your behavior or consider another way.” She raps the book cover with a knuckle. “Here’s another way.”
“I hardly think you blackmailing me into highly problematic, subservient behavior is a proportional response for my lack of a wedding date.”
“Oh, ‘blackmail’ is such a strong word,” she says airily. “Think of this as . . . an experiment.”
I open my mouth to argue further, but the word triggers something in my brain and I pause.
This article—one my grandmother’s saved for seventy years—is exactly the kind of story we salivate over at Siren. Just reprinting these half-baked dating tips in all their ridiculous retro glory would generate a million clicks and even more shares, but what if we actually tested them on some unsuspecting suitors? I can see the headline now: "I tried these old-fashioned dating tips so you don’t have to!" Subhead: "June Cleaver meets the modern Manhattanite." We could even turn it into a recurring series. It’s a content gold mine.
Gran’s voice snaps me out of my reverie. “I know you wouldn’t deny an old woman one of her last requests.”
I laugh in spite of myself. “Please, you’re going to outlive us all.”
She wags a finger at me. “I won’t be around forever! My clock is ticking. And I want to see you happy.”
“I am happy.”
“But you could be happier.”
I groan and drop my head into my hands. “I can’t win.”
She shrugs, unrepentant. “I just call it like I see it.”
“You should consider a filter.”
“Nah. One of the few benefits of being ninety is that I’m allowed to say whatever I want, whenever I want. And pressure my grandchildren into doing my bidding, of course,” she adds with a wink.
“I see. And how exactly do you think”—I consult the list—“‘Asking him to carry my hatbox’ or ‘Dropping my handkerchief’ is going to secure me a significant other?”
She pats my hand. “You’re smart and creative, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
“That’s it, huh?”
“What, you need me to lend you a handkerchief?” I sigh in defeat as she starts for the door. “Now that we’re agreed, I want some more of that cake,” she tosses over her shoulder.
“I did not agree to this,” I call after her—but I know I’ve lost before the words have even left my mouth.