On Second Thought(9)

By: Kristan Higgins

Against all odds, she made it. In fact, she ran a half marathon last month and raised more than twenty-five grand for cancer research. That was when Eric started training for one, too.

But Eric’s cancer journey had been...well, it had been easy. Easy as cancer journeys go, that is. No hair loss (though he did shave his head). Only two days of puking and diarrhea that might’ve been caused by some iffy sushi. He lost fifteen pounds, but then again, he needed to, and it was more through our new macrobiotic diet than because of chemo. There was one week where he took a nap every day.

So what Rob’s wife had said was true. If there was a cancer you had to have, testicular was the way to go. And Eric had sailed through it like a champ.

I knew he exaggerated on his blog, but I didn’t bring it up. He had cancer, for the love of God.

And he won. Maybe his battle wasn’t as tough as other people’s, but he won.

My throat was tight with happy tears. I set Ollie back on the floor so he could win more hearts and minds, and took a breath, wanting to press our night into my memory forever. Three Wall Streeters were laughing in the corner. Lillie, my college roommate, was giggling with her fiancé. Everyone looked so happy.

Almost everyone, that was.

“You really went all out, didn’t you?” My stepmother, Candy, appeared at my elbow. “I can’t imagine what this cost.”

“So worth it, though,” I said, determined not to let her ruin my mood.

“If you say so.” She gave me her patented, squinty look of disappointment—I did my best, but look what I had to work with.

A word about Candy.

She and Dad were each other’s once and future spouses, as it were. The first time around, they met in college, got married, had Sean and Kate. Then, when Kate was seven, they got a divorce.

Not very long after the divorce—a few months, I was told—Dad married my mother, Michelle, who died when I was three. A pickup truck hit her one Sunday afternoon as she was riding her bike. Six months after that, Dad went back to Candy and married her again.

Candy wasn’t an evil stepmother. She took care of me when I was sick and asked if I did my homework, but...well. She already had her children, and they were past the age when they needed help brushing their teeth. I was not encouraged to call her Mom. “Your mother is in heaven,” she’d say calmly if the M-word slipped out, as it sometimes did. “You can call me Candy.”

Dad, who had been a great baseball player in college but not quite good enough to play for a living, was an umpire for Major League Baseball. He traveled seven months of the year, so the bulk of my upbringing fell to Candy. And while she did take my father back, she never got over him dumping her for a younger, prettier woman. Every few years, she’d announce that she was divorcing Dad, though she never followed through.

Candy had a PhD in psychology and had authored several books on family dynamics, including The Toxic Mommy and Stuck with You: Raising the Recalcitrant Stepchild. Other cheerful titles included Freeing Yourself from Your Family and Parenting When You’ve Got Nothing Left. She was a bit of a celebrity on the parenting circuit, and also the advice columnist for Hudson Lifestyle, which she wrote under the name Dr. Lovely.

She was great out in public and took her appearance very seriously—expensive blond hair, glaring white teeth, a perfect size four, five foot two, abs of steel. At book signings and whenever confronted with a fan, she’d morph into a smiley, warm, wonderful person who never minded taking photos.

With us—with me, I should say—she remained brittle. Which was okay. She had her reasons, and she’d never been cruel or angry toward me. Just resigned. She got her man back, but with the stiff price tag in the form of a toddler.

“Oh, honey, this is gorgeous,” said Eric’s mom, Judy, pouncing on me with a hug. “You’re so wonderful, you know that? And look at you! So beautiful!”

“Thanks, Judy!”

“Candy, how are you? Isn’t this a special day?”

“It is.” My stepmother forced a smile, then backed away. Judy and I exchanged a look. We’d gossip about everything tomorrow. Tomorrow, when I’d be engaged.