The author of a classic self-help guide to love and relationships, Peter Herman has won the hearts of romantics and cynics alike. But decades have passed since Marriage Is a Canoe was published, and a recently widowed Peter begins to question his own advice. Much to his chagrin, he receives a call from Stella Petrovic, an ambitious young editor in New York City who forces him to reconsider his life’s work, not to mention the full force of his delusions. The book’s fiftieth anniversary is approaching, and Petrovic has devised a contest to promote the new edition. The prize? The chance for the winning couple—a pair of outwardly happy Brooklynites named Emily and Eli—to save their relationship by spending a weekend with the reclusive author.
Emily Babson, July 2010
“I got everything,” Eli called out. He carried his bike in one hand so its top tube was level with his ear and he swung a canvas bag full of groceries in the other hand.
Emily smiled at him from the middle of their apartment, where she stood next to the kitchen island. She had been examining a defrosting piecrust.
“Did you get cornstarch?” she asked.
Eli let their front door slam behind him, dropped the bike so it bounced once before coming to a lean against the wall, and came through the big parlor and into the kitchen. He kissed her. He smelled like iron and oil from his bicycle factory and then underneath that, the smell she’d given up trying to properly name and now just thought of as green olives, which made no sense. She loved his smell. He had dark hair that he wore a little long and his eyes were brown but sometimes she saw them flash violet. She let go of the piecrust and put a hand on his chest.
“I forgot that. I got everything else, though.”
“Blueberry pie won’t work without it.”
“Sure it will. It should. Anyway, we must have some.” He kissed her again. Eli Corelli was as tall as his wife, though he was thicker, so in photographs he looked shorter. When Emily first met him after a lecture he’d given at the New School, she thought he had legs like tree trunks and she loved that about him immediately, that he was so solid that if she were ever inclined to throw herself at him, he could catch her.
Though it was Saturday, they’d both been working all morning and now they planned to spend the rest of the day making a pie for a contest held by Emily’s sister, Sherry. Emily didn’t often go to Sherry’s parties, which Sherry threw when she was between acting jobs, but she liked the theme of this one.
“I called her and got the scoop,” Emily said. “There’s two categories, sweet and savory. And then a final big winner at the end. So our blueberry could go up against chicken potpie. Though it’s too hot for that.”
“I hope going sweet was the right move.” Eli slipped his hands around Emily’s waist.
Emily pushed the piecrust around on the counter. She’d bought it yesterday and it would take at least another hour to thaw. She’d said yes to her little sister’s pie party on Monday before her shyness held her back and now she was nervous. Emily had long ago accepted that Sherry was social and she was not. Sherry was striking to look at. She had black hair while Emily’s was only very dark brown. And Sherry’s face was all angles so her photographer friends loved to take her picture because of all the shadows they could find when they lit her. Emily’s face was softer and rounder and she was quicker to tan. Most of the time she had a spray of freckles over her nose and cheeks. She had her hair cut in bangs to contrast with her features. The sisters weren’t best friends—Sherry’s best friends were actors like her, and they changed every year or two. Emily was just three years older than Sherry. They were equally protective of each other. And if Emily was being honest, she would have to admit that she was closer to Sherry than anyone else in New York. Emily had been too shy in her twenties and then she’d surprised herself and everyone else when she met Eli and married him. But instead of becoming more confident because she had a husband who everyone loved, she had come to live too much inside their marriage. She beat herself up about this situation and often thought up schemes that would change the dynamic before it solidified and she completely lost her identity to their coupledom.
Before she was with Eli, she had trained herself to love to go to yoga at least a few times a week, to switch to merlot after a Manhattan or to just start with merlot, to not feel remorseful when she went shopping for clothes and brought home the same charcoal cashmere cardigan over and over again. She had learned to care for herself. Now she was sure she could work herself out of this newish state, and she believed that she absolutely had to before they had children. Emily was aware of the calculation that went into her decision to go to this party, aware of how purposeful she was and how she was bothered by it, but she was determined to go anyway. Eli never seemed to tear himself up the way she did. She loved Eli. But she was often frustrated with herself and jealous of her husband.
“The more I think about it, the more I don’t see how we’ll win with straight-ahead blueberry.” Eli opened some cabinets. “Blueberries are in season. Everybody is going to show up with the same pie.”
“We don’t have to win. We just want to make a yummy pie, that’s all. Not some avant-garde bacon and peach monstrosity. I want ours to be liked.”
“Liked? No, baby. It’s easy to make a likable pie. I want to see people fucking love whatever we make. I want to see forks go in mouths and swoons happen. I want to see finger licking, not liking.” Eli wouldn’t stop moving around the kitchen. He frowned. “I want to help you cook this thing, but what’s always weird about Saturday afternoons is that I need a nap.”
“I won’t sleep, but I’ll go in there with you.”
They held hands and walked into their bedroom. They rented the parlor floor of an oversize limestone town house on Clinton Street in Carroll Gardens, in Brooklyn. The tall front windows were near exactly like the ones Emily had dreamed of when she first came to New York a decade earlier. Emily had repainted and washed those windows when they moved in. The rest of the place was good, though unloved around its edges, with a noisy refrigerator and a parquet floor that would be amazing if their landlord would just sand and polish and care for it. They did their best to keep everything clean and bright, except for the bedroom, which had chocolate-brown carpet and blackout shades. Eli had painted the room a deep red when they moved in two years earlier, just a few months after they were married. It was a much sexier color than Emily would have ever thought she would like in a bedroom. When her mother had come down for a conference and stayed on their couch, Emily had kept the door to their bedroom shut.
They lay down on the bed, over the sheets.
“Did you get enough done today?” Emily asked.
“Nope. The boys in Japan want eighteen more bikes. And I’m falling behind schedule. I don’t love the stress.”
“Send them a pie.” She laughed and her eyes crinkled. She knew he liked seeing her laugh. He brushed back her bangs and kissed her.
“Maybe I will if we can make one worthy of their undying love…”
Eli kept talking about work. His six-year-old company, Roman Street Bicycles, made single-speed bike frames that were in demand all over the world. Eli was having trouble managing growth. He was determined to touch each frame and get involved with every build, and if he kept meeting demand, soon that wouldn’t be possible. Emily was thinking about work, too, about a proposal she was doing for a company that wanted to re-brand a line of cotton blankets.
“What’s a good name for a blanket?” she wondered aloud.
“I knew you weren’t listening.” Eli buried his face in her neck. Warm blanket, she thought. Soft blanket. There are so many things, Emily thought, that gain nothing from being reconsidered. Her group had been paid well a few times for suggesting that a company not change a thing. But a good brand consultant couldn’t do that every time. Eli threw an arm over her. His hand slipped behind her back. It amazed her that after four years together, they could fall asleep intertwined. She thought she would need an abstract word in front of blanket, Moomja or something. Eli. The Eli blanket …
“Kiss me,” she said. “Kiss me for one minute before you fall asleep.” He did and she was happy that she knew what to ask for from Eli. She would make that trade and stay too prim with everyone else but never with him. To be too ensconced in your marriage? Why was that bad? Emily did not consider herself a dreamy person. She believed life was made up of trade-offs and this was surely a fair one.
She woke up an hour later with her brow sweaty. She wiped her forehead and blew out air a few times, opened her eyes wide to see in that dark room. She smelled onions frying. She pulled her hair back and went into the kitchen. Eli was mixing something in a little bowl. He was in a pair of khaki shorts and nothing else. The Roman Street Bicycles logo, made up of the letters RSB wound through the spokes of a bicycle wheel, was tattooed on his left shoulder blade. Sometimes she scratched at it, as if she could take it off with her nails. Eli didn’t like it when she did that. Now she touched his back without scratching him and looked around the messy kitchen.
“What happened?” she asked. “What’d you do to my piecrust?”
Eli was looking into a glass bowl. Bits of egg bobbed in a green sauce that didn’t seem like it could possibly set. There were mounds of vegetables on cutting boards and spices everywhere. Butter was smeared in pie plates. Though she didn’t see anything cooking in a pan, the smell was now more complex than just onions.
“I had an idea,” Eli said.
“This is not blueberry pie. I love you, Eli. But this doesn’t look like a winner.”
“No it is, don’t worry. I saw eggs in the fridge and we have potatoes and there’s prosciutto that I bought with that old Staubitz gift certificate. But the green sauce is the key. That’s our secret weapon. I called my uncle Frito. We’ll go savory with a breakfast pie for dinner that’s actually like a timbale and we’ll win. I’m going to get the male vote. You watch.”
“Uncle Frito, in Mexico, who created the Frito pie. He had a good pointer for me so I’m glad I called.”
“I don’t get how just because your mother is from Chile it allows you to both claim and denigrate all of South America,” Emily said. She was Jewish and had grown up in Milton, outside Boston. And then her parents divorced when she and Sherry were still in middle school and their mother had gone to Maine to teach at Bates. So Emily felt strictly Northeastern and was even a little proud of it.
“Take it easy, Mrs. Laid-back. This pie is initially subtle and then studded with fire. Or it will be if I can get it to set right.” Eli stroked his chin. “You go take a shower. Let me do a few more secret South American things.”
“This isn’t very team,” Emily said.
“Sometimes one member of a team needs blind support and then the whole team ends up winning,” Eli said. “Actually, it’s like that a lot. Look at Lance Armstrong.” He grabbed a spoon and dipped it into the bowl. “Taste.”
“No. If you expect blind support, I won’t. What illegal something extra did you put in there, Lance?”
So she did and the sauce was smoky and fiery and everything Eli said it would be.
“It’s delicious,” she said. “I guess I’ll get dressed. You’ll get the male and the female vote.”
When Emily came out of their bedroom she was in a dark blue summer dress with white polka dots.
“You look hot,” Eli said. “Later you’ll pull that dress up around your thighs and we’ll do our victory dance on a tabletop. You can flash your underpants at the boys.”
There were two big paper bags on the kitchen counter. Tomorrow she’d bake a pie with the blueberries and bring it to work on Monday.
“How about clothes for you?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah.” Eli threw on a shirt and found his flip-flops by the door. “Also, I need your help with the speech.”
“I don’t want to be at a loss for words when we win.”
* * *
Sherry lived on Lorimer Street in Williamsburg above a recently shut-down restaurant called Baba. She had briefly dated Nicola, the restaurant’s owner. Sherry mostly appeared in productions at Playwrights Horizons and in new plays by Kenneth Lonergan and Annie Baker. Because she was intermittently funny and conventionally beautiful, she occasionally flew out to Hollywood or Vancouver for supporting roles in movies starring Anna Faris.
“I know,” Sherry said to Emily once Eli had gone off to set out their pies. “I’m all sweaty.”
“Don’t be dumb. You look like somebody’s dream come true,” Emily said.
Sherry was in a black dress with a thick white sash across the middle. Her lipstick was bright red. She had a habit of biting her lower lip and she did that now.
“You do get that I’m a truck-stop waitress?”
“I do,” Emily said. “It works.”
Baba had been a bodega before becoming Baba, a wine-and-small-plates place, and then Nicola gave up on it and went down to Miami to run a catering business. But Sherry had a key and was friendly with the landlord. Now the small room was filled with round café tables with a pie stuck with a numbered flag on each one. The place smelled like spilled wine and it was noisy.
“You told me twenty people,” Emily said. “This is more like forty.”
“Micky’s friend is coming with his klezmer band,” a voice called out, close to Emily’s ear.
“I’m hearing that savory is the true challenge category,” Eli said, joining them.
“Somebody actually did mince. Is it secret ballot or a panel of judges?”
“Bits of paper with numbers in a hat and then we count them and see which pie got the most votes,” Sherry said.
“I’m going to eat.” Eli found a paper plate. “Secret ballot. I like that.”
Sherry and Emily exchanged a smile. The other thing about Eli was that, at thirty-seven, he was still kind of a big kid. Though Emily was only thirty-two, she never felt younger than him. Sherry went away and Emily watched Eli spy on people as they tried out the pies. He was never far from her, and not more than a minute went by when he didn’t at least have one arm around her. He liked to hold her high, his hand covering her ribs just below her breast. Or he would slide his hand low on her back. They could easily have gotten pulled away from each other. But it didn’t happen. Instead, he knew her shyness and by staying where she could see him, he kept it from overwhelming her. He was there, guiding her, keeping her fresh and near and safe and happy. He didn’t talk about it with her. He just knew.
Though people kept threatening that the klezmer band was minutes away, it hadn’t yet arrived, so Sherry brought a speaker dock down from her apartment and someone plugged their phone into it. An old Neil Young song came on: “Sugar Mountain.” Emily strained to listen to it. Outside, it had begun to rain and the sudden summer shower made the people standing by the open windows laugh and show off their wet shoulders. Emily told herself that Eli was like a Neil Young song she wanted to hear over and over again. People were still coming in. A short young woman with dark hair yanked the door open and threw herself inside. She had just the sort of long loose ringlets Emily didn’t care for. Untamable creature, Emily thought, as the woman shook the water out of her hair and looked around. But that wasn’t fair. The woman was beautiful, a beautiful mess. Emily tried to feel sympathetic. It would have been unbearable for her to arrive late and wet and empty-handed and have people look her over. The woman threw down a camouflage-patterned duffel bag and smiled wide at no one. Emily resisted an urge to tell her to put her bag somewhere farther from the door, so no stranger lurking on the street just outside the party would take the opportunity to reach a hand inside and steal it.
“Jenny?” Sherry called out. “Hi!” Sherry went over and hugged the woman, who was wearing a denim skirt and flip-flops and a billowy blue-and-white-striped sleeveless top that showed off her jangly breasts.
“Hey. I didn’t bake anything. I literally just got out of a cab from Kennedy is why. But I am sure ready to chow down on some pie!”
“Jenny, this is my sister, Emily. Jenny’s moving back from L.A. soon and this is, like, her scouting trip.”
“Yeah, you know, like where I look for an apartment and a job.” Jenny made a bummer face by rolling her eyes and frowning. Emily saw Eli come back toward them. He’d been pushing people to vote for his pie. There had been a lot of jokes about electioneering too near a polling place.
“We are looking good,” he said. “Great feedback. I love that the chiles are making people sweat.”
“And this is Eli Corelli, my brother-in-law.”
Jenny raised her eyebrows. She’d already grabbed a plate and scooped up a piece of someone’s pistachio-currant pie—a pie that had barely been touched.
“Roman Street Bicycles, right?” Jenny spoke with her mouth full. “I’ve totally heard of you. I’ve ridden your bikes.”
“You have one?”
“No. I have an old beater I never use. In L.A. we don’t get to ride enough to justify buying an RSB bike. I’m excited to start biking again.”
“Who made the pie called Uncle Frito’s Special?” someone called out. “We’re ready to vote!”
“Excuse me.” Eli smiled. “I need to make myself available for last-minute questions.”
“Even though nobody is supposed to know who made what,” Sherry called after him.
“I better get my eat on before it’s all gone.” Jenny gave Sherry a quick hug. “You look super-hot, by the way. I’d take an extra cup of joe from you for sure.”
“Where do you know her from?” Emily watched Jenny use her fingers to pull bits of crust off someone’s imitation of a Momofuku crack pie.
“College. She’s funny. She has a million weird hobbies so she’s really adaptable to scenes. She was always like that.”
“Scenes?” Emily smiled. “Is she an actress, too?”
“No—like you and the industrial design scene. Don’t be fake-naive. You know what I mean,” Sherry said. “Drink this wine. That rich guy over there brought it so it must be good. Jenny should call Eli,” Sherry said.
“She managed some photographers in L.A. and that went really well. I’m sure she can help with Eli’s company. You know, help figure out how to grow the business. Isn’t that the thing he’s always whining about?”
Emily nodded a yes. Eli was close again. She reached out with her hand and Eli slipped his arm around her waist.
“What are we talking about?” Eli asked. “That guy was really critical of my pie.”
“Don’t worry,” Sherry said. “In my experience sweet never beats savory. But at the same time, yours is maybe a little out there.”
“Whatever. My genius is misunderstood.”
“We were just saying it would be great if you hooked Jenny up with a job. She’s amazing once she gets focused. She totally knows how to run a business.”
“Does she? Maybe we can set something up,” Eli said. “I definitely need help.” He took a long pull on his beer.
Emily looked around her at the field of little tables, some with nothing but an empty pie plate in the middle, picked clean and scarred with knife cuts, and others with barely touched pies that were beginning to break down at the seams, pies that had turned someone off too early and that nobody was willing to touch now.
“Don’t worry,” Emily said. “I’ll help you clean up. And you’re right. If she’s good at organizing, Eli should hire her. He needs that.”
Sherry smiled. She said, “About the mess? I wasn’t worried. If this thing with Jenny works, we totally did a mitzvah. I’ll tell Mom.”
“She only cares if it makes you happy,” Emily said.
“Well, if Jenny helps Eli and makes him more successful and that’s good for you, then that does make me happy. So I’ll tell Mom, okay?” Sherry winked at some late arrivals. “I’m sure I’ll talk to her tomorrow and she’ll ask about tonight and whether you had a good time and were social and fun—which is hilarious since how social is she? Not very. I am going to call her out on that tomorrow. Maybe.”
“I am social!” Emily said, too loud. “How big of a problem is that, anyway? It is not a problem, actually.”
Sherry raised an eyebrow at Emily. “It kind of is. You’re definitely defensive about it.”
“Emily is a sensitive soul.” Eli pulled Emily in and tried to kiss the top of her head, but she squirmed away. “And I love her for it.”
“Thank you very much,” Emily said. “I love being labeled. Now can we move off the subject of me right now, please?”
BEN SCHRANK is president and publisher of Razorbill, a Penguin imprint that is home to many award-winning and New York Times–bestselling books for children and young adults. Ben is the author of the Sarah Crichton Books novel Love Is a Canoe as well as the novels Consent and Miracle Man. He wrote “Ben’s Life,” a monthly column for Seventeen magazine, in the 1990s. He grew up in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and son.