Cover image for Blue stars
Title:
Blue stars
Author:
Tedrowe, Emily Gray, author.
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2015.
Physical Description:
344 pages ; 24 cm
Summary:
"Emily Gray Tedrowe has written an extraordinary novel about ordinary people, a graceful and gritty portrayal of what it's like for the women whose husbands and sons are deployed in Iraq. BLUE STARS brings to life the realities of the modern day home front: how to get through the daily challenges of motherhood and holding down a job while bearing the stress and uncertainty of war, when everything can change in an instant. It tells the story of Ellen, a Midwestern literature professor, who is drawn into the war when her legal ward Michael enlists as a Marine; and of Lacey, a proud Army wife who struggles to pay the bills and keep things going for her son while her husband is deployed. Ellen and Lacey cope with the fear and stress of a loved one at war while trying to get by in a society that often ignores or misunderstands what war means to women today. When Michael and Eddie are injured in Iraq, Ellen and Lacey's lives become intertwined in Walter Reed Army Hospital, where each woman must live while caring for her wounded soldier. They form an alliance, and an unlikely friendship, while helping each other survive the dislocated world of the army hospital. Whether that means fighting for proper care for their men, sharing a six-pack, or coping with irrevocable loss, Ellen and Lacey pool their strengths to make it through. In the end, both women are changed, not only by the war and its fallout, but by each other. "--
General Note:
Subtitle from book jacket.
Language:
English
Genre:
ISBN:
9781250052483
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

Emily Gray Tedrowe has written an extraordinary novel about ordinary people, a graceful and gritty portrayal of what it's like for the women whose husbands and sons are deployed in Iraq.
BLUE STARS brings to life the realities of the modern day home front: how to get through the daily challenges of motherhood and holding down a job while bearing the stress and uncertainty of war, when everything can change in an instant. It tells the story of Ellen, a Midwestern literature professor, who is drawn into the war when her legal ward Michael enlists as a Marine; and of Lacey, a proud Army wife who struggles to pay the bills and keep things going for her son while her husband is deployed. Ellen and Lacey cope with the fear and stress of a loved one at war while trying to get by in a society that often ignores or misunderstands what war means to women today. When Michael and Eddie are injured in Iraq, Ellen and Lacey's lives become intertwined in Walter Reed Army Hospital, where each woman must live while caring for her wounded soldier. They form an alliance, and an unlikely friendship, while helping each other survive the dislocated world of the army hospital. Whether that means fighting for proper care for their men, sharing a six-pack, or coping with irrevocable loss, Ellen and Lacey pool their strengths to make it through. In the end, both women are changed, not only by the war and its fallout, but by each other.


Author Notes

EMILY GRAY TEDROWE is the author of COMMUTERS: A Novel, which was named a Best New Paperback by Entertainment Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal, Fifty-Two Stories, and Other Voices. She lives in Chicago with her family.


Reviews 2

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Ellen an English professor in Madison, Wisconsin; longtime widow, and Edith Wharton expert would never have met Lacey, a personal trainer with a wild streak, living just outside New York City, if men in their lives hadn't gone to war in Iraq. Shocked and frightened when Mike, whom Ellen took in when he was a homeless teen, joins the marines, she comes undone when she learns that her tempestuous, 19-year-old, activist daughter is pregnant. Lacey, a single mother, married army officer Eddie in the hope of a more stable life, but instead she is lonely and still poor. When Mike and Eddie are seriously injured, they end up at Walter Reed Hospital, where Ellen and Lacey, characters of gratifying moxie and complexity, find themselves struggling with fear, sorrow, upheaval, infuriating bureaucracy, and deplorable accommodations. Tedrowe (Commuters, 2010), a deeply perceptive observer of family dynamics complicated by social and moral concerns, offers staggering insights into the struggles of military families and the ghastly conditions at Walter Reed that erupted into scandal in 2007. Tedrowe's sensitive parsing of questions of loyalty, honor, and sacrifice illuminates the wrenching conflicts inherent in women's lives and a nation at war with a clear, searching light and pinpoint humor, resulting in an enormously affecting novel guaranteed to generate much thought and discussion.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2015 Booklist


Library Journal Review

Tedrowe (Commuters) explores the life of military women, both mothers and wives, in this emotional novel. When military wife Lacey's husband, Eddie, is sent to Iraq, she knows to lean on her military wife friends for support. But university professor Ellen is a different story. After formally adopting Mike, her son's friend who had a terrible home life, she has grown to love him as her own. When Mike joins the military, it is far out of Ellen's bailiwick. The novel picks up steam when both Eddie and Mike are injured and sent to Walter Reed Army Hospital in DC to recuperate. Both Ellen and Lacey drop everything at home and leave their lives behind, focusing only on helping their soldiers heal. This is an incredibly difficult task, and Tedrowe beautifully illustrates the intense, complicated process. Based on a true story of the poor facilities at Walter Reed, the novel conveys the stress and hopelessness of both women's situations. But as they become friends and their families become entwined, we see the beauty of a female friendship that can truly heal wounds. VERDICT A deep look into the strain of being a military wife and mother and the power of women and their emotional bonds. [See Prepub Alert, 8/18/14.]-Beth Gibbs, Davidson, NC (c) Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter 1 Madison, Wisconsin January 2005 Ellen Silverman adjusted the cookbook stand so she could see the page in between bursts of chopping vegetables. Beneath the spattered plastic shield was a new collection of essays about Edith Wharton she was to review. (It had been years since she'd needed to refer to a cookbook.) Each time she scooped a handful of peelings and carried them to the garbage can Maisie, their twelve- year-old golden retriever, lifted her head to assess her chances, dropping it back to her paws when Ellen returned to the counter. Black bean chili sputtered on the stove, a chocolate torte from the bakery was in the fridge, and after the salad was finished all she had to do was set the dining room table. Her daughter Jane's nineteenth birthday wasn't until the end of next week, but since her son Wes would drive back to school tomorrow, they were celebrating tonight. It was good luck that Michael was also free. His motley jobs-- snowplow driver, parking lot security, landscape worker--made for an unpredictable schedule. The holidays were over, which was a relief. She would have time to read, to work. But this winter was a hard one, with two bad blizzards already. Even now there was a foot of new snow on the ground and more to come tonight. And the war in Iraq, brutal and pointless . . . "Wharton's famous tableaux vivants scene, in which Lily's controlled stage fright rehearses the more intense fears to come, a cycle of terror revolving from loss of social status through loss of life--" "Stage fright," murmured Ellen, wiping the paring knife on her apron. "Stage fright? She's happy as a clam, with everyone staring at her!" Maisie opened her eyes. Ellen leaned closer to the book, scanning the page. Hard to believe that a scholar (who was it, oh yes, the one from Iowa) could so mischaracterize one of The House of Mirth's central scenes, even in a throwaway line unrelated to the essay's larger point. Ellen lifted the lid on the chili. She opened and closed the refrigerator door. Then she laid a dish towel over the salad bowl and went up the stairs to her study. For the first time in longer than Ellen cared to remember, after four books, countless articles, and numerous presentations focused on Edith Jones Wharton, there was no project of her own under way or on the horizon. She'd come to a stopping place. She needed to look around. Hence, this minor book review, a bit of busywork taken on while Ellen adjusted to the discomfort of her freedom. Maybe I should find something else , she thought, standing in the middle of her room, someone other than Edith, to write about. Unimaginable. She might as well become another person. Ellen took down her reading copy, the compact off-white Penguin one (same as she'd owned as a girl) and found the right page even before she was seated in her armchair. Still in her apron, she read just enough to reassure her- self that Lily was anything but nervous when she took her place in the gaudy party scene. Still, it was a potentially interesting notion--the idea that social fear and life-or-death fear were entwined, and often confused, within the novel's various performances. Ellen made a note on a pad on the side table before flipping back a few pages, to enjoy Lily's whirlwind preparations for the extravagant tableaux . Some time later, a rhythmic scraping drew her attention out of the book. Outside, a familiar figure was shoveling off the side stairs. Ellen watched her ward--the young man who used to be her ward--fling snow left and right over the metal railing, working his way down the buried stairs she hadn't used in weeks. "Idiot," she whispered, heart full. He knew she used the front door when it snowed this much, but he was shoveling for Maisie, who reliably trotted to this entrance morning and night, baffled each time that Ellen tugged her away to the front. Ellen rose to go but stayed to watch as a slighter figure crept up on Michael from behind. Her daughter Jane, long tangled hair spilling out from under a felt hat, scooped snow off the bushes and packed it hard. Just as she pulled back to throw, Michael turned to whip a shovelful right at her face. He'd faked not hearing her approach. Janey's scream reached the rafters. She went to tackle Mike but he blocked her. Ellen watched for one more moment while he held her still, wiping snow from her face. Their laughter grew louder when she went downstairs and into the kitchen. Now they'd let Maisie out, and she charged up and down the half- cleared stairs, deliriously. Jane grabbed the dog to give her a kiss and Michael wrestled her for a chance to pet Maisie. Ellen rushed over to the open door. "You forgot to shut the door!" she shouted. Cold air along the kitchen floor. She blew kisses through the glass and mimed come in, it's freezing ! They waved back and then ignored her. Jane stuck a handful of snow down Michael's collar; he lightly toppled her into a giant drift pile and then picked up the shovel. Ellen pulled the door open a crack. "Don't worry about that, just come in and get warm!" "I was warm until your bratty daughter showed up." Jane pushed past him and flicked her snow-covered mittens his way. "Whiner." "Baby." "Suck-up." "Jane, your boots!" Ellen dragged her in to a towel on the floor and backed away from the spray of cold snow. Michael stuck his lip out and pretended to shiver. Jane pounded the glass door and shouted, "Break's over--get back to work! Earn your keep!" "Jane!" "What?" Laughing, her daughter toed off her snow boots and shrugged out of her soaking coat with Ellen's help. "Don't say that to him." "Mom, relax." "Why would you say that?" Michael's broad back, the muted scrape of his shovel. "Mom! He knows I'm kidding. God, if there were any iota of truth to it, do you think I'd say it, even joking?" Jane twisted her hair into a rough knot and strode away, through the kitchen. Ellen held her dripping coat. Once again she wondered about the fault lines underneath the four of them. Michael was part of their family now, and had been for nearly five years--but even so . . . Did he feel, somehow, that he had to shovel the walk? Did a joke like Jane's make him feel more welcome, or less? Did her own reaction make things worse, or worse in which ways? Text and subtext . Ellen hung up the coat and eyed Jane's damp sock prints as she went over to stir the chili. As usual, birthday or not, she and her daughter were off on the wrong foot. It was hard to say exactly when Michael Cacciarelli became one of them. Was it the day he and Ellen had the notary sign the forms for Wisconsin petition for guardianship? Was it before that, when he was crashing on the basement couch? The day she gave him a set of keys? When he began to leave grocery money, a wordless ten or twenty, magneted to the fridge? The night he allowed Ellen to take him to the ER for the cut above his eye, the one his aunt's boyfriend gave him, the one that made him tell her everything? Ellen's son Wesley met Mike during the summer before his senior year in high school; he was seventeen, Mike sixteen. A friend of Ellen's had gotten Wes a job with the city. It was a kind of youth program not really designed for bookish middle-class kids from the university neighborhood, but Ellen decided for reasons she couldn't really remember now (fear she wasn't exposing her son to more manly pursuits or the use of power tools at least) to sign him up. Wes gamely braved it all: the 5:00 a.m. honk of his crew outside; packing both a breakfast and lunch; and weathering what Ellen is sure must have been a fair amount of hassle from the rougher guys much more used to the work than slender, straight A's Wesley. They laughed about it now, with Wes in his first year of U. Chicago's graduate program for philosophy. But what had she been thinking? "He's a good guy, Mom." That's all Wes could tell her, once he started hanging out with this new Mike she began to hear so much about that summer: Mike says, Mike once went to, Mike and I are going to . . . But Ellen didn't like it, Wes bolting dinner and hurrying to the beat-up two-seater idling at the curb. Where did they go? Just drive around, get pizza. Where does he live? Like on Hammersley or something, over in the Southwest side. And his parents? I don't know, Mom . "So you're worried about . . ." Her best friend Serena prompted. "Drinking, drugs?" "No. I mean, maybe--but that's more a Janey worry. It's just . . . well, he's never had a friend from a different school before!" Most of his Whitman friends were doing summer internships at the Capitol. "What was I thinking?" "That you'd like him to make friends from different schools?" Serena had smiled gently, too kind to point out what they both understood: by "different school" Ellen meant "shitty neighborhood." So yes, a great part of her confusion about this Mike Cacciarelli came from the fact that he lived in the Southwest, a gritty part of town featured regularly in the Journal 's articles on crime and racial tension. Ellen wasn't sure what to do, if anything. Not for the first time, she wished she wasn't alone in figuring it all out. Her husband, Don, had died when the children were young. Why hadn't she remarried? It was a question asked, in varying forms and tones, by friends and family occasionally over the years, or by one man or another who clearly thought he had earned the right. Even the kids, once they were old enough, would ask. Ellen's answer--bright for friends and family, loving to her kids, stringent toward the man--was essentially the same. She had enough, in this life. Two lovely and complicated children, absorbing work, a creaky old house . . . As for love and sex? (Because that was what most people meant, after all.) Well, she had that too, not that it was anyone's business. For years she had been "dating" Paul West of the UW's Whitewater campus--a well-regarded Woolf scholar and a good friend to her children. They had meals together, they had sex, they often accompanied each other to weddings and department functions. But marriage. . . no. Neither of them--as far as Ellen knew--had seriously considered it. "Invite Mike for dinner," she finally told Wes. "He sounds great, and I want to meet him." "Okay, sure. But Mom?" Wesley, thinking. "It doesn't have to be, like, a big fancy thing because I don't know if . . ." He trailed off and Ellen read his mind: If it would make Mike feel uncomfortable, the way we are in our big house and everything. Oh, her sensitive beautiful boy, almost a man. "No, we'll just grill burgers or something. Chips and soda." The afternoon Mike first came over was utterly unexceptionable, although likely all of them wished they could remember the particulars more. Because soon after, it all began to change--their longtime unit of three altered its shape and became four. And Ellen, as it turned out, was changed most of all. No one sat at the head of the dining room table. Ellen didn't like to, didn't like the feeling of separation from the kids. Occasionally she put Wes or Jane there, though mostly they ate in the kitchen. She had tried with Mike too, but he always refused, picking up his silverware and plate and moving around to the side. It never felt right to any of them. So there they were at Jane's birthday dinner: two and two, facing each other across candles and serving dishes and the ironed tablecloth. Ellen and Wes on one side; Mike and Jane on the other. But on that night Ellen thought she might have liked to be at the head, with an outsider's perspective on this happy sight: three young adults, talking over each other and dishing up the food. After the last-minute rush to get it all out here, she would be content to simply sit for a moment and watch them. Wesley wore the gray shirt she'd given him for Christmas, and a new pair of glasses. A few nights ago he had appeared in the doorway of her study, on his way out to a movie. If you get a chance , he'd begun, overly casual. Would she mind taking a look at a file he'd just e-mailed her? Nothing major, just a draft of a paper he would give at a conference this spring, his first. If she had any comments, great, or just . . . maybe she'd want to see it. I do , Ellen cried, delighted. I'll print it right now . Wes had failed to hide his proud smile, saying no big deal, no big deal and then hurrying away downstairs. "Mom?" Jane was tilting the wine bottle her way. "Just a little. That's enough, that's plenty." Ellen said nothing as Jane refilled her own glass with a generous amount of red wine. It was, of course, Jane's nineteenth birthday--and Ellen had never needed some arbitrary law dictating when it was appropriate for her children to drink, especially in her home. Still, it was just like Jane to go ahead like this, without checking. The wine had brought a pretty flush to her daughter's cheeks. Her wide, open face never hid any trace of what she was feeling, and right now she was describing an internal argument in her animal rights group. Ellen studied her, curvy and passionate and messy, in a raggedy oversize sweater and half-braided hair. She willed herself not to come near any topic related to her younger child's life-in-flux. In a way, it was a relief, Jane's semester off college--for now-- after the battles over her UW grades and dropped courses and eventual academic probation. Now she was living in a co-op house near campus and working as a receptionist at a veterinarian's office. "I got her on my team," is how Mike put it, when he wanted to wind Ellen up. "Dropouts represent!" "Dropping out?" she had retorted. "When were you in ?" And instantly regretted it. Failing to get him to enroll was still painful. But Mike had only grinned. "Boom! Ellen for the win!" "So now they're threatening to back out, you know, like to leak the whole plan to the bloggers. I heard this one douche might even tell some guy he knows who works at Petco!" Ellen tuned in late to Jane's story. "What plan?" "Mom. What I just said." "I mean, it is pretty harsh," Wes said. "You guys pretend to be on their side, but then you turn around and smear their whole business. How's that going to make them want to work with you again?" "Fuck them," Jane said. "They buy from this puppy mill, we just know it. We do. So we infiltrate, and expose." "Just like Buffy!" Mike said. "I guess I should have bail money at the ready," Ellen said. "You and I are going to be on a first-name basis with the cops soon." "Well, if you don't want me to call you, I won't," Jane flashed. "You're the one who teaches Civil Disobedience ." "Of course I want you to call me," Ellen said. "It's just that seeing those bruises . . ." "She did it to herself," Wes pointed out. This was last summer, when Jane and six others were arrested for chaining themselves to dog cages outside the Capitol. An Isthmus photo from the incident, two officers lifting a cross-legged Jane up from the grass--dog collar around her neck--was pinned to the bulletin board in her room upstairs. Passing through sometimes to open or close the shades, Ellen would stop to look at it. She knew that expression her daughter wore: determined, angry, you'll break before I do . She had known it since Jane was a toddler. "Anyway, the chili is great, Mom. It's from one of my cookbooks, right?" "Now why'd you have to go and remind us," Mike said, his spoon clattering down to his plate. "Food for freaks." "Fly your freak food flag," Wes said. "Whoa. Try that one ten times fast." "Freak flood fag. Fleak food flag. Freak frood--" "Ignore them," Ellen said. "I don't think you miss the meat at all!" She did miss real stock, however; shiitake dashi left a sour aftertaste. Snow continued to fall heavily; they could hear the groan of snowplows down the block. Classes began tomorrow. Ellen hoped the secretary would have her syllabi copied and ready. With no book project under way, just think how much time would be freed up to actually pay attention to her students. "Save room for cake," she said. Clink of flatware on plates. "So, actually . . ." Mike began, and they all looked up. "Okay, so the thing is--" Maisie's whine and scuffle. "I'll get her." "It's fine. She just went a few minutes--" But Mike had already jumped up, was off to the kitchen. Ellen looked to Jane, who shrugged. Next to her, Wes broke his corn bread into small and smaller pieces. "She didn't have to go after all," Mike said, with an invisible halo of cold as he sat back down. "Just checking out the snow." "What were you saying?" "About . . . ? Oh. Yeah. So I joined the Marines. Last week." Mike ate a big mouthful of chili, chewed and swallowed it. "Sounds all weird and heavy, when I say it like that. Like a commercial or something." He made his voice low and mock-stentorian. " Joined . . . the . . . Marines ." Ellen and Jane stared at him; Wes looked at his lap. "Don't wig out," Mike said, nervously. "You're not going to wig out, are you?" "This is a joke," Jane said. "Right?" Ellen's thoughts ran thick and slow. Not the Marines as in , The Marines, obviously . Because there's a war. Two wars. I should take the ice cream out, let it warm a little. Although, did soy ice cream actually need defrosting? "--Go to Camp Lejeune for infantry, that's after basic at Parris Island--" " 'Basic'?" Jane spat. "Did you just say 'infantry' and 'basic,' like you know all the fucking lingo now? What are you talking about?" "I'm talking about it's a good option for me, with regular pay raises and . . . the recruiter says that the benefits are ridiculous, you get, like, free health care for the rest of your life, plus they'll pay for college, and--" "WE can pay for you to go to college! God, she's only tried a million times!" "Jane." "And what recruiter? Those guys get paid to sucker you into signing your life away. Literally! I mean, how fucking dumb are you, Mike. You think he gives a shit about you? What, did he tell you how strong you are, what a big man you are, how you'll rock all those push-ups and--" "Actually, I think he does give a shit. He came up on the Southwest side too, and now he's got like a family and owns his own place and . . . I already rock push-ups." Mike risked a sweet smile. "Mom," Jane begged, her eyes wild. "Say something to him!" But Ellen couldn't. She could barely look at Mike. Too much was happening, all at once. And Jane's outburst, as usual, had pushed aside any room for her own feelings. "You knew about this," Ellen said quietly. To Wesley, at her side. "Didn't you?" He blew his breath upward, toward his floppy bangs. "I don't think it's a good idea, but . . . it's his decision." "Thanks, man." "I don't believe you," Jane said. "You were in on this? You let him? Oh, I guess you probably think bombing Iraqi civilians is okay now, and obviously torturing prisoners held illegally at Guant√°namo is fine, and--yeah, and Mike'll get his face blown off on a desert road, that's cool, just as long as we get the oil, right?" Ellen stood up and walked out of the room, shaking. In the kitchen she took out four spoons and then held them, for a long moment, unseeing. She opened the freezer but didn't recognize the soy ice cream at first. When she tried to read the label the words were meaningless. They were probably in there whisper-arguing about who should come in to see if she was okay. Wes, they would send Wes. And here he was, just as she closed the freezer. "I know it's crazy . . . Look, we don't have to talk about it anymore," he said, with a worried smile. "Not right now anyway. Jane says she's not hungry, but at least she's not, you know, still going on about it. Do you--" "Start the coffee if you want," Ellen said, walking quickly past him. "I'm going upstairs. I need to work because I--I forgot to do something earlier, and I think I should--" "Mom, it'll be okay." "Soy Dream," she called back, a half-angry sob, from the stairway. "Ask your sister what to do with it!" Ellen managed to get into her study, and pull the door shut. She moved around aimlessly for a few minutes, once in a while picking up a book or a folder, and putting it back down. Then she found herself in her reading chair, with the lamp off. She had failed. They all had. Pretending they were a family, pretending everyone was equal. That Mike's background, full of abuse and truancy, had dissolved for good because of twenty months when she had acted as his official guardian. Guardian . The word raced through her like nausea. He'd said it, without saying it: Came up on the Southwest side. A good option for me . As if he knew that this home full of books could never be where he belonged. That Wes and Jane, grad student and vegan activist, were on a different path, one that was closed to him no matter how nice this professor lady had been. Goddamn him. Did he think so little of her, of her love for him? A memory: driving out at midnight to a bar to get him, after Wesley had woken her. I think Mike's in trouble . And he was--handcuffed and shoved up against a squad car. Shit , he said, when he saw her. Go home. Please . But she'd stayed, and her anger at him quickly dissipated when she saw how rough the police officer was, how he taunted Mike, how he hit him. Ellen surprised everyone, herself included, when she got up close and demanded he stop and when he didn't, she held up her cell phone and shouted that it was all on video (not true), that she had his badge number (not exactly). It worked, sort of, in the sense that Mike got put in a car and taken to the station while another weary cop escorted Ellen away and lectured her on obstruction. By dawn, Mike was released into her custody with a summons. On their way home they stopped at a diner and ate breakfast in silence. Mike paid the check. Surely it wasn't too late. Whatever he'd signed could be unsigned, torn up. She would talk him out of it. Ellen looked down at her hands, and the four spoons they were clutching. She hadn't foreseen this but now she would manage things. As usual, the sight of her bookshelves ringing the room brought calm; her thoughts settled into orderly rows as she ran her gaze over them. Built-ins of cherrywood, they were probably the most expensive thing she had ever purchased on her own. She'd had them put in about two years after Don had died, designed to her exact specifications using a contractor Serena recommended. One or two less bookish friends had admired them but asked if the renovation wouldn't tug down the home's resale value. How many people, after all, needed shelving of this magnitude? Missing the entire point. Ellen had built herself a home in this room. Somewhere in all these books, in all these words, she would find a way to get Mike out of going to war. She should go downstairs. She should be with Jane, at least, for her birthday. Spoons still in hand, Ellen picked up The House of Mirth and switched on the lamp. Ellen woke cold and cramped, curled up in her chair. She wrapped a mohair afghan around herself and went out onto the landing, where she stood for a moment, disoriented. The house was quiet. She wanted to go to bed, but hunger drew her downstairs. In the kitchen, she made toast and tea, and was about to bring it back up when she saw flickering light in the strip of space under the basement door. Mike, on the couch in front of the TV, looked up guiltily with his fork in about half of Jane's birthday cake. "Don't be mad. I know you are, and I get it, but . . ." "Move over." She set down the tray and poured tea into two mugs. "Just don't blame me. No butter or eggs, what can you expect?" "It's not bad. The texture's a little weird. Like, gummy." He put the TV sound back on. "We can change this," he said, picking up the remote. She shook her head, mouth full of toast. "Whatever you have on is fine." He flipped through the channels, pausing briefly to assess. Cable news; shots of Iraqis holding up ink-stained forefingers. "No." Mike glanced sideways at her. In the end, they settled on a Law & Order rerun, one of hundreds they'd seen together. It was an episode from the mid-1990s, with coiffed hair and cell phones the size of a man's shoe. Briscoe and Curtis wandered around a stable. "This is the one about the horse?" Ellen said. "Mr. Wicketts." Mike made a sad face. She ate some cake, he dozed off. After a while, she shut off the TV and shook him gently. "Bed stuff is in the laundry room." Of course he knew that. He hadn't stayed over much in recent months, but for a long time this basement had been his room, the pullout couch his bed. Mike didn't open his eyes. "You okay with that?" She ached, she ached. Ellen punched him in the shoulder, and went up to bed. Chapter 2 Bronx, New York January 2005 Lacey Reed Diaz unzipped her Yankees sweatshirt and laughed. "So I just strip, right here? Three o'clock in the freaking afternoon. Totally sober." "That's your own fault." Martine drank straight from the champagne bottle. "Let's see it, girl." Lacey took a deep breath, dropped the sweatshirt on the floor, and shimmied out of her jeans. "I get called a lot of things but you know--" T-shirt over her head, she tossed it aside, with a flourish. "Prude ain't one of 'em!" She shut her eyes and struck a pose to the cheers of her friends, the snap of the shutter. It was called "a boudoir photo shoot." Somehow the classy French word made it sound more trashy. The upshot was $250 split three ways bought ninety minutes of studio time with one photographer, one "set assistant," one bottle of cheap champagne, and a handful of six-by-eights plus the hi-res digital files. It had been Mart's idea, of course. The week their husbands got the official orders--they had all known another deployment was coming-- she booked it, using an online coupon to reserve this second-floor studio on Baychester. Lacey said what the hell, and then they somehow roped in devout, petite Felicia. Lacey perched on the edge of the frilly cushioned chair, knees together, back arched. It was easier to watch herself in the tilted oval mirror than to look into the blank black eye of the camera. It wasn't fun to have these hot umbrella lights shining down on every bulge and wrinkle, but they could do a little retouching, right? Actually, when she sucked in her middle, she looked pretty good. For getting toward forty, anyway. Lacey had always been one of the tallest girls around--and the toughest. Even now, in this froufrou setting, her bare arms and legs showed their strength. Great tits, good hair, nice eyes. She didn't love her ass, or how it had spread over the years, but that's why she was on the chair. The other girls had splurged on new lingerie, but Lacey posed in her own: white cotton panties and matching bra. She wanted Eddie to think about the real her while he was gone, not some fantasy. "I'm out!" Lacey hopped off the stage with relief. "Who's next?" "I gotta get this over with," Felicia said, sighing. "Before I come to my senses." They helped her up the platform in her three-inch heels. She let her silky robe slip off her creamy black shoulders and aimed a fierce pout right through the camera. She knew what to do. "Vanessa Williams? Eat . . . your . . . heart out!" Lacey and Martine whistled and clapped while little Felicia, in nothing but a camisole and a red lace thong, worked it with pose after pose. The three knew each other from the well-organized branches of a Family Readiness Group that served the army families who lived north of the city. Lacey and Edgardo lived in Mount Vernon, with Lacey's twelve-year-old son, Otis, in a two-bedroom condo just off Gramatan. It was a long commute to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, where Eddie was based, but he insisted on being near his mom, who still lived in the City Island house where he grew up. Unlike the others--Martine and Felicia were well into double digits with their husbands--Eddie and Lacey had been married for less than five years, or one deployment (Iraq, Sixth Battalion, Twenty-seventh Field Artillery). In fact, they had been apart more than they'd lived together. That first deployment had gone by in a blur--it always does, Martine told her--but now Lacey knew what to expect. Although that, she thought, watching Felicia show off her ample curves, wasn't necessarily a good thing. "Me, me, me," Martine said and killed what champagne was left in the bottle. Felicia conceded the stage and Mart took off her shirt. "Check this out, you guys." She motioned the photographer to come closer, and turned around. Then she tugged down her tight jeans to reveal the top of a multipart tattoo, rippling U.S. flag, dog tags, eagle. And some cursive lettering. "What's that say?" Felicia asked. Lacey leaned forward. " 'Proud Army Wife' . . . nice . . . what are you laughing about, Mart?" Martine stepped out of her jeans and there, on her bare ass cheek, was a cartoon Iraqi insurgent caught in the crosshairs, and a big red-white-and-blue smooch across his face. " 'Kiss My USA Ass,' " Felicia read out. "Lord, lord. Tell me that's not on your body forever." "Why? Doesn't every girl want a little rag-head art on her behind?" "Martine." "No, no, of course not. It's that kind they airbrush on; it'll be off in a few days. Thing is, I want it to be a surprise for him--for when he's over there. Right?" "Yeah, so what's the problem?" "Keeping him out of my pants until I can scrub this thing off!" They all cracked up. After the shoot, they waited while the studio assistant processed their forms. Lacey was dressed but barefoot, and Martine and Felicia wore various combinations of underwear and clothes. Outside, the winter sun had disappeared. "I got to go pick up my kid," Lacey said. But she didn't move. "Crap," Martine said. "I forgot to take the chicken out to defrost. Oh well, pizza night. They'll be--hey, what's going on? You okay?" Felicia had her forehead on the heels of both hands. Tears slid down her wet cheeks. "I hate it. I hate it. I want to be strong, but God knows, each time I just hate it." They rubbed her back. They told her, It's okay. It's going to be okay. "We're pushing our luck." She sobbed. "Third time out, second to Iraq? Deployment's fifteen months now? How much longer before . . ." "You can't think that way," Martine said. "But it's the numbers," Felicia said. "The odds. Probability. It gets harder and harder to ignore!" Now even Martine grew serious, quiet. Lacey stood up and went behind the studio desk to the minifridge, where she took out another bottle of champagne. The assistant was dubious. "Actually, your package only comes with--" "Please. This stuff goes for five dollars a bottle." She gestured toward Felicia's cup. "Come on. It's medicinal." "She's the boss." Once they each had a refill, Lacey got down to business. She took out both her phone and her overstuffed day planner. "Here's what we're going to do. Get your calendars, come on." Felicia and Martine, sad and in lingerie, hadn't moved. Lacey went and got their purses and dropped them in their laps. "You remember what that crazy girl did last time? From our group?" "Which one?" Martine said, and Felicia had to laugh. There was a mostly unspoken divide in their military wives support group between the more mature and settled women like themselves and what they called the "girls"--nine- teen- or twenty-year-olds who had married too young, got pregnant before they should, and generally went haywire in one way or another after their PVTs shipped out. They bailed out of college courses, partied too much, misman- aged the budget, or Skyped soldiers nonstop with daily complaints. Lacey thought of it as her job to teach them how to behave, how to earn the trust and respect a military family deserved. She may have been new to the army herself, but it had given her life more purpose and meaning than she'd ever known--except for raising her son. "You know which one. Went with her girlfriends to Ladies Night at that topless place on North Avenue? Brought in by the cops for--well, I don't know what exactly. Being a drunk fool." "Lewd acts in public," Felicia put in glumly. "Wandering around the parking lot with her boobies out." "It got online too." "Most of them can't handle the pressure of being on their own for a year," Lacey said. "Quickie benefit marriages." Martine scowled. "Maybe so. Either way, they're in it same as we are. So it's up to us, un- less we want these girls causing drama and embarrassing us all." "She's right," Felicia said. She shrugged out of her silk robe and pulled on a sweater. "I'll head up Bible study again, unless you know of someone else." "No, that's perfect." Lacey flipped around in her daybook. "And I was thinking, Felicia . . . do you feel like doing something about Facebook, social media--what's appropriate, what's not? Either a onetime workshop or a short class?" "Yes, please ," Martine begged. "They post dates and locations of missions. All the wrong info, of course, but still. 'Godspeed two/three! Send good thoughts, they're heading out tonight in Anbar!' Makes me want to throttle someone." "I don't know . . ." Felicia said. "I'm not on Facebook much. Now that my teenagers are all over it." She thought a minute. "But my team did a security presentation at work last month. I could adapt that for us, probably." She tapped quickly on her phone's screen. "I'll run the kiddie co-op again," Martine said. "I had a toddler in dia- pers during last deployment, got another for this one. Kill me now." "And the parenting support groups," Lacey said, consulting her list. "Break it down by ages again? Think we can get a few speakers this time?" "Sign me up for the smart-mouth teen group. I'll bring the wine." The studio assistant handed out copies of their receipts and then pointedly began to straighten up her desk and switch off lamps. The women put on their coats, exchanged hugs, laughed at the prospect of getting their portraits in the mail. They went out to the street and hugged again in the windy dark, under a streetlight. Martine and Felicia went arm in arm to their cars around the corner. Lacey watched them go. Rush hour traffic didn't get really bad until she crossed Nereid Avenue. Lines of red headlights waited to crowd onto the Bronx River, crossed with white headlights backed up getting off the Cross Bronx. Plus you had Metro-North, people picking up commuters at Nereid or the Wakefield stop. In her overheated Pontiac Lacey used the time to mess with her bangs, arranging and rearranging them in the visor mirror. She kept the radio on scan, singing along to almost every scrap of song before it disappeared. Redid her lip color. Got honked at for lagging. Honked at some guy who tried to cut in. She was buoyant, hardly feeling the effects of yesterday's double shift at the gym. (All those New Year's resolutions meant a swarm of new clients and full classes.) So many plans, so many ideas. That extra cash could go to that mil-kids spring break camp Otis had wanted to go to last year, the one in New Jersey. They should start writing letters for Eddie now, considering how much Otis dragged his feet on that. Tonight he could help her get out that whiteboard from his closet--she would set it up in the kitchen for lists, notes, group phone numbers. And how about a family social one night closer to deployment? Probably Nathan's on North Avenue would give them a good deal, let them take over the back room. The kids could play in the arcade. When that Destiny's Child "Soldier" song came on, Lacey turned off scan and spun up the volume. She pretended she was street, singing along. She pretended that she was twenty years younger, and a whole lot dumber. Like those girls, the ones they had snarked about in the studio. Thugs and gangs and street life. "Soldiers." Lacey made a slow right onto Fifth Street. Her face grew hot and she snapped off the radio. What was she doing? Eddie wasn't in the car, but it suddenly felt like he was, and what would he think if he saw her bopping along to this stupid song that was the antithesis of everything his disciplined career stood for. It wasn't just the army. Ever since Eddie got the promotion at his civilian job--he was now regional safety manager at Hess--it was like he'd climbed up to a level where he had a better view, where he could find more problems with Lacey. He didn't even have to say anything, she could just tell-- feel his eyes on her when she went for that weeknight third beer, turn the music down when he came in a room, frown at the take-out containers. She knew what Martine would say: They always end up wanting their mom, no matter what they tell you in the beginning. She should have seen it from the start, their fundamental incompatibility. After all, she picked him off a list because he was in the army. So who's the dummy here? Before she'd started getting her own clients, before she'd moved heaven and earth to get the coveted part-time schedule she had now, Lacey had been full-time at Rudy's Gym in Pelham. Four days a week she got there at 4:30 a.m. to unlock the doors, turn on the lights and heater, start up the computer system for the front-desk girls who never rolled in before they opened at 5:00 a.m. When she couldn't get a sitter, Otis would sleep on a sit-up mat back in the office. Then she'd partner with Gwen to work out the onslaught of commuters who had exactly fifty-five minutes each for cardio, machines, stretching, body-weight exercises, and a shower. Slowdown after that, a couple of walk-ins maybe, people cashing in those endless damn coupons for a free session, then it would pick up again at lunch, a group class for the stroller mommies and some lunch-hour locals. Early afternoons were for one or two regulars and the inevitable freak--you could tell right off the bat, the ones who stood too close and requested a lot of "adjustments"--before clocking out and racing to get Otis after school. Aside from that? She went out, alone, to bars. Met men who could barely hold up their end of a conversation when sober, and slept with too many of them. Lacey was trying, in her way. She wanted Otis to have a dad someday, a good one, and there was a long way to go in that department. She and Otis would have to overcompensate for his genetic legacy, thanks to the Asshole. But the pickings were slim in all seasons at Mazzy's, at the Bayou, no matter how many Jack and Cokes she let men buy her. Then she said yes, once or twice, to clients who asked her out. On paper, they were better--these men were usually divorced locals with thinning hair and tight shoulder muscles. Decent jobs. But they either bored Lacey or were taken aback by her loud laugh, her messy life. By the time Gwen and the desk girls called her over to the front counter one slow afternoon, Lacey was done. One of Otis's preschool teachers used to have a singsongy mantra: You get what you get, and you don't get upset. Annoying as hell, but . . . something to think about. She had a job--best she could expect after squeaking through Iona--she had this beautiful chubby smart-mouthed kid, she had some crazy fun girlfriends and maybe that was it for her, you know? Despite the nagging feeling that she was meant for more. But the desk girls had too much time on their hands, and had mocked up a whole page for Lacey on Match.com. She couldn't be too pissed: "Smoking physique of a girl who still holds the state record for most steals in a play-off game." "Oh the glory," Lacey muttered, scrolling up and down the page. "What do you think the ratio of skeevy to normal is here?" But she was touched, and that night fell down the online dating rabbit hole, which called for multiple vodkas with orange juice. As expected, there were too many "winks" and "waves" from desperate losers, long unhinged messages from the nut jobs, and just a staggering number of people out there in greater New York who wanted sex and love. She was one of them, after all. So Lacey scrolled and clicked and deleted and narrowed it down until the same guy kept popping up, kept catching her eye. It wasn't so much his photo, although she liked his serious face and even that mustache--bold choice! Nor did it bother her that he didn't have kids, and had never been married. What drew her attention was his army job, and the way he wrote about it: "As a major in the Army Reserves, my MOS is infantry. That means I command men and women on missions that could put their lives in danger. They depend on me, and I've got their back. It's an honor to lead them. Nothing or nobody could take away what that means to me." There was a photo of him in uniform, kneeling down and handing out soccer balls to a group of kids in sandals, somewhere in Iraq she guessed. "My goal in life is to find a woman who can be my partner, someone I can depend on. Someone who understands what it takes to be part of something bigger." For hobbies, he'd put, "sometimes." That was Eddie, six years ago. Lacey, in a moment of vodka-fueled inspiration, wrote this army guy a note-- she could be part of something bigger, after all! He wrote back. What started as a dare to herself--playing up her responsible-mom side, using the words aspiration and dedicated , cramming on politics--became exciting in and of itself, became a habit. Changed her. So that by the time they met, Lacey had already begun the long process of shifting toward someone she thought he'd like her to be. Which mostly fell in line with who she wanted to be, too. So what if this was the best thing she'd get out of it all, this marriage? I mean, who wouldn't take it, the last-ditch chance to pull yourself together, to go from being the last girl at last call to someone who knew her Sunnis from Shiites and why they were all screwed? Who could explain it to her ten-year-old, using age-appropriate terms, while cooking a hot meal for the man who brought home a steady paycheck and the respect of their neighborhood, not to mention of the whole nation? Lacey saw it as her ticket out, maybe the last one she'd be offered. She knew when to cut her losses. Those sloppy mistakes she'd made, the bad decisions, the wince-inducing scenes she'd caused . . . they could be erased in this trade. As it turned out she liked being the one to organize other wives, to set up potlucks and babysitting co-ops and prayer groups. They needed her. She was good at it. Plus, what did she think she was entitled to, true love? She pulled over, agitated. Her hands were cold; she shoved them under her thighs. What made her think she could play this role, upstanding do-gooder army wife? She wasn't real, not like Martine and Felicia. She was faking it and someday they'd find out. Also, what if those photos embarrassed Eddie, made him see her as some kind of flighty slut? Lacey rocked a little, back and forth. She should get going. Or . . . Belluzzi's Lounge, right up the block. She'd even parked in a fifteen- minute flashers zone. Gathering scarf, keys, purse, and phone, Lacey told her- self, just one. Standing at the bar she texted Sue: Running late, okay if Otis eats with you guys? Reply: He already did . Lacey squelched the guilt, because she could, because the bartender had just set up her double Macallan, straight, because she knew she could handle this. Lacey could handle all of it: these happy- hour winos eyeing the tall blonde, drinking alone; that dip in Otis's grades (she'd confiscate his DS until they came up); the mess in the house (she'd clean at night! instead of TV!). Most of all, she could handle Eddie, and the deployment. She'd prove herself this time. Meanwhile, this guy who'd sidled up next to her clearly thought they were in the same camp. "So I was telling my friend over there that you've got to be the only--" Lacey put a twenty on the bar and finished her drink. "Another time, all right?" "C'mon, you're not leaving yet!" The fiery glow of the drink and her newfound calm kept Lacey from all the cutting remarks she could have chosen. Nothing could touch her. She shouldered her bag and gave him a dazzling smile. "Don't move. I'll be right back." "Seriously?" "Save my seat," she called back, pushing out the door onto the windy dark street. There was so much to do. Excerpted from Blue Stars: A Novel by Emily Gray Tedrowe All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.