This Is How It Started
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The New York Times bestselling author delivers an emotional, intimate work of women’s fiction centered on a young widow, and filled with reflections on love, loss, and finding hope, and even joy, after heartache—for fans of Josie Silver, Sophie Cousins, and Rebecca Serle.
After losing the love of her life, a young widow must reimagine her future and navigate the fears, doubts, and even flashes of joy that lie ahead . . .
No marriage is perfect, but in Rachel Ackermann’s eyes, hers came close. From the very start, her love story with Josh was wonderful. There’s just one problem with stories: no matter how great the beginning, there’s also an ending. For Rachel and Josh, it comes suddenly and far too soon.
Trying to move on without Josh feels impossible, and it’s tempting for Rachel to cocoon in the dark with the reminders of the life they should have shared. But her quirky, sometimes exasperating family won’t let that happen. And as Rachel is nudged back into the sunlight, she uncovers a trove of surprising secrets—and an opportunity to save a family legacy—and maybe save herself in the process . . .
But it will mean forging an unexpected alliance with her late father’s unpopular young “trophy wife.” And then there’s Rache’s renewed bond with Campbell Scott, the boy who another lifetime ago broke her heart. Just when Rachel thinks she’s got everything figured out, she learns that in between beginnings and endings lie new chapters . . .
Release date: February 7, 2023
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 320
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This Is How It Started
Colma, CaliforniaPresent Time
I think of my mother as I stand at the edge of block seven, lot two, section six, peering over the side of an empty hole. Oddly enough, the depth of a modern grave in the United States is a mere four feet deep. The whole six-feet-under thing is a misnomer, according to the funeral guy. He was a fountain of information during our first consultation, throwing out selling points about Eternal Home the same way I do when I’m trying to push a house that’s sat on the market too long.
Despite the barren trench’s shallowness, it looks dark and bottomless. And soon, they’ll lower the most important person in my life into the freshly dug hole and cover him with dirt.
I shudder, angry with myself for giving in to my mother and not insisting on cremation. At least I could scatter Josh’s ashes somewhere beautiful, a place that held meaning to him, instead of the so-called “City of Souls.” Besides burial being horrifyingly claustrophobic, I don’t want Josh here.
I want him home, alive, and making Saturday-morning pancakes, wearing his silly chef’s hat and singing “Volare” at the top of his lungs in his best Dean Martin voice. And while I’m nowhere close to acceptance in the so-called seven stages of grief, I know that’s impossible. Still, he deserves better than Colma, where two million dead people live.
The San Francisco suburb was turned into a necropolis in the 1920s because the city banished all its graveyards. No one can afford to live in San Francisco, let alone be dead there.
The town’s motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma.”
I can attest that it’s not. It’s depressing as hell.
But my mother is emphatic that Jews don’t do cremation, that it’s only for “the pagans.” My mother’s relationship with God and Judaism is based solely on convenience. That is to say, she wields both like a sword when she’s set on getting her way. The last time we actually set foot in a synagogue was for my brother’s bar mitzvah, twenty-three years ago.
But that’s not why I’m thinking of my mother at this moment. I’m wondering whether my late father would rather be buried next to her than Brooke. She was, after all, his wife of thirty-seven years, the mother of his three children, and the love of his life. So, when the time comes, will he choose Mom over Brooke in the afterlife, knowing that you only get to take your one true love with you into eternity?
We’ll never know, I guess. But in my own time of grief, I think about it a lot. I think about Josh and me and our enduring love for each other. How there’s no doubt in my mind that when my turn comes, I will be Josh’s plus-one in the hereafter.
“What are you doing?” My brother, Adam, pulls me away from the open grave. “Come on, Rach, everyone’s waiting.”
He ushers me inside the funeral home, where the rent-a-rabbi greets me with a sympathetic smile. My mother waves me over to the seat next to her. The front row has been reserved for family only, and I can’t help but notice how alone Brooke looks amid the rest of the Golds. We’re a clannish lot, and from day one she’s been persona non grata for obvious reasons. But today I feel a smidgen of solidarity with my stepmother. After all, we’re part of the same club now.
She takes her place on the right side of my brother-in-law, who is too absorbed with looking at his phone to notice. My sister pokes him in the arm, a not-so-subtle hint that he’s being disrespectful. This is when I normally would turn to Josh, and a silent acknowledgment that Stephen is a douchebag would pass between us. For some reason that makes me laugh out loud.
My entire family is staring at me now with a mixture of embarrassment and pity.
Adam takes my arm. “You okay, Rach?”
I nod, but I’m not okay. I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay again.
Mourners are still filtering in, and it strikes me that soon the chapel will be standing room only.
My mother whispers, “I knew we should’ve gone with the larger sanctuary.” She turns to Adam. “Ask the director if we can squeeze in more chairs along that aisle over there.” She gives a Vanna White wave, indicating the space near the door.
“Ma, they’re not going to block the exit. It’s probably against fire code.”
My mother shoots him a look. He rolls his eyes and goes off to do her bidding.
The rabbi and the Ackermanns are huddled in a corner, speaking in hushed tones. I look over at Hannah, but from her body language I can tell she and Stephen are fighting. For a second, Brooke meets my gaze, and I quickly turn away.
On the other side of the room, three rows up, Campbell and Jess scootch through the aisle and grab two of the last remaining seats. Campbell catches my eye and holds his hand to his heart. The gesture both warms and angers me at the same time, which isn’t fair. None of this is his fault.
I face forward, knowing I should probably join the Ackermanns and the rabbi, but am unable to move. I decide to let the Ackermanns make the final arrangements. I’m too checked out to contribute anyway.
By the time the rabbi takes the dais, I’m somewhere else entirely. A beach in Fiji with Josh. We went there for our honeymoon, which was sort of a strange choice given that neither of us are beach people. But Josh’s friend had taken a similar trip the year before, and Josh picked the same hotel in Viti Levu on his recommendation. I’d never seen water that blue or coral reefs so vividly colorful. The entire week had been blissful.
I relive every second of the trip as the rabbi recites the opening prayer. Something from the book of Psalms, according to my program. A few seats down, I hear Josh’s mother sob. My mom reaches over Adam and takes her hand.
When it comes time for the eulogy, I only half listen, lost in my own grief. I’ve chosen not to speak, knowing that there are not enough words for all the things I want to convey. Besides that, I’m feeling deeply selfish, wanting to hoard my memories for myself.
One by one, friends and family tell stories that range from funny to poignant. Adam has been designated to speak on behalf of the Golds. Despite my mother nagging him to write out his speech, Adam does it off the cuff. He talks about the first time I brought Josh home to meet my family and how Mom made her famous roasted chicken—famous because it’s one of the few dishes my mother makes. The story has become legend in our family. And when Adam tells the part about how my mother mistakenly coated the chicken with cayenne pepper instead of paprika, the room erupts in solemn laughter.
“It was trial by fire,” Adam says. “We knew Josh passed the test when he went in for a second helping.”
Even I find myself smiling at the memory. Then I silently sob until my whole body shakes. Hannah stuffs a wad of tissue in my hand, and I surreptitiously blot my eyes. I don’t want anyone to see me cry, which is patently ridiculous. But like I hoard my memories, I also want to hoard my sadness. It’s mine and mine alone.
The eulogizing goes on too long, and the rent-a-rabbi signals that we need to wrap things up. We only have the chapel for ninety minutes. The El Malei Rachamim is first chanted in Hebrew, then English.
“God, full of mercy, who dwells above, provide a sure rest on the wings of the Divine Presence, amongst the holy, pure and glorious who shine like the sky, to the soul of Joshua Seth Ackermann, son of Saul Joseph Ackermann, for the sake of charity which was given to the memory of his soul...And he shall rest peacefully at his lying place and let us say: Amen.”
Our family is whisked away to a private room in preparation for the funeral procession.
I chose four of Josh’s closest friends to be pallbearers. Two of them are from Chicago, where Josh grew up. The other two are from Martin, Owens and Luckett, Josh’s architecture firm. For a fleeting second, I wonder if Campbell will feel slighted that I didn’t choose him.
The burial service goes by in a blur. For most of it, Adam’s arm is slung around me as if to hold me up. It’s not until the mourner’s kaddish that I break down, though. It’s not the prayer itself, which I don’t understand because it’s in Hebrew. It’s the finality that it represents. Josh is never coming back. The thought of it squeezes my chest like a tourniquet.
Afterward, I ride with my mother and the Ackermanns in the limo (part of the Eternal Home package) to the house on Vallejo Street. Brooke has graciously lent it to us for the funeral reception. Josh’s and my apartment is too small, and Mom’s townhouse is in the middle of construction hell. She’s been remodeling for the last six months.
The minute we walk into the Queen Anne, I’m embraced with a sense of warmth and familiarity. It’s ironic because the home is the size of a museum and more than a hundred years old. It should be drafty and stodgy, but it floods me with so many happy memories that I’m momentarily vaulted back in time. Even Josh, who preferred steel and black glass and precise lines, loved this house. He used to say, “Oh the stories this Victorian could tell.” It definitely knew our story. The story of the Golds.
My mother heads to the kitchen, where she immediately starts delegating. The caterers have arrived, and she’s rifling through the china cabinet in the butler’s pantry, handing them serving platters. I look at Brooke and my face heats. This is not your house anymore, I want to tell my mother.
Brooke gently rests her hand on my wrist. “Let me make you up a plate before everyone gets here.”
I’m not hungry, but I nod. My mother continues to bustle around the kitchen like a military commander, expediting the massive quantities of food she’s ordered to the dining room. Brooke fixes me a bagel sandwich from one of the deli trays and leads me to the front parlor.
Today, she is warm and ingratiating, a side I’ve never seen before.
The parlor looks mostly the same as when I lived here, though I can’t help but notice that the millwork could use a fresh coat of paint and the furniture looks a little worse for wear. The photos of my parents that once adorned the mantel have been replaced with pictures of my late father and Brooke. I’m sure they’ve been there for a while. But for some reason I’m just noticing them now, noticing how old my father looks standing next to Brooke in her simple sheath dress. On the sofa table is a wedding portrait of Josh and me taken in the backyard. My throat clogs just looking at it.
Hannah and Stephen are the first to arrive. Stephen pats my shoulder and disappears down the hallway.
My sister eyes the plate on my lap. “How you holding up, Rach?” She’s at least the tenth person to ask me that today.
“Hanging in there,” I say and make room for her to sit next to me on the sofa. But she heads off in search of Stephen.
Soon, the house is buzzing with people. The Ackermanns are surrounded by members of Josh’s firm. I’m glad his parents are getting to see them again. Josh was a rock star at Martin, Owens and Luckett. His last project won an AIASF design award. I’m hoping his colleagues brag on Josh. I love his parents, but they never got over the fact that their only child didn’t follow in Saul’s footsteps by becoming a prominent Chicago lawyer. That, and not marrying his high school sweetheart, who now works for Saul’s law firm. Instead, Josh settled for the adrift San Francisco girl who failed to give them a grandchild.
“What are you doing over here alone?” Adam grabs my sandwich and takes a big bite.
I shrug. “How long do you think I have to stay?”
“Probably to the end. Anything else would look weird, don’t you think?”
Typically, Adam would be the last person on earth who I’d ask an etiquette question. But in this instance, I know he’s right. Thank God I nixed the whole sitting shiva thing (my mother’s idea, which the Ackermanns and I quickly nipped in the bud). Seven days of sitting on stools and mourning while friends and family call to pay their respects sounds like the seventh ring of hell. Besides, Josh would’ve hated it. Or maybe not. He did so love being the center of attention. Me? Not so much.
“Are the Ackermanns staying with you tonight?” Adam nudges his head in their direction.
“They’ve been staying at the Mark Hopkins and are going back to Chicago tomorrow.” I’d invited them to stay with me but am secretly glad they chose the hotel.
“The Mark Hopkins, huh?” Adam lets out a low whistle, then glances across the room at Brooke, who is being held hostage by my late father’s Aunt Rose. “What’s up with Dad’s child bride?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why is she being so nice?”
“I don’t know.” It isn’t like Brooke is an ogre. But we haven’t been all that kind to her over the years, starting with the fact that Adam, Hannah and I nicknamed her the child bride behind her back. My mother is less tactful. She calls Brooke the kurveh, Yiddish for prostitute, to her face.
Mom also hasn’t gone unscathed in the name game. Little does she know that long before the divorce, her darling children gave her the moniker of Mommie Dearest. Adam used to run through the house, wearing her lipstick, screaming, “No more wire hangers.”
“I suppose she thought Dad would’ve wanted her to offer up the house. We grew up here after all.”
“Maybe.” Adam takes another bite of my sandwich. “The place looks like shit. You see the walkway out front? I nearly killed myself tripping over the crumbling brickwork.”
It is a big estate to keep up, especially for one person. “She probably hasn’t had a chance to think about it.” Dad had only been gone a year. I know it’ll take me at least that long before I have the wherewithal to think about anything other than Josh and all I’ve lost.
Adam rolls his eyes. “Yeah, she’s too busy counting Dad’s money.”
The general consensus is that Brooke is a “Gold” digger (see what I did there?). The late David Gold was twice her age and one of the most sought-after plastic surgeons in California, maybe even the country.
Adam takes the plate off my lap and rests it on the coffee table, then takes my hands in his. “What are your plans for tonight? You shouldn’t be alone, Rachel.”
All I want is to be alone. Over the last week, I’ve been surrounded by people and feel smothered. Though everyone means well, the platitudes only make me sadder. I’ve never felt this weary, not even when my father died, and plan to spend the foreseeable future curled up in a ball on our king-size bed, clinging to Josh’s pillow.
“Mom will drive you crazy. And Hannah and Stephen...” He trails off but we both know what is being unsaid. My sister and brother-in-law are too wrapped up in their own problems to be of any help to mine.
“Stay with me, Rach,” Adam continues. “We’ll watch old movies and get high.”
It’s a sweet offer, but I don’t want to stay with Adam. First off, I’m pretty sure he has mice. Last time I was there, I saw what looked like droppings. And second of all, I need space to digest everything that has happened. Space to mourn by myself.
“We’ll see,” I say because it’s easier than simply saying no.
Across the parlor, in the hallway, I catch a glimpse of Campbell and Jess in conversation with my sister and my best friend, Josie, and am momentarily distracted. The last thing I want to do is talk to Campbell right now. So, I make an excuse to Adam that I have to use the bathroom and slink away through the dining room, then quickly climb the stairs to my old bedroom. It looks exactly the same as when I left it sixteen years ago. Same lavender walls, same antique iron bed, same appliqué bedspread, same tulle canopy from the Limited Too catalog.
I sit on the edge of the mattress and take in a deep breath, enjoying a modicum of calm for the first time since Saturday, which seems like a lifetime ago. I know it’s only a matter of time before my mother, Hannah or even one of the Ackermanns comes looking for me. In the meantime, I plan to take advantage of the solitude. It’s probably rude because everyone has come to mourn Josh and offer me condolences. But for once in my life, I’m going to ignore protocol and let myself hide for a little while.
I slip off my shoes, lie on the bed and promise myself that I’ll only close my eyes for a few minutes. As I drift, I can almost feel the mattress dip and Josh moving next to me. His warm breath trails my neck like a feather as he wraps his body around me. A combination of his aftershave and soap soothes me like a lullaby. And then he whispers, “Night, Rach,” as sleep claims me and takes me far away from grief and funeral parties.
Seven Years Ago
This is how it started.
I met Josh at a bar. Well, I actually met him on the street in front of the bar. It’s kind of a funny story.
Campbell had called earlier that day and asked to rendezvous at the Round Up, an old-man saloon turned gastropub south of Market. I hadn’t seen him in forever—his fault, not mine—and he wanted to get together. It’s complicated between us, and half the time I don’t know where I stand with him.
It didn’t used to be that way. Before I accidentally got pregnant and lost our baby to a miscarriage ten years ago at the tender age of seventeen, Campbell was my first everything. My first kiss, my first love, my first sexual experience. My first real heartbreak.
I try not to think about our past because what happened, what we lost, can’t be changed. Funny how someone can go from being the center of your world to a casual friend. At least that’s what we’re trying for. Friends.
So, I’m circling the block, hoping it won’t be weird tonight.
But anyone who has ever lived in San Francisco can tell you that parking on Folsom at seven on a Friday night is a bitch. The perfect time to snag a parking space is a skosh past six. That’s when the meters stop running and everyone is headed home from work. The window of opportunity is short, though, as residents in the neighborhood vie for the now-empty spaces and fifteen hours of uninterrupted free street parking.
It used to be that I could wedge my MINI Cooper into the odd miniscule space between driveways. But now the entire city is awash in MINI Coopers.
I circle at least a half dozen more times until finally a BMW pulls away from the curb. It’s only two blocks from the Round Up. Jackpot! I hang a quick U-turn in the middle of the street before anyone can snatch the vacant spot. I’m not an aggressive person by nature, but when I get behind the wheel, I become my mother’s daughter, a raving lunatic.
It’s not until I pull into the space that I realize the curb is marked yellow. A loading zone. Shit! I’m about to pull away and go in search of a real spot when I get lit up by an SFPD motorcycle cop.
“I see it,” I call through my open window, indicating the yellow curb. Still, I’m unsure if he can hear me through his helmet with his motorcycle idling.
He kills the engine and approaches. “Do you know why I stopped you?”
I give him a blank stare.
He stares back. “You made a U-turn in a business district.”
Yeah, I think. So what?
He must read the giant question mark in my expression, because he says, “It’s illegal.”
Before I can try to talk him out of citing me, he’s scribbling in his pad. Ten minutes later, I pull into traffic with a $234 ticket sitting on my passenger seat. Next month’s rent is due on the first, and I have no idea how I’m going to pay it, let alone the extra $234. I’m barely scraping by selling real estate, a sad commentary on my skills as a salesperson in a city where the median home price is well over a million dollars and every agent I work with is making a fortune. My father says I just don’t have that killer instinct, which I suppose is a nicer version of my mother’s “You’re wasting your life.” Sort of rich coming from a woman who never worked a day in her life, but not exactly wrong.
I’m tempted to call Campbell and tell him I give up. The Prius in front of me has now circled the block twice in search of the holy grail. But the parking gods must sense that I’m at my wits’ end, because mercifully a spot opens up when a Honda Civic pulls out in front of me. I parallel park my MINI with all the grace of a drunk, having to attempt it multiple times before I’m even with the curb.
It’s three blocks to the Round Up. I grab my coat from the back seat and wait for traffic to ease up before I open my door.
I’m halfway to the Round Up when someone comes up behind me.
“Hey, hold up.”
My first instinct is to get to the bar as fast as possible. I’m somewhat mollified by the fact that there are quite a few people out walking, but I still lengthen my stride. A few weeks ago, a woman was attacked in broad daylight right in front of my mother’s building. Or at least that’s what she told me. Her penchant for exaggeration is legendary in our family. Still, a person can never be too careful.
The man is beside me now. And while he doesn’t appear to be a homicidal maniac, one can never tell. I’ve seen too many true-crime shows to let a cashmere coat and a pair of perfectly creased slacks fool me.
“I saw what happened back there,” he says.
I don’t have the first clue what he’s talking about. “What happened?” I pick up the pace, convinced that he’s a well-turned-out nutjob.
“That cop that stopped you and gave you a ticket.”
“What was it for? Flipping an illegal U-turn?”
I stop. “Did you know you’re not allowed to turn around in a business district?” Because it’s the first I’ve heard of it. I’m wondering if the cop, worried about making his quota, made it up on the spot.
“Sure. Everyone knows that.”
I shoot him a look, and he laughs. It’s one of those deep, rumbling laughs that vibrates in his chest and makes me feel immediately at ease.
“How much?” He makes the money sign with his fingers.
“Two hundred and thirty-four bucks. Can you believe it?”
He whistles and shakes his head. “That sucks.”
“Yeah, it does.” It’s my first ticket. Truth is I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was twenty-three and didn’t own my own car until I started selling real estate two years ago. “What happens if I don’t pay it?”
“San Quentin. They’ll lock you up forever.” He smiles, and my eyes are drawn to the cleft in his chin. “But seriously, you’ve gotta pay it. The fine accrues over time, and eventually they’ll impound your car. I might be able to help you out with the two hundred and thirty-four bucks, though.”
I instantly go on creep alert. Instead of waiting for what is sure to be a proposition, I continue heading to the Round Up, hoping to shake him once I get to the bar. Undeterred, he follows me inside, where a rush of warm air greets us. I search the place for Campbell, but he’s nowhere to be found.
We both take a seat at the concrete bar. Everything from the live-edge wooden banquettes and wallpaper with meat-cut diagrams to the bare Edison light bulbs and Radiohead music in the background screams hipster. It’s probably why I don’t come here often.
He grabs a cocktail napkin off a stack in the far corner, scribbles something on it and slides it over to me. I look down where he’s written “Born to Run” and stare up at him quizzically. What does Bruce Springsteen have to do with my ticket?
“It’s a horse,” he says. “He’s racing tomorrow at Golden Gate Fields, and I got a hot tip he’s a winner.” He bobs his chin and says, “You’re welcome.”
I can’t tell if he’s joking, but I fold up the napkin and stuff it in my purse anyway. It isn’t what I was expecting. I’ll give him points for that.
“So, are you like a compulsive gambler?”
He laughs that really great laugh again.
“Nope,” he says. “But a friend of mine is. He’s the one who gave me the tip.”
He attempts to flag the bartender over, but she’s at the other end of the bar, flirting with a couple of businessmen. “You want a drink? I just landed my dream job and am buying. Figure it’s good karma.”
I don’t think karma works like that, but who am I to turn down a free drink? “Sure.” I study him for the first time since we’ve met and lose my train of thought as I stare into a pair of nice brown eyes.
Actually, nice is an understatement. They’re gorgeous, the kind of brown eyes that have the power to mesmerize.
He also happens to have one of those perfectly proportioned faces. It’s square with a forehead that’s roughly the same width as his chin. His jawline—I’m a sucker for jawlines—is well defined. I once read that women subconsciously equate strong jawlines with high sperm counts and cringe a little at the objectification. Yet my mind still goes there.
He grins as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking. And for a second I can feel my cheeks heat. Then, just as quickly, my armor goes on. I still can’t figure him out. Odds are he’s either married or on the prowl for a hookup. I don’t do married men—or hookups. Though I’d be lying if I said the latter isn’t tempting. It’s been a while, and this stranger is doing something funny to my insides. I turn away, afraid he’ll read my thoughts.
The woman next to me is eating a soft pretzel that smells so good it makes my stomach rumble. As I remember, the place has good food, even if it is pretentious. Lots of elevated beer bites like truffled corn nuts, mini lamb corndogs and buffalo sliders. I consider ordering something because I’m starved but decide to wait for Campbell.
“So what’s the job?” I ask him, half hoping,. . .
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