What happens when your best friend turns your life into a rom-com when you don’t believe in true love? Chloe Sanderson is an optimist, and not because her life is easy. In fact, she’s the sole caregiver to her father with early onset! Not Like the Movies, is the unexpected romantic comedy we’ve just added to our WAM bookshelf.
From NOT LIKE THE MOVIES published by arrangement with Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Kerry Winfrey.
If you’re an outwardly optimistic person—someone who dresses in bright colors, who listens to pop music, who looks on the bright side and sees the silver lining and all those other refrigerator magnet clichés—people tend to think you’re, well, kind of dim. Like maybe you don’t know how to read, so you haven’t seen those news articles about the unbearable atrocities happening all over the place every single day. That you’re unaware of the real world, or worse, that you don’t care that people are suffering constantly.
But I’d argue that it’s the opposite. I need my optimism to get me through the day, because if I’m not listening to Christopher Cross sing a smooth jam about sailing, or wearing a heart-printed blouse, or creating some adorable llama-shaped sugar cookies with colorful royal icing, then I might stop to think for a second about what’s actually happening in my life. That my dad is sick, that he’s not going to get better, that my brother left me, that my mom is MIA, that my best friend’s career is blowing up while mine is stalled, that I’m always going to be here while she jets off to New York or Los Angeles.
And that’s, like, the tip of the suffering iceberg. For as bad as I have it, millions of other people have it so much worse. If I stop to think about all that, what am I supposed to do? Curl up in bed and never, ever get out?
No thanks. I’d much rather put on some yacht rock and get on with things.
Which is why, as I drive home from my dad’s facility in the rapidly darkening evening, I’m loudly harmonizing with the Doobie Brothers, even as the weight of stress sits so heavy on my chest that I can barely breathe. I’m just so tired. Before I left Dad’s place, I texted Nick that I wouldn’t be back in to finish off my shift, which he characteristically accepted, promising to call in my well-meaning but incompetent young coworker, Tobin. Now I have to force all thoughts of Dad’s decline out of my head and take a quiz for my online business class about . . . ugh, who even knows what? And then there’s the constant cloud of guilt that follows me around, hanging over my head and reminding me that I put my dad in an assisted living facility instead of keeping him home to take care of him myself.
I tried that, back when things with Dad were just starting to get bad, back when I assumed I could handle it all alone. I went to his house every morning and every night, and then, when I realized he was doing things like turning on the oven and forgetting about it, I started checking in during the day, too. When things got worse, I would come over to find him sitting in the yard, wondering how he got there, or staring into the pantry, completely forgetting what he came into the kitchen to do, or wandering around his garden in only his boxers and socks.
One day I went to check on him and found the front door wide open. I walked through the house, calling his name, trying not to panic and telling myself he was in the backyard. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t anywhere. It was a gray, rainy day, and as I stood there in the backyard figuring out what to do, I had one thought: I lost him. I screwed up and I wasn’t here and now the worst possible thing is going to happen.
I called the police, keeping my voice steady as I told them what happened. I tried not to think about the horror stories I’d heard, about people with Alzheimer’s who wandered off and got hurt or worse. And I hated myself for letting this happen.
The police found him a couple of harrowing hours later, wandering through a grocery store with a basket full of frozen food and insisting that he was just shopping for dinner. Outwardly, he seemed annoyed that I’d gone to all this fuss to hunt him down, but I saw the fear and confusion in his eyes.
Dad needed supervision 24/7, and the only way I could keep taking care of him myself was if I quit my job and moved in with him. I considered it. But while I might be patient and while I love my dad more than anything, I’m not a medical professional, and also I couldn’t afford to be jobless.
Cobbling together Dad’s social security, his veteran’s benefits, his savings (which I had to put in a trust so that he could qualify for veteran’s benefits, because this entire process has to be super confusing and time consuming), and my salary, I managed to afford a place with around-the-clock care where I know he’s safe and secure. This is the one thing in my life I had to outsource, and even knowing that he’s in the best place for him doesn’t ease my guilt. There’s still that little voice in my head, whispering, You should be taking care of him yourself.
I turn into the narrow driveway for my apartment (which is actually the carriage house behind the house where Annie lives with her uncle Don), debating what kind of pie I’m going to procrasti-bake tonight, when my headlights flash across a person. Two people. I slam on the brakes and scream, because this is it. This is the beginning of my murder story, the one that will eventually be told on the true-crime podcast about my death. Clearly whoever this is has been methodically stalking me for weeks—no, years!—and has finally come here to finish the deed, while Annie’s out of town and Uncle Don’s preoccupied with D&D and no one will hear me scream and—Oh. I blink as I realize that one of the people is my brother.
I step out of the car and slam the door. “What are you doing standing in the middle of the driveway, you maniac?” I ask.
“Blasting the Doobs, huh?” He squints at me through his giant glasses (the kind that are in style but sort of make him look like a serial killer from the ’80s), and that’s when I remember that he’s not alone. He’s standing next to a tall, attractive, almost impossibly fit black man who I’m certain I’ve never seen before in my life. Trust me. I’d remember a man who looks this good.
I paste a smile on my face, using my years of customer service training. “I mean . . . um . . . to what do I owe this pleasure, brother?”
Milo steps toward me with his arms outstretched, his dirty-blond hair rumpled and his T-shirt wrinkled, and even though I’ve barely seen him for the past few years, I let myself sink into his hug. For one second, I bask in this familial embrace, but then I take a step back and smack him on the arm with my purse.
“What the hell, dude? I haven’t seen you for, what, an entire year, and you show up in my driveway with no warning and a beautiful man?”
Milo gives the other man a smile, one of those Sorry, this lady’s crazy smiles that I hate so much. The other man steps forward, offering me his hand.
“Fred,” he says.
“It’s so nice to meet you, Fred,” I say sweetly, then turn back to Milo and hit him with my purse again. “I texted you last week about changing Dad’s medication and you didn’t even bother responding. You don’t think you could’ve been, like, ‘Okay, thanks for handling one hundred percent of our father’s medical care and PS, I think I’m going to be back in Ohio next week’?”
Milo groans. “Chloe. This is exactly why I didn’t tell you I was coming back.”
“Great. Put it all on me.”
Milo looks me in the eyes and then, there it is. My own smile mirrored back at me. “Hey. Can’t you be glad to see your other half?”
The traitorous corners of my mouth start to twitch up in a smile. That’s what Milo and I used to call each other when we were little: my other half. Back then, when we’d only been given an incomplete birds-and-the-bees lesson from a VHS tape my dad borrowed from the library that left a lot to the imagination, we thought that being twins meant we were actually two halves of the same person. And then Dad told us that “other half” was more typically used to refer to romantic partners and not so much fraternal twins, but we didn’t care because the description felt true. He’s the irresponsible half, and I’m the responsible half. He’s the half with his head in the clouds, I’m the half with her feet on the ground. Together we make one complete person, and knowing that he’s been out there floating around Brooklyn for the past few years has made me feel, well . . . not whole.
“Damn it,” I mutter, smiling, as I let him hug me again. I catch Fred’s eye and he shrugs, signaling that he’s already well aware of Milo’s charm. “Just come inside,” I say into Milo’s shoulder.
“So how long has it been since you’ve been home?” I ask as Milo and Fred settle into the couch. My apartment, which is a glorified room above a garage, is tiny; one room with my bed, a couch, and a small, round kitchen table, with a sloping ceiling that means you can only stand up straight if you’re directly in the middle of the room. At the back is the kitchen, separated from the rest of the apartment with a half wall, and only big enough for two people to squeeze in.
Milo shifts on the couch. “It’s been . . . a while. Things have been busy.”
“But now you’re back,” I say slowly, waiting for him to explain what he’s here for.
“Now I’m back,” he says, staring at me. A long silence hangs between us.
“This coconut cream pie is divine,” Fred says, holding up the slice I gave him from the pie I had chilling in the fridge.
“Thank you, Fred.” I smile. Frankly, Fred seems great. He’s polite, he never abandoned me while I was taking care of my father, and he likes my coconut pie; what more could I want in a person? But right now, I’m a little more concerned with what my brother’s doing here.
“Listen, I want to be here for Dad, all right? I know I missed a lot—”
“But I’m here now, okay?” Milo leans forward and looks at me with those big blue eyes that are also my big blue eyes and we’re back to being seven years old, to me giving him all the cheese from my Lunchable because he asked nicely. I’ve never been able to resist him.
“Why are you really here, Milo?” I ask quietly.
“To see Dad,” he insists. I look at Fred for help, but he’s curiously focused on his pie.
“Is that the only reason?” I ask, familiar with Milo’s belief that lies of omission don’t count.
He shrugs and rolls his eyes. “I mean, I don’t know, maybe the lease on our place was also up so it seemed like good timing. Among other reasons.”
I stare at him. “You’re not here for Dad. You’re here because you need a place to live.”
“Can’t it be both?” Milo says, charming smile aimed in my direction.
“You can’t stay here,” I say, standing up and grabbing their empty plates. Milo follows me into the kitchen.
“I know. I know. I forgot that your place was so small.”
“At least I have a place,” I say icily, turning on the water and rinsing off the plates.
“Touché.” Milo sighs. “I think we can stay with Mikey Danger.
I eye Milo. “How could I forget a high school classmate who tried to convince everyone his last name was Danger?”
“Well, he’s no longer seventeen and he legally changed his last name to Danger. He’s a delivery driver now but from what I’ve heard, he can still land a pretty sick ollie.”
He trails off and gives me a wry look, and that’s it. I can’t help laughing. This is the allure of Milo, the reason I can’t be mad at him even though he left me alone here to care for Dad, the reason I’ve never been able to be mad at him no matter what crap he pulls. The time he took my junior-year prom dress, the one I was saving because I loved it so much, and used it for a zombie bride costume. The time he ended up leaving that same junior prom with my prom date. All the times he was either too clueless or self-absorbed to notice anyone but himself—I’ve forgiven it all.
“Milo.” I look at him until he looks me in the eye. “What’s the deal with Fred?”
“We’ve been together for a few months,” Milo says. “He’s great, right?”
“I mean . . .” I peer over the half wall at Fred, who’s on the sofa, scrolling through his phone. “Yeah. What does he do? Like, for work, if you guys work at all . . . ?”
“We work,” Milo says, an edge to his voice. “Fred’s a model.” “Oh,” I say, still staring at Fred. “That makes sense.”
“And I work—well, worked—in an upscale men’s boutique. We met because Fred was a customer.”
I frown. Milo says “upscale men’s boutique” the way a server at a pretentious restaurant says “house-made artisanal sausage” when everyone knows it’s just meat stuffed in a tube.
“And he’s kind, and he’s funny, and, I don’t know. This feels . . . different than all the other guys I’ve dated.”
“So you’re settling down with Fred?”
He pokes my shoulder. “Settling down isn’t so bad. You should try it.”
I’ve never known Milo in a relationship, and not just because he’s been living in another state for the past several years. He just never seemed all that interested in dating, but the way he’s looking at Fred is something I’ve never seen on him before.
“Also, the man can put together a puzzle.” “Um,” I say. “Is that some kind of euphemism?”
Milo shoots me a look of disgust and pokes me in the shoulder again. “No, you perv. That’s what we do for fun—puzzles. You really get to know someone when you’re putting together a thousand-piecer of hot air balloons. Puzzles take patience. Attention to detail. Stamina.”
I shake my head. “So what are you guys gonna do for work while you’re here?”
Milo shrugs. “I’ll get a job at a store.”
I’d question his nonchalance, but he’s right—this is the way it always works for Milo. Retail is where he shines, probably because he can talk to anyone and, after five minutes, know the name of their first pet and convince them to buy $500 worth of merchandise.
“And there’s catalog work here. Fred can get a job anywhere.
Look at him.”
Fred looks up at us. “Fred can hear you, you know. Fred is about three feet away from the kitchen.”
“Right.” I nod.
“Small apartment,” Milo says, but he’s smiling at Fred, not caring even a little that Fred overheard him say that he plans on settling down. Fred smiles back at him and I get the distinct feeling that they no longer know I’m here.
I frown. “Maybe you two lovebirds should go make out at Mikey Danger’s now. I feel like a third wheel in my own place.”
Milo wraps me up in a hug again. “It’s good to be back, you know? I missed home.”
I don’t know how Milo can be so Milo about this—so nonchalant about being technically homeless and jobless. I’ve spent my entire life pedaling at warp speed to avoid that exact situation, but he willingly put himself into it. He’s the personification of those motivational posters that say, Jump, and the net will appear, whereas my motivational poster would say something like, There is no net, so maybe reconsider jumping and just find a ladder or something?
But he’s here now. Milo. My other half. I look at his silly glasses and his messy hair and the blue T-shirt that I know he’s wearing to make his eyes look bluer, because we have the same eyes and I do the same thing.
And even though I have a million and one reasons to be annoyed at him, I say, “I’m glad you’re here,” because it’s the truth.
From NOT LIKE THE MOVIES published by arrangement with Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Kerry Winfrey.