Amy E. Reichert pushes an eternal optimist to her limit in her upcoming novel The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go.
Set for a May 2018 release, Reichert’s latest is a funny, honest, and shrewd portrait of Gina Zoberski, a recent widow best characterized by her food truck enterprise and obsessive list-making skills. Her consistently positive outlook on life is abruptly challenged when her critical mother, Lorraine, suffers a stroke, leaving a trail of secrets to be uncovered.
In Optimist’s Guide, Reichert, also known for her books The Simplicity of Cider and The Coincidence of Coconut Cake, has returned with another story that mixes sharp character study with sumptuous food detail. The author has exclusively shared the novel’s cover and first chapter with EW, which you can check out below. Pre-order the book ahead of its May 15 release here.
Excerpt from “The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go,” by Amy E. Reichert
- Throw away Xmas cards, check.
- Shower, check.
- Put May’s clean clothes outside her door, check.
- Shred extra cheese, check.
- Lunch prep.
- Call Mom.
Gina Zoberski crossed out number five, then turned to her first customer, muscle memory curving her lips into a smile. In minutes, her griddle sizzled with grilled cheese sandwiches as she lined up waxed paper and cardboard boats, cold air fluttering the paper as it mingled with the warm air inside Grilled G’s, her gourmet grilled cheese food truck. She checked the sandwiches as they browned, pausing long enough to look at the text message from her food truck neighbor Monica, who ran On a Roll — serving an ever-changing menu of food on rolls, from sausages to grilled veggies.
C’S MAKING THE ROUNDS.
Gina smiled as she looked out her own truck’s window, above the heads of her waiting customers. Sure enough, Charlotte was headed her way, shuffling carefully across the icy sidewalk as she pulled her hand from the aged red plastic Sendik’s bag looped on her arm. She wore an oversize black coat with large bulging pockets that fell past her knees. A spotted knit scarf hid half her face, and a dark hat with ear flaps covered her normally wild pale reddish curls. Though she wasn’t old, she looked drawn thin from the lack of sleep, the skin hanging from her bones, as if lacking the substance to fi her out properly.
Gina finished up the sandwiches, handed them off to people who’d been waiting, and immediately started three of her Classic grilled cheeses, a combination of Colby-Jack, American, and provolone on fresh Italian bread with a lot of butter, crisp and golden. She’d learned long ago to grill both slices of bread for each sandwich at the same time, topping them with shredded cheese, and bringing them together at the end to complete it. It took half the time and was just as delicious.
“Hi, Charlotte. That’s a pretty scarf. Staying warm?” Charlotte said nothing in response. “The usual?”
“Yes. I’m in a rush.” The words were muffled by her scarf. She slid three crumpled and torn dollar bills and six quarters across the counter — the cost of one grilled cheese with chips.
“Be ready in a moment.”
Gina slid the money into her cash drawer as Charlotte peered over her shoulder and clutched her bag closer. It looked heavy. She must have already visited most of the stands today. She finished the Classic, making sure to singe one corner. Gina then wrapped it carefully in aluminum foil and handed it to her with a bag of potato chips. As Charlotte stepped to the side of the line and greedily unwrapped the food, Gina took three more orders and finished grilling the other two sandwiches she had started, wrapping them like the first. Charlotte’s “ahem” sounded like clockwork.
An ear-flapped head poked around the window. “Yes, Charlotte?” Gina knew what was coming.
“You burned the bread. I’m not paying for this.” She held the slightly darkened corner up to the window.
“Of course not.” Seamlessly, she handed Charlotte the waiting sandwiches. “Here’s a replacement and an extra to make up for the inconvenience. I’m so sorry for the trouble.”
Charlotte humphed and stuffed the new sandwiches into her bag and scuttled off toward the edge of the park, where she handed one of the aluminum foil packets to the bedraggled man sitting on the bench before heading down the street out of sight. Gina smiled in her direction before returning her focus to the growing line, settling into the lunch rush routine.
She was grateful for the familiar bustle. Being busy kept her mind focused — off the past, the present, and — most worrisome — the future. Once the lunch crowd swarmed, she couldn’t think about the reason she could afford her shiny, custom-built food truck, or why she needn’t worry about giving extra grilled cheese sandwiches to Charlotte on a regular basis. When her financial adviser had told her how much money she would receive, she had gasped, but the sum hadn’t made her any less angry.
Take the order, butter the bread, add the cheese, grill, assemble the sandwich, cut, wrap. Repeat. One to-do list she had completed so often, she no longer needed to write it down.
Her little sister Vicky regularly suggested a therapist might be a healthier route, but Grilled G’s had gotten her through just fine. In Gina’s experience, cheese made everything better — Parmesan on popcorn, crispy fried goat cheese in a salad, a swipe of cream cheese on a toasted bagel, or melted gouda on an egg sandwich. She even liked a dollop of sweetened mascarpone on a slice of warm cherry pie instead of ice cream. But grilled cheese, gooey from the griddle, crisp on the outside, melty on the inside, that was the pinnacle of dairy possibility.
No matter how it was dressed up, with balsamic reductions or micro greens, a grilled cheese was still luscious goodness between carbs. Simple, wholesome comfort food at its finest. Handheld happiness everyone could enjoy. And Gina loved to make people happy, especially on a cold day like today. Her vibrant orange and yellow food truck gleamed in her regular spot at Red Arrow Park in downtown Milwaukee, a colorful beacon in gray, late December, drawing office workers and city employees like bees to a flower. She’d been running her truck for a little over a year, and she already had a loyal following. The other trucks, a homogenous line of white and silver, offered tacos, soup, and even fresh doughnuts. But no one could walk past Grilled G’s without smiling.
In the small, stainless steel room, everything had a use, every item an assigned home, and it could all be scrubbed clean with bleach and a hose when a day became extra messy. Black cushioned rubber mats covered the floor so her footing was always sure, and a large window allowed her to stay in the warm portable kitchen and take orders from the customers lined up outside. One end led to the cab containing the driver’s seat, a second seat that folded down for a passenger, and a few steps to get out the door, like a school bus. The other end held an emergency exit that doubled as shelving space. Lining the sides of her galley kitchen were the griddle, burners, a refrigerator, ample workspace, and the requisite number of sinks to pass a health inspection. Every inch had a purpose and had been custom designed just for her with love, including the slightly shorter-than-normal counter and movable shelves she could pull down rather than reaching up.
Clearheaded, Gina handed another sandwich to a waiting customer and looked up to take another order but was greeted with an empty window. Next door, Monica pulled down her awning, sending a wave before climbing back into On a Roll.
Gina’s heart clenched and the blood thundered through her body. Another lunch rush over. Everything she’d been ignoring rushed in, like a wave filling a sandcastle’s moat, pulling at the castle walls as it swirled. As she braced for the next wave, her phone rang. The tide receded.
Seeing it was Vicky, she pulled out the earbuds from her pocket, plugged them into her phone, and took the call.
Before she could even say “Hey,” Vicky started into her tirade.
“Did you read the e-mail yet?” her sister began. While starting to clean up the counters, Gina mumbled something non-committal, her body on autopilot.
Vicky must have interpreted her grunt as a negative response because she kept talking. “I need to read it to you so you get the full impact; ‘Gifts this year were not good.’ Can you believe her? I gave her perfume that cost more than my last epidural. You’d think that would count for something. Our mother actually put her judgment into writing and e-mailed it to us. It hasn’t even been two days since Christmas. She couldn’t even wait a week. I’m going to print this out and frame it. When she dies, it’s going in her coffin.”
Gina could hear the clank of silverware against a dish in the background. She pictured her sister, earbuds also connected to the phone that was tucked into her back jeans pocket, scrubbing the breakfast dishes while her two three-year-old twins, Maggie and Nathan, smashed Play-Doh together, noshing on freshly cut fruit while the eldest two, Greta and Jake, rolled snow across the backyard to build a snowman. She’d be wearing subtle makeup with her long shiny (faux) blond hair in a sleek ponytail precisely perched on the back of her head, just in case someone stopped by. She worked hard to insulate her kids from the expectations and pretensions of other families from the private school they attended on her husband’s insistence. It was different from their own childhood of tennis lessons at the club and afternoons at the pool while their mom gossiped with the other country club women, who were content to let their children run free as they sipped their chilled white wine under striped umbrellas.
With her sister still talking, Gina closed up her truck, slid into the driver’s seat, and eased her large truck into west-bound traffic, waiting for a break in the conversation. Her sister paused to take a breath.
“I’m sure she wasn’t referring to your Christmas gift, the perfume is gorgeous. But you know, Mom, she has very specific tastes,” Gina said. They both knew well enough that their mother’s criticism was directed at Gina, not at Vicky. Gina was the problem daughter and always had been, even though Vicky was the one who never edited her thoughts before speaking them. It was Gina who hadn’t married well. Gina who ate too much bread. Gina who didn’t wear the right clothes, or makeup, or get her grays covered regularly enough. She’d been hearing the same criticisms her entire life — the worst being “why can’t you be more like Victoria?” A disappointing Christmas gift didn’t even register on the insult scale anymore.
“Don’t try to spin her royal bitchiness — she knows what she’s doing. Is that how we’re going to be at her age? Crazy and bitter? I’m rooting for a fast-acting cancer or a falling meteor rather than waiting for menopause to do its worst.”
Gina stilled, shoving the uncomfortable cloud of fear away, focusing on the silver lining. “Don’t think like that. We’re going to live long lives full of grandbabies to spoil. And we’ll always have each other.” She pulled into her own driveway, the drapes still shut tight, no sign that anyone was home. She set her forehead on the wheel, hoping to keep the panic from spreading. It wasn’t working.
The dead air stretched.
“You know what I mean,” Vicky said at last, the sound of running water starting and stopping through the phone. She must be done with the dishes. “Where are you? Are you in the food truck?”
Gina leaned her head back against the steel wall, drawing from its reliable sturdiness the strength to stand and step outside. It didn’t come.
Reaching over to the glove compartment, she pulled a plastic bag containing a T-shirt she usually kept hidden in her closet but she occasionally brought with her like a security blanket. She pulled open the bag, her hands twisting the worn jersey fabric between her fingers. She held it to her nose. After two years, most of the scent came from her memory rather than the ragged material, and even that was fading. The thought seized in her chest, kicking her heart into a frantic pace and trapping the air in her lungs. She couldn’t get a breath. The slushy sounds of neighborhood traffic pulled away, and she could only hear her struggling body trying to cope. The cold stainless steel walls poked at Gina with memories.
Drew’s smile. Drew’s laugh. Drew’s kiss.
Ignoring her sister’s questions, she breathed in the fabric, drawing on all the good things around her to get her through this moment.
Her bright orange and yellow truck stood out in the cold, white Wauwatosa neighborhood made of brick and tan bungalows, the bare trees waiting for spring. She ran her left hand along the wall, the double-stacked wedding bands on her ring finger clinking against the metal — Drew’s had been resized to fit her much smaller finger. Grilled G’s was her husband’s last gift to her before he left. He created it to stand out in a line of food trucks, drawing customers to the popular menu of gourmet grilled cheeses — ranging from a classic American cheese on crisp, buttery Italian bread to a rustic combo of creamy Brie, arugula, and prosciutto on a seed-studded multigrain. She even served a grilled peanut butter and jelly (made with coconut oil instead of butter) for dairy-intolerant customers.
Grilled G’s was comfort on four wheels, not just for the patrons, but for her as well. Being in it was the closest sensation she had to still being in his arms.
“Gina, are you there?” Vicky said.
“I like the way the truck smells like him.” She finally answered Vicky’s question. She could hear her sister’s sigh.
“Like melted cheese and butter?”
“Like leather and motor oil.” She held the smudged T-shirt to her nose one more time before tucking it back into the plastic bag and into her purse.
“Should I come up?” She couldn’t miss her sister’s resigned tone — clear that she hoped Gina would turn her down, not really wanting to talk her through another panic attack, especially with the two-hour drive north from Illinois it would take to get there and the scrambling to find someone to watch her children. Stepping out, Gina gave the truck a little pat and slid the door closed behind her. She didn’t want to burden her sister anymore. Vicky had enough to deal with, raising her four littles while her husband worked insane hours in downtown Chicago. She had no time for a sister who should be moving on.
Focus on what’s next. Just on what’s next. Focus on what’s next. Just on what’s next.
- Put the T-shirt back in her closet.
- Talk to May.
- Call Mom.
“Of course not. I was just pulling up, I’m going inside now.”
The icy wind cut through her thin fleece. Up and down her street, neighbors walked dogs on the salt-speckled sidewalks. Snow-covered yards hosted deflated Santas and reindeer and one plastic nativity scene that had been used for so many years all the figures were faded to a sad, smudged beige. Her own house looked no different than it had two years ago, or how it would look in another month. For the past two Christmases, she hadn’t had the energy to decorate — save for one wreath she would hang on the door. It was simply too much effort and pain to decorate, when it only reminded her of the good years she and Drew had together. Now she and May went to Illinois to spend the holiday at her sister’s with their mom. They’d drive down early in the morning and leave after Christmas dinner, dropping her mom off at her apartment. It was a long fourteen-hour day, but then it was over and they could spend the rest of the holiday season without having to put on a brave face.
Patty, the new mom from across the street, power-walked past with her baby bundled into a jogging stroller. She waved and paused, as if to chat with Gina. Gina pointed at the earbuds in her ears and waved at her. Patty nodded and moved along. Gina closed her eyes, relieved to have delayed Patty’s blow-by-blow recap of her first Christmas with a baby.
“If you’re sure. I could be there in two hours. The kids would love to see May again.” Vicky clearly felt comfortable offering the second time, now that she knew Gina wouldn’t take her up on it.
“No. And I’ll check in on Mom, too. If she doesn’t answer her phone, I’ll stop by before dinner. She won’t hold back on how much she hated my present. It’ll make her feel better to get it off her chest, and then you don’t have to hear it, too.”
“You don’t need to be her whipping post, Gina.”
“It makes her feel better. I don’t mind. I know she doesn’t really mean it.”
“Do you? What has mother ever done to make you believe that?”
Gina shrugged, watching Patty disappear around the corner. “I gotta go. I’ll let you know how it goes.”
She hung up and stared at her house. May would still be in her room, listening to music or watching videos on YouTube. She inhaled, steeling herself for today’s battle, and climbed the porch steps to open the old wooden door with a creak. She scowled at the hinges — she’d known the coconut oil her mom had put on them wouldn’t work. There should be some WD-40 in the garage that would do the trick. WD-40, another domain that used to be Drew’s, but now was added to Gina’s list.
She wiped her feet on the thick blue rug protecting the battered wood floors inside the front door. Dust dulled the surfaces, but Gina couldn’t be bothered to remedy the problem. They never used the family room anymore, so why clean it? Straight through the hallway in front of her was the kitchen — small and functional, with a table where she and May ate their meals, usually at different times to keep the peace.
She wanted to go about her day, but that’s not what a good mother would do, and she wanted more than anything to be a good mother. She wanted to be a mommy, or a ma, or a mama. Not the cold “Regina” May had taken to using the last year … when she deigned to address her at all.
After a quick trip back upstairs to her room to change clothes and return Drew’s T-shirt to its hiding spot, Gina backtracked to May’s door. The door was dark, six-paneled oak, only two inches thick, yet it seemed like an impenetrable wall. Friends had warned her about the teen years since the day May had been born. “Just wait until the teens, it’s like a monster takes over your perfect child for seven years, then miraculously gives her back when she turns twenty.” If Drew were here, he could talk to May, make her see the logical side. Without him around every day, Gina was on her own.
She knocked on the door, waited five seconds for a response she wouldn’t get, and then opened it. It took her eyes a few seconds to find May among the scattered clothes — including the clean clothes she’d set outside the door that morning — schoolwork, and books, like a Where’s Waldo? puzzle of her sulky child. May lay on her bed, blue headphones covering her ears with her iPad propped on her bent legs. She didn’t even look up to acknowledge Gina’s arrival.
“May, can you take off your headphones, please?”
Gina waited ten seconds, then carefully stepped through the piles and plucked the headphones off May’s head, revealing an orangey-yellow streak in her brown hair that hadn’t been there yesterday. Should she yell at her? Compliment her? Ignore it completely?
“Hey!” May reached for the headphones, but Gina lifted them higher. She’d go with ignoring the hair streak for now. She hated that parenting had come to a game of keep-away and constantly second-guessing herself.
“I need to talk to you and I want to know you can hear me.” May glared as only a disgruntled teen can, so Gina took that as a sign that she could continue. “I’m heading over to Grandma’s. Did you want to join me? I’ll make your favorite bacon and cheddar grilled cheese.”
“I don’t eat meat anymore, Regina.” She moved her eyes to look at Gina, then returned to staring at her paused YouTube channel. Ah, the dreaded “Regina.”
“Since when do you not … actually, never mind. I’ll make you a bacon-free one.”
“You can bring your iPad.” “No.”
“I don’t like the idea of you being home all on your own for all of break. Do you want me to drop you off at one of your friends’ houses? What’s Olivia up to?”
“No.” She held her hand out for the headphones. Knowing she had lost, Gina handed them back and leaned in to kiss May’s forehead. May blocked it with her arm as she reinstalled her Beats. Gina wanted to yank them off her ungrateful ears again — after all, Gina had purchased those headphones — but counted to ten instead.
“Call me if you need me. I love you,” Gina said, knowing that May had not heard her. She exited the room, leaving the door open behind her. If May wanted it closed, she’d at least have to get off her bed to do it. All the parenting books Gina had read told her that May’s emotions and behaviors were normal, but she missed the little girl she laughed with, and snuggled and tickled, and made smile with her grilled cheese sandwiches.
With another parental failure under her belt, she shut the front door behind her and started toward her golden Mini Cooper, which was barely visible in the shadow of the truck.
“Gina! I was hoping I’d catch you on my way back.”
Gina cringed, immediately twisting her lips into a smile and turning to face the woman attached to the cheerful voice. Patty and her husband were new to the neighborhood, new enough to not have been among the many who had dropped off casseroles and coffee cakes by the ton at Gina’s house, as though noodles and ground beef could fill up the space a husband left behind. Drew had been the rock that kept their family strong. Without him, she and May tumbled through each day, flailing in the rushing waters, occasionally bumping into each other. Alone, they didn’t pretend. But out in her driveway, she had to pretend to float, to swim, to glide on the pristine waters of life, when she was just barely keeping herself out of the turbulent undertow pulling at her legs.
“Hi, Patty. Good walk?” She looked down at the baby, soundly asleep in the cozy blankets, a blue elephant hat sliding over one closed eye. Such peace and innocence. Gina missed the unconditional love of a baby. Her eyes lifted to Patty’s, whose normal smiling face was crunched into sad eyes, like she had to tell a third grade class they’d lost the school spirit competition and wouldn’t get a pizza party. What had Gina done to warrant that look? And then it hit her, even before the words were out of Patty’s mouth. She had seen that expression on the faces of everyone who’d known Drew.
“I am so sorry. The Greebles told me at the Christmas Round Robin about your husband. I’d just assumed you were divorced. You’re too young to be a widow. I can’t imagine how hard that loss has been for you and May.”
There it was. Two years later, and the sting was as fresh as yesterday. Patty reached for her hand, and Gina let her grab it. The gesture wasn’t meant to bring her comfort. The hand-grab was to make Patty feel better, so she could walk away believing she’d reached out and done the neighborly thing. So she could return to her perfect baby and loving, alive husband, comforted by her own sensitivity and the belief that she would never be on the receiving end of a horribly sympathetic hand-grab.
Gina silently counted to three, then squeezed Patty’s hand back. She’d learned through way too much practice that this made the squeezer feel more comfortable, the pause let them think their gesture was successful. Gina took a step toward her car — something she’d also learned was important. Insert some distance, so they knew it was okay to leave.
“Thank you for saying so,” Gina said, the often-used phrase coming to her lips naturally, even though she hadn’t needed to use it recently. It was rare anymore to meet someone who didn’t already know her history. All her earlier determination felt like rapidly cracking ice beneath her feet. “It’s been a little under two years.” She slid on her sunglasses to hide the welling water and grabbed the door handle to the car for support — and to hint that she really needed to get going. “And we’re all okay.”