The following is a synopsis and an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Once in a Lifetime by Suzanne Mattaboni. Thank you to Smith Publicity and TouchPoint Press for inviting me to take part in this blog tour. Though I haven’t had a chance to delve into this book (yet!), early reviews are saying anyone who has any memories of the ’80s is really going to appreciate the nostalgia of this coming-of-age story. Someone even called it the punk-rock version of Mystic Pizza. If this sounds like it’s for you, I hope you enjoy it!
And click here to purchase on Amazon.
Sweetbitter meets Bridget Jones in a John Hughes movie, Once in a Lifetime plays against a vibrant 1980s background of everything from slam dancers and rubber jelly shoes to social anarchy and AIDS.
In 1984, punk is rampant. Andy Warhol rules. And 20-year-old art student Jessica is sick of all the excitement going on without her. Hungry for the life she’s convinced is just beyond her fingertips, she sets her sights on an avant-garde study abroad program in London she can’t afford. Meanwhile, hometown boyfriend Drew wants to see other people if he’s not exciting enough to keep her stateside.
Jess and her buddies rent a beat-up apartment, trolling new wave clubs and waitressing double shifts in New Hope, PA, a cool and artsy restaurant town on the river, to scrounge-up tuition money. Then Jess meets Whit, a steamy daredevil guitarist who crawls through her window and makes her head spin like a record. The girls deal with cheating waiters, mystics, a military drag queen buddy, a Svengali bouncer, and the specter of AIDs. Before long, Jess has to decide if the men in her life will leave her as damaged as her cracked-glass mosaic art projects―and whether they’ll stand in the way of her dream semester in post-punk London.
Excerpt: Chapter 1
AUGUST 1984—Delaware River
The Camaro spins into a U-turn, tires wailing against the water-flushed road. A scream comes out of me like a full-throated siren. The car revolves across the asphalt into the opposing lane in an eerily smooth path, like some unseen hand is turning us. A truck horn blares and headlamps beam into my eyes, shining against the windshield through a curtain of storming rain.
We veer off the pavement, a fender slicing through the guard rail, metal screeching. The car shunts down a ravine. Its headlights bleach skinny trees as we lumber sideways, clunking, bending branches. I lift out of my seat to the sound of the windshield snapping. A crack zigzags from one side of the glass to the other like a streak of lightning.
Silver fizzles across my vision, even when I close my eyes.
I wonder how close the river is. I can hear it, rushing.
MAY 1984—Capresi’s, New Hope, PA
I’m starting to taste desperation on my lipstick. I’m not a good enough bullshit artist to snag a job on the river side of New Hope, where the real waitresses work. I suck at waitressing. I’m Danger Girl, constantly tripping over myself. So, I’ll take whatever job I can get.
A restaurateur in a lavender silk shirt interrogates me at Capresi’s Continental Restaurant, sheltered between The Canal and a creek that meanders as if it’s lost its way. My roommate Trina the Waitressing Goddess calls this town Pennsylvania’s version of San Francisco, where the lifestyle choices are as assorted as the menus. This is the seventh place I’ve applied to today.
The restaurateur taps a finger against his lips. “What’s your name, dear?”
A crash like a steel drum falling off the back of a truck comes from the kitchen behind us. My cheeks clench against the bar room chair I’m sitting on.
The restaurateur’s jaw tightens. He raises a finger, nodding for forgiveness. “One moment,” he mouths.
I hear a pot scrape against industrial shelving, ringing through a kitchen pass-through window behind us. A woman’s voice rises over the squall. “Teddy, would you get a grip?”
The restaurateur rises from our table and heads to the pass-through, motioning me to follow him. He smacks his palm against a bell on the sill. “Behave back there,” he calls. The bell drowns out my favorite Spandau Ballet song, drifting from a tinny transistor radio in the kitchen. “We’ve got company, Bernadette.”
A woman with hair the consistency of a wire sponge and a face scrubbed clean of make-up flashes past the cut-out window. Her oven mitt-of-a-hand whisks to the pass-through and stifles the ring.
“I hate that bell, George.”
“Gior-gio.” He turns to me, wrinkling his nose. “Not George. I hate George.”
The bell whines like a piccolo twisted in a knot as Bernadette drags it off the sill. “We’re even.”
I nudge my application along the counter towards Giorgio the restaurateur. Let’s not forget, I’m here for a job. I’ve got to come up with a security deposit in a week, not to mention study abroad tuition to save for, if I want to spend a semester in London junior year like I’ve been dying to. I want my real life to start, already. I’ve also got an hour left before I meet the girls for a ride back to Trina’s parents’ house. I can feel the sweat beading under my spiky bangs.
Giorgio lifts the sheet of paper. “What did you say your name was?”
“Jessica Addentro.” I finger the bangs out of my eyes as the heat of the kitchen bends toward me. I subtly push the rest of my hair off my shoulders, not wanting to show a shocking lack of restaurant etiquette, which I’m guessing includes keeping my abundant hair off the countertops.
“Ad-den-tro.” He repronounces my name with an Italian flourish and looks up from my application. “Do you know what that means?”
I recall my high school Italian lessons. “Inside?”
“More like, versed in.” He turns his free hand in a circle. “Or, full of insights. Does that sound like you?”
“Depends on the subject.” When it comes to waitressing, I’m full of something, all right.
“Do you live here in town?”
“I just finished my sophomore year of college. My roommates and I are moving into a place on Main Street next week for the summer.” Then life will begin.
“What did you study?”
“Abstract painting. And I’ve recently decided to get into glass mosaics. I’m multi-media.”
“Ah. How visionary. I can see the creativity in you.” It’s like he’s reading my tea leaves instead of a job application. “As an artistic spirit, can you be happy as a waitress?” His eyebrows crush down as if he’s bracing for the fifteen terrible lies I’m about to tell.
I give him a smile that fits like a surgical glove over a watering can. “Waitressing is fun.” Trina the Waitressing Goddess told me to say that. “I like working with people and helping them enjoy their lives.” My inability to bullshit bears down on me like a smoldering cigarette butt.
Giorgio the restaurateur flutters his eyelashes at me. “You don’t have to say that, you know.”
“I’m saving for a semester overseas,” I admit.
His eyebrows relax back to their rightful position. “That sounds more honest.”
God help me, waitressing is a means to an end. I’d much rather sit in a
corner and sketch people than serve them—or talk to them. But it’s a skill I’ll need to ace if I want to fund my Exciting Life Plan and emerge from a European study jaunt as a New Wave-inspired, multi-media art sensation. I hope—I hope—I hope.
I’ve always been told my generation is lucky. The women of the fifties and sixties were stuck with lackluster contraceptive options, painful bullet bras, and spinsterhood by age 22. They gave birth to us liberated girls of the eighties. The world is ours if we work hard enough, we’re told. We can have it all—careers, sex, adventure, friendships, love. Meaning.
Time to see if that’s true—and to kiss up to a clairvoyant restaurateur with a penchant for lilac silk.
“So where are you planning to study?” Giorgio perks up. “Rome? Florence?”
“London. I want my art to reflect New Wave culture. I can take some awesome mosaic courses over there, plus photography and lit.”
He leans an elbow against the pass-through sill as if waiting for me to finish. As if there’s more.
And there is.
London. It’s where all the coolest alternative music and ultra-creative post- punk sensibility is coming from. It’s where guys with bulked-up shoulders, tight- waisted jackets, and mega hair sing with guitars slung across their bodies. Where slam dancers in shredded clothing and chains jostle for position in front of dark stages, buzzing with deafening feedback. I want to recreate that shoulder-padded, safety-pinned, gelled-together world, through abstract shapes, swipes of color, and vivid bits of broken glass, and make it twice as beautiful on canvas.
That’s not too much to ask, is it? This life is out there. And it’s all going on without me.
“London’s where everything’s happening. How am I supposed to create anything worthwhile if I don’t . . . experience the world? The study abroad program is way above my budget, though,” I add. “So here I am.”
If I don’t find a way to cut it in this town, God knows where I’ll end up. Probably back in the sardine can of a bedroom I grew up in at my grandparents’ house, which is really just a paneled-over TV room I inherited after my mother died and my dad surreptitiously disappeared. As well as they handled the situation of me landing in their laps, being raised by grandparents is something like being taken captive by the year 1954.
It beat the hell out of floating through the foster system as a hapless orphan. But not exactly an upbringing worthy of Interview magazine.
There in the restaurant, a series of lanterns and suncatchers revolve above us like some tacky rip-off of a Calder mobile. Happy laughter drifts in from the al fresco dining patio. I squint to see a couple lunching beyond a brick archway that marks the end of the bar room. Cool and verdant foliage waves beyond the patio railing as forks clink against stoneware.
A glass suncatcher in the shape of an owl glints light into my eye.
Giorgio smiles and runs his finger down the front of my application. “How old are you?”
“As of when?”
“Oooh! Happy birthday!” My resume flits to the counter like a shed leaf. “Bernadette!” Giorgio stretches for the phantom bell, smoothing his hand against the contact-papered sill instead.
Bernadette’s bushy head reappears in the kitchen pass through. “What now, Georgie?”
Giorgio clears his throat. “It’s this young lady’s birthday. Can we manage a piece of cake for her?”
A waft of garlic and mellow butter tickles in my nose. I stretch on my tiptoes for a look into the pass-through. Bernadette blots her hands with a crushed dishtowel and juts a palm at me to shake. Her grip is aggressive.
“Happy birthday. Sheesh,” she says. “Are you even old enough to work here? You look like a baby.”
“Babe?” A well-bellied, hairy guy in a white uniform shoulders his way into the window frame. “What babe?”
“Ba-by,” Bernadette corrects, shirking her head my way. “A waitressing applicant.” She retreats to the range tops, sliding heavy pans along the grates two at a time like a magic cup trick. Sparks kick-up from underneath.
The burly guy swings a wooden scepter of a spoon at me. “Never seen you in town before.”
“She’s from Pittsburgh,” Giorgio mock-whispers to the guy as if it’s a sickness I have.
“New York, originally,” I say. “I go to college in Pittsburgh.”
“New York?” Giorgio looks me over. “That explains a lot.” He’s known me twenty minutes.
The burly guy sticks his wooden utensil through the window at me. “I’m Teddy.”
“Jessica.” I nod at him, acknowledging the spoon that’s pointing at me. Teddy swipes his implement at Giorgio. “Hire her. She’s cute.”
I try not to roll my eyes. If cute will keep me out of my grandparents’ house and gets me to the study abroad program I’ve got my heart set on, then I’ll be fucking Minnie Mouse for these people. But in truth, I hate cute.
Cute is not punk.
Bernadette emerges from a walk-in fridge the size of a woodland cottage, a bakery box in her arms. “Take it easy, Romeo.” She drops the box on a butcher block counter.
Teddy gestures with the spoon as if to whack her one. She paws the end of it with her mitt-like hand, wrestling the spoon away. They’re a bizarre, unkempt Punch and Judy, going at each other through the proscenium of the pass-through. Teddy elbows the cake box, which almost topples off the butcher block.
Bernadette straightens the box, pulls it open, and carves off a slice of cake. She tosses a plateful of triple-layer cheesecake onto the pass-through sill. The dish spins like a quarter dropped on the sidewalk. Giorgio shoots Bernadette a look that could wilt tulips. “Careful.”
“Wait!” She stabs the cake with a stubby birthday candle. “Youth,” she says to me. “Enjoy it while it lasts.” Then she vanishes behind the stainless-steel armaments of the kitchen.
Giorgio extends an arm toward a barroom table, inviting me to sit back down. He delicately places the plate in front of me, then a dessert fork.
“We have the best Neapolitan cheesecake in New Hope.” The dessert has a pink, a brown, and a yellowish layer, thick and textured. “I dare you to find better.”
Sweet cheese melts against my tongue like heaven on a fork.
“Oh my God,” I mumble through teeth gummy with cheese. I push the gelled section of my hair back behind my ear, nodding.
“Now you know I don’t lie.” Giorgio smiles and steps toward the stacks of dishes and repeating rows of salt and pepper shakers. “As you may have guessed, this is the waitress station. Silverware, condiments, stoneware . . .” I rise and follow him again, abandoning the hunk of cheesecake. He pulls open a metal bin. “Here’s the bread warmer, although we just got a microwave.”
I rest a hand on the toasty metal ridge of the warmer. Giorgio whirls away from me and the hinged door of the bread warmer snaps shut.
Pain zings through my fingertip as it’s nearly sacrificed to the Bread Warmer Gods. I stifle the urge to yowl like a police car. My cuticle starts to well-up with crimson.
Bleeding is likely against restaurant decorum, especially in this age of deathly infection. AIDS. Herpes. I shudder. Our generation hasn’t had a good time when it comes to fucking health crises. But we’re dealing. I pop my finger into my mouth.
“Rickie can show you where we keep the linens, out here in the chifforobe.”
I can only imagine what a chifforobe is. Giorgio strides toward the patio, which is beaming with sunlight beyond the archway that divides the two areas.
“Are you available Wednesday?” he asks over his shoulder. “We need you right away. We lost someone recently.”
I hope it wasn’t due to a bread warmer incident. I hide my hand behind my back and eek-out a smile. “Does that mean I have the job?”
“Come in at 11:00 a.m. sharp and we’ll see how it goes.” Giorgio’s eyebrows raise. “Are you all right?”
“Absolutely.” I am not committing a health code violation as we speak, I think
to myself, squeezing the wound. Psychically willing it not to drip on the carpet. “I’ll be here.”
“See you soon, Miss Art Student.” Giorgio excuses himself through the proscenium to the patio, receding like a mirage I can’t completely focus on. Suncatchers sway in his wake.
My muscles unclench as I mentally exhale. I get to pay my rent! And maybe afford London.
Mosaic studio art classes with my morning tea and a view of the Tower Bridge. Celebrity sightings of Boy George as I drink in the club scene. Me touring museums full of European Neo-Expressionist art. Me filling my suitcase with post-punk clothing from Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique on King’s Road.
Snagging a boyfriend with Sting-like cheekbones.
That is, if I can figure out how to waitress without bleeding out.
I startle as Teddy shoves open the kitchen door, gripping its wooden edge with sausage-like fingers. “Congratulations.” He shoves a stash of cocktail napkins toward my bloodied hand. “Wear something short.”
The galley door swings closed again, joints moaning.
I better find a freaking Band-Aid.
“I’ve waited long enough for my life to happen. I want to be neck-deep in something that keeps me up all night. Something so cool I’ll be petrified and sick to my stomach at the mere thought of it. I want to absolutely fry in inspiration, then capture it in oils and charcoals and bits of broken glass, in a piece of art that oozes magic and fear and possibility. I want to find a city. An adventure. A song. Something. To hell with the American Dream. I want a reason to kick and scream.” ―Jessica Addentro, 1980s waitress, artist, and aspiring multimedia sensation