Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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Advice For The New Stepmother

By Lisa K. Buchanan

Smile and say hello when introduced to your boyfriend’s ex-wife. Try not to be offended when she trembles and averts her eyes, shaken by the visible evidence of his new love.  Keep this in mind when she weeps into his answering machine because she hasn’t had sex in the two years since he left the marriage. Lend your boyfriend your car so he can lend his ex-wife his car because hers has broken down and she says that strangers leer at their daughter on the bus. Pour a purple plastic cup of milk for a breastfeeding toddler. If you’re a sensible, self-assured woman, call off the relationship, a briar patch already. If you’re a deluded idealist who thinks she’s a sensible, self-assured woman, keep the relationship, study Gandhi and trust your ability to wage peace with the injured ex-wife.

Drive your fiancé’s daughter home to her mother one Sunday. Nod in agreement when the ex-wife states that she is the child’s mother and you are not. Buy a thermos to replace the one your favorite first-grader broke an hour earlier. Come home to a sharp message from her mother demanding a new thermos. Cuddle up for a movie with the man in whose arms you hope to die at 97.  Try not to snuff him out early when he takes a call from his tearful daughter and drives across town to deliver the new thermos. Watch the movie alone.

Buy furniture and addict yourself to gardening. If you still think you’re sensible and self-assured, offer to handle household communications with your husband’s ex-wife. Write polite notes asking her not to call anymore after 10 p.m., drop by without permission, or eat her brown-bag lunch on your front porch. When that fails, study Machiavelli on the establishment of new territory. Consider extinguishment. Try not to laugh when the woman says she is connected to you spiritually. Make sure you laugh when she throws a shoe at you.

Plant flowers with your stepdaughter. Buy her rain-boots and underwear. Cancel your travel plans when she’s sick. Read her Nancy Drew. Make hot chocolate for her friends and tell your own friends you’ll see them next month. Assure the court-appointed evaluator that the girl has never been left alone in the house or denied food.

Smile and say hello to your husband’s ex-wife at the parent meeting. Listen to the story about the corn on her foot. Smile and say hello to the other mothers with whom the ex-wife has been discussing your best qualities. Notice them casually leaning forward to see if your breath really does smell like raw child.

Comfort your husband when he misses his daughter on Christmas morning. Include, in your holiday wishes, a working rapport with the girl’s mother—along with global cooling, famine relief and the eradication of gum disease.  Then spend a few gluttonous hours in bed with your beloved because, for now, honey, it’s all you have.

Lisa K. Buchanan’s prizewinning fiction and essays have appeared in Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan, Working Mother, Descant, SmokeLong Quarterly,  several anthologies and on public radio. She holds an M.F.A. from Mills College and lives in San Francisco.

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