by Louise McBain
After breaking her nose apprehending a shoplifter, nature blogger Astrid Dibello finds her world turned upside down when plastic surgery fixes the break but makes her look nearly identical to her older sister, Claire. Claire has always been the pretty one, while Astrid is the “smart” sister with the infamous Dibello nose. But who is the woman in the mirror now? Not even Astrid’s family seem sure.
When Astrid’s girlfriend accuses her of joining the “plastic culture” and dumps her, Astrid escapes to the solitude of the woods where she runs into former high school enigma, Simone. In the quiet beauty of nature, Astrid and Simone connect and their easy friendship turns to a tender romance. But when high school love letters Simone wrote to Claire resurface, Astrid wonders if Simone loves Astrid for who she is, or just because she now looks like her older sister? If Astrid wants the truth, she’ll need to closely examine who she is—both inside and out.
Astrid Inside/Out tells the story of a woman’s journey to find her true self on the way to her happily ever after.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"A friend had a nose job that changed her face. She went from average looking lady to beautiful covergirl, and I couldn’t stop wondering: how does that kind of shape-shifting feel? How could you ever trust that people were reacting to what was inside your head, not written on your face?
In Astrid Inside/Out I write what happens when there's a tremendous physical transformation amidst a romance between old friends."
Karen C. - Louise McBain has a writing style that I absolutely love. It just works for me. First of all, her storylines are just so interesting and different. Her main characters are not always perfect, gorgeous, and young, which I appreciate. And her books are always so subtly funny. What the characters think and say are always low-grade humorous without the faux sitcom-like dialogue that drives me bananas.
The outdoors almost functions as a character in this story and I could visualize Snake Island. This is set in the WDC universe of Claiming Camille and Maybe Charlotte, both of which have become all-time favorites for me.
The Lesbian Review
From page one, I felt at home in this story. McBain does a nice job creating its world and populating it with relatable characters. Astrid couldn’t feel more familiar, and the confusion she experiences over the sudden change in her appearance is the perfect jumping off point to address personal insecurities and society’s obsession with outward appearances. Astrid and Simone fit so well together. Their romance develops in an easy fashion. It’s joyful and relatively angst free. Everything about this romance fits and highlighting caring for the environment is a bonus.
Twelve Years Ago
Warm summer sun slanted through the back porch railings of the Dibello family home, shadowing hatch marks across fourteen-year-old Astrid’s bare legs. She’d just dashed up the steep hill from the Potomac River and was still in the tired, one-piece bathing suit she’d worn kayaking. There hadn’t been time to change. Her sister, Claire, was going to a party and Astrid wanted to be there to say goodbye. Right now, Claire and her intriguing new friend, Simone Galliano, were inside having a wardrobe consultation. Astrid couldn’t wait to see what her beautiful big sister chose to wear. Entering her junior year of high school, Claire Dibello was a rising star at the Washington National Ballet but might be mistaken for a runway model. With perfect posture, a long willowy body and the face of a porcelain doll, Claire decorated any space she was in. She was also Astrid’s best friend.
Astrid was two years younger and had just finished middle school. Weeks away from the start of her freshman year, she was in an unclassifiable purgatory that Claire assured her would go away the minute she stepped foot in the high school. She’d invited Astrid along to a party full of upperclassmen that night, but the idea was impossible. Astrid wouldn’t go to the party if it was downstairs in her own living room. Her father liked to say she was shy, but Astrid didn’t feel this was true. She simply preferred her own company or the company of her cat to most of the kids she met at school. And why bring anyone home when she already shared a room with her best friend?
Tonight, Claire was celebrating maintaining her position in the top tier of the dance company. Every year she went through the same agonizing process of reauditioning for the A1 spot, and every year she made it. But this was Simone’s first time in the highest group. Her ascension meant she’d be spending a great deal of time with Claire. For reasons she couldn’t explain, Astrid felt happy about this. There was something exciting about Simone, who was the daughter of the Italian ambassador and went to a prestigious girls’ boarding school in Virginia where there was an option to bring your horse. But it was more than just her convertible Fiat with light blue diplomat plates and the accent that belonged in a James Bond movie. Of all Claire’s friends, Simone was the one Astrid liked best. Maybe one day they could be friends too. But not tonight. Astrid wouldn’t ruin Claire’s evening by playing the tag-a-long little sister.
“Hey Stinky.” The door opened, and Claire walked out in a cloud of strawberry body lotion. Freed from the confines of the perfunctory ballerina’s bun, her thick blond hair lay across her shoulders in golden waves of glory. “Are you sure you won’t change your mind and come with us? Simone doesn’t care. She just said so.”
“It’s true.” Simone shrugged her shoulders and her own glossy hair, which was long, dark and curly, shimmered in the light, catching Astrid’s eye. Her Italian accent was very light from years of American boarding school and her English easily understood. “It’s a party. Why shouldn’t you come? There will be lots of boys.” She smiled and a dimple showed in her left cheek.
“No, but thank you,” Astrid said, and then for some unexplainable reason felt a blush creep up her neck and settle atop her head in the roots of her own blond hair. She brought her knees to her chest, forming her body into an egg shape, and stared down at her scabbed shins. Why was she still wearing this hideous bathing suit?
“There isn’t a drinking age at Simone’s house,” Claire informed Astrid.
Simone made a tsking noise. “Everyone in the USA thinks this is very important,” she said and linked an arm companionably through Claire’s.
“Why isn’t there a drinking age at your house?” Astrid asked.
“My parents live at the Italian Embassy. Technically, it’s not American soil. It belongs to Italy. So, American kids can drink there.”
“Don’t you love that?” Claire asked, but the sight of Simone’s hands on her sister was distracting Astrid in an unfamiliar way. She struggled to stay with the thread of the conversation.
“Um, teenagers can drink at your house?”
“If they like.” Simone shrugged again and now Astrid was fixated on her clavicle. What was it about this girl? She lifted her eyes to Simone’s lips. Watching her talk, she felt light-headed. “But Italians do not understand the desire to always be so drunk. It is no fun for us to walk into furniture and be sick in the morning.”
“Americans don’t like that either,” Claire assured her, and made a yikes face at Astrid. Earlier in the summer the sisters had sampled too much Champagne at their cousin Ashley’s wedding and taken turns holding each other’s hair back in the dune behind the beach cabana.
“I think it’s cool, that the Italian government trusts you to make the choice,” Astrid mused and Simone nodded in surprise.
“Your little sister is very smart, Claire.”
“Astrid’s the brains of the operation,” Claire said, smiling. “She’s going to be a famous writer one day. Just wait.”
“Don’t say that,” Astrid said crossly. Though confident, she didn’t want to be the center of attention in front of Simone.
Claire was defiant. “Well, I’m counting on you to be successful. When my ballet career is over, and I’m a crippled old woman, I may have to live in your basement.”
“How will you get down basement stairs if you can’t walk?” Simone asked making Claire laugh, but Astrid had an answer.
“I’ll carry her,” she said, and was rewarded with a smile that sent another surge of heat to her face.
“Your sister is wonderful, Claire.”
“My sister is the best.”
“Do me a favor? Keep your eye on those girls?” Tara Turkman nodded toward a trio of teenagers rifling through a display of two-thousand-dollar cashmere sweaters in her Georgetown boutique.
Astrid Dibello studied the young women browsing the luxurious merchandise. Dressed in the short tartan skirts, white-collared blouses and blue sweaters of a prestigious Washington, DC girls’ academy, they might be considered old-fashioned looking if not for their flat ironed hair and trendy skateboarding sneakers.
“Have they been in before?” Astrid’s older sister, Claire, asked.
“Yes, and they only pay if their mothers are along,” Tara told them. “When they come in without their moms they steal me blind. Last month someone took a silk jacket worth more than my car.”
“No way,” Astrid called bullshit. As pricey as Closet Diva’s merchandise was, there were no jackets in the store of equal value to Tara’s Turkman’s Tesla.
“Okay, your car,” Tara conceded and they all laughed because there was almost certainly something in the store pricier than Astrid’s Volvo station wagon. Twenty-six years old, it had been new when her parents drove her home from the hospital. How the thing was still running was anyone’s guess.
“Entitled jerks,” Claire said, her big, blue eyes tracking the tallest girl who was now walking toward the back of the store. “I hate them.”
“I hate them, too,” Astrid echoed her big sister. Hate was a strong word but Tara deserved solidarity. She’d been Claire’s best friend since preschool and also, she was smoking hot.
“Definitely.” Astrid smiled.
It felt good to be hanging out with Claire again. Her heavy practice schedule with the Washington National Ballet and Astrid’s ridiculous pouting had lately kept the sisters from spending quality time. Astrid was ready to get back on track and was happy Claire had included her in the going-away lunch.
Tara raked a manicured hand through her glossy dark hair. “They pull this trick where one girl distracts me by buying something cheap and the others sneak out the door with the good stuff.”
“There’s nothing cheap in your store.” Astrid snorted.
“Sure, there is.” Tara picked up a miniscule strip of silver Lycra. “This headband only costs forty dollars.”
“Oh. Excuse me,” Astrid laughed. “Except for these bargain basement headbands.” Pulling one back on her thumb, she flicked it at Claire who caught it and pulled it over her head.
The sisters smiled at each other.
“Forty dollars isn’t expensive,” Tara said.
Astrid rolled her eyes but didn’t push it. As the granddaughter of DC’s most successful retailer, Tara Turkman had a different perspective on money than she and Claire, whose parents were mere commercial real estate agents.
Claire pulled her long blond hair off her face showcasing the perfect symmetry of her features. Looking at her, no one would argue that their mother had been second runner-up in the Miss America Pageant. Astrid looked more like their father, Jerry, whose defining physical trait was a strong Roman nose. Most members of the Dibello family had inherited the prominent facial feature but, besides Astrid and her cousin Adrienne, only the men chose to keep it. Astrid didn’t think too much about it and enjoyed being included in the Cosa Nose-tra family photos staged each year at Thanksgiving.
“Gwynnie sells these on Goop,” Tara informed them. “It really suits you.” She lifted a hand to help Claire with the accessory and Astrid knew their friend was switching to sales mode. Claire might be Tara’s BFF, but she was also a client and, as a principal dancer for the Washington National Ballet, a walking billboard for the boutique.
“You think so?” Claire looked doubtful.
“Absolutely,” Tara plucked at a sliver of fabric trapped beneath the elastic. “Don’t you agree, Astrid?”
“It’s okay,” Astrid said truthfully. The headband was fine but it didn’t enhance Claire’s looks as much as coexist next to them. Claire would look good with a turtle on her head. This wasn’t sisterly prejudice as much as a fact of life. Because Claire was stunning. Next week she was leaving on a national tour, dancing the title role in The Sleeping Beauty. After struggling for years with a recurring Achilles injury, Claire was finally realizing her dream. She fit the billing so well they’d used her face in the promotional material.
Tara handed her friend a different colored headband. “It might be nice to have something new when you’re on the road. How long is the tour?”
“Two months,” Claire said, smiling. “We’re doing cities in both the US and Canada and they’re giving us time to rest and see the sights. Coty is so excited. I’m having fun watching him make plans. Thanks for looking after Eartha Kitty.”
“You’re welcome,” Astrid and Tara said in unison.
Claire laughed and Tara put a hand on her hip drawing Astrid’s attention to her tiny waist. “I thought I was watching Eartha.”
“You’re both watching Eartha.” Claire took off the headband. “She needs lots of attention and you won’t be the only people checking in.”
“Why didn’t you just make Miles do it?” Tara asked. Astrid pulled her eyes away from Tara’s ass and considered the question. Tara’s brother was the owner-occupant of the historic Dupont Circle mansion where Claire and her boyfriend Coty rented a second-floor apartment. Surely it would have been easier to have him cat sit.
“We asked him, too.” Claire handed Tara the headband. “Coty wants to make sure Eartha isn’t lonely. And Simone is going to look in as well.”
“Simone? When did you see Simone?” Tara pursed her lips. “I didn’t think she got into town until next week.”
“I haven’t,” Claire admitted. Pulling out her credit card, she gestured for Tara to wrap up the headband. “We’ve been texting. I told her I’d leave a key with Astrid.”
“When were you going to tell me?” Astrid teased. She was happy to perform any errand Claire required. Her job, writing a popular nature blog, allowed her flexibility of both time and place. If in the right mood, she might even write about cat sitting. Draping an arm around Claire’s shoulder she inhaled the familiar scent of strawberries. It felt wonderful to be with her sister again.
“I’m telling you now,” Claire said, and pulled a key from her purse. “I’m giving you another apartment key to hand off to Simone. You remember her from ballet?”
Astrid didn’t have to think to conjure up an image of the woman she credited with her sexual awakening. It was one of the very few secrets she hadn’t shared with her sister and, though it felt great to be reconnecting, she wouldn’t tell her now. Especially not in front of Tara who was historically jealous of Claire’s friendships that revolved around ballet. “Um, yeah. I remember Simone.”
“She emailed me out of the blue, looking for apartments in DC. I told her Miles was renovating the attic space above us and she took it.”
“Isn’t she really rich?” Astrid asked.
“That’s what I said!” Tara shouted, and pointed at Claire. “Simone’s family owns half of Milan. Her dad was the ambassador, wasn’t he? Why is she taking my brother’s filthy little apartment?”
Claire frowned. “Oh, it’s not filthy. Miles did a great job. I was up there yesterday. The place is adorable and really reasonable. If Astrid wasn’t so happy living with Leigh, I’d have snagged it for her.”
“How are things with your sporty dentist?” Tara asked.
Astrid crossed her fingers behind her back. “Fantastic.”
Claire gave her a funny look but Tara nodded. “Well, cohabitation certainly agrees with you.” She waved a hand up and down Astrid’s frame. “You look great. Have you lost weight?”
“Maybe a little?” Astrid said, uncomfortable with the subject. Weight loss was not something she generally thought about. At five foot ten, Astrid’s frame was similar to Claire’s who sometimes had to worry about being too skinny.
“Leigh had better be feeding you,” Claire said playfully, and Astrid was careful to keep her smile fixed in place. Her so-called girlfriend was an ultra-marathon runner with the diet of a rabbit and the economy of a miser. The idea of her feeding Astrid anything, besides a line about why Astrid needed to pay more for utilities because she took longer showers, was laughable. Sadly, the joke was on Astrid.
For four amazing years she and Claire had shared their lives and wardrobes in a Mount Pleasant fairytale castle of a run-down mansion owned by a friend of their father’s. Four floors, it had seven bedrooms, three staircases and a screened-in sleeping porch. Astrid and Claire were the only ones on the lease but the other rooms were always in use by wayward dancers. Between companies, between apartments, between lovers, Astrid hadn’t asked questions. Happy with the light from these ethereal beings swirling around her, she’d simply absorbed their energy. It wasn’t unlike being in nature. Astrid might still be there now if Claire hadn’t met Coty and fallen in love.
Six months ago, when the lease had ended, Claire had moved in with her new boyfriend, and Astrid had moved in with Leigh. Full of resentment at losing a home she truly loved and her roommate in one fell swoop, Astrid had flouted her family’s advice and shacked up with the sporty dentist she’d just begun dating. It had been a horrible mistake. Aside from the easy river access, Astrid hated almost everything about living with Leigh, who turned out to be stingy to the core. Astrid had known almost immediately that moving in with her was a bad idea. So far, Dibello pride hadn’t allowed her to admit the mistake to her family. In fact, Astrid had been avoiding them, but Claire’s departure had succeeded in rousing her out for lunch. It was wonderful to see her sister again, who was graciously pretending nothing was amiss. Currently she was reading Astrid’s latest blog out loud to Tara.
Each week on her website Outside Astrid, Astrid posted a story linking something in the local area—also known as the DMV for DC, Maryland, and Virginia—to the natural world. She barely made enough money to cover the rent and her student loans, but at fifty thousand subscribers the blog attracted enough sponsors to allow her to quit her copy-editing job and pursue her dream fulltime. She counted this as a victory. Anything worth doing, took doing.
Last week she’d written a piece about a group of menopausal women who’d formed a drumming circle. Every month the Different Drummers collected under the full moon to beat out their frustrations on plastic Costco buckets. Claire had reached the part about the dangers of carpal tunnel syndrome when Astrid made her stop.
“That’s enough. You can email Tara the link.”
“Fine, but don’t forget to read the comments section, too,” Claire told her friend. “Some of Astrid’s readers are really funny. And I love these Different Drummers.” Her eyes sparkled. “Your post makes me want to buy a bucket.”
“They have extra,” Astrid told her.
She didn’t add that hanging out with the feisty percussionists had been the highlight of her week. It wasn’t Claire’s fault that Astrid had cut herself off from the family over hurt feelings regarding a living arrangement. She hoped to properly apologize when the ballet company returned from the tour. Right now, it was Claire’s time to soar. Astrid would not weigh her down with issues that would keep.
Claire handed her the key to her apartment. “Please, take this to Simone next week when you go over for NASCAR?”
“I’m not watching NASCAR with your cat,” Astrid said, but put the key into her pocket. She would not mind running into Simone.
“You don’t have to watch the actual races, just be there in the room with her.” Claire kissed her cheek.
“How about, no?”
“How can you be so mean? You know how she loves the little flags they’re always waving. And don’t make me list the things I’ve done for you during your lifetime.” Claire arched a perfectly sculpted eyebrow and Astrid’s jaw dropped open in surprise. For as long as she could remember, her sister had been trying to master the dramatic move. When had she finally figured it out?
“You’re doing the eyebrow thing!”
“Coty taught me.” Claire beamed, and did it a few more times.
Tara, totally missing the point, remarked, “Actually, I was just noticing your eyebrows look amazing Claire, perfect really. They’re symmetrical but not identical. As my esthetician always says, eyebrows should be sisters, not twins.” She beamed at Claire who raised one non-identical eyebrow again as she smirked at Astrid.
“You have an esthetician?”
“Who doesn’t?” Tara shrugged. “So, what’s the ambassador’s daughter up to these days? Does Simone have a boyfriend?” Tara laid the headband down on a piece of sparkly tissue paper.
“I’m not sure she dates guys,” Claire said, casually.
“What? When did she tell you that?” Tara asked, clearly shocked by the information. “I thought you hadn’t seen Simone in ten years.”
“I haven’t,” Claire said, and Astrid was surprised to hear her sister on the defensive. “And I’m not completely certain she’s gay, it’s just something I’ve always suspected.”
“Well, you never told me,” Tara said, pouting.
“It’s just a hunch,” Claire told her, and then made a high squeaky noise, Claire-speak that meant something was wrong.
Astrid turned and saw two of the high school girls approaching the counter. One of them was holding a tiny, lace tank top and the other was on her cell phone. The third girl, the tallest of the three, was nowhere to be found.
“Where’s the tall girl?” Tara hissed through clenched teeth. Astrid arched her back and saw the tall girl creeping slowly along the other side of the store. Back facing the register, her hands were on the front side of her body and not visible at all.
“On it,” Astrid said, and dropped to a crouch.
Claire’s eyes widened. “What are you doing?”
“I’m defending Tara’s bottom…line,” Astrid quipped and army crawled in the direction of the front door.
“Astrid, no,” Tara said, but it was too late.
The next thirty seconds happened very quickly. The tall girl saw Astrid coming and made a run for it. Throwing open the heavy plate-glass front door, she hit Astrid squarely in the face. Pain, like nothing she’d felt before, shattered her consciousness. Astrid heard someone scream, and then passed out cold.
* * *
She awoke to someone stroking her hair. “Astrid? Honey? Oh, Jerry, she’s waking up.” It was her mother’s voice. Astrid tried to open her eyes but wasn’t able to. What was going on? Why couldn’t she see?
“Darling?” her mother asked, hopefully.
“Mom?” Astrid croaked. “What’s the matter with my eyes?” She flicked her tongue out and found her bottom lip split open. Her whole face hurt, her nose in particular, which throbbed like a beating heart and seemed to have a bandage on it.
“Your eyes are swollen shut,” another voice boomed. “You look like a prize fighter.” Astrid didn’t need to be able to see to know her father was in the room.
“Do you remember what happened?” Her mom sounded tentative.
“I was trying to stop a shoplifter,” Astrid said. Reaching up, she gently touched her bandaged nose. Pain exploded through her head and she swore, “Shit!”
“Be careful!” her mother yelled, and Astrid lay back against the pillows.
“It really hurts. Can I have some water?”
For some reason, her mother didn’t think this was a good idea. “I’m not sure. Let me call the nurse.”
“Of course she can have some goddamn water, Katrina,” her father pushed back against her mother’s caution. “We don’t need to get the green light from any nurse. I’ve got a bottle right here.”
“Don’t give her any water.” Katrina said, sternly.
“Where are we, Dad?”
“We’re at Georgetown Hospital,” he told her.
“They’re taking excellent care of you. You were hit by a Westover.” Her mother sounded impressed with the pedigree of Astrid’s assailant. “The nurse should be here soon to let us know about the water.”
“We can give her water, Katrina,” Astrid’s father muttered but the argument stopped when another person entered the room.
“Glad to see you’re awake,” a voice chirped. “My name’s Janet and I need to take your vitals.”
“Astrid wants some water, is that allowed?” her father asked, immediately. “And an ice pack, how about an ice pack?” He squeezed Astrid’s hand.
“The ice, I can do,” Janet said brightly. “But it’s a no-go on the water until Dr. Coleman takes a look at her.”
“Is it true that Senator Westover pulled him off the golf course?” Katrina tried to engage her, but Janet didn’t seem interested in gossiping.
“Dr. Coleman will be here as soon as he can.”
“It was the senator’s granddaughter who hit her.” Katrina made another attempt but Janet didn’t respond. Even blind and semiconcussed, Astrid could tell the nurse was annoyed with her mother.
“I’ll let you know when the doctor arrives. I need to take your daughter’s vitals now. If you don’t mind?”
Astrid felt Janet’s gentle hand on her pulse point. She tried to relax but her mind felt sluggish. Why would water be bad for a broken nose? “I’m really thirsty,” she said, and Janet squeezed her wrist.
“You can have some ice chips in just a sec. But you can’t have anything else in your system in case Dr. Coleman wants to operate.”
“Operate?” Astrid sat up too quickly and the room began to spin. How hard had the door hit her?
“It’s going to be fine, sweetie.” Her mother was now by her elbow. “We’ll need to keep an eye on your concussion but Dr. Coleman is the best plastic surgeon on the east coast. He does all the anchors on the Today Show. People Magazine voted him sexiest doctor last year. After the operation, your nose will be as good as new, maybe better.”
“I don’t want a new nose,” Astrid croaked. She reached for the bandage and her father lay a hand on her shoulder.
“I know, baby. It’s going to be okay.”
“Dr. Coleman is the best.” Her mother assured her. “Now, how can I reach Leigh?”
“Please, don’t call her,” Astrid said. The last thing she needed was to bring Leigh into this situation.
“Why not?” Her mother sounded surprised. “Won’t she care that you’ve been in an accident?”
“She has surgeries all day,” Astrid lied. She’d no idea what Leigh had scheduled for the afternoon but if asked to come she might want to be reimbursed for parking. “I don’t want to distract her.”
Janet slid the blood pressure monitor up her arm and tightened the cuff. “Mind if we postpone this conversation until after I finish? Would hate to get your blood pressure up and get a false reading.” She paused with her hand on the pump.
“Sure.” Astrid was happy for any excuse not to talk about Leigh. Like Claire, her parents still thought they were a happy couple. Astrid planned to correct the situation soon. Now did not seem like the best time.
“Your vitals are all fine, considering the trauma you’ve had,” Janet informed them. “Can I get you anything?”
“A cold pack,” her father repeated. “And ice chips.”
“I’ll get the cold pack now,” the nurse said and her voice moved toward the door. “The ice chips are down the hall in the kitchen.”
“I’ll go,” her mother said. “I’ll send Claire back with them. She’s desperate to see you. Tara’s in the lobby too.”
“Tara’s here?” Astrid was surprised. Tara never closed the store unless there was an emergency or a sale at Saks.
“She’s been here all afternoon,” her father assured her.
“Turns out she knows Celia Westover from Pilates.” Her mother sounded thrilled.
Astrid could barely follow her. “Who?”
“Celia Westover is the daughter of Senator Westover and the mother of the girl who hit you with the door. She called in a favor. That’s how the world works.” Warm, dry lips pressed to Astrid’s forehead. “I’ll send Claire back with ice chips.”
Astrid waited until she heard the door close to address her father.
“How bad is it?”