Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Pretty Little Mistakes

plm_1_-166x249.jpgIt’s graduation time, the season of opportunity! And, no doubt, of royally screwing up, too. Who hasn’t thought: why couldn’t I just go back, redo a couple things, skip that one little mishap entirely? Actionable hindsight is the leitmotif of PRETTY LITTLE MISTAKES (HarperCollins), a grown-up ‘Do Over’ novel by Heather McElhatton (rhymes with ‘tackle Latin’). A frequent contributor to NPR’s This American Life, McElhatton came up with the idea after burning six years and mountains of cash on an unpublished novel, graduate school, and a series of romantic false-starts. (One suitor, a doorman from her study abroad program, flew from Italy to propose. She bought him a Vespa instead; he accepted, buzzing away in the general direction, she thinks, of Arizona.) She started writing, plotting out a matrix of wild what-ifs on a 10’x10’ scrap of linoleum dragged from her Minneapolis attic. The resulting 500-pager, an NC-17 Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, begins like so: “Laughter and fistfights. Lasagna thrown on the cafeteria floor, books burning in the garbage cans…All the janitors are getting high…the vending machines are empty. It’s the last day of high school.” Well, what next, then? You can A) go off to college or B) travel, and so on; all told, there are over 150 possible endings to your life, some blissful, others hilarious, many grisly (Death by Lava Lamp, for starters). “Remember,” she writes, “good behavior is not necessarily rewarded.” You could end up retiring rich in Sardinia overlooking the sea, “bright as a peacock’s eye”, or pecked to death by ducks in London. Hey, it happens—every untimely demise in PRETTY LITTLE MISTAKES is taken from the news.At a recent reading held upstairs in Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction, in the East Village, McElhatton, tall and striking with long red hair, asked a gathering to help her choose the way. Travel! Came the shout. McElhatton grinned devilishly. College! a lone guy yelped. “Good. We’re going to college,” she said.But the school you end up picking, McElhatton continued, starts off with a bad off-campus apartment and a philandering mate. “You try to fix up the place by painting the walls dark colors and hanging Pier One African art—you were hoping to create an urban Cinco De Mayo look, but instead the place looks like a low-rent voodoo carnival.” Now it’s time to decide on a major. Art? Section 4. Science? Section 5. Science!Bad move. Or moves, rather. In the book’s most outrageous denouement, you end up doing primate research at Harvard, but become entangled—unwillingly, horrifyingly, romantically entangled—with a test monkey named Shenanigans, and yet, after the fact, very rich, thanks to lawyers working on your behalf (hint: not-quite-accidental monkey sex).That night, several of McElhatton’s friends came along, including Dr. Juliet Barker, head of Memorial Sloane Kettering’s Dept. of Oncology. Barker, an Aussie, once worked with McElhatton on a real-life second chance story for This American Life: in short, macho man gets blood transfusion from female fetus’s umbilical; becomes much nicer guy. “You killed!” she said.Outside, in the bar’s cool argon glow, dinner plans took shape. The Anyway Café seemed the safest option. “I’m a fan of the ‘you’, the second person,” said Barker as the group strolled along. “I wrote a surgery manual that way: You’re with the patient. He’s not looking good….” At the cafe, Meghan Cleary, a friend from a stint at Breadloaf, ordered Heather a chocolate martini. “These things are lethal!” she beamed. Cleary, tall with blonde hair, has a podcast, “Shoe Are You?” which aims to reveal what a person’s shoes say about their owners. McElhatton and her new Grecian slippers are on the show this week. “Here’s to Heather,” toasted another friend, also a redhead, also a Heather. “May her next book be less shitty, and sell more copies!” (Pure irony, this: out since May 1, it’s in its fourth printing and being translated into multiple languages.)A bit later, a man slouching by the door pinched Cleary on the bottom. She slapped him, warning McElhatton, standing nearby, highball in hand. McElhatton couldn’t resist giving him another chance, too. Did he really—? Yep. She threw the chocolate martini, barely sipped, in his face.It was a choice, perhaps, worth reconsidering: pumping a beer, he leapt, dousing McElhatton and a reporter, not, it was later agreed, in a funny-haha way. Hmmm. It’s your book party. You’ve just been fire-hosed by a violent, lecherous drunk. He’s spoiling for a brawl. Do you A) Leap in, defending honor, or B) run for the hills?Tendrils of foamy beer ran down her arms and neck into the folds of her black dress, but McElhatton’s face belied a guilty pleasure, eyelids mottled with kohl. “I hope you know what it feels like not to be a gentleman,” she chided, having the last word, and headed toward the Bowery for a cab. “At least I got the beer. It’s good for my hair!” The next day, she had no regrets. “I mean, what’s five hours in New York without a good bar fight?”

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