In Andrea Bartz’s «The Spare Room,» pandemic boredom and upheaval sends Kelly fleeing from her cramped apartment in Philadelphia as her fiancé pumps the breaks on their planned nuptials, and right into the arms of her childhood friend — and that woman’s husband. Reeling from her postponed wedding, Kelly takes the glamorous Sabrina up on an offer to stay in her and her husband Nathan’s guest bedroom rather than cohabitate with her estranged partner.
Things quickly move away from platonic when a threesome between Kelly, Sabrina, and Nathan leads the trio into a polyamorous relationship. Unfortunately, Kelly learns that she’s not the first woman to find herself in such a situation with her new lovers — and that their former paramour has disappeared. Bartz — whose suspense novel «We Were Never Here» was a Reese’s Book Club pick — injects her signature shiver-inducing pacing in «The Spare Room,» publishing on June 20. Read an exclusive POPSUGAR excerpt of the novel below.
Crying in a mask is disgusting. Even the thud-thud-thud of the train over the tracks can’t cloak my shuddery breath. The fabric pulls as tight as a gag with every gasp, and tears and snot soak the inside. More people turn and glare. I hear my mother’s voice: Get it together, Kelly. Get a grip.
I send Sabrina an update: «Passing Baltimore!» I should be texting her and Nathan both, but I’m still intimidated by him.
It’s hard to believe that three weeks ago, I didn’t even have Sabrina’s number. We’d followed each other on Instagram for years, but for whatever reason, her photos rarely showed up on my feed. And then — bored with the pandemic that just wouldn’t quit, blissfully unaware that a grenade was about to blow up my life, I found myself scrolling through that roll of happy people. And the algorithm threw in a wild card: an update from Sabrina Lamont.
She’s perfect. I knew her as Sabrina Balzer in high school, a tangential friend in the same nerd-adjacent clique, though we never hung out one-on-one. I remembered her as mousy and quiet; she hadn’t crossed my mind in decades. But jeez, I thought, look at her now.
Thick brown waves spilled like rapids over her shoulders. She had a Frank Lloyd Wright face, sharp cheekbones and a square jaw, with sculpted brows and leprechaun-green eyes. It was a selfie from an outdoor lounge chair, and behind her stretched a sparkling pool the color of sapphires.
That night, I let the world darken as I tapped my way around her online presence, feeling that grubby rush of indiscipline, the same waterfall of want that has you finishing the pint of ice cream or wrenching off a scab, exposing the ink-red underneath. I found old blog posts by her and news articles about her and read them hungrily. I unearthed images of her at a gala and clicked through all eighteen red-carpet photos.
We all have Instagram friends we’re obsessed with, right?
We all have Instagram friends we’re obsessed with, right? I couldn’t get enough of her glory: her mansion an hour outside D.C.; hikes through the Blue Ridge Mountains; #ThrowbackThursdays to glitzy events with her husband, Nathan, who was tall and broad and more cute than handsome with his thick red-blond beard and aquiline nose. A power couple. And sure, he had some high-ranking government job she referenced in captions, but she was no trophy wife; she’s a goddamn New York Times bestselling author, which, Christ. What? How.
I ordered her award-winning romance series on the spot. It charted the heated affair between Arianna Rune, an intrepid business journalist, and Perry Creighton, her mysterious and powerful (and conveniently sexy) informant. Hours later, I finished the first book — The Insider — and, cheeks pink, tore into the second. I practically launched myself onto Mike that night. He rolled away and pleaded exhaustion.
The minute I finished the latest installment, I messaged Sabrina to tell her how much I loved her books. And she wrote back and was lovely and asked how I was doing and about the «adorable fiancé» in my engagement photos and oh, we started messaging throughout the day, chatty threads that stood in beautiful contrast to WhatsApps with my friends back home in Chicago, who could only commiserate about being trapped inside with sticky children.
Sabrina recounted her attempts to make sourdough from a starter named Otis («So cliché, right?»); I updated her on the weird things I saw on my walks around Philadelphia (bike parades, sidewalk foam parties). We cracked each other up.
She admitted she, too, was having trouble keeping up with her friends with kids, whose problems felt so different from hers (no, ours): their constant hubbub and not a second alone with their thoughts versus our loneliness, empty schedules, and stretchy quiet moments, ones when our inner monologues started to shout.
So I let her distract me. Maybe it meant I devoted less attention to Mike’s moodiness. Thinking about it now, my stomach puckers. It’s not like me to be selfish.
When Mike refused to reschedule our wedding a few days ago, I told Sabrina within the hour: OMG, Mike just told me he wants to «pump the brakes.» It popped out of me like a sneeze because she wasn’t real in my mind, not exactly. I hadn’t seen her in more than fifteen years.
She’s the only person I’ve told, in fact. And Mike isn’t about to tell anyone; he’s displeased that I even let Sabrina into our private drama. My best friend, Amy, my mom, all the people who love Mike almost as much as I do—they don’t know we’re on the rocks. That for the last three nights we slept coldly on opposite ends of the bed. That the shared future we envisioned might be gone, snuffed out like a candle.
I take it as a hopeful sign that Mike wants to keep quiet about our issues. People could interpret it wrong, after all — they might think we’re breaking up, which hasn’t happened. Won’t happen. Maybe some space would be a good thing, he said yesterday. I need to get my head on straight.
I love him so much it hurts sometimes, a sandpapery squeeze on my heart. I didn’t realize it until now, when I might lose it all.
The train’s whistle shrieks outside the windows. Virgo shifts in her carrier, peering at me through the mesh. I glance down at my phone again. My lock screen is a picture of Mike and me at Amy’s wedding, him in a tux with his ramen-noodle curls combed back, me in a gown with hair spilling over my shoulders, my head fitting perfectly in the bow of his neck. I love him so much it hurts sometimes, a sandpapery squeeze on my heart. I didn’t realize it until now, when I might lose it all.
Some space. A bit of distance to save our relationship. To salvage the thing that matters most. I can do it for him. For him, I’d do anything.
Image Source: Author headshot credit: Savannah Lauren