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Bitter is the new black, p.19
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       Bitter is the New Black, p.19

           Jen Lancaster

  Fletch pops his head under the table. “Courtney, crisis averted. You can come out now.” He turns his attention to Brett. “Looks like you may finally be forgiven, vroom, vroom.”

  “I so nailed it,” I tell Brett. We’re sitting in his corner office doing a postmortem on my interview with Julie. If nothing else, my cute outfit should guarantee me the job—I’m wearing a fitted taupe jacket with a swirly skirt and matching camisole with spectator slingbacks. Sure, add a flower-strewn hat, and I’d fit in perfectly at the Kentucky Derby, but since I’m not applying for VP, I figured a less traditional suit would be appropriate. “Seriously, it could not have gone better. After all, I created the product—the portfolio management tool was my baby. I decided on the level of interactivity, the features, even the colors on the interface. How could I not be the perfect person to write marketing copy about it?”

  “How’d you explain your willingness to accept a lesser position?” Brett asks.

  “I told Julie my life was different now. I’m married, I have dogs, I have a whole new set of responsibilities. I said I don’t want to spend sixty hours a week in the office.”

  “Which, because I know you, is a lie.”

  “I figured if talked up my work ethic too much, she’d worry I was bucking for her job.”

  “When will she make a decision?”

  “A couple of days. But she’s going to say yes, I’m sure of it.”

  “Cool. By the way, have you, um, spoken with Courtney lately?”

  “Of course, Brett. I talk to Court all the time. Was there something specific you’d like to know?” A bright pink flush spreads across Brett’s cheeks. “You’re blushing! You like her! Oh, that’s darling! I knew you guys would connect. You have so much in common like your triathlete competition things and predilection for Dave Matthews.107 It just so happens she asked me to give you her number.” I root around in my purse until I locate her digits. I place her business card in front of Brett.

  “Thanks, Jen. I owe you.”

  A phone number in exchange for the opportunity to earn fifty large? “Brett, I’m pretty sure we’re even.”

  I’m finishing reading all the day’s new job postings when Fletch walks in. “Hey, sweetie, what’s up? You’re home really early.” Maisy and Loki bark and spin, delighted at their dad’s unexpected arrival. I am too because I’m dying for a little human interaction. I talk to those damn dogs all day long. Someday they’re going to start talking back, and I am simply not prepared for that.

  Then I notice that Fletch is carrying a huge paper box full of personal effects. Uh-oh.

  “You want the good news or the bad news first?”

  I take a deep breath. “Bad, please.”

  “I was laid off.”

  I gesture toward his box. “I figured. But you know what? It’s not your fault. I know how hard you worked, and I’m very proud of the job you did there. Are you OK?” I fight my way through the dogs to give Fletch a big hug. After seeing his employer on C-SPAN every day for the past month, we suspected this might happen.

  “Actually, I am. They gave me a decent severance package, and I’ll still get my year-end bonus. Plus I’m eligible for unemployment insurance, so we’ll be OK for a little while.”

  “That’s the good news?”

  “Nope. When Clark told me my position was eliminated, he could barely keep from smiling. Miserable son of a bitch. While I’m packing up my stuff and commiserating with everyone else—Lisa, Bill, and Ernesto are also gone—the regional VP goes into Clark’s office and closes the door. Two minutes later we hear shouting and slamming. Apparently Clark got canned, too.”

  “He didn’t know it was coming?”

  “Completely blindsided him.”

  “That’s hilarious.”

  “Yeah, but I didn’t tell you the best part. Right before I walked out, I poked my head in his door and said, ‘I’ll save you a place in line at the unemployment office.’ Must have been the last straw because he lunged out of his chair and took a swing at me!”

  “No way!”

  “I kid you not. Ernesto called the police, and the whole team got to enjoy watching Clark being escorted out in handcuffs. Best day of work ever.” A malevolent grin plays across his face.

  “You baited him.” I’m always secretly delighted when Fletch gets in touch with his inner evil streak.

  “You bet I did. That man made me miserable for three years with his explosive rage. He was so much like my dad. As I never had the pleasure of seeing my father arrested, this was the next best thing. I should be upset about losing my job, but I feel great.”

  The phone rings and I peer at the caller ID. “Fletch, hold that thought—it’s Midwest IR. I’m crossing my fingers that it’s an offer.” I take a deep breath before grabbing the phone. “Good afternoon. Jennifer speaking.”

  “Hi, Jennifer. It’s Julie from Midwest IR. How are you?”

  “Terrific, thanks! What’s up?” I’m trying to sound cool, but really I’m a basket case. I need this job now more than ever. After an entire YEAR off, I’m dying to get back to work. I’m even thrilled at the prospect of wearing panty hose again. Shoot, I’ll take public transportation if I need to. This way Fletch can be on my health insurance so he doesn’t have to worry about COBRA. Ooh, and I’ll start another 401(k) and begin to feel like a real adult again.108

  So what if it’s a step down? With my work ethic, I’ll be back on top in no time. I predict a promotion in six months or less. After all, the other VPs loved me at Midwest IR. And when—

  “I’m calling to say we’ve decided to go in a different direction.”

  “I’m sorry. Can you repeat that?” The dogs are still yipping and whining, so I must have heard her wrong.

  “We’ve decided not to extend an offer. But I really enjoyed our interview after hearing so many good things about you.”

  “I don’t understand. I promise I wouldn’t be bored if that’s your concern. I know I worked on more advanced projects before, but—”

  “You just don’t have the kind of experience we need in this department.”

  “Cut the crap, Julie. I created the very product your department supports, so don’t tell me I’m not experienced. Level with me. When Corp. Com. laid me off, they never gave me a reason, and it’s driven me nuts for a whole year. Be honest. Was I overconfident? Arrogant? Whatever was wrong, please tell me so I can fix it before I interview anywhere else.”

  Julie sighs and lowers her voice. “Jen, you did everything right and I really lobbied for your hire. But Ben won’t let me bring you back. He says you’re too unprofessional.”

  Oh, that is rich. “Julie, do you know why I left Midwest IR in the first place? It’s not solely because I got a better offer. Ben threw a cup of coffee at me during a board meeting while screaming, ‘If you can’t give me the fucking answers I want, then fucking lie to me!’ But as I was not about to let that old bastard see me cry, I replied, ‘Come on, sir, you’re the president of this place—get it together.’ I should have thrown coffee back at him. Instead, I went home to change clothes and post my résumé.”

  “I heard a rumor about that.” Ben’s unprofessional behavior is legendary. “I swear I didn’t know it was you. Things must really be tough out there if you were willing to come back here.”

  “You don’t know the half of it.”

  “God, I’m so sorry. Take care, and if you need a reference? Call me.”

  Before I even hang up the phone, Fletch is by my side. “No luck?”

  “What are we going to do? A minute ago I was elated because I thought that job was mine. Now I’m scared to death because no one in this household has an income. How are we going to pay for this place? How are we going to keep up with our bills? How am I ever going to get my hair colored again?” I begin to pace and wring my hands.

  “You know what we should do right now?” Fletch asks.

  “Pray? Cry? Move back to Indiana so I can work at Hardee’s, as my brother
keeps helpfully suggesting?”

  “No. We’re going to the Four Seasons.”

  “Are you insane?”

  “I say we celebrate the end of the dot-com era by going out with a bang. Our days of posing at their bar are over, so why not celebrate with a couple of $15 martinis?”

  “You are insane.”

  Brief silence.

  “And I’ll be ready in ten minutes.”

  Four Seasons esss DELICIOUSSS Jack Frost marteeenneees pepperminty chocolaty…. 100 percent YUMMM! Pooor buthaaaaappppeee!! Fletchhhss is SCHMARTEST MOST HANDDSUM MAN ALIVE even wiscch his pancake butt. Mmmm…pancakes! Sommebuddy buuuy me pancakes? Pleeeeease?

  Drunkety. Most, most exccccelent drunkety.109

  “Jen, it’s a simple favor,” Fletch says.

  “But I don’t want to,” I reply.

  “Come on, it’ll be easy. And you’ll get to drive the Cadillac.”

  “I can drive the Caddy anytime I want.”

  “But you never have anywhere to go.”

  “So? I can still use it to take the dogs to the park.”

  “Last time you drove them it took a week to scrub all the mud off the seats. Admit it. There’s no good reason not to do this for Carol.”

  “Then you do it.”

  “Number one, she didn’t ask me. Number two, I have an interview that afternoon. And number three, she’s the only nonrelative you have who’s been able to stand you for more than a decade.”

  God, I hate when he’s right.

  A couple of days ago, Carol e-mailed to ask a favor. Her family’s coming up from Indianapolis this weekend. Carol and her small children are visiting friends and her husband, Pete, is running the Chicago marathon. As their time here is limited, Carol asked if I could go to the convention center and pick up Pete’s official race pack. Since I’ve got NOTHING going on right now, there’s no good reason I can’t do this simple task for my oldest friend…except that I don’t want to because according to Fletch I can be a trifle torpid and a bit selfish.110

  “Jen, think about it. How often does Carol ask you to do anything for her?”

  “Almost never,” I concede.

  “And how many times has she done something unpleasant for you?”

  “Well…there was that time in high school when I insisted we see Desperately Seeking Susan in full-on Wannabe-like-Madonna gear.” Poor Carol. Warily she cast aside her Bonne Belle Dr Pepper Lip Smackers for heavy kohl eyeliner and her Topsiders for torn fish-nets. And when I yanked her out of her seat to dance in the aisle with me to “Get into the Groove,” she never once complained, even when I accidentally stabbed her with an oversized cross.111

  “Is that it?”

  “No. She also used to let me ride to our speech meets in the back of her car and do Queen Elizabeth waves.”


  “Once when I was a sophomore, she came up from IU, and we met these Alpha Sigs at a party. I got to make out with the cute one with the Flock of Seagulls haircut while she patiently listened to his roommate prattle on in painstaking detail about the musical genius of Jethro Tull.”112

  “Uh-huh. Anything else?”

  “Um…she never judged me in my junior year when I thought it would be fun to live my life like a character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel.”113

  “Are you forgetting her wedding?”

  Actually, I had. On Carol’s wedding day—the one time I should have shaken myself out of my perpetual narcissistic haze and paid her special attention—Carol had to come to my hotel room to hustle me down to the ceremony. I’d lost track of time while grooming myself and almost delayed the start of the wedding.

  Looking back at our lives together, I realize in the Big Book of Favors, I’m woefully lacking credit. I’ve always taken more than I’ve given. I’m not sure I deserve a friend like Carol. Defeated, I admit, “OK, OK. You’ve got me. I’ll do it.”

  4:46 p.m. from allaboutjen: I’m in. Gimme the deets.

  4:48 p.m. from carol_and_pete: Thanks, you’re a life-saver! Any time tomorrow between 8-6 PM, go to McCormick Place (you know where that is, right?) to pick up Pete’s race information pack at the pre-marathon health and fitness fair. Among other things, the pack will contain the microchip Pete needs to wear so his time will be recorded. It’s crucial he has this before the race. You’ll have to have the chip activated and grab his t-shirt, but it shouldn’t be a big deal.

  4:50 p.m. from allaboutjen: I can’t believe anyone would voluntarily run 26 miles. Sometimes I sit on the couch cross-legged because I don’t feel like walking to the bathroom.

  4:51 p.m. from carol_n_pete: Yeah, I remember you peeing in the pool on more than one occasion, too. Gross. As for running, Pete turns 40 this year, so this may be a mid-life thing. It’s OK with me—marathon running beats him having an affair or buying a sports car we can’t afford.

  4:52 p.m. from allaboutjen: Word. See you this weekend.

  The convention center is five miles round-trip from my apartment, which means the whole trip is less than half the distance Pete is running on Sunday. How bad can it be? Trading Spaces is on in an hour, and I figure it will take me fifteen minutes to get down there, ten to pick up the pack, and then fifteen more to get back…and bing! I’m home in time to see a shirtless Ty build a bookcase. I planned to leave earlier but I got sucked into a particularly sleazy episode of Elimidate.114

  I quickly assess myself in the hall mirror before walking out the door. My honey caramel highlights are magnificent as always, and I have the remnants of summer freckles still sprinkled across my nose. Too cute. I’m ravishing in an all-black Ralph Lauren Capri pant and cotton sweater ensemble. Yes, it’s plus-sized but I’m sure with the hair, jewelry, and Chanel bag, the size of my ass is barely noticeable.115 I appraise myself long and hard and conclude that, caboose be damned, I am fabulous. I grab a Twix for the road and I’m off.

  I saddle up the Caddy and ride .6 miles to the expressway…and get stuck for an hour and fifteen minutes. Since I don’t commute anymore, I completely forgot about Friday afternoon traffic. Dammit, I should have know this was going to happen. Why did I even agree to this stupid errand? I put James’ “Laid” on the CD player and listen to it at full blast in an attempt to soothe my traffic-addled nerves.116

  I finally get to a point where I can turn off the expressway. Because I’m such a savvy Chicago girl, I’ll just take a short cut and beat the rest of the traffic to McCormick. HA! Look at all the lemming tourists going the long way! Suckers!

  Note to self: NEVER, EVER, EVER attempt to take a shortcut on the way to McCormick Place.

  OK, picture a bunch of bombed-out storefronts, garbage-strewn roadways, and sad-looking people drinking brown liquid out of brown paper bags while assessing Carbohydrate Barbie FREAKING THE HELL OUT in her deluxe sedan, and you’ll get an accurate snapshot of the last half hour of my life.117 As stopping for directions was NOT an option, I did the only thing I knew how—I turned my fear into anger and I blamed the whole situation on other people. Stupid Pete. Why couldn’t he run the Boston marathon? Stupid Carol. By all rights she should hate me by now. Why did she have to keep liking me? Stupid Fletch. How does he always know how to make me feel guilty? I should be watching Hildy staple kittens to a home owner’s wall right about now, not driving around the world’s scariest neighborhood. Stupid Mayor Daley. Why didn’t he post signs saying that clueless ex–sorority girls should not be cruising around in luxury cars through the Robert Taylor projects, like, ever?

  I purposefully blew every light hoping the cops would notice and thus escort me out, but no luck. Stupid police. Somehow I made it to the convention center in one piece, although I cannot speak of the various traffic laws I violated to do so.

  Anyway, here’s an interesting fact about the convention center. It’s big.

  Awfully big.

  Like a million square feet of exhibit space big.

  As I walk the 1.2 miles from the parking garage to the main hallway, I curse Carol’
s name a little more. Had I realized it was so far, I wouldn’t have worn such strappy shoes. With each step I take, the buckle embeds itself deeper into my skin. As I hobble along, I decide people-watching will take my mind off the pain. Hmm…ugly…ugly…scrawny…ooh, lotta ear hair on that one…ugly…Chic jeans—ha! 1984 called and they want their pants back…blech, it’s cologne after shower, not instead of, sir…boring…wow, that person has amazing calf muscles…hmm, so does that one…nice mullet, jackass…yikes, it’s called rhinoplasty, look into it…too skinny…too skinny…ma’am, seriously, eat a sandwich or something, you’re WAY too thin….

  There are a lot of really toned people jogging past me. That’s kind of weird—am I late? I consult my Coach Tank watch and see that we have another whole hour, so why is everyone rushing? More people with whippet-slim waists careen by. Funny because Chicago isn’t really a “skinny” city, and that’s why I like it here. So what if I’ve put on a few118 pounds since I got laid off? An extra layer of fat is exactly what a gal needs to get through those chilly Chicago winters. A bit of excess weight is practically a necessity—it’s like I’m more evolved than these lollipop heads.

  A group of girls with six-pack abs whizz by me so fast I almost get dragged along in their tailwind. C’mon, ladies. Bulimia is going to ruin your teeth. Who cares how trim you are if you’ve got a mouthful of rotting canines and molars? And, God, look at that girl in the spandex shorts—she has thighs like a baby giraffe. Self-consciously, I place hand on my own thigh. Definitely not baby giraffe material. The closer I get to the main hallway, the denser the crowd grows. There are six-packs and perfectly toned calves everywhere I look. Gah, what’s with these people? Why are they all so tall and thin??

  All of a sudden it hits me…. This is a health and fitness fair…AND I AM THE ONLY FAT PERSON HERE.

  I break into a cold sweat, as it dawns on me that everyone else in this building is planning to run 26.2 miles on Sunday…which means these people never perspire while eating dinner. Or have to stop for a breather when climbing the stairs. They use their exercise bikes for exercise and not just to dry hand-knit sweaters and—HOLY CRAP!—they’re looking at me wondering how on earth I’m going to compete in this race!

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