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Bitter is the new black, p.20
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       Bitter is the New Black, p.20

           Jen Lancaster

  At this moment, I realize all the Chanel handbags in the world aren’t going to camouflage the simple reality that I am grossly out of shape. This is SO much worse than being the only non–porn star at my hotel during my wedding. How am I supposed to lord myself over a bunch of clean-living fitness nuts? Impossible! These are the kind of people who think whole milk is a sin against nature and would rather DIE than put half-and-half on their Count Chocula.119 All I want to do is get the hell out of here, but if I don’t claim Pete’s chip, he can’t race and that’s six months of training down the drain. Plus there’s a discrepancy in the Big Book of Favors, so I force myself to press on.

  Though normally superconfident, I am not prepared for the judgmental stares of the ultrafit. They don’t know me and have no idea of my prowess in the boardroom. They’re unfamiliar with my shoe collection and unaware that I live in the Dot-Com Palace. And they didn’t notice me pulling up in the Caddy. All they can see is how much space I occupy.

  With each step I take, I feel cellulite blossoming on my arms, my stomach, and my calves. Stop it! I think my chin just multiplied and my thighs inflated. No! Deflate! Deflate! And I’m pretty sure I can see my own ass out of the corner of my eye. Gah! Cut it out!! Am I imagining things, or do my footsteps sound like those of the giant who stomped though the city in the beginning of Underdog? And how did I go from aging-but-still-kind-of-hot ex–sorority girl to horrific, stompy cartoon monster in less than an hour?

  My sleek and sexy python sandals have morphed into cloven hooves by the time I reach the line for the race packet. While I wait, the air is abuzz with tales of other marathons while many sets of eyes cut in my direction. Eventually an asshat in a JUST DO IT T-shirt asks me, “How’s your training going?”

  “Great. I find carb-loading Big Macs and Hershey bars right before the race really helps me achieve my personal best,” I reply. And awkward silence falls over the group while they stare down at their hundred dollar running shoes.

  “You guys understand I’m kidding, right? I’m just picking up the packet for a friend,” I add. They break out into relieved (and highly insulting) laughter. “Yes, haw, haw, haw, aren’t all fat people funny?” I snap. I whip out a Dior compact and aggressively powder my nose. The line grows silent. We continue to shuffle forward and eventually I get to the counter. I hand over my redemption brochure, and the spry old man in a high-tech track suit does a double-take when he sees me.

  With much trepidation, he inquires, “This isn’t for you, is it?”

  “Do I look like Peter Kohrs?” I tersely reply. “Let me assure you, I got suckered into this errand and will not be running this weekend. So you can take the EMS unit off of speed dial, Jack LaLanne.”

  The fact I don’t choke him when he mutters, “Thank heavens,” is a testament to my remarkable self-restraint.120

  I haul my ponderous bulk to the next station and try to make sure no small children topple in my wake. The wide-eyed stares at my midsection are making my self-consciousness almost unbearable. I want to shout at the top of my lungs, “The average American woman is size fourteen! Jim Fixx died while jogging! You wish you had hair like this! And sometimes I eat salad for dinner!” but I don’t for fear of drawing any additional attention.

  When I get to the place where I have to activate the microchip, another misguided do-gooder tries to warn me about the health risks of overexertion. I politely thank him121 and move on to the main part of the fair, where I have to redeem the stupid T-shirt voucher.

  And thus I enter the belly of the beast.

  As I descend into the depths of the fair, I see not a few dozen fit people, not a couple hundred, but multiple thousands of sinewy hard bodies. I doubt anyone’s body fat percentage here is above 5 percent. I can’t help but notice all the beady eyes that narrow as I descend the escalator. Of course, the runners are all zooming down the adjacent stairs, so it’s just me on the machine, floating down like a Ralph Lauren–designed Goodyear blimp.

  When Lara Flynn Boyle’s evil twin remarks to a wafer-thin friend, “I thought this was a fitness fair, not Lane Bryant,” I reach my breaking point. I whip around to face her.

  “Listen, you anorexic bitch, how dare you make fun of me for being chunky? I’d think you’d be happy that a porky chick is running against you. I mean, you’re a competitive person, right? Shouldn’t you be glad to race someone you can beat? And where exactly is the great love and camaraderie that runners are supposed to have for each other? Or does that only apply to the thin and cute participants? Shouldn’t all those endorphins in your system make you happy to the point that you wouldn’t attack a total stranger? And you know what? If our plane crashed in the Andes? You’d wish I was there because I guarantee you that all this extra fat would make me ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS,” I hiss approximately three inches from her face. I find when being confrontational you’re a lot scarier up close and quiet than loud and distant.

  She and her friend sprint away from me while I shout, “Maybe if you run that fast on Sunday, you’ll win! Good luck!”

  At this point, every single person on the south end of the exhibit hall is watching me. So I pull the Twix bar out of my bag and begin to masticate loudly and obnoxiously. I do an exaggerated waddle up to the T-shirt area and see the lines are broken down by size. I wave a chocolate-coated hand at the volunteer and shout in a faux–New York accent, “Yo, yuh, you, little girlie. You got dese shirts in triple XLs? Gotta make sure it covers all my beauty-ful curves.” Karen Carpenter II meekly raises an emaciated finger in the direction of the biggest shirts and I’m off.122

  I shove the rest of the candy bar in my mouth, lick my chops noisily, and wipe my chocolaty paw on the Studebaker also known as my ass. I announce, “Damn. Them Twixes aahh tasty!” to the New Balance–clad Ally McBeal behind me. “Hey, I need me a smoke wicked bad. You got a light?” I ask her.

  She’s beyond appalled. “Smoking is not allowed in the convention center. And furthermore, it’s very bad for you.”

  “So’s Jack Daniel’s shooters and my boyfriend Snake, but that don’t mean it ain’t fun!” I reply, punctuating the statement with a resounding smack on my own butt and a quick pelvic thrust.

  The look on her gaunt little face is priceless.

  Dignity and T-shirt redeemed, I exit.123 I’m so glad to be away from the health and fitness Nazis that I don’t even mind the next hour on the expressway.

  Because in the Big Book of Favors, Carol and I are now even.

  Now that Fletch has his days free, we have plenty of time to take Maisy and Loki to the park. Chicago is a dog-friendly city, and there are tons of specific areas that are double-gated and completely enclosed so dogs can run to their hearts’ content. The parks have low doggie drinking fountains, benches for their owners, and gratis poop bags.124 Our dogs adore jaunts to the park because they can get the kind of exercise their fat primary caregiver can’t give them. I tried to run with them a couple of times but with them clotheslining my legs with their leashes and stopping short to sniff and causing me to tumble over them, and my own exertion-based stabbing chest pains, I figured it was too dangerous.

  The best part about the doggie park is the interaction. Even for someone like me who has a hard time being friendly, it’s easy to break the ice—all you have to do is talk about your dogs! I’ve met a ton of interesting people at Walsh Park, and we’ve totally bonded.

  Blending seamlessly with the cool, tattooed, band-having, this-is-just-my-day-job professional dog walkers are ex–marketing gurus, unemployed MBAs, and laid-off project managers. It’s an eclectic mix of people, but we seem to mesh. When someone new joins our group, we always ask, “What did you used to do for a living?” For a while we even had a Tuesday Afternoon Drinking Club—exactly what it sounds like—but finding us shit-faced at four p.m. annoyed too many of our respective employed significant others and band members. Going to the park has been like group therapy for me, and the only downside is all the doody touching.

Fletch and I have taken the dogs to Churchill Park—it’s brand-new and right around the corner from our loft. I still prefer Walsh Park, but it’s a half hour walk,125 and the dogs are just as happy.

  The people aren’t as friendly, though, probably because instead of being unemployed, most of them are consultants with flexible schedules. And whereas Walsh Park is an interesting potpourri of people and mixed-breed mutts, Churchill is all about purebreds and their humorless Lexus SUV–driving, Accenture-working, North Face–clad owners.

  We’re here on Saturday afternoon, and it’s like a Westminster Kennel Club competition. There’s easily $15,000 worth of dogs dashing up and down the gravel run.

  “Uh-oh,” I say to Fletch, gesturing toward the south gate. “Here comes THAT guy.” A small, tidy, fussy man wearing those weird Donald J. Pliner elf shoes and immaculate chinos saunters into the park, being towed by his gigantic, gay boxers Marcel and Gilbert.126

  “What’s wrong with him?” Fletch asks.

  “You’ll see.”

  As soon as they’re released, Marcel and Zhjill-BEHR begin to humpity-pumpity every dog that crosses their path, particularly disturbing because the dogs still possess their factory-installed equipment. Icky. Small Tidy Fussy man simply reads his Paris Match and, instead of disciplining his dogs, ignores the whole scene. While Loki romps with Maisy, Marcel sneaks up behind him and climbs aboard. Loki growls and snaps at Marcel and then continues to play.

  “Pardonnez-moi,” yells Small Tidy Fussy man. “Your dog, he attacked mine. You should get your violent dogs out of here.” At the moment, Maisy’s on her back letting a Jack Russell lick her goodies while Fletch attaches her leash. Loki sits at attention, waiting his turn.

  “Wait a minute. You have the nerve to let your dogs hump and jump, doing nothing about it, and then you blame my dog for following his instinct?”

  “Every time I come here, your dog attacks mine, no?”

  “That’s because every time your dogs corn hole mine. Given the choice, my dogs prefer not to be date-raped. Maybe if you’d actually follow park rules and neuter them, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

  “Do you know how much my boxers are worth? I need their seed for breeding purposes. It is most important. And I can’t have your aggressive”—he pauses to sneer—“junkyard dogs marring their looks by biting them.”

  OK, that does it. You can insult my parentage, intelligence, or taste but you DO NOT say disparaging things about my dogs. “It’s obvious you’re worried about protecting your investment, not your dogs. And anyone who considers his pets to be an investment is simply loathsome.” I look to the crowd for their support. At Walsh Park, my entire posse would be standing behind me. But here? No one will even meet my gaze.

  “Well, yes, I can see where your dogs get their violent streak,” he snorts.

  I whip off my mittens and toss them to the ground, shouting, “Violent? You think these sweet, loving creatures are violent? OH, I WILL SHOW YOU VIOLENCE, YOU FROGGY LITTLE—” Then Fletch yanks me and the dogs out of the park.

  As I’m dragged down Winchester Avenue, Fletch clears his throat. “So that went well.”

  I am hopping mad. “How dare that Francophile accuse our dogs of being violent? They’re afraid of the cats and the vacuum. And why is everyone at Churchill Park such a jerk anyway? Why can’t they be cool like my friends at Walsh?”

  “It’s the neighborhood—it’s changed. When we moved here, there was an equal mix of dot-commers, artists, and immigrants. Now developers are paying top dollar for lots, and the Mexican and Polish families are moving out of the area. Prices are escalating so fast it’s only consultants and brokers who can live here. Plus, they’re snapping up the spaces vacated by the dot-com refugees because they all moved home to Wheaton to live with their parents.”

  “I hate how different everything is now.”

  “I do, too. The neighborhood’s so sanitized. Remember when we first moved here how dangerous it was to be on the street at night? Now when I walk the dogs after dark, I run into yuppie families holding children eating gelato on their shoulders. The whole place has been Disneyfied and the worst part is we can barely afford it anymore.”

  “Do you”—I try to swallow the lump in my throat—“do you think it might be time for us to move?” We walk silently for a minute until we get to the front door of our building. We wait to enter while a mother—talking on her cell phone—navigates a high-tech stroller containing a child wearing Gore-Tex and tiny Merrell snow clogs. An off-leash chocolate lab trails obediently along at her side.

  Fletch sighs. “Maybe so.”

  Temporary Insanity

  It won’t kill you,” Shayla says.

  “It might,” I reply.

  “You’re being a big baby. I did it every summer during grad school, and it was easy money. Why don’t you give it a try? It may be the answer to your problems. Not only would it give you an income now—it could lead to a full-time position.”

  “But isn’t it degrading?”

  “No, not so much. But assuming it were, which is more degrading in the long run: working a temp job and earning some pin money, or bitching about unemployment while sitting around in your pajamas drinking wine from a box at three in the afternoon?”

  “These aren’t pajamas. They’re lounge pants.” I smooth out my pant legs and adjust the zipper on my gray hoodie. “Granted, they’re burgundy flannel, polar bear–print lounge pants with an open fly that I occasionally sleep in, but I also wear them to the grocery store and when I walk the dogs.”

  “Saying they aren’t pajamas doesn’t make them not pajamas.”

  “Whatever. Anyway, this box wine is a lot better than you’d expect. Have some.”

  “I would but I’ve got to teach a class in the morning. I’ll stick to hot tea, thanks.” Shayla just got her PhD and is now an assistant professor, yet still finds time to play in an alt-country band called Brother Lowdown and, on occasion, swill wine with me in the afternoon. Shayla rocks on so many levels.

  “When does Brother Lowdown have their next gig?”

  “We’re doing a show Friday at the Abbey Pub.”

  “Cool. We’ll try to be there.”

  “If you come, will you behave yourself? They still talk about you there.”

  This isn’t completely my fault. Earlier that day I had a minor meltdown over an expensive car repair, so I took a couple Xanax, forgetting about going out later. For some reason, Brother Lowdown was only on stage for half an hour, much to my dismay. Another local band called Butterside Down played after them. Their only fault was not being Brother Lowdown, yet in my addled condition, I blamed them for Brother Lowdown’s short set. Apparently antianxiety medicine and Stoli Razberi and soda don’t mix. Two bouncers forcibly removed me from the establishment for standing by the stage and shouting epithets like “Butterside Sucks! Buttersuck Sucks! Suckyside Down!”

  Or so I’m told.

  I woke up fully dressed in my bathtub fifteen hours later with no memory of the evening, and an odd craving for toast.

  “I’ll be good,” I promise.

  “By the way, nice attempt at changing the subject. Fletch said you’d try to weasel out of this chat. You brought me over here to brainstorm, yet you reject the most expedient solution. I’m telling you, temping is not that bad.”

  “How about this? If—and that’s a big if—if I have an interview and I’m slated to be at a temp job, what do I do?”

  Shayla whorls honey into her tea while explaining, “Unlike traditional employers, the temp agencies and their respective clients not only don’t care if you’re looking for permanent work, they expect it. If you need to go to an interview, you simply tell them in advance and they’ll get someone to cover your shift.” She squeezes a slice of fresh lemon and stirs again. “Why do you ask? Is this an issue? Have you had a lot of interviews lately?”

  I sigh deeply and rub Maisy’s ears. As usual, the dogs and cats are piled all around me. I’ve cranked t
he heat down to 60 degrees in an effort to conserve money, and the freezing-cold critters are drawn to my body warmth. When Shayla arrived, I told her to come in, but suggested she leave her coat on. “Not even a nibble in almost two months. At this point, I’m applying for jobs that pay my starting salary out of college.”127

  “Yikes. Have you gone to any networking events?”

  “Dozens. The only people I’ve networked with are unemployed, too.”

  “How many résumés have you sent?”

  “Hundreds upon hundreds. I now apply for every single job I see.128 The few employers I’ve spoken with say they get so many résumés, they don’t even bother sending form-letter rejections anymore. But if you ask me, I think these employers are enjoying the change of economy. It’s like the ultimate payback from when all the good people left to work for Internet companies. ‘Your oh-so-important leg-wear-by-mail company didn’t work out? And now you want to come back? HA!’ They love that it’s a buyer’s market.”

  “Still, sounds like you’re doing everything right, so what’s the problem?”

  “There are a few factors working against me. First off, thousands of other jobless people are doing everything right, too. Plus, it’s the end of the year, and no one’s hiring until they get their budgets in January. And rumors about war certainly aren’t helping the overall employment situation. For lateral positions, I used to make too much money and priced myself out of the market.”

  “Maybe your résumé is too good? What about downplaying your experience just to get a foot in the door?”

  “I already dumbed-down my résumé, but it hasn’t helped. For better jobs, employers can snatch up formerly expensive, experienced people for a song. Thus my services aren’t wanted.” I fortify myself with another giant slug of wine. “And when I interviewed for lesser jobs, employers are convinced I’ll be bored. I even tried to get a part-time position with a dog-walking company, figuring the exercise would help me lose weight, and the owner said if I couldn’t give him a year’s commitment, he wasn’t interested. So here I sit in my pajamas, drinking bargain wine, completely out of ideas.”

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