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Bitter is the new black, p.32
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       Bitter is the New Black, p.32

           Jen Lancaster

  “Get over yourself, Peeg. We need you to babysit this weekend.”

  Todd has never asked me to watch his children before. For some reason, I’d been painted with the “irresponsible” brush after that time I accidentally gave the kids a book of matches.197 “I’m your last resort, aren’t I?”

  “Pretty much. Jean’s sisters are all busy and her parents will be out of town. Mom was going to sit this weekend, but the doctor says she can’t lift anything and she isn’t well enough yet to drive herself down here.”198

  “Why doesn’t Dad drive her?”

  “The play-offs are on and he doesn’t want to go anywhere.”

  I made an exception to my children-hating rule for Todd’s kids. They’re actually kind of fun, plus if I spoil them rotten now, I can eventually use them against my brother.199 Still, they are a handful and because they’re human petri dishes, they always contaminate me. I generally spend the week after seeing them in bed surrounded by Kleenex, a vaporizer, and empty mugs sticky from hot lemonades. “Yeah, I don’t think it’s going to work. Sorry.”

  “Why not?”

  “I don’t like you enough to help you.”

  “It’s not for me, it’s for Jean. I’ve got to cover a game that night, but Jean’s going away for a sorority reunion. If you don’t come, she’ll miss it.”

  Damm it, he had to go and throw the Jean card. She’s the best thing that ever happened to our family. If we were the Munsters, she’d be our Marilyn. Never once has Jean pretended to shoot other Stone Mountain tourists with her golf umbrella while singing “The Sound of Music,”200 described in loving detail the corned beef she once had in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1984, while having no recollection of her child’s middle name,201 or walked out of the house without remembering to put on pants.202 Wearily, I consent. “OK, fine. When should I be there?”

  “Tomorrow night around five. Thanks, Peeg.”

  “Bite me.”

  “One more thing: The kids are afraid of bees, wasps, and hornets. See you tomorrow.”


  You know what? Driving down to Todd’s is actually a good idea. I’ll have five hours each way to figure out what to do about the job. Plus I’ll get to listen to all the cheesy music I like so much but am too embarrassed to play in front of other people.203

  I stop for gas and snacks, and in a heroic moment of self-control, I decide against the Hostess cupcakes. The Atkins diet has been working, and I rather like not having my pants hurt anymore. I go low carb and opt for a Diet Dr Pepper and some sunflower seeds. I snicker to myself because I bet Fletch just felt a chill go down his spine. I’ve been banned from eating them in the car since the Sunflower Seed-Stravaganza (and subsequent Car Vacuuming-Stravaganza) in 1996. What can I say? I have lousy aim.

  When I get to Todd’s house, the children hurl themselves at me. Max, being the middle child, feels like a cannonball when he crashes into my stomach. With Cam, the eldest, it’s more like being hit with a side of beef or perhaps a small freight train.

  My brother stands in the doorway laden with photography equipment and a laptop case. “Bye, kids. I’m going now.” He steps outside and then ducks his head back in. “Jen, I almost forgot. The kids have already had dinner, so they should be all set. Also, try not to let Max see you eating.”

  “Why not?” I’m puzzled by such an odd request.

  “If he sees you eat any food he doesn’t like, he’ll throw up.”

  “Gross! But I’m hungry, so tell me what he does like.”

  “Chicken fingers, candy, and surprisingly, clams.”

  As soon as Todd leaves, Cam begins his eighteen-hour monolog about the benefits of owning Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards, and I have a strange premonition of him someday trying to sell me a time-share. Little Sarah reminds me that she is pretty.

  I set the kids in front of the DVD player while I clean up their dinner dishes. I’m determined to have Todd and Jean return to a sparkling house because I want it to look like I can handle things (and to convince them they would NOT have been better letting the neighbor’s rottweiler watch the kids). I start to Girl Scout up the joint, leaving it in even better condition than I’d found it.

  “Hey, Jen, can I have a glass of water?”

  “Me, too.”

  “No, I don’t like that glass. Can I have another?”

  “Why did you put ice in here? Ice makes my tongue ouchy.”

  “Can I have a Mountain Dew instead?”

  “I pretty!”

  “Where’s my straw?”

  “Max spilled his again.”


  “I berry pretty!”

  “Can we have some popcorn?”

  “No, we like the kind with butter.”

  “This doesn’t taste right. Can you put some sugar in it?”


  “I like ’nakes!”

  “Jen, can I change my shirt?”

  “Hey, the DVD is skipping!”

  “Can we watch Like Mike again?”

  “I have to use the potty.”

  “I have to use the potty, too.”

  “I make potty in my pants!”

  Todd and Jean have an unusual home. It’s built into a hill, and the architecture is such that there are five different levels of living areas. So the fifteen minutes it should have taken me to clean up took more like two hours, what with the constant trips up and down two flights of stairs.

  After the first movie ends and all the kids’ demands had been met, my old babysitting training kicks in. I can’t allow anything to be messy. I decide to be helpful and clean the boys’ bathroom. Although they are housebroken, Cam and Max need a bit of work on their aim. I liken it to a bunch of monkeys trying to operate a firehose.

  The bathroom takes longer than expected, and since it’s three levels away from where the children are, I can’t hear the orgy of destruction. Cam, the brains of the operation, found a large bag of candy hidden in the kitchen. Being a generous soul, he shared his findings with his siblings, and they all stuffed themselves as fast as their little hands could hurl the empty wrappers. After accidentally stepping on a kernel, Max decided to have a popcorn-smashing party with Sarah on the new carpet, and what better way to inspect one’s Yu-Gi-Oh cards than to stick them all to the walls with chewed pieces of gum?

  When I walk in the room, it looks like a pipe bomb exploded in a 7-Eleven. I consider placing a call to the National Guard to help me with the devastation, but I figure they might squeal on me and my true ineptitude will be revealed. I cannot let that happen.

  The kids help204 me clean up the room, thus making themselves very dirty and sticky in the process. I decide to bathe them because I don’t want Todd to come home to find his progeny looking like they live in a coal mine.

  The kids, however, have other ideas.

  They flatly refuse to bathe or shower despite how much I to beg, cajole, and as a last resort, attempt to bribe with a handful of singles from my wallet. And although someday they’ll place me in a cheap nursing home because of it, I break out the big guns.

  “Hey, Sarah and Max? Wasps like to sting dirty children. And, look, there’s one now!”

  Tell me those little bastards didn’t fly into the tub.

  Because I don’t want to see myself on the news, I only wash them above their belly buttons. Whatever is dirty below the equator is their business, not mine. In some respects, washing their hair is easier than I thought. The lather-rinse-repeat stuff isn’t so taxing, but getting them to decide which shampoo they’d like certainly is.205 Artfully arranging the floating toys so Max can “have his privacy” is no damn picnic either.

  With a debate over what style of underwear and pajamas they will wear to bed that would put Paris and Nicky Hilton to shame, I finally wrestle a super-sugar-charged Paris and Nicky into some cotton sleepers while Cam showers. This is also a lot less easy than you’d think. Cam likes a variety of water temperatures and refuses to touch
the taps himself. I careen up and down the stairs again for the next half hour.

  Finally, everyone is in bed. I read them a story and it’s lights out. Aww, how sweet is that? They look like little pink angels, all clean and shiny, nestled together.

  As soon as the last one closes his eyes, I tiptoe down the stairs to call Fletch. “Hey, it’s me.”

  “How’s it going?”

  “Pretty well. I’m surprised at how comfortable the kids are around me finally.”

  “That’s because they see you a lot now. Back when you were working, you saw them, what, like once every six months? They finally know you since you’re able to spend time with them.”

  “Yeah, I guess I didn’t think about that.” I’m suddenly overwhelmed with guilt over missing crucial bits of Cam’s and Max’s early years. “Anyway, I’d expected more of a struggle getting these guys into bed. But you know what? It was kind of easy. My brother must be exaggerating how difficult this parenting stuff is. Sure, it took some doing, but I managed nicely.”

  “Glad to hear it.”

  “Parts of the evening were trying, but it’s such a great payoff to see the kids all happy and snug in their beds. Maybe…maybe you and I should reconsider our decision to be child-free, especially now that we’re not completely broke. After all, I got everything done! Seriously, I must be some kind of superwoman because I was able to keep the house orderly and the kids clean and it’s only…only…Fletch, I’m not wearing my watch. What time is it?”

  “Not sure. Let me put on my glasses.” Fletch sets down the phone and I hear fumbling in the background. “Jen, do you realize it’s one thirty-three in the morning?”

  “Oh. Perhaps I’m not quite the domestic goddess I’d imagined.”

  “Maybe not. Would you mind if I went back to sleep now?”

  “Um, no, I guess not. ’Night, Fletch. Love you.”

  “Love you back. Have a safe trip home.”

  I find myself driving out of town this morning with a wrecked manicure and dirty hair, sure of two things. One, I’m not taking the job. And two, I’m getting every organ even vaguely related to reproduction cauterized immediately.

  “What do you think this is? We’ve been all paid up for a while now. Do you think it’s a complaint about the dogs?” I hold a certified letter from our landlord in my hand. Although it was delivered an hour ago, we were too preoccupied to open it. When the postman rang our doorbell to get us to sign for it, Maisy and Loki went crazy. To retaliate, the dirty hippies cranked the soundtrack to The Great Escape up to ten and drove off. We first tried to call our landlord to complain but his voice mail said he’d be out of the country for the next month.206 So we called the police. In the excitement of spying on the neighbors being lectured by a burly Chicago cop, I’d forgotten about the letter.

  “Open it.”

  I tear the envelope and experience a brief spasm of terror when I see it’s from our landlord’s attorney. But as I read the pages, I let out a whoop of joy.

  “What does it say??” Fletch dashes behind me to read over my shoulders. He scans the page. “You’re happy that our landlord is converting our apartment to a condo?”

  “Honey, look at this line. Bill wants to switch us over to a month-to-month lease.”

  Fletch looks confused. “That means if he sells this place, he has the option of giving us thirty days’ notice to vacate the premises. Why is that good?”

  “Don’t you get it? If he has a thirty-day option to end our lease, so do we. That’s how it works.207 We won’t have to honor our eighteen-month lease and won’t have to live above these fucks”—I hop up and down a couple of times for good measure, rattling the entire building—“for the next year.”

  “That’s an unbelievable coincidence. I got an e-mail from my friend Mike yesterday. He has a nice town house in River West he’s looking to lease and wanted to see if I knew anyone who’d be interested. It’s got a small yard, it’s only a couple hundred a month more than this place, and it’s in a great neighborhood. I felt jealous of whoever was going to live there when I saw the attached photos because it’s really nice. I had no idea yesterday that it could be us.”

  “Call him! Let’s go see it!”

  “Before we go running off half-cocked, let’s think about this for a minute. Moving will be expensive, and we aren’t even close to being out of debt yet. Are you sure it’s a good idea?”

  From the floorboards, I hear “Twenty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught his band to play….”


  Weblog Entry 10/31/03


  The bad news is that The Lovely Melissa’s wedding began exactly 48 hours ago and I have yet to recover from it. The good news is that I don’t have to worry about being hung over at work tomorrow.

  In the cab on the way to the church, I decided to pretend that this was MY wedding, since so many of the same guests would be at Melissa’s. This way I could spend lots of time with people I barely got to speak with on my own Big Day, what with the everlasting dinner of multiple courses and the 400,000 pictures that our photographer, Ansel Adams, insisted upon taking.

  I got teary-eyed watching Melissa walk down the aisle, ironic because I didn’t shed a tear during my ceremony. At one point during the benediction, the minister spoke about heavenly grace pouring down on the couple and right at that moment, the skies opened up in a brief but powerful shower. God is all about good timing.

  We got to the reception and immediately headed for the bar. Not surprisingly, it’s where we found all our friends. And this is when things begin to get a bit hazy…they were pouring top shelf Martinis, I’d had a long, dry summer, and hey, it was MY day. It was really wonderful to reconnect with so many of my favorite people. I’d not been in close touch with most friends, having had such a rough year. Their years weren’t much better than ours, so it was particularly satisfying to be together now that things have begun to turn around for all of us.

  By the time dinner was served, I was well into my fifth Martini, and I also had glasses of champagne and white wine in front of me. I noticed Fletch was on his third drink and I got all officious, leaning over and instructing him that he needed to “schloooow doooown.” I believe he rolled his eyes in response. Then there were some speeches and toasts and for a minute I couldn’t figure out why they were all gesturing at the pretty girl in the white dress and not me, as it was MY day. Curious.

  After dinner, we headed back to the bar where I promptly dropped a Martini (including the glass) on a ring bearer. I felt badly about it, although the first thing I did was laugh, thus not winning any favor from the child’s mother. But really, when you cut through the bar to take your kid to the bathroom, you take your chances. At this point, Fletch revoked my Martini privileges and switched me to beer.

  Things became very blurry, but I know it was a good time because I engaged in each of The Stupid Things I Do Only When Totally And Completely Sauced…I danced, smoked, and played with matches. The smoking was really more of me dropping lit cigarettes, and the dancing was downright dangerous. Fletch and I were the fattest people there and our “dancing” was a mosh, as it involved us hurling each other around the parquet and ramming our flailing limbs into walls, relatives, DJ tables, etc.208

  Then, sadly, MY wedding came to an end. The rest of our pals knew when they’d had enough, so they all went home. So, we quickly made new best friends and headed to a pub in Lincoln Park that I’d normally avoid with a vengeance. Instead, I took the opportunity to dance209 and to scarf popcorn off the counter anteater-style.

  Somehow we made it into a taxi and got home. Fletch fell asleep in the cab, and upon exiting, I completely fell onto the street. I would have just passed out once we got home, but, unfortunately, I had a couple of chores to take care of first. The dogs needed to go to the bathroom, so I headed out in the rain with them. At some point I must have decided to re-dry my wet hair, because I found a decent sized clump of it I’d si
nged off, although I have no recollection of this and have yet to find the bald spot.

  I was supposed to meet Carol and her family at the aquarium the next morning, and somehow had the presence of mind to leave them a voicemail apologizing in advance for not being able to make it. I was pleased at myself for being so responsible and considerate. After I left the message, I blissfully headed off to bed, wearing a face full of makeup, all my grown up jewelry, and a relatively restrictive girdle.

  Suffice it to say, yesterday was rough, what with my apartment spinning and all.

  But today I felt better. That is, until Carol played me the voice mail I left for her at 1:03 AM. Somehow I thought I had been able to hold it together on the phone. Following is a transcript of the message I left:

  30 seconds of heavy breathing, giggling, and intermittent hiccups (At first Carol thought it was a 911 call.)

  “Oh, heeheehee, I waassshh wayyyting for a beep. But noooooo beeeeeeep. Why don’t you hash a beep on your, your, ummmmmm…celery phone? Noooooo beeeeeeeep, hic, heeheeeheee.

  Um, hiiiiii, itsch JEENNNNNNNN!! It’s thirteen o’clock in the peeeeeee eeeemmmmmmm. Heeeeeeeellllllllllloooooooo! I went to my wedding tonight and it wash sooooo niiiiiiiiiice. Hic.”

  More giggling and the sound of a phone being dropped and retrieved

  “Nannyway, I am calling to telllll you noooooooooo fishies tomorry…no fishies for meeee! I hic, heeeee, can’t smake it to the quariyummm. Maybeeee you can call me so I can say HIIIIIIIIIIIIIII later hic in the day hee hee hee. Call me at, um, 312, ummmmmmm, 312, uummmmm, hee hee hee I can’t member my phone, Hic. Do you know my number? Can you call me and tell me what it isssch? I LIKESH TURKEY SAMMICHES!”

  10 seconds of chewing, giggling, and what may be gobbling sounds

  “Okay, GGGGGGGGooooooodniiiiiiiiiggggggggggggg hhhhhhhhhhhttttt! No fish! Um, how do I turn this tthing off? Shhhhh, calllls’ over. Beeee quiiiiiietttt, hee hee hee.”

  15 more seconds of giggles, hiccups, shushing, and a great deal of banging

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