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Bitter is the new black, p.9
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       Bitter is the New Black, p.9

           Jen Lancaster

  …I was absolutely faultless. And my termination? Is their loss.

  Having neatly absolved myself from any responsibility, I decide to get to work. Fortunately I transferred my customer database from my PDA to my computer a while back, so I’ve got a huge list of people I can call about job openings. Feeling loads better, I settle into my home office to start dialing.

  Unbelievable. Almost every acquaintance who could hire me has met a similar fate. The few who are still employed are waiting for the ax to fall. Apparently it’s been a brutal couple of weeks for everyone in my industry. I’m at a loss as to what to do next. I’ve already posted on all the employment boards, applied for every single open job for which I’m qualified, and registered with scads of recruiters. In addition, the house is spotless, dinner’s prepared for the next three days, I’ve talked to friends and family, each of my cats has received copious amounts of catnip and chin scratchings, and let’s just say any ice cream in the house is but a memory.

  I’m left with no other alternative.

  It’s time to redecorate.

  I’m outside watering the plants when I hear the scream.

  Fletch joined the Army before college, and the experience instilled in him an icy calm and the ability to maintain a cool head in a crisis. Few things rattle him, so when I hear him shriek, it means he’s lost a limb. I dash down the stairs from the deck, half expecting to trip over detached bits of my beloved.

  “Honey, what happened? Are you OK?” I call.

  I find Fletch standing in the bathroom, mouth agape, staring at the naked wall. Uh-oh. I forgot to tell him about the wallpaper. Or, more specifically, that I removed it.

  You know I live in the world’s coolest pad, right? Unfortunately this doesn’t extend to the bathroom. Fletch and I often debate what it reminds us of—I think it looks like a Scranton, Pennsylvania, Howard Johnson’s, circa 1982, while Fletch likens it to a drug lord’s lair from the Miami Vice set.

  The bones of the bathroom are fine—white tile floors, attractive brushed chrome fixtures, clean marble counters, etc…. and then there’s the wallpaper, obviously designed by a borderline psychotic. The only way to replicate it would be to take a roll of shiny, mirrored cream paper and have a chicken step in black paint and scale the wall like Batman. Next, invite a couple of schoolchildren over and encourage them to finger paint fuchsia-and-teal check marks. Finally, smear it all together with some dove gray Nike swooshes…and voilà! Welcome to my nightmare.

  “I’m giving the bathroom a face-lift,” I tell Fletch.

  “I can see that,” he replies. “What brought you to this decision?”

  “Well, I was kind of bored. I decided we needed a change around here, but since you refuse to float me $6500 for the couch, I can’t do a thing with the living room.”

  “Give the couch a rest already.”

  “It’s OK. I’m totally over it. Anyway, you know how much I despised the wallpaper. We both hated it. I mean, what kind of hostess suggests her guests visit the bathroom in the bar across the street rather than use the one down the hall?”


  “And I realized I couldn’t stand to look at that awful paper for one more minute. From where I stood in the shower, I saw a loose piece behind the toilet so I gave it a wee tug.”


  “And, um, nothing really happened. I pulled a little harder. Then I yanked, and finally a huge section came off in my hands. It was incredibly liberating! I got out of the shower, wrapped myself in a towel, and started ripping. A half an hour later, the walls were totally bare.”

  “Now what?”

  “I’m going to sand down the walls and paint them.”

  He snorts. “You’re going to paint?”

  “Of course! I’m, like, practically an expert. Didn’t I tell you in my Alpha Delta Pi days our pledge project was to refurbish the rec room, and I was in charge of painting?”

  Gently he reminds me, “Jen, they kicked you out of that sorority.”

  “Not because of the paint job. I rocked the paint job. They booted me because of the Sigma Nu wine-and-cheese party.”

  “Do I know this story?”

  “Remember I hated my evil pledge master, Stacey?”

  “Why, again?”

  “She always gave me the dirtiest chores, and I was hazed far worse than anyone else. She talked my pledge sisters out of electing me pledge class president when I SO had it in the bag. Then she assigned me more phone duty than anyone else even though I never mastered the switchboard. When I was supposed to be the chapter’s nominee for Grand Prix queen, Stacey decided I couldn’t do it because my GPA wasn’t high enough, even though I had the most pageant experience and honestly could have won. She constantly singled me out.”53

  “Jen, if I’ve learned anything about you, it’s these things are never one-sided. What did you do to contribute to the situation?” he asks.

  “Well…I started dating her roommate’s ex-boyfriend. Since they hadn’t gone out in over a year, I wasn’t violating any part of sisterhood code, especially since I met him before I pledged. Stacey and her roommate, Lisa, were just spiteful old hags. Anyway, Stacey always wore the same outfit to our functions—ugly checked cropped pants and a weird sleeveless red cowl-neck sweater that clashed audibly with her frizzy orange hair and freckles. I mean it, she wore it to every single party, and it didn’t even look good on her.54 On wine-and-cheese night, I had too much wine and not enough cheese and suddenly writing a check to Stacey for a new set of party clothes seemed like a capital idea.”

  “Which broke the camel’s back.”

  “Yep. The one thing that really got me is the girls who kicked me out were the same ones laughing so hard at the check. What a bunch of two-faced C-U-Next-Tuesdays. Anyway, I had the last laugh when I pledged Pi Phi, especially because the Alpha Delts eventually lost their charter and were thrown off campus. HA! Served ’em right for not having a sense of humor. Anyway, what was my point?”

  “You had a point?”

  “Of course! My point is I’m a really good painter. As soon as you tell me where your belt sander is, I can start smoothing down the walls.” Fletch has hidden all his tools from me ever since I broke his Dremel wheel a few years ago. But how could I resist using something that looked like a turbocharged pumice stone on my callused heels?

  “I’ll get it from storage after dinner,” he says.

  “Kool and the Gang. Hey, now that you’re home, I’m going to take your car to Home Depot to gather paint samples. How do you feel about dark blue?”

  “Anything would be better than what he had.”

  “Agreed. All righty, see you later!” I head toward the door.

  “Hey, Jen, wait a sec. I just thought of something…. You did clear all of this with our landlord first, right?”

  Oh, shit.

  Apparently the gentleman in the paint department really was trying to help me and not just smell my hair. Perhaps if I’d listened to him and bought the deep-base primer, I wouldn’t be on my twenty-seventh layer of Starry, Starry Night blue paint. Every day I put another coat on these godforsaken walls, and I can still see the light bits of the drywall peeking through. Do you have any idea the havoc this has wrought on my manicure? Fortunately yesterday’s interview was a waste of time, or I’d really have been embarrassed by the giant splotch on my arm when we shook hands.

  Everything started out fine—we laughed about the paint smudge, the office was pleasant, my suit was divine,55 and the product seemed OK. Although I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of selling phone book advertising, our landlord has a similar job, and she owns expensive real estate all over the city, so it must be lucrative.

  Prior to meeting, we had a lovely phone interview, so I felt at ease as we spoke. Bob, the recruiter, flipped through a laminated chart while thoroughly explaining the position’s responsibilities. “If you don’t have any more questions about the sales process, I’d like to discuss salary,” Bob said.
br />   “Sounds good,” I said, smiling. I wowed him, no doubt. This job was mine. Come on…big money, big money, no whammies!

  “The base salary is $40,000,” he said as my smile faded. “But you only receive that amount while you’re in the two-week training process.”

  “And then it goes up,” I stated confidently.

  “Um, actually, no. The base is still $40,000, but you only get a portion of it after you complete the training course.”

  “What portion?”

  He hesitated before answering, “$16,000.”

  “So the base is really $16,000.”

  “No, no, the base is considered $40,000 because that’s the figure you’d report on a salary history.”

  “But you receive $16,000 per year once you’re done with training?” I wasn’t trying to be argumentative. I honestly didn’t understand because surely in America you can’t pay an experienced professional with a college degree $16,000. I figured I was missing something.


  “Then why wouldn’t you say the base is $16,000 but you get extra money during training?”

  Bob sat quietly for a moment. I seem to have confused us both. “Listen, this is how we break out salaries around here. No one actually receives their full base salary. It’s offset by commission.”

  “If the number you say the base salary is has no relevance to what employees put in their wallets, why not make them feel really important and tell them their base is $100,000?” I suggested. I noticed Bob’s furrowed brow and white lips, so I decided to change the subject. “Um, maybe we should talk about commission.”

  “Yes, commission,” Bob said, visibly relieved to have escaped our logical loop. “The thing about commission is you won’t get any until you complete the probationary period.”

  “Which is how long?”

  “Six months. But after six months, your income potential is practically unlimited.”

  I bit down on my tongue so hard I tasted blood. Yes, the initial salary is pathetic, I thought, but there must be more to the story because my landlord is loaded. They’ve got to include really fantastic benefits like an unlimited entertainment budget. “How do you handle the cost of taking out clients?”

  “We give our account executives a company credit card for entertainment purposes after they complete the six months, but before then, we do not reimburse.”

  “I see.” I was trying really hard to maintain my cool. “All right, so I understand the team meets in the office at eight a.m. and five p.m. daily. Do you provide a parking pass, or do people just turn in receipts?”

  “You don’t get reimbursed for expenses until you’re off probation.”

  “Which means I’d pay $30 in parking fees on a daily basis.” I quickly crunched the numbers in my head. “You realize that’s almost $4000 out of pocket, don’t you?” Funny how I can never do math unless it directly impacts my pocketbook.56

  “You—you can write the amount off on your taxes,” Bob stuttered.

  “How about medical insurance and 401(k)? Surely not another six-month wait?”

  “Unfortunately, yes, because—”

  “Bob, exactly what led you to believe I’d buy your bait and switch? What made you think, ‘Hey, this girl is a sucker’? Can you please help me understand what prompted you to waste my afternoon for a job which shakes out to approximately $1000 per month, or $250 per week, before taxes and without benefits? Bob, I’d really like to know so that I can remove that section from my résumé.”

  “As I stated earlier, you have the opportunity to earn big money after the probationary period.”

  “Unfortunately, I cannot spend the next six months living on a salary below the national poverty line. I don’t see how anyone could.”

  “You’d be surprised how many people take this job,” snapped Bob.

  “Well, I won’t be one of them. Thanks for your time, Bob, but if you’ll excuse me, I have a bathroom to paint.”

  I can remember when the phone used to ring with fabulous job offers. And now…not so much.

  Ring, ring, ring…

  “Mr. Banfield, I’m sure death is a growth industry…. Uh-huh, I understand…. Regardless, I just can’t see myself selling funeral services…. No, it’s not a ‘corpse thing.’ I feel I lack the emotional capacity to deal with those in mourning…. I appreciate your contacting me, and I wish you the best of luck with your search.”

  Ring, ring, ring…

  “Jack, I don’t think you’re hearing me. I guess I need to be more direct. How about this? I’d rather sear my own eyes out with burning hot coals than sell life insurance door to door…. No, I’m not willing to consider accidental death and dismemberment insurance, either…. OK, then, thanks for calling.”

  Ring, ring, ring…

  “Yes, Wally, it does sound like a ‘hella good’ opportunity, and I’m flattered you thought of me…. The problem is, I have no plans to move to Tunica County, Mississippi, in the near future…. Um, no, I guess I wasn’t aware of the thriving casino boat industry down there…. No, no, that doesn’t sway my decision…. Nope, not even if you throw in free passes to the buffet…. Aren’t you sweet? I hope you keep rollin’ sevens, too.”

  My parents arrived this afternoon because they’re flying to Hawaii from O’Hare airport first thing tomorrow morning. We’re up on the deck enjoying the setting sun and mild October temperatures.

  “I can’t believe you guys are flying already,” I say.

  “Pfft,” my mother replies. “I’m not letting a bunch of kooks ruin my trip.” Of course. America wasn’t hit on 9/11 because of radical Islamo-fascist ideology; we were attacked specifically to mess up my mother’s vacation plans. Fortunately, she refuses to let the terrorists win.

  “There was a picture of the hotel where we’re staying on the cover of the New York Times yesterday. On a mass expanse of sand, there was one person in a lawn chair,” sighs Big Daddy contentedly. My father hates crowds.

  “I really think this trip is a terrible idea. I’m very concerned about the both of you being on a plane,” I press.

  “Oh, Jennifer, you’re being ridiculous. Everything will be fine,” my mother says. See what I mean? Things are fine because she says so. She won’t let those pesky armed National Guardsmen lead her to believe air travel is anything but ducky. Noni, Mom’s eccentric Sicilian mother, was exactly the same way. Everything was a statement of fact, regardless of the amount of evidence to the contrary. For example, because Noni hated artificial ingredients, she held a grudge against General Foods. She’d tell us she could make General Foods burn down if she said it three times. Of course, she’d only say it twice—she didn’t want to abuse her “special powers”—so we were never able to prove her wrong.57

  “Anyway, enough about us,” she continues. “What’s happening with you two? I kept expecting to get a call when you were in Vegas over Labor Day. I had my bags packed in case you decided to elope!”

  “Fletch?” I ask.

  Glancing at his watch, he replies, “Eighteen minutes.”

  Frankly I’m shocked she lasted that long.

  “Every time you bug us, we postpone the engagement one month. As it stands now, don’t expect nuptials till fall 2026.”

  “Fine, I won’t pressure you.” Yeah, right. “Anyway, I love what you’ve done to the bathroom. With your crazy work hours, when did you have time to do it? It looks like you spent day after day sanding and painting.”

  Fletch starts to answer, but I interrupt. He’s been warned not to talk about my layoff since I’ve yet to break the news to my parents. But I’m afraid he’ll slip up and mention I’ve got NOTHING but time now. “Last weekend,” I say quickly. “It went really fast. The walls were sized, so the paper peeled right off. Then I used a deep-base primer, so I got it done with just a couple of coats.”

  I covertly place my hand on my nose to see exactly how long it’s grown. I hate lying to my parents. But for all her good qualities, my mother tends to obs
ess, and I don’t want her worrying about me when she should be drinking out of hollowed coconuts on deserted beaches.

  “Speaking of bathrooms, I’m going to visit yours again right now,” she says, placing her soda on the table. She heads down the stairs.

  Quickly, I turn to my father, “OK, Dad, here’s the deal. I got laid off two weeks ago. Everything’s fine, and we have plenty of money. I’m interviewing and expect to land something soon. But I’m not telling Mom until you guys get back.”

  Big Daddy takes a long, bracing pull of his Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks and considers what I just said. After a pause, he says, “Thank you. Airplanes don’t carry the amount of Scotch it would take to drown out the sound of that woman fixated on something. Christ, she’s still yammering about the time in 1973 that I was supposed to—”

  “Excuse me, Big Daddy? Don’t you have anything to say about my layoff?” I ask.

  “Yes. You have no income. Remember what I used to tell you when you were a little girl? ‘A fool and her money soon part.’ Current-day translation? Stop pissing away your assets at Bloomingdale’s,” he replies. Fletch bursts out laughing, and he and my father toast each other with their cut-glass tumblers.

  As much as I adore both of them, I’m not thrilled when they get together. Fletch and Dad are so much alike it’s almost scary. They’ve both got dry, sarcastic senses of humor. They both exhibit their military roots by agonizing over their hair length (always too short), their shoes (polished to a liquid sheen), and properly folded maps…and just try to pull the single-malt out of either of their kung fu grips. The day Fletch dashes to the bathroom with a fresh cup of coffee and the newest issue of Consumer Reports, I am moving into the guest room. And when he begins sporting a belt AND suspenders? It’s over.58

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