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Somewhere, thought Jessica McAllister, there are people whose biggest problem right now is deciding between the veal marsala and the coq au vin. She plunged a wooden spoon into the tub-sized aluminum pot and dragged it forcefully through two gallons of simmering beef stew. Those people, she thought, are sitting in the finest restaurants in Manhattan, those with the busiest decors and the priciest menus, every now and then casting disparaging looks at waiters whose obsequiousness fails to measure up to their usual standards.
Jessica took a moment to wipe her hands on her canary yellow Crazy Eddie T-shirt, then continued with both her stirring and her daydreaming. Coolly, she thought, they lean forward to smooth their wool Sonia Rykiel skirts. They cross and uncross their legs to show off their unscuffed Joan and David pumps, they run their tongues over their Clinique lipstick every few minutes to make sure their makeup is still perfect. Or, in the case of the men, they throw back their heads and let out hearty laughs that say that even though they have made it to the top, they haven't lost their sense of humor. Meanwhile, they chuckle over the executive vice president's faux pas at that afternoon's meeting, or sigh over the difficulty of securing tickets to Les Mis or Phantom.
Somewhere, thought Jessica McAllister, there are such people.
With a loud sigh, she looked around the kitchen to compare her daydream of how life could be with how she was spending the twilight hours of this gray, rainy Wednesday in late September. Here she was, slaving over the proverbial hot stove, trying to stretch dinner for three into dinner for five, hoping that those extrachunks of carrots and potatoes she had craftily slipped into the stew pot would manage to pass themselves off as beef.
As usual, there were more toys strewn about the house than in a Fisher-Price warehouse, so much bright yellow and red and blue that the first floor of the house resembled a kindergarten. That was just the beginning. Thanks to her three-year-old son, Sammy, at the moment entranced by Sesame Street's enthusiastic celebration of the letter F, the top of the kitchen table had been converted into a collage of grape jelly, blue Play-Doh, and Day-Glo orange poster paint.
"If they could see me now," Jessica muttered.
By "they," she meant the men and women she had worked with for nine years at Klinger-Wycoff, one of the country's largest pharmaceutical manufacturers. Those other marketing types with whom she had conducted probing consumer interviews and crunched numbers and written reports and suffered through interminable meetings and relaxed with a couple of beers and those teensy-weensy cocktail hot dogs after work, all a mere ... Good lord! Had it really been three and a half years already?
Using her son's age as a convenient measuring tool, she realized that it had indeed been that long since she had started every morning promptly at 7:20, plugging in Mr. Coffee and beginning her precision-timed routine of showering, blow-drying, dressing, and making up. At 8:20, she kissed her husband David good-bye and floated down fifteen stories to the lobby in the sleek wood-paneled elevator, looking like a Savvy cover girl.
That was how the people at Klinger knew her. As the career woman. The climber. The whiz kid who was going places, armed with her Barbara Walters-style interviewing skills and her uncanny ability to read between the lines. Back then, Jessica was precisely what every woman of the seventies who was worth her salt was supposed to be.
She had joined the business world after four years at Swarthmore College, confident that she was at least as sharp, aggressive, and committed as her male counterparts. And it hadn't taken her long to earn the respect of everyone she dealt with. She reveled in the knowledge that she could hold her own in a competitive and demanding world--one that her mother's generation had labeled "a man's world."
Ah, yes. The old Jessica, she thought, throwing caution to the wind and dumping a hefty teaspoonful of salt into the stew pot just for the heck of it. That Jessica, the old one, wore elegant tailored suits. She would never have been caught dead wearing a Crazy Eddie T-shirt. Or a pair of cotton pants with an elastic waistband that she hoped would allow her to fit into the garment even after she tortured herself back into model thinness once again, whenever that would be. Or using the rubber band from a bunch of broccoli to tie back her blunt-cut, light brown hair, thankfully marred by only a few strands of gray.
Then again, the old Jessica hadn't had a child.
As always, thinking about her son that way, in the abstract, elicited a rush of emotions. They ranged from intense, all-encompassing love to bewilderment over how such a small person--someone who had never even heard of the I.R.S.--could have had such an incredibly overwhelming effect on her life.
She thought back to when she was in college, majoring in Economics, a cocky senior hell-bent on taking on the business world. How differently she had seen things then! In her Women in Literature course she could remember having been annoyed whenever the discussion turned to the role of motherhood. That was one issue for which she had had no patience, no sympathy. Why couldn't a woman who chose to have babies just stake out a corner of her Wall Street office as a play area, in which happy, gurgling little Joey or Josephine could play quietly hour after hour while Mommy orchestrated unfriendly takeovers?
Now, of course, she realized that having children, being the person who was ultimately responsible for the life of another human being, was what created the real differences between men and women. That responsibility was something that no father, no baby-sitter, not even the most devoted full-time housekeeper, could ever fully understand.
It was only now, in fact, with a three-year-old son of her own, that Jessica was beginning to comprehend what it all meant. The changes--physical, psychological, and everything in between--that motherhood wrought.
Yes, Sammy was wonderful. Cute beyond belief, his very being so wonderful that it was often difficult for her to digest the magnitude of that wonderfulness. And she had no regrets about her decision, some four years ago, to take a leave of absence from her job to take care of him.
Her leave had started out as a professional, no-nonsense six weeks, just long enough to set things straight before resuming her old life again. She had had no trouble deciding to extend it to six months. That sounded much more reasonable, enough time to catch all those "firsts": the first smile, the first time rolling over, the first time grasping a toy. Now, of course, it looked like that "leave" was about to stretch out to six years.
Now, Jessica and David McAllister even owned a house in the suburbs. It was a funky little house, one of those "handyman's specials" that would one day be wonderful. At the moment, however, it was not quite to that point. Jessica was quick to remind herself of its incredible potential, trying to wriggle away from the bad mood that was threatening to descend upon her as she stood at the stove, feeling more than a little bit sorry for herself.
You only moved out here a couple of weeks ago, Jessica reminded herself. You've got to start thinking of living in this house as a challenge. She peered at the runny beef stew she had been stirring for what seemed a small eternity, hoping for the magical appearance of gravy. She had a vague recollection of something her mother had once said, a golden tidbit about the miracle of cornstarch.
You and David have only been out here for two and a half weeks, she thought. Eighteen short days. Bravely she clung to the words of Lloyd Nolan, the real estate broker who had found this little jewel for them, ferreting out what was certainly the only house on the North Shore of Long Island that the McAllisters could afford. He had been most sympathetic to their quest, this search for a new home for two refugees from New York, something that could accommodate their shift from a carefree, fashionable Manhattan couple to a family, that sacred nuclear unit in which baby made three.
"You know, kids," the unctuous man had said, slapping David on the back with one hand and fondling Jessica's shoulder with the other. "When you're dealing with a property in a town like Sea Cliff, it's not what you buy, it's what you do with it."
But what the house still lacked their new hometown more than made up for. This seaside village was one whose name invariably shared sentences with words like "quaint" and "charming," largely because of the multitude of Victorian houses that was scattered over the cliff. And its reputation contended that the residents were as varied and as interesting as the houses. Of course, it was too soon to have met anyone yet.
The fact was that out here in the suburbs, there was relatively little opportunity for meeting and greeting. What a contrast to city life, where just walking down the street had always made her feel connected, like a citizen of the human race. Despite her expert rationalization, she felt an unexpected stab of loneliness.
She hoped it wouldn't be long before new people would ease into her life. But for these first weeks, it had been just the three of them, Jessica and David and little Sammy. They were lone pioneers feeling their way in a strange new place, grappling with garbage pickups and gas meters and varieties of bugs she had never encountered before--things that were as alien to city people as exposure to nature had been to the homesteaders who had conquered the wilds of Oklahoma and North Dakota.
Which was why David's announcement that he had invited their next-door neighbors for dinner that very night was so momentous.
Jessica only wished that she had had a bit more time to prepare for it. The beef stew still looked like something that would best be served in army helmets. Once again she considered her mother's tip about cornstarch. Violet had been wrong about so many things; was this something she could trust?
The clock said it was time to take definitive action, so she reached for the yellow box and cavalierly shook in some of the white powder. Meanwhile, from the living room came the sounds of Ernie and Bert listing their favorite words beginning with F.
"Fig, fix, fox," said Ernie. "F is for frankfurter, F is for fun."
"F is for fast food," Jessica muttered, punctuating her statement with a loud sigh, wrestling with feelings of defeat as she watched the cornstarch turn into brown, cement-like lumps.
"I see you've got everything under control. Hey, what is that, anyway?" David McAllister came bounding down the stairs, popping into the kitchen and peering over Jessica's shoulder. He was buttoning the cuff of a blue Buffalo plaid shirt, part of the casual après work outfit he was donning, along with his casual après work personality. She barely glanced at him, at the moment unmoved by his brown eyes, his thick dark hair in need of a trim, and his swarthy good looks that in earlier, more romantic days Jessica had likened to those of a pirate.
"Oh, no, Jess," he said with a groan. "Not beef stew."
She sighed impatiently. "Considering that I had less than two hours' notice that the Durhams were coming..."
"Denholms, Jess, Denholms. Pronounced like the jeans. Durhams are cows. Jim and Lorraine are not cows."
"Well, whatever they are, they should just be glad they're not having hot dogs and Cheerios, like the Galloping Gourmet over there."
With her chin, she gestured toward their son. Sammy was lying propped on his elbows, his little face turned up reverently toward the television screen, mesmerized by Big Bird's discourse on why it was important to hold a grown-up's hand whenever crossing the street.
"Well, I think Jim might have said something about him and Lorraine being vegetarians, that's all."
"Great.'' Jessica contemplated searing the skin of her husband's cheek with a boiled carrot. "Why didn't you tell me that earlier? I mean, I'm glad we're finally having some people over, but you could have told me a simple fact like that a little bit sooner."
"Well, I didn't say I'm positive they're vegetarians," he said defensively. "Besides, if it turns out that they are, they can just pick at the roots and berries and politely leave the meat on the sides of their plates. What have we got for dessert?"
Jessica cast him a look that was hotter than the carrot she had considered using as a weapon. "Dessert? Gee, how do Jim and Lorraine feel about animal crackers?"
"Hey, that reminds me." David snapped his fingers. "I did mention that they're bringing their two kids, didn't I?"
Jessica cast him one of her best glares.
"Listen, I'll tell you what. I'll just run out to Haagen-Dazs and pick up a couple of pints." Already he had picked up his car keys. "Chocolate and rum raisin okay? Be back in a jiff."
"David," Jessica began, aware that this was hardly the best time for an argument but unable to resist nonetheless, "it would be nice if you could help a little.''
"I am helping," he called over his shoulder. "I'm getting dessert."
As he pulled the back door shut after him, it closed with just enough force to be considered a slam.
Jessica remained at the stove, stirring, stirring. All the while seething, seething. And once again thinking about her mother. She thought about the conversation--for want of a more accurate word--that she and her husband had just had. They had been pretending to discuss carrots and ice-cream flavors, when what they were really talking about was respect and consideration and forgiveness and all those other things that came under the heading of Love.
In the midst of it all was the predictable emergence of her anger. Her anger over his announcement, made upon his arrival home from work, that that morning over the back fence he had invited their new next-door neighbors over for dinner, yet he hadn't bothered to tell her until after five. Her anger over this kind of thoughtlessness in so many other situations, too numerous to count, too trivial to talk about without feeling petty. Her anger over the fact that he hadn't bothered to buy her an anniversary present last June on their seventh wedding anniversary, that he had insulted her best friend Nikki the last time she visited, that he never remembered to throw his socks in the hamper, no matter how many times they discussed the equitable sharing of household duties.
Along with all that had come his anger over her not being precisely what he had hoped for either.
She had heard this kind of interchange before. All her life, in fact. Was it really possible that, despite all her vows to the contrary--made to therapists and friends and her religiously kept journal--she was becoming just like her mother?
On television, Bert and Ernie were back to thinking up all the words they could that began with the letter F.
F is for flower. F is for finger. F is for fair, five, furniture.
Jessica blinked hard, aware that succumbing to the tears that were threatening to fall would only make her stew that much runnier and that much saltier.
Bert and Ernie forgot one, she was thinking. F is also for flee.
"Hi-i-i!" Jessica sang in her friendliest, most Donna Reed-like voice. "Come on i-in!"
She peered over her husband's shoulder, eager to get a look at the small parade of guests filing in through the front door. Her years as a market researcher had made her a fairly good judge of people, and it was by now second nature to make a sort of game out of comparing her first impressions with later conclusions.
First came Jim Denholm, a baby-faced man with a thick neck and a reddish-blond mustache. Underneath his windbreaker, pulled across his bulging middle, was a navy blue St. John's University sweatshirt. He was holding the hands of his two kids, who were looking around shyly.
Behind them, holding back a bit, was Lorraine. She was tall and thin, but gawky rather than elegant, partly because she walked with a subtle slouch. Her features had almost made it to pretty but had instead settled somewhere around plain. Her hair was long, hanging past her shoulders in an Alice in Wonderland style. Despite its girlish style, however, it showed signs of having been colored. The wheat-colored strands glowed with a subtle brassiness, and there was that unmistakable darkness at the center, near the part.
Somehow, Jessica observed, the artificially golden strands just didn't fit with the cowed look she read in Lorraine's face. The nervous way she glanced over at her husband every few seconds, as if to see if she were doing anything blatantly wrong. The slightly embarrassed way she checked her two kids every so often, as if afraid they might be doing something inappropriate.
"Things still kind of crazy from the move, huh?" Jim wore a huge grin and talked much louder than was necessary. He glanced around, surveying the disarray in the McAllister household. His eyes were still fixed on the piles of boxes pushed into corners as he added, "Hey, babe, just make sure the kids don't make it any worse, will ya?"
Lorraine's jaw tightened. "Sure, honey," she said. "By the way, thanks for inviting us over like this." She flashed a shy, grateful smile at Jessica. "I mean, you guys must have a zillion things to do." Frantically she sought out her children, her eyes darting around the room until she located them, crouched in front of one of the many scattered piles of Sammy's toys. "Be careful, kids. Jim Junior, keep an eye on your sister, will you? We don't want you two making a mess now."
"Oh, don't worry about it," Jessica said with a wave of her hands. "At this point, what's a little more chaos? Just make yourselves at home."
"You can just throw your coats on the chair," David was suggesting congenially, eager to show that he was just as low-key as his wife.
Gingerly Lorraine placed a cake pan covered with aluminum foil on the coffee table. "Thanks, but if you don't mind, I'll hang mine up."
Oh, boy, thought Jessica. We're in for a long night.
"So, Lorraine, can I get you something to drink?" she offered, clinging to her role of cheerful hostess. "We have wine and beer...."
"Oh, no!" Lorraine giggled. "I'd better stick to juice. Otherwise I might get silly."
"Yeah, that's right." Her husband, Jim, was quick to agree. He came up behind her and protectively put his arm around her shoulders. "Lolly here is what us guys used to call a cheap date. A couple of sips of wine and she's dancing on the tables.''
Jessica forced a smile. Lolly?
"I'll take a beer, though," said Jim. "That's okay; I don't need a glass."
Somehow, that didn't surprise her a bit. There was something about Jim Denholm that just shouted Old Boy. She had already figured him out: he was the kind of guy who knew everything there was to know about spectator sports, watched more than the average seven-and-a-half hours of television per day, and considered Alf, the Beach Boys, and Howard Stern high art.
"But let me help you," Lorraine was insisting. "I want to put these brownies in the kitchen, anyway."
"Oh, you brought brownies? How nice! You shouldn't have bothered.'' Especially since we have more ice cream in the house than the Good Humor man.
"Oh, it's no bother at all. I love to bake. Besides, whenever I'm invited to someone's house, I hate to show up empty-handed. It's so rude, don't you think? I'll just bring these into the kitchen, and then I can get started on giving you a hand...."
"I can take those, Lorraine. Really." Jessica found herself having to draw upon every lesson in assertiveness training she had ever studied in the pages of Cosmopolitan. "It's absolutely no trouble. And I don't need any help. Everything is pretty much ready. Here, why don't you sit down in the living room, and I'll be with you in about two seconds."
Sammy, meanwhile, was getting along great with Jim and Lorraine's kids. Stacy was about his age and, much to her credit, she was hampered only minimally by the fact that she was dressed like a doll in a frilly, lemon yellow dress, decorated with tiny pink flowers, and dotted with bows, bits of lace, and a few other varieties of froufrou. Her white socks were edged with yellow eyelet, and each of her black patent leather shoes was decorated with a precious pink rosette. In her fine, golden hair was an oversized pink satin ribbon, the exact same shade as the flowers in the dress fabric.
Her older brother, Jim Junior, was about five or six years old. He had a Dennis the Menace look about him, complete with cowlick, freckles, and the unofficial uniform of little boys: a red-and-blue striped cotton knit shirt, jeans, and Nikes with Velcro closures. He was thrilled to have two little kids to boss around, so much so that he left Jessica free to turn her attention to the adult conversation already in progress.
"So, you folks just moved out here from the city, did you?" Jim said jovially, banging his beer can down on the coffee table with just a bit too much vehemence. "Lolly and I have lived here on Long Island all our lives. Yup, born and bred."
"Do you work in the city?" Jessica asked politely.
Jim snorted. "Are you kidding? There's no way you'd get me into that filthy, crime-ridden city! Nah, I own a few hardware stores in the area."
"Jim just opened up his third," Lorraine said proudly.
"Yeah, I guess we're doing okay. How about you? You working out here now?"
Jessica opened her mouth to reply, then realized that his question had been directed at David, not her. Men like Jim Denholm did not ask a woman like Jessica, a woman with a small child at her knee demanding apple juice in a whine so high-pitched it could no doubt shatter crystal, about her "work."
Despite this--or perhaps because of it--Jessica was tempted to break into the conversation and explain that while she may look like the Second Runner-up in the Pillsbury Bake-Off, she was really a marketing manager.
But Sammy kept insisting that apple juice was the order of the day. And so she retreated to the kitchen, half listening to the conversation going on in the other room, telling herself that it didn't sound all that interesting, anyway.
"It's true that it's a real pain driving into the city every day, but what could we do?" David was saying in that hearty tone of his that he reserved for social situations. "We just couldn't afford to stay in the city anymore, especially with Jessica not working. So we zeroed in on this area. We ended up shopping around for a house for a really long time. Just about every weekend, in fact, for, what, three or four months? And then we found this real estate agent out here in Sea Cliff, a guy named Lloyd Nolan...."
"Oh, do you know Lloyd?" Lorraine interrupted excitedly. "He found us our house, too! Gee, what a coincidence! Isn't that an incredible coincidence, Jim? Oh, Lloyd's just the nicest man, isn't he?"
Jessica returned to the living room, the fruit of her loins momentarily content.
"That reminds me," she said, more to herself than to anyone else. "Good old Lloyd Nolan still owes us a couple of hundred dollars. When we wrote the check for his commission back at the closing, we miscalculated somehow and overpaid him."
"Well, give him a call tomorrow and straighten it out.'' David sounded irritated.
"I've been trying to get hold of him since the closing," Jessica returned. "It's not my fault he's never there to take my call. Or so they tell me."
She was tempted to go on and on about how the moral standards of real estate agents were somewhere below those of drug dealers, kidnappers, and car salesmen. But fortunately the conversation was already drifting to the ridiculous increase of real estate values in this quaint little town they all called home.
"Yeah, it's criminal, what they're getting for houses around here these days. If Lolly and I hadn't bought our place back before this crazy real estate boom, we never would have been able to live here."
Lorraine was nodding. "I ran into Lloyd a few weeks ago, and he was saying that our house has probably tripled in value since we bought it.'' Suddenly an angry glint appeared in her eyes. "Of course, we'll all have to wait and see what the new incinerator does to our real estate values."
"What new incinerator?" Jessica pricked up her ears. Now that she lived in the suburbs, she was learning that this was the kind of thing you were supposed to care about.
"You mean you haven't heard? There's a plan to build a huge garbage-burning plant across from Sea Cliff. It would be right on Hempstead Harbor. All the towns nearby have been fighting it for a couple of years now.'' Lorraine was speaking with more animation than Jessica had seen all evening. "It's guaranteed to raise our taxes, pollute our air, pollute our water--"
"Lolly,'' Jim interrupted, "you have no reason to believe any of that. Besides, what do you propose we do with all the garbage we create? Eat it?" He looked over at David, chuckling and shaking his head.
"We could try recycling it, for one thing,'' Lorraine returned. "And if they are going to build some kind of incinerator, they could build one that's on a more realistic scale. The one they're proposing is something like ten times bigger than what we need in this area. And burning the garbage practically guarantees that it's going to destroy this whole area. We're all trying to raise our kids in a healthy environment. We don't need some polluting monster like that--"
"Come on, Lol. You're just getting all hotheaded over something you can't do a thing about. You know as well as I do that once the politicians put their minds to something, there's no turning back." He took a large swig of beer, then said, "So, David, I noticed you folks have a Volvo. Ours is an eighty-four. Yours is one of the new ones, isn't it?'
Jessica noticed that Lorraine had lapsed into a furious silence, her lips drawn into a straight little line and her cheeks flushed pink. She was tempted to go over to her and say something consoling. But the truth was that the topic of incinerators had turned out to be less interesting than she had anticipated. Besides, she had been around married people long enough to know that Lorraine and Jim were talking about a lot more than other people's garbage.
So instead, she sat back and observed, finding it an almost pleasant experience to sip the glass of wine she had poured for herself and leave all the work to the others. At the moment, Jim and David were engaged in a subtle competition, the kind of thing that no man would ever admit to participating in, asking question about cars and jobs and personal history.
And then Jim came up with a way guaranteed to win first prize.
"By the way, speaking of cars," he said, spreading his arms over the back of the couch and opening his legs, as if to physically claim a larger portion of the room now that he had the floor, "I forgot to tell you, Lolly. I almost got killed today."
Lorraine cocked her head in a manner that was almost perky. "You did?" She sounded more puzzled than distraught. "What do you mean, honey? What happened?"
"Well, I was driving to the Hicksville store this morning, going the route I always take, down Cedar Swamp Road. It's kind of twisting, you know, and narrow--only two lanes. I was in the Honda, not the Volvo. And I admit it, I was going too fast.'' He grinned, proud rather than penitent.
"Jim!" Lorraine cried. "You know that the treads on the Honda's tires are all worn out! It's always slipping all over the place. How could you--"
"Hey, this had nothing to do with the shape the tires are in," Jim protested. "I hit some sand, and the next thing I know, I go into a tailspin. I whipped around a hundred and eighty degrees. There was a car tailgating me, and another one coming up in the opposite lane. Boy, another couple of feet and there would have been one hell of a crackup."
"Jim, you're talking about this like it was nothing!" Lorraine scolded.
"Aw, all that matters is that he came out of it all right.'' David instantly took his side. "Boy, Jim, it sounds like you really lucked out on that one," he chortled, metaphorically slapping him on the back. "Almost had a three-car accident. That would've been a heck of an accident, too!"
For a few seconds, they were two eight-year-old boys. Jessica was aghast, thinking not only of Jim's car but also of the other two that were almost involved.
"Jim, I've told you again and again not to drive too fast.... "This time, Lorraine stopped herself. She began waving her hands in comic desperation. "Oh, you! What good does it do to tell you anything? You always go ahead and do whatever you please, anyway."
"Uh, I hate to break up this discussion, but I think dinner's ready," Jessica announced. She was glad that the evening was moving along to stage two.
"Yeah, I been noticing that something smells good," Jim commented, rising slowly from the couch.
"It's beef stew. Something I just kind of whipped up."
"Beef stew, huh? Sounds great. Forget about all this health stuff. I'm still a real meat and potatoes kind of guy."
Jessica let out a sigh of relief.
The children were rounded up and, in a moment of true inspiration, seated at their own separate table, where they could do disgusting things with their food to their hearts' content. The adults then indulged in the usual cheerful confusion over who should sit where at the table.
"Oh, look!" Lorraine observed with a giggle. "We're sitting boy, girl, boy, girl!"
Much to Jessica's surprise, the dinner proceeded smoothly. The beef stew was a success, and there was lots to talk about:
the pros and cons of blacktop, the best video store in the area, pruning.
"Well, it sure looks like you guys have got your work cut out for you,'' Jim observed as he finished up his third serving of the very food that, less than an hour before, Jessica had worried might offend him. "This place is still only half done."
"Well, we're using that old technique of tackling one room at a time," David replied. "We've got to finish the upstairs bathroom first, then the kitchen...."
"The nice thing," Jessica commented, "is that we can make everything exactly the way we want it. The tile, the floors, the windows, everything. Because we're doing it all from scratch, we don't have to live with somebody else's choices.
"Most of all, I'm looking forward to building our dream kitchen," Jessica called over her shoulder as she walked in and out of the dining room, clearing away the dinner dishes and bringing out a pot of coffee and Lorraine's brownies. "Putting in everything brand new, exactly the way we want it."
"Gee, we should do that, too," said Lorraine. "Jim, why don't we rip out our old kitchen and redo the whole thing, like Jessie and Dave?"
"Sure. And who's going to pay for it?" Jim retorted. "You gonna go out and get yourself a job?''
"Jim, you know I can't get a job. I have to be at home for Stacy and Jim Junior.''
"Ever heard of baby-sitters?" Jim countered.
"You know as well as I do that by the time we paid somebody, with the kind of salary I could make, it wouldn't be worth it. How much could I make? I mean, what could I do? Be a waitress? A salesgirl?"
Saleswoman, Jessica was tempted to correct her. But this hardly seemed the time for making even a halfhearted attempt at standing up for her feminist principles.
"Besides," Lorraine went on, her anger escalating, "I want to be home when Jim Junior comes home from school. And Stacy's still a baby. I am their mother."
Perhaps Jim felt there was no argument against that point, or maybe he just lost interest. At any rate, he turned to David and said, "So what have you got here, gas heat or oil?"
Jessica reached for one of the brownies she had arranged on a plate and bit into it, ready to commend Lorraine for her baking skill. But as she clamped down on it, she could feel a stricken look cross her face.
"Ummm. Uh, interesting flavor. What is it, exactly?" It was all she could do to keep chewing, resisting the urge to search desperately for a stray paper napkin or other relatively polite means of disposing of the remains.
But Lorraine was beaming. "It's carob," she said proudly. "I know; you were expecting chocolate, right?"
"You've got me there. And, uh, what about this texture? It's kind of ... dense."
"That's the wheat germ. I always throw in a little when I bake. A little extra roughage is good for you. And you know, there's no sugar in that recipe. You'll never guess what I used instead--"
Jessica forced a smile, then gulped loudly as she finally managed to down the huge mouthful she had so optimistically bitten off. "Oh, I know you bakers like to have your little secrets.... Here, would you like some coffee?"
When the coffee was gone and, miraculously, a large percentage of the mystery brownies had vanished, Jessica was not at all surprised that Lorraine followed her into the kitchen, intending to help her clean up while the menfolk were left to continue their discussion of dry rot.
"You know," she said in a conspiratorial tone, leaning over the dishwasher as she loaded the dinner plates, "Jim is always harping on me to get a job. But the truth is, I like being a housewife. I'm not interested in having some stupid career. I like going to the supermarket and keeping my house clean." She turned to Jessica and said, "Don't you?"
"Well, uh, I guess it is kind of fun, poking around in the supermarket when I've got some time to kill...."
"No," Lorraine said impatiently. "I mean, don't you enjoy being a housewife?"
Jessica just stared at her, incredulous. She was tempted to scream: A housewife! I'm not a housewife!
But just then David came barging in, empty pitcher in hand, looking distraught.
"Jess!" he cried. "We're out of milk out there. Jim needs some more for his second cup of coffee.''
Dutifully Jessica took the pitcher and refilled it with milk from the refrigerator while David returned to his guest. For the moment, she was willing to overlook the fact that her husband, normally a rather bright fellow, had momentarily forgotten where they kept the milk. She looked over at Lorraine apologetically. But her new neighbor just returned her look with a blank stare.
She shuffled into the living room, bearing the milk refill. It was all she could do to keep from drawling, "Heah's yo milk, masser. Ah's sorry I taked so long."
"Well, Jessie, this was a perfectly lovely evening." Lorraine reached over and squeezed her arm before following her husband and overtired children out the door. "We'll have to do this again, soon--my house next time. Oh, and before I forget, I want to invite you to the Mini-Mart.''
"I figured you wouldn't have heard anything about it. The Sea Cliff Mini-Mart. It's this big street fair they have here in town, right on Sea Cliff Avenue. They have crafts and food and all kinds of stuff. It's always held the first Sunday in October. Next weekend, in fact."
"Sure," she replied. "Sounds like a great idea."
Already she was wondering about the probability of such an event being rained out.
By the time the dishwasher was chugging away loudly, doing a job she was only too grateful to relinquish to the wonders of modem technology, Jessica was exhausted. These days, she always was by nightfall, wondering how on earth she had ever found the energy to lie in bed and read, back in the days when the demands made on her by Klinger-Wycoff Pharmaceuticals seemed so tyrannical.
She fell into bed while David was still in the shower, drifting off before she even had a chance to decide whether to be polite and wait up for him. But she was a light sleeper, and when he came into the bedroom, she awoke automatically.
Mustering up whatever energy still lingered in her exhausted body, she mumbled, "I sure am glad we're not like Lorraine and Jim. You can tell they just don't know how to communicate."
"What do you mean?" he said. But Jessica didn't bother to answer.