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By Jennifer Coburn
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2005 Jennifer Coburn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was the first truly impulsive decision I'd ever made. I'm not sure I can even call it a decision because it would imply that thought or deliberation went into making this choice. It might not even qualify as a choice. It was an instinctive blurt.
Last December when Larry Fontaine told our department that the company was offering elective buyouts for engineers, my hand shot up involuntarily, epileptically. There was only one answer to this question, and it escaped from my lips without a moment of consultation with my brain. Without thought. Like a gunshot signaling the start of a race, I fired the words that changed my identity from mechanical engineer to tabula rasa.
"Would you care to hear the details of the buyout package?" Larry asked with an eyebrow pointing upward like an accent mark. I couldn't tell if he was amused or annoyed that I so quickly embraced the idea of early retirement. Not exactly a scene from the company recruitment videos, but then again, with the recession layoffs in San Diego, hiring new engineers was not going to be a priority for Larry for quite some time. Still, no one likes to think of his workplace as one an employee would leave for what may have been a compensation package of an economy-size bag of Doritos.
It's not you, it's me, I said silently. I've always wanted to say that in a breakup, and thought I might as soon aseveryone stopped laughing at Larry's inquiry.
Larry continued. "Our goal is to identify five engineers in this department who are interested in taking a generous voluntary buyout package so we can avoid layoffs. Ms. Warren's response leads me to believe this may not be as great a challenge as some of our consultants had suggested." His use of my last name let me know without question that he was irritated with me.
He handed everyone in the department a thirty-page proposal which outlined a pay schedule, retirement bonus and an eighteen-month continuation of health and dental benefits. I flipped through the pages pretending to review every section. I didn't want to insult Larry any more than I already had, but my mind was already made up. Regardless of the offer, I would take it. Early retirement sounded a little ridiculous at my age. With just three weeks before my thirty-first birthday, it seemed more appropriate to call this buyout option a late-bloomer's second chance. Or my last chance at blooming at all.
It's funny how the timing on this worked. Just that morning, I was looking in the mirror lamenting the fact that I had absolutely no life whatsoever. I realize when people say this, they're often being dramatic. Perhaps they're having a bad day. Maybe they're a year or so behind schedule in reaching their lofty goals. Sometimes it's just a case of PMS. Not the case with me. I really and truly had no life. I would've welcomed a bad day because it would mean something happened in this otherwise currentless puddle known as the existence of Mona Warren. I would've even welcomed failure because it would mean that I actually tried something.
Last December, I really and truly had no life. No family. No boyfriend. No friends. No hobbies. No passion. No clubs. No style. No look. No skeletons in my closet. No regrets. Just a good car, a huge house, TiVo, and an unmaxable charge card-all fine trappings in Southern California, but no actual signs of life.
I'd been buying my coffee at the same place for the past six months and every morning the guy behind the counter looked at me and asked for my order as though he'd never seen me before. Every morning, I'd tell him the same thing. Iced chai latte with nonfat milk. Then he'd ask my name. I'd tell him it's Mona. And every morning it was the same routine. Even if there was absolutely no one else in the shop, he'd announce my name and look around, wondering who the iced tea could possibly be for. After all, the store was empty in his eyes. "Mona?" he'd shout. "Chai nonfat latte for Mona?" Sometimes I'd make up fake names to see if he'd notice the difference, but he never did. Even when I gave myself outrageous names like Cleopatra or Spartacus, I never seemed to register.
This is not, as one might suspect, the downside of life in the big city. I live on an island that prides itself on being a tight community. An oasis south of downtown San Diego and north of Mexico. Coronado is a posh version of Bedford Falls. Coronado people are always very sure to mention that when something bad-or even unfriendly-occurs it is "over the bridge." A puppy was abandoned-over the bridge. A homeless person begged for change-over the bridge. A sales clerk was discourteous-over the bridge. Because things like that just don't happen in Coronado. The bay and bucks act as a filter, protecting us from any disturbing realities of life.
The freckled clerk at Starbucks always shot off everyone else's name and regular coffee orders, too. Even tourists staying at the Hotel Del Coronado for a long weekend registered with him. Yet every single day, he stared blankly and asked what I wanted. Like he's never seen me before, he asked the same question: "What would you like this morning, ma'am?"
What would I like? To be seen. To be known. To matter. That, a nonfat chai latte, and a life. "Skinny iced chai for Beyoncé," he'd shout five minutes later.
So anyway, I was looking in the gold rococo bathroom mirror that morning in December, impressed only by the fact that I was a perfect sample of extraordinary plainness posing a stark contrast to the ornate frame. Quietly, I reminded myself that in three weeks I would be thirty-one years old, and I hadn't achieved a single goal that I never set for myself.
I looked at my shoulder-length brown hair, neither curly nor straight. My body was not fat, but certainly not thin. It was doughy. I checked out my face, neither strikingly ugly nor pretty. My coloring could only be described as mashed potato with sunspots littered around the edges. I sighed with disgust at the sight of my eyes, puffy with exhaustion far beyond my years. Of course, a little makeup and a hairstyle wouldn't have hurt, but primping always seemed futile. I've seen unattractive women with a face full of makeup and it looks a bit silly to me. Silly and sad, like someone trying too hard to be what she's not.
"Mona Warren," I said to myself in the ridiculously ornate mirror. "You are a mustard stain on a Sears tweed couch." Not even fancy mustard, I silently added. Though my economic status would clearly cast me as Grey Poupon, the rest of me screamed French's picnic-style mustard in the squeeze-top dispenser.
I read every piece of spam I receive because it's the only time the e-mail guy tells me I've got mail. I stared into a mirror that was purchased forty years ago by my dead grandmother, who decorated every square inch of this colossal home. She died nearly a year ago, and I've done absolutely nothing to make this house my home because these two words mean nothing to me. My. Home. If you have no idea who you really are, how do you create a home?
I always envied women in films, especially the classics. Their roles seemed so clear to them and the rest of the world. You can immediately tell what type of people they were by the way they dressed, the way they spoke, and how they carried themselves. They always seemed to have a cohesive presence, whereas I am a thousand scattered pieces that no one has bothered to put together.
Silently, I looked in the mirror and realized, at nearly thirty-one, Mona Warren was never going to be a supermodel. I wasn't even going to be asked to pose with an oven mitt for the Bed Bath & Beyond insert in the Sunday paper. The transformation from duckling to swan was never going to happen. I was never going to be the uber-babe orthopedic surgeon for our pro football team. I was never going to speak seven languages and turn down marriage proposals across the globe. I was never going to capriciously refuse roses sent to my hotel room by a bullfighter named Enrique-or even Harvey. I was never going to stand on a foggy runway deciding whether I should get in an airplane with my Nazi-fighting husband or stay with Humphrey Bogart. I would never tell a man that we'd always have Paris.
What I wasn't going to be, or wasn't going to do wouldn't have bothered me quite so much if I had any idea whatsoever who I was or what I would do.
When I elected for the early buyout in December, I still wasn't exactly sure who I was or what I would do with myself. One thing was for sure, though. I was no longer a mechanical engineer for a military defense contractor, and the world was wide open before me in a way I'd never felt before. I could do anything with my life. I could dye my hair an angry shade of green and write poetry. I live across the street from the Pacific Ocean; I could learn to swim. I could take a trip around the world. The trouble was my poetic license had been suspended long ago, I have no desire to swim, and I have already been to every continent on earth with Grammy. Abroad, I learned that I am invisible on foreign soil, too. I am universally not compelling-even in Italy where I was warned that men would pinch my butt. They pinched Grammy, who cursed at them in Italian, but never once did they go for her nubile companion with the brand-new boobs and orthodontically enhanced teeth.
The truth is that my dreams were as pedestrian as I was back then. What I wanted most was to marry the love of my life, Adam Ziegler, have his children, and spend my free time volunteering at elementary school, cheering for their Little League teams, baking for fund-raisers, hand-sewing Halloween costumes, and learning how to make ceramics. Even as I silently uttered these words, my heart sped up at the thought. I was terrified that someone might hear my terribly unrealistic fantasy and lock me away in a home for the terminally out-of-touch. I know it's not as though I wanted to redesign the space shuttle or cure cancer, but the picket fence fantasy felt that out of reach to me. Because it was.
"So what are you going to do with yourself now, Mona?" Larry asked as we sat in his sterile office. He handed me papers upon papers and asked me if I wanted to have my attorney review them. Larry persisted in his inquiry. "Do you have another job lined up?"
"Kind of," I stammered. "Not really," I corrected. "Not a job job, like this. I'm just going to, I don't know, work on myself, I guess."
Larry's phone rang and he asked if I could wait a moment. That's my specialty, I muttered inaudibly. I leaned back in Larry's mushy leather chair and stared out the window at the ships docked at the bay. I mentally left Larry's office and dared to imagine my life as I hoped it would look by the next Christmas season.
I am wearing a Donna Reed holiday party dress, hanging Christmas tree ornaments with twenty-some-odd friends and neighbors. My hair is rolled into neat retro styled sections, and I am softly backlit at all times, creating a dreamy halo effect. We joyfully sing "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" in a living room crowded with community, charity, and warm mugs of eggnog. Adam, frantically elated with the spirit of the holidays, looks at everyone as though he's seeing them through new eyes, wishes them a merry Christmas, and kisses me passionately.
It's a wonderful life. Okay, it's recycled, but the point is we're happy. Jimmy Stewart, Hollywood, Christmastime happy. And that's a wonderful kind of happy.
"Sorry about the interruption." Larry's voice snapped me back to reality. "I'll tell you, this is a tough time for us." He sighed. "You're fortunate that you don't have to work, Mona. What I'd give to be forty again and have the money to retire."
Forty?! Did he just say he thinks I'm forty?!
"I'm thirty," slipped out defensively.
"Of course, of course," he backpedaled, though it was clear that he really did think I was ten full years my senior. "You look like a college kid, Mona. You seem more mature than other people your age. There's a seriousness about you."
Lack of panache, I silently corrected him.
"I don't know how you'd describe it, but there's earnestness about you, Mona. There's nothing frivolous about you."
They call it boring. Insipid. Vacuous. Dry. Dull. Plain. Vanilla minus the vanilla flavor. But thanks for trying to make it sound like an attribute. Now I feel as though I should schedule an appointment with a cosmetic surgeon for both a facelift and a personality implant.
"I meant no offense, Mona. You seem older than thirty, that's all. You were probably one of those kids they skipped in school for being so precocious. Born older, you know the type?" Larry scrambled to change the topic. "I'll tell you, the things I'd do if I were in your position. I'd grab my wife and go to Maui, open up a bar on the beach and have pig roasts and limbo contests for tourists." He laughed. "Maybe I'd go without her and really live it up."
That's what I love about my Adam. He would never laugh about leaving me on the mainland while he "lives it up." He knows what we have at home is special, and that he doesn't need to jet off without me to experience life. Plus, I think he's Jewish so pig roasts are probably out of the question.
There was so much I needed to learn about Adam before our wedding. I needed to show him how perfect we could be together. I had to win over his friends and family, possibly convert to Judaism, then get him to propose. I needed a serious action plan.
I needed a first date.
Chapter Two"You will absolutely, positively never believe what I just did!" I shouted into my cell phone as I pulled out of my office garage. Sunlight flooded my car as I reached the street, and the cool December air wrapped itself around my skin.
"I have a patient due to arrive in two minutes. May I call you then?" Greta asked. The first truly huge announcement I've ever had was superceded by the needs of the mentally ill.
"When are you going to call me back? I did something so unbelievably not me, I still can't believe it!" I shouted. I glanced at myself in the reflection of a convex mirror in the back of a Shell oil truck. I didn't even look like myself anymore, but this car has always given me a little zip. When Grammy died, I had no reason to get rid of her sky blue Mercedes two-seater convertible. When we used to drive together, she looked like something out of a movie from the era that boasted Technicolor. She wore a silk Kandinsky print scarf over her head and tremendous tortoise shell sunglasses as we drove up the Pacific Coast. "We are two single gals in Southern California in a hot sports car!" she'd exclaim. Every time. Without fail. This is who we were in Grammy's eyes. Two chicks on the open road. A car can do that for a person. Even I felt different in this car. If a car could transform a person, imagine what I could do with a well-engineered plan and no budget? I could completely reinvent myself. If my eighty-one-year-old grandmother with psoriasis and a heart condition could see herself as a babe simply by pulling down her convertible top, why couldn't I accessorize my life and make myself over into the ultimate after girl? Why couldn't I become the woman of Adam Ziegler's dreams? Why couldn't I shift gears and change to the wonderful life lane?
"I'd love to chat, but I've only got two minutes," Greta clipped. "Give me the abridged version."
"I quit my job," I shouted. "Meet me for lunch when you're done with your session? I have much to tell. I'm giving myself an early birthday present-a life."
Greta said, "I'm having trouble hearing you. Can you meet me for an early lunch? You sound distraught."
Distraught? Forty? I am misunderstood by the only people who bother to listen. The only one who sees me as who I really am-who I'm going to become-is the ass of a Shell oil truck. It's a start. A meager one, but a start.
I wasn't lying when I said I had no friends. There's Greta, but she only moved back to San Diego a month earlier. Greta and I met a few weeks after I moved in with Grammy, which was my junior year in high school. We were inseparable nerds, which earned us the nickname Mona and Groana. We were charged with the high crime of being "lezzies."
Excerpted from Reinventing Mona by Jennifer Coburn Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Coburn. Excerpted by permission.
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