Read an Excerpt
I look around the apartment to see that everything is in place. I’ve rearranged my living-room furniture to make plenty of floor room in front of the television. A stack of classic hot-guy flicks sits next to the TV. On the coffee table, an eclectic array of snacks: port-wine cheese spread and Ritz crackers, three kinds of olives, sliced California rolls, pita chips and hummus, mini quiches, pigs in blankets, chicken satay skewers. Thank God for Costco. I don’t mind cooking, but I prefer to let someone else do the big work and just heat and eat.
The really good stuff is in the kitchen. I bought large bags of all the members of the “ito” family of foods, Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos and Tostitos. Jars of salsa and nacho-cheese dip. In the fridge is a big bowl of French onion spinach dip next to a bowl of veggies, a huge pitcher of my famous green apple martinis and two rolls of chocolate-chip cookie dough.
One thing is for certain: if the five of us aren’t going to be spending Valentine’s Day on romantic dates with gorgeous men, we’re going to eat whatever we damn well feel like, drink copiously and watch fabulous Hollywood hunks to our hearts’ delight.
I’m reasonably sure that everything is organized, and I’m excited about this slumber party. Who needs a boyfriend when you have amazing girlfriends? Frank can kiss my ass.
32, doctoral candidate in Slavic languages at the University of Chicago
Committment-Phobe (read: ASSHOLE)
Likes single-malt scotch and foreign films
Frank and I were together for two years. I thought we were in a really good place, and figured it was only a matter of time before a ring materialized. Until he started looking for teaching jobs. Not in Chicago. I tried to broach the subject of us, but he always managed to dodge it, so I got serious. After all, while I love Chicago, I’m not wedded to it, and I would have considered moving. If he had asked me. Which he hadn’t. So I made the classic mistake of trying to apply passive pressure. I went to a recruitment meeting for the peace corps. Came home and got all excited telling him about the meeting. At which point he was supposed to grab me and kiss me and tell me I couldn’t join the peace corps -- he couldn’t bear to be apart for that long -- and then ask me to marry him instead.
But he didn’t bother to propose. He just matched my enthusiasm and told me how proud he was of me, and that he thought it was a great idea. He said that he was probably going to be moving after graduation, anyway, so it would be perfect timing since, and I quote, “It isn’t like we were ever going to do the long-term thing.” Ouch.
It’s funny how we cope sometimes. Inside I was screaming; outside I was calm. I pretended to agree with him, and over the next few months I started the application process, all the time thinking deep down that any minute he would wake up and realize the error of his ways. But he did not. And then I got accepted, with a posting in Kenya, teaching English. He took me to dinner at Le Bouchon to celebrate and I broke up with him over tarte tatin and espresso, claiming that I had so much to do before leaving that I wouldn’t have time for him anyway. And he fucking AGREED with me. Just like that. Over. So much for passive pressure -- I was halfway to Africa, by God!
I needed to assess. I wanted to take a break from teaching, stateside at least, before tackling a PhD anyway. And a master’s degree in English literature with a concentration in the Victorian novel essentially makes one completely unfit for any other type of employment. And since I hate to ever admit that I’m wrong, I decided that the whole thing was part of a master plan the universe has for me, and accepted the offer. So in a couple months I’m heading out for a two-year Peace Corps tour. This, by the way, is not exactly a smart or peace corps sanctioned reason to join up, and while I’m feeling very satisfied about the decision at the moment, I can’t really in good conscience recommend it. I hate to think that I’d be sending hordes of brokenhearted women out into the world to do community service in third world nations, just to avoid having to look at bridal magazines with unrequited longing.
I wander into my bedroom and put on the new flannel pajamas I bought for tonight’s sleepover -- light pink strewn with red hearts. Matching fluffy red slippers. I pull my sandy brown wavy hair back into a loose bun, and catch the reflection in the mirror. I look about sixteen. Not bad for an ancient thirty-one-year-old. The doorbell rings.
Anne and Beth are the first to arrive, with Lilith in tow. Anne and Beth are arguing about which one of them has had the longer day.
“. . . waiting tables is backbreaking, not to mention mind-numbing, and no one is ruder at lunch than out-of-town businessmen with corporate AmEx gold cards! Hey, Jess.” Anne hugs me.
“Jess, will you please tell my darling little sister that stuffy businessmen eating enormous three-martini lunches at Gibson’s are nothing compared to the picky tastes of the jaded ladies who will make me run all over Barneys for three hours, try on every damn thing in the store and then buy one shirt!” Beth and Anne totally love each other in that we aren’t just sisters, we’re best friends way, and the teasing has a great deal of humor in it.
I hug Beth next. “Don’t ask me to play ‘Whose Job is Worse’ when I just finished having end-of-the-year conferences with a bunch of parents who’ve let their nannies and au pairs raise their ‘privileged’ kids and now blame me for their lazy study habits and lack of concentration.”
“Oh, all of you stop it.” Lilith hugs me and smacks Beth on the arm. We all go quiet at once, knowing that of all of us, she is the one who has it the hardest, and she isn’t complaining.
The buzzer interrupts a round of everyone talking at once, and I go to let Robin in. The greetings begin anew, and I look at my four best girlfriends with a heart at once light with joy and darkened with fear. Two years. Two years is a very long time. It isn’t even that I’m scared about getting through two years without them, it’s what happens when I come back . . . It’s the fear of knowing that what we share -- right now -- will never be the same again. Will they -- and life -- have left me behind?
Everyone gets into their pajamas, and I swear I would have known any of them immediately by their choices. Beth, always the romantic, has donned a flowing white nightgown of soft cotton, with billowy sleeves and a gently gathered tie collar. She looks like a Victorian poetess, with the exception of her curly auburn hair, which she has tamed into two Pippi Longstocking braids. Anne, Miss Practical, is wearing a set of simple gray flannel pajamas with green piping, her chestnut hair in a ponytail. Robin’s blue cotton jersey pj’s are patterned with whisks and eggs, set off by big plush slippers in the shape of ducks’ feet. Artsy Lilith has adorned her generous curves with a vintage set of men’s cream linen pajamas edged in blue satin, and a flowing Japanese kimono–style robe in ivory silk with brilliant scarlet dragons and bright magenta cherry blossoms embroidered everywhere.
The apple martinis come out of the fridge, and we decide to watch the movies in chronological order, so Charade is up first. We’ve all seen the film, allowing for much oohing and aahing over the terribly dapper Cary Grant, and loud moaning by Beth, Lilith and Robin that in a million years they will never be as thin and elegant as Audrey Hepburn. These complaints are deftly punctuated by generous plate refills.
When the movie is over, we take a few minutes to clear the mostly empty snack trays and mix another pitcher of martinis. Back in the living room, Anne sits behind Beth, unbraiding her hair and attempting to French-braid it instead, while Lilith talks about her recent move home.
“It’s just so fucking hard, you know? I mean, he’s dying. No two ways about it, he gets the tiniest bit worse every day and there isn’t a damn thing any of us can do about it. The cancer is everywhere -- his liver, his pancreas, his lymph nodes, his brain. And all day long it’s just me and the nurse, and his pain.” She looks drawn, but resolute as she says it.
“It’s an amazing gift you’re being given, sweetie,” Robin says, an arm around her shoulders. “I know it feels shitty, but when my dad went, it was all of a sudden, a massive coronary. I was here, he was back East, and I hadn’t even been home to visit in, like, six months! You’re getting to say goodbye and be there for him and with him, and love him right out of the world.”
Lilith shakes her head. “I wish I could see it like that. I hate even talking about it, complaining about it, everyone puts this Florence Nightingale spin on things. Aren’t I the best daughter? Giving up my work, moving home, being there for him. But the truth is, I resent the hell out of him for getting sick, and I’m pissed at my mom and sister for pressuring me into making the sacrifices. Fine for me to be the perpetual temp and starving actor until now, but Mom wasn’t going to stop working, Lauren wasn’t going to leave the kids at day care to come home. Suddenly I needed to ‘get over’ my silly little ‘acting phase’ and take some responsibility.”
“Everyone deals in their own way . . . Ultimately I think Robin is right, you’re going to be grateful for this time,” I say.
“I totally agree,” Anne pipes in.
“Ditto,” adds Beth. “You’ll come out the other end with the knowledge that after everything he did for you in your life, you were able to do the most important thing for him when he needed you.”
“Enough depressing talk. I feel like I’ve barely seen you guys in the past three months, and Jess is leaving in, like, ten minutes. I want the entire scoop, everything I’ve missed. Circle up.”
Circling up is our private method of getting the important information out in the open for discussion in the most concise way possible. Each of us gets literally one minute to throw out the big events, no embellishment, no defense, no secrets.
Robin goes first. “Got promoted from the line to executive sous-chef after only four months. Apartment still has termites.”
Beth is next. “Petey had a raging case of worms, which he picked up at Bark Park, but the medication seems to be working. I’m the fattest employee in all of Barneys with the notable exception of Jamal, the security guard in the loading dock, who is six-seven and must weigh four hundred pounds. Luckily, since Barneys would never dream of carrying anything bigger than a size twelve, I’m thwarted in any effort to actually use my employee discount. And all the skinny little women I wait on think they look so great next to me that they buy all kinds of stuff, which is good for my sales record. On the plus side, I’m loving assisting Mara, the head buyer -- it’s much more fun than working the sales floor. She says if I keep up the good work, she’ll take me on full-time, and I may get to go to New York in the spring.”
Anne’s turn. “Miss working at Hugo’s Frog. Tips are better at Gibson’s, but clientele is better at the Frog Bar. Getting ready for a next phase of working life, but can’t for the life of me figure out what that should be. Have had exactly zero dates this year. I’m assuming I’m out of luck until spring, as no one ever seems to start dating anyone midwinter -- it’s too much trouble to leave the house. Wondering if twenty-seven is old enough to be considered a spinster?” Beth takes this opportunity to bash Anne over the head with a handy throw pillow, before gesturing for the circle to continue.
“You guys already know my deal,” Lilith says, and passes the floor to me.
“Leaving in two months,” I say. “Not freaking out yet, assuming it’s the calm before the storm. Got all my shots, paperwork is in order, will be spending my last week up at the cabin with the family, then adventure time. Have decided that if you guys don’t write on a semi-regular basis, I’ll smuggle back some sort of Ebola-type virus and poison your cosmopolitans with it.”
Everyone begins assuring me at once that of course they’ll keep me in the loop about everything, and miss me like crazy while I’m gone. We spend the remains of the night watching movies, eating, drinking, gabbing and eventually, around 3:00 a.m., we make up little beds on the floor of the living room. In the dark, while I’m sure each of us is having her own private déjà vu of slumber parties from childhood, we whisper and giggle until, one by one, we drift into sleep.
Copyright © 2005 Stacey Ballis