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Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment

Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment

by Suzanne Guillette

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People who don't have embarrassing stories are untrustworthy. Or at the very least, they aren't telling the truth.
-- Suzanne Guillette

By your own definition, you are very, very trustworthy. After all, you are the kind of person who spills pasta sauce down the shirt of a famous writer you're trying to impress. You are the girl who, when taking a new


People who don't have embarrassing stories are untrustworthy. Or at the very least, they aren't telling the truth.
-- Suzanne Guillette

By your own definition, you are very, very trustworthy. After all, you are the kind of person who spills pasta sauce down the shirt of a famous writer you're trying to impress. You are the girl who, when taking a new mentor out for a fancy lunch, forgets to bring cash -- or a backup credit card. You are almost thirty, an unemployed writer, recently un-engaged from your fiancŽ of several years, and in all your naivetŽ can't foresee that mixing the personal and the professional will bring you mortifyingly disastrous results.

You are Suzanne Guillette, the author of Much to Your Chagrin, a smart, hilarious memoir of how chronicling the humiliations of others helped her come to understand and accept herself.

Guillette was twenty-nine and the proud owner of a freshly inked MFA when she began to work on her first book -- a collection of embarrassing moments gathered from family, friends, coworkers, and strangers on the street. Stories poured in about every possible type of gaffe, from wardrobe malfunctions (widespread) to romantic misunderstandings (ditto), and from office faux pas (common) to bodily fluid mishaps (distressingly common). Everyone Guillette talked to was enthusiastic about her clever project -- and no one more so than Jack, the wry, handsome literary agent who Guillette thought might just be her soul mate.

But as time marched on, Guillette began to see that the tales she'd been gathering were nothing compared to her own moments of shame. Like her increasingly frequent need to sneak out of work (at a health agency, natch) for a "quick smoke" to settle her nerves. Or her stubborn ability to ignore the reality that her fairy-tale romance with Jack was imploding in a truly spectacular fashion. When Guillette accepted that the story she was meant to tell was not others' but her own, Much to Your Chagrin was born.

Told in a unique and captivating voice, punctuated by the embarrassing stories she collected, Much to Your Chagrin follows one woman's discovery of what it's like to finally feel comfortable in your own skin (even while accidentally exposing yourself to your elderly neighbors). Raw, honest, and brilliantly funny, it is an extremely personal memoir about the lengths to which we human beings sometimes go to conceal the parts of ourselves that we are least willing to admit are true. Forget the stuff we keep from the world -- it's what we hide from ourselves that is of greatest consequence.

What is your most embarrassing moment?

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Fresh out of graduate school with her MFA, Guillette has big plans for her literary life in New York City. Her first book will be about people's embarrassing moments, an idea her newly found agent, Jack, enthusiastically supports. Her relationship with him moves beyond the professional into a steamy flirtation, carried on while she has a steady boyfriend. As her love life heats up, it saps her concentration and writing time. Soon, she finds herself dealing with the stress by smoking and drinking far more than is healthy and prudent, especially because she works at a nonprofit health agency. Despite her problems, she continues interviewing anyone willing to share his or her embarrassing moments. Guillette tells her story with wit and honesty, capturing human weaknesses, including her own, that range from bathroom problems to spilled food and credit card rejections. But this self-discovery memoir of a 30-year-old facing romantic problems may have limited appeal. While readers may admire Guillette for her candor and writing skill, libraries on tight budgets might want to pass on this one.
—Nancy R. Ives

From the Publisher
"A steadily absorbing, delightfully if squeamishly honest memoir, no less comic than it is melancholy, it demonstrates with great effect that to be human is to be sadly mistaken. The real scandal, the real embarrassment, this book beautifully reveals, is discovering what a stranger one is to oneself." — Phillip Lopate, author of Two Marriages

"Much to Your Chagrin is the most unique memoir I've ever read...You will read it in one gulp, frantically turning the pages as if your life depends on them (and perhaps it does). Of Suzanne Guillette, you will say, repeatedly, 'I cannot believe she just admitted that.' You will say, 'How does she know exactly what it's like to be me?' Until she reaches the finish line, you will cheer wildly with the desperate conviction that her ability to make sense of her own struggles will allow you to make sense of your own. This book is absolutely essential." — Diana Spechler, author of Who by Fire

"Guillette's choice to write her memoir in the second person is a bold move — but one that pays off in rewarding and unexpected ways. In creating a bit of distance from the reader, she is able to achieve a surprising intimacy." — Cathy Alter, author of Up for Renewal

"This is a delightful, laugh-out-loud ride through some really embarrassing stories, and it'll make you feel a hundred times better about your own embarrassing stories!" — Touré, author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid

"Much To Your Chagrin is...beautifully written and compulsively readable, and it begins with a familiar trope: a pretty, ambitious young woman meets a powerful man and attraction sparks. We all know how the story should end, because we've heard it a thousand times, but once the stage is set, Suzie embarks on a much more ambitious project—showing how that familiar romantic comedy scenario actually plays out in real life, in raw and searing detail. She offers us a critique of all the false stories we've ever been told about love—but she offers it in the bravest, simplest, and most dangerous way possible: by telling the truth about her own story." — Carey Wallace, author of The Blind Contessa's New Machine

"Much to Your Chagrin is entertaining and engaging and makes you fervently wish to never be the person who flashes her elderly neighbors or poops on the front seat of her car." — Venus Zine

"Guillette's book is more than just the story of one woman's success over a personal crisis, it is a fingerprint of a moment in time and a mirror in which readers, men and women alike, can peer into to see reflections of their own lives." — PopMatters.com

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You're late -- again. You still haven't decided for what it is you are late, but that hardly matters. You are just late. Looking frantically around your room, you know what you should do, although that thing about follow-through has really been biting you in the ass lately.

You are getting dressed and packing bags and watering plants -- all at once. The phone rings, and you ignore it. You are half naked, topless in a red prairie skirt, holding a glass of water in one hand and your toothbrush in the other. Looking at both hands, full, then over to your nosy senior citizen neighbors who seem to appreciate it when your blinds are up, especially at times like these, you smile and put the toothbrush down. It's not the old men who stare most often. It's the ladies with their high-waisted shorts and tight gray curls. There is all of Edison Avenue -- a narrow Bronx street lined with nondescript telephone poles and empty, turned-over trash cans -- between your bedroom window and their three porches, which are side by side but not connected. You always think you're safe to be naked and they always think they're safe to gape. You never do seem to close those blinds in time.

As you empty the glass into your indoor window box, careful not to douse the leaves of your precious and temperamental African violets, you reach blindly toward the cord and yank it until the blinds fall far enough to cover what would most likely be a view of your boobs. You do the same at the other window, and now you are safe, safe to figure out what the hell it is that you are going to do once your bags are packed and your top is on and you are settled into the front seat of your beat-up car. But the knowledge of what you should do is already fixed in the pit of your stomach.

You've always been adventurous, often resulting in a hesitancy to make plans with too much notice, much to the chagrin of your more organized and routine-driven friends. "Maybe" has become your favorite word. Of course, you like routine, too, just not the kind that gets in the way of your dazzling, if fanciful, world of possibility. Spring, with its budding flowers and warmer airs of optimism, is all around you, and you live in this world more often than not.

Option A is driving straight to Boston, where you will spend the weekend with Annabelle, your older sister, and be her date at the wedding of her friend, who also happens to be the ex of one of your exes. And yes, you both dated him at the same time, for a period of weeks until he stopped calling you and you started seeing them together everywhere. (Your attempts to ignore them would have been successful if she wasn't so damn nice.) After spending five years with him, she broke it off, found a new man, one you've never slept with, so you consider you and her to be cool now. You will drink a lot of wine this weekend, and possibly smoke cigarettes, too, so you wonder if, in the best interests of your lungs and brain cells, Option A shouldn't be postponed as long as possible. OptionB would be a perfect, ready way to delay the debauchery that seems to be picking up new momentum now that it is May and you have fallen in love with New York again, now that it is one week from graduation and you have broken up with Ondra, your sexy, albeit long-distance Czech lover, via a transatlantic phone call and the invaluable help of a Czech-English dictionary. Yes, Option B would be perfect, if only your head were in the right place.

Option B consists of stopping by campus first, to meet with a literary agent; it's part of a program set up by the directors of the writing program you have been attending for the last two years. The format is open, though -- you could easily skip off to Boston with an apologetic phone call. Last week, as part of the same program, you met with another literary agent on campus. She was a very pretty brunette with perfect hair who was solid and striking and demure. While you are not demure (as you once overheard a former supervisor say, much to his embarrassment -- yes, there was a red face -- because you knew from his leaned-in kind of smile that he liked you anyway), you rather enjoy this quality in other females. "Demure" is Southern, high-necked sweaters, pearls, someone who knows when to keep her mouth shut. "Demure" is lady. You are not a lady, not exactly. But your favorite word in the Italian language is, indeed, "donna." Sometimes you relate to this word, feeling the heft of your thighs in shorts when they stick to a vinyl seat or the greasy, bony flatness of your décolletage in V-neck sweaters. Today especially, with your curves and your flowing skirt, you are all woman.

Which is precisely why you should not choose Option B. You are not comfortable yet in this skin. You are getting there, but are still miles away from understanding what, exactly, this means, to be a woman.

Outside, the sun is shining and the sky is blue and limitless, beyond the brick houses, beyond the American flags on the porches, and yes, even beyond the slack telephone wires. The ladies are sitting on their identical suspended white benches, heads now turned toward one another. Now that you are outside, they pretend like they don't even know you're alive. Their profiles are so strong and stark that you feel like you've interrupted something precious, like they are transfixed by their own personal goings-on and aren't at all nosy. Why would they be so intrigued by you anyway? Eddy, the downstairs neighbor, is far more interesting, you think, remembering the time he invited you to a barbeque and you almost went, until you heard a fight erupt in the backyard. His voice rang out, presumably directed at the man who was departing, "Oh, yeah? Your wife's a crack whore, and where's my five thousand dollars?" The next morning, you saw Eddy on the front steps and gave a mostly sincere apology for missing the party, to which he responded, Budweiser in hand, "You missed a gooooood time." Yes, Eddy is surely more interesting than you, some small-boned, nameless blond girl with blue eyes whose bedroom light goes off around nine most nights and who, thanks to two back-to-back, ridiculous-in-their-own-ways long-distance relationships, has barely had sex for the past eighteen months, if you don't count the self-servicing. (And you don't.)

You make a point to look up at the ladies until they look back. Despite carrying a heavy overnight bag and unsuccessfully balancing a cup of coffee, you wave, knowing that this gesture isn't genuine, that this full palm-raising just as easily could have been your middle finger. They nod. Eddy comes rambling down the sidewalk, gut hanging over his cut-off shorts, in his leisurely every-day-is-Sunday swagger, complete only when you notice the cigarette butt dangling out of his mouth. "Hey, doll," he yells at you, as you walk toward him to get to your car. "When're we gonna hang out?"

All is normal.

As familiar, though, as this landscape is, you know you can't stay here forever, and so Option B rises from the rubble of indecision as the winner.

The agent's name is Jack. His is printed above yours, which is scrawled next to the number "1." So you are Jack's first appointment of the day and, even though you aren't focused on writing or your career at the moment, a small thrill washes over you. First.

The fifteen-minute drive from your house had been glorious. Heading through the stretch of the Bronx where there are beach reeds and sun and sky on the right and sterile towers and bleak strip malls and industrial vistas on the left, you'd done what you always do: squinted your left eye and looked to the right, just far enough to enjoy the space and yet not too far to have an accident. The drive is familiar to you, since you've done it many days over the last two years. Sometimes you have moments on this stretch, heading home at sunset, and remembering other moments -- an amorphous stress that went away with the spread of pink clouds, an excited thought of seeing your now-ex-lover that seemed to gain momentum in accordance with this highway's curves -- that were not more or less than any other ordinary moment in your life, but you've had enough of them, on this road, to think that they should add up to something. You shake your head at the implausibility of having memories about the present, in the present.

But that's exactly where you are when you run into the graduate center, dressed in the flowing skirt, gold lamé flats, and a belly-exposing shirt, worried that you might be late. From the information sheet, you see that Jack's meetings are all being held in the front room. You pause for a moment to brush the wisps of your dark blond hair out of your eyes and take a deep breath. Breaths can be long and your thoughts drift to all the fun you'll be having later in Boston with Annabelle, the large iced tea that you will purchase before getting on the road, driving by your favorite bridal shop in town. These are all pleasing thoughts, but nothing is more pleasing than the vision of your perfect silk shift wedding dress and the surest knowledge that you will not have the occasion to wear it anytime soon. You are still relieved, very relieved, to have dodged that bullet.

"Jack?" you say, when you walk into the front room and see a man standing near the far windows. The room -- with its fireplace and couches and lone computer -- is otherwise empty: all the students have gone.

He smiles, big. He's done this before, you think. You walk toward him, your hand already extended, as he says your name back. It is not posed as a question.

You continue to move closer and suddenly the panic has set in so acutely that he might as well have a fuzzy circle over his face, the kind that court TV uses to preserve witnesses' identities. Despite having devoted the last two years of your life to writing, despite the fact that you haven't yet figured out a plan to start repaying hefty loans, you have prepared nothing.

After a minute of awkward, standard pleasantries, he looks at you and says, "We should go outside." Again, not posed as a question.

"Kind of warm in here," he elaborates, loosening his tie.

You turn on your heels toward the door and try to remember what it is that you're trying to sell to him, going over the list of five book ideas in the generic agent-letter you wrote. He has read them, plus your samples, probably recently, and you haven't even considered what it is you might like to talk about. As you hold the outside door open for him, you take in his dress: lavender shirt, with matching tie just one shade darker, well-tailored navy suit. He's tallish, preppy-looking, with green eyes, a full Roman nose, and mid-length dark hair that he tucks behind his ears. You surprise yourself with the thought, So not my type.

Once you've spilled outside to the green lawn and you're both situated on a stone wall, energy comes from nowhere. Maybe it's the sun or the cloudless blue sky. Maybe it's the premise of this meeting that you haven't done crap for. Your head is dizzy and you are buoyed by this feeling that comes up every now and again, a feeling that you are not quite in control of what might come out of your mouth next; yet this feeling, when it surfaces, always seems like the most delightful thing that's ever happened to you. Every time. Something else takes over and you're suddenly saying things that are probably not appropriate, like telling people at a work function about the time you were arrested for disorderly conduct or responding with the exact truth when asked what you're talking about, even when the topic is as off-color as anal sex and you even have the audacity to term it "butt-fucking." Yep, this is one of those times. God help you. No, on second thought, God help him.

"So," he says, a smile poised on his charming face. "The good news is..." He's pausing here, sitting quiet and still for dramatic effect. You look at him, eyes wide.

"...you can write."

Any other day, this might have bothered you and your internal dialogue would have then become really loud, as in, "Uh, duh. You are meeting me as part of the writing program I've been enrolled in for the last two years." But the volume of snarky-you is turned very low today and so all you say is, "Thank you," but not in an overly grateful way.

At this, he says with a postured familiarity, his head cocking to the side, "So tell me..."

When you were a little girl you had friends, more than one, who would ask you during sleepovers, just before bedtime, "Will you tell me a story?" There was a quiet confidence then, your head not wanting to rest on the hard floor of another family's house. And you, so happy to have been asked, so unfamiliar with taking center stage because at your own home you were too busy observing the laundry list of why the needs of everyone else in your family all seemed so much greater than yours, you would say with a cowgirl's swagger, "Pick a topic. Any topic." And whether it was butterflies or brothers or barbeques, you would talk, talk, talk, noticing as your friend drifted off to premature sleep -- almost immediately. Yet you continued on because the story was far from over.

So when Jack, hands folded carefully in his lap, asks you about boxing -- the topic on which you wrote your thesis -- you talk nonstop. The stories come so easily, are so rehearsed in your head that this process, entertaining people, doesn't require that all-obstructing presence of thought. You spew details: the all-women's gym in Boston, with the teacher whose occasionally soft voice belied her combat boots and weathered face; the unusually sunlit gym in Prague, where no one spoke English except for one adorable young man with green eyes, and his was pidgin at best; the beloved Bronx gym, a mom-and-pop operation whose walls were varnished with years of dried sweat, where your sparring partner was a senior citizen named Willy, who always amused you with the same opening line, spoken in his faint Puerto Rican accent with a mild lisp: "You gonna kick my ass-th today?"

Jack laughs in all the right places. In the offering of more details, you wonder if your stories are really that good, or if he's just an easy audience. The difference is meaningless to you. If there were to be a transcript for this conversation, it would reveal nothing of consequence -- a laugh here, a "Really?" there. No, what matters, what really matters, is that here you are performing in your über-feminine dress, gypsy earrings dangling, talking about throwing a mean one-two punch and therefore casting yourself -- because who else is going to do this for you? -- as bold, lighthearted, and, yes, a study in contradictions.

On a less inspired day, you might have looked at him from your perch on the stone wall and, with slumped shoulders, squeaked, "Love me, will you?" For now, you are in love with this version of yourself, and this is enough.

Jack speaks authoritatively about the market for boxing books. He's gently pessimistic. "Publishers tend to like them, but they don't sell."

"But the thesis isn't a book."

He purses his lips and even though his mouth is closed, you can see him running his tongue along the outside of his bottom teeth. Jack, whose agency makes a 15 percent commission on deals garnered for his clients, then responds, "Well, what is, then?"

"Well, I'll tell you," you add with a playful exasperation normally not revealed to strangers.

You fly through the other ideas, the ones that Jack is sure to dismiss. There's your fascination with human rights workers, secondary traumas they encounter on the job, and how this potentially complicates the way they see themselves in the world. (Here you are able to drop in the bit about spending a month in Africa.) There's the desire to follow the first U.S. Women's Olympic Boxing Team on their historic journey. (Here you are able to drop in the bit about traveling to Colorado for the sole purpose of attending the USA Boxing Nationals.)

Jack nods and offers occasional feedback, for example, "That sounds...interesting."

But he is waiting for something else, the last idea on your list, the one that was improbable just last week, the one you'd only decided to include at the last minute for the sole reason that people seemed to like it. You have spent the last week telling yourself that this idea -- as dissimilar as it is from all of your others -- is something you could spend a little time with, at least until you figure out what it is you really want to write about. After two years of school, the only answer you can come up with when people ask you what you want to do is, "Uh... write books?"

Jack is patient. While you hesitate, he tells you about his childhood in the Pacific Northwest, sage advice his mother gave him on choosing a college, that he has an unpublished book of his own. In a flash, you see a stark image of the apartment he shared with his ex-girlfriend after college, seeing its loneliness through his eyes, imagining faded white walls that needed paintings, photographs -- anything to fill them up. When Jack has shared just enough, you realize you like him and his easy, familiar way. A lot.

So you start from the beginning. This book isn't even your idea. One night, you came home from the gym, stood there in your sweaty clothes, and couldn't wait to tell Davida, your full-figured Puerto Rican roommate with impeccable posture, about your latest gaffe at the gym. This time, it involved a hasty snack before your workout: two underripe pears. You didn't realize that these two underripe pears didn't really agree with you until you were exactly three minutes into jumping rope in the windowless, and therefore stuffy, gym.

Jack looks on with amusement, so much that any vestige of reason has officially evaporated from your mind. Is it you, or is he sitting even more rapt than before?

You jump up in your puffy skirt and start to mime your most recent embarrassing moment.

Almost winking, you say, "I have a lot of these, you see."

Davida has pointed this out, on numerous occasions. In the midst of her trumpet-ringing laughter ("hahaha-haaaaaaaaa, hahaha-haaaaaaaaa"), she told you that you should put together a collection of funny, embarrassing stories. Maybe Colin Powell had one, when, during a very important meeting -- possibly with the Queen of England -- he struggled to keep control of his bowels? Maybe Donald Trump's hairpiece had blown off in the middle of a busy New York street, only to be nabbed by a bichon frise being walked by some old lady? Davida was laughing hard. A novelty book, she said. Funny, embarrassing stories -- something you'd see by the checkout counter of Urban Outfitters. Everyone will be able to relate. She even gives you the title: Oh, Shit!

You're standing before Jack, reenacting the jump-rope scene, and how you blamed your gas on Ron, the older heavy man who was known throughout the gym for his distinctive scent -- and not in a good way. Ron, always working out in his high-water khakis and scuffed loafers one size too big, is one of the nicest people you know. And still, when the knots in your stomach were undeniable, you scooted closer to him while keeping pace with the click of your plastic rope, a completely unprovoked action. He was shadowboxing in his characteristic slow-motion way, and as he was throwing a left jab, his nose wrinkled. Arm hanging, he moved only his head, ever so deliberately in your direction, staring for a long minute before walking away. You felt terrible. Even if you farted in the face of your trainer, he never would have believed it was you anyway. You're a girl, a cute girl, and girls just aren't supposed to do things like that.

You are pleased with yourself, telling this story to Jack and owning up to your uncouth ways. Somewhere far beyond this moment, this meeting, you think you're a riot. Life is not the carefully followed recipe it seemed to be when you were deciding whether or not to break up with your fiancé; no, life is an amusement park, and you have a map of all the fun rides.

Somewhere, mid-pretend skip, you see Jack sitting there. On a mini-scale, it's like your daily walk to the subway, where you just try to get from point A to point B, until one day, small pieces of your everyday surroundings -- fake ivy on a storefront, Art Deco design on the corner apartment building -- emerge in relief, as if you'd never seen them before. Good lord, Jack is appealing. You see him as a world unto himself and you wish you hadn't been talking so much. His chin is arched in your direction. His eyes are open, even smiling. His legs are crossed wide and everything about his body language is saying, "I'm here." There is something in his eyes that tells you that, despite the (presumably standard) engaged face he put on from the start, this is no ordinary meeting -- for you or him. Your need to know more is great.

You stumble a little, end your story prematurely, and sit back down, uneasy with your new awareness of Jack.

"Um, yeah, so... that's how it started..."

His body is close and you see great things, sitting with him on the stone wall on this brightest day. In this moment, Jack is not a faceless audience or even a professional connection. He's actually thinking things right now; you see that in his expression. He has gone somewhere else, and you're certain that he's not making a mental note to pick up his dry cleaning after work.

Jack is good with the dramatic pause. He stops for a minute, with a big smile on his face as he refocuses his eyes on you.

"Look" -- he clears his throat -- "I love it."

This is delightful.

"This could be huge," he continues.

You feel like the time you dove into a hotel pool in Miami and were surprised by a blast of classical music playing underwater.

Jack sees lots of possibility, and even recommends that you look at similar books of compiled stories. His ideas are big and his enthusiasm for your new project, bigger. Was this really happening all because you farted in the gym two weeks ago? To a complete stranger, you have just mimed what it was like to jump rope, have gas, and blame it on the outcast. Oddly enough, you are tickled.

"Okay, then," you say. "I'm going to start collecting stories this week."

The clock is ticking. He's already a few minutes late for his next appointment and so he hands you his shiny black card and says, "Let's get together. I'm away for a couple weeks, but maybe in early June when I'm back."

You thank him, excited. Neither of you can stop grinning.

Copyright © 2009 by Suzanne Guillette

Meet the Author

Suzanne Guillette lives in Manhattan. This is her first book.

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