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If You Were Here

Jen Lancaster

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page












  Chapter Eleven - THE BIG REVEAL

  Chapter Twelve - THE GOLABKI CLUB


  Chapter Fourteen - EAT, PRAY, SHOVE


  Chapter Sixteen - DON’T TAZE ME, BRO

  Chapter Seventeen - SPANISH TILE

  Chapter Eighteen - ALONE, HOME

  Chapter Nineteen - YOU KNOW, LIKE A RAT

  Chapter Twenty - MOSE(Y) GOES TO HOLLYWOOD


  Chapter Twenty-two - JUST VISITING

  Chapter Twenty-three - HAPPILY EVER AFTER



  Nonfiction Titles by New York Times Bestselling Author Jen Lancaster

  Bitter Is the New Black

  Bright Lights, Big Ass

  Such a Pretty Fat

  Pretty in Plaid

  My Fair Lazy


  Published by New American Library, a division of

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

  New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2,

  Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.)

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  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  First Printing, May

  Copyright © Jen Lancaster, 2011

  All rights reserved



  Lancaster, Jen, 1967–

  If you were here/Jen Lancaster. p. cm.

  eISBN : 978-1-101-51447-4

  1. Suburbs—Illinois—Chicago—Fiction. 2. Dwellings—Remodeling—Fiction. 3. Women authors—Fiction. 4. Marriage—Fiction. 5. Chicago (Ill.)—Fiction. I.Title.

  PS3612.A’.6—dc22 2011003171

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  For the man who defined a generation.

  Godspeed, Mr. Hughes.

  Author’s Note

  Dear Reader,

  This is not a true story, but was inspired by our adventures in suburban real estate. However, we quickly came to our senses and realized that buying a crumbling home by the lake was an incredibly stupid, potentially hazardous, ridiculously expensive, and almost-certain-to-end-our-marriage idea.

  We did not purchase the house in this book.

  We moved elsewhere.

  This didn’t occur.




  P.S. I feel it’s important to note here that I love Stephenie Meyer. This might not make sense now, but it will later, I promise.


  I blame HGTV for what happens next.

  Chapter One


  “No. No. Oh, hell, no.”

  I’m standing upstairs in my office when I spot someone in an oversize hoodie and low-slung pants paint ORNESTEGA in puffy silver letters on the flat red bricks of the building across the street.

  Which is a church.

  I imagine the Lord probably has His own way of dealing with little thugs who deface houses of worship, but I can’t just stand here waiting for Him to scramble a swarm of locusts or turn rivers to blood. I imagine He’s got a lot on his plate right now, what with war, poverty, the Sudanese situation, and all those reality-show contestants asking for His divine guidance as they navigate their way through the obstacle course and into the Jell-O pit.

  The other thing is, if He does take notice and sends down hail mixed with fire, it’s going to ruin my lawn. I think sometimes God expects us to act as His emissaries; ergo, I will fix this.

  I press the “indoor talk” button on the intercom system. “Mac! Maaaaac! There’s a tagger outside and ...” Before I can even finish my sentence, my husband, Mac,1 has exited his basement office/lair and flown across the street.

  When it comes to wrongs that need righting, Mac fancies himself a modern-day Batman. I mean, if Batman were pushing forty, with a hint of spare tire around his waist, seven gray hairs, and a job in middle management for the phone company. The truth is he’s more like Dilbert, only with a fully stocked arsenal.

  Back in college, after we became friends, but before we started dating, Mac appointed himself my personal bouncer. Mac thought I was too hung up on being polite, so I’d always find myself cornered by some asshole I couldn’t graciously escape whenever I’d go out. After Mac stepped in, woe be to any guy who hit on me or hassled me, because Mac was right there at my back. Eventually my friend Ann Marie pointed out that I could do—and had done—a lot worse than dating someone so anxious to keep me safe and happy, and we’ve been together ever since.

  Anyway, despite the sixty tons of brick and cement block that comprise our house’s exterior walls, and regardless of the soundproofed, supersealed, triple-hung windows, I can still hear every syllable of profanity Mac hurls at the aspiring gangbanger. I quickly search for some footwear, because I don’t want to run barefoot into the snow to monitor the situation. My dog Duckie has the bizarre and annoying habit of taking
one shoe and hiding it under the covers, so I have to tear through the unmade bed to find my flannel clog’s mate. As soon as I can, I dash downstairs and outside just in time to witness ... nothing.

  Mac’s cheeks are flushed and he can’t suppress his smile. I’ve never met anyone who enjoys an altercation as much as this man.2 “Mia, you should have seen that little bastard try to get away in those pants. He pretty much hobbled himself. Looked like he was running a potato-sack race. By the way, he disappeared into that building.” He jerks his finger toward the dilapidated apartments a few doors down. I hate that complex; they cut their grass only twice last summer, both times at six a.m. on Sunday. “Apparently he’s our neighbor.”

  “Who’s stupid enough to tag a building in broad daylight? And then bravely run home across the street?” I wonder out loud. “Also, if that little shit wants to claim this block in the name of ORNESTEGA, then maybe he should be paying our rent.”

  “Not for long,” Mac corrects. “Pretty soon he can pay our property taxes. Hey, ORNESTEGA,” he shouts in the direction of the six-flat, “you owe us twelve thousand bucks!”

  Mac and I are in the process of buying our house. Rather, we’ve started the process; we’re currently waiting for the results of our appraisal so we can write a formal offer.

  We moved into this neighborhood a year and a half ago. Originally our plan was to get out of the city of Chicago and into the suburbs. Honestly, I’ve been dreaming of the bucolic towns ringing the north side of Chicago ever since I started watching John Hughes movies on VHS with my older sister, Jessica.

  I grew up in one of the bleak and depressing Indiana steel towns that ring the wrong side of Lake Michigan. Jess and I would snuggle into our rump-sprung plaid couch located in the drab ranch house my family shared with my grandmother, located down the street from the mill.

  Jess and I were enamored not only by the characters in the movies, but also the backdrop. We were astounded that people lived so . . . nicely. I guess we assumed everyone had a yard full of rusty patio furniture and broken swing sets, with neighbor kids running around with dirty faces and stained pajamas well into the night.

  We’d spend hours fantasizing about what it might be like to live on a quiet, well-manicured street like Samantha Baker in Sixteen Candles, rather than being within earshot of the clamoring from the blast furnace. While everyone else lusted after Cameron’s dad’s car in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we’d sigh over the darling downtown shopping district filled with Tudor-style pizza joints and charming shops and big, leafy trees. As far as we were concerned, Shermer, Illinois, was Shangri-la.3

  Jess and I weren’t unhappy, and our parents worked hard to make sure we never went without, but aesthetics were never a consideration for them. When we suggested they paint the walls or buy some new couches, they’d tell us we could have a pretty house or we could have a college education, our choice.

  I went from my parents’ rundown ranch to an austere dorm room, to a claustrophobic five-person suite in my sorority house, then to a practically condemned apartment off campus.

  After graduation, Mac and I moved to Chicago together. He had a well-paying job and upper-middle-class parents, so he was in a position to rent a swankier place in the Gold Coast or Lincoln Park, with amenities like doormen and fitness rooms and in-unit washing machines. However, I didn’t have his kind of cash flow, so my options were more limited. Mac planned to cover my share on a nicer apartment, but I insisted I make it on my own. I didn’t want to make a big thing about it, so I suggested he get his de-luxe apartment in the sky4 and I’d rent something more modest.Yet he wanted to be with me, so he agreed to go halfsies on a terrible little studio apartment on a noisy street by Wrigley Field.

  The first time we saw a rat in our grubby hallway, Mac went right out and adopted a cat. Savannah wasn’t much of a mouser, but she did spark our love of pets, and she made us feel not just like boyfriend and girlfriend, but an actual family unit. We lost her to feline leukemia a few years back, but we’ve since acquired both dogs and an entire litter of kittens who’ve proved to be complete and utter badasses, hence their tough guy names like Agent Jack Bauer.

  Mac claims that I’m the tenderhearted one, taking in all these pets, but you should have seen him bottle-feeding the kittens after their mother abandoned them.

  Mac and I resided in a series of cheap, cramped urban dwellings long after we both started making money. I was so used to living beneath my means that it never occurred to me to upgrade as my means increased.

  At some point, Mac started introducing a little bit of luxury into our lives, and we found it suited us. You know what? French-press coffee is better than Folgers. A down-filled leather couch feels a whole lot better than a lumpy old futon. And a new German sedan does indeed drive better than a fifteen-year-old Honda with a leaky sunroof.

  Once I finally got comfortable with opening my wallet, we toyed around with the notion of buying a house. Soon enough, Mac and I were swooning at the thought of solid brick houses with big backyards for the dogs. Sure, our pit bull, Daisy, doesn’t care for the outdoors, and Duckie5 can’t be away from her for a moment, but the idea of a yard was appealing.

  We hadn’t yet found the proper suburban outpost when record rainfall cracked our old rental home’s foundation and caused our walls to fill with mold. Simply leasing a new apartment in the city seemed like the most expedient way to, you know, not die, so we began to scour options on Craigslist.

  Our current place was one of the first listings we saw online, but we didn’t even consider it a possibility; it was so nice we thought the rent had been posted wrong. I mean, there we were in a thousand square feet with walls full of deadly spores, but a couple miles west for a few bucks more, we could have three thousand square feet of new construction with a two-car garage and no specter of death hanging over our heads? Really? we asked each other. And that’s not a misprint?

  This house took our collective breath away the second we stepped inside. With eleven-foot ceilings, thick crown molding, and Brazilian cherry floors, we thought we’d died and gone to high-def HGTV heaven. We walked from room to room, admiring all the fine finishes. A butler’s pantry? Yes, please! A second bathroom made entirely out of slabs of slate and tumbled river rocks? You know, I’ve been meaning to get me one of those! A Sub-Zero fridge and a sixburner Wolf range? Why, this gorgeous chef’s kitchen may end my apathy toward fixing dinner once and for all!

  We marveled at the idea of a city house containing four huge bedrooms. I mean, we wouldn’t fill them up with kids,6 but I was willing to wager we could put them all to good use. I could have a fitness room! And an office that wasn’t really a hallway! And a guest room! We could have a guest room! Which meant we could finally have guests!

  We couldn’t figure out why such an amazing place was a) so cheap and b) unoccupied, but we didn’t care. We wrote a deposit check as fast as our fingers would fly and we were settled in here within the week.

  For the most part, we’ve been delighted with this place. I mean, everyone has a concept of what their dream house might be like, but all I have to do to picture mine is open my eyes.

  And yet ... I must admit a minor addiction to HGTV, no doubt stemming from my early John Hughes–based house lust. So, there’s a part of me that mourns the loss of getting my hands dirty in creating a place in my own vision. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to make my design divine with Candice Olson or see if Carter really can. Mac and I both have a tiny, sexless crush on Holmes on Homes, and we’d adore having him get all self-righteous and blustery over shoddy masonry before he saved our bacon from the fire.7

  The thing is, there’s not a single thing this joint needs. What am I going to do? Tear up the gleaming hardwood to see if there’s stained carpeting underneath? The bathrooms are already showplaces full of sunken tubs and six-headed steam showers. Should I replace the sinks with a cracked Formica vanity? The kitchen’s gorgeous and functional, with forty-two-inch cherry cabinets, granite
counters, and a French country chopping-block island in the middle of it. The only way to improve the kitchen would be to forbid Mac to cook in it.8 Plus, I’ve got two decks and a patio and I’ve landscaped the hell out of all of them. Curb appeal? I’ve got it on speed dial, baby.

  Okay, fine.

  I’m sometimes discouraged when the rats eat from my artfully arranged, eclectically mixed herb and flower gardens. Also, the neighborhood’s not the best. It’s up-and-coming, or at least on the verge of it.

  Or it was.

  Our ’hood has gone a tiny bit downhill, with the way the economy’s been going the past few years. And I might not love how the people across the street allow their unwashed kids to run around in their jammies well after an appropriate bedtime. But the house is still perfect, and with the depressed market, we should be able to negotiate a better deal.

  We’re supposed to get our appraisal any minute now, and we’re anxious to see the results. And even though we’re already in the house we want to buy, we asked our Realtor friend Liz to help us navigate the process.

  Liz insisted we get an appraisal to protect us from overpaying. Our landlord was shocked to hear that we’d brought a Realtor into the mix, but come on, that’s how I roll! I mean, I have an accountant to handle my taxes, a financial counselor for the rest of my money, an attorney to keep my dumb ass from getting sued, a film agent for any television and movie stuff, a lecture agent for my speaking engagements, and a literary agent to hash out my print deals. (I write a young-adult series about teenage Amish zombies in love; it’s surprisingly lucrative.) So why on earth would I enter into the biggest financial commitment of my life without a professional at my side? I might be a little loopy sometimes, but I’m not stupid.