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Stories I'd Tell in Bars, Page 2

Jen Lancaster

  A while back, I ran across this great line on, of all places, It read something like, “Yeah, history repeats itself; it’s called tradition.” I thought about that quote as the credits rolled at the end of season three.

  I realized I liked vintage Jen Lancaster.

  And I wasn’t alone here.

  I had a moment of great clarity... and then I decided I was done. I was done twisting myself into knots to satisfy the trend du jour, done trying to be all things to all people instead of just taking control and publishing the kind of stories I wanted to write on my own.

  Real stories.

  Stories I’d tell you if we sat down across a table from each other, connected face to face. We’d have no middleman there, no third party with an agenda jumping in, trying to change the direction of the narrative to better fit the theme to match some graphic the art department picked, or more appropriately align with the points in the publicity team’s media pitch. We’d just be people, having a genuine conversation, talking and laughing.

  Telling stories in bars.

  The way it should be.


  Happy Wife, Happy Life

  “It is not lack of love, but lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”

  - Friedrich Nietzsche

  Sometimes I joke with Fletch that if anything ever happened to him, I’d head straight to Cougar Town. I said this a lot in my Twilight Team Jacob days, I won’t lie. However, nothing could be further from the truth now. In fact, the only part of Younger that bothered me was when forty-year-old Liza continued to date twenty-six-year-old Josh after the initial (acrobatic and enthusiastic) hook-up.

  A twenty-six-year-old boyfriend?

  Good Lord, that sounds exhausting. Thank you, no. The roommates. The pizza boxes. The futons. The hair pomade. The hair pomade alone could have its own spinoff.

  Liza and Josh are perpetually falling into bed each episode. On a visceral level, I get it. Plus, Darren Star created the show. He’s the Sex and the City guy, so he’s obligated to make for spicy viewing. But at some point, these two characters are going to take a cross-country road trip. If all they have to discuss while they’re trapped in a front seat together is their acrobatic and enthusiastic hook-ups, that’s going to get real boring, real fast. If she doesn’t flat-out lose it because of the jug-band music he insists on playing, I’m betting they run out of shit to say once they get past Ohio.

  Wait, I’m being generous.

  More like Pennsylvania.

  Personally, an age gap like that would be far too daunting for me. I couldn’t be with someone who didn’t get a Milli Vanilli reference, especially if I used it as a verb, i.e. “Wow, she really Milli Vanilli’d that Super Bowl halftime performance, amirite?”

  I train with a guy who’s twenty-six. He’s the only person I know that age. On the plus side, he’s the nicest young man ever – so polite, so well-mannered. He rarely makes me do rope slams because he knows how much I hate them; I appreciate that. Sometimes when I make meatloaf or oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, I bring him the extras in a Tupperware container. I fret over him if I think he looks too pale, which is always, because he wears SPF 100.

  [Millennials are way into sunscreen, which, good for them. Their skin won’t be like a football when they’re my age. The whole no-cancer thing is a bonus, too.]

  However, for all my trainer’s fine qualities, I cannot imagine wanting to date him or anyone in his peer group. I’d much rather have margaritas with his parents so I could tell them what a great kid they raised.

  Anyway, as I plowed through the second and third seasons of Younger, I was delighted when Liza started crushing on her more-age appropriate boss, who sleeps not on a sweaty futon in a fetid apartment with roommates and scads of empty pizza boxes (and a bathroom I don’t even want to imagine), but in a sweet Manhattan townhouse, on what I’d guess are Frette sheets. He also has a second home in the Hamptons, an added bonus.

  I haven’t yet started the fourth season, but I have high hopes for Not Josh.

  What I’m saying is the only trip I’d take to Cougar Town would be literal. In lieu of having to date a twenty-six-year-old boy, I would find a town where they rescue wild cougars and then I would adopt a whole bunch of them and I’d take them home. The only swiping would be that of the big cats with their massive paws and razor-sharp talons when they eventually maul me to death.

  Again, this sounds like a better alternative than having to go on Tinder.

  Fortunately, Fletch and I are solid. I’d like to hope I won’t be alone, and subsequently eaten by my pets, for many years to come. We aren’t happy by accident – it’s a conscious choice, one that takes daily action. If you would like a happy marriage, I have tons of sage advice that I’d love to share. For example, why don’t you cook your husband a nice brisket once in a while?

  [Feminist manifesto; you’re writing it wrong.]

  Lemme back it up for a sec – I’m not a marriage professional. I want to make that clear. I have no formal therapy training, no state-sanctioned credentials, nothing like that. Should you want a list of step-by-step strategies to improve your spousal relationship by someone with advanced degrees/a lot of student loan debt, go elsewhere.

  My advice trends less academic and more along the lines of, “Don’t laugh when he complains that the dry cleaner shrunk all his pants after multiple Brisket Nights.” True story.

  My only claim is that I’m a skilled amateur at the whole “staying married” business. My expertise stems from being a difficult person successfully coupled for the better half of her life to an equally difficult person during particularly trying times.

  When life’s effortless, when everyone’s young and trim and healthy and rolling in stock options, when there are no hills to climb or detours caused by roadblocks, it’s easy to stay together. Throw in some conflict? Then not so much.

  Like steel, marriages are tempered and proofed by flame, and, baby, we’ve been lit AF. Fletch and I have endured more than our fair share of bullshit in the past few decades, losing employment, cars, apartments, pets, peace of mind, tempers, safety and security, and, in Fletch’s case, no fewer than five iPhones.

  Who loses five iPhones? Those things ain’t free, you know, even with insurance. One is tempted to string his phone through the sleeve of his coat, like a pair of children’s mittens.

  Phones notwithstanding, we’ve triumphed over the issues that send lesser mortals – and their separate vinyl collections – retreating to the safety of everyone’s parents’ basements.

  Full disclosure: many of the problems we’ve faced have been our own damn fault. And sometimes, we’ve caused them even when we thought we were doing the right thing.

  For example, Fletch quit his job to manage my career when we moved to the suburbs. For three years, I was the primary breadwinner and chief decision-maker. Maybe I was living the feminist dream during that period, but the arrangement threw off the balance of power in the household. It didn’t work for us. We learned we’re happier when our lives are more egalitarian and decisions are made together. When we share the burden of resolution, we half the efforts and double the results.

  So, credential-wise? We have a doctorate in still liking each other, even when we get it wrong. We seek each other out and we talk. A lot. We’re like two Talmudic scholars, only instead of dissecting Jewish law, we’re sharing a postmortem on 90 Day Fiancé. We don’t agree here, as I am Team Mohamed and he is Team Seriously, Everyone on This Show Sucks, Why Are We Watching and Should We Do the Next One Now, I Think So, Yes.

  Our world is a veritable barrage of words, of never-ending persiflage, with comments and phrases and opinions and observations hanging as dense in the air as cumulus clouds. When marriages fail – as half do – the culprit is often a lack of communication.

  Couples simply stop talking.

  As we’re perpetually, eternally in conversation, we have a solid idea of who the other person is and on rare occasion
s when we’re not sure what the other needs, we clarify.

  For example, when one of us is upset about something, the other asks, “Do you want me to help you solve this problem or do you want me to commiserate?”

  [Had I needed more than a good sulk on McGrigio Day, I’d have told him and we’d have talked it out.]

  I mention this advice in every memoir because it’s such a relationship saver, whether it’s when you’re communicating with a spouse, a friend, a coworker, etc. That’s because unsolicited advice can be the match to the accelerant when all the other person needs is a hug.

  [Maybe you want to assess the situation before you automatically default to grappling your coworkers. Laws and all.]

  Also, before this goes too saccharine and turns into a sappy love letter, I’ll be frank. There are times when my beloved is chewing his dinner too enthusiastically. [I call these “weekdays.”] Even though his manners are excellent, the sound of his chewing is amplified because of a sinus surgery he had ten years ago. The procedure turned the inside of his skull into an echo chamber. Said surgery also rendered him – or so he claims – unable to blow his nose, so he constantly snuffles during allergy season. In Illinois, this runs all spring, most of summer, the entire fall, and the better part of winter.

  As for the snuffle, it’s more of a hork.

  Hork. Hork, hork.

  However annoying you may imagine this sound, I assure you, it’s worse in person, thus making pork chops into hork chops.

  Between the occasional hork, he’s concurrently providing an in-depth summary of all the things that might have gone awry when he rewired the spark plugs on his project SUV while he flips through nine thousand channels on the kitchen TV, never landing on one for more than a millisecond. When faced with all these stimuli at once, I’ll briefly fantasize about placing a throw pillow over his augmented blowhole.

  I never want him to stop breathing… I just want him to shut up for a second. I’m always interested in what he’s saying, but sometimes there’s so many words to process that my brain needs to buffer to catch up.

  When this happens, when Fletch notes the vaguely murder-y set of my shoulders or my Kung-fu grip on the utensils, he’ll end his soliloquy on All Things Pep Boys. He’ll ask, “Should I put on Tiny House Hunters or sleep with one eye open?” and then we’re fine again.

  That is, until I commit the Cardinal Sin of letting the dogs lick empty cat food cans or I eat [detonate] a croissant in his car or I begin my PhD defense yet again on Humidity, Its Impact on Color Treated Hair, and Whether I Should Cut My Bangs or I tap into his secret stash of good paintbrushes and then it’s he who wields the steak knife.

  The key is not to be a person who doesn’t suck because that’s impossible. The key is to be a part of a couple who takes turns sucking equally.

  In marriage, and, truly, in life, someone must have the last word. Think about it – how often is the last word the hill on which we’ll die? We’ve all had times in our lives when the conflict’s finally been resolved and everyone’s about to retreat to a neutral corner and then someone can’t help themselves, saying one more thing, and then, bam!

  World War III.

  The last word sets the stage for whatever comes next.

  The last word is everything.

  So, in the upcoming Fletch-centric stories, I’m ceding the last word to him. Because, really? I love tag-teaming our tales together. He’s the only reason I would put on pants and go to a bar. He makes everything more fun. And after twenty-four years together, that’s significant.

  Each essay will end with his take on whatever I’ve written, thus allowing him the final say. He wasn’t convinced about this until I pointed out that Chris Kyle and his wife did the same thing in the American Sniper book. [Fletch was a huge fan of Kyle and his beard.]

  Fletch is delighted because whomever has the last word is generally considered the victor. I’m pleased because this means he’s obligated to finally read at least part of my memoirs.

  Everyone wins. But mostly me.

  And now, let’s start at our beginning.

  “The Army certified me to administer piss tests.”

  When Fletch dropped this gem into one of our earliest conversations, my initial reaction was not, “Oh, Imma marry him.”

  He and I had been speaking over the course of the week, but this is the first line I can recall from a time back when we were “him” and “me” and not yet “us.”

  I remember letting out a bark of laughter. “That’s your home-run swing?”

  In November of 1994, he and I were hanging out at the Wabash Yacht Club, a long-since-extinct Purdue bar. We’d just worked a weekend shift together at the new restaurant where we’d met. A fresh pitcher of Molson Ice sat between us, slowly leeching condensation onto the scarred wooden table. I gestured at him with my pint glass. “Your best line is telling me about watching guys peeing? I’m supposed to react... how? What’s your expectation?”

  I was giving him shit because that’s what I did with people I dug; I messed with them. I liked that he was older than most of the guys on campus. Because of his prior military service, he was twenty-six, eleven months younger than me. My rule was that I’d only date those within a year’s range of my own age. Older was creepy and younger was annoying. The year’s span was the sweet spot.

  He topped off my beer, all matter of fact. “Not a line. You asked me about what I did in the Army and I answered you.”

  He wasn’t a smarmy suck-up. I gave him points for that, too. He could have said a bunch of stuff that made him sound heroic or badass. Instead, he went with quirky. Bold choice.

  “Did you literally spend three years watching dudes whiz in cups or did you do anything else?”

  He nodded. “Did plenty of stuff, but nothing else was as funny.”

  “Fair enough,” I replied. “I’m curious – why did you learn that skill? Did you want to cheat the urine screens? Game the system?”

  This wasn’t an idle conversation; it was a fact-finding mission. If he was into weed, I needed to know. While not a big deal, and we could be friends, I didn’t want to date a Doobie Brother. My personality aligned more with drinkers than pot smokers. No judgment, just preference. For me, it was like the difference between being a Dog Person and a Cat Person. Dog People should be with Dog People and vice versa. If you’re into chasing cars, it’s hard to relate to someone who compulsively bats yarn.

  “Nah, that what the Army assigned. Who would pick that on purpose? Drugs aren’t my thing. I go the other way.” He raised his Molson Ice. “Thanks to Nancy Reagan, I learned to just say no.”

  He was joking, but this was a legitimate campaign in the early 1980s. Just saying no was how the First Lady suggested the youth of America avoid the whole scourge of recreational drugs.

  Personally, I didn’t need Mrs. Gipper telling me what to say; my own disinterest was sufficient. You see, I’d carefully constructed a narrative for myself back then. Even though my feet were planted in the middle of Huntington County, Indiana, my heart was in Martha’s Vineyard. Narcotics were the purview of those who didn’t flip their collars or layer their Izods, in my [uptight, simplistic, naïve] opinion.

  Looking back, my abstinence was less a function of convictions and more because I was too much of a dork to be invited to parties. One doesn’t stumble into many dens of inequity on the way to a speech meet. Let’s be real here – I’d have snorted rails off a hooker’s ass if a preppy guy named Kip or Trip or Chip handed me the straw.

  The first time I was offered drugs in college, I did say no… mainly because I couldn’t figure out how to work a water pipe. The whole process gave me flashbacks to my failed attempts at learning to play the flute in sixth grade, what with all the coordination, awkward finger-placement, and breath control.

  College did dispel some fictions of drug usage, though, like that anyone who smoked pot was lazy or dumb. My fraternity friends who partook – many of them Dean’s List, and one a concert v
iolinist – showed both initiative and commitment to the art of getting high. They could make bongs out of anything. I’m talking milk cartons, soda cans, cereal boxes, pineapples, lawn gnomes, saxophones, etc. Denis Leary provided the best summary in his show No Cure for Cancer:

  “They say marijuana leads to other drugs. No, it leads to fucking carpentry.”

  I decided to finally just say yes at an apartment party second semester of my freshman year because I was anxious to fit in. The preppy thing wasn’t the slam-dunk I’d envisioned. Also? I was tired of being called “Nancy Reagan.”

  The off-campus scene was far different from that of Greek life, mysterious and unknown. Collars didn’t instinctively defy gravity, nor loafers automatically call out for pennies. Some people didn’t even wear loafers; I was intrigued. I wanted everyone to like me, to look past my crisp, pinstriped oxford and wool sweater tied just so around my shoulders, and see my sense of adventure.

  I wanted to finally be cool.

  Partygoers sat in a circle, perched on worn shag carpeting or rump-sprung Naugahyde couches, discards from a family’s rumpus room, circa 1973. “Okay,” I thought. “Let the high times roll.”

  I valiantly tried to inhale whenever the ceramic pipe made it to me. Having committed to breaking the law, I was less concerned about possible arrest and more dismayed about all the germs on the mouthpiece. Trying to appear nonchalant, I’d take the pipe with my shirtsleeve-covered fingertips. Was starched cotton an effective prophylactic against cold sores or lip herpes? I hoped so. No amount of Clinique Rose Gold gloss could cover that up, I was sure.

  When I was my turn, I’d pull in a deep breath of smoke. I tasted notes of black tea leaves and wet dog fur and charbroiled ass. I’d hold my breath in my lungs as long as I could until I was overcome with the urge to cough.