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If You Were Here, Page 2

Jen Lancaster

  We wait outside in the freezing cold for a few minutes to see if ORNESTEGA will make another appearance. He doesn’t, so Mac shouts, “Buy a belt!” toward his apartment before we head inside to report the incident to the police. The beat cop who shows up advises us next time we see a tagger to call them and not to take the matter into our own hands. He said a lot of times tagging is step one of a gang initiation ritual and that we should be more cautious. I look over at Mac, who’s nodding placidly at the officer, and laugh to myself. Yeah, like that’s going to happen with Sergeant MacNamara on patrol.

  Once the officer leaves, we walk up the wide steps to our handcarved front door. Right before we go inside, I ask Mac what’s going to happen when the tagger inevitably spray-paints our garage.

  “Don’t you worry,” he assures me. “I have a foolproof plan.”

  When I pull out of the garage today to meet my best friend,Tracey, for lunch, I find ORNESTEGA scrawled in eight-inch silver letters across our door. I hurriedly pound the keypad on my phone to dial Mac, who promises he’s going to take care of it immediately.

  Tracey and I live on opposite sides of the monument in the middle of the square. She’s on the good side, with all the cute boutiques and darling cafés and trendy coffeehouses, whereas my side is Latin Kings–and-Cobra adjacent. I’d probably worry about living so close to two warring gangs but the thing is—and please don’t judge—Mac and I are a tad conservative,9 which means we may or may not have a small weapons stockpile. And unlike our Cobras and Kings neighbors, we actually know how to hit a target.10

  Tracey and I have a fab lunch at Lulu’s,11 our favorite café, where we drink fair-trade tea and laugh at the twentysomethings clad in T-shirts boasting the names of my favorite shows as a kid. Listen, you with the fedora and hipster ’fro, five bucks says you’ve never even seen Charles in Charge.

  I know, I know, that was bitchy and aggressive and unlike me.

  Seriously, I’ve kind of got a reputation for being a bit of a peacemaker, and I do my best to be polite. In fact, my sorority wanted me to join so badly they actually gave me a scholarship for all my dues. I guess when you stuff eighty girls who are all on their period at the same time into a single house, you’re willing to pay a premium to have a calm, collected presence there to defuse situations.

  So to be clear, I like everyone.

  Except hipsters.

  And hooligans.

  And Stephenie Meyer. (Because everyone knows zombies are cooler than vampires.)

  Anyway, I’ve all but forgotten about the tagging until I get home a few hours later. Upon my return, I see that Mac didn’t opt to call 311 to request the city’s Graffiti Blasters team, nor did he drag out soapy water and a Brillo pad to scrub off the offending moniker. He didn’t buy a bucket of taupe paint and a brush, either.

  No, my beloved opted for a less conventional solution. Now beneath the small, silver ORNESTEGA tag are much larger, thicker, blacker letters spelling out, IS GAY.

  Yeah, this plan is foolproof.

  Chapter Two


  We’re in the wine department at Costco when we receive the news.

  Normally I feel a little queasy in this section, because I always think of the time I paired a nice four-year-old bottle of Costco merlot with a bag of three-year-old microwave popcorn. Did you know microwave popcorn has an expiration date? Because it does. And you should never ignore it. I spent three days living in my bathroom after that and now microwave popcorn’s on my permanent Do Not Fly list.

  As Mac scrolls through the pages of our appraisal’s supporting documentation, my stomach is in knots. I feel like I swallowed a fist or a hockey puck or a steak that Mac cooked. I’m dying to find out what our house is worth. When we moved in, the astronomical asking price was way outside of our budget, which was another reason we opted to rent.

  But over the past two years, our income exponentially increased after my novel It’s Raining Mennonites unexpectedly hit the New York Times bestseller list, which meant my next book, Rumspringa-ding-ding , recently sold for a tidy sum. Like I said, teenage zombies in love are fairly lucrative. I mean, they’re not teenage-vampires-in-love lucrative,12 but I’m satisfied. Between the two of our incomes, we can afford any asking price.

  “Holy cats,” Mac says succinctly. He holds out his iPhone for me to examine. I squint at the screen but can’t make out what I’m supposed to be seeing, because I refuse to admit I need reading glasses.13 “Here.” Mac taps the number in the middle of the screen. “Look here.”

  I engage in more squinting and blinking and alternately bringing the phone closer and farther from my face. I finally see what he wants me to see and I’m confused. “But that number is way too low. Like, hundreds of thousands of dollars less than we expected.”

  His grin is best described as being of the shit-eating variety. “Uh-huh.”

  “What does that mean?”

  Mac reaches across me to grab a couple of orange-labeled bottles from the Veuve Clicquot display. “That means we celebrate.”

  But I’m not ready to cheer yet, so I press for more answers. “Our house dropped about forty percent in value? In a year? Don’t get me wrong; I’d love to snap it up at that price, but I can’t see how that’s possible. I mean, Vienna still owes more than that on her mortgage.”

  Vienna Hyatt owns our house, and she’s the most unlikely landlord you’ve ever seen. She’s a twenty-five-year-old trust-fund kid who pissed away the bulk of her inheritance on blow and Manolos.14 Her real-estate-mogul parents decided to teach her a lesson,15 so she’s recently been forced into the family business, and now she’s our problem.

  Apparently part of their tough-love policy requires that she take a hands-on approach with her properties. When we blew a fuse on one of our dual-zoned air-conditioning units last summer, Vienna showed up in five-inch heels with a screwdriver tucked into her Louis Vuitton dog carrier, right next to Versace, her teacup terrier. She insisted she could fix the unit, but when Mac went out to check her progress, he found her disassembling our gas grill. I can’t help but wonder if this is what her family had intended.

  Mac narrows his eyes at me. “How would you know what Vienna owes on her mortgage?”

  Okay, let me just say this and then we’ll never speak of it again. Any mail that comes to my house is automatically considered mine. If you don’t want me knowing how much you owe the bank, I urge you to fill out a change-of-address form.

  “Um, it’s just a wild guess.” (Certain members of this household care not to be complicit in federal crimes.)

  “The appraiser said that nothing on our side of the square has sold in over three months, and he had a bitch of a time finding comps because everything’s in foreclosure. Home prices around here dropped an average of thirty-four percent this year.”

  Mac has a spring in his step as we cruise the meat counters, but I’m a little more conflicted. On the one hand, I’m delighted that our house has become so much more affordable, but on the other, when I think of the hardworking people who poured all of their savings into losing investments, I feel like I ate that stupid popcorn all over again. Somehow this doesn’t strike me as a victory.

  When we get home from Costco, we find our garbage knocked over and trash strewn everywhere. Our cans are covered in ORNESTEGA tags.

  Oh, kid . . . that was probably a mistake.

  “So that’s new,” Tracey says, all deadpan, pointing to the top half of my house.

  The sheet sign was not my idea. I hadn’t even thought about them since college. In the early nineties, sheet signs were a big deal in my campus Greek system. We used them to express all kinds of emotions, like how totally awesome our new pledge class was or the extent to which we were excited for team games played with various balls.16 During homecoming weekends, rival fraternities would wage war against one another, dishing out zingers such as, THETA CHI, DON’T EVEN TRY, and PHI PSI—WHERE MEN ARE MEN AND SHEEP ARE SCARED, and, of course, the ubi
quitous DELTS SUCK.

  Now I suppose college students simply design a logo on their MacBooks and FTP the file to FedEx Office17 to be printed on a professional banner. They’ve probably never messed up their manicures by dipping their fingers into cans of Kiwi shoe polish. Mock us if you will now, kids, but I guarantee that smelling like a pair of driving moccasins was an aphrodisiac in my day.

  Anyway, Mac urged me to help him take this fight to the sheetsign level. I resisted until I found a half-eaten lump of hamburger studded with oblong pink pills in our backyard.

  Fortunately, we’re security-conscious enough to always keep the second gate between the alley and our garage locked, so the dogs never got near it. What’s ironic is that the pink pills were antihistamines, and appeared to be the exact same brand and strength we give Daisy for her hay fever. (The unfortunate side note here is that the neighborhood rats are all emboldened and strong, since they’re no longer troubled by seasonal allergies.)

  Here’s the thing—I can handle an aspiring gangbanger’s halfassed attempts to mess with us. I wouldn’t say I welcome it,18 but I will say that I’m up for the challenge. I mean, I defy you to grow up in a steel town and not have it make you a little bit tough. Plus, those kickboxing classes I’ve taken have not been in vain.

  Okay, fine.

  All that time I’ve logged strolling along on the treadmill has not been in vain.

  Okay, okay.

  All the time I’ve spent watching Tae Bo infomercials has not been in vain. But, seriously, when someone threatens even one piece of fur on my precious doggies’ backs, even if it’s just with Benadryl, it is on like the fall of Saigon.19

  “Oh,” I quip to Tracey,“did we not have an enormous sheet sign proclaiming that ORNESTEGA wears ladies’ underpants the last time you were here?”

  Tracey shakes her head of chestnut curls. “I feel like I’d have noticed it.”

  I shrug. “We compromised. I told Mac he could hang it as long as he takes it down by tomorrow, when the Segunda Iglesia Hispanic Church has services. They don’t need to worry about praying for ORNESTEGA’s predilection for panties. By the way, that little asshole put squeeze cheese in our mailbox. Ruined a perfectly good Pottery Barn catalog.”

  “And you didn’t shoot him in the thigh? I’m impressed.”Tracey knows about the snub-nosed .38 special revolver Mac insists I keep in my desk. Honestly, I dig having a weapon at hand when I write; it makes me feel like Ernest Hemingway. Although now that I think about it, Tracey’s generally more concerned that I’ll shoot myself in the thigh. Seriously, you mention having to move your gun one time because you accidentally filled it with pretzel crumbs, and suddenly everyone thinks you’re the menace.

  “Oh, come on, I have self-control.”

  Tracey says nothing, opting instead to raise a single eyebrow at me. Jealous . . . I can’t do that myself anymore. 20

  “I do have self-control. I’m incredibly disciplined,” I insist.

  Tracey knows I’m a strict observer of what I like to call the Tao of Dalton. Remember in Road House when Patrick Swayze’s character, Dalton, says that he’s nice until it’s time not to be nice? That’s totally my philosophy.

  Yet Tracey continues to smirk. “Fine, you win,” I admit. “Truth is we heard from Persiflage Films and they may be interested in my writing a pilot for Buggies Are the New Black. I figured I couldn’t have a laptop in jail, so for now, ORNESTEGA walks without a limp.”

  “Congratulations, Mia!” Because Tracey’s an author, too, I don’t have to explain to her how tenuous the whole film and TV business is. I can’t tell you how many entertainment people I’ve talked to who say they love my writing and they’re dying to work with me and then never call me again. Dealing with Hollywood folks is kind of like having a bunch of one-night stands, only I’m usually the only one who ends up with the clap.

  Our kitten Agent Jack Bauer climbs into my lap and I scratch him behind the ears. “As far as I’m concerned, nothing’s real until I see a check. Till then, they may as well be talking about Monopoly money.”

  “Speaking of real estate, what happened while I was on vacation?”

  “Ugh, what an ordeal!” I settle deeper into the couch so I can share my tale of woe. Daisy flanks me, as I’m never allowed on a piece of furniture by myself. “I was worried that Vienna would be insulted if we went in with such a lowball offer, and if I’ve learned anything from My First Place and Property Virgins, it’s that you don’t want to offend the seller. Before we wrote up a formal offer, we had Liz call her to take her temperature on the whole deal. Not only did she laugh at the appraisal—”

  “Did she know what an appraisal was?”

  “Yes, after Liz explained it to her, whereupon she insisted on her original selling price.”

  “Any room to negotiate?”

  “So far, no. What pisses me off is that I know how much she owes on this place, yet she wants tons more than that. Also, and maybe this is a stupid question, but she’s a frigging millionaire: Why does she even have a mortgage?”

  Tracey considers this for a moment. “Rich people don’t stay rich by taking risks with their own money.”

  I nod. “You’re probably right. Anyway, we came up with an ‘everyone wins’ kind of deal and made her an offer somewhere in the middle, but she was still having none of it. She claimed our appraisal was”—I pause to knead the thick fur on the back of Agent Bauer’s neck while Daisy wedges herself in deeper between me and the couch—“in her words, ‘not hot.’”

  “Sounds like the path of least resistance would be to have a second appraisal,”Tracey suggests.

  I snort. “We’re one step ahead of you. We had the bank’s appraiser come in, and he estimated an even lower price because we live on a busy street. And you know what? Vienna still wouldn’t budge. According to Liz, Vienna thinks the down market applies only to every other house in this neighborhood because she doesn’t own them. After that conversation, she actually gave us a higher selling price. I suspect this has less to do with her real estate prowess and more to do with what I just read in People—apparently she needs the cash to live in Ibiza for the summer season. FYI, Southampton is ‘so last year.’ ”

  I begin to stroke Agent Bauer’s back more aggressively and then have to raise my voice because he’s purring so loudly. “What’s so frustrating is that Vienna acts like this place didn’t sit empty for two years because its price was too high before we moved in.”

  “Was that when she was in rehab?”

  I concentrate for a moment. “Huh . . . you know what? You may be right. I think that’s right after her sex tape broke on the Internet and she checked into Promises. Regardless, she told Liz, ‘I could get a million for that place in a different location.’ Well, yes. Duh. That’s exactly how real estate works, honey. Unfortunately the house is in this location, where it’s worth a fraction of that.”

  Mac pops up from the basement. “Hey, guys, what’s with all the shouting?”

  “We’re talking about Vienna.”

  Mac rolls his eyes and heads to the kitchen for a soda. He’s as fed up with the state of negotiations as I am. He suggested that if Vienna won’t take the appraised price, then we go “fairy tale” all over her ass, speculating she might sell for a handful of magic beans, like in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” as she seems that kind of gullible. I laughed when he first suggested this, but it may be our best option.

  Tracey and I move on to happier topics and spend the afternoon laughing. At four p.m., she notices the time and announces she has to leave for her dinner date. Curvy and statuesque, Tracey’s the Jewish hybrid of Marilyn Monroe and Mae West. Apparently this combination is like catnip to older generations, so her dates tend to be, let’s say . . . more mature than her. Naturally, this is an endless source of amusement for me.

  “Need to get ready?” I ask.

  “Yep,” she says, gathering up her coat and putting on her snow boots. “He’s picking me up in a little while.”

>   I cough into my hand. “Earlybirdspecial.”


  I giggle. “Um, nothing.” She frowns as she continues to bundle up. “So,” I gamely continue, “a date tonight . . . How will you get sexy for that? Dab a little Mentholatum behind your ears? Fill your pockets with Werther’s Originals? Surprise him with some fresh tennis balls for the tips of his walker?”

  She sighs audibly. “He was born in October 1957. You realize that makes him six years younger than Sting. Would you date Sting?”

  “Mac prefers I don’t date, what with us being married and all.”

  Her cerulean blue eyes flash. “You know what I mean.”

  “Um, sure, I’d absolutely date Sting. But I don’t picture your guy looking like Sting.”

  She glances up from her boot laces again. “How do you picture him?”

  I close my eyes and try to envision her beau. I imagine a round face with soft jowls and a jawline that dips down into his collar. His hair is gray—or missing—and although his eyes show his age-borne experience, they’ve grown paler and a bit cloudy. He has crow’s-feet and his lips have thinned. He’s got laugh lines and forehead wrinkles and a host of other age-related maladies that I pay a lot of money to eliminate so my young-adult audience relates better to me at live events.21

  “I guess in my head he looks like . . . Carroll O’Connor.”

  She snorts. “Archie Bunker? That’s where your mind goes when you imagine an older guy?”

  I nod.

  “For your information, he does not look like Archie Bunker. He’s been a weight lifter for thirty years and he’s a vegetarian. He has a full head of hair that’s got less gray in it than mine. I assure you he’s in better health and shape than either of us.”

  I counter,“Yet I’m willing to bet his closet’s filled with cardigans and Rockports and pastel Sansabelt pants.”

  Tracey’s sheepish grin tells me everything I need to know.