By the Numbers, Page 2Jen Lancaster
(P.S. God help you if those sneakers aren’t Skechers.)
Everyone in the room looks at me expectantly. Again, I normally don’t have to explain myself with this intro. “I . . . I . . .” I stammer. “What I mean is—”
My mother, the septuagenarian vixen better known as Marjorie Bancroft, snorts audibly. She’s imperious as a queen in her seat, handmaiden and mini-me Jessica at her side, both of them with coordinating upswept platinum chignons and both sporting Marjorie’s signature red Passion by Chanel lipstick, impeccably applied and contained entirely within their natural lip lines. (How do they manage that? Every time I wear bright lip color, I consider just rubbing it on my teeth from the start, simply to get the inevitable over with.) They’re consuming matching Gibsons, too. I’ve yet to understand the allure of a cocktail featuring an onion. What’s wrong with wine?
While my mother isn’t without charm (mostly when she wants something), she can turn into the demon spawn of Judge Judy and Lucille Bluth once that first cocktail hits her system. I swear I feel a chill go down my spine every day at 4:00 p.m., Central Standard Time, earlier on weekends and special occasions.
Marjorie drawls, “Penelope, darling, do sit down.”
Oh, and two drinks in, she forgets she’s not British. I suspect this recent occurrence is due to the one-two punch of an influx of British snowbirds in her retirement community and her newfound fascination with Downton Abbey. Someone wishes she were the Dowager Countess is all I’m saying.
My knees buckle and I fall back into my seat without having explained my opening line. I glance at my cousin Patrick, who’s at a table across the room with Auntie Marilyn, his mother; Uncle Leo, his dad; and Michael, his longtime partner. Patrick raises his glass in a mock salute and mouths, Swing and a miss, at me. I’d rage at him for not being supportive had he not specifically cautioned me about veering off-script earlier today.
“On a scale from one to ten, how sexy is tonight’s outfit, with ten being the full Sofía Vergara? I’m talking sequins, sparkles, color, and no, taupe is not color. Nor is gray. I want to see Vegas, baby. I’m even lifting my moratorium on feathers. This is the first time you’re meeting That Hussy, so you should glam it up.”
“Different hussy,” I reminded him. “Not the Original Hussy, remember?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “They’re all hussies.” Patrick has always been on my team, so the “tough love” he dispenses is a minimum of ninety percent for my benefit and ten percent for his own amusement, at best.
I asked, “Who do you consider a one on this scale, to make sure I have an accurate basis for comparison?”
Seriously, I wanted to set realistic expectations. I mean, I’m never going to be any kind of Kardashian for a variety of reasons, starting with age and ending with dignity. But I’d have been very happy to place the ten marker on the sexy scale at “Sandra Bullock” or “Helen Hunt” or “Diane Keaton a decade ago.”
I feel I should be awarded a bonus for my ability to do long division in my head, like when a figure skater automatically is scored on a higher scale for including a quadruple jump in her program. The math part of me has to be a selling point. Patrick says it isn’t, but women don’t appeal to Patrick so he shouldn’t be the arbiter of what counts. Plus, who never has a problem divvying up the bill equitably when the waiter forgets separate checks? Even when there are nine people at lunch and some ate the appetizer and some didn’t, some had wine and some had water, and that one vegan only consumed a veggie kebab with tabbouleh and wouldn’t shut up about not paying more than eleven dollars, no matter what? Who can always run the numbers, to the penny? This Penny.
He said, “Already I’m concerned you’re placing the bar too low.”
“I specialize in data analysis! I must be familiar with all the parameters to make an accurate calculation!”
He sighed. “Fine. Um . . . ahh . . . I should have known you’d ask. How about Queen Elizabeth?”
“Her? A one? She’s such a badass. Remember reading how she insisted on driving King Abdullah around her Scottish estate herself in a Range Rover? Such an elegant screw-you gesture, considering the Saudi Arabian ban on women driving. So British, and I mean real British. Not Madonna British. Not Marjorie Happy Hour British.”
I heard Patrick exhale on the other end of the phone. “No one’s arguing that the queen’s not a badass. On the scale of badassery, Liz goes to eleven. Only she could diminish the magnificence that is Kate Middleton, you know? Those post–Baby George volleyball shots where she still has a perfectly toned midriff? I die.”
“I love her so much,” I squealed, and I am generally not a squealer.
Patrick and I are obsessed with Kate Middleton, which makes some sense, considering how insane we were for Princess Diana back in the early 1980s. However, one of us wore Shy Di’s feathery haircut better than the other, ahem, Patrick. During Royal Baby Watch II, Patrick was calling me every hour to check in before Charlotte finally arrived. Mind you, he wasn’t that invested with my children and he’s Topher’s godfather.
“Please. I love her more. If I could make a suit of her skin and wear it around, like Buffalo Bill, you know I would. But back to the queen—on the sexy scale of fussy hats, low heels, and dowdy dresses that don’t show off the royal ta-tas, she’s a one. Which tells me you’re wearing a pantsuit tonight, aren’t you? Don’t lie, you lying liar.”
The downside of having a cousin who’s more like an evil twin is never being able to slide anything past him. It’s impossible to hide anything from him because he has a sixth sense. He was at my house the morning after I had sex with Chris for the first time, with two bottles of Tab and a box of melba toast, ready for the dish. I didn’t even tell him; he just knew.
“I’m already going to be uncomfortable enough with Chris and the New Hussy, so let me just wear the one thing that makes me feel confident, okay?” I begged. “Please? I swear on my love for the duchess that it’s my nicest pantsuit—it’s designer and has pinstripes!”
“Fancy. Not.” But I could feel him capitulating. “Then it’s Let’s Make a Deal time. You are going to give me final approval for your mother-of-the-bride dress; that is nonnegotiable. I will need to see shoulder, thigh, or cleavage. Not all three; I’m sure the New Hussy will have that (not) covered. But at least one. You have to do this. Not for me. For you.”
“I promise I’ll let you choose. I have two highly appropriate dresses—one’s a rose red Carmen Marc Valvo sleeveless sheath with a peplum at the side, and the other is an Escada off-the-shoulder cocktail dress in navy with laser-cut lace covering a nude overlay.”
“Neither sounds horrible,” he grudgingly admitted.
“My God, it’s as though Anna Wintour herself has given me her blessing. I’ll let the saleswoman at Neiman’s know neither ‘sounds horrible.’ I’m sure she’s been standing by the phone, waiting.”
“Ooh, sarcasm. Hit a nerve. Anyway, moving on.” His voice took on more of a cheerleading tone, like he was revving me up for battle, which he sort of was. “I want you to think of the next four days of wedding events like this—they’re a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself, kiddo. Don’t run balls-out for the first eight miles and then call it quits. You’ll be tempted, but ultimately that won’t be satisfying. Also, don’t let the bitches get you down. Yeah, most of the bitches are related to you, but you’re not going to let them get you down. You’re going to repeat the words of the famous philosopher Jinkx Monsoon with me—‘Water off a duck’s back.’”
“Water off a duck—wait, who?”
“Jinkx Monsoon. She won the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
“Then put it in your Hulu queue; it’s must-see. One more thing. As your best friend, as your family, as your consigliere, I beg of you: no actuary jokes. Not kidding. They only work when you’re with your nerdzilla consultant budd
ies. Trust me. When you get scared or nervous, you start spouting off numbers and statistics and it’s off-putting to everyone who isn’t a human calculator. Please just be you, except for the actuary part, because that is what you do, not who you are. Leave work at the office.”
So I can’t say I wasn’t warned. However, leaving work at the office isn’t so easy for me. That’s largely because Patrick is wrong; work is who I am at this point.
I mean, a few years ago, I had other roles—I was a wife. I was a mother. Now? I feel like what I do professionally is pretty much the sum total of who I am. And I love who I am at work—I’m the one who’s in charge, not just because of my title, but because of the respect I’ve earned along the way. I’m the one other consultants come to when they have a problem they simply can’t solve on their own. I’m the person who ensures the project is completed on time and under budget. I’m the one tasked with keeping the clients happy.
When I’m in my office, I’m competent, I’m in control, and I’m in demand. And when I finally have a chance to work with the data, which isn’t as frequent as I’d prefer because of my other responsibilities, I feel such a sense of calm because of the utter predictability of the numbers. And then, at the end of the day, I come home and I’m . . . nothing anymore. What other purpose do I serve?
While I take responsibility for misreading the room tonight, I’m not sure I should be faulted for trying to introduce the one part of my life that’s going exceptionally well to a situation that’s so patently uncomfortable.
Topher, my only considerate offspring, pats me on the back and hands me a fresh glass of Riesling as I slink down into my seat. He smiles at me, and I see my own hazel eyes and same sprinkling of freckles mirrored on his kind face. I clutch the glass and glance over at Jessica. She has her arms crossed tightly over her chest, her cheeks sucked in, her lips pressed into a line, and she’s scrutinizing the whole room, visually assassinating anyone who dares make eye contact. Patrick informed me this expression is called her Resting Bitch Face. I dare not meet her gaze, lest she turn me into a pillar of salt, all Lot-in-the-Old-Testament-style. (A quick deviation, if I may? Why salt? I’m a good Episcopalian, and I never figured out why his punishment was being turned into a pillar of salt. To me, that seems random.)
I quickly turn away to admire Topher’s profile, noting how the corners of his lips are permanently tilted up, like he has a delicious secret, and is always on the verge of a full-on grin. That he inherited from his father. He has the sort of face that makes people comfortable approaching him for directions. I’m sure they’d request he watch their bags at the airport, were that allowed anymore. Before I realize what I’m doing, I run my hand over his wiry light brown hair, and he presses his head into my palm, exactly like Barnaby used to do once we finally realized that all we had was each other.
I’m thankful for a thirty-three percent success rate with offspring who have a fondness for me. He’s such a good kid, through and through. Levelheaded and fair and honest. (My genes, obviously.) I have to wonder if he’s cut out for the world of high finance—I certainly wasn’t. How long did I last? A minute? I’m surely the only person who looks back on Black Monday as one of the best days of her life.
As for today? Not such a good day. I wonder how many times I’m going to replay this mortifying scene over again in my mind. A lot, I predict. Perhaps this gaffe will replace my stress-dreams where I’ve forgotten to study for my accreditation exams or show up for them naked.
“Penny can tell you when you’re going to die because she beats the odds for a living.”
I snap out of my reverie. Chris, who’d been seated at the polar opposite end of the room from me—at my request—is now standing. (Actually, my request was that he not be here at all. Ignored—thanks, Marjorie. All the decades she considered him beneath me, now she has to come around?) For a second I don’t even realize it’s him; he just seems like some handsome stranger attempting to dissipate the awkwardness and not like the person I’d most want to kick in the thorax.
Honestly, he doesn’t look terribly different from when we met so many years ago. There’s a fair amount of salt and a dash of pepper mixed in with his short blond curls, and there’s considerably more wear and tear than when I spotted him for the first time in my tenth-grade speech class, but overall, he’s not so changed. If he were a car, he’d be considered classic and not a junker. He’d have one of those fancy vintage license plates the State of Illinois issues.
Chris is still tall and ruddy with eyes the color of faded jeans and a quick smile. He’s a bit weathered from spending so much time outside at job sites, and I can tell that Stassi isn’t on him about diligent sunscreen application or cutting down on nitrates, which is a shame.
However, his health is no longer my problem or my responsibility. Although melanoma is the fifth most likely occurring cancer for males and his probability for contracting it is increased dramatically since he’s over fifty. And he stands a sixty-seven percent higher chance of contracting pancreatic cancer than those who consume the fewest processed meats.
But again, not my business.
He continues. “See, she’s not a bookie or a psychic—she’s an actuary. She uses mathematical theory to assess risk. She was making a joke. Y’all need to laugh or you’re going to make her feel bad, and then she’s going to lower your life expectancy.”
There’s something about his still-boyish charm that warms the room and breaks the mood. People chuckle and raise their glasses to me. My mother nods toward Miguel, the headwaiter who’s been working here for as long as we’ve been members. He’s been my buddy ever since I was a little girl, always serving me extra cookies or the biggest cinnamon roll at the annual Christmas brunch or the end cut of triple-chocolate cake with the extra side of frosting. Foster, my older brother, used to get so jealous of the blatant favoritism Miguel showed me at meals. However, I’m convinced he felt sorry for me because I was perpetually in some kind of cast or brace or cervical collar. I suspect he worried my mother was abusing me . . . at least until he witnessed me playing a game of mixed doubles and realized I actually was that uncoordinated.
Miguel’s the one who finally convinced me to start swimming in the club’s pool. “Maybe you don’t hurt yourself so much in water,” he’d suggested. Turns out I was a strong swimmer, which is how I eventually came to work here as a lifeguard once I was old enough.
A tuxedo-clad staff begins deploying Centennial’s signature salads with great efficiency, serving all thirty guests in a flash. Kelsey and Milo are sitting with his family, and they’re both as excited about their salads as they are about each other. They’re mooning over each other between bites, so I guess she must have forgotten her abject mortification at my introduction. Kelsey’s even reaching for a second sunflower-seed roll, buttering it with gusto. Funny, but I lost my appetite right before my wedding, to the point that the seamstress had to add a couple of darts to compensate for my weight loss at my final fitting.
Milo’s family seems somewhat uncomfortable in the country club setting. I’m not sure they’re used to dining in a place with a strict dress code. Milo’s dad’s suit is ill fitting and his older brother’s shirt still has creases in it from the store. His little brother was forced to wear one of the club’s jackets, as he didn’t have his own sports coat.
Kelsey doesn’t tell me much, but from what I’ve pieced together, his family owns some kind of restaurant in conjunction with their small farm in Ohio, which is why Milo started a food truck instead of going to college. I suspect his people are more on the blue-collar side, not that there’s anything dishonorable about working with your hands for a living. Rather, this is exactly why I told Marjorie the idea of an extended-family dinner at the club might be too much. I suggested we do something more casual to bring the families together initially, perhaps a barbecue or a picnic, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
Still, Kelsey and Milo seem
so happy together, and they do make a gorgeous couple, in an old-school, hippie-Coke-commercial kind of way, both of them with their flowing dirty blond locks and layers of ironic hemp-based clothing. Milo has a cherubic face, even with the scruffy beard. He looks like he’d be as comfortable playing a flute in a 1970s yacht rock band with Michael McDonald as he would be palling around with Jesus back in the day. As for Kelsey, she takes my breath away with her mineral-blue eyes and that fringe of black lashes . . . that are far too often narrowed at me for some unspeakable offense. She’ll be a beautiful bride, though, resembling a wood nymph in her flower crown instead of a traditional veil, as it is her plan to look as natural and earthy as possible.
But not too earthy; I paid the price for that.
I promised myself I wouldn’t interfere. The last thing I want is to turn into Marjorie, given how she railroaded my entire wedding day. I wanted a quick ceremony with a justice of the peace; I got three hundred people on the lawn here at Centennial Hills with a formal reception to follow in the grand ballroom. There was and is no middle ground or compromise with Marjorie.
Still, I’d be damned if Kelsey were to walk down that aisle in a strapless dress with tufts of fur under her arms. Not for me, because honestly I don’t care. She’s an adult and it’s not my day. I just didn’t want her to regret the decision later and then blame me for not having been more vocal.