Pretty in Plaid: A Life, A Witch, and a Wardrobe, or, the Wonder Years Before the Condescending,Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smart-Ass Phase, Page 2Jen Lancaster
Seriously? Eight is a big deal. Eight’s halfway through primary education. Eight means being old enough to stay up and watch Good Times. Eight is the new ten. For God’s sake, eight means I’m going to be driving in a few years.5
Best of all, being eight means this is the last year I have to be in the oh-so-lame Brownies with all those little girls. I ask you, what am I supposed to talk about with a six-year-old? Sesame Street?6 I mean, Oscar grosses me out because he’s probably sloshing around in the garbage juice that forms in the bottom of the can like when my brother doesn’t take it out when he’s told, Bert and Ernie are way too confrontational, plus Bert needs to address his unibrow, Big Bird’s just plain annoying, and Snuffleupagus is beyond depressing. Can someone please give that beast a hug or a cookie or something?? Personally, I’d rather watch The Jeffersons or Gilligan’s Island or Bewitched, except for when Sam’s evil cousin Serena is on. All that white skin and black hair creep me out. Girlfriend needs a tan, like, now.
Did I mention I loathe being a Brownie? Number one, I look terrible in that particular shade of brown. Number two, there’s an ugly tunic and white gloves involved. Listen, I’m eight—do you know how much dirty stuff I accidentally touch on a daily basis? I’d be way better off in dishwashing gloves. White cotton only serves to highlight my mother’s inability to properly add bleach; when she uses too little, they look dingy, and when she uses too much, my hands itch and smell like a pool all day. As for number three, which is wearing a beanie? No.
Plus, no one ever wants to get together and play with Barbies after our meetings. My troop members all prefer those bizarre, big-headed, tiny-bodied, pajama-wearing, pant-wetting baby dolls. One of the girls in the troop named Jodi has this horrible doll that will actually crap its pants after she feeds it this weird green paste. I’m sorry, this is a selling point? I ask you—why would I want to change anyone’s diapers when I can change their shoes and hairstyle instead?
The Brownie troop leaders leave much to be desired, too. They’re always, “Oh, let’s do crafts!” Um, hi, I’m eight—exactly how many hand-sewn wallets does a girl need, particularly since my Brownie-logo coin purse already hangs from my belt? Besides, it’s not like I have any folding money to put in a wallet. And while we’re on the topic of crafts, who thought it was a good idea to make Christmas decorations out of the brown paper roll from inside toilet tissue? What am I supposed to say? “Hey, Jesus! Here’s an ornament from me and the Charmin Corporation. Enjoy your birthday!” We haven’t actually covered the definition of “sacrilegious” in Sunday school yet, but I’m pretty sure worshipping our savior with ass wipe would qualify.
In our last meeting I had to assemble this hideous pin out of hairy metallic pipe cleaners and then the leaders expected me to just give it to some girl and be all, “Here’s a piece of junk I made in Brownies. Wanna wear it and be my friend? Or maybe I could interest you in a hand-sewn wallet?” I bet the cool girls in my class, like Nancy (with her entire basement full of board games) or Andrea (who has her own tube of tinted lip gloss and pierced ears), would laugh in my face if I tried to give them a pin.
Now the Junior Girl Scouts on the other hand . . . I’m into that. I love, love, love Girl Scout uniforms because they are the best shade of green—kind of grassy, kind of mossy, kind of like the color in a really minty Shamrock Shake. I’ve discussed mix-and-match uniform options at length with the two normal Brownies in my pack. Stacey said she’d be happy with anything, while my friend Donna plans on going for the whole mod pantsuit look with a white turtleneck and short jumper worn over flared slacks.
Personally, I’ve recently become more of a purist after spending my formative years dressed like I was headed to Woodstock. I now prefer a little more tailoring and would like the printed white blouse with the longer dress and some simple textured white tights paired with my wedge school shoes. (Some girls wear the green tights; I am not one of those girls.) Naturally, I’m a big fan of the sash and, of course, the beret. How great will a beret look over my Laura Ingalls Wilder braids? I can’t wait!7
Once I’m a Junior Girl Scout, I’ll get to go camping and on skating outings and to jamborees and stuff. I have no clue what a jamboree is, but I’m banking on it including cotton candy and elephant ears.
While I contemplate how fantastic my life as a Girl Scout’s going to be, the beehived waitress sets the huge, steaming plate of lobster in front of me.
Um . . . guys?
Someone accidentally left the face on this thing.
Two blank black eyes glare accusingly at me from the end of their googly stalks. And there are all kinds of, I don’t know, flippers or gills or testicles or something sticking off its sides.
Here’s the thing—I know lobsters start off this way because I’ve seen them plenty of times before. Last summer at my mom’s family’s rental house in Maine, I even got to play with them before they were cooked. We raced them and mine was the fastest, of course. But I must have gone to bed before everyone ate because I’d have remembered a gigantic lobster holocaust.
I thought restaurants only served the big meaty tail and maybe the claws with a side of melted butter. At no point did anyone mention I’d receive a soppy dish of steamy sea bug. The polite thing would have been to note this on the menu.
I stare at my dinner.
My dinner stares back.
We appear to be at an impasse.
The waitress returns with a giant plastic bib and secures it around my neck, taking pains to protect my red sweater and most of my plaid lap. Is it just me, or does she seem a little smug right now?
I look at my lobster. My lobster looks at me. I really don’t like where this is going.
“Jennifer, eat your dinner before it gets cold,” my father admonishes. Yeah, he’s definitely still salty about driving to Connecticut. Honestly, I don’t know why we came all that way to eat at some cheesy diner, either. Our house in New Jersey is, like, five miles from the bridge into New York City. Surely someone there sells lobsters?
Resigned, but not about to be beaten, I pick it up by the front claw and attempt to take a bite. I figure maybe the shell gets soft during cooking and it turns all tasty like those crabs in Baltimore? I bite down and suddenly fear I may have busted a baby tooth.
“No, stupid, that’s not how you eat it! Dummy! You tried to eat the shell! Ha!” my brother crows. Laugh it up, Toad. When your Farrah Fawcett poster8 gets mysteriously ripped next week, we’ll see what’s so funny then.
“You have to tear it open. Do it like this.” Mom takes her hands and demonstrates what looks like the ultimate Indian burn technique. “Once you’ve twisted it open, then you tear it apart.”
I do as I’m told but I’m surprised by how hard this thing is to twist. Big Mean Green still has some fight left in him. It takes me a couple of tries, but I finally get this bastard turned. Then I pull it apart and . . . aahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
“What is that?!” I scream, pointing at all the tiny horrible pink balls that have come bouncing out of my lobster’s body.
“Oh, that’s the egg sac. You must have a female. You should eat those, they’re delicious!” my mother exclaims. Um, yeah. I would rather kiss a public toilet than bring this stuff within a foot of my mouth.
You’d think after eight years of fighting on all issues dietary and wardrobe-related, she might have some idea about what I do and do not find acceptable. Perfect example? Earlier today I got my present. All I’ve asked for practically since I turned seven was a Bella Dancerella Barbie. She’s got flowing curly blond hair but it’s slicked back in a loose ponytail and topped with a crown, so that right there makes her cooler than all the Barbies with stick-straight hair. She’s not all rubbery like the other Barbies, either—instead her limbs are firm plastic and her waist is jointed so you can make her do ballet. She can spin and do splits and she comes with toe shoes and a tutu. A tutu, I tell you!
So this morning we’re eating pancakes9 and my mom hands me an oblong box and I get al
l excited because there’s only one thing that comes in a box this shape, right? I rip off the paper and come face-to-tear-drop-shaped-head with some messed-up Hallmark-Precious-Moments-Holly-Hobby-nightgown-wearing bullshit doll with a soft shapeless cotton body and a neck that couldn’t possibly support her own pumpkin head.
Yeah. I wanted the Dancerella Barbie and instead I got a doll with gigantism and male-pattern baldness.
My mom was all excited so I couldn’t even ask, “Why would you give me this?” I had to pretend that I liked it, but I feel guilty every time I look at it because I hate it. I should be grateful, but bad gifts offend me because they say one of two things: either Even though I’ve never seen you play with a baby doll and you’ve made your distaste for them quite clear, I’m going to give you one anyway in an attempt to force you to conform to my idea of how my daughter should be, or I bought what was on sale.
Now not only am I stuck with Baby Big Head, but Barbie and I are going to have to call in favors from the stuffed animal brigade in order to send her out on a double date just to ease my guilt . . . and yet this problem pales in comparison to the idea of my birthday dinner containing nothing but reproductive organs.
I twist my lobster again and more horrible parts fall out. I shudder. “The green stuff? What’s the oozy green stuff?”
My brother chimes in. “Tomalley, dummy. That’s the lobster’s liver! You’ve got lobster liver on your plate! That makes you a lobster liver lover. Ha!”
Jesus Christ, who brings someone a gigantic plate of liver and egg sac? What kind of messed-up, Draconian diner is this that they would serve such a plate of horrors to a child? On her birthday ? I mean, I’m only eight! I can’t possibly be expected to deal with the trauma of all that’s on my plate right now.
“Did you think you’d just get a tail and some claw meat?” my father asks wearily.
I nod. Here’s the thing—I wanted Big Mean Green to die for being a jerk to the other lobsters in the tank; I just didn’t want his—or I guess her—blood on my hands. My father takes my plate and gives it to my mom. “Julia, make this less prehistoric for her.”
My mom begins to break the lobster down, stealthily stuffing disgusting little bits of entrails into her mouth. My mother is descended from a race of people whose diets primarily consisted of whatever crap they could find washed up on the beach. That part of my ancestry must be recessive.
Minutes later, she returns my plate with nothing but tail and claw meat on it. I nod with approval—this is better. I saw off a part of the white flesh and give it a few generous dunks in the vat of drawn butter. I tentatively place the bite in my mouth and begin to chew.
The lobster is . . . rubbery. Not fishy or crabby or meaty or velvety. It’s just rubbery. This tastes like I took a Wham-O Super-Ball, cut it in half, and dipped it in herbed butter. I bet if I threw my lobster tail on the floor it’d bounce around all crazy-like, knocking over coffee cups and spilling soup. I take another bite and chew and chew and chew, but I seem to make no headway. I may as well be nibbling on my dad’s new set of Firestones. We drove all the way to Connecticut for this?
“What do you think?” my mom asks expectantly, smoothing a hand over her Carol Brady-esque modified mullet.
I contemplate before I answer. “I think I’d like a cheeseburger.”
And no, I’m not sorry. If someone would have just saved me one damn bite last summer in Maine at the lobster boil and hadn’t greedily wolfed down every scrap themselves, we could have avoided this whole fiasco.
No one gets me a burger10 so I concentrate on dipping my French fries in the butter sauce. Not bad! I poke a bit more at my lobster and move it around my plate so it looks like I’ve eaten whatever arbitrary amount is enough to score me ice cream afterward.
If my dog Samantha were here, I could try to slip her some of the gristly white meat, but she’s not much of an accomplice.11 She’s as likely to spit out yucky stuff (e.g., spinach, zucchini, anything my Noni grows in her own garden, which I’m relatively sure she fertilizes, ahem, herself) as I am. Chances are if I’m not into it, Sam’s not either.
The waitress returns to clear our plates and she’s smirking again. Listen up, Flo, at least my hair isn’t so big I have to scratch my head with a writing utensil.
“Didn’t like it?” She snickers.
“I’m eight; I don’t eat that much,” I reply. Seriously, I will not be mocked by someone in a smock. “However, I’ve left room for dessert. I shall have pistachio ice cream, please,” I tell her officiously.
I’m only guaranteed dessert when we’re dining out, so I make sure to order my treat when I select my entrée. (I suspect the waitresses appreciate my efficiency.) The only problem is my mom always dives into whatever confection I receive, which is so not fair. She says she doesn’t want a whole dessert; she just wants some of mine. I counter by telling her that’s unfortunate, because I want all of mine and to keep her damn fork away from my pie.
Ninety percent of the trouble I’ve been in in my life started with dinner in a restaurant.
The waitress tells me, “Comin’ right up, hon.” And then she winks at my parents, who wink back. What does that mean? Is she in on our at-home no-dessert policy? Is that bitch going to bring the check in lieu of my ice cream?
Before I can figure out what kind of cryptic Morse code is being blinked out by all the adults around the table, I’m descended upon by a crowd of waitresses. They all rush up on me from out of nowhere, their itchy beehives undulating in the wind created by their acceleration. In the center of this huge, hasty group, I notice a giant glowing orb and it’s headed straight for me.
Suddenly, I’m enclosed by a wall of flames and smocks and aprons and everyone begins to shout at me at once. I look around and I can’t see any of my loved ones, not even Todd. Where are they? What’s happening to me?
The . . . oh, wait.
They’re not screaming.
They’re singing what sounds like “Happy Birthday.” They’re trying to celebrate me, not assassinate me.
And yet this still is singly the most terrifying moment of my entire fucking life.
This is probably why we had to drive all the way to the sticks of Connecticut. No quality restaurateur in New York would agree to frighten a child in this manner.
I claw at my thighs because my legs are suddenly covered in raised, itchy red bumps. I rub my scratchy calves together and practically light myself on fire with the friction. I feel like I’m crawling with hundreds of biting ants or like I’ve caught the chicken pox again times ten.
Stop singing and get me some calamine lotion.
The waitresses finally, mercifully end the song and I make a pledge right here and now that I’m going to go to college and get a good job afterward so I will never be responsible for making a poor little eight-year-old break out into hives on her goddamned birthday.
The cake is nice, though.
You Say Extortion Like It’s a Bad Thing
(Green Dotted Swiss Dress)
No one tells you how financially demanding it is being eight. Now that I’m eight, I have the freedom to swing by the candy store when I’m out riding bikes with Donna and Stacey. I’d go there every day, but Swedish Fish aren’t free, you know. I also need money to stop in the park and grab a hot dog from the Sabrett guy so I don’t have to down as much of my mother’s lunchtime culinary abominations.
You think I’m exaggerating? Once she ran out of grape jelly so she gave me peanut butter and lime marmalade on sprouted wheat bread.
Um, yes, thanks, I would prefer a spanking to this.
Point? Being eight takes cash and my meager allowance is not cutting it. I was able to increase this ration last fall by staging a strike while my dad tried to watch football. I marched around in circles singing “Look for the Union Label” until he promised to increase my week
ly allotment from twenty-five to fifty cents. Had I known he’d just come off of six weeks trying to break a union in California and the last thing in the world he wanted was to hear one more word about organized labor, I’d probably have played it a bit more hardball. I bet I could have upped my stipend to a saw-buck.
I still don’t have nearly enough capital, so occasionally I will supplement my cash flow by sneaking a single or two out of my father’s wallet. I figure it’s not really stealing since I’m using the money to buy hot dogs, which provide the kind of sustenance that peanut butter and lime marmalade fail to deliver. I can’t swipe currency from my mom, though. She never has more than five dollars in her handbag and knows exactly how many quarters are in her coin purse. She’s always complaining how my dad doesn’t give her enough money to take care of the household, so her bag is off-limits.
The issue here is I find crime distasteful. I don’t like the surge of anxiety I feel when I have to tiptoe into my parents’ bedroom, ease open the middle drawer of the dresser, and furtively grab a buck, especially because sometimes I put in all that effort and he doesn’t even have any singles. (I can’t swipe a five; that’s a felony.)
When I offer to start picking up the slack around our house in exchange for goods, services, and cold hard cash, my mom informs me if I’m capable of doing more, then it’s my duty to do so and my payment is being provided with food, shelter, and the occasional Girl Scout sash. (FYI, any statement to the tune of “Yay, you, for providing the bare minimum” will get you sent to your room posthaste.)
Fortunately, a solution to all my financial woes presents itself in the most unexpected of places—my grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary party. To preface, my mother’s side of the family is a very festive group. They’ll find any reason for an impromptu get-together. My Auntie Virginia and Uncle Kelly are the queen and king of entertaining, and many a pleasant holiday has been spent sleeping on their living room floor, surrounded by snoring cousins, listening to the dulcet tones of Frank Sinatra on the hi-fi and the sound of elder relatives laughing, the smoke from their cigars creating a spicy cloud over the dining room table, where they play pinochle into the wee hours. Last summer my aunt and uncle hosted the Spirit of ’76 Fourth of July party, which turned into the Great Watermelon and Marshmallow Fight of ’76 when my Auntie Virginia started spitting watermelon seeds down my Auntie Fanny’s bathing suit.12 Although it pained me to waste so many perfectly good marshmallows, the end result of nailing my brother in the face with a wad of wet foodstuff was well worth it.