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Bright Lights, Big Ass: A Self-Indulgent, Surly, Ex-Sorority Girl's Guide to Why it Often Sucks in theCity, or Who are These Idiots and Why Do They All Live Next Door to Me?, Page 2

Jen Lancaster

  Handsome sterling-framed photographs line the other end of his L-shaped desk. Posed on a sailboat is a pretty young blonde girl and an identical older blonde woman, both with big, flashy white teeth, the sun setting in the background. Another photo shows a white German shepherd and a yellow Lab, covered with leaves and mud, smiling those big openmouthed doggie grins, ankle-deep in a creek. A dozen more pictures of happy people are scattered in the corner, with State of Texas and rainbow flags forming an ad hoc backdrop for them all.

  Okay, honestly? I didn’t know you could be both gay and Texan. I mean, come on, Bush Country? It’s a president! It’s a euphemism! It’s heterosexuality on a stick! The joy of realizing my two favorite characteristics could be combined must be a lot like what the guy who invented Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups felt.2

  With his sweet drawl and easy laugh, I desperately want to land this assignment. It’s only supposed to last a couple of months, which is perfect because this will neatly bridge the gap between selling my first book and receiving a check for it. (The book sold based on a proposal, outline, and a few sample chapters, so I actually have to finish writing it by June 1. But I also have to generate enough income in the interim to keep my lights on, so here I am.)

  I envision him and me gossiping like sorority girls after the oddly clad chief executive officer stops by his office. Seriously, I’ve seen this man on CNBC and, damn. I don’t care what Marc Jacobs says, there’s no good way to pair windowpane plaid, vests, and stripes together3 without appearing to have stepped straight off the set of Newsies. “He’s the CEO?” I’d ask. “Pfft, not in those pants he’s not,” Mr. James would reply. Then we’d explode into a fit of giggles before tottering off for a lunch that included a lot of wine.

  Not only do I want this man for my boss, I yearn for him to be my boy-friend. Which, for those of us happily married, should never be confused with “boyfriend.” The former includes having slushy fruit drinks while singing show tunes at Sidetracks and a penchant for J-Lo movies, the latter a vow-violating touching of one another’s goodies. But the thing is, I’m afraid if I can’t answer this question properly, it’s never going to happen.

  Even without the boss, this is a choice assignment on its own merits. My recruiter told me the assistant is essentially there to answer the CEO’s call if Mr. James is on another line. Otherwise, he’s almost entirely self-sufficient. He does need someone to get his coffee, but only because he’s got arthritis in his ankles. The last girl who worked here managed to arrange her whole wedding from the desk, with the boss’s blessing.4 I practically salivated when she described all the uninterrupted time I’d have to write.

  I shift uncomfortably in my chair while beaming the glazed, terrified smile of a Miss America contestant who’s completely forgotten her platform after having dropped her flaming baton. Was it AIDS? Animals? Animals with AIDS? And do you think the judge will hold his second-degree burns against me? Shit!

  At this point I should mention that the portfolio’s pleather, that my fake Chanel sunglasses are strategically placed to cover up my overblown roots, and that the outfit’s an ill-fitting reminder of the brief period in the dot-com days when I was rich. What used to be an Italian power suit is now a lethal weapon—one wrong inhale and hand-tooled ivory buttons will blast off my chest like buckshot. As my chances of working with this darling man will greatly diminish should a wayward endangered toggle accidentally blind him, I breathe in rapid, shallow gasps and mull over an appropriate answer.

  Naturally, I can’t fault him for asking. I mean, why would a former associate vice president be interviewing for a temporary assistant’s position? Especially since back in the day I was a Prada-toting, insult-hurling, penthouse-dwelling smartass with my own pack of assistants ready to procure my hot beverages on demand.5 I made important decisions, closed huge deals, and single-handedly kept the Nordstrom shoe department in business. However, after a particularly virulent (and not undeserved) bout of unemployment my world was forever altered. Due to my own arrogance6 I didn’t realize until far too late it was a bad idea to tell potential employers, “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a month.” Particularly since (a) we were in a recession at the time, and (b) with a bachelor’s degree in political science, my only real skill was ordering people to bring me those lattes.

  Eventually, the economy turned around and I was given a choice: go back to the business world or pursue a writing career. I went with the option that included working in polar-bear-print pajamas.

  Mr. James senses my discomfort and smiles at me in encouragement. He leans forward and raises his eyebrows, the same way he would if we were having lunch and he simply couldn’t wait to hear what juicy detail I might dish next. His sensitivity and geniality prove too much and I feel the word-vomit bubbling up in the back of my throat. Much as I try to stop the sound from spurting out of my mouth, I am wholly unsuccessful.

  “Mr. James,” I bleat, “I’ve got to be honest—”

  “Aw, Jen, please call me Skip,” he interjects.

  “Okay, um, Skip.” After temping and being in a subordinate position for so long, it feels strange to be allowed to call someone by their given name again. “Do you know Carrie Bradshaw?”

  “Personally, or do you mean the character from Sex and the City?”

  “The character.”

  “Well, I guess so, yes.” His accent is so twee and cute it makes me want to put him in corduroy overalls and place him on a shelf. Yaa-iss.

  “Here’s the thing—Carrie Bradshaw is a fu—, I mean, a damn”—I cough—“ahem, a dang liar. Seriously, she lives in a chichi part of town in a great apartment and has forty thousand dollars’ worth of shoes. She’s forever out having drinks with her friends and she’s not the kind of girl who goes to Dollar Beer Night at a seedy sports bar. She’s all ‘top shelf or don’t bother, please.’ Plus, every time a trendy restaurant opens? She’s there, and you know they’re the twenty-five-dollars-and-that’s-just-the-dollop-of-goat-cheese-appetizer kind of places. She doesn’t cook and buys all her meals out. She keeps sweaters in her oven, you know.” I pause and catch a breath before another wave of verbal diarrhea hits.

  “I watch the show on occasion, but I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

  “Think about it—what does she do for a living?”

  “She, um, has that column, right? About datin’ and sex?” Say-ekks.

  “Ding, ding, ding, yes! She’s a writer. And she has/does all this cool stuff and she’s not drowning in credit card debt, nor does she, you know, shake it on the side for extra cash. Although I bet Samantha would, if something happened to her PR agency. Miranda, too. My theory is she’s dirtier than people think. A nice girl would never dye her hair that garish red. Although, really, their lives make me a little crazy. You’d think sometimes they’d just want to stay in and eat Raisinettes and watch old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 while tucked under a fluffy down comforter. All that grooming and trawling must get exhausting. Sometimes I want to yell at them, ‘Hey! Stay home tonight for once! Balthazar will still be there tomorrow! Put a mask on, read something trashy in the tub, or, like, go take a pottery class. Slow down!’ They’re exhausted; no wonder they all look like they’ve served prison time on that show.”

  He nods and drawls, “I have no idea where you’re going with this, but I’m certainly interested to find out.”

  “The point is Carrie Bradshaw set highly unrealistic expectations. I thought when I sold my book I’d have hundred-dollar bills hanging out of my pockets and it would be me commanding the best table at Balthy, sucking down their deep-cupped Goose Point Oysters, sipping Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill Brut ’95. Or, if not rich, at least as cool as Carrie is so I’d make the kind of rich friends who’d have that kind of clout. Shoot, Mr. Big was probably always buying, you know? At the least, I figured I’d be able to live in the city without having to take mindlessly mortifying temp jobs before I get my advance check. But that’s not reality.”
  “It’s not?”

  “Oh, hel—I mean, heck no. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to have sold my book. But I still have to make some money so I can continue to live indoors until I get my first check.”

  “Have y’all been tempin’ for a while? Aren’t most assignments kinda like this one?”

  “Yeah”—I laugh bitterly—“right.”

  “Are they so bad?” He makes “bad” into a multisyllable word—bay-ya-duh.

  “Are you really interested or are you just humoring me because you think I’m unhinged and may go all Dick Cheney on you?”

  He shakes his head. “Not sure yet. There’s a possibility for this to go either way. Whyn’t you tell me about some of them jobs and then I’ll let y’all know?”

  “Fair enough. Okay, so, after an entire year of working terrible and ridiculous temp jobs and putting together my book proposal, I’m ready for an enjoyable assignment. My recruiter tells me about this high-level, use-my-brain type of job at an architecture firm, and I’m like, ‘Yes! Finally, a challenge!’”

  “And was it?”

  “If by ‘challenge’ you mean physically moving and sorting ninety filing cabinets full of musty, moldering, water-stained blueprints in the one part of the building without air conditioning, then yes. FYI? If you’re looking for a manual laborer, the overweight, surly, ex–sorority girl wearing pearls may not be the best candidate.”7

  He chuckles and nods for me to continue.

  “Anyway, when I wasn’t busy hauling heavy, dirty things from Point A to Point B, my twenty-six-year-old, fresh-out-of-B-school boss enjoyed barking new and impossible tasks at me. Which was fun. Especially when I wasn’t given tools to complete said tasks. For example, Little Miss MBA demanded I order more metal inserts for those fetid file drawers.”

  “That’s not so awful, right?” he asks, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his sleek glass desk. He lowers his chin to his hands, still rapt with attention. His lips curve up and his smile makes his eyes all crinkly. I already adore this man—he’s darling! Like I want to dress him in corduroy overalls and place him on a shelf in my bedroom.

  “Correction—the custom-made file drawers. About which I had no manufacturing information. Or system upon which I could order them. Or official authorization to access said system if, in fact, one even existed. Or method to pay for the inserts, had I been able to track down the mystery drawers, gained access to said ordering system, and learned how to operate it. My only resource was the girl? Who used to hold that job? And ended every sentence? In the middle of a phrase? With a question mark?”8

  He covers his chin and mouth to suppress a grin.

  “However, the beauty of being a temp is the ability to say with a straight face, ‘Yes, I absolutely ordered them,’ before dancing out of the building for the last time.”9

  “What’d y’all do before that?” They-ya-tuh.

  “Prior to ordering imaginary items for architects, I had a short-term gig in the legal department of a company. This assignment wasn’t so bad—a little collating, some filing, a bit of calendar management, and enough watercooler chat about last night’s episode of American Idol to keep me if not happy, then at least relatively satisfied.”

  “That sounds kinda nice.”

  I agree. “Actually, it was, at least until the day the chief corporate counsel came back from his vacation. Prior to my arrival and his horrifically hairy-backed, Speedo-clad holiday in the south of France—by the way, I saw the photos and I’m blind now—”

  Skip snorts a bit of coffee onto his French cuff. Without thinking, I grab a Starbucks napkin from his desk, dip it in my water glass, and hand it back to him.

  “Start blotting. You don’t want the stain to set. Anyway, the chief counsel had shipped four hundred thirty-page contracts to a client. Although he’d overnighted these documents, his client never received them. I suggested I call the client to confirm his correct address before reshipping them. However, he thought we—meaning me—would be better off simply faxing them on the office’s miniature Playskool’s My First Fax Machine. Now, let me see your cuff.”

  Skip holds out his wrist and the stain’s noticeably smaller.

  “See? Keep it up and it will be completely gone in a couple of minutes. Anyway, let’s do the math, shall we? Four hundred contracts times thirty pages each on a piece of equipment practically covered in duckies and moo-cows.10

  As the attorney outlined the parameters of my assignment, I offered up a small prayer. ‘Dear God, please allow me to walk the earth long enough to fax all twelve thousand frigging pages. Thank you. Amen.’ Unfortunately, the fax machine was not also blessed with such longevity and gave out around page 657. So, we went with my original plan, which was to ship the contracts.”

  Skip interjects, “It’s all gone!” He turns his wrist over again and again, marveling at my mad stain-fighting skillz, yo. “But I’m sorry—you were sayin’?”

  “While I prepared the mailing labels, I quickly assessed why the documents had never arrived. I popped into his office to explain the situation. ‘Excuse me, sir?’ I asked, standing in his doorway. ‘Um, I figured out why those documents you sent never arrived.’ Normally I’m not afraid of anyone, but there was something about this guy’s steel gray eyes that really threw me. All flat and dead. Ick. Anyway, he was enraptured with his computer screen and he said, ‘Uh-huh. And?’ ‘Well,’ I told him, ‘although I haven’t been able to get the client on the phone to confirm this, I’m pretty sure you used the wrong address.’ ‘Impossible,’ he replied with a gesture. I recall thinking, Oh, hold the phone, did he just make shoo-be-gone motions at me?

  “I continued, ‘But, sir, you sent them to the—’ He snapped, ‘It’s right. Ship it again.’ And yes, there was distinct shooing. Then he rolled his scary eyes and turned his back to me. ‘But, this address was where the Wor—’ Before I could finish my statement, he rose and walked to the door. ‘And that will be all, thank you,’ he said, shutting it in my face. So I dutifully completed the labels and sent the boxes off to Two WTC, NY, NY, which is better known as?” I ask.

  Skip replies, “Ground Zero?”

  I nod gravely. “The south tower.”

  “Wow. So, what’d you do then?” They-inn.

  “Here’s the thing—after 689 days of being unemployed (but who’s counting?),11 I totally appreciate the opportunity to work. But once in a while when I run into someone who’s a bigger asshat than I could ever have been when I was a VP, I feel it’s my duty to give them a gentle karmic reminder.

  “On my last day with the legal department, I took it upon myself to do just that. I walked into his office and said, ‘Excuse me, sir—hi, I’m Jen, you know, the temp who’s been covering for Mary Ann? Anyway, I notice you shut your door a lot for privacy. And, I’m not really quite sure how to say this, but when you shut the door? It’s not like a magic door or anything, so you don’t actually become invisible when you close it. And you may not realize it, but anyone walking by can see in through your giant glass wall next to the closed door. And, the thing is, I was just thinking since you’re chiefcounsel and all? It might be better if, um, the other employees didn’t see you surfing teenaged-girl porn sites.’”

  “No, y’all didn’t!” He shrieks with laughter.

  “Yes, I all did,” I reply. While we giggle and wipe our eyes, the receptionist buzzes to inform Skip his next appointment has arrived and is waiting in the lobby.

  “Well, Jen”—Jay-unn—“I think I got a purty good idea of what it would be like working together. Anything else I ought to know before y’all go?” Skip asks.

  Minding my potentially dangerous buttons, I take a deep breath before delivering my final pitch. “Skip, I have to level with you. Working temp jobs is more than just a way to supplement my writing career and pay my cable bill. I mean, I used to be wealthy and obnoxious, spouting ridiculous sentiments like how I wouldn’t ride the bus because ‘the thing about mass transportation is it
transports the masses.’ But a while back I got a real wake-up call when my luxurious dot-com world came crashing down and I lost my executive position. However, as our financial situation improves, I sometimes forget those hard times. Given my propensity for raging narcissism, I occasionally need a coffee-carrying gig for reasons other than financial. Being someone’s assistant, even temporarily, keeps me grounded. That’s why I really want this job.”

  Skip tents his hands and hides most of his face behind it. “Jen, I’ve got to know one thang and it’s important.”

  “What’s that, sir, I mean, Skip?”

  “If I look at teenaged-girl porn, are y’all gonna squeal on me?”

  “Depends,” I reply. “Are you planning on looking at any teenaged-girl porn?”

  “I can’t imagine I ever will.” Wee-ill.

  “Hmm, then I’d say we’re good.”

  He extends his hand and reveals a huge smile. “All right, I guess I’ll see y’all on Monday, maybe ’round nine a.m.?”

  Wait, does that mean I got the job?

  I got the job!

  Knowing my suit can’t possibly withstand a victory dance, instead I shake his proffered hand and reply, “I guess y’all wee-ill.”

  * * *

  To: angie_at_home, carol_at_home, wendy_at_home, jen_at_work

  From: [email protected] Subject: the shit list

  Haven’t sent you one for a while, so please enjoy today’s shit list:

  My Tanning Salon—When your cheap door handle breaks and traps me inside the booth for ten fucking minutes, I expect you not to laugh at me when you’re finally able to release me from my ultraviolet prison cell.

  Coworkers at the Temp Job—Yes, I know you need an envelope and you’re welcome to take as many as you want. But it might be nice if you fucking said hello or something before barging into my cube and riffling through all my drawers.