THE BEST OF ENEMIES, Chapters One and Two
Katherine “Kitty” Carricoe
North Shore, Illinois
“Ashley, I so appreciate your volunteering to be Second Grade Snack Mom today. Bless your heart for diving right in!”
I grin broadly, for two reasons—First, to demonstrate how very welcome second wife/stepmother Ashley should feel as the newest member of the Lakeside Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization. Second, when I’m (frequently) complimented on my dazzling smile, I can refer my admirers to my husband Kenneth “Dr. K” Carricoe, North Shore’s premiere cosmetic dentist!
“Um, thanks, Katherine!” Ashley fidgets with the hem of her abbreviated silk shorts, constructed from fabric as thin as tissue paper. How was this garment her home run swing in deciding appropriate garb for Snack Mom duty? Granted, today’s unseasonably hot, but most of the other mothers at drop-off this morning were clad in gauzy tunic tops or sundresses, save for new-money Brooke Birchbaum in her obnoxious English riding gear.
(Oh, honey. I let everyone know I had a pony once, too.)
(When I was seven.)
In no way does Ashley fit the mold of the typical Lakesider mother. Around here, we don our Jack Rogers sandals when it’s warm and Wellies when the weather turns. While we don’t quite “wear pink on Wednesdays,” you can certainly see it from here. Expressing one’s individuality through fashion is for artists or anyone with the bad fortune of living west of Green Valley Road. No one would dare show up in stiletto ankle booties, particularly paired with itsy bitsy gossamer shorts.
To give Ashley credit, her legs are gorgeous, with long, toned muscles and the kind of smooth, unblemished skin that becomes a distant memory after pregnancy varicose veins take hold. In theory, I understand why she’d opt to highlight this feature. That she’s parading said lovely legs around in a pair of hot pants in front of a group of elementary school students is certainly none of my concern.
I mean, my goodness, am I the PTO president or the Taliban?
Still, I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that a mother’s shorts should be more “Bermuda” and less “booty.” Forgive me if I choose to live in the old-fashioned, bras-are-not-optional world, where wax is meant for Volvos, not vulvas.
Ooh, I’m so bad!
Wax for Volvos—I make a mental note to share this witticism with my best friend Betsy. She loves it when I spill my PTO war stories. She says hearing about everyone’s terrible parenting reinforces her decision not to have children. But I’m confident she’ll change her mind about babies eventually. While she and her hubby Trip may be on the Forbes 400 Richest Americans list, she’ll never be truly wealthy until she has children.
“Oh, sweetie,” I reply, placing a comforting hand on Ashley’s bare shoulder (a halter top? really?). “All my friends call me Kitty.”
Ashley doesn’t have any tan lines on her back, so I assume the rumors of nude sunbathing on a public beach during her French Riviera honeymoon are true. Yikes! Maybe once when I was young, free, and newlywed, I might have been tempted, but breastfeeding three babies has neatly taken that option off the table. I refer you again to my bras-are-not-optional statement.
As we size each up other up, Ashley toys with her massive diamond ring. My, my, but that’s an elaborate set. Her brilliant Asscher-cut center stone—easily three carats—would be magnificent on its own, but hers is surrounded by a dozen round emeralds, set in a wedding band made from three wide strips of braided pavé platinum. I feel like I need my sunglasses to even look at it.
Naturally, diamonds are any girl’s best friend, but we Lakeside moms know there’s a distinct line between classy and gaudy. Ashley’s definitely Krossed into Kardashian Kountry with that sparkly bauble. I much prefer the modest solitaire Dr. K gave me when he was still in dental school at UIC.
I surreptitiously compare our hands. My jewelry—simple wedding set on the left and a family signet ring on the right—is appropriate, which is key in a community where fitting in is always the new black. My fingers are topped with short, neat, square nails, finished with Deborah Lippmann’s Sandy Camel polish that Allure just named a Fall 2014 Must Have.
Hands like mine are made for soothing, for detecting fevers with far more accuracy than any thermometer, for rubbing pajama-clad backs in the middle of the night after a bad dream, for helping sweet little fingers peel a clementine, and for precisely applying sequins on a homemade burlap Father’s Day banner. With precariously long, rhinestone-studded French tips, Ashley’s are more suited to . . . oh, I don’t know, maybe holding dollar bills in a rap video?
Betsy, you’re in for a treat when I recount this conversation!
Mental note—get ahold of Betsy. We’re both so swamped that we don’t chat nearly enough these days, even though we live practically within walking distance. But who has time for a walk? I mean, her life is completely insane between running Well Well Well, better known as W3, the nonprofit she founded to bring clean drinking water to developing nations, and keeping up with the demands of being the country’s top wealth manager’s wife. So many obligations! For me, between manning the PTO, raising my Littles, and updating SecretSquash.com (not to brag, but it’s an ultra-popular lifestyle blog), I barely have a minute to run a load of laundry!
Still, I have to make time to give her a buzz and chat like we did in the old days. In college, we’d sit down in the basement of our sorority house on Sunday mornings, shaking our heads at all the girls sneaking in the back door after their Walks of Shame. (Some sisters never understood that saving it till pinned is the difference between being a Sigma Chi Sweetheart and a Sigma Chi Slam-piece. Fact.) Bets and I would hang out with a two-liter of Diet Coke and chitchat about everyone’s Saturday nights until the bottle was empty. Then we’d trot on over to the White Hen, stock up, and start all over again. We were so close, our Tri Tau sisters gave us the Best Besties Award three years in a row!
I wonder where Ashley went to college?
Skank State University?
Seriously, Bets gets such a kick out of me! She knows I’m never one to judge . . . which is too bad, because I do it so well. Now, I have to wonder—how does this Ashley person possibly expect to help her stepchildren with craft projects sporting talons like that? Imagine how much glitter gets stuck underneath them.
Must have been so hard for her when she worked the main stage.
Ha! I’m terrible!
Ashley chirps, “Okay, Kitty—what a cute nickname?”
Dear, dear Ashley—nothing says “not yet an adult” more than ending every statement on an up note, as though you’re unsure of your own power. A lack of conviction is going to bite her in the booty-shorts real flipping quick. Her stepchildren will eat her for lunch if she doesn’t begin to exercise confidence in her authority over them. I mean, Barry Jr. showed up for school today in Pokémon pajama pants and his little sister Caitlin wore a tutu. A tutu! Does no one in that home own a pair of corduroys? Believe me, this nonsense would have never happened on their mother’s watch.
Of course, I overheard Ms. Bevin, the kindergarten teacher with the long, brittle gray hair and tenuous relationship with foundation garments, calling Caitlin’s tutu “groovy.” No great shock there. I began to question Ms. Bevin’s judgment the moment I realized she drove an electric car. Not a hybrid, which makes sense. I firmly believe in going green. That’s why I always carry my own shopping bags in the back of my new Escalade. But Ms. Bevin’s car? She drives an honest-to-God, plug-your-extension-cord-in-here, hog-up-all-the-best-parking-spots-at-Whole-Foods electric car.
I truly don’t get it.
Ashley continues. “Well, Kitty, I was so nervous about bringing the right snack? I mean, I’m really just getting to know Barry’s kids and I didn’t want to embarrass Barry Jr. by giving the wrong thing to his class?”
Barry, Barry, Barry.
Your ex-wife Lenora was a saint and the best PTO volunteer imaginable. Her gluten-free, sugar-free, nut-free, dairy-free, wheat-free muffins were the largest revenue-generator in the history of the Lakeside bake sale. (Screw you and your store-bought Cronuts, Brooke Birchbaum.) Or what about the time Lenora chaperoned three separate class trips, all in one day? Masterful time management! And, my God, that woman could inflate balloons like a professional birthday party clown. She single-handedly built that bubble arch two years ago at the Children’s Carnival of Creativity. When she ran out of helium, she used nothing but the power of her own lungs to soldier through. That’s what I call heroic.
But no one remembers Lenora’s fine work. Instead, all they can talk about is Lenora’s involvement in that sordid incident in front of the school, right before she abandoned the family and ran off to Albuquerque to open a hot yoga studio.
On the day in question, I’d already pulled away—exactly as the rules dictate, for it’s up to me to set an example—when Lenora apparently snapped. Rumor has it she shrieked, “THE DROP ZONE IS FOR LOADING AND UNLOADING ONLY, BITCHES!” before she rammed her Honda Odyssey smack into Merritt Wilhelm and Brooke Birchbaum who were blocking the exit by having an extended conversation in the middle of the street.
Publicly I condemned Lenora’s actions, but privately I admired her dedication to keeping traffic flowing; it was about time that certain mothers learned the rules did indeed apply to them, too. (And, please, Brooke barely even needed that neck brace. Hel-lo, drama queen alert!)
Ashley continues, “With snacks? I thought back to what I liked as a kid and went with that?”
I nod encouragingly. The good news is we’ll save scads of time because she doesn’t have to delve too deep into the archives to remember her childhood preferences. I mean, when was she in grade school? Last week?
Ooh, Bets, I am on fire!
“I remember one summer vacay, me and my brothers drank nothing but Hawaiian Punch? We had those funny red mustaches for three months!” Ashley tells me. Her eyes are bright and shimmering and there’s a light spray of freckles across the bridge of her alabaster nose, making her look even younger than she actually is.
So, pretty much embryonic.
“What a charming story!” I gush. I’m famous within Lakeside for my enthusiasm. Because of me, the school board revoked term limits on the PTO presidency and I’ve served four consecutive terms thus far. I’m basically their FDR. And if certain board members received free ZOOM! Whitening treatments in exchange for their votes?
Well, it’s for the children.
“What a treat! Isn’t it darling that all the Littles have those same cute mustaches right now?”
I have to stop myself from sighing. Every day, calling my babies “Littles” feels less and less appropriate. I mean, Kord’s now a high school freshman and Konnor’s started middle school. Sunrise, sunset, eh? Kassie’s only in second grade, but I worry that I’ll blink and she’ll suddenly be slut-shaming sisters in her own sorority house. Tear!
I’d really love to have more kids, particularly since we started so young. Dr. K was in only his second year of dental school when Kord was born. (Related note, the failure rate for birth control pills is six percent. Ask me how I know.) As is, we’ll be empty nesters in ten years! I always wonder aloud what we’ll do with all that time, while Dr. K replies, “What won’t we do?”
I’ve been on a campaign to convince him we should have another child, but he’s resolute. On paper, the decision to be finished makes sense, yet I hate the idea I’ll never breathe in my own newborn babies’ scent again, which smells like the sweetest vanilla powdered sugar doughnuts you could imagine. (My husband insists he prefers a new car smell.) Plus, what happens in a few years when Kassie finishes at Lakeside? Who’ll run the PTO then? Merritt Wilhelm, mother to the nose-picking-est brood to ever attend Lakeside?
I don’t think so.
Ashley beams at me and that’s when I notice the gap between her Maxillary Central Incisors. Why would Barry pour all that cash into a skating rink of an engagement ring before fixing Ashley up with a couple of veneers? Everyone knows a bright smile is the best accessory. Priorities, people!
I realize I’m not paying Ashley proper attention, having been distracted by baby fever, so I refocus. After all, being present in the moment is on the Carricoe Family’s Always Always list.
“Right?” Ashley says, referring to the little red mustaches. She’s clearly delighted that I seem to be taking her side.
Seem to be is the operative term here.
“Hawaiian Punch was a creative and exotic choice for the beverage portion of snack time! The Littles went bananas! Why, do you realize that many of the children in the class have never even tasted anything made with high fructose corn syrup or Red Dye number forty?”
Ashley’s (imperfect) smile falters. “Did . . . did I make a mistake?”
Hold the phone, what’s this?
Do I detect a glimmer of self-awareness beneath all that body shimmer?
I honestly didn’t predict that outcome. I’m so used to having to argue with these ninnies, particularly Brooke Birchbaum. Her husband’s a senior VP for a certain processed-foods company and she won’t shut up about how corn syrup is “just like table sugar!” Oh, honey—is that what you have to tell yourself every time you spend your sweet, sweet blood money on yet another exotic vacation or new Berber carpeting for your McMansion?
I appraise Ashley. Yes, she’s in her twenties, but by that same token, she possesses a youthful exuberance sorely lacking in so many of the other mothers in Kassie’s class.
Maybe I shouldn’t be quite so quick to dismiss her. I could use some youthful exuberance up in here. Why did so many of these women wait until their mid-forties to procreate? Eggs come with an expiration date for a reason! (Trust me, I can feel them starting to go rogue down there.) I mean, one of the Midlife Mommies wouldn’t even work the bake sale when summoned—said her bunions hurt too much to stand for any period of time. Bunions! Of all things. My ninety-year-old Gammy Rosemarie has bunions.
Don’t even start me on the working mothers. They’re an entirely different breed of nightmare. “Sorry, Kitty, I can’t possibly help with the fund-raising calls; I have to depose a witness that day!” Sure, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that’s fine. But when we can’t buy new beakers for the science lab and your daughter’s lack of a STEM education leads her to a life as a Hooters waitress, don’t cry to me about chicken wings.
Unfortunately, a good portion of the mothers in this school are useless, particularly those with second graders.
I need fresh blood.
I need new recruits to do my bidding.
Between the Oldsters, the Career Barbies, and the Momorexics (those ultra-ripped, exercise-obsessed, untenably selfish women who’d rather spend their entire day at North Shore Spa & Fitness than monitoring the playground for bullying, ahem, Merritt Wilhelm) there aren’t nearly enough proper stay-at-homers for my purposes. What I wouldn’t give to have a few polygamous families move to town! Big Love? More like big help! Thank God Illinois passed the same-sex marriage act. That should bring me an influx of fabulously involved gay daddies in the next few years, but for now, I’ve got to work with what I have.
Has Ashley minion potential?
On the one hand, Ashley thought it was okay to feed children Hawaiian Punch and Fritos for a snack, because apparently she couldn’t get her hands on any Mexican black tar heroin. And yet she volunteered for the job of Snack Mom, which is a distinct selling point.
Of course, I wouldn’t have to consider converting Ashley if Betsy had been content to get her MRS and not her MBA way back when. Not only would she be the best parent EVAH, but with her business acumen and my ability to organize, our students would have the highest test scores in the state. Mean it.
I guess the investment banking world’s gain was Lakeside’s loss and I’m forced to manage the dregs.
But if I wanted to, how might I bring Ashley around?
Physically, we’d need to dial her whole look back a few (thousand) notches. Her hair’s all kinds of wrong. Much too white-blond. Ash-blond, not platinum, sweetie. Never platinum. (Yes, Kassie’s hair is that exact color, but she’s a natural towhead.) And those extensions? Gots to go, girl. No one could possibly do an entire blowout and still be out of the house early enough to take the kids to Li’l Dippers Summer Sunrise Saturday Swim Club.
Burning all the Forever 21s to the ground should help us with the wardrobe dilemma, but really, everything’s going to hinge on how malleable she is.
My brilliant older sister Kelly says to never discount anyone because they might be useful later down the line. So I believe a trial balloon is in order.
I wrap an arm around Ashley’s narrow shoulders in a conspiratorial manner. “Of course you didn’t do anything wrong, Ashley! It’s just that some of our Littles’ mommies are a tad rigid in terms of their children’s diets. Loosen up, be more spontaneous, I always say! These gals should be more ‘Carrie’ and less ‘Charlotte,’ am I right?” I don’t wait for her answer, because it suddenly occurs to me that she was in second grade when Sex and the City debuted. “I assume you received the treatise on the evils of nut butter?”
Ashley nods and begins to chew at the cuticle around her thumbnail. Either she doesn’t understand the word “treatise,” or she’s waiting for me to admonish her, but because I’m following Kelly’s dictates, I won’t take that route.
Too obvious. Too little return on investment.
I continue, “Humorless, right? Peanut butter’s not a hate crime!”
Ashley perks up. “Right? When did that happen? We lived on jars of Jif when I was a kid.”
This morning, then?
She says, “I tried to give one of Barry Junior’s friends a PBJ Saturday at soccer practice and his mom literally slapped it out of my hands?”
I nod. “Lacey Churchill.”
“Yes!” she exclaims, eyes widening. “How’d you know?”
“Lacey tried to have all of North Shore declared a nut-free zone in 2009.” I lean in and whisper, “Her son’s not even allergic, she’s just afraid of how densely caloric peanut butter is. Doesn’t want Jeremiah to chunk out.”
Ashley nervously twirls one of her extensions as we speak. “Is it me, or is that, like, cray-cray?”
“Bona fide cray-cray,” I agree.
Okay, not afraid to make fun of the parents I dislike.
One point for Ashley.
I explain, “The key with kids is to provide proper nutrition without a lot of conversation. You ask them to eat their spinach and you end up arguing until you’re prematurely gray. Here’s the thing—you don’t negotiate. Listen to me—You. Do. Not. Negotiate.”
I say all of this while I look directly into Ashley’s aquamarine eyes, lined in far too much lavender kohl. I expect to see the telltale sign of colored contact lenses around the periphery of her irises, but as she gazes and blinks, I can’t detect anything.
Wait, her stunning tropical-ocean eye color is real?
Does that mean the gravity-defying, free-range boobs are God-given, too? And what of her small bottom, as flawlessly rounded as a fresh peach? I don’t even want to contemplate anyone having come out of the box this perfect. (Save for a small front tooth-gap.)
As I need Ashley to understand how important a healthy, balanced diet is to developing children, I keep my gaze steady, despite noticing she has no dark roots or visible glued-in hair strands.
Damn it. Likely also real.
I continue. “You’re the parent, you’re in charge. The trick is . . .” I move in for the kill, delighted to be sharing my hard-won knowledge. Yeah, she may have the bod of a Victoria’s Secret model, but I make sure my family takes in plenty of niacin. “If you toss a couple of handfuls of spinach into a smoothie and call it a milkshake, the Littles love it, they drink it, they don’t get rickets, and everyone wins.”
Ashley gazes up at me with her big doe eyes, framed in heavy, dark (false?) eyelashes. She blinks slowly a couple of times before she finally speaks. “That is the most smart thing I’ve ever heard.”
Two points for Ashley.
She looks over both of her tawny bare shoulders before she says, “Like, Ms. Bevin said that kids are ‘sentient beings’ and should choose their own path, but I think she’s kind of an old hippie with the Ms. business? And maybe she doesn’t make the best choices herself?”
Three points for Ashley!!
“Do you have any other hints for me?” she asks. “I’m thinking maybe I should be giving the kids something other than frozen pizza for dinner. Like, nutritious salads? Don’t they have vitamins and niacin and things?”
Ah, yes, Kelly was right. Ashley will do. This girl will learn.
Because I’ll teach her.
“You mean, do I have an entire lifestyle blog where I post recipes about hiding veggies in deceptively delicious meals called SecretSquash.com?”
Ashley gasps. “Ohmigod! No way! Like Jerry Seinfeld’s wife does? I saw her on Oprah a few years ago! Are you going to publish a cookbook? Are you going to be famous?”
I explain, “I’m not in it for the glory. Doing right by children is all that matters to me.”
Well, doing right and the occasional page view. How would everyone see how hard I’m killing the mom game without sharing my success on social media?
Although I’m still flashing my show-stopping smile, I notice I’m clenching my fists. Fine, maybe I’d have enjoyed more of my well-earned glory if Mrs. Famous Pants hadn’t stolen my idea and beaten me to market.
Damn it, I was the one who first hid broccoli inside of chicken nuggets!
Not her, me!
I find myself gritting my teeth as I grin, which is problematic. If Dr. K was here, he’d make me put in my mouth guard right now. Clenching is the enemy of healthy molars. True story.
I take a couple of deep yoga breaths to calm myself. Whoosh in, whoosh out. There, that’s better. I can’t continue to be frustrated by Jessica Seinfeld, as it’s possible she came up with the idea on her own, too. Surely I’m not the first one to figure out how to properly nourish her children.
Granted, some days it feels like that, but it can’t actually be true.
I inhale through my nose and exhale from my mouth. There. Getting better. Being able to maintain my cool in a crisis is precisely why I’m such an outstanding PTO president. When everyone else is losing their heads, I’m the one who maintains a laserlike focus. That’s why my number’s at the top of the phone tree.
Betsy believes I’d have been running a Fortune 500 company by now if I hadn’t opted for the mommy track. Yet at this point, I can barely even remember what my PR job was like, save for all the cosmos we used to drink after work. And really, it’s not as though writing press releases about a new brand of antiperspirant for teens could compare to, you know, creating baby humans!
I do recall having fun crafting the client pitches, and the day we landed the fragrance division of Calvin Klein as a client was amazing. They sent over so much free perfume! But about a minute later, I got pregnant with Kord, so now I always associate the smell of my old favorite Obsession with barfing in a metal office trash can.
Definitely no longer obsessed with Obsession.
I breathe in one last time and I am Zen again.
“I don’t know how you’re so calm,” Ashley tells me, wrapping an extension (?) around her French-manicured digit. “If someone famous swooped in on my million dollar idea, I would be batshit? You are amazeballs for not, like, hating her?”
I’m very strict with the Littles about the “H” word in our home. It’s simply not something we say, ergo it’s on the Never Never list. Plus, I don’t hate Jessica Seinfeld, I’m simply disappointed to not have been first to market. If only I’d known about blogging back then I could have staked my claim! Yet what really matters is that my children are thriving because they’re properly parented. That I have way more pins than Mrs. Not Shoshanna on Pinterest is an added bonus. (My coco-loco energy balls did make me a household name in the blogosphere. Fact.)
Plus, it’s against my policy to hate people, even Nana Baba, my overbearing MIL. I don’t hate anyone except for those who truly need hating.
Like Jack Jordan, for example.
But that’s a story for another day.
I appraise Ashley one last time. Time to turn Ashley into an asset.
“Sweetie, have you ever heard of a wonderful clothing store called Talbots?”
“Um . . . no?”
I hook my arm through hers and guide her down the hall, away from the second grade classroom. “Then do I have a treat for you!”
Jacqueline “Jack” Jordan
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
I hate girls.
I do. Can’t stand ’em.
I hate how petty girls are. I hate how they’ll smile so kindly to your face while they’re mentally tearing you to shreds, for committing no transgression other than wearing the wrong shoes.
I hate how girls pass judgment as easily as they’d hand out Halloween candy. I hate how they’re more concerned about the content of your closet than the content of your character. Although a few reporters mentioned Margaret Thatcher’s power suits when she died last year, Iron Maggie’s legacy is that of changing Britain, not changing hemlines.
Margaret Thatcher was young once, but I guarantee she was never a girl.
I can’t stand the way girls giggle for no good reason. Or all the shrieking, which is as grating as the whispering. Or their inability to use the bathroom alone. What’s the story behind that? I’ve yet to require an escort to the latrine and I live under the near-constant threat of live fire.
Girls are superficial. Artificial. Plastic, not fantastic.
Girls escalate the smallest conflicts until they become epic in scope.
Molehills become mountains and tiny skirmishes morph into great wars.
Or, what they believe are great wars.
Honestly, it’s offensive. I understand the implications of war. I’ve been a foreign correspondent for twelve years. Trust me, I know what real conflict is. So, raging over who has dibs on wearing fuchsia to the prom or who borrowed your Nine Inch Nails CD without permission or who hid broccoli in a chicken nugget first?
Well, it ain’t exactly Kandahar.
There are no girls on the front line. Marines are stationed here as part of the FET (Female Engagement Team) but they’re women. They’re soldiers. Warriors. They do not engage in slap-fights over who looked sideways at someone else’s crush. They’re tough and competent and I’m not referring to them when I say I hate girls.
That’s why I eschew most female friendships, save for Sars. But she’s half a world away right now. Wish I were better about keeping in touch when I’m abroad, but between her grueling travel schedule for W3 and the ten-hour time difference, we don’t often connect. When I’m not filing a story, I’m in my tiny Kabul apartment, researching my next assignment, so my time’s limited and my focus specific.
Sars understands, though. She’s always been a good egg. I’m so proud of her work with W3. I hope in some small way I inspired her with my stories of how hard life is for those without access to clean water. After she and Trip made Chandler Financial Group into the premiere wealth management firm, she could have been content to stay home and push out babies, the pampered wife of a wealthy man. Instead, she’s been funneling all her time and resources over the past few years to create and manage a nonprofit that builds wells in the third world. I can’t imagine a better use of her considerable talent and resources.
Sars and I became friends the day my family bought the house across from her in grade school. Moving to a new state was overwhelming on top of the other circumstances, but Sars eased the transition.
I remember sitting on the porch swing, watching the movers haul in furniture when this tiny, birdlike person flew up the stairs to sit next to me, a ball of frenetic energy, eyes enormous behind glasses that even I knew were nerdy. And in one breath, she said, “Hi, you’re the new girl! I live across the street. My ma says we’re gonna be in the same class. I hear Miss Meyer is pretty nice, even though her spelling tests are supposed to be hard. I don’t love spelling. My pa says computers are going to do all the spelling for you in the future, so why bother learning how? Math’s my favorite subject. I can divide fractions in my head, no fooling! Someday I wanna be a banker. I already have a savings account where I put all my money from losing my baby teeth. My ma’s actually the tooth fairy, but I pretend like she’s not. I got two bucks for each front tooth!! We should be friends.”
Before I could say a thing, she went on. “There are no girl kids in this neighborhood. Wait, my cousins live down the block. They can drive and they’re kinda mean. They made fun of me for liking Growing Pains because they say Kirk Cameron’s a tool, so I pretend that I don’t watch even though I do. He’s not a tool, but his friend Boner is. Is Boner a dirty word? Everyone laughs at me when I ask. Did I say one of my cousins can drive? Big whoop. Cilla and Gracie think they’re so rad because they got to see Dirty Dancing. They’re in love with Patrick Swayze, but he’s, like, seventy years old. Ugh.”
She looked at me expectantly. I understood the conversation ball was in my court, yet I had no idea how to respond. I’d already learned more about her in thirty seconds than I did playing Peewee hockey with my old neighbor Jason for two years.
Actually, all of my buddies in Saint Louis were male. Without a female influence for the past few years, I’d become a full-fledged tomboy. I have early recollections of tea parties and lace-trimmed dresses with shiny, buckled church shoes, but at this point, I wonder if I haven’t somehow co-opted Sars’s memories.
So, I was in the dark about how to address this exotic, bespectacled creature perched next to me, with two elaborate braids hanging halfway down her back, secured with big plaid bows. Noticing her pristine white cotton shirt buttoned halfway down and then tied at the waist like Jennifer Grey in the Dirty Dancing movie trailer, I suddenly felt self-conscious in my brother Bobby’s old Cardinals tee.
She grinned at me. “You wanna play Barbies?” she asked.
Before I even realized what I was saying, I responded, “Nah, I hate dolls.” I instantly regretted my answer, assuming I’d blown my shot at my first real female friendship. Thing was, I didn’t hate Barbies—I just didn’t know what to do with them. When my mom was still with us, I had a few dolls. I don’t remember playing with them, though. Mostly I recall my brothers and I just threw them at one another.
Luckily, Sars granted me a reprieve.
“’S okay,” she shrugged, adjusting her giant horn-rims. “We can play whatever you want.”
Sars was the first female I ever met who could keep up with my brothers and me. Sure, she had that doll collection, and, yes, her mom bought her a lot of frilly stuff, but she never forced any of it on me, and despite her feminine proclivities, she could frontload a jump on a dirt bike better than any of us. (Pro Tip: you compress the suspension in order to keep the throttle steady before hitting the lip of the ramp.) Sars caught air like nobody’s business, largely because she understood the geometry behind the sport. She always launched herself at the precisely right second.
She was brilliant and fearless back then. She’s still brilliant now, but much more circumspect.
Of course, Sars always said that I was the real adrenaline junkie between the two of us. She claimed I was attracted to anything that made my pulse race.
I’m not sure that’s completely true.
The simple explanation is I don’t care to sit still. I can’t stand to be bored. I’d rather climb Kilimanjaro than laze on the sand with a fruity drink. Give me a campsite over a beach with cabana boys any day of the week. My comfort zone is discomfort. I feel the exact same way about what I do for a living, too. Would I prefer to have kept my first job out of college, covering the Home and Garden beat before going home to my cozy lakefront apartment? Or would I rather report on what it’s like to sleep in fighting holes, with nothing but dirt walls as protection from mortars?
Fighting holes. No question about it.
Life’s too short to be cautious. That’s why I pursued a pilot’s license when my peers were working on their learners’ permits. Was I the only girl in my class who didn’t have a date for prom? Yes. But was I also the only girl who could execute a perfect aerial barrel roll?
Would I have rather slow danced to Ace of Bass with some high school junior who believed I owed him my innocence because he sprang for a tux? Or felt the rush of soloing over Lake Michigan for the first time?
Maybe I’d have attended prom if any of the boys I liked saw me as a date and not just a pal, but given the benefit of twenty years of hindsight, I believe I did what was best for the long run.
Bobby, one of my brothers, credits Tom Cruise for all my life’s choices.
When other kids were watching Punky Brewster, we were wearing out the family copy of Top Gun. To this day, Bobby, Teddy, John-John, and I can quote every single line from memory. Before you ask, yes, my mother had a Kennedy fixation. Among other things, I’ve never forgiven her for saddling me with the middle name Bouvier. I’m not often one to express myself in text language, but OMGWTF? Bouvier? Want to know who thinks the name Bouvier is absolutely hysterical? Every girl in middle school, save for Sars.
What I’m saying is that after hundreds of viewings of Top Gun, I perpetually feel the need for speed. So, when the F-16s fly their sorties overhead, I’m never afraid. I’m jealous. Wish it was me on that hop.
My brother John-John married a total girl named Heather. They live in Atlanta where my brother develops software and they have three-point-five children. (She’s pregnant. Again.) She spends her days redecorating their museum-quality home. Exactly how many shades of beige are there? Seems as though Heather’s found quite a number of them.
I’m forced to exchange pleasantries with Heather when I check in with John. I tell her about the roadside bombs the Ordnance Disposal Team have been defusing along the main drag, and she tries to relate by expressing her frustration over slow-moving SUVs in the carpool lane.
As though her experience was somehow commensurate.
During one assignment, I was embedded with an all-male Airborne infantry unit and had to hike six kilometers through the burning desert to take a shower at the camp where women were stationed. Heather empathized, explaining how John-John wouldn’t let her put a jetted tub in the guest room bath.
I just can’t with this one. I really can’t.
Bears a mention that girls are defined less by age and more by state of mind. Last winter, Bobby dated Lindy, a woman fifteen years his junior. Even though Lindy wore precariously pointed shoes and had a whole complicated hair-straightening routine, she also medaled in the X Games, designed and manufactured her own line of custom snowboards, and for fun, she’d scuba dive in dangerous hotspots like The Blue Hole in Egypt on the Red Sea. Wasn’t a trace of girl on her.
Sadly, Lindy was too mature for Bobby and they broke up shortly after I met her.
That reminds me, I owe Bobby a call.
It’s two thirty p.m. here, so in Aspen, Bobby should just be rolling in from après-après-ski about now. After almost ten years of college—and a dubious claim of having graduated—he moved to Colorado to give snowboard lessons. He’s forty and he still lives with roommates. Yet I can’t disparage his lifestyle because he’s the happiest person on earth.
The Internet’s cooperating here today—service is sporadic—so I’m able to connect fairly quickly via Skype.
Bobby’s wind-burnt face fills my screen and he smiles with his whole soul. Bobby’s hair is much longer than the last time I saw him, and the very tips are still blond from his summer spent bartending on Martha’s Vineyard. “’S’up, G. I. Jack?”
“Living the dream,” I reply. No sarcasm here—I am living my dream.
“How’s the powder at Buttermilk?”
“Fresh to death, baby!”
“They keepin’ you busy?” he asks.
I could make (and, to an extent have made) a career of answering that question alone. There’s a saying that war entails long, hot, dusty stretches of boredom, punctuated by brief bursts of unimaginable terror. Hate how true this is. A few years ago, an AP reporter was traveling in the armored Land Rover two cars up from my position in the convoy. Had the Afghan missile been a single degree off its trajectory, he would have been the one to cover my passing, instead of the reverse.
No easy day.
Sometimes, the tedium here is palpable, but I know firsthand that monotony’s better than the alternative. I’m always enthralled by the way the servicemen and women attempt to fill the void. They’re pros at distracting themselves from the sheer loneliness of being so far removed from everyone/everything they love. I keep a professional distance, but the troops here remind me of so many summers ago after my mom was gone, back in the days when my brothers and I were in charge of amusing ourselves while Dad was at work.
Yesterday, I witnessed two warriors battle almost to the death . . . in a potato sack race. This event was immediately followed by a competition to see who could keep a stick upright, using nothing but their foreheads to balance as they spun in circles, growing more and more dizzy with each rotation.
As for the Second MEB, Second Battalion, Third Marines’ epic remake of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”? Catch the YouTube video—my words won’t do it justice.
Never an easy day, but sometimes a good one.
There are other days when these same merry jokesters will spend ten hours defusing an insurgent’s booby trap. These bombs contain confetti, which brings to mind birthday parties and glitter, and not the nails, bolts, and screws that absolutely tear victims to shreds. The dichotomy of any given twenty-four-hour period fascinates me and I’m in awe of our troops’ strength and commitment. Whether or not I believe this or any war is justified is irrelevant, because it’s my honor to chronicle every aspect of our soldiers’ heroic service.
I probably don’t need to mention that my love for these servicemen and servicewomen is inversely proportional to my distaste for girls.
But I don’t say any of this to Bobby. Instead, I respond, “Busy enough.” I’ll elaborate when I see him in person. Sometimes he needs me in front of him to temper the harsh realities I report. He’s truly tenderhearted. A decade ago, he found a litter of kittens dumped by the side of the road. He fed them with an eyedropper every four hours until they were grown enough to feed themselves. Bobby held on to every one of those cats, rejecting each qualified adoption offer. “Where are you and the crew heading after ski season this year?”
My brother stays in Aspen until the snow melts, and then he and the cats head to summer gigs in that year’s playground-du-jour for the beautiful people. Given what happened with our mom, her parents set us all up with a small trust fund. Mimi and Poppy pretty much dropped out of our lives afterward, so this gesture was the least they could do. The amount’s fairly negligible, but it’s enough supplemental cash to keep Bobby from ever having to wear a so-called monkey suit and work in an office.
I’ve never touched my share of the trust. Don’t want it.
Bobby’s lived all over—Nantucket, the Cape, Southampton, Ibiza, Montenegro, the Cayman Islands, and St. Barts, to name a few. He’s always hanging out with celebrities in his line of work. Reese Witherspoon is a pal—apparently she and her husband fell in love with his twist on the Bloody Mary last summer. He says the trick is to add fresh ground wasabi and ginger, which turns a stodgy old brunch standby into something indescribably delicious. He calls his concoction the “Bobby Mary.” His inside scoop on the rich and famous is wasted on me, but his lifestyle brings him joy, so I’m glad.
Bobby says, “My summer plan? It’s classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
Top Gun quotes will never lose their charm.
Bobby always elevates my mood far more than any prescription SSRI ever could and I find myself grinning back at him. “No, Maverick, really—where are you off to next?”
Bobby suddenly becomes serious. “Gotta level with you, Jack. This life of skiing bumps all day and partying all night is taking a toll on me. I’m finally settling down and going corporate.” He holds a straight face long enough for my heart to skip a beat over such a drastic change, and then he can’t contain himself.
We both laugh until our stomachs hurt. Bobby seeking salaried employment is as likely as me slapping on a pair of panty hose and hosting high tea.
He’s wiping the tears from his eyes when he remembers something. He roots around on a coffee table where Jean-Claude Kitty (brother to Tomba-Cat and Bode Meowler) perches on top of some manner of detritus. Bobby gently moves his cat and digs until he finds what he’s seeking. He holds up a newspaper article in front of his webcam. “Check it out.”
While I give him points for actually reading a newspaper, it’s too blurry for me to see on my end.
“You understand I can’t actually read that, right? Summarize, Bob.”
“The story’s about Trip. Spoiler alert—he just got richer. The article says his returns are topping off in the twenty percent range.”
“No surprise there.” (Save for that Bobby understands what topping off in the twenty percent range means.)
Sars’s husband—James Preston McArthur Chandler, III, aka “Trip”—is no ordinary businessman. A Fortune magazine reporter once said that Trip “possesses the bravado of Donald Trump and the swagger of Jay Z.” To me? Swagger’s not a selling point. I personally prefer Toby Keith—he’s done so much for the troops. But because Trip’s such a force of nature, Wall Street absolutely worships him and the media follows suit. Last year, People magazine included him on their annual World’s Most Beautiful roundup.
Trip’s a dynamic presence, perpetually swanning about in one of his hundreds of pastel cashmere sweaters. He always looks as though he just stepped off a yacht . . . generally having just stepped off his yacht, The Lone Shark. Chandler Financial Group, CFG if you’re in the biz, practically has a license to print money, despite the current financial climate. I’ve always speculated that his success stems from listening to Sars back when she helped him establish the company. But he’s far too arrogant to give her the props she deserves and she’s too modest to request it.
I’m the only one not riding the Trip Love Train, but I keep that information to myself. Sars radiates contentment whenever I visit her at Steeplechase Manor (yes, her home has a name), so I bite back my scorn and mistrust on the rare occasion we’re all together.
But my feelings toward Trip are a benign contempt. At least he’s always pleasant. My dislike for him doesn’t keep me awake at night. Plus, I do my best not to fight with people anymore because I’ve found it’s never worth it.
Working as a war reporter has definitely refined my perspective on conflict. The entire news cycle is dictated by rivalries, whether it’s the box scores from the Midtown Classic or the number of gang members shot on the south and west side in my home base of Chicago on any given summer weekend.
My theory is that sometimes enemies are beneficial because that relationship forces each party to improve. Just look at Maverick and Iceman; I maintain they were both better pilots due to said rivalry.
When I was in sixth grade, Miss Meyer assigned us our first real essays. The assignment was to write five pages on anything we wanted. Most of my other classmates penned themes about dogs or their soccer team or what they did over summer vacation. Sars turned in a theme called “The Benifits of a Single World Curency.” Funny, but even then she had a head for business, if not for spelling.
Anyway, I explored the War of the Currents in my essay, which refers to the feud between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. I speculated that their mutual hatred drove their success. Personally, I joined Team Tesla the second I read how Edison electrocuted an elephant using high voltage AC to prove how dangerous it was. (Thanks for the lightbulb, pal, but you’re still deplorable.)
There are so many famous rivalries in history, all of them with a story I’d love to have told. Shedding light on the roots of conflict is what drove me to journalism in the first place. What would it have been like to cover the story of Alexander Hamilton versus Aaron Burr? How fascinating to have been a beat reporter when rivals settled tiffs with duels.
Or what if I’d been around when Stalin faced off against Trotsky over control of the USSR? This enmity changed the face of Soviet politics. (Arguably not a net positive.) Better example—how much more skilled of a chess player was Kasparov after playing against Deep Blue? Or Ali and Frazier—their animosity forever upped the standards in boxing.
Or what about Sammy Hagar against David Lee Roth?
Perhaps Van Halen versus Van Hagar isn’t quite the same in terms of rivalry and competition, but some fortunate reporter at Rolling Stone wrote career-enhancing column inches on that particular battle of the bands.
Documenting the conflict between enemies lights my fire. Gets me out of my sleeping bag in the morning. I wish I had a true and worthy nemesis, an Edison to my Tesla, a Jobs to my Gates, a Nixon to my Frost, driving me ever forward in the pursuit of being the best journalist I can be.
Figures that the number one slot on my personal enemy list is Kitty “Flipping” Carricoe, a girl to the nth degree.
Had I not hated her so much, I might not have been so eager to take my first overseas assignment. I should give her due credit for being so damned contemptible. If I hadn’t left the States, I’d have never embedded, thus I’d never have been nominated for a Pulitzer for international reporting or have written and sold my memoir Girl O’War. (Wasn’t keen on the title, but my editor insisted. After forty weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, I admit he was right.)
I’m about to reply to Bobby when someone leans over his shoulder. The first thing I see is tanned cleavage, encased in a snug T-shirt featuring a beribboned, cartoon cat face. She plops down in Bobby’s lap, obscuring most of his face with her ample Hello, Kitty-covered rack.
“Ohmigod, is that your sister?! Hi! Hi, hi, hi! I’m Melody, Bobby’s girlfriend!” she says. “I totes can’t wait to meet in person! He’s told me a scrillion things about you!”
Bobby narrows his eyes. “Nope, not me, never said anything like that. In fact, Jack, I don’t like you. I don’t like you because you’re dangerous.”
I reply, “That’s right, Iceman. I am dangerous.”
Then he chomps at me Val Kilmer-style and we both crack up again.
The best thing about my relationship with my brothers is the shorthand we’ve established over the decades. We don’t need a lot of words to connect with our shared history. One snap of my brother’s teeth brings forth the recollection of a hundred games of street hockey, long treks through the Skokie Lagoons, and sitting side by side on the old couch in the dusty family room, surrounded by a never-ending stream of fat Labrador Retrievers, watching our favorite movie for the umpteenth time.
And, if I delve deeper, which I’m not often wont to do, the wordless memory of how we were there for one another in the years after we lost our mother. Without her, we were unmoored, rattling around in our Saint Louis home like loose marbles in a box until my dad brought us together with what we considered the greatest movie ever made.
Once we finally accepted she was gone forever, Dad took the job in Illinois, which was for the best. We couldn’t move past our loss in the old place. My mother was everywhere—in the bright pink flowers still lining the front walk, in the way her spicy perfume lingered in her closet long after it was emptied, in how every knickknack had been arranged just so. Moving to Evanston was how we excised her ghost.
“I don’t get it,” Melody says, interrupting my reverie.
“We’re quoting lines from Top Gun,” I explain, attempting to remain patient for Bobby’s sake. She seems puzzled, so I elaborate. “The movie? Came out in 1986?”
She giggles. “Well, no wonder I’m confused! I wasn’t born until 1993!”
Bobby’s expression turns plaintive and even though we’re seven thousand miles away, a single glance tells me he’s pleading for me to take it easy on this one. He must have a soft spot for her, too.
“Wow,” I reply, forcing a smile. “Then . . . you’re still just a girl!”