By Janna Brooke Wallack
James is coming over tonight, our third date if you count the lattes after I found his lost cell phone at the coffee place. He has a strong jaw, a Master’s degree and a brogue, so the stakes are high. I Googled a recipe, but it makes me nervous, because it calls for a double boiler, and I rarely see the need to boil food singly.
I’ve enlisted my desk-mate, Jodi, for logistical and culinary support. One tiny snag . . . before we leave for lunch, I sort of steal her wallet, a cheap move, though not an easy one. Some women sneak the free donuts at reception when they’re stressed. I’m not a sweets person. I steal. I like to wait for the perfect moment, when the person is frantic and distraught about the missing item, and then I “find” it for them, and we bask together in the connection of relief and gratitude. Bear claws and Boston crème’s don’t have that kind of muscle.
Given: Jodi’s the type who knows where her things are. Her desk drawers are business Marines. The insides are wiped clean, pens and pencils loaded flawlessly into right-sized compartments in one of those plastic thingies from the organization store; none of the gum wrappers, old listing pages, and crumpled receipts that clog mine.
Logical conclusion: When Jodi busts me, it goes without saying that she won’t be able to live with herself unless she presses charges. How do I know? Every morning she reads me truisms from her Tony Robbins desk calendar: If you can’t, you must, and if you must, you can.
“And if you could, then you shouldn’t,” I tease, “and if you shouldn’t, then you would.”
Martin Lipchitz, the unfortunate-looking, small-handed man who completely gets me and works in the catty-corner cubicle chimes in, “And how much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”
“Very funny, you guys,” Jodi says, good-naturedly, but I can see that Lipchitz and I have hurt her feelings. “Tony Robbins is extremely successful and wise. Maybe if you two read his books, you might stop your complaining about not doing better at work.” She has a point, and here’s another: Jodi Schwartz is a woman who knows the whereabouts of her wallet.
Before lunch, Jodi has a phone altercation with her brand-new husband, Craig. “No, honey,” she pleads. “We have to return the bedding before thirty days.” She writes Craig’s name on a sticky note while she listens to his response, dotting the “i” with a daisy. “Yeah, but it’s day twenty-eight, babe, and then it’ll be—” Craig interrupts, and Jodi listens patiently, determined to excel at marriage. “Craig . . . Craig-Honey, I’ll do it when I get home . . . I’m just saying, watch the game, just don’t forget to record Dancing with the Stars . . . Okay . . . I’ll try to find you some . . . I love you.”
When it comes time to pay for lunch, she’ll realize she’s missing her wallet. You must have been distracted by Craig, I’ll say. And, when I find it for her, back at the office, she’ll be so gleefully relieved and indebted that she’ll kiss-off dragging protuberant bags of failed bedding to the Garden State mall and help me figure out my dinner.
We walk six blocks from the office for the “good” salad bar. Jodi won’t eat at the one on our block. “It’s disgusting, the lady at the register is super rude, and they use oil-packed tuna,” she says. “Don’t get a lot of cucumbers,” she advises. “They’re heavy and they make the salad expensive.”
Jodi begins with a preliminary, observational lap, peering through the translucent sneeze guards at the day’s offerings, breaking her container into quadrants to include a balance of raw and cooked veggies, cold and hot proteins, and a side, always a side, of fat-free dressing. Without her tutelage, I’d collect salad ingredients willy-nilly and inevitably run out of room before getting through half of the bar.
I have to ask, “If there’s no fat, what are the ingredients in the blue cheese dressing?”
“I don’t know. Who cares?” she says. “The point is that it’s fat-free.”
She pauses at the tuna, not the tuna salad, but the taupe, unmixed tuna fish straight from the can, takes a closer look, to make sure it was packed in water, then spoons about three ounces onto the bed of spring mix she’s prearranged into a supportive nest.
“Eve, do you watch Dancing with the Stars? That show is seriously great!”
“Nah. I don’t have cable,” I say.
The plan was to surprise James with a picnic and the Philharmonic in Central Park, but he has to work past eight. The new plan is to laud his heritage with a traditional Highland meal followed by a rented movie and earth-shattering sex, but I have no idea what Scots eat, and the only items in my fridge are half-and-half, wine, and assorted Chinese sauce packets. I search food Scottish on my phone and let it load.
Jodi plants multicolored cherry tomatoes and three cubes of feta (more worth it than mayonnaise, fat-wise) in a flower formation around the tuna fish. I follow suit and even mine looks superb. “Everyone has cable, Eve,” she says while starting on a roasted beet-potato combo.
“Everyone but me,” I say, aping her handling of the tongs.
“Well, anyway, Dancing with the Stars comes on network, and I’m just saying, you should try watching it sometime.”
By the time we’re done, my salad looks almost as good as Jodi’s does, and I reconsider making her frantic for the walk back to the office, “Jode, you paid last time . . . let me get this.”
“Oh, thanks,” she says unsuspectingly, “that’s so nice of you.”
On the stroll back to work, we pass a couple of college kids distributing campaign flyers. I take one from each without stopping, but I am with Jodi, whose blond newscaster bob, summer-wool shift, and loafers (with actual pennies inserted in the leather saddles above her metatarsals) are conservative enough to inspire a campaign of their own.
“Excuse me, may I ask you ladies a question? Do you vote in New York or New Jersey?”
I keep walking (sure to wave my flyers in acknowledgment), rushing to get back so I can find the wallet and eat my salad, though I already know I’ll be hungry after and bat eyes at Lipchitz for a hunk of his invariable meatball sub.
Jodi bites, “New Jersey, actually.” I stand aside while they chat for a minute, her head nodding in constant agreement, and then, still smiling, she strides toward me.
“Who are you voting for, Eve?” Jodi’s worked across from me for almost a year, but our inchoate friendship still flaps around on wings of wilted romaine. I am the work-friend with whom she can do girl stuff, talk shop, and tell “Craig” stories over the occasional mani-pedi or salad lunch, but right now it’s past one o’clock, and according to Yahoo, I need to figure out how to make forfar bridies and partan bree.
“I know you don’t want to hear this, but I vote Republican, which everyone really would if they paid attention. So I might as well learn what the deal is, right?” I let it pass but she pushes it. “Right?”
“Oh, sorry,” I say, “I thought you were being rhetorical.”
Jodi reads her flyer while we walk, “Huh? No, Republican! Craig’s one, so I am too. I’m guessing you’re a Democrat,” she says with more than a smidgeon of practiced tolerance.
“What makes you guess that?” I’m teasing a kitten with a feather, one who only wants to cuddle me and be my friend, and I hate myself for feeling superior, considering this particular kitten’s wallet is an anvil at the bottom of my purse.
But then she pushes, “Oh, c’mon, obviously . . . because you dress like one and stuff.”
“How does a Democrat dress?”
“Ugh, you know what I mean.” Jodi waves her hand up and down my outfit—an embroidered, Mexican blouse tucked into high-waist, men’s slacks from the thrift shop, wedge-heeled espadrilles, and two fresh asters that I plucked from the Park Avenue median and pinned in a loose bun on the crown of my head—and I laugh, because I do know what she means. I got dressed this morning thinking: Annie Hall with a hint of Night of the Iguana and a touch of Reds. “You’re so skinny and daring and fashiony. I could never pull off your crazy outfits . . .
But you are a Democrat, right? I know I’m right.”
“I don’t really follow politics.” I keep trying to walk on, but Jodi, flyer in hand, won’t budge.
“Well, Craig thinks,” she says, “and I wholeheartedly agree,” she puts her hand over her heart in a pledge-of-allegiance-to-Craig, “that it is our responsibility as citizens to know what is going on in the world. I mean, like, how can you not follow the news?”
I’m already at angles today, and she push, push, pushes. “Jodi, campaigning is not news. It is political posturing . . . it’s like, ephemeral bullshit. I mean, how can you stand to listen to them blustering on and on when they never really fix anything?”
“I just meant that . . .”
“And cable loops it twenty-four seven too. So depressing. And, with so many channels, how do you choose what to watch, and then you only learn from the channels you choose, so how do you know you’re right? I mean, how do you know whether or not that guy on your flyer . . . what’s his name again?”
“Yeah, Jack Hutchinson. How do you know if he is the salt of the earth, or a complete monster, or a fucking nincompoop? And what channel are you supposed to watch to get the truth?”
Jodi looks like I whipped her with a hickory switch. I resume discomfited silence, painfully aware of the probability that she was only trying to sound important, and I’ve just bullied her backward, onto her tippy toes in the deep end.
I grab at the chance to veer. “Hey, Jode, ever heard of haggis?”
She waits a beat and then says, “If you don’t follow politics, then why did you take the dang flyer?”
“I always take a flyer.”
“I guess I just figure that giving out flyers is their job, and if I take the flyer, then they’ll feel successful . . . they’ll feel the satisfaction of being good at something, y’know, that they’ve done their job well.”
“Oooh-kaaay,” Jodi mocks, but then capitulates. “Well, I suppose that’s very nice of you.”
I grab at her olive branch. “So, what do you know about mutton?”
“It’s not very genuine though, right? Like, you’re not really being yourself, you’re not really interested in what they’re selling; so it’s like, kinda fake, in a way.”
“Well, sometimes you need to give someone else a turn to be him-self. I mean if everyone focused on his own needs all the time, the only person who would evertake Jack Hutchinson’s flyer would be Jack Hutchinson. You should be more selfish sometimes, Jode,” I say.
It makes me crazy how she skates atop life’s grit. I want Jodi to vote how she chooses to vote, Craig-be-damned, and I want her to demand Dancing with the Stars in real time. Poor Jodi, who only wants to be my friend and for me to believe she is smart, when she is not smart at all, and for me to see her as stylish, when she has no originality. I want to be nice to her. So, I hold still as a lizard on a rock, sunning myself on one of Jodi and Craig’s seventeen nature channels, and when I do, she fucking pushes again.
“Well, to read this, Jack Hutchinson is a good American,” she says, smoothing out a wrinkle in her shift as she finally catches up with me. “He wants to make the schools better, and, like, Craig and I are going to be trying next year, after we get his bonus . . . for, like, a baby . . . and anyway, you have to campaign. How else will anyone know who you are and what you can do for our country?”
I should leave it be, but I don’t. “A political campaign proves nothing, Jodi. It’s just . . . marketing.”
“Campaigning is just advertising a person. Like, Compassionate Conservatism and Tippecanoe and Tyler Too are no different from A Diamond is Forever and Snap, Crackle and Pop . . .” Jodi shrugs, fiddles with her wedding rings. “Look at Nike. To hear them tell it, Nikes literally transform you into an athlete when you wear them. I mean, I like Nikes, y’know, they’re good sneakers, but they don’t make me dunk like Jordan.”
“Oh my God, Eve!” Jodi scoffs, exasperated, “Michael Jordan doesn’t even play basketball anymore.”
“So, Jack Hutchinson is NOT Nikes!”
“That’s for sure,” I mutter.
We walk in silence for a few seconds before she rallies, spying a pair of leopard flats in a boutique window, and my relief leads me to overcompensate, “Ooh, I love those, Jode. You could wear them with clam diggers and an Ann-Margret-y crop top,” I say and start to Pony down the sidewalk, double hopping from one foot to another, because aside from the Twist, the Pony is the dance that pairs best with leopard flats. Jodi grins awkwardly. She has five hundred channels, but she hasn’t seen Bye-Bye Birdie. Does no one ever Pony on Dancing with the Stars?
Then Jodi stops short, pivots back toward the volunteers. “Hang on. I’m going to give them a donation,” she says, plunging her hand into her bag. She feels around for the wallet she most certainly will not find, and a trap door opens beneath my stomach, sending it free-falling into my feet. This is it. There will be no boyfriend for me—or work friend, or caddy-corner, doofus sidekick’s meatball sandwich.
“Mea culpa, Jodi!” I shout, distracting her moving arm to stillness.
“Huh?” She’s smiling fully now, shaking her head in that way she does when she’s categorizing me as weird.
“I mean I feel bad. Sorry. I’m a bitch sometimes. Let me make the donation. I’ll sleep better tonight, okay?” Jodi removes her hand from her bag to accept the twenty-dollar bill that I too quickly slap into her palm.
“Whatever, girlfriend,” she says. She trots away to hand the volunteer the cash as I silently vow to be a better person, maybe do the therapy thing. Then she skips over and takes my elbow to hold me back from jaywalking as she presses the crosswalk button.
Jodi hits the ladies room right out of the elevator. I have to wait a minute or two for Martin Lipchitz to take a phone call before digging out the wallet. Jodi reenters the office just as I yank the blue leather rectangle from my own bag.
“Eve, is that my . . . What are you doing with my wallet?” She squinches up her button nose and furrows her brow, and it is hard to tell from her expression whether or not she’s set to call the cops or give me advice about organizing my closet. Her stare reddens my hand. “Why was my wallet in your pocketbook?”
I scroll the hundred perfect explanations that have worked for me for years. Jodi will buy into any one of them, but I feel the extra-thick shame creeping in early this time, and so fresh off the be-better vow I made at the crosswalk, I go with a risky version of the truth. “It’s weird, I know, but, I wanted to buy you lunch, and I wanted to be sure you’d let me pay.”
Jodi exhales. Taps her foot. Tilts her head to the side like a perplexed puppy. I hold her wallet out to her, but she doesn’t take it. She leaves it to brand me as I begin to well up with defense (she doesn’t know what I’ve been through, she with the mother who calls every morning at ten a.m. just to check in), which turns to pride (I’m a survivor and an original and an artist stuck selling real estate, and this is the spiritual price I pay), and morphs into hatred (fuck you Jodi, you and your wallet can kiss my ass). When I’m done seething, I look up to see that Jodi is tearing up and trembling but standing her ground.
“You think I don’t know you steal things, Eve?”
I am also flushed, no, burning, yet, conversely shocked-frozen to my carpet square. Jodi shakes her head, maybe gathering her nerve, and then . . . “I see you steal things all the time. You think you’re so slick, but . . . chips? Every time we go to lunch, you pay for the rest, but then you steal, like, a ninety-nine cent bag of Utz . . . why do you do that?”
“Look, Jode, I think you’re . . .”
“Shut up, Eve. I was being rhetorical . . . Yeah, I looked it up, so, like, I know what it means now, because I try every day to learn new things and be a better person. And I have some more rhetoric for you, too.” She says the word with such magnificent attitude that I can’t help one corner of my mouth turning up, proud of her swagger, but she sees the smirk, misconstrues it—who wouldn’t—and goes up in flames over it. “You think this is funny? This isn’t funny, Eve. You are in a lot of trouble. I didn’t say anything about your chips because I felt sorry for you, but this is my wallet we are talking about here.”
I need to end this now before we attract any more attention and I lose my job. Time to stop cheering for Jodi and start wriggling free. “Look, I just wanted to pay for your lunch. The wallet is right here.” I will myself to move and place the item on the corner of her desk. I ought to apologize, take responsibility, and promise her something, but instead, I hear this crap come out: “Nothing’s missing, you know. You can’t prove anything.”
Lipchitz is off his call and raring to get in the mix. “What’s all the hoo-hah, girls?”
“Mind your business, Martin,” says Jodi, and here, where she ought to let it die, take back her wallet, call our boss, move her desk, write me off, whatever, she grabs me again, by my elbow and yanks me to the ladies room. We are alone, but with the huge mirror, it feels like there are four of us: me, a pair of furious, sobbing Jodi’s, and my reflection. Three against one.
Jodi sniffles, clears her throat. “You think I’m going to tell on you? I know about kleptomania. I know you can’t help it.”
“Look, I’m sorry, okay.” I hand her a tissue. “I just have this date tonight, and I’m sort of freaking . . .”
“Oh, please. You, like, barely even know James. You do this with every guy who likes you.” Now I’m treading water. “You don’t even care about these guys. You only care about getting them to love you like poor Martin. He’s been in love with you this whole time and gets all your weird jokes and he reads all the same smart books, and you don’t even give him eye contact unless you’re making a joke on me. Tony Robbins says you should demand more from yourself than anyone else could ever expect, but you want everyone to live up to you. I feel so sorry for you. I talk to Craig about it all the time.”
The mere mention of Craig sends me reeling toward apoplexy. I have such a speech prepared abut Jodi’s Craig. Craig . . . the stereotypical, sports-obsessed, ball-cap-turned-backwards, fantasy-football playing, frat-boy dipshit who wants Jodi to wander out into the night to exchange a dust ruffle, while he kicks back on their—no doubt Pottery Barn—sofa to watch the Knicks, leaving her to play wife and mother and maid and house manager and chef.
Fucking Craig. Fucking James. Fucking Jodi. I am about to unleash the hounds on everyone, when I catch my reflection. There in the mirror stands Eve, the friend-ish, well-read, fashion-forward, two-bit chip-thief. One of the flowers has fallen from my hair. My outfit is a costume, trying as hard as I do to look better than I feel. My eyes are pink and puffy and filled with tears, and my mascara is streaked in charcoal half-moons down both of my cheeks.
“I’m not going to tell on you, Eve. I want to help you. You’re . . . like, my friend.” My apologies are worthless. Half the time I don’t even believe all the shit I end up saying. I reach out my arms, and Jodi comes in to join me for a trite ritual the normal me would righteously pan; but our protracted, sentimental girlfriend hug turns out to be magnificent, warm and safe, and we both mean it so much that when Jodi pulls back her arms I miss her. “We have to get back to work,” she says, smiling like it’s all over.
“I’m just saying, Eve,” she whispers after swallowing a mouthful of salad, “you should go out with Martin Lipchitz.”
“Never going to happen.”
“Whatever,” she says. “Your loss.” Her blond bob bounces when she shrugs.
She does a little research and advises me to skip the haggis in favor of a nut, stone fruit and sheep’s milk cheese platter; and she prints out directions to the right shops in my neighborhood. She also prints me a recipe—annotates it in her tiny, typeset handwriting—with detailed instructions for how to make a dish called mince and tatties, that, as it turns out, is simply meat and potatoes.