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"So that's your assignment." Suzanne slid her fashionable granny glasses down her nose and looked at me over thin pewter rims. "Should you choose to accept it."
I took a deep breath and contemplated what she'd just asked me to do. Go undercover. Like I was James Bond or something.
"I'm a married thirty-four-year-old woman-and a mother," I reminded her, just to make sure Suzanne knew exactly what she was dealing with. "The women on that show can't be a day past twenty-five."
I didn't mention that they were also usually blonder, thinner, better dressed, and about as effervescent as Alka-Seltzer.
"That's not a problem." Suzanne swung her Jimmy Choo stiletto heels off her desk and leaned in close to the intercom button.
"Jody, send them in."
The double mahogany doors to Suzanne's office flew open and a train of what could have passed for circus performers strutted in. An oily-headed bald man dressed in black from head to toe. An ungodly tall, dark woman whose foot-long Tootsie Roll of a neck was wrapped in so many gold chokers she obviously subscribed to the Mr. T school of jewelry theory. And a pair of androgynous twins with Clorox-white crew cuts-brother and sister, I thought, but wouldn't put money on it-who were dressed identically in acid-washed overalls and batik tank tops.
"Sarah, this is the team who will be getting you in fighting form. They're the best." Suzanne gestured to the head of the line. "Rolf, master hairstylist, will turn that mousy brown ponytail of yours into a headful of chunky golden highlights Jennifer Aniston would envy. Suma, goddess of facial contouring, and makeup artist to the stars, will eradicate those sunspots and humorless laugh lines and give you a complexion even a baby's ass couldn't lay claim to. And with Toni and Teri, fashion stylists extraordinaire, you can kiss your spittle-stained T-shirts good-bye and say hello to this season's hottest styles."
Suzanne swiped her index finger against the tip of her tongue and made a little hissing sound that I was sure was supposed to show how hot I'd be by the time they were done with me, but instead sounded like my current wardrobe going up in flames.
How did she expect me to pass for a young, single woman desperate enough to go on national TV and vie for the Stag? I couldn't even stomach the show's first season. Although from its ratings, you would have thought the entire country had a personal stake in whether Chad chose Charlotte, the Southwest flight attendant, or Veronica, the actress/waitress from LA. I can only guess that Nielsen boxes are strategically placed in households where naughty viewers are tied to their Barcaloungers and forced to watch mind-numbing shows like The Stag as punishment.
"See? You're in good hands-you won't have any trouble fitting in with the rest of the girls," Suzanne assured me.
"But they're bimbos." I could have added, and I'm not, but I figured that went without saying.
"It's a great assignment, Sarah." Suzanne raised her eyebrows and waited for my answer.
"We love your work, and I'd hate to have to give the article to someone else."
"Suzanne, I appreciate the effort, but don't I have to fill out an application and tell them all about me? Don't they ask for a birth certificate or something?" I wasn't quite sure how exactly the magazine planned to get away with this.
"Don't you worry about that." She grinned at me and tipped her head to the side like she was keeping a fabulous secret. "Just leave that to us."
On the train ride home I laughed out loud. Me, on The Stag? How would I explain that in the Wellesley alumnae magazine: Sarah Divine Holmes, '90, recently appeared on The Stag, trading in her Phi Beta Kappa membership for a bikini, a vacant stare, and the opportunity to humiliate herself on national TV.
Femme magazine wanted me to describe what went on when the TV cameras weren't rolling-the cattiness, the ruthless competition, the degrading process that each woman went through just so she could be chosen by the Stag at the end of eight episodes.
"It's an exposé that looks at how single women have been reduced to parading in front of an eligible man like livestock," Suzanne had told me. "And we think you're just the prime grade-A writer for the job."
All I had to do was make it through two auditions and I'd be on prime-time television sucking in my stomach and sticking out my tits like all the other women. The only thing missing was the cowbell.
It was ludicrous. Besides, I probably wouldn't even get past the first round of auditions, which would be even more embarrassing than making it onto the show in the first place.
Even before I got married, I wasn't the poster child for a cute and perky single life. I'd been in grad school only a few weeks when I met Jack. He was a second-year law student, which doesn't exactly support a lifestyle of late nights and fun. Mostly we'd study in the library, order pizza, and drink a six-pack of whatever was on sale at the liquor store. Then again, I did manage to convince him to huddle behind the stacks a few times and let me get into his briefs, and I don't mean the legal ones. So it'd been years since I actually had to seduce a man, but it wasn't as if I'd never done it before.
Some part of me wanted to see how I would do. Could brains and a quick sense of humor beat a killer twenty-something rack? I could be a competitor-after all, how many of those twinkies had been through twenty-seven hours of labor? Without drugs? By the time the train reached my stop, I'd convinced myself I might actually have a shot at being in the final group of one hundred women presented to the Stag. Forget the fact that I was currently driving a Volvo wagon, the uninspired car choice of suburban moms everywhere. With Suzanne's team of experts, how could I go wrong?
I hadn't let myself go since having a baby, like so many women do. In fact, I was in pretty decent shape, really. Although Jack and I were doing the horizontal mambo less since Katie was born, it was more a matter of free time than lack of interest. He still seemed to appreciate my curves. Maybe I could give all the Hooters waitresses and weathergirl wanna-bes a run for their money-after all, I knew a few tricks too. It took more than saline implants to brainstorm article ideas and put together a shopping list for the week while listening for the baby and making sure Jack's manly urges were satisfied.
By the time I slipped my key in the front door and dropped my briefcase on the foyer bench, I had convinced myself that I could be on the show-that I could be one of the twenty-four finalists. The assignment had even started to sound pretty good to me. Bringing down a show that insults the intelligence of women could be fun. And the fact that I'd get to do it in sunny southern California didn't hurt. We all have our price.
I kicked off my loafers and headed for the kitchen. I was usually greeted by the sound of baby Keds hoofing it around our hardwood floors. But this afternoon our house was silent except for the white noise of a TV coming from the back of the house.
Our baby-sitter was perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, her orange velour pants stretched like a second skin across her ample Polish rear end. From my vantage point she resembled a very ripe peach.
"Oh, Mrs. Holmes, Bo, he leaving Miss Hope again." She clutched a tattered tissue to her clammy chest. "And Miss Hope, she don't know who she is, think she the Queen of Zimbiba."
Marta was a serious Days of Our Lives fan. She even named her cats Marlena and Victor, the latter being the feisty tabby who appeared on her doorstep and apparently dared Marta to turn him away.
"The baby, she sleeping." Marta pointed a finger toward the ceiling, just in case I didn't know where Katie's room was located. "It go good today?"
"You could say that-they want me for an assignment." I took Marta's elbow and helped her down from the stool, where her toes dangled a good four inches from the terra-cotta floor.
"Let me know when you start. I be here." She took the rolled-up twenty-dollar bill from my hand, stuffed it in the pocket of her natty cardigan sweater, and waddled toward the door.
I flipped off the trials and tribulations of Salem's citizens, opened the sliding glass door for some fresh air, and reached for the sippy cups sitting in the sink. As I stood at the sink sudsing up a milk-weary Elmo cup with macaroni and cheese crusted over its spout, the stale refrigeration of the air-conditioning mingled with the smell of fresh grass clippings, courtesy of this morning's visit from the lawn service. It reminded me of summer camp, and the fact that the landscaper's bill had been sitting on Jack's desk for days waiting for a stamp.
As I stacked the clean cups in the dish rack, I listened for sounds like an animal lying in wait, anticipating a ringing phone or Katie's cries, ready to jump into action. When the last drip of water squeezed from the faucet and landed in the empty sink I heard it-the silence. Not the presence of noise, but the absence of it. I had a quiet moment to myself. There were no article deadlines pending, no child who needed feeding or changing, and no husband who needed my undivided attention because he couldn't find the TV clicker, which he swore he left right on the coffee table in plain view.
I brushed my pruned hands against the terry-cloth towel hanging on the cabinet knob and felt unnerved. What could I do? Since moving out of the city three years ago, there was always something to do, always someone to take care of. First it was my job at the agency and the endless client demands. Then our house, a fixer-upper that consumed nights and weekends for months and put me on a first-name basis with the guys at Home Depot. A few months later I quit my job to go freelance, and then Katie came along-an entirely different kind of undertaking that changed our lives in one seemingly innocent moment.
I wandered from room to room in search of the things I used to spend time on when I was alone, before I amassed the titles of wife and mother and my days became part of the public domain. I ended up collecting stray toys, trying to kill time until Katie woke up or Jack got home from court. I noticed things that used to be important to me, things that at one point could keep me up at night or on the phone with contractors for hours. The pristine white dental molding around the fireplace that still showed traces of the gluey Barney stickers Katie thought were the perfect compliment to our décor. The plush Pottery Barn couches that once offered luxurious comfort and now collected raisins and Cheerios between their cushions, swallowing up an entire sippy cup for weeks before I'd discover the lumpy milk or sour juice. And my office, with its built-in bookshelves and bulletin boards intended to keep me organized and efficient but that instead collected Dr. Seuss books and scraps of paper with crayon scrawls.
My carefully planned house. My professionally planned career. It all went out the window when Katie was born, and I hadn't quite figured out how to put it back together.
I'd organized the toys, rearranged our CDs in alphabetical order, and was in the kitchen contemplating taking some chicken breasts out of the freezer for dinner when Katie's soft murmurings started the monitor lights flashing. I decided to forgo the barbequed chicken in favor of take-out Chinese and headed upstairs to see Katie.
Katie and I were crouching on the floor in her room, playing Duck Duck Goose with her collection of stuffed animals, when I heard the electric garage door begin its grinding ascent. Soon after, Jack's keys jingled and then landed with a thud on the kitchen counter.
"We're up here," I called out.
Jack swept into the room a few moments later. "Hello, ladies."
"Da-da!" Katie squealed, propelling herself against his kneecaps.
He hoisted our babbling daughter onto his shoulders, grabbed my hand, and led us downstairs for a cold beer and a replay of our days.
Jack's tie already hung loosely around his starched collar, his stark white shirt creased like morning sheets. Every day he left our house tucked in and buttoned up, clothed in the pinstriped uniform of the adult working male. And every evening he returned to us at the end of another inning, expecting me to play the role of the encouraging coach. I'd ask Jack about his day and he'd trip the release valve, letting his day unravel until I was smothered by it. Of course, he always asked me how my day went, but I knew it was more out of courtesy than true curiosity. It was his sense of spousal obligation more than the expectation that I'd have anything out of the ordinary to share with him.
Tonight I didn't wait for him to ask me about my day. Before he could regale me with stories of smarmy defense attorneys and the deteriorating legal system, I brought up my meeting with Suzanne.
"That show's like the old Dating Game, isn't it?" he asked, unbuttoning his cuffs and rolling up his shirtsleeves.
"Not exactly. It's the one where the guy eliminates the women until he ends up proposing to one."
Jack nodded slowly, as if he vaguely remembered seeing an episode while flipping channels one night.
"And Suzanne wants you to pose as one of the women?"
He pulled the refrigerator door open and reached inside.
"A hen-they call them hens."
"You're going to be a hen?" His laugh echoed against the fridge's insulated walls.
"You know the chances of my actually making it on the show are pretty slim," I admitted quickly, looking away.
He grabbed a cold beer off the shelf and twisted off the cap.
"I don't know about that." Jack rubbed his chin and squinted at me. "Let's see, maybe the Laurie Partridge ponytail has to go, but with the right haircut and a few highlights . . ." He circled around me, taking sips of his beer. "Tall, nice legs, no sign of postpregnancy stretch marks, sweet ass. Yep, that rockin' babe I knew in law school is still in there; she's just hidden underneath all those Adidas running pants and T-shirts you think look so sporty."
"Yeah, well, the day you wear more than your paint-stained Princeton sweatshirt around the house and those Levi's with the crotch falling out is the day I'll dress up to sit at a computer while our child dribbles apple juice down my legs."
"Hey, I was just saying I thought you could make it on the show if you gave it some effort." He reached into the cupboard and pulled out a bag of Doritos. "So, what's the deal? How does one get on a television show filled with horny single women?"
"I have to go through two auditions," I explained. "The first one is regional, and if I make it to the next round they videotape me and send it to the Stag."
"And if he likes you?"
"Then I'm on the show. I'd spend five weeks in California-assuming I made it through each of the candle ceremonies without being cut."
Jack washed down a handful of chips with his beer.
"It could mean five weeks away from you and Katie, you know." I looked at our drooling toddler, who was happily seated on the tile floor banging a wooden spoon against her daddy's leg.
"We'll survive, Sarah. I'm sure Marta wouldn't mind the extra hours. Anyway, sounds like a great assignment. Suzanne's sure outdone herself this time."
"Have you ever seen the show? I may have to kiss the guy."
Jack shrugged. Did he think I wouldn't make it past the first audition? Of course I would. I was still a professional, and it was my job. Suzanne was depending on me. The Stag was going to fall over himself rushing to light my candle every week.
"Tongue or no tongue?" he asked, wrinkling his forehead in feigned concern and then laughing at me. "We'll cross that bridge if we come to it. It's not like you're going to sleep with the guy or anything. Besides, how many of those women can say they have this waiting for them when they get back?"
He struck a bodybuilder's pose, his arms bent into right angles with clenched fists. He tried valiantly to keep a straight face, a deflated Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Brooks Brothers suit.
"Lovely." I slapped him on the stomach, and he doubled over in mock pain.
"Seriously, it's fine with me." Jack watched as I sorted through the mail on the counter. He bit his bottom lip and squinted his right eye, a look of concentration I'd seen many times as he prepared for an especially important day in court.
"What?" I stopped flipping the pages of a J. Crew catalog.
"Nothing. I was just wondering why they picked you." He must have realized how that sounded because he quickly added, "I mean, you're a great writer, but you're not exactly the type of woman who'd go on a show like that."
"Tell me about it. Me and a bunch of bubbleheaded girls who think it's okay to take five weeks off from work to compete for a man and suffer public displays of desperation-all for their fifteen minutes of fame."
"That attitude won't win you any friends."
"I'm not there to make friends; I'm there to write a story." I told him all about Suzanne's grand plan to make me over into the consummate single girl-sweet, coy, and sexy as hell. She wanted to meet next week to start going over the rules of engagement -literally. I was going to learn how to snare the Stag in a web of intrigue, sex appeal, and good old-fashioned feminine wiles. Suzanne said she expected me to get all the way to the final candle ceremony, where the Stag decides which woman he'll ask to be his wife. But I suspected she really just hoped I'd make it far enough to get a juicy story.
"I guess I'll tell her to go ahead and schedule the makeover."
"Sounds like an interesting experiment," Jack admitted. "Beats that article on pelvic inflammatory disease."
I shrugged and turned back to the catalog, as if I were truly a candidate for cotton-twill hip huggers and a sheer peasant blouse. That night as Jack softly snored next to me, I lay in the dark, running my hand across my stomach for the telltale signs of motherhood. Suzanne thought I could pass for a hen, but she'd never seen me naked. Not that I planned on disrobing in front of the Stag, or anyone else on TV for that matter, but I knew the series included getaways for the Stag and a chosen lady, and many of those trips involved hot tubs and late night dips in kidney-shaped pools.
Suzanne's age-reducing makeover would take care of my outside, but I still had some work to do on the inside. I'd have to dig pretty deep to remember what it was like to seduce the opposite sex. I was going to be up against some hard-core husband hunters-women who placed landing a husband above everything else in their lives.
Didn't they know there was more to life than snagging a guy, getting married, and having babies? Didn't they want more? What ever happened to focusing on your career, using your education, and collaborating with other women instead of competing against them? The more I thought about it the more ridiculous these women became-they were willing to be called hens, for God's sake!
Even though I hated to admit it, Jack was right. I had to go into this thing with a better attitude. Pessimism wouldn't go over well with the producers, who were probably already on the lookout for radical feminists trying to make a statement.
I had two weeks before the first audition, and getting rejected in round one just wasn't an option. There wouldn't be much interest in an article about a woman who couldn't make it past the regional cattle call. I didn't want to screw up the assignment-or look like the biggest loser in the televised mating game since Darva Conger.
I wanted the story. I wanted to show everyone I could make it to the final round. And, truth be told, I wanted that damn makeover.
--from Bachelorette #1 by Jennifer O'Connell, copyright © 2003 Jennifer O'Connell, published by New American Library, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.