Authors: Theresa Alan
“It’s okay. It’s the deal with marriage. Sometimes you want to kick your spouse off a cliff. It doesn’t mean you don’t love him.”
“How about the in-laws. Anything new there?” Jon has a very Jerry Springer family. His sister Beth’s husband Brent cheated on her when she was just about to give birth to their third kid and then left her for the other woman. His younger sister, Sandy, is currently seeking a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend—now that she’s gone through rehab, she doesn’t want the thieving, abusive, heroin addict using her as his punching bag anymore. I have to say that listening to tales of Jon’s siblings’ woes puts my problems in perspective. These people lead such messed up lives that I’m reminded that my life is paradisiacal by comparison.
“Sandy goes to court on Wednesday to get the restraining order. Edward keeps calling and threatening her.”
“Threatening her how?”
“You name it. He’s going to kill her, break her arms, burn her house down…”
“Yeah. I know.”
“Can’t she get a wiretap or something and record this stuff? It seems like he should be in jail for something like that.”
“That’s a good idea. I wonder how you go about doing that. I hope this restraining order does something. He needs to forget about her already. They’ve been broken up for four months now. Four months! But when he gets drunk or high, he decides that calling her and threatening her with bodily harm is the best way to win her back. And what makes things worse is that since I haven’t gotten around to getting the kids in daycare or summer camp yet, they’ve been spending all this time hanging out with Sandy and Beth, and it’s just not a good environment for them. I mean I’m really grateful that they are willing to help out with watching the kids. It’s certainly helping the money situation, but…I just don’t like the kids spending any more time with them than is absolutely necessary. How about Will’s family? Do you get along with them?”
“Well, it’s really just his mom. His father died a couple of years ago. He’s an only child so he doesn’t have any siblings, and he’s got aunts and uncles, but they all live far away so we never see them.”
“You’re so lucky.”
“His mom still lives in Colorado, though. They moved here when Will was really young. She lives an hour and a half away so we see her every other month or so. We haven’t spent a lot of time together, so we’re not really comfortable with each other yet, but we get along all right.”
We talk for awhile more and when I can no longer put off getting to work, I sigh, tell her I need to get going, and promise her I’ll call her later.
I go home, get myself a supersized water bottle full of water and a soup-bowl-size cup of coffee and go into my office, which is on the second floor of my home. Even though I live alone, I shut the door behind me. I always have the ringer on my phones upstairs turned off so I won’t be tempted to flee my study to talk on the phone when I’m supposed to be working. Once I’m in there, I make myself work for at least four hours at a time—I’m only allowed to leave my office to use the bathroom or get more water.
Like I said, I own my own business. I’m an independent management consultant, and I make a good living doing what I do, but I don’t trust having money. I’m not used to it. I spent far too many years struggling.
I got my undergraduate degree in history, and, not surprisingly, I had a hard time finding a job after graduation. My father regaled me endlessly with “I told you sos.” And it was true, he’d warned me away from getting a degree in history. He’d said I should get a degree in business so I could get a job that paid real money. But I insisted that money didn’t matter to me. You have the luxury of thinking like that when your parents are paying your rent.
I had desperately wanted to get away from Illinois after graduating from high school, but we couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition, so I earned my degree at the University of Illinois and then moved to Colorado where I managed to get a job as an admin. assistant for the president of the University of Colorado at Boulder. I was quickly promoted to a position in which I did all the mail and email correspondence for the president. My job function was to editorially fellate the donors who gave big money to the school, stroking their egos by endlessly thanking them for their generosity. The job was okay, though it got routine, but the main thing was that it didn’t pay very well.
I’d been working there for two years when my father came out to Colorado for a visit. At the time, I lived in a microscopic apartment, and the first words out of Dad’s mouth when he saw it were: “I spent twenty thousand dollars on your education so you could live in this hovel? I never should have agreed to let you get a degree in history.”
And he was right. I was living in a dump. And did I really want to be broke for my entire life?
I signed up to take my GMAT to apply to business schools the next day.
Some background on Dad: My father has spent his entire life working at a sales job he hates. At night he’d come home and build things down in his workshop. He’d make wooden toys or various kinds of furniture. He’d build shelves or stairs for the house. Dad was always hiding out in that workroom of his. We weren’t allowed in it. It was his sanctuary, the place he escaped from his demanding job and needy family. Dad occasionally sold some of the furniture he created, but I don’t think he ever considered trying to live full-time off his carpentry. I don’t think it ever occurred to him that it was possible to make a living doing something he enjoyed.
Even when he wasn’t locked in his workroom, even if he was sitting across from you at the dinner table, he wasn’t really there. He was lost in his own world. So for my sister Sienna and me to break him out of that world and get him to pay attention to us involved a lot of jumping through hoops. Mom was always there and her love for us was never in doubt, so therefore we didn’t feel the need to impress her with our accomplishments. Dad was a different story. We were endlessly trying to dazzle him with our good grades and successes.
When I was a sophomore in high school I won an essay contest about the history of Illinois. It was a statewide deal, and my name and picture got into the local papers. Never in my life had Dad been more proud of me. The way he smiled at me, the way he bragged to his friends, the way he slapped me on the shoulder with pride—he’d never paid that much attention to me in my life.
Basically, I’ve spent my entire adulthood trying to get that reaction out of Dad again. I can’t help it—I like making Daddy proud.
After I got my MBA I took a job with what was then a Big Six consulting firm. I worked absolutely insane hours and spent more time sleeping in hotel beds than I did sleeping in my own, but I also brought home a very nice paycheck. Even so, right away I knew I didn’t want to work there forever. I liked working as a management consultant well enough, but I didn’t like the cutthroat corporate culture I was in. And I hated how managers would think nothing of dumping forty-eight hours’ worth of work on my desk at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon and tell me it had to be complete by 9
. Monday morning. I started socking away nearly half of my paycheck into a savings account with the idea I’d go solo one day. I wanted to have enough in savings so that if it turned out I was an abject failure at being a business owner, I could still survive for a year or two without bringing in any income. So that’s what I did. It wasn’t actually that hard because I was used to living simply. I just didn’t buy an expensive car or a big house like most of my coworkers fresh out of grad school did. And two years ago, I tendered my resignation and went out on my own. It was rough going for the first several months, but over time I got enough word-of-mouth recommendations that I make more money now than I ever did working for somebody else.
It’s a stressful but rewarding job. I take the future of a business—and thus the futures of all the people who work there—in my hands. I’m good at thinking creatively about how to solve problems a business is facing. Somehow at work, I have an absolute confidence in my abilities that doesn’t extend to my personal life.
I have a meeting with the executives at Woodruff Pharmaceuticals later this week, and I spent my afternoon researching WP and the company they’re considering acquiring, as well as the pharmaceutical market in general. When I look up, six hours have passed and I’m weak with hunger. I go downstairs to make myself a snack. The phone rings and I assume it’s Will, since he should be getting off work soon. Then we’ll do the whole your-place-or-mine thing. I can’t wait until we live together.
“Hey, you.” It’s Sienna, my younger sister.
“Hey! How are things?”
“Good. How about you? Is all still paradise with Will?”
“All is still paradise.”
“Good for you.”
“How’re things in New York?”
“Great. I’ve been working on some new stuff and I performed it for the first time the other night and it went over really well.”
Sienna works as a stand-up comedian-slash-administrative assistant. She’s been doing stand-up for the last four years, but the money is unsteady, hence the day job.
“Dad called me yesterday and I was telling him about how I performed some new material the other night and it really killed, and he was like, ‘how much money did you get?’ It was such a buzz kill. I’d been on cloud nine and then it was just like bam! I come crashing to the ground—splat! You can see the little chalk outline of my body. I was just crushed because the truth was, I didn’t get paid for the other night.”
“Don’t let Dad get to you.”
The unsaid “but” hangs heavy in the air. Sienna and I both constantly struggle with trying to love ourselves as we are, no matter what other people think about us, but secretly we both revel in outside validation.
“How are things with you and Mark?” I ask.
“Good, for the most part. It’s hard with both of us working during the day and then performing at night. Sometimes it’s hard to find time to spend together.”
“I know. I can’t wait until you two can both live off your comedy.”
“I visualize that every single day. Every single minute, really.”
“Do you think you and Mark are going to get married?” Mark is her boyfriend of three years. He’s an underpaid comedian too and an absolutely great guy. He’s funny, kind, fun—he’s just the kind of guy I want my sister to spend her life with.
“We know we want to spend our lives together. I don’t know about the whole marriage thing.”
See, she’s just as confused about marriage as I am. It is so, so nice having another person in this world who was messed up by my parents in just the same way that I was.
“Look, I’ve got to head down to the bar. I’m opening tonight, so I should get going,” Sienna says.
“Well, good luck tonight. I love you, kiddo.”
“I love you, too.”
I hate that Sienna lives so far away. She and I are a lot alike. We have the same mannerisms and facial expressions. We look alike. We both struggled through low-paying, unrewarding jobs. Sienna is twenty-eight and is still struggling with the low-paying, unrewarding day job bit. She once had the kind of job our parents approved of. She graduated summa cum laude in political science. After graduation she moved to Colorado to be closer to me, and she got a job working for the state of Colorado doing policy research. When the new governor came into office after she’d been working there for two years, he ripped the department up so that he could give jobs to his cronies. All the researchers and people who did the actual work were let go in favor of pencil pushers who could collect fat paychecks.
But Sienna was happy to get laid off. Her job was just too solitary to suit her personality, and it consumed too much of her mental energy, leaving her too drained to pursue her real dream of becoming a comedian. She had occasionally done open mic nights at local comedy clubs in Denver, which is where she met Mark, but it had been hard for her to find the time to write and work on new material. She and Mark had long talked about moving to New York. So after she got her pink slip, they decided to go for it and moved to New York together. They were best friends, and then lovers, and then they finally got around to realizing that they were each other’s true loves.
Sienna has held a series of low-paid jobs ever since the move, but she’s steadily pursued her goal of being a comedian. My father gives her a hard time about not making more money.
He tells her that he paid for her to have a college education so she could have the kind of opportunities he never had, blah blah blah.
Personally, I think it’s great what Sienna is doing. While money is nice, it’s not everything. Having a passion—that’s worth a whole lot more.
Seconds after I get off the phone with Sienna, I get a call from Will.
“Hi, hon. What’s up?” I ask.
“Do we have plans for Sunday?”
“Let me check.” I open my Palm Pilot. We’re wide open for Sunday. Immediately I wonder what Will has got planned for me. A concert? A party? A romantic dinner and play? “We don’t have anything. Why?” I smile with anticipation at the exciting time awaiting me.
“Mom wants us to come down for dinner.”
My smile disappears. I exhale silently, my body deflating like a punctured balloon. Like I told Rachel, it’s not exactly that Will’s mother and I don’t get along, but so far we haven’t quite managed to connect yet. It’s in the little things. She’ll tell a joke and I won’t get it. I’ll try to be funny and she’ll look at me like I need to be locked into a mental institution, that sort of thing. Also, since Will is her only child, she has a mother-bear protective attitude toward her cub. She eyes me warily all the time as if trying to figure out if I’m going to hurt her son. She looks at me like I’m after Will just for his money or simply because I like to toy with men’s hearts before I rip them out and eat them. I’m not quite sure what I need to do to convince her that I only want her son to be happy, that both of us want the same thing for him.
There are so many millions of things that can put a strain on a relationship. Money, sex, work, a pathological jealousy toward your significant other’s ex, what have you. When you add the stress of in-laws on top of that, it’s truly a wonder that any relationships manage to survive at all.