Authors: Leigh Stein
THE FALLBACK PLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Leigh Stein
All rights reserved
First Melville House printing: December 2011
Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, New York 11201
Lyric from “Missed The Boat”:
Words and Music by Johnny Marr, Joe Plummer, Jeremiah Green,
Tom Peloso, Eric Judy and Isaac Brock
Copyright © 2007 Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Ugly Casanova, Tschudi Music, Crazy Gnome, Party Pants Music, Chrysalis Music, Robot Horse Music, and Marr Songs Ltd.
All Rights on behalf of Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Ugly Casanova, Tschudi Music, Crazy Gnome and Party Pants Music Administered by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, 8 Music Square West, Nashville, TN 37203 International Copyright Secured All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.
Reprinted by Permission of Hal Leonard Corporation
A Streetcar Named Desire
, copyright © 1947, 1953 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. and by Georges Borchardt, Inc. for the Estate of Tennessee Williams. All Rights Reserved
The Library of Congress has cataloged the paperback edition as follows:
Stein, Leigh, 1984–
The fallback plan / Leigh Stein.
1. Young women–Fiction. 2. Adult children living with parents–Fiction.
3. Adult children–Family relationships–Fiction. 4. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
for Jason Varner
In June, the monsoons hit Bangladesh. Chinese police discovered slaves in a brickwork factory who couldn’t be sent home because they were too traumatized to remember anything but their own names, and Dr. Kevorkian was released from prison.
In other news, I moved in with my parents.
Nothing was happening to me, and there was the promise of more of the same, so I buoyed myself with news of what was happening to everyone else.
In the local paper, I read that after a thirteen-year adolescence spent underground, the cicadas were coming. I read that police had charged my high school drivers ed teacher with aggravated criminal sexual abuse, for having an inappropriate relationship with a student in his home, a seventeen-year-old girl. When questioned by the police, she would only say that she loved him. The administration put the teacher on paid leave.
I wanted to know who the girl was, but the paper
wouldn’t print her name. I wanted to know what she looked like, as if that would explain why she loved him.
I was going to write to the school administration, to protest this leniency, but I had handed my life over to lethargy, and couldn’t even begin the letter.
I had, somehow, managed to graduate with a theater degree from Northwestern, but without a job or a trust fund I had to choose between moving home and suffering the rancid fate of a nomadic couchsurfer. This hadn’t been anyone’s original plan, and somewhere in the gap between the end of winter break and graduation, my parents had converted my childhood bedroom into a home theater. No one had mentioned it to me. They assumed I’d be just as thrilled as they were. They took down my map of the world, my kitschy chandelier, and the panel of Gustav Klimt wallpaper I had pasted above my bed.
“I smoothed all those air bubbles out with a
I told my mom when I saw what she’d done. The room was now nautical-themed. The new wallpaper looked benign enough from far away, but if you got up close you saw that it was patterned with cats wearing sailor caps. A small part of me threw up. There was a leather couch where my bed had been, and the shelves above held my parents’ DVD collection, which consisted of romantic comedies from the early nineties and the Chuck Norris omnibus.
“Did you think I would never come home?”
“Remember what you said when you were fourteen or fifteen? You said that once you graduated college you’d rather live in a car than live with us,” she said, and left me alone in that room, to grieve for lost objects.
“I was kidding!” I called after her, but she didn’t come back. I didn’t even own a car. I briefly imagined moving back to Evanston, walking to the lake, and throwing myself in.
But how would I even get back to Evanston without a car? I moved my clothes and books into the guest room downstairs, which smelled like pumpkin spice potpourri year-round, and was very close to the tree where the cicadas screamed at night.
Was I jealous that Jack Kevorkian was free and I was not? Yes. Yes, I was.
And so began my summer as an unemployed college graduate. My goal was to develop a chronic illness that would entitle me to monthly checks from the government, tender sympathy from my loved ones, and a good deal of time in bed with the collected work of Frances Hodgson Burnett. I’ve always been ambitious. I had my fingers crossed for a disease without a cure, but a mild one, nothing disfiguring or painful. Of all the plans I could have made for how to spend the rest of my life, this seemed the most desirable because it required the least of me. It was a form of surrender.
My dad subscribed to
, in addition
, and he read on the train on the way to work; he read in his favorite armchair with a glass of Cabernet before dinner; he read in the bathroom. I didn’t think this was just a healthy interest in current events. I recognized this as an addiction, because it was one I shared. Around our house, the paranoia and sense of impending doom was escalating, until finally the day came when my dad told me that he was going to have to start charging me rent to offset the cost of the home security system he had just ordered.
“But you just turned my childhood bedroom into a Cineplex.”
“It increases the value of the home,” my mom said.
“But I don’t have any money, remember? That’s why I live with
I had applied at PetCo and Starbucks, but neither was hiring so I made flyers to advertise my services as a dogwalker. They remained in a stack on my desk. Whenever I looked at them I either got lost in an invalid fantasy or I thought,
Jesus, Esther, you were tested as gifted and talented in first grade, you were a Lilac Princess in the Lilac Parade, and you starred in a student film called
Russian Bride Zombies from Hell. You
shouldn’t have to walk dogs or suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. Sofia Coppola should hire you as her personal assistant. You should get paid to update her website and remember to bring a bag of her favorite snack foods when you two have to fly to international film festivals together
“Esther? Did you hear what I just said?” my mom said.
“I said, ‘Do you want to help me plant wildflowers in the front?’ I’ll pay you eight dollars an hour.”
Has it come to this? Indentured servitude? Will I have to work for twenty years to pay off my rent debt to my own parents?
“If by plant wildflowers you mean inherit $100,000 from a dead relative I’ve never met so that I can visit the catacombs in Paris, then yes,” I said. My friend Tierney was abroad for the summer, on a trip financed by her grandmother as a graduation present. The last email she’d sent me was from Paris. The subject read: “Beaucoup de garçons!”
“Maybe you can get a job at the movie theater at the mall and you can see movies for free,” my dad said. “You like movies.” He was making signs on our computer to print and post around the house that reminded me and my mom to lock the doors and windows. “How do I make this text all fit on one page? Do I click this white box with the magnifying glass?”
“No,” I said. “Stop. Let me do it.”
It only took two seconds, and he kept asking me to slow down so he could see what I was doing. I knew he wouldn’t remember it anyway, so I didn’t.
“Isn’t that something,” my mom said, putting on her reading glasses to watch over our shoulders.
“Can you at least write down what you just did so I can do it again later if you’re not home?” my dad said.
“Maybe we could pay her to give us computer lessons, Paul.”
“You don’t have to pay me, I’ll write them down later. Dad, can I borrow the car tonight?”
“If you put on some pants,” he said.
I looked at my legs. I was only wearing the t-shirt I had worn to bed the night before. On the front, it had a picture of a gray wolf, standing on a cliff, howling at a full moon. The moon was surrounded by silvery clouds coming out of a ghostlike woman’s mouth. This was my so-ugly-it’s-awesome shirt, but my parents didn’t appreciate that, even after I explained it to them.
I poured myself a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for dinner and took it to my room so I wouldn’t have to sit at the table with my parents and talk about my “plans.” I had been rereading the books I loved as a child, mysteries and fantasies, books in which the heroines were orphans or runaways or Holocaust martyrs. I liked that even though they faced insurmountable obstacles, their objectives were always clear.
Cereal in hand, I got into bed with
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
. Thirty pages in I started to fall asleep, but I had promised to hang out with Pickle later, so to stay awake I brought my laptop over from my desk and Googled images of baby pandas.
Baby panda waving.
Baby panda at the playground.
Baby panda in a blue plastic basket.
I should write a screenplay, I thought, about four baby pandas who go to stay with their uncle in the English countryside to hide from German bombers. One day they’re playing hide-and-go-seek when the littlest panda finds this amazing portal to another world, but the other baby pandas don’t believe her, and later they’re filled with regret because in the other world she enters into an indecent relationship with a much older panda and they don’t know how to bring her back.
I’ll do that, I thought. Later. I’ll write a screenplay.
I read an email from Ximong in Connecticut, who always signed her emails “Shimone” because she hated being called “Ex-mong.” She said she was having a fantastic time stage managing a production of
, and was sleeping with an actor who played one of the horses.
Melissa wrote to say she had decided to stay in Evanston for the summer, and also wanted to let me know that her teenage brother got caught doing coke at space camp.
All my girlfriends were having the times of their lives, like Jennifer Grey, pre-rhinoplasty.
I took a Vicodin I found in the medicine cabinet, left over from when I had my wisdom teeth out, and tried to tame the wild shrubbery of my hair with gelatinous goop. Twenty minutes later, I looked less Diana Ross, more mangy dog. A failure. I went back into the guest room, and
crawled around the floor of the closet, which was now filled with the salvaged wreckage of my former bedroom, looking for my favorite black shirt. It felt cool and dark in there, like the bottom of the ocean, the final frontier. I found a stack of Trapper Keepers from middle school in the corner—the zippers were broken, but they still had the Alanis Morissette lyrics I had written on the front covers with Wite-Out. I also found a pair of pink legwarmers, my collection of Little House on the Prairie and Beatrix Potter books, and a box of 64 crayons. I know I saved the crayons because I used to think they had feelings, and I never outgrew the thought. I found the shirt and changed into it. Pants next.
Then my phone made a noise and I crawled back to my bed to get it. There was a text message from Pickle that said he was off work and going over to Jack’s and I should meet them.
, I wrote back.
But then instead of standing up, I decided to see how long I could keep crawling.
What if you couldn’t walk, Esther. What if that was your affliction
I kneeled to turn off the light in my room and then I crawled into the hallway, through the living room and toward the front door. My dad was asleep on the couch with the TV on mute. Why did we own so many TVs? I couldn’t understand it. I had to crawl past him to get to the staircase, where my purse was hanging over the banister, and I
pretended I was a sand cat, in the desert, stealthily hunting for lizards in the dark.