Jenny marched into the house with armloads of colorful and sensuous folds of luxurious fabric draped over her arms and piled up to her chin. A bulky Nordstrom Rack shopping bag hung on her wrist, filled with a mish-mash of expensive looking shoes.
I’d known Jenny since we were 14. In high school, she was my constant companion as sidekick, confidante, and best friend. We’d stayed friends over the years, even though our lives took decidedly different turns. She went away to college, joined a sorority, got a degree, and found a high-profile sales job downtown. She drove a shiny, black, vintage BMW convertible, had weekly pedicures and manicures, and her bleached blonde tresses tended to on a regular basis at a salon. She tanned, drank cosmopolitan martinis with wealthy businessmen at the downtown hot spots during happy hour, and vacationed in Europe.
She also had the most amazing boobs. Her chest investment had paid off over the years, and she was wined and dined often by some of Portland’s most powerful men. She even enjoyed a brief stint as the lover of a handsome and famous western-music troubadour. Compared to me, she was a celebrity and centerfold. Still, like her implants, we were the perfect pair. After several weeks of late night dinner parties and club socials, she’d come to my house to decompress. She would bring the wine, and I would provide the meatloaf and homemade mashed potatoes while she would regale me with her sex-in-the-city adventures.
After the kids kissed Auntie Jenny goodnight, we’d both slip into our sweats. Jenny’s sported a Nike swoosh on the hip and she’d wear a cleavage-flattering tank, whereas mine were usually Hanes sweatpants with the drawstring waistband and tight elastic gathered at the ankles that made my body resemble a Jimmy Dean sausage link. I topped it off with one of Mike’s XL hoodies emblazoned with a past softball team’s logo. Jenny usually used her attire to frame her bust as though it were a great work of art, or at least a really good replica. I hid mine as strategically as possible because I likened my profile to an apple on a stick.
Jenny and I would arrange ourselves on my couch and stay up late, laughing at movies she’d brought over and played on her projector laptop from work. Our lives were almost the direct opposite of each other’s, but our history and humor kept us tightly bound. She helped me remember how to laugh. She helped me remember what I was like before I became a wife and mother, what I was like when I had ideas and aspirations that went beyond figuring out which grocery store had the best coupons that week.
The kids were with my parents for the day, and Jenny had come over to be my stylist. Over the past few weeks of turmoil, she had come to my rescue. Her highly coiffed and polished exterior hid a heart of gold that far outshone her carefully gilded blonde highlights. She was always there for me, and her loyalty was unquestionable. One thing that always delighted and amazed me about our friendship was the intangible understanding, the almost psychic bond she had with me. Jenny knew things she shouldn’t have, things I’d never told her about. She always called when I needed her. She called me moments after Mike had confessed on that awful Valentine’s Day morning. After learning the devastating truth about Mike, I couldn’t bear to see anyone with my face puffed and swollen that night, so I hid in my darkened house. Jenny again knew what I needed and she delivered. I found a brown bag with Kung Pao chicken and M&M’s on my doorstep. Jenny didn’t intrude and beg for salacious details. Instead, she gave me much needed time to process the news alone, while somehow knowing I also needed Chinese take-out and chocolate.
We spread the garments across my bed. Jenny’s exquisite taste was apparent as I read the designer labels hidden inside the fully-lined, fitted jackets, blazers, cashmere sweaters, and perfectly tailored pants and skirts designed specifically to show off the feminine figure. Dana Buchman, Badgley Mischka, Elie Tahari, Banana Republic, and J.Crew were brands I’d only looked at before in catalogs, and if I was lucky, on the racks at Goodwill. Here they were, pressed and displayed across my bed as mix-and-match wardrobe essentials, and Jenny was guiding me through the process like a fairy-godmother-turned-personal-shopper. She tried everything on me, commenting on how different fabrics draped and hung on my slender, new figure and showed me how to piece together scarves, jewelry, shoes, and wraps. For the first time in a long time, I looked at myself in the mirror in my bathroom and was hopeful. With my friend’s expertise and loving touch, I was starting to come out of the frumpy shell that had cloaked me for the past 14 years.
In addition to a new wardrobe changing my appearance, weight loss was an unexpected side effect of going through the traumatic end of my marriage. When people asked how I lost weight so quickly, I explained that emotional stress was the ideal diet enhancer. Perhaps crying fits burned a lot of calories, but I also wasn’t eating like I used to. I had allowed myself to buy groceries at Trader Joe’s and was eating things like yogurt and fresh vegetables instead of Hamburger Helper and half-gallons of Western Family ice cream. Sometimes, I just plain forgot to eat. When it did occur to me, I would often decide to just push through the hunger, making it a challenge. Finally, there was something in my life that I could control.
I was down to a size four. I never imagined I could fit into sleek designer clothes. She dressed me in outfit after outfit that made me look elegant, professional, and even sexy. I tried on every shoe in the bag and realized quickly the difference a gorgeous heel can make to the silhouette of a woman’s leg, and how my feet looked much different in a peep-toe kitten heel and sheer seamed stockings than they had in secondhand Birkenstocks and tube socks. I couldn’t help but imagine scenes from Looney Tunes cartoons, when Bugs cinched in his waist, curled his ears into a movie-star hair helmet, and slathered on red lipstick to his instantly full lips. I felt like Bugs Bunny in drag, but I looked more like Jessica Rabbit.
As the closing act in my femme fatale makeover, Jenny fussed with my hair, cut short at the neighborhood Supercuts, and spiked it with product that smelled like Hawaiian flowers and banana. Wisps of playful red hair framed my face. I felt like an injured bird being let out of the cage back into the wild, taking flight after being nurtured back to health.
The next day, I was going to walk into the culinary school where Jenny worked to try to land a spontaneous interview. I desperately needed a job, and she let me know about an opening at the school she worked at in the admissions department. She had told me that about 350 other résumés, just like mine, were in a stack on the Director of Admissions’ desk, many of which had real sales and work experience and a full degree behind them. It didn't stop me, though. I had three children relying on me - three mouths to feed, three little heads to put a roof over, and most importantly, I wanted to finally provide my family with health insurance.
Mike had either been let go from or quit countless jobs since I'd known him. As a family, we never knew from one week to the next if the next ear infection, pink eye outbreak, or high fever would be covered by health insurance, and I was constantly fretting, not knowing for sure if I could call a doctor or take a child to the emergency room if necessary, due to Mike's erratic employment history. I remember applying for my family to be on the Oregon Health Plan emergency welfare insurance program a couple of times while married to him. It was embarrassing, but more importantly, it was necessary. Most of my neighbors and friends’ children were covered by their husband’s health insurance. I didn't know one parent that worried about that basic need other than me. It was a guilty secret, never knowing for sure if my children would be covered. Of course, I never knew for sure if I could pay the next utility bill, or even if I could afford milk, bread, and eggs. But not having health insurance for the kids petrified me more than anything else. I found myself, on more than one occasion, collecting the soda pop cans found in the neighborhood on walks with the children and trying to return Mike's empty Bud Light cans so I could afford a few groceries.
Never again, I told myself. To me, it would be a luxury not to worry about providing my family with the bare necessities like heat, food, a roof over our heads, health insurance, and dental insurance.
I needed my own job. I needed to be sure I could independently take care of myself and my children. The local culinary school was offering a salary of $34,000 per year, five thousand more than Mike had ever made at any of the multiple jobs he'd worked at since I'd been with him. I had to get it.
A week after Jenny had given the Director of Admissions my resumé, I still had not received a phone call. Desperate times called for desperate measures. I was going to visit him, unannounced, unexpected, and looking my best. I was determined to talk him into giving me the job. This unannounced visit to the Director of Admissions required an extra dose of audacity. I carefully wrapped my short and experience-slender resumé in a huge white gift box, tied it with an oversized royal blue ribbon, and begged my friend RJ to drive me to Portland for the day. I had never driven downtown, and the one-way streets and unfamiliar territory scared me. Not only did I need moral support, but I also needed a chauffer and someone to hang out with my children in the car while I pitched myself to a hiring executive in a borrowed suit. She graciously agreed, and arrived at my apartment with time to spare, smiling supportively.
RJ dropped me off at the front of the culinary school offices and hugged me reassuringly. Faith was asleep in her car-seat in the backseat of her minivan. Jackson and Claire sat looking out the window at the city they had never visited. I gave RJ a last squeeze, trying to glean any confidence from her that I could. Catching a reassuring look from her as we parted, I took a deep breath, threw back my shoulders, grabbed my enormous box with my tiny resumé, and stepped out onto the downtown city sidewalk.
Inside the twelve story office building, Margie, a middle-aged blonde, sparkly-eyed little lady, took an immediate liking to me for some reason. She giggled and ushered me into the Director’s office after offering me puff pastries from the tray at her desk that the students refreshed daily. When I walked into his office, even though I still felt like an overweight, undersexed housewife, he treated me like the confident and professional woman that I had disguised myself as. After all, I don't think it was every day that a doe-eyed, hyperventilating woman in spiky red hair and suit came rushing into the office carrying an enormous gift box wrapped in an oversized blue ribbon. Without a question, he welcomed me into his office.
"Hi there. You look like Annette Benning!"
I smiled broadly. This interview was off to a good start. Confidence filled me, and after the 30 minute interview I left feeling very positive. Even though I didn’t have a job offer, it wouldn’t take long for the phone to ring with good news.
Walking back to the minivan, I caught a glimpse of myself in the department store window and did an immediate double take. Subconsciously, I expected to see my old self, the predictable, safe, forest green minivan of the woman that I used to be. Instead, looking back at me was a sleek new sports car. I couldn’t help but stop and smile for a minute. I sashayed my hips and concentrated on walking in my borrowed high heels the rest of the way to the car where my kids were waiting for their smiling, and soon to be employed, mommy.
"The Makeover" is a chapter from my memoir Illumination - How One Woman Made Light of the Darkness. (For information on independent bookstores to purchase the book from, please visit http://www.sophiavanburen.com/Sophia_van_Buren/Books.html).