Show me a woman who doesn’t feel guilty and I’ll show you a man. — Erica Jong
The phone rang. I grabbed the receiver, glanced across the counter at David, and said, “Two guesses.”
“Don’t need two,” David said. “It’s Jane. What’s today’s drama?” He smiled and sighed, the way my mother had the time she found my little sister covered in mustard. The sigh of amused exasperation.
I pressed the talk button and gave the standard greeting for my eldest sister: “Yo.”
“Yo,” Jane said. As usual, she launched right into the matter at hand — we speak so many times a day, pleasantries have become vestigial. “So, Bella graduated from the Daisies to the Brownies, and we had our first parent meeting. Guess who’s the new Cookie Mom for the Brownies?”
I groaned. “Where are you going to find the time?” I knew it was too late for this conversation — Jane would never renege on a commitment. But there was a chance my admonishment would encourage her to call me before the next time she decided to load her plate with seconds atop unfinished firsts.
“I guess it’s like the hardest job — you have to store all the cookies, organize the sales,” Jane explained.
“Why would you do something like that?”
“They stuck me with it.”
“And how exactly did they do that?” I asked.
“No one else was raising her hand.” Sensing an impending lecture about the dangers of acquiescing out of a distorted sense of obligation, Jane arranged her words and continued, “They wanted me to be the leader. We weren’t going to have a chapter because no one wanted to do it. I didn’t want to do that — leaders have to lead a meeting every month, come up with ideas for patches and field trips and stuff. Two moms finally gave in and said they’d be coleaders, so I was more than happy to do the not-every-month, but one-time, go-crazy cookie-mom thing. Plus, I knew I’d be the best at it.”
“That’s probably true,” I said. “You are a saleswoman. And cookies are kinda like drugs.” (My sister is a pharmaceutical-company rep.) I downshifted my tone. “It’s a lot of work, but you can rock it. You always do. Are you on your way over?”
“I’m downstairs. See you in a sec,” Jane said.
As an outside sales rep, Jane works out of her car. When her work brings her to customers in my neighborhood, she occasionally pops in to make use of the extra chair in my home office. While I click away on my laptop, Jane attends teleconferences. On the rare occasion our calendars align, we have lunch together. This was one of those days.
I like having Jane around, and not just for the office team spirit she provides. Jane is the only person I know who is more neurotic than I am. I stress about deadlines; Jane loses sleep over them. I fret over whether or not something I said might have offended a friend; Jane panics and stews over her words for days, picking a sentence apart until she convinces herself that her “I’m not sure about that” is akin to spitting in a friend’s face. I worry. Jane agonizes.
“I feel bad,” Jane said as she walked in the door. “I should have brought you lunch.”
“Forget it,” I said. “I’m stoked to be getting out for a bit. I’ve been hunched at my desk for so long I can’t remember what fresh air smells like.”
As we walked down the street to Amarin Thai, Jane said, “I feel bad going to get lunch with you when I know Simon’s eating leftovers at home.”
“Have you ever done anything without finding some way to feel bad about it?” I asked.
Jane took a moment to consider the question. “I never feel bad about spending time with my kids,” she said.
“Right, but when you took them to the fairy festival on Saturday, you spent the entire drive feeling bad about the kids who couldn’t make it because their mom got sick.”
“Those kids probably didn’t care,” Jane said. “They wouldn’t have known what they were missing. I felt bad for the mom because she probably felt bad that she couldn’t bring them.”
“So, if you’re not feeling bad because of something you did, you’re feeling bad because of stuff other people aren’t doing? Your feeling guilty is like smoking — sickly pleasurable — it gives you a buzz while it drains the life out of you. Seriously, Jane, I sometimes wonder if you just like feeling bad. Either that or you don’t think you deserve to feel good.”
Once seated, we ordered the usual — yellow curry lunch special with tofu for Jane, the same but with chicken for me; mild for Jane, spicy for me. After updating each other on the minutiae of our mornings (my voluminous email exchanges and Jane’s breakfast conference), I inquired as to what Jane had planned for that evening. Constantly in a state of contrition, Jane now confessed the sin she was about to make: “I’m going to be horrible and order pizza,” she said. “I’m a bad mother.”
“You’re feeding your kids,” I said. “Doesn’t sound that bad to me.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like I’m stupid and don’t know any better — I could forgive myself that,” Jane said. “But I know pizza isn’t the healthiest option, and I’m choosing it anyway. I know the better thing to do, but I’m making a compromise because it’s easier. I want to be the perfect mother, always cooking fresh and healthy. I try, but it’s exhausting. So, then I decide to not be perfect…I do things like order pizza, and I feel bad about it.”
“There you go, feeling bad again,” I said. “I’m going to start counting how many times you say the word ‘bad’ every day. I’m thinking at least a couple dozen.” Jane rolled her eyes at me as she spooned curry onto brown rice.
“Oh, and I should tell you now, I’m not going to buy any cookies,” I said in my practiced, nice-but-firm voice, the one I used when I informed my mother I would not be joining the family for Easter dinner.
“You don’t have to buy cookies,” Jane said in a bizarrely amenable way. Jane — the consummate saleswoman — always has a strategy. After another bite of curry, she said, “But you do have to Twitter about the cookies.”
I knew it was cruel, but I couldn’t keep myself from indulging in a little sisterly sadism. “Although tweeting is a real hassle,” I said, “I’m happy to do it, but it’s kinda uncool that you put me in this position.”
A look of guilt-stricken horror came over Jane’s face. But only for an instant, before she caught the glint in my eye. “Whatever,” she said.
“Freak,” I said.
“Yeah, I know. But you’re still going to tweet about it, right? I’d feel so bad if — ”
“Yes, yes, I know,” I said. “Consider it done.”