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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Summers

I Used to be Fun: SNEAK PEEK



CHAPTER ONE


"When I was growing up, I always wanted to be someone. Now I realize I should have been more specific." ~Lily Tomlin


This was definitely the most ridiculous thing Jessica Halloway had ever done. Embarrassing. Stupid, even. The worst part was that she knew it wouldn’t work, and yet she’d spent sixty-five dollars plus tax and shipping anyway. There was no way on earth that an herbal vagina steam bath was going to ‘reset her emotional wellbeing so effectively that she’d restore both her energy and sense of optimism to that of a toddler in just one use’ —despite what the glossy brochure claimed.


But KirasBestLife.com was having a Fall in Love With Yourself twenty percent off sale so Jess went ahead and ordered it, throwing a wish to the universe that this would finally be the silver bullet for which she’d been searching. And here she stood in her tidy bathroom, naked from the waist down, feeling utterly foolish, not to mention chilly, while she waited for the filtered water in the sandalwood steam bowl to cool.


Welp, I guess this is happening, she thought.


She might as well do this today. It had been an awful evening. Her son Noah, at the tender age of fifteen, had gotten it in his head that he and his friends should throw a Halloween party in a hotel room. He’d come home from school and started begging Jess to borrow her credit card with the promise of paying for all of it himself. Obviously, she gave him a hard no, but that didn’t stop him from pressing the issue, then raising it again when her husband, Mike (who was already extremely stressed because he lost a major client to another accounting firm), got home from work. Then it was game on. She felt like she should have filmed and narrated it, nature-documentary-style. “The young male challenges the family patriarch yet again, hoping to prove his ability to outwit his father, and therefore be granted the independence he has so long desired. But it’s not to be today for the young buck. The father is unwilling to yield and hand over his credit card so his son can trash a hotel room or impregnate a female of the species. The young male will have to try again another day, when he is stronger and wiser.

The argument raged through supper, but finally died off when Noah was sent to his room to do his homework, which meant he was in there playing Call of Duty on his computer, but at least the fighting had stopped. So Jess sneaked up to the bathroom to give this latest cure-all a try. It had gotten to the point where Jess was that desperate.


She’d been miserable for so long now, she was willing to try anything. She had to find a way to ‘fill her cup,’ as her therapist, Fern, had told her. Although, Jess supposed calling Fern her therapist was a stretch. It’s not like she saw her regularly and Fern now had all the dirt on her. She saw her once, three years ago, about a week after the Canada incident—an event of which she was so ashamed, she still hadn’t told a soul. As soon as she booked the appointment, she felt horribly guilty about spending two hundred dollars for an hour (which turned out to be fifty minutes because Fern needs ten minutes to ‘reset’ before her next appointment). Jess gave her a lightning-fast laundry list of everything that might be wrong with her, as if ‘speed therapy’ were a thing. Now that she thought about it, why wasn’t speed therapy a thing? Million-dollar idea right there. But back to her list: a perpetual sense of doom, chronic irritability, and a general lack of enthusiasm about everything. Her hope was that in one session, she’d be given the insight she needed to fix herself up and carry on. With one perfect sentence from Fern, suddenly the clouds would part, the weight on her shoulders would lift, and she’d walk out into the daylight renewed, restored, and transformed.


But at the end, all Fern said was, “Do you think you value the opinion men have of you more than that of other women?”


“Umm … no.”


“Hmm … let’s put a pin in that and explore it next week.”


Fern opened her appointment book, which was conveniently on the side table next to her armchair. “I can do Monday at three.”


“I’m picking my kids up from school at that time.”


“Can your husband pick them up once a week?”


“His office is forty minutes from the school, and he doesn’t have the flexibility I do.”


Fern stared at Jess with that same neutral (yet totally judgey) expression. “What’s a good time for you?”


You can’t afford this. Her face hot with shame, Jess said, “I’m actually really busy. I was kind of hoping you could just… set me on the right track today so I could take it from here.”


“That’s not how therapy works, Jessica. It took years to build these unhealthy patterns you’ve described. You can’t expect to fix things in an hour.”


“Fifty minutes,” she muttered, adding, “technically,” as if it softened the dig.


Fern had the good grace to ignore it (or maybe she just didn’t want to lose a patient). “This is important. You owe it to yourself and your family to do the work. Before you burn out or worse, do something you regret. These issues, if left unchecked, can cause any number of irrational actions that carry with them the heaviest of consequences.”


“Right, yeah,” she told her, fidgeting with the hem of her sleeve. “The thing is, for now, I can’t commit that much time.”


Tilting her head to the side, Fern sighed. “You need to set yourself as a priority. As Oprah says, you have to fill your cup first or you’ll have nothing to give others. Your homework this week is to figure out what you can give up that will allow you to do this work. You’ll find something, I’m sure.” Standing, she walked over to the door. “It was lovely to meet you, Jessica. Call me when you’re ready to get serious.”


Fast forward to now. Jess hadn’t tried to find anything she could give up to pay for therapy. She also hadn’t found a good way to tell Mike she needed a therapist. Instead, she convinced him they should get a puppy—to teach the kids about empathy and responsibility. But really she hoped it would distract her from her increasingly strong desire to get in her car and drive far, far away by herself. Forever. Probably to California, where she would live in a mint green VW van that she would lovingly convert to an adorable camper. She’d park it next to a white sand beach and fish her dinner out of the ocean while she watched the sunset. Yes, California was the place she’d go if she ever hit the point where she couldn’t take it anymore. People seemed much happier there than here in rainy Seattle.


After weeks of cajoling and showing him adorable puppies in need of forever homes on her phone, Mike finally cracked, and they picked up Baxter, an adorable light brown and white cava-poo (Cavalier King Charles Spaniel/poodle cross). It had worked for a while. Jess had been so busy sleep-training, house-training, and teaching him not to chew on the plants and cords, that she didn’t have time to think about the bigger picture. But then, after a few months, Baxter settled into their family and the awful, restless feeling returned.


She was bored. No, not bored. How can someone so busy be bored? It was more like disconnected—slightly separated from everything and everyone around her. She didn’t see the point of any of it, which seemed ridiculous because on paper, Jess had it all. A healthy, mostly-happy family, a part-time job she didn’t mind going to, financial security, good friends. It was enough that she felt guilty wanting anything more. But that didn’t change the fact that she did want more. She wanted to live. Some other life. One that amazed her or, more accurately, one in which she was amazing.


Before she was Jessica Halloway, she was Jessica Saunders. And Jessica Saunders was supposed to be extraordinary. She was going to do something important in this world, like run a Fortune 500 company or be a high-powered attorney. She’d be out in the world making her mark and people would say, ‘There goes Jessica Saunders. Look at her. So determined and talented, not to mention dressed to kill.’ Jessica Saunders had actually settled on going to law school, and had even scored in the top five percent in the country on her LSAT. But then she got married and she and Mike decided he should focus on his career first, since he already had his degree and only needed to sit for the exams to get his Chartered Professional Accountant designation. But then Winnie came along, followed by Noah, and pretty soon, she’d forgotten all about picking up her studies where she’d left off.


That had happened so long ago, she completely forgot that she used to be thrilled by it all. Jess Saunders was one of those enthusiastic, take-life-by-the-horns sort of girls. The life of the party. She’d dance all night, she’d laugh all day. She was witty. Smart. Great at banter. People were drawn to her. She loved everything. Impromptu trip to Mexico? I’ll grab my passport. Sex? Yes, please. Plenty of it. Mountain mud pie with caramel sauce for dessert? Hand me a fork.

Jess missed her. She really, really frigging missed her. She knew that impressive young woman was buried somewhere inside her.


She must be there, right?


So, where was she?


Since the failed attempt at therapy, she’d tried forest bathing, green powder drinks that claimed to support emotional health, spent the last year writing in a gratitude journal, and meditated until her lips felt like they might fall off from making the ‘Ommmm’ sound, all in a desperate attempt to find her. So, in a ‘what the hell?’ moment of weakness, she decided to order the luxury vagina steam bath kit.


She stilled herself for a second, straining her ears in case someone was coming. She would never tell anyone she’d done this. Except her best friend, Diana (who was also a devotee of lifestyle and wellness guru Kira Popowich). Jess had already told her she bought the kit, and Diana was going to get one too if Jess got results. Diana, whose husband, Victor, was an anesthesiologist, wouldn’t worry about waiting for a sale. But other than Diana, she’d tell no one. Not even Rachael, who, while not her best friend, was a close second, not that Jess would ever number a human like that. Although, she supposed she just had. Rachael, a hugely successful career consultant for bored CEOs, CFOs, and other wealthy initials, would laugh her head off if she knew. She couldn’t stand Kira Popowich, or any of the other woo-woo happiness experts of the world. Rachael believed in two things: working hard and not taking any shit from anyone ever. Rachael was divorced. Jessica was married and didn’t know what she believed in anymore.


She placed her hand over the bowl. Nope, still way too hot for her vajayjay. Guilt stabbed at her as she thought of how much this latest attempt at happiness was costing. The equivalent of half of an eight-hour shift at the pottery shop. Mike would be horrified if he knew she’d blown that kind of money. More than horrified. He’d be pissed. How could you possibly think soaking your … vagina (he’d whisper that word, even if the kids were out and it was just them and the dog) would have any effect on your mental health at all? She’d correct him, of course, and tell him she had steamed her vagina, not soaked it (as if that would make any difference whatsoever in the conversation’s outcome). She would still do it because small details were very important to Jess. Don’t do anything unless you’re going to do it well (which, in her mind, included speaking with accuracy).


It would be a whole deal. He’d be ticked off for at least an entire day, and then would put it in the vault to bring out every once in a while for the rest of their lives when they were arguing about money. And for that reason, he could never know what she was doing in here. The insane part (if there was anything more insane than what she was about to do) was that she would agree with him about it being useless. But Kira was always going on about treating the most sacred parts of ourselves with the most sacred of rituals. Since we’re divine goddesses and all. Jess cringed at the thought of someone referring to her as a goddess. She and Mike used that term as a joke. But Kira used it in earnest, which was okay for a woman like her—beautiful, brilliant, wildly successful.


Kira lived in a beach house in Malibu where she shot videos of herself living her best life to inspire women everywhere. Watching the videos had become somewhat of an obsession for Jess over the last few months. Kira was the type of woman with whom you knew you could be best friends. Or rather, you wished you could. Drinking mimosas on a rooftop patio on a Sunday afternoon. Laughing and sharing your darkest secrets. Jess would obviously bring Diana and Rachael along because that was the kind of friend she was—loyal to a fault. Well, maybe she’d just bring Diana. It might be too much to ask to invite two friends along. Plus, Rachael would definitely say something to Kira about how much she detested people in Kira’s profession, which would be awkward, to say the least.


Hmm…she’d cross that bridge when she came to it. In her fantasy, her friendship with Kira just made sense. After all, they were the same age. Well, roughly. Jessica was forty-six and Kira was forty-two, but they were both somewhere in the middle. Only Kira looked like she was twentysomething—impossibly tight, toned, and smooth, whereas Jess looked every minute her age—sagging jowls, crow’s feet, and those deep marionette lines that appeared out of nowhere one afternoon. She’d been considering telling people she was sixty-two, just to hear someone say how great she looked. Even if they’d be thinking ‘for your age,’ it would still feel nice to be noticed. No one noticed women like Jess. It was like she’d donned an invisibility cloak the moment she turned forty-five. Men didn’t smile at her in the grocery store anymore. Not even the old ones who used to find her so alluring on account of her Marilyn Monroe-esque figure.


Mike still said she was beautiful from time to time. Actually, he told her she looked really nice today when she was dressed up for one reason or another. Something about the way he said it bothered her. It was as if adding the word today made it clear that most days she didn’t look nice at all. But she knew she shouldn’t frame it that way. She should look for the positive. After all, according to Kira, that was the secret to happiness. Being happy with what you have. Mind you, Kira Popowich was rich, famous, and sported a flat stomach and a perfectly round behind. Of course she was happy with what she had. But that didn’t mean that Jess shouldn’t appreciate the compliments from her husband of nineteen years. After all, it meant he still noticed her. Some of the time, anyway. But it wasn’t a lack of male attention that had had her feeling so blasé about life. She was far too old to care about something so fleeting and silly.


This went much deeper.


“This better damn well work,” Jessica muttered when the water finally cooled to a temperature that felt safe enough for her nether regions. She should just crouch over the bowl already and get the disappointment over with. Hmm…now that she really looked at it, she realized the bowl was quite nice, actually. Well worth the sixty-five dollars alone. She eyed it while the pungent aroma of the healing herbs wafted up into her nostrils. It would make an interesting salad bowl. Not for guests, obviously, in case they ever hosted someone who had seen the kit online. Even though she wasn’t actually going to touch her private parts to the bowl itself, she still would never serve food out of it to a guest. To her own family, maybe, and only after bleaching it, then rinsing it a dozen or so times. But not a guest. She could picture Mike’s boss’s wife, Maxine, saying that the salad bowl looked vaguely familiar and asking her where she got it. “Well, Maxine, it was originally a vagina steam bath bowl, but I’ve repurposed it. Reduce, reuse, recycle, right?”


Okay, for real. Time to steam the bean. She set the bowl on the tile floor and squatted, feeling the not-so-subtle heat rising. Oh, this was weird. So very weird. She hoped the earthy scent of the herbal elixir wasn’t going to get soaked into her skin because she really didn’t want to walk around smelling like dirt and rotting cabbage for the next couple of days. Jess held her breath and waited for some magical transformation to begin à la Cinderella when her housemaid dress was transformed into a sparkly gown by her fairy godmother. She imagined herself being picked up off the floor and twirled around in a big circle, only to be set back down a completely new woman. A happy one.


Her phone rang, startling her. Jessica shot up from her crouching position, feeling embarrassed even though whoever it was couldn’t see what she was doing. It was her mother, Hilary. Jessica’s first reaction was to start panicking. Her mom never called at this hour. She answered immediately. “Hello?”


“Jess, I just got a strange text from Noah asking if I’ll lend him my credit card, but not to tell you and Mike. Is everything okay? Are you having money troubles?”


Instant rage shot through her. Jess set her jaw, then said, “No, we are not. He wants to rent a hotel room on Halloween and throw a party. We said no, so clearly he’s moved on.”


“Oh dear, where does he get such ideas?” she asked.


“I honestly don’t know.”


“It’s probably some new trend on the TikTok.”


“Or it’s just something he and his idiot friends cooked up,” Jess answered, grabbing a towel to dry off a bit.


“You never would have thought of something like that. You were always so good. Even as a teenager,” her mom said, which brought on a whole host of emotions. Guilt because Jess had never been that good. Merely skilled at hiding all the shit she was doing. She also got a twinge of hurt feelings because her mom was basically saying Jessica’s own kid was bad, and she didn’t want her to think that, even if it was true. Was it true? Was he actually a bad human being? Were they unwittingly raising a sociopath or someone with narcissistic personality disorder? The thought made her chest feel tight.


“Well… what do I do?” her mom asked.


“Say no.”


“But he’s my grandson. I don’t want to have to say no to him,” Hilary said.


“I’ll tell him no for you.”


“No! Don’t do that. Then he’ll know I ratted him out.”


“Ratted him out? What are you, a gangster now?”


“I watched The Sopranos. I know what a rat is and I’m not going to become one. He’ll never tell me anything again.”


In truth, Hilary had watched part of one episode, but was so horrified she’d shut it off.


“I don’t know, Mom. What if you lie and tell him you don’t have a credit card?”


“Hmph, that sounds fishy. Why do they need to have a Halloween party anyway? Isn’t it enough to go trick-or-treating? That was good enough for you and your brother.”


“He’s fifteen so he’s too old to go trick-or-treating and he’s too young to go to the bar.”


“Oh, I guess that makes sense,” she said. “Maybe I should let them have a party at my house? No drinking of course, but I can make some snacks and they can play some spooky games. Oh! I’ll peel a bowl of grapes and say they’re eyeballs.”


Jessica’s heart broke a little at her mom’s desire to connect with a kid who was trying to use her. “As nice as that is of you, I don’t think he’ll go for it, Mom. He and his friends want to pretend they’re adults.”


“I suppose so. Silly of me,” she said with a little laugh. “I always want him to be a little boy but he’s not anymore.”


“No, he’s not.”


“Shame that kids have to grow up. They’re so much easier when they’re little.”


“Preach, sister.”


“What’s that?”


“I just meant I agree with you. Little kids, little problems,” Jess said, realizing she needed to get back to the steam bowl because already it was throwing off a lot less steam than a few minutes ago. Somehow she couldn’t bring herself to squat while she was talking to her mother though, because she knew her mom would somehow figure out she was up to something. She didn’t know how her mom would know—maybe it would be some slightly off quality in her voice while she strained to hold the squat, but her mom would just know.


“Oh, I’ve got it! I’ll tell him that you texted me first and told me to say no. That way he doesn’t have to know we spoke.”


Jess closed her eyes, dreading the fight that would be coming her way, but knowing that the moment she said, ‘Let’s have a baby,’ to Mike, she was signing up for this shit. “Yeah, that’s a good idea. Do that.”


“Okay, that’s what I’ll do. Good,” she said, sounding much lighter than she did moments before.


“How are you doing?”


“About the same.”


“You know, I’ve been thinking about it, and maybe it’s a hormonal issue.”


Jess thought about it for a second before answering. “Maybe, yeah. I’m a little young to be going through menopause.”


“True, but the years leading up to it can be a real bear. They don’t have to be though. Not with so many options out there now. Nancy’s daughter went to her doctor and she put her on some sort of gel that she uses every night. Apparently it’s made a huge difference. She’s got a lot more energy and she doesn’t want to murder anyone the week before her period anymore.”


Chuckling, Jess said, “She doesn’t? That sounds like heaven. Maybe I’ll book an appointment with Dr. Kildorf and see what he says.”


“Can’t hurt to check, right?”


“True. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be the quick fix I’m praying for.”


“Let’s hope so. Are you and Mike all right?”


“Yes, of course.”


“Good. The last thing you need is marriage trouble.” Her mom spoke from experience about the marriage trouble. Jessica’s father had gone through a pretty significant midlife crisis when Jess was twelve, including the sports car and trading her mom (and Jess) in for a thirty-year-old flight attendant. “Teenagers are hard enough.”


“So true. If they came into the world at this age, humans would have died out thousands of years ago.”


“I saw this terrible joke on the internet the other day and it made me think of you. It was a picture of a woman standing next to her teen daughter and it said, ‘Is one-hundred and eighty months too far past the deadline for a late-term abortion?’”


Jess burst out laughing, then remembered she needed to be quiet because if someone realized she’d been in here this whole time, they’d start asking questions she didn’t want to answer. “That’s awful.”


“I know,” her mom said in a conspiratorial tone. “So awful. We don’t mean it, of course, but it’s still funny.”


A loud banging on the door startled Jess. She quickly wrapped the towel around her waist, even though the door was locked.


“MOM! Winnie took the remote from me and changed the channel and I’m not done with my show!” Noah shouted.


“It’s after his bedtime so I get the TV!” Winnie yelled.


“I only have three minutes left in my show and you said it’s okay if it’s less than five minutes!” he yelled.


Oh, for God’s sake, couldn’t a woman steam her vagina in peace anymore? Jess scrunched her eyes tight. “Where’s your father?”


“I don’t know,” Winnie said. “What’s that terrible smell?”


Crap. “I’m not feeling well. Please go find your dad.”


“You’re always sick!” Winnie yelled before stomping off.


Jess muttered, “Yeah, sick of your shit.”


Her mom burst out laughing and Jess joined in, happy to have an ally.


“Teenagers are hard, but the good thing is they won’t live with you forever.”


“One can hope.”


“I’ll let you go. Hang in there, sweetie.”


“Thanks.”


Jess hung up, then walked back over to the bowl, only to discover there was no steam left in her steam bath. She sighed and picked it up, then dumped its contents into the toilet and flushed, watching her latest effort at finding the old her get sucked down toward the sewer. She was sure there was some brilliant metaphor about life here, but she was too worn out to think of it. Besides, she needed to shower and dispose of any evidence of the kit. Except the bowl. She’d keep that.


Secret Journal Entry - September 25th


Today’s fantasy: A long-lost aunt I didn’t know about has died and left me millions. I’m on a plane to Barcelona. Alone. Somehow, I have the entire row of seats to myself, so I’m sitting with my back to the window and my legs stretched out in front of me, sipping coffee and flipping through the Lonely Planet’s Guide to Spain. I use pink Post-it arrows to mark off the places I’ll see when I’m there—the Parque del Retiro, the Plaza de España, that basilica that took over two-hundred years to finish.

I’ve rented an oceanfront villa, where I will eat only tapas and drink wine while I stare out at the water. I’ll wander along the beach wearing a big, floppy hat. I’ll go window shopping without anyone hurrying me along or complaining about how bored they are. I’ll stop and listen to a guitar duo play an entire song without feeling even a bit self-conscious about all the eye-contact. I’ll sway my hips to the beat, twirl, and smile, and everywhere I go, people will say, “Who is that sophisticated, free-spirited woman?”

I may never come back.


***


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