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“Hello! Welcome to Book Club” by Helen Ellis

Published on Monday, April 29th, 2013

“Mirror, Mirror” by Joni Tobin

I’m your hostess. My Book Club name is Mary Beth. We all have Book Club names at Book Club. Why? Well, really, why not? If you decide to join us, you can give yourself a Book Club name. We’ll laminate a bookmark with your new name on it. We’ll hole-punch a tassel. You can keep your bookmark in whatever book you’re reading. It doesn’t have to be a Book Club book. But your Book Club name will be a secret name that only we call you. Trust me, you’ll like it. It feels like a dollar bill in your bra.

That’s right, Jane, like mad money!

Jane’s our grande dame. She’s 90 years young. She’s what you call a real New Yorker. Meaning: she’s loaded. When it comes to Jane’s money, think of a crazy amount of money, lottery money that you’d like as a windfall. Imagine 100-dollar bills funneling around you like a tornado of financial freedom. It feels good, doesn’t it, dear? Now double that money. Honestly, triple it. Then add a billion. Jane lives on Fifth Avenue and looks down at the Park. But she doesn’t look down on us, now do you, Jane? No, ma’am, you do not.

I met Jane at a library lecture by Stephen King. Can you believe this sweet-looking lady who has Chanel suits like some girls have day-of-the-week underpants loves horror novels? She sure does. And that means, from time to time, Book Club loves them too. Personally, I think her love of blood and guts and things that go mwah-ha-ha in the night has to do with her wanting to read things more horrible than what’s happened to her in real life. Jane’s survived two husbands — one died of a heart attack and one was shot dead by his mistress while wearing a latex body stocking — and three children — car accident, ski accident, and one fell off the roof of her penthouse. Sorry, Jane, you’re right: honesty’s the best policy. Your grown boy jumped. There, I said it. And you were the first one on the scene. Yes, ma’am, what’s done is done, grab a mop and move on. It really is that easy, dear. Children aren’t the end-all, be-all. A baby’s like a basketball. You bounce it for a while and sometimes it goes flat. Or in Jane’s case: splat. Afterward, there’s a pity party and you’re the guest of honor. Jane sat front and center at every funeral. She loves a front-row seat.

It takes a certain kind of woman to sit in the front row. I’m that kind of woman: a front-row woman. How about you, dear? Not so much? Well, that’s okay. A back-row woman helps fill out an audience. Women like you bolster women like me. A front-row woman is a participant. She never breaks eye contact with the speaker. She laughs when he says something funny and she makes a funny face when he describes something gross. That day in the front row for Stephen King, Jane and I had so many facial tics that the librarians must have thought strokes were contagious. How many strokes have you had, Jane? That many? My God, it’s going to take a bolt of lightning to take you out. Two bolts and a frying pan to the back of the head? Oh, Jane, you kill me. She still can’t smile right.

Bethany is Jane’s neurologist. I am not happy that Bethany chose a Book Club name so close to mine. Bethany, Mary Beth. But tolerating such indiscretions makes me a good hostess. A good hostess is gracious and doesn’t make a big deal about things like a guest showing up in the same dress. But a same-dress disaster is only going to happen once in a blue moon, especially now that I will call you a week before Book Club to make note of your outfit. Book Club names are forever. Yes, I know you can hear me, Bethany. Would you like to take my husband’s last name as well? Just kidding!

Bethany works 16-hour days and is on call all the time and thus has never married. She wants a baby and for whatever reason wants to personally give birth to that baby and refuses to have one-night stands or pocket hospital sperm samples, so her biological clock is deafening. Not like yours, dear. Your fertility is like a pocket watch swaddled in cotton, drawn up in a velvet pouch, and tucked inside a Pringles can. But Bethany’s! Sometimes I walk past the Fifth Avenue Synagogue and worry a bomb is about to go off. I imagine my upper torso landing in a gyro cart. And the contents of my purse laid out for all to see. Then I realize it’s not anxiety hounding me, it’s Bethany’s biological clock. It ticks so loud, I’m amazed Mount Sinai isn’t evacuated on a daily basis. Oh, Bethany, don’t make that face. You know it’s true.

Bethany likes romances, and I am talking straight-to-mass-market-paperback Harlequin Romance romances. She likes her heroines overpowered. These days, we’d call what Bethany likes Book Club to read rape. But in Bethany’s bodice-rippers, throwing 12 layers of underskirts up over a heroine’s face and plowing her like a cotton field is known as the main character getting her just desserts. It’s like rape is no worse than having a banana cream pie shoved in your face. At first you’re startled, probably hurt, but then you get a taste of your assaulter’s meringue and realize you want to eat it every damned day.

Book Club is potluck. The ladies on the red sofa don’t eat curry. The ladies on the gray sofa don’t eat shellfish. I hate shredded coconut. Jane’s diabetic, but will eat anything she darned well pleases. Won’t you, Jane? Yes, ma’am, open-heart surgery, your foot! Then there’s Bethany, who is lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant, vegan, and has irritable bowel syndrome, which is all code for “anorexic.” She’s a garnish girl. So, throw a radish rose on the edge of whatever you bring and she’ll feast on that. Watch her tonight. She’ll suck that celery stick like a Whistle Pop.

I am always in charge of the menu. I’ll call you before our next meeting and help you decide what to bring. I have a chart. So, for example, next to my name this month it says: Tory Burch hedgehog tunic and bacon-wrapped water chestnuts. No, it’s not a spreadsheet. It’s something more akin to our moms’ PTA phone trees. You’re too young to remember phone trees, but surely you’ve heard of them, dear. That’s right! You’re so well rounded. You’re how old, 27? Twenty-six. Even better. Not like Deloris over there, who’s 22 and thinks a phone tree is something Matthew Barney glued together for MOMA.

Oh, hush, Deloris, you know you don’t know what a phone tree is. Quick! What’s my telephone number? Don’t you dare scroll, Deloris. Use your mem-or-ree. It’s in your head, where you keep your will to live. I swear, I let that little girl into Book Club as a favor to her dear departed mother, and I regret it every month. She always nominates books that are the first in a trilogy.

Deloris’s Book Club choices are YA. “YA” stands for “young adult.” Young adult is meant for teenagers the way Seventeen magazine is meant for 12-year-olds, meaning Deloris is too old for it, but she and her Smith alumni cannot get enough. YA is about angst. Will I get that boy to like me? Will I lose the weight? Will I turn into a vampire if he just gives me a hickey? I’m an orphan! I’m a mind reader! I’m biracial! I’m gay! When I get out of high school, I’ll move to New York City, where I’ll find others like me and then I’ll be happy and I will have it all: a career, a family, good teeth, and take-out Chinese. Deloris has a twisted uterus, is unemployed, and lives in my guest room. She has a fashion blog, which means she posts Instagrams on her Tumblr page of what she wears every day. She used to have a book blog but gave it up because joining Book Club shuts that sort of public opinionating down. But you can talk about your feelings here, isn’t that right, Deloris? Yes, sweetheart. And what Deloris feels on a regular basis is that having it all is harder than she thought it would be.

At every Book Club, the rest of us old marrieds try to save Deloris years of aggravation by explaining to her that she cannot have it all. It all is overrated. Am I right, ladies? Nodding, nodding, nodding. It’s like we’re listening to rap! Except for Bethany over there. She refuses to be swayed. Bethany’s an overachiever and doesn’t understand why can’t she rope a man into marrying and impregnating her. Because men aren’t bulls and the Upper East Side is not the Wild West. Marriage is church. You live in accordance with your own particular, private set of commandments, but I promise you that there is not any commandment in any marriage that says: Thou Shalt Have It All. It all overextends you. It ages you. It turns you into a crank. Tell me, why can’t it all be a warm tub and a Snickers?

To be happy, you have to make choices. And one of those choices doesn’t have to be marriage. It wasn’t the best choice for you, was it, dear? You’re divorced, am I correct? Yes, and your ex-husband left you with a mountain of debt because his idea of having it all was maxing out your joint credit cards on Internet poker. I’m sure everyone’s already said to you: thank God you don’t have children. Well, there’s a reason for that. Children cost money and a great deal of your attention. Every night, I tell Deloris before she turns in for bed that she should thank her lucky stars for her twisted uterus. It’s one less choice she has to make. Well, it is, Deloris. Not everyone’s meant to experience childbirth. Except for you, my dear. You look born for it. You’re simply gorgeous! You’ll bounce back from your divorce. I can see you’re rock solid. And you know what helps? Book Club.

Oh, Deloris, buck up. Take this tissue. And I implore you, take Marjorie up on her offer and take that paying job at Talbots.

Marjorie is the manager of the 72nd Street Talbots. Just look at her, she is the epitome of taste. So much plaid and cashmere. And as always: only one piece of jewelry in addition to her wedding set. She has a stunning brooch collection. It rivals Madeleine Albright’s. Just look at the one she has on today: a ceramic bunny with tiny onyx eyes. That’s right, dear, we’re all wearing that pin. You’re very observant. What an excellent quality to have in your gene pool. As part of Book Club, you’ll get Marjorie’s 40-percent employee discount. That goes for sale items too. Can you believe it? I know! Lucky for us, pleats are back. Lucky for Marjorie, her health benefits are stellar. Talbots has paid for Marjorie and her husband to have in vitro six times. They have zero children. But there are pickling jars in their pantry that we don’t discuss. I’m not discussing them, Marjorie.

Marjorie loves celebrity memoirs. She likes to have Book Club read about beautiful people who remain beautiful people despite life’s little challenges, such as bankruptcy, alcoholism, dyslexia, split personalities, and infidelity. You’ve had two out of five of these challenges, haven’t you, dear? Yes, that worthless ex-husband of yours left you feeling lower than dirt. But, let me assure you, you are a treasure. And Book Club is going to dig you out! Men. Famous men are the worst. Did you know Frank Langella had an affair with Dinah Shore? He seduced her by sending her Joan Baez’s Diamonds & Rust, and then she invited him to her house, where they lay in front of her fireplace and listened to that album over and over.

That means, Deloris, that every time they wanted to listen to the record again, one of them had to get up off the floor and walk over to the record player and pick up the needle (or flip the record and then pick up the needle) and place it ever so gently onto the spinning LP. It’s old-school birth control? Oh, Deloris, you should tweet that. Not now, for heaven’s sake! If you were at Jane’s, she’d put your iPhone in her blender. It’s the horror reader in her. Jane loves to provoke a blood-curdling scream.

Book Club rotates apartments and house rules apply. So, no cell phones at Jane’s and no gum-chewing here. There’s no red wine at Bethany’s. At Marjorie’s, don’t pretend to hunt for an extra box of Cheez-Its so you can search out her jars. The ladies on the red sofa make you take off your shoes. The ladies on the gray sofa make you keep your shoes on. Deloris lives here, so it’s in her best interest that you do what I say.

Book Club takes care of our own. When Deloris found herself in a transitional period, like the one you’re in now, she was 18, orphaned, and penniless because her bedridden mother hadn’t worked for a generous company like Talbots. So, I took her in. And because Deloris’s mother was a member of Book Club, Book Club sent Deloris to Smith. We visit Jane at Mount Sinai when she has her strokes. We set Bethany up on blind dates. We ignore Marjorie’s hormonal mood swings. The ladies on the red sofa babysit for Aretha. As a matter of fact, so do the ladies on the gray sofa because Aretha can’t find paid professionals willing to cope with all of her kids.

Aretha’s fertility specialist hit it out of the park. Twins: two sets, two years apart. Her fertility specialist also happens to be her husband. He’s got the highest insemination success rate in the country, but Marjorie won’t go near him. Neither will the ladies on the red sofa. The ladies on the gray sofa will resort to using him only if their acupuncture and herbal immersion tanks fail. At Mount Sinai, Bethany says Aretha’s husband’s nickname is Dr. Uh-Oh. He’ll get you pregnant, but far too he often messes up the details.

For example: Aretha’s 10-year-olds have her blue eyes and their father’s curly hair, but one is a screamer and the other has to wear a football helmet 24/7 because in order to communicate he has to shake his head like a bottle of Snapple. If you look directly at either one of them, they’ll charge you like lions on the Serengeti. If you look directly at Aretha’s eight-year-olds, they too will take it as an act of aggression, but they will plot your comeuppance for when you least expect it. Once, they slipped crushed Ritalin into my Pinot. They’re lurkers. Always mushrooming up amid living room furniture like clammy ottomans. At Aretha’s, Book Club resembles a bunch of actresses playing blind, affixing our lines of sight on distant spots and groping for crudités. But, it’s so hard not to look at her eight-year-olds, because Dr. Uh-Oh’s slapdash juggling of vials made them unmistakably Hispanic.

As a courtesy, Bethany diagnosed Aretha’s eight-year-olds as borderline psychotic. We call them a handful. Two handfuls? Oh, Aretha, how you manage to keep your sense of humor I do not know. Oh, yes, I do. Dr. Uh-Oh keeps Aretha highly medicated. You know the saying: happy wife, happy life? Dr. Uh-Oh’s mantra is: you asked for it, muddle through. Like the majority of his patients, Aretha gave birth in her late 40s. The good doctor granted her the miracle of life, so what if the kids aren’t perfect? She defied God’s will, she shouldn’t complain.

Aretha likes Book Club to read Southern Gothics because in them children like hers fall easily by the wayside. In Southern Gothics, there is no in-between between a slow reader and a poisoner. There are no spectrums, learning or otherwise. If a boy ain’t right, he’s institutionalized. Or some sense is slapped into him. Or he’s confined to a room or a shed or a silo. Or he’s allowed to wander down to the swamp to poke a gator with a stick. In Southern Gothics, disease weeds out the less-than-perfect. One bout of dysentery, and it’s poo-poo to you!

You must try one of my bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, dear. Go on, dip it in the spicy sauce. The secret ingredient is mayonnaise.

In addition to being an amazing cook, I read everything. And I have the time to do so because I don’t have kids. I’m fortunate enough to have found a husband who agrees with me that not having children means that the two of us can have nothing but fun. And to me, fun is Book Club. There is nothing I will not do to be the very best hostess.

If you agree to join Book Club, Jane will let you live in one of her empty rooms, perhaps the one next to the terrarium, and pay off your debt. Under Bethany’s watchful eye, Dr. Uh-Oh will perform your first insemination, for which Jane will pay you handsomely. And I mean, George Clooney handsomely. You’ll surrogate Marjorie’s baby first because she’s suffered the most losses. Then Bethany’s, because by that point she’ll be ready to embrace the fact that it all can be just a couple of things and one of those things doesn’t have to be birthed the old-fashioned way. The ladies on the red sofa will draw straws to decide who uses you next. The ladies on the gray sofa will play rock-paper-scissors. And then — only if you are physically able, my dear — Aretha would appreciate a do-over. I will be in charge of blackmailing her husband.

Oh, don’t look so distraught. Win, lose, or jars, we’ll never reject you like that ex-husband of yours. Deloris knows this from firsthand experience. Her mother swore Deloris was as fertile as a Mormon, so we took her into our fold with great expectations, but we all know how that turned out. A twisted uterus can’t catch. You, I have a feeling, will be better than gift bags. So what do you say? I have an extra Talbots bunny brooch that would love to curl up on your shoulder. I’ve got my laminating machine and hole-punch ready to tassel your bookmark. Have you thought of a Book Club name? Do try and stay away from mine, Mary Beth. Don’t pick Mary Alice or Elizabeth. May I make a suggestion? With that crooked smile, you look like a Hadley.