The Jar by the Door
by Vera Djordjevich
"So I went to that workshop tonight." Laura cradled the phone on her shoulder and used her right hand to snap off the top of a beer bottle. She watched the cap spin away from the opener and drop to the floor, where she left it. She'd get it later.
"You really went?" Carolyn asked.
Laura moved to the futon that doubled as her couch. She sat down cross-legged and cupped the beer in her lap.
"Good for you, Laura," Carolyn continued. "I'm so glad. How was it?"
Her sister's initial surprise had turned into that kindergarten teacher enthusiasm Carolyn used whenever she was trying to encourage Laura to do something she ought to do. Even though Carolyn was two years younger, she always contrived to sound like the older, wiser Sister Who Speaks From Experience. Since her experience consisted of teaching five-year olds how to tie their shoes and marriage to an assistant principal named Norman, Laura didn't put a lot of stock in Carolyn's advice.
"Oh, great," Laura replied. "I really got a lot out of it."
"Really?" Laura could practically hear Carolyn smiling into the phone.
"Yeah. Sure," she said. "It was terrific."
"So tell me about it. Who all was there?"
"Well," Laura began, before taking a sip of her beer. "Let's see. There was a woman, a very unhappy woman, who said her husband left her because she'd gained a little weight. 128 pounds, to be exact. And an old man who'd been married for fifty years when his wife suddenly walked out on him. Only he wasn't sure she did it on purpose, because she's senile.
"And do you remember the ceramic gnomes the Paulsons used to have in their front yard? Well, Carl looks just like one of them except he wasn't wearing the red droopy hat; he's about five feet tall and his cuffs are dragging on the floor because he has the waistband of his pants around the middle of his butt. He told us he still couldn't understand why his wife wouldn't get back together with him. I wanted to say, 'Pull up your fucking pants!'"
"I see," Carolyn said. "So nobody there was normal but you."
"Pretty much," Laura answered, ignoring the sarcasm in her sister's voice. "Unless you count the middle-aged lawyer who obviously signed up hoping to catch some woman on the rebound, before she's recovered enough from her experience to realize what a loser he is. I mean, he's slimy and all, but he's probably pretty normal, as far as men go."
Carolyn sighed. "So what did the group actually do, other than offend you with their looks?"
"Well, the leader, a guy named Max who couldn't look anybody in the eye—how's that for building confidence, a group therapist who can't even talk to people's faces—anyway, he asked us to go around the room and tell why we'd signed up for this workshop." Laura swallowed some more beer.
"And what did you say when it was your turn?"
"What? I didn't say anything. Like I'm going to reveal my problems to this room full of losers. I passed.
"But it ended up being worse than making up something. Because I'm looking around the room and it's obvious why these people are Suddenly Single. And I could see them looking at me and thinking, she looks normal, could even be considered attractive—God, next to most of them, I'm gorgeous—there must be something really wrong with her if she's been dumped so many times she has to join this pathetic group of rejects."
"You know, Laura, this obsession with appearances is not very attractive. It makes you sound shallow. I know you're not, but others who haven't known you forever might not realize it. Those people, fat or short or skinny or whatever, are probably just as unhappy and lonely as you. That's why they're there."
"Oh, spare me your righteousness," Laura answered. "I can't even talk to you anymore. Here I am, my boyfriend suddenly dumps me after three years—without any warning, without even a decent explanation."
"I know—," Carolyn began.
"Then I finally meet a guy," Laura ignored her sister's interruption, "a really nice guy I thought, who asks me out and proceeds to stand me up. So I work up the nerve to join this stupid workshop, hoping to meet other men and women like me, normal men and women—and I walk into a room full of the Far Side People. Really, I think I'm entitled to be bitter."
"You can be bitter, sure. And angry and hurt." Carolyn paused. "But John didn't leave you because that woman got fat or some man's pants are falling down. And this guy you met didn't stand up any of those other 'losers', as you call them. He stood you up. So even though it may make you feel better to be ugly about the people in your group, it doesn't do much to solve your underlying problem, now does it? And, you know," she added, "all this negativity, I don't want to hear it."
"Fine then." Laura hung up and frowned at the phone.
You're just touchy because your husband enrolls in those weird self-help workshops and you don't like to think of him as one of them.
Besides, Laura knew she'd never hear the end of it if she revealed that she'd been kicked out of the Suddenly Single Workshop for having an overly negative attitude.
Laura kept the phone next to her on the couch. She finished her beer and sat for a moment, picking at the label on the bottle. Then she decided, what the hell, and dialed John's number. She figured he'd get a kick out of the motley crew she tried to join. He'd also see that by signing up for this class she was serious about moving on, shaking him out of her life.
If she was hoping for commiseration, however, his reaction was disappointing. He managed to make this experience seem as much her fault as Carolyn did.
"You know, Laura, you're impossible to please."
"What do you mean? I don't expect much."
"Exactly. You never expect anything good, and you're rarely disappointed. Like this group you joined."
"Oh, this group. Come on, who would be pleased by this circle of weirdos? And I do have expectations," she added. "It's just that they're unusually low."
John didn't laugh. Instead, he sighed, "Right. Look, I have to go now. I'm meeting somebody."
"A date?" It slipped out before she could stop herself.
"Listen, Laura, I don't even want to go there. I have to go." And he hung up. Without waiting to hear what she had to say. Without giving her a chance to tell him she was dating somebody too. Well, almost dating. At any rate, she was getting asked out, even if nobody actually showed up.
The workshop had been Carolyn's idea, of course. Ever since Laura's breakup with John, Carolyn had been pushing her to get some help to deal with her "situation." She'd given her the number to Norman's therapist and urged her to call. One day she brought over a copy of The Workshop Studio's catalog in which she had folded back a page describing a workshop for those who find themselves "Suddenly Single":
Dealing with the emotional and practical effects of ending a long-term relationship can be devastating. Whether you are just coming out of a marriage or have lost a close partner, this workshop will help guide you through the difficult terrain of the suddenly single. Through the leadership of an experienced therapist, as well as the support of fellow workshop members, we'll explore ways to come to terms with and even enjoy this stage in your life.
Laura had rolled her eyes and dropped the catalog on top of a growing stack of unread newspapers and magazines.
It wasn't until one evening after a couple of beers and a particularly bad conversation with John in which he'd asked her not to call again unless she had "a real reason"—evidently, a desire to hear his voice didn't count—that she riffled through her papers to find the workshop registration information. John's rebuff alone might not have been enough to get her to enroll if it hadn't occurred in the same week she was stood up by the guy she met at Mary Ann's party.
Nick was a bankruptcy lawyer, not only good-looking but funny and well-read. How could she resist a man whose favorite author was Jane Austen? Over wine and stuffed artichokes, she amused him with stories of her oddball colleagues in the grad school admissions office. He asked for her number and even kissed her good-bye—on the cheek, true, but awfully close to her lips. And then he called to invite her to dinner.
On Wednesday, she rushed home from work to select an outfit for the next night and splurged on a manicure and new tube of black satin mascara. It was her first date since she and John had split up ten months earlier.
For two days after he failed to appear, Laura reviewed their phone conversation, searching for clues of mutual misunderstanding. Perhaps he had said Friday, not Thursday; but when he hadn't called by Saturday afternoon, she was forced to rule out that explanation. Maybe she hadn't sounded encouraging enough and he thought she wasn't really interested. Maybe he was married. Or maybe he'd been drunk at the party and suddenly remembered whose number he had dialed.
Laura was proud, however, that within a few days of her non-date, she was able to laugh about it and amuse her friends with the story of how she had been stood up by the best-looking man in the room. She told them how she'd slipped on her dark blue dress with the spaghetti straps and sat down with a glass of Chianti and the latest issue of Harper's while she pretended not to wait for the phone to ring.
Every ten minutes she returned to the bathroom to check her face and brighten her make-up. At 8:30, she phoned Carolyn to ask her to call just to make sure her line was working. By 10:00, she had run out of wine and had added so many layers of mascara that when she blinked her lids stuck together. Finally, at midnight, after a dinner of stale bread and chocolate pudding, the only food remotely edible in her fridge, she peeled off her dress and stockings, leaving just the pretty black panties she had put on earlier that evening when "she thought she might get lucky—ha ha."
What she didn't tell her friends was that the sight of those stupid lace underwear, carefully selected from a drawer full of cotton briefs in what she now recognized as a pathetic moment of hope, had made her weep. She pulled on one of John's old soccer shirts and went to bed, where she allowed herself to cry for nearly an hour until she fell into an exhausted and fitful sleep.
She woke late the next day, with a headache and looking like Dracula, black smudges spread across her cheeks and over her freshly laundered pillow case. She called in sick to work and didn't leave the house all day. The phone only rang once when her dentist's office called to confirm a cleaning; she let the answering machine pick up. In the afternoon, she called John, just to hear a friendly voice. That's when he told her she couldn't keep calling him whenever she felt like it, as if they were still going out.
Her most energetic moment came when she called the video store to ask them to deliver a copy of "Jane Eyre," the old black and white version, which she watched twice in a row before going to sleep at 9:30.
Vera Djordjevich is an editor at On the Page.