Thursday, February 2, 2012

Short Story: Building Betty

            Nothing really gets my grit like someone telling me that I can’t do something. To be told that I am incapable makes my hackles rise like nothing else, it ticks me off to impossible degrees and makes me act... well, stubborn is a good word. I’ve been told by many a loved one that once I get into "that" mind set, I’m going to be "stubborn as hell" until whatever task I am being told I could "never do" is accomplished. No matter what that task may be.
            Not just accomplished, really. I kick ass and take names when I put my mind to it.
            I was told at a very young age that I wouldn’t graduate high school because no one in my family had and I was just as good for nothing as the rest of 'em. I graduated high school and then made my way through with a masters in Physical Therapy. I was told I was rough, stubborn, and that no man would ever want me. I’ve been blissfully married for over ten years, and before I met my husband, I had several charming boyfriends and a successful string of steamy lover affairs.
            Take that, Judy Jones.
            However, my most consuming accomplishment, the priding moment of my life, is none of these things. Over my degrees, over my successful marriage, over my current job as a health journalist, the proudest day of my life was the day when, after years of grueling competitions, of supplements, of insane dieting, of rigorously disciplined and at times torturous training, I won the Ms. Olympia 2006 competition.
            That’s right, you’re talking to one of the most powerful women in the nation, at least in the physical sense, and while I’ve been retired from bodybuilding for a few years, it’s still a part of who I am. And I am sure I will always strive to stay fit, stay strong, and at the damned very least, I can guarantee I’ll remain driven.
            Never in the history of my life, however, did I think my drive would result in my attempting to be the next Martha Stewart. The damnable woman makes the impossible seem a chiffon cinch!
            My troubles began when I took this God forsaken job at Woman’s Day Magazine. I suppose it goes without saying that I am not the most traditionally feminine of females and, while I feel there is considerable beauty in my physique, I have always understood that other women, (especially the ladies in the business world), would at first not be able to get past the fact that I paired my sensible office skirts and size 11 pumps with suit jackets consistently sized at “Men’s Large”.
            However, I did not quite anticipate the atmosphere that Woman’s Day would create and how difficult it would be for me to crack into the social aspects of office life. "Difficult" is being used as an understatement in this case; the women are cruel, exclusive, or afraid of me. Or just plum stupid, asking me questions that are both insulting and simply incorrect.
            No, I was not abused as a young girl. Yes, I am 100% woman. No, that means I don’t have even a hint of a penis. Yes, I feel good about the way my body looks, yes my husband seems to think I’m attractive, no I can’t eat whatever I want, no I don’t have to shave my face, no I have never had a lesbian experience.
            And when the questions are this bad, you know the rumors flying around behind your back are far, far worse.
            Day after day, I found myself back in a ridiculous middle school experience, wanting to fit in but having no idea how to do so when all the other girls were so much more…well, “perfect” then me.
            I mean “perfect” by the fact that they are all certainly Stepford. This is really the only way I can describe it. They all have perfect hair, Anne Taylor office wear, lawyer husbands, and 2.5 children back at home waiting to be picked up by their mother’s pristine Volvo vans. With my cropped hair cut, mean’s jackets, and red convertible, even if my husband was a lawyer instead of a pro football player and even if we were able to have children… well the point is, I don’t fit in and for some reason, I desperately wanted to. Want to.
            It’s my work environment! For crying out loud. Plus, past the rippling biceps, I’m still the girl next door under it all.
            So when the girls of Woman’s Day began to plan the family picnic and snooty, sneery, Susan Anthony from Home Décor said to me in her snooty, sneering, way, “oh don’t worry about it, Veronica! You don’t have to make anything. We’re trying to avoid buying pre-made food since we feel home cooking is just so much more picnic-y. Just bring some drinks or something!” Snooty, sneery, smile.
            And just like that, with her full-toothed smile daring me to bash in every last molar, with her slip of a self, making a slip of a statement, created merely to cut at my pride, and with my determination to win and fit in with this perfect, polished, lot…I said the thing I never, ever, should have said.
            “Of course I will bring something! I don’t know what you’re implying but, I’m sure I mentioned I taught cooking classes for years! What should I bring?”
            … Apparently, a dessert is required at this function.
            So there it was and here it is.  I’ve been staring at the damn thing, fighting with it, cursing at it and, as it turns out, I have no freaking idea how to turn the oven on.  At least not my oven. After tampering with all the gizmos and switches, it resolutely remains cold and off.
            Maybe my oven just doesn’t turn on. Maybe it’s broken. I wouldn’t even know, I can’t remember the last time I used it for a frozen pizza or something. Not recently. My football playing husband is out of town and therefore no help whatsoever. His mom owned a food place so, he cooks for us. He knows all kinds of things about ovens, food, and pristine desserts. Without him home as my personal health food source, I have been living on microwave friendly food and my takeout menu drawer.
            When I called him earlier about my predicament, he laughed for a solid two minutes before telling me to bail out and buy some baked good, claiming it as my own. He didn't understand I NEED to prove I can do this. He eventually told me to use one of his cookbooks for an easy recipe, emphasis on the easy, so I picked up Martha's and am giving it a whirl. I even picked a recipe with "Simple" in the title. Little did I know that even the simple first step could cause such a headache. And that my husband wouldn't answer his phone. Giving up, I decide to forgo the first step of the Martha Stewart's Simple Chocolate Chip cookies, (preheat oven to 350), and instead move on to the next: Sift 2 cups flour.
            The bag of enriched flour I purchased earlier in the day, along with the rest of the baking aisle, is easily located. After some powdered spills, it is also easily opened. It seems whenever the bag is touched, powder flies. I check the recipe again, sift… Sift with what? My mind thumbs through all my mental files of the word “sift”… sifting sands of time, sift through my fingers, sift with a fine toothed comb… I feel like very few of these correlate to baking but, perhaps the fingers thing was the least offensive…
            I wash my hands and then pull two handfuls of flour out and into my bowl. When I got married, we were given a crystal punch bowl that seems to hold things well enough. It was on the counter and, rather then find the mixing bowls, I decided to go for it. Can't hurt the bowl, right? Big chunky glass. The flour trails from the bag to the crystal to my now white hands. I pull the powder through each hand, pulverizing and pressurizing the few little lumps into the proper dust. I can’t help but smile when I’m done. Perfect.
            Next. Measure 1 1/3 cups sugar…easy enough, I take the measuring cups of sugar and set them aside. ½ cup brown sugar…hum. I look through the piles of groceries, brown sugar having apparently missed my cart somehow. Probably the last thing on the shelf too. I consider googling what I can replace brown sugar with and then decide that this is an experimental batch anyway so I can make do with just more…white…? sugar for now.
            My hunched muscles begin to ache with stress and the cramped tension of the tiny kitchen. I feel like the incredible hulk in the small apartment space, just one more reason to avoid cooking in general. I look across the counter at the bar stool I usually sit in while someone else cooks longingly...
            Focus. Task at hand. Mission to bake and make friends.
            Or some variation on that thought.
            Okay, eggs. I stare at the small fragile shells wondering what to do next. I know I have to crack them but…I also know that inside there is whites and yolks and I am unsure which part the recipe wants. I have only eaten the whites in...ages. But my egg whites all come in cartons.... If the recipe wanted just the whites, wouldn’t it say that? Are the yolks... DAMN IT! The egg I was rolling around in my hand suddenly explodes goop at my experimental pressure. I stare at my hand, jeans, and floor in shock.
            Noted, eggs equal gentle. And filled with a surprising quantity of crap.
            I pick up two more eggs and shell them carefully, hitting just the top and then trying to peal the rest away gently. By the time I am done, more goop is on myself and my counters but, a large portion seems to have made it to the bowl.
            The last few ingredients are little things, easily enough added and combined. Vanilla, various powders, salt, chocolate chips. I stir everything up and decide that the sugar that I measured and set aside is also called for at some point, the recipe clearly being one not to follow in the future. I’m going to need more specifics.
            When I’m done, the batter actually looks like…well, batter. I pull out a rouge piece of shell but still feel triumphant as I stare at my disaster of a kitchen. I set the dough aside and clean up a bit, deciding to take a shower and call my land lord so he can fix the oven and I can fire these suckers up.
            My cookies taste like burning. Like burning and like gross. I scrub at my tongue with my napkin and, while that relieves the burning, I now have small pieces of paper napkin stuck to my tongue. Charming.
            My forehead hits my freshly cleaned kitchen counter in despair. What the hell am I going to do? WHAT (head to counter) THE (h.t.c.) HELL (h.t.c.) AM (h.t.c.) I (h.t.c.) GOING (h.t.c.) TO (h.t.c.) DO?!? (h.t.c.)
            How do these women do this? HOW!? I spent an hour baking those disaster bites and now, with nothing to show for it by the way, all I want to do is curl up with a beer and get a back massage. With a pile of tacos and 5 back up beers.They’re all robots! I pick up the Martha made “simple” recipe, tear it from the book, and tatter it to pieces. Robot psycho queen!
            Fully depressed, I see no other options at this point then failure. Or at least a serious change of plan. I pull out a beer from the fridge and my laptop and search “idiot proof recipe”. I need to make it myself. That's all I want. Something I can make my self. My first search yields pot roast, curry, and instant mac and cheese. While that last one is tempting, especially with the lack of oven use, I need a baked good. A non store bought one.
            And then I see it. The link is promising but the picture and recipe are even better. I jump to my feet and do a quick happy dance, shaking the plaster a bit and making my furniture wobble.
            Back in the game baby!
            “Oh my GOSH, Veronica! Your ice-cream cake is divine! So fun and creative! Must have taken you ages! How’d you layer the crust that way?”
            I cut icecream sandwiches in half and lined a cake pan. “Oh, you know, after you bake the wafers, it’s just an act of patience.”
            “Well, my goodness, delicious. And the crust! Oreo and…what other spice is that? Cinnamon?”
            Probably. Graham crackers I also pulverized. A very satisfying act, using a pestle. “Good catch!”
            “Well, I have to say, I am very impressed. Just super, Veronica! So fun and picnic friendly! And did you say you made the ice cream yourself?”
            I choke on a bite of said cake for a second, utterly shocked. HELL NO! People do that?! “Of course!” I cough, “I mean, who doesn’t?”
            “Just delicious, really! Thanks so much for your contribution, we appreciate it. I am going to NEED this hot fudge recipe.”
            “Oh, afraid I can’t part with that,” I wink. “Family secret you know. But, of course, no problem. Really. Anytime.”

For the recipe that inspired "Building Betty", click here


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