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Worst Impressions: A Modern Austen Tale

By Kate Herrell All Rights Reserved ©



"Papa!" Mom enters the kitchen with a whirl and kisses Dad longer than is comfortable for anyone. "Do you want me to tell you everything that happened while you were gone?" "I don't think I have a choice," Dad says, folding his hands behind Mom's back. "Someone finally bought the house across the street!" "Damn! I was hoping it would stay empty forever," he says, releasing Mom and snapping his fingers in mock disappointment. "They moved in three days ago!" Mom pours herself a liberal glass of white wine, which she will not touch. This is her nightly routine. Her hand rather likes the weight of it, however. "Clarissa was the first person to see the moving truck roll up the street. She called me about forming a Welcome Wagon, but of course, I had no idea that anything exciting was happening on our street because I was in here reading, so I told her to take over a casserole in my name." Total lie. Mom was actually standing at the end of the driveway in what she calls her "poopy pants" (disgusting sweatpants that should NOT be seen by the human eye), waving her slippers at the arriving truck...


Fact: If there is a boy within a hundred mile radius, my mother will make sure we meet.

My mother is afraid of death, so she staves off her impending doom by trying to pawn off her daughters on unsuspecting gentlemen. No waiter, door-to-door salesman, or repairman is safe. She has asked telemarketers if they are single. Sorry, cable guy; I don’t think it’s going to work out between us.

There’s a new neighbor boy who just moved in across the street, and lucky for me, it’s Jane’s turn. As far as Kitty’s spying has surmised, the neighbor is a boy near our age, and lives with a girl he seems to not like much, probably a sister. No parents, as far as she can tell. Nevermind that the boy could be a pervert, a conspiracy theorist, or the leader of a cult--Mom has claimed him for Jane. And he has no idea, because my mother refuses to go across the street to introduce herself. Instead, she stares out the kitchen window, like Scarlett O’Hara, waiting for Rhett Butler to give a damn. She woke Jane up at five A.M. to fetch the paper this morning, just because the neighbor was mowing his lawn. And what a meet-cute that would be; Jane, bleary-eyed and half-asleep, attempting to converse with the man of Mom’s dreams over the roar of a lawn mower. Romance is in the air--and it smells of freshly cut grass.

Mom isn’t usually this manic, not when Dad’s home anyway. He’s been in Dallas for two weeks at a Realtor’s conference and he took Mom’s brain with him. The reasonable, logical half, that plans full, healthy meals for her family and curbs her inner Yente. Yesterday, I came home from school to find mom camped out at the sink with her coffee cup. Seven uncooked hot dogs sat in a saucepan beside the stove. Oy. If only she would take the gym coupon that’s been stuck to the fridge for two years and join an aerobics class, or something. Or at least sign up for a support group for anxious mothers that is scheduled back-to-back with Musical Theatre Addicts, anonymous. I can only take so many more hours of Les Miserables blaring through the vents. Tonight, my poor father will walk into a house of crazy people--well, one sane Jane, four crazy people (Mom, Kitty the Spy, and Lydia the Escape Artist, Mary the Hermit) and me, Elizabeth, patron saint of Microwave Meals.

Speaking of escape...

“It is I, Davey Crockett!” Dad. Hallelujah. “Hello?”

“In here!” I call, stirring the festive seasoning packet into the ramen.

“Ah! Elizabeth,” he says, plopping a kiss on my cheek. “If it isn’t my favorite second-oldest daughter.”

“I’m your only second-oldest daughter,” I say. “Did you reclaim the Alamo for free Texas?”

“Nearly.” Dad smiles. His arms are full of brown paper bags. “I got your message and I picked up food with nutritious value. You’ll be happy to know that I did not purchase hot dogs.”

“Thrilled,” I laugh. “Give me a second and I’ll help you with those.” Dad deposits the bags on the counter and hands me a large bowl from the cabinet above my head. I dump the ramen feast into the bowl and set the pan into the sink for Lydia to ignore when it’s her turn to do dishes tonight.

“Where’s your mother?” He asks. He loves her. They’ve been married for 20 years, and he still enjoys the pleasure of her company, and that is pretty miraculous, because I can’t stand her. But that’s my job. It’s not cool to like your Mom--it’s in the high school handbook, right below “Never take your cousin to Prom.”

“Taking a bath to calm her nerves,” I say. I dive into the bags and retrieve four blessed avocados. There’s more nutrients in one of these babies than twelve uncooked hot dogs.

“And the rest of the mob?” Dad stashes a new bottle of bourbon behind the fridge, the one place Mom doesn’t clean when she’s having a fit. I once found my Christmas present back there. I pull a few plates from the cabinet.

“Kitty and Lydia are at dance practice tonight. Mary’s hiding, or possibly cutting all of her hair off on one side, but either way, I haven’t seen her all day and don’t expect her for dinner. Janey is studying and I said I’d bring some food up to her in about ten minutes.”

“Just you, me, and Mom, then?” Dad asks. He folds the paper bags and stashes them under the sink in grocery bag purgatory.

I pour myself a glass of water and set it at my place on the table, while Dad attends to the silverware. “We might have a fourth at dinner, if the new neighbor has been receiving Mom’s subliminal messages.”

Dad laughs. “I know about the new neighbor; Charlotte’s mother called me the day he moved in. Something about the new kid having a raging party on a school night.”

“Do you mean yuppie housewarming? Because by the look of those boring double-stacked polo shirts, that was a boring mixer for rich, boring trust fund kids.”

“She called the kid anyway,” Dad says. He opens a can of green beans and slops them into a pan. “Apparently, he was gallant about offering to submit a schedule of future gatherings for the approval of the Homeowner’s Association.”

“He has a schedule? How boring do you have to be?”

“He’s responsible.”

“He’s boring. He repainted the front door white.”

“I know,” Dad laughs. “Clarissa called me.”

“Ha! You can always count on Charlotte’s mom to report all illicit happenings in Longbourne Park,” I say. They should rename it Clarissa Park and erect a statue of her holding binoculars at the entrance.

“Which reminds me... Lydia snuck out a few nights ago? Again?”

“Friday night. Guess we’ll have to sell her to the circus.”

“Only if they make me a good offer,” Dad chuckles, setting the bowl of green beans on the kitchen table beside the large bowl of ramen.

My Dad is a rather rational man, which means that he doesn’t believe yelling will teach his youngest daughter to behave. If Lydia were my daughter, I’d have a chip implanted under her skin... then again, I’m not sure I want to know what Lydia gets up to when she does sneak out. What I don’t know won’t scar me for life. Dad always promises to speak with her, but by the time he gets around to it, there’s something new to chide her for. I can’t imagine being the father of five teenage girls... that man is a hero.

“Papa!” Mom enters the kitchen with a whirl and kisses Dad longer than is comfortable for anyone. “Do you want me to tell you everything that happened while you were gone?”

“I don’t think I have a choice,” Dad says, folding his hands behind Mom’s back.

“Someone finally bought the house across the street!”

“Damn! I was hoping it would stay empty forever,” he says, releasing Mom and snapping his fingers in mock disappointment.

“They moved in three days ago!” Mom pours herself a liberal glass of white wine, which she will not touch. This is her nightly routine. Her hand rather likes the weight of it, however. “Clarissa was the first person to see the moving truck roll up the street. She called me about forming a Welcome Wagon, but of course, I had no idea that anything exciting was happening on our street because I was in here reading, so I told her to take over a casserole in my name.” Total lie. Mom was actually standing at the end of the driveway in what she calls her “poopy pants” (disgusting sweatpants that should NOT be seen by the human eye), waving her slippers at the arriving truck and clutching her arm across her chest to avoid drawing attention the fact that she wasn’t wearing a bra. I hid and wished that Courtney Love was my mother instead.

Dad says nothing but he tries not to smile.

“Well? Isn’t that exciting?” Mom exclaims, showering white wine down the front of her silk robe. Dad trades the dish rag for the glass of wine so Mom can dry herself off. It doesn’t deter her excitement. “Do you want to know who moved in?”

“You obviously want to tell me, and I don’t mind if you do,” Dad says, sipping the wine. That was enough for Mom.

“Clarissa says that the boy who lives there bought it with his own money--he can’t be more than Jane’s age--when his parents died! I suppose he didn’t buy it because they died, but he was eligible to cash in his trust fund after they passed, so he did. And he moved here after spending ten minutes touring the house! They haven’t closed on it yet, but since the house was empty, the bank didn’t have a problem letting him and his sister move in early. Supposedly, the deal will be final next week.” Mom claims her wine glass and sits dramatically at the head of the small kitchen table.

“What’s the boy’s name?” Dad asks, taking his seat beside Mom.

“Charles Bingley.”

“Is he going to be a student at the High School?”

“He must be! What a perfect thing for our girls,” Mom says.

“Why?” I snort. Mom shoots daggers and Dad takes my hand.

“How does it affect the girls?” Dad asks.

“Darling, he obviously could be perfect for one of them.”

“And that’s the reason he moved into Longbourne Park?” Dad asks.

“The reason? I don’t know about that, but it’s very likely that he could fall in love with one of the girls, seeing as he’s only across the street, which is why I need you to go introduce yourself to him”

“I don’t know why that matters,” Dad says. “You can go over there with the girls. No, wait... just send the girls by themselves. You’re too beautiful and he might fall for you, and then where would I be?”

My parents exchange a look that challenges the limits of my gag reflex.

“You are the sweetest,” Mom says. “But I have birthed five daughters in my life; I shouldn’t be tempting for any man, except the one who fathered them.”

“That’s right,” Dad says, leaning over to place a peck on Mom’s nose. Her forehead wrinkles like she can’t decide if she’s pleased that he agrees with her.

“Please go meet the new neighbor?” Mom bats her eyelashes.

“I’m very busy--”

“For the girls? He has a trust fund, Papa.”

“And I have an ulcer coming on. I’m happy for him, but that’s not really our business.” Dad slops a large scoop of ramen onto his plate. He twirls a large bite onto his fork and stuffs the bite into his mouth. “Tell you what: I’ll put a flier in his mailbox telling him that I have five daughters, and that he’s welcome to any of them for the right price. How much would you like to offer as a dowry, dear?” Dad says, eyes twinkling. Mom slaps his arm. “On second thought, I won’t ask offer payment, I’ll just put in a footnote recommending Elizabeth.”

“Oh please,” I say. “The day I have to be ‘recommended’ to a prospective suitor is the day I take the veil.”

“Best wishes in your postulance,” Dad says with a smile. “Where would you like us to donate your belongings?”

“Papa, it’s not fair that you favor Lizzie over the other girls. Besides, Jane is the prettiest of them all, and Lydia always keeps everybody laughing... but Lizzie is always your first preference. No offense, Lizzie, as your mother, of course I love you, but Papa has four other daughters--”

“I think I’ve been insulted,” I say, reaching for Mom’s wine glass. She quickly snatches it away and Dad chuckles.

“I love my daughters, but you would think three of them were abducted by aliens and returned to us slightly strange! They are all moody and rude, except for Jane, of course, and I’m not sure Kitty, Lydia, and Mary have one logical brain cell between the three of them!”

“That is not an appropriate way to speak about your other daughters in front of Lizzie!”

“Why not? I’d have said it if he didn’t,” I say, grappling with a whirl of ramen.

Mom scoots her chair back. “The two of you are a nightmare together! Neither of you gives a damn about my anxiety--”

“Honey, there is nothing I take more seriously in the world. Your anxiety and I are old friends. We’ve been in each other’s company for twenty years.” Dad attempts to take Mom’s hand but she hides it under her armpit.

“You have no idea what it’s like!” Mom exclaims.

“I hope one day your anxiety will ease, and allow you to see twenty more rich boys move to our neighborhood,” Dad says.

“It won’t matter if twenty boys move in if we don’t get to know them!”

“When there are twenty teenage trust-fund orphan boys living in Longbourne Park, I’ll invite them all over for a cigar,” Dad says, finishing off his ramen. Mom huffs, leaving the kitchen for the inner bowels of her boudoir, where she’ll get on the phone with Charlotte’s mom. Nothing cures Mom’s moods like some good ole gossip.

“She doesn’t appreciate your sense of humor,” I say, forking the last of my ramen.

“She does,” Dad says with a nostalgic smile. “But she’s preoccupied with being first lady of Longbourne. Sometimes, she wakes herself up giggling in the middle of the night about something I said, and retells the conversation to me so I can relive it too.”

Dad stands, drops a kiss on top of my head, and does the dishes for Lydia, who wouldn’t have done them in a hundred years.

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