Worst Impressions: A Modern Austen Tale

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Meddling

“Lizzie, I really don’t mind doing it--”

“Jane, it’s okay!” I say, sucking on the tip of my finger. I have lately lanced myself with a needle as I attempt to mend a hole in my favorite sweatshirt. “It’s just a small hole, and you’ve got organic chemistry...”

“Equine sciences.”

“..to study--right, Equine sciences--and it’s just a sweatshirt. When I need a hole patched in my dress to meet Queen Elizabeth, I’ll come to you.” I take the band aid from Jane’s hand because I know she’ll put it on forcibly if I don’t. Her life will one day be chronicled in a documentary called ‘Saint Jane: the Wonder Years.’

“If it’s good enough for Charles Bingley, it’s good enough for the Queen,” Dad says, sipping on his evening coffee. For once, most of us have settled in the living room. Mary’s absent, of course, and Lydia’s phone has melded with her hand, but 86% of the Bennets are in the same room at one time. It’s a miracle. It will be an act of divine intervention if I can patch this hole in my sweatshirt and retain all my fingers.

“We’ll never know what’s good enough for our new neighbor, since we won’t be getting to know him,” Mom says, slapping her book closed. She has been on page five of that same book for the past hour.

“Don’t forget the block party!” Lydia cheeps, though her eyes don’t leave her phone.

“Oh yeah! He’ll be there, right?” Kitty says. “Mrs. Lucas told me that she’s planning on introducing him to everyone.”

“That isn’t Clarissa’s job,” Mom says, teeth grinding away on Mrs. Lucas’ privilege.

“Perhaps you can relieve her,” Dad says.

Mom huffs, buries her face in page five again, and sinks ever-deeper into the overstuffed couch. All is quiet just long enough for me to let down my hackles, and then... Kitty takes a large swig of tea. She chokes, coughs a shower of tea over her own book, and her eyes turn red.

“Catherine, please!” Mom says, pressing her fingers to her temple.

“How inconsiderate of you to cough while your mother is attempting to finish a page,” Dad says. Lydia thumps Kitty soundly on the back.

“I d-didn’t do it--HACK!--on purpose!” Kitty whines, mid-cough. When at last she has regained control of her inconsiderate coughs, Kitty pulls out her mini notebook, which lives in her back pocket when she has one, or in her bra the rest of the time. “When is the block party?”

“Two weeks from tomorrow,” I say.

“That it is!” Mother suddenly sits up as if having suddenly discovered gravity. “Clarissa leaves for her Hawaiian cruise tomorrow and she won’t return until the day of the block party. She will be too exhausted to attend--you know how she gets.” She claps her hands together in delight.

“Then you have the upper hand, honey,” Dad says.

Mom sits back against the cushions. “Except I don’t, because I don’t know him either.”

“Will somebody just walk the twenty-five paces from our door to his?” Mary calls from the stairs. Six heads turn towards the hermit that is my middle sister.

“Glad you’re alive, Mary!” Lydia calls. Mary flips her off and flounces up the stairs as best as one is able to do in Doc Martens.

“Mary does have a point,” Jane says, peering over her delicate reading glasses.

“That she does!” Dad exclaims. “After all, our daughters are not the only girls in the neighborhood and they are bound to have some competition from Mrs. Oates.”

“She is ninety-one!” Lydia scoffs.

“And single,” Dad says. All of us laugh, except Mom, even though she wants to. I have a feeling this will induce a midnight mid-REM cycle giggle.

“Oh, John...” Mom says, rolling her eyes.

“Kitty, will you fetch Mary down again?” Dad asks, finishing his coffee. “I’d like to ask her how we should proceed with meeting the new neighbor once we have crossed the street.”

“Oh! I am sick of the new neighbor!” Mom says, dropping her book onto the carpet.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Dad says, standing. He folds his newspaper and tucks it under his arm. “I wish you had told me earlier. If I had known, I wouldn’t have gone over there to introduce myself before he left for school. How unfortunate... I suppose we can’t avoid him now.” Dad grabs his coffee cup and heads for the kitchen, leaving Mom stunned and the rest of us trying not to snort.

“I knew it! I knew I’d persuade you, it’s too important for our daughters to at least be acquainted with someone in the neighborhood their age,” Mom says, flocking to Dad to give him a reward. “You’re such a joker! I can’t believe you kept that a secret all day.”

Dad kisses her forehead and sighs. “You can cough as much as you need to, Kitty.”

He flees for the garage, where Mom will not follow.

“My girls,” Mom says, turning back to face her brood. “You have a good father. Everything he does is for you, and I don’t know how you’ll repay him for it. Or how I will, quite frankly! Lydia, perhaps you can entice our new friend onto the dance floor during the block party?”

“He’s not the only one,” Kitty mumbles. Lydia slaps her arm and they exchange a wordless conversation made up of gestures towards Lydia’s phone and pointedly raised eyebrows. They stand together and take to the stairs.

“That’s not a good sign,” Jane says to her textbook. I return to sewing up the remnants of a collision with the piano, which tore a hole in my sweatshirt and left a purple bruise on my forearm. Mom settles into the sofa and makes it all the way to page six before she is overcome with the need to talk about Charles Bingley.

“I wonder what his voice sounds like--”

“Mom!” I stab myself again and throw down my sweatshirt. “The whole entire world will go on turning if you don’t talk about Charles Bingley for two seconds. Jane needs to study down here on the big table; can’t you go outside and water the garden or something?”

The phone rings. Saved by the bell, I suppose. When she’s really worked up, Mom is incapable of speaking on the telephone indoors. She has to pace the driveway. There’s a reason all the neighbors know what goes on in the Bennet household; Mom confesses to the sidewalk.

“Clarissa--oh! David! Just a moment. Can’t hear you, hold on...” Mom steps outside but I can still hear the screeching timber of her excited ramblings.

“I’m going for a walk,” I announce to my only studious family member, my Jane.

“It’s supposed to rain,” she replies sweetly, though her eyes don’t leave the page before her. I yank the needle and thread from the hole in my sweatshirt and pull the poor thing on. My cell phone awaits me in the kitchen, so I swipe it and duck out the back door.

When we were six, Mr. Lucas removed three boards from his fence so Charlotte and I could run between our two houses, which we do still, despite the fact that Clarissa Lucas believes that hole to be an abomination to Longbourne Park. Mr. Lucas planted a large tree in front of it on his side so you have to shimmy out from behind it, but at least Clarissa doesn’t gripe at me for busting through her fence. Now I magically appear from behind the tree, which is somehow less unsettling. Anyway, it’s nice for moments of crisis when I desperately need to hear Charlotte’s cool, calm reasoning... or when I need to escape the beings I call family. And I don’t even have to ring the doorbell to do it.

“Walk?” I text Charlotte. While I wait for her reply, I kick the mulch on our side of the gap. My phone buzzes.

“Two seconds.” From Charlotte. Her back door opens and shuts and Charlotte’s even footsteps pad softly in the grass. Her head appears around the tree. Charlotte is one of those rare kinds of people who looks really innocent, no matter what. I always imagine that if we were arrested, she would go free without saying a word. “What’s up?” She says, wiggling through to my side.

“Charles Bingley, and I would like him to be down,” I say.

“Until he moved here, I didn’t realize that it was possible for an entire neighborhood to obsess over one person,” she says. She links her arm through mine and gestures to the gate leading to the street. We make our way to it and slip out of Crazy Town.

“Like, if he drove a solid gold car or he was a pedophile, I would perhaps understand my mother’s fascination with his every move... but he’s a teenage boy with a trust fund,” I say. “I guess I don’t find it that interesting. He had money to buy a house, so he did. Good for him?”

Charlotte laughs. “And he’s single. Dad weaseled it out of him.”

“Your dad’s in denial,” I say.

“It ain’t just a river in Egypt,” Charlotte sighs. She’s a lesbian. Her parents are relatively cool about it, though her mother thinks she’ll swing back to true North if the guy is cute enough. “Whatever. At least Mom has stopped asking me to consider having babies anyway.”

“You can’t have babies if you like ladies?” I ask.

“You totally can. It’s just a longer process than, “when a mommy and daddy love each other very much...”

“They call the Stork,” I finish. “It’s different for lesbian parents?”

“Actually, no, it’s exactly the same,” Charlotte giggles.

We always find ourselves at the model homes when we take walks. The guy who mans the front desk has a major crush on me so if I ask him really nicely and there aren’t any tours going on, he’ll let us sit in the giant jacuzzi bathtubs. He always greets us by opening the mahogany doors of the biggest house, our favorite one, and the place where his desk lives.

“Good afternoon, ladies. May I offer you some bad coffee or a mediocre tour of the facilities?”

“Hey, Rich,” I say. He blushes. He’s sweet, though undatable. I would devour him, and not in a fun way.

“The place is yours until six,” Rich says, checking his Rolex.

“Great! A full hour of jacuzzi relaxation,” Charlotte says. “Shall we?”

We deposit our shoes by the front door and don blue booties that protect the carpet from dirt and make everyone look like a moron. I follow Charlotte through the winding halls and up the stairs to a ridiculous bathroom with two bathtubs. Nobody in the subdivision can afford the upgrade, so it’s just a monument to excess. Longbourne Park is a relatively new development, so it could still happen. Maybe Charles Bingley has it.

“Decide where you’re going yet?” Charlotte grabs several pillows from the master bedroom to pad down the tubs.

“I can’t even repair a hole in my sweatshirt,” I say, throwing the silky, green pillows into my tub of choice. I climb in and settle, draping my hand outside the tub as if holding an undrinkable glass of wine.

“How many places are still on your list?” Charlotte climbs in to her tub and I can only see her nose-up.

“Five.”

“Liz... you were going to narrow them down!”

“I still plan on it!” I say, throwing my hands up. “But I don’t know what I want to study, so it’s hard to pick a school. Picking a school means picking a pigeon hole to nest in.”

“You don’t get along with pigeons,” Charlotte says.

“Nope.”

“Quick! You are standing in front of a pitching machine: History or Writing?”

“Bam!” I slump down. “Knocked out by a baseball. Now I don’t have to choose.”

Charlotte climbs out of her tub and into mine. “Dodging.”

“I know,” I huff. “But I don’t know what I want. When I do, you’ll be the first to know, okay?” I punch her arm lightly. They don’t make ’em like Charlotte anymore. She’s the real deal. I’ve never met anyone more willing to call me on my bullshit and be entirely supportive at the same time. If we did break the law together, she would be the mastermind and the first acquitted. I would open my mouth and get a life sentence. I am not sure what we’d get arrested for unless it’s illegal to lounge in the bathtubs of model homes.

Voices rise up through the floor vents.

“Time to go,” Charlotte says. We have this routine down to a science. People want a tour? We can have the beds looking pristine and flee out the back door before the rich people even set foot on the front stairs. Charlotte throws me the jade pillows and I arrange them artfully on the master bed. She smooths the bedspread and we flee for the back staircase--

Until I run directly into a tall person.

“Oof!” I stagger backwards, stomping on Charlotte’s toes.

I’m being stared at by the buttons of a forest green blazer. “Excuse me.” A deep voice. Feet... three sets. Rich’s Sperry sliders, a pair of gently-used brown loafers, and slick, black dress shoes, which belong to the legs that belong to the blazer... which belong to a pair of well-groomed black eyebrows.

“Uh, Lizzie, Charlotte,” Rich stammers, stepping forward. “Charlie and Will.”

My eyes and two black peepers make friends. I don’t know who belongs to them, but they are a work of art. I’d visit the Louvre for a whole day just to study those masterworks. They’re black, but they’re flecked with gold. They belong to the black eyebrows.

“Will Darcy, Lizzie Bennet,” Rich says, with a little more weight on the introduction. I focus on the face that the eyes belong to. I mean, he’s no Hugh Jackman, but the guy is certainly way better looking than most boys I know.

“I believe it is customary to greet new acquaintances,” Charlotte whispers, nudging me.

“Hey!” I blurt, offering a thumb’s up and then stuffing it beneath my armpit, in the hope that Will Darcy doesn’t notice. Except he does, and raises a condescending eyebrow.

“Hey.” He spits back at me, cutting around my body to the immense bathroom beyond. Meanwhile, a bright-eyed blonde fellow smiles at me.

“Charlie,” he says, offering me his hand. You know you’re meeting a rich kid when they shake your hand. Regular teenagers don’t shake hands; they wave awkwardly. It’s our right as hormonal beings. This kid is going to be in politics or something.

“Elizabeth--uh, Lizzie. Liz, if you’re Charlotte,” I stumble.

“Charlotte,” she says, extending her hand to the new neighbor. He shakes her hand. “Sometimes Char, never Charlie.”

“Always Charlie,” Charlie laughs, nervously. “I hate Charles.”

“Charles?” The shadow with eyebrows calls from the echoey bathroom.

“Nice to meet you!” Charlie exclaims, and he absolutely means it. He skirts around us both and joins his friend in the bathroom. All I’ve discerned about the new neighbor is that he wears a blue down jacket and he is much too friendly. I suppose he balances out Will Darcy.

“I’m sorry,” Rich says, following us down the front stairs to his desk. “I didn’t know that Charlie was bringing Will to tour the models. We hardly ever have tours past 3 pm!”

“It’s fine, Rich. See ya?” Charlotte says.

“Yeah. Anytime you girls wanna hang out here, it’s whatever. I get bored, so I don’t mind.” Rich salutes us and bounds back up the stairs to meet with the Trust Fund Two-some. Charlotte and I slip out the front door and into the rain. Jane was right... she’s always right.

“So.” Charlotte pulls an umbrella out of her overstuffed pockets.

“So. That’s the new neighbor.” I loop my arm through hers and we crouch beneath the paisley-print umbrella, making our way for home.

“I’m sorry... I don’t understand why our mothers are having coronaries over him,” I say softly, just in case he has super-hearing abilities. “He’s nice, but he’s not... I don’t know. He’s just--I mean, he’s nice. He’s not Colin Firth. His friend, on the other hand...” Is definitely hot, and also a large douche-canoe. I’ve met warmer ice cubes. Charlotte raises her eyebrow at me.

“Has nice hair? I don’t care about that guy. Unless he’s buying a house with the premium jacuzzi upgrade in which case, we ought to turn around so we can become his best friends,” Charlotte says, tugging on my arm. I laugh and tug her back towards my house.

“I suppose I had better report to my mother that Charlie Bingley wears a blue coat so she’ll finally cook something nutritious for dinner,” I say.

“Hot dogs again?”

“Ramen. Though in her defense, I did cook. But there was nothing else in our house except five Cheerios at the bottom of the box and two overripe bananas!”

“You didn’t have a choice.”

“She forced my hand.” The rain turns into frozen pellets, pelting my delicate sensibility. Charlotte and I flee for the cover of her front porch. She flips off her hood and shakes the rain off on me, so I return the favor. She grins.

“Don’t look now, but Jane’s future ex-boyfriend is pulling into your driveway,” Charlotte says. Sure enough, Charlie’s black Mercedes pulls into our driveway and he hops out of the car like he’s dismounting off of a stallion. I must have wowed him with all of my charm. The car putzes and his friend broods in the passenger seat. Charlie knocks on my front door and Dad answers, beckoning the full-body smile into our front room.

“Why did he drive to my house?” I scoff, sitting on the front steps beside Charlotte. “He lives close enough that I could break his bedroom window if I threw a rock.”

“Why do rich people do anything?” Charlotte murmurs, nudging me.

“What?”

“The friend is staring,” she says, flicking her gaze to Charlie’s idling car. I nonchalantly do the same and sure enough, Darcy is boring holes into my skull with his laser vision.

“Maybe he doesn’t realize that the windows aren’t tinted,” I say, adjusting my seating so that he can study the back of my head.

“Or he’s a robot sent to harvest your organs.”

“That’s probably it,” I say.

Charlie reemerges from my house, chipper as ever. Dad follows, a Cuban cigar perched on his lips. He tucks his fingers into his belt-loops, trying and failing to look like Winston Churchill, my dad’s idea of a hospitable and yet imposing figure. Our new neighbor shakes Dad’s hand and jogs to the driver’s seat of his running car. Once he’s inside, his friend rips his gaze from the surface of my face and they peel out of the driveway. A puff of grey tire dust hangs in the wet air and the car disappears down the street.

“I guess he was on his way out,” Charlotte says.

“Charlotte Marie?” Her dad’s voice calls from behind the door.

“Text me,” Charlotte says, leaping up and entering her house. I shove my hands in my pockets and jog across the muddy grass between our abodes. Dad waits for me, leaning against the porch column.

“Do not tell your mother,” Dad says as I leap onto the porch.

“Tell her what?”

“Exactly.”

“No, I’m serious,” I laugh. “What don’t you want me to tell her?”

“That Charlie was here while she napped,” Dad says. “She’ll have a fit. She’s already invited him to dinner and he declined; he was on his way out of town just now and he’ll be gone for a few days. I don’t want her upset that she missed a golden opportunity.”

“He’s going to miss school,” I say.

“He mentioned that. I said perhaps one of my very sweet daughters would catch him up on his homework when he returned.”

I raise an eyebrow and he laughs. “What?”

“Mom is rubbing off on you.”

“I’m not made of stone,” he chuckles.

Dad retreats inside as the wind changes and rain blows sideways under the porch overhang. I stay outside until my cheeks burn with the chill, and savor every second that someone isn’t having a fit over Charlie Bingley.

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