Isobel Down had been unemployed seven months when the advertising icons started knocking on her door.
It was Tony first. The Tiger. Sleek fur, lean muscles updated for the new millennium.
“Hell no,” she said, slamming the door in Tony’s face.
“Isobel,” came the rugged voice from the other side, “today is going to be grrrrreat!” A glimpse through the half-moon window revealed a paw pumping in the air. A warm Pantone orange. He was hopping. “It’s not about the cereal, Isobel.”
She was supposed to be sitting in her modest Crate and Barrel living room, staring at the cracks in her lavender walls and wondering what it would be like not to be alone. This took focus, concentration. She had no time for past projects.
“Tony, I gave you four years of my life,” she called, eying him through lace curtains. “Four years of focus groups and rebranding initiatives. I made Frosted Flakes the top choice of suburban families.”
“I want your hand, Isobel.” His tail was slapping against her one potted plant.
“Ya, so you can swallow it.”
“No! In marriage! I want your hand in marriage!”
She opened the door. His black stripes shone like oil slicks in the afternoon sun. “Hello To—”
Her last syllable was buried in fuzz. She was wrapped in his plush arms: a warm, ferocious hug. He smelt like sugar.
“I cana brede.”
“Yes, you can, Isobel! With the right nutrients to start off your day, we’ll make tons of babies.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“Oh.” He released her from his grip, but held her by the shoulders, claws retracted like a gentleman.
“Tony.” She waved her hand over the threshold. “You want coffee?”
Tony smiled, revealing a hint of wide, pink tongue. “Milk.”
* * *
Marriage. It was an interesting idea.
She’d had interviews with all the top ad shops in the city, but no one had a place for passionate believers anymore. Isobel’s brand of feminine moxie had been overtaken in popularity by that of the emo-infused divorcee.
Charlie, her boyfriend, thought that working on consumer goods had sucked up her soul like new, more absorbent paper towels. A week before she’d been laid off, he’d ask her to move in with him, wanted to be the catalyst for positive change. Her paralysis was instantaneous. From head to heart to groin, all forward motion stopped.
As an 18-35 year old mid-income, high-style Caucasian, Charlie was finely tuned to both his masculinity and sensitivity, so when she’d refused his offer through shaking lips and unblinking eyes, he somehow held back from sending his fist through the wall.
She ‘needed space’.
He would ‘give her time’.
She would ‘call’ when she was ready to talk about the future. What with spending so many hours on her couch, she just hadn’t gotten around to it. Maybe it was time to consider the alternatives.
* * *
“It would be totally awesome, Isobel. I bring in a ton of royalties. You can stay home and take care of things. We’ll buy a bungalow out in Nyack.” Tony couldn’t stop moving—sitting, standing, hopping, smiling —he was a cheerleader for optimism. Droplets of milk flew out of his mug onto her wood floor.
“Tony, I don’t know. Aren’t I too young?” She was only thirty-one, after all.
“What—for marriage? For babies? No!” He waved his paw in the air, dismissive and almost convincing. “How will it be different than your life now? You won’t be working, but you’ll have lots more fun stuff to do.” He moved to the loveseat where she was sitting and leaned his seven-foot frame on the arm. Together, they tipped to the left. “I’ll take care of you, I promise. This is what you want.”
She wanted to regret all the strategy meetings where she’d sat around telling the creative team that Tony needed to come off as more sensitive in 30-second spots, but watching him stroke his whiskers, his eyes wide and earnest, she couldn’t. So she put her hand on his arm and squeezed.
His paw slid over the top of her hand. “I’m here because you need me to be, Isobel. I’m your knight in shining armor.”
“You don’t even have cloth—”
“I’m giving you the chance to start an exciting new life, to start every morning off right, next to me!”
“As part of a complete breakfast.”
Tony let out a little tiger moan, crossing his arms and pouting as he walked over to her dining nook window. She followed him, his broad shoulders slumping, his tail hanging limp. She put her hand on his back and he purred, leaning into it. This, she thought, could be home.
“You have to say yes, Isobel.” He wasn’t made to frown. It looked unnatural. “I got excited. I—I already booked an appointment this Friday with the Justice of the Peace. A nice civil service. Just us, plus Crackle and Pop.”
It sounded so much easier than a real wedding, one with family and crinoline. “Tony, I’ll think about it. I just don’t know if I’m in the target group.”
He smiled, squinting out at the falling sun. “I have to go. I have a photo shoot at six.”
Dander floated freely in the air. She giggled helplessly. “You’re all disheveled. Let me brush you out before you go.”
“Just think about it, ok?”
She would. After she vacuumed.
* * *
Wednesday began like so many days before. Yoga stretches in bed; a long, hot shower; a thorough reading and strategy meeting with the TV Guide.
Isobel sat on the couch, laptop hot on her thighs, one hand wrapped contemplatively inside tangles of wiry orange fur, the other madly navigating the blogs of New York State Housewives.
“I love cleaning. Something about making the house smell like pine gives me a real sense of purpose.”
“Josh’s soccer practice ran long—so I had to race home and drop off the ice cream. God, the whole back of the minivan was covered in chocomint.”
“Intimate life with Barry is great—we’ve started using ErotoNight DVDs. It’s really taught us the benefits of role playing.”
And so on. The glass was half full. The glass was half empty. Regardless, it contained chardonnay and it was only 10:30 in the morning. Isobel moved her laptop and stood, heading for a refill. As she turned, she looked where she’d been sitting: a shadow, round and bulbous, burnt into the mocha pleather. She blinked, chuckling without humor. Seven months of ass, recorded for posterity.
She was in the kitchen, considering sending out another round of resumes when she heard the doorbell. Maybe it was Charlie, here to rescue her from her own primal insanities. Maybe not.
She hid the wine glass and got the box of cereal down from the cupboard. She filled a glass of orange juice and set everything up on the table, just like in the commercials. It was the time for false impressions.
She ran to the door, primping her hair. Through the window, curtains drawn, she saw not the sweet, nubby ears of her suitor, but a sombrero.
She slowly opened the door. “Hello.”
“My name is Juan Valdez. We met three years ago. During the print launch.”
“May I come in for a cup of coffee? There is an important matter of business I wish to speak to you about.”
Perfect English. The 21st century Juan Valdez reiteration had been extremely successful, and now she knew why. His moustache trim, his hard cheekbones clean-shaven, this guy was smooth. “Please, come in,” she said and smiled. “but I’m sorry, I only have milk.”
* * *
Juan Valdez stared rapt at the collection of elephant statues on Isobel’s hutch. He picked up the slate one with a chip out of its eye.
“Really? I bought that one at a yard sale.” She stepped up behind him, envisioning midnight walks through the plantation. Rolls in the hay. “The rest just came from airport gift shops.”
Juan sipped at the mug of milk in his free hand, lips puckering at every uncomfortable sip. “They are useless, Isobel.” He cradled the elephant. “But this one. This one is like you.”
“Beautiful.” He pointed to the elephant’s legs. “Look, you can see the muscles. This animal is driven to work. Like you.”
Heat flared in her cheeks, and she buried her head in her t-shirt. “You-na, you just have to say that. You symbolize and personify more than 560,000 hardworking and dedicated Colombian coffee farmers.” She’d once led a survey that determined woman responded best to blue-collar men who complimented them on their work ethic. This was especially true for housewives.
Her stomach rolled.
“Christ, you don’t think I’m a housewife, do you? I’m just out of work right now.” She crossed her arms and turned to move. His hand found her elbow. He was grinning with too-white teeth.
“DDB is looking for a account supervisor on the P&G account, Isobel. I can get you in. But,” he faced her now, brown eyes wild and heated, “I want you, Isobel. I want you to come live with me in a Manhattan condo. We’ll work long days in the jungle, come home and fall into bed together.”
Complications. Always complications.
“But—but, we’ll never get to see each other. Just a quick bowl of cereal in the morning, and—”
“No cereal. Just coffee.” His brow crinkled.
“Right, whatever, we’ll just see each other for a few minutes a day. Plus you have your world tours and such.”
“Yes.” He looked out the window, contemplative. “This is what the work demands. It comes first, and from it, our passion for each other will be realized.”
She watched his biceps flare, imagining passion realized. “Well, I suppose work did make me . . . driven. I miss that—that feeling of tension, of accomplishment.” The momentum. The control. The power. Stilettos. Salads. “Why me?”
“No one but you, Isobel. You brought me here—I heard your voice calling out to me.”
“Jeez.” She was thinking up a more appropriate response when the doorbell rang.
Juan raised an eyebrow. “Expecting someone?”
She walked over, turned the knob with little hesitation. The roses sat alone on her suddenly overused welcome mat. Two in the bunch were just stem, the flower bitten off. The pink cellophane crinkled in her hands as she pulled out the card and read.
TWO DAYS TILL THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.
KISSES AND TIGER HUGS!!!
With it was a ripped piece of newspaper. Unfolded, it revealed a tiny black and white classified ad for a bungalow in Nyack with a white picket fence and an SUV in the driveway. Out of her price range, unless she was a kept woman.
Or a corporate whore.
“What is it, my darling?” Juan picked absently at errant orange hair sticking to his poncho.
She squished the card into a ball and jammed it into the pocket of her jogging pants. “Uh—nothing.” Flowers cradled in her arm like a baby. A baby. “These are a—from my cousin Joni. To thank me for the sock puppets I made her kids.”
Juan shook his head. “Sock puppets. What a waste.”
It was true. She was better at leading brainstorming sessions than sewing on button eyes.
“Listen, Juan.” They stood at the door of her condo townhouse watching kids on bikes roll by before rush hour. He gently held her elbow again, ready to usher her back into her career. “I like your offer – I do. I just need some time to think about it.”
“You have only till Friday, unfortunately. After that I have a four city tour in Japan.”
“Of course. Friday. Five o’clock.”
Every account executive had a selling point, something that differentiated them from the competition. Isobel’s selling point was simple: she never missed a deadline.
* * *
The milk sat heavily on her cold coffee. Isobel lifted her feet off the table and nudged the mug away with an outstretched foot.
It was the most movement she’d made in three hours.
Friday morning, and no closer to the ideal life. For forty-eight hours she’d been ruminating over possibilities, imagining roles. She tried on an apron; squeezed back into one of her pencil skirts. She pictured herself behind projectors and potpies, eagerly playing the part of the customer, desperately searching herself for insight. Who was Isobel? What were her aspirations? What were here family goals? The answers were there, she knew, but they were clouded in malaise, cushioned by various manifestations of the same unavoidable truth, that in this household, Isobel Down was not the primary decision maker.
“Pick a side, Isobel,” Charlie had slurred. He’d been out for mangolinis two nights before he’d asked her to move in. He’d stopped by her door with a confused look in his eyes, a copy of a Dr. Phil relationship book in his hand. “Pick a side and stick to it. You can’t be the woman who takes clients out to strip clubs, then comes home to bake meatloaf for her boyfriend. Where does that leave me? What’s my role?“ He wiped away something caught in his eye. Probably a contact. “Ya gotta figure out which woman you want to be.”
Maybe she was both.
The doorbell rang. The knocker knocked. When she opened the door, they burst forth, a chaotic scrum of branding propaganda. Tony the Tiger had Juan Valdez in a headlock, the sombrero left headless on the front stoop. They barreled through the living room, crashing into the hutch, souvenir store elephants disintegrating on the floor.
“Stop it.” She yelled, swallowing the burn. Juan caught Tony under the chin; Tony tripped Juan with one swoop of his tail. They rolled on the floor, making the most of her minimum square footage. “Guys, this solves nothing.”
They must have seen her crying. Tony pulled up. Gasping for breath, they separated and stood.
Tony was squinting. “Isobel! Don’t you want to be with me? We can be happy. We can be healthy. We can be—”
“Lazy and pointless”, Juan said, planting a fast punch on the tiger’s arm. “Isobel, come with me to Manhattan, where we can leave such domestic banality behind. Let our lives have meaning.”
“Meaning? Grrrrrrr,” Tony pulled out his claws and held them to Juan’s throat.
“STOP.” Her breath came as fast as her tears, but it didn’t matter. They were at it again: off to wreck her antique dining table with punches and paws.
Isobel sunk into her couch and picked up the phone. The receiver shook in her hand, but she knew his number by heart.
He hadn’t changed the message on his answering machine.
“Charlie. Hi. You— I don’t want to get married. But I don’t want to be alone. I need space. I want kids, but I want a career.” She pulled the receiver away from her mouth, laughing quietly. “I want to get laid, but I still want to cuddle. I want to wear heals, but I also like slippers.” She heard a paw break a window. “I need to have power, but I need to find some kind of peace, Charlie. I don’t want to decide between love and lust.” Spanish cursing behind her. “Between making meatloaf and eating leftover quarter-sandwiches from the caterer. Coffee and milk, Charlie.” She smiled, tasting salt. “Coffee and milk.” She glanced over at Tony and Juan, swinging from her chandelier. “I don’t want to pick sides. I’m sorry it took me so long to tell you that.” One last deep breath. “Goodbye.”
A knock at the door.
Isobel’s hands were damp, slipping as they turned the knob.
She was about Isobel’s age. Shoulder length brown hair. Aviator sunglasses. Leather jacket. Boot-cut jeans.
She waved a hand. “Call me Betty.”
Two years ago, Isobel had spent an entire summer making sure the new Betty was designed as more than just a woman who specialized in cookies and jelly salads.
Betty pulled off her shades. “You doing anything? I’ve got the day off.” She pointed to her sporty sedan in the driveway. “I’ve got Auntie J with me. We’re heading to a knitting conference in Syracuse.”
“I don’t really know how to knit.”
Betty laughed. “Really, it’s just a stitch and bitch. A good excuse to drink some margaritas and exchange ideas.”
Ideas. Concepts. Possibilities.
Isobel had no husband. Isobel had no job. What she had was a sliver of understanding, so she grabbed her purse, and walked out the door.
Off in search of her own demographic.
Stacy Sinclair lives in Toronto, Canada with her international super-spy husband and cannibalistic cat. A freelance writer, she sells her soul one product at a time. She spent last summer in Seattle, attending the Clarion West writers workshop.