I should have known that when a certain airline, which will go nameless (clue: one that carries the name of a Madonna pop hit), promises a bassinette for an overseas flight, they guarantee not a bassinette but a shoe box lined in the finest felt from the finest bottom of some poor soul's finest shoe; we were in Big Trouble. When my husband Jim put our daughter Esme into the bassinette, it was like watching a park ranger attempt to stuff a squirrel into a matchbox. The baby howled and wailed so loudly, she frightened the passengers in rows A through J, as the rest of the plane, K through M, just looked at us with hatred. Perhaps our ten-month-old American baby was just too tall, or maybe the bassinette was just too small, but whatever the issue, the baby was determined not to spend ten seconds in her plush (the airline's word, not mine) accommodations.
We had no recourse except to hold the sweet pea in our laps. That's when we learned our baby did not like to be held for longer than fifteen-minute intervals. We began to take volunteers for the hold-her-so-she-won't-cry shift at twenty American dollars per hour. We had three takers, one Texas granny who wouldn't take the money, an American teenager with pierced eyebrows who would, and a British nanny who wanted double. We paid the lovely Miss Havisham (name changed to protect the terse and crabby) her double.
When our daughter decided she was done exhausting her father, she snuggled into his shoulder and went to sleep. Soon my husband was snoring as was Miss Havisham and the bulk of passengers who were not glued to Notting Hill as it played on the turkey-platter-sized screen in the bulkhead. The screen was so small that it was a rare thing to see all of Julia Roberts's hair in one shot. Good thing the movie watchers were wearing headsets, as the communal snoring was so loud, you would have thought the flight was a charter on its way to a sleep apnea convention.
As a new mother is wont to do when she gets a free moment, she collapses. I began to weep quietly and wistfully at the way my life has turned out. I had dreamed of this book tour long before our daughter arrived, so thrilled at the thought of taking the UK by storm with my new mid-list hit novel Honey If You're Leaving Me Take Your Mother With You. They call it chick lit in my country, and I don't mind. In fact, I don't mind anything since I had the baby, not my deadlines, not the laundry and certainly not my personal appearance. I should have been flattered when an old friend who hadn't seen me since the baby was born complimented me on my uni-brow, thinking it was a homage to the freshly popular painter Frida Kahlo. I assured her it wasn't a homage to anyone, well maybe to a season, my own Ode to Spring, and the caterpillars that come with it. The truth is, I just can't find a spare five minutes to pluck my brows.
Even though I am swamped to the gills and committed up to my eyeballs, I could hardly wait to board the plane for one of my favorite countries. I love Great Britain because it is the setting of some of my favorite books. Imagine Jane Eyre in France or Cathy and Heathcliff in Portugal. Impossible! There's no place like England for hard rain, forbidden love, hot gossip and nannies running off with the man of the house while his wife dies slowly on a morphine drip.
I check my reflection in Esme's training spoon, not liking what I see. I'm already worn out like an old shoe, but I'm hoping this tour will be a grand success. Imagine days spent signing copious numbers of books in towns with "shire" at the end of their names, wearing glamorous clothes to the pubs in Scotland, clopping around Piccadilly Circus in high heels and taking tea every afternoon with attractive male journalists who flirt back and have the quiet intelligence and height of Colin Firth and the wicked sexuality of young Oliver Reed (OK, just my quirky romantic combo). I have a dreamscape for my UK book tour that rivals any sexual fantasies that Elizabeth Barrett ever had after a carriage ride down Wimpole Street while tipping a bottle of Jamaican rum under a blanket with Robert Browning. I am determined to have a blast with my little family.
"Miss Martinelli! Over here! It's me, Nigel!"
As I push the caravan through customs, baby seat, stroller, and luggage stacked like the stones that formed the base of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and hubby carries the baby, I look up to see Nigel Waxman who is waving a small British flag at us. We've chatted on the phone and been emailing for months, so Nigel looks exactly as I had hoped. He's chic and trim in all black (very beat poet), and his face is handsome, a real Celtic combo. Imagine if Ringo Starr and Pierce Brosnan had a baby.
"Kiss, kiss, come darling, we must get to the television studio. Here's a mint."
Nigel gives me a small mint, which I nearly choke on as I introduce my husband and baby. "I hate children generally, but your baby is adorable and I love her instantly!" he says as he coochie coochie coos Esme. It is love at first sight for her, too. "Now, we must run. The telly awaits us."
"Oh, I got you a last-minute booking on a fabulous television show."
"But I look terrible."
Nigel raises an eyebrow and takes a closer look at me. "The makeup artists at this show are magicians."
"Can they make broken blood vessels around my nose from three hours of pushing out Esme during hard labor disappear?" I chomp down on Nigel's mint. As I chew I realize it isn't the candy that has shattered into rocky rubble, but my back molar. I grab my jaw.
"What's wrong?" my husband asks instantly. I groan and point to my tooth. Jim looks into my mouth; his face goes from concern to worry. "You're right, it's your back tooth. It's missing a wall."
Nigel, who has plowed ahead, turns around impatiently. He sees us huddled in agony and runs to us. "Did you get robbed?" Jim explains what has happened. Esme listens to her father as though she understands every word. She has never seen me like this and is fascinated by her mother in pain. "Here is the plan," Nigel begins, "we stop at the pharmacy and get a temporary tooth kit."
"Temp..." I try to speak but when I do my tongue lashes against the broken tooth like a sea serpent being bludgeoned by a pirate in one of those old B movies.
"Don't speak," Jim instructs me.
"It is a kit, darling. It has paste, wax and tools. This very thing happened to me on holiday and I fixed it up and went along with my day. In fact it worked so well, I ate roast at dinner that night and met the love of my life over dessert, all with a temporary filling. You must remain calm." Suddenly Nigel sounds like Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, but like all of weak faith (and those in pain), I am looking for someone to hang on to. I want to believe that he can fix this tooth. "Now let go of my arm, darling. After I spackle, and you become a UK television star, I'll take you to my dentist."
"Now open wide," Nigel instructs as he spackles my tooth. Esme opens her mouth wide too, as does Jim. Nigel heats up a small ball of wax and stuffs it onto the side of the tooth. "How does that feel?"
"OK," I tell him but "OK" sounds like "Mokie."
I look in the mirror. My right jaw protrudes, reminding me of Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
"Honey, take Esme for a walk," I say to my husband. He has to process what I said for a moment, and then quickly he says, "Yes. Yes."
"Do I sound funny?" I ask.
"Only on 's' sounds," Nigel chirps.
I want to cry. Jim smiles at me sadly as he takes Esme out of the dressing room.
A tall, cool blond breezes in. "I'm Charlotte. I'm doing your makeup." I marvel at her strong jaw line, which doesn't have an acorn-sized lump like mine. "You will love the host Jenny Barnett."
"Hellloooo." An alabaster brunette beauty in the English rose tradition of Elizabeth Taylor sticks her head in the door. "I'm Jenny. I love your book. Good fun! And the cake recipe!"
"Did it turn out all right?" I say slowly. Nigel explained in the car on the way over that this show makes recipes from books and then interviews the authors as the dish is prepared on television. "Did it turn out all right?" I ask Jenny again. Jenny's head bobs as she follows each of my over-annunciated words like she's watching a juggler's balls in midair at the circus.
"Darling, I heard about the tooth. You sound fine," she says reassuringly, which tells me that I must sound horrible.
"I'll try," I promise. Of course, I sound like I said "I fry." Jenny pretends not to notice.
"We made your cake and thank goodness we made two, because one was completely gobbled by the crew. Can you take a look at this recipe to make sure we have it down correctly?" Jenny gives me a card with the Chocolate Coca-Cola Cake recipe.
CHOCOLATE COCA-COLA CAKE
2 cups plain flour
2 cups sugar
A pinch of salt
2 sticks butter
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup Coca-Cola
1 1/2 cups
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 eggs, well beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 stick butter
3 tablespoons cocoa
6 tablespoons Coca-Cola
1 pound powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. For cake: Combine flour, sugar and salt in a saucepan, combine and heat butter, cocoa, Coca-Cola and marshmallows until it begins to boil (add marshmallows last)...remove from heat and stir to dissolve marshmallows. Pour over sugar and flour, and blend well...add remaining cake ingredients and blend well. Pour into greased 9 x 13 pan and bake at 350° for 30 to 40 minutes.
2. For icing: Combine butter, cocoa and Coca-Cola in a saucepan and bring to a boil...mix with powdered sugar and vanilla till it makes a thin paste, then drizzle over the cake while it's hot from the oven.
A haggard stage manager (no more haggard-looking than me) bolts in. "Jen, you're on in five. Miss Martini..." He looks at me.
"What?" he says impatiently.
"Martinelli," Nigel says quickly. He implores the stage manager with a look that says, Isn't this one pathetic? Then looks at me sadly.
"You're up at the top of the show. The cake is a smash." The stage manager goes. "See there? The crew adores you already."
"Nigel, I can't talk."
Nigel looks at me as though he is one of those world leaders who wears a headset at the United Nations and is on tape delay for the translation. Once he figures out what I've actually said, he pipes up. "Oh, right, right. Just nod and smile a lot, and let Jenny run the show. You'll do fine."
Nigel leads me down a hallway and a set of metal stairs to a door marked studio. He pulls the door open and ushers me in first. Jenny is talking to the camera. "The show is live," Nigel whispers.
"Now you tell me?"
Suddenly the crew convenes on the stage, a glamorous stage kitchen with a gorgeous cooking island in the center. A team of men commences moving chairs and cameras and tables reconfiguring the lot. Jenny stands in the midst of the fray reading off cards. The stage manager grabs me and puts me in the center on a bar stool next to the cooking island. Two absolutely stunning male models stand by.
"Do you like my bookends?" Jenny winks at the male models.
"They're cute," I tell her. She gives me the same look of confusion that Nigel does, except she is quicker to decipher my poor speech.
"Yes, yes, cute. That's a very American way of putting it." Jenny laughs.
A young woman steps behind the camera and counts back from five.
"We have a treat for you this morning." Jenny speaks directly to the camera. "Anna Martinelli joins us from New York City. How do you like the UK?"
"Smashing." I smile to the camera. Catching my reflection in the monitor, I quickly move the bad jaw upstage so as not to frighten the viewers at home.
"Say hello to Jeff and Dino."
Instead of speaking, I nod to the handsome models.
Jeff, or is it Dino, looks into the camera, while slicing huge hunks of Chocolate Coca-Cola Cake and shoving it onto delicate bone china dessert plates. As they arrange it artfully on the dish, they explain the ingredients.
"What a sweet treat!" Jenny takes a bite.
"It's as if cake and fudge had a baby," I offer.
Jenny looks confused, as do the male models. "Oh quite right. Fudge and Cake had a baby."
"Jeff?" I ask.
"No, I'm Dino, he is Jeff."
"Is this the first time you baked?" Jeff and Dino instantly look confused.
"Do you know who we are?" Dino asks.
"You're...I don't know."
"We're chefs. I'm at the four star Brigadoon restaurant..." Dino begins.
"...And I own Winston's," Jeff adds.
"Oh," I say brightly. Suddenly everyone understands my speech it seems.
"Now, do you understand?" Jenny says gaily. "These are real chefs. They are also menopausal eye candy, but they do have talent too."
"Mr. Delicious," I point to Dino, "...and Mr. Scrumptious," I point to Jeff.
"Yes, yes! Now you've got it!" Jenny applauds. Then, in what I will remember on my deathbed as a mad blur, Jenny describes my novel to the viewers. I see peppy Nigel pacing off camera, but smiling. I look over to the studio door with the porthole window in it and see Esme's tongue licking the glass from the other side and her father pulling her away and winking at me.
"Jenny? May I say something?"
"Of course, darling."
I look into the camera. "Dear people of the United Kingdom...we had a terrible flight. The baby wouldn't sleep. And when we landed, Nigel, he's my publicist, gave me a mint and I bit it and then I broke a tooth. My cheek is usually not this swollen. And I'm usually in better shape. I'm normally quite thin, but I haven't been able to lose the twenty pounds, I don't know the translation in stones, but I put on the weight with Esme. Please don't judge me with this speech impediment and bad hair. I'm really quite funny..." Suddenly, it all is just too overwhelming and I begin to weep.
"Oh for God's sake, we're all working mothers, darling!" Jenny says graciously. "Jeff, Dino, give this American author a hug." Jeff and Dino embrace me. "That's it. A hug sandwich! Two hunks of burning love and a..."
"Slab of American cheese," I add.
"Hilarious! I love it!" Jenny thanks me, and the cameras pull away to another part of the set. "You were magnificent. You turned that rotten tooth into a comic monologue. I loved it! You're a genius!" The crew seems to agree with Jenny. Nigel runs over to me. "Tomorrow when you do the BBC breakfast show, I'm going to blacken your front tooth. You were marvelous! Marvelous!" Nigel practically jumps up and down.
"May we go to the dentist now?" I ask meekly.
"Of course! Though, I'd rather you keep the lump." Nigel holds my jaw tenderly. "The lump is golden!" I look over to my husband and Esme. Jim is holding up Esme's hand, giving me a thumbs-up.
As I follow Nigel out the studio door and through the catacombs back to our car, Esme reaches for me. I take her into my arms, and for a moment I forget the perfect picture I had of this book tour. I wanted to be funny, glamorous and smart on the telly. Instead, I looked and felt like every mommy that ever had a bad day, or should I say, disastrous day. It's our first day of the book tour and I have already learned a big lesson: let go. Let go of the perfect picture and embrace the moment because the moment is extraordinary.
"I hope you're going to shake this pensive mood," Nigel says as he takes Esme into his arms and hands her off to Jim. He helps me into the car. "And don't be afraid. My dentist is the best. See?" Nigel opens his mouth widely as the lion does in Esme's circus book. "They're quite straight and lovely, aren't they?" Nigel asks.
"Beautiful." Except when I say it with the temporary tooth it sounds like "Dutiful."
"I know that our reputation around the world is that our British teeth are a bit like tombstones -- we can thank Charles Dickens for that -- but the truth is, we have come a long way with our dentistry. I would put our choppers up against any in the industrialized world. Or Hollywood," Nigel says with a grin.
"You sold me," I promise Nigel.
As we careen through London, I hold my baby and my jaw, and rest against Jim, who looks fifty years older than he did the day I married him, eight years ago, when he was only twenty-seven. I have ruined this man with a crazy life.
"Are you happy?" I ask my husband, as I do whenever I feel a bit vulnerable.
Jim looks confused for a moment, and then quickly deciphers what I said. "You're never boring, Anna." He kisses me on the forehead. And that, on the first day of my very first UK book tour, is accurate.
Copyright © 2004 by Adriana Trigiani
American Girls About Town
In this breathtaking collection of brilliant, brand-new stories, some of America's best-known women writers have joined forces with up-and-coming new stars to raise money for a very good cause.
A backpacking adventure in Vietnam veers wildly off-course for one intrepid American traveller. A single mother sets herself a bizarre personal challenge as her fortieth birthday looms. A female commitment-phobe must find a cure for her fatal two-month ich -- and fast!
All this and much, much more in a delectable collection of stories which proves -- if proof were needed -- that no one can deliver a devastating one-liner quite like an Amerian girl.