One of my best friends from college is a very successful, accomplished woman. Her name is Sarah, but that’s not important here. Sarah’s childhood was a paint-by-numbers version of the Ugly Duckling fairy tale, set in the hilly exurbs of Greater Los Angeles during that odd transitional period in American culture between the late ‘80s and mid ’90s. She developed late, she was anxious and somewhat awkward, she was a bit uncomfortable in her own skin, and the awful clothes from that period didn’t do her any favors. It also did not help matters that she was more comfortable hanging around with her parents than the girls at school, several of whom made her the target for their withering abuse.
There was one girl who was especially ruthless. I will call her Becky even though that’s not her name. I am not worried about a lawsuit—as the truth is an absolute defense—I just don’t want to give this woman the pleasure of seeing her name in print anywhere besides the court documents in a divorce proceeding or her obituary in a local newspaper. From how Sarah has described her during those years, Becky is like that bee at a picnic who has decided to hone in on you specifically, no matter what you do or where you sit, except Becky had more than one stinger and she didn’t die after she used it. She made those most vulnerable years a living hell for my good friend.
Right near the end of high school, however, Sarah’s Ugly Duckling story made the second act turn and she began to develop into a beautiful swan. With it came a boost in confidence that shifted her perspective away from helpless victim and toward, I don’t know what you’d call it, something with more backbone. By senior year, Becky was no longer just a mean girl, she was officially Sarah’s nemesis. Becky didn’t know this of course, because Sarah kept it to herself (some ugly duckling tendencies die hard), but it didn’t change the fact that she’d been named to America’s Least Wanted. And that is a list you don’t get off of easily; like the FAA No-Fly List or a Sex Offenders Registry, except worse since Sarah can hold a grudge well past death (yours).
Her open but silent rivalry with Becky was short-lived. The next year they went to different colleges and then ended up in different parts of the country after that.
Sarah went to New York, worked in fashion, then publishing, then went to law school before moving back to LA to join a large multinational firm. All the while growing into a raven-haired, statuesque bombshell with the wits and smarts to match.
Becky got married straight out of college, to a guy who works in sales. They moved to one godforsaken state or another, bought into a gated community in some Stepford subdivision full of soulless McMansions, and there they planted their flag. He travels for business all the time, working to pay the (surgery) bills that keep her in the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. She spends her days decked out in LuLu Lemon gear that has never seen the inside of a yoga studio, chasing after three little dimple-faced clones who should have been blowjobs.
How do I know all this about Becky? Be serious. Sarah never lost track of her. Once they left high school, Becky was the evil against which all bad things were judged. Move over Stalin and Hitler, there’s a new sheriff in town. Any bit of success—socially, academically, professionally—was the benchmark by which Sarah measured her own accomplishments and the karmic balance of the universe. It was not a competition, per se, Sarah simply could not countenance a world where awful people like Becky fell mouth-first into the lap of comfort and privilege.
As the years went by—and as these things are wont to do—the intensity of Sarah’s hatred for Becky cooled from a white-hot inferno of molten rage to a simmering cauldron of galvanized disdain. It only ever bubbled over during holidays when both came home to visit (news of which their friends never failed to inform them) and it almost never affected Sarah’s daily life. I’d never even heard of Becky until a couple years after we graduated, for instance. Still, if you had asked her at any point who she hated most in the world, she wouldn’t have missed a beat: Becky Schultz going away, by a Secretariat-worthy distance.
That all changed last week. At a birthday party in Pasadena full of 11-year-old girls.
The party was for Sarah’s daughter, Chloe. It was a full-day event: a dozen little guests, arts & crafts, dinner, a talent show, cake and ice cream, a Disney princess movie marathon with popcorn, all of it culminating in a sleepover with gossip, giggles and tears.
Most of the little girls were what you’d expect from the affluent suburbs of a major American city. They were cute, thin, predominantly blond, with WASPy names that were so white they were practically invisible. Almost all of them went to a very good, very expensive private school that taught them impeccable manners. There was one girl who was so sweet that whenever I talked to her my teeth hurt. Frankly, I feel for her father. I don’t know how he is going to discipline her as she gets older without wanting to throw himself in front of a train. And I swear, the first boy to make her cry or break her heart will have to be the worst person to ever have lived. Ever.
Now, take everything I just described and imagine the opposite. That’s Hannah. Sarah’s new nemesis.
There is nothing remarkable about Hannah. She’s not especially bright or particularly stupid. She’s not really pretty, but she’s not ugly either. She’s not skinny, but she’s definitely not fat. On the perfectly manicured playing fields of youth sports that no one actually cares about, she holds her own but is certainly no all-star. Only a hand full of attributes distinguish Hannah from her peers and from everyone else at Chloe’s birthday party. She is taller, meaner, louder, and she doesn’t shut the fuck up.
Her behavior the night of the party reads like a parade of horribles that, fifty years ago, would fast track a girl to reform school. These days, if she weren’t being raised by a spineless beta male and his indulgent wife, her behavior would get her diagnosed with some kind of antisocial disorder and medicated to dull the effects. This was not my first rodeo with Hannah—I’d met her at a birthday party a few years prior—but Sarah let me know before the party even started that this girl had worked her way to the top of Sarah’s shit list in the intervening years. So I did the only thing that made sense—I tracked her movements the whole night, like an anthropologist with no shame or perspective:
1.Hannah was among the very first to arrive. In retrospect, this felt like a violation. Inflicting yourself on everybody for the maximum amount of time when you have the social grace of a buffalo is like showing up hungry to an open house at a car dealership right when the the lids come off the chafing dishes of free food even though you have no intention of buying a car.
2. She shit on everyone’s ideas. As soon as she walked in the door and saw other girls admiring the birthday cakes on the dining room table, she said “Whatever, they stole that idea from my birthday party, remember?Remember?!?” Listen bitch, you didn’t corner the market on decorating ideas for rectangular sheet cakes. Back the fuck up.
Later, during arts & crafts, all the girls made little keepsake knicknacks. In the course of 45 minutes, she called one girl’s idea stupid, she openly scoffed at another girl’s creation when the girl tried to show it off proudly to Sarah, she repeatedly told everyone at the table why her idea was the best, and I’m pretty sure she tried to strangle a neighborhood cat to death with the string from a Mylar balloon when no one was looking, but I could be misremembering.
3. She was hyper-critical of dinner. How do you feed an army of 11 year olds without going crazy? Simple stuff, served buffet style. We did fruit salad, hot dog bar, mac n cheese, and Terra chips. This did not sit well with Hannah the Barbarian. The mac n cheese was too thick and not as good as her mom makes. The bread for the hot dog buns was too squishy. And where was the mayonnaise, ugh!?! The cantaloupe ruined the rest of the fruit salad. She didn’t get the drink she wanted. Judging by her reaction, you would think we asked her to drink out of the toilet and eat out of the garbage disposal. Granted, by the end of the night I would have gladly helped her stick her head in the garbage disposal to give it a shot, but that’s not the point. Especially since her giant head would have obstructed my access to the On switch anyway.
4. She made at least two girls cry at bedtime. Sleepovers are notorious for the 2 or 3 who get homesick and call their moms in the middle of the night. Hannah knew which girls were most susceptible to this tendency and she aimed her Gatling gun of verbal derision directly at them. “Only babies want their mommies. This party is for girls not babies.” Hannah pushed until one of the girls cracked and came running down into the living room where Sarah and her husband and I were hanging out. Sarah wanted to put Hannah in a sack full of raccoon blood and drag her into the San Gabriel Mountains as cougar bait, but to her credit she let her husband handle it and soon everything was copacetic.
Not 20 minutes later, though, Chloe was crying. Hannah had zeroed in on the most important stuffed animals in the meticulously arranged menagerie on Chloe’s bed and started throwing them around the room like dishes at a Greek wedding. Chloe asked her to stop, then demanded, then pleaded. All to no avail. Soon the emotion was too much and the weight of it all brought the whole thing crumbling down. Chloe cried. Then her more sensitive friends, who themselves had felt Hannah’s wrath in recent weeks and months, began to cry. Then Hannah herself had the audacity to cry, knowing that she was going to get in trouble for being the straw that stirred this tear-filled drink. No dice, shitbird. I know that trick. I hope you suffocate in a salty pool of remorse.
5. She was the first up and the last to leave. Every conscientious parent of adolescents and pre-teens knows that the official end time for a sleepover is “as soon as fucking possible the next morning.” Most abide by this unwritten rule, and those who can’t make sure to inform the host parents ahead of time and apologize profusely. Maddie has an 8am soccer game, I’m so sorry. Such was the case this Sunday morning, and Hannah’s father had rightly told Sarah and her husband ahead of time that they’d be “a little late.” Sarah knew they were getting bonus time with the Bride of Chucky, and they were prepared.
What they were not prepared for was that she would be up at the crack of dawn like a feral animal, hunting for food before the others awoke to compete for the best breakfast treats. Oh and she expected breakfast treats, not just breakfast. Where are the doughnut holes? What about the muffins and brownies? You said we could have Frappuccinos! Sorry Matilda the Hun, I think what you really want is juvenile diabetes and heart disease. Enjoy puberty. If it were up to me I would have locked her in the closet, stuffed her breakfast into the vacuum cleaner bag and wished her happy hunting. Sarah and her husband did the “mature” thing instead, dutifully rising at 6:05am to start the breakfast and make the doughnut run.
For the record, Hannah thanked no one. For anything.
Hannah’s parents arrived to scrape her up just after 11am. An eternity. So much for “a little late.” I’d never met the happy couple before this, so I honestly had no idea what to expect when the doorbell finally rang. What I encountered was nothing short of a walking cliche. Hannah’s dad was a Brooks Brothers clone who’d gotten better looking as he got richer and finally committed to shaving his prematurely balding head. Hannah’s mother was every pretty, tall girl and only child I’ve ever met. She was severe, uptight, and worried at all times about the image she projected.
Hannah had her father wrapped around her powdered-sugar covered finger. She would coo “daaaa-ddyyyy” and he’d melt into nothingness, relenting to her demands for insert thing she didn’t need or really want. If he decided to actually parent for a second and try to apply some rules or discipline, she would initiate a self-destruct sequence that included ear-piercing shrieks, alligator tears, writhing on the ground, and ejaculations of hatred the likes of which you only expect to hear from girlfriends you’ve just cheated on. When this happens, Hannah’s dad does not get mad. He just gives up. Then he gives in. She gets out of him anything she wants and she knows it. Eleven years old and she plays him like the chump at a poker table. It was depressing to watch not just for his sake, as a man, but because of what this spinelessness is creating: a manipulative, entitled little asshole.
It’s Hannah’s mother who is doing the long-term damage though. Hannah is not her daughter; Hannah is an extension of her identity. Hannah is her. Hannah can do no wrong, Hannah can’t not be perfect, the best, the most interesting, because that would mean that she isn’t perfect, good or interesting. Why do you think Hannah’s mother is so obsessed with what people think and the image she projects? Unfortunately, she has created a feedback loop that only feeds back one thing: you’re amazing and beautiful and perfect and right…because you are my child. And this loop turns the manipulative, entitled asshole behavior tolerated by the father into a pathology endured by everyone else.
Together, Hannah’s spineless beta male father and her indulgent co-dependent mother have quite literally created a monster. An attention-hording, sugar-chomping, friend-abusing, weakness-exploiting little asshole of a monster.
I came downstairs just as the Hannah family was about to leave. Sarah was collecting up all of Hannah’s belongings and arts & crafts while her husband made small talk with Hannah’s parents. He introduced me.
“This is our friend Nils.”
“Hi,” I said.
“This is Hannah’s father Steve.”
“Hey, how’s it goin’?” he said.
“And this is Hannah’s mom Becky.” Of course you are, of course that’s your name.
Becky shook my hand as Sarah emerged from the play room with all of Hannah’s stuff. She handed it to Steve while Becky profusely apologized for their tardiness.
“We are SO sorry. Things just got crazy this morning and we lost track of the time.”
“It’s okay,” Sarah assured her, but Becky wouldn’t let her have the last word.
“No, it’s totally our fault.”
You bet your ass it is.