Illustration by Kevin Pope
When our friends Bob and Judy invited us to their tenth anniversary celebration, my husband and I discussed what to get them.
"A nice clock?" he suggested.
"They'd forget to set it."
"Not unless it's Better Homes and Hot Dogs. You know how they eat. What about something for the yard?"
He laughed. "These are the people who don't cut their grass until it's blocking the view from their picture window."
For lack of a better idea, we opted to buy Bob and Judy a magazine subscription. I can't remember exactly why we settled on American Couple, but it sounded like a safe bet: one of those upbeat family magazines loaded with advice on everything from toning your thighs to building a gazebo.
But when I bought a sample issue to present at their party, the cover worried me a little. Lying on deck chairs in some island paradise, a tanned, blond, gorgeous couple displayed twin sets of dazzling teeth. "They Used to Be Average!" read the copy. "How You, Too, Can Look Perfect and Feel Great."
"Yeah, right," I thought, imagining paunchy Bob getting sunburned in the tropics. Since it was too late to come up with a better gift, I stapled a bow to the man's nose and went to bed.
We enjoyed the anniversary bash, then weeks passed and I realized we hadn't heard from Bob and Judy. So I called Judy to invite them out for dinner.
"That sounds great!" she said in a strangely energetic voice. "Nurturing friendships is part of a healthy emotional lifestyle!"
"Good," I said, a little uncertainly. "How about that new Mexican place?"
"Who needs a restaurant? I can give the four of us a gourmet meal right here at home with just half the fat and for a third the cost!"
I pressed the phone closer to my ear. "Judy, is that you?"
"Our place. Tomorrow night. Six. See you. I'm late for my ab and glute workout."
As I hung up, I felt a bit dazed. The only thing I'd ever known Judy to work out was a way to get her size 14 abs and glutes into a size 12 pair of blue jeans.
The next evening we headed over to Bob and Judy's.
"Wow," my husband said as we pulled up in the driveway. "Look at this yard. There's not a blade of grass out of place."
"And they've painted the house!" I said. "And added a sunroom! How did they find time to do all this?"
We stared at each other, mystified. While my husband headed to the back yard to find Bob, I knocked on the front door, then went inside. The house was ominously neat. Gone were the newspapers heaped on the couch. Gone were the dead plants and the laundry baskets full of dirty clothes.
Bizarre. My heart pounded as I opened the swinging door to the kitchen. But there sat my old pal Judy at the table, sorting piles of uncooked spaghetti noodles.
"Hi!" she said cheerily.
"Oh, thank goodness it's you!" I said, and dropped into a chair. "I was starting to think you guys had been kidnapped by some really tidy aliens. Can I help with dinner?"
"This isn't dinner," Judy told me. "I'm making common household items out of dried pasta. Here—how do you like these manicotti salt and pepper shakers?"
My heart began to pound again. "You don't do crafts, Judy. You can't even glue a fuzzy nose on a finger puppet."
She smiled and put her hand over mine. I noticed that her nails looked unusually long and healthy; her teeth had never been so white. Her bare arms had a firm, buffed look. "Bob and I have embarked on a new life," she said with eerie earnestness. "And it's all thanks to you guys."
"Yes." She reached down beside her chair and hefted a stack of glossy magazines onto the table. American Couple, of course. The top issue sported a photo of a rotini chandelier: "Easy Pasta Crafts That Turn Your Home into a Palace."
"When I think of the life we led before!" she said. "How we never cooked with virgin olive oil or made Focaccia. How we never firmed up our triceps in just five minutes a day or took three easy steps to having a lawn like the White House. And the worst thing about it is that I was content to just be average. Sad, isn't it?"
I nodded. "Tragic. And this magazine—it changed all that?"
She put her hand over her heart. "We live by it. Every word."
"And you're really happier now?"
Judy's face clouded a little. "Yes, except—well, with all the time we're spending exercising and remodeling the house and doing crafts, there are a few things we don't have time for anymore."
"Our jobs. We've both quit work in order to devote ourselves to full-time self-improvement."
"B-b-but Judy," I stammered, "how will you make it financially? What good is being perfect if you're starving?"
"Oh, don't worry." She burst into another cheery smile and picked up the newest issue from her stack of magazines. On the cover were our friends, Bob and Judy, posing beside an expensive new grill in their beautifully landscaped back yard. Bob held a spatula in one hand and a platter of portabello mushrooms in the other. I noticed his paunch had disappeared.
"You see?" Judy said. "Who needs a real job when you can make money just by looking perfect in a magazine?" Again she put her hand over mine. "Frankly, Bob and I are so grateful that we'd like to help you get started on your own road to self-improvement. We realize you have a long way to go [she glanced at my nubby fingernails], but it's never too late to start."
Oh, brother. Who has time to live a real life—go to work, raise kids, keep the house clean, fix the plumbing—and also keep their abs firm and their glutes shapely?
"Judy," I said, "I'm glad you're happy, but I think I'll stick with being humdrum and boring."
Just then Bob walked in with my husband. "Honey," said my beloved spouse, waving a copy of American Couple in the air, "Bob here's been telling me how I can lower my cholesterol, pay off our mortgage and promote hair growth without spending a dime or taking precious time from our love life!"
I moaned. We should have given Bob and Judy a cheese board.
Betty Smartt Carter enjoys her typical American life with her husband and their two daughters in Leeds, Alabama. She's a better-than-average novelist who's currently working on a book for children.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.