Room For Improvement Excerpt



I’m on all fours, on a rug of questionable cleanliness, fumbling in the dark for my boots.

“Lila?” A sleepy voice mumbles from the bed above me.

I decide not to remind him my name is actually Lily. “Shhh, go back to sleep. I didn’t mean to wake you, I just have to get home.”

There is the rustling of sheets. The creaking of a bed frame. A shadowed figure peers over the side of the bed. Generically handsome face, rumpled dark hair, broad shoulders.

“C’mon,” he says, reaching a hand out to me. “Come back to bed.”

I pat his hand. “You’re sweet, but I have a big day today, and I’ve got to get some rest and take care of stuff at home. I’ll call you later.”

“Want me to take you home?” He starts to rise. Having found my boots, I stand up and lean over the bed. I push him back into the pillows and kiss him on the forehead.

“I’ll grab a cab. Go back to sleep, it’s very late.”

“Or very early.” He puts a hand on the side of my face and pulls me down for a deep kiss. “Okay, get home safe, I’ll talk to you later.”

“Sure thing, Tiger,” I reply. He’s snoring before I get to the bedroom door.

His living room, in the very pale almost-4: 00-a.m. light, is a disaster. Clothes, books, boxes, I can’t believe anyone can live in such chaos. I sit on a pile of old newspapers and pull on my boots. As quietly as possible, I tiptoe down the narrow hallway and into the bathroom. The fluorescent light is harsh, but I don’t look too bad, considering. My brown curls, which earlier this evening had been a fetching corona around my heart-shaped face, are now a fuzzy sort of shrubbery. I run the water, splash some onto my head and twist my hair into a makeshift bun. A bit of moistened toilet paper removes the minor mascara smudging from under my gray-blue eyes. Looking at the less than pristine toilet makes me think that I can wait until I get home to pee. I pop in a Listerine breath sheet, put on some lip balm, and turn out the light.

There’s a cab passing by just as I get outside. I put two fingers in my mouth and whistle for it, a trick my Uncle Eli taught me. It stops; reverses, and I get in.

“Eleven-twenty-two Dearborn, please.”

I lean back into the vinyl seat, replaying the evening in my head. I’d met up with my best friends Hillary and Naomi after they got off of work for cocktails at Thirsty McCarthy’s. One martini became two, then some guy Hillary knows from her law firm showed up with a friend, the table expanded, another martini, and pretty soon I was talking to this reasonably attractive guy who works at a packaging company of some kind. I remember Hillary and Naomi kissing me goodbye, and Package Boy telling them he would see that I got home safe.

I meant to go straight home; after all, I really do have a very big day, a very important meeting. But Package Boy turned out to be a really good kisser, and then the cab took us to his house instead of mine, and before I knew it, I was actually using the just-in-case condom I always stash in my purse. And since we’re being confessional, Package Boy took on a whole new meaning once the jeans came off.

I’m not usually such a slut.

In fact, until about four months ago I was happily, boringly monogamous (rhymes with monotonous) with my then-boyfriend of eight months, Josh. Then Josh decided he needed “space”, and I’ve been avoiding the dating scene ever since. This was just a strange spontaneous blip, hence my decision not to leave him my number. No good relationship ever blossomed out of a semi-drunken one-night-stand.

My apartment, a great little two-bedroom condo I bought last year, is calm, cool and clean. I drop my purse on the kitchen island, sit on the ottoman to pull off my boots, and shimmy out of my skirt and tights on my way to the bathroom. I pee for at least forty-six minutes, brush my teeth, pull off my sweater and bra, and get into my delicious bed, naked.

Lily’s Rule # 32: There is no point in spending a goddamned fortune on 600 thread count sheets and then putting a nightgown between you and them.

The alarm goes off at nine, way too early for my liking, but despite the previous evening’s adventures, I’s surprisingly awake-ish. I’ve got an hour to shower, put on my only power suit, and get over to 1000West Washingtonto have the meeting that may or may not totally change my life.


“Lily Allen?” A tired looking woman in a wrinkled, shapeless black dress looks at me expectantly. It is ten-twenty, and I’ve been waiting for over a half-hour.

I take a deep breath, rise from the extraordinarily uncomfortable folding chair, and follow her down a gray hallway. There’s a muffled chattering coming from behind each door we pass, until we reach the last one. She knocks quietly, and then opens it. A very small man with a three-day beard and rumpled hair gets up from behind the desk.

“Lily! Finally. Live and in person. How are you, darling?” The accent is central-casting entertainment-biz British. He comes over to greet me, and in spite of my being only 5’5”, and wearing low heels, I have to bend to receive the kiss on my cheek. The reek of alcohol is overwhelming.

“Mr. Brownmiller, a pleasure.” I smile at him in my most winning, please-hire-me sort of way.

“Sit, darling, sit.” He motions to the chair and returns behind the desk. “So, you know why you are here?”

“I hope I’m here to thank you for my new job.” I have a business alter-ego that I call upon in times of stress. She’s a much better negotiator than I am, and has far more confidence in my abilities than I do. I think of her as my inner superhero. She’s in charge of all meetings. Which makes me sound very Sybil, which of course I’m not, I mean, it isn’t like she tells me to watch out for extra-terrestrials or CIA plots or anything like that. I’m not insane, just insecure.

“Of course, darling, of course, didn’t they tell you over the phone? Yes, love, it’s yours if you want it.” He takes a deep swig out of a coffee cup that I can tell from here doesn’t contain coffee, and pulls a packet of nicotine gum out of his pocket.

“I’m very pleased, Mr. Brownmiller, it’s a project I am very excited about.” HOLY SHIT! I actually GOT it! I hope my smile is calm, and that he can’t hear my pounding heartbeat.

“Excellent, darling, excellent.” He mumbles around the wad of gum. “I wanted to go over the details of the offer with you in person. And please, call me Paul, we’re going to be working long hours together. Might as well be friendly.” He is either winking at me, or has some sort of spastic twitch in his left eye. I decide to ignore it.

“Terrific. Paul it is.” The offer. For my DREAM JOB. Wait till the girls hear about it.


So here it is. I’m going to be one of two resident interior designers on what may very well be the next big thing in do-it-yourself television. They are finally doing an American version of Swap/Meet, which has been one of my Tivo BBC America staples for the past two years. The perfect combination of home improvement, personal makeover, and dating show. One single gal and one single guy swap homes for four days. Days one and two, total decorating overhaul. The girl helps design an apartment to impress the ladies, and the guy helps design an apartment that won’t scare off the fellas. Day three is makeover day, new outfits, new hair, personal grooming tips. Day four is the reveal…he invites all his single guyfriends and she invites all her single girlfriends, they meet at the new apartments to check them out, then the whole crew heads to a local club to meet each other, and see if anyone clicks. At least once out of eight shows, the two contestants end up hooking up with each other, which is always the best. I can’t get enough of it. Being an interior designer makes me particularly susceptible to DIY television addiction. I’m either vindicated that I could do so much better than the designers on the shows, or I get really cool ideas to borrow. Win-win.

Anyway, six weeks ago I got a call from a former client, Jane Madison, (whose bedroom I turned from shabby chic into actual chic), telling me she had recommended me to her husband’s golfing buddy Paul Brownmiller, who was executive producing some new show for Bravo. I was hesitant, after all, I’ve never had any ambition to be a television personality, but when I found out what the show was, there was no way to avoid get excited. I met with four other producer types, went over my portfolio, offered references and my transcripts from Harrington College of Interior Design, did a screen test, the whole shebang. All the while trying to keep my head on my current projects: a bathroom remodel, a master bedroom redecorate, a kitchen redesign, and a closet reorganization. It seems most of my life is devoted to the re-ing of something or other. Including, if I’m being honest, the repeating of the same old mistakes with my relationships, which makes me think I should maybe reevaluate my desire to reproduce.

But whatever good sense I lack in my romantic life, I make up for it with decent business sense. The decision to hang out my own shingle after design school was slightly risky, but worth it and I’ve been supporting myself nicely through referrals for the past six years. I’m going to have to think about how to manage the business, since now I’ll be needed two days a week on location when we are filming, plus shopping and production meetings. You know, since I’m going to be on TV.

I’m going to be on TV.

Holy career change, Batman!

Great googly moogly.


Naomi and Hillary want to meet back at Thirsty’s, but it seems too soon to return to the scene of the crime, so instead I tell them to just come over, and I stop at Sam’s to pick up some wine. They arrive together just after seven. Hillary, all tall and angular and severe in her Armani-I’m-just-as-badass-as-the-boys suit, and sleek black bob, having been in incomprehensible legal negotiations all day. Naomi, wan and waifish with her dishwater blond pre-Raphaelite curls twisted up in a sloppy bun, after a long afternoon doing art therapy with the patients at a very exclusive downtown rehab facility.

They are my bestest friends. We met the first day of kindergarten atLaSalleLanguageAcademy. I was building a house with blocks. Hillary tried to take them away from me, and I cried. Naomi hugged me and scolded Hillary, who grudgingly offered to share them, and that was that. The Three Musketeers. Nine years at LaSalle, suffering through French so that we could all take the exchange program toParisin eighth grade. Four years atLincoln ParkHigh School, Hillary in the International Baccalaureate Program, Naomi and I both Art majors.

We went our separate ways for college, (me at Brandeis, Naomi at Sarah Lawrence, Hillary at Cornell) but reconvened inChicagoafter undergrad to pursue our careers, (Hillary at U of C Law, Naomi at DePaul for Social Work, and me at Harrington). We rented a big apartment inUkrainianVillage, and were roommates for three years. Then Hillary landed a fast-track associateship at a big law firm, and moved downtown to be closer to work. Naomi and I found a smaller place inWickerParkfor a couple of years until she made two large announcements. The first being that she was gay, the second that she was in love and moving in with Toby, her secret girlfriend of six months. I found the moving out much harder to deal with than the lesbianism. But my business had been going pretty well, so I bought my first place, a large-ish studio in theWest Loop.

When my folks split up two years ago, my dad decided to keep theSarasotaapartment and live there full time and my mom sold the big house on Mohawk and moved into a small place inDeerfieldto be near her brother Eli and his family. As I am an only child, and unmarried and childless at that, and since my Aunt Judy passed away fairly young of breast cancer, my mother has become a surrogate mother to my cousins and adopted grandmother to their kids. Since Uncle Eli and my cousin Ruth and her family are all in Deerfield, and my other cousinMyraand her family are inNorthbrook, Mom has a pretty constant and busy routine out in the burbs. She fills at least three afternoons a week babysitting, another playing tennis atBannockburnwith Uncle Eli, and the rest of her time hanging out with her suburban girlfriends. I think she was relieved to get out of the day to day hustle and bustle of the city.

But since she had no intention of giving up the cultural endeavors in her life, she suggested that I get a bigger apartment so that she could have a place to stay downtown when she came in for the theater or opera, and offered to help boost my downpayment in return for occasional housing. My studio had significantly increased in value and my business was doing well, so I sold it, took the check from Mom, and moved to the Gold Coast. When Naomi and Toby split up last year, Naomi crashed with me for a couple of months and liked being downtown so much that she rented a coach house on Elm. Being within ten minutes of each other has been a real treat.

I pour the wine; Naomi throws their coats in my little hall closet while Hillary uses the powder room

“So,” Naomi says when we are all settled on my couch. “What’s the good word?”

“I got it.” I say, trying not to grin too widely.

“That is so AWESOME!” says Hillary. “Congrats!”

“Oh sweetie,” Naomi reaches a hand over to squeeze mine. “I’m so proud, tell us everything.”

I fill them in on the details of the deal, and tell them that I will be meeting next week with the rest of the team to have our first production meeting. We’ll be filming the first show in about a month, and the producers have already chosen the participants for the first four shows. We are scheduled to air twelve episodes as a summer replacement show on Wednesday nights, and if there’s good response, they could pick us up for as many as thirty episodes for next season.

“That’s just so cool!” Naomi may be even more excited than I am.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Great news.” Hillary pipes in. “More importantly, how’d things end up with Ron?”

“Ron who?” I ask.

“Ron Schwartz.” She looks at me expectantly. “Ron Schwartz from last night, my friend Dave’s buddy.”

Okay, have to mentally forgive him for thinking my name was Lila, since I was pretty sure his name was Don. “Package Boy. I went home with him.” I have to fess up, since Ron might tell Dave, who might tell Hillary.

“You little slut!” Hillary laughs at me. “Good for you, how was he? When are you seeing him again?”

“It was a lapse. He was fine. Took the edge off. I am not seeing him again.”

“Why not?” Naomi asks. “He was cute, seemed nice, you liked him enough to sleep with him.”

“He was nice, I think, since I was drunk. But I have too much on my plate to think about a new boy right now.” Way too much.

“Good for you, why settle down now?” Hillary jumps in. “You’re about to be famous, your range of prospects could get much swankier.”

“I thought he seemed nice, Hil.” Naomi shakes her head. “A relationship might be a good stabilizing influence as you begin this new adventure.”

“Oh sweet tapdancing CHRIST.” Hillary smacks herself on the forehead. “Relationship nothing, she had a one-night stand. In our world, that is not automatically a prelude to a commitment ceremony. Please don’t make me tell the U-Haul joke again, Mimi.” Hillary is the only person Naomi lets call her Mimi. And the only straight person that Naomi will let tell stereotype lesbian jokes in her presence. I’ve always sort of thought that Naomi might have been in love with Hillary at one point or another, but maybe that’s just my imagination.

“Hello? Ladies?” I interrupt before they really get going. “Can we please pay some attention to the topic of real importance? I’m going to be on television!”

“Good lord, you’re a frigging diva already!” Hillary raises her glass to me. “May it be the next ‘While You Were Out Trading Your Extreme Home Spaces with Queer Guys Who Know What Not To Wear’!”

“Much success, sweetie.” Naomi smiles at me.

“Now that’s more like it!” I grin at my friends.



“Hey, Mom, it’s me.” I’d already left a message for my dad, who was probably on the golf course when I called, so it’s time to check in with Mom.

“Hello, sweetheart, how are you?”

“I’m fine, how are you?”

“I’m doing fine, thanks for asking.”

I love my Mom. It is very important that I say that a lot, because as much as I love her, she drives me slightly batty. We just don’t seem to see eye to eye on many things, and we’re both too polite to actually bother to argue about stuff, so we’ve found that limiting our conversations to mostly mundane topics is the way to go. Most of the time we sound like we are making slightly awkward small talk at an office party. It’s fine when she stays with me, we can talk about whatever she is in town to see, whether she should give up any of her subscriptions, and the latest adventures of my miniature cousins.

“I got the job.”

“Really? Oh, honey, that’s fantastic, I’m very proud of you. Wonderful news, and everyone will be so excited for you. Guess what Ethan said this morning?” Ethan being my cousin Ruth’s oldest, a four year old hellion with a biting habit, and my mother’s favorite.

“I dunno, Mom, what?” Her seeming lack of interest is not really lack of interest, but a fear that if she asks me the wrong question it will come across as judgmental, and I will get defensive, and things will be uncomfortable. So she kvells for exactly four seconds and then changes the topic so that I will only offer what information is of interest to me. I’m so used to the way we communicate that I no longer take any sort of offense.

“He was looking through my wallet and saw the picture I have of you and he asked ‘Whose Mommy is that?’ isn’t that funny?”

This would be a good time to point out that my mother loved Josh, and had pretty much chalked up our marriage and eventual children as a done deal. When Josh broke up with me, she never explicitly stated that it was my fault, but she didn’t NOT imply it either. And while my mother would never in a million years ask when she could expect grandchildren from me, she has no problem relating stories like this one. On the surface, very cute, the myopic vision of a four year old, in whose limited world every adult woman is somebody’s mommy. Underneath, a not so subtle, almost subconscious, bordering on subliminal, substantiation that my suburban (read: married) cousins are sublime, and that my lifestyle is substandard.

“That’s hilarious, Mom.” Time for a return-to-subject segue. “So I have my first production meeting for the show in a couple of days.”

“How wonderful, sweetie, I hope it is just a blast and that you’ll have every success.” And I know she means it, so this is the quote I will choose to remember from the conversation.

“Thanks, Mom. I’ll call you after the meeting and let you know how it goes.”

“Great, I can’t wait to hear all about it. Love you, honey!”

“Love you too, Mom.” Whew.

Reprinted from ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT by Stacey Ballis by arrangement with Berkley, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2006 by Stacey Ballis.


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