The Shop Girl Sonnets

1. Once A Pawn A Time

It was my first week on the job and I was in the changing room trying on clothes to model for a wealthy client who didn't want to get undressed and try the clothes on herself. I tried not to wonder if this was really part of the retail clerk description and instead focused on the intricate lace-up pattern of the pearl-colored bustier and how full it made my little A-cup seem. She was flat like me and might like this feature, might buy, might give my desperate bank account commission. Seeing the sales angle I cinched that bustier until my ribs were in peril. 

            “Are you done yet? I’m getting impatient and you’ve been in there forever. What. Is. Taking. So. Long.”  The Upper East Side woman grabbed hold of the saloon style changing room doors and shook them back and forth causing the small latch to undo and she unexpectedly got me in full frontal cinch mode.

She just stared at me with her bony eyes so I stared back at her with mine. 

She reluctantly closed the doors but not without a once over.

I turned to the mirror to finish the cinch while calculating in my head for the seventh time just how I'd ended up in this situation. 

I watched them from inside the store while I straightened the lace camisoles.  Even though I needed sales I didn’t want them to come in. Not Barton and Asher. As if she had ESP Barton lurched forward in her enormous mink coat, pulled her large dark shades off her face and loomed into the glass, then to me, looking my thin and pale form up and down with delighted disgust. She cocked her head to the left, then right, the quick swoosh of eyes darting around like a raptor looking for prey, leaning in closer, wrinkled foreheaded focus, pulling back before peering in yet again, grabbing the arm of Asher to lean in too and look.

            When sieged by terror the only thing to do is face your predator head on. I inhaled and shook out my mane of hair as I marched toward the unknown one ballet flat in front of the other. They clanged open the front door and I faced the two women as they and their poodles stood glowing with a pinkish hue from the bright neon sign above that read Marie LeBrie Boutique. 

            I smiled to the two ladies and said good morning—they were Upper East Side locals and, specifically, 80th and Madison regulars. Bianca, my new boss had insisted that every sales girl make note cards of each regular client and write down what they liked, what size they wore, their contact info, and even urged us to take home the note cards and memorize them.   Since I was new to the job, she gave me her stack of cards to take home and memorize, which I had actually done.  Because of this, their names and little jpeg pictures had become etched on my brain like an unfortunate tattoo. Mrs. Caroline Archer and Mrs. Drusilla Barton.  

            Mrs. Archer peered at me from a staggering height, squinting in the light. “Excuse. Me. You. There.” She pointed at me just to clarify. “The Swarovski diamond rosary in your magazine ad. Do you carry it?” 

            I blew on my nails as if they were wet and simultaneously shrugged my shoulders. “We’ve got one left. But it’s on hold.” This was a tactic Momo herself had told me to do. She said to ‘always look bored with the clientele if they are intimidating or acting superior. This will ignite their passion for getting you to do something, and since all you can do is sell them clothes, you’re likely to make a large commission.’ I hoped she was right. I felt rude and ridiculous because 1) when can a retail girl ever afford a manicure?  And 2) we had at least fifty of the necklaces sitting in a box downstairs, and 3) no one is allowed to put jewellery on hold and I wasn’t sure they would go for it. 

            Wait. Just wait for it, I told myself. I calmly readjusted the scarf around my neck while the woman pondered existence. There was nothing that made one covet something more than it already being taken. 

            Mrs. Archer licked her lips. “How much does it go for?”

            Although it sickened me to realize I knew such intimate details of the customers’ lives via the notecards, I could tell Mrs. Archer had just had her hair done, probably this morning at Jacques on 83rd and Lexington.  And it looked incredible—a short blonde chop not unlike Sharon Stone’s way back when.  Momo had also told me that every shop girl knows good hair means a sale. 

“It’s twenty-four hundred because of the Swarovskis and the inlay work. This rosary is handmade in a small town outside Barcelona by a woman with one eye. She's not on social media so no one knows about her craft yet.”  I did a half-yawn and then motioned to leave and return to the computer.  I blinked back boredom, slow and methodical. From one woman who is half the age of the other woman, the narcoleptic blink is always the kill shot. This was another word of advice from Momo I couldn’t believe 1) that I was doing it and 2) that is seemed to be working. Somewhere I felt strange trying to sell this women the dream. I felt foolish, out of place. Then again she was here and capitalism is happening and money makes the world go round and I am giving this woman joy. 

            “Well,” Mrs. Archer sighed, “maybe please let me see it. It’s perfect for tonight.” She looked at me with ever-widening eyes, at her impending purchase that she’d—pray with tonight?—and as I helped them tie their poodles to the dog post I looked out at traffic, calculating my commission. I then helped Mrs. Barton remove her long coat while she eyed me warily.

             Mrs. Archer caressed the diamond rosary and threw back her head please with the early morning purchase, happy to feel that ain’t it grand feeling that comes from rare moments of female strangers bonding over excess. I gave her what she needed by joining in her exuberance with an orgasmic throat grasp. 

            “I’ve got to feel it on my skin. Here. You. Untie me.”  Mrs. Archer motioned to her neck, where a white fur capelet hung from collarbones. Rabbit, I guessed. 

            “Here.” I untied the strings around her neck and clasped the necklace on, adjusting the heavy chain so that she could see what it looked like in the mirror. 

            “My, that’s lovely. Turn it for me. Turn the mirror for me, will you?” The Sharon Stone look-alike commanded and I, a willing marionette.

            She walked around the store—lost in a reverie?, went outside to observe the necklace in natural light, put her hair up and then down, tilted her head at every angle, took several selfies and then—yes—motioned that she would take it.

            I pulled out pink tissue to wrap the rosary for Mrs. Archer and looked around the boutique that I’d called my workplace for the last three days. The hot ceiling lights gave the whole store a staged feel: overheated and constantly melting our make-up and turning the stores’ pink hues into bright salmon tones.  The black and white checkered tile floor was like a barber shop and most of the walls were mirrored floor-to-ceiling with racks of silk lingerie, prom dresses, stilettos and Laura Ashley wallpaper covering every remaining inch, giving the shoe-box sized boutique the overall feel of being in Little Bo-Peep’s boudoir getting ready to have a rather clean fetish-full orgy with women from the UES. 

            Because this store was selling sex in the form of cute outfits and tongue-in-cheek designs, most of the women that came in were looking for this fix: a certain pacification, a spice to add to their evenings, bedroom affairs, black-tie bat mitzvah’s and weddings. Mmes. Archer and Barton were no exception.

            I glanced over my shoulder to Mrs. Archer as the receipt printed out and watched her slip a cheap pair of shoe horse earrings into her purse. I quickly turned back around and crinkled my forehead. The woman can spend twenty-four hundred dollars on a necklace but not forty-five bucks on some earrings? I had never seen anything like it. Was I supposed to accuse her and risk ruining the sale? I glanced to Bianca, who had just walked in and seen the whole thing, but she just shook her head quickly as if to say, Don’t you dare ruin this sale on those, so I didn’t.

            “Here you are.” Klepto. I handed Mrs. Archer a pink bag with ruffled lace trim that held her diamond-studded rosary.  She muttered a “thanks” and again I glanced at Bianca.

            Bianca smiled at me from behind the two women. She eyed Mrs. Barton and motioned for me to close in on the remaining prey with the universal head tilt.

            "Cappuccino, Mrs. Archer? Mrs. Barton?" Bianca smiled such genuine energy that they nodded before she'd even finished asking. 

            Tucking my hair behind my ears, and breathing in deep, I turned my attention to Mrs. Barton and smiled. She looked me in the eyes; a quick flicker, a small challenge. 

            “And you? Are you looking for anything special this morning?”

            She lifted the heavy fur hat off her head. “There’s nothing in this store for me. Maybe my pre-collegiate daughter but she’s a beast and I dislike shopping for her in general.”

            Mrs. Archer nodded in agreement with her friend showing that it was perfectly normal to declare one's child a beast to the general public. 

            A mild nausea sprung upon my young, pure soul as my feet came closer to leaving my Rosie bubble and touching Earth. I had been warned that this started in one's mid-twenties but I was only 21. 

            Bianca stepped in to save the day. 

            “Mrs. Barton! I seem to remember that you enjoyed the Midnight blue teddy and white stockings last month, as well as the bias-cut black strapless evening gown, and I think you also bought three pairs of stilettos here a few weeks ago.” Bianca smiled and touched her bangs.

            Recognition passed over Mrs. Barton’s face as she remembered that she did in fact shop here, which I cautiously took as my cue to continue. 

            “Have you, um, seen our new line of bedroom wear”—I motioned to the delicate silk lingerie that could dissolve in your hands like rice paper—“or our cashmere accessories for the fall season?” I pulled three lush shawls from the rack, all in different autumnal colors, and held them up for Mrs. Barton to view.

            She eyed them, eyed me, and then slowly reached out to feel one.

            “And we have matching caps.” I grabbed one in the same color with my other hand and held it up to her, earnest. “And mittens too.”

            She flicked her wrist which I took as a 'no and show me more’ gesture, so show I did. I showed her all of our dresses that would look best on her. I showed her their matching wrap tops, wool capelets and ponchos, handbags.  Eventually, she caved.  She picked out a bunch of different items and I said, “Great.  Should I start a room for you?”

            “You try them on for me.”

            I glanced up at Bianca for rescue, who in turn winked at me from afar, acknowledging that she was the madam and yes, I should try them on for this woman because the final line was always sales.

                                                            ***

            I stripped down and put the first dress on.  It was a beautiful print and fit me well. Practically speaking, Mrs. Barton and I were roughly the same height at 5’7” but she was a bit curvier than me, a size 8 to my size 4. I assumed since she had picked out the sizes she was planning to have me try them on all along and if she liked how they looked we'd get her the appropriate size.  But that is the danger in having one try your clothes on for you.  You never know how it will fit your particular shape.  I came out of the room and she stood there, eyeing the dress.

            “Oh yes, I like this one. Your coloring is all wrong for it—too pale, the blonde hair, all wrong, washes you out completely, a little tight on you, but not on me, I’m a size 0, you look like at least a 6 or 8—but me, that’ll look smashing on me. Okay. Next.”

            Momo had warned me that this was standard from clients and to never correct them.

Twenty-five minutes later I had tried on eight different outfits for Mrs. Barton, including the pearl colored-bustier that all but left me naked as she prodded, feeling the fit on my body, touching the raw silk, analyzing the French seams that held it tightly together. I wondered if this were legal but Bianca didn’t seemed too fazed. With each outfit she told me to turn, walk, sit, stand, her voice strident and forceful. I followed each command with practiced grace and calm,  trying to enjoy the beautiful clothes in the hopes that this woman Barton would fucking relax. It's a horrible thing to work in customer service if you are even the slightest empathic. 

            After changing back into my floor samples, I came out of the dressing room and faced Mrs. Barton, who was finishing now a macchiato Bianca had served her on the couch after the cappuccino while she and Mrs. Archer had gone over their upcoming family trip to Scotland.  I stood in front of her, waiting for cues.

            “Have them all sent to my address, I don’t feel like carrying anything right now.”

            “Wonderful.” I left her on the couch to go ring her up for the dresses that totaled $3200. As I went to the front of the store Bianca winked to me and did the silent motion of two hands clapping, and then—after making sure Mmes. Archer and Barton couldn’t see her—gripped both fists and mouthed a wordless yes. 

            I thanked Mmes. Archer and Barton again, holding the door open for them as they went on to the next shop. I then wrote both postcards of thanks in gold pen and put it in the outgoing mail pile.  That it was a meaningful experience for me. After that I rehung all of the items they didn’t want, restocked what they had bought, steamed the items and then went outside to join Bianca, who was having a cigarette.

            Bianca exhaled a long stream of smoke and we watched it curl and then disappear up into the dim Manhattan sky. 

“Good work, Rosalie Meredith.” Bianca winked at me for the first time since I'd started and smiled. “Don’t ever let any of this get to you—it’s just a silly dream, all this.” Her low brunette bangs cut right to her smoky, charcoal-rimmed eyes as she motioned to the passers by on Madison Avenue. I knew what she meant and appreciated the sentiment.

On the outside Bianca looked like a pretty flower child from the 70's with her bangs and eye makeup. But no one who innocently wandered through the boutique doors stood a chance with this her.  That's why her store was the highest grossing Kawaiiland in the country, according to her, and I although I had zero to compare her to I chose to believe her because why not. Maybe that’s how I’d have to become. I sighed. 

“Did you see Mrs. Archer put that pair of earrings in her purse?”

            “She’s in the top five of worst thieves I ever saw. But as long as the stolen goods are cheap and her purchases aren’t we’re not going to do anything. Capice?” She flung her cigarette to the sidewalk and ground it out with the spike of her heel and we went back inside.

2. Look At the Camera

 

            “Rosalie, baby, you’re so fucking hot I want to film us.”

            My eyes opened as I kept rocking on top of him as he gripped my hips. “Hmmm?”  

            “I want to film us. It would be hot.”  Jack suddenly sat up and pushed me backward onto the sheets and pinned me down and whispered in my ear. "Please. I want to try all these angles. I've been watching all this porn and have all these ideas of what to shoot and then we can watch and I can watch when you aren't here." He kissed my earlobes. 

            “For real?” I couldn’t tell if he was serious or just trying to be naughty and I opened my mouth wider to let his tongue enter.    

            Between kisses he asked, “Don’t you think it could be cool?” He smiled at me and leaned down to cup my breasts and suck my nipples. "Plus, it's research for my film project."

            “Film?” Various pornographic images raced through my head as I imagined watching myself have sex with Jack and then imagined him looking up into the camera lens as he was on top of me coming. It almost made me laugh. I wondered why he wanted to film us in the first place. To watch when he was bored? To stow away for some future date? Would it be sexy and fun or would it be scary and revolting?  I didn’t feel like a prude but I mean, film in this day and age? With the cloud and everything?

            “Are you being serious.” Was I a total killjoy if I said no?

            “It’s no big deal. I just thought it’d be hot.”  He stopped kissing me.

            I felt his penis go soft. 

            “It just got me out of the moment, that’s all.”

            “I know, forget it. It's cool. Just one of many fantasies.” He kissed my forehead and rolled over to his side of the bed.

            I scrunched up my forehead and laid in place, watching the ceiling fan go round and round, the light from the street reflecting off it every half second. I then turned my body to face Jack, to see if I could get another rise out of him, but he had begun softly snoring.  Sighing quietly, I got up, went to the bathroom, and finished myself off.

                                                            ***

            The next morning I woke up at Jack’s, hung over, head aching, body limp. Hardly moving, I turned my head to see if he was awake. No. Curled up in the fetal position.  I looked at the clock and knew I’d be late if I didn’t hussle but Jack’s one hatred in the known universe was being woken up.

            Slowly I pulled my arm out of the sheet all the while looking at him to make sure he wasn’t showing signs of waking. He hated more than anything to be disturbed when sleeping, and because of this, I always slid out of his apartment, teeth unbrushed, hair unbrushed, face unwashed. He said it was because of having insomnia as a child and all those years of not being able to sleep, that he was now ultra protective of his sleeping pattern, afraid that his insomnia could come back if he made one false move. Slowly, with my right arm I pulled the sheet and down comforter back, quiet as a cat, taking my time, not letting anything rustle, still staring at him for signs of wakeage. My whole body was almost free of the blankets and I started to pull my legs out one by one, slowly now, I had one out and almost the other and then he exhaled loudly and turned on his side to face me.

I froze, mid-air, one leg in, one leg out, holding the sheet steady. I watched his face to see if he was coming out of a sleep pattern or just going into a new one? I had become a pro of these finer sleep-patterns on Jack’s body, I could tell when he was about to wake unprepared, no, no that could never happen, he was livid, like a zombie from a horror movie if woken before directed to by his natural sleep rhythm. His room had been carefully reconstructed, sound-proofed from outside noises, he had special wave pattern machines going, special noiseless blankets, sheets, special pillows surrounding his head and neck in a nest, special ambient lighting in the prep hours before sleep.

3. The Love Child of Isabella Blow and Diana Vreeland

I went straight from Jack’s apartment in Union Square back uptown to Kawaiiland via the 6 Train all the while trying to lessen the pain of my hangover and ease into the day with some chill music.  I arrived outside the store ten minutes late but it was still locked up so I sat down on the stoop with my cup of tea to wait for Bianca who had the keys. I looked around me at the morning scene of shop keepers rolling up their security gates, putting out fruit stalls, changing their shop windows, sweeping the floors and wiping the windows.

            What was life, anyway? I quickly checked my voicemail and was relieved to hear that I had an interview tomorrow with another head hunter Anne had put me in touch with. I blew on my tea and watched two pigeons fighting over crumbs next to the trash.

            Bianca eventually showed up, hair wispy and exaggerated from the east side draft, apologizing that her train had been late. I helped her roll up our chain gate and it slammed against the top box, her Dunkin’ Donuts latte splashing on her jeans. Bianca got the door open and blew on her icy fingers and we rushed in the door before the alarm passed one minute and she punched the security code. We then stripped down our layers, turned all the lights and music on and did a quick application of makeup before standing next to the register and prayed that today there would be a steady stream of sales. And not to lean heavily on the statistics that drive capitalism because it is a bit tough as a fellow woman-human-citizen of the world to discover that therapy-deprived, caffeine-hooked, underweight, recent or on-the-verge divorcees who wanted expensive outfits to feel immortal in tended to spend the most money out of any demographic at our boutique. At least by Bianca's years of calculations from her notecards. Her algorithms were impressive because she saw connections that she could play on that meant cash money:  

            1. A woman of two or more children with or without her in the store had less than three minutes for genuine focus so if one did not present her with items in noted timeframe there would be no sale. If she had a nanny with her, this only nominally increased. If she had a nanny and a girlfriend with her, her perusal time tripled or quadrupled and even became a moment to flex for her friend. Bianca's thesis was that this was the primal need to represent that the female pheromone was alive and well in the alpha despite having children and being off-market. But having the friend present was vital. A friend on the phone lessened sales by 50%. 

            2. A career woman shopping in the presence of a career housewife would tend to buy more lingerie and sex-related clothing items in the boutique than if no housewife, trophy wife types were present. Bianca believed this was the desire to feel feminine despite being work-focused and usually in sharper blazers et al.  

           3. Two younger women with money would buy just to buy. A younger woman with a wealthy man young or old would buy just to let him gift her and let him feel good. An older woman with a younger man would buy just to feel younger.  An older woman would tend to buy what the shop girls were wearing more than any other outfit. Two older women would buy for their younger family members more outrageous items than the members would likely wear. Women in the throes of some sort of retail therapy--pet died, husband had affair, meds not working, illness, bank draft woes, house sales, or lost jobs would tend to be repeat buyers for lengths of 2-4 months as boutique was newfound therapy office.

Bianca had been collecting her thoughts and compiling her research over the last several years and her sales were becoming more and more prolific. Three out of four times she could determine what she would sell the client before they had even entered the store based on their body language and outfits as they approached from the sidewalk. However, there were always exception to the rule.  

            The morning dragged on, eventually uplifted by two tweens who spent a small fortune on Swarovski diamonds, little black dresses, gray silk cover-ups, and a motley crue of silk scarves. I wondered just who the cute little pre-pubescent girls would be wearing silk gray nighties for and hoped it was only to impress their friends at a slumber party.

            Bianca pulled out Vogue and we flipped through it together, trying to get a sense of what the Fall fashion was trending toward. When working on Madison Avenue one is obviously more clued in than other parts of the country but it’s important to know what each designer is doing, what their show pieces are for the season, and this is especially dire information working retail because the people who could afford the clothes featured in Vogue were the same people who came in here to shop. Bianca explained that this was all very helpful for sales to be able to say to a customer, “Oh I can’t believe you have the new Louboutin’s, they aren’t even available yet.” Then the customer could launch into her proud story of securing the only pair at Milan fashion week and how she was a step ahead of the curve. Bianca and Momo called making the client espouse information that made them feel good Greteling as in Hansel and Gretel with the breadcrumbs.  

            “It’s important, Rosalie, to appreciate these women and the feats they’ve accomplished and let them know as much. That’s why these prices are as high as they are. It's a celebration of women.”

           I stared at her. "Do you really believe that?" 

           Bianca stared at me, incredulous. "What do you mean do I really believe that?" 

            I couldn't tell if she was messing with me. She clearly wanted sales to be our religion here. 

            She continued. “Do you know how hard it would be to secure a pair of couture shoes before anyone else? It’s hard. So, we should appreciate her for that. So that she knows we know and then she’ll feel more comfortable trusting us and maybe let us in to her little world. And thus,” Bianca sighed, “spend more.”  She looked me directly in the eye. “When you’re at the lower end of the pile it’s all about the trickle down effect. Remember that term. Trickle down. We want to trickle it down.”

           "No, literally, you have to tell me, are you actually being serious? Do you believe this, as your philosophy?" I actually needed to know. It was messing with me. It's not that I couldn't handle an overzealous retail boss but as a matter of identifying with Bianca on a deeper level, a level I could relate to, could respect, I needed to grok her.

           "You don't get to know everything you want, Miss Rosalie. That is one thing your 20's will teach you."        

            I was annoyed by her but allowed her to play the wise old sage at age 28. Bianca then told me that she’d dubbed women of the Upper East Side “Ladies of the Hour” after seeing it as a headliner in a Vogue article about the socialites of uptown. She said she’d looked up the term and found out that it was an ancient Egyptian label derived from the dark goddess, Horis, and that the term ‘Ladies of the Hour’ meant whore and harlot priestess—the ladies of the hour were the ones who taught men the sexual mysteries of life.  She then said that this revelation added a new twist to calling the women L.O.H’s because most of them seemed less about sexual mystery and more about neurotic control. Most of the women were brittle and stiff; as if you might caress them and their arm would snap off like an almond biscotti. Yes, it was unfair to make sweeping generalizations like this, but fair was where you got cotton candy. 

            I liked the term Ladies of the Hour because the majority of women who came in to the store were of this ilk and if you couldn’t have a secret name to call the people who waltzed in and out you really didn’t have much as a retail associate. Momo told me it could be either the dumbest job in the world or dazzling, just like life, and that it was up to me. 

            The day crawled on and Bianca said “I should’ve had a venti” at least eight times. Which I was in total agreement with, the only thing being if you drink a venti you have to go to the bathroom eight times as much and I might lose sales if I’m always in the bathroom.  I had hidden a chocolate bar in the top drawer of the register yesterday and kept breaking off pieces of it to dissolve in my mouth.

            As I listened to the drone of Bianca’s mantra of “Cash, sex, power, cash, sex, power,” the door suddenly flew open with a bang and in sauntered an older woman who was the most stunning redhead I’d ever seen in my whole life.

            “Did somebody say sex?” The woman—more like an angel descended from heaven with her creamy colored skin and eyes bright with the Manhattan cold—enchantéd into the store wearing an enviable smile and the coolest, hippest next season snow jacket I’d been eyeing in Vogue a few moments prior.  The sylph walked right up to me and then stopped eye-level and stared right into my eyes, curiously pondering them with her own as if they might squirt out a gold fountain any moment. I was overwhelmed not only by her intoxicating and seductive perfume, nor her small country’s GDP-worth of emeralds flowing from her ears and mixing with her flame-red hair, nor her shimmering skin that was literally the most flawless, luminescent skin I’d ever seen in my whole life, but by the whole package of this being; the incandescence of her dewy aura. She looked like an etheric bohemian fairy with literal sparkles for skin cells.

            I blinked to make sure.

            “Baroness! Lovely to see you.” Bianca air kissed her. “This is my new girl, Rosalie Meredith. Rosalie, meet our favorite customer, Baroness Lucy.”

            I started to smile—should I bow?—but the woman grabbed me by the shoulders and brought me close to her face and then kissed both cheeks, simultaneously leaving a small pink blush marking from the goo of her lip gloss on each cheek.

            “Ro-Sa-LEE. How do you do.” Her breathless voice filled the small boutique, at once everywhere, soft and yet demanding, seductive and completely in control.

            “Fine, thank you. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” For some reason I felt disembodied, like the sheer force of this woman’s presence had knocked my being backward and I was but a rag doll witness standing there in the eye of the gale winds, taking a beating from the brilliance of her existence.

            “The pleasure is mine.” She then smiled and winked at me as if to say there were layers of heavy, invisible secrets dancing between us. 

            Of course I had no idea what she was talking about but that was nothing new in my communications with the women up here in East 80’s land.

            She then began chatting with Bianca and as she did so I tried to take her in, to get a vibe for this woman with such a supernatural entrance. But she was like looking at the sun. You couldn’t quite figure it out because the dazzling nature of it all confused me. By it all I mean her laugh, her smile, her presence, her je nais se quoi, her mystique. I felt like I was on quaaludes.  Had I been doused with drug dust? Baroness Lucy—the lovechild of Isabella Blow and Diana Vreeland—was obviously my new favorite customer on the Upper East Side, hands down.  I wasn’t quite sure what it was, but something about the woman was magical—as if an etheric, happy dust constantly shook from her dark, red mane, putting you and all others in a mesmerized trance. And, I’d hardly be going out on a limb if I would infer that Baroness Lucy was a true incarnation of both definitions of a Lady of the Hour—meaning the priestess and harlot queen. 

            Put simply, I believe then and there I decided I wanted to be her. I was so in love with this woman and I couldn’t believe such a perfect, elegant, sophisticated, charming, sexy woman had ever existed prior to this one moment of meeting this woman. Had a spell been placed on me? Was she a magic witch of some kind? What the hell was happening?

            I watched as she talked to Bianca and rehashed this woman’s presence yet again in my mind. She’d come in, took turns air-kissing the sides of my cheeks, said hello, I breathed in her heavy lilac perfume, watched her like a TV show. I was so boring compared to her, so predictable, so… mundane. She was the exotic. People like her just didn’t exist! And yet, she was the exception to the rule. How old was she? Timeless. Ageless. 40? 50? I tuned back in to reality.

            Bianca let out a happy screech, coming from the part in her being that was going to rake this woman blind, top to bottom.   Or was it sincere? I didn’t know her enough yet to tell, that Bianca, a good poker player she would make.

            “I thought for sure you were back in Europe for the fall.” Bianca had informed me that customers loved when we remembered the specific details of their lives.

            The Baroness, Lucy, I think I will call her Lucy as Baroness is just too overwhelming, then looked straight at me again and said “I need a little refresher before I shop. Come, let’s take a breather.” She then grabbed both our hands and literally started to pull us out the door. Bianca and I were only too happy to comply and I grabbed my sweater and put up the ‘Will Return in 5 Minutes” sign on the door as Bianca locked it. And before we could protest, she’d whisked us into her waiting car and still squeezing both our hands told her driver to head down Madison fifteen blocks.

            Once inside a chic Swiss coffee shop between 65th and 66th, we took one of the tables in the front window and ordered macchiatos and cappuccinos.  I was beside myself with merriment and wonder because you just don’t meet people like this woman everyday. In fact, in my whole life, I’d met a few outrageous women, a few “Glamorous Eccentrics” as infamous window dresser Simon Doonan would call them, but this was the Queen Bee of that rare army.  And I didn’t even know her.  But I knew what I knew and I knew that she wore the sash of Goddess. Of unpredictability. I was all ears and I was shy in such a presence.

            While we sat Bianca informed me that she was the wife of a reclusive German Baron that was rarely in the States with his wife, who preferred Manhattan to the rural town outside Munich where he lived in his small castle.

            “Girls. So. How are you, really.”   She broke off a piece of chocolate covered biscuit and put it in her mouth. “Are you still developing that concept with Jean-Claude?” The woman winked at Bianca.

            I didn’t know what she was referring to but I had recently met Jean-Claude, who was the Hungarian manager of the gift shop next door. Bianca had mentioned to me in the space of the few days I’d been working at the shop that she and Jean-Claude were constantly conspiring to quit their dead-end gigs and start a boutique of their own in the East Village. 

            Bianca’s face lit up—the first real smile all day. “We’ve been meeting after work and working on concepts. We’re finding our step with one another right now, pooling our aesthetic and conceptual ideas, discovering what it is we really want our project to be about.” She paused to dip her tongue in the foam of her cup. “But right now we’ve both sort of agreed on a Junya Watanabe meets Anna Sui meets Helmut Lang look. You know?” 

            “Ah. Yes. I love it.” Lucy leaned back into the white couch and sighed, feeling relaxed. “I’ll be a big supporter of that. I enjoy those designers. You should come see my closet.”

            Bianca’s face lit up and she was about to say something more but Lucy continued.

            “Rosalie. And aren’t you a curious little thing. Where did you come from?” The Baroness smiled at me, lipstick smudged on her teeth.

            I smiled, trying to feel at ease with this woman who seemed straight from Mars. “I come from California. My roommate Momoko works here part-time, she got me this job—

            “Oh, Momoko! Yes. The gorgeous Hapa. She’s the most gorgeous Hapa I’ve ever met in my whole life.”

            How had Momo met this lady and never mentioned her? I don’t know why I was so in love with her but I just was. She was embodying every little fantasy I had of what it would be like to be from that other world, where you were…royalty…beautiful, perfectly eloquent and charming, dripping in only jewels you could imagine, and the comfort with her age, no visible botox or what have yous that most of the women uptown had experimented with. Not this one.

            She not so coyly assessed me. “Well who knows where the unexpected can lead? My whole life has been unexpected and I couldn’t be more thrilled.” She winked at me.

             I smiled at Lucy, not really knowing what to say.

            “Otherwise what’s the point of it all?” She swirled her hand in the air, waving a chocolate stick in a curly Q and then promptly ate it. 

            The Baroness cleared her throat.  “Now, ladies. I admit it. I have ulterior motives.”

            We leaned in.

            “Everyone’s so stuffy up here, this social circle and that, I’d be furiously judged by many women, not that I’m not already and not that I care, because I can assure you that I don’t. But the problem is they wouldn’t appreciate it like I’d want them to so I’m hoping you two will. Well I’m talking about a sex party.”

            As Lucy filled the cafe with her bizarre accent—a vague mixture of Italian and British-American, sounding quite Madonna-esque, I pondered just what exactly a sex party was. Images flashed before my eyes. Yes, like that. People, everywhere, having sex with one another, orgies. Dominatrixes, naked caterers, rooms full of sex. What was this woman really about?

            Lucy had the exotic appeal of simultaneously being the most sexual-looking yet classy and relaxed woman I’d ever met or seen on the Upper East Side; something about her was a walking paradox of sophisticated feminism and pin-up girl.  And she had that glow—a haloed ephemera of golden sexual vibrations that made her look like she did it all day and all night all the time. She was probably on a sex break right now.  

            “You should’ve seen this Italian signore last night. Half my age, you two could go with him. Total doll. Bellissimo.  Dumb as a bell but on fire.” She discovered some melted chocolate on her pinky and licked it off.  “And so willing to please.”  The Baroness sounded like she was going to drown; her voice so breathless and wispy.  “Well,” she continued, “we went to this invite-only V-VIP party. Very secretive and confidential. Very New York. Very New York. I had to call a private number I got on at the last minute to find out the location.”

            Lucy was breathing heavily at this point, her breasts heaving up and down with each breath; her taut, post-coital face in perma-climax, gasping for air as if she would either orgasm or asphyxiate at any second. 

            “You see, very top-notch. Very atmospheric. No one allowed that wasn’t supposed to be there, you know? Very comfortable environment. Very titillating to the senses.”

            I nodded to show that I was following. Lucy kept talking at us while I feasted on this woman. I admit I studied her, trying to understand her nuances that seemed to make life so peppy. Because compared to her I was not peppy.

            “Anyway this party, after we finally figured out where the damned thing was, was outrageous.”

            “Where was it?” Bianca pulled up her legs on Nespresso’s white leather benches, engaged.

            “Chelsea. In a loft. Four thousandsquare feet. Amazing. Incredible lighting and colors and the art. You should’ve seen the art, Rosalie.” She then sat up straight and looked me right in the eye, completely changing the tone of her voice. “Do you go to the galleries downtown?”

            I suddenly felt in trouble, the comforts I’d taken in this casual setting with this woman tricking me into familiarity. No, no, I’d realized that was all wrong with this woman. There was no ease of informality. Just because I was having a coffee with her did not mean there was any moment of casual association. 

            “Hardly ever.”

            “Well. Make it over there. It might give you inspiration about where to go from here.” She then resumed her Odalisque.

            I then listened to Lucy carry on about her recent sexploitations and pondered how a Drusilla Barton and a Baroness Lucy could simultaneously coexist in the small universe of uptown, how they could both happen into Marie LeBrie but under such different precedents.

            “Where was I?”

            “Sex.” Bianca smiled at her wealthy customer. God she was good.

            “Right. So the party. It was a splendid affair. Read The Sexual Life of Catherine M. The organizer ensures that no one will suffer professionally from their leisure time. We signed non disclosure agreements.” Lucy winked at me as she got the waiter’s attention once again for another shot.

            I have to admit that the idea of a sex party—regardless if it was the beautiful and the connected at this soiree—sounded a tad…revolting. Why was that? Then I thought of Jack videoing himself coming on top of me, the visual too exact to erase from my mind. 

            Lucy picked up on my hesitancy.

            “I know it seems strange, but when you’ve reached my age and you like sex, you’ve just done it all by this point. And there’s no judging allowed, you hear me? No judging.”

             “No, of course not.” I looked down at my cup, lest my gaze of judgement betray me, thinking about sex parties. I peeked up at the Baroness and could tell she wasn’t hung up on it. Not one bit. In fact, she seemed like she’d come alive because of her sexcapade.  Like in her entire life of lasciviousness she’d never once encountered any sense of shame. I wondered, did I believe her. Just like did I believe Bianca was only about the sale. Suddenly the day seemed very long from the lack of sleep and all the psychology. 

            The Baroness was done basking and Bianca stepped in, giving her a return story. I didn’t know it then but later Bianca explained to me that you have to really give women what they really need when they come to the store: you need to give them a connection to other women.

            “Okay well I’ve got a story for you.” Bianca cleared her throat and took the talking stick of chocolate. So I’ve been dating this artist, a Che Guevara-loving Democrat, right?”

            We nodded.

            “And we’ve started sleeping together even though he cheated on me, but that’s another story. And wait, actually I cheated on him, but it doesn’t really count because it was with my husband.”

            “Honey, is it an open marriage? I do advocate that you know.” The Baroness clasped her hands pondering our generation.

            “No, not like that.” Bianca flipped her impossibly long and glossy black hair over her shoulder.  “He was my high school friend who joined the Army so we married for the breaks the government gives us. I get free schooling, rent deduction and great health benefits, not to mention hanging out in a special lounge at the airport if I fly anywhere, and he gets a tax-break. But I want to marry him for real one day. We’re soul mates.”

            The Baroness was piqued so Bianca continued.

“Anyway, so Che Guevara—I don’t even remember his name—one night we’re making out and out of nowhere he pulls out this mask and asks me to wear it.”  Her large brown eyes danced as she worked herself up, suddenly remembering the joy involved.

            “What kind of mask was it?”

            “It was a wrestling mask. From Tijuana.” She paused to lick her lips.  “So I put it on and there were little holes for my eyes and it was super cheap rubber with red and blue stripes down the sides and I looked like I was in the WWF.” 

            “Bianca, Honey, yes and then what happened? You just go for it. Let it out.” The Baroness, proud, gathered closer.

            From my view on the couch, I glanced from Bianca to the Baroness and realized I was in a rarefied work-environment: applauding sex, giving kudos and work raises, bonuses, extra outfits, extra time off, more freedom, all from selling sex. What an odd point of contention for someone like myself who only wanted sex to mean love and love to be innocent and beautiful.  I then flashed to Jack looking up at himself into the camera lens while we were making love. Was it okay to be free to be a total lame-o?

            “It was weird at first because I couldn’t really breathe and it was really cheap and it was this toxic smelling rubber. But then I started to asphyxiate a little and then it got interesting.” Bianca smiled slyly. “So that was that. There’s my story.”

            She looked at the Baroness, who was smitten. 

            “Oh do tell more.” The Baroness licked cocoa powder from the corner of her lips.

            “Well, let’s just put it this way: I highly recommend using masks once in a while. They add an element of mystery. Like I could be anyone. I don’t have to be me.”

            Then the two of them sighed and turned to me.

            “Honestly, I have no story that can compete with either of those.” 

            We all stood up, dizzy and high from the numerous cappuccinos, and, although I could probably follow this woman to the moon—and could definitely use the fat commission sure to come with a shopper like Lucy but I was 100% certain that it was Bianca's—well life is amusing, you know?

            What had just happened? Nothing. Everything. A cup of coffee, was all.

            I wanted to walk back so that I could clear my head and breathe in the fresh air before going back to the small, pink boutique that suddenly ruled my life, front and center.  I told them I’d walk the fifteen blocks back to the store and Bianca said that would be “fine, just fine” by which she meant she was happy for time alone with her favorite customer, Baroness Lucy.

4. Frida & Diego

           

            The next morning I woke up early, happy that I wasn’t going to the store—that strange world of European aristocratic sex parties, eleven year-olds buying thousands of dollars worth of lingerie, coffee highs, sugar lows and a constant stream of the most fashionably dressed women I’d ever seen in my whole life.  The more I thought about it, the more it felt like a true circus up there.

            I woke up alone in Bushwick in my homemade loft-room with drywall and doors that didn’t quite fit in its hinges or go all the way to the ceiling. I felt grateful I’d had Momoko and this safe haven—rustic but endearing—to come to.

            I bee-lined for The Archive, the only coffee shop in my desolate, Sarajevo-looking neighborhood and bought a green tea and a blueberry scone while I waited for Momoko to show up.  We both had the day off and wanted to utilize our freedom.  I sat down to wait for her and opened the book I’d been reading, Michel Houellebecq’s Platform. Not two minutes later, I felt someone standing above me.

            “Excuse me, but do you like it?”

            I looked up to find a bearded guy with ginger-colored hair staring down at me.  I’m not sure why, but his look was oddly comforting, almost like Paul Bunyon had appeared in Manhattan. Maybe he'd caught some salmon with his bare hands, bit off its head and ripped its flesh apart like a hungry grizzly bear. 

            Taking my feet off the opposite chair, I pulled out my earphones.

            “Do I like what?” I did the slow blink, not on purpose, just nervousness. The slow blink was Momoko and my universal sign for apathy, cynicism and anything in between. 

            “The book.”

            He then, and I’m pretty sure about this, slow blinked me in return. 

            “Yeah, it’s pretty good.”

            He looked out the window and then back to me. “Hmm.”  He then went up to the counter and picked up his drink, which I noticed was also a tea.  I then watched him pour out half the hot water and add milk to the top. Then he came back and peered down at me and ever so coolly said,  “Well I don’t want to ruin it for you so I’ll save my opinions for a later date.”  He had very large blue eyes with very long eyelashes that looked great with his reddish mane of hair.

            I tried not to focus on him, them—the eyelashes and blueness of his eyes—lest my curiosity betray me.

            “That sounds like a plan.” I blew on my drink and turned the page. 

            “What?”  He deadpanned me again, those long lashes dancing as he slow blinked me yet again.  

            “What?” I was suddenly completely confused.

            “What sounds like a plan? My opinions or a later date?”  He was hypnotizing me.

            “Both at once?” I smiled truce and reached out my hand. “Hi. I’m Rosalie.” He took my hand and shook it.

            “I’m August. Nice to see you.”

            “Likewise.” I made eye contact with him before looking at our hands shaking one another’s. I never actually met people at my coffee shop, much less shook their hands.

            “I gotta split but you should check this out.” He handed me a blue flyer.  “We meet here and also the dive bar on Seventh every now and then for trivia games.”

           I looked from the flyer to his eyes.

            “Anyway. We’re actually meeting here tonight if you wanted to stop by later and see what the fuss is all about. We’re Brooklyn’s Finest.”

            “I can see that.” 

            “I’d say you’d fit in just …fine.” He made neither a smile nor an attempt to leave.

            I slow blinked him.  

            "Oh come on that's like the tenth time you've slow blinked me. Get outta here."

            “I think I’ve seen you guys here before. What are you reading now?” I realized as I talked that my words were coming out in shallow gasps, kind of like drowning, but not in the Baroness Lucy way. Shyness was not the only one of my Achilles heels but it was a big one. “I’ll think about it. I live right there, so--”

            “Rosalie, right?” He was still peering down at me, one hand on his pack.

            I nodded. 

            “What do you do in the city?”

            “I work retail uptown.” I smiled at the hipster.

            “That's cool. Anyway, gotta run. Nice to see you.” He motioned to the flyer as he hoisted his backpack.  “You might like it.”

            “See you around.”

            He did a little wave as he left the coffee shop and I stared at the back of him as he unlocked his bike, then rode across the street and headed down the block, tea in one hand. 

            I then slowly turned back around only to see Momoko sitting at the counter like a 007 secret agent, humongous white shades covering her eyes, slurping a frosted coffee drink through a straw, staring right at me. She came over.

            “Well, God, I didn’t want to interrupt. Talk about chemistry; I should’ve brought my fog lights along. That guy was muy caliente.”  Momoko sucked blended cold brew through her straw and rearranged her long, straight brown-red hair over her shoulder as she stood there in the middle of the cafe and waited for me to tell her something juicy.

            “Not so loud.” I looked to see if anyone was listening to us. Friends could be so embarrassing! “And please. He gave me a flyer for a book club.”

            “That guy was hot and you know it.”  Momoko has ignored what I’ve just said completely and bent down to smooth a small ripple in her neon purple pedicure.   “So are we ready to jet? I think we should go to Coney Island because you said you’ve never been and it’s still warm enough to jump in the ocean.  Plus I really need a cigarette and I can smoke all day at the beach. Plus, I brought you the cutest suit.”

                                                                                    ***

            Momoko Thompson and I had been friends since preschool in California but never that close, which was why it was easy to be her roommate and casual co-worker.  When girlfriends have established the closeness-factor within one another’s lives and have both decided on a similar level of intimacy vs. distance proximity, things were easy. The drama usually ensued when one friend expected more from the other and wasn’t getting what she’d signed up for. Momoko and I were so different that our orbits never overlapped much and therefore keeping our respectful distance wasn’t hard.  This was good for keeping a basic low-maintenance friendship.             

            Momoko—who’s name means little peach in Japanese had moved out to New York after school to try the plethora of things that “looked fun”.  She was currently working as a part-time stylist for magazine shoots, as a model for various legit and not so legit companies, as an extra and small-bit actress, as an advocate for vegan life, as a karaoke hostess at Rockette, a full-time hipster, and of course, over-worked sex goddess. She always got lots of call backs and go-sees for modeling because she was one of those exotic Hapa girls—half Japanese, half Swedish-Irish—tall and lanky, flawless pearl-colored skin and haunting brown hair that turned red in the sunlight.  Never worked out, ate whatever she wanted, drank excessively and smoked like a chimney, had coffee for blood, and of course never had even the slightest resemblance of a dark circle under an eye.  She said that her variety of jobs kept her excited to wake up every day and keep it fresh and I could understand that.

            We rode the Q train as it rattled toward the beach.  Momoko told me about the copious amounts of sex she had last night and I told her about the annoying girl I met with Jack the other night and she told me that people only identify a nemesis in the first place because there’s something about them we identify within ourselves and then I told her Jack wanted to film us, to which she simply replied “hot.”  Which I took as a perfect example of our orbits not colliding very often.  

            Momo was talking about tinted mineral makeup versus liquid bb creams.

            “Momoko, do you ever lament the past?” 

            “What?” She took her ear buds out.

            “The past. Do you ever lament it?”

            “No. No way. Lamenting the past is for suckers. Why? What about?”

            “Nothing.”

            The old Q train creaked and moaned and we were the only ones going to the end of the line.  Outside it had become stormy and windy, full and leaden with heaviness. 

            When the train lurched into its final rung and we climbed out, I saw that Momoko was right and I was disappointed.  Not sparing any niceties, Coney Island was kind of a dump. There were old wooden planks coming apart, chipping paint on signs and benches, plastic bags blowing in the cool wind, large metal bins heaped high with trash.

            Momoko insisted on having a cheese dog from Nathan’s even though I reminded her she was a Vegan to which she said “only if I’m going for that whole New Age look, and that looks’ so over done right now.”

            I settled for some of their curly fries and we walked down to the beach and laid out our towels amongst the small piles of seaweed and broken glass. We had been there all of four seconds before two guys rolling ice chests in the sand asked us if we wanted a cold corona for six dollars. We declined and then they asked us if we were always this fine. To which Momoko promptly said, “Yeah. We are.” 

            Momoko then told me how she was dating three guys at once and how frustrating it was to have someone knock in the middle of the night and not know who it was going to be.   I tried to sympathize, but seeing as how I’d been in that situation—oh, never—I really couldn’t say.

            “Omigod Rosalie, I’m just gonna say it, you totally need to get single at some point. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

            I turned and pulled my sunglasses down, taking in Momoko’s facial expressions, trying to read her for ulterior motives.

            “No offense, but it doesn’t sound all that great.” Having there be a knock and literally not knowing who it was? Geez.  “Anyway, why do you say that? ”  If a trusted friend says those words a woman should always be highly suspicious of either herself or her friend.

            “I don’t know.” She licked mustard off the tip of her dog. “I just think you’re young, and you know, the world’s your oyster and all that. People learn a lot when they’re alone with themselves.”

            “Why do you think I live with you and not Jack? And what’s that got to do with being single?” What did she know about anything anyway?

            “I don’t know. Or not. You seem happy. But then why were you so flirty mcflirt with the grizzly hipster?”

            “Please.”

            “Well, and what’s this about lamenting the past? You’re obviously talking about Charlie.” 

            She knew me well. “No.” I denied it. “Jack wants me to move in, to film us having sex, to move in the direction of holy matrimony. If I think about the past it’s only because I’m unsure of the future and the steps to take to get there.”

            “Jesus, Rosalie. Now that sounds tragic. What happened to your life?” She whipped open the last Sunday Times. “Here, then, if you’re headed in that direction, despite warnings from your most crazy friend then let’s dissect.  I can’t save everyone.” She pulled out the Styles Section and extracted the Wedding Section.

            We huddled on the freezing beach and scrutinized what was considered ‘success’ in the kingdom of married coupledom a la the Times, judging via the pictures and short paragraphs written about each couple and trying to gauge if they were happy, if they’d last, if they were right for each other.

            “I don’t know if I’ll ever get married.”  Momoko stripped down to her bikini, despite the cold temperature. “Do you?”

            “Well, yeah. I do. I mean, I would. If it were right.”

            “Well I think it’s totally outdated and over-rated. My dad doesn’t need to give someone a few goats to take me off his hands anymore thank you.”

            I agreed but thought there could be a more modern twist to marriage to fit in with the needs and wants of this century. “I think it’s all about the Frida & Diego.” 

            Momoko looked up at me. “What’s a Frida & Diego?”

            “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The artists.”

            She gave me a slight nod and I picked up a piece of plastic and started drawing two houses in the sand.

            “Those two knew what they were doing. They loved each other but couldn’t stand to be around one another too long—how can such genius constantly collide and not go crazy?—so they each had their own house and had a drawbridge built between them. So Frida was able to raise or lower it depending on her mood and if she felt like seeing Diego. And if she needed her space, she just drew up the bridge.” I drew a little drawbridge going up.

            Momoko’s eyes widened as she thought it over.  “Wait, wasn't Diego cheating on her left, right and center? And didn't he drive her absolutely mad psychotic? Don't know if they are the best example, Rosy, you know? She had a fucking unibrow."

            Just like that I wasn't so sure I bought Frida's trip, her letters, her story. Drawbridge? Maybe she should have left him and married someone nicer. Hard to speculate about life. "Well, maybe if they're bad examples, think of some other iconic duo." 

           "Like Zelda and F. Scott? Romeo and Juliet?" Momo started to smile wider "Jesus and Magdalene? Adam and Eve? Cleo and Ceasar?" Momo started to laugh. "See, the love story never seems to include the endings!? JFK and Jackie? Marie Antoinette and the Dauphin? Let's jump in!" 

            The sun peeked its head out of the clouds and we jumped into the frigid water. We stayed in about four seconds before shrieking for our towels on the sand. 

          Momoko told me how she was planning to sublet her room in the loft for “brighter, more spiritual places.”

            “I’m talking about España, Rosalie, where the men are hot, the wine flows freely, and there are real beaches with clean salt water.” She pointed to the trail of grime and trash that etched the tide line and as if on cue a mother down the beach slapped her child on the head to solidify the fact that the outer boroughs of Manhattan could be a little whoa. I cringed and the image of Drusilla calling her child a beast rolled into my mind. ‘She’s such a beast. I hate shopping for her.’  I pushed it out. And I pushed this woman slapping her child out.  If she were going to slap her child in broad daylight, what was I supposed to do about it? She was probably crazy, anyway. I looked at the child who seemed to look directly at me and wonder why I wasn't doing something. I looked around and everyone was ignoring it or hadn't seen it. Sobered for the little child and also feeling powerless.

            I surveyed the scene before me—the quiet lapping of small waves, the barrage of men in street clothes rolling ice chests down the beach, the housing that stood like empty ghosts overlooking the beautiful bay that nobody seemed to have the time to notice.

            “What’s so great about España?”

            “I don’t know. I just want to go.  Just leave. I have a few plans in mind.”

            “Like what?”

            “Like, a spiritual quest.  Through the Pyrenees. It’s one of the places I want to see before I die.  And you know what else, Rosalie? I want to evolve. Evolving is on my to-do list.”

            “Uh huh.” I zipped up my hoodie. “What about the whole ‘wherever you go, you pack the same bags?”

            “That's the whole point of traveling. It's to change what's in your bag." 

                                                                        ***

            Momoko and I parted ways at Union Square as she was off to see boyfriend number 2 in the Bowery and I went back to Bedford in Brooklyn to peruse the stores on North 7th.

            My cell phone rang and it was Veronica calling from our hometown in Northern California.

            “Rosalie. Guess what?” Veronica was very excited and breathed heavily into the phone.

            “What? Tell.” Veronica immediately lifted my mood, making me feel lighter, giggly, happier.

            “We got engaged! He proposed a few minutes ago!”

            My heart leapt for my friend! “Really? That’s wonderful! Oh my god, congrats!” I shrieked and she shrieked and it was that moment that women friends share together the world over.  Veronica had been in a relationship with her college boyfriend Benjamin—Charlie’s best friend for forever and we all knew it was only a matter of time.  But, wow! It’s not every day that your best friend gets engaged.

            “I know! And we’re gonna have an engagement party. And you have to come home for it. I’m booking you a ticket home, okay?”

            “Oh, Veronica, awesome, of course. When’s the party?”

            “Not sure. Probably early November. But, Rosalie? I feel so happy, like my life is on course and I’m doing what makes me happy.”

            “Absolutely, Veronica. You guys are meant for each other, and you’re happy with him.” 

            “You have to be my maid of honor, okay?”

            “Yes, Veronica, of course. Anything. I’m so happy for you. I love you so much!” I sang into the phone. I was happy for Veronica. It was what she had wanted since we were three.

                                                                        ***

We talked for almost an hour and after I congratulated her a bunch more I hung up and went into the bookstore I’d been standing in front of as something had caught my eye.

            In the window was the book The Rainbow Goblins. I picked it up and sat down on the ledge where next to me were a stack of fliers for the same book club the hipster August had told me about.   I picked up a flyer and stared at it, trying to picture myself in a book club.  

            I had stopped reading as soon as I finished school. Life just seemed to take over and before I knew it, a whole year had passed and the only two books I’d read were What Color is Your Parachute and a book on the secret world of plants.

            Then there were the fashion magazines Momo had lying around the loft. But I had never more than half-heartedly read any of the content in them because how many times can you read about whether the cellulite cream works or not?  What I had begun to do with the fashion magazines was pull them apart.  Ripping them into lines of color, collaging all of the greatest designs into shapes, patterns, feelings. It was an unconscious sorting and shaping of how I would have done it if I were the creative director of the photo shoots.

            Usually I took a the images of your classic magazine shoots—say of the models dressed as Robots in the New York Botanical Gardens and doubled it; adding in more lights, more frizz, more makeup, more flowers, more neon, more metallic, more of everything. Whatever it was, I wanted it to ooze from everywhere.  In fact, my idea of beauty always contained a certain element of oozing and constant of color.        

            I was four or five years old and my mother gave me The Rainbow Goblins by Ul De Rico.  It’s a kid’s book about goblins who chase rainbows and lasso them and steal their color. There is the blue goblin, the yellow goblin, the red goblin, etcetera and they live in a cave in the side of a mountain by a deep valley. At the very end of the story they pull one of the rainbows down on them so hard that it drowns them in a field of flowers; just too much color. They drown in a river of melted Crayola crayons. I remember seeing that when I was so young and the image was delicious. I wanted to drown in that color. I wanted to eat that color. To me, there could be nothing better than drowning in color; in a beautiful sea bed of bright flowers.  Madison Avenue had appeared that way to me. 

            I picked up another book club flyer, bought the book and headed home to my sanctuary in Bushwick. 

5.   You need to model your life after the 17th Karmapa

 

            Since Momoko would be getting sexed long into the night I took advantage of the place being all mine.  I turned up the music, poured the remaining Syrah. Our loft space always made me feel refreshed.  We usually had fresh cut flowers from the Brooklyn farmer’s market—and I picked out a variation of white flowers; either white roses, calla lilies, tuberose, or just an enormous pile of baby’s breath.  I also used the color white in big overstuffed feather pillows, curtains and a white table cloth and it did in fact have a refreshing feeling against the rustic nature of the coffee table and the buildings’ accoutrements.  Large art books, literature classics, and lots of books on French and Japanese new wave covered the walls, and the place held the smell of jasmine pearl tea that brewed throughout the day and night. I put the water on.

            My most treasured part of our loft was my curtained-off workspace.  Going behind the curtain sometimes made me feel like the sirens to Odysseus so taking my fresh pot of tea and my glass of wine I headed for the little den, suddenly feeling like the Wizard of Oz.

            Inside my workspace there were no feng shui gods at work; it was like an antique shop full of chotchkies, little trinkets in every available spot. Chinese porcelain heads, wooden plumeria flowers painted yellow and pink, fake pearls hanging alongside sharks’ teeth, old star-constellation maps, pikake and amber scented perfume in little glass bottles, a dramatic candelabra, frankincense, a little wooden box that held ash from a sacred holy site, old postcards; just a sampling of the things collected and stashed in my secret, closeted utopia. I stood in the middle of this magic wardrobe womb, it’s antique, non-fussy nature incredibly relaxing, a safe zone. I drew the curtain behind me, lit a few candles and some of my mysterious incense, fluffed up the pillows on the main chair and sipped my wine as the day began to melt away.  It all seemed impermanent behind this little curtained area. I felt like a little kid who plays behind the Christmas tree when the bubble lights and ornaments and wrapped gifts illuminate a special world of wonder. 

            I sifted through various papers and notes, scraps of inspiration from magazine and newspaper clippings, looking for the common thread in the things I collected. A boy holding his head laughing. The sun setting behind the moon, eclipsing it. Sharks in a feeding frenzy.  Indian gurus meditating with piles and piles of bright yellow marigolds proffered at their feet. I sipped my tea and opened the book I’d just purchased, pushing aside pens, papers, brushes, and paints that were scattered across the enormous work desk. Amadou, Momoko’s Persian cat, jumped up on the table and headed to take a nap right in the middle of my cleared space but I picked her up and poured her onto the small loveseat next to me.

            I flipped open The Rainbow Goblins and started to reread the story of my childhood.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to accomplish in this magic little den. It felt so good to be surrounded by creative implements. I hadn’t used a paint brush or an ink pen since craft time in elementary school. It felt foreign, yet simple and happy. Like a child’s chest of playthings it was a harmless place.  I thought about all that color I saw walking up Madison Avenue. I tried to picture the sensation of that, to feel the texture of the soft silks on my arms, the rouched fabric, the tulle, the chiffon. There was something about that drowning sensation of all the delicious color. A tsunami of color.

            As I turned to page two, my phone beeped with a text message from Jack. It read: I miss u, where r u/up 2?  I put the book down and texted him back: Will call in a bit, just got home. X. Then I put my phone down and it started ringing again, this time my mother.

            “Mom. Hi.” 

             “Honey-star! What’re you doing right now?” My mother’s New Age voice rang into the phone and I turned the volume on my headset down.

            “Just fiddling around. You?” I picked up a paintbrush and rolled it back and forth between my fingers.

            “Now listen, I want to tell you about something.  I was just reading an article about the market of Harry Potter readers and how they need another great book to get into. Are you paying attention, this is very important.”

            “Mom, of course.” I prepared for another lecture about saving the world, cleansing chakras, sage-smudging my house, taking flower remedies, and any other tidbit of hippy-lore she would proffer.

            “The article said these readers wanted something more adult, more spiritual.  So I got to thinking and then it dawned on me.  I think in your downtime between work you should write the spiritual version of Harry Potter. Hmm? To ply the masses from dull dragon-slaying books and move them toward the light.  I’ve already started an outline for you on some yellow legal pages that I’m mailing to you but you have to promise not to lose them as they’re my only copy. What do you think? Hmm? Like Ghandi said, we must be the change we want to see, Rosalie-hon.” 

            I had to smile at my mother’s never-ending agendas she liked to bestow on me. “I don’t know, Mom. Spiritual Harry Potter? Sounds like it’s right up your alley.”

            “Oh Rosalie,” my mother sighed.  “You need to utilize your life, you need to move forward. Now’s the time to seize the day. Carpe Diem, Rosalie!  I always wanted you to be a foreign ambassador, a real Mother Teresa for the world and you need to make an effort to help this world. You need to be a foreign diplomat and unite the world. You need to model your life after the 17th Karmapa. He’s my hero, you know.”

            “Mom. I know.” He was practically the Second Coming of Christ to her. 

            “Well, you do. You need to do some things. I’ve made you a list too. A list of things you need to do. One is this book idea, I’m gonna need you to write out the first version, the other on the list is the Mother-Daughter spiritual quest book. Remember that camping trip we went on?”

I grabbed my wine and tea and the cat and exited the curtained utopia for the futon-couch in the living room. “And that was a very long time ago. I was thirteen.”

            “I’m still waiting for your memoir about it. About the Native American coming of age rituals we did for you and your friends. The sweat lodge. The teaching of your Moon Cycle. Really, Rosalie, these things are pivotal. People need to know about these things.”  

            “Mother.” I knew she was waiting for my spiritual epiphany where I’d decide Princess Di really was the incarnation of the Divine and that if I knew what was good for me I’d start wearing knee socks, going to church on Sundays, get engaged to an Astor and pause only to feed starving children and write spiritual Harry Potter. I then imagined myself in toga and olive branch wreath floating over the air carrying a burning torch, lighting the way for millions, parachute dropping two-ton loads of spiritual Harry Potter into the Congo. I was such a far cry from helping anyone, let alone myself. Didn’t she realize that?

            “Just work on it. Stay busy. Get motivated. Climb out of your hole, Honey, one step at a time.”

            “Am I in a hole, Mom? I wasn’t aware I was in a hole. Maybe a steady stream of nothing, but a hole? Kind of dramatic.”

            “You know what I mean. You need an exit strategy and a new job. Pronto.”

            I decided to change the subject. “Veronica just got engaged to Benjamin and I’m going to their engagement party.”

            “Wonderful. See? She’s on her path. Grad school at Berkeley, bought her own house right out of college and now engaged! See, honey. It’s not impossible. You can do it.”

            I sighed.

            “You’ll visit us soon, won’t you?”

            I assured her that I would of course come visit her and dad and she made me promise to mull over the spiritual Harry Potter idea.

            “Honey, one more thing. When do you think you might be getting engaged? Hmm? I don’t want to pry, but you know, the clock is ticking.  Jack’s a great guy. You can keep your own bank account and last name and have a family, you know. You don’t have to give up your power just to let a guy in. We are in the modern era.”

            “Mom, don’t go there right now. I'm 21.”

            “Okay, I won’t worry, just forget about that for now. You’ve got things to accomplish first!  Oh, and one more thing, Honey.   I think this is great. Use this moment. Really. This can be a kicking off place.  A moment of self-understanding. Where you can change. Where you can decide to make a conscious choice. You know, like I’ve always said, if you don’t speak up, then you’re just as bad as what’s happening around you. You’ve got to take a stand and fight for what you want. Understand?”

            “Yes. No. What? I don’t know.”

            I hung up, feeling the creative wind completely deflated from my sails.

            God.

            I went over to the mirror and looked into my eyes, searching for signs of life.

            Was I in a hole? The worst hole of my 21-year old life?

            I tried to pick up Amadou for comfort but she whimpered and clawed her way out of my reach, under the sofa. I thought about how Veronica said you get what you want and Ghandi and my mother telling me I must be the change I want to see.  I looked over at my art area trying to see it through the eyes of my mother. She would just think of it like a cute hobby, like a fun de-stresser after a day at a real job. 

            All the wind. Out of my sails. 

            I flipped on the TV but it was just awful reality shows.   I flipped it off and went to seek consolation in the kitchen, only to discover that Momoko had finished the rest of my dark chocolate mousse.

            I slumped onto the couch and stared out the large windows into the night. In the far distance I could see the large and rather ominous red Verizon check-swoosh on the side of their skyscraper. I walked over to the curtain and swung it across that part of the view. Indulging in my apathy and abhorrence, I pondered what I was doing to help with the state of the world. 

            What could I possibly do to make a difference in this world? I felt small and worthless…and wasn’t political.  How could I serve humanity and the Earth more than just recycling glass bottles? I truly felt at a loss so I sat on the couch wishing I had some chocolate or or a cold Shiner Bock or I don’t even know. 

            I could see what my mother was trying to tell me—that you don’t have to be a Tibetan Lama but you have to pull your weight and influence and affect those around you. Otherwise you’re just the bump on the log, existing for yourself. Take your attention off your stress of seeking to help and put that energy into action. But what the hell did that even mean to someone like me. Who and what was I even and what were my peers and what were the incredibly privileged women I met every day up to. I needed proof around me. 

            I stood up and flung myself onto my big bed and metaphorically twiddled my thumbs. I buried my head deep under my five pillows and pumped my legs up and down, wondering if that counted for exercise. And then in a flash I went crazy. I jumped up and went over to my computer. I googled PETA. I googled WWF. I googled Sierra Club. I made a new bookmarks bar in my browser and labeled it ROSALIE’S CAUSES. I spent the next four hours obtaining memberships and sending fairly miniscule donations to the Surfrider Foundation, Plant a Tree a Month Club, Stop Clubbing Seals petition, Stop the Thai & Eastern European Sex Trade, Ending Domestic Violence in Taiwan, Red Cross, Women in the Arts, Protect the Elderly Geriatric Foundation, Protecting Hawaii’s Monk Seals, Save The Indigenous Coffee Growers of Columbia Trade, Italians Against Deportation, The Aboriginal Minority Music Coalition, and Support Fijians Democratic Rights: End the Coup. I gave my primary and secondary email address to everyone. I wrote letters with the words, “Please let me know what I can do and feel free to pass on my contact info to your regional offices. I am available to volunteer immediately.”

            I read blogs about eco-building materials. I read blogs about killer algae ravishing the west coast. I signed thirty-seven petitions on thepetitionsite.com on everything from stopping the SuperFerry in Hawaii to stopping the transport of horses to foreign countries for slaughter. I forwarded it to all twelve hundred people on my email list.  I posted comments on the yoga journal blogs. I ordered bamboo spun t-shirts made from a remote village.  I read NYT’s editorial after editorial. I watched YouTube after YouTube of animals being skinned alive. Of children dying of starvation. Of young girls being bargained for. Of Illegal Aliens being shot with rubber bullets. With real bullets. Of the icebergs melting some more. Of the polar bear drowning because he’s swimming for nonexistent icebergs (Jesus, did this one get me). The anger and frustration continued. I put on Moby’s “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad,” lit incense and waved it in the direction of Manhattan.

            Pious and yearning to change everything wrong in the world within the next twelve hours, I flipped off all the lights and sat there, in the dark, staring at the red check that glowed through the curtain. I wanted meaning. There had to be more than just this mediocre reality. What brings a woman to slap her child, hard, on the head at the beach?  What brings a woman to the point of hating her own daughter and ridiculing her in public to complete strangers who want to take all her money? What brings a woman to drop three thousand dollars on a cheaply made black velour and red feather bedroom robe? Who in the hell did I think I was? And most of all, why was I—at the bottom of it, just focused on myself figuring it out for myself? Not Jack’s. Not Momoko. Not Bianca. Did this mean I didn't love them? Did it mean I was being responsible and trying to figure it out for myself, where I fit in to this tangled web here? 

            My mother was instructing me to be more selfless but I didn’t feel like I could be. Who was going to take care of me other than me? How could I trust anyone or anything to be there when so far, it was very apparent one had to always take responsibility for herself?  I thought about Jack and wondered if he thought about these things. I didn’t even know the person I had sex with. I didn’t know Momoko or Bianca.  A lot of days I didn’t know who stared back out at me when I was brushing my teeth in the mornings, or when I caught my reflection on the subway windowpanes as it rushed under the East River.   I didn’t agree with or believe any of it. I wanted to run a bath but felt too guilty about wasting all that water. Dirty and fumbling in the darkness, I found the door and stepped out, heading for The Archive.

                                                                        ***

            In sweatpants and ratty college sweater, I dragged myself into the coffee shop for a Cup O’ Noodles.  As I swung open the door, I realized the book club, Brooklyn’s Finest, was just wrapping up.  And there was August, looking so fuckable I could just have laid down on the coffee table right there..  I simultaneously forgot all my woes as I slow-blinked myself for not remembering that tonight they would meet here.

            He looked up, saw me, did a casual wave.  I casually waved back and then turned toward the menu as my cheeks began to flush.

            “Rosalie.”

            He called out my name and I had no choice but to turn around. As he motioned me to walk over to the group, I noticed his navy blue cashmere sweater. It looked so cozy.  I could just crawl in there until the red check swoosh burned out and didn’t block my view anymore. Only the sweater looked cozy. Not him. He looked, well, like a scruffy king from the Middle Ages. Full of scruff. Face scruff, hair scruff, in general, just a lot of scruff.  Didn’t he know what a barber shop was?

            “How’s it going?” With one hand, I casually tried to fix the rats’ nest my hair had become over the course of my night and held out my other hand to August. “Nice to see you again.”  I smiled tough as he took my hand and shook it: just because he was cute and in my local coffee shop and called out my name and is wearing the most delicious looking sweater of all time and wants me to join his book club does not mean weakness would overcome me and sacrilege my relationship to Jack with petty flirting. So I was a basic flirter. So what. Who wasn't. What Libra-Leo-Gemini wasn't you tell me. 

            “Good to see you, too.  Everyone, this is Rosalie and she’s going to join Brooklyn’s Finest.”

            He introduced me and everyone said hello.  I then went to say hello, but nothing came out. My palms began to sweat. Everyone stared at me.  I tried to speak again. Nothing.

            “Hi.” I managed to squeak out. I can’t believe I was this embarrassed.  I talk to strangers all day for a living. I even hustled them.  This August thing had to stop as it was obviously reducing me to fourth-grade communication levels.

            “So.” He paused and stared at me, up and down. “What’re you doing here at this time of night?”

            I did a fake yawn. “I was just getting some soup and then heading off to bed.” Oh God, did he think I was here to ‘casually’ run into him?   “I live around the corner, so, this is, like, where I tend to go, when I need a break.”  Out of nervousness, I did my smoothe operator slow blink.

            He squinted at me. “Is there something wrong with your eye or are you jsut slow blinking me again.”

            “No.” I stared wide back into his blue lagoons, willing myself not to blink. 

            Awkwardness ensued.  Then he stood up and peered over me.  My, was he tall. This fact had escaped me until now. He deadpanned me yet again with his smouldering blue eyes.  All I could do was stare at him and his eyes.

            Must. Not. Fold. Into. Petty. Flirting. Does he want me to fuck him? Why is he flirting with me so bad. He clearly thinks I'm single by the way I am pathetically flirting with him. Okay, we all have this horrible thing that happens with people we don't even know, where we get so hyped about them for zero reasons as if there weren't millions of good looking people in New York on every block. For fucksake Rosalie Rhiannon Meredith get a fucking grip.

            “I’m gonna go order.”  Before he could answer, I turned and got in the order line.  Then my phone started buzzing in my pocket. It was Jack.  Shit! I’d forgotten to call him back. I picked up.

            “Hey Baby! I’m so sorry! My mother called after I texted you and, well, hours later, here I am, totally spent and all for naught.”

            He laughed.

            I placed my order at the counter and was able to laugh off my meager attempts at saving the world, knowing full well that a few dollars here or there wouldn’t amount to much.  “Just getting some soup at the coffee shop before I turn in.” I put my hair into a lumpy ponytail.

            “Okay, my little fuck toy. I wish I was there to tuck you in.”

            “Me too.”

            “Promise to sleep over tomorrow?”

            “I’m looking forward to it.”

            “Good. Me too.”

            I hung up and picked up my to-go soup at the counter. I turned around, expecting that August would maybe want to talk with me some more before I left.  But, he had his back to me, his earphones on, and was on his computer.