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.
“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?”
“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.