Our fifth week in the apartment, the day before I started my job at Alejandro’s, Emily threw out all the peanut butter and planted the bathroom scale in front of the refrigerator. Later, she saw me standing on the scale with the fridge door open, waiting for the red numbers. “No,” she said, “the point is you don’t even open the door till you know you deserve it.” The numbers popped up, and I took half a pita.
I was four pounds lighter than Emily, but since freshman year of college we looked out for each other like we were the same person. And ever since Emily took Psych 101 and we started experimenting on our friends – will the roommate who sleeps closest to the door always sit nearest the door in a restaurant? – we called ourselves The Social Anthropologists. Now, four years later, we were embarking on our last great experiment. The fridge scale was key.
Our first test that summer had been the Newcomers Association party, in the cream-walled house of a woman we’d never met. Sixteen of us stood with cocktails while the women of the Association swooped around and introduced us to the same people over and over. We were the only newcomers who weren’t thirty-five with children and married to each other. I stayed quiet, listening to Emily cast her family story – divorced mother, city apartment, financial aid – in a Bohemian, old-money light. “I’m so jealous of Jen,” she said, putting her hand on my shoulder. “My mother would never let me take sailing lessons. She was terrified I’d drown.” As if this were the deciding factor. As if I could even paddle a canoe. She did it all without actually lying, and with the grace of someone who didn’t need to show off the money she clearly had.
But then Emily’s looks fooled everyone. She had the clear skin and blond hair that would cost most women a weekly spa trip, and even cheap clothing looked tailored to her body, the way it swung from her shoulders and draped off her hips. My frizzy hair and short legs took more work. We bought needles and thread and hemmed my pants ourselves.
When I found myself alone with the hostess, a woman with a silver Grace Kelly bob, I asked if she’d ever heard of Miranda Željko. I was sure I wasn’t saying it right, so I spelled it.
“I’m sorry, dear, no,” she said. “Is she a friend of yours?”
“Actually, I don’t know who she is. We’ve been getting her mail, ever since we moved into our place.” I was careful not to say apartment. We had a two-bedroom above a bakery, on the main street of a town that was often featured in picture calendars of Maryland. It was old money, farms turned to white-fenced estates, but close enough to Baltimore that people filtered through frequently; no one would refuse to accept us merely on the basis of our newness. Emily knew it was important to find an old money town. “If it’s too new, everyone’s showing off the cash with Vuitton and vacation tans. Old money, they don’t even like logos on their shirts.”
“Her mail! Oh, isn’t that cute. Well, people come and go.” She steered me gently by the shoulder and introduced me for the third time to a woman who designed bracelets.
Miranda’s old phone line had come with her apartment, and we got two or three messages for her a week; one from a moving company, one thanking her for the beautiful wedding, one inviting her to a Johns Hopkins alumni function. Apart from the mystery of where she’d gone – murder, Emily decided – Miranda Željko led a fabulous life. Matte-finish catalogues that bothered to put that thing above the Z, tune-up calls from the Audi dealership, an invitation from a man calling himself “us” to come watch the meteor shower from a rooftop in the city.
After two cocktails, I told a heart surgeon and his wife that my father was a dentist, but then let slip that he was a naval dentist. The husband looked at me like I was some beautiful, undiscovered breed of giraffe.
“Do they have a lot of dental problems in the navy?” the wife asked. “I don’t suppose they get scurvy anymore.” She laughed and floated off for more wine.
“Forgive her,” said the surgeon, turning to follow her. “She’s very drunk.”
At home that night, as we applied our clay masks in the bathroom, Emily said, “I’d stick with just dentist. Does he do braces?”
“I guess,” I said. “A lot of his patients are eighteen.”
This was what I told people from then on, and I was amazed how little it felt like lying. “My mother is a poorly paid substitute teacher” became “My mother volunteers with children.”
Emily told people she was trying to make it on her own, without her father’s money. She failed to mention she’d been without her father’s money since she was two.
* * *
Our senior year we had drawn up an actual contract called “Master Plan Conquer the World,” which stated that while our friends were invisibly climbing the ladder in some big, twenties-friendly city like Atlanta, we’d take a small town by storm. We’d meet the right people and wait for good things to happen. Part of it might be marrying well, but we agreed, with hands on hearts one drunken night, that this was not our primary goal. We’d raise our children there and be the beautiful old women who looked even better with silver hair and took three-hour lunches together at cafés. I’d been trying senior year to land magazine jobs, with no success. Most people started with internships, but I wasn’t willing to do that, living on ramen in New York City while mice ran across the foot of my bed. If we made the right connections, in three years Emily could open her amazing boutique and I could land a job at Baltimore magazine writing articles like “Baltimore’s Best Late-Night Bites” and “40 Bachelors Under 40.”
Emily got the idea after she read an interview with Shoshanna Berger, the born-poor hotel magnate who claimed she got everything she had – fashion empire, husband, cronies – through dressing and acting the part. It’s not just about ‘marrying rich,’ she said, but assuming the privileges others are born with. So many children born into wealth, their parents don’t give them a dime. And yet, they do very well. Why? They talk about certain vacations, they wear grandmother’s pearl necklace. The people who matter say, ah, she’s one of us. Zip, straight to the top.
Above our bathroom mirror, Emily had posted a paper with one elegant, green word. She had used Sharpie, but managed to make it look like calligraphy. Patience, it said. As in, sit tight and wait.
* * *
The day after we installed the fridge scale, I started at Alejandro’s. Emily was working at a women’s clothes boutique called Silverbird, using her lunch breaks to study women at the coffee shop. She jotted her notes in a leather date planner, since it made her look like a woman with a packed social calendar rather than a dreamy girl with a journal. She wrote things like Good phone, even if broken and Designer jeans as primary pants – $200? Before I got my job, I’d meet her for lunch and watch as she wrote, her pen gripped tight, her elbow out as if she were actually stressed about when to schedule her dress fitting.
I promised I’d watch the women who came into Alejandro’s, as this was a hipper crowd than the coffee shop stroller-pushers. I had interviewed for jobs like Emily’s, in rooms where black cashmere wraps hugged the shoulders of soft, headless mannequins and the owners wore diamonds that told you this was a hobby rather than a living, but each time, I made the mistake of saying I was saving for a car. Finally my last interviewer, a tiny woman who kept folding and refolding all the linens in her shop as we talked, clued me in: “No one’s going to hire someone who’s just out for a one-time purchase,” she said. “We get college girls all the time who want to work three months so they can rent a horse for the summer. We’re looking for someone permanent.” Maybe she could see it in my eyes, too, that my whole life was just a waiting period. By then all that was left were restaurant jobs. It wouldn’t look nearly as good, but Emily and I agreed we had to find highly visible positions, where we’d get to know the people coming in. No secretary work, no nannying.
Alejandro hired me right away as a seater. The main hostess, an Italian woman named Donatella, would run the reservation book while I handed out wine lists and took people’s coats and told them their server would be with them shortly.
Alejandro was really Alexander Novarez, but when he opened his restaurant (fusion, zinc counters, salmon roe on scallion pancakes) he decided to embrace his Brazilian roots. “Sounds more like I can cook,” he told me. Now even his friends called him Alejandro. Knowing the truth made it feel like a nickname, like I already knew him well enough for that. He sat me in a booth on my first day while the line was setting up, and he brought out two cups of coffee.
“I don’t need you to be too friendly,” he said. “They want to feel like they’ve earned their way in. With the regulars, you can be more familiar.” He didn’t sound ironic when he said this, or bitter. He just stirred his coffee and wiggled his jaw from side to side, with a little pop each time. His hair was graying, even though he was much younger than I’d expected. Maybe thirty-five. “Sometimes my daughter will be here before we open. She’s seven, so just put her in a booth with some colored pencils. I’ve got custody every other week.” While I signed paperwork, he brought me out a salad on a little pewter plate, “so you can see what we do.” It was gingery and crunchy and I ate almost half of it.
His face was like Gregory Peck’s, I told Emily that night. I got home after midnight, but she was up drinking wine out of a red coffee mug. She’d already watched half of Rear Window, but the instant I mentioned Gregory, she stopped it to pop in Roman Holiday. I settled on the couch with the blankets around me. “And he’s divorced,” I said, “so we’ll see.” We turned the sound low and started the movie – that tiny waist, the Spanish Steps, those shoes – and I wondered once again why I hadn’t been born Audrey Hepburn.
“I’ll ask the girls at work what they know about him,” Emily said. Silverbird was only two blocks from my restaurant. “And, I have news.” She sat up on the couch, reaching to the coffee table and lifting her wine mug off a pile of catalogs. “Miranda got more mail.” She handed me a thick-papered little book that said Alba: The Fall Collection.
“See, it’s for Mrs. Miranda Željko,” I said. “So I think we were right. Željko was the first husband.”
We gathered (largely from what Miranda’s aunt Linda said in a message about “photos from the shower”) that Miranda had moved into the apartment when she divorced her first husband, then moved out when she got remarried that May. Since people were still calling in August, we wondered if she and her new husband had disappeared entirely. A week earlier, we’d gotten a message from her sister that said “Mimi, I still need your thoughts on Mom’s sixtieth. Are we doing a surprise? I don’t think your email is working.” At first Emily was only joking about Miranda’s death, but now she was serious. She believed Mr. Željko had killed Miranda and the new husband, just as they were leaving for the honeymoon. “It would be the perfect murder,” she said. “No one would expect them to call for weeks.”
I took a sip of warm wine from Emily’s mug. “Her whole family’s accent sounds kind of country,” I said. “Maybe she’s just embarrassed of them. Especially if she married someone local.”
“Like Alejaaandro!” She swooned back on the couch. I was glad I hadn’t known Emily in the fifth grade. She’d have been the one singing K-I-S-S-I-N-G right in front of the boy you liked.
Roman Holiday was rolling away, almost soundless. Gregory Peck was helping Audrey into the cab. He didn’t know yet who she was.
By the start of November, we felt like natives. Emily had gone on six dates with the son of a woman she worked with, a thick-haired banker named Neil who owned an impressive collection of polo shirts and belonged to a hedge fund, but whom she found boring and fat. “Once I’m into the circle of friends, though, it’s a landmine of contacts,” she said. “They all went to Georgetown.” I had turned down dates with two waiters. Emily had finally learned from a girl at work that Alejandro’s ex-wife was the daughter of Bruce Snyder, and somehow Emily was expected to know who this was. A very influential man, apparently, someone whose daughter was not supposed to marry a half-Brazilian chef. Bruce Snyder bought him the restaurant so he could make a respectable living, and since the divorce all the women in town talked about poor Alejandro and how he needed a good wife.
“See, that’s the very epitome,” Emily said. We were walking around downtown, squeezing hot coffee cups with our thin cashmere gloves, trying to keep warm. “Who was he but some cook, and now he’s rich, and he can marry anyone. He’s been completely accepted.”
Personally, I’d come to the think of Miranda Željko as the model of local success. Someone who lost it all, who lived in the same drafty apartment as us, who shook off her Virginia accent and conquered the town. I believed she was tiny, with dancer’s legs, and she cut her dark hair short the day after the divorce. When she was lonely, she drank tea and watched The Apartment again and again, just to see the part with the tennis racket and the spaghetti.
We stopped to sit on a cold iron bench and watch shoppers walk by. We played “From Here, Not From Here.” It was hard; the difference between native and pretender might be as subtle as thickness of mascara or fit of trousers.
“Not From Here,” Emily whispered, nodding towards a woman in a loose, multi-colored fleece, ill-fitting jeans and dirty white sneakers.
“Way too easy,” I said. “Zero points. Her?” The woman wore the expensive, tight-fitted, navy blue workout suit favored by local mothers, and carried an expensive yellow sports bag, but her hair was sprayed into outdated bangs and her eyes wrinkled down at the edges.
“Not. She tries to be. She comes here for yoga class. And look, bright red nails.”
“From Here,” I said, and this was worth double points, because it was a man. Well-faded jeans, a fleece that wasn’t pilled, and flip-flops. His face was strong and symmetrical, a sign that his wealthy father and grandfather had married the most attractive women they could afford. He twirled his key ring around his pointer finger like a little silver hula-hoop as he walked.
“Classic,” Emily said. When we started moving again, I watched our reflection in the window of Williams-Sonoma. Two girls in pea-coats, skinny jeans, their scarves blowing in the wind. From Here.
My mother called that night to tell me about Thanksgiving. “We had the Glens over,” she said. “They were asking about you, why you didn’t come home like your brother.”
I rolled my eyes at Emily, who was stirring our cabbage soup.
“Mrs. Glen is starting a jewelry business. She’s making all these beaded necklaces that look sort of Indian.” I could picture plastic beads with a cheap metal clasp from the craft store. “Do you need any jewelry for Christmas?”
“No. Emily gets a lot at the boutique. Honest, all I really need is money.”
My mother sighed. “Well, Jen, honey, that’s not very Christmassy.”
When I finally hung up, I felt queasy. Through the phone I could almost see the TV trays and US Navy wall calendar and my grandmother’s anemic watercolor paintings and the stale slices of American cheese in the crisper drawer. There was no turning back. I’d bought Shoshanna Berger’s autobiography for Emily on her birthday, and we’d both read it. “Don’t sell out,” she’d written. “Sell yourself.” But asking my mother for money instead of tacky jewelry wasn’t selling out, it was being honest.
* * *
That Saturday afternoon, Alejandro asked me to watch his daughter, Stephanie, while he yelled at the waiters. I set her up in a booth with a glass of chocolate milk and we played Twenty Questions. She got “polar bear” in twelve, then stumped me with “palomino.”
“Horses are my favorite,” she said. “Do you love to ride?”
“I do,” I said. “I used to ride a horse named Juliet.” Juliet had been my horse for two days of Girl Scout camp. She was about three steps from the glue factory, and she bit my hand.
“My horse right now is Alfie, but his show name is King of Colombia, because he came with the name already.” She was kicking the table from underneath, sloshing her chocolate milk up the sides of the glass. Stephanie was a ghostly little girl, all her father’s Brazilian olive coloring washed down to a pale yellow.
“Does your mother ride horses?” I asked.
“She rides about thirty million times a day. She says girls have horsepower.”
“Oh. Does your father ride?”
Alejandro appeared right then at the side of the table, his face sweaty from the kitchen. “How’s my pretty lady?”
It took me a second to realize he meant Stephanie. “We’re just having some girl talk,” I said. And I was glad he was standing above me, since my dress gave good cleavage.
Alejandro reached one hand out to each of us, to pull us off the booth’s padded seats. When I got home, I’d have to ask Emily if that counted as flirting.
“I’m taking this one home to the sitter,” he said, and he bundled Stephanie back into her bright pink parka and shuffled her out through the kitchen just as Donatella, the main hostess, showed up – late as always, never acknowledging it. She was a stunning, black-haired woman in her forties who could pull off a constant rotation of the same three dresses by adding scarves and jewelry. Her Italian accent made her call me a-Yenn-a, and the way she glided across the floor, the way she swept people to their tables, it was like she was made of mercury.
“What a day,” she said. She must have been referring to traffic from the city, but she turned her vowels and rolled her eyes so it sounded like she’d been harassed by suitors all morning and thrown dishes at an unfaithful lover after lunch. She fanned her face with her hand, even though it was freezing in the restaurant, as always. I had put Emily’s sweater back on the minute Alejandro left. My arms were growing extra fuzz just to keep warm at work.
At 6:00, a tall, red-haired woman and an older man showed up without a reservation. Donatella had me seat them at the bar, then gave me a piercing, wide-eyed look behind the woman’s back. When I came back to the reservation book, she whispered frantically. “That’s her, his ex-wife. I fucked up. I’m going to get fired, oh shit.” I’d never seen her lose her cool before, but this was the extent of it – a widening of her dark eyes, an urgent hissing in her whisper. “I couldn’t say we were full, because look at all the barstools. Oh, shit.”
“You can say I did it,” I whispered back. “Say you were in the bathroom, and I seated them because I didn’t know.” I figured it was an opportunity. For what, I wasn’t quite sure.
Donatella took my hand and squeezed it. “Yes,” she said. “That’s it, I love you!”
I watched the ex-wife carefully. I thought at first that the man was her date, paraded in here as some sort of taunt, but after their drinks he took a stack of papers from his briefcase. She looked glamorous even in her red-rimmed reading glasses, her hair pulled back now in a clip. I wondered if this was the look I should go for – serious and professional with a sleek brown pant suit – or if Alejandro wanted the polar opposite.
“It’s her lawyer,” Donatella said when I came for a stack of menus. “I can’t believe she brought her fucking lawyer.”
“Are they not fully divorced yet?”
“It’s custody. She wants full custody, all the time. She’s a monster.”
A second later, when Alejandro popped out from the kitchen, Donatella caught him by the shoulder and spun him away from the bar before he could see. She whispered in his ear, and then he peered around her to check the barstools. “It’s okay,” he mouthed to me.
When things settled down, I found Alejandro in the walk-in. “I had no idea,” I said.
“You couldn’t tell by the scales and horns?”
“I suppose the fire-breathing should have been a tip-off.”
He laughed. “It’s okay,” he said. He pulled me into a hug and kissed the top of my cheek. “All is forgiven.”
I wanted to stay with him there in the freezing air, my arm scrunched against the cold wall of cardboard boxes. I didn’t let go of his hug. “Is there anything I can do?”
He pulled back so his hands were on my shoulders, and he bent down a little to look me in the eye. “Yes,” he said. “You could eat something.”
“I’m sorry?” For a second I wondered if he meant it sexually.
“You could eat some food. Please. We want people to think of dinner when they come in, not prison camps.” He walked out and left me in the freezing air.
When I got home, Emily had just gotten in from her date with Neil, and I told her the story as we sat on the couch and drank tea. “It’s like he wants me to be rotund, just to advertise his food. Like, ‘I got fat at Alejandro’s, and you can, too!’”
“It’s insulting. If you were obese, he would never come up and tell you to lose weight. You could sue him for telling you to lose weight.”
“And Donatella’s about twice as thin as I am.” I was losing weight, but I wasn’t even at my goal yet. My legs looked good standing up, but not sitting down. And it was hard work, too. The bakery smells came steaming up outside our windows in the morning. I could smell each individual ingredient the way a dog could: blueberries, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, eggs, fat, frosting, burnt molasses, the raw and fermented stink of rising dough.
“But still,” she said, “he was definitely hitting on you. And this is your opportunity, now that he’s going through such pain. I mean, I’m evil for thinking this, but the best thing would be if he lost in court. He’d need your support, and you wouldn’t have to deal with the kid.”
“The evilness is what I love about you,” I said.
When our house phone rang it was usually for Miranda, but we always answered it to say, “No, we have no idea, we get calls for her all the time, even her own sister, yes, we’re a little concerned.” The week before, it had been the blood bank, asking her to set up an appointment. Afterwards Emily said, “I’m sure she made a big donation recently. She doesn’t have any left to give.”
No one had called in a couple of weeks, and we’d moved the phone from the coffee table to the carpet, halfway under the couch. When it finally rang one Sunday, the sound of the ring was muffled. A man with a Chinese accent replied to my greeting with “Listen, I have proposition for you.”
I waved Emily over, even though she wouldn’t be able to hear. Was Miranda Željko some kind of prostitute? “This is not Miranda,” I said.
“I have proposition,” he repeated. “I want your phone number.” I considered that it was a joke, but none of our friends knew our land line.
“You just called my number.”
“I want your phone number, to buy for my wife. Is her birthday.”
“You want what?” Emily was signaling me to hang up, but the man wasn’t breathing heavily or laughing. He was serious, whatever it was he meant.
“My wife, her birthday is December twenty-nine. You see, 1-2-2-9? Is your phone, on the end. I pay two hundred fifty dollar, you let phone company transfer me the line. Is okay?”
I dropped my jaw at Emily. I thought of asking him to wait so I could tell her, but I knew we’d be laughing too loud. “I’ll have to call you back,” I said. “I’ll need your number. Just to write down, not to have. To call you back with.”
“This is what?”
“Where can I reach you?”
I wrote down his number, and once I told Emily the story and we’d stopped laughing, we cooked a low-fat frozen pizza and debated. “I’m just worried about Miranda,” she said. “This guy won’t tell her friends she’s missing when they call, and then no one will hunt her down.”
“He thinks someone will just drop their whole life for two hundred fifty? What if that were our only number? What if I were some local millionaire, and that’s all he’s offering?”
Emily cut the hot pizza neatly in fourths, wrapped three fourths in foil and stuck them in the refrigerator, then cut the remainder so we could have one piece each. “If you’d sounded older, he’d have offered more,” she said. “But still, I think it’s a sign. Good things are coming our way.”
We ate our pizza with herbal tea, and Emily came up with a plan. “We could use the money,” she said, “but it’ll be a better story if we tell people we didn’t do it. We should just say he offered us a lot, and we were totally offended anyone would think they could buy our number. There’s no need to lie, just say we were offended. We are.”
After dinner, I called the man back. I said, “We’ll do it for five hundred.”
* * *
A check signed “Xin Chan” came a week later, and we bought new dresses for the dinner Emily’s banker boyfriend Neil was throwing that Friday in the city. We met him and five of his friends in Little Italy, and Emily made sure I sat between the two single men. One couldn’t stop talking about skiing. The other was named Will and looked a little like a young, balding Paul Newman. He’d just been hunting in Venezuela. “The women are gorgeous,” he said. “They get plastic surgery once a month.”
I leapt at the opportunity. “I’m so proud of my mother for never having work done.”
“I mean, you wouldn’t believe the breasts down there,” Will said.
Emily poked her pasta and drank her third glass of red wine. I knew the strategy: If you have to stuff yourself, drink enough that you’ll be sick the next day. The one other woman there, someone’s girlfriend, just sat frowning and playing with her earrings. When she ordered her food, she had an accent like a 1940s starlet. It didn’t take much to seem rich if you were rich.
Emily leaned across the table with bloodshot eyes. “Lloyd,” she said to the skier, “Jen needs to learn to ski. She grew up riding horses, but she’s never been on skis in her life. You have to teach her.”
Lloyd laughed uncomfortably. “Just bend your knees and trust gravity,” he said, then turned back to Neil.
Emily wasn’t going to stop until I was married. The week before, she’d told me to take lessons at the racquet club, to get in with the tennis pros. I shut her up by reminding her they were probably all eighteen. Sometimes I could see what she’d be like as an old woman, trying to set the immigrant gardener up with the daughter of her French tutor, as if they must be compatible just because they were both beneath her.
She would get there, too, to the house with the grounds staff and the Country Living photo shoots. Her hair would fade to golden white, and she’d throw an annual Christmas ball. I suppose I never believed in my own success so much as had faith that she’d take me with her. Good things might happen to Emily if she sat around and waited, but only because she was a kind of magnet. It wasn’t like that for me. I’d been waiting almost half a year, and nothing. The only thing that had happened to me was I sold Miranda Željko for five hundred dollars. I wondered if this counted as selling out. But we hadn’t hurt anyone, except maybe Miranda, and how could we really help her anyway? She was either dead or just fine.
I tuned in to Emily telling the phone number story. “He offered five hundred dollars,” she said. “Can you believe it? It was just so presumptuous.”
The quiet girlfriend looked up from her plate. “You could’ve taken the money and given it to charity,” she said. “It’s just a phone number.”
After a second, Emily said, “It’s the principle,” but by the then they’d started talking about dessert and nobody seemed to hear her.
* * *
The next day, I was alone and hung over when the doorbell rang. I turned down the TV and slid my feet across the carpet towards the peephole. The ringing switched to knocking as I looked through, and a man in a parka squinted back at me through the glass. In a movie, I’d have opened the door and met the love of my life. But I watched the news, too, and I knew better.
He knocked again and called “Miranda!” I tried to study his face to see if he was angry, but all I could see was what looked, through the concave glass, to be an enormous nose. “Miranda, come on!” he said. “I can hear you. There’s something wrong with your phone.”
I thought of calling back that I wasn’t Miranda, but I was afraid he wouldn’t believe me. Better to let him imagine he’d been hearing things.
“Miranda, I’m worried about you!” He did look angry, I could see now as he took a step back. Could this be the husband, ditched halfway through the honeymoon? But then surely he’d have come here before. He was balding and wore a long, black coat. He knocked again.
Emily would have invited him in, grilled him about Miranda, and shared what little we knew. She’d have turned him into an ally, a social contact, even a friend. But Emily was brave, and I was not. I realized I couldn’t even tell her about this, or she’d be angry that I hadn’t answered. I went back to the couch and listened to him knocking for another five minutes before he finally went away and I started breathing again. I thought, maybe this is why nothing ever happens to me.
That December, Emily brought home an extra tree from Silverbird – a little white plastic one, with sparkles. We’d both decided not to fly home for Christmas. I wouldn’t have minded being home right then, though, even if it meant my mother force-feeding me pie. We watched old Christmas movies – Donna Reed in that floppy swim team bathrobe, Bing Crosby at his little piano – and wore extra layers to save money on heat.
Emily and I had decided I should ask Alejandro out for a drink, under the guise of cheering him up. It was a week before Christmas. Donatella had told me that things weren’t going well, that The Monster was trying to prove him an unfit parent.
“How could they do that?” I asked.
She laughed, a big, hoarse, smoker’s laugh. “Maybe because there are knives in the kitchen.”
I squeezed Alejandro’s shoulder whenever I passed, and twice as I was leaving I kissed his forehead. He’d strung the world’s tiniest lights around the ceiling of the restaurant, so the dining room felt cozy and safe. Everyone ordered French onion soup and extra coffee. It had snowed every day for a week, just a little bit.
Thursday after closing I called Emily on my cell, and we talked about nothing. It was my excuse to stay around till even the dish washers were gone, till Alejandro would be alone in the kitchen, making a sandwich. Every night, he’d slice leftover table rolls down the center and stack them with scraps of pollo romano and fresh mozzarella. A sandwich that would have been my whole day’s calories was just a midnight snack to him. After everyone was gone, I walked through the dark dining room, careful on the freshly mopped floor, and into the kitchen.
He and Donatella stood over the big island counter in the middle of the room, bending over some tiny little piles of flour. Just standing there, looking, and then when they saw me they stayed bent over, staring up at me.
I’m so dumb. I actually had time to wonder if they were looking for maggots in the flour, before I realized. Later, when I told Emily, she had it figured out by the time I said flour. But then, she knew it was something unusual, or I wouldn’t be telling her.
It was Donatella’s eyes that tipped me off, those dark eyes turning darker with lowered lashes. “Hey, a-Yen-a,” she said, with a glance at Alejandro, “we’re just having a little party. You join us?”
“I’m okay,” I said. I turned and slid halfway across the wet dining room on my way out. I’d never seen real cocaine before. I grew up with school assemblies devoted to it, Saturday afternoon movies warning me about it, as if it would show up at every slumber party – and finally, fifteen years later, here it was. The drug of the rich. And somehow I was the one embarrassed, like when I’d accepted my first cigarette in high school and then couldn’t remember which end to put in my mouth.
Out on the snowy sidewalk, Alejandro caught up with me. “Listen, Jen, wait,” he said. He was out of breath, but he didn’t seem high. He smiled a little too big, his teeth white under the streetlights, his breath a big cloud in the cold air. “Listen, that’s not, like, a regular thing, right? You get that. You know me.”
I nodded, and despite everything I was flattered that he cared what I thought of him.
“I’ve just been really stressed. This was sort of like a present from Donatella. Okay, so you don’t need to tell anyone about that, right?” There was panic in his eyes, I saw now. Was he worried I’d tell the health inspectors, and lose my own job in the process? I just looked at him. My brain was still slogging along, but this time the answer came faster. He’d lose Stephanie.
I started to say, “I won’t tell, I’m your friend.” But I wasn’t, clearly. I was a stupid girl he could smile a favor out of. He put his hand on my shoulder and grinned down. He was so confident, so sure I was lovesick and loyal. I hated him then, and my face was hot in the freezing night. How much was he paying his lawyers per hour to keep custody of this child? And he was offering me just mild and insincere flirtation. I wouldn’t sell Miranda Željko for less than five hundred dollars, but I was expected to sell my own word, my own free will, for a toothy smile.
I was freezing, and I thought of our stupid little plastic, empty Christmas tree in the apartment, and I thought of Donatella waiting inside for Alejandro to come back, and I was suddenly, almost violently, determined that he wasn’t getting away with it. Even though I kept thinking, Miranda wouldn’t do it like this. Emily wouldn’t do it like this. They’d finesse a closer relationship with Alejandro, show loyalty, trust that the good things would follow in time. They would wait, wait, wait. But I was insulted to the core, and I was tired of waiting for the sun to shine on me when I knew it never would. I hoped he’d assume I was shivering from the cold. All I said was “Look,” because it was all I could think of. Then I said, “It’s not that simple.”
He dropped his hand from my shoulder and puffed another big white breath into the air. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you pay your lawyers, right? To keep Stephanie?” My hand was in my purse, wrapped around my apartment keys, and they were digging into the flesh at the base of my thumb. “You pay them a lot.” He didn’t answer, so I kept talking. “I just don’t think children should be around that stuff.” I felt better realizing I had moral ground to stand on, but I knew I wasn’t fooling either of us. “You pay them quite a lot.”
He stared at me like the surgeon at the newcomers’ party had six months before, like he was wondering what kind of creature I could possibly be. He popped his jaw and looked up at the sky. When he looked back down, his eyes were narrow and tired and disgusted. “How much do you want?”
My heart was beating the way it used to when I played hearts with my dad and tried to shoot the moon. The first number that came to my head was five hundred, which was ridiculously low. Then I thought a million, which was even worse. I said, “How about ten thousand?”
He couldn’t know that I would never, ever tell, even if he slapped my face and walked away. If I told, the only person in town who would talk to me again would be his ex-wife. Even Emily would disown me. Alejandro stared over my head.
“I’m not a rich man.” He stuffed his hands deep in his pockets and bounced up and down for warmth. He had just his khakis and oxford on. All at once I felt sorry for him, for the cold air ripping through his shirt, and I wanted a way out. If I said I was joking, would he believe me? I was silent, paralyzed, but he must have thought I was just holding my ground. He forced a laugh. “Listen, I can give you a raise. Just a raise, not a lump sum, but let’s say enough that in one year you have maybe eight thousand more than before. So you stay one year, you get eight thousand dollars. I’ll figure out the math.”
I set my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. “Nine thousand,” I said.
He turned in a circle, slowly, until he was facing me again, his hands still in his pockets. “Okay,” he said. “Jesus, look at you, all of a sudden.” He laughed, but not really. He headed back to the door, where the light was still shining out onto the snow, and when he opened it the warm air steamed out. “You could use it to buy some food,” he called over his shoulder.
“It’s such an odd number,” Emily said. “Why nine? I mean, you could ask for more.”
“We already settled it. I didn’t have time to think.” I’d lied to her, said Alejandro had offered the money flat out and told me he wouldn’t take no for an answer. We were curled up on the couch, and Emily had draped my shoulders with the red cashmere blanket her boss had given her for Christmas. I couldn’t stop crying, and I’d gone through a craggy white mountain of tissues. I told Emily it was because he made me feel cheap, but really I was thinking about him in that thin shirt, thinking what it would be like for me tomorrow walking into the restaurant, and the day after that. Donatella would find out what happened and stare me down every night, and Alejandro, I imagined, would joke with me like nothing happened, but I could never again convince myself that the restaurant was a good place to be, that I was waiting there for something good to happen. Maybe the one-year deal was a way to punish me, to make me live with what I’d done.
“But still, it’s a start on a cute little car. You totally did the right thing. He probably feels better now, anyway. He doesn’t have to just take your word for it, and then worry you’ll have a change of heart. He was buying some peace of mind.”
I blew my nose in a new tissue.
“Hey,” she said, “it’s good to cry, because you’re getting rid of extra protein.” I felt like choking her, but she was only trying to help. And it was myself I was disgusted with, not Emily.
She brought me water and popped in a movie and handed me the box of Miranda’s things we kept in the closet. The movie was Sabrina, and I sank back into the couch to watch Audrey Hepburn spy on William Holden’s tennis court seduction. In a few minutes she’d come to the party in that dress, and no one would believe it was the chauffeur’s little girl, all grown up – that all it had taken was time and a trip to Paris. The box in my lap held every piece of mail that had come for Miranda since our second week there, plus the one coat hanger with her dry cleaner’s name, and the little cutting board she left under the sink. Lingerie catalogues, bridal sale notices, travel brochures, and now all the Christmas cards of families on sailboats, round-faced little boys with bow ties, a chocolate lab in the snow.
“I bet they just extended the honeymoon,” I said. “Don’t you think? They planned to go for a week, but they love Italy so much they’re staying, and they forgot to tell their families.”
“No,” she said, “I bet they’re doing the whole tour of Europe, like people did in the 1800’s. And then they’re stopping in Morocco, and she’s making him try new food.” She scooped up my wet tissues with her bare hands and carried them to the kitchen trash. “Then they’re seeing the Pyramids,” she called. “You can see the Sphinx from their hotel.”
It was sweet of Emily. She was the one who believed Miranda was dead. She knew that right then, wrapped in blankets on our garage sale couch, I needed Miranda to have made it.
One day I’d meet someone named Miranda Željko at a fabulous party, and we’d put it together how we’d both lived in that tiny apartment with thin walls and the smell of burning sugar, back when we were poor and hungry and waiting for our lives to begin. We’d laugh, and our laughs would be soft like time-worn leather, as beautiful as all the perfect, impossible things in the world: A steam-whistle ocean liner sailing the world. Bogie in his stupid hat, admitting he loves Sabrina. Emily with her hair up. Audrey in that black and white dress.