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Clothes to Die For
Darling, you remember Lillian Hall. You met her last month when you were in New York with me. Remember? In Bryant Park? The one who took such an interest in you? Well, I just bumped into her in Milan--she was staying at my hotel, which I thought odd because the editors are usually at the Ferragamo, but that's beside the point. I could hardly believe it myself, but she offered you an internship at Tasty."
My heart drops. I clearly remember Lillian Hall--a cold, gorgeous, acerbic woman who scared the crap out of me.
"You are familiar with Tasty, yes? It's the hottest young women's magazine in America. Lillian Hall took it over and re-launched it six months ago. The circulation has gone through the roof," my aunt rattles on without pause. Her telephone manner is rapid-fire at the best of times.
I used to have a theory that my aunt Victoria arranges things for me out of guilt, because she knows where my mother is and isn't telling me. But now I try not to think that way. I try to think of her as a woman who married very well later in life, chose not to have children, and regrets that a little.
"This is my last summer before med school. Are you honestly suggesting that I drop everything and get a job at a fashion magazine?" I ask. "Wouldn't that be flighty of me?"
"Believe me, darling," Victoria says, "you are in no danger of being flighty."
I don't quite know what to feel. As my aunt well knows, fashion and I have a long, tortured history. My mother, Eva, was a designer, and her successes and failures in that field led our family to . . . well, where things ended up.
With Eva being who she was, I grew up sewing. And I still do frequently go all Pretty in Pink and knock out a sundress or repurpose a thrift-store find into something original. I'm also more aware of the world of high fashion than most twenty-three-year-olds with no money, living at home with their dads, and taking the MCATs are. I jest. I'm completely, obsessively aware of the world of high fashion. I moon over unaffordable brands like Alberta Ferretti, Thakoon, Mint. I love how Zac Posen constructs his garments. I respect how the folks behind Martin Margiela deconstruct theirs. And I think Marni makes clothes to die for.
However, I'm not going to follow in my mother's footsteps. I want a career where hard work guarantees you a job, safety, respect. Where you're in no danger of being called "contrived" or "out-of-step" in the newspaper. Where you don't spend all your time trying to impress a bunch of shallow bloodsuckers.
"I'm flattered," I tell Victoria. "But there are lots of people who would . . . enjoy that environment more than I would."
There is a long, chilly pause during which I remember that Victoria pays my student loans.
She sighs. "This kind of opportunity doesn't come twice. Oldham Inc.--that's the media empire that publishes Tasty--gets hundreds of resumes for every position. And they don't even look at them. A rich plum like an Oldham internship is only achieved through connections. Lillian noticing you was kismet."
It was eerie, actually. Victoria had taken me to a benefit dinner in Manhattan--she's a society dame; her every bite raises money for something--and on the way out of the Bryant Park Grill we crossed paths with Lillian, a small, delicate, lugubrious, black-haired woman with skin so translucent, it immediately had me pondering medical conditions. Victoria knew Lillian because Victoria knows everyone. She said, "Darling!" Lillian said, "Darling" back in a tone faint with ennui. Diamonds and rubies glittered on her trim white hands. My aunt said, "This is my niece, Kate McGraw."
And Lillian said "Oh?" and proceeded to stare at me so keenly and for so long it became awkward. I was wearing my own design (blue-flowered, mini, adapted from a fifties housedress), but that didn't seem to be the point of interest. Under those icy blue eyes I felt cold and small and somehow . . . hunted. Then--and this is the weird part--she gripped my chin with her hand, said, "I've been waiting forever to meet you," and swept past us in a blast of icy air.
"I think she must have confused us with someone else." Victoria looked bemused. "I don't know her all that well."
And there it rested, until today. Now my aunt starts turning the screws. "You've never validated your aesthetic skills or your creativity because of my sister's dreadful behavior. I understand that. But once you go to medical school it will be too late. I wouldn't want you to feel unfulfilled for your entire life and not know why. . . ."
Me neither. "I already have a life plan," I say. "I did premed at Brown. It's too late."
"Plans are made to be canceled." Victoria is not your usual mother figure.
"I'm the wrong style of person for that job. I wouldn't have anything to wear." I didn't just say that!
Victoria senses victory. "You don't give yourself enough credit. The clothing you make for yourself is quite cute."
"Right now I'm wearing a dress made from a pillowcase."
"You've done something fabulous with it, I'm sure."
"I live in Monticello, New York. I work as an EMT. I witnessed the Jaws of Life being used last night."
"Then you're ready to step fearlessly into the jaws of death, aren't you? Don't tell me you'd let the complexes your mother has instilled stop you from doing something you really, secretly want?"
She's manipulating me, and it's working.
I close my eyes. "Does this internship pay?" I ask.
"You get a stipend. And moreover, since it's in New York, I was looking forward to you coming to live with me for the summer. It would be lovely to spend a little time together."
She can't know that living with her was a teenaged dream of mine. A long-held, secretly cherished desire. Even had it been possible, I couldn't have done it because the years of the millennium were a rough time for my dad. I needed to stick around the house to keep an eye on him. But Dan McGraw is doing much better these days, and I am somewhat of a free agent.
Just like that, she's got me. How much damage can one summer do?
Two weeks later, in early June, a yellow taxi deposits me, two huge army duffel bags, and a rolly suitcase with a sewing machine in it on the pavement of West Seventy-second Street. In front of me looms a tall stone building encrusted with gargoyles.
I've arrived at Aunt Victoria's.
The New York City heat and humidity are postapocalyptic. My hair--a salon blow-out of freshly hennaed auburn locks--is sticking to my neck. I'm sure I've already sweated off my pricey berry-stain cheek coloring. The makeup, the hair, and my short crimson manicure are all attempts to get in the groove for the new job. Too bad I'm still gawky, pale, flat-chested, and have many of what my new employer would no doubt term "figure flaws." I feel visually wrong every time I come to New York.
My duffels are stuffed with every semi-decent thing I've sewn for myself in the past few years, plus some Eva 4 Eva sample dresses my mom left behind. They're so heavy I'm forced to drag them between two parked cars and onto the sidewalk. I've stopped to rest when a man in livery dashes out of the building and hefts them for me, informing me that Mrs. Rogers had told him to be on the lookout.
I've been here before, and I'm familiar with the doorman concept, but it never ceases to intimidate.
Of course, around here a doorman is the least of my worries. Victoria's husband, Sterling Rogers, is a real-estate developer, and they live in a spectacular, split-level, floor-through penthouse with a wraparound terrace and moody views of the Manhattan skyline. This vast, sprawling apartment is decorated mainly in charcoal gray and black, with spot-lighting to pick out the museum-quality art, the rare orchids, and the framed prehistoric teeth and jawbones that Sterling makes a hobby of collecting.
The elevator door dings and opens directly into the stunning living room. A wall of glorious air-conditioning rolls over me, and I delight in the miracle of evaporation while digging in my pocket for a five for Miguel, the doorman. I hand it to him, wincing with uncertainty. Do you tip doormen?
"Bellissima! Welcome! You've survived the bus station!" my aunt cries, gliding out from another room.
I've insisted that my living expenses this summer will come out of my savings. Thus, the bus into the city, where I then had to splurge for the taxi.
Victoria, as always, looks glamorous. Her hair is stick straight, dark brown, and bobbed; her lipstick bright red. Both emphasize her angular face. She's always been the tall, severe beauty to my mom Eva's girl-next-door.
"Hi, Aunt Vic." I hug her. "You look charmant!"
See. I'm practicing.
"Thank you, dear. But a young woman should never compliment an older one on her appearance."
"It only serves to emphasize the difference in their ages. And most women will think you're mocking them."
Victoria is famous for her pearls of un-maternal wisdom. My best friend, Sylvia, fascinated by socialites in general and my aunt in particular, writes them down in a notebook.
Victoria takes my clammy hand in her cold one. "Come say hello to Sterling, dear. He's off to Japan this evening."
Her husband is a tall, gloomy, silver-haired man with large ears and a slight stoop. I suspect there was a pituitary imbalance somewhere in his past. Sylvia, who has seen a picture, says he looks like Count Dracula. It's true but mean, since Victoria is crazy about him.
My memories of my aunt from childhood are of somebody with problems. My mother thought Victoria was always dating the wrong men (and sleeping with them too quickly, if I dare to read between the lines). And then, boom, Victoria met Sterling and overnight became fabulous and started dealing art. I get the feeling that she knows how lucky she is, and is always grateful for it.
We find the apple of her eye in the master bedroom, arranging a silk handkerchief in the pocket of a made-to-measure blazer. British, I surmise, by its slanted side pockets and a flash of bottle-green lining. Vic kisses him and straightens the hanky.
"Kate," Sterling says, giving me a plate-sized hand to shake. "You must be excited about your internship. Victoria tells me it's quite prestigious."
"I can't wait." I give it all the enthusiasm I can muster. I'm not sure excited adequately describes my feelings. I'd go with anxious or terrified.
"Lillian Hall is an acquaintance from the Seventh on Seventh benefits," Sterling continues. "They use one of our buildings as a party space. She's a wonderful woman. Razor sharp."
"She seemed focused," I say, recalling how Lillian's pale, android-blue gaze raked me from head to toe. It's true that I could almost feel Lillian noticing that I'd gone for a dress with a waist, while everyone else that night was wearing "baby means business" tents, trapezes, and bubbles.
"Lillian is exceedingly clever," Victoria agrees. "I hope you'll have a chance to watch her in action, though I can't imagine she'll spend much time with the interns."
"Speaking of time, dear . . ." Sterling taps his watch. Victoria and I retreat from their bedroom.
We head down a red-painted hallway hung with Fuseli sketches, turn left at the museum display cases filled with shark teeth, and open a carved Chinese door.
"We're putting you in the William Blake room," Victoria says. She winks at me. "In his youth, Sterling was a prescient collector."
Behind the door is a medium-sized room done in the same Gothic-Asian aesthetic as the rest of the apartment. The walls are black; wooden-slat blinds cover the windows; a spread of red velvet blankets a low platform bed whose side tables are vintage Chinese hatboxes topped by orchids in bloom. Over the bed, hanging in a pool of light, is a watercolor of a harried-looking man with a flowing white beard, holding his arms imploringly up to heaven.
"Will it do?" Victoria asks. "We have the other guest room I could put you in."
"This is wonderful," I say. "Very dramatic."
"I'm so glad you like it." She smiles at me. "Please don't open the blinds during the day. Glare is bad for the art. You won't mind terribly, will you?"
"Of course not." I'm secretly disappointed. I'd been looking forward to enjoying the views.
Vic helps me to drag my bags in and start unpacking. Actually, she unpacks while I loll like a teenager on the red velvet spread and let her.
"I won't be back until late," she volunteers, "so we should run through the schedule for tomorrow."
"We're not having dinner together?" I'd imagined that on my first night in the city we'd do something stereotypically urban like ordering in Japanese.
"Oh, you know how clients are!" she says airily. "Tomorrow you'll be reporting to Lexa Larkin. She edits the society pages and does most of the celebrity wrangling for Tasty. Unofficially, she's in charge of buzz. And she's running a contest at the moment that she needs help with."
My heart sinks a little. Buzz? As a noun?
"Usually, you'll start work at nine-thirty in the morning, but for tomorrow Lexa has asked that you arrive just before eleven o'clock. That's when they hold their Monday features meeting. You'll be able to jump right into a room full of fashion elites."
Victoria pauses for a moment to hold up a sky-blue silk top made from a Vintage Vogue pattern. "This is a good color for you," she says. "It goes with your eyes."
She puts it on a hanger, front and center in my new closet, where she's placing the items she particularly likes, organized by color. Like the rest of the women in our family, she has a good aesthetic sense.
"I don't know the exact address, but you won't be able to miss the building. It's two fifty-story towers of black glass just off Columbus Circle--they look like they've been twisted and fused together. Rem Koolhaas designed them for the Oldham family in the late nineties. There isn't a more impressive corporate headquarters in Midtown. You'll love it!" She beams at me.
"Sounds epic," I say gamely. "But if I don't have to be there till eleven, I'll see you in the morning, right?"
"Hardly, darling. I'm a late sleeper."
After Sterling leaves for the airport and my aunt flits out for the night, I'm left alone in the gorgeous, rambling apartment.