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I first met Amy Saragosi during what I now refer to as my Bell Jar phase. That is, for roughly twenty-five years I'd been busily fulfilling my destiny as achiever of good grades, winner of awards, and attainer of a respectable, middle-class lifestyle. I was closing in fast on the brass ring and I was exhausted.
Growing up in an upper-middle-class Miami suburb, I had been raised to expect everything and nothing. Everything in the sense that I would have as a matter of course a good education, a successful career, an equally successful husband, the exact right number of children, a big house with the requisite Florida swimming pool, and a healthy retirement fund. Nothing in the sense that there were no other acceptable options for me to pursue.
Overachievement was the philosophy I'd been bred into, and it was a philosophy I'd taken to heart. A volunteer and part-time political activist since my high school days, I'd selected a career in nonprofit administration because it seemed like the best way to do good (something that mattered a lot to me) while earning a name for myself in Miami's professional/political community (something that mattered just as much). I'd worked my way up through the ranks, assisted in part by active memberships in groups like the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Miami, the United Way of Miami-Dade's Young Leaders, and the Hannah Kahn Poetry Foundation. I even had a picture-perfect, up-and-coming Cuban boyfriend of nearly four years to whom, as was assumed by everybody myself included I would get engaged any second now. We had settled into a snug "starter" house on the outskirts of Coral Gables a neighborhood so old-money placid it could've been underwritten by Valium and everything was falling neatly into its designated place.
More and more, though, I'd begun feeling as if I didn't have one more promotion, Chamber of Commerce award, or evening of being charming to my fiancé-to-be's high school friends left in me. I don't remember exactly when or why the persistent feeling of boredom I'd been living with for months became simply a dull emptiness. I just know that, eventually, I took to overeating, spontaneous crying jags, and an utterly prosaic sexual affair with a coworker. We'd drive to the cheap motels along Calle Ocho, patronized by prostitutes and porn addicts, where twenty-one dollars got you a room for two hours, free condoms, and no questions asked.
Every day I was being hollowed out bit by bit. I knew, somehow, that it was only a matter of time before the whole structure collapsed on itself and exposed me to everyone as a fraud who'd never been as bright or well-adjusted as she'd led them to believe. Most of my waking energy was spent in giving careful attention to the integrity of the facade, so that the failure lurking beneath the surface of the success-story-to-be would never see the light of day. I was tired all the time, taking lengthy naps after work that still didn't keep me from falling asleep most nights before ten o'clock.
Those of you who've ever taken Psych 101 or watched Oprah are probably saying to yourselves, Ah! She was depressed! Burnout . . . fear of failure . . . fear of success . . . classic case, really. And you're at least partially right. But, for me, it wasn't as abstract as all that. I wasn't self-destructive or suffering from a generalized fear of success.
I was afraid of succeeding because I was pretty sure that I hated everything I was supposed to succeed at.
An inveterate bookworm from as far back as I could remember, my imagination was always full of alternative lives I could be living in Paris among poets, or in L.A. among movie moguls, or in South American jungles among revolutionaries. I'd fantasize about tragic relationships with artistic men, or sophisticated parties where conversations had gleefully sharp edges. I wanted those things so badly, sometimes my very teeth hurt from the wanting. It was the business of attaining them that was beyond the power of my imagination.
Because I'd always read a lot, I'd always gotten good grades and succeeded at work-related projects without trying particularly hard. But I had no idea how to make my life more exciting within the rigid confines of the suburban straight-and-narrow or how to step out of the straight-and-narrow altogether. I'd always known how to achieve things, but I didn't know how to do things. By default, I'd ended up doing what everybody else expected me to do and feeling, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, like life was passing me by.
So, when I thought about my life, I pictured it as a riderless horse galloping at full-pace in a straight line, dragging me along behind it with one foot trapped in the stirrup toward a bland, colorless future.
In the midst of this, Amy dropped into my life like the moment of Revelation that all true believers wait for.
I was working for the Miami-Dade affiliate of Unified Charities of America, running their direct service volunteer program. Amy was doing freelance translation work of some kind for one of the big downtown law firms that had offices in the same building. We were two of a handful of smokers at a time when cigarettes were becoming the catch-all bogeyman of the politically correct set and we constantly ran into each other downstairs, cigarettes in hand. We began to know each other by sight, then began to talk, and quickly became friends.
Like most hard-core book nerds, I'd always secretly suspected that I was much cooler than people gave me credit for. Amy's singling me out for friendship seemed like independent proof. It wasn't just that she was one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen, with dark red hair, enormous Brazilian-brown eyes, and the kind of perfect body you were supposed to have but probably didn't. But at my own age of twenty-five Amy already had the irreverent, fuck-'em-all self-confidence that only comes one of two ways: staggering good looks or years of hard living.
Amy had them both in spades.
When two women who hardly know each other decide to become best friends, a lengthy period of exposition usually ensues. It's almost like the first few months with a new lover you want to tell each other all your stories and hear all theirs: where and how you grew up, what your family was like, the men you've loved, the things you've done.
Amy's stories were well worth the price of admission, although you never really knew how much was true and how much had been exaggerated for the sake of good storytelling. I believed every word she said as if it were gospel truth, mostly because I absolutely wanted to believe it all, but the timelines got a little wobbly around the edges if you looked at them too closely.
As near as I could piece together, Amy was a Brazilian native whose father had eventually fled back to his homeland of Turkey. Amy's mother had gone after him with the questionable intention of dragging him back, and a fourteen-year-old Amy had ended up in Manhattan, sharing a SoHo apartment with a nineteen-year-old model. By seventeen, Amy was a full-fledged drug addict, working as a stripper to support her habit. In and out of rehab by eighteen, she'd pursued degrees in linguistics and anthropology through various universities in Berlin, Paris, and Seattle. She'd been engaged in Paris to a famous-in-art-circles sculptor, and in Seattle to a small-time real-estate magnate who was, allegedly, stump-stupid but obscenely gorgeous. Now single, Amy had settled in South Beach so she could be closer to her brother, who also lived on the Beach. She traveled extensively when she wasn't working, killing time overseas with artist friends and shadowy million-aires, and celebrities from Bob Dylan and Courtney Love to Michael Douglas and Brad Pitt. She'd even once been an invited guest to a party at Madonna's home.
I was never to know where Amy got the money for these trips, as I was also never to know how she paid for her reckless shopping binges or the bursts of extravagance she would sometimes treat us both to. That she couldn't finance her lifestyle through her freelance work was almost certain. I suspected that she might still be in touch with her parents and that they sent her money, but the one time I'd asked about them, Amy had answered with a curt, "I haven't heard from either of my parents in years."
I told my own stories in turn. Not that they were much in comparison with Amy's suddenly, my hijinks at out-of-town high school debate tournaments or college fraternity parties seemed like the most humdrum forms of naughtiness. The daughter of a lawyer and a medical office manager, my family dynamic was nowhere near as complex as Amy's which is not to say that my family and I were close. I knew without question that my parents loved me, but there was always an undercurrent of discomfort of unspoken tensions, or brawls waiting to erupt that had kept us from forming the friendly-grownup interaction most of my friends had developed with their own parents post-college.
A childhood lived through books had made me the kid who'd always done well on standardized tests (sexy, right?), and I therefore went the way of the chess club when the smart kids and the cool kids inevitably separated in high school. I told Amy how my two favorite extracurricular activities had been writing and the debate team, and how teachers had assured me that both of these skills would take me far. I'd brought home a more or less constant stream of trophies and awards. Other parents had thought I'd probably be a "good influence" and encouraged their kids to hang out with me.
I'd majored in creative writing in college and spent four years eating, breathing, and sleeping poetry. I told Amy about Lara Jacobs, my best friend in the world dating back to our college days when we'd run wild through local bars and practiced the fine art of driving boys crazy. Under Lara's tutelage, I'd learned to embrace my inner extrovert and had, I felt, blossomed from high school brainiac into sociable, semi-sophisticated college heartbreaker. Amy actually reminded me of Lara now living in California who was also smart, beautiful, and unflinchingly confident, although her Scarsdale upbringing was a far cry from Amy's "little girl lost" years. It was with Lara that I'd smoked pot for the first time, the only drug I'd ever attempted, and it had made me feel pretty rebellious until I met Amy.
Amy and I were friends for many months before I first saw her with cocaine, and I think now it was a deliberate choice on her part something she was holding back because she sensed (correctly) that I wouldn't be able to handle it yet. I remember asking her, gently and not wanting to sound judgmental, if maybe it wasn't a bad idea for her to use drugs. "You know," I said, "because of the whole rehab thing."
"Rehab doesn't get you off drugs," she told me matter-of-factly. "Rehab teaches you how to manage your drugs."
One thing about Amy: She had an undeniable gift for subtle irony.
It's true that I liked being around her for the world-wise witticisms and glimpses at a life of adventure and celebrity. Amy had a way of assuming you were listening to her not as an audience, but as an equal somebody who was as much of an insider to that world as she was. You knew it wasn't true, but you believed it because she believed it and what, at the end of the dog day, was there that Amy didn't know?
But there was also a universe of sympathy buried beneath the been-there-seen-that facade. You could dredge up the ugliest secrets you'd never shared with anybody and feel that you'd only been holding back until you could finally offer them up to her, and be absolved without ever having been judged.
Soon we were taking all of our cigarette breaks together. She'd buzz me from her office, saying, "Let's go down for a smoke, and, hey, can you bring an extra cigarette for me? Oh wait, forget it, you smoke those Lights. I always feel like my fontanels are caving in trying to suck enough nicotine out of those things." I'd been accustomed to eating a takeout lunch at my desk over a pile of work, but now Amy and I were going out every day for proper, sit-down lunches. Occasionally she would even treat us to one of Downtown Miami's pricier lunch spots overlooking Biscayne Bay, where bankers and suspiciously cash-rich customs officials basked in sun-soaked opulence.
And back and forth the conversation would go, sometimes pausing but never ceasing, like a frenetic game of tetherball.
Looking back on it all, I think the most pivotal decision I ever made was when, in college, I decided to take up smoking. It seems like everywhere I look these days, somebody's trying to make me feel all sackcloth-and-ashes about this nasty little addiction, and I wish I could muster the appropriate remorse. But, if not for smoking, Amy and I would never have become friends. And becoming friends with Amy was one of those events that took my life in an entirely different direction, to the point that I can't imagine now where I would be or what my life would look like if it had never happened.
Not that the changes happened right away. I was, without a doubt, drawn to Amy and intrigued although somewhat scared by the South Beach lifestyle. But I was still firmly rooted in my Coral Gables existence, trying to find a way to dabble in Amy's life while maintaining the ground I already knew.
As you've undoubtedly guessed, a big part of that ground was my boy-friend, Eduard (his name at birth had been Eduardo, but he'd eventually dropped the o). I'd met him when I was twenty-two ironically, at a fundraising party for an independent film held in a South Beach club named Van Dome.
Eduard was brilliant: He had a master's degree in comparative literature, spoke five languages fluently, and could do calculus in his head. His typical demeanor was one of quiet reserve, although he was given to rare bursts of temper and even rarer moments of sweet, unselfconscious goofiness that always went straight to my heart. Tall, slender, and fair-skinned, he spoke English without a trace of an accent. I was short and (ahem) buxom, with wavy-curly black hair, dark eyes, olive skin, and a far more outgoing disposition; people meeting us for the first time tended to think I was the "ethnic" one.
Eduard was a PhD candidate and adjunct professor of literature and film studies at the University of Miami. He was working on his doctoral thesis and writing a screenplay (film was a booming business among industry types eager to take advantage of Miami's year-round sunshine while abusing their expense accounts). Although he wasn't Jewish, he was so hyper-educated and success-bound that my parents eventually reconciled themselves. We dated for a while and, after a respectable period of time, moved in together.
It seemed as if I were right on track for the happily-ever-after goodness I'd prepped for my whole life. Eduard and I had discussed honeymoon options, picked out names for our children, and earnestly debated the merits of public versus private schools. Most of my own friends had moved to other cities after high school, so Eduard's friends had become my friends although not without a certain amount of friction. Their wives and girlfriends were all very proper, respectful Cuban girls. I was most definitely not. After one too many political arguments (Miami's Cuban community is a tough place to be a left-leaning Democrat especially if you're as opinionated as I was), I found myself known among Eduard's friends as la brujita. Literally translated, it means "the little witch." La bruja ("the witch") was a way in Spanish of referring to a particularly difficult or irksome woman and while the "-ita" suffix was meant to indicate affection, I think Eduard's friends saw me as this mouthy interloper who they liked and all, but who they couldn't help wondering when they'd finally see the last of.
Eduard and I were aware of South Beach as you really couldn't help being if you lived in South Florida but were far from being part of the scene. Two or three times a year, we'd trek over the causeway and toss way too much money into parking, club entries, and drinks. For the most part, we were content to remain on the mainland, having regular dinners with his family and impromptu get-togethers at the homes of his friends to play dominoes.
As his thesis and his script both advanced, Eduard started spending countless hours in the library or his office on campus. For months at a time, he would work late nights and weekends, leaving before I got up in the morning and coming home after I'd already gone to bed. Given my lack of a social life outside of his, this inevitably meant more and more time alone in an empty house.
Although technically not a suburban wife yet, I tried filling my time in the ways lonely suburban wives do with civic groups and volunteer activities. Plastering on my cheeriest smile, I helped raise money for battered women's shelters, spent time in soup kitchens, and started a literacy program at an elementary school in Little Haiti. And, after a couple of years, I fell into the aforementioned affair. An action-packed inner life coupled with entirely too much time by oneself is almost always a dangerous combination.
Eduard never found out about my extracurricular activities, but we did find ourselves fighting more frequently. The arguments would start over stupid things a wet umbrella left on a hardwood floor, let's say and work their way up to grand theatrics involving clenched fists, loud threats, and airborne appliances. I think we both knew the relationship was ultimately doomed, but we were also both people who loathed the idea of failing at anything. Besides, I knew I was supposed to marry somebody someday, and I couldn't imagine who I would ever marry if it wasn't Eduard.
And, for a long time, we truly did love each other. Sometimes I would look up at him washing dishes, or reading a book, or debating whether to wear his glasses or his contact lenses, and I'd think . . . well, nothing coherent, really. Just a feeling of wholeness, of contentment. I'd seem to hear a voice in my head saying, Ah, yes . . . yes, yes, yes . . .
Amy and Eduard tried to like each other at first, for my sake, but even I could tell their attempts smacked of insincerity they were working at complete cross-purposes. Amy had just gone through a best-girlfriend breakup and was looking for a new partner in crime/sidekick to do the South Beach nightlife crawl with her. For his part, Eduard certainly didn't want me running around South Beach till all hours, especially in the company of somebody like Amy. "How come you're not spending as much time with that girl Tammy from your office?" Eduard asked one day, a world of unspoken disapproval inflected in his voice.
I didn't want to tell him that Tammy a preppy, well-meaning Midwestern girl had hated Amy practically on sight, and vice versa. I'd tried a three-way lunch once and the experience had been so profoundly uncomfortable, I'd found myself nostalgic for the time my high school boyfriend's mother caught us in her bed. Tammy had let me know not with an outright demand, but in the subtle, social language universally understood by women that a choice needed to be made, and there really was no choice.
"Tammy's okay," I replied, "but all we really have in common is bitching about how her husband and my boyfriend are never around."
That ended the discussion.
Amy and I progressed from workday lunches to leisure-time excursions. She invited me to her house a few times, which was filled with exotic carved wood and stone pieces that were an equal mix of Far Eastern and Native American. She would prepare mysterious meals with recipes she'd learned in Tibet or Peru. I went shopping with her once but shied away from future shopping expeditions after she tried repeatedly to talk me into clothes that were tight, low-cut, or otherwise attention-drawing. My own taste leaned toward the neutral and loose-fitting, and I was always careful to cover up my chest as much as possible.
"Come on! You have such a great little body let people see it," Amy said.
"No, you have a great body," I corrected her. "You're just in serious denial about mine because we're friends."
In my best attention-deflecting attire, I started following Amy through South Beach's clubs and dive bars. I'd usually abandon her sometime around eleven o'clock to make sure that I was home and in bed by eleven thirty. Amy invariably stayed out and partied far into the night, taking pains each time to let me know that absolutely nothing worth drinking for ever happened before midnight.
One of Amy's friends was a club promoter named Mykel, who had a Thursday night party at a South Beach club called Liquid. The opening of Liquid had been attended by such luminaries as Madonna, Naomi Campbell, and Calvin Klein. Robert De Niro was said to be a regular. It was the kind of place I'd never even contemplated having the nerve to try to enter on my own.
Mykel's party at Liquid was called Back Door Bamby, and it became a regular stop for us. This might sound insanely naive now, but it was news to me that clubs had weekly parties with names, thrown by people called "promoters" whose job it was to keep the party semi-private yet filled to capacity with the right crowd. I had thought that clubs simply opened their doors at night, set up a velvet rope and a cash box, and waited for the people to come.
Back Door Bamby was my first experience with what I came to realize was the real South Beach, and I started to understand the differences between visiting occasionally and spending time as a "local." Amy and I would bypass the velvet ropes without a thought of cracking our wallets for the cover charge. We'd stand at the bar with our comped drinks sometimes with a small crew of Amy's friends and sometimes with Mykel, when he wasn't attending to party-related business. I'd crane my neck to see everything, absorbed in the ruthlessly chic decor and the quasi-porn images of women in various states of bondage, which were projected in flickering rotation on one of the walls. Occasionally, I would be alone at the bar while Amy hit the VIP section for a quick bump of her nose candy du jour or danced with any number of men and women both never the best dancer on the floor, but always the least inhibited.
The Beautiful People were everywhere, a dazzling visual confection of flesh and glitter, churning constantly like a human testament to perpetual motion. I didn't couldn't fully comprehend it yet, but I felt an intense craving to let go and join them and a smaller, quieter fear that it might never happen.
One evening, Amy invited Eduard and me to join her for dinner with her brother Marcio and his wife. We met them at Nemo's, a restaurant at the southern tip of South Beach. It was a great night for me, one that made me feel as if our friendship was truly becoming solidified. I was, after all, meeting what constituted Amy's family a major step forward in any relationship.
Afterward, Amy made a point of telling me how much they'd liked me, making an equal point of letting me know they hadn't cared for Eduard. "They thought he was a little . . . supercilious," she said.
I knew what she was actually trying to tell me. Amy and Eduard were more or less undeclared enemies at this point, and Amy had chosen to read Eduard's natural reserve as an air of superiority a superiority, she implied, that was wholly out of line in the presence of someone like Amy, who'd spent so much time among the wealthy and famous. What will your life be like, she seemed to be asking, saddled with a man who offends others so easily?
"He's not," I told her, not sure which one of us I was trying to convince with my denial. "He's really, really not. He's just quiet with people he doesn't know very well."
She left for Greece the next morning, going off to spend a couple of weeks on a friend's yacht. Amy traveled frequently, and I'd come to hate the time she spent out of town, to feel that her presence was the only thing making my life bearable from day to day.
I don't remember anymore what started the fight that became The Fight the one that broke Eduard and me up. It was a hot Sunday afternoon in early June, and we'd just driven back from our usual Sunday lunch with his parents. We started quibbling about this and that, and then in what was now predictable fashion for us the quibbling escalated to fighting, then screaming. Eventually, I slammed out of the house and took off in my car, driving no place in particular, alternating between raw, painful sobs and pure, blind rage.
It was hours before I finally came back home. It was night already, and I realized I'd been driving around in the dark without even turning my headlights on. I walked into the house and sat down heavily on the couch, and Eduard came in and sat down next to me. He took my hand in his and we sat like that, side by side without looking at each other, for a long, long time.
I finally cleared my throat, and Eduard turned toward me. I'm not sure if he was looking at my face or if, like me, his head was turned down and away, unable to do what we both knew needed to be done if we looked at each other directly.
"I don't think I'm in love with you anymore," he said. Each word came slowly, the pauses between them painful and deliberate. "I don't think we're in love with each other anymore."
I opened my mouth to say something, to fight for this man this relationship that was supposed to be my forever. Instead, I heard myself quietly saying, "Okay." I brought my eyes up, looking him full in the face this time, and said it again. "Okay."
Neither of us was the type who cried easily or often; that night, though, Eduard and I held each other and cried for what seemed like hours. I kept thinking about my best friend growing up, Lisa Lauer, who'd moved away in the seventh grade. We'd planned how we would stay in touch and talk all the time and still be each other's best friends. And yet, the day the moving van pulled up, we'd cried and cried, knowing with complete finality that we would never be best friends would probably never even see each other again.
Finally I stood up, and Eduard offered to sleep on the couch that night. "That's okay." I attempted a smile. "I'll take the couch. I'm a lot shorter than you are, anyway."
The next day was one of the worst of my life, because it was the day when I knew how much worse things would feel before they started to feel better. I called in sick to work and pulled out the paper to look at apartment listings. The house was Eduard's; I'd made a few small financial contributions, but, on my nonprofit salary, they were nominal at best. Eduard had discreetly left first thing in the morning, and I spent most of the day alone, trying to figure out what I was going to do.
Amy called that night from Greece, and I shakily told her what had happened. "You have to move to South Beach," she said immediately, sounding like a little girl who'd just gotten exactly what she wanted for Christmas. I couldn't help but smile and mentally bless her as she added, "I would be so happy if you lived on the Beach!"
When a man you've spent four years with has just told you he doesn't love you anymore, nothing feels better than hearing how much somebody else does want you around. For a second I pictured how much fun it could be, living on South Beach and hanging out with Amy all the time.
Then I remembered my situation. South Beach was definitely too expensive for the likes of me.
"I don't think I can afford it," I told her. "And I don't even have enough time to save up for it. Eduard is being cool and everything, but I really need to be out of here as soon as possible."
"Get your stuff and come to my place," she said. "I'll call Miguel right now and tell him to give you my keys." Miguel was a friend who took care of things at Amy's house when she was out of town. "You can stay in the extra bedroom."
"Thanks." I tried not to break down for the umpteenth time that day. "I don't know what I'd be doing right now if it weren't for you."
"Stop it," Amy said. "Anyway, you know how much I hate living alone. Just go there and stock up on food we'll figure it out when I get back at the end of the week."
And that's what I did.
Copyright © 2007 by Gwen Cooper