The Rules of Life
Sabella's sister, Molly, was married with ten bridesmaids in matching tea-length, blue floral Laura Ashley dresses. It was, Isabella believed, the most beautiful wedding anyone would ever have. She was twelve.
"More beautiful than Princess Diana," her mother told Molly that morning as she helped her get dressed.
"I need more bobby pins," her sister replied.
Isabella sat on the bed with her hair in a tight French braid. Early that morning, the hairdresser had teased and twisted her hair back, stuck baby's breath in it, and sprayed it with an entire can of hairspray. From the side, it looked like a plant was growing out of her head. She kept touching it lightly to make sure the braid was still there, and every time she did, she was surprised at the crispiness of her hair.
"Isabella," Molly said. "If you keep touching your hair, you're going to ruin it." Isabella put her hand in her lap and watched Molly fluff her own crispy hair. Molly stared at herself in the mirror until her face got white. "I feel funny," she said. "A little sick."
Isabella walked downstairs, where she saw her mom running around like a crazy person and her dad walking briskly and trying to look busy so he wouldn't get yelled at. "Molly thinks she's going to throw up," she announced. Her mom took the stairs two at a time to get to Molly. Her dad gave her a little smile with no teeth, and continued his pacing.
The Mack family had been getting ready for this wedding for over a year. It was all they talked about, all they thought about. It was getting tiresome. Isabella's parents wanted everything to be perfect. They'd had the trim on the house repainted and the garden redone. "What's the point?" Isabella asked. "No one's going to see the house." Her parents just shook their heads at her and Molly rolled her eyes.
Isabella's mother and father went on a diet. They walked every morning and ate fish for dinner. When Isabella's dad ordered a steak or put butter on his bread, her mom would shake her head and say, "Oh, Frank."
"What's the difference?" Isabella asked. "No one's going to be looking at you guys." As soon as she said it, Isabella felt bad. She hadn't realized how mean the words sounded until they were out of her mouth, which had been happening a lot recently. It surprised Isabella, how nasty she could be without even trying.
Isabella's mother hung the wedding picture in the front hall. It was the first thing people saw when they walked into the Mack house. If you looked at it quickly, it was just a blur of blue dresses and big hair. As the years went by, it began to look like something you would see in a magazine, in an article titled "Fashion Mistakes of the Early '90s." Even the faces in the picture seemed to change. The bridesmaids began to look embarrassed to be caught in such blue dresses. But there was nothing they could do about it. They were trapped there, framed for the whole world to see.
"Whoa," Isabella's friends would say when they saw it.
"I know," Isabella would say. "It's horrendous."
Before Isabella moved to New York, her mom made her clean out her closet. "There are things in there that you haven't worn in years," she said. "Let's get it all cleaned out and I'll give it to the Salvation Army." She said it in an upbeat voice like it would be a fun thing to do. "You'll feel so much better when it's done," her mother added.
"I really doubt that," Isabella said.
Isabella sorted through old notebooks and shoes. She threw out T- shirts from high school sports teams and collages she'd made in junior high. In the back of her closet she found the blue floral beast. It was even worse in person. Isabella thought the color would have faded over the years, but it was just as vivid as ever. She held it up for a moment and then brought it to the dress-up chest in the playroom. Maybe her nieces would like to play with it. She shoved it in with the pirate costumes and princess dresses and forgot about it.
New York in September was busy, like everyone was in a hurry to get back to real life after the lazy summer. Isabella liked the feeling of it, the rushing around, and she let herself get swept along the sidewalks. She walked quickly, trotting beside the crowds of people, like she had somewhere important to be, too, like she was part of the productivity of the city, when really she was just going to Bed Bath & Beyond to get a shower curtain.
Isabella had decided to move to New York because she didn't have a plan, and New York seemed like a good one. Her friend Mary was moving there to go to Columbia Law. When Mary announced this, Isabella was floored. "You got into Columbia?" she asked. "How?"
"Thanks a lot," Mary said. But Isabella knew she didn't really care. It wasn't that she thought Mary was dumb. She just didn't know when Mary had found the time to make a life plan, study for the LSATs, and apply to schools. Isabella had barely finished her final photography project senior year.
"That's not what I meant," Isabella told her. She thought for a moment, and then she said, "Maybe I'll move to New York too." Isabella hadn't considered this before, but as soon as she said it, she knew it was a good idea. She had a roommate and a city all picked out, and that was something.
Isabella told her parents that she was moving to New York. She expected them to ask more questions, to want to know the details of what she planned to do there. But Isabella was the youngest of six, and her parents were not nostalgic about their children moving out of the house. Each time one of their children left, another one returned, and they had started to think they would never be alone again. "New York sounds great," they told her. "We'll help you pay rent until you find a job."
Isabella was almost insulted, but she understood. They wanted her out of the house and on her own, so that she didn't end up like her brother Brett, who graduated from college and then moved back home for two years, where he spent most of his time playing video games in his pajamas. During those two years, her parents had many whispered conversations where her dad said things like, "Five years to graduate from that college, and the kid's just going to sit around here and pick his nose? Not on my watch."
The apartment that Isabella and Mary found was barely bigger than Isabella's bedroom at home, but the broker told them this was as good as it would get. "For this neighborhood," she said, "with a doorman, this is the size you can expect." She sounded bored, like she'd given this speech to thousands of girls just like them, who were shocked at the amount they would have to pay to get their own shabby little corner in the city. The broker didn't really care if they took it or not, because she knew there was a long list of girls just like them, fresh to the city and desperate for a place to live. If they didn't take it, surely one of the others would.
Isabella and Mary signed the lease and moved into the apartment, which had gray walls that were supposed to be white and a crack in the ceiling that ran from the front door all the way to the back windows. When Isabella stood in the bathroom, she could hear the upstairs neighbors brushing their teeth and talking about their day. They were from somewhere in the South, and their accents made everything more amusing. Isabella often found herself sitting on the side of the tub, her own toothbrush in hand, task forgotten, listening to one of the girls talk about a date she'd been on. Sometimes the neighbors smoked cigarettes in their bathroom, and the smoke traveled down the vent, seeping into Isabella's bathroom and making the air hazy.
They hung mirrors on the walls to make the apartment seem bigger, and put up bright yellow curtains to distract from the grayness. They put up a fake wall to make Mary's bedroom, a slim rectangle that held her bed and desk and not much else. The wall was thin and Isabella could hear when Mary sneezed or turned a page. Mary was always shut up in her room working, which drove Isabella crazy.
"What are you doing?" she'd ask through the wall.
"Studying," Mary always replied.
"Again?" Isabella would ask. Mary would sigh.
After the first month, Mary started to go to the library more. "I'm too easily distracted," she told Isabella. It was quieter in the apartment with Mary gone so much, but Isabella never really felt lonely. And if she did, she'd go to the bathroom and listen to her neighbors chat, breathing in their smoke and laughing along with them as they said things like "Y'all knew he was a bump on a log" and "Back that train up!"
Isabella got a job as an assistant, working for two high-level exec-
utives at a mailing-list company. She wasn't sure what they did exactly, but she did know that they called her their "executive assistant" and that her main job every morning was to get Bill a corn muffin with raspberry jelly and to get Sharon a chocolate chip muffin. Bill asked for his muffin, and Sharon did not. This was part of the game. Each morning, when Isabella placed the muffin on Sharon's desk, she said, "Oh, I shouldn't!" but she still ate it. "I was just getting Bill's muffin and I thought maybe you'd want one?" Isabella would say in response. As long as she did this, they seemed happy.
Isabella's days and weeks fell into a routine, but she always felt like there was something else she should be doing, something better that was waiting for her. Sometimes on Saturday afternoons, she and Mary went to the park across the street and ate hot dogs in the sun. Mary always brought her textbooks with her, and took notes and read. Isabella just stared at people.
"This is the first fall that I haven't gone to school," Isabella said to her once.
"Mmm-hmmm," Mary said. She turned a page and uncapped a highlighter.
"Maybe that's why I feel so weird all the time," Isabella said.
"Maybe," Mary said. She filled the whole page with yellow smudges and Isabella was jealous of her. She didn't want to go to law school, but Mary had purpose and assignments and for that Isabella envied her. All Isabella had was two bosses that just wanted muffins. And sometimes jelly.
Their friends from college, Kristi and Abby, lived in the same building as they did. Kristi was the one who'd recommended it to
them. "You have to live in a doorman building," she'd said
to Isabella, as though it was something everyone already knew.
"It's not safe otherwise." Sometimes Isabella went out with them,
but they exhausted her. Kristi and Abby always wanted to get dressed up and go out for sushi or go to a party where you had to have your name on a list to get in. They both worked in PR and all they talked about was events and RSVPs, which Kristi pronounced "Risvips" for some reason. "I can get you on the list," Kristi would often say to Isabella. Isabella didn't want a list. She just wanted to get a drink.
Sometimes if she was lucky, Isabella could convince Mary to go out. They usually just went to Gamekeepers, the bar right down the street. "Come on," Isabella would say. "It's so close! We can be there in two minutes and have a drink and be home in an hour." She always hoped, of course, that once they got there Mary would stay out later, but getting her out was the first step.
Gamekeepers was a brightly lit bar, with neon signs on the walls and a black-and-white tiled floor. In the back room, there was a whole wall of bookshelves crammed full of every board game ever made. The first night that Isabella and Mary went there, they stood in front of the wall and stared at all of the games. The bar had all of the big hits-Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly-and some older games too, like Operation, Boggle, Life, and Sorry!
"Whoa," Mary said, as they stared at the shelves. "This is crazy." All around them, people were playing games on long wooden tables, rolling dice and slapping cards.
"Oh my God," Isabella said. She pulled a box off the shelf. "Look, they have Pig Mania. I can't believe it."
"What is that?" Mary asked. She looked at the box.
"It's this game, from the seventies, I think. You roll pig dice and get scores for different things."
"Weird," Mary said.
"The seventies were weird," Isabella said. "Come on, let's play."
They rolled the pigs, but Isabella could tell that Mary wasn't into it. Two guys came over to join them, which was encouraging at first, but then they started snorting and squealing when the pigs rolled into any position that looked dirty. "I got Makin' Bacon!" Isabella screamed, and they just snorted louder. One of them was so drunk that he kept swaying and bumping into the table, causing their drinks to spill and the pigs to topple.
"I think we should go," Mary said. She stared at one of the snorters. "I have to get up early to study anyway."
"Fine," Isabella said. She surrendered the pigs to the boys so that they could roll them alone.
"You're leaving?" the drunk one said. He closed his eyes and Isabella wondered if he had fallen asleep, and then he opened them and repeated his question. "You're leaving?"
"Yeah," Isabella said. Mary was waiting for her by the door. "I have a lot of things to do tomorrow," she said. "Just a really busy day."
Isabella met a boy named Ben and went on a date. She wanted something to fill her empty weekend days when Mary was studying and Kristi and Abby did things that Isabella had no interest in, like going to the gym or shopping in SoHo. Isabella went to the gym with them once, and Kristi wore earrings and a necklace while she ran on the treadmill, which bothered Isabella so much that she couldn't ever bring herself to go back again.
"I've never been on a date before," Isabella said to Mary as she got ready that night.
"You've been on plenty of dates," Mary said.
From the Hardcover edition.