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“God, my feet are killing me,” I said. “I hate this job. At least the waitstaff gets to wear comfortable shoes. I have to hustle around that restaurant all night in heels and a short skirt.”
Lily was only half listening to me, twirling her hair while she flipped the pages of Vogue.
“You won’t believe what this creep did to me tonight,” I continued. “I told him the wait for a table would be about forty-five minutes. And he said he’d make it worth my while if I bumped him and his skanky girlfriend up on the list. Of course, I could use a good tip, so I seated them right away. I hand him his menu and he puts out his hand. I think he’s slipping me a twenty, but no. He gives me a tube of some sort of cream and leans into my ear and tells me he holds the patent on female Viagra and to have a little fun with my boyfriend tonight.”
“Perv,” Lily mumbled.
“I handed it right back to him and said, sweet as pie, ‘Honey, one look at you and I know your girlfriend probably needs this more than me.’ ”
“Ha!” Lily ripped a page out of the magazine and held it up for me to see. “Look,” she said. “It’s me!”
I took the page from her hand and looked at the picture of Lily wearing a short, silver-sequined party dress, her head tossed back with her perfectly imperfect blond hair falling over the left side of her face, her pouty lips slightly parted, revealing her big white smile. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I felt a twinge of envy. This was the kind of stuff that always happened to Lily.
While I was standing on my feet for hours, contending with herds of pissed-off, self-important, hungry New Yorkers, my roommate was out at a fabulous cocktail party lauding the designer of the moment, while wearing his dress and having her photo taken for the pages of the biggest fashion magazine in the world.
It’s not that I wanted to be Lily. But I did want to be a success. And my chosen profession was screenwriting. I knew I needed on-set experience and a real understanding of the process of filmmaking, so I had sent out a million résumés for internships with film companies, but so far no one wanted me—not even for free. I was struggling to support myself as a restaurant hostess, and Lily was already making it as an aspiring actress. She’d just been cast in a smallish part in a film by the most buzzed-about indie director and she was going to parties with the kind of people who had their pictures in Vogue. Scratch that. She was the kind of person who had her picture in Vogue. Granted, the picture was tiny, and the caption was even tinier, but still. She was on her way.
I would never, ever have said it out loud, but Lily had it easier than I did. Her family had money, and let’s face it: Money makes everything easier. While I worked, Lily’s parents supported her financially so she could go on auditions. My mother barely scraped by herself, and my dad was long gone.
Dad left after Mom found out he was cheating. The news was delivered to her in a call from the bank, telling her that a check had bounced. I was only eight and my sister was thirteen. Mom packed us both into the car and went down to the bank to have a look for herself. They showed her a whole series of canceled checks made out to cash, and the real kicker: a zero balance. My dad worked late and traveled, and I guess my mother must have already had her suspicions. When she confronted him later that night, he confessed on the spot that he’d been having an affair with a woman who lived a few towns away. He didn’t even bother to pack up his possessions. One minute he was there, and the next he wasn’t, and that was the last time I saw him.
My dad had never been much of a provider, but after he left, things got even harder for Mom. My grandparents lived nearby, so they could babysit while she worked, and we ate dinner over there most nights. I didn’t realize until later that we ate there so often because my mom couldn’t afford to feed us. If it weren’t for my grandparents, we would have been on welfare.
Those years took their toll on Mom. When I left Kentucky for college in Manhattan, she supported me all the way, took me to the airport and waved goodbye, tears running down her face. The last thing she said to me was “You can always come back.” She left the rest of that sentence unsaid, but I knew what she really meant: You can always come back . . . when you fail. Mom always believed that no matter how good things might seem, they were bound to explode in your face. And I couldn’t really blame her—after all, nothing much had gone her way. But although I knew there was a home for me in Kentucky, and my mother would welcome me back with open arms, failure was not an option for me. I’d stick it out in New York if I had to eat cat food.
Lily was the first person I met when I came to New York my freshman year of college. She had the kind of confidence that made her stand out in any room—especially a dorm room. I got to our room first and I’d already unpacked my clothes and made my bed when she swept in, smelling faintly of cigarette smoke and perfume. Her hair was long and wavy and it looked naturally kissed by the sun. (I found out later that those highlights were bought and paid for, but they looked real enough to me.) And she wore an outfit that was casually assembled yet perfect, and to this day I couldn’t replicate it if I tried. I was older than Lily, because I’d spent a year after high school working to save money for school. But you wouldn’t have known by looking at us that I was the older one. Lily intimidated me on sight—everything about her was stylish. I looked sidelong at my stack of Levis, T-shirts, and cardigans and knew I was out of my league.
Lily always laughed when she described how I looked that first day of college—terrified, excited—in direct contrast with her own blasé sophistication. But she took me under her wing from the first moment we met. She was from New Jersey and had been sneaking out to nightclubs in Manhattan since she was sixteen, so she already traveled in a circle of friends several years older than her. She knew the bouncer or bartender at every hot club, and she’d dress me up and drag me along. Soon she accepted that I wasn’t much of a partier. But our friendship survived that blow, and when she was discovered by a casting director our sophomore year and promptly dropped out, I was happy for her. When her parents found her an apartment and she offered to spring me from dorm life and rent me half her place for far less than half the rent, I moved in right away. We’d been inseparable ever since.
“Oh my God, Lily,” I said. “Look, there’s Mikey in the background!” Sure enough, just behind Lily in the Vogue picture was the unmistakably fashionable outline of my other closest friend, Michael. Lily and I had met him at a party. He had been leaning against a wall, dressed in an ascot and holding a pipe. Of course, he was also only twenty years old at the time, so the look was more comical than sophisticated. He took one glance at Lily and decided she was a friend worth cultivating, and he grudgingly accepted me as a third wheel, but we’d grown closer since then. I knew that within all those layers of couture aspiration lay a sweet soul with just as many insecurities as I had. I also knew that he’d grown up in a town just as Podunk as mine.
“It’s not ‘Mikey,’ it’s Michael,” Lily snapped. “If he ever wants to be taken seriously in fashion, he can’t go around being called Mikey or even Mike, for that matter. I told him only ‘Michael’ from now on.”
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever.”
“What are you doing tonight? Want to go out with me?” Lily asked.
“Lily, the thought of putting on shoes right now and screaming over loud music makes me want to vomit,” I said. “I’ve worked every late shift this week, and tomorrow is my only day off. I don’t want to sleep through it.”
“Come on, Emma, you never come out with me anymore,” she protested in a whiny voice.
“Fine, Granny,” she cut me off. “But you have zero chance of meeting a guy staying home and watching reruns of Golden Girls.”
I laughed. “Too true. Consider it my homework—if I’m going to be a great screenwriter some day, I should at least study the most popular sitcom of all time.”
“Suit yourself, Estelle.”
Lily let the door clang shut behind her, leaving a cloud of perfume and hair spray in her wake, and I curled up on the couch.
I didn’t know what to do with myself in the quiet apartment. There was no need to study anymore. After hanging on to my scholarship by my fingernails, I ultimately lost my battle with the ill-fated science requirement a few weeks ago. Sayonara, scholarship . . . arrivederci, diploma . . . buh-bye, dreams. Yep, geology was my Waterloo.
Every day in class had been a terror. I tried to listen, tried to focus, but soon the drone of the professor’s voice and the sheer fright of failing made my brain shut down. I should have been rising to the occasion and conquering the challenge. Instead I flailed and sank like the Titanic.
There was a little relief in having the failure behind me. I still had anxiety dreams about forgotten term papers, but now I could reassure myself when I woke up that those days were over. There was only one remaining nugget of dread nestled in the pit of my stomach: I hadn’t yet told my mom that I’d lost my scholarship. So many times I’d wanted to tell her, then didn’t. She’d only feel obligated to help me fix it, but there was nothing she could do. And there was no one else I could confide in. My older sister, Maureen, would derive too much pleasure from giving me an earful about how irresponsible I was. The one upside of all this is that I wouldn’t have to buy her a Christmas gift in a few months—my failure would be the best present I could ever give her. I couldn’t call Grace, either. She was my best friend from home, and my partner in crime ever since we were kids. She’d been dying to get out of Kentucky as long as I had. The year I’d spent working after high school, we’d been side by side folding T-shirts at the local strip mall. Unlike me, though, she was still back there and dating her high school boyfriend. She’d kick my ass if she knew I’d let “Rocks for Jocks” get the better of me. Only I could ace a graduate-level semiotics class and still manage to fail Geology 101.
I peeled myself off the couch and began to gather my laundry. Lily’s side of the bedroom was a mess, a mound of rejected clothes in a heap in the center of her twin bed, while my side was perfectly neat. I was a firm believer that everything had its place. I was past letting her untidiness annoy me; after all, dealing with her clutter was much better than the alternative—I’d never be able to afford rent in Manhattan. I stripped out of my black knit dress, noticing that it smelled vaguely of garlic and Parmesan cheese, tossed it in the laundry bag, and changed into my “uniform” of a wife-beater and sweatpants. So much better . . . I’d wear sweatpants everywhere if it was socially acceptable.
The elevator always took forever in our building and I stood in the hallway waiting for its doors to open. I watched the buttons slowly light up as the elevator went up each floor, and glanced down the hall toward 9E, praying the doorknob wouldn’t move. “Cute Neighbor Boy,” as Lily and I liked to call him, lived there.
Finally the bell rang and the ninth floor button lit up. Just as I was stepping inside, Cute Neighbor Boy opened the door to his apartment. I practically threw myself at the DOOR CLOSE button. I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, “Never wear sweatpants in public. You never know who you’re going to run into.”
© 2011 Katie Lee