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Maybe I was holding on to Tom so tight at the airport because some part of me knew I wouldn't be coming back, at least not the way I planned, and not for a long time.
But that day, my clinginess just seemed strange. All I'd been thinking about for months and months was the trip to New York my mom was taking me on as a combination graduation/birthday/last-and-next-Christmas present, and then when we got to the airport I couldn't stop holding on to Tom. Suddenly I didn't want to go, didn't want to leave him for even one minute, couldn't imagine why I ever wanted to see New York in the first place, even though I'd been dying to go there my entire life.
"Let's tell them now," I whispered to Tom.
My lips brushed the edge of his tattered green fishing cap, fragrant with the trout he'd caught that morning and a hundred other mornings before. Tom was the only boy in Eagle River who was both taller than me and liked my height, as well as most everything else about me. He'd delayed a trolling trip to Big Secret Lake with a high-paying client to be here at the Rhinelander, Wisconsin, airport with me.
I felt him shake not just his head, but his entire lean and muscular body, as resistant as a hooked rainbow. It wasn't like Tom to waste a word when he didn't have to, even as short a one as no. But he was adamant that we were not going to tell my parents that we'd decided to get married until after my eighteenth birthday, which I'd be celebrating in New York with Mom.
"I'm scared," I whispered.
I was afraid that going on this trip would be like the pebble that starts the avalanche, the one tiny change that would set off the reaction that would somehow transform everything. I loved things exactly like they were right now. Blinking back tears as I stared over Tom's broad shoulder at the Oneida casino posters, I thought maybe Tom would meet someone else while I was in New York, and that by the time I got back he wouldn't want to marry me anymore.
But Tom believed I meant I was scared of the flight, or of New York itself. He gathered me in close and hugged me with those arms that were stronger than he knew, so tight that all the tears popped right out of my eyes, blinding me. I had to think so hard about breathing then that I stopped feeling scared. I kept meaning to complain about the tightness of those hugs, except I was afraid that would make him stop giving them to me.
I heard my dad clear his throat and then Mom said, "It's time, Amanda."
Then Tom shocked me by giving me an enormous kiss, right on the lips, with tongue, in front of my parents and everyone. For once, it was me who pulled back, just in time to see my dad reel around and pretend to be deeply interested in the Avis sign.
"Amanda," said my mom, reaching out her dimpled arm to me.
"Please," I said to Tom, gripping his waist.
But instead of answering me he stripped off his fishing vest, the one decorated with all his favorite flies in the world, and handed it to me. Then, without a word, he turned around and headed toward the door and the parking lot beyond, waving over his head so I would know he was still thinking about me, even if he could not show me his face. He and Dad were driving home together, so Dad watched after him nervously, and then moved to kiss first me and then Mom on the cheek.
"Have fun, you two," he said. And then he too was gone.
As I moved zombielike with Mom through the makeshift security gate, where they actually made me take off my sock monkey slippers and send them through the X-ray machine, I tried to think of ways to distract myself from my near overwhelming feeling of dread. Here's what I did:
1. Took breaths so deep I swear I could feel them in the crotch of my cutoffs.
2. Tried to imagine what kind of underwear each of the other ten passengers waiting for our connecting flight to Milwaukee was wearing.
3. Imagined all the celebrities -- from P. Diddy to the Olsen twins -- I might get to meet in New York.
4. Held my mom's soft hand, damp because she was so nervous she'd been up since 4 a.m., packing and repacking her already packed suitcase.
5. Mentally walked myself through all the steps involved in making my mom's special deep-dish apple pie, the bestselling selection at Patty's House O' Pies. (Mom is Patty, and the pie store is off the main street of Eagle River right next to my dad's shop, Duke's House O' Bait. They tried combining them as Duke and Patty's House O' Pies 'N' Bait, thinking the delicious smell of Mom's pies might make Dad's shop smell better, but unfortunately the opposite happened.) Anyway, thinking about making the pie made me feel better until I remembered that the last deep-dish apple I made was for Tom, and then I wanted to break down again.
Finally it was time to file out onto the tarmac and into the tiny plane, where the flight attendant who gave us the safety lecture and the pilot were the same person. I gripped my armrests and closed my eyes until we were high in the sky and the plane leveled off. Then I finally let out my breath and peered from my window, trying to find Eagle River and any place in it that meant anything to me. I could not pick out our old red house or the shops but I did spot Big Secret Lake, and imagined Tom and me on the island where we always camped there, doing nothing but making lazy love and fishing for days on end. I felt at that moment that Tom was always with me, like the sky or the land, and that realization finally brought the comfort that imagining underwear and even holding my mom's hand did not.
When we landed in Milwaukee, I stood up and opened the overhead bin, intending to retrieve my suitcase. But it wasn't there. It was not under the seat in front of me either, and I definitely had not checked it at the airport. The last I remembered was setting down the suitcase -- the suitcase filled with all the new clothes that Mom had bought me specially for this trip -- right before I hugged Tom, right before I whispered those things in his ear. The suitcase was still in Rhinelander, it was clear, and now I would be making my grand entrance in New York wearing cutoff jeans, a House O' Pies T-shirt, Tom's fishing vest, and the sock monkey slippers on my feet.
When Mom burst into tears as the Empire State Building came into view from the bus from LaGuardia Airport, I thought it was because she was upset about my leaving the suitcase behind.
"I'll use my own money to replace the clothes," I told her, thinking that instead of going to Wisconsin Dells for our honeymoon, as we'd hoped, Tom and I could just go on our usual weekend-after-Labor Day trip to the island in Big Secret. "My friend Desi promised me she'd show me all the cheap places to shop."
Contemplating buying an entirely new wardrobe with Desi made me feel as excited as the sight of all those tall buildings shining on the sunny horizon, like some non-Emerald but even-more-beautiful Oz. I'd met Desi online, in a vintage clothing lovers' chat room, way before I knew I'd ever get to go to New York. I'd sent her a House O' Pies shirt and a genuine coonskin cap from the St. Vincent DePaul shop; she sent me her mom's old flamenco shoes and a pink fur stole that would have looked swell on Gina Lollobrigida, one of my vintage style icons. Anticipating not only going shopping with Desi but having to buy clothes erased the final traces of feeling sad about missing Tom.
"I don't mind about the clothes," Mom said, sniffling. "I'm just so tickled to be here again."
I tore my eyes away from the skyline ahead. "Again?"
"I mean I'm tickled again," she said, attempting a smile. "As thrilled as I was on Christmas morning when you unwrapped your ticket."
"Me too, Mom."
As soon as we checked into the Holiday Inn on the edge of Chinatown, recommended by Desi because it was cheap, near all the coolest neighborhoods, and five minutes from her apartment, I dialed Desi's number. When she heard my voice, she let out a scream so loud it made my heart stop.
"Are you okay?" I asked her, alarmed.
"Oh my God, that's so cute the way you say that, oo-key," she said. "Yes, I'm oo-key! I'm just so freaking excited! What's wrong with you? Aren't you excited?"
Of course I was excited, but in Eagle River, we screamed like that only if we were in the middle of being murdered, and even then, we'd try to tone it down. Don't want to make a big fuss, you know. Better not to draw attention to yourself.
I shot a glance at my mom, who was squeezing around the furniture crowded into the tiny room, putting away her clothes and humming "New York, New York."
"I'm excited," I assured Desi.
"You don't sound excited."
This was the first time, after emailing nearly every day for a year, we'd actually talked on the phone, and it was weird. The voice I'd heard in my head when I was reading her emails, which sounded like my own, did not match the voice that was coming through the phone, which sounded like Adriana's on The Sopranos.
"Can we meet right away?" I said, imagining my voice was a car engine and I was pressing the gas pedal to the floor. "I lost my suitcase and I need to go shopping because all I have to wear on my feet are sock monkey slippers and I think my mom's hungry."
Mom refolded a pair of her gigantic underpants, hot pink and wide as a pillowcase, and nodded vigorously. It was way past lunchtime, and all they'd given us on the plane was a stale roll and a wedge of plasticized cheese.
"Okay," said Desi decisively. "We'll meet in ten minutes at the Dancing Chicken."
"The Dancing Chicken?" Was that a nightclub? A fast-food place?
"Well, there's no chicken anymore. Cruelty to animals or something, so they probably killed it." Desi laughed. "But the sign still says Dancing. Dancing and Tic-Tac-Toe. It's the Chinatown Arcade, on Mott Street, just a few blocks from you. Anyone can tell you how to get there."
"Wait, wait!" I said, afraid Desi was about to hang up. "How will I know you?"
She laughed again, as dryly as she had when she said they killed the chicken.
"I'll be wearing a red flower bigger than my head."
There was only one person wearing a big red flower at the Dancing Chicken, and it was someone much darker, shorter, and curvier than I believed Desi to be. Although we'd traded photos online, we'd turned it into a joke, always doing ourselves up in hats and wigs and makeup and masks, so that it was impossible to tell what we each really looked like. I approached, waiting for her to give me a sign.
But she looked right at me, even down at the monkeys on my feet, and then back toward the door.
"Hi," I said.
Again she looked at me, but just as quickly moved away, as if she thought I might try to snatch her purse.
"I guess that's not her," I told Mom.
Though the place was packed with people coming in and out, more people than there were in the hallway at Northland Pines High School after the final bell, no one else showed up wearing a red flower.
People showed up wearing a lot of other interesting things, however. In fact, this crowd made my fishing vest getup look positively normal. Watching everyone who came in and out, I decided there are Some Things You Can Tell About People from Their Clothes:
1. Where they stand on the comfort versus beauty issue.
2. How hot they want you to think they are. (But not how hot they really are. Witness my personal hottie, Tom, and his smelly cap.)
3. How much they need their clothes to help them look cool.
4. How much they want to fit in or stand out.
5. Whether they know how to use an iron.
6. Whether they know what's worth the money.
7. How much they care about what other people think.
And Some Things You Can't:
1. How much money they actually have. I'm talking about artfully bleached and torn jeans that cost three hundred dollars. I'm also talking about cubic zirconia.
2. Whether their souls match their clothes.
I saw a couple of people cast glances at Mom, who was dressed in one of her polyester print dresses, big enough for a whole family to camp in, and look away, stifling a snicker. Or not even stifling.
I hated those dresses too, but I hated the people making fun of them even more. One woman, wearing a sleeveless white linen dress I knew was Calvin Klein, looked at Mom and then clapped her hand over her mouth, like she was about to throw up. I wanted to grab her by the throat and tell her that inside my mom was the one dressed in an eleven-hundred-dollar white linen dress, and that she was the one in the psychic muumuu, but she was obviously not the kind of person who would comprehend that. Besides, that would embarrass Mom, who was standing there patiently waving her hand in front of her neck in an attempt to stay cool.
"Maybe I should just get a pretzel from that cart over there," Mom finally said.
But Mom had been trying so hard to do low-carb all spring, not even eating the crust on her own pies, her favorite part.
"I'm sure Desi'll be here in a minute."
We waited some more.
"Or a little container of those Chinese noodles," Mom said. "Do you think those have many calories?"
I looked at Mom. We'd been standing there for more than half an hour. "You shouldn't worry about calories; we're on vacation," I said, stretching my arm around her shoulder. "Maybe I should call Desi."
One of Mom's best customers, one of the rich summer people who were crazy for her pies, had lent her a cell phone just for this trip. Mom had promised that we would use it only in case of emergency, though the customer had insisted it didn't matter. "Just don't talk more than eight hundred minutes," the customer had said, laughing.
Mom took the phone out of her purse and handed it to me as carefully as if it were a pistol. I dialed. Desi answered immediately.
"Where are you?" she snapped -- or more accurately, Wheh aw you?
I looked around, surprised. "I'm in the Dancing Chicken," I said. "Where are you?"
"I'm in the Dancing Chicken," said Desi, "and you're not here."
"Just a second," I said.
I stopped the first person walking by, an Asian man wearing a dirty apron and carrying a pink tray loaded with clean glasses.
"Excuse me, sir," I said. "Is this the Dancing Chicken?"
He nodded. "Yes. But no more chicken."
"Did you hear that?" I asked Desi. "We are definitely in the Dancing Chicken."
"Near the entrance?"
"Right next to the entrance, in front of the place with the parasols hanging out front."
There was a moment of silence, and then she said, "What do you look like?"
"I'm tall," I said. "Skinny. And like I told you, I have monkeys on my feet."
Now I noticed that the dark young woman wearing the red flower, the one I'd tried to talk to when we first came in, was standing directly across from me. Holding a cell phone to her ear. And looking straight into my eyes.
"You didn't tell me," she said.
It was her. The words coming out of the phone were the same ones I could read on her lips.
"Didn't tell you what?"
"You didn't tell me that you were freaking gorgeous."
I was so dumbstruck that I was still working my mouth, trying to come up with a response, when she flipped her phone closed and strode over to me, right up close, so she had to crane her head back to look up at me, and I had to peer down to where she stood with her chin jutting into my chest.
"But I'm not gorgeous," I stammered. "The kids call me giraffe. I drink a milkshake every day and my bones still stick out. My teeth are crooked. Tom is the only guy who has ever even wanted to kiss me."
Desi pursed her lips and looked at Mom. "She's gorgeous," Desi said. Gawjus. "Am I right?"
Mom nodded, surveying me. "I've been trying to tell her so for years."
I rolled my eyes. "You have to say that. You're my mom."
"She comes by it naturally," Mom explained to Desi, ignoring me. "I was a model myself, back in the eighties."
"Wow," said Desi. "So do you think Amanda could be a model too?"
"Mom was a model in Milwaukee," I interrupted, before they could get too carried away with this ridiculous conversation. "Come on, we're wasting valuable shopping time."
A smile began to spread across Desi's face. "So you're dying to hit the downtown thrift stores?"
The main passion Desi and I had in common was clothes. She loved to design them, and I loved wearing them.
"You also want to see the fashion hot spots of SoHo and NoLita?" she asked.
"You know I do."
"But first you'd like to stop for maybe some shrimp lo mein or tagliatelle bolognese?"
"Mmmmmm," said Mom.
Which was my only clue that what Desi was talking about was food. And suddenly I was totally hungry. "Whatever you say."
"So what are we waiting for?" said Desi. "Let's go."
Here are some stores that did not whet our shopping appetites:
1. A Chinese butcher shop that sold ducks' feet and pigs' snouts.
2. A Chinese fish shop with eels hanging in the window like slimy black ribbons.
3. Prada. Gawjus, as Desi would say, but about a bazillion dollars out of our price range.
4. A gallery showing photographs of nude people in Third World countries who were missing limbs or eyes or were even more voluptuous than Desi or bonier than me. I couldn't stop staring at them in the gallery but couldn't imagine wanting to face one over my cereal every morning, even if they hadn't cost $8,000.
5. Hideously Ugly Hooker Shoes. That's not what it was really called, but should have been.
6. Smelly Clothes Last Worn By Dead People. See above.
7. Chanel. See Prada.
8. A tiny store presided over by an even tinier Japanese woman, where all the clothes were minuscule, far too short for me and way too narrow for Desi. They looked like chihuahua clothes. We laughed and laughed.
After the chihuahua-clothing store, Mom said she was really exhausted and that Desi and I should go on without her. We dropped her back at the hotel, figuring we had only an hour left until the stores closed.
"We're going wild now," Desi informed me, as soon as we were back on the street. "I'll take you to all my really favorite places."
Desi's legs may have been nearly a foot shorter than mine, but she managed to move a lot faster than me, weaving her way through the people and the dogs and the garbage like some kind of urban athlete. I had to trot to keep up, and kept tripping over things and bumping into people, spending a lot of time saying "Excuse me," which made people look at me as if I were totally loony. Which made me want to say "Excuse me" for saying "Excuse me."
Here are some stores we went to where we did buy something -- and what we bought:
1. A tiny shop on Canal Street, where I bought a Rolex (Desi called it a Fauxlex) plus a fake Marc Jacobs bag for twenty dollars, total.
2. Pearl River Trading: flip-flops to walk in (good night, monkey slippers!), a sari, and a straw bag big enough to be my new suitcase.
3. Canal Jean: four XXL T-shirts -- orange, turquoise, yellow, and magenta -- Desi promised to recut into dresses for me.
4. A shoe repair shop piled with dusty shoes no one had ever picked up, where we found a rack of sunglasses from the seventies with bright blue and taxi yellow lenses that were a dollar each.
5. A clothing-and-music trading store, where I traded my House O' Pies T-shirt (don't worry: the fishing vest covered everything) for ten CDs.
6. A funky pharmacy: false eyelashes. Plus a toothbrush, shampoo, conditioner, and white lipstick.
7. An Italian coffee shop, where I ate my first cannoli. Which tasted so good I ate another one.
8. A shop called Frock that had the most amazing vintage clothes, everything from Comme des Garçons to Balenciaga and pre-Ford Gucci, where Desi went to get inspiration for her own designs.
I didn't actually buy anything there, but that's where it all started, or at least the New York part of it.
I'm talking about my modeling career, and it's ironic that the thing that launched it was my overindulgence in the cannolis.
What happened was that I took two dresses into the changing room. One was this very simple but extra-clingy Halston I thought I might actually ask Mom to buy for me, and the other was this amazing zebra-print Patrick Kelly gown that looked like something someone would wear in an opera but that I couldn't resist trying on for the fun of it, though I was afraid I was too bony to pull it off.
But because of the cannolis, my stomach was all pooched out so that the clingy Halston looked just plain embarrassing, but the Patrick Kelly fit perfectly. The skirt was so big I had to ease out of the dressing room sideways, and the dress itself was so spectacular that as I stood in front of the mirror, Desi straightening the bodice and flouncing out the ruffles, everyone in the store turned to look.
And kept looking.
I smiled into the mirror, and stood up straighter.
Suddenly a woman stepped forward, a woman who was maybe my mom's age, but who was nearly as thin as me, wearing a baby-doll top and high-heeled pink sandals and a pair of those bleached and torn $300 jeans. Her hair was very black and very straight, as if she'd just come from a blowout. The closer she got, the older she looked.
"Have you ever thought of modeling?" she said, holding a card out to me.
I felt myself blush. "I couldn't," I said. "I mean, I'm from Eagle River, Wisconsin."
Desi took the card and said, "She might be interested."
The woman looked at Desi in a way that finally made me understand what it means to "look down your nose" at somebody. She raised her eyebrows, and turned back to me.
"I'm Raquel Gross of Awesome Models," she said, "and you're the kind of girl we might be interested in."
"Wow," I said. "I mean, is this a joke?"
I laughed and turned to Desi, expecting her to laugh right back. As long as I could remember, everyone had always made fun of the way I looked, to the point where they did it right in front of me. I was so tall, so skinny, so gawky and weird-looking, they figured, if I was any kind of cool I'd be able to laugh about it myself. And I had, I had even when it hurt.
But Desi wasn't laughing. She wouldn't even meet my eye. Instead she was alternately looking seriously at Raquel and peering down at the business card.
"Awesome Models," she said. "I've read about you. Don't you represent Fiona and Fernanda?"
Raquel nodded, not taking her eyes off me. "We represent all the hottest girls working today: Kaylee, Christiana, Ludovica, My Lan. And don't tell anybody" -- here Raquel leaned closer and spoke in a stage whisper -- "but we just signed Tatiana."
I laughed again. Who was I going to tell? Tom? All Tom was interested in was fish, football, and sex. Oh my gosh: Tom. I was supposed to call him when we arrived, and I'd completely forgotten. I guessed if he got worried and called the hotel, Mom would fill him in. I'd call him when I got back to the room, before I went to sleep, to tell him I loved him and missed him, at least when I had a second to think about him.
When I refocused, I saw that Desi was nodding vigorously, her mouth open. "Oh my God -- Tatiana," she was saying. "She's amazing. But I've read that she's really difficult. How did you manage to sign her?"
Finally Raquel turned to Desi, obviously impressed that she had the inside scoop. "We can offer girls the most comprehensive security, financial as well as emotional, along with complete benefits and the most creative work with the best photographers in the world. Everybody wants to sign with us."
Desi nodded, examining the card again. "And so you're offering all this amazing stuff to Amanda?"
"I'm offering Amanda the opportunity to be considered by Awesome Models," Raquel said. "I'd like to send her for some test shots with one of our top photographers, see whether she really has what it takes to make it in the New York modeling world."
"I don't have what it takes," I said. "Besides, I don't want to move to New York. I'm going to marry Tom."
"You're engaged?" cried Desi, her eye darting to my ring finger.
"Not officially, but I will be, as soon as I get back home, right after I turn eighteen. We're going to get married in September."
"But you have such fabulous cheekbones," Raquel said. "And those lips. That height. I even adore your little pouch of a stomach."
"That's the cannolis," I mumbled.
"Maybe you should think about this," said Desi. "I mean, September is three months away."
"If we sign you, we'd pay you a twenty-thousand-dollar signing bonus right away and guarantee you a hundred thousand dollars in income in your first year. That's minimum; it could be much more. We'd set you up in an apartment, pay all your expenses. Physical trainer, clothing allowance, expense account..."
But my brain was still stuck on the signing bonus. Tom's dream was to buy a fishing boat. If he had his own boat, he could guide whole parties fishing out on the lakes, not just individual clients. That could mean four or six or eight times as much income for him, for us. Just imagining the look on his face was priceless.
"So this twenty thousand dollars," I said. "I'd get this up front, immediately?"
Raquel nodded. "But first you have to do the test shots. I'd send you to Alex Pradels, who's a fabulous photographer. If those pictures worked out, and if you signed with us, then you'd get the twenty thousand dollars."
"Twenty-five," said Desi.
"What?" said Raquel.
"We want twenty-five as a signing bonus, and another twenty-five if Amanda's income in the first six months exceeds fifty thousand dollars."
"What are you, her agent?" Raquel asked.
"Yes," Desi said, at the same moment I said, "No."
I looked at Desi. What the heck? This was all pretend anyway. And I certainly had no idea what I was doing. "Okay, yes," I said.
"We're open to negotiating the terms," said Raquel, "depending on the results of the shoot."
"And I'm assuming," said Desi, "that you cover all the expenses of the shoot, and that Amanda is entitled to prints even if we don't come to an agreement."
Raquel hesitated only a moment before nodding.
Desi turned to me. "You should do it," she said. "Alex Pradels is one of the best. It'll be fun. At the very least, you'll get a great picture to put in the newspaper when you announce your engagement."
That sounded good, though I still couldn't imagine that this was something that in any way was going to become real -- and if it did, that it was anything I'd ever want to do. Though I sure would love to be able to buy Tom that boat.
"What if I want to quit?" I blurted.
Desi glared at me. I knew she would have liked the opportunity to make my question prettier. But then I was afraid I'd get a prettier answer, which might not necessarily be as true.
Raquel laughed and squeezed my arm. "This isn't slavery you're signing up for," she assured me. "It's the most glamorous job in the world! All you have to worry about is staying as beautiful as you already are, and let me take care of the rest."
But somehow, instead of calming my fears or getting me excited about the possibilities, she was only making me more nervous. It was like when it hits you that the big fish on your line probably has teeth.
Copyright © 2007 by Pamela Redmond Satran