The night I went to the St. Regis hotel and accidentally crashed the birthday party of the Princess of Spain was the same night I was crowned superintendent of 287 West 12th Street. Both events took me completely by surprise and both led me to Gregory the exterminator, who wound up saving me in ways I didn't even know I needed to be saved. (I don't mean saved in a Jesus way. This is not a Jesus-saving kind of story.)
To be honest, I was not even aware that Spain still had a princess until I was standing under the chandeliers in the hotel's Cavendish Room with my mouth stuffed full of her free tapas. I thought modern royalty was the purview of the British—Charles, Harry, William, tragically dead Di—something to keep the international tabloid business afloat. And I certainly didn't know I was at a birthday party. My black silk Ann Taylor sheath with cracked rhinestone brooches on the shoulder straps, a fifteen-dollar score at Housing Works Thrift Shop, was not meant to be employed in a way that would infringe upon a personally meaningful event: birthday parties, like wedding receptions, were off-limits under a set of hastily conceived crashing criteria. Tag and I had agreed upon this moral distinction a year ago, beneath the Akoustolith tiles outside the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, right after we were unpleasantly outed at the sixtieth birthday party for the CEO of a door-hinge distribution company.
Tanya Granger, known as Tag to distinguish her from a nursery school classmate named Tanya Tokowsky, had called me an hour earlier to announce that she was hungry.
"I've got frozen pizza and orange juice," I told her, proud of my stocked fridge.
"Julia Child would have been thrilled. No, we're going to the St. Regis for croquetas and calamares," Tag informed me. "King of Spain. An anniversary of some kind of truce. Or a trade agreement. Something."
Tag's days were bookended by strong coffee and even stronger alcohol, and not always in the order you'd expect. We'd begun crashing out of financial necessity—finding free food and drink in New York City was a crucial means of survival—but the entertainment value of our pursuit had rapidly become apparent. And Tag had been in dire need of entertaining around the time we'd started freeloading. Usually rational to a fault, she had impulsively married a Swedish businessman and divorced him six months later, all before the age of twenty-four. "Never accept a marriage proposal made immediately upon surviving the sinking of a Thai ferryboat," she'd warn me sternly, as if this was a peril that regularly presented itself.
Since her narrow escape from wedlock, she had approached fun very seriously, as seriously as she did her work on behalf of the Museum of Natural History, which required her to slit open the bellies of sharks in places like Madagascar and Borneo. Whether she had a Fallkniven F2 fisherman's knife in her hand or a dirty martini, Tag was all business, and she took charge of the ground rules.
In the bowels of Grand Central, decked out and slurping cheap chili in the food court, we agreed that proms were acceptable crash targets. Even though at twenty-seven we were hardly past our prime, we were just old enough to instill some Mrs. Robinson excitement among the restless male members of the Teaneck/Mamaroneck/New Rochelle senior class, who would otherwise be slamming into each other to the beat of "Rock Lobster." They knew we were interlopers and they welcomed fresh blood. The chaperones kept mum because our enthusiasm on the dance floor—we hit proms for the eighties music—lured the future of America into chaperonable view. Occasionally, one of the boys would look up from texting a girl on the other side of the room and approach us, probably on a dare from his friends. I would tell him I'd just served time in a federal penitentiary—self-defense, I assured him, glancing modestly at the floor—and that this was my first night of freedom. I considered it a service I was providing, making his prom night memorable for something other than a white limo and some contraband flasks.
Corporate Christmas parties were also permissible. Company shindigs were, for Tag, all about the top-shelf liquor. For me, they were glorious opportunities to gossip with people I didn't know, which made it less like gossip and more like . . . honing my empathy skills. Selena from accounts, while complaining about her new boss, Andrea, would let slip some details about her affair with her old boss, Susan—yes, that's Susan—who was married to her former boss, Robert. It was like being inside a soap opera for a few hours, and I usually couldn't resist helping myself to a cameo role. I'd pretend I was a therapist specializing in workplace conflict—Why didn't they know me? Oh, I was a friend of Tom's—and they'd listen intently to my suggestions, which I secretly thought were pretty inspired. Tag suggested more than once that this might actually be some kind of crime, but again, I preferred to think of my advice as a gift, or at least as payment for the free mini quiches we were scarfing in lieu of dinner.
Diplomatic functions, like the one we thought we were currently at: we attended those for the superb international hors d'oeuvres. We also went with open minds, receptive to the possibility of meeting people who might happen to own yachts and castles. We were not gold diggers, but rather, equal opportunity seekers: Tag wanted to give wealthy foreign dignitaries a chance to fund her next research project, while I remained open to finding true love and life-guiding inspiration at any income level. Soul, I generously acknowledged, was capable of flourishing in bodies other than those of starving writers and musicians.
These ambassador bashes were my favorites because I got to play Extreme Make-Believe, which was even more gratifying than commiserating with Selena the accountant or Sam the senior headed for SUNY Binghamton. Call it acting, call it lying, but don't knock it until you've raved to a sheik about the heather-filled fields that line your father's property in northern Scotland.
"I'm so thrilled that Papa was the younger brother," I might confide over a plate of caviar, "because although there's less, you know, money, he has fewer responsibilities. More time to herd sheep and go on quail hunts. No harm, no foul!" The sheik might or might not get the pun. (Bonus points if he did.)
Finally, I always had my own personal agenda at these parties. Aside from maybe canoeing the globe solo, there was almost nothing I wouldn't try to stop myself from thinking about Hayden Briggs for even a few hours. Crashing a party at the St. Regis didn't register high on the list of antidotes, but here I was, yet again hoping for a life-altering experience to wipe that sanity-skewering redhead from my memory.
Tonight, as Tag and I cased the crowd from the safety of the coat check room, I took in all the dark hair, dark eyes, and caramel skin and immediately began constructing a story about my brother's chain of pubs in Iceland. Because of my unmistakably non-exotic features, I could never invent a brother who owns a Middle Eastern refinery or even a measly olive grove. I'm five-foot-eight—an inch too tall for a lot of guys' tastes—and I reek of second-generation American robust good health. In the old country, I'd probably have great bone structure, but here, among the fortified cereals and protein boosts, my model potential is safely squirreled away beneath a layer of comfortable padding. I long for Jennifer Aniston's upper arms, but am secretly quite pleased with my legs, which would look spectacular in the high heels I can never bring myself to endure wearing. I have a thick mass of honey brown hair that would look similarly stunning if I could bother to blow it out. Instead, I keep it just short of nest status with a collection of bent, chipped, fifty-cent Goody barrettes. I have what Tag calls "ish" eyes—big and round (I would kill for a hint of an almond shape), but of indefinable color: greenish, grayish, blueish.
Now, I opened my ish eyes as wide as I could, threw a giant smile at the stocky scion manning the door, and made a beeline for the buffet. To crash successfully, you must move confidently.
Tag and I grabbed plates and went to work. As I reluctantly passed over the shrimp—their farming requires the destruction of mangrove trees, which are natural filters for coastal waters; ergo, shrimp farming equals death (bibliography: three-Amstel-Light lecture, Tag, 11th Street Bar, circa 2004)—a male specimen to my right asked me something in a voice so bedroom-savvy I felt the polish slide off my toenails.
I looked up. Square jaw—my weakness. Cheekbones that could have cut diamonds, another weakness. A huge flop of, yes, black hair. An Achilles'-heel trifecta.
Alas, I understood not a word out of his beautiful mouth. He smiled at me and pointed, his eyebrows raised in polite inquiry. No doubt it was the same look he gave to fellow NATO members when discussing nuclear proliferation. I could travel the world with him, starting out as his lover/assistant, and learning the ropes. Within a few years, I'd be indispensable to the entire organization. One day, I'd wield the gavel as Secretary General.
Ah. He couldn't reach the shrimp. As I forked one, then two, then—raising an inquiringly seductive eyebrow back at him—a third, I began wondering how long it would take to regain a grip on my high school Spanish, and whether there was a quickie Berlitz course in Spanish-for-flirts. As I deposited the last shrimp onto his plate, Ferdinand (why not?) gave me a questioning look regarding my shellfish abstention. Foreseeing the difficulties of miming "mangrove," I just smiled as coyly as I could while balancing a Coke in one hand and a plate of mini sardine cakes in the other. He gave me a little elbow in the side and grinned in lieu of conversation. Our kids will be gorgeous and bilingual, I thought.
Tag appeared at my side, heartlessly derailing my burgeoning courtship. "Zephyr, did they slip you one of these at the door?" She shoved a picture frame in my face. I glared at her, but she was sipping sangria and frowning at her party favor. I cast Ferdinand a helpless look. He puckered his lips, blew me a little kiss, then slipped away into the crowd. Ciao, my beloved! I mentally called after him. I mean, Adios!
"Did they?" Tag repeated, unaware that she had in all likelihood reduced me to permanent spinsterhood. The frame she was studying displayed a collage of photos of a pale and slightly bulgy-eyed beauty. There were shots of her as a grinning infant, as a pre-adolescent waving from a balcony above a herd of charging bulls, and one of her as a teenager, holding a scepter.
"Miss Spain! The party is for Miss Spain 2006," I concluded reasonably. I spotted a waiter and mentally dug around for the phrase "Do you have any more of those red and green meat things?"
"Well, if it is, they've done a lousy job. We should be able to tell right away who the celebrant is, what the occasion is, and how we're supposed to feel by being in the same room as her." Tag frowned. "I can't tell who Miss Spain is, can you?"
Tag had recently dumped the vice president of a branding company (I had eventually come to understand that his job didn't involve cattle). Evidently, he wasn't completely out of her system. She tugged at her party-crashing uniform—her wedding dress, hacked off at the thighs and dyed a Rockettes-at-Christmas red—and looked at me impatiently.
I scanned the room, but none of the women was sporting a tiara or cradling a bouquet of roses. A number of them, though, looked like Tag, which meant that the pulchritude percentage in the room was abnormally high.
It was a testament to my self-confidence that I considered Tag one of my closest friends (the label "best" friend, we had decided, was too sixth grade), because she was drop-dead gorgeous, and to stand next to her was to make yourself virtually invisible to most men (save for my loyal Ferdinand). With her full-moon brown eyes, lashes out to Jersey, lanky body with curves in only the right places, and Claudia Schiffer-like stature, all topped off by a fountain of inky black curls, Tag made even the straightest woman go tongue-tied. But when you threw in her genuine obliviousness to her beauty, proven by the fact that instead of earning a fortune on runways, she studied sharks' intestinal tapeworms and did a little dance every time she lit upon a new species, then she was someone around whom you often found your mouth actually hanging open, as if your upper and lower teeth were magnetically repelling each other.
"No idea which one she is," I said, spraying a mouthful of crumbs down my dress. As I was brushing them off, though, I got a clue. Like a punch in the gut, a brass band struck up behind us, causing Tag to spray out a mouthful of sangria.