Read an Excerpt
THE DAY I CUT my hair and completely fuck up the Christmas Card, I am merely bored, not a defiant brat like Babs tells all her friends.
It is late August. I am ten. Babs is in the kitchen talking to Andie, who comes Saturday afternoons for Bloody Marys and eggs Benedict. Babs doesn’t drink alcohol. She always nurses a Baccarat champagne flute of freshly squeezed juice (grapefruit, plum, raspberry) cut with a heavy pour of Perrier. Fruit has way too many calories. I’m not even sure she likes the taste, but it looks pretty.
“So, Andie,” Babs says, “we are doing the Card tomorrow. I can’t decide if I should go summer or for more of a holiday feel. No matchy-matchy reindeer sweaters, of course, but maybe a tad less controversial than last year’s. I know the nudity was tastefully done, but I don’t want that bitch Nona Cardill writing nasty things about me in her column. That biddy probably never takes off her underwear. And all the calls from school. No sense of humor at all; no points for creativity.”
All the kids in my grade at Chicago Day were really mean when our Christmas Card arrived last year. Yes, we were naked, but I was sitting on Babs’s lap and covered her privates. That didn’t make things any better. They said I was totally weird to have my picture taken without my clothes on. The best I could come up with was that it wasn’t my idea.
“It was very avant-garde, Babs. I still have it up on my fridge,” Andie says.
I think this is kind of creepy. Babs just laughs.
I’m sitting on the floor by the kitchen table, almost out of view, reading Tiger Beat, which has my idol Brooke Shields on the cover. Babs got me a subscription to it for my tenth birthday and it’s one of the best presents she ever gave me. I watch them smoke and ash into their Villeroy & Boch plates—Babs’s “weekend” china. It doesn’t matter that we eat off these plates; Babs can turn anything into an ashtray. She and Andie lean into the white marble island as if they need help remaining upright. Babs wears white short-shorts and a white Playboy bunny tank top, a silver bunny head outlined on it in rhinestones.
Andie wears a brown wrap dress that is so wrinkled it looks like she dug it out from under her bed. She has Birkenstocks on her feet. When she came in, I could see the hair on her toes.
Babs is beautiful, and I wish I looked like her. She has blond hair, which she wears up in a messy French twist, and blue eyes. You might think Babs was Grace Kelly’s twin if GK said words like cock and pussy and hit little kids. Babs always said she would much rather look like Brigitte Bardot, sexy, fluid, and open-ended like an unmade bed, but she doesn’t have the curves to pull it off. She is very tall, five foot ten, and cut like a boy: slender hips, no butt, no boobs.
Babs’s legs are right in front me, and like she says, they are so fucking fabulous. Her calves are shea-butter rich and smell of South African lemons, thanks to her Veritas lotion. She almost never wears pants or pantyhose. She uses their bareness to take advantage of the elements: they goose-bump in the cold, glisten in the sun, go slick in the rain. Since I am her daughter, I think she might let me touch them some time. I hope I will even grow into my own pair one day. But her body is off-limits to me. It is almost as if she were afraid my small hands would leave fingerprints and ruin them forever.
Andie isn’t even remotely attractive, and this is exactly why Babs is friends with her. She has curly hair with gray in it, and big horse teeth. She always agrees with Babs, no matter what.
“That’s the difference between our Card and other people’s. As you know. Don’t just snap something and send it to your friends. Spend some time on it. Surprise people when they open the envelope. I was thinking about a Turning Point theme, both of us with buns and matching leotards. But with a holiday twist. I’m afraid most people won’t get it. It’s just too bad we don’t know Misha. Those fabulous tights.”
I don’t get it. Buns and leotards? Who is Misha? Since when does Babs like ballet?
“Anyone who doesn’t get that movie doesn’t deserve your Card, Babs.”
Today, Andie is surprisingly authoritative, making up standards for Babs’s friends. I think she hopes this Card will narrow the pool of people Babs likes and give Andie more of a shot. As it stands, Andie is just a daytime friend. She’s never invited for dinner when other people come. But Andie thinks if she just keeps showing up, Babs will bump her up on the roster, make space for her at the table. This will never happen. Babs makes up her mind about people and doesn’t allow for upgrades. Like me, Andie is taking the standby approach, but it just doesn’t work. There are always better people available to take the good seats.
Babs spots me listening in on their discussion and says, “Bettina, stop hovering. Go find your own fun.” Hovering is fucking annoying, so I stand up and leave.
Babs says things like this all the time and I am used to it. But still, I don’t want to find something else to do. I’m an only child but completely lack the mythical powers of only-child imagination. Unlike Eloise, I cannot make a day out of fixing a doll’s broken head or spend hours feeding raisins to a turtle.
I do have a nanny, but not the doting or fancy kind. Stacey is twenty and isn’t from England, but Lyons, Wisconsin. Before coming to work for Babs, she lived in a small ranch house with her family. The average tenure of my nannies is about nine months, and Stacey has been with us for two years now. A real achievement.
Stacey’s favorite parts of the job are smoking Virginia Slim menthols (Babs would never hire a nanny who didn’t smoke) and speeding down Lake Shore Drive in the Pacer Babs has given her to use. She reads Cosmo and highlights all the passages on how to drive a man to ecstasy. She really has no interest in me.
I don’t completely blame her. I am a little girl who offers no easy conversation and doesn’t do tricks. I don’t like stickers, don’t play with Barbies, and think cartoons are stupid. What matters to me is someday being friends with Brooke Shields. Babs met her once at Studio 54 and had Brooke autograph a cocktail napkin for me. I was so happy I put it in a Dax frame along with a cut-out picture of her. This is the best thing I have.
Unlike Brooke, I am not gorgeous, or even a tiny bit pretty. I am four-three with flat brown hair that won’t hold curls. Once, Babs tried to give it volume by attacking it with a curling iron, but the only thing she accomplished was burning my scalp. Babs promises that when I turn eleven, she will get me professional streaks for my birthday.
The one thing I seem to have going for me is that I’m thin, and Babs loves buying clothes for me. She spends lots of money on them: suede or leather pants she picks up in Paris, silk-screened T-shirts with Warhol prints on them, gray crinkled-silk pinafores with black velvet ballet flats. But none of this really matters. I’m a match that just won’t strike.
When I leave Babs and Andie, I decide to hit the playroom in the aparthouse. Babs calls our apartment this because it’s as big as a real house. Two stories, four fireplaces, six bedrooms, and eight potties. The problem is that there is really nothing I like to play with in the playroom. It’s just a large space with wall-to-wall sand-colored carpeting and big toys; Babs’s version of an indoor playground. There is a red wooden jungle gym with a metal slide, a sandbox filled with sand from some beach in France, and a life-size glossy black horse with a mane and tail that are made of real horsehair. Boring.
Besides the toys, there’s a wooden glossy green bench that looks like it has been stolen from an actual park. The bench legitimately belongs to Babs, but it’s disturbing in another way. It sports a gold plaque that says MONTGOMERY AND EUDORA BALLENTYNE. HIT THE DECK MAY 26, 1967. MAY THEY RIP.
Montgomery and Eudora Ballentyne were Babs’s parents. They died in a boat accident the year before I was born. There’s a glass ashtray built into an armrest of the bench. In the accident, her father was decapitated on impact. Her mother, still alive, was pulled into the motor of the boat. It was still running, and it sliced her body into bloody pieces.
Above the bench are Lucas’s paintings. Lucas is Babs’s first cousin. He lives in New York City, like Brooke Shields. Lucas has some kind of free pass in Babs’s life. I can tell by the way Babs talks to him on the phone that she likes him in a way that has nothing to do with sex. She talks to him like she might a brother, and she once even apologized to him about something. Maybe since Lucas has the chocolate money too, he and Babs belong to the same tribe. Lucas is married to someone named Poppy and they have a son named JoJo, but I have never met any of them. Babs says Lucas hates to fly.
Lucas’s paintings are abstract, mostly gray and black lines on big white boards. Even though I don’t understand them, I really like them. He sends a fresh batch every two months, and Babs mails back the old ones, which he displays at a gallery and hopefully sells.
The paintings may not be that interesting to look at, but they make me feel less lonely. My family is bigger than just me and Babs. If Babs ever says she has had it with me once and for all, maybe Lucas could be my backup plan. I don’t really know how I would get from Chicago to New York, but it’s a start.
Babs’s imagination may call the shots on the twenty-ninth floor, but I’m only an elevator ride from the real world.
Babs believes she’s as accomplished as Lucas. There are three things she’s really good at: giving parties, making scrapbooks, and, of course, doing the Card. Her scrapbooks are original in that they have almost no pictures in them. Just receipts from restaurants she has gone to and for shoes she has bought, cocktail napkins from parties she has been to. She keeps the scrapbooks in the back of her fur closet, organized by year. She has told me never to look at them; they are none of my business. But I can’t help myself. I look for parts of her she does not share with me. They are the closest thing she has to a diary.
But the Card, I know all about. I look forward to it all year since it means we will spend the whole day together, posing in various outfits, trying different locations for shots. Since we have the Card tomorrow, part of me relaxes. I decide to do as I’m told and force myself to make the most of the playroom. I hang upside down on the jungle gym for five minutes, fall off the death horse twice and hurt my arm, and look at Lucas’s paintings for as long as I can.
I venture into the living room. I’m not supposed to go in there by myself, but it’s the best room in the aparthouse, with the most to do. It is two stories high and takes up one whole half of the aparthouse. Standing in it is like being in a Lucite box that’s suspended in the sky. Instead of a solid wall, there is a huge pane of glass that goes floor to ceiling and allows for an amazing view of Lake Michigan. You can watch the cars on Lake Shore Drive go right up to North Avenue. In the summer, you can even see those women who don’t have country-club memberships sitting on Oak Street Beach, slathering themselves with cheap suntan lotion and probably reading Danielle Steel.
Babs bought the aparthouse after her parents died. Before, she lived in Grass Woods, a suburb of Chicago, on a big estate called Tea House. I’m glad Babs moved to the city and bought the aparthouse. Besides being really big, it has cool things, like the spiral staircase that winds up to her bedroom. The steps are big chunks of creamy veined marble, and the railing is a long silver tube that curves like a Krazy Straw. Straight silver bars connect the railing to the steps, and I love to stick my head through them.
I decide to risk a trip to the top of the stairs so I can saunter back down them just like Babs does when she makes an entrance into her parties. But my beginning is clumsy. I’m so busy looking up that I almost knock over a majolica cup filled with Babs’s cigarettes and nearly step on her scrapbook scissors.
I love these scissors; the blades are long and silver like swords. The handles are gold and encrusted with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. They are bumpy and smooth at the same time, like a seashell sticky with sand. Sometimes I put them in my mouth and suck on them. They have a metallic taste that is surprisingly sweet.
I pick them up and press them against my cheek. The longer I hold on to them, the harder it is to let them go. I spread the blades wide like legs and position them on my right cheek. They slide a little deeper into their splits, and I press them down slightly.
A piece of hair falls to my mouth and sticks to my lips. I blow it back, still holding the scissors. I pause and imagine Babs whispering in my ear, You are such a fucking chicken.
The words sound so real I flinch. When Babs insults me, I never answer back. I just sit there and take it, with wet eyes and trembly lips. Like someone spilled my Shirley Temple.
But since Babs is not in the room with me, I have the courage to defy her. I give a large fistful of my hair a good yank. The pain makes me feel alert. Exhilarated. I open the scissors as wide as they will go, and then bring them together with all my force. Cut. My hair is baby-fine so there is no resistance. A butcher knife slicing a birthday cake.
After about one short moment of triumph, I spiral into a complete panic. My hair’s all over the blades, which are supposed to be used only to cut paper for scrapbooks. Nothing else. I bundle the amputated strands into something like a bird’s nest and stuff them under the corner of the rug. This is the moment where, were I old enough, I would pause, reach for a cigarette, and have a good, deep smoke. But I am only ten, and there is no time to waste.
I wipe the scissors carefully on the hem of my dress, hold them up to the bright sunlight coming through the living room window. They look clean. I return them to the steps. I want to prove things are back to normal, so I go back to the kitchen to find Babs.
She and Andie have finished their food and are no longer talking. Andie looks nervous. She’s not ready to leave and finish up her day alone. There’s a lull between them, and Babs does not tolerate a lull. It’s as if they are just waiting for me to walk in.
Babs looks at me and says, “What the fuck have you done to your hair?”
Babs says fuck all the time. It is not always a mean word, but today it is.
“Nothing,” I say. I’m really surprised she can tell what I have done. I thought I had fixed the problem. But Babs can always tell everything about me.
“Bettina, lying isn’t going to fly, babe.” She calmly turns to the sink, runs water over her burning cigarette. Throws it in the trash.
Andie turns to me with her arms folded and acts concerned. She squints her eyes, like this development is deeply troubling to her. But thanks to me, she’s suddenly in the same league as Babs. Andie would never be stupid enough to cut her own hair.
“It’s not fucking nothing,” Babs says flatly. “Your hair looks like shit. I could care less, really, but we have the Card tomorrow.”
Babs is calm, and this is a really bad sign. She almost never yells when I do something wrong. The madder she gets, the more she pulls away from the situation.
Will she leave me out of the Card? This would be the worst punishment ever. Everyone knows you include your kids in your Christmas card. Unless they are dead or locked up somewhere.
Babs turns her back on me and rinses Andie’s yolky plate. She normally doesn’t do dishes, but it is the weekend, and there is no staff to do it for her. She hates when traces of food linger.
She starts to laugh. I know this isn’t her good laugh but the laugh that means something bad is going to happen. If I try to laugh along, my voice doesn’t mix with hers; it just bounces back at me. Andie acts like she is in on the joke, goes ahead and laughs too.
“Go find your fucking shoes, Bettina,” Babs says.
I hear Babs on the phone when I come back.
“Geoff, we have a crisis. The kid has done a number on her hair playing home salon and we’ve got the Card tomorrow. There’s not much to work with, but could you possibly give it your best?”
Babs flexes her toes and I hear the bones crack. She is barefoot, as usual. Her toenails are painted a tangerine orange. She always wears some cool color. She gets pedicures, manicures, and waxing twice as often as normal women. A tiny Asian girl inexplicably named Manuela comes one morning a week and uses tools that are for Babs alone.
I stand and watch as Babs waits out Geoff’s half of the conversation.
“Whenever you can,” Babs says. “Love you too. And you have such an incredibly perfect ass. Even better than mine.”
This is Babs’s way of expressing gratitude. She never says thank you.
Babs loves fags, as she calls them. She told me once that fags are men who have sex with other men. Each gets a turn to put his penis in the other’s ass, was how she explained it. I had a lot of questions about how this worked. Can they get each other pregnant? And what about all the shit stuck up there? Do they have special tools to remove it beforehand? But Babs wasn’t really in the mood to give more details. She just said, Fags are the best. They actually want you to be beautiful, and left it at that.
Babs calls Stacey on the intercom, even though her room is just off the kitchen. She drags herself into the kitchen wearing purple terry-cloth shorts and a purple T-shirt with bubble hearts. She has on her Dr. Scholl’s and holds a pink can of Tab. She has brown hair that feathers off her face and huge blue eyes, like a Disney character’s. Her nose is way too big though, so this ruins everything. Her last job was working at Dairy Queen.
“Yes, Mrs. Ballentyne,” Stacey says, in a nice can-I-help-you voice she never uses with me.
“Stace, we have a tedious and untimely emergency.”
“Really?” says Stacey, excited to be part of the drama.
“Really,” Babs says flatly. She continues. “Bettina clearly cannot be trusted with a moment of unsupervised time without totally fucking up everyone’s day. I know this is your day off, but you’re going to have to take her to Zodiac to see if Geoff can do something about this mess.”