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Six months after September 11th, New Yorkers are instructed to get on with their lives despite the terror advisories, streets filled with 9/11 merchandise, and mail that may contain Anthrax.
But for Hailey, still jobless after college and living in her family's Fifth Avenue penthouse, getting on with life means getting closer to Michael Brenner, the Princeton graduate and future human rights lawyer who seems to have it all. The city feels as if it's on the brink of apocalypse, ...
Six months after September 11th, New Yorkers are instructed to get on with their lives despite the terror advisories, streets filled with 9/11 merchandise, and mail that may contain Anthrax.
But for Hailey, still jobless after college and living in her family's Fifth Avenue penthouse, getting on with life means getting closer to Michael Brenner, the Princeton graduate and future human rights lawyer who seems to have it all. The city feels as if it's on the brink of apocalypse, and seeking out any sort of future seems pointless. So Hailey and her friends - Katie, already working at Morgan Stanley; Randy, a trust-fund kid who wears sweaters with holes in them; and Jess, confident of her future success regardless of her present inertia - stay out all night, dream up get rich quick schemes and aspire to greatness while questioning how much that greatness really matters.
But when Hailey meets Adrian, a transplanted Pennsylvanian and recent Brown graduate who doesn't belong to Hailey's privileged mileu, she begins to realize that her view of the world might not be the only one there is, and soon she is questioning everything she thought she knew.
We’re outside Finbar.”
I wouldn’t have even noticed. The awning was gone. It was dark inside. But she was right; we were on 82nd and Amsterdam.
“Hailey,” she said into the phone, looking at me. “And Laura,” she said, glancing at Laura and looking back at me.
It must have finally gotten shut down for underage drinking.
“Do you want me to pick anything up?”
I knew who she was talking to. It had to be him.
“Okay, see you soon.”
I couldn’t ask. It would be too obvious. Laura had to ask.
“Are you guys cool with going to Brenner’s?” Katie said.
I was right.
“Yeah,” Laura said.
I had never been to his apartment. I was going to hang out on his bed. After everyone had a few drinks, we might even get under the covers. By that time we’d have been flirting all night anyway. Not everything was shaved and waxed and ready to go, but whatever. We didn’t even have to take our clothes off. We could simply make out in the dark. I’d lie on his chest while he stroked my hair. I’d listen to his heart slow down and speed up while he told me about the exotic places he had traveled to after college.
I shrugged and nodded. Go, not go—I was fine either way.
“I told him we’d get mixers,” Katie said, looking around for a deli. We saw the neon glow of one about halfway down the block.
I was going to see Brenner tonight.
It was still cold out. Still not spring. But the breeze had a whiff of autumn that made time feel like it was moving backward.
Laura and Katie walked in ahead of me, and Katie shouted that they were getting tonic, club soda, and Coke. I reached through strips of plastic curtain and pulled out a cranberry juice.
Katie rested an elbow on the counter. “No one ever has Red Bull.”
There were cases of Poland Spring on the floor. They would come in handy if we got sequestered in his parents’ apartment. Tonight would actually be a great night for a terrorist attack. I never knew when the next one would happen. I tried to feel it in the air, but every night since 9/11 was like one of the lottery tickets that hung behind the register. Any one could be a winner.
As we were walking out the door, I saw a sign that said I NEW YORK. MORE THAN EVER.
I did. Because tonight I was going to see Brenner.
The Beresford was across the street from the Museum of Natural History and from the new planetarium, which looked like a glass boathouse holding the moon. One day we would take our kids here. And he’d tell them that he used to go to the planetarium when he was a kid. And I’d lean into him and say, “Getting stoned with your friends and watching the Pink Floyd laser light show doesn’t count.” And he’d laugh and tell me that he was never cool enough for that. That he really just went to the museum to go to the museum. And our kid—kids—would ask us what we were whispering about. And we’d say, “Nothing.” And the kids would roll their eyes because we always had these private jokes. I tried to hold on to what this felt like. Now. Before we start dating. Get married. Have kids. Before everything. This moment when it’s just me willing it to happen.
The first thing Katie said when she saw him was “Nice tan.” She had to say something. His smile flashed through the hallway like lightning.
“Welcome.” He hugged Katie. Then Laura. Then me. As soon as I registered his scent, it was gone.
We followed him through the living room. The walls displayed a perfectly imperfect group of picture frames. Some held amateur oil paintings. Others were photos or scraps of paper with no obvious relevance. Vacation souvenirs. Items of emotional significance. Beneath the window, an extensive record collection sat next to a pile of board games. The Scrabble box was held together with masking tape.
“What do you guys want to drink?” He walked into the kitchen. “We have wine, obviously, and then gin, vodka—”
“Vodka’s good. We brought mixers.” Katie held up the transparent I NEW YORK deli bag. Unlike the sign in the deli, the bag only loved New York as much as ever. “Are your parents around?”
“No, they’re in the country. They’re getting back tomorrow.”
“How are they?”
“Great.” Not even a trace of sarcasm, irritation, resentment. If I had Brenner’s family, everything would be different. My posture would be different.
“Tell them I said hi.”
“I will.” He hoisted himself onto the marble countertop. He saw me looking at him and flashed a small stroke of lightning. It could have meant anything. We took turns mixing drinks with a butter knife.
“So where were you again?” Katie said.
“Right… Was it amazing?” Katie said it the way all of us said it. Am-AY-zing.
“It was amazing. I have pictures.”
“I want to see them,” she said.
He jumped off the counter and grabbed his drink, and we all followed him to his room.
“How long do you have off right now?”
She shook her head. “I should have done a fellowship.”
His bedroom smelled like fabric softener. The wooden built-ins were filled with certificates from high school, summer camp, and Princeton next to photos of people in sunglasses ecstatic to be so close to him, huddled around him on anonymous beaches. On one shelf were trophies and medals from the beginning of his childhood when he was only average at everything, before he gave up on sports and art to pursue academics; on another shelf was a school project that a younger version of him must have made. It was a miniature reproduction of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, complete with little perforated flags that read DEGAS, PHOTOGRAPHY, CHINA. Probably something that his parents implored him to keep. One day I’d say something about it. Tell him I loved it. Make fun of him for it. But not tonight. I didn’t want to draw attention to this being my first time in his room.
We all sat on his bed, and he sat in a desk chair, swiveling slightly back and forth, telling Katie what stops had been on his itinerary. Above his bed were books, pressed into, next to, and over each other. Leather classics. High school required reading. Textbooks. Thrown together like he didn’t even underline. Most of what he read probably wasn’t even on these shelves.
“And then one night we snuck into this cave and ended up sleeping there.” He handed Katie a photo of himself with his arm around a girl.
“Was she traveling alone?” Katie said.
Was who traveling alone? I didn’t ask.
“No,” he said. “But she pretty much ditched her friends the rest of the trip.”
I glanced at the photo. Of course she was pretty. No shortage of those, not even in fucking Malaysia.
I sat there trying not to look any different than I did a second ago. Trying not to pour my vodka cranberry into the cream-colored fibers beneath us and watch the red seep through. There was always some hotter girl around. I couldn’t believe I thought nothing would change a year after we hooked up. Like he’d really just been waiting for me to show up at his apartment. Like a hundred other girls haven’t already fallen in love with him between then and now.
“Where is she from?” Katie said.
“California.” Fucking California. “We just happened to be there the same week.” He glanced from the stack of photos to Katie looking at them.
The problem with Brenner was that he wasn’t gorgeous. His eyes were small and his hair was always a little too short. He was the kind of good-looking you notice only after a while. Like when he would say something funny and you would look twice and realize that, wait, he happens to have perfect teeth. And he is kind of tall. And, actually, nothing’s really wrong with him. And you realize you could love how he squints when he smiles. You could totally love how he squints when he smiles. And you could be very happy being married to a human rights lawyer. Even when—no, especially when—he’s older and a little harrowed, kissing the kids on his way out in the mornings and then stopping and kissing you, too, and looking you right in the eyes, after all these years, your thighs still sore from the night before. And it occurs to you that this is the perfect guy with whom to go to parents’ nights at Dalton and to Central Synagogue on the High Holidays. The perfect guy with whom to be photographed by Bill Cunningham, and David Patrick Columbia, on occasion, or to be alone with in Italy, Egypt, Tahiti. And his family would love you because you’re a Jewish New Yorker just like them. You know that Russ & Daughters has better lox than Zabar’s but that Murray’s Sturgeon Shop is the gold standard and that E.A.T. has the best egg salad but you’re better off getting bagels from H&H. Your moms might even have regular lunch dates at Fred’s, just the two of them, or get manicures and talk about the grandkids, worrying about minor things the way grandparents do when life is perfect and there’s nothing major to worry about. Will Ivy stop sucking her thumb? Is the bar mitzvah party close enough to Dylan’s actual birthday? Why don’t we spend the kids’ entire winter vacation in Palm Beach instead of just five days? Can’t Brenner get more time off of work?
And then it occurs to you that every other girl who meets him is thinking the same thing.
“Are you gonna see her again?” Katie asked.
“Probably not. She’s abroad for the year.”
She was in college. He was not going to start dating a girl in college. Unless she was in college in New York.
“Where does she go to school again?” Katie asked all the right questions.
Good. Stay in California. No one wants you here.
“Is that a good school?” Katie said.
“It’s not amazing, but she’s smart,” Brenner said.
Pepperdine was about the same level as BU. She was no smarter than me. It could have been worse.
She could have been Victoria.
Victoria went to Princeton too. I saw her only twice in all the times I’d come up to visit Katie. She was so beautiful it was hard to believe she could get into Princeton. It was hard to believe that she could ever get anything. You’d think anyone in charge of admitting people to things would deny her whatever it was she wanted just to even the score. But apparently it didn’t work that way. Apparently it worked the opposite of that. She had clearly been the most popular girl in high school. She had probably played lacrosse or field hockey. She was probably one of those girls who looked even more beautiful with her hair falling out of a ponytail, her face red and sweaty, running down a field. I felt bad for the kids at Princeton who worked their asses off in high school to get away from girls like her. It must have sucked to finally get to Princeton to realize that there is no getting away from girls like her.
I knew that at one point she and Brenner had hooked up. I didn’t know which one of them left it at that. I could never ask outright because, as someone who had hooked up with him, too, it would have been obvious that I was trying to get information. So I pieced together what I could based on snippets I got here and there, which was simply that they had had some sort of relationship.
But she was the only girl I ever saw him openly gazing at. And she, being stronger than all of us, in addition to being more everything than all of us, wouldn’t even glance at him. Once when I saw her at Princeton, she was talking to some random dude at a bar while Brenner watched her. And just by talking to that dude, she made herself look like the most desirable girl on the planet. I bought into it, and I am a girl.
Sometimes I tortured myself picturing Brenner and Victoria together. Her hair. Blond. Luscious. Spread out on a pillow. Her eyes. Shimmering. I pictured him wanting to do everything to her. Anything for her. Kissing her ankles while she looked away. Kissing his way up her athletic legs that smelled like shaving cream. Working his way up her body while she glanced at him from above, her hair moving as if underwater. Reaching for her breasts, which were maybe on the smaller side but perfectly round. Licking her, inhaling her, savoring every movement of her body, determined to get her off.
The first time I saw her, she was wearing a denim jacket. People didn’t even wear denim jackets in 1998. But the day I saw her in a denim jacket, I thought maybe that was what was it. The denim jacket. Or maybe it was the pashmina scarf she wore the time after that, the periwinkle one that brought out her eyes. Maybe it was her fake-looking, perfectly aligned teeth that she so rarely showed, but when she did, made time freeze. Or maybe it was her hair. That perfect golden ad-campaign hair that, no matter how beautiful we all were in our own ways, we would have traded her for in a heartbeat.
All of us felt our looks diminish around Victoria. The girls with silky brown hair and huge, almost black eyes; the slender dark girls with the dulce de leche skin and long lashes; the girls with birdlike faces and smoking bodies with great laughs and perfect nails. All of us had played with the same Barbies, saw the same cartoons, read the same fashion magazines. We all knew that she was the best one.
Whenever her name came up, I braced myself to hear that they were finally together for real. I hadn’t heard her name in a while, which was a relief, but also not. Her absence probably only made him want her more. And once they finally got together, that would be it. They were both so fucking eligible they were destined to wind up together. The “Styles” section would talk about how they met at Princeton, how the two of them were both successful in their own right—she a financial something or other, he a human rights lawyer—and how it took them years to find the love that was right under their noses. Their wedding pictures would be stunning. Strangers would look at them and smile the way they had smiled at Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston cutting their wedding cake. It would be an announcement—not just that they were married, but that they had won, at life.
I wanted her to get bitten by a tarantula.
I wanted a piano to fall on her head.
I wanted her run over a cliff like a cartoon character, legs pumping air, with a quick wave good-bye.
This Pepperdine girl was a brunette. And had a huge forehead. At least, the Pepperdine girl wasn’t Victoria.
“I’m gonna go grab another drink,” I said, and lifted myself off the bed as gracefully as possible.
I wandered into the hallway where framed pictures traced his family’s evolution. Each frame displayed a different year. There were pictures of his parents in the ’70s, with flowing hair and shirts, pictures of the couple with a baby, then a toddler, a toddler and a baby, three kids and blunt haircuts and a dog, beautiful green-eyed kids hugging their knees, holding the dog, smiling into the camera, kids just starting to resemble the young people in the first frame, older people with thinning hair and crow’s feet. As the film quality got better, there were no babies, and there was less hair, and there were bigger dogs. Soon the cycle would start again.
Our apartment had no baby pictures. When my mother remarried, all of those albums were thrown into the highest cabinet of the guest room. There were framed pictures all over the apartment. Silver. Tiffany’s. But they held only recent photographs. The oldest pictures dated back to my mom and Larry’s engagement twelve years ago. The photos made it seem like Adam and I came out of the womb at fifteen and ten years old, or like the pictures were arranged by a movie-set designer with limited resources. A set designer who could display only recent pictures of the actors because he didn’t have pictures of them from before they knew each other.
“Do you think it’s possible to have a good personality without a good sense of humor?” I overheard Katie say.
“No,” Laura answered. “But I also don’t think it’s possible to have a bad personality if you do have a good sense of humor.”
“You’re saying sense of humor trumps everything, right?” That was Brenner.
“Totally,” said Laura.
Walking to the kitchen, I saw that the Brenners had used the same carpeting we had in our duplex, maybe even the same decorator. But here there were scuffed walls and wisps of dog fur, while ours had the smell of fresh paint and vacuuming. There was no matchbook collection in our apartment like there was in the fishbowl of this living room, nor did we have a handmade clay pencil holder. Our pencil holders came from Scully & Scully and the notepads were special-ordered from Dempsey & Carroll. My mom and Larry were over having the kind of home the Brenners had, even if Adam and I weren’t.
I stirred my vodka cranberry, alone in his kitchen, trying to devise a way to get him to think about me later. I could write my birthday on their Chagall wall calendar. I could scribble my number on a Post-it by the phone. A bunch of worn-out cookbooks stood between the wall and the refrigerator. I should steal one and become an expert in sautéing. A dark green binder said “Chapin” on the spine in Sharpie. Another said “Trinity.” I could show up to parents’ night at Chapin, or to a school play, introduce myself, make my case for being with their son. I breathed in the kitchen air. Maybe he would just feel that I had been here. I took a few gulps of my drink and topped it off with more vodka and more cranberry. I ran my hand along the kitchen counter.
On my way back to his room, I passed Laura and Katie in the hall; they were heading to the kitchen for vodka cranberries too.
“Passman’s here,” Laura said. If Laura hadn’t been Katie’s college sidekick, she could have been the one I confided to about Brenner. The one who would tell me that I looked okay. Really good tonight, actually. The one who would tell me the nice stuff Brenner said about me when I wasn’t around.
“Cool,” I said.
I heard Passman from the hallway. “I’ve never had sex with a girl just once.”
“That’s like the opposite of you,” I said, looking at Brenner as I walked in. This was the first thing I had said to him since I got there. Since I left his dorm room at dawn almost a year ago.
He was sitting at his desk. He looked at the photos between his elbows and smiled.
“It’s true, isn’t it?” My drink tasted more like vodka than cranberry.
“I haven’t really thought about it.” He looked away. “But why do you say that?”
“Haven’t you hooked up with, like, every female person in your life?”
Passman grinned at him. “He never hooked up with his sisters.”
“That’s disgusting,” he said to Passman. “But, yeah, I guess I have.”
“I thought it was a source of pride for you.”
“Pride? No. God, that’s terrible.”
“Yeah, it is.” We glanced at each other. I looked away.
The pause that followed was unbearably long.
“I just like the moment that wall falls. When you’re talking to a girl and you’re both maintaining your space and conversational formality, and then suddenly you’re kissing. In an instant you’re seeing each other in such a different way.”
“You get off on the novelty of constantly breaking that boundary—”
“I wouldn’t say I ‘get off’—”
“And it’s not constantly.”
Brenner stared into space and then back at his desk.
“Did you hear that Evan Meyer got arrested in Central Park for smoking?” Katie said as she and Laura came back into the room.
“Weed?” Passman said.
“Who gets arrested for smoking in their twenties?” Passman said.
“Wait,” I said. “I thought he got arrested for something else, and they found the weed.” I glanced at Brenner. He wasn’t looking at me.
“Oh right! He did,” Katie laughed. “He had a suspicious-looking object. He was playing Frisbee and he left his backpack in the middle of the meadow. And then the cops went through his bag and found weed.”
“No!” Passman stood up. “Isn’t that illegal?”
“That’s ridiculous,” Brenner said.
I glanced at Brenner again. He still wasn’t looking at me.
“Did you see the Oscars last night?” Passman said.
“Oh my God. Did you see Tom Cruise’s speech?” Katie said.
“Yes!” Passman said. “That’s what I was about to say.”
“I didn’t see it,” Brenner said. “What happened?”
“I guess they decided that someone had to give a speech about whether or not it’s okay to have the Oscars after September eleventh,” Katie said. “And for some reason they chose Tom Cruise.”
“Why didn’t they choose Whoopi Goldberg? Didn’t she host it?”
“I have no idea. But he was so creepy.”
“He WAS so creepy,” I said.
“He had like, a beard and fangs,” Katie said.
“What do you mean, fangs?”
“I don’t know, it looked like he was wearing fangs. And he had this really intense, menacing stare. He was like, ‘Should we celebrate the joy and magic that movies bring? Dare I say it? More. Than. Ever.’ And he was lisping because of the fangs. When the camera panned the audience, everyone looked horrified.”
“I think he’s on the brink of a nervous breakdown,” Passman said. “In his last three roles, he’s been dancing around, either deformed or wearing masks. Eyes Wide Shut, Mission Impossible II, and…”
“Vanilla Sky,” Katie said.
“Wow,” I said. “I’m kind of looking forward to his psychological unraveling.”
“Me too,” Brenner said, and we made quick eye contact. Finally.
Katie laughed. “Was Evan Meyer the one who tried to pay his pot dealer with a check?”
“Yes,” Passman said. “Ridiculous.”
I didn’t want to think about how much sheets like this cost, but it was the first thing I thought about every time I woke up. Because it was true. These outrageously expensive sheets were better than other sheets. And expensive things are better than other things. And I would have never been able to afford these sheets on my own. I didn’t have my own money. I didn’t have my own job. Every time I woke up in the morning, the expensive sheets reminded me of this.
There were people right then on crowded trains in grating train light. They didn’t wake up in a king-size bed with eight pillows and a fresh floral arrangement on their nightstand. They woke up to a loud fuzzy radio and remembered some problem with the house or the car on the way to the train station. They were holding grungy metal handles on Metro-North or the N or R train thinking about how many days were left until the weekend.
Every so often someone overslept.
The people who overslept on that Tuesday could barely contain the look on their faces when they realized everything they thought they knew had just been scrapped. If they had only been more responsible in their lives, they could have done more, gone further, torn themselves out of those extra minutes of peace and into the bastion of death. Finally their suspicions were confirmed. None of this really mattered, the waking up early and having a job and getting to places on time. The people who died on 9/11 were the ones who were “doing well,” who made the rest of us feel bad that we were doing nothing. And the jobless, the ones who played hooky or overslept, were the ones who were still alive.
I patted the nightstand for the remote. Without opening my eyes, I pointed it toward the TV, feeling for the power button in the top right corner. I slowly found the 2 and 7 for CNN. Terrorists were morning people, and if today was the day they decided to strike, I’d be out of this job interview. But the reporter wasn’t talking about a terror alert; she was talking about some boat crash off the coast of somewhere. The world had not ended after all. I could usually count on CNN to do a recap now of what we know at this hour, breaking news, extended coverage, a special report, but today they were giving me nothing. I turned the TV off and fell back into the billion-thread-count sheets. In one hour, I had to be at the ad agency, résumé in hand.
The office was cool and gray, and Julie or Julia Hedgehog or whatever her name was had coarse brown hair that looked like she blow-dried it quickly in the mornings. She was somewhere between my mother’s age and mine. She leaned forward slightly in her chair, eyes skimming the gray rug. Her computer was one of those Mac desktops that looked like a big hot-pink Tupperware container crammed with electronics. The keyboard had tiny specks of dust on it.
“Did you take the train here, Hailey?”
Her eyes were light brown. Plain.
“No.” I should have said I had taken the train. I should have made it sound like I didn’t even have cab fare, that that’s how badly I needed this job. “There’ve been a lot of delays lately, so I took a cab to be safe.”
“The Four and Five trains aren’t running. There was a bomb threat.”
“Really? Wow. I didn’t even know that.”
The phone rang in her office. Her assistant normally sat outside the door, she explained, but he wasn’t in today, so she picked it up. Everything he did at that cubicle would have been visible to this woman. If I got this job, every minute of my day would be visible to her too. A book on her shelf said Branding in Coca-Cola script. Next to it were five different boxes of granola bars. Peanut Butter. Cinnamon Raisin. Oats and Honey.
“Sorry. That was my husband.” She placed the phone back on the receiver but didn’t let go of it. “We’re not sure about picking our son up early from school.”
“Yeah, it’s hard to know what to do.”
“Yeah. I’m just thinking.” She looked at me. “They’re evacuating a building on the block.” And then looking down at the stapler on her desk and back at me again, she said, “Maybe he should just pick him up right now?”
She could be my boss for the next ten years. My hateful, frazzled boss who constantly demanded the very file she was holding. Or she could be my mentor, get my kids into preschool at the Y, pick up the tab at P.J. Clarke’s after we had both moved on to better things. Or maybe this would be the last time I would ever see her again. I didn’t know if her name was Julie or Julia.
“He’s there now?”
I was stalling. Her office was quiet considering the view of Midtown, where there were always trucks and honking and thick gray mist coming from a pothole or a construction site or a gyro vendor. In here it smelled like paper and hummed of air-conditioning. In here we were safe. It reminded me of being in a bunk on a rainy day at summer camp.
“Is your husband around? I mean, is he near there?”
“Yeah, he’s downtown. They’re saying that everyone should be extremely careful, but they’re not giving any information beyond that.” She looked back at the phone.
“I hate that. It’s like, what are you supposed to do with that information?” I tried to look annoyed, but glancing out the window, I couldn’t fight the feeling that I could let it all go. I could watch the entire city combust through the soundproof glass of this office, standing in lined wool pants and black suede loafers. As long as this one person was here with me, it would be okay. “I guess if you’re worried, there’s no real harm in having your husband pick him up.”
She waved away the advice. “You know what? It’s fine. I’m leaving early today anyway. No one’s even in the office. Did you see how empty it is?”
“Yeah, I noticed that.”
“Let’s go over the job description so we can get out of here. Do you have a copy of your résumé?”
On the subway home, which was running again, I read the sign across from me over and over again because it was there:
IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING.
If you see a suspicious package or activity on the platform or train, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell a cop, an MTA employee, or call us toll-free at 1-888-NYC-SAFE.
¡SI VES ALGO, DI ALGO!
Si ves un paquete o alguna actividad sospechosa en la plataforma o en el tren, no te quedes callado. Habla con un policía, un empleado de MTA o llámenos al número gratuito 1-888-NYC-SAFE.
On a scale of one to ten, the interview was a seven. I should have talked more about working with clients. I shouldn’t have interrupted at the end. At least Julia Hedgehog, or whatever, subscribed to the New Yorker and loved hearing that my dad did some of the covers. If only she had known that my stepfather was one of the higher-ups—highest-ups—at Condé Nast. Or that my mother was the publisher of Details. She probably would have hired me today if she knew how connected I was to the media world. But I was glad she hadn’t done the math on who my family was. It would be nice, for once, to get something on my own.
Only every so often did I come across someone to whom my parents were household names, someone who kept up with the intricacies of New York City gossip. Who had read in the Post about how my mother had married my father’s boss at Condé Nast the day after the divorce papers were signed. Who still remembered Larry’s comment about my dad being a dilettante who had blown through all of his family money. Who knew that my father publicly and often referred to Larry as “the corpse.”
I looked at myself in the scratched-up window of the 6 train. At my round face and my tired-looking eyes that I inherited from the tired-looking side of my family. Near the door, a girl with sun-streaked hair holding a portfolio stood giraffelike with a wisp of a ring on her slender finger that someone must have bought for her for being so lovely. A scrawny white guy read with his elbows on his thighs, his book trembling in the air while the train rocked. And a tired-looking, olive-skinned woman sat with a baby in a stroller and a toddler sitting on her knees in the seat next to her. The toddler kept talking to her in Spanish, but the woman just sat there with her eyes closed and her hands on the stroller. And then there was everyone else. A train full of strangers who would become the most important people in my life if anything bad happened.
I was dreading Passover. There was no way the random guests weren’t going to ask me about:
What was generally new.
I wish I could just grab them by the shoulders and say, “Your kids are doing better then me.”
But we had to act out this ridiculous scene, scripts practically in hand, where they shot job interview questions at me and I parried them.
I was alternately working through my third glass of red wine in a wineglass the size of my head and folding and unfolding an ivory place card that read “Hailey” in immaculate calligraphy, when the man next to me said, “How are you connected to Judith and Larry?”
“I’m Judith’s daughter.”
“I didn’t know she had a daughter!”
I pulled the place card apart into two rectangles, folded both rectangles into squares, and pulled apart the squares. “How are you related to Judith and Larry?”
“I’ve known Larry—and Judith now too—for years.”
“Your parents are the greatest.”
There were two things wrong with that statement.
“Your mother has such great taste. This must have been a great apartment to grow up in!”
“Yeah, it’s beautiful.” I hadn’t grown up in this apartment. And I was only here now until I got a job.
On the other side of me was a guy around my age who must have been the son of a family friend. He was wearing Buddy Holly glasses and had sideburns, and he spoke quickly to the man next to him like everything he was saying was dire. He probably read the Economist for nights like these, when he could throw out direct quotes to make a point at some important person’s house. Considering how hard he was trying, it was clear that he wasn’t from New York. But judging by his glasses, he had probably gone to a school like Brown, which was full of New Yorkers, and hung out with all the city kids. I glanced back at the guy who thought I had great parents because they ate at the same restaurants and then at the Buddy Holly guy. At least Buddy Holly Guy and I could play the name game.
“It’s an extremely simpleminded choice of vocabulary on Bush’s part. People aren’t just born evil. These guys have been radicalized since birth to hate the United States and to think that its destruction would be the solution to all of their problems.”
“Do you know how much money we give these countries?” the man sitting next to him said. “Do you know how screwed they’d be without us? They can hate the United States all they want, but we’re the ones buying their oil.”
“Do you think the prosperity of this country has no consequences?” He noticed me watching the conversation. “Hi,” he said. His eyes were black under his poseur glasses. He looked at my shredded place card.
“Hailey,” I said.
“Do you think Hailey would have terrorized this place card so badly if she hadn’t been terrorized by… calligraphy?”
“I have nightmares about it,” I said.
Buddy Holly’s place card said “Arian.”
“Isn’t Arian usually spelled with a y?”
“It’s supposed to be Adrian, assuming I’m at the right party. Did you check to see if they spelled Hailey right before you massacred yours?”
“Mine said Hitler.”
“Ah. Well, I think it’s nice to have a Nazi theme for the Jewish holidays.”
“It’s different, at the very least.”
The guy next to him couldn’t make out what we were saying and turned away in his chair.
“So, Hailey, what brings you here?” He glanced at his Arian place card.
“I… live here.”
“Really? What a great house. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an apartment in New York this big. It’s two floors?”
“Yes.” I glanced at his watch but didn’t recognize the brand. “You’re not from these parts?”
“No. But what makes you say that?”
“I bet you have a lot of friends from New York. Did you go to Brown?”
“I did go to Brown. How did you know that?”
“Kids from Brown wear glasses?”
“Liberal costumes. Yes. Brown kids are like Penn kids dressed like Brown kids.”
He opened his mouth to say something and then closed it.
“Where did you go?”
“What do those kids wear?” he said.
I shrugged. “Sweatshirts that say BU? Or something.” I was buzzed.
“I went to Brown with Jake Wexel. Bruce’s son.” Bruce Wexel was telling a story to another table while gripping my stepfather’s shoulder. “Do you know him?”
“Jake Wexel… No, is he from the city?”
“Yeah, he went to Groton.”
“Oh, boarding school. Different scene.”
“They tend not to celebrate the Jewish holidays so much.”
“I could rattle off some names of kids who went to Brown and see if you know them.”
“I guess that would be better than attacks on my eyewear.”
It took me a moment to smile at that, but when I looked at him, I saw he wasn’t quite smiling. I looked through his glasses at his very big and very black eyes. For a moment I couldn’t look away.
“Rachel Bersen, David Efron, Todd Rosen?” I said.
“I know Dave Efron. How do you know him?”
“High school. Were you friends with him in college?”
“Not really. He was in a class with me, but…” He shrugged.
“Nothing.” He put both of his hands on the table. “Really, nothing. We were in class together. That’s as much as I knew him.”
“Look, if you’re not gonna talk shit about our mutual friends, you can just leave right now.” I gestured to the front door and waited for him to smile.
He did. “I won’t let the door hit me on the way out.”
“I can have the doorman call you a cab.”
“That’s thoughtful. Thank you,” he said.
“So.” I noticed that my napkin had fallen off my lap, and I leaned down quickly to get it. “Where do you live in the city?”
“Lower East Side.”
“That’s appropriately hipsterish.”
“Am I a hipster now too?”
“Hailey, come here.” It was my mother’s voice from the other side of the room.
“I haven’t decided yet.” I glanced at his black eyes again. “Excuse me.”
He moved his chair to let me out.
“Hi, sweetie. Your hair looks nice like this,” she said, touching my head.
My hair looked the way it always did. Straight. Brown. My mother’s was black and shoulder length with a wall of bangs that hit exactly at her eyebrows. Her blue eyes were almost as light as the huge diamond studs in her ears.
“You know Linda and Pam and Alysha…”
I tried to nod like, of course I remember Linda and Pam and Alysha from some restaurant or the Hamptons or St. Bart’s. Apparently these people were boring since I immediately became the center of attention.
“I love your dress,” one of them said.
It was a brown and white Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress. “Thank you.” I instinctively looked at my mother. My mother wore black. She wore only black.
“How was your trip to Europe? Italy, right?”
I hadn’t gone anywhere, but maybe they were talking about London two years ago, where I went for my semester abroad.
“London. It was great. It was a great trip.”
“Are you still in school?”
“No, I graduated in May.”
“What have you been doing since you graduated?” one of them said.
Whatever I said, it still would have sounded like I had been doing nothing.
Even if I had handed her the stack of the cover letters I had sent out since I had graduated, or mentioned all of the second-round interviews I’d gone on, or all the hours I’d spent perusing the Times, HotJobs, Craigslist, they’d still picture me in my pajamas padding around this apartment all day.
“What fields are you looking at?”
“All of them, really.” They all fake smiled at me, waiting for me to come up with something. “Ad agencies, nonprofits, PR firms.”
“Are you following up?”
“Yeah. Yes.” I hadn’t really been following up.
“You have to keep calling,” one of them said. “Sometimes people call me five times before I get around to calling them back.”
“Right,” I said. Follow up.
“I’m sure you’ll find something. You’ll have no problem getting a job.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep you posted.”
“And you have the rest of your life to work anyway. You’re allowed some time off.”
We forced laughter. There was a pause. They were finally satisfied.
“Sweetie, did you have dessert yet? There’s fruit,” my mom said, as though I were on some fruit diet she was being sensitive to. I veered toward the pile of porcelain plates, grabbed one, put an enormous chocolate-dipped macaroon on it, and sat down at my original spot in front of the shredded place card. The seats on either side of me were empty. Everyone was mingling. A blonde named Cynthia slipped into the chair next to me, glancing at the back of my mother’s black jacket. I think she thought she was my mother’s best friend. That season she might have been.
“So how are you doing, honey?”
“I’m doing great. Everything’s going well.”
“The last time I saw you was at the dinner for Stuart’s Amnesty International Award.”
Award dinners, I realized embarrassingly late in life, were thrown for the heaviest-hitting donor that year. If Ted Kaczynski gave away enough money, he’d get an Amnesty International Award dinner too.
“Oh yeah, that was a fun night.” Six long speeches about how great Cynthia’s husband was, none of which mentioned that Stuart was the kind of guy who looked over your shoulder when you were talking to see if someone more important was around. He and Cynthia were well matched.
“So?” The bottom half of her face smiled; the top half remained fixed. “Any thoughts on what you’re going to do now that you’re done with school?”
“I really don’t know.”
“I’m sorry. You’re probably so sick of answering this question. Let’s talk about something else. How’s your boyfriend? Don’t you have a boyfriend? What’s his name again?”
“Right, Brian.” Brian hadn’t been my boyfriend since freshman year of college.
“We broke up a little while ago.” She was already scanning the room, confirming that none of the clusters of people were having too much fun without her. She was one of the lighter blondes, and her color started exactly from the roots. She nodded back in my direction with eyelashes slathered in mascara. “So, really, what do you think you’re going to do now?” I had a balled-up linen napkin in one hand. The chocolate-covered macaroon sat untouched.
“It’s funny; I don’t actually know.”
She shrugged. “Any thoughts?”
“I’m open to suggestions.”
“Well, if you could do… anything in the world, what would you do?”
“I’d be an exotic dancer.”
She didn’t laugh.
“Or a stand-up comedian.”
The diamond on her left hand flashed twice while she brushed off her pant leg, listening to me rambling on about the slow job market and hiring freezes, citing examples of “people I know” getting laid off before their first day of work. Her blue eyes continued to scan the room. She was younger than my mother, and her daughter was younger than me. A toddler, in fact, who at the moment was resting up in a town house on 74th Street for an upbringing that would exactly parallel my own. And here I was with nothing to say for myself.
“I’ll figure it out,” I reassured her. I may as well have said, “She’ll figure it out.” My phone vibrated against my chair. I so wanted to pull it out and say, “I’m sorry, I have to take this,” but it wasn’t even necessary. She made eye contact with one of the other guests and, without looking at me, said, “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” It would have been worth having any job just to avoid times like this.
The caller ID said, DAD CALLING, and I picked it up quietly. “Hi. Hold on. Okay?”
I walked through the kitchen, trying to find privacy. The caterers backed up as far as they could when they saw me, as though I were rolling a refrigerator through. I finally snuck into the walk-in china and crystal closet and closed the door behind me. There was a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, which made this feel like a room in a completely different type of home.
“Hey. What’s up?” Directly in front of me was a row of maroon plates, and on top of that a row of baby blue plates, and on top of that a row of ivory plates, all with different edges. The rows continued up to the ceiling. Another wall held shelves of crystal glasses and goblets. There were, like, fifty crystal pitchers squeezed together on one shelf. Champagne flutes. Tea sets. Ice buckets. Platters.
“How’s my girl?”
“Is dinner still going on?”
“It’s basically done. We’re on dessert. What did you do tonight?” There was an empty leather briefcase on the floor that was missing all but one little mother-of-pearl dessert fork. I had never even noticed this stuff before.
“I was at Uncle Joel’s place.” Uncle Joel was my mom and dad’s friend from before I was born. When my parents broke up, my dad got custody of him. “He did a small thing with some friends.”
I didn’t ask who was there. It was depressing to think of my dad having a bachelor holiday with Joel and whatever other people also didn’t have families to go to.
“What about you guys? Are you guys doing one seder this year or two?”
“Two. The one tomorrow night is at their friends’ place.”
“How was the one tonight?”
“Oh, you know. The usual. Everyone’s interrogating me about my future.”
“They’re just jealous that you have your whole life ahead of you.”
“Not these guys. These guys are like the most successful people in the world. I don’t think they’re jealous of me.”
“They’re jealous of your youth.”
“They have money and power.”
“Youth trumps money and power,” he said.
Excerpted from These Days Are Ours by Haimoff, Michelle Copyright © 2012 by Haimoff, Michelle. Excerpted by permission.
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