Will You Won't You Want Me?
By Nora Zelevansky
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Nora Zelevansky
All rights reserved.
Marjorie Plum was the most popular girl in school, but it had been a decade since anyone cared.
Untangling earbuds, she rushed down the sidewalk past duos in bowler hats. Her heeled clogs trampled fallen cherry blossoms, surprised in trails midexodus to the gutter.
She did not notice a yellow cab squealing to a halt when she jaywalked or the driver shouting, "Tu madre es una puta fea!" She did not sense, as she hustled past an occupied stoop, the tension between a round-faced girl, who had professed romantic love, and her crush, who had in turn pronounced himself gay — confused at least.
Just hours before, the writer Nora Ephron had died of cancer. Somewhere along the campaign trail, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Governor Mitt Romney, and his advisers were brainstorming ways to avoid releasing tax returns. In Syria, Arab Spring had spiraled into civil war. England was enjoying Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee but also a meteoric rise in cases of gonorrhea.
Across the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, a young girl struggled with her creative-writing assignment over a dish of carrots and hummus at the kitchen table. In palm tree–lined Los Angeles, a misanthropic film buff packed for his flight back east.
Like every other, this day was at once important and insignificant in the scheme of things. Unaware of what was to come, Marjorie would likely have rated it forgettable.
Had she bothered to note the date, though, she might have realized that this warm June evening in 2012 — when the first tendrils of summer heat snuck behind the bunched knees of pants, prompting the overdressed to adjust, readjust, and adjust again — was ten years to the day when her tenure as Queen Bee had ended at high school graduation.
Just eighteen years old then, while exiting the auditorium onto the sidewalk after the ceremony, Marjorie had mocked her maroon graduation cap and gown with a "too cool" performative snort. Afterward, she watched kvelling parents — clutching red rose and baby's breath bouquets — shoot warning looks at younger offspring, who whined in hungry anticipation of special occasion brunches. Her chemistry teacher, Mr. Bender, checked his watch. Underclassmen, noting Marjorie's arrival outside, gossiped and giggled more loudly, building the nerve to approach with yearbooks like autograph collectors.
And, suddenly, loss wheezed at the edge of Marjorie's consciousness, something more than precollege jitters. Eyes welling, she paused to memorize the scene like a character turning off the proverbial lights on the finale of a stale sitcom.
That day, she knew life was about to change — for the worse.
Marjorie ("Madge" to friends) had mastered those teen years, traumatic for a disproportionate many. She loved the drama, the constant shuffling of romantic couples, firsts from cigarette smoking to second base. She felt no kinship with popular kids of teen movies who pumped pompoms and bullied future tech CEOs. Still, at high school's end, she could sense her impending devolution into "Faded Prom Queen" (though she had skipped the taffeta-inspired event and headed straight to the after-party).
As her parents presented her with an engraved Tiffany necklace in congratulations at her own eggs Benedict brunch, she had promised herself she would not white knuckle that metaphorical tiara. But the descent into unimportance proved brutal nonetheless.
Now, at twenty-eight years old, as she ducked through reclaimed church doors into the new Lower East Side gastropub, DIRT, it occurred to her that suburban housewives did not have the monopoly on quiet desperation. Once, a night out had left her smelling of astringent liquor and Big Red gum, buzzing with nicotine and reverberating bass. She and cherry-lipped friends breezed past gargantuan bouncers who reeked of Cool Water cologne; they mooched off strange men's VIP bottle service vodka, sat atop banquettes instead of in them, and smoked cigarettes under gaudy Gothic chandeliers, emerging purple and filthy into pale early mornings, carrying a destabilized vibration like a badge. These days, life was civilized and deadly predictable thanks to early nights, the disappearance of attached female friends, and $17 mixology cocktails with mint foam from rooftop herb gardens. DIRT — a high-ceilinged Manhattan rebuttal to Brooklyn's farm-to-table nooks — was no exception, with its predictable knotted mahogany bar, white subway tiles, 1950s signage and chalkboard menu.
Marjorie nudged her way toward a lone empty barstool: "Excuse me, excuse me ..." and then "Excuse me." She eyed the crowd: Vera was late. Odd. The bartender was busy rustling his handlebar mustache in hipster mating ritual at a blonde in a vintage baby doll dress.
The girl pouted. "I went to U. Penn. That's Ivy League!"
"Barely. That's barely Ivy League." He winked.
His inattention notwithstanding, Marjorie drew glances. The stray cherry blossom hitching a ride on her caboose was in part to blame. But she was also striking, tall and lean in her scoop-necked T-shirt, high-waisted miniskirt, and well-loved ankle boots, a favorite unostentatious but It bag slung across her chest. Her long auburn hair was swept into a sloppy topknot above high cheekbones, small pink lips, pale, sporadically freckled skin, and wide hazel eyes — accentuated with black liquid liner. Her resting expression could be mistaken for a frown, but the slightest smile revealed a rotated right-hand lateral incisor that upgraded her from pretty or cute to interesting, even beautiful. A small scar under her left eye was the result of three stitches after smashing headfirst into glass doors at her grandmother's Palm Beach condo at the advanced age of fifteen (advanced for that sort of accident, at least).
Among those to clock Marjorie was a foppish man of roughly her age, leaning against the wall as if in his own living room. He paused midsentence, losing interest in the brunette before him. Then, adopting an expression of purpose, he straightened his skinny tie, retousled his perfectly mussed dirty blonde hair and excused himself, sidling up next to Marjorie — a free seat always appears for men of this kind — and performing a nonchalant, "You alone?"
Answering was the path of least resistance. "Aren't we all?"
"So deep." The corner of his mouth curled upward with pleasure at his own gall. She refused to return his smile, no matter how adorable he fancied himself. Which was very adorable indeed. "Well? No need to be rude," he pressed.
Marjorie turned to face him. "I'm not rude. You're rude."
"Listen, Madgesty, it's customary to say hello when you see someone you once French-kissed on Spider-Man sheets. Why the cold shoulder?"
It had been ages since Marjorie had last seen MacDonald O'Shea — named like a law firm by moneyed parents who had seen him mostly as a business venture — and longer since anyone had invoked her high school nickname.
The truth was she had seen and studiously ignored him when she walked in — along with two polished wooden booths of guys she'd both tailed and avoided during her teenage years, many of whom now stuffed wedding rings on meaty fingers and baseball caps on balding heads. She had felt too at sea, too atomically unstable, to engage them.
She gestured toward the button-nosed young woman he'd abandoned, who pretended not to stare after him. "You looked busy."
"Never too busy for the one who got away."
"One of ten to fifteen who ran away, actually."
"See? Rude. Correct, but rude. Anyway, what's a guy gotta do to get a hello already?"
Marjorie had to smile; Mac never changed. She leaned in to plant a peck on his straight-razor-shaven cheek, and, before she realized, he whipped around and kissed her square on the mouth. Electricity shot through Marjorie's body; she chided herself, recoiling. To relish his attention was amateurish. Her resolve against his sleaze — unappealing on paper but nonetheless powerful — was a point of pride. "You're impossible."
"Most women say irresistible. But then you've always been strange."
"Aw, sweetie. Bad day?"
"Nothing a lobotomy wouldn't cure. Or copious alcohol."
"One strong drink coming up."
"Make it two, if you succeed. And good luck getting the bartender's attention."
"Watch me." She watched as he backed toward the end of the bar and, within moments, was distracted by a wannabe model in batik harem pants.
Mac's confidence was not due to classic good looks. Of medium height, he maintained a narrow build with rigor. His face was intelligent, not handsome, thanks to a protruding chin and a too-fair complexion. But his birthright — a cocktail of charisma, entitlement, insatiable need, and absent ethics — made him a social giant. His chosen objects — men, women, children, even dogs — were made to feel like members of an elite club, out of which everyone else had the misfortune of being cast. Once they got a taste of his flirtation, they needed Mac's Technicolor personality to subsume them, to fill the gaps where boredom and insecurity lay, to make them feel significant. And when he lost interest — and he always did — he left them feeling hollowed out, like they'd failed. Any Psych 101 novice could see that he craved approval after years of chasing his chilly family's affection, which — in his darkest but clearest moments — he knew was only rumored to exist, like some emotional Bigfoot. But that fact did not dilute his power.
Feeling suddenly vulnerable, Marjorie plucked a red plastic stirrer from the bartender's stash and bit down on it.
Where is Vera?
She swiveled on her stool in search of her friend, making inadvertent eye contact with an old acquaintance, John, who sat thirty feet away clutching a sweating beer stein. The last time she'd seen him, she'd probably been wearing a crystal beaded choker and dancing to SexyBack — it had been that long. She forced a smile; he nodded in return.
Oh, thank God.
Through the throngs of tattooed sleeves, she caught a glimpse of a French-inspired J. Crew striped top, a favorite of her roommate's. By design, Vera's crisp uniform and sharp black bob disguised her roots — more burnt toast than croissant — thanks to a quirky ex-hippie single mother.
Vera arrived beside Marjorie at the same time as a bearded young man in an ironic New Kids on the Block T-shirt. He gazed at her in silent plea. He'd been waiting for an empty stool; his new oxfords were rubbing his toes raw. Vera gave him the once-over, decided she could take him, and sat. He limped away, defeated.
She performed an exaggerated double take at the table of former high school guys. "What's with the aging extras from Boyz in the Hood? I'm like choking on a mushroom cloud of Drakkar Noir. Isn't theirs more of a cheesy Meatpacking scene?"
"I didn't realize they'd be here."
Approaching with drinks in hand, Mac caught sight of Vera from behind, shot Marjorie an annoyed look, and feigned a gag. Then he plastered a grin on his face and cleared his throat. "They're here because I'm an investor."
Vera's snarl morphed into a smile, as she turned to face Mac. "Sorry. I didn't realize ..."
"Wait, you own this place?" Marjorie shook her head. "Cheater! I thought you were procuring cocktails based on your charm!"
"And I thought you were drinking alone." He clenched his teeth. "But here's Vera. Surprise, surprise."
Vera had always been a hard-trying beta to Marjorie's breezy alpha. Those roles had developed organically when, as eight-year-olds, they started a secret Care Bear Club. Marjorie was named President and Vera VP.
At the time, Marjorie's mother, Barbara Plum, had felt concerned about the children playing nicely and asked, "Why do you need titles in a club with only two members?"
A young Marjorie had shrugged. "So we know who's boss."
Her mother loved that story.
Mac was unimpressed with Vera from the beginning. When he started at their middle school, he ignored the Care Bear VP because of her "ferretlike" pointy chin, hooked nose, and wide-set eyes. (Marjorie defended to no avail the way a smile broke through her best friend's features like unexpected sunshine on an overcast day.) Vera claimed to hate Mac back, yet in his presence she transformed into someone too ready to laugh and agree. Nothing depressed Mac more than an easy mark.
These days, Vera had no reason to kowtow. Unconstrained by the golden handcuffs of early social success, she had spread her wings and evolved into a thriving "finance person." Marjorie had no clue what that meant except that Vera was shackled to both her work-sanctioned BlackBerry and personal iPhone and expensed pricey dinners.
Mac leaned against the bar. "So, Vee. Long time no see. How's old Grinch doing?"
"Grinch passed away. Like seven years ago." Vera smiled, flattered at his memory.
"Sad story. He was a good dog."
Marjorie rolled her eyes. Mac made a point of learning a single fact about every acquaintance to bring up later in a performance of intimacy. He often asked after Marjorie's great-aunt Gladys with whom he claimed to have "hit it off" at a Plum family New Year's Day party years before. No one hit it off with Gladys. She had a foul attitude and five o'clock shadow.
He might have met Vera's mangy mutt once in total during a short-lived tryst. After junior year in college, Vera returned from a semester abroad in Barcelona with stories of a hot Spanish carpenter named Juan Carlos. Mac felt the man was garnering too much praise, his name too cliché to let stand. So, despite being Vera's lifelong detractor, he showered her with attention, then, sans a challenge, dropped her.
"Congratulations, BTW," Vera simpered.
"Just the money guy." Mac shrugged.
"But you have amazing instincts. I mean, has anything you backed been unsuccessful?"
Marjorie snorted. "I'm pretty sure the sashimi 'burlesque' club wasn't a big moneymaker. Or that floating restaurant in Gowanus? With the sulfur smell? Or —"
"I think we get it," Mac snapped.
Marjorie picked up her drink, served in a mason jar with a sprig of rosemary, took a sip, and flinched. "Ugh, Mac. You got me some sweet girly drink! Don't you know me at all?"
Mac sighed. "That's mine. It's a Hamptons Julep from the mixology menu. I got you a vodka soda." He gestured toward a stemless glass of clear carbonated liquid, an acid green lime slice perched on the rim.
"Oh, I see." She plucked the stirrer from her mouth and pointed it at him. "I didn't realize you'd pledged Delta Gamma. Where's this year's spring formal, you slut?"
Mac glared at her. "It's not a girly drink. You're evil. I'm going back where I'm appreciated."
"No, no, no! I was joking!" Marjorie called after him, laughing. En route back to the brunette, who waited chest foremost, Mac peered over his shoulder and shook his head at the rare failed exchange.
"What's with you?" asked Vera. "Not that I mind seeing O'Shea tormented, but ..."
"Sorry. Bad day at the office."
Vera assumed an expression of practiced patience, readying for her friend's Ground Hog's Day laments. In her mind, Marjorie chose prolonged misery over action, much like Vera's own long-suffering divorcée mother, to whom she had offered hours of unheeded advice. Now she grunted, "What happened today?"
"Ugh. It's bad. We're handling PR for the launch of this new liquor company, Snow Lite. Flavored vodka that promotes weight loss."
"Right. 'Cause that makes sense."
"It's not only fraudulent, it's also disgusting. Anyway, I forwarded an e-mail about the newest infusion flavors to our intern, Herb: banana, peanut butter, pork belly. I was continuing a joke from earlier about how the press release should promote bulimia as the diet plan, since the smell makes you want to barf ..."
"Funny." Vera did not smile.
"I could have sworn ... but whatever ... I guess I clicked Reply. The e-mail went to Snow's CEO. Turns out, he wasn't amused."
"Oh, God." Vera covered her face with her hands. "Did Brianne throw a mug at you again?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Will You Won't You Want Me? by Nora Zelevansky. Copyright © 2016 Nora Zelevansky. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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