New York, 1984: Twenty-two-year-old Phoebe Hayes is a young woman in search of excitement and adventure. But the recent death of her father has so devastated her that her mother wants her to remain home in Baltimore to recover. Phoebe wants to return to New York, not only to chase the glamorous life she so desperately craves but also to confront Ivan, the older man who wronged her.
With her best friend Carmen, she escapes to the East Village, disappearing into an underworld haunted by artists, It Girls, and lost souls trying to party their pain away. Carmen juggles her junkie-poet boyfriend and a sexy painter while, as Astrid the Star Girl, Phoebe tells fortunes in a nightclub and plots her revenge on Ivan. When the intoxicating brew of sex, drugs, and self-destruction leads Phoebe to betray her friend, Carmen disappears, and Phoebe begins an unstoppable descent into darkness.
“A new wave coming-of-age story, Astrid Sees All is a blast from the past” (Stewart O’Nan, author of The Speed Queen) about female friendship, sex, romance, and what it’s like to be a young woman searching for an identity.
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Chapter 1: Going Underground 1 GOING UNDERGROUND
I am sitting, alone, in the apartment on Avenue A that Carmen and I first rented one year ago. The cats are here, and her typewriter is here, and some of her clothes, but she is not, and I wonder if I’m to blame for that.
I wouldn’t be in New York—I wouldn’t be “Astrid”—if not for her. For at least two years, maybe three, Carmen has played a part in every decision I’ve made. What she would think, what she would do in my place, would this attract her or repel her... I considered these questions when choosing what to wear, who to date, where to work, where to live, everything. She wasn’t the most beautiful or most glamorous person I knew, but that was why I emulated her: she found ways to be fascinating without relying on those easy tactics. She had the seen-it-all attitude of a native New Yorker, and I wanted to see it all.
I moved to Manhattan right after college graduation—to the Upper West Side, because Carmen lived on West Eighty-Ninth Street with a friend from Dalton, Sarita Feinman. I imagined Carmen would teach me the secret codes of the New Yorker, the two of us out on the town, people-watching in Central Park, and lounging around drinking beer the way we had in college.
I found a room in a run-down tenement apartment on Eighty-Seventh and Amsterdam—only two blocks from Carmen, so I jumped at it, even though it was small, dark, dirty, full of roaches, overpriced, and came with four roommates. Robin Greene, an assistant editor at a romance publisher, held the lease, which gave her the power to choose who would occupy which room and to kick out girls who didn’t have the right attitude. She preferred wholesome young women like Mary Frank, a devoutly Catholic law student, and Krissi, who had moved from Kansas in search of a job at People and a rich Wall Street husband. A flamboyant actress named Marin Berlin had sneaked in somehow when Robin’s guard was down. Marin was my favorite, but she was hardly ever home. She’d just landed a part in an off-off-Broadway play, a drag melodrama called Medea on Mars.
I called Carmen, who seemed delighted to hear from me. She immediately trotted me across town to her parents’ swank apartment on Sutton Place. Her mother was a former actress, and her father was the famous avant-garde composer Leonard Dietz. Carmen knew Len and Betsy would like me, and they did. Parents always liked me. Back then (a mere year and a half ago), I looked like a girl who couldn’t get into trouble if she tried.
I found a job at Bellow Books for minimum wage. It was a start, but four shifts a week at $3.25 an hour didn’t come close to paying my $350-a-month rent. I lived on bagels, frozen French bread pizzas, pasta, and peanut butter. Once in a while, Carmen and I went out for beers at the Dublin House and bitched about our jobs. I complained about having to work the bag check at the bookstore, pestering customers to hand over their shopping bags lest they stash stolen copies of Ham on Rye in them. She complained about working as an assistant to her mother’s former acting teacher, Bertha Sykes, who was writing her memoirs. Bertha blamed Len for Betsy’s abandonment of her career, and still resented him some twenty-five years later. Carmen toiled in Bertha’s plush Park Avenue apartment: making Bertha’s tea, nursing Bertha’s hangovers, enduring Bertha’s insults, and cleaning up after Bertha’s miniature Yorkie, Mimi, who left a yellow puddle or a neat pile of dog shit in the entry hall almost every morning.
But I only saw Carmen when she wanted to see me. Her boyfriend, Atti, lived downtown, and she spent most of her free time with him. I wouldn’t hear from her for days, and then suddenly she’d surface, like an orca, to see her parents or Sarita or, if I was lucky, me. She was friendly; she tolerated me; but I didn’t seem to interest her anymore.
One night I answered the phone and heard Leonard Dietz’s snappy voice. “Hello, darling, can I speak to Carmen for a sec?”
“Carmen?” I stalled for time, caught off guard. Her father had never called me before. I wasn’t even sure how he’d gotten my number.
“Yes, you know that delightful daughter of mine? She told us she was spending the evening with you tonight.”
I was pretty sure Carmen was downtown with Atti, and quickly realized she was using me as an alibi. “Right! She is. She’s with me. She just nipped out to get us some ice cream. She’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Ice cream? Okay. Well, ask her to call me when she has a minute, would you?”
“I will. Is it important?”
“Not an emergency, I’d just like to speak with her.”
“Okay. I’ll tell her.”
She didn’t ask me if I minded. She just did it. And I didn’t mind. I was flattered. But it reinforced my sense that I had to earn her friendship. She expected to get something out of being friends with me—an alibi for her secret affair, or at the very least a good story.
I wanted to be more than useful. I wanted to be real friends. So I kept an eye out for ways to make myself interesting to her.
That first summer in New York, the bookstore and my tiny room felt like cages; I was stuck inside them watching the rest of the city live wild and free. It seemed to me that money was the key to freedom, but the only legal source of good money—besides a trust fund—was a corporate job. Another cage.
Every other week, when I got my meager paycheck, I performed a little ritual. First, I strolled through Zabar’s—past the grumbling old people who waved their deli numbers like protest signs—just to smell the coffee and the cheeses I couldn’t afford to buy. On my way out I tapped the nose of a baguette for good luck. Then I went next door to the takeout café, ordered a cup of frozen yogurt—chocolate-vanilla swirl—and perched at the counter by the window to eat it and watch people hurry up and down the gray expanse of Broadway. Except for the obviously insane, most of them looked disappointingly ordinary.
One day in September, I was sitting at Zabar’s counter eating my chocolate-vanilla swirl when a man sat down next to me. Not the usual old man mashing pastrami with his gums; not a lady bumping her wheeled shopping basket into my legs; no. A man with an aura of adventure. He wore a white oxford shirt under a rumpled navy blazer and a steel watch on a sun-gilded wrist, and smelled lightly of bay rum. Dark hair fringed over his collar, which was unbuttoned. He turned and faced me: a square chin, a hawkish nose, eyes black as tar pits. I self-consciously spooned more yogurt into my mouth.
“Is it good?” he asked.
I swallowed the cold goop. “What?”
“That stuff you are eating.”
The yogurt had a funny metallic taste that was strangely addictive. “Yeah, it’s pretty good.”
“I’ve never tried frozen yogurt before.” He sipped espresso from a miniature white cup, his elbow resting on a folded-up copy of the Times.
“Never.” He had a slight accent, vaguely European... not English or Irish. Continental. “I prefer a chocolate croissant. May I get you one?” He rose to his feet. “I’d like to. Please.”
“Oh, no, no thanks.” I tapped my plastic spoon on my Styrofoam cup. “I couldn’t eat a chocolate croissant now.”
“What about a coffee then? I’ll buy you an espresso.”
“Well...” I liked espresso, but it was so expensive.
“Wait here. I’ll be quick.”
He went to the counter. His khaki pants were cinched by an artfully beat-up leather belt that looked as if it had been around the world. His shoes were expensive loafers that needed a shine. How old was he? I couldn’t guess. Everyone between twenty-eight and fifty looked basically the same to me. He was at least thirty. Maybe older than that. Forty?
He returned and placed a tiny cup before me. “Voilà.”
“Thank you. That was very nice of you.” I reached for a packet of sugar.
“You are very welcome.” He watched me sip.
“Mm. Good.” I nodded self-consciously. Since he had so generously bought me this extravagant coffee, I felt I had to make a show of enjoying it.
“What’s your name?”
“Phoebe Hayes, would you like to have dinner with me sometime?”
My mouth dried up. “Dinner?”
“Yes, that’s all. Just dinner. Or a drink, how about that?”
“Well, um, shouldn’t I know your name first?”
“I’m sorry! It’s Ivan. Forgive me. I just...” He trailed off, shaking his head at himself as if my charm had overwhelmed his manners. “What do you do, Phoebe? Are you a student?”
“No, I graduated last May. I work at the bookstore, right there on the corner.” I nodded toward the other end of the block. “Bellow Books.”
“A good bookstore. I go there often.”
“You do?” I hadn’t seen him. “What about you?”
“I’m a physician.” He glanced at his watch. “In fact, I should be going. I have an appointment.” He stood and reached into his jacket pocket. “Will you call me?” He gave me a card.
IVAN BERGEN, MD INTERNAL MEDICINE, INFECTIOUS DISEASE
There was an address on West Fifty-Sixth Street and a phone number, and at the bottom:
MÉDECINS SANS FRONTIÈRES
A doctor, like my father. Only Dad didn’t dress with this insouciant elegance. And on a workday he would have carried his stethoscope with him somewhere—around his neck, or in his jacket pocket.
But I wasn’t thinking about my father then, because he was still alive.
“Call me later this afternoon. If you don’t, I’ll come back here looking for you.” Ivan grinned to show that he didn’t mean to sound threatening. He just wanted to see me very badly.
He left, his jacket flapping like a cape, and hailed a taxi. I stared out the window, long after the taxi had disappeared, with the strong feeling that my life had just changed. I couldn’t wait to call Carmen and tell her all about it.
When she finally called me back, very late that night, she asked me what I planned to wear on my date with this exciting older man.
“I don’t know,” I wailed. “I don’t have anything decent.”
“I’ll come over tomorrow and help you figure it out.”
Just like that, I became interesting to her.
Then, on December first, my sister, Laurel, called to tell me that Dad was sick.
He’d been sick for several months, but none of us knew it. Over the summer my mother had mentioned that he was run-down and working too hard, but when I asked him about it he said, “Nothing a little exercise won’t cure.” He used to say that to me when I complained of feeling tired: “A little exercise will pep you up.” I moved to New York just before he got sick, so I didn’t witness the shadows deepening under his eyes, the pallor of his skin, the way his cheekbones sharpened.
“He has AML,” Laurel told me over the phone. She was premed and liked to show off this link between her and Dad, the jargon they shared.
“Leukemia. The worst kind.”
He’d ignored his own symptoms for four months: classic doctor behavior. Now it was too late. The disease had progressed beyond treatment. “There’s not much you can do for it anyway. I mean, even if he’d had chemo and all that...” Laurel tried to steady her voice as a doctor would, factual and unemotional, but I caught the quaver in it and understood what she didn’t want to say: he was going to die, and soon.
I took the first train to Baltimore. It was strange that Mom hadn’t called me herself, but when I got home I saw why: her tongue was so swollen she couldn’t speak. She couldn’t even close her mouth. It had happened at the doctor’s office, when the oncologist presented Dad’s grim prognosis. She had a psychosomatic reaction. She was embarrassed about it and had shut herself in her room.
Laurel and I drove to the hospital to see Dad. When I kissed him his breath smelled sharply of ammonia, and the sight of his ashen, bony face shocked me. How could he not have known he was sick? How did no one notice?
But he was still Dad. “Phoebe!” He gripped my arm as I leaned down to kiss his papery cheek. “Now that you’re here we can celebrate at last.”
He meant the Orioles’ recent victory over the Phillies in the World Series. I’d watched it at the Dublin House with Carmen, who’d talked through the whole game and had barely paid attention. Until I’d left for college, I’d watched the Orioles games and every World Series with Dad. We loved the O’s, they were our home team, but Dad was a Yankees fan at heart. Phil Rizzuto—small and scrappy, superstitious, bug-phobic, a bunter and a great shortstop—was his favorite player. After he retired, “the Scooter,” as he was known, became a radio and TV announcer for the Yankees, famous for spouting non sequiturs and jokes and stories about his golfing buddies and his beloved wife, Cora. Dad considered him a kind of accidental Zen philosopher, à la Yogi Berra. He listened to the Scooter call the Yankees games whenever he managed to tune into the New York station on the radio, and loved quoting Scooter classics like “That ball is out of here! No, it’s not. Yes, it is. No, it’s not. What happened?”
In August 1979, a few weeks before I left for college, the Yankees catcher Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash. The team played the Orioles in New York the next night, and they held a solemn tribute to Munson before the game. I sat with Dad in the den, watching on TV as the Scooter came onto the field to say a favorite prayer for his friend Thurman.
Angel of God, Thurman’s guardian dear,
To whom his love commits him here there or everywhere,
Ever this night and day be at his side,
To light and guard, to rule and guide.
I thought it was corny, but when I saw the tears well up in Dad’s eyes, I started crying too.
“It’s just something to keep you really from going bananas,” the Scooter said. “Because if you let this, if you keep thinking about what happened, and you can’t understand it, that’s what really drives you to despair.”
Now, in the hospital, I tried to be cheerful. “Hey there, Telly Savalas,” I said. Dad had lost a lot of hair, but this was more of an inside joke. One of our favorite Scooter moments was when he spotted Telly Savalas in the stands at Yankee Stadium and complained of the blinding glare coming off Telly’s bald head.
Dad came back with a Scooter line, as I knew he would. “‘But that’s the thing lately. They say being bald is very sexy.’”
My cheerful mask crumbled, but he kept his up. He asked me if I’d heard any good music in New York, and joked about poor Mom and her tongue. “You know your mother; she always overreacts. Remember how she used to break out in hives if you were late coming home from school?”
Laurel and I tried to stop crying but we couldn’t. When we were upset as little girls, Dad used to say, “Let’s go to the window and see if we see anyone as unhappy as we are.” And he would lead us to the window, where we’d watch people pass by in the street until we cheered up.
Now, in the hospital room, he said it again. He couldn’t get out of bed, but Laurel and I went to the window and looked down at St. Paul Street. “Tell me what you see,” Dad said.
“An old man hunched over with holes in his pants,” Laurel said.
“A young woman in a white doctor coat walking very fast,” I said.
“A woman yelling at a toddler who’s not walking fast enough,” Laurel said.
It didn’t seem like anybody was happy. But I couldn’t tell if they were as unhappy as we were.
We stayed with him until visiting hours ended, then brought home a pizza to eat with Mom. She refused to come out of her room. Laurel and I went to my room and cried until we were dehydrated. No one ate the pizza.
Mom’s tongue shrank back to normal by morning. The rest of the week was a hospital blur. Dad had developed pneumonia in one of his lungs. “Get my stethoscope, Phoebe,” he said. “I’ll show you how you can tell which lung is infected.”
His stethoscope was rolled up in the pocket of his sport coat, which hung on the back of the door of his room.
“Put it on.”
I put the earpieces in my ears and he guided the chest piece to his right side. “Now listen.” He whispered, “One, two, three... One, two, three... Do you hear anything?”
“Try the left side.”
I moved the chest piece to the left. Once again he murmured, “One, two, three... One, two, three...” a breathy waltz. This time I heard the whispers through the stethoscope.
“That’s the infected side,” he said. “The consolidation in my lung carries the vibration of my voice. In a clear, normal lung, there’s no infected gunk to vibrate, so you can’t hear the whisper.”
Laurel walked in, back from the cafeteria with three cups of tea. “Laurel already knows all this, don’t you, Laurel.”
“Egophony when auscultating the lungs,” she recited.
“They don’t teach that in med school anymore,” Dad said. “Hardly ever.”
After about an hour Dad weakened, so we went home to let him rest. As I was leaving his bedside, Dad said, “‘Son of a gun, I thought that ball was out of here.’”
I finished the quip. “‘Why don’t I just shut up?’”
He died a few days later. We had a funeral. Lots of people came. At the cemetery, a strange feeling overwhelmed me, like an allergic reaction: my throat closed, my vision bleached out, my lungs failed to draw air, my brain’s circuits stopped firing. My immune system was fighting off an infection of grief.
For a whole day I couldn’t remember that Dad was dead. It was as if accepting his death would kill me, too. I lost my mind; I can admit it. If you don’t go at least a little crazy when your favorite person dies, something is wrong with you.
But my reaction scared Mom. She wanted me to go to the hospital and stay there for a long time.
I couldn’t do that. I had to get back to New York. I had reasons. A week after the funeral I started packing my things.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Mom took the clothes out of my suitcase and put them back in my dresser. “You can’t leave now.”
She pressed my folded nightgown to her chest. “You’re not strong enough.”
I was an adult, twenty-two years old, capable of taking care of myself. I’d already proven that by living on my own for five months in New York. I didn’t need her to watch me.
“You mean you’re not strong enough.”
“Don’t pull that trick, Phoebe. Making your problems about me.”
“I’m perfectly fine and there’s no reason for me to stay here. I’ve got things to do in New York.”
It was practically the middle of December, and I was desperate to get back in time for New Year’s Eve. I needed money—a lot of money. It wasn’t just the high cost of living in New York, though that was a struggle. Things had gone sour with Ivan, and he’d given me a thousand dollars when I was in a jam. I had not been in a position to turn down the money, but I hated owing Ivan anything. I carried the debt in my body—a heaviness in the pit of my belly, as if I’d swallowed a paperweight. I couldn’t get rid of that heavy feeling.
That was why I had to go back. I had a two-part plan: First, earn a thousand dollars. Second, burst into Ivan’s office and throw the money in his face. Then maybe I’d feel light again.
I was broke—beyond broke—but I had a miraculous job waiting for me: telling fortunes at a party at Plutonium, a downtown nightclub. The downtown nightclub. Three hundred bucks for one night’s work. All I needed was a few more gigs like that and voilà, a thousand dollars. Downtown New York was full of buried treasure, and I was going on a hunt.
Mom rubbed her tired eyes. “Don’t run away like this. Your father just died. You’re fragile. You need time.”
“I’m not running away. I’m returning to my real life.”
She closed my suitcase and put it back in the closet. “I’m sorry, Phoebe. But after what happened at the funeral... You’re staying here.”
I could have yelled and kicked and screamed, but I knew that wouldn’t sway her. The problem was, without her help I couldn’t really go back. When Dad had gotten sick, I’d left my job at Bellow Books without giving notice. It didn’t pay enough to live on anyway. I was three months behind on my rent, and Robin was threatening to kick me out if I didn’t pay up immediately. I had nothing to pay her with, unless I asked my mother for a loan, which she’d never give me now. The fact that I needed her help paying the rent only strengthened her case.
“I’ll stay until Christmas,” I conceded, irrationally hoping that I’d find a huge chunk of cash in my stocking.
“I want to keep an eye on you for a few months at least. Till you’re stronger. New York isn’t going anywhere.”
A few months! No.
New York by New Year’s Eve. I refused to let this chance slip away. My life—by which I meant the life I wanted, a life I considered worth living—depended on it.
The house was full of sympathy flowers, ugly pastel arrangements that gradually withered and browned. No one had the heart or energy to throw them away, so I amused myself by slowly picking them apart, one by one, petal by petal, carpeting the floor with their crisp remains. In my room, I practiced telling fortunes using my special divination method: movie ticket stubs. I’d saved the ticket stubs from every movie I’d ever seen, keeping them in a shoebox decorated with stars and moons and mystical eyes. Throughout my childhood, whenever I had a question—Does Darryl Morgan like me? Is Winnie talking about me behind my back? Will I get into Yale? Have I met the person I will marry yet?—I asked the box. I shook it, reached inside, and picked out a ticket stub. The name of the movie on the stub gave me my answer.
Some answers required interpretation, of course. When I asked if Darryl Morgan (the object of a torturous, unrequited high school crush) liked me, I pulled All the President’s Men. Darryl was friends with Lisa Buñuel, the student-body president. I decided that meant yes.
In blue moods, I asked the box questions like, “What is the purpose of my life?” I’d ask the same question over and over, pulling out stubs and tossing them back until I got an answer that made sense. Ode to Billy Joe. Car Wash. The Aristocats. I suppose if you tried hard enough—if you squinted—you could come up with a philosophy of life from those titles, but I never managed it. Still, I believed in the magic shoebox. It was my personal I Ching, my tea leaves, my tarot deck.
“Does Ivan think about me?” I asked the box.
Maybe if I rephrased the question. “Did he ever care about me?”
Stardust Memories. Two Woody Allens in a row.
I occupied myself this way, mutilating flowers and telling imaginary fortunes, for two miserable weeks. Christmas came and no cash appeared in my stocking, only a candy cane, barrettes, and lip gloss. Just when I’d been ready to leave one cage, I’d landed in another.
But there was one more package under the tree, a mysterious square box wrapped in brown paper, addressed to me.
“It came in the mail yesterday,” Mom said. “I forgot to give it to you, so I put it under the tree.”
I opened the box. Inside, nestled in tissue paper, was a blue silk turban. The card said, I saw this and thought: Phoebe needs this turban. For your fortune-teller costume. See you on New Year’s Eve. Love, C.
I put on the turban and checked my reflection in the mirror. With all my hair covered, my pale face had a disembodied, ghostly quality. I looked strange and mysterious. Unfamiliar. I liked it.
I pulled the phone into my room and called Carmen to thank her. I half expected her not to be home—she so rarely was—but Sarita answered and put her on.
“Hey,” she said. “When are you getting your ass back up here?”
“If my mother has her way, never.”
“Is she keeping you chained to your bed? She can’t hold you prisoner. And what about Plutonium? Partying with famous people on New Year’s Eve! You can’t miss that. It’s once in a lifetime.”
“I’ve got no place to live. Robin has already rented my room to some girl from Connecticut.” She’d called a few days earlier to let me know that she was going to pile my stuff on the sidewalk if I didn’t come pick it up soon.
“I always said that Robin was a bitch.”
“Yeah. Anyway...” I waited for Carmen to invite me to stay with her and Sarita. They didn’t have much space, but I could sleep on the couch.
She was quiet.
“Thanks for the turban! That’s why I called.”
“Do you like it?”
“I love it. I’m wearing it right now.”
“Good. It was worth it then.”
“What was worth it?”
“All the trouble I’m in.”
She was quiet again.
“I stole the turban. From Bertha.”
“You stole it?” I pulled the turban off as if it might burst into flames on my head.
“She has a closet full of them. I didn’t think she’d miss it.”
“But... she did miss it?”
“She fired me.”
“I thought that was impossible.” Bertha adored Betsy Dietz. Carmen had always assumed that Bertha wouldn’t want to upset Betsy by firing her daughter, even if her daughter’s attitude was on the slack side.
“Apparently it’s possible.”
“Shit. Well, you hated that job anyway.”
“It gets worse. Bertha told Mom that she’d fired me. For stealing! It sounds so harsh. And of course Mom squealed to Dad. I tried to explain I was only borrowing the turban for a friend, but they won’t listen to me. Dad says he can’t trust me anymore.” She sighed. “So now they’re saying I have to go back to the Humph in January, first thing.”
“What?” She’d told me a little about her stint in the Humphrey-Worth Center, a psychiatric hospital in Westchester County. She’d pleaded with her parents to send her to Silver Hill instead because Edie Sedgwick had done time there in 1962, but they were in no mood to indulge her whims.
“I know. I’m not even using! I have nothing to rehab myself for. It’s ridiculous. But Dad doesn’t believe me. Everybody’s overreacting.”
Whenever Carmen did anything wrong, made any slight miscalculation or lapse in judgment, her parents accused her of falling back under Atti’s spell and shooting up again. She was seeing Atti, secretly, behind their backs, of course. And lying about it, saying she was with me. But she wasn’t using heroin anymore.
“Carmen. I love the turban but it wasn’t worth it.”
“Don’t say that. It’s for the party!”
“What are you going to do?”
“I was thinking,” she said. “I need to get out of here. And you need to get out of there....”
“Wherever you go, I want to go with you.”
“We could hide out in the East Village, at Atti’s. We’ll just leave it all behind. No one will find us there unless we want to be found. It’s the Land of the Lost.”
Lost. I wanted to get lost.
“Are you in?”
We planned it together. I’d sneak out late that night and catch the train to New York. Carmen would meet me at Penn Station and take me downtown to Atti’s. We’d go to Plutonium on New Year’s Eve; I’d tell fortunes and get the money I’d been promised. We were sure our Fates awaited us at the party, ready to change the course of our lives.
“The train gets in at five a.m.,” I said.
“I’ll be there.”
Late that night, after Mom and Laurel had gone to bed, I scribbled a note: I’m sorry, but I had to go back to New York. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. PROMISE. I’ll call you soon. Love, Phoebe.
I slipped out of the house with one suitcase, my box of movie ticket stubs, the turban, and the baseball bat signed by Phil Rizzuto that Dad left me in his will. Then I hurried through the night to catch the train to New York. This time, I was going underground, with Carmen as my guide.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Astrid Sees All includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Natalie Standiford. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Set in New York’s last bohemia, the star-studded, heart-pounding downtown club scene of the 1980s, Astrid Sees All unveils the world of its irresistible main character, Phoebe Hayes. Phoebe moves to the city with her best friend, Carmen, just after graduating from college, in search of adventure and a life she can call her own. But there is real pain—from Phoebe’s past, from a man who wrongs her, even from her relationship with Carmen—lurking beneath the surface. As much as Phoebe tries to bury it with sex, drugs, and a job telling fortunes at a glamourous nightclub, when Carmen suddenly disappears, Phoebe must confront what she’s been desperately living to avoid.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. We first meet Phoebe at college in Rhode Island, dreaming of a bigger, more adventurous life. How do you think her experiences in college shape that dream for her?
2. Phoebe’s relationship, such as it is, with Ivan is one of her first experiences after moving to the city. How do you think this relationship—and the way it ends—affects her? How does it change her perspective on what life might be like when she gets to make her own choices? What does she decide to do about what happens between them, and why do you think she makes that choice?
3. We’re initially introduced to Plutonium as “a new kind of nightclub, club as performance art” (p. 87). Art is everywhere in this novel, and the idea of life as performance art is an interesting concept in this context. Later, we’re told, “The art didn’t matter as much as being seen as part of the group” (p. 156). How much of Phoebe’s persona is a performance, meant to be seen by others, and how much of it is true?
4. Phoebe chooses the name Astrid for her fortune-telling alias. How does choosing an alias for her new job help Phoebe become a new person, someone who she’s always wanted to be? Do you think she sees herself as that person yet? At what point does she become the girl she wanted to be when she was younger? Is it like she imagined?
5. Phoebe is low on money or in debt throughout the novel, but this is especially so before she starts the job at Plutonium. She does have the safety net of her mother’s home in Baltimore, although she desperately doesn’t want to rely on that. Do you think having this safety net there, even if Phoebe doesn’t want to use it, affects the story? Do you think Phoebe’s experience and choices would change if she did not have that security?
6. Portrayals of drug use and abuse show up several times over the course of the novel. How does the portrayal of drugs for recreational use—like everyone using at clubs, and the “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” lifestyle—contrast with the darker realities of substance abuse at the beginning of the crack epidemic? How do these issues show up in the novel?
7. We’re told that Carmen “loved who she loved. Once she loved you, you couldn’t shake her. But you couldn’t earn your way into her heart, either. So if she loved you, it made you a kind of royalty” (p. 119). In what ways does Carmen make Phoebe feel special? Why do you think Phoebe continues to remain close with her after she discovers, time after time, that Carmen lies to her or hides things from her? Do you think Phoebe wants the relationship with her to be more than simply platonic?
8. Phoebe’s sightings of the posters with missing girls appear several times throughout the novel before we realize why or what is happening. How does having this backdrop of potential loss and fear—even fear for Phoebe’s own safety—affect our experience reading the story?
9. Phoebe and Carmen’s relationship throughout the novel is tumultuous. At times, they’re as close as two friends can be, but at others, Carmen’s lies are revealed and Phoebe feels like she doesn’t know her at all. Why do you think this portrayal of turbulent friendships is so fascinating? What other works of fiction portray addictive but often damaging relationships between two close friends?
10. At Plutonium, Phoebe brushes up against all kinds of famous people, like Andy Warhol, Sting, Grace Jones, Christopher Walken, and many more. How does including these real people help ground the story and show the scope of Phoebe’s world? How are celebrities viewed in the New York bohemia of the time? Are they revered or treated as ordinary people—or somewhere in between?
11. Phoebe feels like she has so much agency throughout the story; she makes her life look the way she wants it to. But at some point, she admits, “I thought about Ivan. . . . When I’d wanted the story to end, I’d declared it over, but by then it had taken on a life of its own and was out of my control” (p. 142). How much of what happens to Phoebe is out of her control? Does this become increasingly so as the story goes on, or was it always that way?
12. Near the end of the book, Jem asks Phoebe about how she tells people’s futures when they’re hiding their true selves. In what ways does Phoebe become more perceptive when it comes to reading others throughout her journey? How does this skill serve her amid everything that happens at the end of the novel?
13. Over the course of the novel, we slowly realize that Phoebe’s father’s death took a much greater toll on her than we’d previously realized. What signs were there, in retrospect, that suggest that Phoebe’s grief was affecting her thoughts and actions?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. This story is so cinematic that you can almost hear the music and see the clothes and the clubs. If this were a movie or TV show, what would be your dream casting for the characters?
2. Watch classic films set in the 1980s like Desperately Seeking Susan, Bright Lights, Big City, and The Last Days of Disco and discuss them with your book club. How do they intersect with the world shown through Astrid Sees All? What does Astrid Sees All reveal about that time and place that other books and media have not?
3. You can find the fully designed book club kit at https://www.nataliestandiford.com/bookclubs_.htm. In it, you can find lists of songs, movies, and places mentioned in the book and an eighties playlist created by the author to accompany the read.
A Conversation with Natalie Standiford
Q: New York City in the 1980s is such a vibrant backdrop for the story. What made you decide on that particular time and place for the novel? Do you have a personal connection to it?
A: I graduated from college in 1983 and moved to New York on the last day of August that year. It was such a momentous occasion for me that I still mark the date, privately, every August 31. So I can’t help but associate that time and place with coming of age.
I lived on the Upper West Side (where my first job was as a clerk at the late, legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on Broadway and 81st Street) for a year before moving to the East Village. New York City has always been a magnet for adventurous young people, but the downtown Manhattan of the eighties was remarkable for the way it combined a burgeoning arts scene with danger, grit, and a kind of magic. In describing the photographer Nan Goldin’s great work from that period (most notably The Ballad of Sexual Dependency), the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote that her “photographs of determinedly broken youth . . . preserve the desperate, at times literally deathly, ardors of a generation that stayed up late to fit into each day its maximum quotient of mistakes.” I remember that feeling of craving excitement no matter the consequences, of needing to live on the edge. The East Village of the eighties drew outsiders of all kinds who weren’t afraid of taking risks, and who wanted to live big lives on their own terms . . . which makes a great setting for a novel.
Q: Even though the book is set only a few decades ago, did you do research when writing to add more details to the story? Did you research any of the art exhibitions, clubs, etc. of the time? Did you find anything surprising when you did? How did you choose what details to include?
A: I did do some research. In 2017 the Museum of Modern Art had a show called “Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983,” which thrilled me because that was slightly before my time and I’d always felt I’d missed something big. Club 57 was an influential performance venue/gallery/party space in the basement of a Polish church on St. Marks Place, and the museum tried to re-create that basement vibe. The same year, the Whitney Museum exhibited paintings from the eighties, focused on downtown New York, which brought back memories of the crowded East Village gallery openings I tried to shove my way into on Thursday nights.
I read books like St. Marks Is Dead, a history of St. Marks Place by Ada Calhoun; looked at photos by Ken Schles (Invisible City) and Nan Goldin (The Ballad of Sexual Dependency); and read all the accounts of nightlife I could find. I reread some of the books I’d loved in my twenties, like Lives of the Saints by Nancy Lemann, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz, Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, and Elbowing the Seducer by T. Gertler, which made a big splash in 1984 but seems to be undeservedly forgotten now. I revisited some of my favorite movies from or about the eighties—Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens, Stranger Than Paradise, Downtown 81, Basquiat, The Last Days of Disco, Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas, and Éric Rohmer’s Summer, to name a few—which helped me remember the look, the sound, and the emotional tenor of the period.
I also reread my journals from those years, which was painful and embarrassing but did yield some juicy details that I probably would have blocked out otherwise. Nothing really surprised me, except perhaps how run-down and dirty the city was in those days. There was a real sense of decay, which, of course, is part of “decadence.”
I included only a fraction of all this research in the book, though I suspect that immersing myself in these details enriched the atmosphere of the novel. I used anything that helped illustrate Phoebe’s state of mind—what she would notice, what would matter to her or seem new or strange to her—or that contributed to the story.
Q: Why did you choose to start the book with one of Phoebe’s experiences with Ivan, before going back to her college days? What about that relationship with him sets the stage for what’s to come?
A: To me the Ivan episode illustrates how Phoebe’s hunger for experience clouds her judgment. She grew up fairly sheltered, and once she gets to college she realizes how naïve she is compared to many of her peers. She’s eager to see the world—the real world, the seedy truth her parents tried to protect her from—and she’s willing to sacrifice a lot for that knowledge. I thought of her as a Persephone figure, except that instead of being dragged into the underworld by Hades, she hunts for the entrance herself and forces her way in. She feels she needs to do this, that it’s part of becoming a full person. The moment she meets Ivan is the moment she finds the door to the underworld.
Then, too, she sees her life as a movie, and a good movie must have drama. If there’s no drama in her life, she’s willing to create it; and once the story is set in motion, she has to see it through to the end, even if it means getting hurt. (She’s not afraid of taking risks, but I don’t think she really understands what the consequences might be.) So I opened the novel at the place where, in Phoebe’s mind, the movie of her life begins: the relationship that sets her on a downward spiral.
Q: Why did you choose ticket stubs to be the way Phoebe told fortunes as opposed to something more traditional, like tarot cards or palm reading?
A: Originally, Phoebe was a palm reader, but I found it hard to describe palm reading in an interesting way. Head line, heart line, life line . . . there was only so much she could say. One night I was listening to a podcast interview with a tarot card reader and she mentioned that you can use anything you like in place of tarot cards—anything that has meaning for you, even movie ticket stubs. A bell went off in my head. Just mentioning movie titles, plots, and actors evoked so much about Phoebe’s state of mind and the flavor of the period, and it was more fun than describing the lines on someone’s hand. And the idea of collecting movie ticket stubs fit with Phoebe’s sense that her life is a movie, that movies are the standard against which she measures reality.
Q: Were any of the events in the book inspired by things that happened to you or to someone else in real life?
A: The early drafts were full of incidents I remembered from my own life, but they fell away as I revised until the story’s connection to my real life grew so blurry as to be unrecognizable. Almost everything in the finished book is made up. (When I’m writing, I know a story is finally on the right track when it starts to pull away from the autobiographical and the “true” and take on a life of its own.)
But there is one real-life incident that I couldn’t resist adapting for the novel. My brother John was visiting me here in New York. One day he came home from rambling around the East Village and told me that he’d been stopped on his way into a bodega by a guy with a rooster on his shoulder. I’d seen that guy around; everyone in the neighborhood knew who he was. The guy asked John to buy him some potatoes; they wouldn’t let him into the bodega with the rooster, he said. John thought, What harm could a few potatoes do? and bought them for him. A little while later the guy with the rooster, Daniel Rakowitz, was arrested for killing his girlfriend, chopping up her body, and boiling it into a soup that he served to the homeless people camped out in Tomkins Square Park. When I heard that I got chills. What if John had unwittingly provided the potatoes for the soup? That’s how bizarre the neighborhood was then, and how interconnected everyone was, whether we wanted to be or not.
Q: There are many songs mentioned during the course of the book. Are any of them personal favorites of yours?
A: So many of them! I was obsessed with the Jam, Talking Heads, New Order, Gang of Four, the Clash, and the Pogues, and still love them. I made a playlist while writing the book and listened to it over and over, striving to capture the energy of the music. One of the inspirations for the novel was a simple yet vivid memory. I was living on Avenue A, getting ready for friends to come over for a party. I put New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies on the turntable and danced around the apartment to “Your Silent Face” for the sheer pleasure of it. Who knows why that scene felt so evocative to me thirty years later, but it haunted me while I wrote, and kept me connected to that feeling of being twenty-two on a Friday night in New York.
Q: Do you have any favorite books set in a similar time or place that inspired you as you were writing?
A: Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York is like time traveling for me. I used to look for her stories in The New Yorker every week and got so excited when they published a new one. I felt like she was writing about me—her recurring character Eleanor was as insecure as I was, even though her life was a lot more glamorous than mine. Other inspirations: Ann Beattie’s stories in Where You’ll Find Me, Laurie Colwin’s in The Lone Pilgrim, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and all the tales of youthful love and folly set at other times, in other places, like Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, the tales of Colette, Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints, and No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. For starters.
As for poetry: Two poets I love, Alice Notley and Frank O’Hara, were East Villagers. Notley lived on St. Marks Place in the seventies and eighties and published Margaret & Dusty in 1985, which includes one of my favorites, “All My Life.” A few decades earlier, O’Hara wrote poems like “Avenue A” and “Early on Sunday” (“how sad the lower East Side is on Sunday morning in May . . .”) while living on East Ninth Street, right around the corner from the apartment Phoebe and Carmen share on Avenue A.
Q: So much of the story is full of the whirlwind adventure Phoebe has in the downtown club scene, but it becomes increasingly clear that she’s hiding from her pain. There is a lot of pain in this novel—grief, overdoses, murders, betrayal, etc. Why was it important to you to portray that, in contrast to the fast-paced nightlife Phoebe experiences?
A: There is a kind of frantic fun that is driven by an unwillingness to face pain, and that’s what Phoebe finds on the Lower East Side. But I couldn’t truthfully dramatize the appeal of chasing those thrills without also depicting the cost. It’s tempting to romanticize the past, but there was real danger in New York at that time. Rents were low for a reason: a lot of people considered the city an undesirable place to live—dirty, crime-ridden, and chaotic. In exchange for excitement, creativity, and glamour, you had to put up with getting mugged, or being awakened in the middle of the night by strangers hoping you’d buzz them into your building so they could shoot up or break into an apartment, or finding blood and needles on your doorstep in the morning, or the sad sight of junkies dreaming on the sidewalk with no idea where they were. Phoebe’s experience wouldn’t have carried any emotional weight if I’d left all that out.
Q: Carmen is such an interesting character—at times pulling Phoebe in and at others pushing her away. What made you decide on this dynamic for their friendship?
A: I’ve been in relationships—both platonic and romantic—that had this baffling push-pull dynamic, and I’ve always been interested in how they work and why they’re so common. I’m not sure I’ll ever really understand it. What makes a friend pull away, and what makes her come back? What gives one friend power over another? Carmen instinctively knows how to keep people interested in her, which is a skill Phoebe wants, but she learns it by being Carmen’s practice dummy. Eventually, Phoebe has to ask herself what she’s doing in this friendship and begins to realize that she’s been playing games too; she wasn’t the faithful friend she appeared to be. She loves Carmen, but she also wants things from her. This kind of lopsided friendship is more complex than it looks on the surface; the one who seems to be taken advantage of is usually in it for reasons of her own.
Q: This story is told as a first-person narrative from Phoebe’s point of view. What made you choose this perspective rather than, say, a third-person narrative that showed multiple perspectives? What do you think we gain with this access into Phoebe’s mind, and why is that important for the story you tell?
A: Early drafts of the novel were written in the third person, with three protagonists; one was Phoebe, and the others were two of her roommates. The roommate stories were not as compelling as Phoebe’s, and in the end she took over the book. I decided to have her narrate it because the story is about how she deludes herself, how her thinking changes over the course of a year, how the events of the story change her, and I thought the reader could see that most clearly if they were inside Phoebe’s mind. I wanted readers to understand why she’d make decisions that look so foolish from the outside (though they make sense to her at the time), and why she’d put herself in the way of so much pain. I wouldn’t call Phoebe an unreliable narrator exactly, but she’s still young when she tells her story; the lessons of it are just beginning to dawn on her. As she reviews what happened, she begins to see the events in a new light, and I hope that witnessing her thoughts as she goes through this process adds a layer to the drama.
Q: This is your first adult novel—congratulations! In what ways did writing this book differ in your process from writing your past novels?
A: In many ways writing is writing. I like to set my books in “Natalie World,” which is the world as I see it, filtered through my sensibility. No matter who I’m writing for, my eyes and ears and heart are inevitably drawn to certain images, themes, and details—the odd, the eccentric, maybe a hint of the mysterious or supernatural, the female experience, things that are kind of sad and kind of funny (like a killer with a pet rooster, or a woman’s tongue swelling up in reaction to anxiety, or a postcard photo of people playing Ping-Pong at a psychiatric hospital). I think you could draw a line from How to Say Goodbye in Robot—a YA novel I published in 2009—to Astrid Sees All and find a lot of similarities: a narrator on the edge of a closed world, looking in and feeling drawn to the other outsiders she meets. I could imagine Phoebe going to high school with Bea from Robot.
On the other hand, I did enjoy writing about certain subjects (sex, drugs, the pre-internet world, and twentieth-century culture) without worrying that my readers would not have had enough experience to understand what I was talking about. That was very freeing.
Q: Do you have a next project in mind? If so, can you share anything about it?
A: I’m working on a novel about two sisters, set in Baltimore and New York in the late 1990s. It’s too early to say much more than that—I’m still writing the first draft and a lot can change in revision!