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Authors: R.J. Hernández

An Innocent Fashion

BOOK: An Innocent Fashion
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With special thanks to HarperCollins and Trident Media Group,

especially my editor, Hannah Wood, and my agent, Erica

Spellman-Silverman; also to my parents, without whom this book

would not be possible.

dedication

For Justine

epigraph

“Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions, and the mean ones truths?”

—EDITH WHARTON,
The House of Mirth

chapter one

W
ith all the tall buildings everywhere, you'd think it would be easier to kill yourself in New York City. The trouble was, to get to the top of one of them you'd have to live in it, or know someone who did. This seemed to be the trouble more generally: to get to the top of anything was just so difficult, and my biggest fear in growing up was that it would only become more difficult until it became impossible.

Everywhere all those horrible, record-breaking high-rises; I could zigzag all around them and blink at them from below and even chat up their friendly doormen, but at the end of the day, when all I wanted was to jump off some gratuitous altitude, it was, “Hey, kid, who you here to see?”

I finally understood why rich people paid a premium to live on a penthouse floor, adding another unfair advantage to the list
that in my mind grew longer every day: if you could afford it, you got to kill yourself without a fuss. It made more sense to me than paying to see “the view” of New York City every day; I mean, if I was rich I'd pay
not
to see the view, with all those skyscrapers jutting up like a bed of nails.

At the magazine people talked about suicide all the time, but usually they were referring to fashion suicide, which was like social suicide but much more serious. Fashion suicide was when somebody in the fashion world committed an error so egregious that they would never be welcome there again—a slipup caused by burnout or a temporary lapse of sanity. Depending on how you looked at things, the latter could alternatively be considered a restoration of sanity; either way, it was usually summed up as, “I can't fucking stand this anymore.”

A textbook example was that committed by the former fashion assistant—a doe-eyed trust-fund doll who one day last spring just stood up from her chair with a glazed look
,
and left. She didn't even bother to take her bag with her, a $10,000 cast-off that came into her possession when the senior fashion editor pleaded, “Get this vile thing away from me—it keeps appearing on my desk.” To be fair, the bag was pretty vile—it was covered in distressed python scales and golden buckles the size of prison padlocks—but it was also a $10,000, yet-unreleased Versace runway sample, so she kept it. She kept it right until the end when, flaccid and shedding its horrible rotting skin, it wound up where the editor had dumped it in the first place. From there the assistant joined a convent, or a nonprofit—I'm not sure, but something with a redemptive ring to it.

Other perpetrators of fashion suicide included another former assistant who quit her job to write a tell-all roman à clef about her famously diabolical boss, and a gay intern who charged
a $15,000 Bergdorf shopping spree to the managing editor's corporate card after he was made to work through his Christmas vacation. Neither of them would ever step foot in the office of a high-profile fashion magazine again, although the former did end up with a
New York Times
bestseller and the latter with a two-month vacation in a county jail in Westchester.

It's not as hard as you might think to actually walk out on
Régine
. After you've been there long enough, it feels like you're just going across the street to grab a pastrami sandwich for lunch, even though you know you're never coming back. Getting beyond the double doors is the hardest part. Once you're past them, with the colossal video screen playing fashion shows on a loop behind you, with girl after leviathan girl on your heels, a nightmarish, never-ending procession of the chosen ones you'll never be like, you finally do become like them. Rigid and unfeeling, you just walk, and you're in the foyer, where two cream parlor chairs and a cream sofa border a cream coffee table with a single potted orchid—just a bright green calligraphic stroke, with its blossoms like snow-white moths who landed there and got stuck.

I suppose if I'd wanted to, I could have just pressed Up at the elevators, popped out on the top floor and found a fire escape to the roof, but even disillusioned dreamers have their dignity. To jump off the Hoffman-Lynch building, that horrible behemoth of New York City architectural innovation, with its unprecedented vaults and soaring, hope-flooded windows, a staggering display of “harmony between old and modern” (according to the plaque in the foyer)—all to disguise the depressing white offices inside—well, no thank you. Who wanted to nose-dive into midtown traffic, anyway?

Then again, access to the convenient heights of the Hoffman-
Lynch rooftop was almost certainly a privilege denied by my limited-access ID, which read
INTERN
and didn't include a photograph of my face or even my name.

One way or the other, I knew I needed to get out.

I would have jumped off the roof of my own walk-up apartment, but the building was only four stories tall, and I'd heard once you had to do it from a minimum of six stories if you hoped to actually die. This wasn't so much a mental note I had made for this occasion as one of those tidbits that stuck inexplicably in a person's head for years, like the fact that tongue prints were as unique as finger prints, or that Napoleon had been five and a half feet tall. It made logical sense, too, that you'd want to jump from somewhere high; if you jumped out of any old window, you could just end up with a broken leg, or else, maimed for life—either way, worse off than you'd been in the first place.

That's why I went to my boss's house, because he was rich and living The Dream in a fifteen-story Fifth Avenue co-op with a gym and classical molding throughout.

WHEN I ARRIVED AT EDMUND'S APARTMENT BUILDING, I SAID
“Hello, Horace” to the doorman, because even though I was about to kill myself, it wasn't his fault, and I'd always liked him.

“Welcome, Mr. St. James!” Horace wore a gold-trimmed hat like a ship's captain, and round glasses like mine. Unlike me, Horace was as portly as a fully suited watermelon and stood there all day with his hands resting on the top of his stomach. It was a shame I'd never live to be that old; all my life I'd been slender, and it would have interested me to know what it felt like to swell up like a balloon in my old age. “You're all wet,” he informed me.

I almost didn't believe him, and glanced sharply up behind
me. The whole sky was swirling like the mist in a crystal ball. Gray clouds moaned like a chorus of captured souls, while the thunder laughed, and all around, the deluge tried to drown them out with a dull roar.

You know you're concentrating very hard on the matter of killing yourself when you don't even notice it's the end of the world outside. With a sudden shiver, I wrapped my arms around myself and noticed the puddle I was spreading over the marble floor. The mosaic that read
2
5 F
IFTH
A
VE
sparkled under my feet, while all around me tinkered raindrops like diamonds off a broken necklace.

“Need a towel?” Horace offered.

I said no, thank you, and he handed me a square brown box, the size of a pastry container. “Here's a package for Edmund.” He pushed PH on the elevator for me. “Come see me on your way out. I'll lend you an umbrella.”

I smiled sadly at him, knowing it would be the last time, and for a moment, I closed my eyes and thought,
Wouldn't it be better to just tell Horace everything?
Surely he would understand. He would lay my head on his stomach, pet my wet mop of hair with his gloved hand, and tell me,
“There were times I thought I wouldn't make it either, plodding around in this wool suit in the middle of a sweltering summer, but in life you just have to keep fighting.”

It'd be a nice alternative to dying
, I thought, opening my eyes—just as the elevator doors concluded otherwise, and closed.

EDMUND'S MAID HAD HER BACK TO ME WHEN I STEPPED INTO
the foyer of his apartment.


Hola, Rosita
,” I said as she dusted a coffee table tome on
Linda Evangelista, to which my boss Edmund had written the foreword. I gently set down Edmund's package on the table beside Linda's apathetic visage, and Rosita hefted herself around to greet me.

“You wet, E-tan!” she gasped, despite my frequent insistence that she not trouble herself over the pronunciation of my name. Like a brown-skinned Lady Liberty leading the revolutionaries, she swirled her feather duster in the air and waggled over. “Lay me get you towel.”

I raised a hand to stop her. I was soaked through, but to inconvenience Edmund's underpaid maid was the last of my dying wishes. My own mother cleaned houses for a living, and on top of that, what good was a towel to me now when awaiting my momentary arrival was Edmund's roof and my long, wet plummet down? For that matter, what good was any more effort at all spent in the service of my ill-fated body? In the course of my foolhardy life, enough energy had already been wasted providing for my lowly human needs—warmth, comfort, and all the pointless rest of it.

She couldn't have known this, of course, as she hurried away toward Edmund's linen closet and its supply of gold-trimmed sheets. If she had known what I was about to do, Rosita would have considered me luxuriously spoiled. When she looked at me, she saw someone like Edmund, “
un americano
rico
.” How self-indulgent for someone like me to want to kill myself—shining with the glimmer of privilege and youth, yet unable to bear my insignificant troubles—while everywhere people like her toiled for a tiny measure of the advantages I had inherited at birth.

The truth was that I was a lot more like Rosita than she would ever have guessed. If, like a piece of jewelry, I had been
inspected through a microscope—my surface scratched for some telling signifier of my value—my appraiser would have shaken his head, pursed his lips, and silently grouped me with the cubic zirconia. Fortune had spared me all telltale signs of my inherited otherness, but my mother was the child of an unlikely military marriage in New Mexico—white-skinned with dark brown hair, fathered by a buffalo soldier—while my father was Mexican. His face was brown and leathery, stubble crawling across it like an army of black ants. By some fortuitous celestial oversight, my own face betrayed neither my heritage nor, incidentally, my age—except for my chin, which was punctuated by a prickly row of elliptical black hairs. I had dark, wavy hair and a childish face; an obligatory outburst of teenage hormones had manifested itself as a fashionable growth spurt, leaving me tall and lean, but otherwise the halfhearted advances of a reluctant puberty had left me with a perennially boyish appearance.

In exchange for these considerable courtesies, I was marked by one single visible exception to ensure I would never forget I was the progeny of disharmony: mismatched eyes, each pupil encircled by different-colored orbs, one blue, one brown. They were existential eyes, large and searching, a pair of happy and sad theater masks—both sides of humanity, whose only common behavior was to blink open and closed. My heterochromatic eyes were a harmless irregularity that nature had installed in me as reminder of my bastard status, but nothing I couldn't hide behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses—another testament to the power of fashion. In the end though, what did fashion matter? I stood there now in a designer suit gifted to me at
Régine
while Rosita wore an apron, yet I was the one who wanted to die.

The first time I met Rosita I had been delivering lilac and
periwinkle hydrangeas to Edmund's apartment. “
Hola
,” she had said. My instinctive reply was like a rumble from a volcanic crater that for many years had remained dormant, “
Hola, señora, ¿cómo está?


Ay, qué bien hablas
,” she had replied in surprise over the waft of her duster. I paused, and remembered myself. “I learned Spanish in grade school,” I lied through an American accent. Unlike my Spanish-speaking forebears, who had relished in the dramatic confluences of their romantic mother tongue, I had for years forced my words into the unromantic security of American pronunciation. To certain ears it was dull and un-sensual, but to mine it covered up the secret of my inferior heritage.

Now Rosita draped a towel fringed with gold over my wet back like a cape, and smiled. She reminded me of Walita, my grandmother on my father's side—with the same crinkled black eyes embedded like warts in a weathered vegetable, and wiry white hair sprouting from a brown scalp.


¿De dónde eres, Rosita?
” I had never sought to learn much about Rosita before. Now that she was the last person I'd ever talk to, she seemed suddenly to occupy an important role in my life, and it seemed fit that I should at least know something about her.


Soy mexicana
,” she replied. I smiled, and a nervous laugh escaped me. Like an unfaithful Catholic who doubts for a lifetime before pleading on his deathbed
, “God! Forgive me!”
I fell upon Rosita with a sigh, and a hug as warm and close as if I had known her my entire life. Rosita accepted my embrace without an inquiry or a moment's hesitation, as though to her it was the most natural reaction in the world. She rubbed my wet back as I took a deep, comforting breath of her cheap perfume.

Then, with a sad smile, I stepped away and proceeded to the roof.

BOOK: An Innocent Fashion
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