Authors: Charlotte Silver
If Cassandra had been interested in what is known as “personal growth”—and who, pray tell, is honestly interested in that?—she might have taken Edward’s words to heart. She might have thought:
My next serious relationship, I will remember that. My next serious relationship, I will do better!
Instead, she decided that clearly she was much better cut out to be a mistress and that was just fine with her. Exciting, even. A relief quite frankly, if being a wife meant you had to act all into football. They chewed the rest of their entrées in a fine and nasty silence.
“Port!” she heard Edward saying with that combination of gusto and good manners that she now despised in him, and would forever afterward. “Remember how sometimes at my apartment in Philadelphia we used to drink port?”
But now it was Cassandra who asked: “Do you remember…?”
“Do you remember what else happened the weekend of the Harvard-Yale game? Do you remember that woman who harassed us?”
“Where are you going with this?”
“That woman. The black woman. Maybe
helps to narrow it down for you?” She smiled at him wickedly, and Edward got a sinking feeling about what was coming.
“Remember after we got out of the game, that black woman who was driving down the street in a nasty beat-up old car and rolled down her window just to shout
at us. Remember her?”
“Some people, because of their histories, feel so disenfranchised…” Edward began, preferring to take a sociological tone.
“You know why she did that, Edward?”
“All right, Cassandra. Why?”
“Because she knew. She knew we were a really fucking annoying couple.
I am not so smug anymore, she was thinking; smugness being the divine privilege of youth, and she was not, as had just dawned on her here at the Harvard Club, quite so young anymore.
“By the way, Edward, that black woman, that woman in her nasty old car, I think I can kind of begin to understand her rage. Can you? No, no way, you’re way too one percent.”
(Just the previous fall in downtown Manhattan there had been the tumult, and finally the anticlimax, of the Occupy Wall Street movement, from which Cassandra had cadged this phrase and during which Gala was to remark to Sylvie on another occasion when the two of them met up for brunch in Fort Greene: “You know something funny? In the old days I would have gone over to Occupy Wall Street to meet guys, but now that just seems
Now it just seems so much cleaner to meet them online.” “Totally, totally,” Sylvie had agreed, lunging at an elderberry cocktail.)
“Hey,” Edward attempted to soothe Cassandra, “let’s not get carried away here.”
“Oh, please. Where more relevant to bring up the one percent than at the Harvard Club, I ask you?”
She could sympathize with it, she felt. The viewpoint of that so-called disenfranchised black woman on the decayed streets of New Haven that day. (Could New Haven possibly have been so decayed when Franny voyaged there? It did not seem possible.) She believed it because she was a fallen woman, not from virtue, which nobody took seriously anymore, but from class, which people did.
“This is just
reason I’m going to marry Keller. She doesn’t go around making scenes at the Harvard Club.”
“Where better to make them, though? The masses ought to storm these places, they ought to—”
“Oh forget it. I don’t like you, Edward, I’ve never liked you, and I can’t believe I ever fucked a Republican, but! That reminds me. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to get a room?”
Edward didn’t. That was for Cassandra the last straw. She got up from the table and, in doing so, even skipped dessert, a tactical error that later on, in the cab, she regretted. But d’Orsay heels are great for an exit like that and her hips swayed deliciously. Plus! She gave all of the more compatible, but bored, couples dining at the Harvard Club that night something interesting to talk about after she had gone.
ala, Gala, do you believe the part about the
This was Cassandra the next morning, on the phone. Although she and Gala couldn’t be bothered to make the effort to see each other in person all that much anymore, the two of them still did G-chat and sometimes even talked on the phone; Gala was still for Cassandra a Sylvie stand-in, the girlfriend on whom she liked to download her woes. “He thought I’d be all placated if he offered me some
Who the hell drinks port anymore anyway? And! He said we could have dessert and everything, like I was this little girl who needed to be offered an éclair from the dessert cart, or I would throw a tantrum. Do you think that’s the way he sees me?”
That’s the way everybody sees you, Gala thought, but said: “That’s rough, the part about the tennis. This reminds me, I had this really cool thing last summer with this guy who was a washed-up tennis pro but still pretty hot. He picked me up at McCarren Park one Saturday. Didn’t you meet him? No, I guess that must have been Sylvie.”
“Oh?” Cassandra tried but failed to make her tone of voice sound casual. “Is Sylvie dating anybody these days?”
“I thought she was Sicilian dead to you.”
“Sylvie just works all the time and you already knew that. Just like she already knew that you would still be sleeping with Edward even after he broke up with you. You’re onto each other. Friendships like yours: you can’t get rid of that shit.”
“Well, maybe you can or maybe you can’t.
I don’t know.
Oh my God, Cassandra, you’re making me late to work again!” Gala had a new job now, with decent benefits even, at an up-and-coming social media think tank in Chelsea. Her supervisors were guys and they all had crushes on her and she had already gotten a raise. Gala Gubelman was moving on with her life. Most nights after work she went out for OKCupid dates on the High Line. Gone were the carefree days of letting guys pick her up on the subway, or even in the more salubrious setting of McCarren Park. Gala knew what wise women approaching the age of thirty all know, which is not to leave the master plan of their lives up to fate. “I have to go, Cassandra. But next time, Jesus, Cassandra, text me, that’s what the ladies are doing with each other these days.”
“Ladies? Ladies, you say? I thought that texting was for men. I thought that women still wanted to talk to each other.”
“Not so much, I don’t think.”
Because they’re busy
“Does Cassandra even have a job, or what?” Sylvie wanted to know.
This was later on that evening, when she and Gala were having dinner at her place. They had a standing Wednesday night date in which they agreed to stay in and cook and smoke pot together. Outside it was snowing. Inside Sylvie’s Chinese paper lantern cast a homey pink glow on the surroundings. The radiator hissed. Before answering, Gala peeled off her mittens. Red mittens, old ones, hand-knit by some girl who had been in love with her at Bennington. Every time it snowed Gala Gubelman wore those mittens and every time she wore them she thought not of that girl, whose name she could not even remember, but of that time and place and of being young and desired. In the years since Bennington she had had many lovers, but at some point in her mid-twenties she had stopped going to bed with other girls and made the pursuit of men—stolid, not so interesting as other girls usually were, preferable only for the width of their shoulders or the remarkable feats of their cocks—her focus. Something of the poetry of sex had gone out of it right around this time, Gala had noticed. That girl, whoever she was, had threatened to throw herself into the lake in North Bennington after Gala had rejected her. Nothing had come of the threat but the high romanticism of it had been enough to make on Gala an enduring impression.
“Uh, she job-hunts, I think.”
“I mean, seriously!”
Sylvie was indignant. But then, Sylvie was always indignant. That had not changed.
Gala pushed a lock of hair behind her ear, concentrating. She was in the middle of unpacking groceries: toothsome produce she had picked up after work at the Union Square Farmers Market. Now that they were almost thirty, she and Sylvie were not so painfully broke anymore. They could afford such indulgences from time to time. They had even started to give dinner parties and to go to them. The plan tonight was to make a very ambitious, multilayered frittata. Sylvie had gone so far as to buy an expensive cheese around the corner at the Greene Grape, something she would not have seen fit to do in the old days.
“Wait, she’s not working right now, I don’t think, but she
working recently. Fern Morgenthal set her up with something—something at this restaurant she was working at, I think…”
“No, no, I think she was just a hostess actually. That was it.”
“Oh well, is that all? If she quit then, I really can’t blame her. You don’t make any money doing that.”
“Yeah, but. I don’t think she
, I think Fern said she was
, eventually I forget why.”
Sylvie would have liked to blame her for this but couldn’t, not when you considered how many times she and Gala had been fired from various jobs in New York City themselves. There was something kind of exhilarating about the experience of being fired, Sylvie thought, remembering. She could still recall one fabulous, fiery exit she had made, storming out of the office of that fashion agency where she had briefly worked in a pair of white leather short shorts that she knew she looked totally hot in. The middle-aged fashion editors had all glared at her, enraged. They must have imagined that with her youth and her beauty and the unblemished golden backs of her thighs she had it all. And I never even knew, Sylvie thought. I never even knew how lucky I was. Then, too, she remembered, there had been the early, frantically sexual love affair with Bitsy Citron’s older brother, Ludo. The collapsed cardboard boxes and unfinished canvases of his studio; the immortal occasion of their final parting in which she had hurled a roast chicken from FreshDirect onto his lap, the grease splattering his expensive Swedish jeans. Artists, Sylvie fumed to herself. Artists were the worst. She took it as a personal affront sometimes to think that they alone might have managed to preserve some of the youthful idealism and high-mindedness that she had lost since college, and would never get back again.
“Hey, do you have a Le Creuset pan or anything like that?” Gala asked all of a sudden, getting sick of talking about Cassandra. They were always talking about Cassandra, it seemed. “I’m wondering what I should cook the frittata in.”
“Sure, sure,” said Sylvie smoothly, and reached for a wonderful old mustard yellow one hanging from a hook on the wall.
“Oh my God! This is
. This is
. I’ve been wanting to get one just like it.” They had reached the age, also, when buying new cooking appliances was even more exciting to them than buying new clothes. “Where did you get it?”
“My grandmother,” Sylvie lied, and no more was said about the Le Creuset pan or Cassandra for the rest of the evening.
ome months later, when she was so broke she’d resorted to stealing rolls of toilet paper out of the bathrooms of the restaurants in her neighborhood, Cassandra got a job at an upscale baby boutique, with locations in SoHo and Williamsburg. The store was called Forget-Me-Not. All of the girls who worked there liked to give dinner parties and had French names: Nanette, Claire, Rosabel, Therese. No doubt grim old Tish, still rotting away in Harvard Square behind the counter at Black Currant, would never have approved of these names, or of the girls themselves and their outlandish expectations.
In her free time, Claire was a platinum-haired, raven-lashed aspiring pop star, who enjoyed the flexibility of working at the boutique because it allowed her to go on tour in Europe twice a year. Therese and her fiancé owned an organic soul food truck and recently had gotten a cookbook deal. Rosabel had delicate jet-black eyebrows and was a ballet dancer. Nanette was, fresh from Bard, a painting major, and the youngest of them all. Cassandra, now thirty, was the oldest.
The owner’s six-year-old son was named Sheridan. Her husband was a sculptor and high-end carpenter, who had installed a magical play station made out of silver-birch bark in the back of the store, so that parents could browse the color-coded racks of organic cotton clothing in peace. The domed ceiling was the perfect shade of Botticelli blue, tender yet unisex. So this was what New York City had come to in the twenty-first century, Cassandra thought. Galleries for toddlers.
At the SoHo location, the clientele consisted of European and Japanese tourists turned out in bright scarves and buttery driving loafers. Or stylists would drop in from
, hoping to borrow a handmade “soft sculpture” cloud mobile for a photo shoot. Childless gay couples bought the white shag footstools that had been designed specially for Forget-Me-Not and intended for nurseries. Cassandra could handle all of this; she could meet these people’s gazes head on.
But at the Williamsburg location, where she worked, none too willingly, on occasion, it was another story. She would begin the day on the unfashionable streets of Astoria and about an hour later get off the L train on Bedford Avenue, where the universe exploded into a flurry of black tights, fluffy jackets, and rakish, rock-star-style hats worn with curious aplomb on members of both sexes. And not infrequently, Cassandra couldn’t even tell the difference between them.
At the store, too, gender continued to pose a conundrum for Cassandra in these dubious modern times. The owner, whose name was Mavis Asher, boasted to customers of Sheridan’s wardrobe, “Don’t worry, I put my boy in tights.” Cassandra would hang some exquisitely distressed rose-colored henley T-shirts on the girls’ rack, only to have Mavis up and move them to the boys’, as though it should have been perfectly obvious that antique rose was
color for little boys this season.
The floors in the Williamsburg store had been handmade from rustic, sloping wood by Mavis’s husband, and even more than little Sheridan and his tights, those floors were her pride and joy. The first thing you did if you opened the Williamsburg store was mop the floor with a terrifying, to Cassandra, combination of boiling water and Mop & Glo. She had made the mistake of asking Mavis, the first time, “But is the teakettle a fire hazard?” It was old and creaky, sputtering at a perilous angle on top of the toilet.
“Of course it’s a fire hazard,” said Mavis, adding, without further ado: “The trick is, the water has to be boiling. Hot, hot, hot. And you rinse out the mop in the sink, you don’t ever put it back in the bucket. Four times minimum, rinse, rinse, rinse. Mop & Glo in the bucket,
you sprinkle it on the floor as you go along. You put some muscle into it, see.”
And then Mavis did a demonstration, spinning her small, yogic body round and round and swishing the mop back and forth with demonic vigor.
Mavis, like all Brooklyn women in their indeterminate late thirties who own their own brownstones, spent boundless amounts of energy exerting the superiority of her opinion on the subject of all earthly comforts. She “only” used certain brands of paper towels or toilet paper (neither of them, Cassandra noted, organic, for organic paper goods were often thin and Mavis preferred fluffy). The hand soap in the bathroom had to be geranium, and the slender, amber diffusers arranged in the store bergamot.
The specter of that hissing teakettle, meanwhile, loomed large in Cassandra’s imagination, for she still didn’t have any health insurance. So, in the event of an accident, she would have to add the emergency room bill to her other woes.
Another task—also involving Cassandra’s least favored element, fire, heat—was steaming every single piece of clothing before it went out on the floor. Everything, from Finnish ski parkas to French sun hats, had to be crisp. One afternoon while steaming a pair of eighty-eight-dollar skinny black Parisian jeans for a twelve-to-eighteen-month-old, it came to Cassandra that what she felt like was Lily Bart, near the end of
The House of Mirth
, when having run up ruinous debts and cast off from society, she is reduced to taking a job in a millinery shop. That settled it, Cassandra thought. She had not become an English major for nothing.
A naturally vivacious personality, Cassandra was an excellent salesperson. She swiftly memorized all of the brand names and where their clothes and toys were made and the things to tell customers about them—the tunics and bloomers that had been “designed in Paris and woven in Nepal”; the German building blocks, dense as the Black Forest itself; the Spanish brand that was very “fashion forward” and the French one that was like “A.P.C. for babies.” And then there were the rubber duckies, one of the store’s best sellers. Not ordinary, cuddly-type rubber duckies, but instead rather architectural-looking and special, fashioned by some “green” Japanese design company.
But retail—not a line of work she had ever had to stoop to before—also required a certain physical swiftness she sorely lacked. It wasn’t only the teakettle and the steamer. It was also—and much more relentlessly—gift wrapping. In Cassandra’s universe, there existed no right angles; she couldn’t see them and she certainly couldn’t shape them. Gifts at Forget-Me-Not were wrapped in gray tissue paper and tied with mushroom-colored silk ribbons, colors like blue and pink being far too vulgar. The Forget-Me-Not stamp—the logo of merry bluebirds and tiny, curling flowers had been designed by Mavis’s husband; was there a thing that man could not do?—was to be pressed firmly in the lower right-hand corner of the gift box. Unless it was Cassandra doing the gift wrapping, and then the stamp might end up in any of the four corners, for to her they were all the same.
Cassandra would never forget the sight of the sheer animal panic in the formerly gentle eyes of Therese, the girl with the organic soul food truck and a bosomy, maternal soul, the day she first saw Cassandra try to gift wrap. Before moving to New York, Therese had been an art teacher at a progressive middle school in Los Angeles, and like all teachers, she prided herself on being able to address different learning styles. But
When she, Therese, tried to demonstrate how to smooth the corners, Cassandra attempted the same motion, or rather, pretended to be attempting it, only to have the tissue paper rustle up and out in all directions as if singed by electricity—really, it was a most extraordinary sight.
And Mavis, the first time she saw Cassandra gift wrap, though she had already heard dark murmurs of this travesty sweeping among the other girls, thought: Is the new girl handicapped, in some subtle, creepy way I failed to detect during the interview? You never knew with people, these days. There were so many free-floating afflictions and conditions out there. But just what was the name for this one? she wondered.
She’d liked the idea of having a Bennington grad on the staff. Also, Cassandra had interviewed so beautifully. Little could she have known that interviewing would turn out to be her only skill! And if the girl couldn’t gift wrap or mop the damn floor that well either, come to think of it, then maybe she’d better stick with hiring underemployed art students. English majors were probably better off in offices, although everybody knew those types of jobs barely existed anymore. Oh well, figured Mavis. That’s just too bad for them.
And meanwhile, there remained Cassandra, struck dumb at the foot of the gift wrap station, a haunted expression in her big blue eyes.