Authors: Charlotte Silver
ater on that same evening, Sylvie and Cassandra sat in Adirondack chairs all the way out at the End of the World.
“So,” Sylvie said to Cassandra, “what’s the latest around here?”
“Hmm. Well, sexually speaking, black boys are all the rage on campus.”
“Oh, great. All two of them.”
“Well. Pansy Chapin’s sleeping with that guy Kojo, you know, the one who played Mercutio in that production of
Romeo in the Hood.
“But wait, what about that tall, handsome boyfriend of hers, the one she’s always visiting with the duplex on Central Park South? She’d better not let him go! He must be
“Oh, he is loaded, really, really loaded, and he’s still in the picture. They’re engaged now. He popped the question on Torcello, this island off the coast of—”
“Venice! Oh my God, I went there. It’s gorgeous.”
“I bet it is! Actually, she’s in the Hamptons with him this weekend. Kojo’s just something on the side.”
“That poor guy. She’s always cheating on him.”
“Pansy says it’s true.”
“What they say about black guys.”
“What they say about their cocks?”
“Uh-huh. The morning after she first slept with him, we were all sitting around at brunch and Pansy held up
“Jesus. I didn’t think that any intelligent heterosexual woman actually thought that size mattered. Do you think it matters?”
“Oh no. Not at all! Sex is a really mental thing with me.” Cassandra liked her men upper-class and intellectual, with a fine, sadistic verbal edge. She had a long-term Harvard boyfriend who sometimes came and visited her on campus. In spite of his existence and the status of their supposedly monogamous relationship, she was forever urging her friends to go crash frat parties to meet men at nearby Williams College, though out of the lot of them, only the aforementioned Pansy Chapin and Gala Gubelman, famous campus beauty and kleptomaniac, had been up for tagging along, and that was just because Pansy, from a young age, was always on the lookout for a rich husband and Gala was generally held to be a nymphomaniac.
“Me, too,” Sylvie agreed.
“Oh! I can’t believe I forgot. You heard the one about the modern dancers?”
“Those poor girls. And now their parents are suing.”
“Damages. They say the school should have put up a sign in the dance studio saying not to get too close to the windows.”
“Oh, come on. What idiot would need a sign telling them something like that?”
“But modern dancers
“Oh, right. Of course they are. Isn’t that why we’ve always hated them?”
“Yeah, well that, and they always get all the guys. Not that I want the guys you have to pick from at Bennington! But still.”
It is often remarked that friends and lovers need to like the same things. What is less frequently remarked upon—but is a far more enduring bond, in the long run—is that they need to hate the same things, too. Sylvie and Cassandra did, with a high, sparkling vehemence that never got old. Having attended, long before Bennington, a progressive arts high school in the Boston suburbs, notorious for the high number of students who did stints in the chic mental institution McLean, they had been given a wealth of material. If you are lucky enough to attend a progressive school at an impressionable age, you will have things to loathe for a lifetime.
Sylvie yawned and asked: “By the way. Those girls. Were the two of them lesbians, do you think?”
“So what if they were? Does it matter? They’re
“I just wondered. It would be kind of a nice romantic twist if they were. Dying that way. Together.”
“Well, I guess it would be kind of romantic if you put it that way. It would be like something out of a ballet! And they were both so incredibly beautiful, I have to say. Chelsea had these amazing curly long lashes.” She sighed, remembering.
“I don’t know. All the modern dancers at Bennington are so incredibly beautiful. After a while they all just blend together.”
“Yeah.” Cassandra paused. “You know something? I’ve always just hated the name Chelsea.”
“Well, it just occurred to me as I was thinking about them. Chelsea! You know what it reminds me of? When some stupid person dares to call me Cassie! Cassie!” She shuddered.
Sylvie thought of admonishing Cassandra for being such a vain little bitch when two of their classmates were dead. Then, because Cassandra was her best friend and because they could say anything to each other, decided against it.
“I don’t like the name Beverly either, to tell you the truth,” Sylvie said.
obs, even back when Sylvie and Cassandra graduated, were getting hard to come by. But it was not yet impossible to find one, as it would be for the Bennington girls who followed after them in just a couple years’ time. Cassandra managed to find employment before Sylvie did, in some vague administrative capacity, untaxing to her fragile mental health, at a cultural nonprofit in Harvard Square: the less said of the specifics of this job, like most jobs, the better. Because most jobs are boring. After graduation, Sylvie also landed back in Cambridge, but only temporarily, she sincerely hoped. Because for as long as she could remember, she had hated the city of Boston. Many years ago now, her grandmother had taken her to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, long lauded as one of the crown jewels of Boston but, to the discriminating Sylvie, nothing all that special; she sniffed in its grand and gloomy rooms a certain fustiness, a residual, mothy scent, perhaps, of the city’s Puritan legacy in spite of the gallant efforts of the more flamboyant Mrs. Gardner herself. “Make a wish,” Sylvie’s grandmother had commanded, handing her a penny and pointing to the fountain in the middle of the Venetian-style courtyard. Sylvie braced herself and closed her eyes and tossed the penny into the fountain. Then announced:
“I wish I wasn’t here.”
She was six years old at the time.
Still, sometime over the course of that first summer after college, she announced to Cassandra, “So, I found a job.”
There was a note of gloomy caution, nothing resembling elation certainly, in her voice.
“Oh, Sylvie, that’s wonderful!” Cassandra said, refusing to listen to it and trying her best to be encouraging.
“No, it isn’t. It isn’t wonderful
It’s at Black Currant.”
And now Cassandra was the one who sounded gloomy.
Black Currant was a bakery in Harvard Square, generally held to be the crème de la crème of such establishments among the dreary postdoc and professorial set of which Cambridge society consisted. Cassandra often went there for coffee and the very excellent raisin-pecan rolls they had—not that she would have been caught dead working there. But best to keep that to oneself right now; Sylvie needed her support, obviously. So she tried to change her tone, hoping that it wasn’t too obvious. It was, of course. Sylvie picked up on it immediately and felt faintly condescended to. Sylvie hated feeling condescended to! And she was forced to listen to the inanity of Cassandra prattling on:
“Oh my God! I’m so happy about this. That means that you’ll be working in Harvard Square, too, Sylvie. So we can have lunch, like, every day together!”
But already Sylvie was thinking: Like hell I’m happy about this. I’m getting out of town.
From her very first day on the job at Black Currant, she began to plot her escape. The wheels, the wheels in her head were turning. Which was worse, she wondered, the staff or the customers? The two groups coexisted in a state of low-level hostility in which there was seldom any actual yelling but plenty of complex anger clotting the atmosphere. Maybe the customers resented the staff for the indignity of a place where you had to pay a full seven bucks for a slice of vanilla-bean pound cake. There was no bathroom, and if you asked where the bathroom was, you were sure to get a really dirty look. Maybe the staff, making $7.50 an hour, resented the customers for spending a full seven bucks for a slice of vanilla-bean pound cake. (A whole pound cake cost twenty-three dollars.) All Sylvie could take away from the situation was: these people are fucking miserable. An ex-convict, having taken a job as the night baker, confessed to Sylvie that being in the clink was nothing compared to the likes of
could do this, thought Sylvie. She meant that maybe one day she could run a bakery, though not here in Cambridge—no way. But maybe someday in New York…For, of the many things that Sylvie was naturally good at, one of them was being an excellent cook; Cassandra had often marveled at how she could turn something as mundane as a tuna fish sandwich into something absolutely delicious. The girl was born knowing how to dress a salad in the correct amount of French olive oil and how to toss off a perfectly silky chocolate soufflé.
could make these jams, Sylvie was thinking, looking at the stout glass bottles of chunky apricot preserves selling for seventeen dollars a pop.
could write out those labels. She imagined her pretty, sloping handwriting; she imagined tying a white grosgrain ribbon around the lid…
This place must be making a killing, thought Sylvie, trying to crunch the numbers in her head. She and Cassandra had first become friends back in high school while skipping out on geometry class together. She wasn’t good at math, but she was shrewd with numbers on a practical level, and she could grasp how they broke down in a business. This one broke down entirely to the owner’s advantage and not to the staff’s—why, they didn’t even get free coffee!
But in those days, Sylvie was young and idealistic and given to making people feel good; she hadn’t yet learned to
to take things away from people. But she soon did learn that hospitality in any form was to be distrusted at Black Currant, as when she gave an elderly sculptress an extra scoop of cranberries on top of her eight-dollar oatmeal and afterward was reprimanded by Tish, her manager.
“Sylvie,” said Tish in the weak, trailing voice that never varied, no matter what the emotional pitch of the situation, for perhaps in Tish’s diminished universe there was only one. “Sylvie, we don’t give away freebies here. Of any kind.”
“Oh, I know,” began Sylvie, tossing her shiny black head with its glamorous, Italian pixie cut and figuring that she personally could get away with anything because she was young and because she was beautiful, “but I just thought, it was this nice old lady, and she’s a regular, and it was only a couple of cranberries, so—”
“A cranberry is a cranberry,” said Tish, and from then on this became a phrase of hilarity between Sylvie and Cassandra:
A cranberry is a cranberry
. How appropriate, remarked Cassandra, that Tish should hold dear this most bitter of fruits, for the two of them, with the glittering callousness of twenty-two, thought she was the last word in grimness: something of a withered fruit herself.
“Now most of the time she never smiles,” said Sylvie. “A frown is, like, her default expression. She already has these frown lines and you know what I found out—she’s only twenty-eight! You’d think she was forty-two already.” Sylvie pressed her hand to her own satiny brown cheek and continued, “But what I wanted to say is, when she does smile, and it isn’t often, it’s actually really creepy. It makes you more uncomfortable when she smiles than when she scowls, you know?”
Later on, the girls howled when they discovered a Yelp review in which Tish was described by a disgruntled customer as “the I See Dead People manager.” There really was something rather haunted about her pinched white face and the dusty black pigtails, which by now she was far too old to be wearing.
Before Sylvie met Tish—not to mention all of the regulars at Black Currant—she had always assumed that you grew up and had a sex life. Of course there were unfortunate cases who didn’t, but they were the exceptions. Now, however, it occurred to her that there might be a whole seedy underclass of people to whom nothing sexual ever happened; life went on without even the possibility of magnetic eye contact or melting touch. She felt, in general, that living in Cambridge past a certain age threatened to enclose her and her still-beautiful flesh in a gray crust of sexlessness. She felt that to stay there too long might prove fatal.
The sad, mauve-colored streets of Cambridge were thronged with women who had, to Sylvie’s mind, just plain given up. She wanted to go and shake them. She wanted to ask them point-blank: What happened to you? Did you wake up one morning and just decide that there was no damn point in pretending anymore?
And then there was her family. That didn’t help. All of Sylvie’s relatives had been born in and elected to stay in Cambridge for reasons that were to her frankly bewildering. One afternoon that summer, when the girls were taking their lunch breaks, she announced to Cassandra:
“Oh my God. Get
. My mother told me last night that Aunt Lydia and Uncle Billy and my grandparents have pooled their money together and bought a plot at Mount Auburn! Turns out they don’t come cheap either. Nothing does in this town. That’s another strike against it! Cambridge: incredibly boring and incredibly expensive, to boot. But seriously, Cassandra, can you imagine? Aunt Lydia and Uncle Billy and my grandparents laid away in a tomb for all eternity!
A plot in Mount Auburn!
Talk about never getting out of Cambridge! I ask you. Is that all those idiots have to look forward to?”
Cassandra’s reaction to this bombshell was not quite as Sylvie had hoped.
“Do we want to get out of Cambridge?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” said Sylvie flatly. There could be no question of that.
ne weekend, Sylvie got an invitation to go and stay on Martha’s Vineyard at the fabulous beach-front property of a Bennington classmate named Vicky Lalage. Aside from the beachfront property, which had been in her family for generations, Vicky herself was nothing much to write home about, a dim, honey-blond creature with spectacles, the good-egg type often found at Bennington sitting under an apple tree with a group of similarly undistinguished girls and a pile of knitting. Nevertheless, Cassandra was jealous not to have been invited to go with, and was most put out to discover that their good friend Gala Gubelman just happened to be on the Vineyard, too.
“She’s not staying with Vicky, though,” Sylvie reported over the phone once she got there. “She’s been dating this anorexic slut from Bryn Mawr and
who she’s staying with, not Vicky. Turns out her parents have this big place out in Edgartown.”
“Wait, Gala is dating a girl
“I know, right? That’s what I said! I said: Gala, you are being
“What’s the girl like?”
“Absolutely impossible—” Sylvie began, before launching into an exquisitely detailed tirade about the finer points of the anorexia from which she was “supposedly” in recovery, and what a drag it was to have to go out to eat with her; the girl’s name was Tess Fox.
Exhibitionists all, this quartet of lithe young girls—Sylvie, Vicky, Gala, and Tess—spent the better part of that weekend on the nude beach. On Sunday afternoon, just before she had to go and catch the ferry, Sylvie was lying there and feeling stricken at the thought of having to go back to Black Currant. It was August by now; September, that month of new beginnings, fresh starts, was coming. Worse, it appeared that almost everybody she knew was going to be in New York City that fall except for her. Tess said that Gala could move into the studio apartment her parents had bought for her in the East Village, no problem, the two of them would be so cozy there; and Vicky revealed that she had just signed the lease on a loft in TriBeCa.
“Wait,” said Sylvie to Vicky, remembering something, “you’re a native New Yorker, aren’t you?”
“You grew up in Greenwich Village, right?”
“Well, when I was born we actually were living upt—”
Sylvie got right to the point.
“Your parents, though. Do your parents still live there? In Greenwich Village?”
Sylvie was so carried away with her ulterior motives, she didn’t even bother to say
Instead, she rolled over on her stomach and sulked. So obviously this meant that nobody would be living in Vicky’s childhood bedroom come September. The thought filled Sylvie with emptiness on this splendid summer’s day. Then—rage! Why should Vicky’s bedroom go unused, in the most fashionable neighborhood in New York City, with so many people desperate for housing? It wasn’t fair!
She sat up straight, looked down at her sleek brown breasts and belly, then scooped up a palmful of sand and let it cascade through her fingertips, enjoying the soft heat of it against her skin. She felt full to bursting with life.
“Oh my God, did you hear the one about Penelope Entenmann?” Gala was now saying.
Penelope Entenmann was the name of the leggy cello student who was famous for letting Professor Sobel nail her in the Secret Garden.
“Oh no, what is it?” Vicky asked, being the good-egg type, genuinely concerned.
It was presumed to be the professor’s child, and in fact was. Sylvie made a note to tell Cassandra, who had had a crush on him back at Bennington and would surely be interested in the latest about him and Penelope.
“Oh, no! What is she going to do?”
“Keep it,” said Gala authoritatively. “Rumor is she’s going to have it in Hawaii.”
“And what, like, give it up afterward?” Sylvie wanted to know. “Why doesn’t she just have an abortion already?”
“That’s, like, really judgmental of you,” Tess Fox cut in. Over the course of that weekend she and Sylvie had not exactly hit it off, so to speak, and this was too bad, since they were in for a long ferry ride together, during which, as things turned out, they would bicker almost incessantly.
“No, no, she wants to
it, she says. She wants to
it in Hawaii, she says.”
Idiot, thought Sylvie to herself. All of her classmates were idiots. But then she turned to Vicky and in her sweetest, most charismatic tone of voice said: “Hey, that’s so cool about the loft in TriBeCa. I forgot if I mentioned it already, but
going to New York, too. Any day now.” (
Gala Gubelman was tempted to hiss, as she narrowed her eyes at Sylvie behind the lenses of her Italian sexpot sunglasses.) “But!” Sylvie carried on in all innocence. “I haven’t figured out where I’m going to be living yet. Do you think there’s any way that maybe I could crash at your mom’s till I found a place?”
Sometimes there can be much wisdom in asking for things directly because so few people do it, and in this case it worked. Vicky was pleasantly surprised by Sylvie’s candor, especially coming from this pretty, upbeat girl who made the most delicious tuna fish sandwiches anybody had ever tasted. Just the kind of girl who could stay with one’s mother, she thought. The room was available, and it would be no trouble at all. Also, she still felt a good deal of guilt over the trust fund left to her by her dead father, an aristocratic French art collector. Letting Sylvie stay in her bedroom at her mother’s would ease her conscience about getting the place in TriBeCa.
Sylvie has guts, Cassandra thought to herself on hearing the news that come September she was going to be living rent-free in a brownstone in the West Village. I would never have dared ask Vicky that. But she hugged her and said:
“Oh my God! New York! Sylvie, that’s so wonderful! And who knows? Maybe I’ll move there someday, too. After all—everyone from Bennington’s already there anyway.”
Sylvie thought this was just like Cassandra, making someone else’s news all about herself; and the thought came to her that maybe she didn’t want her best friend ever since high school to come to New York. Maybe she wanted New York City all to herself.