Authors: Charlotte Silver
Sylvie, remembering that she prided herself on being a realist, rallied to her senses. To hell with this droopy, mournful feeling, she thought. Aha! She got an idea…
(Also, she decided, she would text Gala back and say yes to happy hour tonight. She would regale Gala with how pitiful Cassandra was, and she would get drunk and be light and witty and cruel.)
What she was picturing, now, was not her younger self in New York but in Cambridge, the sweet, dreary hamlet of her vanished girlhood, that place that in its curious, cobwebby mixture of intellectualism and innocence was so remote to her that she seldom even thought of it anymore, in Cambridge one purplish gray winter morning with Cassandra beside her: standing at the counter of Black Currant and tormenting poor, hobbled Tish, aslant on that mysterious pair of crutches, by asking her with a big smile on her face for extra cranberries on her oatmeal. That girl! That girl with the beautiful, clear skin, beautiful, compact body, black leggings, and motorcycle boots! That girl, with the glittering callousness of youth upon her! That was the girl who she wanted, for the purposes of today’s encounter, to pretend to continue to be.
Sylvie straightened her spine and pivoted her body back toward the register.
“Hey, Cassandra,” she announced. “I’m so sorry, I must have forgotten to ask! Do you think that I could have this gift-wrapped?”
n later years it sometimes seemed to Cassandra that her life as a grown woman had only officially commenced with leaving Sylvie’s apartment that fateful Saturday morning and with moving into Pansy Chapin’s. It also seemed that it was much easier, in her life as a grown woman, to fall in love than it was to make friends. This was one of the revelations of adult life that most surprised her; others were more easily accepted. And yet after Edward, she met somebody else. Then, when that fell apart, too, she met somebody after him, eventually. But she never did dare to call any other woman in her life by those words, so blameless on the surface, but so dangerous underneath,
my best friend.
Pansy Chapin, too, evaporated: she eloped with her latest fiancé in Torcello, surrounded by a canopy of fruit trees, oleander, and roses in the exact same spot where she had been proposed to by the first of her fiancés, and the only one of them she ever truly loved, her senior year at Bennington. For even Pansy Chapin, when she was young, had had a heart. Even Pansy Chapin, when she was young, had had it broken. And then one night Pansy Chapin made her husband the perfect duck a l’orange and the perfect vermouth and water with the perfect lemon twist for his dinner and looked around her perfect house and at her perfect antiques and wept and wept. She and Cassandra were never to speak again after that fiasco they had over breaking the lease on that place on Seventy-Ninth and Second, which had resulted in the catastrophe of Cassandra having to pawn her great-grandmother’s wedding silver, the lowest point of her life, lower even than that horrible day she had to schlep out to the end of the 7 train in Queens to go and get an abortion.
But still, Pansy Chapin had taught her things. It was Pansy, after all, who first had opened Cassandra’s more virgin eyes to the rapture of sex positions that actually work in the shower, it was Pansy who had passed down to her the narcotic beauty ritual of rubbing one’s entire body with a mixture of brown sugar and baby oil just before a rendezvous with a lover: something that Cassandra was to do throughout her life and the very scent of which stirred in her all of the agonies of desire.
And it was Pansy, too, silky, calculating little Pansy, out from such a tender age to nab a rich husband, who had possessed the wisdom to recognize that the only good reason to go to Bennington is to have something interesting to talk about at cocktail parties on Fifth Avenue later on. Even when she was long past the age when she should have dared to flaunt black leotards without a bra underneath but insisted nevertheless on doing exactly that, Cassandra noticed that she had only to mention having gone to Bennington in order to tickle in the average male animal of a certain generation and social class a reliable quickening of interest. This was the only legacy of her education that could be put to any practical use to speak of.
“Cassandra is a prostitute.”
Thus spoke Gala Gubelman to Sylvie Furst. This was some years later at brunch.
“Well, all right, not really. Not exactly. But I thought that word would get your attention.”
“Well! She doesn’t pay her own rent. Some old guy’s been paying it for her. Also! He gives her jewelry. Sapphire earrings. She had them on. The last time I saw her.”
“Big sapphires, too. Jumbo. Swaying. Absolutely fucking huge.”
Sylvie was thinking, as she had the morning she bulldozed down the flaking blue staircase of her apartment in her tiny floral underpants, bringing to Cassandra’s mind Duchamp’s
Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2
, for one’s liberal arts education comes floating back to one at the strangest of times, that money is better than sex. But this was interesting, commendable, even, what Cassandra had done, in apparently combining the two. At this period in her life, Sylvie was beginning to seek an exit strategy from her exit strategy, because Clementine’s Picnic was struggling. The market for artisanal syrups was glutted, the “made in Brooklyn” model was getting overexposed. Sylvie had seen the future and it was in rooftop gardening. Her very first client was Vicky’s mother, Rosa Lalage. And from there she was launched on another wondrous career, Sylvie Furst, Urban Landscaper. Right around this time, she also took up self-care and returned to Zumba dancing.
“Also!” Gala relished being up on all the alumni news. “Pansy Chapin is pregnant.”
They clinked glasses and asked for the check.
“Fuck,” Gala fumed, tapping her forehead. “
Is this place cash only?”
“Yup,” said Sylvie complacently, but did not offer to cover for her. Better not to, Sylvie had decided as a matter of principle. People ought to be able to look out for themselves. Dependency got sticky.
This meant that Gala had to run, huffing and puffing, to the nearest ATM. Bennington girls were not the cross-country type, and furthermore, now that she was in her thirties Gala had to watch her figure; she had started to get a little out of shape around the middle and was no longer as ripely, lavishly beautiful as she had been in college. None of them were.
When she got back from the ATM, she put cash down on the table and announced:
“Do you know that we’ve been out of college now for ten years?”
“Jesus. Ten years! Seriously?”
“Yes, seriously! Didn’t you get the postcard in the mail about the ten-year reunion?”
“Oh, you know what? Probably not. I bet they have my old address on file.”
“Oh, right, right. That explains it.”
Sylvie no longer lived in the apartment in Fort Greene. The previous year Pete the landlord had sold the building for millions. The new owners had fixed it right up. She never went back. Though sometimes, sometimes that apartment and especially its bathroom, that old-world bathroom with its terra-cotta sink and its lavender-honey light, floated back to her in dreams, as it sometimes floated, unbeknownst to her, into Cassandra’s. Both Sylvie and Cassandra went on to live in places with far better and certainly more comfortable bathrooms than that one, bathrooms that had decent water pressure, not to mention other modern amenities. And yet they missed it. That bathroom, ornamental, outdated, practically useless for the unromantic purposes a bathroom is meant to serve, was the one that they missed.
“I wouldn’t go anyway,” Sylvie said, of the reunion. “Are you going?”
“I don’t know, honestly. Orpheus went back there to play a show last year and he said it’s not the same.”
“What’s not the same?”
“Well, for one thing”—Gala revealed the following bombshell in a conspiratorial whisper—“Bennington is now
“I know! Outrageous! That’s what Orpheus and I thought.”
“This entire conversation is making me feel old.”
“Me, too. And you know what else Orpheus said? He said he didn’t even think that the girls they’re letting in now are as hot as they used to be, either. He said they’re just letting in, like, these boring preppy girls who weren’t smart enough to get into Middlebury. They don’t wear
They don’t do
Neither Gala nor Sylvie had done anything resembling art in quite some time either, but this went unremarked. One didn’t after college. Or only the very lucky or the very disciplined or, failing that, the very delusional ones still did. You had to grow up and accept this.
“The Bennington girl is a dying breed,” said Sylvie sadly.
“I know! And we’re the last of the species,” Gala agreed with her, as, going Dutch, they settled the check.
t was not altogether untrue what Gala had said. Cassandra did live off this man for a time until one day she didn’t, anymore, and she had to go and pawn those sapphire earrings. Worse than that, much worse, she had to
get a job
. This was how she eventually ended up as a coat-check girl at a steakhouse in midtown. One night she checked the coat of Pansy Chapin’s husband, Jock, who was dining there on business but did not have any reason to recognize her or to know that this member of the subservient classes and his cosseted wife had once been girls together on a hilltop in Vermont.
But before this, long before, Cassandra had come to meet the man she lived off one fine April evening at a party on Fifth Avenue, to which she had been invited by Fern Morgenthal as her plus one. What Fern had not bargained for, however, was Cassandra getting propositioned by the host in the middle of said party.
“But you can’t do that, Cassandra!” she wailed. “You can’t just, like, drop everything and run away to the Hamptons in the middle of the night with
Jude St. James’s father
The two of them were hiding out in the bathroom of his apartment on the night of the party, gossiping and conspiring in high-pitched voices, because Bennington girls are, in addition to being easy, hysterical.
“Why ever not?”
“Because, for one thing, his own daughter
won’t even speak to him
Fern went wildly on:
“This one time, she told me, he bribed her to give him her puppy…”
“Bribed her with what?”
A building in her own name on Park Avenue.
Somebody else manages it, obviously, and rents it out and all that. But! Don’t tell anyone but that’s the income she lives on while she’s in Africa. She lives off a building on Park Avenue.”
“That’s kind of genius actually.”
“Bribing her with a building on Park Avenue to get the puppy.”
“No it isn’t, it’s manipulative! And
! He didn’t even keep the puppy. He just took it from her and gave it to some bimbo he was seeing, Jude says. He just wanted to give her a lesson. Like, that she wasn’t above money after all. That nobody is, Jude said.”
I hope he never gives me a puppy, Cassandra was thinking. I’d prefer jewelry.
“And another thing. How are you going to get there, anyway? Will you take the Chutney? The one time I went to the Hamptons, I took the Ch—”
“The Chutney, what the hell is that, the Indian bus?”
The idea only seemed like common sense to Cassandra: she was imagining that there might be a Japanese bus called the Wasabi, a Mexican one called the Tamale, and so on—the possibilities were endless. But the Fung Wah, in fact, no longer existed. It had been shut down by the Feds. This was yet another thing about the world as Sylvie and Cassandra had known it that had changed.
“The Jitney, the Jitney! The bus that goes to the Hamptons is called the Jitney.”
“Whatever, Fern. We’re not exactly going to be taking
, I don’t think.” Cassandra opened her clutch and fished around for her lipstick. But one did not want to put on a fresh coat of Yves Saint Laurent lipstick, costing thirty-four dollars per gilded tube, with one’s breath stinking of those very excellent oysters she had cadged from the hors d’oeuvres table, she felt. “Oh my God. I wasn’t prepared for this! Do you by any chance have a breath mint on you?”
“No, no? Then what are you good for?” Cassandra screamed at Fern, her handmaiden. She faced the mirror, fluffing her hair; the Yves Saint Laurent lipstick now cradled in the palm of her hand like a grenade. “I’ll tell you what you’re going to do right now; I promise I’ll make it up to you later. Run down to the nearest bodega and get me some breath mints. And then I’ll distract him until you come back.”
Fern looked at her torturer helplessly. Then she cried out:
“There are no bodegas on upper Fifth Avenue!”
“Try Madison, then. No, scratch Madison, everything on Madison will be closed by now. Lexington, Fern. I guess that means that you’ll have to try Lexington. Well, what of it? You’re a lithe young thing, aren’t you? What are you staring at me for? Run, Fern, run!” She had a pleasant vision of Fern’s Bambi-like legs prancing buoyantly into the night.
“But Cassandra. Aren’t you going to give me any money?”
“What are you, a retard? I never have any money on me, remember!”
Fern ran. While she was waiting, Cassandra noticed in a stack of magazines arranged next to the toilet a copy of the most recent Bennington alumni magazine, addressed to Jude St. James’s father. She flipped toward the back pages to the alumni notes, searching for updates from the Bennington class of 2003. Bitsy Citron, she read, had founded a sarong importing business. A couple of years from now, when her father died, she would inherit millions; diamonds are forever. Meanwhile, that other heiress, Penelope Entenmann, and her son, Prajeetha, had relocated from living on a private beach in Hawaii to one in Ibiza.
Cassandra read on, and on. Angelica Rocky-Divine had gotten married. Lanie Tobacco, of all people, had also gotten married, to the very same man of whom she had once uttered the immortal words, “Rough night. I fucked a hippie,” which only went to show you the mysterious nature of love itself. Vicky Lalage, meanwhile, wrote in that she was living on the Vineyard year-round and “still working on her art.” Cassandra took away from that rather austere encapsulation that Vicky, at least, was still single. (The maniacal Tess Fox had indeed dumped her and had moved on to men.) Gala Gubelman was not married yet but would be engaged by this time next year, to a mediocre young man, met on OKCupid, who co-owned a distillery next to the Lorimer stop. And oh how Gala Gubelman, once, had hated earth tones—
How all of them, all of them had been unable to conceive of their own lives as ever being anything other than fantastical, beautiful, richly and expensively textured!
“Ready?” said Jude St. James’s father, having just appeared in front of Cassandra carrying an Italian weekender bag.
“Ready,” said Cassandra, and she surrendered.
The hell with the breath mints, she kissed him.
Cassandra was not just plain kissing, but French-kissing, Jude St. James’s father when Fern Morgenthal, her Bambi-like legs prancing buoyantly, buoyantly into the night, was crossing Park Avenue and was hit by a taxicab and killed. Luckily, unlike Sylvie and Cassandra and the rest of the Bennington class of 2003, Pansy Chapin, Gala Gubelman, Angelica Rocky-Divine, the notorious Lanie Tobacco, Bitsy Citron, Penelope Entenmann, Vicky Lalage, and nameless others, Fern had graduated seven years afterward and had not lived long enough to be unhappy or to concede, in her final, blinkered moments on earth, that New York City had lost its luster. Because it hadn’t, yet. The lights were still brilliant when she was called.