Authors: Charlotte Silver
er first month in New York, Sylvie got a job at Petunia Bakery, in the West Village. Later on, of course, she would feel a mixture of emotions around that first job and what it said about her. On the one hand, she felt that its being a famous bakery—the one responsible for igniting the cupcake craze all over the city—conferred on her a certain cachet. But on the other hand, that was just the problem. Because some people—some of the die-hard New Yorkers whom Sylvie tried to emulate—blamed the cupcake craze, and places like Petunia, for gutting the soul of the city. Years after she had left Petunia, whenever the subject came up, she would always make sure to say that she had worked at the “original” location in the Village, and not one of the ones that sprang up later on in Rockefeller Center or around Columbus Circle.
But in the beginning anyway, Petunia was a confectionary paradise, its red velvet cupcakes and saucy, ruffled vintage aprons the perfect antidote to the Colonial austerity of Black Currant. Also, there were plenty of guys there, and all of them had crushes on the cute new girl, having long since tired of the other ones behind the counter. And Sylvie, herself, hadn’t yet learned to find the kinds of guys who worked at Petunia annoying. By those kinds of guys, she meant adult men who were not ashamed to be caught dead working in the vicinity of cupcakes. But then, let it be said that in their generation, masculinity was not what it once was; just recently Gala Gubelman had had all of her friends in hysterics at an account of a date she had gone on during which the boy had tried to impress her by offering to share his homemade peanut brittle recipe.
Peanut brittle recipe?
the girls had repeated to one another, incredulous.
Sylvie made $8.25 an hour working at Petunia. But that was okay—everything was okay. Having gotten out from Tish and company alive was enough of a triumph to keep her in an excellent mood for a long time.
And she was living rent-free in a beautiful four-story brownstone in the Village! With a grand piano, and fluffy white couches, and all of the fabulous French paintings Vicky’s father had spent a lifetime collecting. The windows of Sylvie’s bedroom faced an iconically leafy Greenwich Village street, which was just as it should have been.
When Cassandra came to visit her at that apartment, the two of them passed hours in that bedroom with the view of the nice, leafy street, talking and talking, stopping only to eat the occasional cupcake from Petunia. That was another good thing: unlike Black Currant, Petunia let their employees get away with some freebies. Sylvie brought home boxfuls of cupcakes, and she and Cassandra could be found, toward the end of their evenings together, moaning at the deliciousness of it all and licking fat curlicues of chocolate buttercream frosting from their fingertips.
“Do you think you’ll ever move to New York one of these days?” Sylvie asked Cassandra one night, because she wondered how she could bear to go on living in Cambridge.
“Maybe,” replied Cassandra, who did sometimes envy Sylvie the comparative coolness of her lifestyle. And yet at the same time, because she was still in her early twenties, she believed that her options as to where she might live or what she might do with her life were limitless. Besides, her life in Boston was nothing if not comfortable, and Cassandra was big on having her creature comforts. She also liked having a steady boyfriend, and Sylvie had reported back to her that in New York these were not quite so easy to find because everybody knew that single women outnumbered the men. Then, too, Sylvie said, so many of the men you met there were short: “Manhattan,” she had once fumed to Cassandra over the phone, “is an island of short men!” Cassandra’s Harvard boyfriend was very tall and she liked that. It had been a point of pride when he came to visit her at Bennington. He’s a big one, Alphie the security guard had murmured, with evident approval, on checking him in. It had been a long time since Alphie had seen a male specimen so strapping.
“If you moved here,” went on Sylvie, “you’d have so many
. You could get a job
.” Doing what, Sylvie didn’t know and Cassandra didn’t ask: another perk of being twenty-two is that you still believe that things will just work out. For you anyway, they’ll work out. “Like, for instance. The other night, there I was doing Zumba at Crunch—”
. At Crunch. Crunch is the gym I go to. Gala and I go to the one on Lafayette,” she added, with that peculiar desperation of people who are new to New York to show that they can get street names and addresses right. Cassandra failed to deduce, as quickly as Sylvie would have wanted her to, that Lafayette meant SoHo.
“Oh,” Cassandra said, suddenly feeling left out. It wasn’t that she wanted to go to the gym. Cassandra didn’t exercise, and had avoided gyms ever since the day at Bennington when Pansy Chapin had convinced her to work out with her and she had fallen and bruised her knees when trying to get off the treadmill; Pansy never invited her to go again. No, it was just the thought of Sylvie and Gala going somewhere together without her that rankled.
“Yeah, and guess who I ran into? Gala wasn’t there that night, she was off cheating on Tess with some guy.”
“Oh, God. Oh, no. Please tell me it wasn’t the guy with the peanut brittle recipe.”
“No, no, he’s ancient history. Peanut Brittle! That’s what Gala and I decided to call him: Peanut Brittle. Sometimes when we meet a new guy, we say: He seems kind of Peanut Brittle. Peanut Brittle! It’s the new crunchy granola.”
“But what I wanted to tell you is, I ran into Bitsy Citron! At Crunch.”
“Bitsy Citron? What was
“Teaching, actually. Apparently she teaches this class called Beach Body.”
“She would,” said Cassandra, thinking of how Bitsy had been known, at Bennington, for her tight muscle tone, sexy hair, and her family’s reportedly owning diamond mines somewhere in South America.
“Anyhow—afterward in the sauna together we started talking and I had forgotten, but! Bitsy’s older brother is this really successful artist named
Citron. Like, finance guys are starting to collect his work and he just did this really cool limited edition collaboration with Puma.”
“Is that what being a successful artist means?”
“Hello, it’s the twenty-first century, Cassandra! What the hell else could it mean? Triumph of capitalism and all that.”
My, Sylvie sounds like a real New Yorker already, thought Cassandra, alternately impressed and horrified.
“But the point is, Cassandra, the point is that Bitsy said that maybe I could work for him! Like, maybe I could be an artist’s assistant. Wouldn’t that be cool if I were an artist’s assistant?”
“I guess so.”
Cassandra continued to feel left out. Peanut Brittle, she was thinking to herself. So Gala and Sylvie were making up their own adjectives and catchphrases now! Not so long ago, she and Sylvie had been the ones doing that.
“You guess so! Cassandra, Bitsy said it’s a really great gig if you can get it, like, all his assistants ever do is hang out at his studio on the Bowery and listen to the Rolling Stones and eat roast chicken from FreshDirect.”
“That does sound kind of great actually, Sylvie,” Cassandra admitted, visions of free roast chickens dancing like sugar plums in her head.
“And! If you moved here,” said Sylvie again, bolstered by the prevailing mood of optimism, “we could live together. Maybe.”
Cassandra was touched by this. The thought of living with Sylvie was as sweet to her in that moment as any love nest, and she forgave her for making up catchphrases and doing Zumba with Gala.
“But you’re living at Vicky’s,” she said, remembering reality, which, as always, was utterly inconvenient.
Sylvie shrugged and reached for the last of the cupcakes, carefully splitting it in half with Cassandra.
“Yes, but not forever,” she said.
Meanwhile, Vicky’s mother and Sylvie’s landlord, Rosa Lalage, was a former opera singer. She had tawny-blond hair and the brittle beauty of a well-manicured woman past a certain age. On several occasions, Sylvie had observed her through the French doors of the living room doing her vocal exercises while wearing nothing but a pink thong. She still had her figure, at least. One of Sylvie’s chores for living in the brownstone rent-free—and there were many of them, she was to discover—was to keep her refrigerator stocked with low-fat Greek yogurts, just about the only food she ever ate. And as the summer wore on, living with Rosa Lalage and her white silky terrier, Fabergé, was her first experience of just how bitter it was to be on the bottom end of the totem pole in New York City—at the receiving end of the whims and patronage of those more fortunate than you.
Death turned out to be the theme—the recurring note—of Sylvie’s first few months in New York. One night, Cassandra got a phone call. It was Sylvie, and she was crying.
“Oh my God. What happened?”
“The dog! Rosa’s dog!”
The obnoxious little terrier. Right.”
“Dead! Oh my God. What hap—”
“I was supposed to be watching her while Rosa was on the Vineyard, is the thing.”
Then Sylvie sobbed girlishly, beautifully; her sobs formed lovely moaning silver bells. She was twenty-two years old and in New York City and life was an adventure. Even this—especially this—was an adventure! When you got right down to it, what Sylvie and Cassandra had in common above all else was a lust for misfortune, the more ridiculous the better. A favorite phrase of theirs:
This would happen to us!
watching her. Well, not all the time, but you know— ”
Cassandra did know.
wouldn’t have left a dog with Sylvie, who was always up to something or other at the last minute.
“Well, what happened?”
“Well, I’d been out a lot, there’s this guy, Jasper, at the bakery, oh my God, well—wait, I’ll tell you about Jasper later. Anyway, I’d been out one night. One. And when I got in this morning, I saw her.
On the living room floor. I saw her through the French doors.”
Sylvie shuddered, then continued: “Not that I was sorry exactly. I always hated that dog.”
“God, me, too. Rosa just
have to have a dog like that.”
The next motif of death happened when Rosa— fresh off the Vineyard and nonplussed that her dog had upped and kicked the bucket under Sylvie’s care—banished her to sleep not in the guest room but in a tiny room on the fourth floor that once upon a time had been Vicky’s nursery. Getting in the bed that first night, Sylvie was puzzled to find something hard underneath the pillow. It turned out to be a small wooden box, wrapped in a French flag. She unwrapped the flag and read the label on the box.
she screamed into the phone, having picked it up to call her immediately. “Cassandra! You are not going to believe what I am holding in my hand. What I found, under my goddamn pillow—”
“Yeah, the bitch stood there in her pink thong and waved her golden wand and exiled me to, get this, Vicky’s nursery! I haven’t figured out what the significance of that is, but it’s definitely kind of sick, right? So okay, there’s this, like, lump, not a normal lump, under my pillow. Like, you could hurt your head on it. It turns out it’s a box. A box in a French flag, okay? So I take the flag off and the label on the box says”—Sylvie paused appropriately— “ ‘Contents: Marc Lalage.’ ”
‘Contents: Marc Lalage’!
“I mean, this woman made me sleep in a bed with her husband’s ashes! Yes! That’s what I mean. Jesus Christ! I’ve got to get out of this place.”
It was after the episode of “Contents: Marc Lalage” that Sylvie first learned one of the important lessons of life in New York City, or anywhere else as a grown-up for that matter: the lesson of hoping not to run into people you have had fallings-out with. For years, long, long after leaving there, she dreaded the threat of running into Rosa Lalage and her daughter Vicky, too.
ne weekend not long after this, Sylvie came home for a visit. On Saturday night she and Cassandra had stayed up so late talking at Sylvie’s mother’s house that Cassandra had ended up spending the night there, which had necessitated her using Sylvie’s toothbrush—pink, with Tom’s of Maine cinnamon toothpaste (Sylvie’s parents were hippies and had been using this stuff for years)—and having to borrow a pair of her underpants the following morning. They were slightly too small for her but mercifully clean and they even smelled of lavender sachets from the dryer: how sweet to share things with Sylvie, Cassandra thought, to wake up on the sheets of her childhood bedroom, strewn with faded buttercups. It was a purplish gray winter morning, faintly drizzling.
“Come on, let’s go to Black Currant,” Cassandra begged her.
Sylvie did not relish the thought of returning to the site of her old workplace, ill-fated as her brief tenure there had been.
“Oh come on, you know that you haven’t worked there in ages.”
Cassandra was right, because when you are young, even a period of six months can feel like a lifetime. Sylvie was convinced. And also, she consoled herself, she would be sure to get an iced Americano as well as some of that wonderful creamy oatmeal with the cranberries, so long as Cassandra was paying. Cassandra was often in the habit of paying for things, Sylvie had noticed, and thought that this was a most useful quality to have in one’s best friend.
On arriving at Black Currant, they were struck by a most gratifying sight: Sylvie’s long-ago nemesis, the dreaded Tish, once upon a time described on Yelp as “the I See Dead People manager,” standing behind the counter, her tiny, ruined body aslant on a pair of crutches.
Tish! On crutches! The girls choked back a furious desire to laugh.
Sylvie regained her composure and strode up to the counter with a confident roll of her Zumba-toned hips and said, “Hey, Tish,” with a big smile on her face. And then Tish did something truly distressing and smiled herself. Cassandra saw right away what Sylvie meant about Tish’s scowl being preferable to her smile.
“Hey,” said Tish, her low-affect voice no match for Sylvie’s exuberant force of personality. For Tish was thinking: So she did go to New York, that hot, flaky girl with the pretentious French name. What was it: Sheri, or Sido, or something? Giving your American-born daughter a French name was just asking for trouble, Tish felt. She was sure to go through life with the most romantic and outlandish expectations. It never paid to hire girls like that. They had too many opportunities, those ones. They never stayed.
And furthermore, Tish could tell that Sylvie had gone to New York because she just had
You couldn’t miss it, in Harvard Square, where so few people had it. It had to do with a certain fearless way of carrying yourself that was hardly necessary in Cambridge, where nothing, except for boredom and a kind of quiet death of the soul, was to be feared. Tish noted with scorn Sylvie’s black leggings and motorcycle boots, and the deft way she’d tied her scarf. Also: her beautiful, clear skin and beautiful, compact body.
“So, how are things with you, Tish? And how’s business?”
Sylvie considered asking her about the crutches, but then decided against it. She thought it was more enraging actually not to, as though to meet Tish again in this wretched state was only to be expected.
“You know what I’m in the mood for,” Sylvie went on shamelessly, “a large iced Americano, please, and also—a large oatmeal! You guys just have the best oatmeal, Tish. I’ve always said this bakery was so good, it could almost make it in New York City. So! A large oatmeal, with extra cranberries, if you don’t mind. Thanks, Tish.”
Now, ordinarily, Tish gave out extras and freebies under no circumstances. But there was no telling just what this Sido-Sheri girl might do; Tish recalled her unbecoming sense of self-respect back when she was an employee. So she gave her the damn extra cranberries, a wholly extravagant deluge of them on top. She did it because she just wanted to get her out of there as fast as she could.
“Oh my God, Sylvie, that was fabulous!” Cassandra applauded her afterward. “I’d never have thought of that little extra touch of asking for the cranberries. Do you remember—”
A cranberry is a cranberry!
Cassandra? How could I forget?”
“And another thing, you look really hot today, Sylvie. Your hair, the boots, everything. You just look
so New York.
I’m sure she noticed.”
Sylvie thought how nice it was to return to Cambridge once in a while, just for a boost to the ego. In New York, everyone was hot. In Cambridge, no one was.
She took this exact moment to ask Cassandra about something that had been on her mind recently. As a matter of fact, her coming home this particular weekend had not been random; she had come home in part because she wanted to ask Cassandra the following question in person.
“Hey, so there’s this really great apartment I found,” she said.
And then before Cassandra could say anything she proceeded to describe it in great detail, making sure she understood how darling it was before she got to her eventual point, which was to ask her for the security deposit; Cassandra could never resist anything that appealed to her sense of aesthetics.
“And it’s so cute,” Sylvie heard herself saying, “it has this really pretty molded white ceiling and oh! You’ll love this, when you come visit. The bathroom even has a claw-foot tub. The water pressure is really weak, though, but no big deal. Every apartment has to have
wrong with it.”
“Yeah, and especially in New York City. Oh Sylvie, Sylvie, I think it sounds practically perfect for you!”
“It used to be a studio, but the landlord just added a partition to make it a two-bedroom, so he could get more money.” Cassandra nodded, thinking how helpful it was of Sylvie to give her a crash course in the mercenary ways of New York City real estate. “So, after I sign the lease I’ll have to get a roommate.”
“Who are you thinking of?” Cassandra asked her, imagining that it would be one of their Bennington classmates.
“Oh, I’ll be sure to find someone,” said Sylvie with her typical aplomb, and in fact, over the years that she went on to live in that apartment, none of her many roommates would be former classmates but instead almost always strangers. Furthermore, as Sylvie would go on to discover, almost none of them were satisfactory. There was the cheap, slightly-older-than-Sylvie single woman—a veritable spinster—who worked for a human rights organization and after work would come home and make “bad, white-people Indian food” (thus did Sylvie describe said cuisine over the phone to Cassandra, who understood where she was coming from immediately). There was the overzealous, quite possibly manic-depressive theater girl who covered the refrigerator with magnets (“Magnets, Cassandra!
”). There was the midwestern publishing girl who demanded that the apartment be absolutely quiet so that she could concentrate on reading manuscripts. Not to mention an NYU graduate student, from Tel Aviv, who served Sylvie with papers threatening to sue her over some vague misunderstanding about a mattress.
Sylvie decided here to drop the matter of the security deposit casually, without any alarming or predatory emphasis, in the blameless tones of a plucky young thing all alone in the big city. Cassandra thought: It’s for Sylvie. I love her. And that was that. She made up her mind that she would be happy to give her the money, and said so. Also, she thought to herself, if one of these days she ever did move to New York, as Sylvie was always begging her to do, it was just possible that she would move in with Sylvie in that very apartment. So why not help her to get it? It would be a shame to let it go over a little thing like the security deposit when she, Cassandra, had the money and her beloved Sylvie didn’t.
“Tomorrow,” she said firmly, and Sylvie’s heart leapt. Success! was what she was thinking. “I’ll write you a check tomorrow, before you go back to New York. I wish I had known! I don’t have my checkbook on me today.”
“Actually”—Sylvie hesitated—“I was thinking cash.”
“Cash?” echoed Cassandra uncomprehendingly. She was not in the habit of turning down people who were so kind as to offer one checks herself.
Sylvie reiterated that yes, if there was one thing she had learned so far in New York City, it was that it was always better to have cash; cash, Sylvie reported to Cassandra, was king.
“All right,” Cassandra said, prepared to take her word for it. “But”—she found herself suddenly curious about something—“I thought you said you started working for Bitsy’s brother at his studio. Has he not paid you yet, or what?”
“He’s not going to pay me, Cassandra. It’s just an unpaid internship, to start. You have to understand how it works. He’s such a big deal! Everybody wants to work for him.”
“Do you like his work?” Cassandra asked her, genuinely curious because she respected Sylvie’s opinions and because they were close enough to being out of college that they actually believed that art still mattered. That it was sacred, even.
“Not at all, actually,” said Sylvie promptly, but this had not prevented her from agreeing to work for him for free or from falling into bed with him, either. A regime of regular, highly aerobic sex, much of it taking place amid collapsed cardboard boxes and unfinished canvases, had contributed to her looking so radiant these days. She hadn’t told Cassandra about Ludo, thinking that she might be jealous and because Gala, so much more experienced than either of them, was her chosen sexual confidante; one of those was enough, Sylvie felt.
The following afternoon, Sylvie met up with Cassandra on her lunch break and the two of them went and drank raspberry lime rickeys in the Sunken Garden at Radcliffe. After that they walked across the square to Cassandra’s bank, Cambridge Trust. It was a wonderful, homey, trustworthy, shabby-prep old bank of the kind that doesn’t exist anymore. Cassandra had opened a modest savings account there a number of years ago now, when she was still in high school. This was the reason she had the money to give Sylvie now. The picture on her Cambridge Trust bank card showed her in a peppermint-striped sundress, her fine blond hair worn long and parted, rather virginally, in the middle. At the time that photograph was taken, she was fourteen years old.
Cassandra got Sylvie cash out of the bank. The security deposit was one thousand dollars. Sylvie, taking that amount of money with what would have been to anyone but Cassandra a disturbing sense of casualness, entitlement even, remarked, “You know, I just closed my account here.”
“Oh, so you opened up a bank account in New York?”
“Yeah, Bank of America. It’s a chain, but—” They were sweet, diligent, well-trained Cambridge girls, given to saying things like
It’s a chain, but
. Sylvie went on, “It’s a chain, but I mean, that’s the way the world works now. And I just figured, you know, it’s not like I’m ever coming back here again, so…”
“No,” said Cassandra, accepting this.
Years later, when they were both nearly thirty, Sylvie and Cassandra had a conversation in which they both remembered Cambridge Trust fondly. And Sylvie, sitting on the kitchen counter of her apartment in Fort Greene, took a puff of her joint and remarked, “Actually, I think that the day I closed my account at Cambridge Trust was the day my childhood ended. And you know something?” She laughed. “It’s been all downhill ever since.”
Then Cassandra laughed, too. They laughed, that night, until they cried.