Authors: Charlotte Silver
ven though she was nearly always broke and had no health insurance, Sylvie had three indulgences that even under dire straits could not be ignored. They were iced Americanos, marijuana, and fine lingerie.
Cassandra loved lingerie, too, and when Sylvie had any money to spare, which was not often, she would hit all of the sample sales and buy matching pieces for Cassandra and herself. French lingerie. Italian lingerie. Lingerie that, to Cassandra, had been bought in New York, not Boston, not Cambridge, and so had the pixie dust of Manhattan on it. Every year on Cassandra’s birthday, Sylvie showered her with satin tap shorts, crepe de chine camisoles, rosebud or bluebell garters. Her packages to Cassandra were always beautifully wrapped, in lilac or celery tissues, in brown paper with a pink cotton bow.
They knew each other’s cup sizes and measurements—having been acquainted with the nooks and crannies and delicate variations of each other’s blossoming bodies ever since they were just fourteen years old: Sylvie, 34B, extra-small to small in bottoms, Cassandra, 36C, medium to large. They knew how their bodies and mood swings reacted to different brands of the birth control pill and how frequently (or not) they had orgasms and doing what and with whom.
Sometimes they’d trot around Sylvie’s apartment trying on the lingerie they’d just bought, pulling their stomachs in and thrusting out their boobs in bustiers and thigh highs in front of the dusty mirror. Then they’d plop down at the kitchen table and polish off another jar of Nutella, spreading it on pieces of burned toast they heated up in Sylvie’s oven because she was too poor in those days to own a toaster.
“Goddamn it, are we really that low on Nutella? Desperate living!”
was a catchphrase of theirs, to be employed in many a situation that the average individual might not feel warranted it. “Hey, Cassandra, go down to the bodega and get some. No, it’s okay, just go in your slip and throw a coat over it, you think that little Chinese guy who owns the bodega hasn’t seen worse at two in the morning? I can’t go, I’m totally high.”
Sylvie was so animated, Cassandra always forgot that her best friend was actually a huge pothead.
“Anything,” said Cassandra, stopping to put her camel-hair coat on over her pink silk slip, “for Nutella.”
“It’s better than sex,” said Sylvie slyly, and although by now she had racked up a modest number of lovers, some of whom, like Ludo, were even good, it was still, in some private, girlish way, true.
Every February, the girls sent each other vintage valentines. Inside the valentines they wrote: “Guess who?” or “Your (not so secret) admirer” or, because they were both children of divorce and did not necessarily believe in the bonds between people being ever-lasting, “Don’t worry! At least
will always love you.”
Sylvie went just about everywhere in leggings, French sailor shirts, and motorcycle boots. Cassandra marveled at how great she looked even after traveling, the sight of her back home in Cambridge for the holidays after the grueling Fung Wah bus ride, in a black minidress and white lace tights, shaking snowflakes from her cap of dark hair.
During these years, Sylvie was still wearing her black hair in a dashing, insouciant pixie cut and was so abundantly, effortlessly sexy that she could pick random clothing off the floor of her apartment and get dressed and still look great; a true New Yorker by now, she applied silver eyeliner with expert fingers standing on the subway.
And Sylvie, during these years, her early, delirious years in New York City, the years in which she still deemed it worthwhile to apply silver eyeliner, fell in love with ease: there was a series of boys with supple young bodies and curly hair and names like Jasper and Angus and Max and she had loved them, in her fashion, loved them, loved them all.
And yet when, later on in her life, she thought back to this time, it wasn’t the boys she had been in love with that she remembered. It wasn’t those boys that came back. No, it was her apartment. The boys were blurry, where her memories of the apartment persisted in being almost unbearably specific. Yes, years, years later she was disconcerted to find that she could still remember nearly everything, from its wedding-cake ceiling to the rosy Chinese lantern she had splurged on at Pearl River Mart and hung up in the middle of the room, to its extraordinary natural light. That light could trick you into believing that you were in Florence—or the French countryside—or Athens—anyway, not America. Waking up there was like waking up in a jar of lavender honey. It was an apartment that was high on charm, light on convenience—not a single closet; the weakest water pressure in the world. Sylvie’s landlord, Pete, was a piano teacher of the fading hippie variety, who had bought the building long ago and was thoroughly uninterested in making improvements.
And Sylvie, who not infrequently fell behind on her rent, didn’t demand them.
Most bathrooms in the kinds of apartments people live in during their twenties are charmless, neon-lit squares; the faster you get the hell out of them the better. But Sylvie’s bathroom, ah Sylvie’s bathroom, it was a most romantic spot, with that lavender-honey light streaming in through long windows overlooking one of the ramshackle gardens of Brooklyn. The sink was an old-world shade of terra-cotta, and luxuriously deep. But for all that Sylvie’s bathroom was beautiful it was also, in a way, lonely; tinged with decay, or the foreboding of decay.
A decay that could only be feminine.
A bathroom where, washing one’s face late at night or in the cool thin light of morning, Sylvie sometimes would look at her reflection staring back at her in the mirror and suddenly have the presence of mind to remember that she was getting older after all.
uring these years, the years right after Bennington, Cassandra spent many weekends in New York. How she looked forward to the adventure of hailing a Fung Wah bus on a side street in Chinatown on a Friday night, armed with the navy blue L.L.Bean Boat and Tote she’d had ever since freshman year. She didn’t, however, look forward to the experience of taking the Fung Wah itself; nobody in his or her right mind could have looked forward to that.
The inconveniences of the Fung Wah were many, and bemoaned not only by Sylvie and Cassandra but by the young and the poor the whole East Coast over. Every couple of months, it seemed, a brand-new article appeared in
The Boston Globe
about the latest scandal: one of their buses bursting into flames, a number of others failing inspections. It was true, as Sylvie once remarked to Cassandra, that the people who worked for the Fung Wah spoke English only when it suited them, and that was rarely. Otherwise, it was all Chinese, all the time. The girls, coming off a hammering onslaught of this least melodic of languages, had a terrifying thought, which they dared voice only to each other:
What if Chinese becomes the universal language?
“Why Chinese, when it could be, you know, Italian?”
“Because that’s not where the money is.”
“What isn’t where the money is?”
“Italy, you idiot. Hadn’t you heard? The future belongs to the Chinese.”
On Sunday afternoons in New York, when she was supposed to be going back to Boston, Cassandra used to get this knot in her stomach. Sylvie and she, both familiar with this feeling, called it the Fung Wah Blues, as in, “Oh, no, I feel sick to my stomach, I must be coming down with the Fung Wah Blues…”
Then they would laugh and order another twelve-dollar cocktail neither one of them could afford, though often Cassandra, having more money, paid quite happily for Sylvie. Back then, twelve-dollar drinks with numerous, not necessarily complementary ingredients were still a lot of fun to splurge on, and they hadn’t yet woken up enough mornings with splitting hangovers to learn to distrust sugary cocktails. Even the overpriced, sometimes white trash–inspired comfort food on the menus of Brooklyn restaurants was still cunning, back then.
One Saturday afternoon right around Christmastime when Cassandra was visiting, they met up with Gala Gubelman, famous campus beauty and kleptomaniac. Alphie the security guard had once caught her red-handed stealing the tip jar from the Upstairs Cafe, but one look at Gala’s lascivious baby face and he let it drop. This resulted in a nearly mythic bout of campus drama when, sometime afterward, Gala pinned the abduction of the tip jar on the notorious Lanie Tobacco, she of the wine-stained bathrobe and halo of fruit flies over her head, suspecting, correctly, that people would believe Lanie capable of just about anything. (One of Lanie’s feats of mastery had been selling coke to this hot young Italian professor, Marcella Davini, the night before the midterm exam; she passed out in Lanie’s room and forgot to give the exam entirely.) Lanie had then confronted and blackmailed poor Gala in the game room, luring her into the role of accomplice in a series of darker and darker intrigues for the remainder of the school year.
That Saturday, the three young women spent a harmonious afternoon strolling around downtown, stopping to buy five-dollar pashminas from a street vendor in SoHo. Cassandra bought one in lavender and Sylvie bought one in cream right away. But Gala couldn’t make up her mind. Did she want gold? Or red? Or how about this turquoise one? The only word for Gala Gubelman’s style of beauty was
; even her head of chestnut hair seemed to suggest the promise of fertility. On top of this, she heightened, rather than downplayed, her lavish physical good fortune by always dressing in bright colors; Gala was the sort of woman who would not buy a pair of black tights if a pair of kelly green ones could be had instead.
“The turquoise looks cheap,” weighed in Sylvie.
“No,” said Cassandra, “it could be almost Indian…”
“Indian? Since when do you like things that are Indian?”
“Indian culture can provide some really elegant visual inspiration sometimes. If you don’t overdo it.”
“Yeah, but I hate all of that cheesy beading they do.”
“I’d get red if I were you,” said Cassandra, who, being a blonde, had always believed that the color red belonged to brunettes.
“But I just don’t know,” cooed Gala, who could make the most mundane of sentences come out sexy. She even had a dainty, provoking little lisp. Then, as if the sound of her own voice had reminded her of her own goddesslike power in the world where men were concerned, she turned to the nearest one she could find. It was the pashmina vendor, who had been getting impatient with the windy deliberations of these young women mussing up his merchandise.
“You,” said Gala, her plump lips curving into a honeyed, deadly smile. “Which color would
get if you were me?” She cocked her head, cradling the soft fabrics to her throat.
He pointed to the gold one and that settled it. Gala bought the gold pashmina.
Afterward the girls burst out laughing and Sylvie chided her: “Gala! You needed to ask the pashmina vendor for color advice?”
“When we were standing right there,” said Cassandra.
“And you had to ask, like, this random Haitian dude for his opinion. I was an art history major!”
“We have great taste!” added Cassandra.
boy crazy, Gala. This just goes to prove it.”
“Boy crazy? Boy crazy? Actually, in case you’ve blocked out our Bennington days, I’m a complete and total slut!”
They all laughed, remembering.
Sylvie said: “Hey, we were trying to remember something the other day. Did you ever have a threesome with Pansy Chapin?”
“Oh, no. You must be thinking of me and Bitsy Citron.”
“Oh, yeah, people always used to get Pansy and Bitsy mixed up,” said Sylvie. “Same physical type. But Bitsy had that little white dog named Brioche, remember? She used to bring him with her to Coffee Hour.”
“Is Bitsy a native New Yorker?” Cassandra wanted to know.
“Oh, yeah. She and Ludo grew up on Park Avenue, remember?” Sylvie had since stopped sleeping with Ludo and was no longer working for him, but considered herself to still be an authority on the Citron family nevertheless. “This one time the whole family got tied up
The guy who did it was wearing a ski mask and everything He must have had some interest in their diamond mines They never did catch him, I don’t think. But, moving on. Is Pansy an heiress to anything? She certainly
“No,” answered Cassandra promptly. “Old money. Bar Harbor. You get the picture. It ran out.”
“Oh. Well, anyway. Bitsy Citron and I had a threesome with that Bulgarian sculptor guy, what was his name, the guy who used to wear those really skinny purple velvet pants.”
“Oh yeah, that character. What
“Does it matter? To tell you the truth, the only damn thing I can remember about him now are those purple velvet pants. Honestly, if I saw a lineup of twelve naked male bodies, I wouldn’t have a clue which one of them was his.”
Later on that same afternoon, Gala and Cassandra found a coat on sale that they both liked at a boutique in SoHo. Luckily, there were two of them left in just the right sizes.
Cassandra turned to Gala and asked her: “Would it be okay do you think if we had the same coat? I mean—with you being in New York, and me being in Boston?”
For Gala, a confident, pleasure-seeking creature, there had never been a question that both of them would buy the damn coat. She said: “It’s fine. I don’t care. In fact, we could wear them out of the store today, I wouldn’t mind.”
After buying the matching coats, the three of them sprang into the campy spirit of the coincidence. The thought of Cassandra and Gala posing in their coats immediately brought to Sylvie’s mind Diane Arbus’s portraits of twins. It didn’t hurt that the coats in question verged on the outlandish, being royal blue felt with Peter Pan collars and black velveteen bows on the pockets.
“You know what these remind me of?” exclaimed Cassandra. “
I’m going to call this my
“Oh my God,
!” Sylvie trilled.
And then Gala was trilling, too: “Oh,
, my sister and I used to love those books! She was our hero!”
Everyone’s mood brightened at the nostalgic thought of
, the Parisian comfort food of their upper-middle-class childhoods, and Gala and Cassandra swirled out of the boutique in their matching coats, striking poses for Sylvie’s camera. People stopped to look at them on the street, these charming, round-faced young women looking years younger than they really were in these rather ridiculous coats of theirs, one with long chestnut hair, the other’s bobbed and golden. (Cassandra had cut hers after graduation.) Then, as if they truly were in a photo shoot for a catalog, snowflakes began to fall—the first snowfall of the year. And then several months later, a photograph of Gala roaming down Mercer Street in her
coat and a leopard miniskirt appeared on the website of
That figured, the girls complained. Gala got all the breaks.
Soon, they passed the window of a woman’s clothing store called Endless Flax.
Sylvie pointed at the sign and said: “Oh God, that place just looks so depressing. More like it should be in Cambridge than New York, right? And anyway—who would want to shop at a store named Endless Flax? I mean, come on.
Pretty fucking bleak already.”
“Oh no,” said Gala, wrinkling her nose. “Is everything in there, like, hemp?”
Oh, how she hated earth tones.
With a sense of creeping horror, the three of them peeked in the window.
“Imagine it coming to that,” said Cassandra, with a sad shake of the head.
“Endless flax,” Sylvie repeated in sheer wonderment. “Endless flax!”
For the three attractive young women standing in front of the window, those two words said only endless boredom, aging, disappointment, failure. They laughed for a good long while that afternoon, unable to conceive of their own lives ever being anything other than fantastical, beautiful, richly and expensively textured.