Authors: Charlotte Silver
n the mornings, Sylvie babysat a delectable little toddler named Clementine, Clementine of the black ringlets and fat cheeks the color of French radishes. Sylvie said she was in love with Clementine; she said Clementine was her soul mate. She said that Clementine was her good luck charm and that ever since meeting the little girl, her life had started to turn around for the better.
Cassandra tagged along with Sylvie when she babysat, for something to do. Anyone could see that as children go Clementine was delightful, but still—Cassandra had no natural tenderness with, or for, children. She feared that Edward, being so traditional, would want to have them. She didn’t. She wanted to have French breakfasts and make love on the living room floor forever and ever, no children waking up and waddling in.
The way Sylvie acted with Clementine was beginning to disturb Cassandra. She felt that the attention she paid her was excessive. Was this her way of detecting that the unconditional love that was once her due had shifted, as in a love triangle, to Clementine? For here was Sylvie, no longer paying attention to her but to Clementine—feeding her snap peas (“Clementine already eats all of her vegetables”) out of a plastic bag, picking her up out of her stroller and hugging her at what were to Cassandra quite random intervals, singing her songs in French.
which once upon a time Sylvie and Cassandra had sung together in high school French class.
Sylvie needs to get laid, Cassandra was thinking; it had been quite a while, hadn’t it? Sometimes, giving in to ennui, Sylvie had one-night stands, not that she ever seemed to enjoy them all that much. It had been a long time now since the giddy, reckless era of the silver eyeliner, of Jasper and Angus and Bertram and Max…Sex wasn’t sacred, either. In fact, Sylvie had found, it was often more trouble than it was worth, and then! And then there was the fact that all of the guys she met in New York were so lame.
Cassandra and Sylvie wheeled Clementine in her stroller all over the neighborhood: to get
pain au chocolats
for her and lattes for them (which, hoping to turn her into an avid coffee drinker later on in life, they encouraged her to take tiny sips of); to florist shops (
See, Clementine, tulips, yellow tulips, can you say
); and, inevitably, to the Brooklyn Flea, where they whittled away whole Saturdays sorting through old wooden boxes of vintage buttons. Would Clementine like this one, or would Clementine like that one? Buttons were a passion of hers, little red ones especially. Button! she would exclaim. Button!
Clementine’s voice was absolutely delicious. Bouncy and bell-like, the cartoon voice of a beautiful child. “Clementine is so lyrical,” Sylvie said. And so, when Clementine said the word
, that sound, like the plaintive chords of a string quartet, sent silvery shivers of recognition down Cassandra’s spine.
“It’s sad,” said Cassandra.
“Clementine’s voice. It’s sad.”
“No, it isn’t,” insisted Sylvie.
“It is. It’s so…mournful.”
“Jesus, Cassandra, Clementine’s voice is
sad. Clementine is
sad. Clementine is a beautiful little girl and it’s a beautiful spring day and anyway
make her happy.” She got down on her knees and wiggled her nose against Clementine’s: “Don’t I? Don’t I? Doesn’t Sylvie make you happy?”
“Sylvie,” repeated Clementine, giggling.
is the saddest thing in the world. And as an adult to try to recapture happiness—”
Then all of a sudden Clementine was crying—Clementine, who, according to Sylvie, never cried. Sylvie thought: Cassandra really is lousy with kids. She’s going to have to come up with a hell of a good excuse when Edward wants to start having them. And he will, she thought, the stuck-up preppie bastard. Sometimes Sylvie thought that Cassandra’s relationship would stand a chance only if Cassandra could continue to conceal her real self—that being the self she had no shame in revealing to Sylvie.
“Oh, look what you’ve done, Cassandra!” Sylvie stooped down again and flooded the child with the daintiest of kisses, on her forehead, her lashes, her nose.
she sang to her darling Clementine,
“Oh my God. Sylvie? Sylvie Furst!”
The girls looked up only to see a dim, honey-blond creature squinting at them from behind her spectacles. A pang of recognition startled Sylvie—then, fear: some old, unrealized fear that, although long past the point of logic, still carried a powerful emotional charge.
It was Vicky Lalage.
Sylvie hadn’t laid eyes on Vicky Lalage since the disastrous series of events beginning with letting her mother’s dog die on her watch and being exiled to the nursery with her father’s ashes (“Contents: Marc Lalage”). Since then, Sylvie had hightailed it to Brooklyn and never looked back. She was twenty-two years old then and twenty-eight now. It came to Sylvie, looking at this young woman who she had once been friends with and who was now a stranger, that it felt like not six years but whole decades had passed.
I was so young then, she thought, remembering her first year in New York.
“Vicky!” she exclaimed. The two women hugged. Vicky, after recognizing Cassandra, too, gestured to Clementine and then to Sylvie, saying: “Oh my God, is she—”
“Mine? Oh no.”
“You wish,” said Cassandra, and the three of them laughed, on innocent ground because the presence of Clementine erased the thorny past and put everybody in a good mood.
“Everybody does say we look alike,” said Sylvie, to whom nothing could have been a greater compliment. “But no, I’m just her babysitter.”
They do kind of look alike, Vicky was thinking, but Sylvie seemed so different. She seemed like a whole other person. She couldn’t put her finger on it at first, then she realized what it was. Her haircut. Vicky stopped for a second to recall the carelessly gorgeous, brown-skinned girl on the nude beach at Martha’s Vineyard: the one with the black Italian pixie cut. But Sylvie was wearing her hair long now and Vicky thought that it weighed her down. Vicky thought that she looked tired.
“What are you up to these days?” Cassandra asked Vicky, feeling that it was only good manners to do so.
“Oh, I’ve been running this studio for this artist…” Cassandra here recalled that Vicky had been a fine arts major—ceramics or something frumpy like that. She saw flakes of plaster dotting the honey-blond hair. Vicky rambled on a bit, and then the girls heard her say: “And! I just moved into an apartment in Boerum Hill with my girlfriend. Actually…” She singled out Sylvie. “My girlfriend. Tess Fox. You know her.”
“Oh my God. Tess Fox. That’s that anorexic slut from Bryn Mawr!”
“The one who used to date Gala, right? The one you got into that screaming match with on the ferry coming back from the Vineyard?”
“Uh-huh. Oh my God. I’m going to text Gala and tell her
” Sylvie reached for her BlackBerry and began tapping away. “Also, I know that was totally harmless, but I’ve been dreading running into Vicky Lalage for
“Well? You two are out and about in New York City. It had to happen sometime.”
That song, Cassandra thought, later that night when she was lying in bed unable to fall asleep. She couldn’t get it out of her head. She tried to resurrect her rusty French to translate the lyrics. It wasn’t a very nice song, was it? But then children’s songs so often weren’t nice. Childhood was a brutal kingdom, where only the fit and the selfish survived.
“Skylark, nice skylark / Skylark, I shall pluck you / I shall pluck your head…”
assandra picked up her cell phone to call Sylvie, as in the old days when they were living in different cities and loved more than anything to talk on the phone to each other. Sylvie was off babysitting, and Cassandra had just woken up and was drinking coffee alone, savoring the angelic light of Sylvie’s apartment, thinking: How good life is.
“Oh my God, guess what?”
In the background, children were shrieking. Sylvie said: “Can I call you—”
“No, no, I wanted to tell you. I’ve been thinking about it. I can handle it now.”
“Having an affair with Professor Sobel. I’ve decided that I can handle it.”
“Well, I don’t know what to—I’m coming, Quinn, I’m coming. It’s a friend of mine, she needs my help, too. Okay! Hold on a sec. Cassandra. Are we talking about the same man who
“Oh, whatever, Sylvie! I’m on the pill.”
“That’s not the point. The point is—”
“And anyway, she’s the heiress to the coffee cake fortune! She could afford to keep the baby.”
“You couldn’t, Cassandra! You couldn’t afford to keep a baby if you got knocked up and neither could I.”
“Enough about Penelope Entenmann, I beg of you! Are you actually comparing me to a girl who used to give Reiki to butterflies? I’ve been sitting here drinking coffee and figuring it all out. What with me having Edward in Philadelphia—”
“That isn’t a plus, Cassandra. That’s a complication. And anyway—that’s terrible! You love Edward. Why would you want to cheat on him?”
“You’re being so uptight about this, Sylvie!”
“You know what, Cassandra? I don’t think you
love Edward. And another thing! I don’t think he really loves
You two don’t know each other; you’re not even close! All you ever do is have a ton of sex and dress up and go to black-tie events!
one hell of a basis for a relationship.”
Cassandra, to whom it seemed a most excellent basis for a relationship, hung up the phone feeling pissed and thought for the first time in her life that Sylvie was jealous of her. It was so sad, Sylvie not having a boyfriend right now. But why? Sylvie was so pretty. Sylvie was beautiful! Cassandra recalled the sight of her arriving back home in Cambridge in a little black dress and white lace tights, shaking snowflakes from her cap of dark hair…
Later that afternoon, Sylvie got home from work to find Cassandra sitting at the kitchen table in a pale blue baby-doll nightie, her plumpish white legs bare and blond hair rather naughtily tousled. Had she spent the whole day like this? Sylvie wondered.
“Oh my God, I’m so hungry,” she said. “Quinn made me come into the bathroom and wipe him today. He’s
Cassandra shuddered. It wasn’t the talk of bodily functions that upset her. It was the talk of children. Children! How she hoped that Edward wouldn’t want them.
Sylvie went into the bathroom, where she was overwhelmed by the baroque splendor of Cassandra’s lingerie going
drip, drop, drip
into the famous claw-foot bathtub. And at the foot of the bathtub was a white French champagne bucket, which the girls had been so delighted to find for a steal at Marshalls, and which they took turns using to handwash their underthings. But the bucket, tonight, was full to the brim with an indeterminate garment of pink-and-apricot lace and rich with the scent of hyacinth soapsuds. So no way Sylvie would be using it anytime soon, even though she was running low on clean underwear.
Then she discovered that they were out of toilet paper. That figured, the way the day was going. She’d have to remember to steal some. In Sylvie’s opinion, only suckers ever bought something you could steal so easily in a restaurant or a train station or even from other people’s houses. She was forever cramming rolls into her tote bags and nobody ever noticed. Keeping the apartment in paper towels, which had given her so much grief, was harder because you couldn’t steal them quite so easily as you could toilet paper. You usually had no choice but to pay for them, damn it.
“Cassandra,” she called from the bathroom, “the next time you go out, remember to steal us some toilet paper, if you happen to think of it.”
“Oh yeah, I keep meaning to. But I just don’t feel comfortable stealing from local businesses and you know how I pretty much never go to chains.” Cassandra was still, at heart, a sweet, diligent, well-trained Cambridge girl who said things like that.
But Sylvie laughed and said: “Oh, I got over
years ago. It’s a jungle out there! It’s every man for himself.”
She came out of the bathroom and opened the door to the refrigerator.
“Have you bought any groceries yet?”
Groceries, thought Cassandra.
, rather like
, a word she dreaded. They smacked to her of the same granola-colored domesticity, the same death of the soul.
“Didn’t we talk about you buying groceries? I thought we made a list the other day, didn’t we?”
Cassandra recalled the crumpled list, which, earlier today, she had thrown into the trash hoping that Sylvie wouldn’t remember. It had listed the usual single girl suspects: dried cranberries, Wasa crisps, ginger tea (good for menstrual cramps), and hummus. Sylvie was actually expecting her to pay for the likes of this? If one was going to spend money, much better to go out to dinner and enjoy it, Cassandra thought.
Sylvie was thinking:
I could really go for some hummus right now.
Sylvie was thinking, of her best friend, Cassandra:
“Oh, let’s go out,” said Cassandra, stretching her arms. They were looking especially creamy and touchable right now, she couldn’t help but notice, pleasantly filled with the thought of her own ripe, late-twenties beauty. I am just entering my sexual peak right now, she often reminded herself, for, like all lovely things, it would not last for long in this world. The supreme softness of her arms could be attributed to her having rubbed her entire body earlier that afternoon with a concoction of brown sugar and baby oil: a beauty tip of Pansy Chapin’s, first passed on to her at Bennington and filed away in her memory with deathly seriousness ever since. Pansy used to do that before departing campus for assignations with her fiancé on Central Park South.
, she would announce, and then vanish from the dining hall for days before the visit, cocooning herself in the luscious temple of Santa Maria Novella floral waters and monogrammed Swiss linens that was her dorm room. “I’ll go and put something on. What do you feel like?”
“Something Mediterranean sounds good.”
“Oh, I’d like some of those yummy Greek dips! You know. Taramosalata, tzatziki…”
She was thinking as she said this of that day—but it was years ago now, it was the day they found the
coats, it was the day of the first snowfall, the day they drank mugs of Valrhona hot chocolate and, thus fortified, trudged out to Orpheus McCloud’s place in Astoria—when she, Sylvie, and Gala Gubelman had ended up at a Greek restaurant for that midnight snack of taramosalata and warm pita bread, and those heavenly deep blue bowls of avgolemono soup. She had felt so close to Sylvie that day and somehow did not feel so close to her right now. Was it possible to feel more close to someone when you did not, in fact, live with them? Cassandra wondered. When the two of you were not in the same city, even?
“Tzatziki!” she heard Sylvie saying. “And that’s so easy to make. Let’s go to the store and pick up cucumbers and stuff.”
Groceries again! But Sylvie insisted, and off they went. Cassandra paid. She thought that maybe since she was always paying for things, Sylvie would do the cooking, at least. But when they got back to the apartment, Sylvie put a knife in Cassandra’s hand and instructed her to start chopping the cucumbers.
“Do you think it’s
cheaper buying groceries?” she asked. Groceries in Fort Greene never did come cheap, was one thing she had discovered. “I feel like, just picking up a carton of tzatziki would have been—”
“Cassandra! I’ve been living in New York City for
I know how to manage a food budget. You can’t go out to eat all the time. You just can’t.”
“But I feel like New York actually has a lot of good cheap food, too, if you just—”
“That’s not really true. Not if you like to eat healthfully anyway. You eat a lot more meat and fatty stuff than I do, I guess. What I mostly eat are fresh vegetables. Oh! That reminds me. How would you feel about buying us a juicer?”
A juicer? She could think of nothing she would like less.
“What do you want a juicer for?”
“I was thinking we might do a cleanse one of these days. And now that summer’s coming, we can get such great stuff to juice at the farmers’ market. We can make, like, beet juice, carrot, kale…”
Kale? Kale juice? Now this, this was to Cassandra the death of the soul.
“Would kale juice actually taste good, do you think?”
“Why wouldn’t it?”
“Because it’s fucking
“I love kale. I make really good kale.”
“Kale is not delicious. It’s just one of those things that simply isn’t. Kale is anti-delicious. If you ask me.”
“Well, I didn’t ask you.”
“But you did ask me to pay for the juicer that’s supposed to juice the said kale.”
“Well, Jesus, Cassandra! We can use it to make fruit juices, too. I’ll drink the kale juice and you can drink, like, peach juice or something when peaches are in season. Don’t you think that fresh peach juice sounds delicious?”
“Not if I have to go through a bunch of effort to juice a bunch of damn peaches to get, like, a thimble full of liquid…And anyway! I just drink coffee. I’m a coffee drinker and proud of it. So are you! Whatever happened to your iced Americanos?”
“I was thinking I’d replace them with juice.”
“Going from coffee to juice! That’s like replacing fucking with cuddling. Isn’t that, like, what lesbians are supposed to do? Lesbian bed-death and whatnot. There’s no comparison.”
Sylvie tried again, seeking this time to appeal to Cassandra’s vanity, which she knew to be a soft spot.
“But we’re pushing thirty now! Don’t you want to stay in breeding condition?”
“Don’t you want to stay healthy and—well, fertile?”
“Fertile? Fertile, Sylvie? I don’t like to think of myself as fertile. It’s such a gassy old word, somehow.
. I hate it! Anyway. I don’t want to have children.”
“No, but you want to get laid.”
There followed a long silence between the two women. Afraid to look into the eyes of her best friend, Cassandra found herself staring intently at the Chinese paper lantern hanging from the ceiling, which seemed to her as good a way to avoid confrontation as any. The delicate, whimsical girl who had splurged on that lantern at Pearl River Mart during her first year in New York and proudly shown it to Cassandra when she came to visit—Cassandra exclaiming:
Oh my God, Sylvie
—seemed but a memory right now.
“I’ve been thinking…” said Sylvie at last.
“I’ve been thinking I drink way too much coffee. We both do. I’ve been thinking…”
“I’ve been thinking that there are going to be some changes around here. Changes in my life.”
When she said this, Sylvie’s eyes sharpened like big brown jewels in her pale face, so much more hungry and haggard now than it had been when she was younger. She was still a good-looking young woman by anybody’s standards—her body still yogic and firm and capable of turning heads on the streets of the city—but Cassandra noticed that her face was beginning to show the toll of hours spent running after other people’s children and lifting their strollers; of years without steady income and health insurance and balanced meals; it was beginning to show, in short, the toll of spending one’s youth in, or perhaps one should say
, New York City.
Sylvie was wearing a pair of black leggings underneath a Norwegian fisherman’s sweater of her grandfather’s; this look on her was appealingly gamine, or ought to have been. But the pair of leggings she had on today was streaked through with desperate-looking runs at the seams, runs so big even a casual observer could see them. Cassandra sighed. She looked at a lemon chiffon cocktail dress of hers hanging on her bedroom door, crystallized in the April light. She owned so many beautiful pieces of clothing, and Sylvie so few.
“Oh, I’ll buy us the damn juicer,” said Cassandra airily, too convinced of the richness of her life, compared to Sylvie’s, to begrudge her anything.