I was really going to be somebody by the time I was twenty-three.
Have a career. Be good at something. Be happy.
But here I am, less than two months before my twenty-third birthday, “catching up” with my mother Annabel over waffles and fruit juice in a tiny café called Rock Dog, because I am unemployed and have nothing better to do on a random weekday morning.
The waffles are organic, by the way, and the juice is organic lingonberry, a ridiculous Scandinavian fruit famed for its antioxidants. This is Brooklyn, where the higher the obscurity, the higher the cred. Personally, I haven’t got a problem with SunnyD or good old full-fat Coca-Cola, but whatever fries your burger, right?
And of course the waiter—whom Annabel has already quasi-yelled at twice—rushes up with the jug for a refill, trips, and boom. Lingonberry juice all over me. So now I’m soaked. The punch line to an already (not so) delightful morning.
He’s mortified. “Oh my! I am so sorry, let me clean that up—” “You can forget about the tip!” My mother is furious.
“Don’t overreact,” I interrupt her. “It was an accident.” “But your top is ruined!”
“I was sick of it anyway.”
“I don’t know why you insist on coming to these ridiculous places.”
God, she’s in a bad mood. Her phone rings. “Bethany! . . . No, darling, I’m still with Angelique. Somewhere in Brooklyn. I know, I know—”
The waiter has tears in his eyes, he’s blotting frantically and whispering, “I’m so sorry. I keep spilling things because I’m so nervous. This is my first job waiting tables.”
“Dude, it’s not a problem,” I whisper back. “Never cry over anything that won’t cry over you.”
He brightens. “That is such a good life philosophy! Can I take that?”
“It’s yours. Get some T-shirts printed. Or a bumper sticker. Knock yourself out.”
He starts giggling. “You are hilarious, girl! I’m Adrian.”
Annabel hangs up and blinks at me till Adrian leaves. She blinks when she’s annoyed. Making friends with the waiter is just the kind of thing that would irritate her. “Well. I have some news. Your father and I are divorcing.”
That’s why she came all the way from Boston to see me? I’m so shocked that I can’t actually say anything. I just stare at her, a half-chewed bite of waffle in my mouth.
“It’s been arranged.” She examines her glass for kiss marks. “The papers are signed, everything is done.”
I finally swallow. “You’re . . . divorcing?”
“It’s not a huge surprise, is it? Given what he’s been up to over the years? And you’re too old to be Daddy’s little girl anymore, so I don’t see why you’d be upset.”
“Right on.” I take out a cigarette and place it, unlit, in the corner of my mouth. I find cigarettes comforting. (Yes, I know, they’re bad for you.) “You’re divorcing. Gnarly.”
My mother blinks at me again. Princess Diana had a formative influence on her maquillage philosophy: heavy on the navy eyeliner. They’re divorcing is playing on a loop in my head. Why didn’t my father tell me?
Annabel clears her throat. “You broke up with Mani, I take it? Single again?”
I don’t answer. Last year I told her about the guy I thought I was in love with in an unguarded moment of total fucking stupidity. Just before he dumped me.
“Unlucky in love, that’s you and me,” she continues blithely. “Perhaps we can go on the prowl, hmm? How’s darling Pia? Why don’t we all get together and have a girls’ night out?”
I stare at her for several long seconds. She’s out of her fucking mind.
The minute she goes to the bathroom I make eye contact with Adrian and mime the international pen-scribble sign for “Check, please.”
He hurries over. “I am so sorry again! It’s on me, I really—”
“Don’t be crazy,” I say, handing over a fifty-dollar bill as I stand up and put my coat on. “No change. The tip is all for you.”
“Oh, Angie, thank you!” Adrian looks like he’s about to cry again, but then stares at me in concern. “Wait, are you okay?”
I nod, but I can’t even look at him, or I swear to God I’ll lose it. I need to be alone.
While my mother is still in the bathroom, I leave. She’ll find her way back to her hotel in Manhattan somehow. My mother is British, she lives in Boston most of the time, and her only experience in New York was the year they lived here, on the Upper East Side, when she gave birth to me. She got so fat during pregnancy that she wouldn’t leave the apartment after I was born in case she saw someone she knew. So apparently
I didn’t see the sun till I was five months old and she’d lost the weight. And that, my friends, sums up Annabel’s whole approach to motherhood.
The moment I get outside, I light my cigarette. That’s better. It’s late February, and goddamn cold outside, but I’m toasty. I’m wearing my dead grandmother’s fur coat that I turned inside out and hand-sewed into an old army surplus jacket when I was sixteen.
Well, finally, I guess, right? Dad hasn’t exactly been the best husband. Not that she knows about any of that stuff. I wonder if he’ll tell her now. Probably not. Why rock a boat that’s already sinking, or whatever that saying is. For a second, I consider calling him. But what will I say— congratulations? Commiserations? Better to wait for him to call me.
But how does this work? Like, where will we spend Christmas next year? How does divorce work when your kid is an adult? It’s not like they can have visitation rights or custody battles or whatever, right? Will we simply cease to exist as a family?
When I was little, we spent every Christmas at my grandmother’s house in Boston. I always emptied my Christmas stocking on my parents’ bed. I sat in between them while they had coffee and I had hot chocolate and we shared bites of buttery raisin toast. I’d take each present out of my stocking, one by one. They’d get all excited with me and we’d wonder how Santa knew exactly what I wanted and how he got to every house in the world in just one night. Pretty standard stuff, I bet, but a happy warmth washes over me thinking about it. It just felt . . . good. I can still remember that sense of security and togetherness.
Now I can’t imagine ever having it again. There’s a hollowness in my stomach where that feeling used to belong.
Maybe I should grow the hell up. Our family hasn’t felt good for a long time. Plus, I’m nearly twenty-three, the age that, to me at least, has always been the marker of true adulthood. It’s the end of the carefreeunbrushed-hair-forgot-my-bra-I’m-a-grad-winging-it early twenties, and the start of the matching-lingerie-health-insurance-real-career-seriousboyfriend mid-twenties. And I’m nowhere near any of those things.
I take out my phone and call Stef. He’s this guy I know, a trust-fund baby with a lot of bad friends and nice drugs. He’s always doing something fun. But today he’s not answering.
I live with four other girls in an old brownstone called Rookhaven, in Carroll Gardens, an area of Brooklyn in New York City. I’d love to live in Manhattan, but I can’t afford it, and my best friend Pia hooked me up with a cheap room here after graduation.
I didn’t think I’d stick around long, but it’s the sort of place where you get cozy, fast. Décor-wise, it’s a cheesy time capsule, but I’ve been living here since last August, and now I even like that about it. What bad things can possibly happen in a kitchen that has smelled like vanilla and cinnamon forever?
I let myself in and head up the stairs to my room. “Is anyone home?” No answer. No surprise. Everyone’s at work. Until a few weeks ago I was working as a sort of freelance PA to Cornelia Pace, the spoiled daughter of some socialite my mother knows. Basically, I ran errands (drycleaning, tailoring, Xanax prescriptions) for her and she handed me cash when she remembered. Cornelia’s in Europe skiing for the next, like, month. She said she’d call me when she gets back. I’ve got enough cash to survive until then. I hope.
And no, I don’t take handouts. My folks paid my rent when I first moved in last year, and always gave me a generous allowance, but between you and me, they don’t have the money anymore. A few investments went sour over the past few years, and my dad told me at Christmas that they were basically broke, which totally freaked me out. I’d never seen him look that defeated, and I can’t be a financial burden on him anymore. Especially with the bombshell my mother just dropped. They’re divorcing. . . .
Do you think that an empty, cold, gray house at 2:00 p.m. in February, with nothing to do and no dude to text, might be one of the most depressing things in the history of the fucking universe? Because I do. I feel like my toes have been cold forever.
Oh God, I need a vacation. I want sandy feet and clear blue skies and hot sun on my skin and that blissed-out exalted tingly-scalp feeling you get when you dive into the ocean and the cool seawater hits the top of your head. I crave it. We had the best vacations when I was little. My dad taught me how to sail and fish, and Annabel would stop wearing makeup and not worry about her hair for a few weeks. It was the closest to perfect we came as a family.
I flop down on my bed and look around my bedroom. Closet, drawers, a bookshelf with back issues of Women’s Wear Daily and Italian Vogue, an old wooden desk with my sewing machine and drawings and photos that I never get around to organizing, and clothes on every surface. Particularly the floor.
Clothes are my life, but not in a pretentious-label-whore kind of way. I honestly love H&M as much as Hermès (and my only Hermès was a present from an ex, anyway). Making clothes—or styling clothes or thinking about clothes or mentally planning how I could pick apart and resew my existing clothes, my future clothes, my friends’ clothes, and sometimes, to be honest, total strangers’ clothes—is my favorite pastime. I can lose hours just staring into space, thinking about it.
Apparently, this sartorial daydreaming gives my face a sort of detached “fuck-off” expression.
I wonder how many of my problems have been created by the fact that I look like an über-bitch when I’m really just thinking about something else?
Sighing, I reach into my nightstand where there’s always my latest Harlequin, M&M’s, cigarettes, and Belvedere vodka. I read a lot of romance novels; they’re my secret vice. But they’re not going to be enough today. All I want—no, all I need—is to forget about everything that’s wrong with my life. I need to escape.
And I know exactly how to do it. Cheers to me.
“What’s up, ladybitches?” I stride into the kitchen and do a twirl hello.
It’s just past 7:00 p.m., and everyone’s home from work. They’ve all assumed their usual kitchen places: Pia’s texting her boyfriend, Madeleine’s reading The New York Times, Julia is answering e-mails on her BlackBerry and eating pasta, and Coco is baking. How productive.
“Angelface!” exclaims Julia. “You’re just in time. Deal me in.”
Julia’s the loud, sporty, high-fiving, hardworking banking trainee, former-leader-of-the-debate-team type, you know the kind of girl I mean? I think her hair automatically springs into a jaunty ponytail every time she gets out of bed. We didn’t get along that well at first, but actually, I think she’s pretty fucking cool. She really makes me laugh. Maybe it just takes me a long time to get to know people. Or for them to get to know me.
“Oh, I’ll deal you in,” I say, picking up the cards I always keep over the fridge. “I’ll deal you in real good, just the way you like it.”
Julia snorts with laughter. “You make everything sound dirty.” “Everything is dirty,” I reply. “If it’s done right.”
“What’s on your top?”
“Lingonberry juice. Duh.”
“Have you been drinking?” asks Pia, looking up.
Pia’s my best friend, and she used to be a reliable party girl, a high-maintenance and hilarious drama queen lurching from meltdown to meltdown, but then she went and got her shit together. Now she has a serious career in food trucks and a serious boyfriend named Aidan. She even looks after his dog when he’s away, that’s how serious it is. Serious, serious, serious. I’m happy for her—no, I really am. I’ve known Pia forever, she’s so smart and funny and she deserves to be happy. But I miss her. Even when she’s right here, it sort of feels like she’s not really here. If that makes sense.
Pia stares at me now. She’s absolutely gorgeous: mixed Swiss-Indian heritage, green eyes, and long dark hair. “Seriously, ladybitch. Have you?”
“No! . . . Okay, that’s a lie. Yes, I’ve been drinkin’. Actually, I’ve been drinkin’ and sewin’,” I say, shuffling the cards so fast they look like a ribbon.
Drinkin’ and sewin’ was actually kind of fun. One part of my brain was focusing on the sewing, the other part was skipping around my subconscious, thinking about movies and books and Mani—the fuckpuppet who dumped me last year—and what my grandmother taught me about pattern cutting and wondering when my father would call.
“Angie, it’s a school night,” says Pia. She’s wearing her version of corporate attire: skinny jeans, heeled boots, and a very chic jacket that— wait a second, that’s my very chic jacket. “Don’t you have to work for Cornelia in the morning?”
“Cornelia doesn’t exactly need me to be firing on all cylinders,” I say. “Or any cylinders.” I haven’t gone into details about my current job situation with the girls. “Nice jacket, by the way.”
“Thanks. I asked your permission this morning, but you were sleeping at the time.”
“I think I’ll take the rest of this lasagne down to Vic later,” says Coco. Vic’s our ancient downstairs neighbor who has lived in the garden-level apartment for longer than I’ve been alive.
“Good idea, Cuckoo,” says Julia.
Coco beams. Such an approval junkie. Coco is Julia’s baby sister, and a total sweetheart. She’s a preschool assistant, and whenever I think of her, I think of Miss Honey from that Roald Dahl book Matilda.
I take a swig of my drink and look around. How is it I can still feel alone in a room full of people? “How were your days at the office, dears?” “Shit,” say Julia and Madeleine at the same moment Pia says, “Awesome!”
“I’m on a project so boring, I may turn into an Excel spreadsheet,” says Madeleine. She’s kind of an enigma. (Wrapped in a mystery. Hidden in a paradox. Or whatever that saying is.) Accountant, Chinese-Irish heritage, smart, snarky, does a lot of running and yoga and shit like that. Pia once described her as “nice but tricky.” Recently Madeleine joined a band, as a singer, but she hasn’t let us see them live yet. Who the fuck wants to be a singer but doesn’t want anyone to actually hear them sing?
“At least your work environment isn’t hostile. I sit next to a total douche who stares at my boobs all day,” says Julia.
“To be fair, your rack is enormous,” I point out. Julia frowns at me. Oops. That comment might have pissed her off. Oh well, if you can’t laugh at your own norks, what can you laugh at, right?
“Well, I’m happy. SkinnyWheels Miami has doubled profits in under a month,” says Pia. SkinnyWheels is a food truck empire she started a few months ago. You know the drill: tasty food that won’t make you fat. Sometimes I think Pia has literally replaced our friendship with a truck. Well, a truck and a hot British dude who has his own place, so she practically lives there. But it’s not like I can beg her to be my best friend again, right? I’m a grown-up. Adult. Whatever. The point is, we’re not fucking twelve.
“Actually, I’m happy, too. My boss said ‘great job’ again today. That’s the second time this year!” Julia looks insanely proud, and spills pasta sauce on her suit jacket. “Fuck! Every fucking time!”
“Does anyone want herbal tea?” says Madeleine, standing up.
I raise my glass. “Could you dunk the tea bag in my vodka?”
Madeleine gazes at me. “Is that a withering look?” I say. “Because it needs practice. You just look a bit lost and constipated. Maybe you should—Oh, no, wait. Now that’s withering.”
Madeleine ignores me.
“How about you, Coconut?” I look over at Coco. “Good day shaping young hearts and minds?”
She grins at me, all freckles and blond bob and oven mitts, and her usual layers and layers of dark “hide me!” clothes. “I got peed on.” “Someone took a piss on you?” I pause. “People pay good money for that.”
“Ew! Gross! He is four years old! And it was a mistake. I hope.”
No one asks me how my day was, and they all go back to their own things, so I get up and open the freezer, where I always keep a spare bottle of Belvedere, and fix myself another three-finger vodka on the rocks, with a slice of cucumber and a few crumbs of sea salt. My dad taught me this drink; we drank it together at the Minetta Tavern last time he was in Manhattan, about a month ago. But he didn’t say anything about a divorce.
Cheers to me.
Several swigs later, I take a cigarette out of my pack and prop it in the corner of my mouth, and look around at the girls, so calm and happy together, so sure of one another and their place in the world. I can’t remember the last time I felt like that. Is there anything worse than feeling alone when you’re surrounded by your friends?
My phone buzzes. Finally! A text from Stef. Just woke up. Making a plan. xoxo
It’s weird the way he ends texts with xoxo, I think, making myself another drink. He’s like a chick.
“Oh, Angie, there’s mail for you.” Julia points at some packages on the sideboard. “What the hell do you keep ordering?”
“Stuff.” I start opening them. Buttons from a little store in Savannah, a bolt of yellow cotton from a dress shop in Jersey, and a gorgeous 1930s ivory lace wedding dress that I bought for two hundred dollars on eBay when I was drunk last weekend.
Julia screws her face up at the dress. “Wow. That is fucking disgusting.”
This riles me up for some reason, though the shoulder pads and puffed sleeves are a little Anne of Green Gables meets Dynasty. “This lace is exquisite,” I snap. “And the bodice structure is divine, so I’m gonna take the sleeves off and make a little top.”
“Good luck with that,” says Julia, with a laugh in her voice, which annoys me more.
“I’m not taking fashion advice from someone who wears a double-breasted green pantsuit to work.”
“This pantsuit is from Macy’s! And who died and made you Karla Lagerfeld?”
“You mean Karl Lagerfeld.”
“I know that! I was making a joke.”
“Really? What was the punch line?”
“Kids, play nice,” says Pia, a warning in her voice.
“I am nice,” says Julia. “Angie’s the one living in a vodka-fueled dream world. I can’t even remember the last time I saw her sober.”
“That is a total lie! I was sober when I saw you this morning! As you headed out the door with your pantsuit and gym bag and laptop like the one percent banker drone that you are!”
“Okay, that’s enough!” Pia says. “Both of you say you’re sorry and make up.”
I stand up. “Fuck that. I’m out of here.”
I slug my vodka, run upstairs, throw on my sexiest white dress from Isabel Marant, some extremely high heels, my fur/army coat, take a moment to smear on some more black eyeliner, and stomp down to the front door. I love wearing white. It makes me feel clean and pure, like nothing can touch me.
I can hear the girls talking happily again in the kitchen, ruffles smoothed over, conversation ebbing and flowing the way it should. Without me.
For a second, just as I close the front door, I’m overwhelmed by the urge to run back and apologize for being a drunk brat. To find my place as part of the group, with all the ease and laughter and fun that entails . . . But I don’t fit with them. Not really. Pia was my only tie to them, and she doesn’t even act like she likes me these days. Though I don’t like me much these days, either.
Anyway, I already said I was leaving. I need to stick to my word.
I call Stef from the cab. This time, he answers.
“My angel. Got a secret bar for you. Corner of Tenth Avenue and Forty-sixth Street. Go into a café called Westies and through the red door at the back.”
He always knows the best places.
I quickly check my outfit in the cab; this is a great dress. Short, white, with a sort of punk-hipster-Parisian attitude. I tried to copy it last week but failed; I can’t get the arms quite right.
And by the way, I tried to get a job in fashion when I first got to New York. I sent my résumé and photos of the stuff I’ve made and some designs I’d been sketching to all my favorite New York fashion designers.
No response. So then I sent all the same stuff to my second-favorite designers. Then my third favorites. And so on. No one even replied. I don’t have a fashion degree—my parents wanted me to get (I quote) a “normal” education first—and I don’t have any direct fashion experience at all. I thought maybe I could leapfrog over from my job with the food photographer I worked for last year, but then she fired me. (Well, I quit. But she would have fired me anyway.)
The problem is that when you’re starting out, there’s nowhere to start. And there are thousands—maybe tens of thousands—of twentytwo-year-old girls who want to work in fashion in New York. Girls who do little fashion illustrations and take photos and love clothes. I’m a total cliché. And I hate that. I feel . . . different. I can’t explain it, I’m just sure I am.
So I never talk about my secret fashion career dream. It’s easier that way. Secretly wanting something and not getting it is one thing. I can handle that; I’m good at it. But talking about wanting it, putting it out there, making it real . . . and then not getting it? I couldn’t deal with that much failure.
The café, Westies, is in Hell’s Kitchen, an area of Manhattan I’m not that familiar with, but it seems appropriate today. The streets are freezing and empty, heaped with filthy, blackened snow. Manhattan looks mean in February.
Stef ’s car is parked outside. Predictably, it’s his pride and joy, a red Ferrari 308 GTS. It’s a gorgeous car, I admit. A little “look at me!” for my taste, but he loves it.
I stride into the empty café—past greasy counters and scabby cupcakes on a dirty cake stand—to the back wall, open the red door, walk down some stairs that smell strangely like cabbage and yeast, past a dark red velvet curtain, and find myself in a warm, dark little room.
There’s a ladder against a wall, where someone’s been putting up dark red wallpaper. A handful of small round tables, a mirrored bar, candles, and the Ramones playing in the background. The perfect secret afterhours bar.
Stef ’s the only person in here, and he’s sitting at the bar. He’s cute, though a little simian for my liking. Overconfident and overintense with the eye contact. You know the type.
“What’s up?” I greet him with a triple cheek kiss, the way Stef always does.
“Nothing, my angel,” he says, running his hand through his hair and lighting a cigarette. Wow, this must be a secret bar if they let you smoke inside. “How’s life with Cornie? It’s so cute that you work for her. Does she say yoo-hoo every morning when she sees you?”
“She’s away.” Stef is part of that Upper East Side Manhattan rich kid crowd that all know one another, always have and always will, and so is Cornelia. “I need to make some money, fast.”
“You wanna split an Adderall?”
“Sure.” I look around. “So who do I have to blow to get a drink around here?”
“You’re funny. This is my buddy’s place. It’s not open to the public yet, but the bar’s fully stocked. Help yourself.” Stef takes out his wallet, looking for his pills. He has a sort of cracked drawl, so he sounds permanently amused and slightly stoned. He probably is. “Fix me something while you’re at it. I’m going to the bathroom.”
Two dirty vodka martinis and half an Adderall later, the world is a lot smoother.
I like Stef, I really do. I think he’s a nice guy underneath the slightly sleazy exterior. There’s nothing between us, either, which is so refreshing.
And he’s been good for meeting guys. That’s how I met Mani last year. He’s the one who bought me this dress, actually. He liked shopping. He also dumped me without a second thought or a follow-up phone call. I really thought we were in a serious relationship, so I guess I was, um, stunned by that. The previous guy, Marc, had been married, and messed me around for a long time, but I thought Mani was the real thing. He wasn’t. I sort of partied my way through November to get over it. Then just before Christmas I began sort-of seeing another friend of Stef ’s called Jessop, from L.A. But he only called me when he was in New York, which was rarely, and it fizzled out.
My love life is like a cheap match. Lots of sparks but the flame never catches. I pretend I don’t care, of course. Even when I’m dying inside, I just put a cigarette in my mouth and say something stupid and flippant, and no one can ever tell. Well, Pia can. Or used to.
“You are very good at making dirty martinis, Angie,” says Stef, taking another sip of his drink.
“One of my not-so-hidden talents,” I reply. Alcohol always makes me cocky.
“I’ll just bet.”
“Hey guys,” says a voice as two guys, one heavy and one skinny, walk into the bar.
“Angie, this is Busey and Emmett. Emmett is the owner of this particular establishment.”
“Hey,” I say. “Love the place. Does it have a name?”
“Not yet,” says Emmett, the skinnier guy, fixing himself a drink in that self-consciously arrogant way that guys who own bars always do. “Why? Got any ideas?”
“Name it after me,” I say. “The Angie.”
The guys laugh. “Fuck it, why not?” Emmett smiles, holding my gaze just a fraction too long. “Maybe I will.”
“Emmett, a word in my office?” says Busey. I look over. He’s racking up lines on one of the little round tables. Ugh, I am so over coke.
“Angie? Ladies first.”
“Not for me,” I say. “Not my bag.”
“I’m good for now, buddy,” Stef takes out a little leather purse. “Let’s have a smoke, and then I’ve got a couple of parties for us.”
“Okay,” I say. “What are we smoking?” It doesn’t look like plain old weed.
“That’s for me to know and you to enjoy.”
For a second, I wonder if I should. I’ve been drinking since, what, 2:00 p.m.? And Adderall sometimes makes me a little crazy.
Then I think about why I started drinking. And about the fact that my father still hasn’t called. I don’t want to feel alone right now.
“My folks are splitting up,” I say to Stef, accepting the joint.
“Mazel tov! Welcome to the club. Let’s celebrate.”
Excerpted from Brooklyn Girls: Angie by Gemma Burgess. Copyright © 2014 by Gemma Burgess.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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