I knew nothing about art.
That wasn't a bad thing, necessarily, except that it was 1988 and art was a spoil of war for the Wall Street and Madison Avenue guys in Armani who made up the bulk of our eligible dates. Their staggering bonuses had already purchased new duplexes with marble bathrooms and climate-controlled wine closets, where they could properly store their requisite cases of Château Margaux. One guy I knew liked to make a ceremony of opening a prize bottle, then chugging it as his friends cheered him on. You could just imagine what he'd be like in bed.
More important than owning wine, however, was owning art, preferably a major piece by a hot SoHo star -- though it would be useless, of course, unless it matched the custom-made couch. Those details were left up to the decorator -- that's what the guys were paying her for, after all. She would buy all the right things and then tell her clients what they were, so they could tell everyone else at cocktail parties. It didn't take me long to realize that knowing nothing didn't look half bad when set upon a landscape of cash.
Besides a lack of cash, my immediate problem was that after two years of hard labor at Jolie! magazine -- fetching coffee and telling the publisher that the senior editors were in meetings when they were really at the Plaza, in bed with the guys from ad sales -- I had become the leading candidate for the position of Arts and Entertainment Editor.
These days it seems that Jolie! has been around forever, but it only began in 1986, the new thing, fresh from Paris. Apparently, pictures of models jumping in the air wearing five-dollar T-shirts and three-thousand-dollar organza skirts were just what the world had been waiting for, and Jolie!'s instant success sent editors at the other women's magazines into a competitive frenzy.
We were off base in one way, though, and that was the reason why someone who knew nothing about art was being considered for the position of Arts and Entertainment Editor. Unlike other fashion magazines, Jolie! had a policy that kept movie stars off the cover -- we used models only. This was because Jean-Louis, our art director and aesthetic heir of Roman Polanski, decreed most female stars over twenty-one to be "old and ugly." Banned from cover consideration, none of the big names would come near us, which meant that the editor with the fancy title would spend many miserable hours on the phone each day listening to desperate publicists pitch star wannabes for a measly three paragraphs and a head shot.
To be fair, I hadn't really spent my entire time at Jolie! fetching coffee, though it often felt that way. During my second year I was promoted to assistant editor (on the same day that Les Misérables opened on Broadway, which I tried not to take personally). This new job meant that someone else scraped the curried chicken salad out of the seams of the conference table after the lunchtime story meetings while I started dealing with writers and "the words." This was a fearsome concept at a fashion magazine where the pictures ruled, so I learned fast that the fewer words there were the better everyone liked them, and when Susie Schein reviewed the results -- most of the time, at least -- she approved.
The words at Jolie! were supervised by Susie, the number two editor and my boss. Just as I had worked all my life to please my parents and my teachers, I now worked to please Susie Schein -- which was a little like trying to cuddle up to Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. Unlike most of Jolie!'s staff, who seemed to view life as an endless Mardi Gras, dressing in everything from pastel Chanel suits to tiny black rubber dresses, Susie wore gray pants, a white buttoned-down shirt, and no makeup. Every day. Her contacts never fit properly, so she almost always squinted. And rarely smiled.
She was pushing fifty, I knew, and had been married once. I also knew that more than one person had seen her at clubs making out with Norma Wilder, an editor at a downtown art magazine. Susie never mentioned Norma Wilder, probably because she was a world-class denier about anything having to do with pleasure. Bagel, no butter. Chicken, no skin. Susie Schein was one grim broad.
It was she, for example, who instituted the policy of signing in and out each day. I tried explaining that the reason I was coming in past nine each morning was that I needed to stay until eight most nights, since Hollywood was three hours behind us and no one in the movie business returned calls until they got back from lunch, but Susie was unmoved. She herself worked twelve-hour days, though she seemed to occupy most of those hours filling her date book with appointments she almost always canceled.
Be it a cocktail or a comma, Susie had a problem with commitment. She would read a piece I had edited and remark distractedly, "Oh, yes, very good," and then two hours later, after canceling a lunch so that she could read the piece again (while eating only half of a hastily delivered portion of tuna packed in water, so that at five o'clock she could fall on the remains like a starved wolf), she would come back to me and say ruefully, "Well, you know, maybe this could use some work." By the time the writer and I had gone back through all of Susie's "maybe"s, we didn't even remember the original assignment.
Unfortunately, I had little skill at hiding my irritation every time she wavered. Since the first grade, when I got a "Needs Improvement" in the "Following Directions" category of my report card, this criticism had remained a sore point with me. I would try to be conscientious about doing my job correctly, and so would the writers, but the first round of Susie's directions bore no resemblance to the third round, or the fifth. Sometimes I would catch Susie looking at me during one of our editing sessions, studying whatever my face was saying as if she were trying to remind herself why she had hired me in the first place and considering whether I should be allowed to stay.
Then, as if to test me, she would mention some other writer whose work I should know, a genius among women everywhere whom I had invariably never heard of, an expert on rape in Haiti, say, which, of course, was exactly the kind of article you wanted to read in a fashion magazine. If Susie had been a man I could have turned my inexperience to my benefit, playing just dumb enough so that she could, for the sheer rush of hearing herself talk, explain why that writer was so important. But being a woman meant the opposite of sympathy. "If I've worked hard enough and long enough to know all this," she implied, "then you should too, and now." The only thing that kept me calm at those moments was knowing that the possibility of Susie making a lasting decision about my future at Jolie! (or about anything else) was not on the agenda in my natural lifetime.
I eventually grew accustomed to the fact that I seemed to truly bother her. If it wasn't my editing, it was my smoking, which she loathed. And if it wasn't my smoking, it was the way I dressed, in clear violation of her "few good pieces" philosophy, which was that even though her inevitable gray-and-white getup might resemble a prison matron's, it was made of the finest materials and cost a fortune. I, however, was of the "many not-so-good pieces" persuasion, so that I wouldn't die of boredom.
Despite her prevailing dismay at finding me on her staff, there were some occasions when Susie did seem to like me. Or, more to the point: After two years of trial and error, I had learned some tricks about dealing with her. Mainly concerning story ideas.
"A writer in Texas called to say that there's an old Hispanic woman there called Pastor Brico who runs a church out of a parking lot near her house," I announced one day, stepping into Susie's office.
She glanced up from her ink-smeared, indecipherable date book and squinted, waiting for the payoff.
"When she's not running the church, she's a psychic, and people line up for hours in the parking lot to see her. She also does readings by phone."
Susie snapped to attention. She was obsessed with psychics. She always had a call in to yet another one, desperately waiting for word that her life was about to begin. "She does? Is she expensive?"
"Well," I went on, glorying in the rare spotlight, "I understand that after a reading, she asks for a donation to her church, and most people send one because they're afraid she's going to put a hex on them otherwise."
"Do the piece," Susie ordered. "And get me her number."
A few hours later she summoned me to her office. She was so animated, there was even a hint of pink on her forehead.
"She told me she saw an arm," Susie said breathlessly. "My mother's been having trouble with her arm and needs an operation, and it's been on my mind. The pastor picked up on it immediately!"
"Wow, that's incredible," I said, though secretly I was disappointed. I had been hoping that Pastor Brico would encourage Susie with visions of a career change -- shouldn't someone get down to Haiti and help that expert? But Susie was an immediate convert, and for at least a month I could do no wrong.
The two of us soldiered along in this delightful pas de deux until the day the one other hardworking assistant editor, who had been there as long as I had, quit after it was revealed that she'd been routinely vomiting her lunch in the ladies' room on the floor above ours. The women up there, less than enchanted, had asked her to stop, and when she tried the floor beneath ours, they had already been warned. The assistant editor was then reprimanded by the publisher, to which she replied, "Fuck this, I'm getting married anyway," and left with all the stocking samples she could carry. A bunch of the remaining staff, including two of the three assistant editors with whom I shared an office, gathered in the fashion closet to pick over those she'd left behind. The majority opinion was that she should not have said "Fuck this," because in a business like publishing you should never burn your bridges. What if the marriage didn't last? The stockings, everyone knew, mattered not at all.
A few days after the big blowup, Susie Schein called me in to say that Miss Belladonna, the editor in chief, wanted to have lunch with me. This was an especially big deal, and I knew that Susie must have engineered it, so I tried being extra-friendly and helpful, but she didn't seem to notice.
Miss Belladonna, whose first name was Giulia, although I never heard it said aloud, was the absolute opposite of Susie Schein. The first time I saw her, she was just in from Paris and wearing a hat that must have been four feet across. Her mouth was fire-engine red, her skin was as white as the orchids on her desk, and even though she wasn't as skinny (and certainly not as young) as the models, they seemed humbled, somehow, in her presence. She spoke her expert Italian and French in a throaty voice burnished by Bordeaux and Gitanes, and whenever any of the male executives from the business side barged into her office, she would cross her legs so that her stockings gleamed and they promptly forgot what it was they had come for.
Although Miss Belladonna's real job was to gallop the world with people like Valentino and Azzedine Alaia in Milan or Paris or down the Nile in the name of Jolie!, she always returned to New York to approve each issue, and it was usually just in the nick of time. As Susie reached the pinnacle of her holier-than-thou behavior, holding the sign-in sheet up to the light to see if anyone had faked her times, Miss Belladonna would appear, snapping her crimson-tipped fingers, and Susie would heel like some sad dog whose hiding place had just been discovered. Together they would go to face The Wall, as it was known, the surface on which the following month's issue was being laid out in preparation for closing. The bad news was that facing The Wall meant that someone was going to have to make a decision. Which photographer's spread would be bumped, if not enough advertising pages had been sold? Which writer's masterpiece would be cut in half (again), to save space?
And even though Miss Belladonna acted as if she knew everything, she still didn't want to be the one to make Jean-Louis mad, or Evan, the British publisher, madder, so she would wheel around to Susie Schein and demand, "Well, you tell me why we should do this." Susie would get even paler, if such a thing were possible, and while she dithered six o'clock would arrive, and no one on the staff was even allowed to sign out. My office mates, Coco Church, Pascal Reich, Pimm Sanford, and I would stay until midnight while no decisions were made except to feed us elaborate platters of smoked turkey and grapes.
The four of us were jammed into an office the size of a large dressing room, though the window did look out onto Fifth Avenue. Pascal Reich was the only male on the staff -- well, the only straight male on the staff except for Jean-Louis -- and he had taken a job at Jolie! to subsidize his work on the Great American Novel. After a childhood spent at Swiss boarding schools, his fluency in French, Italian, and German had gotten him hired, and he was the one who dealt with the European writers. His family's fortunes had appparently changed since his childhood, hence the searing inconvenience of having to get up every day and go to work, which seemed, for the most part, to consist of him hollering long-distance at odd hours.
Coco was one of those girls who had grown up in New York City, gone to private school, and seen it all. She was the kind of attractive that didn't appeal to other women but drew men like magnets -- big brown eyes and perfect skin. Her blond permed hair was unkempt, and she was overweight, fashion-magazine standards aside. Still, she had a radiant smile and lots of energy and she was always sleeping with someone new or going somewhere fabulous for the weekend, dressing up in leather bikinis, happily spanking her dates. She also spoke perfect French and cooked with foie gras. Next to her I felt as if I'd spent my life in a convent.
Which is why I was grateful for Pimm. She was a city girl, too, but shy and plain, with Coke-bottle glasses and a bookish air. No one would ever guess she had grown up on Park Avenue. Her father was an investment banker, and her mother was a hippie-turned-photographer who always carried a camera, just in case anyone forgot. Pimm was a kind person who clucked sympathetically at any tale of woe, laying down her fact-checking materials so often to lend an ear that she invariably had to stay late just to catch up. But after too many nights of being ordered to stay there with her, Coco repeatedly called the guy who sold her Ecstasy and pleaded with him to wait before going out clubbing, and Pascal began a campaign to print up T-shirts that said: "Jolie! magazine. We never close."
Despite all of Miss Belladonna's waffling at The Wall and her rather forbidding elegance and laser-sharp eye for any style disaster (the fake leather bag I bought at Baker's Shoes for fifteen dollars comes to mind), I had always preferred her to Susie. She had a certain "Let's get on with it" quality I admired. Both she and I knew that someone had to deal with those Hollywood phone calls, so my strategy for our lunch meeting was to stress my areas of expertise; then, when she brought up art, I would just nod knowingly. Nodding knowingly is a vastly underrated means of communication, though one highly valued among magazine editors who are expected to know a lot about everything, which they don't. But they do know whom they can call to find out. Nodding knowingly buys time.
On the art front, the important thing was that I did know who the good writers were, since there were only a handful and I had filched their numbers from a senior editor's Rolodex one night after she went home. I could talk to them well enough, though "A picture is a picture is a picture" had been my motto since bolting Art History 101. How many fat and happy girls can you watch lolling on a hillside when you're not one of them? In my own defense, I should say that at least I've never been one of those people who stand in front of a virtually blank canvas and say, "Well, I could have done that, too." Mainly because it would never occur to me to leave anything empty. I've always been the kind of person who fills things up.
On that particular Thursday afternoon, the day before lunch with Miss Belladonna, I put in a few calls to those writers to ask some nonchalant questions about what they thought of certain exhibitions around town, so that the following day, after the Perrier was poured, I could oh-so-casually mention that the Whoever showing at the Wherever was absolutely Whatever, especially his use of color and the unexpected direction of the line. And I would wait for Miss Belladonna to nod knowingly at my staggering expertise, at which point my future, or at least my immediate future, would be secured.
. . .
Anyone might have wondered why I was devoting quite so much effort to getting this promotion -- not only because my raise would be all of two thousand dollars, but because my engagement to Bucky and the Tudor mansion was shiny new.
John Buckingham Ross, known as Buck to the boys and Bucky to me, had been my prom date at Green Hills High and my boyfriend since we were seventeen. He was a football player, a baseball player, and, to top it off, a direct descendant of Betsy Ross. Of course, in his family, with its three sons and gangs of cousins who were also all boys, that meant lots of jokes about who was going to sew the buttons on their shirts. But the Rosses were very proud of their ancestor, and if she wasn't quite a Founding Father, a Founding Seamstress was close enough in my mind to qualify her -- and Bucky -- as American royalty.
I, on the other hand, came from a long line of Polish Jewish horse thieves who, once in America, took to reinventing themselves. Their original name was something with a "kowski" attached to it, but my paternal grandfather had a secret fantasy about being a German Jew, which, if you had to be a Jew at all, was the preferred brand. German Jews liked to affect a superiority to other Jews, which always seemed to me like lawyers considering themselves more beloved than dentists. As soon as he arrived, therefore, my "kowski" grandfather renamed himself Berlin, so that he could assure his new countrymen: "Yes, my family came from there." Of course, he couldn't say that to anyone who was from Berlin, because the Berlin Jews knew exactly who they were, and that my grandfather was not one of them.
His story seemed to change in its details every time he told it. Some days his hallucinations were so geographically vivid that our family even hailed from Alsace-Lorraine, excusez-moi. But the gist of it was usually about how the Kowskis, as I came to call them, sailed down (or was it up?) the river one day and found themselves in horse-thief territory that has since become Russia, or Belorussia -- anywhere but Poland. Neither my brother, Jerry, nor I gave these genealogical fantasies a second thought until the day he found our father's passport in his top dresser drawer, and the birthplace really read "Poland." We were shocked; in one second, we had been transformed from supreme German beings with cunning French accents into the punch line of the "One Mexican guy, one American guy," jokes.
None of which really mattered to me, though, because I had found my own ancestral ladder to the top. Sandra Berlin would become Sandra Ross, and I would waste no time propagating little heirs to the American flag, maybe even some girls whose expert needlework would stun my new family. My genes were handy for this, at least on my mother's side, for my maternal grandmother had been a milliner. Although Mom sewed well too, she had neither the time nor the interest. She was a psychology professor, and when she wasn't teaching she was happiest in the lab, where the cages were filled with hungry little rodents who were conditioned to behave in all sorts of peculiar ways before pushing the levers that would reward them with pellets of food. Mom found her rodents so absorbing, in fact, that she often left our dinner waiting when she went to her office in the morning: a frozen block of string beans in a pot and a chicken on a timer in the oven. When we heard the beep, we were conditioned to begin eating whether she was home yet or not.
My father was also an academic, a history professor who was traditionally chattier about Trotsky than anything having to do with his family. Luckily, he also played the stock market with enough skill to keep us ensconced in the swanky New York City suburb of Green Hills, with its superior public schools, though in that particular financial food chain we were nearer the rodents than the royalty.
From time to time I did try to question my father about his family's extremely confused nationality. On this subject, however, all of his historical outlines and time lines counted for nothing, and he never gave an answer that made any more sense than the original lie.
It was not the original lie, however, that concerned Bucky's family; the type of Jew I was or wasn't scarcely mattered to them. What mattered was that I was any type of Jew at all. When Bucky and I were dating in high school, his parents thought they could wait it out. "Oh, look, there's that Jewish girl cheering from the sidelines. No matter." Or: "Oh, well, he's taking that Jewish girl to the prom. No matter. They'll go to separate colleges and never see each other again."
To their unending dismay, I wound up going to Smith and Bucky to Amherst, so we saw each other all the time. When we went home for vacations, Mrs. Ross would make an elaborate show of looking up at her youngest son adoringly, wrapping her arms around his waist, and saying, in her most wheedling tone, "I'm still your best date, aren't I, Bucky?" Every Christmas Eve after Midnight Mass at the Presbyterian church, when he would leave to take me home, his mother would trill to him, always within my earshot, "Hurry home, dear, so you can kiss the Baby Jesus good night," referring to the not one but two crèches displayed under the not one but two Christmas trees in the Rosses' front hall and living room.
The Rosses had another chance to be heartened when we graduated from college and, from all indications, I appeared to lose my mind.
For years I had planned to go to law school, but the night before my boards I started to sob in my mother's bathroom. While she sat in her makeup chair and I lay on the floor, we talked for hours until I admitted to her that I didn't want to be a lawyer after all. I wasn't sure why, but it just didn't feel right. And I still didn't understand what "tortious" meant, even after looking it up three times.
Part of my hesitation came from the fact that, the previous summer, I had worked for Joseph Papp, the head of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Actually, that's an exaggeration: I did work at the Festival offices, pasting articles about the theater into scrapbooks and answering phones and watching the staff run in the opposite direction whenever Mr. Papp was angry, which seemed to be daily. A few of my co-workers, when they weren't hiding, were filled with advice to avoid law school (too dull) and recommended their own alma mater, the Yale School of Drama, instead. It had a program called Theater Administration, which trained producers and managers, and some of its graduates had even gone to Hollywood. Management, to hear them tell it, seemed little more than an opportunity to run other people's lives and get paid for it. What could be bad?
Actually, I had always wanted to be some sort of writer, but my father reminded me regularly that I would never be able to support myself as one. Years later, when I came home triumphant, having just been hired by Jolie!, he snorted dismissively at its fashion roots and instantly dubbed it a "pseudo-job." Hell hath no fury like a pseudo-German career academic at a community college.
Rather than brave the marketplace straight from Smith, I thought a master's degree in some kind of management, even if it was in the theater, couldn't hurt. And I would have three more years to figure out what to do next. Once I arrived in New Haven, though, it didn't take me long to realize that under the heading of "management" fell tasks like doing the actors' laundry. The Yale Repertory Theatre is a real, live professional playhouse with real, live professional actors, and students pay tuition for the privilege of servicing drama with a capital D. Whenever a T-shirt accidentally shrank or the jeans weren't quite dry, the actors would call Equity and complain and the students would get yelled at. We, in turn, would yell at the woman at the laundry to whom we had slipped a few bucks to supervise the spin cycle while we went out for coffee.
I remember when one of those actors asked Paul Romano to do his laundry. Or, more to the point, ordered him. Paul was my best friend, and he came from Los Angeles. He was drop-dead gorgeous and sported an impeccable tan whenever possible, carrying himself with the inimitable ease of a child of privilege. His shirts were crisp, yet open at the neck, pants pleated, but never creased. His smile was ready, his expression game. He could have wandered in from the drawing room of a Philip Barry play.
And here he was faced with this actor, a short, pockmarked creature who hadn't been hired in New York for at least five years, waving his dirty sheets around, threatening not to go on, right before curtain. Paul laughed in his face, and before the night was over the creature was on his knees in Paul's apartment giving what Paul later described as "only passable head."
Paul was the first openly gay man I had ever known. Having grown up in Green Hills, where I was assiduously trained to regard any male as a potential enemy on a stealth mission to get me pregnant and ruin my future, I appreciated the novelty of the situation. We met the first day of school, on line at the bank. He was dressed all in white, with a gold watch that sparkled, and we chatted while the line barely moved. When we were only two or three people away from the front, he threw up his hands, disgusted, and turned to go.
"But we're almost there," I protested.
"I hate waiting," he announced, even though he had already waited at least an hour. He stalked out as if he were starring in a movie with a grand exit scene and someone had just yelled "Action." When I ran into him again later that day, he seemed to have forgotten the entire incident. He was only delighted to see me and in immediate need of a hamburger. We were off.
"You know, you're very good at starting things," I would tell him later on. "But you never seem to finish them. You have no staying power. Maybe it's the rich-kid thing."
"Well, Sandra," he responded dryly, "you have nothing but staying power. You don't just finish things, you wrestle them to the ground." He smiled dazzlingly, to take off the edge. "We're a perfect team."
He was definitely a dish, if a touch pretty for my taste, and aside from my initial disappointment the first few times we had dinner together and he didn't kiss me good night, his sexuality was a nonissue for me. No one was better company. He danced like a dream, and would sit uncomplaining in the dress department of any major department store for hours (I would return the favor in the men's department, for even longer). He lit my cigarette with his monogrammed gold lighter and laughed at my jokes -- most of them, anyway.
Paul was a whirlwind. He had to see every movie, every play, eat in every restaurant, drink every martini. On one of our first trips together into New York, we were strolling down Fifth Avenue when he took my elbow and guided me to the front door of Buccellati, the posh jeweler.
"What are you doing?" I asked, but all he said was "Come with me."
A middle-aged man in a dark suit appeared and almost succeeded in hiding his disdain for my denim skirt and Frye boots, left over way too long from college.
"We're looking for a bracelet," Paul announced grandly, and we sat in front of a table while Paul kept the salesman hopping up and down, bringing more and more samples and fumbling with the clasp on each one. I was too scared to laugh and finally just started to pretend that I was Paul's co-star in this particular movie. He was the good-looking playboy, flicking open his gold lighter and leaning back in his chair, puffing languidly on his cigarette. All he needed was an ascot. The salesman narrated the bracelets' respective pedigrees, and after I switched arms, he and I noticed my Timex simultaneously. To his credit, I was the only one who winced.
"How about this one?" Paul asked, lifting a gold-and-diamond scrolled chain from its blue silk pillow. "This would go perfectly with your earrings, darling," he said brightly. "Do try it on."
"Mmm, smashing," I murmured as the bracelet was looped around my wrist, but I could sense that while the salesman was willing to play along with the good-looking playboy, Miss Frye Boots was not allotted any dialogue. I took it off, quickly, myself.
After Paul loftily informed the salesman that we would think about it and he and I were back on the street, I tried to catch my breath. "What was that all about?" I yelled, half laughing, half shaking. "How could you just lie like that? Those bracelets were four thousand dollars each! You weren't going to buy one."
"So what?" He shrugged and walked on. "They have nothing to do in there most days anyway. Why shouldn't we have some fun?" He turned and looked at me. "It was fun trying them on, wasn't it?"
I stopped. "Well, yes, now that you mention it, I guess it was."
"You can't let people with money intimidate you, Sandra."
"I don't," I insisted. But he was right. I did.
Paul didn't. He grew up in Bel Air, the ritziest of the ritzy Los Angeles neighborhoods, and his grandfather had made a fortune importing Genoa salami, building an international company that Paul's father now ran. Before Paul came to Yale, he'd spent his spare time picking up extra money -- and extra guys -- as a model for Calvin Klein. He went to Hollywood parties with valet parking, and one night he met Diane Keaton poolside, where they laughingly compared their front teeth, and how they both overlapped slightly. Paul was like one of those guys in the liquor ads -- money, looks, the world by the balls.
But he also had humor. And brains. And a huge heart. He cried as easily as my grandmother -- at the opera, or seeing a man on a street corner without a coat. After I'd had a fight with Bucky once, early on at Yale, Paul called and I cried and told him I didn't want to go out that night. Minutes later he rang my bell, flowers in hand, and waited for me to get dressed so that we could go to a show at the Yale Cabaret.
"Why are you doing this?" I snuffled, pulling on my jacket halfheartedly.
"Because, Sandy, you can't lock yourself away over a fight that doesn't mean anything," he said sensibly. "We just got here. We haven't explored half of what there is to see. Come on now."
He bundled me into the elevator, and because it wasn't quite time yet for the show, we walked up and down Chapel Street, where the Rep was, window-shopping while Paul gave a running commentary on the podunk stores and their contents, comparing them to Fifth Avenue and making me laugh out loud.
Weeks later, near midnight on a Saturday after we had finished working a show, we walked out the theater's back door and found it snowing, the sky suffused with a dark lavender light. We held hands in the parking lot, our faces tipped upward. We stood there a long time, silent, just smiling at each other and watching.
But most of the time we bantered, characters in what became our movie, delighting ourselves with witty quips or shocking each other with bald comments. I informed him that I was sure I gave a better blowjob than the wimps I saw him with. "Oh yeah?" he challenged. We discussed techniques. That was the beauty of Paul, really. Anything went with him. The freedom! The lack of rules, of even a pretense of propriety!
"Do I look fat?" I asked him once, for the thousandth time, when we were finding seats at the movies.
"No," he said, quickly assessing my behind. Because if I had, he would have told me. Just then, a twig-thin girl walked by.
"But I'm not as thin as she is," I wailed.
He shook his head. "That is not attractive," he said instructively. "If a man wants a little boy, he should get a little boy. But if he wants a woman, he should get a woman."
While I was at Yale being schooled by my new best friend in the Romano Theory of Sex and Gender, Bucky, the love of my life, had begun working as a junior account executive at Klein Chapin & Woodruff, a huge advertising agency with offices all over the world. He had passed on the chance to work for his father at the small bank where Mr. Ross had spent his own career, and in return, Mr. Ross never could seem to remember the name of the firm Bucky had chosen instead. Though it was known on the street as "KCW," Mr. Ross referred to it only as "that CW operation." I found it interesting that it was Klein he seemed to consistently forget.
Almost immediately, Bucky started to look like an executive. His thick, white-blond hair thinned on top, extending his forehead in a Benjamin Franklin sort of way. But less hair only highlighted his sky-blue eyes, which, right on cue, sprouted crow's-feet. It seemed he had gone from boy to man in an instant. He still went to the gym every day, though, and kept up the bulging muscles in his arms and chest. I couldn't quite understand the point of it, since he was no longer playing team sports, but it seemed to be a link for him, as it did for so many men, to a time in life when anything was possible. At least that's what I decided it was. But I had no complaints. Anytime I rested my head against that massive chest, I knew the world could get no safer.
Right on cue, Bucky also took on men's behavior. He shook hands heartily and laughed at jokes at just the right moment. He and his friends would go out after work to lift weights together and have a beer, but when wine became the new thing, Bucky was lost. One night he was at a steak house with the guys from his office when his boss said, "Why don't you order the wine, Buck?" Instead of admitting that he didn't know anything about wine, Bucky clutched, as he called it, and ordered a Sauternes, a sweet dessert wine that cost a fortune. When he told me about it I felt terrible for him, naturally. How was he supposed to know? There we were, all of twenty-two years old, and while I was safely tucked away in the sticks, cramming Aeschylus, there he was, out and about with men who were old enough to be his father. Well, they all made terrible fun of him, so he enrolled in a wine course at Windows on the World where he learned to use words like "woody" and "plummy," and soon enough, he was collecting his own Château Margaux. I admired his effort.
When it came time for me to finally get my degree from Yale, we were twenty-four, and though Bucky was about to become an account executive, I found myself still at square one. I definitely wanted to work before I got married, but the three years in New Haven had not taught me what I wanted to do next. I was fifteen thousand dollars in debt, and the only thing I had learned was when to add the fabric softener. Sure, I could have gotten a job for twelve thousand dollars a year in a nonprofit theater filling out grant proposals, especially if I was willing to move somewhere like Hartford or Baltimore. Or I could have joined up with a Broadway producer and tried to convince little old ladies to part with their life savings so that a sitcom star could fulfill his dream of playing Shakespeare. Instead, I made the rounds of employment agencies in New York and took typing tests with all the high school dropouts who did much better than me, in spite of their outrageously long nails.
Eventually, I landed at Jolie! I had been an English major at Smith and was reasonably sure I could edit. I would apply the skills I had learned about the administration of actors to the administration of writers and coax them toward their deadlines, building their confidence when they were blocked. Paul was delighted by my decision. "A lady editor," he marveled. "We must buy you a hat."
rBucky was equally delighted, whisking me to dinner at Lutèce, where we drank Champagne and trotted out our high school French in anticipation of my new career. "This is a perfect plan for you until we have kids," he announced, glass in hand.
"Aren't you rushing things?" I asked playfully, but he put the glass down and stopped smiling and seemed to grow pale with responsibility. "I've given this a lot of thought, Sandra," he said solemnly. "We've always talked about our life together, and now that you have such a great job, what I want to do is not to rush things, or you, at all. I've had time in New York to establish myself and my career, and I think you deserve the same, without any pressure from me, because I never want you to look back and resent me. I think we should make a plan: that two years from now, on this exact date, we come back here and sit at this exact table, and at that point we take the next step forward. Together."
I was genuinely moved. Bucky not only loved me, he respected me. He wanted me to have the best opportunities to learn and grow on my own, as he had, even as we remained each other's strongest support. It was the best of both worlds.
Once I left Yale and began the new job, though, I found a glitch in my joy. I hated being separated from Paul. He had moved back to L.A. to work in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency, the first step on the agent/studio executive/producer path to glory. In a strange way, it was even harder for me to be away from him than it ever had been with Bucky. Almost all my time with Bucky was planned, whether it involved dinner, theater, or the movies. When we were together, he would talk about his job and I would talk about school, and after that the magazine, and we both listened intently before going back to doing what we did until we saw each other again -- which for me, for three years, had meant spending all day, every day, with Paul. He was the life I lived while waiting for something better. After he left, I missed him all the time.
But Paul and I spoke almost daily as I got more and more enmeshed in the magazine and my routine of seeing Bucky, without fail, three times a week, unless he was in Minneapolis meeting with the brand manager on the account. We were as happy as it was possible to be, apart. Paul approved of my plan with Bucky and almost before I knew it, Bucky was reminding me that we had a date coming up at Lutèce that he had been looking forward to for two years now.
It turned out to be a magical night. We were both nervous, but Bucky ordered Champagne, and after a few minutes of trying to make small talk, he looked deep into my eyes as his filled with tears. He took my hands in his own sweaty ones and said, "Sandra Berlin, this is a moment I've thought about since we were seventeen years old. I love you more than anyone or anything in this life. Will you marry me?"
I managed to say yes as he hugged me, crushingly hard, and the people at the tables around us all applauded and the owner brought more Champagne, on the house. Bucky and I wiped our eyes and toasted each other and decided, since this was already our luckiest date, to have the wedding exactly one year later.
On that particular Thursday afternoon, however, about three weeks after our engagement dinner, I was waiting for Bucky to call with the details of a cocktail party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a preview of a Rodin exhibition sponsored by one of KCW's clients. That was the big thing then, having enough money and clout to throw parties at the Met. Gossip columns were filled with stories of wildly extravagant socialites buying fifty thousand roses to decorate the museum's vast spaces, and I could hardly wait to see what it would look like.
I was especially looking forward to seeing Bucky, who had been extremely busy with work and whose friends we hadn't seen since before our engagement; he had left almost immediately for a sailing trip to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I had declined to go with him: I was afraid of sailing, of not being able to control the boat in bad weather and having it tip over. I was actually afraid of anything I couldn't control, a trait Bucky liked to tease me about. "They named a street after you," he'd say. "One Way." I would laugh, and so would he, and then he'd kiss me.
I was so caught up in my reveries about Bucky that when the phone rang, I jumped. It was Laura Lattimore, finally calling back. Laura wrote about art for The Village Voice, and was an occasional Jolie! contributor. Even though I found most of her copy impenetrable, everyone else at the magazine would read it, nod, and murmur, "Yes, of course," and then we would print it virtually unchanged. I asked her opinion of a few painters, copied down her dense replies, and, after I hung up, edited them into something that sounded vaguely like English so I could look into Miss Belladonna's perfectly mascaraed eyes the next day and recite them with a straight face.
When the phone rang again and it was Bucky, I practically purred a "hello," I was so eager to see him.
"We can't go tonight," he said abruptly.
"Why not?" My heart felt pinched.
"I have to go to Minneapolis."
I looked at my watch; it was already three o'clock. "Right now?"
"Yeah, there's a big-deal dinner tonight, and the two senior guys on the account decided I should be there."
I sighed. Well, of course. Even though no one at KCW liked to admit it, carting out a direct descendant of Betsy Ross had its distinct dinnertime advantages.
"I'm disappointed," I admitted. "I was looking forward to seeing Ed." Ed was one of our friends, who worked on a different account at KCW.
"I'm sorry, Sandy," Bucky said briskly. "As soon as I'm back, we'll have dinner anyplace you want. You've been so patient these last few weeks, and I really miss you." He lowered his voice so that no one in his office would hear him and slipped into the baby talk we had perfected over the years. "You know I do, Sanny, don't you?" he asked.
"Of course I do," I cooed back. Pimm looked at me over the top of her glasses as if I were deranged. And then I heard one of the guys call out Bucky's name, so he told me he loved me, and I told him I loved him more, as I always did, and we laughed and hung up.
"Oh, well, my plans for tonight fell through," I said to Pimm. "Bucky had to go out of town at the last minute."
"Well, at least you're not married yet," she said. "Then you'd have to go anyway, to be a good wife. This way you can just go home and get into bed."
I nodded, though what she'd said made me think. Maybe I should go anyway, be a good fiancée. It would be fun to see all our friends who I knew would be so happy for us. And Bucky would be impressed to discover what a good sport I was, so readily fulfilling my future wifely duties.
Once that was settled, the afternoon seemed to really drag until I finally realized that it couldn't possibly be 4:20 every time I looked at my watch. My drugstore Timex had died! After all those years.
I headed toward the fashion closet to look for Mimi Dawson, the assistant in charge of accessories -- jewelry, scarves, bags, belts -- sent by manufacturers for use in fashion shoots, though the merchandise was borrowed so frequently that it spent more time on the employees than on any model.
I liked Mimi: She had no pretensions about fashion and wore leggings and T-shirts every day. She had a southern accent and kept her hair in two little pigtails. She was skinny and friendly and always in motion, giving new meaning to the phrase "bouncing off the walls." Mimi was also exceedingly generous with all of Jolie!'s borrowed possessions. When something disappeared, she pretended to look harder for it than anyone else, even though it was she who had lent it out.
I showed her my broken watch, and she flung open the safe and pulled out a drawer.
"Oh, Mimi, I don't need a Rolex, for heaven's sake," I said, laughing. "Don't you have anything simpler?"
She sorted through the pile. "How about a Cartier?" she asked brightly, handing over a tank watch on a black alligator strap.
"Are you kidding?"
"Why not, sugar?" she drawled. "You deserve it, don't you?"
I was dumbfounded. People in the South had a completely different rule book than upwardly mobile New York Jews with iffy stock portfolios. Who deserved a Cartier watch?
"The shoot they needed it for is over," Mimi went on, "and I have until Monday to return it. Just bring it back then."
I fastened it to my wrist. Wow. It was beautiful.
"I have lunch with Miss Belladonna tomorrow," I said, "so I'll return it in the morning. I don't want her to get the wrong idea and think she doesn't have to give me a raise."
Mimi smiled. "Okay, hon, you enjoy it now." And she slid the tray of watches back into the safe and sprinted to answer the phone all in one swift movement.
I went to the ladies' room and examined my outfit in the full-length mirror. I had loved the suit I was wearing from the minute I'd seen it at Bonwit Teller: a straight black skirt, a black lace camisole, and a tailored magenta jacket with black velvet buttons and a black velvet collar. It was the perfect sartorial accompaniment to Paul's gold lighter.
Funny, I thought, shifting a cuff back and forth to examine the watch: When I stopped to think about it, I realized that ever since I'd met Paul, I had been shopping to accommodate him. How could I not? His taste was impeccable, after all. The only attention Bucky paid to my clothes was when I was taking them off.
One change Paul had not approved of recently was my hair color, from plain brown to blond streaks. That had been Bucky's suggestion. "You'd look sexy," he insisted.
"I don't look sexy already?" I asked playfully, but then he laughed and so did I, because while he liked to get up and play tennis at six A.M. and I liked to read until three A.M. and sleep till noon, when we did overlap, our sex was sublime.
Paul had sniffed at the prospect of streaks, deeply uninterested as he was in any notion of sex and me in the same sentence. But I thought the blond hair went well with my hazel eyes, and even though I still hated my nose, no matter what angle I examined it from, I was reasonably at peace with my overall appearance -- though after growing up with the specter of Twiggy, I was still convinced I was too fat no matter how much I weighed.
I checked my backside in the mirror. Not bad, actually. Bucky could be proud that I was his fiancée. And I couldn't wait to see the two-carat emerald-cut diamond engagement ring he had bought for me. It was being sized, he said. The way he described it, it sounded so lovely, elegant without being flashy. I liked that. It's how I imagined our life together would be. Elegant without being flashy.
I thought about fighting for a cab on Madison but decided against it, and called the magazine's car service instead. Why not? One assistant had even called a car to help her move apartments -- on a Saturday. And no one said a word.
Once inside the museum, I was surprised to see how crowded it was. So many people -- most of whom I did not recognize. I made my way slowly through the exhibition and seemed to be the only one stopping to look at the remarkable display.
"The Gates of Hell occupied Rodin for more than a decade," a sign read. "The work, a monumental portal covered with sculptural relief representing Dante's Divine Comedy, was commissioned by the French government in 1880 to be delivered by 1885. However, it was still unfinished at that time and, in fact, was never to be cast in bronze during the sculptor's lifetime."
I sighed out loud. I hated anything unfinished.
At the Temple of Dendur, I finally found Ed, who seemed startled to see me. "What are you doing here?" he asked, hugging me distractedly as he glanced around the room. "Isn't Bucky in Minneapolis?"
"Well, yes, but I thought it might be nice to come in his stead." I looked at him questioningly.
He colored. "I'm sorry, Sandy. It's just I'm supposed to be hosting this thing and I'm a little on edge." He squeezed my arm and left me with a couple I couldn't stand, Biff and Elaine. What were their last names? She was always weighted down with gold jewelry, and the last time we had had dinner, she crossed her legs and waved her foot back and forth just far enough so that I could see the $220 price tag on the sole of her new shoe. I had hoped that that was the reason I nearly fainted after the appetizer, but the reality was that I had been on one of those crash diets, and after a glass of wine, I decided it would be a good idea if I stepped outside the restaurant. We were at one of those snotty Italian places on the Upper East Side, and to the management's unending chagrin, I collapsed in the doorway.
"She got a bun in the oven?" Biff had asked Bucky, who just shook his head and tried to explain that I frequently did this, because I was always on a diet. It was true. It took work to stay a size 4, and I was prepared to keep up my end. Being at Jolie! didn't help matters: All day, every day, we were witness to a nonstop procession of six-foot skeletons with million-dollar contracts parading past us to see Jean-Louis.
After a halfhearted greeting, Elaine kept on talking while fingering her thick gold necklace. I pretended to listen and glanced around. A big Egyptian tomb dominated the room, and a few tables were set up as bars in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows. Not a rose in sight. The client must have blown all its dough on Rodin.
I plotted my departure. Was there no one else here I knew? Where were the other people on Bucky's account? They must all have gone to Minneapolis.
I did notice one girl who seemed to be moving against the general traffic toward the bars. She was tall, surfer-girl blond, and beautiful, and dressed mostly in black with a skirt short enough to show some impressive legs and a top low enough to show an even more impressive chest. Maybe someone had paid for her company, I thought as Elaine prattled on about reupholstering her couch. I kept nodding, though certainly not knowingly. Next to art, I knew nothing about decorating most.
"Do you want to escape and get some dinner?" I asked Ed when he returned with a couple of white wine spritzers that he set on a nearby table.
"No, I really have to stay," he said, rolling his eyes. "Clients."
"Too bad. Bucky and I would love to see you soon. Did you know we got engaged?"
"Yes, I did, as a matter of fact. Have I kissed you yet, you sweet thing?"
He put his arms around me and bent me backward. This apparently was too much for Elaine, who turned her attention to another woman who seemed to better appreciate the subtleties of damask.
Then Jeffrey appeared, a nice guy who was always glad to see me. We talked for a while, and across the room I saw JT, another of Bucky's friends, whom I must say I never liked. He was the kind of person who seemed incapable of making eye contact, speaking to my shoulder instead.
After Jeffrey moved on, I put my drink down and was getting ready to leave when I spotted the blonde again. She was too attractive to look so cheap, I noted absently, thinking of the piece for that month's issue I had been assigned to edit, "Posture and the Miniskirt." At least hers was good. She had probably been tall from a young age.
I raised my glance from her hemline and noticed that she was looking directly at me, as if she knew me.
Suddenly she was standing in front of me.
"Are you Sandy?" she asked. Her voice was friendly and somewhat familiar. Oh, of course! She must be one of the assistants who sometimes answered Bucky's phone. I wondered which one she was. Patty? Lucy? My eyes went again to her cleavage. Bunny?
"Yes," I said, smiling broadly. "I'm Sandy."
"You're engaged to Bucky Ross, aren't you." It was less a question than a statement of fact.
My smile grew even broader. It was a smile of pride at my new identity. I remember it being one of the most effortless smiles of my life. "Yes," I said. "I am."
I was aware then that I was standing in the middle of a circle that hadn't been there a moment before. I saw that Ed and JT and Jeffrey had come together, like a little blood clot, ruining the perfect line of the arc. Ed looked stricken, but JT raised his glass -- in victory, it seemed -- and laughed.
"So am I," she said.
Copyright © 2002 by Alex Witchel