Smart Girls Like Me

Diane Vadino

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

Smart Girls Like Me
ONE
The beautiful girl takes a step forward, a step back, rocks her hips left and right, acres of white silk billowing beneath her. She is performing an aerobics routine I remember from high school. She is missing the samba shake between the steps, and she is waiting for me to speak, which I do not want to do, because I do not want to make this moment any more real than it already is: It is real enough, Bridget getting married. My approval will just prod this moment along to its conclusion, and Bridget's wedding will arrive even more quickly than it already promises to, and then I do not know who I will be anymore, except myself, without Bridget, which is to say, myself, only less so.
I lean back on my stool, which is so narrow it seems like it was designed punitively, for stepmothers and wicked children. The wall is farther behind me than I have judged, and I nearly tip over. "What?" I say, recovering. "Did you say something?" Soon enough this ruse will not work, and we will be forced to leave the relative comfort of this dressing room: We will open the curtains and invite the opinions of Bridget's bridal party, waiting outside, and it is all I can do not to simply speak more slowly, in an effort to make these moments stretch on as long as possible.
Bridget tilts her head, licks her lips, tosses her hair back, like she is in a chewing gum commercial set in California. A cornerof her mouth rises. She is seducing the mirror. "I don't know what to say," she says.
"Just practice saying your vows," says Tracey, Bridget's wedding stylist, whom I have, as a rule, ignored since she popped out of the BMW convertible she drove down the parkway from her Battery Park apartment to this bridal shop in Margate. "It'll make the moment more real."
"I take thee, Bridget Callahan, to be my ever-wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, forever and ever. Amen," she says. "Like that?" She removes the tiara from her head and hands it to Tracey, who replaces it with another, a double row of golden flowers across the band.
"Is it weird that when you say your vows you use your name instead of your boyfriend's?" I say.
They ignore me. We are settling into comfortable patterns, the three of us, and this is one of them. When Tracey looks at me, her gaze always manages to begin with my feet and work its way up to my ankles, where it stops. I think she interprets my flip-flops as a sign of my casual disregard for this wedding. If she swapped "casual" for "determined, hopeful," she would be closer to the truth.
"That's the Venezia collection," Tracey says. "Baby gold roses with diamond dewdrops, handblown Murano glass beads, pearl sprigs. Thirty-seven hundred dollars, but I think it's totally worth it." Every purchase Bridget makes goes through Tracey and includes, I have learned, an 8.5 percent surcharge that's paid directly to the wedding stylist. Tracey will make more money designing Bridget's wedding than I will in six months. I hate Tracey.
"Glass beads can't be blown," I say. "They're rolled."
"Is that true?" Bridget asks, her eyes meeting mine in the mirror. "You're making that up."
"Maybe," I say. "But thirty-seven hundred dollars is a lot of money."
"I can't believe I'm wearing anything that costs thirty-seven hundred dollars," Bridget says. "You can buy a car for that much money."
"A really good one," I say. "Like a used Saab, I bet, or a--"
Tracey inserts herself into our conversation, something that is proving to be one of Tracey's top skills. "It's your special day," she says. "It's only once. It may seem like a lot of money now, but you'll be thinking back on this day for the rest of your life, and I know you want it to be perfect in every way. And your father gave us carte blanche. What a wonderful father you have."
I don't think Bridget can hear the desperation in her voice, or the greed. And from where she is standing, looking at herself in the mirror, Bridget cannot see me roll my eyes so emphatically that my entire head bobs up and down. Tracey and this "special day" speech have already cost me and the four other bridesmaids $650 each, when she convinced Bridget that only the Vera Wang gowns would do for such a special day.
"Well?" Bridget says to me.
"I think what we need to ask ourselves is, what would Grace Kelly do?"
"That is a really good idea," Bridget says, before she turns around, smirking. "I don't think you meant that sincerely," she says.
"Grace Kelly," I say measuredly, eyes wide, "wouldn't need handblown Murano beads for everyone to know she's a princess."
"Well, she did have the advantage of actually being one," Bridget says. "I always wanted to be a princess." She slips the more expensive tiara off her head and replaces it with the simpler one. "Now?"
"Now," I say. This is true, and this is not what Tracey wants to hear, and I am not too concerned about which motivates me more to say it. I look over to see Tracey frowning, and I hope she is calculating the commission she just lost.
"Are you sure?"
"I am absolutely sure," I say, and she settles, loosening her shoulders, relaxing her gaze. This is and always has been my currency with Bridget: She believes me, because I tell her the truth, and I believe her, because she does it for me.
"I always wanted to be a princess," she says again.
"If you were an Indian princess, you could come in on an elephant," I say. "And wear a veil made of diamonds."
"I saw that on a TV show," Bridget says, considering. "I would like to have an elephant."
We say nothing. I am holding my breath. I can live in this moment. It is all the ones that will follow that terrify me.
Tracey misinterprets our silence and looks up from her clipboard. "Do you want me to see about an elephant?"
 
Bridget is no longer the girl I grew up with, talking to her bridesmaids, pliant, cheerful, deferential, but neither am I the girl she knows: I am scowling Betsy, the unexpected competition for maid of honor, quiet and grudging. I wish I could pull off a mask--preferably made of human skin--and scare them into silence. They have something on me, and it is that they are all delighted ("Delighted!") for Bridget, that she is joining them on their side of the marital divide: Three are married, and one, Georgina, is engaged. Bridget's vows will only confirm their own, make their choice the popular one.
I am forced outside the dressing room by a fussing, bobby pinwieldingTracey, looking like she is struggling to make a visual case for her hourly rate, and we wait for Bridget to make her final appearance. "You're the one Bridget told me about," says Georgina, wearing a miniskirt and a fur vest in the August heat. ("It's a gilet," I heard her correct a sullen-looking brunette named Tamara, who sucks on the ends of her hair when she thinks no one is looking.) "You're the one obsessed with the millennium. With Y2K or whatever."
"I don't know if I'd call it an obsession," I say. Fucking Bridget.
"Weren't you talking about moving to Idaho or something?"
"New Zealand," I say. "New Zealand. Bridget and I were going to go there and kayak and meet surfers."
"It's weird," she says. "You two seem so different."
"I've known her since she was six months old." I shrug, and this shuts her up, partly because I have pulled rank, albeit crudely and simplistically, and partly because Tracey has drawn back the curtain and ushered Bridget into the room, resplendent, commanding.
"Beautiful," Georgina says, and all the girls smile in beatific consent.
 
Tracey piles the bridesmaids into her BMW, and they set off for New York, five manicured hands waving from four car windows as they pull out of the parking lot. "I really liked Georgina's gilet," I say. "She seems really interesting and worldly."
"She's fine," Bridget says, still wearing the tiara as we cross the highway separating our cars from the Olive Garden. "They're all fine. If you got to know them, you'd like them, but you're too busy sulking in the corner with your Discman."
"I doubt that," I grumble, and neither of us says anything until we are sitting at the restaurant with menus in our hands, at a table immediately adjacent to the janitorial closet. "Enjoy, ladies," the waitress had said. Bridget's beauty is considerably more beneficial, financially and otherwise, when we are dealing with the male half of the service industry.
Bridget is not unaware of any of this, and she sits straight in her chair, back rigid. She knows when she is being insulted. She removes her tiara, the simpler of the two, and drops it on her lap. "That waitress did that to punish us," Bridget says, and I allow her to include me, even though I had nothing to do with it. "I can't believe she put us back here. Can't we get breadsticks and water? They give you breadsticks and water in jail."
"I don't think it's actually breadsticks, in jail," I say. "And I think they come with the soup."
"Biscuits, then."
There is a silence. If Bridget recognizes it, she will fill it with seating plans and floral arrangements and more proof that we have boarded the wedding train and there is no getting off it. "Teenagers frighten me," I say.
"That's too bad," Bridget says. "Can you come over today and tie up cheesecloth bags of potpourri for the goodie bags?"
There is a sort of sweet spot where my natural disinclination for chores intersects with my burgeoning apprehension of this wedding, and we are now in the center of it. "Oh, Bridget," I say. "That sounds so boring. It's a national holiday. Can't we go to the beach?"
"How can you say something related to my wedding is boring?" she says, a little screechily.
"Oh," I say. "I didn't know we had to lie to each other now."
This seems to trip her up a bit, as I believed--and am relieved to see--it would, and when she speaks again, it is in a tone I know better. "It's Labor Day. And you should be laboring on my goodie bags."
"You have to make goodie bags four months early?"
"Did you remember that Frank Sinatra CD with the song for the dance I have to do with my dad?"
I have been charged with purchasing incidentals. I have no idea what song she's talking about. "Yes," I say.
"Now you're lying," she says. "I wouldn't mind so much if you'd lied before. Why can't we talk about the wedding?"
"Who said we couldn't talk about the wedding?"
"You haven't even asked me if we've reserved a church yet."
"How am I supposed to know about that?"
"Well, you would if you'd asked."
"I would be extremely delighted to hear that you've reserved a church," I say.
"I didn't say that we had." She is enjoying this, the suspense. A busboy arrives with the breadsticks, and Bridget nibbles from the top of one, like a cartoon rabbit with a carrot. She has forgotten the earlier slight. If it had been me, I would be out in my mother's car, cranking up the Rocky soundtrack and plotting my revenge. But that is the point: that it was not me. Bridget's instinct for revenge is minimal, because her beauty is its own kind of preemptive assault. "I said you hadn't asked if I had."
"Bridget," I say, putting my forehead on the edge of the table. "This is only fun for one of us."
"Do you know where it is?"
"How would I know where it is?"
"Guess," she says.
"New York City."
"No."
"Margate," I say.
"No."
"Atlantic City? Are you eloping?"
"No. And I think you can only do that in Las Vegas."
I am out of guesses. "Where's James from? Denver?"
"No," Bridget says.
"No, he's not from Denver? Or no, the wedding is not in Denver?"
"No to both," she says.
"Where's he from?"
"Maine."
"Is it in Maine?"
"No."
"This game isn't as much fun as it looks, Bridget."
"It's perfect."
"That's not really a clue," I say.
"It's just perfect."
"Can you pass me that spoon?" I say, pointing to the silverware on the table next to Bridget.
"Why?" she says. "Are you going to pretend to gag yourself?"
"Shut up," I say, aggravated that she has anticipated this. "Can you please just tell me where we're going for your wedding?"
"A private island."
"Whose island is it?"
"Who cares? It's in the South Pacific!"
"How do you fly to a private island?"
"Via Singapore, I think."
"How much does it cost to fly there?"
I am hoping she will again say, "Who cares?" and then, "My dad's paying," but she does not. "You're missing the point," she says. "We're staying in huts on the Pacific Ocean!"
"Huts," I say. "Huts sound expensive."
"This is not at all what you're supposed to be saying," Bridget says. "And besides, we got a really good rate on everything. The rooms are three hundred and seventy-five dollars a night, but you can share it with the other bridesmaids and I know you'll totally love it."
"Oh my God," I say. "Did you say that as quickly as possible so I wouldn't understand the words 'three hundred and seventy-five dollars a night'?"
"Yes."
"And I have to stay with those girls?"
"The bridesmaids. Yes. Otherwise it's eighteen hundred seventy-five dollars a night."
"Can't I just sleep on the beach, or in a tent or something?"
"See?" Bridget says, kicking me under the table. "I was just about to ask you to be my maid of honor." She kicks me again. "I can't believe you're ruining the moment."
"You can't ruin a moment at the Olive Garden." I point to a painting of a Venetian gondolier stroking the belly of an orange cat. "You can't really have a moment at the Olive Garden."
"Aren't you glad you're going to be the maid of honor? Aren't you going to say something?"
"I've been your best friend for twenty years," I say. "I dare you to ask someone else."
"I'm going to ask Georgina," she says.
"No, you aren't," I say.
"So you want to do it?"
"Of course I'll do it," I say. I smile at the idea of myself as the puppet master, pulling strings, rubbing it in Georgina's face whenever possible. "I would be pleased to."
"Do you understand this will be one of the most important things you ever do?"
"Are you serious?"
"I can't wait until you get married, so I can be all grumpy about it. Aren't you excited? We're going to a private island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!"
"Did you ever think that a wedding invitation is just like a credit card bill, except you haven't bought yourself anything you liked?"
"All I ever wanted was a beautiful wedding," Bridget says.
"That's ridiculous," I say. "You've wanted lots of things, like a Land Rover and knee-high leather boots and Louis Vuitton luggage."
"This is all I've ever wanted," Bridget says firmly, prescriptively.
"I can think of lots of more interesting things to want," I say. I am getting irritated with Bridget's newly tunneled vision. At any other moment of my life I could come up with a thousand things more meaningful than a wedding on a private island, and everything it means--the love, the security, financial and emotional--but at this moment, when I need them, I am struggling. "A dog. A dog would be a wonderful thing to want."
"More than a man who will love you forever, and you're going to love him forever, and everyone is there to celebrate and be happy for you?"
She does not mean to be hurtful. I think she does not remember what it is like not to have made the acquaintance of a man like that. "A dog could love you forever," I say.
"Dogs have limited life spans," Bridget says in the officious, elementary-school-nurse voice she gets when she tires of my blather. "Now do you want to talk about the menu?"
As long as I can remember, it has been Bridget and Betsy, and now it is Bridget and James, and it is good, I guess, and it is right, but that does not mean I have to like it. "The five-cheese lasagna?" I say, eyebrows raised in earnest expectation. I want things to go back to the way they usually are, as quickly as possible, and even this pathetic swipe makes me feel closer to it.
"I meant the wedding menu," she says.
I wrote her college application essays, and she did my phone interviews. I called her immediately prior to taking my SATs, flying across the Atlantic, and losing my virginity. I have called her from the post office, the grocery store, the DMV, the parkway toll plaza, elevators, cabs, the bathroom of the boy with the smallest penis I've ever seen. I do not know how to need her any less than I do.
I look up. "Weddings are so much fun," I say.
"You are so totally right," she says, too obliviously delighted to hear the despair lining my voice like lead.
 
When I get back to my parents' house, Rebecca, in a bikini, and her boyfriend, Stevie, are sitting in lawn chairs in front of the garage door. "We can't go inside," my sister says. One of her fingers is in Stevie's mouth. My sister likes to leave it there. "It's warm," she has said. For all I know, this is how, one day, he will slip on the engagement ring.
"Why not?"
"It's a ghost house," she stage-whispers, staring at Stevie as he sucks on her finger. They talk about weddings but only as a sort of theater, and there is something pleasantly calm and ordinaryabout their plans, like I imagine women in prehistoric times would just wander into a field and pop out a baby, without the thousand-dollar strollers or baby psychics. Rebecca says all she wants is pink-and-white bunting above the snacks-and-soda aisle at QuikChek, where Stevie works, where they will stand in front of the cash register and eat a QuikChek hot dog from either side, until their lips meet in the middle. They are waiting, Rebecca says, for Stevie to finish paying off his guitar. They have also discussed performing the ceremony in the hair salon where my sister is a stylist, somehow simultaneously shaving each other's heads at the conclusion of their vows. Their previous plan was to build a giant terrarium and marry in suits made of moss.
"When you get married, I want you to promise that you won't make me do anything with potpourri or cheesecloth," I say.
"Do they have potpourri at QuikChek?" Rebecca says. Stevie shakes his head, wagging Rebecca's hand back and forth, like a bone. She scratches his chin. They are like two parts of the same dog. "I think not."
 
My parents leave in the morning for a ten-month tour of the equatorial regions in search of native sunburn remedies. This is true. This is my father's dream, after thirty years of running a chemical lab for a German pharmaceutical conglomerate, to sail from Philadelphia to Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, to begin his scientific studies. He is working on the formulation of a 100 SPF sun care solution--in pill form. Sun care in pill form. "It'll revolutionize the industry. It'll be like winning the lottery," he explained to us when he announced this plan at his sixtieth birthday party. He was wearing a new brown cowboy hat to dinner, his "traveling hat." "So this is what a midlife crisis looks like," mymother said, cutting his cake in the kitchen. "I had always wondered."
Now she is asleep on the living room couch. We had watched my father's plan build momentum like a runaway cart coming down a hill; once it was truly in motion, it was too late to do anything about it, and so, the house will be shuttered, metaphorically at least, Christmas presents delivered poste restante to francophone islands in the Pacific. All the furniture has been shrouded in bedsheets. If this were a ghost house, if we were a family of aestheticians, they would be white and dusty, but a blue Bambi bedspread is tented over the television and Smurf pillowcases have been pulled over lampshades. It looks less like a ghost story than a tag sale. My father appears from behind the door to the basement, carrying a stack of steaks in one hand and a stuffed Daffy Duck in the other.
"Is that for dinner?" I say.
"The duck?" he says. "Nah, we like the duck." He moves the duck's head up and down. "Quack! Quack! Don't eat me, Betsy!"
I have no idea who this person is. "Who are you?"
"Ah, Betsy, you wound me," he says, clutching the duck to his stomach. "Can't a man change?"
"I didn't think so," I say, keeping an eye on him, slowly walking up the stairs to my room, to take a nap or to avoid another conversation with a person who is becoming someone I do not recognize, to discover that one of the few pieces of furniture in this house lacking a sheet is my bed.
 
Stevie and Rebecca take my parents to the boardwalk on a last-minute search for three pounds of chocolate fudge, which my mother has decided she will share with the retirees she meets atsea. I am sitting in the back, beside the pool, and even with my eyes closed I can see a figure standing in front of me. "Time for laboring," Bridget says, dropping a mysterious bag on my parents' picnic table.
"I hope there are elves, or kittens, or something really fun in that sack," I say.
"There are one hundred ninety-eight invitations in that sack. And if you look here," she says, digging into a tote bag, "you will see two calligraphy pens, and a calligraphy writing guide."
"Bridget, I don't understand. Shouldn't Tracey be doing this, or one of her minions?"
"Somehow this wasn't included. I don't know why. My father negotiated it. You know my father's a crackhead." I nod. Her father is not a crackhead. He was an investment banker before he was, rightly, convicted of insider trading when we were juniors in high school. He went to a federal prison for three months, came out a self-proclaimed Christian, wrote a book about going to jail, divorced Bridget's mother, started a megachurch in Colorado, and married his secretary. Every once in a while we see his name on a bookstore's bestseller list: Helping God HelpYou, The Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Be Poor, The Devil in Your Investment Portfolio. It isn't that he hasn't supported his family; he has, even though Bridget's maternal grandfather built half the condos from here to Asbury Park and the remaining Callahan family would have carried on the same without him--and in fact, did, while he was still in prison, before his conversion from disinterested atheist into redeemer of thousands. "These things happen every day, and they have to happen to someone," was all I ever heard Mrs. Callahan say about it. "You are going to need so much therapy when you're older," I remember informing Bridget one night after the trial while we waited in line to seeNatural Born Killers. I might still be right, but she and her three brothers, the triplets, were all popular and beautiful; they had nine varsity letters among them, and their unified, placid front riveted the school; if anything, their allure only grew. Whether they ever vocalized it between them, or strategized around their dinner table--I doubt it. I might not have known, but I think I would have. Bridget had always been a weirdly steely kid, despite the tights and Peter Pan-collared dresses her mom had sent her off to school in every day: She was the first to dive in the deep end; at our sleepaway camp, she was the one steering the canoe, and not crying for her parents at night. The steeliness, like the allure, was already there; it just became more apparent, more frequently.
"Crackhead" is her shorthand for all of this.
"So here we are," she says.
"Here we are," I say, attempting to delay the inevitable.
"You can do the A through Ls," she says, "and I'll do the M through Zs."
"But why should we ruin our day with this?" I say meanly, and too meanly for Bridget, who has put her head down to concentrate on forming the letters.
"Fine, fine, fine," I say. "Give me the pen."
"Thank you," she says. "Jerk."
We sit there silently for fifteen minutes. I have made it to Mr. Edward Brown and Guest when Bridget puts down her letter guide and sighs. "It is a national holiday," she says, "and I know you think the world is ending in four months, so I imagine your time is particularly valuable. Do you want to go to Six Flags?"
 
We flip coins to determine the order of our ride selections, and Bridget, in a strangely beneficent move, sacrifices a second turnon the log flume to ensure that I get to take my favorite three times. "It's the highest, fastest roller coaster on the East Coast, with speeds of up to 72.5 miles per hour," I babble all the way across the park, reciting facts from our promotional brochure. She wins a stuffed penguin on the basketball toss, which she gives to a small child who'd been trailing her for fifteen feet while his parents searched their pockets for a locker key. We are among the last stragglers to leave the park, and my head is still swimming from the roller coasters and water rides. It is nearly sixty miles home, but the night is warm and starry, and Bridget puts down the top of her brother's convertible. There is an AC/DC CD in the glove compartment, which we immediately insert into the player. "You know, when he told her to come, but she was already there, I always thought that meant they were going to dinner or a movie or something," I shout over the music, before joining the chorus. "Yeah, you, shook me all night long." Bridget is singing, too, driving with her knees, arms stretched over her head, and it is just like it always was, and just like I wanted it to always be.
 
Bridget drives down my parents' driveway to drop me off, but puts the car in park before I get out. "There's someone I want you to date," she says.
"Really?" I say. "That's a strange way to end an afternoon."
"One of James's old fraternity brothers from school," Bridget says. "He works in finance."
"Oh my God," I say. "How many times do I have to say that I don't like investment guys?"
"You always say that," she says, "but you never have a good reason."
"I have a million reasons. They work too hard. They buy sports cars and have affairs with interns."
"Any list of reasons that begins with the fact that you don't like guys who travel to Southeast Asia on business is ridiculous."
"They put prostitutes on company credit cards there, you know," I say, glaring at her. "I saw it on Dateline."
"Would it make a difference if I said he was British?"
Yes. "No."
"Don't you want a date for the wedding?"
"Am I required to have a date for the wedding?"
"Wouldn't you want one?"
I have been thinking of Bridget's wedding in such apocalyptic terms that I hadn't considered the possibility that anything could ameliorate the situation. Anyone. Perhaps a great fraction of my problems would be solved if, as I waved goodbye to Bridget, someone--preferably someone strong and handsome--were holding my other hand, and the more I consider this theory, the more it becomes absolutely indisputable, so that by the time I answer her, I am almost stuttering. "Sure I would," I say. "Sure."
"Well," she says. "Good. I didn't expect you to come around so quickly. I thought there would be more yelling. But he's free tomorrow. I already set it up."
As she is talking, I am nodding my head and formulating a plan. I have always enjoyed plans, gravitated toward them, and the more I think about it, the more I see one emerge: I do not have to be Bridget's sad, lonely, sloppy, barely employed best friend. There is no reason why I could not turn this around. I have four months. Armies have been raised in less time. There is no reason why in that time I should not be able to manage some of what Bridget has, to build my own cocoon, to feather my own nest with love and designer bedding. I have to do it. It is the only way I am going to survive this wedding: if I do not have to do it alone, if I can somehow become someone like Bridget,someone purposeful and focused. I am swimming around who that person would be, and I can define her only by what she is not: She is not me. She is not marginally employed at a failing Internet company. She does not have crumbs on her shirt. She is not alone.
"I will go on this date, and I am going to quit my job, and I am going to be a spectacular maid of honor," I say.
"That would be terrific," she says.
"What's his name?" I say.
"Graham."
We are quiet for a moment. I want what Bridget has, and maybe this is my chance. Maybe he has a castle. Maybe he can hold my hand.
"My little Graham cracker," I say, and she laughs.
SMART GIRLS LIKE ME. Copyright © 2007 by Diane Vadino. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.