Feminista

Erica Kennedy

St. Martin's Griffin

CHAPTER ONE

Sydney Zamora decided she’d had enough. She tossed her crumpled napkin on the table and pushed her chair back as her confused date watched in disbelief.

"Where . . ." he stammered. "Where are you going?"

"Home." She slipped into her coat and flashed a tight, angry smile. "Peace."

She was furious at him, at herself, at the world, really, but Quo was no place to make a scene. It was the überhip restaurant of the moment, the kind of New York it spot that had an unlisted phone number and a menu people called "creative." All the senior editors at Cachet had been raving that the Thai fusion fare was a-maaaaaaaaaazing, hype Sydney was disinclined to believe. It was never about the food at these places. It was about being seen.

And that was exactly what she didn’t want now. Beating a hasty retreat through the dimly lit, ridiculously pretentious subterranean dining room, Sydney flipped up the collar of her trench and donned her plaid newsboy cap, tugging the brim down low. With her healthy five-foot-nine-inch frame, bronzed skin, and chocolate waves of hair falling just past her shoulders, she stood out like a penny in the snow at these trendy hangouts where most of the women were white, blond, and thinner than Darfur refugees. Her honey-brown eyes flicked about the room, on the lookout for Omnimedia employees. The last thing she needed was for this to get back to the office. Those catty bitches (male and female) gossiped about her enough.

She didn’t see any of her colleagues, but Sydney knew nothing guaranteed safety in this stratum of the New York world. If someone on the wait-staff figured out where she worked, it was very likely that tonight’s embarrassing debacle would be tomorrow’s "Page Six" headline. On her own, she wasn’t "Page Six"—worthy (thank God), but working for Conrad Drake, Cachet’s celebrated editor in chief, made everyone at the magazine targets by association. It would be his name in boldface, not hers.

That was just one of the negative outcomes that could arise from this rash act, and as she hurried toward the exit, a little voice whispered, Go back. But Sydney Zamora rarely took unsolicited advice, not even from her own psyche, so it was a call that went unheeded. Instead, she powered forward. She had already been pilloried by the New York Post once in her life, and the potential threat of having them publicly humiliate her again only strengthened her resolve.

Feeling like the odds were stacked against her, whether this was really the case or just her own interpretation of events, always brought out the fight in her. She was, in her own mind, a crusader, an avenger of justice, a voice for the disenfranchised. A childless, more tastefully dressed Erin Brockovich, if you will. Her biggest regret was that she had not followed in her late father’s footsteps and become a civil rights attorney. It was a regret shared by many because with no class-action suits to fight, Sydney managed to turn everyone—her family, her coworkers, customer service reps at Verizon Wireless—into Goliaths against whom she felt compelled to wage battle.

So there would be no turning back now. Oh, no. If storming out of New York’s trendiest boîte resulted in an embarrassing item on "Page Six," so be it. To teach Kyle (and every useless man he represented) a lesson, she was willing to martyr herself.

She nevertheless made an emergency detour when she saw their waiter standing directly in her path and practically sprinted the last few steps to the staircase as if she were a paparazzi-hounded celebrity trying to make her way out of the Ivy to awaiting SUV.

She still had one last leg to go before she was out of the restaurant and in the clear, but once inside the stairwell, she grabbed the railing and rested against the velvet-covered wall, suddenly overcome with fatigue. Lately, she had been feeling so drained. Some days she could barely drag herself out of bed before ten. She knew her emotional exhaustion wasn’t about Kyle or her meaningless, soul-sucking job. It was about everything. And nothing.

She grew up believing she’d have it all. A Career with a capital C. A husband. Babies! She’d be the Enjoli woman, bringing home the bacon, frying it up in a pan, never never letting him forget he was a man! Who would’ve guessed the whole thing would turn out to be a scam, a cultural Ponzi scheme that would dupe every middle-class woman of her generation?

FUCK YOU, GLORIA STEINEM!

The only part of The Plan that had remotely worked out was that Sydney had (what some would consider) an enviable Career writing for Cachet, the glossiest of celebrity glossies. It was a soulless pursuit, but Sydney couldn’t complain because it paid well (as most soulless pursuits did). She had always expected, even relished the idea, that she’d have to muscle her way to professional success, while assuming Fate would take care of her love life, but exactly the opposite had happened. The cushy Cachet job had fallen right into her lap through a bizarre confluence of events, and finding Mr. Right was turned into a punishing exercise that had pushed her to the brink of total exhaustion.

This extended fling with Kyle was pointless, but that was the point. Now that most of her friends were married and breeding, she needed something someone to do to pass the time. Kyle was a fuck buddy and, as such, not an impediment to her finding a real relationship and a breeder of her own. If, at any time, she met a serious prospect, she would drop Kyle without a second thought.

Trouble was, the guys she liked weren’t husband material, and the men who were repulsed her. And she didn’t subscribe to the "Give him a chance, he might grow on you" theory of dating either. Within five minutes of meeting a man she could tell if he was dateable or simply doable. Most of them were neither.

Now that her clock was officially ticking, dateable didn’t even cut it anymore. She needed to find a meaningful relationship, a marriageable mate, a genetically healthy provider with motile sperm. It was a complete fucking drag.

She’d been telling herself she had time, plenty of time. As late as thirty-one, marriage and motherhood still seemed as far away as the moon, abstract concepts like IRAs or epidurals that she imagined she’d figure out when the time came. Well, she was thirty-three years old. The future was now.

The real kick in the ass was that she had spent her whole life striving to be independent! To not need a man, emotionally or financially, to make her whole. To never give her power away. All that Oprah shit. But if she wanted to have children the traditional way, she did need a man, didn’t she? And soon. Reproductively, she was on orange alert. That was the sick cosmic joke of it all.

CHAPTER TWO

Sydney hadn’t been so pissed, she might have become aroused when Kyle grabbed her arm and pinned her against the wall at the top of the staircase. "Sydney, what’s wrong with you?" he said, as if he was in any position to question anything. "You can’t just leave!"

Oh yeah? Watch me.

"We haven’t paid the bill," he said, trying to keep her from squirming away.

She looked up at him angrily but tried to avoid direct eye contact. Those misty green eyes could be her undoing. "You haven’t paid the bill."

Kyle released her arm and rested his hand against the wall. "Look . . ."

Hearing that one word come out of his disturbingly sexy mouth in that humoring tone made her that much angrier. She hated when men who were clearly in the wrong tried to turn things around to make it seem like the woman’s fault! She knew what he was going to say. She was overreacting, being too emotional. She should calm down. Well, maybe she didn’t want to fucking calm down. She was mad as hell and she had every right to be!

f Since she’d landed the job at Cachet, every guy she’d "dated" made less money than she did. And for the same reason she always had a dollar and a kind word for a homeless woman but thought, Drunk! Druggie! Loser!when she passed a homeless man, she hadn’t respected a one of them. Women had to work harder for less money all while trudging around like sherpas loaded down with guilt and self-loathing. Every time a guy pretended not to see the check a waiter had presumptuously set before him, she’d think, If I can make it, why the fuck can’t you?

But she didn’t need to respect someone to screw him. In her experience, the sex was way hotter when you didn’t. Kyle was the male version of a dumb blonde, but the boy was a sexual savant, she’d give him that. It was amazing what he could do with just one finger. He was the first man ever to make her come from intercourse, which, being an all-around DIY girl, unnerved her at first. It still did . . . though not so much that she didn’t give him the opportunity three or more times a week.

She usually lost interest in men around the eight-week mark, but, due to his sexual prowess, she’d kept Kyle around for six whole months. He wouldn’t make it to seven. In the last few weeks, his liberal use of "let’s" and "us" and "we," in addition to his persistent pleas that she go see Spamalot when his okeydoke Midwestern parents came to visit, was speeding up the demise of what had been a perfectly lovely and mutually beneficial meaningless relationship.

Had she asked him to take her anywhere tonight? Of course not. She preferred to order in. That way, she had distractions—the phone, TV, Facebook—to stave off boredom. Going out to dinner meant they had to talk for two hours straight.

But Kyle had insisted. Just as he’d insisted on ordering a celebratory bottle of Veuve Clicquot even after she told him she didn’t like champagne. She never drank it. Not even on New Year’s.

"I wanted to do something special for you," he said.

Then treat me to a mani-pedi, stupid.

The whole unnecessary show made her very uneasy, but, proving that she wasn’t as much of a bitch as some people thought she was, she rolled with it.

And she was pleasantly surprised to find that the editors at Cachetweren’t just hyping the place up. The food was a-maaaaaaaazing. (Not to mention light and healthy. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a satisfying meal that fell within the draconian dietary parameters set by her nutritionist.) They had such a nice dinner that by the time Kyle handed over his credit card, Sydney was feeling guilty for giving him a hard time. Why couldn’t she ever just let someone do something nice for her? Maybe she was as much of a bitch as some people thought.

She was on the verge of apologizing when she saw the waiter heading back to their table. Too soon. "I’m sorry, sir," he said, holding Kyle’s toy Visa gingerly between his thumb and forefinger as if its impotency might be catching. "This card has been declined."

Kyle took the news much better than Sydney would have liked. A flushed cheek, maybe, a nervous laugh would have been nice. There was none of that. Kyle just gave a lame shrug, as though the situation had come about through no fault of his own, and slipped the card back into his beat-up leather wallet.

Years ago when Sydney had waited tables at Indochine, a perennially hot downtown restaurant, customers who found themselves in this predicament were usually so anxious to prove their solvency that they produced another piece of plastic faster than a card shark doing three-card monte. Not Kyle. He just sat there. When a viable form of payment did not seem to be forthcoming, the waiter actually had to give him a nudge. "Another card, perhaps?"

That suggestion fell on deaf ears. Instead of dealing with it like a man, Kyle looked helplessly across the table at Sydney, who, by that juncture, was checking her reflection in the small mirror that had come with her knockoff Balenciaga. She’d never been vain about her appearance, a trait that was becoming more of a liability than a virtue as she got older, and she didn’t really care that her eyebrows needed a threading or that her skin looked oily. She was only using the mirror as a prop. As soon as she’d heard the word declined, she’d made herself look busy as a signal to both Kyle and the waiter that this little imbroglio should not involve her.

Her actions were apparently not speaking loudly enough. They both stared as she languidly applied a coat of nude gloss and pressed her lips together, distributing it evenly. When the waiter cleared his throat, Sydney looked up as if she was startled to find him there.

The unspoken question hung thickly in the air until Kyle was forced to put it into words. He could only get out two. "Can you . . . ?"

Sydney looked back down at the mirror, wiping away excess gloss with her pinkie finger. "Can I what, Kyle?" Get it?

"Ummm . . ." She raised her eyes skyward, stared at the minimalist overhead lighting for a moment, then pinned him with a direct gaze. "That would be a no."

"This is my only card," he said, throwing the ball back in her court.

"Go to the ATM," she said, throwing it back in his.

Clearly, that was not an option either. Kyle settled back in his seat, pushed a chunk of dirty-blond hair behind his ear, and admitted, "I’m a little low on funds this week."

"This week," she said, refusing to let it go, "or this millennium?"

Kyle blew out a sigh. "This sucks, I know."

"You bet your ass it does, you little gigolo! It’s my birthday!"

The cringing waiter scurried away to give them "a moment," and that was when Sydney decided she was jetting too.

In the six months they had been "together," Kyle, a struggling actor who on occasion worked as a server for Glorious Food, had not paid for a thing. Not a cab ride, not a movie, not a goddamned Frappuccino. At first it was, "Oh, I don’t have any cash on me." Then "I lost my credit card and I’m waiting for the replacement." Or, for the last four months, "I’m just waiting for the residual check for that commercial I did."

By the time she realized he was the brokest of all her struggling-artist flings, she was hooked on the sex. And with his soulful green eyes, soft pink lips, and sinewy, nearly hairless body, he was too delicious to resist. Just thinking about the vee that formed on his lower abdomen made her forgive the fact that his "ends" were not "long"—as Jeffrey-James Eliot, her go-to gay, might say in a ghetto moment. Jeffrey considered it a sacrilege that Sydney paid for everything, but she was a modern woman with her own "ends," and she secretly enjoyed being in the power position. She always got to pick the movies and whether they’d order Mexican or Chinese, and whenever she called asking him to, say, make a midnight trek from the deep recesses of Brooklyn, where he lived in a row house with three roommates, to service her in her cozy West Village apartment and pick up a pint of Häagen-Dazs on the way, he always came. As did she. All things considered, it wasn’t such a bad deal.

Tonight? Deal breaker.

"The one time," she said, looking him dead in the eyes to prove to herself that she could. She wasn’t going to let him sweet-talk her and she wasn’t going to be a slave to her own desires. She didn’t need his magic fingers. She had the Hitachi Magic Wand! "The one time you say you’re going to take me out and you pull this shit?"

A couple squeezed past them to get down the stairs, and Kyle pulled her through the doorway into the bar area. "Okay, I know you’re mad," he said. "But I’ll get it next time. I promise."

Sydney shook her head and sighed. "Oh, Kyle."

Didn’t he get it? She had been a willing coconspirator in their postmodern arrangement, but there was always a bubbling undercurrent of latent resentment just below the surface. (On his part too, she sensed.) Tonight’s eruption had brought it gushing forth like hot, molten lava, and there was no way to reverse the flow. It was the natural order of things.

Taking a step toward him, she put her hands on his flushed cheeks, gave him a long, soft kiss on the mouth, and whispered, "Sweetie, there isn’t going to be a next time."

Excerpted from Feminista by Erica Kennedy.
Copyright 2009 by Erica Kennedy.
Published in September 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.