I was really going to be somebody by the time I was twenty-three.
Have a career. Be good at something. Be happy.
But here I am, less than two months before my twenty-third birthday, “catching up” with my mother Annabel over waffles and fruit juice in a tiny café called Rock Dog, because I am unemployed and have nothing better to do on a random weekday morning.
The waffles are organic, by the way, and the juice is organic lingonberry, a ridiculous Scandinavian fruit famed for its antioxidants. This is Brooklyn, where the higher the obscurity, the higher the cred. Personally, I haven’t got a problem with SunnyD or good old full-fat Coca-Cola, but whatever fries your burger, right?
And of course the waiter—whom Annabel has already quasi-yelled at twice—rushes up with the jug for a refill, trips, and boom. Lingonberry juice all over me. So now I’m soaked. The punch line to an already (not so) delightful morning.
He’s mortified. “Oh my! I am so sorry, let me clean that up—”
“You can forget about the tip!” My mother is furious.
“Don’t overreact,” I interrupt her. “It was an accident.”
“But your top is ruined!”
“I was sick of it anyway.”
“I don’t know why you insist on coming to these ridiculous places.” God, she’s in a bad mood. Her phone rings. “Bethany!… No, darling, I’m still with Angelique. Somewhere in Brooklyn. I know, I know—”
The waiter has tears in his eyes, he’s blotting frantically and whispering, “I’m so sorry. I keep spilling things because I’m so nervous. This is my first job waiting tables.”
“Dude, it’s not a problem,” I whisper back. “Never cry over anything that won’t cry over you.”
He brightens. “That is such a good life philosophy! Can I take that?”
“It’s yours. Get some T-shirts printed. Or a bumper sticker. Knock yourself out.”
He starts giggling. “You are hilarious, girl! I’m Adrian.”
Annabel hangs up and blinks at me till Adrian leaves. She blinks when she’s annoyed. Making friends with the waiter is just the kind of thing that would irritate her. “Well. I have some news. Your father and I are divorcing.”
That’s why she came all the way from Boston to see me? I’m so shocked that I can’t actually say anything. I just stare at her, a half-chewed bite of waffle in my mouth.
“It’s been arranged.” She examines her glass for kiss marks. “The papers are signed, everything is done.”
I finally swallow. “You’re … divorcing?”
“It’s not a huge surprise, is it? Given what he’s been up to over the years? And you’re too old to be Daddy’s little girl anymore, so I don’t see why you’d be upset.”
“Right on.” I take out a cigarette and place it, unlit, in the corner of my mouth. I find cigarettes comforting. (Yes, I know, they’re bad for you.) “You’re divorcing. Gnarly.”
My mother blinks at me again. Princess Diana had a formative influence on her maquillage philosophy: heavy on the navy eyeliner. They’re divorcing is playing on a loop in my head. Why didn’t my father tell me?
Annabel clears her throat. “You broke up with Mani, I take it? Single again?”
I don’t answer. Last year I told her about the guy I thought I was in love with in an unguarded moment of total fucking stupidity. Just before he dumped me.
“Unlucky in love, that’s you and me,” she continues blithely. “Perhaps we can go on the prowl, hmm? How’s darling Pia? Why don’t we all get together and have a girls’ night out?”
I stare at her for several long seconds. She’s out of her fucking mind.
The minute she goes to the bathroom I make eye contact with Adrian and mime the international pen-scribble sign for “Check, please.”
He hurries over. “I am so sorry again! It’s on me, I really—”
“Don’t be crazy,” I say, handing over a fifty-dollar bill as I stand up and put my coat on. “No change. The tip is all for you.”
“Oh, Angie, thank you!” Adrian looks like he’s about to cry again, but then stares at me in concern. “Wait, are you okay?”
I nod, but I can’t even look at him, or I swear to God I’ll lose it. I need to be alone.
While my mother is still in the bathroom, I leave. She’ll find her way back to her hotel in Manhattan somehow. My mother is British, she lives in Boston most of the time, and her only experience in New York was the year they lived here, on the Upper East Side, when she gave birth to me. She got so fat during pregnancy that she wouldn’t leave the apartment after I was born in case she saw someone she knew. So apparently I didn’t see the sun till I was five months old and she’d lost the weight. And that, my friends, sums up Annabel’s whole approach to motherhood.
The moment I get outside, I light my cigarette. That’s better. It’s late February, and goddamn cold outside, but I’m toasty. I’m wearing my dead grandmother’s fur coat that I turned inside out and hand-sewed into an old army surplus jacket when I was sixteen.
Well, finally, I guess, right? Dad hasn’t exactly been the best husband. Not that she knows about any of that stuff. I wonder if he’ll tell her now. Probably not. Why rock a boat that’s already sinking, or whatever that saying is. For a second, I consider calling him. But what will I say—congratulations? Commiserations? Better to wait for him to call me.
But how does this work? Like, where will we spend Christmas next year? How does divorce work when your kid is an adult? It’s not like they can have visitation rights or custody battles or whatever, right? Will we simply cease to exist as a family?
When I was little, we spent every Christmas at my grandmother’s house in Boston. I always emptied my Christmas stocking on my parents’ bed. I sat in between them while they had coffee and I had hot chocolate and we shared bites of buttery raisin toast. I’d take each present out of my stocking, one by one. They’d get all excited with me and we’d wonder how Santa knew exactly what I wanted and how he got to every house in the world in just one night. Pretty standard stuff, I bet, but a happy warmth washes over me thinking about it. It just felt … good. I can still remember that sense of security and togetherness.
Now I can’t imagine ever having it again. There’s a hollowness in my stomach where that feeling used to belong.
Maybe I should grow the hell up. Our family hasn’t felt good for a long time. Plus, I’m nearly twenty-three, the age that, to me at least, has always been the marker of true adulthood. It’s the end of the carefree-unbrushed-hair-forgot-my-bra-I’m-a-grad-winging-it early twenties, and the start of the matching-lingerie-health-insurance-real-career-serious-boyfriend mid-twenties. And I’m nowhere near any of those things.
I take out my phone and call Stef. He’s this guy I know, a trust-fund baby with a lot of bad friends and nice drugs. He’s always doing something fun. But today he’s not answering.
I live with four other girls in an old brownstone called Rookhaven, in Carroll Gardens, an area of Brooklyn in New York City. I’d love to live in Manhattan, but I can’t afford it, and my best friend Pia hooked me up with a cheap room here after graduation.
I didn’t think I’d stick around long, but it’s the sort of place where you get cozy, fast. Décor-wise, it’s a cheesy time capsule, but I’ve been living here since last August, and now I even like that about it. What bad things can possibly happen in a kitchen that has smelled like vanilla and cinnamon forever?
I let myself in and head up the stairs to my room. “Is anyone home?”
No answer. No surprise. Everyone’s at work. Until a few weeks ago I was working as a sort of freelance PA to Cornelia Pace, the spoiled daughter of some socialite my mother knows. Basically, I ran errands (dry-cleaning, tailoring, Xanax prescriptions) for her and she handed me cash when she remembered. Cornelia’s in Europe skiing for the next, like, month. She said she’d call me when she gets back. I’ve got enough cash to survive until then. I hope.
And no, I don’t take handouts. My folks paid my rent when I first moved in last year, and always gave me a generous allowance, but between you and me, they don’t have the money anymore. A few investments went sour over the past few years, and my dad told me at Christmas that they were basically broke, which totally freaked me out. I’d never seen him look that defeated, and I can’t be a financial burden on him anymore. Especially with the bombshell my mother just dropped. They’re divorcing.…
Do you think that an empty, cold, gray house at 2:00 P.M. in February, with nothing to do and no dude to text, might be one of the most depressing things in the history of the fucking universe? Because I do. I feel like my toes have been cold forever.
Oh God, I need a vacation. I want sandy feet and clear blue skies and hot sun on my skin and that blissed-out exalted tingly-scalp feeling you get when you dive into the ocean and the cool seawater hits the top of your head. I crave it. We had the best vacations when I was little. My dad taught me how to sail and fish, and Annabel would stop wearing makeup and not worry about her hair for a few weeks. It was the closest to perfect we came as a family.
I flop down on my bed and look around my bedroom. Closet, drawers, a bookshelf with back issues of Women’s Wear Daily and Italian Vogue, an old wooden desk with my sewing machine and drawings and photos that I never get around to organizing, and clothes on every surface. Particularly the floor.
Clothes are my life, but not in a pretentious-label-whore kind of way. I honestly love H&M as much as Hermès (and my only Hermès was a present from an ex, anyway). Making clothes—or styling clothes or thinking about clothes or mentally planning how I could pick apart and resew my existing clothes, my future clothes, my friends’ clothes, and sometimes, to be honest, total strangers’ clothes—is my favorite pastime. I can lose hours just staring into space, thinking about it.
Apparently, this sartorial daydreaming gives my face a sort of detached “fuck-off” expression.
I wonder how many of my problems have been created by the fact that I look like an über-bitch when I’m really just thinking about something else?
Sighing, I reach into my nightstand where there’s always my latest Harlequin, M&M’s, cigarettes, and Belvedere vodka. I read a lot of romance novels; they’re my secret vice. But they’re not going to be enough today. All I want—no, all I need—is to forget about everything that’s wrong with my life. I need to escape.
And I know exactly how to do it.
Cheers to me.
Copyright © 2014 by Gemma Burgess