Never screw your roommate’s brother.
A simple rule, but a good one. And I broke it last night. Twice.
At least the party was awesome. I’ll try that excuse if Julia is pissy. And if her house is trashed. Which I’m pretty sure it is.
I’m not exactly surprised. I like parties, I’m good at them, and it was August 26 yesterday. And on that date, I always drink to forget. This year, I did it with whips, chains, and bells on.
My bare ass keeps brushing against the wall as I squish away from Mike. Don’t you hate that? Doesn’t random hookup etiquette demand he face the other way? I wish he would just leave without me having to, like, talk to him.
I wonder what Madeleine, his sister, would say if she found out. She’d probably ignore me, which is what she always does these days. I wish Julia hadn’t asked her to move in.
Julia, my best friend from college, inherited this house when her aunt passed away. So Julia invited me, her little sister Coco, and Madeleine to move in. And then we needed a fifth, so I asked my friend Angie. We’re a motley crew: Coco’s the Betty Homemaker type, Angie’s all fashi-tude, Julia’s super-smart and ambitious, and Madeleine’s uptight as hell. And me? I’m … well, it’s impossible to describe yourself, isn’t it? Let’s call me a work-in-progress.
We moved in two weeks ago. It’s a brownstone named Rookhaven, on Union Street in Carroll Gardens, a neighborhood in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City. None of us has properly lived in New York before.
Carroll Gardens is a weird mix of old people who’ve probably lived here forever, young professionals like us who—let’s face it—can’t afford to live in Manhattan, and a bunch of yupster couples with young kids. There’s a real neighborhood village vibe with all these old, traditional Italian bakeries and restaurants next to stylish little bars.
I like stylish little bars.
I like my bedroom, too. I’ve had a lot of bedrooms in my life—twenty-seven, if you count every room change at boarding school and college—but never one quite like this. High ceilings, windows looking out over the front stoop, wall-to-wall mirrored closets. Okay, the mirrors are yellowed and the wallpaper is a faded rosebud print that looks like something out of an old movie. It just feels right. Like this is how it’s supposed to look.
That’s kind of Rookhaven all over. If I were feeling nice, I’d call the décor vintage and preloved. (Old and shabby.) I’m just happy to be in New York, far away from my parents, in the most exciting city in the world, with a job at a SoHo PR agency. My life is finally happening.
Can I be honest with you? I shouldn’t have slept with Mike. Not when things are already, shall we say, complicated with Madeleine. Casual sex only works when it’s with someone you can never see again. But, as I said, it was August 26 (also known as Eddie Memorial Day, or Never Again Day). And on August 26, shit happens.
What is that damn ringing sound?
“I think that’s the doorbell.”
Gah! Mike! Awake! Right here next to me. I peek through my eyelashes. Like Madeleine, he’s ridiculously good-looking. I guess it’s their Chinese-Irish DNA. Good combination.
“Erm … someone else will get it,” I murmur. My breath smells like an open grave. Not that it matters. Because I don’t like him like that. Even though last night I—ew. God. Bad thought. But hey! So what? So the whole sex thing was a bad idea. There is no reason to feel stupid Puritan guilt about one-night stands. I am a feminist. And all that shit.
The doorbell goes again.
“Pia … Come here, you crazy kitten,” Mike says, pushing his arm under me.
“I better get the door. It could be someone important!” I say brightly, slithering down around him and falling onto the dark green carpet with a thump.
I wriggle into my panties, trying to look cool and unbothered as I put on the first T-shirt I see. It belonged to Smith, a guy I dated (well, slept with a few times) in college. The back says, “I brake for cheerleaders … HARD.”
I pull on my favorite cutoff jean shorts and Elmo slippers and stuff my cell phone in my pocket.
“I’m glad you brake for cheerleaders,” says Mike. “They’re an endangered species.”
“Um, yup, totally!” I say, and slam the door behind me, cutting him off.
Mike! God! Nightmare!
I close my eyes, trying to remember last night. It’s worryingly hard. I was feeling meh after Thompson (this cockmonkey I’ve been dating, well, sleeping with) ignored my text (Hola. Bodacious party. Bring smokes if you can … Good text, right? Ironic use of passé slang, trailing ellipses rather than a lame smiley face, etc.). And rejection is not a good look for me. Not on August 26.
So I drank more. And more. And then more.
I remember dancing. On a table, maybe? Yeah, that rings a bell.… And I think I was doing some ’80s-aerobics-style dance moves. The grapevine. Definitely the grapevine. I was having fun, anyway. I don’t usually worry about much when I’m having fun.
And Mike was doing one-handed push-ups, really badly, and making me laugh, and then I stumbled, and next thing I knew Mike’s lips were on mine. Now I love kissing, I really do, and he is pretty good at it, and I was trashed, so I suggested we go to my room. And then … oh, God.
Nothing burns like hangover shame.
The person at the door is really dying to get in. Dingdongdingdongdingdong.
“Coming!” I shout, picking my way over the bottles and cigarette butts on the stairs.
I hope it’s not the cops. I don’t think there were drugs at the party, but you never know. Once time at my second boarding school I thought that my boyfriend Jack had OCD, which was why he arranged talcum powder in little lines, and as it turned out— Wait. Back to the nightmare.
I open the front door and sigh in relief.
It’s just a very old man. His face is like a long raisin with pointy elf ears, on the top of a tall and skinny body.
“Young lady, where is your father?” he says in a strong Brooklyn accent. Fadah.
“Zurich,” I say, then add, “Sir.” (And they say I don’t respect my elders.)
“Are you a relation of Julia’s?”
“Fu— I mean, gosh, no.”
“Well, that figures. I didn’t think Pete remarried, and you’re definitely a half-a-something.”
Seriously? “I’m a whole person, not a half. My mother is Indian, my father is Swiss. Please come back later.” I try to close the door, but he’s blocking it.
“I need to speak with Miss Russotti.”
“Which one? There are two. Russotti the elder, also known as Julia, and Russotti the younger, also known as Coco.”
“Whichever is responsible for the very loud party that went on till 5:00 A.M. and caused the total cave-in of my kitchen ceiling.”
I gasp. He must live in the garden-level apartment under our house. My mind starts racing. How can I fix this?
“Oh, I am so sorry, I can pay for the ceiling, sir, I—”
“I take it that there were no parents present?”
“I think my roommate Madeleine has babysitting experience, does that count?”
“Don’t be smart with me.”
“I’ve never been called smart before,” I say, twisting my hair around my finger, trying to get him to laugh a little bit. No one can stay angry after they laugh, it’s a fact.
His expression warms slightly, then falls as though pushing the crags and crevices into a new shape was too much effort. “Just get Julia.”
“Yes, sir. Would you like to wait inside?”
“If you think I want to see what this house looks like this morning, you’ve got another think coming.”
“Is it think or thing?”
“I’ll go get Julia.”
I run up the stairs, jumping over the leftover party mayhem, and knock on Julia’s bedroom door.
“Juju?” I peer in.
No Julia, just Angie and some tall English lord guy she met in London at the Cartier Polo (yes, seriously). I saw them making out in the laundry room last night after a game of “truth or dare,” which Angie renamed “dare or fuck off.” Man, I hope they didn’t screw on the washing machine. My laundry is in there. I keep forgetting to take it out, and it goes all funky with the heat, so then I have to wash it again and— Oh, sorry. Focus.
“Angie! Wake the hell up!”
I shake her, but she just gives a little snore and buries herself deeper into the bed. She looks like a fallen angel with a serious eyeliner habit. And she’s impossible to wake after a night out.
Julia will lose her shit if she finds out about this. She and Angie haven’t exactly bonded. My bad: I talked Julia into letting Angie move in before they’d even met, because Angie’s folks got her a job as a PA to some food photographer woman in Chelsea and she needed a place to live, and Angie’s been, like, my best friend since I was born. (Literally. Our moms met in the maternity ward.)
Then Angie walked in, said, “It’s a dump, but it’s retro, I can make it work,” and lit a cigarette. Julia was not impressed.
“Angie! Get. The hell. Up.”
“Pia?” She peers up at me through her long white-blond hair. “I had to sleep here, there was a threesome in my bed.”
“Ew,” I say, grimacing, as I pull Angie onto her feet. “Help me. Major crisis.”
“You’re such a fucking drama queen. Hugh. Dude. Get up.”
Hugh climbs out behind her unsteadily. He has a very posh English accent. “Tremendous party.” Pah-teh. He’s very handsome, like a young Prince William, with more hair.
As soon as he leaves, Angie licks and smells her hand to check her morning breath. “Yep, pretty rank. What’s wrong, ladybitch?”
“Everything. We have to find Julia.”
“Roger that.” Angie’s still wearing her tiny party dress from last night and slips on a pair of snow boots from Julia’s closet. “You have a hickey on your neck.”
“How old school of me.” I grab Julia’s foundation to dab over it. “Ugh, why is she wearing this shade? It’s completely wrong for her. Sorry, off topic.”
We head upstairs. Angie stares at her closed bedroom door. “God, I hate threesomes.”
“Totally. It’s just showing off.”
Angie smirks, then karate kicks her door in. “Show’s over, bitches! Get the hell outta my house.”
Two girls I’ve never seen before and a tall dark-haired guy I vaguely recognize from college saunter out of Angie’s room.
“Pia, babe!” says the guy, putting on his shirt. “I tried to find you all night! Remember that party back in junior year? A little Vicodin, a little tequila…”
I shudder. Now I remember him.
“Leave,” snaps Angie. “Now.”
“Bitch,” he calls, walking down the stairs.
“Blow me!” she calls back, then heads into her room. “Fuck! I’m gonna have to burn the sheets.”
I hear a hinge squeak. It’s Madeleine, coming out of the bathroom in a pristine white robe, her hair wrapped perfectly in a towel-turban.
“Morning!” I say, smiling as innocently as I can.
She pads to her bedroom and slams the door. Typical. Good thing I didn’t add, “By the way, your brother is naked in my bed.”
I trudge up the last flight of stairs, finally reach Coco’s attic room, and knock. Julia must be in here. There’s nowhere else to go.
“It’s me…” I open the door slowly.
Julia is sitting on the bed, still wearing her clothes from last night yet sportily immaculate as ever, next to Coco, whose blond bob is bent over a plastic bucket and—oh, God. She’s puking.
“Coco!” I say. “Are you sick?”
“Clap, clap, Sherlock,” says Julia.
“I’m fine!” Coco’s voice echoes nasally in the bucket. “So fine. Oh, God, not fine.” Noisy, chokey barf sounds follow. “Wowsers! This is green! Oh, Julia, it’s green, is that bad?”
“It’s bile,” says Julia, rubbing Coco’s back and glaring at me. Furious and sisterly, all at once. “I need to talk to Pia. Try to stop vomiting, okay?” She has a deep, self-assured voice, particularly lately. It’s like the moment she graduated, she decided it was time to act adult at all costs.
“Maybe I’ll lose weight,” Coco’s voice echoes from the bucket.
I follow Julia to the tiny landing at the top of the stairs, closing Coco’s bedroom door behind us. I feel sick. Confrontation and I really don’t get along.
“I am sorry,” I say immediately. “I guess you’re angry about the party, and—”
“You sold it to me as a ‘small housewarming,’” interrupts Julia. “This place was like Cancun on spring break, but less classy.”
I hate being told off, too. It’s not like I don’t know when I’ve screwed up. Or like I do it on purpose. And I never know what to say, so I just gaze into space and wait for it to be over.
“I said no wild parties. When we all moved in, that was the rule.” God, Julia is scary when she wants to be. “What the fuck were you thinking, Pia?”
“It just sort of, um, happened.…” I say, chewing my lip. “And I’m sorry about this, too, um, there’s an old dude at the door? He said his ceiling caved in? I’ll pay for it! I have the money and—”
“Vic?” says Julia in dismay. “I swear to God, Pia, I can’t live with you if you’re going to fucking act like this all the time. I mean it!”
She’s going to kick me out of Rookhaven?
“I won’t!” I exclaim. “I’m sorry! Don’t overreact!”
“Start cleaning up!” she shouts, thundering down the stairs.
She’s going to kick me out. I thought I finally had somewhere that I could call my own, somewhere that wasn’t temporary, and somewhere I might actually not have to wear shower shoes. Yet again I am the master of my own demise. Mistress. Whatever.
I walk back into Coco’s room. “Can I get you anything, sweetie? I’ve got rehydration salts somewhere.”
“No,” she croaks, smiling cherubically at me from the pillow. “I had fun last night. You were so funny.”
“Oh, well, that’s good.” What the hell was I doing?
There are hundreds of books on Coco’s floor. I think they’re usually in the bookshelves in the living room. They’re all old and tattered, with titles like What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I loved What Katy Did, I remember. The sequel, What Katy Did at School, was one of the reasons I thought boarding school would be awesome. Stupid book.
“Why are these here?” I ask.
“I didn’t want them to get, um, you know, trashed at the party,” says Coco. “So I picked up all the ones that my mom loved the most and brought them up here.”
“It must have taken you a while,” I say.
“Every time I made a trip, I had a shot.…” Coco starts puking again.
“Hey, ladybitches,” says Angie, sauntering in with an unlit cigarette propped in the side of her mouth.
“For you, Miss Coco.” Somehow, Angie has found an icy-cold can of Coke.
“Wow, thanks! I normally drink Diet Coke, but—”
“Trust me, Diet Coke is bullshit. Okay kids, I am officially over this post-party chaos thing. Let’s clean up.”
At that moment, my phone rings. Unlisted number. I answer.
“Pia, it’s Benny Mansi.”
Benny Mansi is the director of the PR agency where I work. My parents know his family somehow and got me the interview back in June. I started working there last week. Why would he call me on a Sunday? Is that normal? Perhaps it’s a PR emergency!
I try to sound professional. “Hi! What’s up?”
“Are you aware that there’s a photo of you on Facebook, dancing on a table topless and drinking a bottle of Captain Morgan rum?”
WHAM. I feel like I just got punched.
“Pia, we’re letting you go before your trial period is over.”
WHAM. Another hit.
“You’re firing me … for having a party?”
“Captain Morgan is one of our biggest clients,” Benny says. “As my employee, you represent the agency. You’re also Facebook friends with all your brand-new colleagues. You were tagged, they saw it. I applaud your convivial approach to interoffice relations, but that sort of behavior is just … it’s unprofessional, and it’s completely unacceptable, Pia.”
“I know.” A wash of sickly cold horror trickles through me, and I stare at the yellowed glow-in-the-dark stars on the sloping ceiling in Coco’s room. They lost their glow long ago.… Oh, God, I can’t be fired. I can’t be fired after one week. “I’m so sorry, Benny.” Silence. “Did you … tell my, um, father?”
He sighs. “I e-mailed him this morning. I didn’t tell him why.” I don’t say anything, and his voice softens. “Look, Pia, it’s complicated. We made some redundancies a few months ago. So hiring you, as a family friend, really upset a few people, and that photo … my hands are tied. I’m sorry.”
He hangs up.
I can feel Coco and Angie staring at me, but I can’t say anything.
I’ve lost my job. And I’m probably about to get kicked out of my house. After one week in New York.
My phone rings again. It’s my parents. I stare at the phone for a few seconds, knowing what’s on the other end, what’s waiting for me.
I wonder if Coco would mind if I borrowed her puke bucket.
I need to be alone for what’s about to happen, so I walk back out to the stairwell and sit down. I can hear Madeleine playing some angsty music in her room on the floor below, mixed with Julia’s placating tones and Vic’s grumbly ones from down in the front hall.
Then I answer, trying to sound like a good daughter.
“So you’ve lost your job already. What do you have to say for yourself?”
My voice is gone. This happens sometimes. Just when I need it most. In its place, a tiny squeaking sound comes out.
“Speak up!” snaps my father. He has a slightly scary Swiss accent despite twenty years living in the States.
“I’m … sorry. I’ll get another job, I will, and—”
“Pia, we are so disappointed in you!” My mother is lurking on the extension. She has a slight Indian accent that only really comes out when she’s pissed. Like now.
“You wanted the summer with Angie, so we paid for it. You wanted to work, so we got you a job. You said you had the perfect place to live, so we agreed to help pay rent, though God knows Brooklyn certainly wasn’t the perfect place to live last time I was there—”
“You have no work ethic! You are a spoiled party girl! Are you sniffing the drugs again?”
They’ve really honed their double-pronged condemnation-barrage routine over the years.
“Work ethic. Your mother is right. Your total failure to keep a job … well. Let me tell you a story—”
I sink my head to my knees. My parents have the confidence-killing combination of high standards and low expectations.
They also twist everything so it looks terrible. They told me if I got good grades they’d pay for my vacation, and that I’d never find a job on my own, and they offered me an allowance, so of course I said yes! Wouldn’t you?
“… and that is how I met your father and then we got married and had you and then lived— What do you say? Happily ever after…”
Yeah, right. My parents hardly talk to each other. They distract themselves with work (my dad) and socializing (my mother). They met in New York, where they had me, then moved to Singapore, London, Tokyo, Zurich … I went to American International Schools until I was twelve, and then they started sending me to boarding school. Well, boarding schools.
“Life starts with a job, Pia. You think we will always pay for your mistakes, that life is just a party. We know you’ll never have a career, but a job is—”
“A reason to get up in the morning!”
“And the only way to learn the value of money. Do you understand?”
I nod stupidly, staring at the wall next to me, at the ancient-looking rosebud wallpaper. At the bottom the paper has started to peel, curled up like a little pencil shaving. It’s comforting.
“Pia!” my mother is shouting. “Why are you not listening? Do we have to do the Skype again?”
“No, no, I can’t, my Skype is broken,” I say quickly. I can’t handle Skyping with my parents. It’s so damn intense.
“We are stopping your allowance, effective immediately. No rent money, no credit card for emergencies. You’re on your own.”
“What? B-but it might take me a while to get another job!” I stammer in panic.
“Well, the Bank of Mom and Dad is closed unless you come live with us in Zurich and get a job here. That’s the deal.”
“No way!” I know I sound hysterical, but I can’t help it. “My friends are here! My life is here!”
“We want you to be safe,” says my mother, in a slightly gentler tone. Suddenly tears rush to my eyes. “We worry. And it seems like you’re only safe when you’re with us.”
“I am safe.”
“And we want you to be happy,” she adds.
“I am happy!” My voice breaks.
My father interrupts. “This is the deal. We’re vacationing in Palm Beach in exactly two months, via New York. If you’re not in gainful employment by then, we’re taking you back to Zurich with us. That’s the best thing for you.”
The tears escape my eyes. I know I’ve made some mistakes, but God, I’ve tried to make it up to them. I studied hard, I got into a great college.… It’s never good enough.
How is it that no one in the world can make me feel as bad as my parents can?
“Okay, message received,” I say. “I gotta go.”
I hang up and stare at the curled-up rosebud wallpaper for a few more seconds. Then, almost without thinking, I lick my index finger and try to smooth it down, so it lies flat and perfect against the wall. It bounces right back up again.
With one party, I’ve destroyed my life in New York City. Before it even began.
Copyright © 2013 by Gemma Burgess