panties is a vile word
When Leighâ€™s doorbell rang unexpectedly at nine on a Monday night, she did not think, Gee, I wonder who that could be. She thought, Shit. Go away. Were there people who actually welcomed unannounced visitors when they just stopped by to â€œsay helloâ€ or â€œcheck inâ€ ? Recluses, probably. Or those friendly Midwestern folks sheâ€™d seen depicted in Big Love but had never actually metâ€”yes, they probably didnâ€™t mind. But this! This was an affront. Monday nights were sacred and completely off-limits to the rest of the world, a time of No Human Contact when Leigh could veg out in sweats and watch episode after beautiful TiVoâ€™d episode of Project Runway. It was her only time alone all week, and after some intensive training on her part, her friends, her family, and her boyfriend, Russell, finally abided by it.
The girls had stopped asking for Monday-night plans at the end of the nineties; Russell, who in the beginning of their relationship had openly balked, now quietly contained his resentment (and in football season relished having his own Monday nights free); her mother struggled through one night a week without picking up the phone to call, finally accepting after all these years that she wouldnâ€™t hear from Leigh until Tuesday morning no matter how many times she hit Redial. Even Leighâ€™s publisher knew better than to assign her Monday-night readingâ€¦or, god forbid, knew not to log an interrupting phone call. Which is precisely why it was so incredible that her doorbell had just rungâ€”incredible and panic-inducing.
Figuring it was her super, there to change the air-conditioning filter; or one of the delivery guys from Hot Enchiladas, leaving a menu; or, most likely of all, someone just confusing her door with one of her neighborsâ€™, she hit Mute on the TV remote and did not move a muscle. She cocked her head to the side like a Labrador, straining for any confirmation that the intruder had left, but the only thing she heard was the dull, constant thudding from above. Suffering from what her old shrink called â€œnoise sensitivityâ€ and everyone else described as â€œfucking neurotic,â€ Leigh had, of course, thoroughly scoped out her upstairs neighbor before signing over her life savings: The apartment might have been the most perfect sheâ€™d seen in a year and a half of looking, but she hadnâ€™t wanted to take any chances.
Leigh had asked Adriana for the scoop on the woman above her, in apartment 17D, but her friend had just pursed her pouty lips and shrugged. No matter that Adriana had lived in the buildingâ€™s full-floor penthouse apartment from the day her parents had moved from SÃ£o Paulo to New York nearly two decades before; she had completely embraced the New Yorkerâ€™s I-Promise-Not-to-Acknowledge-You-If-You-Extend-Me-the-Same-Courtesy attitude toward her neighbors and could offer Leigh no info on her neighbor. And so, on a blustery December Saturday right before Christmas, Leigh had slipped the buildingâ€™s doorman twenty bucks, Bond-style, and waited in the lobby, pretending to read a manuscript. After Leigh spent three hours scanning the same anecdote, the doorman coughed loudly and looked at her over the top of his glasses with meaning. Glancing up, Leigh felt an immediate wave of relief. Before her, removing a QVC catalog from an unlocked mailbox, stood an overweight woman in a polka-dot housedress. Not a day younger than eighty, thought Leigh, and she breathed a sigh of relief; there would be no stilettos clacking against the hardwood floors, no late-night parties, no parade of visitors stomping around.
The very next day Leigh wrote a check for the down payment, and two months later she excitedly moved into her mint-condition one-bedroom dream apartment. It had a renovated kitchen, an oversized bathtub, and a more than decent northern view of the Empire State Building. It might have been one of the smallest units in the buildingâ€”okay, the smallestâ€”but it was still a dream, a beautiful, lucky dream in a building Leigh never thought she could afford, each and every obscenely priced square foot paid for with her own hard work and savings.
How could she possibly have predicted that the seemingly innocuous upstairs neighbor was a dedicated wearer of massive wooden orthopedic clogs? Still, Leigh berated herself regularly for thinking high heels were the only potential noise risk: it had been an amateurâ€™s mistake. Before sheâ€™d spotted her neighbor wearing the offending shoes, Leigh had created an elaborate explanation for the relentless upstairs racket. She decided that the woman had to be Dutch (since everyone knew Dutch people wore clogs), and the matriarch of a huge, proudly Dutch family who received constant visits from countless children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, siblings, cousins, and general advice-seekersâ€¦all, most likely, Dutch clog-wearers. After spotting her neighbor wearing an air cast and feigning interest in the womanâ€™s disgusting-sounding foot ailments including (but not limited to) plantar fasciitis, ingrown toenails, neuromas, and bunions, Leigh had clucked as sympathetically as she could manage and then raced upstairs to check her copy of the co-op rules. Sure enough, they dictated that owners were required to cover eighty percent of their hardwood floors with carpetâ€”which she realized was an entirely moot point when the very next page revealed that her upstairs neighbor was president of the board.
Leigh had already endured nearly four months of round-the-clock clogging, something that might have been funny if it was happening to someone else. Her nerves were directly tied to the volume and frequency of the steady thump-thump-thump that segued into a thumpety-thump-thumpety-thump-thump pattern when Leighâ€™s heart began to pound right along with it. She tried to breathe slowly, but her exhales were short and raspy, punctuated by little guppy gasps. As she examined her pale complexion (which on good days she thought of as â€œetherealâ€ and all other times accepted as â€œsicklyâ€ ) in the mirrored hallway closet door, a thin sheen of perspiration dampened her forehead.
It seemed to be happening more frequently, this sweating/breathing issueâ€”and not just when she heard the wood-on-wood banging. Sometimes Leigh would awaken from a sleep so deep it almost hurt, only to find her heart racing and her sheets drenched. Last week in the middle of an otherwise completely relaxing shavasnaâ€”albeit one where the instructor felt compelled to play an a capella version of â€œAmazing Graceâ€ over the speakersâ€”a sharp pain shot through Leighâ€™s chest on each measured inhale. And just this morning as she watched the human tidal wave of commuters cram onto the N trainâ€”she forced herself to take the subway, but hated every second of itâ€”Leighâ€™s throat constricted and her pulse inexplicably quickened. There seemed to be only two plausible explanations, and although she could be a bit of a hypochondriac, even Leigh didnâ€™t think she was a likely candidate for a coronary: It was a panic attack, plain and simple.
In an ineffective attempt to dispel the panic, Leigh pressed her fingertips into her temples and stretched her neck from side to side, neither of which did a damn thing. It felt like her lungs could reach only ten percent capacity, and just as she considered who would find her bodyâ€”and whenâ€”she heard a choked sobbing and yet another ring of her doorbell.
She tiptoed over to the door and looked through the peephole but saw only empty hallway. This was exactly how people ended up robbed and raped in New York Cityâ€”getting duped by some criminal mastermind into opening their doors. Iâ€™m not falling for this, she thought as she stealthily dialed her doorman. Never mind that her buildingâ€™s security rivaled the UNâ€™s, or that in eight years of city living she didnâ€™t personally know anyone whoâ€™d been so much as pickpocketed, or that the chances of a psychopathic murderer choosing her apartment from more than two hundred other units in her building was unlikelyâ€¦. This was how it all started.
The doorman answered after four eternally long rings.
â€œGerard, itâ€™s Leigh Eisner in 16D. Thereâ€™s someone outside my door. I think theyâ€™re trying to break in. Can you come up here right away? Should I call 911?â€ The words came out in a frantic jumble as Leigh paced the small foyer and popped Nicorette squares into her mouth directly from the foil wrapper.
â€œMiss Eisner, of course Iâ€™ll send someone up immediately, but perhaps youâ€™re mistaking Miss Solomon for someone else? She arrived a few minutes ago and proceeded directly to your apartmentâ€¦which is permissible for someone on your permanent clearance list.â€
â€œEmmyâ€™s here?â€ Leigh asked. She forgot all about her imminent death by disease or homicide and pulled open her door to find Emmy rocking back and forth on the hallway floor, knees pulled tight against her chest, cheeks slick with tears.
â€œMiss, may I be of further assistance? Shall I stillâ€”â€
â€œThanks for your help, Gerard. Weâ€™re fine now,â€ Leigh said, snapping shut her cell phone and shoving it into the kangaroo pocket of her sweatshirt. She dropped to her knees without thinking and wrapped her arms around Emmy.
â€œHoney, whatâ€™s wrong?â€ she crooned, gathering Emmyâ€™s tear-dampened hair from her face into a ponytail. â€œWhat happened?â€
The show of concern brought with it a fresh stream of tears; Emmy was sobbing so hard her tiny body trembled. Leigh ran through the possibilities of what could cause such pain, and came up with only three: a death in the family, a pending death in the family, or a man.
â€œSweetie, is it your parents? Did something happen to them? To Izzie?â€
Emmy shook her head.
â€œTalk to me, Emmy. Is everything okay with Duncan?â€
This elicited a wail so plaintive it hurt Leigh to hear it. Bingo.
â€œOver,â€ Emmy cried, her voice catching in her throat. â€œItâ€™s over for good.â€
Emmy had made this pronouncement no fewer than eight times in the five years she and Duncan had been dating, but something about tonight seemed different.
â€œHoney, Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s all justâ€”â€
â€œHe met someone.â€
â€œHe what?â€ Leigh dropped her arms and sat back on her ankles.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, let me rephrase: I bought him someone.â€
â€œWhat on earth are you talking about?â€
â€œRemember when I got him a membership at Clay for his thirty-first birthday because he was desperate to get back in shape? And then he never wentâ€”not one fucking time in two whole yearsâ€”because, according to him, it wasnâ€™t â€˜an efficient use of his timeâ€™ to just go and stand on the treadmill? So rather than just cancel the whole damn thing and forget about it, I, genius extraordinaire, decide to buy him a series of sessions with a personal trainer so he wouldnâ€™t have to waste one precious second exercising like everyone else.â€
â€œI think I can see where this is going.â€
â€œWhat? You think he fucked her?â€ Emmy laughed mirthlessly. It sometimes surprised people to hear Emmy trash-talk with such ferocityâ€”she was, after all, only five-one and looked no older than a teenagerâ€”but Leigh barely even noticed anymore. â€œI thought so, too. Itâ€™s so much worse than that.â€
â€œThat sounds bad enough, sweetheart.â€ All-out loving sympathy and support were the best she could offer, but Emmy didnâ€™t appear comforted.
â€œYou probably wonder how it could get worse, right? Well, let me tell you how. He didnâ€™t just fuck herâ€”I could maybe deal with that. Noooo, not my Duncan. He â€˜fell in loveâ€™ with her.â€ Emmy jabbed out air quotes with the forefingers and middle fingers of both hands and rolled her bloodshot eyes. â€œHeâ€™s â€˜waiting for her,â€™ quote-unquote, until sheâ€™s â€˜ready.â€™ Sheâ€™s a VIRGIN, for chrissake! Iâ€™ve put up with five years of his cheating and lies and kinky, weird sex so he can FALL IN LOVE WITH A VIRGIN TRAINER I HIRED IN THE GYM I PAID FOR? In love! Leigh, what am I going to do?â€
Leigh, relieved that she could finally do something tangible, took Emmyâ€™s arm and helped her to her feet. â€œCome in, honey. Letâ€™s go inside. Iâ€™ll make us some tea and you can tell me what happened.â€
Emmy sniffed. â€œOh, god, I forgotâ€¦itâ€™s Monday. I donâ€™t want to interrupt. Iâ€™ll be fineâ€¦.â€
â€œDonâ€™t be ridiculous. I wasnâ€™t even doing anything,â€ Leigh lied. â€œCome in this minute.â€
Leigh led her to the couch and, after patting the overstuffed arm to indicate where Emmy should rest her head, ducked behind the wall that separated the living room from the kitchen. With its speckled granite countertops and new stainless steel appliances, the kitchen was Leighâ€™s favorite room in the whole apartment. All of her pots and pans hung from under-cabinet hooks in order of size, and all of her utensils and spices were obsessively organized in matching glass and stainless containers. Crumbs, spills, wrappers, dirty dishesâ€”all nonexistent. The refrigerator looked like someone had Hoovered it clean, and the countertops were entirely smudge-free. If it was possible for a room to personify its ownerâ€™s neurotic personality, the kitchen and Leigh could be identical twins.
She filled the kettle (purchased just last week during a Bloomingdaleâ€™s Home Sale, because who said you were entitled to new things only when you registered?), piled a tray high with cheese and Wheat Thins, and peeked through the window into the living room to make sure Emmy was resting comfortably. Seeing that she was lying flat on her back with an arm flung over her eyes, Leigh slipped out her cell phone and selected Adrianaâ€™s name from her phone book. She typed: SOS. E & D finished. Get down here ASAP.
â€œDo you have Advil?â€ Emmy called from the couch. And then, more quietly: â€œDuncan always carried Advil.â€
Leigh opened her mouth to add that Duncan had always carried a lot of thingsâ€”a business card for his favorite escort service, a wallet-sized picture of himself as a child, and, occasionally, a genital wart or two that he swore were just â€œskin tagsâ€ â€”but she controlled herself. In addition to being unnecessary since Emmy was suffering enough, it would be hypocritical: Contrary to everyoneâ€™s belief, Leigh wasnâ€™t exactly in the worldâ€™s most perfect relationship, either. But she pushed the thought of Russell from her mind.
â€œSure, Iâ€™ll get you some in a minute,â€ she said, turning off the whistling kettle. â€œTeaâ€™s ready.â€
The girls had just taken their first sips when the doorbell rang. Emmy looked at Leigh, who just said, â€œAdriana.â€
â€œItâ€™s open!â€ Leigh called toward the front door, but Adriana had already figured that out. She stormed into the living room and stood with her hands on her hips, surveying the scene.
â€œWhat is going on here?â€ she demanded. Adrianaâ€™s slight Brazilian accent, little more than a soft, sexy lilting when she was calm, made her almost unintelligible when she felt, in her own words, â€œpassionateâ€ about someone or something. Which was pretty much always. â€œWhere are the drinks?â€
Leigh motioned to the kitchen. â€œWaterâ€™s still hot. Check the cupboard above the microwave. I have a whole bunch of different flavors inâ€”â€
â€œNo tea!â€ Adriana screeched and pointed to Emmy. â€œCanâ€™t you see sheâ€™s miserable? We need real drinks. Iâ€™ll make caipirinhas.â€
â€œI donâ€™t have any mint. Or limes. Actually, Iâ€™m not even sure I have the right booze,â€ Leigh said.
â€œI brought everything.â€ Adriana lifted a large paper bag over her head and grinned.
Leigh often found Adrianaâ€™s abruptness irritating, sometimes a little overwhelming, but tonight she was grateful to her for taking control of the situation. It had been nearly twelve years since Leigh first saw Adrianaâ€™s smile, and still it left her feeling awestruck and a little anxious. How could someone possibly be that beautiful? she wondered for the hundred thousandth time. What higher power orchestrated such a perfect union of genes? Who decided that one single solitary soul deserved skin like that? It was so fundamentally unfair.
It was another few minutes before the drinks were mixed and distributed and everyone had settled down; Emmy and Adriana sprawled on the couch; Leigh sat cross-legged on the floor.
â€œSo, tell us what happened,â€ Leigh said, placing a hand on Emmyâ€™s ankle. â€œJust take your time and tell us all about it.â€
Emmy sighed and, for the first time since she arrived, appeared cried out. â€œThereâ€™s not that much to tell. Sheâ€™s absolutely adorableâ€”like, nauseatingly cute. And young. Really, really young.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s really, really young?â€ Leigh asked.
â€œThatâ€™s not so young.â€
â€œShe has a MySpace profile,â€ Emmy said.
â€œAnd sheâ€™s on Facebook.â€
â€œGood lord,â€ Adriana muttered.
â€œYeah, I know. Her favorite color is lavender and her favorite book is The South Beach Diet and she just adores cookie dough, campfires, and watching Saturday-morning cartoons. Oh, and she simply must get nine hours of sleep or else sheâ€™s really, really cranky.â€
â€œWhat else?â€ Leigh asked, although she could predict the answer.
â€œWhat else do you want to know?â€
Adriana started the quiz showâ€“like round.
â€œSMU, Comm major, Kappa Kappa Gamma.â€ Emmy enunciated these last three words with a perfect Valley Girl inflection.
â€œBorn in Richmond, raised in a suburb of Charleston.â€
â€œLike you even have to ask. Kenny Chesney.â€
â€œHigh school sport?â€
â€œLetâ€™s just all say it in unisonâ€¦.â€ Emmy said.
â€œCheerleading,â€ Adriana and Leigh simultaneously.
â€œGiven.â€ Emmy sighed, but then she smiled for a second. â€œI found some pictures of her from her sisterâ€™s wedding photographerâ€™s Web siteâ€”she even manages to look good in teal taffeta. The whole thing is positively nauseating.â€
The girls all laughed, each accustomed to this oldest of female-bonding traditions. When your life was in the gutter because your ex-boyfriend suddenly surfaced on weddingchannel.com, nothing offered comfort like trashing the new girlfriend. It was actually how they had become friends in the first place. Leigh and Emmy met each other first in Astronomy 101, a class both were taking to fulfill the dreaded science requirement. Neither realized until it was too late that Astro was actually an aggressive mixture of chemistry, calculus, and physicsâ€”not the chance to learn all the constellations and look at the pretty stars, like they had hoped. They were the two least-competent and lowest-scoring members of their lab group, and their TA had strung together enough English words to let them know that theyâ€™d better start improving or they would fail the class, which prompted Leigh and Emmy to meet three times a week in the study lounge at Emmyâ€™s dorm, a glass-enclosed, fluorescent-lit pod wedged between the kitchen and the coed bathroom. The girls were just beginning to tackle the review notes for the upcoming midterm when they heard banging followed by distinctly female shrieks. Emmy and Leigh looked at each other and smiled as they listened to the angry words being exchanged down the hall, sure it was yet another argument between a scorned sorority girl and the drunken guy who hadnâ€™t called the next day. The yelling shifted, however, and within seconds Emmy and Leigh watched as a gorgeous honey blonde with a sexy accent took a verbal barrage from a hysterical, red-faced, significantly less pretty blonde directly outside the study lounge.
â€œI canâ€™t believe I voted for you!â€ the red-faced girl screamed. â€œI actually stood up in front of the whole chapter to speak on your behalf, and this is how you show your appreciation? By sleeping with my boyfriend?â€
The stunner with the accent sighed. When she spoke, it was with quiet resignation. â€œAnnie, Iâ€™ve said Iâ€™m sorry. I never would have done that had I known he was your boyfriend.â€
This was not calming to the screamer. â€œHow could you not have known? Weâ€™ve been together for, like, months!â€
â€œI didnâ€™t know, because he accosted me last night, flirted with me, bought me drinks, and asked me to his fraternity formal. Iâ€™m sorry if it didnâ€™t occur to me that he had a girlfriend. If it had, I assure you, I wouldnâ€™t have been interested.â€ The girl held out her hand in a gesture of reconciliation and apology. â€œPlease. Men arenâ€™t that important. Letâ€™s forget about it, okay?â€
â€œForget about it?â€ the girl hissed, almost snarled, through closed teeth. â€œYouâ€™re nothing more than a little freshman whore, sleeping with the seniors because you think they actually like you. Stay away from me and stay away from him, and keep your stupid freshman trampiness out of my life. Understood?â€ The girlâ€™s voice had gotten louder; by the time sheâ€™d asked if Adriana understood, she was shouting again.
Emmy and Leigh watched as Adriana took a long look at the girl, appeared to weigh a response in her mind, and then, deciding against it, simply said, â€œUnderstood perfectly.â€ Immediately the angry blonde swiveled on one Puma and flounced away. Adriana finally allowed herself to smile before noticing Emmy and Leigh watching from the lounge.
â€œDid you just see that?â€ Adriana asked, moving into the doorway.
Emmy coughed and Leigh blushed and nodded. â€œShe was really pissed,â€ Leigh said.
Adriana laughed. â€œAs she so kindly pointed out, Iâ€™m just some stupid freshman. How am I supposed to know whoâ€™s dating who around here? Especially when the guy in question spent half the night telling me how great it is to be single again after being tied down for the last four months. Was I supposed to hook him up to a polygraph?â€
Leigh leaned back in her chair and took a swig from her Diet Coke. â€œMaybe you should start carrying a list of every single older girl on campus and their phone numbers. That way, every time you meet a guy, you can call every one of them to make sure heâ€™s available.â€
Adrianaâ€™s face broke into a huge smile, and Leigh was charmed: She saw immediately why the boy from the previous night had lost all memory of his girlfriend in Adrianaâ€™s presence. â€œIâ€™m Adriana,â€ she said, giving first Leigh and then Emmy a little wave. â€œApparently also known as Class of 2000 Queen Slut.â€
Leigh introduced herself. â€œHey. Iâ€™m Leigh. I was thinking of rushing next semester, until I just met your â€˜sister.â€™ So thanks for that informative lesson.â€
Emmy dog-eared her textbook page and smiled up at Adriana. â€œMy name is Emmy. I also go by The Last Remaining Virgin in the Class of 2000, in case you havenâ€™t heard. Itâ€™s a pleasure to meet you.â€
The girls had talked that night for three hours, and when they were finished, they had established a game plan for the next few weeks: Adriana would drop out of the sorority she had joined under duress (pressure from her mother), Leigh would withdraw her application to rush in the spring, and Emmy would lose her virginity the moment she met an appropriate candidate.
In the twelve years since that night, the girls had barely come up for air.
â€œAnd I also happened to read on her Friendster pageâ€”using Duncanâ€™s password, of courseâ€”that she dreams of having two boys and a girl and wants to be a young mom. Isnâ€™t that just precious? It doesnâ€™t seem that part bothered Duncan.â€
Leigh and Adriana exchanged glances then looked at Emmy, who was completely absorbed in removing a cuticle in an apparent effort not to cry.
So there it was. The new girlâ€™s age, her cheerleading, even her oh-so-adorable name might have been infuriating, but they werenâ€™t intolerable; the fact that she, too, yearned to be a mom as soon as humanly possible was the real clincher. For as long as anyone could remember, Emmy had been very vocal about her desire to have children. Obsessed. She told anyone who would listen that she wanted a huge family, and she wanted it as soon as possible. Four, five, six kidsâ€”boys, girls, a bunch of each; it didnâ€™t matter to Emmy, as long as it happenedâ€¦soon. And while Duncan certainly knew better than anyone how badly Emmy wanted to be a mom, he had managed to wriggle free of any major discussions about the topic. The first two years of their relationship, Emmy had kept this particular desire to herself. After all, they were only twenty-five, and even she knew there was plenty of time. But as their years together started to cycle past at what felt like warp speed and Emmy grew more insistent, Duncan only got cagier. He would say things like â€œStatistically speaking, chances are Iâ€™ll have kids one day,â€ and Emmy would ignore the lack of enthusiasm and his telling pronoun choice, focusing instead on the fact that Duncan had uttered those three magical words: Iâ€™ll have kids. It was because of those magical words that Emmy conceded Duncan his overnight â€œworkâ€ absences and onceâ€”god knows why nowâ€”an inexplicable brush with chlamydia. After all, he had agreed to be the father of her future children.
Adriana broke the silence by doing what she always did when she got uncomfortable: changing the subject entirely.
â€œLeigh, querida, itâ€™s seventy-five degrees outside. Why are you dressed for the middle of winter?â€
Leigh looked at her thick fleece pants and matching sweatshirt and shrugged.
â€œDo you not feel well? Are you cold?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know; it was just what was laying around. What does it matter?â€
â€œItâ€™s not that it matters, itâ€™s just strange that someone so, how should I say it, temperature aware isnâ€™t positively melting right now.â€
Leigh wasnâ€™t about to admit that she was actually warmâ€”too warmâ€”but that there were extenuating circumstances. Adriana might have asked, but she definitely didnâ€™t want to hear that Leigh swathed herself in clothing because she hated when the backs of her arms or thighs stuck to the leather couch. That of course sheâ€™d prefer to sit around in a pair of boxers and a tank top, but the skin-on-leather stickinessâ€”not to mention the annoying ripping noises every time she shifted positionâ€”made this impossible. Leigh knew they would think her crazy if she explained that sheâ€™d actually already worn all of her lightweight, full-length pajama pants (and even all of her yoga pants) and that because she preferred to wear them without underwear, they were really only single-use pants and ended up in the wash pretty quickly. So she was really wearing the fleece sweat suit only because it was the single clean option in her closet that was capable of protecting her from the dreaded leather couch, which both her mother and Emmy had insisted would be the right choice even though Leigh had really wanted the modern fabric one that wouldnâ€™t have felt like sitting in a vat of rubber cement all the time. Not to even mention the fact that in a few short months (six) it would be winter, and sheâ€™d still have to dress like an Eskimo because regardless of how toasty warm she kept the apartment, the couch would feel like ice against her bare skin instead of snuggly and soft like the MicroSuede one everyone else had vetoed. No, it would be better to just leave well enough alone.
â€œHmm,â€ Leigh murmured, hoping to end the conversation by saying nothing. â€œI think weâ€™re ready for another round.â€
The second drink went down easier than the first, so easily in fact that even the increased upstairs thumping no longer made Leigh feel quite soâ€¦unhinged. It was time to rally for her friend.
â€œSo, give us the top three things the cheerleader will be less than thrilled to discover about Duncan,â€ Leigh said, placing her soles together and pushing her knees to the floor, feeling the stretch in her inner thighs.
â€œYes, yes, a good idea.â€ Adriana nodded.
A chunk of Emmyâ€™s naturally brunette hairâ€”she was the only one among the three of them, and possibly the only woman in all of Manhattan, who had never dyed, permed, highlighted, straightened, or even so much as spritzed lemon juice on her shoulder-length maneâ€”fell out of her ponytail, covering half of her bangs and her entire left eye. Leigh yearned to reach up and tuck it behind Emmyâ€™s ear, but she resisted. Instead she popped another piece of Nicorette in her mouth.
Emmy looked up. â€œWhat do you mean?â€
â€œWell, what are his flaws? Disgusting habits? Deal-breakers?â€ Leigh asked.
Adriana threw up her hands in exasperation. â€œCome on, Emmy. Anything! Quirks, hang-ups, obsessions, addictions, secretsâ€¦Itâ€™ll make you feel better. Tell us what was wrong with him.â€
Emmy sniffed. â€œThere was nothâ€”â€
â€œDonâ€™t you dare say there was nothing wrong with him,â€ Leigh interrupted. â€œNow, granted, Duncan was veryâ€ â€”Leigh paused here, wanting to say â€œmanipulativeâ€ or â€œdeviousâ€ or â€œdeceitful,â€ but she stopped herself just in timeâ€”â€œcharming, but he had to have something you never told us about. Some sort of classified information that will have perky little Brianna hanging up her pom-poms.â€
â€œNarcissistic personality disorder?â€ Adriana prompted.
Leigh immediately jumped in for a back-and-forth rally. â€œErectile dysfunction?â€
â€œCried more than you did?â€
â€œDig deep, Emmy,â€ Leigh urged.
â€œWell, there was something I always thought was a little strangeâ€¦â€ Emmy said.
The girls looked at her eagerly.
â€œNot that it was really a big deal. He didnâ€™t do it during sex or anything,â€ she said quickly.
â€œThis just got a hell of a lot more interesting,â€ Adriana said.
â€œSpill it, Emmy,â€ Leigh said.
â€œHe, uhâ€¦â€ She coughed and cleared her throat. â€œWe didnâ€™t really talk about it, but he, uh, sometimes wore my panties to work.â€
This disclosure was enough to silence the two people who considered themselves professional talkers. They talked their way through shrink appointments, out of traffic tickets, and into fully reserved restaurants, but for many secondsâ€”possibly an entire minuteâ€”neither could produce a remotely logical or rational response to this new information.
Adriana recovered first. â€œPanties is a vile word,â€ she said. She frowned and emptied the caipirinha pitcher into her glass.
Leigh stared at her. â€œI cannot believe youâ€™re being pedantic right now. One of your best friends just told you that her boyfriend of nearly five years liked wearing her panties, and your biggest issue is with the word?â€
â€œIâ€™m just pointing out its relative grossness. All women hate the word. Panties. Just say itâ€”panties. It makes my skin crawl.â€
â€œAdriana! He wore her underwear.â€
â€œI know, trust me, I heard her. I was commentingâ€”as a side note, mind youâ€”that in the future, I donâ€™t think we should use that word. Panties. Ugh. Do you not find it repulsive?â€
Leigh paused for a moment. â€œYeah, I guess I do. But thatâ€™s not really the take-away here.â€
Adriana sipped and looked pointedly at Leigh. â€œWell, then, what is?â€
â€œThe fact that her boyfriendâ€ â€”Leigh pointed at Emmy, who was watching the exchange with wide eyes and a blank expressionâ€”â€œput on a suit every day and went to the office. That under said suit he was wearing a pair of cute little lace bikinis. Doesnâ€™t that freak you out slightly more than the word panties?â€
It wasnâ€™t until Emmy gasped audibly that Leigh realized she had gone too far.
â€œOh my god, Iâ€™m sorry, sweetie. I didnâ€™t mean for that to sound as awful asâ€”â€
Emmy held up a hand, palm out, fingers spread. â€œStop, please.â€
â€œThat was so insensitive of me. I swear I wasnâ€™t evenâ€”â€
â€œItâ€™s just that you have it all wrong. Duncan never really showed any interest in my lace bikinis. Or my hipsters or boy shorts, for that matter.â€ Emmy smiled wickedly. â€œBut he sure did seem to love my thongsâ€¦.â€
â€œHey, whore, Iâ€™m ready for you.â€ Gilles swatted Adriana on the upper arm as he walked past, nearly dislodging the cell phone she had balanced between her chin and her left shoulder. â€œAnd move it along. I have better things to do than listen to you have phone sex all day.â€
A few of the older ladies looked up from their Vogues and Town & Countrys, eyes wide with disapproval at this breach in propriety, this complete ignorance of basic common courtesy. Looked up, actually, just in time to see Adriana place her china cup on its saucer and, now having one free hand, raise her right arm over her head and extend her middle finger. She did this without glancing up, still entirely immersed in her conversation.
â€œYes, querido, yes, yes, yes. It will be perfect. Perfect! See you then.â€ Her voice lowered, but just a notch. â€œI canâ€™t wait. Sounds delicious. Mmm. Kiss, kiss.â€ She tapped a red lacquered nail on the iPhoneâ€™s touch screen and dropped it into her wide-mouthed Bottega Veneta satchel.
â€œWhoâ€™s this weekâ€™s lucky prey?â€ Gilles asked as Adriana approached. He turned his swivel chair toward Adriana, who, aware that she had the entire salonâ€™s attention, bent forward the tiniest bit, allowing her silk blouse to fall a few inches from her chest and her bumâ€”not particularly small, but rounded and tight the way men lovedâ€”before placing it, just so, on the leather.
â€œOh, please, do you honestly care? Heâ€™s boring to sleep with, much less talk about.â€
â€œSomeoneâ€™s in a good mood today.â€ He stood behind her, working through her wavy hair with a wide-toothed comb and talking to her through the mirror. â€œThe usual, I assume?â€
â€œMaybe a little lighter around the face?â€ She finished the last of her coffee and then threw her head back into his chest. She sighed. â€œIâ€™m in a rut, Gilles. Iâ€™m tired of all the men, of all the different names and faces I have to keep straight. Not to mention the products! My bathroom looks like a Rite Aid. There are so many different cans of shaving cream and bars of soap that I could go into business.â€
â€œAdi, dearâ€ â€”he knew she hated that nickname, so he used it with relish every chance he gotâ€”â€œyou sound ungrateful. Do you realize how many girls would change places with you in a heartbeat? To spend just a single night in that body of yours? Hell, just this morning I had two socialites-in-training jabbering away about how utterly fab your life is.â€
â€œReally?â€ She pouted at herself in the mirror but he could detect a hint of pleasure.
It was true that her name did regularly appear in all the gossip columns that matteredâ€”could she help it if the society photographers flocked to her?â€”and of course she was on the list for just about every party, product launch, store opening, and benefit that mattered. And yes, if she was being entirely truthful, she would have to admit that she had dated some impressively wealthy, gorgeous, famous men in her time, but it drove her crazy that everyone assumed the trappings of fabulousness were enough to make her happy. Not that they werenâ€™t greatâ€”or that sheâ€™d be willing to give up a single second of itâ€”but with her advanced age (closing in on thirty), Adriana had begun to suspect there might be something more.
â€œReally. So buck up, girl. You may flit around the Make-A-Wish benefit like an angel, but at core youâ€™re a dirty slut, and I love you for that. Besides, we did you the whole session last time. Itâ€™s my turn now.â€ Hip jutted to the side, he impatiently held his hand out while his assistant, a lanky brunette with Bambi eyes and a fearful expression, rushed to place a foil in his open palm.
Adriana sighed and motioned to the assistant for another cappuccino. â€œAll right. How are you doing?â€
â€œHow lovely of you to inquire!â€ Gilles bent down and kissed her cheek. â€œLetâ€™s see. Iâ€™ve decided to focus my husband search on men who are already in committed relationships. Granted, itâ€™s still early, but Iâ€™m getting some positive results.â€
Adriana sighed. â€œArenâ€™t there enough single men out there to keep you busy? Do you really need to play home-wrecker?â€
â€œYou know what they say, darlingâ€”if you canâ€™t have a happy home, wreck one.â€
â€œWhoâ€™s â€˜theyâ€™?â€ she asked.
â€œWhy, me, of course. You havenâ€™t seen a man enjoy a blowjob until youâ€™ve watched a guy who hasnâ€™t gotten one in ten years.â€
Adriana laughed and immediately looked at her lap. Although she always feigned nonchalance and pretended to be casually cool with Gillesâ€™s comprehensive and explicit descriptions of gay sex, it actually made her a little uncomfortable, an admission that annoyed her. She blamed this bit of old-fashionedness on her parents, who, while generous with their money and exuberant in the many ways they spent it, were not what anyone would call social pioneers. Not that she was exactly conservative when it came to her own love life, grantedâ€”she had lost her virginity at thirteen and been to bed with dozens of men since then.
â€œI think Iâ€™m onto something, seriously,â€ Gilles said as he artfully placed the foils in a face-framing halo, head cocked just so, forehead crinkled in concentration.
Adriana was accustomed to his ever-changing â€œlifestyle choicesâ€ and loved to retell them to the girls. Previous appointments had brought gems such as â€œWhen in doubt, wax it,â€ â€œReal men use decorators,â€ and â€œNo weights, no dates,â€ all rules to which he adhered with surprising dedication. Heâ€™d struggled with only one promise, made on his fortieth birthday, when he swore off prostitutes and escorts forever (â€œTricks are for kids. From here on in, civilians onlyâ€ ), but a follow-up pledge to swear off Vegas had hoisted him back on the wagon.
Adrianaâ€™s phone rang. Peering over her shoulder, Gilles saw first that it was Leigh.
â€œTell her if she canâ€™t convince that Adonis boyfriend of hers to put a ring on her finger soon, Iâ€™m going to kidnap him and introduce him to the wonders of the homo lifestyle.â€
â€œMmm, Iâ€™m sure sheâ€™s terrified.â€ To the phone: â€œDid you hear that, Leigh? You have to marry Russell immediately or Gilles is going to seduce him.â€
Gilles brushed the solution onto a lock of hair using a smooth upstroke followed by a slight wrist flick. He then swirled the ends into the roots and crisply folded the foil over the whole goopy mess with a precise tap of the comb. â€œWhat did she say?â€
â€œThat heâ€™s all yours.â€ Gilles opened his mouth, but Adriana shook her head and held up one hand in a â€œstopâ€ motion. â€œSplendid! Count me in. Of course I have plans tonight, but Iâ€™ve been desperate for a reason to cancel. Besides, if Emmy wants to go out, who are we to stand in her way? What time? Perfect, querida, weâ€™ll meet in the lobby at nine. Kiss!â€
â€œWhatâ€™s wrong with Emmy?â€ Gilles asked.
â€œDuncan met a twenty-three-year-old whoâ€™s dying to have his babies.â€
â€œAh, but of course. Howâ€™s she doing?â€
â€œI actually donâ€™t think sheâ€™s devastated,â€ Adriana said, licking a puff of foamed milk off her lip. â€œShe just thinks she should be. Thereâ€™s a lot of the â€˜Iâ€™ll never meet anyone elseâ€™ stuff, but not much that really has to do with missing Duncan. She should be fine.â€
Gilles sighed. â€œI dream of getting my hands on that hair. Do you even realize how rare virgin hair is these days? Itâ€™s like the Holy Grail of coloring.â€
â€œIâ€™ll be sure to pass that along. Want to come tonight? Weâ€™re going for dinner and drinks. Nothing major, just the girls.â€
â€œYou know how much I love a girlsâ€™ night, but Iâ€™ve got a date with the maÃ®tre dâ€™ from last weekend. Hopefully heâ€™ll be leading the way directly to a quiet table in the back of his bedroom.â€
â€œIâ€™ll keep my fingers crossed for you.â€ Adriana clearly focused on the tall, broad-shouldered man in a checked blue dress shirt and perfectly pressed slacks who had approached the reception desk.
Gilles followed her gaze to the door as he secured the last lock of hair into a foil and waved his hands in a â€œvoilÃ !â€ motion. â€œIâ€™m finished, love.â€ The Bambi-eyed assistant grasped Adrianaâ€™s arm and led her to a dryer seat. Gilles called out from his station loud enough for everyoneâ€”and certainly the newcomerâ€”to hear, â€œJust sit there and concentrate on keeping your legs closed, darling. I know it isnâ€™t easy, but fifteen minutes is all I ask.â€
Adriana rolled her eyes dramatically and gave him another finger, this time holding it high enough for the entire salon to see. She relished the shocked looks from the society ladies, all of whom looked like her mother. She saw out of the corner of her eye that the man who had watched her and Gilles wore a small smile of amusement. Iâ€™m too old for this, she thought as she sneaked another look at the handsome stranger. The man walked past her and turned his smile toward her. With equal parts calculation and natural instinct, Adriana gazed up at him through wide eyes, eyes that said â€œWho, me?â€ and placed the tiniest tip of her tongue in the middle of her upper lip. She simply had to stop acting like this, there was really no question; but in the meantime, it was just too much fun.
Moving quietly around her apartment so as not to wake Otis, Emmy realized there wasnâ€™t all that much to straighten. It was a small apartment, even for a studio in Manhattan, and the bathroom was a bit grimy and the lightâ€”especially on Saturday afternoons, when you were accustomed to staying at your boyfriendâ€™s placeâ€”was virtually nonexistent, but how else could she hope to live on the best tree-lined block of the West Village for under $2,500 a month? She had decorated it as carefully as her graduate school budget would allow, which wasnâ€™t much, but at least she had managed to paint the walls a pale yellow, install a space-saving Murphy bed in the far wall, and place some comfy floor cushions around an extra-fluffy shag carpet sheâ€™d found on clearance in a remnant store. It wasnâ€™t big, but it was cozy, and so long as Emmy didnâ€™t think about the kitchens in Izzieâ€™s Miami apartment or Leighâ€™s new one-bedroom or Adrianaâ€™s palatial penthouse padâ€”especially Adrianaâ€™sâ€”she might have even liked it. It just seemed so fundamentally cruel that someone who loved food as much as she did, who would happily spend every free minute at either the farmersâ€™ market or the stove, should not have a kitchen. Where else on earth did $30,000 a year in rent not entitle one to an oven? Here she was forced to make do with a sink, a microwave, and a dorm-sized refrigerator, and the landlordâ€”only after a ridiculous amount of begging and pleadingâ€”had bought Emmy a brand-new hotplate. For the first few years sheâ€™d fought valiantly to create dishes using her limited facilities, but the struggle to do anything more than reheat had worn her down. Now, like most New Yorkers, the exâ€“culinary student only ordered in or dined out.
She gave up on the idea of cleaning, flopped onto her unmade bed, and began to flip through the pages of the hardcover photo book sheâ€™d designed at kodakgallery.com to commemorate the first three years of her relationship with Duncan. Sheâ€™d spent hours selecting the best pictures and cropping them to varying sizes and removing the red eyes. Click, click, clickâ€”she clicked the mouse until her fingers tingled and her hand ached, determined to make it perfect. Some of the pages were collage-style and others had only a single dramatic candid. The one sheâ€™d chosen for the cutout window on the cover had been her absolute favorite: a black-and-white photo someone had snapped at Duncanâ€™s grandfatherâ€™s eighty-fifth birthday dinner at Le Cirque; Emmy remembered the transcendent sesame-crusted cod more than anything else from that night. She hadnâ€™t even noticed until now, years later, how her arms wrapped protectively around Duncanâ€™s shoulders, or the way she looked at him, grinning, while he smiled in that controlled way of his and gazed in another direction. The body language experts at US Weekly would have a field day with this one! Not to mention the fact that the book, presented at a dinner celebrating their third anniversary, had elicited the kind of excitement one usually expects only from the receipt of a scarf or a pair of gloves (which, incidentally, was precisely what he had given her, a matching set, prepackaged and professionally wrapped). Duncan tore the paper and ribbons painstakingly selected for their masculinity and tossed them aside without bothering to unstickâ€”never mind readâ€”the card taped to the back. He thanked her and kissed her on the cheek and flipped through it while smiling that tight smile and then excused himself to answer a call from his boss. He asked her to take the photo book home with her that night so he wouldnâ€™t have to carry it back to the office, and it had remained in her living room for the next two years, opened only by the occasional visitor who inevitably commented on what a good-looking couple Duncan and Emmy made.
Otis cawed from his cage in the corner of her L-shaped studio. He hooked his beak around one of the metal bars, gave it a determined shake, and squawked, â€œOtis wants out. Otis wants out.â€
Eleven years and counting, and Otis was still going strong. Sheâ€™d read somewhere that African Greys can live to be sixty, but prayed daily that it had been a misprint. She hadnâ€™t particularly liked Otis when he was squarely under the ownership of Mark, the first of Emmyâ€™s three boyfriends, but she liked him even less now that he shared her 350-square-foot apartment and had learned (with zero coaching and even less encouragement) an uncomfortably large vocabulary that focused almost exclusively on demands, criticisms, and discussions of himself in the third person. At first she had refused to watch him for the three weeks when, the July after graduation, Mark went to hone his Spanish in Guatemala. But he had pleaded and she conceded: the story of her life. Markâ€™s two weeks became a month, and a month became three, and three became a Fulbright to study the aftereffects of civil war on a generation of Guatemalan children. Mark had long since married a Nicaraguan-born, American-educated Peace Corps volunteer and moved to Buenos Aires, but Otis remained.
Emmy unhooked the cage and waited for Otis to shove the swinging door open. He hopped ungracefully onto her proffered arm and stared her straight in the eye. â€œGrape!â€ he shrieked. She sighed and plucked one from the bowl that nestled in the puff of her down comforter. Generally Emmy preferred fruit that she could cut or peel, but Otis was fixated on grapes. The bird snatched it from her fingers, swallowed it whole, and immediately demanded another.
She was such a clichÃ©! Dumped by her cad boyfriend, replaced by a younger woman, prepared to shred the pictorial symbol for their sham of a relationship, and kept company only by an ungrateful pet. It would be funny if it werenâ€™t her own pathetic life. Hell, it was funny when it was RenÃ©e Zellweger playing a sweet, chubby girl in the throes of an alcohol-fueled pity party, but it somehow wasnâ€™t so hysterical when you were that sweet, chubby girlâ€”okay, skinny, but not attractively soâ€”and your life had just morphed into a chick flick.
Five years down the drain. Ages twenty-four to twenty-nine had been all Duncan, all the time, and what did she have to show for it now? Not the position Chef Massey had begun offering a year ago that would give her the opportunity to travel around the world scouting new restaurant locations and overseeing openingsâ€”Duncan had begged her to keep her general manager position in New York so they could see each other more regularly. Certainly not an engagement ring. No, that would be reserved for the barely legal virgin cheerleader who would never, ever have to endure vivid nightmares involving her own shriveled ovaries. Emmy would just have to make do with the sterling silver Tiffany heart pendant Duncan had given her on her birthday, identical to the onesâ€”she later discoveredâ€”heâ€™d also bought for his sister and grandmother on their birthdays. Of course, were Emmy being really masochistic here, she might note that it was actually Duncanâ€™s mother who had selected and purchased all three in order to save her busy son the time and effort such gift-giving required.
When had she gotten so bitter? How had everything played out like this? It was no oneâ€™s fault but her own; of that she was absolutely certain. Sure, Duncan had been different when they first started datingâ€”boyish, charming, and if not exactly attentive, then at least a bit more presentâ€”but then again, so had Emmy. She had just left a waitressing job in Los Angeles to go back to culinary school, her dream since girlhood. For the first time since college she was reunited with Leigh and Adriana, and exhilarated by Manhattan, and proud of herself for taking such decisive action. Granted, culinary school wasnâ€™t exactly as she had envisioned it: The classes were often rigorous and tedious, and her classmates were shockingly competitive for externships and other restaurant opportunities. Since so many were temporary New Yorkers and knew no one but other students, the social life quickly became incestuous. Oh, and there was that small incident with the visiting Michelin-starred chef that had circulated in less time than it took to make a croque-monsieur. Emmy was still in love with cooking but disillusioned with culinary school when she scored an externship at Chef Masseyâ€™s New York restaurant, Willow. Sheâ€™d met Duncan during that externship, a crazy, sleep-deprived time in her life when she was beginning to realize that she enjoyed the front of the house more than the kitchen and was working around the clock to figure out where, if anywhere, she belonged in the food-service industry. She hated the egos of the chefs and the lack of creativity it took to merely re-create carefully dictated recipes. She hated not being able to interact with the actual people who ate the food she was helping to prepare. She hated being stuck for eight, ten hours at a time in steaming-hot, windowless kitchens with only the shouts of expediters and the clanging of pots to remind her she wasnâ€™t in hell. None of this had featured in her romantic notion of what her life would be like as a world-famous cook. What had surprised her even more was how much she loved waiting tables and tending bar, getting to chat with customers and other servers, and, later on, as assistant general manager, making sure everything was running smoothly. It was a time of turmoil for Emmy, of redefining what she really wanted from her career and her life, and she realized now that she had been ripe for picking by someone like Duncan. It was almostâ€”almostâ€”understandable why sheâ€™d fallen so immediately for Duncan that night at the after-party for the Young Friends of Something or Other benefit, one of the dozens that year Adriana dragged her to.
Emmy had noticed him hours before he approached her, although she still couldnâ€™t say why. It could have been his rumpled suit and loosened tie, both tastefully conservative and expertly matched, so different from the baggy polyester chef uniforms to which sheâ€™d grown so accustomed. Or maybe it was the way he seemed to know everyone and offered backslaps and cheek kisses and the occasional gallant bow to friends and friends-to-be. Who on earth was this confident? Who could move with such ease among that many people without appearing the least bit insecure? Emmyâ€™s eyes tracked him around the room, subtly at first and then with an intensity she herself didnâ€™t understand. It wasnâ€™t until most of the young professional crowd had moved on to late dinners or early bedtimes and Adriana had flitted off with her man du jour that Duncan appeared next to her.
â€œHi, Iâ€™m Duncan.â€ He slid himself sideways between her stool and the empty one next to it, leaning on his right arm against the bar.
â€œOh, sorry. Here, I was just leaving.â€ Emmy scooted backward off the stool, placing it between them.
He grinned. â€œI donâ€™t want your seat.â€
â€œOh, uh, sorry.â€
â€œI want to buy you a drink.â€
â€œThanks, but I was just, uhâ€”â€
â€œLeaving. Yeah, you said that. But Iâ€™m hoping I can convince you to stay just a little longer.â€
The bartender materialized with two martini glasses, petite compared to the fishbowl-sized ones most places served. Clear liquid in one, cloudy in the other, and both with a spear of mammoth green olives.
Duncan slid the one in his left hand toward her by the very bottom of its stem, his fingers pressing into the flattened glass base. â€œTheyâ€™re both vodka. This oneâ&#
Chasing Harry Winston
When they are each alone on Valentine’s Day, the trio makes a pact. Within one year, each woman will change the thing that most challenges her. For Emmy, it will be to find romance—or a fling—in every foreign country she visits. For Leigh, a book editor with a dream boyfriend and dream apartment, no change seems necessary—until she starts to notice a brilliant and brooding man named Jesse. And for commitment-phobic, drop-dead-gorgeous Adriana, her goal is to have an engagement ring and a house in Scarsdale. Each woman starts the year with the best of intentions—which is exactly why the pact goes immediately, and exceptionally, awry.
Filled with delicious insider details, Chasing Harry Winston whisks readers into the heart of an elite world, and showcases Weisberger’s best storytelling efforts to date.