Her perfect life was a perfect lie.
Luckiest Girl Alive
an excerpt from the novel by Jessica Knoll
I inspected the knife in my hand.
“That’s the Shun. Feel how light it is compared to the Wüsthof?”
I pricked a finger on the blade’s witchy chin, testing. The handle was supposed to be moisture resistant, but it was quickly going humid in my grip.
“I think that design is better suited for someone of your stature.” I looked up at the sales associate, bracing for the word people always use to describe short girls hungry to hear “thin.” “Petite.” He smiled like I should be flattered. Slender, elegant, graceful — now there’s a compliment that might actually defang me.
Another hand, the skin several shades lighter than my own, appeared in the frame and made a grab for the handle. “Can I feel?” I looked up at him too: my fiancé. That word didn’t bother me so much as the one that came after it. Husband. That Word laced the corset tighter, crushing organs, sending panic into my throat with the bright beat of a distress signal. I could decide not to let go. Slip the forged nickel and stainless steel blade (the Shun, decided I liked it better) soundlessly into his stomach. The salesman would probably emit a simple dignified “Oh!” It was the mother carrying her crusty-nosed baby behind him who was the screamer. You could just tell she was that dangerous combination of bored and dramatic, that she would gleefully, tearfully regale the attack to the news reporters who would later swarm the scene. I turned the knife over before I could tense, before I could lunge, before every muscle in my body, forever on high alert, contracted as if on autopilot.
“I’m excited,” Luke said, as we stepped out of Williams-Sonoma and onto Fifty-Ninth Street, a gasp of icy AC curdling in our wake. “Are you?”
“I love those red wine glasses.” I threaded my fingers with his to show him how much I meant it. It was the thought of the “sets” that I couldn’t bear. Inevitably, we were going to end up with six bread plates, four salad plates, and eight dinner plates, and I would never get around to completing their little china family. They’d sulk on the kitchen table, Luke always offering to put them away and me snapping, “Not yet,” until one day, long after the wedding, I’d get a sudden, manic inspiration to take the 4/5 uptown, storm into Williams-Sonoma like a warrior Martha Stewart, only to discover that they’d discontinued the Louvre pattern we’d chosen all those years ago. “Can we get pizza?”
Luke laughed and squeezed my side. “Where does it all go?”
My hand went rigid in his. “It’s all the working out, I think. I’m starving.” That was a lie. I was still nauseous from the thick Reuben sandwich, pink and overstuffed as a wedding invitation, that I’d eaten for lunch.
“Patsy’s?” I tried to make it sound like I’d just come up with this idea, when in reality I’d been fantasizing about extracting a slice from a Patsy’s pie, strings of white cheese stretching, but not snapping, forcing me to pinch it between my fingers and pull, a bonus glob of mozzarella sliding off someone else’s slice. This wet dream had been playing on a loop since last Thursday, when we decided Sunday would be the day we finally took care of the registry. (“People are asking, Tif.” “I know, Mom, we’re getting to it.” “The wedding is five months away!”).
“I’m not hungry” — Luke’s shoulders rose — “but if you really want to.” What a sport.
We continued to hold hands as we crossed Lexington Ave, dodging packs of strong-legged women in white walking shorts and supportive shoes, toting whatever treasures the Victoria’s Secret on Fifth Avenue contained that the one in Minnesota did not; a cavalry of Long Island girls, the straps of their gladiator sandals twisting up their honeyed calves like leather vines on a tree. They looked at Luke. They looked at me. They didn’t question it. I’d worked tirelessly to assemble a worthy rival, a Carolyn to his JFK Jr. We made a left, walking to Sixtieth Street before making another right. It was only 5:00 P.M. when we crossed Third Avenue, found the restaurant’s tables set and lonely. The fun New Yorkers were still brunching. I used to be one of them.
“Outside?” the hostess asked. We nodded and she plucked two menus from an empty table, motioning for us to follow her.
“Can I have a glass of Montepulciano?” The hostess raised her eyebrows indignantly and I could imagine what she was thinking — that’s the waiter’s job — but I just smiled sweetly at her: See how nice I am? How unreasonable you’re being? You should be ashamed of yourself.
She turned her sigh on Luke. “You?”
“Just water.” When she walked away, “I don’t know how you can drink red when it’s so hot out.”
I shrugged. “White just doesn’t go with pizza.” White was reserved for those nights when I felt light, pretty. When I had it in me to ignore the pasta portion of the menu. I once wrote some tip in The Women’s Magazine, “A study found that the act of physically closing your menu once you’ve decided what to order can make you feel more satisfied with your choice. So go with the pan-seared sole and snap that menu shut before you start eye-sexing the penne alla vodka.” LoLo, my boss, had underlined the words, “eye-sexing” and wrote, “Hilarious.” God, I hate pan-seared sole.
“So what else do we have left to do?” Luke leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head like he was about to do a sit-up, entirely innocent that those were fighting words. Venom pooled in my brown eyes and I hurried to bat it away.
“A lot.” I counted on my fingers. “All the stationery — so that’s the invitations, the menus, the programs, the place cards, all of that. I have to find a hair and makeup person, and figure out a bridesmaid dress for Nell and the girls. We also have to get back to the travel agent — I really don’t want to do Dubai. I know” — I held up my hands before Luke could say anything — “we can’t do the whole time in the Maldives. There’s only so much lying around on a beach you can do before you lose it. But can’t we do a few days in London or Paris after?”
Luke’s face was intent as he nodded. He had freckles on his nose year round, but by mid-May they spread to his temples, where they would remain until Thanksgiving. This was my fourth summer with Luke, and every year I watched as all that good, healthy outdoor activity — running, surfing, golfing, kite boarding — multiplied the golden flecks on his nose like cancer cells. He had me going for a while too, this obnoxious dedication to movement, to endorphins, to seizing the day. Not even a hangover could bleed this wholesome vigor. I used to set my alarm for 1:00 P.M. on Saturdays, which Luke thought was adorable. “You’re so small and you need so much sleep,” he would say as he nuzzled me awake in the afternoon. “Small,” another description of my body I detest. What do I have to do to get someone to call me “skinny”?
I came clean eventually. It’s not that I require an inordinate amount of sleep, it’s that I haven’t been sleeping when you think I’ve been sleeping. I could never imagine submitting myself to a state of unconsciousness at the same time everyone else goes under. I can only sleep — really sleep, not the thin-lipped rest I’ve learned to live on during the week — when sunlight explodes off the Freedom Tower and forces me to the other side of the bed, when I can hear Luke puttering around the kitchen, making egg-white omelettes, the neighbors next door arguing over who took the trash out last. Banal, everyday reminders that life is so boring it can’t possibly terrorize anyone. That dull fuzz in my ears, that’s when I sleep.
“We should aim to do one thing every day,” Luke concluded.
“Luke, I do three things every day.” There was a snap in my voice that I meant to remove. I also didn’t have a right to it. I should do three things every day, but instead I sit, paralyzed in front of my computer, beating myself up for not doing three things every day like I promised myself I would. I’ve determined this is more time-consuming and stressful than actually doing the three goddamn things a day, and, therefore, I’m entitled to my fury.
I thought of the one thing I was actually on top of. “Do you even know how many back-and-forths I’ve had with the invitations person?” I’d burdened the stationer — a wisp of an Asian woman whose nervous disposition infuriated me — with so many questions: Does it look cheap to do letterpress for the invitation but not for the RSVP cards? Will anyone notice if we use a calligrapher for the addresses on the envelope but script for the invitation? I was terrified of making a decision that would expose me. I’ve been in New York for six years and it’s been like an extended master’s program in how to appear effortlessly moneyed — only now with that downtown edge. First semester, I learned that Jack Roger sandals, so revered in college, screamed, “My small liberal arts school will always be the center of the universe!” I’d found a new axis, so into the trash went my gold, silver, and white pairs. Same with the mini Coach baguette (gross). Then it was on to the realization that Kleinfeld, which seemed so glamorous, a classic New York institution, was actually a tacky wedding gown factory frequented only by bridge and tunnelers (B & Ts — also learned what that meant). I opted for a small boutique in Meatpacking, the racks carefully curated with Marchesa, Reem Acra, and Carolina Herrera. And all those dim, crowded clubs, manned by beefy doormen and red ropes, throbbing furiously with Tiesto and hips? That’s not how self-respecting urbanites spend their Friday nights. No, instead we pay sixteen dollars for a plate of frisée, wash it down with vodka sodas at a dive bar in the East Village, all while wearing cheap-looking $495 Rag & Bone booties.
I had six leisurely years to get to where I am now: fiancé in finance, first-name basis with the hostess at Locanda Verde, the latest Chloé hooked over my wrist (not Céline, but at least I knew better than to parade around a monstrous Louis Vuitton like it was the eighth wonder of the world). Plenty of time to hone my craft. But wedding planning, now that has a much steeper learning curve. You get engaged in November, and then you have one month to study your materials, to discover that the barn at Blue Hill — where you thought you would get married — has been done, and retooled old banks that charge a twenty-thousand-dollar location fee are now the tits. You have two months to pore over wedding magazines and blogs, to consult with your gay co-workers at The Women’s Magazine, to discover that strapless wedding gowns are offensively middlebrow. Now you’re three months into the whole thing, and you still have to find a photographer with nary a duck-face bride in his portfolio (harder than it sounds), bridesmaids’ dresses that don’t look anything like a bridesmaids’ dresses, plus a florist who can secure you anemones out of season because, peonies? What is this, amateur hour? One wrong move and everyone will see right through your tastefully tan spray tan to the trashy guidette who doesn’t know to pass the salt and pepper together. I thought that by twenty-eight I could stop trying to prove myself and relax already. But this fight just gets bloodier with age.
“And you still haven’t gotten me your addresses for the calligrapher,” I said, even though secretly, I was relieved to have more time to torture the skittish stationer.
“I’m working on them,” Luke sighed.
“They won’t go out when we want them to go out if you don’t get them to me this week. I’ve been asking for a month.”
“I’ve been busy!”
“And you think I haven’t?”
Bickering. It’s so much uglier than a heated, dish-smashing fight, isn’t it? At least after that you have sex on the floor of the kitchen, shards bearing the braid of the Louvre pattern weaving an imprint on your back. No man feels very much compelled to rip your clothes off after you inform him, bitchily, that he left one lone turd floating in the toilet.
I clenched my fists, flexed my fingers wide as though I could expel the rage like Spider-Man’s web. Just say it. “I’m sorry.” I offered up my most pathetic sigh as collateral. “I’m just really tired.”
An invisible hand passed over Luke’s face, wiped away his frustration with me. “Why don’t you just go to the doctor? You really should be on Ambien or something.”
I nodded, pretending to consider the idea, but sleeping pills are just button-shaped vulnerability. What I really needed were the first two years of my relationship back, that brief reprieve when, as I lay laced into Luke’s limbs, the night slipped away from me and I didn’t feel the need to chase after it. The few times I’d start awake I’d see that even as he slept, Luke’s mouth twisted up at the corners. Luke’s good-naturedness was like the bug spray we applied at his parents’ summer home in Nantucket, so powerful it warded off the dread, that feeling, an alarmingly calm omnipresence, that something bad was about to happen. But somewhere along the way — well, around the time we got engaged eight months ago if I’m really being honest — the sleeplessness returned. I started shoving Luke off me when he tried to wake me up to run over the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday morning, something we’d been doing almost every Saturday for the last three years. Luke isn’t some pathetic puppy in love — he sees the regression, but amazingly, it’s only committed him deeper to me. Like he’s up for the challenge of changing me back.
I’m no plucky heroine, claiming ignorance of her quiet beauty and quirky charm, but there was a time when I did wonder what Luke could see in me. I’m pretty — I have to work at it, but the raw materials are there. I’m four years Luke’s junior, which isn’t as good as eight, but still, something. I also like to do “weird” things in bed. Even though Luke and I have very different definitions of “weird” (him: doggy style and hair pulling, me: electric shocks to my pussy with a ball gag in my mouth to stifle my screams), by his standards, we have a freaky, fulfilling sex life. So yes, I’m self-aware enough to recognize the things Luke sees in me, but there are midtown bars full of girls just like me, sweet natural blonde Kates, who would get on all fours and swing their ponytails at Luke in a heartbeat. Kate probably grew up in a red-bricked, white-shuttered home, a home that doesn’t deceive with tacky siding in the back, like mine did. But a Kate could never give Luke what I give him, and that’s the edge. Rusted and bacteria ridden, I’m the blade that nicks at the perfectly hemmed seams of Luke’s star quarterback life, threatening to shred it apart. And he likes that threat, the possibility of my danger. But he doesn’t really want to see what I can do, the ragged holes I can open. I’ve spent most of our relationship scratching the surface, experimenting with the pressure, how much is too much before I draw blood? I’m getting tired.
The darling hostess plunked a wine glass in front of me with sloppy purpose. Ruby liquid heaved over the edge, pooling around the base of the glass like it was a gunshot wound.
“Here you go!” she chirped, giving me what I’m sure was her nastiest smile, which wouldn’t even rate on my scale.
And like that, the curtain went up, the spotlights roasting: showtime. “Oh, no,” I gasped. I tapped my finger on the line between my two front teeth. “Big piece of spinach. Right here.”
The hostess slapped her hand over her mouth, her face heating from the neck up. “Thanks,” she mumbled and slunk away.
Luke’s eyes were confused blue orbs in the lazy evening sun. “She didn’t have anything in her teeth.”
I took my time leaning over the table, slurped my wine from the rim to spare my white jeans. Never fuck with a rich white bitch and her white jeans. “Not in her teeth. Up her ass, on the other hand…”
Luke’s laugh was the standing ovation. He shook his head, impressed. “You can be pretty vicious, you know?”
“The florist will charge you by the hour for next day clean-up. You need to negotiate a flat rate on the contract.” Monday morning. Of-fucking-course I had to ride the elevator with Eleanor Tuckerman, née Podalski, fellow Women’s Magazine editor, who, when she wasn’t leeching my talent in her nine-to-five, assumed her acting role as authority on everything wedding and etiquette related. Eleanor was married a year ago and she continues to discuss the event with the kind of somber reverence you would 9/11, or the death of Steve Jobs. I imagine this will continue until she gets knocked up and goes on to birth our next national treasure.
“Are you serious?” I punctuated my words with a horrified little gasp. Eleanor is the features director, someone I report to, and four years older. I need her to like me, and it doesn’t take much. All girls like this want is for you widen your eyes at them, Bambi innocent, and beg them to impart their wisdom on you.
Eleanor nodded, gravely serious. “I’ll e-mail you my contract, so you can see what to do.” And so you can see how much we dropped, she didn’t add, which was totally the point.
I gushed, “That would be such a help, Eleanor,” and bared my recently whitened teeth. The elevator doors dinged my freedom.
“Good morning to you, Miss FaNelli.” Clifford batted his eyes flirtatiously. Eleanor got nothing. Clifford has been the receptionist at The Women’s Magazine for twenty-one years and has various, absurd reasons for hating the majority of people who walk past him every day. Eleanor’s crime is that she is awful, but also that one time, an e-mail went out that there were cookies in the pantry. Clifford, who couldn’t leave the phones unattended, forwarded it to Eleanor asking her to bring him one, plus a coffee with enough milk that it turned the color of a camel. Eleanor happened to be in a meeting, and by the time she read the e-mail, the cookies were gone. She brought him his precious camel-colored coffee anyway, but Clifford turned his nose up at it and hasn’t spoken more than five words to her since. “Fat cow probably ate the last one instead of giving it to me,” he hissed to me after “the incident.” Eleanor is just about the most anorexic person I know, and we fell to our knees we laughed so hard.
“Morning, Clifford.” I gave him a little wave, my engagement ring winking under the farm of fluorescent lights.
“Look at that skirt,” Clifford whistled, his eyes approving on the size two leather tube I’d stuffed myself into after yesterday’s carb catastrophe. The compliment was as much for me as it was for Eleanor. Clifford loved to showboat what a peach he could be if only you never crossed him.
“Thank you, doll.” I opened the door for Eleanor.
“Fucking queen,” she muttered as she passed through, loud enough for Clifford to hear. She looked at me, waiting to see what I would do. If I ignored her, it was a line drawn in the sand. Laugh, and it was a betrayal to Clifford.
I held up my hands. Made sure my voice carried the lie, “I adore you both.”
When the door closed and Clifford could no longer hear us, I told Eleanor I was going downstairs in a bit to do an informational interview. Could I get her a snack or any magazines from the newsstand while I was there?
“A KIND bar and the new GQ if they have it,” Eleanor replied. She would pick at that thing all day. A nut for a mid-morning snack, a dried cranberry for lunch. But she gave me a grateful smile, and that was the goal, of course.
Most of my co-workers automatically delete those e-mails, subject line, “Can I Take You to Coffee?” written by dutiful twenty-two-year-olds, at once terrified and woefully over-confident. They all grew up watching Lauren Conrad on The Hills and thought, I want to work at a magazine when I grow up! They’re always disappointed to find out that I have nothing to do with fashion (“Not even beauty?” one pouted, cradling her mother’s YSL bag in her lap like a newborn.). I take pleasure in taunting them. “The only freebies I get in my job are the galleys of books three months before they publish. What are you reading right now?” The color draining from their faces always reveals the answer.
The Women’s Magazine has a long and storied history of mixing the highbrow with the lowbrow. Serious journalism appears here and there, along with occasional excerpts from moderately prestigious books, profiles of the select few female execs who managed to break the glass ceiling, and coverage of hot button “women’s issues, AKA birth control and abortion, that softer terminology really grinding LoLo’s gears because, as she’s fond of saying, “Men don’t want a baby every time they fuck either.” That said, this is not the reason one million nineteen-year-olds purchase The Women’s Magazine every month. And my byline is much more likely to appear next to “99 Ways to Butter His Baguette” than it is next to an interview with Valerie Jarrett. The editor-in-chief — a chic, asexual woman named LoLo, with a menacing presence I thrive on because it makes my job feel forever in jeopardy and therefore important — seems to be simultaneously disgusted by and in awe of me.
I’d been pigeon-holed into the role of the sex writer at first, I think, because of how I look. (I’ve learned to camouflage my boobs, but it’s as though there is something inherently vulgar about me.). I ended up stuck in this role because I was actually good at it. Writing about sex is actually not an easy thing to do, and it was certainly not something most of the editors, regular subscribers to The Atlantic, would ever deign to do. Everyone here is falling all over themselves to flaunt how little they know about sex, as though knowing where your clitoris is and producing serious journalism are mutually exclusive. “What’s BDSM?” LoLo asked me once. Even though she knew the answer, she gasped gleefully as I explained the difference between a sub and a dom. I play her game though. LoLo knows it’s not a profile of the founder of EMILY’s List that keeps the magazine flying off newsstands every month, and she needs those sales numbers in her back pocket. There have been rumors over the last year that LoLo will usurp the editor of The New York Times Magazine when his contract runs out. “You’re the only person who can write about sex in a funny, intelligent way,” she told me once. “Just tough it out and I promise you, this time next year, you will never have to write about a blow job again.”
I carried around this little tease, precious to me as the shiny parasite attached to my finger, for months. Then Luke came home and announced he was in talks to transfer to the London office. There would be a significant bump to his bonus, which was already significantly fine. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to live in London one day, but not on someone else’s terms. Luke was taken aback when he saw the devastation curtain my face.
“You’re a writer,” Luke reminded me. “You can write anywhere. That’s the beauty of it.”
I did a loop around the kitchen as I pleaded my case. “I don’t want to be a freelance writer, Luke. Begging for assignments in another country. I want to be an editor here.” I pointed at the ground, here, where we are now. “It’s New York Times Magazine.” I cupped my hands around this opportunity, so close, and shook.
“Ani.” Luke clamped his hands around my wrists and brought them down to my sides. “I know you need to get this out of your system. Prove to everyone you can do more than write about sex or whatever. But realistically, what? You’ll work there a year, then you’re going to be on my back about having a kid next, and you’re not even going to want to go back to work after. Let’s be rational here. Should I — should we” — oh, he evoked the “we” — “really pass up this opportunity for a temporary whim?”
I know Luke thinks I skew Typical Kate when it comes to the kid thing. I wanted the ring and the black-tie-optional wedding and the tower of a dress, I have a rich lady dermatologist on Fifth Avenue who will inject me with anything I want, and I frequently drag Luke to ABC Carpet & Home to see sets of turquoise lamps and vintage Beni Ourain rugs. “Wouldn’t those look so great in the foyer?” I always suggest, prompting Luke to flip over the price tag and feign a heart attack. I think he’s relying on me to nag him into fatherhood, like all his other friends’ wives have. He’ll faux-complain about it over beers — “She’s actually mapping out her cycle” — all of them groaning their faux-support. Been there, man. But deep down, they’re pleased they had someone to push them into it, because they want it too, preferably a boy but hey, there’s always baby number two if she fails to pop out the heir the first time around. Only guys never have to admit that. And a guy like Luke? He’d never expect he’d have to tap his watch and say, “Tick tock.”
Problem is, I’m not going to push. Kids make me exhausted.
God, and the idea of being pregnant, of giving birth, sends me into such a state. Not a panic attack exactly, more like a spin, a particular condition that surfaced some fourteen years ago, where I suddenly feel as though I’m on a whirring merry-go-round that has just been unplugged mid-ride. It’s like I’m gradually slowing to a stop, the silence between my heart’s weakening beats stretching longer and longer, as I skate the last loops of my life. All those appointments, the doctors and nurses touching me — why are his fingers lingering there? Does he feel something? Is that a cancerous lump? The spin might never stop. I’m the type of raging, obnoxious hypochondriac that can make a doctor with even the kindest bedside manner snap. I dodged fate once and it’s only a matter of time, I want to explain to them, make them understand my neurosis is justified. I’ve told Luke about the spin, and I tried to tell him how I don’t think I could ever be pregnant, because I would just worry so much. He laughed and nuzzled his nose into my neck, purring, “You’re so cute you would care that much about the baby.” I smiled back. Of course that’s what I meant too.
I sighed and pressed the button for the lobby and waited for the elevator doors to part. My co-workers turn their noses up at meeting with these sad-sack girls the same way they turn their noses up at writing about the grundle, but I find it to be pure entertainment. Nine times out of ten, she’s the prettiest girl in her sorority, the one with the best closet, the biggest collection of J Brand jeans. I’ll never tire of seeing the shadow pass over her face when she sees my Derek Lam trousers slung low on my hips, the messy bun sprouting out of my neck. She’ll tug at the waist of her tasteful A-Line dress that suddenly seems so matronly, smooth down her overly straightened hair, and realize she played it all wrong. This girl would have tortured me ten years ago, and I fly out of bed on the mornings I get to exert my power over her now.
The girl I was meeting that morning was of particular interest to me. Spencer Hawkins — a name I would kill for — was an alumna of my high school, The Bradley School, recently graduated from Trinity College (they all are), and she “so admired” my “strength in the face of adversity.” Like I was fucking Rosa Parks or something. And let me tell you, she pushed the right button — I eat that shit up.
I spotted her right away when I stepped off the elevator — slouchy leather pants (if fake, good ones) perfectly balanced with a crisp white button-down and sharp silver heels, a Chanel purse dangling from her forearm. If not for her round beer face, I might have turned right around and pretended I didn’t see her. I don’t do well with competition.
“Ms. FaNelli?” she tried. God, I couldn’t wait until I was a Harrison.
“Hi.” I shook her hand so hard the chain on her purse rattled. “We have two choices for coffee — the newsstand sells Illy and the cafeteria sells Starbucks. Take your pick.”
“Whatever you like.” Good answer.
“I can’t stand Starbucks.” I wrinkled my nose at her as I turned on my heel. I heard her clicking frantically behind me.
“Good morning, Loretta!” The most sincere I ever am is when I’m speaking to the cashier at the newsstand. Loretta has severe burns all over her body — no one knows how — and she emits a strong, stale stench. When she was first hired last year, people complained — it was such a small space, and around food no less. It was just unappetizing. Of course it was noble of the company to employ her, but wouldn’t it be better if she, like, worked in the message center in the basement of the building? I actually overheard Eleanor whining about this to a co-worker one day. Ever since Loretta started, the coffee is always fresh, the milk canisters always full — even the soy one! — and the latest issues of the magazines are artfully presented on the shelves. Loretta reads everything she touches, she skimps on air conditioning and puts that money toward her travel fund, and she once pointed to a beautiful model in a magazine and said to me, “I thought this was you!” Her throat must have been burned too, because her voice is thick as stew. She’d pushed the picture underneath my nose. “I saw her, and thought, This is my friend.” The word roped around my throat, and I just barely managed to contain the tears.
I make it a point to bring these girls to the newsstand. “You were a staff writer for your college newspaper?” I’ll cradle my chin in my hand, encourage them to tell me more about their exposé on the school mascot, the costume’s homophobic undertones, when I’ve already decided how much help to provide them based on how they treat Loretta.
“Good morning!” Loretta beamed at me. It was 11:00 A.M., and the newsstand was quiet. Loretta was reading Psychology Today. She lowered the magazine to reveal pink and brown and gray patchworked all over her face. “This rain,” she sighed, “as much as I hate it, I hope it rain all week so we have a beautiful weekend.”
“Ugh, I know.” Loretta loved to talk about the weather. In her country, the Dominican Republic, everyone danced in the streets when it rained. But not here, she said. Here the rain was filthy. “Loretta, this is Spencer.” I gestured toward my fresh kill, whose nose was already twitching. Not a strike against her necessarily, you can’t help how your body reacts when confronted with the stench of tragedy. I would know. “Spencer, Loretta.”
Loretta and Spencer exchanged pleasantries. These girls were always polite, it would never occur to them not to be, but there was usually something strained about their demeanor that tipped me off. Some didn’t even try to hide what assholes they were once it was just the two of us. “Ohmigod was that smell her?” one said to me, clamping her hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh and brushing her shoulder up against mine conspiratorially, as though we were girlfriends who’d just shoplifted a pile of Victoria’s Secret thongs.
“There’s coffee, there’s tea, take your pick.” I plucked a coffee cup from the stack and pumped a dark stream while Spencer stood behind me, considering.
“The peppermint tea is very good,” Loretta said, wisely.
“Is it?” Spencer asked.
“Yes,” Loretta said. “Very refreshing.”
“You know” — Spencer hiked her classic quilted purse higher on her shoulder — “I’m not really a tea person. But it’s so hot out, and that sounds really good.”
We-hel-hellll. Maybe the esteemed Bradley School was finally living up to its mission statement: “The Bradley School is committed to educational excellence and dedicated to developing compassion, creativity, and respect in each of its students.”
I paid for our drinks. Spencer offered, but I insisted, like I always do, even though I have this recurring vision that my card is declined, this meager $5.23 charge the thing that obliterates the whole dog and pony show: stylish, successful, engaged, and all by twenty-eight years old, no less. The Amex bill went straight to Luke, which I felt funny about but not funny enough to put a stop to it. I make seventy thousand dollars a year. If I lived in Kansas City I’d be Paris fucking Hilton. Money will never be a problem because of Luke, but even so, there is a childhood fear of the word “Declined,” of Mom’s bumbling excuses offered up to the smug cashier, her disappointed hands shaking as she forced the card back into a wallet packed fat with its maxed-out accomplices.
Spencer took a sip of her drink. “This is delicious.”
Loretta sparkled. “What I tell you?”
We found a table in the empty cafeteria. Gray, rainy light crowned us from the skylights above, and I noticed that Spencer had three distinct lines across her tan forehead, so fine they could have been hairs.
“I really appreciate your meeting with me today,” she began.
“Of course.” I sipped my coffee. “I know how hard it can be to crack this industry.”
Spencer nodded ferociously. “It’s so hard. All my friends, they’re doing the finance thing. They’ve had jobs lined up since before we graduated.” She fiddled with her tea string. “I’ve been at this since April and I’m really starting to wonder if I should just try my hand somewhere else. Just so I have a job, it’s getting embarrassing.” She laughed. “And then I can actually move here and I can keep looking on the side.” She looked at me questioningly. “Do you think that’s a smart thing to do? I worry if my résumé shows I’m working in another industry I won’t be seriously considered in magazine publishing, but then I’m also worried that if I don’t get just any job, the hunt could stretch on for so long that they’re going to be more concerned that I have zero real-life work experience.” Spencer sighed, frustrated by this imaginary dilemma. “What do you think?”
I was just shocked she didn’t already live in the city, in an apartment on Ninety-first and First, rent and utilities all taken care of by Daddy. “Where have you interned?” I asked.
Spencer glanced at her lap, sheepishly. “I haven’t. I mean, I have, but at a literary agency. I want to be a writer, which sounds so stupid and aspirational, like, ‘I want to be an astronaut!’ but I had no idea how to make that happen and a professor suggested I work on the business side of things to get a sense of the industry. I didn’t even realize like, hey, magazines, which I love, and I love The Women’s Magazine, I used to sneak my mom’s when I was little” — this is such a common anecdote, I never know if I should believe it or if it’s just become this thing people say. “Anyway, I never realized, someone is writing that stuff. Then I started researching the industry and this, what you do, is what I know I’m meant to do.” When she finished, she was breathing hard. So much passion, this one. But it had pleased me. Most girls just wanted a job that let them play with clothes and mingle with celebrities and stroll into the Boom Boom Room because their names were permanently on the list. Those were some nice perks of the job, but they had always been secondary to seeing “By Ani FaNelli” in print. To receiving my copy back with a note; “Hilarious” or “You have the perfect voice.” I’d brought that page home and Luke had hung it on the refrigerator like I’d gotten an A on a paper.
“Well, you know that as you rise up the ranks as an editor, you will write less and edit more.” This is something an editor had told me once in an interview, and it had unnerved me. Who would want to write less and edit more? Now, after working in the industry for six years, I get it. The Women’s Magazine has limited opportunities in terms of real reported pieces and there were only so many times I could advise readers to broach a difficult topic with their boyfriend while sitting next to him, rather than across from him. “Experts say men are more receptive when they don’t feel as though they’re being challenged head-on…literally.” Still, there was something about telling people where you worked, their eyes lighting up in recognition, that I needed right now.
“But I see your byline all the time,” Spencer said.
“Well, when you stop seeing it you’ll know I’m running the place.”
Spencer rolled her tea cup between her palms, shyly. “You know, when I first saw your name on the masthead, I wasn’t sure if that was you, you. Because of your name. But then I saw you on the Today show and even though your name is a little different and you look so different — not that you weren’t always pretty” — a deep flush began to crawl into her cheeks here — “I knew it was you.”
I didn’t say anything. She was going to have to ask.
“Did you do that because of what happened?” The question quieted her voice.
Here’s the little song and dance I give to anyone who asks this question: “Partly. A professor in college suggested I do that so that I would be judged on my own merits and not by what people may know of me.” Then I always shrug modestly. “Not like most people really remember my name; what they remember is Bradley.” Now, here’s the truth: I started to realize there was something wrong with my name on the first day of high school. Surrounded by Chaunceys and Griers, the many simple, elegant Kates, not a single last name that ended in a vowel, TifAni FaNelli stood out like the hillbilly relative who shows up at Thanksgiving and drinks all the expensive whiskey. I never would have realized this if I hadn’t gone to The Bradley School. Then again, if I had never gone to Bradley, if I had stayed on my side of the tracks in Pennsylvania, I can promise you right now I’d be parked outside of a kindergarten classroom in my leased BMW, drumming my French-manicured nails on the steering wheel. Bradley was like an abusive foster mother — she saved me from the system but only so she could have her twisted, meth-fueled way with me. No doubt my name raised some college administrators’ eyebrows when they saw it on my application. I’m sure they half-rose from their seats, calling out to their secretaries, “Sue, is this the TifAni FaNelli from the” — stopping abruptly when they saw I attended The Bradley School and answering their own question.
I didn’t dare push my luck and apply to any Ivy leagues, but plenty of their hangers-on would have me, told me they wept as they read my essay, bursting with purple prose and histrionic declarations of all I had learned about this vicious life even though I had only just begun it. Oh, it was a tearjerker, I made sure of it. So in the end, my name and the school that taught me to hate it got me into Wesleyan, where I met my best friend, Nell, the most beautiful WASP whose stinger pierced everyone but me, and she was the one, not some sage professor, who suggested I drop the Tif and go by Ani, pronouncing it Ahhh-nee, because “Annie” was simply too pedestrian for someone as world-weary as I was. Changing my name had nothing to do with hiding my past, and everything to do with becoming the person no one ever thought I deserved to be: Ani Harrison.
Spencer scooted her chair closer to the table, taking advantage of this intimate moment. “I hate when people ask me where I went to high school.”
That wasn’t a sentiment I could agree with. There were times I loved saying where I went to high school, loved the opportunity to prove how far I’d come. So I shrugged, my face stone, letting her know we weren’t bound to be buddies just because we had an alma mater in common. “I don’t mind. I feel like it’s a part of what makes me me.”
Spencer suddenly realized she was leaning in too close, that this was a point on which we couldn’t see eye to eye, and it had been presumptuous of her to think we could. She drew back in her chair, giving me my space. “Of course. I would probably feel the same way if I were you.”
“I’m participating in the documentary,” I volunteered, to show her just how much I didn’t mind it.
Spencer nodded slowly. “I wanted to ask you. But of course they would want you.”
I checked the TAG Heuer on my wrist. Luke had been promising me the Cartier for the last year. “I will say that you should definitely try and get an internship, even if it doesn’t pay.”
“How would I afford rent?” Spencer asked.
I eyed the Chanel bag hooked over the back of her chair. On second glance, I saw that the seams were starting to unravel. Old money, this one, tied up in trusts. Good family name, decent-sized house in Wayne, and not a penny to spare the panhandler on the subway.
“Waitress or bartend at night. Or, commute in every day.”
“From Philly?” Not so much a question as a reminder of where she would have to come from, as though I was crazy to suggest it. My chest sizzled with irritation.
“We’ve had interns here who have commuted from DC,” I said. I took a slow sip of my coffee then cocked my head at her. “Isn’t it only two hours or so on the train?”
“I guess,” Spencer said, looking unconvinced. Her dismissal disappointed me. Things had been going fairly well up until this point.
Giving her the opportunity to redeem herself, I reached up to adjust the delicate gold chain around my neck. I couldn’t believe I’d left out the most important piece.
“Are you engaged?” Spencer’s eyes went cartoon character wide on my pride and joy: a fat, brilliant emerald planet, flanked by two winking diamonds, the band simple platinum. It had been Luke’s grandmother’s — pardon me, his Mammy’s — and when he gave it to me he’d offered me the option to reset the stones on a diamond band. “Mom’s jewelry guy said that’s the look a lot of girls go for now. It’s more modern I guess.”
And that’s exactly why I didn’t want to have it reset. No, I would wear it just the way dear sweet Mammy had worn it: at once restrained and ornate. A very clear message: This is an heirloom. We don’t just have money, we come from money.
I stretched my fingers out, taking in the hardware as if I’d forgotten it was there. “Ugh, I know. I’m officially old.”
“That is the most stunning ring I’ve ever seen.” Spencer declared. “When are you getting married?”
“October Sixteenth!” I beamed at her. Had Eleanor been there to witness this blushing bride nonsense, she would have tilted her head and smiled her “Aren’t you cute?” smile. Then gone on to remind me that even though October wasn’t necessarily a rainy month, weather could be unpredictable! Did I have a backup plan in case it did rain? She’d had a tent on standby and even though she didn’t have to use it, the reservation cost her ten thousand dollars. Eleanor is bursting with neat little factoids like that.
I pushed my chair back. “I have to get back to work.”
Spencer was out of her chair in half a second. She stuck her hand out. “Thank you so much, TifAni, I mean” — she covered her mouth and her whole body tittered with a Geisha giggle — “Ani. Sorry.”
Sometimes I feel like a little windup doll, like I have to reach behind and turn my golden key to produce a greeting, a laugh, whatever the socially acceptable reaction should be. I managed a tight farewell smile for Spencer. She wouldn’t mistake my name again, not once the documentary aired, not once the camera narrowed in on my aching, honest face, gently dissolving any last confusion about who I am and what I did.
An excerpt from Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll, reprinted with the permission of the author and Simon & Schuster. For more information, or to purchase a copy, visit Simon & Schuster, or visit JessicaKnoll.com.