Realizing that her prestigious investment banking job is making her miserable, Bette Robinson impulsively quits and accepts an opportunity with a successful PR firm, a job that tests the boundary between her personal and professional lives.
How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?
-- From "Baby, You're a Rich Man" (1967)
by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Though I'd caught only the briefest glimpse from the corner of my eye, I knew immediately that the brown creature darting across my warped hardwood floors was a water bug -- the largest, meatiest insect I'd ever seen. The superbug had narrowly avoided skimming across my bare feet before it disappeared under the bookcase. Trembling, I forced myself to practice the chakra breathing I'd learned during an involuntary week at an ashram with my parents. My heart rate slowed slightly after a few concentrated breaths of re on the inhale and lax on the exhale, and within a few minutes I was functional enough to take some necessary precautions. First I rescued Millington (who was also cowering in terror) from her hiding place under the couch. Then, in quick succession, I zipped on a pair of knee-high leather boots to cover my exposed legs, opened the door to the hallway to encourage the bug's departure, and began spraying the extra-strong black-market vermin poison on every available surface in my minuscule one-bedroom. I gripped the trigger as though it were an assault weapon and was still spraying when the phone rang nearly ten minutes later.
The caller ID flashed with Penelope's number. I almost screened her before I realized that she was one of only two potential refuges. Should the water bug manage to live through the fumigation and cruise through my living room again, I'd need to crash with her or Uncle Will. Unsure where Will was tonight, I decided it'd be wise to keep the lines of communication intact. I answered.
"Pen, I'm under attack by the largest roach in Manhattan. What do I do?" I asked the second I picked up the phone.
"Bette, I have NEWS!" she boomed back, clearly indifferent to my panic.
"News more important than my infestation?"
"Avery just proposed!" Penelope shrieked. "We're engaged!"
Goddammit. Those two simple words -- we're engaged -- could make one person so happy and another so miserable. Autopilot quickly kicked in, reminding me that it would be inappropriate -- to say the least -- if I were to verbalize what I really thought. He's a loser, P. He's a spoiled, stoner little kid in the body of a big boy. He knows you're out of his league and is putting a ring on your finger before you realize it as well. Worse, by marrying him you will be merely biding your time until he replaces you with a younger, hotter version of yourself ten years down the line, leaving you to pick up the pieces. Don't do it! Don't do it! Don't do it!
"Ohmigod!" I shrieked right back. "Congratulations! I'm so happy for you!"
"Oh, Bette, I knew you would be. I can barely even speak, it's just all happening so fast!"
So fast? He's the only guy you've dated since you were nineteen. It's not like this wasn't expected -- it's been eight years. I just hope he doesn't catch herpes at his bachelor party in Vegas.
"Tell me everything. When? How? Ring?" I rattled off questions, playing the best friend role fairly believably, I thought, all things considered.
"Well, I can't talk too long because we're at the St. Regis right now. Remember how he insisted on picking me up for work today?" Before waiting for my answer, she raced breathlessly ahead. "He had a car waiting outside and told me it was just because he couldn't get a cab, and said that we were expected for dinner at his parents' house in ten minutes. Of course, I was a little annoyed that he hadn't even asked if I wanted to go to dinner there -- he'd said he'd made reservations at Per Se, and you know how tough it is to get in there -- and we were having pre-drinks in the library when in walked both our parents. Before I knew what was happening, he was down on one knee!"
"In front of all your parents? He did the public proposal?" I knew I sounded horrified, but I couldn't help it.
"Bette, it was hardly public. It was our parents, and he said the sweetest things in the world. I mean, we never would've met if it weren't for them, so I can see his point. And get this -- he gave me two rings!"
"Two rings. A seven-carat flawless round in platinum that was his great-great-grandmother's for the real ring, and then a very pretty three-carat ascher-cut with baguettes that's much more wearable."
"It's not as though you can roam the streets of New York in a seven-carat rock, you know. I thought it was really smart."
"Bette, you're incoherent. We went from there to Per Se, where my father even managed to turn off his cell phone for the duration of dinner and make a reasonably nice toast, and then we went for a carriage ride in Central Park, and now we're at a suite in the St. Regis. I just had to call and tell you!"
Where, oh where, had my friend gone? Penelope, who'd never even shopped for engagement rings because she thought they all looked the same, who had told me three months earlier when a mutual college friend had gotten engaged in the back of a horse-drawn carriage that it was the tackiest thing on earth, had just morphed into a very close approximation of a Stepford Wife. Was I just bitter? Of course I was bitter. The closest I'd come to getting engaged was reading the wedding announcements in The New York Times, aka the Single Girls' Sports Page, every Sunday at brunch. But that was beside the point.
"I'm so glad you did! And I can't wait to hear every last detail, but you've got an engagement to consummate. Get off the phone with me and go make your fiance happy. How weird does that sound? 'Fiance.'"
"Oh, Avery's on a call from work. I keep telling him to hang up" -- she announced this loudly for his benefit -- "but he just keeps talking and talking. How has your night been?"
"Ah, another stellar Friday. Let's see. Millington and I took a walk over to the river, and some homeless guy gave her a biscuit along the way, so she was really happy, and then I came home, and hopefully killed what must be the largest insect in the tristate area. I ordered Vietnamese, but I threw it out when I remembered reading that some Vietnamese place near me was shut down for cooking dog, and so now I'm about to dine on reheated rice and beans and a packet of stale Twizzlers. Oh, Christ, I sound like a Lean Cuisine commercial, don't I?"
She just laughed, clearly having no words of comfort at that particular moment. The other line clicked, indicating that she had another call.
"Oh, it's Michael. I have to tell him. Do you care if I three-way him in?" she asked.
"Sure. I'd love to hear you tell him." Michael would undoubtedly commiserate with me over the entire situation once Penelope hung up since he hated Avery even more than I did.
There was a click, which was followed by a brief silence and then another click. "Everyone there?" Penelope squealed. This was not a girl who normally squealed. "Michael? Bette? You guys both on?"
Michael was a colleague of mine and Penelope's at UBS, but since he'd made VP (one of the youngest ever) we'd seen much less of him. Though Michael had a serious girlfriend, it took Penelope's engagement to really drive the point home: we were growing up.
"Hi, girls," Michael said, sounding exhausted.
"Michael, guess what? I'm engaged!"
There was the tiniest beat of hesitation. I knew that, like me, Michael wasn't surprised, but he would be trying hard to formulate a believably enthusiastic response.
"Pen, that's fantastic news!" he all but shouted into the phone. His volume did much to compensate for the lack of any genuine joy in his voice, and I made a mental note to remember that for next time.
"I know!" she sang back. "I knew you and Bette would be so happy for me. It just happened a few hours ago, and I'm so excited!"
"Well, we'll obviously have to celebrate," he said loudly. "Black Door, just the three of us, multiple shots of something strong and cheap."
"Definitely," I added, happy for something to say. "A celebration is most definitely in order."
"Okay, honey!" Penelope called into the distance, our drinking plans understandably of little interest. "Guys, Avery's off the phone and is pulling on the cord. Avery, stop! I've got to run, but I'll call you both later. Bette, see you at work tomorrow. Love you both!"
There was a click and then Michael said, "You still there?"
"Sure am. Do you want to call me or should I call you?" We'd all learned early on that you couldn't trust that the third line had disconnected and therefore always took the precaution of starting a new call before talking shit about the person who'd hung up first.
I heard a high-pitched voice in the background and he said, "Dammit, I just got paged. I can't talk now. Can we talk tomorrow?"
"Sure. Say hi to Megu for me, okay? And Michael? Please don't go and get engaged anytime soon. I don't think I can handle you, too."
He laughed. "You don't have to worry about that, I promise. I'll talk to you tomorrow. And Bette? Chin up. He might be one of the worst guys either of us has ever met, but she seems happy, and that's all you can ask for, you know?"
We hung up and I stared at the phone for a few minutes before twisting my body out the window in a futile attempt to see a few inches of comforting river landscape; the apartment wasn't much, but it was, thankfully, all mine. I hadn't shared it in the nearly two years since Cameron had moved out, and even though it was so long and narrow that I could stretch my legs out and almost touch the opposite wall and even though it was located in Murray Hill and even though the floorboards were warping slightly and the water bugs had taken over, I had reign over my own private palace. The building was a cement monstrosity on Thirty-fourth and First, a multi-winged behemoth that housed such illustrious tenants as one teenage member of a dismantled boy band, one professional squash player, one B-list porn star and her stable of visitors, one average Joe, one former childhood actress who hadn't worked in two decades, and hundreds upon hundreds of recent college graduates who couldn't quite handle the idea of leaving the dorm or the fraternity house for good. It had sweeping East River views, as long as one's definition of "sweeping views" includes a construction crane, a couple of Dumpsters, a brick wall from the building next door, and a patch of river approximately three inches wide that is only visible through unfathomable acts of contortion. All of this glory was mine for the equivalent monthly cost of a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath single-family home upstate.
While still twisted on the couch, I reviewed my reaction to the news. I thought I'd sounded sincere enough, if not downright ecstatic, but Penelope knew ecstatic wasn't in my nature. I'd managed to ask about the rings -- plural -- and to state that I was very happy for her. Of course, I hadn't mustered up anything truly heartfelt or meaningful, but she was probably too giddy to notice. Overall: a solid B-plus performance.
My breathing had normalized enough to smoke another cigarette, which made me feel slightly better. The fact that the water bug hadn't resurfaced yet helped, too. I tried to assure myself that my unhappiness stemmed from my genuine concern that Penelope was marrying a truly terrible guy and not from some deep-rooted envy that she now had a fiance when I didn't have so much as a second date. I couldn't. It had been two years since Cameron had moved out, and though I'd cycled through the requisite stages of recovery (job obsession, retail obsession, and food obsession) and had gone on the usual round of blind dates, drinks-only dates, and the rarer full-dinner dates, only two guys had made third-date status. And none had made fourth. I told myself repeatedly that there wasn't anything wrong with me -- and regularly made Penelope confirm this -- but I was seriously beginning to doubt the validity of that statement.
I lit a second cigarette off the first and ignored Millington's disapproving doggy stare. The self-loathing was beginning to settle upon my shoulders like a familiar, warm blanket. What kind of evil person couldn't express genuine, sincere happiness on one of the happiest days of her best friend's life? How conniving and insecure does one have to be to pray that the whole thing turns out to be a giant misunderstanding? How did I get to be so wretched"?
I picked up the phone and called Uncle Will, looking for some sort of validation. Will, aside from being one of the brightest and bitchiest people on the planet, was my perpetual cheerleader. He answered the phone with the slightest gin-and-tonic slur and I proceeded to give him the short, less-painful version of Penelope's ultimate betrayal.
"It sounds as though you feel guilty because Penelope is very excited and you're not as happy for her as you should be."
"Yeah, that's right."
"Well, darling, it could be far worse. At least it's not some variation on the theme where Penelope's misery is providing you with happiness and fulfillment, right?"
"Schadenfreude. You're not emotionally or otherwise benefiting from her unhappiness, right?"
"She's not unhappy. She's euphoric. I'm the unhappy one."
"Well, there you have it! See, you're not so terrible. And you, my dear, are not marrying that spoiled little brat whose only God-given talents appear to be spending his parents' money and inhaling large quantities of marijuana. Am I mistaken?"
"No, of course not. It just feels like everything's changing. Penelope's my life, and now she's getting married. I knew it would happen eventually, but I just didn't think eventually would be so soon."
"Marriage is for the bourgeoisie. You know that, Bette."
This triggered a series of mental images of Sunday brunches through the years: Will, Simon, the Essex, me, and the Sunday Styles section. We'd dissect the weddings for the duration of brunch, never failing to collapse into evil giggles as we creatively read between the lines.
Will continued. "Why on earth are you eager to enter into a lifelong relationship, the only purpose of which is to strangle every iota of individuality out of you? I mean, look at me. Sixty-six years old, never married, and I'm perfectly happy."
"You're gay, Will. And not only that, but you wear a gold band on the ring finger of your left hand."
"So what's your point? You think I'd actually marry Simon, even if I could? Those same-sex, San Francisco city hall weddings aren't exactly my scene. Not on your life."
"You've been living with him since before I was born. You do realize that you are, essentially, married."
"Negative, darling. Either one of us is free to leave at any point, without any messy legal or emotional ramifications. And that's why it works. But enough of that; I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. Tell me about the ring." I filled him in on the details he really cared about while munching the remaining Twizzlers, and didn't even realize I had fallen asleep on the couch until close to 3 A.M., when Millington woofed her desire to sleep in a real bed. I dragged us both to my room and buried my head under the pillow, reminding myself over and over that this was not a disaster. Not a disaster. Not a disaster.
Copyright © 2005 by Lauren Weisberger
This price is set by the publisher
|Simon & Schuster
|November 01, 2020
|0743294564 / 9780743294560
|Fiction / Literary Fiction