Some people adopt chinchillas or sugar gliders. Others ask their most exotic friend to move in. It’s dangerous, becoming the exotic pet of a wealthy friend, but it has its perks. You get to wear borrowed designer clothes and go to cool clubs. Then one night you become an embarrassment and get sent home in no uncertain terms.
Except you have no keys to the apartment (not your fault; you asked repeatedly, she just kind of laughed it off), no money in your purse, and you are being ushered into a cab by the guy whose advances you spurned, which resulted in you being sent home in the first place. You smile and pretend all is well. What else is there to do? You entertain the feeble hope that he might give you cab fare. But he doesn’t, so now you’re sitting in a cab with no cash and no keys.
Breathe. Relax. Alle gute dinge sind drei. (That’s German. I’ll explain later). All good things are three. (See? Not as charming in English.). It might not help much in a no-keys-no-cash-no-home situation, but let’s address this crisis as a three-step process:
1. How did I get here?
2. Is this happening for real? (This step is the most painful. In shitty situations there’s always this moment of disbelief, when you realize this is your life, not a video game. Here’s one instance in which living in the moment is not all it’s cracked up to be).
3.What do I do now? (Hopefully by the time I get to this step I will have an answer).
But first things first. My Tati used to drive a cab. So, pet chinchilla in fancy borrowed heels, have some decency. Don’t do your soul searching with the meter running. Swallow your pride, admit you have no money. Give the man your last crumpled dollar bill. And get out of his cab.
Now, I wish I could say the crisp night air is sobering. But Manhattan summers are hot and humid, like a drunk person’s breath. I sit down on the dirty curb. And I cry – for like the n-th time today. An eternity later, I dry my swollen eyes, and try to think. Back to the three-step program.
1. How did I get here?
It started off like a perfect day. This morning I woke up feeling light and happy. I woke up late in my Upper East Side bed, in Egyptian cotton sheets that are not even mine. I’m not a luxury prostitute. I’m just mooching off my best friend. She’s a trust fund baby, my age, my size, and pretty much as lost as I am, except when you have all that money it’s not as big a deal. I am the disappointing daughter of hard-working immigrant parents. She is the cherished baby of a rich dysfunctional family. She has a natural born talent for the kind of sophistication that comes with old money and summers of mild debauchery on the French Riviera. I have a talent for secretly talking to myself in foreign languages.
Anyway, back to my day. This morning I woke up and it was Saturday and I was happy. G and I lounged in our jammies watching bad TV. We started talking about what to wear tonight. I knew it was an important night for Gretchen because she sort of has a crush on this guy Bob, so she wanted to look her best, and me to look almost as good, but not quite. We ordered delivery sushi and Gretchen protested when I tried reaching for my wallet. I was relieved, because as usual I was broke. But then we had barely opened the sushi, I had barely squeezed soy sauce into one of G’s tiny porcelain dishes when she said the thing about boundaries, which she learned from her therapist. It went something like:
“You’re welcome for the sushi, but you know, L, there have to be boundaries. I’ve thought about it, and really, I cannot treat you to the hair appointment. Your hair is your responsibility.”
I tried to keep a straight face, but my chopsticks got out of whack, and I dropped my unagi. I considered just washing my hair. Washing it with Gretchen’s caviar shampoo, then styling it myself. I fished my unagi out of the soy sauce. It was too salty.
G read my thoughts.
“You can’t go without a professional blow dry, L!” She sighed like an exhausted mother, sick of explaining the basic facts of life to a slow learning child. “Especially with your ethnic hair.”
She stressed ‘ethnic.’ I felt that thing again, the angry thing that I recently started feeling. I mean, aren’t we all ethnic? I tried to imagine a whole generation of robots, devoid of ethnicity - human-like, but with flawless skin that never grows hair in undesirable places, sweat glands that smell like roses, and porcelain teeth that don’t ever need brushing. Their doll-like heads grow smooth silky hair the color of clean cotton balls, a blank slate for whatever hue they wish to dye it. They grow in fields, these people. Fields and fields of generic yet beautiful creatures. Kind of like in the Matrix.
G snapped her fingers.
“Earth to L! I pulled a lot of strings to book this appointment. You need to look your best tonight. You are getting a Brazilian blow dry!”
I almost snickered. ‘Brazilian blow dry’ sounds dirty to me. In real life it’s an anti-septic procedure carried out in an immaculately white room with mirrors, a cross between a hospital and an art gallery, where people sit in ergonomic chairs drinking cucumber water, and make sophisticated small talk with hair ninjas wielding hot metal plates and very sharp objects. I submitted to the ritual. I tried to tell myself that if I drank enough cucumber water, and looked at the whole thing as an elaborate show (which it was), I’d get more bang for my buck. I kept my lips shut. Though to be fair, the assistant ninja allocated to me didn’t seem too interested in conversation. He was eavesdropping on the gossip between Gretchen and the master ninja in charge of her hair. Myself, I tried to zone it out. Sophisticated small talk is not my specialty. Internal monologue in foreign languages is.
Je crois que j’aimais mieux mes cheveux ce matin.
I think I liked my hair better this morning. Never understood why it’s such a virtue to have your hair straightened, when it naturally comes in waves.
When all was said and done it cost a small fortune. I felt guilty. Mami’s best friend works in a salon, though mind you, one that serves stale coffee in Styrofoam cups, not spring water infused with the flavor of organic cucumbers. Still, they do hair there. They would probably have done this whole blow out thing just fine (though maybe not Brazilian), and Mami’s friend would have made sure I got it for free. But then it would have all just gotten sweaty and sticky and nasty on the subway, and well, spring water with cucumbers was kind of a nice touch.
“You have beautiful, thick hair!” the cashier said, taking my hard-earned money, leaving me destitute. “Where you from?”
“Er… New York?”
I watched her put my cash into the register. I looked around for the pitcher of cucumber water. At these prices, would it be wrong to ask for a refill?
“But where you from from?” she insisted. People always do.
They say if you live in New York for ten years, you become a New Yorker. That’s obviously a lie, because in my case, fifteen years and counting didn’t even begin to do the trick. It’s like I had it stamped on my forehead or something. Imported. Importata. Blah. Of course, most of New York is imported. Some of the most interesting elements of it are, in fact, foreign. Even the Brazilian blow dry is, supposedly, from Brazil.
“Where’s your family from?” the cashier insisted.
“She’s Romanian!” Gretchen jumped it. “Isn’t that exotic?”
“Can I have more cucumber water, please?” the exotic Romanian girl asked. Pot sa mai am apa cu castraveti, va rog? In Romanian it sounded kind of dumb, which cheered me up. Until Gretchen said:
"Isn’t that, like, so different?” She meant being Romanian, not the cucumber water. I wanted to smack her. I really haven’t been a decent pet chinchilla lately.
Anyway, back to my story about today and how I ended up alone, cashless, and with no keys. I’ll skip the rest of the going out preparations and go straight to the scene at the club. The club was fancy and full of beautiful people. But I’d spent too much on an apple martini, and I was having a bad time.
G wanted me to flirt with J.J., Bob’s friend. I found J.J. annoying. In fact, I found all three of them annoying, and I was not trained well enough to disguise my boredom. I don’t think I was outright rude, but I wasn’t a good sport. I could sense G was furious. I excused myself to go to the ladies’ room. I needed an escape.
The bathroom wasn’t a good idea. As soon as I stepped in, I saw the old woman standing there, by the sinks, wearing a black dress and a white apron. My heart sunk. I hate how in these fancy clubs there’s women whose job it is to wash people’s hands. Of course, I know these women don’t wash people’s hands (G laughed at me once when I said that). They just hand you towels and lotion. Still, I think it’s sad that this is someone’s job. So sad, in fact, that tonight, when I saw the old woman, I started crying like an idiot.
I hid inside a stall. I know this is ridiculous and I promise I’m not some kind of freak. But old people are special to me. I was raised by my grandmother, like many Romanian kids of my generation. Well, in fact, I was raised by my grandmother, my great grandmother, and a nanny. But that only lasted until I was eight, when I left the country with my parents and my stupid brother and moved to stupid Queens. After that I never saw my grandmother again. Or my great grandmother, or Tanti Grosu, the nanny. Mami and I cried rivers over this, and in time, my affection for the three women turned into a general sense of loss and an inclination towards liking older people. My memories sometimes mislead me, too. I’m not sure, for example, who taught me the prayer about the little angel, but I still say it every night, although Mami laughs at me, because the prayer is for children, and I am, by some standards, grown. I can’t remember who first showed me how cute birds are when they drink water. Their little throats move like little pumps, and they have to tilt their heads back to swallow. But give me a puddle and some doves (porumbei), and I’ll probably start crying.
So I hid in a stall, trying to blink back tears. I forced myself to count the tiles on the floor. It’s a trick I learned from Mami, a technique she came up with when she realized we would not be able to function in the new country crying rivers every day. The tiles were all the same cream color, some shiny, others matte. Each of them probably cost more than a plate of Mami’s fine china. I counted nine shiny ones, and twelve matte ones, then added the two numbers, then tried multiplying the sum by seven.
I finally felt brave enough to face the lotion woman. I smiled at her as best I could, and washed my hands quickly, avoiding eye contact. Then she held out a towel.
“You like lotion, Miss?”
I did not. What I wanted was to run away before the tears came back. But I didn’t want to be rude, and so, the lotion process started. We held hands, the lotion woman and I. Her touch was warm, but her skin felt rough. How did people get skin like that? Was it old age? Housework? I wondered what the lotion lady did in her free time. What had she done in her youth? How did she end up here, in Manhattan, in the bathroom of a bar for spoiled rich kids? I looked at her tip jar. Just a few dollar bills. I wished I could afford a proper tip.
I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on absolutely nothing. There was a sort of intimacy to the hand massage, a sense of closeness. Something I longed for in this big city, where I felt so alone tonight.
I dug inside my tiny clutch, fished out my last ten dollar bill, and placed it in the tip jar. I was officially out of cab fare.
I left the bathroom as quick as I could.
“What’s wrong?” Gretchen asked when I got back. I could tell she was miffed. “You ok?”
I gave her my best pet chinchilla smile.
“Maybe those apple martinis are catching up with you. I’ll ask J.J. to hail you a cab.”
That was my cue to disappear. Once I was gone, JJ would probably hook up with a friendlier girl, and Gretchen could go home with Bob.
I air kissed G good night.
“Sit tight, gorgeous!” JJ said, and leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek. Bob laughed. They were all a bit drunk. I wasn’t even jealous.
Then J.J. hailed me a cab, and I was too embarrassed to admit I had no money.