The following is an excerpt from a finished book that I may or may not eventually publish,The Four Seasons of Michael James. For now, I’ll be periodically dropping bits and pieces here.
Serena, Mona, and Kris are standing outside of a brownstone on 13th Street. Everyone is wearing short shorts and sandals, sporting side-boob or, in Serena’s case, real cleavage. We look like summer sweat, urban beachcombers.
There’s a row of young kids sitting outside against rough iron rails smoking cigarettes, waiting for something that’s never going to come. “Are you sure we’re not on the list?” one moans, helpless and uninvited. Mona gives her name to the man at the door.
We step through the threshold into a clean hallway with a view into a well-outfitted kitchen where two women frantically gather plates of hors d’oeuvres to walk upstairs. The wood floor is new and refurbished and there are layers of crown molding where the wall meets the ceiling. It’s the type of place that would be perfectly suited for a Nancy Meyers film about privileged people who live perfectly normal lives while they deal with their relatable, real people problems in million dollar houses with perfect lighting and living rooms that never get used. Needless to say, this is not our usual environment – a place more often filled with Red Stripe-drinking, chain smoking hipsters with $100 in their bank account that they’re supposed to live off of until the end of the month.
Someone asks Mona whose party this is. She doesn’t know. Nobody knows. We laugh the nervous, satisfied laugh of the uninvited. “I have no idea what this is going to be like,” she warns, though judging from the rosewood banister leading upstairs, we can all guess. Toto, we’re not in Brooklyn anymore.
I follow Mona and her jean shorts up the staircase towards the party. The first person I see is a woman in a white, silk jersey cocktail dress standing next to a man in a blazer and tie. She adjusts the diamond stud in her left ear. Her legs cross at the ankles, two gym-toned calves wrapped over one another. She looks like she’s showered in the last hour. And she is not in the minority; everyone here looks decidedly country club. We, on the other hand, look like prostitutes.
The friend of a friend of a friend who invited us here is a well-spoken and well-to-do art history buff with long brown hair. She reminds me of Catherine Hepburn – someone astute and reserved, poised even when laughing, always composed and never sloppy. Compared to her, we all look like a ridiculous bunch of overgrown children. Girls in Never Never Land. I try to assess any abject horror on her face upon seeing us enter the party, our scrappy little crew with uncurled hair and dewy foreheads.
I look around the room, scanning the scene of hungry, waspy men and their equally waspy girlfriends.
“I’ll take the one in the button-up,” I joke.
We walk straight to the bar and Serena hands me a watermelon drink that supposedly has rum in it but I don’t think it does because it doesn’t make me want to vomit. In high school, I had an epic evening spent with six friends and a bottle of Captain Morgan from which I have never fully recovered. The night included dancing on the wooden table in my mom’s living room, crawling on the white tiled floor of her kitchen, and dragging my friend Jeff out into the backyard “to see Lady,” my dead dog who we had buried three weeks previous under a lavender bush and accompanied by one of her favorite toys, a fuzzy blue Cookie Monster with bulging plastic eyeballs. We sat down in front of the fresh mound of upended earth until I remembered that Jeff had just buried his father, and – given how drunk I was – I apologized profusely, making the situation increasingly awkward. That was, at least, until Jeff tried to kiss me, his eyes drooped with drunkenness and his mouth in that half-moon frown that came when your brain started to loosen its control on your motor skills. “Just friends,” I said, waving my hands in front of him as though I were directing flight traffic. “Just friends.”
Serena asks where the bathroom is and we make a joke about how you actually have to go down a hallway to get to it. In New York City, this is usually only a two-door decision: closet or bathroom, take your pick. “There’s another one downstairs,” someone offers.
Over the polite din of chatter comes the sound of a knife being aggressively banged on the side of a glass. “CAN EVERONE PLEASE QUIETEN DOWN?” A robust man in his early 30s with the cholesterol level of a 60-year-old takes to a white stepladder. A server stands beneath him holding a tray of banana pudding in white paper cups with red spoons.
The man is the fiancé of the birthday girl – this is the point where I realize this is a birthday party. He gives a speech about the birthday girl apparent, who stands to his right with glassy eyes and nice hair, a chunky necklace and wide hips. He tells a parable about a little boy and a beach of starfish and for a moment I find it charming, until he wraps it up saying how many lives she has touched over the years, proceeding to list all of her accomplishments that reads like a bibliography of all of my own failings.
We’re the kids in the room. This girl, this woman, is only three years older than myself. She’s been on the boards of charities, produced television shows, is getting married sometime next year. And here I am, 27, untethered and grasping. I still feel like I’m supposed to be leaving for college soon. I still wear sneakers and shorts that barely cover my ass cheeks. I sit cross-legged on concrete floors even when a chair is available to me. I have no idea when I will grow up, when I will be like any of the people in this room with their white teeth and their pink shirts, when I will be the girl who’s turning 30 and is engaged to some 30-year-old man with a steady job and cigar nights with the boys.
He finishes his toast and people that know her cheer and when we sing happy birthday I get quiet at the part where I’m supposed to sing her name because I don’t know her name.
The crowd gets louder as the music gets worse. Serena and I pluck fat strawberries off of a silver tray and dance around the table under a chandelier with dripping crystals and round glass spheres. I put the chewed-off stems into a white paper napkin and wonder if this is considered appropriate strawberry disposal behavior. No matter what we do here – whether we’re dancing around the table or drinking watermelon drinks or eating fruit for desert – we’re going to look like the bastard kids who snuck in through the backdoor.
I’m introduced to the host of the party and the owner of the townhouse, a man who looks like he’s in his twenties until you get a little closer. He’s neither tall nor short, neither handsome nor offending. He’s not my type but maybe he could be. We fall into conversation easily because he likely wants to have sex with me and I am hell bent on challenging my patterns of attraction.
The two of us discuss his current conundrum: he is debating an invitation to St. Tropez set for the following week, the problem being that the group consists of all of his married-with-children friends. A girl behind us chimes in with her own suggestion. “Never go to St. Tropez unless you’re with your single friends,” she laments. “I’ve done it the wrong way before.” White people problems.
I excuse myself and lock myself in a bathroom with black and white wallpaper and an absurdly large sink that’s the size of most New York City bathtubs. I note that they have run out of hand towels, but that’s the room’s only fault. I wash my hands and dry them with toilet paper that disintegrates in between my fingertips. I stare at myself in the mirror – my blonde hair, my red shorts, my summer tan legs and shiny forehead. I wonder how I would fit in in a place like this – this townhouse with Italian marble floors and light fixtures imported from France. I imagine that I am dating the host and try to see myself here. My reflection looks back at me and we wonder if we are nice enough for a life such as this, refined enough, deserving.