by Zahra Barnes
I piled my hair on top of my head and studied my reflection, twisting this way and that. Could I pull off a big chop? Nah, I thought. It would be just my luck to go into a salon with visions of model-worthy gorgeousness and emerge looking like Keri Russell circa Felicity’s second season.
Celine whirled back into my room like a fairy hyped up on pixie dust. “Found it!” she said triumphantly. I was distracted from my hair quandary when she held up a black, sequined, floor-length dress. We were getting ready for the gala Marian had invited me to. I’d gotten in touch with the organizers and wrangled a few plus ones, knowing these things never hit full capacity.
Celine and Grant had met quickly the night before, when he’d picked me up on the way to the movies. We’d seen No Good Deed, which he’d rolled his eyes about even though I knew he couldn’t get enough of cheesy horror films. It was one thing we had in common. It didn’t hurt that while Idris Elba was undoubtedly sexy (maybe not so much as an escaped lunatic killer, but still), seeing him brought up a memory that was even hotter: an entire weekend that Grant and I spent in bed once, devouring each other and breathlessly marathoning Elba’s show Luther when we needed a break.
It was only two days after Grant and I had decided to try again, but I felt good about bringing him and Celine to the gala. Given that it was at the New York Public Library’s stunning Stephen Schwarzman Building, I knew it would be worth it. It was normally the sort of thing I would dedicate a shopping trip to, but Celine had assured me she had something perfect for me in her closet. Luckily, she came through, as I was beginning to guess she always did.
“You are seriously so talented.” The dress slid over me like liquid, and wasn’t scratchy like the many cheap sequined tops/dresses/skirts/whatevers I’d relied on during my college days. “I can’t wait until I can tell everyone I knew you when.”
She waved my praise away, probably used to hearing it. Although Celine wasn’t big enough to have had any New York Fashion Week showings, she’d been flitting all around the city networking, winning potential clients over and no doubt making an impression. I was so happy for her, but at the same time, I’d missed her. I was glad to have her back from the depths of Fashion Week, and so excited to venture out with her and Grant.
I wove my hair into my best take on the Pinterest updo taunting me from my laptop, then got to work on my makeup. Or I tried to, anyway. The second she saw what I was doing, Celine tut-tutted and hauled me into her room.
“I told you, you must use my new dresser for events like this!” She’d just scored an amazing vintage vanity with mirrors and lightbulbs. She couldn’t stop raving about how it would make me look “like sunshine is shining from your every pore.” Well, if you insist! I finished my makeup while Celine slipped into a tea-length strapless red dress, which went perfectly with her cap of shiny brunette hair.
Grant rang our buzzer right on time and walked into the apartment looking like my own personal James Bond, thanks to his black on black suit. We’d agreed to take it slow, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to bring him along to something so fancy.
I tested out some of my newly-learned mixology skills and made us cucumber gimlets before we left. The liquor went down smoothly, infusing me with excitement. Everything just felt so right: Grant and I were working on things, I was getting to bond with Celine, and I’d hopefully have the chance to network with a few potential artists for Grey & Boehm at the event.
Speaking of Grey & Boehm, I’d done my best to put Marian’s weirdness out of my head. When I showed up at work early the day after my dinner with Grant, the back room looked like a type-A office drone’s dream. Liv had done everything perfectly, although what I really cared about most was that it looked good. I could check on how thorough it was when I didn’t have Marian’s deadline looming. I bought Liv a coffee as a thank-you, then waited impatiently to see who was coming in for this big-deal meeting.
When it was time, Marian had waited at the door to Grey & Boehm as still as a jaguar before it pounces. Finally, a well-dressed man around 60 years old walked in. Marian immediately whisked him away to her office, making me wish I’d listened more closely when an old friend taught me all the eavesdropping tips she learned at spy camp.
After an hour, they finally came out and did a tour of the space. Marian introduced us to Tom Fitzpatrick, but didn’t tell us anything beyond his name. My incessant Googling turned up nothing, so for now, Liv and I were stumped. At least I knew the back room was taken care of, so there was no way I was on her shit list.
Celine waved a hand in front of my face, snapping me back to the present. “‘Allo? Are we ready to go?”
We headed out and hopped in a cab, all squeezing into the back together. I usually call the center the bitch seat, but really I just felt like I was in the middle of a love sandwich. Cheesy, but I was finding that any time after I had a gimlet, my middle name may as well have been Gouda.
When we got through the velvet ropes in front of the Schwarzman Building I knew it was going to be a good night. The interior of the massive lobby was decked out with different lights, throwing splashes of color across the faces of the beautiful attendees while loops of silk hung from the ceiling like watchful angels. A waiter appeared in front of us with glasses of champagne, which we happily accepted.
I instinctively tried to figure out the general area of the kitchen, since I usually stake out that spot at these sorts of things. Get the hors d’oeuvres while they’re piping hot from the oven, you know? But I tamped down the urge, knowing this occasion was way too classy for that.
After doing a few loops and exchanging some business cards with the crowd on the first floor, we decided to head upstairs. I knew most people would just be enjoying themselves, but there were some heavy hitters in both the art and fashion worlds, which meant Celine and I could both turn this into a bit of a professional home run if we played it right. The first room off the main staircase had a huge dance floor in front of a bar, which thrilled Celine to no end.
“We must dance! I love this song,” she shouted joyfully over the beats of Sia’s “Chandelier.”
“Okay,” I laughed. “Just let me go talk to someone really quickly. Do you want to come with us?” I’d spotted Francesca, a regular in the art world who only went by her first name. We were friendly acquaintances and even though she had family money and didn’t have to work, she was talented enough to make something of a living off her paintings.
“No. I dance,” Celine said with a serious look on her face. A grin broke out on her lips and she spun away with arms raised, her delicate shoulder blades the only hint of the fragility that lay beneath her sparkling exterior. Celine had told me that on her many nights alone, she’d often go out to clubs and just move in sync with strangers. She wasn’t just fine, she was in her element.
I took Grant’s hand and led him over to Francesca, whose immaculate dark skin and short dreadlocks were complemented by a dazzling smile. I re-introduced them, as they’d met a few times before at Grey & Boehm openings, then started picking Francesca’s brain about the next big thing in the art world.
“She’s actually right behind you,” she said. She’d just briefed me on Mary Wilson, a woman who immersed herself in heartbreak for her art. An avid traveler, she would have these fraught breakups with men and women she was in love with, then smash things that reminded her of the relationships in public places. After her fallout with a lumberjack, she’d jumped on a huge pile of kindling, screaming her pain as the wood splintered and cracked beneath her. When processing a breakup with a hipster woman who had taken up an amateur beekeeping hobby, she’d heaved jars of honey at a wall, relentlessly murmuring that love is everything but sweet. Naturally, she’d been arrested a few times. She was intense, and I wanted her for Grey & Boehm.
I turned, and Francesca beckoned Mary over. She approached us, energy buzzing off her like a hive of pissed off hornets, and extended her hand. What followed was a conversation that started in the specifics of her art and spiraled into a debate about existence, love, and destiny. I was hooked. She was one of those women who seemed plain when you first met her, with mousy hair and pale eyes, but when you talked to her, you could actually see her beauty bloom in front of you. Combine the first impression she gave off with the fierce emotion behind her work, and I knew Marian would be delighted (well, her version of delighted, so maybe I’d get a spasm of her lips), if I could bring her in for a meeting.
I was in the middle of explaining Grey & Boehm’s initiative to get some more high-profile artists when I heard a crash, followed by a murmur that rippled through the crowd. The music broke off mid-Beyonce and the lights flipped on. Grant, immersed in conversation with Francesca, gripped my arm. I turned and saw Celine splayed out on the ground, laughing uproariously, a cocktail glass shattered by her side. A waiter was on his back behind her, covered in the food that had just been on the tray he’d upended on the way down.
“Oh my God, that’s my roommate,” I gasped. I rushed over to where Celine was now trying to stand, her legs as wobbly as a newborn foal’s. She’d cut her hand on the glass.
“Tessa!” She grabbed my wrist, smearing blood on it. “I had a little whoopsie!” Her voice swayed more than usual, and I realized she must have gotten more drinks while we’d been talking. She was completely bombed.
“It’s fine.” Patently false, based on the dirty looks we were getting. “Are you okay?” I grabbed her gesticulating hand and looked at her cut, which thankfully didn’t seem very deep.
“Yes, of course. I was just dancing and bumped into this waiter,” she explained, clearly trying to keep her balance. I turned to help the man, who was brushing bite-sized pieces of filet mignon from his lap and getting to his feet. Three men from a clean-up crew surrounded us with brooms, and I felt a hot flush rise to my cheeks. No one could take their eyes off us.
“Everyone can stop staring now!” Celine bellowed at the onlookers. I couldn’t tell whether she was actually pissed off or her embarrassment was just masquerading as indignation.
I led Celine over to Grant. “We need to go home,” I said in a low voice. “I’ll meet you outside.” He nodded, automatically taking control, and led her downstairs.
Mary and Francesca gave me sympathetic smiles, which didn’t do much to help my mortification. “I’m so sorry,” I told them. “I’m going to make sure my roommate gets home okay.” After hugging Francesca and reassuring Mary that I would be in touch, I hunted down the waiter and tried to slip him a $20. He kindly refused, so I finally had to give up and hurry downstairs.
A cab was pulling up to the curb in front of Grant and Celine right as I left the building. At this point she was looking ready to pass out, and I hoped we’d make it to the apartment without her having another yelling fit or, even worse, throwing up in the cab. The burgundy splotches on her dress almost looked intentional.
Celine perked up as we raced uptown. She chattered on about everything from the party to the new collection she was working on, obviously still drunk. Grant and I humored her, but exchanged worried looks above her head. Did she not realize the show she’d just made?
We got her up to the apartment without incident, and she promptly curled up on the couch. I hadn’t dealt with a falling-down drunk since my college days, but realized it was like riding a bike as we went through the motions. Grant carried her to her bed, then left the room so I could get her into some pajamas and bandage her cut. She was so out of it, she barely twitched when I cleaned the gash. I woke her up to drink a glass of water, which she chugged quickly before flopping back onto the bed. Finally, I positioned her on her side and put a few pillows behind her to stop her from rolling over onto her back.
I changed and sank down next to her bed, swabbing my face with a makeup removal pad. Grant came in and sat next to me. He knew why I was stationed there: we were in for at least a few hours of checking Celine’s breathing. I knew it seemed overzealous, but an old high school friend had almost died in her sleep after a night of too much drinking. Ever since then, I’d been extra careful.
I leaned my head on his shoulder. “Thank you for everything tonight,” I whispered.
“Of course. You know it’s what I’m here for.”
“Look at you two.You are the most beautiful people on the entire planet.” Celine was awake again. She peered at us through heavy-lidded eyes. “I know this, even though the world is spinning.”
We all laughed, then settled in quietly for the long night ahead.