by Jessica Knoll
The weirdest thing about rich people is how little they work for how much money they get paid. Take the job Elizabeth's father got for me, for example. When I arrived in Chicago, one lone bag packed, everything I owned, every mid-century modern antique I'd spent my drug dealer's salary on, sold, I was ready to start an honest life for once. Really work hard, you know?
There was no point in doing this, in risking losing Elizabeth, if I wasn't going to fully commit. That meant making her really believe that I had no intention of ever seeing her again, because if her father so much as sensed otherwise, I could kiss this opportunity, my "in" into this nepotistic world of privilege, goodbye. I didn't stand a chance weaseling my way in on my own, not at twenty-seven years old, not without connections or any semblance of relevant experience. My plan was to stick it out in Chicago for at least a year, wow the people who needed to be wowed, and leverage this position into a job in New York, at a company whose CFO wasn't Elizabeth's father. And then what? I'd find Elizabeth. I'd buy her that hideous bulldog she always wanted. I'd do whatever it took to get her back. It couldn't be that hard, right? She was in love with me, still.
Do you want to know how I knew? I tracked down Biz (I didn't dare contact Elizabeth directly). I wanted her to pass along a message to Elizabeth. It was easy enough to get her phone number—some of the guys back at the station took care of it for me. They say it's good to have friends in high places but in my life I've found it's the opposite. Those friends in low places, the places where people actually work, and look out for each other, and care about each other because we're all we got, those are the friends you want to have.
I hardly got a word in edgewise after I identified myself to Biz. "Don't you dare ever call me again," she had threatened, "or I will tell Elizabeth's father. You've destroyed her. She can't even get out of bed. If you have a shred of decency left in you you'll just leave her be and let her try to move on." With that, she hung up.
On the surface, it might not seem like the most encouraging reaction. But on the contrary, it only buoyed my mood, strengthened my faith in my plan. "You've destroyed her. She can't even get out of bed." Only someone who are you deeply, dangerously in love with has the power to level you this flat. The realization put an extra little pep in my step that day.
And it turned out, the task of wowing the people who needed to be wowed at my new job was a lot easier than I anticipated. I hustled a lot harder as a detective, as a coke dealer, for Chrissakes. Oh, there were the slip ups. Like the first day I showed up to work in a red tie. I'd chosen it because it was a power color: bold, fearless, influential, the man I was determined to be for Elizabeth.
"Oh, no, no, no, no, no," said Mark Wallerton, my HR supervisor who I was to report to on my very first day. He was staring at my chest, like he could see the clunky, nervous beat of my heart, and I looked down, half expecting to see my shirt pulsating.
"What?" I'd gulped.
Mark didn't answer. Just opened his bottom drawer and tossed a navy ball of fabric my way. I unraveled it to find a silk tie, the Brooks Brother's tag still dangling from the neck. "Only the partners wear red," he told me.
I stretched the tie out and examined it, perplexed, like it was an ancient script in a dead language. "No one told me," I said, defensively.
"I'm telling you," Mark said, staring at his computer screen and stabbing his keyboard. "I keep a drawer full of those things for newbie idiots like you. Put it on and throw that other abomination in the trash. We've got a lot to talk about."
His demeanor was craggy, but in time, Mark grew to be one of my closest friends. He was forty, and up until four years ago, he had been a manager for some of the swankiest nightclubs in Chicago. I couldn't decide whose past was seedier—his or mine. It doesn't matter how nice the venue is, how many celebrities it attracts, or how much it charges for a basic bottle of Stoli, any association with nightlife is decidedly sleazy.
But, like me, Mark kept the secrets of the rich and powerful. He knew which (married) partner was a regular with Chicago's most exclusive escort service, and he helped one executive write off a $20,000 bottle of wine as an expense by fudging the numbers to make it look like that was the cost of a dinner for overseas clients, rather than the cost of four and a half measly glasses of wine. These secrets paid for the price of admission, and, at thirty-six years old, when Mark met a nice woman he wanted to settle down with, he cashed them in for a secure job, with good benefits, and waking human hours.
Mark understood me in a way no one else did, and vice versa. He took a shine to me, and stuck his neck out for me when he could. It was Mark who put me up for the job in New York. Mark who told the hiring manager there that I was the star of the Chicago office.
When I met Peter that first time in New York, I had no idea he was dating Elizabeth. Really. The sick thing is I actually fell for the guy at dinner. There was an authenticity about him, something endearingly earnest, that I hadn't seen in anyone in a long time. When Elizabeth walked into that bar, Dorrian's, this institution that ought to have been the church we married in, as shrouded in secrets and deceit as we were, I was so surprised it didn't even occur to me to blame fate. I instantly thought, she must have had something to do with this.
I thought she would kiss me, weak with relief, when I followed her into the bathroom. It had been two years since we'd seen each other, and she was still as beautiful and as frightening as ever.
Instead, she shoved me off her. Told me what a pussy I was. I didn't stick around after that. I had miscalculated her, and I made sure I was long gone by the time she came out of the bathroom.
Still, a part of me had hope. This was Elizabeth after all, not the easiest hand to read. When Mark told me he'd heard through the HR club's grapevine that there was a position at Credit Suisse, in New York, that paid a lot more money and none of it in blood, I went for it.
I assumed, when I got the job, that Mark had pulled some strings for me. But when I asked him, he clapped me on the back. "Believe it or not, young grasshopper, you got this one all on your own."
Off my stunned expression he added, "Why don't you start having a little faith in yourself? You earned this. Now go get your girl."
He was right, I realized. I'd earned my wings. I'd gotten to New York on my own merits. Why abandon the plan now? So what she was dating someone else? I'd felt her heart, a hammering fist through her blouse against my own chest: Let me back in there.
I'd called up my old buddies at the station. Gotten her new address, and showed up one day, right before the holidays. I was just rounding the corner when I spotted her, Peter by her side, exiting the building. She'd raised her hand to hail a cab and that was when I saw it: her ring finger's mean, blinding glint. I felt like a deer, frozen in a single headlight's wake. Well, of fucking course she's engaged to him, I berated myself. He was a good guy, even I could see that, and most important, he was cut from her same cloth.
Elizabeth climbed into the cab that had rested beneath her beaming hand, but not before giving Peter a kiss that twisted my stomach like a wet dish towel, ringing out the last of my hope for us. Before I could turn to go, Peter spotted me.
"Brian?" he called, and I couldn't pretend like I hadn't heard him. "Brian Campbell?"
I contorted my face, like I was pleasantly surprised to have run into him on the street like this. It's amazing how close the expression of pleasure is to one of pain, how most people can't note the fine differences at all.
Not long after that I got a call from Isabel, or Izzy, as she instructed me to call her now. She heard I'd moved to town. That I didn't know many people here. Did I want to come to a New Year's eve party at her place?
I did, I told her, and I'm not sure why. Maybe because I needed to see Elizabeth one last time, in order to accept that it was really over. I knew Isabel, excuse me, Izzy, was interested in me, so I needed to bring some insurance, because that was never going to happen. I found a cute cocktail waitress, a student, desperate for money. $400 to be my date, to go along with the "we grew up together and ran into each other in the big city!" story I concocted. If Elizabeth was really happy with one of her kind, I wanted her to believe that the same was true of me.
That poor girl, Lydia. I think she was actually offended I wanted to pay her to go on a date, rather than actually, you know, go on a date. I had to drink a lot that night to assuage my guilt.
And maybe that's why, when I saw Peter at the party, and he invited me to shoot hoops with him that weekend, I said yes. Or maybe it was because here was the first guy who wanted to spend an afternoon doing something normal Joe Schmoe guys do. Not golf, not paddle tennis or squash or skiing in Park City. Just some time on the court, bouncing the ball back and forth. Maybe I was flattered that a guy like Peter wanted to hang out with a guy like me, or maybe it was still a connection to Elizabeth, a way to hold on a little longer.
Or maybe, I'd get to know Peter, make myself over in his image. He was who Elizabeth wanted to be with, after all.
Either way, when I told Elizabeth, "Happy New Year," it was a goodbye, in a way. But only a goodbye to the old me, the old us. It wasn't over. Not by a long shot.