Cheap apartment buildings in New York had no buzzer at all. Semi-cheap buildings – like the one Betty lived in – had buzzers, which seldom worked. Fairly nice buildings had video intercom systems that stayed in good repair. Really nice buildings had a doorman, who was usually cheerfully friendly.
And then there was this building on the Upper East Side, which had a lobby beyond that of a luxury hotel, complete with dry-cleaners; gourmet market; directions to the pool, spa, exercise club and screening room; and a doorman who dressed like a footman to the queen of England and acted like her butler.
“I’m here to see Apartment 23A,” Betty said to him, feeling absurdly like she ought to curtsy.
“And may I ask your business in the unit?” The doorman’s English accent was better than the Queen’s.
Betty had no answer but the truth: “I don’t know. Besides bringing him this.” She lifted the bag in her left hand, oily with mayonnaise stains.
Although cool, proper disapproval radiated from the doorman, he duly made the call to the unit, nodded, and said, “You may ascend.”
The elevators had little news tickers in them, just like the Meade Publications building. The carpet read HAVE A PLEASANT THURSDAY.
That added the perfectly surreal touch to a day that was already several flavors of bizarre. Betty had taken the bus to work instead of the subway, the better to argue with her father’s insurance providers the whole way there. Then she’d arrived at MODE to find this invitation to the Upper East Side on her lunch hour, an assignment to oversee a photo shoot that very afternoon, and an email from a guy at the NEW YORKER she’d befriended back when they were both assistants. He was now an editor, telling her they didn’t have any vacancies at the moment … but he suspected a coworker intended to resign instead of returning from her maternity leave next month, so he was going to keep Betty posted.
So she’d spent her morning feeling like a tightrope walker, trying to balance her family, her desire for a new direction in her career, and her commitments to MODE and to Daniel – which were becoming very much two separate things. Betty sighed as the glowing circles moved to higher and higher numbers on the elevator; it seemed like the higher up she went, the farther she had to fall.
By the 23rd floor, there were only two apartments per unit. The door for 23A stood ajar, so she stepped through and called, “Daniel?”
“Betty! You made it!”
She walked inside to see a world of white on white – marble hallway, crown molding, 14-foot-ceilings. The hall was wider than most NYC bedrooms. At the far end of it, in front of a window almost as tall as the wall, Daniel stood. Despite the light framing him, she could tell he was smiling.
“Yeah, I made it.” Lifting the bag she’d brought, she said, “And I brought our lunch. Where are we?”
“We are at what might become my new apartment.” Daniel walked toward her, tapping rolled papers into one palm; she realized they were building specs.
“New apartment? You’re moving?”
“Got a letter from the management of my building – they’re going condo. We have to buy within three months or get out.” They met in the middle of the hallway, from which Betty could see the palatial living room and, beyond it, what looked to be not only a large kitchen but also a separate dining room: Manhattan’s luxury of luxuries. Daniel continued, “I could buy, but … you know, it was Molly’s apartment. Then it was our apartment. I think maybe it’s time to find a place that’s mine.”
He’s moving on from Molly, for real, Betty thought. The realization made her feel strange … happy for him, but at the same time, vaguely uneasy. If Daniel was moving on, where was he moving on to?
Well, yes, this place, but that was just literal. Figuratively, it could be anything. It was strangely unsettling to think of Daniel changing, though there was no rational reason for that to make her feel insecure. She said only, “The carpet in the elevators knew it was Thursday.”
“Crazy, right? Yesterday, when I looked at this place for the first time, the carpets said HAVE A PLEASANT WEDNESDAY. I think that butler guy changes them at midnight.”
“Well, this apartment is gorgeous. Do I even want to see the master bath, or will I actually turn green from jealousy?”
“A two-person surround-shower.” As they walked into the living room, Daniel fished a sandwich out of the sack, glanced at it, and handed it to her; he knew what she’d ordered, just as she’d known what to pick up for him without being told. “It’s half the size of my office.”
Betty groaned in envy, making a joke of it though the emotion was real. New Yorkers loved their Yankees, their Mets, their Giants, their Jets, but every single one of them knew the city’s number-one sport would always be real estate. “I don’t want to know the actual purchase price, but are we talking seven figures or eight?”
“By the time we’re done negotiating? High seven.” Daniel wasn’t bragging; he was thinking practically, she could tell, stating the facts and no more. Still, though, it was sometimes staggering to remember the gulf between their budgets … particularly when they were standing side by side, eating sandwiches out of the same paper bag. “So, what do you think?”
“Me?” Betty realized she shouldn’t have been surprised to have been asked; Daniel liked to consult her about nearly everything. But this – this was big, and way out of her experience. One more tug to make her waver on the tightrope: However, she gave it her best shot. “Well, any Manhattan real estate counts as a solid investment, and this place – no matter when you sold it, you’d never lose money on it.”
A little frown-line appeared between Daniel’s eyebrows. “No, I mean, do you like it? Could you see yourself spending time here?”
“It’s beautiful, but – ” How could she possibly criticize a place so gorgeous? “Well, it seems a little cold, maybe. Really formal. Not at all like you.” Hastily, Betty added, “But look at all the amenities! Great neighborhood, too. And hey, a two-person shower. You must have big plans for it.”
Normally her occasional risqué jokes made him laugh, but this time he actually seemed a little embarrassed. Without meeting her eyes, he said, “Cold. I can sort of see that.”
“Daniel. It doesn’t matter what I think; you’re the one buying it.”
“Your opinion is important to me.”
“Well, thank you. But if you want me to do a full inspection, I’ll have to come back later.” She munched on one of the sandwich crusts, downing her lunch quickly. “I need to get back to the office, because I need to get out early tonight.”
“What’s up? Tae Kwon Do?”
Betty had been holding back her biggest smile, waiting for the moment when she could share her news: “Dad’s doing better than they’d hoped. He’s coming home tonight!”
Daniel’s face lit up; he was almost as thrilled as she was. “Oh, Betty. That’s fantastic.”
“So I have copyedits to finish before 4:30.” The balancing act only got trickier, but Papi’s return home was worth all the effort. She handed Daniel the bag and dusted off her hands as she walked back out. “And you have to inspect your own apartment, mister.”
Ah, MODE. Silly MODE. She’d outgrown it, of course.
That was why she kept coming back, Amanda decided. To see just how much she’d outgrown it. Like putting on your emergency fat pants to see how many corn dogs you could eat in a crisis, but in reverse.
“Are you still here?” That Megan girl gave Amanda one of her fake nicey-nice smiles. “That’s so cute, how you always drop in!”
“That’s so cute, how you’re passive aggressive all the time.” Amanda’s fake nicey-nice smile could take down Megan’s any day.
At that moment, Marc swooped in, and she thought they were going to outbitch Megan together, just like old times, but instead he clasped her at the elbow and was like, “Mandy, darling! So glad you could make it. This way, please.”
“Are you my favorite accessory, or am I yours?” Amanda always enjoyed strutting down the Tube with Marc. “And why are you acting like you invited me here? Is it part of your master plan to make Cliff your love slave once more?”
“Cliff’s not in this week. I have to wait for him to get another HUDSON assignment before I can make my move and have it be appropriately casual instead of obviously desperate.” He steered her into the coed bathroom, did some checking under the stalls, then hissed, “I’m saying that I invited you here because it doesn’t look good for you to keep inviting yourself. Appearances, Amanda! We both know that nothing matters more!”
She frowned and crossed her arms as she leaned against the wall. Did her pink dress clash with the orange or create a dramatic contrast? But somehow she sensed this wasn’t the time to ask. “I was bored.”
Marc sighed and rubbed her arm. “Still no new clients?”
“I don’t understand. I have one client. The first is supposed to be the hardest. But then, he’s my dad, so maybe he doesn’t count. I still have to get my hardest client, Marc.” She felt very small all of a sudden. “Sitting at home makes me all weird. I do my nails, and then I do them again, and watch my father on TV making out with girls, and it’s like nothing I know is real anymore.”
“Well, I’m the only one who’s noticed that you’re stealing office supplies. So far, that is.”
“How did you know?”
“For one, I found a new box of Bic pens between the sofa cushions yesterday, and for two, toilet paper that scratchy isn’t sold to individuals, only institutions.” He slipped his arm around her for a reassuring cuddle. “But if anybody catches on, it’s going to suck. We are talking early-Betty levels of ridicule if people find out.”
That meant many troubling things: the satirical Tumblrs, the screensavers of unflattering pictures, maybe even the commemorative likeness piñata. God, that had been an awesome Christmas party. When she imagined an Amanda-pinata instead, though, the awesomeness levels dipped sharply. She shifted her weight from one ankle-booted heel to another. “So I can’t come see you anymore?”
“You have to let Uncle Marc think about it long and hard to come up with a solution.” He pushed her forward, out of the bathroom, toward the elevators. Another long afternoon of nothing stretched in front of her. Amanda remembered the lyrics to the song – if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere – and thought, well, if I can’t make it here, maybe I could still make it somewhere else.
It was mostly a joke. But kind of not.
She kept her head high as she stalked into the nearest elevator, which opened for her as if on cue. At least her exit would be totally hot. But as the doors began to close, Marc stuck his hand in. “Hey, Amanda?”
“You’re my favorite accessory of all time.”
It was funny, how smiling at someone who was smiling back at you could make you want to cry.
Justin had thought he’d have another day for the production design on Grandpa’s homecoming, but sometimes spontaneity provided its own inspiration.
When he got Mom’s text during third period, he quickly messaged Austin: OMG, Grandpa’s homecoming 2nite – bring the tinsel!
The reply was immediate: You got it!
Not only did he have a real true boyfriend, but he also had one who knew the importance of hanging onto some holiday garlands for year-round use. Plus, Grandpa was well enough to come home. And this stupid semester was almost over, which mean the years of high school he had to live through were down to two. Justin’s life was definitely looking up.
By the time the taxi arrived that evening, Justin and Austin had worked their magic. Tinsel lined all the corners, all the trim, even the TV. He’d finished his art project, though maybe the glue was still drying. As he peered out the window at Mom and Aunt Betty helping Grandpa from the taxi, while Bobby grabbed the bag from the trunk, he said, “Okay, one last thing.”
“What?” Austin looked around, so bewildered it was almost funny.
“We won’t have a chance to do this for a while, so – ” Justin leaned forward and kissed Austin, lips closed – then open.
His heart rushed up higher in his chest, it seemed; he could feel his pulse in his throat, found it hard to catch his breath. Every kiss felt like a miracle to him, the fulfillment of a wish he’d been sure would never come true. I love someone who loves me back, and everybody I care about knows and is happy for me – seriously, if this were on “Glee,” I’d think it was sappy. How am I living this?
They drew apart just as the front door opened, and even though they hadn’t rehearsed, they shouted together, “Welcome home!”
“Hey, hey.” Grandpa still looked so frail, with one arm around Mom and the other around Aunt Betty as they walked him in. But his skin was normal human color now, instead of gray, and instead of a hospital gown, he wore his usual Dockers and short-sleeved cotton shirt … which totally cut him off at the hips, but that was a battle for another day. “Look at this. The house is all sparkly!”
“We tinseled it for you.” Justin came forward for a big hug, though Aunt Betty gasped in dismay.
“Justin, no,” she said, even as Grandpa embraced him. “We need to get him back to bed.”
“Mija, I spent the last two weeks in bed. Give a man a minute to hug his grandson and take in the whole disco thing going on here.” Justin, now snuggled in Grandpa’s arms, stuck his tongue out playfully at Aunt Betty, who smiled despite herself.
She said, “Okay, I guess you can hang out in the recliner for a while, but let’s get you sitting down, all right?”
“Take it easy, Chipmunk.” Bobby eased past them, headed upstairs, no doubt to ditch the bags. “The doctors wouldn’t have let him come home if he wasn’t ready, am I right?”
“Exactly,” Grandpa said, though as Justin walked him the rest of the way to the recliner, his steps were slow – almost a shuffle. When they sat him down, he laid his head back as if the walk from the curb had almost been too much.
Justin felt a nervous quiver in his belly; he knew Betty had seen it too when she said, “I’d feel better if Elena were here.”
“Makes two of us,” Hilda said, fussing about, laying an afghan on Grandpa’s lap. “But she’s gotta arrange her time off, plus get her stuff. You can’t expect somebody to make it through six weeks in New York with one weekender bag she packed for a wedding.”
“Makes three of us, because I miss my lady friend.” Grandpa sighed, almost comic in his longing, and when they stared at him, he added, “Didn’t you hear the doctors? I’m not dead yet.”
Then everyone laughed, and the weird tension dissolved, and for a while it was almost like things were back to normal. Justin and Austin showed him the art project: a diorama complete with finger puppets of all his favorite telenovela characters, with which they acted out the episodes he’d missed. Plot accuracy was somewhat lacking, but it was worth it to see Grandpa smiling again.
The party couldn’t last too long – Grandpa wasn’t up to it, and after almost two weeks of going back and forth between work and the hospital, neither were any of the other adults. So Justin ended up walking Austin to the subway station before it was totally dark out.
They didn’t hold hands on the street. They were out, not reckless. But Justin felt like his adoration probably shone in every direction, even more sparkly than tinsel. “Thanks for being here for this.”
“You know I love being with you. With your whole family.” Austin gave him that shy grin that always made Justin shiver. “But mostly with you.”
“Speaking of which? We can’t really hang out over here any more, not and have any privacy.” Privacy was moving higher on Justin’s list of concerns, as he and Austin edged deeper and deeper into intimacy. Someday soon, he was hoping for a very long period of very private time. “And Bobby’s place is too small for our family as it is, so forget about being alone there. So maybe I can come to your place Saturday night? I’ve been dying to see it.”
Austin’s smile faded. “Saturday is bad. Really – after the movie tomorrow, we should probably just, like, count on seeing each other next week.”
That was weird – they’d talked about spending Saturday night together just a few days ago. But stuff came up. Justin waited for the explanation: a sick mother, parental dinner party, renovations, whatever. He could deal. No explanation came, however, and that he couldn’t deal with. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I gotta go, okay?” His Metrocard already in his hand, Austin swiped it and banged through the gate, where Justin couldn’t follow. “See you.”
But he didn’t say when.
Justin stood beneath the train tracks for the full fifteen minutes it took the next train to arrive and pick Austin up, then rumble and rattle as it took him away.
Daniel watched the screen of his computer, grinning at the Skype window. “That’s fantastic! Can you do it again?”
“I can do it all the time,” crowed D.J., though Daniel noted he didn’t demonstrate on his skateboard again. “Wait until I come back to New York. You won’t believe it.”
“When are you guys headed back here?” God, how had it been almost two years since he’d seen Alexis? D.J. was a kid transformed – he must have shot up six inches – but at least they kept up via text and Skype. Alexis, on the other hand, remained remote. They hadn’t even discussed Tyler’s existence yet. “We’d love to see you.”
“I miss you too. Maybe after school is over. I will try.” A distant voice called something in French that Daniel didn’t understand, but D.J.’s face fell. “I must go in. Soon I call back.”
“You better, buddy.” Daniel raised his hand in a goodbye wave in the second before the window went dark. Once again, he felt a little wistful for the son he’d thought he had; the responsibility had terrified him then, but he missed it now.
Was what he was feeling for Betty just the desire to begin his own family? That yearning had awakened in him with D.J. and never really died. Daniel weighed this carefully, but he knew – no, what he felt about Betty was a lot more significant than that. Yeah, it was scary to know that he was this serious about her, this soon, but it was true. It was real. It was just up to him to make Betty see it too.
From the door of his office came a knock. He looked up to see his mother in a flame red suit, HOT FLASH proofs in her hands. “Got a second?”
“Sure. You just missed D.J.”
“Oh, I wish I’d seen him.” Mom’s glance at him was less wistful, more pointed. “A woman misses her grandchild. All the more when he’s her only grandchild.”
“Don’t start. What’s up? Something with HOT FLASH?”
“What? Oh, no, I just had these with me. I wanted to talk about Tyler.”
Tyler’s name usually awakened a sort of queasy sensation in Daniel, a lot like being seasick. As he’d grown accustomed to the guy’s existence, that seasickness had changed slightly – now it felt like he was on a ocean voyage he actually wanted to be on, one that could be fun, and probably would be, once he got done throwing up. This counted as progress. “Um, sure. Okay.”
Her eyebrow arched as she walked toward his desk. “You didn’t actually flinch when I said his name this time. How heartwarming.”
“I’m working on it.”
“I know you are,” she said, more softly. “But I need you to keep working. Next week, Tyler reaches the point in his rehabilitation where they like to bring in the family to talk with him. I’m going, and I’d like you to come along.”
Daniel fought the urge to groan. “Aren’t those things usually about, I don’t know, apologizing for past wrongs? Tyler never wronged me. I got him drunk one time, but only because I didn’t know he was an alcoholic.”
“It’s not about apologies. It’s about showing support. You can do that, right?”
“I guess.” Great, now he sounded like a sulky 10-year-old. “I mean, I can. I will.”
Mom’s smile gentled. “I’m glad to hear it. Do you want to talk about it some more? Maybe over lunch?”
“We should talk, probably, but not lunch today. I’m looking at another place – one down in Soho, this time. Not that far from my old loft.”
“You didn’t like the co-op on Lex?”
“Betty said it was cold. Too formal. She was right. Hopefully I can get her to come check out this place, too.”
His mother cocked her head, studying him, wearing an expression that could only be called smug. “I take it Betty’s opinion is … especially important to you.” Daniel remembered, for the first time in a long time, how she had once suspected him of being in love with Betty; back then, he’d thought she was being ridiculous. But no. She’d been using that damned Mother Telepathy thing that was right all the time. How did they do it?
He was only now ready to admit how he felt to himself; he wasn’t nearly ready to spill everything to his mother. “Betty’s – she’s my friend. My best friend. Of course I’m going to ask her about this. It’s a big decision!”
“Very well.” She shrugged as she rose from the chair. “But, you know, asking a girl where you two should live before you’ve even asked her out on a date – ”
As she walked out the door, she pretended to be peering into the distance. “Wait, what’s that out in front of your horse? I think it’s a cart.”
Daniel buried his face in his hands as she strolled away.
Amanda pranced to the receptionist’s station, proud of her summery maxi-dress and the oversized Jackie O sunglasses atop her head, all of which said “on-trend” and “not chained to a desk like you poor suckers” and “definitely not broke, no matter what Chase Online Banking says.” Airily she said, “I have an appointment with Marc St. James. Want to get him for me?”
The new receptionist looked wary, because she had already learned to fear Amanda, but ultimately waved her back toward Marc’s new office. He had to share it with this accessories editor skag named Luisa, but she was out at some Vuitton show, so they had it to themselves, which was how Amanda liked it. “You’re such a genius, inviting me here,” she said as she curled up in Luisa’s chair like a cat. “You’re like hot gay Einstein.”
“What do you mean? Wait, no, first tell me I’m a genius again.”
Marc shivered in theatrical glee, which made her giggle, but soon he was weirdly serious again. “Okay. Now, what do you mean, a genius to invite you here?”
Amanda had thought this was obvious. “If you invite me here, then I’m not just dropping in like someone with no life. I’m a woman with an appointment. We can do this every day!”
“Back it up there, mon cher. This is an actual appointment.”
He rolled his office chair closer to hers, taking her armrests in his hands, a smug smile on his face that didn’t entirely hide the uncertainty in his eyes. “I want to hire you.”
Did she hear that right? She must have. The first thing that popped into her mind was, “MODE already has another receptionist.”
“No, no, not as a receptionist. As a photo stylist for shoots.”
Amanda knew about photo stylists. They worked with the clothes they were given, the setups they were given. Whichever high-fashion photographer was in house was the boss ... at least, on the big shoots. There were tons of little shoots, too – positioning handbags or bracelets for clip art or close-ups. None of it had any relationship to what she wanted to be doing with her life. “That’s not the kind of stylist I am.”
“I get that, but still – it’s a job, and it would be flexible, so you’d have free time to work with your clients … once you get them.”
“Nuh-uh.” She pushed back against him so that her chair rolled several inches away. “Seriously, Marc?”
He looked almost wounded, like that time she’d told him his bow tie clashed with his belt. “I don’t understand what the problem is.”
“The problem is that I’m never, ever coming back here. Not to work, I mean. Nothing ever happened for me at MODE. This is just a place where I get older and marginally, so far invisibly, less cute, but people just keep walking by me like I’m nothing.”
“Whoa! Bitter time!”
“I’m not bitter because bitter people are old and ugly, but I’m never coming back here,” she insisted.
Marc paused, and she could tell that he didn’t want to say the next, but he did anyway: “Amanda – I’ve covered the whole rent the past two months. I don’t make enough money to do that forever. You know I love you, sweetie, but this look doesn’t buy itself.” His hand gesture took in his slacks, shirt, all of it. “The groceries don’t magically appear in the fridge. We don’t have the option of switching to candlelight.”
“Candlelight is more flattering.”
“True, but so not the point.”
It wasn’t like Amanda had never been angry with Marc before. There was that time she’d found out he’d ended their sham romance for his mother’s sake, complete with a bunch of nasty lies about her. Then, that one time, she’d totally been hitting on the bartender at this club, only to find Marc making out with him in the back later, which was outrageous because everybody knew the friend code still applied regardless of the target’s sexual orientation. But all those times felt different. Smaller. She didn’t want to snark at him about this; she hardly wanted to look at him.
“Fine. I’ll do one shoot and pay the stupid rent. One. That’s it.”
“Amanda – come on – ”
She turned her head toward the window as she stuck out her hand. “Give me the details, okay? So I know where to go be servile.”
There was a long pause before he set a page in her hands; Amanda crumpled it in her fingers as she stalked out the door.
Betty scratched the pug puppy between its ears, and it blinked up at her in satisfaction. Seeing one of her ideas come to fruition with Wilhelmina’s full approval, getting to oversee the photo shoot all day, and playing with cute little puppies: it would have been her best day of work ever, if the stylist were … anyone else.
“Seriously, don’t you feel like we’re totally wasted here?” Amanda was currently brushing clear nail polish onto the puppy’s claws, which the photographer thought would make them shinier. The dog didn’t seem to mind this; Amanda obviously minded enough for them both. “MODE is, like, sucking up our youth. Like a vacuum cleaner, or one of those Swiffer things on TV.”
“A Swiffer is a mop,” Betty pointed out, continuing to scritch the pug’s head. “And MODE’s not sucking up our youth!”
“I, at least, am still young,” Amanda conceded. “But come on, Betty. We are way too good for this place.”
Betty wanted to point out that, as late as last February, Amanda had suggested that she consider an alternate career as an MTA employee, “since their coveralls are baggy enough to hide your hips.” But she couldn’t get into the argument; Amanda’s jabs were striking too close to home.
She didn’t feel too good for MODE, exactly … but this magazine wasn’t where she wanted to spend the rest of her career. At this point, she’d been an assistant editor for nearly a year, long enough to look creditable on her resume; professionally, there was no reason for her to remain. The time had come to find work that was more fulfilling for her and would take her career in the direction she wanted it to go. Betty wanted to write about Gabriel Garcia Marquez instead of Gucci, Pakistani election analysis instead of Pucci. It was time for the next step.
But listening to Amanda bitching about the place that had basically employed her to make catty jokes with Marc and lose phone messages -- well, it made Betty wonder. Was she being ungrateful? Did she owe MODE more? She knew she owed Daniel more. Even thinking about handing a resignation letter to Daniel made her heart hurt.
“Look at it this way,” Betty ventured, as, in the background, the photographer turned on the wind machine to make an afghan hound’s hair ruffle in the breeze, as it stood next to a slinky model in a pair of $1000 rain boots. “This is a pretty fun shoot, right? We’re both getting paid to play with puppies all day. Not bad.”
“Show me anger!” the photographer yelled to the model, or maybe the afghan hound; it wasn’t clear which. They both looked similarly blank, but the photog started snapping off shots anyway.
Amanda pushed her lower lip out in a pout. “I wanted to be painting Lady Gaga’s nails. Not – what’s this dog’s name, anyway?”
“Oh, my God – the dog is named after Lady Gaga! Actually, Lady Pugaga – that’s cute, right?” Betty could see that Amanda didn’t think it was cute. “Come on, Amanda. Make the best of it. At least all those years you took care of Halston are being put to good use.”
“So, what, I’m supposed to become a groomer now?”
“I’m just saying, it could be worse.”
Rolling her eyes, Amanda said, “It could be worse for you. You’re Daniel’s pet. I’m actually here in service to pets. Do you see the difference?”
Daniel’s pet. His favorite. She’d known it since it became true – in the aftermath of the Sofia Reyes incident – and she’d always tried not to take advantage. And yet there was no denying the security she felt, being one hundred percent aware that the owner of the company would go to the mat for her.
She was ready to get rid of that safety net. But was this how she was going to thank Daniel for giving her that surety – that luxury – for all that time? By saying, Thanks, now I’ve got better places to be, see you later?
Once again Betty imagined herself on the tightrope … in some detail this time, giving herself a fancy striped costume with a little skirt, and a clip in her hair with feathered plumes. Below her, watching in the crowd, were her family, most of her coworkers, all the jerks from high school: everybody. Daniel seemed to be in the spotlight, wearing the ringmaster’s coat and top hat as he pointed up at her with his whip. “The Beautiful Betty will make the entire walk unassisted – and without a net!”
Her phone rang, startling her out of the daydream – and her eyes widened as she saw Daniel’s name on screen. Putting one finger to her other ear, the better to block the thumping dance beats for the photo shot, she said, “Daniel! What’s up?”
“Betty, hey – why are you shouting?”
“Apparently dogs, like models, can only pose to club music.”
“Of course. Well, listen. Lunch is coming up, and there’s another place I’m looking at – in SoHo this time – any chance you could come with me? I don’t want to rush you – ”
“I’d be thrilled to come help out!” Betty chirped, too-cheerful, but it was such a relief to have something to do for him – one small way to relieve her guilt. She’d be the sweetest, most enthusiastic woman he’d ever met; that might balance her on the tightrope for a while longer. “Text me the address; I’ll be right there. Do you want me to pick up the sandwiches again?”
“Hey, sure.” He sounded so pleased that she was there for him; her guilt only got heavier. “Thanks, Betty.”
She disconnected her phone before stuffing it back in her bag. “I’m out for the next hour or so, Amanda. Have you got it?”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I can handle the heady responsibility of playing with dogs.”
The photographer shouted, in his thick French accent, “Bring me ze one to lick ze ice cream!”
Betty petted the puppy on the tip of its nose with her finger as Amanda lifted it for its time in front of the camera. “Knock ‘em dead, Lady Pugaga.”
Daniel had viewed enough apartments by this point to know that real estate agents used a few tricks to make each place feel more like a home. Baking cookies in the oven, lighting candles, setting “vignettes” at tables with place settings and wine glasses so that people could imagine themselves being right at home.
He wished he’d had time to do some baking here. But this place was phenomenal; surely Betty would like it even without a few chocolate chip cookies to convince her.
Though cookies sounded incredibly good right now --
The doorbell chimed, and he quickly answered it to see Betty standing in the funky exposed-brick hallway, sandwich bag in her hand. “Wow,” she said. Her attitude seemed totally different than it had been at the Upper East Side place; there, she’d been a little tense and distracted, but here she seemed … enthusiastic. Really enthusiastic. “I mean, there are lofts and there are lofts, but this is – this is like Megaloft.”
“It’s something else, huh?” Daniel looked proudly at the industrial-chic space behind them. The stainless steel kitchen lined most of one wall; some copper tubes and artfully dinged up columns suggested a dining room without actually dividing the space. A massive flat-screen TV came with the unit and already hung on one wall, giving the place the look of the coolest movie theater ever. The far wall was almost all glass – not a series of windows so much as one great, multi-paned window – revealing an expansive, glamorous view.
“This is amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it.” Betty handed him the bag without really looking at him; her gaze was drawn instead to the ceiling high above them – a solid thirty feet up, save for the upstairs space. As she walked farther inside, her face lit up with that dazzling smile.
She liked it. She really liked it. This was a place Betty could imagine visiting, spending time – moving into –
Cart, he reminded himself. Horse.
If he wanted to have this future with Betty, it was time for him to get the ball rolling. Yes, Betty had been through the wringer lately. But she was back on her feet, feeling good, working hard. She looked more amazing than ever in a peacock-blue dress with a brilliant green belt and silver pumps. The two of them had been getting along better than ever lately. He didn’t need a super-stylish apartment as bait; he needed to suck up his courage and ask her out.
Though maybe the super-stylish apartment would help?
Daniel tugged at his shirt collar with one finger. He hadn’t been this nervous about asking a woman out in a really long time. Possibly ever. But he needed to get past it.
“So what’s up here?” Betty looked up the “stairs” – actually a glorified stepladder, but one made out of reclaimed railroad ties for that earthy-chic look.
“That’s the – ” His throat closed up a little on the word. “The bedroom.”
“Come up there with me!”
Sweeter words had never been spoken, in Daniel’s opinion, even though he knew Betty hadn’t said them the way he’d heard them. He moved to follow her, though his steps slowed as Betty began ascending the staircase, the blue skirt of her dress sashaying invitingly as she moved. The angle showed off more of her legs than he usually got to see – and if they weren’t model-thin, they were shapely, tan, smooth – undeniably attractive – sexy, actually –
Stop looking up her skirt and follow her, would you?
When he joined her in the bedroom space, Betty was already sitting on the edge of the built-in king-size bed, a view that Daniel suspected was going to play a large role in his fantasies going-forward. “This view is amazing,” she said, her enthusiasm still building. “You can see all the way up to Midtown from here.”
Keeping it casual, Daniel sat beside her and fished out her sandwich. “Yeah, that’s one of the main selling points.”
As she unwrapped her lunch, she said, almost dreamily, “It must be incredible at nighttime.”
Now, how was he supposed to resist that?
Daniel could just imagine it: the entire cityscape lit up with brilliant lights, the distant Empire State Building crowned in its colors of the day. The loft dark except for the brilliance outside. Him and Betty, up here together, preferably wrapped in each other’s arms. The city would be like a vast jewel box spread out before them, like a gift he could give to her.
Making love to her in front of the entire damned city of New York …
“Yeah,” he managed to reply. “Incredible.”
“Oh, by the way – ” Betty took the lunch bag from him, reached inside and pulled out, yes, a chocolate chip cookie. “This is the last one the deli had. So I got it for you.”
That was just adorable. Daniel could no longer hold back his smile, nor could he remember why he’d been trying. “Tell you what. Let’s share.” He took hold of the other edge, and they broke it in two. Her grin was one of almost childlike pleasure, and how was that dead sexy too?
Okay. Enough procrastination. Time to act.
“So,” he said, keeping it easy. “I’ve been thinking.”
“Smarter and smarter all the time!” Obviously he would be living down the Trista thing for a while now – but Betty’s expression suggested she was thinking more of their shared joke than his inexplicable detour away from her.
“Ha ha. No, I was just realizing how long it’s been since we did anything besides go to lunch – I mean, yeah, I kind of ended up being your date to Hilda’s wedding, but I figure the trip to the ER afterward sort of disqualified that as fun night out.” Yes, he had described himself as her date, and she wasn’t arguing the point! That was progress! “We should do something.”
“You know, we should. I’d like that, Daniel. Really.” Betty’s hand rested briefly on his forearm, and Daniel felt his heart turn over in his chest. Was she feeling it too? Maybe? Possibly? He was beginning to have fevered visions of the two of them christening this apartment before lunch was over –
He pulled himself back down to earth. “So, do you have any free time this weekend?”
She bit her bottom lip, a gesture he recognized as a sign of hesitation. “Well, I’m at home in Queens on the weekend. Papi’s back, you know.”
“Oh, right! Of course. How could I forget that? Stupid of me.” And selfish, he thought, to forget that Betty had all kinds of responsibilities he didn’t have to shoulder.
Betty didn’t look dismayed, though. “You know – Dad and I are supposed to be out there by ourselves, because the new Tercino family is going to be enjoying some alone time. I bet Dad wouldn’t mind a little company. I know I wouldn’t. But you probably don’t want to do that. I mean, you’ve got to have more exciting ways to spend a Saturday night.”
“No, that sounds – good.” Daniel had fought back the “great” at the last moment, because it would come across as unbelievably fake if he treated a night of nursing care the same way he would’ve an invitation to a nightclub. But any Betty time was good Betty time. “Low-key. I could use a low-key night for a change.”
“God, me too.” She sighed, and for a moment he saw how tired she was – how hard she was working to keep up her good cheer. Balancing her time at MODE and her commitments to her family couldn’t be easy.
So he placed one hand on her bare shoulder, not a caress – a simple gesture of friendship. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah.” Betty’s smile was more wistful now, and that made him feel even more gooey than before, if that was possible. “Daniel, you’re the best. You know that, right?”
“Hardly. Glad you think so, though.”
She ducked her head, and for one moment Daniel seriously considered dipping in to kiss her – but no, still too soon. The moment passed, and Betty glanced at her phone and frowned. “I’ve got to get back to the photo shoot. The dachshund’s on at 1:30.”
They descended from the bedroom space, one after the other. Daniel wasn’t quite sure how to feel. He had patently failed at asking Betty out on a first date. However, he was spending Saturday night with her and her dad, which was a step in the right direction. She’d brought him a cookie, and hey, that counted as something, right? Or was he reaching? Probably he was reaching. But, still, cookie.
As Betty collected her purse and headed toward the door, Daniel called, “So, I take it this place gets the Betty Suarez Seal of Approval?”
Betty turned at the door, glancing over her shoulder. “It’s not my style, but it’s perfect for you, Daniel. Okay, I’m out of here – see you later!”
Not her style. But perfect for him. She still saw them in two totally different worlds. Or, at least, two totally different apartments.
As she shut the door behind her, Daniel slumped against the nearest wall and began to beat his head against it.
Even early on Saturday morning, Justin could tell the day was going to be a scorcher – the first really hot day of the summer, and only halfway through May. August was going to suck.
He and Austin had gone to the movies last night in the heart of Times Square, one of the most fun dates they’d ever had. They’d grabbed Gray’s Papaya dogs afterward and wandered the streets talking about how “Iron Man 2” had totally wasted Gwyneth Paltrow’s character this go-round; did these people not understand Pepper Potts at all? Then they’d gone down into one of the major subway junctions, walked past the Peruvian flute band busking for money, and just made out there in the middle of thousands of people before they went to their separate train lines. Being so blatant was totally new for Justin – but Austin just brought the crazy out in him, and besides, it took more than two gay kids to get anybody’s attention on the New York subway.
Supposedly, they weren’t going to see each other again until Monday, when Austin would come to Queens to hang out again.
Really, they were going to see each other today. At least, that was Justin’s plan.
He left a note for Mom before leaving; at 9 a.m., she and Bobby were still in bed, supposedly sleeping but probably doing their best to remain quiet while definitely, definitely not sleeping. Justin was kind of skeeved out at the thought of his mother and Bobby ... you know … but hey, they were married, and he was a realist. Plus he had noticed a Victoria’s Secret shopping bag on the table the other day. Ten to one, Mom hadn’t gone there for the bargains on cotton bikini briefs.
Getting to Austin’s neighborhood in Brooklyn only required two line changes on the subway, but Justin had a lifetime’s experience with the trains, and so he knew that the way would not be smooth. Sure enough, all the lines were undergoing repairs, which meant he had to wait forever for each train, and they all crawled along the tracks so slowly he could read the graffiti on the inner walls.
Justin knew this trip might be a stupid idea. Unnecessary. Maybe Austin was being all evasive because he had some dorky family plans he was embarrassed to talk about.
(More embarrassing than decorating the front room with tinsel?)
Or he might need to study. Exams were coming up, after all.
(But wouldn’t Austin have said that?)
At any rate, there were about a hillion jillion reasons Austin could have for not wanting to see Justin this Saturday besides another guy.
That, of course, was the one that ate Justin up with fear inside.
It was lunchtime before the Q train finally deposited him in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Beverly, where houses outnumbered apartment buildings and cars actually had driveways to park in. He had the address from the gift subscription to MODE he’d given Austin last month. As he walked up the front steps, Justin heard Aunt Betty’s voice in his head again – You know you have nothing to be afraid of, right? – swallowed hard, and rang the doorbell.
Austin opened the door himself. Justin smiled. Austin didn’t. He looked – petrified.
“Honey, who is that?” That had to be Mrs. Starkey, Austin’s mom. Justin brushed himself off, ready to be presented to the fam for the first time – until she added, “Did you and Lily ask another friend over to join you?”
Lily the girl they were pretending to fight over in acting class? That Lily?
She appeared behind Austin … yes, that Lily. Guilelessly, suspecting nothing, she lit up at the sight of Justin. “Oh, my God! Where have you been? I’ve missed you.”
“Missed you too,” Justin said, which was sort of true, but the words came out as if on autopilot. He couldn’t look away from Austin’s wide, haunted eyes for long – until he was distracted by Lily’s arms curving possessively around Austin’s waist.
“Are you coming in? Austin didn’t tell me you were coming over. But I’m so psyched.” Lily called out, “Mrs. Starkey, we need to order a large pizza for lunch after all! Justin’s going to watch ‘Rent’ with us.”
Which he did.
It was the longest, most awkward, most miserable two hours of Justin’s life – sitting on the far edge of the sofa, watching Lily and Austin next to each other, while Mrs. Starkey brought them pizza and sodas from time to time.
By the time the movie ended and he’d come to himself enough to make an excuse and get the hell out of there, Justin felt almost sick. He stumbled back to the train like a zombie and fought back tears the whole long torturous way back home to Queens.
Amanda reached into the tie display at Pink and pulled out a mauve silk one that shimmered in her hand. “You have to put this with the gray shirt. I’m not even kidding. I’ll disown you if you don’t.”
“Parents disown children, not the other way around.” Spencer took the tie from her and pursed his lips. “But the shade is divine, so we don’t have to test the theory. You’ve really got the touch for this.”
“Wish Marc thought so.”
“What’s the matter, pumpkin?” They were using this Saturday afternoon shopping spree to try out sample nicknames for her – “honey” and “sweetheart” were too girlfriendy, but “munchkin” had been rejected as juvenile and also discriminatory against dwarves. “Pumpkin” suggested roundness, which was bad, but it was kind of cute, wasn’t it? Spencer gave her a suitably fatherly look as he continued, “Did you and your platonic lifemate have a spat?”
Amanda hadn’t meant to bring it up, but being surrounded by stylish, high-end menswear inevitably reminded her of Marc. And with the bow tie rack only a couple feet away … “He totally insulted me.”
“I thought that was the whole point of your friendship.”
“The whole point of our friendship is insulting other people while reaffirming that we are, yes, the two most fabulous people in New York.” Spencer gave her a look, and she amended it: “In the Under 45 Division.”
“Anyway, he wants me to go back to MODE, where I spent the last few years of my life – no, wasted the last few years of my life getting nowhere.”
Shaking his head, Spencer said, “You can’t go back to answering phones. It looks desperate. Looking desperate is worse than being desperate, any day.”
Amanda wanted to agree with this truism, although in her life, it was becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference. Instead, she corrected him: “Marc doesn’t want me to be a receptionist again. He wants me to style photo shoots. Which is not the kind of stylist I am, at all, so, what is that, even.”
Her father shook his head, but affectionately. “Sugar – ”
“Go back to Pumpkin. I think I like it.”
“Pumpkin, you have to see the potential in things.”
“What potential is there in a job that sucks?”
“Well, lots. You can’t think of the job itself. You have to think of how you’d play it.” He leaned conspiratorially across the ties. “The photographers you’d be meeting at MODE are the best in the business, right?”
“… yeah … but photographers don’t hire fashion stylists. Celebrities do.”
“And whom do you think they ask for recommendations?” Spencer arched an eyebrow in the oh-so-meaningful way he usually did on his soap opera when he got a phone call right before a commercial break. “Plus, you’ll meet models all the time – both major stars and up and comers. Make a good impression, and the next time one of them gets a TV show and needs a stylist of her own, guess who gets the call?”
Oh. Oh. It all made so much more sense now. Amanda had always had a vague idea that there was something she could’ve been doing at MODE besides answering the phones, eating Reese’s Pieces and hiding Betty’s office supplies, but the possibilities had never been concrete to her before now. “That totally does work, doesn’t it?”
“So you’ll take the job?” When she nodded, her father clapped his hands together. “I gave fatherly advice! How was it?”
“It was awesome!” Amanda hooked her arm through Spencer’s. “Let’s go to Pinkberry after this and make fun of people who walk by outside.”
Tenderly he folded his hand over hers. “We’re only the greatest father-daughter team ever!”
Betty’s first full day alone with her now-invalid father was like a kind of roller coaster dipping between panic and boredom.
Dad had trouble getting down the stairs in the morning – panic!
He found a CSI: Miami marathon running on cable – boredom.
She couldn’t locate some of the paperwork that told her what was and wasn’t safe for him to eat – panic!
It turned out they were now stuck with raw veggies and poached chicken breasts – boredom.
Though she knew it was foolish of her, Betty kept glancing at her father every few seconds. He never showed any sign of distress or pain, only tiredness, and yet it seemed as if her brain had that horrible moment from Hilda’s wedding on repeat … she’d been so happy, thinking of this perfect future stretching out before her, dancing with Daniel, only to turn and see and see Dad falling, and for one horrible instant believing him dead …
Of all the moments not to replay over and over – and yet, Betty knew she’d never totally shake it.
When Daniel made his appearance in the early evening (DVDs and “healthy Chinese” takeout in hand), Betty felt torn once again – but this time between happiness and guilt.
Daniel was here, and he gave her a big hug that was somehow exactly what she needed, and the whole mood of the house lifted – happiness!
She’d taken his totally innocent invitation to a movie or something and turned it into a pity errand he had to run, forcing one of New York’s most eligible bachelors to spend his Saturday night in Queens – guilt.
They got totally silly watching the rest of the CSI: Miami marathon, trying to make even worse puns than David Caruso so that Papi would laugh – happiness!
Daniel made an offhand remark about the October issue of MODE that reminded her she had zero intention of being around for that issue if she could help it – guilt.
Healthy Chinese turned out to be a source of happiness and guilt. “This tastes terrible,” Papi complained.
“No, it’s not! It’s good!” Daniel was determinedly trying to get through a plate of steamed broccoli and brown rice, but the expression on his face was a lot like the one he wore when he headed to the gym – grave, almost mournful, but aware that this was the only way to keep up necessary appearances. “Seriously, you just have to get used to it.”
“Daniel, you eat gourmet cuisine all the time,” Betty said. “How are you keeping this down?”
“It’s delici – oh, are we being honest about it? Okay.” Folding his arms, Daniel still would only back down far enough to say, “I guess it’s bland.”
Betty hastily said, “We’re not blaming you! I’m the one who told you to bring it over.”
“I just figured we had to make the best of it, is all.” And Daniel looked so virtuous – or his best version of virtuous, which frankly was not that good – that Betty had to burst into laughter, while at the same time wishing she had told him to sneak in a carton of something tastier for the two of them to share after Dad had gone to bed.
After dinner was done, she started tossing stuff in the trash; Daniel went to help her, but was distracted by something colorful in one corner. “Hey, what’s this? Are these – finger puppets?”
Betty said, “They’re telenovela characters,” before realizing that really didn’t make it any less bewildering.
“Justin and Austin made them,” Dad explained as Betty kept working. “To catch me up on my stories I missed. Like ‘Quiereme Tonto’ – that’s a new one. So good.”
Poor Daniel, she thought. He missed his chance to get away.
Sure enough, her father launched into the saga of Guillermo and Julieta whether Daniel cared or not. She kept at the cleanup; fortunately, take-out made that easy.
Her phone, resting on one of the kitchen counters, chimed to inform her of a new message. Probably Justin texting her about something – but no. The email was from the main receptionist at THE VILLAGE VOICE. They’d made friends when Betty applied there (a couple hours before her fateful trip to Meade) and stayed in touch. Again, no openings there currently – but she suspected one of their assistant editors was interviewing for another position elsewhere. If he left, the vacancy would be a perfect fit for her …
Possibilities. Uncertainties. New directions. Old loyalties. Once again, the tightrope wavered beneath her feet –
“The Beautiful Betty has reached the halfway point of the arena!” Ringmaster Daniel called from the floor below. “But this is the most dangerous part of her performance – the part where most tightrope walkers plunge to their deaths!” Then he frowned, and despite the top hat, red coat and megaphone, seemed like himself again. “Jeez, Betty, be careful!”
“She’s so toast,” said Amanda from her place amid the trained dog act. Her sparkly costume glittered brilliantly blue. “I give her another 30 seconds.”
Marc, in harlequin clown garb, shook his head. “10 seconds. Tops.”
Betty tried to keep going, just putting one foot in front of the other; that was all she had to do, until she reached the end.
Then she looked in front of her, and the tightrope seemed to stretch on forever –
Betty shut the phone off, refusing to look at it again through the night. But all those different directions and emotions continued to tug at her, and balance seemed a long way off.
In the living room, she heard Papi laughing; curious, she walked out to see that Daniel had commandeered the finger puppet theater, which was now CSI: Miami theater. “So this man was murdered while he was watering his yard?” said the little finger puppet, in what Daniel apparently considered to be a girl’s voice. The thumb puppet replied, “I guess you could say he got hosed.” She did her best version of the yee-eeah! scream that preceded the credits; itwasn’t very good, but it made her father laugh some more, and Daniel stuck his head around the theater, grinning. “I can’t think of any way to do the sunglasses thing with finger puppets.”
“I can imagine it,” Dad insisted.
“C’mon, Betty, give it a try.” Daniel looked up at her hopefully. “That way I won’t have to do the girl voice again.”
“When you put it that way.” She sat on the floor beside him, their legs touching; getting her hand into the theater with his meant leaning almost on top of him, but Daniel didn’t seem to mind. He briefly took her hand in his to slide the little puppet on – really, his hand seemed to linger there a little longer than necessary, but maybe the puppet was crooked or something. Then she had to try to think of a setup that would be easy. “Hmmm. Oh, okay! You mean this man was killed during garbage pickup?”
Daniel gave her a worried look behind the theater, so she mouthed the key words until he got it. “Oh! I guess that means they wasted him.”
She did the yeee-eeeah! again. It was better this time. Maybe because it was a little more like a scream, and she felt more like screaming.
Why did her father have to get ill? Why did the new job possibilities all have to be so tempting? Why did Daniel have to be so sweet and generous and adorable just when she was thinking of leaving MODE?
In the finger puppet voice, she said, “So this woman died when she tumbled from the high wire in the middle of a tightrope act?”
“I guess you could say the act fell flat.” Daniel grinned, clearly glad to have thought of that one himself. “Hey, where’s the scream?”
Betty opened her mouth, but nothing came out. As he looked at her, Daniel’s expression shifted from amused to concerned, and she shook her head quickly, knowing he would understand – not in front of my dad. So he said nothing, but he patted her arm with his free hand. Which only made things worse, but he couldn’t have known it.
“No need to make yourself hoarse by yelling all night, mija.” The sound of her father’s recliner snapping back into upright position made Betty shake off her puppet and emerge; he was already slowly rising – too slowly, but by himself, which was good. “I’m ready for bed. Before 9 p.m.! I’ve got to get well soon or I’m never going to catch up on my shows.”
Something occurred to Betty then – something they hadn’t done that day. “Dad, don’t you want to take a shower?” Normally her father was almost fastidious in his habits; even today, he’d spent several minutes combing his hair just as he wanted it.
Papi hesitated. “Don’t worry about it. I’m fine.”
She realized that he didn’t feel strong enough to take a shower alone, and wanted to spare her the task of helping him wash. Which was ridiculous – if he needed help, she would help him, and there was no question of that ever – and yet the thought of bathing her adult father made her quail inside. It probably wasn’t her dad’s idea of a great time either.
Daniel said, “Hey, if you just want somebody to spot you, I don’t mind.”
“You sure, bossman?” Papi seemed to find this suggestion mostly amusing – but also welcome.
“Hey, you’ve read the tabloids.” Daniel gave them both his most wolfish grin. “It’s not a Saturday night until I’ve gotten someone naked.”
Her father started laughing harder than he had all day, and Daniel began steering him toward the stairs without any other instructions. Betty simply watched them go, talking among themselves, obviously thinking nothing more of it than either would have thought of taking a shower in a men’s locker room.
Neither of them glanced back at her, and she was grateful, because she couldn’t imagine what her face must have looked like. The feeling taking her over was almost indescribable – as if she’d never really known Daniel Meade until that moment.
“So, Daniel, Betty says you’re buying an apartment,” Mr. Suarez called from within the shower stall. “Seen some pretty snazzy places, I hear.”
“Yeah, but nothing that impressed Betty.”
“Are you kidding? She loved them. But what counts is what you’re looking for.”
She had loved them. But she hadn’t seen herself in them.
Daniel caught himself, sensing as he hadn’t before that it was – well – wrong to expect Betty to look at his apartments the same way he did. Yes, he wanted her … was pretty sure he wanted something really meaningful for the two of them … but like Mom had said: Cart. Horse.
Betty didn’t want a fixer-upper project of a guy any more than she’d like a fixer-upper project of a house. Didn’t she have enough responsibilities already? Managing her career, helping care for her sick father, balancing time in Manhattan versus time in Queens: The last thing she needed was responsibility for Daniel’s decisions too. Having sky-high expectations for their relationship before they’d even gotten started – that just set them up to have way too far to fall.
He looked at the foggy version of himself in the steam-clouded mirror, as a way of getting himself to buck up and take things one step at a time. If he wanted Betty, he had to be the guy who would deserve her. That guy would be an adult. He would be realistic about taking their relationship one step at a time. He’d shoulder some responsibilities for her. He would take away from her burdens, not add to them.
And he’d pick out his own damn home.
“I guess I’m still not sure what I’m looking for,” Daniel admitted. He’d been looking at the apartments through Betty-tinted glasses, so eager to see what she’d be dazzled by that he had hardly assessed them for himself. “Room to grow into, definitely. A place for a long time, not just a few years. Maybe I’ll know it when I find it.”
“Trust your instincts.” Everything smelled like soap now, and it was obvious that getting clean had caused a definite improvement in Mr. Suarez’s spirits. “If you put love into a place – if you fill it with the people you care about – it becomes the home you always wanted. That’s all that counts.” He paused before adding, “Well. That and closet space.”
Once Mr. Suarez’s shower was finished, Daniel got him wrapped up and back to his room, where he was assured that putting on pajamas did not require his assistance. He went back down the stairs to inform Betty that her father was ready for her to tell him goodnight, but she was no longer in the front room. Daniel found her standing on a stepstool in the kitchen, where she was putting up some of the glasses they’d used – already washed and dried, by her, one more task he should’ve helped with. “Hey,” he said. “Your dad’s about ready for bed. Want to tuck him in?”
Betty looked over her shoulder at him – and the tenderness he saw there was so astonishing he almost forgot to be delighted. “You gave my dad a shower.”
“Hardly.” He hadn’t thought twice about it. “I just hung around and made sure he was okay.”
“Which is what Bobby and Justin do for him when they’re here. What Elena can do when she gets back. But tonight it would’ve been me, and I just – I wasn’t ready for him to need me that much.”
The guilt on her face nearly killed him. Daniel crossed to her in a couple of steps and put his hand on her shoulder. “Hey. You’re, like, the best daughter in the world. You know this. On top of being the best friend, the best writer – the best CSI: Miami screamer in the world – ”
Betty’s arms went around his neck, and she hugged him so tightly that he almost couldn’t breathe.
I don’t know where this is coming from, but I’m going with it. Daniel wrapped his arms around her waist and just held onto her.
“It’s a lot,” she said. With the stepstool beneath her feet, they were almost the same height, and her face fit into the curve of his neck. Just the warmth of her breath against his skin made him feel slightly dizzy. “Everything that’s going on – it just gets to be a lot, sometimes. So thanks for being awesome.”
“You’re the awesome one, Betty. We wouldn’t all lean on you so much if you weren’t so damn great at everything.” He breathed in the scent of her and closed his eyes.
When she finally leaned back from him, they faced one another – her dark eyes looking deeply into his, her warm hands braced against the skin of his neck – and the moment stretched longer than he would have expected. Just when Daniel was starting to wonder if this really was the right moment to kiss her, she let go and stepped down. “You’re really letting your tabloid readers down, you know,” she said. “A Saturday night in Queens?”
“I’ll make up for it soon,” he promised. “What are you doing next Thursday? I have some scandals to create.”
She laughed so hard that he decided not tell her that he wasn’t totally joking.
The first phone calls on Saturday night, Justin ignored. He wasn’t going to speak one word to Austin until he knew precisely what it was he wanted to say.
On Sunday the calls tapered off, which was satisfying, then infuriating. Around the time Justin was wondering if he even had a real relationship to be in the balance, Austin finally called again, and he picked up. “Okay,” he said instead of hello. “Let’s do this.”
Austin pled, “Justin, please, you know I love you. Just you. That thing with Lily – that was just – ”
“She’s your beard.” Justin had once thought that concept was part of gay history, like Stonewall and Judy Garland. But no, apparently the whole idea of dating a girl just to hide the fact you were gay was still alive and well. “Does Lily know that’s all it is? Is she helping you hide me?”
“Lily doesn’t know – but it’s not like we make out or anything. I’d never cheat on you, Justin. I tell Lily that Jesus wouldn’t want us to rush things. Besides, she’s not hiding you. She’s hiding me,” Austin said fiercely. “If my parents ever knew – it wouldn’t be good.”
“You were all, let’s hold hands! Let’s go to the movies together! Why won’t you dance with me at your mom’s wedding! How come you were pressuring me to be out and tell the truth when you’re still in the closet?”
“Because it was okay for you!” Austin was shouting now. “It was so freakin’ obvious that your family knew and they didn’t care, and you were just … beating yourself up for no reason.”
Was that true? Justin decided it was. He wasn’t sure that fixed anything, though.
Austin continued, his voice lower, “If my family knew about me, trust me, that’s not how it would go. Some secrets have a reason, Justin.”
Why did this have to get difficult again so quickly? After the torturous process of figuring out that he really did want to be with Austin, of accepting that he was going to have to live his whole life with the extra burdens gay men had to handle, and the terror leading up to that dance at the wedding, Justin had thought he’d be free and clear of angst for a while. Didn’t he deserve that? But of course, love wasn’t that easy, not ever, for anybody.
And now that he thought about it, there had always been signs. He should have expected to meet the Starkeys before now. He should have heard Austin talk about his own coming out experiences. And he should’ve remembered that, the day after their astonishing first kiss, Austin had chosen to skip acting class. He’d been afraid – Justin had always realized that, but why hadn’t he thought it through more? Why hadn’t he realized that Austin’s bravery about being out was all about the Suarez family, not at all about his own?
From downstairs, Mom called, “Hey, Justin! Bobby’s getting the burgers started! How d’ya want yours?”
He covered the receiver and said, “Hello, well done! You read the article in NEW YORK. Charred is in!”
“Am I interrupting?” This was a fairly caustic question from Austin at any time, but especially now, when it was still crystal clear to Justin precisely who had goofed up here.
“Listen to me,” Justin said, rising from the quilt-covered spare bed he slept in over at Bobby’s. He envisioned Austin’s face in front of him – those beautiful eyes, the downy hair – and tried to feel the love more than the anger as he spoke. “It’s not my place to tell you whether or not to come out to your parents. That’s between you and them, and yeah – I know not everybody’s as cool as my mom.”
From downstairs, he could hear her getting ready for their little backyard cookout – opening bags of chips, shutting the fridge door – and once again felt fully grateful that he was born to Hilda Suarez.
“I knew you’d get it,” Austin said, audibly relieved.
“Hold it. If you think this means you’re off the hook, you’re wrong.” Justin wanted to let him off the hook – wanted to look away from all this mess and focus on the love they had for each other – but he was determined to do the right thing. “You having a fake girlfriend is disrespectful to me. Also, it’s pretty disrespectful to Lily. I mean, she’s our friend. She deserves to be with somebody who actually likes her, you know? And if you’re telling her you won’t hook up with her because of Jesus, then that’s kind of disrespectful to Him, too, and I’m so not walking beside you while you might get struck by lightning.”
“You want me to break up with her?”
Justin said, “I want you to be honest with her. And more than anything, you have to be honest with me. Just because you have to lie to your parents doesn’t make it okay for you to lie to other people in your life that you care about.”
“You don’t know how easy you have it.”
“I’m not wrong about this.”
“You never lied to anybody? You never pretended to like a girl?”
Only a month or so ago, Justin had sat across from Marc in the MODE closet and sworn he liked Lily himself. He winced at the memory. “Back then, I was mostly lying to myself.”
“You’re not even trying to understand!”
“I do understand! But you have to break up with Lily! Until you do –” Justin swallowed hard. “—don’t call me back.”
He hoped Austin would say, yes, of course, you’re right, I’ll do it. He feared Austin would say, you’re not worth it.
Instead, Austin simply hung up.
For a few seconds, Justin sat there, sick with fear; he hadn’t known how badly he didn’t want to lose Austin until the moment he first realized it could actually happen.
Then his mother called him and he went downstairs, to pretend he was really psyched about hamburgers.
Amanda and Marc saw each other remarkably seldom, for roommates; he got up early to go the gym every day and went out most nights, while she slept late, shopped in the afternoons and went out most nights, but to different clubs, ones where the guys might look at her for a change. Even though she was partying fewer nights now that she was waiting for Tyler, sitting at home in hopes of seeing Marc on Sunday night had done no good.
So, Monday morning, she tried to wake up early – and failed, but she was able to hurry to the MODE offices and get there just about the time that Marc usually arrived. Sure enough, in the lobby, as she ran in the door, she saw him headed to the elevator; it was hard to tell at that distance, but she was pretty sure he was the only guy at MODE on-trend enough to wear a magenta shirt.
“Marc!” she called as she hurried toward him, glad that running was possible in so, so hot gladiator sandals. “Wait up!”
He paused and stared at her as she hurried to his side, but he held the elevator. They were the only two MODE staffers in the car; to judge by the general dishevelment and Pabst Blue Ribbon smell of the other guys, most of them were from PLAYER. This made her feel as if she had enough privacy to talk. “So, what’s the sitch?” She beamed up at Marc as she said it.
“The – sitch?”
Amanda wrinkled her nose. “It’s dated, isn’t it? We need new slang. What about ‘deets’? Is that over yet?”
“Not quite, but – what are you talking about?”
“Styling the photo shoots.” Casually she tossed her hair, as if she’d never suggested that the idea of working for MODE again was anything but delightful to her. “What’s on today?”
Marc’s mouth quirked in an unwilling smile. “You, lucky ducky, get to drape clothes on or around the body of one Miss Carey Mulligan!”
“Oh, my God, that’s so awesome.” Carey Mulligan was hot, hot, hot, and she also had made some serious fashion missteps. After she wore that dress with all the keys hung on it? No doubt girlfriend was looking for a new stylist, like, now. Amanda kept smiling up at Marc, totally unbothered, as she said, “You know, you didn’t have to crawl to me for help. You should’ve just said you needed my fashion eye here. That MODE was going off the rails without me. I would’ve understood.”
Marc made a little exasperated sound, but she could see him fighting the smile. He said only, “You’re welcome.”
The elevator stopped at their floor. Marc held out his arm, and Amanda latched onto it, and they power-walked through the Tube together, more glorious than ever before. As they passed Megan, Amanda said, “Oooh, that skirt is bright. Is that a leftover tablecloth from your Cinco de Mayo party?”
“Dee-lish,” Marc purred in her ear as they left Megan sputtering in their wake.
Had the peons here believed they could keep her down for long? Too bad, Amanda decided. The queen bee was back in the hive.
“By the way,” she whispered, “how much does this gig pay?”
“A buck an hour more than the receptionist job.”
Oh, well. You couldn’t expect to take over the whole world in a day. As Amanda released Marc to go to his office, she said, “Oh, and Marc?” When he glanced back at her, she said, “You’re my favorite accessory too.”
Marc’s smile told her all the stuff they couldn’t say, and didn’t have to.
Now, to go explain to Carey Mulligan than pixie cuts were of the devil …
Betty wasn’t surprised to get the text message inviting her to spend yet another lunch hour looking at one of Daniel’s apartments, this one on the Upper West Side. This time, though, she didn’t feel harried or guilty – just pleased.
Daniel often spoke more truth than he knew, and he’d done that when he told her that people leaned on her because she excelled at so much. Betty realized that she was a good daughter, because only a good daughter would struggle so hard to make a tough situation work, and even good daughters might flail a little the first time “bathing a parent” came up. She was a good journalist, because only good journalists had to balance their current job against so many potential offers. She was a good friend, because she knew she valued Daniel for all the things he did, whether they were as big as staying with her on the might of Papi’s heart attack or as small as being willing to play finger puppets or eat “healthy” Chinese.
Yes, Betty had a lot going on in her life at the moment. But that was because she had so many meaningful relationships and professional opportunities. There were worse problems to handle, really.
She imagined herself in the circus once more …
The horns blew and the cymbals crashed as Betty reached the other end of the high wire. As the audience broke into rapturous cheers and applause, Ringmaster Daniel called out, “Isn’t she amazing, ladies and gentlemen? The one, the only – Betty!”
And they were all clapping – her family in the stands, the people she knew at MODE, everyone –
And daydreaming was a really bad reason to miss your subway stop, she decided as she dove for the closing doors.
The new building was in the upper 70s, and it had clearly been built about 80 years ago but kept reasonably current. There was a doorman, but one who seemed like a easygoing, regular guy, and the lobby was a simple one with mailboxes and a few chairs, no more. Betty grinned in pleasure as she saw that the elevator hadn’t been updated; an operator still worked there (putting himself through Parsons, he said) to close the golden, cage-like doors and steer people to their proper floors.
When she reached the apartment, she called the first thing on her mind: “You said not to bring sandwiches, so I didn’t. Please tell me that wasn’t a typo!”
“Nope, I got them myself,” Daniel said as he let her in. “Plus a cookie. This one’s for you.”
Betty grinned at him, then was distracted by the apartment. It wasn’t as grandiose as either of the ones she’d seen before – neither as icily formal as the first or as hip and trendy as the second. But the ceilings were a nice height, and the floors were shining hardwood. There didn’t seem to be a dining room, but the kitchen was big enough to be a true eat-in, and came furnished with the kind of appliances that looked more like they were meant to be used rather than merely showed off.
Without any great hall or loft space like before, she soon found herself exploring room to room. “Oooh,” she said. “Built-in bookshelves. This could be a home office, or a library – Daniel, are you thinking about getting this one?” She had a thing about built-in bookshelves.
“Actually, I put in an offer this morning.”
Betty backtracked so she could gawp at him through the doorway. “You mean, you’ve already bought it?”
“Assuming they accept my offer … but I didn’t lowball them, so I think they will. Though with Manhattan real estate, you never really know until you get the keys.” He smiled as he saw her surprise. “I figured I should probably pick out my own home and let you enjoy your lunch in peace. Though then I couldn’t wait to show it to you, so that kind of didn’t work out – but from now on, if we do lunch, it’ll be more like Café Un Deux Trois, less like paper-bagging it.”
“Daniel, I love it. This place is terrific!” She hurried through, checking out the rest of the rooms – two real bedrooms, a little cubby that could be a guest room if the guest was thin … or maybe it could be a nursery, though surely Daniel Meade wasn’t thinking that far ahead. Or was he? This apartment, more than either of the first two he’d shown her, felt like a lifelong home. Even the living room had human dimensions, even if it did have a nice view from the windows and a simple brick fireplace. As she walked up to it, Daniel following her, she said, “Does it work?”
“They’re not sure. Nobody’s tried it in a while. Come winter, I think I’ll give it a go – and if I show up for work looking like a chimney sweep, you’ll know why.”
The suggestion that she’d be at MODE in the wintertime no longer threw Betty. Daniel wasn’t pressuring her to stay; he didn’t even know she was considering the move, and she was okay with that for now. When the time came, whether it was sooner or later, she’d talk to him about it. After all, he’d always encouraged her before when she’d wanted something bigger or better than MODE – why should now be any different?
Well. It was different, and she wasn’t quite sure how – parting from him had never seemed as heartbreaking before – but they’d be okay. She trusted Daniel. They’d figure it out.
As they ate their sandwiches at his new hearth, Betty said, “I’m so glad you picked this one. It has character – and not like it’s trying too hard, you know?”
“It’s authentic.” He gave her an affectionate glance. “I appreciate authenticity more than I used to.”
“Honestly, I’m kind of jealous,” she admitted. “If I were ever going to be able to buy a place in Manhattan, this is exactly what I’d want for my home.”
“Really? That’s – wow.” Daniel started laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. Just reminding myself that I can worry too much about the wrong stuff sometimes. Your dad told me, when it came to buying a place, I should trust my instincts. And he was right.”
Daniel looked awfully satisfied with himself at that moment, but Betty figured that was natural. He’d just bought a fantastic apartment, which was a major life step. She said, “You should be proud of yourself. You had a goal, you made your own decisions, and the result is ... amazing.”
“Now I just have to do the same for the rest of my goals.” The smile he gave her made her feel flushed, for some reason. Maybe she was imagining them sitting by the fire a little too vividly. “Take each one step by step.”
Betty joked, “So, when do you take the next big step?”
“Won’t be long now,” he said, which made her wonder exactly what he was thinking of. But she was distracted when he reached into the paper bag. “As promised – one chocolate-chip cookie. For you.”
“Let’s split this one too.” They each took hold of one end, and their eyes met just as the cookie snapped.
That moment stayed with Betty for the rest of the day – as she finished up revisions to her latest piece, answered all the encouraging emails she’d gotten from contacts, and made her way home to change.
Why should she be all gooey about Daniel sharing a cookie with her? That didn’t make any sense.
Well. He was a good-looking guy. It wasn’t like she’d never noticed before. As an average heterosexual female, it made sense that she’d like having a man like Daniel buy her sweets and act flirty, even if he didn’t meant anything by it.
But Daniel had done tons of stuff for her before without her getting, well, silly about it. He’d bought her plane tickets to Mexico! Made sure she walked the runway during Fashion Week! Broken down a door in an attempt to save her from a fire!
Somehow that list wasn’t helping clear her head.
It’s just a sign I haven’t been paying enough attention to my love life lately, Betty decided as she walked into her Tae Kwon Do dojo, tightening the white belt around her waist. Since that whole thing with Nelson, I haven’t even thought about going out. Yeah, it wasn’t that long ago, but maybe I’m a little lonelier than I realized. I should work on that.
One more thing to do – but that was all right. Betty trusted herself not to lose her balance.
“Betty?” said the voice behind her. “What – are you taking lessons here too?”
She knew who it was even before she turned around. “Henry!”
Tune in next time for “Lucky Star.”
Songs From This Episode: “Tightrope,” Janelle Monae; “What About Everything,” Carbon Leaf; and “Remedy,” Little Boots.