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Tradition, Transgression

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October 2004

M. knows a job offer is a bad idea. But she has glued together all of the month’s other broken pieces and she must make an attempt with A., too, although she doesn’t like to dwell on the reasons why. She goes so far as to make her driver, Roy, turn the car around in impossible traffic when she sees A. walking on the street for the second time in a week. A bad idea, even an insulting one, considering that the ride A. accepts is a ride home from what is only her third or fourth day at her new newspaper job. “Come back,” M. says all the same. She hears her own voice through a deep fog. Somehow she is jetlagged, still, and hung over, and sick with a horrible cold, and she has just noticed love among the expressions on A.’s face.

“For what it’s worth, Miranda, I’m single. For real this time.” M. makes a mental note to someday figure out what she means by for real this time. “I’m not coming back to work for you.” A. takes a brave little breath. “You and I both know those two things are related.”

“Single,” M. repeats, and A. nods with eagerness. She’d assumed A. was the patch-it-up type. The loyal type. Everything M. has learned not to be but is trying to be. “I’m . . . not.”

“What?” It’s obvious A. can’t stop the word. With that one utterance she has finished giving herself away.

The privacy partition is down, but M. decides this is a good thing. Roy could use this conversation. To do his job effectively he needs to know that there has been difficulty, that there will continue to be difficulty, that there may be new routes to drive. So, forcing herself to look A. in the eye, M. explains what the week and a half since Paris has been like for her. She explains in facts, preferring to risk the appearance of heartlessness than to attempt any descriptions of how it felt to practically thrust her daughters’ arms full of Parisian chocolates and charms for their bracelets, then ship them off to her ex-husband’s mother’s house the first moment of her first weekend back home. To use the time alone with Stephen to drink bourbon with him, and to drink to excess, two things she hated but knew would win him over. To beg him to fuck her. And afterwards, to remember past the nearly empty bottle and her reeling head and sore muscles to maneuver the ultimate accomplishment: the part where they shredded the divorce papers together.

Her performance with Stephen has been convincing: they’ve been sleeping in the same bed every night for the first time in a couple of years. She is suffocating already. But there won’t be any bad press. Her daughters won’t ever have to know how close she let the three of them come to losing it all again.

A. is quiet for a while. “You’re sick,” she says, finally, and it isn’t a psychological accusation but an acknowledgment of physical symptoms.

M. nods. “I feel awful.” It’s as honest as she’s been in months.

“I’m sorry you don’t feel good.” Generous words, considering A. has all but confessed her love on this car ride and received nothing but wretchedness in return. She places a hand on M.’s back.

That single touch and she’s Miriam again. The return of her old self stuns her. The placement of A.’s hand is at once protective and electrifying, just the sort of sensation she used to crave. She leans back, trapping the hand between her shoulder blade and the car seat. Apparently there is still a tether connecting her to the desperate hopeful girl she was before she shucked that skin at twenty-three, said goodbye to her messy family, messy name, messy life. M. doesn’t know her way back there, doesn’t know if she can go, but A.’s hand is a flash of lightning illuminating the path.

“Miranda,” A. says, and it hurts to hear this name so soon after her transformation. “I don’t like him. You deserve better.”

A. is so young. M. laughs, though it hurts her throat. “I deserve someone nice?”

A. shrugs. “Everyone does.”

M. does not tell A. everything that day. She doesn’t tell her that the townhouse belongs to Stephen. She doesn’t tell her how sad this conversation has made her feel, though it’s probably laid plain on her face. She doesn’t apologize for having ruined their ability to raise the partition and share their first kiss. Who would she be to try to explain the true misery of knowing a decision is wrong and following through on it anyway? If she is wealthy, if she is powerful, if she is Miranda, how can she convince A. that she is still hungry, still out of control, still Miriam?

As an experiment, she sits forward again. For a second M. thinks A. is going to take her hand away and retreat to her side of the backseat, but she rubs M.’s back in gentle circles until Roy pulls up in front of her apartment.

“Could I take you to work sometimes?” If M. gets her way, sometimes will turn into every morning.

A. sighs. “Yeah.” She crooks a thumb toward her building. “This won’t be my apartment for much longer,” she says. “But I’ll keep you posted.”

 

June 2005

On the first morning they see each other after the twins leave for a summer at arts camp in Vermont—they see each other not every morning, but most—A. hands M. a key. “Let me say right now that I still don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be alone together, not while you’re married to that creep. But I’m hardly ever home before 8 p.m. these days. So if you need a place to be by yourself after work . . . ”

With Caroline and Cassidy away, pretending to be happy at home is futile. Stephen is in her bed every night, and the threat of divorce papers is non-existent, and M. decides she can afford to sometimes spend an hour or two after work collecting herself. It’s easy to hail cabs from A.’s busy neighborhood, so unless M. has a dinner or event to attend, Roy’s work day often begins at the townhouse but ends at A.’s apartment. And if Stephen wonders why her mode of transportation has changed, he doesn’t say anything. Half the time, his arrivals are later than hers. Sometimes M. wonders why she cares. But she misses her girls and summer will fade, and that knowledge holds her steady.

In A.’s apartment she can be Miriam. Evening after evening she reads A.’s books, writes postcards for her daughters, sits in the tiny living room and watches the light outside change from blaring to golden to near-dusk, naps in A.’s bed, washes the coffee mug A. left in the sink that morning, fantasizes, leaves A. notes on little slips of paper. Goodnight, several say. Many consist only of Thank you. And some are unique:

I really needed my hour here today.

I miss you.

C & C sounded happy when I talked to them.

Text me how that meeting went?

See you in the morning.

Signed “M” always, because she doesn’t want to keep using “Miranda” but can’t figure out how to tell A. her name, can’t ask for the thing she really needs. She presses hard with her pen night after night, then rushes away, always afraid she’ll leave too late and accidentally run into A.

So many of her hours at A.’s are spent thinking about names. The elegant versions of their names are similar. Miranda, Andrea. Consonants that hum, a heavy reliance on the letter “a,” a tilt upward at the end. M. used to think it was so unfair that she had to fight so hard to legally acquire a beautiful name while A. was given a beautiful name on her birth certificate but treated it as if it were nothing at all. But one morning in the car A. let M. hold her hand and stroke it and kiss it, and when M. murmured “Andrea” against her long fingers A. froze. “I’ve always liked the way you pronounce my name,” she said, “but it doesn’t feel like mine. Everyone who loves me calls me Andy. That’s what I want to hear.”

“Andy” is what A. hears from that point on.

 

August 2005

One morning, just a couple days before Caroline and Cassidy come home, A. doesn’t speak when she gets in the car. She only grins, then fishes around in her purse until she finds a pen and the same pad of blue Post-it notes M. has frequently written on before leaving the apartment. A. writes, Touch yourself in my bed after work today. Pretend it’s me touching you. Make it so I know you were there.

M. opens her mouth but doesn’t speak. She has been having so much sex, so much sex, but until now has almost forgotten the feeling of genuine arousal, how sudden and exquisite it can be. She wants to keep the note forever, and moves to peel the Post-it from the pad.

But A. shakes her head no, peels it off herself, and rips it into a dozen pieces which she drops into her purse. The word “Touch” survives, though, and A. presses this word against M.’s thigh. When she releases her grip, M. tucks the word in her wallet.

She takes everything off when she gets to A.’s, slips naked between the mint green sheets. Her hand is supposed to be A.’s hand, so she is kind with herself, touches in gentle circles that quicken only when she’s ready. When she comes, her first orgasm in weeks, the relief of it is chased by the hollowness of A. not being there. She goes inside herself, whispers Andy Andy Andy into the darkening room, and by the second orgasm she is wet enough to leave a spot on the bed. She wonders if the evidence will remain by the time A. comes home. When she is spent she wipes her fingers on the top sheet. Instead of leaving a note she spritzes her perfume on both pillows—the one on which she naps and the one which always bears an indent from A.’s head. She doesn’t make the bed. She hesitates while getting dressed, then places her underwear between the sheets. The delicate black lace is musky from a day spent imagining A. touching her.

The next day, A. starts to cry as soon as she has buckled her seatbelt, and it’s obvious from a puffiness in her face that she spent at least some of the night crying in her M.-scented bed. “I know,” M. says. She does know, suddenly. “I’m sorry.” It feels good to apologize. She wraps an arm around A.’s shoulders, and A. tucks her face into the crook of M.’s neck, and M. feels nearly paralyzed as she feels her shake with sobs. But it’s better to be frozen while holding her than frozen and at a distance.

As soon as A. is out of the car, Roy turns around in his seat, looks M. square in the eye. “Better the asshole at home than the good girl across town? Huh.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

“Really?”

“Just drive,” M. says, angry then.

--

She works late that night, but when Roy picks her up at 8:30 she tells him to drive to A.’s apartment. “It’s me,” she says into the buzzer.

From her spot on the couch M. can see through the open bedroom door. The bed is still unmade, which is unusual, and A. has not changed the sheets. A. hands her coffee and sits down next to her. “I won’t be alone with you while you’re in your marriage, Miranda. It’s been months. I need to know if I’m being stupid for hoping things will change.”

M. swallows. “I don’t want to be married to him, and I don’t want to live in his house anymore.” By now, A. knows: his house.

“And are you going to do something about it?”

“Yes,” she says, and A. surges forward, kisses her lips. It’s as surreal as any first kiss. A first kiss—to lean forward and taste a new taste, feel the flesh of a new mouth against your own—is nothing that happens naturally.

“Oh my god,” A says. “Miranda.” She scoots closer, reaches to draw M. to her.

“Andy, wait.” She has to say it. She has to introduce herself. “I need you to call me Miriam.”

A. looks confused. “All right,” she says. “Like, um, for sex stuff? Or all the time?”

M.’s heart pounds. “It’s my name.” Which A. would know if she’d read M.’s Wikipedia page or any number of online biographies. Miranda Priestly née Miriam Princhek. “I’m Miriam with you. All the time.”

“Miriam,” A. says, delighted, as if trying a free sample in a fancy grocery store. She smiles. “That’s such a beautiful name.”

--

By the time M. gets back to the townhouse, Stephen is drunk and already preparing for bed. He reaches for her under the covers, and she turns away. “Where were you?” he slurs.

He’s too sloppy to listen. “I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

On Saturday morning, it takes forever for him to wake up. It’s nearly noon by the time she is able to stare him down from across the breakfast table. When he senses her eyes, he swallows his sip of coffee and puts the newspaper down. “Hey. I just remembered, you were out late last night.”

M. thinks of A. in her leather jacket, walking down the street smiling to herself, unaware of being watched. She thinks of her last night, shirt off, M.’s hands on her breasts, moaning M.’s name. “I was with Andrea Sachs last night,” she says calmly, and silently asks forgiveness for having used the wrong version of the name. “Stephen. That night we shredded the papers…I’m sure the firm still has a copy. I’m sure you kept a copy. And I kept a copy. Shredding them was symbolic, wasn’t it. But—”

“Oh, fuck you,” Stephen yells.

“If you won’t file, I will.”

Fuck you.” Stephen puts his hands on the table. There is a flinty anger in his eyes now. It frightens her. “I always knew you were a dyke,” he says, although he obviously didn’t. “Get out before I lose it.”

Stephen is still in pajamas, but M. is already dressed. It’s nearly time for the girls’ train, anyway. She grabs her purse and hurries out, calls for her car from the street.

--

The girls seem so much older, emerging from their train. M. folds one into each arm, clings for as long as they will allow. They chatter nonstop on the way from the platform to the car. “God, I can’t wait to watch TV!” Caroline says.

“Two weeks left to rot our brains before school starts. And I can’t wait to take a real shower!”

Before they reach the car, M. stops walking and the girls stop short. “We’re not going home,” she says. “I promise you’ll get your things back. I promise everything will be okay.”

“Mom, what’s going on?”

“Stephen and I are splitting up. And I—and I can’t go back to the house right now. I’m not sure if he remembered you were coming home today. I’m so sorry.” Her eyes fill with tears, but she blinks them back.

Caroline looks at the ground, but Cassidy makes eye contact, her eyebrows raised. “Did he mess with you?” she asks.

“No,” M. says. It’s only partially a lie. “I should have told you sooner, but I wasn’t sure what was happening.” Tears threaten again, and she starts to move toward the car.

A. is out when they get to her apartment, so M. lets them in with her key. She texts A. a warning followed by an apology followed by a retraction of the apology. The girls want to know more than what they know, which is that they are in A.’s apartment, that this apartment belongs to a person their mother trusts, but M. doesn’t know much more than that either. Her brain is starting to catch up with all the adrenaline, so she tells Caroline to shower and Cassidy to eat a snack, and instructs them to trade when they’re finished. She can’t stop thinking in a loop of everything that needs to be done: she needs to speak to her lawyer. She needs to find a new place to live. She needs to hire a moving company to remove her family’s possessions from Stephen’s house. She needs to see A. She needs to figure out the girls’ laundry for the first time in years, and this in a building without a washer/dryer set-up. But first she needs—and this she can do—to change the sheets on A.’s bed.

--

The girls, exhausted and bewildered, but not so exhausted and bewildered that they couldn’t provide M. with a complete rundown of the last two and a half months of their lives, sleep in A.’s bed that night. M. and A. stay up talking. “Write down everything you need to do,” A. suggests, “and then forget about all of it so you can fall asleep.” The list takes a long time to write, but when she is satisfied she gets up and readies herself for bed, using a toothbrush from the pack A. brought home from the pharmacy once she received M.’s texts.

“Someday we’ll get to have sex,” M. says, pulling a blanket over their bodies, which are cramped together on the couch.

A. giggles. “In the same room, even. At the same time. With each other. Great stuff.” She wraps an arm around M., grazes her stomach. “G’night, Miriam.”

Of all the times to feel happiness. But there it is.

 

May 2006

The crowd at the Met Gala forces names out of M.’s head. At fashion shows she loves a crowd: all those eyes facing the same direction, the room an ocean swell of music and footfalls and shutter buttons and a nearly endless number of beautiful things in a combination no one has seen before. For decades M. has been guaranteed a seat in the front row where she can nestle in the experience, filled up with the energy not only from the runway but from the people behind her.

A party, on the other hand, is a petri dish of unruly organisms. Everyone obsessing over each other, squealing over each other, walking, dancing, and drinking in seemingly random lines of activity. And everyone wants a moment with her, and the moments come in waves of one suddenly nameless face after another. Ordinarily two assistants trail her in these situations, too polite or afraid or naïve to acknowledge that their encyclopedia of names is as much a compensation for M.’s social anxiety as a Homeric task assigned for the hell of it. This year M. is going nameless. She has told her assistants to wander. It’s made surprisingly little difference in her small talk.

The Met’s theme this year is AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion. “A chance to practice my Cockney,” A. had said, her accent intentionally bad, when she’d heard. “I’ll wear my Doc Martens!” M. had decided not to rise to that particular verbal occasion. There had been more important things to do that evening than fake-bicker over British stereotypes. Besides, she’d already purchased the perfect dress for A., with shoes to match, as a surprise for her birthday.

They’ve been at the Gala for an hour, and it’s admittedly lovely. But M. is distracted. Caroline has just used the family’s group text to taunt them about being stuck at an event when they could be at home watching Dirty Dancing and eating real food. It’s absurd to feel homesick from within New York City, on a day that started at home and will end at home, but she does. She wonders where A. is, and if she can convince her to leave earlier than planned. A. has looked forward to tonight for months.

A hand against the small of her back interrupts M.’s thoughts. “Hey,” A. says, standing so much closer than she’d ever stood back when she used to feed M. names.

“Yes, darling?”

“Did you see Caroline’s text? It’s making me want to go home.”

M. smiles. “I did see it. Let’s leave immediately.”

A few designers waylay them on their way to the door. M. doesn’t mind. Talking to artists isn’t a chore. But she feels A. growing restless beside her, and after a few minutes she leans close again and feeds her one name. “Miriam.” She draws out the word, each syllable so soft that M. is confident only she can hear. The sound of it feels, as it always does, like doves released in a tunnel in M.’s heart. A young wild feeling. It sends her home.